Story type: Literature
The morning sun hung, a red, lustreless ball, in the dull grey sky. A light snow had fallen in the night and the landscape, crossed by spider-like trails of fences, was as white and lifeless as if wrapped in a shroud.
A young man was driving down the road to Rykman’s Corner; the youthful face visible above the greatcoat was thoughtful and refined, the eyes deep blue and peculiarly beautiful, the mouth firm yet sensitive. It was not a handsome face, but there was a strangely subtle charm about it.
The chill breathlessness of the air seemed prophetic of more snow. The Reverend Allan Telford looked across the bare wastes and cold white hills and shivered, as if the icy lifelessness about him were slowly and relentlessly creeping into his own heart and life.
He felt utterly discouraged. In his soul he was asking bitterly what good had come of all his prayerful labours among the people of this pinched, narrow world, as rugged and unbeautiful in form and life as the barren hills that shut them in.
He had been two years among them and he counted it two years of failure. He had been too outspoken for them; they resented sullenly his direct and incisive tirades against their pet sins. They viewed his small innovations on their traditional ways of worship with disfavour and distrust and shut him out of their lives with an ever-increasing coldness. He had meant well and worked hard and he felt his failure keenly.
His thoughts reverted to a letter received the preceding day from a former classmate, stating that the pastorate of a certain desirable town church had become vacant and hinting that a call was to be moderated for him unless he signified his unwillingness to accept.
Two years before, Allan Telford, fresh from college and full of vigorous enthusiasm and high ideas, would have said:
“No, that is not for me. My work must lie among the poor and lowly of earth as did my Master’s. Shall I shrink from it because, to worldly eyes, the way looks dreary and uninviting?”
Now, looking back on his two years’ ministry, he said wearily:
“I can remain here no longer. If I do, I fear I shall sink down into something almost as pitiful as one of these canting, gossiping people myself. I can do them no good–they do not like or trust me. I will accept this call and go back to my own world.”
Perhaps the keynote of his failure was sounded in his last words, “my own world.” He had never felt, or tried to feel, that this narrow sphere was his own world. It was some lower level to which he had come with good tidings and honest intentions but, unconsciously, he had held himself above it, and his people felt and resented this. They expressed it by saying he was “stuck-up.”
Rykman’s Corner came into view as he drove over the brow of a long hill. He hated the place, knowing it well for what it was–a festering hotbed of gossip and malice, the habitat of all the slanderous rumours and innuendoes that permeated the social tissue of the community. The newest scandal, the worst-flavoured joke, the latest details of the most recent quarrel, were always to be had at Rykman’s store.
As the minister drove down the hill, a man came out of a small house at the foot and waited on the road. Had it been possible Telford would have pretended not to see him, but it was not possible, for Isaac Galletly meant to be seen and hailed the minister cheerfully.
“Good mornin’, Mr. Telford. Ye won’t mind giving me a lift down to the Corner, I dessay?”
Telford checked his horse reluctantly and Galletly crawled into the cutter. He was that most despicable of created beings, a male gossip, and he spent most of his time travelling from house to house in the village, smoking his pipe in neighbourly kitchens and fanning into an active blaze all the smouldering feuds of the place. He had been nicknamed “The Morning Chronicle” by a sarcastic schoolteacher who had sojourned a winter at the Corner. The name was an apt one and clung. Telford had heard it.
I suppose he is starting out on his rounds now, he thought.
Galletly plunged undauntedly into the conversational gap.
“Quite a fall of snow last night. Reckon we’ll have more ‘fore long. That was a grand sermon ye gave us last Sunday, Mr. Telford. Reckon it went home to some folks, judgin’ from all I’ve heard. It was needed and that’s a fact. ‘Live peaceably with all men’–that’s what I lay out to do. There ain’t a house in the district but what I can drop into and welcome. ‘Tain’t everybody in Rykman’s Corner can say the same.”
Galletly squinted out of the corner of his eye to see if the minister would open on the trail of this hint. Telford’s passive face was discouraging but Galletly was not to be baffled.
“I s’pose ye haven’t heard about the row down at Palmers’ last night?”
The monosyllable was curt. Telford was vainly seeking to nip Galletly’s gossip in the bud. The name of Palmer conveyed no especial meaning to his ear. He knew where the Palmer homestead was, and that the plaintive-faced, fair-haired woman, whose name was Mrs. Fuller and who came to church occasionally, lived there. His knowledge went no further. He had called three times and found nobody at home–at least, to all appearances. Now he was fated to have the whole budget of some vulgar quarrel forced on him by Galletly.
“No? Everyone’s talkin’ of it. The long and short of it is that Min Palmer has had a regular up-and-down row with Rose Fuller and turned her and her little gal out of doors. I believe the two women had an awful time. Min’s a Tartar when her temper’s up–and that’s pretty often. Nobody knows how Rose managed to put up with her so long. But she has had to go at last. Goodness knows what the poor critter’ll do. She hasn’t a cent nor a relation–she was just an orphan girl that Palmer brought up. She is at Rawlingses now. Maybe when Min cools off, she’ll let her go back but it’s doubtful. Min hates her like p’isen.”
To Telford this was all very unintelligible. But he understood that Mrs. Fuller was in trouble of some kind and that it was his duty to help her if possible, although he had an odd and unaccountable aversion to the woman, for which he had often reproached himself.
“Who is this woman you call Min Palmer?” he said coldly. “What are the family circumstances? I ought to know, perhaps, if I am to be of any service–but I have no wish to hear idle gossip.”
His concluding sentence was quite unheeded by Galletly.
“Min Palmer’s the worst woman in Rykman’s Corner–or out of it. She always was an odd one. I mind her when she was a girl–a saucy, black-eyed baggage she was! Handsome, some folks called her. I never c’d see it. Her people were a queer crowd and Min was never brung up right–jest let run wild all her life. Well, Rod Palmer took to dancin’ attendance on her. Rod was a worthless scamp. Old Palmer was well off and Rod was his only child, but this Rose lived there and kept house for them after Mis’ Palmer died. She was a quiet, well-behaved little creetur. Folks said the old man wanted Rod to marry her–dunno if ’twas so or not. In the end, howsomever, he had to marry Min. Her brother got after him with a horse-whip, ye understand. Old Palmer was furious but he had to give in and Rod brought her home. She was a bit sobered down by her trouble and lived quiet and sullen-like at first. Her and Rod fought like cat and dog. Rose married Osh Fuller, a worthless, drunken fellow. He died in a year or so and left Rose and her baby without a roof over their heads. Then old Palmer went and brought her home. He set great store by Rose and he c’dn’t bear Min. Min had to be civil to Rose as long as old Palmer lived. Fin’lly Rod up and died and ’twasn’t long before his father went too. Then the queer part came in. Everyone expected that he’d purvide well for Rose and Min’d come in second best. But no will was to be found. I don’t say but what it was all right, mind you. I may have my own secret opinion, of course. Old Palmer had a regular mania, as ye might say, for makin’ wills. He’d have a lawyer out from town every year and have a new will made and the old one burnt. Lawyer Bell was there and made one ’bout eight months ‘fore he died. It was s’posed he’d destroyed it and then died ‘fore he’d time to make another. He went off awful sudden. Anyway, everything went to Min’s child–to Min as ye might say. She’s been boss. Rose still stayed on there and Min let her, which was more than folks expected of her. But she’s turned her out at last. Min’s in one of her tantrums now and ’tain’t safe to cross her path.”
“What is Mrs. Fuller to do?” asked Telford anxiously.
“That’s the question. She’s sickly–can’t work much–and then she has her leetle gal. Min was always jealous of that child. It’s a real purty, smart leetle creetur and old Palmer made a lot of it. Min’s own is an awful-looking thing–a cripple from the time ’twas born. There’s no doubt ’twas a jedgement on her. As for Rose, no doubt the god of the widow and fatherless will purvide for her.”
In spite of his disgust, Telford could not repress a smile at the tone, half-whine, half-snuffle, with which Galletly ended up.
“I think I had better call and see this Mrs. Palmer,” he said slowly.
“‘Twould be no airthly use, Mr. Telford. Min’d slam the door in your face if she did nothing worse. She hates ministers and everything that’s good. She hasn’t darkened a church door for years. She never had any religious tendency to begin with, and when there was such a scandal about her, old Mr. Dinwoodie, our pastor then–a godly man, Mr. Telford–he didn’t hold no truck with evildoers–he went right to her to reprove and rebuke her for her sins. Min, she flew at him. She vowed then she’d never go to church again, and she never has. People hereabouts has talked to her and tried to do her good, but it ain’t no use. Why, I’ve heard that woman say there was no God. It’s a fact, Mr. Telford–I have. Some of our ministers has tried to visit her. They didn’t try it more than once. The last one–he was about your heft–he got a scare, I tell you. Min just caught him by the shoulder and shook him like a rat! Didn’t see it myself but Mrs. Rawlings did. Ye ought to hear her describin’ of it.”
Galletly chuckled over the recollection, his wicked little eyes glistening with delight. Telford was thankful when they reached the store. He felt that he could not endure this man’s society any longer.
Nevertheless, he felt strangely interested. This Min Palmer must at least be different from the rest of the Cornerites, if only in the greater force of her wickedness. He almost felt as if her sins on the grand scale were less blameworthy than the petty vices of her censorious neighbours.
Galletly eagerly joined the group of loungers on the dirty wet platform, and Telford passed into the store. A couple of slatternly women were talking to Mrs. Rykman about “the Palmer row.” Telford made his small purchases hastily. As he turned from the counter, he came face to face with a woman who had paused in the doorway to survey the scene with an air of sullen scorn. By some subtle intuition Telford knew that this was Min Palmer.
The young man’s first feeling was one of admiration for the woman before him, who, in spite of her grotesque attire and defiant, unwomanly air, was strikingly beautiful. She was tall, and not even the man’s ragged overcoat which she wore could conceal the grace of her figure. Her abundant black hair was twisted into a sagging knot at her neck, and from beneath the old fur cap looked out a pair of large and brilliant black eyes, heavily lashed, and full of a smouldering fire. Her skin was tanned and coarsened, but the warm crimson blood glowed in her cheeks with a dusky richness, and her face was a perfect oval, with features chiselled in almost classic regularity of outline.
Telford had a curious experience at that moment. He seemed to see, looking out from behind this external mask of degraded beauty, the semblance of what this woman might have been under more favouring circumstance of birth and environment, wherein her rich, passionate nature, potent for either good or evil, might have been trained and swayed aright until it had developed grandly out into the glorious womanhood the Creator must have planned for her. He knew, as if by revelation, that this woman had nothing in common with the narrow, self-righteous souls of Rykman’s Corner. Warped and perverted though her nature might be, she was yet far nobler than those who sat in judgement upon her.
Min made some scanty purchases and left the store quickly, brushing unheedingly past the minister as she did so. He saw her step on a rough wood-sleigh and drive down the river road. The platform loungers had been silent during her call, but now the talk bubbled forth anew. Telford was sick at heart as he drove swiftly away. He felt for Min Palmer a pity he could not understand or analyze. The attempt to measure the gulf between what she was and what she might have been hurt him like the stab of a knife.
He made several calls at various houses along the river during the forenoon. After dinner he suddenly turned his horse towards the Palmer place. Isaac Galletly, comfortably curled up in a neighbour’s chimney corner, saw him drive past.
“Ef the minister ain’t goin’ to Palmers’ after all!” he chuckled. “He’s a set one when he does take a notion. Well, I warned him what to expect. If Min claws his eyes out, he’ll only have himself to blame.”
Telford was not without his own misgivings as he drove into the Palmer yard. He tied his horse to the fence and looked doubtfully about him. Untrodden snowdrifts were heaped about the front door, so he turned towards the kitchen and walked slowly past the bare lilac trees along the fence. There was no sign of life about the place. It was beginning to snow again, softly and thickly, and the hills and river were hidden behind a misty white veil.
He lifted his hand to knock, but before he could do so, the door was flung open and Min herself confronted him on the threshold.
She did not now have on the man’s overcoat which she had worn at the store, and her neat, close-fitting home-spun dress revealed to perfection the full, magnificent curves of her figure. Her splendid hair was braided about her head in a glossy coronet, and her dark eyes were ablaze with ill-suppressed anger. Again Telford was overcome by a sense of her wonderful loveliness. Not all the years of bondage to ill-temper and misguided will had been able to blot out the beauty of that proud, dark face.
She lifted one large but shapely brown hand and pointed to the gate.
“Go!” she said threateningly.
“Mrs. Palmer,” began Telford, but she silenced him with an imperious gesture.
“I don’t want any of your kind here. I hate all you ministers. Did you come here to lecture me? I suppose some of the Corner saints set you on me. You’ll never cross my threshold.”
Telford returned her defiant gaze unflinchingly. His dark-blue eyes, magnetic in their power and sweetness, looked gravely, questioningly, into Min’s stormy orbs. Slowly the fire and anger faded out of her face and her head drooped.
“I ain’t fit for you to talk to anyway,” she said with a sort of sullen humility. “Maybe you mean well but you can’t do me any good. I’m past that now. The Corner saints say I’m possessed of the devil. Perhaps I am–if there is one.”
“I do mean well,” said Telford slowly. “I did not come here to reprove you. I came to help you if I could–if you needed help, Mrs. Palmer–“
“Don’t call me that,” she interrupted passionately. She flung out her hands as if pushing some loathly, invisible thing from her. “I hate the name–as I hated all who ever bore it. I never had anything but wrong and dog-usage from them all. Call me Min–that’s the only name that belongs to me now. Go–why don’t you go? Don’t stand there looking at me like that. I’m not going to change my mind. I don’t want any praying and whining round me. I’ve been well sickened of that. Go!”
Telford threw back his head and looked once more into her eyes. A long look passed between them. Then he silently lifted his cap and, with no word of farewell, he turned and went down to the gate. A bitter sense of defeat and disappointment filled his heart as he drove away.
Min stood in the doorway and watched the sleigh out of sight down the river road. Then she gave a long, shivering sigh that was almost a moan.
“If I had met that man long ago,” she said slowly, as if groping vaguely in some hitherto unsounded depth of consciousness, “I would never have become what I am. I felt that as I looked at him–it all came over me with an awful sickening feeling–just as if we were standing alone somewhere out of the world where there was no need of words to say things. He doesn’t despise me–he wouldn’t sneer at me, bad as I am, like those creatures up there. He could have helped me if we had met in time, but it’s too late now.”
She locked her hands over her eyes and groaned, swaying her body to and fro as one in mortal agony. Presently she looked out again with hard, dry eyes.
“What a fool I am!” she said bitterly. “How the Corner saints would stare if they saw me! I suppose some of them do–” with a glance at the windows of a neighbouring house. “Yes, there’s Mrs. Rawlings staring out and Rose peeking over her shoulder.”
Her face hardened. The old sway of evil passion reasserted itself.
“She shall never come back here–never. Oh, she was a sweet-spoken cat of a thing–but she had claws. I’ve been blamed for all the trouble. But if ever I had a chance, I’d tell that minister how she used to twit and taunt me in that sugary way of hers–how she schemed and plotted against me as long as she could. More fool I to care what he thinks either! I wish I were dead. If ’twasn’t for the child, I’d go and drown myself at that black spring-hole down there–I’d be well out of the way.”
* * * * *
It was a dull grey afternoon a week afterwards when Allan Telford again walked up the river road to the Palmer place. The wind was bitter and he walked with bent head to avoid its fury. His face was pale and worn and he looked years older.
He paused at the rough gate and leaned over it while he scanned the house and its surroundings eagerly. As he looked, the kitchen door opened and Min, clad in the old overcoat, came out and walked swiftly across the yard.
Telford’s eyes followed her with pitiful absorption. He saw her lead a horse from the stable and harness it into a wood-sleigh loaded with bags of grain. Once she paused to fling her arms about the animal’s neck, laying her face against it with a caressing motion.
The pale minister groaned aloud. He longed to snatch her forever from that hard, unwomanly toil and fold her safely away from jeers and scorn in the shelter of his love. He knew it was madness–he had told himself so every hour in which Min’s dark, rebellious face had haunted him–yet none the less was he under its control.
Min led the horse across the yard and left it standing before the kitchen door; she had not seen the bowed figure at the gate. When she reappeared, he saw her dark eyes and the rose-red lustre of her face gleam out from under the old crimson shawl wrapped about her head.
As she caught the horse by the bridle, the kitchen door swung heavily to with a sharp, sudden bang. The horse, a great, powerful, nervous brute, started wildly and then reared in terror.
The ice underfoot was glib and treacherous. Min lost her foothold and fell directly under the horse’s hoofs as they came heavily down. The animal, freed from her detaining hand, sprang forward, dragging the laden sleigh over the prostrate woman.
It had all passed in a moment. The moveless figure lay where it had fallen, one outstretched hand still grasping the whip. Telford sprang over the gate and rushed up the slope like a madman. He flung himself on his knees beside her.
“Min! Min!” he called wildly.
There was no answer. He lifted her in his arms and staggered into the house with his burden, his heart stilling with a horrible fear as he laid her gently down on the old lounge in one corner of the kitchen.
The room was a large one and everything was neat and clean. The fire burned brightly, and a few green plants were in blossom by the south window. Beside them sat a child of about seven years who turned a startled face at Telford’s reckless entrance.
The boy had Min’s dark eyes and perfectly chiselled features, refined by suffering into cameo-like delicacy, and the silken hair fell in soft, waving masses about the spiritual little face. By his side nestled a tiny dog, with satin ears and paws fringed as with ravelled silk.
Telford paid heed to nothing, not even the frightened child. He was as one distraught.
“Min,” he wailed again, striving tremblingly to feel her pulse while cold drops came out on his forehead.
Min’s face was as pallid as marble, save for one heavy bruise across the cheek and a cruel cut at the edge of the dark hair, from which the blood trickled down on the pillow.
She opened her eyes wonderingly at his call, looking up with a dazed, appealing expression of pain and dread. A low moan broke from her white lips. Telford sprang to his feet in a tumult of quivering joy.
“Min, dear,” he said gently, “you have been hurt–not seriously, I hope. I must leave you for a minute while I run for help–I will not be long.”
“Come back,” said Min in a low but distinct tone.
He paused impatiently.
“It is of no use to get help,” Min went on calmly. “I’m dying–I know it. Oh, my God!”
She pressed her hand to her side and writhed. Telford turned desperately to the door. Min raised her arm.
“Come here,” she said resolutely.
He obeyed mutely. She looked up at him with bright, unquailing eyes.
“Don’t you go one step–don’t leave me here to die alone. I’m past help–and I’ve something to say to you. I must say it and I haven’t much time.”
Telford hardly heeded her in his misery.
“Min, let me go for help–let me do something,” he implored. “You must not die–you must not!”
Min had fallen back, gasping, on the blood-stained pillow.
He knelt beside her and put his arm about the poor, crushed body.
“I must hurry,” she said faintly. “I can’t die with it on my mind. Rose–it’s all hers–all. There was a will–he made it–old Gran’ther Palmer. He always hated me. I found it before he died–and read it. He left everything to her–not a cent to me nor his son’s child–we were to starve–beg. I was like a madwoman. When he died–I hid the will. I meant–to burn it–but I never could. It’s tortured me–night and day–I’ve had no peace. You’ll find it in a box–in my room. Tell her–tell Rose–how wicked I’ve been. And my boy–what will become of him? Rose hates him–she’ll turn him out–or ill-treat him–“
Telford lifted his white, drawn face.
“I will take your child, Min. He shall be to me as my own son.”
An expression of unspeakable relief came into the dying woman’s face.
“It is good–of you. I can die–in peace–now. I’m glad to die–to get clear of it all. I’m tired–of living so. Perhaps–I’ll have a chance–somewhere else. I’ve never–had any–here.”
The dark eyes drooped–closed. Telford moaned shudderingly.
Once again Min opened her eyes and looked straight into his.
“If I had met you–long ago–you would have–loved me–and I would have been–a good woman. It is well for us–for you–that I am–dying. Your path will be clear–you will be good and successful–but you will always–remember me.”
Telford bent and pressed his lips to Min’s pain-blanched mouth.
“Do you think–we will–ever meet again?” she said faintly. “Out there–it’s so dark–God can never–forgive me–I’ve been so–wicked.”
“Min, the all-loving Father is more merciful than man. He will forgive you, if you ask Him, and you will wait for me till I come. I will stay here and do my duty–I will try hard–“
His voice broke. Min’s great black eyes beamed out on him with passionate tenderness. The strong, deep, erring nature yielded at last. An exceeding bitter cry rose to her lips.
“Oh, God–forgive me–forgive me!”
And with the cry, the soul of poor suffering, sinning, sinned-against Min Palmer fled–who shall say whither? Who shall say that her remorseful cry was not heard, even at that late hour, by a Judge more merciful than her fellow creatures?
Telford still knelt on the bare floor, holding in his arms the dead form of the woman he loved–his, all his, in death, as she could never have been in life. Death had bridged the gulf between them.
The room was very silent. To Min’s face had returned something of its girlhood’s innocence. The hard, unlovely lines were all smoothed out. The little cripple crept timidly up to Telford, with the silky head of the dog pressed against his cheek. Telford gathered the distorted little body to his side and looked earnestly into the small face–Min’s face, purified and spiritualized. He would have it near him always. He bent and reverently kissed the cold face, the closed eyelids and the blood-stained brow of the dead woman. Then he stood up.
“Come with me, dear,” he said gently to the child.
* * * * *
The day after the funeral, Allan Telford sat in the study of his little manse among the encircling wintry hills. Close to the window sat Min’s child, his small, beautiful face pressed against the panes, and the bright-eyed dog beside him.
Telford was writing in his journal.
“I shall stay here–close to her grave. I shall see it every time I look from my study window–every time I stand in my pulpit–every time I go in and out among my people. I begin to see wherein I have failed. I shall begin again patiently and humbly. I wrote today to decline the C—- church call. My heart and my work are here.”
He closed the book and bowed his head on it. Outside the snow fell softly; he knew that it was wrapping that new-made grave on the cold, fir-sentinelled hillside with a stainless shroud of infinite purity and peace.