Read CHAPTER XVI of Once to Every Man , free online book, by Larry Evans, on ReadCentral.com.

In all that hill town’s history no period had ever before been so filled with sensation as was that one which opened with the flight of Judge Maynard’s yellow-wheeled buckboard along the main street of Boltonwood to herald the passing of the last of the line of men who had given the village its name.

One by one, in bewildering succession, climax after climax had piled itself upon those which already had left the white-haired circle of regulars about the Tavern stove breathless with fruitless argument and footless conjecture.

Old Jerry’s desertion from the ranks of the old guard over which the Judge had ruled with a more than despotic tongue, bursting with bomblike suddenness in their midst that very same night which had seen Young Denny’s dramatic departure, had complicated matters to an inconceivable degree. For, after all, he was the one member of the circle to whom they had all been unconsciously looking for a comprehensive answer to the question which the Judge’s crafty exhibition of the boy’s bruised face had created.

He enjoyed what none of the others could claim an absolutely incontestable excuse for visiting the old, weatherbeaten farmhouse on the hill above town and in his official capacity they felt, too, that he might venture a few tentative inquiries at least, which, coming from any one else, might have savored of indelicacy.

Not but what the circle had enjoyed Judge Maynard’s masterly recital, for it had held them as one man. But they were hungry also for facts facts which could convince as well as entertain. Even the Judge himself had planned upon Old Jerry’s co-operation; he had had it in mind to be patronizingly lenient that night; that is, after that first rebuke which was to leave him the undisputed master of the situation.

To reach the really great heights of which the evening’s triumph was capable the old mail carrier’s collaboration had been almost indispensable. They had been waiting with hungry impatience for him. And then Old Jerry had appeared he made his entrance and his exit and departing had left them gasping for breath.

Old Jerry had not waited to view the effect of his mad defiance of the town’s great man. It is doubtful if he had given that side of the issue one passing thought, but his triumphant withdrawal from the field had robbed the situation of not one bit of its decisiveness. Quiet followed his going, a stillness so profound that they heard him cackling to himself in insane glee as he went down the steps. And that hush had endured while they waited in a delicious state of tingling suspense for the first furious sentences which should preface his lifelong banishment from the circle itself.

For years they had whispered, “Just wait, he’ll come to it he’ll go just like the rest.” And so Young Denny’s final weakening had not been so unexpected as it might have been. And more than once, too, when the Judge’s harsh censure of him who had always been his stanchest supporter had left Old Jerry cringing in his place beside the stove, they had all felt the justice if not a premonition of final retribution to come. It was the debonaire dare-deviltry of Old Jerry’s defiance rather than its unexpectedness which had proved its greatest sensation. That day’s one supreme moment the only one which had not suffered from too acute anticipation came while they waited for the Judge’s denial, that denial which was never spoken.

The town’s great man had slumped back in his chair in a kind of stunned trance while the apoplectic purple of his earlier wrath faded from his face. He did open his mouth, but not in any effort to speak. It was only to lick his thick lips and gurgle noisily in his fat throat. He tried to rise, too, and failed in his first attempt and tried again.

They had all realized what it was that made his knees wabble as he crossed to the door; they understood what had drained his face of all its color. Every man of them knew why the latch rattled under his shaking figure. The Judge had been afraid, not merely morally frightened, but abjectly, utterly terrified in the flesh afraid of the threat in the insolent bearing of the little, shriveled man who had passed out into the night a moment before.

It could have been funny. It might have been sublimest farce-comedy, had they not lacked the perspective necessary for its appreciation. But it was enough that they realized that the demagogue had come crashing down enough that, watching his furtive disappearance that night, they learned how pitiful a coward a blusterer really can be.

Old Jerry’s own actions in those days which followed had furnished rich food for conjecture. The fact that it had been the little mail-carrier himself who had ridden in the carriage beside the slim girl with the tumbled hair, at the head of the dreary procession that toiled slowly up to the bleak cemetery behind the church, had, indeed, been worthy of some discussion. The spendthrift prodigality of the white roses which rumor whispered he had gone to place the next day over the new mound of raw earth had not gone unspoken. Even the resemblance of the girl who John Anderson had named Dryad in his hunger for the beautiful even the likeness of her face with its straight little nose and wistfully curved lips, to the features of that small, rain-stained statue of the white and gold slip of a woman who had been his wife, came in for its share of the discussion, too.

But all those topics which were touched upon in the nights that followed were, at best, of only secondary importance. Inevitably the circle about the stove swung back to a consideration of that first day’s major climax, until the very discord of opinion which hitherto had been the chief joy of those nightly sessions bade fair to prove their total disruption.

For the circle of regulars were leaderless now; there was no longer a master mind to hold in check the flood of argument and rebuttal, or preserve a unity of disagreement. Where before they had been accustomed to take up each new development and pursue it until it reached a state either too lucid for further consideration or an insolvable problem that dead-locked conversation, a half dozen different arguments sprang up each night, splitting the circle into wrangling factions which trebled the din of voices and multiplied ten-fold the new note of bitter personalities which had taken the place of former incontrovertible logic.

Judge Maynard’s iron discipline was gone, and the old guard faced a quite probable dissolution in the first week or two which followed his going. More from habit than anything else they had waited that next night for him to come and clear his throat pompously and open the evening’s activities. And the Judge failed to appear, failed just as signally as had Old Jerry.

And yet it was not the absence of the former which had left them leaderless. Not one of them had realized it the night before but that second night they knew!

By his very rebellion Old Jerry had won the thing which years of faithful service had failed to bring. He had dethroned the despot, and the honors were his by right of conquest.

The circle knew that the Judge would never return; after one hour of fruitless waiting that was a certainty. But night after night they continued to gather, stubbornly, persistently hopeful that Old Jerry would come back. And in the meantime they almost forgot, at times, Young Denny who had gone the way of his fathers as they had so truly prophesied; they only touched a little uncomfortably upon the problem of the slim, yellow-haired girl alone in the battered cottage at the edge of the town, while they reviewed with startlingly fertile detail and a lingering relish that came very close to being hero-worship, his last brief remarks which had left the Judge a wreck of his former magnificence.

If Old Jerry realized all this that had come to pass he gave no outward sign of such knowledge. He even forgot to pause impressively upon the top step of the post-office those days, as he always had formerly, before he made his straight-backed descent with the pouches slung over one shoulder. There were mornings when he came perilously near to ignoring altogether the double line which, with a new deference, greeted his daily passage to the waiting buggy, and yet there was not one who dared so much as to whisper that there was anything in his air of preoccupation that savored of studiously planned forethought. But it is doubtful if he did realize the change that had taken place, at least in that first week or two, for Old Jerry had much of a strictly private nature to occupy his mind.

He was never quite able to remember the things he had said that morning to the girl with the too-white face and tumbled hair, huddled in the half-light at the table before the window, or to recall in any sort of a connected, coherent sequence his own actions in those first few days which followed it.

It aggravated him for a day or two, this inability to piece out the details; it brought a peevish frown to his thin face and a higher, even more querulous note to his shrill falsetto voice, which, while they hardly understood it, nevertheless resulted in an even profounder hush in those respectful ranks. He couldn’t even revisualize it clearly enough for his own private edification for the joy of seeing himself as others had seen him.

Nothing remained but a picture of Dryad Anderson’s face the face that had tried so hard to smile which she had lifted to him that first morning when he entered the front room of the little drab cottage at the edge of town. That was limned upon his brain in startlingly perfect detail still that and one other thing. The memory of John Anderson’s pitifully wasted form huddled slack upon the high stool, arms outstretched and silvered head bowed in a posture of utter weariness, remained with him, too, clinging in spite of every effort to dislodge it.

That whole week had not served to wipe it out. Day after day, as Old Jerry drove his route with the reins taut in his nervous hands, it floated up before him. And even when he wound the lines about the whipstock, letting the old mare take her own pace, and leaned back, eyes closed, against the worn cushions, the interior of that back-room shop with its simple, terribly inert occupant and countless rows of tiny white statues, all so white and strangely alike, crept in under the lids.

Old Jerry’s mail route suffered that week; his original “system” of mail distribution, of which he had always been so jealously proud, went from bad to very, very bad, and from that to an impossible worse; and yet, while it became a veritable lottery for the hillsfolk who were dependent upon him whether they would receive the packet of mail which really belonged to a two-mile distant neighbor or none at all, in one respect the rural service improved immensely, and the improvement and strangely enough, too was as directly a result of that stubborn image of John Anderson’s bowed head which persisted in haunting the mind of the servant of the Gov’mint as was the alarming growth of his lack of dependability.

Day by day Old Jerry grew less and less prone to let the leisurely white mare take her own pace. Instead, he sat stiffly erect a great portion of the time, driving with one eye cocked calculatingly upon the course of the sun, and his mind running far ahead of him, to the end of the day’s route, when he would have to turn in at the cross-road that toiled up the grade to the wind-racked old Bolton place on the hill north of town.

They had always had a forbidding aspect Young Denny’s black, unpainted farmhouse and dilapidated outbuildings even when he had been certain that just as surely as he reached the crest he would find the boy’s big body silhouetted against the skyline, waiting for him, they had not been any too prepossessing. Now they never served to awake in him anything but actual dread and distrust.

Old Jerry laid it to the lonesomeness of the place to the bleak blindness of the shaded windows and the untenanted silence but he took good care that no loitering on his part would be to blame for his arrival at the house after dusk.

No one, not even he himself, knew how strong the temptation was that week to make tentative advances of peace to the members of the circle of Tavern regulars, for the more he dwelt upon it the finer the dramatic possibilities of the thing seemed. But he had misread in the hushed respect of his former intimates a chill and uncompromising disapproval, and he had to fall back upon a one-sided conversation with himself as the next best thing.

“I wa’n’t brought up to believe in ghosts,” he averred to himself more than once. “Ghosts naturally is superstition and that ain’t accordin’ to religion, not any way you look at it. But allowing that there could be ghosts just for the sake of argument allowing that there is now what would there be to hinder him from just kinda settlin’ down up there, as you might say? It’s nice and quiet, ain’t it? Sort of out of the way and more or less comfortable, too?”

At that point in the mumbled monologue the white-haired driver of the buggy usually paused for a moment, tilting his head, birdlike, to one side, wrapped in thought. There were those shelves lined with countless white figures which also had to be considered.

“He must’ve worked mighty steady,” he told himself time and again in a voice that was small with awe. “He must hev almost enjoyed workin’ at ’em, to hev finished so many! And he kept at it nearly all the time, I reckon. And now, that’s what I’m a-gettin’ at! Now I want to ask how do we know he’s a-goin’ to quit now how do we know that? We don’t know it! And Godfrey ’Lisha, what better place would he want than that back kitchen up there? Ain’t there a table right there by the window, all a-waitin’ for him an’ an’ ”

Invariably he broke off there, to peer furtively at the sun, before he whipped up his horse.

“Git along!” he admonished her earnestly, then, “Git along you! Nobody believes in ghosts leastwise, I don’t. But they ain’t no sense nor reason in just a-killin’ time on the road, neither. And I ain’t one to tempt Providence not to any great nor damagin’ extent, I ain’t!”

And yet in spite of all the uneasiness which the combination of the dark house and the persistent image of the little, worn-out stone-cutter kept alive in him, in so far as Young Denny’s team of horses was concerned, and the scanty rest of the stock which the boy had left in his care, Old Jerry kept strictly to the letter of his agreement. At the most it meant no more than a little readjustment of his daily schedule, which he high-handedly rearranged to suit his better convenience.

But all the rest which he had promised so fervidly to carry out the message which he had meant to deliver the very next morning after the boy’s departure and the explanation of Young Denny’s bruised face, even a diplomatic tender of the damp wad of bills which Denny had pushed in his hand had somehow been allowed to wait. For it had proved to be anything but the admirably simple thing it had seemed to the old man when he had volubly acquiesced to the plan.

He had forgotten it that first morning. With the well-planned opening sentence fairly trembling upon his tongue-tip when he opened the door, the whole thing had been swept utterly from his mind. And in the press of events that followed he never so much as thought of it again for days. When the memory of it did return, a week later, somehow he found it almost impossible to introduce the subject at least impossible to introduce it gracefully.

That was one of the reasons for his failure to execute the mission entrusted to him. The other reason, which was far weightier, so far as Old Jerry was concerned, was even harder to define. He blamed it directly to the attitude of the girl with the tumbled yellow hair and blue eyes, which were never quite the same shade of purple. More than a small proportion of the remarks which he had prepared beforehand to deliver to her had consisted of reproof not too harsh, but for all that a trifle severe, maybe of her hasty and utterly unfair judgment of Young Denny. That, he had assured himself, was only just and merited, and could only prove, eventually, to have been for the best. But she never gave him a chance to deliver it. One moment of sadness on her part would have been sufficient excuse. If he could have surprised her just once gazing at him from moist, questioning eyes, he felt that that would have been enough proof of contrition and humble meekness of spirit on her part. But he never did.

Instead Old Jerry had never seen so astounding a change take place in any human being as that which came over her day by day. By the end of that first week the pallor had gone entirely from her cheeks. The deep dark circles which had rimmed the wet eyes which she had lifted to him that first morning disappeared so entirely that it was hard to remember that they had ever been there at all. Even the lithely slender body seemed fuller, rounder. To every outward appearance at least Old Jerry had to confess to himself that he had never seen a more supremely contented, thoroughly happy creature than Dryad Anderson was at that week’s end.

And it irritated him; it almost angered him at times. Remembering his own travail of spirit, the self-inflicted agony of mind which he had undergone that day when he had first looked square into the eyes of his own soul and acknowledge his years of guilty unfairness to the lonely boy on the hill, he shut his lips tight upon the message he might have delivered and waited, stubbornly, for her to show some sign of repentance.

For a day or two a mental contemplation of this necessarily severe course brought him moments of comparative peace of mind. It justified in a measure, at least, his own remissness, and yet even that mind-state at times was rudely shaken. At each day’s end, after he had made his reluctant ascent of the hill which led up to Young Denny’s unlighted house, and a far speedier, none too dignified return, the little driver of the squealing buggy made it a point to turn off and stop for a moment or two before the gate of John Anderson’s cottage. At first the girl’s real need of him prompted this daily detour; then, when the actual need no longer existed, he excused the visit on the plea of her lonesomeness and his promise to Denny to look after her.

His own loneliness for he had never been so lonely before in all his lonely life and the other and real reason for this habit, he never allowed himself to scrutinize too closely. But each day he sat a little forward on the buggy seat as soon as he had turned the last sharp curve in the road and stared eagerly ahead through the afternoon dusk until he made out her slim figure leaning against the fence waiting for him. And every afternoon, after he had pulled the shuffling horse to a standstill, he bent down from his vantage point on the high seat to scan her upturned face minutely, almost craftily at times, for some tell-tale trace of tears on her long lashes, or a possible quiver of her lips, or a suspicious droop in her boyish shoulders. And he never discovered either the one or the other.

It was at such moments that his peace of mind suffered, for no sane man could ever have read, by any stretching of the imagination, anything akin to sorrow or sadness in the low laugh with which she invariably met his scrutiny. It fairly bubbled joy. Each day Old Jerry found her only happy offensively happy and where he had been secretly watching her for one betraying sign he became uneasily conscious after a time that very often she, too, seemed to be scanning his own face as if she were trying to penetrate into the inner tumult of perplexities behind his seamed forehead. Some days he was almost certain that there was a calculating light in her steady eyes a hint of half-hidden delight in something he couldn’t understand and it worried him. It bothered him almost as much as did the unvaried formula with which she greeted him every afternoon.

“Have you any news for me today?” she always asked him. “Surely you’ve something new to tell me this afternoon now, haven’t you?”

The tone in which she made the query was never anything but disarming; it was quite childishly wheedling and innocently eager, he thought. But reiterated from day to day it wore on his nerves after a while. Added to the something he sometimes thought he caught glimmering in her tip-tilted eyes, it made him more than a little uncomfortable. He fell back upon a quibble to dodge the issue.

“Was you expectin’ a letter?” he always countered.

This daily veiled tilt of wits might have gone on indefinitely had not a new development presented itself which threw an entirely different aspect upon the whole affair.

A fortnight had elapsed since Denny Bolton’s mysterious departure from the village when it happened. As usual, after the day’s duties were completed with his hurried return from the Bolton homestead, Old Jerry turned off at the crossroads to stop for a moment before the cottage squatting in its acre of desolate garden. He didn’t even straighten up in his seat that afternoon to gaze ahead of him, so certain he had grown that she would be waiting for him, a hint of laughter in her eyes and the same disturbing question on her lips, and not until the fat animal between the shafts had stopped of her own accord before the straggling fence did he realize that the girl was not there. Then her absence smote him full.

It frightened him. Right from the first he was conscious of impending disaster born quite entirely of the knowledge of his own guilt. The front door of the house was open and after fruitless minutes of panicky pondering he clambered down and advanced uncertainly toward it. His shadow across the threshold heralded his reluctant coming, and Dryad turned from the half-filled box upon the table over which she had been bending and nodded to him almost before he caught sight of her.

That little, intimately brief inclination of the head was her only greeting. With hands grasping each side of the door-frame Old Jerry stood there and gazed about the room. It had never been anything but bare and empty looking now with the few larger pieces of furniture which it had contained all stacked in one corner and the smaller articles already stored away in a half-dozen boxes, the last of which was holding the girl’s absorbed attention, it would have been barnlike had it not been so small. From where he stood Old Jerry could see through into the smaller back-room workshop. Even its shelves were empty, entirely stripped of their rows of tiny white woman-figures.

He paled as he grasped the ominous import of it; he tried to speak unconcernedly, but his voice was none too steady.

“So you’re a-house-cleanin’, be you?” he asked jauntily. “Ain’t you commencin’ a little early?”

He was uncomfortably conscious of that interrogative gleam in Dryad’s glance that amused glimmer which he couldn’t quite fathom when she turned her head. She was smiling, too, a little smiling with her lips as well as with her eyes.

“No-o-o,” she stated with preoccupied lack of emphasis, as she bent again over the box. “No I’m packing up.”

Old Jerry had known that that would be her answer. He had been certain of it. The other interpretation the only other possible one which could be put upon the dismantled room had been nothing more or less than a momentary and desperate grasping at a straw.

For a while he was very, very quiet, wondering just what it was in her mind which made her so cheerfully indifferent to his presence. She filled that last box while he stood there in the doorway, stood off to survey her work critically, and then picked up a hammer that lay on the table and prepared to nail down the lid.

“I’ve hit my finger four times today,” she apprised him between strokes as she drove the first nail home. “Four times this afternoon and always the same finger, too!”

The very irrelevancy of the statement, coupled with her calm serenity, was appalling to the old man. She didn’t so much as lift her eyes when she told him, but when the lid was fastened she whirled suddenly with that impetuosity which always startled him more than a little, her hands tightly clasped in front of her, and fairly beamed at him.

“There, that finishes everything everything but the pots and pans,” she cried. “And I’ll need them a little longer, anyway, won’t I? But maybe I won’t take them with me, either they’re pretty old and worn out. What do you think?”

Old Jerry cleared his throat. He ignored her question.

“Ain’t ain’t this a trifle sudden,” he faltered “jest a trifle?”

She shook her head again and laughed softly, as if from sheer joyous excitement.

“No,” she said. “No, I’ve been planning it for days and days oh, for more than a week!”

Then she seemed to catch for the first time the dreariness of his whole attitude the dejection of his spare angular body and sparrowlike, anxious face.

“You’re sorry I’m going,” she accused him then, and she leaned toward him a little, eyes quizzically half closed. “I knew you’d be sorry!” And then, swiftly, “Aren’t you?”

Old Jerry scraped first one foot and then the other.

“I reckon I be,” he admitted faintly. “Kinda surprised, too. I I wa’n’t exactly calculating on anything like this. It it’s kinda thrown me off my reckonin’! Are you are you figurín’ on goin’ right away?”

Dryad spun about and threw her head far on one side to scan the whole bare room.

“Tomorrow, maybe,” she decided, when she turned back to him. “Or the next day at the very latest. You see, everything is about ready now, and there isn’t any reason for me to stay, on and on, here is there?”

A little tired note crept into the last words, edging the question with a suggestion of wistfulness. It was something not so very different from that for which Old Jerry had been stubbornly waiting throughout those entire two weeks, but he failed to catch it at that moment. He had heard nothing but her statement that she meant to remain at least another day. It made it possible for him to breathe deeply once again.

Much could happen in twenty-four hours. She might even change her mind, he desperately assured himself women were always doing something like that, wern’t they? But even if she did go it was a reprieve; it gave him one last opportunity. Now, for the present, all he wanted was to get away to get away by himself and think! On heavily dragging feet he turned to go back down the rotting boardwalk.

“I I’ll drop in on you tomorrow,” he suggested, pausing at the steps. “I’ll stop in on my way ’round to to say good-by.”

The girl stood in the doorway smiling down at him. He couldn’t meet her eyes. As it was he felt that their gaze went through and through him. And so he did not see her half lift her arms to him in a sudden quite wonderful gesture of contrite and remorseful reassurance. He did not hear the first of the impulsive torrent of words which she barely smothered behind lips that trembled a little. His head was bowed so that he did not see her eyes, and if he could but have seen them and nothing else, he would have understood, without the words or the gesture.

Instead he stood there, plucking undecidedly at his sleeve.

“Because I I wouldn’t like to hev you go without seein’ you again,” he went on slowly “without a chance to tell you something er to tell you good-by.”

He didn’t wait for her answer. At the far bend in the road, when he looked back, she was still there in the doorway watching him.

He was not quite certain, but he thought she threw up one thin white arm to him as he passed out of sight.