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A Mountain Europa(Chapter12)

2006-08-29 01:20

  Chapter XII

  It was plain that Raines-to quiet the old man's uneasiness, perhaps-had told him of his last meeting with Clayton, and that, during the absence of the latter, some arrangements for the wedding had been made, even by Easter, who in her trusting innocence had perhaps never thought of any other end to their relations. In consequence, there was an unprecedented stir among the mountaineers. The marriage of a citizen with a " furriner " was an unprecedented event, and the old mountaineer, who began to take some pride in the alliance, emphasized it at every opportunity.

  At the mines Clayton's constant visits to the mountain were known to everybody, but little attention had been paid to them. Now, however, when the rumor of the wedding seemed confirmed by his return and his silence, every one was alert with a curiosity so frankly shown that he soon became eager to get away from the mountains. Accordingly, he made known his wish to Easter's parents that the marriage should take place as soon as possible. Both received the suggestion with silent assent. Then had followed many difficulties. Only as a great concession to the ideas and customs of " fur-riners" would the self-willed old mountaineer agree that the ceremony should take place at night, and that after the supper and the dance, the two should leave Jellico at daybreak. Mountain marriages were solemnized in the daytime, and wedding journeys were unknown. The old man did not understand why Clayton should wish to leave the mountains, and the haste of the latter seemed to give him great offence. When Clayton had ventured to suggest, instead, that the marriage should be quiet, and that he and Easter should remain on the mountain a few days before leaving, he fumed with anger; and thereafter any suggestion from the young engineer was met with a suspicion that looked ominous. Raines was away on his circuit, and would not return until just before the wedding, so that from him Clayton could get no help. Very wisely, then, he interfered no more, but awaited the day with dread.

  It was nearing dusk when he left the camp on his wedding-night. Half-way up the mountain he stopped to lean against the kindly breast of a bowlder blocking the path. It was the spot where he had seen Easter for the first time. The mountains were green again, as they were then, but the scene seemed sadly changed. The sun was gone; the evening-star had swung its white light like a censer above Devil's Den; the clouds were moving swiftly through the darkening air, like a frightened flock seeking a fold; and the night was closing fast over the cluster of faint camp-fires. The spirit brooding over mountain and sky was unspeakably sad, and with a sharp pain at his heart Clayton turned from it and hurried on. Mountain, sky, and valley were soon lost in the night. When he reached the cabin rays of bright light were flashing from chink and crevice into the darkness, and from the kitchen came the sounds of busy preparation. Already many guests had arrived. A group of men who stood lazily talking in the porch became silent as he approached, but, recognizing none of them, he entered the cabin. A dozen women were seated about the room, and instantly their eyes were glued upon him. As the kitchen door swung open he saw Easter's mother bending over the fireplace, a table already heavily laden, and several women bustling about it. Above his head he heard laughter, a hurried tramping of feet, and occasional cries of surprise and delight. He paused at the threshold, hardly knowing what to do, and when he turned a titter from one corner showed that his embarrassment was seen. On the porch he was seized by Easter's father, who drew him back into the room. The old mountaineer's face was flushed, and he had been drinking heavily.

  Oh, hyar ye air! " he exclaimed. "You're right on hand, hain't ye? Hyar, Bill," he called, thrusting his head out of the door, "you "n' Jim 'n' Milt come in hyar." Three awkward young mountaineers entered. "These fellers air goin' to help ye."

  They were to be his ushers. Clayton shook hands with them gravely.

  Oh, we air about ready fer ye, 'n' we air only waitin' fer Sherd and the folks to come," continued the mountaineer, jubilantly, winking significantly at Clayton and his attendants, who stood about him at the fireplace. Clayton shook his head firmly, but the rest followed Hicks, who turned at the door and repeated the invitation with a frowning face. Clayton was left the focus of feminine eyes, whose unwavering directness kept his own gaze on the floor. People began to come in rapidly, most of whom he had never seen before. The room was filled, save for a space about him. Every one gave him a look of curiosity that made him feel like some strange animal on exhibition. Once more he tried to escape to the porch, and again he was met by Easter's father, who this time was accompanied by Raines.

  The young circuit-rider was smoothly shaven, and dressed in dark clothes, and his calm face and simple but impressive manner seemed at once to alter the atmosphere of the room. He grasped Clayton's hand warmly, and without a trace of self-consciousness. The room had grown instantly quiet, and Raines began to share the curious interest that Clayton had caused; for the young mountaineer's sermon had provoked discussion far and wide, and, moreover, the peculiar relations of the two toward Easter were known and rudely appreciated. Hicks was subdued into quiet respect, and tried to conceal his incipient intoxication. The effort did not last long. When the two fiddlers came, he led them in with a defiant air, and placed them in the corner, bustling about officiously but without looking at Raines, whose face began to cloud.

  Well, we're all hyar, I reckon! " he exclaimed, in his terrible voice. "Is Easter ready? " he shouted up the steps.

  A confused chorus answered him affirmatively, and he immediately arranged Clayton in one corner of the room with his serious attendants on one side, and Raines, grave to solemnity, on the other. Easter's mother and her assistants came in from the kitchen, and the doors were filled with faces. Above, the tramping of feet became more hurried; below, all stood with expectant faces turned to the rude staircase. Clayton's heart began to throb, and a strange light brightened under Raines's heavy brows.

  "Hurry up, thar!" shouted Hicks, impatiently.

  A moment later two pairs of rough shoes came down the steps, and after them two slippered feet that fixed every eye in the room, until the figure and face above them slowly descended into the light. Midway the girl paused with a timid air. Had an angel been lowered to mortal view, the waiting people would not have been stricken with more wonder. Raines's face relaxed into a look almost of awe, and even Hicks for the instant was stunned into reverence. Mountain eyes had never beheld such loveliness so arrayed. It was simple enough-the garment-all white, and of a misty texture, yet it formed a mysterious vision to them. About the girl's brow was a wreath of pink and white laurel. A veil had not been used. It would hide her face, she said, and she did not see why that should be done. For an instant she stood poised so lightly that she seemed to sway like a vision, as the candle-lights quivered about her, with her hands clasped in front of her, and her eyes wandering about the room till they lighted upon Clayton with a look of love that seemed to make her conscious only of him. Then, with quickening breath, lips parted slightly, cheeks slowly flushing, and shining eyes still upon him, she moved slowly across the room until she stood at his side.

  Raines gathered himself together as from a dream, and stepped before the pair. Broken and husky at first, his voice trembled in spite of himself, but thereafter there was no hint of the powerful emotions at play within him. Only as he joined their hands, his eyes rested an instant with infinite tenderness on Easter's face-as though the look were a last farewell-and his voice deepened with solemn earnestness when he bade Clayton protect and cherish her until death. There was a strange mixture in those last words of the office and the man-of divine authority and personal appeal-and Clay. ton was deeply stirred. The benediction over4 the young preacher was turning away, when some one called huskily from the rear of the cabin:

  "Whyn't ye kiss the bride?

  It was Easter's father, and the voice, rough as it was, brought a sensation of relief to all. The young mountaineer's features contracted with swift pain, and as Easter leaned toward him, with subtle delicacy, he touched, not her lips, but her forehead, as reverently as though she had been a saint.

  Instantly the fiddles began, the floor was cleared, the bridal party hurried into the kitchen, and the cabin began to shake beneath dancing feet. Hicks was fulfilling his word, and in the kitchen his wife had done her part. Everything known to the mountaineer palate was piled in profusion on the table, but Clayton and Easter ate nothing. To him the whole evening was a nightmare, which the solemn moments of the marriage had made the more hideous. He was restless and eager to get away. The dancing was becoming more furious, and above the noise rose Hicks's voice prompting the dancers. The ruder ones still hung about the doors, regarding Clayton curiously, or with eager eyes upon the feast. Easter was vaguely troubled, and conflicting with the innocent pride and joy in her eyes were the questioning glances she turned to Clayton's darkening face. At last they were hurried out, and in came the crowd like hungry wolves.

  Placing Clayton and Easter in a corner of the room, the attendants themselves took part in the dancing, and such dancing Clayton had never seen. Doors and windows were full of faces, and the room was crowded; from the kitchen came coarse laughter and the rattling of dishes.

  Occasionally Hicks would disappear with several others, and would return with his face redder than ever.

  Easter became uneasy. Once she left Clayton's side and expostulated with her father, but he shook her from his arm roughly. Raines saw this, and a moment later he led the old mountaineer from the room. Thereafter the latter was quieter, but only for a little while. Several times the kitchen was filled and emptied, and ever was the crowd unsteadier. Soon even Raines's influence was of no avail, and the bottle was passed openly from guest to guest.

  "Whyn't ye dance?"

  Clayton felt his arm grasped, and Hicks stood swaying before him.

  "Whyn't ye dance?" he repeated. " Can't ye dance? Mebbe ye air too good-like Sherd. Well, Easter kin, Hyar, Mart, come 'n' dance with the gal. She air the best dancer in these parts."

  Clayton had his hand upon Easter as though to forbid her. The mountaineer saw the movement, and his face flamed; but before he could speak, the girl pressed Clayton's arm, and, with an appealing glance, rose to her feet.

  That's right," said her father, approvingly, but with a look of drunken malignancy toward Clayton. "Now," he called out, in a loud voice, "I want this couple to have the floor, 'n' everybody to look on 'n' see what is dancin'. Start the fiddles, boys."

  It was dancing. The young mountaineer was a slender, active fellow, not without grace, and Easter seemed hardly to touch the floor. They began very slowly at first, till Easter, glancing aside at Clayton and seeing his face deepen with interest, and urged by the remonstrance of het father, the remarks of the onlookers, and the increasing abandon of the music, gave herself up to the dance. The young mountaineer was no mean partner. Forward and back they glided, their swift feet beating every note of the music; Faster receding before her partner, and now advancing toward him, now whirling away with a disdainful toss of her head and arms, and now giving him her hand and whirling till her white skirts floated from the floor. At last, with head bent coquettishly toward her partner, she danced around him, and when it seemed that she would be caught by his outstretched hands she slipped from his clasp, and, with burning cheeks, flashing eyes, and bridal wreath showering its pink-flecked petals about her, flew to Clayton's side.

  Mebbe ye don't like that," cried Hicks, turning to Raines, who had been gravely watching the scene.

  Raines said nothing in reply, but only looked the drunken man in the face.

  "You two," he continued, indicating Clayton with an angry shake of his head, " air a-tryin' to spile ever'body's fun. Both of ye air too high-heeled fer us folks. Y'u hev got mighty good now that ye air a preacher," he added, with a drunken sneer, irritated beyond endurance by Raines's silence and his steady look. "I want ye to know Bill Hicks air a-runnin' things here, 'n' I don't want no meddlin'. I'll drink right here in front o' ye "-holding a bottle defiantly above his head-" 'n' I mean to dance, too, I warn ye now," he added, staggering toward the door, "I don't want no med-dlin'."

  Easter had buried her face in her hands. Her mother stood near her husband, helplessly trying to get him away, and fearing to arouse him more. Raines was the most composed man in the room, and a few moments later, when dancing was resumed, Clayton heard his voice at his ear:

  "You'd better go upstairs 'n' wait till it's time to go," he said. " He hev got roused ag'in ye, and ag'in me too. I'll keep out o' his way so as not to aggravate him, but I'll stay hyar fer fear something will happen. Mebbe he'll sober up a little, but I'm afeard he'll drink more'n ever."

  A moment later, unseen by the rest, the two mounted the stairway to the little room where Easter's girlhood had been passed. To Clayton the peace of the primitive little chamber was an infinite relief. A dim light showed a rude bed in one corner and a pine table close by, whereon lay a few books and a pen and an ink-bottle. Above, the roof rose to a sharp angle, and the low, unplastered walls were covered with pietures cut from the books he had given her. A single window opened into the night over the valley and to the mountains beyond. Two small cane-bottom chairs were near this, and in these they sat down. In the east dark clouds were moving swiftly across the face of the moon, checking its light anJ giving the dim valley startling depth and blackness. Rain-drops struck the roof at intervals, a shower of apple-blossoms rustled against the window and drifted on, and below the muffled sound of music and shuffling feet was now and then pierced by the shrill calls of the prompter. There was something ominous in the persistent tread of feet and the steady flight of the gloomy clouds, and quivering with vague fears, Easter sank down from her chair to Clayton's feet, and burst into tears, as he put his arms tenderly about her.

  Has he ever treated you badly?

  " No, no," she answered; "it's only the whiskey."

  It was not alone of her father's behavior that she was thinking. Memories were busy within her, and a thousand threads of feeling were tightening her love of home, the only home she had ever known. Now she was leaving it for a strange world of which she knew nothing, and the thought pierced her like a physical pain.

  "Are we ever coming back ag'in?" she asked, with sudden fear.

  Yes, dear," answered Clayton, divining her thoughts; "whenever you wish."

  After that she grew calmer, and remained quiet so long that she seemed to have fallen asleep like a tired child relieved of its fears. Leaning forward, he looked into the darkness. It was after midnight, surely. The clouds had become lighter, more luminous, and gradually the moon broke through them, lifting the pall from the valley, playing about the edge of the forest, and quivering at last on the window. As he bent back to look at the sleeping girl, the moonlight fell softly upon her face, revealing its purity of color, and touching the loosened folds of her hair, and shining through a tear-drop which had escaped from her closed lashes. How lovely the face was! How pure! How child-like with all its hidden strength! How absolute her confidence in him! How great her love! It was of her love that he thought, not of his own; but with a new realization of her dependence upon him for happiness, his clasp tightened about her almost unconsciously. She stirred slightly, and, bending his head lower, Clayton whispered in her ear:

  Have you been asleep, dear?

  She lifted her face and looked tenderly into his eyes, shaking her head slowly, and then, as he bent over again, she clasped her arms about his neck and strained his face to hers.

  Not until the opening of the door at the stair-way stirred them did they notice that the music and dancing below had ceased. The door was instantly closed again after a slight sound of scuffling, and in the moment of stillness that followed, they heard Raines say calmly:

  "No; you can't go up thar."

  A brutal oath answered him, and Easter started to her feet when she heard her father's voice, terrible with passion; but Clayton held her back, and hurried down the stairway.

  "Ef ye don't come away from that door," he could hear Hicks saying, " 'n' stop this meddlin', I'll kill you 'stid o' the furriner."

  As Clayton thrust the door open, Raines was standing a few feet from the stairway. The drunken man was struggling in the grasp of several mountaineers, who were coaxing and dragging him across the room. About them were several other men scarcely able to stand, and behind these a crowd of shrinking women.

  Git back! git back! " said Raines, in low, hurried tones.

  But Hicks had caught sight of Clayton. For a moment he stood still, glaring at him. Then, with a furious effort, he wrenched himself from the men who held him, and thrust his hand into his pocket, backing against the wall. The crowd fell away from him as a weapon was drawn and levelled with unsteady hand at Clayton. Raines sprang forward; Clayton felt his arm clutched, and a figure darted past him. The flash came, and when Raines wrenched the weapon from the mountaineer's grasp the latter was standing rigid, with horror-stricken eyes fixed upon the smoke, in which Easter's white face showed like an apparition. As the smoke drifted aside, the girl was seen with both hands at her breast. Then, while a silent terror held every one, she turned, and, with outstretched hands, tottered toward Clayton; and as he caught her in his arms, a low moan broke from her lips.

  Some one hurried away for a physician, but the death-watch was over before he came.

  For a long time the wounded girl lay apparently unconscious, her face white and quiet. Only when a wood-thrush called from the woods close by were her lids half raised, and as Clayton pushed the shutter open above her and lifted her gently, she opened her eyes with a grateful look and turned her face eagerly to the cool air.

  The dawn was breaking. The east was already aflame with bars of rosy light, gradually widening. Above them a single star was poised, and in the valley below great white mists were stirring from sleep. For a moment she seemed to be listlessly watching the white, shapeless things, trembling as with life, and creeping silently into wood and up glen; and then her lashes drooped wearily together.

  The door opened as Clayton let her sink upon the bed, breathing as if asleep, and he turned, expecting the physician. Raines, too, rose eagerly, stopped suddenly, and shrank back with a shudder of repulsion as the figure of the wretched father crept, half crouching, within.

  Sherd!

  The girl's tone was full of gentle reproach, and so soft that it reached only Clayton's ears.

  Sherd!

  This time his name was uttered with an appeal ever so gentle.

  Pore dad! Pore dad! " she whispered. Her clasp tightened suddenly on Clayton's hand, and her eyes were held to his, even while the light in them was going out.

  A week later two men left the cabin at dusk.

  Half-way down the slope they came to one of the unspeakably mournful little burying-grounds wherein the mountain people rest after their narrow lives. It was unhedged, uncared for, and a few crumbling boards for headstones told the living generation where the dead were at rest. For a moment they paused to look at a spot under a great beech where the earth had been lately disturbed.

  "It air shorely hard to see," said one in a low, slow voice, "why she was taken, 'n1 him left; why she should hev to give her life fer the life he took. But He knows, He knows," the mountaineer continued, with unfaltering trust; and then, after a moment's struggle to reconcile fact with faith: "The Lord took whut He keered fer most, 'n' she was ready, 'n' he wasn t.

  The other made no reply, and they kept on in silence. Upon a spur of the mountain beneath which the little mining-town had sunk to quiet for the night they parted with a hand-clasp. Not till then was the silence broken.

  "Thar seems to be a penalty fer lovin' too ''much down hyar," said one; " 'n' I reckon," he added, slowly, "that both of us hev got hit to pay."

  Turning, the speaker retraced his steps. The other kept on toward the lights below.

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