The man stood with one foot on the log doorstep outside and the other planted on the threshold of the cabin.
Nancy came toward him with her iron held at arms' length before her.
"What do you want?" she demanded fiercely.
"Give me to drink," he said, with a grin.
"Go round to the well," she answered.
The man bent his body a little forward, and looked in, but he did not venture to lift his other foot to the threshold. "Where is your husband?" he asked.
"I have no husband. What is it to you?"
"'Thou sayest well … for him whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.' You don't look a bit older, and you're as handsome as ever, Nancy. I suppose that's his," he said, turning his eye towards the little one on the floor, lifted by her hands half upright, and peering at him, in conditional alarm.
"It's mine," she retorted.
"Oh, anybody could see that. It's the image of you. And so is our Joey. You don't let your young ones favor your husbands much, Nancy; and yet you was not always so set against me. What's your notion letting Joey come to the Temple?"
"To see for himself what you are."
"That's what I thought, maybe. Well, he don't seem to take to me much, if I can judge from his face when he looks my way. I hain't been able to give him all the attention I may later. But you needn't be troubled about him. I won't do anything to make you anxious. Nancy, I wish you could feel as friendly to me as I do to you. Will you let me have something to drink out of?"
"Go round," she said, "and I'll bring the gourd to you."
Dylks laughed, but he obeyed, and found his way to the well where he lowered the bucket at the end of the swoop, and stood waiting for Nancy to follow him with the dipper fashioned from a long-necked gourd, as the drinking cup oftenest was in the western country of those days. She held it out to him with her head turned and he carried it to his lips from the brimming bucket.
He drank it empty, and then turned it over with a long, deep "Ah—h—h!" of satisfaction. "That was good! Good as the buttermilk would have been that you didn't think to offer me. Well, I thank you for the water, anyway, you woman of Samaria." He held the gourd toward her but she did not take it, and he laughed again. "If you could have had your way without sin you'd have made it poison, I reckon. Don't you know I could drink poison the same as water?"
"You don't," she said, and as he swung the gourd in tacit question what to do with it since she did not offer to take it, she bade him, "Put it down."
He did so, and she set her foot on the thin bowl and crushed it like an egg shell. He laughed. "Is that the way you feel about me, Nancy? Pity for the gourd, but don't you believe that if I was to will it so, it would come good and whole again?"
"You don't believe it," she said.
"It's not for me to believe or to unbelieve," he answered. "I am that I am."
"Oh, yes," she taunted him, "you've tried saying such things, and you're not afraid because it ha'n't killed you yet. You think if you was just a man it would kill you."
"Who can tell what I think? Perhaps something like what you say has gone through my mind. Why, Nancy, if you would listen once, I could convince you of it, too. Come, now, look at it in this light! If God lets a man say and do what the man pleases—and He has to do it every now and then according to what the Book tells—why ain't the man equal with God? You believe, maybe, that you would be struck dead if you said the things that I do; but why ain't I struck dead? Why, either because it ain't so, at all, or because I'm God. It stands to reason, don't it? What is God, anyway? If He was so mighty and terrible, wouldn't He have ways of showing it in these times just as much as in those old times that we read about in the Book?
"Don't you know that if there was anything besides you and me, here now, it would have sent the lightning out of this clear sky and blasted me when I said, I was God? Well, now we'll try it again. Listen! I am God, Jehovah, ruler of heaven and earth!" He stood a moment, smiling. "There you see! I'm safe and sound as ever. May be you think it would be worse if you said I was God. Lots have said it. Last night all Leatherwood was hanging to my arms and legs down there in the Temple worshiping me. If I hadn't been God it would have made me sick! No mere man could stand the praising God gets in the churches all the time. Why that proves I'm what I say I am, if nothing else does. I saw it from the first; I felt it; I knew it." He ended with his laugh.
She stayed herself by the trunk of the tree overhanging the well. "Yes, you've got all Leatherwood with you, or as good as all, and I don't wonder it's made you crazy. But don't you be so sure. Some day there's going to be a reckoning with you, and you're going to wake up from this dream of yours." She seemed to gather force as she faced him. "I could feel to be glad it was a dream; I could feel to pity you. But don't you believe but what it's going to turn against you. Some day, sooner or later, some man's going to show the people what you are; some woman—"
"There you've said it," he broke in. "That's what I've come for. You're the only woman that could hurt me, not because you think you know me the best, but because you're the bravest woman that ever was. That's why I've got to have you with me in my dispensation. Male and female created He them in His image. I can swing all Leatherwood by myself, but Leatherwood's nothing. If I had you with me we could swing the world! Nancy, why don't you come to me?" He flung his arms wide and bent his stalwart shape toward her. "Leatherwood's nothing, I tell you. Why, you ought to see the towns Over-the-Mountains; you ought to see Philadelphia, where I came from the last thing. Everywhere the people are waiting for a sign, just as they've always been, and we would come with a sign—plenty of signs: the perfect Godhead, male and female, for the greatest sign of all. Why, I wonder there's a Christian woman living, with the slur that the idea of just one male God throws on women! Don't you know that the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans, and everybody but the Hebrews, had a married God, and that the Godhead was husband and wife? If you had ever read anything at all you would know that."
The bad, vulgar beauty of his face, set in its flowing beard and hair, glowed on her.
"You needn't look that way at me, Joseph Dylks," she answered. "I don't want any book-l'arning to know what you are. You're what you always was, a lazy, good-for-nothing—Oh, I don't say you wasn't handsome; that was what done it for me when I made you my God; but I won't make you my God now, though you're as handsome as ever you was; handsomer, if that's any comfort to you."
"Nothing to what you're coming to me would be, Nancy."
"You'll have to do without, then. You think you can twist me round your finger, like you used to, if you willed it, but I've outlived you, you and your will. Now I want you to go, and not ever come near me again; or I'll have Laban here, the next time."
"Laban? Laban? Oh, the man who is not thy husband! I'm not afraid of your having Laban, here; let him come. I've converted worse sinners than Laban." He had remained, bent forward with his gaze still on her; now he lifted himself, and said, as if it were another word of his spell, "Come, Nancy!"
She answered, "If I thought there was any mercy in you—"
"Why, I'm All-merciful, as well as All-mighty, Nancy!" he jeered.
"No,"—as if concluding her thought, she said, "it's no use! You couldn't do a right thing if you wanted to; you can only do wrong things. I see that."
"What is right and what is wrong? When you stand by my side in your half of the godhead, you will know that there is no difference. Why, even a poor human being can make wrong right by wanting it enough, and with God there is nothing but one kind of thing, the thing that God allows. It don't matter whether it's letting the serpent tempt that fool woman in Eden, or Joseph's brethren selling him into Egypt, or Samuel hewing Agag in pieces, or the Israelites smiting the heathen, or David setting Uriah in the forefront of the battle, or Solomon having hundreds of wives; it's all right if God wills it. You'll say it's put right by what happens to them that do wrong. Be God yourself and the right and the wrong will take care of themselves. I want you to come and help me. Why, with the sister and daughter of old David Gillespie both following me—"
She suddenly shrank from the grandeur of judging of him, to the measure of her need of his forbearance. "Oh, why can't you let David alone? What's he ever done to you?"
"What have I ever done to him?" Dylks demanded, temporizing on her ground.
"Why can't you let Jane alone?"
He gave his equine snort, as if the sense of his power could best vent itself so. "Why can't she let me alone? That girl bothers me worse than all the other women in Leatherwood put together. She won't let me let her alone."
"She was all right before you came. Why can't you let her go back to
"Hughey Blake? Oh! Then it wasn't—" A light of malign intelligence shone in his eyes. "Well, I haven't got anything against Hughey Blake."
"Oh, if you'd only let her go back to Hughey! If you'd only let her alone, I'd—"
"You'd what?" He bounded toward her, and at her recoil he laughed and said, "I didn't mean to scare you."
"I wasn't scared. You can't scare me, Joseph Dylks. It's past that, long ago, with you and me. But if I only knowed what you was up to —what you would really take to let David alone; to let her go back to Hughey Blake—But there ain't any pity in you!"
"Don't I tell you I'm full of pity? Look here, Nancy; I don't ask you to come with me, to be one with me, to go halves in the godhead, all at once. It's been step by step with me: first exhorter, then prophet, then disciple, then the Son, then the Father: but it's been as easy! You don't know how faith, the faith of the elect, helps along; and you would have that from the beginning; they would take you on my word, you wouldn't have to say or do anything. But that's not what I'm expecting now," he hurried to add, smiling at the cloud of refusal in her face. "I'm not fooling; all I ask now is to have you come and see me do a miracle at Brother Hingston's to-night. I'll do two miracles if you'll come, and one will be sending Jane Gillespie away from me and back to Hughey Blake. You'll want to see that, even if you don't want to see me turn a bolt of cloth into seamless raiment by the touch of my hand."
"You are a wicked man, Joseph Dylks," the woman solemnly answered. "And I'm sorry I asked you anything. You couldn't do good, if you tried." She pulled her sunbonnet across her face, as if to hide it for shame, and went back slowly toward the cabin.
"Salvation!" Dylks shouted after her, and gave his equine snort. He began to sing, as he took his way through the woods,
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
We wretched sinners lay."
At first he sang boldly, filling the woods with the mocking of his hymn. But at the sound of footsteps crackling over the dry falling twigs toward him intermittently, as if they paused in question, and then resumed their course toward him, his voice fell, brokenly silencing itself till at the encounter of a man glimpsed through the trees, and pausing in a common arrest, it ceased altogether.
"Who are you?" Dylks demanded of the slight, workworn figure before him.
"Laban Billings," the man faltered.
"Well, then, Laban Billings, make way for the Lord thy God," Dylks powerfully returned, and as if he had borne the man down before him, he strode over the place where he had stood, and lost himself in the shadows beyond.
Laban hurried on, stumbling and looking back over his shoulder, till he found himself face to face with Nancy at the door of the shed behind the cabin. She was looking, too, in the direction Dylks had ceased from their sight in the woods. They started from each other in mutual fright.
"Nancy!" he entreated. "I didn't see you. I—I wasn't comin' to see you, indeed, indeed I wasn't. I just thought I might ketch sight of the baby —It's pretty hard to do without you both! And I was just passin'—Well, they've knocked off work at the Corners, so's to come to the miracle at Hingston's Mill to-night—But I'll go right away again, Nancy."
"You needn't, Laban. Come in and see the baby."
"Nancy!" he uttered joyfully. Then he faltered, "Do you think it will be right—"
"Oh, who knows what's right?" she retorted. Then at his stare, she demanded, "Didn't you run across anybody in the woods?"
"What did he look like?"
"Like what they tell the Leatherwood God looks like. They're half crazy about him at the Corners. They don't hardly talk about anything else."
"Did you think he looked like God?"
"More like Satan, I should say. He's handsome enough for Satan."
"It was Joseph Dylks."
"Yes, I s'picioned that."
"And he's been here, wanting me to go away with him—Over-the-Mountains."
Laban made a dry sound in his throat and it was by a succession of efforts that he could say, "And—and—and—"
"Oh, could you ask, Laban?" she lamented. "You're my husband, don't you know it?" At the sound of her lament a little voice of fear and hope answered from the cabin. The father-hunger came into the man's weak face, making it strong. "Come in and see our baby, Laban."
She put out her hand to him innocently like a little girl to a little boy, and he took it. "I know it's just for the baby; and I feel to thank you, Nancy," he said, and together they went into the cabin.
At sight of him the baby crowed recognition. "She knowed you in a minute," the mother said, and she straightened the skirt of the little one which the father had deranged in lifting the child from the floor. "I don't believe she'll ever forget you; I reckon she won't if I have any say in it. Me and Joey talks about you every night when we're gettin' her to sleep." She gurgled out a half-sob, half-laugh, as the little one pulled and pushed at his face, which he twisted this way and that, to get her hand in his mouth. "She always cared more for you than she did for me. I'll set you a piece, Laban; I was just going to get me a bite of something; I don't take my meals very regular, with you not here."
"Well, I am a little hungry with the walk from the Corners, after such an early breakfast."
"Well, you just keep her."
"Oh, I'll keep her," he exulted.
She hustled about the hearth, getting the simple meal, which she made more than she had meant, and they had a joyous strange time together at the leaf she stayed from the well.
He kept the baby in his lap while he ate. Then he walked the floor till she fell asleep in his arms. When he lifted himself from laying her in the rough cradle which he had himself made for her, he said, without looking at the mother, "Now, I must be going, Nancy."
"Don't go on account of me, Laban," she said with the same fierce courage she had shown in driving him from her before. "If it's for me—"
"Nancy, I've thought it all out since I been away. And I reckon I ain't your husband, in the sight of God. You was right about that; and I won't ever come back again till—as long as—" He glanced wistfully at the little one in the cradle, and then he turned to go out of the door. "And— and—good-by, Nancy."
She followed him to the door. "Kiss me, Laban!"
He put away the arms she lifted toward him. "No," he said, "I reckon it wouldn't be right," and he turned and walked swiftly away, without looking back.