It was now almost too dark to distinguish objects; duskier and vaguer became the flat world of marshes, set here and there with cypress and bounded only by far horizons; and at last land and water disappeared behind the gathered curtains of the night. There was no sound from the waste except the wind among the withered reeds and the furrowing splash of wheel and hoof over the submerged causeway.
The boy who was driving had scarcely spoken since he strapped Marche's gun cases and valise to the rear of the rickety wagon at the railroad station. Marche, too, remained silent, preoccupied with his own reflections. Wrapped in his fur-lined coat, arms folded, he sat doubled forward, feeling the Southern swamp-chill busy with his bones. Now and then he was obliged to relight his pipe, but the cold bit at his fingers, and he hurried to protect himself again with heavy gloves.
The small, rough hands of the boy who was driving were naked, and finally Marche mentioned it, asking the child if he were not cold.
"No, sir," he said, with a colorless brevity that might have been shyness or merely the dull indifference of the very poor, accustomed to discomfort.
"Don't you feel cold at all?" persisted Marche kindly.
"I suppose you are hardened to this sort of weather?"
By the light of a flaming match, Marche glanced sideways at him as he drew his pipe into a glow once more, and for an instant the boy's gray eyes flickered toward his in the flaring light. Then darkness masked them both again.
"Are you Mr. Herold's son?" inquired the young man.
"Yes, sir," almost sullenly.
"How old are you?"
"You're a big boy, all right. I have never seen your father. He is at the clubhouse, no doubt."
"Yes, sir," scarcely audible.
"And you and he live there all alone, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir." A moment later the boy added jerkily, "And my sister," as though truth had given him a sudden nudge.
"Oh, you have a sister, too?"
"That makes it very jolly for you, I fancy," said Marche pleasantly. There was no reply to the indirect question.
His pipe had gone out again, and he knocked the ashes from it and pocketed it. For a while they drove on in silence, then Marche peered impatiently through the darkness, right and left, in an effort to see; and gave it up.
"You must know this road pretty well to be able to keep it," he said. "As for me, I can't see anything except a dirty little gray star up aloft."
"The horse knows the road."
"I'm glad of that. Have you any idea how near we are to the house?"
"Half a mile. That's Rattler Creek, yonder."
"How the dickens can you tell?" asked Marche curiously. "You can't see anything in the dark, can you?"
"I don't know how I can tell," said the boy indifferently.
Marche smiled. "A sixth sense, probably. What did you say your name is?"
"And you're eleven? You'll be old enough to have a gun very soon, Jim. How would you like to shoot a real, live wild duck?"
"I have shot plenty."
Marche laughed. "Good for you, Jimmy. What did the gun do to you? Kick you flat on your back?"
The boy said gravely: "Father's gun is too big for me. I have to rest it on the edge of the blind when I fire."
"Do you shoot from the blinds?"
Marche relapsed into smiling silence. In a few moments he was thinking of other things—of this muddy island which had once been the property of a club consisting of five carefully selected and wealthy members, and which, through death and resignation, had now reverted to him....