He paused a moment; then he continued sadly:
“As I grow older it seems a shorter and shorter step between child and child. David, she has a child of her own,’’
“But I didn’t know—she isn’t—”
“A woods child,” said the Scotch Preacher.
I could not find a word to say. I remember the hush of the evening there in the country road, the soft light fading in the fields. I heard a whippoorwill calling from the distant woods.
“They made it hard for her,” said the Scotch Preacher, “especially her older brother. About four o’clock this afternoon she ran away, taking her baby with her. They found a note saying they would never again see her alive. Her mother says she went toward the river.”
I touched up the mare. For a few minutes the Scotch Preacher sat silent, thinking. Then he said, with a peculiar tone of kindness in his voice.
“She was a child, just a child. When I talked with her yesterday she was perfectly docile and apparently contented. I cannot imagine her driven to such a deed of desperation. I asked her: ’Why did you do it, Anna?’ She answered, ‘I don’t know: I—I don’t know!’ Her reply was not defiant or remorseful: it was merely explanatory.”
He remained silent again for a long time.
“David,” he said finally, “I sometimes think we don’t know half as much about human nature as we—we preach. If we did, I think we’d be more careful in our judgments.”
He said it slowly, tentatively: I knew it came straight from his heart. It was this spirit, more than the title he bore, far more than the sermons he preached, that made him in reality the minister of our community. He went about thinking that, after all, he didn’t know much, and that therefore he must be kind.
As I drove up to the bridge, the Scotch Preacher put one hand on the reins. I stopped the horse on the embankment and we both stepped out.
“She would undoubtedly have come down this road to the river,” McAlway said in a low voice.
It was growing dark. When I walked out on the bridge my legs were strangely unsteady; a weight seemed pressing on my breast so that my breath came hard. We looked down into the shallow, placid water: the calm of the evening was upon it; the middle of the stream was like a rumpled glassy ribbon, but the edges, deep-shaded by overhanging trees, were of a mysterious darkness. In all my life I think I never experienced such a degree of silence—of breathless, oppressive silence. It seemed as if, at any instant, it must burst into some fearful excess of sound.
Suddenly we heard a voice—in half-articulate exclamation. I turned, every nerve strained to the uttermost. A figure, seemingly materialized out of darkness and silence, was moving on the bridge.
“Oh!—McAlway,” a voice said.
Then I heard the Scotch Preacher in low tones.
“Have you seen Anna Williams?”