THE SMOKING FLAX
ROBERT J. C. STEAD
CAL’S first impulse was to drive to Plainville and tell Minnie everything. He felt that he had come to an impasse in his life where he must lean on other judgment beside his own. His house of dreams had collapsed, shattered by a blow under a clear sky, a blow unheard and unseen by any neighbor, and he was writhing amid the ruins. He needed ministrations; needed them tremendously.
On second thought he knew he could not tell Minnie. It would be a breach of his faith with Celesta, and with Reed. He must save the secret at all costs. How to do it that was the question. Jackson had walked away after his ultimatum, leaving him seated on the running-board while something pounded with sledge-hammer thumps across his temples. How to do it? He must think; he must Think. And he could not think.
He remembered that he had said something ab,out writing to Winnipeg for money. That, of course, was to gain time, but it had appeared to satisfy Jackson, and he must make the most of it. He did not know whether Jackson was still watching him, but he went to his granary and simulated the writing of a letter. As he did so Trix came in hotly pursued by Reed.
“We’re placing a great game, Daddy X,” the boy shouted. “Trix is a bandit and I am the Mounted Police. Now I have her!’’ But the dog darted between his legs and was gone.
To Cal the boy seemed to have come up out of a mist. It was so strange to hear his voice! He sat for a moment piecing together events; arranging the sudden chaos of his life in some kind of sequence. Yes, this was the boy— Jackson Stake’s boy. What had he to do with Jackson Stake’s boy? Why not— For a moment his soul trembled on an abyss of depravity, but the next it was soaring with fhe gods. The little face faded before him, like a picture thrown out of focus; then came up clear and sweet and tender as the face of his dead mother, and Cal knew that
Daddy X faces the greatest temptation that can come to a man, when he finds Reed's safety is menaced.
whatever happened, Reed was safe in his hands. He stretched out his arms, and the boy, surprised but willing, crept within them.
Suddenly a new fear gripped at his heart. Was this
boy safe---physically safe—from the menace that hung
over him? Since his first days on the farm Reed had had the run of the prairie. True, he attended school, but aside from that he came and went as he pleased and only the dog Trix knew of his comings and goings. With a snare of brass wire and a string of binder twine he would lie for patient hours by the mouth of some gopher hole, or he would ramble for miles in search of flowers or butterflies. But now—?
Cal resolved that he must keep a close eye on the boy. He knew only enough of Jackson Stake to know that there might be no limit to his audacity. He could take no chances.
“Let’s go to town to-night, old scout,” he suggested.
But they did not go to town. Antelope performed her rumbling ramble through the groves of poplars and down
the main road beyond the school, but then Cal turned her nose along a side trail and away from Plainville. He had decided that he could not face Minnie at present. She would read his secret in his eyes. He dared not .face her.
Nor would he ta*k with Reed. After two or three unsuccessful attempts to engage him in conversation the boy turned his attention to the more receptive ears of Antelope, and his talk from that time was such as a boy may hold with an automobile two years his senior. It had to do with badger holes and deep prairie ruts and gentle reproof of the various rattlings with which Antelope made answer.
The sun hung low over the prairies; the clumps of willows threw their lengthening shadows across the trail; the grass took on its vivid evening livery of green, and still Cal held his aimless course as a boat adrift at sea. He was fighting, fighting. And as yet he did not know what he fought. He was fighting to get the enemy visualized, to see clearly—
It was dusk when they again drew up at the granary, although a halo of light still hung in the western sky and filtered dimly through the grateful cloud of smudgesmoke which filled the farmyard like a fog.
“Home early, D.D.,” Gander remarked, while Grit added some surmise to the effect that the staff in the law office must be working nights. But Cal neither answered them nor heard them. He was skewering the vile heart that had risen up to destroy his life; in his mind he was trampling under foot the lifeless body of Jackson Stake.
Reed, strangely perplexed by a shadow which he could feel but could not understand, slipped quietly to bed without, so much as a suggestion of a bed-time story. For awhile he watched the outline of Cal’s form as it sat, unusually bowed, in the door of the granary, but there was no receptacle in his young mind that could long hold trouble, and presently he and Trixie were scampering the fields in search of butterflies. And a minute later he was asleep.
Cal did not light his pipe, and when Hamilton paused on his way to bed as though he would have joined in a chat he gave him no encouragement. Ordinarily he liked Ham, but to-night he returned his salute with a monosyllable.
THE twilight deepened; the red coals in the bowl of Gander’s pipe and Grit’s presently got up and moved away; the yellow oil light in the kitchen went out; even the contented puffing of the cows under their canopy of friendly smoke was silenced, but still Cal sat on, bent and bruised and dumb. This was a fight in which his hands were shackled; in which his feet were bound; in which he was snared in a trap. As he began to survey his problem with a slowly returning clarity of vision it seemed to him that never before had man been placed in such a position. He couldn’t fight and he couldn’t surrender. No sacrifice which he could make would buy freedom. Not even death. Cal had no more than his share of physical fear; he had young blood in his veins and that combative confidence which comes with hard muscles and clean living. But it was precisely because he could not fall back upon these primitive defences that the fight was so unevenly balanced against him . . .
At midnight he was trying to put it into words. “I’m not afraid of Jackson Stake—not physically,” he told himself. “Quite the contrary. If I could settle this thing physically I would drag him out of his bed and settle it right now. But I can’t. I can’t go into the house and up stairs and pull Jackson out of bed and thrash him or be thrashed without an explanation. If I didn’t explain it, he would. I can’t do that.
“And I can’t buy his silence. It would be immoral, to begin with, but I could overlook that. One doesn’t worry so much about moral principles when his antagonist has a strangle hold on his throat; at least, I haven’t reached that degree of moral exactitude. But if I pay him I will be only playing into his trap. He would take fifty dollars now— and another fifty as soon as I had earned it. He would simply live on me. That’s his game. And after he had bled me white, or some time in a sulky mood, he would tell. Tell Minnie, likely. So even that wouldn’t save me.
“Not me. Reed. Reed, and my promise to Celesta. That’s what has to be saved.
And I would give my life for it. But I can’t save it by giving my life; that way, perhaps, least of all. The boy needs me and I’m going to live for him. I’m going to live for him no matter who dies. . .
“He will tell Minnie. When he is fouling anyway, he will make his blow as foul as possible. And then Minnie will despise me because I lied to her, and because—because—” Suddenly Cal’s heart gave an extraordinary thump, and for the first time he sat erect. Minnie would not despise him! It came to him as clear as a voice at his side—Minnie would not despise him. She was not that kind of girl.
Let Jackson Stake do his worst; here was one pillar of his life that could not be overthrown.
But a moment later he saw the other side of the shield and the brief tide of hope that had flooded his heart went ebbing out again. Minnie would not despise him, but she would despise herself, and the effect would be as bad, or worse. “If Jackson Stake were to tell her the truth,” he soliloquized, “she never would look me in the face again. Realizing the wrong that Celesta, and I, and Reed, have suffered from her brother she never would look on me again. That would be a situation that could not be remedied any way whatever.”
He rose and paced unsteadily forward and back before his door. He would turn again and again to look at the door; he had a feeling that he dared not leave it, scarcely an arm’s length. Celesta’s boy was sleeping there and the night was full of heinou’s dangers directed at his head.
He must stand on guard. He half hoped that Jackson Stake, slipping suddenly out of the dusk, would fall upon him.
“By God, I wish he would!” he suddenly exclaimed, clenching his fists in the darkness. “Then I would kill him—kill him, and it would be over with. Dead men tell no tales.” He toyed with it. It was a tremendously fascinating line of thought, and he toyed with it. That would remove the peril. With young Jackson Stake out of the way the secret would be safe, and there was no other way in which it could be made safe. And it would be justice. Celesta had given her life'. A life for a life. . .
Thrusting out his arm Cal found the corner of the granary in the darkness and rested himself against it.
His brain was reeling. The thought which had crashed into his mind was so foreign to anything he had ever thought before that it paralyzed him like a physical blow. He could imagine his terrified normal thoughts running hither and thither, shepherdless, defenceless, scurrying for cover against this black wolf of a new idea which had broken into their peaceful domain. Poor, innocent, inoffensive thoughts, scattered like children at the blast of war! For this was war—war! This was a clash of forces which could not unite and for which there was no solution except the death of one or the other—Jackson Stake or Cal Beach.
“And it shall be Jackson Stake,” he said aloud, and the words smote his ears like a voice from another world. He could not believe that he himself had uttered them. He, Calvin Beach, the sociologist, the advocate of order, believer that all this world needed for happiness was knowledge and understanding—that he should contemplate taking the life of a fellow man .was absurd, impossible. He, the whimsical humorist who could make of all his associates exhibits to be studied under a mental microscope, subjected to a painless and entertaining process of intellectual vivisection—he, to take another man’s life? He reeled under the crash of that idea.
His lips were on fire; his tongue wallowed between them like a desert reptile dying of drouth. At the door he listened to Reed’s regular breathing; caught the sound of it along with the ticking of his watch and the thumping of his heart. Then he ventured as far as the water trough and drank heavily from the iron cup that hung at the pump. The first mouthful was as tasteless as night; he forced it down like solid food rather than water. But it revived him, and then he drank refreshingly. He poured water on his head, on his wrists; he held it against his temples, he washed his hands beside the trough, and he walked back to the granary steadied, strengthened, sane. He had a feeling of having been dragged back to life after an hour of death.
He undressed and went to bed, but as he lay thinking he began to realize that his saneness was more terrible than any insanity. More terrible because it confirmed
his insanity. Now, viewing the matter clearly, weighing as a sane man, almost as an impartial man, he knew there could be no safety while Jackson Stake lived. It was not Jackson’s life against Cal’s; it was Jackson’s life against Reed’s, and between these two his choice was instantlv taken. His decision clashed with all his theories, with all
his fine principles for a society clothed in Order. He began to realize that this was but an instant’s revelation of the eternal warfare between the ideal and the real; between that which should be and that which is. He had to accept the circumstances in which he found himself; they were not of his making.
Even if he gave his life along with Jackson’s his cause would be saved. He was willing to do that. It was not a too great price to pay for Reed’s freedom and for his right to admission into the body of society. Even if Jackson and he should be locked in death the truth would be locked with them and Reed would go free.
'T'HE child stirred in his sleep; flung an arm which fell A across Cal’s chest; turned and nestled against him. Cal enveloped him in his arms and clung to him tremendously, as though in Reed were his safety; as though the man in reality were clinging to the child . . . “Give you up? You! My God!” he breathed to himself. “Nor leave you. Jackson Stake has no claim on my life, but I have a claim on his. My claim is due—overdue—and I propose to collect it. How? I must think about that. .1 have until Saturday. I must find a way.”
Cal awoke early from a restless sleep and sat up suddenly, uncertain as to where he was. His mind seemed, during the night, to have gone scattering through the universe; now it came hurrying back from all the compass points of time and place to occupy its accustomed citadel. As its units rushed in they arrayed themselves in order and gradually he became able to think coherently. He pieced together the issue with Jackson Stake; built up the two walls of their positions until all seemed about to collapse again. Then, in a panic, he thrust the keystone into place; the great central idea on which he had slept; the conclusion that the world was not big enough for Reed and Jackson Stake. He saw it clearly now and knew that there was only one solution . . . Besides, it was fair. Jackson Stake’s life was surely small enough compensation to exact in return for Celesta’s.
“And who has a better right to exact it?” he demanded of the tire with the blow-out which hung in the rays of the rising sun. “Who has a better right? Leaving Reed out of the question altogether, who has a better right? No jury would hang me for that.”
Suddenly his heart crawled up into a heap, a little strangulated heap of crinkly tissue lost between his lungs. Suppose a jury would not hang him for that; suppose he might successfully invoke the unwritten law—he dared ffi>t invoke it! He could not do so without revealing the secret. That would give to the infamy of Reed’s origin a publicity a thousand times broader than anything that Jackson Stake could do or say. No; he would stand silenced in court, unable to speak a word in his own defence. Was ever a soul so helplessly in a trap? It seemed to Cal that all the concentrated cunning of the devil-world had been employed for his complete undoing.
“How say you, Calvin Beach; guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty, my lord.”
“The first witness for the king.”
“The first witness for the defence.” “There are no witnesses for the defence, my lord.”
“No witnesses for the defence?”
“No, my lord.”
“Let the prisoner be examined. Prisoner at the bar, you are charged with the murder of Jackson Stake. You have i pleaded guilty to the charge, and have been unable, or unwilling, to call any witnesses in your defence. The evidence against you is very strong. Nevertheless, it is the business of the Crown to assure not only your prosecution, but your fair defence. Be frank. Frankness can cost you nothing. Tell the court what you know of this matter.”
“I have nothing to say, my lord.”
“You admit that you killed Jackson Stake.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You had a reason—you must have had what you at least thought to be a very weighty reason—for committing such a crime?”
“I had, my lord.”
“What was that reason? Possibly it may have been of such a nature as to ameliorate the judgment which must otherwise be passed upon you. What was your reason?”
“I cannot tell you, my lord.”
“Most extraordinary. Listen, Calvin Beach. You are a man of intelligence; a university man, it has been established; a specialist, even, on the very problems of men living amiably with other men. You were employed on
the farm of Jackson Stake, senior, the father of the murdered man, with whom you had no quarrel, and whom you have heard testify against you in this court. The reluctance with which that testimony was given was its most damning quality.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You have heard the evidence of Mrs. Stake, her heart obviously torn two ways between a natural desire for vengeance for her son and a deep attachment for you. You have heard the evidence of the young man known as Gander Stake, of Wilson the hired man, of Hamilton Stake:—all friendly to you but the more damning for that reason.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You have heard the evidence — the unwillingevidence, I must say—of the girl, Minnie Stake .
Have you nothing to say to that?”
“No, my lord.”
“And the boy, your adopted boy, your dead sister’s child, who has sat in court with you through this trial, and who, on account of you, must go down through life branded as the protege of a murderer; through no fault of his own must carry the stigma which you have brought upon him. For the boy’s sake—for the girl’s sake—have you no word to say which can clear you of this terrible charge, or at least can make it evident that your mad act was done under extreme provocation? If that can be established the court will make recommendations on your behalf to the proper authorities. Have you nothing to answer?”
“No, my lord.”
“ and may God have mercy upon your soul.”
With his hands about his throat Cal sprang from his bed and staggered into the open air.
CAL had half finished with his horses when he dropped his currycomb and brush and hurried back to the granary. The fear of the unseen was terrific upon him. Danger lurked about the head of the boy; a danger which, if he only could see, he might avert. He must find a way out of this hideous jungle as soon as possible, but until then he must guard the boy as an army guards from attack its flank and rear. For the front he had no misgivings. It was not from that direction his enemy would strike.
Reed still slept, his neck bare, his arms thrown wide, his legs entangled in a wreckage of blankets. Cal gently shook him awake. “Come, old scout,” he said, when the big eyes looked up to his, wonderingly, “I want you to go to the field with me this morning. Hustle; we’ve no time to lose. See, let me help you.”
Wondering somewhat over his early awaking and the unusual assistance, Reed clambered into his simple clothing. “Come to the stable with me until I have finished with the horses and then we will go up to breakfast together,” said Cal, and the boy obeyed.
The delay had made Cal late for breakfast, and the porridge course had nearly disappeared, when Cal and Reed came in. There they were, all of them, even young •Jackson Stake at his father’s right; Mrs. Stake moving back and forth between the table and the stove in a manner which always suggested to Cal a sort of domestic treadmill. It came as a sudden shock to him to see them all seated there, eating peacefully. Did they not know the heavens had collapsed within the last twelve hours? He would have been prepared to see seats vacant, the kitchen in disorder; to have heard moaning and shouting and the sounds of a fierce struggle. Could they not sense that tragedy stalked among them? This outward peacefulness—
“Hello, D.D.,” said Gander, cordially. “How’s business in Plainville?”
With a tremendous wrench he brought his mind into action. They thought he had been in Plainville. Home late--slept late. Perfectly logical explanation*. Of course. And his particular business just now was to make everything appear as logical as possible.
“Plainville is all right, I guess,” he returned, simulating casualness.
“Legal perfession goin’ all right?” Gander persisted. “That D.D. business o’ yours ought to help some now. Thal’s what you learn at a university, ain’t it?”
Cal was stuck for an answer. Gander had not been very explicit, and to ask him to make his meaning clearer might have embarrassing results. There was such a thing as being too specific.
Help came from an unexpected quarter.
“Let up on Cal, Gander,” said Hamilton, usually the most silent one at the table. “He knows what he’s doing, and one high-brow in the family might help out the average a little. And it needs some helping, believe me.”
"If i was you, Ham, I’d be takin’ night courses from
him. A bit of eddication ’s what you need, an’ D.D.’s the man to hand it out.”
“The girls all fall for it,” Grit observed. “Glad my ol’ folks didn’t send me to no eddication factory. Hard enough to keep single as it is.”
“Humph!” said Ham. “I bet you’d marry one of those corset forms in Sempter & Burton’s, if it would have you.”
“Ha-m-m-m-burg!” said Mrs. Stake. “What these boys don’ know now-a-days!”
“I bet it was different when Dad was a boy,” Gander suggested. “He didn’ know nothin’.” -
“He didn’, eh?” Mrs. Stake flared back. “Don’ you fool yourself.”
“ ’Fraid you’re gettin’ me in wrong, either way, Mother,” said the farmer. “Well, I didn’ marry no corset form, anyway.”
“Didn’, eh? Well, I guess I’d as good a figger as most of ’em, if it comes to that. A woman don’ keep herself no Venus raisin’ kids and feedin’ a hungry horde like—”
“Now, Mother, that ain’t what I meant at all. I meant you had any fashion form faded out o’ the picture. Eh, Cal, how’s that for up-to-date? Can you beat that?”
Their banter had partly won Cal out of his mood. “Pretty good, Mr. Stake,” he agreed. “It isn’t to me Ham had better go for his lessons—if he needs them.”
VT'OUNG Jackson had taken no part in the conver1 sation. Suddenly, “Post your letter all right?” he inquired of Cal, without diverting his attention from his plate.
The business of eating proceeded.
“But what’s the idea o’ gettin’ the little man up so early?” said Mrs. Stake, as she re-filled Reed’s plate. “Should be sleepin’ for an hour yet.”
“He’s going to help me hitch up in the field this morning; we’ve a deal on with Big Jim to that effect,” Cal extemporized. “He can go to school from the other end of the field.”
Cal was again under the cloud. _His appetite was gone and a great vacuity filled his ribs where his stomach should have been. To avoid comment he forced the food between his lips and slipped out as soon as possible.
There was a short-cut to the school from the far end of the summer-fallow, and at half-past eight Cal sent Reed on his way across the fields. Pausing on his plough he watched the slowly receding figure as the boy kicked up the warm dust with his bare feet, or as he stopped to throw clods of earth at a particularly saucy gopher. From a knoll somewhat across the field Reed turned and waved his hand, and then Cal started his team, marking with a glance from time to time Reed’s progress toward the school. Before he had reached the other end of the furrow he knew that for the time being the boy was safe under the care of Annie Frawdic.
Then another fear encroached upon him. Jackson might go to the school. He might bluntly say he had come to see Reed home, and to Annie there would be nothing suspicious in that. Then, with the boy in his possession, Jackson might do—what? It was un-
thinkable to suppose he would harm the boy physically. “Then what am I afraid of?” Cal demanded of himself.
Gradually it came to him that he knew what he was afraid of. He was afraid Jackson would make a friend of this boy. He was afraid the man would set himself deliberately to win into the boy’s confidence and affection, so that he might have another club to wield over the head of his victim. To the threat of exposure if his terms were not complied with he would add a threat to take his child away from him altogether!
“He will—over my dead body,” said Cal between his teeth. But the more he thought of it the more he became convinced that this was an instance where the lesser law must give way to the higher one. In short, there was no outlet except by making away with Jackson Stake. The man’s life was doubly forfeit anyway; first, by his betrayal of Celesta; second, by the baseness with which he sought to turn that fact to his financial advantage.
“It’s a case of defending the innocent,” Cal soliloquized. “If I must kill Jackson Stake to protect Reed
Beach, then I must. There is no other way. I shall not be able to prove my innocence, but I shall be no less innocent on that account.”
“But the boy—he will be stamped as the ward of a murderer,” something dinned in his ears, and he recalled the imaginary court scene of his awaking moments. “Or some one—some enterprising newspaper, perhaps— may dig up the whole facts and expose them to the world. What defence can you give the boy against that?”
“In such a case I must not kill Jackson Stake; he must just disappear. I must arrange that. No one will bother much. They will just think he has gone again as unannounced as he came. I shall not kill him; no, no; but he shall disappear.”
He set his mind to plan a scheme by whjch Jackson could be made to “disappear,” and the facility with which it operated rather startled him. For the first time he began to realize that constitutionally he afforded the makings of a first-class criminal. It was a new thought, and even in his agitation and distress he paused to toy with it for a moment. Were all men, then, possessed of a. criminal instinct, held at bay only by fortunate environment and the codes of civilization? If so peace-loving a man as he could lay so dark a trap for his victim, what of all men? Was criminality the natural state? Here was substance for another series of articles.
Thought of a series of articles brought back with a rush the picture his mind had carried less than twentyfour hours ago—now obscured under the debris of the world’—of a bungalow on the shore of the lake, and a typewriter thumping in the shade of a friendly cottonwood, and the voice of Minnie singing down on the sands. Since last night he had thought not so much of Minnie, but of Reed and young Jackson. Minnie had never been out of the background of his thought, but the principals of the tragedy had held the centre of the stage. Now they gave way and Minnie took their place. Her kiss was scarcely cold upon his lips, and the pulse of his young love, checked for the moment by this sudden horror, now lept again like a thoroughbred under the whip. . . .
He would have to give Minnie up unless he did away—unless Jackson Stake disappeared. With that disappearance all the old dream could be realized. Only he would know, and the secret in his breast would be safe forever. Reed would grow up unbesmirched, and their own children, too, to be useful members of society. Was the life of an atom of polluted social flotsam worth the wrecking of that dream?—especially when the dream could so easily be saved for reality?
For a plan had suddenly taken shape in Cal’s mind. It was sinister in its simplicity and effectiveness, and it seemed to have taken shape of its own volition. Cal had no consciousness of having worked it out; it had come to him—from somewhere. It was sent to him in his hour of need as the one way out. At first it held him hypnotized in a sort of horror, as a sort of gruesome thing wrapped about and too horrible to be undraped. But gradually he ventured near, to touch it, to remove one wrap and then another. The horrible thing did not resist; it complied, it yielded itself to his will. Garment by garment, fold by fold. . . . There, it stood before him, naked, brazen. He seized it in a lust that was devilish, and terrible.
WITH familiarity it became less repulsive and he cooled his mind to think of it dispassionately. It was no love of his, this strange creature of the mind which had folded him suddenly in its embrace; this was a creature of convenience, for the moment only. . . . It was this:
He would invite young Jackson to go fishing with him.There was an old boat at the shore; it would serve for such a turn. Fortunately there had been no> open breach between them; nobody knew; nobody would think it remarkable that they should go fishing, in the lake some evening after the day s work. Jackson; would not refuse; Cal could suggest that it would give them a good opportunity to discuss, without fear of interruption, matters in which they were mutually interested. Few boats frequented that part of the lake and there was little danger of being observed. Then, as Jackson lurched to catch a fish wriggling loose from his line, he overturned the boat! He must have become entangled in weeds in the bottom of the shallow lake, for Cal, although he dived again and again, could not locate him. That would be the explanation. Actually, he would dump him out of the boat and quietly row away from him, mocking his appeals with platitudes about the way of the transgressor, and it being a long lane that has no turning. Jackson might be a good swimmer, but by instinct he would follow the boat and Cal would wear him out. If he turned and struck for the shore—well, one can use an oar for more purposes
! than pulling a boat. Then—a plunge in the lake to wet ¡/ his clothes, and who would question his report?
I It was horrible, and he trembled as he thought of it, j but it was the only way out. The only way to safety. A useless life gone to save lives that might be useful. An unhappy life ended that lives which were happy ■ might continue. It was the only" way. And even if there should be a struggle, and they should go down together, Cal was willing to pay that price. Who could ! charge him with any motive short of the highest? . . .
Meanwhile, he must see Annie Frawdic. He could f not explain, of course, but he knew that Annie would accept his word if he warned her against any interest that Jackson might show in Reed. He must see her at once.
During the afternoon he ploughed as one in a dream, to whom time and space have become meaningless terms, but at a quarter to four he awoke, tied his horses to the fence at the far end of the field, and strode off rapidly in the direction of the school house. He came up just as the little building was belching forth its contents for the day.
Some of the children, as they pell-melled out of school, recognized Cal and gathered about with speculations as to what could be at the bottom of this visit from Reed’s “father.” No explanation which Reed had been able to give of his relationship to “Daddy X” had left any clearer understanding in the minds of his schoolmates than that Cal must be his father.
“If he’s not your father, who is?” demanded a pimpled urchin of twelve or thirteen, a leader in the moral crusades instituted from time to time against Freddie Frain, whose paternal ancestry was understood to be shrouded in some obscurity.
“He’s my Daddy X,” Reed persisted.
“Same thing,” his inquisitor asserted, belligerently.
Reed discovered that this conclusion seemed to establish his position in the community, so he accepted it as the easiest way out of a difficulty. This business of identifying one’s father was more confusing than even the “seven times” multiplication table, and he was glad to be rid of it.
“Hello, Cal,” said one of the bolder hoys. “Wha’d’ya want?”
“He come to thee Mith Frolic,” a freckled miss suggested from behind a finger in her teeth. She returned Cal’s amused inspection with the wriggles of a fish-worm.
“That’s it,” said Cal, with a laugh, as he moved up to the door. “Don’t go away, Reed,” he called; “we’ll go home together.”
they come with a complaint. If you have not come with a complaint I shall know, more than ever, what an extraordinary man you are.”
He was fishing, he knew, but he could not resist the question—-“And am I extraordinary?”
“Oh, very. And so is that boy Reed. Half way through his multiplication tables already. I suspect him of a good drilling at home.”
Cal remembered his horses tied to the fence and hurried to his objective. Nothing was likely to be gained by encouraging Annie in loquaciousness.
“It was Reed I came to speak about,” he said.
“So there is a complaint.”
“Y'AH, NO—nothing about the school. But I want you to help me, and to do so you will have to trust me. That is, you may have to do something which doesn’t seem quite necessary, just because I ask you to, and without explanations. Will you trust me to that extent, Miss Frawdic?”
“On one condition.”
“And that is—?”
“That you call me Annie. Only the children .call me Miss Frawdic—Miss Frolic, they call me—in school, for discipline. Outside they call me Old Annie. . . . I don’t look much like a frolic, do I, Cal?”
“And how can I help you, now that I trust you?” “It’s about Reed. I suppose you know young Jackson Stake has come home?”
“Heard it, but they say there’s no great rejoicing.” “You follow the news well.”
“You city men never appreciate properly the rural telephone. Well?”
“This may be just a notion of mine, but I don’t trust
ANNIE FRAWDIC stood with her back to the door, erasing from the blackboard the marks of the day’s labor and instruction. About her head swam a halo of chalk dust from which settling atoms fell like silver on a fuzz of' hair no longer innocent of an occasional grey thread on its own account. Cal noted the cheap blouse with its threatened lesion just above the waist-band at the back; the skirt, once smart enough, but flimsy and formless from much wear and many washings; the gap of spindling stocking, more spindling than Miss Frawdic cared to contemplate; the wobbly shoes with heels bevelled by the wear of country roads and the school-room floor, and something about the ensemble clutched him suddenly as poignantly pathetic. He had smiled to himself over Annie Frawdic’s obvious husband-seeking advances, but now the smile seeped out and left him empty and a.rlittle ashamed. It was tragedy; the silent tragedy of the undesired. Another subject for his series of articles—
That brought him to earth again, but even as he crashed he flung a thought of wonder into his own being, so weakly willing to soar away on every cloud of whimsical imagining. Surely the business now on foot was grave enough for his whole attention.
“Good afternoon, Miss Frawdic!”
She turned with a start, dropping the eraser to the floor in the first shock of surprise.
“Oh, good afternoon, Mister Beach. . . . Teaching gets on one’s nerves, about the end of the term,” she added, as she stooped to pick up her eraser. “Thank Heaven, I’m through on Friday. Summer holidays.” Then, brightly, and with a challenge of badinage—“I hope you haven’t come with a complaint?”
“Why should I come with a complaint?”
“When parents visit a school it always is because
him, and I don’t want him to have anything to do with Reed.”
“I see. But how can I help?”
“He’s not working; has all day on his hands, you know, and I thought he might come drifting around by the school and want to take Reed home. If he
does—don’t let him. That’s what I want you to do. And I want you not to say anything about this—to anybody.”
They had moved down through the dusty schoolroom and now stood in the door, where the warm breeze of the afternoon fluttered in Annie’s hair and the mellow light softened the furrows about her eyes. Facing, they leaned against the opposite door jambs, and Annie’s vagrant toe again went tracing figures in the dust.
“If he wants to take the boy, how can I prevent him?”
“Come home with him, too, or take Reed to your boarding house and I’ll come over for him later.”
“All right, Cal,” she said, simply.
“Thank you, Annie.” He held out his hand and took hers in a warm and responsive grip.
It was at that moment that Jackson Stake, junior, on his way home from a day’s gopher shooting, passed along the road in front of the school house. When they looked out suddenly they surprised his curious study of them. He nodded, touched his hat, and went on.
' I 'HE next morning Cal awoke with a feeling of blood - on his hands. He awoke very early, and in a stupor as to time and place. The yellow summer morning had not yet dawned beyond a faint grey mist that blocked the window of the granary against the jet blackness of the wall.
His sleep had been uneasy; a rabble of strange imaginings had clamored in his mind. Then, suddenly, he had awakened with a sense of blood on his hands. He stretched his extended fingers above him in the thin greyness of the pre-dawn, while the sweat started on his forehead and his body went cold and clammy about the ribs. He could distinguish nothing—nothing but a feeling of blood. Turning into his mind he found a vague impression that somewhere in his life—or it may have been in a previous incarnation; time and place were quite undefined—he had killed a man. He had killed a man, but no one had suspected him. The secret had been well kept, save for the blood on his hands. ... It was Jackson Stake!
In an instant he was wide awake. He sat bolt upright; his eyes, distended, sought to sift some ray of meaning out of the darkness. Reed! He groped wildly to the boy’s side of the bed; found the little form twisted in the-contortions of childish sleep; thrust his ear to the lad’s chest. The heart was pumping regularly, the lungs rising and falling, the skin warm to the touch.
“Nerves, Cal; nerves,” he chided himself. “If you are like this before, what will you be after?”
The sticky feeling on his fingers persisted in his imagination. “Beastly stuff; beastly stuff to have on one’s fingers all his life. Nobody knowing but one’s self. All the years and nobody to know, but always yourself knowing. Sticky fingers.” So he wrestled with the inevitable until the morning sun again poured through the window in the end of his little room. Then he got up, washed his face in a splash of cold water, and proceeded with his work as usual.
He awakened Reed early and they went to the field together as on the previous day. As they left the farmyard, following the jingling trace-chains of the four great horses, he felt young Jackson Stake’s eyes upon them, and knew that Jackson understood. The knowledge increased his alarm for Reed and he decided to take the boy partly into his confidence.
“How do you like young Mr. Stake, Reed?” he asked.
“Does he talk to you at all?”
“Not much. A little last night, while you were doing the horses.”
“What did he talk about?”
“Oh, nothing much. Asked if you often went over to see me at the school.” “Oh, did he? Anything else?” “Promised to take me and Trixie—• Trixie and I—and me—me is right, isn’t it, Daddy X?—gopher hunting on Saturday.”
“Well, I don’t want you to talk to him, Reed, or to have anything to do with him. And if he calls for you at the school don’t come home with him; go Jiome with Miss Frawdic, and I will come over for you afterward. Will you remember that?”
“Yes, Daddy X. . . . But I’d like to go gopher hunting.” “So you shall, but not with him.” Cal was glad the
child could not detect the grimness in his words.
He watched the boy safely to school and then continued with his ploughing, but as his mouldboards crumpled the friable earth up and down the field and the forest of pigweed and thistles wavered and fell beneath him like the ranks of an army swept by volley after volley of fire, his mind was rehearsing an event now only thirty-six hours distant. He had definitely fixed on Friday evening. He had turned over every possibility, anticipated every difficulty, provided against every contingency. Yesterday he had settled with his own conscience.
“Thou shalt not kill,” Conscience had drummed in his soul.
“But this is in defence of the life of a child. We kill to defend our children, our loved ones, our country. Besides, he deserves it.”
“Vengeance is Mine,” the voice insisted.
“And I am its instrument,” he parried. “Oh, I would give the world to escape, but there is no other way out. Reed is not safe while Jackson Stake lives.”
“Give him the money,” lisped a new voice; a cunning, subtle voice, in his ear.
“That would be compounding his crime and his cowardice. That I will not do. It would be admitting his power over me. I do not admit it. I will not admit it.”
With that the voices were silent, but this morning a new voice came clamoring at his heart. “Don’t do it, Cal; don’t do it,” it cried, with a mingling of entreaty and threat. “Think of your hands. Think of that, all through life, every morning. No one to know but you. You never will dare mention it; it will be a gulf between you and every other creature. In your body you may mix with society but in your soul you will be an outcast. To carry it all your life festering within you; never to ease its fever by mention to a living soul. Even from Minnie— from Minnie most of all, you must keep your secret, guard it close forever, always under the dread that a thoughtless word may reveal it. Think, Cal! A murmur in your sleep, a raving in an illness, and Minnie will know her brother’s blood is on your hands. It will separate you from her like a wall; a wall which she will not see, but which will imprison and embitter her. When her love for you is dead you will not be able to explain, to revive it by one whisper of confidence and confession. You will have to hide it from your children. You will look on them in their beds and the horrible knowledge, like a wild beast, will come tearing at your heart. Don’t do it! It will lay a plague upon you; it will brand you with the mark of Cain—”
“Stop it!” Cal cried, wrenching his shoulders as though in physical conflict. “I know you. You are Fear. Damn you, I’m no coward!”
Then all the voices fell silent and his mind drummed on in a sort of stupor, drugged by its own tremendous purposes. So he spent the day, up and down, no longer like a weaver shuttling the rich black carpet of the earth, but like a caged animal awaiting his hour.
As four o’clock approached he began to glance from time to time in the direction of Annie Frawdic’s school. Sharp at the hour a swarm of little human atoms buzzed forth. For a few minutes they swirled about the schoolyard without giving evidence of any definite direction, like bees before the flight to the feeding ground; then a group of atoms detached and moved rapidly along the road toward the Stake homestead. Cal watched this unusual deployment with increasing interest. No pupils lived in Reed’s direction from the school, and it was customary for him to come home alone.
Suddenly the approaching group was swallowed in a depression in the prairie, to re-appear a few minutes later almost at the corner of his field. He could now discern Reed and another boy running ahead and six or eight more following closely behind. When they reached the summer-fallow Reed and his companion left the road and came directly across the field to where Cal, absorbed in the incident being enacted before him, had allowed his horses, ever ready to take advantage of a moment of weakness, to come to a stop. The pursuers followed for a short distance across the ploughed field, then slackened, stopped, consulted,
and finally slowly fell back to the roadway.
As Reed approached Cal could see that he had been crying. His face was covered with dust streaked with tears and perspiration, for he had run almost to exhaustion; and from his lips a thin red steam trickled down and across his chin. Scratches on the white flesh of his shoulder showed through a rent in the sleeve of his blouse. The other boy, slightly older than Reed, bore even deeper marks of combat.
Cal felt a sudden leap of the heart, a fierce primitive instinct for blood, surge through him as he sprang from his plough seat and met Reed at the horses’ heads. But the assailants, watching from the safe distance of the road, raised a derisive cheer and broke into a run toward their respective homes.
“Why, Reed, old Indian, what had happened?”
But the boy’s eyes were on the ground and for the moment he had no answer. He edged to Big Jim and laid a groping finger against the great shoulder, which shivered prodigiously as though in anticipation of a horse-fly. A moment later Big Jim threw his head in the air with a fine jingling of his bit; then with his great, curious, affectionate lips, nuzzled the naked shoulder of the boy, and all was well with the world once more. Reed looked up at Cal with the glint of a strange new kinship in his eyes and a smile twisting his swollen lips.
“We’ve been fighting, Daddy X,” he confessed. “The boys piled on Fred, ’cause he has no father, and I took his part, ’cause I haven’t any either, have I, Daddy X? Only you, who aren’t really.”
Of a sudden the horizon swam before Cal’s eyes; the long lines of fences'tilted forward and back, like a ship in a stormy sea. The world was closing in upon him. Fate, having absorbed his attention from in front, now attacked him, suddenly and viciously, on the flank. The uncanny intuition by which Reed had allied himself with this other child of a like estate seemed to hint' that forces more than human had combined for his undoing.
Cal pulled himself together. “That was right, Reed. That was a sort of chivalry. Do you understand?”
“Chivalry? That is what the knights —King Arthur and his knights, you know—used to have, when they fought in armor, and didn’t care how many piled on—”
“That’s it. Never count your enemies. Punch ’em instead. Better have a swollen face than a shrunken heart.”
He turned to Freddie. The boy was a picture of dejection, his face blood and grime, his clothing torn and trampled. Under a sympathetic eye the sobs with which he had been struggling burst restraint, and the little form shook in convulsions of misery.
“They’re always doing it,” he said, when he could control his voice. “Piling on to me. My father’s dead—my mother says so. But they say I never had a father. One must have had a father, mustn’t he, Mr. Beach?”
“Of course he must.”
He dried his eyes on the sleeve of his dusty shirt. “Sometimes they’re all right,” he added magnanimously. “Sometimes they don’t seem to make any difference. And then, all of a sudden, they’ll pile on to me for nothing. They call my mother a bad woman, too, and that makes me fight. She’s not bad. She’s good. Don’t you think she’s good, Mr. Beach.”
THE, appeal in the little boy’s face wrung from Cal a sudden and vicious answer.
“I’m sure she’s good, Freddie; perhaps a damned sight better than those who call her bad.”
“Oh, you swore, Daddy X!”
“I know it, Reed. I’d think less of myself if I hadn’t.”
“And they say they know she’s bad because she doesn’t go to church, and that proves it. Does that prove it, Mr. Beach? She used to go, but she said they all looked at her so strange, and none of them ever went to see her, except Minnie Stake used to once in a while when she was on the farm and my mother told her she shouldn’t because for what people would say about her, and Minnie she up and said ‘To hell with what people say about me, I’m coming anyway,’ and then my mother cried and
made tea and we had the dandiest time. And sometimes Annie Frolic comes over, too, but not so often, because she’s always on the hunt for a man—that’s what the kids say—and hasn’t much time for us.”
With the quick buoyancy of childhood Freddie’s spirits were already returning, and Cal’s own heart had gone suddenly aglow. “But you shouldn’t tell things like that, that happen at home, Freddie,” he chided.
“I never did, before, but I thought you’d like to know, because Reed said you and Minnie were great friends and how you sat on the cushion in front of the fire and when you thought he was asleep—”
“That’ll do,” Cal brought him up peremptorily. “Reed, I’m surprised at you. Now you two boys run up to the house and have a wash açd ask Mrs. Stake to give you your supper, and after that Reed can go home with you and stay all night. But remember, Reed, no more tattling!”
Delighted, the boys broke into a race toward the house, and Cal resumed his ploughing. For the moment he had been almost happy. He returned to a contemplation of the inexorable web which fate was weaving about him.
When he went in to supper the boys had finished theirs and were gone. The first gtisto of the meal was slackening when Mrs. Stake mentioned them.
“I let Reed go with that Frain boy, Cal,” she said. “He said you told him he could.”
There was a note of challenge in Mrs. Stake’s voice and Cal was in a mood to take up the cudgels.
“Yes, I said he could go. Freddie seems to have rather a tough time of it at school, and I thought Reed might cheer him up a bit.”
Mrs. Stake ladled a generous helping of strawberries into young Jackson’s plate before she answered.
“He’s your boy, Cal, an’ it’s not for me to interfere, but perhaps you don’ know ’s much about the Frain woman as the rest of us do.”
“As far as I dan learn no one seems to know very mdch about Mrs. Frain,” Cal returned.
Mrs. Stake paused in her serving. She could be stern at times. She seemed more than usually tall and sharp; more than usually white of hair and black of eye.
“I didn’ say Mrs. Frkin,” she said.
“Then perhaps you know?”
“No, I just suppose. I believe in giving anybody—especially a woman— the benefit of the doubt.”
It was Gander who interrupted. “1 guess there ain’t much doubt, Cal. She don’ deny it herself.”
GANDER colored and seemed to have trouble with his food. His Adam’s apple hopped about his neck like a panicky squirrel.
“Oh, come on. You know, Cal.”
“But I don’t know. What do you mean? What is it' she doesn’t deny?” He was interested in uncovering a code of ethics which could think the things that Gander was thinking but shrank from expressing a simple statement in simple English.
“What is it she doesn’t deny?” he repeated.
“Well, about her not being married, and all that.”
Jackson junior came to his brother’s aid. “Gander isn’t a D.D., Cal, and his language doesn’t come easy. He means that Mrs. Frain couldn’t re-frain.”
Cal felt the blood jump to hite face. Here was a chance—make an issue of it now—strangle those mocking eyes into an eternal stare. To think he had argued with his conscience about a man like that! But in a moment his wits were in the saddle again. This was not his hour, and he could wait.
“After all, I don’t see what difference it makes,” he resumed, quietly. “If the woman sinned she has likely paid for it. They usually do. More than their share.” His eyes were straight on young Jackson. “More than their share. In any case, the boy is not to blame, and those young savages at school, taking the cue from their elders, are making his life a torment. I’m glad Reed has gone home with him.”
“Well, I hope people won’ say anythin’ about it,” Mrs. Stake quavered.
“Why?” Cal was busy empaling his exhibits on their pins and there was no mercy in him.
Mrs. Stake’s voice weakened threateningly. The issue had gone from her head to her heart.
“Because we’ve always been a decent family, Cal. We ain’t much for manners or eddication, but we’ve always been decent. It’s different with you—I don’ mean you ain’t decent, too, but you see things different, an’ I can’t argue with you about that. But Reed is like—our own boy.” Her voice was breaking. “I’ve held him on my knee, many a time, when you didn’ know, jus’ because my heart was somehow reachin’ out aroun’ him. I guess I’m gettin’ to be an old woman, Cal”—she was talking to Cal only—“an’ God hasn’t give me any gran’children. If Jackie there—So I’m awful set on Reed, Cal, an’ wouldn’ like for anythin’ that’d make any of us ashamed—”
“Don’t worry, Mother. Nothing will happen that will make you ashamed. I prömise you.” It was the first time he had called her mother, and the word just slipped out from him. But the old eyes, which had gone wet, shone out again with a new light.
HAMILTON had slipped away, feeling that the conversation was on dangerous ground. Grit and Gander went out together, to discuss under the friendly shelter of the stable in detail the deflections of the erring Mrs. Frain, and Cal’s unexpected championship of her, and to put two and two together and speculate as to whether it made four. Young Jackson, always aloof, presently followed, them, and Cal found himself alone with the farmer and his wife.
“I hope you weren’t annoyed that I— such an unconventional one as I—called you mother,” he said, when he found the old woman’s eyes gripped on his.
“Annoyed? Why, child, every woman, at my age, hankers for that name, and for someone to say it. I guess that’s why I’m so powerful drawn to Reed. Jackie got the best eddication of them all, excep’ Minnie, perhaps, an’ she put herself through, an’ I always built on him settlin’ down an’ maybe gettin’ married an’ havin’ children, but he never did, an’ Dad an’ me feels we’re gettin’ a bit more alone every year. Now a boy like Reed— No, I ain’t sorry you called me mother.”
“Because I hope to call you that, always, after awhile,” said Cal, boldly.
For a moment the dark eyes narrowed; then a faint, happy, fleeting smile flitted over the austere features. “You’re thinkin’ o’ Minnie,” she said. “I’m glad.”
WHILE ploughing in the summerfallow Friday afternoon Cal ran over a gopher. The hapless creature, darting out from the deep weeds, became confused among the horses’ feet and ran directly under the sharp colter. Ordinarily Cal would have given the incident no further thought, but he had been living in the morbid side of his mind for almost a week, and this sudden little tragedy stirred him strangely. He stopped, got down from his plough, and rolled back the clods which covered the quivering atom of that which, a moment before, had been life. . . . When he passed by on his next round he saw it was already teeming with flies.
At noon he met young Jackson in the stable yard. “Any word from Winnipeg yet?” Jackson demanded.
'“Not yet. There’s hardly time. May be to-morrow.”
“Well, to-morrow’s the limit.”
“If it shouldn’t come to-morrow, what are you going to do?”
Jackson regarded him for a moment. “It had better come to-morrow,” he said, ominously. “If it doesn’t you’ll have to come through with your wages. I’m not going to stick it here any longer. I’m fed up.”
“You won’t have to stick it any longer,” said Cal, with a show of amiability. “I promise you. By the way, how about a little excursion on the lake to-night?”
“Ostensibly, to fish. There’s a boat that we can get. Actually, to see if we can’t come to some sort of terms.”
“You know my terms.”
“Yes, but I’ve some terms, too. I Continued on page 58
The Smoking Flax
Continued, from page 26
want a çlearance, so far as Reed is concerned.”
“I want you to sign off your claim on him.”
“Don’t think that would interest me.”
“Perhaps I could make it interest you.”
^ “All right. See you to-night. Nine o’clock. Better meet at the beach, if you don’t mind.”
Jackson nodded and Cal turned to his horses.
Reed did not come home from school that afternoon, and Cal, scenting trouble, hurried through his stable work and started out with Antelope. To mislead Jackson he set out in a direction the opposite of Annie Frawdic’s. Once upon the high road behind the poplars he altered his course and bore rapidly down upon the Ernton homestead, where Annie had her lodgings. There was no time to lose if he were to be at the beach by nine o’clock.
THF Ernton buildings lay behind a grove of Manitoba maples fringing the north-western corner of the farm. As the Ford loped along the short leafy lane occasioned by this shelter belt a sudden “Yoo-hoo” brought Cal to attention and his car to a precipitate stop. Half erect in a hammock under the trees sat Annie Frawdic, with one hand waving to him a welcome while the other adjusted a skirt gone somewhat awry from her sudden change in position.
Cal sprang from his car and cut short her salutation. “Is Reed here?” he demanded.
“Uh—huh. I brought him over, as you said.”
“Then he’s all right?”
“Of course. What’s wrong with you, Cal? You’re positively pale, if one could be pale behind such a coat of tan. I was going to say such a lovely coat of tan—” “Thank you, Annie. I’m afraid I’m too much on high gear these days. And I was uneasy about Reed.”
“He’s safe as Sunday; gone for the cows, I think, with Master Jim. It’s you that are in danger. I begin to think you need some one to look after you, Cal.” “I’ve been very uneasy about him,” said Cal, with a note of reproach in his voice.
“I’m sorry. Don’t be cross. Besides, I was going to telephone you presently that he was here.”
With a push of his foot on the ground he set the hammock slightly swinging. Annie saved her balance by clutching his waist.
“Yes, you might have done that,” he agreed. “But why did you bring him at all?”
“Reed’s a nice boy.”
“So are you.”
“Oh, thanks. Really—”
“And this was the last day of the term. To-night I leave for home. Perhaps I’ll he here again next term; perhaps not. You old goose—don’t you see?”
He spoke gravely again. “You wanted me to come over, Annie? You could have sent me a message.”
“I thought of that. But messages sometimes fall into wrong hands. And the telephone is worse than the Plainville
Progress. It was my little subterfuge, Cal. Forgive it, won’t you?”
“Of course. In fact, the pleasure is all mine. But I’m sorry I didn’t know; then I could have arranged it better. I’ve another engagement to-night, about nine.”
“Oh, Minnie you have with you always. What’s one engagement, more or less?’!
HE WAS about to correct her, but he held the words on his tongue. As well let her think that; it would take less explaining.
“You’re going to-night?” he picked up the thread. “There’s no train until morning.”
“No—I’m motoring. Friends of mine, from the south; they’re to call sometime to-night. It may be late, but they’ll be here. I’ve everything packed and nothing on my mind. Say I look it.”
“You look—no, I don’t mean that. Annie, you’re positively fascinating.” “Oh, Cal, what a dear you are! Even although I know you’re lying, and you wish yourself away, it sounds so good to hear you say it. See, it isn’t eight yet. Can you put up with me until nine?” “Until nearly nine. Annie, I wish I didn’t have to go, and that’s the truth of God.”
Her eyes leapt into his, and their hands found each other.
It was darkening under the trees when, after a while, she spoke of Reed. “Tell me about Reed,” she whispered.
“There isn’t much to tell, Annie. My sister’s boy; both parents dead; he has been mine since infancy. He calls me Daddy X, which means that I am not really his daddy, but just supposed to be.” “Yes,” she breathed. “What a funny name! Like Algebra, and a bit of mystery about it. Quite appropriately, for you are mysterious—both of you. And his name, Reed. That’s unusual, spelled with two e’s. Did you give him that?”
“It was a whim—a sort of whim, I suppose. In the hospital where my sister —died—there was a verse in a little frame: ‘A bruised reed shall he not
break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.’ That was it, and it seemed, some way, to fit her case, so I called him Reed.”
“It’s a nice name. I like it,” she said. They were silent for some moments. Then, “What do you suppose it means, Cal?” she asked.
Cal found himself caught in an embarrassment not easy to explain. Although he had his own fairly definite views on religion he was not given to a discussion of them. He found an absurd difficulty in talking frankly with Annie Frawdic on such a subject.
“I suppose it’s poetic,” he ventured. “A picture of the tenderness of God. Sometimes—I wonder.”
“So do I,” she said, quickly. “Life isn’t all tenderness, is it, Cal? A good bit of the other thing. Has been for me, anyway.” She dropped her voice confidentially. “You know, Cal, I have counted myself something like that—‘a bruised reed,’ you know, bruised, but not broken.
I will not let myself be broken.”
He had no answer, and they sat on in silence, gently swinging in the lattice of dimming light which sifted through the leaves about them.
“At any rate, I’d rather be the bruised reed than the smoking flax,” she continued, after a time.
“I never understood that part of it,” he said.
“Then you have never made a smudge fire of flax straw, I guess. The smell— you’d understand. It isn’t pleasant. The desire to quench it is very human and natural. You know, Cal, that figure seems to me more striking than the other. It’s easy enough to have sympathy with the bruised reed, but it’s different with the smoking flax. Something—somebody— who just makes himself an outrageous nuisance in the world. To spare such a thing in the hope that, for all its offensiveness, it may some day burst into redeeming flame—that takes faith as well as sympathy.”
“Is that what it means, Annie?”
“Yes . . . Don’t ask me how I know. Reed told me about his verse, as he called it, and I looked it up in a commentary. You see how interested I have been in him—and you.”
But Cal was on his feet. “It’s a new light, Annie,” he was saying. “I never knew what it meant. I’ve been in the stench of it. Horrible—I wonder—”
To be Continued