Read CHAPTER VIII of Old Crow , free online book, by Alice Brown, on

Raven went to sleep thinking simply about the house, while the fire flickered down on the hearth and shadows all about the room flickered with it and then went out.  He always loved shadows, their beauties and grotesqueries, and he was unfeignedly glad he had no scientific understanding of them, why they played this way or that and translated the substance that made them so delicately and sometimes with such an adorable foolishness.  He liked it better that way, liked to make out of them a game of surprises and pretend they were in good form and doing particularly well, or again far below their highest.  And following his childishly enchanting game he began to feel rather abashed over what had brought him here.  He was glad to have come.  It was the only place for him, disordered as he was, with its wholesome calm, and he wondered further if the state of mind that had become habitual to him was now a state of mind at all.  Was it not rather a temporary drop in mental temperature now calming to normal?  Hadn’t he exaggerated the complication of Anne’s bequest?  There was a way out of it; there must be, a sane, practical way to satisfy what she wished and what she might be supposed to wish now.  He comforted himself with the pious sophistry of an Anne raised on the wind of death above early inconclusions and so, of course, agreeing with him who didn’t have to pass the gates of mystery to be so raised.  He knew enough, evidently, so that he didn’t need to die to know more.  His letter to Dick seemed of inconsiderable importance, even the disaster of its reaching Amelia.  If she held him up to it, he could laugh it off.  Anything could be laughed off.  So, the shadows mingling with the inconsequence of his thoughts, he drifted away to sleep, catching himself back, now and then, to luxuriate in the assurance that he was in the right place, finding comfortable assuagements, and that inexplicably, because so suddenly, everything was for the best in a mysterious but probably entirely unaccountable world.

At four o’clock he woke.  He had not for a moment last night expected this.  Four o’clock had been for months the hour of his tryst with the powers of darkness.  They hovered over him then with dull grey wings extended, from sunrise to sunset, from east to west.  He never had the courage to peer up at them and see how far the wings really did reach.  They covered his mortal sky, and when he refused to stare up into their leaden pinions, they stooped to him and buffeted and smothered him, until he was such a mass of bruised suffering within that he could almost believe his body also was quivering into the numbness of acquiescent misery.  And here were the wings again.  They were even lower, in spite of this clear air.  They did not merely shut it out from his nostrils, but the filthy pinions swept his face and roused in him the uttermost revulsion of mortal man against the accident of his mortality.  The trouble of earth passed before him in its unceasing panorama, a pageant of pain and death.  Every atom of creation was against every other atom, because everywhere was warfare, murder and rapine, for the mere chance of living.  He had won his inherited chance by sheer luck of contest through millions of years while his forebears came up from the slime and the cave.  The little hunted creature, shrieking out there in the wood in the clutch of a predatory enemy was not so lucky.  It was the enemy who was lucky to-night, but to-morrow night the enemy himself might go down under longer claws and be torn by fangs stronger than his own.  And God had made it so.  And God did not care.

Raven lay there panting under the horror of it.  The sweat started on his skin.  He was afraid.  It was not his own well-being he feared for.  Man’s life was short at the most.  A few years might finish him up.  It was unlikely that he need live again.  But he feared seeing still more of the acts of this unmindful God, who could make, and set the wheel of being to turning and then stand aside and let them grind out their immeasurable grist of woe.  And when he asked himself how he knew God was standing aside, letting the days and years fulfil their sum, he believed it was because he had suddenly become aware that time was a boundless sea and that the human soul was sometimes in the trough of it and sometimes on the crest.  But never would the sea cast its derelicts upon warm shores where they might build the house of life and live in peace and innocence.  Ever would they find themselves tossed from low to high and fall from high to low again in the salt wash of the retreating wave.  For after all, it was the mysterious sea God had a mind to, never the derelict atoms afloat on it.  They would have to take sea weather to time’s extremest verge, as they always had taken it.  They were derelicts.

As the light came, the leaden wings lifted and he went down to the early breakfast Charlotte and Jerry intended to eat alone.  Charlotte, with her good morning, gave him a quick glance.  He found she had not expected him so early and knew she saw at once how harassed he was.  He insisted on sitting down to breakfast with them and, after Jerry had gone out, went over the house in a mindless way, into all the rooms, to give himself something to do.  Also there seemed to be a propriety in it, a fittingness in presenting himself to his own walls and accepting their silent recognition.  Then, hearing Charlotte upstairs, he went back into the kitchen, as straight as if he had meant to go there all the time and had merely idled on these delaying quests, and up to the nail by the shed door where the key always hung, the key to Old Crow’s hut.  He took it off the nail, dropped it in his pocket, got a leather jacket from the hall and went out into the road.  As he went, he heard Jerry moving about in the barn and walked the faster, not to be halted or offered friendly company.  At the great maples he paused, two of them marking the entrance to the wood road, and looked about him.  The world was resolutely still.  The snow was not deep, but none of it had melted.  It was of a uniform whiteness and luster and the shadows in it were deeply blue.  There were tracks frozen into it all along the road, many of them old ones, others just broken, the story of some animal’s wandering.  Then he turned into the wood road and began to climb the rise, and as he went he was conscious of an unaccountable excitement.  Dick was responsible for that, he told himself.  Dick had waked his mind to old memories.  This was, in effect, and all owing to Dick, a tryst with Old Crow.

He remembered every step of the way, what he might find if he could sweep off the snow or wait until June and let the mounting sun sweep it according to its own method.  Here at the right would be the great patch of clintonia.  Further in at the left was tiarella, with its darling leaf, and along under the yellow birches the lady’s slipper he had transplanted, year after year, and that finally took root and showed a fine sturdiness he had never seen exceeded elsewhere.  He went on musing over the permanence of things and the mutability of mortal joy, wondering if, in this world He had made without remedies for its native ills, God could take pleasure in the bleak framework of it.  And when he had nearly reached the top of the slope, the three firs, where a turn to the left would bring him to the log cabin door, suddenly he stopped as if his inner self heard the command to halt.  He looked about him, and his heart began to beat hard.  But he was not surprised.  What could be more moving than the winter stillness of the woods in a spot all memories?  Yet he was in no welcoming mood for high emotion, and looking up and about, to shake off the wood magic, there at a little distance at his right, between pine boles, he saw her, the woman.  She was tall and slender, yet grandly formed.  A blue cloak was wrapped about her and her head was bare.  Her face had a gaunt beauty such as he had never seen.  The eyes, richly blue but darkened by the startled pupil, were bewildering in their soft yet steady appealingness.  Her hair was parted and carried back in waves extraordinarily thick and probably knotted behind.  That, of course, he could not see.  But the little soft rings of it about her forehead he noted absently.  And her look was so full of dramatic tension, of patient, noble gravity, even grief, that one phrase flashed into his mind, “The Mother of Sorrows!” and stayed there.  So moving was her face that, although he had at the first instant taken in her entire outline, the significance of it had not struck him until now.  On her arm, in the immemorial mother’s fashion, she carried a child.  The child was in white and a blue scarf was tied about his head.  When Raven saw the scarf, his tension relaxed.  There was something about the scarf that was real, was earthly:  a ragged break in one free corner.  In the relief of seeing the break, and being thus brought back to tangible things, he realized that he had, in a perfect seriousness, for one amazing minute, believed the woman and the child to be not human but divine.  They were, as they struck upon his eyes, a vision, and he would have been in no sense surprised to see the vision fade.  It was the Virgin Mary and her Son.  Now, as he realized with the lightning rapidity of a morbidly excited mind how terribly sensitive to his own needs he must be to have clutched so irrationally at a world-old remedy, he took off his hat and called to her: 

“You startled me.”

Without waiting for any response, he turned to the left, because the probabilities were that he had startled her also, and that was why she had stood there, petrified into the catalepsy of wood animals struck by cautionary fear.  But, as he turned, a man’s voice sounded through the woods, and waked an echo: 

“Hullo!” it called.  “Hullo!”

Raven involuntarily paused, and saw the woman running toward him.  There were stumps in her way, but she stepped over them lightly, and once, when she had to cross a hollow where the snow lay deep, she sank in up to her knees, and Raven involuntarily stepped forward to help her.  But she freed herself with incredible quickness and came on.  It might have been water she was wading in, so little did it check her.  She halted before him, only a pace away, as if she must be near in order to speak cautiously, and Raven noted the exquisite texture of her pale skin and the pathos of her eyes, the pupils distended now so that he wondered if they could be blue.  Meantime the voice kept on calling, “Hullo! hullo!”

She spoke tremulously, in haste: 

“He’ll be up here in a minute.  You say you ain’t seen me.”

“Is it some one you’re afraid of?” Raven asked.

She nodded, in a dumb anguish.

“Then,” said he, “we’ll both stay here till he comes, and afterward I’ll go with you, wherever you’re going.”

This, it seemed, moved her to a terror more acute.

“No! no!” she said, and she appeared to have so little breath to say it that, if he had not been watching her lips, he could not have caught it.  “Not you.  That would make him madder’n ever.  You go away.  Hide you somewheres, quick.”

“No,” said Raven, “I sha’n’t hide.  I’ll hide you.  Come along.”

He took her by the arm and, though she was remonstrating breathlessly, hurried her to the left.  They passed the three firs at the turn and he smiled a little, noting Jerry’s good road and thinking there was some use in this combined insistence on his following the steps of Old Crow.  There was the hut, in its rough kindliness, and there, the smoke told him, was a fire.  Jerry had been up that morning, because Charlotte must have known he’d come there the first thing.  Still smoothing the road to Old Crow!  He had been fumbling with one hand for the key, the while he kept the other on her arm.  She was so terrified a creature now that he did not trust her not to break blindly away and run.  He unlocked the door, pushed her in, closed and locked it.  Then he dropped the key in his pocket and went back to the wood road.  With a sudden thought, he took his knife from his pocket and tossed it down the road into a little heap of brush.  Meanwhile the man was coming nearer and, as he came, he called:  “Hullo!”

Raven, waiting for him, speculated on the tone.  What did it mean?  It was a breathless tone, though not in any manner like the woman’s.  It was as if he had run and stumbled and caught himself up, and all the time been strangled from within by rage or some like madness.  The woman’s breathlessness had simply meant life’s going out of her with sheer fright.  Now the man was coming up the slope, bent at the shoulders, as if he carried a heavy load or as if almost doubling himself helped him to go the faster.  He was a thin man with long arms and he carried an axe.  Raven called to him: 

“Hullo, there!  Take a look as you come along and see if you can find my knife.”

The man stopped short, straightened, and looked at him.  Meantime Raven, bending in his search, went toward him, scrutinizing the road from side to side.  He had a good idea of the fellow in the one glance he gave him:  a pale, thin face, black eyes with a strange spark in them, a burning glance like the inventor’s or the fanatic’s, and black hair.  It was an ascetic face, and yet there was passion of an unnamed sort ready to flash out and do strange things, overthrow the fabric of an ordered life perhaps, or contradict the restraint of years.  He stood motionless until Raven, still searching, had got within three feet of him.  Then he spoke: 

“Who be you?”

He had a low voice, agreeable, even musical.  Raven concluded he must have been strangely moved to break into that mad “Hullo.”  It had been more, he thought, that wild repetition with the echo throwing it back, like the Gabriel hounds.  But Raven took no notice of the question.  He spoke with a calculated peevishness.

“I’m willing to bet my knife is within three feet, and see how the confounded thing’s hidden itself.  It was right along here.  Let me take your axe and I’ll blaze a tree.”

The man, without a word, passed him the axe and Raven notched a sapling.  Then, still holding the axe, he turned to the man with a smile.  No one had ever told him what a charming smile it was.  Anne used to wonder, in her dignified anguishes of love forbidden, if she could ever make him understand how he looked when he smiled.

“Well,” said Raven, “who may you be?”

“My name’s Tenney,” said the man, in the low, vibrant voice.

“Oho!” said Raven, remembering Charlotte’s confidences.  Then, as Tenney frowned slightly and glanced at him in a questioning suspicion, he continued, “Then we’re neighbors.  My name’s Raven.”

The man nodded.

“They said you were comin’,” he remarked.

He held out his hand for the axe.  Raven, loath to give it to him, yet saw no excuse for withholding it.  After all, she was safely locked in.  So he tossed the axe and Tenney caught it lightly, and was turning away.  But he stopped, considered a moment, looking down at the ground, and then, evidently concluding the question had to be put, broke out, and, Raven thought, shamefacedly: 

“You seen anything of her up here?”

“Her?” Raven repeated, though he knew the country shyness over family terms.

“Yes.  My woman.”

“Your wife?” insisted Raven.  “I don’t believe I know her.  No, I’m sure I don’t.  I’ve been away several years.  On the road, you mean?  No - not a soul.”

A swift rage passed over Tenney’s face.  It licked it like a flash of evil light and Raven thought he saw how dangerous he could be.

“No,” he said, “I don’t mean on the road.  I mean in the woods.”

“Up here?” persisted Raven.  “No, certainly not.  This is no place for a woman.  A woman would have to be off her head to come traipsing up here in the snow.  Is that what you were yelling about?  I thought you were a catamount, at least.”

He laughed.  He had an idea, suddenly conceived, that the man, having a keen sense of personal dignity, was subject to ridicule, and that a laugh would be salutary for him.  And he was right.  Tenney straightened, put his axe over his shoulder, and walked away down the hill.