He was struck dumb. It often happens that in the fiercest storm of gossip the one most nearly concerned goes his way without so much as suspecting that the sun is hidden. But Tom had not been exposed to the violence of the storm. Nan’s shame was old, and the gossip tongues had wagged themselves weary two years before, when the child was born. So Tom was quite free to think only of his companion. A great anger rose and swelled in his heart. What scoundrel had taken advantage of an ignorance so profound as to be the blood sister of innocence? He would have given much to know; and yet the true delicacy of a manly soul made him hold his peace.
Thus it befell that they drove in silence to the deserted cabin on the hillside; and Tom went down to the foundry office and brought a lamp for light. The cabin was a mere shelter; but when he would have made excuses, Nan stopped him.
“Hit’s as good as I been usen to, as you know mighty well, Tom-Jeff. I on’y wisht—”
He was on his knees at the hearth, kindling a fire, and he looked up to see why she did not finish. She was sitting on the edge of the old watchman’s rude bed, bowed low over the sleeping child, and again sobs were shaking her like an ague fit. There was something heartrending in this silent, wordless anguish; but there was nothing to be said, and Tom went on making the fire. After a little she sat up and continued monotonously:
“He was liken to me thataway, too; the Man ’at I heard your Uncle Silas tellin’ about one night when I sot on the doorstep at Little Zoar—He hadn’t no place to lay His’n head; not so much as the red foxes ’r the birds ... and I hain’t.”
The blaze was racing up the chimney now with a cheerful roar, and Tom rose to his feet, every good emotion in him stirring to its awakening.
“Such as it is, Nan, this place is yours, for as long as you want to stay,” he said soberly. And then: “You straighten things around here to suit you, and I’ll be back in a little while.”
He was gone less than half an hour, but in that short interval he lighted another fire: a blaze of curiosity and comment to tingle the ears and loosen the tongues of the circle of loungers in Hargis’s store in Gordonia. He ignored the stove-hugging contingent pointedly while he was giving his curt orders to the storekeeper; and the contingent avenged itself when he was out of hearing.
“Te-he!” chuckled Simeon Cantrell the elder, pursing his lips around the stem of his corn-cob pipe; “looks like Tom-Jeff was goin’ to house-keepin’ right late in the evenin’.”
“By gol, I wonder what’s doin’?” said another. “Reckon he’s done tuk up with Nan Bryerson, afte’ all’s been said an’ done?”
Bastrop Clegg, whose distinction was that of being the oldest loafer in the circle, spat accurately into the drafthole of the stove, sat back and tilted his hat over his eyes.
“Well, boys, I reckon hit’s erbout time, ain’t hit?” he moralized. “Leetle Tom must be a-goin’ awn two year old; and I don’t recommember ez Tom ‘r his pappy has ever done a livin’ thing for Nan.”