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Chapter 5

The emotional frenzies, recurring through the day, were past, and she could speak steadily to the man, in the absence of greeting which often emphasizes the self-forgetfulness of love as well as marks the formlessness of common life: "Your supper's waitin' for you, Laban; I've had mine; you must be hungry. It's out in the shed; it's cooler there. Go round; baby's asleep."

The man obeyed, and she heard him drop the bucket into the well, and lift it by the groaning sweep, and pour the water into the basin, and then splash himself, with murmurs of comfort, presently muffled in the towel. Her hearing followed him through his supper, and she knew he was obediently eating it, and patiently waiting for her to account for whatever was unwonted in her greeting. She loved him most of all for his boylike submission to her will and every caprice of it, but now she hardly knew how to deny his tacit question as he ventured in from the shed.

"Don't come near me, Laban," she said with a stony quiet. "Don't touch me. I ain't your wife, any more."

He could not speak at first; then it was like him to ask, "Why—why—What have I done, Nancy?"

"You, you poor soul?" she answered. "Nothing but good, all your days! He's come back."

He knew whom she meant, but he had to ask, "Joseph Dylks? Why I thought he was—"

"Don't say it! It's murder! I don't want you to have his blood on you too. Oh, if he was only dead! Yes, yes! I have a right to wish it! Oh, God be merciful to me, a sinner!"

"When—when—how did you know it, Nancy?"

"Yesterday morning or day before—just after you left. I reckon he was waitin' for you to go. I'm glad you went first." The man looked up at the rifle resting on the pegs above the fireplace. "Laban, don't!" she cried. "I looked at it when he was walkin' away, and I know what you're thinkin'."

"What is he goin' to do?" the man asked from his daze.

"Nothing. He said he wouldn't do nothing if I didn't. If he hadn't said it I might believe it!"

Laban shifted his weight where he stood from one foot to the other.

"He passed the night at David's. He's passed two nights there."

"Was it the snorting man?"

"I reckon."

"I heard about him at the Cross Roads. Why didn't David tell us yesterday?"

"Maybe he hadn't thought it out. David thinks slow. He likes to be sure before he speaks. He was sure enough this morning!" the woman ended bitterly.

"What did he say?"

"He said it was living in sin for us to keep together if he was alive."

Laban pondered it. "I reckon if we come together without knowing he was alive, it ain't no sin."

"Yes, it is!" she shrieked.

"We was married just like anybody; we didn't make no secret of it; we've lived together four years. Are you goin' to unlive them years by stoppin' now?"

"Don't you s'pose I been over all that a million times? My mind's sore workin' with it; there ain't a thought in me that don't ache from it. But David's right. We've got to part. I put your things in this poke here," she said, and she gave him a bag made from an old pillow tick, with a few clothes lumping it half full. "I'll carry the baby, Laban." She pulled back from him with the child in her arms. "Or no, you can carry her; you'll have to leave her, too, and you've got a right to all the good you can get of her now. Don't touch anything. I'll stay at David's, tonight, but I'll come back in the morning, and then I'll see what I'll do—stay, or go and live with David. Come!"

"And what about Joey?" Laban asked, half turning with the child when they were outside.

"I declare I forgot about Joey! I'll see, to-morrow. It seems as if my very soul was tired now.

"Joey will just think we've gone over to David's for a minute; he'll go to bed when he comes; he'll have had his supper at Peter Hingston's, anyway."

As they walked away, she said, "You're a good man, Laban Billings, to feel the way you always do about Joey. You've been a true father to him; I wonder what his own father'd have been."

"No truer father to him than I've been a husband to you, Nancy," the man said, and as they walked along together, so far apart, his speech came to him, and he began to plead their case with her as before an adverse judge. Worn as she was with the arguments for and against them after the long day of iteration, she could not refuse to let him plead. She scarcely answered him, but he knew when they reached Gillespie's cabin that she had seen them in the fierce light of her conscience, where there was no shadow of turning.

David was alone; Jane, he said, had gone to the Reverdys, and was going with the woman to the Temple.

Nancy did not seem to hear him. She took the sleeping baby from its father's arms. "Laban has come with me to say good-by before you, David. I hope you'll be satisfied."

"I hope your conscience will be satisfied, Nancy. It doesn't matter about me. Laban, do you see this thing like I do?"

"I see it like Nancy does."

"God will bless your effort for righteousness. Your path is dark before you now, but His light will shine upon it."

The old man paused helplessly, and Nancy asked "Does Jane know?"

"Not yet. And I will confess I'm not certain what to do, about her, and about the neighbors. This is a cross to me, too, Nancy. I have lived a proud life here; there has never been talk about me or mine. Now when you and Laban are parted, there will be talk."

"There's no need to be," Laban said; "not at once. They want me back at the Cross Roads, the Wilkinses do. I can go now as well as in the morning. I forgot to tell you," he added to his wife. "It was drove out of my mind."

"Oh, I don't blame you," she answered.

"I can have work there all the fall."

David Gillespie rubbed his forehead, and said tremulously: "I don't know what to say. I suppose I am weak. It'll be one kind of a lie. But, Laban—I thank you—"

"I can come back here Sundays and see Nancy and the baby," Laban suggested.

The old man's voice shook. "You'll be making it harder for yourself," was all he could say.

"But perhaps—perhaps there'll be light—that light you said—by and by—"

"Let us pray that there'll be no light from the Pit. I am a sinful man,
Laban, to let you do this thing. I ought to have strength for all of us.
But I am older now, I'm not what I was—the day has tried me, Nancy."

"Good-by, then, Laban," the woman said. "And don't you think hard of David. I don't. And I'm not sure I'll ever let you come. Say good-by as if it was for life." She turned to her brother. "We can kiss, I reckon?"

"Oh, I reckon," he lamented, and went indoors.

Laban opened his arms as if to take her in them; but she interposed the baby.

"Kiss her first. Me last. Just once. Now, go! I won't be weak with you like David is. And don't you be afraid for me. I can get along. I'm not a man!" She went into the cabin, with her baby over her shoulder; but in a little while she came back without it, and stared after the figure of Laban losing itself in the night. Then she sat down on the doorstep and cried; it seemed as if she never could stop; but the tears helped her.

When she lifted her head she caught the sounds of singing from the village below the upland where the cabin stood. It was the tune that carried, not the words, but she knew them from the tune; as well as if she were in the Temple with them she knew what the people were singing. While she followed the lines helplessly, almost singing them herself, she was startled by the presence of a boy, who had come silently round the cabin in his bare feet and stood beside her.

"Oh!" she cried out.

"Why, did I scare you, mom?" he asked tenderly. "I didn't mean to."

"No, Joey. I didn't know any one was there; that's all. I didn't expect you. Why ain't you at home in bed? You must be tired enough, poor boy."

"Oh, no, I ain't tired. Mr. Hingston is real good to me; he lets me rest plenty; and he says I'll make a first rate miller. I helped to dress the burrs this morning—the millstones, you know," the boy explained, proud of the technicality. "Oh, I tell you I just like it there," he said, and he laughed out his joy in it.

"You always was a glad boy, Joey," his mother said ruefully.

"Well, you wouldn't thought so if you seen me over at our house. It seemed like there was somebody dead; I dasn't hardly go in, it was so dark and still. Whyn't you there? Didn't pop come home?"

"Yes, but he had to go back to the Cross Roads; he's got work there all the fall."

"Well! We do seem to be gittin' along!" He laughed again. "I reckon you come over here because it seemed kind o' lonesome. Goin' to stay all night with Uncle?"

"Yes. You won't mind being there alone?"

"Oh, no! Not much, I reckon."

"You can stay here too, if you want to—"

"Oh, no! Mom," he confessed shyly, "I brung Benny Hingston with me. I thought you'd let him stay all night with me."

"Why, certainly, Joey—"

"He's just behind the house; I wanted to ask first—"

"You know you can always bring Benny. There's plenty of room for both of you in your bed. But now when you go back with him be careful of the lamp. I put a fresh piece of rag in and there's plenty of grease. You can blow up a coal on the hearth. I covered the fire; only be careful."

"Oh, we'll be careful. Benny's about the carefullest boy the' is in Leatherwood. Oh, I do like being in the mill with Mr. Hingston." He laughed out his joy again, and then he asked doubtfully, "Mom?"

"Yes, Joey."

"Benny and me was wonderin'—we'd go straight back home, and not light any lamp at all—if you'd let us go to the Temple. There's a big meetin' there to-night." The mother hesitated, and the boy urged, "They say that strange man—well, some calls him the Snorter and some the Exhorter—is goin' to preach." The mother was still silent, and the boy faltered on: "He dresses like the people do Over-the-Mountains, and he wears his hair down his back—"

The mother gasped. "I don't like your being out late, Joey. I'd feel better if you and Benny was safe in bed."

"Oh, well." The boy's voice sank to the level of his disappointment; but after a silent interval he caught it up again cheerily. "Oh, well, I reckon Benny won't care much. We'll go right back home. We can have a piece before we go to bed?"

"Yes—"

"Benny thinks our apple-butter is the best they is. Can we have some on bread, with sugar on top?"

His mother did not answer at once, and he said again, as if relinquishing another ideal, "Oh, well."

Nancy rose up and kissed him. "Yes, go to the Temple. You might as well."

"Truly, mom? Oh, Benny, hurrah! She's let me! Come along!"

He ran round the cabin to his comrade, and she heard them shouting and laughing together, and then the muted scamper of their bare feet on the soft road toward the settlement.

The mother said to herself, "He'd get to see him sooner or later." She drew her breath in a long sigh, and went into the cabin. "What a day, what a day! It seems a thousand years," she said aloud.

"Are you talking to me, Nancy?" her brother asked from somewhere in the dark.

"No, no. Only to myself, David. Where did I put the baby? Oh! I know.
I've let Joey go to the Temple to hear his father preach. Lord have mercy!"

William Dean Howells

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