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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 25
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 25 Post by :a4tech Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :559

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 25

Chapter XXV

It was September, but a very warm day. Charlotte had walked along the highway for some distance; then when she came to a considerable grove of oak-trees, she hesitated a moment, and finally left the road, entered the grove, and sat down on a rock at only a little distance from the road, yet out of sight of it. She was quite effectually screened by the trees and some undergrowth. Here and there the oaks showed shades of russet-and-gold and deep crimson; the leaves had not fallen. In the sunlit spaces between the trees grew clumps of blue asters. She saw a squirrel sitting quite motionless on a bough over her head, with bright eyes of inquisitive fear upon her. She felt a sense of delight, and withal a slight tinge of loneliness and risk. There was no doubt that it was not altogether wise, perhaps not safe, for a girl to leave the highway, or even to walk upon it if it were not thickly bordered by dwellings, in this state. Charlotte was fearless, yet her imagination was a lively one. She looked about her with keen enjoyment, yet there was a sharp wariness in her glance akin to that of the squirrel. When she heard on the road the rattle of wheels, and caught the flash of revolving spokes in the sun, she had a sensation of relief. There was not a house in sight, except far to the left, where she could just discern the slant of a barn roof through the trees. Everything was very still. While there was no wind, it was cool in the shade, though hot in the sunlight. She pulled her jacket over her shoulders. She leaned against a tree and remained perfectly quiet. She had on a muslin gown of an indeterminate green color, and it shaded perfectly into the coloring of the tree-trunk, which was slightly mossy. Her dark head, too, was almost indistinguishable against the tree, which at that height was nearly black. In fact, she became almost invisible from that most curious system of concealment in the world, that of assimilation with nature. She was gathered so closely into the arms of the great mother that she seemed one with her. And she was not alone in the shelter of those mighty arms; there was the squirrel, as indistinguishable as she. And there was another.

Charlotte with her bright, wary eyes, and the little animal with his, in the tree, became aware of another sentient thing besides themselves. Possibly the squirrel had been aware of it all the time.

Suddenly the girl looked downward at her right and saw within a stone's-throw a man asleep. He was dressed in an ancient, greenish-brown suit, and was practically invisible. His arm was thrown over his weather-beaten face and he was sleeping soundly, lying in a position as grotesquely distorted as some old tree-root. He was, in fact, distorted by the storms of life within and without. He was evidently a tramp, and possibly worse. His sleeping face could be read like a page of evil lore.

When Charlotte perceived him she turned pale and her heart seemed to stop. Her first impulse was to rise and make a mad rush for the road. Then she became afraid to do that. The road was lonely. She heard no sound of wheels thereon. It was true that she had entered the grove and seated herself without awakening the man; he might quite possibly be in a drunken sleep, difficult to disturb, but she might not be so fortunate a second time. Her slightest motion might awaken him now. So she sat perfectly still; she did not move a finger; it seemed to her she did not breathe. When a slight breeze rustled the tree-boughs over her head, and ruffled the skirt of her dress, her terror made her sick. When the breeze struck him, the sleeping tramp made an uneasy motion, and she felt overwhelmed. Soon, however, he began to breathe heavily. Before his breathing had been inaudible. He was evidently quite soundly asleep, yet if a breeze could disturb him, what might not her rise and flight do? It seemed to her that she must remain there forever. But the time would come when that sleeping terror would awake, whether she disturbed him or not, when that distorted caricature of man, as grotesque as a gargoyle on the temple of life, would stretch those twisted legs and arms, and open his eyes and see her; and then? She became sure, the longer she looked, that this was not one of the harmless wanderers over the earth, one of the Ishmaels, whose hand is turned only against himself. The great dark, bloated face had a meaning that could not be mistaken even by eyes for whom its meaning was written in a strange language. Innocence read guilt by a strange insight of heredity which came to her from the old beginning of things. She dared not stir. She felt petrified. She realized that her one hope was in the passing of some one on the road. She made up her mind that if she heard wheels she would risk everything. She would spring up and run for her life and scream. Then she wondered how loudly she could scream. Charlotte was not one of the screaming kind of girls who lifts up her voice of panic at everything. She tried to remember if she had ever screamed, and how loudly. She kept her ears strained for the sound of wheels, her eyes on the sleeping tramp. She dared not look away from him. Even the squirrel remained motionless, with his round eyes of wariness fixed. It was as if he too were afraid to stir. He retained his attitude of alert grace, sitting erect on his little haunches, an acorn in his paws, his bushy tail arching over his back like a plume.

Then slowly the man opened his eyes with a dazed expression, at first a blur of consciousness. Then gradually the recognition of himself, of his surroundings, of his life, came into them, and that self-knowledge was unmistakable. There was no doubt about the man with his twisted limbs and his twisted soul. He lay quite still a while longer, staring. Charlotte, with her eyes upon him, and the squirrel with his eyes upon him, never stirred. Charlotte heard her heart beat, and wished for some way to stifle it, but that she could not do. It seemed to her that the beating of her heart was like a drum, as if it could be heard through all the grove. She realized that she could not hear the sound of passing wheels on the road, because of this terrible beating of her heart. It seemed inevitable that the man would hear it. She felt then that she should take her one little chance, that she should scream on the possibility of some one passing on the road, and run, but she realized the futility of it. Before she could move a step the man would be upon her. She felt, moreover, paralyzed. She remained as perfectly motionless as the tree against which she leaned, with her eyes full of utmost terror and horror upon the waking man. He still looked straight ahead, and his eyes were still retrospective, fixed inward rather than outward. He still saw only himself and his own concerns.

Then he yawned audibly and spoke. "Damn it all!" he said, in a curious voice, of rather passive rage. It was the voice of one at variance with all creation, his hand against every man and every man against him, and yet the zest of rebellion was not in it. In fact, the man had been so long at odds with life that a certain indifference was upon him. He had become sullen. As he lay there he thrust a hand in his pocket, and again he spoke his oath against all outside, against all creation. He had thought absently that he might find a dime for a drink. Now that he had waked, he was thirsty, but there was none. Then he yawned, stretched out his stiff, twisted limbs with a sort of muffled groan, rested his weight upon one elbow, and shambled up as awkwardly as a camel. The girl sat still in the clutch of her awful fear. She no longer heard her heart beat. She was casting about in her mind for a weapon. A great impulse of fight was stirring in her. She felt suddenly that her little fingers were like steel. She felt that she should kill that man if he touched her. The fear never let go its clutch on her heart, but a fierceness as of any wild thing at bay was over her. She realized that in another minute, when he should see her, she would gather herself up, and spring, spring as she had read of a tarantula springing; that she would be first before the man, that she would kill him. Something which was almost insanity was firing her brain.

The man, when he had stood up, it seemed to Charlotte, looked directly at her. She was always sure that he did. But if he did, it was with unseeing eyes. His brain did not compass the image of her sitting there, leaning against the tree, a creature of incarnate terror and insane fury. He seemed to keep his eyes fixed upon her for a full second. Charlotte's nerves and muscles were tense with the restrained impulse to spring. Then he slowly shuffled away. As he passed, the squirrel slid like swiftness itself down the tree, and across an open space to another. The girl sank limply upon herself in a dead faint, and the tramp gained the road and trudged sullenly on towards Ludbury.

When Charlotte came to herself she was still sitting there limply. She could not realize all at once what had happened. Then she remembered. She looked at the place where the tramp had lain, and so forcibly did her terrified fancy project images that it was difficult to convince herself that he was really gone. She seemed to still see that gross thing lying there. Then she remembered distinctly that he had gone.

She got up, but she could scarcely stand. She had never fainted before, and she wondered at her own sensations. "What ails me?" she thought. She strained her eyes around, but there was no sign of the terrible man. She was quite sure that he had gone, and yet how could she be sure? He might have gone out to the road and be sitting beside it. A vivid recollection of tramps sitting beside that very road, as she had been driving past, came over her. She became quite positive that he was out on the road, and a terror of the road was over her. She looked behind her, and the sunny gleam of an open field came through the trees. The field was shaggy with blue asters and golden-rod gone to seed, and white tufts of immortelles. Charlotte stared through the trees at the field, and suddenly a man crossed the little sunny opening. A great joy swept over her; he was Randolph Anderson. Now she was sure that she was safe. She stumbled again to her feet, and ran weakly out of the oak grove. There was a low fence between the grove and the field, and when she reached that she stopped. She felt this to be insurmountable for her trembling limbs. "Oh, dear!" she said, aloud, and although the man was holding his butterfly-net cautiously over the top of a clump of asters so far away that it did not seem possible that he could hear her, he immediately looked up. Then he hastened towards her. As he drew near a look of concern deepened on his face. He had had an inkling at the first glimpse of her that something was wrong. He reached the fence and stood looking at her on the other side.

"I am afraid I can't get over," Charlotte said, faintly. She never knew quite how she was over, lifted in some fashion, and Anderson stood close to her, looking at her with his face as white as hers.

"What is it?" he asked. "Are you ill, Miss Carroll? What is it?"

"I have been frightened," said she. Without quite knowing what she did, she caught hold of his arm and clung to him tightly.

"What frightened you?" asked Anderson, fairly trembling himself and looking down at her.

"There was a man asleep in the grove, in there," explained Charlotte, falteringly--she still felt faint and strange--"and--and--I sat down there, and did not see him, and then he--he woke up and--"

Anderson seized her arm in a fierce clutch. "What?" he cried. "Where is he? What? For God's sake!"

"He went away out in the road and did not seem to see--me. I sat still," said Charlotte. Then she was very faint again, for he, too, frightened her a little.

Anderson caught her, supporting her, while he tore off his coat. Then he half carried her over to a ledge of rocks cropping out of the furzy gold-and-blue undergrowth, and sat down beside her there. Charlotte sat weakly where she was placed. She was deadly white and trembling. Anderson hesitated a moment, then he put an arm around her, removed her hat, and drew her head down on his shoulder.

"Now keep quiet a little while until you are better," he said. "You are perfectly safe now. You say the man did not see you?"

Charlotte shook her head against his shoulder. She closed her eyes; she was really very near a complete swoon, and scarcely knew where she was or what was happening; only a vague sense of another will thrust under her sinking spirit for a support was over her.

As for the man, he looked down at the little, pale face, with the dark lashes sweeping the soft cheeks, at the mouth still trembling to a sob of terror and grief, and a mighty wave of emotion was over him. He realized that he held in his arms not only the girl whom he loved, towards whom his whole being went out in protection and tenderness, but himself, his whole future, even in some subtle sense his past. He was like one on some height of the spirit, from which he overlooked all that was, all that had gone before, and all that would come. He was on the Delectable Mountain. Within himself he comprehended the widest vision of earth, that which is given through love. The man's face, looking at the woman's on his shoulder, became transfigured. It was full of uttermost tenderness, of protection as perfect as that of a father for his child. His heart, as he looked at her, was at once that of a lover and a father. He unconsciously held her closer, and bent his face down over hers softly, as if she had been indeed a child.

"Poor little soul!" he whispered, and his lips almost touched her cheek.

Then a wave of color came over the girl's face. "I am better," she said, and raised herself abruptly. Anderson drew back and removed his arm. He feared she was offended, and perhaps afraid of him. But she looked piteously up in his face, and, to his dismay, began to cry. Her nerves were completely unstrung. She was not a strong girl, and she had, in fact, been through a period of mental torture which might have befitted the Inquisition. She could still see the man's evil face; her brain seemed stamped with the sight; terror had mastered her. She was for the time being scarcely sane. The terrible imagination of ill which had possessed her, as she sat there gazing at the sleeping terror, still held her in sway. She was not naturally hysterical, but now hysterics threatened her.

Anderson put his arm around her again and drew her head to his shoulder. "You must not mind," he said, in a grave, authoritative voice. "You are ill and frightened. You must not mind. Keep your head on my shoulder until you feel better. You are quite safe now." Anderson's voice was rather admonishing than caressing. Charlotte sobbed wildly against his shoulder, and clung to him with her little, nervous hands. Anderson sat looking down at her gravely. "Is your mother at home?" he asked, presently.

"No," sobbed Charlotte; "they have all gone to drive."

"Nobody in the house?"

"Only Marie."

Anderson reflected. He was much nearer his own home than hers, and there was a short-cut across the field; they would not need to strike the road at all. He rose, with a sudden resolution, and raised the weeping girl to her feet.

"Come," said he, in the same authoritative voice, and Charlotte stumbled blindly along, his arm still around her. She had an under-consciousness that she was ashamed of herself for showing so little bravery, that she wondered what this man would think of her, but her self-control was gone, because of the too tense strain which had been put upon it. It was like a spring too tightly compressed, suddenly released; the vibrations of her nerves seemed endless. She tried to hush her sobs as she was hurried along, and succeeded in some measure, but she was still utterly incapable of her usual mental balance. Once she started, and clutched Anderson's arm with a gasp of fear.

"Look, look!" she whispered.

"What is it?" he asked, soothingly.

"The man is there. See him?"

"There is nothing there, child," he said, and hurried her over the place where her distorted vision had seen again the object of her terror, in his twisted sleep in the grass.

Anderson began to be seriously alarmed about the girl. He did not know what consequences might come from such a severe mental strain upon such a nervous temperament. He hurried as fast as he dared, almost carrying her at times, and finally they emerged upon the garden at the right of his own house. The flowers were thinning out fast, but the place was still gay with marigolds and other late blossoms. As he passed the kitchen door he was aware of the maid's gaping face of stupid surprise, and he called out curtly to her: "Is my mother in the house?"

"Yes, sir. She's in the sitting-room," replied the maid, with round eyes of curiosity upon the pair. Charlotte was making a desperate effort to walk by herself, to recover herself, but Anderson was still almost carrying her bodily. She wondered dimly at the strange trembling of her limbs, at the way the bright orange and red of the marigolds and nasturtiums swam before her eyes, and once again she saw quite distinctly the evil face of the man peer out at her from among them; but this time she said nothing, for her subconsciousness of delusion was growing stronger.

Anderson went around to the front of the house, and his mother's wondering face gazed from a window, then quickly disappeared. When he reached the door she was there, filling it up with her large figure in its voluminous white draperies.

"What--" she began, but Randolph interrupted her.

"Mother, this is Miss Carroll," he said. "She is not hurt, but she has had a terrible fright and shock. Her people are all away from home, and I brought her here; it was nearer. I want her to have some wine, and rest, and get over it before she goes home."

Mrs. Anderson hesitated one second. It was a pause for the gathering together of wits suddenly summoned for new and surprising emergencies; then she rose to the occasion. She had her faults and her weaknesses, but she was one of the women in whom the maternal instinct is a power, and this girl appealed to it. She stretched forth her white-clad arms, and she drew her away almost forcibly from her son.

"You poor child!" said she, in a voice which harked back to her son's babyhood. "Come right in. You go and get a glass of that port-wine," said she to Randolph, and she gave him a little push. She enveloped and pervaded the girl in a voluminous embrace.

Charlotte felt the soft panting of a mother's bosom under her head as she was led into the house. "You poor, blessed child," a soft voice cooed in her ear, a soft voice and yet a voice of strength. Charlotte's own mother had never been in the fullest sense a mother to her; a large part of the spiritual element of maternity had been lacking; but here was a woman who could mother a race, if once her heart of maternal love was awakened.

Charlotte was not led; that did not seem to be the action. She felt as if she were borne along by sustaining wings spread under her weakness into a large, cool bedroom opening out of the sitting-room. Then her dress was taken off, in what wise she scarcely knew; she was enrobed in one of Mrs. Anderson's large, white wrappers, and was laid tenderly in a white bed, where presently she was sipping a glass of port-wine, with Mrs. Anderson sitting behind her and supporting her head.

"No, you can't come in, Randolph," she heard her say to her son, and her voice sounded almost angry. After Charlotte had swallowed the wine, she lay back on the pillow, and she heard Mrs. Anderson talking softly to her in a sort of delicious dream, caused partly by the wine, which had mounted at once to her head, and partly by the sense of powerful protection and perfect peace and safety.

"Poor lamb!" Mrs. Anderson said, and her voice sounded like the song of a mother bird. "Poor lamb; poor, blessed child! It was a shame she was so frightened, but she is safe now. Now go to sleep if you can, dear child; it will do you good."

Charlotte smiled helplessly and gratefully, and after a happy stare around the room, with its scroll-work of green on the walls, reflecting green gloom from closed blinds, and another look of childish wonder into the loving eyes bent over her, she closed her own. Presently Mrs. Anderson tiptoed out into the sitting-room, where Randolph was waiting, standing bolt-upright in the middle of the room staring at the bedroom door. She beckoned him across the hall into the opposite room, the parlor. The parlor had a musty smell which was not unpleasant; in fact, slightly aromatic. There were wooden shutters which were tightly closed, all except one, through an opening in which a sunbeam came and transversed the room in a shaft of glittering motes.

"What scared her so?" demanded Mrs. Anderson. She had upon her a new authority. Anderson felt as if he had reverted to his childhood. He explained. "Well," said his mother, "the poor child has had an awful shock, and she is lucky if she isn't down sick with a fever. I don't like to see anybody look the way she did. But I'm thankful the man didn't see her."

"He might have been harmless enough," said Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson sniffed. "I don't see many harmless-looking ones round here," said she. "An awful-looking tramp came to the door this morning. I shouldn't wonder if it was the same one. I guess she will be all right now. She looked quieted down, but she had an awful shock, poor child."

"I wonder when I ought to take her home," said Anderson.

"Not for two hours," said his mother, decidedly. "She is going to stay here till she gets rested and is a little over it."

"Perhaps she had better," said Anderson; "her folks may have gone on a long drive, too."

"Did you know her before?" asked his mother, suddenly, and a sharp expression came into her soft, blue eyes.

"I have seen her in the store," replied Anderson, and he was conscious of coloring.

"She knew you, then?" said his mother.

"Yes. She was in the store this morning."

"It was lucky you were there."

"Oh, as for that, she was in no danger," said Anderson, coolly. "The tramp had gone."

"If you hadn't been there, I believe that poor little thing would have fainted dead away and lain there, nobody knows how long. It doesn't do anybody any good to get such a fright, and she is a thin, delicate little thing."

"Yes, she had quite a fright," said Anderson, walking over to the window with the defective shutter. "This shutter must be fixed," said he.

"I think she is prettier than the one that got married, but it is a pity she belongs to such a family," said Mrs. Anderson. "Mrs. Ferguson was just in here, and she says it is awful, that they are owing everybody."

"That is not the girl's fault," Anderson rejoined, with sudden fire.

"No, I suppose not," said Mrs. Anderson, with an anxious look at him. "Only, if she hasn't been taught to think it doesn't matter if debts are not paid."

"Well, I don't think that poor child is to be blamed," Anderson said.

"Do they owe you?"

"She came in and paid me this morning."

"Oh, I'm glad of that!" said his mother, and Anderson was conscious of intense guilt at his deception. Somehow half a lie had always seemed to him more ignoble than a whole one, and he had told a half one. He turned to leave the room, when there came a loud peal of the door-bell.

"Oh, dear, that will wake her up!" said his mother.

Anderson strode past her to the door, and there stood Eddy Carroll. He was breathless from running, and his pretty face was a uniform rose.

"Say," he panted, "is my sister in here?"

"Hush!" said Anderson. "Yes, she is."

"I chased you all the way," said Eddy, "but I tumbled down and hurt my knee on an old stone, and then I couldn't catch up." Indeed, the left knee of Eddy's little knickerbockers showed a rub and a red stain. "Where's Charlotte?"

"She is lying down. She was frightened, and I brought her here, and she has had some wine and is lying down."

"What frightened her, I'd like to know? First thing I saw you were lugging her off across the field. What frightened her?"

Anderson explained.

Eddy sniffed with utmost scorn. "Just like a girl," said he, "to get scared of a man that was fast asleep, and wouldn't have hurt her, anyway. Just like a girl. Say, you'd better keep her awhile."

"We are going to," said Mrs. Anderson.

"If she stays to supper, I might stay too, and then I could go home with her, and save you the trouble," said Eddy to Anderson.

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