Read CHAPTER IX of Old Crow , free online book, by Alice Brown, on ReadCentral.com.

Raven stood looking after him a minute and then began an ostentatious search for his knife, went to the little pile of brush and saw it - the steel tip of the handle shining there - and pulled the brush aside to get it.  As he was rising with it in his hand, he saw Tenney turn and look back at him.  He held up the knife and called: 

“I’ve got it.”

Tenney, not answering even by a sign, went on over the rise and disappeared below.  Then Raven, after lingering a little to make sure he did not reappear, turned up the slope and into the path at the left and so came again to the hut.  He unlocked the door and went in.  She was sitting by the fire and the child was on the floor, staring rather vacuously at his little fingers, as if they interested him, but not much.  The woman was looking at the child, but only in a mechanical sort of way, as if it were her job to look and she did it without intention even when the child was safe.  But she was also watching the door, waiting for him; it was in an agony of expectation, and her eyes questioned him the instant he stepped in.

“Warm enough?” he inquired, as incidentally, he hoped, as if it were not unusual to find her here.  “Let me throw on a log.”

He did throw on two and the fire answered.  The solemn child, who proved, at closer view, to have an unusual beauty of pink cheeks, blue eyes, and reddish hair, did not intermit his serious gaze at his fingers.  When Raven had put on the logs and dusted himself off, he found himself at a loss.  How should he begin?  Was Tenney, with his catamount yells and his axe, to be ignored altogether, or should he reassure her by telling her the man had gone?  But she herself began.

“I suppose,” she said, in the eloquent low voice that seemed to make the smallest word significant, “you think it’s funny.”

Raven knew what sense the word was meant to convey.

“No,” he said, “not in the least.  It’s pretty bad for you, though,” he added gravely, on second thought that he might.

She made a little gesture with her hand.  It was a beautifully formed hand, but reddened with work.  The gesture was as if she threw something away.

“He won’t hurt me,” she said.

“No,” Raven returned, “I should hope not.”

He drew up a chair to the hearth and was about to take it when she spoke again.  The blood ran into her cheeks, as she did it, and she put her request with difficulty.  It seemed to Raven that she was suddenly engulfed in shame.

“Should you just as soon,” she asked, “take the key inside an’ lock the door?”

She put it humbly, and Raven rose at once.

“Of course,” he said.  “Good idea.”

He locked the door and came back to his chair and she began, never omitting to share her attention with the child: 

“I know who you be.  It’s too bad this has come upon you.  I’ll have to ask you not to let it go any further.”

Raven was about to assure her that nothing had come upon him, and then he bethought himself that a great deal had.  She had looked to him like the Mother of Sorrows and, though the shock of that vision was over, she seemed to him now scarcely less touching in her beautiful maternity and her undefended state.  So he only glanced at her and said gravely: 

“Nobody will know anything about it from me.  After all” - he was bound to reassure her if he could - “I’ve nothing to tell.”

Her face flashed into an intensity of revolt against any subterfuge, the matter was so terrible.

“Why, yes, you have,” said she.  “Isr’el Tenney chased his woman up into the woods with an axe.  An’ you heard him yellin’ after her.  That’s God’s truth.”

Raven felt rising in him the rage of the natural man, a passion of protection for the woman who is invincibly beautiful yet physically weak.

“An’,” she went on, “you might ha’ seen him out there, axe an’ all.”

“Oh,” said Raven, as if it were of no great account, “I did see him.”

“O my soul!” she breathed.  “You see him?  I’m glad you come in.  He might ha’ asked you if you’d seen me.”

“He did.”

This was a new terror and she was undone.

“How’d you do it?” she asked breathlessly.  “You must ha’ put it better’n I could or he’d be here now.”

“I didn’t ‘put it,’” said Raven, easily.  “I lied, and he went off down the hill.”

Extravagant as it seemed, he did get an impression, like a flash, that she was disappointed in him because he had lied.  But this was no time for casuistry.  There were steps to be taken.

“You won’t go back to him,” he said, and said it definitively as if it were a matter he had thought out, said it like a command.

She stared at him.

“Not go back to him?” she repeated.  “Why, I’ve got to go back to him.  I’ve got to go home.  Where do you expect I’m goin’, if I don’t go home?”

“Haven’t you any people?” Raven asked her.  “Can’t you go to them?”

She laughed a little, softly, showing fine white teeth.  The spell of her beauty was moving to him.  He might never, he thought, have noticed her at all in other circumstances, if he had not seen her there in the woods and felt her need knock at his heart with the imperative summons of the outraged maternal.  Was this the feeling rising in him that had made his mother’s servitude to his father so sickening in those years gone by?  Was the old string still throbbing?  Did it need but a woman’s hand to play upon it?  And yet must he not have noted her, wherever they had met?  Would not any man?

“I’ve got four brothers,” she said.  “They’d laugh at me.  They’d tell me I’d married well an’ got a better home than any of them could scrape together if they begun at the beginnin’ an’ lived their lives over.  There’s nothin’ in Isr’el Tenney to be afraid of, they’d tell me.  And there ain’t - for them.”

“No,” said Raven quietly.  He felt an intense desire to feel his way, make no mistakes, run no risk of shutting off her confidence.  “It’s a different thing for you.”

Now she turned her face more fully upon him, in a challenging surprise.

“Why,” she said, “I ain’t afraid - except for him.”

By the smallest motion of her hand she indicated the child, who was now, in sudden sleepiness, toppling back against the wall.

“Put him up here,” said Raven, indicating the couch.

He opened the folded rug and held it until she had disposed the little lax figure among the pillows.  Then she took the rug from him and covered the child, with quick, capable movements of her beautiful worn hands.  Raven, watching her, felt a clutch at his throat.  Surely there was nothing in the known world of plastic action so wonderful as these movements of mothers’ hands in their work of easing a child.  With a last quick touch on the rug, drawing it slightly away from the baby cheek, she returned to her chair, and Raven again took his.  He was afraid lest she repent her open-mindedness toward him and talk no more.  But she was looking at him earnestly.  It was evidently a part of her precautionary foresight that he should know.  Did she think he could help her?  His blood quickened at the thought.  It seemed enough to have lived for, in so brutal a world.  She veered for a moment from her terror to the necessity for justifying herself.

“You needn’t think,” she said, almost aggressively, “I’d talk to everybody like this.”

He was holding himself down to a moderation he knew she wanted, and replied: 

“No, of course not.  But you can talk to me.”

“Yes,” she said, “I can.”  She dismissed that, having said it, as if she saw no need of finding the underlying reasons they were both going by.  “You see,” she said, “it’s the baby.  When he gits one o’ them spells, it’s the baby he pitches on.”

Raven picked out from her confusion of pronouns the fact that Tenney, in his spells, incredibly threatened the baby.

“Don’t you think,” he said, “you make too much of it - I mean, as to the baby.  He wouldn’t hurt his own child.”

Again the blood ran into her cheeks, and she looked a suffering so acute that Raven got up and walked through the room to the window.  It seemed an indecency to scan the anguished page of her face.

“That’s it,” she said, in a strangled voice.  “When he has his spells he don’t believe the baby’s his.”

“God!” muttered Raven.  He turned and came back to her.  “You don’t mean to live with him,” he said.  “You can’t.  You mustn’t.  The man’s a brute.”

She was looking up at him proudly.

“But,” she said, “baby is his own child.”

“Good God! of course it is,” broke out Raven, in a fever of impatience.  “Of course it’s his child.  You don’t need to tell me that.”

Then, incredibly, she smiled and two dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth and altered her face from a mask of tragic suffering to the sweetest playfulness.

“You mustn’t say ‘it,’” she reproved him.  “You must say ‘he.’  Anybody’d know you ain’t a family man.”

Raven stood looking at her a moment, his own smile coming.  Then he sat down in his chair.  He wanted to tell her how game she was, and there seemed no way to manage it.  But now he could ask her questions.  Her friendliness, her amazing confidence, had opened the door.

“Exactly what do you mean?” he asked, yet cautiously, for even after her own avowals he might frighten her off the bough.  “Does he drink?”

She looked at him reprovingly.

“No, indeed,” she said.  “He’s a very religious man.”

“The devil he is!” Raven found himself muttering, remembering the catamount yells and the axe.  “Then what,” he continued, with as complete an air as he could manage of taking it as all in the day’s work, “what do you mean by his spells?”

She was silent a moment.  Her mind seemed to be going back.

“He gits - mad,” she said slowly.  “Crazy, kind of.  It’s when he looks at baby and baby looks different to him.”

“Different?  How different?”

“Why,” she said, in a burst of pride turning for an instant to the little figure on the couch, “baby’s got awful cunnin’ little ways.  An’ he’s got a little way o’ lookin’ up sideways, kind o’ droll, an’ when he does that an’ Mr. Tenney sees it” - here Raven glanced at her quickly, wondering what accounted for her being so scrupulous with her “Mr. Tenney” - “he can’t help noticin’ it an’ he can’t help thinkin’ how baby ain’t colored like either of us - we’re both dark - - ”

There she stopped, at last in irreparable confusion, and Raven was relieved.  How could he let her, he had been thinking, go on with the sordid revelation?  When he spoke, it was more to himself than to her, but conclusively: 

“The man’s a beast.”

“No, he ain’t,” said she indignantly.  “Baby’s light complected.  You see he is.  An’ I’m dark an’ so’s Mr. Tenney.  An’ I told him - I told him about me before we were married, an’ he thought he could stand it then.  But we went over to the county fair an’ he see - him.  He come up an’ spoke to him, that man did, spoke to us both, an’ Mr. Tenney looked at him as if he never meant to forgit him, an’ he ain’t forgot him, not a minute since.  He’s light complected, blue eyes an’ all.  An’ he stood there, that man did, talkin’ to us, kinder laughin’ an’ bein’ funny, an’ all to scare me out o’ my life for fear o’ what he’d say.  He didn’t say a word he hadn’t ought to, an’ when he’d had his joke he walked off.  But he had just that way o’ lookin’ up kinder droll, an’ baby’s got it.  Mr. Raven, for God’s sake tell me why my baby’s got to look like that man?”

She was shaking him into a passion as unendurable as her own.  He had never felt such pity for any human being, not even the men blinded and broken in the War.  And he understood her now.  Even through his belief in her, that sudden belief born of her beauty and her extremity, he had been amazed at her accepting him so absolutely.  Now he saw.  He was her last hope and perhaps because he was different from the neighbors to whom she could not speak, she was throwing herself into the arms of his compassion.  And she had to hurry lest she might not see him again.  He sat there, his hands clenched between his knees, his head bent.  He must not look at her.

“Poor chap!” he said finally, his altered thoughts now on Tenney.  “He’s jealous.”

She broke into a sob that seemed to rend her and then pulled herself up and sat silent.  But he could see, from her shadowy outline through his oblique vision, that she was shaking horribly.

“Can’t you,” he said, “make him understand, make him see how - how tremendously you love him?”

That was pretty mawkish, he thought, as he said it, but he meant it, he meant volumes more.  Flood the man with kindness, open the doors of her beauty and let him see how really incorruptible she was, how loyal, how wronged.  For, with every minute of her company, he was the more convinced of her inviolate self.  Whatever the self had been through, now it was motherhood incarnate.  What was she saying to this last?

“Be nice to him?” she asked, “that kind o’ way?” And he saw, as she did, that he had meant her to drown the man’s jealous passion in passion of her own.  “He thinks,” she said bitterly, “that’s the kind o’ woman I am.”

Then he looked with her upon the barricaded road of her endeavor.

“I can’t even,” she said, “have the house pretty when he comes home an’ be dressed up so’s he’ll have a pleasant evenin’ but he thinks - that’s the kind o’ woman I am.”  The last she said as if she had said it many times before and it held the concentrated bitterness of her hateful life.  “An’,” she added, turning upon him and speaking fiercely, as if he had been the one to accuse her, “it’s true.  It is the kind o’ woman I am.  An’ I don’t want to be.  I want to set down with my sewin’ an’ watch the baby playin’ round.  What is it about me?  What makes ’em foller me an’ offer me things an’ try, one way or another, to bring me down?  What is it?”

She was panting with the passion of what seemed an accusation of him with all mankind.  He added one more to his list of indictments against nature as God had made it.  Here she was, a lure, innocent, he could have sworn, backed up against the defenses of her ignorance, and the whole machinery of nature was moving upon her, seeking, with its multitudinous hands, to pull her in and utilize her for its own ends.

“Never mind,” he said harshly.  “Don’t try to understand things.  You can’t.  We can’t any of us.  Only I’ll tell you how you looked to me, that first minute.  You looked like the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ.”

She shrank a little.  He had touched, he saw, innocent prejudices.

“Are you a Roman Catholic?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “not that nor anything.  But you see how good you looked to me.  It doesn’t hurt any of us to be Catholic, if we’re good.”

“I didn’t mean anything,” she said humbly.  “Only there ain’t many round here.”

“You say your husband is religious.  Does he go to church?”

“Yes,” she answered soberly, and also with a kind of wonder at a man’s accomplishing so dull an observance.  “We go twice every Sunday, an’ Sunday school an’ evenin’ meetin’ besides.”

“Do you like it?”

“No,” she said, looking rueful, as if trusting he might forgive her.  “I git sleepy.”

At this Raven laughed and she glanced at him mildly, as if wandering what he had found to please him.  He had been thinking.

“Now,” he said, “we must plan what you’re going to do.  You won’t let me send you and the baby away to stay awhile?”

She shook her head.

“Then what are we going to do?  Can’t you let me go to him and tell him, man to man, what an infernal fool he is?”

A wild alarm flew into her face.

“No! no!” she said.

“What is going to happen?  You can’t go home.”

“Oh, yes, I can,” said she.  “I always do.  It works off.  Maybe it’s worked off now.  He gits all wore out actin’ the way he does, an’ then he’s terrible scared for fear I’ve made way with myself, an’ he’s all bowed down.”

“Oh!” said Raven.  “And you’ve got him where you want him.  And you settle down and wait for another spell.  How long do you generally stay away?”

“Long’s I can,” she answered simply.  “Till I’m afraid baby’ll git cold.  I keep his little things where I can ketch ’em up an’ run.  But sometimes he ’most gits a chill.”

The yearning of anxiety in her voice was intense enough, he thought, to balance the grief of all the mothers bereft by Herod.

“I don’t see,” he said, “how you get up here anyway.  You must come by the road?  Why doesn’t he follow you?”

The slow red surged into her face.  She was hesitating.  There was evidently worse to come.

“He gits so mad,” she said, with frequent pauses between the words, “he don’t stay in the house after he’s had a spell.  I guess he don’t dare to.  He’s afraid of what he’ll do.  He goes out an’ smashes away at the woodpile or suthin.’  An’ it’s then I ketch up the baby an’ run.  I go out the side door an’ up the road a piece an’ into the back road.  Then I come down the loggin’ road the back way an’ end up here.  It’s God’s mercy,” she said passionately, “they’ve broke out that loggin’ road or there wouldn’t be any path an’ he’d see my tracks in the snow.”

“Then,” said Raven, “if he has sense enough to go and work it off on the woodpile, perhaps you aren’t in any real danger, after all.”

She looked at him piteously.  Her eyes narrowed with a frowning return to a scene of terror past and persistently avoided in retrospect.

“‘Most always,” she said, in a low tone, “it comes on him ag’in, an’ then, ’fore you know it, he’s back in the house.  Once he brought the axe with him.  Baby was in the cradle.  The cradle head’s split right square acrost.”

“Good God!” said Raven.  “And you won’t let me send you away from here?”

“Why, Mr. Raven,” said she, and her voice was only less exquisite in its tenderness than when she spoke of the baby, “ain’t I married to him?”

They sat looking at each other, and the suffused beauty of her face was so moving to him that he got up and went to the window and stared out at the tree branches in their winter calm.  He made himself stand there looking at them and thinking persistently of them, not of her.  She would not bear thinking of, this thing of beauty and need and, at the same time, inexorability of endurance.  Unless she would let him help her, he was only driving the hot ploughshare of her misery through his own heart for nothing.  So he stood there, mechanically studying the trees and remembering how they would wake from this frozen calm on a night when the north wind got at them and made them thrash at one another in the fury of their destiny.  Her voice recalled him.

“I don’t mean,” she said, “to make you feel bad.  I hadn’t ought to put it on anybody else’s shoulders, anyway.”

Then Raven realized that the tenderness in her voice was for him.  He turned and came back to his place by the fire.  But he did not sit.  He stood looking at her as she looked anxiously up at him.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” he said, “for the present, anyway.  I’m going now, and you’re to stay here as long as you think best.  When you go, lock the door and put the key under the flat stone out by the step.  I often leave the key there.  I’ll make sure the stone isn’t frozen down.  Now, you understand, don’t you?  You’re to come up here whenever you like.  If there isn’t a fire, you’re to build one.  Nobody will disturb you.  Jerry won’t be cutting up here.  I’ll send him down into the lower woods.”

“But,” she said, in evident concern, “I can’t do that.  You come up here to write your books.  Mr. Tenney said so, when he was tellin’ me who all the neighbors were.  He said you had the shack repaired so’s to write your books.”

Raven smiled.  Books seemed far removed from this naked face of life.

“I’m not writing books now,” he said.  “I’m just hanging round.  I may go over and see your husband, ask him to do some work for me.”

The quick look of alarm ran into her face.

“Oh,” she breathed, “you won’t - - ”

“No,” he answered steadily, “I won’t say a word about you.  Of course I sha’n’t.  And I won’t to anybody.”

“An’,” she broke in tumultuously, “if you should see me - oh, it’s an awful thing to say, after what you’ve done for me this day - but you won’t act as if you ever see me before?”

That was the only wisdom, Raven saw, but a band seemed to tighten about his heart.  Deny her before men, she whom he had not yet untangled from the rapt vision of their meeting?

“No,” he said, “I won’t even look at you.  Now I’m going.  I’ll loosen up the stone.”

She rose to her imposing height and came to him where he stood, his hand on the latch.  Her eyes brimmed.  In the one glance he had of her, he thought such extremity of gratitude might, in another instant, break in a flood of words.

“Go back,” he said, “where nobody can see you when I open the door.  Jerry may have taken a notion to come up.”

She turned obediently and he did not look at her again.  He opened the door and stepped out.  The stone was there beside the larger one below the sill.  He bent and wrenched it up from the ground where the frost was holding it, and with such unregarding force that the edges hurt his hands.  He smiled a little at the savage satisfaction of the act, wondering if this was how Tenney felt when he smashed away at the wood.  Then he remembered that the key was inside, tapped on the door, opened it and spoke to her: 

“You’d better lock the door.  Keep it locked till you go.”

She was sitting before the fire, her head bent almost to her knee, her face in her hands.  He closed the door and waited until he heard her step and the turning of the key.  Then he strode out into the logging road and down the slope.  One certainty surged and trembled in him:  that he had never been so sorry for anybody in his life.