Scarcely had Perez left, when Edwards entered the parlor.
"Did you get it?" he asked of Desire.
"Yes, yes," cried the girl. "Oh, that horrible, horrible fellow! I am sick with shame all through, sick! sick! But if I can only get away out of his reach, I shall not mind. Do let Cephas harness the horse into the chaise at once. He may change his mind. Oh, hurry, father, do; don't, oh, don't lose a minute."
Half an hour later, Cephas, an old freedman of Edwards, drove the chaise up to the side door, and a few bundles having been put into the vehicle, Desire herself entered, and was driven hastily away toward Pittsfield.
To go back to Perez, on reaching the guardhouse, coming from the store, he went in and sat down in the headquarters room. Presently, Abe Konkapot, who was officer of the day, entered and spoke to him. Perez making no reply, the Indian spoke again, and then went up to him and laid his hand on his shoulder.
"What is it?" said Perez, in a dull voice.
"What matter with you, Cap'n? Me speake tree time. You no say nothin. You seek?" Perez looked up at him vacantly.
"He no drunk?" pursued Abe, changing from the second to the third person in his mode of speech, as he saw the other paid no attention. "Seem like was heap drunk, but no smell rum," and he scratched his head in perplexity. Then he shook Perez' shoulder again. "Say, Cap'n, what ails yer?"
"She's going away, Abe. Desire Edwards is going away," replied Perez, looking up at the Indian in a helpless, appealing way.
"You no like have her go, Cap'n? You like better she stay? What for let her go then?"
"I gave her a pass, Abe. She was so beautiful I couldn't help it."
Abe scratched his head.
"If she so preety, me s'pose you keep her all more for that. No let her go."
Perez did not explain this point, but presently said:
"Abe, you may let the men go home, if you want. It's nothing to me any more what happens here in Stockbridge. The silk stockings are welcome to come and hang me as soon as they please," and his head dropped on his breast like one whose life has suddenly lost its spring and motive.
"Look a here, Cap'n," said Abe, "you say to me, Abe, stop that air gal, fetch her back. Good. Me do it quick. Cap'n feel all right again."
"I can't, Abe, I can't. I promised. I gave her my word. I can't. I wish she had asked me to cut my throat instead," and he despairingly shook his head.
Abe regarded him with evident perplexity for some moments, and then with an abrupt nod of the head turned and glided out of the room. Perez, in his gloomy preoccupation did not even note his going. His head sunk lower on his breast, and he murmured to himself wild words of passion and despair.
"If she only knew. If she knew how I loved her. But she would not care. She hates me. She will never come back. Oh, no, never. I shall never see her again. This is the end. It is the end. How beautiful she was!" and he buried his face in his arms on the table and wept miserable tears.
There were voices and noises about and within the guardhouse, but he took no note of them. Some one came into the room, but he did not look up, and for a moment Desire Edwards, for she it was, in hat and cloak, stood looking down on him. Then she said, in a voice whose first accent brought him to his feet as if electrified:
"No wonder you hide your head."
There was a red spot as big as a cherry in either cheek, and her eyes scintillated with concentrated scorn and anger. Over her shoulder was visible Abe Konkapot's swarthy face, wearing a smile of great self-satisfaction.
"I was foolish enough to think even a rebel might keep his word," Desire went on, in a voice trembling with indignation. "I did not suppose even you would give me a pass and then send your footpads to stop me."
It was evident from his dazed look, that he did not follow her words. He glanced inquiringly at Abe, who responded with lucid brevity:
"Look a' here, Cap'n, me see you feel heap bad cause gal go away. You make fool promise; no can stop her. Me no make promise. Gal come long in cart. Show pass. Pass good, but no good for gal to go. Tear up pass; fetch gal back. Cap'n no break no promise, cause no stop gal. Abe no break promise, cause no make none. Cap'n be leetle mad with Abe for tear up pass, but heap more glad for git gal back," and having thus succinctly stated the matter the Indian retired.
"I beg your pardon, Captain Hamlin," said Desire, with an engaging smile. "I was too hasty. I suppose I was angry. I see you were not to blame. If you will now please tell your men that I am not to be interfered with again, I will make another start for Pittsfield."
"No, not again," he replied slowly.
"But you promised me," she said, with rising apprehension, nervously clasping the edge of her cloak with her fingers as she spoke. "You promised me on the word of a duke you know," and she made another feeble attempt at a smile.
"I promised you," replied he, "I don't know why I was so mad. I was bewitched. I did not break the promise, but I will not make it again. God had pity on me, and brought you back. What have I suffered the last hour, and shall I let you go again? Never! never! None shall pluck you out of my hand.
"Don't let me terrify you, my darling," he went on passionately, in a softened voice, as she changed countenance and recoiled before him in evident fright. "I will not hurt you. I would die sooner than hurt a hair of your head." He tried to take her hand, and then as she snatched it away, he caught the hem of her cloak, and kneeling quickly, raised it with a gesture of boundless tenderness and reverence, to his lips. She had shrunk back to the wall, and looked down on him in wide-eyed, speechless terror, evidently no longer thinking of anything but escape.
"Oh, let me go home. Let me go home. I shall scream out if you don't let me go," she cried.
He rose to his feet, walked quickly across the room and back, and then having in some measure subdued his agitation, replied:
"Certainly, you shall go home. It is dark; I will go with you," and they walked together across to the store without speaking. Returning, Perez met Abe, and taking him by the hand, gave it a tremendous grip, but said nothing.
Whatever resentment Squire Edwards cherished against Perez on account of Desire's recapture and return, he was far too shrewd to allow it to appear. He simply ignored the whole episode and was more affable than ever. Whenever he met the young man, he had something pleasant to say, and was always inviting him into the store to take a drop when he passed. Meanwhile, however, so far as the latter's opportunities of seeing or talking with Desire were concerned, she might just as well have been in Pittsfield, so strictly did she keep the house. A week or ten days passed thus, every day adding fuel to his impatience, and he had already begun to entertain plans worthy of a brigand or a kidnapper, when circumstances presented an opportunity of which he made shrewd profit.
During the Revolutionary war it had been a frequent policy with the town authorities to attempt to correct the high and capricious prices of goods, always incident to war times, by establishing fixed rates per pound, bushel, yard or quart, by which all persons should be compelled to sell or barter their merchandise and produce. It had been suggested in the Stockbridge Committee of Correspondence, Inspection, and Safety that the adoption of such a tariff would tend to relieve the present distress and promote trade. Ezra Phelps proposed the plan, Israel Goodrich was inclined to favor it, and Perez' assent would have settled the matter. He, it was, whom Squire Edwards approached with vehement protestations. He might well be somewhat agitated, for being the only merchant in town, the proposed measure was little more than a personal discrimination against his profits, which, it must be admitted, had been of late years pretty liberal, thanks to a dearth of money that had made it necessary for farmers to barter produce for tools and supplies, at rates virtually at the merchant's discretion. If the storekeeper had been compelled to trade at the committee's prices for awhile, it would perhaps have been little more than a rough sort of justice; but he did not take that view. It is said that all is fair in love and war, and this was the manner in which Perez proceeded selfishly to avail himself of the Squire's emergency. He listened to his protestations with a sympathetic rather than a hopeful air, admitting that he himself would be inclined to oppose the new policy, but remarking that the farmers and some of the committee were so set on it that he doubted his ability to balk them. He finally remarked, however, he might possibly do something, if Edwards, himself, would meantime take a course calculated to placate the insurgents and disarm their resentment. Being rather anxiously inquired of by the storekeeper as to what he could consistently do, Perez finally suggested that Israel Goodrich was going to have a husking in his barn the following night, if the warm weather held; and if Desire Edwards should attend, it would not only please the people generally, but possibly gain over Israel, a member of the committee. Edwards made no reply, and Perez left him to think the matter over, pretty confident of the result.
That evening in the family circle, after a gloomy account of the disaster threatening to engulf the family fortunes if the proposed policy of fixing prices were carried out, Edwards spoke of Hamlin's disposition to come to his aid, and his suggestion concerning Desire's presence at the husking.
"These huskings are but low bussing-matches," said Mrs. Edwards with much disgust. "Desire has never set a foot in such a place. I suspect it is a trick of this fellow to get her in his reach."
"It may be so," said her husband, gloomily. "I thought of that myself, but what shall we do? Shall we submit to the spoiling of our goods? We are fallen upon evil times, and the most we can do is to choose between evils."
Desire, who had sat in stolid silence, now said in much agitation:
"I don't want to go. Please don't make me go, father. I'd rather not. I'm afraid of him. Since that last time I'm afraid. I'd rather not."
"The child is well nigh sick with it all," said Mrs. Edwards, sitting down by her and soothingly drawing the head of the agitated girl to her shoulder, which set her to sobbing. It was evident that the constant apprehensions of the past several weeks as well as her virtual imprisonment within doors, had not only whitened her cheek but affected her nervous tone.
Edwards paced to and fro with knitted brow. Finally he said:
"I will by no means constrain your will in this matter, Desire. I do not understand all your woman's megrims, but your mother shall not again reproach me with willingness to secure protection to my temporal interests at the cost of your peace and quiet. You need not go to this husking. No doubt I shall be able to bear whatever the Lord sends," and he went out.
Soon after, Desire ceased sobbing and raised her head from her mother's shoulder. "Mother," she said, "did you ever hear of a maiden placed in such a case as mine?"
"No, my child. It is a new sort of affliction, and of a strange nature. I scarcely have confidence to advise you as to your duty. You had best seek the counsel of the Lord in prayer."
"Methinks in such matters a woman is the best judge," said the girl naively.
"Tut, tut, Desire!"
"Nay, I meant no harm, mother," and then with a great sigh, she said: "I will go. Poor father feels so bad."
The next evening when, dressed for the husking, she took a last look in her mirror she was fairly scared to see how pretty she was. And yet despite the dismay and sinking of heart with which she apprehended Perez' attentions, she did not brush down the dark ringlets that shadowed her temples so bewitchingly, or choose a less becoming ribbon for her neck. That is not a woman's way. It was about seven o'clock when she and Jonathan, who went as her escort, reached Israel Goodrich's great barn, guided thither by the light which streamed from the open door.
The husking was already in full blast. A dozen tallow dips, and half as many lanterns, consisting of peaked cylinders of tin, with holes plentifully punched in their sides for the light of the candle to trickle through, illumined the scene. In the middle of the floor was a pile of full a hundred bushels of ears of corn in the husk, and close around this, their knees well thrust into the mass, sat full two-score young men and maidens, for the most part duly paired off, save where here and there two or three bashful youths sat together. The young men had their coats off, and the round white arms of the girls twinkled distractingly as with swift deft motions they freed the shining yellow ears from their incasements and tossed them into the baskets. The noisy rustling of the dry husks, the chatter and laughter of the merry workers, ever and anon swelling into uproarious mirth as some protesting maiden redeemed a red ear with a pair of red lips, made altogether a merry medley that caused the cows and horses munching their suppers in the neighboring stalls to turn and stare in wonder.
Some of the huskers, looking up, caught sight of Desire and Jonathan at the door, and by a telegraphic system of whispers and nudges, the information was presently carried to Israel Goodrich.
"Glad to see ye. Come right in," he shouted in a broad, cheery voice. "More the merrier's, the sayin is. Glad to see ye. Glad to see ye. Look's kinder neighborly."
As Desire entered the barn, some of the girls rose and curtsied, the most merely looking bashful and avoiding her eye, as the rural mode of greeting continues to be to this day. Perez was the first person whom Desire had seen on entering the barn. Her eyes had been drawn to him by a sort of fascination, certainly not a pleasant sort, the result of her having thought so much about him. Nor was this fascination without another evidence. There was a vacant stool by Perez, and as she passed it, and he rose and bowed, she made as if she would seat herself there.
"Don't ye sit thar," said Israel, "that ain't nothin but a stool. Thar's a chair furder along."
The offer to sit by Perez was almost involuntary on her part, merely a sign of her sense of powerlessness against him. She had had the thought that he meant to have her sit there, and in her nervously abject mood she had not thought of resisting. Her coming to the husking at all had been a surrender to his will, and this seemed but an incident and consequence of that. At Israel's words she blushed faintly, but not in a way to be compared with the red flush that swept over Perez' face.
"Thar," said Israel, good-humoredly, as she seated herself in the promised chair, "naow I guess we'll see the shucks begin to fly."
"For the land sakes, Miss Edwards, you ain't a gonter go ter shuckin with them ere white hands o' yourn," exclaimed Submit Goodrich. "Lemme git yer some mittins, an an apron tew. Deary me, yew mustn't dew the fuss thing till yew've got an apron."
"Guess yew ain't uster huskin, or yew woulden come in yer bes gaown," said Israel cheerfully.
"Come naow, father," Submit expostulated, "tain't likely she's got nothin poor nuff fer sech doins. Ez if this ere wuz Miss Edwards' bes gaown. Yew've got a sight better'n this, hain't yew?"
Desire smiled vaguely. Meanwhile the husking had been pretty much suspended, the huskers either staring in vacant, open mouthedness at Desire, or communicating whispered comments to each other. And even after she had been duly provided with mittens and apron, and begun on the corn, the chatter and boisterous merriment which her arrival had interrupted, did not at once resume its course. Perhaps in a more modern assembly the constraint might have been lasting, but our forefathers did not depend so exclusively as we upon capricious and uncompellable moods, which, like the winds, blow whence and when they list, for the generation of vivacity in social gatherings. For that same end they used most commonly a force as certain as steam in its action; an influence kept in a jug.
Submit whispered to her father, and the old man merely poured a double portion of rum into the cider flip, with which the huskers were being regaled, and soon all went prosperously again. For rum in those good old days was recognized as equally the accompaniment of toil and recreation, and therefore had a double claim to the attention of huskers. From a sale of meeting-house pews or an ordination, to a ball or a general training, rum was the touch of nature that made the whole world of our forefathers kin. And if Desire did but wet her lips with the flip to-night, it was because the company rather than the beverage offended her taste. For even at risk of alienating the sympathies of my teetotal readers, I must refrain from claiming for the maiden a virtue which had not then been invented.
The appearance of Uncle Sim's black and smiling countenance, as he entered bowing and grinning, his fiddle under his arm, was hailed with uproar and caused a prodigious accession of activity among the huskers, the completion of whose task would be the signal for the dancing to begin. The red ears turned up so rapidly as to suggest the theory that some of the youths had stuffed their pockets with a selected lot from the domestic corn bin before coming. But though this opinion was loudly expressed by the girls, it did not seem to excite that indignation in their bosoms which such unblushing duplicity should have aroused. Half a dozen lively tussles for kisses were constantly going on in various parts of the floor and the uproar was prodigious.
In the midst of the hurly-burly, Desire sat bending over the task of which her unused fingers made slow work, replying now and then with little forced smiles to Submit's good natured efforts to entertain her, and paying no attention to the hilarious confusion around. She looked for all the world to Perez like a captive queen among rude barbarian conquerors, owing to her very humiliation, a certain touching dignity. It repented him that he had been the means of bringing her to the place. He could not even take any pleasure in looking at her, because he was so angry to see the coarse stares of admiration which the bumpkins around fixed on her. Paul Hubbard, who sat opposite him had been particularly free with his eyes in that direction, and all the more so after he perceived the discomfort it occasioned Perez, toward whom since their collision concerning the disposition to be made of the prisoners, he had cherished a bitter animosity. The last husks were being stripped off, and Sim was already tuning his fiddle, when Hubbard sprang to his feet with a red ear in his hand. He threw a mocking glance toward Perez, and advanced behind the row of huskers toward Desire. Bending over her lap, with downcast face, she did not observe him till he laid his hand on the rich kerchief of India silk that covered her shoulders. Looking up and catching sight of the dark, malicious face above her, its sensual leer interpreted by the red ear brandished before her eyes, she sprang away with a gasp. There was not one of the girls in the room who would have thought twice about a kiss, or a dozen of them. One of their own number who had made a fuss about such a trifle would have been laughed at. But somehow they did not feel inclined to laugh at Desire's terror and repugnance. They felt that she was different from them, and the least squeamish hoyden of the lot experienced a thrill of sympathy, and had a sense of something tragic. And yet no one interfered. Hubbard was but using his rights according to the ancient rules of the game. A girl might defend herself with fists and nails from an unwelcome suitor, but no third party could interfere. As Jonathan, who sat some way from his sister was about to run to her aid, a stout farmer caught him around the waist crying, good naturedly:
"Fair play youngster! fair play! No interferin!"
Perez had sprung up, looking very white, his eyes congested, his fists clenched. As Desire threw an agonized look of appeal around the circle, she caught sight of him. With a sudden impulse she darted to him crying:
"Oh, keep me from that man."
"Get out of the way, Hamlin," said Hubbard, rushing after his prey. "God damn you, get out of my way. What do you mean by interfering?"
Perez scarcely looked at him, but he threw a glance around upon the others, a glance of appeal, and said in a peculiar voice of suppressed emotion:
"For God's sake, some of you take the fellow away, or I shall kill him."
Instantly Israel Goodrich and half a dozen more had rushed between the two. The twitching muscles of Perez' face and that strange tone as of a man appealing to be saved from himself, had suddenly roused all around from mirthful or curious contemplation of the scene to a perception that a terrible tragedy had barely been averted.
Meanwhile the floor was being cleared of the husks and soon the merry notes of the fiddle speedily dissipated the sobering influence of the recent fracas. Desire danced once with her brother and once with old Israel, who positively beamed with pleasure. But Hubbard, who was now pretty drunk, followed her about, every now and then taking the red ear out of his pocket and shaking it at her, so that between the dances and after them, she took care not to be far from Perez, though she pretended not to notice her pursuer. As for Perez, he was far enough from taking advantage of the situation. Though his eyes followed her everywhere, he did not approach her, and seemed very ill at ease and dissatisfied. Finally he called Jonathan aside and told him that the last end of a husking was often rather uproarious, and Desire perhaps would prefer to go home early. He would, himself, see that they reached home without molestation. Desire was glad enough to take the hint, and glad enough, too, in view of Hubbard's demonstration, to accept the offered escort. As the three were on the way home, Perez finally broke the rather stiff silence by expressing with evident distress his chagrin at the unpleasant events of the evening; and Desire found herself replying quite as if she felt for, and wished to lessen, his self-reproach. Then they kept silent again till just before the store was reached, when he said:
"I see that you do not go out doors at all. I suppose you are afraid of me. If that is the reason, I hope you will not stay in after this. I give you my word you shall not be annoyed, and I hope you'll believe me. Good night."
Was it Desire Edwards' voice which so kindly, almost softly, responded to his salutations? It was she who, in astonishment, asked herself the question.
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