Perhaps no one was enjoying Kitty and her horses more at this time than the Reverend Timothy Chanter. When he came to Cyrus, to replace the Reverend Holdfast Baxter, deceased after a pastorate of forty-seven years, he took over the parsonage as it stood, and with it Gudgeon the sexton, Felicity the cat and Podasokus the horse. The age of Podasokus might be anywhere from twenty to forty years. The children, who had known him all their lives, supposed him to be a hundred. He was a singular, moth-eaten old creature, seeming to slope all ways at once; I don't know how else to describe him. He could trot rather fast when he wished, but this was seldom; he preferred to jog or single-foot at a rate of three miles an hour. This had suited Mr. Baxter well enough, for he composed his sermons while driving; as for his parish calls, if he could not compass them, he was all the better pleased. But Mr. Chanter, deep in his heart, had an inborn love of good horses and fast driving. It was part of his simple creed to deny himself anything he specially liked; it was an affair between himself and his Maker—or so he thought. The neck of the fowl was always [pg 114] his portion, till Mrs. Chanter took the carving into her own hands; he found the fireside too hot in winter, the shady corner too cool in summer. Much of his wife's time was devoted to circumventing "Pelican Pa," as he was disrespectfully called in the bosom of the family. Acting on this principle, Mr. Chanter had never thought of exchanging Podasokus for a better animal. He was there. If one could "live well in a palace," one could also drive a slow horse. So, when he was in a hurry, he walked, or borrowed the boys' bicycle. When he had plenty of time, he drove Podasokus.
When Podasokus felt that he must have a nap in the middle of the high road, Mr. Chanter hauled the wagon to the hedge, and read the works of the late R. J. Ingersoll, which he particularly disliked, till the steed woke up again and jogged along.
These things being so, Mr. Chanter found it hard to grieve deeply when "Pod" went lame, and he must call upon Kitty Ross for his longer expeditions. The parish was a straggling one; Cyrus itself is compact as a pie, but South, East and West Cyrus stretch far over hill and dale. What more delightful than to drive to South Cyrus behind Dan or Pilot, with Kitty holding the reins? Kitty was the perfect companion, Mr. Chanter said. She talked just enough and not too much; and she always seemed to know when one was inclined to meditate or—a—"or sleep!" assented Mrs. Chanter, who had "put Kitty wise" on certain points. "Exactly!"
On a pleasant April morning the two were thus [pg 115] driving along the South Cyrus road. Pilot was in the shafts, and in high spirits. The day before had been rainy, and he had not been out; now he sped along the sun-dappled road as if every stride were a pleasure; now and then breaking into a canter of rejoicing, to be checked by Kitty with affectionate firmness. When they had climbed and dipped the intervening hills and the plain stretched before them like a floor, Mr. Chanter leaned back in his seat and rubbed his hands.
"This is delightful!" he said. "This is de-lightful, Kitty! ha! the poetry of motion.
"'And thought the air must rush as fresh To swallows on the wing!' A fine horse (and Pilot is a remarkably fine horse!) is after mankind, one of the noblest works of God."
"Isn't he?" said Kitty. "And not always such a long way after, do you think, Mr. Chanter? Compare Pilot, or Dan either, with—with some people! that horrid Boody man! Neither Pilot nor Dan would think of cheating in a horse trade!"
"Surely not! surely not!" Mr. Chanter acquiesced. "They would scorn such an action."
"To be sure, Dan does steal eggs!" Kitty continued meditatively. "But then—that seems a little different, don't you think? A hen is such a goose!"
"Surely not! surely not!" said the Reverend Timothy again in sonorous accent.
Kitty glanced at him: he was making a series of courteous bows to Pilot's glossy hindquarters; was in [pg 116] fact as nearly asleep as any one could be whose eyes were only half shut.
"Dear soul!" murmured Kitty to herself. "He was up half the night with that sick man, Mrs. Chanter said. He might as well take a good nap. Easy now, Pilot! easy, dear boy!"
Pilot, who had been dancing a bit in the joy of his heart, settled into a smooth trot, and conveyed to Kitty by a toss of his beautiful head that he could keep this up all day, though it was a trifle dull. "Never mind, darling!" said Kitty. "You shall rush all the way home if you like."
She fell into a muse, as the miles sped smoothly by. It was spring; really and truly, or almost really and truly, almost spring.
"Really spring, or nearly spring, And, oh, I love you dearly, spring!" she hummed under her breath. Kitty loved to think in rhyme. Sometimes for days together she and Tommy would hardly speak in prose. Tommy was far cleverer, of course: (he was not!) did he talk rhyme now, Kitty wondered, and if so, to whom? Something pricked her; she put the thought resolutely away.
"'Tis a month before the month of May, And the spring comes slowly up this way." What was the strange magic of those two lines? They simply were the New England spring, which Coleridge never saw. Ah! pussy willows! she must [pg 117] get some—she half checked the horse, but chirruped to him again with a little sigh. Nobody to take pussy willows to, now. How Mother loved them! They were just like that gray velvet gown of hers. Little Mother! Aunt Johanna wouldn't care for pussy willows; as for Sarepta——! But how good they both were; what really interesting persons! and so bracing to live with! Kitty chuckled, recalling the after breakfast hour this morning.
She was making her customary call on Aunt Johanna, and that lady, erect amid her pillows, resplendent in sapphire blue and Mechlin (she had a different jacket for every morning; the bedridden, she maintained, must make variety for themselves!) was holding forth on the subject of classes. "Keep people in their place!" said the lady. "It is my invariable rule. If a salesman is uppish with me, he takes his uppishness elsewhere within twenty-four hours. Whenever any one forgets his place, put him back in it without delay. Delay makes for uncertainty, and uncertainty is fatal in business and everywhere else. An instance, my dear! The day before I left New York, I took a friend, a nice young girl, who didn't have many friends, to the Ritz Carlton for lunch. They have good coffee there; not like Sarepta's, but good. Well, after the ice-cream I ordered peaches; the waiter brought me two. Two peaches! I looked at him. 'I ordered peaches!' I said. 'I did not specify the number.' He mumbled something, and I told him to speak up. 'Peaches is very expensive, Mum!' said the creature."
[pg 118] Kitty burst into a ripple of laughter. "I wish I had been there, Aunt Johanna. What did you say?"
"Say? I said, 'Trot along, Nancy! Do I look as if I couldn't pay for 'em?' He trotted."
Kitty's laughter rippled again as she recalled her aunt's gesture.
"Speaking of trotting, Pilot dear," she said, "we might as well—quiet, boy! quiet!"
Pilot had shied, a thing almost unheard of. They were passing a tall dark hedge; something rustled in it, and startled the horse. As Kitty soothed him, a figure half emerged from a gap in the hedge; she was aware of a thin, dark, haggard face, of two burning eyes, which fixed her for an instant with a piercing gaze; then the figure slunk back again and the branches closed over it.
"Surely not! surely not!" said the Reverend Timothy Chanter, in a tone of profound conviction. "You were speaking of the good horse, my dear; has anything annoyed him? I think I lost myself a moment."
"He was startled, and I don't wonder; I was startled too. A man came out of the hedge: such a strange-looking man, Mr. Chanter."
"Hedge? Man?" Mr. Chanter glanced around him and his face changed. "What kind of man, Kitty?"
"A wild, ragged man. He looked sick, and—I had just a glimpse, but he looked—all wrong, somehow. It's the old Gaylord place, you know. I never saw any living creature about it before,—but once! Have you ever seen any one there, Mr. Chanter?"
[pg 119] Mr. Chanter cleared his throat with some elaboration.
"I believe it has not been inhabited for some years," he replied. There was a shade on his candid countenance. He was not in the habit of evading the direct answer.
"It is a fine place, spite of its neglected condition."
Kitty glanced back at the dark hedge, with the dark chimneys rising above it, and shivered a little. "I have always been afraid of the place, somehow!" she said. "I had a fright there once, when I was a child."
"Had you so, my love? No one should ever frighten a child. Very remiss: very wrong, if intentional."
"Oh, no, no one meant to frighten me. It was just an accident. We used to go there for nuts, Tom Lee and I. There was a huge chestnut tree—I suppose it is still there—by the side door of the house. It bore the biggest chestnuts I ever saw, and Tom and I went there regularly every October. There was something terrifying about the great dark shuttered house; (to me, that is: Tom was never afraid of anything;) and that always made it an exciting expedition. You know there is a round hole in every shutter, near the top? We used to make believe we saw eyes looking at us out of those holes; and then—one day—" Kitty shivered again: "well, one day, there were eyes!"
"My child! my child! a—a—lively imagination, no doubt! The young——"
"No, Mr. Chanter, the eyes were there: we saw them wink. And then—we used to call that little side [pg 120] door the postern, and imagine all kinds of people coming out of it, knights and giants and princesses—well; all of a sudden the door did open, and a man came out—why!" Kitty stopped short and turned a pale face on her companion. "Why, Mr. Chanter, I believe—it was—the—same man!"
"The same man, my dear?"
"The man I saw just now! He wasn't so thin or so haggard then: he wasn't ragged; but—the wild look, the burning eyes—oh, Mr. Chanter, it all comes back to me. It was the same man!"
Mr. Chanter was silent for some time: then—"And whom did you suppose the man to be, my love? Did he speak to you?"
"No! I think he might have, but we ran away. We were trespassing, of course, and I was frightened out of my wits. We supposed"—her voice dropped: "we told Father, and he said it was probably the owner of the house, and bade us say nothing about it to any one."
Mr. Chanter's face cleared a little.
"Very sound advice!" he said. "Excellent advice, my dear. Do you know, Kitty, my child, I believe you cannot do better than to follow it in this case also."
Villages as well as houses have their skeleton cupboards. The Gaylord place was Cyrus' cupboard. Built in the middle of the eighteenth century, it had been inhabited by one generation after another of Gaylords; all people of the same stripe as their neighbors, gentle, cultivated, a little passive, a little inclined [pg 121] to smile and let the world go by. They farmed their wide acres; they loved their books, they caught trout at one season and shot woodcock at another, they spent certain weeks or months in the City. So things went for a hundred years and more. Then one Gaylord, more enterprising than his forebears, made money: copper, I think it was, in the early Calumet days. The money did him no special harm. He refurnished the house rather more splendidly than Cyrus thought in quite good taste, but his wife came from the City, and what could one expect? He bought a good many books, and some pictures, and enjoyed himself immensely: then he died, a few weeks after his City wife, and their son inherited.
Kitty and I were babies when Russell Gaylord was running his race to perdition. In our childhood we used to hear a good deal about him; never from our parents, nor from Sarepta Darwin, but I am afraid we did listen to Cissy Sharpe, who knew all about it, or thought she did. He threw the money right and left. He drove four-in-hand through Cyrus streets with his college mates, to the scandal of the community; he held revels in the old house, with a hundred wax candles in each room, and flowers and music such as had never been dreamed of in the quiet village. People shook their heads, but indulgently: they were proud of the handsome, open-hearted boy. He had such pleasant ways! He loved to put a dime in the contribution box at church, and then slyly, after service, to pile it high with anonymous gold pieces. He loved to send preposterous Christmas boxes to everybody [pg 122] he knew, and to pile up loads of wood by night in lean woodsheds. People said he would learn in time; his heart was in the right place. He was the most brilliant scholar in his class, could stand at the head if he would only study; when he had sown his wild oats, he would settle down in Cyrus and be a credit to all. Even when he ran over their dogs and in a tipsy frolic smashed the post office windows, they forgave him and loved him. He was a Gaylord, and could not really do anything much out of the way.
Then came the crash. A riotous houseparty of men from the City (poor City! it had to bear the sins of many a village like Cyrus!); a quarrel over the gaming table; an insult; a blow, a knife-thrust; a young man slain in his folly, and blood on Russell Gaylord's white hands.
They had all been drinking; the verdict brought in was manslaughter, the sentence ten years' imprisonment. No sooner was the trial over than the creditors came flocking like vultures. Judge Peters—young Lawyer Peters, he was then,—who had charge of the estate, paid and paid and paid; debts of honor, so called, contracted in dishonor; bills for horses, for carriages, for rich wines and costly jewelry: he set his teeth and paid them all. The last bill took practically the last dollar; the house was closed, and for many a day Russell Gaylord's name was spoken no more in Cyrus.
It must have been soon after his release from prison that Kitty and Tom saw him. It began to be whispered about, not among the gossips, but quietly, among [pg 123] those who had been friends of the family, that Russell had been back; that Marshall Mallow had seen him and spoken with him; that he was a wreck of his former self, his one idea to forget his troubles in drink.
Mrs. Sharpe never heard this, though she knew something was going on. She knew that one night Judge Peters was out till midnight, no one knew where; she saw him come home and she thought he didn't put his latch key in any too easy: and that she had met Marsh Mallow and Very Jordano at ten o'clock, when she was hastening home to her bed, having taken some gruel to those Jessups who were never thankful for anything, and she met those two men walking in the street, with their faces turned away from their homes, they best knew why. This was all she knew: she made the most of it, and succeeded in impressing Mrs. Scatter and Mrs. Wibird with a sense of impending calamity; but when the latter went to her brother with a face of woe, and "Oh, Marshall! what is going on in Cyrus Village? Is Satan abroad in our midst, think? I do feel a trembling like in my inside!" she was met with a calm, "Take a dose of rhubarb, Marshy! that'll drive Satan out if he has got into your cistern!"
Mr. Mallow meant "system" presumably: anyhow he was pleased with his remark, and repeated it to Mrs. Wibird's indignant back as she left the room.
"The idea!" he said to the fire-irons. "Nine o'clock bell's a good thing, and I allus stand for it; but a man might stay up till half past or so once in a while, you'd [pg 124] think, 'thout every woman in the place gettin' all frustrated up!"
All this was ten years ago, be it remembered. The whispers had died away; silence had spread and deepened about the deserted house; all was as it had been.
Kitty took Mr. Chanter's hint, and said no more about the stranger who had startled her and Pilot. Late that afternoon we two went for a walk, as we were apt to do when she was at liberty, and I turned naturally into what we always called Sunset Road, because the sun seemed to go down at the end of it. Kitty hesitated a moment at the corner, as if she would suggest another direction; then turned with a little shrug of self-rebuke and walked beside me. She was rather silent; we usually babbled like twin brooks towards the close of the day. When we passed the Gaylord house, I looked up and to my amazement saw a thin blue thread stealing up from one of the chimneys.
"Kitty!" I said. "Look! do you see the smoke? Some one is in the Gaylord house!"
Kitty told no one but me and Judge Peters; I am very sure Mr. Chanter told no one else: but little by little the knowledge sifted through Cyrus that Russell Gaylord had come back once more. That he was living in a corner of his great house, with not even a dog to bear him company. That there was no use in any one's trying to see him, as he would not open the door, even to the Messrs. Jebus, his old schoolmates, who had wished to show that they were prepared to [pg 125] let bygones be bygones and welcome the prodigal back to their kindly shop. Lastly, that he was a wreck, and no one knew how he lived or where he got bread to put in his mouth.
This last statement was false; some one did know. Mr. Mallow sat up long after curfew these spring nights; long after his staid "help" were snugly tucked in their beds. Usually his bedroom light went out at ten punctually; now it might be midnight when, nodding by the kitchen fire, he would hear, or think he heard, a shuffling step on the walk outside the back door. Then he would open the door and stand in the cold, holding it wide open so that the red fire-light would shine out on the darkness.
"Russ," he would whisper, "that you? Come in, won't you? Step in, and set with me a spell! what say? I'm rill lon'some!"
Usually no answer came; then he would say, "Basket's behind the door, Russ! Call again when 'tis empty! Good-night, old chap!" and shut the door with a sigh, and so to bed. Usually, I say: but if now and then a bent, shivering figure crept in and sat for half an hour by the fire, warming its hands and listening dumbly to the friendly pleadings, the kindly offers, why, no one but Marshall Mallow ever knew it.