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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Alabaster Box - Chapter 26
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An Alabaster Box - Chapter 26 Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2507

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An Alabaster Box - Chapter 26

Chapter XXVI

In the barroom of the Brookville House the flaring kerosene lamp lit up a group of men and half-grown boys, who had strayed in out of the chill darkness to warm themselves around the great stove in the middle of the floor. The wooden armchairs, which in summer made a forum of the tavern's side piazza, had been brought in and ranged in a wide semicircle about the stove, marking the formal opening of the winter session. In the central chair sat the large figure of Judge Fulsom, puffing clouds of smoke from a calabash pipe; his twinkling eyes looking forth over his fat, creased cheeks roved impartially about the circle of excited faces.

"I can understand all right about Andrew Bolton's turning up," one man was saying. "He was bound to turn up sooner or later. I seen him myself, day before yesterday, going down street. Thinks I, 'Who can that be?' There was something kind of queer about the way he dragged his feet. What you going to do about it, Judge? Have we got to put up with having a jailbird, as crazy as a loon into the bargain, living right here in our midst?"

"In luxury and idleness, like he was a captain of industry," drawled another man who was eating hot dog and sipping beer. "That's what strikes me kind of hard, Judge, in luxury and idleness, while the rest of us has to work."

Judge Fulsom gave an inarticulate grunt and smoked on imperturbably.

"Set down, boys; set down," ordered a small man in a red sweater under a corduroy coat. "Give the Jedge a chance! He ain't going to deliver no opinion whilst you boys are rammaging around. Set down and let the Jedge take th' floor."

A general scraping of chair legs and a shuffling of uneasy feet followed this exhortation; still no word from the huge, impassive figure in the central chair. The oily-faced young man behind the bar improved the opportunity by washing a dozen or so glasses, setting them down showily on a tin tray in view of the company.

"Quit that noise, Cholley!" exhorted the small man in the red sweater; "we want order in the court room--eh, Jedge?"

"What I'd like to know is where she got all that money of hers," piped an old man, with a mottled complexion and bleary eyes.

"Sure enough; where'd she get it?" chimed in half a dozen voices at once.

"She's Andrew Bolton's daughter," said the first speaker. "And she's been setting up for a fine lady, doing stunts for charity. How about our town hall an' our lov-elly library, an' our be-utiful drinking fountain, and the new shingles on our church roof? You don't want to ask too many questions, Lute."

"Don't I?" cried the man, who was eating hot dog. "You all know _me! I ain't a-going to stand for no grab-game. If she's got money, it's more than likely the old fox salted it down before they ketched him. It's our money; that's whose money 'tis, if you want to know!"

And he swallowed his mouthful with a slow, menacing glance which swept the entire circle.

"Now, Lucius," began Judge Fulsom, removing the pipe from his mouth, "go slow! No use in talk without proof."

"But what have you got to say, Jedge? Where'd she get all that money she's been flamming about with, and that grand house, better than new, with all the latest improvements. Wa'n't we some jays to be took in like we was by a little, white-faced chit like her? Couldn't see through a grindstone with a hole in it! Bolton House.... And an automobile to fetch the old jailbird home in. Wa'n't it love-ly?"

A low growl ran around the circle.

"Durn you, Lute! Don't you see the Jedge has something to say?" demanded the man behind the bar.

Judge Fulsom slowly tapped his pipe on the arm of his chair. "If you all will keep still a second and let me speak," he began.

"I want my rights," interrupted a man with a hoarse crow.

"Your rights!" shouted the Judge. "You've got no right to a damned thing but a good horsewhipping!"

"I've got my rights to the money other folks are keeping, I'll let you know!"

Then the Judge fairly bellowed, as he got slowly to his feet:

"I tell you once for all, the whole damned lot of you," he shouted, "that every man, woman and child in Brookville has been paid, compensated, remunerated and requited in full for every cent he, she or it lost in the Andrew Bolton bank failure."

There was a snarl of dissent.

"You all better go slow, and hold your tongues, and mind your own business. Remember what I say; that girl does not owe a red cent in this town, neither does her father. She's paid in full, and you've spent a lot of it in here, too!" The Judge wiped his red face.

"Oh, come on, Jedge; you don't want to be hard on the house," protested the man in the red sweater, waving his arms as frantically as a freight brakeman. "Say, you boys! don't ye git excited! The Jedge didn't mean that; you got him kind of het up with argufying.... Down in front, boys! You, Lute--"

But it was too late: half a dozen voices were shouting at once. There was a simultaneous descent upon the bar, with loud demands for liquor of the sort Lute Parsons filled up on. Then the raucous voice of the ringleader pierced the tumult.

"Come on, boys! Let's go out to the old place and get our rights off that gal of Bolton's!"

"That's th' stuff, Lute!" yelled the others, clashing their glasses wildly. "Come on! Come on, everybody!"

In vain Judge Fulsom hammered on the bar and called for order in the court room. The majesty of the law, as embodied in his great bulk, appeared to have lost its power. Even his faithful henchman in the red sweater had joined the rioters and was yelling wildly for his rights. Somebody flung wide the door, and the barroom emptied itself into the night, leaving the oily young man at his post of duty gazing fearfully at the purple face of Judge Fulsom, who stood staring, as if stupefied, at the overturned chairs, the broken glasses and the empty darkness outside.

"Say, Jedge, them boys was sure some excited," ventured the bartender timidly. "You don't s'pose--"

The big man put himself slowly into motion.

"I'll get th' constable," he growled. "I--I'll run 'em in; and I'll give Lute Parsons the full extent of the law, if it's the last thing I do on earth. I--I'll teach them!--I'll give them all they're lookin' for."

And he, too, went out, leaving the door swinging in the cold wind.

At the corner, still meditating vengeance for this affront to his dignity, Judge Fulsom almost collided with the hurrying figure of a man approaching in the opposite direction.

"Hello!" he challenged sharply. "Where you goin' so fast, my friend?"

"Evening, Judge," responded the man, giving the other a wide margin.

"Oh, it's Jim Dodge--eh? Say, Jim, did you meet any of the boys on the road?"

"What boys?"

"Why, we got into a little discussion over to the Brookville House about this Andrew Bolton business--his coming back unexpected, you know; and some of the boys seemed to think they hadn't got all that was coming to them by rights. Lute Parsons he gets kind of worked up after about three or four glasses, and he sicked the boys onto going out there, and--"

"Going out--where? In the name of Heaven, what do you mean, Judge?"

"I told 'em to keep cool and-- Say, don't be in a hurry, Jim. I had an awful good mind to call out Hank Simonson to run a few of 'em in. But I dunno as the boys'll do any real harm. They wouldn't dare. They know _me_, and they know--"

"Do you mean that drunken mob was headed for Bolton House? Why, Good Lord, man, she's there practically alone!"

"Well, perhaps you'd better see if you can get some help," began the Judge, whose easy-going disposition was already balking at effort.

But Jim Dodge, shouting back a few trenchant directions, had already disappeared, running at top speed.

There was a short cut to Bolton House, across plowed fields and through a patch of woodland. Jim Dodge ran all the way, wading a brook, swollen with the recent rains, tearing his way through thickets of brush and bramble, the twinkling lights in the top story of the distant house leading him on. Once he paused for an instant, thinking he heard the clamor of rude voices borne on the wind; then plunged forward again, his flying feet seemingly weighted with lead; and all the while an agonizing picture of Lydia, white and helpless, facing the crowd of drunken men flitted before his eyes.

Now he had reached the wall at the rear of the gardens; had clambered over it, dropping to his feet in the midst of a climbing rose which clutched at him with its thorny branches; had run across an acre of kitchen garden and leaped the low-growing hedge which divided it from the sunken flower garden he had made for Lydia. Here were more rosebushes and an interminable space broken by walks and a sundial, masked by shrubs, with which he collided violently. There was no mistaking the clamor from the front of the house; the rioters had reached their quarry first! Not stopping to consider what one man, single-handed and unarmed, could do against a score of drunken opponents, the young man rounded the corner of the big house just as the door was flung wide and the slim figure of Lydia stood outlined against the bright interior.

"What do you want, men?" she called out, in her clear, fearless voice. "What has happened?"

There was a confused murmur of voices in reply. Most of the men were decent enough fellows, when sober. Some one was heard to suggest a retreat: "No need to scare the young lady. 'Tain't her fault!"

"Aw! shut up, you coward!" shouted another. "We want our money!"

"Where did you get yer money?" demanded a third. "You tell us that, young woman. That's what we're after!"

"Where's the old thief? ...We want Andrew Bolton!"

Then from somewhere in the darkness a pebble flung by a reckless hand shattered a pane of glass. At sound of the crash all pretense of decency and order seemed abandoned. The spirit of the pack broke loose!

Just what happened from the moment when he leaped upon the portico, wrenching loose a piece of iron pipe which formed the support of a giant wistaria, Jim Dodge could never afterward recall in precise detail. A sort of wild rage seized him; he struck right and left among the dark figures swarming up the steps. There were cries, shouts, curses, flying stones; then he had dragged Lydia inside and bolted the heavy door between them and the ugly clamor without.

She faced him where he stood, breathing hard, his back against the barred door.

"They were saying--" she whispered, her face still and white. "My God! What do they think I've done?"

"They're drunk," he explained. "It was only a miserable rabble from the barroom in the village. But if you'd been here alone--!"

She shook her head.

"I recognized the man who spoke first; his name is Parsons. There were others, too, who worked on the place here in the summer.... They have heard?"

He nodded, unable to speak because of something which rose in his throat choking him. Then he saw a thin trickle of red oozing from under the fair hair above her temple, and the blood hammered in his ears.

"You are hurt!" he said thickly. "The devils struck you!"

"It's nothing--a stone, perhaps."

Something in the sorrowful look she gave him broke down the flimsy barrier between them.

"Lydia--Lydia!" he cried, holding out his arms.

She clung to him like a child. They stood so for a moment, listening to the sounds from without. There were still occasional shouts and the altercation of loud, angry voices; but this was momently growing fainter; presently it died away altogether.

She stirred in his arms and he stooped to look into her face.

"I--Father will be frightened," she murmured, drawing away from him with a quick decided movement. "You must let me go."

"Not until I have told you, Lydia! I am poor, rough--not worthy to touch you--but I love you with my whole heart and soul, Lydia. You must let me take care of you. You need me, dear."

Tears overflowed her eyes, quiet, patient tears; but she answered steadily.

"Can't you see that I--I am different from other women? I have only one thing to live for. I must go to him.... You had forgotten--him."

In vain he protested, arguing his case with all lover's skill and ingenuity. She shook her head.

"Sometime you will forgive me that one moment of weakness," she said sadly. "I was frightened and--tired."

He followed her upstairs in gloomy silence. The old man, she was telling him hurriedly, would be terrified. She must reassure him; and tomorrow they would go away together for a long journey. She could see now that she had made a cruel mistake in bringing him to Brookville.

But there was no answer in response to her repeated tapping at his door; and suddenly the remembrance of that stooping shadow came back to him.

"Let me go in," he said, pushing her gently aside.

The lights, turned high in the quiet room, revealed only emptiness and disorder; drawers and wardrobes pulled wide, scattered garments apparently dropped at random on chairs and tables. The carpet, drawn aside in one corner, disclosed a shallow aperture in the floor, from which the boards had been lifted.

"Why-- What?" stammered the girl, all the high courage gone from her face. "What has happened?"

He picked up a box--a common cigar box--from amid the litter of abandoned clothing. It was quite empty save for a solitary slip of greenish paper which had somehow adhered to the bottom.

Lydia clutched the box in both trembling hands, staring with piteous eyes at the damning evidence of that bit of paper.

"Money!" she whispered. "He must have hidden it before--before-- Oh, father, father!"

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