Story type: Literature
“She’s come, and she can go back. No one asked her, no one wants her, and she’s got no rights here. She thinks she’ll come it over me, but she’ll get nothing, and there’s no place for her here.”
The old, gray-bearded man, gnarled and angular, with overhanging brows and a harsh face, made this little speech of malice and unfriendliness, looking out on the snow-covered prairie through the window. Far in the distance were a sleigh and horses like a spot in the snow, growing larger from minute to minute.
It was a day of days. Overhead the sun was pouring out a flood of light and warmth, and, though it was bitterly cold, life was beating hard in the bosom of the West. Men walked lightly, breathed quickly, and their eyes were bright with the brightness of vitality and content. Even the old man at the window of this lonely house, in a great, lonely stretch of country, with the cedar hills behind it, had a living force which defied his seventy-odd years, though the light in his face was hard and his voice was harder still. Under the shelter of the foothills, cold as the day was, his cattle were feeding in the open, scratching away the thin layer of snow and browsing on the tender grass underneath. An arctic world in appearance, it had an abounding life which made it friendly and generous–the harshness belonged to the surface. So, perhaps, it was with the old man who watched the sleigh in the distance coming nearer, but that in his nature on which any one could feed was not so easily reached as the fresh young grass under the protecting snow.
“She’ll get nothing out of me,” he repeated, as the others in the room behind him made no remark, and his eyes ranged gloatingly over the cattle under the foothills and the buildings which he had gathered together to proclaim his substantial greatness in the West. “Not a sou markee!” he added, clinking some coins in his pocket. “She’s got no rights.”
“Cassy’s got as much right here as any of us, Abel, and she’s coming to say it, I guess.”
The voice which spoke was unlike a Western voice. It was deep and full and slow, with an organ-like quality. It was in good-keeping with the tall, spare body and large, fine, rugged face of the woman to whom it belonged. She sat in a rocking-chair, but did not rock, her fingers busy with the knitting-needles, her feet planted squarely on the home-made hassock at her feet.
The old man waited for a minute in a painful silence, then he turned slowly round, and, with tight-pressed lips, looked at the woman in the rocking-chair. If it had been any one else who had “talked back” at him, he would have made quick work of them, for he was of that class of tyrant who pride themselves on being self-made, and have an undue respect for their own judgment and importance. But the woman who had ventured to challenge his cold-blooded remarks about his dead son’s wife, now hastening over the snow to the house her husband had left under a cloud eight years before, had no fear of him, and, maybe, no deep regard for him. He respected her, as did all who knew her–a very reticent, thoughtful, busy being, who had been like a well of comfort to so many that had drunk and passed on out of her life, out of time and time’s experiences. Seventy-nine years saw her still upstanding, strong, full of work, and fuller of life’s knowledge. It was she who had sent the horses and sleigh for Cassy when the old man, having read the letter that Cassy had written him, said that she could “freeze at the station” for all of him. Aunt Kate had said nothing then, but, when the time came, by her orders the sleigh and horses were at the station; and the old man had made no direct protest, for she was the one person he had never dominated nor bullied. If she had only talked, he would have worn her down, for he was fond of talking, and it was said by those who were cynical and incredulous about him that he had gone to prayer-meetings, had been a local preacher, only to hear his own voice. Probably, if there had been any politics in the West in his day, he would have been a politician, though it would have been too costly for his taste, and religion was very cheap; it enabled him to refuse to join in many forms of expenditure, on the ground that he “did not hold by such things.”
In Aunt Kate, the sister of his wife, dead so many years ago, he had found a spirit stronger than his own. He valued her; he had said more than once, to those who he thought would never repeat it to her, that she was a “great woman”; but self-interest was the mainspring of his appreciation. Since she had come again to his house–she had lived with him once before for two years when his wife was slowly dying–it had been a different place. Housekeeping had cost less than before, yet the cooking was better, the place was beautifully clean, and discipline without rigidity reigned everywhere. One by one the old woman’s boys and girls had died–four of them–and she was now alone, with not a single grandchild left to cheer her; and the life out here with Abel Baragar had been unrelieved by much that was heartening to a woman; for Black Andy, Abel’s son, was not an inspiring figure, though even his moroseness gave way under her influence. So it was that when Cassy’s letter came her breast seemed to grow warmer and swell with longing to see the wife of her nephew, who had such a bad reputation in Abel’s eyes, and to see George’s little boy, who was coming, too. After all, whatever Cassy was, she was the mother of Abel’s son’s son; and Aunt Kate was too old and wise to be frightened by tales told of Cassy or any one else. So, having had her own way so far regarding Cassy’s coming, she looked Abel calmly in the eyes, over the gold-rimmed spectacles which were her dearest possession–almost the only thing of value she had. She was not afraid of Abel’s anger, and he knew it; but his eldest son, Black Andy, was present, and he must make a show of being master of the situation.
“Aunt Kate,” he said, “I didn’t make a fuss about you sending the horses and sleigh for her, because women do fool things sometimes. I suppose curiosity got the best of you. Anyhow, mebbe it’s right Cassy should find out, once for all, how things stand, and that they haven’t altered since she took George away, and ruined his life, and sent him to his grave. That’s why I didn’t order Mick back when I saw him going out with the team.”
“Cassy Mavor,” interjected a third voice from a corner behind the great stove–“Cassy Mavor, of the variety-dance-and-song, and a talk with the gallery between!”
Aunt Kate looked over at Black Andy, and stopped knitting, for there was that in the tone of the sullen ranchman which stirred in her a sudden anger, and anger was a rare and uncomfortable sensation to her. A flush crept slowly over her face, then it died away, and she said quietly to Black Andy–for she had ever prayed to be master of the demon of temper down deep in her, and she was praying now–
“She earnt her living by singing and dancing, and she’s brought up George’s boy by it, and singing and dancing isn’t a crime. David danced before the Lord. I danced myself when I was a young girl, and before I joined the church. ‘Twas about the only pleasure I ever had; ’bout the only one I like to remember. There’s no difference to me ‘twixt making your feet handy and clever and full of music, and playing with your fingers on the piano or on a melodeon at a meeting. As for singing, it’s God’s gift; and many a time I wisht I had it. I’d have sung the blackness out of your face and heart, Andy.” She leaned back again and began to knit very fast. “I’d like to hear Cassy sing, and see her dance, too.”
Black Andy chuckled coarsely. “I often heard her sing and saw her dance down at Lumley’s before she took George away East. You wouldn’t have guessed she had consumption. She knocked the boys over down to Lumley’s. The first night at Lumley’s done for George.”
Black Andy’s face showed no lightening of its gloom as he spoke, but there was a firing-up of the black eyes, and the woman with the knitting felt that–for whatever reason–he was purposely irritating his father.
“The devil was in her heels and in her tongue,” Andy continued. “With her big mouth, red hair, and little eyes she’d have made anybody laugh. I laughed.”
“You laughed!” snapped out his father, with a sneer.
Black Andy’s eyes half closed with a morose look, then he went on: “Yes, I laughed at Cassy. While she was out here at Lumley’s getting cured, accordin’ to the doctor’s orders, things seemed to get a move on in the West. But it didn’t suit professing Christians like you, dad.” He jerked his head toward the old man and drew the spittoon near with his feet.
“The West hasn’t been any worse off since she left,” snarled the old man.
“Well, she took George with her,” grimly retorted Black Andy.
Abel Baragar’s heart had been warmer toward his dead son George than to any one else in the world. George had been as fair of face and hair as Andrew was dark, as cheerful and amusing as Andrew was gloomy and dispiriting, as agile and dexterous of mind and body as his brother was slow and angular, as emotional and warm-hearted as the other was phlegmatic and sour–or so it seemed to the father and to nearly all others.
In those old days they had not been very well off. The railway was not completed, and the West had not begun “to move.” The old man had bought and sold land and cattle and horses, always living on a narrow margin of safety, but in the hope that one day the choice bits of land he was shepherding here and there would take a leap up in value; and his judgment had been right. His prosperity had all come since George went away with Cassy Mavor. His anger at George had been the more acute, because the thing happened at a time when his affairs were on the edge of a precipice. He had won through it, but only by the merest shave, and it had all left him with a bad spot in his heart, in spite of his “having religion.” Whenever he remembered George he instinctively thought of those black days when a Land and Cattle Syndicate was crowding him over the edge into the chasm of failure, and came so near doing it. A few thousand dollars less to put up here and there, and he would have been ruined; his blood became hotter whenever he thought of it. He had had to fight the worst of it through alone, for George, who had been useful as a kind of buyer and seller, who was ever all things to all men, and ready with quip and jest, and not a little uncertain as to truth–to which the old man shut his eyes when there was a “deal” on–had, in the end, been of no use at all, and had seemed to go to pieces just when he was most needed. His father had put it all down to Cassy Mavor, who had unsettled things since she had come to Lumley’s, and, being a man of very few ideas, he cherished those he had with an exaggerated care. Prosperity had not softened him; it had given him an arrogance unduly emphasized by a reputation for rigid virtue and honesty. The indirect attack which Andrew now made on George’s memory roused him to anger, as much because it seemed to challenge his own judgment as cast a slight on the name of the boy whom he had cast off, yet who had a firmer hold on his heart than any human being ever had. It had only been pride which had prevented him from making it up with George before it was too late; but, all the more, he was set against the woman who “kicked up her heels for a living”; and, all the more, he resented Black Andy, who, in his own grim way, had managed to remain a partner with him in their present prosperity, and had done so little for it.
“George helped to make what you’ve got,” he said, darkly, now. “The West missed George. The West said, ‘There was a good man ruined by a woman.’ The West’d never think anything or anybody missed you, ‘cept yourself. When you went North, it never missed you; when you come back, its jaw fell. You wasn’t fit to black George’s boots.”
Black Andy’s mouth took on a bitter sort of smile, and his eyes drooped furtively as he struck the damper of the stove heavily with his foot; then he replied, slowly:
“Well, that’s all right; but if I wasn’t fit to black his boots, it ain’t my fault. I git my nature honest, as he did. We wasn’t any cross-breeds, I s’pose. We got the strain direct, and we was all right on her side.”
He jerked his head toward Aunt Kate, whose face was growing pale. She interposed now.
“Can’t you leave the dead alone?” she asked, in a voice ringing a little. “Can’t you let them rest? Ain’t it enough to quarrel about the living? Cassy’ll be here soon,” she added, peering out of the window, “and if I was you I’d try and not make her sorry she ever married a Baragar. It ain’t a feeling that’d make a sick woman live long.”
Aunt Kate did not strike often, but when she did she struck hard. Abel Baragar staggered a little under this blow, for, at the moment, it seemed to him that he saw his dead wife’s face looking at him from the chair where her sister now sat. Down in his ill-furnished heart, where there had been little which was companionable, there was a shadowed corner. Sophy Baragar had been such a true-hearted, brave-souled woman, and he had been so impatient and exacting with her, till the beautiful face, which had been reproduced in George, had lost its color and its fire, had become careworn and sweet with that sweetness which goes early out of the world. In all her days the vanished wife had never hinted at as much as Aunt Kate suggested now, and Abel Baragar shut his eyes against the thing which he was seeing. He was not all hard, after all.
Aunt Kate turned to Black Andy now.
“Mebbe Cassy ain’t for long,” she said. “Mebbe she’s come out for what she came out for before. It seems to me it’s that, or she wouldn’t have come; because she’s young yet, and she’s fond of her boy, and she’d not want to bury herself alive out here with us. Mebbe her lungs is bad again.”
“Then she’s sure to get another husband out here,” said the old man, recovering himself. “She got one before easy, on the same ticket.” With something of malice he looked over at Black Andy.
“If she can sing and dance as she done nine years ago, I shouldn’t wonder,” answered Black Andy, smoothly. These two men knew each other; they had said hard things to each other for many a year, yet they lived on together unshaken by each other’s moods and bitternesses.
“I’m getting old–I’m seventy-nine–and I ain’t for long,” urged Aunt Kate, looking Abel in the eyes. “Some day soon I’ll be stepping out and away. Then things’ll go to sixes and sevens, as they did after Sophy died. Some one ought to be here that’s got a right to be here, not a hired woman.”
Suddenly the old man raged out:
“Her–off the stage to look after this! Her, that’s kicked up her heels for a living! It’s–no, she’s no good. She’s common. She’s come, and she can go. I ain’t having sweepings from the streets living here as if they had rights.”
Aunt Kate set her lips.
“Sweepings! You’ve got to take that back, Abel. It’s not Christian. You’ve got to take that back.”
“He’ll take it back all right before we’ve done, I guess,” remarked Black Andy. “He’ll take a lot back.”
“Truth’s truth, and I’ll stand by it, and–“
The old man stopped, for there came to them now, clearly, the sound of sleigh-bells. They all stood still for an instant, silent and attentive, then Aunt Kate moved toward the door.
“Cassy’s come,” she said. “Cassy and George’s boy’ve come.”
Another instant and the door was opened on the beautiful, white, sparkling world, and the low sleigh, with its great, warm, buffalo robes, in which the small figures of a woman and a child were almost lost, stopped at the door. Two whimsical but tired eyes looked over a rim of fur at the old woman in the doorway, then Cassy’s voice rang out:
“Hello! that’s Aunt Kate, I know! Well, here we are, and here’s my boy. Jump, George!”
A moment later and the gaunt old woman folded both mother and son in her arms and drew them into the room. The door was shut, and they all faced one another.
The old man and Black Andy did not move, but stood staring at the trim figure in black, with the plain face, large mouth, and tousled red hair, and the dreamy-eyed, handsome little boy beside her.
Black Andy stood behind the stove, looking over at the new-comers with quizzical, almost furtive eyes, and his father remained for a moment with mouth open, gazing at his dead son’s wife and child, as though not quite comprehending the scene. The sight of the boy had brought back, in some strange, embarrassing way, a vision of thirty years before, when George was a little boy in buckskin pants and jacket, and was beginning to ride the prairie with him. This boy was like George, yet not like him. The face was George’s, the sensuous, luxurious mouth; but the eyes were not those of a Baragar, nor yet those of Aunt Kate’s family; and they were not wholly like the mother’s. They were full and brimming, while hers were small and whimsical; yet they had her quick, humorous flashes and her quaintness.
“Have I changed so much? Have you forgotten me?” Cassy asked, looking the old man in the eyes. “You look as strong as a bull.” She held out her hand to him and laughed.
“Hope I see you well,” said Abel Baragar, mechanically, as he took the hand and shook it awkwardly.
“Oh, I’m all right,” answered the nonchalant little woman, undoing her jacket. “Shake hands with your grandfather, George. That’s right–don’t talk too much,” she added, with a half-nervous little laugh, as the old man, with a kind of fixed smile, and the child shook hands in silence.
Presently she saw Black Andy behind the stove. “Well, Andy, have you been here ever since?” she asked, and, as he came forward, she suddenly caught him by both arms, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him. “Last time I saw you, you were behind the stove at Lumley’s. Nothing’s ever too warm for you,” she added. “You’d be shivering on the equator. You were always hugging the stove at Lumley’s.”
“Things were pretty warm there, too, Cassy,” he said, with a sidelong look at his father.
She saw the look, her face flushed with sudden temper, then her eyes fell on her boy, now lost in the arms of Aunt Kate, and she curbed herself.
“There were plenty of things doing at Lumley’s in those days,” she said, brusquely. “We were all young and fresh then,” she added, and then something seemed to catch her voice, and she coughed a little–a hard, dry, feverish cough. “Are the Lumleys all right? Are they still there, at the Forks?” she asked, after the little paroxysm of coughing.
“Cleaned out–all scattered. We own the Lumleys’ place now,” replied Black Andy, with another sidelong glance at his father, who, as he put some more wood on the fire and opened the damper of the stove wider, grimly watched and listened.
“Jim, and Lance, and Jerry, and Abner?” she asked, almost abstractedly.
“Jim’s dead–shot by a U. S. marshal by mistake for a smuggler,” answered Black Andy, suggestively. “Lance is up on the Yukon, busted; Jerry is one of our hands on the place; and Abner is in jail.”
“Abner–in jail!” she exclaimed, in a dazed way. “What did he do? Abner always seemed so straight.”
“Oh, he sloped with a thousand dollars of the railway people’s money. They caught him, and he got seven years.”
“He was married, wasn’t he?” she asked, in a low voice.
“Yes, to Phenie Tyson. There’s no children, so she’s all right, and divorce is cheap over in the States, where she is now.”
“Phenie Tyson didn’t marry Abner because he was a saint, but because he was a man, I suppose,” she replied, gravely. “And the old folks?”
“Both dead. What Abner done sent the old man to his grave. But Abner’s mother died a year before.”
“What Abner done killed his father,” said Abel Baragar, with dry emphasis. “Phenie Tyson was extravagant–wanted this and that, and nothin’ was too good for her. Abner spoilt his life gettin’ her what she wanted; and it broke old Ezra Lumley’s heart.”
George’s wife looked at him for a moment with her eyes screwed up, and then she laughed softly. “My, it’s curious how some folks go up and some go down! It must be lonely for Phenie waiting all these years for Abner to get free…. I had the happiest time in my life at Lumley’s. I was getting better of my–cold. While I was there I got lots of strength stored up, to last me many a year when I needed it; and, then, George and I were married at Lumley’s!”
Aunt Kate came slowly over with the boy and laid a hand on Cassy’s shoulder, for there was an undercurrent to the conversation which boded no good. The very first words uttered had plunged Abel Baragar and his son’s wife into the midst of the difficulty which she had hoped might, after all, be avoided.
“Come, and I’ll show you your room, Cassy,” she said. “It faces south, and you’ll get the sun all day. It’s like a sun-parlor. We’re going to have supper in a couple of hours, and you must rest some first. Is the house warm enough for you?”
The little, garish woman did not reply directly, but shook back her red hair and caught her boy to her breast and kissed him; then she said, in that staccato manner which had given her words on the stage such point and emphasis: “Oh, this house is a’most too warm for me, Aunt Kate!”
Then she moved toward the door with the grave, kindly old woman, her son’s hand in her own.
“You can see the Lumleys’ place from your window, Cassy,” said Black Andy, grimly. “We got a mortgage on it, and foreclosed it, and it’s ours now; and Jerry Lumley’s stock-riding for us. Anyhow, he’s better off than Abner, or Abner’s wife.”
Cassy turned at the door and faced him. Instinctively she caught at some latent conflict with old Abel Baragar in what Black Andy had said, and her face softened, for it suddenly flashed into her mind that he was not against her.
“I’m glad to be back West,” she said. “It meant a lot to me when I was at Lumley’s.” She coughed a little again, but turned to the door with a laugh.
“How long have you come to stay here–out West?” asked the old man, furtively.
“Oh, there’s plenty of time to think of that!” she answered, brusquely, and she heard Black Andy laugh derisively as the door closed behind her.
* * * * *
In a blaze of joy the sun swept down behind the southern hills, and the windows of Lumley’s house at the Forks, catching the oblique rays, glittered and shone like flaming silver. Nothing of life showed, save the cattle here and there, creeping away to the shelter of the foothills for the night. The white, placid snow made a coverlet as wide as the vision of the eye, save where spruce and cedar trees gave a touch of warmth and refuge here and there. A wonderful, buoyant peace seemed to rest upon the wide, silent expanse. The birds of song were gone South over the hills, and the living wild things of the prairies had stolen into winter-quarters. Yet, as Cassy Mavor looked out upon the exquisite beauty of the scene, upon the splendid outspanning of the sun along the hills, the deep plangent blue of the sky and the thrilling light, she saw a world in agony and she heard the moans of the afflicted. The sun shone bright on the windows of Lumley’s house, but she could hear the crying of Abner’s wife, and of old Ezra and Eliza Lumley, when their children were stricken or shamed; when Abel Baragar drew tighter and tighter the chains of the mortgage, which at last made them tenants in the house once their own. Only eight years ago, and all this had happened. And what had not happened to her, too, in those eight years!
With George–reckless, useless, loving, lying George–she had left Lumley’s with her sickness cured, as it seemed, after a long year in the West, and had begun life again. What sort of life had it been? “Kicking up her heels on the stage,” as Abel Baragar had said; but, somehow, not as it was before she went West to give her perforated lung to the healing air of the plains, and to live out-doors with the men–a man’s life. Then she had never put a curb on her tongue, or greatly on her actions, except that, though a hundred men quarrelled openly, or in their own minds, about her, no one had ever had any right to quarrel about her. With a tongue which made men gasp with laughter, with as comic a gift as ever woman had, and as equally comic a face, she had been a good-natured little tyrant in her way. She had given a kiss here and there, and had taken one, but always there had been before her mind the picture of a careworn woman who struggled to bring up her three children honestly, and without the help of charity, and, with a sigh of content and weariness, had died as Cassy made her first hit on the stage and her name became a household word. And Cassy, garish, gay, freckled, witty, and whimsical, had never forgotten those days when her mother prayed and worked her heart out to do her duty by her children. Cassy Mavor had made her following, had won her place, was the idol of “the gallery”; and yet she was “of the people,” as she had always been, until her first sickness came, and she had gone out to Lumley’s, out along the foothills of the Rockies.
What had made her fall in love with George Baragar? She could not have told, if she had been asked. He was wayward, given to drink at times, given also to card-playing and racing; but he had a way with him which few women could resist and that made men his friends; and he had a sense of humor akin to her own. In any case, one day she let him catch her up in his arms, and there was the end of it. But no, not the end, after all. It was only the beginning of real life for her. All that had gone before seemed but playing on the threshold, though it had meant hard, bitter hard, work, and temptation, and patience, and endurance of many kinds. And now George was gone forever. But George’s little boy lay there on the bed in a soft sleep, with all his life before him.
She turned from the warm window and the buoyant, inspiring scene to the bed. Stooping over, she kissed the sleeping boy with an abrupt eagerness, and made a little awkward, hungry gesture of love over him, and her face flushed hot with the passion of motherhood in her.
“All I’ve got now,” she murmured. “Nothing else left–nothing else at all.”
She heard the door open behind her, and she turned round. Aunt Kate was entering with a bowl in her hands.
“I heard you moving about, and I’ve brought you something hot to drink,” she said.
“That’s real good of you, Aunt Kate,” was the cheerful reply. “But it’s near supper-time, and I don’t need it.”
“It’s boneset tea–for your cold,” answered Aunt Kate, gently, and put it on the high dressing-table made of a wooden box and covered with muslin. “For your cold, Cassy,” she repeated.
The little woman stood still a moment gazing at the steaming bowl, lines growing suddenly around her mouth, then she looked at Aunt Kate quizzically. “Is my cold bad–so bad that I need boneset?” she asked, in a queer, constrained voice.
“It’s comforting, is boneset tea, even when there’s no cold, ‘specially when the whiskey’s good, and the boneset and camomile has steeped some days.”
“Have you been steeping them some days?” Cassy asked, softly, eagerly.
Aunt Kate nodded, then tried to explain.
“It’s always good to be prepared, and I didn’t know but what the cold you used to have might be come back,” she said. “But I’m glad if it ain’t–if that cough of yours is only one of the measly little hacks people get in the East, where it’s so damp.”
Cassy was at the window again, looking out at the dying radiance of the sun. Her voice seemed hollow and strange and rather rough, as she said, in reply:
“It’s a real cold, deep down, the same as I had nine years ago, Aunt Kate; and it’s come to stay, I guess. That’s why I came back West. But I couldn’t have gone to Lumley’s again, even if they were at the Forks now, for I’m too poor. I’m a back-number now. I had to give up singing and dancing a year ago, after George died. So I don’t earn my living any more, and I had to come to George’s father, with George’s boy.”
Aunt Kate had a shrewd mind, and was tactful, too. She did not understand why Cassy, who had earned so much money all these years, should be so poor now, unless it was that she hadn’t saved–that she and George hadn’t saved. But, looking at the face before her, and the child on the bed, she was convinced that the woman was a good woman; that, singer and dancer as she was, there was no reason why any home should be closed to her, or any heart should shut its doors before her. She guessed a reason for this poverty of Cassy Mavor, but it only made her lay a hand on the little woman’s shoulders and look into her eyes.
“Cassy,” she said, gently, “you was right to come here. There’s trials before you, but for the boy’s sake you must bear them. Sophy, George’s mother, had to bear them, and Abel was fond of her, too, in his way. He’s stored up a lot of things to say, and he’ll say them; but you’ll keep the boy in your mind, and be patient, won’t you, Cassy? You got rights here, and it’s comfortable, and there’s plenty, and the air will cure your lung as it did before. It did all right before, didn’t it?” She handed the bowl of boneset tea. “Take it; it’ll do you good, Cassy,” she added.
Cassy said nothing in reply. She looked at the bed where her boy lay, she looked at the angular face of the woman, with its brooding motherliness, at the soft, gray hair, and, with a little gasp of feeling, she raised the bowl to her lips and drank freely. Then, putting it down, she said:
“He doesn’t mean to have us, Aunt Kate, but I’ll try and keep my temper down. Did he ever laugh in his life?”
“He laughs sometimes–kind o’ laughs.”
“I’ll make him laugh real, if I can,” Cassy rejoined. “I’ve made a lot of people laugh in my time.”
The old woman leaned suddenly over, and drew the red, ridiculous head to her shoulder with a gasp of affection, and her eyes were full of tears.
“Cassy,” she exclaimed, “Cassy, you make me cry!” and then she turned and hurried from the room.
Three hours later the problem was solved in the big sitting-room where Cassy had first been received with her boy. Aunt Kate sat with her feet on a hassock, rocking gently and watching and listening. Black Andy was behind the great stove with his chair tilted back, carving the bowl of a pipe; the old man sat rigid by the table, looking straight before him and smacking his lips now and then as he was wont to do at meeting; while Cassy, with her chin in her hands and elbows on her knees, gazed into the fire and waited for the storm to break.
Her little flashes of humor at dinner had not brightened things, and she had had an insane desire to turn cartwheels round the room, so implacable and highly strained was the attitude of the master of the house, so unctuous was the grace and the thanksgiving before and after the meal. Abel Baragar had stored up his anger and his righteous antipathy for years, and this was the first chance he had had of visiting his displeasure on the woman who had “ruined” George, and who had now come to get “rights,” which he was determined she should not have. He had steeled himself against seeing any good in her whatever. Self-will, self-pride, and self-righteousness were big in him, and so the supper had ended in silence, and with a little attack of coughing on the part of Cassy, which made her angry at herself. Then the boy had been put to bed, and she had come back to await the expected outburst. She could feel it in the air, and while her blood tingled in a desire to fight this tyrant to the bitter end, she thought of her boy and his future, and she calmed the tumult in her veins.
She did not have to wait very long. The querulous voice of the old man broke the silence.
“When be you goin’ back East? What time did you fix for goin’?” he asked.
She raised her head and looked at him squarely. “I didn’t fix any time for going East again,” she replied. “I came out West this time to stay.”
“I thought you was on the stage,” was the rejoinder.
“I’ve left the stage. My voice went when I got a bad cold again, and I couldn’t stand the draughts of the theatre, and so I couldn’t dance, either. I’m finished with the stage. I’ve come out here for good and all.”
“Where did you think of livin’ out here?”
“I’d like to have gone to Lumley’s, but that’s not possible, is it? Anyway, I couldn’t afford it now. So I thought I’d stay here, if there was room for me.”
“You want to board here?”
“I didn’t put it to myself that way. I thought perhaps you’d be glad to have me. I’m handy. I can cook, I can sew, and I’m quite cheerful and kind. Then there’s George–little George. I thought you’d like to have your grandson here with you.”
“I’ve lived without him–or his father–for eight years, an’ I could bear it awhile yet, mebbe.”
There was a half-choking sound from the old woman in the rocking-chair, but she did not speak, though her knitting dropped into her lap.
“But if you knew us better, perhaps you’d like us better,” rejoined Cassy, gently. “We’re both pretty easy to get on with, and we see the bright side of things. He has a wonderful disposition, has George.”
“I ain’t goin’ to like you any better,” said the old man, getting to his feet. “I ain’t goin’ to give you any rights here. I’ve thought it out, and my mind’s made up. You can’t come it over me. You ruined my boy’s life and sent him to his grave. He’d have lived to be an old man out here; but you spoiled him. You trapped him into marrying you, with your kicking and your comic songs, and your tricks of the stage, and you parted us–parted him and me forever.”
“That was your fault. George wanted to make it up.”
“With you!” The old man’s voice rose shrilly, the bitterness and passion of years was shooting high in the narrow confines of his mind. The geyser of his prejudice and antipathy was furiously alive. “To come back with you that ruined him and broke up my family, and made my life like bitter aloes! No! And if I wouldn’t have him with you, do you think I’ll have you without him? By the God of Israel, no!”
Black Andy was now standing up behind the stove intently watching, his face grim and sombre; Aunt Kate sat with both hands gripping the arms of the rocker.
Cassy got slowly to her feet. “I’ve been as straight a woman as your mother or your wife ever was,” she said, “and all the world knows it. I’m poor–and I might have been rich. I was true to myself before I married George, and I was true to George after, and all I earned he shared; and I’ve got little left. The mining stock I bought with what I saved went smash, and I’m poor as I was when I started to work for myself. I can work awhile yet; but I wanted to see if I could fit in out here and get well again, and have my boy fixed in the house of his grandfather. That’s the way I’m placed, and that’s how I came. But give a dog a bad name–ah, you shame your dead boy in thinking bad of me! I didn’t ruin him. I didn’t kill him. He never came to any bad through me. I helped him; he was happy. Why, I–” She stopped suddenly, putting a hand to her mouth. “Go on, say what you want to say, and let’s understand once for all,” she added, with a sudden sharpness.
Abel Baragar drew himself up. “Well, I say this. I’ll give you three thousand dollars, and you can go somewhere else to live. I’ll keep the boy here. That’s what I’ve fixed in my mind to do. You can go, and the boy stays. I ain’t goin’ to live with you that spoiled George’s life.”
The eyes of the woman dilated, she trembled with a sudden rush of anger, then stood still, staring in front of her without a word. Black Andy stepped from behind the stove.
“You are going to stay here, Cassy,” he said, “here where you have rights as good as any, and better than any, if it comes to that.” He turned to his father. “You thought a lot of George,” he added. “He was the apple of your eye. He had a soft tongue, and most people liked him; but George was foolish–I’ve known it all these years. George was pretty foolish. He gambled, he bet at races, he speculated–wild. You didn’t know it. He took ten thousand dollars of your money, got from the Wonegosh farm he sold for you. He–“
Cassy Mavor started forward with a cry, but Black Andy waved her down.
“No, I’m going to tell it. George lost your ten thousand dollars, dad, gambling, racing, speculating. He told her–Cassy–two days after they was married, and she took the money she earned on the stage and give it to him to pay you back on the quiet through the bank. You never knew, but that’s the kind of boy your son George was, and that’s the kind of wife he had. George told me all about it when I went East six years ago.”
He came over to Cassy and stood beside her. “I’m standing by George’s wife,” he said, taking her hand, while she shut her eyes in her misery–had she not hid her husband’s wrong-doing all these years?–“I’m standing by her. If it hadn’t been for that ten thousand dollars she paid back for George, you’d have been swamped, when the Syndicate got after you, and we wouldn’t have had Lumley’s place, nor this, nor anything. I guess she’s got rights here, dad, as good as any.”
The old man sank slowly into a chair. “George–George stole from me–stole money from me!” he whispered. His face was white. His pride and vainglory were broken. He was a haggard, shaken figure. His self-righteousness was levelled in the dust.
With sudden impulse Cassy stole over to him and took his hand and held it tight.
“Don’t! Don’t feel so bad!” she said. “He was weak and wild then. But he was all right afterward. He was happy with me.”
“I’ve owed Cassy this for a good many years, dad,” said Black Andy, “and it had to be paid. She’s got better stuff in her than any Baragar.”
* * * * *
An hour later the old man said to Cassy at the door of her room: “You got to stay here and git well. It’s yours, the same as the rest of us–what’s here.”
Then he went down-stairs and sat with Aunt Kate by the fire.
“I guess she’s a good woman,” he said, at last. “I didn’t use her right.”
“You’ve been lucky with your women-folk,” Aunt Kate answered, quietly.
“Yes, I’ve been lucky,” he answered. “I dunno if I deserve it. Mebbe not. Do you think she’ll git well?”
“It’s a healing air out here,” Aunt Kate answered, and listened to the wood of the house snapping in the sharp frost.