BY LAURA SPENCER PORTOR
NOW hear the Oracle!" said Mrs. Coningsby, leaning forward in the firelight to make sure of a stitch in her Belgian knitting.
"Well, I mean"—Taunton flicked the ash of his cigar carefully—"you take, for instance, mixed marriage, just what we've been speaking of. Now, according to my way of thinking, it pretty nearly always spells tragedy." He blew more smoke to the ceiling. "You see, it's this way." He leaned forward a little along his chair-arms, and addressed the fire. "Take Romeo and Juliet as a typical example. She a Capulet, he a Montague—mixed marriage, if ever there was one. Every one knows she would have remained a Capulet, and he a Montague, quite happily, to the end of time. It never would have disturbed either of them. Can you imagine either trying to convert the other? If a difference of 'religion' was ever likely not to count, it was likely not to count there. They were not anxious about such things. The only thing that disturbed them was that the lark was not the nightingale."
Mrs. Coningsby dropped her hands and knitting into her lap with a little gesture of despair. "Well, I suppose this entire company knows what that reference to the lark and the nightingale means. I don't. I'd like to be enlightened."
Taunton gave her his attention in a polite, dazed way, an earnest man interrupted by a light hand laid on the bridle of his hobby.
"Frankly, I'm not good at quoting. I think it is the scene in the orchard, isn't it?" Taunton looked around the group, inviting any one to help him.
There was a pause.
"Yes; in Capulet's orchard."
All eves turned to Mrs. Guthrie as she spoke. She was a little out of the circle, out of the firelight. The shaded light of the lamp dimmed her dark hair and eyes and added to the aloofness of her.
"It is an orchard. Don't you remember—
" 'By yonder blessed moon I swear,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops.' "
"Yes, exactly." It was to Taunton as though, in a foreign company, some one spoke in his own tongue. "You don't happen to remember that part about the lark?"
She began at once, saying the words, without affectation—in what seemed to Taunton a singularly silvery voice:
" 'Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.' "
Fat little Mr. Paxton had, meantime, squared around in his chair—that being easier than turning around in his collar—to have a better look at her.
"Well, I'm really very much obliged," said Mrs. Coningsby, reversing her work and her needles and settling back for a prolonged line of straight knitting. "You just mean that they were so in love with each other that nothing else could have mattered."
"Yes; but what I mean is that in mixed marriage tragedy usually follows, because there is usually a third party. Now, with Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the hatred of old Capulet and old Montague was the 'third party.' It supplied the tragedy."
No one spoke.
"It's a singular thing how often it happens. Now I once knew a case of what I call mixed marriage, in the Kentucky mountains—"
Here portly Mr. Ridgeway got up. "Now, Taunton, that's what I like to hear. Go ahead with your Kentucky mountain story!"
"Oh yes, pray do!" said Mrs. Fielding, coming out of a trance-like pose and poising her lorgnon between delicate fingers. "It is so perfectly delightful to hear about those extraordinary mountaineers, who think nothing in the world of killing people."
"Well," said Ridgeway, settling himself further, "they interest me. Go ahead, Taunton."
"Yes, do," said Jimmy Tucker, "and begin and get busy. Mrs. Hastings will be back from her Red Cross meeting, and telling us it is time for dinner."
"Do begin it 'Once upon a time,' " said Celestine Reynolds. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, kitty?"
Mrs. Coningsby dropped her hands in her lap and addressed Taunton with pretty desperation. "Mr. Taunton, do please begin. If you don't I shall have to talk about the war again."
Ridgeway tapped the ends of his fingers together. The chatter of women was to him one of the incredible things of life, and when it frivolously postponed the beginning of a good story—
"Well, it was a mixed marriage," began Taunton, bluntly. "She was from Magoffin. It's a good county, as counties go, in that part of Kentucky. She was married to one of the Holcombs, over in Breathitt. You know Breathitt, of course. My friend McCree, sheriff at Jackson, had one phrase for all Breathitt County people, 'Dange'ous as a meat-ax.'
"But Dug Holcomb, the one she married, was different. You see that kind of thing, sometimes—sort of changelings. Families with children of their own, I mean, that don't really seem to belong to them."
Taunton took a glance around the company, as much as to say, "You've seen them, I'm sure." No one replied. As his glance swept over Mrs. Guthrie, he could have fancied she nodded very slightly, in acquiescence; or maybe it was just that her eyes met his with a kind of dark and wide understanding.
"Anyway, Dug Holcomb was different. You knew that when you looked in his face. The other Holcomb boys, Ples, Cran, and Sturley, were lank and tall and dark, like old man Holcomb. They had long teeth and narrow brows, and a kind of haggard way of walking. But Dug was different. His brow was broad, his teeth were good, his eyes were blue and wide apart, and he had a shock of red hair, and a broad, fine top to his head. It was a strange thing, but he and she looked alike, really very much alike. She had red hair, also. I never saw a woman with so much.
"Her father, old man Swazey, had raised geese over there in Magoffin for years. Old Uncle Ben Creech told me she knew every goose. There wasn't a prettier sight, he said, than to see her go out of the cabin and give the goose-tender's call, and to see the whole flock straighten their necks and glide over to her, waving their wings as they went and screaming with delight. When her father and brother, at a certain time of the year, would drive the geese off for court-day, to sell them, she'd get up and off to the woods before dawn, so she wouldn't see them go. There was one old gander she had had for years, which she doted on. It followed her everywhere.
"Then old man Holcomb came over and bargained for her, I believe. His wife was dead, and he and the boys needed a woman in the cabin to look after them. He thought she would be a good wife for Dug. Next week he sent Dug over. She was just sixteen, they tell me.
"Dug was gone not quite a week, and brought her across the mountains behind him on his horse. One of the older boys, Pies, rode over the dry after, and brought the indignant old gander, hissing and squawking, back with him. They say it flew to her arms when it saw her. I saw it do that many a time afterward.
"To put it bluntly, she was the type who loved dumb things, and she had married into a family of murderers. Old man Holcomb had killed three men in his day, and Ples and Cran and Sturley each their man. Dug, it seems, hadn't. I don't know whether he had lacked the need to kill any one, up to the time he married her, but I know that after his marriage it must have been away out of his line. For they were in love with each other, he and she. She used to sit watching him, in the firelight, by the hour, or he her; just watching, in a kind of open, desperate way, as though they did not either of them want any other happiness than just to look at each other, waiting the time when they could be together. He and she slept up in the loft, the rest in the one room below.
"The others treated her civilly enough at first. She was an acquisition to the cabin. They had lived like wild pigs before; they began living now like moderately well-cared for animals. She served them and waited on them. The women down in that country do not presume to sit down to a meal with the men. I've been at table, myself, with the old man and the four boys, and had her wait on us. There is something medieval about it. She was beautiful and silent, clean but ragged. Her feet were bare. They were very white, and as she put them down on the earth floor they had a little way of flinching that made her seem sensitive and delicate.
"The men bent over their plates and shoveled their food into their mouths and never so much as looked up at her. They would shove out their plates when they wanted more; that was all.
"The gander kept following her back and forth from the little lean-to shed. He was a grave, waddling old thing. I liked him immensely. The boys liked him well enough, too, I think, at first. By and by Ples came home drunk one day, stumbled over the gander, flung a stool at it, and broke its leg. She set the leg, wrapped it in cloth, with bits of stick for splints, and the leg got well—except for a slight limp.
"I've always thought that was the beginning of her downfall with the Holcombs. They all knew she doted on the gander. If she could have stormed, that day, and gone into a black rage, she would have been speaking their own language. They would have understood and would have respected her for one of themselves. They were the type that fling chairs at one another when they are angry. Hut she was naturally gentle, naturally forgiving; and, more than that, she was a woman with whom love was having its way. If a woman really loves—deeply, I mean—she can't really hate. Shakespeare knew that. Look at Juliet. He lets love possess her—fairly possess her—and after that it isn't in her to hate."
Again Taunton's glance, sweeping around the circle of his listeners, fell on Mrs. Guthrie.
"Am I not right about that?" he said, without knowing just why he said it to her, particularly. Again all eyes turned to her, and Paxton seemed climbing fatly over his collar as he turned his head, this time, to look at her.
"I never thought of it," she said, in the same silvery voice that sounded to him quiet and far-off, "but I think it might probably stand to reason."
"Well," returned Taunton, "when Ples hurt the gander Dug's wife didn't storm, or rage, or cast one black look, and, of course, the old man and the boys hated her for that. There is nothing will make the unlovely hate you like the lack of their own unloveliness in yourself. There was never a rebuke on her lips; but there is no rebuke hated by the selfish like unselfishness.
"On the other hand, there is not a more loyal people than these mountaineers, so far as family goes. They have not passed beyond the savage stage of "mine, right or wrong." The old man and the four boys held together with the savage clan spirit. After all, however much Dug's father and his three brothers hated her, she was the woman who belonged to them.
"Well, one autumn I went up into the mountains, as I did, at times, to get away from the world. I rode up on my little mare, Molly, from Frankfort, through the 'Pen'r'yle' district, and on up finally into the mountains as far as Jackson. From there I rode farther hack with McCree. McCree was the sheriff of Jackson whom I knew. Thirty miles hack, he left me at Hodge Creek, to go over in the eastern part of the county on business. He suggested that I wait for him two days, up at the Parrots' cabin, and ride hack to Jackson with him, on his return. But I declined.
"McCree rode away. After he was gone I reversed my decision, however. The weather was glorious. I knew and liked old man Parrot and his wife. I stayed there at their cabin two days, then another. Still McCree did not come. I decided, then, to go back without him. I saddled Molly and left in the afternoon.
"Toward sunset a storm came up. It found me not far from the Holcomb cabin. I rode near to it and called from the path. Dug opened the door of the cabin, came out, and gave the crude mountain welcome. The woman was indoors, getting supper. No one else was about.
" 'Where are the rest?' I asked.
"To my surprise, she told me fully. There had been a raid back in the mountains. She did not say a raid on the mountain still, but I knew without being told. The men had made their escape, but not before old Holcomb had killed one of the deputies and Ples had badly wounded another.
" 'And Dug?' I said, anxiously.
" 'Oh, Dug hain't in it. It's no consarn o' his'n.'
" 'But he'll be suspected.'
" 'I reckon he air suspicioned a'ready,' " she said, dully. 'He were out with his gun to get me a rabbit fer supper. He war'n' fur from the killin'. Hit's likely they seen him. Dug he seen his pappy shoot a man. He run home, lookin' white, an' tole me. Dug's dead set agin killin', like I am.'
"Dug came in now, bringing an armful of wood. The fresh-disturbed flames lit up their two faces as they bent over the fire. The likeness was very striking.
" 'But, Dug,' I said, 'if you were there with your gun, you must get out of this place.'
"He refused, dully, to take my view. He had had nothing to do with the killing.
" 'I ain't goin' to sneak,' he said, doggedly, 'ner hide in the brush.'
" 'Nor desert your murderous family,' I remarked, mentally. Aloud, I said:
" 'All right, don't sneak or hide; but after supper get the horse saddled and just ride with me back to the Blue-Grass—just until I can get things straightened out with McCree. You see, I know McCree. That will help. Your wife can go up to the Parrots' to-morrow morning.' I turned my eyes to the woman.
" 'Oh, I hain't afraid to stay alone,' she said, dully. 'I've got the gander.'
" 'I ain't goin' to sneak,' Dug replied.
" 'I don't call that sneaking,' I said. 'Do you?' I appealed to her. 'Good Lord!' I addressed him directly, 'you've got to stop thinking of your family, and think of her.'
"His eyes shifted, as though he were staggering a little under some mental blow. Then he turned to her appealingly. There, where his whole poor soul looked out miserably, she stood, beautiful, desirable in his eyes. I think he must have wished me and my prudence gone, so that he could be with her. I knew, as I looked at him, that he, too, had not a particle of hate in his nature. They loved each other entirely. What had hate to do with them?
"The gander stood beside her, his head high in the air and turned on one side, wisely, his bright-rimmed eye fixed on us, as though waiting.
"She took a little step nearer to Dug.
" 'Dug honey; hit's like he says. I reckon that hain't sneakin'. You're all I got.'
"The gander, always jealous of her, put his long neck to one side and rubbed his head against her, coveting attention.
"She put her fingers in among his head feathers and scratched his head, in an absent way, not looking at him.
" 'If they was to take you, Dug honey, I'd have the gander,' she said, simply, 'but it wouldn't be the same.'
"As soon as darkness closed in, Dug and I rode away. It was a wild, black night. The rain had stopped, but the sky was overcast and the wind was high. We followed a mere bridle-path for perhaps a half-mile, then struck into a narrow road in the woods.
"The wind in the branches took care of the sound of our horses' hoofs. We were in a kind of privacy of noise and a tumult of tossing boughs. So were others, evidently, for suddenly Molly lifted her head knowingly. My heart leaped. I gathered in the bridle, turned, and spoke in quiet tones, in Dug's ear.
" 'Don't speak unless I ask you a question. Stay where you are. Remember, you're all she's got.'
"Molly moved on again, cautiously. In a moment more she stood stock-still, nose to nose with a horse facing her. The stranger horse wheeled a little. I did not see it, but I knew there was a barrel of a pistol facing me.
" 'You are covered. Who's there?' The words came sharp. I recognized the voice.
" 'Fred Taunton, from the Blue-Grass,' I said.
"The man in the dark laughed a low, gruff laugh.
" 'Well, I'll be doggoned! What in the name of Sam Hill you doin' here? Thought you was in the Blue-Grass by now. Looky here, you like to have got your damned head blowed off.'
"Just then another officer came up on his horse. I knew McCree. I knew he was as keen after a criminal as a coon-dog after a coon.
" 'Want to come and help us hunt some fellows? The Holcombs. We're after the hull gang.'
" 'Are you sure they're all guilty?' I said.
" 'You're soft, you are,' he said. 'I always told you that. Which way you riding? We're going by the old persimmon-tree below here; skirt around by the big. white oak and the fox-grapes, then down beside the creek to the cabin. One of 'em's likely to sneak back somewhere near then- to-night fer food. Now where are you goin'?'
" 'I'm going by the main road to the Parrots'.'
" 'If you meet any of my men, give 'em the password, "Coon-dog," and they'll let you by.'
McCree rode away in the defile that led to the persimmon-tree.
"I got down off of Molly and took a step or two back, toward the spot where I had left Dug. Something moved deftly beside me, like an animal, as though to get swiftly past me, I stooped and grabbed it by the hair. It was Dug.
" 'Where are you going?' I said, holding him.
" 'I heard what he said. I'm going to cut across the short way, to warn him when be gets to the old persimmon-tree. They'll be shot if they go down there by the wild-grape. Cran and Sturley are there.'
"I tried to stop him, but he pulled away from me.
" 'Don't forget to say "Coon-dog" to them,' I said, desperately. 'They won't know you. Say it—then run. Where are you going after that?'
" 'Back to her,' he said, and was gone.
"I knew the short foot-path back to the cabin. McCree's horse would have to pick his way slowly; that would give me time to get to the cabin before McCree. I tied Molly where I found Dug's horse tied, and made the difficult way on foot.
"When I came to the cabin at last I was pretty well spent. I opened the door without knocking.
"Ples and Dug were facing each other. They stared at me as I entered; but Ples turned back almost instantly to his brother.
"Dug stood back against the wall. Beside him, her hand on his arm, stood the woman, her red hair shining in the firelight. I could not but notice again the striking likeness between them.
"Ples was cursing Dug as I've never heard a man curse. When there was a break in the torrent the woman spoke, weakly.
" 'Ples! Ples! Dug's yer brother!' As she said it she laid a hand on his arm. Ples flung it off as though it were some vile thing. The gander, excited by a scene it did not understand, flew at Ples with an angry, hissing sound and a wild waving of wings.
"I hardly know how it occurred, for it all happened so quickly. Ples made a swift, fierce snatch at the gander that took it off its yellow feet. He gave it a vicious jerk, a strong, infuriated twirl. Then the great, heavy body was flung into a corner and lay still, after a few feeble flutterings of its great wings.
The woman's eyes closed an instant, as though she had been struck and dazed by a hard blow. But she did not even look toward the bird. Her eyes fixed on Dug.
"I expected to see the two men clench in fierce fight, but Dug's raised hands only dropped heavily at his sides and he said nothing. Ples began his torrent of abuse once more.
" 'Look here,' I said, 'you'll be caught up with while you're quarreling. What did you come back for? McCree is certain to be here soon.'
" 'I came back,' Ples said, with slow hate, 'to find out what Dug's aimin' to do. He's pappy's son, like we all air. But he don't act like it, fer a fact. Blood's a heap thicker than water, but you wouldn't say he was blood-kin. Looks like he's changed and converted—ain't the same man since she come here.'
"I can give no idea of the scorn his words conveyed.
" 'You run a risk every moment you are here,' I said, angrily. 'Get out into the brush and save yourself.'
"Ples turned to Dug again.
" 'Air you goin' to get your gun and come into the brush, like I told you?'
"Dug still remained silent. It was the woman who spoke.
" 'Dug's like me,' she said. She cast a frightened glance at Ples, as though she had said the wrong thing. 'Hit's this-a-way.' Her voice was husky, and she cleared her throat. 'He'd ruther put his head in the f'ar than take no man's life. And I'd ruther see him laid out thar dead afore me than have him get no man's blood on his hands. Your pappy's done kill four men. Hit's aplenty.' She paused, and her fingers closed steadyingly, possessively, over Dug's arm. 'Dug's dead set agin killin'. If it comes to standin' by his pappy and his brothers, well, Dug knows blood-kin. But Dug won't kill ary man. Will you, Dug honey?'
"Even as she spoke there was a slight crash outside, as of some one stumbling over a dead branch.
" 'That's McCree!' I said, desperately.
"Ples, without a word, turned to the ladder and climbed into the loft. He drew a knife from his belt as he passed Dug, and handed it fiercely to him. Dug took it. Then a shade of something went over his face and he laid it on the bed, passed over to the ladder, and followed Ples.
" 'Where you going, Dug honey?' the woman said, softly. She had her hands clasped up under her chin and was shrunk back against the wall.
" 'Up thar,' he said. 'If they take me first maybe it 'll give Ples time to get away.'
"Before he was well in the loft there was a pounding against the door.
McCree had his deputy with him. I could hear him order another to the back of the cabin.
"The woman, very white, unbolted the latch.
"McCree and a deputy named Bradley came in, without a word. McCree threw a keen glance around the room.
" 'So you're here, are you!' he fixed his eyes narrowly on me. 'Looks like to me you got here pretty quick.'
"Look here,' I said, 'I'm not mixing in anything I ought not to be in. I give you my word of honor.'
"He turned to Bradley. 'That man is soft on mountaineers,' he said, with a mixture of scorn and shrewdness. 'Keep your eye on him.'
" 'Look here,' I insisted, 'one of these boys is not guilty. It was he who warned you not to go past the wild-grape lest you be shot.'
"I could feel the woman's eyes on my face.
"McCree fingered his pistol and squinted calculatingly, addressing me.
" 'You're damned soft, you are; and you're trying to save somebody. One of 'em's around here. Look under them beds, Bradley; now behind them sacks; now up in the loft. I'll go first; you come close behind. If I don't get him, be sure you do.'
"Just then McCree caught sight of the knife and picked it up, with a mixed smile, and put it in his belt.
" 'Look here,' I said, hurrying to the foot of the ladder, 'don't do anything you'll be sorry for.'
"At that instant there was a noise in the loft. Ples was forcing open the little blind-shuttered window at the end of it.
"McCree fairly ran up the ladder. I looked at the woman. She had her eyes fixed on the loft-hole. Dug must have been crouched close to it. I knew he had no weapons. McCree disappeared. At the same moment his pistol must have been knocked from his hand, for it fell heavily from the loft-hole to the floor below.
"I figured out afterward what happened. Dug threw himself against McCree to give Ples time to get away through the tiny loft window. McCree, his pistol gone, snatched the knife from his belt and made three lunges. I heard those three lunges, then I heard Dug's body fall heavily to its knees first, I think, then altogether over. At the same moment I heard Ples drop outside the cabin, and McCree shouting to Bradley:
" 'There's two! Get out. One's got away!'
"McCree fairly tumbled over Bradley coming down the ladder, and both of them flung out of the cabin wildly.
"I looked at the woman. She had not moved. She was standing, shrunken against the wall, the firelight playing on her hair wonderfully. Her eyes were fixed not on the loft-hole now, but on a spot not far from her, on the cabin floor, where, between the cracks of the floor-boards of the loft, something was beginning to drip, drip. Presently she felt her way, staggeringly, along the wall, and reached the ladder.
" 'Let me go first,' I said. She paid no heed. I ran back for some clean rags drying by the fire. When I got to the loft she was turning Dug over. He had fallen on his face. Her hands and mine touched each other, feeling over his body, and met on something warm and wet. I pressed the rags to it. She took them from me, and held them close against his breast with both her hands, leaning over him.
"She was slender and frail, but she wanted to carry him herself; actually put her arms under him, and tried to lift him.
" 'Go down first.' I think I spoke almost roughly. 'I'll need you below.'
So she went. I followed after, backing down carefully, Dug's head lying over my arm, while I held to the rungs with the other hand.
"I laid him down on the floor, not far from the fire. She slipped in a heap on her knees beside him and took his head in her lap. Her body touched the body of the dead gander, but I think she did not notice it. There was nothing to he done. McCree's knife must have gone far in, quite to the heart, I should saw
"She sat quite still, without a tear and without a word. Now and then she smoothed his hair or his stained clothes. I sat on the edge of the bed, away from her in the shadows, turning over possibilities. At last I begged her to let me watch while she went and lay down for a while. I think she did not hear me. The wind tossed and sobbed outside. There was rain with it now.
" 'I'm going to get my mare,' I said, at last. 'I'll be back soon.'
"If I could get Molly I could go in a little while to the Parrots' and get help for her—woman's help, I mean. I think she did not notice my going. As I left the cabin she was bending over Dug, smoothing his hair.
"It must have been about a half-hour before I could get back with Molly. Dug and the woman were there, just as I had left them, except that she had noticed the old gander and had drawn its head over on her lap, too.
" 'Won't you come away for a little while and rest?' I begged.
"She began swaying back and forth, crooning softly. I knew then what I had seemed to know before, that she was out of her mind entirely. She smoothed the feathers of the dead gander; then she raised her head and gave, suddenly, the mellow call of the goose-tender, and then as suddenly put her hand over her mouth and looked at Dug.
"She turned to me. 'You see, I hain't woke him up, hev I? He hain't been sleepin' well. Dug, he says to me'—then it was as though her wits had lost their way. She began again: 'They were all white, right pure white.' Again she stroked the head of the gander. Then she took my wrist and spoke in my ear: 'I'll tell you something. I'd ruther hev Dug layin' out there dead afore me than to hev him kill ary man. But he hain't dead. He's sleepin'; and he hain't kill nobody, nuther; and he's stood by his blood-kin, too. Don't you wake him. He'll wake up by and by hisself, when he gets sleep enough. Dug's like me; he don't like to kill nobody.' "
As Taunton finished, there was dead silence. Mrs. Coningsby had stopped knitting; Celestine Reynolds no longer fondled the kitten; Mrs. Fielding, with eyes closed and a look of pain on her thin, colorless face, was in a deeper trance than ever. Jimmy Tucker and Paxton were both looking gravely over their collars into the fire.
"Good Lord!" blurted Ridgeway, "you went through that yourself!"
"But how perfectly fearful!" said Celestine Reynolds.
"What became of her?" said Mrs. Coningsby, almost savagely.
"Two of the boys went to prison. Old Holcomb and Ples got out of the state and away. The Parrots took her back to her father, in Magoffin. She's got enough wits to tend the geese. I tried to do something for her. Well, you can't do much for those people. They tell me she looks over the flock of geese carefully each night for the old gander. Sometimes she almost, but never quite, finds him."
There was a moment's pause. Then the portières parted and Mrs. Hastings came in, in her furs, her cheeks glowing.
"Well," she said, cheerfully, "what have you been doing in my absence? Dear me, but you look solemn."
Ridgeway spoke for them all, while he helped her off with her furs.
"Taunton, here, has been telling us a pretty grim story about the tragedies that follow on mixed marriage."
Taunton thought he saw Mrs. Hastings's eyes glide, with a little, frightened glance, to Mrs. Guthrie.
"Well, now, I say—" began Mrs. Coningsby.
"And I say," said Mrs. Hastings, interrupting, "that it is close on to dinner-time."
In another moment or two they were all trailing up-stairs, laughing and talking as they went.
Taunton noticed that Mrs. Guthrie waited, and slipped near to Mrs. Hastings, and laid a hand on her arm, the two women going up the broad steps together.
When he came down, a little while later, Mrs. Hastings, in a mauve dinner-gown, was waiting for him.
"Now sit down and tell me what it was, for Heaven's sake, this about mixed marriage. I am anxious, because, you see, Mrs. Guthrie has been through such a fearful experience herself. He was an Englishman, she an American; he had been brought up in one faith, she in another," she hurried on, as though to get it said quickly.
"They disagreed as to religion?" Taunton asked.
"Oh dear, mercy, no!" Mrs. Hastings spoke with sorrowful impatience. "They disagreed as to nothing, my dear. They loved each other. They adored each other. They were the only perfectly mated people I ever saw. What in the world had they to do with old hatreds of sects and creeds. Nothing, nothing. They could afford to leave all that to smaller minds. When people love as they did—well, I don't believe hatred for anybody could find a particle of place in their lives."
"Would you mind telling me—in her case—just what was the tragedy?"
"Oh, it was his people. You see, he was a widower. His people had had his children for six years. When he became engaged they could not endure giving them up. They wanted to keep them. They tried to make themselves and him believe that he had no right to them. They had cared for them, and, besides, their objections were based chiefly on religious reasons, that about not putting Catholic or Protestant children with a stepmother of the opposite faith. I cannot explain it all. It seems incredible. I don't know how such things happen; I only know they do. Trying to stay true to his own people, true to the woman he loved. Then, you see, he was overworked, on the verge of a breakdown, anyway—I don't know all the details—I only know that finally, when he was ill, the children were taken away by his people, on the ground that he and she were unfit to care for them. His people were warned by the physicians they must not subject him to such shock and strain. She, poor thing, kept promising that the children would surely come back, if only he would get well. But he grew worse. The physicians said he could not get well with this thing warring in his heart and mind."
"Then, one night in his delirium he got hold of a pistol and shot himself."
She spoke with a kind of desperate abruptness. Presently she continued: "There simply could not have been people who loved each other more. And, do you know, to this day I've never seen a look of bitterness or hate in her face. Now if it had been I—"
"Oh no, you wouldn't," Taunton interrupted, bitterly. "When two people love like that, the hate always has to be supplied by outside parties. It was that way with Romeo and Juliet; it was that way with the mountain people I told about; it is that way with her. But, dear me, the story was unfortunate. I wish I had known!"
The others were coming down the steps now. Dinner was announced. A few moments later Taunton found himself beside Mrs. Guthrie, at the long dining-table.
"Now there is opportunity to thank you," she was saying, gently, "for your story. I feel as though you had given me two friends—the mountain woman with the red hair, and the man she loved."
Did she guess that he knew her own story? Had she said this to put him at his ease? Very likely. There was about her a peculiar and lovely gentleness.
Mrs. Coningsby, exactly opposite, leaned over, babblingly. "I've been thinking a great deal about that story of yours, Mr. Taunton, of mixed marriage."
Taunton had a wild impulse to fling out a kick under the table.
"I can't tell you how right I think you are. Now I think that war is often like mixed marriage. The men are held by the belief they have been brought up to, a fanatical belief in patriotism; the women by their belief in love, in home, in marriage. Well, they love each other—these women, these men. The men don't go armed for hate, not more than your man Dug did. But just like your man Ples, along comes the war party, the government, the Fatherland, dragging their hate, just as the old Capulets and Montagues did, blackly across the lives of those who love. It is fanaticism, selfishness, pitted against nobility and peace and love. And the men are sacrificed, killed, just as your man Dug was, and the women are left, with empty hands, empty lives, horribly, horribly empty lives—"
It seemed intolerable to Taunton that the woman beside him should be subjected to this new insistence.
"Well," he said, lamely, "I can't feel that the world is lost so long as the women are left. They, at least, however they suffer, can carry on the tradition of love."
"Do you feel that way about it, Mrs. Guthrie?" insisted Mrs. Coningsby. "Now I just can't."
Again the voice of the woman beside him sounded to Taunton strangely silvery:
"I do not know. But I am sure that love is the great fact, and that all the rest is passing, passing, and by and by will be gone—but love will be left."
For a moment, as he glanced at her—at the sensitive white brow, of beautiful proportion, the dark, understanding eyes, at once a revelation and a mystery—she seemed to Taunton more than ordinary flesh and blood, something spiritual, prophetic, symbolic—an embodiment of all the spirituality of all the women of the world.