A Slayer of Serpents
Way over in the village a bell was tolling. Three people stood listening in the Lambert yard. The yard was broad and green, and beyond that stretched level fields. Over them floated and sung the bell-tones. It seemed almost as if they might become visible, like birds. There was a heavy dew. The short, crisp grass in the yard and fields was covered with dewy cobwebs, which looked, in the sunlight, like little wheels of silver. They glittered and shimmered, and the bell tolled.
The three people stood with upturned faces. They were trying to count the strokes. There were an old man, an old woman, and a young girl. The old man stood with his spreading feet planted squarely, like a child's; his mouth was open; he held one hand curved behind his ear; he was all simple curiosity. The woman held her gingham skirts up out of the wet grass with both hands. She turned one ear toward the sound, and kept an eye on the young girl's face, as if she half heard in that way. The girl, with her innocent, wide-open eyes and small, round face, listened gravely. Her thin, sober under-lip was drawn down at the corners.
When the last note had died away, and it was certain that no other would come, the girl spoke first. “I counted fifty,” said she.
“Now, I didn't make it but forty-eight,” said the old man.
“I thought 'twas fifty-one,” said the woman, “but I don't put much dependence on my hearin'. I can't hear a thing with my right ear, nohow. But I guess Ada's right fast enough. She is if it's Angeline, an' I guess it must be. I don't know of anybody else that's sick. Angeline must have been just about fifty. She's two years older than Edward would have been if he'd lived.”
“Well, I guess you'll find it ain't her,” said the old man, stumping toward the house. He had a little limp in one knee. “I didn't count but forty-eight.”
“I guess it's her, fast enough,” said the woman, stepping carefully after him. “Mr. Brown said yesterday she was real low, an' the doctor said he shouldn't be surprised if she didn't last the night out.”
“I guess you'll find it ain't her.”
The woman and girl entered the house. The man began sawing some wood which was piled up beside the door. Presently the old woman poked her head out of the window. “Oliver,” said she. “Oliver!” she called loudly, as if he were a long way from her.
“There's Mr. Brown's team comin' down the road. You just run out and ask him who the bell tolled for.”
Oliver Lambert limped slowly out of the yard and waylaid the man on the approaching team. When he returned he went hastily past the house in the direction of the barn.
“Oliver, Oliver!” his wife called after him. “Who did he say 'twas?”
Oliver made no reply. He hurried along as if he did not hear.
“It's Angeline fast enough,” his wife told Ada. “That's the way he always acts when he finds out he's got the worst of anything. He's took awful hard of hearin' all of a sudden.”
Ada laughed. She was washing the breakfast dishes at the sink.
“I'd like to know if that's the way they all do,” said she.
“Well, I dunno 'bout all of 'em. I guess a good many men hate to own up if they're beat. I know most of 'em I've had anything to do with did. Edward was jest so, if he was my son. He was jest like his father, poor boy.”
Mrs. Lambert was mopping the kitchen floor with unsteady vigor. Her old arms trembled weakly, but she gave them no rest. Her broad, wrinkled face lagged loosely about the cheeks, her small black eyes were alert behind her spectacles.
“Say, grandma,” said the girl at the sink. Some blushes rose softly on her pretty cheeks. “I — wanted to ask you — what was it about Angeline Laurence and — my father?”
“Oh, 'twa'n't nothin'. They just went together a little while once.”
“Then he left her and married my mother?”
“How came he to? Was mother prettier?”
“No; I dunno as she was. Angeline was pretty good lookin' in them days. They had a little difference, an' then your mother came along. She come from Wardsboro, to teach the district school. An' your father saw her, an' they were married almost right away.”
“What did they quarrel about?”
“Quarrel about? Lor', nothin' at all, near's I could make out. The amount of it was he was jest like his father; never could bear to be contradicted. An' it seemed as if he would die if anybody else got the best of it. He was a real good boy, too; not a bad thing about him unless 'twas that, an' I dunno's you'd call that bad. He come by it honest enough. I dunno as he could help it. All I ever knew was, he an' Angeline got to disputin' as to who was goin' to preach one Sunday. She thought there was a notice given out that Mr. Munroe — he was settled here then — was goin' to exchange with a Mr. Pepperell from Rowley, an' he declared there wasn't. Angeline was a little set herself; liked to have her own way pretty well.
“Well, when Sunday came, an' there was Mr. Pepperell in the pulpit, she jest crowed over him. She waited in the entry till we came out, then she edged nearer the door, an' then she gave Edward a poke. ‘Who do you think's going to preach?’ says she. Some of the other girls was standin' round, an' they laughed. I s'pose she'd told 'em.
“Well, Edward he never laughed. He kinder straightened up an' walked off. He didn't go to see her that Sunday night, an' he met your mother, an' that was the end of it.”
“Didn't she feel bad?”
“Yes, I s'pose she did. She'd been goin' with him a pretty long time. I know as well as I want to that she wrote to him an' tried to straighten it out, but it wa'n't no use. She never got married, an' I know she had chances. There's father comin'.”
“Ask him who 'twas.”
“Who did Mr. Brown say the bell tolled for?” asked Mrs. Lambert as the old man entered the kitchen. He shuffled over to the shelf and took up his pipe, which was lying there. He did not open his lips.
“What are you hollerin' so fur?”
“Thought you didn't hear. I wanted to know who the bell tolled for.”
“I heard the first time you spoke.”
“Who was it?”
“Well, I s'pose 'twas Angeline.”
“There, what did I tell you?”
“You didn't git her age right, nohow. She wa'n't but forty-eight.”
“Why, Oliver, she was two years older than Edward would have been if he'd lived, an' he'd been forty-eight this June comin'.”
“He wouldn't ha' been but forty-six.”
“Why, Oliver Lambert! Well, you might jest as well have your own way first as last. I ain't goin' to say another word.”
“I guess I kin tell when the bell strikes forty-eight, an' I ain't goin' to be beat out. I ain't quite so fur behind the times.”
“Well, have it forty-eight,” said his wife with an air of virtuous patience. “I've give in to you fifty year, an' I guess I kin a little longer. I ain't goin' to fight over poor Angeline, nohow. She's gone, an' that's enough to say about it. I s'pose she's left quite a little property. They say she's owned her house clear quite a while now.”
“I guess you'll find it ain't clear.”
“Well, mebbe it ain't.”
The girl laughed slyly over her dishes. However, in the course of a few weeks, old Oliver Lambert's obstinacy was proven vain in this matter also. Poor Angeline Laurence, dying solitary, without kindred, had left her little house, free and unencumbered, to the daughter of her dead lover, Edward Lambert. It made no difference now to this modest maiden woman, who had kept an affection hidden in her heart for thirty years, that all the villagers were staring at it out in the light, like the skeleton of an old beauty.
“She never got over it,” said they. But she lay in her grave, with the grass springing over her, and did not hear.
When Ada Lambert knew of the legacy which the dead woman had left to her, she set up her dimly remembered face, like a saint's, in her orthodox heart. Those thin, rosy cheeks, those heavy-lidded, resolute eyes, and the smoothly crimped, gray-yellow hair gleamed out of its inner shadows. She worshiped it with purest offerings of love and pity and sympathy. If it were worth the while, poor Angeline was really canonized in return for her long years of silent suffering, and had her own shrine and her own devotee. She even had her tender vengeance over her long-dead rival, the pretty school-teacher whom Edward Lambert had married. Ada could not remember her mother's face at all, she had died so long ago. Angeline Laurence's stood out now in the place of it, to her girlish craving. She thought it all over, half-shamefacedly, when she was alone. She knew nothing of love, except in dreams and delicate imaginings. When confronted by the reality of it, in the lives of her own dead father and this dead woman whom she had known, she was all a-tremble with indignation and wonder. “She must have thought everything of father,” said the girl to herself, her little face all flushed and troubled.
“I wish I'd known,” she told her grandmother; “I would have gone in and seen her when she was sick.”
“If you had, folks would ha' said you went after her money, likely as not.”
“I wouldn't have cared what they said. I remember now she used to take a good deal of pains to speak to me when she met me. She used to look at me real kind of funny. I never knew what it meant.”
“You look a good deal the way your father did. I s'pose she saw it. Well, 'twa'n't anything against her.”
“Against her — I guess it wasn't!”
Ada's legacy was a small house, with a little yard and garden, over in the village. The day when she took the key into her own possession and went over her new domicile, in company with her admiring grandparents, was the beginning of a new era in her life. Stepping over that threshold, she stepped also a pace farther into the mystery of love and the world, even though she was led on by another's experience instead of her own.
Emerging at last from these little, simple, silent rooms, she seemed to have a longer road to look back upon. Angeline Laurence's memory was added to her own.
“You're pretty well off, I take it,” her grandmother said, with honest gratulation, as they were all riding home. “Everythin' in the house is good. I didn't know she did have such nice things. There's chiny and other dishes, an' table-cloths, an' plenty of beddin'. An' did you look in them bureau drawers?”
“I couldn't bear to,” said Ada, and she fell to crying.
Her grandmother looked wonderingly at her. “Of course it makes anybody feel bad. Poor Angeline,” said she. “But it's what we all have to come to. Things has to be left, an' the livin' has to make use of 'em. There's a real good black silk in the front chamber closet, an' a nice brown woolen. They'd make over real nice for you, some time. There ain't no use savin' such things for the moths to eat up.”
But Angeline's clothes hung undisturbed in her closets, and her dainty store of linen lay folded in her bureau, in spite of Mrs. Lambert's protests. Ada would not have them touched. She was glad, in her heart, that the house could not be rented and stood vacant for the next two years. At the end of that time her grandparents died within a month of each other, and Ada sold the lonely farm and went to live in her little village house. She had four thousand dollars in the bank. People thought her remarkably fortunate. Still, they marveled at her. “The idea of that young thing living all alone,” they said.
Ada was twenty and looked seventeen. She combed her pale yellow hair straight back, and put it in a net like a little girl. She looked into people's faces directly and questioningly, like a child. Kindly women made plans for her. They proposed lone females — dressmakers and tailoresses — for companions; they provided other homes; but the little, innocent-faced girl was resolute.
“Well, she'll get married,” said all of them, covering their defeat with knowing looks. They watched her sharply, but she was very circumspect. She had always been a simple, sensible girl, and had looked upon some of her mates and their fleeting love-affairs with grave wonder.
Now some of the eligible young men used to eye her in church and look when they passed the house. But she never knew it. They wanted to call on her, but did not venture. She went out seldom. She had one girl friend, whom she used to visit now and then, running in of an afternoon with her work. She lived quite near, and her name was Ellen Ives. She was a plain, silent girl.
It was spring when Ada came to enjoy her legacy. She worked in her garden a good deal. She hired a man to plant vegetables, then she weeded and tended them, and made a flower garden for herself. The box-border of Angeline's old flower garden still remained, outlining vigorously the heart and diamond shaped beds, where the pinks and marigolds used to grow. Some of the hardy perennials came bravely again this spring. Angeline's flowering almonds and blue columbine and spider-lilies blossomed out to her memory. The small front yard was all taken up by the flower garden. The vegetable garden lay behind the house. A row of lusty currant bushes divided Ada's land on one side from a neighbor's.
One afternoon she stood at them, picking some currants for her tea. She was methodical in her habits. She had her little white-covered table set against the kitchen wall for her solitary meal, three times a day, after Angeline's old fashion. She had out Angeline's silver spoons, and blue-and-white ware, and her Brittania teapot. The currants were growing scanty on the bushes. Ada had to pick here and there as she could.
“If you'll come over this side, you'll find 'em thick,” said a voice suddenly.
She started violently. “I didn't mean to scare you,” said the voice, and ended in a kindly laugh.
Ada saw Sylvester Noble standing under an old apple tree on his side of the bushes. The apple tree was old and scraggly. Half of the branches were dead and covered with gray moss. They dipped down into the grass. The grass was tall and bending, the daisies and buttercups were as high as the grass. Here and there were some little bushes of pink roses, which looked half smothered. There was a little furrow of prostrate flowers which marked Sylvester's track from the house-door. He was tall and sinewy; his head, with its yellow hair and yellow, straggling beard, towered up among the apple boughs.
Ada looked at him hesitatingly. She knew who he was, but she had never spoken to him.
“You'd better come over this side. They haven't been touched here.”
“Come right through here.”
Ada found herself in Sylvester Noble's yard. She began picking the currants confusedly. Sylvester stood watching her. “Why didn't you get 'em before?” said he.
“I didn't know but they belonged to you.”
“Course they don't. They're your bushes.”
When Ada's little dish was full, she looked up in Sylvester's face timidly before she went through into her own yard.
“Thank you for telling me,” said she.
“You're welcome. I wanted to ask you — don't you ever feel afraid, alone there in the house?”
“It isn't any of my business, but haven't you got any folks that could come and live with you?”
“No, I haven't got any folks. But I suppose I could have somebody come, if I wanted 'em.”
“Seems to me I would, if I was you.”
“Oh, I get along well enough. I'm hardly ever afraid.”
“Well —” Sylvester hesitated, and his blond face flushed. “I was just going to say, I don't know as you knew, but I sleep here on this side of the house, and I wake at the least thing, and if you was to have a little bell, and was to ring it if anything scared you in the night, I should hear it quicker than lightning.”
“Miss Laurence used to have one. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes.” Ada remembered. The little brass bell stood on the bureau in the bedroom where Angeline had slept.
“Well, you ring it if you get scared.”
The girl had felt sometimes, in the silent house, that horror of loneliness which is worse than legitimate fear. She had lain awake nights, though she had not owned to it, and her young persistency had not been in the least affected. After this she never did. She looked at Angeline's little bell, which could summon Sylvester Noble to her protection, and felt secure, and slept sweetly.
Noble was a mild mystery in the town. He had, after a manner, withdrawn himself into a corner, away from his kind, and laid himself open to speculation. Either he had some private plum of guilt or grief to consider, or his brain was touched. People saw no harm in Noble, so they inclined to the latter view. Ada always heard him called “love-cracked” without much consideration. Now she coupled this idea with her theory of Angeline, and another wonder and pity sprang up in her heart. She thought about him as she moved around her little house, and she talked him over with Ellen.
“Do you suppose the girl he was in love with is dead?” asked she.
But Ellen knew no more than she. All any one knew was that Sylvester Noble was about forty years old; that he had lived in the village eight or nine years, all alone in a small, neglected house which he had purchased; that he must have some slender means of support, for he apparently did not labor; and that every summer, through most of July and August, he was away camping out somewhere. This summer July melted into August, and Sylvester had not gone. One day, about the middle of the month, he came to the currant bushes and looked over. Ada was sewing at the window. She saw him, and ran out of the house and across the yard to him.
Noble looked down at her. “I'm going away,” said he. “I thought I'd let you know.”
Ada looked up at him in a frightened way. “Aren't you coming back?”
“Coming back? Yes, of course I am. I'm just going over to the Green Hills to stay a week or two. I go every summer, you know. I've got a little shanty I built over there —”
“I hope you won't get frightened while I'm gone.”
“Oh, no, I won't.”
“I've been thinking — won't that Ives girl come over and stay with you nights?”
“I suppose she would, but I ain't afraid.”
“You ask her, won't you?”
“Why, I suppose I can.”
“You ask her to-night, and let me know before I go, will you?”
Noble stood looking at her silently. She tried to talk.
“What do you do in the Green Hills?” said she.
He laughed. “Kill snakes.”
She shuddered. “What for?”
He laughed again. “Oh, I like to.”
“Yes, they're better out of the way. They're awful things!”
Ada looked bewildered and frightened. “Aren't you afraid?” said she, trembling.
“Afraid of snakes? No, I've got over that.”
Ada's face was quite white. Noble saw it, and his tone changed.
“I do other things besides killing snakes,” he said. “I pick up stones and queer objects, and then I write things about them.”
“Can you?” said she with awe.
“Yes. I didn't have much schooling — father was all for saving money — but I've picked up some knowledge. I know a little about stones and plants, and I write about 'em, and they pay me something, and that's the way I keep soul and body together.”
Ada looked at him with relief and admiration. “If he can do that, he's just as right as I am,” she thought to herself. “They can call him love-cracked all they want to.”
She expressed this opinion with girlish force to Ellen Ives when she came to spend the nights with her, but she did not give her reason for it. “I ain't going to have the whole town talking about his affairs,” she thought to herself.
After two weeks or so she saw him enter the house at dusk one Saturday. That night she stayed alone, and blew out her light with a reliant look at the bell. She sat in church the next day, sweet and fair in her Sunday clothes, and thought about Sylvester Noble, while one or two young men, orthodox, and steady, and reliable, eyed her furtively.
“I wish he'd go to meeting,” she thought to herself. She saw him for a moment that afternoon. He gave her a pail of blackberries and a great bunch of ferns and flowers over the currant bushes. He looked very handsome to her, with his sunburned face, in his coarse gray trousers and blue woolen blouse.
“There isn't a young man in town half as good-looking,” she thought complacently.
The autumn came and went, and the winter began. Ada entered on her lonely way through it with good courage. This kindly, erratic neighbor stood by her faithfully. He shoveled her paths, and did errands for her when the roads were impassable to a woman. Through the long, dreary evenings a lamp shone into her room from his window. She could see him sitting there through the long, snowy days. Still, he never entered her house, though she asked him to when he came to the door on errands.
Ada went about this winter with the other young people of the village. She never dreamed how wistfully Sylvester used to watch her when she came into her house with two or three girls, laughing and chatting.
“She'll be just like the others,” he muttered, and went on grimly with his writing, which was slow work to Sylvester Noble. He had little besides nature to assist him, and she, grand, beautiful goddess that she was, faltered among his nouns and verbs. Noble's articles had to have a good deal of revision, but the editors snatched at them. The man really had something new to say about his subjects.
Once he showed Ada a magazine with one of his nature papers in it. Her simple wonder delighted him. He had never before felt a thrill of pride over his work.
“Anybody could do it,” he said, blushing. Ada read the article over and over. She could not understand it, but she thought it beautiful.
When spring came, and she could be out in her yard and see him oftener, she was glad without knowing it. One June evening she was sitting in her door when he sauntered over. “Won't you come in?” she said, rising.
“No, thank you. I'll just sit down here a minute.”
So he sat down on the step beside her. He had never before done such a thing. They had only sat there a few minutes when Ellen Ives came in the gate. Sylvester started up abruptly, and was gone across the yard before Ada could say a word in answer to his good night.
“Who was that run so quick?” asked Ellen, coming up to the door.
“Ada, you don't mean to say he was really over here sitting with you!”
“He came over just a minute ago.”
“I just heard something awful about him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you ought to know. I know he's been real kind to you, but I'm afraid he ain't any kind of a man.”
“I'd like to know what you mean.”
“I had it real straight. Alice Roberts told me, and she had it from her cousin that lives over in Pembroke. That's where he's from, you know. She said that he cheated his brother out of his share of his father's property, and that wasn't the worst of it. He got away the girl his brother was engaged to —”
“Is — he married?”
“Yes, he married her, but I believe she died. Alice said he wasn't any kind of a man, and it's all nonsense about his being disappointed in love. I wouldn't have anything more to do with him if I was you.”
“I can't believe such a story.”
“Well, I wouldn't if I hadn't had it so straight.”
“Well, I don't care; he's treated me well. I don't believe a word of it.”
She did, however. After Ellen had gone home, half indignant with her, she owned to herself what she would not to her. She set the bell far back on the bureau when she went to bed. “Ring it for him!” she muttered bitterly.
The next day she never looked his way. She kept on the other side of the house. She did not go out in the garden. Toward night he came to the door and knocked.
“I just wanted to let you know,” said he, “that I was goin' away to-morrow.”
He looked at her wonderingly. “I shan't be gone long, not more'n two or three weeks. Can't you have the Ives girl come over, the way you did before?”
“I can manage my own affairs, thank you,” said Ada.
Sylvester Noble turned pale. He looked at her as if he could not believe his ears. “It isn't quite safe for you to be here all alone nights,” he went on with piteous eagerness, “when there isn't anybody in my house. Mr. White's is quite a way off.”
Ada looked at him. Then she thought of the other girl, the one he had married, and he looked changed to her. “I'm entirely capable of looking after my own business,” said she in a hard voice. She held her head back and looked at him, with the stiff dignity of rural girlhood.
He never said another word. He turned away and went home. The next morning he started on his annual trip to the Green Hills. Ada watched him, peeping around the corner of her window-curtain. She stayed alone this time. She said to herself that she did not want Ellen.
Three weeks went by, and Sylvester had not returned. Ada began to watch for him uneasily, though she would not have welcomed him if he had come. One afternoon Ellen came over in great excitement, her pale, heavy face flushed.
“What do you think, Ada?” said she. “It wasn't so about him. Alice got it mixed up. It was his brother instead of him. Sylvester never did a thing out of the way. His brother got away the girl he was engaged to, and married her, and he never knew till 'twas all over. They deceived him all the time. She made believe to think everything of Sylvester, when all the while it was his brother. And when he found it out he just gave his brother all his share of their father's property and came away here. He settled the money on the girl, so she wouldn't suffer. He knew his brother couldn't support her, for he'd lost most of his own money —”
“So there wasn't a word of it true,” said Ada slowly. She stared across at Noble's deserted house. After Ellen had gone she went over there, plunging through the high, damp tangle of green things in the yard. She had a half hope that he might have returned. She knocked on the old door. There was no paint on the house. Lilac trees grew thickly around it, pressing against the walls, brushing the eaves. The door trembled beneath her touch; a hollow echo came from within. She stood waiting. Then she knocked again.
Finally she went home. “If I ever see him again —” she whispered.
The Green Hills were only six miles away. Their softly undulating outlines were visible against the northern sky. Ada used to sit gazing at them. Her little plain face grew plainer and thinner. Three weeks more passed and Sylvester had not returned, then three weeks more.
One morning Ada went out. She acknowledged to herself no definite purpose. There was a straight road to the Green Hills. She knew it well. She kept walking. She emerged from the village and passed scattered houses.
The road lay along the base of the Green Hills. They rose from it softly — green, piny slopes, interspersed with gray ledges of rock. On the side of the road stood a poor little dwelling with some children swarming about it. Ada stopped and inquired:
“Can you tell me where Mr. Noble stays up there?” said she, pointing to the hill.
“The man that kills snakes you mean?” asked a woman appearing in the door.
“Why, you just go right up that path over there. I don't let the children go, I'm so afraid of snakes.”
“He killed sixteen last week,” said one of the children.
“Hold your tongue! He didn't, neither. 'Twas two or three weeks ago. I'm most afraid somethin' has happened to him, I haven't seen him for so long. You keep right on that path. He's got a house up there. Are you his girl?”