“Oh, what misery I bring everywhere,” she sobbed. “To my father and mother I brought death, and now to you all and to Jim and Mollie I am bringing ruin and perhaps death also. But it shall not be—you shall not suffer for me! He looked straight at you, Julian, when he made his threat. What could he mean to do? You have done nothing. But you need not fear. I know how I may undo the harm I have so innocently done.”
We tried to assure her that we did not care—that we would protect her as best we could and that she must not feel that she had brought any greater burden upon us than we already carried; but she only shook her head and at last asked me to take her home to Mollie’s.
She was very quiet all the way back, though I did my best to cheer her up.
“He cannot make you work for him,” I insisted. “Even the Twenty-Four, rotten as it is, would never dare enforce such an order. We are not yet entirely slaves.”
“But I am afraid that he will find a way,” she replied, “through you, my friend. I saw him look at you and it was a very ugly look.”
“I do not fear,” I said.
“I fear for you. No, it shall not be!” She spoke with such vehement finality that she almost startled me and then she bid me good night and went into Mollies house and closed the door.
All the way back home I was much worried about her, for I did not like to see her unhappy. I felt that her fears were exaggerated, for even such a powerful man as the commandant could not make her work for him if she did not wish to. Later he might take her as his woman if she had no man, but even then she had some choice in the matter—a month in which to choose some one else if she did not care to bear his children. That was the law.
Of course, they found ways to circumvent the law when they wanted a girl badly enough—the man of her choice might be apprehended upon some trumped-up charge, or even be found some morning mysteriously murdered. It must be a heroic woman who stood out against them for long, and a man must love a girl very deeply to sacrifice his life for her—and then not save her. There was but one way and by the time I reached my cot I was almost frantic with fear lest she might seize upon it.
For a few minutes I paced the floor and with every minute the conviction grew that the worst was about to happen. It became an obsession. I could see her even as plainly as with my physical eyesight and then I could stand it no longer.
Bolting for the doorway I ran as fast as my legs would carry me in the direction of Jim’s house. Just before I reached it I saw a shadowy figure moving in the direction of the river. I could not make out who it was; but I knew and redoubled my speed.
A low bluff overhands the stream at this point and upon its edge—I saw the figure pause for a moment and then disappear. There was a splash in the water below just as I reached the rim of the bluff—a splash and circling rings spreading outward on the surface of the river in the starlight.
I saw these things—the whole picture—in the fraction of a moment, for I scarcely paused upon the bluff’s edge; but dove headlong or the rippling water close to the center of those diverging circles.
We came up together, side by side, and I reached out and seized her tunic, and thus, holding her at arm’s length, I swam ashore with her, keeping her chin above water. She did not struggle and when at last we stood upon the bank she turned upon me, tearless, yet sobbing.
“Why did you do it?” she moaned. “Oh, why did you do it? It was the only way—the only way.”
She looked so forlorn and unhappy and so altogether beautiful that I could scarcely keep from taking her in my arms, for then, quite unexpectedly, I realized what I had been too stupid to realize before—that I loved her.
But I only took her hands in mine and pressed them very tightly and begged her to promise me that she would not attempt this thing again. I told her that she might never hear from Or-tis again and that it was wicked to destroy herself until there was no other way.
“It is not that I fear myself,” she said. “I can always find this way out at the last minute; but I fear for you who have been kind to me. If I go now you will no longer be in danger.”
“I would rather be in danger than have you go,” I said simply. “I do not fear.”
And she promised me before I left her that she would not try it again until there was no other way.
As I walked slowly homeward my thoughts were filled with bitterness and sorrow. My soul was in revolt against this cruel social order that even robbed youth of happiness and love. Although I had seen but little of either something within me—some inherent instinct I suspect—cried aloud that these were my birthright and that I was being robbed of them by the spawn of lunar interlopers. My Americanism was very strong in me—stronger, perhaps, because of the century old effort of our oppressors to crush it and because always we must suppress any outward evidence of it. They called us Yanks in contempt; but the appellation was our pride. And we, in turn, often spoke of them as kaisers; but not to their faces. Father says that in ancient times the word had the loftiest of meanings; but now it has the lowest.
As I approached the house I saw that the candle was still burning in the living room. I had left so hurriedly that I had given it no thought, and as I came closer I saw something else, too. I was walking very slowly and in the soft dust of the pathway my soft boots made no sound, or I might not have seen what I did see—two figures, close in the shadow of the wall, peering through one of our little windows into the living room.
I crept stealthily forward until I was close enough to see that one was in the uniform of a Kash Guard while the other was clothed as are those of my class. In the latter I recognized the stoop shouldered, lanky figure of Peter Johansen. I was not at all surprised at this confirmation of my suspicions.
I knew what they were there for—hoping to learn the secret hiding place of the Flag—but I also knew that unless they already knew it there was no danger of their discovering it from the outside, since it had been removed from its hiding place but once in my lifetime that I knew of and might never again be, especially since we knew that we were suspected. So I hid and watched them for a while and then circled the house and entered from the front as though I did not know that they were there, for it would never do to let them know that they had been discovered.
Taking off my clothes I went to bed, after putting out the candle. I do not know how long they remained—it was enough to know that we were being watched, and though it was not pleasant I was glad that we were forewarned. In the morning I told father and mother what I had seen. Mother sighed and shook her head.
“It is coming,” she said. “I always knew that sooner or later it would come. One by one they get us—now it is our turn.”
Father said nothing. He finished his breakfast in silence and when he left the house he walked with his eyes upon the ground, his shoulders stooped and his chin upon his breast—slowly, almost unsteadily, he walked, like a man whose heart and spirit are both broken.
I saw mother choke back a sob as she watched him go and I went and put my arm about her.
“I fear for him, Julian,” she said. “A spirit such as his suffers terribly the stings of injustice and degradation. Some of the others do not seem to take it so to heart as he; but he is a proud man of a proud line. I am afraid—” she paused as though fearing even to voice her fears—“I am afraid that he will do away with himself.”
“No,” I said, “he is too brave a man for that. This will all blow over—they only suspect—they do not know, and we shall be careful and then all will be right again—as right as anything ever is in this world.”
“But Or-tis?” she questioned. “It will not be right until he has his will.”
I knew that she meant Juana.
“He will never have his will,” I said. “Am I not here?”
She smiled indulgently. “You are very strong, my boy,” she said; “but what are two brawny arms against the Kash Guard?”
“They would be enough for Or-tis,” I replied.
“You would kill him?” she whispered. “They would tear you to pieces!”
“They can tear me to pieces but once.”
It was market day and I went in with a few wethers, some hides and cheese. Father did not come along—in fact, I advised him not to as Soor would be there and also Hoffmeyer. One cheese I took as tribute to Soor. God, how I hated to do it! But both mother and father thought it best to propitiate the fellow, and I suppose they were right. A lifetime of suffering does not incline one to seek further trouble.
The market place was full, for I was a little late. There were many Kash Guards in evidence—more than usual. It was a warm day—the first really warm day we had had—and a number of men were sitting beneath a canopy at one side of the market place in front of Hoffmeyer’s office. As I approached I saw that Or-tis was there, as well as Pthav, the coal baron, and Hoffmeyer, of course, with several others including some Kalkar women and children.
I recognized Pthav’s woman—a renegade Yank who had gone to him willingly—and their little child, a girl of about six. The latter was playing in the dust in front of the canopy some hundred feet from the group, and I had scarcely recognized her when I saw that which made my heart almost stop beating for an instant.
Two men were driving a small bunch of cattle into the market place upon the other side of the canopy, when suddenly I saw one of the creatures, a great bull, break away from the herd and with lowered head charge toward the tiny figure playing, unconscious of danger in the dust. The men tried to head the beast off, but their efforts were futile. Those under the canopy saw the child’s danger at the same time that I did and they rose and cried aloud in warning. Pthav’s woman shrieked and Or-tis yelled lustily for the Kash Guard; but none hastened in the path of the infuriated beast to the rescue of the child.
I was the closest to her and the moment that I saw her danger I started forward; but even as I ran there passed through my brain some terrible thoughts. She is Kalkar! She is the spawn of the beast Pthav and of the woman who turned traitor to her kind to win ease and comfort and safety! Many a little life has been snuffed out because of her father and his class! Would they save a sister or a daughter of mine?
I thought all these things as I ran; but I did not stop running—something within impelled me to her aid. It must have been simply that she was a little child and I the descendant of American gentlemen. No, I kept right on in the face of the fact that my sense of justice cried out that I let the child die.
I reached her just a moment before the bull did and when he saw me there between him and the child he stopped and with his head down he pawed the earth, throwing clouds of dust about, and bellowed—and then he came for me; but I met him half way, determined to hold him off until the child escaped if it were humanly possible for me to do so. He was a huge beast and quite evidently a vicious one, which possibly explained the reason for bringing him to market, and altogether it seemed to me that he would make short work of me; but I meant to die fighting.
I called to the little girl to run and then the bull and I came together. I seized his horns as he attempted to toss me, and I exerted all the strength in my young body. I had thought that I had let the Hellhounds feel it all that other night; but now I knew that I had yet had more in reserve, for to my astonishment I held that great beast and slowly, very slowly, I commenced to twist his head to the left.
He struggled and fought and bellowed—I could feel the muscles of my back and arms and legs hardening to the strain that was put upon them; but almost from the first instant I knew that I was master. The Kash Guards were coming now on the run, and I could hear Or-tis shouting to them to shoot the bull; but before they reached me I gave the animal a final mighty wrench so that he went first down upon one knee and then over on his side and there I held him until a sergeant came and put a bullet through his head.
When he was quite dead Or-tis and Pthav and the others approached. I saw them coming as I was returning to my wethers, my skins and my cheese. Or-tis called to me and I turned and stood looking at him as I had no mind to have any business with any of them that I could avoid.
“Come here, my man,” he called.
I moved sullenly toward him a few paces and stopped again.
“What do you want of me?” I asked.
“Who are you?” He was eying me closely now. “I never saw such strength in any man. You should be in the Kash Guard. How would you like that?”
“I would not like it,” I replied. It was about then, I guess, that he recognized me, for his eyes hardened. “No,” he said, “we do not want such as you among loyal men.” He turned upon his heel; but immediately wheeled toward me again.
“See to it, young man,” he snapped, “that you use that strength of yours wisely and in good causes.”
“I shall use it wisely,” I replied, “and in the best of causes.”
I think Pthav’s woman had intended to thank me for saving her child, and perhaps Pthav had, too, for they had both come toward me; but when they saw Or-tis’s evident hostility toward me they turned away, for which I was thankful. I saw Soor looking on with a sneer on his lips and Hoffmeyer eying me with that cunning expression of his.
I gathered up my produce and proceeded to that part of the market place where we habitually showed that which we had to sell, only to find that a man named Vonbulen was there ahead of me. Now there is an unwritten law that each family has its own place in the market. I was the third generation of Julians who had brought produce to this spot—formerly horses mostly, for we were a family of horsemen; but more recently goats since the government had taken over the horse industry. Though father and I still broke horses occasionally for the Twenty-Four, we did not own or raise them any more.
Vonbulen had had a little pen in a far corner, where trade was not so brisk as it usually was in our section, and I could not understand what he was doing in ours, where he had three or four scrub pigs and a few sacks of grain. Approaching, I asked him why he was there.
“This is my pen now,” he said. “Tax collector Soor told me to use it.”
“You will get out of it,” I replied. “You know that it is ours—every one in the teivos knows that it is and has been for many years. My grandfather built it and my family have kept it in repair. You will get out!”
“I will not get out,” he replied truculently. He was a very large man and when he was angry he looked quite fierce, as he had large mustaches which he brushed upward on either side of his nose—like the tusks of one of his boars.
“You will get out or be thrown out,” I told him; but he put his hand on the gate and attempted to bar my entrance.
Knowing him to be heavy minded and stupid I thought to take him by surprise, nor did I fail as, with a hand upon the topmost rail, I vaulted the gate full in his face, and letting my knees strike his chest, I sent him tumbling backward into the filth of his swine. So hard I struck him that he turned a complete back somersault and as he scrambled to his feet, his lips fouled with oaths, I saw murder in his eye. And how he charged me! It was for all the world like the charge of the great bull I had just vanquished except that I think that Vonbulen was angrier than the bull and not so good looking.
His great fists were flailing about in a most terrifying manner and his mouth was open just as though he intended eating me alive; but for some reason I felt no fear. In fact, I had to smile to see his face and his fierce mustache smeared with dirt.
I parried his first wild blows and then stepping in close I struck him lightly in the face—I am sure I did not strike him hard, for I did not mean to—I wanted to play with him; but the result was as astonishing to me as it must have been to him, though not so painful. He rebounded from my fist fully, three feet and then went over on his back again, spitting blood and teeth from his mouth.
And then I picked him up by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his breeches, and lifting him high above my head, I hurled him out of the pen into the market place where, for the first time, I saw a large crowd of interested spectators.
Vonbulen was not a popular character in the teivos, and many were the broad smiles I saw on the faces of those of my class; but there were others who did not smile. They were Kalkars and half breeds.
I saw all this in a single glance and then I returned to my work, for I was not through. Vonbulen lay where he had alighted and after him and onto him, one by one, I threw his sacks of grain and his scrub pigs and then I opened the gate and started out to bring in my own produce and live stock. As I did so I almost ran into Soor, standing there eying me with a most malignant expression upon his face.
“What does this mean?” he fairly screamed at me.
“It means,” I replied, “that no one can steal the place of a Julian as easily as Vonbulen thought.”
“He did not steal it,” yelled Soor. “I gave it to him. Get out! It is his.”
“It is not yours to give,” I replied. “I know my rights and no man shall take them from me without a fight. Do you understand me?”
And then I brushed by him without another glance and drove my wethers into the pen. As I did so I saw that no one was smiling any more—my friends looked very glum and very frightened; but a man came up from my right and stood by my side, facing Soor, and when I turned my eyes in his direction I saw that it was Jim.
Then I realized how serious my act must have seemed, and I was sorry that Jim had come and thus silently announced that he stood with me in what I had done. No others came, although there were many who hated the Kalkars fully as much as we.
Soor was furious; but he could not stop me. Only the Twenty-Four could take the pen away from me. He called me names and threatened me; but I noticed that he waited until he had walked a short distance away before he did so. It was as food to a starving man to know that even one of our oppressors feared me. So far this had been the happiest day of my life.
I hurriedly got the goats into the pen and then, with one of the cheeses in my hand, I called to Soor. He turned to see what I wanted, showing his teeth like a rat at bay.
“You told my father to bring you a present,” I yelled at the top of my lungs, so that all about in every direction heard and turned toward us. “Here it is!” I cried. “Here is your bribe!” and I hurled the cheese with all my strength full in his face.
He went down like a felled ox and the people scattered like frightened rabbits. Then I went back into the pen and started to open and arrange my hides across the fence so that they might be inspected by prospective purchasers.
Jim, whose pen was next to ours, stood looking across the fence at me for several minute. At last he spoke:
“You have done a very rash thing, Julian,” he said, and then: “I envy you.”
It was not quite plain what he meant and yet I guessed that he, too, would have been willing to die for the satisfaction of having defied them. I had not done this thing merely in the heat of anger or the pride of strength; but from the memory of my father’s bowed head and my mother’s tears—in the realization that we were better dead than alive unless we could hold our heads aloft as men should. Yes, I still saw my father’s chin upon his breast and his unsteady gait and I was ashamed for him and for myself; but I had partially washed away the stain and there had finally crystalized in my brain something that must have been forming long in solution there—the determination to walk through the balance of my life with my head up and my fists ready—a man—however short my walk might be.