Chapter XXI
 

Hale was beyond Black Mountain when her letter reached him. His work over there had to be finished and so he kept in his saddle the greater part of two days and nights and on the third day rode his big black horse forty miles in little more than half a day that he might meet her at the train. The last two years had wrought their change in him. Deterioration is easy in the hills-- superficial deterioration in habits, manners, personal appearance and the practices of all the little niceties of life. The morning bath is impossible because of the crowded domestic conditions of a mountain cabin and, if possible, might if practised, excite wonder and comment, if not vague suspicion. Sleeping garments are practically barred for the same reason. Shaving becomes a rare luxury. A lost tooth-brush may not be replaced for a month. In time one may bring himself to eat with a knife for the reason that it is hard for a hungry man to feed himself with a fork that has but two tines. The finger tips cease to be the culminating standard of the gentleman. It is hard to keep a supply of fresh linen when one is constantly in the saddle, and a constant weariness of body and a ravenous appetite make a man indifferent to things like a bad bed and worse food, particularly as he must philosophically put up with them, anyhow. Of all these things the man himself may be quite unconscious and yet they affect him more deeply than he knows and show to a woman even in his voice, his walk, his mouth--everywhere save in his eyes, which change only in severity, or in kindliness or when there has been some serious break-down of soul or character within. And the woman will not look to his eyes for the truth--which makes its way slowly-- particularly when the woman has striven for the very things that the man has so recklessly let go. She would never suffer herself to let down in such a way and she does not understand how a man can.

Hale's life, since his college doors had closed behind him, had always been a rough one. He had dropped from civilization and had gone back into it many times. And each time he had dropped, he dropped the deeper, and for that reason had come back into his own life each time with more difficulty and with more indifference. The last had been his roughest year and he had sunk a little more deeply just at the time when June had been pluming herself for flight from such depths forever. Moreover, Hale had been dominant in every matter that his hand or his brain had touched. His habit had been to say "do this" and it was done. Though he was no longer acting captain of the Police Guard, he always acted as captain whenever he was on hand, and always he was the undisputed leader in all questions of business, politics or the maintenance of order and law. The success he had forged had hardened and strengthened his mouth, steeled his eyes and made him more masterful in manner, speech and point of view, and naturally had added nothing to his gentleness, his unselfishness, his refinement or the nice consideration of little things on which women lay such stress. It was an hour by sun when he clattered through the gap and pushed his tired black horse into a gallop across the valley toward the town. He saw the smoke of the little dummy and, as he thundered over the bridge of the North Fork, he saw that it was just about to pull out and he waved his hat and shouted imperiously for it to wait. With his hand on the bell-rope, the conductor, autocrat that he, too, was, did wait and Hale threw his reins to the man who was nearest, hardly seeing who he was, and climbed aboard. He wore a slouched hat spotted by contact with the roof of the mines which he had hastily visited on his way through Lonesome Cove. The growth of three days' beard was on his face. He wore a gray woollen shirt, and a blue handkerchief--none too clean--was loosely tied about his sun-scorched column of a throat; he was spotted with mud from his waist to the soles of his rough riding boots and his hands were rough and grimy. But his eye was bright and keen and his heart thumped eagerly. Again it was the middle of June and the town was a naked island in a sea of leaves whose breakers literally had run mountain high and stopped for all time motionless. Purple lights thick as mist veiled Powell's Mountain. Below, the valley was still flooded with yellow sunlight which lay along the mountain sides and was streaked here and there with the long shadow of a deep ravine. The beech trunks on Imboden Hill gleamed in it like white bodies scantily draped with green, and the yawning Gap held the yellow light as a bowl holds wine. He had long ago come to look upon the hills merely as storehouses for iron and coal, put there for his special purpose, but now the long submerged sense of the beauty of it all stirred within him again, for June was the incarnate spirit of it all and June was coming back to those mountains and--to him.

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And June--June had seen the change in Hale. The first year he had come often to New York to see her and they had gone to the theatre and the opera, and June was pleased to play the part of heroine in what was such a real romance to the other girls in school and she was proud of Hale. But each time he came, he seemed less interested in the diversions that meant so much to her, more absorbed in his affairs in the mountains and less particular about his looks. His visits came at longer intervals, with each visit he stayed less long, and each time he seemed more eager to get away. She had been shy about appearing before him for the first time in evening dress, and when he entered the drawing-room she stood under a chandelier in blushing and resplendent confusion, but he seemed not to recognize that he had never seen her that way before, and for another reason June remained confused, disappointed and hurt, for he was not only unobserving, and seemingly unappreciative, but he was more silent than ever that night and he looked gloomy. But if he had grown accustomed to her beauty, there were others who had not, and smart, dapper college youths gathered about her like bees around a flower--a triumphant fact to which he also seemed indifferent. Moreover, he was not in evening clothes that night and she did not know whether he had forgotten or was indifferent to them, and the contrast that he was made her that night almost ashamed for him. She never guessed what the matter was, for Hale kept his troubles to himself. He was always gentle and kind, he was as lavish with her as though he were a king, and she was as lavish and prodigally generous as though she were a princess. There seemed no limit to the wizard income from the investments that Hale had made for her when, as he said, he sold a part of her stock in the Lonesome Cove mine, and what she wanted Hale always sent her without question. Only, as the end was coming on at the Gap, he wrote once to know if a certain amount would carry her through until she was ready to come home, but even that question aroused no suspicion in thoughtless June. And then that last year he had come no more--always, always he was too busy. Not even on her triumphal night at the end of the session was he there, when she had stood before the guests and patrons of the school like a goddess, and had thrilled them into startling applause, her teachers into open glowing pride, the other girls into bright-eyed envy and herself into still another new world. Now she was going home and she was glad to go.

She had awakened that morning with the keen air of the mountains in her nostrils--the air she had breathed in when she was born, and her eyes shone happily when she saw through her window the loved blue hills along which raced the train. They were only a little way from the town where she must change, the porter said; she had overslept and she had no time even to wash her face and hands, and that worried her a good deal. The porter nearly lost his equilibrium when she gave him half a dollar--for women are not profuse in the way of tipping--and instead of putting her bag down on the station platform, he held it in his hand waiting to do her further service. At the head of the steps she searched about for Hale and her lovely face looked vexed and a little hurt when she did not see him.

"Hotel, Miss?" said the porter.

"Yes, please, Harvey!" she called.

An astonished darky sprang from the line of calling hotel-porters and took her bag. Then every tooth in his head flashed.

"Lordy, Miss June--I never knowed you at all."

June smiled--it was the tribute she was looking for.

"Have you seen Mr. Hale?"

"No'm. Mr. Hale ain't been here for mos' six months. I reckon he aint in this country now. I aint heard nothin' 'bout him for a long time."

June knew better than that--but she said nothing. She would rather have had even Harvey think that he was away. So she hurried to the hotel--she would have four hours to wait--and asked for the one room that had a bath attached--the room to which Hale had sent her when she had passed through on her way to New York. She almost winced when she looked in the mirror and saw the smoke stains about her pretty throat and ears, and she wondered if anybody could have noticed them on her way from the train. Her hands, too, were dreadful to look at and she hurried to take off her things.

In an hour she emerged freshened, immaculate from her crown of lovely hair to her smartly booted feet, and at once she went downstairs. She heard the man, whom she passed, stop at the head of them and turn to look down at her, and she saw necks craned within the hotel office when she passed the door. On the street not a man and hardly a woman failed to look at her with wonder and open admiration, for she was an apparition in that little town and it all pleased her so much that she became flushed and conscious and felt like a queen who, unknown, moved among her subjects and blessed them just with her gracious presence. For she was unknown even by several people whom she knew and that, too, pleased her-- to have bloomed so quite beyond their ken. She was like a meteor coming back to dazzle the very world from which it had flown for a while into space. When she went into the dining-room for the midday dinner, there was a movement in almost every part of the room as though there were many there who were on the lookout for her entrance. The head waiter, a portly darky, lost his imperturbable majesty for a moment in surprise at the vision and then with a lordly yet obsequious wave of his hand, led her to a table over in a corner where no one was sitting. Four young men came in rather boisterously and made for her table. She lifted her calm eyes at them so haughtily that the one in front halted with sudden embarrassment and they all swerved to another table from which they stared at her surreptitiously. Perhaps she was mistaken for the comic-opera star whose brilliant picture she had seen on a bill board in front of the "opera house." Well, she had the voice and she might have been and she might yet be--and if she were, this would be the distinction that would be shown her. And, still as it was she was greatly pleased.

At four o'clock she started for the hills. In half an hour she was dropping down a winding ravine along a rock-lashing stream with those hills so close to the car on either side that only now and then could she see the tops of them. Through the window the keen air came from the very lungs of them, freighted with the coolness of shadows, the scent of damp earth and the faint fragrance of wild flowers, and her soul leaped to meet them. The mountain sides were showered with pink and white laurel (she used to call it "ivy") and the rhododendrons (she used to call them "laurel") were just beginning to blossom--they were her old and fast friends-- mountain, shadow, the wet earth and its pure breath, and tree, plant and flower; she had not forgotten them, and it was good to come back to them. Once she saw an overshot water-wheel on the bank of the rushing little stream and she thought of Uncle Billy; she smiled and the smile stopped short--she was going back to other things as well. The train had creaked by a log-cabin set in the hillside and then past another and another; and always there were two or three ragged children in the door and a haggard unkempt woman peering over their shoulders. How lonely those cabins looked and how desolate the life they suggested to her now- -now! The first station she came to after the train had wound down the long ravine to the valley level again was crowded with mountaineers. There a wedding party got aboard with a great deal of laughter, chaffing and noise, and all three went on within and without the train while it was waiting. A sudden thought stunned her like a lightning stroke. They were her people out there on the platform and inside the car ahead--those rough men in slouch hats, jeans and cowhide boots, their mouths stained with tobacco juice, their cheeks and eyes on fire with moonshine, and those women in poke-bonnets with their sad, worn, patient faces on which the sympathetic good cheer and joy of the moment sat so strangely. She noticed their rough shoes and their homespun gowns that made their figures all alike and shapeless, with a vivid awakening of early memories. She might have been one of those narrow-lived girls outside, or that bride within had it not been for Jack--Hale. She finished the name in her own mind and she was conscious that she had. Ah, well, that was a long time ago and she was nothing but a child and she had thrown herself at his head. Perhaps it was different with him now and if it was, she would give him the chance to withdraw from everything. It would be right and fair and then life was so full for her now. She was dependent on nobody--on nothing. A rainbow spanned the heaven above her and the other end of it was not in the hills. But one end was and to that end she was on her way. She was going to just such people as she had seen at the station. Her father and her kinsmen were just such men--her step-mother and kinswomen were just such women. Her home was little more than just such a cabin as the desolate ones that stirred her pity when she swept by them. She thought of how she felt when she had first gone to Lonesome Cove after a few months at the Gap, and she shuddered to think how she would feel now. She was getting restless by this time and aimlessly she got up and walked to the front of the car and back again to her seat, hardly noticing that the other occupants were staring at her with some wonder. She sat down for a few minutes and then she went to the rear and stood outside on the platform, clutching a brass rod of the railing and looking back on the dropping darkness in which the hills seemed to be rushing together far behind as the train crashed on with its wake of spark-lit rolling smoke. A cinder stung her face, and when she lifted her hand to the spot, she saw that her glove was black with grime. With a little shiver of disgust she went back to her seat and with her face to the blackness rushing past her window she sat brooding--brooding. Why had Hale not met her? He had said he would and she had written him when she was coming and had telegraphed him at the station in New York when she started. Perhaps he had changed. She recalled that even his letters had grown less frequent, shorter, more hurried the past year--well, he should have his chance. Always, however, her mind kept going back to the people at the station and to her people in the mountains. They were the same, she kept repeating to herself--the very same and she was one of them. And always she kept thinking of her first trip to Lonesome Cove after her awakening and of what her next would be. That first time Hale had made her go back as she had left, in home-spun, sun-bonnet and brogans. There was the same reason why she should go back that way now as then--would Hale insist that she should now? She almost laughed aloud at the thought. She knew that she would refuse and she knew that his reason would not appeal to her now--she no longer cared what her neighbours and kinspeople might think and say. The porter paused at her seat.

"How much longer is it?" she asked.

"Half an hour, Miss."

June went to wash her face and hands, and when she came back to her seat a great glare shone through the windows on the other side of the car. It was the furnace, a "run" was on and she could see the streams of white molten metal racing down the narrow channels of sand to their narrow beds on either side. The whistle shrieked ahead for the Gap and she nerved herself with a prophetic sense of vague trouble at hand.

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At the station Hale had paced the platform. He looked at his watch to see whether he might have time to run up to the furnace, half a mile away, and board the train there. He thought he had and he was about to start when the shriek of the coming engine rose beyond the low hills in Wild Cat Valley, echoed along Powell's Mountain and broke against the wrinkled breast of the Cumberland. On it came, and in plain sight it stopped suddenly to take water, and Hale cursed it silently and recalled viciously that when he was in a hurry to arrive anywhere, the water-tower was always on the wrong side of the station. He got so restless that he started for it on a run and he had gone hardly fifty yards before the train came on again and he had to run back to beat it to the station-- where he sprang to the steps of the Pullman before it stopped-- pushing the porter aside to find himself checked by the crowded passengers at the door. June was not among them and straightway he ran for the rear of the car.

June had risen. The other occupants of the car had crowded forward and she was the last of them. She had stood, during an irritating wait, at the water-tower, and now as she moved slowly forward again she heard the hurry of feet behind her and she turned to look into the eager, wondering eyes of John Hale.

"June!" he cried in amazement, but his face lighted with joy and he impulsively stretched out his arms as though he meant to take her in them, but as suddenly he dropped them before the startled look in her eyes, which, with one swift glance, searched him from head to foot. They shook hands almost gravely.