The Judgment of the Thorntons
The Judgment of the Thorntons
By MARY HEATON VORSE
Author of "The Heart's Country," etc.
Illustrations by W . S. Conrow
THOSE who knew him best said that it was the nervous shock of the accident which made a man as promising as Andrew Sears go to seed. Analogies like this between things that grow and the human spirit are bound to be teasing in their inexactness. The phrase "gone to seed" was most incomplete. The process of going to seed is a more generous affair than that which happened to Andrew Sears; it bespeaks a certain loose generosity, a wanton profusion of bloom some time or other, an early wasting of oneself in a splendid effort. What happened to him was more like the withering of a flower on the stalk, the contours of which maintain a semblance of themselves as they were when full of sap, and have a certain shadowy beauty in their withered state. At a distance they even look like real flowers.
And so it happened that the work which he did from that time on was appreciation and criticism of other people's work, and scholarly enough; but insight for great criticism exists only when the great man's spirit is mirrored in the spirit of another man who is nearly his peer, and the mirror of Andrew Sears' spirit reflected only broken corners of larger minds.
When he chose to reflect a man small enough for him to see him in his entirety, a flaw in the glass, which was his own hidden bitterness, gave back a contorted, ironic outline, as though, knowing too well the limitations of his own soul, he could see with fantastic accuracy the limitations of souls like his own. The most eloquent things that he wrote at this time were on shallowness and aridity, as though by force of contemplating these qualities philosophizing on them, brooding over them, watching them thwart and dwarf the generosities of men's spirits, he got to their very core, to their inner meaning as a devotee sees the mystic heart of the thing on which his loving contemplation turns.
In writing such things he achieved a shadow of the early promise of his own genius, for of necessity we must always and forever express in terms of art the things we know the best and have felt most deeply. That which turned life into such a chill purgatory for him was the brief contemplation of himself as he really was. For a moment he had seen himself stripped down until the very inner essence of him stood out naked and shivering. Men put into their work, and he knew it, the essence of their own souls the visions of themselves as they might be The thing he had seen was not worth while putting anywhere,—so it appeared to his critical judgment,—and yet his fingers ached for the pen, and yet he must support himself, and yet he must continue to live in the world.
This all sounds as though his failure to fulfil himself was the result of a morbid brooding; but nothing was further from that. What happened to him was that curious psychological change which comes to the champion when he receives his knock-out blow, and he knows that he can never recover himself. It is n't himself that has been knocked out; it is his faith in himself that has been shaken, and somewhere in the fastnesses of his own nature he believes he can never win again.
It was Andrew Sears's fastidious habit to withdraw himself from his world when he felt the need of sweeping away some of life's unnecessary adornments; he decided that among the New England hills he would find that time for contemplation that life was forever taking from him. So at a certain place he mounted a horse and rode off with no conscious plan except to go as far as might be from a railway. As he rode through the country and found settlements and farms and clearings, all remote from one another, a sense of isolation gained upon him. Afternoon found him on a plateau, and on the top of this was a sad old town. The whole bleak little settlement had the air of a place that had almost bled to death. Once the post-road had gone through it, and the post had changed its horses at the inn, and had gone planking down the road, leaving behind journals and news and the stories of the outer world. Now, since the coming of the railway in the valley, the settlement had been left high and dry, and the steady seep, seep, seep of the adventurous blood into the valleys drained its vitality and left it a bleak and austere memory of its former self. No people were stirring anywhere; it was an isolation beyond that of any solitude that he had ever known.
He rode around the common, and a sign advised him that here was a hotel. He dismounted, and threw his reins over the lions at the hitching-post that stood without, and went in. No sound anywhere. He walked through the vacant spaces; not a soul anywhere, and all doors open. He went out the back door through the kitchen and followed a path through the fields and found the proprietor at work. He developed a mighty disgust for Andrew when he learned that he was not bound for the railway by the shortest road. Of course if he wanted to go up to Thornton's he could, he told Andrew grudgingly. What was Thornton's? He gave answers evasive in their incompleteness. No, not exactly settlements—used to be settlements; perhaps—he did n't know. And finally, pressed into a corner, Thorntons was folks, and there was towns named after 'em. Had been folks once; they was a wild lot—Thorntons.
Andrew gathered from him that up still farther in the hills was a race of men who, instead of plowing and tilling as decent and comprehensible people did, had let their land run to timber and trapped in it irrespective of game laws, and kept out decent folk that wanted to hunt in the proper seasons. A wild lot, Thorntons, he summed it up.
The thought of this lawless tribe in the heart of New^ England, living in the midst of its peaceful hills, touched Andrew's imagination. This bleak, meager town seemed like the entrance to some sort of fabled country.
Following the scornfully given direction, Andrew plunged into a mere thread of a road between tree-trunks. At long intervals flowering trees, like immense nosegays, gleamed through the green of the forest. After a while Andrew recognized them as apple-trees. All else had vanished that might tell any tale of the habitations which had been. The dwelling-houses had fallen, leaving of themselves only holes in the ground, which in the wash of autumn and spring rains had been filled up as the forest, all-conquering, had marched upon them. The forest, like the encroaching sea, had eaten into the hard-won acres and left of them no trace beyond the white-flung branches of the apple-trees, chance-sown children of a vanished race, bearing small and hardy fruit.
The road wound upward suddenly. Everything about him was green—green as far as the eyes could reach. The trees stretched on and on; only trees filled the world, restless and agitated, a sea of green that hid the streams flowing past their trunks, which climbed the mountains on the flanks of which they grew, a solemn, upright, invading army.
He rode on again, sitting loose in the saddle, his spirit lost in the varying monotony, unaware of himself as he had almost never been. Then suddenly across the road there was a flash of red fur of a fox. His horse jumped; Andrew fell heavily.
He opened his eyes in a low-studded room. Opposite him sat a young girl, her deep brooding gaze upon him. Mingled with his pain, almost as part of it, as something he had realized at the same moment and inseparable from his own suffering, was the recognition of the girl's beauty. They looked at each other a long time, as though silently they were becoming known to each other. At last Andrew spoke.
"My horse threw me," he said.
The girl only nodded.
His effort of speech left him with the impression of having lifted some heavy weight and of having sunk back exhausted from the effort.
"My leg 's broken, I suppose?" he asked next. He was listless and impersonal; the leg, but for the pain, might have belonged to some one else for all he cared.
The girl nodded again.
"How did I get here?" he asked in a moment.
"I brought you." She had not spoken before; her voice was deep and sweet. It seemed like the expression of her dark and somber beauty put into sound. Even in his pain, half stunned as he was, her words aroused his never-sleeping curiosity.
"How?" he asked.
She smiled at him.
"In my arms; I carried you."
At that moment pain and the faintness of pain overwhelmed him, and he was barely aware of her moving about ministering to him. Then she seemed to be two people; her dual personality presented itself to his wandering spirit as an erect, handsome, eagle-eyed old woman, implacably neat, and as erect and white as a pine-tree stripped by lightning. Then as Andrew recognized her as a separate personality, came the tramp of men's feet, and a dark, arrogant man, slouching, and yet at the same time carrying himself like one of the lords of the earth, came in, followed by a little, broad-shouldered, and bearded man. The dark man bent over him with the kindness one would show a woman, and with the air of one being familiar with wounded men.
"The doctor"—he indicated the smaller man. Then followed questions and preparations that the two women carried out as unflurried as hospital nurses; then the oblivion of ether.
By the next afternoon he was enough himself to let his gaze wander through the open window. Andrew felt as though he had come into a new chapter of his existence. He had passed through the gateway of pain, and at the other side he found himself in a far-off country where nothing whatsoever attached him to his old life. At that moment the girl passed his window, her splendid head held arrogantly. Her meager dress of blue gingham, with its straight, austere lines, molded her figure into the semblance of an heroic Tanagra figurine.
His mind drifted oddly to the line.
Dumb woods have you uttered a bird?
for it seemed to Andrew that she was an utterance of the mountains, which were at once magnificent and austere. She gave him the impression of having heard a strain of heroic music. Again he fell to wondering if she would prove like almost all other women; if she would be petty, with no horizon beyond the narrow round of domestic duties; or if in her spirit there was the breath of the mountains, as there was in the body of her and the poise of her. Something must be there, he was sure, another flavor, a different color, something bigger, something more vitally vivid.
Andrew, who added kindness to his intense curiosity regarding the hinterland of people's lives,—and it was this that gained him the reputation of being sympathetic, which he was not; but because women's mental processes really interested him, which among Americans is unusual,—made many friends among women. He was accustomed to having offered to him in friendship and sometimes in love very much more than he wanted; what he wanted was to observe and do his work, which was writing concerning the things he had observed. Had he brought more heart to his task he would have seen more. Even as it was he knew that the natures of women are shy and furtive, overlaid with many veneers, beginning with the one which they believe men wish to see, and at best with spirits strangely burdened with detail.
The erect old woman came noiselessly into the room and looked down on Andrew.
"You are feeling better?" she asked. "I 've been watching you from the door to see if you wanted anything. I did n't want to disturb you." Her voice had an accent in it not country-bred, an intonation that bespoke a greater gentleness of rearing than one would look for in this remote place. She gave the answer for this in her next words: "It 's long," she said, "oh, long, long years years since I saw one of your kind."
Andrew's quick instinct for managing people, especially for managing women, made him silent. Quiet brooded between them. The breath of the mountains came in cool and sweet at the window. Once or twice her strange, penetrating gaze rested speculatively on Andrew, and then, after a long silence had fallen between them, and the gloom of the late afternoon, thickening, had stopped her sewing, she spoke:
"Oh, but the tones of your voice and the manner of you bring forgotten memories trooping along in great procession! My mind has n't been so peopled with faces and names and events these many years. Strange; I am pleased now to remember that which I was at such pains to forget." And it was for Andrew as though for one moment he had a glimpse into a spectral past that was not his own; as though he saw other shapes and people and faces—memories moving about that did not belong to him, so poignant had been her tone, cleared of all regret as it was.
Presently the girl herself came in, a lamp in her hand, and took her grandmother's place. As she paused a moment in the dark oblong of the doorway, with the light flaring up into her face, Andrew for a second held his breath, so strange was her beauty, at once so proud and austere.
The older women silently left the room, and for the first time the girl looked at him intimately. Andrew broke the silence.
"I feel as though you were an old friend of mine, as though I had known you for very long," he said.
The girl waited a moment.
"I feel as though I had known you always," she answered.
There was an odd directness about her, as though all the diffidence and falseness and many "thou shalt nots" that self-consciousness and civilization place between the intercourse of two people were absent with her.
"And yet," Andrew went on musingly, "I don't even know your name."
"Althea; it is my grandmother's," she told him.
"Thank you," said Andrew. His voice had a skilful note of true gratitude in it, as though she had conferred on him some gift. Then, after a moment, "I am glad that you feel that way, also, because I should like very much if we could be good friends—not because I am your enforced guest for a moment, but because I like you."
A look of happiness flashed over the girl's face, transfiguring her as though the sun came out. She seemed to shine as though from some light within.
"Ah," she said, "that makes me happy! Strangers don't often like us Thorntons. We 're so different, each one from ourselves; yet we are alike. Grandmother says in some way we are minted differently from the rest of the world, and we understand each other even when we hate each other. I was afraid you would feel it as they did."
"I don't feel as 'they' did, whoever 'they' were," Andrew assured her. "Let 's begin being friends, let 's begin 'way along, pretending it is so,—what we both felt,—that we have known each other very long. Let 's waste no time on the outskirts of friendship."
A startled look, and yet a look of deep pleasure, came into the girl's eyes. Andrew reflected that she knew none of the tricks of hiding what she felt; that the shadow and sunshine of feeling played across her with as little concealment as the sun shining directly or through clouds across some landscape. She seemed as natural as that to him, and as beautiful.
"Can you do that, do you think?" he asked humbly. "Can you trust me with your friendship, as though I had earned it, and follow this strong instinct that we both have?"
She bent forward toward him a trifle, and looked at him wistfully.
"Yes," she said aloud, yet with the quality of a whisper in her voice. "Yes," she repeated. Then, feeling some impulse that made it necessary for her to seek solitude, as one must after some great emotion has passed over one, she rose, and passed like a shadow from the room.
Andrew, left alone, smiled to himself. He was not a coxcomb, but he was proud of the way that he could find short cuts to the place, as he expressed it, "where people really live," and he was pleased with himself that, ill as he was and despite his unfamiliar surroundings, he should have at once found the road that led through the silent arrogance of this sullen, proudly reserved creature.
He felt, indeed, almost a creator's triumph. He was at great pains to bring her frightened spirit toward him. He realized that never in her life had she given expression to herself or thought of giving expression except once in a while to her valiant old grandmother, for they were a race of people locked within themselves, the Thorntons.
During his convalescence Andrew had ample opportunity to observe them. Different women of the family dropped in in the daytime, straight-browed, handsome creatures for the most part, to be picked out easily from the women who were not of Thornton blood, whom the Thornton men had gotten for themselves as wives. The Thornton women spoke and walked better, and looked at Andrew with a level-eyed scrutiny. They talked but little, and then of the reality of things, of births and deaths and shootings; quick, low-toned conversations of So-and-So who had gotten into trouble; of the bluffing of the constable from the town. Through them, even more than from the men, did Andrew picture to himself a small republic of Thornton, without its flag, without its coinage, and yet existing by itself and maintaining its own independence and setting at defiance all other laws except those it made itself.
At night there trooped in dark-bearded, slouching, arrogant men, almost all of whom had a distant kinship in looks to his host. They treated him with courtesy, though he made small headway with them. They had their own topics of conversation as they sat and drank about the blazing fire. One of the younger men, Victor Thornton, came often, and sat with covetous eyes fixed on Althea. He talked with her in low tones; he was handsome and straight and had a certain elegance of movement.
One day it happened to Andrew to be an involuntary eavesdropper to a scene between Victor and Althea as they stood at a little distance from his window. The wind that blew their words to him made his efforts at attracting their attention vain. At first he thought only what a splendid pair they made as they stood there on the ridge silhouetted against the sky. Indeed, the splendor of their young beauty made Andrew feel as though he belonged to a physically inferior race, as though his body were meager and wholly inadequate in the face of their young splendor.
"What 's been the matter with you lately, Althea?" Victor demanded. "What 's made you be so mean to me?" Althea turned her level and disdainful gaze on him.
"I have n't liked the way you 've acted," she replied in an even tone. "I don't like sulky men, and you 've been sulky. How do you expect me to be nice to you? I have n't asked you what 's been the matter with you."
"I tell you what 's been the matter with me," and to Althea's quick, "I 'm not interested," he paid no attention. "The matter with me 's been that I don't like what 's going on here, if you want to know."
"The matter with you is," pursued Althea, "that you 're jealous." Victor strode forward and seized Althea by the wrist, and even from where he lay Andrew could see the white circle where the blood was stopped by the iron of his grasp.
"I 'm not going to get angry with you," he said, the blood mounting to his dark face. "I 'm sorry for you, Althea; but let me tell you this, and you can tell him so, too,"—he nodded toward Andrew's direction,—"if any harm comes to you, I 'll kill him, that 's all."
"I love to hear you threaten," said Althea, with maddening smoothness. "I love to hear Thornton men so particular."
"Thornton men take what they feel like taking." Victor, too, spoke smoothly, his head at an angle that gave him a look of inconceivable arrogance. With arrogance equal to his, and a self-control equal, Althea spoke:
"Thornton women give what they feel like giving." Victor threw her hand from him with restrained violence.
"Give what you like," he answered. "Just remember what I 've said, that 's all. Tell him"—he nodded again toward the house—"to walk careful'."
"I 'll remember what you said a long time," answered Althea, and the sweetness of her tone was worse than any menace; but she spoke to Victor's retreating back.
They were so splendid in the nakedness of their emotions that Andrew had lost the sense of his position as listener long before. It seemed to him that he was the spectator at a wonderfully acted drama—a spectator and an actor as well. The hint of danger that the real menace of Victor's tone had carried gave his relation with Althea an added poignancy. This time he definitely put into words what he had known before, and this without any special coxcombry, and that was of course that Althea cared for him.
Here the old woman joined Althea, and was saying:
"What made you do it, Althea? What made you make him angry? You might have been kinder." Althea met her grandmother's reproachful gaze with one of clear-eyed assurance.
"I wanted him to be angry. I wanted him to go away." She lifted her face and let her grandmother read it. It was as though in some mute language she told her eloquently: "This is so sweet to me, this moment, that I can't bear the shadow of an unhappy human soul. I can't mar this sweet perfection of life by any shadow, and for this I would throw out every one, however beloved to me."
Suddenly the old woman, with a wide gesture, as though with her arms she flung open the gate of all her being to the girl before her, cried:
"Oh, my dear! oh, my dear!" It was as though she had said: "I know, I understand. Hide yourself here a moment from this," and she folded the girl to her breast with a gesture of tenderness such as one sees usually only from mothers to their very little children.
That evening the old woman sat on the hearth beside Andrew without entering into her usual caustic chatter. Two or three times she sighed deeply.
"What 's the matter?" Andrew asked her, with that real concern in his voice that made women praise his goodness of heart. He laid a kind hand on her shoulder. She looked at him narrowly, as though asking him if he would understand what she was going to tell him—that for his sake the house was divided against itself.
"Victor displeased Althea, and she 's quarreled with him," she said. "They 've always done everything together, and lately they 've been almost sweethearts, and I 'd hoped—" She broke off, and to her brooding look, as though she asked him mutely what he had to give in the place of this old and tried affection, Andrew found only a few words, of stereotyped comfort. Her simple words, "The Thorntons feel things very deeply," sounded on his ears like a warning bell set over one of the reefs of the spirit.
Up to this time he had walked along the path of friendship with Althea, hand in hand, not caring what turn of the road they took. Now, since he had heard her talk with Victor, he wanted to see her inmost heart; he wanted to throw open the doors of speech to her. She was at once as expressive and inexpressive as a child. She had no words with which to clothe her thoughts. Only with a glance of her eyes, with a gesture of her hands, could she express those things that stirred in her depths; nor did she know how other souls had expressed themselves.
Andrew lay awake that night a long time thinking of her. It was a wonderful thing to contemplate the awakening of a human soul as untouched as hers. There was no greater adventure of the spirit that he could think of—an adventure, too, fraught with danger. A wrong step, and there would be destruction. Her words, "Thornton women give what they feel like giving," would have made a man of harder heart than Andrew swear to himself that she must not give too much; only a cad of the lowest type but would feel the need of protecting Althea from her own generosity. And if it was unthinkable that he would be a cad, on the other hand it was equally unthinkable that he would be a fool. Not for a moment could he contemplate proud and wild Althea as Mrs. Andrew Sears. That would mean an anticlimax beyond anticlimax, a masterpiece spoiled. He swore to himself that neither sentiment nor passion should enmesh him. He would hold only her spirit for a little time, then at the moment of high perfection he would go away. He knew that Althea might suffer for a while, but, then, he would share her suffering, and both of them would have had a perfect moment; both of them would have in life one flawless memory. And if Althea suffered, her pride would be unhurt, her life enriched; for in Andrew's creed all experience enriched life.
So during the sweet summer days of his convalescence Andrew, with what seemed like great gentleness and tenderness, and what in reality was incomparable tact, opened the doors of speech to Althea. He sent for books, and they read together; and through the things she read with him day by day she was awakened to the knowledge of herself and her heart. Her awakening was so sweet, so very shy, so brimming with tenderness, so unaware, that a thousand times Andrew would have drawn her to his heart, but unflinchingly he followed the difficult path which he had marked out for himself the day when Althea had defied Victor with such magnificent scorn.
He could see that she was trembling at her thoughts, but he had skill enough to keep her from giving voice to them. He refused to feed his vanity to this extent. Her eyes alone told him what was in her heart, the unconscious touch of her hand, the way she leaned toward him as she sat near him, the gladness of her eyes when she came upon him unexpectedly, her brooding look as she watched him, as she thought, unobserved. It was all as mute and eloquent as the woods, untouched by anything like an overt confession, and for a little while they lived in this golden, enchanted atmosphere.
One day they went together past the little clearing into the woods. Althea read aloud. She read with a peculiar wondering emphasis, as though what she read so affected her that she could hardly believe that others had felt what she felt and had been able to put into words her almost wordless thoughts. She laid the book down on her lap, and looked out through the trees with eyes that sought the far-off horizon; then swiftly she turned to Andrew with a gesture and look of complete self-surrender.
"Without you, what would I have had in life?" she said. Her voice was low, and vibrated with the depth of her emotion. Andrew had no answer for her.
"There would have been nothing," she went on. "How empty the world without Andrew would seem!" she indicated with a gesture. "All the things that make life for me would have slept for ever and ever in my heart. It would have been like living in a world under the sea, where morning never came."
Andrew struggled to say something, but no words came to him. If he spoke, it must be of the forbidden things that he had promised to deny himself, or else he must kill dead the beauty of the moment, and to kill such a moment would be like murder, like killing with one's hands some flashing, happy, living thing. So he said nothing, but let the silence crowd in on them. They sat looking at each other, and it seemed to Andrew that the world was full of the things which he would not let himself say, and that he was brushed with the wings of Althea's unspoken thoughts. So they sat for a few perfect moments. He felt that he was being borne along now on some incredibly sweet and swift-rushing stream, and that he was being carried along on the stream's sweet bosom as helplessly as a leaf, and he rejoiced in his helplessness. He was aware of a relinquishing of his own will under the influence of this greater force. What had happened to him was as irrepressible as the melting of winter into spring. The snow-fields of his heart had become living streams, and still he did not speak, and still he and Althea continued to look at each other, penetrated by the magic of the moment.
Then into their magic walked Althea's father. He slouched toward them through the trees, indifferent, arrogant, walking as he had when Andrew had first seen him, like one of the lords of the earth. He looked at them with his enigmatic and equable gaze as he said:
"Getting kinder cold toward evening."
Andrew mumbled some banal answer. He felt the shock of one who had been soaring above the earth and had suddenly fallen from a great height.
"Althea 's coming to be quite a reader," Thornton next said. "Mother was a great reader as a girl, she has always said."
In some subtle way he dominated Andrew. At this difficult moment it was he who had the social graces and who was equal to the situation. Of the three it was Andrew alone who was embarrassed. Althea seemed hardly to have noticed her father's presence. She smiled at him, and then as though through the warmth of her smile she had done all that was expected of her, she dismissed him from her mind and sat quiet, her eyes fixed on the horizon. Her father's presence at this moment had caused her neither embarrassment nor irritation. It was as though she dumbly acknowledged his right to be there, and not only his right, but that his presence was part of the beautiful scheme of things. Now as he stood there talking in his abbreviated way, she rose to her feet, and without speaking to either of them slipped into the shadow of the wood.
For a moment after her departure Thornton chattered with lazy affability to Andrew; then he allowed a silence to fall between them as different from the idle silences that happen in the middle of commonplace talk as the silence which had encompassed Andrew and Althea had been different from all other silences. He caught Andrew's eyes and held his gaze unswervingly. The weight of his regard, which was both fierce and calm, crushed Andrew. He prolonged the silence until it seemed like a hostile thing, and Andrew strove in vain to break through it. But he could find nothing to say to this dark, calm-browed, arrogant man who was so completely master of the situation. Andrew became aware that he would have to wait until Thornton spoke, and that when he spoke, what he said would be of weight. It was as if he had Althea's intensity and her gift of filling a silence with meaning. At last he spoke. His voice was even and indifferent. To an outsider his words might have had no significance beyond that of kindly inquiry. He said:
"Your leg 's getting along pretty well these days; must be 'most well." He paused, allowing Andrew time to guess his meaning.
"It is 'most well," Andrew answered. He had pulled himself together. His self-command and suaveness equaled Thornton's, They measured each other. It was Andrew who was first to voice the thought that floated like some tangible thing in the air between them,
"I shall be saying good-by to you very soon."
Again there was a pause, and Thornton swished the bushes with a little stick he carried in his hand.
"I 'll be going down to the junction one of these days," he suggested politely and tentatively.
"The sooner the better," Andrew agreed cheerfully.
"To-morrow suit you?" Thornton's voice was as toneless and uninsistent as ever.
"To-morrow, by all means," Andrew agreed. Suddenly his world called to him. He felt as though he had been delivered from some dangerous enchantment, that the woods and solitude and Althea had all overwhelmed him, and now he grasped for his own life as a prisoner grasps for freedom. In the midst of his poignant feeling of deliverance, shame reddened his bronzed cheeks. It was he who should have broached the subject of his departure. He had been weighed and watched by this silent man who had treated him always with negligent kindness. Without fuss and without trouble, he had been put out at the right moment, he had been sent away.
"Sure you 're all right?" John Thornton now asked. "Sure you 're now up to an eighteen-mile ride 'cross a bad road?"
"Oh, I think so. I 'm sure I am," Andrew hastened to assure him.
"Don't do anything you 're not up to," his host warned him. He slouched off, indifferent and arrogant, then he turned. Suddenly he stopped, came back to Andrew. He fixed him with his smoldering gaze again without embarrassment.
"Oh. you know that money—what you 've been giving mother for board; I don't want it." He took a roll of bills from his pocket. "Here it is," he said calmly. His eyes had not left Andrew. The hot blood boiled up in Andrew's face.
"Oh, I say," he cried, "you 've got to take it!"
"1 can't take money from you." Thornton told him suavely. There was even the hint of a smile on his face as he said it. A stranger might have thought that he was making Andrew a compliment instead of giving him the ultimate judgment of the Thorntons.
To Andrew's helpless, "Oh, I say!" he only put the money back on a log and sauntered off.
Anger shook through Andrew—anger and a feeling of hopeless insult, of having been so degraded and so humiliated that he could never appear upright again either in his own eyes or in the eyes of other men; and so smoothly had this been accomplished, so without stirring the surface of life, that he was powerless. To insist would be to make Thornton state why no Thornton could accept money from him. This race of strong and lawless men had judged him by their own laws, and by their own laws they had found him not only wanting, but a human being from whom they could accept nothing. It was a social ostracism such as Andrew had never known, and while his anger burned him, the knowledge of what this race of men thought of him was horrible and disintegrating, a thing which stripped his self-respect from him as though it had been a garment, and left his naked soul stung with the doubt of himself. He sat as one frozen to stone. Only one thing in life seemed important, and that was to clothe his nakedness in his regained self-respect. The barrier to that was the little roll of money lying so innocently beside him. If he could not pay this debt, he would be spiritually bankrupt forever; and the only way to pay this was marriage with Althea. It struck him as a hideous reason for marrying anything as beautiful as she. If only the thought of marriage with her had once come to him, he could have faced it; if in that magical moment when he had seen her heart and she thought she had seen his he had desired to have her for his wife, this would have been easier.
Then from behind him came a little sound that penetrated chill and terrible to Andrew's shaking heart: it was the stifled little cry of a hurt child, and Andrew knew that it was Althea, and that Althea had heard everything. As he arose to go to her, the thought came to Andrew, in a flash of insight, that, to her mind, their silence had in it all the elements of a silent betrothal; and there came to him another thought, grinning and malicious, and it was that he had intended to have a light leave-taking.
She was crouched behind a tree crying silently with a grief more terrible than any he had witnessed, and he stood in the face of the tempest of her grief for once inadequate and gauche. He had meant to see if she would let him pay the price of his self-respect, and all at once he realized that that was forever impossible, that she had witnessed the judgment of the Thorntons, and that she found that judgment just, and with his insight into the hearts of women he knew that this knowledge had been, in the fair garden of her life, like some corroding thing, and that where the flowers of her spirit had bloomed there was nothing but a withering blackness.
He realized all this, for in all Andrew's conflicting emotions every horrid derail stood out as the detail of a landscape illuminated by sudden lightning. When he put his arm around Althea to raise her to her feet, the same hideous lucidity made him realize that this was the first time that he had been so close to her, made him realize the magnificence of her beauty. He pleaded with her:
"Come, Althea, don't feel so! Please stop! It won't last—your grief. You 'll get over it. It will pass." At this she sprang from him, her pain-stricken eyes on him.
"Do you see that?" she cried, and her arm swept a great gesture across the horizon. "Do you know what that is full of to me—my love for you. And you say, 'You 'll get over it'! My God! I 'll get over it; we have to! Do you see the woman down the hill playing with a baby? Her little girl died last year. She 's got over it; that 's how I 'll get over it."
"Althea!" he pleaded, "Althea!" Again she looked at him with her somber gaze, and she then said with a slow and bitter wonder:
"You—you are n't. The one I loved has—never been—and I—I 've got to keep on caring and know that there 's—been—nothing—ever to—care for." Grief beyond grief was in her voice, a wintriness as though all the springs of life in her had been frozen, as though in the interview between her father and Andrew she, too, had seen him stripped naked, as though she had searched the world over vainly for one poor little excuse for him, and now wept that she could not find it to cover him.
They stood there, both of them helpless, waiting for each other to speak, and toward them strode Althea's grandmother. She came down on them like some terrible and avenging fate, erect as a pine-tree, as bleak as the bare mountains.
"I 've come for Althea," was all she said, and she put her arms about her shelteringly. "Come, Althea; come with me."
He had left her two hours ago, full of kindness for her, feeling toward her almost like a son, and her voice stung him like nothing else.
"I 've not hurt her!" he cried. "I never thought of hurting her. She 's none the worse for having known me."
The old woman turned somber eyes on him, in which blazed a fire of anger more damning to him than the other judgment of the Thorntons.
"No worse!" she cried, "no worse! It 's the dry of heart like you that sent me with the Thorntons to these hills years ago. What did you want with my little Althea? Vanity, vanity, just that, no other thing; only vanity to feel her heart beat in your hand, to make the soul of her yours, to make the unfulfilled desire of her go out to you, and then to leave her with a smile on your face, congratulating yourself on your self-control! I 've seen such men do such things for passion or for what they thought was love, but you 've known what you felt and you 've awakened in her a thirst for the kind of love she could never have, a thirst which forever you knew would be unfulfilled, a thirst for things that were to be forever denied her. You took a human soul and widowed it; and for that—" she made a scornful gesture toward the bills lying where Andrew had left them—"you 'd have gone away proud of yourself. The men knew you, and I—I trusted you." Her voice broke.
An awful silence enveloped them, and it was then that Andrew saw himself as he was. The gracious envelop of the mind was stripped from him, was stripped bare until the meager and arid essence of him stood out naked and shivering; and this is a sight that no one should be glad to face, for few people can see their inner souls and continue to live gladly.