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A Mountain Europa(Chapter7)

2006-08-29 01:18

  Chapter VII

  On the following Sunday morning, when Clayton walked up to the cabin, Easter and her mother were seated in the porch. He called to them cheerily as he climbed over the fence, but only the mother answered. Easter rose as he approached, and, without speaking, went within doors. He thought she must be ill, so thin and drawn was her face, but her mother said, carelessly:

  Oh, hit's only one o' Easter's spells. She's been sort o' puny 'n' triflin' o' late, but I reckon she'll be all right ag'in in a day or two."

  As the girl did not appear again, Clayton concluded that she was lying down, and went away without seeing her. Her manner had seemed a little odd, but, attributing that to ill-ness, he thought nothing further about it. To his surprise, the incident was repeated, and thereafter, to his wonder, the girl seemed to avoid him. Their intimacy was broken sharply off. When Clayton was at the cabin, either she did not appear or else kept herself busied with household duties. Their studies ceased abruptly. Easter had thrown her books into a corner, her mother said, and did nothing but mope all day; and though she insisted that it was only one of the girl's " spells," it was plain that something was wrong. Easter's face remained thin and drawn, and acquired gradually a hard, dogged, almost sullen look. She spoke to Clayton rarely, and then only in monosyllables. She never looked him in the face, and if his gaze rested intently on her, as she sat with eyes downcast and hands folded, she seemed to know it at once. Her face would color faintly, her hands fold and unfold nervously, and sometimes she would rise and go within. He had no opportunity of speaking with her alone. She seemed to guard against that, and, indeed, Raines's presence almost prevented it, for the mountaineer was there always, and always now the last to leave. He sat usually in the shadow of the vine, and though his-face was unseen, Clayton could feel his eyes fixed upon him with an intensity that sometimes made him nervous. The mountaineer had evidently begun to misinterpret his visits to the cabin. Clayton was regarded as a rival. In what other light, indeed, could he appear to Raines? Friendly calls between young people of opposite sex were rare in the mountains. When a young man visited a young woman, his intentions were supposed to be serious. Raines was plainly jealous.

  But Easter? What was 'the reason for her odd behavior? Could she, too, have misconstrued his intentions as Raines had? It was impossible. But even if she had, his manner had in no wise changed. Some one else had aroused her suspicions, and if any one it must have been Raines. It was not the mother, he felt sure.

  For some time Clayton's mother and sister had been urging him to make a visit home. He had asked leave of absence, but it was a busy time, and he had delayed indefinitely. In a fort-night, however, the stress of work would be over, and then he meant to leave. During that fortnight he was strangely troubled. He did not leave the camp, but his mind was busied with thoughts of Easter-nothing but Easter. Time and again he had reviewed their acquaintance minutely from the beginning, but he could find no cause for the change in her. When his work was done, he found himself climbing the mountain once more. He meant to solve the mystery if possible. He would tell Easter that he was going home. Surely she would betray some feeling then.

  At the old fence which he had climbed so often he stopped, as was his custom, to rest a moment, with his eyes on the wild beauty before him-the great valley, with mists floating from its gloomy depths into the tremulous moonlight; far through the radiant space the still, dark masses of the Cumberland lifted in majesty against the east; and in the shadow of the great cliff the vague outlines of the old cabin, as still as the awful silence around it. A light was visible, but he could hear no voices. Still, he knew he would find the occupants seated in the porch, held by that strange quiet which nature imposes on those who dwell much alone with her. He had not been to the cabin for several weeks, and when he spoke Easter did not return his greeting; Raines nodded almost surlily, but from the mother came, as always, a cordial welcome.

  "I'm mighty glad to see ye," she said; "you haven't been up fer a long time."

  No," answered Clayton; "I have been very busy-getting ready to go home." He had watched Easter closely as he spoke, but the girl did not lift her face, and she betrayed no emotion, not even surprise; nor did Raines. Only the mother showed genuine regret. The girl's apathy filled him with bitter disappointment. She had relapsed into barbarism again. He was a fool to think that in a few months he could counteract influences that had been moulding her character for a century. His purpose had been unselfish. Curiosity, the girl's beauty, his increasing power over her, had stimulated him, to be sure, but he had been conscientious and earnest. Somehow he was more than disappointed; he was hurt deeply, not only that he should have been so misunderstood, but for the lack of gratitude in the girl. He was bewildered. What could have happened? Could Raines really have poisoned her mind against him? Would Easter so easily believe what might have been said against him and not allow him a hearing?

  "I've been expecting to take a trip home for several weeks," he found himself saying a moment later; "I think I shall go to-morrow."

  He hardly meant what he said; a momentary pique had forced the words from him, but, once spoken, he determined to abide by them. Easter was stirred from her lethargy at last, but Clayton's attention was drawn to Raines 's start of surprise, and he did not see the girl's face agitated for an instant, nor her hands nervously trembling in her lap.

  "Ter-morrer! " cried the old woman. "Why, ye 'most take my breath away. I declar', I'm downright sorry you're goin', I hev tuk sech a shine to ye. I kind o' think I'll miss ye more'n Easter."

  Raines's eyes turned to the girl, as did Clay-ton's. Not a suggestion of color disturbed the pallor of the girl's face, once more composed, and she said nothing.

  You're so jolly 'n' lively," continued the mother, 'n' ye allus hev so much to say. You air not like Easter 'n' Sherd hyar, who talk 'bout as much as two stumps. I suppose I'll hev to sit up 'n' talk to the moon when you air gone."

  The mountaineer rose abruptly, and, though he spoke quietly, he could hardly control himself.

  "Ez my company seems to be unwelcome to ye," he said, "I kin take it away from ye, 'n' I will."

  Before the old woman could recover herself, he was gone.

  Well," she ejaculated, " whut kin be the matter with She rd? He hev got mighty cur'us hyar of late, 'n' so hev Easter. All o' ye been a-settin' up hyar ez ef you was at a buryin'. I'm a-goin' to bed. You 'n' Easter kin set up long as ye please. I suppose you air comm' back ag'in to see us," she said, turning to Clayton.

  "I don't know," he answered. "I may not; but I sha'n't forget you."

  "Well, I wish ye good luck." Clayton shook hands with her, and she went within doors.

  The girl had risen, too, with her mother, and was standing in the shadow.

  "Good-by Easter," said Clayton, holding out his hand.

  As she turned he caught one glimpse of her face in the moonlight, and its whiteness startled him. Her hand was cold when he took it, and her voice was scarcely audible as she faintly repeated his words. She lifted her face as their hands were unclasped, and her lips quivered mutely as if trying to speak, but he had turned to go. For a moment she watched his darkening figure, and then with stifled breath almost staggered into the cabin.

  The road wound around the cliff and back again, and as Clayton picked his way along it he was oppressed by a strange uneasiness. Easter's face, as he last saw it, lay in his mind like a keen reproach. Could he have been mistaken? Had he been too hasty? He recalled the events of the evening. He began to see that it was significant that Raines had shown no surprise when he spoke of going home, and yet had seemed almost startled by the suddenness of his departure. Perhaps the mountaineer knew he was going. It was known at the camp. If he knew, then Easter must have known. Perhaps she had felt hurt because he had not spoken to her earlier. What might Raines not have told her, and honestly, too? Perhaps he was unconsciously confirming all the mountaineer might have said. He ought to have spoken to her. Perhaps she could not speak to him. He wheeled suddenly in the path to return to the cabin, and stopped still.

  Something was hurrying down through the undergrowth of the cliffside which towered darkly behind him. Nearer and nearer the bushes crackled as though some hunted animal were flying for life through them, and then through the laurel-hedge burst the figure of a woman, who sank to the ground in the path be-fore him. The flash of yellow hair and a white face in the moonlight told him who it was.

  "Easter, Easter! " he exclaimed, in sickening fear. "My God! is that you? Why, what is the matter, child? What are you doing here?"

  He stooped above the sobbing girl, and pulled away her hands from her face, tear-stained and broken with pain. The limit of her self-repression was reached at last; the tense nerves, strained too much, had broken; and the passion, so long checked, surged through her like fire. Ah, God! what had he done? He saw the truth at last. In an impulse of tenderness he lifted the girl to her feet and held her, sobbing uncontrollably, in his arms, with her head against his breast, and his cheek on her hair, soothing her as though she had been a child.

  Presently she felt a kiss on her forehead. She looked up with a sudden fierce joy in her eyes, and their lips met.

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