Oftentimes in brooding thought he went back to the little Steve who was duplicating his own early life in the old home. He had considered mountain educational work hitherto in the large; he began now to think of it from the nucleus of the home. How he would like to see the old spot of his boyhood redeemed by an ideal home life! And the thought touched many latent springs of his manly nature, calling forth dim, sweet visions of domestic love and beauty.
But he hushed nature's appeal peremptorily, he thrust back the visions with the firm decision that he had no leisure for dreams, and continued his many-sided work through another winter with accustomed constancy. It was in the early spring of that year when an unexpected telegram came to him from Mrs. Polk. It read:
"Meet Nita and myself at L—— to-morrow, 7 A. M. train".
How the brief message thrilled him! He had plodded so long alone. He sprang up from his place at the breakfast table where the message had been handed him, his eyes shining and his step buoyant. Securing leave of absence from school duties for a couple of days, he went at once to hire a team which would take him forty miles over the mountains to the railroad station.
Forty miles! With a good team and a buoyant spirit they seemed little more than so many city blocks. To look into the face and talk once more with the "little mother" would renew his enthusiasm for his work. She must have known that he was growing dull and spiritless with the lingering winter days,—she had such a wonderful way of divining things. His eyes grew misty with tender recollection of her.
And Nita,—beautiful Nita Trowbridge,—when she should step out in the early morning light, it would be like flashing his glorious mountain sunrise upon some artist's masterpiece! And he was hungry for the beauty and grace and charm of the city which she embodied. Yes, it was true, there was no denying it! And fast and faster sped the retreating miles under his joyful expectations till the journey was ended, a night's refreshing sleep had passed and he stood at last at the little station, restlessly pacing up and down the platform, with eye and ear strained to detect the first hint of the incoming train.
Next he was rushing into the rear sleeper!
"Steve!" were the greetings as he took Mrs. Polk in his arms while the eyes of both brimmed with tears. Then turning quickly to Nita, he greeted her with less demonstration but with equal warmth.
Catching up their hand-bags he hurried them out, for through trains show scant respect for mountain stations, and leading the way to his waiting vehicle he helped Mrs. Polk in with easy confidence, then turned to Nita. What was it about her that made him instantly conscious that the spring wagonette was very plain, the newness long gone and that the horses, with abundant manes and tails, lacked trimness and style? He started to apologize for his turnout, then quickly set his lips. If he must begin apologizing here, where would it end?
"This is just a mild forerunner of the heights before you," he said laughingly, as he carefully helped her mount the high step before which she had stood uncertainly.
But the trip proved equally delightful for them all. The mountain air was bracing, the morning panorama spread out before them, gloriously beautiful as it always was, brought constant delighted exclamation from both Mrs. Polk and Nita while Steve found fresh enjoyment in their pleasure.
The little cabins which came into view on the way, standing bare and barren by the roadside, or looking out from forest recesses where there was hardly a road to follow, or clinging to some lofty "bench" upon the mountainside, all were fronted by poorly clad children gazing in solemn, open-mouthed interest while the strangers passed.
"Dear little things," said Mrs. Polk, "they stand in mute appeal to us to open a path for them out into our world,—to take them into the fold of our larger brotherhood."
Steve looked back into her bright, earnest face with kindling eyes, while Nita turned from one to the other with the old childish wonder again in her face. These mountain folk were a new species to her, interesting and amusing perhaps, but from whom she instinctively shrank. Not that she was in the least disdainful, she was of too sweet a nature for that, but she had no conception of a divine bond of human kinship which could ever include her and them.
They spent the night at a mountain village, breaking the long drive for the ladies, and the next day reached the school where Steve daily gave his best, and which was so dear to Mrs. Polk. During the two days following, as during the trip, Steve made them as comfortable as possible, still making no apologies for anything, and indeed no apology was necessary, for Mrs. Polk had known what to expect, and the royal hospitality which glorified it, while Nita accepted the one with simple good taste and the other with real, if not genial, appreciation. The visit was full of interest for Mrs. Polk as she noted the growth of the work, and Nita went about through school buildings and grounds, her beauty and tasteful attire making her a most observed visitor. Nor did she fail to show interest in the work, thoroughly courteous and kindly, and yet which somehow seemed detached.
As Steve followed her with admiring eyes and sincere regard, he could not help seeing most clearly that she could never fit into the mountain landscape. He thought whimsically of Mr. Polk's dreams for her and himself and knew that though he could have remained in her world and found happiness, she could never have come into his. His early intuition had not been at fault; she would never touch the height, breadth and depth of universal womanhood with its vision and its sympathy.
Just before leaving, the two visitors spent a recitation period in Steve's class room, and so eager was he to reveal the best in his pupils that he did not dream he was also putting forth the teacher's best.
When the pupils had filed out and the three stood alone, Mrs. Polk made a gay little bow, and said with glistening eyes:
"Bravo, Sir Knight of the Mountains, you have certainly won your spurs,—though they be of civilian make!"
He smiled in return, brought back to a consciousness of himself, but turning from it instantly again, he inquired:
"And what do you think of my brother knights?"
"They are equally fine," said Mrs. Polk warmly.
"They are indeed," joined in Nita, "but how you have penetrated the hopeless exteriors of these people, as we saw them on our way here, found the germs of promise and developed them, will always remain an unfathomable mystery for me," she declared. "I confess I understand your skill less than I do that of the sculptor who makes the marble express beauty, thought and feeling,—and his work would be infinitely more to my taste. I think nothing more distasteful than contact with people can be,—and when it must be daily——" She shrugged her shoulders in conclusion expressively.
Steve smiled back at her for he knew she did not think of him as one of these people with whom she could not bear the thought of daily contact.
"Now confess, don't you get dreadfully tired of it all?" she persisted, looking with real appeal into his face as though she would draw him away from it if she could.
"Unspeakably, sometimes," he smiled back again, then looking beyond her over the mountains he added simply, "but I belong here."
And uncomprehending as she would ever be, she turned at last lightly away and walking to the outer door stepped out upon the campus, leaving her sister and Steve for a little talk alone, which she was sure they would like.
When she was gone, Mrs. Polk laid a hand upon Steve's arm and said softly: "Some day, Steve, everything will come right," looking expressively into his eyes, and he knew she meant between himself and Mr. Polk, a subject that had not been mentioned since she came. "I catch beautiful prophecies sometimes of all this human desert blossoming as a rose," she went on with her old gay enthusiasm, "and I am fully persuaded now, as I never have quite been since you left us, that you have chosen your work wisely. I had to come at last and see for myself.
"But are you going to live your life alone, Steve, dear," she asked after a moment wistfully, "with no sweet home ties?"
"I do not know, little mother," he said gravely. His mind went instantly to the old cabin home and little Steve, but he couldn't tell even her of the family life there now,—nor yet of the mystic vision which had intruded upon his brooding thought.
His sudden smile flashed over the seriousness of his face as he replied at last, "I have been too busy and too poor to think about it so far."
She did not smile in return, but catching both his hands in hers she looked up at him with motherly insistence, and asked:
"Have you never loved any dear girl? Is there no sweet face that sometimes steals into the little home which nestles always in every true man's innermost heart?"
Her strong mother-love had surely lent her a mystic's insight and compelling power!
Instantly into the dim outline of the vision of his brooding thought which he had hitherto constantly thrust aside, came with a distinctness that startled him, a childish face framed in yellow curls above a little white pinafore!
He caught his breath with the vividness of it, then pulled himself together and looking down into the dear eyes of the woman who had been more than second mother to him, and who thereby had won the right to question him, he said with a curiously puzzled look:
"Why, I do not know,—perhaps so,"—then, as she still looked intently at him, "you have startled me. I have become such a stupid grind, I guess I need waking up. I will commune with myself, as I have never done before, and let you know what I discover," he ended more lightly.
She knew that a revelation had come to him in that moment and was content without further questioning. With a last gentle, loving pressure for his hands she released them and they walked out together to join Nita.
Their team was soon ready and after another long, pleasant drive Steve was watching the departing train from the little station platform. He felt keen regret as it bore his friends out of sight, but he turned to his team for the homeward drive with a strange exhilaration in his heart. He had hardly been able to wait for that communion with himself, and when the opportunity came there was no uncertainty in its tenor.
"Of course I love Nancy Follet! I have loved her ever since I first set eyes upon her sweet little face,—and it has come before me always in any stress of mind or heart as though to tell me she was always to have part in my life. And yet I have been so dull I did not understand. She preempted my heart from the first and that is why I did not love beautiful Nita Trowbridge,—why I have never been able to look at any girl with a spark of interest since." How he loved to linger over the revelation which had come to him! It was like having emerged from a desert into a land flowing with milk and honey. Little Nancy! She had been so gentle, so confiding, so eager to help him with things,—she would be his dear helper in the work of his life,—and the work would thereby be glorified beyond measure! Under the spell of his tender musing the forty miles again sped by unheeded and he was back once more at the schoolroom door.
It was well that his tasks for the year were well-nigh over, for he at once became consumed with the desire to see Nancy in the maturity of her girlhood. He promptly decided that he would go as soon as school closed and win her promise before he went on that prospecting tour. In the meantime his mind continued to hover over the hours they had spent together as boy and girl. He went to mill once more walking beside a little fairy figure on old Dobbin's back,—he caught the fragrance of shy flowers which nestled in cool woodland depths, and memory let softly down the bars into a holy of holies as the little girl said again in her sweet innocence, "Steve, let's build us a house in this wood and live here always." He mounted the rugged steeps of Greely's Ridge, her strong protector, while she reached down once more a timid little hand to hold his tightly,—and suddenly he was startled with remembrance of the character of that ridge. It must have held minerals! Coal, yes, coal,—he was sure of it! There was the piece of land he had been wanting to find!
And so with buoyant, twofold hope he started as soon as school was out towards the Follet home, having deposited in the bank a sum which he felt would be sufficient to purchase the Greely Ridge, should he find it as valuable as he suspected and no one had preceded him in its discovery.
OLD TIES RENEWED
It was mid-afternoon of a late June day when Steve stopped at Mr. Follet's store. He wondered if his old friend would be there. Yes, the door was open, and for a moment Steve stood on the platform in front, his tall figure erect, his head bared as he looked reverently towards the little home which had opened the world of books to him. Then Mr. Follet's high voice rang out from the dark depths where dry-goods and groceries rioted in hopeless confusion as of old.
"Hello, stranger, what's the time o' day?"
Steve stepping forward put out an eager hand, and cried:
"Mr. Follet, don't you know me?"
But the man only stared, coming forward into the light of the doorway.
"Never saw you before," he declared at last; "or if I did, can't tell where under the canopee 'twas."
Steve laughed with keen enjoyment at hearing the familiar old expression, and said eagerly:
"Don't you remember Steve, little Steve Langly who worked for you one summer?"
"Steve!" exclaimed Mr. Follet; "of course I do; nobody at my house has forgotten him, not by a jugful,—but this ain't Steve!"
"This is Steve though, Mr. Follet,—the same Steve, with just as grateful a heart for you and Mrs. Follet as I had the day I left you about a dozen years ago."
"Well, this does beat me," said Mr. Follet. "We'll lock right up and go over to the house. My wife and Nancy will be powerful glad to see you if they can ever think who under the canopee you are." And he stepped briskly about locking up, and then the two walked over to the house.
Mrs. Follet was seated on the piazza with some light sewing when they came up, and to Mr. Follet's excited introduction of Mr. Langly she made polite but unrecognizing acknowledgment, and her husband was too impatient to delay his revelation.
"Why, ma, you don't tell me you don't know Steve," he exclaimed.
"Steve," returned Mrs. Follet bewildered.
"Why, yes! little, old, scrawny, mountain Steve," exclaimed Mr. Follet, "who did everything that was done here one summer!"
Then Mrs. Follet slowly grasped the astonishing thought that little ignorant Steve and the fine-looking young man before her were one and the same, and gave him gentle, motherly greeting.
"Where's Nancy?" went on Mr. Follet, impatiently.
"She's gone with Gyp for a gallop," returned Mrs. Follet, "but she ought to be back any minute now." And by the time they had exchanged brief accounts of the years that had passed since they last met, Nancy was seen swaying gracefully down the road upon her pony's rounded back. She waved gaily as she passed the porch not noticing the stranger who was somewhat screened by hanging vines, and then she turned into the lane which led to the stable.
Steve's eyes glistened at the vision of the girl which time had so charmingly matured, and starting up he exclaimed:
"Let me meet her at the stable where I used to help her on and off old Dobbin's back," and with a bound he was off the porch and striding towards the lane.
Nancy had slowed her pace along the shady driveway, and Steve, going noiselessly through the grass, was at her side when she was ready to dismount.
Smilingly he held out his hand for her to step upon, his glowing eyes lifted to hers. Startled she drew back, her eyes held and fascinated, however, by his intent gaze.
For a long instant they gazed, and then she breathed:
Had the meeting occurred otherwise, she probably would never have taken the tall, broad-shouldered, handsome young fellow for the Steve of her childish memory, but she only saw and recognized those brown eyes lifted to hers as they used to be in the old days when he took her from Dobbin's back, with the same tender light in them.
"Yes, Nancy, it's Steve!" he exclaimed joyfully. "And you knew me after all these years!"
A smile that held something sweet and sensitive flashed assent, and then in reaction from the stir of undefined feeling, which she was not ready to acknowledge, her eyes danced with sudden humour. Keeping her saddle she glanced behind her to the pony's back, and said:
"Where are our bags of meal?"
Steve laughed in responsive gaiety, and in spite of himself let his eyes rest upon her in kindling admiration.
"Oh, I see good grist which the mill of time has ground for you," he said, and put out his palm again for her to step upon.
But she, flushing with girlish surprise at his ready gallantry, which showed how completely the little mountain boy had been lost in the cultured man, drew back once more and with equal quick wit said, laughing:
"You will certainly find it has, and in good, substantial material if you try to take my weight in your hand."
"The same mill has ground out for me an adequate amount of muscle," he declared, adding with a hint of pleading in his voice, "You must let me renew old times," and without further protest she lightly touched his hand with her foot as she sprang from the pony's back.
"Weight doesn't count with so light a touch as that," laughed Steve, and started to lead the pony into the stable, when a coloured boy stepped up to care for it.
"You see we keep a groom these days," said Nancy.
"Yes; what style the mountains are taking on," returned Steve, as Nancy gathered up the long skirt of her riding habit, and the two walked together through the grass to the porch.
"To what an astonishing height you have grown," said she with naive charm, looking up at him.
"You have done equally well," he returned, measuring with his eye her slender length; then he added with his sudden smile which held the whimsical quality of old friendship, "Please tell me,—where are the curls?"
"Oh, they are tucked snugly away out of sight," said she demurely, with a pretty gesture which straying tendrils had made habitual, and the warm colour rising again to her face.
"There should be a law against carrying curls concealed," said he.
By this time they were at the porch, and as they resumed the family exchange of items of interest from each side, Steve and Nancy sitting on the steps as in the old days, he saw the fair dream-structure of the past few weeks in the beginning of complete realization.
In the evening as Mr. and Mrs. Follet, Steve and Nancy sat again on the porch enjoying the night air after a warm day, they talked interestedly of old times and the changes which had taken place. Steve found that Crosscut, the little flag station over which Mr. Follet presided, had expanded into a small straggling town with a meeting-house, school of uncertain sessions and a thriving saloon.
As they chatted pleasantly a young man turned into the gate and came up the path with a debonair swing that proclaimed him much at home.
"Howdy everybody," he said jauntily, and Nancy rose with pleasant greeting for him. Then turning to Steve she introduced Mr. Colton to Mr. Langly.
Steve met the newcomer with quiet courtesy, while Mr. Colton responded with cordiality of the "hail-fellow-well-met" type, and immediately seated himself beside Nancy with an air of proprietorship.
Very soon Mr. Follet in the course of conversation turned and addressed Steve by his first name.
"Steve!" exclaimed the visitor. "Didn't Miss Nancy introduce you to me as Mr. Langly? Are you Steve Langly who visited Louisville with a Mr. Polk some ten or twelve years ago?"
"I am," said Steve with much surprise.
"Is that so?" returned Mr. Colton with enthusiasm. "Well, I am Raymond Colton!"
"Indeed," exclaimed Steve heartily. "Well, this is pleasant."
"I should say so," returned Raymond. "I tell you, old fellow, we never forgot that lickin' you gave us at our school—served us right and did us good." He launched into a hilarious account of that experience which everybody enjoyed, and there was a little pleasant, general conversation. Then Raymond suddenly exclaimed:
"Miss Nancy, where's your banjo?" and went at once for it.
"I tell you, Steve, she can play on the old banjo and sing as no one else ever did," he said as he returned and laid it in her lap.
Nancy turned to Steve with a quick flush which showed even in the moonlight and protested: "I really don't know a thing about it, only what father taught me when I was a little girl."
And Mr. Follet said excitedly, "You see, Steve, she was so lonesome after you left I had to get the old thing down to cheer her up. I hadn't played any on it since I was a young fellow courtin' her mother. I don't believe I'd ever got her without that banjo," he added and laughed with great good humour. "Nancy don't think much of it," he went on. "She thinks it's nothin' beside the piano, but Raymond, here, is like me, he thinks it beats the piano all hollow."
"Sing 'Robin Adair,'" put in Raymond, and Nancy began striking soft minor chords for a little prelude. Then a rich, contralto voice, low and clear, told the tender old story of Robin Adair and his love, which the banjo echoed with little improvised hints of the air. Raymond and Mr. Follet called for one song after another of the old favourites, Raymond often joining in with a fine tenor, which harmonized perfectly with Nancy's contralto. At last she sang of her own accord "The Rosary."
There was an exquisite pathos in the beautiful, heart-breaking notes that stirred Steve deeply. What depth of feeling, as well as maidenly reserve and charm, his little Nancy had developed! The curls and pinafores were gone, it was true, but as he watched her sweet, expressive face in the moonlight and felt the fullness of her sympathy and understanding in the singing, he said to himself, "I am willing to lose them for this!"
"Miss Nancy, please don't ever sing that any more; it gives me the shivers," said Raymond and was seconded by Mr. Follet.
"It's bedtime for old folks, anyhow," the latter went on, and added, "I guess Steve's tired enough to go, too," and though Steve was not ready to admit this, Raymond gave him gay good-night and he followed his host to the little attic room where he had slept as a boy, and which Mrs. Follet had made ready for him, because he had insisted that it was just the place for him. The house was small and he knew somebody must vacate comfortable quarters if he slept elsewhere.
But once in the old bed Steve did not find fair memories crowding about as he had anticipated. Even the echoing sweet songs lost their melody. Indeed he could think of nothing but the fact that Nancy and Raymond Colton sat together on the front porch, left there by her parents as though he had special rights. A midnight thunder-storm caught up his perturbed thought with noisy energy.
"But why not!" he exclaimed sadly for the hundredth time to his rebellious heart. "You certainly have no claim."
But that lately aroused, throbbing fountain of love's pulsations replied with vehemence: "I have! I have loved her every moment since I first looked upon her as a little girl, and I love her in her sweet maturity with all my soul. She is mine!"
So the wordy war went on between his good sense and his yearning heart, banishing every dear, cherished memory and postponing sleep till the wee morning hours.
Next day after the breakfast dishes were done, Mrs. Follet proposed that Nancy take Steve for a ride with Gyp and the family horse over to the Greely woods, their old favourite haunt, and this exactly suited Steve, for, in spite of the night's disturbance, nothing could please him more than an opportunity for companionship with Nancy alone, and he was still impatient to see if his memory of that rugged ridge of woodland was correct.
He went out at once to saddle the horses. It was a crisp, cool, clear morning after the storm, and Nancy soon appeared in a trim riding habit and cap with deep visor to shade the eyes. The severe lines and dark blue of her costume made charming contrast to her softly rounded face, with its delicate colouring and the stray yellow tendrils of hair which were always slipping out from the fluffy braids which bound her head. She surely was fair to look upon, and when Steve had assisted her to mount in the old way,—holding out his hand and she stepping upon it in laughing ease,—she sat her pony with the graceful poise of the true Kentucky girl, making a picture which less partial observers than Steve could not have failed to find full of charm. They cantered off briskly down the road.
When they reached the wood Steve grew keenly reminiscent, as had become his habit the last few weeks. Forgetting Raymond completely, the past came back to him vividly; he seemed to feel again Nancy's confiding trust in him,—and he yearned to know how clearly she remembered. He looked often upon her as she rode beside him, the two horses touching noses in the narrow path, but the delicate face revealed nothing.
"Do you remember," he said at last, "what a veritable slave you made of me in this old wood?"
She laughed brightly and replied, "Why no, I haven't any such recollection."
"Well, you knew even then just how to do it," he returned with a bit of insinuation. "You would look up at the tallest, hardest tree to climb and see some high-hanging blossom which you coveted, and I immediately scaled the tree's height to lay the blossom at your feet."
She laughed again and her cheeks this time flushed a rosy hue, unaccountably disconcerting to her.
"But that, after all, was as it should have been," he went on after a moment, smiling. "We men need your bidding to send us to the heights, always."
"I do not agree with you," she said, recovering her poise instantly; and summoning a girlish perversity, she led him straightway from sentiment to the substantial. "Each one must mount up in his own strength, like these splendid old trees, without prop or help, only the light from above to draw it upward," and a very demure look crossed her ever-changing face as she finished the little speech.
"You are right," said Steve smiling and remembering Mrs. Polk's lesson from the giant beech so long ago. "And yet, after all, many things help the tree in its growth besides the light from above,—the sun. There are the winds and the rain, and"—he paused a moment,—"its mates. Don't you know a tree rarely stands alone unless man has cut down its companions. They like comradeship. I believe they are dependent upon it in ways we do not know."
"How stupid of me to forget I was talking with a professor," said Nancy archly.
"And worse still for me to forget that I was trying to enlighten the lady who initiated me into the world of books," replied he promptly, yielding to her mood.
"Oh, how lovely that graceful, clinging vine is," she exclaimed, ignoring his retort and pointing up to a vine covered tree, while Steve thrust back into the secret place of his heart all the cherished memories which the old wood held for him, realizing decidedly that Nancy was no longer a shy, timid little girl ready to place her hand in his, but a young woman who would need to be wooed before she was won,—even though there were no Raymond.
"What had he expected anyway?" he reiterated sternly. "That she would be waiting his coming, all ready for the plucking?" He straightened himself in the saddle. He had long since learned how to work and wait for things he wanted; he could do it again.
He led the conversation away from the personal. They talked of nature, each finding under the spur of companionship many new interests in the old wood; and being a devoted nature lover, Steve was pleased to find that Nancy had added to her tender interest in the feathered folk much information as to peculiar characteristics of varying species. It was an easy transition from nature to nature's interpreters, the poets, and the two found mutual interest in recalling some choice things of literature. She had spent four years at a fine old Kentucky college, graduating in June with high honours. There was still a sweet seriousness about her as in the little Nancy of old, in spite of her girlish gaiety, and while the years of study had brought her an unmistakable breadth and culture, there was also a quaint freshness of speech and manner that made her especially attractive. Steve found keen satisfaction in the conversation, for the girl understood his view-point and yet had fresh conceptions of her own which she knew how to express.
He said to himself as he studied her (which having put aside the personal he could now do), "She has the New England alertness of mind inherited from her mother without the New England reticence, and from her Kentucky father, eccentric as he is, she gets the vivacity and charm which is the Kentucky girl's birthright."
And yet in the midst of his enjoyment an insistent despair of heart returned as he recalled a certain good fellowship in her attitude towards Raymond, which was missing with him. Obtuse as lovers usually are, it never occurred to him that this was one of the best of symptoms in his favour!
They had gone in leisurely fashion through the wood, but the tall trees began to drop away at last, and they went down the slope till the old mill stood before them in soft, quaker-gray upon the bank of a turbulent, rushing mountain creek. The big, wooden wheel had fallen from its place and the old mill itself was fast dropping into complete decay, but the trees in fresh summer green still hung affectionately over it. Just beyond the mill nestled the gray log cabin with its porch across the front; and, yes, there was Tildy pacing back and forth at her spinning-wheel just as she used to do when Steve and Nancy were children. She was of the thrifty type of mountain women, always cleanly, always busy, making the most of the meagre means at hand. To the young people it was as though some magic lantern had flashed before them a scene from the past, and the two turned involuntarily to one another with a rush of something tender upon their faces.
Without speaking they rode to the door, and before Steve could dismount Nancy had sprung from the saddle, caught up her skirt, and was warmly shaking hands with the old woman, whom now she did not often see. Steve quickly followed, and with the air of an old friend also, put out his hand cordially to Tildy.
She took it doubtfully, saying:
"Why, don't you know me, Mother Greely?" Steve asked.
"I shore don't," she replied, pushing her spectacles up on her nose and peering earnestly through them. "No," she said finally, "I nuver seed ye afore; leastways I ain't no recollection of hit ef I ever did."
The old man, who with the old mill had fallen into decrepitude, then came slowly hobbling out, an inquiring look on his kind old face. Tildy turned to him, raising her voice shrilly, for he heard with difficulty and asked: "Nat, have ye ever seed this young man afore?"
"No," the old man returned after searching scrutiny.
Then Steve said: "Don't you remember an old gray horse that used to come to the mill with a little girl in white pinafore on his back, two bags of corn behind her, and a tousled, brown-haired boy of about twelve walking beside her?"
"And the little girl was always on the verge of starvation, and only molasses cakes could rescue her," put in Nancy laughing.
"Nancy and Steve," exclaimed the old woman, and then with the intuition of her sex for romance, she further exclaimed: "An' ye hev done got married!"
"No," Steve hastened to say; but the old man, more accustomed to his wife's shrill voice, caught her affirmation, and failed to hear Steve's denial.
"Well, now," said he, rubbing his hands together, greatly pleased, "Tildy and me allus said ye'd marry some day; ye was jes' suited to one another."
Nancy hated herself for flushing so unreasonably again, and Steve, not daring to look towards her, was hurrying to the rescue, when the old woman with a swift, keen glance at both, broke in with:
"No, pap, no they hain't," piped shrilly into the old man's ear.
His face dropped with evident disappointment, and there was an embarrassed moment for all of them.
"Mother Greely," said Nancy gaily, determinedly recovering herself, "have you got any of those molasses cakes you used to give us when we came over?"
"Wal now, I think I hev," said the old woman, rising as quickly as her stiffened limbs would let her.
Steve looked down at Nancy as Tildy went in, smiled, and said:
"Shall we sit on the door-step, as we used to?"
Nancy's eyes did not meet his, and she turned her head to hide that provokingly rising colour as she sat down in a matter-of-fact way.
When they rode away from the mill, having made the aged couple happy with the renewal of old times, Steve again with eager yearning strained his inner vision for a glimpse into her heart, but she betrayed not the slightest consciousness of the embarrassing episode.
As the horses went leisurely back along through the wood, Steve and Nancy talked gently of the two old people with their wondrous mountain combination of barest poverty, dense ignorance, keen intelligence, simple kindliness and gentle dignity,—qualities which the young folks were now prepared to recognize.
"It is curious how like two people grow from constant association," said Steve at last, musingly. "The resemblance between the old miller and his wife is striking, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," returned Nancy; "the shape of face and type of feature is the same in both, and as for expression, each might be a mirror for the other."
"It would be interesting to know which had most influenced the other," said Steve; "whether she has conformed to his type or he to hers."
"Old Nat and Tildy certainly furnish a good opportunity for study of that problem," said Nancy, "for there has been little except the influence of each upon the other to leave its impress."
"The subject is an interesting field for the aspiring investigator," Steve went on. "I wonder that some fine-spun, scientific theory has not already been advanced,—but it only remains another formidable matrimonial hazard," he ended with his sudden smile.
"It does indeed," laughed Nancy. "Wouldn't it be dreadful to think of growing daily more and more like some people?"
"And on the other hand," promptly returned Steve, "how delightful to think of growing more and more like certain other people," turning to her with a light in his eye.
"But then there is the uncertainty,—which is most likely to influence the other," said Nancy, switching dexterously away from hinted personal application, and then with a dash of daring gaiety, adding, "When you marry a girl with a crooked nose, will yours begin to crook likewise, or will hers take on your symmetrical lines?"
"But I am not going to take one with a crooked nose," said Steve, smiling significantly in spite of himself.
"Perhaps not, but the question remains,—which is most likely to conform, a husband or a wife," said Nancy, shying back to the abstract again, with pretty positiveness. And then she called gaily, as she touched Gyp with her whip and started both horses off on a brisk canter, leaving the wood for the road, "Please let me know if you solve the problem, so I may be relieved in mind or forewarned."
As she dashed on slightly ahead of him, spirit and beauty in every line of pony and rider, Steve said to himself with a quizzical smile:
"How cleverly she manages to keep me at arm's length. Oh, little Nancy, where did you learn such tactics?" and he did not know that "such tactics" were sure forerunners of surrender.
As for Nancy, she stood a little later by her bedroom window. The trim, smart riding-habit was laid aside and a little light muslin of almost childlike simplicity had taken its place. She stood looking out at nothing through brimming tears, with flushed cheeks and quivering lips.
"I do blush so horridly when I am with him, and I'm afraid I say things I shouldn't. Oh, what makes me, when I do like him so much!"
"ALL RIGHT, SON"
After dinner Steve walked over to the store with Mr. Follet, talked with him a little, and then strolling up the street afterwards, he was joined with great cordiality by Raymond Colton.
The talk was breezy as was inevitable with Raymond. He had graduated at a great northern university in June, had any amount of sang froid and had as yet caught no glimpse of life save as a field for pleasure.
"What do you think of Miss Nancy?" he inquired enthusiastically. "Isn't she the prettiest thing going? I have seen them north, south, east, and west, but I honestly believe I never saw a sweeter flower growing than Nancy Follet!" he went on without waiting for Steve to answer his question, so a smile was all the response which seemed necessary.
"I came here," went on Raymond, "to look after a land proposition for father. They say there's lots of valuable coal and iron ore about here. I've dipped a good deal into that sort of thing at college and father sent me up to make some tests for him, and if I found anything rich to take up a 'claim' instanter. I've been here three weeks and I haven't done a thing yet. Miss Nancy has fascinated me so, I haven't had eyes for sordid things. But there's plenty of time; no danger of anybody's rushing in ahead in this sleepy little burg."
"I'm not so sure of that," returned Steve quietly. "You never know when somebody may slip in ahead of you. Business competition is a very lively thing I've been told, though I confess I don't know much about it," he ended easily.
"Well, I've been getting a good bit of experience in business here and there, and I can tell that there's nobody hanging about here that has much business go." He had no intention of being personal and Steve bowed, smiling remotely.
After some more desultory talk they separated and Steve went back to join Nancy on the porch where he thought he would find her.
Raymond looked after him with a half smile.
"Poor old Steve," he said to himself, "he's caught already, and the worst of it is, I am afraid he's got the best chance. She's a dear little chum with me, loves to sing to my tenor and laugh at my foolishness, but I noticed last night the blushes were for him." And his handsome face set into unusual, firm lines as he went on: "But I am going to win her! I'll do it in spite of him. To-night I'll walk off with her whether or no, and he'll think his case is lost, for he doesn't know girls, I can see that." And with restored confidence he went over to the store to visit Mr. Follet. He and Mr. Follet were on fine terms, and he spent an hour or so at the store every day. They seemed in fact to have some project in common requiring much consultation.
Evening brought Raymond again to the Follet porch, and after a little music and general talk, turning to Mrs. Follet he said:
"Mother Follet, won't you let us children, Miss Nancy and me, go for a little walk together? It is so hard for us to sit still." He said it with mock childishness that was irresistible, and without waiting for Mrs. Follet's consent, he laughingly grasped Nancy's hand and made off with her, whether or no.
Steve could not see the laughing but real protest in Nancy's face, and his lips set firmly as he watched her white frock swaying gently up the long, straggling street.
Mrs. Follet then went in and Mr. Follet, turning to Steve, began in pleased excitement:
"Raymond's mightily in love with her, ain't he?" and went on without waiting for a reply, "I can't tell about her,—you never can tell nothin' about girls, anyway, you know, and she's just wrapped up in her piano music. She spends hours thumpin' on what she calls classical music, but I wouldn't give it for one tune on the banjo. She's been begging me to let her go to New York and study, but Lord, she knows as much now as any woman under the canopee's got use for, I think, and I've told her she can't do it. Raymond says, though, she ought to go, and that he'd like nothin' better than to give her the chance. His folks have got money, I reckon, and he can do it all right. If anything'll help to get her that will."
Steve laughed in reply with as good grace as he could, and soon followed Mrs. Follet to bed as one of the "old folks" before the "children" returned.
It was evident enough that he did not count with anybody except the Greelys as a possible suitor for Nancy, and his sturdy heart chafed in almost bitter protest. Again sweet memories played truant in the small attic chamber. "And little Nancy has musical aspirations," he thought. "With the life I have chosen I could never gratify her. It is absolutely hopeless for me,—I have nothing to offer her. I am old and staid, anyway," he said finally to his rebellious heart. "I have known the responsibilities of life too long, and Nancy is made only for joy."
The next morning, putting aside his depression sternly, Steve went on horseback alone, taking the same road he and Nancy had taken the morning before. He lingered again in the Greely woods, this time on a prospecting tour testing here and testing there carefully.
When he at last rode up to the little one-roomed log cabin the old folks again made him welcome. After chatting a goodly length of time with them, and getting his voice well pitched for the old man's hearing, Steve asked if Mr. Greely would not like to sell off some of his land.
The old man looked surprised at the question, for no coal fields had then been opened up in that part of Kentucky, so that he was not aware of the value of coal bearing land.
"Wal, course I would, but nobody would want ter buy hit. Thar's only this patch the cabin and mill sets on what's any a'count, an' that I want ter keep long's me an' the ole woman lives."
"I am sure you are mistaken about that, Mr. Greely. I think all that woodland ridge is good land, and I would like to own it. Will you and Mrs. Greely think it over, give me a price on it by to-morrow and let me have the first chance at it?"
Astonished beyond measure the old man looked helplessly at his wife.
"Why, Steve, give me what ye think hit is wuth, if you really want hit."
"Mr. Greely, I must tell you frankly that I cannot give what I think it is worth, but I can pay you more a thousand times than you can ever get out of it, for you are too old to attempt anything with it, and there are no children. I think it can be made to yield returns in ways of which you do not dream or I wouldn't buy it, but I do not know and I am making a venture in buying it."
The old man thought a minute, then said: "Wal, I know as much now about hit as I will ter-morror and you can have hit fer a hundred dollars, ef ye kin pay that much."
"No, Mr. Greely, I can't take it for that," said Steve smiling; "it will be worth much more to me if it is worth anything. I am willing to venture more on it," and he named a much larger sum than the one asked.
The old man could not speak for amazement. He had never heard of any one in "them parts" having so much money at one time and the trade was practically closed at once.
He left the old folks feeling like millionaires and felt immense satisfaction himself that the deal had progressed so well. If the old couple should live in luxury, as they might conceive the word, for the rest of their lives, they could never spend that sum in the mountains.
Steve knew the lay of the land for miles around and he felt sure there was nothing so valuable as the Greely Ridge with the railroad lying not far from its base.
Asking the Follets if he might leave his traps there for a few days he went at once in the afternoon to the county seat to take the necessary steps for the transfer of the land, and found the title perfectly clear.
With elation over the assured deal and happy expectation of more than cancelling his debt, he telegraphed Mr. Polk what he had done. A reply came promptly back saying, "I will be on at once and bring expert."
It was with mingled feelings that Steve thought of the meeting as he busied himself with the details completing the transaction, going over with a notary public for the old folks to sign the papers, getting everything ready for Mr. Polk's signature as purchaser since he was coming and one transfer would be sufficient. He did not stop at the Follets, but returned at once to meet his old friend.
When Mr. Polk stepped from the train and looked again upon the boy he had loved as his own, he put an arm about him, as he used to in the old days, and said:
"How are you, son?"
"Well, thank you," answered Steve, and both voices trembled a little.
That was all, but it restored the old frank relations. They talked with great interest about the purchase and went as soon as possible with the expert to get his opinion upon it. When careful tests of the property had been made, the expert was enthusiastic.
"I believe it will prove to be a rich coal deposit, and if well managed ought to bring you a small fortune."
That night when they returned to the little "hotel," so named, Mr. Polk and Steve talked long and interestedly over plans for developing the mine. Mr. Polk had pretty well-defined ideas for the immediate organization of a company and the beginning of operations.
Finally he turned to Steve and said:
"Son, I have grown since you left,—I hope, some wiser, and that little woman made me see before I left home that I had no right to dictate to you what you should do with your life. I know you have worked hard these three years, or you never could have saved money enough to buy this piece of land, even at so small a price, and I don't doubt you have done good at the same time. But I still feel that you might do just as good work perhaps by earning money for the cause you are so greatly interested in, so I am going to make a proposition to you. Suppose you take the oversight of this mining business, handling the money and seeing that everything goes straight. We could well afford to pay you a good salary for this service and give you some shares in the company too. Then you can live right here and exert your influence upon your people, as you call them, at the same time."
Steve listened intently, and the thought of money, and Nancy and music lessons, while he remained in the mountains, made his brain whirl.
Finally he put out his hand. "You hev allus been kind an' generous ter me," he said uncertainly, with emotion which carried him back for an instant to the old-time speech. Then lifting his head he smiled and added, "Let me think of this till to-morrow."
Mr. Polk agreed, and they separated for the night.
It was again a time of sore temptation for Steve. All night he tossed and thought. In spite of recurring depression he had not given up hope of winning Nancy. Her desire for musical advantages had been the most discouraging thing of all, however, and if he accepted this offer, he could hope to give her what she wanted, while since Raymond was not accepted he felt free to win her if he could. He pictured the future with increasing exhilaration, as the night approached its zenith, the time of keenest mental activity; and then, as the ebb came with the waning hours, suddenly a little figure reeled and staggered as it tried to walk a crack in a cabin floor, and springing from bed Steve strode to the window, and looked out upon the silent, starry sky.
"Oh, God," he said, "keep me from temptation;" and after a time he went back to bed firm in the old resolution that whatever the sacrifice involved, he would give himself, and not money alone, to the work. And then he slept.
Next morning he smiled his sudden smile as Mr. Polk looked keenly into his face, and said:
"I guess I am incorrigible, Mr. Polk,—I can't see it except in the old way."
"All right, son," said Mr. Polk quietly, and when they separated it was with a warm hand-clasp as Mr. Polk exacted a promise that Steve would visit them his first opportunity. "'The little mother' longs to see her boy," he said affectionately; then added, "Some day we hope to be in shape to help you with your work."
When he was gone Steve left for the Follets again. A great peace had come upon him with the renewal of his resolution, and his heart leaped at the prospect of seeing Nancy again.
"How long it seems since I left her," he laughed to himself, and the thought sprang to his mind from out the ever active realm of human hope: "Perhaps I shall win her yet by some miracle!"
It was with keen satisfaction that Steve caught a glimpse of Nancy's white dress out under the trees upon his return to the Follets. He hurried over to the bench where she sat.
"Is there anything more satisfying than these Kentucky mountains?" he said, with enthusiasm, as he seated himself beside her. "There is something that constantly assures me I belong to them."
"I have wondered that you were not captured by the city with all its allurements," said Nancy.
"No," returned Steve, "though perhaps I might have been at first had not my little foster-mother been loyal to Kentucky mountain need. But my experience the past three years as teacher has made it impossible for me to ever get away from the outstretched hand of Kentucky mountain children," and his voice dropped into deep earnestness.
"I can understand how you feel," said Nancy after a little silence. "I could not help being interested in the school when it was opened here. Little children came trudging in from the most barren cabin homes, wide-eyed, and eager to 'larn,' and grown-up men and women tramped barefoot miles and miles every day to try to get some of the 'larnin' they'd heard about. Then they would plod away with the utmost patience trying to read and write. It was intensely pathetic. Nothing has ever touched and interested me so much as some supply work I have done for our school," she added, a light upon her face, which thrilled Steve's heart anew. What a help she could be to him in his chosen work!
"I am so glad you have felt the appeal of mountain need," said he, struggling to keep the thrill out of his voice. And then he told her of his hopes and plans, of the dream he had of a new school within reach of Hollow Hut, a region to which new possibilities were about to come, he had learned at the county seat, through a projected railroad line. Of how he hoped to have help in the work from Mr. and Mrs. Polk and perhaps other capitalists of the north, and she was most interested, most appreciative, showing all the sweet seriousness of little Nancy of old.
But this long talk of some two hours which revealed again congenial tastes and ideals of life for the two only served to make Steve's heart more intensely rebellious when, after supper, Raymond walked in once more with his debonair proprietorship of Nancy. As it happened she had just stepped out under the trees to get a bit of fancy work left there in the afternoon, and Raymond joining her, barricaded the way to the house, insisting that the "old folks" were glad to get rid of them, till she laughingly sat with him there. It had been purely accidental, her going out just then, and she remained with inward protest, but Steve could only see in it complete surrender to the ardent suitor.
Mrs. Follet had not yet come out and Mr. Follet turned to Steve, laughing in a pleased way.
"I don't mind telling you, for I know you are interested," he said confidentially, "that Raymond told me this morning he was simply crazy about her, he couldn't wait any longer, and was going to pop the question to-night. I s'pose there ain't much question about it though, for I reckon she's as much in love as he, though,—as I said, you never can tell."
And he little suspected that what he said seemed to Steve the death-knell to his hopes.
Mr. Follet continued loquaciously: "Raymond's the greatest fellow I ever saw. Everybody likes him. Why, he's in with the moonshiners about here hand and glove, and they're powerful offish. Never saw anything under the canopee like him. He has big plans too, about some of the land round here which he says is full of coal. He's looked a little at the Greely Ridge; he thinks that's the finest piece, but he hasn't been over it carefully yet—been too much in love, you know," and he laughed contentedly.
Steve made conventional reply, and admitting he was quite tired, went to the little attic for another restless, unhappy night.
If the good fairies had only visited his couch and whispered their story of what was going on under the trees, how sweet would have been his sleep! But they did not.
Next morning Steve announced at the breakfast table that he must be leaving the following morning; a few days off from work for pleasure was all he could take with good grace.
Mr. and Mrs. Follet expressed their regret, while Nancy's eyes were upon her plate. Mr. Follet was complaining of some sciatic pain, but tried to throw it off with his usual nervous energy.
"Nancy," he said, "you haven't taken Steve over to Borden's Cave, which has been discovered since he was here. Why don't you go this morning?"
"Why, I should be glad to," responded Nancy, and Steve, feeling that her agreement was upon the basis of the old family relationship between them, made no excuse, though he did not doubt, with the fatality of anxious lovers, that the engagement had taken place. The two started off with Gyp and the family horse for a three mile canter, and Steve's spirit rose with the exhilaration of it in spite of himself.
The cave proved to be a most interesting rock formation and when they had examined it, Steve pointing out some curious scientific facts, they sat down in the quiet woods upon a fallen tree trunk, while the horses grazed.
Nancy looked up at him when they were seated, and said naively:
"How much you have learned in these last busy years!"
"Have I?" said Steve, his eyes brightening. "I am especially glad you think I have used my time well, because I can never forget that it was you who taught me my letters,—even how to spell my name," and he turned kindling eyes upon her.
"Did I?" she said, laughing and flushing.
"Yes," he returned, and a bit of tenderness crept into his voice. "I will never forget how you did it, how picturesquely you characterized the various letters for me, how you thought curly S the very prettiest letter in the alphabet, and how disappointed I was when I found my poor name did not hold a single letter which belonged to yours," and there was such deep pathos in the last words, as he looked far into the distance, that she stirred uneasily and could make no answer.
After a moment he went on: "I suppose I read in it, even then, a prophecy of our future, how yours must be separate from mine. There could be nothing in common."
And still she was dumb; not a word came to her lips. But he seemed to need no reply; a sad meditativeness was stealing upon him which made him oblivious for the moment of his surroundings.
But suddenly setting his lips firmly, he turned and said with forced lightness:
"What a bear bachelorhood makes of a man! I have spent so much time alone the last few years that I am already acquiring the bad habit of thinking my thoughts aloud sometimes. Forgive me, won't you?" And he turned to her with more in the tone than the simple words could convey.
"I have nothing to forgive," said she, but with an effort,—which he misinterpreted.
Then gathering her wits she repeated, "I have nothing to forgive, but everything for which to thank you. My starting you in the life intellectual cannot compare with your finding me hanging by a mere thread from a tall tree top and restoring me to the life physical, without which my brilliant intellectual attainments would have been as nothing," she ended gaily, breaking the tension which both had felt.
The talk continued to drift near the sacred realm of the heart, however, until the sanctity of engagement was finally touched upon.
"An engagement is to me a very sacred thing," said Nancy with sweet seriousness, in response to something from Steve. "I have never understood how it could be lightly entered into with only the basis of a brief, gay acquaintance."
Was not that just what she had done? "Oh, consistency, thy name is certainly not woman," thought Steve bitterly. He said:
"Oh, yes, that is good theory, but it is generally overwhelmed by practice when a gay cavalier comes along and takes the maiden heart by storm."
"Perhaps so, with some," returned Nancy quietly, "but so far as I am concerned I do not believe I could be deceived into thinking that a brief, gay acquaintance was sufficient assurance for the binding of two in the tenderest tie of life, when their tastes and ideals might prove to be totally at variance."
Steve's heart leaped within him. Was she trying to tell him something,—to undeceive him with regard to Raymond and herself? Impetuous words rose and trembled on his lips, while the thought raced through his brain that it would not be dishonourable to ask if there were the least hope for him. He would not utter another word if she said the sacred tie was already entered into with Raymond.
But Nancy, in the yielding and yet withdrawing which is characteristic of woman and man never fully understands, plunged into a new topic. Frightened at the plainness of her revelation and almost seeming to divine his purpose, with her brightest talk she led him far afield.
Steve, however, baffled though he was, found memory of that shy look coming back to him insistently, till he suddenly, firmly determined as they rode home once more that Nancy Follet should have the opportunity of accepting or refusing him before he left the place!
IN THE CRUCIBLE
When Steve and Nancy reached home they found Mr. Follet in bed suffering intensely with sciatic pains. He fretted constantly, declaring he would get up whether or no by afternoon. He was obliged to make a trip into the country for a load of hay, able or not, that evening, he said. Steve offered to go for him, but Mr. Follet impatiently declared that nobody could do it but himself, as there was some other business to be attended to at the same time.
The pain continued so severe, however, that getting up was an impossibility, and about seven o'clock after fretting and fuming for hours, occupying Mrs. Follet and Nancy continually, he said to his wife:
"Go tell Steve to come here."
Mrs. Follet obeyed and brought Steve in from the porch where he sat supposedly reading, Nancy being busy then with the supper dishes.
"Now you go out, ma, and don't come back till I tell you," said Mr. Follet querulously, and his wife went wonderingly.
"Steve," said Mr. Follet as soon as the young man entered, "I know I can trust you, and I am going to get you to do some important business for me."
"I will certainly do anything for you, Mr. Follet, with great pleasure, and I appreciate more than I can tell you the fact that you feel you can trust me," said Steve warmly.
"Well," said Mr. Follet, a little uneasily, "this is mighty partic'ler business I've got. The fact is," he went on with nervous energy, "a part of the world is getting so good it ain't content with just being good itself but is bound and determined that the rest of the world shall do just as it says, and there's a good bit of difference of opinion about what goodness strictly is."
Steve listened a little surprised at the homily. Then Mr. Follet went on:
"I ain't ever cared anything about liquor myself, though I could have had all I wanted all my life long, but I am willing other people should make it, and have it, or sell it, all they want to."
Steve looked more surprised and his lips settled just a little into firmer lines, but Mr. Follet failed to notice it.
"Now, old Kaintuck, which has always been the freest state in the Union, has got a passle o' folks turned loose in it just like the folks I was telling you about. They're so good themselves they ain't satisfied till they make everybody else do just as they say. They're making laws in the towns that no liquor can be sold, and I tell you men of old Kaintuck ain't goin' to stand that and I don't blame 'em," he concluded vehemently.
Steve started to reply, his lips growing firmer, and his eyes taking fire, but Mr. Follet gave him no chance.
"Now, I promised some fellows that I would meet 'em to-night,—and bring home a load of hay," he ended with an excited laugh.
"A load of hay with whiskey enclosed?" asked Steve, instantly suspecting.
"Yes," said Mr. Follet, delighted with Steve's quickness, "that's the idee. Then I unload it in my barn and ship it as I please to these dry towns. I'm in for the law as a general thing," he added quickly, "but I believe in folks having their rights."
"Well, Mr. Follet," said Steve, going to the foot of the bed and leaning hard upon it, "we must understand each other at once. I do not agree with you as to our rights. I do not think we have the right to destroy ourselves or others with any weapon whatsoever, the pistol, the knife, poison or whiskey. I am with the law in every particular," he said firmly.
"With the law," exclaimed Mr. Follet excitedly, "when it says a man can't do with his own corn on his own place what he wants to do with it? A man's got as good a right, in my mind, to put up a still and make whiskey out of his corn as his wife has to gather apples and make pies!" he concluded, fairly quivering with excitement.
Steve held himself quietly, and said gently:
"Mr. Follet, you are too ill for me to discuss these things with you now. I see we look at them from totally different points of view."
"There ain't but one point of view," shrilly returned Mr. Follet, "and that's the point of view of man's rights. Why, it won't be long till a man can't milk his own cow without the government standing round to watch her switch her tail and tell him how to do it,—all ready to grab the money if he sells a little to a neighbour!"
"Well, Mr. Follet," said Steve, looking steadily but kindly in the enraged eyes of his opponent, "there is one thing that we do agree upon, and that is, every man has a right to his own opinion," and the kindness in Steve's eyes merged into his sudden smile, which stemmed a little the rising tide of Mr. Follet's wrath.
After a somewhat subdued pause he turned to Steve appealingly:
"But you will go and get this load for me,—you will have no responsibility about it. I have never had anything to do with moonshiners before," he went on, "but Raymond got in with 'em and thinks it would be a huge joke to send a lot of their whiskey to his friends in these 'dry towns,' and that prohibition business has riled me so that I promised I would help pass the stuff along. Raymond's going to hang around the saloon and the station to see that the coast is clear o' government men, while the thing is goin' on."
"No," said Steve instantly and firmly when Mr. Follet was through, "I cannot do it, Mr. Follet, greatly as it grieves me to refuse you a favour. I feel that whiskey, the knife and the pistol have been Kentucky's greatest curses, especially among the people of the mountains. I would lay down my life, if necessary, for mountain folks, but I long instead to spend it for them in replacing the pistol and the knife with the book and the pen, and in cultivating among them a thirst for knowledge instead of drink," said Steve with quiet passion which held Mr. Follet's unwilling attention. Then he added:
"Understand me, Mr. Follet, I do not attempt to decide for you what is right or wrong, I only know that I cannot do this thing you ask and keep my self-respect. I must live within the laws of my country even if I should feel sometimes that they are unjust, and I can never take even a remote part in the distribution of whiskey in the land I love," he concluded earnestly.
At this Mr. Follet fairly shouted in a sudden access of rage. He was all the more angry for the moment because in the light of Steve's clear statement he not only felt that Steve was right, but that he himself was wrong.
"Then leave my house this instant with your contemptible idees about Kentucky's rights, and don't dare to stop and speak to my wife or my daughter."
"It is your house, Mr. Follet; I will do just as you say," Steve replied.
Mr. Follet reiterated shrilly:
"Go on out of my house then, and don't you ever come near it again."
Steve bowed and left, not even stopping to get his travelling bag; in fact he forgot he had one, and only caught up his hat from the porch as he passed out.
Mrs. Follet and Nancy knew that something very exciting was going on between Mr. Follet and Steve and both were exceedingly anxious. When silence took the place of heated discussion they could bear it no longer and went to Mr. Follet's door.
Mrs. Follet had never seen her husband so wrought up before, though he had always been of an exciteable temperament. She did not dare ask a question, but busied herself doing little things for his comfort while Nancy brought in his supper, which he had not wanted earlier and still querulously refused to touch.
A terrible silence settled upon them all. Nancy sat on the porch in distressed wonder over what had happened between her father and Steve, while Mrs. Follet, equally anxious, sat silently by the bed of the restless man. She proposed to get a neighbour to go for the doctor, but Mr. Follet wouldn't hear of it. Hours passed by and then Mr. Follet suddenly started up in bed.
"My God," he cried wildly, "they'll kill him!"
"Who?" cried his wife, starting up also, while Nancy's white face at once appeared in the door.
"Why, Steve," screamed Mr. Follet. "He's gone, and I don't doubt he went straight to old man Greely's for the night. If he did, he's cut across the woods and run into some moonshiners. They'll take him for a government man and shoot him soon's they lay eyes on him!"
He paused for breath, and Mrs. Follet and Nancy were too appalled to speak.
"Do something," screamed Mr. Follet; "I can't have the boy's blood on my hands!"
Then Mrs. Follet with her gentle strength made him quiet down enough to tell them particulars, and she learned that Mr. Follet was to have gone after a load of hay, and coming back would stop at the edge of the wood leading to old man Greely's, walk into the woods a piece to meet the men, and then, if the coast was clear, they'd hide the liquor in the hay load. At the end she said:
"You must go, Nancy——"
"Yes," cried Mr. Follet, "you must go, child, and save Steve. Jim Sutton will know you. They won't touch you, and they'll believe you. I was a fool ever to have anything to do with that moonshine business!"
But Nancy was already out of the room flying for the stable. There was no thought of riding habit or saddle. Throwing a bridle over Gyp's head, she sprang upon his back and like the wind the two rushed forth into the midnight stillness. Would she be in time to save him? It had been so long since he left the house. Oh, would she be too late? She urged Gyp wildly on and on, along the road directly towards the Greely woods, where she would find the moonshiners, and perhaps,—oh, perhaps! God only knew what else she might find.
Every throbbing pulse beat became a prayer that she might be in time to save him.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Steve, upon leaving Mr. Follet, had not gone out into the street, but crossing the lawn into the driveway he went past the stable to the wood back of the house from whence he had come so many years ago. His mind and heart were in a tumult. He scarcely thought where he was going till he suddenly became conscious that he was in the old wood where he had rescued Nancy so long ago. Little Nancy! And he had loved her ever since consciously or unconsciously. But she was completely lost to him now,—that was final. The fair dream-structure which had risen anew that afternoon had fallen again in a tragic moment's space. The mountain blood in Mr. Follet would never forget or forgive. He must leave the place forever. He was adrift again in the world. There would never be tender home ties for him,—he could never love another, no one could be a part of his very self like little Nancy. He dropped down upon a little seat which he had fixed there for her in the old days, and was lost in depressed thought, taking no note of how long he remained.
The stillness of the wood quieted him finally, as it had always done, and he remembered his old friends the Greelys. They would be glad to have him come in for breakfast in the morning, and for the night he would sleep in the Greely woods. He would feel very near to Nancy there, for that spot was hallowed by her memory as no other for him. He rose and made his way over into the road which led to the wood.
It was a brilliant moonlight night, and he walked on under the majestic beauty of the firmament with quieted spirit.
Suddenly, as he had almost reached the wood, he heard rapid hoof-beats behind him and paused to listen, for it was a little-travelled road. Nearer and nearer they came, and then he could distinguish a white dress fluttering in the wind from the flying animal's back and knew the rider must be a woman. The speed of the horse began to slacken as she was almost upon him, and he saw that it was Gyp and Nancy!
She also had recognized him, and the next instant she sprang from the pony and stood beside him.
"Oh, Steve," she panted, "they will kill you!" and stretched her shaking hands out to him. Her agitation was pitiable. Unconsciously he drew her instantly within his arms, while he said with equal unconsciousness:
"Why, Nancy, darling, what do you mean?"
For answer she dropped her head upon his breast and sobbed convulsively.
He held her close, stroking her face and soothing her with tenderest words of love till she was able to speak again.
"The moonshiners that father was to meet, Steve,—they are in the Greely wood, and they will think you are a revenue man and kill you sure," she said brokenly. "You were going there, weren't you?"
"Yes," he said gravely.
"Father thought you would and sent me for you. Oh, it was dreadful, the terror of it," she said shuddering and sobbing anew.
Again he soothed her with caresses and whispered, "But, sweetheart, you know I am not going there now,—not when I can hold you like this." And she nestled in his arms at last in quiet happiness.
Finally she lifted her head and smiled up at him. He turned her face up to the moon's full light and looked longingly into it.
"Nancy, do you love me?" he said.
"Oh, Steve, I've always loved you, I think," she softly replied.
"And it never was Raymond?" he went on insistently, his voice taking on a resonant ring.
"Not in the least," she returned. Then smiling demurely at him she said, "Oh, Steve, you weren't nearly so stupid in learning your letters!"
And he punished her with kisses.
"Do you remember," he said at last tenderly, looking over at the Greely wood, "that you asked me when a little girl to build a house for you and me over there where we might live always?"
"Yes," she said with a touch of sweet reluctance, "I confess I have always remembered that childish speech,—with an intuitive knowledge that I shouldn't have made it, I suppose."
"While I have always treasured it consciously or unconsciously," he returned, with eager joy creeping into the tenderness of his voice. "You were a blessed little prophetess, for it is here under the shadow of the old wood that love has at last built for us the fairest, holiest structure earth ever knew."
Then they remembered the hour of the night and the anxiety of her father and mother, and started back down the road, Nancy saying she would like to walk a little and Steve leading Gyp, who had been unconcernedly grazing by the roadside.
After a time the lover went on again joyously:
"We have equal right to one another now, have we not, sweetheart, for if I saved you from possible death at the moment of our meeting, you have probably saved me from a tragic end to-night. It is the way of our mountain life," he added, his voice taking on a note of sadness; "our joy must always be mingled with tragedy until we learn the beautiful ways of peace."
Then he stopped again and turned her face up to the moonlight once more.
"Will you be content, dearest, to help me in the work I have chosen,—it will probably mean sacrifice,—the giving up of your ambitions."
She smiled back with a low, "More than content, if I may be always with you."
* * * * *
The next day Steve met Raymond on the street, and the latter was more serious than Steve had ever seen him.
"Well, old fellow," he said with an attempt at a smile, "you've licked me again. I know all about the sale of Greely Ridge and your narrow escape last night. Those two things, I admit, show me I am a good deal of a fool, and something of a cad as I used to be. I want you to know that the business with the moonshiners is all off. The other victory you've won over me I can't talk about. I acknowledge you deserve her though, more than I do, and I wish you luck."
Before Steve could reply he went on: "You got some hard knocks when you were a boy, Steve, and they did you good. That is when we need them most. These are the first real blows I have ever had. I've always been in for a good time and had it, but I don't believe it pays. Father is going to be no end put out with me about the loss of that coal land. I'm going home and make a clean breast of it,—then I am going to clear out. I've decided this morning to write Mr. Polk and see if he has any chance for me there. I know he will give it to me, if he has, for father's sake."
"That is just the thing," said Steve heartily. "I feel sure he can take you in, and the game of business is so interesting there, I know you will like it, and I believe you will make good." He extended his hand with the last words and Raymond took it with a warm clasp.
* * * * *
Mr. Polk's mine was promptly opened up and proved to be a valuable property. In the formation of his company some shares had been placed in the name of Stephen Langly. At the end of two years they began to yield good returns and Steve felt that this, with the income from his work, would make comfort assured for Nancy. Then came a wedding in the Follet home, and just before the company arrived for the ceremony Mr. and Mrs. Polk, her eyes shining as of old, slipped into the little parlour and placed on the carpet, for the bride and groom to stand upon, a beautiful fox-skin rug with a history.
Mr. Follet coming in a moment later nudged his wife excitedly and said:
"Can you tell where under the canopee you ever saw that before?" while she nodded smiling assent.
It caught the eye of Steve as he entered with Nancy on his arm, and he took his place upon it with firm, glad step.
Mr. and Mrs. Polk were obliged to hurry away as soon as the congratulations were over, in order to get back to New York in time for the wedding of Raymond and Nita Trowbridge,—Raymond having well fulfilled Steve's prophecy of making good.
In the fall four years later when the mountains glowed with unusually brilliant colour, as though nature had caught the glory tints of fresh, bright hope for her people, Steve and Nancy opened a new school. Its well-equipped, modern buildings crowned the old wooded mountain of Steve's boyhood, and Steve the second, a sturdy boy, came daily with little Champ to school. The "still" had passed away with the passing of Champ, the elder, in a mountain fight, and a new day had dawned for Hollow Hut.
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