VIII. Dust of Diamonds in the Hour-glass
 

The axe of Theron Allen had opened the doors of the wilderness. One by one the great trees fell thundering and were devoured by fire. Now sheep and cattle were grazing on the bare hills. Around the house he left a thicket of fir trees that howled ever as the wind blew, as if "because the mighty were spoiled." Neighbours had come near; every summer great rugs of grain, vari-hued, lay over hill and dale.

Allen bad prospered, and begun to speculate in cattle. Every year late in April he went to Canada for a drove and sent them south--a great caravan that filled the road for half a mile or more, tramping wearily under a cloud of dust. He sold a few here and there, as the drove went on--a far journey, often, to the sale of the last lot.

The drove came along one morning about the middle of May, 1847. Trove met them at the four corners on Caraway Pike. Then about sixteen years of age, he made his first long journey into the world with Allen's drove. He had his time that summer and fifty cents for driving. It was an odd business, and for the boy full of new things.

A man went ahead in a buckboard wagon that bore provisions. One worked in the middle and two behind. Trove was at the heels of the first section. It was easy work after the cattle got used to the road and a bit leg weary. They stopped them for water at the creeks and rivers; slowed them down to browse or graze awhile at noontime; and when the sun was low, if they were yet in a land of fences, he of the horse and wagon hurried on to get pasturage for the night.

That first day some of the leaders had begun to wander and make trouble. For that reason Trove was walking beside the buckboard in front of the drove.

"We'll stop to-night on Cedar Hill," said the boss, about mid-afternoon. "Martha Vaughn has got the best pasture and the prettiest girl in this part o' the country. If you don't fall in love with that girl, you ought t' be licked."

Now Trove had no very high opinion of girls. Up there in Brier Dale he had seen little of them. At the red schoolhouse, even, they were few and far from his ideal. And they were a foolish lot there in Hillsborough, it seemed to him--all save two or three who were, he owned, very sweet and beautiful; but he had seen how they tempted other boys to extravagance, and was content with a sly glance at them now and then.

"I don't ever expect to fall in love," said Trove, confidently.

"Wal, love is a thing that always takes ye by surprise," the other answered. "Mrs. Vaughn is a widow, an' we generally stop there the first day out. She's a poor woman, an' it gives her a lift."

They came shortly to the little weather-stained house of the widow. As they approached, a girl, with arms bare to the elbow, stood looking at them, her hand shading her eyes.

"Co' boss! Co' boss! Co' boss!" she was calling, in a sweet, girlish treble.

Trove came up to the gate, and presently her big, dark eyes were looking into his own. That very moment he trembled before them as a reed shaken by the wind. Long after then, he said that something in her voice had first appealed to him. Her soft eyes were, indeed, of those that quicken the hearts of men. It is doubtful if there were, in all the world, a lovelier thing than that wild flower of girlhood up there in the hills. She was no dream of romance, dear reader. In one of the public buildings of a certain capital her portrait has been hanging these forty years, and wins, from all who pass it, the homage of a long look. But Trove said, often, that she was never quite so lovely as that day she stood calling the cows--her shapely, brown face aglow with the light of youth, her dark hair curling on either side as it fell to her shoulders.

"Good day," said he, a little embarrassed.

"Good day," said she, coolly, turning toward the house.

Trove was now in the midst of the cattle. Suddenly a dog rushed upon them, and they took fright. For a moment the boy was in danger of being trampled, but leaped quickly to the backs of the cows and rode to safety. After supper the men sat talking in the stable door, beyond which, on the hay, they were to sleep that night. But Trove stood a long time with the girl, whose name was Polly, at the little gate of the widow.

They seemed to meet there by accident. For a moment they were afraid of each other. After a little hesitation Polly picked a sprig of lilac. He could see a tremble in her hand as she gave it to him, and he felt his own blushes.

"Couldn't you say something?" she whispered with a smile.

"I--I've been trying to think of something," he stammered.

"Anything would do," said the girl, laughing, as she retreated a step or two and stood with an elbow leaning on the board fence. She had on her best gown.

It was a curious interview, the words of small account, the silences full of that power which has been the very light of the world. If there were only some way of reporting what followed the petty words,--swift arrows of the eye, lips trembling with the peril of unuttered thought, faces lighting with sweet discovery or darkening with doubt,--well, the author would have better confidence.

Their glances met--the boy hesitated.

"I--don't think you look quite as lovely in that dress," he ventured.

A shadow of disappointment came into her face, and she turned away. The boy was embarrassed. He had taken a misstep. She turned impatiently and gave him a glance from head to foot.

"But you're lovely enough now," he ventured again.

There was a quick movement of her lips, a flicker of contempt in her eyes. It seemed an age before she answered him.

"Flatterer!" said she, presently, looking down and jabbing the fence top with a pin. "I suppose you think I'm very homely."

"I always mean what I say."

"Then you'd better be careful--you might spoil me." She smiled faintly, turning her face away.

"How so?"

"Don't you know," said she, seriously, "that when a girl thinks she's beautiful she's spoiled?"

Their blushes had begun to fade; their words to come easier.

"Guess I'm spoilt, too," said the boy, looking away thoughtfully. "I don't know what to say--but sometime, maybe, you will know me better and believe me." He spoke with some dignity.

"I know who you are," the girl answered, coming nearer and looking into his eyes. "You're the boy that came out of the woods in a little red sleigh."

"How did you know?" Trove inquired; for he was not aware that any outside his own home knew it.

"A man told us that came with the cattle last year. And he said you must belong to very grand folks."

"And how did he know that?"

"By your looks."

"By my looks?"

"Yes, I--I suppose he thought you didn't look like other boys around here." She was now plying the pin very attentively.

"I must be a very curious-looking boy."

"Oh, not very," said she, looking at him thoughtfully. "I--I--well I shall not tell you what I think," She spoke decisively.

She had begun to blush again.

Their eyes met, and they both looked away, smiling. Then a moment of silence.

"Don't you like brown?" She was now looking down at her dress, with a little show of trouble in her eyes.

"I liked the brown of your arms," he answered.

The pin stopped; there was a puzzled look in her face.

"I'm afraid it's a very homely dress, anyway," said she, looking down upon it, as she moved her foot impatiently.

Her mother came out of doors. "Polly," said she, "you'd better go over to the post-office."

"May I go with her?" Trove inquired.

"Ask Polly," said the widow Vaughn, laughing.

"May I?" he asked.

Polly turned away smiling. "If you care to," said she, in a low voice.

"You must hurry and not be after dark," said the widow.

They went away, but only the moments hurried. They that read here, though their heads be gray and their hearts heavy, will understand; for they will remember some little space of time, with seconds flashing as they went, like dust of diamonds in the hour-glass.

"Don't you remember how you came in the little red sleigh?" she asked presently.

"No."

"I think it's very grand," said she. "It's so much like a story."

"Do you read stories?"

"All I can get. I've been reading 'Greytower.'"

"I read it last winter," said the boy. "What did you like best in it?"

"I'm ashamed to tell you," said she, with a quick glance at him.

"Please tell me."

"Oh, the love scenes, of course," said she, looking down with a sigh, and a little hesitation.

"He was a fine lover."

"I've something in my eye," said she, stopping.

"Perhaps I can get it," said he; "let me try."

"I'm afraid you'll hurt me," said she, looking up with a smile.

"I'll be careful."

He lifted her face a little, his fingers beneath her pretty chin. Then, taking her long, dark lashes between thumb and finger, he opened the lids.

"You are hurting," said she, soberly; and now the lashes were trying to pull free.

"I can see it," said he.

"It must be a bear--you look so frightened."

"It's nothing to be afraid of," said the boy.

"Well, your hands tremble," said she, laughing.

"There," he answered, removing a speck of dust with his handkerchief.

"It is gone now, thank you," said Polly, winking.

She stood close to him, and as she spoke her lips trembled. He could delay no longer with a subject knocking at the gate of speech.

"Do you believe in love at first sight?" he asked.

She turned, looking up at him seriously. Her lips parted in a smile that showed her white teeth. Then her glance fell. "I shall not tell you that," said she, in a half whisper.

"I hope we shall meet again," he said,

"Do you?" said she, glancing up at him shyly.

"Yes."

"Well, if I were you and wanted to see a girl,--I'd--I'd come and see her."

"What if you didn't know whether she was willing or not?" he asked.

"I'd take my chances," said she, soberly.

There were pauses in which their souls went far beyond their words and seemed to embrace each other fondly with arms of the spirit invisible and resistless. And whatever was to come, in that hour the great priest of Love in the white robe of innocence had made them one. The air about them was full of strange delight, They were in deep dusk as they neared the house. For one moment of long-remembered joy she let him put his arm about her waist, but when he kissed her cheek she drew herself away.

They walked a little time in silence.

"I am no flirt," she whispered presently. Neither spoke for a moment.

Then she seemed to feel and pity his emotion. Something slowed the feet of both.

"There," she whispered; "you may kiss my hand if you care to."

He kissed the pretty hand that was offered to him, and her whisper seemed to ring in the dusky silence like the dying rhythm of a bell.