“A Bag of Holes” is a New Year’s story, and will thus be welcomed as a suitable feature for the January number. The writer is well known to readers of MacLean ’s, having contributed both short stories and articles to the magazine last year. In addition, Miss Burkholder has won popularity through her recent novel, “The Course of Impatience Carningham.”
THIS was one of the nights when Lemuel Brown, bachelor, labored under the impression that he was missing some of the joys of life. He had just returned from a neighbor’s house, where there were women and children, and shouts of youthful joviality, and snatches of music; and the bungalow on the hill was doubly empty, doubly silent, in comparison.
To be sure, his cat, Clover, sprang to meet him from a rafter as he opened the woodshed door, and the back-log in the kitchen stove still sent out a grateful warmth, which took the place of a welcome. He struck a light, threw on some smaller sticks of wood, patted Clover, now rubbing enthusiastically against his legs, and sinking into a chair with his heels on the stove, reflected that there were also some annoyances he had escaped.
For one of his education and worldly polish this seemed, indeed, a strange life he had chosen. That during twelve of the best years of his life, from twenty-one to thirty-three, a young chap, not too bad looking, reared in luxury, college educated, should bury himself among quiet country hills and practically lead the life of a hermit, with his horses as his hobby, his cat as his friend, was an incomprehensible riddle to most of his acquaintances. People were fond of hunting for the cause. Yes, his neighbors that very night had been prying into the why and wherefore of it.
As he dreamed before the blazing wood fire the reason came before him in a series of flame pictures, weird, unreal, dazzling, like the passing scenes of a moving-picture show.
Out on the winding road that led from his home town of A---to the next town of B---, thirty miles away, on a beautifully wooded slope stood Sunny Brae, a house — nay, to his dreaming vision, a mansion. On either side of its broad halls branched off rooms, which his fancy furnished as he had seen them last, twelve years ago, with every appointment a luxurious taste could suggest. Before the house lay a shady, sloping lawn, filled with the changing scenes of childhood. In an orchard at the side a group of mildeyed calves poked their noses through the pickets, begging a share in the children’s lunches.
Thus in flame passed the first picture —his childhood’s home.
Then a cloud began to creep over Sunny Brae. The family fell on evil days. His father was cheated in business. He failed, in his old age. The proud old aristocrat died of heart-break. In two short, terrible years mother was gone, children were scattered, home was a mocking echo of the past.
Then the third picture of the series leapt up out of the flame.
The old house still stood on the wooded slope, on the winding road that ran between A-- and B--. He who had stolen his father’s business and accepted the house as payment for his father’s failure, dwelt there, and used his father’s barns, his mother’s furniture—
The young man closed his eyes. The scene had become too painful to dwell on.
Usurpers seldom prosper and Nathaniel Darlington was no exception to the rule. He was a gray-haired man when at the height of his roguery. Twelve years’ worry over uncertain schemes had made him old. His brain did not work as cleverly as before. Other men went him one better.
Lem Brown was one of them.
Ranching thoroughbred horses is a paying business. Young Brown grew rich at it. As he never spent, he had all he ever made laid up in a snug place. The best of his system of living was that he never had to spend. When other people, like Nat Darlington, spent more than they earned, he was always willing to lend, lend, that they might spend more and enjoy themselves still more extravagantly. Of late years, in a quiet way through his lawyer, he had lent Nat Darlington sums running into the thousands, and taken as security— Sunny Brae. Nat was always going to pay it back in a lump when some of his schemes worked, but Brown planned that the lump should be Sunny Brae.
He had put in all those hard, intervening years sustained by the hope that some day he should be able to set Darlington out on the road—he and all his. He didn’t know what family he had, but he hoped he had a lot of them. And he hoped the day they were set out would be cold and raining, and that they wouldn’t have coats to keep them warm.
Just here the fire died down without warning, the pictures faded, and the young man’s chair came to the floor with a vengeful thump. The hour of doom had struck. Why delay the sweet moment of vengeance? Old Darlington could not now keep the interest paid. Why let it run on into the new year? No, he resolved to be the master of Sunny Brae on the first day of January. It would be his New Year’s present to himself.
He brushed Clover impatiently from his knee, threw himself on his best horse and galloped into town to consult his lawyer, Bute and Son. Like a caged lion he paced up and down Bute’s office, dictated his wishes to his astonished lawyer, watched the letter of doom written, signed it with his own signature. Brown was a common name around town, and it is doubtful if the Darlingtons knew the exact identity of the man to whom they were indebted. Growing boys change rapidly into bearded men, and few recognized in the stern, silent man, the gay, reckless youth of a dozen years ago. Now he signed himself in letters of cruel blackness, Lemuel Brown, son of Morton Brown, late of Sunny Brae.
Two weeks after the letter ran its way of death, he decided to follow it up by a. personal visit. He had received no reply, and he dreaded lest Darlington should make a feeble effort to crawl out of the trap. Again he threw himself on his best horse and galloped past the town, out on the winding road with the beautifully wooded hills. Crowning the slope rose the ancient chimneys of Sunny Brae. A faint smoke curled up from one of them. Its lazy waves of motion did not suggest enough heat to, counterbalance the frost of the bitter December day. Brown hoped Darlington was cold and that his fire was out.
Hitching his horse to an old tie-post his own boyish hands had sunk in the ground twenty years ago, this young old man, gray-headed, yet with a boyish bound in his step, walked up to the front door of the mansion and rapped imperiously with his riding-whip. He stamped around in the cold a full minute before anybody came.
At last the door, a heavy one that stuck at the bottom, was opened, and a young woman in a long blue working apron looked out suspiciously on the, stranger. Lem pawed over the whole English language in an attempt to get words to express his errand.
The young woman, who had soft blue eyes and a marvellous wealth of amber hair, opened the door wider and he followed her meekly into the hall. Where was the old man ? Mean as Lem was feeling, he wasn’t mean enough to take out his revenge on this girl.
“Come in here,’’ she said, as she opened the door into a kind of sitting-room, which he remembered as his father’s library.
Here the one fire of the house burned in the grate, and around it on the floor played a couple of children, a girl of ten and a boy of seven.
This, too, was disconcerting. Lem had a notion that children ought to be happy until they were eighteen or twenty—as he had been.
“I am Lemuel Brown, son of Morton Brown, late of Sunny Brae,’’ he said awkwardly, as without invitation he laid his hat and whip on the table.
The girl recoiled noticeably. Even the children glanced up with a shiver of fear. The stern stranger had thrown a gloom over their game. The little girl shrank back into her corner, while the boy, half in fear, half with the idea of protecting her, came and laid his head on the young woman’s arm.
“Will you be seated?’’ she asked, in an expressionless tone.
He handed the chair back.
“Will you?’’ he returned courteously. It came more natural for Lem to be courteous than otherwise.
She sank into it, and he stood with his back to the fire, hands clenched behind.
“I am Irene Darlington,” said the girl, forcing herself to look at him. “And this is Fritz and Bessie, my little brother and sister. I introduce myself, because I am afraid you will have to deal with me. Father is upstairs, too ill to be disturbed. At times his mind is quite weak, so most of the business falls on me.”
Brown smothered an oath. It was just like a trick of old Darlington to pretend illness and leave the brunt of affairs to fall on his defenceless daughter. He glanced up the stairs as if he would go up and drive him out of his lair. But the girl’s blue eyes were wells of truth. He was too much a gentleman to doubt her veracity.
He stooped to tighten a buckle on his riding boots awkwardly.
“You have foreclosed the mortgage,” she said, looking at him with a sort of fascinated horror, as if he were a huge reptile.
From the bottom of his heart he thanked her for making the opening.
“I was thinking I would have to,” he muttered lamely.
“Were you thinking of staying here to see fair play? Or of sending your bailiff? There are many things we might run away with.”
He denied any such intention.
She continued speaking, though her heavy lids were closed.
“You have been kind to bear with us so long.”
Kind! The gentle creature was a master of sarcasm.
“If you could—that is, perhaps you are prepared to pay something.”
Half-veiled under their fringe of lashes, the blue eyes looked up into his dark, set face, and lips white as milk muttered, “We cannot pay.”
“Oh,” said the man, leaning over to peer into her face.
She pushed back her chair beyond his reach, and rose, gathering all her forces, speaking rapidly as if fearful her strength would fail.
“Mr. Lemuel Brown, son of Morton Brown, late of Sunny Brae, your claims are absolutely just. I do not know why you have spared us so long. I did not know till the letter came just who you were. But now you may take your sweet revenge from a broken family that cannot resist you. We have done you irreparable wrong. I beg no mercy at your hands, no extension of time. We are arranging to vacate the house on the last day of the year as you requested. See, all our furniture is being torn up for a sale on that day. Even this”—she laid her hand on the old piano—“even this has to go.”
It was his own mother’s piano. He had run his first scales over its creamy keys. She spoke of it as her treasure.
She reeled and sank hack into her chair, every drop of blood leaving her face.
Alarmed at the sudden swoon, he crossed the room, picked her up and carried her to the lounge. The little girl, painfully used to the symptoms, ran for water.
“Miss Darlington,” he pleaded, “tell me what I can do for you.”
“Do?” she sighed, speaking thinly, as from a spirit world. “Could you leave me alone for awhile? Could you rest assured that I will not cheat you, and Go?"
He stepped back to spare her the torture he knew his presence inspired. Assured that Bessie could do all that was possible for the present, he picked up his. hat and whip and went out, gently closing the door behind him.
At the gate he encountered old Dr. McMann, urging his short-winded pony up the hill.
“McMann,” said Lemuel Brown fiercely, “in what state is old man Darlington?”
“Well,” said the old doctor, while the pony took advantage of the rest and cropped a mouthful of frozen grass, “pretty bad, I should say. Mind, I don’t say fatal. He may last for years, but he’ll just live to add to the burdens of his daughter, for he is childish, unreasonable, undependable.”
Lem kicked himself for asking. He knew the girl had spoken the truth, but because she was a Darlington he hated to take her word.
“The young woman up there isn’t the old fool’s daughter?” he burst out.
The doctor smiled and nodded.
“Stranger anomalies have happened. You must take into account the girl’s mother, who was one of God’s saints.”
“Small wonder she died young,” muttered Brown bitterly.
The old doctor stroked his white beard thoughtfully.
“And the girl will go just like her. It’s to see her, not the old man, that I am making this trip out to-day. Lately she’s been taking queer fainting spells. Thinks it’s her heart. All bosh! She wants more care, more consideration, more simple, everyday comforts. She is a strong, brave girl, but she can’t stand everything.”
Brown’s face was a puzzle.
“What seems to be the trouble? You say she is worrying?”
“Suffering Samuel! Haven’t you heard? The story goes that the Darlingtons are pretty deeply in debt. Some lawyer in town holds a mortgage for all the place is worth. I hear they are to get out at the end of the year. No wonder Irene is cut up about it. It has been her home for twelve years, and a noble old place it is.”
Lem nodded, whipping up his horse, and the doctor jogged on up the hill.
As the horse started up suddenly, a tiny square of white paper loosened from the cuff of the young man’s coat and fell into the frozen roadway. It looked like a snapshot. He could only conjecture that it had stuck to his coat as he brushed past the table or the sideboard. He threw himself from his saddle to pick it up. As he half expected he was rewarded by the pictured face of Irene Darlington. Too much agitated to examine it then, he frowned at it and put it in his pocket.
Down through the town and out on his own road galloped Lemuel Brown, shaking his fist at the stars in his helpless rage.
“Where does my revenge come in? My twelve-years’-planned revenge ! God in heaven, where is the satisfaction for which I prayed?”
Lemuel Brown was a constant reader of his Bible, especially of the thunderous prophets who foretold the doom of evildoers. He pondered over gloomy Jeremiah, he drank in with delight the terrors of Hosea. It seemed to him that it was Bible teaching that all sinners should come to their day of doom. It pleased him to believe his the appointed hand to hasten the destruction of his own personal enemies. Lem seldom read the New Testament. Forgiveness until seventy times seven did not appeal to him.
That night as he sat in his little, comfortless kitchen, the tortoise-shell cat with the clover-leaf marked in yellow on her back pushing her friendly nose under his coat to find a warm spot to curl up in, he reached up his hand and took his old thumb-worn Bible from the lamp-shelf.
It opened at random at Haggai, a good book, full of strong denunciations. He plunged in for several verses. But the theme did not suit him. It was about the hoarding of money, which after one had laid it up for selfish purposes, leaked away, bringing no satisfaction.
“He that earneth wages, earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes,” declared the prophet.
Lem shut the book with such a snap that Clover jumped four inches. If ever anybody had been hoarding money in a bag with holes he was that man.
Gravely he brought the picture of Irene Darlington out of his pocket, and gave himself up to the melancholy pleasure of examining it. It was a sweet face, albeit the lips were set too tightly and there was a certain dejection expressed by the drooping shoulders. It showed a soul starving for sympathy—for comforts, the doctor had said. Was it possible that Irene Darlington was without the simple comforts of everyday life?
“Blame it all! If it isn’t the worst mix-up that could have come to pass!”
Clover leapt up sympathetically and put her cold nose between his collar and his neck.
“Insidious, encroaching, wheedling, you know how to win your way like all your sex,” he muttered.
Still he did not put her down. Instead his hand began absently to stroke the round, soft head.
“You were made to be loved, so I will love you,” he said, talking to the cat and looking at the picture.
Stretching back in his chair he closed his eyes, as if to shut out a vision of the cheerless room, the hunted girl, the helpless children he had left at Sunny Brae.
“A bag with holes,” his tight lips quivered.
Clover, looking up wisely at times from the corner of her eyelid, thought her master slept in his chair; and he, looking down at other times, thought Clover slept, so did not move for fear of disturbing her. Thus they passed the night by the fire.
In the morning, with a hard, gray face, he dispatched a letter to the elder Bute, giving minute instructions as to how to proceed at the sale, and after how he wanted the business settled up. He took great pains to make the letter as harsh, as unrelenting, as any that had preceded it ; but the thing he really sat down to write about was expressed in four words at the bottom of the sheet.
“Buy in the piano.”
Then, as if shy of his own presence, he walked irrelevantly across the kitchen and examined his face in the looking-glass. Before he turned away he pulled out several gray hairs over one temple.
It was the last day of the year. Six o’clock at night. A gray, dreary evening. The sale was over. The strange men had gone. The tramp of horses had died away in the yard. Sunny Brae, the ghost of its former self, lay stripped of all its furnishings, a wilderness without, a tomb within.
Only in the sitting-room, where a table and a couple of chairs remained, a wood fire still blazed on the hearth. In the kitchen the children were trying to get a bit of supper for themselves. For once Irene had failed them. She stood leaning against the dismantled window, both hands locked over her forehead that ached till it was numb.
Lemuel Brown came up the path from nowhere. He had not been at the sale, and seemed now to spring suddenly from the shadows of the night. He knew his presence seemed an insufferable intrusion that night. Tread as lightly as he would, it must seem to the girl at the window that he was walking over her with heels of iron.
She greeted him with her back when he entered. He drew the one chair not in use up to the fire.
“I did not expect you until to-morrow,” she murmured, turning.
“I see the piano is still here,” he said shortly. “Who bought it?”
“I do not know,” she responded dully. “A lawyer from town, I think. They said he bought most of the valuable things.”
“Was it Bute?”
“It may have been the younger Bute. I have never dealt with him, and so do not know him.”
“They are friends of mine and will not hurry the things away.”
“What can it matter,” she cried, turning on him fiercely, “whether the piano goes to-night or a week from to-night?”
He came a step nearer.
“Irene,” he said, “sit down. I have some things to say to you that may explain the intrusion of my presence here to-night.”
She threw up her fair head haughtily, but he did not seem to notice his mistake. He had been calling her picture by its first name so long that it came perfectly natural.
Seeing that he still pointed to a chair, she submitted and sat down. He threw himself into the one opposite, and they faced each other across the long table.
“I confess,” he said abruptly, “to a lifelong hatred of your father. I confess that for twelve years I have been trying to ruin him, as he ruined my family.”
“But,” he threw out his arms across the table, as if to bridge the gulf between them, “so help me, God, I never knew that your father had a daughter on whom was falling the vengeance I was planning for him. Will you give me credit for that much humanity? Will you say you believe my word?”
“Are you not saying it?” She had leaned back her head and closed her eyes in the utterly weary attitude he remembered so well.
“Heaven knows,” he went on passionately, “that after I saw you all the sweetness went out of my revenge.”
“Yet you failed not to carry it out to the last item,” she reminded him.
His long arm swept across the table, caught the hand that lay white and motionless on the other edge, and gripped it in spite of protests.
“I was a fool. I was mad with the defeat of my purpose. When I came to myself, what could I do to stop the sale you yourself had planned and which was to take place in a few days?”
“If those precious things had been your mother’s,” she said, with rebellious bitterness, “you would have done something.”
“Good heavens!” he interrupted her. “Were the things not my mother’s before they were yours?”
She opened her blue eyes wide to look into his dark face, now suffused with tender feeling.
“Forgive me,” she cried. “I cannot seem to remember your part of it. I was such a child when we came here. It seems to me the place and all the beautiful things belonging to it were ours always.”
Never relaxing the grip of her fingers, his dark eyes held hers as a magnet holds a steel.
“Just to think,” she continued, speaking as if impelled by his will, “that your childish feet rang through these halls, that your dear ones sang songs around that same piano.” With her free hand she brushed away a tear. “Ah, your claim is prior to mine. Will you believe my sincerity when I express the wish that you may be happy here with no nightmare memories of our existence to vex your future peace?”
“Happy?” He caught up the word passionately. “Happy here? I shall not try to live here. The place is full of ghosts.”
Again she opened her eyes wider to look at him.
“Not live here? Not live at Sunny Brae when you can? Not gather your family together and rebuild the old scenes?”
“The years have scattered my family beyond recall. I alone am left. Having done without luxuries for twelve years, I fancy I shall do without them longer.” She made no reply.
“Miss Darlington,” he asked abruptly, “what plans have you made for future residence?”
“We stay this winter with an old aunt in town. After that I have no plans.”
“What I am trying to say, though I am clumsy about getting it said, is this. Do not be in a hurry to leave Sunny Brae on my account If you wish to delay your going a week, a month--”
“A day would be heavenly,” she muttered, shutting out a vision of the life to come with her exacting relative ; “but we cannot live without furniture.”
“Bute is my lawyer, as you know. He only bought the things for me, and my sole desire in securing them was that they might remain here as long as you cared to use them.”
“Did you,” she asked, as full comprehension dawned slowly in her face, “command him to run them up to fabulous prices, so that I am a richer woman to-night than I ever was in my life before?”
A slow flush spread to the roots of his hair. There was something in her look of gratitude that unmanned him.
Again over her wan face spread that ashy whiteness, bleaching even her lips to the color of chalk. Her head sank on one arm of the chair, like a tall white chrysanthemum broken on its stalk. The word of kindness unnerved her as harshness seldom had done.
Again the man gathered her in his arms and carried her to the couch.
“Irene,” he pleaded, on his knees chafing the cold hands, “this is to be the last of such scenes as this. I cannot look at you. Your eyes are a constant reminder that I am responsible for all your suffering—the silent, sinister influence undermining all your happiness.”
Of its own free will the little cold hand slipped inside his throbbing palm.
“I didn’t mean to reproach you with anything,” she whispered.
“Will you accept my offer?” he demanded. “Will you stay in the house as long as you wish? Will you use the things that have been left? I know my generosity comes much too late, that you cannot bear to accept it after all I have done—but will you?”
“I cannot stay long,” she replied. “The house is too large for us. I cannot keep it going since father doesn’t work at all. And while thanking you for your kind intentions, I know it will not be long before you will want to live in this lovely spot yourself.”
“A lonely old fellow like me, in such a great, grand house as this!” he smiled. “Irene, listen. If I ever should take a notion, say in the spring, to come back and fix it up, to put in new furnishings that would drive the ghosts out of the corners—Irene, are you listening?—would you, too, come back, as the fair mistress of it all? Could anything persuade you to remain at Sunny Brae as old Lem Brown’s wife?”
His lips were against her ear, his brown cheek swept her face.
“You forget,” she whispered bravely, “I am not free. Remember you would have to put up with the children—and my poor old father.”
“And you would have to put up with a stiff, stern old fellow, whose first youth is past, whose head is full of gray hairs-”
“I have no fear of such a burden ever becoming irksome,” she breathed softly.
“Neither do I fear the burden of the children—and your father—for your sake.”
She threw her white arms around his neck, her whole frame shaken by a great sob.
“O my unmerciful old tyrant, controller of my destiny from my childhood, I cannot hate you, though I have tried with all my might!”
Next morning—it was New Year’s, and all the gleaming, glistening world seemed to have been made over new— as Lemuel Brown pounded down the winding road into town, he again ran into old Dr. McMann, driving out.
“Bound for Sunny Brae?” called Lem.
“Yes. I count on going out twice a week.”
“You’re making your last trip. Your patient isn’t going to take any more fainting spells.”
“Brown,” cried the doctor, turning on him sharply, “what’s the matter with your face? I never saw you wear such a look before.”
“How do I look?” smiled Lem.
“As if you had been making a set of New Year’s resolutions, to be a good boy, and join in with other mortals, and have the good times you were cut out to have. Come, confess that you were sitting around some midnight fire, swearing your solemn oaths as the clock struck twelve.”
Lem denied it.
“All I did last night was learn to put on a patch.”
“A patch?” roared the doctor. “Jumping Jemima! What were you trying to patch?”
“A bag,” said Lem gravely. “A bag with holes.”**