Copyright
Jennette Barbour Perry Lee.

Mr. Achilles online

. (page 8 of 9)
Online LibraryJennette Barbour Perry LeeMr. Achilles → online text (page 8 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


"See if everything's all right," he said. "If we're going to take
risks - we've got to be ready."

The woman lifted the lantern, and he pushed against the barrel. It
yielded to his weight - the upper part turning slowly on a pivot.
Something inside swashed against the sides as it turned. The man bent
over the hole and peered in. He stepped down cautiously, feeling with
his foot and disappearing, inch by inch, into the opening. The woman
held the light above him, looking down with quick, tense eyes... a hand
reached up to her, out of the hole, beckoning for the lantern and she
knelt down, guiding it toward the waving fingers. A sound of something
creaking - a hinge half turned - caught her breath - and she leaned
forward, blowing at the lantern. She got quickly to her feet and groped
for the swinging barrel, turning it swiftly over the hole - the liquid
chugged softly against its side - and stopped. Her breath listened up
into the darkness. The door above creaked again softly - and a shuffling
foot groped at the stair. "You down there - Lena?" called an old voice.

She laughed out softly, moving toward the stair. "Go to bed, father."

"What you doing down there?" asked the old voice in the darkness.

"Testing the barrel," said the woman. "John's gone down." She came to
the foot of the stair. "You go to bed, father - "

"_You_ better come to bed - all of ye," grumbled the old man.

"We're coming - in a minute." She heard his hand fumble at the door - and
it creaked again - softly - and closed.

She groped her way back to the barrel, waiting beside it in the
darkness.




XXIX

UPSTAIRS

When the man's head reappeared, he came up briskly.

"All right?" she asked.

"All right," he responded.

"Did you test the other end?"

"Right enough - " said the man. "Safe as a church! The water barrel in
the garden stuck a little - but I eased it up - " He looked back into the
hole, as he stepped out. "Too bad we had to take _her_ down," he said
regretfully.

"The police _might_ 'a' stopped," said the woman. "You couldn't tell."

They swung the barrel in place, and blew out the lantern, and the man
ascended the stair. After a few minutes the woman came up. The kitchen
was empty. The fire burning briskly cast a line of light beneath the
hearth, and on the top of the stove the kettle hummed quietly. She
lighted a lamp and lifted the kettle, filling her dishpan with soft
steam.... Any one peering in at the open window would have seen only a
tall woman, with high shoulders, bending above her cloud of steam and
washing dishes, with a quiet, round face absorbed in thought.

When she had finished at the sink and tidied the room, she took the lamp
and went into the small hall at the rear, and mounted the steep stairs.
At the top she paused and fitted a key and entered a low room. She put
down the lamp and crossed to the door on the other side - and listened.
The sound of low breathing came lightly to her, and her face relaxed.
She came back to the bureau, looking down thoughtfully at the coarse
towel that covered it, and the brush and comb and tray of matches. There
was nothing else on the bureau. But on a little bracket at the side the
picture of a young girl, with loose, full lips and bright eyes, looked
out from a great halo of pompadour - with the half-wistful look of youth.
The mother's eyes returned to the picture and her keen face softened....
She must save Mollie - and the child in the next room - she must save
them both.... She listened to the child again, breathing beyond the
open door. She looked again at the picture, with hungry eyes. Her own
child - her Mollie - had never had a chance - she had loved gay things - and
there was no money - always hard work and wet feet and rough, pushing
cars.... No wonder she had gone wrong! But she would come back
now. There would be money enough - and they would go away - together.
Twenty-five thousand dollars. She looked long at the pitiful, weak,
pictured face and blew out the light and crept into bed.... And in the
next room the child's even breathing came and went... and, at intervals,
across it in the darkness, another sound - the woman's quick, indrawn
breath that could not rest.




XXX

ASLEEP

In the morning the woman was up with the first light. And as the men
came grumbling in to breakfast, the round face wore its placid smile.
They joked her and ate hastily and departed for the open field. It was
part of a steady policy - to be always in the open, busy, hard-working
men who could not afford to lose an hour. The excursion had been a
quick, restless revolt - against weeks of weeding and planting and
digging.... But they had had their lesson. They were not likely to stir
from their strip of market garden on the plain - not till the time was
up.

As the woman went about her work, she listened, and stopped and went to
the door - for some sound from upstairs. Presently she went up and opened
the door... and looked in.

The child lay with one hand thrown above her head - a drawn look in
the softly arched brow and half-parted lips. The woman bent over her,
listening - and placed her hand on the small wrist and counted - waiting.
The eyes flashed open - and looked at her. "I thought you were Nono,"
said the child. A wistful look filled her face and her lip quivered a
little - out of it - and steadied itself. "You are Mrs. Seabury," she said
quietly.

"Yes," said the woman cheerfully. "Time to get up, dearie." She turned
away and busied herself with the clothes hanging from their hooks.

The child's eyes followed her - dully. "I don't think I care to get up,"
she said at last.

The woman brought the clothes and placed them by the bed, and smiled
down at her. "There's something nice to-day," she said casually. "We're
going outdoors to-day - "

"_Can_ I?" said the child. She flashed a smile and sat up. "Can _I_
go out-of-doors?" It was a little cry of waiting - and the woman's hand
dashed across her eyes - at the keenness of it. Then she smiled - the
round, assuring smile, and held up the clothes. "You hurry up and dress
and eat your breakfast," she said, " - a good, big breakfast - and we are
going - out in the sun - you and me." She nodded cheerfully and went out.

The child put one foot over the edge of the bed and looked down at it - a
little wistfully - and placed the other beside it. They were very dark,
little feet - a queer, brown colour - and the legs above them, were the
same curious brown - and the small straight back - as she stepped from
the bed and slipped off her nightgown and bent above the clothes on the
chair. The colour ran up to her throat - around it, and over the whole
sunny face and hands and arms - a strange, eclipsing, brown disguise.
There had been a quick, sharp plan to take her abroad and they prepared
her hastily against risks on board the steamer. The plan had been
abandoned as too dangerous. But the colour clung to the soft skin; and
the hair, cropped close to the neck, had a stubby, uncouth look. No
one seeking Betty Harris, would have looked twice at the queer, little,
brownie-like creature, dressing itself with careful haste. It lifted a
plaid dress from the chair - large squares of red and green plaid - and
looked at it with raised brows and dropped it over the cropped head. The
skirt came to the top of the rough shoes on the small feet. Betty Harris
looked down at the skirt - and smoothed it a little... and dropped on her
knees beside the bed - the red and green plaids sweeping around her - and
said the little prayer that Miss Stone had taught her to say at home.




XXXI

A BUTTERFLY FLIGHT

She came down the stairs with slow feet, pausing a little on each stair,
as if to taste the pleasure that was coming to her. _She was going
out-of-doors - under the sky!_

She pushed open the door at the foot and looked into the small hall - she
had been here before. They had hurried her through - into the kitchen,
and down to the cellar. They had stayed there a long time - hours and
hours - and Mrs. Seabury had held her on her lap and told her stories.

She stepped down the last step into the hall. The outside door at
the end was open and through it she could see the men at work in the
garden - and the warm, shimmering air. She looked, with eager lip, and
took a step forward - and remembered - and turned toward the kitchen.
Mrs. Seabury had said she must have breakfast first - a good, big
breakfast - and then.... She opened the door and looked in. The woman was
standing by the stove. She looked up with a swift glance and nodded to
her. "That's right, dearie. Your breakfast is all ready - you come in and
eat it." She drew up a chair to the table and brought a glass of milk
and tucked the napkin under her brown chin, watching her with keen,
motherly eyes, while she ate.

"That's a good girl!" she said. She took the empty plate and carried
it to the sink. "Now you wait till I've washed these - and then - !" She
nodded toward the open window.

The child slipped down and came over to her and stood beside her while
she worked, her eyes full of little, wistful hope. "I've most forgot
about out-of-doors," she said.

"Oh, you remember it all right. It's just the same it always was," said
the woman practically. "Now I'll stir up some meal and we'll go feed the
chicks. I've got ten of 'em - little ones." She mixed the yellow meal
and stirred it briskly, and took down her sun-bonnet - and looked at the
child dubiously. "You haven't any hat," she said.

The child's hand lifted to the rough cropped hair. "I did have a
hat - with red cherries on it," she suggested.

The woman turned away brusquely. "That's gone - with your other
things - I'll have to tie a handkerchief on you."

She brought a big, coloured kerchief - red with blue spots on it - and
bound it over the rough hair - and stood back and looked at it, and
reached out her hand. "It won't do," she said thoughtfully. The small
face, outlined in the smooth folds, had looked suddenly and strangely
refined. The woman took off the handkerchief and roughened the hair with
careful hand.

The child waited patiently. "I don't need a hat, do I?" she said
politely.

The woman looked at her again and took up the dish of meal. "You're all
right," she said, "we shan't stay long."

"I should _like_ to stay a long, _long_ time!" said Betty.

The woman smiled. "You're going out every day, you know."

"Yes." The child skipped a little in the clumsy shoes, and they passed
into the sunshine.

The woman looked about her with practical eyes. In the long rows of the
garden the men were at work. But up and down the dusty road - across the
plain - no one was in sight, and she stepped briskly toward an open shed,
rapping the spoon a little against the side of the basin she carried,
and clucking gently.

The child beside her moved slowly - looking up at the sky, as if half
afraid. She seemed to move with alien feet under the sky. Then a handful
of yellow, downy balls darted from the shed, skittering toward them,
and she fell to her knees, reaching out her hands to them and crooning
softly. "The dear things!" she said swiftly.

The woman smiled, and moved toward the shed, tapping on the side of her
pan - and the yellow brood wheeled with the sound, on twinkling legs and
swift, stubby wings.

The child's eyes devoured them. "They belong to you, don't they?" she
cried softly. "They're your _own_ - your very own chickens!" Her laugh
crept over them and her eyes glowed. "See the little one, Mrs.
Seabury! Just _see_ him run!" She had dropped to her knees
again - breathless - beside the board where they pushed and pecked and
gobbled the little, wet lumps of the meal, and darted their shiny black
bills at the board.

The woman handed her the pan. "You can feed them if you want to," she
said.

The child took the basin, with shining eyes, and the woman moved away.
She examined the slatted box - where the mother hen ran to and fro, with
clucking wings - and gave her some fresh water and looked in the row
of nests along the side of the shed, and took out a handful of eggs,
carrying them in wide-spread, careful fingers.

The child, squatting by the board, was looking about her with happy
eyes. She'd almost forgotten the prisoned room up stairs and the long
lonesome days. The woman came over to her, smiling. "I've found seven,"
she said. The child's eyes rested on them. Then they flitted to
the sunshine outside.... A yellow butterfly was fluttering in the
light - across the opening of the shed. It lighted on a beam and opened
slow wings, and the child's eyes laughed softly... she moved tiptoe...
"I saw a _beautiful_ butterfly once!" she said. But the woman did not
hear. She had passed out of the shed - around the corner - and was looking
after the chickens outside - her voice clucking to them lightly. The
child moved toward the butterfly, absorbed in shining thought. "It was
a _beautiful_ butterfly - " she said softly, "in a Greek shop." The wings
of the butterfly rose and circled vaguely and passed behind her, and
she wheeled about, peering up into the dark shed. She saw the yellow
wings - up there - poise themselves, and wait a minute - and sail toward
the light outside.... But she did not turn to follow its flight - Across
the brown boards of the shed - behind a pile of lumber, against the wall
up there - a head had lifted itself and was looking at her. She caught
her breath - "I saw a butterfly once!" she repeated dully. It was half
a sob - The head laid a long, dark finger on its lip and sank from
sight.... The child wheeled toward the open light - the woman was coming
in, her hands filled with eggs. "I must carry these in," she said
briskly. She looked at the child. "You can stay and play a little
while - if you want to. But you must not go away, you know."

"I will not go away," said the child, breathless.

So the woman turned and left her - and the child's eyes followed her.




XXXII

AND A VOICE

"Can you hear me, little Miss Harris?" The voice came from the dusky
shed, high up against the wall.

But the child did not turn her head. "Yes - Mr. Achilles - I can hear you
very well," she said softly.

"Don't look this way," said the voice. "Get down and look at the
chickens - and listen to what I tell you."

The child dropped obediently to her knees, her head a little bent, her
face toward the open light outside.

The woman, going about her work in the kitchen, looked out and saw her
and nodded to her kindly -

The child's lips made a little smile in return. They were very pale.

"I come to take you home," said the voice. It was full of tenderness and
Betty Harris bent her head, a great wave of homesickness sweeping across
her.

"I can't go, Mr. Achilles." It was like a sob. "I can't go. They will
kill you. I heard them. They will kill _anybody_ - that comes - !" She
spoke in swift little whispers - and waited. "Can you hear me say it?"
she asked. "Can you hear me say it, Mr. Achilles?"

"I hear it - yes." The voice of Achilles laughed a little. "They will
not kill - little lady, and you go home - with me - to-night." The voice
dropped down from its high place and comforted her.

She reached out little hands to the chickens and laughed tremulously. "I
am afraid," she said softly, "I am afraid!"

But the low voice, up in the dusk, steadied her and gave her swift
commands - and repeated them - till she crept from the dim shed into the
light and stood up - blinking a little - and looked about her - and laughed
happily.

And the woman came to the door and smiled at her. "You must come in,"
she called.

"Yes - Mrs. Seabury - " The child darted back into the shed and gathered
up the spoon and basin from the board and looked about her swiftly. In
the slatted box, the mother hen clucked drowsily, and wise cheeps from
beneath her wings answered bravely. The child glanced at the box, and up
at the dusky boards of the shed, peering far in the dimness. But there
was no one - not even a voice - just the high, tumbled pile of boards - and
the few nests along the wall and the mother hen clucking cosily behind
her slats - and the wise little cheeps.




XXXIII

"WAKE UP, MRS. SEABURY!"

The child lay with her hands clasped, breathing lightly. The sound of
voices came drowsily from the kitchen... she must not go to sleep! She
sat up and leaned toward the little window that looked out to the north.
Through the blackness the stars twinkled mistily, and she put her foot
carefully over the edge of the bed and slipped down. The window was
open - as far as the small sash allowed - and a warm, faint breeze came
across the plain to her. She leaned against the sill, looking out. It
was not far to the ground.... But she could see only vague blackness
down there, and she looked again up to the twinkling stars.... They were
little points of light up there, and she looked up trustfully while
the warm wind blew against her. Her heart was beating very hard - and
fast - but she was not afraid.... Mr. Achilles had said - not to be
afraid - and he was waiting - down there in the blackness to take her
home. She crept back to bed and lay down - very still. In the room below
there was a scraping of chairs and louder words - and footsteps....
Someone had opened the door under her window and the smell of tobacco
came up. Her little nose disdained it - and listened, alert. Footsteps
went out into the night and moved a little away on the gravel and came
back, and the door closed. She could hear the bolt click to its place
and the footsteps shuffle along the hall. The voices below had ceased
and the house was still - she was very sleepy now. But he had said - Mr.
Achilles had said.... She winked briskly and gave herself a little pinch
under the clothes - and sat up. It was a sharp little pinch - through many
thicknesses of clothes. Under the coarse nightgown buttoned carefully to
the throat, she was still wearing the red and green plaids and all
her day clothes. Only the clumsy shoes, slipped off, stood by the bed,
waiting for her. Her hand reached down to them cautiously, and felt
them - and she lay down and closed her eyes. There was a step on the
stairs - coming slowly. Betty Harris grew very still. If Mrs. Seabury
came in and stood and looked at her... she must cry out - and throw her
arms around her neck - and tell her _everything_! She could not hurt Mrs.
Seabury.... Mr. Achilles had said they would not hurt her. She had asked
him that - three times, herself - and Mr. Achilles had said it - no one
should hurt Mrs. Seabury - if Betty went away.... She held her breath....
The footsteps had come across the room - to her door - they waited
there... then they moved on - and she drew a free breath. Her heart
thumped to the vague movements that came and went in the next room - they
pottered about a little, and finally ceased and a light, indrawn breath
blew out the lamp - a hand was groping for the handle of her door - and
opening it softly - and the bare feet moved away. The bed-springs in the
next room creaked a little and everything was still. Betty Harris had a
quick sense of pain. Mrs. Seabury was kind to her! She had been so kind
that first day, when they brought her in out of the hot sun, and she had
stumbled on the stairs and sobbed out - Mrs. Seabury had picked her up
and carried her up the stairs and comforted her... and told her what it
meant - these strange harsh men seizing her in the open sunshine, as they
swept past - covering her mouth with hard hands and hurrying her out of
the city to this stifling place. She loved Mrs. Seabury. Perhaps they
would put her in prison... and _never_ let her out - and Mollie would not
get well. The child gave a little, quick sob, in her thought, and lay
very still. Mollie had been good once, and wicked men had hurt her...
and now her mother could not help her.... But Mr. Achilles said - yes - he
said it - no one should hurt her.... And with the thought of the Greek
she lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the night.... There
was a long, light call somewhere across the plain, a train of heavy
Pullmans pushing through the night - the sound came to the child like a
whiff of breath, and passed away... and the crickets chirped - high and
shrill. In the next room, the breathing grew loud, and louder, in long,
even beats. Mrs. Seabury was asleep! Betty Harris sat up in bed, her
little hands clinched fast at her side. Then she lay down again - and
waited... and the breathing in the next room grew loud, and regular,
and full.... Mrs. Seabury was very tired! And Betty Harris listened,
and slipped down from the bed, and groped for her shoes - and lifted them
like a breath - and stepped high across the floor, in the dim room. It
was a slow flight... tuned to the long-drawn, falling breath of the
sleeper - that did not break by a note - not even when the brown hand
released the latch and a little, sharp click fell on the air.... "Wake
up, Mrs. Seabury! Wake up - for Mollie's sake - wake up!" the latch said.
But the sleeper did not stir - only the long, regular, dream-filled,
droning sleep. And the child crept down the stair - across the kitchen
and reached the other door. She was not afraid now - one more door! The
men would not hear her - they were asleep - Mrs. Seabury was asleep - and
her fingers turned the key softly and groped to the bolt above - and
pushed at it - hard - and fell back - and groped for it again - and
tugged... little beads of sweat were coming on the brown forehead. She
drew the back of her hand swiftly across them and reached again to the
bolt. It was too high - she could reach it - but not to push. She felt for
a chair, in the darkness - and lifted it, without a sound, and carried
it to the door and climbed up. There was a great lump in her throat now.
Mr. Achilles did not know the bolt would stick like this - she gave a
fierce, soft tug, like a sob - and it slid back. The knob turned and the
door opened and she was in the night.... For a moment her eyes groped
with the blackness. Then a long, quiet hand reached out to her - and
closed upon her - and she gave a little sob, and was drawn swiftly into
the night.




XXXIV

THE FLIGHT OF STARS

"Is that you, Mr. Achilles?" she asked - into the dark.

And the voice of Achilles laughed down to her. "I'm here - yes. It's me.
We must hurry now - fast. Come!"

He gripped the small hand in his and they sped out of the driveway,
toward the long road. Up above them the little stars blinked down, and
the warm wind touched their faces as they went. The soft darkness shut
them in. There was only the child, clinging to Achilles's great hand and
hurrying through the night. Far in the distance, a dull, sullen glow lit
the sky - the city's glow - and Betty's home, out there beneath it, in the
dark. But the child did not know. She would not have known which way the
city lay - but for Achilles's guiding hand. She clung fast to that - and
they sped on.

By and by he ran a little, reaching down to her - and his spirit touched
hers and she ran without fatigue beside him, with little breathless
laughs - "I - like - to run!" she said.

"Yes - come - " He hurried her faster over the road - he would not spare
her now. He held her life in his hand - and the little children - he saw
them, asleep in their dreams, over there in the glow.... "Come!" he
said. And they ran fast.

It was the first half hour he feared. If there was no pursuit, over the
dark road behind them, then he would spare her - but not now. "Come!" he
urged, and they flew faster.

And behind them the little house lay asleep - under its stars - no sign
of life when his swift-flashing glance sought it out - and the heart of
Achilles stretched to the miles and laughed with them and leaped out
upon them, far ahead.... He should bring her home safe.

Then, upon the night, came a sound - faint-stirring wings - a long-drawn
buzz and rush of air - deep notes that gripped the ground, far off - and
the pulse of pounding wheels - behind them, along the dark road.... And
Achilles seized the child by the shoulder, bearing her forward toward
the short grass - his quick-running hand thrusting her down - "Lie still!"
he whispered. The lights of the car had gleamed out, swaying a little in
the distance, as he threw his coat across her and pressed it flat. "Lie
still!" he whispered again, and was back in the road, his hand feeling
for the great banana knife that rested in his shirt - his eye searching
the road behind. There was time - yes - and he turned about and swung into
the long, stretching pace that covers the miles - without hurry, without
rest. The roar behind him grew, and flashed to light - and swept by - and
his eye caught the face of the chauffeur, as it flew, leaning intently
on the night; and in the lighted car behind him, flashed a face - a


1 2 3 4 5 6 8

Online LibraryJennette Barbour Perry LeeMr. Achilles → online text (page 8 of 9)