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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap06"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER VI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> PARSON TOM INTERFERES </H4> <P> It was nearly five o'clock and the table was set for tea. Betty was standing at the window staring thoughtfully out upon the valley. Ordinarily her contemplation would have been one of delighted interest, for the scene was her favorite view of the valley, where every feature of it, the village, the mill, the river, assumed its most picturesque aspect. </P> <P> She loved the valley with a deep affection. Unlike most people, who tire of their childhood's surroundings and pant for fresh sights, fresh fields in which to expand their thoughts and feelings, she clung to the valley with all an artist's love for the beautiful, and a strength inspired by the loyal affection of a simple woman. Her delight in her surroundings amounted almost to a passion. To her this valley was a treasured possession. The river was a friend, a fiery, turbulent friend, and often she had declared, when in a whimsical mood, one to whom she could tell her innermost secrets without fear of their being passed on, in confidence, to another, or of having them flung back in her face when spite stirred its tempestuous soul. </P> <P> She knew her river's shortcomings, she knew its every mood. It was merely a torrent, a strenuous mountain torrent, but to her it possessed a real personality. In the spring flood it was like some small individual bursting with its own importance, with its vanity, with resentment at the restraint of the iron hand of winter, from which it had only just torn itself loose, and stirred to the depths of its frothy soul with an overwhelming desire for self-assertion. Often she had watched the splendid destruction of which it was capable at such a time. She had seen the forest giants go down at the roar of its battle-cry. She had often joined the villagers, standing fearful and dismayed, watching its mounting waters lest their homes should be devoured by the insatiable little monster, and filled with awe at its magnificent bluster. </P> <P> Then, in the extreme heat of the late summer, when autumn had tinged the valley to a glorious gold and russet, she had just as often seen the reverse side of the picture. No longer could the river draw on the vast supplies of the melting mountain snows, and so it was doomed to fall a prey to the mighty grip of winter, and, as if in anticipation of its end, it would sing its song of sadness as it sobbed quietly over its fallen greatness, sighing dismally amongst the debris which in the days of its power it had so wantonly torn from its banks. </P> <P> There was a great deal of the girl's character in her love for the river. She possessed an enthusiastic admiration for that strength which fights, fights until the last drop of blood, the last atom of power is expended. Fallen greatness evoked her enthusiasm as keenly as success, only that the enthusiasm was of a different nature. With her it was better to have striven with all one's might and encountered disaster than to have lived fallow, a life of the most perfect rectitude. Her twenty-seven years of life had set her thrilling with a mental and physical virility which was forever urging her, and steadily moulding her whole outlook upon life, even though that outlook carried her no farther than the confines of her beautiful sunlit valley. </P> <P> Something of this was stirring within her now. She was not thinking of that which her eyes looked upon. She was thinking of the man to whom she had given her promise, her woman's promise, which carries with it all the best a woman has to give. She was no weakling, dreaming regretfully of all that might have been; she had no thought of retracting because in her heart she knew she had made a mistake. She was reviewing the man as she had seen him that noon, and considering the story of his doings as she had been told them, quietly making up her mind to her own line of action. </P> <P> He was presently to come up to her home to have tea with them, and she would be given the opportunity of seeing the man that five years' absence in the wilds had made of him. Once or twice she almost shuddered as the details of their meeting on the bridge obtruded themselves. She tried to shut them out. She understood the rough side of men, for she lived amongst a people in whom it was difficult enough to trace even a semblance of gentleness. She allowed for the moment of provocation when the man's horse had shied and unseated him. She realized the natural inclination it would inspire to forcibly, even if irresponsibly, protest. Even the manner of his protest she condoned. But his subsequent attitude, his appearance, and his manner toward herself, these were things which had an ugly tone, and for which she could find no extenuation. </P> <P> However, it should all be settled that afternoon. She unfolded and straightened out a piece of paper she had been abstractedly crumpling in her hand. She glanced at the unsteady writing on it, a writing she hardly recognized as Jim's. </P> <BR> <P> "Will come up to tea this afternoon. Sorry for this morning.&mdash;JIM." </P> <BR> <P> That was the note he had sent her soon after she had reached home. There was no word of affection in it. Nothing but a bare statement and an apology which scarcely warranted the name. To her it seemed to have been prompted by the man's realization of an unpleasant and undesired duty to be performed. The few letters she had received from him immediately before his return had borne a similar tone of indifference, and once or twice she had felt that she ought to write and offer him his freedom. This, however, she had never done, feeling that by doing so she might be laying herself open to misinterpretation. No, if their engagement were distasteful to him, it must be Jim who broke it. Unlike most women, she would rather he threw her over than bear the stigma of having jilted him. She had thought this all out very carefully. She had an almost mannish sense of honor, just as she possessed something of a man's courage to carry out her obligations. </P> <P> She glanced over the tea-table. There were four places set. The table was daintily arranged, and though the china was cheap, and there was no display of silver, or any elaborate furnishings, it looked attractive. The bread and butter was delicate, the assortment of home-made cakes luscious, the preserves the choicest from her aunt's store-cupboard. Betty had been careful, too, that the little sitting-room, with its simple furniture and unpretentious decorations, should be in the nicest order. She had looked to everything so that Jim's welcome should be as cordial as kindly hearts could make it. And now she was awaiting his coming. </P> <P> The clock on the sideboard chimed five, and a few moments later her uncle came in. </P> <P> "What about tea, Betty?" he inquired, glancing with approval at the careful preparations for the meal. </P> <P> "I think we ought to wait," she replied, with a wistful smile into his keen blue eyes. "I sent word to Jim for five o'clock&mdash;but&mdash;well, perhaps something has detained him." </P> <P> "No doubt," observed the parson dryly. "I dare say five minutes added on to five years means nothing to Jim." </P> <P> He didn't approve the man's attitude at all. All his ideas on the subject of courtship had been outraged at his delay in calling. He had been in the village nearly five hours. </P> <P> The girl rearranged the teacups. </P> <P> "You mustn't be hard on him," she said quietly. "He had to get cleaned up and settled at the hotel. I don't suppose he'd care to come here like&mdash;like&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "It doesn't take a man five hours to do all that," broke in her uncle, with some warmth. Then, as he faced the steady gaze of the girl's brown eyes, he abruptly changed his tone and smiled at her. "Yes, of course we'll wait. We'll give him half an hour's grace, and then&mdash;I'll fetch him." </P> <P> Betty smiled. There was a characteristic snap in the parson's final declaration. The militant character of the man was always very near the surface. He was the kindest and best of men, but anything suggesting lack of straightforwardness in those from whom he had a right to expect the reverse never failed to rouse his ire. </P> <P> For want of something better to do Betty was carrying out a further rearrangement of the tea-table, and presently her uncle questioned her shrewdly. </P> <P> "You don't seem very elated at Jim's return?" he said. </P> <P> "I am more than pleased," she replied gravely. </P> <P> Parson Tom took up his stand at the window with his back turned. </P> <P> "When I was engaged to your aunt," he said, smiling out at the valley, "if I had been away for five years and suddenly returned, she would probably have had about three fits, a scene of shrieking hysteria, and gone to bed for a week. By all of which I mean she would have been simply crazy with delight. It must be the difference of temperament, eh?" He turned round and stood smiling keenly across at the girl's serious face. </P> <P> "Yes, uncle, I don't think I am demonstrative." </P> <P> "Do you want to marry him?" </P> <P> The man's eyes were perfectly serious now. </P> <P> "I am going to marry him&mdash;unless&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Unless?" </P> <P> "Unless he refuses to marry me." </P> <P> "Do you want to marry him, my dear? That was my question." </P> <P> Her uncle had crossed over to her and stood looking down at her with infinite tenderness in his eyes. She returned his gaze, and slowly a smile replaced her gravity. </P> <P> "You are very literal, uncle," she said gently. "If you want an absolutely direct reply it is 'Yes.'" </P> <P> But her uncle was not quite satisfied. </P> <P> "You&mdash;love him?" he persisted. </P> <P> But this catechism was too much for Betty. She was devoted to her uncle, and she knew that his questions were prompted by the kindliest motives. But in this matter she felt that she was entirely justified in thinking and acting for herself. </P> <P> "You don't quite understand," she said, with just a shade of impatience. "Jim and I are engaged, and you must leave us to settle matters ourselves. If you press me I shall speak the plain truth, and then you will have a wrong impression of the position. I perfectly understand my own feelings. I am not blinded by them. I shall act as I think best, and you must rely on my own judgment. I quite realize that you want to help me. But neither you nor any one else can do that, uncle. Ah, here is auntie," she exclaimed, with evident relief. </P> <P> Mrs. Chepstow came in. She was hot from her work in the kitchen, where she was operating, with the aid of her "hired" girl, a large bake of cakes for the poorer villagers. She looked at the clock sharply. </P> <P> "Why, it's half-past five and no tea," she exclaimed, her round face shining, and her gentle eyes wide open. "Where's Jim? Not here? Why, I am astonished. Betty, what are you thinking of?&mdash;and after five years, too." </P> <P> "Betty hasn't got him in proper harness yet," laughed the parson, but there was a look in his eyes which was not in harmony with his laugh. </P> <P> "Harness? Don't be absurd, Tom." Then she turned to Betty. "Did you tell him five?" </P> <P> Tom Chepstow picked up his hat, and before the girl could answer he was at the door. </P> <P> "I'm going to fetch him," he said, and was gone before Betty's protest reached him. </P> <P> "I do wish uncle wouldn't interfere," the girl said, as her aunt laughed at her husband's precipitate exit. </P> <P> "Interfere, my dear!" she exclaimed. "You can't stop him. He's got a perverted notion that we women are incapable of taking care of ourselves. He goes through life determined to fight our battles. Determined to help us out when we don't need it. He's helped me 'out' all our married life. He spends his life doing it, and I often wish he'd&mdash;he'd leave me 'in' sometimes. I've never seen a man who could upset a woman's plans more completely than your uncle, and all with the best intention. One of these days I'll start to help him out, and then we'll see how he likes it," she laughed good-humoredly. "You know, if he finds Jim he's sure to upset the boy, and he'll come back thinking he's done his duty by you. Poor Tom, and he does mean so well." </P> <P> "I know he does, auntie, and that's why we all love him so. Everybody loves him for it, He never thinks of himself. It's always others, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Yes, my dear, you're right. But all the same I think he's right just now. Why isn't Jim here? Why didn't he come straight away? Why has he been in Malkern five hours before he comes to see you? Betty, my child, I've not said a word all these years. I've left you to your own affairs because I know your good sense; but, in view of the stories that have reached us about Jim, I feel that the time has come for me to speak. Are you going to verify those stories?" </P> <P> Mrs. Chepstow established her comfortable form in a basket chair, which audibly protested at the weight it was called upon to bear. She folded her hands in her lap, and, assuming her most judicial air, waited for the girl's answer. Betty was thinking of her meeting with Jim on the bridge. </P> <P> "I shall hear what he has to say," she said decidedly, after a long pause. </P> <P> Her aunt stared. </P> <P> "You're going to let him tell you what he likes?" she cried in astonishment. </P> <P> "He can tell me what he chooses, or&mdash;he need tell me nothing." </P> <P> Her aunt flushed indignantly. </P> <P> "You will never be so foolish," she said, exasperated. </P> <P> "Auntie, if Uncle Tom had been away five years, would you ask him for proof of his life all that time?" Betty demanded with some warmth. </P> <P> The other stirred uneasily. </P> <P> "That depends," she said evasively. </P> <P> "No, no, auntie, it doesn't. You would never question uncle. You are a woman, and just as foolish and stupid about that sort of thing as the rest of us. We must take our men on trust. They are men, and their lives are different from ours. We cannot judge them, or, at any rate, we would rather not. Why does a woman cling to a scoundrelly husband who ill-treats her and makes her life one long round of worry, and even misery? Is it because she simply has to? No. It is because he is her man. He is hers, and she would rather have his unkindness than another man's caresses. Foolish we may be, and I am not sure but that we would rather be foolish&mdash;where our men are concerned. Jim has come back. His past five years are his. I am going to take up my little story where it was broken five years ago. The stories I have heard are nothing to me. So, if you don't mind, dear, we will close the subject." </P> <P> "And&mdash;and you love him?" questioned the elder woman. </P> <P> But the girl had turned to the window. She pointed out down the road in the direction of the village. </P> <P> "Here is uncle returning," she said, ignoring the question. "He's hurrying. Why&mdash;he's actually running!" </P> <P> "Running?" </P> <P> Mrs. Chepstow bustled to the girl's side, and both stood watching the vigorous form of the parson racing up the trail. Just as he came to the veranda they turned from the window and their eyes met. Betty's were full of pained apprehension, while her aunt's were alight with perplexed curiosity. Betty felt that she knew something of the meaning of her uncle's undignified haste. She did not actually interpret it, she knew it meant disaster, but the nature of that disaster never entered into her thought. Something was wrong, she knew instinctively; and, with the patience of strength, she made no attempt to even guess at it, but simply waited. Her aunt rushed at the parson as he entered the room and flung aside his soft felt hat. Betty gazed mutely at the flaming anger she saw in his blue eyes, as his wife questioned him. </P> <P> "What is it?" she demanded. "What has happened?" </P> <P> Parson Tom drew a chair up to the table and flung himself into it. </P> <P> "We'll have tea," he said curtly. </P> <P> His wife obediently took her seat. </P> <P> "And Jim?" she questioned. </P> <P> The angry blue eyes still flashed. </P> <P> "We won't wait for him." </P> <P> Then Betty came to the man's side and laid one small brown hand firmly on his shoulder. </P> <P> "You&mdash;you saw him?" she demanded. </P> <P> Her uncle shook her hand off almost roughly. </P> <P> "Yes&mdash;I saw him," he said. </P> <P> "And why isn't he here?" the girl persisted without a tremor, without even noticing his rebuff. </P> <P> "Because he's lying on his bed at the hotel&mdash;drunk. Blind drunk,&mdash;confound him." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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