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Chapter 22

"Drownded?" the boy's mother echoed. "What do you mean, Joey? What makes you believe he was drownded?"

"I seen him."

"Seen him?"

"In the water. We was all walkin' along the river bank, and some o' the Flock got to complainin' because he hadn't fetched the New Jerusalem down yit, and wantin' to know when he was goin' to do it, and sayin' this was Philadelphy, and why didn't he; and Mr. Hingston he was tryin' to pacify 'em, and Mr. Enraghty he scolded 'em, and told 'em to hesh up, or they'd be in danger of hell-fire; but they didn't, and the Good Old Man he begun to cry. It was awful, mother."

"Go on, Joey. Don't stop."

"Well, he'd been prayin' a good deal, off and on, and actin' like he wasn't in his right senses, sometimes, talkin' to hisself, and singin' his hymn—that one, you know—"

"Never mind, Joey dear," his mother said, "keep on."

"And all at once, he up and says, 'If I want to, I can turn this river into a river of gold,' and one o' the Flock, about the worst one, he hollers back, 'Well, why don't you do it, then?' and Mr. Enraghty—well, they call him Saint Paul, you know—he told him to shut his mouth; and they got to jawin', and I heard a rattlin' of gravel, like it was slippin' down the bank, and then there was the Good Old Man in the water, hollerin' for help, and his hat off, floatin' down stream, and his hair all over his shoulders. And before I knowed what to think, he sunk, and when he come up, I was there in the water puttin' out for him."

"Yes, Joey—"

"I can't remember how I got there; must 'a' jumped in without thinkin'; he'd been so good to me, all along, and used to come to me in the nighttime when he 'sposed I was asleep, and kiss me; and cry—But I'd 'a' done it for anybody, anyway, mother."

"Yes. Go—"

"Some of 'em was takin' their shoes and coats off to jump in, and some jest standin' still, and hollerin' to me not to let him ketch holt o' me, or he'd pull me under. But I knowed he couldn't do that, becuz I could ketch him by one arm, and hold him off—me 'n' Benny's practised it in the crick—and I swum up to him; and he went down ag'in, and when he come up ag'in, his face was all soakin' wet like he'd been cryin' under the water, and he says, kind o' bubblin'—like this," the boy made the sound. "He says, 'Oh, my son, God help—bub-ub—bless you!' and then he went down, and I swum round and round, expectin' he'd come up somewheres; but he didn't come up no more. It was awful, mother, becuz that didn't seem to be the end of it; and it was. Just didn't come up no more. They jawed some, before they got over the mountains," the boy said reminiscently." They hadn't brung much money; even Mr. Hingston hadn't, becuz they expected the Good Old Man to work miracles, and make silver and gold money out of red cents, like he said he would. All the nights we slep' out o' doors, and sometimes we had to ast for victuals; but the Good Old Man he always found places to sleep, nice caves in the banks and holler trees, and wherever he ast for victuals they give plenty. And Mr. Enraghty he said it was a miracle if he always knowed the best places to sleep, and the kindest women to ast for victuals. Do you believe it was, mother?"

Nancy said, after an effort for her voice, "He might have been there before."

"Well, that's so; but none of 'em thunk o' that. And what Mr. Enraghty said stopped the jawin' at the time. It all begun ag'in, worse than ever when we got almost to Philadelphy; and he said some of 'em must take the south fork of the road with Saint Paul and keep on till they saw a big light over Philadelphy, where the New Jerusalem was swellin' up, and the rest would meet 'em there with him and Saint Peter. They said, 'Why couldn't we all go together?' And it was pretty soon after that that he slipped into the river. Stumbled on a round stone, I reckon."

The woman sat slowly smoothing the handle of the coffee-pot up and down, and staring at the boy; but she did not speak.

"Benny jumped in by that time, but it wasn't any use. Oh! I seen the ocean, mother! Mr. Hingston took me 'n' Benny down on a boat; and I seen a stuffed elephant in a show, or a museum, they called it. Benny said it was just like the real one in the circus at Wheeling. Mother, do you believe he throwed hisself in?"

"Who, Joey?" she faintly asked.

"Why, the Good Old Man. That's what some of 'em said, them that was disappointed about the New Jerusalem. But some said he did fetch it down; and they seen it, with the black horses and silver gates and velvet streets, and everything just the way he promised. And the others said he'd fooled 'em, or else they was just lyin'. And they said he'd got to the end of his string; and that was why he throwed himself in, and when he got in, he was scared of drowndin' and that was why he hollered for help. But I believe he just slipped in. Don't you, mother?"

"Yes, Joey."

"Mother, I don't believe the Good Old Man had a grea' deal of courage. All the way Over the Mountains, he'd seem to scare at any little noise, even in broad daylight. Oncet, when we was goin' along through the woods, a pig jumped out of some hazel-nut bushes, and scared him so that he yelled and fell down in a fit, and they was a good while fetchin' him to. Do you think he was God, mother?"

"No, Joey."

"Well, that's what I think, too. If he was God, he wouldn't been afeared, would he? And in the night sometimes he'd come and git me to come and lay by him where he could put his arm round my neck, and feel me, like as if he wanted comp'ny. Well, now, that wasn't much like God, was it? And when he thought I was asleep, I could hear him prayin', 'O merciful Savior!' and things like that; and if he was God, who could he pray to? It wasn't sense, was it? Well, I just believe he fell in, and he was afeared he was drowndin' and that's why he hollered out. Don't you, mother?"

"Yes, I do, Joey."

"And you think I done right, don't you, to try to help him, even if it was some resk?"

"Oh, yes."

"I knowed it was some resk, but I didn't believe it was much, and I kind of thought you'd want me to."

"Oh, yes, yes," his mother said. "You did right, Joey. And you're a good boy, and—Joey dear,"—and she rose from the bench where she was sitting with him—"I believe I'll go and lay down on the bed a minute. Bein' up, so—"

"Why, yes, mother! You lay down and I'll clear up the breakfast, or supper if it's it. It'll be like old times," he said in the pride of his long absence from home. His mother lay down on the bed with her face to the wall, and he went very quietly about his work, so as not to wake the baby. But after a moment he went to his mother, and whispered hoarsely, "You don't suppose I could go and see Benny, a minute, after I've got done? It's 'most broad day, and I know he'll be up, too."

"Yes, go," she said, without turning her face to him.

He kept tiptoeing about, and when he had finished, he stood waiting to be sure whether she was sleeping before he opened the door. Now she turned her face, and spoke: "Joey?"

"Yes, mother?" he whispered back, and ran to her softly, in his bare feet.

"Did you get to like him any better?"

He seemed not to take her question as anything strange, or to be in doubt of whom she meant.

"Why, there in the water, at the very last, when he kep' goin' down, I liked him. Yes, I must have. But all along, I felt more like sorry for him. He seemed so miser'ble, all the time, and so—well—scared."

"Yes." She had got the boy's hand, and without turning her body with her face she held his hand in hers closely under her arm. "Joey, I told you he was a wicked man. I can't tell you any different now. But I'm glad you was sorry for him. I am sorry too. Joey—he was your father." She pressed his hand harder.

"Goodness!" he said, but he did not suffer himself to say more.

"He went away and left me when you was a little baby, and he never come back till he come back here. I never had any word from him. For all I could tell he was dead. I never wanted him to be dead," she defended herself to herself in something above the intelligence of the boy. "I married Laban, who's been more of a father to you than what he was."

"Oh, yes, mother!"

"When your real father come here, I made your true father go away." Now she turned and faced her son, keeping his hand tighter in hers. "Joey, I want to have you go and tell him to come back."

"Right away, Mother?"

"Why, yes?" she said with question in her answer.

"I thought maybe you'd let me see Benny, first," he suggested a little wistfully.

She almost laughed. "You dear boy! Go and see Benny on your way. Take him with you, if his father will let him go. You're both such great travelers. Your father's at the Wilkinses' yit, I reckon; they hain't finished with their cider, I don't believe. Go, now!"

The boy had been poising as if on winged feet, and now he flew. He came back to say at the door, "I don't believe I'll want any breakfast, mother; we had such a late supper."

It was a thoughtful suggestion, and she said "No," but before her answer came he had flown again.

The baby woke, and she cooed to it, and she went about the one room of the little cabin trying to put it more in order than before. Some pieces of the moss in the chinking of the round logs near the chimney seemed loose, and she packed them tighter. As she worked she sang. She sang a hymn, but it was a hymn of thanksgiving.

The doorway darkened, and she turned to see the figure of her brother black in the light.

"I see, you've heard the news," he said grimly. "I was afraid I might find you making a show of mourning. I don't pretend to any. I haven't had such a load off me since that rascal first come back."

She answered resentfully, "What makes you so glad, David? He didn't come back to make you drive your husband away!"

"I was always afraid he might make me kill him. He tried hard enough, and sometimes I thought he might. But blessed be the Lord, he's dead. They're holding a funeral for him in the Temple. The news is all through the Creek. I suppose you know how Jane has fixed it up with James Redfield. I feel to be sorry for Hughey Blake; but he never could have mastered her. She's got an awful will, Jane has. But James has got an awful will too, as strong as Jane—"

Nancy cut him short: "David, I don't care anything about Jane—now."

"No," he assented. "Where's Joey?" he asked, leaning inward with his hands resting on either jamb of the door.

"Gone for Laban."

"Well," David said, with something like grudge. "You hain't lost much time. But I don't know as I blame you," he relented.

"I wouldn't care if you did, David," she answered.

William Dean Howells

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