CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK
Author of A Spectre of Power, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, In the Tennessee Mountains, etc.
A VICTOR AT CHUNGKE
THE CAPTIVE OF THE ADA-WEHI
THE FATE OF THE CHEERA-TAGHE
THE BEWITCHED BALL-STICKS
THE VISIT OF THE TURBULENT GRANDFATHER
The mental image of the world is of individual and varying compass. It may be likened to one of those curious Chinese balls of quaintly carved ivory, containing other balls, one within another, the proportions ever dwindling with each successive inclosure, yet each a more minute duplicate of the external sphere. This might seem the least world of all,—the restricted limits of the quadrangle of this primitive stockade,—but Peninnah Penelope Anne Mivane had known no other than such as this. It was large enough for her, for a fairy-like face, very fair, with golden brown hair, that seemed to have entangled the sunshine, and lustrous brown eyes, looked out of an embrasure (locally called "port-hole") of the blockhouse, more formidable than the swivel gun once mounted there, commanding the entrance to the stockade gate. Her aspect might have suggested that Titania herself had resorted to military methods and was ensconced in primitive defenses. It was even large enough for her name, which must have been conferred upon her, as the wits of the Blue Lick Station jocularly averred, in the hope of adding some size to her. It was large enough also for the drama of battle and the tragedy of bloody death—both had befallen within its limits.
There had been a night, glooming very dark in the past, an unwary night when the row of log houses, all connected by the palisades from one to the other, presenting a blank wall without, broken only by loopholes for musketry, had been scaled by the crafty Cherokees, swarming over the roofs, and attacking the English settlers through the easy access of the unglazed windows and flimsy batten doors that opened upon the quadrangle. Although finally beaten off, the Indians had inflicted great loss. Her father had been one of the slain settlers who thus paid penalty for the false sense of security, fostered by long immunity. Even more troublous times came later,—the tumult of open war was rife in all the land; the station was repeatedly attacked, and although it held out stanchly, fear and suspense and grief filled the stockade,—yet still there was space for Cupid to go swaggering hither and thither within the guarded gates, and aim his arrows with his old-time dainty skill, albeit his bow and quiver might seem somewhat archaic in these days of powder and lead. For Peninnah Penelope Anne Mivane spent much of her time in the moulding of bullets. Perhaps it was appropriate, since both she and her young pioneer lover dealt so largely in missiles, that it was thus the sentimental dart was sped. Lead was precious in those days, but sundry bullets, that she had moulded, Ralph Emsden never rammed down into the long barrel of his flintlock rifle. Some question as to whether the balls had cooled, or perhaps some mere meditative pause, had carried the bits of lead in her fingers to her lips, as they sat together on the hearth and talked and worked in the fire-lit dusk for their common defense. He was wont to watch, lynx-eyed, the spot where these consecrated bullets were placed, and afterward carried them in a separate buckskin bag over his heart, and mentally called them his "kisses;" for the youths of those days were even such fools as now, although in the lapse of time they have come to pose successfully in the dignified guise of the "wise patriots of the pioneer period." More than once when the station was attacked and the women loaded the guns of the men to expedite the shooting, she kept stanchly at his elbow throughout the thunderous conflict, and charged and primed the alternate rifles which he fired. Over the trigger, in fact, the fateful word was spoken.
"Oh, Nan," he exclaimed, looking down at her while taking the weapon from her hand in the vague dusk where she knelt beside him,—he stood on the shelf that served as banquette to bring him within reach of the loophole, placed so high in the hope that a chance shot entering might range only among the rafters,—"How quick you are! How you help me!"
The thunderous crash of the double volley of the settlers firing twice, by the aid of their feminine auxiliaries, to every volley of the Indians, overwhelmed for the moment the tumult of the fiendish whoops in the wild darkness outside, and then the fusillade of the return fire, like leaden hail, rattled against the tough log walls of the station.
"Are you afraid, Nan?" he asked, as he received again the loaded weapon from her hand.
"Afraid?—No!" exclaimed Peninnah Penelope Anne Mivane—hardly taller than the ramrod with which she was once more driving the charge home.
He saw her face, delicate and blonde, in the vivid white flare from the rifle as he thrust it through the loophole and fired. "You think I can take care of you?" he demanded, while the echo died away, and a lull ensued.
"I know you can," she replied, adjusting with the steady hand of an expert the patching over the muzzle of the discharged weapon in the semi-obscurity.
A blood-curdling shout came from the Cherokees in the woods with a deeper roar of musketry at closer quarters; and a hollow groan within the blockhouse, where there was a sudden commotion in the dim light, told that some bullet had found its billet.
"They are coming to the attack again—Hand me the rifle—quick—quick—Oh, Nan, how you help me! How brave you are—I love you! I love you!"
"Look out now for a flash in the pan!" Peninnah Penelope Anne merely admonished him.
Being susceptible to superstition and a ponderer on omens, Ralph Emsden often thought fretfully afterward on the double meaning of these words, and sought to displace them in their possible evil influence on his future by some assurance more cheerful and confident. With this view he often earnestly beset her, but could secure nothing more pleasing than a reference to the will of her grandfather and a protestation to abide by his decision in the matter.
Now Peninnah Penelope Anne's grandfather was deaf. His was that hopeless variety of the infirmity which heard no more than he desired. His memory, however, was unimpaired, and it may be that certain recollections of his own experiences in the past remained with him, making him a fine judge of the signs of the present. Emsden, appalled by the necessity of shrieking out his love within the acute and well-applied hearing facilities of the families of some ten "stationers," to use the phrase of the day, diligently sought to decoy, on successive occasions, Richard Mivane out to the comparative solitudes of the hunting, the fishing, the cropping. In vain. Richard Mivane displayed sudden extreme prudential care against surprise and capture by Indians, when this was possible, and when impossible he developed unexpected and unexampled resources of protective rheumatism. The young lover was equally precluded from setting forth the state of his affections and the prospects of his future in writing. Apart from the absurdity of thus approaching a man whom he saw twenty times a day, old Mivane would permit no such intimation of the extent of his affliction,—it being a point of pride with him that he was merely slightly hard of hearing, and suffered only from the indistinctness of the enunciation of people in general. And indeed, it was variously contended that he was so deaf that he could not hear a gun fired at his elbow; and yet that he heard all manner of secrets which chanced to be detailed in his presence, in inadvertent reliance on his incapacity, and had not the smallest hesitation afterward in their disclosure, being entitled to them by right of discovery, as it were.
Emsden, in keen anxiety, doubtful if his suit were seriously disapproved, or if these demonstrations were only prompted by old Mivane's selfish aversion to give away his granddaughter, finally summoned all his courage, and in a stentorian roar proclaimed to the old gentleman his sentiments.
Richard Mivane was a man of many punctilious habitudes, who wore cloth instead of buckskin, however hard it might be to come by, and silver knee-buckles and well-knit hose on his still shapely calves, and a peruke carefully powdered and tended. He had a keen, wrinkled, bloodless face, discerning, clever, gray eyes, heavy, overhanging, grizzled eyebrows, and a gentlemanly mouth of a diplomatic, well-bred, conservative expression.
It was said at Blue Lick Station that he had fled from his own country, the north of England, on account of an affair of honor,—a duel in early life,—and that however distasteful the hardships and comparative poverty of this new home, it was far safer for him than the land of his birth. His worldly position there gave him sundry claims of superiority, for all of which his hardy pioneer son had had scant sympathy; and Ralph Emsden, in the difficult crisis of the disclosure of the state of his affections, heaved many a sigh for this simple manly soul's untimely fate.
The elder Mivane, with his head bent forward, his hand behind his ear, sat in his arm-chair while he hearkened blandly to the sentimental statements which Emsden was obliged to shout forth twice. Then Richard Mivane cleared his throat with a sort of preliminary gentlemanly embarrassment, and went fluently on with that suave low voice so common to the very deaf. "Command me, sir, command me! It will give me much pleasure to use my influence on your behalf to obtain an ensigncy. I will myself write at the first opportunity, the first express, to Lieutenant-Governor Bull, who is acquainted with my family connections in England. It is very praiseworthy, very laudable indeed, that you should aspire to a commission in the military service,—the provincial forces. I honor you for your readiness to fight—although, to be sure, being Irish, you can't help it. Still, it is to your credit that you are Irish. I am very partial to the Irish traits of character—was once in Ireland myself—visited an uncle there"—and so forth and so forth.
And thus poor Ralph Emsden, who was only Irish by descent, and could not have found Ireland on the map were he to hang for his ignorance, and had been born and bred in the Royal province of South Carolina,—which country he considered the crown and glory of the world,—was constrained to listen to all the doings and sayings of Richard Mivane in Ireland from the time that he embarked on the wild Irish Sea, which scrupled not to take unprecedented liberties with so untried a sailor, till the entrance of other pioneers cut short a beguiling account of his first meeting with potheen in its native haunts, and the bewildering pranks that he and that tricksy sprite played together in those the irresponsible days of his youth.
Emsden told no one, not even Peninnah Penelope Anne, of his discomfiture; but alack, there were youngsters in the family of unaffected minds and unimpaired hearing. This was made amply manifest a day or so afterward, when he chanced to pause at the door of the log cabin and glance in, hoping that, perhaps, the queen of his dreams might materialize in this humble domicile.
The old gentleman slept in his chair, with dreams of his own, perchance, for his early life might have furnished a myriad gay fancies for his later years. The glare of noonday lay on the unshaded spaces of the quadrangle without; for all trees had been felled, even far around the inclosure, lest thence they might afford vantage and ambush for musketry fire or a flight of arrows into the stockade. Through rifts in the foliage at considerable distance one could see the dark mountain looming high above, and catch glimpses of the further reaches of the Great Smoky Range, blue and shimmering far away, and even distinguish the crest of "Big Injun Mountain" on the skyline. The several cabins, all connected by that row of protective palisades from one to another like a visible expression of the chord of sympathy and mutual helpful neighborliness, were quiet, their denizens dining within. At the blockhouse a guard was mounted—doubtless a watchful and stanch lookout, but unconforming to military methods, for he sang, to speed the time, a metrical psalm of David's; the awkward collocation of the words of this version would forever distort the royal poet's meaning if he had no other vehicle of his inspiration. There were long waits between the drowsy lines, and in the intervals certain callow voices, with the penetrating timbre of youth, came to Emsden's ear. His eyes followed the sound quickly.
The little sisters of Peninnah Penelope Anne were on the floor before a playhouse, outlined by stones and sticks, and with rapt faces and competent fancies, saw whatsoever they would. In these riches of imagination a little brother also partook. A stick, accoutred in such wise with scraps of buckskin as to imitate a gallant of the place and period, was bowing respectfully before another stick, vested in the affabilities of age and the simulacrum of a dressing-gown.
"I love your granddaughter, sir, and wish to make her my wife," said the bowing stick.
"Command me, sir; command me!" suavely replied the stick stricken in years.
The scene had been an eye-opener to the tender youth of the little Mivanes; the pomp and circumstance of a sentimental disclosure they would never forget.
Emsden, as hardy a pioneer as ever drew a bead on a panther or an Indian, passed on, quaking at the thought of the wits of the Station as he had never yet feared man, and his respected Irish blood ran cold. And when it waxed warm with wrath once more it came to pass that to utter the simple phrase "Command me" was as much as a man's life was worth at Blue Lick Station.
Emsden thought ruefully of the girl's mother and wondered if her intercession would avail aught with the old autocrat. But he had not yet ventured upon this. There was nothing certain about Mrs. Mivane but her uncertainty. She never gave a positive opinion. Her attitude of mind was only to be divined by inference. She never gave a categorical answer. And indeed he would not have been encouraged to learn that Richard Mivane himself had already consulted his daughter-in-law, as in this highhanded evasion of any decision he felt the need of support. For once the old gentleman was not displeased with her reply, comprehensive, although glancing aside from the point. Since there were so many young men in the country, said Mrs. Mivane, she saw no reason for despair! With this approval of his temporizing policy Richard Mivane left the matter to the development of the future.
Emsden's depression would have been more serious had he not fortunately sundry tokens of the old man's favor to cherish in his memory, which seemed to intimate that this elusiveness was only a shrewd scheme to delay and thwart him rather than a positive and reasonable disposition to deny his suit. In short, Emsden began to realize that instead of a damsel of eighteen he had to court a coquette rising sixty, of the sterner sex, and deafer than an adder when he chose. His artful quirks were destined to try the young lover's diplomacy to the utmost, and Emsden appreciated this, but he reassured himself with the reflection that it was better thus than if it were the girl who vacillated and delighted to torture him with all the arts of a first-class jilt. He was constantly in and out of the house almost as familiarly as if he were already betrothed, for in the troublous period that seemed now closing, with its sudden flights, its panics, its desperate conflicts with the Indians, he had been able to give an almost filial aid to Richard Mivane in the stead of the son whom the old man had lost.
Richard Mivane had always felt himself an alien, a sojourner in this new land, and perchance he might not have been able even partially to reconcile himself to the ruder conditions of his later life if the bursting of a financial bubble had not swept away all hope of returning to the status of his earlier home in England when the tragedy of the duel had been sunk in oblivion. The frontier was a fine place to hide one's poverty and fading graces, he had once remarked, and thereafter had seemed to resign himself to its hardships,—indeed, sometimes he consigned his negro body-servant, Caesar, to other duties than his exclusive attendance. He had even been known to breakfast with his head tied up in a handkerchief when some domestic crisis had supervened, such as the escape of all the horses from the pinfold, to call away his barber. As this functionary was of an active temperament and not at all averse to the labor in the fields, he proved of more value thus utilized than in merely furnishing covert amusement to the stationers by his pompous duplication of his master's attitude of being too cultured, traveled, and polished for his surroundings. He was a trained valet, however, expert in all the details of dressing hair, powdering, curling, pomatuming, and other intricacies of the toilet of a man of fashion of that day. Caesar had many arts at command touching the burnishing of buckles and buttons, and even in clear-starching steinkirks and the cambric ruffles of shirts. As he ploughed he was wont to tell of his wonderful experiences while in his master's service in London (although he had never crossed the seas); and these being accepted with seeming seriousness, he carried his travels a step farther and described the life he remembered in the interior of Guinea (although he had never seen the shores of Africa). This life so closely resembled that of London that it was often difficult to distinguish the locality of the incidents, an incongruity that enchanted the wags of the settlement, who continually incited him to prodigies of narration. The hairbreadth escapes that he and his fellow-servants, as well as the white people, had had from the wrath of the Indians, whom the negroes feared beyond measure, and their swift flights from one stockade to another in those sudden panics during the troubled period preceding the Cherokee War, might have seemed more exciting material for romancing for a venturesome Munchausen, but perhaps these realities were too stern to afford any interest in the present or glamour in the past.
It was somewhat as a prelude to the siege of Fort Loudon by the Cherokees in 1760 that they stormed and triumphantly carried several minor stations to the southeast. Although Blue Lick sustained the attack, still, in view of the loss of a number of its gallant defenders, the settlers retreated at the first opportunity to the more sheltered frontier beyond Fort Prince George, living from hand to mouth, some at Long Cane and some at Ninety-Six, through those years when first Montgomerie and then Grant made their furious forays through the Cherokee country. Emsden, having served in the provincial regiment, eagerly coveted a commission, of which Richard Mivane had feigned to speak. Now that the Cherokees were ostensibly pacified,—that is, exhausted, decimated, their towns burned, their best and bravest slain, their hearts broken,—the fugitives from this settlement on the Eupharsee River, as the Hiwassee was then called, gathered their household gods and journeyed back to Blue Lick, to cry out in the wilderness that they were "home" once more, and clasp each other's hands in joyful gratulation to witness the roofs and stockade rise again, rebuilt as of yore. Strangely enough, there were old Cherokee friends to greet them anew and to be welcomed into the stockade; for even the rigid rule of war and hate must needs be proved by its exceptions. And there were one or two pensive philosophers among the English settlers vaguely sad to see all the Cherokee traditions and prestige, and remnants of prehistoric pseudo-civilization, shattered in the dust, and the tremulous, foreign, unaccustomed effort—half-hearted, half-believing, half-understanding—to put on the habitude of a new civilization.
"The white man's religion permits poverty, but the Indian divides his store with the needy, and there are none suffered to be poor," said Atta-Kulla-Kulla, the famous chief. "The white men wrangle and quarrel together, even brother with brother; with us the inner tribal peace is ever unbroken. The white men slay and rob and oppress the poor, and with many cunning treaties take now our lands and now our lives; then they offer us their religion;—why does it seem so like an empty bowl?"
"Atta-Kulla-Kulla, you know that I am deaf," said Richard Mivane, "and you ask me such hard questions that I am not able to hear them."
It is more than probable that these stationers in the vanguard of the irrepressible march of western emigration had been trespassers, and thus earned their misfortunes, in some sort, by their encroachment on Indian territory; although since the war the Cherokee boundaries had become more vague than heretofore, it being considered that Grant's operations had extended the frontier by some seventy miles. It may be, too, that the Blue Lick settlers held their own by right of private purchase; for the inhibition to the acquisition of land in this way from the Indians was not enacted till the following year, 1763, after the events to be herein detailed, and, indeed, such purchases even further west and of an earlier date are of record, albeit of doubtful legality.
Now that peace in whatever maimed sort had come to this stricken land and these adventurous settlers, who held their lives, their all, by such precarious tenure, internecine strife must needs arise among them; not the hand of brother against brother,—they were spared that grief,—but one tender, struggling community against another.
And it came about in this wise.
One day Peninnah Penelope Anne Mivane, watching from the "port-hole" of the blockhouse, where the muzzle of that dog of war the little swivel gun had once been wont to look forth, beheld Ralph Emsden ride out from the stockade gate for a week's absence with a party of hunters; with bluff but tender assurance he waved his hat and hand to her in farewell.
"Before all the men!" she said to herself, half in prudish dismay at his effrontery, and yet pleased that he did not sheepishly seek to conceal his preference. And although the men (there were but two or three and not half the province, as her horror of this publicity would seem to imply) said with a grin "Command me!" they said it sotto voce and only to each other.
Spring was once more afoot in the land. They daily marked her advance as they went. Halfway up the mountains she had climbed: for the maples were blooming in rich dark reds that made the nearer slopes even more splendid of garb than the velvet azure of the distant ranges, the elms had put forth delicate sprays of emerald tint, and the pines all bore great wax-like tapers amidst their evergreen boughs, as if ready for kindling for some great festival. It is a wonderful thing to hear a wind singing in myriads of their branches at once. The surging tones of this oratorio of nature resounded for miles along the deep indented ravines and the rocky slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. Now and again the flow of a torrent or the dash of a cataract added fugue-like effects. The men were constantly impressed by these paeans of the forests; the tuft of violets abloom beneath a horse's hoofs might be crushed unnoticed, but the acoustic conditions of the air and the high floating of the tenuous white clouds against a dense blue sky, promising rain in due season, evoked a throb of satisfaction in the farmer's heart not less sincere because unaesthetic. The farmer's toil had hardly yet begun, the winter's hunt being just concluded, and each of the stationers with a string of led horses was bound for his camps and caches to bring in the skins that made the profit of the season.
One of this group of three was the psalm-singer of the blockhouse. His name was Xerxes Alexander Anxley, and he was unceremoniously called by the community "X," and by Mivane "the unknown quantity," for he was something of an enigma, and his predilections provoked much speculation. He was a religionist of ascetic, extreme views,—a type rare in this region,—coming originally from the colony of the Salzburgers established in Georgia.
We are less disposed to be tolerant of individual persuasions which imply a personal and unpleasant reflection. Xerxes Alexander Anxley disapproved of dancing, and the community questioned his sanity; for these early pioneers in the region of the Great Smoky Range carried the rifle over one shoulder and the fiddle over the other. He disapproved of secular songs and idle stories, and the settlement questioned his taste; for it was the delight of the stationers, old and young, to gather around the hearth, and, while the chestnuts roasted in the fire for the juniors, and the jovial horn, as it was called, circulated among the elders, the oft-told story was rehearsed and the old song sung anew. He even disapproved of the jovial horn—and the settlement questioned his sincerity.
This man Anxley looked his ascetic character. He had a hard pragmatic countenance, and one of those noses which though large and bony come suddenly short and blunted. His eyes, small, gray, and inscrutable, seemed unfriendly, so baffling, introspective, unnoting was their inattentiveness. His hair was of a sort of carrot tint, which color was reproduced in paler guise in his fringed buckskin shirt and leggings, worn on a sturdy and powerful frame. His mouth was shut hard and fast upon his convictions, as if to denote that he could not be argued out of them, and when the lips parted its lines were scarcely more mobile, and his words were usually framed to doubt one's state of grace and to contravene one's tenets as to final salvation. He rode much of the time with the reins loose on his horse's neck, and perhaps no man in the saddle had ever been so addicted to psalmody since the days of Cromwell's troopers. His theological disputations grated peculiarly upon Emsden's mood, and he always laid at his door the disaster that followed.
"If I hadn't been so traveled that day,—dragged through hell and skirting of purgatory and knocking at the gates of heaven,—I wouldn't have lost my wits so suddenly when I came back to earth with a bounce," Emsden afterward declared.
For as the hunters were coming at a brisk trot in single file along the "old trading path," as it was called even then, the fleecy white clouds racing above in the dense blue of the sky, their violet shadows fleeting as swift along the slopes of the velvet-soft azure mountains, and the wind far outstripping them in the vernal budding woods, a sudden stir near at hand caused Emsden to turn his head. Just above him, on a rugged slope where no trees grew save a scraggy cedar here and there amidst the shelving ledges of rock outcropping through the soft verdant turf, he saw a stealthy, furtive shape; he was aware of a hasty cowed glance over the shoulder, and then a stretching of supple limbs in flight. Before he himself hardly knew it the sharp crack of his rifle rang out,—the aim was almost instinctive.
And it was as true as instinct,—a large black wolf, his pelt glossy and fresh with the renewal of the season, lay stretched dead in an instant upon the slope. Emsden sprang from his horse, tossed the reins to "X," and, drawing his knife, ran up the steep ascent to secure the animal's skin.
Only vaguely, as in a dream, he heard a sudden deep roar, beheld a horned creature leaping heavily upon its fore quarters, tossing its hind legs and tail into the air. Then an infuriated bull, breaking from the bushes, charged fiercely down upon him. Emsden threw himself into a posture of defense as instantly as if he had been a trained bullfighter and the arena his wonted sphere, holding the knife close in front of him, presenting the blade with a quick keen calculation for the animal's jugular. The knife was Emsden's only weapon, for his pistols were in the holster on the saddle, and his discharged rifle lay where he had flung it on the ground after firing. He had only time to wonder that his comrades vouchsafed him no assistance in his extremity. Men of such accurate aim and constant practice could easily risk sending a rifle-ball past him to stop that furious career. He could see the pupil of the bull's wild dilated eyes, fiery as with a spark of actual flame. He could even feel the hot puffs of the creature's breath upon his cheeks, when all at once the horned head so close above his own swerved aside with a snort from the dead body of the wolf at his feet. The bull passed him like a thunderbolt, and he heard the infuriated stamping which fairly shook the ground in the thicket below, where this king of the herds paused to bellow and paw the earth, throwing clods high above the environing copse.
The woods seemed full of maddened, frightened cattle, and Emsden's horse was frantically galloping after the cavalcade of hunters and their pack-train, all the animals more or less beyond the control of the men. He felt it an ill chance that left him thus alone and afoot in this dense wilderness, several days' travel from the station. He was hardly sure that he would be missed by his comrades, themselves scattered, the pack-horses having broken from the path which they had traveled in single file, and now with their burdens of value all foolishly careering wildly through the woods. The first prudential care of the hunters he knew would be to recover them and re-align the train, lest some miscreant, encountering the animals, plunder the estrays of their loads of hard-won deerskins and furs.
The presence of cattle suggested to Emsden the proximity of human dwellings, and yet this was problematic, for beyond branding and occasional saltings the herds ranged within large bounds on lands selected for their suitability as pasturage. The dwellings of these pioneer herdsmen might be far away indeed, and in what direction he could not guess. Since the Cherokee War, and the obliteration of all previous marks of white settlements in this remote region, Emsden was unfamiliar with the more recent location of "cow-pens," as the ranches were called, and was only approximately acquainted with the new site of the settlers' stations. Nothing so alters the face of a country as the moral and physical convulsion of war. Even many of the Indian towns were deserted and half charred,—burned by the orders of the British commanders. One such stood in a valley through which he passed on his homeward way; the tender vernal aspect of this green cove, held in the solemn quiet of the encircling mountains, might typify peace itself. Yet here the blue sky could be seen through the black skeleton rafters of the once pleasant homes; and there were other significant skeletons in the absolute solitude,—the great ribs of dead chargers, together with broken bits and bridles, and remnants of exploded hand-grenades, and a burst gun-barrel, all lying on the bank of a lovely mountain stream at the point where he crossed it, as it flowed, crystal clear, through this sequestered bosky nook.
Something of a job this transit was, for with the spring freshets the water was high and the current strong, and he was compelled to use only one hand for swimming, the other holding high out of the water's reach his powder horn. For, despite any treaties of peace, this was no country for a man to traverse unarmed, and an encounter with an inimical wandering Indian might serve to make for his comrades' curiosity concerning his fate, when they should chance to have leisure to feel it, a perpetual conundrum.
He had never, however, made so lonely a journey. Not one human being did he meet—neither red man nor white—in all the long miles of the endless wilderness; naught astir save the sparse vernal shadows in the budding woods and the gentle spring zephyr swinging past and singing as it went. Now and again he noted how the sun slowly dropped down the skies that were so fine, so fair, so blue that it seemed loath to go and leave the majestic peace of the zenith. The stars scintillated in the dark night as if a thousand bivouac fires were kindled in those far spaces of the heavens responsive to the fire which he kept aglow to cook the supper that his rifle fetched him and to ward off the approach of wolf or panther while he slept. He was doubtless in jeopardy often enough, but chance befriended him and he encountered naught inimical till the fourth day when he came in at the gate of the station and met the partners of the hunt, themselves not long since arrived.
They waited for no reproaches for their desertion. They were quick to upbraid. As they hailed him in chorus he was bewildered for a moment, and stood in the gateway leaning on his rifle, his coonskin cap thrust back on his brown hair, his bright, steady gray eyes concentrated as he listened. His tall, lithe figure in his buckskin hunting shirt and leggings, the habitual garb of the frontiersmen, grew tense and gave an intimation of gathering all its forces for the defensive as he noted how the aspect of the station differed from its wonted guise. Every house of the assemblage of little log cabins stood open; here and there in the misty air, for there had been a swift, short spring shower, fires could be seen aglow on the hearths within; the long slant of the red sunset rays fell athwart the gleaming wet roofs and barbed the pointed tops of the palisades with sharp glints of light, and a rainbow showed all the colors of the prism high against the azure mountain beyond, while a second arch below, a dim duplication, spanned the depths of a valley. The frontiersmen were all in the open spaces of the square excitedly wrangling—and suddenly he became conscious of a girlish face at the embrasure for the cannon at the blockhouse, a face with golden brown hair above it, and a red hood that had evidently been in the rain. "Looking out for me, I wonder?" he asked himself, and as this glow of agitated speculation swept over him the men who plied him with questions angrily admonished his silence.
"He has seen a wolf! He has seen a wolf! 'Tis plain!" cried old Mivane, as he stood in his metropolitan costume among the buckskin-clad pioneers. "One would know that without being told!"
"You shot the wolf and stampeded the cattle, and the herders at the cow-pens on the Keowee River can't round them up again!" cried one of the settlers.
"The cattle have run to the Congarees by this time!" declared another pessimistically.
"And it was you that shot the wolf!" cried "X" rancorously.
"The herders are holding us responsible and have sent an ambassador," explained John Ronackstone, anxiously knitting his brows, "to inform us that not a horse of the pack-train from Blue Lick Station shall pass down to Charlestown till we indemnify them for the loss of the cattle."
"Gadso! they can't all be lost!" exclaimed old Mivane floutingly.
"No, no! the herders go too far for damages—too far! They are putting their coulter too deep!" said a farmer fresh from the field. He had still a bag of seed-grain around his neck, and now and again he thrust in his hand and fingered the kernels.
"They declare they'll seize our skins," cried another ambiguously,—then, conscious of this, he sought to amend the matter,—"Not the hides we wear,"—this was no better, for they were all arrayed in hides, save Richard Mivane. "Not the hides that we were born in, but our deerhides, our peltry,—they'll seize the pack-train from Blue Lick, and they declare they'll call on the commandant of Fort Prince George to oppose its passing with the king's troops."
An appalled silence fell on the quadrangle,—save for the fresh notes of a mockingbird, perching in jaunty guise on the tower of the blockhouse, above which the rainbow glowed in the radiant splendors of a misty amber sky.
"The king's troops? Would the commandant respond?" anxiously speculated one of the settlers.
The little handful of pioneers, with their main possessions in the fate of the pack-train, looked at one another in dismay.
"And tell me, friend Feather-pate, why did it seem good to you to shoot a wolf in the midst of a herd of cattle?" demanded Richard Mivane.
Ralph Emsden, bewildered by the results of this untoward chance, and the further catastrophe shadowed forth in the threatened seizure of the train, rallied with all his faculties at the note of scorn from this quarter.
"Sir, I did not shoot the wolf among the cattle. There was not a horn nor a hoof to be seen when I fired."
Mivane turned to "X" with both hands outstretched as much as to say, "Take that for your quietus!" and shouldering his stick, which had an ivory head and a sword within, strode off after his jaunty fashion as if there were no more to be said.
It was now Alexander Anxley's turn to sustain the questioning clamor. "I will not deny"—"That is, I said"—"I meant to say,"—but these qualifications were lost in the stress of Emsden's voice, once more rising stridently.
"Not a horn nor a hoof to be seen till after I had fired. I didn't know there were any cow-pens about—didn't use to be till after you had crossed the Keowee. But if there had been, is a man to see a wolf pull down a yearling, say, and not fire a rifle because Madam Cow will take the high-strikes or Cap'n Bull will go on the rampage? Must I wait till I can make a leg,"—he paused to execute an exaggerated obeisance, graceful enough despite its mockery,—"'Under your favor, Cap'n Bull,' and 'With your ladyship's permission,' before I kill the ravening brute, big enough to pull down a yearling? Don't talk to me! Don't talk to me!" He held out the palms of his hands toward them in interdiction, and made as if to go—yet went not!
For a reactionary sentiment toward him had set in, and there were those fair-minded enough, although with their little all at stake, to admit that he had acted with reasonable prudence, and that it was only an unlucky chance which had sent the panic through the herds with such disastrous effect.
"The herders should not stop the pack-train, if I had my will," declared one of the settlers with a belligerent note.
"No, no," proclaimed another; "not if it takes all the men at Blue Lick Station to escort it!"
"Those blistered redcoats at Fort Prince George are a deal too handy to be called on by such make-bates as the herders on the Keowee River."
"Fudge! The commandant would never let a bayonet stir."
"Gad! I'd send an ambassador for an ambassador. Tit for tat," declared Emsden. "I'd ask 'em what's gone with all our horses,—last seen in those desolated cow-pens,—that the voice of mourning is now lifted about!"
There was a chuckle of sheer joy, so abrupt and unexpected that it rose with a clatter and a cackle of delight, and culminated in a yell of pleasurable derision.
Now everybody knew that the horses bought in that wild country would, unless restrained, return every spring to "their old grass," as it was called,—to the places where they had formerly lived. When this annual hegira took place in large numbers, some permanent losses were sure to ensue. The settlers at Blue Lick had experienced this disaster, and had accepted it as partly the result of their own lack of precaution during the homing fancy of the horses. But since the herders manifested so little of the suavity that graces commercial intercourse, and as some of the horses had been seen in their cow-pens, it was a happy thought to feather the arrow with this taunt.
"And who do you suppose will promise to carry such a message to those desperate, misguided men, riding hither an' thither, searching this wild and woeful wilderness for hundreds o' head o' cattle lost like needles in a hayrick, and eat by wolves an' painters by this time?" demanded "X" derisively.
"I promise, I promise!—and with hearty good will, too!" declared Emsden. "And I'll tell 'em that we are coming down soon armed to the teeth to guard our pack-train, and fight our way through any resistance to its passage through the country on the open trading-path. And I'll acquaint the commandant of Fort Prince George of the threats of the herders against the Blue Lick Stationers, and warn him how he attempts to interfere with the liberties of the king's loyal subjects in their peaceful vocations."
Thus Emsden gayly volunteered for the mission.
The next morning old Richard Mivane, thinking of it, shook his head over the fire,—and not only once, but shook it again, which was a great deal of trouble for him to take. Having thus exerted his altruistic interest to the utmost, Richard Mivane relapsed into his normal placidity. He leaned back in his arm-chair, the only one at the station, fingering his gold-lined silver snuffbox, with its chain and ladle, his eyes dwelling calmly on the fire, and his thoughts busy with far away and long ago.
He was old enough now to enter into the past as a sort of heritage, a promised land which memory had glozed with a glamour that can never shine upon the uncertain aspects of the future. The burning sense of regret, the anguish of nostalgia, the relinquishment of an accustomed sphere, its prospects and ideals, the revolt against the uncouth and rude conditions of the new status, the gradual reluctant naturalization to a new world,—these were forgotten save as the picturesque elements of sorrow and despair that balanced the joys, the interest, the devil-may-care joviality, the adventure, the strange wild companionship,—all that made the tale worth rehearsing in the flare and the flicker of the fireside glow.
The rains had come. The dark slate-tinted clouds hung low over the station, but every log house, freshly dight with whitewash of the marly clay, after the Indian method, still shone in the shadow as if the sun were upon it. The turf was green, despite the passing of many feet, and where a slight depression held water, a few ducks, Carolina bred, were quacking and paddling about; now and then these were counted with great interest, for they had a trick of taking to the woods with others of their kind, and relapsing to savagery,—truly distressing to the domestic poultry prospects of the station. The doors of the Mivane cabin were all ajar,—the one at the rear opening into a shed-room, unfloored, which gave a vista into more sheds, merely roofed spaces, inclosed at either end. A loom was in the shed-room, and at it was seated on the bench in front, as a lady sits at an organ, the mistress of the house, fair but faded, in a cap and a short gown and red quilted petticoat, giving some instruction, touching an intricate weave, to a negro woman, neatly arrayed in homespun, with a gayly turbaned head, evidently an expert herself, from the bland and smiling manner and many self-sufficient and capable nods with which she perceived and appropriated the knotty points of the discourse.
In the outer shed, Caesar, clad like the Indians and the pioneers in buckskin, was mending the plough-gear, and talking with great loquacity to another negro, of the type known then and later as "the new nigger," the target of the plantation jokes, because of his "greenness," being of a fresh importation. He possibly remembered much of Africa, but he accepted without demur and with admiring and submissive meekness stories of the great sights that Caesar protested he had seen there,—Vauxhall Gardens and Temple Bar (which last Caesar thought in his simplicity was a bar for the refreshment of the inner man) and a certain resort indisputably for that purpose called White's Chocolate House,—all represented as pleasantly and salubriously situated in the interior of Guinea. But after all, if a story is well told, why carp at slight anachorisms?
Richard Mivane's attention had been diverted from the thread of his own reminiscences by the fact that the little flax-wheel of Peninnah Penelope Anne had ceased to whirl, and the low musical monody of its whir that was wont to bear a pleasant accompaniment to the burden of his thoughts was suddenly silent. He lifted his eyes and saw that she was gazing dreamily into the flare of the great fire, the spinning-wheel still, the end of the thread motionless in her hand. The burnished waves of her golden brown hair were pushed a bit awry, and her face was so wan and thoughtful that even her dress of crimson wool did not lessen its pallor. The voices of the three children on the floor grated on the old man's mood as they were busied in defending a settler's fort, insecurely constructed of stones and sticks, and altogether roofless, garrisoned by a number of pebbles, while a poke full of wily Indian kernels of corn swarmed to the attack.
"Why is my pretty pet so idle?" he asked, for while the wheel should whirl he could dream.
She made no answer, only turned her troubled, soft hazel eyes upon him.
"And have you seen a wolf, too, that you have lost your tongue?"
At the word "wolf" she burst into tears. And then, discarding all caution in the breaking down of her reserve, she sprang up, overturning the wheel and rushing to his chair.
Now Richard Mivane had never encouraged his grandchildren to clamber over his chair. He protested great fear of the sticky fingers of the more youthful in contact with his preternaturally fine clothes; he declared they reminded him of squirrels, which he detested; he was not sure they did not look like rats. All this was of great effect; for his many contemptuous whimsical prejudices were earnestly respected.
For instance, whenever 'possum was served at the pioneer board they who partook carried their plates for the purpose to a side table. "The look of the animal's tail is enough for me—it curls," he would say.
"So does a pig's tail curl," his son used to remonstrate sensibly.
"Not having kept a straight course so long,—then twirling up deceitfully like a second thought. This fellow is a monstrosity,—and his wife has a pocket for a cradle,—and I don't know who they are nor where they came from,—they were left over from before the Flood, perhaps,—they look somehow prehistoric to me. I am not acquainted with the family."
And turning his head aside he would wave away the dainty, the delight of the pioneer epicure time out of mind.
The diplomatic reason, however, that Richard Mivane was wont to shove off his grandchildren from the arm of that stately chair was that here they got on his blind side,—his simple, grandfatherly, affectionate predilection. The touch of them, their scrambling, floundering, little bodies, their soft pink cheeks laid against his, their golden hair in his clever eyes, their bright glances at close range,—he was then like other men and could deny them nothing! His selfishness, his vanity, his idleness, his frippery were annulled in the instant. He was resolved into the simple constituent elements of a grandfather, one part doting folly, one part loving pride, and the rest leniency, and he was as wax in their hands.
None of them had so definitely realized this, accurately discriminating cause and effect, as Peninnah Penelope Anne. She felt safe the moment that she was perched on the arm of her grandfather's chair, her soft clasp about his stiff old neck, her tears flowing over her cheeks, all pink anew, escaping upon his wrinkled, bloodless, pale visage and taking all the starch out of his old-fashioned steinkirk. He struggled futilely once or twice, but she only hugged him the closer.
"Oh, don't let him go! Oh, don't let him go!" she cried.
"The wolf that we were talking about? By no means! Lovely creature that he is! We'll preserve, if you like, wolves instead of pheasants! I remember a gentleman's estate in Northumberland—a little beyond the river"—
"Oh, grandfather, don't let him go!" she sobbingly interrupted. "It was he who shot the wolf and stampeded the herds, and the cow-drivers will quarrel with him when they would not have angry words with another ambassador. They will kill him! They will kill him!"
"What for? Poaching?—shooting their wolf?"
"Any one else would be safe, grandfather—except poor Ralph!"
"Go yourself then. May-day!"
"I would, grandfather! I would not be afraid!" She put her soft little hand on his cheek to turn his head to look into her confident eyes.
"An able and worshipful ambassador!" he said banteringly.
"Oh, grandfather, this is no time to risk quarrels among the settlers, and bloodshed. Oh, the herders would kill him! And the Injuns all so unfriendly—they might take the chance to get on the war-path again when the settlers are busy killing each other—and oh, the cow-drivers will kill Ralph Emsden!"
All this persuasion was of necessity in a distinct loud voice; unnoticed, however, for a crisis had supervened in the play of the children by the chimney-place settle, and the sanguinary struggles and scalping in the storming of the fort were blood-curdling to behold to any one with enough imagination to discern a full-armed and fierce savage in a kernel of corn, and a stanch and patriotic Carolinian in a pebble. But when Peninnah Penelope Anne, all attuned to this high key, burst out weeping with commensurate resonance, all the vocations of the household came to a standstill, and her mother appeared, surprised and reproving, in the doorway.
"Peninnah Penelope Anne," she said with her peculiar exact deliberation and gift of circumlocution, "it is better to go and sew your sampler than to tease your grandfather."
"She does not tease me—I have not shed a tear! That was not the sound of my weeping!" he declared facetiously, one arm protectingly about the little sobbing figure.
"He does not like his grandchildren to climb about him like squirrels and wild cattle," the lady continued. Then irrelevantly, "Long stitches were always avoided in our family. The work you last did in your sampler has been taken out, child, and you can sew it again and to better advantage."
"And earn your name of Penelope," said Richard Mivane.
But he was putting on his hat and evidently had some effort in prospect, for how could he resist,—she looked so childish and appealing as she sat before the fire, weeping those large tears, and absently preparing to sew her sampler anew.
While Richard Mivane, by virtue of his early culture, the scanty remains of his property, his fine-gentleman habits and traditions, and the anomaly of his situation, was the figure of most mark at the station, its ruling spirit was of far alien character. This was John Ronackstone, a stanch Indian fighter; a far-seeing frontier politician; a man of excellent native faculties, all sharpened by active use and frequent emergencies; skilled and experienced in devious pioneer craft; and withal infinitely stubborn, glorying in the fact of the unchangeableness of his opinions and his immutable abiding by his first statements. After one glance at his square countenance, his steady noncommittal black eyes, the upward bulldog cant of a somewhat massive nose, the firm compression of his long thin lips, one would no more expect him to depart from the conditions of a conclusion than that a signpost would enter into argument and in view of the fatigue of a traveler mitigate and recant its announcement.
Nevertheless Richard Mivane expected "some sense," as he phrased it, from this adamantine pioneer. Such a man naturally arrogated and obtained great weight among his fellows, and perhaps his lack of vacillation furthered this preeminence. He was a good man in the main as well as forceful, but an early and a very apt expression of the demagogue. And as he tolerated amongst his mental furniture no illusions and fostered no follies, his home life harbored no fripperies. His domicile was a contrast to the better ordered homes of the station, but here one might have meat and shelter, and what more should mortal ask of a house! He often boasted that not an atom of iron entered into its structure more than into an Indian's wigwam. Even the clapboards were fastened on to the rafters with wooden pegs in lieu of nails, although nails were not difficult to procure. He had that antagonism to the mere conventions of civilization often manifested by those who have been irked by such fetters before finally casting them off. It was a wholesome life and a free, and if the inmates of the house did not mind the scent of the drying deerskins hanging from the beams, which made the nose of Richard Mivane very coy, the visitor saw no reason why they should not please themselves. The stone-flagged hearth extended half across the room, and sprawling upon it in frowsy disorder was a bevy of children of all ages, as fat as pigs and as happy-go-lucky. He had hardly seated himself, having stepped about carefully among their chubby fingers and toes lest a crushing disaster supervene, than he regretted his choice of a confidant. He had his own, unsuspected sensitiveness, which was suddenly jarred when the wife in the corner, rocking the cradle with one foot while she turned a hoe-cake baking on the hearth with a dextrous flip of a knife, and feeling secure in his deafness, cast a witty fling at his fastidious apparel. With that frequent yet unexplained phenomenon of acoustics, her voice was so strung that its vibrations reached his numb perceptions as duly as if intended for his ears. He made no sign, in his pride and politeness, both indigenous. But he said to himself, "I don't laugh at her gown,—it is what she likes and what she is accustomed to wear. And why can't she let me dress in peace as I was early trained to do? God knows I feel myself better than nobody."
And he was sensible of his age, his infirmity, his isolation, and his jauntiness was eclipsed.
Thus he entered the race with a handicap, and John Ronackstone would hear none of his reasons with grace. He could not and he would not consent to the nomination of an ambassador in the stead of Emsden, who had volunteered for the service, which was the more appropriate since it was he who had shot the wolf and brought the stampede and its attendant difficulties upon the herders of the Keowee River, and this threat of retaliation upon the Blue Lick Stationers. If there were danger at hand, let a volunteer encounter it! In vain Mivane argued that there was danger to no one else. John Ronackstone, who found an added liberty of disputation in the emphasis imposed by the necessity of roaring out his immutable opinions in an exceeding loud voice, retorted that so far as he was informed the "cow-drivers" on the Keowee were not certain who it was that had committed this atrocity, unless perhaps their messenger during his sojourn at Blue Lick Station had learned the name from "X." But this uncertainty, Mivane argued, was the very point of difficulty. It was the maddest folly to dispatch to angry men, smarting under a grievous injury, messages of taunt and defiance by the one person who in their opinion, perhaps, had carelessly or willfully wrought this wrong. His life would pay the forfeit of the folly of his fellow-stationers.
Mivane noted suddenly that the woman rocking the cradle was laughing with an ostentatious affectation of covert slyness, and a responsive twinkle gleamed in the eyes of John Ronackstone. As he caught the grave and surprised glance of his visitor he made a point of dropping the air of a comment aside, which he, as well as she, had insistently brought to notice, and Mivane was aware that here was something which sought an opportunity of being revealed as if by necessity.
"Well, sir," Ronackstone began in a tone of a quasi-apology, "we were just saying—that is, I sez to X, who was in here a while ago,—I sez, 'I'll tell you what is goin' to happen,'—I sez, 'old Gentleman Rick,'—excuse the freedom, sir,—'he'll be wantin' to send somebody else in Ralph Emsden's place.' X, he see the p'int, just as you see it. He sez, 'Somebody that won't be missed—somebody not genteel enough to play loo with him after supper,' sez X. 'Or too religious,' sez I. 'Or can't sing a good song or tell a rousing tale,' sez X. 'Or listen an' laugh in the right places at the gentleman's old cracks about the great world,' sez I. 'He'll never let Ralph Emsden go,' sez X. 'Jus' some poor body will do,' sez I. 'Jus' man enough to be scalped by the Injuns if the red sticks take after him,' sez X. 'Or have his throat cut if the cow-drivers feel rough yet,' sez I. 'Jus' such a one ez me,' sez X. 'Or me,' sez I."
"Sir," said old Mivane, rising, and the impressive dignity of his port was such that the cradle stopped rocking as if a spell were upon it, and every child paused in its play, sprawling where it lay, "I am obliged to you for your polite expression of opinion of me, which I have never done aught to justify. I have nothing more to urge upon the question of the details which brought me hither, but of one thing be certain,—if Emsden does not go upon this mission I shall be the ambassador. I apprehend no danger whatever to myself, and I wish you a very good day."
And he stepped forth with his wonted jaunty alacrity, leaving the man and his wife staring at each other with as much surprise as if the roof had fallen in.
A greater surprise awaited Mivane without. The rain was falling anew. In vast transparent tissues it swept with the gusty wind over the nearest mountains of the Great Smoky Range, whose farther reaches were lost in fog. The slanting lines, vaguely discerned in the downpour, almost obliterated the presence of the encompassing forests about the stockade. He noted how wildly the great trees were yet swaying, and he realized, for he could not have heard the blast, that a sudden severe wind-storm had passed over the settlement while he was within doors. The blockhouse, the tallest of the buildings, loomed up darkly amidst the gathering gray vapor, and through the great gates of the stockade, which opened on the blank cloud, were coming at the moment several men bearing a rude litter, evidently hastily constructed. On this was stretched the insensible form of Ralph Emsden, who had been stricken down in the woods with a dislocated shoulder and a broken arm by the falling of a branch of a great tree uprooted by the violence of the gusts. He had almost miraculously escaped being crushed, and was not fatally hurt, but examination disclosed that he was absolutely and hopelessly disabled for the time being, and Richard Mivane realized that he himself was the duly accredited ambassador to the herders on the Keowee River.
He went home in a pettish fume. No sooner was he within and the door fast shut, that none might behold save only those of his own household, who were accustomed to the aberrations of his temper and who regarded them with blended awe and respect, than he reft his cocked hat from his head and flung it upon the floor. Peninnah Penelope Anne sprang up so precipitately at the dread sight that she overturned her stool and drew a stitch awry in her sampler, longer than the women of her family were accustomed to take. The children gazed spellbound. The weavers at the loom were petrified; even the creak of the treadle and the noisy thumping of the batten—those perennial sounds of a pioneer home—sunk into silence. The two negroes at the end of the vista beyond the shed-room, with the ox-yoke and plough-gear which they were mending between them, opened wide mouths and became immovable save for the whites of astonished rolling eyes. Then, and this exceeded all precedent, Richard Mivane clutched his valued peruke and, with an inward plaintive deprecation of the extremity of this act of desperation, he cast it upon the hat, and looked around, bald, despairing, furious, and piteous.
It was, however, past the fortitude of woman to behold without protest this desecration of decoration. Peninnah Penelope Anne sprang forward, snatched the glossy locks from the puncheons, and with a tender hand righted the structure, while the powder flew about in light puffs at her touch, readjusting a curl here and a cleverly wrought wave there. The valet's pious aspiration from the doorway, "Bress de Lord!" betokened the acuteness of the danger over-past.
"Why, grandfather!" the girl admonished Mivane; "your beautiful peruke!—sure, sir, the loveliest curls in the world! And sets you like your own hair,—only that nobody could really have such very genteel curls to grow—Oh—oh—grandfather!"
She did not offer to return it, but stood with it poised on one hand, well out of harm's way, while she surveyed Mivane reproachfully yet with expectant sympathy.
Perhaps he himself was glad that he could wreak no further damage which he would later regret, and contented himself with furiously pounding his cane upon the puncheon floor, a sturdy structure and well calculated to bear the brunt of such expressions of pettish rage.
"Dolt, ass, fool, that I am!" he cried. "That I should so far forget myself as to offer to go as an ambassador to the herders on the Keowee!" And once more he banged the floor after a fashion that discounted the thumping of the batten, and the room resounded with the thwacks.
An old dog, a favorite of yore, lying asleep on the hearth, only opened his eyes and wrinkled his brows to make sure, it would seem, who had the stick; then closing his lids peacefully snoozed away again, presently snoring in the fullness of his sense of security. But a late acquisition, a gaunt deerhound, after an earnest observation of his comrade's attitude, as if referring the crisis to his longer experience, scrutinized severally the faces of the members of the family, and, wincing at each resounding whack, finally gathered himself together apprehensively, as doubtful whose turn might come next, and discreetly slunk out unobserved by the back door.
Peninnah Penelope Anne rushed to the rescue.
"And why should you not be an ambassador, sir?" she demanded.
"Why—why—because, girl, I am deafer than the devil's dam! I cannot fetch and carry messages of import. I could only give occasion for ridicule and scorn in even offering to assume such an office."
Peninnah Penelope Anne had flushed with the keen sensitiveness of her pride. She instantly appreciated the irking of the dilemma into which he had thrust himself forgetting his infirmity, and she could have smitten with hearty enmity and a heavy stick any lips which had dared to smile. She responded, however, with something of her mother's indirection.
"Under your favor, sir, you don't know how deaf the devil's dam may be—and it is not your wont to speak in that strain. I'm sure it reminds me of that man they call 'X,'—a sort of churl person,—who talks of the devil and blue blazes and brimstone and hell as if—as if he were a native."
This was a turning of the sword of the pious "X" upon himself with a vengeance, for he was prone in his spiritual disquisitions to detail much of the discomfort of the future state that awaited his careless friends.
The allusion so far pleased old Mivane, who resented a suspected relegation of himself to a warm station in the schemes of "X," that, although his head was still bald and shining like a billiard ball, he suffered himself to drop into his chair, his stick resting motionless on the long-suffering puncheon floor.
"If I could only hear for a day I'd forgive twenty soundless years!" he declared piteously, for he so deprecated the enforced withdrawal from the enterprise that he had heedlessly undertaken, and felt so keenly the reflections upon his sentiments and sincerity surreptitiously canvassed between Ronackstone and "X," and then cavalierly rehearsed in his presence.
"You are only deaf to certain whanging voices in queer keys," his granddaughter declared.
"And how do I know in what sort of key the herders on the Keowee talk? They may 'moo' like the cow, or 'mew' like the cat! I should be in danger of losing half that was said. And that is what these varlets here in the station know right well. It must seem but a mere bit of bombast on my part. It could never be seriously countenanced—unless I had an interpreter. Stop me! but if you were a grandson instead of a granddaughter, I would not mind taking you with me to interpret for me, though, Gadzooks, I'd be like a heathen red Injun with a linguister!"
"And why am I not as good as any grandson?" demanded Peninnah Penelope Anne, with a spirited flash of her bright hazel eyes and great temerity of speculation; for be it remembered the days of the theories of woman's equality with man had not yet dawned. "Sure, sir, I can speak when I am spoken to. I understand the English language; and"—her voice rising into a liquid crescendo of delight—"I can wear my gray sergedusoy sack made over my carnation taffeta bodice and cashmere petticoat, all pranked out with bows of black velvet, most genteel, and my hat of quilled primrose sarcenet, grandfather. I'd take them in a bundle, for if we should have rain I would rather be in my old red hood and blue serge riding-coat on the way, grandfather."
And thus it was settled before she had fairly readjusted the peruke on his head as he sat in his great chair and she clambered on its arm.
She had not heard of the disaster that had befallen Ralph Emsden, and she turned rather pale and wistful when the news was communicated to her. Then realizing how opportune was the accident, how slight was its ultimate danger in comparison with the jeopardy of the mission from which he was rescued, she fairly gloated upon the chance which had conferred it upon her grandfather, and made her an instrument in its execution.
It was a queerly assorted embassy that rode out of the gates of the stockade, the ambassador and his linguister. Richard Mivane was mounted upon a strong, sprightly horse, with Peninnah Penelope Anne behind him upon a pillion. Following them at a little distance came his body-servant, Caesar, more fitted by temperament than either to enjoy the change, the spirit of adventure, and reveling in a sense of importance which was scarcely diminished by the fact that it was vicarious. He rode a sturdy nag and had charge of a led horse, that bore a pack-saddle with a store of changes of raiment, of edible provisions, and tents to fend off the chances of inclement weather. They were to travel under the protection of a trader's pack-train, from a reestablished trading-house in the Overhill Towns of the Cherokees on the Tennessee River; and so accurately did they time their departure and the stages of their journey that they met this caravan just at the hour and place designated, and risked naught from the unsettled state of the country or an encounter with some ignorant or inimical savage, prone to wreak upon inoffensive units vengeance for wrongs, real or fancied, wrought by a nation.
The trader, being a man habituated by frequent sojourns in Charlestown to metropolitan customs and a worldly trend of thought, instantly recognized the quality of Mivane and his granddaughter, despite the old red hood and blue serge riding-coat and their residence here so far from all the graces that appertain to civilization; though, to be sure, Richard Mivane, in his trim "Joseph," his head cowled in an appropriate "trotcozy," and his jaunty self-possession quite restored by the cutting of the Gordian knot of his dilemma, demonstrating his capacity to duly perform all his undertakings, bore himself in a manner calculated to enhance even the high estimation of his fellow-traveler. After the custom of a gentleman, however, he was most augustly free from unwarrantable self-assertion, but he could not have failed to be flattered by the phrase of the trader, could he have heard it, in delivering over his charge to the herders on the Keowee River. "Gadzooks, neighbors, but I shouldn't be a whit surprised if that old party is a duke in disguise!"
But the cow-drivers heard him not! They hardly heeded the coming and the going of the pack-train and their gossips the packmen! They cared naught for the news the caravan brought of the country-side far above, nor the commissions they were wont to give for the various settlements and the metropolis far below! For so featly came riding in to the humble prosaic precincts of the cow-pens and into their hearts the vernal beauty of Spring herself, the living Bloom of charm and love, all arrayed in delicate gray sergedusoy opening upon carnation taffeta, and crowned with sheer quillings of primrose sarcenet, with a cheek that repeated these roseate tints and a glint of golden brown tresses curling softly against a nape of pearl, that the ranchmen were bewitched and dazed, and knew no more of good common-sense. Their equilibrium thus shaken, some busied themselves in what might be called "housewifely cares," that the dainty visitant might be acceptably lodged and fed, and afterward they cursed their industry and hospitality that thus left her conversation and charming aspect to the shirks and drones, who languished about her, and affected to seek her comfort and minister to her entertainment. For the cow-drivers, like the other pioneer settlers of that region and day, represented various states of society and degrees of refinement, and to those to whom she was not as a blissful reminiscence of long ago, she appeared as a revelation, new and straight from heaven, a fancy, a dream! It seemed meet to them that she arrived in the illusory sunset of a sweet spring day, like some lovely forecast of the visions of the night.
With their artless bucolic ideals of entertainment they invited her out to show her the new calves. One of these little creatures, being exquisitely white and eminently pleasing to look upon, was straightway named, with her gracious permission, "Peninnah Penelope Anne," and she was assured that because of this name its owner, a slim, sentimental, red-haired youth, would never part from it. And it may be presumed that he was sincere, and that at the time of this fervent asseveration he had not realized the incongruity of living his life out in the constant heed of the well-being and companionship of a large white cow of the name of "Peninnah Penelope Anne." A more interesting denizen of the pen was a fawn, a waif found there one morning, having prudently adopted as a mother a large red cow, and a heavy brindled calf as a foster-brother. The instant Peninnah admired this incongruous estray, bleating its queer alien note in resonant duet with the calf in the plea for supper, a cord was slipped about its neck and it was presented in due form. In order that she might not be harassed by its tendance, a gigantic Scotch herder, six feet six inches high and twenty-five years of age, showed how far involuntary inanity can coexist with presumptive sanity as he led it about, the creature holding back heavily at every step and now and again tangling itself, its cord, and its disconcerted bleats about its conductor's long and stalwart legs. Another of the herders,—all of whom were hunters and explorers as well,—whose mind was of a topographical cast, introduced her to much fine and high company in the various mountain peaks, gathered in solemn symposium dark and purple in the faintly tinted and opaline twilight. He repeated their Cherokee names and gave an English translation, and called her attention to marks of difference in their configuration which rendered them distinguishable at a distance; and when she lent some heed to this and noted on the horizon contours of the mountains about her home, faint and far in an elusive amethystine apotheosis against the red and flaming west, and called out her glad recognition in a voice as sweet as a thrush, his comrades waxed jealous, and contravened his statements and argued and wrangled upon landmarks to which they had never before given a second thought in all their mountaineering experience, so keenly they competed for her favor. It was her little day of triumph, and right royally she reigned in it and was wont to tell of it for forty years thereafter!
At last the dusk was slipping down; the mountains grew a shadowy gray far away and a looming black close at hand; a star palpitated in the colorless crystal-clear concave of the fading skies; the vernal stretch of the savannas, whose intense green was somehow asserted till the latest glimmer of light, ceased to resound with the voices of the herds; only here and there a keen metallic note of a bell clanked forth and was silent, and again the sound came from a farther pen like a belated echo; the fire flaring out from the open door of the nearest hut of the ranchmen's little hamlet gave a pleasant sense of hospitality and homely hearth-side cheer, for it requires only a few nights under a tent or the open canopy of heaven to make a woman, always the most artificially disposed of all creatures, exceedingly respectful to a roof.
To be sure the interior of this roof was well garnished with cobwebs, and Peninnah Penelope Anne's mother was so notable a housekeeper and had inculcated such horror of these untoward drapings and festoons that the girl was compelled to look sedulously away from them to avoid staring in amazement at their morbid development and proportions. The superintendent of the ranch—being an establishment of magnitude it had several sub-agents also—was so occupied in putting the best foot of his menage foremost, not being prepared for such company that, like many a modern housekeeper, he let the opportunity for pleasure slip. When he proffered tea—he had sent a negro servant all the way to Fort Prince George for the luxury, where it could be found among the hospital stores, for tea was too mild a tipple for the pioneer cow-drivers—he suffered the egregious mortification of pouring out plain hot water, having forgotten to put in the tea leaves to steep. He looked very hot and ruefully distressed as he repaired his error, and would not, could not meet the laughing eyes of his comrades, nor yet the polite glances of his guests resolutely seeing naught amiss. He was oppressed with a sense of the number and prominence of his dogs about the wide hearth of his cabin; when the animals were therefore vigorously kicked out to make more space, instead of retiring with the usual plaintive yelp of protest appropriate to such occasions they took advantage of the presence of guests of distinction and made the rafters ring and resound with their ear-splitting shrieks, and it was even necessary to chase them about the room before they could be ejected. Indeed, several with super-canine strategy succeeded in countermarching their tormentors and remained in the group about the fire, wearing that curiously attentive look peculiar to an intelligent animal when animated conversation is in progress.
The blazing fire in the great chimney-place, that stretched almost half across one end of the herder's cabin, illumined the walls and showed the medley of articles suspended upon them,—horns, whips, branding-irons, skins, cattle-bells, lariats, and such-like appurtenances of the ranch. The little lady was seated in the centre of the group of ranchmen ranged in a wide semicircle about the hearth of flagstones; the ethereal tints of her shimmering attire showed all their highlights; her face and golden brown hair seemed particularly soft and delicate in contrast with the rough tousled heads and bearded countenances about her; here and there the muzzle of a great animal, the flash of fangs and red glow of formidable jaws, were half discriminated amidst the alternate flare of the flames and flicker of the shadows,—all might have suggested the "mystick Crew of Comus" to Richard Mivane, being the only person present who had ever heard of that motley company, had not his thoughts been otherwise engrossed. He meditatively cleared his throat, took a sip of brandy and water, for he had long ago lost his genteel affiliations with tea, and hopefully opened the subject of his mission.
A change fell upon the scene, instant, definite, complete. In the mere broaching of business it might seem that beauty and charm are but tenuous at best, and powerless to subdue the fiercer nature of man when his acquisitive and aggressive commercial instincts are aroused. One of the most devout admirers of Peninnah Penelope Anne tossed his head with a very bellicose and bovine obduracy when he intimated an incredulity of the statement that the herd had been stampeded without an ulterior motive of malice or nefarious profit. The gentle soul who had assumed the tendance and protection of the fawn held down as he listened a shaggy intent head, like that of a bull about to charge, at the mere mention of the shooting of the wolf. In fact, the suggestion of shadowy monsters which the dusky flicker and evanescent flare of the fire fostered and which was intensified by the proximity of open jaws, sharp fangs, heavy muzzles, and standing bristles amongst them, owed much of its effect to the unanimous expression of truculent challenge and averse disfavor. There were frequent confirmatory emphatic nods of great disheveled heads, the scarlet flushing of angry faces, already florid, and now and again a violent descriptive gesture of a long brawny arm with a clenched fist at its extremity. Richard Mivane's well-rounded periods and gentlemanly phrasings were like the educated thrusts and feints of an expert fencer who opposes his single rapier to the bludgeons and missiles of a furious mob. He saw in less than five minutes that the scheme of extenuation and conciliation was futile, that retort and retaliation would be returned in kind, that the stoppage of the pack-train from Blue Lick on the way to Charlestown was inevitable, and that the redcoats, invoked by both parties, would doubtless become embroiled with one or the other,—in short, bloodshed was a foregone conclusion.
Much as this was to be deprecated in any event, it was suicidal amongst these infant settlements by reason of the vicinage and antagonism of the fierce and only half-subdued Cherokees, sullenly nourishing schemes of revenge for their recent defeat and many woes. But when he urged this upon the attention of the herders, the retort came quick and pointed: "We ain't talkin' 'bout no Injuns!—the Cherokees never meddled with our cattle! We'll settle about the stampede first, an' 'tend to the Cherokees in good time—all in good time!"
Richard Mivane was not possessed of much affinity with the ruder primitive qualities, the stalwart candor and uncultured forces of the natural man; and never had these inherent elements appeared to less advantage in his mind than when he was brought into disastrous conflict with them. He only held his ground for form's sake, and often his voice was overborne by the clamors of many responsive tones, all blaring and arguing together. Much that was said he could not hear, and refrained from speaking when he perceived from the loud contending faces that he was denied for the nonce a rejoinder. But ever and anon the silver vibrations of the little linguister's voice rose into the big bass tumult as she rehearsed what had been said for her grandfather's benefit, and the angry rush of sound stopped with an abrupt recoil for a moment, then surged on as before.
She looked very mild and petite among them, quite like a sedate child, her cheeks pinker than any of the rose tints of her apparel that were her pride, her lips red and breathlessly parted, her eyes bright and very watchful, her golden brown hair all red gold in the flicker of the fire. There was one wild taunting threat that she did not repeat, as if she thought it of no consequence,—the threat of personal violence against Ralph Emsden. They had found out his name patly enough from their own messenger to Blue Lick Station. They would take out their grudge against him on his hide, they averred,—if they had to go all the way to Blue Lick to get it!
Now and again they sufficiently remembered that indeterminate quantum of courtesy which they called their "manners" to interpolate "No offense to you, sir," or "Begging the lady's pardon." Throughout she preserved a cool, almost uncomprehending, passive manner; and it was in one of the moments of a heady tumult of words, in which they sometimes involved themselves beyond all interpretation or distinguishment, that she observed with a sort of childish inconsequence that they could get Ralph Emsden easily enough if they would go to Blue Lick Station,—he was there now, and his arm and shoulder were so hurt that he would not be able to make off,—they could get him easily enough, that is, if the French did not raze Blue Lick Station before the herders could reach there.
If a bomb had exploded in the midst of the hearthstone, the astonishment that ensued upon this simple statement could not have been greater. A sudden blank silence supervened. A dozen excited infuriated faces, the angry contortions of the previous moment still stark upon their features, were bent upon her while their eyes stared only limitless amazement.
"The French!" the herders cried at last in chorus. "Blue Lick Station!"
"It was razed once," she said statistically, "to the ground. The Cherokees did it that time!"
Her grandfather, always averse to admit that he did not hear, noted the influx of excitement, and was fain to lean forward. He even placed his hand behind his ear.
"The French!" bellowed out one of the cow-drivers in a voice that might have graced the king of the herds. "The French! Threatening Blue Lick Station!"
The elderly gentleman drew back from, the painful surcharged vibrations of sound and the unseemly aspect of this interpreter, who was in good sooth like a bull in disguise. "To be sure—the French," Richard Mivane said in response, repeating the only words which he had heard. "Our nearest white neighbors—the dangerous Alabama garrison!"
A tumult of questions assailed the little linguister.
"Be they mightily troubled at Blue Lick Station?" asked one sympathetically.
The little flower-like head was nodded with meaning, deep and serious. "Oh, sure!" she cried. "And having the Cow-pens against them too—'tis sad!"
"Zooks!" cried the bull in disguise, with a snort. "The Cow-pens ain't against 'em—when the French are coming!"
"Why haven't they sent word to the soldiers?" demanded another of the cow-drivers suspiciously.
"The soldiers?" she exclaimed incredulously. "Why—the Cow-pens sent word that the soldiers were against Blue Lick too, and were going to stop the station's pack-train. Maybe the stationers were afraid of the soldiers."
To a torrent of questions as to how the news had first come, how the menace lowered, what disposition for defense the stationers could make, the little girl seemed bewildered. She only answered definitely and very indifferently that they could easily get Ralph Emsden if they would go now to Blue Lick, and take his hide,—that is, if the French and their Choctaw Indians had not already possessed themselves of that valuable integument,—as if this were their primal object.
"Why, God-a-mercy, child," cried the superintendent of the ranch, "this news settles all scores; when it comes to a foreign foe the colonists are brothers."
"And besides," admitted one of the most truculent of the cow-drivers, "the cattle are all pretty well rounded in again; I doubt if more are lost than the wolves would have pulled down anyhow."
"And the Blue Lick Stationers' horses can be herded easy enough,—they are all on their old grass,—and be driven up to the settlement."
A courier had been sent off full tilt to the commandant at Fort Prince George, and night though it was, a detail of mounted soldiers appeared presently with orders to escort the ambassador and his linguister into the presence of that officer.
For this intelligence was esteemed serious indeed. Although hostilities had now practically ceased in America, the Seven Years' War being near its end, and peace negotiations actually in progress, still the treaty had not been concluded. So far on the frontier were such isolated garrisons as this of Fort Prince George, so imperfect and infrequent were their means of communicating with the outside world, that they were necessarily in ignorance of much that took place elsewhere, and a renewal of the conflict might have supervened long before their regular advices from headquarters could reach them. Even a chance rumor might bring them their first intimation of a matter of such great import to them. Therefore the commandant attached much significance to this account of an alarm at Blue Lick Station, because of a menace from the nearest French at Fort Toulouse, often called in that day, by reason of this propinquity, "the dangerous Alabama garrison."
For this reason, also, the hospitable hosts made no protest against the removal of the guests to Fort Prince George, although it might seem that the age of the one and the tender youth of the other ill fitted them to encounter this sudden transition from the cosy fireside to the raw vernal air on a misty midnight jaunt of a dozen miles through a primeval wilderness. And in truth the little lady seemed loath to leave the hearth; she visibly hesitated as she stood beside her chair with her hand on its back, and looked out at the black night, and the vague vista which the ruddy flare, from the wide door, revealed amidst the dense darkness; at the vanishing point of this perspective stood a group of mounted soldiers, "in column of twos" with two led horses, the scarlet uniforms and burnished accoutrements appearing and disappearing elusively as the flames rose and fell. The sounds of the champing of bits and the pawing of hoofs and the jingle of spurs were keenly clear on the chill rare air and seemed somehow consonant with the frosty glitter of the stars, very high in the black concave of the moonless sky. The smell of the rich mould, permeated with its vernal growths; the cool, distinct, rarefied perfume of some early flower already abloom; the antiphonal chant of frogs roused in the marsh or stream hard by, so imbued her senses with the realization of the hour and season that she never afterward thought of the spring without a vivid renewal of these impressions.
Her grandfather also seemed vaguely to hold back, even while he slowly mounted his horse; yet aware that naught is so imperative as military authority, it was only his inner consciousness that protested. Outwardly he professed alacrity, although in great surprise declaring that he could not imagine what the commandant could want with him. The little linguister, for her part, had no doubts. She was well aware indeed of the cause of the summons, and so dismayed by the prospect was even her doughty heart that the swift ride through the black forest was less terrible to her than the thought of the ordeal of the arrival. But the march was not without its peculiar trials. She shrank in instinctive affright from the unaccustomed escort of a dragoon on either side of her, looming up in the darkness like some phantom of the midnight. Even her volition seemed wrested from her by reason of the military training of the troop-horse which she rode;—he whirled about at the command "right-wheel!" ringing out in the darkness in the crisp peremptory tones of the non-commissioned officer, and plunged forward at the words "trot, march!" and adjusted his muscles instantaneously to the acceleration implied in "gallop!" and came to an abrupt and immovable pause at "halt!"—all with no more regard to her grasp on the reins than if she had been a fly on the saddle. As they went the wind beset her with cool, damp buffets on chin and cheek; the overhanging budding boughs, all unseen, drenched her with perfumed dew as she was whisked through their midst; the pace was adopted rather with reference to military custom and the expectation of the waiting commandant than her convenience; at every sudden whirl responsive to the word of command she was in momentary fear of being flung beneath the swiftly trampling hoofs of the horses on either side of her, and despite her recoil from the bigness and bluffness and presumable bloody-mindedness of the two troopers beside her she was sensible of their sympathy as they took heed of the instability with which she bounced about, perched up side-wise on a military saddle. Indeed, one was moved to ask her if she would not prefer to be strapped on with a girth, and to offer his belt for the purpose; and the other took the opportunity to gird at the forgetfulness of the cow-drivers to furnish her with her own pillion.
Nevertheless she dreaded the journey's end; and as they came out of the forests on the banks of the Keowee River, and beheld the vague glimmers of the gray day slowly dawning, albeit night was yet in the woods, and the outline of the military works of Fort Prince George taking symmetry and wonted proportions against the dappled eastern sky, all of blended roseate tints and thin nebulous grays, her heart so sank, she felt so tremulously guilty that had all the sixteen guns from the four bastions opened fire upon her at once she would not have been surprised.
No such welcome, however, did the party encounter. The officer commanding it stopped the ambassador and the linguister and let the soldiers go on at a round trot toward the great gate, which stood open, the bayonet on the musket of the sentry shining with an errant gleam of light like the sword of fire at the entrance of Paradise. For now the sun was up, the radiance suffusing the blue and misty mountains and the seas of fog in the valleys. Albeit its dazzling focus was hardly visible above the eastern heights, it sent a red glow all along the parapet of the covered way and the slope beyond to the river bank, where only two years before Captain Coytmore, then the commandant, had been murdered at a conference by the treacherous Cherokees. The senior officer, Captain Howard, being absent on leave, the present commandant, a jaunty lieutenant, smart enough although in an undress uniform, was standing at the sally-port now, all bland and smiling, to receive the ambassador and his linguister. He perceived at once that the old gentleman was deaf beyond any save adroit and accustomed communication. He looked puzzled for a moment, then spoke to the sergeant.
"And who is this pretty little girl?" he asked.
The sergeant, who had heard of her prowess in the havoc of hearts among the herders at the ranch, looked bewildered, then desperate, saluted mechanically, and was circumspectly silent.
"I am not a little girl," said Peninnah Penelope Anne Mivane with adult dignity.
"Ah, indeed," said the embarrassed and discomfited officer. Then, turning to lead the way, he added civilly, "Beg pardon, I'm sure!"
If the sight of the sixteen guns on the four bastions of Fort Prince George had caused Peninnah Penelope Anne to shrink from her normal proportions, not too expansive at best, she dwindled visibly and continually when conducted within the palisaded parapets, across the parade, past the barracks, built for a hundred men but now somewhat lacking their complement, and into the officers' quarters, where in a large mess-hall there sat all the commissioned officers at a table, near the foot of which the two strangers were accommodated with chairs. It had so much the air of a court-martial, despite their bland and reassuring suavity, that Peninnah Penelope Anne, albeit a free lance and serving under no banner but her own whim, had much ado to keep up her courage to face them. Naturally she was disposed to lean upon her grandfather, but he utterly failed her. She had never known him so deaf! He could neither hear the officers nor her familiar voice. He would not even tell his name, although she had so often heard him voice it sonorously and in great pride, "Richard Mivane Huntley Mivane, youngest son of the late Sir Alexander Mivane Huntley Mivane, of Mivane Hall, Fenshire, Northumberland." Now he merely waved his hand to deputize her. In truth he shrank from rehearsing to these young men the reason of his flight from home, his duel and its fatal result, although his pride forbade him to suppress it. He had come to think the cause of quarrel a trifle, and the challenge a wicked folly. It was a bitter and remorseful recollection as his age came on, and its details were edifying in no sense. Hence, as Peninnah Penelope Anne knew naught of the story she could not tell it, and he escaped the distasteful pose of a merciless duelist.