THE MYSTERY OF WITCH-FACE MOUNTAIN
CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK
THE MYSTERY OF WITCH-FACE MOUNTAIN
AND OTHER STORIES
CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1895
Copyright, 1895, BY MARY N. MURFREE.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
PAGE THE MYSTERY OF WITCH-FACE MOUNTAIN 1 TAKING THE BLUE RIBBON AT THE COUNTY FAIR 165 THE CASTING VOTE 200
THE MYSTERY OF WITCH-FACE MOUNTAIN.
The beetling crags that hang here and there above the gorge hold in their rugged rock sculpture no facial similitudes, no suggestions. The jagged outlines of shelving bluffs delineate no gigantic profile against the sky beyond. One might seek far and near, and scan the vast slope with alert and expectant gaze, and view naught of the semblance that from time immemorial has given the mountain its name. Yet the imagination needs but scant aid when suddenly the elusive simulacrum is revealed to the eye. In a certain slant of the diurnal light, even on bright nights at the full of the moon, sometimes in the uncanny electric flicker smitten from a storm-cloud, a gigantic peaked sinister face is limned on the bare, sandy slope, so definite, with such fixity of lineament, that one is amazed that the perception of it came no earlier, and is startled when it disappears.
Disappearing as completely as a fancy, few there are who have ever seen it who have not climbed from the herder's trail across the narrow wayside stream and up the rugged mountain slopes to the spot where it became visible. There disappointment awaits the explorer. One finds a bare and sterile space, from which the hardy chickweed can scarcely gain the sustenance for timorous sproutings; a few outcropping rocks; a series of transverse gullies here and there, washed down to deep indentations; above the whole a stretch of burnt, broken timber that goes by the name of "fire-scald," and is a relic of the fury of the fire which was "set out" in the woods with the mission to burn only the leaves and undergrowth, and which, in its undisciplined strength, transcended its instructions, as it were, and destroyed great trees. And this is all. But once more, at a coigne of vantage on the opposite side of the gorge, and the experience can be utilized in differentiating the elements that go to make up the weird presentment of a human countenance. It is the fire-scald that suggests the great peaked brown hood; the oblong sandy stretch forms the pallid face; the ledges outline the nose and chin and brow; the eyes look out from the deep indentations where the slope is washed by the currents of the winter rains; and here and there the gullies draw heavy lines and wrinkles. And when the wind is fresh and the clouds scud before it, in the motion of their shadows the face will seem to mow at the observer, until the belief comes very readily that it is the exact counterpart of a witch's face.
Always the likeness is pointed out and insisted on by the denizens of Witch-Face Mountain, as if they had had long and intimate acquaintance with that sort of unhallowed gentry, and were especially qualified to pronounce upon the resemblance.
"Ain't it jes' like 'em, now? Ain't it the very moral of a witch?" Constant Hite demanded, one gusty day, when the shadows were a-flicker in the sun, and the face seemed animated by the malice of mockery or mirth, as he pointed it out to his companion with a sort of triumph in its splenetic contortions.
He was a big, bluff fellow, to whose pride all that befell him seemed to minister. He was proud of his length of limb, and his hundred and eighty pounds of weight, and yet his slim appearance. "Ye wouldn't believe it now, would ye?" he was wont to say when he stepped off the scales at the store of the hamlet down in the Cove. "It's solid meat an' bone an' muscle, my boy. Keep on the friendly side of one hunderd an' eighty," with a challenging wink. He was proud of his bright brown eyes, and his dark hair and mustache, and smiling, handsome face, and his popularity among the class that he was pleased to denominate "gal critters." He piqued himself upon his several endowments as a hardy woodsman, his endurance, his sylvan craft, his pluck, and his luck and his accurate aim. The buck—all gray and antlered, for it was August—that hung across the horse, behind the saddle, gave token of this keen exactitude in the tiny wound at the base of the ear, where the rifle-ball had entered to pierce the brain; it might seem to the inexpert that death had come rather from the gaping knife-stroke across the throat, which was, however, a mere matter of butcher-craft. He was proud of the good strong bay horse that he rode, which so easily carried double, and proud of his big boots and long spurs; and he scorned flimsy town clothes, and thought that good home-woven blue jeans was the gear in which a man who was a man should clothe himself withal. He glanced more than once at the different toggery of his companion, evidently a man of cities, whom he had chanced to meet by the wayside, and with whom he had journeyed more than a mile.
He had paused again and again to point out the "witch-face" to the stranger, who at first could not discern it at all, and then when it suddenly broke upon him could not be wiled away from it. He dismounted, hitching his horse to a sapling, and up and down he patrolled the rocky mountain path to study the face at various angles; Constant Hite looking on the while with an important placid satisfaction, as if he had invented the illusion.
"Some folks, though, can't abide sech ez witches," he said, with a tolerant smile, as if he were able to defy their malevolence and make light of it. "Ye see that cabin on the spur over yander around the bend?" It looked very small and solitary from this height, and the rail fences about its scanty inclosures hardly reached the dignity of suggesting jackstraws. "Waal, the Hanways over thar hev a full view of the old witch enny time she will show up at all. Folks in the mountings 'low the day be onlucky when she appears on the slope thar. The old folks at Hanway's will talk 'bout it cornsider'ble ef ye set 'em goin'; they hev seen thar time, an' it rests 'em some ter tell 'bout'n the spites they hev hed that they lay ter the witch-face."
The ugly fascination of the witch-face had laid hold, too, on the stranger. Twice he had sought to photograph it, and Constant Hite had watched him with an air of lenient indulgence to folly as he pottered about, now adjusting his camera, now changing his place anew.
"And I believe I have got the whole amount of nothing at all," he said at last, looking up breathlessly at the mountaineer. Albeit the wind was fresh and the altitude great, the sun was hot on the unshaded red clay path, and the nimble gyrations of the would-be artist brought plentiful drops to his brow. He took off his straw hat, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief, while he stared wistfully at the siren of his fancy, grimacing maliciously at him from the slope above. "If the confounded old woman would hold still, and not disappear so suddenly at the wrong minute, I'd have had her charming physiognomy all correct. I believe I've spoiled my plates,—that's all." And once more he mopped his bedewed forehead.
He was a man of thirty-five, perhaps, of the type that will never look old or grow perceptibly gray. His hair was red and straight, and cut close to his head. He had a long mustache of the same sanguine tint. The sun had brought the blood near the surface of his thin skin, and he looked hot and red, and thoroughly exasperated. His brown eyes were disproportionately angry, considering the slight importance of his enterprise. He was evidently a man of keen, quick temper, easily aroused and nervous. His handsome, well-groomed horse was fractious, and difficult for so impatient a rider to control. His equestrian outfit once more attracted the covert glance of Con Hite, whose experience and observation could duplicate no such attire. He was tall, somewhat heavily built, and altogether a sufficiently stalwart specimen of the genus "town man."
"I'll tell you what I'll do!" he exclaimed suddenly. "I'll sketch the whole scene!"
"Now you're shoutin'," said Con Hite capably, as if he had always advocated this method of solving the difficulty. His interlocutor could not for a moment have dreamed that he had never before seen a camera, had never heard of a photograph, had not the least idea of what the process of sketching might be which he so boldly approved; nay, the very phrase embodying his encouragement of the project was foreign to his vocabulary,—a bit of sophisticated slang which he had adopted from his companion's conversation, and readily assimilated.
"You stay just where you are!" cried the stranger, his enthusiasm rising to the occasion; "just that pose,—that pose precisely."
He ran swiftly across the path to remove the inefficient camera from the foreground, and in a moment was seated on a log by the wayside, his quick eye scanning the scene: the close file of the ranges about the horizon, one showing above another, and one more faintly blue than another, for thus the distance was defined; then the amphitheatre of the Cove, the heavy bronze-green slopes of the mountains, all with ripple marks of clear chrome-green ruffling in the wake of the wind; in the middle distance the still depths of the valley below, with shadows all a-slumber and silent, and on the projecting spur the quiet, lonely little house, so slight a suggestion of the presence of man amidst the majestic dominance of nature; here, to the right, across the savage gorge, with its cliffs and with its currents in the deep trough, the nearest slope of the mountain, with the great gaunt bare space showing that face of ill omen, sibylline, sinister, definite indeed,—he wondered how his eyes were holden that he should not have discerned it at once; and in the immediate foreground the equestrian figure of the mountaineer, booted and spurred, the very "moral," as Hite would have called it, of an athlete, with his fine erect pose distinct against the hazy perspective, his expression of confident force, the details of his handsome features revealed by the brim of his wide black hat turned up in front.
"It's a big subject, I know; I can't get it all in. I shall only suggest it. Just keep that pose, will you? Hold the horse still. 'Stand the storm, it won't be long!'" the artist said, smiling with renewed satisfaction as his pencil, not all inapt, went briskly to work on the horizontal lines of the background.
But it was longer than he had thought, so still sat the contemplative mountaineer, so alluring were the details of the landscape. The enthusiasm of the amateur is always a more urgent motive power than the restrained and utilitarian industry of the professional.
Few sworn knights of the crayon would have sat sketching so long in that temperature as he did, with the sun blazing through his straw hat and his blood mustering under his thin skin; but he stopped at a point short of sunstroke, and it was with a tumultuous sense of success that he at last arose, and, with the sketch-book still open, walked across the road and laid it on the pommel of the mountaineer's saddle.
Constant Hite took it up suspiciously and looked at it askance. It is to be doubted if ever before he had seen a picture, unless perchance in the primary reading-book of his callow days at the public school, spasmodically opened at intervals at the "church house" in the Cove. He continued to gravely gaze at the sketch, held sideways and almost reversed, for some moments.
"Bless Gawd! hyar's Whitefoot's muzzle jes' ez nat'ral—an' Me—waal, sir! don't I look proud!" he cried suddenly, with a note of such succulent vanity, so finely flavored a pride, that the stranger could but laugh at the zest of his triumph.
"Do you see the witch-face?" he demanded.
"Hesh! hesh!" cried the mountaineer hilariously. "Don't 'sturb me 'bout yer witch-face. Ef thar ain't the buck,—yes, toler'ble fat,—an' with all his horns! An' look at my boot,—actially the spur on it! An' my hat turned up;" he raised his flattered hand to the brim as if to verify its position.
"You didn't know you were so good looking, hey?" suggested the amused town man.
"My Lord, naw!" declared Hite, laughing at himself, yet laughing delightedly. "I dunno how the gals make out to do without me at all!"
The pleased artist laughed, too. "Well, hand it over," he said, as he reached out for the book. "We must be getting out of this sun. I'm not used to it, you see."
He put his foot in the stirrup as he spoke, and as he swung himself into the saddle the mountaineer reluctantly closed and relinquished the book. "I'd like ter see it agin, some time or other," he observed.
He remembered this wish afterward, and how little he then imagined where and in what manner he was destined to see it again.
They rode on together into the dense woods, leaving the wind and the sunshine and the flying clouds fluctuating over the broad expanse of the mountains, and the witch-face silently mowing and grimacing at the world below, albeit seen by no human being except perchance some dweller at the little house on the spur, struck aghast by this unwelcome apparition evoked by the necromancy of the breeze and the sheen and the shadow, marking this as an unlucky day.
"That's right smart o' a cur'osity, ain't it?" said Constant Hite complacently, as they jogged along. "When the last gover'mint survey fellers went through hyar, they war plumb smitten by the ole 'oman, an' spent cornsider'ble time a-stare-gazin' at her. They 'lowed they hed never seen the beat."
"What was the survey for?" asked the town man, with keen mundane interest.
Constant Hite was rarely at a loss. When other men were fain to come to a pause for the lack of information, the resources of his agile substitutions and speculations were made manifest. "They war jes' runnin' a few lines hyar an' thar," he said negligently. "They lef' some tall striped poles planted in the ground, red an' sich colors, ter mark the way; an' them mounting folks over yander in the furderest coves,—they air powerful ahint the times,—they hed never hearn o' sech ez a survey, noway, an' the poles jes' 'peared ter them sprung up thar like Jonah's gourd in a single night, ez ef they kem from seed; an' the folks, they 'lowed 't war the sign o' a new war." He laughed lazily at the uninstructed terrors of the unsophisticated denizens of the "furderest coves." "They'd gather around an' stare-gaze at the poles, an' wonder if they'd hev ter fight the Rebs agin; them folks is mos'ly Union." Then his interest in the subject quickening, "Them survey fellers, they ondertook, too, ter medjure the tallness o' some o' the mountings fur the gover'mint. Now what good is that goin' ter do the Nunited States?" he resumed grudgingly. "The mountings kin be medjured by the eye,—look a-yander." He pointed with the end of his whip at a section of the horizon, visible between the fringed and low-swaying boughs of hemlock and fir as the trail swept closer to the verge of the range, on which was softly painted, as on ivory and with an enameled lustre, two or three great azure domes, with here and there the high white clouds of a clear day nestling flakelike on the summits. "They air jes' all-fired high, an' that's all. Do it make 'em seem enny taller ter say they air six thousand or seben thousand feet? Man ain't used ter medjurin' by the thousand feet. When he gits ter the ground he goes by the pole. I dunno how high nor how long a thousand feet air. The gover'mint jes' want ter spend a leetle money, I reckon. It 'pears toler'ble weak-kneed in its mind, wunst in a while. But ef it wants ter fool money away, it's mighty well able ter afford sech. It hev got a power o' ways a-comin' at money,—we all know that, we all know that."
He said this with a gloomy inflection and a downward look that might have implied a liability for taxes beyond his willingness to pay. But, barring the assessment on a small holding of mountain land, Constant Hite seemed in case to contribute naught to his country's exchequer.
"It needs all it can get, now," replied the stranger casually, but doubtless from a sophisticated knowledge, as behooved a reader of the journals of the day, of the condition of the treasury.
He could not account for the quick glance of alarm and enmity which the mountaineer cast upon him. It roused in him a certain constraint which he had not experienced earlier in their chance association. It caused him to remember that this was a lonely way and a wild country. He was an alien to the temper and sentiment of the people. He felt suddenly that sense of distance in mind and spirit which is the true isolation of the foreigner, and which even an identity of tongue and kindred cannot annul. Looking keenly into the mountaineer's half-averted, angry, excited face, he could not for his life discern how its expression might comport with the tenor of the casual conversation which had elicited it. He did not even dimly surmise that his allusion to the finances of the government could be construed as a justification of the whiskey tax, generally esteemed in the mountains a measure of tyrannous oppression; that from his supposititious advocacy of it he had laid himself liable to the suspicion of being himself of the revenue force,—his mission here to spy out moonshiners; that his companion's mind was even now dwelling anew, and with a rueful difference, on that masterly drawing of himself in the stranger's sketch-book.
"But what do that prove, though?" Hite thought, a certain hope springing up with the joy of the very recollection of the simulacrum of the brilliant rural coxcomb adorning the page. "Jes' that me is Me. All he kin say 'bout me air that hyar I be goin' home from huntin' ter kerry my game. That ain't agin the law, surely."
The "revenuers," he argued, too, never rode alone, as did this man, and spies and informers were generally of the vicinage. The stranger was specially well mounted, and as his puzzled cogitation over the significant silence that had supervened between them became so marked as to strike Hite's attention, the mountaineer sought to nullify it by an allusion to the horse. "That feller puts down his feet like a kitten," he said admiringly. "I never seen nuthin' ez wears shoes so supple. Shows speed, I s'pose? Built fur it."
"Makes pretty fair time," responded the stranger without enthusiasm. The doubt, perplexity, and even suspicion which his companion's manner had evoked were not yet dissipated, and the allusion to the horse, and the glow of covetous admiration in Hite's face as his eyes dwelt upon the finely fashioned creature so deftly moving along, brought suddenly to his mind sundry exploits of a gang of horse-thieves about these coves and mountains, detailed in recent newspapers. These rumors had been esteemed by urban communities in general as merely sensational, and had attracted scant attention. Now, with their recurrence to his recollection, their verisimilitude was urged upon him. The horse he rode was a valuable animal, and moreover, here, ten or twenty miles from a habitation, would prove a shrewd loss indeed. Nevertheless, it was impossible to shake off or evade his companion; the wilderness, with its jungle of dense rhododendron undergrowth on either side of the path, was impenetrable. There was no alternative practicable. He could only go on and hope for the best.
A second glance at the mountaineer's honest face served in some sort as reassurance as to the probity of his character. Gradually a vivid interest in the environment, which had earlier amazed and amused Constant Hite, began to be renewed. The stranger looked about to identify the growths of the forest with a keen, fresh enthusiasm, as if he were meeting old friends. Once, with a sudden flush and an intent eye, he flung the reins to the man whom he had half suspected of being a horse-thief ten minutes before, to hastily dismount and uproot a tiny wayside weed, which he breathlessly and triumphantly explained to the wondering mountaineer was a rare plant which he had never seen; he carefully bestowed it between the leaves of his sketch-book before he resumed the saddle, and Hite was moved to ask, "How d' ye know its durned comical name, ef ye never seen it afore? By Gosh! it's got a name longer 'n its tap-root!"
The town man only laughed a trifle at this commentary upon the botanical Latin nomenclature, and once more he was leaning from his saddle, peering down the aisles of the forest with a smiling, expectant interest, as if they held for him some enchantment of which duller mortals have no ken. A brown geode, picked up in the channel of a summer-dried stream, showed an interior of sparkling quartz crystal, when a blow had shattered it, which Hite had never suspected, often as he had seen the rugged spherical stones lying along the banks. All the rocks had a thought for the stranger, close to his heart and quick on his tongue, and as Hite, half skeptical, half beguiled, listened, his suspicion of the man as a "revenuer" began to fade.
"The revenuers ain't up ter no sech l'arnin' ez this," he said to himself, with a vicarious pride. "The man, though he never war in the mountings afore, knows ez much about 'em ez ef he hed bodaciously built 'em. Fairly smelt that thar cave over t' other side the ridge jes' now, I reckon; else how'd he know 't war thar?"
A certain hollow reverberation beneath the horse's hoofs had caught his companion's quick ear. "Have you ever been in this cave hereabout?" he had asked, to Hite's delighted amazement at this brilliant feat of mental jugglery, as it seemed to him.
Even the ground, when the repetitious woods held no new revelation of tree or flower, or hazy, flickering insect dandering through the yellow sunshine and the olive-tinted shadow and the vivid green foliage, the very ground had a word for him.
"This formation here," he said, leaning from his saddle to watch the path slipping along beneath his horse's hoofs, like the unwinding of coils of brown ribbon, "is like that witch-face slope that we saw awhile ago. It seems to occur at long intervals in patches. You see down that declivity how little grows, how barren."
The break in the density of the woods served to show the mountains, blue and purple and bronze, against the horizon; an argosy of white clouds under full sail; the Cove, shadowy, slumberous, so deep down below; and the oak leaves above their heads, all dark and sharply dentated against the blue.
Hite had suddenly drawn in his horse. An eager light was in his eye, a new idea in his mind. He felt himself on the verge of imminent discovery.
"Now," said he, lowering his voice mysteriously, and laying his hand on the bridle of the other's horse,—and so far had the allurements of science outstripped merely mundane considerations that the stranger's recent doubts and anxieties touching his animal were altogether forgotten, and he was conscious only of a responsive expectant interest,—"air thar ennything in that thar 'formation,' ez ye calls it ez could gin out fire?"
"No, certainly not," said the man of science, surprised, and marking the eager, insistent look in Hite's eyes. Both horses were at a standstill now. A jay-bird clanged out its wild woodsy cry from the dense shadows of a fern-brake far in the woods on the right, and they heard the muffled trickling of water, falling on mossy stones hard by, from a spring so slight as to be only a silver thread. The trees far below waved in the wind, and a faint dryadic sibilant singing sounded a measure or so, and grew fainter in the lulling of the breeze, and sunk to silence.
"Ennyhow," persisted Hite, "won't sech yearth gin out light somehows,—in some conditions sech ez ye talk 'bout?" he added vaguely.
"Spontaneously? Certainly not," the stranger replied, preserving his erect pose of inquiring and expectant attention.
"Why, then the mounting's 'witched sure enough,—that's all," said Hite desperately. He cast off his hold on the stranger's horse, caught up his reins anew, and made ready to fare onward forthwith.
"Does fire ever show there?" demanded his companion wonderingly.
"It's a plumb meracle, it's a plumb mystery," declared Constant Hite, as they went abreast into the dense shadow of the closing woods. "I asked ye this 'kase ez ye 'peared ter sense so much in rocks, an' weeds, an' birds, an' sile, what ain't revealed ter the mortal eye in gineral, ye mought be able ter gin some nateral reason fur that thar sile up thar round the old witch-face ter show fire or sech. But it's beyond yer knowin' or the knowin' o' enny mortal, I reckon."
"How does the fire show?" persisted the man of science, with keen and attentive interest. "And who has seen it?"
"Stranger," said Hite, lowering his voice, "I hev viewed it, myself. But fust it war viewed by the Hanways,—them ez lives in that house on the spur what prongs out o' the range nigh opposite the slope o' the Witch-Face. One dark night,—thar war no moon, but thar warn't no storm, jes' a dull clouded black sky, ez late August weather will show whenst it be heavy an' sultry,—all of a suddenty, ez the Hanway fambly war settin' on the porch toler'ble late in the night, the air bein' close in the house, the darter, Narcissa by name, she calls out, 'Look! look! I see the witch-face!' An' they all start up an' stare over acrost the deep black gorge. An' thar, ez true ez life, war the witch-face glimmerin' in the midst o' the black night, and agrinnin' at 'em an' a-mockin' at 'em, an' lighted up ez ef by fire."
"And did no one discover the origin of the fire?" asked the stranger.
"Thar war no fire!" Constant Hite paused impressively. Then he went on impulsively, full of his subject: "Ben Hanway kem over ter the still-house arter me, an' tergether we went ter examinate. But the bresh is powerful thick, an' the way is long, an' though we seen a flicker wunst or twict ez we-uns pushed through the deep woods, 't war daybreak 'fore we got thar, an' nare sign nor smell o' fire in all the woods could we find; nare scorch nor singe on the ground, not even a burnt stick or chunk ter tell the tale; everythin' ez airish an' cool an' jewy an' sweet ter the scent ez a summer mornin' is apt ter be."
"How often has this phenomenon occurred?" said the stranger coolly, but with a downcast, thoughtful eye and a pursed-up lip, as if he were less surprised than cogitating.
"Twict only, fur we hev kep' an eye on the old witch, Ben an' me. Ben wants a road opened out up hyar, stiddier jes' this herder's trail through the woods. Ben dunno how it mought strike folks ef they war ter know ez the witch-face hed been gin over ter sech cur'ous ways all of a suddenty. They mought take it fur a sign agin the road, sech ez b'lieves in the witch-face givin' bad luck." After a pause, "Then I viewed it wunst,—wunst in the dead o' the night. I war goin' home from the still, an' I happened ter look up, an' I seen the witch-face,—the light jes' dyin' out, jes' fadin' out. She didn't hev time ter make more 'n two or three faces at me, an' then she war gone in the night. It's a turr'ble-lookin' thing at night, stranger. So ye can't tell what makes it,—the sile, or what?"
He turned himself quite sideways as he spoke, one hand on the carcass of the deer behind the saddle, the other on his horse's neck, the better to face his interlocutor and absorb his scientific speculations. And in that moment an odd idea occurred to him,—nay, a conviction. He perceived that his companion knew and understood the origin of the illumination; and more,—that he would not divulge it.
"The soil? Assuredly not the soil," the stranger said mechanically. He was looking down, absorbed in thought, secret, mysterious, yet not devoid of a certain inexplicable suggestion of triumph; for a subtle cloaked elation, not unlike a half-smile, was on his face, although its intent, persistent expression intimated the following out of a careful train of ideas.
"Then what is it?" demanded Hite arrogantly, as if he claimed the right to know.
"I really couldn't undertake to say," the stranger responded, his definite manner so conclusive an embargo on further inquiries that Hite felt rising anew all his former doubts of the man, and his fears and suspicions as to the errand that had brought him hither.
Could it be possible, he argued within himself, that to the agency of "revenuers" was due that mysterious glow, more brilliant than any ordinary fire, steady, suffusive, continuous, rising in the dark wilderness, in the deep midnight, to reveal that ominous face overlooking all the countryside, with subtle flickers of laughter running athwart its wonted contortions, more weird and sinister in this ghastly glare than by day? And what significance might attend these strange machinations? Revolving the idea, he presently shook his head in conclusive negation as he rode along. The approach of raiders was silent and noiseless and secret. Whatever the mystery might portend it was not thus that they would advertise their presence, promoting the escape of the objects of their search. Hite's open and candid mind could compass no adequate motive for concealment in all the ways of the world but the desire to evade the revenue law, or to practice the shifts and quirks necessary to the capture of the wary and elusive moonshiner. Nevertheless, it was impossible, on either of these obvious bases, to account for the fact of something withheld in the stranger's manner, some secret exultant knowledge of the phenomenon which baffled the mountaineer's speculation. Hite, all unaware that in his impulsive speech he had disclosed the fact of his hazardous occupation, began to feel that, considering his liability to the Federal law for making brush whiskey, he had somewhat transcended the limit of his wonted hardihood in so long bearing this stranger company along the tangled ways of the herder's trail through the wilderness. "He mought be a revenuer arter all, an' know all about me. The rest o' the raiders mought be a-waitin' an' a-layin' fur me at enny turn," he reflected. "Leastwise he knows a deal more'n he's a-goin' ter tell."
He drew up his horse as they neared an open bluff where the beetling rocks jutted out like a promontory above the sea of foliage below. They might judge of the long curvature of the conformation of the range just here, for on the opposite height was visible at intervals the road they had traveled, winding in and out among the trees, ascending the mountain in serpentine coils; they beheld the Cove beneath from a new angle, and further yet the barren cherty slope on which, despite the distance, the witch-face could still be discerned by eyes practiced in marking its lineaments, trained to trace the popular fantasy. The stranger caught sight of it at the same moment that Hite lifted his hand toward it.
"Thar it is!" Hite exclaimed, "fur all the Cove's a shadder, an' fur all the wind's a breath."
For clouds had thickened over the sky, and much of the world was gray beneath, and the scene had dulled in tint and spirit since last they had had some large outlook upon it. Only on the slopes toward the east did the sunshine rest, and in the midst of a sterile, barren slant it flickered on that semblance of ill omen.
"An onlucky day, stranger," Hite said slowly.
The man of science had drawn in his restive horse, and had turned with a keen, freshened interest toward the witch-face. It was with a look of smiling expectancy that he encountered the aspect of snarling mockery, half visible or half imaginary, of that grim human similitude. The mountaineer's brilliant dark eyes dwelt upon him curiously. However, if he had forborne from prudential motives from earlier asking the stranger's name and vocation, lest more than a casual inquisitiveness be thereby implied, exciting suspicion, such queries were surely not in order at the moment of departure. For Hite had resolved on parting company. "An onlucky day," he reiterated, "an onlucky day. An' this be ez far ez we spen' it tergether. I turn off hyar."
So ever present with him was his spirituous conscience—it could hardly be called a bad conscience—that he half expected his companion to demur, and the posse of a deputy marshal to spring up from their ambush in the laurel about them. But the stranger, still with a flavor of preoccupation in his manner, only expressed a polite regret to say farewell so early, and genially offered to shake hands. As with difficulty he forced his horse close to the mountaineer's saddle, Hite looked at the animal with a touch of disparagement. "That thar beastis hev got cornsider'ble o' the devil in him; he'll trick ye some day; ye better look out. Waal, far'well stranger, far'well."
The words had a regretful cadence. Whether because of the unwonted interest which the stranger had excited, or the reluctance to relinquish his curiosity, still ungratified, or the pain of parting to an impressionable nature, whose every emotion is acute, Hite hesitated when he had gone some twenty yards straight up the slope above, pushing his horse along a narrow path through the jungle of the laurel, and turned in his saddle to call out again, "Far'well!"
The stranger, still at the point where Hite had quitted him, waved his hand and smiled. The jungle closed about the mountaineer, once more pushing on, and still the smiling eyes dwelt on the spot where he had disappeared. "Farewell, my transparent friend," the stranger said, with a half-laugh. "I hope the day is not unlucky enough to put a deputy marshal on your track." And with one more glance at the witch-face, he gathered the reins in his hand and rode on alone along the narrow tangled ways of the herder's trail.
Now and again, as the day wore on, Constant Hite was seized with a sense of something wanting, and he presently recognized the deficit as the expectation of the ill fortune which should befall the time, and which still failed to materialize. So strong upon him was the persuasion of evil chances rife in the air to-day that he set himself as definitely to thwart and baffle them as if rationally cognizant of their pursuit. He would not return to his wonted vocation at the distillery, but carried his venison home, where his father, a very old man, with still the fervors of an aesthetic pride, pointed out with approbation the evidence of a fair shot in the wound at the base of the buck's ear, and his mother, active, wiry, practical-minded, noted the abundance of fat. "He fed hisself well whilst he war about it," she commented, "an' now he'll feed us well. What diff'unce do it make whether Con's rifle-ball hit whar he aimed ter do or no, so he fetched him down somewhar?"
The afternoon passed peacefully away. It seemed strangely long. The sun, barring a veiled white glister in a clouded gray sky, betokening the solar focus, disappeared; the wind fell; the very cicadae, so loud in the latter days of August, were dulled to long intervals of silence; in the distance, a tree-toad called and called, with plaintive iteration, for rain. "Ye'll git it, bubby," Con addressed the creature, as he stood in the cornfield—a great yellow stretch—pulling fodder, and binding the long pliant blades into bundles. The clouds still thickened; the heat grew oppressive; the long rows of the corn were motionless, save the rustling of the blades as Hite tore them from the stalk. Even his mother's spinning-wheel, wont to briskly whir through the long afternoons, from the window of the little cabin on the rise, grew silent, and his father dozed beneath the gourd vines on the porch.
The sun went down at last, and the gray day imperceptibly merged into the gray dusk. Then came the lingering darkness, with a flicker of fireflies and broad wan flares of heat lightning. Con woke once in the night to hear the rain on the roof. The wind was blaring near at hand. In its large, free measures, like some deliberate adagio, there was naught of menace; but when he slept again, and awoke to hear its voice anew, his heart was plunging with sudden fright. A human utterance was in its midst,—a human voice calling his name through the gusty night and the sibilant rush of the rain from the eaves. He listened for a moment at the roof-room window. He recognized with a certain relief the tones of the constable of the district. He opened the shutter.
A new day was near to breaking. He saw the wan sky above the periphery of dense dark woods about the clearing. A brown dusk obscured the familiar landmarks, but beneath a gnarled old apple-tree by the gate several men were dimly suggested, and another, more distinct, by the wood-pile, was in the act of gathering a handful of chips to throw at the shutter again. He desisted as he marked the face at the window.
"Kem down," he said gruffly, clearing his throat in embarrassment. "Kem down, Constant. No use roustin' out the old folks."
"What do you want?" asked Hite in a low voice, his heart seeming to stand still in suspense.
The constable hesitated. The cold rain dashed into Hite's face. The rail fences, in zigzag lines, were coming into view. A mist was floating white against the dark densities of the woods. He heard the water splashing from the eaves heavily into the gullies below, and then the constable once more raucously cleared his throat.
"Thar's a man," he drawled, "a stranger hyarabouts, killed yestiddy in the bridle-path. The cor'ner hev kem, an' he 'lows ye know suthin' 'bout'n it, Constant,—'bout'n the killin' of him. I be sent ter fetch ye."
A chimney, half of stone, half of clay and stick, stood starkly up in the gray rain and the swooping, shifting gray fog. It marked the site of a cabin burned long ago, and in such melancholy wise as it might it told of the home that had been. Now and again far-away lightning flashed on its fireless hearth; a vacant bird's-nest in a cranny duplicated the suggestions of desertion; the cold mist crept in and curled up out of the smokeless flue with a mockery of semblance. The fire that had wrought its devastating will in the black midnight in the deep wilderness, so far from rescue or succor, had swiftly burned out its quick fury, and was sated with the humble household belongings. The barn, rickety, weather-beaten, deserted, and vacant, still remained,—of the fashion common to the region, with a loft above, and an open wagonway between the two compartments below,—and it was here that the inquest was held. It was near the scene of the tragedy, and occasionally a man would detach himself from the slow, dawdling, depressed-looking group of mountaineers who loitered in the open space beneath the loft, and traverse the scant distance down the bridle-path to gaze at the spot where the stranger's body had lain, whence it had been conveyed to the nearest shelter at hand, the old barn, where the coroner's jury were even now engaged in their deliberations. Sometimes, another, versed in all the current rumors, would follow to point out to the new-comer the details, show how the rain had washed the blood away, and fearfully mark the tokens of frantic clutches at the trees as the man had been torn from his horse. The animal had vanished utterly; even the prints of his hoofs were soon obliterated by the torrents and the ever-widening puddles. And thus had arisen the suspicion of ambush and foul play, and the implication of the mysterious gang of horse-thieves, whose rumored exploits seemed hardly so fabulous with the disappearance of the animal and the violent death of the rider in evidence. The locality offered no other suggestion, and it was but a brief interval before the way would be retraced by the awe-stricken observer, noting with a deep interest impossible hitherto all the environment: the stark chimney of the vanished house, monumental in the weed-grown waste; the dripping forest; the roof of the barn, sleek and shining, and with rain pouring down the slant of its clapboards and splashing from its eaves; the groups of horses hitched to the scraggy apple-trees of the deserted homestead; and here and there the white canvas cover of an ox-wagon, with its yoke of steers standing with low-hung heads in the downpour. The pallid circling mists enveloped the world, and limited the outlook to a periphery of scant fifty paces; occasionally becoming tenuous, as if to suggest the dark looming of the mountain across the narrow valley, and the precipice close at hand behind the building, then once more intervening, white and dense of texture, forming a background which imparted a singular distinctness to the figures grouped in the open space of the barn beneath the shadowy loft.
The greater number of the gathering had been summoned hither by a sheer curiosity as coercive as a subpoena, but sundry of the group were witnesses, reluctant, anxious, with a vague terror of the law, and an ignorant sense of an impending implication that set both craft and veracity at defiance. They held their heads down ponderingly, as they stood; perhaps rehearsing mentally the details of their meagre knowledge of the event, or perhaps canvassing the aspect of certain points which might impute to them blame or arouse suspicion, and endeavoring to compass shifty evasions, to transform or suppress them in their forthcoming testimony. At random, one might have differentiated the witnesses from the mass of the ordinary mountaineer type by the absorbed eye, or the meditative moving lip unconsciously forming unspoken words, or the fallen dismayed jaw as of the victim of circumstantial evidence. It was a strange chance, the death that had met this casual wayfarer at their very doors, and one might not know how the coroner would interpret it. His power to commit a suspect added to his terrors, and gave to the capable, astute official a mundane formidableness that overtopped the charnel-house flavor of his more habitual duties. He was visible through the unchinked logs of the little room where the inquest was in progress, barely spacious enough to contain the bier, the jury, and the witness under examination; and yet so great was the sound of the rain outside and the stir of the assemblage that little or naught was overheard without.
Now and again the waiting witnesses looked with doubt and curiosity and suspicion at a new-comer, with an obvious disposition to hope and believe that others knew more of the matter than they, and thus were more liable to accusation. Occasionally, a low-toned, husky query would be met by a curt rejoinder suggesting a cautious reticence and a rising enmity, blockading all investigation save the obligatory inquisition of a coroner's jury. An object of ever-recurrent scrutiny was a stranger in the vicinity, who had been subpoenaed also. The facial effect of culture and sophistication was illustrated in his inexpressive, controlled, masklike countenance. He was generally known as the "valley man with the lung complaint," who had built a cabin on the mountain during the summer, banished hither by the advice of his physician for the value to the lungs of the soft, healing air. He wore a brown derby hat, a fawn-colored suit, and a brown overcoat, with the collar upturned. He was blond and young, and so impassive was his sober, decorous aspect that the aptest detective could have discerned naught of significance as he stood, quite silent and composed, in the centre of the place where it was dry, exempt from the gusts of rain that the wind now and again flung in spray upon the outermost members of the group, one hand in the pocket of his trousers, the other toying with a cigar which so far he held unlighted.
Of the two women present, one, seated upon the beam of a broken plough, refuse of the agricultural industry long ago collapsed here, was calmly smoking her pipe,—a wrinkled, unimpressed personality, who had seen many years, and whose manner might imply that all these chances of life and death came in the gross, and that existence was a medley at best. The other, a witness, was young. More than once the "valley man" cast a covert glance at her as, clad in a brown homespun dress, she leaned against the log wall, her face, which was very pale, half turned toward it, as if to hide the features already much obscured by the white sunbonnet drawn far over it. One arm was lifted, and her hand was passed between the unchinked logs in a convulsive grasp upon them. Her figure was tall and slender, and expressive in its rigid constraint; it was an attitude of despair, of repulsion, of fear. It might have implied grief, or remorse, or anxiety. Often the eyes of the prescient victims of circumstantial evidence rested dubiously upon her. To the great majority of men, the presence of women in affairs of business is an intrusive evil of times out of joint. Now, since matters of life and liberty were in the balance, the primitive denizens of Witch-Face Mountain felt that the admission of Narcissa Hanway's testimony to consideration and credibility evinced an essential defect in the law of the land, and the fallibility of all human reasoning. What distorted impression might not so appalling an event make upon one so young, so feminine, so inexperienced! What exaggerated wild thing might she not say, unintentionally inculpating half Witch-Face Mountain in robbery and murder!
Constant Hite, as he bluffly entered the passageway, his head up, his eyes wide and bright, his vigorous step elastic and light, gave no token of the spiritual war he had waged as he came. Already he felt in great jeopardy. On account of his illicit vocation he could ill abide the scrutiny of the law. With scant proof, he argued, a moonshiner might be suspected of highway robbery and murder. As he had journeyed hither with the constable and his fellows, who conserved the air of disinterested spectators, but who he knew had been summoned to aid the officer in case he should evade or delay, when he would have been forthwith arrested, he had been sorely tempted to deny having ever seen the stranger, in whose company he had spent an hour or so of the previous day. He had been able to put the lie from him with a normal moral impulse. He did not appreciate the turpitude of perjury. He esteemed it only a natural lie invested with pomp and circumstance; and the New Testament on which he should be sworn meant no more to his unlettered conscience than the horn-book, since he knew as little of its contents. But a lie is a skulking thing, and he had scant affinity with it.
He thought, with a sort of numb wonderment, that it was strange he should feel no more compassion for the object stretched out here, dumb, dead, bruised, and bloody, which so short a space since he had seen full of life and interest, animated by a genial courtesy and graced with learning and subtle insight; now so unknowing, so unlettered, so blind! Whither went this ethereal investiture of life?—for it was not mere being; one might exist hardily enough without it. Did the darkness close over it, too, or was it not the germ of the soul, the budding of that wider knowledge and finer aspiration to flower hereafter in rarer air? He did not know; he only vaguely cared, and he reproached himself dully that he cared no more. For he—his life was threatened! With the renewal of the thought he experienced a certain animosity toward the man that he should not have known enough to take better care of himself. Why must he needs die here, in this horrible unexplained way, and leave other men, chance associates, to risk stretching hemp for murder? He felt his strong life beating in his throat almost to suffocation at the mere suggestion. Again the lie tempted him, to be again withstood; and as he strode into the room upon the calling of his name, he saw how futile, how flimsy, was every device, for, fluttering in the coroner's hand, he recognized the sketch of the "Witch-Face" which the dead man had made, and the masterly drawing of his own imposing figure in the foreground. He had forgotten it utterly for the time being. In the surprise and confusion that had beset him, it had not occurred to him to speculate how he had chanced to be subpoenaed, how the idea could have occurred to the coroner that he knew aught of the stranger. As he stood against the batten door, the pale light from the interstices of the unchinked logs, all the grayer because it alternated with the sombre timbers, falling upon his face and figure, his hat upturned in front, revealing his brow with a forelock of straight black hair, his brilliant dark eyes, and his distinctly cut definite features, the sketch-book was swiftly passed from one to another of the jury, reluctantly relinquished here and there, and more than once eliciting half-smothered exclamations of delighted wonder from the unsophisticated mountaineers, as they glanced back and forth from the man leaning against the door to the counterfeit presentment on the paper.
Constant Hite experienced a glow of vicarious pride as he remembered the satisfaction that the artist had taken in the sketch, and he wished that that still thing on the bier could know how his work, most wonderful it seemed, was appreciated. And then, with a swift revulsion of feeling, he realized that it was this which had entrapped him; this bit of paper had brought him into fear and trouble and risk of his life. The man might be of the revenue force. He might have encountered other moonshiners, and thus have come to his violent death. If this were his vocation, it brought Hite into dark suspicion by virtue of the fact, known to a few of the neighborhood, that he himself was a distiller of brush whiskey. No one else had seen the stranger till the finding of the body. He gathered this from the trend of the inquiry after the formal preliminary queries. The seven men, as they sat together on a bench made by passing a plank between the logs of the wall diagonally across the corner of the room, chewed meditatively their quids of tobacco, and now and then spat profusely on the ground, their faces growing more perplexed and graver as the examination progressed.
When Hite disclosed the circumstance that on the previous day he had encountered a "stranger man" near the "Witch-Face," there was a palpable sensation among them. They glanced at one another meaningly, and a sudden irritation was perceptible in the coroner's manner as he sat in a rickety chair near the improvised bier. He was a citizen of the valley region, a trifle more sophisticated than the jury, and disposed to seriously deprecate the introduction of any morbid or superstitious element into so grave a matter. He had a bald head, a lean face, the bones very clearly defined about the temple and cheek and jaw, a scanty grizzled beard; and he was dressed somewhat farmer fashion, in blue jeans, with his boots drawn high over his trousers, but with a stiffly starched white shirt,—the collar and cravat in evidence, the cuffs, however, vanished up the big sleeves of his coat.
"The exact place of the meeting is not material," he said frowningly.
But Hite's mercurial interest in the drawing had revived anew.
"Thar she be," he exclaimed, so suddenly that the jury started with a common impulse, "the ole witch-face,"—he pointed at the sketch in the coroner's hand,—"a mite ter the east an' a leetle south in the pictur', ez nat'ral ez life!"
One of the jurymen asked to see the sketch again. Evidently, in the hasty delineation of the contours of the slope they had not noticed the gigantic grimacing countenance which they all knew so well; the picturesque figure of the mountaineer in the foreground had so impressed the stranger that it was much more nearly complete than the landscape, being definite in every detail, and fully shaded. The book was handed along the row of men, each recognizing the semblance, once pointed out, with a touch of dismayed surprise that alarmed the coroner for the sanity of the verdict; his rational estimate rated spells and bewitchments and omens as far less plausible agencies in disaster than horse-thieves, highwaymen, and moonshiners.
"Look at the face of the deceased," he said, with a sort of spare enunciation, coercive somehow in its inexpressiveness. "Ye are sure ye never viewed that man afore yestiddy?"
"I hev said so an' swore it," said Hite, a trifle nettled.
"Ye rode in comp'ny a hour or mo' an' never asked his name?"
"I never axed him no questions, nor he me," replied Hite, "'ceptin' 'bout'n the witch-face. He was powerful streck by that. An' I tole him 't war a onlucky day."
The jury, a dreary row of unkempt heads, and bearded anxious faces, and crouching shoulders askew, cleared their throats, and two uncrossed and recrossed their legs, the plank seat creaking ominously with the motion under their combined weight. A shade of disappointment was settling on the coroner's face. This was slight information indeed from the only person who had seen the man alive. There was silence for a moment. The splashing of the rain on the roof became drearily audible in the interval. The stir of the group in the space outside was asserted anew, with their low-toned fitful converse; a black-and-white ox in the weed-grown garden emitted a deep, depressed low of remonstrance against the rain, and the irking of the yoke, and the herbage just beyond his reach. The jurymen might see him through the logs, and now and again one of them mechanically ducked his head to look out upon the dismal aspect of the chimney and orchard, round which so many horses and wagons had not gathered since the daughter of the house was long ago married here. There was a sprinkle of gray in his hair, and he remembered the jollities of the wedding,—incongruous recollection,—and once more he looked at the stark figure, its face covered with a white cloth, which had been done in a sentiment of atonement for the unseemly publicity of its fate.
In sparsely settled communities, death, being rare, retains much of the terror which custom lessens in the dense crowds of cities. There death is met at every corner. It goes on 'Change. It sits upon the bench. It is chronicled in the columns of every newspaper. Daily its bells toll. Its melancholy pageantry traverses the streets of wealthy quarters, and it stalks abroad hourly in the slums, and few there are who gaze after it. But here it comes so seldom that its dread features are not made smug by familiarity. When Hite was told to look again at the face and see if memory might not have played him false, to make sure he had never seen the man before yesterday, he hesitated, and advanced with such reluctance, and started back, dropping the cloth, with such swift repulsion, that the coroner, habituated to such matters, gazed at him with a doubtful scrutiny.
"Oh, he looked nowise like that," he exclaimed in a raised, nervous voice that caught the attention of the crowd outside, and resulted in a sudden cessation of stir and colloquy, "though it's him, sure enough! And," with a burst of regret, "he war a mighty pleasant man!"
The coroner, intentionally taking him at a disadvantage, asked abruptly, "What do you work at mostly?"
Hite turned shortly from the bier. "I farms some," he hesitated; "dad bein' mos'ly out o' the field, nowadays, agin' so constant."
"What do you work at mostly?" reiterated the official.
Hite divined his suspicion. Some flying rumor had doubtless come to his ears, how credible, how unimpugnable, the moonshiner could not tell. Nevertheless, his loyalty to that secret vocation of his had become a part of his nature, so continuous were its demands upon his courage, his strategy, his foresight, his industry. It was tantamount to his instinct of self-defense. He held his head down, with his excited dark eyes looking up from under his brows at the coroner. But he would not speak. He would admit naught of what was evidently known.
"Warn't ye afeard he might be a revenuer?" suggested the officer.
"I never war afeard, so ter say, o' one man at a time," Hite ventured.
"Didn't ye think he might take a notion that you were a moonshiner?"
"He never showed no suspicion o' me, noways," replied Hite warily. "We rid tergether free an' favored. He 'peared a powerful book-l'arned man,—like no revenuer ever I see."
"Where did you part company?"
Hite sought to identify the spot by description; and then he was allowed to pass out, his spirits flagging with the ordeal, and with the knowledge that his connection with the manufacture of brush whiskey was suspected by the coroner's jury, suggesting an adequate motive on his part for waylaying a stranger supposed to be of the revenue force. He felt the dash of the rain in his face as he stood aside to make way for the "valley man with the lung complaint," who was passing into the restricted apartment; and despite his whirl of anxiety and excitement and regret and resentment, he noted with a touch of surprise the cool unconcern of the man's face and manner, albeit duly grave and adjusted to the decorums of the melancholy occasion.
He was sworn, and gave his name as Alan Selwyn. The jury listened with interest to his fluent account of his occupation in the valley, which had been mercantile, of his temporary residence here for a bronchial affection; and when he was asked to identify the man who had so mysteriously come to his death, they marked his quick, easy stride as he crossed the room, with his hat in his hand, and his unmoved countenance as he looked fixedly down into the face of the dead. He remained a longer interval than was usual with the witnesses, as if to make sure. Then, still quite businesslike and brisk, he stated that he could not identify him, having certainly never seen him before.
"The only papers which he had on him," said the coroner, watching the effect of his words, "were two letters addressed to you."
The young man started in palpable surprise. As he looked at the exterior of the letters, which were stamped and postmarked, he observed that they must have been taken out of the post-office at Sandford Cross-Roads, to expedite their delivery; the postmaster doubtless consenting to this request on the part of so reputable-looking a person or a possible acquaintance.
"Were you expecting a visitor?" asked the coroner.
"Not at all," responded the puzzled witness.
He was requested to open the letters, read and show them. But he waived this courtesy, asking the coroner to open and read them to the jury. They were of no moment, both on matters of casual business, and Mr. Alan Selwyn was dismissed; the coroner blandly regretting that, in view of his malady, he had been required to come out in so chilly a rain.
Notwithstanding his composure he was in some haste to be gone. He went quickly through the crowd, drawing down his hat over his brow, and deftly buttoning his overcoat across his chest and throat. He had reached his horse, and had placed one foot in the stirrup, when, chancing to glance back over his shoulder, he saw Narcissa Hanway's white, flowerlike face, her bonnet pushed far back on her tawny yellow hair, both arms outstretched in a gesture of negation and repulsion toward the apartment where the jury sat, while a dark-haired, slow man urged her forward, one hand on her shoulder, and the old mountain woman followed with insistence and encouragement. He hesitated for a moment; then putting spurs to his horse, he rode off swiftly through the slanting lines of rain.
A sense of helplessness in the hands of fate is in some sort conducive to courage. Doubtless many an act of valor which has won the world's applause was precipitated in a degree by desperation and the lack of an alternative. The appearance of stolidity with which the cluster of witnesses—those whose testimony was yet to be given as well as those who had told the little they knew—noted the uncontrolled agitation, the wild eyes, the hysteric sobs, with which Narcissa Hanway was ushered into the contracted apartment where the inquest was in progress, had no correlative calmness of mind or heart. What haphazard accusation might not result from her fear, or her desire to shield another, or the mere undisciplined horror of the place and the fact! When one dreads the sheer possibilities, the extremes of terror are reached. More than one of the bearded, unkempt, hardy mountaineers, trudging back and forth in the sheltered space beneath the loft, steadily chewing their quids of tobacco and eying the rain, would have fled incontinently, had there been any place to run to out of reach of the constable, who was particularly brisk to-day, participating in exercises of so unusual an interest. The girl's brother, standing beside the door after she had passed within, was unconscious of a certain keen covert scrutiny of which he was the subject. He had a square determined face, dark hair, slow gray eyes, and a tall powerful frame; he held his head downward, his hand on the door, his even teeth set in the intensity of his effort to distinguish the voices within. There had been some secret speculation as to whether the man were altogether unknown to the brother and sister, such deep feeling she had evinced, such coercion he had exerted to induce her to give her testimony. Still, the girl was a mere slip of a thing, unused to horrors; and as to recalcitrant witnesses, they all knew the jail had a welcome for the silent until such time as they might find a voice. Nevertheless, though his urgency had been in the stead of the constable's stronger measures, they eyed him askance as he stood and sought to listen, with his hand on the door. The old woman turned around, her arms falling to her sides with a sort of flounce of triumph, her eyes twinkling beneath the shining spectacles set upon her brow among the limp ruffles of her thrust-back sunbonnet, a laugh of satisfaction widening her wrinkled face. "Thar now!" she chuckled, "Nar'sa jes' set it down she wouldn't testify, an' crossed her heart an' hoped she'd fall dead fust. But, Ben, we beat her that time!" and she chuckled anew.
The man answered not a word, and listened to the tumult within.
It is seldom, doubtless, that the patience of a coroner's jury is subjected to so strong a strain. But the information which had so far been elicited was hardly more than the bare circumstance which the body presented,—a man had ridden here, a stranger, and he was dead. If the girl knew more than this, it would necessitate some care in the examination to secure the facts. She was young, singularly willful and irresponsible, and evidently overcome by grief, or fear, or simply horror. When she was asked to look at the face of the stranger, she only caught a glimpse of it, as if by accident, and turned away, pulling her white bonnet down over her face, and declaring that she would not. "I hev viewed him wunst, an' I won't look at him again," she protested, with a burst of sobs.
"Now set down in this cheer, daughter, an' tell us what ye know about it all,—easy an' quiet," said the coroner in a soothing, paternal strain.
"Oh, nuthin', nuthin'!" exclaimed the girl, throwing herself into the chair in the attitude of an abandonment of grief.
"Air ye cryin' 'kase ye war 'quainted with him ennywise?" demanded one of the jurymen, with a quickening interest. He was a neighbor; that is, counting as propinquity a distance of ten miles.
The girl lifted her head suddenly. "I never seen him till yestiddy," she protested steadily. "I be a heap apter ter weep 'kase my 'quaintances ain't dead!" She gave him a composed, sarcastic smile, then fell to laughing and crying together.
To the others the discomfiture of their confrere was the first touch of comedy relief in the tragic situation. They cast at one another a glance of appreciation trenching on a smile, and the abashed questioner drew out a plug of tobacco, and with a manner of preoccupation gnawed a bit from it; then replaced it in his pocket, with a physical contortion which caused the plank on which the jury were seated to creak ominously, to the manifest anxiety of the worthies ranged thereon.
"How did you happen to see the man?" he asked, as if he had perceived no significance in her previous answer.
"'Kase I didn't happen ter be blind," her half-muffled voice replied. Her arm was thrown over the back of the chair, and her face was hidden on her elbow.
The coroner interposed quickly: "Where were you goin', an' what did you see?"
She sobbed aloud for a moment. Then ensued an interval of silence. Suddenly the interest of the subject seemed to lay hold upon her, and she began to speak very rapidly, lifting her white tear-stained face, and pushing her bonnet back on her rough curling auburn hair:—
"I war a-blackberryin', thar bein' only a few lef' yit, an' I went fur an' furder yit from home; an' ez I kem out'n the woods over yon," half rising, and pointing with a free gesture, "I viewed—or yit I 'lowed I viewed—the witch-face through a bunch o' honey locust, the leaves bein' drapped a'ready, they bein' always the fust o' the year ter git bare. An' stiddier leavin' it be, I sot my bucket o' berries at the foot o' a tree', an started down the slope todes the bluff, ter make sure an' view it clar o' the trees." The girl paused, her eyes widening, her voice faltering, her breath coming fast. "An' goin' swift, some hawgs, stray, half grown, 'bout twenty shoats feedin' in the woods—my rustlin' in the bushes skeered 'em I reckon—they sot out to run, possessed by the devil, like them the Scriptur' tells about." She paused again, panting, her hand to her heart.
The disaffected juryman turned to one side, recrossing his legs, and spitting disparagingly on the ground. "She can't swear them hawgs war possessed by the devil," he said in a low tone to his next neighbor.
"Oh, why not," exclaimed the girl, "when we know so many men air possessed by the devil,—why not them shoats, bein' jes' without clothes, an' without the gift o' speech to mark the diff'unce!"
She paused again, and the coroner, standing a trifle back of her chair, shook his head at the obstructive juryman, and asked her in a commonplace voice what the hogs had to do with it.
"That's what I wanter know!" she cried, half turning in her chair to look up at him. "I started 'em, an' I be at the bottom o' it all, ef it's like I think,—me, yearnin' ter look at the old witch-face! The hawgs run through the woods like fire on dry grass, an' I be 'feared they skeered the stranger man's horse—he had none whenst I seen him, though. I hearn loud talkin', or hollerin', a cornsiderable piece off, an' then gallopin' hoofs"—
"More horses than one, do you think?" demanded the coroner.
"Oh, how kin I swear to that? I seen none. Fur when I got thar, this man war lyin' in the herder's trail, bruised and bloody—oh, like ye see—an' his eyes opened; an' he gin a sort o' gasp whenst I tuk his han'—an' he war dead. An' I skeered the hawgs, an' they skeered his horse, an' he killed him; an' I be 'sponsible fur it all, an' I wisht ye'd hang me fur it quick, an' be done with it!"
She burst into sobs once more, and hid her face on her arm on the back of the chair. Then, suddenly lifting her head, she resumed: "I jes' called and called Ben, an' bein' he hain't never fur off, he hearn me, an' kem. An' then he rid fur the neighbors, an' kem down the valley arter you-uns," with a side glance at the coroner. "An' he lef' me a shootin'-iron, in case of a fox, or a wolf, or suthin' kem along. 'Bout sunset the neighbors kem. An' till then I sot thar keepin' watch, an' a-viewin' the witch-face 'crost the Cove, plumb till the sun went down."
She bowed her head again on her arm, and a momentary silence ensued. Then the coroner, clearing his throat, said reassuringly, "Thar ain't nuthin' in the witch-face, nohow. It's jes' a notion. Man and boy, I have knowed that hillside fur forty year, an' I never could see no witch-face; it's been p'inted out ter me a thousand times."
She looked at him in dumb amazement for a moment; then broke out, "Waal, what would ye think ef ye hed seen, like me, the witch-face shining in the darkest night, nigh on ter midnight, like the ole 'oman had lighted her a candle somewhars,—jes' shinin', an' grinnin', an' mockin', plain ez daybreak? That's what I hev viewed—an' I 'low ter view it agin—oh, I do, I do!"
He looked at her hard, but he did not say what he thought, and the faces of the jurymen, which had implied a strong exception to his declaration of skepticism touching the existence of the ominous facial outline on the hillside, underwent a sudden change of expression. She was hardly responsible, they considered, and her last incredible assertion had gone far to nullify the effect of her previous testimony. She was overcome by the nervous shock, or had told less than she knew and was still concealing somewhat, or was so credulous and plastic and fanciful as to be hardly worthy of belief. She was dismissed earlier than she had dared to hope: and with this deterioration of the testimony of the witness who was nearest the time and place of the disaster, the jury presently went to work to evolve out of so slender a thread of fact and so knotty a tangle of possibility their verdict.
For a long time, it seemed to the curious without, and to the agitated, nervous witnesses peering through the unchinked logs of the wall, they sat on their comfortless perch, half crouching forward, and chewed, and discussed the testimony. There were frequent intervals of silence, and in one of these Con Hite was disturbed to see the sketch of the "witch-face" once more passed from hand to hand. They grew to have a harried, baited look; and after a time, the rain having slackened, they came out in a body, and walked to and fro quite silently in the clearing, chewing their quids and their knotty problem, with apparently as much chance of getting to the completion of the one as of the other. They were evidently refreshed, however, by the change of posture and scene, for they soon resumed the subject and were arguing anew as they paused upon the bluff, their gestures wonderfully distinct, drawn upon the sea of mist that filled the valley below and the air above. It revealed naught of the earth, save here and there a headland, as it were, thrusting out its dark, narrow, attenuated demesne into the impalpable main. Further and further one might mark this semblance of a coast-line as the vapor grew more tenuous, till far away the series of shadowy gray promontories alternating with the colorless inlets was as vague of essence as the land of a dream. Near at hand, a cucumber-tree, with its great broad green leaves and its deep red cones, leaning over the rocks, and spanning this illusive gray landscape from the zenith to the immediate foreground, gave the only touch of color to the scenic simulacrum in many a gradation of neutral tone. The jurymen hovered about under the boughs for a time, and then came back, still harassed and anxious, to their den, with perhaps some new question of doubt. For those without could perceive that once more they were crowding about the bier and talking together in knots. Again they called in the country physician who had testified earlier, an elderly personage, singularly long and thin and angular, but who had a keen, intent, clever face and the accent of an educated man. He seemed to reiterate some information in a clear, concise manner, and when he came out it was evident that he considered his utility here at an end, for he made straight for his horse and saddle.
A sudden sensation supervened among the outsiders,—a flutter, and then a breathless suspense; for within the inclosure, barred with the heavy shadows of the logs of the walls alternating with the misty intervals, could be seen the figures of the seven, successively stooping at the foot of the bier to sign each his name to the inquisition at last drawn up.
One by one they came slowly out, looking quite exhausted from their long restraint, the unwonted mental exercitations, and the nervous strain. Then it was developed, to the astonishment and disappointment of the little crowd, tingling with excitement and anxiety, that this document simply set forth the fact that at an inquisition holden on Witch-Face Mountain, Kildeer County, before Jeremiah Flaxman, coroner, upon the body of an unknown man, there lying dead, the jurors whose names were subscribed thereto, upon their oaths, did say that he came to his death from concussion of the brain consequent upon being thrown or dragged from his horse by means or by persons to the jury unknown.
There was a palpable dismay on Constant Hite's expressive face. He had hoped that the verdict might be death by accident. Others had expected the implication of horse-thieves, of whose existence the jury being of the neighborhood were well advised, and the disappearance of the man's horse might well suggest this explanation. The coroner would return this inquisition to the criminal court together with a list of the material witnesses. Thus the matter was left as undecided as before the inquest, the jeopardy, the terrors of circumstantial evidence, all still impending, dark with doom, like the black cloud which visibly overshadowed the landscape.
Since the knight-errantry of wolf and bear and catamount and fox has scant need of milestones, or signposts, or ferries, or the tender iteration of road-taxes, the casual glance might hardly perceive the necessity of opening a thoroughfare through this wilderness, for these freebooters seemed likely to be its chief beneficiaries. A more rugged district could not be found in all that massive upheaval of rocks and tangled wooded fastnesses stretching from the northeast to the southwest some twenty miles, and known as Witch-Face Mountain; a more scantily populated region than its slopes and adjacent coves scarcely exists in the length and breadth of the State of Tennessee. The physical possibilities were arrayed against the project, so steep was the comblike summit on either side, so heavy and tortuous the outcropping rock that served as the bony structure of the great mountain mass. True, the river pierced it, the denudation of solid sandstone cliffs, a thousand feet in height, betokening the untiring energy of the eroding currents of centuries agone. This agency, however, man might not summon to his aid, being "the act of God," to use the pious language of the express companies to describe certain contingencies for which they very properly decline the responsibility. Against the preemptions of the gigantic forests and the gaunt impassable crags and the abysmal river might be enlisted only such enterprise as was latent in the male inhabitants of the vicinity over eighteen years of age and under fifty, thus subject to the duty of working on the public roads. Nevertheless, the county court had, in a moment of sanguine exuberance, entertained and granted an application from the adjacent landowners to order a jury of view to lay out a public road and to report at the next quarterly session.
Precursors of the jury of view in some sort two young people might have seemed, one afternoon, a fortnight, perhaps, after the inquest, as they pushed through the woody tangles to the cliffs high above the river, the opposite bank of which was much nearer than the swirling currents, crystal brown in the romantic shadows below. They walked in single file, the jury of view in their minds, and now and then referred to in their sparse speech.
"Mought make it along hyar, Ben." The girl, in advance, paused, bareheaded, each uplifted hand holding out a string of her white sunbonnet, which, thus distended, was poised, winglike, behind the rough tangle of auburn hair and against the amber sky. She turned as she spoke, to face her companion, taking a step or two backward as she awaited his answer.
"Look out how ye air a-walkin', Narcissa! Ye'll go over the bluff back'ards, fust thing ye know," the man called out eagerly, and with a break of anxiety in his voice.
She stretched the sunbonnet still wider with her upreaching arms, and with a smile of tantalizing glee, showing her white teeth and narrowing her brown eyes, she continued to walk backward toward the precipice,—with short steps, however; cautious enough, doubtless, but calculated to alarm one whose affection had given much acuteness to fear.
Still at too great a distance for interference, Ben affected indifference. "We-uns'll hev the coroner's jury hyar agin, afore the jury o' view, ef ye keep on; an' ye ain't got on yer bes' caliker coat, noways."
He climbed swiftly up the ascent and joined her, out of breath and with an angry gleam in his eyes. But she had turned her face and steps in the opposite direction, the mirth of the situation extinguished for the present.
"Quit talkin' that-a-way 'bout sech turr'ble, turr'ble things!" she cried petulantly, making a motion as if to strike him, futile at the distance, and with her frowning face averted.
"Sech ez yer new coat? I 'lowed 't war the apple o' yer eye," he rejoined with a feint of banter.
She held her face down, with her features drawn and her eyes half closed, rejecting the vision of recollection as if it were the sight itself. "I can't abide the name o' cor'ner's jury,—I never wants ter hear it nor see it agin! I never shall furgit how them men all looked a-viewin' the traveler's body what I fund dead in the road; they looked like jes' so many solemn, peekin', heejus black buzzards crowdin' aroun' the corpse; then a-noddin' an' a-whisperin' tergether, an' a-findin' of a verdic' ez they called it. They fund nuthin' at all. 'T war me ez done the findin'. I fund the man dead in the road. An' I ain't a-goin' ter be a witness no mo'. Nex' time the law wants me fur a witness I'll go ter jail; it's cheerfuller, a heap, I'll bet!"
As she still held her head down, her bonnet well on it now, her face with its riant cast of features incongruously woebegone, overshadowed by the tragedy she recounted even more definitely than by the brim of her headgear or the first gray advance of the dusk, he made a clumsy effort to divert her attention.
"I 'lowed ye war mightily in favor of juries; ye talk mighty nigh all day 'bout the jury of view."
"I want a road up hyar," she exclaimed vivaciously, raising her eyes and her joyous transfigured face, "a reg'lar county road! In the fall o' the year the folks would kem wagonin' thar chestnuts over ter sell in town, an' camp out. An' all the mounting would go up an' down it past our big gate ter the church house in the Cove. I'd never want ter hear no mo' preachin'. I'd jes' set on our front porch, an' look, an' look, an' look!"
She cast up her great bright eyes with as vivid and immediate an irradiation as if the brilliant procession which she pictured deployed even now, chiefly in ox-wagons, before them. She caught off her bonnet from her head,—it seemed a sort of moral barometer; she never wore it when the indications of the inner atmosphere set fair. She swung it gayly by one string as she walked and talked; now and again she held the string to her lips and bit it with her strong, even teeth, reckless of the havoc in the clumsy hem.
"Then county court days,—goin' to county court, an' comin' from county court,—sech passels an' passels o' folks! I wisht we-uns hed it afore the jury o' view kem, so we-uns mought view the jury o' view."
"It's along o' the jury o' view ez we-uns will git the road,—ef we do git it," the young man said cautiously.
It was one of his self-imposed duties to moderate, as far as he might, his sister's views, to temper her enthusiasms and abate her various and easily excited anger. He had other duties toward her which might be said to have come to him as an inheritance.
"Ben's the boy!" his consumptive mother had been wont to say; "he's sorter slow, but mighty sure. 'Brag is a good dog, but Hold-Fast is a better.' Ef he don't sense nare 'nother idee in this life, he hev got ter l'arn ez it's his business ter take keer o' Nar'sa. Folks say Nar'sa be spoiled a'ready. So be, fur whilst Ben be nuthin' but a boy he'll l'arn ter do her bid, an' watch over her, an' wait on her, an' keer for her, an' think she be the top o' creation. It'll make her proud an' headin', I know,—she'll gin her stepmammy a sight o' trouble, an' I ain't edzactly lamentin' 'bout'n that,—but Ben'll take keer o' her all her life, an' good keer, havin' been trained ter it from the fust."
But his mother had slept many a year in the little mountain graveyard, and her place was still empty. The worldly wise craft of the simple mountain woman, making what provision she might for the guardianship of her daughter, was rendered of scant effect, since her husband did not marry again. The household went on as if she still sat in her accustomed place, with not one deficiency or disaster that might have served in its simple sort as a memorial,—so little important are we in our several spheres, so promptly do the ranks of life close up as we drop dead from their alignment.
The panoply against adversity with which Narcissa had been accoutred by a too anxious mother, instead of being means of defense, had become opportunities of oppression. Her brother's affectionate solicitude and submissiveness were accepted as her bounden due, as the two grew older; her father naturally adapted himself to the predominant sentiment of the household; and few homes can show a tyrant more arrogant and absolute than the mountain girl whose mother had so predicted for her much hardship and harshness, and a troubled and subordinate existence.
It was with that instinct to guard her from all the ills of life, great and small, that Ben sought to prepare her for a possible disappointment now.
"Mought n't git the road through, nohow, when all's said," he suggested.
"What fur not?" she exclaimed, bringing her dark brows together above eyes that held a glitter of anger.
"Waal, some o' the owners won't sign the application, an' air goin' ter fight it in the Court."
She put her bonnet on, and looked from under its brim up at the amber sky. It was growing faintly green near the zenith, toward which the lofty topmost plumes of the dark green pines swayed. The great growths of the forest rose on every side. There was no view, no vista, save the infinitely repeated umbrageous tangle beneath the trees, where their boles stood more or less distinct or dusky till merged indefinitely into shadow and distance. Looking down into the river, one lost the sense of monotony. The ever-swirling lines of the current drew mystic scrolls on that wonderfully pellucid brown surface,—so pellucid that from the height above she could see a swiftly darting shadow which she knew was the reflection of a homeward-bound hawk in the skies higher yet. Leaves floated in a still, deep pool, were caught in a maddening eddy, and hurried frantically away, unwilling, frenzied, helpless, unknowing whither, never to return,—allegory of many a life outside those darkling solemn mountain woods, and of some, perhaps, in the midst of them. The reflection of the cliffs in the never still current, of the pines on their summits, of the changing sky growing deeper and deeper, till its amber tint, erstwhile so crystalline, became of a dull tawny opaqueness, she marked absently for a while as she cogitated on his answer.
"What makes 'em so contrairy, Ben?" she asked at last.
"Waal, old man Sneed 'lows thar'll be a power o' cattle-thievin', with the road so open an' convenient. An' Jeremiah Sayres don't want ter pay no road-taxes. An' Silas Boyd 'lows he don't want ter be obligated ter work on no sech rough road ez this hyar one air obleeged ter be; an' I reckon, fust an' last, it will take a power o' elbow grease."
He paused, and looked about him at the great shelving masses of rock and the steep slants, repeated through leagues and leagues of mountain wilderness. Then seating himself on one of the ledges of the cliff, his feet dangling unconcernedly over the abysses below, he continued: "An' Con Hite,—he's agin it, too."
She lifted her head, with a scornful rising flush.
"Con Hite dunno what he wants; he ain't got a ounce o' jedgmint."
"Waal, one thing he don't want is a road. He be 'feared it'll go too close ter the still, an' the raiders will nose him out somehows. Now he be all snug in the bresh, an' the revenuers none the wiser."
"An' Con none the wiser, nuther," she flouted. "The raiders hev smoked out 'sperienced old mountain foxes a heap slyer'n Con be. He ain't got the gift. He can't hide nuthin'. I kin find out everythin' he knows by jes' lookin' in his eye."
"That's just 'kase he's fool enough ter set a heap o' store by ye, Nar'sa. He ain't so easy trapped."
"Fool enough fur ennythin'," she retorted.
"An' then thar 's old Dent Kirby. He 'lows the road will be obligated ter pass by the witch-face arter it gits over yander nigh ter the valley, whar the ruver squeezes through the mounting agin. He be always talkin' 'bout signs an' spells an' sech, an' he 'lows the very look o' the witch-face kerries bad luck, an' it'll taint all ez goes for'ard an' back'ard a-nigh it."
"Ben," said the girl in a low voice, "do you-uns b'lieve ef thar war passin' continual on a sure enough county road that thar cur'ous white light would kem on the old witch's face in the night-time? Ain't that a sort'n spell fur the dark an' the lonesomeness ter tarrify a few quaking dwellers round about? Surely many folks comin' an' goin' wouldn't see sech. Ghostful things ain't common in a crowd." She moved a little nearer her brother, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Some folks can't see the witch-face at all, noways," he replied stolidly. "I hearn the coroner 'low he couldn't."
Narcissa spoke with sudden asperity: "I reckon he hev got sense enough ter view a light whenst it shines inter his eyes. He 'pears ter be feeble-minded ginerally, and mought n't be able ter pick out the favor o' the features on the hillside, but surely he'd blink ef a light war flickered inter his eyeballs."
The road was her precious scheme, and she steadfastly believed that with the order of the worshipful Quarterly County Court declaring it open, with a duly appointed overseer and a gang of assigned work-hands and the presidial fostering care of a road commissioner, the haggard old semblance must needs desist from supernatural emblazonment in the awe-stricken nights, and that logic and law would soon serve to exorcise its baleful influence.
Her mien grew graver as she reflected on the resume of objections to the project. Her white bonnet threw a certain white reflection on her flushed face. Her eyes were downcast as she looked at the river below, the long lashes seeming almost to touch her cheek. She scarcely moved them as she turned her gaze upon her brother, who was still seated on the verge of the cliff.
"Waal, sir, I wonder that the pore old road petition hed life enough in it ter crawl ter the court-house door. With all them agin it, thar ain't nobody ter be fur it, sca'cely."
"Oh, yes," he admitted. "Them air fur it ez b'lieves highways improves proputty, an' hev got land lyin' right alongside whar the road is axed ter be run; them ez ain't got proputty alongside ain't nigh so anxious. But that thar strange valley man ez they say hev got a lung complaint, he won't sign nuther. He owns the house he built up thar on the flat o' the mounting an' cornsider'ble land, though he don't keep no stock nor nuthin'. 'Lows the air be soft an' good for the lung complaint. He 'lows he hev been tryin' ter git shet o' the railroads an' dirt roads an' human folks, an' he s'posed he hed run ter the jumpin'-off place, the e-ends o' the yearth; but hyar kems the road o' civilization a-pursuin' him like the sarpient o' the Pit, with the knowledge o' good an' evil,—a grain o' wheat an' a bushel o' chaff,—an' he reckons he'll hev ter cut an' run again."
Narcissa's lips parted slightly. She listened in amazement to this strange account of an aversion to that gay world in processional, chiefly in white-covered wagons, which she longed to see come down the county road.
"He be a powerful queer man," said Ben slowly, "this hyar Alan Selwyn."
And she felt that this was true.
She sat down beside her brother on the rock, and together they looked down meditatively on the river. It was reddening now with the reflection of the reddening clouds. The water, nevertheless, asserted itself. Lengths of steely brilliancy showed now and again amidst the roseate suffusion, and anon spaces glimmered vacant of all but a dusky brown suggestion of depth and a liquid lustre.
"Nar'sa," he said at last in a low voice, "ye know they 'lowed that the traveler what war killed, some say by his runaway horse, war a-comin' ter see him,—this Alan Selwyn."
The white bonnet seemed to focus and retain the lingering light in the landscape. Without its aid he might hardly have made shift to see her face.
"They 'lowed they knowed so by the papers the traveler had on him, though this Selwyn 'lowed he couldn't identify the dead man," he continued after a pause.
She gazed wonderingly at him, then absently down at the sudden scintillating white glitter of the reflection of the evening star in the dusky red water. It burned with a yet purer, calmer radiance in the roseate skies. She felt the weight of the darkening gloom, gathering beneath the trees around her, as if it hung palpably on her shoulders.
"Waal," he resumed, "I b'lieve ef that thar traveler had been able ter speak ter ye when ye fund him, like ye said he tried ter do, I b'lieve he would hev tole ye suthin' 'bout that thar valley man. He's enough likelier ter hev bed suthin' ter do with the suddint takin' off o' the feller than Con Hite."
Her face was suddenly aghast. "Who says Con Hite— Why?" She paused, her voice failing.
"Waal, ye know Con be a-moonshinin' again, an' some 'lows ez this hyar traveler warn't a traveler at all, but a revenuer,—strayed off somehows from the rest o' 'em."
"Oh, how I wish he'd stop moonshinin' an' sech!"
She moved so suddenly on the edge of the precipice, as she lifted her hands and drew down her sunbonnet over her face, that Ben's glance was full of terror.
"Move back a mite, Nar'sa; ye'll go over the bluff, fust thing ye know! Yes, Con's mighty wrong ter be moonshinin'. The law is the right thing. It purtects us. It holps us all. We-uns owe it obejiunce, like I hearn a man say in a speech down yander in"—
"The law!" cried Narcissa, with scorn. "Con Hite kin tromp on the revenue law from hyar ter the witch-face, fur all I keer. Purtects! I pity a man ez waits fur the law ter purtect him; it's a heap apter ter grind him ter pomace. I mind moonshinin' 'kase it's dangersome fur the moonshiners. The law—I don't count the fibble old law!"
She sat brooding for a time, her face downcast. Then she spoke in a low voice:—
"Whyn't ye find out, Ben? What ails ye ter be so good-fur-nuthin'? Thar be other folks beside Con ez air law-breakers." She edged nearer to him, laying her hand on his arm. "Ye've got to find out, Ben," she said insistently. "Keep an eye on that thar valley man, an' find out all 'bout'n him. Else the killin' 'll be laid ter Con, who never done nuthin' hurtful ter nobody in all his life."
"The idee jes' streck me ter-day whenst I viewed him along about that road. Whenst that thar dead man tuk yer han' an' tried ter find a word of speech— Why, hullo, Narcissa!"
With a short cry she had struggled to her feet. The gathering gloom, the recollection of the tragedy, the association of ideas, bore too heavily on her nerves. She struck petulantly at his astounded face.
"Why air ye always remindin' me?" she exclaimed, with a sharp upbraiding note. And then she began to cry out that she could see again the coroner's jury pressing close about the corpse, with a keen ravenous interest like the vile mountain vultures, and then colloguing together aside, and nodding their heads and saying they had found their verdict, when they had found nothing, not even the poor dead man; and she saw them here, and she saw them there, and everywhere in the darkling mountain woods, and she would see them everywhere as long as she should live, and she wished with all her heart that they were every one at the bottom of the black mountain river.
And the slow Ben wondered, as he sought to soothe her and take her home, that a woman should be so sensitive to the mention of one dead man, and yet given to such wishes of the wholesale destruction of the harmless coroner's jury, because their appearance struck her amiss, and they collogued together, and nodded their heads unacceptably, and found their verdict.
Except in so far as his sedulously cultivated fraternal sentiments were concerned, the peculiar domestic training to which Ben Hanway had been subjected had had slight effect in softening a somewhat hard and stern character. To continue the canine simile by which his mother had described him, his gentleness and watchful care toward his sister were not more reassuring to the public at large than is the tender loyalty of a guard-dog toward the infant of a house which claims his fealty; that the dog does not bite the baby is no fair augury that he will not bite the peddler or the prowler. The fact that the traveler had borne letters addressed to Alan Selwyn, and no other papers, and yet Alan Selwyn could not or would not identify him, had already furnished Hanway with an ever-recurrent subject of cogitation. It had been the presumption of the coroner's jury, since confirmed by inquiry of the postmaster, that, going for some purpose to Alan Selwyn's lodge in the wilderness, the unknown traveler had, in passing, called for his prospective host's mail at the Cross-Roads, some fifteen miles distant and the nearest post-office, such being the courtesy of the region. A visitor often insured a welcome by thus voluntarily expediting the delivery of the mail some days, or perhaps some weeks, before its recipient could have hoped to receive it otherwise. Hanway had long been cognizant of this habit of the Cross-Roads postmaster to accede to such requests on the part of reputable people, but he was reminded forcibly of it the next morning. A neighbor, homeward bound from a visit to the valley, had paused at Hanway's house to leave a letter, with which he had charged himself, addressed to Selwyn.
"I 'lowed ye mought be ridin' over thar some day, bein' ez ye air toler'ble nigh neighbors," he said.
And Hanway the more willingly undertook the delivery of the missive since it afforded him a pretext for the reconnoissance which he had already contemplated.
Rain-clouds had succeeded those fine aerial flauntings of the sunset splendors, and he set out in the pervasive drizzle of a gray day. Torn and ragged with the rain and the gusts, the white mist seemed to come to meet him along the vistas of the dreary dripping woods. The tall trees that shut off the sky loomed loftily through it. Sometimes, as the wind quickened, it deployed in great luminously white columns, following the invisible curves of the atmospheric current; and anon, in flaky detached fragments, it fled dispersed down the avenues like the scattered stragglers of a routed army. The wind was having the best of the contest; and though it still rained when he reached the vicinity of Alan Selwyn's lonely dwelling, the mist was gone, the clouds were all resolved into the steady fall of the torrents, and the little house on the slope of the mountain and all its surroundings were visible.
A log cabin it was, containing two rooms and the unaccustomed luxury of glass windows; so new that the hewn cedar logs had not yet weathered to the habitual dull gray tone, but glowed jauntily red as the timbers alternated with the white and yellow daubing. A stanch stone chimney seemed an unnecessary note of ostentation, since the more usual structure of clay and sticks might serve as well. It reminded Ben Hanway that its occupant was not native to the place, and whetted anew his curiosity as he looked about, the reins on his horse's neck in his slow approach. It was a sheltered spot; the great mountain's curving summit rose high toward the north and west above the depression where the cabin stood; across the narrow valley a still more elevated range intercepted the east wind. Only to the south was the limited plateau open, sloping down to great cliffs, giving upon a vast expanse of mountain and valley and plain and far reaches of undulating country, promising in fair weather high, pure, soft air, a tempered gentle breeze, and the best that the sun can do.
He noted the advantages of the situation in reference to the "lung complaint," feeling a loser in some sort; for he had begun to suspect that the consumptive tendencies of the stranger were a vain pretense, assumed merely to delude the unwary. He could not have doubted long, for when he dismounted and hitched his horse to the rail fence he heard the door of the house open, and as its owner, standing on the threshold in the wind and the gusty rain, called out to him a welcoming "Hello," the word was followed by a series of hacking coughs which told their story as definitely as a medical certificate.