THE PHANTOMS OF THE FOOT-BRIDGE
By Charles Egbert Craddock
Across the narrow gorge the little foot-bridge stretched-a brace of logs, the upper surface hewn, and a slight hand-rail formed of a cedar pole. A flimsy structure, one might think, looking down at the dark and rocky depths beneath, through which flowed the mountain stream, swift and strong, but it was doubtless substantial enough for all ordinary usage, and certainly sufficient for the imponderable and elusive travellers who by common report frequented it.
"We ain't likely ter meet nobody. Few folks kem this way nowadays, 'thout it air jes' ter ford the creek down along hyar a piece, sence harnts an' sech onlikely critters hev been viewed a-crossin' the foot-bredge. An' it hev got the name o' bein' toler'ble onlucky, too," said Roxby.
His interlocutor drew back slightly. He had his own reasons to recoil from the subject of death. For him it was invested with a more immediate terror than is usual to many of the living, with that flattering persuasion of immortality in every strong pulsation repudiating all possibility of cessation. Then, lifting his gloomy, long-lashed eyes to the bridge far up the stream, he asked, "Whose 'harms?"
His voice had a low, repressed cadence, as of one who speaks seldom, grave, even melancholy, and little indicative of the averse interest that had kindled in his sombre eyes. In comparison the drawl of the mountaineer, who had found him heavy company by the way, seemed imbued with an abnormal vivacity, and keyed a tone or two higher than was its wont.
"Thar ain't a few," he replied, with a sudden glow of the pride of the cicerone. "Thar's a graveyard t'other side o' the gorge, an' not more than a haffen-mile off, an' a cornsider'ble passel o' folks hev been buried thar off an' on, an' the foot-bredge ain't in nowise ill-convenient ter them."
Thus demonstrating the spectral resources of the locality, he rode his horse well into the stream as he spoke, and dropped the reins that the animal's impatient lips might reach the water. He sat fac-, ing the foot-bridge, flecked with the alternate shifting of the sunshine and the shadows of the tremulous firs that grew on either side of the high banks on the ever-ascending slope, thus arching both above and below the haunted bridge. His companion had joined him in the centre of the stream; but while the horses drank, the stranger's eyes were persistently bent on the concentric circles of the water that the movement of the animals had set astir in the current, as if he feared that too close or curious a gaze might discern some pilgrim, whom he cared not to see, traversing that shadowy quivering foot-bridge. He was mounted on a strong, handsome chestnut, as marked a contrast to his guide's lank and trace-galled sorrel as were the two riders. A slender gloved hand had fallen with the reins to the pommel of the saddle. His soft felt hat, like a sombrero, shadowed his clear-cut face. He was carefully shaven, save for a long drooping dark mustache and imperial. His suit of dark cloth was much concealed by a black cloak, one end of which thrown back across his shoulder showed a bright blue lining, the color giving a sudden heightening touch to his attire, as if he were "in costume." It was a fleeting fashion of the day, but it added a certain picturesqueness to a horseman, and seemed far enough from the times that produced the square-tailed frock-coat which the mountaineer wore, constructed of brown jeans, the skirts of which stood stiffly out on each side of the saddle, and gave him, with his broad-brimmed hat, a certain Quakerish aspect.
"I dun'no' why folks be so 'feared of 'em," Rox-by remarked, speculatively. "The dead ain't so oncommon, nohow. Them ez hev been in the war, like you an' me done, oughter be in an' 'bout used ter corpses-though I never seen none o' 'em afoot agin. Lookin' at a smit field o' battle, arter the rage is jes' passed, oughter gin a body a realizin' sense how easy the sperit kin flee, an' what pore vessels fur holdin' the spark o' life human clay be."
Simeon Roxby had a keen, not unkindly face, and he had that look of extreme intelligence which is entirely distinct from intellectuality, and which one sometimes sees in a minor degree in a very clever dog or a fine horse. One might rely on him to understand instinctively everything one might say to him, even in its subtler aesthetic values, although he had consciously learned little. He was of the endowed natures to whom much is given, rather than of those who are set to acquire. He had many lines in his face-even his simple life had gone hard with him, its sorrows un assuaged by its simplicity. His hair was grizzled, and hung long and straight on his collar. He wore a grizzled beard cut broad and short. His boots had big spurs, although the lank old sorrel had never felt them. He sat his horse like the cavalryman he had been for four years of hard riding and raiding, but his face had a certain gentleness that accented the Quaker-like suggestion of his garb, a look of communing with the higher things.
"I never blamed 'em,'" he went on, evidently reverting to the spectres of the bridge-"I never blamed 'em for comin' back wunst in a while. It 'pears ter me 'twould take me a long time ter git familiar with heaven, an' sociable with them ez hev gone before. An', my Lord, jes' think what the good green yearth is! Leastwise the mountings. I ain't settin' store on the valley lands I seen whenst I went ter the wars. I kin remember yit what them streets in the valley towns smelt like."
He lifted his head, drawing a long breath to inhale the exquisite fragrance of the fir, the freshness of the pellucid water, the aroma of the autumn wind, blowing through the sere leaves still clinging red and yellow to the boughs of the forest.
"Naw, I ain't blamin' 'em, though I don't hanker ter view 'em," he resumed. "One of 'em I wouldn't be afeard of, though. I feel mighty sorry fur her. The old folks used ter tell about her. A young 'oman she war, a-crossin' this bredge with her child in her arms. She war young, an' mus' have been keerless, I reckon; though ez 'twar her fust baby, she moightn't hev been practised in holdin' it an' sech, an' somehows it slipped through her arms an' fell inter the ruver, an' war killed in a minit, dashin' agin the rocks. She jes' stood fur a second a-screamin' like a wild painter, an' jumped off'n the bredge arter it. She got it agin; for when they dragged her body out'n the ruver she hed it in her arms too tight fur even death ter onloose. An' thar they air together in the buryin'-ground."
He gave a nod toward the slope of the mountain that intercepted the melancholy view of the graveyard.
"Got it yit!" he continued; "bekase" (he lowered his voice) "on windy nights, whenst the moon is on the wane, she is viewed kerryin' the baby along the bredge—kerryin' it clear over, safe an' sound, like she thought she oughter done, I reckon, in that one minute, whilst she stood an' screamed an' surveyed what she hed done. That child would hev been nigh ter my age ef he hed lived."
Only the sunbeams wavered athwart the bridge now as the firs swayed above, giving glimpses of the sky, and their fibrous shadows flickered back and forth. The wild mountain stream flashed white between the brown bowlders, and plunged down the gorge in a succession of cascades, each seeming more transparently green and amber and brown than the other. The chestnut horse gazed meditatively at these limpid out-gushings, having drunk his fill; then thought better of his moderation, and once more thrust his head down to the water. The hand of his rider, which had made a motion to gather up the reins, dropped leniently on his neck, as Simeon Roxby spoke again:
"Several—several others hev been viewed, actin' accordin' ter thar motions in life. Now thar war a peddler—some say he slipped one icy evenin', 'bout dusk in winter—some say evil ones waylaid him fur his gear an' his goods in his pack, but the settlemint mostly believes he war alone whenst he fell. His pack 'pears ter be full still, they say—but ye air 'bleeged ter know he hev hed ter set that pack down fur good 'fore this time. We kin take nuthin' out'n this world, no matter what kind o' a line o' goods we kerry in life. Heaven's no place fur tradin', I understan', an' I do wonder sometimes how in the worl' them merchants an' sech in the valley towns air goin' ter entertain tharse'fs in the happy land o' Canaan. It's goin' ter be sorter bleak fur them, sure's ye air born."
With a look of freshened recollection, he suddenly drew a plug of tobacco from his pocket, and he talked on even as he gnawed a piece from it.
"Durin' the war a cavalry-man got shot out hyar whilst runnin' 'crost that thar foot-bredge. Thar hed been a scrimmage an' his horse war kilt, an' he tuk ter the bresh on foot, hopin' ter hide in the laurel. But ez he war crossin' the foot-bredge some o' the pursuin' party war fordin' the ruver over thar, an' thinkin' he'd make out ter escape they fired on him, jes' ez the feller tried ter surrender. He turned this way an' flung up both arms—but thar's mighty leetle truce in a pistol-ball. That minute it tuk him right through the brain. Seems toler'ble long range fur a pistol, don't it? He kin be viewed now most enny moonlight night out hyar on the foot-bredge, throwin' up both hands in sign of surrender."
The wild-geese were a-wing on the way southward. Looking up to that narrow section of the blue sky which the incision of the gorge into the very depths of the woods made visible, he could see the tiny files deploying along the azure or the flecking cirrus, and hear the vague clangor of their leader's cry. He lifted his head to mechanically follow their flight. Then, as his eyes came back to earth, they rested again on the old bridge.
"Strange enough," he said, suddenly, "the sker-riest tale I hev ever hearn 'bout that thar old bredge is one that my niece set a-goin'. She seen the harnt herself, an' it shakes me wuss 'n the idee o' all the rest."
His companion's gloomy gaze was lifted for a moment with an expression of inquiry from the slowly widening circles of the water about the horse's head as he drank. But Roxby's eyes, with a certain gleam of excitement, a superstitious dilation, still dwelt upon the bridge at the end of the upward vista. He went on merely from the impetus of the subject. "Yes, sir—she seen it a-pacin' of its sorrowful way acrost that bredge, same ez the t'others of the percession o' harnts. 'Twar my niece, Mill'cent—brother's darter—by name, Mill'cent Roxby. Waal, Mill'cent an' a lot o' young fools o' her age—little over fryin' size—they 'tended camp-meetin' down hyar on Tomahawk Creek—'tain't so long ago—along with the old folks. An' 'bout twenty went huddled up tergether in a road-wagin. An', lo! the wagin it bruk down on the way home, an' what with proppin' it up on a crotch, they made out ter reach the cross-roads over yander at the Notch, an' thar the sober old folks called a halt, an' hed the wagin mended at the blacksmith-shop. Waal, it tuk some two hours, fur Pete Rodd ain't a-goin' ter hurry hisself—in my opinion the angel Gabriel will hev ter blow his bugle oftener'n wunst at the last day 'fore Pete Rodd makes up his mind ter rise from the dead an' answer the roll-call—an' this hyar young lot sorter found it tiresome waitin' on thar elders' solemn company. The old folks, whilst waitin', set outside on the porches of the houses at the settlemint, an' repeated some o' the sermons they hed hearn at camp, an' more'n one raised a hyme chune. An' the young fry—they hed hed a steady diet o' sermons an' hyme chunes fur fower days—they tuk ter stragglin' off down the road, two an' two, like the same sorter id jits the world over, leavin' word with the old folks that the wagin would overtake 'em an' pick 'em up on the road when it passed. Waal, they walked several mile, an' time they got ter the crest o' the hill over yander the moon hed riz, an' they could look down an' see the mist in the valley. The moon war bright in the buryin'-groun' when they passed it, an' the head-boards stood up white an' stiff, an' a light frost hed fell on the mounds, an' they showed plain, an' shone sorter lonesome an' cold. The young folks begun ter look behind em' fur the wagin. Some said—I b'lieve 'twar Em'ry Keen an—they could read the names on the boards plain, 'twar so light, the moon bein' nigh the full: but Em'ry never read nuthin' at night by the moon in his life; he ain't enny too capable o' wrastlin' with the alphabet with a strong daytime on his book ter light him ter knowledge. An' the shadows war black an' still, an' all the yearth looked ez ef nuthin' lived nor ever would agin, an' they hearn a wolf howl. Waal, that disaccommodated the gals mightily, an' they hed a heap more interes' in that old wagin, all smellin' rank with wagin-grease an' tar, than they did in thar lovyers; an' they hed ruther hev hearn that old botch of a wheel that Pete Rodd hed set onto it com in' a-creakin' an' a-com-plainin' along the road than the sweetest words them boys war able ter make up or remember. So they stood thar in the road—a-stare-gazin' them head-boards, like they expected every grave ter open an' the reveilly ter sound—a-waitin' ter be overtook by the wagin, a-listenin', but hearin' nuthin' in the silence o' the frost—not a dead leaf a-twirlin', nor a frozen blade o' grass astir. An' then two or three o' the gals 'lowed they hed ruther walk back ter meet the wagin, an' whenst the boys 'lowed ter go on—nuthin' war likely ter ketch 'em—one of 'em bust out a-cryin'. Waal, thar war the eend o' that much! So the gay party set out on the back track, a-keepin' step ter sobs an' sniffles, an' that's how kem they seen no harnt. But Mill'-cent an' three or four o' the t'others 'lowed they'd go on. They warn't two mile from home, an' full five from the cross-roads. So Em'ry Keenan—he hev been waitin' on her sence the year one—so he put his skeer in his pocket an' kem along with her, a-shakin' in his shoes, I'll be bound! So down the hill in the frosty moonlight them few kem—purty nigh beat out, I reckon, Mill'cent war, what with the sermonizin' an' the hyme-singin' an' hevin' ter look continual at the sheep's-eyes o' Em'ry Keenan—he wears my patience ter the bone! So she concluded ter take the short-cut. An' Em'ry he agreed. So they tuk the lead, the rest a following an' kem down thar through all that black growth"—he lifted his arm and pointed at the great slope, dense with fir and pine and the heavy underbrush—"keepin' the bridle-path—easy enough even at night, fur the bresh is so thick they couldn't lose thar way. But the moonlight war mightily slivered up, fallin' through the needles of the pines an' the skeins of dead vines, an' looked bleached and onnatural, an' holped the dark mighty leetle. An' they seen the water a-shinin' an' a-plungin' down the gorge, an' the glistenin' of the frost on the floor o' the bredge. Thar war a few icicles on the hand-rail, an' the branches o' the firs hung ez still ez death; only that cold, racin', shoutin', jouncin' water moved. Jes ez they got toler'ble nigh the foot-bredge a sudden cloud kem over the face o' the sky. Thar warn't no wind on the yearth, but up above the air war a-stirrin'. An' Em'ry he 'lowed Mill'cent shouldn't cross the foot-bredge whilst the light warn't clar—I wonder the critter hed that much sense! An' she jes' drapped down on that rock thar ter rest"—he pointed up the slope to a great fragment that had broken off from the ledges and lay near the bank: the bulk of the mass was overgrown with moss and lichen, but the jagged edges of the recent fracture gleamed white and crystalline among the brown and olive-green shadows about it. A tree was close beside it. "Agin that thar pine trunk Em'ry he stood an' leaned. The rest war behind, a-comin' down the hill. An' all of a suddenty a light fell on the furder eend o' the foot-bredge—a waverin' light, mighty white an' misty in the darksomeness. Mill'cent 'lowed ez fust she thunk it war the moon. An' lookin' up, she seen the cloud; it held the moon close kivered. An' lookin' down, she seen the light war movin'—movin' from the furder eend o' the bredge, straight acrost it. Sometimes a hand war held afore it, ez ef ter shield it from the draught, an' then Mill'cent 'seen twar a candle, an' the white in the mistiness war a 'oman wearin' white an' carryn' it.
Lookin' ter right an' then ter lef the 'oman kem, with now her right hand shieldin' the candle she held, an' now layin' it on the hand-rail. The candle shone on the water, fur it didn't flare, an' when the 'oman held her hand before it the light made a bright spot on the foot-bredge an' in the dark air about her, an' on the fir branches over her head. An' a thin mist seemed to hang about her white frock, but not over her face, fur when she reached the middle o' the foot-bredge she laid her hand agin on the rail, an' in the clear light o' the candle Mill'cent seen the harnt's face. An' thar she beheld her own face; her own face she looked upon ez she waited thar under the tree watchin' the foot-bredge; her own face pale an' troubled; her own self dressed in white, crossin' the foot-bredge, an' lightin' her steps with a corpse's candle." He drew up the reins abruptly. He seemed in sudden haste to go. His companion looked with deepening interest at the bridge, although he followed his guide's surging pathway to the opposite bank. As the two dripping horses struggled up the steep incline he asked, "Did the man with her see the manifestation also?"
"He 'lows he did," responded Roxby, equivocally. "But when Mill'cent fust got so she could tell it, 'peared ter me ez Em'ry Keen an fund it ez much news ez the rest o' we-uns. Mill'cent jes' drapped stone-dead, accordin' ter all accounts, an' he an' the t'other young folks flung water in her face till she kem out'n her faint; an' jes' then they hearn the wagin a-rattlin' along the road, an' they stopped it an' fetched her home in it. She never told the tale till she war home, an' it skeered me an' my mother powerful, fur Mill'cent is all the kin we hev got. Mill'cent is gran'daddy an' gran'mam-my, sons an' daughters, uncles an' aunts, cousins, nieces, an' nephews, all in one. The only thing I ain't pervided with is a nephew-in-law, an' I don't need him. Leastwise I ain't lookin' fur Em'ry Keenan jes' at present."
The pace was brisker when the two horses, bending their strength sturdily to the task, had pressed up the massive slope from the deep cleft of the gorge. As the road curved about the outer verge of the mountain, the valley far beneath came into view, with intersecting valleys and transverse ranges, dense with the growths of primeval wildernesses, and rugged with the tilted strata of great upheavals, and with chasms cut in the solid rock by centuries of erosion, traces of some remote cataclysmal period, registering thus its throes and turmoils. The blue sky, seen beyond a gaunt profile of one of the farther summits that defined its craggy serrated edge against the ultimate distances of the western heavens, seemed of a singularly suave tint, incongruous with the savagery of the scene, which clouds and portents of storm might better have befitted. The little graveyard, which John Dundas discerned with recognizing eyes, albeit they had never before rested upon it, was revealed suddenly, lying high on the opposite side of the gorge. No frost glimmered now on the lowly mounds; the flickering autumnal sunshine loitered unafraid among them, according to its languid wont for many a year. Shadows of the gray un-painted head-boards lay on the withered grass, brown and crisp, with never a cicada left to break the deathlike silence. A tuft of red leaves, vagrant in the wind, had been caught on one of the primitive monuments, and swayed there with a decorative effect. The enclosure seemed, to unaccustomed eyes, of small compass, and few the denizens who had found shelter here and a resting-place, but it numbered all the dead of the country-side for many a mile and many a year, and somehow the loneliness was assuaged to a degree by the reflection that they had known each other in life, unlike the great herds of cities, and that it was a common fate which the neighbors, huddled together, encountered in company.
It had no discordant effect in the pervasive sense of gloom, of mighty antagonistic forces with which the scene was replete; it fostered a realization of the pitiable minuteness and helplessness of human nature in the midst of the vastness of inanimate nature and the evidences of infinite lengths of forgotten time, of the long reaches of unimagined history, eventful, fateful, which the landscape at once suggested and revealed and concealed.
Like the sudden flippant clatter of castanets in the pause of some solemn funeral music was the impression given by the first glimpse along the winding woodland way of a great flimsy white building, with its many pillars, its piazzas, its "observatory," its band-stand, its garish intimations of the giddy, gay world of a summer hotel. But, alack! it, too, had its surfeit of woe.
"The guerrillas an' bushwhackers tuk it out on the old hotel, sure!" observed Sim Roxby, by way of introduction. "Thar warn't much fightin' hyar-abouts, an' few sure-enough soldiers ever kem along. But wunst in a while a band o' guerrillas went through like a suddint wind-storm, an' I tell ye they made things whurl while they war about it. They made a sorter barracks o' the old place. Looks some like lightning hed struck it."
He had reined up his horse about one hundred yards in front of the edifice, where the weed-grown gravelled drive—carefully tended ten years agone—had diverged from the straight avenue of poplars, sweeping in a circle around to the broad flight of steps.
"Though," he qualified abruptly, as if a sudden thought had struck him, "ef ye air countin' on buyin' it, a leetle money spent ter keerful purpose will go a long way toward makin' it ez good ez new."
His companion did not reply, and for the first time Roxby cast upon him a covert glance charged with the curiosity which would have been earlier and more easily aroused in another man by the manner of the stranger. A letter—infrequent missive in his experience—had come from an ancient companion-in-arms, his former colonel, requesting him in behalf of a friend of the old commander to repair to the railway station, thirty miles distant, to meet and guide this prospective purchaser of the old hotel to the site of the property. And now as Roxby looked at him the suspicion which his kind heart had not been quick to entertain was seized upon by his alert brain.
"The cunnel's been fooled somehows," he said to himself.
For the look with which John Dundas contemplated the place was not the gaze of him concerned with possible investment—with the problems of repair, the details of the glazier and the painter and the plasterer. The mind was evidently neither braced for resistance nor resigned to despair, as behooves one smitten by the foreknowledge of the certainty of the excess of the expenditures over the estimates. Only with pensive, listless melancholy, void of any intention, his eyes traversed the long rows of open doors, riven by rude hands from their locks, swinging helplessly to and fro in the wind, and giving to the deserted and desolate old place a spurious air of motion and life. Many of the shutters had been wrenched from their hinges, and lay rotting on the floors. The ball-room windows caught on their shattered glass the reflection of the clouds, and it seemed as if here and there a wan face looked through at the riders wending along the weed-grown path. Where so many faces had been what wonder that a similitude should linger in the loneliness! The pallid face seemed to draw back as they glanced up while slowly pacing around the drive. A rabbit sitting motionless on the front piazza did not draw back, although observing them with sedate eyes as he poised himself upright on his haunches, with his listless fore-paws suspended in the air, and it occurred to Dundas that he was probably unfamiliar with the presence of human beings, and had never heard the crack of a gun. A great swirl of swallows came soaring out of the big kitchen chimneys and circled in the sky, darting down again and again upward. Through an open passage was a glimpse of a quadrangle, with its weed-grown spaces and litter of yellow leaves. A tawny streak, a red fox, sped through it as Dundas looked. A half-moon, all a-tilt, hung above it. He saw the glimmer through the bare boughs of the leafless locust-trees here and there still standing, although outside on the lawn many a stump bore token how ruthlessly the bushwhackers had furnished their fires.
"That thar moon's a-hangin' fur rain," said the mountaineer, commenting upon the aspect of the luminary, which he, too, had noticed as they passed. "I ain't s'prised none ef we hev fallin' weather agin 'fore day, an' the man—by name Morgan Holden—that hev charge o' the hotel property can't git back fur a week an' better."
A vague wonder to find himself so suspicious flitted through his mind, with the thought that perhaps the colonel might have reckoned on this delay. "Surely the ruvers down yander at Knoxville mus' be a-boomin', with all this wet weather," he said to himself.
Then aloud: "Morgan Holden he went ter Col-bury ter 'tend ter some business in court, an' the ruvers hev riz so that, what with the bredges bein' washed away an' the fords so onsartain an' tricky, he'll stay till the ruver falls. He don't know ye war kemin', ye see. The mail-rider hev quit, 'count o' the rise in the ruver, an' thar's no way ter git word ter him. Still, ef ye air minded ter wait, I'll be powerful obligated fur yer comp'ny down ter my house till the ruver falls an' Holden he gits back."
The stranger murmured his obligations, but his eyes dwelt lingeringly upon the old hotel, with its flapping doors and its shattered windows. Through the recurrent vistas of these, placed opposite in the rooms, came again broken glimpses of the grassy space within the quadrangle, with its leafless locust-trees, first of all to yield their foliage to the autumn wind, where a tiny owl was shrilling stridulously under the lonely red sky and the melancholy moon.
"Hed ye 'lowed ter, put up at the old hotel?" asked Roxby, some inherent quickness supplying the lack of a definite answer.
For the first time the stranger turned upon him a look more expressive than the casual fragmentary attention with which he had half heeded, half ignored his talk since their first encounter at the railway station.
"A simple fellow, but good as gold," was the phrase with which Simeon Roxby had been commended as guide and in some sort guard.
"Not so simple, perhaps," the sophisticated man thought as their eyes met. Not so simple but that the truth must serve. "The colonel suggested that it might be best," he replied, more alert to the present moment than his languid preoccupation had heretofore permitted.
The answer was good as far as it went. A few days spent in the old hostelry certainly would serve well to acquaint the prospective purchaser with its actual condition and the measures and means needed for its repair; but as Sim Roxby stood there, with the cry of the owl shrilling in the desert air, the lonely red sky, the ominous tilted moon, the doors drearily flapping to and fro as the wind stole into the forlorn and empty place and sped back affrighted, he marvelled at the refuge contemplated.
"I believe there is some of the furniture here yet. We could contrive to set up a bed from what is left. The colonel could make it all right with Holden, and I could stay a day or two, as we originally planned."
"Ye-es. I don't mind Holden: a man ain't much in charge of a place ez ain't got a lock or a key ter bless itself with, an' takes the owel an' the fox an' the gopher fur boarders; but, ennyhow, kem with me home ter supper. Mill'cent will hev it ready by now ennyhows, an' ye need suthin' hearty an' hot ter stiffen ye up ter move inter sech quarters ez these." Dundas hesitated, but the mountaineer had already taken assent for granted, and pushed his horse into a sharp trot. Evidently a refusal was not in order. Dundas pressed forward, and they rode together along the winding way past the ten-pin alley, its long low roof half hidden in the encroaching undergrowth springing up apace beneath the great trees; past the stables; past a line of summer cottages, strangely staring of aspect out of the yawning doors and windows, giving, instead of an impression of vacancy, a sense of covert watching, of secret occupancy. If one's glances were only quick enough, were there not faces pressed to those shattered panes—scarcely seen—swiftly withdrawn?
He was in a desert; he had hardly been so utterly alone in all his life; yet he bore through the empty place a feeling of espionage, and ever and anon he glanced keenly at the overgrown lawns, with their deepening drifts of autumn leaves, at the staring windows and flaring doors, which emitted sometimes sudden creaking wails in the silence, as if he sought to assure himself of the vacancy of which his mind took cognizance and yet all his senses denied.
Little of his sentiment, although sedulously cloaked, was lost on Sim Roxby; and he was aware, too, in some subtle way, of the relief his guest experienced when they plunged into the darkening forest and left the forlorn place behind them. The clearing in which it was situated seemed an oasis of light in the desert of night in which the rest of the world lay. From the obscurity of the forest Dundas saw, through the vistas of the giant trees, the clustering cottages, the great hotel, gables and chimneys and tower, stark and distinct as in some weird dream-light in the midst of the encircling gloom. The after-glow of sunset was still aflare on the western windows; the whole empty place was alight with a reminiscence of its old aspect—its old gay life. Who knows what memories were a-stalk there—what semblance of former times? What might not the darkness foster, the impunity of desertion, the associations that inhabited the place with almost the strength of human occupancy itself? Who knows—who knows?
He remembered the scene afterward, the impression he received. And from this, he thought, arose his regret for his decision to take up here his abiding-place.
The forest shut out the illumined landscape, and the night seemed indeed at hand; the gigantic boles of the trees loomed through the encompassing gloom, that was yet a semi-transparent medium, like some dark but clear fluid through which objects were dimly visible, albeit tinged with its own sombre hue. The lank, rawboned sorrel had set a sharp pace, to which the chestnut, after momentary lagging, as if weary with the day's travel, responded briskly. He had received in some way intimations that his companion's corn-crib was near at hand, and if he had not deduced from these premises the probability of sharing his fare, his mental processes served him quite as well as reason, and brought him to the same result. On and on they sped, neck and neck, through the darkening woods; fire flashed now and again from their iron-shod hoofs; often a splash and a shower of drops told of a swift dashing through the mud-holes that recent rains had fostered in the shallows. The dank odor of dripping boughs came on the clear air. Once the chestnut shied from a sudden strange shining point springing up in the darkness close at hand, which the country-bred horse discriminated as fox-fire, and kept steadily on, unmindful of the rotting log where it glowed. Far in advance, in the dank depths of the woods, a Will-o'-the-wisp danced and flickered and lured the traveller's eye. The stranger was not sure of the different quality of another light, appearing down a vista as the road turned, until the sorrel, making a tremendous spurt, headed for it, uttering a joyous neigh at the sight.
The deep-voiced barking of hounds rose melodiously on the silence, and as the horses burst out of the woods into a small clearing, Dundas beheld in the brighter light a half-dozen of the animals nimbly afoot in the road, one springing over the fence, another in the act of climbing, his fore-paws on the topmost rail, his long neck stretched, and his head turning about in attitudes of observation. He evidently wished to assure himself whether the excitement of his friends was warranted by the facts before he troubled himself to vault over the fence. Three or four still lingered near the door of a log-cabin, fawning about a girl who stood on the porch. Her pose was alert, expectant; a fire in the dooryard, where the domestic manufacture of soap had been in progress, cast a red flare on the house, its appurtenances, the great dark forest looming all around, and, more than the glow of the hearth within, lighted up the central figure of the scene. She was tall, straight, and strong; a wealth of fair hair was clustered in a knot at the back of her head, and fleecy tendrils fell over her brow; on it was perched a soldier's-cap; and certainly more gallant and fearless eyes had never looked out from under the straight, stiff brim. Her chin, firm, round, dimpled, was uplifted as she raised her head, descrying the horsemen's approach. She wore a full dark-red skirt, a dark brown waist, and around her neck was twisted a gray cotton kerchief, faded to a pale ashen hue, the neutrality of which somehow aided the delicate brilliancy of the blended roseate and pearly tints of her face. Was this the seer of ghosts—Dundas marvelled—this the Millicent whose pallid and troubled phantom already-paced the foot-bridge?
He did not realize that he had drawn up his horse suddenly at the sight of her, nor did he notice that his host had dismounted, until Roxby was at the chestnut's head, ready to lead the animal to supper in the barn. His evident surprise, his preoccupation, were not lost upon Roxby, however. His hand hesitated on the girth of the chestnut's saddle when he stood between the two horses in the barn. He had half intended to disregard the stranger's declination of his invitation, and stable the creature. Then he shook his head slowly; the mystery that hung about the new-comer was not reassuring. "A heap o' wuthless cattle 'mongst them valley men," he said; for the war had been in some sort an education to his simplicity. "Let him stay whar the cunnel expected him ter stay. I ain't wantin' no stranger a-hangin' round about Mill'cent, nohow. Em'ry Keenan ain't a pattern o' perfection, but I be toler'ble well acquainted with the cut o' his foolishness, an' I know his daddy an' mammy, an' both sets o' gran'daddies an' gran'mammies, an' I could tell ye exac'ly which one the critter got his nose an' his mouth from, an' them lean sheep's-eyes o' his'n, an' nigh every tone o' his voice. Em'ry never thunk afore ez I set store on bein' acquainted with him. He 'lowed I knowed him too well."
He laughed as he glanced through the open door into the darkening landscape. Horizontal gray clouds were slipping fast across the pearly spaces of the sky. The yellow stubble gleamed among the brown earth of the farther field, still striped with its furrows. The black forest encircled the little cleared space, and a wind was astir among the tree-tops. A white star gleamed through the broken clapboards of the roof, the fire still flared under the soap-kettle in the dooryard, and the silence was suddenly smitten by a high cracked old voice, which told him that his mother had perceived the dismounted stranger at the gate, and was graciously welcoming him.
She had come to the door, where the girl still stood, but half withdrawn in the shadow. Dundas silently bowed as he passed her, following his aged hostess into the low room, all bedight with the firelight of a huge chimney-place, and comfortable with the realization of a journey's end. The wilderness might stretch its weary miles around, the weird wind wander in the solitudes, the star look coldly on unmoved by aught it beheld, the moon show sad portents, but at the door they all failed, for here waited rest and peace and human companionship and the sense of home.
"Take a cheer, stranger, an' make yerself at home. Powerful glad ter see ye—-war 'feard night would overtake ye. Ye fund the water toler'ble high in all the creeks an' sech, I reckon, an' fords shifty an' onsartain. Yes, sir. Fall rains kem on earlier'n common, an' more'n we need. Wisht we could divide it with that thar drought we had in the summer. Craps war cut toler'ble short, sir—toler'ble short."
Mrs. Roxby's spectacles beamed upon him with an expression of the utmost benignity as the firelight played on the lenses, but her eyes peering over them seemed endowed in some sort with independence of outlook. It was as if from behind some bland mask a critical observation was poised for unbiased judgment. He felt in some degree under surveillance. But when a light step heralded an approach he looked up, regardless of the betrayal of interest, and bent a steady gaze upon Millicent as she paused in the doorway.
And as she stood there, distinct in the firelight and outlined against the black background of the night, she seemed some modern half-military ideal of Diana, with her two gaunt hounds beside her, the rest of the pack vaguely glimpsed at her heels outside, the perfect outline and chiselling of her features, her fine, strong, supple figure, the look of steady courage in her eyes, and the soldier's cap on her fair hair. Her face so impressed itself upon his mind that he seemed to have seen her often. It was some resemblance to a picture of a vivandiere, doubtless, in a foreign gallery—he could not say when or where; a remnant of a tourist's overcrowded impressions; a half-realized reminiscence, he thought, with an uneasy sense of recognition.
"Hello, Mill'cent! home agin!" Roxby cried, in cheery greeting as he entered at the back door opposite. "What sorter topknot is that ye got on?" he demanded, looking jocosely at her head-gear.
The girl put up her hand with an expression of horror. A deep red flush dyed her cheek as she touched the cap. "I forgot 'twar thar," she murmured, contritely. Then, with a sudden rush of anger as she tore it off: "'Twar granny's fault. She axed me ter put it on, so ez ter see which one I looked most like."
"Stranger," quavered the old woman, with a painful break in her voice, "I los' fower sons in the war, an' Mill'cent hev got the fambly favor."
"Ye mought hev let me know ez I war a-perlitin' round in this hyar men's gear yit," the girl muttered, as she hung the cap on a prong of the deer antlers on which rested the rifle of the master of the house.
Roxby's face had clouded at the mention of the four sons who had gone out from the mountains never to return, leaving to their mother's aching heart only the vague comfort of an elusive resemblance in a girl's face; but as he noted Millicent's pettish manner, and divined her mortification because of her unseemly head-gear in the stranger's presence, he addressed her again in that jocose tone without which he seldom spoke to her.
"Warn't you-uns apologizin' ter me t'other day fur not bein' a nephew 'stiddier a niece? Looked sorter like a nephew ter-night."
She shook her head, covered now only with its own charming tresses waving in thick undulations to the coil at the nape of her neck—a trifle dishevelled from the rude haste with which the cap had been torn off.
Roxby had seated himself, and with his elbows on his knees he looked up at her with a teasing jocularity, such as one might assume toward a child.
"Ye war," he declared, with affected solemnity—"ye war 'pologizin' fur not bein' a nephew, an' 'lowed ef ye war a nephew we could go a-huntin' tergether, an' ye could holp me in all my quar'ls an' fights. I been aging some lately, an' ef I war ter go ter the settlemint an' git inter a fight I mought not be able ter hold my own. Think what 'twould be ter a pore old man ter hev a dutiful nephew step up an'"—he doubled his fists and squared off—"jes' let daylight through some o' them cusses. An' didn't ye say"—he dropped his belligerent attitude and pointed an insistent finger at her, as if to fix the matter in her recollection—"ef ye war a nephew 'stiddier a niece ye could fire a gun 'thout shettin' yer eyes? An' I told ye then ez that would mend yer aim mightily. I told ye that I'd be powerful mortified ef I hed a nephew ez hed ter shet his eyes ter keep the noise out'n his ears whenst he fired a rifle. The tale would go mighty hard with me at the settlemint."
The girl's eyes glowed upon him with the fixity and the lustre of those of a child who is entertained and absorbed by an elder's jovial wiles. A flash of laughter broke over her face, and the low, gurgling, half-dreamy sound was pleasant to hear. She was evidently no more than a child to these bereft old people, and by them cherished as naught else on earth.
"An' didn't I tell you-uns," he went on, affecting to warm to the discussion, and in reality oblivious of the presence of the guest'—"didn't I tell ye ez how ef ye war a nephew 'stiddier a niece ye wouldn't hev sech cattle ez Em'ry Keenan a-dan-glin' round underfoot, like a puppy ye can't gin away, an' that won't git lost, an' ye ain't got the heart ter kill?"
The girl's lip suddenly curled with scorn. "Yer nephew would be obligated ter make a ch'ice fur marryin' 'mongst these hyar mounting gals—Par-mely Lepstone, or Belindy M'ria Matthews, or one o' the Windrow gals. Waal, sir, I'd ruther be yer niece—even ef Em'ry Keenan air like a puppy underfoot, that ye can't gin away, an' won't git lost, an' ye ain't got the heart ter kill." She laughed again, showing her white teeth. She evidently relished the description of the persistent adherence of poor Emory Keenan. "But which one o' these hyar gals would ye recommend ter yer nephew ter marry—ef ye hed a nephew?"
She looked at him with flashing eyes, conscious of having propounded a poser.
He hesitated for a moment. Then—"I'm surrounded," he said, with a laugh. "Ez I couldn't find a wife fur myself, I can't undertake ter recommend one ter my nephew. Mighty fine boy he'd hev been, an' saaft-spoken an' perlite ter aged men—not sassy an' makin' game o' old uncles like a niece. Mighty fine boy!"
"Ye air welcome ter him," she said, with a simulation of scorn, as she turned away to the table.
Whether it were the military cap she had worn, or the fancied resemblance to the young soldiers, never to grow old, who had gone forth from this humble abode to return no more, there was still to the guest's mind the suggestion of the vivandiere about her as she set the table and spread upon it the simple fare. To and from the fireplace she was followed by two or three of the younger dogs, their callowness expressed in their lack of manners and perfervid interest in the approaching meal. This induced their brief journeys back and forth, albeit embarrassed by their physical conformation, short turns on four legs not being apparently the easy thing it would seem from so much youthful suppleness. The dignity of the elder hounds did not suffer them to move, but they looked on from erect postures about the hearth with glistening eyes and slobbering jaws.
Ever and anon the deep blue eyes of Millicent were lifted to the outer gloom, as if she took note of its sinister aspect. She showed scant interest in the stranger, whose gaze seldom left her as he sat beside the fire. He was a handsome man, his face and figure illumined by the firelight, and it might have been that he felt a certain pique, an unaccustomed slight, in that his presence was so indifferent an element in the estimation of any young and comely specimen of the feminine sex. Certainly he had rarely encountered such absolute preoccupation as her smiling far-away look betokened as she went back and forth with her young canine friends at her heels, or stood at the table deftly slicing the salt-rising bread, the dogs poised skilfully upon their hind-legs to better view the appetizing performance; whenever she turned her face toward them they laid their heads languish-ingly askew, as if to remind her that supper could not be more fitly bestowed than on them. One, to steady himself, placed unobserved his fore-paw on the edge of the table, his well-padded toes leaving a vague imprint as of fingers upon the coarse white cloth; but John Dundas was a sportsman, and could the better relax an exacting nicety where so pleasant-featured and affable a beggar was concerned. He forgot the turmoils of his own troubles as he gazed at Millicent, the dreary aspect of the solitudes without, the exile from his accustomed sphere of culture and comfort, the poverty and coarseness of her surroundings. He was sorry that he had declined a longer lease of Roxby's hospitality, and it was in his mind to reconsider when it should be again proffered. Her attitude, her gesture, her face, her environment, all appealed to his sense of beauty, his interest, his curiosity, as little ever had done heretofore. Slice after slice of the firm fragrant bread was deftly cut and laid on the plate, as again and again she lifted her eyes with a look that might seem to expect to rest on summer in the full flush of a June noontide without, rather than on the wan, wintry night sky and the plundered, quaking woods, while the robber wind sped on his raids hither and thither so swiftly that none might follow, so stealthily that none might hinder. A sudden radiance broke upon her face, a sudden shadow fell on the firelit floor, and there was entering at the doorway a tall, lithe young mountaineer, whose first glance, animated with a responsive brightness, was for the girl, but whose punctilious greeting was addressed to the old woman.
"Howdy, Mis' Roxby—howdy? Air yer rheumatics mendin' enny?" he demanded, with the condolent suavity of the would-be son-in-law, or grand-son-in-law, as the case may be. And he hung with a transfixed interest upon her reply, prolix and discursive according to the wont of those who cultivate "rheumatics," as if each separate twinge racked his own sympathetic and filial sensibilities. Not until the tale was ended did he set his gun against the wall and advance to the seat which Roxby had indicated with the end of the stick he was whittling. He observed the stranger with only slight interest, till Dundas drew up his chair opposite at the table. There the light from the tallow dip, guttering in the centre, fell upon his handsome face and eyes, his carefully tended beard and hair, his immaculate cuffs and delicate hand, the seal-ring on his taper finger.
"Like a gal, by gum!" thought Emory Keenan. "Rings on his fingers—yit six feet high!"
He looked at his elders, marvelling that they so hospitably repressed the disgust which this effeminate adornment must occasion, forgetting that it was possible that they did not even observe it. In the gala-days of the old hotel, before the war, they had seen much "finicking finery" in garb and equipage and habits affected by the jeunesse doree who frequented the place in those halcyon times, and were accustomed to such details. It might be that they and Millicent approved such flimsy daintiness. He began to fume inwardly with a sense of inferiority in her estimation. One of his fingers had been frosted last winter, and with the first twinge of cold weather it was beginning to look very red and sad and clumsy, as if it had just remembered its ancient woe; he glanced from it once more at the delicate ringed hand of the stranger.
Dundas was looking up with a slow, deferential, decorous smile that nevertheless lightened and transfigured his expression. It seemed somehow communicated to Millicent's face as she looked down at him from beneath her white eyelids and long, thick, dark lashes, for she was standing beside him, handing him the plate of bread. Then, still smiling, she passed noiselessly on to the others.
Emory was indeed clumsy, for he had stretched his hand downward to offer a morsel to a friend of his under the table—he was on terms of exceeding amity with the four-footed members of the household—and in his absorption not withdrawing it as swiftly as one accustomed to canine manners should do, he had his frosted finger well mumbled before he could, as it were, repossess himself of it.
"I wonder what they charge fur iron over yander at the settlemint, Em'ry?" observed Sim Roxby presently.
"Dun'no', sir," responded Emory, glumly, his sullen black eyes full of smouldering fire—"hevin' no call ter know, ez I ain't no blacksmith."
"I war jes' wonderin' ef tenpenny nails didn't cost toler'ble high ez reg'lar feed," observed Roxby, gravely.
But his mother laughed out with a gleeful cracked treble, always a ready sequence of her son's rustic sallies. "He got ye that time, Em'ry," she cried.
A forced smile crossed Emory's face. He tossed back his tangled dark hair with a gasp that was like the snort of an unruly horse submitting to the inevitable, but with restive projects in his brain. "I let the dog hyar ketch my finger whilst feedin' him," he said. His plausible excuse for the ten-penny expression was complete; but he added, his darker mood recurring instantly, "An', Mis' Roxby, I hev put a stop ter them ez hev tuk ter callin' me Em'ly, I hev."
The old woman looked up, her small wrinkled mouth round and amazed. "I never called ye Emily," she declared.
Swift repentance seized him.
"Naw, 'm," he said, with hurried propitiation. "I 'lowed ye did."
"I didn't," said the old woman. "But ef I warter find it toothsome ter call ye 'Emily,' I dun'no' how ye air goin' ter pervent it. Ye can't go gun-nin' fur me, like ye done fur the men at the mill, fur callin' ye 'Emily.'"
"Law, Mis' Roxby!" he could only exclaim, in his horror and contrition at this picture he had thus conjured up. "Ye air welcome ter call me ennything ye air a mind ter," he protested.
And then he gasped once more. The eyes of the guest, contemptuous, amused, seeing through him, were fixed upon him. And he himself had furnished the lily-handed stranger with the information that he had been stigmatized "Em'ly" in the banter of his associates, until he had taken up arms, as it were, to repress this derision.
"It takes powerful little ter put ye down, Em'ry," said Roxby, with rallying laughter. "Mam hev sent ye skedaddlin' in no time at all. I don't b'lieve the Lord made woman out'n the man's rib. He made her out'n the man's backbone; fur the man ain't hed none ter speak of sence."
Millicent, with a low gurgle of laughter, sat down beside Emory at the table, and fixed her eyes, softly lighted with mirth, upon him. The others too had laughed, the stranger with a flattering intonation, but young Keenan looked at her with a dumb appealing humility that did not altogether fail of its effect, for she busied herself to help his plate with an air of proprietorship as if he were a child, and returned it with a smile very radiant and sufficient at close range. She then addressed herself to her own meal. The young dogs under the table ceased to beg, and gambolled and gnawed and tugged at her stout little shoes, the sound of their callow mirthful growls rising occasionally above the talk. Sometimes she rose again to wait on the table, when they came leaping out after her, jumping and catching at her skirts, now and then casting themselves on the ground prone before her feet, and rolling over and over in the sheer joy of existence.
The stranger took little part in the talk at the table. Never a question was asked him as to his mission in the mountains, or the length of his stay, his vocation, or his home. That extreme courtesy of the mountaineers, exemplified in their singular abstinence from any expressions of curiosity, accepted such account of himself as he had volunteered, and asked for no more. In the face of this standard of manners any inquisitiveness on his part, such as might have elicited points of interest for his merely momentary entertainment, was tabooed. Nevertheless, silent though he was for the most part, the relish with which he listened, his half-covert interest in the girl, his quick observation of the others, the sudden very apparent enlivening of his mental atmosphere, betokened that his quarters were not displeasing to him. It seemed only a short time before the meal was ended and the circle all, save Millicent, with pipes alight before the fire again. The dogs, well fed, had ranged themselves on the glowing hearth, lying prone on the hot stones; one old hound, however, who conserved the air of listening to the conversation, sat upright and nodded from time to time, now and again losing his balance and tipping forward in a truly human fashion, then gazing round on the circle with an open luminous eye, as who should say he had not slept.
It was all very cheerful within, but outside the wind still blared mournfully. Once more Dundas was sorry that he had declined the invitation to remain, and it was with a somewhat tentative intention that he made a motion to return to the hotel. But his host seemed to regard his resolution as final, and rose with a regret, not an insistence. The two women stared in silent amazement at the mere idea of his camping out, as it were, in the old hotel. The ascendency of masculine government here, notwithstanding Roxby's assertion that Eve was made of Adam's backbone, was very apparent in their mute acquiescence and the alacrity with which they began to collect various articles, according to his directions, to make the stranger's stay more comfortable.
"Em'ry kin go along an' holp," he said, heartlessly; for poor Emory's joy in perceiving that the guest was not a fixture, and that his presence was not to be an embargo on any word between himself and Millicent during the entire evening, was pitiably manifest. But the situation was still not without its comforts, since Dundas was to go too. Hence he was not poor company when once in the saddle, and was civil to a degree of which his former dismayed surliness had given no promise.
Night had become a definite element. The twilight had fled. Above their heads, as they galloped through the dank woods, the bare boughs of the trees clashed together—so high above their heads that to the town man, unaccustomed to these great growths, the sound seemed not of the vicinage, but unfamiliar, uncanny, and more than once he checked his horse to listen. As they approached the mountain's verge and overlooked the valley and beheld the sky, the sense of the predominance of darkness was redoubled. The ranges gloomed against the clearer spaces, but a cloud, deep gray with curling white edges, was coming up from the west, with an invisible convoy of vague films, beneath which the stars, glimmering white points, disappeared one by one. The swift motion of this aerial fleet sailing with the wind might be inferred from the seemingly hurried pace of the moon making hard for the west. Still bright was the illumined segment, but despite its glitter the shadowy space of the full disk was distinctly visible, its dusky field spangled with myriads of minute, dully golden points. Down, down it took its way in haste—in disordered fright, it seemed, as if it had no heart to witness the storm which the wind and the clouds foreboded—to fairer skies somewhere behind those western mountains. Soon even its vague light would encroach no more upon the darkness. The great hotel would be invisible, annihilated as it were in the gloom, and not even thus dimly exist, glimmering, alone, forlorn, so incongruous to the wilderness that it seemed even now some mere figment of the brain, as the two horsemen came with a freshened burst of speed along the deserted avenue and reined up beside a small gate at the side.
"No use ter ride all the way around," observed Emory Keenan. "Mought jes ez well 'light an' hitch hyar."
The moon gave him the escort of a great grotesque shadow as he threw himself from his horse and passed the reins over a decrepit hitching-post near at hand. Then he essayed the latch of the small gate. He glanced up at Dundas, the moonlight in his dark eyes, with a smile as it resisted his strength.
He was a fairly good-looking fellow when rid of the self-consciousness of jealousy. His eyes, mouth, chin, and nose, acquired from reliable and recognizable sources, were good features, and statuesque in their immobility beneath the drooping curves of his broad soft hat. He was tall, with the slenderness of youth, despite his evident weight and strength. He was long-waisted and lithe and small of girth, with broad square shoulders, whose play of muscles as he strove with the gate was not altogether concealed by the butternut jeans coat belted in with his pistols by a broad leathern belt. His boots reached high on his long legs, and jingled with a pair of huge cavalry spurs. His stalwart strength seemed as if it must break the obdurate gate rather than open it, but finally, with a rasping creak, dismally loud in the silence, it swung slowly back.
The young mountaineer stood gazing for a moment at the red rust on the hinges. "How long sence this gate must hev been opened afore?" he said, again looking up at Dundas with a smile.
Somehow the words struck a chill to the stranger's heart. The sense of the loneliness of the place, of isolation, filled him with a sort of awe. The night-bound wilderness itself was not more daunting than these solitary tiers of piazzas, these vacant series of rooms and corridors, all instinct with vanished human presence, all alert with echoes of human voices. A step, a laugh, a rustle of garments—he could have sworn he heard them at any open doorway as he followed his guide along the dim moonlit piazza, with its pillars duplicated at regular intervals by the shadows on the floor. How their tread echoed down these lonely ways! From the opposite side of the house he heard Kee-nan's spurs jangling, his soldierly stride sounding back as if their entrance had roused barracks. He winced once to see his own shadow with its stealthier movement. It seemed painfully furtive. For the first time during the evening his jaded mind, that had instinctively sought the solace of contemplating trifles, reverted to its own tormented processes. "Am I not hiding?" he said to himself, in a sort of sarcastic pity of his plight.
The idea seemed never to enter the mind of the transparent Keenan. He laughed out gayly as they turned into the weed-grown quadrangle, and the red fox that Dundas had earlier observed slipped past him with affrighted speed and dashed among the shadows of the dense shrubbery of the old lawn without. Again and again the sound rang back from wall to wall, first with the jollity of seeming imitation, then with an appalled effect sinking to silence, and suddenly rising again in a grewsome staccato that suggested some terrible unearthly laughter, and bore but scant resemblance to the hearty mirth which had evoked it Keenan paused and looked back with friendly gleaming eyes. "Oughter been a leetle handier with these hyar consarns," he said, touching the pistols in his belt.
It vaguely occurred to Dundas that the young man went strangely heavily armed for an evening visit at a neighbor's house. But it was a lawless country and lawless times, and the sub-current of suggestion did not definitely fix itself in his mind until he remembered it later. He was looking into each vacant open doorway, seeing the still moonlight starkly white upon the floor; the cobwebbed and broken window-panes, through which a section of leafless trees beyond was visible; bits of furniture here and there, broken by the vandalism of the guerillas. Now and then a scurrying movement told of a gopher, hiding too, and on one mantel-piece, the black fireplace yawning below, sat a tiny tawny-tinted owl, whose motionless beadlike eyes met his with a stare of stolid surprise. After he had passed, its sudden ill-omened cry set the silence to shuddering.
Keenan, leading the way, paused in displeasure. "I wisht I hed viewed that critter," he said, glumly. "I'd hev purvented that screechin' ter call the devil, sure. It's jes a certain sign o' death."
He was about to turn, to wreak his vengeance, perchance. But the bird, sufficiently fortunate itself, whatever woe it presaged for others, suddenly took its awkward flight through sheen and shadow across the quadrangle, and when they heard its cry again it came from some remote section of the building, with a doleful echo as a refrain.
The circumstance was soon forgotten by Keenan. He seemed a happy, mercurial, lucid nature, and he began presently to dwell with interest on the availability of the old music-stand in the centre of the square as a manger. "Hyar," he said, striking the rotten old structure with a heavy hand, which sent a quiver and a thrill through all the timbers—"hyar's whar the guerillas always hitched thar beastises. Thar feed an' forage war piled up thar on the fiddlers' seats. Ye can't do no better'n ter pattern arter them, till ye git ready ter hev fiddlers an' sech a-sawin' away in hyar agin."
And he sauntered away from the little pavilion, followed by Dundas, who had not accepted his suggestion of a room on the first floor as being less liable to leakage, but finally made choice of an inner apartment in the second story. He looked hard at Keenan, when he stood in the doorway surveying the selection. The room opened into a cross-hall which gave upon a broad piazza that was latticed; tiny squares of moonlight were all sharply drawn on the floor, and, seen through a vista of gray shadow, seemed truly of a gilded lustre. From the windows of this room on a court-yard no light Could be visible to any passer-by without. Another door gave on an inner gallery, and through its floor a staircase came up from the quadrangle close to the threshold. Dundas wondered if these features were of possible significance in Keenan's estimation. The young mountaineer turned suddenly, and snatching up a handful of slats broken from the shutters, remarked:
"Let's see how the chimbly draws—that's the main p'int."
There was no defect in the chimney's constitution. It drew admirably, and with the white and red flames dancing in the fireplace, two or three chairs, more or less disabled, a table, and an upholstered lounge gathered at random from the rooms near at hand, the possibility of sojourning comfortably for a few days in the deserted hostelry seemed amply assured.
Once more Dundas gazed fixedly at the face of the young mountaineer, who still bent on one knee on the hearth, watching with smiling eyes the triumphs of his fire-making. It seemed to him afterwards that his judgment was strangely at fault; he perceived naught of import in the shallow brightness of the young man's eyes, like the polished surface of jet; in the instability of his jealousy, his anger; in his hap-hazard, mercurial temperament. Once he might have noted how flat were the spaces beneath the eyes, how few were the lines that defined the lid, the socket, the curve of the cheekbone, the bridge of the nose, and how expressionless. It was doubtless the warmth and glow of the fire, the clinging desire of companionship, the earnest determination to be content, pathetic in one who had but little reason for optimism, that caused him to ignore the vacillating glancing moods that successively swayed Keenan, strong while they lasted, but with scanty augury because of their evanescence. He was like some newly discovered property in physics of untried potentialities, of which nothing is ascertained but its uncertainties.
And yet he seemed to Dundas a simple country fellow, good-natured in the main, unsuspicious, and helpful. So, giving a long sigh of relief and fatigue, Dundas sank down in one of the large arm-chairs that had once done duty for the summer loungers on the piazza.
In the light of the fire Emory was once more looking at him. A certain air of distinction, a grace and ease of movement, an indescribable quality of bearing which he could not discriminate, yet which he instinctively recognized as superior, offended him in some sort. He noticed again the ring on the stranger's hand as he drew off his glove. Gloves! Emory Keen an would as soon have thought of wearing a petticoat. Once more the fear that these effeminate graces found favor in Millicent's estimation smote upon his heart. It made the surface of his opaque eyes glisten as Dundas rose and took up a pipe and tobacco-pouch which he had laid on the mantelpiece, his full height and fine figure shown in the changed posture.
"Ez tall ez me, ef not taller, an', by gum! a good thirty pound heavier," Emory reflected, with, a growing dismay that he had not those stalwart claims to precedence in height and weight as an offset to the smoother fascinations of the stranger's polish.
He had risen hastily to his feet. He would not linger to smoke fraternally over the fire, and thus cement friendly relations.
"I guided him hyar, like old Sim Roxby axed me ter do, an' that's all. I ain't keerin' ef I never lay eyes on him again," he said to himself.
"Going?" said Dundas, pleasantly, noticing the motion. "You'll look in again, won't you?"
"Wunst in a while, I reckon," drawled Keenan, a trifle thrown off his balance by this courtesy.
He paused at the door, looking back over his shoulder for a moment at the illumined room, then stepped out into the night, leaving the tenant of the lonely old house filling his pipe by the fire.
His tread rang along the deserted gallery, and sudden echoes came tramping down the vacant halls as if many a denizen of the once populous place was once more astir within its walls. Long after Dundas had heard him spring from the lower piazza to the ground, and the rusty gate clang behind him, vague footfalls were audible far away, and were still again, and once more a pattering tread in some gaunt and empty apartment near at hand, faint and fainter yet, till he hardly knew whether it were the reverberations of sound or fancy that held his senses in thrall.
And when all was still and silent at last he felt less solitary than when these elusive tokens of human presence were astir.
Late, late he sat over the dwindling embers. His mind, no longer diverted by the events of the day, recurred with melancholy persistence to a theme which even they, although fraught with novelty and presage of danger, had not altogether crowded out. And as the sense of peril dulled, the craft of sophistry grew clumsy. Remorse laid hold upon him in these dim watches of the night. Self-reproach had found him out here, defenceless so far from the specious wiles and ways of men. All the line of provocations seemed slight, seemed naught, as he reviewed them and balanced them against a human life. True, it was not in some mad quarrel that his skill had taken it and had served to keep his own—a duel, a fair fight, strictly regular according to the code of "honorable men" for ages past—and he sought to argue that it was doubtless but the morbid sense of the wild fastnesses without, the illimitable vastness of the black night, the unutterable indurability of nature to the influences of civilization, which made it taste like murder. He had brought away even from the scene of action, to which he had gone with decorous deliberation—his worldly affairs arranged for the possibility of death, his will made, his volition surrendered, and his sacred honor in the hands of his seconds—a humiliating recollection of the sudden revulsion of the aspect of all things; the criminal sense of haste with which he was hurried away after that first straight shot; the agitation, nay, the fright of his seconds; their eagerness to be swiftly rid of him, their insistence that he should go away for a time, get out of the country, out of the embarrassing purview of the law, which was prone to regard the matter as he himself saw it now, and which had an ugly trick of calling things by their right names in the sincere phraseology of an indictment. And thus it was that he was here, remote from all the usual lines of flight, with his affectation of being a possible purchaser for the old hotel, far from the railroad, the telegraph, even the postal service. Some time—soon, indeed, it might be, when the first flush of excitement and indignation should be overpast, and the law, like a barking dog that will not bite, should have noisily exhausted the gamut of its devoirs—he would go back and live according to his habit in his wonted place, as did other men whom he had known to be "called out," and who had survived their opponents. Meantime he heard the ash crumble; he saw the lighted room wane from glancing yellow to a dull steady red, and so to dusky brown; he marked the wind rise, and die away, and come again, banging the doors of the empty rooms, and setting timbers all strangely to creaking as under sudden trampling feet; then lift into the air with a rustling sound like the stir of garments and the flutter of wings, calling out weirdly in the great voids of the upper atmosphere.
He had welcomed the sense of fatigue earlier in the evening, for it promised sleep. Now it had slipped away from him. He was strong and young, and the burning sensation that the frosty air had left on his face was the only token of the long journey. It seemed as if he would never sleep again as he lay on the lounge watching the gray ash gradually overgrow the embers, till presently only a vague dull glow gave intimation of the position of the hearth in the room. And then, bereft of this dim sense of companionship, he stared wide-eyed in the darkness, feeling the only creature alive and awake in all the world. No; the fox was suddenly barking within the quadrangle—a strangely wild and alien tone. And presently he heard the animal trot past his door on the piazza, the cushioned footfalls like those of a swift dog. He thought with a certain anxiety of the tawny tiny owl that had sat like a stuffed ornament on the mantel-piece of a neighboring room, and he listened with a quaking vicarious presentiment of woe for the sounds of capture and despair. He was sensible of waiting and hoping for the fox's bootless return, when he suddenly lost consciousness.
How long he slept he did not know, but it seemed only a momentary respite from the torture of memory, when, still in the darkness, thousands of tremulous penetrating sounds were astir, and with a great start he recognized the rain on the roof. It was coming down in steady torrents that made the house rock before the tumult of his plunging heart was still, and he was longing again for the forgetfulness of sleep. In vain. The hours dragged by; the windows slowly, slowly denned their dull gray squares against the dull gray day dawning without. The walls that had been left with only the first dark coat of plaster, awaiting another season for the final decoration, showed their drapings of cobweb, and the names and pencilled scribblings with which the fancy of transient bushwhackers had chosen to deface them. The locust-trees within the quadrangle drearily tossed their branches to and fro in the wind, the bark very black and distinct against the persistent gray lines of rain and the white walls of the galleried buildings opposite; the gutters were brimming, roaring along like miniature torrents; nowhere was the fox or the owl to be seen. Somehow their presence would have been a relief—the sight of any living thing reassuring. As he walked slowly along the deserted piazzas, in turning sudden corners, again and again he paused, expecting that something, some one, was approaching to meet him. When at last he mounted his horse, that had neighed gleefully to see him, and rode away through the avenue and along the empty ways among the untenanted summer cottages, all the drearier and more forlorn because of the rain, he felt as if he had left an aberration, some hideous dream, behind, instead of the stark reality of the gaunt and vacant and dilapidated old house.
The transition to the glow and cheer of Sim Roxby's fireside was like a rescue, a restoration. The smiling welcome in the women's eyes, their soft drawling voices, with mellifluous intonations that gave a value to each commonplace simple word, braced his nerves like a tonic. It might have been only the contrast with the recollections of the night, with the prospect visible through the open door—the serried lines of rain dropping aslant from the gray sky and elusively outlined against the dark masses of leafless woods that encircled the clearing; the dooryard half submerged with puddles of a clay-brown tint, embossed always with myriads of protruding drops of rain, for however they melted away the downpour renewed them, and to the eye they were stationary, albeit pervaded with a continual tremor—but somehow he was cognizant of a certain coddling tenderness in the old woman's manner that might have been relished by a petted child, an unaffected friendliness in the girl's clear eyes. They made him sit close to the great wood fire; the blue and yellow flames gushed out from the piles of hickory logs, and the bed of coals gleamed at red and white heat beneath. They took his hat to carefully dry it, and they spread out his cloak on two chairs at one side of the room, where it dismally dripped. When he ventured to sneeze, Mrs. Roxby compounded and administered a "yerb tea," a sovereign remedy against colds, which he tasted on compulsion and in great doubt, and swallowed with alacrity and confidence, finding its basis the easily recognizable "toddy." He had little knowledge how white and troubled his face had looked as he came in from the gray day, how strongly marked were those lines of sharp mental distress, how piteously apparent was his mute appeal for sympathy and comfort.
"Mill'cent," said the old woman in the shed-room, as they washed and wiped the dishes after the cozy breakfast of venison and corn-dodgers and honey and milk, "that thar man hev run agin the law, sure's ye air born."
Millicent turned her reflective fair face, that seemed whiter and more delicate in the damp dark day, and looked doubtfully out over the fields, where the water ran in steely lines in the furrows.
"Mus' hev been by accident or suthin'. He ain't no hardened sinner."
"Shucks!" the old woman commented upon her reluctant acquiescence. "I ain't keerin' for the law! 'Tain't none o' my job. The tomfool men make an' break it. Ennybody ez hev seen this war air obleeged to take note o' the wickedness o' men in gineral. This hyer man air a sorter pitiful sinner, an' he hev got a look in his eyes that plumb teches my heart. I 'ain't got no call ter know nuthin' 'bout the law, bein' a 'oman an' naterally ignorant. I dun'no' ez he hev run agin it."
"Mus' hev been by accident," said Millicent, dreamily, still gazing over the sodden fields.
The suspicion did nothing to diminish his comfort or their cordiality. The morning dragged by without change in the outer aspects. The noontide dinner came and went without Roxby's return, for the report of the washing away of a bridge some miles distant down the river had early called him out to the scene of the disaster, to verify in his own interests the rumor, since he had expected to haul his wheat to the settlement the ensuing day. The afternoon found the desultory talk still in progress about the fire, the old woman alternately carding cotton and nodding in her chair in the corner; the dogs eying the stranger, listening much of the time with the air of children taking instruction, only occasionally wandering out-of-doors, the floor here and there bearing the damp imprint of their feet; and Millicent on her knees in the other corner, the firelight on her bright hair, her delicate cheek, her quickly glancing eyes, as she deftly moulded bullets.
"Uncle Sim hed ter s'render his shootin'-irons," she explained, "an' he 'ain't got no ca'tridge-loadin' ones lef. So he makes out with his old muzzle-loadin' rifle that he hed afore the war, an' I moulds his bullets for him rainy days."
As she held up a moulded ball and dexterously clipped off the surplus lead, the gesture was so culinary in its delicacy that one of the dogs in front of the fire extended his head, making a long neck, with a tentative sniff and a glistening gluttonous eye.
"Ef I swallered enny mo' lead, I wouldn't take it hot, Towse," she said, holding out the bullet for canine inspection. "'Tain't healthy!"
But the dog, perceiving the nature of the commodity, drew back with a look of deep reproach, rose precipitately, and with a drooping tail went out skulkingly into the wet gray day.
"Towse can't abide a bullet," she observed, "nor nuthin' 'bout a gun. He got shot wunst a-huntin', an' he never furgot it. Jes show him a gun an' he ain't nowhar ter be seen—like he war cotch up in the clouds."
"Good watch-dog, I suppose," suggested Dundas, striving to enter into the spirit of her talk.
"Naw; too sp'ilt for a gyard-dog—granny coddled him so whenst he got shot. He's jest vally'ble fur his conversation, I reckon," she continued, with a smile in her eyes. "I dun'no' what else, but he is toler'ble good company."
The other dogs pressed about her, the heads of the great hounds as high as her own as she sat among them on the floor. With bright eyes and knitted brows they followed the motions of pouring in the melted metal, the lifting of the bullets from the mould, the clipping off of the surplus lead, and the flash of the keen knife.
Outside the sad light waned; the wind sighed and sighed; the dreary rain fell; the trees clashed their boughs dolorously together, and their turbulence deadened the sound of galloping horses. As Dundas sat and gazed at the girl's intent head, with its fleecy tendrils and its massive coil, the great hounds beside her, all emblazoned by the firelight upon the brown wall near by, with the vast fireplace at hand, the whole less like reality than some artist's pictured fancy, he knew naught of a sudden entrance, until she moved, breaking the spell, and looked up to meet the displeasure in Roxby's eyes and the dark scowl on Emory Keenan's face.
That night the wind shifted to the north. Morning found the chilled world still, ice where the water had lodged, all the trees incased in glittering garb that followed the symmetry alike of every bough and the tiniest twig, and made splendid the splintered remnants of the lightning-riven. The fields were laced across from furrow to furrow, in which the frozen water still stood gleaming, with white arabesques which had known a more humble identity as stubble and crab-grass; the sky was slate-colored, and from its sad tint this white splendor gained added values of contrast. When the sun should shine abroad much of the effect would be lost in the too dazzling glister; but the sun did not shine.
All day the gray mood held unchanged. Night was imperceptibly sifting down upon all this whiteness, that seemed as if it would not be obscured, as if it held within itself some property of luminosity, when Millicent, a white apron tied over her golden head, improvising a hood, its superfluous fulness gathered in many folds and pleats around her neck, fichu-wise, stood beside the ice-draped fodder-stack and essayed with half-numbed hands to insert a tallow dip into the socket of a lantern, all incrusted and clumsy with previous drippings.
"I dun'no' whether I be a-goin' ter need this hyar consarn whilst milkin' or no," she observed, half to herself, half to Emory, who, chewing a straw, somewhat surlily had followed her out for a word apart. "The dusk 'pears slow ter-night, but Spot's mighty late comin' home, an' old Sue air fractious an' contrairy-minded, and feels mighty anxious an' oneasy 'boutn her calf, that's ez tall ez she is nowadays, an' don't keer no mo' 'bout her mammy 'n a half-grown human does. I tell her she oughtn't ter be mad with me, but with the way she brung up her chile, ez won't notice her now."
She looked up with a laugh, her eyes and teeth gleaming; her golden hair still showed its color beneath the spotless whiteness of her voluminous headgear, and the clear tints of her complexion seemed all the more delicate and fresh in the snowy pallor of the surroundings and the grayness of the evening.
"I reckon I'd better take it along," and once more she addressed herself to the effort to insert the dip into the lantern.
Emory hardly heard. His pulse was quick. His eye glittered. He breathed hard as, with both hands in his pockets, he came close to her.
"Mill'cent," he said, "I told ye the t'other day ez ye thunk a heap too much o' that thar stran-ger-"
"An' I tole ye, bubby, that I didn't think nuthin' o' nobody but you-uns," she interrupted, with an effort to placate his jealousy. The little jocularity which she affected dwindled and died before the steady glow of his gaze, and she falteringly looked at him, her unguided hands futilely fumbling with the lantern.
"Ye can't fool me," he stoutly asseverated. "Ye think mo' o' him 'n o' me, kase ye 'low he air rich, an' book-larned, an' smooth-fingered, an' fini-fied ez a gal, an' goin' ter buy the hotel. I say, hotel! Now I'll tell ye what he is—I'll tell ye! He's a criminal. He's runnin' from the law. He's hidin' in the old hotel that he's purtendin' ter buy."
She stared wide-eyed and pallid, breathless and waiting.
He interpreted her expression as doubt, denial.
"It's gospel sure," he cried. "Fur this very evenin' I met a gang o' men an' the sheriff's deputy down yander by the sulphur spring 'bout sundown, an' he 'lowed ez they war a-sarchin' fur a criminal ez war skulkin' round hyarabout lately—ez they wanted a man fur hevin' c'mitted murder."
"But ye didn't accuse him, surely; ye hed no right ter s'picion him. Uncle Sim! Oh, my Lord! Ye surely wouldn't! Oh, Uncle Sim!"
Her tremulous words broke into a quavering cry as she caught his arm convulsively, for his face confirmed her fears. She thrust him wildly away, and started toward the house.
"Ye needn't go tattlin' on me," he said, roughly pushing her aside. "I'll tell Mr. Roxby myself. I ain't 'shamed o' what I done. I'll tell him. I'll tell him myself." And animated with this intention to forestall her disclosure, his long strides bore him swiftly past and into the house.
It seemed to him that he lingered there only a moment or two, for Roxby was not at the cabin, and he said nothing of the quarrel to the old woman. Already his heart had revolted against his treachery, and then there came to him the further reflection that he did not know enough to justify suspicion. Was not the stranger furnished with the fullest credentials—a letter to Roxby from the Colonel? Perhaps he had allowed his jealousy to endanger the man, to place him in jeopardy even of his life should he resist arrest.
Keenan tarried at the house merely long enough to devise a plausible excuse for his sudden excited entrance, and then took his way back to the barnyard.
It was vacant. The cows still stood lowing at the bars; the sheep cowered together in their shed; the great whitened cone of the fodder-stack gleamed icily in the purple air; beside it lay the lantern where Millicent had cast it aside. She was gone! He would not believe it till he had run to the barn, calling her name in the shadowy place, while the horse at his manger left his corn to look over the walls of his stall with inquisitive surprised eyes, luminous in the dusk. He searched the hen-house, where the fowls on their perches crowded close because of the chill of the evening. He even ran to the bars and looked down across the narrow ravine to which the clearing sloped. Beyond the chasm-like gorge he saw presently on the high ascent opposite footprints that had broken the light frostlike coating of ice on the dead leaves and moss—climbing footprints, swift, disordered. He looked back again at the lantern where Millicent had flung it in her haste. Her mission was plain now. She had gone to warn Dundas. She had taken a direct line through the woods. She hoped to forestall the deputy sheriff and his posse, following the circuitous mountain road.
Keenan's lip curled in triumph. His heart burned hot with scornful anger and contempt of the futility of her effort. "They're there afore she started!" he said, looking up at the aspects of the hour shown by the sky, and judging of the interval since the encounter by the spring. Through a rift in the gray cloud a star looked down with an icy scintillation and disappeared again. He heard a branch in the woods snap beneath the weight of ice. A light sprang into the window of the cabin hard by, and came in a great gush of orange-tinted glow out into the snowy bleak wintry space. He suddenly leaped over the fence and ran like a deer through the woods.