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A Mountain Europa(Chapter11)

2006-08-29 01:20

  Chapter XI

  The journey to the mountains was made with a heavy heart. In his absence everything seemed to have suffered a change. Jellico had never seemed so small, so coarse, so wretched as when he stepped from the dusty train and saw it lying dwarfed and shapeless in the afternoon sunlight. The State line bisects the straggling streets of frame-houses. On the Kentucky side an extraordinary spasm of morality had quieted into local option. Just across the way in Tennessee was a row of saloons. It was "pay-day" for the miners, and the worst element of all the mines was drifting in to spend the following Sabbath in unchecked vice. Several rough, brawny fellows were already staggering from Tennessee into Kentucky, and around one saloon hung a crowd of slatternly negroes, men and women. Heartsick with disgust, Clayton hurried into the lane that wound through the valley. Were these hovels, he asked himself in wonder, the cabins he once thought so poetic, so picturesque? How was it that they suggested now only a pitiable poverty of life? From each, as he passed, came a rough, cordial shout of greeting. Why was he jarred so strangely? Even nature had changed. The mountains seemed stunted, less beautiful. The light, streaming through the western gap with all the splendor of a mountain sunset, no longer thrilled him. The moist fragrance of the earth at twilight, the sad pipings of birds by the wayside, the faint, clear notes of a wood-thrush-his favorite-from the edge of the forest, even the mid-air song of a meadow-lark above his head, were unheeded as, with face haggard with thought and travel, he turned doggedly from the road and up the mountain toward Easter's home. The novelty and ethnological zeal that had blinded him to the disagreeable phases of mountain life were gone; so was the pedestal from which he had descended to make a closer study of the people. For he felt now that he had gone among them with an unconscious condescension; his interest seemed now to have been little more than curiosity-a pastime to escape brooding over his own change of fortune. And with Easter-ah, how painfully clear his mental vision had grown! Was it the tragedy of wasting possibilities that had drawn him to her-to help her-or was it his own miserable selfishness, after all?

  No one was visible when he reached the cabin. The calm of mountain and sky enthralled it as completely as the cliff that towered behind it. The day still lingered, and the sunlight rested lightly on each neighboring crest. As he stepped upon the porch there was a slight noise within the cabin, and, peering into the dark interior, he called Easter's name. There was no answer, and he sank wearily into a chair, his thoughts reverting homeward. By this time his mother and sister must know why he had come back to the mountains. He could imagine their consternation and grief. Perhaps that was only the beginning; he might be on the eve of causing them endless unhappiness. He had thought to involve them as little as possible by remaining in the mountains; but the thought of living there was now intolerable in the new relations he would sustain to the people. What should he do? where go? As he bent forward in perplexity, there was a noise again in the cabin-this time the stealthy tread of feet-and before he could turn, a rough voice vibrated threateningly in his ears:

  Say who ye air, and what yer business is, mighty quick, er ye hain't got a minute to live."

  Clayton looked up, and to his horror saw the muzzle of a rifle pointed straight at his head. At the other end of it, and standing in the door, was a short, stocky figure, a head of bushy hair, and a pair of small, crafty eyes. The fierceness and suddenness of the voice, in the great silence about him, and its terrible earnestness, left him almost paralyzed.

  "Come, who air ye? Say quick, and don't move, nother"

  Clayton spoke his name with difficulty. The butt of the rifle dropped to the floor, and with a harsh laugh its holder advanced to him with hand outstretched:

  So ye air Easter's feller, air ye? Well, I'm yer dad-that's to be. Shake."

  Clayton shuddered. Good heavens! this was Easter's father! More than once or twice, his name had never been mentioned at the cabin.

  I tuk ye fer a raider," continued the old mountaineer, not noticing Clayton's repulsion, "'n' ef ye had 'a' been, ye wouldn't be nobody now. I reckon Easter hain't told ye much about me, 'n' I reckon she hev a right to be a leetle ashamed of me. I had a leetle trouble down thar in the valley-I s'pose you've heerd about it-'n' I've had to keep kind o' quiet. I seed ye once afore, 'n' I come near shootin' ye, thinkin' ye was a raider. Am mighty glad I didn't, fer Easter is powerful sot on ye. Sherd thought I could resk comm' down to the wed-din'. They hev kind o' give up the s'arch, 'n' none o' the boys won't tell on me. We'll have an old-timer, I tell ye. Ye folks from the settle-mints air mighty high-heeled, but old Bill Hicks don't allus go bar'footed. He kin step purty high, 'n' he's a-goin' to do it at that weddin'. Hev somefin?" he asked, suddenly pulling out a flask of colorless liquid. "Ez ye air to be one o' the fambly, I don't mind tellin' ye thar's the very moonshine that caused the leetle trouble down in the valley."

  For fear of giving offence, Clayton took a swallow of the liquid, which burned him like fire. He had scarcely recovered from the first shock, and he had listened to the man and watched him with a sort of enthralling fascination. He was Easter's father. He could even see a faint suggestion of Easter's face in the cast of the features before him, coarse and degraded as they were. He had the same nervous, impetuous quickness, and, horrified by the likeness, Clayton watched him sink back into a chair, pipe in mouth, and relapse into a stolidity that seemed incapable of the energy and fire shown scarcely a moment before. His life in the mountains had made him as shaggy as some wild animal. He was coatless, and his trousers of jeans were upheld by a single home-made suspender. His beard was yet scarcely touched with gray, and his black, lustreless hair fell from under a round hat of felt with ragged tdges and uncertain color. The mountaineer did not speak again until, with great deliberation and care, he had filled a cob pipe. Then he bent his sharp eyes upon Clayton so fixedly that the latter let his own fall.

  "Mebbe ye don't know that I'm ag'in' fur-riners," he said, abruptly, " all o' ye; 'n' ef the Lord hisself hed 'a' tol' me thet my gal would be a-marryin' one, I wouldn't 'a' believed him. But Sherd hev told me ye air all right, 'n' ef Sherd says ye air, why, ye air, I reckon, 'n' I hevn't got nothin' to say; though I hev got a heap ag'in ye-all o' ye."

  His voice had a hint of growing anger under the momentary sense of his wrongs, and, not wishing to incense him further, Clayton said nothing.

  Ye air back a little sooner than ye expected, ain't ye? " he asked, presently, with an awkward effort at good-humor. "I reckon ye air gittin' anxious. Well, we hev been gittin' ready fer ye, 'n' you 'n' Easter kin hitch ez soon ez ye please. Sherd Raines air gum' to do the marryin'. He air the best friend I got. Sherd was a-courtin' the gal, too, but he hevn't got no gredge ag'in ye, 'n' he hev promised to tie ye. Sherd air a preacher now. He hev just got his license. He didn't want to do it, but I told him he had to. We'll hev the biggest weddin' ever seed in these mountains, I tell ye. Any o' yo' folks be on hand?"

  No," answered Clayton, soberly, "I think not."

  "Well, I reckon we kin fill up the house."

  Clayton's heart sank at the ordeal of a wedding with such a master of ceremonies. He was about to ask where Easter and her mother were, when, to his relief, he saw them both in the path below, approaching the house. The girl was carrying a bucket of water on her head. Once he would have thought her picturesque, but now it pained him to see her doing such rough work. When she saw him, she gave a cry of surprise and delight that made Clayton tingle with remorse. Then running to him with glowing face, she stopped suddenly, and, with a look down at her bare feet and soiled gown, fled into the cabin. Clayton followed, but the room was so dark he could see nothing.

  Easter! " he called. There was no answer, but he was suddenly seized about the neck by a pair of unseen arms and kissed by unseen lips twice in fierce succession, and before he could turn and clasp the girl she was laughing softly in the next room, with a barred door between them. Clayton waited patiently several minutes, and then asked:

  Easter, aren't you ready?

  Not yit-not yet!" She corrected herself with such vehemence that Clayton laughed. She came out presently, and blushed when Clayton looked her over from head to foot with astonishment. She was simply and prettily dressed in white muslin; a blue ribbon was about her throat, and her hair was gathered in a Psyche knot that accented the classicism of her profile. Her appearance was really refined and tasteful. When they went out on the porch he noticed that her hands had lost their tanned appearance. Her feet were slippered, and she wore black stockings. He remembered the book of fashion-plates he had once sent her; it was that that had quickened her instinct of dress. He said nothing, but the happy light in Easter's face shone brighter as she noted his pleased and puzzled gaze.

  Why, ye look like another man," said Easter's mother, who had been looking Clayton over with a quizzical smile. "Is that the way folks dress out in the settlemints? 'N' look at that gal. Ef she hev done anythin' sence ye hev been gone but____" The rest of the sentence was smothered in the palm of Easter's hand, and she too began scrutinizing Clayton closely. The mountaineer said nothing, and after a curious glance at Easter resumed his pipe.

  You look like a pair of butterflies," said the mother when released. "Sherd oughter be mighty proud of his first marryin'. I s'pose ye know he air a preacher now? Ye oughter heerd him preach last Sunday. It was his fust time. The way he lighted inter the furriners was a caution. He 'lowed he was a-goin' to fight cyard-playin' and dancin' ez long ez he hed breath."

  Yes; 'n' thar's whar Sherd air a fool. I'm ag'in furriners, too, but thar hain't no harm in dancin, n' thar's goin' to be dancin' at this weddin' ef I'm alive."

  Easter shrank perceptibly when her father spoke, and looked furtively at Clayton, who winced, in spite of himself, as the rough voice grated in his ear. Instantly her face grew unhappy, and contained an appeal for pardon that he was quick to understand and appreciate. Thereafter he concealed his repulsion, and treated the rough bear so affably that Easter's eyes grew moist with gratitude.

  Darkness was gathering in the valley below when he rose to go. Easter had scarcely spoken to him, but her face and her eyes, fixed always upon him, were eloquent with joy. Once as she passed behind him her hand rested with a timid, caressing touch upon his shoulder, and now, as he walked away from the porch, she called him back. He turned, and she had gone into the house.

  What is it, Easter? " he asked, stepping into the dark room. His hand was grasped in both her own and held tremblingly.

  Don't mind dad," she whispered, softly. Something warm and moist fell upon his hand as she unloosed it, and she was gone.

  That night he wrote home in a better frame of mind. The charm of the girl's personality had asserted its power again, and hopes that had almost been destroyed by his trip home were rekindled by her tasteful appearance, her delicacy of feeling, and by her beauty, which he had not overrated. He asked that his sister might meet him in Louisville after the wedding-whenever that should be. They two could decide then what should be done. His own idea was to travel; and so great was his confidence in Easter, he believed that, in time, he could take her to New York without fear.

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