He turned over and sat up to try to think it out. Yes, there was a way—the way which would be taken by the boy in the Sunday-school books. He would say he was sorry, and would have his sins washed away, and there would be rejoicing in Heaven over the one sinner who had repented. Of course, the girl would die, just the same, and all the misery his sin had caused would remain unchanged. But he would escape.
For one unworthy moment Thomas Jefferson was fiercely tempted. Then the dogged Gordon blood reasserted itself. He had done the dreadful thing: he had asked God to take this girl out of his way, and now he would accept what he had coveted and would not try to sneak out of paying. It comforted him a little to think that, after all, there must eventually be some sort of end to the torment, away on in the eternities to come. When he had suffered all he could suffer, not even God could make him suffer any more.
When he finally recrossed the creek on the dam head it was supper-time, and his mother had returned. The misery had now settled into dumb despair, both more and less agonizing than the acute remorse of the afternoon. What he needed to know was told in his mother’s answer to his father’s inquiry: “Yes; she is a very sick child. I’m going up again after supper to stay as long as I’m needed. It’s a judgment on the Major; he has been setting the creature above the Creator.”
Thomas Jefferson knew well enough that the judgment was his, and not the Major’s; but he let his supper choke him in silence. Afterward, when his mother had gone back to the house of anxiety and he was alone with his father, there were some vague promptings toward confession and a cry for human sympathy. What sealed his lips was the conviction that his father would comfort him without understanding, just as his mother would understand and condemn him. Early in the evening his father went back to the furnace and his chance was lost.
For four heart-searching days Thomas Jefferson lived and endured, because living and enduring were the two unalterable conditions of the brimstone pit to which he had consigned himself. During these days his mother came and went, and prayed oftener than usual—not for the girl’s life, as Thomas Jefferson noticed with deep stirrings of bitterness, but that the dispensation of Providence might inure to the lasting and eternal benefit of an impenitent and idolatrous Major Dabney.
Throughout these four days the sickening August heat remained unbroken; but on the fifth the thunderheads began to gather and a fresh breeze swept down from the slopes of the distant Cumberland; a wind smelling sweetly of rain and full of cooling promise.
On this fifth day, Thomas Jefferson, lying in wait at the gate of the manor-house grounds, waylaid Doctor Williams coming out, and asked the question which had hitherto had its doleful answer without the necessity of asking. If the doctor had struck him with the buggy whip the shock would not have been more real than that consequent on the snapping of mental tension strings and the surging, strangling uprush of the tidal wave of relief.