The Mystery of Metropolisville
Part 4 out of 5
disagreements between the Evangelists in some of the details. But now he
was in no mood for small criticism. Which is the shallower, indeed, the
criticism that harps on disagreements in such narratives, or the
pettifogging that strives to reconcile them, one can hardly tell. In
Charlton's mood, in any deeply earnest mood, one sees the smallness of
all disputes about sixth and ninth hours. Albert saw the profound
essential unity of the narratives, he felt the stirring of the deep
sublimity of the story, he felt the inspiration of the sublimest
character in human history. Did he believe? Not in any orthodox sense.
But do you think that the influence of the Christ is limited to them who
hold right opinions about Him? If a man's heart be simple, he can not see
Jesus in any light without getting good from Him. Charlton, unbeliever
that he was, wet the pages with tears, tears of sympathy with the high
self-sacrifice of Jesus, and tears of penitence for his own moral
weakness, which stood rebuked before the Great Example.
And then came the devil, in the person of Mr. Conger. His face was full
of hopefulness as he sat down in Charlton's cell and smote his fat white
hand upon his knee and said "Now!" and looked expectantly at his client.
He waited a moment in hope of rousing Charlton's curiosity.
"We've got them!" he said presently. "I told you we should pull through.
Leave the whole matter to me."
"I am willing to leave anything to you but my conscience," said Albert.
"The devil take your conscience, Mr. Charlton. If you are guilty, and so
awfully conscientious, plead guilty at once. If you propose to cheat the
government out of some years of penal servitude, why, well and good. But
you must have a devilish queer conscience, to be sure. If you talk in
that way, I shall enter a plea of insanity and get you off whether you
will or not. But you might at least hear me through before you talk about
conscience. Perhaps even _your_ conscience would not take offense at my
plan, unless you consider yourself foreordained to go to penitentiary."
"Let's hear your plan, Mr. Conger," said Charlton, hoping there might be
some way found by which he could escape.
Mr. Conger became bland again, resumed his cheerful and hopeful look,
brought down his fat white hand upon his knee, looked up over his
client's head, while he let his countenance blossom with the promise of
his coming communication. He then proceeded to say with a cheerful
chuckle that there was a flaw in the form of the indictment--the grand
jury had blundered. He had told Charlton that something would certainly
happen. And it had. Then Mr. Conger smote his knee again, and said
"Now!" once more, and proceeded to say that his plan was to get the
trial set late in the term, so that the grand jury should finish their
work and be discharged before the case came on. Then he would have the
He said this with so innocent and plausible a face that at first it did
not seem very objectionable to Charlton.
"What would we gain by quashing the indictment, Mr. Conger?"
"Well, if the indictment were quashed on the ground of a defect in its
substance, then the case falls. But this is only defective in form.
Another grand jury can indict you again. Now if the District Attorney
should be a little easy--and I think that, considering your age, and my
influence with him, he would be--a new commitment might not issue perhaps
before you could get out of reach of it. If you were committed again,
then we gain time. Time is everything in a bad case. You could not be
tried until the next term. When the next term comes, we could then see
what could be done. Meantime you could get bail."
If Charlton had not been entirely clear-headed, or entirely in a mood
to deal honestly with himself, he would have been persuaded to take
"Let me ask you a question, Mr. Conger. If the case were delayed, and I
still had nothing to present against the strong circumstantial evidence
of the prosecution--if, in other words, delay should still leave us in
our present position--would there be any chance for me to escape by a
fair, stand-up trial?"
"Well, you see, Mr. Charlton, this is precisely a case in which we will
not accept a pitched battle, if we can help it. After a while, when the
prosecuting parties feel less bitter toward you, we might get some of the
evidence mislaid, out of the way, or get some friend on the jury,
or--well, we might manage somehow to dodge trial on the case as it
stands. Experience is worth a great deal in these things."
"There are, then, two possibilities for me," said Charlton very quietly.
"I can run away, or we may juggle the evidence or the jury. Am I right?"
"Or, we can go to prison?" said Conger, smiling.
"I will take the latter alternative," said Charlton.
"Then you owe it to me to plead guilty, and relieve me from
responsibility. If you plead guilty, we can get a recommendation of mercy
from the court."
"I owe it to myself not to plead guilty," said Charlton, speaking still
gently, for his old imperious and self-confident manner had left him.
"Very well," said Mr. Conger, rising, "if you take your fate into your
own hands in that way, I owe it to _myself_ to withdraw from the case."
"Very well, Mr. Conger."
"Good-morning, Mr. Charlton!"
"Good-morning, Mr. Conger."
And with Mr. Conger's disappearance went Albert's last hope of escape.
The battle had been fought, and lost--or won, as you look at it. Let us
say won, for no man's case is desperate till he parts with manliness.
Charlton had the good fortune to secure a young lawyer of little
experience but of much principle, who was utterly bewildered by the
mystery of the case, and the apparently paradoxical scruples of his
client, but who worked diligently and hopelessly for him. He saw the flaw
in the indictment and pointed it out to Charlton, but told him that as it
was merely a technical point he would gain nothing but time. Charlton
preferred that there should be no delay, except what was necessary to
give his counsel time to understand the case. In truth, there was little
enough to understand. The defense had nothing left to do.
When Albert came into court he was pale from his confinement. He
looked eagerly round the crowded room to see if he could find the
support of friendly faces. There were just two. The Hoosier Poet sat
on one of the benches, and by him sat Isa Marlay. True, Mr. Plausaby
sat next to Miss Marlay, but Albert did not account him anything in
his inventory of friends.
Isabel wondered how he would plead. She hoped that he did not mean to
plead guilty, but the withdrawal of Conger from the case filled her with
fear, and she had been informed by Mr. Plausaby that he could refuse to
plead altogether, and it would be considered a plea of not guilty. She
believed him innocent, but she had not had one word of assurance to that
effect from him, and even her faith had been shaken a little by the
innuendoes and suspicions of Mr. Plausaby.
Everybody looked at the prisoner. Presently the District Attorney moved
that Albert Charlton be arraigned.
The Court instructed the clerk, who said, "Albert Charlton, come
Albert here rose to his feet, and raised his right hand in token of
The District Attorney said, "This prisoner I have indicted by the
"Shall we waive the reading of the indictment?" asked Charlton's counsel.
"No," said Albert, "let it be read," and he listened intently while the
clerk read it.
"Albert Charlton, you have heard the charge. What say you: Guilty, or,
Not guilty?" Even the rattling and unmeaning voice in which the clerk was
accustomed to go through with his perfunctory performances took on some
There was dead silence for a moment. Isa Marlay's heart stopped beating,
and the Poet from Posey County opened his mouth with eager anxiety.
When Charlton spoke, it was in a full, solemn voice, with deliberation
"Thank God!" whispered Isa.
The Poet shut his mouth and heaved a sigh of relief.
The counsel for the defense was electrified. Up to that moment he had
believed that his client was guilty. But there was so much of solemn
truthfulness in the voice that he could not resist its influence.
As for the trial itself, which came off two days later, that was a dull
enough affair. It was easy to prove that Albert had expressed all sorts
of bitter feelings toward Mr. Westcott; that he was anxious to leave;
that he had every motive for wishing to pre-empt before Westcott did;
that the land-warrant numbered so-and-so--it is of no use being accurate
here, they were accurate enough in court--had been posted in Red Owl on a
certain day; that a gentleman who rode with the driver saw him receive
the mail at Red Owl, and saw it delivered at Metropolisville; that
Charlton pre-empted his claim--the S.E. qr. of the N.E. qr., and the N.
1/2 of the S.E. qr. of Section 32, T. so-and-so, R. such-and-such--with
this identical land-warrant, as the records of the land-office showed
beyond a doubt.
Against all this counsel for defense had nothing whatever to offer.
Nothing but evidence of previous good character, nothing but to urge that
there still remained perhaps the shadow of a doubt. No testimony to show
from whom Charlton had received the warrant, not the first particle of
rebutting evidence. The District Attorney only made a little perfunctory
speech on the evils brought upon business by theft in the post-office.
The exertions of Charlton's counsel amounted to nothing; the jury found
him guilty without deliberation.
The judge sentenced him with much solemn admonition. It was a grievous
thing for one so young to commit such a crime. He warned Albert that he
must not regard any consideration as a justification for such an offense.
He had betrayed his trust and been guilty of theft. The judge expressed
his regret that the sentence was so severe. It was a sad thing to send a
young man of education and refinement to be the companion of criminals
for so many years. But the law recognized the difference between a theft
by a sworn and trusted officer and an ordinary larceny. He hoped that
Albert would profit by this terrible experience, and that he would so
improve the time of his confinement with meditation, that what would
remain to him of life when he should come out of the walls of his prison
might be spent as an honorable and law-abiding citizen. He sentenced him
to serve the shortest term permitted by the statute, namely, ten years.
The first deep snow of the winter was falling outside the court-house,
and as Charlton stood in the prisoners' box, he could hear the jingling
of sleigh-bells, the sounds that usher in the happy social life of winter
in these northern latitudes. He heard the judge, and he listened to the
sleigh-bells as a man who dreams--the world was so far off from him
now--ten weary years, and the load of a great disgrace measured the gulf
fixed between him and all human joy and sympathy. And when, a few minutes
afterward, the jail-lock clicked behind him, it seemed to have shut out
life. For burial alive is no fable. Many a man has heard the closing of
the vault as Albert Charlton did.
It was a cold morning. The snow had fallen heavily the day before, and
the Stillwater stage was on runners. The four horses rushed round the
street-corners with eagerness as the driver, at a little past five
o'clock in the morning, moved about collecting passengers. From the
up-town hotels he drove in the light of the gas-lamps to the jail where
the deputy marshal, with his prisoner securely handcuffed, took his seat
and wrapped the robes about them both. Then at the down-town hotels they
took on other passengers. The Fuller House was the last call of all.
"Haven't you a back-seat?" The passenger partly spoke and partly coughed
out his inquiry.
"The back-seat is occupied by ladies," said the agent, "you will have to
take the front one."
"It will kill me to ride backwards," whined the desponding voice of
Minorkey, but as there were only two vacant seats he had no choice. He
put his daughter in the middle while he took the end of the seat and
resigned himself to death by retrograde motion. Miss Helen Minorkey was
thus placed exactly _vis-a-vis_ with her old lover Albert Charlton, but
in the darkness of six o'clock on a winter's morning in Minnesota, she
could not know it. The gentleman who occupied the other end of the seat
recognized Mr. Minorkey, and was by him introduced to his daughter. That
lady could not wholly resist the exhilaration of such a stage-ride over
snowy roads, only half-broken as yet, where there was imminent peril of
upsetting at every turn. And so she and her new acquaintance talked of
many things, while Charlton could not but recall his ride, a short
half-year ago, on a front-seat, over the green prairies--had prairies
ever been greener?--and under the blue sky, and in bright sunshine--had
the sun ever shone so brightly?--with this same quiet-voiced, thoughtful
Helen Minorkey. How soon had sunshine turned to darkness! How suddenly
had the blossoming spring-time changed to dreariest winter!
It is really delightful, this riding through the snow and darkness in a
covered coach on runners, this battling with difficulties. There is a
spice of adventure in it quite pleasant if you don't happen to be the
driver and have the battle to manage. To be a well-muffled passenger,
responsible for nothing, not even for your own neck, is thoroughly
delightful--provided always that you are not the passenger in handcuffs
going to prison for ten years. To the passenger in handcuffs, whose good
name has been destroyed, whose liberty is gone, whose future is to be
made of weary days of monotonous drudgery and dreary nights in a damp
cell, whose friends have deserted him, who is an outlaw to society--to
the passenger in handcuffs this dashing and whirling toward a living
entombment has no exhilaration. Charlton was glad of the darkness, but
dreaded the dawn when there must come a recognition. In a whisper he
begged the deputy marshal to pull his cap down over his eyes and to
adjust his woolen comforter over his nose, not so much to avoid the cold
wind as to escape the cold eyes of Helen Minorkey. Then he hid his
handcuffs under the buffalo robes so that, if possible, he might escape
The gentleman alongside Miss Minorkey asked if she had read the account
of the trial of young Charlton, the post-office robber.
"Part of it," said Miss Minorkey. "I don't read trials much."
"For my part," said the gentleman, "I think the court was very merciful.
I should have given him the longest term known to the law. He ought to go
for twenty-one years. We all of us have to risk money in the mails, and
if thieves in the post-office are not punished severely, there is no
There spoke Commerce! Money is worth so much more than humanity, you
Miss Minorkey said that she knew something of the case. It was very
curious, indeed. Young Charlton was disposed to be honest, but he was
high-tempered. The taking of the warrant was an act of resentment, she
thought. He had had two or three quarrels or fights, she believed, with
the man from whom he took the warrant. He was a very talented young man,
but very ungovernable in his feelings.
The gentleman said that that was the very reason why he should have gone
for a longer time. A talented and self-conceited man of that sort was
dangerous out of prison. As it was, he would learn all the roguery of the
penitentiary, you know, and then we should none of us be safe from him.
There spoke the Spirit of the Law! Keep us safe, O Lord! whoever may go
to the devil!
In reply to questions from her companion, Miss Minorkey told the story of
Albert's conflict with Westcott--she stated the case with all the
coolness of a dispassionate observer.
There was no sign--Albert listened for it--of the slightest sympathy for
or against him in the matter. Then the story of little Katy was told as
one might tell something that had happened a hundred years ago, without
any personal sympathy. It was simply a curious story, an interesting
adventure with which to beguile a weary hour of stage riding in the
darkness. It would have gratified Albert to have been able to detect the
vibration of a painful memory or a pitying emotion, but Helen did not
suffer her placidity to be ruffled by disturbing emotion. The
conversation drifted to other subjects presently through Mr. Minorkey's
sudden recollection that the drowning excitement at Metropolisville had
brought on a sudden attack of his complaint, he had been seized with a
pain just under his ribs. It ran up to the point of the right shoulder,
and he thought he should die, etc., etc., etc. Nothing saved him but
putting his feet into hot water, etc., etc., etc.
The gray dawn came on, and Charlton was presently able to trace the
lineaments of the well-known countenance. He was not able to recognize it
again without a profound emotion, an emotion that he could not have
analyzed. Her face was unchanged, there was not the varying of a line in
the placid, healthy, thoughtful expression to indicate any deepening of
her nature through suffering. Charlton's face had changed so that she
would not have recognized him readily had it been less concealed. And by
so much as his countenance had changed and hers remained fixed, had he
drifted away from her. Albert felt this. However painful his emotion was,
as he sat there casting furtive glances at Helen's face, there was no
regret that all relation between them was broken forever. He was not
sorry for the meeting. He needed such a meeting to measure the parallax
of his progress and her stagnation. He needed this impression of Helen to
obliterate the memory of the row-boat. She was no longer to remain in his
mind associated with the blessed memory of little Kate. Hereafter he
could think of Katy in the row-boat--the other figure was a dim unreality
which might have come to mean something, but which never did mean
anything to him.
I wonder who keeps the tavern at Cypher's Lake now? In those old days it
was not a very reputable place; it was said that many a man had there
been fleeced at poker. The stage did not reach it on this snowy morning
until ten o'clock. The driver stopped to water, the hospitable landlord,
whose familiar nickname was "Bun," having provided a pail and cut a hole
through the ice of the lake for the accommodation of the drivers. Water
for beasts--gentlemen could meantime find something less "beastly" than
ice-water in the little low-ceiled bar-room on the other side of the
road. The deputy-marshal wanted to stretch his legs a little, and so,
trusting partly to his knowledge of Charlton's character, partly to
handcuffs, and partly to his convenient revolver, he leaped out of the
coach and stepped to the door of the bar-room just to straighten his
legs, you know, and get a glass of whisky "straight" at the same time. In
getting into the coach again he chanced to throw back the buffalo-robe
and thus exposed Charlton's handcuffs. Helen glanced at them, and then at
Albert's face. She shivered a little, and grew red. There was no
alternative but to ride thus face to face with Charlton for six miles.
She tried to feel herself an injured person, but something in the
self-possessed face of Albert--his comforter had dropped down now--awed
her, and she affected to be sick, leaning her head on her father's
shoulder and surprising that gentleman beyond measure. Helen had never
shown so much emotion of any sort in her life before, certainly never so
much confusion and shame. And that in spite of her reasoning that it was
not she but Albert who should be embarrassed. But the two seemed to have
changed places. Charlton was as cold and immovable as Helen Minorkey ever
had been; she trembled and shuddered, even with her eyes shut, to think
that his eyes were on her--looking her through and through--measuring all
the petty meanness and shallowness of her soul. She complained of the
cold and wrapped her blanket shawl about her face and pretended to be
asleep, but the shameful nakedness of her spirit seemed not a whit less
visible to the cool, indifferent eyes that she felt must be still looking
at her from under the shadow of that cap-front. What a relief it was at
last to get into the warm parlor of the hotel! But still she shivered
when she thought of her ride.
It is one thing to go into a warm parlor of a hotel, to order your room,
your fire, your dinner, your bed. It is quite another to drive up under
the high, rough limestone outer wall of a prison--a wall on which moss
and creeper refuse to grow--to be led handcuffed into a little office, to
have your credentials for ten years of servitude presented to the warden,
to have your name, age, nativity, hight, complexion, weight, and
distinguishing marks carefully booked, to have your hair cropped to half
the length of a prize-fighter's, to lay aside the dress which you have
chosen and which seems half your individuality, and put on a suit of
cheerless penitentiary uniform--to cease to be a man with a place among
men, and to become simply a convict. This is not nearly so agreeable as
living at the hotel. Did Helen Minorkey ever think of the difference?
There is little to be told of the life in the penitentiary. It is very
uniform. To eat prison fare without even the decency of a knife or
fork--you might kill a guard or a fellow-rogue with a fork--to sleep in a
narrow, rough cell on a hard bed, to have your cell unlocked and to be
marched out under guard in the morning, to go in a row of prisoners to
wash your face, to go in a procession to a frugal breakfast served on tin
plates in a dining-room mustier than a cellar, to be marched to your
work, to be watched by a guard while you work, to know that the guard has
a loaded revolver and is ready to draw it on slight provocation, to march
to meals under awe of the revolver, to march to bed while the man with
the revolver walks behind you, to be locked in and barred in and
double-locked in again, to have a piece of candle that will burn two
hours, to burn it out and lie down in the darkness--to go through one
such day and know that you have to endure three thousand six hundred and
fifty-two days like it--that is about all. The life of a blind horse in a
treadmill is varied and cheerful in comparison.
Oh! yes, there is Sunday. I forgot the Sunday. On Sundays you don't have
to work in the shops. You have the blessed privilege of sitting alone in
your bare cell all the day, except the hour of service. You can think
about the outside world and wish you were out. You can read, if you can
get anything interesting to read. You can count your term over, think of
a broken life, of the friends of other days who feel disgraced at mention
of your name, get into the dumps, and cry a little if you feel like it.
Only crying doesn't seem to do much good. Such is the blessedness of the
holy Sabbath in prison!
But Charlton did not let himself pine for liberty. He was busy with
plans for reconstructing his life. What he would have had it, it could
not be. You try to build a house, and it is shaken down about your ears
by an earthquake. Your material is, much of it, broken. You can never
make it what you would. But the brave heart, failing to do what it would,
does what it can. Charlton, who had hated the law as a profession, was
now enamored of it. He thought rightly that there is no calling that
offers nobler opportunities to a man who has a moral fiber able to bear
the strain. When he should have finished his term, he would be
thirty-one, and would be precluded from marriage by his disgrace. He
could live on a crust, if necessary, and be the champion of the
oppressed. What pleasure he would have in beating Conger some day! So he
arranged to borrow law-books, and faithfully used his two hours of candle
in studying. He calculated that in ten years--if he should survive ten
years of life in a cell--he could lay a foundation for eminence in legal
learning. Thus he made vinegar-barrels all day, and read Coke on
Littleton on Blackstone at night. His money received from the contractor
for over-work, he used to buy law-books.
Sometimes he hoped for a pardon, but there was only one contingency that
was likely to bring it about. And he could not wish for that. Unless,
indeed, the prison-officers should seek a pardon for him. From the
beginning they had held him in great favor. When he had been six months
in prison, his character was so well established with the guards that no
one ever thought of watching him or of inspecting his work.
He felt a great desire to have something done in a philanthropic way for
the prisoners, but when the acting chaplain, Mr. White, preached to
them, he always rebelled. Mr. White had been a steamboat captain, a
sheriff, and divers other things, and was now a zealous missionary among
the Stillwater lumbermen. The State could not afford to give more than
three hundred dollars a year for religious and moral instruction at this
time, and so the several pastors in the city served alternately, three
months apiece. Mr. White was a man who delivered his exhortations with
the same sort of vehemence that Captain White had used in giving orders
to his deck-hands in a storm; he arrested souls much as Sheriff White had
arrested criminals. To Albert's infidelity he gave no quarter. Charlton
despised the chaplain's lack of learning until he came to admire his
sincerity and wonder at his success. For the gracefulest and eruditest
orator that ever held forth to genteelest congregation, could not have
touched the prisoners by his highest flight of rhetoric as did the
earnest, fiery Captain-Sheriff-Chaplain White, who moved aggressively on
the wickedness of his felonious audience.
When Mr. White's three months had expired, there came another pastor, as
different from him as possible. Mr. Lurton was as gentle as his
predecessor had been boisterous. There was a strong substratum of manly
courage and will, but the whole was overlaid with a sweetness wholly
feminine and seraphic. His religion was the Twenty-third Psalm. His face
showed no trace of conflict. He had accepted the creed which he had
inherited without a question, and, finding in it abundant sources of
happiness, of moral development, and spiritual consolation, he thence
concluded it true. He had never doubted. It is a question whether his
devout soul would not have found peace and edification in any set of
opinions to which he had happened to be born. You have seen one or two
such men in your life. Their presence is a benison. Albert felt more
peaceful while Mr. Lurton stood without the grating of his cell, and
Lurton seemed to leave a benediction behind him. He did not talk in pious
cant, he did not display his piety, and he never addressed a sinner down
an inclined plane. He was too humble for that. But the settled, the
unruffled, the unruffleable peacefulness and trustfulness of his soul
seemed to Charlton, whose life had been stormier within than without,
nothing less than sublime. The inmates of the prison could not appreciate
this delicate quality in the young minister. Lurton had never lived near
enough to their life for them to understand him or for him to understand
them. He considered them all, on general principles, as lost sinners,
bad, like himself, by nature, who had superadded outward transgressions
and the crime of rejecting Christ to their original guilt and corruption
as members of the human family.
Charlton watched Lurton with intense interest, listened to all he had to
say, responded to the influence of his fine quality, but found his own
doubts yet unanswered and indeed untouched. The minister, on his part,
took a lively interest in the remarkable young man, and often endeavored
to remove his doubts by the well-knit logical arguments he had learned in
"Mr. Lurton," said Charlton impatiently one day, "were you ever troubled
"I do not remember that I ever seriously entertained a doubt in regard to
religious truth in my life," said Lurton, after reflection.
"Then you know no more about my doubts than a blind man knows of your
sense of sight." But after a pause, he added, laughing: "Nevertheless, I
would give away my doubtativeness any day in exchange for your
peacefulness." Charlton did not know, nor did Lurton, that the natures
which have never been driven into the wilderness to be buffeted of the
devil are not the deepest.
It was during Mr. Lurton's time as chaplain that Charlton began to
receive presents of little ornamental articles, intended to make his cell
more cheerful. These things were sent to him by the hands of the
chaplain, and the latter was forbidden to tell the name of the giver.
Books and pictures, and even little pots with flowers in them, came to
him in the early spring. He fancied they might come from some unknown
friend, who had only heard of him through the chaplain, and he was prone
to resent the charity. He received the articles with thankful lips, but
asked in his heart, "Is it not enough to be a convict, without being
pitied as such?" Why anybody in Stillwater should send him such things,
he did not know. The gifts were not expensive, but every one gave
evidence of a refined taste.
At last there came one--a simple cross, cut in paper, intended to be hung
up as a transparency before the window--that in some unaccountable way
suggested old associations. Charlton had never seen anything of the kind,
but he had the feeling of one who half-recognizes a handwriting. The
pattern had a delicacy about it approaching to daintiness, an expression
of taste and feeling which he seemed to have known, as when one sees a
face that is familiar, but which one can not "place," as we say. Charlton
could not place the memory excited by this transparency, but for a moment
he felt sure that it must be from some one whom he knew. But who could
there be near enough to him to send flower-pots and framed pictures
without great expense? There was no one in Stillwater whom he had ever
seen, unless indeed Helen Minorkey were there yet, and he had long since
given up all expectation and all desire of receiving any attention at her
hands. Besides, the associations excited by the transparency, the taste
evinced in making it, the sentiment which it expressed, were not of Helen
Minorkey. It was on Thursday that he hung it against the light of his
window. It was not until Sunday evening, as he lay listlessly watching
his scanty allowance of daylight grow dimmer, that he became sure of the
hand that he had detected in the workmanship of the piece. He got up
quickly and looked at it more closely and said: "It must be Isa Marlay!"
And he lay down again, saying: "Well, it can never be quite dark in a
man's life when he has one friend." And then, as the light grew more and
more faint, he said: "Why did not I see it before? Good orthodox Isa
wants to preach to me. She means to say that I should receive light
through the cross."
And he lay awake far into the night, trying to divine how the flower-pots
and pictures and all the rest could have been sent all the way from
Metropolisville. It was not till long afterward that he discovered the
alliance between Whisky Jim and Isabel, and how Jim had gotten a friend
on the Stillwater route to help him get them through. But Charlton wrote
Isa, and told her how he had detected her, and thanked her cordially,
asking her why she concealed her hand. She replied kindly, but with
little allusion to the gifts, and they came no more. When Isa had been
discovered she could not bring herself to continue the presents. Save
that now and then there came something from his mother, in which Isa's
taste and skill were evident, he received nothing more from her, except
an occasional friendly letter. He appreciated her delicacy too late, and
regretted that he had written about the cross at all.
One Sunday, Mr. Lurton, going his round, found Charlton reading the New
"Mr. Lurton, what a sublime prayer the Pater-noster is!" exclaimed
"Yes;" said Lurton, "it expresses so fully the only two feelings that can
bring us to God--a sense of guilt and a sense of dependence."
"What I admired in the prayer was not that, but the unselfishness that
puts God and the world first, and asks bread, forgiveness, and guidance
last. It seems to me, Mr. Lurton, that all men are not brought to God by
the same feelings. Don't you think that a man may be drawn toward God by
self-sacrifice--that a brave, heroic act, in its very nature, brings us
nearer to God? It seems to me that whatever the rule may be, there are
exceptions; that God draws some men to Himself by a sense of sympathy;
that He makes a sudden draft on their moral nature--not more than they
can bear, but all they can bear--and that in doing right under
difficulties the soul finds itself directed toward God--opened on the
side on which God sits."
Mr. Lurton shook his head, and protested, in his gentle and earnest way,
against this doctrine of man's ability to do anything good before
"But, Mr. Lurton," urged Albert, "I have known a man to make a great
sacrifice, and to find himself drawn by that very sacrifice into a great
admiring of Christ's sacrifice, into a great desire to call God his
father, and into a seeking for the forgiveness and favor that would make
him in some sense a child of God. Did you never know such a case?"
"Never. I do not think that genuine conversions come in that way. A sense
of righteousness can not prepare a man for salvation--only a sense of
sin--a believing that all our righteousness is filthy rags. Still, I
wouldn't discourage you from studying the Bible in any way. You will come
round right after a while, and then you will find that to be saved, a man
must abhor every so-called good thing that he ever did."
"Yes," said Charlton, who had grown more modest in his trials, "I am
sure there is some truth in the old doctrine as you state it. But is
not a man better and more open to divine grace, for resisting a
temptation to vice?"
Mr. Lurton hesitated. He remembered that he had read, in very sound
writers, arguments to prove that there could be no such thing as good
works before conversion, and Mr. Lurton was too humble to set his
judgment against the great doctors'. Besides, he was not sure that
Albert's questions might not force him into that dangerous heresy
attributed to Arminius, that good works may be the impulsive cause by
which God is moved to give His grace to the unconverted.
"Do you think that a man can really do good without God's help?" asked
"I don't think man ever tries to do right in humility and sincerity
without some help from God," answered Albert, whose mode of thinking
about God was fast changing for the better. "I think God goes out a long,
long way to meet the first motions of a good purpose in a man's heart.
The parable of the Prodigal Son only half-tells it. The parable breaks
down with a truth too great for human analogies. I don't know but that
He acts in the beginning of the purpose. I am getting to be a
Calvinist--in fact, on some points, I out-Calvin Calvin. Is not God's
help in the good purposes of every man?"
Mr. Lurton shook his head with a gentle gravity, and changed the subject
by saying, "I am going to Metropolisville next week to attend a meeting.
Can I do anything for you?"
"Go and see my mother," said Charlton, with emotion. "She is sick, and
will never get well, I fear. Tell her I am cheerful. And--Mr. Lurton--do
you pray with her. I do not believe anything, except by fits and starts;
but one of your prayers would do my mother good. If she could be half as
peaceful as you are, I should be happy."
Lurton walked away down the gallery from Albert's cell, and descended
the steps that led to the dining-room, and was let out of the locked and
barred door into the vestibule, and out of that into the yard, and
thence out through other locks into the free air of out-doors. Then he
took a long breath, for the sight of prison doors and locks and bars and
grates and gates and guards oppressed even his peaceful soul. And
walking along the sandy road that led by the margin of Lake St. Croix
toward the town, he recalled Charlton's last remark. And as he
meditatively tossed out of the path with his boot the pieces of
pine-bark which in this lumbering country lie about everywhere, he
rejoiced that Charlton had learned to appreciate the value of Christian
peace, and he offered a silent prayer that Albert might one day obtain
the same serenity as himself. For nothing was further from the young
minister's mind than the thought that any of his good qualities were
natural. He considered himself a miracle of grace upon all sides. As if
natural qualities were not also of God's grace!
It was a warm Sunday in the early spring, one week after Mr. Lurton's
conversation with Charlton, that the latter sat in his cell feeling the
spring he could not see. His prison had never been so much a prison. To
perceive this balminess creeping through the narrow, high window--a mere
orifice through a thick wall--and making itself feebly felt as it fell
athwart the damp chilliness of the cell, to perceive thus faintly the
breath of spring, and not to be able to see the pregnant tree-buds
bursting with the coming greenness of the summer, and not to be able to
catch the sound of the first twittering of the returning sparrows and the
hopeful chattering of the swallows, made Albert feel indeed that he and
life had parted.
Mr. Lurton's three months as chaplain had expired, and there had come in
his stead Mr. Canton, who wore a very stiff white neck-tie and a very
straight-breasted long-tailed coat. Nothing is so great a bar to human
sympathies as a clerical dress, and Mr. Canton had diligently fixed a
great gulf between himself and his fellow-men. Charlton's old, bitter
aggressiveness, which had well-nigh died out under the sweet influences
of Lurton's peacefulness, came back now, and he mentally pronounced the
new chaplain a clerical humbug and an ecclesiastical fop, and all such
mild paradoxical epithets as he was capable of forming. The hour of
service was ended, and Charlton was in his cell again, standing under the
high window, trying to absorb some of the influences of the balmy air
that reached him in such niggardly quantities. He was hungering for a
sight of the woods, which he knew must be so vital at this season. He had
only the geraniums and the moss-rose that Isa, had sent, and they were
worse than nothing, for they pined in this twilight of the cell, and
seemed to him smitten, like himself, with a living death. He almost
stopped, his heart's beating in his effort to hear the voices of the
birds, and at last he caught the harsh cawing of the crows for a moment,
and then that died away, and he could hear no sound but the voice of the
clergyman in long clothes talking perfunctorily to O'Neill, the
wife-murderer, in the next cell. He knew that his turn would come next,
and it did. He listened in silence and with much impatience to such a
moral lecture as seemed to Mr. Canton befitting a criminal.
Mr. Canton then handed him a letter, and seeing that it was addressed
in the friendly hand of Lurton, he took it to the window and opened
it, and read:
"DEAR MR. CHARLTON:
"I should have come to see you and told you about my trip to
Metropolisville, but I am obliged to go out of town again. I send this by
Mr. Canton, and also a request to the warden to pass this and your answer
without the customary inspection of contents. I saw your mother and your
stepfather and your friend Miss Marlay. Your mother is failing very fast,
and I do not think it would be a kindness for me to conceal from you my
belief that she can not live many weeks. I talked with her and prayed
with her as you requested, but she seems to have some intolerable mental
burden. Miss Marlay is evidently a great comfort to her, and, indeed, I
never saw a more faithful person than she in my life, or a more
remarkable exemplification of the beauty of a Christian life. She takes
every burden off your mother except that unseen load which seems to
trouble her spirit, and she believes absolutely in your innocence. By the
way, why did you never explain to her or to me or to any of your friends
the real history of the case? There must at least have been extenuating
circumstances, and we might be able to help you.
"But I am writing about everything except what I want to say, or rather
to ask, for I tremble to ask it. Are you interested in any way other
than as a friend in Miss Isabel Marlay? You will guess why I ask the
question. Since I met her I have thought of her a great deal, and I may
add to you that I have anxiously sought divine guidance in a matter
likely to affect the usefulness of my whole life. I will not take a
single step in the direction in which my heart has been so suddenly
drawn, if you have any prior claim, or even the remotest hope of
establishing one in some more favorable time. Far be it from me to add a
straw to the heavy burden you have had to bear. I expect to be in
Metropolisville again soon, and will see your mother once more. Please
answer me with frankness, and believe me,
"Always your friend,
The intelligence regarding his mother's health was not new to Albert, for
Isa had told him fully of her state. It would be difficult to describe
the feeling of mingled pain and pleasure with which he read Lurton's
confession of his sudden love for Isabel. Nothing since his imprisonment
had so humbled Charlton as the recollection of the mistake he had made in
his estimate of Helen Minorkey, and his preference for her over Isa. He
had lain on his cot sometimes and dreamed of what might have been if he
had escaped prison and had chosen Isabel instead of Helen. He had
pictured to himself the content he might have had with such a woman for a
wife. But then the thought of his disgrace--a disgrace he could not share
with a wife--always dissipated the beautiful vision and made the hard
reality of what was, seem tenfold harder for the ravishing beauty of what
might have been.
And now the vision of the might-have-been came back to him more clearly
than ever, and he sat a long while with his head leaning on his hand.
Then the struggle passed, and he lighted his little ration of candle,
"REV. J.H. LURTON:
"DEAR SIR: You have acted very honorably in writing me as you have, and I
admire you now more than ever. You fulfill my ideal of a Christian. I
never had the slightest claim or the slightest purpose to establish any
claim on Isabel Marlay, for I was so blinded by self-conceit, that I did
not appreciate her until it was too late. And now! What have I to offer
to any woman? The love of a convicted felon! A name tarnished forever!
No! I shall never share that with Isa Marlay. She is, indeed, the best
and most sensible of women. She is the only woman worthy of such a man as
you. You are the only man I ever saw good enough for Isabel. I love you
both. God bless you!
"Very respectfully and gratefully, CHARLTON."
Mr. Lurton had staid during the meeting of the ecclesiastical
body--Presbytery, Consociation, Convention, Conference, or what not, it
does not matter--at Squire Plausaby's Albert had written about him, and
Isa, as soon as she heard that he was to attend, had prompted Plausaby to
enter a request with the committee on the entertainment of delegates for
the assignment of Mr. Lurton to him as guest. His peacefulness had not,
as Albert and Isabel hoped, soothed the troubled spirit of Mrs. Plausaby,
who was in a great terror at thought of death. The skillful surgeon
probes before he tries to heal, and Mr. Lurton set himself to find the
cause of all this irritation in the mind of this weak woman. Sometimes
she seemed inclined to tell him all, but it always happened that when she
was just ready to speak, the placid face of Plausaby glided in at the
door. On the appearance of her husband, Mrs. Plausaby would cease
speaking. It took Lurton a long time to discover that Plausaby was the
cause of this restraint. He did discover it, however, and endeavored to
get an interview when there was no one present but Isabel. In trying to
do this, he made a fresh discovery--that Plausaby was standing guard over
his wife, and that the restraint he exercised was intentional. The
mystery of the thing fascinated him; and the impression that it had
something to do with Charlton, and the yet stronger motive of a sense of
duty to the afflicted woman, made him resolute in his determination to
penetrate it. Not more so, however, than was Isabel, who endeavored in
every way to secure an uninterrupted interview for Mr. Lurton, but
endeavored in vain.
Lurton was thus placed in favorable circumstances to see Miss Marlay's
qualities. Her graceful figure in her simple tasteful, and perfectly
fitting frock, her rhythmical movement, her rare voice, all touched
exquisitely so sensitive a nature as Lurton's. But more than that was he
moved by her diligent management of the household, her unwearying
patience with the querulous and feeble-minded sick woman, her tact and
common-sense, and especially the entire truthfulness of her character.
Mr. Lurton made excuse to himself for another trip to Metropolisville
that he had business in Perritaut. It was business that might have
waited; it was business that would have waited, but for his desire to
talk further with Mrs. Plausaby, and for his other desire to see and talk
with Isabel Marlay again. For, if he should fail of her, where would he
ever find one so well suited to help the usefulness of his life? Happy is
he whose heart and duty go together! And now that Lurton had found that
Charlton had no first right to Isabel, his worst fear had departed.
Even in his palpitating excitement about Isa, he was the true minister,
and gave his first thought to the spiritual wants of the afflicted woman
whom he regarded as providentially thrown upon his care. He was so
fortunate as to find Plausaby absent at Perritaut. But how anxiously did
he wait for the time when he could see the sick woman! Even Isa almost
lost her patience with Mrs. Plausaby's characteristic desire to be fixed
up to receive company. She must have her hair brushed and her bed
"tidied," and, when Isabel thought she had concluded everything, Mrs.
Plausaby would insist that all should be undone again and fixed m some
other way. Part of this came from her old habitual vanity, aggravated by
the querulous childishness produced by sickness, and part from a desire
to postpone as long as she could an interview which she greatly dreaded.
Isa knew that time was of the greatest value, and so, when she had
complied with the twentieth unreasonable exaction of the sick woman, and
was just about to hear the twenty-first, she suddenly opened the door of
Mrs. Plausaby's sickroom and invited Mr. Lurton to enter.
And then began again the old battle--the hardest conflict of all--the
battle with vacillation. To contend with a stubborn will is a simple
problem of force against force. But to contend with a weak and
vacillating will is fighting the air.
Mrs. Plausaby said she had something to say to Mr. Lurton. But--dear
me--she was so annoyed! The room was not fit for a stranger to see. She
must look like a ghost. There was something that worried her. She was
afraid she was going to die, and she had--did Mr. Lurton think she would
die? Didn't he think she might get well?
Mr. Lurton had to say that, in his opinion, she could never get well, and
that if there was anything on her mind, she would better tell it.
Didn't Isa think she could get well? She didn't want to die. But then
Katy was dead. Would she go to heaven if she died? Did Mr. Lurton think
that if she had done wrong, she ought to confess it? Couldn't she be
forgiven without that? Wouldn't he pray for her unless she confessed it?
He ought not to be so hard on her. Would God be hard on her if she did
not tell it all? Oh! she was so miserable!
Mr. Lurton told her that sometimes people committed sin by refusing to
confess because their confession had something to do with other people.
Was her confession necessary to remove blame from others?
"Oh!" cried the sick woman, "Albert has told you all about it! Oh, dear!
now I shall have more trouble! Why didn't he wait till I'm dead? Isn't it
enough to have Katy drowned and Albert gone to that awful place and this
trouble? Oh! I wish I was dead! But then--maybe God would be hard on me!
Do you think God would be hard on a woman that did wrong if she was told
to do it? And if she was told to do it by her own husband? And if she had
to do it to save her husband from some awful trouble? There, I nearly
told it. Won't that do?"
And she turned her head over and affected to be asleep. Mr. Lurton was
now more eager than ever that the whole truth should come out, since he
began to see how important Mrs. Plausaby's communication might be.
Beneath all his sweetness, as I have said, there was much manly firmness,
and he now drew his chair near to the bedside, and began in a tone full
of solemnity, with that sort of quiet resoluteness that a surgeon has
when he decides to use the knife. He was the more resolute because he
knew that if Plausaby returned before the confession should be made,
there would be no possibility of getting it.
"Mrs. Plausaby," he said, but she affected to be asleep. "Mrs. Plausaby,
suppose a woman, by doing wrong when her husband asks it, brings a great
calamity on the only child she has, locking him in prison and destroying
his good name--"
"Oh, dear, dear! stop! You'll kill me! I knew Albert had told you. Now I
won't say a word about it. If he has told it, there is no use of my
saying anything," and she covered up her face in a stubborn, childish
Mr. Lurton wisely left the room. Mrs. Plausaby's fears of death soon
awakened again, and she begged Isa to ask Mr. Lurton to come back. Like
most feeble people, she had a superstitious veneration for ecclesiastical
authority, and now in her weakened condition she had readily got a vague
notion that Lurton held her salvation in his hands, and could modify the
conditions if he would.
"You aren't a Catholic are you, Mr. Lurton?"
"No, I am not at all a Catholic."
"Well, then, what makes you want me to confess?"
"Because you are adding to your first sin a greater one in wronging your
son by not confessing."
"Who told you that? Did Albert?"
"No, you told me as much as that, yourself."
"Did I? Why, then I might as well tell you all. But why won't that do?"
"Because, that much would not get Albert out of prison. You don't want to
leave him in penitentiary when you're gone, do you?"
"Oh, dear! I can't tell. Plausaby won't let me. Maybe I might tell Isa."
"That will do just as well. Tell Miss Marlay." And Lurton walked out on
For half an hour Mrs. Plausaby talked to Isa and told her nothing. She
would come face to face with the confession, and then say that she could
not tell it, that Plausaby would do something awful if he knew she had
said so much.
At last Isabel was tired out with this method, and was desperate at the
thought that Plausaby would return while yet the confession was
incomplete. So she determined to force Mrs. Plausaby to speak.
"Now, Mrs. Plausaby," she said, "what did Uncle Plausaby say to you that
made you take that letter of Smith Westcott's?"
"I didn't take it, did I? How do you know? I didn't say so?"
"You have told me part, and if you tell me the rest I will keep it secret
for the present. If you don't tell me, I shall tell Uncle Plausaby what I
know, and tell him that he must tell me the rest."
"You wouldn't do that, Isabel? You couldn't do that. Don't do that,"
begged the sick woman.
"Then tell me the truth," she said with sternness. "What made you take
that land-warrant--for you know you did, and you must not tell me a lie
when you're just going to die and go before God."
"There now, Isa, I knew you would hate me. That's the reason why I can't
tell it. Everybody has been looking so hateful at me ever since I took
the letter, I mean ever since--Oh! I didn't mean anything bad, but you
know I have to do what Plausaby tells me I must do. He's _such_ a man!
And then he was in trouble. There was some old trouble from Pennsylvania.
The men came on here, and made him pay money, all the money he could get,
to keep them from having him put in prison. I don't know what it was all
about, you know, I never could understand about business, but here was
Albert bothering him about money to pay for a warrant, and these men
taking all his money, and here was a trial about some lots that he sold
to that fat man with curly hair, and he was afraid Albert would swear
against him about that and about the county-seat, and so he wanted to get
him away. And there was an awful bother about Katy and Westcott at the
same time. And I wanted a changeable silk dress, and he couldn't get it
for me because all his money was going to the men from Pennsylvania.
But--I can't tell you any more. I'm afraid Plausaby might come. You won't
tell, and you won't hate me, Isa, dear--now, will you? You used to be
good to me, but you won't be good to me any more!"
"I'll always love you if you only tell me the rest."
"No, I can't. For you see Plausaby didn't mean any harm, and I didn't
mean any harm. Plausaby wanted Albert to go away so they couldn't get
Albert to swear against him. It was all Albert's fault, you know--he had
such notions. But he was a good boy, and I can't sleep at night now for
seeing him behind a kind of a grate, and he seems to be pointing his
finger at me and saying, 'You put me in here.' But I didn't. That's one
of his notions. It was Plausaby made me do it. And he didn't mean any
harm. He said Westcott would soon be his son-in-law. He had helped
Westcott to get the claim anyhow. It was only borrowing a little from
his own son-in-law. He said that I must get the letter out of the
office when Albert did not see me. He said it would be a big letter,
with 'Red Owl' stamped on it, and that it would be in Mr. Westcott's
box. And he said I must take the land-warrant out and burn up the letter
and the envelope. And then he said I must give the land-warrant to
Albert the next day, and tell him that a man that came up in the stage
brought it from Plausaby. And he said he'd get another and bring it home
with him and give it to Westcott, and make it all right. And that would
keep him out of prison, and get Albert away so he couldn't swear against
him in the suit with the fat man, and then he would be able to get me
the changeable silk that I wanted so much. But things went all wrong
with him since, and I never got the changeable silk, and he said he
would keep Albert out of penitentiary and he didn't, and Albert told me
I musn't tell anybody about taking it myself, for he couldn't bear to
have me go to prison. Now, won't that do? But don't you tell Plausaby.
He looks at me sometimes so awfully. Oh, dear! if I could have told that
before, maybe I wouldn't have died. It's been killing me all the time.
Oh, dear! dear! I wish I was dead, if only I was sure I wouldn't go to
the bad place."
Isa now acquainted Lurton briefly with the nature of Mrs. Plausaby's
statement, and Lurton knelt by her bedside and turned it into a very
solemn and penitent confession to God, and very trustfully prayed for
forgiveness, and--call it the contagion of Lurton's own faith, if you
will--at any rate, the dying woman felt a sense of relief that the story
was told, and a sense of trust and more peace than she had ever known in
her life. Lurton had led her feeble feet into a place of rest. And he
found joy in thinking that, though his ministry to rude lumbermen and
hardened convicts might be fruitless, he had at least some gifts that
made him a source of strength and consolation to the weak, the
remorseful, the bereaved, and the dying. He stepped out of the door of
the sick-chamber, and there, right before him, was Plausaby, his smooth
face making a vain endeavor to keep its hold upon itself. But Lurton saw
at once that Plausaby had heard the prayer in which he had framed Mrs.
Plausaby's confession to Isa into a solemn and specific confession to
God. I know no sight more pitiful than that of a man who has worn his
face as a mask, when at last the mask is broken and the agony behind
reveals itself. Lurton had a great deal of presence of mind, and if he
did not think much of the official and priestly authority of a minister,
he had a prophet's sense of his moral authority. He looked calmly and
steadily into the eyes of Plausaby, Esq., and the hollow sham, who had
been unshaken till now, quailed; counterfeit serenity could not hold its
head up and look the real in the face. Had Lurton been abashed or nervous
or self-conscious, Plausaby might have assumed an air of indignation at
the minister's meddling. But Lurton had nothing but a serene sense of
having been divinely aided in the performance of a delicate and difficult
duty. He reached out his hand and greeted Plausaby quietly and
courteously and yet solemnly. Isabel, for her part, perceiving that
Plausaby had overheard, did not care to conceal the indignation she felt.
Poor Plausaby, Esq.! the disguise was torn, and he could no longer hide
himself. He sat down and wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and
essayed to speak, as before, to the minister, of his anxiety about his
poor, dear wife, but he could not do it. Exert himself as he would, the
color would not return to his pallid lips, and he had a shameful
consciousness that the old serene and complacent look, when he tried it,
was sadly crossed by rigid lines of hard anxiety and shame. The mask was
indeed broken--the nakedness and villainy could no more be hidden! And
even the voice, faithful and obedient hitherto, always holding the same
rhythmical pace, had suddenly broken rein, galloping up and down the
gamut in a husky jangling.
"Mr. Plausaby, let us walk," said Lurton, not affecting in the least to
ignore Plausaby's agitation. They walked in silence through the village
out to the prairie. Plausaby, habitually a sham, tried, to recover his
ground. He said something about his wife's not being quite sane, and was
going to caution Lurton about believing anything Mrs. Plausaby might say.
"Mr. Plausaby," said Lurton, "is it not better to repent of your sins and
make restitution, than to hide them?"
Plausaby cleared his throat and wiped the perspiration from his brow, but
he could not trust his voice to say anything.
It was vain to appeal to Plausaby to repent. He had saturated himself in
falsehood from the beginning. Perhaps, after all, the saturation had
began several generations back, and unhappy Plausaby, born to an
inheritance of falsehood, was to be pitied as well as blamed. He was even
now planning to extort from his vacillating wife a written statement that
should contradict any confession of hers to Isa and Lurton.
Fly swiftly, pen! For Isa Marlay knew the stake in this game, and she
did not mean that any chance of securing Charlton's release should be
neglected. She knew nothing of legal forms, but she could write a
straight-out statement after a woman's fashion. So she wrote a paper
which read as follows:
"I do not expect to live long, and I solemnly confess that I took the
land-warrant from Smith Westcott's letter, for which my son Albert
Charlton is now unjustly imprisoned in the penitentiary, and I did it
without the knowledge of Albert, and at the instigation of Thomas
Plausaby, my husband."
This paper Isa read to Mrs. Plausaby, and that lady, after much
vacillation, signed it with a feeble hand. Then Isabel wrote her own name
as a witness. But she wanted another witness. At this moment Mrs. Ferret
came in, having an instinctive feeling that a second visit from Lurton
boded something worth finding out. Isa took her into Mrs. Plausaby's room
and told her to witness this paper.
"Well," said pertinacious Mrs. Ferret, "I'll have to know what is in
it, won't I?"
"No, you only want to know that this is Mrs. Plausaby's signature," and
Isa placed her fingers over the paper in such a way that Mrs. Ferret
could not read it.
"Did you sign this, Mrs. Plausaby?"
The sick woman said she did.
"Do you know what is in it?"
"Yes, but--but it's a secret."
"Did you sign it of your own free will, or did Mr. Plausaby make you?"
"Mr. Plausaby! Oh! don't tell him about it. He'll make such an awful
fuss! But it's true."
Thus satisfied that it was not a case of domestic despotism, Mrs. Ferret
wrote her peculiar signature, and made a private mark besides.
And later in the evening Mrs. Plausaby asked Isa to send word to that
nice-looking young woman that Albert loved so much. She said she
supposed he must feel bad about her. She wanted Isa to tell her all
about it. "But not till I'm dead," she added. "Do you think people know
what people say about them after they're dead? And, Isa, when I'm laid
out let me wear my blue merino dress, and do my hair up nice, and put a
bunch of roses in my hand. I wish Plausaby had got that changeable silk.
It would have been better than the blue merino. But you know best. Only
don't forget to tell Albert's girl that he did not do it. But explain it
all so she won't think I'm a--that I did it a-purpose, you know. I
didn't mean to. What makes you look at me that way? Oh, dear! Isa, you
won't ever love me any more!"
But Isa quieted her by putting her arms around her neck in a way that
made the poor woman cry, and say, "That's just the way Katy used to do.
When I die, Katy'll love me all the same. Won't she? Katy always did love
a body so." Perhaps she felt that Isabel's love was not like Katy's. For
pity is not love, and even Mrs. Plausaby could hardly avoid
distinguishing the spontaneous affection of Katy from this demonstration
of Isa's, which must have cost her some exertion.
Mrs. Plausaby grew more feeble. Her remorse and her feeling of the dire
necessity for confessing her sin had sustained her hitherto. But now her
duty was done, she had no longer any mental stimulant. In spite of Isa's
devoted and ingenious kindness, the sensitive vanity of Mrs. Plausaby
detected in every motion evidence that Isa thought of her as a thief.
She somehow got a notion that Mrs. Ferret knew all about it also, and
from her and Mr. Lurton she half-hid her face in the cover. Lurton,
perceiving that his mission to Mrs. Plausaby was ended, returned home,
intending to see Isabel when circumstances should be more favorable. But
the Ferret kept sniffing round after a secret which she knew lay not far
away. Mrs. Plausaby having suddenly grown worse, Isa determined to sit
by her during the night, but Plausaby strenuously objected that this was
unnecessary. The poor woman secretly besought Isa not to leave her alone
with Plausaby, and Isabel positively refused to go away from her
bedside. For the first time Mr. Plausaby spoke harshly to Isa, and for
the first time Isabel treated him with a savage neglect. A housekeeper's
authority is generally supreme in the house, and Isa had gradually come
to be the housekeeper. She sat stubbornly by the dying woman during the
Mr. Plausaby had his course distinctly marked out. In the morning he
watched anxiously for the arrival of his trusted lawyer, Mr. Conger. The
property which he had married with his wife, and which she had derived
from Albert's father, had all been made over to her again to save it from
Plausaby's rather eager creditors. He had spent the preceding day at
Perritaut, whither Mr. Conger had gone to appear in a case as counsel for
Plausaby, for the county-seat had recently returned to its old abode. Mr.
Plausaby intended to have his wife make some kind of a will that would
give him control of the property and yet keep it under shelter. By what
legal fencing this was to be done nobody knows, but it has been often
surmised that Mrs. Plausaby was to leave it to her husband in trust for
the Metropolisville University. Mr. Plausaby had already acquired
experience in the management of trust funds, in the matter of Isa's
patrimony, and it would not be a feat beyond his ability for him to own
his wife's bequest and not to own it at the same time. This was the
easier that territorial codes are generally made for the benefit of
absconding debtors. He had made many fair promises about a final transfer
of this property to Albert and Katy when they should both be of age, but
all that was now forgotten, as it was intended to be.
Mr. Plausaby was nervous. His easy, self-possessed manner had departed,
and that impenetrable coat of mail being now broken up, he shuddered
whenever the honest, indignant eyes of Miss Marlay looked at him. He
longed for the presence of the bustling, energetic man of law, to keep
him in countenance.
When the lawyer came, he and Plausaby were closeted for half an hour.
Then Plausaby, Esq., took a walk, and the attorney requested an interview
with Isabel. She came in, stiff, cold, and self-possessed.
"Miss Marlay," said the lawyer, smiling a little as became a man asking a
favor from a lady, and yet looking out at Isa in a penetrating way from
beneath shadowing eyebrows, "will you have the goodness to tell me the
nature of the paper that Mrs. Plausaby signed yesterday?"
"Did Mrs. Plausaby sign a paper yesterday?" asked Isabel diplomatically.
"I have information to that effect. Will you tell me whether that paper
was of the nature of a will or deed or--in short, what was its
"I will not tell you anything about it. It is Mrs. Plausaby's secret. I
suppose you get your information from Mrs. Ferret. If she chooses to tell
you the contents, she may."
"You are a little sharp, Miss Marlay. I understand that Mrs. Ferret does
not know the contents of that paper. As the confidential legal adviser of
Mr. Plausaby and of Mrs. Plausaby, I have a right to ask what the
contents of that paper were."
"As the confidential legal adviser--" Isa stopped and stammered. She
was about to retort that as confidential legal adviser to Mrs. Plausaby
he might ask that lady herself, but she was afraid of his doing that very
thing; so she stopped short and, because she was confused, grew a little
angry, and told Mr. Conger that he had no right to ask any questions, and
then got up and disdainfully walked out of the room. And the lawyer, left
alone, meditated that women had a way, when they were likely to be
defeated, of getting angry, or pretending to get angry. And you never
could do anything with a woman when she was angry. Or, as Conger framed
it in his mind, a mad dog was easier to handle than a mad woman.
As the paper signed the day before could not have been legally executed,
Plausaby and his lawyer guessed very readily that it probably did not
relate to property. The next step was an easy one to the client if not to
the lawyer. It must relate to the crime--it was a solution of the
mystery. Plausaby knew well enough that a confession had been made to
Lurton, but he had not suspected that Isabel would go so far as to put it
into writing. The best that could be done was to have Conger frame a
counter-declaration that her confession had been signed under a
misapprehension--had been obtained by coercion, over-persuasion, and so
forth. Plausaby knew that his wife would sign anything if he could
present the matter to her alone. But, to get rid of Isabel Marlay?
A very coward now in the presence of Isa, he sent the lawyer ahead, while
he followed close behind.
"Miss Marlay," said Mr. Conger, smiling blandly but speaking with
decision, "it will be necessary for me to speak to Mrs. Plausaby for a
few minutes alone."
It is curious what an effect a tone of authority has. Isa rose and would
have gone out, but Mrs. Plausaby said, "Don't leave me, don't leave me,
Isa; they want to arrest me, I believe."
Seeing her advantage, Miss Marlay said, "Mrs. Plausaby wishes me to
It was in vain that the lawyer insisted. It was in vain that Mr. Plausaby
stepped forward and told Mrs. Plausaby to ask Isabel to leave the room a
minute. The sick woman only drew the cover over her eyes and held fast
to Isabel's hand and said: "No, no, don't go--Isa, don't go."
"I will not go till you ask me," said Isa.
At last, however, Plausaby pushed himself close to his wife and said
something in her ear. She turned pale, and when he asked if she wished
Isabel to go she nodded her head.
"But I won't go at all now," said Isa stubbornly, "unless you will go out
of the room first. Then, if Mrs. Plausaby tells me that she wishes to see
you and this gentleman without my presence, I shall go."
Mr. Plausaby drew the attorney into one corner of the room for
consultation. Nothing but the desperateness of his position and the
energetic advice of Mr. Conger could have induced him to take the course
which he now decided upon, for force was not a common resort with him,
and with all his faults, he was a man of much kindness of heart.
"Isa," he said, "I have always been a father to you. Now you are
conspiring against me. If you do not go out, I shall be under the painful
necessity of putting you out, gently, but by main strength." The old
smile was on his face. He seized her arms, and Isa, seeing how useless
resistance would be, and how much harm excitement might do to the
patient, rose to go. But at that moment, happening to look toward the
bed, she cried out, "Mrs. Plausaby is dying!" and she would not have been
a woman if she could have helped adding, "See what you have done, now!"
There was nothing Mr. Plausaby wanted less than that his wife should die
at this inconvenient moment. He ran off for the doctor, but poor, weak
Mrs. Plausaby was past signing wills or recantations.
The next day she died.
And Isa wrote to Albert:
"METROPOLISVILLE, May 17th, 1857.
"DEAR SIR: Your poor mother died yesterday. She suffered little in body,
and her mind was much more peaceful after her last interview with Mr.
Lurton, which resulted in her making a frank statement of the
circumstances of the land-warrant affair. She afterward had it written
down, and signed it, that it might be used to set you free. She also
asked me to tell Miss Minorkey, and I shall send her a letter by this
mail. I am so glad that your innocence is to be proved at last. I have
said nothing about the statement your mother made to any one except Miss
Minorkey, because I am unwilling to use it without your consent. You have
great reason to be grateful to Mr. Lurton. Ho has shown himself your
friend, indeed. I think him an excellent man. He comforted your mother a
great deal. You had better let me put the writing your mother left, into
his hands. I am sure he will secure your freedom for you.
"Your mother died without any will, and all the property is yours.
Your father earned it, and I am glad it goes back to its rightful
owner. You will not agree with me, but I believe in a Providence, now,
more than ever.
"Truly your friend, ISABEL MARLAY."
The intelligence of his mother's death caused Albert a real sorrow. And
yet he could hardly regret it. Charlton was not conscious of anything but
a filial grief. But the feeling of relief modified his sorrow.
The letter filled him with a hope of pardon. Now that he could without
danger to his mother seek release from an unjust incarceration, he became
eager to get out. The possibility of release made every hour of
He experienced a certain dissatisfaction with Isa's letter. She had
always since his imprisonment taken pains to write cordially. He had been
"Dear Mr. Charlton," or "My Dear Mr. Charlton," and sometimes even "My
Dear Friend." Isa was anxious that he should not feel any coldness in her
letters. Now that he was about to be released and would naturally feel
grateful to her, the case was very different. But Albert could not see
why she should be so friendly with him when she had every reason to
believe him guilty, and now that she knew him innocent should freeze him
with a stranger-like coolness. He had resolved to care nothing for her,
and yet here he was anxious for some sign that she cared for him.
Albert wrote in reply:
"HOUSE OF BONDAGE, May 20th, 1857.
"MY DEAR, GOOD FRIEND: The death of my mother has given me a great deal
of sorrow, though it did not surprise me. I remember now how many times
of late years I have given her needless trouble. For whatever mistakes
her personal peculiarities led her into, she was certainly a most
affectionate mother. I can now see, and the reflection causes me much
bitterness, that I might have been more thoughtful of her happiness
without compromising my opinions. How much trouble my self-conceit must
have given her! Your rebuke on this subject has been very fresh in mind
since I heard of her death. And I am feeling lonely, too. Mother and Katy
have gone, and more distant relatives will not care to know an outlaw.
"If I had not seen Mr. Lurton, I should not have known how much I owe to
your faithful friendship. I doubt not God will reward you. For I, too, am
coming to believe in a Providence!
"Sometimes I think this prison has done me good. There may be some truth,
after all, in that acrid saying of Mrs. Ferret's about 'sanctified
affliction,' though she _does_ know how to make even truth hateful. I
haven't learned to believe as you and Mr. Lurton would have me, and yet I
have learned not to believe so much in my own infallibility. I have been
a high-church skeptic--I thought as much of my own infallibility as poor
O'Neill in the next cell does of the Pope's. And I suppose I shall always
have a good deal of aggressiveness and uneasiness and all that about
me--I am the same restless man yet, full of projects and of opinions. I
can not be Lurton--I almost wish I could. But I have learned some things.
I am yet very unsettled in my opinions about Christ--sometimes he seems
to be a human manifestation of God, and at other times, when my skeptical
habit comes back, he seems only the divinest of men. But I believe _in_
him with all my heart, and may be I shall settle down on some definite
opinion after a while. I had a mind to ask Lurton to baptize me the other
day, but I feared he wouldn't do it. All the faith I could profess would
be that I believe enough in Christ to wish to be his disciple. I know Mr.
Lurton wouldn't think that enough. But I don't believe Jesus himself
would refuse me. His immediate followers couldn't have believed much more
than that at first. And I don't think you would refuse me baptism if you
were a minister.
"Mr. Lurton has kindly offered to endeavor to secure my release, and he
will call on you for that paper. I hope you'll like Lurton as well as
he does you. You are the only woman in the world good enough for him,
and he is the only man fit for you. And if it should ever come to pass
that you and he should be happy together, I shall be too glad to envy
either of you.
"Do shield the memory of my mother. You know how little she was to blame.
I can not bear that people should talk about her unkindly. She had such a
dread of censure. I think that is what killed her. I am sorry you wrote
to Helen Minorkey. I could not now share my disgrace with a wife; and if
I could marry, _she_ is one of the last I should ever think of seeking. I
do not even care to have her think well of me.
"As to the property, I am greatly perplexed. Plausaby owned it once
rightfully and legally, and there are innocent creditors who trusted him
on the strength of his possession of it. I wish I did not have the
responsibility of deciding what I ought to do.
"I have written a long letter. I would write a great deal more if I
thought I could ever express the gratitude I feel to you. But I am going
to be always,
"Your grateful and faithful friend,
This letter set Isabel's mind in a whirl of emotions. She sincerely
admired Lurton, but she had never thought of him as a lover. Albert's
gratitude and praises would have made her happy, but his confidence that
she would marry Lurton vexed her. And yet the thought that Lurton might
love her made it hard to keep from dreaming of a new future, brighter
than any she had supposed possible to her.
MR. LURTON'S COURTSHIP.
After the death of Mrs. Plausaby, Isa had broken at once with her
uncle-in-law, treating him with a wholesome contempt whenever she found
opportunity. She had made many apologies for Plausaby's previous
offenses--this was too much even for her ingenious charity. For want of a
better boarding-place, she had taken up her abode at Mrs. Ferret's, and
had opened a little summer-school in the village schoolhouse. She began
immediately to devise means for securing Charlton's release. Her first
step was to write to Lurton, but she had hardly mailed the letter, when
she received Albert's, announcing that Lurton was coming to see her; and
almost immediately that gentleman himself appeared again in
Metropolisville. He spent the evening in devising with Isa proper means
of laying the evidences of Charlton's innocence before the President in a
way calculated to secure his pardon. Lurton knew two Representatives and
one Senator, and he had hope of being able to interest them in the case.
He would go to Washington himself. Isa thought his offer very generous,
and found in her heart a great admiration for him. Lurton, on his part,
regarded Isabel with more and more wonder and affection. He told her at
last, in a sweet and sincere humility, the burden of his heart. He
confessed his love with a frankness that was very winning, and with a
gentle deference that revealed him to her the man he was--affectionate,
sincere, and unselfish.
If Isabel had been impulsive, she would have accepted at once, under the
influence of his presence. But she had a wise, practical way of taking
time to think. She endeavored to eliminate entirely the element of
feeling, and see the offer in the light in which it would show itself
after present circumstances had passed. For if Lurton had been a crafty
man, he could not have offered himself at a moment more opportune. Isa
was now homeless, and without a future. If you ask me why, then, she did
not accept Lurton without hesitation, I answer that I can no more explain
this than I can explain all the other paradoxes of love that I see every
day. Was it that he was too perfect? Is it easier for a woman to love a
man than a model? People are not apt to be enamored of monotony, even of
a monotony of goodness. Was it, then, that Isa would have liked a man
whose soul had been a battle-field, rather than one in whom goodness and
faith had had an easy time? Did she feel more sympathy for one who had
fought and overcome, like Charlton, than for one who had never known a
great struggle? Perhaps I have not touched at all upon the real reason
for Isa's hesitation. But she certainly did hesitate. She found it quite
impossible to analyze her own feelings in the matter. The more she
thought about it, the more hopeless her confusion became.
It is one of the unhappy results produced by some works of religious
biography, that people who copy methods, are prone to copy those not
adapted to their own peculiarities. Isabel, in her extremity of
indecision, remembered that some saint of the latter part of the last
century, whose biography she had read in a Sunday-school library-book,
was wont, when undecided in weighty matters, to write down all the
reasons, _pro_ and _con_, and cipher out a conclusion by striking a
logical balance. It naturally occurred to Isa that what so good and wise
a person had found beneficial, might also prove an assistance to her. So
she wrote down the following:
"REASONS IN FAVOR.
"1. Mr. Lurton is one of the most excellent men in the world. I have a
very great respect and a sincere regard for him. If he were my husband, I
do not think I should ever find anything to prevent me loving him.
"2. The life of a minister's wife would open to me opportunities to do
good. I could at least encourage and sustain him.
"3. It seems to be providential that the offer should come at this time,
when I am free from all obligations that would interfere with it, and
when I seem to have no other prospect.
But here she stopped. There was nothing to be said against Mr. Lurton, or
against her accepting the offered happiness. She would then lead the
quiet, peaceful life of a village-minister's wife who does her duty to
her husband and her neighbors. Her generous nature found pleasure in the
thought of all the employments that would fill her heart and hands. How
much better it would be to have a home, and to have others to work for,
than to lead the life of a stranger in other people's houses! And then
she blushed, and was happy at the thought that there would be children's
voices in the house--little stockings in the basket on a Saturday
night--there would be the tender cares of the mother. How much better was
such a life than a lonely one!
It was not until some hours of such thinking--of more castle-building
than the sober-spirited girl had done in her whole life before--that she
became painfully conscious that in all this dreaming of her future as the
friend of the parishioners and the house-mother, Lurton himself was a
figure in the background of her thoughts. He did not excite any
enthusiasm in her heart. She took up her paper; she read over again the
reasons why she ought to love Lurton. But though reason may chain Love
and forbid his going wrong, all the logic in the world can not make him
go where he will not. She had always acted as a most rational creature.
Now, for the first time, she could not make her heart go where she would.
Love in such cases seems held back by intuition, by a logic so high and
fine that its terms can not be stated. Love has a balance-sheet in which
all is invisible except the totals. I have noticed that practical and
matter-of-fact women are most of all likely to be exacting and ideal in
love affairs. Or, is it that this high and ideal way of looking at such
affairs is only another manifestation of practical wisdom?
Certain it is, that though Isa found it impossible to set down a single
reason for not loving so good a man with the utmost fervor, she found it
equally impossible to love him with any fervor at all.
Then she fell to pitying Lurton. She could make him happy and help him to
be useful, and she thought she ought to do it. But could she love Lurton
better than she could have loved any other man? Now, I know that most
marriages are not contracted on this basis. It is not given to every one
to receive this saying. I am quite aware that preaching on this subject
would be vain. Comparatively few people can live in this atmosphere. But
_noblesse oblige_--_noblesse_ does more than _oblige_--and Isa Marlay,
against all her habits of acting on practical expediency, could not bring
herself to marry the excellent Lurton without a consciousness of _moral
descending_, while she could not give herself a single satisfactory
reason for feeling so.
It went hard with Lurton. He had been so sure of divine approval and
guidance that he had not counted failure possible. But at such times the
man of trustful and serene habit has a great advantage. He took the
great disappointment as a needed spiritual discipline; he shouldered
this load as he had carried all smaller burdens, and went on his way
without a murmur.
Having resigned his Stillwater pastorate from a conviction that his
ministry among red-shirted lumbermen was not a great success, he armed
himself with letters from the warden of the prison and the other
ministers who had served as chaplains, and, above all, with Mrs.
Plausaby's written confession, and set out for Washington. He easily
secured money to defray the expense of the journey from Plausaby, who
held some funds belonging to his wife's estate, and who yielded to a
very gentle pressure from Lurton, knowing how entirely he was in
It is proper to say here that Albert's scrupulous conscience was never
troubled about the settlement of his mother's estate. Plausaby had an old
will, which bequeathed all to him _in fee simple_. He presented it for
probate, and would have succeeded, doubtless, in saving something by
acute juggling with his creditors, but that he heard ominous whispers of
the real solution of the mystery--where they came from he could not tell.
Thinking that Isa was planning his arrest, he suddenly left the country.
He turned up afterwards as president of a Nevada silver-mine company,
which did a large business in stocks but a small one in dividends; and I
have a vague impression that he had something to do with the building of
the Union Pacific Railroad. His creditors made short work of the property
left by Mrs. Plausaby.
Lurton was gone six weeks. His letters to Charlton were not very hopeful.
People are slow to believe that a court has made a mistake.
I who write and you who read get over six weeks as smoothly as we do over
six days. But six weeks in grim, gray, yellowish, unplastered, limestone
walls, that are so thick and so high and so rough that they are always
looking at you in suspicion and with stern threat of resistance! Six
weeks in May and June and July inside such walls, where there is scarcely
a blade of grass, hardly a cool breeze, not even the song of a bird! A
great yard so cursed that the little brown wrens refuse to bless it with
their feet! The sound of machinery and of the hammers of unwilling
toilers, but no mellow voice of robin or chatter of gossiping
chimney-swallows! To Albert they were six weeks of alternate hope and
fear, and of heart-sickness.
The contractor gave a Fourth-of-July dinner to the convicts. Strawberries
and cream instead of salt pork and potatoes. The guards went out and left
the men alone, and Charlton was called on for a speech. But all eulogies
of liberty died on his lips. He could only talk platitudes, and he could
not say anything with satisfaction to himself. He tossed wakefully all
that night, and was so worn when morning came that he debated whether he
should not ask to be put on the sick-list.
He was marched to the water-tank as usual, then to breakfast, but he
could not eat. When the men were ordered to work, one of the guards said:
"Charlton, the warden wants to see you in the office."
Out through the vestibule of the main building Charlton passed with a
heart full of hope, alternating with fear of a great disappointment. He
noticed, as he passed, how heavy the bolts and bars were, and wondered if
these two doors would ever shut him in again. He walked across the yard,
feeble and faint, and then ascended the long flight of steps which went
up to the office-door. For the office was so arranged as to open out of
the prison and in it also, and was so adapted to the uneven ground as to
be on top of the prison-wail. Panting with excitement, the convict
Charlton stopped at the top of this flight of steps while the guard gave
an alarm, and the door was opened from the office side. Albert could not
refrain from looking back over the prison-yard; he saw every familiar
object again, he passed through the door, and stood face to face with the
firm and kindly Warden Proctor. He saw Lurton standing by the warden, he
was painfully alive to everything; the clerks had ceased to write, and
were looking at him expectantly.
"Well, Charlton," said the warden kindly, "I am glad to tell you that you
are pardoned. I never was so glad at any man's release."
"Pardoned?" Charlton had dreamed so much of liberty, that now that
liberty had come he was incredulous. "I am very much obliged to you, Mr.
Proctor," he gasped.
"That is the man to thank," said the warden, pointing to Lurton. But
Charlton couldn't thank Lurton yet. He took his hand and looked in his
face and then turned away. He wanted to thank everybody--the guard who
conducted him out, and the clerk who was recording the precious pardon in
one of the great books; but, in truth, he could say hardly anything.
"Come, Charlton, you'll find a change of clothes in the back-room. Can't
let you carry those off!" said the warden.
Charlton put off the gray with eagerness. Clothes made all the
difference. When once he was dressed like other men, his freedom became a
reality. Then he told everybody good-by, the warden first, and then the
guard, and then the clerks, and he got permission to go back into the
prison, as a visitor, now, and tell the prisoners farewell.
Then Lurton locked arms with him, and Charlton could hardly keep back the
tears. Human fellowship is so precious to a cleansed leper! And as they
walked away down the sandy street by the shore of Lake St. Croix,
Charlton was trying all the while to remember that walls and grates and
bars and bolts and locks and iron gates and armed guards shut him in no
longer. It seemed so strange that here was come a day in which he did not
have to put up a regular stint of eight vinegar-barrels, with the
privilege of doing one or two more, if he could, for pay. He ate some
breakfast with Lurton. For freedom is a great tonic, and satisfied hopes
help digestion. It is a little prosy to say so, but Lurton's buttered
toast and coffee was more palatable than the prison fare. And Lurton's
face was more cheerful than the dark visage of Ball, the burglar, which
always confronted Charlton at the breakfast-table.
Charlton was impatient to go back to Metropolisville. For what, he could
hardly say. There was no home there for him, but then he wanted to go
somewhere. It seemed so fine to be able to go anywhere. Bidding Lurton a
grateful adieu, he hurried to St. Paul. The next morning he was booked
for Metropolisville, and climbed up to the driver's seat with the eager
impatience of a boy.
"Wal, stranger, go tew thunder! I'm glad to see you're able to be aout.
You've ben confined t' the haouse fer some time, I guess, p'r'aps?"
It was the voice of Whisky Jim that thus greeted Albert. If there was a
half-sneer in the words, there was nothing but cordial friendliness in
the tone and the grasp of the hand. The Superior Being was so delighted
that he could only express his emotions by giving his leaders several
extra slashes with his whip, and by putting on a speed that threatened to
upset the coach.
"Well, Jim, what's the news?" said Charlton gayly.
"Nooze? Let me see. Nothin' much. Your father-in-law, or step-father, or
whatever you call him, concluded to cut and run las' week. I s'pose he
calkilated that your gittin' out might leave a vacancy fer him. Thought
he might hev to turn in and do the rest of the ten years' job that's
owin' to Uncle Sam on that land-warrant, eh? I guess you won't find no
money left. 'Twixt him and the creditors and the lawyers and the jedges,
they a'n't nary cent to carry."
"When did you hear from Gray?"
"Oh! he was up to Metropolisville las' week. He a'n't so much of a
singster as he wus. Gone to spekilatin'. The St. Paul and Big Gun River
Valley Railroad is a-goin' t' his taown."
Here the Superior Being stopped talking, and waited to be questioned.
"Laid off a town, then, has he?"
"Couldn' help hisself. The Wanosia and Dakota Crossing Road makes a
junction there, and his claim and yourn has doubled in valoo two or
"But I suppose mine has been sold under mortgage?"
"Under mortgage? Not much. Some of your friends jest sejested to Plausaby
he'd better pay two debts of yourn. And he did. He paid Westcott fer the
land-warrant, and he paid Minorkey's mortgage. Ole chap didn't want to be
paid. Cutthroat mortgage, you know. He'd heerd of the railroad junction.
Jemeny! they's five hundred people livin' on Gray's claim, and yourn's
"What does he call his town?" asked Albert.
Jim brought his whip down smartly on a lazy wheel-horse, crying out:
"Puck-a-chee! Seechy-do!" (Get out--bad.) For, like most of his class
in Minnesota at that day, the Superior Being had enriched his
vocabulary of slang with divers Indian words. Then, after a pause, he
said: "What does he call it? I believe it's 'Charlton,' or suthin' of
that sort. _Git_ up!"
Albert was disposed at first to think the name a compliment to himself,
but the more he thought of it, the more clear it became to him that the
worshipful heart of the Poet had meant to preserve the memory of Katy,
over whom he had tried in vain to stand guard.
Of course part of Driver Jim's information was not new to Albert, but
much of it was, for the Poet's letters had not been explicit in regard to
the increased value of the property, and Charlton had concluded the
claim would go out of his hands anyhow, and had ceased to take any
further interest in it.
When at last he saw again the familiar balloon-frame houses of
Metropolisville, he grew anxious. How would people receive him? Albert
had always taken more pains to express his opinions dogmatically than to
make friends; and now that the odium of crime attached itself to him, he
felt pretty sure that Metropolisville, where there was neither mother nor
Katy, would offer him no cordial welcome. His heart turned toward Isa
with more warmth than he could have desired, but he feared that any
friendship he might show to Isabel would compromise her. A young woman's
standing is not helped by the friendship of a post-office thief, he
reflected. He could not leave Metropolisville without seeing the best
friend he had; he could not see her without doing her harm. He was
thoroughly vexed that he had rashly put himself in so awkward a dilemma;
he almost wished himself back in St. Paul.
At last the Superior Being roused his horses into a final dash, and came
rushing up to the door of the "City Hotel" with his usual flourish.
"Hooray! Howdy! I know'd you'd be along to-night," cried the Poet. "You
see a feller went through our town--I've laid off a town you know--called
it Charlton, arter _her_ you know--they wuz a feller come along
yisterday as said as he'd come on from Washin'ton City weth Preacher
Lurton, and he'd heern him tell as how as Ole Buck--the President I
mean--had ordered you let out. An' I'm _that_ glad! Howdy! You look a
leetle slim, but you'll look peart enough when we git you down to
Charlton, and you see some of your ground wuth fifteen dollar a front
foot! You didn' think I'd ever a gin up po'try long enough to sell lots.
But you see the town wuz named arter _her_ you know--a sorter moniment to
a angel, a kind of po'try that'll keep her name from bein' forgot arter
my varses is gone to nothin'. An' I'm a-layin' myself out to make that
town nice and fit to be named arter her, you know. I didn't think I could
ever stan' it to have so many neighbors a drivin' away all the game. But
I'm a-gittin' used to it."
Charlton could see that the Inhabitant was greatly improved by his
contact with the practical affairs of life and by human society. The old
half-crazed look had departed from his eyes, and the over-sensitive
nature had found a satisfaction in the standing which the founding of a
town and his improved circumstances had brought him.
"Don't go in thar!" said Gray as Charlton was about to enter the room
used as office and bar-room for the purpose of registering his name.
"Don't go in thar!" and Gray pulled him back. "Let's go out to supper.
That devilish Smith Wes'cott's in thar, drunk's he kin be, and raisin'
perdition. They turned him off this week fer drinkin' too steady, and
he's tryin' to make a finish of his money and Smith Wes'cott too."
Charlton and Gray sat down to supper at the long table where the Superior
Being was already drinking his third cup of coffee. The exquisite
privilege of doing as he pleased was a great stimulant to Charlton's
appetite, and knives and forks were the greatest of luxuries.
"Seems to me," said Jim, as he sat and watched Albert, "seems to me
you a'n't so finicky 'bout vittles as you was. Sheddin' some of yer
"Yes, I think I am."
"Wal, you see you hed too thick a coat of idees to thrive. I guess a
good curryin' a'n't done you no pertickeler hurt, but blamed ef it didn't
seem mean to me at first. I've cussed about it over and over agin on
every mile 'twixt here and St. Paul. But curryin's healthy. I wish some
other folks as I know could git put through weth a curry-comb as would
peel the hull hide offen 'em."
This last remark was accompanied by a significant look at the rough board
partition that separated the dining-room from the bar-room. For
Westcott's drunken voice could be heard singing snatches of negro
melodies in a most melancholy tone.
Somebody in the bar-room mentioned Charlton's name.
"Got out, did he?" said Westcott in a maudlin tone. "How'd 'e get out?
How'd 'e like it fur's he went? Always liked simple diet, you know.
"Oh! if I wuz a jail-bird,
With feathers like a crow,
I'd flop around and--
"Wat's the rest? Hey? How does that go? Wonder how it feels to be a
thief? He! he! he!"
Somehow the voice and the words irritated Albert beyond endurance. He
lost his relish for supper and went out on the piazza.
"Git's riled dreffle easy," said Jim as Charlton disappeared. "Fellers
weth idees does. I hope he'll gin Wes'cott another thrashin'."
"He's powerful techy," said the Poet. "Kinder curus, though. I wanted to
salivate Wes'cott wunst, and he throwed my pistol into the lake."
What to do about going to see Isabel?
Albert knew perfectly well that he would be obliged to visit her. Isa had
no doubt heard of his arrival before this time. The whole village must
know it, for there was a succession of people who came on the hotel
piazza to shake hands with him. Some came from friendliness, some from
curiosity, but none remained long in conversation with him. For in truth
conversation was quite embarrassing under the circumstances. You can not
ask your acquaintance, "How have you been?" when his face is yet pale
from confinement in a prison; you can not inquire how he liked Stillwater
or Sing Sing, when he must have disliked what he saw of Stillwater or
Sing Sing. One or two of the villagers asked Albert how he had "got
along," and then blushed when they remembered that he couldn't have "got
along" at all. Most of them asked him if Metropolisville had "grown any"
since he left, and whether or not he meant to stay and set up here, and
then floundered a little and left him. For most people talk by routine.
Whatever may be thought of development from monkeys, it does seem that a
strong case might be made out in favor of a descent from parrots.
Charlton knew that he must go to see Isa, and that the whole village
would know where he had gone, and that it would give Isa trouble, maybe.
He wanted to see Isa more than he wanted anything else in the world, but
then he dreaded to see her. She had pitied him and helped him in his
trouble, but her letters had something of constraint in them. He
remembered how she had always mingled the friendliness of her treatment
with something of reserve and coolness. He did not care much for this in
other times. But now he found in himself such a hungering for something
more from Isa, that he feared the effect of her cool dignity. He had
braced himself against being betrayed into an affection for Isabel. He
must not allow himself to become interested in her. As an honorable man
he could not marry her, of course. But he would see her and thank her.
Then if she should give him a few kind words he would cherish them as a
comforting memory in all the loneliness of following years. He felt sorry
for himself, and he granted to himself just so much indulgence.
Between his fear of compromising Isa and his feeling that on every
account he must see her, his dread of meeting her and his desire to talk
with her, he was in a state of compound excitement when he rose from his
seat on the piazza of the City Hotel, and started down Plausaby street
toward the house of Mrs. Ferret. He had noticed some women going to the
weekly prayer-meeting, and half-hoped, but feared more than he hoped,
that Isabel should have gone to meeting also. He knew how constant and
regular she was in the performance of religious duties.
But Isa for once had staid at home. And had received from Mrs. Ferret a
caustic lecture on the sin of neglecting her duty for the sake of
anybody. Mrs. Ferret was afterward sorry she had said anything, for she
herself wanted to stay to gratify her curiosity. But Isabel did not mind
the rebuke. She put some petunias on the mantel-piece and some grasses
over the looking-glass, and then tried to read, but the book was not
interesting. She was alarmed at her own excitement; she planned how she
would treat Albert with mingled cordiality and reserve, and thus preserve
her own dignity; she went through a mental rehearsal of the meeting two
or three times--in truth, she was just going over it the fourth time
when Charlton stood between the morning-glory vines on the doorstep. And
when she saw his face pale with suffering, she forgot all about the
rehearsal, and shook his hand with sisterly heartiness--the word
"sisterly" came to her mind most opportunely--and looked at him with the
utmost gladness, and sat him down by the window, and sat down facing him.
For the first time since Katy's death he was happy. He thought himself
entitled to one hour of happiness after all that he had endured.
When Mrs. Ferret came home from prayer-meeting she entered by the
back-gate, and judiciously stood for some time looking in at the window.
Charlton was telling Isa something about his imprisonment, and Mrs.
Ferret, listening to the tones of his voice and seeing the light in Isa's
eyes, shook her head, and said to herself that it was scandalous for a
Chrischen girl to act in such a way.
If the warmth of feeling shown in the interview between Albert and Isa
had anything improper in it under the circumstances, Mrs. Ferret knew how
to destroy it. She projected her iceberg presence into the room and froze
Albert had many misgivings that night. He felt that he had not acted
with proper self-control in his interview with Isabel. And just in
proportion to his growing love for Isa did he chafe with the bitterness
of the undeserved disgrace that must be an insurmountable barrier to his
possessing her. How should he venture to hope that a woman who had
refused Lurton, should be willing to marry him? And to marry his
He lay thus debating what he should do, sometimes almost resolved to
renounce his scruples and endeavor to win Isa, sometimes bravely
determined to leave with Gray in the morning, never to come back to
Metropolisville again. Sleep was not encouraged by the fact that Westcott
occupied the bed on the other side of a thin board partition. He could
hear him in that pitiful state of half-delirium that so often succeeds a
spree, and that just touches upon the verge of _mania-a-potu._
"So he's out, is he?" Charlton heard him say. "How the devil did he get
out? Must a swum out, by George! That's the only way. Now her face is
goin' to come. Always does come when I feel this way. There she is! Go
'way! What do you want? What do you look at me for? What makes you look
that way? I can't help it. I didn't drown you. I had to get out some way.
What do you call Albert for? Albert's gone to penitentiary. He can't save
you. Don't look that way! If you're goin' to drown, why don't you do it
and be done with it? Hey? You will keep bobbin' up and down there all
night and staring at me like the devil all the time! I couldn't help it.
I didn't want to shake you off. I would 'ave gone down myself if I
hadn't. There now, let go! Pullin' me down again! Let go! If you don't
let go, Katy, I'll have to shake you off. I couldn't help it. What made
you love me so? You needn't have been a fool. Why didn't somebody tell
you about Nelly? If you'd heard about Nelly, you wouldn't have--oh! the
devil! I knew it! There's Nelly's face coming. That's the worst of all.
What does _she_ come for? She a'n't dead. Here, somebody! I want a match!
Bring me a light!"
Whatever anger Albert may have had toward the poor fellow was all turned
into pity after this night. Charlton felt as though he had been listening
to the plaints of a damned soul, and moralized that it were better to go
to prison for life than to carry about such memories as haunted the
dreams of Westcott. And he felt that to allow his own attachment to Isa
Marlay to lead to a marriage would involve him in guilt and entail a
lifelong remorse. He must not bring his dishonor upon her. He determined
to rise early and go over to Gray's new town, sell off his property, and
then leave the Territory. But the Inhabitant was to leave at six o'clock,
and Charlton, after his wakeful night, sank into a deep sleep at
daybreak, and did not wake until half-past eight. When he came down to
breakfast, Gray had been gone two hours and a half.
He sat around during the forenoon irresolute and of course unhappy. After
a while decision came to him in the person of Mrs. Ferret, who called and
asked for a private interview.
Albert led her into the parlor, for the parlor was always private enough
on a pleasant day. Nobody cared to keep the company of a rusty box stove,
a tattered hair-cloth sofa, six wooden chairs, and a discordant tinny
piano-forte, when the weather was pleasant enough to sit on the piazza or
to walk on the prairie. To Albert the parlor was full of associations of
the days in which he had studied botany with Helen Minorkey. And the
bitter memory of the mistakes of the year before, was a perpetual check
to his self-confidence now. So that he prepared himself to listen with
meekness even to Mrs. Ferret.
"Mr. Charlton, do you think you're acting just right--just as you would
be done by--in paying attentions to Miss Marlay when you are just out
Albert was angered by her way of putting it, and came near telling her
that it was none of her business. But his conscience was on Mrs.
"I haven't paid any special attention to Miss Marlay. I called to see her
as an old friend." Charlton spoke with some irritation, the more that he
knew all the while he was not speaking with candor.
"Well, now, Mr. Charlton, how would you have liked to have your sister
marry a man just out of--well, just--just as you are, just out of
penitentiary, you know? I have heard remarks already about Miss
Marlay--that she had refused a very excellent and talented preacher of
the Gospill--you know who I mean--and was about to take up with--well,
you know how people talk--with a man just out of the--out of the
penitentiary--you know. A _jail-bird_ is what they said. You know people
will talk. And Miss Marlay is under my care, and I must do my duty as a
Chrischen to her. And I know she thinks a great deal of you, and I don't
think it would be right, you know, for you to try to marry her. You know
the Scripcherr says that we must do as we'd be done by; and I wouldn't
want a daughter of mine to marry a young man just--well--just out
of--the--just out of the penitentiary, you know."
"Mrs. Ferret, I think this whole talk impertinent. Miss Marlay is not at
all under your care, I have not proposed marriage to her, she is an old
friend who was very kind to my mother and to me, and there is no harm in
my seeing her when I please."
"Well, Mr. Charlton, I know your temper is bad, and I expected you'd talk
insultingly to me, but I've done my duty and cleared my skirts, anyhow,
and that's a comfort. A Chrischen must expect to be persecuted in the
discharge of duty. You may talk about old friendships, and all that; but
there's nothing so dangerous as friendship. Don't I know? Half the
marriages that oughtn't to be, come from friendships. Whenever you see a
friendship between a young man and a young woman, look out for a wedding.
And I don't think you ought to ask Isabel to marry you, and you just out
of--just--you know--out of the--the penitentiary."
When Mrs. Ferret had gone, Albert found that while her words had rasped
him, they had also made a deep impression on him. He was, then, a
jail-bird in the eyes of Metropolisville--of the world. He must not
compromise Isa by a single additional visit. He could not trust himself
to see her again. The struggle was not fought out easily. But at last he
wrote a letter:
"MY DEAR MISS MARLAY: I find that I can not even visit you without
causing remarks to be made, which reflect on you. I can not stay here
without wishing to enjoy your society, and you can not receive the visits
of a 'jail-bird,' as they call me, without disgrace. I owe everything to
you, and it would be ungrateful, indeed, in me to be a source of
affliction and dishonor to you. I never regretted my disgrace so much as
since I talked with you last night. If I could shake that off, I might
hope for a great happiness, perhaps.
"I am going to Gray's Village to-morrow. I shall close up my business,
and go away somewhere, though I would much rather stay here and live down
Back to Full Books