A MOUNTAIN ROMANCE OF TENNESSEE
BY CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK
"THE RAID OF THE GUERILLA," "THE PROPHET OF THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS," "THE FAIR MISSISSIPPIAN," ETC.
WITH A FRONTISPIECE IN COLOR BY DOUGLAS DUER
PHILADELPHIA & LONDON J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY 1912
COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER, 1912
PRINTED BY J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY AT THE WASHINGTON SQUARE PRESS PHILADELPHIA, U.S.A.
This paragraph in Chapter II. is obviously a printer's error:
Here they found a change of sentiment prevailing. Although failing in no observance of courtesy, Mrs. Briscoe had been a little less than complaisant toward the departed guest. This had been vaguely perceptible to Briscoe at the time, but now she gency constrained him.
In addition, a Table of Contents has been created for the convenience of the reader.
I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. XII. XIII. XIV.
Nowhere could the idea of peace be more serenely, more majestically, expressed. The lofty purple mountains limited the horizon, and in their multitude and imposing symmetry bespoke the vast intentions of beneficent creation. The valley, glooming low, harbored all the shadows. The air was still, the sky as pellucid as crystal, and where a crag projected boldly from the forests, the growths of balsam fir extending almost to the brink, it seemed as if the myriad fibres of the summit-line of foliage might be counted, so finely drawn, so individual, was each against the azure. Below the boughs the road swept along the crest of the crag and thence curved inward, and one surveying the scene from the windows of a bungalow at no great distance could look straight beyond the point of the precipice and into the heart of the sunset, still aflare about the west.
But the realization of solitude was poignant and might well foster fear. It was too wild a country, many people said, for quasi-strangers, and the Briscoes were not justified in lingering so long at their summer cottage here in the Great Smoky Mountains after the hotel of the neighboring springs was closed for the season, and its guests and employees all vanished town-ward. Hitherto, however, the Briscoes had flouted the suggestion, protesting that this and not the spring was the "sweet o' the year." The autumn always found the fires flaring on the cosy hearths of their pretty bungalow, and they were wont to gaze entranced on the chromatic pageantry of the forests as the season waned. Presently the Indian summer would steal upon them unaware, with its wild sweet airs, the burnished glamours of its soft red sun, its dreamy, poetic, amethystine haze. Now, too, came the crowning opportunity of sylvan sport. There were deer to stalk and to course with horses, hounds, and horns; wild turkeys and mountain grouse to try the aim and tax the pedestrianism of the hunter; bears had not yet gone into winter quarters, and were mast-fed and fat; even a shot at a wolf, slyly marauding, was no infrequent incident, and Edward Briscoe thought the place in autumn an elysium for a sportsman.
He had to-day the prospect of a comrade in these delights from his own city home and of his own rank in life, despite the desertion of the big frame hotel on the bluff, but it was not the enticement of rod and gun that had brought Julian Bayne suddenly and unexpectedly to the mountains. His host and cousin, Edward Briscoe, was his co-executor in a kinsman's will, and in the settlement of the estate the policy of granting a certain power of attorney necessitated a conference more confidential than could be safely compassed by correspondence. They discussed this as they sat in the spacious reception hall, and had Bayne been less preoccupied he must have noticed at once the embarrassment, nay, the look of absolute dismay, with which Briscoe had risen to receive him, when, unannounced, he appeared in the doorway as abruptly as if he had fallen from the clouds. As it was, the brief colloquy on the business interests that had brought him hither was almost concluded before the problem of his host's manner began to intrude on Bayne's consciousness. Briscoe's broad, florid, genial countenance expressed an unaccountable disquietude; a flush had mounted to his forehead, which was elongated by his premature baldness; he was pulling nervously at his long dark mustache, which matched in tint the silky fringe of hair encircling his polished crown; his eyes, round and brown, and glossy as a chestnut, wandered inattentively. He did not contend on small points of feasibility, according to his wont—for he was of an argumentative habit of mind—in fact, his acquiescence in every detail proposed was so complete and so unexpected that Bayne, with half his urgency unsaid, came to the end of his proposition with as precipitate an effect as if he had stumbled upon it in the dark.
"Well, that's agreed, is it? Easily settled! I really need not have come—though"—with a complaisant after-thought—"it is a pleasure to look in on you in your woodland haunts."
Briscoe suddenly leaned forward from his easy chair and laid his hand on his cousin's knee.
"Julian," he said anxiously, "I hate to tell you—but my wife has got that woman here."
Bayne stared, blankly unresponsive. "What woman?" he asked wonderingly.
"Mrs. Royston, you know—Lillian Marable, that was."
Bayne looked as if suddenly checked in headlong speed—startled, almost stunned. The blood rushed in a tumultuous flood to his thin cheeks, then receded, leaving his face mottled red and white. His steel-gray eyes suddenly glowed like hot metal. There was a moment of tense silence; then he said, his voice steady and controlled, his manner stiff but not without dignity, "Pray do not allow that to discompose you. She is nothing to me."
"I know—I know, of course. I would not have mentioned it, but I feared an unexpected meeting might embarrass you, here in this seclusion where you cannot avoid each other."
"You need not have troubled yourself," Bayne protested, looking fixedly at his cigar as he touched off the long ash with a delicate fillip.
There was a great contrast in the aspect of the two, which accorded with their obvious differences of mind and temperament. Briscoe, a man of wealth and leisure, portly and rubicund, was in hunting togs, with gaiters, knickers, jacket, and negligee shirt, while Bayne, with no trace of the disorder incident to a long journey by primitive methods of transportation, was as elaborately groomed and as accurately costumed in his trig, dark brown, business suit as if he had just stepped from the elevator of the sky-scraper where his offices as a broker were located. His manner distinctly intimated that the subject was dismissed, but Briscoe, who had as kindly a heart as ever beat, was nothing of a diplomat. He set forth heavily to justify himself.
"You see—knowing that you were once in love with her——"
"Oh, no, my dear fellow," Bayne hastily interrupted; "I never loved her. I loved only my own dream of one fair woman. It did not come true, that's all."
Briscoe seemed somewhat reassured, but in the pervasive awkwardness of his plight as host of both parties he could not quit the subject. "Just so," he acquiesced gladly; "a mere dream—and a dream can make no sensible man unhappy."
Bayne laughed with a tense note of satire. "Well, the awakening was a rude jar, I must confess."
For it had been no ordinary termination of an unhappy love affair. It befell within a fortnight of the date set for the prospective marriage. All the details of publicity were complete: the cards were out; the "society columns" of the local journals had revelled in the plans of the event; the gold and silver shower of the bridal presents was raining down. The determining cause of the catastrophe was never quite clear to the community—whether a lover's quarrel with disproportionate consequences, by reason of the marplot activities of a mercenary relative of the lady's, advocating the interests of a sudden opportunity of greater wealth and station; or her foolish revenge for a fancied slight; or simply her sheer inconstancy in a change of mind and heart. At all events, without a word of warning, Julian Bayne, five years before, had the unique experience of reading in a morning paper the notice of the marriage of his promised bride to another man, and of sustaining with what grace he might the role of a jilted lover amidst the ruins of his nuptial preparations.
In the estimation of the judicious, he had made a happy escape, for the cruelty involved in the lady's methods and the careless flout of the opinion of the sober, decorous world were not indicia of worthy traits; but he was of sensitive fibre, and tingled and winced with the consciousness of the cheap gibe and the finger of scorn. He often said to himself then, however, as now to the friend of his inmost thought, "I would not be bound to a woman capable of such treachery for——"
Words failed him, inadequate, though he spoke calmly. His face had resumed its habitual warm pallor. His clear-cut features, something too sharply defined for absolute regularity, with the unassertive effect of his straight auburn hair, his deliberate, contemplative glance, his reserved, high-bred look, the quiet decorum of his manner, were not suggestive of the tumult of his inner consciousness, and the unresponsiveness of his aspect baffled Briscoe. With some inapposite, impulsive warmth he protested: "But she has had bitter cause for repentance, Julian. Royston was a brute. The only decent thing he ever did was dying! She has been an awfully unhappy woman. I know you will be sorry for that."
"Neither glad nor sorry. She is nothing to me. Not because she dealt me a blow after a very unfair fashion, but because she is nothing in herself that I could really care for. She has no delicate sensibilities, no fine perceptions; she is incapable of constancy. Don't you understand? She has no capacity to feel."
Briscoe had a look of extenuating distress—a sentiment of loyalty to his fair guest. "Oh, well, now, she is devoted to her child—a most loving mother."
"Certainly, she may grow in grace—let us hope that she will! And now suppose we talk a little about that wonderful magazine shot-gun you have so often offered to lend me. This is my chance to prove its values—the only time in the last five years that I could spare a week from the office."
He rose and turned with his easy, lithe grace towards the gun-rack, but Briscoe sat still in pondering dismay. For it was obvious that Julian Bayne had no intention of soon relaxing the tension of the situation by the elimination of the presence of the jilted lover. Pride, indeed, forbade his flight. His self-respect clamored for recognition. There was no cause for humiliation in his consciousness, and he could not consent to abase himself before the untoward and discordant facts. He did not disguise from himself, however, that, if he might have chosen earlier, he would have avoided the ordeal of the meeting, from which he shrank in anticipation. Already he was poignantly conscious of the heavy draughts it made on his composure, and he raged inwardly to note how his fingers trembled as he stood before the rack of guns, now and again a weapon in his hands, feigning an interest in examining the construction first of one and then of another.
The entire place suggested a devotion to sport and whole-souled hospitality. The vast spread of the autumnal landscape, in wonderful clarity and depth of tint, was visible through the large, open front doors. There was an effort to maintain in this apartment the aspect in some sort of a lodge in the wilderness; the splendid antlers over the mantel-piece, beneath which, in a deep stone chimney-place, a fire of logs smouldered; the golden eagle, triumph of taxidermy, poising his wings full-spread above the landing of the somewhat massive staircase; the rack of weapons—rifles, shot-guns, hunting-knives; the game-bags; the decoration of the walls, showing the mask and brush of many a fox, and the iridescent wings of scores of wild-fowl; the rugs scattered about made of the pelts of wolves, catamounts, and bears of the region—all served to contribute to the sylvan effect. But the glister of the hardwood floor, waxed and polished; the luxury of the easy chairs and sofas; the centre-table strewn with magazines and papers, beneath a large lamp of rare and rich ware; the delicate aroma of expensive cigars, were of negative, if not discordant, suggestion, and bespoke the more sophisticated proclivities and training of the owner.
In the interval of awkward silence, Briscoe remained motionless in his easy chair, a rueful reflectiveness on his genial face incongruous with its habitual expression. When a sudden disconcerted intentness developed upon it, Bayne, every instinct on the alert, took instant heed of the change. The obvious accession of dismay betokened the increasing acuteness of the crisis, and Briscoe's attitude, as of helpless paralysis, stricken as it were into stone as he gazed toward the door, heralded an approach.
There were light footfalls on the veranda, a sudden shadow at the door. The next moment two ladies were entering, their hands full of autumn leaves, trophies of their long walk. Bayne, summoning to his aid all the conservative influences of pride and self-respect, was able to maintain an aspect of grave composure as, fully warned, he turned to meet them. Nevertheless, the element of surprise to the new-comers rendered it an awkward moment to all the group. Mrs. Briscoe, considerably in advance of her guest, paled at the sight of him, and, silent and visibly shocked, paused as abruptly as if she beheld a ghost. It was a most uncharacteristic reception, for she was of a gracious and engaging personality and a stately type of beauty. She was tall and graceful, about thirty years of age, in full bloom, so to speak, extremely fair, the delicacy of her complexion enhanced by the contrast with her dark hair worn en pompadour. Her gown of dark red cloth, elaborately braided and with narrow borders of otter fur, had a rich depth of color which accorded with her sumptuous endowments.
The role of cordial hostess she was wont to play with especial acceptability, but now she had lost its every line, its most trivial patter. She said not one word as Bayne clasped her hand with the conventional greeting, but only looked at him with her hazel eyes at once remonstrant, pleading, compassionate.
The moment of vantage, short as it was, afforded by the precedence of her hostess in the matter of salutation, gave Mrs. Royston the opportunity to catch her breath and find her voice. She had not seen this man since, five years ago, he had left her home her expectant bridegroom. But beyond a fluctuating flush in her fair cheek, a dilation of her blue eyes, a flutter of those eyelids which he had always esteemed a special point of her beauty, being so smooth, so full, so darkly lashed, she conserved an ostensible calm, although she felt the glance of his eye as sensitively as red hot steel. But he—as he dropped the hand of his hostess and advanced toward her guest—in one moment his fictitious composure deserted him. For this was not the widow in weeds whom he had expected to see, not the woman of whom he had trained himself to think, when he must needs think of her at all, as another man's wife. This was his own fair Past, the unfulfilled promise of his future, the girl he had adored, the ideal wife whom he had worshipped in his cherished dreams! Just as always heretofore, she stood now, so fresh, so fair, so candid-seeming, wearing her white serge gown with her usual distinction, a spray of golden-rod fastened in her mass of yellow hair that glowed with a sheen of differing gold. How had time spared her! How had griefs left her scathless! It was an effort to reflect that two years and more had elapsed since he had read the obituary of Archibald Royston, with scornful amusement to mark the grotesque lie to the living in the fulsome tribute to the dead.
In some sort, Bayne was prepared for change, for the new identity that the strange falling out of events betokened. He had never realized her, he had never divined her character, he would have said. She was now, as she had always been, an absolute stranger. But this little hand—ah, he knew it well! How often it had lain in his clasp, and once more every fibre thrilled at its touch. With all his resolution, he could not restrain the flush that mounted to his brow, the responsive quiver in his voice as he murmured her name, the name of Archibald Royston's wife, so repugnant to his lips. He was in a state of revolt against himself, his self-betrayal, to realize that she and the two Briscoes could not fail to mark his confusion, attributing his emotion to whatsoever cause they would. Indeed, in the genial altruism of host, Briscoe had succeeded in breaking from the thrall of embarrassment to shield and save the situation.
"Why, here is Archie!" he exclaimed resonantly. "How are you, old man?" His clear tones were vibrant with disproportionate elation at the prospect of a diversion of the painful interest of the scene.
For at the moment a fine blond boy of three years burst in at the rear door of the apartment and came running to meet Mrs. Royston, just apprised, doubtless, of her return from her afternoon stroll. He looked very fresh in his white linen dress, his red leather belt, and twinkling red shoes. With the independent nonchalance of childhood, he took no note of the outstretched arms and blandishing smile of Mr. Briscoe, who sought to intercept him, but made directly toward his mother. His gleaming reflection sped along in the polished, mirroring floor, but all at once both semblance and substance paused. With a sudden thought the child put his dimpled hands over his smiling pink face, while his blue eyes danced merrily between the tips of his fingers. Then he advanced again, lunging slowly along, uttering the while a menacing "Mew! Mew! Mew!"
His mother had no heart for his fun. She could scarcely summon the strength and attention requisite for this fantastic infantile foolery when all her capacities were enlisted to support her dignity in the presence of this man, necessarily inimical, censorious, critical, who had once meant so much in her life. But she could not rebuff the baby! She would not humble his spirit! She must enter into his jest, whatever the effort cost her.
It was poor acting certainly. She affected fright, as the child expected. She cowered dismayed. "Oh, oh!" she cried, watching his erratic approach. "What is that?" She pretended flight, but sank into a chair, apparently overpowered. She gazed down at the child with the lifted hands of horror as he clasped the folds of her gown, his eyes shining with fun, his teeth glittering between his red lips, his laughter rippling with delight. "Me scared oo,' mamma," he squealed ecstatically. "Oo didn't know what me was. Oo t'ought me was a great big bear."
Whereupon she looked down at him with amazed recognition. "Is it you, Archie? Dear me, I thought it was a great big bear."
"Mew! Mew! Mew!" he repeated in joy.
"Why, Archie, old man, bears don't mew!" cried the genial Briscoe, recovering his equanimity. "Bears growl—didn't you know that?"
He straightway began to teach the little fellow a very noisy and truculent vocalization of the ursine type, which Archie, who was a great favorite with his host, eagerly imitated, Briscoe appearing throughout the duet at the pitiable disadvantage of the adult imbecile disporting himself in infantile wise.
The tumult of the child's entrance had the effect of relaxing for Briscoe the tension of the situation, but when Archie's nurse appeared at the door and he ran away at her summons, the host looked apprehensively about the circle as the party ranged themselves around the fire, its glow beginning to be welcome in the increasing chill of the evening. Ordinarily, this was a household of hilarious temperament. Life had been good to the Briscoes, and they loved it. They were fond of rich viands, old wines, genial talk, good stories, practical jests, music, and sport; the wife herself being more than a fair shot, a capital whip, and a famous horsewoman. Even when there was no stranger within the gates, the fires would flare merrily till midnight, the old songs echo, and the hours speed away on winged sandals. But this evening neither host nor hostess could originate a sentence in the presence of what seemed to their sentimental persuasions the awful tragedy of two hearts. Indeed, conversation on ordinary lines would have been impossible, but that Bayne with an infinite self-confidence, as it seemed to Mrs. Briscoe, took the centre of the stage and held it. All Bayne's spirit was up! The poise and reserve of his nature, his habit of sedulous self-control, were reasserted. He could scarcely forgive himself their momentary lapse. He felt it insupportable that he should not have held his voice to normal steadiness, his pulses to their wonted calm, in meeting again this woman who had wrought him such signal injury, who had put upon him such insufferable indignity. Surely he could feel naught for her but the rancor she had earned! From the beginning, she had been all siren, all deceit. She was but the semblance, the figment, of his foolish dream, and why should the dream move him still, shattered as it was by the torturing realities of the truth? Why must he needs bring tribute to her powers, flatter her ascendency in his life, by faltering before her casual presence? He rallied all his forces. He silently swore a mighty oath that he at least would take note of his own dignity, that he would deport himself with a due sense of his meed of self-respect. Though with a glittering eye and a strong flush on his cheek, he conserved a deliberate incidental manner, and maintained a pose of extreme interest in his own prelection as, seated in an arm-chair before the fire he began to talk with a very definite intention of a quiet self-assertion, of absorbing and controlling the conversation. He described at great length the incidents of his trip hither, and descanted on the industrial and political conditions of east Tennessee. This brought him by an easy transition to an analysis of the peculiar traits of its mountain population, which included presently their remarkable idiosyncrasies of speech. When he was fairly launched on this theme, which was of genuine interest to him, for he had long fostered a linguistic fad, all danger of awkward silence or significant pauses was eliminated. He found that Briscoe could furnish him with some fresh points in comparative philology, to his surprise and gratification, for he never expected aught bookish of his host. But like men of his type, Briscoe was a close observer and learned of the passing phase of life. He took issue again and again with the deductions of the traveller.
"You think it queer that they use 'you-uns' in the singular number? Then why do you use 'you' in the singular number? I haven't heard you 'thou-ing' around here this evening. Just as grammatical in that respect as you are! And on the same principle, why do you say 'you were' to me instead of 'you was,' which would be more singular—ha! ha! ha!"
"What I think so curious is the double-barrelled pronouns themselves, 'you-uns' and 'we-uns.'" Mrs. Royston forced herself to take part in the colloquy at the first opportunity.
"Not at all queer," Bayne promptly contended. "The correlatives of that locution appear in other languages. The French has nous autres, the Italian, noi altri, the Spanish, nosotros."
"And pray consider our own classical 'we-all,'" Mrs. Briscoe gayly interposed, surprised that she could pluck up the spirit for this interruption.
"More interesting to me is the survival in this sequestered region of old English words and significations, altogether obsolete elsewhere," continued Bayne. "Now, when I asked the driver yesterday the name of a very symmetrical eminence in the midst of the ranges he said it had no name, that it was no mountain—it was just the 'moniment' of a little ridge, meaning the image, the simulacrum. This is Spenser's usage."
"Look here, Julian," said Briscoe, rising suddenly, all his wonted bluff self again, "if you fire off any more of your philologic wisdom at us I'll throw you over the cliff. We are skilled in the use of words—honest, straight talk—not their dissection. I want to get at something that we can all enjoy. Tune this violin and come and play some of those lovely old things that you and Gladys used to practise together."
"Yes, yes, indeed," exclaimed Mrs. Briscoe cordially, and, rising promptly, she approached the piano.
Briscoe also started toward the instrument, to open it for her. "Mrs. Royston and I will be a generous audience and applaud enthusiastically. But stop—what is that?"
He suddenly paused, the lid of the piano half lifted in his hands, the scattered sheet music falling in a rustling shower to the floor.
"What is that?" he reiterated, motionless and hearkening.
A voice was calling from out the rising mists, calling again and again, hailing the house. Briscoe dropped the lid of the piano and strode to the door, followed by Bayne, the ladies standing irresolute on the hearthrug and gazing apprehensively after them.
The sudden changes incident to the mountain atmosphere were evidenced in the opaque density of the fog that had ensued on the crystalline clearness of the sunset. It hung like a curtain from the zenith to the depths of the valley, obscuring all the world. It had climbed the cliffs; it was shifting in and out among the pillars of the veranda; it even crossed the threshold as the door was opened, then shrank back ghostly-wise, dissolving at the touch of the warm home radiance. As the lamp-light flickered out, illuminating its pervasive pallor, the new-comer urged a very lame horse to the steps of the veranda. The two friends waiting within looked at each other in uncertainty as to their policy in admitting the stranger. Then as his rapid footfalls sounded on the veranda, and a stalwart figure appeared in the doorway, Briscoe tilted the shade of the lamp on the table to throw its glare full on the new-comer's face, and broke forth with an acclaim of recognition and welcome.
To be sure, he was but a casual acquaintance, and Briscoe's cordiality owed something of its fervor to his relief to find that the visitor was of no untoward antecedents and intentions. An old school-fellow he had been long ago in their distant city home, who chanced to be in the mountains on a flying trip—no belated summer sojourner, no pleasure-seeker, but concerned with business, and business of the grimmest monitions. A brisk, breezy presence he had, his cheeks tingling red from the burning of the wind and sun and the speed of his ride. He was tall and active, thirty-five years of age perhaps, with a singularly keen eye and an air intimating much decision of character, of which he stood in need for he was a deputy collector of the revenue service, and in the midst of a dangerous moonshining raid his horse had gone dead lame.
"I hardly expected to find you still here at this season," he said to Briscoe, congratulating himself, "but I took the chances. You must lend me a horse."
Briscoe's instincts of hospitality were paramount, and he declared that he would not allow the new-comer to depart so summarily. He must stay and dine; he must stay the night; he must join the hunt that was planned for to-morrow—a first-rate gun was at his disposal.
"I'll get you back to Glaston without delay. I'll let you drive the dog-cart with Fairy-foot, the prettiest bit of horse-flesh that ever wore a shoe—trots to beat the band! You can hunt all day with Bayne and me, and a little before sunset you can start for Shaftesville, and she will whisk you there in an hour and a quarter, twenty miles. You needn't start till five o'clock to catch the seven-ten train, with lots of time to spare."
In spite of all denial, the telephone bell was presently jangling as Briscoe rang up the passenger-agent at the railroad depot in the little town of Shaftesville, twenty miles away.
"Twenty-six—yes, Central, I did say twenty-six!... Hello, Tucker, is that you?... See here—Mr. Frank Dean will be there with the dog-cart and Fairy-foot to-morrow evening to catch the seven-ten train for Glaston—leaves here about an hour by sun. Will you do me the favor to hire a responsible party there to bring the mare back?... Can't spare a man from here. Lost two of my dogs—yes, my fine, full-blooded hounds—you remember Damon and Pythias? Strayed off from the pack, and all hands and the cook have got to get out straightway and hunt them. Wolves—awfully afraid they will get the hounds. Outnumber them and pull them down—fierce at this season.... Yes, I hope so! You'll look out for Fairy-foot?... Thanks, awfully.... Yes, he would do—careful fellow! Tell him to drive slowly coming back. Dean will race her down there at the top of her speed. (Hush up, Frank, I know what I am talking about.) Mr. Dean will be there all right. Thank you very much. Do as much for you some day. Goo'-by."
But Dean's protests were serious. His duties admitted of no trifling. He wanted no such superfine commodity as Fairy-foot, but a horse stout and sound he must have to-night and the favor of leaving his disabled steed in Briscoe's stable. He explained that his misfortune in laming the horse and the fog combined had separated him from the revenue posse just from a secluded cove, where his men had discovered and raided an illicit distillery in a cavern, cutting the copper still and worm to bits, demolishing the furnace and fermenters, the flake-stand and thumper, destroying considerable store of mash and beer and singlings, and seizing and making off with a barrel of the completed product. A fine and successful adventure it might have seemed, but there were no arrests. The moonshiners had fled the vicinity. For aught the officer had to show for it, the "wild-cat" was a spontaneous production of the soil. He made himself very merry over this phase of the affair, when seated at the prettily appointed dinner table of the bungalow, and declared that however the marshal might regard the matter, he could not call it a "water-haul."
The repast concluded, he insisted that he must needs be immediately in the saddle again. He scarcely stayed for a puff of an after-dinner cigar, and when he had bidden the ladies adieu both Bayne and Briscoe went with him to the stable, to assist in the selection of a horse suited to his needs. Little Archie ran after them, begging to be admitted to their company. Briscoe at once caught him up to his shoulder, and there he was perched, wisely overlooking the choice of an animal sound and fresh and strong as the three men made the tour from stall to stall, preceded by a brisk negro groom, swinging a lantern to show the points of each horse under discussion.
In three minutes the revenue officer, mounted once more, tramped out into the shivering mists and the black night. The damp fallen leaves deadened the sound of departing hoofs; the obscurities closed about him, and he vanished from the scene, leaving not a trace of his transitory presence.
Briscoe lingered in the stable, finding a jovial satisfaction in the delight of little Archie in the unaccustomed experience, for the child had the time of his life that melancholy sombre night in the solitudes of the great mountains. His stentorian shouts and laughter were as bluff as if he were ten years old, and as boisterous as if he were drunk besides. Briscoe had perched him on the back of a horse, where he feigned to ride at breakneck speed, and his cries of "Gee!" "Dullup!" "G'long!" rang out imperiously in the sad, murky atmosphere and echoed back, shrilly sweet, from the great crags. The stable lantern showed him thus gallantly mounted, against the purple and brown shadows of the background, his white linen frock clasped low by his red leather belt, his cherubic legs, with his short half hose and his red shoes, sticking stiffly out at an angle of forty-five degrees, his golden curls blowing high on his head, his face pink with joy and laughter. The light shone too in the big, astonished eyes of the fine animal he bestrode, now and then turning his head inquisitively toward Briscoe—who stood close by with a cautious grasp on the skirts of the little boy—as if wondering to feel the clutch of the infantile hands on his mane and the tempestuous beat of the little feet as Archie cried out his urgency to speed.
Archie would not willingly have relinquished this joy till dawn, and the problem how to get him peaceably off the horse became critical. He had repeatedly declined to dismount, when at length a lucky inspiration visited Briscoe. The amiable host called for an ear of corn, and with this he lured the little horseman to descend, in order to feed a "poor pig" represented as in the last stages of famine and dependent solely on the ministrations of the small guest. Here renewed delights expanded, for the "poor pig" became lively and almost "gamesome," being greatly astonished by the light and men and the repast at this hour of the night. As he was one of those gormands who decline no good thing, he affably accepted Archie's offering, so graciously indeed that the little fellow called for another ear of corn more amply to relieve the porcine distresses, the detail of which had much appealed to his tender heart. It seemed as if the choice of the good Mr. Briscoe lay between the fiction of riding an endless race or playing the Samaritan to the afflicted pig, when in the midst of Archie's noisy beatitudes sleep fell upon him unaware, like a thief in the night. As he waited for the groom to reappear with the second relay of refreshments, Briscoe felt the tense little body in his clasp grow limp and collapse; the eager head with its long golden curls drooped down on his shoulder; the shout, already projected on the air, quavered and failed midway, giving place to a deep-drawn sigh, and young Royston was fairly eclipsed for the night, translated doubtless to an unexplored land of dreams where horses and pigs and revenue officers and mountains ran riot together "in much admired disorder." Briscoe bore him tenderly in his arms to the house, and, after transferring him to his nurse, rejoined with Bayne the ladies in the hall.
Here they found a change of sentiment prevailing. Although failing in no observance of courtesy, Mrs. Briscoe had been a little less than complaisant toward the departed guest. This had been vaguely perceptible to Briscoe at the time, but now she gency constrained him."
"I don't see why you should have asked him to dine," she said to her husband. "He was difficult to persuade, and only your urgency constrained him."
Her face was uncharacteristically petulant and anxious as she stood on the broad hearth at one side of the massive mantelpiece, one hand lifted to the high shelf; her red cloth gown with the amber-tinted gleams of the lines of otter fur showed richly in the blended light of fire and lamp. Her eyes seemed to shrink from the window, at which nevertheless she glanced ever and anon.
"I delight in the solitude here, and I have never felt afraid, but I think that since this disastrous raid that revenue officer is in danger in this region from the moonshiners, and that his presence at our house will bring enmity on us. It really makes me apprehensive. It was not prudent to entertain him, and certainly not at all necessary—it was almost against his will, in fact."
"Well, well, he is gone now," returned Briscoe easily, lifting the lid of the piano and beginning to play a favorite air. But she would not quit the subject.
"While you three were at the stable I thought I heard a step on the veranda—you need not laugh—Lillian heard it as well as I. Then, when you were so long coming back, I went upstairs to get a little shawl to send out to you to put over Archie as you came across the yard—the mists are so dank—and I saw—I am sure I saw—just for a minute—a light flicker from the hotel across the ravine."
Briscoe, his hands crashing out involuntarily a discordant chord, looked over his shoulder with widening eyes. "Why, Gladys, there is not a soul in the hotel now!"
"That is why the light there seemed so strange."
"Besides, you know, you couldn't have seen a light for the mists."
"The mists were shifting; they rose and then closed in again. Ask Lillian—she happened to be standing at the window there, and she said she saw the stars for a few moments."
"Now, now, now!" exclaimed Briscoe remonstrantly, rising and coming toward the hearth. "You two are trying to get up a panic, which means that this delicious season in the mountains is at an end for us, and we must go back to town. Why can't you understand that Mrs. Royston saw the stars and perhaps a glimpse of the moon, and that then you both saw the glimmer of their reflection on the glass of the windows at the vacant hotel. Is there anything wonderful in that? I appeal to Julian."
"I don't know anything about the conditions here, but certainly that explanation sounds very plausible. As to the step on the veranda, Ned and I can take our revolvers and ascertain if anyone is prowling about."
The proposition appealed to Mrs. Briscoe, and she was grateful for the suggestion, since it served, however illogically, to soothe her nerves. She looked at Bayne very kindly when he came in with his host, from the dripping densities of the fog, his face shining like marble with the pervasive moisture, his pistol in his hand, declaring that there was absolutely nothing astir. But indeed there was more than kind consideration in Mrs. Briscoe's look; there was question, speculation, an accession of interest, and he was quick to note an obvious, though indefinable, change in Mrs. Royston's eyes as they rested upon him. She had spent the greater portion of the evening tete-a-tete with her hostess, the men being with the horses. He was suddenly convinced that meantime he had been the theme of conversation between the two, and—the thought appalled him!—Mrs. Briscoe had persuaded her friend that to see again the woman who had enthralled him of yore was the lure that had brought him so unexpectedly to this solitude of the mountains. His object was a matter of business, they had been told, to be sure, but "business" is an elastic and comprehensive term, and in fact, in view of the convenience of mail facilities, it might well cloak a subterfuge. Naturally, the men had not divulged to the women the nature of the business, more especially since it concerned the qualifications of a prospective attorney-in-fact. This interpretation of his stay Bayne had not foreseen for one moment. His whole being revolted against the assumption—that he should languish again at the feet of this traitress; that he should open once more his heart to be the target of her poisonous arrows; that he should drag his pride, his honest self-respect, in the dust of humiliation! How could they be so dull, so dense, as to harbor such a folly? The thought stung him with an actual venom; it would not let him sleep; and when toward dawn he fell into a troubled stupor, half waking, half dreaming, the torpid state was so pervaded with her image, the sound of her voice, that he wrested himself from it with a conscious wrench and rose betimes, doubtful if, in the face of this preposterous persuasion, he could so command his resolution as to continue his stay as he had planned.
On descending the stairs, Bayne found the fire newly alight in the hall, burning with that spare, clear brilliancy that the recent removal of ashes imparts to a wood fire. All the world was still beclouded with mists, and the windows and doors looked forth on a blank white nullity—as inexpressive, as enigmatical, as the unwritten page of the unformulated future itself. The present seemed eliminated; he stood as it were in the atmosphere of other days. But whither had blown the incense of that happy time? The lights on the shrine had dwindled to extinction! What had befallen his strong young hopes, his faith, his inspiration, that they had exhaled and left the air vapid and listless? He was conscious that he was no more the man who used to await her coming, expectant, his eyes on the door. He had now scarcely a pulse in common with that ardent young identity he remembered as himself—his convictions of the nobler endowments of human nature; his candid unreserve with his fellows; his aspirations toward a fair and worthy future; his docile, sweet, almost humble content with such share of the good things of this life as had been vouchsafed him; his strength, as "with the strength of ten," to labor night and day with the impetus of his sanctified impulses; but, above all, his love, that had consecrated his life, his love for this woman who he believed—poor young fool!—loved him. How could five years work such change? World-worn he was and a-weary, casuistic, cautious, successful in a sort as the logical result of the exercise of sound commercial principles and more than fair abilities, but caring less and less for success since its possession had only the inherent values of gain and was hallowed by no sweet and holy expectation of bestowal. He could have wept for the metamorphosis! Whatever he might yet become, he could never be again this self. This bright, full-pulsed identity was dead—dead for all time! Icarus-like, he had fallen midway in a flight that under other conditions might have been long and strong and sustained, and he bemoaned his broken wings.
So much depression of spirit was in his attitude, even listless despair, as he stood in the vacant apartment, looking down at the silver bowl on the table, filled with white roses and galax leaves, freshly gathered; so much of the thought in his mind was expressed in his face, distinct and definite in the firelight, despite the clouds at the dim window, that Lillian Royston, descending the stair unperceived, read in its lineaments an illuminated text of the past.
"Oh, Julian, Julian, I was cruel to you—I was cruel to you!" she cried out impulsively in a poignant voice.
He started violently at the sound, coming back indeed through the years. He looked up at her, seeing as in a dream her slim figure clad in a gray cloth gown, on the landing of the stair. Her face was soft and young and wistful; her aspect had conquered the years; she was again the girl he knew of old, whom he had fancied he had loved, crying out in the constraining impetus of a genuine emotion, "I was cruel to you! I was cruel to you!"
The next moment he was all himself of to-day—cool, confident, serene, with that suggestion of dash and vigor that characterized his movements. "Why, don't mention it, I beg," he said with a quiet laugh and his smooth, incidental society manner, as if it were indeed a matter of trifling consequence. Then, "I am sure neither of us has anything to regret." The last sentence he thought a bit enigmatical, and he said to Briscoe afterward that, although strictly applicable, he did not quite know what he had meant by it. For the door had opened suddenly, and his host had inopportunely entered at the instant. Although Briscoe had affected to notice nothing, he heard the final sentence, and he was disposed to berate Bayne when the awkward breakfast was concluded and the party had scattered.
"You were mighty sarcastic, sure," he observed to Bayne over their cigars in the veranda, for with all the world submerged in the invisibilities of the mists the day's hunt was necessarily called off.
"Why, I was rattled," Bayne declared. "I did not expect to hear her upbraid herself."
"She is so sensitive," said Briscoe compassionately. He had heard from his wife the interpretation that she had placed on Bayne's sudden visit to this secluded spot, and though he well knew its falsity, he could but sympathize with her hope. "Lillian is very sensitive."
"I think it is up to me to be sensitive on that subject; but her sensitiveness at this late day is what gave me the cold shivers."
Briscoe eyed him sternly, the expression incongruous with the habitual aspect of his broad, jovial, florid face. Their features were visible to each other, though now and then the fog would shift between the rustic chairs in which they sat. Julian Bayne laughed. How easily even now did this woman convert every casual acquaintance into an eager partisan!
"If she is growing sensitive for her cruelties to me, I am apprehensive that it may be in her mind to make amends. I should keep away from her—discretion being the better part of valor."
Briscoe drew back with an air of averse distaste. He spoke guardedly, however, remembering that he was in his own house and fearful of going too far; yet he could not let this pass. "You surprise me, Julian. I never imagined you could say anything so—so—caddish."
"Why don't you say 'currish' and be done with it?" Julian's eyes flashed fire. His face had flushed deeply red. Every muscle was tense, alert. Then he checked himself hastily. He turned his cigar in his hand and looked intently at it as he reflected that this woman had already done harm enough in his life. He would not allow her to inflict the further and irreparable injury of coming between him and the friend he loved as a brother. He slipped quietly into his former easy attitude before he resumed, smiling: "Currish, indeed it may be, but that is exactly the kind of old dog Tray I am."
"You will please take notice that I have said nothing of the sort," Briscoe stiffly rejoined. "But I think and I do say that it is a preposterous instance of coxcombry to subject such a woman as Mrs. Royston—because of a generous moment of self-reproach for a cruel and selfish deed—to the imputation of inviting advances from a man who coyly plans evasion and flight—and she scarcely two years a widow."
"Time cuts no ice in the matter," Bayne forced himself to continue the discussion. "She has certainly shown the manes of Archibald Royston the conventional respect."
"She made an awful mistake, we all know that! And although I realized that it was on account of that rubbishy little quarrel you and she got up at the last moment, I felt for her, because to people generally her choice was subject to the imputation of being wholly one of interest. They were so dissimilar in taste, so uncongenial; and I really think he did not love her!"
"He had no other motive, at all events."
"Oh, of course he had a certain preference for her; and it was the sort of triumph that such a man would relish—to carry her off from you at the last moment. I always recognized his influence in the sensational elements of that denouement. He liked her after a fashion—to preside in a princess-like style in his big house, to illustrate to advantage his florid expenditure of money, to sparkle with wit and diamonds at the head of his table—a fine surface for decoration she has! But Royston couldn't love—couldn't really care for anything but himself—a man of that temperament."
Bayne rose; he had reached the limit of his endurance; he could maintain his tutored indifference, but he would not seek to analyze the event anew or to adjust himself to the differentiations of sentiment that Briscoe seemed disposed to expect him to canvass.
The encroachments of the surging seas of mist had reduced the limits of the world to the interior of the bungalow, and the myriad interests and peoples of civilization to the little household circle. The day in the pervasive constraint that hampered their relations wore slowly away. Under the circumstances, even the resources of bridge were scarcely to be essayed. Bayne lounged for hours with a book in a swing on the veranda. Briscoe, his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head, his cigar cocked between his teeth—house-bound, he smoked a prodigious number of them for sheer occupation—strolled aimlessly in and out, now in the stables, now listening and commenting as Gladys at the piano played the music of his choice. Lillian had a score of letters to write. Her mind, however, scarcely followed her pen as she sat in the little library that opened from the big, cheery hall. Her thoughts were with all that had betided in the past and what might have been. She canvassed anew, as often heretofore, her strange infatuation, like a veritable aberration, so soon she had ceased to love her husband, to make the signal and significant discovery that he was naught to love. She had always had a sort of enthusiasm for the truth in the abstract—not so much as a moral endowment, but a supreme fixity, the one immutable value, superior to vicissitudes. She could not weep for a lie; she could only wonder how it should ever have masqueraded as the holy verities.
She would not rehearse her husband's faults, and the great disaster of the revelation of his true character that made the few short years she had passed with him stretch out in retrospect like a long and miserable life. It was over now, and her friends could not disguise their estimation of the end as a blessed release. But peace had not come with it. She was not impervious to remorse, regret, humiliation, for her course. The sight of Bayne, the sound of his voice, had poignantly revived the past, and if she had suffered woeful straits from wanton cruelty, she could not deny to herself that she had been consciously, carelessly, and causelessly cruel. In withdrawing herself to the library she had thwarted certain feints of Mrs. Briscoe's designed to throw them together in her hope of their reconciliation. Lillian had become very definitely aware that this result was far alien to any expectation on Bayne's part, and her cheeks burned with humiliation that she should for one moment, with flattered vanity and a strange thrill about her heart, have inclined to Mrs. Briscoe's fantastic conviction as to the motive of his journey hither. Indeed, within his view she could now scarcely maintain her poise and the incidental unconscious mien that the conventions of the situation demanded. She welcomed the movement in the folds of the curtaining mist that betokened a prospect of lifting and liberating the house-bound coterie. Presently, as she wrote, she heard the stir of the wind in the far reaches of the valley. The dense white veil that swung from the zenith became suddenly pervaded with vague shivers; then tenuous, gauzy pennants were detached, floating away in great lengths; the sun struck through from a dazzling focus in a broad, rayonnant, fibrous emblazonment of valley and range, and as she rose and went to the window to note the weather signs she could not resist the lure of escape. She had struggled all day with an eager desire to be out of the house, removed from the constantly recurring chances of meeting Bayne, quit of the sight of him. She instantly caught up her broad gray hat with its flaunting red and gray ostrich plumes and called out to Mrs. Briscoe a suggestion that they should repair to the vacant hotel for a tramp on its piazzas, for it was the habit of the two ladies in rainy or misty weather to utilize these long, sheltered stretches for exercise, and many an hour they walked, on dreary days, in these deserted precincts.
"I'll overtake you," was Mrs. Briscoe's rejoinder, and until then Lillian had not noticed the employ of her hostess. The gardener was engaged in the removal of the more delicate ornamental growths about the porte-cochere and parterre to the shelter of the flower-pit, for bright chill weather and killing frosts would ensue on the dispersal of the mists. Mrs. Briscoe herself was intent on withdrawing certain hardier potted plants merely from the verge of the veranda to a wire-stand well under the roof. Briscoe was at the gun-rack in the hall, restoring to its place the favorite rifle he had intended to use to-day. He could not refrain from testing its perfect mechanism, and at the first sharp crack of the hammer, liberated by a tentative pull on the trigger, little Archie sprang up from his play on the hearth-rug, where he was harnessing a toy horse to Mrs. Briscoe's work-basket by long shreds of her zephyr, and ran clamoring for permission to hold the gun.
Mrs. Briscoe saw him through the open door and instantly protested: "Come away, Archie!" Then to her husband, "You men are always killing somebody with an unloaded gun. Come away, Archie!"
"Nonsense, Gladys!" Briscoe remonstrated. "Let the child see the rifle. There is not a shell in the whole rack."
She noticed her husband not at all. "Come away, Archie," she besought the little man, staring spellbound with his big blue eyes. He had scant care for the authority of "Gad-ish," as Gladys loved for him lispingly to call her. Only when she began to plead that she had no one to help her with her flowers, to carry the pots for her, did he wrench himself from the contemplation of the flashing steel mechanism that had for him such wonderful fascination and lend his flaccid baby muscles to the fiction of help. He began zealously to toil to and fro, carrying the smallest pots wherever she bade him. Her own interest in the occupation was enhanced by the colloquy that ensued whenever she passed her small guest. "Hello, Archie!" she would call for the sake of hearing the saucy, jocose response: "Oh, oo Gad-ish!" as the juvenile convoy fared along with his small cargo.
Lillian felt that she could not wait. Gladys might come at her leisure. She burst impulsively out of the door, throwing on her hat as she went, albeit wincing that she must needs pass Bayne at close quarters as he still lounged in the veranda swing. He looked up at the sound of the swift step and the sudden stir, and for one instant their eyes met—an inscrutable look, fraught with an undivined meaning. For their lives, neither could have translated its deep intendment. She said no word, and he merely lifted his hat ceremoniously and once more bent his eyes on his book.
She was like a thing long imprisoned, liberated by some happy chance. Her feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground as she sped along down the ravine, then across the rustic bridge that spanned the chasm through which rushed the tumultuous mountain stream foaming among the boulders deep in its depths, and breaking ever and anon into crystal cascades. On the opposite side she soon struck into the mountain road that had been graded and tamed and improved by the hotel management into the aspect of a sophisticated driveway, as it swept up to the great flight of steps at the main entrance of the big white building.
The vacant hotel, bereft of the pleasure-seeking crowds whose presence seemed the essential condition of its existence, looked strangely sinister in the silent golden splendor of the clearing afternoon, with its tiers of deserted piazzas, its band-stand mute and empty, the observatory perched above the precipice, seemingly so precarious as to have all the effect of teetering in the wind.
Languid now, preoccupied, Lillian ascended the long flight of steps to the piazza and paused to look out at the great spread of the landscape, wreathed in flying mists and of a different aspect from this increase of elevation. She had begun to stroll aimlessly along in the possession of the seclusion she craved, when she suddenly noted the fact that the front door stood a trifle ajar. She paused with a repugnant sense of a lapse of caution. Then she reflected that bolts and locks could add but little security in a desert solitude like this, where a marauder might work his will from September to June with no witnesses but the clouds and winds to hinder. She had forgotten the insistent declaration of Gladys that she had seen a light flicker from these blank windows the preceding night. Indeed, even at the time she had accounted it but the hysteric adjunct of their panic in the illusion of a stealthy step on the veranda of the bungalow. She was animated only by the simplest impulse of idle curiosity when she laid her hand on the bolt. The big door swung open at once on well-oiled hinges, and she found herself in the spacious hotel office, on one side of which were the clerk's desk and the office clock, looking queerly disconsolate without the loitering groups of humanity wont to congregate about the counter. The day glared garishly through the great skylight on the dusty interior; the big windows held expansive sections of mountain landscape, bronze, blue, and scarlet, like vivid paintings in frames. A staircase of fine and stately proportions descended from the lofty reach of the upper story, dividing into two sweeping flights from the landing. A massive mantel-piece was on the opposite side, with an immense fireplace, and heavy brass andirons and fender. She was a stranger to the interior of the place, for her visit to the locality began after the closing of the hotel, but though she looked about with a vague sub-current of interest as she sauntered through the building, glad of any pretext to prolong her absence from the bungalow, her mind was really introverted.
She felt that she could never forgive herself her part in the scene of the morning, that wild, impulsive cry that voiced at once confession and a plea for pardon. At the sheer recollection of his rejoinder she tingled and winced as from the touch of fire. "Don't mention it," quotha. And they neither had aught to regret—he was sure of that, forsooth! Regret! It was only another name for her life. There was nothing but regret, night and day, sleeping and waking. But oh, how could she have said the words! What was it to him? He cared naught for her now and her cruelties—an old, old story to him, to be sure, told to the end, the pages shut. And she must needs seem to seek to turn the leaf anew! What else indeed could he think? Surely she had been beguiled by Gladys' vicarious sentimentality as to the lure of his coming, even while she had flouted the possibility.
Suddenly—a sound! It broke upon her absorption so abruptly that in an instant every muscle was adjusted for flight, though she paused and looked fearfully over her shoulder. Only an echo, she told her plunging heart—an echo of her own footfalls in the resonant emptiness of the deserted place. She had wandered down a long corridor, from which doors opened only on one side into the big bare dining-room, the chairs all ranged on the tops of the many round tables, standing at equidistant intervals. An echo—doubtless that was all. She upbraided herself to have sustained so sudden and causeless a fright. Her heart was beating like a trip-hammer. It seemed to fill all the building with the wild iteration of its pulsations. As she sought to reassure herself, she remembered that in a cross-hall she had noted the telephone, the wire still intact, as she knew, for the connection of the hotel was with that of the bungalow on a party-line of the exchange at Shaftesville, twenty miles away. If she should be really frightened, she could in one moment call up the house across the ravine.
The next instant she was almost palsied with recurrent terror: the footfall, stealthy, shuffling, weighty, sounded again. It was never the echo of her own deft, light step! A distinct, sibilant whisper suddenly hissed with warning throughout the place, and as she turned with the instinct of flight she caught a glimpse in the darkling mirror across the dining-room of a fugitive speeding figure, then another, and still another, all frantically, noiselessly fleeing—why or whom, she could not descry, she did not try to discriminate.
Without a word or a sound—her voice had deserted her—she turned precipitately and fled in the opposite direction through the corridor, down a cross-hall, and burst out of a side door upon a porch that was the nearest outlet from the building. This porch was less intended as an exit, however, than an outlook. True, there were steps that led down at one side to the ground, but the descent thence was so steep, so rugged and impracticable, that obviously no scheme of utility had prompted its construction. Jagged outcropping ledges, a chaos of scattered boulders, now and again a precipitous verge showing a vertical section of the denuded strata, all formed a slant so precarious and steep that with the sharp sound of the door, closing on its spring, Bayne looked up from his seat in the swing on the veranda across the ravine in blank amazement to see her there essaying the descent, as if in preference to an exit by the safe and easy method of the winding road at the front of the edifice.
Lillian, still with all the impetus of terror in her muscles, her breath short and fluttering, her eyes distended and unseeing, plunged wildly down the rugged, craggy declivity, painfully aware of his wonder as he gazed from the distance, prefiguring, too, his disapproval. Perhaps this had its unnerving influence, though swift and surefooted ordinarily, her ankle turned amidst the gravel shifting beneath her flying steps, and she sank suddenly to the ground, slipped down a precipitous incline, caught herself, half crouching against a gigantic boulder.
There was no recourse for Bayne. No one else was within view. Though between his teeth he muttered his distaste for the devoir that should bring him to her side, and the solicitude he was constrained to show, he leaped from the veranda and started down the ravine to her assistance, to "make his manners," as he said sarcastically to himself. But when he had come to the little rustic bridge and, glancing up, saw that she had not yet risen, he began to run, and before he reached her, climbing the ascent with athletic agility, he called out to ask if the fall had hurt her.
"I don't know," she faltered, and when he was at her side she looked up at him with a pale and quivering face.
"Try to stand," he urged, as he leaned down and took her arm. "Let me lift you. There! How did it happen?"
"My ankle turned," she replied, rising with effort and standing unsteadily, despite his support.
"Does it pain you?" he queried with polite solicitude, looking down at the dainty low-cut gray shoe. "Bear your weight on it."
She essayed the experiment. "No," she barely whispered; "it is all right."
He fixed upon her a look of questioning amazement, as she still held trembling to his arm. "What is the matter, then?"
"There is somebody in the hotel."
He gave a hasty glance upward from under the stiff brim of his hat. "Hardly likely—but I'll examine and see."
He was about to start off when she tightened her clutch on his arm.
"No, no," she pleaded. "Don't leave me! I don't know why—but I can't stand. I can't walk."
"Did you really hear something?" he asked sceptically.
The light note of satire stung her pride. "Oh, I saw them, and they saw me," she protested. "I saw three men, and they all ran as I came into the dining-room."
He broke into a short laugh. "Got them on the run, did you? Not very formidable they were, you must admit. Shadows, I fancy. There is a large mirror on the blank side of the dining-room opposite the door. Don't you suppose it possible that you saw only your own moving reflection?"
Her pride was roused. The pulse of anger began to tint her face with a dull crimson. "I should imagine I could distinguish my own reflection from three men—rough-looking men with slouched hats, all running and looking backward over their shoulders."
It had been a conscious effort to nerve herself for this protest in defence of her poise and capacity, but at the mere recollection of the scene she had conjured up anew she fell to trembling, looking very pale again and as if she might faint.
"Well, it is no great matter, as the intruders were bluffed off," he said suavely, putting the question aside. "I will send one of Briscoe's grooms to investigate the premises. But now, suppose we go to the piazza, and let you rest there and recover from the strain to your ankle." Once more he glanced down at the dainty shoe with its high French heel. "I don't wonder it turned. A proper shoe for mountaineering!" That rancor against a frivolity of feminine fashion that holds a menace to health or safety, so characteristic of the utilitarian masculine mind, was a touch of his old individuality, and it made him seem to her more like himself of yore. The resemblance did not tend to confirm her composure, and she was almost piteous as she protested that she could not, she would not, go near the hotel again.
"Why, you need not, then," he reassured her abruptly, waiving the possibility of insistence, as much as to say it was no concern of his.
"I might walk to the observatory," she suggested, "and—and—I need not detain you then."
"In view of three bandits in slouched hats, although all on the back-track—and although I am convinced that it was but their astral apparitions with which you were favored—I will venture to intrude my society until I can see you to the Briscoe bungalow."
"Oh, there's no intrusion," she rejoined petulantly. "You must know I couldn't mean that!"
"I never know what you mean, I am sure!" he said with that tense note of satire. Then he paused with a vague wonder at himself thus to trench on the emotional phases between them that must be buried forever. Remembering her own allusion that morning, her cry of regret and appeal, he was apprehensive of some renewal of the topic that he had thus invited, and he began to move hastily down the slope, supporting her with care, but with a certain urgency too. He was obviously eager to terminate the conversational opportunity, and when it was requisite to pause to rest he improved the respite by beckoning to one of the stablemen passing near, bound toward a pasture in the rear of the hotel with a halter in his hand, and ordering him to investigate the building to discover any signs of intrusion.
The man hearkened in patent surprise, then asked if he might defer the commission till he had harnessed Fairy-foot, Mr. Briscoe having ordered out the dog-cart and his favorite mare.
"Plenty of time, plenty of time! We can't hope to overtake them, with the start they have already. Just see if there are any signs of intrusion into the place and report. And now, Mrs. Royston, shall we move on?"
The observatory was a structure strong but singularly light and airy of effect, poised on the brink of the mountain, above a slant so steep as to be precipitous indeed, terminating in a sheer vertical descent, after affording such foothold as the supporting timbers required. A great landscape it overlooked of wooded range and valley in autumnal tints and burnished sunset glow, but this made only scant impression on the minds of both, looking out with preoccupied, unseeing eyes. The balustrade around the four sides formed the back of a bench, and on this seat Lillian sank down, still feeble and fluttering, painfully agitated, acutely aware that, as she had no obvious physical hurt, the nervous shock she had sustained might scarcely suffice to account for her persistent claim on his aid and attention. Certainly he was warranted in thinking anything, all he would, since her wild, impulsive appeal in the early morning. How had it chanced, that cry from her heart! It was a triumph in some sort for him, unsought, complete, yet so pitiable, so mean, that he did not even care for it. His face was not triumphant; rather, listless, anxious, careworn. He was gazing down toward the bungalow where Briscoe stood at the head of the flight of the veranda steps, drawing on his driving gloves, while Fairy-foot, the fine mare, now resplendent in the least restrictions of harness that might control her bounding spirits and splendid strength, stood between the shafts of the dog-cart on the drive, a groom at her head, holding the bit.
Mrs. Briscoe had approached, and they discerned from her husband's gestures that he was inviting her to accompany him. They could not hear the words at this distance, but presently Briscoe, the most transparently candid of men, suddenly whirled and glanced up toward the observatory across the ravine, showing plainly that the two had become the subject of conversation.
Lillian was all unstrung, her powers of self-control annulled. She broke out with as unreasoning a sense of injury as a sensitive child might have felt. "They are talking about us!" she wailed.
"They are not the first!" Bayne could not restrain his curt, bitter laugh, the unconscious humor of the suggestion was so patent, albeit the edge cut deep.
"And how do you suppose that fact makes me feel?" she asked, looking up at him, her eyes full of tears, her heart swelling, her face scarlet.
Bayne would have given much to avoid this moment. But now that the discussion was upon him, he said to himself that he would not traffic with the insincerities, he would not be recreant to his own identity. He would not fawn, and bow, and play the smug squire of dames, full of specious flatteries, and kiss the hand that smote him.
"And how do you suppose that I should think you could feel at all?" he retorted sternly.
It was so unlike him, the rebuke—he had so ardently worshipped her, even her faults, which were like shining endowments in his estimation—that for the first time she felt the full poignancy of his alienation. He was no longer hers, loving, regretting, always yearning after her, the unattainable! Had he not said only to-day that neither of them had aught to regret? Was this what he had really felt through the long years of their separation? Was it she who had forfeited him, rather than he who had lost her? She sat quite still, almost stunned by the realization, a vague sense of bereavement upon her. A woman's faith in the constancy of a lover is a robust endowment! It withstands change and time and many a coercive intimation.
"I suppose," she said at length, quite humbly, "it is natural that you should say that to me."
"You asked for it," he replied tersely.
Then they were both silent for a space, looking down at the group on the veranda of the bungalow.
"May I have the honor and pleasure of your company, madam?" Briscoe had asked his wife with fantastic formality.
"You may not!" she rejoined with a gay laugh.
"And why not?"
"I declare, Ned, you live so much up here in the wilderness, with your bears and deer and catamounts and mountaineers, that you are likely to forget all the bienseance you ever knew. Don't you perceive that my duties as chaperon to those lovers should lie nearest my heart?"
Then it was that he turned and cast that comprehending glance at the two in the distant observatory. Knowing how far from Bayne's mind was the emotion, the intention, she ascribed to him, that she would fain foster, his face grew rueful and overcast. He shook his head with disconsolate rebuke. "Oh, you woman, you!"
But the reproach did not strike home. Mrs. Briscoe was quite satisfied to be a woman, and was avowedly seeking to add to the normal subtleties of this state the special craft of a matchmaker.
Briscoe desired to avoid being drawn into any confession of his knowledge of Bayne's attitude of mind, and, aware of his own lack of diplomacy, sheered off precipitately from the subject. He turned, beaming anew, to the little boy who was looking on, cherubically roseate, at the sleek mare and the smart groom at her bit.
"Then, Archibald Royston, Esquire, may I hope that you will favor me?"
Archibald Royston, Esquire, suddenly apprehending in the midst of his absorption the nature of the invitation, gave two elastic bounces straight up and down expressive of supreme ecstasy; then, his arms outstretched, he began to run wildly up and down the veranda, looking in at the doors and windows as he passed, seeking his mother and her permission.
"Oh!" cried Lillian, springing to her feet as she watched the dumb-show at the distance. "They want Archie to go to drive. Oh, how can I make them hear me? I am sure Ned will not take him without permission."
She waved her hand, but the distance was obviously too great for the signal to be understood, and Briscoe's attitude was doubtful and perplexed. There was no time to be lost, for it was growing late, and a postponement, as far as Archie was concerned, seemed inevitable.
"Oh, the poor little fellow will be so disappointed! The mare will be off before I can make them understand."
"Wait," said Bayne authoritatively. He sprang upon the bench, and in this commanding position placed both hands megaphone-like to his lips, and as Archie came running along the veranda again, having descried his mother in the distance, and with outstretched arms bleating forth his eager, unheard appeal, Bayne shouted, his voice clear as a trumpet, "Yes, you may go!"
Not until he was once more on the floor of the observatory did he realize the form of the permission, and what relish its assumption of authority must give the matchmaking Mrs. Briscoe. Apparently, it did not impress Lillian as they stood together and she smilingly watched the group at the bungalow, when Archie was swung to a seat in the dog-cart beside his host. It seemed for a moment that they were off, but Mrs. Briscoe, with womanly precaution, bethought herself to throw a wrap into the vehicle. Throughout the day the close curtaining mists had resisted all stir of air, and the temperature had been almost sultry. Since the lifting of the vapors, the currents of the atmosphere were flowing freely once more, and the crystal clarity that succeeded was pervaded by an increasing chilliness. Before nightfall it would be quite cold, and doubtless the smart little red coat, gay with its Persian embroideries, would be brought into requisition.
For many a month afterward, whenever Lillian closed her eyes, she saw that little red coat. Shutting out the light, the world, brought neither rest nor darkness; instead, the long flaring vistas of gold and russet foliage and gray crags and flaming sunset remained indelible, and amidst it all one vivid point of scarlet hue as the little red coat was tossed through the air like a red leaf flying in the wind.
Now, as all unprescient she watched the group, she thought again they were gone. But no! Fairy-foot was a handful, even for so capital a whip as Briscoe. He obviously considered that the boy would be more secure stowed on the floor of the vehicle, half under the soft rug, and braced by the firm foot planted on either side against the dash-board.
"How considerate!" the watching mother thought with a glow of gratitude, noting the caution.
Suddenly the groom leaped aside; the splendid mare sprang forward; there was a whirl of wheels, a whorl of rays as the gleaming spokes caught the sunshine, and they were gone indeed!
"Oh!" cried Mrs. Royston, her eyes bright and soft with tenderness, "what a delight for Archie! He fairly adores to go with Ned. He owes it to you this time. You always took little things so much to heart."
"And great ones, too, to my sorrow," he said.
Her face changed. She was trembling once more on the brink of tears. She looked up at him with earnest appeal. "I wish, Julian, that we could forget the past."
"I do not," he returned, stern and grave, gazing far away over the landscape.
"No," she cried in a sudden transport of painful emotion; "you hold it against me like a grudge—a grudge that you despise too much to wreak vengeance for its sake. The past will always live in your memory—you hold it like a sword to my throat. You know that I shall always feel the torture of its edge, but in your magnanimity"—with sarcastic emphasis—"you forbear to thrust in the murderous blade."
"Good God, Lillian!" exclaimed Bayne, losing his balance altogether at the accusation. "How have I arrogated magnanimity, or anything else? I assume nothing! I have sought to efface myself while here, as far as might be. For the sake of all concerned—you, the Briscoes, les convenances, myself—I could not run away at the sight of you, like a whipped hound! But I perceive my error. I will get out of this forthwith. Heaven knows it has been anything but a pleasure!"
"Don't let me stand between you and your friends," she sobbed, weeping now in the reaction of sentiment. "Don't let me drive you away."
"Why not?" He sought relief from the pressure of the circumstances by affecting a lighter tone. "By your own account, you have stampeded three men this afternoon. I shall be the fourth! The fugitives are counting up like Falstaff's 'rogues in buckram.' Are you ready to go now? We are leaving Mrs. Briscoe alone."
He did not offer to assist her to rise. Somehow, he could resist aught, all, save the touch of that little hand. It brought back to him as nothing else the girl he had loved, and who had loved him. Oh, he was sure of it once! This woman was a changeling in some mystic sort—the same in aspect, yet how alien to his ideal of yore!
She did not seem to mark the lapse of courtesy. She sat still, with her broad gray hat tilted back on her head, a soft and harmonious contrast with her golden hair and roseate face. Her ungloved hands were clasped in her lap, her eyes were melancholy, meditative, fixed on the distant mountains. "I wish we might reach some mutual calm thought of the past, like the tranquil unimpassioned brightness of the close of this troubled, threatening day. We don't care now for the clouds that overcast the morning. To attain some quiet sentiment of forgiveness——"
"I ask no pardon," he said curtly.
"Oh!"—she gazed up at him with all her soul in her eyes—"you have no need!"
Had she been warned in a dream, she could have compassed no surer method of reducing his pride than this self-abnegating generosity. But suddenly an alien sound impinged on the quietude. The sharp note of a rifle shattered the silence, the fragmentary echoes clamoring back from the rocks like a volley of musketry.
"How startling that was!" she exclaimed, turning to look in the opposite direction over the placid valley commanded by the observatory, with the purple mountains encircling the horizon. "How this clear air carries the sound!"
"That was not distant," Bayne observed. "Damp air is a better conductor of sound than a clear atmosphere."
"It was like blasting," she submitted.
"It was a rifle-shot," he discriminated. "A still-hunter, probably. The deer come down from the coverts toward evening to drink. Some rock may have fallen along the river-bank, dislodged by the concussion."
A sense of melancholy was in the air, gathering with the gathering darkness. The light was fading out of the west, and the early autumnal dusk was at hand. Lillian was sensible of an accession of lassitude, a realization of defeat in a cause which she felt now it was futile to have essayed. Why should he forgive? How was reparation possible? She could not call back the Past—she could not assuage griefs that time had worn out long ago, searing over the wounds. She was quite silent as she rose and together they took their way down toward the bungalow. While she flagged now and again, she walked without assistance, though he kept close and ready at her side.
Gladys watched their progress expectantly, but her face fell as they drew near and she could discern their listless expression and manner. She did not await their arrival, but turned, disappointed, within. It was already time to dress for dinner, the ladies habitually observing this formality, although Briscoe often went in knickerbockers till midnight. Lillian paused on the veranda and gazed down the road, winding away into the dusky red flare of the fading west, for the drive must needs be short in this season of early nightfall. There was no sign of approach along its smooth and shadowy curves, and at the end of the long vista, where the jagged verges of crags serrated the serene green sky a star shone, white and splendid, amidst the vanishing vermilion suffusions of the sunset-tide.
In the light of after events, one might wonder if the genial, care-free Edward Briscoe remembered any detail of the discarded arrangement of the previous evening for the transportation of his transitory guest, Frank Dean, to Shaftesville; if he realized that at the moment when the revenue officer would have been starting on the journey, as the host had insistently planned it, he was himself at the turn of the road and just beyond the jutting crag; if he divined that the vibrations of the telephone wire had betrayed the matter to a crafty listening ear on the party-line in the vacant hotel across the ravine—or was the time too short for the consideration? Did he even recognize the significance of the apparition when a swift, erect figure stepped openly from under the shadowy boughs of the balsam firs into the middle of the road, that the bead might be drawn straight? Did he appreciate that the flash is sooner sped than the missile and know his fate before the rifle-ball crashed into his skull!—or was the instant all inadequate and did he enter eternity ere he was well quit of this world?
Frightened by the sudden appearance of the man in the middle of the thoroughfare, the funnel-shaped flare of light, the sharp report of the weapon, the mare, trotting at full speed, swerved, plunged, backed, the reins hanging loose about her heels, her driver having fallen forward upon the dashboard. The dog-cart began to careen to one side as the animal continued to back and rear, deterred from flight by the figure standing still directly in the road. Suddenly she sought to turn in the restricted narrow space, and instantly the wheels were over the verge of the precipice.
All useless were the convulsive efforts of the creature to maintain her footing on the rocky brink, the clutching hoofs, the elastic bounds. With the weight of the vehicle, the dead man leaning heavily on the dashboard, it was but a moment of suspense—then like a thunderbolt the whole went crashing down into the valley, the depth to be conjectured by the considerable interval of time before the sound of rending boughs and surging foliage in the air gave token that the wreck was hurtling through the trees on the levels a thousand feet below.
Two other men, armed with rifles, had sprung from among the firs and stood aghast and listening on the verge of the crag. There was no longer a sound. The tragedy was complete, irrevocable, before a word was uttered.
"'T warn't him!" gasped the youngest—hardly more than a boy indeed. His broad, beardless face was ghastly white, and his lips trembled as violently as his shaking hand.
"Lawd! That was Edward Briscoe! What a pity, sure! It war a plumb mistake, Copenny," plained an elder man, whose rifle had not been fired. There was a regretful cadence in his voice akin to tears, and he held his long, ragged red beard in one hand as he peered down into the unresponsive depths.
"You oughter hev made sure afore ye teched the trigger, Copenny, that he war the revenuer!" cried the young fellow, Alvin Holvey, with a sudden burst of petulance, despite the tragic realization expressed in his quivering face. "Ye're sech a dead shot that ye could hev spared a minute ter make sure of the revenuer, afore he could hev pulled a shooting-iron."
The man who had fired the fatal shot had seemed hitherto stunned, silent and motionless. Now he exclaimed in self-justification: "Why, I war sure, plumb sure, I thought. We-uns chased that man Dean clear to Briscoe's house last night—his horse went lame and he got lost from his posse—but when I fund he hed sheltered with Briscoe, we-uns went into the empty hotel ter wait and watch fur him ter go. Not knowin' how many men Briscoe hev got thar, we-uns didn't want ter tackle the house. An' whilst at the hotel the Briscoes' tellyfun-bell rung—ye know it's on a party line with the hotel connection—an' I tuk down the thing they call the receiver an' listened. An' that's jes' the way Briscoe planned it: ter send the revenuer down an hour by sun with the dog-cart an' his fine mare. Shucks! Ef Briscoe war minded ter step into Frank Dean's shoes, he hev jes' hed ter take what war savin' up fur the revenuer, that's all!" Once more he relapsed into silent staring at the brink, balked, dumfounded, and amazed.
Suddenly he seemed to respond to some inward monition of danger, of responsibility. "I be enough of a dead shot ter stop all that dad-burned talk of yourn!" he drawled in a languid, falsetto, spiritless voice, but with an odd intimation of a deadly intention. "Ye both done the deed the same ez ef ye hed pulled the trigger; ye holped ter plan it, an' kem along ter see it done an' lend a hand ef needed. Ye both done the deed the same ez me—that's the law, an' ye know it. That is sure the law in Tennessee."
"Waal, now, Phineas Copenny, 't warn't right nor fair ter we-uns ter clumsy it up so," protested the young mountaineer. "Ef it hed been the revenuer, I'd hev nare word ter say. I'd smack my lips, fur the deed would taste good ter me, an' I'd stand ter it. But this hyar Mr. Briscoe—why, we-uns hev not even got a gredge agin him."
"No, nor nobody else that ever I hearn of. Mr. Briscoe war a plum favorite, far an' nigh," said old Jubal Clenk, the eldest of the party. "But shucks!" he continued, with a change of tone and the evident intention of preserving harmony among the conspirators. "'Twar jes' an accident, an' that's what it will pass fur among folks ginerally. Mr. Briscoe's mare skeered an' shied an' backed off'n the bluff—that air whut the country-side will think. Whenst his body is fund his head will be mashed ter a jelly by the fall, an' nobody kin say he kem otherwise by his death—jes' an accident in drivin' a skittish horse-critter."
Whether it was a sound, whether it was a movement, none of the group was accurately aware. It may have been merely that mesmeric influence of an intently concentrated gaze that caused them suddenly to turn. They beheld standing in the road—and they flinched at the sight—a witness to all the proceedings. A small, a simple, object to excite such abject terror as blanched the faces of the group—a little boy, a mere baby, staring at the men with wide blue eyes and unconjecturable emotions. He had doubtless been enveloped in the rug which had fallen from the vehicle as it first careened in the road, and which now lay among the wayside weeds. His toggery of the juvenile mode made him seem smaller than he really was; his scarlet cloth coat, embroidered in Persian effects, was thick and rendered his figure chubby of aspect; his feet and legs were encased in bulky white leggins; he wore a broad white beaver hat, its crown encircled by a red ribbon, and his infantile jauntiness of attire was infinitely incongruous with the cruel tragedy and his piteous plight. Although perhaps stunned at first by the shock of the fall, he was obviously uninjured, and stood sturdily erect and vigilant. He looked alert, inquiring, anxious, resolved into wonder, silently awaiting developments. His eyes shifted from one speaker to another of the strange party.