Chapter XIX
 

And still farther into that far silence about which she used to dream at the base of the big Pine, went little June. At dusk, weary and travel-stained, she sat in the parlours of a hotel--a great gray columned structure of stone. She was confused and bewildered and her head ached. The journey had been long and tiresome. The swift motion of the train had made her dizzy and faint. The dust and smoke had almost stifled her, and even now the dismal parlours, rich and wonderful as they were to her unaccustomed eyes, oppressed her deeply. If she could have one more breath of mountain air!

The day had been too full of wonders. Impressions had crowded on her sensitive brain so thick and fast that the recollection of them was as through a haze. She had never been on a train before and when, as it crashed ahead, she clutched Hale's arm in fear and asked how they stopped it, Hale hearing the whistle blow for a station, said:

"I'll show you," and he waved one hand out the window. And he repeated this trick twice before she saw that it was a joke. All day he had soothed her uneasiness in some such way and all day he watched her with an amused smile that was puzzling to her. She remembered sadly watching the mountains dwindle and disappear, and when several of her own people who were on the train were left at way-stations, it seemed as though all links that bound her to her home were broken. The face of the country changed, the people changed in looks, manners and dress, and she shrank closer to Hale with an increasing sense of painful loneliness. These level fields and these farm-houses so strangely built, so varied in colour were the "settlemints," and these people so nicely dressed, so clean and fresh-looking were "furriners." At one station a crowd of school-girls had got on board and she had watched them with keen interest, mystified by their incessant chatter and gayety. And at last had come the big city, with more smoke, more dust, more noise, more confusion--and she was in his world. That was the thought that comforted her--it was his world, and now she sat alone in the dismal parlours while Hale was gone to find his sister--waiting and trembling at the ordeal, close upon her, of meeting Helen Hale.

Below, Hale found his sister and her maid registered, and a few minutes later he led Miss Hale into the parlour. As they entered June rose without advancing, and for a moment the two stood facing each other--the still roughly clad, primitive mountain girl and the exquisite modern woman--in an embarrassment equally painful to both.

"June, this is my sister."

At a loss what to do, Helen Hale simply stretched out her hand, but drawn by June's timidity and the quick admiration and fear in her eyes, she leaned suddenly forward and kissed her. A grateful flush overspread the little girl's features and the pallor that instantly succeeded went straight-way to the sister's heart.

"You are not well," she said quickly and kindly. "You must go to your room at once. I am going to take care of you--you are my little sister now."

June lost the subtlety in Miss Hale's emphasis, but she fell with instant submission under such gentle authority, and though she could say nothing, her eyes glistened and her lips quivered, and without looking to Hale, she followed his sister out of the room. Hale stood still. He had watched the meeting with apprehension and now, surprised and grateful, he went to Helen's parlour and waited with a hopeful heart. When his sister entered, he rose eagerly:

"Well--" he said, stopping suddenly, for there were tears of vexation, dismay and genuine distress on his sister's face.

"Oh, Jack," she cried, "how could you! How could you!"

Hale bit his lips, turned and paced the room. He had hoped too much and yet what else could he have expected? His sister and June knew as little about each other and each other's lives as though they had occupied different planets. He had forgotten that Helen must be shocked by June's inaccuracies of speech and in a hundred other ways to which he had become accustomed. With him, moreover, the process had been gradual and, moreover, he had seen beneath it all. And yet he had foolishly expected Helen to understand everything at once. He was unjust, so very wisely he held himself in silence.

"Where is her baggage, Jack?" Helen had opened her trunk and was lifting out the lid. "She ought to change those dusty clothes at once. You'd better ring and have it sent right up."

"No," said Hale, "I will go down and see about it myself."

He returned presently--his face aflame--with June's carpet-bag.

"I believe this is all she has," he said quietly.

In spite of herself Helen's grief changed to a fit of helpless laughter and, afraid to trust himself further, Hale rose to leave the room. At the door he was met by the negro maid.

"Miss Helen," she said with an open smile, "Miss June say she don't want nuttin'." Hale gave her a fiery look and hurried out. June was seated at a window when he went into her room with her face buried in her arms. She lifted her head, dropped it, and he saw that her eyes were red with weeping. "Are you sick, little girl?" he asked anxiously. June shook her head helplessly.

"You aren't homesick, are you?"

"No." The answer came very faintly.

"Don't you like my sister?" The head bowed an emphatic "Yes--yes."

"Then what is the matter?"

"Oh," she said despairingly, between her sobs, "she--won't--like-- me. I never--can--be--like her."

Hale smiled, but her grief was so sincere that he leaned over her and with a tender hand soothed her into quiet. Then he went to Helen again and he found her overhauling dresses.

"I brought along several things of different sizes and I am going to try at any rate. Oh," she added hastily, "only of course until she can get some clothes of her own."

"Sure," said Hale, "but--" His sister waved one hand and again Hale kept still.

June had bathed her eyes and was lying down when Helen entered, and she made not the slightest objection to anything the latter proposed. Straightway she fell under as complete subjection to her as she had done to Hale. Without a moment's hesitation she drew off her rudely fashioned dress and stood before Helen with the utmost simplicity--her beautiful arms and throat bare and her hair falling about them with the rich gold of a cloud at an autumn sunset. Dressed, she could hardly breathe, but when she looked at herself in the mirror, she trembled. Magic transformation! Apparently the chasm between the two had been bridged in a single instant. Helen herself was astonished and again her heart warmed toward the girl, when a little later, she stood timidly under Hale's scrutiny, eagerly watching his face and flushing rosy with happiness under his brightening look. Her brother had not exaggerated--the little girl was really beautiful. When they went down to the dining-room, there was another surprise for Helen Hale, for June's timidity was gone and to the wonder of the woman, she was clothed with an impassive reserve that in herself would have been little less than haughtiness and was astounding in a child. She saw, too, that the change in the girl's bearing was unconscious and that the presence of strangers had caused it. It was plain that June's timidity sprang from her love of Hale--her fear of not pleasing him and not pleasing her, his sister, and plain, too, that remarkable self-poise was little June's to command. At the table June kept her eyes fastened on Helen Hale. Not a movement escaped her and she did nothing that was not done by one of the others first. She said nothing, but if she had to answer a question, she spoke with such care and precision that she almost seemed to be using a foreign language. Miss Hale smiled but with inward approval, and that night she was in better spirits.

"Jack," she said, when he came to bid her good-night, "I think we'd better stay here a few days. I thought of course you were exaggerating, but she is very, very lovely. And that manner of hers--well, it passes my understanding. Just leave everything to me."

Hale was very willing to do that. He had all trust in his sister's judgment, he knew her dislike of interference, her love of autocratic supervision, so he asked no questions, but in grateful relief kissed her good-night.

The sister sat for a long time at her window after he was gone. Her brother had been long away from civilization; he had become infatuated, the girl loved him, he was honourable and in his heart he meant to marry her--that was to her the whole story. She had been mortified by the misstep, but the misstep made, only one thought had occurred to her--to help him all she could. She had been appalled when she first saw the dusty shrinking mountain girl, but the helplessness and the loneliness of the tired little face touched her, and she was straightway responsive to the mute appeal in the dark eyes that were lifted to her own with such modest fear and wonder. Now her surprise at her brother's infatuation was abating rapidly. The girl's adoration of him, her wild beauty, her strange winning personality--as rare and as independent of birth and circumstances as genius--had soon made that phenomenon plain. And now what was to be done? The girl was quick, observant, imitative, docile, and in the presence of strangers, her gravity of manner gave the impression of uncanny self-possession. It really seemed as though anything might be possible. At Helen's suggestion, then, the three stayed where they were for a week, for June's wardrobe was sadly in need of attention. So the week was spent in shopping, driving, and walking, and rapidly as it passed for Helen and Hale it was to June the longest of her life, so filled was it with a thousand sensations unfelt by them. The city had been stirred by the spirit of the new South, but the charm of the old was distinct everywhere. Architectural eccentricities had startled the sleepy maple-shaded rows of comfortable uniform dwellings here and there, and in some streets the life was brisk; but it was still possible to see pedestrians strolling with unconscious good-humour around piles of goods on the sidewalk, business men stopping for a social chat on the streets, street-cars moving independent of time, men invariably giving up their seats to women, and, strangers or not, depositing their fare for them; the drivers at the courteous personal service of each patron of the road--now holding a car and placidly whistling while some lady who had signalled from her doorway went back indoors for some forgotten article, now twisting the reins around the brakes and leaving a parcel in some yard--and no one grumbling! But what was to Hale an atmosphere of amusing leisure was to June bewildering confusion. To her his amusement was unintelligible, but though in constant wonder at everything she saw, no one would ever have suspected that she was making her first acquaintance with city scenes. At first the calm unconcern of her companions had puzzled her. She could not understand how they could walk along, heedless of the wonderful visions that beckoned to her from the shop-windows; fearless of the strange noises about them and scarcely noticing the great crowds of people, or the strange shining vehicles that thronged the streets. But she had quickly concluded that it was one of the demands of that new life to see little and be astonished at nothing, and Helen and Hale surprised in turn at her unconcern, little suspected the effort her self-suppression cost her. And when over some wonder she did lose herself, Hale would say:

"Just wait till you see New York!" and June would turn her dark eyes to Helen for confirmation and to see if Hale could be joking with her.

"It's all true, June," Helen would say. "You must go there some day. It's true." But that town was enough and too much for June. Her head buzzed continuously and she could hardly sleep, and she was glad when one afternoon they took her into the country again-- the Bluegrass country--and to the little town near which Hale had been born, and which was a dream-city to June, and to a school of which an old friend of his mother was principal, and in which Helen herself was a temporary teacher. And Rumour had gone ahead of June. Hale had found her dashing about the mountains on the back of a wild bull, said rumour. She was as beautiful as Europa, was of pure English descent and spoke the language of Shakespeare- -the Hon. Sam Budd's hand was patent in this. She had saved Hale's life from moonshiners and while he was really in love with her, he was pretending to educate her out of gratitude--and here doubtless was the faint tracery of Miss Anne Saunder's natural suspicions. And there Hale left her under the eye of his sister--left her to absorb another new life like a thirsty plant and come back to the mountains to make his head swim with new witcheries.