Saturday morning all threethe Bishop, the vagabond, and Talboysstarted for Charleston. Talboys, however, did not know that the Bishop was going. He bought Demmings ticket, saw him safely to a seat, and went into the smoking-car. The Bishop was late, but the conductor, with true Southern good-nature, backed the train and took him aboard. He seated himself in front of Demming, and began to wipe his heated brow.
Humph! said the Bishop. After this there was silence. The train rolled along; through the pine woods, past small stations where rose-trees brightened trim white cottages, then into the swamp lands, where the moisture painted the bark of tall trees, and lay in shiny green patches among them. The Southern moss dripping from the giant branches shrouded them in a weird drapery, soft as mist. There was something dreary and painful, to a Northern eye, in the scene; the tall and shrouded trees, the stagnant pools of water gleaming among them, the vivid green patches of moss, the barren stretches of sand. The very beauty in it all seemed the unnatural glory of decay, repelling the beholder. Here and there were cabins. One could not look at them without wondering whether the inhabitants had the ague, or its South Carolina synonyme, the break-bone fever. At one, a bent old woman was washing. She lifted her head, and Demming waved his hat at her. Then he glanced at the Bishop, now busy with a paper, and chuckled over some recollection. He looked out again. There was a man running along the side of the road waving a red flag. He called out a few words, which the wind of the train tore to pieces. At the same instant, the whistle of the engine began a shrill outcry. Sunthins bust, I reckon, said Demming. And then, before he could see, or know, or understand, a tremendous crash drowned his senses, and in one awful moment blended shivering glass and surging roof and white faces like a horrible kaleidoscope.
The first thing he noticed, when he came to himself, was a thin ribbon of smoke. He watched it lazily, while it melted into the blue sky, and another ribbon took its place. But presently the pain in his leg aroused him. He perceived that the car was lying on one side, making the other side into a roof, and one open window was opposite his eyes. At the other end the car was hardly more than a mass of broken seats and crushed sides, but it was almost intact where he lay. He saw that the stove had charred the woodwork near it; hence the smoke, which escaped through a crack and floated above him. The few people in the car were climbing out of the windows as best they might. A pair of grimy arms reached down to Demming, and he heard the brakemans voice (he knew Jim Herndon, the brakeman, well) shouting profanely for the next.
The brakeman drew him to one side before he left him. Demming could see the wreck plainly. A freight train had been thrown from the track, and the passenger train had run into it while going at full speed. The brakes wouldnt work, Demming heard Jim say. Now the sight was a sorry onea heap of rubbish which had been a freight car; the passenger engine sprawling on one side, in the swamp, like a huge black beetle; and, near it, the two foremost cars of its train overturned and shattered. The people of both trains were gathered about the wreck, helplessly talking, as is the manner of people in an accident. They were, most of them, on the other side of the track. No one had been killed; but some were wounded, and were stretched in a ghastly row on car cushions. The few women and children in the train were collected about the wounded.
Demming saw the speaker for an instant,an erect little figure in a foppish gray suit, with a cats eye gleaming from his blue cravat. One instant he stood on the piece of timber upon which he had jumped; the next he had flung off his coat, and was speeding down the road like a hare.
The men went. Demming, weak with pain, was content to look across the gap between the trains and watch those left behind. The smoke was growing denser now, and tongues of flame shot out between the joints of wood. They said the man was at the other end. Happily, the wind blew the fire from him. Jim and two other men climbed in again. Demming could hear them swearing and shouting. He looked anxiously about, seeking a familiar figure which he could not find. He thought it the voice of his own fears, that cry from within the car. Good God, its the Bishop! But immediately Jim thrust his head out of the window, and called: The Bishops in hyar! Under the cyar seats! He aint hurt, but we cyant move the infernal things ter get him out!
In desperation, the men outside tried to batter down the car walls with a broken tree limb. Inside, they strained feverishly at the heavy timbers. Vain efforts all, at which the crackling flames, crawling always nearer, seemed to mock.
Demming could hear the talk, the pitying comments, the praise of the Bishop: Such a good man! His poor daughter, the only child, and her mother dead! They were so fond of each other, poor thing, poor thing! And a soft voice added, Let us pray!
He began to crawl to the car, dragging his shattered leg behind him, reckless of the throbs of pain it sent through his nerves. Ef I kin ony stan it till I git ter him! he moaned. Burnin alives harder nor this. He felt the hot smoke on his face; he heard the snapping and roaring of the fire; he saw the men about the car pull out Jim and his companions, and perceived that their faces were blackened.
Itll cotch me, suahs death! said Demming between his teeth. Well, taint much mattah! Mustering all his strength he pulled himself up to the car window below that from which Jim had just emerged. The crowd, occupied with the helpless rescuers, had not observed him before. They shouted at him as one man: Get down, its too late! Youre crazy, you ! yelled Jim, with an oath.
He had taken his revolver from his breast, and was searching through his pockets. He soon pulled out what be sought, merely a piece of stout twine; and the crowd saw him, sitting astride the trucks, while he tied the string about the handle of the weapon. Then he leaned over the prison walls, and looked down upon the Bishop. Under the mass of wood and iron the Bishop lay, unhurt but securely imprisoned; yet he had never advanced to the chancel rails with a calmer face than that he lifted to his friend.
I know thet, Bishop, groaned the cracker. I aint aimin ter. But I cyant let you roast in this yere d barbecue! Look a yere! He lowered the revolver through the window. Thars a pistil, an wen th fire cotches onter you an yo gwine suahs shootin, then put it ter yo head an pull the trigger, an yoll be outen it all!
The Bishops firm pale face grew paler as he answered, Dont tempt me, Demming! Whatever God sends I must bear. I cant do it! Demming paused. He looked steadily at the Bishop for a second; then he raised the revolver, with a little quiver of his mouth. And go away, for Gods sake, my poor friend! Bear my love to my dear, dear daughter; tell her that she has always been a blessing and a joy to me. And remember what I have said to you, yourself. It will be worth dying for if you will do that; it will, indeed. It is only a short pain, and then heaven! Now go, Demming. God bless and keep you. Go!
But Demming did not move. Don you want ter say a prayer, Bishop? he said in a coaxing tone,jes a little mite o one fur you an me? Ye don need ter min bout sayin t loud. Ill unnerstan th intention, an feel jes so edified. I will, fur a fac.
Im a-gwine, Bishop, said Demming, in the same soft, coaxing tone. Don min me. Im all right. He crouched down lower, so that the Bishop could not see him, and the group below saw him rest the muzzle of the pistol on the window-sill and take aim.
A gasp ran through the crowd,that catching of the breath in which overtaxed feeling relieves itself. Hes doin the las kindness he can to him, said the brakeman to the conductor, and by the Lord, hes giv his own life to do it!
The cracker struck a loose piece of wood, and sent it clattering down. Yes, Bishop, that wuz me. Im safe on th groun. Good-by, Bishop. I do feel bleeged ter you; an, Bishop, them chickens wuz the fust time. They wuz, on my honah. Now, Bishop, shet yo eyes an pray, for its a-comin!
The Bishop prayed. They could not hear what he said, below. No one heard save the uncouth being who clung to the window, revolver in hand, steadily eying the creeping red death. But they knew that, out of sight, a man who had smiled on them, full of life and hope but an hour ago, was facing such torture as had tried the martyrs courage, and facing it with as high a faith.
With one accord men and women bent their heads. Jim, the brakeman, alone remained standing, his form erect, his eyes fixed on the two iron lines that made an angle away in the horizon. Come on! he yelled, leaping wildly into the air. Fo the Lords sake, hurry! D him, but hes the bulliest runner!
Then they all saw a man flying down the track, axe in hand. He ran up to the car side. He began to climb. A dozen hands caught him. Youre a dead man if you get in there! was the cry. Dont you see its all afire?
The steady tones and Talboyss business-like air had an instantaneous effect. The crowd were willing enough to be led; they fell back, and Talboys dropped through the window. To those outside the whole car seemed in a blaze, and over them the smoke hung like a pall; but through the crackling and roaring and the crash of falling timber came the clear ring of axe-blows, and Talboyss voice shouting: I say, my man, dont lose heart! Were bound to get you out!
No, theyre not! yelled Demming. Hes got him, safe an soun! And as he spoke, scorched and covered with dust, bleeding from a cut on his cheek but holding the Bishop in his arms, Talboys appeared at the window. Jim snatched the Bishop, the conductor helped out Talboys, and half a dozen hands laid hold of Demming. He heard the wild cheer that greeted them; he heard another cheer for the men with the water, just in sight; but he heard no more, for as they pulled him down a dozen fiery pincers seemed tearing at his leg, and he fainted dead away.
The Bishops daughter sat in her room, making a very pretty picture, with her white hands clasped on her knee and her soft eyes uplifted. She looked sad enough to please a pre-Raphaelite of sentiment. Yet her father, whom this morning she would have declared she loved better than any one in the world, had just been saved from a frightful death. She knew the story of his deliverance. At last she felt that most unexpected thrill of admiration for Talboys; but Talboys had vanished. He was gone, it was all ended, and she owned to herself that she was wretched. Her father was with Demming and the doctors. The poor vagabond must hobble through life on one leg, henceforward. If he lived, the doctor had said, making even his existence as a cripple problematic. Poor Demming, who had flung away his life to save her father from suffering,a needless, useless sacrifice, as it proved, but touching Louise the more because of its very failure!
At this stage in her thoughts, she heard Sam, the waiter, knocking softly, outside. Her first question was about Demming. The operations ovah, miss, an Mr. Demming hes sinkin, answered Sam, giving the sick man a title he had never accorded him before, an he axes if youd be so kin s to step in an speak to him; hes powerful anxious to see you.
Silently Louise arose and followed the mulatto. They had carried Demming to the hotel: it was the nearest place, and the Bishop wished it. His wife had been sent for, and was with him. Her timid, tear-stained face was the first object that met Louises eye. She sat in a rocking-chair close to the bed, and, by sheer force of habit, was unconsciously rocking to and fro, while she brushed the tears from her eyes. Demmings white face and tangle of iron-gray hair lay on the pillow near her.
He smiled feebly, seeing Louise. She did not know anything better to do than to take his hand, the tears brightening her soft eyes. Laws, said Demming, don do thet. I aint wuth it. Look a yere, I got sunthin ter say ter you. An you mustnt min, cause I mean well. You know boutyesday mahnin. Mabbe you done what you done not knowin yo own min,laws, thets jes girls,an I wants you ter know jes what kin o feller he is. You know he saved yo pa, but you don know, mabbe, thet he didnt know twas the Bishop till hed jump down in thet thar flamin pit o hell, as twere, an fished him out. He done it jes cause hed thet pluck in him, andon you go fer ter chippin in, Cunnel. Im a dyin man, an don you forget it! Thar he is, miss, hidin like behin the bed.
Louise during this speech had grown red to the roots of her hair. She looked up into Talboyss face. He had stepped forward. His usual composure had quite left him, so that he made a pitiful picture of embarrassment, not helped by crumpled linen and a borrowed coat a world too large for him. Its just a whim of his, he whispered hurriedly; he wanted me to stay. I didnt knowI didnt understand! For Gods sake, dont suppose I meant to take such an advantage of the situation! I am going directly. I shall leave Aiken to-night.
It was only the strain on her nerves, but Louise felt the oddest desire to laugh. The elegant Martin cut such a very droll figure as a hero. Then her eye fell on Demmings eager face, and a sudden revulsion of feeling, a sudden keen realization of the tragedy that Martin had averted brought the tears back to her eyes. Her beautiful head dropped. Why do you gonow? said she.
Yes, Talboys answered, I think we have, andI thank you, Demming. The vagabond waved his hand with a feeble assumption of his familiar gesture. Yo a square man, Cunnel. I allus set a heap by you, though I didnt let on. An shes a right peart young lady. Im glad yo gwine ter be so happy. Laws, I kind o wish I wuz to see it, even on a wooden leg. The woman at his side began to sob. Thar, thar, Alwynda, don take on so; cyant be helped. You mus scuse her, genlemen; she so petted on me she jes cyant hole in!
Well, Bishop, ef you don min, Id like you ter conduc the funal services. Reckon theyll be a genuwine copse this yere time, fo suah. An, Bishop, youll kind o look ayfter Alwynda; see she gets her coffee an terbacco all right. An I wants ter sure you all again thet them thar chickens wuz the fust an ony thing I evah laid hans on twant mine. Thets the solemn truf; aint it, Alwynda?
The cracker looked wistfully from her fresh, young face to the worn face below. She wuzs peart an purtys you, miss, wen I fust struck up with er, said he slowly. Our little gal wuz her very image. Alwynda, in a singularly soft, almost diffident tone, don take on so; mabbe Im gwine fer ter see er again. Twont do no harm ter think so, onyhow, he added, with a glance at Talboys, as though sure there of comprehension.
Then the Bishop spoke, solemnly, though with sympathy, urging the dying man, whose worldly affairs were settled, to repent of his sins and prepare for eternity. Shall I pray for you, Demming? he said in conclusion.
Jes as you please, Bishop, answered Demming, and he tried to wave his hand. I aint noways partickler. I reckon God Amighty knows Id be th same ole Demming ef I could get up, an I don mean ter make no purtences. But mabbe itll cheer up th ole ooman a bit. So you begin, an Ill bring in an amen whenever its wanted!
So speaking, Demming closed his eyes wearily, and the Bishop knelt by the bedside. Talboys and Louise left them thus. After a while, the wife. stretched forth her toil-worn hand and took her husbands. She thought she was aware of a weak pressure. But when the prayer ended there came no amen. Demming was gone where prayer may only faintly follow; nor could the Bishop ever decide how far his vagabond had joined in his petitions. Such doubts, however, did not prevent his cherishing an assured hope that the man who died for him was safe, forever. The Bishops theology, like that of most of us, yielded, sometimes, to the demands of the occasion.