Read THE LOOM: CHAPTER XVIII of The Bishop of Cottontown A Story of the Southern Cotton Mills , free online book, by John Trotwood Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

THE DYING LION

“Lily has been taken home,” he said as she walked out with him. “She is safe and will be cared for so will be your father. I will explain it to you as we drive to Millwood.”

She wondered, but her cheeks now burned so that all her thoughts began to flow back upon herself as a tide, flowing inland, and forgetting the sea of things. Her heart beat faster she felt guilty of what, she could not say.

Perhaps the guilt of the sea for being found on the land.

The common mill girls were they not all looking at her, were they not all wondering, did they not all despise her, her who by birth and breeding should be above them? Her lips tightened at the thought she who was above them now now they to be above her poor-born and common as they were if if he betrayed her.

He handed her quietly reverently even, into the buggy, and the trotters whirled her away; but not before she thought she saw the mill girls peeping at her through the windows, and nodding their heads at each other, and some of them smiling disdainfully. And yet when she looked closely there was no one at the windows.

The wind blew cool. Travis glanced at her dress, her poorly protected shoulders.

“I am afraid you will be too cold after coming from a warm mill and going with the speed we go.”

He reached under the seat and drew out a light overcoat. He threw it gently over her shoulders, driving, in his masterful way, with the reins in one hand.

He did not speak again until he reached Millwood.

The gate was down, bits of strewn paper, straw and all the debris of things having been moved, were there. The house was dark and empty, and Helen uttered a surprised cry:

“Why, what does all this mean? Oh, has anything happened to them?”

She clung in pallor to Travis’s arm.

“Be calm,” he said, “I will explain. They are all safe. They have moved. Let us go in, a moment.”

He drew the mares under a shed and hitched them, throwing blankets over them and unchecking their heads. Then he lifted her out. How strong he was, and how like a limp lily she felt in the grasp of his hands.

The moon flashed out now and then from clouds scurrying fast, adding a ghostliness to the fading light, in which the deserted house stood out amid shadowy trees and weeds tall and dried. The rotten steps and balcony, even the broken bottles and pieces of crockery shone bright in the fading light. Tears started to her eyes:

“Nothing is here nothing!”

Travis caught her hand in the dark and she clung to him. A hound stepped out from under the steps and licked her other hand. She jumped and gave a little shriek. Then, when she understood, she stroked the poor thing’s head, its eyes staring hungrily in the dim light.

She followed Travis up the steps. Within, he struck a match, and she saw the emptiness of it all the broken plastering and the paper torn off in spots, a dirty, littered floor, and an old sofa and a few other things left, too worthless to be moved.

She held up bravely, but tears were running down her cheeks. Travis struck another match to light a lamp which had been forgotten and left on the mantel. He attempted to light it, but something huge and black swept by and extinguished it. Helen shrieked again, and coming up timidly seized his arm in the dark. He could feel her heart beating excitedly against it.

He struck another match.

“Don’t be uneasy, it is nothing but an owl.”

The light was turned up and showed an owl sitting on the top of an old tester that had formerly been the canopy of her grandmother’s bed.

The owl stared stupidly at them turning its head solemnly.

Helen laughed hysterically.

“Now, sit down on the old sofa,” he said. “There is much to say to you. We are now on the verge of a tragedy or a farce, or ”

“Sometimes plays end well, where all are happy, do they not?” she asked, smiling hysterically and sitting by him, but looking at the uncanny owl beyond. She was silent, then:

“Oh, I I don’t you think I am entitled now to have something end happily now once in my life?”

He pitied her and was silent.

“Tell me,” she said after a while, “you have moved father and Lily to to one of the Cottontown cottages?”

He arose: “In a little while I will tell you, but now we must have something to eat first you see I had this lunch fixed for our journey.” He went out, over to his lap-robe and cushion, and brought a basket and placed it on an old table.

“You may begin now and be my housekeeper,” he smiled. “Isn’t it time you were learning? I daresay I’ll not find you a novice, though.”

She flushed and smiled. She arose gracefully, and her pretty hands soon had the lunch spread, Travis helping her awkwardly.

It was a pretty picture, he thought her flushed girlish face, yet matronly ways. He watched her slyly, with a sad joyousness in his eyes, drinking it in, as one who had hungered long for contentment and peace, such as this.

She had forgotten everything else in the housekeeping. She even laughed some at his awkwardness and scolded him playfully, for, man-like, forgetting a knife and fork. It was growing chilly, and while she set the lunch he went out and brought in some wood. Soon a fine oak fire burned in the fireplace.

They sat at the old table at last, side by side, and ate the delightful lunch. Under the influence of the bottle of claret, from The Gaffs cellar, her courage came and her animation was beautiful to him something that seemed more of girlhood than womanhood. He drank it all in hungry heart-hungry for comfort and love; and she saw and understood.

Never had he enjoyed a lunch so much. Never had he seen so beautiful a picture!

When it was over he lit a cigar, and the fine odor filled the old room.

Then very quietly he told her the story of Mammy Maria’s return, of the little home she had prepared for them; of her coming that day to the mill and taking Lily, and that even now, doubtless, she was there looking for the elder sister.

She did not show any surprise only tears came slowly: “Do you know that I felt that something of this kind would happen? Dear Mammy dear, dear Mammy Maria! She will care for Lily and father.”

She could stand it no longer. She burst into childish tears and, kneeling, she put her beautiful head on Travis’s lap as innocently as if it were her old nurse’s, and she, a child, seeking consolation.

He stroked her hair, her cheek, gently. He felt his lids grow moist and a tenderness he never had known came over him.

“I have told you this for a purpose,” he whispered in her ear “I will take you to them, now.”

She raised her wet eyes flushed. He watched her closely to see signs of any battle there. And then his heart gave a great leap and surged madly as she said calmly: “No no it is too late too late now. I could never explain. I will go with you, Richard Travis, to the end of the world.”

He sat very still and looked at her kneeling there as a child would, both hands clasped around his knee, and looking into his eyes with hers, gray-brown and gloriously bright. They were calm so calm, and determined and innocent. They thrilled him with their trust and the royal beauty of her faith. There came to him an upliftedness that shook him.

“To the end of the world,” he said “ah, you have said so much so much more than I could ever deserve.”

“I have stood it all as long as I could. My father’s drunkenness, I could stand that, and Mammy’s forsaking us, as I thought that, too. When the glory of work, of earning my own living opened itself to me, Oh, I grasped it and was happy to think that I could support them! That’s why your temptation why I ”

He winced and was silent.

“They were nothing,” she went on, “but to be forgotten, forsaken by by ”

“Clay?” he helped her say.

“Oh,” she flushed “yes, that was part of it, and then to see to see you so different with this strange look on you something which says so plainly to me that that oh, forgive me, but do you know I seem to see you dying dying all the time, and now you are so changed indeed oh please understand me I feel differently toward you as I would toward one dying for sympathy and love.”

She hid her face again. He felt his face grow hot. He sat perfectly still, listening. At last she said:

“When I came here to-night and saw it all empty I thought: ’This means I am deserted by all he has brought me here to see it to know it. What can I do but go with him? It is all that is left. Did I make myself? Did I give myself this fatal beauty for you say I am beautiful. And did I make you with your strength your conquering strength, and Oh, could I overcome my environment?’ But now now it is different and if I am lost, Richard Travis it will be your fault yours and God’s.”

He stroked her hair. He was pale and that strange light which Jud Carpenter had seen in his eyes that afternoon blazed now with a nervous flash.

“That is my story,” she cried. “It is now too late even for God to come and tell me through you now since we you and I oh, how can I say it you have taken me this way you, so strong and brave and grand ”

He flushed hot with shame. He put his hand gently over her mouth.

“Hush hush child my God you hurt me shame me you know not what you say.”

“I can understand all but one thing,” she went on after a while. “Why have you brought me to this here at night alone with you to tell me this to make me me oh, change in my feelings to you? Oh, must I say it?” she cried “tell you the truth that that now since I see you as you are I I, I am willing to go!”

“Hush, Helen, my child, my God don’t crush me don’t listen, child listen! I am a villain a doubly-dyed, infamous one when you hear”

She shook her head and put one of her pretty hands over his mouth.

“Let me tell you all, first. Let me finish. After all this, why have you brought me here to tell me this, when all you had to do was to keep silent a few more hours take me on to the station, as you said and and ”

“I will tell you,” he said gently. “Yes, you have asked the question needed to be explained. Now hear from my own lips my infamy not all of it, God knows that would take the night; but this peculiar part of it. Do you know why I love to stroke your hair, why I love to touch it, to touch you, to look into your eyes; why I should love, next to one thing of all earth, to take you in my arms and smother you kill you with kisses your hair, your eyes, your mouth?”

She hid her face, crimson.

“Did no one tell you, ever tell you how much you look like your cousin” he stopped he could not say the word, but she guessed. White with shame, she sprang up from him, startled, hurt. Her heart tightened into a painful thing which pricked her.

“Then then it is not I but my Cousin Alice oh I yes I did hear I should have known” it came from her slowly and with a quivering tremor.

He seized her hands and drew her back down by him on the sofa.

“When I started into this with you I was dead dead. My soul was withered within me. All women were my playthings all but one. She was my Queen my wife that was to be. I was dead, my God how dead I was! I now see with a clearness that is killing me; a clearness as of one waking from sleep and feeling, in the first wave of conscience, that inconceivable tenderness which hurts so hurts because it is tender and before the old hard consciousness of material things come again to toughen. How dead I was, you may know when I say that all this web now around you from your entrance into the mill till now here to-night in my power body and soul that it was all to gratify this dead sea fruit of my soul, this thing in me I cannot understand, making me conquer women all my life for oh, as a lion would, to kill, though not hungry, and then lie by them, dying, and watch them, dead! Then this same God if any there be He who you say put more on you than you could bear He struck me, as, well no He did not strike but ground me, ground me into dust took her out of my life and then laid my soul before me so naked that the very sunlight scorches it. What was it the old preacher said that ‘touch of God’ business? ‘Touch ’” he laughed, “not touch, but blow, I say a blow that ground me into star-dust and flung me into space, my heart a burning comet and my soul the tail of it, dissolving before my very eyes. What then can I, a lion, dying, care for the doe that crosses my path? The beautiful doe, beautiful even as you are. Do you understand me, child?”

She scarcely knew what she did. She remembered only the terrible empty room. The owl uncannily turning its head here and there and staring at her with its eyes, yellow in the firelight.

She dropped on the floor by him and clung again to his knees, her head in his lap in pity for him.

“That is the story of the dying lion,” he said after a while. “The lion who worked all his cunning and skill and courage to get the beautiful doe in his power, only to find he was dying dying and could not eat. Could you love a dying lion, child?” he asked abruptly “tell me truly, for as you speak so will I act would make you queen of all the desert.”

She raised her eyes to his. They were wet with tears. He had touched the pity in them. She saw him as she had never seen him before. All her fear of him vanished, and she was held by the cords of a strange fascination. She knew not what she did. The owl looked at her queerly, and she almost sobbed it out, hysterically:

“Oh, I could love you you who are so strong and who suffer suffer so”

“You could love me?” he asked. “Then, then I would marry you to-night now if if that uncovering that touch had not been put upon me to do nobler things than to gratify my own passion, had not shown me the other half which all these years has been dead my double.” He was silent.

“And so I sent to-day,” he began after a while, “for a friend of yours, one with whom you can be happier than the dying lion. He has been out of the county sent out it was part of the plan, part of the snare of the lion and his whelp. And so I sent for him this morning, feeling the death blow, you know. I sent him an urgent message, to meet you here at nine.” He glanced at his watch. “It is past that now, but he had far to ride. He will come, I hope ah, listen!”

They heard the steps of a rider coming up the gravel walk.

“It is he,” said Travis calmly “Clay.”

She sprang up quickly, half defiantly. The old Conway spirit flashed in her eyes and she came to him tall and splendid and with half a look of protest, half command, and yet in it begging, pleading, yearning for she knew not what.

“Why why did you? Oh, you do not know! You do not understand love love can it be won this way apprenticed, bargained given away?”

“You must go with him, he loves you. He will make you happy. I am dying is not part of me already dead?”

For answer she came to him, closer, and stood by him as one who in war stands by a comrade shot through and ready to fall.

He put his arms around her and drew her to him closer, and she did not resist but as a child would, hers also she wound around his neck and whispered:

“My lion! Oh, kill me kill me let me die with you!”

“Child my precious one my oh, God, and you forgive me this. But let me kiss you once and dream dream it is she”

She felt his kisses on her hair, her eyes.

“Good-bye Alice Alice good-bye forever ”

He released her, but she clung to him sobbing. Her head lay on his breast, and she shook in the agony of it all.

“You will forgive me, some day when you know how I loved her,” he gasped, white and with a bitter light in his face.

She looked up: “I would die,” she said simply, “for a love like that.”

They heard the steps of a man approaching the house. She sat down on the old sofa pale, trembling and with bitterness in her heart.

Travis walked to the door and opened it:

“Come in, Clay,” he said quietly. “I am glad that my man found you. We have been waiting for you.”

“I finished that survey and came as fast as I could. Your man rode on to The Gaffs, but I came here as you wrote me to do,” and Clay came in quietly, speaking as he walked to the fire.