Chapter XLIV. "But He Risked His Life?"
 

The days passed, and the novelty of their mountain life began to wane a little. There were agreeable episodes, as, for instance, visits from Mr. Clifford, Mr. Hargrove, and the Rev. Mr. Barkdale, who were entertained in royal style; but, after all, the camping experience was not, apparently, fulfilling the hopes of two of the party. Webb's doubt and suspense had only been increased, and Miss Hargrove was compelled to admit to herself that her father's fears were not groundless. She was the life of the party, and yet she was not at rest. Even in her dreams there was a minor key of trouble and dread. The past few weeks were bringing a revelation. She had read novels innumerable; she had received tender confidences from friends. Love had been declared to her, and she had seen its eloquent pleading in more than one face; but she acknowledged that she had never known the meaning of the word until, without her volition, her own heart revealed to her the mystery. Reason and will might control her action, but she could no more divert her thoughts from Burt Clifford than a flower can turn from the sun. She wondered at herself, and was troubled. She had supposed that the training of society had brought her perfect self-possession, and she had looked forward to a match, when she was ready for one, in which the pros and cons should be weighed with diplomatic nicety; but now that her heart was touched she learned that nature is supreme, and her whole being revolted at such a union as she had contemplated. She saw the basis of true marriage--the glad consent of body and soul, and not a calculation. She watched Maggie closely, and saw that her life was happy and rounded out in spite of her many cares. It was not such a life as she would choose in its detail, and yet it was infinitely better than that of many of her acquaintances. Burt was no hero in her eyes, but he was immensely companionable, and it was a companion, not a hero, or a man remote from her life and interests, that she desired. He was refined and intelligent, if not learned; low, mean traits were conspicuously absent; but, above and beyond all, his mirthful blue eyes, and spirited ways and words, set all her nerves tingling with a delicious exhilaration which she could neither analyze nor control. In brief, the time that her father foresaw had come; the man had appeared who could do more than amuse; her whole nature had made its choice. She could go back to the city, and still in semblance be the beautiful and brilliant girl that she had been; but she knew that in all the future few waking hours would pass without her thoughts reverting to that little mountain terrace, its gleaming canvas, its gypsy-like fire, with a tall, lithe form often reclining at her feet beside it.

Would the future bring more than regretful memories? As time passed, she feared not.

As Burt grew conscious of himself, his pride was deeply touched. He knew that he had been greatly fascinated by Miss Hargrove, and, what was worse, her power had not declined after he had awakened to his danger; but he felt that Amy and all the family would despise him--indeed, that he would despise himself--should he so speedily transfer his allegiance; and under the spur of this dread he made especial, though very unobtrusive, efforts to prove his loyalty to Amy. Therefore Webb had grown despondent, and his absences from the camp were longer and more frequent He pleaded the work of the farm, and the necessity of coping with the fearful drought, so plausibly that Amy felt that she could not complain, but, after all, there was a low voice of protest in her heart. "It's the old trouble," she thought. "The farm interests him far more than I ever can, and even when here his mind is absent."

Thus it may be seen that Nature, to whom they had gone, was not only busy with the mountain and its life, but that her silent forces were also at work in those whose unperverted hearts were not beyond her power.

But there are dark mysteries in Nature, and some of her creations appear to be visible and concentrated evil. The camping party came very near breaking up in a horrible tragedy. The day was growing warm, and they were returning from a rather extended excursion, straggling along a steep wood road that was partially overgrown with bushes. Burt had been a little more attentive to Miss Hargrove than usual, but was now at Amy's side with his ready laugh and jest. Dr. Marvin was in the rear, peering about, as usual, for some object of interest to a naturalist. Miss Hargrove, so far from succumbing to the increasing heat, was reluctant to return, and seemed possessed with what might be almost termed a nervous activity. She had been the most indefatigable climber of the party, and on their return had often diverged from the path to gather a fern or some other sylvan trifle. At one point the ascending path formed an angle with a ledge of rock that made a little platform. At the further end of this she saw a flower, and she went to get it. A moment or two later Burt and Amy heard her scream, and the sound of her voice seemed almost beneath them. Grasping his alpenstock firmly, Burt sprang through the intervening copsewood, and witnessed a scene that he never forgot, though he paused not a second in his horror. Even as he rushed toward her a huge rattlesnake was sending forth the "long, loud, stinging whir" which, as Dr. Holmes says, is "the dreadful sound that nothing which breathes can hear unmoved." Miss Hargrove was looking down upon it, stupefied, paralyzed with terror. Already the reptile was coiling its thick body for the deadly stroke, when Burt's stock fell upon its neck and laid it writhing at the girl's feet. With a flying leap from the rock above he landed on the venomous head, and crushed it with his heel. He had scarcely time to catch Miss Hargrove, when she became apparently a lifeless burden in his arms.

Dr. Marvin now reached him, and after a glance at the scene exclaimed, "Great God! Burt, she was not bitten?"

"No; but let us get away from here. Where there's one of these devils there is usually another not far off;" and they carried the unconscious girl swiftly toward the camp, which fortunately was not far away, all the others following with dread and anxiety in their faces.

Dr. Marvin's and Maggie's efforts soon revived Miss Hargrove, but she had evidently received a very severe nervous shock. When at last Burt was permitted to see her, she gave him her hand with such a look of gratitude, and something more, which she could not then disguise, that his heart began to beat strangely fast. He was so confused that he could only stammer some incoherent words of congratulation; but he half-consciously gave her hand a pressure that left the most delicious pain the young girl had ever known. He was deeply excited, for he had taken a tremendous risk in springing upon a creature that can strike its crooked fangs through the thick leather of a boot, as a New York physician once learned at the cost of his life, when he carelessly sought to rouse with his foot a caged reptile of this kind.

Miss Hargrove had ceased to be a charming summer acquaintance to Burt. She was the woman at whose side he had stood in the presence of death.

Before their midday repast was ready a rumble of wagons was heard coming up the mountain, and Webb soon appeared. "The barometer is falling rapidly," he said, "and father agrees with me that it will be safer for you all to return at once."

He found ready acquiescence, for after the event of the morning the ladies were in haste to depart. Lumley, who had come up with Webb, was sent to take the rattles from the snake, and the men drew apart, with Alf and Fred, to discuss the adventure, for it was tacitly agreed that it would be unwise to talk about snakes to those whose nerves were already unstrung at the thought of such fearful neighbors. Dr. Marvin would have gone with Lumley had not his wife interposed. As it was, he had much to say concerning the habits and character of the reptiles, to which the boys listened with awe. "By the way," he concluded, "I remember a passage from that remarkable story, 'Elsie Venner,' by Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he gives the most vivid description of the rattlesnake I have ever seen. One of his characters has two of them in a cage. 'The expression of the creatures,' he writes, 'was watchful, still, grave, passionless, fate-like, suggesting a cold malignity which seemed to be waiting for its opportunity. Their awful, deep-cut mouths were sternly closed over long, hollow fangs, which rested their roots against the swollen poison-gland where the venom had been hoarded up ever since the last stroke had emptied it. They never winked, for ophidians have no movable eyelids, but kept up an awful fixed stare. Their eyes did not flash, but shone with a cold, still light. They were of a pale golden color, horrible to look into, with their stony calmness, their pitiless indifference, hardly enlivened by the almost imperceptible vertical slit of the pupil, through which Death seemed to be looking out, like the archer behind the long, narrow loophole in a blank turret wall.' The description is superb, and impressed itself so deeply on my mind that I can always recall it."

The ladies now joined them at dinner--the last at their rustic board. Miss Hargrove was very pale, but she was a spirited girl, and was bent on proving that there was nothing weak or hysterical in her nature. Neither was there the flippancy that a shallow woman might have manifested. She acted like a brave, well-bred lady, whose innate refinement and good sense enabled her speedily to regain her poise, and take her natural place among her friends. They all tried to be considerate, and Amy's solicitude did not indicate the jealousy that her friend almost expected to see.

Before they had finished their repast an east wind was moaning and sighing in the trees, and a thin scud of clouds overcasting the sky. They were soon in the haste and bustle of departure. Miss Hargrove found an opportunity, however, to draw Dr. Marvin aside, and asked, hesitatingly,

"If Burt--if Mr. Clifford had missed his aim when he sprang upon the snake, what would have happened?"

"You had better not dwell on that scene for the present, Miss Hargrove."

"But I wish to know,"" she said, decisively. "I am not a child, and I think I have a right to know."

"Well," said the doctor, gravely, "you are brave about it, and may as well know the truth. Indeed, a little thought would soon make it clear to you that if he had struck the body of the snake and left its head free, it would have bitten him."

She drew a long breath, and said, "I thought as much"; then added, in a low tone, "Would it have been death?"

"Not necessarily; but only the most vigorous treatment could have saved him."

"But he risked his life?" she persisted.

"Certainly; but a brave man could scarcely have acted otherwise. The snake was at your very feet."

"Thank you," she said, simply, and there was a very gentle expression in her eyes.

Much of the work of breaking up was left to Lumley, and an abundant reward for his labor. He had returned with an exultant grin, but at a sign from Dr. Marvin concealed his trophies. As soon as he had a chance, however, he gave Burt two rattles, one having twelve and the other fourteen joints, thus proving the fear, that the mate of the snake first killed was not far off, to be well grounded. At the foot of the mountain they met Mr. Hargrove, driving rapidly. He explained that his barometer and the indications of a storm had alarmed him also, and that he had come for his daughter and Fred. Nothing was said of Miss Hargrove's recent peril in the brief, cordial parting. Her eyes and Burt's met almost involuntarily as she was driven away, and he was deeply perturbed.

The face of Nature was also clouding fast, and she was sighing and moaning as if she, too, dreaded the immediate future.