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

Tira, from the forenoon of Tenney’s accident, entered on uneventful days.  He lowered over his helplessness; he was angry with it.  But the anger was not against her, and she could bear it.  For the first time she saw his activities fettered, and the mother in her answered.  She ventured no outspoken sympathy, but he was dependent on her and in that, much as it chafed him, she found solace.  He was chained to his chair, his wounded foot on a rest, and he had no diversions.  Tira sometimes wondered what he was thinking when he sat looking out at the road, smooth with the grinding of sleds and slipping of sleighs.  Once she brought the Bible and laid it before him on a stand.  If its exposition was so precious to him at evening meeting, there would be comfort in it now.  But he glanced at her in what looked like a quick suspicion - did it mean he thought she meant to taunt him with the unreality of his faith? - and, after it had lain there a forenoon untouched, he said to her uneasily: 

“You put that away.”

She took it back to its place on the parlor stand under Grandsir Tenney’s hatchet-faced photograph, wondering in her heart why it was not what she had heard them read of God:  “A very present help in time of trouble.”  If you knew it was so, Tira reasoned, you never had to fret yourself any more.  And if that place was waiting for you - the good place they talked about - even a long lifetime was not too much to face before you got to it.  After she had laid the book down and turned away from it to cross the ordered stillness of the room, she stopped, with a sudden hungry impulse, and opened it at random.  “Let not your heart be troubled,” she read, and closed it again, quickly lest the next words qualify so rich a message.  It might say further on that you were not to be troubled if you fulfilled the law and gospel, and that, she knew, was only fair.  But in her dearth she wanted no sacerdotal bargaining.  She needed the heavens to rain down plenty while she held out her hands to take.  When she entered the kitchen again Tenney, glancing round at her, saw the change in her look.  She was flushed, her mouth was tremulous, and her eyes humid.  He wondered, out of his ready suspicion, whether she had seen anyone going by.

“What’s the matter?” he asked sharply.

“Nothin’s the matter,” she answered.  But her hands were trembling.  She was like Mary when she had seen her Lord.

“Who’s gone by?” he persisted.  “I didn’t hear no bells.”

“No,” said Tira.  “I don’t believe anybody’s gone by, except the choppers.  It’s a proper nice day for them.”

The child woke and cried from the bedroom and she brought him out in the pink sweetness of his sleep, got the little tub and began to give him his bath by the fire.  As she bent over him and dried his smooth soft flesh, the passion of motherhood rose in her and she forgot he was “not right,” and sang a low, formless song.  When he was bathed she stood him naked on her knee, and it was then she found Tenney including them both in the livid look she knew.  And she saw what he saw.  The child’s hair was more like shining copper every day, his small nose had the tiniest curve.  By whatever trick of nature, which is implacable, he was not like her, he was not like Tenney.  He was a message from her bitter, ignorant past.  Her strong shoulders began to shake and her hands that steadied the child shook, too, so that he gave a little whimper at finding himself insecure.

“Isr’el,” she broke out, “before God!”

“Well,” said he, in the snarl she had heard from him at those times when his devil quite got the better of him, “what?  What you got to tell?”

“It ain’t so,” she said, her voice broken by her chattering lips.  “Before God, it ain’t so.”

“So ye know what I mean,” he jeered, and even at the moment she had compassion for him, reading his unhappy mind and knowing he hurt himself unspeakably.  “Ye know, or ye wouldn’t say ’tain’t so.”

Words of his own sprang up in her memory like witnesses against him, half phrases embodying his suspicion of her, wild accusations when, like a drunken man, he had let himself go.  But this he did not remember.  She knew that.  Shut up in his cell of impeccable righteousness, he believed he had dealt justly with her and no more.  She would not taunt him with his words.  She had a compassion for him that reached into his future of possible remorse.  Tira saw, and had seen for a long time, a catastrophe, a “wind-up” before them both.  Sometimes it looked like a wall that brought them up short, sometimes a height they were both destined to fall from and a gulf ready to receive them, and she meant, if she could, to save him from the recognition of the wall as something he had built or the gulf as something he had dug.  As she sat looking at him now, wide-eyed, imploring, and the child trod her knee impatiently, a man went past the window to the barn.  It was Jerry, gone to fodder the cattle, and Jerry brought Raven to her mind who, if he was obeying her by absence, was none the less protecting her.  The trouble of her face vanished and she drew a quick breath Tenney was quick to note.

“Who’s that?” he asked her sharply, turning in his chair to command the other window.

“Jerry,” she said.  Her heart stilled, and she began to dress the child, with her mother’s deftness.  “He comes a little early to fodder, ’fore he does his own.”

“I dunno,” said Tenney, irritably because he had to wear out his spleen, “why you can’t fodder the cows when anybody’s laid up.  There’s women that do it all the time if their folks are called away.”

“Why, I could,” said Tira, with a clear glance at him, “only he won’t let me.”

“What’s he got to do with it,” said Tenney, in surprise.  “Won’t let ye?  Jerry Slate won’t let ye?  Jerry ain’t one to meddle nor make.  I guess if you told him ‘twas your place to do it an’ you’d ruther stan’ up to it, he’d have no more to say.”

The blood came again to her face.  She had almost, she felt, spoken Raven’s name, and a swift intuition told her she must bury even the thought of it.

“There ain’t,” she said, “two nicer folks in this township than Charlotte an’ Jerry, nor two that’s readier to turn a hand.”

Tenney was silent, and Jerry did the chores and went home.  Sometimes he came to the house to ask how Tenney was getting on, but to-day he had to get back to his own work.

This was perhaps a week after Tenney’s accident, when he was getting impatient over inaction, and next day the doctor came and pronounced the wound healing well.  If Tenney had a crutch, he might try it carefully, and Tenney remembered Grandsir had used a crutch when he broke his hip at eighty-two, and healed miraculously though tradition pronounced him done for.  It had come to the house among a load of outlawed relics, too identified with the meager family life to be thrown away, and Tira found it “up attic” and brought it down to him.  She waited, in a sympathetic interest, to see him try it, and when he did and swung across the kitchen with an angry capability, she caught her breath, in a new fear of him.  The crutch looked less a prop to his insufficiency than like a weapon.  He could reach her with it.  He could reach the child.  And then she began to see how his helplessness had built up in her a false security.  He was on the way to strength again, and the security was gone.

The first use he made of the crutch was to swing to the door and tell Jerry he need not come again.  Tira was glad to hear him add: 

“Much obleeged.  I’ll do the same for you.”

Afterward she went to the barn with him and fed and watered while he supplemented her and winced when he hurt himself, making strange sounds under his breath that might have been oaths from a less religious man.  And Tira was the more patient because the doctor had told her the foot would always trouble him.

It was two days after he had begun to use his crutches, that Tira, after doing the noon chores in the barn and house, sat by the front window in her afternoon dress, a tidy housewife.  The baby was having his nap and Tenney, at the other window, his crutch against the chair beside him, was opening the weekly paper that morning come.  Tira looked up from her mending to glance about her sitting-room, and, for an instant, she felt to the full the pride of a clean hearth, a shining floor, the sun lying in pale wintry kindliness across the yellow paint and braided rugs.  If she had led a gypsy life, it was not because her starved heart yearned the less tumultuously for order and the seemliness of walls.  For the moment, she felt safe.  The child was not in evidence, innocently calling the eye to his mysterious golden beauty.  Tenney had been less irascible all the forenoon because he had acquired a fortunate control over his foot, and (she thought it shyly, yet believingly) the Lord Jesus Christ was with them.  Disregarded or not, in these moments of wild disordered living, He was there.

She heard sleigh-bells, and looked out.  Tenney glanced up over his glasses, an unwonted look, curiously like benevolence.  She liked that look.  It always gave her a thrill of faith that sometime, by a miracle, it might linger for more than the one instant of a changed visual focus.  She caught it now, with that responsive hope of its continuance, and knew, for the first time, what it recalled to her:  the old minister beyond Mountain Brook looked over his glasses in precisely that way, kindly, gentle, and forgiving.  But mingled with the remembrance, came the nearing of the bells and the shock to her heart in the man they heralded:  Eugene Martin, driving fast, and staring at the house.  The horse was moving with a fine jaunty action when Martin pulled him up, held him a quieting minute, and got out.  He paused an instant, his hand on the robe, as if uncertain how long he should stay, seemed to decide against covering the horse and ran up the path.  He must have seen Tira and Tenney, each at a window, but his eyes were on the woman only.  Half way along the path, he took off his hat and waved it at her in exaggerated salute, as if bidding her rejoice that he had come.  In the same instant he seemed, for the first time, to see Tenney.  His eyes rested on him with a surprise excellently feigned.  He replaced his hat, turned about like a man blankly disconcerted and went back down the path, with the decisive tread of one who cannot take himself off too soon.  He stepped into the sleigh and, drawing the robe about him, drove off, the horse answering buoyantly.  Tira sat, the stillest thing out of a wood where stalking danger lurks, her eyes on her sewing.  Tenney was staring at her; she knew it, and could not raise her lids.  Often she failed to meet his glance because she so shrank, not from his conviction of her guilt, but the fear of seeing what she must remember in blank night watches, to shudder over.  For things were different at night, things you could bear quite well by day.  Now he spoke, with a restrained certainty she trembled at.  He had drawn his conclusions; nothing she could possibly say would alter them.

“Comin’ in, wa’n’t he?” the assured voice asked her.  “See me, didn’t he, an’ give it up?”

Tira forced herself to look at him, and the anguished depths of her eyes were moving to him only because they seemed to mourn over his having found her out.

“No, Isr’el,” she said quietly.  “He wa’n’t comin’ in.  He drew up because he see you, an’ he knew ’twould be wormwood to both of us to have him do just what he done.”

Tenney laughed, a little bitter note.  Tira could not remember ever having heard him laugh with an unstinted mirth.  At first, when he came courting her, he was too worn with the years of work that had brought him to her, and after that too wild with the misery of revolt.  She was sorry for that, with an increasing sorrow.  Tira could bear no unhappiness but her own.

“Wormwood!” he repeated, as if the word struck him curiously.  “D’he think ‘twas goin’ to be wormwood for a woman to find a man comin’ all fixed up like courtin’ time, to steal a minute’s talk?  You make me laugh.”

He did laugh, and the laugh, though it might have frightened her, made her the more sorry.  She had the sense of keeping her hand on him, of holding him back from some rushing course that would be his own destruction.

“Yes,” she answered steadily. “‘Twould be nothin’ but wormwood for me, an’ well he knows it.  He don’t - love me, Isr’el.”

She hesitated before the word, and with it the thought of Raven came to her, as she saw him, unvaryingly kind and standing for quiet, steadfast things.  “He hates me.”

“Hates ye,” he repeated curiously.  “What’s he hate ye for?”

“Because,” said Tira, bound to keep quietly on in this new way of reason with him, “I left him.  An’ I left him ‘fore he got tired o’ me.  He never’d overlook that.”

“You left him, did ye?” he repeated.  “Then that proves you was with him, or ye couldn’t ha’ left him.”

“Why, Isr’el,” said she, her clear gaze on his turbid answering one, “I told you.  I told you long ’fore you married me.  First time you ever mentioned it, I told you, so’s to have things fair an’ square.  I told you, Isr’el.”

He said nothing, but she knew the answer at the back of his mind, and it seemed to her wise now to provoke it, to dare the accusation and meet it, not as she always had, by silence, but a passionate testimony.

“You said,” she continued, “it shouldn’t make no difference, what I’d done ’fore you married me.  You said we couldn’t help the past, but we could what’s comin’ to us.  An’ I thought you was an angel, Isr’el, with your religion an’ all.  Not many men would ha’ said that.  I didn’t know one.  An’ we were married an’ you - changed.”

“Yes,” he said.  His hands were shaking as they did at the beginning of his rages, but Tira, embarked on a course she had long been coming to, was the more calm.  “Yes, I changed, didn’t I?  An’ when d’ I change?  When that” - he paused and seemed to choke down the word he would have given the child - “when that creatur’ in there turned into the livin’ pictur’ of the man that drew up here this day.  Can you deny he’s the image of him?”

“No,” said Tira, looking at him squarely.  “He is the image of him.”

“What do folks think about it?” he asked her.  “What do you s’pose the neighbors think?  What’ll it be when it grows worse an’ worse?  What’ll the school children say when he’s old enough to go to school?  They’ll see it, too, the little devils.  The livin’ image, they’ll say, o’ ’Gene Martin.”

Tira laid her work on the table in front of her.  The moment of restraining him had failed her, but another moment had come.  This she had seen approaching for many months and had pushed away from her.

“Isr’el,” she said, “I guess you won’t have that to worry over.  There’s no danger of his goin’ to school.  He - ain’t right.”

He stared at her a long moment, puzzling instances accumulating in his mind, evidences that the child was not like other children he had seen.  Then he began to laugh, a laugh full of wildness and despair.

“O my Lord!” he cried.  “My Lord God! if I wanted any evidence I hadn’t got, You’ve give it to me now.  You’ve laid Your hand on her.  You’ve laid Your hand on both of ’em.  He can’t ride by here an’ see a red-headed bastard playin’ round the yard an’ laugh to himself when he says, ‘That’s mine.’  You’ve laid Your hand on ’em.”

Tira rose from her chair and went to him.  She slipped to the floor, put her head on his unwelcoming shoulder and her arms about his neck.

“Isr’el,” said she, “you hear to me.  If you can’t for the sake o’ me, you hear to me for the sake o’ him, - sleepin’ there, the pitifullest little creatur’ God ever made.  How’s he goin’ to meet things, as he is?  ’Twould be hard enough with a father ‘n’ mother that set by him as they did their lives, but you half-crazed about him - what’ll he do, Isr’el?  What’ll the poor little creatur’ do?”

Tenney sat rigid under her touch, and she went on, pouring out the mother sorrow that was the more overwhelming because it had been locked in her so long.

“Isr’el, I could tell you every minute o’ my life sence you married me.  If ‘twas wrote down, you could read it, an’ ‘twould be Bible truth.  An’ if God has laid His hand on that poor baby - Isr’el, you take that back.  It’s like cursin’ your own flesh an’ blood.”

“I do curse him,” he muttered.  “I curse him for that - not bein’ my flesh an’ blood.”  With the renewed accusation, his anger against her seemed to mount like a wave and sweep him with it, and he shook himself free of her.  “Jezebel!” he cried.  “Let go o’ me.”

Tira rose and went back to her chair.  But she did not sit down.  She stood there, looking out of the window and wondering.  What to do next?  With a man beside himself, what did a woman do?  He was talking now, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair and looking at her.

“Sometimes,” he said, “when it all comes over me, I think I’ll shet you up.  I’ll leave him asleep in there an’ lock you in, up chamber, an’ you can hear him cry but you can’t git to him.  An’ mebbe you can work it out that way.  He’ll be the scapegoat goin’ into the wilderness, cryin’ in there alone, an’ you’ll be workin’ out your punishment, hearin’ him cry.”

Tira stood listening and thinking.  This was a new danger.  If he shut her away from the child (and he might do it easily, when his foot would serve him again) nobody would hear.  They were too far away.  He was frightening her.  She would frighten him.  She walked up to him and stood looking down on him.

“Isr’el,” said she quietly, “don’t you git it into your head you could shet me up.”

“Yes,” said he, and his tone was as ominous as her own, “I guess I could shet you up all right.”

“Yes,” said Tira, “mebbe you could.  But if you do, I’ll break out.  An’ when I’ve broke out” - she towered over him - “I’ll break your neck.”

Tenney, looking up and seeing in her eyes the mother rage that sweeps creation from man to brute, was afraid, and Tira knew it.  She looked him down.  Then her gaze broke, not as if she could not have held his forever, but haughtily, in scorn of what was weaker than herself.

“I’ve been a true wife to you, Isr’el,” she said.  “You remember it now, ’fore it’s too late.  For as God’s my witness, if you turn your hand ag’inst a little child - whether it’s your own or whether it ain’t - an’ that baby in there is yourn an’ no man but you has got part nor lot in him - if you turn ag’inst him, I turn ag’inst you.  An’ when I’ve done that, you’ll find me as crazy as you be, an’ I can’t say no worse.”

She went into the bedroom and he heard her crooning there, defiantly he thought, even through the low sweetness of her voice.  But her passion had shaken him briefly.  For the moment, the inner self in him could not help believing her.  He went back to his newspaper, trying, though the print was dim before him, to recover his hold on the commonplace of the day.  He, too, would be unmoved; she should see he was not afraid of her tantrums.  But he had not read half a column before an evil chance drew his eyes to a paragraph in the gossip from the various towns about.  This was under the caption of his own town: 

“A certain gentleman appeared last week with a black eye, gained, it is said, in a scrap with a non-resident interested in keeping the peace in country towns.  It is said both combatants bore themselves gallantly, but that suit for assault and battery is to be brought by the party attacked.”

Tenney sat staring at the words, and his mind told him what a fool he was.  That meant the encounter at his gate.  He had ignored that.  He had been deflected from it simply because he had cut his foot and let himself be drawn off the track of plain testimony by his own pain and helplessness.  Was Raven in it, too?  Was there a shameless assault of all the men about on Tira’s honesty?  While he was the dupe of Martin, was Martin Raven’s dupe?  Did such a woman bring perpetual ruin in her path?  This he did not ask himself in such words or indeed through any connected interrogation.  It was passion within him, disordered, dim, but horrible to bear.  He got up presently, took her scissors, cut out the paragraph and laid it on her basket where her eyes must fall upon it.  When he had gone back to his chair, she appeared from the bedroom and went up to him.  He did not look at her, but her voice was sweeter, gentler than the song had been, with no defiance in it, and, in spite of him, it moved his sick heart, not to belief in her, or even a momentary rest on her good intent toward him, but to a misery he could hardly face.  Every nerve in him cried out in revolt against his lot, his aching love for her, his passion forever unsatisfied because she was not entirely his, the anguish of the atom tossed about in the welter of elemental life.

“Isr’el,” said she, “there’s one thing we forgot when we spoke so to each other as we did a minute ago.”

She waited, and he looked up at her, and the hunger of his eyes was as moving to her as if, like the child they had fought over, he was himself a child and “not right.”

“We forgot,” she said, in a soft shyness at having to remind him who was a professing Christian of what he knew far better than she, “Who was with us all the time:  the Lord Jesus Christ.”

She turned away from him, in a continued timidity at seeming to preach to him, and seated herself again by the other window.  The newspaper clipping arrested her eye.  She took it up, read it over slowly, read it again and Tenney watched her.  Then she crumpled it in her hand and tossed it on the table.  She glanced across at Tenney and spoke gravely, threading her needle with fingers that did not tremble.

“That’s jest like him,” she said.  “Anybody ’t knew him ’d know ’twas what he’d do.  He’s hand in glove with Edson that carries on that paper.  They go to horse-trots together.  He’s willin’ to call attention to himself, black eye an’ all, if he can call attention to somebody else, same time.  That’s wormwood, too, Isr’el.  We’re the ones it’s meant for, you an’ me.”