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Chapter 21

Hughey Blake, long-haired, barefooted and freckled, hung about the door of Nancy's cabin, where she sat with her little girl playing in the weedy turf at her foot. The late October weather was sometimes hot at noon, but the evenings were cool and the evening air was sweet with the scent of the ripened corn, and the faint odor of the fallen leaves. The grasshoppers still hissed; at moments the crickets within and without the cabin creaked plaintively.

"I just come," Hughey said, "to see if you thought she wouldn't go to the Temple with me, to-night. The Flock lets us have our turn reg'lar now, and we're goin' to have Thursday evenin' meetin' like we used to." In a discouraging silence from Nancy, he went on, "I'm just on my way home, now, and I'll git my shoes there; and I don't expect to wear this hickory shirt, and no coat—"

"Yes, I know, Hughey, but I don't believe it'll be any use. You can try; but I don't believe it will. I reckon you'd find out that she's goin' with Jim Redfield, if anybody. She's been off with him 'most the whole afternoon, gatherin' pawpaws—he knows the best places; I should think they could have got all the pawpaws in Leatherwood by this time. You know I've always liked you, Hughey, and so has her father, and you've played together ever since you was babies, and you've always been her beau from childern up. There ain't a person in Leatherwood that don't respect you and feel to think that any girl might be glad to get you; but I'm afraid it's just your cleverness, and bein' so gentle like—"

"Do you 'spose, Nancy," the young man faltered disconsolately, "it's had anything to do with my not gettin' her that hair? I could 'a' done it as easy as Jim Redfield; but to tear it right out of his head, that way, I couldn't; it went ag'in my stommick."

"I don't believe it's that, Hughey. If you must know, I believe it's just Jim Redfield himself. He's bewitched her and she's got to be bewitched by somebody; if it ain't one it's another; it was him then, and it's Jim, now."

"I see," the young man assented sadly.

"She ain't good enough for you, that's the truth, Hughey, though I say it, her own kith and kin. I can't make you understand, I know; but she's got to have somebody that she can feel the power of."

"I'd do anything for her, Nancy."

"That's just it! She don't want that kind of lovin', as you may call it. I don't believe my brother's a very easy man to turn, but Jane has always done as she pleased with him; he's been like clay in the hands of the potter with her. Many another girl would have been broken into bits before now; but she's just as tough as so much hickory. I don't say but what she's a good girl; there ain't a better in Leatherwood, or anywheres. She's as true as a die, and tender as anything in sickness, and'd lay down and die where she saw her duty, and'd work till she dropped if need be; but, no, she ain't one that wants softness in her friends. Well, she won't git any too much of it in Jim Redfield. They're of a piece, and she may find out that she's made a mistake, after all."

"Has she—she hain't promised to marry him yit?"

"No, I don't say that. But ever since that night at the Temple he's been round after her. He's been here, and he's been at her father's, and she can't go down to the Corners for anything but what he comes home helpin' her to bring it. You seen yourself, how he always gets her to come home from meetin'."

"Yes," Hughey assented forlornly. "I'm always too late at the door; he's with her before a body can git the words out."

"Well, that's it. I don't say she ain't a good girl, one of the very best, but she's hard, hard, hard; and I don't see what's ever to break her."

The girl's voice came from round the cabin, calling, "Honey, honey, honey!" and the little one started from her play at her mother's feet, and ran toward the voice, which Jane now brought with her at the corner, and chuckling, and jug-jugging, birdlike, for joy, threw herself at Jane's knees.

"See what I brought you, honey. It's good and ripe, but it ain't half as good as my honey, honey, honey!" She put the pawpaw into the child's hands and mumbled her, with kisses of her eyes, cheeks, hair, and neck. "Oh, I could eat you, eat you!"

She must have seen the young fellow waiting for her notice, but Nancy had to say, "Here's Hughey, Jane," before she spoke to him.

"Oh! Hughey," she said, not unkindly, but as if he did not matter.

He stood awkward and Nancy judged it best for all the reasons to add, "Hughey wants you to go to the Temple with him to-night," and the young fellow smiled gratefully if not hopefully at her.

The girl stiffened herself to her full height from the child she was stooping over. She haughtily mounted the steps beside Nancy, and without other recognition of Hughey in the matter she said, "I've got company," and disappeared into the cabin.

"Well, Hughey?" Nancy pityingly questioned.

"No, no, Nancy," he replied with a manful struggle for manfulness, "I—I —It's meant, I reckon," and slunk away from the girl's brutality as if it were his own shame.

Nancy picked up her little one, and followed indoors.

"Don't you talk to me, Aunt Nancy!" the girl cried at her. "What does he keep askin' me for?"

"He won't ask you any more, Jane," the woman quietly returned.

They joined in putting the little one to bed. Then, without more words, Jane kissed the child, and came back to kiss her again when she had got to the door. "Aunt Nancy, I hate you," she said as she went out and left the woman alone.

Ever since Joey went away with the believers to see the New Jerusalem come down in Philadelphia, Jane had been sleeping at her father's cabin in resentful duty to his years and solitude. She got him his breakfast and left it for him before she went to take her own with Nancy, and she had his dinner and supper ready for his return from the field, but she did not eat with him, and he was abed before she came home at night.

Joey had been gone nearly a month, and no word had come back from any of the Little Flock who went with Dylks. It was not the day of letters by mail; if some of the pilgrims had sent messages by the wagoners returning from their trips Over the Mountains, they had not reached the families left behind, and no angel-borne tidings came to testify of the wonder at Philadelphia. Those left behind waited in patience rather than anxiety; where life was often hard, people did not borrow trouble and add that needless debt to their load of daily cares. Nancy said to others that she did not know what to think, and others said the same to her, and they got what comfort they could out of that.

Now she did not light the little rag-lamp which she and Jane sometimes sat by with their belated sewing or darning if they had not kept the hearth-fire burning. She went to bed in the dark, and slept with the work-weariness which keeps the heart-heavy from waking.

She had work in her tobacco patch to do, as well as in the house, where Jane helped her; she would not let the girl help her get the logs and brush together on the clearing which Laban had begun burning to enrich the soil for the planting of the next year's crop with the ashes.

She must have slept long hours when she heard the sound of a cry from the dark without.

"Mother! Mother! Oh, mother!" it came nearer and nearer, till it beat with the sound of a fist on the cabin door. In the piecing out of the instant dream which she started from, she thought as that night when Dylks called her, that it must be Laban; he sometimes called her mother after the baby came, and now she called back, "Laban! Laban!" but the voice came again, "It ain't father; it's me, mother; it's Joey!"

"Oh, dear heart!" she joyfully lamented, and flung herself from her bed, and reeled still drunk with slumber, and pulled up the latch, and flung open the door, and caught her boy to her breast.

"Oh, mother!" he said, laughing and crying. "I'm so hungry!"

"To be sure you're hungry, child; and I'll have you your supper in half a minute, as soon as I can rake the fire open. Lay down on mother's bed there, and rest while I'm gettin' ready for you. The baby won't wake, and I don't care if she does."

"I s'pose she's grown a good deal. But I am tired," the boy said, stretching himself out. "Me 'n' Benny run all the way as soon as we come in sight of the crick, and him 'n' Mis' Hingston wanted me to stay all night, but I wouldn't. I wanted to see you so much, mother."

"Did Mr. Hingston come back with you? Or, don't tell me anything; don't speak, till you've had something to eat."

"I woon't, mother," the boy promised, and then he said, "But you ought to see Philadelphy, mother. It's twenty times as big as Wheeling, Benny says, and all red brick houses and white marble steps." He was sitting up, and talking now; his mother flew about in the lank linsey-woolsey dress she had thrown over her nightgown in some unrealized interval of her labors and had got the skillet of bacon hissing over the coals.

"And to think," she bleated in self-reproach, "that I'll have to give you rye coffee! You know, Joey dear, there hain't very much cash about this house, and the store won't take truck for coffee. But with good cream in it, the rye tastes 'most as good. Set up to the table, now," she bade him, when she had put the rye coffee with the bacon and some warmed-up pone on the leaf lifted from the wall.

She let the boy silently glut himself till he glanced round between mouthfuls and said, "It all looks so funny and little, in here, after Philadelphy."

Then she said, "But you don't say anything about the New Jerusalem. Didn't it come down, after all?" She smiled, but sadly rather than gladly in her skepticism.

"No, mother," the boy answered solemnly. Then after a moment he said, "I got something to tell you, mother. But I don't know whether I hadn't better wait till morning."

"It's most morning, now, Joey, I reckon, if it ain't already. That's the twilight comin' in at the door. If you wouldn't rather get your sleep first—"

"No, I can't sleep till I tell you, now. It's about the Good Old Man."

"Did he—did he go up?" she asked fearfully.

"No, mother, he didn't. Some of them say he was took up, but, mother, I believe he was drownded!"

William Dean Howells

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