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- The City of Fire - 5/55 -
played at sunset, especially Saturday evenings, when Marilyn Severn was at home, and the village loved to hear them. Billy wouldn't have owned it, but he loved to hear those bells play better than anything else in his young life, and he generally managed to be around when they were being played. He loved to watch the slim young fingers manipulating the glad sounds. A genius who had come to the quiet hill village to die of an incurable disease had trained her and had left the wonderful little pipe organ with its fine chime of bells attached as his memorial to the peace the village had given him in his last days. Something of his skill and yearning had fallen upon the young girl whom he had taught. Billy always felt as if an angel had come and was ringing the bells of heaven when Marilyn sat at the organ playing the bells.
This night a ray of the setting sun slanting through the memorial window on her bronze gold hair gave her the look of Saint Cecilia sitting there in the dimness of the church. Billy sidled into a back seat still chewing and watched her. He could almost see a halo in yellow gold sun dust circling above her hair. Then a sudden revulsion came with the thought of "that guy Judas" and the possibility that he and the old fellow had much in common. But Bah! He would go to the mountain just to prove to himself that there was nothing crooked in it.
The music was tender that night and Billy felt a strange constriction in his throat. But you never would have guessed, as Lynn Severn turned at the end of her melody to search the dimness for the presence she felt had entered, that he had been under any stress of emotion, the way he grinned at her and sidled up the aisle.
"Yeah, we won awright," in answer to her question, "Red Rodge and Sloppy had 'em beat from the start. Those other guys can't play ball anyway."
Then quite casually he brought forth the dollar from his breast pocket.
"Fer the Chinese Fund," he stated indifferently.
The look in her face was beautiful to see, almost as if there were tears behind the sapphire lights in her eyes.
"Billy! All this?"
He felt as if she had knighted him. He turned red and hot with shame and pleasure.
"Aw, that ain't much. I earned sommore too, fer m'yant." He twisted his cap around on his other hand roughly and then blurted out the last thing he had meant to say:
"Miss Lynn, it ain't wrong to do a thing you don't know ain't wrong, is it?"
Marilyn looked at him keenly and laughed.
"It generally is, Billy, if you think it _might_ be. Don't ever try to fool your conscience, Billy, it's too smart for that."
He grinned sheepishly and then quite irrelevantly remarked:
"I saw Cart last night."
But she seemed to understand the connection and nodded gravely:
"Yes, I saw him a moment this morning. He said he might come back again this evening."
The boy grunted contentedly and watched the warm color of her cheek under the glow of the ruddy sunset. She always seemed to him a little bit unearthly in the starriness of her beauty. Of course he never put it to himself that way. In fact he never put it at all. It was just a fact in his life. He had two idols whom he worshipped from afar, two idols who understood him equally well and were understood by him, and for whom he would have gladly laid down his young life. This girl was one, and Mark Carter was the other. It was the sorrow of his young life that Mark Carter had left Sabbath Valley indefinitely. The stories that floated back of his career made no difference to Billy. He adored him but the more in his fierce young soul, and gloried in his hero's need of faithful friends. He would not have owned it to himself, perhaps, but he had spoken of Mark just to find out if this other idol believed those tales and was affected by them. He drew a sigh of deep content as he heard the steady voice and knew that she was still the young man's friend.
They passed out of the church silently together and parted in the glow of red that seemed flooding the quiet village like a painting. She went across the stretch of lawn to the low spreading veranda where her mother sat talking with her father. Some crude idea of her beauty and grace stole through his soul, but he only said to himself:
"How,--kind of--_little_ she is!" and then made a dash for his rusty old wheel lying flat at the side of the church step. He gathered it up and wheeled it around the side of the church to the old graveyard, threading his way among the graves and sitting down on a broad flat stone where he had often thought out his problems of life. The shadow of the church cut off the glow of sunset, and made it seem silent and dark. Ahead of him the Valley lay. Across at the right it stretched toward the Junction, and he could see the evening train just puffing in with a wee wisp of white misty smoke trailing against the mountain green. The people for the hotels would be swarming off, for it was Saturday night. The fat one would be there rolling trunks across and the station agent would presently close up. It would be dark over there at eight o'clock. The mountains loomed silently, purpling and steep and hazy already with sleep.
To the left lay the road that curved up to the forks where one went across to the Highway and at right angles the Highway went straight across the ridge in front of him and sloped down to the spot where the fat one expected him to play his part at eight o'clock to-night. The Highway was the way down which the "rich guy" was expected to come speeding in a high power car from New York, and had to be stopped and relieved of money that "did not belong to him."
Billy thought it all over. Somehow things seemed different now. He had by some queer psychological process of his own, brought Lynn Severn's mind and Mark Carter's mind together to bear upon the matter and gained a new perspective. He was pretty well satisfied in his own soul that the thing he had set out to do was not "on the level." It began to be pretty plain to him that that "rich guy" might be in the way of getting hurt or perhaps still worse, and he had no wish to be tangled up in a mess like that. At the same time he did not often get a chance to make twenty-five dollars, and he had no mind to give it up. It was not in his unyellow soul to go back on his word without refunding the money, and a dollar of it was already spent to the "Chinese Fund," to say nothing of sundaes and sodas and whips. So he sat and studied the mountain ahead of him.
Suddenly, as the sun, which had been for a long time slipping down behind the mountains at his back, finally disappeared, his face cleared. He had found a solution.
He sprang up from the cold stone, where his fingers had been mechanically feeling out the familiar letters of the inscription: "Blessed are the dead--" and catching up the prone wheel, strode upon it and dashed down the darkening street toward the little cottage near the willows belonging to his Aunt Saxon. He was whistling as he went, for he was happy. He had found a way to keep his cake and eat it too. It would not have been Billy if he had not found a way out.
Aunt Saxon turned a drawn and anxious face away from the window at his approach and drew a sigh of momentary relief. This bringing up boys was a terrible ordeal. But thanks be this immediate terror was past and her sister's orphaned child still lived! She hurried to the stove where the waiting supper gave forth a pleasant odor.
"Been down to the game at M'nop'ly," he explained happily as he flung breezily into the kitchen and dashed his cap on a chair, "Gee! That ham smells good! Say, Saxy, whad-ya do with that can of black paint I left on the door step last Saturday?"
"It's in a wooden box in the corner of the shed, Willie," answered his Aunt, "Come to supper now. It'll all get cold. I've been waiting most an hour."
"Oh, hang it! I don't s'pose you know where the brush is--Yes, I'm coming. Oh, here 'tis!"
He ate ravenously and briefly. His aunt watched him with a kind of breathless terror waiting for the inevitable remark at the close: "Well, I gotta beat it! I gotta date with the fellas!"
She had ceased to argue. She merely looked distressed. It seemed a part of his masculinity that was inevitable.
At the door he was visited with an unusual thoughtfulness. He stuck his head back in the room to say:
"Oh, yes, Saxy, I _might_ not be home till morning. I _might_ stay all night some place."
He was going without further explanation, but her dismay as she murmured pathetically:
"But to-morrow is the Sabbath, Willie--!" halted him once more.
"Oh, I'll be home time fer Sunday-school," he promised gaily, and was off down the road in the darkness, his old wheel squeaking rheumatically with each revolution growing fainter and fainter in the night.
But Billy did not take the road to the Junction in his rapid flight. Instead he climbed the left hand mountain road that met the Forks and led to the great Highway. Slower and slower the old wheel went, Billy puffing and bending low, till finally he had to dismount and put a drop of oil in a well known spot which his finger found in the dark, from the little can he carried in his pocket for such a time of need. He did not care to proclaim his coming as he crept up the rough steep way. And once when a tin Lizzie swept down upon him, he ducked and dropped into the fringe of alders at the wayside until it was past. Was that, could it have been Cart? It didn't look like Cart's car, but it was very dark, and the man had not dimmed his lights. It was blinding. He hoped it was Cart, and that he had gone to the parsonage. Somehow he liked to think of those two together. It made his own view of life seem stronger. So he slunk quietly up to the fork where the Highway swept down round a curve, and turned to go down across the ridge. Here was the spot where the rich guy would presently come. He looked the ground over, with his bike safely hidden below road level. With a sturdy set of satisfaction to his shoulders, and a twinkle of fun in his eye, he began to burrow into the undergrowth and find branches, a fallen log, stones, anything, and drag them up across the great state highway till he had a complete barricade.
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