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If Ought But Death

by Bro. Lionel Winship
The Master Mason - January 1926

GRAYHAM FOSTER, fugitive from justice, and his burly companion, Spike Thursby, made their way along the upgrade of the dirt road that led from the railway over a range of hills to Content Valley. It was May, and the myriad voices of woods and meadows joined with the brilliant sunshine to render the out-of-doors a place of joy. 

The men halted under the shade of an overhanging pine tree at a fork of the road to wipe their heated foreheads with handkerchiefs none too clean. 

"We take the one to the right," puffed Foster. "It's only a couple of miles further to the valley. But let I s rest a while." He glanced dubiously at his companion. "And," he resumed, "if I look as tough as you do, Spike, we better make our toilet. Riding in box cars isn't conducive to nifty appearance." He stared hard at Spike for a moment. "Let's go down to the creek and wash. 

Foster shoved aside the raspberry bushes that bordered the road and plunged down a bank, followed by Thursby. In a few moments they came to a brook murmuring noisily along its rocky channel, its moss-covered banks fringed with trees. They found a pool. Ensued much splashing interspersed with grunts. Then Foster opened his grip, took therefrom a razor, brush and soap, together with a small mirror which he fastened to a tree. While Spike regarded him lazily, he shaved and donned a fresh collar. 

"Can't go home looking like a bum," he observed. "Nor should I be accompanied by such an object as you are, Spike. Here's a razor, another clean collar and the clothes brush. On the job, old timer! You're to act the part of a stock salesman - don't forget!" 

Spike grunted and accepted the razor. He lathered his stubby beard with more energy than he was wont to display. 

"And," resumed Foster, "you must watch your language. Father is a religious man and an enthusiastic Freemason. He not only belongs to the Blue Lodge, but the Chapter, the Commandery, and all the rest. Don't spring any of that bar-room talk of yours. He would wonder what kind of company I have been keeping-and I don't want him to know." 

Spike Thursby was audibly removing the stubble from his fat chin. "Old man's a Mason, eh?" he returned. "As a usual thing Masons don't have sons who are cracksmen." More scraping. "As I dope it out, you never joined." 

"No!" jerked Grayham Foster, and said nothing further for a time. He threw himself down on the turf and stared disconsolately at the babbling streamlet. 

"Content Valley's a good place in which to lose one's self," began Foster. "Way off the beaten track. We can rusticate a while, then work down toward the city. The change will do us good; and, as a matter of fact, I'll be glad to see the folks and the old place again." Another pause, during which Spike Thursby completed his toilet. "I used to go berrying along this creek with Jane ___. Why, Spike, you old rat, you begin to look like a man! Didn't know that a razor and clean linen made so much difference."  

Together the men made their way up the bank, through the bushes and re-entered the dusty road. The purring of a car sounded at a distance. Then the automobile came in sight; at the wheel was a girl of perhaps twenty-five, brown hair fluttering in the breeze. She glanced at the men, then stopped the car. 

"Why, Grayham!" she ejaculated. "Is it really you come home at last? How fortunate that I happened along; I'll give you a lift over the hill." Her eyes were bright as she flushed with pleasure. 

Grayham Foster stepped forward and removed his hat. "Jane-!" he began impulsively, then checked himself. "Your pardon," he hastened to add, "I should have said Mrs. Evarts. But I am certainly glad to see you. It has been a long time," he finished simply. He stood awkwardly by the car while the girl gazed at him with what seemed astonishment. Then a merry twinkle came into her blue eyes, but she acknowledged the introduction to Thursby with pretty dignity. Foster did not present his companion as Spike, but rather as "Mr. Robert Thursby, my companion in business." 

"You may sit with me, Graybam," said the girl. "I want to talk to you. Mr. Thursby can have the other seat." 

Mechanically Grayham Foster took his position by the side of the girl, while Spike Thursby sank with a grunt of satisfaction on the cushion of the rear seat. 

"How is Sid Evarts?" apathetically began Foster. He felt that it was necessary to say something. 

"Oh, Sid, is all right." Jane accelerated the speed of the car. "But let's talk about yourself, Grayham. How have you prospered? I know you have done well," she went on without waiting for a reply. "You were so bright in school, and had such good ideals. There's no need to ask such a question. And family has much to do with one's success in life; don't you think so, Grayham? You were well born. Half your battle was won for you." 

Grayham Foster coughed. The heat was hardly sufficient to account for the flush on his cheeks. "Well, to be sure," he faltered, "I've done fairly well - in some ways. But," he forced a laugh, "I've hardly been gone long enough to make my fortune, Jane - er, Mrs. Evarts. Four years, isn't it?" 

"Your people will be glad, Grayham. They're aging fast; your father, especially. He has to hire most of the farm work. You are done with your wandering, I hope." Her dazzling smile flashed. 

The car attained the crest of the ridge. Jane stopped the machine. "Look, Grayham!" she cried. "Content Valley; your old home, and mine. Aren't you glad to see it again? I see it every day, but it's delightful this time of year." 

In the foreground, three hundred feet below, lay the valley. To the right the river made a double S, its banks fringed with trees and flanked by green meadows wherein droves of black and white cattle were feeding. To the left twisted Bayless Creek, on its way to join the river, the plowed fields of its bottom land contrasting their brown with the deep green of the pastures. The flanking hills were as blue as a five-cent postage stamp. On the road that ran the length of the valley the cars continuously passing looked from the height like fat beetles. 

Directly in front of the spot where Jane had stopped the car, but possibly a mile away by the winding road, a checkerboard effect was wrought on the floor of the valley by the fields and woodland patches of several farms, white houses and red barns half concealed by masses of foliage. Like a snake with silvery scales, Bennett's Creek seemed to crawl out of the range of hills to the south and glide around the base of Shaylor's Mountain to the left of the picture. And yes, there overhung by the group of huge willows was the old swimming hole! 

On the flat near the river a man was rolling the rich dark soil of a field fitted for corn, a faint cloud of dust following his team about. Over the hills toward Hartsville a storm seemed to be gathering; the sun was "drawing water," and the summer clouds, tinged with black, "lay pitched like tents." Up from the valley came the barking of a tractor, the purring of motors, the prognosticating crow of a rooster, the shrieks of happy children. And - sound heard only in such a place - in the woods to the left of the car on the ridge, the tinkle of a cowbell. In the brush nearby birds twittered happily, the odor of May flowers came on the breeze; the tones of a distant supper horn. 

Grayham Foster looked upon the scene and a half sob rose in his throat. "My God, Jane!" he murmered hoarsely. "It's beautiful. Why didn't you wait for me, Jane? We could have been happy therein the Valley of Content!" 

The girl looked at his slyly. "You want the answer Grayham?"


"Do you read your Bible, Grayham - any more?" 

"The Bible," he repeated dully. "Father always called it The Great Light In Masonry. No, not since I went away." 

"Your answer," she breathed, "is in Ruth, the first chapter; verses sixteen and seventeen." She started the car. 

She left Foster and Thursby at the old homestead. As the men turned in at the flagstone walk a collie dog sprang up from the porch and advanced menacingly. "Jack!" called Grayham in soothing tones. 

Instantly the bellicose manner slipped from the dog and he bounded forward with extravagant delight. He sprang with extended tongue and panting breath upon his former master, then coursed intervals to spring against the prodigal, madly about the lawn, returning at brief barking loudly all the while. 

Pushing the dog aside, he stepped upon the porch and opened the screen door. The "sitting room" was as cool and neat as in former years. The cabinet organ stood in the same place, the rag carpet was of identical pattern as the one of old times; and above the door leading to the dining room was the framed motto, done in gorgeous colors, "God Bless Our Home." The seven-day clock on the mantel audibly registered the flight of time. 

Scarcely realizing why, Grayham, followed by Spike, tip-toed through the dining room into the spotless kitchen. A hot wood fire was snapping in the range, and the odor of coffee filled the room. Simmered a frying pan of sliced potatoes. 

Grayham's lips quivered and a strange pain stabbed his heart. "Stay here," he commanded Spike, and pushed on to the back porch. He glanced toward the barn, the door of which was open. In front of the hen-house midway to the barn a large and energetic flock of fowls was picking at several handfuls of grain. 

Down the slope to the stone bridge which spanned the brook the young man strode. He approached the barn. As he entered the door the importunate nickering of the horses and the rustling of straw in an adjoining mow came to his ears simultaneously with the high-pitched voice of a woman: 

"Sam, that old speckeled hen is' just bound to set again. You've got to shut her up. I've taken an apronful of eggs away from her, and she fought spiteful." 

"I'll 'tend to her tomorrow, Martha," boomed a heavy voice. 

"You'd better, Sam. I don't know but it would be just as well to cut off her head and" - the voice approached the door - "eat her." Then a scream, followed by a thumping rustle, as the apronful of eggs fell to the floor. 

"Oh, my sakes, Sam! Here's Grayham!" 

"What?" came a masculine roar, even as the mother flew to her son, stood on her toes and clasped him about the neck. 

"Oh, Grayham," she gasped, "so you've come home at last. Why didn't you write and tell me so's I could 'a had a good meal? Sam!" she shrieked, "cut off Speckle's head at once!" 

"Well! Well!" greeted the elder Foster as he appeared in the door, pitchfork in hand. And, "Well! Well!" he repeated. "So you've made good, and come home to spend your money. I knew you would, Son. I knew you would. But I didn't think you could turn the trick so soon. The world's sometimes a tough old nut to crack. However, clean living, common honesty, and hard work will do it. Glad to see you, my boy." 

"And you, Dad?" faltered the son. "How have you prospered?" 

"Tolerable, tolerable. Nothing to complain about. But I'm getting old. However, that don't matter - now." 

"Let's go in the house and eat," broke in the younger man. "I'm half starved." 

"As usual," smiled the father. "You haven't changed in that respect at least. Let's go in - the chores are done." 

Together the three entered the kitchen. Spike Thursby rose with urbanity fairly radiating from him. "Father and Mother," said Grayham, with just a touch of hesitancy, "meet Mr. Robert Thursby, my friend and partner in business. He's the best little old stock and bond salesman!" 

"Ah!" laughed Mr. Foster, "Easy money - selling bonds these days. When I was a young fellow I had to work." He extended his hand. Then an understanding look passed over his face as he clasped the hand of Spike Thursby. He drew him aside and began an animated, if low-voiced, conversation. Grayham Foster caught snatches of the talk: "Hail from * * * Number 46, Andover * * * Charter * * * Warranted in 1798 * * *." But he paid no heed, for he was assisting his mother in placing the supper on the table. 

"Why haven't you written to us, Grayham, during the past two years?" reproached Mrs. Foster. "At first we got a letter from you every week, then all at once they stopped and some of your letters were returned with, 'Cannot be found,' stamped on the envelope." 

"Busy, Mother - rushed to death. Since I took this job I've been on the jump every minute, and as I really have no headquarters, I couldn't give you my address. Besides, I kept promising myself that I'd come home soon." He relapsed into moody silence, while the old sitting-room clock ticked off the seconds, and outside darkness fell. In the West sounded an ominous jarring rumble. "Going to rain," noted Mrs. Foster. "Your pa wanted to plant his corn tomorrow." An interval, then - "Supper!" she called. 

"It's good to be home, Mother," Grayham murmured, "and have some of your fried potatoes and coffee with real cream. I can't get 'em in the city." 

"I don't believe you've been having enough to eat, Grayham. You look tired." 

"Oh, I'm all right, Mother. I've been working pretty hard lately and, of course, I haven't had your grub." 

The meal passed with surprisingly little conversation, for the elder Mr. Foster was never garrulous except on the subject of Masonry, and Grayham seemed depressed. Ever and anon Mrs. Foster cast anxious glances in his direction. But as he rose from the table be fore the rest had finished and picked up the family Bible, she smiled approvingly. "I'm glad to see that you still read the Good Book," she whispered as she bent over him. "Did you keep the little testament I gave you when you went away?" 

Grayham Foster was turning the leaves of the Bible. At last he found the book of Ruth, first chapter, verses sixteen and seventeen: 

"And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: 

"Where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me." 

"Mother!" said Grayham in tones that caused Mrs. Foster new alarm, "didn't Jane Winston marry Sid Evarts?" 

"No, no, Grayham; she's still waiting for you. I wrote too soon. I found out the next week that it was nothing but a story that originated at a mock wedding at a party. I wrote again right away, but your letters stopped coming then. You must run over and see her tomorrow, Grayham. Poor girl! She felt awfully cut up because you stopped writing to her as well as to us." 

The rest of the evening Grayham Foster was hardly conscious of what was said and done. Ever through his mind beat the words: "If ought but death part thee and me." Then Jane had waited for him to come home-successful! Well, he had come home. * * * "If ought but death part thee and me." Some things are worse than death. 

Bed time came. He stumbled up the stairs. Behind him sounded the heavy tread of Spike Thursby. 

The men entered Grayham's old room in a remote part of the rambling farmhouse. Foster placed the lamp on the dresser and studied the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Yes, there was the same old framed lithograph depicting a corpulent angel with absurdly small wings bending over the cradle of a sleeping infant. When a youngster, Grayham had liked to consider that picture a reproduction of himself and his guardian angel. And there overhead was the same crack in the Georgia-pine ceiling, made by water running through a former hole in the roof. It was odd how he recalled these insignificant things. 

"I say, Slipp'ry." Spike Thursby was speaking. "What's the dope? Are we to do the quiet stunt until the hounds of the law lose the scent, or are we to work in this neck of the woods? Wise me up." 

Grayham Foster turned and looked queerly at his companion. "What's that?" he returned absently. "I didn't get it." 

Thursby crossed his fat legs, lighted a cigarette and sank back in his rocking chair. "Why, are we to be business men taking a rest, or are we to make a little hay while the sun shines, so to speak?" 

"Give me a cigarette." Foster held out his hand, thumped the cigarette idly a moment on his wrist, lighted it and sat down on the bed. His face suddenly paled. "Sorry, old top," he blurted, "but we'll have to call our little partnership off. I'm through! 

"Through!" ejaculated Spike. "What-doyuh mean, through?" 

"I'm off the yegg stuff - for life." Almost fiercely he sprang to his feet and bent over Thursby. "God, man! can't you see? They have faith in me - Dad, Mother, Jane. They think I've made good, and that I'm still honest. And" - he raised his hands over his head - "God helping me, Spike, I'm going to be an honest man again! Jane waited for me! Did you get that, Spike? She waited for me! 'If ought but death part thee and me.' That's her message. Oh, I ____" 

"Goin' to double-cross me?" Spike snarled. 

"Double-cross you? No! I'll not squeal on you. And you can have all we've got. I'll start with empty hands. And if I can ever do it, I'll pay back all I've stolen. Oh, there's still faith and honor in the world, old timer, even if you _. On the whole, Spike, you haven't got any squeal coming. In the few jobs we've had since we've been pals I did the work. All you did was to watch and fuss around. But don't try the blackmail stuff, Spike! I say you can have all we've got in common; but don't come back for more. Get me?" 

"Can that bunk!" snorted Spike. "I ain't got no kick on you doin' the righteous stunt - if you mean it. But, Slipp'ry, I ain't in your class; wise me tip on your methods before we dissolve partnership. For instance, how did you pull the Blackmore Bank job? That was a pretty piece of work." 

"The Blackmore Bank job!" Grayham repeated in amazement too obvious to be doubted. "Why, I didn't do that job, Spike. That was way beyond my talents." 

Spike Thursby, through half-closed eyes, studied the pale face of his companion. He lighted a fresh cigarette. 

"Want to hear how I first struck the toboggan, Spike?" Grayham tried hard to assume an air of lightness. 

Spike grunted. "Old stuff, but spill It, if it will take the load off your chest." 

Grayham Foster paced restlessly across the floor, while outside a sudden crash of thunder ushered in the storm that had been brewing all the afternoon. "Spike, I once had good ideals. You can see that I was entitled to 'em, can't you? Take Dad, for instance. Five years ago I was graduated from high school. I loved Jane then, but I had a rival - Sid Evarts. However, Jane promised to wait for me until I should return, after having made my fortune." He laughed, but there was no mirth in it. 

"So out I goes, grabs Old World by the chin whiskers and says, 'I'm a graduate from the Loveland High School, and I want a job so I can start in and reform you.' That's the way with all the young grads, Spike. 

"Well, World gives me the frozen stare and growls, 'I don't give a tinker's whoop where you graduated - what can you do? And as for reforming me, why, a whole lot of sapheads gave up that job before you were born."' 

Spike Thursby yawned and cast longing eyes toward the bed. 

"Hold on, Spike, I've got to explain, haven't I? God, man! I must talk to some one!" 

"Well, I'm listenin.' 

"There I was, Spike. I didn't really know how to do anything, but I finally got a job in a railroad shop and worked faithfully until a strike came. When the strike was settled I failed to get my job back. Then a letter from Mother came. She said Jane had married Sid Evarts. That fixed me, Spike. I got beastly drunk, and when I came to my senses I was in the police court charged with breaking into a store. I don't know whether I really did it, but I got a year in the pen. Then I started down the toboggan and didn't stop until I hit the bottom. I was weak and foolish, I suppose, but--" 

Spike Thursby rose, to his feet, stretched himself, then assumed a manner and diction altogether foreign to his usual personality. "Grayham Foster," he said slowly, "I believe every word you have said tonight. I really think you have reformed. And, damn it, man! How could you help it?" From somewhere he produced a badge. "I was going to arrest you tomorrow on the suspicion that you did the Blackmore Bank job. Thought you were holding out on me - maybe had the boodle hidden here in your old home. That, of course, is why I faked the yegg act and tied up to you. However -" 

Grayham Foster fell into a chair. "You," he gasped, "You, Spike Thursby, a detective !" 

Thursby nodded. "Your father," he said, "is a Master Mason. So am I. Maybe my duty demands that I arrest the son because of some jobs that I know he did; but I doubt it. I am sworn to help, aid and assist your father. How can I do it better than by restoring to him in his old age his son? But, be sure you stick, Foster, Be sure you stick!" 

Into Thursby's eyes crept the fire of the enthusiast. "After you have lived down your past," he went on, "perhaps you may aspire to be led between the twin pillars, Boaz and Jachin, and so to the Great Light. Surely, the son of Brother Samuel Foster cannot be really bad." 

Still Grayham was staring at Thursby. "Boaz," he muttered, "the husband of Ruth. 'If ought but death part thee and me'." 

Robert Thursby prepared for bed. Grayham Foster turned and gazed at the picture of the angel with absurdly small wings bending over the cradle of the sleeping infant; and overhead the rain thudded on the shingles in the soothing way that it had when he was a boy.

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