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Transcript

Argosy, February 9, 1918
HE farm of Philander Haskins was the
single mangy spot in the valley of the
Mignonette. His meadow and pasture
and woodland, stretching down from
Two-Bear Mountain to the river, had taken on
the look of a worn old buffalo robe.
Years of niggardly care had done this; for
from his land Haskins got without giving and if
it had not been for his trade in hides and money
he would not have possessed the fortune for
which the country-side gave him credit.
Hogskin Haskin, he was called; and the name
was never enunciated pleasantly.
Up under the shadow of Two-Bear’s granite
crags sat his house. To the beholder who knew
him and had dealt with him, it was like a gray
old spider, fat with gobbled dollars, waiting to
engulf within its hoary sides anything having
value.
The blinds hung slatternly, and many
clapboards were gone from its weather-beaten
sides. Rank weeds grew up against the porchless
front door, but at the rear of the building there
were signs of the meager life of Philander
Haskins.
Here, on a certain hot July day, a sad horse
of many ribs was staked out in the shade of a
small stable. The litter of a wood-pile spread
about, and in the midst of it Haskins worked
with an ax that had long since needed a new
helve. He was a square-built, powerful man,
somewhat grizzled. Two straight lines ran
across his face; one drawn by his eyebrows and
the other by his lipless mouth. He wore overalls
and a faded blue shirt, and the years had
wrapped him in a permanent mantle of
suspicion and hostility.
When noon came Haskins drove his ax into
the chopping-block and trudged into a kitchen
that was neither dirty nor clean; it was merely
barren. With chips and bark he built up a small
fire and set the teakettle on to boil. Then he
brought out from the pantry a tin of cold
johnny-cake and another of bacon grease. He sat
down and began to eat, in order to save time
while the water for his tea was boiling. The fare
was not to his stomach’s liking, but it was to the
benefit of his pocketbook.
Philander Haskins had finished the meal and
was slowly sipping tea from a saucer when an
T
Argosy
2
interruption came—such an interruption as had
not shaken the stillness of that house in twoscore years. A dull but reverberating clang
jarred through the rooms and reached the
kitchen, jerking up the head of the man at the
table and then holding him rigid for a tense
moment. The front door-bell had rung.
“What devil’s work is that?” growled
Haskins.
He owed no man, and he had done nothing
for which the law could lay its hand upon him;
yet he was afraid, vaguely. The clang of the bell
had struck not merely upon his ears, but upon
his spirit. He realized this, although he could
find no reason why it should be so; and when he
rose from his chair it was to go to the clockshelf and take down an old army revolver of the
pattern of the sixties.
With a heavy but cautious tread, Haskins
crossed the kitchen and opened a door. He
walked the length of an unfurnished hallway
from which an open staircase ran up to a closed
door on the second floor.
At the front entrance he shifted his revolver
and slowly worked back a massive bolt. It took
his weight and strength combined to start the
unused door from its casing; and when it
yielded, he moved backward with it so that he
could retain his grip upon the latch and at the
same time cover the opening with his pointed
weapon.
The barrel of the revolver wavered and
drooped. On the door-step stood a woman—but
a woman who could not, by any imagining,
have sprung from the valley of the Mignonette.
She was neither young nor middle-aged;
pale and delicate with the pallor of the cities.
The sun drew glints from her copper colored
hair, and it seemed that specks of red gold
floated in the eyes that gazed, smiling and selfconfident, into the eyes of Haskins. Her clothes
were of an appearance strange to the country. A
faint breath of some perfume drifted through the
doorway. Somehow the woman seemed to
suggest things known only to the valley of the
Mignonette by reading and the thundering
sermons of its preachers.
Her lips parted in a smile. It was the smile of
equal meeting equal; complimentary, raising
him up to her plane. She was amused at his
revolver, but she was not laughing at him: it was
merely a little joke between them. She flattered
him and honored him and expressed perfect
confidence in his reception of her; all in one
silent moment, and before old Hogskin Haskins
could find the use of his tongue.
“You are a wise man to have a weapon—in
the shadow of this somber mountain of yours!”
She made a graceful forward movement, as
though to enter.
Haskins fumbled to get the revolver into his
pocket.
“Was it me you wanted to see?” he asked,
stepping back.
“Yes, indeed! You are Mr. Philander
Haskins? No?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hesitated, then turned and
led the way to the kitchen. He dragged a
wooden chair across the room. Her arm brushed
his lightly as she sat down.
“Did you have some business with me,
ma’am?” he inquired, more at ease. It must be
that she had come to borrow.
“I am from New Orleans.” She said that as
though it might be an explanation of something.
“My health is not of the best, and that is why I
have come north, into your country, where there
are mountains. But I am not rich, and I cannot
stay at a hotel, Mr. Haskins.”
Ha! Money! As always and with everybody.
He drew into himself, and his habitual selfpossession came back.
“Money is scarce,” he replied, “I haven’t got
none—that is, only a little. I have to get mighty
good security when I lend it.”
“Oh, money is nothing!” she smiled. “I do
not want to borrow. I came up here because they
told me in the village that you needed a
Whatever God
3
housekeeper.”
Haskins opened his mouth to deny it
decisively. Then he paused. The woman had
stirred him beneath his crust from the first sight
of her; and he, who had not thought of a woman
for decades, felt himself giving entertainment to
thought that had no business in his mind. He
must say no emphatically, and get up to show
her that it was time to go.
“They was playing a joke on you,” he said,
instead of the firm denial that he had framed for
his tongue. He remained sitting. “I can’t afford a
housekeeper.”
“Indeed!” She dismissed what he had said
with lifted eyebrows. “I do not expect pay. If I
could be worth my board to you?”
The proposal was a shock to Haskins, for it
opened the possibility of keeping the woman
there, and he knew that he ought to send her
away. She would probably eat her head off. Still
he temporized, instead of giving a blunt refusal.
“How’s it happened you come up here?
They don’t like me none too well around in
these parts.”
“At the hotel I asked for the names of
farmers having no capable women to tend their
households—that is all I am good for!” She
smiled as though in apology for the meagerness
of her talents. “There were but few, and your
house was the first on the road.”
True enough, he thought, naming over the
neighbors in his mind. The pimply-faced hotel
clerk had put in his name for a joke, no doubt.
Perhaps it would not turn out to be a joke.
Could he make anything out of a housekeeper
who asked no wages but her board? Could the
woman cook?
“Well “he said, slowly drawing out the
word, “I live plain and economical.”
“That is the way to live.” Her tone gave him
to understand that he was a sensible man.
“Perhaps you are asking yourself if I am a good
cuisiniér. Indeed I am.”
He did not know what the strange word
meant, but he suspected that it might have to do
with cooking. He was not averse to a good meal,
if it could be had without expense. For the first
time in forty years, Philander Haskins let slip
his hold upon himself.”
“It wouldn’t be a bad ideer to have
somebody around the house.” He stroked his
chin nervously. “You’ll be mighty comfortable
here; they’s plenty of fresh air.”
“I’m so glad it’s settled!” she sparkled,
“And at my first attempt!”
“You didn’t say what your name was.” said
Haskins morosely. Instantly he had been struck
by a pang of misgiving.
“Celeste!” with a light laugh. “That’s
enough of a name for a housekeeper. No? It
means ‘heavenly.’ ”
Hogskin Haskins rose with a grunt. He
believed that he had made a fool of himself, and
he was in no mood for light talk. Gloomily he
showed the strange woman the pantry and the
way into the cellar. Bluntly he told her that the
kitchen was the only room of those on the
ground floor that he cared to have used.
But she did not fulfill his half-formed hope
that she would change her mind and go; instead,
she brightened anew at each rebuff from him
until he was ashamed, and, half to make
amends, he proposed a trip to the village to
purchase supplies and to get the bag she had left
at the hotel. To this she assented with all the
gaiety of a girl going upon an outing.
There was a certain satisfaction upon
Haskins when the lean horse drew them through
the single street of the village of Pointed Rocks;
a feeling as though he had added something to
his possessions.
In the store he spent double what he would
have spent ordinarily. Yet he was forced to
admit that it was hardly the doing of the woman.
She had not urged him to the purchase of
anything. Perhaps, after all, she could earn her
board. Perhaps he could get her to do light work
out of doors, in addition to the cooking. Thus he
Argosy
4
thought.
They drove home with buoyancy on her part
and at least amity on his. She told him of cities
and of things the existence of which he had not
guessed. Yet she did not speak of herself, and he
wondered shrewdly if she had not known
adventure of which she did not care to tell.
He turned her over in his mind while he
drove the horse and did his small share of the
talking. He would, be it understood, have had
no scruples with the woman if he had not felt
beyond any question or doubt that it would be
an evil thing for him if he were to treat her with
anything short of complete respect. And so they
came back to the gray house, and she went in,
with spirits undimmed, to cook his supper.
That supper was a meal such as had never
before been served to Philander Haskins. With
materials which a native woman would have
found scanty. Celeste created dishes strange to
the tongue, but more pleasing than the best fare
on any table in the valley. Each mouthful was
an invitation to another, and at the end of the
repast the stomach of Hogskin Haskins warmed
toward his housekeeper so that at the moment
he would almost have given her wages. He
knew the danger in which he stood, and tried to
shake himself free from her, but her talk
scattered his power to think.
For the evening he yielded to the new
element that had come into his life, telling
himself that he would the next day find some
means of freeing himself from close touch with
the woman. He had been in the habit of using
his evenings to sort beans, or to do small repairs
and tasks of that ilk. Moreover, she had lighted
a lamp: and he had been accustomed to sit with
a candle for his work. Despite his interest in her
chatter, he was not sorry when nine o’clock
came: and promptly on the hour he rose from
his chair.
“Country folks go to bed early,” he said.
“I’ll show you the way up to your room. Tomorrow you can clean up some if you want to.”
He took the lamp, and, perforce, she
followed him through a door and up the
enclosed rear stairway. From this they stepped
into a passage that ran across the house at right
angles to the front hallway.
To the rear of the passage lay the room
occupied by Haskins. In front there were two
chambers. The doors of these rooms, as well as
the floor giving on the front stairway, opened
into the passage. In addition, there was the door
to Haskins’s room, and another door at the top
of the kitchen staircase; making a total of five.
These five doors, with the single exception
of that leading from the sleeping chamber of
Hogskin Haskins, were fitted with heavy bolts
on the passage side. On Haskins’s door, which
now stood slightly ajar, there was no bolt either
inside or out. He, feeling that some word must
be said as to this unusual condition, turned to
the woman.
“Living alone so, I kind of thought it would
be a good thing to lock myself in up-stairs.”
Then he added hastily: “I don’t keep nothing
valuable here, but its creepy staying alone.”
He felt ashamed of that word “creepy,” as
though it were confession of cowardice. He had
never before given creepiness a thought: it was
the first explanation he could find. He looked at
Celeste, and saw that her quick eyes were
leaping along the passage, taking in the
windows at either end and ranging over the
doors.
“I don’t blame you!” She laughed. “No!”
He wondered if she noticed the appearance
of the door of his room. It was new,
comparatively, and of much stouter material
than the others. But already she was past it and
peering into one of the front chambers. He gave
her the lamp, and she went in. He wanted to ask
if she kept a light burning all night, but he could
not muster courage for the effrontery.
“They’s a bolt on the inside of your door,”
he volunteered awkwardly. “You needn’t be
afraid of anything.”
Whatever God
5
“I’m not!” she called back to him.
Then the door closed, and he felt his way
through the darkness to his own room. One light
was enough to waste. He undressed in the dark;
but before he went to bed he stretched a string
from the knob of his door to his thumb and tied
it tightly.
“Cuss the woman!” he growled.
Before breakfast the following morning
Hogskin Haskins determined to rid his house of
the strange woman. He answered her greeting
with a grunt, and he sat down to breakfast in a
frozen silence. But after he bad eaten the meal,
served with a daintiness astonishing, his
determination wavered. He had not known there
was such a beverage as the coffee she poured
for him. When he did talk at last, it was to
remark on the weather, and to call her attention
to the freshness of the air at the foot of TwoBear Mountain.
So that day passed, and the next, and many
other days, until the summer wore into August;
and not yet had Haskins made the necessary
effort to rid himself of Celeste, whose presence
alternately irked him as an expensive incubus,
and held him captive to the charms of cookery
and the more subtle web woven by her
personality.
He malingered over the problem, cursing
himself meanwhile. Something must be done.
The bills at the store kept edging upward each
week. And Celeste, with increasing
cheerfulness, grew plump: the pink in her
cheeks deepened to vividness, and five years
dropped away from her age.
Always she kept indefinably aloof from him,
seeming to dance away whenever he made any
tentative advances. She remained sufficient unto
herself, merging in no way into her setting.
Yet it was true that the house drew much
from her until its atmosphere was one of strange
discord. The perfume that she used, which was
to Haskins unnameable, seeped faintly through
the rooms, and her laughter rang weirdly in the
barren hallway.
He felt antipathy and attraction. He had long
outgrown any suspicion of her presence or
purpose; although he did not neglect to take her
with him every time he left the place, and each
night the string went from the knob of his
bedroom door to his thumb.
It was on a night of breathless stillness,
when not even about the mountain was there
any sweep of cool air, that something in the
nature of inspiration came to him as he sat in the
kitchen wrestling with this problem. Why not
marry her? Then he would have definite and
complete claim upon her services, and he could
set a limit for the bills. What if her past was a
blank to him? It was the business of nobody but
himself. He looked into her eyes, flashing in the
yellow light of the lamp, and felt a thrill. Why
hadn’t he thought of such an obvious solution
before? He cleared his throat.
“It’s done you a lot of good to be here,” he
began.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I am very strong now,
and rested.”
“How’d you like” —he swallowed and went
on— “like to stay here right along for good?”
“For good?” she questioned. “Oh, you mean
always!”
“You and me might get married,” he blurted.
There was a moment of silence.
“Married?” she repeated.
“Uhuh!” He nodded his head. “What say?”
Her eyes smiled, although her lips did not.
“What would you do for a wife, Mr.
Haskins?”
“Why” —he peered at her sharply— “she’d
have plenty to eat and enough to wear!”
“A man who loves his wife—and one who
has wealth—does many things! No?”
“I’m a poor man!” He brought his fist down
into his palm for emphasis. She angered him. “I
ain’t rich, as they say around here!”
“Ah, you would love both your wife and
your money!” she laughed.
Argosy
6
“I tell you I ain’t got money.” he persisted.
“I’m offering you a home.”
“I do not believe I care to marry,” she
replied, speaking slowly and with the smile
lingering in her eyes.
“You won’t?” He was astonished, for he had
believed that she would leap at the opportunity
of marriage with a respectable man. “You mean
you refuse?”
“Oh!” she temporized, taking up the lamp
and walking toward the stairway.
“There’s plenty of time to think it over. We
won’t decide to-night.”
Was she laughing at him? He drew his lips
together, holding in a retort, and watched her
go.
Why had he let her stay in the house that
first day? She had been a misery to him ever
since. She could go to-morrow, if she wanted to;
he would be glad to get rid of her. He knew this
was not true; but it was a kind of panacea to
repeat it over in his mind.
He did his best to maintain a feeling of
anger, and when he went up to bed, half an hour
later, he had succeeded fairly well. The moon
had risen, and bars of light were creeping across
the floor from his curtain-less window before he
slept.
Haskins awoke with a feeling that he had
been called by some one. Yet he knew that this
could not be so. For some time he lay still,
gathering himself to full consciousness, while
he absently noted that the moonlight had spread
over the room and was now fairly upon the
door.
His own unrest had awakened him, he
decided, and was about to shift to a new
position when a faint sound struck his ear. He
became rigid and tense, even while telling
himself that the sound was no more than the
gnawing of a rat. Seconds passed. He could hear
his watch ticking on the bureau. Then the sound
was repeated.
It seemed like the knocking of wood on
wood. He took alarm, and immediately assured
himself that he feared the impossible. But,
straining to locate the noise, he found his eyes
drawn toward the door. For the third time the
slight sound repeated itself. He stared intently.
The string that hung between his thumb and the
knob was trembling. Then he caught a little
glitter in the moonlight, and to his gaze, grown
accustomed to the sharp outlines of brightness
and shadow, was revealed a strange proceeding.
The door had been pulled open a tiny crack.
He could distinguish the black shadow that
marked the opening. It was this, no doubt, that
had pulled on the string and awakened him.
Through the crack projected a long, thin stick,
and on the end of the stick gleamed a knife
blade. The faint sound came from the accidental
knocking of the stick against the edge of the
door as it thrust out in wavering attempts to find
and cut the string.
Haskins remained motionless. Beyond
question it was the woman. She had discovered
his secret! Was that what she had been waiting
and working for these weeks?
A terrible rage flamed through him as he
remembered how, after the first few days, his
suspicions had relaxed. He had so believed in
the cunning of concealment of his secret, and in
the impossibility of its fathoming by any human
being, that he had long since given up his habit
of coming in unexpectedly when she was alone
in the house.
Now fury kindled his soul; a fury of anger at
himself, of hatred of her, and of fear at the very
thought of what might have happened.
The knife found the string, and drew lightly
across it so that it dropped in two pieces. Then
the door swung silently outward and revealed
her standing just beyond the threshold, fully
dressed and with her face toward him. For
several seconds she watched. He held himself
by a great effort, determined to find out whether
she had indeed learned the secret, or whether
she were blindly searching. His wrath gathered
Whatever God
7
momentum; it increased tenfold.
She knew. Noiselessly she had turned from
contemplation of him. Now she raised her arms
and clasped both hands over the top of the door,
bracing her slender body backward.
Without sound the long, upright section of
the door in which knob and latch were set came
away under the pressure that she exerted. She
put it down gently. Within that piece of the
door, into the whole length of which a cunning
recess had been chiseled, her fingers dipped.
Out came little flat packets and rolls that
dropped to the floor with the sound of soft
paper.
Hogskin Haskins saw the hoard of gold
certificates that he worshiped pulled ruthlessly
from the hiding-place he had believed
inviolable. The sight was like caustic upon red
flesh.
With a snarl of utter abandonment to blind
rage, he leaped from his bed. The woman’s head
lifted with a jerk, but before she could
straighten her body vengeance was upon her.
Hogskin Haskins’s big hands closed upon her
slender throat, curving deep into its softness
with the desire to annihilate. To his eyes all
things dissolved in flashes. There were
crackling sounds in his ears. He lifted her up by
the neck and shook her so that she snapped like
a rag.
He hurled her away from him, all the length
of the moonlit passage, and steadied himself.
She fell in a dark heap that seemed to have lost
its human shape.
The man’s vision cleared. He walked toward
her and leaned down. Her face was upturned.
The eyes were open; like two ink smudges upon
a piece of white paper. He poked her with his
foot. There was no movement.
“Get up:” he commanded. “You—”
His voice cracked and broke. Something
choked. He drew back, and all at once his hands
began to shake. The shaking went over his
whole body, and he felt a clammy trickle down
from his temples and across his cheeks. He
brushed away the drops and turned around in his
tracks irresolutely. He lifted his hands, and let
them fall again to his sides.
“Got to get it out of here!” he whispered.
The whisper went slithering through the
corridor. The walls did not absorb the sound; it
came back in hoarse breaths.
Trembling, he knelt and began to stuff the
packets and rolls back into the hollowed section
of the door. Suddenly he flung up his head and
glanced over his shoulder at the still figure on
the floor. The white face seemed to be staring at
him. The money dropped from his hands and he
rose.
“Got to get it out of here,” he whispered
again.
Along the passageway and down the back
stairs he half ran, and out into the wood-shed.
He seized a long-handled spade from a corner,
and then he found himself behind the stable
where the earth was soft and yielding.
He set his spade in, but when he tried to
press it home he was reminded by the sharp pain
that his feet were bare. The pain steadied him a
little. Panic pressed him so hard that he did not
dare to go back for his shoes. He would have to
do all the work with his arms. Six feet, long and
three feet wide—and deep! He worked in a mad
fury of haste until forced to rest.
The air seemed hushed, expectant. The
looming mass of Two-Bear Mountain brooded
threateningly over him. The moonlight was
mockery. Standing in the hole that he had dug,
he looked fearfully toward the house. A breath
of air swept across his face, the first that had
come all through that night. It brought with it to
his nostrils the faint memory of that perfume
that he could not name with a name.
“Almighty!”
The word whimpered out of his mouth, and
in a rush born of added terror he drove his spade
into the earth again. Before him, in imagination,
he saw the bruised flesh of the strange woman.
Argosy
8
He saw her lying on the bare floor of his spidery
old house, near the packets and rolls of money
for which she had died. Then he visioned
himself, a loathed thing, swinging upon a
gallows. He swung and jerked in the air.
At last it was done. Forcing his feet to each
step, he went back into his house and up the
stairs that creaked and moaned beneath his
weight. Toward the last of the steps he shut his
eyes and did not open them again until his legs
were firmly set on the floor of the passage. He
gazed down toward the end where the
moonlight flowed in so brightly.
“Where is—”
His words died out. Then, on the heels of
them, a great cry broke from him and went
piercing through the house, filling the still night,
with hideousness. It was as though all the
passion of his soul’s lifetime wore summed and
hurled forth in one shriek.
“She’s gone! She played dead, damn her!”
Gone, also, were the rolls and packets that
had lain upon the floor. Only a slip of paper
remained, and this his fingers lifted
mechanically. In the moonlight he read the
words that had been penciled there in big,
scrawling letters:
“Be true to whatever God you serve.”

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