"THAT THY DAYS MAY BE LONG"
The door was still locked. Puzzled not a little, he turned the key, and stopped to listen. All was quiet within. Wondering, he pushed the door open, looked in, and was astounded.
The kitchen, always so orderly, was in the dirtiest confusion. Over the floor lay the tracks of muddy boots, with here and there a cake of dried mud. A broken chair and the fragments of a plate cluttered round the legs of the table, on which there stood, in a litter of dishes, two great empty bottles. The stuffed loon in the corner leaned its black head tipsily against the wall, as if it were the culprit. Through the back door, which stood open, Marden caught sight of another bottle smashed at the foot of the chopping-block. All this he saw in a flash, thinking, "He came home late, for his boots were muddy, and I did n't hear it rain till nearly midnight." Taking a lid from the stove, he found coals still smouldering. Lee had been there till noon or thereabout.
But next instant he lost all use of reason. The door into his mother's room stood open, splintered about the lock. With the cry of an animal, he darted in, and saw everything in a state of indescribable breakage, as if men had been wrestling about there. Some one had climbed in through the window, shoving the table aside. The knitting lay flung in a corner, and beside it the envelope to his letter, ripped open. The floor boards and the rugs were smeared with muddy tracks.
Marden shook his fist at the cracked ceiling and at the heavens beyond it.
"He 'll pay for this!" he cried, choking. "He 'll pay for this!"
Then, as he stood in dumb rage, the tears running down his cheeks, he mechanically straightened with his foot the deerskin rug that lay by the bureau. The movement uncovered something small that shone on the floor. He picked it up, but dropped it as if burned. He had seen it shine before. It was three links of silver chain, on a silver bangle perforated with star-shaped holes. Both of them had been there.
Something gave inside Marden's head; he shuddered as with ice and fire; the room swam black round him. He heard a strange voice cry in the distance, and knew that it was himself. When the darkness cleared he found himself standing on the stove in the kitchen, tearing down the gun and the powderhorn from over the Gilderoy. He jumped to the floor again, and, sobbing and whispering strange words, tugged with his teeth at the wooden plug in the horn. With the facility of acts in a dream, the black grains poured softly in; the wadding was rammed home; the cap from the little box on the shelf slipped over the nipple precisely; the leaden ball dropped plump into the barrel. He deliberated a moment.
"No, one bullet's enough," he whispered. "It could n't miss him."
Then he searched wildly for a second wad, but could not find it, till at last, ransacking the table drawer, he fished out a scrap of soiled blue paper, written on in a large hand. He stopped and read it carefully:—
|Drake caulking ballast ports||do.15. do.|
|Bissant brasswork||2.17. 11|
|Ross ballast||53.13. 4|
|Edy butcher||18.15. 8|
|Moon optician||.18. 6|
|Doyle sailmaker||11. 1. 1|
|Pilotage to the Downs||10.10.|
|forwd £298.18. 1|
He thought painfully. "I don't believe this is important," he concluded, then crumpled the paper up and rammed it home fiercely, enraged at the loss of time, and with the words, "Hurry, hurry!" coming in a savage whisper from somewhere.
He ran blindly out into the hot sun, bare-headed, gun in hand. For an instant habit told him to lock the door. But the abomination was done, the sanctuary violated. With a frantic, hopeless gesture he turned again, and ran down through the fields into the upcountry road. The heat had burned away all traces of the rain, so that the silent yellow dust rose softly in his trail. Over the hill he ran, down through the valley of firs, past the granite boulder, from behind which a solitary lean rabbit hopped across his way and into the dark woods. Sweating, breathless, Marden ran on and on, without sight, without hearing, and without plan save for an instinct, a certainty that he was in the right path; till suddenly, as he plunged down into a gully that cleft an open space through the woods on either side, a plan flashed into his head, and he stopped, panting, blind with sweat and tears.
Beyond, just above the little hill that wound sharply upward before him, he knew that the highway forked into two roads, both of which ran past the great triangle of the Barclay farm. Lee might come by either. The thought of deliberate waiting, of ambush, filled him with nausea. But there must be no mistake,—that creature must not have the devil's luck to get by. He grounded his gun in the dust, and looked about the little clearing.
"It must be here," he thought, and, for all his hurry in the sun, was struck cold and shuddered.
The clearing, an old dry watercourse, slanted down from the left in a tangle of low bushes and weeds. Marden chose the upper side of the road, and flung himself in, to swelter in the fierce heat.
He listened and listened for footsteps on the hill, and stared through the bushes till his neck and elbows ached. Then while time dragged by, long as years, the details of the place grew focused out of a blur into painful and weary distinctness. Trees stood out from the vague green wall,—cedars, spruces, firs, alders, and a willow with its leaves blown silver side out in the hot, faint breeze. The wild growth about him resolved itself into bushes of dusty, crumbling raspberries, into yellow St. John's-wort and the sickly pink of fireweed and sheep's-laurel, into withered caraways, into scorched strawberry leaves with wiry runners, old nameless twigs bleached silver gray, the rusty white cockades of queen-of-the-meadow. The road wound up over the little hill to the skyline, a bleak avenue of pebbles and dust between tall weedy mullein stalks and fat little childish fir trees with their pale green tips sticking up knee-high. The very blades of grass became amazingly diverse under his eyes, and achingly full of the minutest life. The very silence grew into a thin, metallic hum of flies that he had heard in some other stillness before. And over and through it all blazed and quivered the truculent heat.
All at once his heart gave a jump, and began to flutter in his ribs, little as a kitten's. There were footsteps scrambling among the pebbles at the top of the hill. He grasped the gun, and craned his neck to see above a clump of snapdragon. He could have cried out aloud in the long suspense. But no, it was not his brother: the man was little and thin. As he came down into the gully, Marden knew him for Heber Griswold. He came very close, stopping once nearly opposite Marden to pluck a joint of timothy, which he did with difficulty, it was so dry and tough with overripeness. The straw swayed in his teeth as he passed on, smiling in quizzical meditation. And Marden, lying smothered in the underbrush, found kindly feelings mingled in the confusion of his heart.
The heat and the hum of flies settled down again more intensely. A long time passed. Finally a new sound broke in,—the bell in the distant village, ringing to Wednesday vespers. The old refrain started up once more,—"that thy days may be long, long, that thy days may be long,"—ringing slowly over and over again. Marden nodded over his shoulder toward the sound, his teeth bare in a grin of satirical friendliness. "Right you are, old fellow, for once," he thought, while the warning rang on in his head, half solemnly, half in a kind of black merriment.
Turning to watch again, he noticed a mosquito on the gun barrel, and crushed it with his finger mechanically. The thing must have been biting him and sucking its fill, for it left a sticky smear of blood on the warm brown metal. The sight of blood disgusted him. He wiped his hand vigorously in the shriveled grass.
Suddenly, from the trees above the hill, a squirrel chittered like a fisherman's reel. As if it had been a signal, there followed a scuffing among the pebbles, and in the gap of the bare road the broad figure of Lee heaved against the sky. He came slouching down close by the line of dusty mullein stalks, and almost reached the foot of the gully.
Marden leaped out into the road, cocking the gun as he stood up straight. At the sight of this squat creature, all the years of smothered hatred blazed ungovernably.
"Stop!" he cried, dry and harsh.
The sailor jumped back with a motion of his arm like a boxer guarding.
"Hold on! Hold on, Mard!" he cried in a strangely little voice. "I did n't—it was n't us, honest!"
Each man, looking at the other, knew that the lie would not serve. And Lee saw death in the round black muzzle and the blazing eyes behind it. Let it go to his credit that he bellowed like a bull and hurled himself forward with great gnarled hands grappling in the air.
The gun roared in the stifled gully.
In the cloud of smoke the sailor reeled, with a gray face and his open mouth a black circle; then his bulk collapsed like a telescope, or rather like an empty meal sack that has been held open and suddenly dropped. Marden, deafened by the explosion, and with his shoulder smarting from the recoil, gave a loud cry as he saw the man fall so through the smoke, and then jerk forward convulsively, burying his face in the sharp bristles of a little fir tree, as a heavy sleeper might bury it in a pillow. This lasted only a moment, for the body rolled over with a terrible limpness, and lay on its back, the twisted legs pointing uphill and the head jammed over against one shoulder by the weight. Almost in the same instant there shuddered over the gray features a swift and mortal change.
The smoke drew slowly up the hill, trailing in low-spread layers and wisps among the lean mullein stalks. With the smell of powder mingled that of burning paper from the wads, which lay smoking among the pebbles and dust. There also rose the pungent odor of rum: in the pocket of the blue flannel shirt that was drawn so tight over the huge chest a flat bottle had broken. The cloth was dark and sopping with this, and another stain, that spread. No trace of red appeared: lifeblood and rum soaked the flannel together, indistinguishable.
Harden, with gun grounded, looked down at this, his thin face stern as bronze in the hot sun,—the face of a soldier and a priest.
Slowly the ringing in his ears turned into the hum of flies that made the silence. Then of a sudden the place was struck into dusk. The sun had gone behind the trees above the road, leaving the gully in shadow, as if cloude over before a storm. The hollow seemed also to become cooler. And just then Harden, with his eyes still fixed on the dead man's face, lying half sidewise, in the stubble of beard, saw it as if it had been his father's. At the thought, his heart shrank small and cold: it was as though he had killed them both. His whole body unstrung, like a fiddlestring when the peg slips. Without another look at the dead man, he turned and ran in panic and horror, shivering with cold, stumbling to his knees with weakness, back into the sunlight and along the deserted road.