Chapter XII. A Mountaineer's Hovel
 

One winter noon Leonard returned from his superintendence of the wood-cutting in the mountains. At the dinner-table be remarked: "I have heard to-day that the Lumley family are in great destitution, as usual. It is useless to help them, and yet one cannot sit down to a dinner like this in comfort while even the Lumleys are hungry."

"Hunger is their one good trait," said Webb. "Under its incentive they contribute the smallest amount possible to the world's work."

"I shouldn't mind," resumed Leonard, "if Lumley and his wife were pinched sharply. Indeed, it would give me solid satisfaction had I the power to make those people work steadily for a year, although they would regard it as the worst species of cruelty. They have a child, however, I am told, and for its sake I must go and see after them. Come with me, Amy, and I promise that you will be quite contented when you return home."

It was rather late in the afternoon when the busy Leonard appeared at the door in his strong one-horse sleigh with its movable seat, and Amy found that he had provided an ample store of vegetables, flour, etc. She started upon the expedition with genuine zest, to which every mile of progress added.

The clouded sky permitted only a cold gray light, in which everything stood out with wonderful distinctness. Even the dried weeds with their shrivelled seed-vessels were sharply defined against the snow. The beech leaves which still clung to the trees were bleached and white, but the foliage on the lower branches of the oaks was almost black against the hillside. Not a breath of air rustled them. At times Leonard would stop his horse, and when the jingle of the sleigh-bells ceased the silence was profound. Every vestige of life had disappeared in the still woods, or was hidden by the snow.

"How lonely and dreary it all looks!" said Amy, with a sigh.

"That is why I like to look at a scene like this," Leonard replied. "When I get home I see it all again--all its cold desolation--and it makes Maggie's room, with her and the children around me, seem like heaven."

But oh, the contrast to Maggie's room that Amy looked upon after a ride over a wood-road so rough that even the deep snow could not relieve its rugged inequalities! A dim glow of firelight shone through the frosted window-panes of a miserable dwelling, as they emerged in the twilight from the narrow track in the growing timber. In response to a rap on the door, a gruff, thick voice said, "Come in."

Leonard, with a heavy basket on his arm, entered, followed closely by Amy, who, in her surprise, looked with undisguised wonder at the scene before her. Never had she even imagined such a home. Indeed, it seemed like profanation of the word to call the bare, uncleanly room by that sweetest of English words. It contained not a home-like feature. Her eyes were not resting on decent poverty, but upon uncouth, repulsive want; and this awful impoverishment was not seen in the few articles of cheap, dilapidated furniture so clearly as in the dull, sodden faces of the man and woman who kennelled there. No trace of manhood or womanhood was visible--and no animal is so repulsive as a man or woman imbruted.

The man rose unsteadily to his feet and said: "Evenin', Mr. Clifford. Will yer take a cheer?"

The woman had not the grace or the power to acknowledge their presence, but after staring stolidly for a moment or two at her visitors through her dishevelled hair, turned and cowered over the hearth again, her elfish locks falling forward and hiding her face.

The wretched smoky fire they maintained was the final triumph and revelation of their utter shiftlessness. With square miles of woodland all about them, they had prepared no billets of suitable size. The man had merely cut down two small trees, lopped off their branches, and dragged them into the room. Their butt-ends were placed together on the hearth, whence the logs stretched like the legs of a compass to the two further corners of the room. Amy, in the uncertain light, had nearly stumbled over one of them. As the logs burned away they were shoved together on the hearth from time to time, the woman mechanically throwing on dry sticks from a pile near her when the greed wood ceased to blaze. Both man and woman were partially intoxicated, and the latter was so stupefied as to be indifferent to the presence of strangers. While Leonard was seeking to obtain from the man some intelligible account of their condition, and bringing in his gifts, Amy gazed around, with her fair young face full of horror and disgust. Then her attention was arrested by a feeble cry from a cradle in a dusky corner beyond the woman, and to the girl's heart it was indeed a cry of distress, all the more pathetic because of the child's helplessness, and unconsciousness of the wretched life to which it seemed inevitably destined.

She stepped to the cradle's side, and saw a pallid little creature, puny and feeble from neglect. Its mother paid no attention to its wailing, and when Amy asked if she might take it up, the woman's mumbled reply was unintelligible.

After hesitating a moment Amy lifted the child, and found it scarcely more than a little skeleton. Sitting down on the only chair in the room, which the man had vacated--the woman crouched on an inverted box--Amy said, "Leonard, please bring me the milk we brought."

After it had been warmed a little the child drank it with avidity. Leonard stood in the background and sadly shook his head as he watched the scene, the fire-light flickering on Amy's pure profile and tear-dimmed eye as she watched the starved babe taking from her hand the food that the brutish mother on the opposite side of the hearth was incapable of giving it.

He never forgot that picture--the girl's face beautiful with a divine compassion, the mother's large sensual features half hidden by her snaky locks as she leaned stupidly over the fire, the dusky flickering shadows that filled the room, in which the mountaineer's head loomed like that of a shaggy beast. Even his rude nature was impressed, and he exclaimed,

"Gad! the likes of that was never seen in these parts afore!"

"Oh, sir," cried Amy, turning to him, "can you not see that your little child is hungry?"

"Well,--the woman, she's drunk, and s'pose I be too, somewhat."

"Come, Lumley, be more civil," said Leonard. "The young lady isn't used to such talk."

"Oh, it all seems so dreadful!" exclaimed Amy, her tears falling faster.

The man drew a step or two nearer, and looked at her wonderingly; then, stretching out his great grimy hand, he said: "I s'pose you think I hain't no feelings, miss, but I have. I'll take keer on the young un, and I won't tech another drop to-night. Thar's my hand on it."

To Leonard's surprise, Amy took the hand, as she said, "I believe you will keep your word."

"That's right, Lumley," added Leonard, heartily. "Now you are acting like a man. I've brought you a fair lot of things, but they are in trade. In exchange for them I want the jug of liquor you brought up from the village to-day."

The man hesitated, and looked at his wife.

"Come, Lumley, you've begun well. Put temptation out of the way. For your wife and baby's sake, as well as your own, give me the jug. You mean well, but you know your failing."

"Well, Mr. Clifford," said the man, going to a cupboard, "I guess it'll be safer. But you don't want the darned stuff," and he opened the door and dashed the vessel against an adjacent bowlder.

"That's better still. Now brace up, get your axe and cut some wood in a civilized way. We're going to have a cold night. You can't keep up a fire with this shiftless contrivance," indicating with his foot one of the logs lying along the floor. "As soon as you get things straightened up here a little we'll give you work. The young lady has found out that you have the making of a man in you yet. If she'll take your word for your conduct to-night, she also will for the future."

"Yes," added Amy, "if you will try to do better, we will all try to help you. I shall come to see the baby again. Oh, Leonard," she added, as she placed the child in its cradle, "can't we leave one of the blankets from the sleigh? See, the baby has scarcely any covering."

"But you may be cold."

"No; I am dressed warmly. Oh! see! see! the little darling is smiling up at me! Leonard, please do. I'd rather be cold."

"Bless your good heart, miss!" said the man, more touched than ever. "Never had any sich wisitors afore."

When Amy had tucked the child in warm he followed her and Leonard to the sleigh and said, "Good-by, miss; I'm a-going to work like a man, and there's my hand on it agin."

Going to work was Lumley's loftiest idea of reformation, and many others would find it a very good beginning. As they drove away they heard the ring of his axe, and it had a hopeful sound.

For a time Leonard was closely occupied with the intricacies of the road, and when at last he turned and looked at Amy, she was crying.

"There, don't take it so to heart," he said, soothingly.

"Oh, Leonard, I never saw anything like it before. That poor little baby's smile went right to my heart. And to think of its awful mother!"

They paused on an eminence and looked back on the dim outline of the hovel. Then Leonard drew her close to him as he said, "Don't cry any more. You have acted like a true little woman--just as Maggie would have done--and good may come of it, although they'll always be Lumleys. As Webb says, it would require several generations to bring them up. Haven't I given you a good lesson in contentment?"

"Yes; but I did not need one. I'm glad I went, however, but feel that I cannot rest until there is a real change for the better."

"Well, who knows? You may bring it about"

The supper-table was waiting for them when they returned. The gleam of the crystal and silver, the ruddy glow from the open stove, the more genial light of every eye that turned to welcome them, formed a delightful counter-picture to the one they had just looked upon, and Leonard beamed with immeasurable satisfaction. To Amy the contrast was almost too sharp, and she could not dismiss from her thoughts the miserable dwelling in the mountains.

Leonard's buoyant, genial nature had been impressed, but not depressed, by the scene he had witnessed. Modes of life in the mountains were familiar to him, and with the consciousness of having done a kind deed from which further good might result, he was in a mood to speak freely of the Lumleys, and the story of their experience was soon drawn from him. Impulsive, warm-hearted Burt was outspoken in his admiration of Amy's part in the visit of charity, but Webb's intent look drew her eyes to him, and with a strange little thrill at her heart she saw that he had interpreted her motives and feelings.

"I will take you there again, Amy," was all he said, but for some reason she dwelt upon the tone in which he spoke more than upon all the uttered words of the others.

Later in the evening he joined her in the sitting-room, which, for the moment, was deserted by the others, and she spoke of the wintry gloom of the mountains, and how Leonard was fond of making the forbidding aspect a foil for Maggie's room. Webb smiled as he replied:

"That is just like Len. Maggie's room is the centre of his world, and he sees all things in their relation to it. I also was out this afternoon, and I took my gun, although I did not see a living thing to fire at. But the 'still, cold woods,' as you term them, were filled with a beauty and suggestiveness of which I was never conscious before. I remembered how different they had appeared in past summers and autumns, and I saw how ready they were for the marvellous changes that will take place in a few short weeks. The hillsides seemed like canvases on which an artist had drawn his few strong outlines which foretold the beauty to come so perfectly that the imagination supplied it."

"Why, Webb, I did not know you had so much imagination."

"Nor did I, and I am glad that I am discovering traces of it. I have always loved the mountains, because so used to them--they were a part of my life and surroundings--but never before this winter have I realized they were so beautiful. When I found that you were going up among the hills, I thought I would go also, and then we could compare our impressions."

"It was all too dreary for me," said the young girl, in a low tone. "It reminded me of the time when my old life ceased, and this new life had not begun. There were weeks wherein my heart was oppressed with a cold, heavy despondency, when I just wished to be quiet, and try not to think at all, and it seemed to me that nature looked to-day just I felt."

"I think it very sad that you have learned to interpret nature in this way so early in life. And yet I think I can understand you and your analogy."

"I think you can, Webb," she said, simply.