Read CHAPTER XI of The Love Story of Abner Stone , free online book, by Edwin Carlile Litsey, on ReadCentral.com.

The door settled heavily into place behind us, and we were in almost complete darkness. Somewhere in front of us was a glimmer of light. I felt the slight figure at my side drawing me forward, and I put myself under her guidance. Crossing the vestibule, we passed into the room beyond. Although we trod lightly, the bare floor sent up sounds which echoed loudly, it seemed to us. A ghostly light filled the chamber into which we had come, and made it look much larger than it really was. The roof was lost above us, but there, before us, were the plain, brown, wooden benches forming the pews, and the nave leading down to the altar railing. Along this a worn strip of carpet was placed. Slowly we went forward, awed by the silent majesty of a place of worship. All at once there came to me a realization of the peculiar position in which I was placed walking down a church aisle with a beautiful girl upon my arm and my face grew red. I could tell it by the hot tingling at my neck and temples, but the gloom was deep enough to hide it from her. The sudden force of what such a proceeding as this might mean made my heart my staid, old, methodical heart throb unwontedly. I hoped that the gloved hand resting so near to it did not feel its throbbings, although they sounded in my ears like a hammer on an anvil.

We had reached the railing. Before us rose the altar, with its images and its unlit tapers, its cloth of gold, and its silver appurtenances. A stretch of carpeted floor lay between it and us. Directly this side the railing was a narrow ledge. Salome suddenly bent her knees and rested them upon this, placed her elbows upon the railing and bent her head in her hands. For a moment I gazed at the black bowed figure, then found myself imitating her attitude. In the stillness of the old church we knelt alone. Around us was utter silence, and the paling light of a dead day. Perhaps in the dark corners the ghosts of confessed sins were lurking; above the spot where we knelt many a “Benedicite” had fallen upon humble hearts waiting to receive it. She was praying. Perhaps confessing to the Great Absolver the sinless sins which bore no crimson stain, and praying His favor for the ones she loved. As well might a flower of the fields bow down and breathe out tales of grave misdeeds, for her heart was like a flower yea, like the closed cup of a lily at night, garbed in purity as white as holiness.

I watched her through the fingers I had placed over my face. This surely was no sin, for my own heart was not still enough for prayer. She was very still, and only her small ear and a portion of her cheek were visible. What did this half-stifling feeling mean which rose up in my throat? I had never seen a woman in prayer, alone. Away back through the dimly lit aisles which led to a distant boyhood my mind had sometimes strayed, and viewed a small white figure kneeling at its mother’s side at bedtime. That was myself, and her petitions were doubtless sent up by the little cot where I lay asleep. A young girl praying! It is as sacred as the miracle of birth. And by this simple act, this girl had placed in me a greater trust than words could speak. She deemed me good enough to be by her side when she approached her Creator and was I worthy? I knew I was not. And though my life had been free from those polluting sins which glow like rubies in the souls of some men, I felt that here I had no fitting place, that her prayers would be clogged by the unholiness of my presence. She knelt, immovable as the statued Christ which hung almost over our heads. The glow in the stained-glass windows to our left had turned to a gray blur; the outlines of her figure were growing indistinct. As suddenly and as quickly as she had knelt, she arose, and with the freedom of a child took my arm as we retraced our steps.

A young moon was tilted over in the sky near the horizon as we gained the open. The limitless depths above us were aglow with millions of sparkling stars. We stood for a moment before going down to our horses.

“We’ll be a little late getting back.”

Again it was my companion who broke the silence.

“I’m sorry, for it will be because of me.”

She laughed, the bubbling notes so like the falling of a forest rivulet over a low rock ledge.

“It will not matter, unless we count the loss of sleep. Mother and father know how I love the night, and when they know where I am, and whom I am with, they are not concerned.”

“I would gladly lose a night’s rest for an experience like this. You have made me very much your debtor. How solemn and beautiful it all is!” My eyes took in all visible things in a comprehensive glance. “Do you come here often?”

“No; I only care to come at the close of day, and my parents are getting too old to be dragged around to humor my whims. It is too far to come alone, and so I miss it.”

“Then did I really perform some sort of service for you in accompanying you here? I had imagined the favor all on your side.”

“Let’s call it square,” she smiled. “I showed you the place, and you acted as my protector and escort. A very even bargain, I think. We had better go now. We will have a fine ride home.”

It was very dark on the cedar-bordered walk down which we went, and while I longed to offer assistance, I refrained. When we came to the road, however, we found that there was enough light. The horses were restless at their posts, and we mounted with considerable difficulty after I had unhitched them. But Salome, peerless horsewoman that she was, quickly had hers in hand, and mine soon became tractable of its own accord. We proceeded at a smart canter until we reached the turnpike. There Salome suggested a gallop, and I could do nothing but assent, although fast riding was something to which I was not accustomed. But I gradually accommodated myself to the long, undulating leaps of my mount, and then began to enjoy it. It was highly exhilarating as well as novel. Salome sat as though part of the animal she managed so well, and as we swept along I kept my eyes upon her in a kind of wonder. It was so new to me, and the skill with which her small hand managed her mettled horse was nothing short of a marvel.

We did not talk much during this part of our ride. Occasionally she would fling a remark across at me above the thud of the hammering feet, but I think the beauty of the night and the wonderful silence sat upon our minds, and made our tongues unwilling for speech. Sometimes the road was open and clear, and then I could see her eyes, like veiled stars. And around and about us were fields of growing corn and ripening wheat, and infolding us close, as in a filmy garment, was that indescribable odor of green things and of dew-wet turf. Then the pike would sweep around a curve, like the stretch of a winding river, and bordering each side of the highway were clumps and rows of gigantic forest-trees. Oftentimes their boughs would intertwine above, and what seemed to be the black mouth of a tunnel would confront us. Into this apparent pit of darkness we would dash, but the horses never shied. They knew well the ground their fleet hoofs were spurning, and they knew that farther on was home, a good stall, and a rack full of musky clover hay. Under the trees I could not see Salome. Now and again some sparks of fire would shoot out when a hoof struck a stone. Then out into the open again. The pace our steeds had assumed of their own free will was no mean one, and when scarcely an hour had gone we were riding slowly through the meadow to the big whitewashed gate giving entrance to the yard. The young moon had grown weary, and tumbled out of the sky; but the stars seemed brighter they looked as though the dew which sparkled on the grass below us had washed their tiny faces on its way to earth. The Milky Way appeared as a phantom lace curtain stretched across the sky.

I opened the gate from my horse, and held it back for Salome to pass through. When she had done this, I followed, and the gate clanged back. The noise of its shutting notified Inky and Jim of our arrival, for they were waiting sleepily as we came up to the fine stone steps of the old home, and at once took charge of the horses. I helped Salome up the steps by placing my hand beneath her elbow. We stood for a moment on the edge of the porch.

“We must move around gently,” I suggested. “The old folks have doubtless been asleep an hour.”

“Bless their dear hearts!” she answered with earnest fervor. “Mother says you move like a mouse,” she resumed, and I could see the faint glint of her teeth as she smiled. “My room is upstairs, and I am not so likely to disturb them. Have you enjoyed your day?”

“It has been very pleasant,” I answered warmly. “I feel more grateful to you than I can say for being so nice to a stranger who happens to be a guest in your home. But I love the woods, and the fields, and the pure, fresh air which blows straight down from heaven. This much we have in common. Will you let me go with you again sometimes? I would not bore you, nor presume too much.”

In my great earnestness I had come closer to her.

“I am out of doors a great deal, and you may go with me often, if you wish. I enjoyed having you to-day.”

This was said just as seriously as my question had been put. Then, in one of those rare changes of which her nature was capable, she added:

“You know I need a protector in my various rambles, and you shall be my esquire when I go forth in state to see my flower subjects scattered all over the farm. My knight-errant, too, to espouse my cause should snake, or dog, or an enraged animal of the pastures seek to do me harm.”

“Gladly, your majesty,” I answered gallantly, falling into the spirit which her words betokened, and bowing low. “Behold your vassal; command me when you will.”

A whispered “good-night,” a faint echo of that enchanting laugh, and she had slipped through the door and was gone.

I did not tarry long, for the beauty of the night had suddenly paled. Everything had grown darker, and, by habit, I thought of my easy-chair and pipe, and went in also. Salome was standing at the farther end of the long, broad hall, with a lighted candle in her hand. Her hat had been removed, and her tangled hair was half down. The riding habit had also disappeared, and she was robed in some sort of a loose house gown which fell away into a train. Her back was towards me, and she had one foot on the first step of the curved stairway which went up from that point. She heard me turn the key in the lock, and looked back. I went towards her; why, I do not know. She waited until I had come quite close.

“I haven’t anything very particular to say,” I began, I fear very confusedly. But my foolish feet had led me to her, obedient to the dictates of a foolish mind, and I had to speak first.

“I have been in mother’s room,” she answered, opening her eyes very wide, as a child does when it hears a sound in the dark. “I went for this wrapper, and would you believe it, I did not waken either of them! Mother sleeps very lightly, too!”

“You have performed quite a feat,” I assured her, at once put at ease by her genuineness. “Have you planned anything for to-morrow?”

“Father has some sheep on the lower farm that are sick, and I am going to take them some salt, because that is good for their blood.”

“May I help you salt the sheep? I’ll carry the salt, if you will let me go.”

She turned her head sideways, with a slight uplifting of the brows, as though hesitating.

“Ye-e-e-s, I guess so,” she replied at last, doubtfully. “Do you know anything about sheep?”

“Nothing more than I have read. They are very docile, I believe, and a great many of our clothes come from their backs.”

“But that isn’t all.” There was the wisdom of Solomon on the fresh young face, shadowed by disarranged tresses. “Some of them have horns, like a cow, only they grow back instead of out. And they’ll run you sometimes, when they take a notion. Can you run, Mr. Stone?”

The picture which came to my mind of the staid and dignified Abner Stone flying across a meadow with coat-tails streaming, and an irate ram at his heels, brought a broad smile to my face.

“Yes; I can run. But I promise not to desert you if danger comes.”

“Then be ready in the morning. I will say good-night again, for I know you must tell this day’s doings to your pipe before you retire.”

Our entire conversation at the foot of the stair had been in low whispers, and I whispered back her good-night, and turned to go. Then, like Lot’s wife, I looked behind me. She had reached the first landing, where the stairway curved. She saw me, and peered forward, holding the candle above her head. The loose sleeve of her dress fell back with the motion, and the bare symmetry of her rounded forearm gleamed upon the blackness like ivory upon ebony. I waved my hand; she waved hers, then was gone.

I sank into a chair and bowed my head in my hands, my soul torn by the pangs of a new birth.