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A Mountain Europa(Chapter2)

2006-08-29 01:17

  Chapter II

  Lights twinkled from every cabin as Clayton passed through the camp. Outside the kitchen doors, miners, bare to the waist, were bathing their blackened faces and bodies, with children, tattered and unclean, but healthful, playing about them; within, women in loose gowns, with sleeves unrolled and with disordered hair, moved like phantoms through clouds of savory smoke. The commissary was brilliantly lighted. At a window close by improvident miners were drawing the wages of the day, while their wives waited in the store with baskets unfilled. In front of the commissary a crowd of negroes were talking, laughing, singing, and playing pranks like children. Here two, with grinning faces, were squared off, not to spar, but to knock at each other's tattered hat; there two more, with legs and arms indistinguishable, were wrestling; close by was the sound of a mouth-harp, a circle of interested spectators, and, within, two dancers pitted against each other, and shuffling with a zest that labor seemed never to affect.

  Immediately after supper Clayton went to his room, lighted his lamp, and sat down to a map he was tracing. His room was next the ground, and a path ran near the open window. As he worked, every passer-by would look curiously within. On the wall above his head a pair of fencing-foils were crossed under masks. Below these hung two pistols, such as courteous Claude Duval used for side-arms. Opposite were two old rifles, and beneath them two stone beer-mugs, and a German student's pipe absurdly long and richly ornamented. A mantel close by was filled with curiosities, and near it hung a banjo unstrung, a tennis-racket, and a blazer of startling colors. Plainly they were relics of German student life, and the odd contrast they made with the rough wall and ceiling suggested a sharp change in the fortunes of the young worker beneath. Scarcely six months since he had been suddenly summoned home from Germany. The reason was vague, but having read of recent American failures, notably in Wall Street, he knew what had happened. Reaching New York, he was startled by the fear that his mother was dead, so gloomy was the house, so subdued his sister's greeting, and so worn and sad his father's face. The trouble, however, was what he had guessed, and he had accepted it with quiet resignation. The financial wreck seemed complete; but one resource, however, was left. Just after the war Clayton's father had purchased mineral lands in the South, and it was with the idea of developing these that he had encouraged the marked scientific tastes of his son, and had sent him to a German university. In view of his own disaster, and the fact that a financial tide was swelling southward, his forethought seemed an inspiration. To this resource Clayton turned eagerly; and after a few weeks at home, which were made intolerable by straitened circumstances, and the fancied coldness of friend and acquaintance, he was hard at work in the heart of the Kentucky mountains.

  The transition from the careless life of a student was swift and bitter; it was like beginning a new life with a new identity, though Clayton suffered less than he anticipated. He had become interested from the first. There was nothing in the pretty glen, when he came, but a mountaineer's cabin and a few gnarled old apple-trees, the roots of which checked the musical flow of a little stream. Then the air was filled with the tense ring of hammer and saw, the mellow echoes of axes, and the shouts of ox-drivers from the forests, indignant groans from the mountains, and a little town sprang up before his eyes, and cars of shining coal wound slowly about the mountainside.

  Activity like this stirred his blood. Busy from dawn to dark, he had no time to grow miserable. His work was hard, to be sure, but it made rest and sleep a luxury, and it had the new zest of independence; he even began to take in it no little pride when he found himself an essential part of the quick growth going on. When leisure came, he could take to woods filled with unknown birds, new forms of insect life, and strange plants and flowers. With every day, too, he was more deeply stirred by the changing beauty of the mountains hidden at dawn with white mists, faintly veiled through the day with an atmosphere that made him think of Italy, and enriched by sunsets of startling beauty. But strongest of all was the interest he found in the odd human mixture about him-the simple, good-natured darkies who slouched past him, magnificent in physique and picturesque with rags; occasional foreigners just from Castle Garden, with the hope of the New World still in their faces; and now and then a gaunt mountaineer stalking awkwardly in the rear of the march toward civilization. Gradually it had dawned upon him that this last, silent figure, traced through Virginia, was closely linked by blood and speech with the common people of England, and, moulded perhaps by the influences of feudalism, was still strikingly unchanged; that now it was the most distinctively national remnant on American soil, and symbolized the development of the continent, and that with it must go the last suggestions of the pioneers, with their hardy physiques, their speech, their manners and customs, their simple architecture and simple mode of life. It was soon plain to him, too, that a change was being wrought at last-the change of destruction. The older mountaineers, whose bewildered eyes watched the noisy signs of an unintelligible civilization, were passing away. Of the rest, some, sullen and restless, were selling their homesteads and following the spirit of their forefathers into a new wilderness; others, leaving their small farms in adjacent valleys to go to ruin, were gaping idly about the public works, caught up only too easily by the vicious current of the incoming tide. In a century the mountaineers must be swept away, and their ignorance of the tragic forces at work among them gave them an unconscious pathos that touched Clayton deeply.

  As he grew to know them, their historical importance yielded to a genuine interest in the people themselves. They were densely ignorant, to be sure; but they were natural, simple, and hospitable. Their sense of personal worth was high, and their democracy-or aristocracy, since there was no distinction of caste-absolute. For generations, son had lived like father in an isolation hardly credible. No influence save such as shook the nation ever reached them. The Mexican war, slavery, and national politics of the first half-century were still present issues, and each old man would give his rigid, individual opinion sometimes with surprising humor and force. He went much among them, and the rugged old couples whom he found in the cabin porches-so much alike at first-quickly became distinct with a quaint individuality. Among young or old, however, he had found nothing like the half-wild young creature he had met on the mountain that day. In her a type had crossed his path-had driven him from it, in truth-that seemed unique and inexplicable. He had been little more than amused at first, but a keen interest had been growing in him with every thought of her. There was an indefinable charm about the girl. She gave a new and sudden zest to his interest in mountain life; and while he worked, the incidents of the encounter on the mountain came minutely back to him till he saw her again as she rode away, her supple figure swaying with every movement of the beast, and dappled with quivering circles of sunlight from the bushes, her face calm, but still flushed with color, and her yellow hair shaking about her shoulders-not lustreless and flaxen, as hair was in the mountains, he remembered, but catching the sunlight like gold.

  Almost unconsciously he laid aside his pencil and leaned from his window to lift his eyes to the dark mountain he had climbed that day. The rude melody of an old-fashioned hymn was coming up the glen, and he recognized the thin, quavering voice of an old mountaineer, Uncle Tommy Brooks, as he was familiarly known, whose cabin stood in the midst of the camp, a pathetic contrast to the smart new houses that had sprung around it. The old man had lived in the glen for nearly three-quarters of a century, and he, if any one, must know the girl. With the thought, Clayton sprang through the window, and a few minutes later was at the cabin. The old man sat whittling in the porch, joining in the song with which his wife was crooning a child to sleep within. Clayton easily identified Europa, as he had christened her; the simple mention of her means of transport was sufficient.

  Ridin' a bull, was she? " repeated the old man, laughing. "Well, that was Easter Hicks, old Bill Hicks' gal. She's a sort o' connection o' mine. Me and Bill married cousins.

  She's a cur'us critter as ever I seed. She don' seem to take atter her dad nur her mammy nother, though Bill allus had a quar streak in 'im, and was the wust man I ever seed when he was disguised by licker. Whar does she live? Oh, up thar, right on top o' Wolf Mountain, with her mammy."

  Alone?

  "Yes; fer her dad ain't thar. No; 'n' he ain't dead. I'll tell ye"-the old man lowered his tone-" thar used to be a big lot o' moonshinin' done in these parts, 'n' a raider come hyeh to see 'bout it. Well, one mornin' he was found layin' in the road with a bullet through him. Bill was s'picioned. Now, I ain't a-sayin' as Bill done it, but when a whole lot more rode up thar on hosses one night, they didn't find Bill. They hain't found him yit, fer he's out in the mountains somewhar a-hidin'."

  "How do they get along without him?" asked Clayton.

  "Why, the gal does the work. She ploughs with that bull, and does the plantin' herself. She kin chop wood like a man. An' as fer shootin', well, when huntin's good 'n' thar's shootin'-matches round-about, she don't have to buy much meat."

  "It's a wonder some young fellow hasn't married her. I suppose, though, she's too young."

  The old man laughed. "Thar's been many a lively young fellow that's tried it, but she's hard to ketch as a wildcat. She won't have nothin' to do with other folks, 'n' she nuver comes down hyeh into the valley, 'cept to git her corn groun' er to shoot a turkey. Sherd Raines goes up to see her, and folks say he air tryin' to git her into the church. But the gal won't go nigh a meetin'-house. She air a cur'us critter," he concluded emphatically, " shy as a deer till she air stirred up, and then she air a caution; mighty gentle sometimes, and ag'in stubborn as a mule."

  A shrill, infantile scream came from within, and the old man paused a moment to listen.

  "Ye didn't know I had a great-grandchild, did ye? That's it a-hollerin'. Talk about Easter bein' too young to merry! Why hit's mother air two year younger'n Easter. Jes come in hyeh a minit." The old mountaineer rose and led the way into the cabin. Clayton was embarrassed at first. On one bed lay a rather comely young woman with a child by her side; on a chest close by sat another with her lover, courting in the most open and primitive manner. In the corner an old grandam dozed with her pipe, her withered face just touched by the rim of the firelight. Near a rectangular hole in the wall which served the purpose of a window, stood a girl whose face, silhouetted against the darkness, had in it a curious mixture of childishness and maturity.

  "Whar's the baby? " asked Uncle Tommy.

  Somebody outside was admiring it, and the young girl leaned through the window and lifted the infant within.

  Thar's a baby fer ye! " exclaimed the old mountaineer, proudly, lifting it in the air and turning its face to the light. But the child was peevish and fretful, and he handed it back gently. Clayton was wondering which was the mother, when, to his amazement, almost to his confusion, the girl lifted the child calmly to her own breast. The child was the mother of the child. She was barely fifteen, with the face of a girl of twelve, and her motherly manner had struck him as an odd contrast. He felt a thrill of pity for the young mother as he called to mind the aged young wives he had seen who were haggard and care-worn at thirty, and who still managed to live to an old age. He was indefinably glad that Easter had escaped such a fate. When he left the cabin, the old man called after him from the door:

  "Thar's goin' to be a shootin'-match among the boys to-morrer, 'n' I jedge that Easter '11 be on hand. She al'ays is."

  "Is that so? " said Clayton. " Well, I'll look out for it."

  The old mountaineer lowered his voice.

  "Ye hain't thinkin' about takin' a wife, air ye?"

  "No, no!"

  " Well, ef ye air," said the old man, slowly, "I'm a-thinkin' yu'll have to buck up ag'in Sherd Raines, fer ef I hain't like a goose a-pickin' o' grass by moonshine, Sherd air atter the gal fer hisself, not fer the Lord. Yes," he continued, after a short, dry laugh; "'n' mebbe ye'll hav to keep an eye open fer old Bill. They say that he air mighty low down, 'n' kind o' sorry 'n' skeery, for I reckon Sherd Raines hev told him he hav got to pay the penalty fer takin' a human life; but I wouldn't sot much on his bein' sorry ef he was mad at me and had licker in him. He hates furriners, and he has a crazy idee that they is all raiders 'n' lookin' fer him."

  "I don't think I'll bother him," said Clayton, turning away with a laugh. "Good-night t" With a little cackle of incredulity, the old man closed the door. The camp had sunk now to perfect quiet; but for the faint notes of a banjo far up the glen, not a sound trembled on the night air.

  The rim of the moon was just visible above the mountain on which Easter-what a pretty name that was !-had flashed upon his vision with such theatric effect. As its brilliant light came slowly down the dark mountain-side, the mists seemed to loosen their white arms, and to creep away like ghosts mistaking the light for dawn. With the base of the mountain in dense shadow, its crest, uplifted through the vapors, seemed poised in the air at a startling height. Yet it was near the crest that he had met her. Clayton paused a moment, when he reached his door, to look again. Where in that cloud-land could she live?

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