Chapter XXII
 

June sat in the little dummy, the focus of curious eyes, while Hale was busy seeing that her baggage was got aboard. The checks that she gave him jingled in his hands like a bunch of keys, and he could hardly help grinning when he saw the huge trunks and the smart bags that were tumbled from the baggage car--all marked with her initials. There had been days when he had laid considerable emphasis on pieces like those, and when he thought of them overwhelming with opulent suggestions that debt-stricken little town, and, later, piled incongruously on the porch of the cabin on Lonesome Cove, he could have laughed aloud but for a nameless something that was gnawing savagely at his heart.

He felt almost shy when he went back into the car, and though June greeted him with a smile, her immaculate daintiness made him unconsciously sit quite far away from her. The little fairy-cross was still at her throat, but a tiny diamond gleamed from each end of it and from the centre, as from a tiny heart, pulsated the light of a little blood-red ruby. To him it meant the loss of June's simplicity and was the symbol of her new estate, but he smiled and forced himself into hearty cheerfulness of manner and asked her questions about her trip. But June answered in halting monosyllables, and talk was not easy between them. All the while he was watching her closely and not a movement of her eye, ear, mouth or hand--not an inflection of her voice--escaped him. He saw her sweep the car and its occupants with a glance, and he saw the results of that glance in her face and the down-dropping of her eyes to the dainty point of one boot. He saw her beautiful mouth close suddenly tight and her thin nostrils quiver disdainfully when a swirl of black smoke, heavy with cinders, came in with an entering passenger through the front door of the car. Two half- drunken men were laughing boisterously near that door and even her ears seemed trying to shut out their half-smothered rough talk. The car started with a bump that swayed her toward him, and when she caught the seat with one hand, it checked as suddenly, throwing her the other way, and then with a leap it sprang ahead again, giving a nagging snap to her head. Her whole face grew red with vexation and shrinking distaste, and all the while, when the little train steadied into its creaking, puffing, jostling way, one gloved hand on the chased silver handle of her smart little umbrella kept nervously swaying it to and fro on its steel-shod point, until she saw that the point was in a tiny pool of tobacco juice, and then she laid it across her lap with shuddering swiftness.

At first Hale thought that she had shrunk from kissing him in the car because other people were around. He knew better now. At that moment he was as rough and dirty as the chain-carrier opposite him, who was just in from a surveying expedition in the mountains, as the sooty brakeman who came through to gather up the fares--as one of those good-natured, profane inebriates up in the corner. No, it was not publicity--she had shrunk from him as she was shrinking now from black smoke, rough men, the shaking of the train--the little pool of tobacco juice at her feet. The truth began to glimmer through his brain. He understood, even when she leaned forward suddenly to look into the mouth of the gap, that was now dark with shadows. Through that gap lay her way and she thought him now more a part of what was beyond than she who had been born of it was, and dazed by the thought, he wondered if he might not really be. At once he straightened in his seat, and his mind made up, as he always made it up--swiftly. He had not explained why he had not met her that morning, nor had he apologized for his rough garb, because he was so glad to see her and because there were so many other things he wanted to say; and when he saw her, conscious and resentful, perhaps, that he had not done these things at once--he deliberately declined to do them now. He became silent, but he grew more courteous, more thoughtful--watchful. She was very tired, poor child; there were deep shadows under her eyes which looked weary and almost mournful. So, when with a clanging of the engine bell they stopped at the brilliantly lit hotel, he led her at once upstairs to the parlour, and from there sent her up to her room, which was ready for her.

"You must get a good sleep," he said kindly, and with his usual firmness that was wont to preclude argument. "You are worn to death. I'll have your supper sent to your room." The girl felt the subtle change in his manner and her lip quivered for a vague reason that neither knew, but, without a word, she obeyed him like a child. He did not try again to kiss her. He merely took her hand, placed his left over it, and with a gentle pressure, said:

"Good-night, little girl."

"Good-night," she faltered.

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Resolutely, relentlessly, first, Hale cast up his accounts, liabilities, resources, that night, to see what, under the least favourable outcome, the balance left to him would be. Nearly all was gone. His securities were already sold. His lots would not bring at public sale one-half of the deferred payments yet to be made on them, and if the company brought suit, as it was threatening to do, he would be left fathoms deep in debt. The branch railroad had not come up the river toward Lonesome Cove, and now he meant to build barges and float his cannel coal down to the main line, for his sole hope was in the mine in Lonesome Cove. The means that he could command were meagre, but they would carry his purpose with June for a year at least and then--who knew?--he might, through that mine, be on his feet again.

The little town was dark and asleep when he stepped into the cool night-air and made his way past the old school-house and up Imboden Hill. He could see--all shining silver in the moonlight-- the still crest of the big beech at the blessed roots of which his lips had met June's in the first kiss that had passed between them. On he went through the shadowy aisle that the path made between other beech-trunks, harnessed by the moonlight with silver armour and motionless as sentinels on watch till dawn, out past the amphitheatre of darkness from which the dead trees tossed out their crooked arms as though voicing silently now his own soul's torment, and then on to the point of the spur of foot-hills where, with the mighty mountains encircling him and the world, a dreamland lighted only by stars, he stripped his soul before the Maker of it and of him and fought his fight out alone.

His was the responsibility for all--his alone. No one else was to blame--June not at all. He had taken her from her own life--had swerved her from the way to which God pointed when she was born. He had given her everything she wanted, had allowed her to do what she pleased and had let her think that, through his miraculous handling of her resources, she was doing it all herself. And the result was natural. For the past two years he had been harassed with debt, racked with worries, writhing this way and that, concerned only with the soul-tormenting catastrophe that had overtaken him. About all else he had grown careless. He had not been to see her the last year, he had written seldom, and it appalled him to look back now on his own self-absorption and to think how he must have appeared to June. And he had gone on in that self-absorption to the very end. He had got his license to marry, had asked Uncle Billy, who was magistrate as well as miller, to marry them, and, a rough mountaineer himself to the outward eye, he had appeared to lead a child like a lamb to the sacrifice and had found a woman with a mind, heart and purpose of her own. It was all his work. He had sent her away to fit her for his station in life--to make her fit to marry him. She had risen above and now he was not fit to marry her. That was the brutal truth--a truth that was enough to make a wise man laugh or a fool weep, and Hale did neither. He simply went on working to make out how he could best discharge the obligations that he had voluntarily, willingly, gladly, selfishly even, assumed. In his mind he treated conditions only as he saw and felt them and believed them at that moment true: and into the problem he went no deeper than to find his simple duty, and that, while the morning stars were sinking, he found. And it was a duty the harder to find because everything had reawakened within him, and the starting- point of that awakening was the proud glow in Uncle Billy's kind old face, when he knew the part he was to play in the happiness of Hale and June. All the way over the mountain that day his heart had gathered fuel from memories at the big Pine, and down the mountain and through the gap, to be set aflame by the yellow sunlight in the valley and the throbbing life in everything that was alive, for the month was June and the spirit of that month was on her way to him. So when he rose now, with back-thrown head, he stretched his arms suddenly out toward those far-seeing stars, and as suddenly dropped them with an angry shake of his head and one quick gritting of his teeth that such a thought should have mastered him even for one swift second--the thought of how lonesome would be the trail that would be his to follow after that day.