Chapter XXIII
 

June, tired though she was, tossed restlessly that night. The one look she had seen in Hale's face when she met him in the car, told her the truth as far as he was concerned. He was unchanged, she could give him no chance to withdraw from their long understanding, for it was plain to her quick instinct that he wanted none. And so she had asked him no question about his failure to meet her, for she knew now that his reason, no matter what, was good. He had startled her in the car, for her mind was heavy with memories of the poor little cabins she had passed on the train, of the mountain men and women in the wedding-party, and Hale himself was to the eye so much like one of them--had so startled her that, though she knew that his instinct, too, was at work, she could not gather herself together to combat her own feelings, for every little happening in the dummy but drew her back to her previous train of painful thought. And in that helplessness she had told Hale good-night. She remembered now how she had looked upon Lonesome Cove after she went to the Gap; how she had looked upon the Gap after her year in the Bluegrass, and how she had looked back even on the first big city she had seen there from the lofty vantage ground of New York. What was the use of it all? Why laboriously climb a hill merely to see and yearn for things that you cannot have, if you must go back and live in the hollow again? Well, she thought rebelliously, she would not go back to the hollow again--that was all. She knew what was coming and her cousin Dave's perpetual sneer sprang suddenly from the past to cut through her again and the old pride rose within her once more. She was good enough now for Hale, oh, yes, she thought bitterly, good enough now; and then, remembering his life-long kindness and thinking what she might have been but for him, she burst into tears at the unworthiness of her own thought. Ah, what should she do--what should she do? Repeating that question over and over again, she fell toward morning into troubled sleep. She did not wake until nearly noon, for already she had formed the habit of sleeping late--late at least, for that part of the world- -and she was glad when the negro boy brought her word that Mr. Hale had been called up the valley and would not be back until the afternoon. She dreaded to meet him, for she knew that he had seen the trouble within her and she knew he was not the kind of man to let matters drag vaguely, if they could be cleared up and settled by open frankness of discussion, no matter how blunt he must be. She had to wait until mid-day dinner time for something to eat, so she lay abed, picked a breakfast from the menu, which was spotted, dirty and meagre in offerings, and had it brought to her room. Early in the afternoon she issued forth into the sunlight, and started toward Imboden Hill. It was very beautiful and soul- comforting--the warm air, the luxuriantly wooded hills, with their shades of green that told her where poplar and oak and beech and maple grew, the delicate haze of blue that overlay them and deepened as her eyes followed the still mountain piles north- eastward to meet the big range that shut her in from the outer world. The changes had been many. One part of the town had been wiped out by fire and a few buildings of stone had risen up. On the street she saw strange faces, but now and then she stopped to shake hands with somebody whom she knew, and who recognized her always with surprise and spoke but few words, and then, as she thought, with some embarrassment. Half unconsciously she turned toward the old mill. There it was, dusty and gray, and the dripping old wheel creaked with its weight of shining water, and the muffled roar of the unseen dam started an answering stream of memories surging within her. She could see the window of her room in the old brick boarding-house, and as she passed the gate, she almost stopped to go in, but the face of a strange man who stood in the door with a proprietary air deterred her. There was Hale's little frame cottage and his name, half washed out, was over the wing that was still his office. Past that she went, with a passing temptation to look within, and toward the old school-house. A massive new one was half built, of gray stone, to the left, but the old one, with its shingles on the outside that had once caused her such wonder, still lay warm in the sun, but closed and deserted. There was the playground where she had been caught in "Ring around the Rosy," and Hale and that girl teacher had heard her confession. She flushed again when she thought of that day, but the flush was now for another reason. Over the roof of the schoolhouse she could see the beech tree where she had built her playhouse, and memory led her from the path toward it. She had not climbed a hill for a long time and she was panting when she reached it. There was the scattered playhouse--it might have lain there untouched for a quarter of a century--just as her angry feet had kicked it to pieces. On a root of the beech she sat down and the broad rim of her hat scratched the trunk of it and annoyed her, so she took it off and leaned her head against the tree, looking up into the underworld of leaves through which a sunbeam filtered here and there--one striking her hair which had darkened to a duller gold--striking it eagerly, unerringly, as though it had started for just such a shining mark. Below her was outspread the little town--the straggling, wretched little town--crude, lonely, lifeless! She could not be happy in Lonesome Cove after she had known the Gap, and now her horizon had so broadened that she felt now toward the Gap and its people as she had then felt toward the mountaineers: for the standards of living in the Cove-- so it seemed--were no farther below the standards in the Gap than they in turn were lower than the new standards to which she had adapted herself while away. Indeed, even that Bluegrass world where she had spent a year was too narrow now for her vaulting ambition, and with that thought she looked down again on the little town, a lonely island in a sea of mountains and as far from the world for which she had been training herself as though it were in mid-ocean. Live down there? She shuddered at the thought and straightway was very miserable. The clear piping of a wood- thrush rose far away, a tear started between her half-closed lashes and she might have gone to weeping silently, had her ear not caught the sound of something moving below her. Some one was coming that way, so she brushed her eyes swiftly with her handkerchief and stood upright against the tree. And there again Hale found her, tense, upright, bareheaded again and her hands behind her; only her face was not uplifted and dreaming--it was turned toward him, unstartled and expectant. He stopped below her and leaned one shoulder against a tree.

"I saw you pass the office," he said, "and I thought I should find you here."

His eyes dropped to the scattered playhouse of long ago--and a faint smile that was full of submerged sadness passed over his face. It was his playhouse, after all, that she had kicked to pieces. But he did not mention it--nor her attitude--nor did he try, in any way, to arouse her memories of that other time at this same place.

"I want to talk with you, June--and I want to talk now."

"Yes, Jack," she said tremulously.

For a moment he stood in silence, his face half-turned, his teeth hard on his indrawn lip--thinking. There was nothing of the mountaineer about him now. He was clean-shaven and dressed with care--June saw that--but he looked quite old, his face seemed harried with worries and ravaged by suffering, and June had suddenly to swallow a quick surging of pity for him. He spoke slowly and without looking at her:

"June, if it hadn't been for me, you would be over in Lonesome Cove and happily married by this time, or at least contented with your life, for you wouldn't have known any other."

"I don't know, Jack."

"I took you out--and it rests with you whether I shall be sorry I did--sorry wholly on your account, I mean," he added hastily.

She knew what he meant and she said nothing--she only turned her head away slightly, with her eyes upturned a little toward the leaves that were shaking like her own heart.

"I think I see it all very clearly," he went on, in a low and perfectly even voice. "You can't be happy over there now--you can't be happy over here now. You've got other wishes, ambitions, dreams, now, and I want you to realize them, and I want to help you to realize them all I can--that's all."

"Jack!--" she helplessly, protestingly spoke his name in a whisper, but that was all she could do, and he went on:

"It isn't so strange. What is strange is that I--that I didn't foresee it all. But if I had," he added firmly, "I'd have done it just the same--unless by doing it I've really done you more harm than good."

"No--no--Jack!"

"I came into your world--you went into mine. What I had grown indifferent about--you grew to care about. You grew sensitive while I was growing callous to certain--" he was about to say "surface things," but he checked himself--" certain things in life that mean more to a woman than to a man. I would not have married you as you were--I've got to be honest now--at least I thought it necessary that you should be otherwise--and now you have gone beyond me, and now you do not want to marry me as I am. And it is all very natural and very just." Very slowly her head had dropped until her chin rested hard above the little jewelled cross on her breast.

"You must tell me if I am wrong. You don't love me now--well enough to be happy with me here"--he waved one hand toward the straggling little town below them and then toward the lonely mountains--"I did not know that we would have to live here--but I know it now--" he checked himself, and afterward she recalled the tone of those last words, but then they had no especial significance.

"Am I wrong?" he repeated, and then he said hurriedly, for her face was so piteous--"No, you needn't give yourself the pain of saying it in words. I want you to know that I understand that there is nothing in the world I blame you for--nothing--nothing. If there is any blame at all, it rests on me alone." She broke toward him with a cry then.

"No--no, Jack," she said brokenly, and she caught his hand in both her own and tried to raise it to her lips, but he held her back and she put her face on his breast and sobbed heart-brokenly. He waited for the paroxysm to pass, stroking her hair gently.

"You mustn't feel that way, little girl. You can't help it--I can't help it--and these things happen all the time, everywhere. You don't have to stay here. You can go away and study, and when I can, I'll come to see you and cheer you up; and when you are a great singer, I'll send you flowers and be so proud of you, and I'll say to myself, 'I helped do that.' Dry your eyes, now. You must go back to the hotel. Your father will be there by this time and you'll have to be starting home pretty soon."

Like a child she obeyed him, but she was so weak and trembling that he put his arm about her to help her down the hill. At the edge of the woods she stopped and turned full toward him.

"You are so good," she said tremulously, "so good. Why, you haven't even asked me if there was another--"

Hale interrupted her, shaking his head.

"If there is, I don't want to know."

"But there isn't, there isn't!" she cried, "I don't know what is the matter with me. I hate--" the tears started again, and again she was on the point of breaking down, but Hale checked her.

"Now, now," he said soothingly, "you mustn't, now--that's all right. You mustn't." Her anger at herself helped now.

"Why, I stood like a silly fool, tongue-tied, and I wanted to say so much. I--"

"You don't need to," Hale said gently, "I understand it all. I understand."

"I believe you do," she said with a sob, "better than I do."

"Well, it's all right, little girl. Come on."

They issued forth into the sunlight and Hale walked rapidly. The strain was getting too much for him and he was anxious to be alone. Without a word more they passed the old school-house, the massive new one, and went on, in silence, down the street. Hitched to a post, near the hotel, were two gaunt horses with drooping heads, and on one of them was a side-saddle. Sitting on the steps of the hotel, with a pipe in his mouth, was the mighty figure of Devil Judd Tolliver. He saw them coming--at least he saw Hale coming, and that far away Hale saw his bushy eyebrows lift in wonder at June. A moment later he rose to his great height without a word.

"Dad," said June in a trembling voice, "don't you know me?" The old man stared at her silently and a doubtful smile played about his bearded lips.

"Hardly, but I reckon hit's June."

She knew that the world to which Hale belonged would expect her to kiss him, and she made a movement as though she would, but the habit of a lifetime is not broken so easily. She held out her hand, and with the other patted him on the arm as she looked up into his face.

"Time to be goin', June, if we want to get home afore dark!"

"All right, Dad."

The old man turned to his horse.

"Hurry up, little gal."

In a few minutes they were ready, and the girl looked long into Hale's face when he took her hand.

"You are coming over soon?"

"Just as soon as I can." Her lips trembled.

"Good-by," she faltered.

"Good-by, June," said Hale.

From the steps he watched them--the giant father slouching in his saddle and the trim figure of the now sadly misplaced girl, erect on the awkward-pacing mountain beast--as incongruous, the two, as a fairy on some prehistoric monster. A horseman was coming up the street behind him and a voice called:

"Who's that?" Hale turned--it was the Honourable Samuel Budd, coming home from Court.

"June Tolliver."

"June Taliaferro," corrected the Hon. Sam with emphasis.

"The same." The Hon. Sam silently followed the pair for a moment through his big goggles.

"What do you think of my theory of the latent possibilities of the mountaineer--now?"

"I think I know how true it is better than you do," said Hale calmly, and with a grunt the Hon. Sam rode on. Hale watched them as they rode across the plateau--watched them until the Gap swallowed them up and his heart ached for June. Then he went to his room and there, stretched out on his bed and with his hands clenched behind his head, he lay staring upward.

Devil Judd Tolliver had lost none of his taciturnity. Stolidly, silently, he went ahead, as is the custom of lordly man in the mountains--horseback or afoot--asking no questions, answering June's in the fewest words possible. Uncle Billy, the miller, had been complaining a good deal that spring, and old Hon had rheumatism. Uncle Billy's old-maid sister, who lived on Devil's Fork, had been cooking for him at home since the last taking to bed of June's step-mother. Bub had "growed up" like a hickory sapling. Her cousin Loretta hadn't married, and some folks allowed she'd run away some day yet with young Buck Falin. Her cousin Dave had gone off to school that year, had come back a month before, and been shot through the shoulder. He was in Lonesome Cove now.

This fact was mentioned in the same matter-of-fact way as the other happenings. Hale had been raising Cain in Lonesome Cove--"A- cuttin' things down an' tearin' 'em up an' playin' hell ginerally."

The feud had broken out again and maybe June couldn't stay at home long. He didn't want her there with the fighting going on--whereat June's heart gave a start of gladness that the way would be easy for her to leave when she wished to leave. Things over at the Gap "was agoin' to perdition," the old man had been told, while he was waiting for June and Hale that day, and Hale had not only lost a lot of money, but if things didn't take a rise, he would be left head over heels in debt, if that mine over in Lonesome Cove didn't pull him out.

They were approaching the big Pine now, and June was beginning to ache and get sore from the climb. So Hale was in trouble--that was what he meant when he said that, though she could leave the mountains when she pleased, he must stay there, perhaps for good.

"I'm mighty glad you come home, gal," said the old man, "an' that ye air goin' to put an end to all this spendin' o' so much money. Jack says you got some money left, but I don't understand it. He says he made a 'investment' fer ye and tribbled the money. I haint never axed him no questions. Hit was betwixt you an' him, an' 'twant none o' my business long as you an' him air goin' to marry. He said you was goin' to marry this summer an' I wish you'd git tied up right away whilst I'm livin', fer I don't know when a Winchester might take me off an' I'd die a sight easier if I knowed you was tied up with a good man like him."

"Yes, Dad," was all she said, for she had not the heart to tell him the truth, and she knew that Hale never would until the last moment he must, when he learned that she had failed.

Half an hour later, she could see the stone chimney of the little cabin in Lonesome Cove. A little farther down several spirals of smoke were visible--rising from unseen houses which were more miners' shacks, her father said, that Hale had put up while she was gone. The water of the creek was jet black now. A row of rough wooden houses ran along its edge. The geese cackled a doubtful welcome. A new dog leaped barking from the porch and a tall boy sprang after him--both running for the gate.

"Why, Bub," cried June, sliding from her horse and kissing him, and then holding him off at arms' length to look into his steady gray eyes and his blushing face.

"Take the horses, Bub," said old Judd, and June entered the gate while Bub stood with the reins in his hand, still speechlessly staring her over from head to foot. There was her garden, thank God--with all her flowers planted, a new bed of pansies and one of violets and the border of laurel in bloom--unchanged and weedless.

"One o' Jack Hale's men takes keer of it," explained old Judd, and again, with shame, June felt the hurt of her lover's thoughtfulness. When she entered the cabin, the same old rasping petulant voice called her from a bed in one corner, and when June took the shrivelled old hand that was limply thrust from the bed- clothes, the old hag's keen eyes swept her from head to foot with disapproval.

"My, but you air wearin' mighty fine clothes," she croaked enviously. "I ain't had a new dress fer more'n five year;" and that was the welcome she got.

"No?" said June appeasingly. "Well, I'll get one for you myself."

"I'm much obleeged," she whined, "but I reckon I can git along."

A cough came from the bed in the other corner of the room.

"That's Dave," said the old woman, and June walked over to where her cousin's black eyes shone hostile at her from the dark.

"I'm sorry, Dave," she said, but Dave answered nothing but a sullen "howdye" and did not put out a hand--he only stared at her in sulky bewilderment, and June went back to listen to the torrent of the old woman's plaints until Bub came in. Then as she turned, she noticed for the first time that a new door had been cut in one side of the cabin, and Bub was following the direction of her eyes.

"Why, haint nobody told ye?" he said delightedly.

"Told me what, Bub?"

With a whoop Bud leaped for the side of the door and, reaching up, pulled a shining key from between the logs and thrust it into her hands.

"Go ahead," he said. "Hit's yourn."

"Some more o' Jack Hale's fool doin's," said the old woman. "Go on, gal, and see whut he's done."

With eager hands she put the key in the lock and when she pushed open the door, she gasped. Another room had been added to the cabin--and the fragrant smell of cedar made her nostrils dilate. Bub pushed by her and threw open the shutters of a window to the low sunlight, and June stood with both hands to her head. It was a room for her--with a dresser, a long mirror, a modern bed in one corner, a work-table with a student's lamp on it, a wash-stand and a chest of drawers and a piano! On the walls were pictures and over the mantel stood the one she had first learned to love--two lovers clasped in each other's arms and under them the words "Enfin Seul."

"Oh-oh," was all she could say, and choking, she motioned Bub from the room. When the door closed, she threw herself sobbing across the bed.

Over at the Gap that night Hale sat in his office with a piece of white paper and a lump of black coal on the table in front of him. His foreman had brought the coal to him that day at dusk. He lifted the lump to the light of his lamp, and from the centre of it a mocking evil eye leered back at him. The eye was a piece of shining black flint and told him that his mine in Lonesome Cove was but a pocket of cannel coal and worth no more than the smouldering lumps in his grate. Then he lifted the piece of white paper--it was his license to marry June.