Read CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN - FAITH IS RESTORED of The Just and the Unjust, free online book, by Vaughan Kester, on ReadCentral.com.

“Custer ” began Mr. Shrimplin, and paused to clear his throat. He was walking beside wild Bill’s head while Custer in the cart tried to support Langham, for the latter had not regained consciousness. “Custer, I’m mighty well satisfied with you; I may say that while I always been proud of you, I am prouder this moment than I ever hoped to be! How many boys in Mount Hope, do you think, would have the nerve to do what you just done? I love nerve,” concluded Mr. Shrimplin with generous enthusiasm.

But Custer was silent, a sense of bitter shame kept him mute.

“Custer,” said his father, in a timidly propitiatory tone, “I hope you ain’t feeling stuck-up about this!”

“I wish it had never happened!” The boy spoke in an angry whisper.

“You wish what had never happened, Custer?”

“About you I mean!”

Shrimplin gave a hollow little laugh.

“Well, and what about me, son if I may be allowed to ask?”

“I wish you’d gone down to the crick bank like I wanted you to!” rejoined the boy.

Again he felt the hot tears gather, and drew the back of his hand across his eyes. The little lamplighter had been wishing this, too; indeed, it would for ever remain one of the griefs of his life that he had not done so. He wondered miserably if the old faith would ever renew itself. His portion in life was the deadly commonplace, but Custer’s belief had given him hours of high fellowship with heroes and warriors; it had also ministered to the bloody-mindedness which lay somewhere back of that quaking fear constitutional with him, and which he could no more control than he could control his hunger or thirst. His blinking eyelids loosed a solitary drop of moisture that slid out to the tip of his hooked nose. But though Mr. Shrimplin’s physical equipment was of the slightest for the rôle in life he would have essayed, nature, which gives the hunted bird and beast feather and fur to blend with the russets and browns of the forest and plain, had not dealt ungenerously with him, since he could believe that a lie long persisted in gathered to itself the very soul and substance of truth. Another hollow little laugh escaped him.

“Lord, Custer, I was foolin’ I am always foolin’! It was my chance to see the stuff that’s in you. Well, it’s pretty good stuff!” he added artfully.

But Custer was not ready for the reception of this new idea; his father’s display of cowardice had seemed only too real to him. Yet the little lamplighter’s manner took on confidence as he prepared to establish a few facts as a working basis for their subsequent reconciliation.

“I’d been a little better pleased, son, if you’d gone quicker when you heard them calls Mr. Langham was letting out; you did hang back, you’ll remember it looked like you was depending on me too much; but I got no desire to rub this in. What you done was nervy, and what I might have looked for with the bringing-up I’ve given you. I shan’t mention that you hung back.” He shot a glance out of the corners of his bleached blue eyes in Custer’s direction. “How many minutes do you suppose you was in getting out of the cart and over the fence? Not more than five, I’d say, and all that time I was sitting there shaking with laughter just shaking with inward laughter; I asked you not to leave me alone! Well, I always was a joker but I consider that my best joke!”

Custer maintained a stony silence, yet he would have given anything could he have accepted those pleasant fictions his father was seeking to establish in the very habiliments of truth.

“I hoped you’d know how to take a joke, son!” said the little lamplighter in a hurt tone.

“Were you joking, sure enough?” asked Custer doubtingly.

“Is it likely I could have been in earnest?” demanded Shrimplin, hitching up his chin with an air of disdain. “What’s my record right here in Mount Hope? Was it Andy Gilmore or Colonel Harbison that found old man McBride when he was murdered in his store?” And the little lamplighter’s tone grew more and more indignant as he proceeded. “Maybe you think it was your disgustin’ and dirty Uncle Joe? I seem to remember it was Bill Shrimplin, or do I just dream I was there but I ain’t been called a liar, not by no living man ” and he twirled an end of his drooping flaxen mustache between thumb and forefinger. “Facts is facts,” he finished.

“Everybody knows you found old Mr. McBride ” said Custer rather eagerly.

“I’m expecting to hear it hinted I didn’t!” replied Mr. Shrimplin darkly. “I’m expecting to hear it stated by some natural-born liar that I set in my cart and bellered for help!”

“But you didn’t, and nobody says you did,” insisted the boy.

“Well, I’m glad you don’t have to take my word for it,” said Shrimplin. “I’m glad them facts is a matter of official record up to the court-house. I don’t know, though, that I care so blame much about being held up as a public character; if I hadn’t a reputation out of the common, maybe I wouldn’t be misjudged when I stand back to give some one else a chance!”

He laughed with large scorn of the world’s littleness.

The epic of William Shrimplin was taking to itself its old high noble strain, and Custer was aware of a sneaking sense of shame that he could have doubted even for an instant; then swiftly the happy consciousness stole in on him that he had been weighed in the balance by this specialist in human courage and had not been found wanting. And his heart waxed large in his thin little body.

They were jogging along Mount Hope’s deserted streets when Marshall Langham roused from his stupor.

“Where are you taking me?” he demanded of the boy.

“Home, Mr. Langham we’re almost there now,” responded Custer.

“Take me to my father’s,” said Marshall with an effort, and his head fell over on Custer’s small shoulder.

He did not speak again until Bill came to a stand before Judge Langham’s gate.

“Are we there?” he asked of the boy.

“Yes ”

“Don’t you think we’d better get help?” said Shrimplin.

And Marshall seeming to acquiesce in this, the little lamplighter entered the yard and going to the front door rang the bell. A minute passed, and growing impatient he rang again. There succeeded another interval of waiting in which Shrimplin cocked his head on one side to catch the sound of possible footsteps in the hall.

“He says try the knob,” called Custer from the cart.

Doing this, Shrimplin felt the door yield, it was not locked; at the same instant he made this discovery, however, he heard a footfall in the street and so, hurried back to the gate. The new-comer halted when he was abreast of wild Bill, and stared first at the cart and then at Shrimplin.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

It was Watt Harbison.

“Young Mr. Langham has fell off the high iron bridge,” said the little lamplighter, with a dignity that more than covered his lapse from grammar.

“Why are you badly hurt, Marsh?” cried Watt going close to the cart.

“I don’t know, I’m in most infernal pain,” said Langham slowly.

“Do you think we can lift him?” asked Shrimplin. “The judge don’t seem to be at home.”

“Your boy would better go to my uncle’s; Judge Langham may be there,” said Watt.

And Custer promptly slid out of the cart and sped off up the street.

Langham met the delay with grim patience. A strange indifference had taken the place of fear, nothing seemed of much moment any more. Presently in his stupor he heard the sound of quick steps, then Colonel Harbison’s voice, and a moment later he was aware that the three men had lifted him from the cart and were carrying him along the path toward the house. They entered the hall.

“Take me up-stairs,” he said, and without pause his bearers moved forward.

They saw now that his face was pinched and ghastly under the smear of blood that was oozing from an ugly cut on his cheek, and Watt and the colonel exchanged significant glances. When they reached the head of the stairs Custer pushed open the first door; the room thus disclosed was in darkness, and the colonel, with a whispered caution to his companions, released his hold on Langham, and striking a match, stepped into the room where, having found the chandelier, he turned on the gas. As the light flared up, Shrimplin and Watt advanced with their helpless burden. It was the judge’s chamber they had entered and it was not untenanted, for there on the bed lay the judge himself.

It was Langham who first saw that recumbent figure. A hoarse inarticulate groan escaped him. He twisted clear of the hands that supported him and by a superhuman effort staggered to his feet, he even took an uncertain step in the direction of the bed, his starting eyes fixed on the spare figure. Then his strength deserted him and with a cry that rose to a shriek, he pitched forward on his face.

The colonel strode past the fallen man to the bedside, where for an instant he stood looking down on a placid face and into open eyes. As his glance wandered he saw that the judge’s nerveless fingers still grasped the butt of a revolver.

White-faced he turned away. “Is he dead, Colonel?” asked the little lamplighter in an awe-struck voice. “Was he murdered?” and visions of future notoriety flashed through his mind.

The colonel and Watt exchanged shocked glances.

“Here, Shrimplin, help me with Marsh!” said Watt. “We must get him out of here at once!”

They lifted Langham in their arms and bore him into an adjoining room. As they placed him upon the bed he recovered consciousness and clutched Watt by the sleeve.

“I’ve been seeing all sorts of things to-night it began while I lay in that ditch with the pigs rooting about me! Where is my father, can’t you find him?” he demanded eagerly.

Watt turned his head away.

“Then that was not a dream you saw it, too?” said Langham huskily. He dropped back on his pillow. “Dead Oh, my God!” he whispered, and was a long time silent.

Harbison despatched Shrimplin and Custer in quest of a physician, and he and Watt busied themselves with removing Marshall’s wet clothes. When this was done they washed the blood-stains from his face. He did not speak while they were thus occupied; his eyes, wide and staring, were fixed on vacancy. He was seeing only that still figure on the bed in the room adjoining.

There was a brisk step on the stairs and they were joined by Doctor Taylor.

“I declare, Marsh, I am sorry for this. You must have had quite a tumble, how did you manage it?” he said, as he approached the bed.

Langham’s eyes lost something of their intentness as they were turned toward the physician, but he did not answer him. The doctor moved a step aside with Colonel Harbison.

“Had he been drinking?” he asked in a low tone.

“I don’t know,” said the colonel.

“Shrimplin has gone for Mrs. Langham I think they are here now. Don’t let her come up until I have made my examination. Will you see to this?”

And the colonel quitted the room and hurried down-stairs.

As he gained the floor below, Evelyn entered the house.

“How is Marsh, Colonel Harbison?” she asked.

Her face was colorless but her manner was unexcited; her lips even had a smile for the colonel.

“Doctor Taylor is with him, and I trust he will be able to tell you that Marshall’s injuries are not serious!” said Harbison gently.

“Where is he? I must go to him ”

“The doctor prefers that you wait until he finishes his examination,” said the colonel. He drew her into the library. “Evelyn, I must tell you you must know that something else unspeakably dreadful has happened here to-night!”

“Yes?” The single word was no more than a breath on her full lips.

The colonel hesitated.

“You need not fear to tell me whatever it is, I I am prepared for anything ” said Evelyn, with a pause between each word.

“The judge is dead,” said Harbison simply. “My poor old friend is dead!”

“Dead Marshall’s father dead!” She looked at him curiously, with a questioning light in her eyes. “You have not told me all, Colonel Harbison!”

“Not told you all ” he repeated.

“How did he die?”

“I think I fear he shot himself, but of course it may have been the purest accident ”

“It was not an accident ” she cried with a sob. “Oh, don’t mind what I am saying!” she added quickly, seeing the look of astonishment on the colonel’s face.

“Mrs. Langham may come up if she wishes!” called Doctor Taylor, speaking from the head of the stairs.

Evelyn moved down the hall and paused.

“Does Marsh know?” she asked of the colonel.

“Yes, unfortunately we carried him into his father’s room,” explained Harbison.

Evelyn went slowly up the stairs. The horror of the situation was beyond words. As she entered the room where Marshall lay, Watt Harbison and the doctor silently withdrew into the hall, closing the door after them; but Langham gave no immediate sign that he was aware of his wife’s presence.

“Marsh?” she said softly.

His palpable weakness and his cut and bruised face gave her an instinctive feeling of tenderness for him. At the sound of her voice Langham’s heavy lids slid back and he gazed up at her.

“Have they told you?” he asked in an eager whisper.

“Yes,” she said, and there was a little space of time when neither spoke.

She drew a chair to his bedside and seated herself. In the next room she could hear Doctor Taylor moving about and now and then an indistinct word when he spoke with Watt Harbison. She imagined the offices they were performing for the dead man. Then a door was softly closed and she heard footsteps as they passed out into the hall.

Evelyn kept her place at the bedside without even altering the position she had first taken, while her glance never for an instant left the haggard face on the pillow. Beyond the open windows the silver light had faded from the sky. At intervals a chill wind rustled the long curtains. This, and her husband’s labored breathing were the only sounds in the leaden silence that followed the departure of the two men from the adjoining room. She was conscious of a dreary sense of detachment from all the world, the little circle of which she had been the center seemed to contract until it held only herself. Suddenly Langham turned uneasily on his pillow and glanced toward the window.

“What time is it?” he asked abruptly.

“It must be nearly day,” said Evelyn. “How do you feel now, Marsh? Do you suffer?”

He shook his head. His eyes were turned toward the window.

“What day is this?” he asked after a brief silence.

“What day?” repeated Evelyn.

“Yes the day of the week, I mean?”

“It’s Friday.”

“They are going to hang John North this morning!” he said, and he regarded her from under his half-closed lids. “I wonder what he is thinking of now?” he added.

“Would the governor do nothing?” she asked in a whisper.

She was white to the lips.

“And the Herbert girl I wonder what she is thinking of!”

“Hush, Marsh Oh, hush! I I can not I must not think of it!” she cried, and pressed her hands to her eyes convulsively.

“What does it matter to you?” he said grimly.

“Nothing in one way everything in another!”

“I wish to God I could believe you!” he muttered.

“You may on my soul, Marsh, you may! It was never what you think never never!”

“It doesn’t matter now,” he said, and turned his face toward the wall.

“Marsh ” she began.

He moved impatiently, and she realized that it was useless to attempt to alter what he had come to believe in absolutely. Beyond the windows the first pale streaks of a spring dawn were visible, but the earth still clothed itself in silence. The moments were racing on to the final act of the pitiless tragedy which involved so many lives.

“Marsh ” Evelyn began again.

“I’ve been a dog to endure your presence in my house!” he said bitterly.

Evelyn was about to answer him when Doctor Taylor came into the room.

“Is he awake?” he questioned.

Langham gazed up into the doctor’s face.

“Will I get well?” he demanded.

“I hope so, Marshall I can see no reason why a few days of quiet won’t see you up and about quite as if nothing had happened.”

“Come I want to know the truth! Do you think I’m hurt internally, is that it?” He sought to raise himself on his elbow but slipped back groaning.

“You have sustained a very severe shock, still ” began the doctor.

“Will I recover?” insisted Langham impatiently.

“Oh, please, Marshall!” cried Evelyn.

“I want to know the truth! If you don’t think you can stand it, go out into the hail while I thresh this matter out with Taylor!” But Evelyn did not leave her place at his bedside.

“You must not excite yourself!” said Taylor.

“Humph if you won’t tell me what I wish to know, I’ll tell you my opinion; it is that I am not going to recover. I must see Moxlow. Who is down-stairs?”

“Colonel Harbison and his nephew.”

“Ask Watt to find Moxlow and bring him here. He’s probably at his boarding-house.”

He spoke with painful effort, and the doctor glanced uncertainly at Evelyn, who by a slight inclination of the head indicated that she wished her husband’s request complied with. Taylor quitted the room.

“Why do you wish to see Moxlow?” Evelyn asked the moment they were alone.

“I want him here; I may wish to tell him something and I may not, it all depends,” he said slowly, as his heavy lids closed over his tired eyes.

It was daylight without, and there was the occasional sound of wheels in the street. Evelyn realized with a sudden sense of shock that unless Marshall’s bloodless lips opened to tell his secret, but a few hours of life remained to John North.

A struggle was going on within her, it was a struggle that had never ceased from the instant she first entered the room. One moment she found she could pray that Marshall might speak; and the next terror shook her lest he would, and declare North’s innocence and his own guilt. She slipped from his bedside and stealing to the window parted the long curtains with trembling hands. She felt widely separated in spirit from her husband; he seemed strangely indifferent to her; only his bitter sense of injury and hurt remained, his love had become a dead thing, since his very weakness carried him beyond the need of her. She belonged to his full life and there was nothing of tenderness and sympathy that survived. A slight noise caused her to turn from the window. Marshall was endeavoring to draw himself higher on his pillow.

“Here lift me up ” he gasped, as she ran to his side.

She passed an arm about him and did as he desired.

“That’s better ” he panted.

“Shall I call the doctor?”

He shook his head and, as she withdrew her arm, lay back weak and shaken.

“I tell you I am hurt internally!” he said.

“Let me call the doctor!” she entreated.

“What can he do?”

“Marsh, if you believe this ” she began.

“You’re thinking of him!” he snarled.

“I am thinking of you, Marsh!”

“He threw you over for the Herbert girl!” he said with an evil ghastly smile. “Do you want to save him for her?”

“You don’t need to tell all, Marsh ” she said eagerly.

“That’s you!” and he laughed under his breath. “I can’t imagine you advocating anything absolutely right! If I tell, I’ll make a clean breast of it; if I don’t I’ll lie with my last breath!”

He was thinking of Joe Montgomery now, as he had thought of him many times since he drew himself up out of that merciless yellow flood into which the handy-man had flung him. Evelyn looked at him wonderingly. His virtues, as well as his vices, were things beyond her comprehension.

The door opened, and Moxlow came into the room. At sight of him, Langham’s dull eyes grew brilliant.

“I thought you would never get here!” he said.

“This is too bad, Marsh!” said his law partner sympathizingly, as Evelyn yielded him her place and withdrew to the window again.

“Where’s Taylor?” asked Langham abruptly.

“He’s had to go to the jail, he was leaving the house as I got here,” replied Moxlow.

There was the noise of voices in the hail, one of which was the colonel’s, evidently raised in protest, then a clumsy hand was heard fumbling with the knob and the door was thrown open, and Joe Montgomery slouched into the room.

“Boss, you got to see me now!” he cried.

The prosecuting attorney sprang to his feet with an angry exclamation.

“Let him alone ” said Langham weakly.

Montgomery stole to the foot of the bed and stared down on Langham.

“You tell him, boss,” nodding his head toward Moxlow. “I put it up to you!” he said.

Langham’s glance dwelt for an instant on the handy-man, then it shifted back to Moxlow.

“Stop the execution!” he said, and Moxlow thought his mind wandered. “North didn’t kill McBride,” Langham went on. “Do you understand me he is not the guilty man!”

A gray pallor was overspreading his face. It was called there by another presence in that room; an invisible but most potent presence.

“Do you understand me?” he repeated, for he saw that his words had made no impression on Moxlow.

“Go on, boss!” cried Montgomery, in a fever of impatience.

“Do you understand what I am telling you? John North did not kill McBride!” Langham spoke with painful effort. “Joe knows who did so do I so did my father he knew an innocent man had been convicted!”

At mention of the judge, Moxlow started. He bent above Langham.

“Marsh, if John North didn’t kill McBride, who did?”

But Langham made no reply. Weak, pallid, and racked by suffering, he lay back on his pillow. Joe leaned forward over the foot of the bed.

“Tell him, boss; it’s no odds to you now tell him quick for God’s sake, or it will be too late!” he urged in a fearful voice.

There was a tense silence while they waited for Langham to speak. Moxlow heard the ticking of the clock on the mantel.

“If you have anything to say, Marsh ”

Langham raised himself on his elbows and his lips moved convulsively, but only a dry gasping sound issued from them; he seemed to have lost the power of speech.

“If North didn’t kill McBride, who did?” repeated Moxlow.

A mighty effort wrenched Langham, again his lips came together convulsively, and then in a whisper he said:

“I did,” and fell back on his pillow.

There was a moment of stillness, and then from behind the long curtains at the window came the sound of hysterical weeping.

Moxlow, utterly dazed by his partner’s confession, looked again at the clock on the mantel. Fifteen minutes had passed. It was a quarter after eight. His brows contracted as if he were trying to recall some half forgotten engagement. Suddenly he turned, comprehendingly, to Montgomery.

“My God! North!” he exclaimed and rushed unceremoniously from the room.