When he recrossed the stream, at a point some distance above the boy-time perch pools, the serving foot-log chanced to be that used by the Little Zoar folk coming from beyond the boundary hills. Following the windings of the path he presently came out in the rear of the weather-beaten, wooden-shuttered church standing, blind-eyed and silent, in week-day desertion in the midst of its groving of pines.
The spot was rife with memories, and Tom passed around the building to the front, treading softly as on hallowed ground. Whatever the future might hold for him, there would always be heart-stirring recollections to cluster about this frail old building sheltered by the whispering pines.
How many times he had sat on the steps in the door-opening days of boyhood, looking out across the dusty pike and up to the opposing steeps of Lebanon lifting the eastward horizon half-way to the zenith! Leg-weariness, and a sudden desire to live over again thus much of the past turning him aside, he went to sit on the highest of the three steps, with the brooding silence for company and the uplifted landscape to revamp the boyhood memories.
The sun had set for Paradise Valley, but his parting rays were still volleying in level lines against the great gray cliffs at the top of Lebanon, silvering the bare sandstone, blackening the cedars and pines by contrast, and making a fine-lined tracery, blue on gray, of the twigs and leafless branches of the deciduous trees. Off to the left a touch of sepia on the sky-line marked the chimneys of Crestcliffe Inn, and farther around, and happily almost hidden by the shouldering of the hills, a grayer cloud hung over the industries at Gordonia.
Nearer at hand were the wooded slopes of the Dabney lands—lordly forests culled and cared for through three generations of land-lovers until now their groves of oaks and hickories, tulip-trees and sweet-and black-gums were like those the pioneers looked on when the land was young.
Thomas Jefferson had the appreciative eye and heart of one born with a deep and abiding love of the beautiful in nature, and for a time the sunset ravishment possessed him utterly. But the blurring of the fine-lined traceries and the fading of the silver and the gray into twilight purple broke the spell. The postponed resolve was the thing present and pressing. His mother was as nearly recovered as she was ever likely to be, and his uncle would be returning to South Tredegar in the morning. The evil tale must be told while there was yet one to whom his mother could turn for help and sympathy in her hour of bitter disappointment.
He was rising from his seat on the church step when he heard sounds like muffled groans. Recovering quickly from the first boyish startle of fear oozing like a cool breeze blowing up the back of his neck, he saw that the church door was ajar. By cautiously adding another inch to the aperture he could see the interior of the building, its outlines taking shape when his eyes had become accustomed to darkness relieved only by the small fan-light over the door. Some one was in the church: a man, kneeling, with clasped hands uplifted, in the open space fronting the rude pulpit. Tom recognized the voice and withdrew quickly. It was his Uncle Silas, praying fervently for a lost sheep of the house of Israel.