Chapter 12 Wherein Margaret Sinton reveals a secret, and Mrs. Comstoc_ossesses the Limberlost
"Elnora, bring me the towel, quick!" cried Mrs Comstock.
"In a minute, mother," mumbled Elnora.
She was standing before the kitchen mirror, tying the back part of her hair, while the front turned over her face.
"Hurry! There's a varmint of some kind!"
Elnora ran into the sitting-room and thrust the heavy kitchen towel into he_other's hand. Mrs. Comstock swung open the screen door and struck at som_bject, Elnora tossed the hair from her face so that she could see past he_other. The girl screamed wildly.
"Don't! Mother, don't!"
Mrs. Comstock struck again. Elnora caught her arm. "It's the one I want! It'_orth a lot of money! Don't! Oh, you shall not!"
"Shan't, missy?" blazed Mrs. Comstock. "When did you get to bossing me?"
The hand that held the screen swept a half-circle and stopped at Elnora'_heek. She staggered with the blow, and across her face, paled wit_xcitement, a red mark arose rapidly. The screen slammed shut, throwing th_reature on the floor before them. Instantly Mrs. Comstock crushed it with he_oot. Elnora stepped back. Excepting the red mark, her face was very white.
"That was the last moth I needed," she said, "to complete a collection wort_hree hundred dollars. You've ruined it before my eyes!"
"Moth!" cried Mrs. Comstock. "You say that because you are mad. Moths have bi_ings. I know a moth!"
"I've kept things from you," said Elnora, "because I didn't dare confide i_ou. You had no sympathy with me. But you know I never told you untruths i_ll my life."
"It's no moth!" reiterated Mrs. Comstock.
"It is!" cried Elnora. "It's from a case in the ground. Its wings take two o_hree hours to expand and harden."
"If I had known it was a moth——" Mrs. Comstock wavered.
"You did know! I told you! I begged you to stop! It meant just three hundre_ollars to me."
"Bah! Three hundred fiddlesticks!"
"They are what have paid for books, tuition, and clothes for the past fou_ears. They are what I could have started on to college. You've ruined th_ery one I needed. You never made any pretence of loving me. At last I'll b_qually frank with you. I hate you! You are a selfish, wicked woman! I hat_ou!"
Elnora turned, went through the kitchen and from the back door. She followe_he garden path to the gate and walked toward the swamp a short distance whe_eaction overtook her. She dropped on the ground and leaned against a big log.
When a little child, desperate as now, she had tried to die by holding he_reath. She had thought in that way to make her mother sorry, but she ha_earned that life was a thing thrust upon her and she could not leave it a_er wish.
She was so stunned over the loss of that moth, which she had childishly name_he Yellow Emperor, that she scarcely remembered the blow. She had thought n_uck in all the world would be so rare as to complete her collection; now sh_ad been forced to see a splendid Imperialis destroyed before her. There was _ossibility that she could find another, but she was facing the certainty tha_he one she might have had and with which she undoubtedly could have attracte_thers, was spoiled by her mother. How long she sat there Elnora did not kno_r care. She simply suffered in dumb, abject misery, an occasional dry so_haking her. Aunt Margaret was right. Elnora felt that morning that her mothe_ever would be any different. The girl had reached the place where sh_ealized that she could endure it no longer.
As Elnora left the room, Mrs. Comstock took one step after her.
"You little huzzy!" she gasped.
But Elnora was gone. Her mother stood staring.
"She never did lie to me," she muttered. "I guess it was a moth. And the onl_ne she needed to get three hundred dollars, she said. I wish I hadn't been s_ast! I never saw anything like it. I thought it was some deadly, stinging, biting thing. A body does have to be mighty careful here. But likely I'v_pilt the milk now. Pshaw! She can find another! There's no use to be foolish.
Maybe moths are like snakes, where there's one, there are two."
Mrs. Comstock took the broom and swept the moth out of the door. Then she go_own on her knees and carefully examined the steps, logs and the earth of th_lower beds at each side. She found the place where the creature had emerge_rom the ground, and the hard, dark-brown case which had enclosed it, stil_et inside. Then she knew Elnora had been right. It was a moth. Its wings ha_een damp and not expanded. Mrs. Comstock never before had seen one in tha_tate, and she did not know how they originated. She had thought all of the_ame from cases spun on trees or against walls or boards. She had seen onl_nough to know that there were such things; as a flash of white told her tha_n ermine was on her premises, or a sharp "buzzzzz" warned her of a rattler.
So it was from creatures like that Elnora had secured her school money. In on_ickening sweep there rushed into the heart of the woman a full realization o_he width of the gulf that separated her from her child. Lately many thing_ad pointed toward it, none more plainly than when Elnora, like _eincarnation of her father, had stood fearlessly before a large city audienc_nd played with even greater skill than he, on what Mrs. Comstock felt ver_ertain was his violin. But that little crawling creature of earth, crushed b_er before its splendid yellow and lavender wings could spread and carry i_nto the mystery of night, had performed a miracle.
"We are nearer strangers to each other than we are with any of th_eighbours," she muttered.
So one of the Almighty's most delicate and beautiful creations was sacrifice_ithout fulfilling the law, yet none of its species ever served so glorious _ause, for at last Mrs. Comstock's inner vision had cleared. She went throug_he cabin mechanically. Every few minutes she glanced toward the back walk t_ee if Elnora were coming. She knew arrangements had been made with Margare_o go to the city some time that day, so she grew more nervous and uneas_very moment. She was haunted by the fear that the blow might discolou_lnora's cheek; that she would tell Margaret. She went down the back walk, looking intently in all directions, left the garden and followed the swam_ath. Her step was noiseless on the soft, black earth, and soon she came clos_nough to see Elnora. Mrs. Comstock stood looking at the girl in trouble_ncertainty. Not knowing what to say, at last she turned and went back to th_abin.
Noon came and she prepared dinner, calling, as she always did, when Elnora wa_n the garden, but she got no response, and the girl did not come. A littl_fter one o'clock Margaret stopped at the gate.
"Elnora has changed her mind. She is not going," called Mrs. Comstock.
She felt that she hated Margaret as she hitched her horse and came up the wal_nstead of driving on.
"You must be mistaken," said Margaret. "I was going on purpose for her. Sh_sked me to take her. I had no errand. Where is she?"
"I will call her," said Mrs. Comstock.
She followed the path again, and this time found Elnora sitting on the log.
Her face was swollen and discoloured, and her eyes red with crying. She pai_o attention to her mother.
"Mag Sinton is here," said Mrs. Comstock harshly. "I told her you had change_our mind, but she said you asked her to go with you, and she had nothing t_o for herself."
Elnora arose, recklessly waded through the deep swamp grasses and so reache_he path ahead of her mother. Mrs. Comstock followed as far as the garden, bu_he could not enter the cabin. She busied herself among the vegetables, barel_ooking up when the back-door screen slammed noisily. Margaret Sinto_pproached colourless, her eyes so angry that Mrs. Comstock shrank back.
"What's the matter with Elnora's face?" demanded Margaret.
Mrs. Comstock made no reply.
"You struck her, did you?"
"I thought you wasn't blind!"
"I have been, for twenty long years now, Kate Comstock," said Margaret Sinton,
"but my eyes are open at last. What I see is that I've done you no good an_lnora a big wrong. I had an idea that it would kill you to know, but I gues_ou are tough enough to stand anything. Kill or cure, you get it now!"
"What are you frothing about?" coolly asked Mrs. Comstock.
"You!" cried Margaret. "You! The woman who doesn't pretend to love her onl_hild. Who lets her grow to a woman, as you have let Elnora, and can't b_atisfied with every sort of neglect, but must add abuse yet; and all for _ool idea about a man who wasn't worth his salt!"
Mrs. Comstock picked up a hoe.
"Go right on!" she said. "Empty yourself. It's the last thing you'll ever do!"
"Then I'll make a tidy job of it," said Margaret. "You'll not touch me. You'l_tand there and hear the truth at last, and because I dare face you and tel_t, you will know in your soul it is truth. When Robert Comstock shaved tha_uagmire out there so close he went in, he wanted to keep you from knowin_here he was coming from. He'd been to see Elvira Carney. They had plans to g_o a dance that night——"
"Close your lips!" said Mrs. Comstock in a voice of deadly quiet.
"You know I wouldn't dare open them if I wasn't telling you the truth. I ca_rove what I say. I was coming from Reeds. It was hot in the woods and _topped at Carney's as I passed for a drink. Elvira's bedridden old mothe_eard me, and she was so crazy for some one to talk with, I stepped in _inute. I saw Robert come down the path. Elvira saw him, too, so she ran ou_f the house to head him off. It looked funny, and I just deliberately move_here I could see and hear. He brought her his violin, and told her to ge_eady and meet him in the woods with it that night, and they would go to _ance. She took it and hid it in the loft to the well-house and promised she'_o."
"Are you done?" demanded Mrs. Comstock.
"No. I am going to tell you the whole story. You don't spare Elnora anything.
I shan't spare you. I hadn't been here that day, but I can tell you just ho_e was dressed, which way he went and every word they said, though the_hought I was busy with her mother and wouldn't notice them. Put down you_oe, Kate. I went to Elvira, told her what I knew and made her give m_omstock's violin for Elnora over three years ago. She's been playing it eve_ince. I won't see her slighted and abused another day on account of a man wh_ould have broken your heart if he had lived. Six months more would hav_howed you what everybody else knew. He was one of those men who couldn'_rust himself, and so no woman was safe with him. Now, will you drop grievin_ver him, and do Elnora justice?"
Mrs. Comstock grasped the hoe tighter and turning she went down the walk, an_tarted across the woods to the home of Elvira Carney. With averted head sh_assed the pool, steadily pursuing her way. Elvira Carney, hanging towel_cross the back fence, saw her coming and went toward the gate to meet her.
Twenty years she had dreaded that visit. Since Margaret Sinton had compelle_er to produce the violin she had hidden so long, because she was afraid t_estroy it, she had come closer expectation than dread. The wages of sin ar_he hardest debts on earth to pay, and they are always collected a_nconvenient times and unexpected places. Mrs. Comstock's face and hair wer_o white, that her dark eyes seemed burned into their setting. Silently sh_tared at the woman before her a long time.
"I might have saved myself the trouble of coming," she said at last, "I se_ou are guilty as sin!"
"What has Mag Sinton been telling you?" panted the miserable woman, grippin_he fence.
"The truth!" answered Mrs. Comstock succinctly. "Guilt is in every line o_our face, in your eyes, all over your wretched body. If I'd taken a good loo_t you any time in all these past years, no doubt I could have seen it just a_lain as I can now. No woman or man can do what you've done, and not get _ark set on them for every one to read."
"Mercy!" gasped weak little Elvira Carney. "Have mercy!"
"Mercy?" scoffed Mrs. Comstock. "Mercy! That's a nice word from you! How muc_ercy did you have on me? Where's the mercy that sent Comstock to the slime o_he bottomless quagmire, and left me to see it, and then struggle on in agon_ll these years? How about the mercy of letting me neglect my baby all th_ays of her life? Mercy! Do you really dare use the word to me?"
"If you knew what I've suffered!"
"Suffered?" jeered Mrs. Comstock. "That's interesting. And pray, what have yo_uffered?"
"All the neighbours have suspected and been down on me. I ain't had a friend.
I've always felt guilty of his death! I've seen him go down a thousand times, plain as ever you did. Many's the night I've stood on the other bank of tha_ool and listened to you, and I tried to throw myself in to keep from hearin_ou, but I didn't dare. I knew God would send me to burn forever, but I'_etter done it; for now, He has set the burning on my body, and every hour i_s slowly eating the life out of me. The doctor says it's a cancer——"
Mrs. Comstock exhaled a long breath. Her grip on the hoe relaxed and he_tature lifted to towering height.
"I didn't know, or care, when I came here, just what I did," she said. "But m_ay is beginning to clear. If the guilt of your soul has come to a head, in _ancer on your body, it looks as if the Almighty didn't need any of my help i_eting out His punishments. I really couldn't fix up anything to come anywher_ear that. If you are going to burn until your life goes out with that sort o_ire, you don't owe me anything!"
"Oh, Katharine Comstock!" groaned Elvira Carney, clinging to the fence fo_upport.
"Looks as if the Bible is right when it says, 'The wages of sin is death,'
doesn't it?" asked Mrs. Comstock. "Instead of doing a woman's work in life, you chose the smile of invitation, and the dress of unearned cloth. Now yo_ell me you are marked to burn to death with the unquenchable fire. And him!
It was shorter with him, but let me tell you he got his share! He left me wit_n untruth on his lips, for he told me he was going to take his violin t_nabasha for a new key, when he carried it to you. Every vow of love an_onstancy he ever made me was a lie, after he touched your lips, so when h_ried the wrong side of the quagmire, to hide from me the direction in whic_e was coming, it reached out for him, and it got him. It didn't hurry, either! It sucked him down, slow and deliberate."
"Mercy!" groaned Elvira Carney. "Mercy!"
"I don't know the word," said Mrs. Comstock. "You took all that out of me lon_go. The past twenty years haven't been of the sort that taught mercy. I'v_ever had any on myself and none on my child. Why in the name of justice, should I have mercy on you, or on him? You were both older than I, bot_trong, sane people, you deliberately chose your course when you lured him, and he, when he was unfaithful to me. When a Loose Man and a Light Woman fac_he end the Almighty ordained for them, why should they shout at me for mercy?
What did I have to do with it?"
Elvira Carney sobbed in panting gasps.
"You've got tears, have you?" marvelled Mrs. Comstock. "Mine all dried lon_go. I've none left to shed over my wasted life, my disfigured face and hair, my years of struggle with a man's work, my wreck of land among the tille_ields of my neighbours, or the final knowledge that the man I so gladly woul_ave died to save, wasn't worth the sacrifice of a rattlesnake. If anythin_et could wring a tear from me, it would be the thought of the awful injustic_ always have done my girl. If I'd lay hand on you for anything, it would b_or that."
"Kill me if you want to," sobbed Elvira Carney. "I know that I deserve it, an_ don't care."
"You are getting your killing fast enough to suit me," said Mrs. Comstock. "_ouldn't touch you, any more than I would him, if I could. Once is all any ma_r woman deceives me about the holiest things of life. I wouldn't touch yo_ny more than I would the black plague. I am going back to my girl."
Mrs. Comstock turned and started swiftly through the woods, but she had gon_nly a few rods when she stopped, and leaning on the hoe, she stood thinkin_eeply. Then she turned back. Elvira still clung to the fence, sobbin_itterly.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Comstock, "but I left a wrong impression with you. _on't want you to think that I believe the Almighty set a cancer to burnin_ou as a punishment for your sins. I don't! I think a lot more of th_lmighty. With a whole sky-full of worlds on His hands to manage, I'm no_elieving that He has time to look down on ours, and pick you out of all th_illions of us sinners, and set a special kind of torture to eating you. I_ouldn't be a gentlemanly thing to do, and first of all, the Almighty is boun_o be a gentleman. I think likely a bruise and bad blood is what caused you_rouble. Anyway, I've got to tell you that the cleanest housekeeper I eve_new, and one of the noblest Christian women, was slowly eaten up by a cancer.
She got hers from the careless work of a poor doctor. The Almighty is t_orgive sin and heal disease, not to invent and spread it."
She had gone only a few steps when she again turned back.
"If you will gather a lot of red clover bloom, make a tea strong as lye of it, and drink quarts, I think likely it will help you, if you are not too fa_one. Anyway, it will cool your blood and make the burning easier to bear."
Then she swiftly went home. Enter the lonely cabin she could not, neithe_ould she sit outside and think. She attacked a bed of beets and hoed unti_he perspiration ran from her face and body, then she began on the potatoes.
When she was too tired to take another stroke she bathed and put on dr_lothing. In securing her dress she noticed her husband's carefully preserve_lothing lining one wall. She gathered it in an armload and carried it to th_wamp. Piece by piece she pitched into the green maw of the quagmire all thos_rticles she had dusted carefully and fought moths from for years, and stoo_atching as it slowly sucked them down. She went back to her room and gathere_very scrap that had in any way belonged to Robert Comstock, excepting his gu_nd revolver, and threw it into the swamp. Then for the first time she set he_oor wide open.
She was too weary now to do more, but an urging unrest drove her. She wante_lnora. It seemed to her she never could wait until the girl came an_elivered her judgment. At last in an effort to get nearer to her, Mrs.
Comstock climbed the stairs and stood looking around Elnora's room. It wa_ery unfamiliar. The pictures were strange to her. Commencement had filled i_ith packages and bundles. The walls were covered with cocoons; moths an_ragonflies were pinned everywhere. Under the bed she could see half a doze_arge white boxes. She pulled out one and lifted the lid. The bottom wa_overed with a sheet of thin cork, and on long pins sticking in it were large, velvet-winged moths. Each one was labelled, always there were two of a kind, in many cases four, showing under and upper wings of both male and female.
They were of every colour and shape.
Mrs. Comstock caught her breath sharply. When and where had Elnora found them?
They were the most exquisite sight the woman ever had seen, so she opened al_he boxes to feast on their beautiful contents. As she did so there came mor_ully a sense of the distance between her and her child. She could no_nderstand how Elnora had gone to school, and performed so much work secretly.
When it was finished, to the last moth, she, the mother who should have bee_he first confidant and helper, had been the one to bring disappointment.
Small wonder Elnora had come to hate her.
Mrs. Comstock carefully closed and replaced the boxes; and again stood lookin_round the room. This time her eyes rested on some books she did not remembe_aving seen before, so she picked up one and found that it was a moth book.
She glanced over the first pages and was soon eagerly reading. When the tex_eached the classification of species, she laid it down, took up another an_ead the introductory chapters. By that time her brain was in a confuse_umble of ideas about capturing moths with differing baits and bright lights.
She went down stairs thinking deeply. Being unable to sit still and havin_othing else to do she glanced at the clock and began preparing supper. Th_ork dragged. A chicken was snatched up and dressed hurriedly. A spice cak_prang into being. Strawberries that had been intended for preserves went int_hortcake. Delicious odours crept from the cabin. She put many extra touche_n the table and then commenced watching the road. Everything was ready, bu_lnora did not come. Then began the anxious process of trying to keep cooke_ood warm and not spoil it. The birds went to bed and dusk came. Mrs. Comstoc_ave up the fire and set the supper on the table. Then she went out and sat o_he front-door step watching night creep around her. She started eagerly a_he gate creaked, but it was only Wesley Sinton coming.
"Katharine, Margaret and Elnora passed where I was working this afternoon, an_argaret got out of the carriage and called me to the fence. She told me wha_he had done. I've come to say to you that I am sorry. She has heard m_hreaten to do it a good many times, but I never would have got it done. I'_ive a good deal if I could undo it, but I can't, so I've come to tell you ho_orry I am."
"You've got something to be sorry for," said Mrs. Comstock, "but likely w_in't thinking of the same thing. It hurts me less to know the truth, than t_ive in ignorance. If Mag had the sense of a pewee, she'd told me long ago.
That's what hurts me, to think that both of you knew Robert was not worth a_our of honest grief, yet you'd let me mourn him all these years and neglec_lnora while I did it. If I have anything to forgive you, that is what it is."
Wesley removed his hat and sat on a bench.
"Katharine," he said solemnly, "nobody ever knows how to take you."
"Would it be asking too much to take me for having a few grains of plai_ommon sense?" she inquired. "You've known all this time that Comstock go_hat he deserved, when he undertook to sneak in an unused way across a swamp, with which he was none too familiar. Now I should have thought that you'_igure that knowing the same thing would be the best method to cure me o_ining for him, and slighting my child."
"Heaven only knows we have thought of that, and talked of it often, but w_ere both too big cowards. We didn't dare tell you."
"So you have gone on year after year, watching me show indifference to Elnora, and yet a little horse-sense would have pointed out to you that she was m_alvation. Why look at it! Not married quite a year. All his vows of love an_idelity made to me before the Almighty forgotten in a few months, and a danc_nd a Light Woman so alluring he had to lie and sneak for them. What kind of _rospect is that for a life? I know men and women. An honourable man is a_onourable man, and a liar is a liar; both are born and not made. One canno_hange to the other any more than that same old leopard can change its spots.
After a man tells a woman the first untruth of that sort, the others com_iling thick, fast, and mountain high. The desolation they bring in their wak_vershadows anything I have suffered completely. If he had lived six month_ore I should have known him for what he was born to be. It was in the bloo_f him. His father and grandfather before him were fiddling, dancing people; but I was certain of him. I thought we could leave Ohio and come out her_lone, and I could so love him and interest him in his work, that he would b_ man. Of all the fool, fruitless jobs, making anything of a creature tha_egins by deceiving her, is the foolest a sane woman ever undertook. I am mor_han sorry you and Margaret didn't see your way clear to tell me long ago. I'_ave found it out in a few more months if he had lived, and I wouldn't hav_orne it a day. The man who breaks his vows to me once, doesn't get the secon_hance. I give truth and honour. I have a right to ask it in return. I am gla_ understand at last. Now, if Elnora will forgive me, we will take a new star_nd see what we can make out of what is left of life. If she won't, then i_ill be my time to learn what suffering really means."
"But she will," said Wesley. "She must! She can't help it when things ar_xplained."
"I notice she isn't hurrying any about coming home. Do you know where she i_r what she is doing?"
"I do not. But likely she will be along soon. I must go help Billy with th_ight work. Good-bye, Katharine. Thank the Lord you have come to yourself a_ast!"
They shook hands and Wesley went down the road while Mrs. Comstock entered th_abin. She could not swallow food. She stood in the back door watching the sk_or moths, but they did not seem to be very numerous. Her spirits sank and sh_reathed unevenly. Then she heard the front screen. She reached the middl_oor as Elnora touched the foot of the stairs.
"Hurry, and get ready, Elnora," she said. "Your supper is almost spoiled now."
Elnora closed the stair door behind her, and for the first time in her life, threw the heavy lever which barred out anyone from down stairs. Mrs. Comstoc_eard the thud, and knew what it meant. She reeled slightly and caught th_oorpost for support. For a few minutes she clung there, then sank to th_earest chair. After a long time she arose and stumbling half blindly, she pu_he food in the cupboard and covered the table. She took the lamp in one hand, the butter in the other, and started to the spring house. Something brushe_lose by her face, and she looked just in time to see a winged creature ris_bove the cabin and sail away.
"That was a night bird," she muttered. As she stopped to set the butter in th_ater, came another thought. "Perhaps it was a moth!" Mrs. Comstock droppe_he butter and hurried out with the lamp; she held it high above her head an_aited until her arms ached. Small insects of night gathered, and at last _ittle dusty miller, but nothing came of any size.
"I must go where they are, if I get them," muttered Mrs. Comstock.
She went to the barn after the stout pair of high boots she used in feedin_tock in deep snow. Throwing these beside the back door she climbed to th_oft over the spring house, and hunted an old lard oil lantern and one o_irst manufacture for oil. Both these she cleaned and filled. She listene_ntil everything up stairs had been still for over half an hour. By that tim_t was past eleven o'clock. Then she took the lantern from the kitchen, th_wo old ones, a handful of matches, a ball of twine, and went from the cabin, softly closing the door.
Sitting on the back steps, she put on the boots, and then stood gazing int_he perfumed June night, first in the direction of the woods on her land, the_oward the Limberlost. Its outline was so dark and forbidding she shuddere_nd went down the garden, following the path toward the woods, but as sh_eared the pool her knees wavered and her courage fled. The knowledge that i_er soul she was now glad Robert Comstock was at the bottom of it made _oward of her, who fearlessly had mourned him there, nights untold. She coul_ot go on. She skirted the back of the garden, crossed a field, and came ou_n the road. Soon she reached the Limberlost. She hunted until she found th_ld trail, then followed it stumbling over logs and through clinging vines an_rasses. The heavy boots clumped on her feet, overhanging branches whipped he_ace and pulled her hair. But her eyes were on the sky as she went strainin_nto the night, hoping to find signs of a living creature on wing.
By and by she began to see the wavering flight of something she thought nea_he right size. She had no idea where she was, but she stopped, lighted _antern and hung it as high as she could reach. A little distance away sh_laced the second and then the third. The objects came nearer and sick wit_isappointment she saw that they were bats. Crouching in the damp swam_rasses, without a thought of snakes or venomous insects, she waited, her eye_oving from lantern to lantern. Once she thought a creature of high fligh_ropped near the lard oil light, so she arose breathlessly waiting, but eithe_t passed or it was an illusion. She glanced at the old lantern, then at th_ew, and was on her feet in an instant creeping close. Something large as _mall bird was fluttering around. Mrs. Comstock began to perspire, while he_and shook wildly. Closer she crept and just as she reached for it, somethin_imilar swept past and both flew away together.
Mrs. Comstock set her teeth and stood shivering. For a long time the locust_asped, the whip-poor-wills cried and a steady hum of night life throbbed i_er ears. Away in the sky she saw something coming when it was no larger tha_ falling leaf. Straight toward the light it flew. Mrs. Comstock began to pra_loud.
"This way, O Lord! Make it come this way! Please! O Lord, send it lower!"
The moth hesitated at the first light, then slowly, easily it came toward th_econd, as if following a path of air. It touched a leaf near the lantern an_ettled. As Mrs. Comstock reached for it a thin yellow spray wet her hand an_he surrounding leaves. When its wings raised above its back, her fingers cam_ogether. She held the moth to the light. It was nearer brown than yellow, an_he remembered having seen some like it in the boxes that afternoon. It wa_ot the one needed to complete the collection, but Elnora might want it, s_rs. Comstock held on. Then the Almighty was kind, or nature was sufficient, as you look at it, for following the law of its being when disturbed, the mot_gain threw the spray by which some suppose it attracts its kind, an_iberally sprinkled Mrs. Comstock's dress front and arms. From that instant, she became the best moth bait ever invented. Every Polyphemus in rang_astened to her, and other fluttering creatures of night followed. The influ_ame her way. She snatched wildly here and there until she had one in eac_and and no place to put them. She could see more coming, and her achin_eart, swollen with the strain of long excitement, hurt pitifully. She praye_n broken exclamations that did not always sound reverent, but never was huma_oul in more intense earnest.
Moths were coming. She had one in each hand. They were not yellow, and she di_ot know what to do. She glanced around to try to discover some way to kee_hat she had, and her throbbing heart stopped and every muscle stiffened.
There was the dim outline of a crouching figure not two yards away, and a pai_f eyes their owner thought hidden, caught the light in a cold stream. He_irst impulse was to scream and fly for life. Before her lips could open a bi_oth alighted on her breast while she felt another walking over her hair. Al_ense of caution deserted her. She did not care to live if she could no_eplace the yellow moth she had killed. She turned her eyes to those among th_eaves.
"Here, you!" she cried hoarsely. "I need you! Get yourself out here, and hel_e. These critters are going to get away from me. Hustle!"
Pete Corson parted the bushes and stepped into the light.
"Oh, it's you!" said Mrs. Comstock. "I might have known! But you gave me _tart. Here, hold these until I make some sort of bag for them. Go easy! I_ou break them I don't guarantee what will happen to you!"
"Pretty fierce, ain't you!" laughed Pete, but he advanced and held out hi_ands. "For Elnora, I s'pose?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Comstock. "In a mad fit, I trampled one this morning, and b_he luck of the old boy himself it was the last moth she needed to complete _ollection. I got to get another one or die."
"Then I guess it's your funeral," said Pete. "There ain't a chance in a doze_he right one will come. What colour was it?"
"Yellow, and big as a bird."
"The Emperor, likely," said Pete. "You dig for that kind, and they are no_umerous, so's 'at you can smash 'em for fun."
"Well, I can try to get one, anyway," said Mrs. Comstock. "I forgot all abou_ringing anything to put them in. You take a pinch on their wings until I mak_ poke."
Mrs. Comstock removed her apron, tearing off the strings. She unfastened an_tepped from the skirt of her calico dress. With one apron string she tie_hut the band and placket. She pulled a wire pin from her hair, stuck i_hrough the other string, and using it as a bodkin ran it around the hem o_er skirt, so shortly she had a large bag. She put several branches inside t_hich the moths could cling, closed the mouth partially and held it towar_ete.
"Put your hand well down and let the things go!" she ordered. "But be careful, man! Don't run into the twigs! Easy! That's one. Now the other. Is the one o_y head gone? There was one on my dress, but I guess it flew. Here comes _ind of a gray-looking one."
Pete slipped several more moths into the bag.
"Now, that's five, Mrs. Comstock," he said. "I'm sorry, but you'll have t_ake that do. You must get out of here lively. Your lights will be taken fo_urry calls, and inside the next hour a couple of men will ride here lik_ury. They won't be nice Sunday-school men, and they won't hold bags and catc_oths for you. You must go quick!"
Mrs. Comstock laid down the bag and pulled one of the lanterns lower.
"I won't budge a step," she said. "This land doesn't belong to you. You hav_o right to order me off it. Here I stay until I get a Yellow Emperor, and n_ittle petering thieves of this neighbourhood can scare me away."
"You don't understand," said Pete. "I'm willing to help Elnora, and I'd tak_are of you, if I could, but there will be too many for me, and they will b_ad at being called out for nothing."
If a lot of good-for-nothings get fooled into losing some sleep, why let them, they can't hurt me, or stop my work."
"They can, and they'll do both."
"Well, I'll see them do it!" said Mrs. Comstock. "I've got Robert's revolve_n my dress, and I can shoot as straight as any man, if I'm mad enough. An_ne who interferes with me to-night will find me mad a-plenty. There goe_nother!"
She stepped into the light and waited until a big brown moth settled on he_nd was easily taken. Then in light, airy flight came a delicate pale gree_hing, and Mrs. Comstock started in pursuit. But the scent was not right. Th_oth fluttered high, then dropped lower, still lower, and sailed away. Wit_utstretched hands Mrs. Comstock pursued it. She hurried one way and another, then ran over an object which tripped her and she fell. She regained her fee_n an instant, but she had lost sight of the moth. With livid face she turne_o the crouching man.
"You nasty, sneaking son of Satan!" she cried. "Why are you hiding there? Yo_ade me lose the one I wanted most of any I've had a chance at yet. Get out o_ere! Go this minute, or I'll fill your worthless carcass so full of hole_ou'll do to sift cornmeal. Go, I say! I'm using the Limberlost to-night, an_ won't be stopped by the devil himself! Cut like fury, and tell the rest o_hem they can just go home. Pete is going to help me, and he is all of you _eed. Now go!"
The man turned and went. Pete leaned against a tree, held his mouth shut an_hook inwardly. Mrs. Comstock came back panting.
"The old scoundrel made me lose that!" she said. "If any one else come_nooping around here I'll just blow them up to start with. I haven't time t_alk. Suppose that had been yellow! I'd have killed that man, sure! Th_imberlost isn't safe to-night, and the sooner those whelps find it out, th_etter it will be for them."
Pete stopped laughing to look at her. He saw that she was speaking the truth.
She was quite past reason, sense, or fear. The soft night air stirred the we_air around her temples, the flickering lanterns made her face a ghastl_reen. She would stop at nothing, that was evident. Pete suddenly bega_atching moths with exemplary industry. In putting one into the bag, anothe_scaped.
"We must not try that again," said Mrs. Comstock. "Now, what will we do?"
"We are close to the old case," said Pete. "I think I can get into it. Mayb_e could slip the rest in there."
"That's a fine idea!" said Mrs. Comstock. "They'll have so much room ther_hey won't be likely to hurt themselves, and the books say they don't fly i_aytime unless they are disturbed, so they will settle when it's light, and _an come with Elnora to get them."
They captured two more, and then Pete carried them to the case.
"Here comes a big one!" he cried as he returned.
Mrs. Comstock looked up and stepped out with a prayer on her lips. She coul_ot tell the colour at that distance, but the moth appeared different from th_thers. On it came, dropping lower and darting from light to light. As i_wept near her, "O Heavenly Father!" exulted Mrs. Comstock, "it's yellow!
Careful Pete! Your hat, maybe!"
Pete made a long sweep. The moth wavered above the hat and sailed away. Mrs.
Comstock leaned against a tree and covered her face with her shaking hands.
"That is my punishment!" she cried. "Oh, Lord, if you will give a moth lik_hat into my possession, I'll always be a better woman!"
The Emperor again came in sight. Pete stood tense and ready. Mrs. Comstoc_tepped into the light and watched the moth's course. Then a second appeare_n pursuit of the first. The larger one wavered into the radius of light onc_ore. The perspiration rolled down the man's face. He half lifted the hat.
"Pray, woman! Pray now!" he panted.
"I guess I best get over by that lard oil light and go to work," breathed Mrs.
Comstock. "The Lord knows this is all in prayer, but it's no time for word_ust now. Ready, Pete! You are going to get a chance first!"
Pete made another long, steady sweep, but the moth darted beneath the hat. I_ts flight it came straight toward Mrs. Comstock. She snatched off the remnan_f apron she had tucked into her petticoat band and held the calico befor_er. The moth struck full against it and clung to the goods. Pete crept u_tealthily. The second moth followed the first, and the spray showered th_pron.
"Wait!" gasped Mrs. Comstock. "I think they have settled. The books say the_on't leave now."
The big pale yellow creature clung firmly, lowering and raising its wings. Th_ther came nearer. Mrs. Comstock held the cloth with rigid hands, while Pet_ould hear her breathing in short gusts.
"Shall I try now?" he implored.
"Wait!" whispered the woman. "Something seems to say wait!"
The night breeze stiffened and gently waved the apron. Locusts rasped, mosquitoes hummed and frogs sang uninterruptedly. A musky odour slowly fille_he air.
"Now shall I?" questioned Pete.
"No. Leave them alone. They are safe now. They are mine. They are m_alvation. God and the Limberlost gave them to me! They won't move for hours.
The books all say so. O Heavenly Father, I am thankful to You, and you, too, Pete Corson! You are a good man to help me. Now, I can go home and face m_irl."
Instead, Mrs. Comstock dropped suddenly. She spread the apron across he_nees. The moths remained undisturbed. Then her tired white head dropped, th_ears she had thought forever dried gushed forth, and she sobbed for pure joy.
"Oh, I wouldn't do that now, you know!" comforted Pete. "Think of getting two!
That's more than you ever could have expected. A body would think you woul_ry, if you hadn't got any. Come on, now. It's almost morning. Let me help yo_ome."
Pete took the bag and the two old lanterns. Mrs. Comstock carried her moth_nd the best lantern and went ahead to light the way.
Elnora had sat beside her window far into the night. At last she undressed an_ent to bed, but sleep would not come. She had gone to the city to talk wit_embers of the School Board about a room in the grades. There was _ossibility that she might secure the moth, and so be able to start to colleg_hat fall, but if she did not, then she wanted the school. She had been give_ome encouragement, but she was so unhappy that nothing mattered. She coul_ot see the way open to anything in life, save a long series o_isappointments, while she remained with her mother. Yet Margaret Sinton ha_dvised her to go home and try once more. Margaret had seemed so sure ther_ould be a change for the better, that Elnora had consented, although she ha_o hope herself. So strong is the bond of blood, she could not make up he_ind to seek a home elsewhere, even after the day that had passed. Unable t_leep she arose at last, and the room being warm, she sat on the floor clos_he window. The lights in the swamp caught her eye. She was very uneasy, fo_uite a hundred of her best moths were in the case. However, there was n_oney, and no one ever had touched a book or any of her apparatus. Watchin_he lights set her thinking, and before she realized it, she was in a panic o_ear.
She hurried down the stairway softly calling her mother. There was no answer.
She lightly stepped across the sitting-room and looked in at the open door.
There was no one, and the bed had not been used. Her first thought was tha_er mother had gone to the pool; and the Limberlost was alive with signals.
Pity and fear mingled in the heart of the girl. She opened the kitchen door, crossed the garden and ran back to the swamp. As she neared it she listened, but she could hear only the usual voices of night.
"Mother!" she called softly. Then louder, "Mother!"
There was not a sound. Chilled with fright she hurried back to the cabin. Sh_id not know what to do. She understood what the lights in the Limberlos_eant. Where was her mother? She was afraid to enter, while she was growin_ery cold and still more fearful about remaining outside. At last she went t_er mother's room, picked up the gun, carried it into the kitchen, an_rowding in a little corner behind the stove, she waited in trembling anxiety.
The time was dreadfully long before she heard her mother's voice. Then sh_ecided some one had been ill and sent for her, so she took courage, an_tepping swiftly across the kitchen she unbarred the door and drew back fro_ight beside the table.
Mrs. Comstock entered dragging her heavy feet. Her dress skirt was gone, he_etticoat wet and drabbled, and the waist of her dress was almost torn fro_er body. Her hair hung in damp strings; her eyes were red with crying. In on_and she held the lantern, and in the other stiffly extended before her, on _ad of calico reposed a magnificent pair of Yellow Emperors. Elnora stared, her lips parted.
"Shall I put these others in the kitchen?" inquired a man's voice.
The girl shrank back to the shadows.
"Yes, anywhere inside the door," replied Mrs. Comstock as she moved a fe_teps to make way for him. Pete's head appeared. He set down the moths and wa_one.
"Thank you, Pete, more than ever woman thanked you before!" said Mrs.
She placed the lantern on the table and barred the door. As she turned Elnor_ame into view. Mrs. Comstock leaned toward her, and held out the moths. In _oice vibrant with tones never before heard she said: "Elnora, my girl, mother's found you another moth!"