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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book V - The Ancient Law - Chapter IX. The Fulfilling of the Law
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The Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book V - The Ancient Law - Chapter IX. The Fulfilling of the Law Post by :Peter Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :2009

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The Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book V - The Ancient Law - Chapter IX. The Fulfilling of the Law

Christopher had helped Tucker upstairs to bed and had gone into
his own room to undress, when a sharp and persistent rattle upon
the closed shutters brought him in alarm to his feet. Looking
out, he saw a man's figure outlined in the moonlight on the walk,
and, at once taking it to be Will, he ran hastily down and
unbarred the door.

"Come in quietly," he said. "Uncle Tucker is asleep upstairs.
What in thunder is the trouble now?"

Stepping back, he led the way into what so short a time ago had
been Mrs. Blake's parlour, and then pausing in the center of the
floor, stood waiting with knitted brows for an explanation of the
visit. But Will, who had shrunk dazzled from the flash of the
lamp, now lingered to put up the bar with shaking hands.

"For God's sake, what is it?" questioned Christopher, and a start
shook through him at sight of the other's face. "Have you had a
fit?"

Closing the parlour door behind him, Will crossed the room and
caught at the mantel for support. "I told you I'd do it some
day--I told you I'd do it," he said incoherently, in a frantic
effort to shift the burden of responsibility upon stronger
shoulders.

"You might have known all along that I'd do it some day."

"Do what?" demanded Christopher, while he felt the current of his
blood grow weak. "Out with it, now. Speak up. You're as white as
a sheet."

"He struck me--he struck me first. The bruise is here," resumed
Will, in the same eager attempt at self justification. "Then I
hit him on the head with a hammer and his skull gave way. I
didn't hit hard. I swear it was a little blow; but he's dead. I
left him stone dead in the kitchen. "

"My God, man!" exclaimed Christopher, and touched him on the
shoulder.

With a groan, Will put up his hands and covered his bloodshot
eyes. "I didn't mean to do it--I swear I didn't," he protested.
"Who'd have thought his head would crush in like that at the
first little blow--just a tap with an old hammer? Why, it would
hardly have cracked a walnut! And what was the hammer doing
there, anyway? They have no business to leave such things lying
about on the hearth. It was all their fault--they ought to have
put the hammer away."

A convulsive shudder ran through him, ending in his hands and
feet, which jerked wildly. His face was gray and old--so old that
he might have been taken, at the first glance, for a man of
eighty, and in the intervals between his words he sucked in his
breath with a hissing noise. Meeting Christopher's look, he broke
into a spasm of frightened sobs, whimpering like a child that has
been whipped.

"I told you not to drink again," said Christopher sharply as he
struggled to collect his thoughts. "I told you liquor would make
a beast of you."

"I'll never touch another drop. I swear I'll never touch another
drop," groaned Will, still sobbing. "I didn't mean to kill him, I
tell you. It wasn't as if I really meant to kill him; you see
that. It was all the fault of that accursed hammer they left
lying on the hearth. A man must have a lot of courage to murder
anybody--mustn't he?" he added, with a feeble smile; "and I'm a
coward--you know I've always been a coward; haven't I--haven't
I?" he persisted, and Christopher nodded an agreement.

"You see, I wasn't to blame, after all; but he flew into such a
rage--he always flew into a rage when he heard your name."

"So you brought my name in?" asked Christopher carelessly.

"Oh, it was that that did it; it was your name," replied Will
breathlessly. "I told him you said he was a devil--you did say
so, you know. Christopher Blake was right; he called you 'a
devil,' that was it. Then he ran at me with his stick, and I
jerked up the hammer, and Oh, my God, they mustn't hang me!"

"Nonsense!" retorted Christopher roughly, for the other had
dropped upon the floor and was grovelling in drunken hysterics at
his feet. "It makes me sick to see a man act like an ass."

"Get me out of this and I'll never touch a drop," moaned Will.
"Take me away from here--hide me anywhere. I'll go anywhere, I'll
promise anything, only they mustn't find me. If they find me I'll
go mad--I'll go mad in gaol."

"Shut up!" rejoined Christopher, listening with irritation to the
sound of the other's hissing breath. "Stop your infernal racket a
minute and let me think. Here, get up. Are you too drunk to stand
on your feet?"

"I'm sober--I'm perfectly sober," protested Will, and, rising
obediently, he stood clutching at the chimney-piece. "Get me out
of this--only get me out of this," he repeated, with a desperate
reliance on the other's power to avert the consequences of his
deed. "I've always been a good friend to you," he went on
passionately. "The quarrel first started about you, and I stood
up for you to the last. I never let him say anything against
you--I never did!"

"I'm much obliged to you," returned Christopher, and felt that he
might as well have wasted his irony on a beaten hound. Turning
away from the wild entreaty of Will's eyes, he walked slowly up
and down the room, taking care to step lightly lest the boards
should creak and awaken Tucker.

The parlour was just as Mrs. Blake had left it; her highbacked
Elizabethan chair, filled with cushions, stood on the hearth; the
dried grasses in the two tall vases shed their ashy pollen down
upon the bricks. Even the yellow cat, grown old and sluggish,
dozed in her favourite spot beside the embroidered ottoman.

On the whitewashed walls the old Blake portraits still presided,
and he found, for the first time, an artless humour in the
formality of the ancestral attitude--in the splendid pose which
they had handed down like an heirloom through the centuries.
Among them he saw the comely, high-coloured features of that
gallant cynic, Bolivar, the man who had stamped his beauty upon
threegenerations, and his gaze lingered with a gentle ridicule on
the blithe candour in the eyes and the characteristic touch of
brutality about the mouth. Then he passed to his father, portly,
impressive, a high liver, a generous young blood, and then to the
classic Saint--Memin profile of Aunt Susannah, limned delicately
against a background of faded pink. And from her he went on to
his mother's portrait, painted in shimmering brocade under rose
garlands held by smiling Loves.

He looked at them all steadily for a while, seeking from the
changeless lips of each an answer to the question which he felt
knocking at his own heart. In every limb, in every feature, in
every fiber he was plainly born to be one of themselves, and yet
from their elegant remoteness they stared down upon the rustic
labourer who was their descendant. Degraded, coarsened,
disinherited, the last Blake stood before them, with his poverty
and ignorance illumined only at long intervals by the flame of a
soul which, though darkened, was still unquenched.

The night dragged slowly on, while he paced the floor with his
thoughts and Will moaned and tossed, a shivering heap, upon the
sofa.

"Stop your everlasting cackle!" Christopher had once shouted
angrily, forgetting Tucker, and for the space of a few minutes
the other had lain silent, choking back the strangling sobs. But
presently the shattered nerves revolted against restraint, and
Will burst out afresh into wild crying. The yellow cat, grown
suddenly restless, crossed the room and jumped upon the sofa,
where she stood clawing at the cover, and he clung to her with a
pathetic recognition of dumb sympathy--the sympathy which he
could not wring from the careless indifference of Christopher's
look.

"Speak to me--say something," he pleaded at last, stretching out
his hands. "If this keeps up I'll go mad before morning."

At this Christopher came toward him, and, stopping in his walk,
frowned down upon the sofa.

"You deserve everything you'd get;" he said angrily. "You're as
big a fool as ever trod this earth, and there's no reason under
heaven why I should lift my hand to help you. There's no reason
--there's no reason," he repeated in furious tones.

"But you'll do it--you'll get me out of it!" cried Will, grasping
the other's knees.

"And two weeks later you'd be in another scrape."

"Not a single drop--I'll never touch a drop again. Before God I
swear it!"

"Pshaw! I've heard that oath before."

Strangling a scream, Will caught him by the arm, dragging himself
slowly into a sitting posture. "I'll hang myself if you let them
get me," he urged hysterically. " I'll hang myself in gaol rather
than let them do it. I can't face it all I can't--I can't. It
isn't grandpa I mind; I'm not afraid of him. He was a devil. But
it's the rest--the rest."

Roughly shaking him off, Christopher left him huddled upon the
floor and resumed his steady walk up and down the room. In his
ears the incoherent phrases grew presently fainter, and after a
time he lost entirely their frenzied drift. "A little blow--just
a little blow," ended finally in muffled sounds of weeping.

The habit of outward composure which always came to him in
moments of swift experience possessed him so perfectly now that
Will, lifting miserable eyes to his face, lowered them, appalled
by its unfeeling gravity.

"I've been a good friend to you--a deuced good friend to you,"
urged the younger man in a last passionate appeal for the aid
whose direction he had not yet defined.

"What is this thought which I cannot get rid of?" asked
Christopher moodily of himself. "And what business is it of mine,
anyway? What am I to the boy or the boy to me?" But even with the
words he remembered the morning more than five years ago when he
had gone out to the gate with his bird gun on his shoulder and
found Will Fletcher and the spotted foxhound puppies awaiting him
in the road. He saw again the boy's face, with the sunlight full
upon it--eager, alert, a little petulant, full of good impulses
readily turned adrift. There had been no evil upon it then--only
weakness and a pathetic absence of determination. His own
damnable intention was thrust back upon him, and he heard again
the words of Carraway which had reechoed in his thoughts. "The
way to touch the man, then, is through the boy." So it was the
way, after all .

He almost laughed aloud at his prophetic insight. He had touched
the man vitally enough at last, and it was through the boy. He
had murdered Bill Fletcher, and he had done it through the only
thing Bill Fletcher had ever loved. From this he returned again
to the memory of the deliberate purpose of that day--to the
ribald jests, the coarse profanities, the brutal oaths. Then to
the night when he had forced the first drink down Will's throat,
and so on through the five years of his revenge to the present
moment. Well, his triumph had come at last, the summit was put
upon his life's work, and he was--he must be--content.

Will raised his head and looked at him in reviving hope.

"You're the only friend I have on earth," he muttered between his
teeth.

The first streak of dawn entered suddenly, flooding the room with
a thin gray light in which the familiar objects appeared robbed
of all atmospheric values. With a last feeble flicker the lamp
shot up and went out, and the ashen wash of daybreak seemed the
fit medium for the crude ugliness of life.

Towering almost grotesquely in the pallid dawn, Christopher came
and leaned above the sofa to which Will had dragged himself
again.

"You must get out of this," he said, "and quickly, for we've
wasted the whole night wrangling. Have you any money?"

Will fumbled in his pocket and brought out a few cents, which he
held in his open palm, while the other unlocked the drawer of the
old secretary and handed him a roll of banknotes.

"Take this and buy a ticket somewhere. It's the money I scraped
up to pay Fred Turner."

"To pay Fred Turner?" echoed Will, as if in that lay the
significance of the remark.

"Take it and buy a ticket, and when you get where you're going,
sit still and keep your mouth shut. If you wear a bold face you
will go scot--free; remember that; but everything depends upon
your keeping a stiff front. And now go--through the back door and
past the kitchen to the piece of woods beyond the pasture. Cut
through them to Tanner's Station and take the train there, mind,
for the North."

With a short laugh he held out his big, knotted hand.

"Good--by," he said, " and don't be a damned fool."

"Good--by," answered Will, clinging desperately to his
outstretched arm. Then an ashen pallor overspread his face, and
he slunk nervously toward the kitchen, for there was the sound of
footsteps on the little porch outside, followed by a brisk rap on
the front door.

"Go!" whispered Christopher, hardly taking breath, and he stood
waiting while Will ran along the wooden platform and past the
stable toward the pasture.

The rap came again, and he turned quickly. "Quit your racket and
let me get on my clothes!" he shouted, and hesitated a little
longer.

As he stood alone there in the center of the room, his eyes,
traversing the walls, fell on the portrait of Bolivar Blake, and
with one of the fantastic tricks of memory there shot into his
head the dying phrase of that gay sinner: "I may not sit with the
saints, but I shall stand among the gentlemen."

"Precious old ass!" he muttered, and unbarred the door.

As he flung it open the first rays of sunlight splashed across
the threshold, and he was conscious, all at once, of a strange
exhilaration, as if he were breasting one of the big waves of
life.

"This is a pretty way to wake up a fellow who has been planting
tobacco till he's stiff," he grumbled. "Is that you, Tom?" He
glanced carelessly round, nodding with a kind of friendly
condescension to each man of the little group. "How are you,
Matthew? Hello, Fred!"

Tom drew back, coughing, and scraped the heel of his boot on the
topmost step.

"We didn't mean to git you out of bed, Mr. Christopher," he
explained apologetically, "but the truth is we want Will Fletcher
an' he ain't at home. The old man's murdered, suh."

"Murdered, is he?" exclaimed Christopher, with a long whistle,
"and you want Will Fletcher--which shows what a very pretty
sheriff you would make. Well, if you're so strong on his scent
that you can't turn aside, most likely you'll find him sleeping
off his drunk under my haystack. But if you're looking for the
man who killed Bill Fletcher, then that's a different matter,°"
he added, taking down his hat, "and I reckon, boys, I'm about
ready to come along."

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