Ruth looked at Paul with shining eyes. "I thank you again for thinking that I would like this," she said.
"A little chap whom I saw last night made me feel like making a prophecy that he would be the first Kentucky astronomer," said Paul, with a smile. "He was hardly more than a baby, not much over two years old—a toddling curly-head. Yet there he stood by the roadside, looking up at the heavens, as solemn as you please. And he said that 'man couldn't make moons.' I didn't hear him say this, but his brother repeated what he said."
"Yes, I know. You mean' little Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel. His people live near here, over on Highland Creek. His father came there from Virginia. He intended to bore for salt water, meaning to make salt. But he found more interest in the wild multiflora roses that bloom all around the Lick, and the bones of unknown animals buried fifty feet beneath the surface of the earth—though the bones were not found just there—but farther off at another Lick."
"Then Master Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel is the true son of his father," smiled Paul Colbert. "Neither seems commonplace enough to be content with what everyday people find between heaven and earth."
He said this idly, as we all speak to one another when casting about for mutual interests before really knowing each other. Thus the talk drifted for a few moments, with a shy word now and then from David. And presently a chance reference to the epidemic brought a new light into the doctor's eyes, and a new earnestness into his voice.
"The fathers and mothers of the country are much alarmed for their children," he said. "But there is far more need to be alarmed for themselves. The Cold Plague attacks the strong rather than the weak. But all the people, young and old, everywhere through the wilderness, are almost frantic with terror. They fear infection from every newcomer. There was a panic throughout this vicinity a few days ago, over the landing of a flatboat, and the coming ashore of the unfortunates who were on it. They were in a most pitiful plight. I hope never to see a sadder sight than that poverty-stricken little family. But they were not suffering from any disease more contagious than want; they were only cold, wet, tired, hungry, and disheartened. The poor mother was sitting on the damp sand near the water's edge, with her little ones around her, when I found them. They were merely stopping to rest on their way from another portion of the state, to the wild country on the other side of the river."
"We saw them, too, poor things," said Ruth, quickly, with pity in her soft eyes. "Father Orin and Toby came by to tell us, and David and I went at once to do what we could. I can't forget how the mother looked. She was young, but had such a sad, haggard face, with such a prominent forehead, and such steady gray eyes. She held a strange looking little child on her lap. She said that her name was Nancy Lincoln, and she called the baby 'Abe.' He couldn't have been more than two years of age, but he looked up at Father Orin, and from his face to ours, like some troubled little old man."
"Yes, Father Orin and Toby were first to the rescue, as they always are. I can't imagine when those two sleep, and I am sure they never rest when awake."
And then, seeing her interest and sympathy, he went on to tell of three little ones, orphaned by the plague, and left alone and utterly helpless, in a cabin on the Wilderness Road. As he spoke, he remembered with a pang of self-reproach, that Father Orin was with them now and waiting for him. He rose suddenly, saying that he must go, but a slight noise at the door caused him to pause and turn. It was William Pressley coming in, and Ruth went forward to meet him, and introduced him to the doctor, who sat down again for a few moments. The two young men then talked with one another as strangers do, of the current topics of the day and the country, speaking mostly of the Shawnee danger—the one subject then most earnestly and universally discussed throughout the wilderness. The nearest approach to a personal tone was in William Pressley's formal expression of thanks. Paul Colbert put these aside as formally as they were offered, and in a moment more he got up to take leave. Yet in that brief space the two men had begun to dislike each other.
This was natural enough on the part of William Pressley. It is indeed the first instinct of his kind toward any equal or superior. When a man's or a woman's vanity is so great that it instinctively and instantly levies on all within reach—demanding incense—nothing can be so dislikeful as a bearing which refuses to swing the censer. From its very nature it must instantly resent any such conscious or unconscious claim to equality, to say nothing of superiority. Those so afflicted must of necessity like only their inferiors and must have only inferiors for friends, if they have any friends at all. So that this is maybe the real reason why many reasonably good and perfectly sincere men and women go almost friendless through useful and blameless lives. And this was William Pressley's natural feeling toward Paul Colbert. The honest, sincere young lawyer could have forgiven the honest, sincere young doctor almost any real sin or weakness and have liked him well enough; but he could not forgive the polite indifference of his manner toward himself, or his looking over his head at Ruth, or turning from him to speak to David. Least of all could he forgive him for being at that moment the most conspicuous figure in the whole region, on account of his single-handed struggle with the mysterious disease, which, defying the other doctors, had been devastating the new settlements of the wilderness. Nor could the difference in their aims affect this feeling in the least. To a nature like William Pressley's, anything won by another is something taken from himself. Yet the dislike for Paul Colbert, which thus hardened within him, had no taint of jealousy in the ordinary sense of that term. He did not think of Ruth at all in the matter. It did not occur to him to associate her with this stranger, or with any one but himself. It was in keeping with his character for him to be slower than a less vain man to suspect her—or any one whom he knew—of personal preference for another than himself; for vanity of this supreme order has its comforts as well as its torments.
On the part of Paul Colbert, the feeling was wholly different, and largely impersonal. It was merely the dislike that every busy man feels for a new acquaintance which promises no interest, even at the outset. Had he been less busy, and his mind more free, he might perhaps have found some amusement in trying to find out how far this serious young man was mistaken in his high estimate of himself. He thought at a first glance that he was a good deal in error, but he also saw that he was sincere in his conviction; so that the young doctor was tolerantly amused at the lofty air of the young lawyer, without the slightest feeling of real resentment. He made one or two straightforward, friendly efforts to thaw the ice of William Pressley's manner. His own was naturally frank and cordial. He always wished to be liked, which is the natural wish of every truly kind nature. And then, above and beyond this, was the right-minded lover's instinctive desire to secure the good-will of all who are near the one whom he loves; for Paul Colbert had fallen in love with Ruth, and he knew it, as few do who have fallen in love at first sight. He could, indeed, have told the very instant at which love had come—like a bolt from the blue.
He was therefore more than willing to be friendly with William Pressley, and already seeking a pretext to come again. He now said, turning to Ruth with a smile:
"Since you are fond of poetry, perhaps you will allow me to fetch you a new volume of poems by a young Englishman, Lord Byron. A friend sent it to me from London. He says it is being severely treated by the critics. They say that they never would have believed that any one could have been as idle and as worthless generally, as those 'Hours of Idleness' prove the author to be. But I think you will like the poems, especially one called 'The Tear.' It is said that the poet means to write something about Daniel Boone."
"There should be many tears in that poem," said Ruth, a shadow falling over the brightness of her face. "To think of the poor old hero as he is now makes the heart ache."
"It should make us all ashamed," said Paul Colbert. "He gave us the whole state, and we are not willing to give him back enough of it to rest his failing feet upon, nor a log cabin to shelter his feeble body, worn out in our service. It is the blackest ingratitude. It is a disgrace to the commonwealth."
"Pardon me," said William Pressley, with his cool smile; "but as I look at the matter, there is no one but himself to blame. It is solely the result of his own negligence and ignorance. He did not observe the plain requirement of the law."
"But, William," said Ruth, impulsively, with a brighter color in her cheek, "just think! How could he know—a simple old hunter, just like a little child, only as brave as a lion!" There was a quiver in her voice and a flash in her soft eyes.
"We can but hope that the state will remember what it owes," said the doctor, moving toward the door.
He felt that he had been tempted to linger too long. Father Orin was still waiting for him in the desolate cabin where the Cold Plague had left the three orphans. His conscience smote him for lingering, and yet he could not leave, even now, without speaking again of the poems, and saying that he would fetch the book and leave it the next time he rode by Cedar House.
When he was gone, Ruth looked at William Pressley in silent, troubled perplexity. She was wondering vaguely why she had felt so ashamed—almost as if she had done some shameful thing herself—when he had spoken as he had done before the doctor about Daniel Boone. It must have been plain to the visitor that she did not think as William thought. And yet she flinched again, recalling the doctor's glance at William, and wondered why it should have hurt her, as if it had fallen upon herself. She was not old enough or wise enough to have learned that the mere promise to marry a man makes a sensitive woman begin forthwith, to feel responsible for everything that he says and does; and that this is one of the deep, mysterious sources of the misery and happiness of marriage.
FATHER ORIN AND TOBY MEET TOMMY DYE
Under the spur of his conscience the young doctor rode fast. He was not the man to let duty wait even on love, without trying to make amends. But a sharper pang stung him when he reached the desolate cabin in which the Cold Plague had left the orphans.
It seemed to him that Toby, standing by the broken door, gave him a look of reproach. Toby had not failed or been slow in doing his part; Father Orin and he had already done all that they could, though this was piteously little. The one had cut fire-wood from the near-by fallen trees, and the other had drawn it to the cabin door, so that there was a good fire blazing on the earthen hearth. But the rotting, falling logs of the cabin's walls were far apart, the mud which had once made them snug having dropped out; and the chilly, rising wind blew bitterly through the miserable hut. The covers on the bed were few and thin, although Father Orin had spread Toby's blanket over them. The three little white faces lying in a pathetic row on the ragged pillows, lay so still that the doctor was not sure they were alive, till the oldest child, a boy of three, languidly opened his eyes, looked up unseeingly, and wearily closed them again.
There was a tightening in the doctor's throat when he turned away, and he was glad to smile at Father Orin's housekeeping. The priest certainly had left nothing in his power undone, to keep life in the frail little bodies. On the hearth was such food as he had been able to prepare, carefully covered to keep it warm. As the young man's gaze thus wandered sadly about the cabin, his eyes encountered the old man's. The laughter with which he was fighting emotion died on his lips, and their hands met in a close clasp.
"The poor little things!" the young man said. "Ah, Father, it is wild work—this making of a state. The soil of Kentucky should bear a rich harvest. It is being deeply sown in pain and sorrow, and well-watered with tears and blood."
They stood silent for a moment, looking helplessly at the bed and the little white faces.
"What shall we do?" then asked Father Orin. "These children can't stay here through another night. That wind blows right over the bed, and there is no way to keep it out. They could hardly live till morning. And yet they may die on the way if we try to take them to the Sisters at once."
"That is their only chance. We are bound to take the risk. We must do our best to get them to the Sisters as quickly as possible. Women know better than doctors how to take care of babies. What is there to put round them—to wrap them in?"
There were no wrappings, nothing that could be used for the purpose, except the bed covers and Toby's blanket. The men took these and with awkward tenderness covered the helpless, limp little bodies as well as they could. Father Orin then went out of the cabin, and with a nod summoned Toby to do his part. When the priest was seated in the saddle, the doctor turned back to the bed, and lifting one of the three limp little burdens, carried it out and carefully placed it in Father Orin's arms.
"But you can't carry both of the others," said the priest, in sudden perplexity. "And we can't leave one here alone while we take the others and return. Maybe it would be better to take one at a time. I can either stay or go."
"Oh, no, indeed! I can take these two easy enough—one on each arm. They weigh nothing—poor little atoms—and I don't need a hand for the reins. My horse often goes in a run with them thrown over the pommel. He went on a bee-line with them so last night."
With both arms thus filled with the helpless morsels of humanity, he had no trouble in seating himself in the saddle. He laughed a little, thinking what a spectacle they must make; and Father Orin laughed too, with the shamefacedness that the best men feel when they do such gentle things. And then the strange, pathetic journey through the wilderness began.
"Steady, Toby. That's right, old man," said the priest, now and then.
The doctor kept a close, anxious watch over the child in Father Orin's arms, and frequently glanced down at the two little faces lying in the hollow of his own arms. Any one of the three,—or all of them—might cease to breathe at any moment. It seemed to both the anxious men that they were a long time in going to the Sisters' house, although the distance was but a few miles. When the log refuge first came in sight through the trees, they breathed a deep sigh of relief in the same breath. The Sisters, who had been warned, saw them coming, and ran to meet them, and took the babies from their arms. When the little ones had been borne in the house and put to bed, the doctor sat down beside them to see what more might be done. But the priest, without rest or delay, set out on another errand of mercy. Toby, needing no word or hint, at once quickened his pace, knowing full well the difference between this business and that which was just finished, so far as they were responsible.
"You're right, old man. Keep us up to the mark, right up to the mark," chuckled Father Orin. "I'm mighty tired, and I'm afraid I might shirk if you would let me."
As he bent down with a bantering chuckle to pat the horse's inflexible neck, a man's voice suddenly hailed them from the darkening woods lying at their back.
"Hello! Hello! Hold on!" the unseen man shouted.
They turned quickly and stood still, looking in the direction from which the shouting came. A horseman soon appeared under the trees and came galloping after them, and when he had drawn nearer, the priest saw, with some annoyance, that it was Tommy Dye. As he reined up beside them, Toby turned his head slowly and gave the horse precisely the same look that Father Orin gave the rider. Toby wanted to have nothing more to do with a tricky race-horse than Father Orin wished to have to do with a shady adventurer.
Tommy Dye looked at them both with a grin. "I saw you just now—you and the new doctor—a-toting them there youngsters."
Father Orin straightened up, feeling and showing the embarrassment and indignation that every man, lay and clerical alike, feels and shows at being seen by another man acting as a nurse to a child.
"Well, what of it?" he retorted, as naturally as if he had never worn a cassock.
Tommy Dye grinned again, more broadly than before. He took off his hat and rubbed his shock of red hair the wrong way. The humor of the recollection became too much for him, and he roared with laughter. Toby of his own indignant accord now moved to go on, and Father Orin gathered up the reins saying rather shortly that he had urgent business, and must be riding along.
"I say—wait a minute. What makes you in such an all-fired hurry?" Tommy Dye called after them.
Toby stopped reluctantly, and he and Father Orin waited with visible unwillingness, until Tommy Dye came up again and stammeringly began what he had to say. He did not know how to address a priest. He had never before had occasion to speak to a churchman of any denomination. So that he now plunged in without any address at all:
"I say—who pays for them there youngsters, yonder?" he blurted.
Father Orin merely looked at him in silence for a moment, and then gathered up the reins once more.
Tommy Dye saw that there was something amiss, that he had made some mistake, and not knowing what it was, he resorted to the means which he usually employed to set all matters right. He hastily plunged his hand in the outer pocket of his coat, and then dropped the bottle back in its place still more hastily, after another glance at the priest.
"Well, I thought you might like it," he said with a touch of defiance, feeling it necessary to assert himself. "When a man's face is as red as yours, I don't see why a fellow mightn't ask him to take a drink."
Father Orin laughed with ready good humor.
"My face is red, my friend. I can't deny that fact; but the redness comes from a thin skin and rough weather. What is it you want? I haven't time to wait."
"Say, I kinder thought, seeing you and the doctor with them babies just now,"—grinning again at the comical recollection—"that maybe you would let me come into the game. I'd like to take a hand in the deal, if there's room for another player. I'll put up the stakes right now." His hand went into his breeches pocket this time. "Here's the roll I won on the fall races. Put it all up on the game. What's the odds? Come easy, go easy."
He held out the money. "I saw you at the court-house, too," he added sheepishly, as if trying to excuse what he did.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Father Orin, gravely. "I didn't understand. I've done you great injustice."
"Hey? What did you say?"
"The Sisters would be only too glad to use this money for those children, and for other little ones just as helpless and needy," murmuring something about the use purifying the source. "But I want you to take it to them yourself, and give it to them with your own hands."
"Me! Old Tommy Dye!"
The coarse face actually turned pale under its big freckles. Its dismay was so comical that Father Orin laughed till the woods rang with his hearty, merry voice. Toby turned his head in sober disapproval of such unseemly levity, and Tommy Dye was a good deal miffed.
"'Pears to me you are mighty lively—and most of the time, too," he said, in a tone of offence, tinged with wonder.
"Why not?" said the priest, still chuckling. "Why shouldn't I be lively?"
Tommy Dye hesitated, more puzzled now than angry. "Well, you see, your job has always seemed to me just about the lonesomest there is."
Father Orin began to laugh again, but he was hushed by the soft, sweet pealing of the Angelus through the shadowed forest. The gambler also listened, with a softening change in the recklessness of his face.
"The sound of that bell always makes me feel queer," he stammered. "It sets me to thinking about home, too,—and home folks. I'm blamed if I can see how it is. I never had any home, and if I've got any kin-folks, I don't know where they live. But anyhow, that's the way the ringing of that bell always makes me feel. Say! there's lots of things about your church that come over a fellow like that. Now there the very name of that little house back yonder amongst them trees—Our Lady's Chapel. That's just it—just to the notch what I mean—there's something kind of homelike in the name itself. And that's the very difference between your church and the other churches. The Protestant church seems real lonesome, like a sort of bachelor's hall. The Catholic church makes you feel at home, because there's always a mother in the house."
"Take care!" exclaimed the priest. "But I am sure you don't mean to be irreverent, my friend. And about your generosity to the orphans. Here, let me give the money back. I am in earnest in asking you to give it to the Sisters with your own hands. When they see you and you see them, you will both understand each other better than if I were to try ever so long and hard to explain."
He looked at Tommy Dye for a moment with a returning smile, but the pity of it all put the humor aside.
"The doctor will be coming along in a moment—ah, there he comes now! I will ask him to go with you to see the Sisters. I am sorry that I cannot turn back with you myself. I should be glad to."
It did not take long to state the case to the doctor, who readily agreed to do what the priest asked. Tommy Dye was by this time so thoroughly cowed by the situation in which he thus found himself that he no longer resisted. There was one uncertain instant when, seeing the Sisters appear in the door, he was undecided whether to run away or go on. But he was afraid to flee, with the Sisters' eyes upon him, and the doctor led him into the house. The ladies had been frightened by the doctor's unexpected and speedy return; but he soon quieted their fears, and made them happy by telling them the reason of his turning back. Sister Teresa, the Lady Superior, keenly touched, quickly turned to Tommy Dye and he handed her the money in awkward haste.
"How good of you! How generous—how noble! Ah, you don't know how much good this will do," she said, with her eyes full of tears. "We thank you with all our hearts for ourselves and for the children."
"Thank you,—ma'am," stammered Tommy Dye, scarlet, and almost dumb.
None of the many sins of which he had been suspected had ever made him feel nearly so uncomfortable as he felt now. None of the many sins of which he had been convicted had ever made him look half so guilty as he looked now.
"You mustn't call me 'ma'am,'" said Sister Teresa. "You must call me Sister, and Sister Elizabeth and Sister Angela are your sisters, too. You must always think of us as your real sisters, and the little ones belong to you after this, as much as they do to us. You must always remember that. Will you come into the other room and see them? Or I will fetch—"
But Tommy Dye could not endure any more. He turned with hardly a word, and fled in desperate haste. The Sisters gazed after him in surprise, and with a good deal of alarm, until Paul Colbert told them about him, who and what he was, of his meeting with Father Orin, and the whole story of the money.
"The poor fellow," said Sister Teresa, softly. "We will pray that the gift may bring him some of the good that it will do the children. Yes, we will hereafter remember him, also, in the prayers for our benefactors," turning her gentle, smiling gaze on the young doctor.
And then he reddened almost as suddenly as Tommy Dye had done, and he likewise was hastening to make his escape when Sister Teresa called him back, to ask if he would not be passing Cedar House on the way home. He said that he would, reddening again. Whereupon the Sister begged as a favor, that he would stop at the door and tell Ruth to come on the next day, if possible, to look at the sewing which Sister Angela was doing for her.
"Sister Angela is a wonderful needle-woman," Sister Teresa could not help adding with modest pride. "She learned to sew and to do the finest embroidery while she was studying in a convent in France. She could earn a great deal of money for the little ones if we were where there were more patrons who wished to have such fine sewing done. But nobody in this wild country ever wants it except Mr. Alston for Ruth."
"Mr. Alston for Ruth," Paul Colbert repeated, wonderingly.
"Oh, yes. He thinks nothing is fine enough for Ruth," said Sister Teresa, simply. "And he pays anything that Sister Angela asks. He never says a word about the price. Sometimes I fear we ask too much. But then, the children need so many things, and we have so few ways of earning money. You won't mind stopping to tell Ruth, doctor? Ask her to come early to-morrow morning, please. And another thing, if it isn't too much trouble. Tell her to bring more of the finest thread lace."
This was the first time that Paul Colbert had heard Philip Alston's name associated with Ruth. It was a shock to hear the names called in the same breath, for he already knew as much of Philip Alston as any one was permitted to know. He was aware of the suspicion which blackened his reputation. He had learned this on first coming to the country. Father Orin, when asked, had told him something of the reasons for the general distrust and fear of the man. But the doctor himself had never seen him, and, naturally enough, thought of him as the usual coarse leader of lawlessness, only more daring and cunning, perhaps, than the rest of his kind. Thus it was that trying to understand only bewildered the young man more and more, so that he was still filled with shocked wonder when he came within sight of Ruth's home.
The day was nearing its close. In the forest bordering the bridle-path, dark shades were noiselessly marshalling beneath the great trees. But the sunset still reddened the river, and the reflected light shone on the windows of Cedar House. He glanced at her chamber window before seeing that she stood on the grass by the front door, giving the swan bits of bread from her fingers while the jealous birds, forgetting to go to roost, watched and scolded from the low branches overhead. But she had seen him a long way off and looked up as he approached.
"Isn't he a bold buccaneer?" she said, with a smile, meaning the swan. "We thought at first that he couldn't be tamed—Mr. Audubon, too, thought he couldn't—and we clipped his wings to keep him from flying away. And now he wouldn't go. See! He is the most daring creature. Why, he will go in the great room before everybody and walk right up to aunt Penelope when she's making the coffee, without turning a feather!"
It was not till he was leaving that Paul remembered the Sister's message which had served him as a pretext for stopping. And he was sorry when he had given it, for a shadow instantly came over the brightness of Ruth's beautiful face. Riding on to his cabin he wondered what could have cast the shadow.
THE DANCE IN THE FOREST
She did not go on the next morning. That day had been chosen for the dance in the forest, one of the two merrymakings dearest to the hearts of those earliest Kentuckians. The May party came first, with its crowning of the queen of love and beauty and its dance round the May-pole; and after that this festival of dancing and feasting under the golden trees.
Both of these were held as regularly as the opening of the spring flowers and the tinting of the autumn leaves. No one ever asked why or when they were first begun; it was never the way of the Kentuckians to ask any questions about anything that they had always been used to. And indeed, had they tried ever so hard, they could hardly have found in their own history the origin of these ancient customs. Those must have been sought much farther back than the coming of those first settlers into the wilderness,—as far back, perhaps, as the oldest traditions of the purest stock of the old English yeomanry from which these people were sprung. For in their veins throbbed the same warm red blood, which, having little to do with the tilling of the soil or the building trade, had everything to do with the fighting of battles and the making of homes. For in their strong simple hearts was the same love of country that bore England's flag to victory, and the same love of the fireside that made peace as welcome as conquest.
And as these old English fighters had danced with their sweethearts on the greensward in the intervals between wars, so these fighters of the wilderness now went on with the dance in the forest just as if there had been no fierce conflict at hand. They might be called to fight to-morrow and they would be ready, but they would dance to-day, just as their forefathers had done. To go elsewhere than to the dance on the morning selected for it was, therefore, not to be thought of by any young person of the neighborhood. Ruth had asked David to take her, explaining that William Pressley could not accompany her quite so early as she wished to go. He had business which would detain him, she explained with a painful blush. And then, when she had said this with a troubled look, she flashed round on the boy, demanding to know why William should not do whatever he thought best.
"William always has a good reason for everything he does, or doesn't do. He is never neglectful of any duty. Never!" with her blue eyes, which were usually like turquoises, flashing into sapphires. "He takes time to think—time to be sure that he is right. He isn't forever rushing into mistakes and being sorry, like you and me!"
In another moment she laughed and coaxed, patting his arm.
"Do be ready, David, dear, and wear your nicest clothes," she said, in her sweetest way. "And no girl there will have a handsomer gallant than mine, than my Knight of the Oracle, my—"
The boy teased but smiling ran away to do her bidding, as he always did. He had no clothes besides the worn suit of homespun which he was then wearing, except one other of buckskin, gayly fringed on the sleeves and on the outer seam of the breeches. This had been his pride till of late. But he now took it down from its peg behind his cabin door and eyed it with new dissatisfaction. Fashions were changing in the wilderness. Gentlemen no longer clothed themselves in the skins of wild beasts, nor even in the coarse homespun. Not many, to be sure, were dressed like Philip Alston; but David had lately seen Mr. Audubon hunting in velvet knee-breeches and white silk stockings, with fine ruffles over his hands. That gentleman had laughed at himself for doing it, but the sight had pleased the boy's taste and gratified his craving for everything refined and beautiful. It humiliated him to have no choice between the shabby homespun and the fantastic buckskin. But he tried to find comfort in thinking that he would have a boughten suit before very long. The judge had given him a calf. The master of Cedar House was always kind when he did not forget, as has already been said, and he was most generous at all times. The calf was now ready for sale to the first passing buyer of cattle. Nevertheless, David sighed as he put on the buckskin suit, wishing, as only the young can wish for what they desire, that he had the boughten suit then to wear to the dance in the forest.
Yet Ruth smiled at him as if she were well pleased with his looks. There were, to be sure, certain tangles in the gay fringes for her deft fingers to untangle. There were, of course, many swift little touches to be given here and there, the caressing touches that no true woman can withhold from the dress of a man whom she is fond of. So that David's buckskin suit suddenly seemed to him just what it should be—as all that a man wears or has or is always does seem, when a woman's caressing touches have convinced him that everything is right. Indeed, David forgot to think any more of his own clothes or of himself. Looking at Ruth he thought only of her.
He did not know what it was that she wore. He did not know that the muslin of her dress had cost an hundred francs the yard. He did not know how charmingly odd the mode of its make was, since Ruth's little hands had planned it out of her own pretty head in enchanting ignorance of the fashion. He knew nothing of the value of the three-cornered kerchief of white lace which tied down her gypsy hat. He did not notice that the flowers on her hat were primroses, or that the long gloves meeting the short sleeves and the slender little slippers peeping from beneath her skirt, were both of the finest primrose kid. He saw only the beauty of her face smiling at him from under the gypsy hat, the sweetness of her red lips, and the charm of her blue eyes. And she seeing only the look that she had seen in every man's eyes ever since she could remember, was not made vain thereby, as a less beautiful girl might have been. She took it all for granted and thought no more about it. Rising on the tips of her toes, she put back an unruly lock of David's hair with a last loving little pat.
"There now! We are all ready," she said, with a happy sigh.
"Yes, the coffee is the first thing on the top of the basket," said Miss Penelope, coming in from the kitchen. "That's it in the biggest bottle. You can have it warmed over the campfire. I shouldn't like to drink warmed-over coffee, myself. But then nobody in this house ever thinks as I do about anything. It isn't my notion of what's right and proper—to say nothing of Christian—to be a-dancing when everybody ought to be a-praying. Not a day passes without something in the way of a warning. Now there is the big hole that they've just found in the earth right over yonder—a hollowness without end or bottom, and as dark as the bottomless pit. That's what it ought to be called, too—instead of the Mammoth Cave. For if that don't show that there is nothing but a dreadful, empty shell left of this awful world, I don't know what any true sign is. But all the same, I know very well that nobody in this house pays any attention to what I say. Howsomever, the works of the light-minded who are a-dancing on the edge of perdition don't make any difference in my plain duty. And I am a-going to do it as near as I can so long as I breathe the breath of life. When my cold, stiff hands are crossed under the coffin-lid, nobody left 'pon top of this mournful earth ever can say that I sat by, like a bump on a log, and never said a word when I saw all these awful calamities a-coming."
Thus voicing these vague alarms in her sweetest tones, Miss Penelope turned nervously and glanced at her half-sister. She was always afraid of her, as very talkative, restless people often are of those who say little and watch a great deal. But the widow Broadnax seemed to be dozing among her cushions, and Miss Penelope felt it quite safe to go on with the softly uttered threats which scattered the small dark servitors, who were still flying about her like a flock of frightened blackbirds, although the basket was packed.
"No," said Miss Penelope, "it don't make any difference in my duty. If folks won't listen to what I am bound to say, that is no fault of mine. My duty is to give warning when I see true signs of what's a-going to happen. For a true sign is as plain as daylight to me. I never had a caul, and I don't lay any claim to second sight. But I know what it means when I hear the dogs a-baying the midnight moon. I know, too, what's a-coming to pass when the death-watch goes thump, thump, thumping in the wall right over my head the whole blessed night. And more than that, I was a-looking for both these true signs of bad luck before I heard 'em. That big black ring round the comet's head that I've seen for a night or two back told me plain enough what to expect. And look at the things that have already happened—all over the country. Nobody in this world of trouble surely ever saw the like. Just look at the twins!"
This was the chance that the widow Broadnax had been waiting and watching for in motionless silence. She seized it as suddenly as a seemingly sleepy cat seizes an unwary mouse.
"I don't see any sign of bad luck in twins, or triplets either, for my part," she said hoarsely and loudly. "They are every one of 'em bound to be whole brothers and sisters. To my mind, it don't make any difference how big a family is so long as it ain't mixed up."
Ruth and David seized the basket, and escaped—laughing and running—carrying it between them.
The spot chosen for this Indian Summer dance in the forest was near Cedar House. It was one of the natural open spaces, of which there were many in the wilderness, and it overlooked the river. High walls of thick green leaves enfolded it upon three sides, and it had a broad level floor of greener sward. It was sun-lit when the shadowed woods were dark. In the spring the greensward was gay with wild flowers; for it was in these open spaces between the trees that Nature displayed her most brilliant floral treasures which would not bloom in the shade. In the fall the leafy walls were more brilliant than the flowery sward, and they now rose toward the azure dome, gorgeously hung with bronzed and golden vines, blossoming here and there with vivid scarlet leaves. Below ran a dazzling border of shrubs—the sumac, which does not wait for the coming of the frost king to put on its royal livery; the sassafras already gleaming with touches of fire; the wild grape as red as the reddest wine, and rioting over all the rich green; the bright wahoo with its graceful clusters of flame-colored berries overrunning its soberer neighbors; the hazel, the pawpaw, the dog-wood, the red-bud, the spice-wood, the sweet-strife, the angelica. On the west the velvet turf began to unroll gently downward toward the river. The quiet stream ran with molten silver on that flawless October day, and deep shadows of royal purple hung curtains of wondrous beauty above the water. Back under the trees the shadows were darkly blue, bluer even than the cloudless sky arching so high above the tall tree-tops.
Nature indeed always made more preparations and much finer ones, for the dance in the woods than the simple people of the wilderness ever thought of making. The word merely went from one log house to another, fixing the day for the dance. The hunters' daughters with the help of their mothers, filled the big baskets with simple good things on the night before; for the young hunters came very early to go with their sweethearts to the festival, and there was no time to spare on the morning of the dance. The dancing sometimes began at nine o'clock in the morning. The three black men from Cedar House who played for the dancing were in their places long before that hour, with their instruments already in tune. One had an old fiddle, another the remnant of a guitar, and the third a clumsy iron triangle which he had made himself. Nevertheless they were famous for their dance music and known throughout the wilderness to all the dancers. Those old-time country fiddlers—all of them, black or white—how wonderful they were! They have always been the wonder and the despair of all musicians who have played by rule and note. The very way that the country fiddler held his fiddle against his chest and never against his shoulder like the trained musician! The very way that the country fiddler grasped his bow, firmly and squarely in the middle, and never lightly at the end like a trained musician! The very way that he let go and went off and kept on—the amazing, inimitable spirit, the gayety, the rhythm, the swing! No trained musician ever heard the music of the country fiddler without wondering at its power, and longing in vain to know the secret of its charm. It would be worth a good deal to know where and how they learned the tunes that they played. Possibly these were handed down by ear from one to another; some perhaps have never been pent up in notes, and others may have been given to the note reader under other names than those by which the country fiddlers knew them. This is said to have been the case with "Old Zip Coon," and the names of many of them would seem to prove that they belonged to the time and the country. But there is a delightful uncertainty about the origin and the history of almost all of them—about "Leather Breeches" and "Sugar in the Gourd" and "Wagoner" and "Cotton-eyed Joe," and so on through a long list.
On this day the musicians sat in a row on a fallen tree, and the grass beside it was very soon worn away, and the earth before it beaten as hard as any ballroom floor under the gay and ceaseless patting of their feet. On the other side of the wide level space was a green bower made of freshly cut boughs. This was a retiring room, intended for the use of any fair dancer whose hair might fall into disorder or whose skirt might be torn in the dancing. The baskets were all put out of sight till wanted, hidden beneath the bushes that bordered the open space. But now and then, when the soft warm breeze swayed the leafy screen of green and gold and crimson, there were tantalizing glimpses of the folded table-cloths covering the baskets, like much belated or very early snowdrifts.
Most of the hunters' daughters came to the dance riding behind their sweethearts, after the pleasant custom of the country. They were fine girls for their station in life, and well fitted for the hardships which must be their portion. They were large, strong, brave, simple, good—healthy in body and mind, warm in heart, and cool in courage, with pleasing faces roughened by exposure, and capable hands hardened by work. They were dressed in homespun as became their looks, their means, and manner of living. In all things these future mothers of a great state were the natural and suitable mates for the gallant young state-makers. And each one of the young hunters now standing beside them, held his head high as he led out the girl of his choice, feeling his own right to be prouder and happier than any of his fellows.
The dancing had begun before Ruth and David came, although they were so early. The spot being near, they had walked through the forest swinging the basket between them like two happy children, and coming to the open space, they stopped for a moment and looked on, thinking what a pleasing scene it was. The girls, tripping through the dance, smiled at Ruth as they passed. They knew her very well, and had seen her so often that they no longer looked at her as plump brown partridges might look at an exquisite bird of paradise. And then, they felt that Ruth was unconscious of any difference between herself and them. There was a sweet, cordial friendliness about her, an innate warm-hearted, magnetic charm which won women as well as men. The hunters' daughters liked her because they knew that she liked them for, after all, most of us get what we give in our larger relation to humanity—seldom, if ever, anything else, either more or less. Those who truly love their kind can never be really hated: those who hate their kind can never be really loved. The balance may waver one way or the other at times, but it cannot fail to weigh truly at last.
Ruth danced first with David and then with one of the bashful young hunters. But all the while she was looking toward the opening in the undergrowth, expecting to see Paul Colbert. He had said that he would be there, and presently she saw him standing in the opening between the trees, with the shining river at his back. He was wearing his best and Ruth thought with a leap of her heart, that she had not known till now how handsome he was. His hair was fairer than she had thought, as fair as hers was dark, and she liked it all the better for that. His eyes were gray and clear and steady and fearless. He had a proud way, too, of throwing up his head, as if he tossed away all petty thoughts. She saw him do this as he crossed the greensward, coming straight to her side. It pleased her that he did not stop for a single glance round. She felt his unlikeness to another man, when she saw that he had no thought of any eyes that might be upon himself. And because of this comparison, and the pang of uneasiness and self-reproach which it brought, she blushed when her eyes met his as she had not done heretofore.
There is little use in trying to put into words what he thought of her, or what any true lover thinks of the beloved. The rose of the dawn, and the breath of the zephyr were not glowing or delicate enough to portray Ruth as she was to Paul that day. The beauty of her face under the gypsy hat; the witchery of her dark blue eyes smiling up at him; the pink roses blooming on her fair cheeks; the red rose of her perfect mouth—all this gave him at a glance a likeness of her to lay away in his memory: a vivid flashing, imperishable treasure to keep forever.
* * * * *
The gayety of the Indian Summer dance was now at its height. The mellow sunlight fell straight down through the arching green branches of the bordering trees. The earth, still warm with the summer's fires, lifted a cool face to the soft breeze. The dancers growing tired and hungry about noon, sat down on the greensward in little groups, while the baskets were taken from their hiding-places and the simple feast was soon spread. The black men served it with the coffee which they had heated over the campfire built at some distance in the forest. The homespun linen of the table-cloths looked very white on the dark green of the rich grass. But the single square of fine damask from Ruth's basket was not whiter than its humble neighbors, and she did not think of her finer linen or richer food. With Paul Colbert seated on the grass at her right hand, and David at her left, she took what was given her, knowing only that she was quite content and perfectly happy. She was indeed so happy that she was less gay than usual, for the greatest happiness makes least noise. She listened to all that was said, saying almost nothing herself. Paul's eyes hardly left her face, and he instantly observed that a shadow suddenly clouded it, the same shadow which had fallen over it on the evening before. Turning his eyes in the direction of her gaze, he saw William Pressley standing not far away. He did not know that the white-haired gentleman who stood beside the young man was Philip Alston, but he noted that the shadow quickly left Ruth's face at sight of the older man, when, brightening and smiling, she beckoned the newcomers to approach. And he also saw what she seemed not to see, that the older man turned a frowning face on the younger, and said something which was not cordially received. Had he known William Pressley better, he would have seen the dignified protest that was in every line of his large slow-moving figure as he followed Philip Alston across the wide open space to Ruth's side. To her, William's very step said as plain as words could have spoken that he was used to being misunderstood, but none the less sure of having done his whole duty. She looked up with the little uneasy flutter which this manner of his always caused her. She so craved love and approval that a dark look made her tender heart ache, even though she was unconscious of having done anything to deserve it. This was nearly always the state of feeling between her betrothed and herself, but up to this moment she had never doubted that her own shortcomings were wholly to blame. She hurriedly drew her thin skirt closer about her, nervously trying to make room for him between David and herself. The boy and doctor rose to their feet as the two men approached. Ruth sat still on the grass, lifting her blue eyes to William Pressley's face with a timid, wistful, almost frightened glance.
"You have met Doctor Colbert, William," she said quickly, and then she turned with a smile that was like a flash of light. "And uncle Philip—Mr. Alston—this is the doctor."
Paul Colbert in his utter amazement took the hand which Philip Alston held out. He could not have refused it had there been time to think, for her eyes were on him, and there was no doubting her affection for Philip Alston; that shone like sunlight on her face and thrilled in every tender tone of her voice. The young doctor could scarcely believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears. This Philip Alston! It was incredible, impossible; there was certainly some mistake. Nevertheless he hastily withdrew his hand and Philip Alston noted the haste, understanding it as well as Paul Colbert himself. His own manner was quiet and calm, showing none of the irritation which he felt at William Pressley's negligence. He lost none of his graciousness through seeing the young doctor's involuntary recoil. His intuitions were unerring; he knew instantly that this newcomer was already acquainted with the stories told about himself, but he cared little for that. He was considering the interference with his plans which might come from the sudden appearance of a young man of this young doctor's looks and intelligence. Hardly half a dozen commonplace remarks had been exchanged between them before he had recognized the unusual power of mind and body which he might soon have to contend with. He turned and looked at William Pressley and then back at Paul Colbert with a clouded brow, but he glanced down with a smile when Ruth touched his arm.
"Dearest uncle Philip," she said, "I am so—so—glad that you have come. You are just in time to dance with me. You did once, you know, at the May party, and none of the other girls had so courtly a partner. They couldn't have because I wouldn't let them have you. I should be jealous if you were to dance with any one else, and there is no one anywhere like you."
Looking up with her eyes full of affection she took his hand and pressed it against her pink cheek. At the sight a stab of pain and a thrill of fear went through the doctor's perplexed thoughts. He suddenly realized that the girl's life was closely bound up with this man's. He felt that any distrust of him must wound her, and although he still knew nothing of the bond between them, he saw that there could be no question of its being very close and strong. His first impulse was to try to persuade himself that the suspicion against Philip Alston might be unfounded; as it was certainly unproven. And then, finding himself unable to do this, he felt tempted to put the whole problem of the man's guilt or innocence aside, as no concern of his own. It is always the lover's temptation to shut his eyes when he must choose between the neglect of duty and the wounding of the woman he loves. And alas! this is a choice that comes sooner or later, in one form or another, to all who love. The woman sometimes can find an invisible thread leading through the labyrinth of the feminine conscience which may help her to follow a middle course. The man never has any such subtle resource and he knows, from first to last, that he must do what is wrong if he does not do what is right.
Paul Colbert's troubled perplexity grew deeper as he continued to look at Philip Alston and to listen as he talked. The softness of his voice, the culture that every word revealed, the intellectual quality of each thought, the clear, calm, steady gaze of his fine eyes, the noble shape of his distinguished head—all these things taken together almost made the young doctor feel that Philip Alston was the victim of monstrous calumny. And yet some unerring intuition told him that the terrible things which he had heard were true. His gaze wandered from Philip Alston to Ruth, and he grew sick. A sudden cold dampness gathered on his forehead under all the mellow warmth of the sun. He began to wish that he could get away long enough to clear his mind—to think. It was rather a relief when Philip Alston suggested that William Pressley should lead Ruth out for the next dance. Paul Colbert's gaze followed them as they walked away across the sun-lit grass, but he scarcely knew that he was looking at them till Philip Alston spoke.
"They are a handsome, well-matched young couple, are they not?" he said with a smile, and with his eyes on the young doctor's face. "You know, of course, that they are to be married on Christmas Eve."
THE EVE OF ALL SOULS'
Ruth saw Paul Colbert when he passed Cedar House for the first time without stopping. He was riding very fast, and she feared that the Cold Plague must be growing worse. Still, a glance at her chamber window would not have delayed him, and she wondered why he did not turn his head. She was almost sure he must know that she always gave the birds their supper on the window-sill at that hour. She did not know that he had seen her without looking, and had borne away in his heart a picture of her slight white form, framed by the sun-lit window, and surrounded by the fluttering birds. Disappointed, wondering, and vaguely troubled, she gazed after him as long as he was visible amid the green gloom of the forest path. And then when he was lost to sight, she turned sharply on the boldest blue jay.
"Go 'way, you greedy thing! You startled me. I wasn't thinking about any of you. How tiresome you all are! To teach you better manners, I am going to throw this down to Trumpeter," leaning forward to see the swan which stood on the grass below, anxiously watching everything that went on above. "There! That is the last nice fat crumb."
The day had seemed endlessly long. She went wearily down the stairs again, as she had done many times since morning. Neither the judge nor William was at home. Miss Penelope and the widow Broadnax were in their accustomed places, and matters around the hearth were going forward as usual. Miss Penelope had asked fiercely in her mildest tone, what anybody could expect to become of any country, when one of the biggest towns in it built a theatre before building any kind of a church, as Louisville had done. The widow Broadnax had replied in her loudest, roughest voice, that she supposed the people there, as well as elsewhere, could keep on getting married two or three times, and mixing up families that otherwise might have lived in peace, just as well without a church as with one. But the girl listened listlessly and unsmilingly, hardly hearing what was said. Going out of the room she sat for a long time on the doorstep, watching the forest path with patient wistfulness. But there was no sign of the young doctor's coming back and it was a relief when David came up the river bank. He reminded her that she had asked him to go with her to the Sisters' house, and she arose and went indoors to get her bonnet.
"You'd just as well take the orphans one of the biggest fatty gourds of maple sugar," sighed Miss Penelope. "Ten to one none of us will ever live to eat much of anything, with that comet a-hanging over us. It's just as well to get ready as soon as you can, when you've been warned. I know what to look for when I've dreamt of wading through muddy water three times a-hand-running. Tell the Sisters that all the maple sugar that was ever poured into fatty gourds couldn't hurt the children's teeth now. The poor little things, and all of us, will have mighty little use for teeth—or stomachs either, for that matter—if things don't take a turn for the better a good deal sooner than I think they will. For my part, I don't see what else anybody can expect with that big black ring round the comet's head a-getting bigger and blacker every night of our miserable lives."
She called all the small cup-bearers,—for some unknown reason she never called one or two without calling all,—and sent them running to the smoke-house to fetch the fatty gourd. She threatened them fiercely in her dovelike tones, saying what she would do if they loitered, or stopped to put their little black paws in the sugar. But the cup-bearers knew Miss Penelope quite as well as she knew them, and when they came back with the fatty gourd they waited, as a matter of course, till she gave each one of them a generous handful of the sugar, before handing the gourd to David.
The Sisters' house was within walking distance, and Ruth and David had gone about half the way when they met Father Orin and Toby. These co-workers were not moving with their usual speed on account of an unwieldy burden. Tied on behind the priest's saddle was a great bag, containing the weekly mail for the neighborhood. He went to the postoffice oftener than any one else, and it had become his custom to fetch the mail to the chapel once a week, and distribute it after service on Sundays. When possible, he sent the letters of those who were not of his congregation by some neighbor who was present; but he often rode miles out of his way to deliver them with his own hand. It was in carrying the mail on a bitter winter's day, when the earth was a glittering sheet of ice, that he had fallen and broken his arm. It was a serious accident, and would have disabled any one else for a long time, but he was out again and as busy as ever within a few days, though he had to carry his arm in a sling for several weeks. He now hailed the two young people with his kind, merry greeting.
"There's a great letter up at the convent," he said, when he came up beside them. "The Sisters have got it, and they will show it to you. Ask them to read it to you. That letter will have a place in Kentucky history. This is where we must turn out. No, Toby, old man, there's no time for you to be listening and enjoying yourself, nor for nibbling pea-vine, either. Move on, move on! Good-by, my children. Don't forget to ask the Sisters to show you the bishop's letter."
Sister Teresa held it in her hand when she came to the door to meet them. Both the girl and the boy had been her pupils, and she had formed an attachment for them which had not been weakened by their leaving the little school. Sister Elizabeth also hastened to receive them most cordially. Sister Angela merely waved her hand through the window, but the little faces peeping over the sill, and the tops of the little curly heads bobbing up and down at her side, told why she could not come with the others to meet the welcome guests. Sister Teresa did not wait to be asked to read the letter, she was too much excited over it to forget it for a moment; its coming was the greatest event that the convent had ever known.
"This, my dear children," she began almost as soon as they were within hearing, "is a letter from Bishop Flaget, the first bishop of Kentucky, the first bishop of the whole northwest. Of course you must know, my dears, that this is far too important a letter to have been written to an humble little community like ours, or even to Father Orin, much as he is esteemed. This is merely a copy of the letter which Bishop Flaget is sending back to France, and the original was addressed to the French Association for the Propagation of the Faith. It was written in June of this year, soon after the arrival of his Reverence in Kentucky, but our copy has reached us only to-day. Listen! This is what he says about his coming to Bardstown: 'It was on the 9th of June, 1811, that I made my entry into this little village, accompanied by two priests, and three young students for the ecclesiastical state. Not only had I not a cent in my purse, but I was compelled to borrow nearly two thousand francs in order to reach my destination. Thus, without money, without a house, without property, almost without acquaintances, I found myself in the midst of a diocese, two or three times larger than all France, containing five large states and two immense territories, and myself speaking the language, too, very imperfectly. Add to this that almost all the Catholics were emigrants, but newly settled and poorly furnished.' Ah, but he was welcomed with all our hearts!" cried Sister Teresa, with tears springing to her gentle eyes. "Listen to this, from another letter, telling how he came to St. Stephen's. It is like a beautiful painting—you can see how it looked! 'The bishop there found the faithful kneeling on the grass, and singing canticles in English: the country women were nearly all dressed in white, and many of them were still fasting, though it was four o'clock in the evening; they having indulged the hope to be able to assist at his Mass, and receive the Holy Communion from his hands. An altar had been prepared at the entrance of the first court under a bower composed of four small trees which overshadowed it with their foliage. Here the bishop put on his pontifical robes. After the aspersion of the holy water, he was conducted to the chapel in procession, with the singing of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin; and the whole function closed with the prayers and ceremonies prescribed for the occasion in Roman Pontifical.' Ah, yes; we did our best for him!"
Sister Teresa's soft eyes were shining now behind her tears.
"And hear this, also written by the same dear friend who sends us the bishop's letter. The priest, M. Badin, to whom this letter refers, is in charge of St. Stephen's, so that it was his duty as well as his pleasure to make preparations for the bishop's coming. This letter says that: 'M. Badin had for his lodgings one poor log house ... and it was with great difficulty that he was enabled to build and prepare for his illustrious friend, and the ecclesiastics who accompanied him, two miserable log cabins, sixteen feet square: and one of the missionaries was even compelled to sleep on a mattress in the garret of this strange episcopal palace, which was whitewashed with lime, and contained no other furniture than a bed, six chairs, two tables, and a few planks for a library. Here the bishop still resides, esteeming himself happy to live thus in the midst of apostolic poverty.'" The Sister broke off suddenly. "But I must not allow you to stand out here, my dear children. It soon grows chilly on these late fall evenings. Come indoors at once, my dears. And then, Ruth, Sister Angela is very anxious to show you the sewing which she has finished."
"Oh, I know how beautiful it is without seeing it," said Ruth, with a sudden shrinking; but she added hastily, "There is no such needle-woman as Sister Angela anywhere."
She followed the Sister into the larger of the two rooms which the house contained. David bashfully stayed behind, lingering on the threshold, and keeping man's respectful distance from the mysteries of feminine wear. But the three white caps and the flower-wreathed bonnet drew close together over the dainty garments, all a foam of lace and ruffles and embroidery. David heard the terms rolling and whipping, and felling and overcasting and hemstitching and herring-boning which were an unknown tongue to him. Ruth praised everything, till even Sister Angela was quite satisfied. That pretty young sister was indeed so elated that she turned to admire Ruth's dress but the Sister Superior gently reminded her that it was the eve of All Souls', when they and every one should be thinking of graver things.
"This year the souls and the safety of the living, as well as the repose of the dead, will need all our prayers," said Sister Teresa. "There seems no doubt of the war with the Shawnees. Ah me, ah me! And the Cold Plague growing worse every day!"
"But Doctor Colbert is curing that," said Ruth, eagerly.
"As God wills, my daughter," said the Sister, making the sign of the cross. "More recover, certainly, since he came. Before, the little ones always died."
"He told me that three babies were coming to you yesterday. Are they here? The poor, poor little things! And may I see them, Sister? I should like to help take care of them, if I might," Ruth said timidly, not knowing that her pink cheeks bloomed into blush roses.
The Sister led the way into the other room—the first orphan asylum in the wilderness—and Ruth smiled and talked to the desolate little waifs of humanity as brightly as she could with dim eyes and quivering lips. She, herself, and David, also, had been like this. He had followed her into the room, and was now standing by her side, so that she could clasp his hand and hold it close.
Walking homeward through the darkening shadows of the forest, she still held his hand. Both were thinking sadly enough of their own coming into this wild country, they knew not—whence or how or wherefore—and were never to know.
"Fathers and mothers must go suddenly when they leave their children so," said Ruth, musingly. "Ours must have died—"
"Or have been murdered!" David broke out fiercely.
"No, no!" cried Ruth, shrinking closer to his side. "I could not bear to think that."
But the boy went on, as if speaking thoughts which had long rankled in bitter silence. "It isn't so bad as to believe that they deserted us, or died without leaving a word. Fathers and mothers who love their children well enough to bear them in their arms through hundreds of weary miles over high mountains and down long rivers, and into the depths of the wilderness, would never desert them at the hard journey's end. Fathers and mothers who loved their children so dearly could hardly be taken away by lightning so quickly that they would not leave behind a single token of their love. And we have never seen a sign showing that ours ever lived. There is something wrong—something unaccounted for—something that we have not been permitted to know!"
"David, dear, dear David!"
"I have always believed it—ever since I have been able to think. As soon as I am old enough to speak like a man, I mean to demand the truth from Philip Alston!"
She dropped his hand and drew away from him with a look of wondering distress. It was the one thing over which they had ever disagreed.
"You must never again say anything of that kind to me, David," she said firmly. "I beg that you will never say it to any one, never even think it. For in thinking it, let alone saying it, you are not only unjust, but ungrateful. What possible object could Philip Alston have in concealing anything that he might know about you and me? Hasn't he always been our best friend?"
And then the quick anger which had flashed out of her loyalty turned to gentle pleading.
"I can't bear a word said against him, dear. And it grieves me to see you making yourself unhappy over such useless brooding. What does it matter, after all—our knowing nothing about ourselves, who we are, or where we came from? We are happy, everybody is kind and good to us."
They started at the sound of a voice calling her name, and they saw William Pressley come out of the dark shadows beneath the trees, and stand still, waiting for them to approach.
"It is late, my dear, for you to be roaming about the woods like this," he said, when they were near enough.
He used the term of endearment in the tone of calm, moderate reproof which a justly displeased, but self-controlled husband sometimes uses. And Ruth felt the resentment that every woman feels at its unconscious mockery.
"Why, there isn't any danger," she said. "We haven't been out of sight and hearing from Cedar House."
"I was thinking of seemliness, not of danger," William Pressley replied coldly. "And then Mr. Alston is waiting for you."
Ruth moved nearer, and laid her hand on his arm, smiling rather timidly, with conciliatory, upward glances. Her first effort, whenever they met, was always to make something right—often before she could remember what it was that she had done or not done to displease him. This feeling was the natural attitude of a gentle, loving nature toward a harsh, unloving one, and it was the most natural thing of all that he should mistake her gentleness for weakness; that he should mistake her fear of giving offence for a lack of moral courage. This is a common mistake often made by those who care little for the feelings of others, about those who care, perhaps, too much. And as the three young people walked along toward Cedar House, Ruth gave David her left hand, and spoke to him now and then, just as affectionately and freely as she had done while they had been alone. William Pressley did not speak to the boy at all or notice him in any way. He did not dislike him, for he never disliked anything that was not of some importance. He disapproved of his impractical, visionary character, and thought that it might have rather an undesirable influence over Ruth. For this reason he tacitly discouraged all intimacy between them, but he did not take the trouble to express it and merely ignored the lad. And David, seeing how it was, felt instantly and strongly, that being overlooked was harder to bear than being misused—as most of us are apt to feel.
"We have been at the Sisters' house," said Ruth, shyly, breaking a strained silence. "They sent for me—to see the sewing that Sister Angela has been getting ready for Christmas Eve."
William Pressley looked down at her uplifted, blushing face, and smiled, as the most self-centred and serious of men must do, when the girl who is to be his wife speaks to him of her wedding clothes.
SEEING WITH DIFFERENT EYES
It was on the boy's account that they had their first and last serious quarrel a few hours later. This was by no means the first time that they had openly disagreed, and had come to rather sharp words. Their views of many things were too far apart for that to have been the case, but there had never before been any great or lasting trouble by reason of their difference of opinion. Ruth, gentle and yielding, was ever most timidly fearful of being at fault; William, hard and unyielding, was always perfectly certain of being in the right. It was therefore to be expected that his opinions should generally rule, and that he should construe her readiness to yield and her self-distrust, as proofs that he was not mistaken. Rock-ribbed infallibility could hardly be expected to comprehend the doubts that assail a sensitive soul.
William, naturally enough, had never noted that in giving way, Ruth had not turned far or long from anything involving a principle. The truth was that she had merely evaded his intolerance of any and all difference of opinion—as a deep stream quietly flows round an immovable rock—only to turn gently back into its own course as soon as might be. And even in doing this, she had put aside only her own opinions and feelings and rights, never those of any one else. But this present dispute over David was wholly unlike any that had gone before. This concerned the boy's feelings and rights, so that she suddenly found herself forced to take a firm stand—affection, justice, and even mercy, now forbidding her to yield. Yet it was, nevertheless, just as clear to her in this as in everything else, that William sincerely thought he was right. That was the trouble. That is always the trouble with people like William Pressley, who are often harder to deal with and sometimes harder to live with, than those who knowingly do wrong.
The three had scarcely entered the great room of Cedar House that evening, when the judge asked the boy to go on an errand to a neighbor's. This was to take some seed wheat which the judge had promised to send for the fall sowing. The growing of wheat was still an interesting and important experiment which was exciting the whole country. There had been good corn in abundance from the first; on those deep, rich, river-bottom lands the grains had but to reach the fertile earth to produce an hundred bushels to the acre. But the settlers were tired of eating corn-bread; their wives and children were pining for the delicate white loaves made from the sweet fine wheat which they had eaten in their old Virginia homes. So that the culture of the best wheat had lately become a vital question, and this new seed was making a stir of eager interest throughout the region. Philip Alston had given it to the judge, and he, in turn, was dividing it among the neighbors. Each grain was accordingly treasured and valued like a grain of gold, and the judge cautioned the boy to be careful in tying the bag; wheat in the grain is a slippery thing to handle, and he wished none of this to be lost.
"You must have a good, strong string—one that can't slip," said Ruth, in her thoughtful, housewifely way. "Let me think—what kind would be best?"
"Here!" the judge drew out his wallet, and took off the string that bound it. "You may use this, David, but take care not to lose it. This is the strongest, finest strip of doeskin—"
Ruth's sweet laughter chimed in, "It looks like minkskin—it's so black!" touching it gingerly with the tips of her fingers.
The judge laughed, too. Everything that she said and did pleased him. But he cautioned the boy again not to lose the string, and to be careful to bring it back. William Pressley looked on in grave, indifferent silence. A slight frown gathered on his brow when he saw Ruth trying the knot, to make sure of its firmness, after the bag was tied. His gaze darkened somewhat and followed her when she went to the door to see the boy set out; and he watched her stand looking after him, with her hands raised to shield her eyes from the rays of the setting sun. It displeased William to see her show such regard for any one of so little importance—the personality of the boy did not enter into the matter. While gazing at her in this cold disapproval, he noted with increased annoyance that she then turned and looked long and wistfully toward the forest path. It did not occur to him that she might be expecting or wishing to see some one riding along the path. He was merely irritated at what seemed to him an indication of unseemly restlessness and empty-mindedness. To his mind the unusual and the unseemly were always one and the same. And it was eminently unseemly in his eyes that the woman who was to be his wife should wish to look away from the spot in which he was sitting. And then, his displeasure turned to anger when Ruth, after standing still and gazing up the forest path, till he felt that he must go out to her and utter the reproof that was on his lips, did not come back to her seat by his side, but began instead to play with the swan.
He sat motionless and silent, calmly biding his time to express the disapproval which such childish behavior made incumbent upon him. Cold, hard anger like his can always wait; and waiting only makes it colder and harder; there is never heat enough in it to melt its merciless ice.
A sudden darkening of the sky sent her into the house at last, and even then she did not return to her proper place by his side. She did not even look at him, but spoke to the judge who was just leaving the great room to go to the cabin which he used as his bedroom and office. Ruth begged him not to start out, saying that the storm seemed so near that it might break before he could reach the cabin. But he went on with a smiling shake of his head, after a glance at the dark clouds which were gathering blackly on the other side of the river behind the spectral cottonwoods, now bare of leaves and ghostly white.
"Did David have to go through the big deadening, William?" she asked suddenly, speaking over her shoulder, without leaving her anxious post in the doorway, though the wind was whipping her skirts about her slender figure and loosing her long, black hair. "I wish he would come. He should be back by this time. I am afraid—the great trees fall so in a storm. Father Orin and the doctor, too, often ride through there. And it is such a dangerous place when the wind blows. Oh!" with a cry of relief, "there's David now! Here he comes. David, David dear—I am so glad!"
She sprang down the steps and ran to meet the boy. The rush of the rising storm kept from hearing William Pressley's call for her to come back. He stood still for a moment, hesitating, and then, seeing that she flew on, he followed and overtook her just as she reached David, who was getting down from the pony and taking the empty bag from the saddle. The wind was now very violent, and the darkened air was thick with the dead leaves of the forest swirling into the river which was already lashed into waves and dashing against the shore. Waterfowl flew landward with frightened cries; a low, dark cloud was being drawn up the stream over the ashen face of the water—a strange, thick, terrible black curtain, shaken by the tempest and bordered by the lightning—pressed onward by the resistless powers of the air.
There was a lull just as William Pressley reached Ruth's side. It was one of those tense spaces which are among the greatest terrors of a storm by reason of their suddenness, their stillness, and their suspense. He grasped her hand, and she clung to his as she would have clung to anything that she chanced to touch in her fright. He said rather sternly that she must come to the house at once, and she turned obediently, following the motion of his hand rather than the meaning of his words. He spoke to David also, without looking at the boy, but she was clinging to him and hiding her face on his arm whenever the lightning flashed, and did not notice what he had said until he repeated his words:—
"You have of course brought back the doeskin string."
Ruth suddenly lifted her face from his arm, loosed her grasp upon it and stood away from him. Yet in that first dazed instant she could not believe that she had heard aright. It was impossible for her, being what she was, to understand that he had never in all his life done anything more true to his nature, more thoroughly characteristic, than to ask this question at such a time. She forgot the lightning while she waited till he asked it for the third time. And then, straining her incredulous ears again, she heard the boy murmur something, and she saw him hurriedly and confusedly searching his pockets for the string.
"I can't find it," he stammered. "I must have dropped it when I poured out the wheat. I am so sorry—I will go to-morrow—"
"You will go now;" said William, calmly. "The string will be lost by to-morrow. And then," judicially, "you will remember a needed lesson better if you go at once."
"William!" burst out Ruth almost with a scream. "You can't mean what you say. Listen to the roar of the coming storm. It's almost here. Surely you don't know what you are saying. Send David through the deadening in the very teeth of a tempest like this, for a bit of string!"
"Come to the house, my dear. It is beginning to rain. I am afraid you will take cold. You, sir, will go back at once," turning to the boy. "You know, of course, that the string itself is of no importance in this matter. It is absurd to speak of such a thing. But it is my duty to teach you, as far as I can, to perform yours. I tell you again to go at once. That is all I have to say, I believe, concerning this matter. Come, Ruth, it is beginning to rain."
She shrunk away from his hand as if its touch horrified her. Her tears were falling faster than the heavy, isolated drops that fell on her bare head. But her courage was rising at need, as it always rose, and she was not too much blinded by tears to see that the boy was getting on the pony again. She ran to him and caught his sleeve, and turned upon William Pressley with the reckless fierceness of a gentle creature made daring in defence of what it loves.
"You are cruel," she said, speaking calmly, steadied by the very extremity of her excitement and distress. "You have no more heart than a stone. You feel nothing that does not touch yourself. You have always been unkind to David. But you shall not do this. I will prevent you—defy you. You shall not send him to his death for some narrow, tyrannical notion. He is like my brother. I love him as if he were. And I wouldn't allow you to treat a stranger so. It's inhuman! It shall not be!" panting, and clinging to the boy.
William Pressley stared at her as if he thought she had suddenly lost her senses. Could this be Ruth speaking like that—and to himself? Instinctively he threw into his voice the whole weight of his heavy, cold rage, which had never yet failed to crush all life and spirit out of her most fiery resistance.
"This is truly shocking. I scarcely know what to say. I am merely trying to do my unpleasant duty in a perfectly simple matter. If I didn't try to do it, I should always think less well of myself—"
"Think less well of yourself!" she cried. "Nothing in the world could ever make you do that! Nothing! Whatever you think and say and do is always right; whatever anybody else thinks or says or does is always wrong. I have given up in almost everything because I loved peace more than my own way, and because I am not often sure that I know best. But I will not give up in this!" shrinking and quivering at a peal of thunder, but clinging closer to the boy's arm.
William Pressley came nearer and laid his hand on her shoulder.
"Come to the house, my dear," he said quietly. "It is beginning to rain harder. You will certainly take cold. Come at once. When you have time to think, you will see how childish and foolish all this is. We will say no more about it. You, sir, know what is right for you to do. You know as well as I do what the judge's positive orders were. You have disregarded them—"
"But uncle Robert never meant anything like this," she said. "He is kind and tender-hearted. I will call him. He would not—"
The boy had turned proudly and silently, meaning to get back in the saddle, but she would not loose her hold on his arm. And then came the first furious blast of the tempest, and the greatest trees—the mightiest giants of the ancient forest—bent and crouched before it, bracing themselves for the fierce conflict with the elements in which they must gain or lose centuries of life. The rain now began to fall heavily, and William abruptly told the boy to come in the house till the storm was over. In yielding thus far, he was not influenced by Ruth's threat to appeal to his uncle. He had scarcely heard what she said, and he was never in awe of the judge's opinion, and never looked for opposition from any source, because he could not anticipate an opinion different from his own. He merely dropped the argument for the moment because he saw the urgent necessity of bringing an undignified scene to a speedy close, and could not see any other or better way of doing it.
When they had gone indoors and had gathered around the fire, so that their damp clothes might dry, he was by far the most composed of the three. The boy was deeply agitated and suffering as only the supersensitive can suffer from harshness, whether merited or not. Ruth was still quivering with excitement and distress, and very soon her tender conscience also was aching. She could not recall very distinctly all that she had said, but she knew how bitter her words must have been, and was already wondering how she ever could have uttered them. How they came in her mind and heart she could not comprehend. She had always thought William a good man, and worthy of all respect, and she now felt that there had been much truth in what he had said. David was a dreamer, poor boy, and it would be well if he could be taught to remember, to be practical and useful like other people. She still could not think it right for him to have been forced to go back through the storm to correct an error; but she now thought that William had not really intended to send him. It seemed suddenly plain that William's sole intention must have been to impress him with the necessity of doing what he was told to do. She had scolded the boy herself about that very thing many a time. The fault was hers, she had been too hasty, too excitable, too impetuous. Ah, yes, that was always her fault! She looked at William with everything that she thought and felt clearly to be seen on her transparent face. But a ray of comfort shone through the cloud which darkened her spirits. Surely this and everything else would be well when she had told him how sorry she was, and how plainly she saw her mistake. They had been such good friends as far back as she could remember; the bond between them had been such a close and strong one that it certainly could not be broken or even strained by a few hasty, passionate words, repented at once. Her lovely eyes were already seeking his face and silently appealing to this old and faithful affection.
But William's gaze did not meet hers. He was looking into the fire and seeing what had occurred with wholly different eyes. To him everything was altered, and nothing could ever make the relation between them what it had been. No tenderness of affection, no length of association, no faithfulness of service, could stand for an instant against a single one of the many blows that his morbid self-love had received. For self-love like his is an incurable disease of sensibility, a spreading canker which poisons the whole character, as an unsound spot in the flesh poisons the whole body. To those who have not come in close contact with this form of morbidity, it may seem impossible that William Pressley's love for Ruth, which had been real so far as it went, should have hardened into dislike almost as soon as the words that wounded it had left her lips. Yet that was precisely what had taken place, quite naturally and even inevitably. He had loved her as much as he was capable of loving, mainly because of the deep gratification which he found in her great esteem for himself. No one else had ever come so near granting his self-love all that it demanded. Her sweet presence, always looking up to him, had been like the perpetual swinging of a censer perpetually giving the fragrant incense that his vanity craved. And now all this was changed. The gentle acolyte was gone, the censer no longer swung, and instead there was a keen critic armed with words as hard as stones. No, there was nothing strange in the fact that, when William Pressley finally turned his gaze on Ruth, he looked at her as if she had been a stranger whom he had never seen before; an utter stranger, and one moreover whose presence was so utterly antagonistic to him that there was not the remotest possibility of any liking between them. But he said nothing, and gave no indication of what he felt. No feeling was ever strong enough to cause him to say or do an unconsidered thing. In this, as in all things, he waited to be sure that he was doing what would place himself in the best possible light. While he had never a moment's doubt of being wholly in the right, he thought it best to wait and consider his own appearance in the matter. And then, just at that time, political affairs were claiming his first attention, for that was a period of intense public stress.
A SPIRITUAL CENTAUR
The whole wilderness, the whole country, the whole heart of the nation, was now aflame over the coming conflict at Tippecanoe.
Father Orin, like every one else, was thinking of this, a day or so later, as he rode along the forest path. There was a heavy weight in his merciful breast as he looked across the river. Over there, beyond those spectral cottonwoods and on the banks of its tributary, the Wabash, the white and the red races were about to meet in a supreme struggle now close at hand. He had just been told that Joe Daviess had offered his sword, and the news had brought the public trouble home to his own heart, for he loved the man.
And thus it was that, seeing Tommy Dye riding toward him, he had only a grave word of greeting, without any of the merry banter that the adventurer had come to expect. He stopped, however, feeling that Tommy had something to say, but he listened in rather abstracted silence, till Tommy spoke of having been to see the Sisters in order to tell them good-by.
"For I am going to Tippecanoe, too. I leave to-night. The general can't go. It looks like the wound from that infernal duel with Dickinson never would get well. But I like to be where things are stirring, and I am going, anyhow. So is Joe Daviess."
"Yes, I know," said Father Orin, sadly. "Good men as well as bad must go, I suppose, if wars must be fought."
Tommy Dye looked hard at him for a moment, and taking off his hat, rubbed his red hair the wrong way till it stood on end. His stare gradually turned to a sort of sheepish embarrassment before he spoke;—
"I'll swear some of the babies up yonder ain't much bigger than my fist!" he finally blurted out. "I took the Sisters the wad I won on the last chicken fight. 'Twasn't much, but there ain't any use taking it over the river for the red devils to get, if they get me—and maybe they will—for they say the Prophet is a fighter. If the Shawnees don't get me, I can make plenty more, so it's just as broad as it's long. Anyhow, the Sisters will know what to do with the wad. Say! I wish it had been bigger. They took me into the room where the youngsters stay," he said huskily, rubbing his head harder than ever. "They said—them real ladies said—that they would raise up the children to love me, and pray for me. When I come away they cried—them real ladies—about me, old Tommy Dye, that ain't even a heretic."