HotFreeBooks.com
Round Anvil Rock - A Romance
by Nancy Huston Banks
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

ROUND ANVIL ROCK

A ROMANCE

BY

NANCY HUSTON BANKS

AUTHOR OF "OLDFIELD"

1903



TO MY FATHER

A PREFACE

In weaving a romance round a real rock and through actual events, this tale has taken no great liberty with fact. It has, indeed, claimed the freedom of fiction only in drawing certain localities and incidents somewhat closer together than they were in reality. And it has done this notably in but three instances: by allowing the Wilderness Road to seem nearer the Ohio River than it really was; by anticipating the establishment of the Sisters of Charity; and by disregarding the tradition that Philip Alston had gone from the region of Cedar House before the time of the story, and that he died elsewhere. These deviations are all rather slight, yet they are, nevertheless, essential to any faithful description of the country, the time, and the people, which this tale tries to describe. The Wilderness Road—everywhere—came so close to the life of the whole country that no true story of the time can ever be told apart from it. The Sisters of Charity were established so early and did so much in the making of Kentucky, that a few months earlier in coming to one locality or a few years later in reaching another, cannot make their noble work any less vitally a part of every tale of the wilderness. The influence of Philip Alston over the country in which he lived, lasted so much longer than his life, and the precise date and manner of his death are go uncertain, that his romantic career must always remain inseparably interwoven with all the romance of southern Kentucky. And it is for these reasons that this story of nearly a hundred years ago, has thus claimed a few of the many privileges of fiction.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I. THE GIRL AND THE BOY

II. THE HOUSE OF CEDAR

III. "PHILIP ALSTON, GENTLEMAN"

IV. THE NIGHT RIDE

V. ON THE WILDERNESS ROAD

VI. THE CAMP-MEETING

VII. A MORNING IN CEDAR HOUSE

VIII. THE LOG TEMPLE OF JUSTICE

IX. PAUL'S FIRST VISIT TO RUTH

X. FATHER ORIN AND TOBY MEET TOMMY DYE

XI. THE DANCE IN THE FOREST

XII. THE EVE OF ALL SOULS'

XIII. SEEING WITH DIFFERENT EYES

XIV. A SPIRITUAL CENTAUR

XV. THE WEB THAT SEEMED TO BE WOVEN

XVI. LOVE'S TOUCHSTONE

XVII. THE ONCOMING OF THE STORM

XVIII. THE GENTLEST ARE THE BRAVEST

XIX. UNDER THE HUNTER'S MOON

XX. BALANCING LIFE AND DEATH

XXI. THE EAGLE IN THE DOVE'S NEST

XXII. "A COMET'S GLARE FORETOLD THIS SAD EVENT"

XXIII. LOVE CLAIMS HIS OWN

XXIV. OLD LOVE'S STRIVING WITH YOUNG LOVE

XXV. THE PASSING OF PHILIP ALSTON



ILLUSTRATIONS

"The Angelus was pealing from the bell of the little log chapel"

"A dark, confused ... writhing mass of humanity"

"'I wanted to shake the hand of a man like you'"

Father Orin and Toby

"For she also was riding a great race"

"She was making an aeolian harp"



ROUND ANVIL ROCK



I

THE GIRL AND THE BOY

The Beautiful River grows very wide in making its great bend around western Kentucky. On the other side, its shores are low for many miles, but well guarded by giant cottonwoods. These spectral trees stand close to its brink and stretch their phantom arms far over its broad waters, as if perpetually warding off the vast floods that rush down from the North.

But the floods are to be feared only in the winter or spring, never in the summer or autumn. And nearly a hundred years ago, when the river's shores were bound throughout their great length by primeval forests, there was less reason to fear at any season. So that on a day of October in the year eighteen hundred and eleven, the mighty stream lay safely within its deep bounds flowing quietly on its way to join the Father of Waters.

So gently it went that there was scarcely a ripple to break its silvery surface. It seemed indeed hardly to move, reflecting the shadowy cottonwoods like a long, clear, curving mirror which was dimmed only by the breath of the approaching dusk. Out in the current beyond the shadows of the trees, there still lingered a faint glimmer of the afterglow's pale gold. But the red glory of the west was dying behind the whitening cottonwoods and beyond the dense dark forest—reaching on and on to the seeming end of the earth—a billowing sea of ever deepening green. The last bright gleam of golden light was passing away on the white sail of a little ship which was just turning the distant bend, where the darkening sky bent low to meet the darkened wilderness.

The night was creeping from the woods to the waters as softly as the wild creatures crept to the river's brim to drink before sleeping. The still air was lightly stirred now and then by rushing wings, as the myriad paroquets settled among the shadowy branches. The soft murmuring of the reeds that fringed the shores told where the waterfowl had already found resting-places. The swaying of the cane-brakes—near and far—signalled the secret movements of the wingless wild things which had only stealth to guard them against the cruelty of nature and against one another. The heaviest waves of cane near the great Shawnee Crossing might have followed a timid red deer. For the Shawnees had vanished from their town on the other side of the Ohio. Warriors and women and children—all were suddenly and strangely gone; there was not even a canoe left to rock among the rushes. The swifter, rougher waving of the cane farther off may have been in the wake of a bold gray wolf. The howling of wolves came from the distance with the occasional gusts of wind, and as often as the wolves howled, a mysterious, melancholy booming sounded from the deeper shadows along the shores. It was an uneasy response from the trumpeter swans, resting like some wonderful silver-white lilies on the quiet bosom of the dark river.

A great river has all the sea's charm and much of its mystery and sadness. The boy standing on the Kentucky shore was under this spell as he listened to these sounds of nature at nightfall on the Ohio, and watched the majestic sweep of its waters—unfettered and unsullied—through the boundless and unbroken forests. Yet he turned eagerly to listen to another sound that came from human-kind. It was the wild music of the boatman's horn winding its way back from the little ship, now far away and rounding the dusky bend. Partly flying and partly floating, it stole softly up the shadowed river. The melody echoed from the misty Kentucky hills, lingered under the overhanging trees, rambled through the sighing cane-brakes, loitered among the murmuring rushes—thus growing ever fainter, sweeter, wilder, sadder, as it came. He did not know why this sound of the boatman's horn always touched him so keenly and moved him so deeply. He could not have told why his eyes grew strangely dim as he heard it now, or why a strange tightening came around his heart. He was but an ignorant lad of the woods. It was not for him to know that these few notes—so few, so simple, so artlessly blown by a rude boatman—touched the deep fountain of the soul, loosing the mighty torrent pent up in every human breast. Pity, tenderness, yearning, the struggle and the triumph of life,—the boy felt everything and all unknowingly, but with quivering sensibility. For he was not merely an ignorant lad; he was also one of those who are set apart throughout their lives to feel many things which they are never permitted to comprehend.

When the last echo of the boatman's horn had melted among the darkling hills, he turned as instinctively as a sun-worshipper faces the east and drank in another musical refrain. The Angelus was pealing faintly from the bell of the little log chapel far up the river, hidden among the trees. The faith which it betokened was not his own faith, nor the faith of those with whom he lived, but the beauty and sweetness of the token appealed to him none the less. How beautiful, how sweet it was! As it thus came drifting down with the river's deepening shadows, he thought of the little band of Sisters—angels of charity—kneeling under that rough roof; those brave gentlewomen of high birth and delicate breeding who were come with the very first to take an heroic part in the making of Kentucky and, so doing, in the winning of the whole West. As the boy thought of them with a swelling heart,—for they had been kind to him,—it seemed that they were braver than the hunters, more courageous than the soldiers. Listening to the appeal of the Angelus stealing so tenderly through the twilight, with the strain of poetry that was in him thrilling in response, he felt that the prayers then going up must fill the cruel wilderness with holy incense; that the coming of these gentle Sisters must subdue the very wild beasts, as the presence of the lovely martyrs subdued the lions of old.

"Ah, David! David!" cried a gay young voice behind him. "Dreaming again—with your eyes wide open. And seeing visions, too, no doubt."

He turned with a guilty start and looked up at Ruth. She was standing near by but higher on the river bank, and her slender white form was half concealed by the drooping foliage of a young willow tree. There was something about Ruth herself that always made him think of a young willow with every graceful wand in bloom. And now—as nearly always—there was a flutter of soft whiteness about her, for the day was as warm as mid-summer. He could not have told what it was that she wore, but her fluttering white garments might have been woven of the mists training over the hills, so ethereal they looked, seen through the golden green of the delicate willow leaves that were still gilded by the afterglow which had vanished from the shadowed river. Her smiling face could not have been more radiant had the sunlight shone full upon it. The dusk of evening seemed always lingering under the long curling lashes that made her blue eyes so dark, and her hair was as black at midday as at midnight. So that now—when she shook her head at the boy—a wonderful long, thick, silky lock escaped its fastenings, and the wind caught it and spun it like silk into the finest blue-black floss.

"Yes, sir, you've been dreaming again! You needn't pretend you were thinking—you don't know how to think. Thinking is not romantic enough. I have been here watching you for a long time, and I know just how romantic the dreams are that you have been dreaming. I could tell by the way you turned,—this way and that,—looking up and down the river. It always bewitches you when the sun goes and the shadows come. I knew I should find you here, just like this; and I came on purpose to wake and scold you."

She pretended to draw her pretty brow into a frown, but she could not help smiling.

"Seriously, dear, you must stop dreaming. It is a dreadful thing to be a dreamer in a new country. State makers should all be wide-awake workers. You are out of place here; as Uncle Philip Alston says—"

"Then why did he put me here?" the boy burst out bitterly.

"David!" she cried in wounded reproach, "how can you? It hurts me to hear you say things like that. I can't bear to hear any one say anything against him—I love him so. And from you—who owe him almost as much as I do—"

The tears were very near. But she was a little angry, too, and her blue eyes flashed.

"No; no one owes him so much—as myself. He couldn't have been so good—no one ever could be so good to any one else as he has always been to me. Still"—softening suddenly, for she was fond of the boy, and something in his sensitive face went to her tender heart—"think, David, dear, we owe him everything we have,—our names, our home, our clothes, our education, our very lives. We must never for a moment forget that it was he who found us all alone—you in a cabin on the Wilderness Road and me in a boat at Duff's Fort—and brought us in his own arms to Cedar House. And you know as well as I do that he would have given us a home in his own house if it had not been so rough and bare a place, a mere camp. And then there was no woman in it to take care of us, and we were only little mites of babies—poor, crying, helpless morsels of humanity. Where do you think we came from, David? I wonder and wonder and wonder!" wistfully, with her gaze on the darkening river.

It was an old question, and one that they had been asking themselves and one another and every one, over and over, ever since they had been old enough to think. The short story which Philip Alston had told was all that he or any one knew or ever was to know. The boy silently shook his head. The girl went on:—

"Sometimes I am sorry that we couldn't live in his house. You would have understood him better and have loved him more—as he deserves. It is only that you don't really know each other," she said gently. "And then I should like to do something for him—something to cheer him—who does everything for me. It must be very sad to be alone and old. It grieves me to see him riding away to that desolate cabin, especially on stormy nights. But he never will let me come to his house, though I beg and beg. He says it is too rough, and that too many strange men are coming and going on business."

"Yes; too many strange men on very strange business."

She did not hear or notice what he said, because the sound of horses' feet echoing behind them just at that moment caused her to turn her head. Two horsemen were riding along the river bank, but they were a long way off and about turning into the forest path as her gaze fell upon them. She stood still, silently looking after them till they disappeared among the trees.

"Father Orin and Toby will get home before dark to-night. That is something uncommon," she said with a smile.

Toby was the priest's horse, but no one ever spoke of the one without thinking of the other; and then, Toby's was a distinct and widely recognized personality.

"But who is the stranger with them, David? Oh, I remember! It must be the new doctor,—the young doctor who has lately come and who is curing the Cold Plague. The Sisters told me. They said that he and Father Orin often visited the sick together and were already great friends. How tall he is—even taller than Father Orin, and broader shouldered. I should like to see his face. And how straight he sits in the saddle. You would expect a man who holds himself so to carry a lance and tilt fearlessly at everything that he thought was wrong."

She turned, quickly tossing the willow branches aside and laughing gayly. "There now, that will set you off thinking of your knights again! But you must not. Truly, you must not. For it is quite true, dear; you are a dreamer, a poet. You do indeed belong to the Arcadian Hills. You should be there now, playing a gentle shepherd's pipe and herding his peaceful flocks. And instead—alas!"—she looked at him in perplexity which was partly real and partly assumed—"instead you are here in this awful wilderness, carrying a rifle longer and heavier than yourself, and trying to pretend that you like to kill wild beasts, or can endure to hurt any living thing."

David said nothing; there seemed to be no response for him to make. When a well-grown youth of eighteen or thereabouts is spoken to by a girl near his own age as he had just been spoken to by Ruth, he rarely finds anything to say. No words could do justice to what he feels. And there is nothing for him to do either, unless it be to take refuge in a dignified silence which disdains the slightest notice of the offence. This was what David resorted to, and, bending down, he calmly and quietly raised his forgotten rifle from the ground to his shoulder. He did it very slowly and impressively, however, in the hope that Ruth might realize the fact that he had killed the buck whose huge horns made the rifle's rest on his cabin walls. But she saw and realized only that he was wounded, and instantly darted toward him like a swallow. She caught his rigid rifle arm and clung to it, looking up in his set face. Her blue eyes were already filling with tears while the smile was still on her lips. That was Ruth's way; her smiles and tears were even closer together than most women's are; she was nearly always quiveringly poised between gayety and sadness; like a living sunbeam continually glancing across life's shadows.

"What is it, David, dear?" she pleaded, with her sweet lips close to his ear. "What foolish thing have I said? You must know—whatever it was—that it was all in fun. Why, I wouldn't have you different, dear, if I could! I couldn't love you so much if you were not just what you are. And yet," sighing, "it might be better for you."

She laid her head against his shoulder and drew closer to him in that soft little nestling way of hers. David looked straight over the lovely head, keeping his grim gaze as high as he could. He knew how it would be if his stern gray eyes were to meet Ruth's wet blue ones. He was still a boy, but trying to be a man—and beginning to understand. No man with his heart in the right place could hold out against her pretty coaxing. It was sweet enough to wile the very birds out of the trees. It made no difference that he had been used to her wiles from babyhood up. To be used to Ruth's ways only made them harder to resist. No stranger could possibly have foreseen his defeat as clearly as David foresaw his at the moment that she started toward him. But self-respect required him to stand firm as long as possible, although he felt the strength going out of his rifle arm under her clinging touch. She felt it going, too, and began to smile through her tears. And then, sure of her victory, she threw caution to the winds—as older and wiser women have done too openly in vanquishing stronger and more masterful men. She let him see that she knew she had conquered, which is always a fatal mistake on the part of a woman toward a man. Smiling and dimpling, she put up her hand and patted his cheek—precisely as if he had been a child.

The boy shrunk as if the caress had been a touch of fire. He broke away and strode off up the hillside with his longest, manliest stride. This humiliation was past bearing or forgiving. He could have forgiven being called a dreamer—a useless drone—among the men of clear heads and strong hands who had already wrested a great state from the wilderness, and who, through this conquest, were destined to become the immortal founders of the Empire of the West. He could have overlooked being spoken to like a child by a girl who might be younger than himself for all he or she knew to the contrary—though this would have been harder. He might even have forgiven that pat on his cheek which was downy with beard, had he been either younger or older. But as it was—well, the matter may safely be left to the sympathy of the man who remembers the most sensitive time of his own youth; that trying period when he feels himself to be no longer a boy and nobody else considers him a man.

David did not know where he was going or what he meant to do. He was blindly striding up the river bank away from Ruth, fairly aflame with the determination to do something—anything—to prove his manhood. For nothing ever makes a boy resolve quite so suddenly and firmly to become a man instantly as to be treated by a girl as he had been by Ruth. Had the most desperate danger then come in David's way, he would have hailed and hazarded it with delight. But he could not think of anything to overwhelm her with just at that moment, and so he could only stride on in helpless, angry silence. Ruth flew after him as if her thin white skirts had been strong, swift wings. She overtook him before he had gone very far, and clung to him again more than ever like some beautiful white spirit of the woods wreathed in mist, with her soft blown garments and her softer blown hair. She merely wound herself around him at first, breathless and panting. But as soon as she caught her breath the coaxing, the laughing, and the crying came all together. David kept from looking down as long as he could, but his pace slackened and his arm again relaxed. Finally—taken off guard—he glanced at the face so near his breast. The dusk could not dim its beauty and only made it more lovely. No more resistance was possible for him—or for any man or boy—who saw Ruth as she looked then. David's big rough hand was now surrendered meekly enough to the quick clasp of her little fingers, and—forgetting all the daring deeds that he meant to do—he was led like any lamb up the hill to the open door of Cedar House.



II

THE HOUSE OF CEDAR

So far as they knew, there was no tie of blood or relationship binding them to the kind people of Cedar House. Yet it was the only home that they could remember and very dear to them both.

It was a great square of rough, dark logs, and seemed now, seen through the uncertain light, to stand in the centre of a shadowy hamlet, so many smaller cabins were clustered around it. The custom of the country was to add cabin after cabin as the family outgrew the original log house. The instinct of safety, the love of kindred, and the longing for society in the perilous loneliness of the wilderness held these first Kentuckians very close together. So that as their own villages thus grew around them and only their own dwelt near them, they naturally became as clannish as their descendants have been ever since.

The cabin nearest Cedar House contained two rooms, and was used by its master, Judge Knox, for his own bedroom and law office. There was a still larger cabin somewhat more distant from the main building, which was intended for the use of his nephew, William Pressley, on the marriage of that young lawyer to Ruth. But the wedding was some time off yet, having been set for Christmas Eve, and the cabin which was to welcome the bride from Cedar House was not quite complete. The smallest and the oldest cabin was David's. The long black line of cabins crouching under the hillside where the shadows were deepest, marked the quarters of the slaves,—a dark storm-cloud already settling heavily on the fair horizon of the new state.

Cedar House itself was the grandest of its time in all that country. Built entirely of huge red cedar logs it was two stories in height, the first house of more than one story standing on the shores of the southern Ohio. Its roof was the wonder and envy of the whole region for many years. The shingles were of black walnut, elegantly rounded at the butt-ends. They were fastened on with solid walnut pegs driven in holes bored through both the shingles and the laths with a brace and a bit. For there was not a nail in Cedar House from its firm foundation to its fine roof. Even the hinges and the latch of the wide front door were made of wood. The judge often mentioned this fact with much pride, and never failed to add that the leathern latch-string always hung outside. But he was still prouder of the massive, towering chimney of Cedar House, and with good reason. The other houses thinly scattered through the wilderness had humble chimneys of sticks covered with clay. The chimney of Cedar House was of rough stone—of one hundred wagon loads, as the judge boasted—which had been hauled with great difficulty over a long distance, because there was none near by.

On the wide hearth of this great chimney a fire was always burning. No matter what the season or the weather might be, there was always a solemn ceremony around the hearth when the fire was renewed, at the beginning and the close of every day all the year round. In winter it was a glorious bonfire consuming great logs. In summer it was the merest glimmer that could hold a flickering spark. Between winter and summer, as on this mild October evening, a bright flame sometimes danced gayly behind the big brass andirons, while all the windows and doors were wide open. But through cold and heat, and burning high or low, the fire was never entirely forgotten, never quite permitted to go out. Thus ever alight it burned like a sacred flame on the altar of home.

Streaming from the doors and windows that night, it gave the youth and the maiden a cheerful welcome as they came up the darkening hillside. Lamplight also began to glimmer, and candles flitted here and there before the windows and door, borne by the dark shapes of the servants who were laying the table for supper. The main room of Cedar House opened directly upon the river front; and when brightly lighted, it could be distinctly seen from without. Ruth and David paused on the threshold, still unconsciously holding one another's hands, and looked in.

There were five persons in the room, three men and two women, and they were all members of the household with the exception of Philip Alston, the white-haired gentleman, whose appearance bore no other mark of age. And he also might have been considered as one of the family, since he had been coming to the house daily for many years. He came usually to see Ruth, but of late he had found it necessary to see William Pressley more often; and they were talking eagerly and in a low tone, rather apart, when the boy and girl paused to see and hear what was taking place within the great room. William Pressley sat in the easiest chair in the warmest corner, close to the hearth. There are some men—and a few women—who always take the softest seat in the best place, and they do it so naturally that no one ever thinks of their doing anything else or expects them to sit elsewhere. William Pressley was one of these persons. In the next easiest chair, on the other side of the hearth, was his aunt, the widow Broadnax, whose short, broad, shapeless, inert figure was lying rather than sitting almost buried in a heap of cushions. This lady was the sister of the judge and the half-sister of the other lady, Miss Penelope Knox,—the thin, nervous, restless little old woman,—who was fidgeting back and forth between the hearth and the doorway leading to the distant kitchen. The relationship of these two ladies to one another, and the difference in their relationship to the head of Cedar House, caused much dissension in the household, and gave rise to certain domestic complications which always rose when least expected.

The fire had been freshly kindled with small twigs of the sugar maple, that priceless tree often standing fifty to an acre in the wilderness, and giving the pioneers their best fire-wood, their coolest shade, and their sweetest food. Vivid blue sparks were still flashing among the little white stars of the gray moss on the big backlog. From the blazing ends of the log there came the soft, airy music and the faint, sweet scent of bubbling sap. This main room of Cedar House was very large, almost vast, taking up the whole lower floor. It was the dining room as well as the sitting room; and when some grand occasion arose, it served even as a drawing-room, and did it handsomely, too. This great room of Cedar House always reminded David of the ancient halls in "The Famous History of Montilion," a romance of chivalry from which most of his ideas of life were taken, and upon which most of his ideals of living were formed. Surely, he thought, the castle of the "Knight of the Oracle" could not be grander than this great room of Cedar House.

The rich dark wood of its walls and floor—all rudely smoothed with the broadaxe and the whipsaw—hung overhead in massive beams. From these low, blackened timbers there swung many antique lamps, splendid enough for a palace and strangely out of place in a log house of the wilderness. On the rough walls there were also large sconces of burnished silver but poorly filled with tallow candles. In the bare spaces between these silver sconces were the heads of wild animals mingled with many rifles, both old and new, and other arms of the hunter. Over the tall mantelpiece there were crossed two untarnished swords which had been worn by the judge's father in the Revolution. On the red cedar of the floor, polished by wear and rubbing, there lay the skins of wild beasts, together with costly foreign rugs. The same strange mixture of rudeness and refinement was to be seen everywhere throughout the room. The table standing in the centre of the floor, ready for the evening meal, was made of unplaned boards, rudely put together by the unskilled hands of the backwoods. Yet it was set with the finest china, the rarest glass, and the richest silver that the greatest skill of the old world could supply. The chairs placed around the table were made of unpainted wood from the forest, with seats woven out of the coarse rushes from the river. And there, between the front windows, stood Ruth's piano, the first in that part of the wilderness, and as fine as the finest of its day anywhere.

It is true that something like the same confusion of luxury and wildness was becoming more or less common throughout the country. The wain trains which had lately followed the packhorse trains over the Alleghanies—with the widening of the Wilderness Road—were already bringing many comforts and even luxuries to the cabins of the well-to-do settlers. But nothing like those which were fetched constantly to Cedar House ever came to any other household; and it was not the family who caused them to be brought there. For while the judge was a man of wealth for his time and place, and able to give his family greater comfort than his poorer neighbors could afford, he was far from having the means, much less the taste and culture, to gather such costly, beautiful, and rare things as were gathered together in Cedar House. It was through Philip Alston that everything of this kind had come. It was he who had chosen everything and paid for it, and ordered it fetched over the mountains from Virginia or up the river from France or Spain—all as gifts from him to Ruth. It was natural enough that he should give her whatever he wished her to have, and there was no reason why she should not accept any and everything that he gave. She was held by him and by every one as his adopted daughter. He had no children of his own, no relations of any degree so far as any one knew, and he was known to be generous and believed to be very rich. Indeed no one thought much about his gifts to Ruth; they had long since become a matter of course, a part of the everyday life of Cedar House. They had begun with Ruth's coming more than seventeen years before. As a baby she had been rocked in a cradle such as never before had been seen in the wilderness,—a very gem of wonderful carving and inlaid work from Spain. As a little child she had been dressed—as no little one of the wild wood ever had been before—in the finest fabrics and the daintiest needlework from the looms and convents of France. Very strange things may become familiar through use. The simple people of Cedar House and their rude neighbors were well used to all this. They had seen the beautiful blue-eyed baby grow to be a more beautiful child, and the child to a most beautiful maiden, and always surrounded by the greatest refinement and luxury that love and means could bring into the wilderness. Naturally enough they now found nothing to wonder at, in the daily presence of this radiant young figure among them.

It was only for an instant that the girl and boy stood thus unseen on the threshold of Cedar House, looking into the great room. Philip Alston saw them almost at once. He had been watching and waiting for Ruth, as he always was when she was out of his sight even for a moment. He sprang up, quickly and alertly, like a strong young man, and went to meet her with his gallant air. She held up her cheek smilingly; he bent and kissed it, and taking her hand with his grand bow, led her across the room. The judge and his nephew also arose, as they always did when she came in or went out. The judge did this unconsciously, without thinking, and scarcely knowing that he did do it; for he was a plain man, rather awkward and very absent-minded, and deeply absorbed in the study of his profession. William Pressley did it with deliberate intention and self-consciousness, as he did everything that he deemed fitting. It was his nature to give grave thought to the least thing that he said or did. It was his sincere conviction that the smallest matter affecting himself was of infinitely greater importance than the greatest that could possibly concern any one else. There are plenty of people who believe this as sincerely as he believed it, but there are few who show the belief with his candor. When he now stood up to place a chair for Ruth beside his own, he did the simple service as if the critical eyes of the world had been upon him. And his manner was so consciously correct that no one observed that the chair which he gave her was not so comfortable as his own. He was uncommonly good-looking, also, and tall and shapely, yet there was something about his full figure—that vague, indescribable something—which unmistakably marks the lack of virility in mind or body, no matter how large or handsome a man may be. He stood for a moment after Ruth was seated, and then, seeing that Philip Alston was about to lift a candle-stand which was heaped with parcels, he went to aid him, and the two men together set the little table before her. She looked at it with soft, excited cries of surprise and delight, instantly divining that the unopened parcels and sealed boxes contained more of the gifts which her foster-father was constantly lavishing upon her. He smiled down at her beaming face and dancing eyes, and then taking out his pocket-knife he cut the cords and removed the covers of the boxes. As the wrappings fell away, there was a shimmer of dazzling tissues, silver and gold.

"Oh! oh!" she cried.

"Just a few pretty trifles, my dear," he said. "You like them?"

"Like them!"

Repeating his words she sprang up, and running round the candle-stand, stood on the very tips of her toes so that she might throw her arms about his neck. He bent his head to meet her upturned face, and if ever tenderness shone in a man's pale, grave face, it shone then in his. If ever love—pure and unselfish—beamed from a man's eyes, it was beaming now from those looking down in the girl's face. His tender gaze followed her fondly as she went back to the candle-stand and began to examine each article again more than once and with lingering and growing delight. She found new beauties every moment, and pointed them out to the three men and the boy who were now gathered around her. She called the ladies also, over and over, but they did not come, although they cast many glances at the candle-stand.

Miss Penelope was engaged in making the coffee for supper; and while she did not consider the making of the coffee for supper quite so vital a matter as the making of the coffee for breakfast, she still could not think of leaving the hearth under any inducement so long as the coffee-pot sat on its trivet above the glowing coals. The widow Broadnax stirred among her cushions once or twice, as if almost on the point of trying to get out of her chair. She was fonder of finery than her half-sister was, and she would have liked very much to see these beautiful things nearer. But she was still fonder of her own ease than of finery, and it was really a great deal of trouble to get out of her deep, broad low chair. And then she never moved or took her eyes off her half-sister while that energetic lady was engaged in making the coffee.

Knowing the ladies' ways, Ruth did not expect them to come. She was quite satisfied to have the men share her pleasure in the presents. They were looking at her and not at the gifts lying heaped on the candle-stand, but she did not notice that. She gave the judge a priceless piece of lace to hold. He took it with the awkward, helpless embarrassment of a manly man handling a woman's delicate belongings,—the awkwardness that goes straight to a woman's heart, because she sees and feels its true reverence—a reverence just as plain and just as sweet to the simplest country girl as to the wisest woman of the world. The perception of it is a matter of intuition, not one of experience. The least experienced woman instantly distrusts the man who can touch her garments with ease or composure. Ruth's gay young voice broke into a sweet chime of delighted laughter when the judge seized the airy bit of lace as if it had been the heaviest and hottest of crowbars. She laughed again when she looked at his face. He had an odd trick of lifting one of his eyebrows very high and at an acute angle when perplexed or ill at ease. This eccentric left eyebrow—now quite wedge-shaped—had gone up almost to the edge of his tousled gray hair. Ruth patted his great clumsy hands with her little deft ones.

"Well, I'll have to take to the woods, if there's no other way of escape," said the judge, making his greatest threat.

"You dear!" she said, running her arm through his and giving it a little squeeze. "That's right. Hold it tight—be careful, or it will break. Here, William," piling the young man's arms full of delicately tinted gauze, "this is a sunset cloud. And these," casting lengths of exquisite tissue over the boy's shoulder, "these are the mists of the dawn, David,—all silvery white and golden rose and jewelled blue. But—oh! oh!—these are the loveliest of all! A pair of slippers in orange-blossom kid, spangled with silver! Look at them! Just look, everybody!"

Holding them in her hand she ran round the table again to throw her arms about Philip Alston's neck the second time, like a happy, excited child. The little white slippers went up with her arms and touched his cheek. And then he drew them down, and clasping her slender wrists, held her out before him and looked at her with fond, smiling eyes.

"I don't believe that the Empress Josephine has any prettier slippers than those," he said. "I ordered the prettiest and the finest in Paris."

"Who fetched all these things?" the judge broke in, with something like a sudden realization of the number and the value of the gifts.

"Oh, a friend of mine," responded Philip Alston, carelessly, and without turning his head,—"a friend who has many ships constantly going and coming between New Orleans and France. He orders anything I wish; and when it comes to him, he sends it on to me by the first flatboat cordelled up the river."

"What is his name?" asked the judge, with a persistence very uncommon in him.

Philip Alston turned now and glanced at him with an easy, almost bantering smile.

"I don't like to tell you his name, because you—with a good many other honestly mistaken people—are most unjustly prejudiced against him. And then you know well enough that I am speaking of my respected and trusted friend, Monsieur Jean Lafitte."

The judge dropped the lace as if it had burnt his hand. He went back to his seat by the window in silence. He sat down heavily and looked at Philip Alston in perplexity, rubbing his great shock of rough grizzled hair the wrong way as he always did when worried. His thoughts were plainly to be read on his open, rugged face. This liking of Philip Alston's for a man under a national ban was an old subject of worry and perplexity. Yet Alston was always as frank and as firm about it as he had been just now, and the judge's confidence in him was absolute. Robert Knox's own character must have changed greatly before he could have doubted the sincerity of any one whom he had known as long, as intimately, and as favorably as he had known Philip Alston. We all judge others by ourselves,—whether we do it consciously or not,—since we have no other way of judging. And the judge himself was so simple, so sincere, so essentially honest, that he could not doubt one who was in a way a member of his own family. And then he was absent-minded, unobservant, easy-going, indolent, and the slave of habit, as such a nature is apt to be. Moreover, he was not always master of the slight power of observation which had been given him. That very day, while on his way home from the court-house, he had stopped at a cabin where liquor was sold. As a consequence, this sudden touch of uneasiness which aroused him for an instant was forgotten nearly as suddenly as it came. So that after looking bewilderedly at Philip Alston once or twice, he now began to nod and doze.



III

"PHILIP ALSTON, GENTLEMAN"

Philip Alston still stood before the candle-stand. His gaze rested on the girl's radiant face with wistful tenderness. It was plain that he thought nothing of all these rich, rare gifts which he had given her, save only as they gave her pleasure and might win from her another loving look, another butterfly kiss on his cheek.

As he stood there that night in the great room of Cedar House, before the firelight and under the beams of the swinging lamps, he scarcely appeared to need the help of any gift in winning a woman's love. His was a presence to hold the gaze. He was very tall and straight and slender, yet most finely proportioned. The heavy hair, falling back from his handsome face and tied in a queue, must once have been as black as Ruth's own; surely, no paler shade could have become so silvery white. His eyes, also, were as blue as hers, and none could have been bluer. His skin was almost as fair and smooth as hers, his manner as gentle and kind, his voice as soft and his smile as sweet. He was elegantly dressed, as he always was, his fine long coat of forest green broadcloth had a wide velvet collar and large gold buttons. His velvet knee-breeches and the wide riband which tied his queue were of the same rich shade of dark green. The most delicate ruffles filled the front of his swan's-down vest and fell over his hands, which were remarkably white and small and taper-fingered, like a fine lady's. His white silk stockings and his low shoes were held by silver buckles. So looked Philip Alston, Gentleman,—and so he was called,—as he stood in the great room of Cedar House on that night of October, nearly a hundred years ago. And thus he is described in the few rare old histories which touch the romance of this region when he ruled it like a king, by the power of his intelligence and the might of his will.

He was foremost in the politics of the time as in everything else, and he and William Pressley had been discussing this subject at the moment of Ruth's appearance, which had interrupted their conversation. Philip Alston had forgotten the unfinished topic, but William Pressley had not. He, also, had been pleased to look on for a while at the girl's radiant delight; and he, also, had enjoyed the charming scene. But there was a lull now, and he at once turned back to the matter in which he was most deeply interested. Ambition for political preferment was the theme which most absorbed his mind, and ambition was the one thing which could always light a spark of fire in his cold, hard, shallow hazel eyes. This was not for the reason that he cared especially for politics in itself, which he did not. But he turned to it in preference to warfare, since the choice of the ambitious young men of the wilderness lay between the two. Politics seemed to him to open the surest and shortest road to the prominence which he craved above everything else. He was one of those unfortunates who can never be happy on a level—even with the highest—and who must look down in order to be at all content with life. Yet with this overweening and insatiable craving for distinction and prominence, he had been given no talent by which distinction may be won; had been granted no quality, mental, moral, or physical, by which he might rise above the mass of his fellows. It was a cruel trick for Nature to play, and one that she plays far too often. The sufferers from it are certainly far more to be pitied than blamed, and it is harmful only to the afflicted themselves, so long as it meets, or still expects, a measure of gratification. When they are permitted to reach any height from which to look down, the terrible craving appears to be temporarily appeased; and they become kind, and even generous, to all who look up with willing, unwandering gaze. It is only when the sufferers fail to reach any height, or when they lose what little they may have attained, or when the gaze of the world wanders, that they become hard, sour, bitter, and merciless toward all who have succeeded where they have failed. The only mercy that Nature has shown them in their affliction, is to make most of them slow to realize that they can never gain the one thing they crave. And this miserable awakening had not yet come to William Pressley. On that evening he had every reason to be content and well pleased with himself. The future promised all that he most earnestly wished for. He was already moderately successful in the practice of his profession. This was mainly owing to his uncle's influence, but he was far from suspecting the fact. His domestic life, also, was admirably settled; he was fond of Ruth and proud of her, as he was of everything belonging to himself. But the thing which made him happiest was a suggestion of Philip Alston's, first offered on the previous day; and it was to this that he now recurred at the first opportunity.

He spoke with an eagerness curiously apart from his words:

"There seems to be no doubt that the Shawnees are really gone. Men, women, and children, they have all disappeared from their town on the other side of the river. A hunter who has been over there told me so yesterday. It appears reasonably certain that the warriors are gathering under the Prophet at Tippecanoe."

"Yes, it is undoubtedly true that the Indians are rising," replied Philip Alston, still looking at Ruth. "Well, it was bound to come,—this last decisive struggle between the white and the red race,—and the sooner the better, perhaps. I hear, too, that the troops are already moving upon the Shawnee encampment."

"Have you heard anything more about the attorney-general's offering his services? Is it decided that he will go?" asked William Pressley.

He spoke more quickly and with more spirit than was common with him. And he sank back with an involuntary movement of disappointment when Philip Alston shook his head.

"However, there is little doubt that he will go. He is almost sure to," Philip Alston went on. "It is his way to put his own shoulder to the wheel. You remember, judge—"

"What's that!" cried the judge, starting up from his doze.

"We are talking about Joseph Hamilton Daviess," said Philip Alston.

"A great man. A great lawyer—the first lawyer west of the Alleghanies to go to Washington and plead a case before the Supreme Court," said the judge.

"He has certainly been untiring and fearless in the discharge of his duty as the United States Attorney," Philip Alston said warmly. "I was just going to remind you of the journey that he made across the wilderness from Kentucky to St. Louis to find out, if he could, at first hand, what treason Aaron Burr was plotting over there with the commandant of the military post as a tool. He didn't find out a great deal. That old fox knows how to cover his tracks. But the attorney-general did more than any one else could have done. He hauled Burr to trial, almost single-handed, and against the greatest public clamor. He leaves nothing undone in the pursuit of his duty. I understand that he is to be here soon. He thinks that something should be done to put down the lawlessness of this country as Andrew Jackson has subdued it in his territory."

"But he must, of course, resign the office, if he intends going to Tippecanoe," said William Pressley.

He was so intent upon this one point of interest to himself that he had scarcely heard what had been said. He now turned with dignified impatience when his aunt broke in, speaking from the hearth. Miss Penelope always spoke with a greater or less degree of suddenness and irrelevance. She commonly said what she had to say at the instant that the thought occurred to her, regardless of what others might be talking or thinking about. The tenor of nearly everything that she said was singularly gloomy. Her mind was full of superstition of a homely, domestic kind. She was a great believer in signs, and the signs with which she was most familiar were usually forewarnings of some great and mysterious public or private calamity. Her voice was remarkably soft, low, and sweet, so that to hear these alarming threats and these appalling prophecies uttered in the tones of a cooing dove, was very singular indeed.

"'Pon my word!" she now exclaimed, facing the room, but still keeping close to the coffee-pot. "How you all can expect anything but terrible troubles and awful misfortunes is more than I can understand. The warning of that comet sent a-flying wild across the heavens is enough for me."

No one noticed what she said—which certainly seemed to require no notice; but it never made any difference to Miss Penelope whether her remarks were warmly or coolly received. After stooping to turn the coffee-pot round on its trivet she faced the room again.

"Yes, the warning is plenty plain enough for me!" she cooed. "And just look at the dreadful things that have happened already! Just look at what came to pass between the time we first heard of that comet early in the summer, and the time we first saw it early in September. Didn't all the wasps and flies go blind and die sooner than common, right in the middle of the hottest weather? Who ever heard of such a thing before? And look at the fruit crop,—the apple trees, the peach trees, all kind of fruit trees—and the grape-vines a-bending and a-breaking clear down to the ground because they can't bear the weight."

"It is probable that the early dying of the wasps and flies may have had something to do with the fineness of the fruit," said William Pressley, quite seriously, with formal politeness and a touch of impatience at the interruption.

Miss Penelope took him up tartly in her softest tone: "Then, William, may I ask why the people all over the country are calling this year's vintage 'comet wines'? For that's the way they are marking it, and everybody is putting it to itself—as something very uncommon. But never mind! I am used to having what I say mocked at in this house. It's nothing new to me to have my words passed over as if they hadn't been spoken. I can bear it and it don't alter my duty. I am bound to go on a-doing what I believe to be right just the same, however I am treated. I can't sit by and say nothing when I know that I ought to lift up my voice in warning. So I say again—you can mark my word or not as you think best—that we are all a-going to see some mighty wild sights before we see the last of that comet's tail."

"Pooh! Pooh! Pooh!" cried the widow Broadnax, roughly and hoarsely, as she nearly always spoke, and sitting up suddenly among her cushions. "Who's afraid of a comet with only one tail? I'll have you to know, sister Penelope, that my grandmother—my own grandmother and Robert's own grandmother, not yours—could remember the famous comet of seventeen hundred and forty-four, and that had six tails."

Miss Penelope was daunted and silenced for the moment. She did not mind the greater number of the rival comet's tails. It was not that which made her feel herself at a disadvantage. It was the slur at her lesser relationship to the master of the house. Any reference to that was a blow which never failed to make her flinch; and one which the widow never lost a chance to deal. But Miss Penelope had not yielded an inch through the ceaseless contention of years, and held her ground now; since there was nothing to say in reply, she ignored the taunt as she had done all that had gone before. She turned upon William Pressley, however, as we are prone to turn upon those whom we do not fear, when we dare not attack those with whom we are really offended.

"Well, William, maybe you think that the early dying and the going blind of the wasps and the flies caused the breaking out of the 'Jerks,' too. You and the rest all think you know better than I do. I don't complain—maybe you all do know better. But some day, when I am dead and gone, some day, and it mayn't be very long, when my hands are stone cold and crossed under the coffin-lid, you will think differently about a good many matters," she cooed, as if saying the mildest, pleasantest things in the world. "The Jerks have brought many a proud head low. Others besides myself will see a warning in the Jerks before they are gone. And now here are the Shawnees a-coming to welter us in our blood. And the Cold Plague already come to shake the life out of the few that are left. But it is their own fault. There's nobody but themselves to blame. It's easy enough to keep from having the plague," Miss Penelope added confidently. "Anybody can keep from having it, if they will only take the trouble to blow real hard three times on a blue yarn string before breakfast."

William Pressley turned gravely and was about to protest against such absurd superstition, but Philip Alston interfered tactfully, to assure the lady that she was quite right, that it could not fail to benefit almost any one to breathe on anything, especially if the breathing were very deep and very early in the morning.

"And then the new doctor knows how to cure the plague, aunt Penelope, dear," said Ruth, suddenly looking up from the things on the candle-stand. She was always the peacemaker of the family. "The Sisters told me. They are not afraid now that he has come. They were never afraid for themselves; it was for the children—the orphans. They said that little ones were dying all over the wilderness like frozen lambs."

"This new doctor is a most presumptuous person," said William Pressley, with the chilly deliberation which invariably marked his irritation. "He refuses to bleed his patients or to allow them to be bled. These unheard-of objections of his are levelled at the fundamental principles of the established practice and calculated to undermine it. Every physician of reputable standing will tell you that bleeding is the only efficacious treatment for the Cold Plague, and that it is entirely safe if no more than eight ounces of blood be taken at a time, and not oftener than once in two or three hours."[1]

[Footnote 1: "Medical Repository," 1815, p. 222.]

No one said anything for a moment. When William Pressley spoke in that tone, which he frequently did, there seemed to be nothing left for any one else to say. The subject appeared to have been done up hard and fast in a bundle and laid away for good and all. The judge was dozing again, Philip Alston was still gazing at Ruth, Miss Penelope was busy over the coffee-pot, and the widow Broadnax was watching every movement that she made. It was Ruth who replied after a momentary pause. She never lacked courage to stand by her own opinions, timid and gentle as they were; and she spoke now firmly though gently:

"But, William, just think! These were little bits of babies. Such poor, weak, bloodless little mites anyway. And it is said that the greatest pain and danger from the plague is from weakness and cold. The strongest men shiver and shiver till they freeze out of the world."

William Pressley bent his head in the courtesy that stings more than rudeness. He never argued. He had spoken; there was no need to say anything more. So that with this bow to Ruth he turned to Philip Alston and again took up the topic which he was so anxious to resume. It had already been interrupted, he thought, by far too much unimportant talk. Ruth looked at him expectantly when he started to speak, but he was looking at Philip Alston and spoke to him.

"You have, I suppose, sir, mentioned to my uncle what you so kindly suggested to me, in the event that the attorney-general should resign on going to Tippecanoe."

The deepest feeling that Ruth had ever heard in his voice thrilled it now. She involuntarily bent forward. Her eager lips were apart, her radiant eyes were upon him. Was he going with the attorney-general to Tippecanoe? She was afraid, glad, frightened, proud, all in a breath. She had forgotten the beautiful gifts that lay before her. The mere mention, the merest thought of the noble and the great, stirred her heart like the throb of mighty drums.

"No, but I will speak to him about it now," replied Philip Alston. "Judge, Judge Knox!" raising his voice.

The judge, aroused, sat up, looking round. But William Pressley spoke again before Philip Alston could explain.

"If the attorney-general really intends to go, he must resign. There will, of course, be many applicants for the place, and we can hardly be too prompt in applying for it, if I am to succeed him."

Ruth sank back in her chair. The fabric which she had held unconsciously now dropped unheeded from her hand. She could not have told why she felt such a shock of revulsion and disappointment. She had known something like it before, when this man who was to be her husband had shown some strange insensibility to great things which had moved her own heart to its depths. But the feeling had never been so strong as it was now; had never come so near revealing to her the real character of him with whom her whole life was to be spent; and she was still more bewildered and perplexed than shocked or distressed. She thought that she must have misunderstood; that he could not have meant thus to pass over this great national crisis,—this noble offering of a great man's life to the service of his country,—in unfeeling haste to grasp some selfish profit from it. She looked at him wonderingly, with all the light gone out of her face. Being what she was, she could not see that he was just as true to his nature as she was to hers; that he was following it with entire sincerity in looking at the noblest things in life and the greatest things in the world, solely as they affected himself and his own interests. It was not for a nature like hers ever to understand that a nature like his would, if it could, bend the whole universe to his own ends without a doubt that such was its best possible use.

Philip Alston, also, was regarding William Pressley with rather an inscrutable look. But his estimate and understanding were fairer than Ruth's, for the reason that he could come nearer to giving the young man his due. He knew that William Pressley was honest and sincere in his vanity and conceit, and was assured that these traits were the worst he possessed. Philip Alston knew men, and he had found that those who honestly thought highly of themselves usually had something, more or less, to found the opinion upon. He had never known a bad man who sincerely thought himself a good one. He knew that many dull men really believed themselves to be intelligent,—but that was a comparatively harmless mistake,—and he had never observed that a woman thought less of a man who thought well of himself. Aside from this surface weakness William Pressley was a most worthy young fellow; far more worthy to be Ruth's husband than any one else in that rough and thinly settled country. The nearer the time for the marriage approached, the more Philip Alston came to believe that he had chosen wisely in selecting William Pressley. Fully convinced at last that he could not do better for her future than to intrust it to this serious, conscientious young man, who was unquestionably fond of her and to whom she was much attached, he now rested content. He still found, to be sure, some amusement in the young man's estimate of himself; but he never doubted its sincerity or questioned its harmlessness. It did not occur to him that Ruth might be troubled by these matters which merely made him smile.

There would have been a warning for him in the look which she now gave William Pressley had he seen it. But he was looking at the judge, who could not grasp the meaning of what had been said; and he tried again to put the facts before him, but the judge would not allow him to finish.

"Who says Joe Daviess is going away?" he demanded excitedly. "Why, he can't leave. It's out of the question. There is nobody to take his place. We can't spare him. It is preposterous to think of his going to be slaughtered by those red devils. A man like that! when there are plenty of no-account wretches good enough to make food for powder. He mustn't go. The country needs him more here than there—or anywhere. And I will see him to-morrow, for he is coming; tell him so, by ——!"

"You will have your trouble for nothing, then, sir," said Philip Alston, quietly, interrupting him. "The attorney-general is not a man to let another man tell him what to do or not to do. And we are merely considering the probability of his going. If he should go, some one must, of course, take his place. In that case I can think of no one more fit than William here," laying his hand on the young man's arm. "With his qualifications, backed by your influence and mine, there should not be much difficulty. But we must press his claims in time; the notice will be short."

The idea was new to the judge and startling. He turned quickly and looked at his nephew blankly for a moment, and then his left eyebrow went up. His opinion was easy enough to read on his open, rugged face as it always was, and Philip Alston read it like large print; but it did not suit him to show that he did, and no one else saw it. Ruth's face was buried in her hands as she sat with her elbows on the candle-stand. William was looking at the floor with the quiet air of one who is calmly conscious of his own merits, and can afford to await their recognition, even though it may be tardy. The ladies were deeply absorbed in the duties binding them to the hearth. The coffee was now ready, and Miss Penelope lifted the pot from its trivet, and, carrying it to the table, called everybody to supper. No affairs of state ever were, or ever could be, of sufficient importance in her eyes to justify letting the coffee get cold.

Philip Alston went to her side with his deferential air, and told her that he could not stay for the evening meal. He explained that he was expecting several friends that night over the Wilderness Road. It was possible that they might already have arrived and were now awaiting him in his cabin. He must hasten homeward as fast as possible. So saying he took her bony little hand and bowed over it, and made another bow of precisely the same ceremony over the widow Broadnax's pudgy fingers. He always brought his finest tact to bear upon his acquaintance with these ladies.

He looked around for Ruth and held out his hand. She came to him, and went with him to the door. They stood close together for a moment, talking with one another while the others were settling around the table. When he had mounted his horse and set out, she still stood gazing after him till the judge's voice, exclaiming, caused her to turn.

"Call Alston back, if he isn't out of hearing!" he said.

Ruth shook her head. Philip Alston always rode very fast. He was already out of sight in the falling night.

"Pshaw! I never seem able to keep my mind on anything these days," the judge said, fretted with himself. "I fully meant to ask Alston to take that money to the salt-works. It wouldn't have been much out of his way. I don't know what makes me so forgetful lately—and always so drowsy. I promised faithfully to pay for that cargo of salt to-day, so that it would be on the river bank ready for loading when the flatboat comes to-morrow. The owner of the boat sent the money yesterday. I've got it here in my pocket. And the salt was to be delivered for cash; it will not be sent till it is paid for." He paused a moment in troubled thought. "David! Call that boy. He's always hidden off somewhere."

"Here, sir," said David, standing up and coming out of the shadow beneath the stairs.

"You will have to help me in this matter, my lad," said the judge, kindly, forgetting his momentary irritation. "I'll have to send the money by you."

He drew from his pocket a queer-looking roll which he called his wallet. It was a strip of thin, fine deerskin, bound with a narrow black riband and tied with a leathern string. The bank-notes were rolled in this, and the gold pieces and the "bits"—which were small wedges of coin cut from silver dollars—were in two pouches sewed across the end of the strip. It was very seldom that this wallet of the judge's contained so large a sum of money as on that night, for salt was dear in the wilderness. It required eight hundred gallons of the weak salt water and many cords of fire-wood, and the work of many men for many days, to make a single bushel of the precious article. It was still scarce and hard to get thereabouts at five dollars a bushel, so that a large sum was needed to pay for an entire cargo. Drops of perspiration stood on the judge's forehead as he counted out the bank-notes, the gold, and the cut money. He cared little for his own money, and he rarely had much at a time; but he was scrupulously careful in his handling of other people's. And he knew that his eyes were not very clear that night, and that his fingers were not so sure as they should be of anything that they touched. Ruth saw how it was with a tender pang at her heart, for she knew how honest he was and how good, and she loved him. She knelt down at his side and helped him count the money, over which his clumsy hands were fumbling pathetically, so that there might be no error in the counting.

"There!" he said, tying the string round the wallet, which was now almost empty, and putting it back in his pocket. "I want you, David, to take this and go over to the salt-works very early in the morning, as soon after daybreak as you can see your way. Take two of the best black men with you,—they will take care of you and the money, too," he added, with his easy-going laugh. And then he grew suddenly sobered with a touch of shame. "I wouldn't give you the money to-night, my boy," he said hesitatingly, "but—I am hard to wake in the morning. I am afraid you couldn't wake me early enough for me to give you the money in time to get you off by dawn. And my client will be here with his boat, waiting for the cargo, if you are any later in starting. But you can take just as good care of the money as I could. You are not so likely to lose it."

"I will do my best, sir," said the boy, quietly.

He took the money and put it away in his safest pocket. When he had eaten supper with the family, he went back to his shadowed corner under the stairs. But he could not read his book; his mind was too full of thoughts which were fast becoming a purpose. Ruth looked at him and at his book now and then, while she talked to the others, and her teasing glances hastened his decision. She would never laugh at him again for dreaming over romances, if he could prove that he was able to do an earnest man's part in the world. Yes, this was the chance which he had been wishing for. He would go to the salt-works at once—that very night—without waiting for daylight and without calling the black men. The judge would not care; he never cared for anything that did not give trouble, and he need not know until afterward. David stood up suddenly in the shadows under the stairs. He had decided; he would go as soon as he could get away from the great room and put his saddle on the pony. Even Ruth must acknowledge that a night's ride over the Wilderness Road was the work of a man—the work of a strong, brave man.



IV

THE NIGHT RIDE

He left the great room for his own cabin at the usual hour. No one but Ruth observed his going. She smiled at him as he passed, and caught his hand and gave it a little teasing, affectionate squeeze. He must leave "The Famous History of Montilion" unread for one night,—so she said,—and he must go to bed at once, since he was to be up before the sun. These little ways of Ruth's were usually very sweet to him, but he did not find them so that night. He made no reply, and looked at her gravely, without an answering smile. Had anything been needed to fix his purpose, this gentle raillery would have been more than enough.

He went straight from the door of Cedar House to the stable under the hill, stopping at his cabin only long enough to get his rifle. The stable was very dark within, but he knew where to find the pony that he always rode, and the saddle and bridle which he always used, without needing to see. And the pony knew him, too, for all the darkness, and welcomed him with a friendly whinny which said so as plainly as words. For the boy and the pony were good friends, and moreover they understood one another perfectly, which is rarely the case with the best of friends. And then they were both foundlings, and that may have made another bond between them. The pony had been a wild colt caught in the forest on the other side of the river. Nothing was known of his ancestors, although they were supposed by those who knew best, to have been the worn-out horses of good blood which had been deserted in the wilderness by the Spaniards. But then everything cruel was laid at the door of the hated Spaniards in those days, when they had so lately been forced to take their throttling grasp from the throat of the Beautiful River. The pony certainly bore no outward mark of noble ancestry. He was a homely, humble, rough-coated little beast. Yet David liked him better than all the other finer horses in the judge's stables, notwithstanding that some of these had real pedigrees; for good horses were already appearing in Kentucky. The judge allowed David to claim the pony as his own. Robert Knox was a kind man when he did not forget, and he never forgot any one without forgetting himself,—first and most of all,—as he did sometimes.

David always thought of the pony as an orphan like himself, and his own bruised feelings were very tender toward the friendless little fellow. He led him from the stable now as a mark of respect and because it was dark; for he knew that the pony, with a word, would follow him anywhere, at any time, like a faithful dog. It was not quite so dark outside, and springing into the saddle, the boy bent down and stroked the rough neck and the tangled mane that no brush could ever make smooth. The pony lifted his head to meet the caress, and then these two orphans of the wilderness looked out dimly, wondering, over this wonderful new country into which both were come, without knowing how or why or whence, through no will or choice of their own.

That portion of Kentucky rises gently but steadily from the river, and rolls gradually upward toward its eastern hills. On this October night so close to the very beginning of the commonwealth, these terraced hills were still covered with the primeval forest. Hill after hill, and forest after forest, on and on and higher and higher, till the earth and the heavens came together. Near the river on the natural open spaces, and where earliest the clearings had been made, the boy could see the widely scattered rude homes, the young orchards, and the new fields, which the first Kentuckians had won from the wilderness, from the savage, from the wild beast and the pestilence. Southward, and a long way off, lay the great Cypress Swamp. The wavering sable line of its tree-tops spread a pall across the starless horizon. The deadly white mists which shrouded its gloomy mystery through the sunniest day were now creeping out to enshroud the higher land. Through the mingled mist and darkness the sombre trunks of the towering cypress trees rose with supernatural blackness. The mysterious "knees," those strange, naked, blackened roots, so wildly gnarled and twisted about the foot of the cypress, appeared to writhe out of the swamp's awful dimness like monstrous serpents seen in a dreadful dream.

And thus these dark fancies swayed the boy's imagination as wind sways flame, till he suddenly remembered and turned from them more quickly and firmly than ever before. He had made up his mind to cease dreaming with his eyes open. He was resolved to see only real sights and to hear only real sounds from this time on. He did not deceive himself by thinking that this ever could be easy for him to do. He knew too well that in place of the cool, steady common-sense which should dwell in every man's breast, there dwelt something strangely hot and restless in his own. He had always felt this difference without understanding it; but he had hoped that no one else knew it—up to the cruel revelation of Ruth's laughing and kindly meant words. Well, neither Ruth nor any one should ever again have cause to laugh at him for romantic weakness, if he might help it by keeping guard over his fancy.

He therefore sternly kept his eyes away from the swamp where mystery always brooded. He would not look at the wonderful mound near the swamp, which he never before had passed without wonder. It was then—as it is now—such an amazing monument to a vanished race. It is so unaccountably placed, this mountain of earth in the midst of level lowlands; so astounding in size and so unmistakably the work of unknown human hands. Never till that night had David's fervid imagination turned toward it without his beginning forthwith to wonder over the secrets of the ages which lie buried beneath. He had hitherto always thought of this mound in association with the mysterious blazed trail through the forest. But that was much farther off and more directly south, and no one but the boy had ever found any connection between the two. He, dreaming, would sometimes imagine that the same vanished race had marked the path through the forest by cutting the trees on either side—this marvellous blazed trail which De Soto is sometimes said to have found when he came, and again to have made himself, regardless of the fact that history does not mention his being anywhere near. The romance of the buried treasure which this mystic path was believed to lead to, perpetually held David under a spell of enchantment. But he would not allow himself to linger over these mysteries now. He also resisted the horrible fascination of the Dismal Slough—that long, frightful black pit—linking the swamp to the river. And most of all he shrunk from giving a thought or a glance toward the gloom hanging over Duff's Fort, which was still farther off, and the strongest, most bloody link in the long and unbroken chain of crime then stretching clear across southwestern Kentucky.

As these uneasy thoughts thronged, a faint sound borne by the wind caused him to turn his head with a nervous start, and he saw something moving in the deeper darkness that surrounded the swamp. He pulled up the pony, tightening his grip on the rifle, and strained his eyes, trying to make out what this moving object was. The wavering mists were very thick, and he thought at first that it might be nothing worse than a denser gathering of the deadly vapor creeping out of the swamp. The fog suddenly fell like a heavy curtain, and he could see nothing. And then lifting again, it gave him a fleeting glimpse of a body of horsemen riding rapidly in the edge of the forest, as if seeking the shadow of the trees. He could see only the black outline of the swiftly moving shapes, but he knew that they must be part of the band which was filling the whole country with terror, violence, and death. None other could be riding at night toward Duff's Fort. He thought of the money in his pocket, and felt the thumping of his heart as his hand involuntarily went up to touch it, making sure that it was still safe. He sat motionless—scarcely daring to breathe—watching the shadows till he suddenly realized with a breath of relief that they were going the other way, in the opposite direction from his own road. And then after waiting and watching a little longer, in order to make sure that they were out of sight, he rode on.

The courage and calmness which he had found in himself under this test, heartened him and made him the more determined to control his wandering fancy. Looking now neither to the right nor the left, he pressed on through the clearing toward the buffalo track in the border of the forest which would lead him into the Wilderness Road. Sternly setting his thoughts on the errand that was taking him to the salt-works, he began to think of the place in which they were situated, and to wonder why so bare, so brown, and so desolate a spot should have been called Green Lick. There was no greenness about it, and not the slightest sign that there ever had been any verdure, although it still lay in the very heart of an almost tropical forest. It must surely have been as it was now since time immemorial. Myriads of wild beasts coming and going through numberless centuries to drink the salt water, had trodden the earth around it as hard as iron, and had worn it down far below the surface of the surrounding country. The boy had seen it often, but always by daylight, and never alone, so that he noted many things now which he had not observed before. The huge bison must have gone over that well-beaten track one by one, to judge by its narrowness. He could see it dimly, running into the clearing like a black line beginning far off between the bordering trees; but as he looked, the darkness deepened, the mists thickened, and a look of unreality came over familiar objects. And then through the wavering gloom there suddenly towered a great dark mass topped by something which rose against the wild dimness like a colossal blacksmith's anvil. It might have been Vulcan's own forge, so strange and fabulous a thing it seemed! The boy's heart leaped with his pony's leap. His imagination spread its swift wings ere he could think; but in another instant he reminded himself. This was not an awful apparition, but a real thing, wondrous and unaccountable enough in its reality. It was Anvil Rock—a great, solitary rock—rising abruptly from the reckless loam of a level country, and lifting its single peak, rudely shaped like a blacksmith's anvil, straight up toward the clouds. It was already serving as a landmark in the wilderness, and must continue so to serve all that portion of Kentucky, so long as the levelling hand of man may be withheld from one of the natural wonders of the world.

Beyond Anvil Rock the night grew blacker. When David reached the buffalo track he could no longer see even dimly, the forest closing densely in on both sides of the narrow path, and arching darkly overhead. Instinctively he put up his hand again and touched the money in his breast pocket. His grasp on the rifle unconsciously grew firmer, but he loosed the bridle-rein for a moment to pat the pony. The little beast entered the shadows of the trees without a tremor; yet there were dangers therein for him no less than for his rider, and his excited breathing told that he knew this quite as well as his master. It was so dark that neither could see the path, and the boy was trusting more to the pony than to himself, as they went swiftly forward through the still darkness of the forest. The pony's unshod feet made scarcely a sound on the soft, moist earth. There had been no frost to thin the thick branches hanging low over their heads. The few leaves which had drifted down were still unwithered, and only made the hoof-beats more soundless on the yielding earth, so that there was not a rustle at the noiseless passing of the pony and his rider. Only a sudden gust of wind now and then sent a murmur through the dark tree-tops and gently swayed the sombre boughs. And so they sped on, drawing nearer and nearer to the Wilderness Road, till presently the wind brought the strong odor of boiling salt water. The woods became now still further darkened and entangled by many fallen trees which had been felled to make fuel for the furnaces, and by huge heaps of logs piled ready for burning. Here and there were great whitening giants of the forest still standing after they had been slain, as soldiers—death-stricken—stand for an instant on the field of battle. It seemed to the fanciful boy that the wind sighed most mournfully among these wan ghosts of trees, and that the dead boughs, moved by the sighing wind, smote one another with infinite sadness.

There was no sound other than this moaning of the wind through the forest and the muffled beating of the pony's feet on the leaf-covered path. Once a great owl flew across the dark way with a deadened beating of his heavy wings. Again wolves howled, but so far in the distance that the sound came as the faintest echo. A stronger gust of the fitful wind filled the forest with the sulphurous vapors arising from the evaporating furnaces. A moment more, and the vivid glare of the fires flared luridly through the wild tangle of the undergrowth. Against this red glare many black shadows—the dark forms of the firemen—could now be indistinctly seen moving like evil spirits around the smoking, flaming pits.

It was a wild, strange sight, wild and strange enough to fire a cooler fancy than David's. He forgot his errand, forgot the money, forgot where he was—everything but the romance of the scene which had taken him captive. Every nerve in his tense young body was strung like the cord of a harp; his young heart was beating as if a heavy hammer swung in his breast. And then, without so much as the warning rustle of a leaf or a sound more alarming than the sigh of the wind, two blurred black shapes burst out of the forest upon him.



V

ON THE WILDERNESS ROAD

The pony fell back almost to his haunches before the boy could draw the reins. The two horses recoiled with equal suddenness and violence. An unexpected encounter with the unknown in the darkness filled even the dumb brutes with alarm, and brute and human alike had reason to be alarmed; for this time and this place—stamped in blood on history—marked the very height and centre of the reign of terror on the Wilderness Road.

The boy strained his terrified gaze through the dark, but he could see nothing except those vague, black forms of two horsemen, looming large and threatening against the lurid glow of the furnace fires which faintly lit the forest. The men and their horses looked like monstrous creatures, half human and half beast, both as silent and motionless as himself. He felt that they also were listening and watching in tense waiting as he waited and watched, hearing only the frightened panting of the horses and the faint rustle of the sable leaves overhead. And so all held for an instant, which seemed endless, till a sudden gust of wind swung the boughs and sent the glare of the furnace flames far and high through the forest. The vivid flash came and went like lightning, but it lasted long enough for the boy to recognize one of the black shapes.

"Father!" he cried. "Father Orin!"

"Bless my soul—it's young David!" exclaimed the priest.

There was as much relief in his tone as in the boy's, and he turned hastily to the horseman at his side.

"Doctor, this is a young friend of mine—a member of Judge Knox's family. You have heard of the judge. And, David, this is Doctor Colbert. You, no doubt, have heard of him."

David murmured something. He had never before been introduced to any one; and had never before been so acutely conscious that he had no surname. The doctor sent his horse forward, coming close to the pony's side. He held out his hand—as David felt rather than saw—and he took the boy's hand in a warm, kind clasp. It was the first time that a man had given David his hand as one frank, earnest, fearless man gives it to another—but never to a woman, and rarely to a boy. David did not know what it was that he felt as their hands met in the darkness, but he knew that the touch was like balm to his bruised pride, which had been aching so sorely throughout the lonely ride. Father Orin now rode nearer on the other side, and although no more than the dimmest outline of any object could be seen, the boy saw that the priest continued to turn his head and cast backward glances into the dark forest. When he spoke, it was in a low tone, strangely guarded and serious for him, who was always as outspoken and light-hearted as though his hard life of toil and self-sacrifice had been the most thoughtless and happiest play.

"But how does it happen that you are here, my son?" he asked, almost in a whisper. "I can't understand the judge's allowing it. Can it be possible that he has sent you—on business? Why—! A man isn't safe on this part of the Wilderness Road at night, and hardly at midday, alone. For a child like you—"

There it was again, like a blow on a bruise! The boy instantly sat higher in the saddle, trying to look as tall as he could, and forgetting that no one could see. And replying hastily in his deepest, most manly voice, he said scornfully, that there was nothing to be afraid of with his rifle across the saddle-bow, declaring proudly that he knew how to deal with wild beasts, should any cross his path. As for the Indians, he scoffed at the idea; there were none in that country, and never had been any thereabouts, except as they came and went over the Shawnee Crossing.

"But you are mistaken; the Meek boys—James and Charles—were killed only a few weeks ago, just across the river," said the priest. "And they were better able to take care of themselves than you are, my child. Come, you must turn back with us. We cannot go with you, and we must not allow you to go on alone."

Saying this, Father Orin turned his horse and moved forward. David made no movement to follow. Tightening the reins on the pony's neck, he did not try to turn him. Something in the stiff lines of the boy's dark figure told the doctor part of the truth. He broke in quickly, speaking not as a man speaks to a child, but as one man to another.

"There are worse things than wild beasts or Indians to be met on the Wilderness Road," he said. "And the strongest and the bravest are helpless against a stab in the back, or a trap in the dark."

David felt a sudden wish to see the speaker's face. He longed to see how a man looked who had a voice like that. It stirred him, and yet soothed him at the same time. Every tone of it rang clear and true, like a bell of purest metal. All who heard it felt the strength that it sounded—strength of body and mind and heart and spirit.

David fell under its influence at once. He was turning the pony's head when Father Orin in his anxiety erred again.

"I am surprised at the judge," the priest said. "This isn't like him—forgetful as he is about most things. And what are you here for, my son? Where were you going?"

"The judge has nothing to do with my coming to-night. He merely told me to take this money—"

"Hush! Hush!" cried the two men in a breath. At the instant they pressed closer to the boy's side, as if the same instinct of protection moved them both at the same moment. "Come on! Let's ride faster," they said together. "It is not so dark or so dangerous in the buffalo track."

The pony, turning suddenly, pressed forward with the other horses, more of his own accord than with his rider's consent, and gallantly kept his place between them, although they were soon going at the top of their speed. Nothing more was said for several minutes, and then the doctor spoke to the boy.

"You will give us the pleasure of your company all the way, I trust, sir," he said ceremoniously, and as no one ever had spoken to David. "It is a long, lonesome ride, and my home is still farther off than yours."

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse