Leaning against the wall under the veranda of Mary Underwood's house, Samtried to get in his mind a remembrance of what had brought him there. Hehad walked bareheaded through Main Street and out along a country road.Twice he had fallen, covering his clothes with mud. He had forgotten thepurpose of his walk and had tramped on and on. The unexpected and terriblehatred of his father that had come upon him in the tense silence of thekitchen had so paralysed his brain that he now felt light-headed andwonderfully happy and carefree.
"I have been doing something," he thought; "I wonder what it is."
The house faced a grove of pine trees and was reached by climbing a littlerise and following a winding road out beyond the graveyard and the last ofthe village lights. The wild spring rain pounded and rattled on the tinroof overhead, and Sam, his back closely pressed against the front of thehouse, fought to regain control of his mind.
For an hour he stood there staring into the darkness and watched withdelight the progress of the storm. He had--an inheritance from his mother--a love of thunderstorms. He remembered a night when he was a boy and hismother had got out of bed and gone here and there through the housesinging. She had sung softly so that the sleeping father did not hear, andin his bed upstairs Sam had lain awake listening to the noises--the rainon the roof, the occasional crash of thunder, the snoring of Windy, andthe unusual and, he thought, beautiful sound of the mother singing in thestorm.
Now, lifting up his head, he looked about with delight. Trees in the grovein front of him bent and tossed in the wind. The inky blackness of thenight was relieved by the flickering oil lamp in the road beyond thegraveyard and, in the distance, by the lights streaming out at the windowsof the houses. The light coming out of the house against which he stoodmade a little cylinder of brightness among the pine trees through whichthe raindrops fell gleaming and sparkling. An occasional flash oflightning lit up the trees and the winding road, and the cannonry of theskies rolled and echoed overhead. A kind of wild song sang in Sam's heart.
"I wish it would last all night," he thought, his mind fixed on thesinging of his mother in the dark house when he was a boy.
The door opened and a woman stepped out upon the veranda and stood beforehim facing the storm, the wind tossing the soft kimono in which she wasclad and the rain wetting her face. Under the tin roof, the air was filledwith the rattling reverberation of the rain. The woman lifted her headand, with the rain beating down upon her, began singing, her finecontralto voice rising above the rattle of the rain on the roof and goingon uninterrupted by the crash of the thunder. She sang of a lover ridingthrough the storm to his mistress. One refrain persisted in the song--
"He rode and he thought of her red, red lips,"
sang the woman, putting her hand upon the railing of the little porch andleaning forward into the storm.
Sam was amazed. The woman standing before him was Mary Underwood, who hadbeen his friend when he was a boy in school and toward whom his mind hadturned after the tragedy in the kitchen. The figure of the woman standingsinging before him became a part of his thoughts of his mother singing onthe stormy night in the house and his mind wandered on, seeing pictures ashe used to see them when a boy walking under the stars and listening tothe talk of John Telfer. He saw a broad-shouldered man shouting defianceto the storm as he rode down a mountain path.
"And he laughed at the rain on his wet, wet cloak," went on the voice ofthe singer.
Mary Underwood's singing there in the rain made her seem near and likeableas she had seemed to him when he was a barefoot boy.
"John Telfer was wrong about her," he thought.
She turned and faced him. Tiny streams of water ran from her hair downacross her cheeks. A flash of lightning cut the darkness, illuminating thespot where Sam, now a broad-shouldered man, stood with the mud upon hisclothes and the bewildered look upon his face. A sharp exclamation ofsurprise broke from her lips:
"Hello, Sam! What are you doing here? You had better get in out of therain."
"I like it here," replied Sam, lifting his head and looking past her atthe storm.
Walking to the door and standing with her hand upon the knob, Mary lookedinto the darkness.
"You have been a long time coming to see me," she said, "come in."
Within the house, with the door closed, the rattle of the rain on theveranda roof sank to a subdued, quiet drumming. Piles of books lay upon atable in the centre of the room and there were other books on the shelvesalong the walls. On a table burned a student's lamp and in the corners ofthe room lay heavy shadows.
Sam stood by the wall near the door looking about with half-seeing eyes.
Mary, who had gone to another part of the house and who now returned cladin a long cloak, looked at him with quick curiosity, and began movingabout the room picking up odds and ends of woman's clothing scattered onthe chairs. Kneeling, she lighted a fire under some sticks piled in anopen grate at the side of the room.
"It was the storm made me want to sing," she said self-consciously, andthen briskly, "we shall have to be drying you out; you have fallen in theroad and got yourself covered with mud."
From being morose and silent Sam became talkative. An idea had come intohis mind.
"I have come here courting," he thought; "I have come to ask MaryUnderwood to be my wife and live in my house."
The woman, kneeling by the blazing sticks, made a picture that arousedsomething that had been sleeping in him. The heavy cloak she wore, fallingaway, showed the round little shoulders imperfectly covered by the kimono,wet and clinging to them. The slender, youthful figure, the soft grey hairand the serious little face, lit by the burning sticks caused a jumping ofhis heart.
"We are needing a woman in our house," he said heavily, repeating thewords that had been on his lips as he stumbled through the storm-sweptstreets and along the mud-covered roads. "We are needing a woman in ourhouse, and I have come to take you there.
"I intend to marry you," he added, lurching across the room and graspingher roughly by the shoulders. "Why not? I am needing a woman."
Mary Underwood was dismayed and frightened by the face looking down ather, and by the strong hands clenched upon her shoulders. In his youth shehad conceived a kind of maternal passion for the newsboy and had planned afuture for him. Her plans if followed would have made him a scholar, a manliving his life among books and ideas. Instead, he had chosen to live hislife among men, to be a money-maker, to drive about the country likeFreedom Smith, making deals with farmers. She had seen him driving atevening through the street to Freedom's house, going in and out ofWildman's, and walking through the streets with men. In a dim way she knewthat an influence had been at work upon him to win him from the things ofwhich she had dreamed and she had secretly blamed John Telfer, thetalking, laughing idler. Now, out of the storm, the boy had come back toher, his hands and his clothes covered with the mud of the road, andtalked to her, a woman old enough to be his mother, of marriage and ofcoming to live with him in his house. She stood, chilled, looking into theeager, strong face and the eyes with the pained, dazed look in them.
Under her gaze, something of the old feeling of the boy came back to Sam,and he began vaguely trying to tell her of it.
"It was not the talk of Telfer drove me from you," he began, "it wasbecause you talked so much of the schools and of books. I was tired ofthem. I could not go on year after year sitting in a stuffy littleschoolroom when there was so much money to be made in the world. I grewtired of the school teachers, drumming with their fingers on the desks andlooking out at the windows at men passing in the street. I wanted to getout of there and into the streets myself."
Dropping his hands from her shoulders, he sat down in a chair and staredinto the fire, now blazing steadily. Steam began to rise from his trouserslegs. His mind, still working beyond his control, began to reconstruct anold boyhood fancy, half his own, half John Telfer's, that had years beforecome into his mind. It concerned a picture he and Telfer had made of theideal scholar. The picture had, as its central figure, a stoop-shouldered,feeble old man stumbling along the street, muttering to himself and pokingin a gutter with a stick. The picture was a caricature of puttering oldFrank Huntley, superintendent of the Caxton schools.
Sitting before the fire in Mary Underwood's house, become, for the moment,a boy, facing a boy's problems, Sam did not want to be such a man. Hewanted only that in scholarship which would help him to be the kind of manhe was bent on being, a man of the world doing the work of the world andmaking money by his work. Things he had been unable to get expressed whenhe was a boy and her friend, coming again into his mind, he felt that hemust here and now make it plain to Mary Underwood that the schools werenot giving him what he wanted. His brain worked on the problem of how totell her about it.
Turning, he looked at her and said earnestly: "I am going to quit theschools. It is not your fault, but I am going to quit just the same."
Mary, who had been looking down at the great mud-covered figure in thechair began to understand. A light came into her eyes. Going to the dooropening into a stairway leading to sleeping rooms above, she calledsharply, "Auntie, come down here at once. There is a sick man here."
A startled, trembling voice answered from above, "Who is it?"
Mary Underwood did not answer. She came back to Sam and, putting her handgently on his shoulder, said, "It is your mother and you are only a sick,half-crazed boy after all. Is she dead? Tell me about it."
Sam shook his head. "She is still there in the bed, coughing." He rousedhimself and stood up. "I have just killed my father," he announced. "Ichoked him and threw him down the bank into the road in front of thehouse. He made horrible noises in the kitchen and mother was tired andwanted to sleep."
Mary Underwood began running about the room. From a little alcove under astairway she took clothes, throwing them upon the floor about the room.She pulled on a stocking and, unconscious of Sam's presence, raised herskirts and fastened it. Then, putting one shoe on the stockinged foot andthe other on the bare one, she turned to him. "We will go back to yourhouse. I think you are right. You need a woman there."
In the street she walked rapidly along, clinging to the arm of the tallfellow who strode silently beside her. A cheerfulness had come over Sam.He felt he had accomplished something--something he had set out toaccomplish. He again thought of his mother and drifting into the notionthat he was on his way home from work at Freedom Smith's, began planningthe evening he would spend with her.
"I will tell her of the letter from the Chicago company and of what I willdo when I go to the city," he thought.
At the gate before the McPherson house Mary looked into the road below thegrassy bank that ran down from the fence, but in the darkness she couldsee nothing. The rain continued to fall and the wind screamed and shoutedas it rushed through the bare branches of the trees. Sam went through thegate and around the house to the kitchen door intent upon getting to hismother's bedside.
In the house the neighbour woman sat asleep in a chair before the kitchenstove. The daughter had gone.
Sam went through the house to the parlour and sat down in a chair besidehis mother's bed, picking up her hand and holding it in his own. "She mustbe asleep," he thought.
At the kitchen door Mary Underwood stopped, and, turning, ran away intothe darkness along the street. By the kitchen fire the neighbour womanstill slept. In the parlour Sam, sitting on the chair beside his mother'sbed, looked about him. A lamp burned dimly upon the little stand besidethe bed and the light of it fell upon the portrait of a tall,aristocratic-looking woman with rings on her fingers, that hung upon thewall. The picture belonged to Windy and was claimed by him as a portraitof his mother, and it had once brought on a quarrel between Sam and hissister.
Kate had taken the portrait of the lady seriously, and the boy had comeupon her sitting in a chair before it, her hair rearranged and her handslying in her lap in imitation of the pose maintained so haughtily by thegreat lady who looked down at her.
"It is a fraud," he had declared, irritated by what he believed hissister's devotion to one of the father's pretensions. "It is a fraud hehas picked up somewhere and now claims as his mother to make peoplebelieve he is something big."
The girl, ashamed at having been caught in the pose, and furious becauseof the attack upon the authenticity of the portrait, had gone into a spasmof indignation, putting her hands to her ears and stamping on the floorwith her foot. Then she had run across the room and dropped upon her kneesbefore a little couch, buried her face in a pillow and shook with angerand grief.
Sam had turned and walked out of the room. The emotions of the sister hadseemed to him to have the flavour of one of Windy's outbreaks.
"She likes it," he had thought, dismissing the incident. "She likesbelieving in lies. She is like Windy and would rather believe in them thannot."
* * * * *
Mary Underwood ran through the rain to John Telfer's house and beat on thedoor with her fist until Telfer, followed by Eleanor, holding a lamp aboveher head, appeared at the door. With Telfer she went back through thestreets to the front of Sam's house thinking of the terrible choked anddisfigured man they should find there. She went along clinging to Telfer'sarm as she had clung to Sam's, unconscious of her bare head and scantyattire. In his hand Telfer carried a lantern secured from the stable.
In the road before the house they found nothing. Telfer went up and downswinging the lantern and peering into gutters. The woman walked besidehim, her skirts lifted and the mud splashing upon her bare leg.
Suddenly Telfer threw back his head and laughed. Taking her hand he ledMary with a rush up the bank and through the gate.
"What a muddle-headed old fool I am!" he cried. "I am getting old andaddle-pated! Windy McPherson is not dead! Nothing could kill that old warhorse! He was in at Wildman's grocery after nine o'clock to-night coveredwith mud and swearing he had been in a fight with Art Sherman. Poor Samand you--to have come to me and to have found me a stupid ass! Fool! Fool!What a fool I have become!"
In at the kitchen door ran Mary and Telfer, frightening the woman by thestove so that she sprang to her feet and began nervously making the falseteeth rattle with her tongue. In the parlour they found Sam, his head uponthe edge of the bed, asleep. In his hand he held the cold hand of JaneMcPherson. She had been dead for an hour. Mary Underwood stooped over andkissed his wet hair as the neighbour woman came in at the doorway bearingthe kitchen lamp, and John Telfer, holding his finger to his lips,commanded silence.