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

Thereafter they all behaved as if they had separated yesterday and nothing was more natural than to find themselves together again.  Amelia, with bitterness in her heart, accepted the room she again longed to repudiate, and Nan, with a lifted eyebrow at Raven, as if wondering whether she’d really better be as daring as he indicated, followed Charlotte up the stairs.  At supper they talked decorously of the state of the nation, which Raven frankly conceived of as going to the dogs, and Amelia upheld, from an optimism which assumed Raven to be amenable to only the most hopeful of atmospheres.  After supper, when they hesitated before the library door, Nan said quite openly, as one who has decided that only the straight course will do: 

“Rookie, could I see you a minute?  In the dining-room?” She took in Amelia with her frank smile.  “Please, Mrs. Powell!  It’s business.”

“Certainly,” Amelia said, rather stiffly.  “Come, Dick.  We’ll keep up the fire.”

They had evidently, she and Dick, resolved, though independently of each other, to behave their best, and Dick, in excess of social virtue, shut the library door, so that no wisp of talk would float that way and settle on them.  Nan confronted Raven with gayest eyes.

“Did you ever!” she said, recurring to the Charlottian form of comment.  “At the last minute, if you please, when I was taking the train.  There she was behind me.  We talked all the way, ‘stiddy stream’ (Charlotte!) and not a thing you could put your finger on.  Did he send for her?”

“I rather think so,” said Raven, giving Dick every possible advantage.  Then, rallied by her smiling eyes, “Well, yes, of course he did.  Don’t look at me like that.  I have to turn myself inside out, you she-tyrant!”

“Does Dick know?” she hastened to ask.  “About Tira?”

“Yes.”

“Know what I’m here for?”

“Yes.”

“Given his word not to blab?  Hope to die?” That was their childish form of vow, hers and Dick’s.

“I hope so,” said Raven doubtfully.  “I represented it to him as being necessary.”

“I’ll represent it, too,” said Nan.  “Now, Rookie, I’m going over there, first thing to-morrow morning.  I’m going to see Tenney.”

“The deuce you are!  I’m afraid that won’t do.”

“Nothing else will,” said Nan.  “Tenney’s got to give his consent.  We can’t do any kidnaping business.  That’s no good.”

She said it with the peremptory implication of extinguishing middle-aged scruples, and Raven also felt it to be “no good.”

“Very well,” said he.  “You know best.  I’ll go with you.”

“Oh, no, you won’t.  There are too many men-folks in it now.  I’m going alone.  Now, come back and talk to the family.  Oh, I hope and pray Dick’ll be good!  Doesn’t he look dear to-night, all red, as if he’d been logging?  Has he?  Have you?  You look just the same.  Oh, I do love Dick!  I wish he’d let me, the way I want to.”

Meantime Charlotte had come in, and Nan went to her and put her hands on her shoulders and rubbed cheeks, as she used to do with Raven.

“Come on,” she said to him.  “Time!”

So they went into the library and conversed, with every conventional flourish, until Amelia set the pace of retirement by a ladylike yawn.  But she had a word to say before parting, reserved perhaps to the last because she found herself doubtful of Raven’s response.  If she had to be snubbed she could simply keep on her way out of the room.

“John,” said she, at the door, with the effect of a sudden thought, “how about Anne’s estate?  Are they getting it settled?”

Raven hesitated a perceptible instant.  He somehow had an idea the estate was an affair of his, not to say Nan’s.

“I suppose so,” he answered, frowning.  “Whitney’s likely to do the right thing.”

Amelia was never especially astute in the manner of danger signals.

“I suppose,” she said, “you’ve made up your mind what to invest in.  Or are the things in pretty good shape?  Can you leave them as they are?”

Dick was standing by the hearth, wishing hard for a word with Nan.  She had smiled at him once or twice, so peaceably!  The next step might be to a truce and then everlasting bliss.  Now, suddenly aware of his mother, he ungratefully kicked the fire that was making him such pretty dreams, went to her, took her by the arm and proceeded with her across the hall.

“You talk too much,” said Dick, when he had her inside her room.  “Don’t you know better than to drag in Miss Anne?  He’s touchy as the devil.”

“Then he must get over it,” said Amelia, in her best manner of the intelligent mentor.  “Of course, she was a great loss to him.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said Dick conclusively.  “She had her paw on him.  What the deuce is it in him that makes all the women want to dry-nurse him and build him up and make him over?”

Then he wondered what Nan was saying to Raven at the moment, remembered also Raven’s injunction to play a square game with her and, though his feet were twitching to carry him back to the library, sat doggedly down at his mother’s hearth and encouraged her to talk interminably.  Amelia was delighted.  She didn’t know Dick had so earnest an interest in the Federation of Clubs and her popular course in economics.  She was probably never more sustainedly intelligent than in that half hour, until Dick heard Nan going up to bed, sighed heavily, and lost interest in the woman citizen.

Nan and Raven, standing by the fire, in their unexpected minute of solitude, looked at each other and smiled in recognizing that they were alone and that when that happened things grew simple and straight.  To Raven there was also the sense of another presence.  Anne had somehow been invoked.  Amelia, with her unfailing dexterity in putting her foot in, had done it:  but still there Anne was, with the unspoken question on her silent lips.  What was he going to do?  He knew her wish.  Presently he would have her money.  He caught the interrogation in Nan’s eyes.  What was he going to do?

“I don’t know, Nan,” he said.  “I don’t know.”

“Never mind,” said Nan.  “You’ll know when the time comes.”

And he was aware that she was still in her mood of forcing him on to make his own decisions.  But, easily as he read her mind, there were many things he did not see there.  It was a turmoil of questions, and of these the question of Aunt Anne was least.  Did he love Tira?  This headed the list.  Did he want to tear down his carefully built edifice of culture and the habit of conventional life, and run away with Tira to elemental simplicities and sweet deliriums?  And if he did love Tira, if he did want to tear down his house of life and live in the open, she would help him.  But all she said was: 

“Good night, Rookie.  I’m sleepy, too.”

To leap a dull interval of breakfast banalities is to find Nan, on a crisp day, blue above and white below, at the Tenneys’ door.  Tira, frankly apprehensive, came to let her in.  Tira had had a bad night.  The burning of the crutch fanned a fire of torment in her uneasy mind.  She had hardly slept, and though she heard Tenney’s regular breathing at her side, she began to have a suspicion it was not a natural breathing.  She was persuaded he meant now to keep track of her, by night as well as day.  It began to seem to her a colossal misfortune that the crutch was not there leaning against the foot of the bed, and now its absence was not so much her fault as a part of its own malice.  Nan, noting the worn pallor of her face and the dread in her eyes, gathered that Tenney was at home.  She put out her hand, and Tira, after an instant’s hesitation, gave hers.  Nan wondered if she were in a terror wild enough to paralyze her power of action.  Still, she had given her hand, and when Nan stepped up on the sill, with a cheerful implication of intending, against any argument, to come in, she stood aside and followed her.  But at the instant of her stepping aside, Nan was aware that she threw both hands up slightly.  It was the merest movement, an unstudied gesture of despair.  Tenney was sitting by the kitchen stove, and Nan went to him with outstretched hand.

“I thought I should find you if I came early enough,” she said.  “How’s your foot?”

She had a direct address country folk liked.  She was never “stand-off,” “stuck-up.”  It was as easy talking with her as with John Raven.

“Some better, I guess,” said Tenney.  He eyed her curiously.  Had Raven sent her, for some hidden reason, to spy out the land?

“You get round, don’t you?” pursued Nan.

She took the chair Tira brought her and regarded him across the shining stove.  Tira withdrew to a distance, and stood immovable by the scullery door, as if, Nan thought, she meant to keep open her line of retreat.

“No,” said Tenney grimly, “I don’t git about much.  Three times a day I git from the house to the barn.  I expect to do better, as time goes on.  I’ve got my eye on a cord wood stick, an’ I’m plannin’ how I can whittle me out a crutch.”

Nan, glancing at Tira, caught the tremor that went over her and understood this was, in a veiled way, a threat.  She came, at a leap, to the purpose of her call.

“Mr. Tenney,” she said, “I’m an awfully interfering person.  I’ve come to ask you and your wife to let me do something.”

Tenney was staring at her with lacklustre eyes.  In these latter days, the old mad spark in them had gone.

“Your baby,” said Nan, feeling her heart beat hard, “isn’t right.  I know places where such poor little children are made - right - if they can be.  They’re studied and looked after.  I want you to let me take him away with me and see if something can be done.  His mother could go, too, if she likes.  You could go.  Only, I’ll be responsible.  I’ll arrange it all.”

Tenney still stared at her, and she found the dull gaze disconcerting.

“So,” he said at length, not even glancing at Tira, “so she’s put that into your head.”

“So far as that goes,” said Nan boldly, “I’ve put it into hers.  I saw he wasn’t right.  I told her I’d do everything in my power, in anybody’s power, to have him” - she hesitated here for a homely word he might take in - “seen to.  And now (you’re his father) I’ve come to you.”

Tenney sat a long time, motionless, his eyes on the window at the end of the room where a woodbine spray was tapping, and again Nan became conscious of the increased tremor in Tira’s frame.  For now it seemed to have run over her and strangely to keep time to the woodbine spray outside.  One would have said the woodbine, looking in, had, in a mad, irritating way, made itself the reflex of these human emotions within the room.  Tenney spoke, drily yet without emphasis: 

“Then he put ye up to this?”

“Who?” asked Nan.

For some obscure reason he would not mention Raven’s name.  But he spoke with a mildness of courtesy surprising to her and evidently the more alarming to Tira, for she shook the more and the vine appallingly knew and kept her company.

“I’m obleeged to ye,” said Tenney.  “But I don’t want nothin’ done for me nor mine.  He’s mine, ye see.  He’s in there asleep” - he pointed to the open bedroom door - “an’ asleep or awake, he’s mine, same’s any man’s property is his.  An’ if he ain’t right, he ain’t, an’ I know why, an’ it’s the will o’ the Lord, an’ the Lord’s will is goin’ to be fulfilled now an’ forever after, amen!”

The tang of scripture phrasing led him further to the channel his mind was always fumbling for.

“Do you,” he asked Nan, not with any great show of fervor, but as if this were his appointed task, “do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ yet?  Be ye saved?”

“Mr. Tenney,” said Nan, “I don’t care a scrap whether I’m saved or not, if I can make this world swing a little easier on its hinges.”  That seemed to her a figure not markedly vivid, and she continued.  “It needs a sight of oiling.  Don’t you see it does?  O, Mr. Tenney, think of the poor little boy that’s got to live along” - the one phrase still seemed to her the best - “not right, and grow to be a man, and you may die and leave him, and his mother may die.  What’s he going to do then?”

“No,” said Tenney quietly, with the slightest glance at Tira in her tremor there by the door, “I ain’t goin’ to die, not this v’y’ge.  If anybody’s goin’ to, it ain’t me.”

“O Isr’el!” said Tira.  Her voice rose scarcely above a whisper and she bent toward him in a beseeching way as if she might, in another instant, run to him.  “You let him go.  You an’ me’ll stay here together, long as we live.  There sha’n’t nothin’ come betwixt us, Isr’el.”  In this Nan heard a hidden anguish of avowal.  “But you let him go.”

Tenney did not regard her.  He spoke, pointedly to Nan: 

“I’m obleeged to ye.”  He rose from his chair.  He was dismissing her.  His action approached a dignity not to be ignored, and Nan also rose.

“I sha’n’t give it up,” she said.  “I shall come again.”

She tried to smile at him with composure, including Tira in the friendliness of it, but Tira, oblivious of her, was staring at Tenney, and Nan found herself outside, trouble in her mind.  Tira had not gone to the door with her.  She had staid still staring, in that fixed interrogation, at Tenney.  He looked at her now, met her eyes, and gave a little grimace.  He had done well, the movement said.  He had seen through it all.  He was pleased with himself.  Now he spoke to her, so affably that she frowned with perplexity at finding him kind.

“’Tain’t so terrible hard,” said Tenney, “to see through folks, once ye set your mind on it.  He started her out on that, he an’ you together, mebbe. ‘’F I git rid o’ the young one,’ you says, ’I shall have more freedom to range round, outdoor.’  Mebbe you said it to him.  Mebbe he said it to you.  Mebbe ‘twas t’other one - Martin - that said it an’ you took it up.  No, ’tain’t so hard to see through folks, once ye git a start.”

He turned and took, with a difficulty half assumed, the few steps to the wood-box, selected a couple of sticks and, with a quiet deftness that seemed to indicate a mind bent only on the act itself, put them in the stove.  Tira watched him, fascinated by him, the strength in abeyance, the wayward will.  When he set on the stove cover, it seemed to break the spell of her rigidity and she turned, hurried into the scullery and came back.  She had, he saw, a knife.  That was not alarming.  It was a small kitchen knife, but he recognized it as the one she made a great fuss about, asking him to sharpen it often and keeping it for special use.  But she gripped it strangely.  Besides, there was the strangeness of her face.

“Here! here!” he said.  “What you doin’ o’ that knife?”

Tira was not thinking of him.  She had gone, with her quick, lithe step, to the window where the vine was tapping, and thrown it up.

“Here!” he called again, his uneasiness shifting; whatever a woman was doing, with a face like that, she must be stopped.  “What you openin’ winders for, a day like this, coldin’ off the room?”

Tira reached out and seized the woodbine spray, cut it savagely and then shut the window.  She came back with the spray in her hand, took off the stove cover and thrust it in, twining and writhing as if it had life and rebelled against the flame.

“There!” she said.  “I ain’t goin’ to have no vines knockin’ at winders an’ scarin’ anybody to death.”

Then she went into the scullery and put the knife in its place, blade up in a little frame over the sink, and came back into the bedroom where the child was whimpering.  She stayed there a long time, and Tenney stood where she left him, listening for her crooning song.  When it began, as it did presently, he gave a nod of relief and started moving about the room.  Once he went into the scullery, and Tira heard him pumping.  But when she had got the child dressed, and had gone out there herself, to prepare the vegetables for dinner, she put her hand mechanically, without looking, on the rack above the sink.  The hand knew what it should find, but it did not find it.  The knife was gone.  Tira stood a long time looking, not at the empty place, but down at her feet.  It was not alarming to miss the knife.  It was reassuring.  It was not to be believed, yet she must believe it.  Tenney was taking precautions.  He was afraid.

Nan, halfway home, met Raven.  He had been walking up and down, to meet her.  Defeat, he saw, with a glance at her face.

“Yes,” said Nan, coming up with him.  “No go, Rookie.  He was civil.  But he was dreadful.  I don’t know whether I should have known it, but it’s the way she looked at him.  Rookie, she was scared blue.”

Raven said nothing.  He felt a poor stick indeed, to have brought Nan into it and given her over to defeat.

“Can’t we walk a spell?” said she.  “Couldn’t we take the back road to the hut?  I do so want to talk to you.”

They turned back and passed the Tenneys’ at a smart pace.  Raven gave the house a swift glance.  He was always expecting to hear Tira cry out, she who never did and who, he knew, would endure torture like an Indian.  They turned into the back road where the track was soft with the latest snow, and came into the woods again opposite the hut.  When they reached it and Raven put down his hand for the key, Nan asked: 

“Does she come here often?”

“Not lately,” he said, fitting the key in the lock.  “She had rather a quiet time of it while he was lame.”

They went in and Nan kept on her coat while he lighted the fire and piled on brush.

“Rookie,” she said, when he had it leaping, “it’s an awful state of things.  The man’s insane.”

“No,” said Raven, “I don’t feel altogether sure of that.  We’re too ready to call a man insane, now there’s the fashion of keeping tabs.  Look at me.  I do something outside the ordinary - I kick over the traces - and Milly says I’m to go to the Psychopathic.  Dick more than half thinks so, too.  Perhaps I ought.  Perhaps most of us ought.  We deflect just enough from what the majority are thinking and doing to warrant them in shutting us up.  No, I don’t believe you could call him insane.”

They talked it out from all quarters of argument.  Nan proposed emergency activities and Raven supplied the counter reason, always, he owned, going back to Tira’s obstinacy.  Nan was game to kidnap the child, even from Tira’s arms.  Couldn’t be done, Raven told her.  Not longer ago than yesterday, Tira would have consented, but now, he reminded her, Tenney’s crazy mind was on him.  Yes, it was a crazy mind, he owned, but Tenney was not on that account to be pronounced insane.  He couldn’t be shut up, at least without Tira’s concurrence.  And she never would concur.  She had, if you could put it so, an insane determination equal in measure to Tenney’s insane distrust, to keep the letter of her word.  Then, Nan argued, Tira and the child together must go back with her.  To Tenney, used only to the remote reaches of his home, the labyrinth of city life was impenetrable.  He couldn’t possibly find them.  He wouldn’t be reasonable enough, intelligent enough, to take even the first step.  And Raven could stay here and fight out the battle.  Tenney wouldn’t do anything dramatically silly.  Tira was “’way off” in fearing that.  He would only fix Raven with those unpleasant eyes and ask if he were saved.  Very well, Raven agreed.  It was worth trying.  They must catch the first chance of seeing Tira alone.

Then, though his mind was on Tira, it reverted to Anne.  Again she seemed to be inexorably beside him, reminding him, with that delicate touch of her invisible finger, that he was not thinking of her, not even putting his attention uninterruptedly on what she had bidden him do:  her last request, he seemed to hear her remonstrating, half sighing it to herself, as if it were only one more of the denials life had made her.  Even if he did not agree with her, in his way of taking things (throwing away his strength, persuading young men to throw away theirs, that the limited barbarism called love of country might be served) could he not act for her, in fulfilling her rarer virtue of universal love?

“I tell you what, Nan,” he said, with a leap from Tira to the woman more potent now in her unseen might than she had ever been when her subtle ways of mastery had been in action before him, “it’s an impossible situation.”

How did she know he was talking, not of Tira but of Anne?  Yet she did know.  There had been a moment’s pause and perhaps her mind leaped with his.

It was, she agreed, impossible.  Yet, after all, so many things weren’t, that looked so at the start.  Think of surgery:  the way they’d both seen men made over.  Well!  He didn’t remind her that they had also seen a mountain of men, if fate had piled their bodies as high as it was piling the fame of their endeavor, who couldn’t be made over.

“If we refuse her,” he said - and though Nan was determined he should make his decision alone, she loved him for the coupling of their intent - “we seem to repudiate her.  And that’s perfectly devilish, with her where she is.”

It was devilish, Nan agreed.  Her part here seemed to be acquiescence in his attitude of mind, going step by step with him as he broke his path.

“And,” said Raven, lapsing into a confidence he had not meant to make - for would Anne in her jealous possessiveness, allow him to share one intimate thought about her, especially with Nan? - “the strange part of it is, I do seem to feel she’s somewhere.  I seem to feel she’s here.  Reminding me, you know, just as a person can by looking at you, though he doesn’t say a word.  Have you felt that?  Do you now?”

“No,” said Nan, with her uncalculated decisiveness that made you sure she was not merely speaking the truth as she saw it, but that she did see it clearly.  “I have felt it, though, about other people.  About two or three of the boys over there, you know.  They were the ones I knew rather well.  And Old Crow! up here, Rookie, alone with you, I have that sense of Old Crow’s being alive, very much alive.  Is it the thoughts he’s left behind him, written on the air, or is it really Old Crow?”

“The air’s been changed a good many times since he was here,” said Raven lightly.  It was not good for little girls to be wrestling forever with things formless and dark.

“Oh,” said she, “but there’s something left.  Our minds make pictures.  They don’t get rubbed out.  Why, I can see old Billy Jones sitting here and Old Crow bandaging his legs, and your mother and little Jack coming up to bring things in a basket.  You can say that’s because Old Crow told it so vividly I can’t get it out of my mind.  But that isn’t all.  Things don’t get rubbed out.”