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VII
THE CLUE

Why he went back to the house he never could have told, any more than how he got there, or whether he had passed any one—though he had not—on the way. He only knew that he found himself sitting on the millstone at the door, and that in the east, over the sea, an ancient star shone bright in mocking calmness. He held his head in his hands, shuddering uncontrollably in a tumult of dismay. He could not rightly think what he had done. Which of them had he killed, or was it indeed both? Why, why in all the welter of chances, had this thing happened? He racked his brain for some word of help, but no word came except a fragment he had been reading the day before,—by what right had he read it?—the prayer of Elijah: "It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers." Better? How many times worse! They, rough, simple men, had done what they knew, no more. And he, what sacred things had he not known, what high purposes had he not guarded, only to dash them underfoot!

He shook his fist at the calm, inveterate star.

"Who 'll be the judge, then?" he asked fiercely, in a whisper more heart-breaking than a cry. "What's right, and what's wrong? And what is there left?"

He found no answer, and dropped his head again, shivering as in a fever-fit.

A horse, left alone in the island pasture where the tide had cut him off, whinnied out of the distant dark. Even in Marden's torment, the sound brought back that evening when his brother had returned. Memories and questions swarmed in his brain again, rioting. Why could not he that now lay there dead in the gully, why could not he have stayed away? The world was so big, and full of a million other mishaps. If he were to die, a drunken lurch on the string-piece of a pier, a slip on an icy foot-rope, and Fate would have been satisfied without this dreadful means. Or again, was it all a fault of his, Marden's? Could he not have treated Lee differently? Had he not been too stern and sour with the poor devil? "For God knows," he cried within himself, "we are all poor devils together." Had it been a test, long, secret, subtle, and had he failed once more through dullness? Perhaps all the years of night-long watching, without complaint, showed him only a hard-hearted prig, a weakling Pharisee. Or if not, were they all to go for nothing because the watchman had been false a single night? These and a hundred worse questions hounded him over a black, shifting wilderness of despair. He was alone. There was no creature believed in him or loved him, not even his mother, of whom he dared not think. The remembrance of the starry night aboard the Merry Andrew, of the spring walks alone that had strengthened his devotion, rose in his mind like pale glimpses in the life of some other man, long ago. Surely that boy—and yet here he sat, a murderer, with the eldest primal curse upon him. He groaned aloud, and flinging back his head, looked up into the infinite brightness and distance of the stars, from whence came no help. His sight and his thought could no longer penetrate among them, to thread a measureless way from depth to outermost depth, and be cleansed in the wonder of space. His head only grew the dizzier, with thoughts confined and whirling.

A light, flurried footstep sounded in the path close by. He sprang up. People in the world—he had forgotten them, and here was one coming, perhaps to speak empty words, perhaps to ask why he had done what was done.

He hoped the last, and was prepared to answer humbly.

Before he knew what was happening, a woman had run and flung her arms about him where he stood by the larch tree. Surely it was a dream, this swift embrace in the dark. But she was alive, warm, breathless, and was shaken violently as she clung to him.

"Oh," she panted, in tempestuous relief and hurry, "oh, why did n't you—why did n't you—oh, you fool!" She laughed in breathless and wild happiness, her voice smothered by his clothing.

"Why did n't you let me know?" she cried. "You 're so deep—I never guessed—not till I found him there—A-ah!" she shuddered, and clung to him as if she would have fallen.

"There was blood on him," she whispered brokenly. "And it's on me now—my sleeves. He was all wet when I—I dragged him into the bushes. It was in the dark— and O God, so heavy!—Let's go, let's go, let's go, quick!"

"Where? Go where?" Marden asked in amazement. He tried to raise her face, but could not, from where she held it buried against his side and in the crook of his arm.

"Across—over to the other side," she said. "Him an' I was goin' anyway to-night. That's why we— But that's before I knew what you— Come on, the boat's ready hid. Come along!"

Marden slowly drew near the brink of comprehension. The woman suddenly raised her head, seizing him anew and fiercely by the arm.

"You must n't be afraid of me any more," she coaxed, still in a whisper. "Don't be so cold to me. I understand you now, don'tI? Don't I?" she repeated vehemently, shaking him. And she gave a little happy laugh that rang dreadful in Marden's ears. "Oh, you quiet men!"

Marden looked at her, silent. His eyes, accustomed to the starlight, saw with an unaccountable clearness. The woman's face—the odd, alluring face, triangular like a kitten's—was upturned to his once more, and once more was mysteriously pale. This time, at night, there was something magic and phantasmal in the yearning darkness of the great eyes. He knew her thoroughly vile, a byword of the countryside; yet for one moment she stood before him mystical, a sorceress, and he wondered if there were not help in her.

"Come on!" She tugged at him with triumphant energy. "It's all plain as day—an' easy. See. I 've got the money that we—I 've got money enough. We 'll go to the American side, an' then to the cities, an' it 'll be a week before they find it—him, there, in the bushes—so they 'll never get us in God's world. We'd planned it already—but that was when I thought you did n't care.—An' the cities!" she cried. "That's the place to live. I 'll show you, for I know 'em all. That's where Jim found me first—Jim Barclay. The old fool!—old redheaded beast! Pah!"

She paused for breath, and, while the crickets were trilling in the damp grass, stroked his arm as if in consolation.

"Sakes, how strong you are!" she purred. "But you 're not like them. I'm through with their kind now, honest, for good. They 're big babies along of you. Don't you see? Don't you see?—Oh, you quiet devil! The time we 'll have!—I never knew a man like you before."

Still Marden could not pull himself away from what at once quieted and angered him.

"A man like me?" he stupidly faltered. "Why—what"—

"That's you all over!" cried the woman proudly. "Why, how many of 'em do you s'pose there is nowadays would do what you done for the sake of a woman?"

Once more, as in that meeting on the beach, a light began to grow slowly in his mind. Just so a man underground might see, far ahead, the day glimmering in the mouth of some burrow.

He drew himself free, without violence or scorn. The blood running in his veins was his own again, under control.

"You 're right," he replied slowly, "right in a way. I begin to see— By the Lord, it was that! That's a straw to catch at, anyway. There's a chance, after all."

His tone showed that he had forgotten her.

"What are you after now?" she whipped out. "Don't go moonin' again, now we understand each other."

She made as if to put her hands on his shoulders, but he drew back, regarding her gravely.

"It's queer,"—his voice, too, was very grave, and trembled,—"it's queer to hear a murderer talk of conscience, and all that—but let Him judge, wherever He is. I 've meant to do right, and—you see the fist I 've made. But now you 've made me see somehow, a little. It's like, well—it's as if a soldier (a stupid one, that's me) lost a great battle—for the cause—the cause his whole heart's in. That's how it is. And the man's heart breaks,—but he loves the cause just the same, and loves the Commander, too, that puts him to death—you see, he deserves it. Hopeless wrong, that's what I 've done; but something on the right side put me up to it."

"I don't know what you 're talkin' about, you queer thing," she said curtly. "But you 're wastin' time, anyway. Hurry up, for God's sake! I don't understand none o' that stuff, but this is right under our noses."

He shook his head sadly.

"A little while ago I might have killed you too. And now—why, it's almost a debt you 've put me under. At least,—go on—go away— We 're all poor devils together—and how do I know how the two Commanders choose up beforehand? Go away, and let me think this out—it ain't much I have left me—and I want to think it all out."

"What's the matter?" complained the woman. "After you done all this for me— What d'ye mean?"

"For you?" he replied quietly. "It was n't for you."

"Not for me?" She gave an impatient and incredulous laugh. "Then who in the devil was it for?"

"A woman," he slowly answered,—"you never knew her, and I hope you never saw her. I can't name her name before—either of us. And yet I see now she's way above any harm you or him or I might say or do against her."

With a sharp intake of breath that was almost a snarl, the woman advanced on him, quick and hostile.

"Do you mean that?" she cried, shrill with anger. "Do you understand what I know—what I can do, you fool?—an' I will do it, too. I'm in a pretty fix now—when it was all for some other woman. Oh, you two liars, you an' him both—an' let me go an' make a fool o' myself here— Oh, you great—you, you—oh, oh, oh!" She could find no words, but ran in close, pelted him viciously with her fists, then turned and bolted toward the town.

Marden neither felt her blows nor heard the sound of her running. He only knew that she had vanished. The darkness swallowed her up, and all memory of her. He was trying to feel his way out of this labyrinth before the tenuous clue should be withdrawn, or spin itself down to nothing in the dark.

"It was n't for such reasons as—as it might have been," he pondered. "If they 'll only give me time, I 'll follow this through yet, and get unsnarled, perhaps."

A soft breeze was drawing cool out of the west. The leaves of the poplar behind the house began to whisper shiveringly. High in the air, a firefly was blown down the wind, so that at the first glance he mistook it for a falling star. And in the sudden coolness Marden found himself thinking clearly and sweetly of his mother, whom he saw again, as in the blue December dawn, with the firelight shining upward on the gentle face and the sad gray eyes. It was all very distant, and belonged not to him; but at all events the vision was there.

"She'd understand even this," he thought. "Whether she ever forgave it or not, she knows what's been fighting in my veins. That's as much as a man deserves."

Through the trilling of the crickets and the soft patter of the leaves came the sound of a frog chunking away among the rushes of the little marsh behind the knoll, croaking his song, older than Aristophanes. Marden did not hear it, but he saw the ancient star hung in the east, and under the Great Bear the ghostly play of the Northern Lights, shifting in long faint streamers across the sky, showing a handiwork beyond all understanding.

He stood lost in wonder, filled with a grief as old as sea and land. Then he slowly faced about.

A light was coming from the village.

"The house," he said aloud, "it does n't matter now what happens to that, either."

The light came bobbing across the field. It was a lantern, carried in the midst of a little group of people, who approached silently. He could see their legs moving dim in the path, and the long, black, magnified shadows crossing and recrossing, shearing the broad hillside.

Marden walked slowly down to meet them.