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A Mountain Europa(Chapter4)

2006-08-29 01:17

  Chapter IV

  A fortnight later Clayton, rifle in hand, took the same path. It was late in May. The 'leafage was luxuriant, and the mountains, wooded to the tops, seemed overspread with great, shaggy rugs of green. The woods were resonant with song-birds, and the dew dripped and sparkled wherever a shaft of sunlight pierced the thick leaves. Late violets hid shyly under canopies of May-apple; bunches of blue and of white anemone nodded from under fallen trees, and water ran like hidden music everywhere. Slowly the valley and the sound of its life-the lowing of cattle, the clatter at the mines, the songs of the negroes at work-sank beneath him. The chorus of birds dwindled until only the cool, flute-like notes of a wood- thrush rose faintly from below. Up he went, winding around great oaks, fallen trunks, loose bowlders, and threatening cliffs until light glimmered whitely between the boles of the trees. From a gap where he paused to rest, a fire-scald " was visible close to the' crest of the adjoining mountain. It was filled with the charred, ghost-like trunks of trees that had been burned standing. Easter's home must be near that, Clayton thought, and he turned toward it by a path that ran along the top of the mountain. After a few hundred yards the path swerved sharply through a dense thicket, and Clayton stopped in wonder.

  Some natural agent had hollowed the mountain, leaving a level plateau of several acres. The earth had fallen away from a great sombre cliff of solid rock, and clinging like a swallow's nest in a cleft of this was the usual rude cabin of a mountaineer. The face of the rock was dark with vines, and the cabin was protected as by a fortress. But one way of approach was possible, and that straight to the porch. From the cliff the vines had crept to roof and chimney, and were waving their tendrils about a thin blue spiral of smoke. The cabin was gray and tottering with age. Above the porch on the branches of an apple-tree hung leaves that matched in richness of tint the thick moss on the rough shingles. Under it an old woman sat spinning, and a hound lay asleep at her feet. Easter was nowhere to be seen, but her voice came from below him in a loud tone of command; and presently she appeared from behind a knoll, above which the thatched roof of a stable was visible, and slowly ascended the path to the house. She had evidently just finished work, for a plough stood in the last furrow of the field, and the fragrance of freshly turned earth was in the air. On the porch she sank wearily into a low chair, and, folding her hands, looked away to the mountains.

  Clayton climbed the crumbling fence. A dead twig snapped, and, startled by the sound, the girl began to rise; but, giving him one quick, sharp look, dropped her eyes to her hands, and remained motionless.

  "Good morning," said Clayton, lifting his hat. The girl did not raise her face. The wheel stopped, and the spinner turned her head.

  How air ye? " she said, with ready hospitality. " Come in an' hev a cheer."

  "No, thank you," he answered, a little embarrassed by Easter's odd behavior. " May I get some water?

  "Sartinly," said the old woman, looking him over curiously. " Easter, go git some fresh."

  The girl started to rise, but Clayton, picking up the bucket, said, quickly:

  "Oh no; I won't trouble you. I see the spring," he added, noticing a tiny stream that trickled from a fissure at the base of the cliff.

  Who air that feller, Easter? " the mother asked, in a low voice, when Clayton was out of hearing.

  "One o' them furriners who hev come into Injun Creek," was the indifferent reply.

  That's splendid water," said Clayton, returning. "May I give you some?" The old woman shook her head. Easter's eyes were still on the mountains, and apparently she had not heard him.

  "Hit air good water," said the mother. "That spring never does go dry. You better come in and rest a spell. I suppose ye air from the mines?" she added, as she turned to resume spinning.

  Yes," answered Clayton. "There is good hunting around here, isn't there? " he went on, feeling that some explanation was due for his sudden arrival away up in that lone spot.

  There was no answer. Easter did not look toward him, and the spinning stopped.

  "Whut d'you say?" asked the old woman.

  Clayton repeated his question.

  "Thar used to be prime huntin' in these parts when my dad cleared off this spot more'n fifty year ago, but the varmints hev mostly been killed out. But Easter kin tell you better'n I kin, for she does all our huntin', 'n' she kin outshoot 'mos' any man in the mountains."

  Yes; I saw her shoot at the match the other day down at the mines."

  Did ye? "-a smile of pleasure broke over the old woman's face-" whar she beat Sherd Raines? Sherd wanted to mortify her, but she mortified him, I reckon."

  The girl did not join in her mother's laugh, though the corners of her mouth twitched faintly.

  I like shooting, myself," said Clayton. "I would go into a match, but I'm afraid I wouldn't have much chance."

  "I reckon not, with that short thing? " said the old woman, pointing at his repeating-rifle. "Would ye shoot with that?"

  Oh, yes," answered Clayton, smiling; "it shoots very well."

  "How fer?"

  "Oh, a long way."

  A huge shadow swept over the house, thrown by a buzzard sailing with magnificent ease high above them. Thinking that he might disturb its flight, Clayton rose and cocked his rifle.

  "Ye're not going to shoot at that?" said the old woman, grinning. The girl had looked toward him at last, with a smile of faint dension.

  Clayton took aim quickly and fired. The huge bird sank as though hit, curved downward, and with one flap of his great wings sailed on.

  "Well, ef I didn't think ye had hit him!"said the old woman, in amazement. "You kin shoot, fer a fac'."

  Easter's attention was gained at last. For the first time she looked straight at him, and her little smile of derision had given way to a look of mingled curiosity and respect.

  "I expected only to scare him," said Clayton.

  The gun will carry twice that far."

  Hit's jest as well ye didn't hit him," said the old woman. 'Hit air five dollars fine to kill a buzzard around hyeh. I'd never thought that little thing could shoot."

  "It shoots several times," said Clayton. "Hit does whut?"

  Like a pistol," he explained, and, rising, he directed several shots in quick succession at a dead tree in the ploughed field. At each shot a puff of dust came almost from the same spot.

  When he turned, Easter had risen to her feet in astonishment, and the mother was laughing long and loudly.

  "Don't ye wish ye had a gun like that, Easter? " she cried.

  Clayton turned quickly to the girl, and began explaining the mechanism of the gun to her, without appearing to notice her embarrassment, for she shrank perceptibly when he spoke to her.

  "Won't you let me see your gun? " he asked.

  She brought out the old flint-lock, and handed it to him almost timidly.

  This is very interesting," he said. " I never saw one like it before."

  "Thar hain't but one more jest like that in the mountains," said the old woman, " 'n' Easter's got that. My dad made 'em both."

  "How would you like to trade one for mine, if you have two?" said Clayton to the girl. "I'll give you all my cartridges to boot."

  The girl looked at her mother with hesitation. Clayton saw that both wondered what he could want with the gun, and he added:

  "I'd like to have it to take home with me. It would be a great curiosity."

  "Well," said the mother, "you kin hev one ef ye want hit, and think the trade's fa'r."

  Clayton insisted, and the trade was made. The old woman resumed spinning. The girl took her seat in the low chair, holding her new treasure in her lap, with her eyes fixed on it, and occasionally running one brown hand down its shining barrel. Clayton watched her. She had given no sign whatever that she had ever seen him before, and yet a curious change had come over her. Her imperious manner had yielded to a singular reserve and timidity. The peculiar beauty of the girl struck him now with unusual force. Her profile was remarkably regular and delicate; her mouth small, resolute, and sensitive; heavy, dark lashes shaded her downcast eyes; and her brow suggested a mentality that he felt a strong desire to test. Her feet were small, and so were her quick, nervous hands, which were still finely shaped, in spite of the hard usage that had left them brown and callous. He wondered if she was really as lovely as she seemed; if his standard might not have been affected by his long stay in the mountains; if her picturesque environment might not have influenced his judgment. He tried to imagine her daintily slippered, clad in white, with her loose hair gathered in a Psyche knot; or in evening dress, with arms and throat bare; but the pictures were difficult to make. He liked her best as she was, in perfect physical sympathy with the natural phases about her; as much a part of them as tree, plant, or flower, embodying the freedom, grace, and beauty of nature as well and as unconsciously as they. He questioned whether she hardly felt herself to be apart from them; and, of course, she as little knew her kinship to them.

  She had lifted her eyes now, and had fixed them with tender thoughtfulness on the mountains. What did she see in the scene before her, he wondered: the deep valley, brilliant with early sunshine; the magnificent sweep of wooded slopes; Pine Mountain and the peak-like Narrows, where through it the river had worn its patient way; and the Cumberland Range, lying like a cloud against the horizon, and bluer and softer than the sky above it. He longed to know what her thoughts were; if in them there might be a hint of what he hoped to find. Probably she could not tell them, should he ask her, so unconscious was she of her mental life, whatever that might be. Indeed, she seemed scarcely to know of her own existence; there was about her a simplicity to which he had felt himself rise only in the presence of the spirit about some lonely mountain-top or in the heart of deep woods. Her gaze was not vacant, not listless, but the pensive look of a sensitive child, and Clayton let himself fancy that there was in it an unconscious love of the beauty before her, and of its spiritual suggestiveness a slumbering sense, perhaps easily awakened. Perhaps he might awaken it.

  The drowsy hum of the spinning-wheel ceased suddenly, and his dream was shattered. He wondered how long they had sat there saying nothing, and how long the silence might continue. Easter, he believed, would never address him. Even the temporary intimacy that the barter of the gun had brought about was gone. The girl seemed lost in unconsciousness. The mother had gone to her loom, and was humming softly to herself as she passed the shuttle to and fro. Clayton turned for an instant to watch her, and the rude background, which he had forgotten, thrust every unwelcome detail upon his attention: the old cabin, built of hewn logs, held together by wooden pin and augur-hole, and shingled with rough boards; the dark, windowless room; the unplastered walls; the beds with old-fashioned high posts, mattresses of straw, and cords instead of slats; the home-made chairs with straight backs, tipped with carved knobs; the mantel filled with utensils and overhung with bunches of drying herbs; a ladder with half a dozen smooth-worn steps leading to the loft; and a wide, deep fireplace- the only suggestion of cheer and comfort in the gloomy interior. An open porch connected the single room with the kitchen. Here, too, were suggestions of daily duties. The mother's face told a tale of hardship and toil, and there was the plough in the furrow, and the girl's calloused hands folded in her lap. With a thrill of compassion Clayton turned to her. What a pity! what a pity! Just now her face had the peace of a child's; but when aroused, an electric fire burned from her calm eyes and showed the ardent temperament that really lay beneath. If she were quick and sympathetic-and she must be, he who could tell how rich the development possible for her?

  "You hain't seen much of this country, I reckon. You hain't been here afore?

  The mother had broken the silence at last.

  No," said Clayton; "but I like it very much."

  Do ye? " she asked, in surprise. " Why, I 'lowed you folks from the settlemints thought hit was mighty scraggy down hyeh."

  "Oh no. These mountains and woods are beautiful, and I never saw lovelier beech-trees. The coloring of their trunks is so exquisite, and the shade is so fine," he concluded, lamely, noticing a blank look on the old woman's face. To his delight the girl, half turned toward him, was listening with puzzled interest.

  Well," said the old woman, " beeches is beautiful to me when they has mast enough to feed the hogs."

  Carried back to his train of speculations, Clayton started at this abrupt deliverance. There was a suspicion of humor in the old woman's tone that showed an appreciation of their different standpoints. It was lost on Clayton, however, for his attention had been caught by the word "mast," which, by some accident, he I had never heard before.

  " Mast," he asked, " what is that?

  The girl looked toward him in amazement, and burst into a low, suppressed laugh. Her mother explained the word, and all laughed heartily.

  Clayton soon saw that his confession of ignorance was a lucky accident. It brought Easter and himself nearer common ground. She felt that there was something, after all, that she could teach him. She had been overpowered by his politeness and deference and his unusual language, and, not knowing what they meant, was overcome by a sense of her inferiority. The incident gave him the key to his future conduct. A moment later she looked up covertly, and, meeting his eyes, laughed again. The ice was broken. He began to wonder if she really had noticed him so little at their first meeting as not to recognize him, or if her indifference or reserve had prevented her from showing the recognition. He pulled out his note-book and began sketching rapidly, conscious that the girl was watching him. When be finished, he rose, picking up the old flint-lock.

  "Won't ye stay and hev some dinner?,' asked the old woman.

  "No, thank you."

  Come ag'in," she said, cordially, adding the mountaineer's farewell, "I wish ye well."

  "Thank you, I will. Good-day."

  As he passed the girl he paused a moment and dropped the paper into her lap. It was a rude sketch of their first meeting, the bull coming at him like a tornado. The color came to her face, and when Clayton turned the corner of the house he heard her laughing.

  "What you laughin' at, Easter?" asked the mother, stopping her work and looking around.

  For answer the girl rose and walked into the house, hiding the paper in her bosom. The old woman watched her narrowly.

  I never seed ye afeard of a man afore," she said to herself. "No, nur so tickled 'bout one, nother. Well, he air as accommodatin' a feller as I ever see, ef he air a furriner. But he was a fool to swop his gun fer hem."

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