Eugenia did not turn as the door closed. She stood motionless upon the hearth rug, looking down into the fire. Something in the huge old fireplace, with its bent andirons supporting the blazing logs, in the increasing bed of embers upon the bricks, in the sharp odour of the knot of resinous pine she had thrown on with the hickory, brought before her the winter evenings in Delphy’s little cabin, when they sat upon three-legged stools and roasted early winesaps. She saw the negro faces in the glow of the hearth, and she saw Nicholas and herself sitting side by side in the shadow. His childish face, with its look of ancient care, came back to her with the knotted boyish hands that had carried and fetched at her bidding. The whole wistful little figure was imaged in the flames, melting rapidly into the boy, eager to act, ardent to achieve, who had bidden her good-bye on that November afternoon, and, dissolving again, to reappear as the strong man who had come upon her in Uncle Ish’s little shanty, bearing the old negro’s bag upon his shoulder.
She had loved him for his strength, his vigour, his gentleness—and she still loved him.
Of the men that she had known, who was there so ready to assist, so forgetful of services which he had rendered? There was none so powerful and yet so kind—so generous or so gentle. An impulse stirred her to cross the fields to his door and fling herself into the breach that divided them; but again the phantom in the flames grew dim and then sent out the face that she had seen that afternoon—convulsed and quivering, with its flitting sinister likeness to Amos Burr. A voice that seemed to be the voice of old dead Aunt Griselda—of her whole dead race that had decayed and been forgotten, and come to life again in her—spoke suddenly from the silence:
“When all’s said and done, a Battle’s a Battle.”
The resinous pine blazed up, the pungent odour filled the large room, and from the lightwood sticks tiny streams of resin oozed out and dripped into the embers, turning the red to gray.
Mingling with the crackling of the flames there was a noise as of the soughing of the wind in the pine forests.
The hearth grew suddenly blurred before her eyes; and a passion of grief rose to her throat and clutched her with the grip of claws. For an instant longer she stood motionless; then, turning from the fire, she threw herself upon the floor to weep until the daybreak.
When Nicholas left Eugenia it was to stride blindly towards his father’s gate. The rage which had stunned him into silence before the girl now leaped and crackled like flame in his blood. His throat was parched and he saw red like a man who kills.
Passing his home, he kept on to Kingsborough, and once within the shadow of the wood, he broke into a run, flying from himself and from the goad of his wrath. As he ran, he felt with a kind of alien horror that to meet Bernard Battle face to face in this hour would be to do murder—murder too mild for the man who had lied away his friend’s honour for the sake of the whiteness of his own skin. It was the injustice that he resented with a holy rage—the hideous fact that a clean man should be spotted to save an unclean one the splashing he merited.