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Chapter 16

Matthew Braile was sitting in his wonted place, with his chair tilted against his porch wall, smoking. Dylks faltered a moment at the bars of the lane from the field of tall corn where he had been finding his way unseen from Nancy's cabin. He lowered two of the middle bars and when he had put them up on the other side he stood looking toward the old man. His long hair hung tangled on his shoulders; the white bandage, which Nancy had bound about his head, crossed it diagonally above one eye and gave this the effect of a knowing wink, which his drawn face, unshaven for a week, seemed to deprecate.

Braile stared hard at him. Then he tilted his chair down and came to the edge of his porch, and called in cruel mockery, "Why, God, is that you?"

"Don't, Squire Braile!" Dylks implored in a hoarse undertone. "They're after me, and if anybody heard you—"

"Well, come up here," the Squire bade him. Dylks hobbled slowly forward, and painfully mounted the log steps to the porch, where Braile surveyed him in detail, frowning and twitching his long feathery eyebrows.

"I know I don't look fit to be seen," Dylks began "but—"

"Well," the Squire allowed after further pause, "you don't look as if you had just come 'down from the shining courts above in joyful haste'! Had any breakfast?"

"Nancy—Nancy Billings—gave me some coffee, and some cold pone—"

"Well, you can have some hot pone pretty soon. Laban there?"

"No, he's away at work still. But, Squire Braile—"

"Oh, I understand. I know all about Nancy, and her first husband and how he left her, and she thought he was dead, and married a good man, and when that worthless devil came back she thought she was living in sin with that good man—in sin!—and drove him away. But she's as white as any of the saints you lie about. It was like you to go to her the first one in your trouble. Well, what did she say?" "She said—" Dylks stopped, his mouth too dry to speak; he wetted his lips and whispered—"She said to come to you; that you would know what it was best for me to do; to—" He stopped again and asked, "Do you suppose any one will see me here?"

"Oh, like as not. It's getting time for honest folks to be up and going to work. But I don't want any trouble about you this morning; I had enough that other morning. Come in here!" He set open the door of one of the rooms giving on the porch, and at Dylks's fearful glance he laughed, not altogether unkindly. "Mis' Braile's in the kitchen, getting breakfast for you, though she don't know it yet. Now, then!" he commanded when he sat down within, and pushed a chair to Dylks. "Tell me all about it, since I saw you going up the pike."

In the broken story which Dylks told, Braile had the air of mentally checking off the successive facts, and he permitted the man a measure of self-pity, though he caught him up at the close. "Well, you've got a part of what you deserve, but as usually happens with us rascals, you've got too much, at the same time. And what did Nancy advise?"

"She told me to come to you—"

"What did Nancy advise?" the Squire repeated savagely.

"She advised me to stop all this"—he waved his hands outward, and the Squire nodded intelligently—"to tell them it wasn't true; and I was sorry; and to go away—"

He stopped, and Braile demanded, "Well, and are you going to do it?"

"I want to do it, and—I can't."

"You can't? What's to hinder you?"

"I'm afraid to do it."

"Afraid?"

"They would kill me, if I did."

"They? Who? The Herd of the Lost?"

"The Little Flock."

The men were both silent, and then after a long breath, the Squire said, "I begin to see—"

"No, no! You don't begin to see, Squire Braile." Dylks burst out sobbing, and uttering what he said between his sobs. "Nobody can understand it that hasn't been through it! How you are tempted on, step by step, all so easy, till you can't go back, you can't stop. You're tempted by what's the best thing in you, by the hunger and thirst to know what's going to be after you die; to get near to the God that you've always heard about and read about; near Him in the flesh, and see Him and hear Him and touch Him. That's what does it with them, and that's what does it in you. It's something, a kind of longing, that's always been in the world, and you know it's in others because you know it's in you, in your own heart, your own soul. When you begin to try for it, to give out that you're a prophet, an apostle, you don't have to argue, to persuade anybody, or convince anybody. They're only too glad to believe what you say from the first word; and if you tell them you're Christ, didn't He always say He would come back, and how do they know but what it's now and you?"

"Yes, yes," the Squire said. "Go on."

"When I said I was God, they hadn't a doubt about it. But it was then that the trouble began."

"The trouble?"

"I had to make some of them saints. I had to make Enraghty Saint Paul, and I had to make Hingston Saint Peter. You think I had to lie to them, to deceive them, to bewitch them. I didn't have to do anything of the kind. They did the lying and deceiving and bewitching themselves, and when they done it, they and all the rest of the believers, they had me fast, faster than I had them."

"I could imagine the schoolmaster hanging on to his share of the glory, tooth and nail," the Squire said with a grim laugh. "But old Hingston, good old soul, he ought to have let go, if you wanted him to."

"Oh, you don't know half of it," Dylks said, with a fresh burst of sobbing. "The worst of it is, and the dreadfulest is, that you begin to believe it yourself."

"What's that?" the Squire demanded sharply.

"Their faith puts faith into you. If they believe what you say, you say to yourself that there must be some truth in it. If you keep telling them you're Jesus Christ, there's nothing to prove you ain't, and if you tell them you're God, who ever saw God, and who can deny it? You can't deny it yourself—"

"Hold on!" the old man said. He had risen, and he began to walk up and down, swaying his figure and tilting his head from side to side, and frowning his shaggy eyebrows together in a tangled hedge. Suddenly, he stopped before Dylks. "Why, you poor devil, you're not in any unusual fix. It must have been so with all the impostors in the world, from Mahomet up and down! Why, there isn't a false prophet in the Old Testament that couldn't match experiences with you! That's the way it's always gone: first the liar tells his lie, and some of the fools believe it, and proselyte the other fools, and when there are enough of them, their faith begins to work on the liar's own unbelief, till he takes his lie for the truth. Was that the way, you miserable skunk?"

"It was exactly the way, Squire Braile, and you can't tell how it gains on you, step by step. You see all those educated people like Mr. Enraghty, and all those good men like Mr. Hingston taking it for gospel, and you can't deny it yourself. They convince you of it."

"Exactly! And then, when the Little Flock gathers in all the mentally lame, halt and blind in the settlement, you couldn't get out of it if you had the whole Herd of the Lost to back you, with the Hounds yelping round to keep your courage up; you've got to stay just where you put yourself, heigh?"

"There wouldn't," Dylks said, drying his eyes on a tatter of his coat sleeve, "be so much trouble if it wasn't for the miracles."

"Yes," Braile replied to the thoughtful mood which he had fallen into, rather than to Dylks, "the ignorant are sure to want a sign, though the wise could get along without it. And you have to promise them a sign; you have to be fool enough to do that, though you know well enough you can't work the miracle."

"You ain't sure you can't. You think, maybe—"

"Then, why," the Squire shouted at him, "why in the devil's name, didn't you work the miracle at Hingston's mill that night? Why didn't you turn that poor fool woman's bolt of linsey-woolsey into seamless raiment?"

Dylks did not answer.

"Why didn't you do it? Heigh?"

"I thought maybe—I didn't know but I did do it."

"What do you mean?"

"When I came up outside and told them that the miracle had been worked and the seamless raiment was inside the bolt, I thought it must be there."

"Why, in the name of—"

"I had prayed so hard for help to do it that I thought it must be."

"You prayed? To whom?"

"To—God."

"To yourself?"

Dylks was silent again in the silence of a self-convicted criminal. He did not move.

Braile had been walking up and down again in his excitement, in his enjoyment of the psychological predicament, and again he stopped before Dylks. "Why, you poor bag of shorts!" he said. "I could almost feel sorry for you, in spite of the mischief you've made. Why, you oughtn't to be sent to the penitentiary, or even lynched. You ought to be put amongst the county idiots in the poorhouse, and—"

There came a soft plapping as of bare feet on the puncheon floor of the porch; hesitating about and then pausing at the door of the opposite room. Then there came with the increased smell of cooking, the talking of women. Presently the talking stopped and the plapping of the bare feet approached the door of the room shutting the two men in. The Squire set it slightly ajar, in spite of Dylks's involuntary, "Oh, don't!" and faced some one close to the opening.

"That you, Sally? You haven't come to borrow anything at this hour of the night?"

"Well, I reckon if you was up as early as Mis' Braile, you'd know it was broad day. No, I hain't come to borry anything exactly, but I was just tellin' her that if she'd lend me a fryun' of bacon, I'd do as much for her some day. She ast me to tell you your breakfast was ready and not to wait till your comp'ny was gone, but bring anybody you got with you."

Sally peered curiously in at the opening of the door, and Braile abruptly set it wide. "Perhaps you'd like to see who it is."

Sally started back at sight of the figure within. When she could get her breath she gasped, "Well, for mercy's sakes! If it ain't the Good Old Man, himself!" But she made no motion of revering or any offer of saluting her late deity.

"Well, now, if you've got some bacon for Abel's breakfast you better stop and have yours with us," the Squire suggested.

"No, I reckon not," Sally answered. "I ain't exactly sure Abel would like it. He ain't ever been one of the Flock, although at the same time he ain't ever been one of the Herd: just betwixt and between, like." As she spoke she edged away backward. "Well, I must be goun', Squire. Much obleeged to you all the same."

The Squire followed her backward steps with his voice. "If you should happen to see Jim Redfield on his way to his tobacco patch, I wish you'd tell him to come here; I'd like to see him."

He went in again to Dylks.

"What are you going to do with me, Squire Braile?" he entreated. "You're not going to give me up?"

"I know my duty to my Maker," the old man answered. "I'll take care of you, Jehovah Dylks. But now you better come in to breakfast—get some hot pone. I'll bring you a basin of water to wash up in."

He reopened the door in the face of Sally Reverdy, who gasped out before she plapped over to the steps and dropped away, "I just seen Jim Redfield, and I tole him you wanted him, and he said he would be here in half an hour, or as soon as he could see that the men had begun on his tubbacco. I didn't tell him who you had here, and I won't tell anybody else; don't you be afraid."

"Well, that's a good girl, Sally. Abel couldn't have done better himself," the Squire called after her, and then he turned to Dylks. "Come along now, and get your hot pone. Jim Redfield won't hurt you; I'll go bail for him, and I'll see that nobody else gets at you. I've got a loft over this room where you'll be safe from everything but a pet coon that your Joey gave my little boy; and I reckon the coon won't bite you. I wouldn't, in his place."

William Dean Howells

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