Ought But Death
by Bro. Lionel Winship
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.
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.
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
Spike grunted and accepted the razor. He lathered
his stubby beard with more energy than he was wont to
"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
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."
jerked Grayham Foster, and said nothing further for a time. He
threw himself down on the turf and stared disconsolately at the
"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.
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
"You may sit with me, Graybam," said the girl. "I
want to talk to you. Mr. Thursby can have the other
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."
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
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
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!"
girl looked at his slyly. "You want the answer
"Do you read your Bible, Grayham -
"The Bible," he repeated dully. "Father always
called it The Great Light In Masonry. No, not since I went
"Your answer," she breathed, "is in Ruth, the first
chapter; verses sixteen and seventeen." She started the
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
"I'll 'tend to her tomorrow, Martha," boomed a
"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
"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
"And you, Dad?" faltered the son. "How have you
"Tolerable, tolerable. Nothing to complain
about. But I'm getting old. However, that don't matter -
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Oh, I'm all right, Mother. I've been working pretty
hard lately and, of course, I haven't had your grub."
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
Grayham Foster was turning the leaves of the Bible. At
last he found the book of Ruth, first chapter, verses sixteen
"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:
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
"Mother!" said Grayham in tones that caused Mrs. Foster
new alarm, "didn't Jane Winston marry Sid Evarts?"
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
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
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
"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!" ejaculated Spike. "What-doyuh mean,
"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 ____"
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
"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
"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."
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."
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,
"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."'
yawned and cast longing eyes toward the bed.
Spike, I've got to explain, haven't I? God, man! I must talk to
"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,
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 -"
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!"
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
Still Grayham was staring at Thursby. "Boaz," he
muttered, "the husband of Ruth. 'If ought but death part thee
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
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