THE snow was still falling thickly when Orrin Bosworth, who farmed the land south of Lone-top, drove up in his cutter to Saul Rutledge’s gate. He was surprised to see two other cutters ahead of him. From them descended two muffled figures. Bosworth, with increasing surprise, recognized Deacon Hibben, from North Ashmore, and Sylvester Brand, the widower, from the old Bearcliff farm on the way to Lonetop.
It was not often that anybody in Hemlock County entered Saul Rutledge’s gate; least of all in the dead of winter, and summoned (as Bosworth, at any rate, had been) by Mrs. Rutledge, who passed, even in that unsocial region, for a woman of cold manners and solitary character. The situation was enough to excite the curiosity of a less imaginative man than Orrin Bosworth.
As he drove in between the broken-down white gate-posts topped by fluted urns the two men ahead of him were leading their horses to the adjoining shed. Bosworth followed, and hitched his horse to a post. Then the three tossed off the snow from their shoulders, clapped their numb hands together, and greeted each other.
“Well, well, Orrin — .” They shook hands.
“‘Day, Bosworth,” said Sylvester Brand, with a brief nod. He seldom put any cordiality into his manner, and on this occasion he was still busy about his horse’s bridle and blanket.
Orrin Bosworth, the youngest and most communicative of the three, turned back to Deacon Hibben, whose long face, queerly blotched and mouldy-looking, with blinking peering eyes, was yet less forbidding than Brand’s heavily-hewn countenance.
“Queer, our all meeting here this way. Mrs. Rutledge sent me a message to come,” Bosworth volunteered.
The Deacon nodded. “I got a word from her too — Andy Pond come with it yesterday noon. I hope there’s no trouble here — ”
He glanced through the thickening fall of snow at the desolate front of the Rutledge house, the more melancholy in its present neglected state because, like the gate-posts, it kept traces of former elegance. Bosworth had often wondered how such a house had come to be built in that lonely stretch between North Ashmore and Cold Corners. People said there had once been other houses like it, forming a little township called Ashmore, a sort of mountain colony created by the caprice of an English Royalist officer, one Colonel Ashmore, who had been murdered by the Indians, with all his family, long before the Revolution. This tale was confirmed by the fact that the ruined cellars of several smaller houses were still to be discovered under the wild growth of the adjoining slopes, and that the Communion plate of the moribund Episcopal church of Cold Corners was engraved with the name of Colonel Ashmore, who had given it to the church of Ashmore in the year 1723. Of the church itself no traces remained. Doubtless it had been a modest wooden edifice, built on piles, and the conflagration which had burnt the other houses to the ground’s edge had reduced it utterly to ashes. The whole place, even in summer, wore a mournful solitary air, and people wondered why Saul Rutledge’s father had gone there to settle.
“I never knew a place,” Deacon Hibben said, “as seemed as far away from humanity. And yet it ain’t so in miles.”
“Miles ain’t the only distance,” Orrin Bosworth answered; and the two men, followed by Sylvester Brand, walked across the drive to the front door. People in Hemlock County did not usually come and go by their front doors, but all three men seemed to feel that, on an occasion which appeared to be so exceptional, the usual and more familiar approach by the kitchen would not be suitable.
They had judged rightly; the Deacon had hardly lifted the knocker when the door opened and Mrs. Rutledge stood before them.
“Walk right in,” she said in her usual dead-level tone; and Bosworth, as he followed the others, thought to himself; “Whatever’s happened, she’s not going to let it show in her face.”
It was doubtful, indeed, if anything unwonted could be made to show in Prudence Rutledge’s face, so limited was its scope, so fixed were its features. She was dressed for the occasion in a black calico with white spots, a collar of crochet-lace fastened by a gold brooch, and a gray woollen shawl crossed under her arms and tied at the back. In her small narrow head the only marked prominence was that of the brow projecting roundly over pale spectacled eyes. Her dark hair, parted above this prominence, passed tight and fiat over the tips of her ears into a small braided coil at the nape; and her contracted head looked still narrower from being perched on a long hollow neck with cord-like throat-muscles. Her eyes were of a pale cold gray, her complexion was an even white. Her age might have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty.
The room into which she led the three men had probably been the dining-room of the Ashmore house. It was now used as a front parlour, and a black stove planted on a sheet of zinc stuck out from the delicately fluted panels of an old wooden mantel. A newly-lit fire smouldered reluctantly, and the room was at once close and bitterly cold.
“Andy Pond,” Mrs. Rutledge cried to some one at the back of the house, “step out and call Mr. Rutledge. You’ll likely find him in the wood-shed, or round the barn somewheres.” She rejoined her visitors. “Please suit yourselves to seats,” she said.
The three men, with an increasing air of constraint, took the chairs she pointed out, and Mrs. Rutledge sat stiffly down upon a fourth, behind a rickety bead-work table. She glanced from one to the other of her visitors.
“I presume you folks are wondering what it is I asked you to come here for,” she said in her dead-level voice. Orrin Bosworth and Deacon Hibben murmured an assent; Sylvester Brand sat silent, his eyes, under their great thicket of eyebrows, fixed on the huge boot-tip swinging before him.
“Well, I allow you didn’t expect it was for a party,” continued Mrs. Rutledge.
No one ventured to respond to this chill pleasantry, and she continued: “We’re in trouble here, and that’s the fact. And we need advice — Mr. Rutledge and myself do.” She cleared her throat, and added in a lower tone, her pitilessly clear eyes looking straight before her: “There’s a spell been cast over Mr. Rutledge.”
The Deacon looked up sharply, an incredulous smile pinching his thin lips. “A spell?”
“That’s what I said: he’s bewitched.”
Again the three visitors were silent; then Bosworth, more at ease or less tongue-tied than the others, asked with an attempt at humour: “Do you use the word in the strict Scripture sense, Mrs. Rutledge?”
She glanced at him before replying: “That’s how he uses it.”
The Deacon coughed and cleared his long rattling throat. “Do you care to give us more particulars before your husband joins us?”
Mrs. Rutledge looked down at her clasped hands, as if considering the question. Bosworth noticed that the inner fold of her lids was of the same uniform white as the rest of her skin, so that when she dropped them her rather prominent eyes looked like the sightless orbs of a marble statue. The impression was unpleasing, and he glanced away at the text over the mantelpiece, which read:
The Soul That Sinneth It Shall Die.
“No,” she said at length, “I’ll wait.”
At this moment Sylvester Brand suddenly stood up and pushed back his chair. “I don’t know,” he said, in his rough bass voice, “as I’ve got any particular lights on Bible mysteries; and this happens to be the day I was to go down to Starkfield to close a deal with a man.”
Mrs. Rutledge lifted one of her long thin hands. Withered and wrinkled by hard work and cold, it was nevertheless of the same leaden white as her face. “You won’t be kept long,” she said. “Won’t you be seated?”
Farmer Brand stood irresolute, his purplish underlip twitching. “The Deacon here —— such things is more in his line . . . ”
“I want you should stay,” said Mrs. Rutledge quietly; and Brand sat down again.
A silence fell, during which the four persons present seemed all to be listening for the sound of a step; but none was heard, and after a minute or two Mrs. Rutledge began to speak again.
“It’s down by that old shack on Lamer’s pond; that’s where they meet,” she said suddenly.
Bosworth, whose eyes were on Sylvester Brand’s face, fancied he saw a sort of inner flush darken the farmer’s heavy leathern skin. Deacon Hibben leaned forward, a glitter of curiosity in his eyes.
“They — who, Mrs. Rutledge?”
“My husband, Saul Rutledge . . . and her . . . ”
Sylvester Brand again stirred in his seat. “Who do you mean by her?” he asked abruptly, as if roused out of some far-off musing.
Mrs. Rutledge’s body did not move; she simply revolved her head on her long neck and looked at him.
“Your daughter, Sylvester Brand.”
The man staggered to his feet with an explosion of inarticulate sounds. “My — my daughter? What the hell are you talking about? My daughter? It’s a damned lie . . . it’s . . . it’s . . . ”
“Your daughter Ora, Mr. Brand,” said Mrs. Rutledge slowly.
Bosworth felt an icy chill down his spine. Instinctively he turned his eyes away from Brand, and, they rested on the mildewed countenance of Deacon Hibben. Between the blotches it had become as white as Mrs. Rutledge’s, and the Deacon’s eyes burned in the whiteness like live embers among ashes.
Brand gave a laugh: the rusty creaking laugh of one whose springs of mirth are never moved by gaiety. “My daughter Ora?” he repeated.
“My dead daughter?”
“That’s what he says.”
“That’s what Mr. Rutledge says.”
Orrin Bosworth listened with a sense of suffocation; he felt as if he were wrestling with long-armed horrors in a dream. He could no longer resist letting his eyes return to Sylvester Brand’s face. To his surprise it had resumed a natural imperturbable expression. Brand rose to his feet. “Is that all?” he queried contemptuously.
“All? Ain’t it enough? How long is it since you folks seen Saul Rutledge, any of you?” Mrs. Rutledge flew out at them.
Bosworth, it appeared, had not seen him for nearly a year; the Deacon had only run across him once, for a minute, at the North Ashmore post office, the previous autumn, and acknowledged that he wasn’t looking any too good then. Brand said nothing, but stood irresolute.
“Well, if you wait a minute you’ll see with your own eyes; and he’ll tell you with his own words. That’s what I’ve got you here for — to see for yourselves what’s come over him. Then you’ll talk different,” she added, twisting her head abruptly toward Sylvester Brand.
The Deacon raised a lean hand of interrogation.
“Does your husband know we’ve been sent for on this business, Mrs. Rutledge?” Mrs. Rutledge signed assent.
“It was with his consent, then —?”
She looked coldly at her questioner. “I guess it had to be,” she said. Again Bosworth felt the chill down his spine. He tried to dissipate the sensation by speaking with an affectation of energy.
“Can you tell us, Mrs. Rutledge, how this trouble you speak of shows itself . . . what makes you think . . .?”
She looked at him for a moment; then she leaned forward across the rickety bead-work table. A thin smile of disdain narrowed her colourless lips. “I don’t think — I know.”
“Well — but how?”
She leaned closer, both elbows on the table, her voice dropping. “I seen ’em.”
In the ashen light from the veiling of snow beyond the windows the Deacon’s little screwed-up eyes seemed to give out red sparks. “Him and the dead?”
“Him and the dead.”
“Saul Rutledge and — and Ora Brand?”
Sylvester Brand’s chair fell backward with a crash. He was on his feet again, crimson and cursing. “It’s a God-damned fiend-begotten lie . . . ”
“Friend Brand . . . friend Brand . . . ” the Deacon protested.
“Here, let me get out of this. I want to see Saul Rutledge himself, and tell him — ”
“Well, here he is,” said Mrs. Rutledge.
The outer door had opened; they heard the familiar stamping and shaking of a man who rids his garments of their last snowflakes before penetrating to the sacred precincts of the best parlour. Then Saul Rutledge entered.
As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice — “self-drowned,” he added. But the snow-light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them.
The Deacon sought for a word to ease the horror. “Well, now, Saul — you look’s if you’d ought to set right up to the stove. Had a touch of ague, maybe?”
The feeble attempt was unavailing. Rutledge neither moved nor answered. He stood among them silent, incommunicable, like one risen from the dead.
Brand grasped him roughly by the shoulder. “See here, Saul Rutledge, what’s this dirty lie your wife tells us you’ve been putting about?”
Still Rutledge did not move. “It’s no lie,” he said.
Brand’s hand dropped from his shoulder. In spite of the man’s rough bullying power he seemed to be undefinably awed by Rut-ledge’s look and tone.
“No lie? You’ve gone plumb crazy, then, have you?”
Mrs. Rutledge spoke. “My husband’s not lying, nor he ain’t gone crazy. Don’t I tell you I seen ’em?”
Brand laughed again. “Him and the dead?”
“Down by the Lamer pond, you say?”
“And when was that, if I might ask?”
“Day before yesterday.”
A silence fell on the strangely assembled group. The Deacon at length broke it to say to Mr. Brand: “Brand, in my opinion we’ve got to see this thing through.”
Brand stood for a moment in speechless contemplation: there was something animal and primitive about him, Bosworth thought, as he hung thus, lowering and dumb, a little foam beading the corners of that heavy purplish underlip. He let himself slowly down into his chair. “I’ll see it through.”
The two other men and Mrs. Rutledge had remained seated. Saul Rutledge stood before them, like a prisoner at the bar, or rather like a sick man before the physicians who were to heal him. As Bosworth scrutinized that hollow face, so wan under the dark sunburn, so sucked inward and consumed by some hidden fever, there stole over the sound healthy man the thought that perhaps, after all, husband and wife spoke the truth, and that they were all at that moment really standing on the edge of some forbidden mystery. Things that the rational mind would reject without a thought seemed no longer so easy to dispose of as one looked at the actual Saul Rutledge and remembered the man he had been a year before. Yes; as the Deacon said, they would have to see it through . . .
“Sit down then, Saul; draw up to us, won’t you?” the Deacon suggested, trying again for a natural tone.
Mrs. Rutledge pushed a chair forward, and her husband sat down on it. He stretched out his arms and grasped his knees in his brown bony fingers; in that attitude he remained, turning neither his head nor his eyes.
“Well, Saul,” the Deacon continued, “your wife says you thought mebbe we could do something to help you through this trouble, whatever it is.”
Rutledge’s gray eyes widened a little. “No; I didn’t think that. It was her idea to try what could be done.”
“I presume, though, since you’ve agreed to our coming, that you don’t object to our putting a few questions?”
Rutledge was silent for a moment; then he said with a visible effort: “No; I don’t object.”
“Well — you’ve heard what your wife says?”
Rutledge made a slight motion of assent. “And — what have you got to answer? How do you explain . . .?”
Mrs. Rutledge intervened. “How can he explain? I seen ’em.”
There was a silence; then Bosworth, trying to speak in an easy reassuring tone, queried: “That so, Saul?”
Brand lifted up his brooding head. “You mean to say you . . . you sit here before us all and say . . . ”
The Deacon’s hand again checked him. “Hold on, friend Brand. We’re all of us trying for the facts, ain’t we?” He turned to Rutledge. “We’ve heard what Mrs. Rutledge says. What’s your answer?”
“I don’t know as there’s any answer. She found us.”
“And you mean to tell me the person with you was . . . was what you took to be . . . ” the Deacon’s thin voice grew thinner: “Ora Brand?”
Saul Rutledge nodded.
“You knew . . . or thought you knew . . . you were meeting with the dead?”
Rutledge bent his head again. The snow continued to fall in a steady unwavering sheet against the window, and Bosworth felt as if a winding-sheet were descending from the sky to envelop them all in a common grave.
“Think what you’re saying! It’s against our religion! Ora . . . poor child! . . . died over a year ago. I saw you at her funeral, Saul. How can you make such a statement?”
“What else can he do?” thrust in Mrs. Rutledge.
There was another pause. Bosworth’s resources had failed him, and Brand once more sat plunged in dark meditation. The Deacon laid his quivering finger-tips together, and moistened his lips.
“Was the day before yesterday the first time?” he asked.
The movement of Rutledge’s head was negative.
“Not the first? Then when . . . ”
“Nigh on a year ago, I reckon.”
“God! And you mean to tell us that ever since —?”
“Well . . . look at him,” said his wife. The three men lowered their eyes.
After a moment Bosworth, trying to collect himself, glanced at the Deacon. “Why not ask Saul to make his own statement, if that’s what we’re here for?”
“That’s so,” the Deacon assented. He turned to Rutledge. “Will you try and give us your idea . . . of . . . of how it began?”
There was another silence. Then Rutledge tightened his grasp on his gaunt knees, and still looking straight ahead, with his curiously clear unseeing gaze: “Well,” he said, “I guess it begun away back, afore even I was married to Mrs. Rutledge . . . ” He spoke in a low automatic tone, as if some invisible agent were dictating his words, or even uttering them for him. “You know,” he added, “Ora and me was to have been married.”
Sylvester Brand lifted his, head. “Straighten that statement out first, please,” he interjected.
“What I mean is, we kept company. But Ora she was very young. Mr. Brand here he sent her away. She was gone nigh to three years, I guess. When she come back I was married.”
“That’s right,” Brand said, relapsing once more into his sunken attitude.
“And after she came back did you meet her again?” the Deacon continued.
“Alive?” Rutledge questioned.
A perceptible shudder ran through the room.
“Well — of course,” said the Deacon nervously.
Rutledge seemed to consider. “Once I did — only once. There was a lot of other people round. At Cold Corners fair it was.” “Did you talk with her then?”
“Only a minute.”
“What did she say?”
His voice dropped. “She said she was sick and knew she was going to die, and when she was dead she’d come back to me.”
“And what did you answer?”
“Did you think anything of it at the time?”
“Well, no. Not till I heard she was dead I didn’t. After that I thought of it — and I guess she drew me.” He moistened his lips.
“Drew you down to that abandoned house by the pond?”
Rutledge made a faint motion of assent, and the Deacon added: “How did you know it was there she wanted you to come?”
“She . . . just drew me . . . ”
There was a long pause. Bosworth felt, on himself and the other two men, the oppressive weight of the next question to be asked. Mrs. Rutledge opened and closed her narrow lips once or twice, like some beached shell-fish gasping for the tide. Rutledge waited.
“Well, now, Saul, won’t you go on with what you was telling us?” the Deacon at length suggested.
“That’s all. There’s nothing else.”
The Deacon lowered his voice. “She just draws you?”
“That’s as it happens . . . ”
“But if it’s always there she draws you, man, haven’t you the strength to keep away from the place?”
For the first time, Rutledge wearily turned his head toward his questioner. A spectral smile narrowed his colourless lips. “Ain’t any use. She follers after me . . . ”
There was another silence. What more could they ask, then and there? Mrs. Rut-ledge’s presence checked the next question. The Deacon seemed hopelessly to revolve the matter. At length he spoke in a more authoritative tone. “These are forbidden things. You know that, Saul. Have you tried prayer?”
Rutledge shook his head.
“Will you pray with us now?”
Rutledge cast a glance of freezing indifference on his spiritual adviser. “If you folks want to pray, I’m agreeable,” he said. But Mrs. Rutledge intervened.
“Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash — did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.”
“Oh — ” Orrin Bosworth exclaimed.
Sylvester Brand raised his head. “You’re speaking of that old story as if this was the same sort of thing?”
“Ain’t it? Ain’t my husband pining away the same as Lefferts Nash did? The Deacon here knows — ”
The Deacon stirred anxiously in his chair. “These are forbidden things,” he repeated. “Supposing your husband is quite sincere in thinking himself haunted, as you might say. Well, even then, what proof have we that the . . . the dead woman . . . is the spectre of that poor girl?”
“Proof? Don’t he say so? Didn’t she tell him? Ain’t I seen ’em?” Mrs. Rutledge almost screamed.
The three men sat silent, and suddenly the wife burst out: “A stake through the breast That’s the old way; and it’s the only way. The Deacon knows it!”
“It’s against our religion to disturb the dead.”
“Ain’t it against your religion to let the living perish as my husband is perishing?” She sprang up with one of her abrupt movements and took the family Bible from the what-not in a corner of die parlour. Putting the book on the table, and moistening a livid finger-tip, she turned the pages rapidly, till she came to one on which she laid her hand like a stony paper-weight. “See here,” she said, and read out in her level chanting voice:
“‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’
“That’s in Exodus, that’s where it is,” she added, leaving the book open as if to confirm the statement.
Bosworth continued to glance anxiously from one to the other of the four people about the table. He was younger than any of them, and had had more contact with the modern world; down in Starkfield, in the bar of the Fielding House, he could hear himself laughing with the rest of the men at such old wives’ tales. But it was not for nothing that he had been born under the icy shadow of Lonetop, and had shivered and hungered as a lad through the bitter Hemlock County winters. After his parents died, and he had taken hold of the farm himself, he had got more out of it by using improved methods, and by supplying the increasing throng of summer-boarders over Stotesbury way with milk and vegetables. He had been made a selectman of North Ashmore; for so young a man he had a standing in the county. But the roots of the old life were still in him. He could remember, as a little boy, going twice a year with his mother to that bleak hill-farm out beyond Sylvester Brand’s, where Mrs. Bosworth’s aunt, Cressidora Cheney, had been shut up for years in a cold clean room with iron bars in the windows. When little Orrin first saw Aunt Cressidora she was a small white old woman, whom her sisters used to “make decent” for visitors the day that Orrin and his mother were expected. The child wondered why there were bars to the window. “Like a canary-bird,” he said to his mother. The phrase made Mrs. Bosworth reflect. “I do believe they keep Aunt Cressidora too lonesome,” she said; and the next time she went up the mountain with the little boy he carried to his great-aunt a canary in a little wooden cage. It was a great excitement; he knew it would make her happy.
The old woman’s motionless face lit up when she saw the bird, and her eyes began to glitter. “It belongs to me,” she said instantly, stretching her soft bony hand over the cage.
“Of course it does, Aunt Cressy,” said Mrs. Bosworth, her eyes filling.
But the bird, startled by the shadow of the old woman’s hand, began to flutter and beat its wings distractedly. At the sight, Aunt Cressidora’s calm face suddenly became a coil of twitching features. “You she-devil, you!” she cried in a high squealing voice; and thrusting her hand into the cage she dragged out the terrified bird and wrung its neck. She was plucking the hot body, and squealing “she-devil, she-devil!” as they drew little Orrin from the room. On the way down the mountain his mother wept a great deal, and said: “You must never tell anybody that poor Auntie’s crazy, or the men would come and take her down to the asylum at Starkfield, and the shame of it would kill us all. Now promise.” The child promised.
He remembered the scene now, with its deep fringe of mystery, secrecy and rumour. It seemed related to a great many other things below the surface of his thoughts, things which stole up anew, making him feel that all the old people he had known, and who “believed in these things,” might after all be right. Hadn’t a witch been burned at North Ashmore? Didn’t the summer folk still drive over in jolly buckboard loads to see the meeting-house where the trial had been held, the pond where they had ducked her and she had floated? . . . Deacon Hibben believed; Bosworth was sure of it. If he didn’t, why did people from all over the place come to him when their animals had queer sicknesses, or when there was a child in the family that had to be kept shut up because it fell down flat and foamed? Yes, in spite of his religion, Deacon Hibben knew . . .
And Brand? Well, it came to Bosworth in a flash: that North Ashmore woman who was burned had the name of Brand. The same stock, no doubt; there had been Brands in Hemlock County ever since the white men had come there. And Orrin, when he was a child, remembered hearing his parents say that Sylvester Brand hadn’t ever oughter married his own cousin, because of the blood. Yet the couple had had two healthy girls, and when Mrs. Brand pined away and died nobody suggested that anything had been wrong with her mind. And Vanessa and Ora were the handsomest girls anywhere round. Brand knew it, and scrimped and saved all he could to send Ora, the eldest, down to Starkfield to learn book-keeping. “When she’s married I’ll send you,” he used to say to little Venny, who was his favourite. But Ora never married. She was away three years, during which Venny ran wild on the slopes of Lonetop; and when Ora came back she sickened and died — poor girl! Since then Brand had grown more savage and morose. He was a hard-working farmer, but there wasn’t much to be got out of those barren Bearcliff acres. He was said to have taken to drink since his wife’s death; now and then men ran across him in the “dives” of Stotesbury. But not often. And between times he laboured hard on his stony acres and did his best for his daughters. In the neglected grave-yard of Cold Corners there was a slanting head-stone marked with his wife’s name; near it, a year since, he had laid his eldest daughter. And sometimes, at dusk, in the autumn, the village people saw him walk slowly by, turn in between the graves, and stand looking down on the two stones. But he never brought a flower there, or planted a bush; nor Venny either. She was too wild and ignorant . . .
Mrs. Rutledge repeated: “That’s in Exodus.”
The three visitors remained silent, turning about their hats in reluctant hands. Rutledge faced them, still with that empty pellucid gaze which frightened Bosworth. What was he seeing?
“Ain’t any of you folks got the grit —?” his wife burst out again, half hysterically.
Deacon Hibben held up his hand. “That’s no way, Mrs. Rutledge. This ain’t a question of having grit. What we want first of all is . . . proof . . . ”
“That’s so,” said Bosworth, with an explosion of relief, as if the words had lifted something black and crouching from his breast. Involuntarily the eyes of both men had turned to Brand. He stood there smiling grimly, but did not speak.
“Ain’t it so, Brand?” the Deacon prompted him.
“Proof that spooks walk?” the other sneered.
“Well — I presume you want this business settled too?”
The old farmer squared his shoulders. “Yes — I do. But I ain’t a sperritualist. How the hell are you going to settle it?”
Deacon Hibben hesitated; then he said, in a low incisive tone: “I don’t see but one way — Mrs. Rutledge’s.”
There was a silence.
“What?” Brand sneered again. “Spying?”
The Deacon’s voice sank lower. “If the poor girl does walk . . . her that’s your child . . . wouldn’t you be the first to want her laid quiet? We all know there’ve been such cases . . . mysterious visitations . . . Can any one of us here deny it?”
“I seen ’em,” Mrs. Rutledge interjected.
There was another heavy pause. Suddenly Brand fixed his gaze on Rutledge. “See here, Saul Rutledge, you’ve got to clear up this damned calumny, or I’ll know why. You say my dead girl comes to you.” He laboured with his breath, and then jerked out: “When? You tell me that, and I’ll be there.”
Rutledge’s head drooped a little, and his eyes wandered to the window. “Round about sunset, mostly.”
“You know beforehand?”
Rutledge made a sign of assent.
“Well, then — tomorrow, will it be?” Rutledge made the same sign.
Brand turned to the door. “I’ll be there.” That was all he said. He strode out between them without another glance or word. Deacon Hibben looked at Mrs. Rutledge. “We’ll be there too,” he said, as if she had asked him; but she had not spoken, and Bosworth saw that her thin body was trembling all over. He was glad when he and Hibben were out again in the snow.
They thought that Brand wanted to be left to himself, and to give him time to unhitch his horse they made a pretense of hanging about in the doorway while Bosworth searched his pockets for a pipe he had no mind to light.
But Brand turned back to them as they lingered. “You’ll meet me down by Lamer’s pond tomorrow?” he suggested. “I want witnesses. Round about sunset.”
They nodded their acquiescence, and he got into his sleigh, gave the horse a cut across the flanks, and drove off under the snow-smothered hemlocks. The other two men went to the shed.
“What do you make of this business, Deacon?” Bosworth asked, to break the silence.
The Deacon shook his head. “The man’s a sick man — that’s sure. Something’s sucking the life clean out of him.”
But already, in the biting outer air, Bosworth was getting himself under better control. “Looks to me like a bad case of the ague, as you said.”
“Well — ague of the mind, then. It’s his brain that’s sick.”
Bosworth shrugged. “He ain’t the first in Hemlock County.”
“That’s so,” the Deacon agreed. “It’s a worm in the brain, solitude is.”
“Well, we’ll know this time tomorrow, maybe,” said Bosworth. He scrambled into his sleigh, and was driving off in his turn when he heard his companion calling after him. The Deacon explained that his horse had cast a shoe; would Bosworth drive him down to the forge near North Ashmore, if it wasn’t too much out of his way? He didn’t want the mare slipping about on the freezing snow, and he could probably get the blacksmith to drive him back and shoe her in Rutledge’s shed. Bosworth made room for him under the bearskin, and the two men drove off, pursued by a puzzled whinny from the Deacon’s old mare.
The road they took was not the one that Bosworth would have followed to reach his own home. But he did not mind that. The shortest way to the forge passed close by Lamer’s pond, and Bosworth, since he was in for the business, was not sorry to look the ground over. They drove on in silence.
The snow had ceased, and a green sunset was spreading upward into the crystal sky. A stinging wind barbed with ice-flakes caught them in the face on the open ridges, but when they dropped down into the hollow by Lamer’s pond the air was as soundless and empty as an unswung bell. They jogged along slowly, each thinking his own thoughts.
“That’s the house . . . that tumble-down shack over there, I suppose?” the Deacon said, as the road drew near the edge of the frozen pond.
“Yes: that’s the house. A queer hermit-fellow built it years ago, my father used to tell me. Since then I don’t believe it’s ever been used but by the gipsies.”
Bosworth had reined in his horse, and sat looking through pine-trunks purpled by the sunset at the crumbling structure. Twilight already lay under the trees, though day lingered in the open. Between two sharply-patterned pine-boughs he saw the evening star, like a white boat in a sea of green.
His gaze dropped from that fathomless sky and followed the blue-white undulations of the snow. It gave him a curious agitated feeling to think that here, in this icy solitude, in the tumble-down house he had so often passed without heeding it, a dark mystery, too deep for thought, was being enacted. Down that very slope, coming from the grave-yard at Cold Corners, the being they called “Ora” must pass toward the pond. His heart began to beat stiflingly. Suddenly he gave an exclamation: “Look!”
He had jumped out of the cutter and was stumbling up the bank toward the slope of snow. On it, turned in the direction of the house by the pond, he had detected a woman’s foot-prints; two; then three; then more. The Deacon scrambled out after him, and they stood and stared.
“God — barefoot!” Hibben gasped. “Then it is . . . the dead . . . ”
Bosworth said nothing. But he knew that no live woman would travel with naked feet across that freezing wilderness. Here, then, was the proof the Deacon had asked for — they held it. What should they do with it?
“Supposing we was to drive up nearer — round the turn of the pond, till we get close to the house,” the Deacon proposed in a colourless voice. “Mebbe then . . . ”
Postponement was a relief. They got into the sleigh and drove on. Two or three hundred yards farther the road, a mere lane under steep bushy banks, turned sharply to the right, following the bend of the pond. As they rounded the turn they saw Brand’s cutter ahead of them. It was empty, the horse tied to a tree-trunk. The two men looked at each other again. This was not Brand’s nearest way home.
Evidently he had been actuated by the same impulse which had made them rein in their horse by the pond-side, and then hasten on to the deserted hovel. Had he too discovered those spectral foot-prints? Perhaps it was for that very reason that he had left his cutter and vanished in the direction of the house. Bosworth found himself shivering all over under his bearskin. “I wish to God the dark wasn’t coming on,” he muttered. He tethered his own horse near Brand’s, and without a word he and the Deacon ploughed through the snow, in the track of Brand’s huge feet. They had only a few yards to walk to overtake him. He did not hear them following him, and when Bosworth spoke his name, and he stopped short and turned, his heavy face was dim and confused, like a darker blot on the dusk. He looked at them dully, but without surprise.
“I wanted to see the place,” he merely said.
The Deacon cleared his throat. “Just take a look . . . yes . . . We thought so . . . But I guess there won’t be anything to see . . . ” He attempted a chuckle.
The other did not seem to hear him, but laboured on ahead through the pines. The three men came out together in the cleared space before the house. As they emerged from beneath the trees they seemed to have left night behind. The evening star shed a lustre on the speckless snow, and Brand, in that lucid circle, stopped with a jerk, and pointed to the same light foot-prints turned toward the house — the track of a woman in the snow. He stood still, his face working. “Bare feet . . . ” he said.
The Deacon piped up in a quavering voice: “The feet of the dead.”
Brand remained motionless. “The feet of the dead,” he echoed.
Deacon Hibben laid a frightened hand on his arm. “Come away now, Brand; for the love of God come away.”
The father hung there, gazing down at those light tracks on the snow — light as fox or squirrel trails they seemed, on the white immensity. Bosworth thought to himself “The living couldn’t walk so light — not even Ora Brand couldn’t have, when she lived . . . ” The cold seemed to have entered into his very marrow. His teeth were chattering.
Brand swung about on them abruptly. “Now!” he said, moving on as if to an assault, his head bowed forward on his bull neck.
“Now — now? Not in there?” gasped the Deacon. “What’s the use? It was tomorrow he said — .” He shook like a leaf.
“It’s now,” said Brand. He went up to the door of the crazy house, pushed it inward, and meeting with an unexpected resistance, thrust his heavy shoulder against the panel. The door collapsed like a playing-card, and Brand stumbled after it into the darkness of the hut. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, followed.
Bosworth was never quite sure in what order the events that succeeded took place. Coming in out of the snow-dazzle, he seemed to be plunging into total blackness. He groped his way across the threshold, caught a sharp splinter of the fallen door in his palm, seemed to see something white and wraithlike surge up out of the darkest corner of the hut, and then heard a revolver shot at his elbow, and a cry —
Brand had turned back, and was staggering past him out into the lingering daylight. The sunset, suddenly flushing through the trees, crimsoned his face like blood. He held a revolver in his hand and looked about him in his stupid way.
“They do walk, then,” he said and began to laugh. He bent his head to examine his weapon. “Better here than in the churchyard. They shan’t dig her up now,” he shouted out. The two men caught him by the arms, and Bosworth got the revolver away from him.
The next day Bosworth’s sister Loretta, who kept house for him, asked him, when he came in for his midday dinner, if he had heard the news.
Bosworth had been sawing wood all the morning, and in spite of the cold and the driving snow, which had begun again in the night, he was covered with an icy sweat, like a man getting over a fever.
“Venny Brand’s down sick with pneumonia. The Deacon’s been there. I guess she’s dying.”
Bosworth looked at her with listless eyes. She seemed far off from him, miles away. “Venny Brand?” he echoed.
“You never liked her, Orrin.”
“She’s a child. I never knew much about her.”
“Well,” repeated his sister, with the guileless relish of the unimaginative for bad news, “I guess she’s dying.” After a pause she added: “It’ll kill Sylvester Brand, all alone up there.”
Bosworth got up and said: “I’ve got to see to poulticing the gray’s fetlock.” He walked out into the steadily falling snow.
Venny Brand was buried three days later. The Deacon read the service; Bosworth was one of the pall-bearers. The whole countryside turned out, for the snow had stopped falling, and at any season a funeral offered an opportunity for an outing that was not to be missed. Besides, Venny Brand was young and handsome — at least some people thought her handsome, though she was so swarthy — and her dying like that, so suddenly, had the fascination of tragedy.
“They say her lungs filled right up . . . Seems she’d had bronchial troubles before . . . I always said both them girls was frail . . . Look at Ora, how she took and wasted away I And it’s colder’n all outdoors up there to Brand’s . . . Their mother, too, she pined away just the same. They don’t ever make old bones on the mother’s side of the family . . . There’s that young Bedlow over there; they say Venny was engaged to him . . . Oh, Mrs. Rutledge, excuse me . . . Step right into the pew; there’s a seat for you alongside of grandma . . . ”
Mrs. Rutledge was advancing with deliberate step down the narrow aisle of the bleak wooden church. She had on her best bonnet, a monumental structure which no one had seen out of her trunk since old Mrs. Silsee’s funeral, three years before. All the women remembered it. Under its perpendicular pile her narrow face, swaying on the long thin neck, seemed whiter than ever; but her air of fretfulness had been composed into a suitable expression of mournful immobility.
“Looks as if the stone-mason had carved her to put atop of Venny’s grave,” Bosworth thought as she glided past him; and then shivered at his own sepulchral fancy. When she bent over her hymn book her lowered lids reminded him again of marble eye-balls; the bony hands clasping the book were bloodless. Bosworth had never seen such hands since he had seen old Aunt Cressidora Cheney strangle the canary-bird because it fluttered.
The service was over, the coffin of Venny Brand had been lowered into her sister’s grave, and the neighbours were slowly dispersing. Bosworth, as pall-bearer, felt obliged to linger and say a word to the stricken father. He waited till Brand had turned from the grave with the Deacon at his side. The three men stood together for a moment; but not one of them spoke. Brand’s face was the closed door of a vault, barred with wrinkles like bands of iron.
Finally the Deacon took his hand and said: “The Lord gave — ”
Brand nodded and turned away toward the shed where the horses were hitched. Bosworth followed him. “Let me drive along home with you,” he suggested.
Brand did not so much as turn his head. “Home? What home?” he said; and the other fell back.
Loretta Bosworth was talking with the other women while the men unblanketed their horses and backed the cutters out into the heavy snow. As Bosworth waited for her, a few feet off, he saw Mrs. Rutledge’s tall bonnet lording it above the group. Andy Pond, the Rutledge farm-hand, was backing out the sleigh.
“Saul ain’t here today, Mrs. Rutledge, is he?” one of the village elders piped, turning a benevolent old tortoise-head about on a loose neck, and blinking up into Mrs. Rut-ledge’s marble face.
Bosworth heard her measure out her answer in slow incisive words. “No. Mr. Rutledge he ain’t here. He would ‘a’ come for certain, but his aunt Minorca Cummins is being buried down to Stotesbury this very day and he had to go down there. Don’t it sometimes seem zif we was all walking right in the Shadow of Death?”
As she walked toward the cutter, in which Andy Pond was already seated, the Deacon went up to her with visible hesitation. Involuntarily Bosworth also moved nearer. He heard the Deacon say: “I’m glad to hear that Saul is able to be up and around.”
She turned her small head on her rigid neck, and lifted the lids of marble.
“Yes, I guess he’ll sleep quieter now. — And her too, maybe, now she don’t lay there alone any longer,” she added in a low voice, with a sudden twist of her chin toward the fresh black stain in the grave-yard snow. She got into the cutter, and said in a clear tone to Andy Pond: “‘S long as we’re down here I don’t know but what I’ll just call round and get a box of soap at Hiram Pringle’s.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56