Chapter VIII. That Which is Greater than the Law.
 

When she had watched Sheriff Knox and his two companions ride out of sight, Auntie Sue turned slowly back into the house to face Judy, who stood accusingly in the kitchen doorway.

For what seemed a long time, the old gentlewoman and the deformed mountain girl stood silently looking at each other. Then Auntie Sue nervously crossed the room to lay the newspaper, which the Sheriff had given her, on the table beside her basket of sewing.

Without speaking, Judy followed her, watching every movement intently.

Turning to face her companion again, Auntie Sue stood, still speechless, clasping and unclasping her thin old hands.

Judy spoke in her shrill, drawling monotone: "You-all have sure fixed hit this here time, hain't you? Can't you-all see what a hell of a hole you've done got us inter?"

When Auntie Sue apparently could not reply, Judy continued: "Just as if hit wasn't more 'n enough for you-all ter go an' wear yourself plumb out a-takin' keer of that there ornery, no-'count feller, what I never ought ter dragged out of the river nohow. An', now, you-all got ter go an' just naturally lie like you did ter the Sheriff an' that there deteckertive man. I was plumb scared to death a-listenin' ter you through the crack in the kitchen door. I 'lowed every minute they'd ketch you, sure. My Lord-A'mighty! ma'm, can't you-all figger what'll happen ter weuns if they ever finds out that weuns done had him hid right here in this here house all the time? I never heard tell of such dad burned, fool doin's in all my born days! I sure wish ter God that there old John-boat had a-tuck him off down the river an' smashed him up agin Elbow Rock, like hit ort, an' not a-fetched him ter our door ter git weuns in jail for savin' his worthless, no-'count hide,--I sure do!"

"But, Judy, I never in all my life did such a thing before," said Auntie Sue in a tremulous whisper, too overwrought to speak aloud.

"You-all ain't a-needin' ter do hit but onct, neither. Onct is sure a heap plenty for that there big Sheriff man. Just look what he did ter my pap! He's jailed pap seven times, that I kin rec'lect. God-A'mighty knows how many times he ketched him 'fore I was borned. An' pap, he didn't do so mighty much ary time, neither."

"I just had to do it, Judy, dear," protested Auntie Sue. "It seemed as if I simply could not tell the truth: something wouldn't let me."

Judy, unheeding her companion's agitation, continued reviewing the situation: "An' just look at all the money you-all done lost!"

"Money?" questioned Auntie Sue.

"Yep, 'money:'--that there reward what they'd a-paid you-all if you-all hadn't a-lied like you did. I reckon as how there'd a-been as much, maybe, as what was in that there letter you-all done sent ter the bank an' ain't never heard tell of since. Hit's most likely clean gone by now, an' here you done gone an' throw'd this other away,--plumb throw'd hit away!"

At this, Auntie Sue's spirit suddenly flashed into fiery indignation.

"Judith Taylor," she said sharply, "how can you suggest such a wicked thing? Why, I would--I would--DIE before I would accept a penny for doing such a thing!"

And it was Judy, now, who stood silent and abashed before the aroused Auntie Sue.

"Don't ever speak of such a thing again!" continued the old lady. "And remember, we must be more careful than ever, now, not to let any one--not a soul--know that Mr.--Mr.--Burns is in the house, or that we ever saw him!"

"That there deteckertive man said as how the feller's name was Brian Kent, didn't be?" muttered the sullen Judy.

"I don't care what the detective man said!" retorted Auntie Sue. "I am telling you that his name is Brian Burns, and you had better remember it! You had better remember, too, that if anybody ever finds out the truth about him, you and I will go right along to jail with him!"

"Yes, ma'm; I sure ain't aimin' ter forgit that," replied the humbled Judy; and she slouched away to the kitchen.

Auntie Sue went to the door of Brian Kent's room. But, with her hand outstretched toward the latch, she hesitated. Had he heard? The Sheriff's voice had been so loud. She feared to enter, yet she knew that she must. At last, she knocked timidly, and, when there was no answer, knocked again, louder. Cautiously, she opened the door.

The man lay with his face to the wall,--to all appearances fast asleep.

She tiptoed to the bed, and stood looking down upon the stranger for whom, without a shadow of reason,--one would have said,--she had violated one of the most deeply rooted principles of her seventy years.

To Auntie Sue, daughter of New England Puritanism, and religious to the deeps of her being, a lie was abhorrent,--and she had lied,--deliberately, carefully, and with painstaking skill she had lied. She had not merely evaded the truth; she had lied,--and that to save a man of whom she knew nothing except that he was a fugitive from the law. And the strangest thing about it was this, that she was glad. She could not feel one twinge of regret for her sin. She could not even feel that she had, indeed, sinned. She had even a feeling of pride and triumph that she had lied so successfully. She was troubled, though, about this new and wholly unexpected development in her life. It had been so easy for her. She had lied so naturally, so instinctively.

She remembered how she had spoken to Brian Kent of the river and of life. She saw, now, that the river symbolized not only life as a whole, with its many ever-changing conditions and currents, amid which the individual must live;--the river symbolized, as truly, the individual life, with its ever-changing moods and motives,--its ever-varying and often-conflicting currents of instinct and training,--its infinite variety of intellectual deeps and shallows,--its gentle places of spiritual calm,--and its wild and turbulent rapids of dangerous passion.

"What hitherto unsuspected currents in her life-river," she asked herself, "had carried her so easily into falsehood? What strange forces were these," she wondered, "that had set her so suddenly against honesty and truthfulness and law and justice? And this stranger,--this wretched, haggard-faced, drunken creature, who had been brought by the mysterious currents of life to her door,--what was there in him that so compelled her protecting interest? What was it within him, deeply hidden under the repellent exterior of his being, that had so awakened in her that strange feeling of possession,--of motherhood?"

It was not strange that, in her mental and spiritual extremity, the dear old gentlewoman's life-long habit should lead her to kneel beside the stranger's bed and pray for understanding and guidance. It was significant that she did not ask her God to forgive the lie.

And, presently, as she prayed, she felt the man on the bed move. Then a hand lightly touched her hair. She remained very still for a little,--her head still bowed. The hand that touched so reverently the silvery gray hair trembled a little. Slowly, the old teacher raised her face to look at him; and the Irish blue eyes of Brian Kent were wide with wondering awe and glowing with a light that warmed her heart and strengthened her.

"Why did you do it?" he asked. "You wonderful, wonderful woman! Why did you do it?"

Slowly, she rose from her knees to sit beside him on the bed. "You heard?"

He nodded his head, not trusting himself to speak.

"I was afraid the Sheriff talked too loud," she said.

"But, why did you do it?" he persisted.

"I think it was because I couldn't do anything else," she answered, with her little chuckling laugh. Then she added, seriously: "How could I let them take you away? Are you not mine? Did not the river bring you to me?"

"I must tell you," he answered, sadly, "that what the detective told you about me is true."

"Yes?" she answered, smiling.

"I was a clerk in the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank," he continued, "and I stole money,--for nearly a year I stole,--not large sums, but a little at a time. Then, when I knew that it was going to be discovered, I took quite a lot, and ran away."

"Yes?" said Auntie Sue.

"Do you not care that I am a thief?" he questioned, wonderingly.

"Oh, yes; I care very much," she returned. "But, you see, after all, your stealing is a little thing that can be made all right. Your being a thief is so small in comparison with other things which you might have been, but which you are not, and of so little importance in comparison with what you really ARE, that I can't feel so very bad about it."

"But--but--my drinking,--my condition when--" He could not go on.

"Why, you see," she answered, "I can't think of THAT man as being YOU at all. THAT was something that the accident of your being a thief did to you,--like catching cold, and being sick, after accidentally falling in the river."

After a little silence, the man spoke, slowly: "I suppose every thief, when he is caught, says the same thing; but I really never wanted to do it. Circumstances--" he paused, biting his lip, and turning away.

"What was she like?" asked Auntie Sue, gently.

"She?" and his face reddened.

"Yes, I have observed that, to a man, 'circumstances' nearly always mean a woman. To a woman, of course, it is a man."

"I cannot tell you about her, now," he said. "Some day, perhaps, when I am further away from it. But she is not at all like you."

And this answer, for some strange reason, brought a flush of pleasure to the face of the old schoolteacher.

"I did not mean for you to tell me now," she returned. "I only wanted you to know that, even though I am an old maid, I can understand."

She left him then, and went to attend to her simple household duties.

It was not until quite late in the evening that Auntie Sue took up the newspaper which Sheriff Knox had given her. Judy had retired to her room, and Brian Burns--as they had agreed he should be called--was fast asleep.

To-morrow, Brian was going to sit up. His clothing had been washed and ironed and pressed, and Auntie Sue was making some little repairs in the way of darning and buttons. She had finished, and was putting her needle and scissors in the sewing-basket on the table beside her, when she noticed the paper, which she had forgotten.

The article headed "BANK CLERK DISAPPEARS" was not long. It told, in a matter-of-fact, newspaper way, how Brian Kent had, at different times, covering a period of several months, taken various sums from the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, and gave, so far as was then known, the accumulated amount which he had taken. The dishonest clerk had employed several methods in his operations; but the particular incident--read Auntie Sue--which had led to the exposure of Kent's stealings was the theft of a small sum of money in bank-notes, which had been sent to the bank in a letter by one of the bank's smaller depositors.

The newspaper fell from Auntie Sue's hand. Mechanically, she fingered the garment lying in her lap.

She, too, had sent a sum of money in a letter for deposit to her small account in this bank from which Brian Kent had stolen. She would not have sent the familiar paper currency of the United States that way; but, this money was in Argentine notes. Her brother from far-away Buenos Aires had sent it to her, saying that it would help to keep her during the closing years of her life; and she had added it to her small savings with a feeling of deepest gratitude that her last days were now fully provided for. And she had received from the bank no acknowledgment of her letter with its enclosures.

Taking up the paper with hands that trembled so she scarce could distinguish the words, she read the paragraph again.

Suddenly, she recalled the man's puzzled expression when she had told him her name, and she seemed to hear him say, again, "Wakefield? Wakefield? Where have I seen that name?"

She looked at the date of the paper. Beyond all doubt, the man sleeping there in the other room;--the man whom she had saved from a suicide's end in the river;--whom she had nursed through the hell of delirium tremens;--whom she had yearned over as over her own son, and for whom, to save from the just penalty of his crime, she had lied--beyond all doubt that man had robbed her of the money that was to have insured to her peace and comfort in the closing years of her life.

Carefully, Auntie Sue laid the garment she had just mended with such loving care, with the rest of Brian Kent's clothing, on the near-by chair. Rising, she went with slow, troubled step to the porch.

There was no moon, that night, to turn the waters of The Bend into a stream of silvery light. But the stars were shining bright and clear, and she could see the river where it made its dark, mysterious way between the walls of shadowy hills; and borne to her ears on the gentle night wind came the deep, thundering roar of the angry waters at Elbow Rock.

For a long time she stood there on the porch looking into the night, with the light from the open door of her little house behind her; and she felt very lonely, very tired, and very old. With her beautiful old face upturned to the infinite sky, where shining worlds are scattered in such lavish profusion, she listened, listened to the river that, with its countless and complex currents, swept so irresistibly onward along the way that was set for it by Him who swung those star-worlds in the limitless space of that mighty arch above. And something of the spirit that broods ever over the river must have entered into the soul of Auntie Sue. When she turned back into the house, there was a smile on her face, though her eyes were wet with tears.

Going to the chair that held Brian Kent's clothing, she took the garments in her arms and pressed them to her lips. Then she carried them to his room.

For some time she remained in that darkened chamber beside the sleeping man.

When she returned to the living-room, she again took up the newspaper. Very carefully, that her sleeping companions in the house might not hear her, she went to the kitchen, the paper in her hand. Very carefully, that no sound should betray her act, she burned the paper in the kitchen stove.