[BOOK II] CHAPTER XVI
GASTON awoke next morning at half past ten o'clock with a dull headache, and a sense of hopeless depression. His anger had cooled and left him the pitiful consciousness of his loss. He slowly and mechanically dressed.
When he buttoned his coat he felt something hard press against his heart. It was the ring. He sat down an his bed and drew it from his pocket. To his surprise he found coiled inside it and tied by a tiny ribbon a ringlet of her hair. She had taken off the ring in her mother's presence and promised her to register and mail it in Atlanta. She had bound this little piece of herself with it. He kissed it tenderly.
"My God, it is hard!" he groaned. And all the unshed tears that his eager interest in her presence and his kindling anger the night before had kept back now blinded him.
He did not notice his door softly open, nor know his mother was near until she placed her hand gently on his shoulder. He looked up at her face full of tender sympathy, and poured out to her his trouble in a torrent of hot rebellious words.
"What have I done to be treated like a dog in this way?" he ended with a voice trembling with protest.
"Perhaps you have offended the General in some way?"
"Impossible, I've been the soul of deference to him."
"He's a very proud man when his vanity is touched, are you sure of it?"
"As sure as that I live. No, some scoundrel has interfered between us and in some unaccountable way covered me with infamy in the General's eyes."
"But who could have done it?"
"I used my utmost power of persuasion to get it from her. But she would not tell me. I have been stabbed in the dark."
"Whom do you suspect? She has a dozen suitors."
"There's only one man among them who is capable of it, Allan McLeod."
" Nonsense, child. He is not one of her suitors," she protested warmly.
"Then why does he hang around the house with such dogged persistence?"
"He has always had the run of the house. His father committed him to the General when he died on the battle field."
Her face clouded, and then a great pity for his sorrow filled her heart. She stooped and kissed him.
"Come, Charlie, you must cheer up. If she loves you, it's everything. You will win her."
"But what rankles in my soul is that I have been treated like a dog. If he objected to my poverty that was as evident the first day he welcomed me to his house as the day he dictated to her his brutal message, refusing me a word. He welcomed me to his house, and gave Miss Sallie his approval of our love while I was there. There could be no mistake, for she told me so."
"I can't understand it," she interrupted.
"Now he suddenly shows me the door and refuses to allow me to even
ask an explanation. If he thinks he
can settle my life for me in that simple manner, I'll show him that I'll at least help in the settlement."
"Good. I like to see your eyes flash that fire. Don't forget your resolution. Your enemies are your best friends." She said this with a ring of her old aristocratic pride. "Come," she continued, "I've a nice warm breakfast saved for you. You don't know how much good you have done me in my lonely life."
"Dear Mother!" he whispered pressing her hand. After breakfast he went to his office and read over slowly the letters he had received from Sallie, kissed them one by one, tied them up and sent them to her mother. He took the ring out of his pocket and locked it in one of his drawers.
"I can't work to-day. It's no use trying!" he muttered looking out of his window. He locked his office and started down town with no purpose except in the walk to try to fight his pain. Instinctively he found his way to Tom Camp's cottage.
"Tom, old boy, I'm in deep water. You've been there. I just want to feel your hand."
Tom was clearing up his kitchen with one hand and holding the other tight over the wound near his spinal column. He had suffered untold agonies through the night past and was suffering yet, but he never mentioned it.
"You've just got your blues again!" Tom laughed.
"No, a devil has stabbed me in the back in the dark." And he told Tom of his love and his inexplicable trouble.
"So, so!" Tom mused with dancing eyes, "The General's gal Miss Sallie! My! my! but ain't she a beauty! Next to my own little gal there she's the purtiest thing in No'th Caliny. And you're her sweetheart, and she told you she loved you?"
"Then what ails you? Man, to hear that from such lips as she's got's music enough for a year. You want the whole regimental band to be playin' all the time. If she loves you, that's enough now to give you nerve to fight all earth and hell combined." Tom urged this with an enthusiasm that admitted no reply.
Flora had climbed in his lap, and was going through his pockets to find some candy.
"You didn't bring me a bit this time!" she cried reproachfully.
"Honey, I forgot it," he apologised.
"I don't believe you love me any more, Charlie," she declared placing her hands on his cheeks and looking steadily into his eyes. "Am I your sweetheart yet?" she asked.
"Of course, dearie, and about the only one I can depend on!"
"La, Charlie, your eyes are red!" she cried in surprise. "Do you cry?"
"Sometimes, when my heart gets too full."
"Then, I'll kiss the red away!" she said as she softly kissed his eyes.
"That's good, Flora. It will make them better."
"Now, Pappy," she said triumphantly, "you say I'm getting too big to cry, and I ain't but eleven years old, and Charlie's big as you and he cries."
Tom took her in his arms and smoothed his hand over her fair hair with a tenderness that had in its trembling touch all the mystery of both mother and father love in which his brooding soul had wrapped her.
Gaston returned home with lighter step. He met, as he crossed the square, the Preacher who was waiting for him.
"Come here and sit down a minute. I've heard of your trouble.
You have my sympathy. But you'll come out all right. The oak that's
bent by the storm makes a fibre
fit for a ship's rib. You can't make steel without white heat. God's just trying your temper, boy, to see if there's anything in you. When he has tried you in the fire, and the pure gold shines, he will call you to higher things."
Gaston nodded his assent to this saying, "And yet, Doctor, none of us like the touch of fire or the smell of the smoke of our clothes."
"You are right. But it's good for the soul. You are learning now that we must face things that we don't like in this world. I am older than you. I will tell you something that you can't really know until you have lived through this. Love seems to you at this time the only thing in the world. But it is not. My deepest sympathy is with Sallie. She's already pure gold. To such a woman love is the centre of gravity of all life. This is not true of a strong normal man. The centre of gravity of a strong man's life as a whole is not in love and the emotions, but in justice and intellect and their expression in the wider social relations."
"And that means that I must brace up for this political fight?"
"Exactly so. And it's the best thing you can do for your love. Become a power and you can coerce even a man of the General's character."
"You are right, Doctor. I had my mind about fixed on that course."
"You will find the County Committee in session in the Clerk's office there now. They want to see you. I tell you to fight this coalition of McLeod and the farmers every inch up to the last hour it is formed, and if McLeod wins them, and the alliance is made, then fight to break it every day and every hour and every minute till the votes are counted out."
Gaston went at once into the consultation with the Democratic county committee.