The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter VII. The Meeting at the Rock
On his way to keep the appointment of the afternoon, Bennington de Laney discovered within himself a new psychological experience. He found that, since the evening before, he had been observing things about him for the purpose of detailing them to his new friend. Little beauties of nature--as when a strange bird shone for an instant in vivid contrast to the mountain laurel near his window; an unusual effect of pine silhouettes near the sky; a weird, semi-poetic suggestion of one of Poe's stories implied in a contorted shadow cast by a gnarled little oak in the light of the moon--these he had noticed and remembered, and was now eager to tell his companion, with full assurance of her sympathy and understanding. Three days earlier he would have passed them by.
But stranger still was his discovery that he had always noticed such things, and had remembered them. Observations of the sort had heretofore been quite unconscious. Without knowing it he had always been a Nature lover, one who appreciated the poetry of her moods, one who saw the beauty of her smiles, or, what is more rare, the greater beauty of her frown. The influence had entered into his being, but had lain neglected. Now it stole forth as the odour of a dried balsam bough steals from the corner of a loft whither it has been thrown carelessly. It was all delightful and new, and he wanted to tell her of it.
He did so. After a little he told her about Aliris: A Romance of all Time, in which she appeared so interested that he detailed the main idea and the plot. At her request, he promised to read it to her. He was very young, you see, and very inexperienced; he threw himself generously, without reserve, on this girl's sympathies in a manner of which, assuredly, he should have been quite ashamed. Only the very young are not ashamed.
The girl listened, at first half amused. Then she was touched, for she saw that it was sincere, and youthful, and indicative of clear faith in what is beautiful, and in fine ideals of what is fitting. Perhaps, dimly, she perceived that this is good stuff of which to make a man, provided it springs from immaturity, and not from the sentimentalism of degeneracy. The loss of it is a price we pay for wisdom. Some think the price too high.
As he talked on in this moonshiny way, really believing his ridiculous abstractions the most important things in the world, gradually she too became young. She listened with parted lips, and in her great eyes the soul rose and rose within, clearing away the surface moods as twilight clears the land of everything but peace.
He was telling of the East again with a certain felicity of expression--have we not said he had the gift of words?--and an abandon of sentiment which showed how thoroughly he confided in the sympathy of his listener. When we are young we are apt to confide in the sympathy of every listener, and so we make fools of ourselves, and it takes us a long time to live down our reputations. As we grow older, we believe less and less in its reality. Perhaps by and by we do not trust to anybody's sympathy, not even our own.
"We have an old country place," he was saying; "it belonged to my grandfather. My grandfather came by it when the little town was very small indeed, so he built an old-fashioned stone house and surrounded it with large grounds." He was seeing the stone house and the large grounds with that new inner observation which he had just discovered, and he was trying to the best of his ability to tell what he saw. After a little he spoke more rhythmically. Many might have thought he spoke sentimentally, because with feeling; but in reality he was merely trying with great earnestness for expression. A jarring word would have brought him back to his everyday mood, but for the time being he was wrapt in what he saw. This is a condition which all writers, and some lovers, will recognise. "Now the place is empty--except in summer--except that we have an old woman who lives tucked away in one corner of it. I lived there one summer just after I finished college. Outside my window there was an apple tree that just brushed against the ledge; there were rose vines, the climbing sort, on the wall; and then, too, there was a hickory tree that towered 'way over the roof. In the front yard is what is known all over town as the 'big tree,' a silver maple, at least twice as tall as the house. It is so broad that its shade falls over the whole front of the place. In the back is an orchard of old apple trees, and trellises of big blue grapes. On one side is a broad lawn, at the back of which is one of the good old-fashioned flower gardens that does one good to look at. There are little pink primroses dotting the sod, sweet-william, lavender, nasturtiums, sweet peas, hollyhocks, bachelor's buttons, portulaca, and a row of tall sunflowers, the delight of a sleepy colony of hens. I learned all the flowers that summer." He clasped his hands comfortably back of his head and looked at her. She was gazing out over the Bad Lands to the East. "In the very centre, as a sort of protecting nurse to all the littler flowers," he went on, "is a big lilac bush, and there the bees and humming birds are thick on a warm spring day. There are plenty of birds too, but I didn't know so many of them. They nested everywhere--in the 'big tree,' the orchard, the evergreens, the hedges, and in the long row of maple trees with trunks as big as a barrel and limbs that touch across the street."
"It must be beautiful!" said the girl quietly without looking around.
Then he began to "suppose." This, as every woman knows, is dangerous business.
"It was beautiful," said he. "I can't tell you about it. The words don't seem to fit some way. I wish you could see it for yourself. I know you'd enjoy it. I always wanted some one with me to enjoy it too. Suppose some way we were placed so we could watch the year go by in those deep windows. First there is the spring and the birds and the flowers, all of which I've been talking about. Then there is the summer, when the shades are drawn, when the shadows of the roses wave slowly across the curtains, when the air outside quivers with heat, and the air inside tastes like a draught of cool water. All the bird songs are stilled except that one little fellow still warbles, swaying in the breeze on the tiptop of the 'big tree,' his notes sliding down the long sunbeams like beads on a golden thread. Then we would read together, in the half-darkened 'parlour,' something not very deep, but beautiful, like Hawthorne's stories; or we would together seek for these perfect lines of poetry which haunt the memory. In the evening we would go out to hear the crickets and the tree toads, to see the night breeze toss the leaves across the calm face of the moon, to be silenced in spirit by the peace of the stars. Then the autumn would come. We would taste the 'Concords' and the little red grapes and the big red grapes. We would take our choice of the yellow sweetings, the hard white snow apples, or the little red-cheeked fellows from the west tree. And then, of course, there are the russets! Then there are the pears, and all the hickory nuts which rattle down on us every time the wind blows. The leaves are everywhere. We would rake them up into big piles, and jump into them, and 'swish' about in them. How bracing the air is! How silvery the sun! How red your cheeks would get! And think of the bonfires!"
"And in winter?" murmured the girl. Her eyes were shining.
"In the winter the wind would howl through the 'big tree,' and everything would be bleak and cold out doors. We would be inside, of course, and we would sit on the fur rug in front of the fireplace, while the evening passed by, watching the 'geese in the chimney' flying slowly away."
"'Suppose' some more," she begged dreamily. "I love it. It rests me."
She clasped her hands back of her head and closed her eyes.
The young man looked quietly about him.
"This is a wild and beautiful country," said he, "but it lacks something. I think it is the soul. The little wood lots of the East have so much of it." He paused in surprise at his own thoughts. His only experiences in the woods East had been when out picnicking, or berrying, and he had never noticed these things. "I don't know as I ever thought of it there," he went on slowly, as though trying to be honest with her, "but here it comes to me somehow or another." A little fly-catcher shot up from the frond below, poised a moment, and dropped back with closed wings.
"Do you know the birds?" she asked.
"I'm afraid not," he admitted; "I don't really know much about Nature, but I love it, and I'm going to learn more. I know only the very common birds, and one other. Did you ever hear the hermit thrush sing?"
"Oh!" he cried in sudden enthusiasm, "then there is another 'suppose' for us, the best of all."
"I love the dear old house!" she objected doubtfully.
"But the hermit thrush is better. The old country minister took me to hear him one Sunday afternoon and I shall never forget it."
She glanced at his animated face through half-closed eyes.
"Tell me," she urged softly.
"'Suppose' we were back East," he began, "and in the country, just about this time of year. We would wait until the afternoon--why! just about this time, when the sun is getting low. We would push through the bushes at the edge of the woods where the little tinkling birds sing in the fence corners, and would enter the deep high woods where the trees are tall and still. The moss is thick and soft in there, and there are little pools lying calm and dark, and there is a kind of a hush in the air--not silence, you know, but like when a big crowd of people are keeping still. And then we would walk very carefully, and speak low, and we would sit by the side of a fallen log and wait. After a while the thrush would sing, a deep note, with a thrill in it, like a bell slow and solemn. When you hear it you too feel a thrill as though you had heard a great and noble thought. Why, it is almost holy!"
He turned to the girl. She was looking at him.
"Why, hullo!" he exclaimed, "what's the matter?"
Her eyes were brimming with tears.
"Nothing," she said. "I never heard a man talk as you have been talking, that is all. The rest of them are cynical and hard and cold. They would be ashamed to say the things you have said. No, no!" she cried, laying her hand on his arm as he made a little uneasy movement, "do not misunderstand me. I like it. I love it. It does me good. I had lost faith. It is not nice to know the other kind--well."
"You speak bitterly," he expostulated.
She laughed. "It is a common experience enough. Pray that you may never know it. I began as a little child, loving and trusting every one, and giving my full free heart and confidence to every one who offered his best to me. All I can say is, that I am thankful for you that you have escaped the suffering such blind trust leads to."
She laughed again, bitterly, and threw her arms out.
"I suppose I shall go on trusting people forever. It's in my nature, and I can't help it."
"I hope you will feel you can trust me," said he, troubled at this passion so much beyond his experience. "I would do anything for you."
"Do! do!" she cried with contempt. "Yes. Any number of people will do anything for me. I want some one to be for me!"
"I'm so sorry!" he said simply, but with great feeling.
"Don't pity me, don't believe in me!" she cried suddenly in a passion. "I am not worth it. I am cruel and hard and cold, and I'll never care for anybody in any way. My nature has been hardened. I can't be good. I can't care for people. I can't think of giving way to it. It frightens me."
She burst into sudden tears and sobbed convulsively. In a moment she became calm. Then she took her hands from her eyes and smiled. In the distress of his sympathy Bennington thought he had never seen anything more beautiful than this breaking forth of the light.
"You must think I am a very peculiar young person," she said, "but I told you I was a mystery. I am a little tired to-day, that's all."
The conversation took a lighter tone and ran on the subject of the new horse. She was much interested, inquiring of his colour, his size, his gaits, whether he had been tried.
"I'll tell you what we will do," she suggested; "we'll go on an expedition some day. I have a pony too. We will fill up our saddlebags and cook our own dinner. I know a nice little place over toward Blue Lead."
"I've one suggestion to add," put in Bennington, "and that is, that we go to-morrow."
She looked a trifle doubtful.
"I don't know. Aren't we seeing a good deal of each other?"
"Oh, if it is going to bore you, by all means put it off!" cried Bennington in genuine alarm.
She laughed contentedly over his way of looking at it. "I'm not tired then, so please you; and when I am, I'll let you know. To-morrow it is."
"Shall I come after you? What time shall I start?"
"No, I'd rather meet you somewhere. Let's see. You watch for me, and I'll ride by in the lower gulch about nine o'clock."
"Very well. By the way, the band's going to practise in town to-night. Don't you want to go?"
"I'd like to, but I promised Jim I'd go with him."
Bennington felt this as a discordant note.
"Do you know him very well?" he asked jealously.
"He's my best friend. I like him very much. He is a fine fellow. You must meet him."
"I've met him," said Bennington shortly.
"Now you must go," she commanded, after a pause. "I want to stay here for a while." "No," as he opened his mouth to object. "I mean it! Please be good!"
After he had gone she sat still until sundown. Once she shook her shoulders impatiently. "It is silly!" she assured herself. As before, the shadow of Harney crept out to the horizon's edge. There it stopped. Twilight fell.
"No Spirit Mountain to-night," she murmured wistfully at last. "Almost do I believe in the old legend."