Sarah Newbolt enjoyed in her saturnine, brooding way the warmth of April sunshine and the stirring greenery of awakening life now beginning to soften the brown austerity of the dead winter earth. Beside her kitchen wall the pink cones of rhubarb were showing, and the fat buds of the lilacs, which clustered coppicelike in her dooryard, were ready to unlock and flare forth leaves. On the porch with its southern exposure she sat in her low, splint-bottomed rocker, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees.
The sun tickled her shoulders through her linsey dress, and pictured her, grotesquely foreshortened, upon the nail-drawn, warped, and beaten floor. Her hands, nursing her cheeks, chin pivoted in their palms, were large and toil-distorted, great-jointed like a man’s, and all the feminine softness with which nature had endowed her seemed to have been overcome by the masculine cast of frame and face which the hardships of her life had developed.
She did not seem, crouched there like an old cat warming herself in the first keen fires of spring, conscious of anything about her; of the low house, with its battered eaves, the sprawling rail-fence in front of it, out of which the gate was gone, like a tooth; of the wild bramble of roses, or the generations of honeysuckle which had grown, layer upon layer–the under stratum all dead and brown–over the decaying arbor which led up to the cracked front door. She did not seem conscious that time and poverty had wasted the beauties of that place; that shingles were gone from the outreaching eaves, torn away by March winds; that stones had fallen from the chimney, squatting broad-shouldered at the weathered gable; that panes were missing from the windows, their places supplied by boards and tacked-on cloth, or that pillows crowded into them, making it seem a house that stopped its ears against the unfriendly things which passengers upon the highway might speak of it.
Time and poverty were pressing upon Sarah Newbolt also, relaxing there that bright hour in the sun, straying away from her troubles and her vexations like an autumn butterfly among the golden leaves, unmindful of the frost which soon must cut short its day. For, poor as she was in all that governments put imposts upon, and men list in tax returns and carry to steel vaults to hoard away, Sarah Newbolt had her dreams. She had no golden past; there was no golden future ready before her feet. There was no review for her in those visions of happy days and tender memories, over which a woman half closes her eyes and smiles, or over the incense of which a man’s heart softens. Behind her stretched a wake of turbulence and strife; ahead of her lay the banked clouds of an unsettled and insecure future.
But she had her dreams, in which even the poorest of us may indulge when our taskmaster in the great brickworks of this hot and heavy world is not hard by and pressing us forward with his lash. She had her dreams of what never was and never could be; of old longings, old heart-hungers, old hopes, and loves which never had come near for one moment’s caress of her toil-hardened hand. Dreams which roved the world and soothed the ache in her heart by their very extravagance, which even her frugal conscience could not chide; dreams which drew hot tears upon her cheeks, to trickle down among her knotted fingers and tincture the bitterness of things unrealized.
The crunch of wheels in the road now startled her from her profitless excursions among the mist of visions and dreams. She lifted her head like a cow startled from her peaceful grazing, for the vehicle had stopped at the gap in the fence where the gate should have stood warder between its leaning posts.
“Well, he’s come,” said she with the resignation of one who finds the long expected and dreaded at hand.
A man got out of the buggy and hitched his horse to one of the old gate-posts, first trying it to satisfy himself that it was trustworthy, for stability in even a post on those premises, where everything was going to decay, seemed unreasonable to expect. He turned up the path, bordered by blue flags, thrusting their swordpoints through the ground, and strode toward the house, with that uncouth giving at the knees which marks a man who long has followed the plow across furrowed fields.
The visitor was tall and bony, brown, dry-faced, and frowning of aspect. There was severity in every line of his long, loose body; in the hard wrinkles of his forehead, in his ill-nurtured gray beard, which was so harsh that it rasped like wire upon his coat as he turned his head in quick appraisement of his surroundings. His feet were bunion-distorted and lumpy in his great coarse shoes; coarse black hair grew down upon his broad, thick-jointed hands; a thicket of eyebrows presented, like a chevaux-de-frise, bristling when he drew them down in his peering squint.
Sarah Newbolt rose to meet him, tall in the vigor of her pioneer stock. In her face there was a malarial smokiness of color, although it still held a trace of a past brightness, and her meagerness of feature gave her mouth a set of determination which stood like a false index at the beginning of a book or a misleading sign upon a door. Her eyes were black, her brows small and delicate. Back from her narrow forehead she had drawn her plentiful dark hair in rigid unloveliness; over it she wore a knitted shawl.
“Well, Mr. Chase, you’ve come to put us out, I reckon?” said she, a little tremor in her chin, although her voice was steady and her eyes met his with an appeal which lay too near the soul for words.
Isom Chase drew up to the steps and placed one knotted foot upon them, standing thus in silence a little while, as if thinking it over. The dust of the highroad was on his broad black hat, and gray upon his grizzly beard. In the attitude of his lean frame, in the posture of his foot upon the step, he seemed to be asserting a mastery over the place which he had invaded to the sad dispersion of Sarah Newbolt’s dreams.
“I hate to do it,” he declared, speaking hurriedly, as if he held words but frail vehicles in a world where deeds counted with so much greater weight, “but I’ve been easy on you, ma’am; no man can say that I haven’t been easy.”
“I know your money’s long past due,” she sighed, “but if you was to give Joe another chance, Mr. Chase, we could pay you off in time.”
“Oh, another chance, another chance!” said he impatiently. “What could you do with all the chances in the world, you and him–what did your husband ever do with his chances? He had as many of ’em as I ever did, and what did he ever do but scheme away his time on fool things that didn’t pan out when he ought ’a’ been in the field! No, you and Joe couldn’t pay back that loan, ma’am, not if I was to give you forty years to do it in.”
“Well, maybe not,” said she, drawing a sigh from the well of her sad old heart.
“The interest ain’t been paid since Peter died, and that’s more than two years now,” said Chase. “I can’t sleep on my rights that way, ma’am; I’ve got to foreclose to save myself.”
“Yes, you’ve been easy, even if we did give you up our last cow on that there inter-est,” she allowed. “You’ve been as kind and easy over it, I reckon, Mr. Chase, as a body could be. Well, I reckon me and Joe we’ll have to leave the old place now.”
“Lord knows, I don’t see what there is to stay for!” said Chase feelingly, sweeping his eyes around the wired-up, gone-to-the-devil-looking place.
“When a body’s bore children in a place,” she said earnestly, “and nussed ’em, and seen ’em fade away and die; and when a body’s lived in a house for upward of forty years, and thought things in it, and everything––”
“Bosh!” said Isom Chase, kicking the rotting step.
“I know it’s all shacklety now,” said she apologetically, “but it’s home to me and Joe!”
Her voice trembled over the words, and she wiped her eyes with the corner of her head-shawl; but her face remained as immobile as features cast in metal. When one has wept out of the heart for years, as Sarah Newbolt had wept, the face is no longer a barometer over the tempests of the soul.
Isom Chase was silent. He stood as if reflecting his coming words, trying the loose boards of the siding with his blunt thumb.
“Peter and I, we came here from Kentucky,” said she, looking at him with a sidelong appeal, as if for permission to speak the profitless sentiments of her heart, “and people was scarce in this part of Missouri then. I rode all the way a-horseback, and I came here, to this very house, a bride.”
“I didn’t take a mortgage on sentiment–I took it on the land,” said Chase, out of humor with this reminiscent history.
“You can’t understand how I feel, Mr. Chase,” said she, dropping her arms at her sides hopelessly. “Peter–he planted them laylocks and them roses.”
“Better ’a’ planted corn–and tended to it!” grunted Chase. “Well, you can grub ’em all up and take ’em away with you, if you want ’em. They don’t pay interest–I suppose you’ve found that out.”
“Not on money,” said she, reaching out her hand toward a giant lilac with a caressing, tender air.
“Sit down,” said he in voice of command, planting himself upon the porch, his back against a post, “and let’s you and I have a little talk. Where do you expect to go when you leave here; what plans have you got for the future?”
“Lord, there’s not a clap-board in this world that I can poke my head under and lay claim to its shelter!” said she, sitting again in her low rocker, shaking her head sadly.
“Your boy Joe, he’ll not be able to command man’s wages for three or four years yet,” said Chase, studying her averted face as if to take possession of even her thoughts. “He’ll not be able to do much toward supportin’ you, even if he could light on to a steady, all-the-year job, which he can’t, the way times is.”
“No, I don’t reckon he could,” said she.
“And if I was to let you two stay on here I wouldn’t be any nearer bein’ paid back that four hundred dollar loan in two or three years than I am now. It’s nearly five hundred now, with the interest pilin’ up, and it’ll be a thousand before you know it. It’d take that boy a lifetime to pay it off.”
“Peter failed,” she nodded; “it was a burden on him that hackled him to the grave. Yes, I reckon you’re right. But there’s no tellin’ how Joe he’ll turn out, Mr. Chase. He may turn out to be a better manager than his pap was.”
“How old is he?” asked Chase.
“Most nineteen,” said she, some kind of a faraway hope, indefinable and hazy, lifting the cloud of depression which had fallen over her, “and he’s uncommon big and stout for his age. Maybe if you’d give Joe work he could pay it off, interest and all, by the time he’s twenty-one.”
“Not much need for him,” said Chase, shaking his head, “but I might–well, I might figure around so I could take him over, on certain conditions, you understand? It all depends on your plans. If you haven’t anywhere to go when you leave this house, you’re bound to land on the county.”
“Don’t tell me that, Mr. Chase–don’t tell me that!” she begged, pressing her battered hands to her eyes, rocking and moaning in her chair.
“What’s the use of puttin’ the truth back of you when you’re bound to come face up to it in the end?” he asked. “I was talkin’ to Judge Little, of the county court, about you this morning. I told him I’d have to foreclose and take possession of this forty to save myself.
“‘It’ll throw her and that boy on the county,’ he says. ‘Yes, I reckon it will,’ I told him, ‘but no man can say I’ve been hard on ’em.’”
“Oh, you wouldn’t throw me on the county at the end of my days, Mr. Chase!” she appealed. “Joe he’ll take care of me, if you’ll only give him a chance–if you’ll only give him a chance, Mr. Chase!”
“I meant to take that up with you,” said he, “on the conditions I spoke of a minute ago.”
He turned to her, as if for her consent to give expression to his mysterious terms. She nodded, and he went on:
“In the winter time, ma’am, to tell you the plain truth, Joe wouldn’t be worth wages to me, and in the summer not very much. A boy that size and age eats his head off, you might say.
“But I’ll make you this offer, out of consideration of my friendship for Peter, and your attachment for the old place, and all of that stuff: I’ll take Joe over, under writing, till he’s twenty-one, at ten dollars a month and all found, winter and summer through, and allow you to stay right on here in the house, with a couple of acres for your chickens and garden patch and your posies and all the things you set store on and prize. I’ll do this for you, Missis Newbolt, but I wouldn’t do it for any other human being alive.”
She turned slowly to him, an expression of mingled amazement and fear on her face.
“You mean that you want me to bind Joe out to you till he’s his own man?” said she.
“Well, some call it by that name,” nodded Chase, “but it’s nothing more than any apprenticeship to any trade, except–oh, well, there ain’t no difference, except that there’s few trades that equal the one the boy’ll learn under me, ma’am.”
“You’re askin’ me to bind my little son–my only child left to me of all that I bore–you want me to bind him out to you like a nigger slave!”
Her voice fell away to a whisper, unable to bear the horror that grew into her words.
“Better boys than him have been bound out in this neighborhood!” said Chase sharply. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. That’s all I’ve got to say. If you’d rather go to the poorhouse than see your son in steady and honorable employment, in a good home, and learning a business under a man that’s made some success of it, that’s your lookout, not mine. But that’s where you’ll land the minute you set your foot out in that road. Then the county court’ll take your boy and bind him out to somebody, and you’ll have no word to say in the matter, at all. But you can suit yourself.”
“It–kind of–shook me,” she muttered, the mother-love, the honor and justice in her quailing heart shrinking back before the threat of that terrible disgrace–the poorhouse.
The shadow of the poorhouse had stood in her way for years. It had been the fear of Peter when he was there, and his last word was one of thankfulness to the Almighty that he had been permitted to die in a freeman’s bed, under his own humble roof. That consolation was to be denied her; the shadow of the poorhouse had advanced until it stood now at her door. One step and it would envelop her; the taint of its blight would wither her heart.
Sarah Newbolt had inherited that dread of publicly confessed poverty and dependence. It had come down to her through a long line of pioneer forebears who feared neither hardship, strife nor death, so that it might come to them without a master and under the free sky. Only the disgraced, the disowned, the failures, and the broken-minded made an end in the poorhouse in those vigorous days. It was a disgrace from which a family never could hope to rise again. There, on the old farm with Peter she had been poor, as poor as the poorest, but they had been free to come and go.
“I know I’ve got the name of being a hard man and a money-grabber and a driver,” said Chase with crabbed bitterness, “but who is it that gives that reputation to me? People that can’t beat me and take advantage of me and work money out of me by their rascally schemes! I’m not a hard man by nature–my actions with you prove that, don’t they?”
“You’ve been as kind as a body could expect,” she answered. “It’s only right that you should have your money back, and it ain’t been your fault that we couldn’t raise it. But we’ve done the best we could.”
“And that best only led you up to the poorhouse door,” said he. “I’m offering you a way to escape it, and spend the rest of your days in the place you’re attached to, but I don’t seem to get any thanks for it.”
“I am thankful to you for your offer–from the bottom of my heart I’m thankful, Mr. Chase,” she hastened to declare.
“Well, neither of us knows how Joe’s going to turn out,” said he. “Under my training he might develop into a good, sober farmer, one that knows his business and can make it pay. If he does, I promise you I’ll give him a chance on this place to redeem it. I’ll put him on it to farm on shares when he fills out his time under me, my share of the crops to apply to the debt. Would that be fair?”
“Nobody in this world couldn’t say it wasn’t generous and fair of you, and noble and kind, Mr. Chase,” she declared, her face showing a little color, the courage coming back into her eyes.
“Then you’d better take up my offer without any more foolishness,” he advised.
“I’ll have to talk it over with Joe,” said she.
“He’s got nothing to do with it, I tell you,” protested Chase, brushing that phase of it aside with a sweep of his hairy hand. “You, and you alone, are responsible for him till he’s twenty-one, and it’s your duty to keep him off the county and away from the disgrace of pauperism, and yourself as well.”
“I ought to see Joe about it first, Mr. Chase, I ought to talk it over with him. Let me think a minute.”
She settled down to her pensive attitude, elbows on knees, chin in hands, and looked over the homely scene of riotous shrubbery, racked buildings, leaning well-curb, rotting fences. In one swift, painful moment she pictured what that spot would be after Isom Chase had taken possession.
He would uproot the lilacs; he would level the house and the chimney, stone by stone; he would fill up the well and pull down the old barn that Peter built, and drive his plow over the hearthstone where she had suckled her babies in the years of her youth and hope. He would obliterate the landmarks of her bridal days, and sow his grain in the spot where Peter, fresh in the strong heat of youth, had anchored their ambitions.
It was not so much for what it had been that her heart was tender to it, for the years had been heavy there and toilsome, disappointing and full of pain; not so much for what it had been, indeed, as what she and young Peter, with the thick black hair upon his brow, had planned to make it. It was for the romance unlived, the hope unrealized, that it was dear. And then again it was poor and pitiful, wind-shaken and old, but it was home. The thought of the desolation that waited it in the dread future struck her breast like the pangs of bereavement. Tears coursed down her face; sobs rose in her aching throat.
Joe, she thought, would do that much for her and the old home place; it would be but a little more than two years of sacrifice for him, at the most, with the bright hope of independence and redemption at the end. Being bound out would not be so disgraceful as going to the poorhouse. Joe would do it for her, she was sure of that. But it would be better to wait until evening and ask him.
“Joe, he’ll be along home from his work about dusk,” said she, “and we could let you know tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” said Isom Chase, rising stiffly, “I’ll have to send the sheriff here with the papers. Tomorrow, ma’am, will be too late.”
That dreadful picture swept across her inner vision once more–the chimney down, the house gone. She saw corn growing over the spot where she sat that moment; she remembered that Isom Chase had plowed up a burying-ground once and seeded it to timothy.
“What will I have to do to bind Joe over to you?” she asked, facing him in sudden resolution.
“We’ll git in the buggy,” said he, with new friendliness, seeing that he had won, “and drive over to Judge Little’s. He can make out the papers in a few minutes, and I’ll pay you a month’s wages in advance. That will fix you up for groceries and garden seeds and everything, and you’ll be as snug and happy as any woman in the county.”
In less than two hours the transaction was completed, and Sarah Newbolt was back again in the home upon which she had secured her slipping tenure at the sacrifice of her son’s liberty. As she began “stirring the pots for supper,” as she called it, she also had time to stir the deep waters of reflection.
She had secured herself from the threat of the county farm, and Joe had been the price; Joe, her last-born, the sole remaining one of the six who had come to her and gone on again into the mists.
She began to fear in her heart when she stood off and viewed the result of her desperate panic, the pangs of which Isom Chase had adroitly magnified. If Joe could work for Isom Chase and thus keep her from the poorhouse, could he not have worked for another, free to come and go as he liked, and with the same security for her?
Chase said that he had not taken a mortgage on sentiment, but he had made capital out of it in the end, trading upon her affection for the old home and its years-long associations. As the gloomy evening deepened and she stood in the door watching for her son’s return, she saw through the scheme of Isom Chase. She never would have been thrown on the county with Joe to depend on; the question of his ability to support both of them admitted of no debate.
Joe’s industry spoke for that, and that was Isom Chase’s reason for wanting him. Isom wanted him because he was strong and trustworthy, honest and faithful. And she had bargained him in selfishness and sold him in cowardice, without a word from him, as she might have sold a cow to pay a pressing debt.
The bargain was binding. Judge Little had pressed that understanding of it upon her. It was as irrevocable as a deed signed and sealed. Joe could not break it; she could not set it aside. Isom Chase was empowered with all the authority of absolute master.
“If he does anything that deserves thrashing for, I’ve got a right to thrash him, do you understand that?” Isom had said as he stood there in the presence of Judge Little, buttoning his coat over the document which transferred Joe’s services to him.
Her heart had contracted at the words, for the cruelty of Isom Chase was notorious. A bound boy had died in his service not many years before, kicked by a mule, it was said. There had been mutterings at that time, and talk of an investigation, which never came to a head because the bound lad was nobody, taken out of the county home. But the fear in the widow’s heart that moment was not for her son; it was for Isom Chase.
“Lord ’a’ mercy, Mr. Chase, you mustn’t never strike Joe!” she warned. “You don’t know what kind of a boy he is, Mr. Chase. I’m afraid he might up and hurt you maybe, if you ever done that.”
“I’ll handle him in my own way,” with portentous significance; “but I want you to understand my rights fully at the start.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered meekly.
Joe was coming now, pitchfork over his shoulder, from the field where he had been burning corn-stalks, making ready for the plow. She hastened to set out a basin of water on the bench beside the kitchen door, and turned then into the room to light the lamp and place it on the waiting table.
Joe appeared at the door, drying his hands on the dangling towel. He was a tall, gaunt-faced boy, big-boned, raw-jointed, the framework for prodigious strength. His shoulders all but filled the narrow doorway, his crown came within an inch of its lintel. His face was glowing from the scrubbing which he had given it with home-made lye soap, his drenched hair fell in heavy locks down his deep forehead.
“Well, Mother, what’s happened?” he asked, noting her uneasiness as she sat waiting him at the table, the steaming coffee-pot at her hand.
“Sit down and start your supper, son, and we’ll talk as we go along,” said she.
Joe gave his hair a “lick and a promise” with the comb, and took his place at the table. Mrs. Newbolt bent her head and pronounced the thanksgiving which that humble board never lacked, and she drew it out to an amazing and uncomfortable length that evening, as Joe’s impatient stomach could bear clamorous witness.
Sarah Newbolt had a wide fame as a religious woman, and a woman who could get more hell-fire into her belief and more melancholy pleasure out of it than any hard-shell preacher in the land. It was a doleful religion, with little promise or hope in it, and a great deal of blood and suffering between the world and its doubtful reward; but Sarah Newbolt lived according to its stern inflexibility, and sang its sorrowful hymns by day, as she moved about the house, in a voice that carried a mile. But for all the grimness in her creed, there was not a being alive with a softer heart. She would have divided her last square of corn-bread with the wayfarer at her door, without question of his worth or unworthiness, his dissension, or his faith.
“Mr. Chase was here this afternoon, Joe,” said she as the lad began his supper.
“Well, I suppose he’s going to put us out?”
Joe paused in the mixing of gravy and corn-bread–designed to be conveyed to his mouth on the blade of his knife–and lifted inquiring eyes to his mother’s troubled face.
“No, son; we fixed it up,” said she.
“You fixed it up?” he repeated, his eyes beaming with pleasure. “Is he going to give us another chance?”
“You go on and eat your supper, Joe; we’ll talk it over when you’re through. Lands, you must be tired and hungry after workin’ so hard all afternoon!”
He was too hungry, perhaps, to be greatly troubled by her air of uneasiness and distraction. He bent over his plate, not noting that she sipped her coffee with a spoon, touching no food. At last he pushed back with a sigh of repletion, and smiled across at his mother.
“So you fixed it up with him?”
“Yes, I went into a dishonorable deal with Isom Chase,” said she, “and I don’t know what you’ll say when you hear what’s to be told to you, Joe.”
“What do you mean by ‘dishonorable deal’?” he asked, his face growing white.
“I don’t know what you’ll say, Joe, I don’t know what you’ll say!” moaned she, shaking her head sorrowfully.
“Well, Mother, I can’t make out what you mean,” said he, baffled and mystified by her strange behavior.
“Wait–I’ll show you.”
She rose from the table and reached down a folded paper from among the soda packages and tins on the shelf. Saying no more, she handed it to him. Joe took it, wonder in his face, spread his elbows, and unfolded the document with its notarial seal.
Joe was ready at printed matter. He read fast and understandingly, and his face grew paler as his eyes ran on from line to line. When he came to the end, where his mother’s wavering signature stood above that of Isom Chase, his head dropped a little lower, his hands lay listlessly, as if paralyzed, on the paper under his eyes. A sudden dejection seemed to settle over him, blighting his youth and buoyancy.
Mrs. Newbolt was making out to be busy over the stove. She lifted the lid of the kettle, and put it down with a clatter; she opened the stove and rammed the fire with needless severity with the poker, and it snapped back at her, shooting sparks against her hand.
“Mother, you’ve bound me out!” said he, his voice unsteady in its accusing note.
She looked at him, her hands starting out in a little movement of appeal. He turned from the table and sat very straight and stern in his chair, his gaunt face hollowed in shadows, his wild hair falling across his brow.
“Oh, I sold you! I sold you!” she wailed.
She sat again in her place at the table, spiritless and afraid, her hands limp in her lap.
“You’ve bound me out!” Joe repeated harshly, his voice rasping in his throat.
“I never meant to do it, Joe,” she pleaded in weak defense; “but Isom, he said nothing else would save us from the county farm. I wanted to wait and ask you, Joe, and I told him I wanted to ask you, but he said it would be too late!”
“Yes. What else did he say?” asked Joe, his hands clenched, his eyes peering straight ahead at the wall.
She related the circumstances of Chase’s visit, his threat of eviction, his declaration that she would become a county charge the moment that she set foot in the road.
“The old liar!” said Joe.
There seemed to be nothing more for her to say. She could make no defense of an act which stood before her in all its ugly selfishness. Joe sat still, staring at the wall beyond the stove; she crouched forward in her chair, as if to shrink out of his sight.
Between them the little glass lamp stood, a droning, slow-winged brown beetle blundering against its chimney. Outside, the distant chant of newly wakened frogs sounded; through the open door the warm air of the April night came straying, bearing the incense of the fields and woodlands, where fires smoldered like sleepers sending forth their dreams.
His silence was to her the heaviest rebuke that he could have administered. Her remorse gathered under it, her contrition broke its bounds.
“Oh, I sold you, my own flesh and blood!” she cried, springing to her feet, lifting her long arms above her head.
“You knew what he was, Mother; you knew what it meant to be bound out to him for two long years and more. It wasn’t as if you didn’t know.”
“I knew, I knew! But I done it, son, I done it! And I done it to save my own mis’able self. I ain’t got no excuse, Joe, I ain’t got no excuse at all.”
“Well, Mother, you’ll be safe here, anyhow, and I can stand it,” said Joe, brightening a little, the tense severity of his face softening. “Never mind; I can stand it, I guess.”
“I’ll never let you go to him–I didn’t mean to do it–it wasn’t fair the way he drove me into it!” said she.
She laid her hand, almost timidly, on her son’s shoulder, and looked into his face. “I know you could take care of me and keep off of the county, even if Isom did put us out like he said he’d do, but I went and done it, anyhow. Isom led me into it, Joe; he wasn’t fair.”
“Yes, and you bound me out for about half what I’m worth to any man and could demand for my services anywhere, Mother,” said Joe, the bitterness which he had fought down but a moment past surging up in him again.
“Lord forgive me!” she supplicated piteously. She turned suddenly to the table and snatched the paper. “It wasn’t fair–he fooled me into it!” she repeated. “I’ll tear it up, I’ll burn it, and we’ll leave this place and let him have it, and he can go on and do whatever he wants to with it–tear it down, burn it, knock it to pieces–for anything I care now!”
Joe restrained her as she went toward the stove, the document in her hand.
“Wait, Mother; it’s a bargain. We’re bound in honor to it, we can’t back down now.”
“I’ll never let you do it!” she declared, her voice rising beyond her control. “I’ll walk the roads and beg my bread first! I’ll hoe in the fields, I’ll wash folks’ clothes for ’em like a nigger slave, I’ll lay down my life, Joe, before I let you go into that murderin’ man’s hands!”
He took the paper from her hands gently.
“I’ve been thinking it over, Mother,” said he, “and it might be worse–it might be a good deal worse. It gives me steady work, for one thing, and you can save most of my wages, counting on the eggs you’ll sell, and the few turkeys and things. After a while you can get a cow and make butter, and we’ll be better off, all around. We couldn’t get out of it, anyway, Mother. He’s paid you money, and you’ve signed your name to the contract along with Isom. If we were to pull out and leave here, Isom could send the sheriff after me and bring me back, I guess. Even if he couldn’t do that, he could sue you, Mother, and make no end of trouble. But we wouldn’t leave if we could. It wouldn’t be quite honorable, or like Newbolts at all, to break our contract that way.”
“But he’ll drive you to the grave, Joe!”
A slow smile spread over his face. “I don’t think Isom would find me a good driving horse,” said he.
“He said if you done well,” she told him, brightening as she clutched at that small stay of justification, “he’d let you work this place on shares till you paid off the loan. That was one reason––”
“Of course,” said Joe, a cheerfulness in his voice which his pale cheeks did not sustain, “that was one thing I had in mind when I spoke. It’ll all come out right. You’ve done the wisest thing there was to be done, Mother, and I’ll fulfill your agreement to the last day.”
“You’re a brave boy, Joe; you’re a credit to the memory of your pap,” said she.
“I’ll go over to Isom’s early in the morning,” said Joe, quite sprightly, as if the arrangement had indeed solved all their troubles. He stretched his arms with a prodigious yawn. “You don’t need to bother about getting up and fixing breakfast for me, for I’ll get some over there.”
“I hope he’ll give you enough,” said she.
“Don’t you worry over me,” he counseled kindly, “for I’ll be all right at Isom’s. Sunday I’ll come home and see you. Now, you take a good sleep in the morning and don’t bother.”
“I’ll be up before you leave,” said she, her eyes overflowing with tears. “Do you reckon I could lie and sleep and slumber when my last and only livin’ one’s goin’ away to become a servant in the house of bondage? And I sold you to it, Joe, my own flesh and blood!”
There had been little tenderness between them all their days, for in such lives of striving, poverty too often starves affection until it quits the board. But there was a certain nobility of loyalty which outlived the narrowness of their lot, and certain traditions of chivalry in the Newbolt heritage which now guided Joe’s hand to his mother’s head as she sat weeping and moaning with her arms flung upon the disordered table.
“It’ll be all right, Mother,” he cheered her, “and the time will soon pass away. What are two years to me? Not much more than a month or two to an old man like Isom. I tell you, this plan’s the finest thing in the world for you and me, Mother–don’t you grieve over it that way.”
She was feeling the comfort of his cheerfulness when he left her to go to bed, although she was sore in conscience and spirit, sore in mind and heart.
“The Lord never gave any woman a son like him,” said she as the sound of Joe’s steps fell quiet overhead, “and I’ve sold him into slavery and bondage, just to save my own unworthy, coward’y, sneakin’ self!”