The Boot by Gouverneur Morris
Story type: Literature
Mary Rex was more particularly my nurse, for my sister Ellen, a thoughtful, dependable child of eight, was her own mistress in most matters.
This was in the days when we got our servants from neighborhood families; before the Swedish and Irish invasion had made servants of us in turn. Mary was the youngest of an ancestored county family. Her great-grandfather had fought in the Revolution, as you might know by the great flint-lock musket over the Rexes’ fireplace. A brother of his had formed part of a British square at Waterloo; and if Mary’s own father had not lost his right hand at Gettysburg he would never have let his children go out to service. Poor soul, he bore the whole of his afflictions, those to his body and those to his pride, with a dignity not often seen in these degenerate days. He was by trade a blacksmith, and it was for that reason, I suppose, that Providence, who loves a little joke, elected for amputation his right hand rather than one or both of his feet. Since, even in these degenerate days, many a footless blacksmith makes an honest living.
Mary was a smart, comely, upstanding young woman. Even my father, a dismal sceptic anent human frailty, said that he would freely trust her around the farthest corner in Christendom. And I gathered from the talk of my elders and betters that Mary was very pretty. People said it was a real joy to see a creature so young, so smiling, so pink and white, so graciously happy–in those degenerate days. I myself can see now that she must have been very pretty indeed. Her eyes, for instance, so blue in the blue, so white in the white, can’t have changed at all–unless, perhaps, the shadows deep within the blue are deeper than they were when she was a girl. But even to-day you would have to travel far to see another middle-aged woman so smooth of forehead, so cleanly-cut of feature, so generally comely.
But if there was one thing in the world that I had formed no conclusions upon at the age of six it was female loveliness. To cuddle against a gentle mother when bogies were about had nothing whatsoever to do with that gentle mother’s personal appearance. To strike valiantly at Mary’s face when the hot water and the scrubbing-brush were going had nothing to do with the prettiness thereof. Nor did I consider my sister the less presentable by a black eye given and taken in the game of Little John and Robin Hood upon a log in the Baychester woods. And indeed I have been told, and believe it to be a fact, that the beauty before whom swelled my very earliest tides of affection was a pug-nosed, snaggle-toothed, freckled-faced tomboy, who if she had been but a jot uglier might have been exhibited to advantage in a dime museum. Peace, old agitations, peace!
Everybody knew the Rexes, as in any part of the world, for many years stable, everybody knows everybody else. In Westchester, before great strips of woodland and water became Pelham Bay Park, before the Swedes came, and the Irish, and the Italians, and the Germans–in other words, before land boomed–there had always been an amiable and uninjunctionable stability. Families had lived, for well or ill, in the same houses for years and years. So long had the portraits hung in the rich men’s houses that if you moved them it was to disclose a brightly-fresh rectangle upon the wall behind. The box in the poor man’s yard had been tended by the poor man’s great-grand female relatives. Ours was a vicinage of memory and proper pride. We would no more have thought of inquiring into the morals of this public house or that than of expunging the sun from the heavens. They had always been there.
There was a man who left his wife and little children to fight against King George. He could think of but one thing to protect them against vagrant soldiers of either side, and that was to carve upon certain boards (which he nailed to the trees here and there along the boundaries of his farm):
BEWARR OF THE BOOLE DOGGES
When I was a child one of these signs still remained–at the left, just beyond Pelham Bridge. And people used to laugh and point at the great trees and say that because of the sign the British had never dared to trespass and cut down the timber. Now the man had never owned a Boole Dogge, nor had any of his descendants. I doubt if there was ever one on the premises, unless latterly, perhaps, there has been a French bulldog or so let out of a passing automobile to enjoy a few moments of unconventional liberty. But the bluff had always held good. As my mother used to say: “I know–but then there may be a bulldog now.” And that farm was always out of bounds. I relate this for two reasons–to show how stable and conservative a neighborhood was ours, and because on that very farm, and chosen for the very reason which I have related, stood the hollow oak which is to play its majestic part in this modest narrative.
The apple orchards of the Boole Dogge Farm ran southerly to a hickory wood, the hickory wood to an oak wood, the oak wood to thick scrub of all sorts, the scrub to the sedge, and the sedge to the salt mud at low tide, and at high to the bassy waters themselves of inmost Pelham Bay. On the right was the long, black trestle of the Harlem River Branch Railroad, on the left the long-curved ironwork of Pelham Bridge. And the farm, promontoried with its woods and thick cover between these boundaries and more woods to the north, was an overgrown, run-down, desolate, lonely, deserted old place. Had it not been for the old sign that said “Bewarr,” it must have been a great playground for children–for their picnics, and their hide-and-seeks, and their games at Indians. But the ferocious animals imagined by the old Revolutionary were as efficacious against trespassers as a cordon of police. And I remember to this day, I can feel still, the very-thrill of that wild surmise with which I followed Mary and my sister over the stone wall and into those forbidden and forbidding acres for the first time. But that comes later.
It was my sister who told me that Mary was engaged to be married. But I had noticed for some days how the neighbors went out of their way to accost her upon our walks; to banter her kindly, to shake hands with her, to wag their heads and look chin-chucks even if they gave none. Her face wore a beautiful mantling red for hours at a time. And instead of being made more sedate by her responsible and settling prospects she shed the half of her years, which were not many, and became the most delightful romp, a furious runner of races, swiftest of pursuers at tag, most subtle and sudden of hiders and poppers out, and full to the arch, scarlet brim of loud, clear laughter.
It was late spring now, lilacs in all the dooryards, all the houses being cleaned inside out, and they were to be married in the fall. They had picked the little house on the outskirts of Skinnertown not far from the Tory oak, in which they were to live. And often we made it the end of an excursion, and played at games devised by Mary to improve the appearance of the little yard. We gathered up in emulation old, broken china and bottles, and made them into a heap at the back; we cleared the yard of brush and dead wood, and pulled up weeds by the hundred-weight, and set out a wild rose or two and more valuable, if less lovely, plants that people gave Mary out of real gardens.
Will Braddish, a painter by trade, met us one day with brushes and a great bucket of white paint, and, while he and Mary sat upon the doorstep talking in low tones or directing in high, Ellen and I made shift to paint the little picket-fence until it was white as new snow. At odd times Braddish himself painted the little house (it was all of old-fashioned, long shingles) inside and out, and a friend of his got up on the roof with mortar and a trowel, and pointed-up the brick chimney; and my father and Mr. Sturtevant contributed a load of beautiful, sleek, rich pasture sod and the labor to lay it; so that by midsummer the little domain was the spickest, spannest little dream of a home in the whole county. The young couple bought furniture, and received gifts of furniture, prints, an A1 range, a tiny, shiny, desirable thing; and the whole world and all things in it smiled them in the face. Braddish, as you will have guessed, was a prosperous young man. He was popular, too, and of good habits. People said only against him that he was impulsive and had sudden fits of the devil’s own temper, but that he recovered from these in a twinkling and before anything came of them. And even the merest child could see that he thought the world of Mary. I have seen him show her little attentions such as my sister retailed me of personages in fairy stories and chivalric histories. Once when there was a puddle to cross he made a causeway of his coat, like another Raleigh, and Mary crossed upon it, like one in a trance of tender happiness, oblivious of the fact that she might easily have gone around and saved the coat. His skin and his eyes were almost as clear as Mary’s own, and he had a bold, dashing, independent way with him.
But it wasn’t often that Braddish could get free of his manifold occupations: his painting contracts and his political engagements. He was by way of growing very influential in local politics, and people predicted an unstintedly successful life for him. He was considered unusually clever and able. His manners were superior to his station, and he had done a deal of heterogeneous reading. But, of course, whenever it was possible he was with Mary and helped her out with looking after Ellen and me. My mother, who was very timid about tramps, looked upon these occasions as in the nature of real blessings. There was nowhere in the countryside that we children might not safely venture with Will Braddish strolling behind. He loved children–he really did, a rare, rare thing–and he was big, and courageous, and strong, and quick. He was very tactful, too, on these excursions and talked a good part of the time for the three of us, instead of for Mary alone. Nice, honest talk it was, too, with just enough robbers, and highwaymen, and lions, and Indians to give it spice. But all the adventures through which he passed us were open and honest. How the noble heroes did get on in life, and how the wicked villains did catch it!
I remember once we were returning home past the Boole Dogge Farm, and Braddish, wiping his brow, for it was cruelly hot, seated himself as bold as could be on the boundary wall. The conversation had been upon robbers, and how they always, always got caught.
“It doesn’t matter,” Braddish said, “where they hide. Take this old farm. It’s the best hiding-place in this end of the county–woods, and marshes, and old wells, and bushes, and hollows–“
We asked him in much awe if he had ever actually set foot on the place.
“Yes, indeed,” he said; “when I was a boy I knew every inch of it; I was always hunting and trapping, and looking for arrowheads. And that was the best country. Once I spent a night in the woods yonder. The bridge was open to let a tugboat through and got stuck so they couldn’t shut it, and there was no way back to Westchester except over the railroad trestle, and my father had said that I could go anywhere I pleased except on that trestle. And so here I was caught, and it came on to blither and blow, and I found an oak tree, all hollow like a little house, and I crept in and fell asleep and never woke till daylight. My father said next time I could come home by the trestle, or he’d know the reason why.”
“But,” said I, “weren’t you afraid the bulldogs would get you?”
“Now, if they’d said bull-terriers,” he said, “I might have had my doubts, but a bulldog’s no more dangerous than a toadfish. He’s like my old grandma. What teeth he has don’t meet. And besides,” he said, “there weren’t any bulldogs on that farm. And I don’t believe there ever were. Now, I’m not sure, sonny,” he said, “but you climb up here–“
I climbed upon the wall, and he held me so that I should not fall.
“Do you see,” said he, “way down yonder over the tops of the trees a dead limb sticking up?”
I saw it finally.
“Well,” he said, “I’d stake something that that’s a part of the old hollow oak. Shall we go and see?”
But Mary told him that the farm was out of bounds. And he thought a moment, and then swung his legs over the wall.
“I won’t be two minutes,” he said. “I’d like to see if I’m right–it’s fifteen years ago–” And he strode off across the forbidden farm to the woods. When he came back he said that he had been right, and that nothing had changed much. He tossed me a flint arrowhead that he had picked up–he was always finding things, and we went on again.
When we got to the middle of Pelham Bridge we all stopped and leaned against the railing and looked down into the swift, swirling current. Braddish tore an old envelop into little pieces and dropped them overboard by pairs, so that we might see which would beat the other to a certain point.
But the shadows began to grow long now and presently Braddish had to leave us to attend a meeting in Westchester, and I remember how he turned and waved, just before the Boulevard dips to the causeway, and how Mary recollected something that she had meant to say and ran after him a little way calling, and he did not hear. And she came back laughing, and red in the face, and breathing quick.
Two days later my father, who had started for the early train, came driving back to the house as if he had missed it. But he said, no, and his face was very grave–he had heard a piece of news that greatly concerned Mary, and he had come back to tell her. He went into the study with my mother, and presently they sent for Mary and she went in to them.
A few minutes later, through the closed door, Ellen and I heard a sudden, wailing cry.
Poor Braddish, it seems, in one of his ungovernable tempers had shot a man to death, and fled away no one knew whither.
The man killed was named Hagan. He was a red-faced, hard-drinking brute, not without sharp wits and a following–or better, a heeling. There had been bad blood between him and Braddish for some time over political differences of opinion and advancement. But into these Hagan had carried a circumstantial, if degenerate, imagination that had grown into and worried Braddish’s peace of mind like a cancer. Details of the actual killing were kept from us children. But I gathered, since the only witnesses of the shooting were heelers of Hagan’s, that it could in no wise be construed into an out-and-out act of self-defence, and so far as the law lay things looked bad for Braddish.
That he had not walked into the sheriff’s office to give himself up made it look as if he himself felt the unjustifiability of his act, and it was predicted that when he was finally captured it would be to serve a life sentence at the very least. The friends of the late Hagan would hear of nothing less than hanging. It was a great pity (this was my father’s attitude): Hagan was a bad lot and a good riddance; Braddish was an excellent young man, except for a bit of a temper, and here the law proposed to revenge the bad man upon the other forever and ever. And it was right and proper for the law so to do, more’s the pity. But it was not Braddish that would be hit hardest, said my father, and here came in the inscrutable hand of Providence–it was Mary.
After the first outburst of feeling she had accepted her fate with a stanch reserve and went on with her duties much as usual. One ear was always close to the ground, you might say, to hear the first rumor of Braddish, either his capture or his whereabouts, that she might fly to him and comfort him, but the rest of her faculties remained in devoted attendance on my sister and me. Only there showed in them now and then a kind of tigerish passionateness, as when I fell off the sea-wall among the boulders and howled so dismally. She leaped down after and caught me to her in the wildest distress, and even when I stopped howling could not seem to put me down. Indeed, she held me so tight that if any of my bones had been cracked by the tumble she must have finished by breaking them. The pathos of her efforts to romp with us as in happier days was lost upon me, I am happy to say. Nor did I, recalling to her what Braddish had said of robbers being inevitably caught, realize that I was stabbing her most cruelly. For she was, or tried to be, firm in the belief that Braddish would succeed where all others had failed. She had asked my father what would happen if Braddish got clean out of the United States, and he, hoping, I suppose, to be of indirect use to the young couple for whom he was heartily sorry, made her out a list of countries, so far as he knew them, wherein there was no extradition. My father hoped, I fondly believe, that she would get the list to Braddish for his guidance, conjecturing rightly that if Braddish made his whereabouts known to anybody it would be to Mary. But as to that, ten days passed before Mary knew a jot more of it than another. And I must believe that it came to her then entirely by inspiration.
We were passing the Boole Dogge Farm, my sister and I, intent upon seeing which of us could take the most hops without putting the held-up foot to the ground, when suddenly Mary, who had been strolling along laughing at us, stopped short in her tracks and turned, and stood looking over the green treetops to where the gaunt, dead limb of the hollow oak thrust sharply up from among them. But we had hopped on for quite a piece before we noticed that she no longer went alongside. So we stopped that game and ran back to her. What was it? Had she seen a rabbit? She laughed and looked very wistful. She was just thinking, children, that she would like to see the hollow tree where Will had passed the night. She was not excited–I can swear to that. She guessed nothing as yet. Her desire was really to the tree–as she might have coveted one of Will’s baby shoes, or anything that had been his. She had already, poor girl, begun to draw, here and there, upon the past for sustenance.
First, she charged Ellen and me to wait for her in the road. But we rebelled. We swore (most falsely) that we were afeard. Since the teeth of bulldogs no longer met, we desired passionately to explore the forbidden farm, and had, indeed, extracted a free commission from my father so to do, but my mother had procrastinated and put us off. We laid these facts before Mary, and she said, very well, if our father had said we might go on the farm, go we might. He would, could and must make it right with our mother. And so, Mary leading, we climbed the wall.
Bulldogs’ teeth or no bulldogs’ teeth, my ancient fear of the place descended upon me, and had a rabbit leaped or a cat scuttled among the bushes I must have been palsied. The going across to the woods was waist high with weeds and brambles, damp and rank under foot. Whole squadrons of mosquitoes arose and hung about us in clouds, with a humming sound as of sawmills far away. But this was long before you took your malaria of mosquitoes, and we minded them no more than little children mind them to-day. Indeed, I can keep peacefully still even now to watch a mosquito batten and fatten upon my hand, to see his ravenous, pale abdomen swell to a vast smug redness–that physiological, or psychological, moment for which you wait ere you burst him.
The forbidden farm had, of course, its thousand novelties. I saw prickly pears in blossom upon a ledge of rock; a great lunar-moth resting drowsily, almost drunkenly, in the parasol shade of a wild-carrot blossom; here was the half of a wagon wheel, the wood rotted away, and there in the tangle an ancient cistern mouth of brick, the cistern filled to the brim with alluring rubbish. My sister sprang with a gurgle of delight to catch a garter snake, which eluded her; and a last year’s brier, tough and humorously inclined, seized upon Mary by the skirts and legs, so that it was a matter of five minutes and piercing screams of merriment to cast her loose again. But soon we drew out of the hot sunshine into the old orchard with its paltry display of deformed, green, runt apples, and its magnificent columns and canopies of poison ivy–that most beautiful and least amiable of our indigenous plants; and then we got among scale-bark hickories, and there was one that had been fluted from top to bottom by a stroke of lightning; and here the little red squirrels were most unusually abundant and indignant; and there was a catbird that miauled exactly like a cat; and there was a spring among the roots of one great tree, and a broken teacup half buried in the sand at the bottom.
We left the hickories and entered among the oaks, and here was the greatest to-do imaginable to find the one that was hollow. Ellen went to the left, I to the right, and Mary down the middle. Whenever I came to an unusually big tree I tiptoed around the trunk, goggle-eyed, expecting the vasty hollow to open before me. And I am sure that Ellen, whom I had presently lost sight of, behaved in the same way. Mary also had disappeared, and feeling lonely all of a sudden I called to her. She answered a moment later in a strange voice. I thought that she must have fallen and hurt herself; but when I found her she was cheerful and smiling. She was standing with her back to a snug hollow in the vast stem of the very oak we had been looking for.
“This is it,” she said, and turned and pointed to the hollow. “Where’s Ellen?”
“Here, Ellen,” I called, “here–we’ve found it!”
Then Ellen came scampering through the wood; and first I climbed into the hollow and curled up to see what sort of a night I might have of it, and then I climbed out and Ellen climbed in–and then both in at once, and we kept house for a while and gave a couple of dinners and tea parties. And then quarreled about the probable size of Friar Tuck, and Ellen drew the line at further imaginings and left me alone in the hollow.
This extended all the way up the main trunk and all but out through the top. Here and there it pierced through the outer bark, so that slants of pale light served to carry the eye up and up until it became lost in inky blackness. Now and then dust and little showers of dry rot descended softly upon the upturned face; and if you put your ear close to the wood you could hear, as through the receiver of a telephone, things that were going on among the upper branches; as when the breeze puffed up and they sighed and creaked together. I could hear a squirrel scampering and a woodpecker at work–or so I guessed, though it sounded more like a watch ticking. I made several essays to climb up the hollow, but the knotholes and crevices, and odds and ends of support, were too far removed from each other for the length of my limbs, and, furthermore, my efforts seemed to shake the whole tree and bring down whole smarting showers of dust and dry rot and even good-sized fragments. I got up a few feet, lost my hold, and fell into the soft, punky nest at the bottom.
“Can’t you climb up?” said Ellen, who had recovered her temper by now. “Because somebody has climbed up and stuck an ol’ shoe out of a knothole way up.”
I climbed out of the hollow and followed her point. Sure enough–thirty feet or so from the ground the toe of a much-used leather boot stuck out through a knothole.
Mary refused to take an interest in the boot. It was high time we went home. She herself had a headache. Our mother would be angry with her for taking us on the forbidden farm. She was sorry she had done so. No, she wasn’t angry. We were good children; she loved us. Wouldn’t we come?
“I’ll tell you,” said she, and her face, which looked sick and pale, colored, “if you’ll come now, and hurry, we’ll just have time to stop on the bridge and have some races.”
And sure enough, when we got to the bridge Mary produced a stained sheet of paper, and tore it quickly into little bits of pieces (we were pressed for time) and launched pair after pair of sea-going racers upon the swirling tide.
When the last pair were gone upon their merry career she drew a long breath, and seemed as one relieved of a weight.
“Perhaps,” she said, “you needn’t tell your mother where you’ve been–unless she asks you. Do you think that would be wrong?”
I had never known Mary to suggest deceit of any kind.
“If you think it would get you into trouble,” said my sister, aged eight, very stiffly, “why, of course, we won’t say anything.”
Mary was troubled. Finally she drew a deep breath and flung out her hands.
“Of course, it would be wrong not to tell,” she said. “You must tell her.”
But by good fortune we met my father first and told him.
“And papa,” said Ellen, she had been swung to his shoulder and there rode like a princess upon a genii, “what do you think, way up the trunk there was an old shoe sticking out of a knothole, and we all thought that somebody must have climbed up inside and put it there. But brother couldn’t climb up because he’s too little, and Mary wouldn’t try, and we thought maybe Sunday you’d go with us and see if you could climb up.”
I don’t know why my father happened to take the line that he did; he may have seen something in Mary’s face that we children would not be likely to see. He laughed first, and told us a story.
It was about some children that he had once known, who had seen a boot sticking out of a tree, just as we had done, and how a frightful old witch had come along, and told them that if they went away for a year and a day and didn’t say a word about the boot to any one, and then went back, they would by that time have grown sufficiently to climb up and get the boot, and that they would find it full of gold pieces. But if, during the year and the day, they so much as mentioned the boot to any one but their father, they would find it full of the most dreadful black and yellow spiders which would chase them all the way to Jericho, and bite their fat calves every few steps.
“This,” said he, “may be that kind of a boot. Now promise not to talk about it for a year and a day–not even to me–and at the end of that time, why we’ll all go and see what’s in it. No,” he said, “you mustn’t go to look at it every now and then–that would spoil the charm. Let me see. This is the twenty-eighth–a year and a day–hum.” And he made his calculations. Then he said: “By the way, Mary, don’t you and the children ever get hungry between meals? If you were to take bread and meat, and make up sandwiches to take on your excursions, they’d never be missed. I’d see to it,” he said, “that they weren’t missed. Growing children, you know.” And he strode on, Ellen riding on his shoulder like a princess on her genii.
Ellen and I were very firm to have nothing to do with the boot in the oak tree; and we had two picnics in the hollow and played for hours in the adjoining woods without once looking up. Mary had become very strict with us about scattering papers and eggshells at our out-of-door spreads; and whatever fragments of food were left over she would make into a neat package and hide away under a stone; but in other matters she became less and less precise: as, for instance, she left Ellen’s best doll somewhere in the neighborhood of the hollow oak, and had to go all the way back for it in the dusk; and another time (we had also been to the store at Bartow for yeast) she left her purse that had two months’ wages in it and more, but wasn’t lucky enough to find that.
It was considered remarkable on all hands that Braddish had not yet been caught. Hagan’s heelers, who swung many votes, had grown very sharp with the authorities, and no efforts were spared to locate the criminal (he was usually referred to as the “murderer”) and round him up. Almost daily, for a time, we were constantly meeting parties of strange men, strolling innocently about the country at large or private estates as if they were looking things over with a view to purchase. And now and then we met pairs of huntsmen, though there was no game in season, very citified, with brand-new shotguns, and knickerbockers, and English deer-stalker caps. And these were accompanied by dogs, neither well suited nor broken to the business of finding birds and holding them. There was one pair of sportsmen whose makeshift was a dropsical coach dog, very much spotted. And, I must be forgiven for telling the truth, one was followed, ventre a terre, by a dachshund. My father, a very grave man with his jest, said that these were famous detectives, so accoutred as not to excite comment. And their mere presence in it was enough to assure the least rational that Braddish must by now have fled the country. “Their business,” he said, “is to close the stable door, if they can find it, and meanwhile to spend the money of the many in the roadhouses of the few.”
But I have sometimes thought that the pseudo-sportsmen were used to give Braddish a foolhardy sense of security, so that other secret-service men, less open in method and less comic in aspect, might work unobserved. Indeed, it turned out that an under-gardener employed by Mrs. Kirkbride, our neighbor, about this time, a shambling, peaceful, half-witted goat of a man, was one such; and a perfect red-Indian upon a trail. It was Mary who spotted him. He hung about our kitchen door a good deal; and tried to make friends with her and sympathize with her. But he showed himself a jot too eager, and then a jot too peppery when she did not fall into his nets. Mary told my father, and my father told Mrs. Kirkbride. Mrs. Kirkbride had had a very satisfactory job at painting done for her by Braddish; and although a law-abiding woman, she did not propose personally to assist the law–even by holding her tongue. So she approached the under-gardener, at a time when the head-gardener and the coachman were in hearing, and she said, plenty loud enough to be heard: “Well, officer, have you found a clew yet? Have you pumped my coachman? He was friends with Braddish,” and so on, so that she destroyed that man’s utility for that place and time. But others were more fortunate. And all of a sudden the country was convulsed with excitement at hearing that Braddish had been seen on the Bartow Road at night, and had been fired at, but had made good his escape into the Boole Dogge Farm.
Bloodhounds were at once sent for. I remember that my father stayed up from town that thrilling morning, and walked up and down in front of the house looking up at the sky. I now know that he was conjuring it to rain with all his power of pity–prayer maybe–though I think, like most commuters, he was weak on prayer. Anyhow, rain it did. The sky had been overcast for two days, drawing slowly at the great beds of moisture in the northeast, and that morning, accompanied by high winds, the first drops fell and became presently a deluging northeaster, very cold for midsummer.
As chance would have it, there had been a false scent down on Throgg’s Neck, upon which the nearest accessible bloodhounds had been employed. So that there was a delay in locating them, and fetching them to the Boole Dogge Farm. We went over to the Boulevard–my father, Ellen, and I–all under umbrellas, to see them go by. They were a sorry pair of animals, and very weary with having been out all night, in all sorts of country, upon feet more accustomed to the smooth asphalt of a kennel. But there was a crowd of men with them, some in uniform, one I remember in a great coat, who rode upon one of the old-fashioned, high bicycles, and there was a show of clubs and bludgeons, and one man wore openly upon his hip a rusty, blued revolver, and on the whole the little procession had a look of determination and of power to injure that was rather terrible. I have sometimes thought that if I had been my father I would not have taken Ellen and me to see them go by. But why not? I would not have missed it for kingdoms.
By the time the pursuit had reached the Boole Dogge Farm so much rain had fallen as to render the bloodhounds’ noses of no account. Still the police were not deterred from beating that neck of land with great thoroughness and energy. But it proved to be the old story of the needle in the haystack. Either they could not find the needle or there was no needle to be found. Of course, they discovered the spring with the broken cup, and the hollow oak, and made sure that it was here that Braddish slept at night, and they found other traces of his recent habitation–an ingenious snare with a catbird in it, still warm; the deep, inadvertent track of a foot in a spot of bog; but of the man himself neither sight nor sound.
In the afternoon, the rain having held up for a while, nay father walked over to the farm to see how the hunt was progressing. This, I think, was for Mary’s sake, who had been all the morning in so terrible a state of agitation that it seemed as if she must have news for better or worse, or die of suspense. My father was not away longer than necessary. He returned as he had gone, wearing a cheerful, incisive look very characteristic of him, and whistling short snatches of tunes.
He said that the beaters were still at work; but that they were wet to the skin and the heart was out of them. Yes. They would keep an eye on the place, but they were pretty well convinced that the bird had flown. If, however, the bird had not flown, said my father, he should be quick about it. We were on the front porch to meet my father, and I remember he paused and looked out over the bay for some time. It was roughish with occasional white caps, and had a dreary, stormy look. Our rowboat, moored to a landing stage or float, just off our place, was straining and tugging at her rope.
“That boat will blow loose,” said my father, “if she isn’t pulled up. But I’m not going to do it. I’m wet enough as it is.
“Would you like me to try, sir?” Mary called.
“What’s the use?” said my father. “You’ll only spoil your clothes. And, besides, the boat’s old and rotten. She’s not worth two dollars for kindling wood. I rather hope she does blow away, so as to provide me with a much-needed excuse to buy a better one. The oars, I see, are in her. Never mind, they’re too heavy. I never liked them.”
Then he put his arm around Ellen.
“By the way, Teenchy,” said he, “your old boot is still sticking out of the oak tree.”
“Oh, papa,” cried Ellen, “you said we mustn’t talk about it–or it would be full of spiders.”
“I said you mustn’t talk about it,” said he. “So don’t. Anyhow”–and he included Mary in his playful smile–“it’s still there–so make the most of that.”
He turned to go into the house, and then:
“Oh, by the way, Mary,” said he, “you have not asked for your wages recently, and I think you are owed for three months. If you will come to the study in a little while I will give them to you.” He was always somewhat quizzical. “Would you rather have cash or a check?”
Personally I didn’t know the difference, and, at the time, I admired Mary exceedingly for being able to make a choice. She chose cash.
But till some years later I thought she must have repented this decision, for not long after she went into a kind of mild hysterics, and cried a good deal, and said something about “such kindness–this–side Heaven.” And was heard to make certain comparisons between the thoughtfulness and pitifulness of a certain commuter and the Christ.
But these recollections are a little vague in my head as to actual number of tears shed, cries uttered and words spoken. But I do know for an incontestable fact that during the night, just as my father had prophesied, our rowboat was blown loose by the northeast gale, and has not been seen from that day to this. And I know that when I woke up in the morning and called to Mary she was not in her bed, and I found in mine, under the pillow, a ridiculous old-fashioned brooch, that I had ever loved to play with, and that had been Mary’s mother’s.
My father was very angry about Mary’s going.
“Good Lord!” he said; “we can’t pretend to conceal it!” But then he looked out over Pelham Bay, and it had swollen and waxed wrathful during the night, and was as a small ocean–with great waves and billows that came roaring over docks and sea-walls. And then his temper abated and he said: “Of course she would–any woman would–sense or no sense.”
And, indeed, the more I know of women, which is to say, and I thank God for it, the less I know of them, the convinceder am I that my father was right.
In other words, if a woman’s man has nine chances in ten of drowning by himself she will go with him so as to make it ten chances, and a certainty of her being there whatever happens. And so, naturally, man cannot tolerate the thought of woman getting the right, based on intelligence, to vote.
Twenty-five years later I paid Mary and Braddish a pleasant Saturday-to-Monday visit in what foreign country it is not necessary to state. The tiny Skinnertown house of their earlier ambition, with its little yard, had now been succeeded by a great, roomy, rambling habitation, surrounded by thousands of acres sprinkled with flocks of fat, grazing sheep. It was a grand, rolling upland of a country that they had fled to; cool, summer weather all the year round, and no mosquitoes. Hospitable smoke curled from a dozen chimneys; shepherds galloped up on wiry horses and away again; scarlet passion-vines poured over roofs and verandas like cataracts of glory; and there was incessant laughter and chatter of children at play.
Of their final flight from the Boole Dogge Farm in my father’s boat, across the bay to Long Island in the teeth of the northeaster, I now first heard the details; and of their subsequent hiding among swamps and woods; and how, when it had seemed that they must be captured and Braddish go to jail forever and ever, Mary thought that she could face the separation more cheerfully if she was his wife. And so one rainy night they knocked upon the door of a clergyman, and told him their story. They were starving, it seems, and it was necessary to look about for mercy. And, as luck would have it, the clergyman, an old man, had officiated at the wedding of Mary’s parents; and he had had some trouble in his day with the law about a boundary fence, and was down on the law. And he fed them and married them, and said that he would square matters with his conscience–if he could. And he kept them in his attic for two days, which was their honeymoon–and then–a night of dogs and lanterns and shouting–he smuggled them off to the swamps again, and presided over their hiding until an opportunity came to get them aboard a tramp ship–and that was all there was to it, except that they had prospered and been happy ever since.
I asked Mary about my father’s part in it. But she gave him a clean bill.
“He put two and two together,” she said, “and he dropped a hint or two–and he paid me all my back wages in American money, and he made me a handsome present in English gold, but he never talked things over, never mentioned Will’s name even.”
“It was the toe of my boot,” said Will, “sticking out of the tree that made him guess where I was. You see, I’d climbed up in the hollow to hide, and to keep there without moving I had to stick my foot out through a knothole. I was up there all the day they tried to get the bloodhounds after me, with my boot sticking out. And they were beating around that tree for hours, but nobody looked up.”
“I’ve always wondered,” said I, “why, they didn’t send a man up inside the tree.”
“I’ve always thought,” said Will, “that nobody liked to propose it for fear he’d be elected to do it himself. But maybe it didn’t enter anybody’s head. Anyhow, all’s well that ends well.”
“Mary,” I said, “do you remember how my father told Ellen and me to go back in a year and a day, and look in the boot?”
“Well,” I said, “we went–hand in hand–and there was still a boot sticking out. And I climbed up, after several failures, and got it. It wasn’t full of gold, but it did have two gold pieces in it. One each.”
“What a memory your father had,” said Mary: “he never forgot anything.”
Later I was talking with Will alone, and I asked him why he had run away in the first place.
“Why,” he said, “I had no chance with the law. The only outsiders who saw the shooting were friends of Hagan’s; there was bad blood between us. They’d sworn to do for me. And they would. I shot Hagan with his own gun. He pulled it on me, and I turned it into him, by the greatest piece of quickness and good luck that ever I had. And somehow–somehow–I couldn’t see myself swinging for that, or going to prison for life. And I saw my chance and took it. I told the whole thing to the minister that married us; he believed me, and so would any one that knew me then–except Hagan’s friends, and whatever they believed they’d have sworn the opposite. Do you think your father thought I was a bloody murderer? Look here,” he said, “I don’t know just how to put it–it was twenty-five years ago, all that–Mary’ll tell you, if you ask her, that she’s been absolutely happy every minute of all that time–even when we were hiding in swamps and starving. Now that side of it wouldn’t have entered the law’s head, would it?” He smiled very peacefully. “Out here, of course,” he said, “it’s very different. Almost everybody here has gotten away from something or other. And mostly we’ve done well, and are happy and self-respecting. It’s a big world,” he looked out affectionately over his rolling, upland acres, “and a funny world. Did Mary tell you that I’ve just been re-elected sheriff?”