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Chapter 11

The woman stood watching the man, as long as she could see him, and long after, with her left hand lifted to the jamb of the door, higher than her head. Then from the distance where he passed from sight over the brow of the hill, another figure of a man appeared, and slowly made its way down to the cabin. As she knew while he was still far off, it was Matthew Braile who, as long as he sat in the seat of the scorner, with his chair tilted against the wall, seemed a strong middle-aged man; but when he descended from his habitual place, with the crook of his stick, worn smooth by use, in his hard palm, one saw that he was elderly and stiff almost to lameness. He carried himself with a forward droop, and his gaze bent ponderingly on the ground, as if he were not meaning to look her way, and would pass without seeing her.

"Squire Braile!" she called to him, and as he straightened himself and turned round toward her, she besought him, "Do you believe there's any God?"

"Oh!" he answered, and he smiled at the challenge from the somewhat lonely elevation which he knew the thoughts of his neighbors kept, aloof from the sordid levels of politics and business. "Why, Nancy, haven't we got one, right here in Leatherwood?"

"That's what makes me think there ain't any, Squire Braile. If you're not in too much of a hurry, I wish you'd stop and talk to me a minute. I'm in trouble."

"Most women are; or men, for the matter of that. What is it, Nancy? I'm rather stronger on law than gospel; but if I can be any help, why you know your Joey's an old friend of mine, and I'll be glad to help you."

He came toward her where she had stepped from the threshold and sat crouched on the hewn log, and stood looking down at her before he sank at her side.

"You may think it's pretty strange, my asking you for help. Won't you set? I can't let you come inside because the baby's just got to sleep."

"Well," he assented, "if you're not afraid to be seen with such an infidel in the full light of day," he jested, confronting her from the log where he sank. "What would Brother Gillespie say?"

She ignored his kindly mockery, and again she began, "What makes you believe there's a God? You don't believe in the Bible?"

"Not altogether, Nancy."

"Do you believe in the Bible God?"

"As much as the Bible'll let me."

"Then, do you believe in the miracles?"

"What are you after, Nancy Billings?"

"If you saw a miracle, would you believe it?"

"That would depend on who did it. Now, I want you to let me do a little of the catechizing. I've liked you and Laban ever since you came to Leatherwood, and you know how your Joey has all but brought my boy back to me. Well, do you believe in God?"

"No!"

"Why don't you?"

"A God that would let Joseph Dylks claim to be Him, and let them poor fools kneel down to him and worship him? Would an all-wise and all-powerful God do that?"

"What makes you say all-powerful? Haven't you seen time and time again when good didn't prevail against evil, and don't you suppose He'd have helped it if He could? And why do you call Him all-wise? Is it because men are no-wise? That wouldn't prove it, would it? And about the miracles, what does a miracle prove? Does it prove that the person who does it is of God, or just that faith is stronger than reason in those who think it's happened?"

"But sin: do you think there's such a thing?" Nancy pursued.

"There you are, catechizing me again! Yes, I think there's sin, because I've known it in myself, if I haven't in others."

"And what is it—sin?"

"Well, Nancy, it seems to vary according to the time and place. But I should say it was going against what you knew was right at the time being."

"And do you always know?"

"Always!" the old man answered solemnly. "I never was mistaken in my life, whether I went for or against it, and I've done both."

The woman drew a hapless sigh. "Yes, I reckon it's so."

Braile was putting out his stick to help himself in rising, after the silence she let follow. She came from it, and reached a staying hand toward him. "And supposin'—supposin'—there was a woman—that there was a woman, and her husband left her, and he kept away years and years, till she thought he was dead, and she married somebody else, and then he come back, would it be a sin for her to keep on with the other one when she knowed the first one was alive?"

"I reckon that's what would be called a sin, Nancy. Not that I'd be very quick to condemn her—"

"And supposin' that the first one hadn't claimed her yet, and she'd made the other one leave her, and then the first one come and wanted her to join him in the wickedest thing that ever was, and she wasn't as strong as she had been, and she felt to need the protection-like of the other one: would it be a sin for her to take him back?"

Braile made again as if to rise. "I reckon you'd better talk to Mis'
Braile about a thing like that. You see, a man—"

She stayed him again with a beseeching gesture.

"Squire Braile, do you believe that God is good?"

"Ah, now, I'm more at home in a question like that. You might say that if He lets evil prevail, it's either because He can't help it, or because He don't care, or even because He thinks it's best for mankind to let them have their swing when they choose to do evil. I incline to think that's my idea. He's made man, we'll say, made him in His own image, and He's put him here in a world of his own, to do the best or the worst with it. The way I look at it, He doesn't want to keep interfering with man, but lets him play the fool or play the devil just as he's a mind to. But every now and then He sends him word. If we're going to take what the Book says, He sent him Word made flesh, once, and I reckon He sends him Word made Spirit whenever there's a human creature comes into the world, all loving and all unselfish—like your Joey, or—my—my Jimmy—"

The old man's voice died in his throat, and the woman laid her hand on his knee. He trembled to his feet, now. "When I think of such Spirits coming into this world, I'm not afraid of all the devils out of hell Dylksing round."

He walked on down the road, and Nancy went indoors and went about her household work. She cleaned the dishes and trimmed the hearth; she spun the flax which tufted her wheel; then she took the rags of some garments past repair, and in the afternoon shadow of her threshold she cut them into ribbons and sewed them end to end and wound them into balls, for weaving into carpets.

People, as the evening drew on, went by, singly, in twos, in groups, silent for the most part, but some talking seriously. These looked at Nancy without speaking, but some asked, "Ain't you goin' to the Miracle?" and she shook her head for answer.

She had brushed her hair and put it up neatly after her indoors work was done, but she was in what she would have called her every-day clothes, and the passers had on their Sunday clothes; the girls wore their newest plaids of linsey-woolsy, and the young men wore tall beaver hats, and long high-collared coats, with tight pantaloons, which some pretenders to the latest fashions had strapped under their boots. They had on their Sunday faces, too; some severe, some sly, some simple and kind, but all with an effect of condition for whatever might be going to happen. They went as the people of Leatherwood went to the Temple on the Sabbaths before their meetings had been turned from the orderly worship of the Most High to the riot of emotions raised by the strange man who proclaimed himself God. In their expectations of the Sign which he had promised to give them, both those who believed and those who denied him found themselves in a sort of truce. They were as if remanded to the peace of the time before the difference which had rent the community into warring fragments. In this truce brothers were speaking who had not spoken since they accepted or refused the new God; families walked together in the harmony which he had lately counseled; children honored their believing or disbelieving parents; fathers and mothers ceased to abhor their children as limbs of Satan, according to their faith or unfaith. "Let everybody come to the Sign," he had exhorted them when he promised them the miracle, "just as if they had never seen or heard me before, and let His creatures judge their Creator with love for one another in their hearts."

In all there was an air of release, and the young people looked as if they were going to one of the social gatherings they would have called a frolic, in the backwoods phrase. Nancy heard a girl titter in response to her companion's daring whisper, "Wonder if Mis' Hingston's going to pass round the apples and cider." They walked in couples, openly or demurely glad of being together for the time; and as if the miracle before them were the wonder of coming home through the woods with their arms around each other, whether the miracle of the seamless raiment was wrought or not.

It was their elders who were more singly set upon the fulfilment of the sign, and who went with a more passionate expectation in the doubt or the faith which differenced them; children were more bent upon the affair of the evening than the young girls and the young men. They had been privileged in being allowed to go with their fathers and mothers when they had not been punished in being left at home and they subdued themselves as they could to the terms of keeping step beside them with the bare feet that felt winged and ached to fly. Old and young they passed Nancy's cabin thinly or at intervals, but sometimes in close groups; they glanced kindly or unkindly askance at her when they did not question her, and very possibly they read in her sitting there boldly aloof from them a defiance of the question which had begun to gather about her in the common mind since Laban had left her for his work at the Cross Roads, with none of those Saturday night returns which it had at first expected. It was known that Laban was of the same opposition to Dylks as Nancy and her brother, and it could not be that Dylks had caused the break between her and Laban which no one would have noticed if it had been an effect of religion. It could only be that Laban had left her, or that her temper had driven him away.

With the last came a crowd of boys, whose lagging she understood when her own boy jumped down from the cabin door beside her.

"Did I scare you, mother?" he asked, at her start.

"No; I was expecting you, and you always come in at the back. You'll want your supper, I'll be bound. What made you so late, and all out of breath, so?"

"I been running. We just got the last of the tobacco in, this evening, and Mis' Hingston made me stay and eat with Benny; she said she'd excuse me to you. I just left the other boys up over the hill, and run through the woods to get here in time and ask you."

"To ask me what, Joey dear?" She put her arms fondly round the boy's knees, and pulled him down to her.

"The boys said you let me go to the Temple all I want to; but I told them the Miracle was different, and I'd have to ask you first. I told Mis' Hingston, and I told the boys. Me 'n' Benny got them to come round. Kin I, mother? Mis' Hingston thought may be—may be—you might come yourself. But I told her I didn't believe you would."

"No, I won't go, Joey. What makes you want to go?"

"Oh, I don't know. All the boys are goin'. And I never seen a miracle yet."

"Do you believe he can do a miracle?"

"Well, it would be some fun to see what he would do if he didn't. I'd like to hear what he'd say."

"And what would you think if he did do it? That he was—God?"

"Oh, no, mother! He couldn't be. Mr. Dylks couldn't. I ain't ever thought for a minute that he was that."

"And if he failed—if he tried, and put himself to shame before everybody, how would you feel?"

"Well, mother, nobody as't him to." Nancy was silent for so long that the boy said discouragedly, "But if you don't want me to go—"

Her face hardened from the pity of her inward vision of the man's humiliation, as if his own son had judged him justly. "Yes, you can go, Joey. But be careful, be careful! And don't stay too late. And if anything happens—"

"Oh, surely, mother, nothing will happen," he exulted, and he broke from her hold and ran down the road where the group of boys had waited for him, and as he ran he leaped into the air, and called to them, "She's let me; she's let me!" and the boys leaped up in response, and called back, "Hurrah, hurrah!" and when he had come up with them, they all tried to get their arms round him, and trod on his heels and toes in pushing one another from him.

In the August twilight which now began to pale the hot sunset glow, as if she had waited to come alone, in her pride or in her shame, the woman who was bearing the body of the miracle to the place where the wonder was to be wrought came last of all to pass Nancy where she sat at her door. She was that strong believer who in her utter trust, when she heard that cloth would be needed for the seamless raiment of his miracle, had offered to provide it; and now, neither in pride nor in shame, but in defiance of her unbelieving husband, she was bearing away from her house the bolt of linsey-woolsey newly home from the weaver, which was to have been cut into the winter's clothing of her children. She had spun the threads herself and dyed them, and they had become as if they were of her own flesh and blood. She carried the bolt wrapped about with her shawl, bearing it tenderly in her arms, as if it were indeed her flesh and blood, her babe which she was going to lay upon an altar of sacrifice.

William Dean Howells

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