Chapter XV
 

Hand in hand, Hale and June followed the footsteps of spring from the time June met him at the school-house gate for their first walk into the woods. Hale pointed to some boys playing marbles.

"That's the first sign," he said, and with quick understanding June smiled.

The birdlike piping of hylas came from a marshy strip of woodland that ran through the centre of the town and a toad was croaking at the foot of Imboden Hill.

"And they come next."

They crossed the swinging foot-bridge, which was a miracle to June, and took the foot-path along the clear stream of South Fork, under the laurel which June called "ivy," and the rhododendron which was "laurel" in her speech, and Hale pointed out catkins greening on alders in one swampy place and willows just blushing into life along the banks of a little creek. A few yards aside from the path he found, under a patch of snow and dead leaves, the pink-and-white blossoms and the waxy green leaves of the trailing arbutus, that fragrant harbinger of the old Mother's awakening, and June breathed in from it the very breath of spring. Near by were turkey peas, which she had hunted and eaten many times.

"You can't put that arbutus in a garden," said Hale, "it's as wild as a hawk."

Presently he had the little girl listen to a pewee twittering in a thorn-bush and the lusty call of a robin from an apple-tree. A bluebird flew over-head with a merry chirp--its wistful note of autumn long since forgotten. These were the first birds and flowers, he said, and June, knowing them only by sight, must know the name of each and the reason for that name. So that Hale found himself walking the woods with an interrogation point, and that he might not be confounded he had, later, to dip up much forgotten lore. For every walk became a lesson in botany for June, such a passion did she betray at once for flowers, and he rarely had to tell her the same thing twice, since her memory was like a vise-- for everything, as he learned in time.

Her eyes were quicker than his, too, and now she pointed to a snowy blossom with a deeply lobed leaf.

"Whut's that?"

"Bloodroot," said Hale, and he scratched the stem and forth issued scarlet drops. "The Indians used to put it on their faces and tomahawks"--she knew that word and nodded--"and I used to make red ink of it when I was a little boy."

"No!" said June. With the next look she found a tiny bunch of fuzzy hepaticas.

"Liver-leaf."

"Whut's liver?"

Hale, looking at her glowing face and eyes and her perfect little body, imagined that she would never know unless told that she had one, and so he waved one hand vaguely at his chest:

"It's an organ--and that herb is supposed to be good for it."

"Organ? Whut's that?"

"Oh, something inside of you."

June made the same gesture that Hale had.

"Me?"

"Yes," and then helplessly, "but not there exactly."

June's eyes had caught something else now and she ran for it:

"Oh! Oh!" It was a bunch of delicate anemones of intermediate shades between white and red-yellow, pink and purple-blue.

"Those are anemones."

"A-nem-o-nes," repeated June.

"Wind-flowers--because the wind is supposed to open them." And, almost unconsciously, Hale lapsed into a quotation:

"'And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.'"

"Whut's that?" said June quickly.

"That's poetry."

"Whut's po-e-try?" Hale threw up both hands.

"I don't know, but I'll read you some--some day."

By that time she was gurgling with delight over a bunch of spring beauties that came up, root, stalk and all, when she reached for them.

"Well, ain't they purty?" While they lay in her hand and she looked, the rose-veined petals began to close, the leaves to droop and the stem got limp.

"Ah-h!" crooned June. "I won't pull up no more o' them."

'"These little dream-flowers found in the spring.' More poetry, June."

A little later he heard her repeating that line to herself. It was an easy step to poetry from flowers, and evidently June was groping for it.

A few days later the service-berry swung out white stars on the low hill-sides, but Hale could tell her nothing that she did not know about the "sarvice-berry." Soon, the dogwood swept in snowy gusts along the mountains, and from a bank of it one morning a red-bird flamed and sang: "What cheer! What cheer! What cheer!" And like its scarlet coat the red-bud had burst into bloom. June knew the red-bud, but she had never heard it called the Judas tree.

"You see, the red-bud was supposed to be poisonous. It shakes in the wind and says to the bees, 'Come on, little fellows--here's your nice fresh honey, and when they come, it betrays and poisons them."

"Well, what do you think o' that!" said June indignantly, and Hale had to hedge a bit.

"Well, I don't know whether it really does, but that's what they say." A little farther on the white stars of the trillium gleamed at them from the border of the woods and near by June stooped over some lovely sky-blue blossoms with yellow eyes.

"Forget-me-nots," said Hale. June stooped to gather them with a radiant face.

"Oh," she said, "is that what you call 'em?"

"They aren't the real ones--they're false forget-me-nots."

"Then I don't want 'em," said June. But they were beautiful and fragrant and she added gently:

"'Tain't their fault. I'm agoin' to call 'em jus' forget-me-nots, an' I'm givin' 'em to you," she said--"so that you won't."

"Thank you," said Hale gravely. "I won't."

They found larkspur, too--

"'Blue as the heaven it gazes at,'" quoted Hale.

"Whut's 'gazes'?"

"Looks." June looked up at the sky and down at the flower.

"Tain't," she said, "hit's bluer."

When they discovered something Hale did not know he would say that it was one of those--

"'Wan flowers without a name.'"

"My!" said June at last, "seems like them wan flowers is a mighty big fambly."

"They are," laughed Hale, "for a bachelor like me."

"Huh!" said June.

Later, they ran upon yellow adder's tongues in a hollow, each blossom guarded by a pair of ear-like leaves, Dutchman's breeches and wild bleeding hearts--a name that appealed greatly to the fancy of the romantic little lady, and thus together they followed the footsteps of that spring. And while she studied the flowers Hale was studying the loveliest flower of them all--little June. About ferns, plants and trees as well, he told her all he knew, and there seemed nothing in the skies, the green world of the leaves or the under world at her feet to which she was not magically responsive. Indeed, Hale had never seen a man, woman or child so eager to learn, and one day, when she had apparently reached the limit of inquiry, she grew very thoughtful and he watched her in silence a long while.

"What's the matter, June?" he asked finally.

"I'm just wonderin' why I'm always axin' why," said little June.

She was learning in school, too, and she was happier there now, for there had been no more open teasing of the new pupil. Bob's championship saved her from that, and, thereafter, school changed straightway for June. Before that day she had kept apart from her school-fellows at recess-times as well as in the school-room. Two or three of the girls had made friendly advances to her, but she had shyly repelled them--why she hardly knew--and it was her lonely custom at recess-times to build a play-house at the foot of a great beech with moss, broken bits of bottles and stones. Once she found it torn to pieces and from the look on the face of the tall mountain boy, Cal Heaton, who had grinned at her when she went up for her first lesson, and who was now Bob's arch-enemy, she knew that he was the guilty one. Again a day or two later it was destroyed, and when she came down from the woods almost in tears, Bob happened to meet her in the road and made her tell the trouble she was in. Straightway he charged the trespasser with the deed and was lied to for his pains. So after school that day he slipped up on the hill with the little girl and helped her rebuild again.

"Now I'll lay for him," said Bob, "and catch him at it."

"All right," said June, and she looked both her worry and her gratitude so that Bob understood both; and he answered both with a nonchalant wave of one hand.

"Never you mind--and don't you tell Mr. Hale," and June in dumb acquiescence crossed heart and body. But the mountain boy was wary, and for two or three days the play-house was undisturbed and so Bob himself laid a trap. He mounted his horse immediately after school, rode past the mountain lad, who was on his way home, crossed the river, made a wide detour at a gallop and, hitching his horse in the woods, came to the play-house from the other side of the hill. And half an hour later, when the pale little teacher came out of the school-house, he heard grunts and blows and scuffling up in the woods, and when he ran toward the sounds, the bodies of two of his pupils rolled into sight clenched fiercely, with torn clothes and bleeding faces--Bob on top with the mountain boy's thumb in his mouth and his own fingers gripped about his antagonist's throat. Neither paid any attention to the school- master, who pulled at Bob's coat unavailingly and with horror at his ferocity. Bob turned his head, shook it as well as the thumb in his mouth would let him, and went on gripping the throat under him and pushing the head that belonged to it into the ground. The mountain boy's tongue showed and his eyes bulged.

"'Nough!" he yelled. Bob rose then and told his story and the school-master from New England gave them a short lecture on gentleness and Christian charity and fixed on each the awful penalty of "staying in" after school for an hour every day for a week. Bob grinned:

"All right, professor--it was worth it," he said, but the mountain lad shuffled silently away.

An hour later Hale saw the boy with a swollen lip, one eye black and the other as merry as ever--but after that there was no more trouble for June. Bob had made his promise good and gradually she came into the games with her fellows there-after, while Bob stood or sat aside, encouraging but taking no part--for was he not a member of the Police Force? Indeed he was already known far and wide as the Infant of the Guard, and always he carried a whistle and usually, outside the school-house, a pistol bumped his hip, while a Winchester stood in one corner of his room and a billy dangled by his mantel-piece.

The games were new to June, and often Hale would stroll up to the school-house to watch them--Prisoner's Base, Skipping the Rope, Antny Over, Cracking the Whip and Lifting the Gate; and it pleased him to see how lithe and active his little protege was and more than a match in strength even for the boys who were near her size. June had to take the penalty of her greenness, too, when she was "introduced to the King and Queen" and bumped the ground between the make-believe sovereigns, or got a cup of water in her face when she was trying to see stars through a pipe. And the boys pinned her dress to the bench through a crack and once she walked into school with a placard on her back which read:

"June-Bug." But she was so good-natured that she fast became a favourite. Indeed it was noticeable to Hale as well as Bob that Cal Heaton, the mountain boy, seemed always to get next to June in the Tugs of War, and one morning June found an apple on her desk. She swept the room with a glance and met Cal's guilty flush, and though she ate the apple, she gave him no thanks--in word, look or manner. It was curious to Hale, moreover, to observe how June's instinct deftly led her to avoid the mistakes in dress that characterized the gropings of other girls who, like her, were in a stage of transition. They wore gaudy combs and green skirts with red waists, their clothes bunched at the hips, and to their shoes and hands they paid no attention at all. None of these things for June--and Hale did not know that the little girl had leaped her fellows with one bound, had taken Miss Anne Saunders as her model and was climbing upon the pedestal where that lady justly stood. The two had not become friends as Hale hoped. June was always silent and reserved when the older girl was around, but there was never a move of the latter's hand or foot or lip or eye that the new pupil failed to see. Miss Anne rallied Hale no little about her, but he laughed good-naturedly, and asked why she could not make friends with June.

"She's jealous," said Miss Saunders, and Hale ridiculed the idea, for not one sign since she came to the Gap had she shown him. It was the jealousy of a child she had once betrayed and that she had outgrown, he thought; but he never knew how June stood behind the curtains of her window, with a hungry suffering in her face and eyes, to watch Hale and Miss Anne ride by and he never guessed that concealment was but a sign of the dawn of womanhood that was breaking within her. And she gave no hint of that breaking dawn until one day early in May, when she heard a woodthrush for the first time with Hale: for it was the bird she loved best, and always its silver fluting would stop her in her tracks and send her into dreamland. Hale had just broken a crimson flower from its stem and held it out to her.

"Here's another of the 'wan ones,' June. Do you know what that is?"

"Hit's"--she paused for correction with her lips drawn severely in for precision--"It's a mountain poppy. Pap says it kills goslings"--her eyes danced, for she was in a merry mood that day, and she put both hands behind her--"if you air any kin to a goose, you better drap it."

"That's a good one," laughed Hale, "but it's so lovely I'll take the risk. I won't drop it."

"Drop it," caught June with a quick upward look, and then to fix the word in her memory she repeated--"drop it, drop it, drop it!"

"Got it now, June?"

"Uh-huh."

It was then that a woodthrush voiced the crowning joy of spring, and with slowly filling eyes she asked its name.

"That bird," she said slowly and with a breaking voice, "sung just that-a-way the mornin' my sister died."

She turned to him with a wondering smile.

"Somehow it don't make me so miserable, like it useter." Her smile passed while she looked, she caught both hands to her heaving breast and a wild intensity burned suddenly in her eyes.

"Why, June!"

"'Tain't nothin'," she choked out, and she turned hurriedly ahead of him down the path. Startled, Hale had dropped the crimson flower to his feet. He saw it and he let it lie.

Meanwhile, rumours were brought in that the Falins were coming over from Kentucky to wipe out the Guard, and so straight were they sometimes that the Guard was kept perpetually on watch. Once while the members were at target practice, the shout arose:

"The Kentuckians are coming! The Kentuckians are coming!" And, at double quick, the Guard rushed back to find it a false alarm and to see men laughing at them in the street. The truth was that, while the Falins had a general hostility against the Guard, their particular enmity was concentrated on John Hale, as he discovered when June was to take her first trip home one Friday afternoon. Hale meant to carry her over, but the morning they were to leave, old Judd Tolliver came to the Gap himself. He did not want June to come home at that time, and he didn't think it was safe over there for Hale just then. Some of the Falins had been seen hanging around Lonesome Cove for the purpose, Judd believed, of getting a shot at the man who had kept young Dave from falling into their hands, and Hale saw that by that act he had, as Budd said, arrayed himself with the Tollivers in the feud. In other words, he was a Tolliver himself now, and as such the Falins meant to treat him. Hale rebelled against the restriction, for he had started some work in Lonesome Cove and was preparing a surprise over there for June, but old Judd said:

"Just wait a while," and he said it so seriously that Hale for a while took his advice.

So June stayed on at the Gap--with little disappointment, apparently, that she could not visit home. And as spring passed and the summer came on, the little girl budded and opened like a rose. To the pretty school-teacher she was a source of endless interest and wonder, for while the little girl was reticent and aloof, Miss Saunders felt herself watched and studied in and out of school, and Hale often had to smile at June's unconscious imitation of her teacher in speech, manners and dress. And all the time her hero-worship of Hale went on, fed by the talk of the boardinghouse, her fellow pupils and of the town at large--and it fairly thrilled her to know that to the Falins he was now a Tolliver himself.

Sometimes Hale would get her a saddle, and then June would usurp Miss Anne's place on a horseback-ride up through the gap to see the first blooms of the purple rhododendron on Bee Rock, or up to Morris's farm on Powell's mountain, from which, with a glass, they could see the Lonesome Pine. And all the time she worked at her studies tirelessly--and when she was done with her lessons, she read the fairy books that Hale got for her--read them until "Paul and Virginia" fell into her hands, and then there were no more fairy stories for little June. Often, late at night, Hale, from the porch of his cottage, could see the light of her lamp sending its beam across the dark water of the mill-pond, and finally he got worried by the paleness of her face and sent her to the doctor. She went unwillingly, and when she came back she reported placidly that "organatically she was all right, the doctor said," but Hale was glad that vacation would soon come. At the beginning of the last week of school he brought a little present for her from New York--a slender necklace of gold with a little reddish stone-pendant that was the shape of a cross. Hale pulled the trinket from his pocket as they were walking down the river-bank at sunset and the little girl quivered like an aspen-leaf in a sudden puff of wind.

"Hit's a fairy-stone," she cried excitedly.

"Why, where on earth did you--"

"Why, sister Sally told me about 'em. She said folks found 'em somewhere over here in Virginny, an' all her life she was a- wishin' fer one an' she never could git it"--her eyes filled-- "seems like ever'thing she wanted is a-comin' to me."

"Do you know the story of it, too?" asked Hale.

June shook her head. "Sister Sally said it was a luck-piece. Nothin' could happen to ye when ye was carryin' it, but it was awful bad luck if you lost it." Hale put it around her neck and fastened the clasp and June kept hold of the little cross with one hand.

"Well, you mustn't lose it," he said.

"No--no--no," she repeated breathlessly, and Hale told her the pretty story of the stone as they strolled back to supper. The little crosses were to be found only in a certain valley in Virginia, so perfect in shape that they seemed to have been chiselled by hand, and they were a great mystery to the men who knew all about rocks--the geologists.

"The ge-ol-o-gists," repeated June.

These men said there was no crystallization--nothing like them, amended Hale--elsewhere in the world, and that just as crosses were of different shapes--Roman, Maltese and St. Andrew's--so, too, these crosses were found in all these different shapes. And the myth--the story--was that this little valley was once inhabited by fairies--June's eyes lighted, for it was a fairy story after all--and that when a strange messenger brought them the news of Christ's crucifixion, they wept, and their tears, as they fell to the ground, were turned into tiny crosses of stone. Even the Indians had some queer feeling about them, and for a long, long time people who found them had used them as charms to bring good luck and ward off harm.

"And that's for you," he said, "because you've been such a good little girl and have studied so hard. School's most over now and I reckon you'll be right glad to get home again."

June made no answer, but at the gate she looked suddenly up at him.

"Have you got one, too?" she asked, and she seemed much disturbed when Hale shook his head.

"Well, I'll git--get--you one--some day."

"All right," laughed Hale.

There was again something strange in her manner as she turned suddenly from him, and what it meant he was soon to learn. It was the last week of school and Hale had just come down from the woods behind the school-house at "little recess-time" in the afternoon. The children were playing games outside the gate, and Bob and Miss Anne and the little Professor were leaning on the fence watching them. The little man raised his hand to halt Hale on the plank sidewalk.

"I've been wanting to see you," he said in his dreamy, abstracted way. "You prophesied, you know, that I should be proud of your little protege some day, and I am indeed. She is the most remarkable pupil I've yet seen here, and I have about come to the conclusion that there is no quicker native intelligence in our country than you shall find in the children of these mountaineers and--"

Miss Anne was gazing at the children with an expression that turned Hale's eyes that way, and the Professor checked his harangue. Something had happened. They had been playing "Ring Around the Rosy" and June had been caught. She stood scarlet and tense and the cry was:

"Who's your beau--who's your beau?"

And still she stood with tight lips--flushing.

"You got to tell--you got to tell!"

The mountain boy, Cal Heaton, was grinning with fatuous consciousness, and even Bob put his hands in his pockets and took on an uneasy smile.

"Who's your beau?" came the chorus again.

The lips opened almost in a whisper, but all could hear:

"Jack!"

"Jack who?" But June looked around and saw the four at the gate. Almost staggering, she broke from the crowd and, with one forearm across her scarlet face, rushed past them into the school-house. Miss Anne looked at Male's amazed face and she did not smile. Bob turned respectfully away, ignoring it all, and the little Professor, whose life-purpose was psychology, murmured in his ignorance:

"Very remarkable--very remarkable!"

Through that afternoon June kept her hot face close to her books. Bob never so much as glanced her way--little gentleman that he was--but the one time she lifted her eyes, she met the mountain lad's bent in a stupor-like gaze upon her. In spite of her apparent studiousness, however, she missed her lesson and, automatically, the little Professor told her to stay in after school and recite to Miss Saunders. And so June and Miss Anne sat in the school-room alone--the teacher reading a book, and the pupil--her tears unshed--with her sullen face bent over her lesson. In a few moments the door opened and the little Professor thrust in his head. The girl had looked so hurt and tired when he spoke to her that some strange sympathy moved him, mystified though he was, to say gently now and with a smile that was rare with him:

"You might excuse June, I think, Miss Saunders, and let her recite some time to-morrow," and gently he closed the door. Miss Anne rose:

"Very well, June," she said quietly.

June rose, too, gathering up her books, and as she passed the teacher's platform she stopped and looked her full in the face. She said not a word, and the tragedy between the woman and the girl was played in silence, for the woman knew from the searching gaze of the girl and the black defiance in her eyes, as she stalked out of the room, that her own flush had betrayed her secret as plainly as the girl's words had told hers.

Through his office window, a few minutes later, Hale saw June pass swiftly into the house. In a few minutes she came swiftly out again and went back swiftly toward the school-house. He was so worried by the tense look in her face that he could work no more, and in a few minutes he threw his papers down and followed her. When he turned the corner, Bob was coming down the street with his cap on the back of his head and swinging his books by a strap, and the boy looked a little conscious when he saw Hale coming.

"Have you seen June?" Hale asked.

"No, sir," said Bob, immensely relieved.

"Did she come up this way?"

"I don't know, but--" Bob turned and pointed to the green dome of a big beech.

"I think you'll find her at the foot of that tree," he said. "That's where her play-house is and that's where she goes when she's--that's where she usually goes."

"Oh, yes," said Hale--"her play-house. Thank you."

"Not at all, sir."

Hale went on, turned from the path and climbed noiselessly. When he caught sight of the beech he stopped still. June stood against it like a wood-nymph just emerged from its sun-dappled trunk-- stood stretched to her full height, her hands behind her, her hair tossed, her throat tense under the dangling little cross, her face uplifted. At her feet, the play-house was scattered to pieces. She seemed listening to the love-calls of a woodthrush that came faintly through the still woods, and then he saw that she heard nothing, saw nothing--that she was in a dream as deep as sleep. Hale's heart throbbed as he looked.

"June!" he called softly. She did not hear him, and when he called again, she turned her face--unstartled--and moving her posture not at all. Hale pointed to the scattered play-house.

"I done it!" she said fiercely--"I done it myself." Her eyes burned steadily into his, even while she lifted her hands to her hair as though she were only vaguely conscious that it was all undone.

"You heerd me?" she cried, and before he could answer--"She heerd me," and again, not waiting for a word from him, she cried still more fiercely:

"I don't keer! I don't keer who knows."

Her hands were trembling, she was biting her quivering lip to keep back the starting tears, and Hale rushed toward her and took her in his arms.

"June! June!" he said brokenly. "You mustn't, little girl. I'm proud--proud--why little sweetheart--" She was clinging to him and looking up into his eyes and he bent his head slowly. Their lips met and the man was startled. He knew now it was no child that answered him.

Hale walked long that night in the moonlit woods up and around Imboden Hill, along a shadow-haunted path, between silvery beech- trunks, past the big hole in the earth from which dead trees tossed out their crooked arms as if in torment, and to the top of the ridge under which the valley slept and above which the dark bulk of Powell's Mountain rose. It was absurd, but he found himself strangely stirred. She was a child, he kept repeating to himself, in spite of the fact that he knew she was no child among her own people, and that mountain girls were even wives who were younger still. Still, she did not know what she felt--how could she?--and she would get over it, and then came the sharp stab of a doubt--would he want her to get over it? Frankly and with wonder he confessed to himself that he did not know--he did not know. But again, why bother? He had meant to educate her, anyhow. That was the first step--no matter what happened. June must go out into the world to school. He would have plenty of money. Her father would not object, and June need never know. He could include for her an interest in her own father's coal lands that he meant to buy, and she could think that it was her own money that she was using. So, with a sudden rush of gladness from his brain to his heart, he recklessly yoked himself, then and there, under all responsibility for that young life and the eager, sensitive soul that already lighted it so radiantly.

And June? Her nature had opened precisely as had bud and flower that spring. The Mother of Magicians had touched her as impartially as she had touched them with fairy wand, and as unconsciously the little girl had answered as a young dove to any cooing mate. With this Hale did not reckon, and this June could not know. For a while, that night, she lay in a delicious tremor, listening to the bird-like chorus of the little frogs in the marsh, the booming of the big ones in the mill-pond, the water pouring over the dam with the sound of a low wind, and, as had all the sleeping things of the earth about her, she, too, sank to happy sleep.