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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGordon Keith - Chapter 6. Alice Yorke
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Gordon Keith - Chapter 6. Alice Yorke Post by :Fexana Category :Long Stories Author :Thomas Nelson Page Date :May 2012 Read :956

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Gordon Keith - Chapter 6. Alice Yorke

CHAPTER VI. ALICE YORKE

It is said that in Brazil a small stream which rises under a bank in a gentleman's garden, after flowing a little distance, encounters a rock and divides into two branches, one of which flows northward and empties into the Amazon, whilst the other, turning to the southward, pours its waters into the Rio del Plata. A very small obstruction caused the divergence and determined the course of those two streams. So it is in life.

One afternoon in the early Spring, Gordon Keith was walking home from school, his books under his arm, when, so to speak, he came on the stone that turned him from his smooth channel and shaped his course in life.

He was going to break a colt for Squire Rawson that afternoon, so he was hurrying; but ever as he strode along down the winding road, the witchery of the tender green leaves and the odors of Spring filled eyes and nostrils, and called to his spirit with that subtle voice which has stirred Youth since Youth's own Spring awoke amid the leafy trees. In its call were freedom, and the charm of wide spaces, and the unspoken challenge of Youth to the world, and haunting vague memories, and whisperings of unuttered love, and all that makes Youth Youth.

Presently Gordon became aware that a little ahead of him, under the arching boughs, were two children who were hunting for something in the road, and one of them was crying. At the same moment there turned the curve beyond them, coming toward him, a girl on horseback. He watched her with growing interest as she galloped toward him, for he saw that she was young and a stranger. Probably she was from "the Springs," as she was riding one of Gates's horses and was riding him hard.

The rider drew in her horse and stopped as she came up to the children. Keith heard her ask what was the matter with the little one, and the older child's reply that she was crying because she had lost her money. "She was goin' to buy candy with it at the store, but dropped it."

The girl sprang from her horse.

"Oh, you poor little thing! Come here, you dear little kitten. I'll give you some money. Won't you hold my horse? He won't hurt you." This to the elder child.

She threw herself on her knees in the road, as regardless of the dust as were the children, and drawing the sobbing child close to her, took her handkerchief from her pocket and gently wiped its little, dirty, smeared face, and began comforting it in soothing tones. Keith had come up and stood watching her with quickening breath. All he could see under her hat was an oval chin and the dainty curve of a pink cheek where it faded into snow, and at the back of a small head a knot of brown hair resting on the nape of a shapely neck. For the rest, she had a trim figure and wore new gloves which fitted perfectly. Keith mentally decided that she must be about sixteen or seventeen years old, and, from the glimpse he had caught of her, must be pretty. He became conscious suddenly that he had on his worst suit of clothes.

"Good evening," he said, raising his hand to his hat.

The girl glanced up just as the hat was lifted.

"How do you do?"

Their eyes met, and the color surged into Keith's face, and the hat came off with quite a flourish.

Why, she was beautiful! Her eyes were as blue as wet violets.

"I will help you hunt for it," he said half guilefully, half kindly. "Where did she drop it?" He did not take his eyes from the picture of the slim figure on her knees.

"She has lost her money, poor little dear! She was on her way to the store to buy candy, and lost all her money."

At this fresh recital of her loss, the little, smeared face began to pucker again. But the girl cleared it with a kiss.

"There, don't cry. I will give you some. How much was it? A nickel! A whole nickel!" This with the sweetest smile. "Well, you shall have a quarter, and that's four nickels--I mean five."

"She is not strong on arithmetic," said Keith to himself. "She is like Phrony in that."

She began to feel about her skirt, and her face changed.

"Oh, I haven't a cent. I have left my purse at the hotel." This was to Keith.

"Let me give it to her." And he also began to feel in his pocket, but as he did so his countenance fell. He, too, had not a cent.

"I have left my purse at home, too," he said. "We shall have to do like the woman in the Bible, and sweep diligently till we find the money she lost."

"We are a pauper lot," said Alice Yorke, with a little laugh. Then, as she glanced into the child's big eyes that were beginning to be troubled again, she paused. The next second she drew a small bracelet from her wrist, and began to pull at a small gold charm. "Here, you shall have this; this is gold."

"Oh, don't do that," said Keith. "She wouldn't appreciate it, and it is a pity to spoil your bracelet."

She glanced up at him with a little flash in her blue eyes, as a vigorous twist broke the little gold piece from its chain.

"She shall have it. There, see how she is smiling. I have enjoyed it, and I am glad to have you have it. Now, you can get your candy. Now, kiss me."

Somehow, the phrase and the tone brought back to Keith a hill-top overlooking an English village, and a blue lake below, set like a mirror among the green hills. A little girl in white, with brown eyes, was handing a doll to another child even more grimy than this one. The reminiscence came to him like a picture thrown by a magic lantern.

The child, without taking her eyes from the tiny bit of metal, put up her little mouth, and the girl kissed her, only to have the kiss wiped off with the chubby, dirty little hand.

The next moment the two little ones started down the road, their heads close together over the bit of yellow gold. Then it was that Alice Yorke for the first time took a real look at Keith,--a look provoked by the casual glance she had had of him but a moment before,--and as she did so the color stole up into her cheeks, as she thought of the way in which she had just addressed him. But for his plain clothes he looked quite a gentleman. He had a really good figure; straight, broad shoulders, and fine eyes.

"Can you tell me what time it is?" she asked, falteringly. "I left my watch at the hotel."

"I haven't a watch; but I think it must be about four o'clock--it was half-past three when I left school, by the school clock; I am not sure it was just right."

"Thank you." She looked at her horse. "I must get back to the hotel. Can you--?"

Keith forestalled her.

"May I help you up?'

"Thanks. Do you know how to mount me?"

"I think so," he said airily, and stepped up close to her, to lift her by the elbows to her saddle. She put out a foot clad in a very pretty, neat shoe. She evidently expected Keith to let her step into his hand. He knew of this mode of helping a lady up, but he had never tried it. And, though he stooped and held his hand as if quite accustomed to it, he was awkward about it, and did not lift her; so she did not get up.

"I don't think you can do it that way," said the girl.

"I don't think so either," said Keith. "I must learn it. But I know how to do it this way." He caught her by both elbows. "Now jump!"

Taken by surprise she gave a little spring, and he lifted her like a feather, and seated her in her saddle.

As she rode away, he stood aside and lifted his hat with an air that surprised her. Also, as she rode away, he remarked that she sat her horse very well and had a very straight, slim figure; but the picture of her kneeling in the dust, with her arm around the little sobbing child, was what he dwelt on.

Just as she disappeared, a redbird in its gorgeous uniform flitted dipping across the road, and, taking his place in a bush, began to sing imperiously for his mate.

"Ah, you lucky rascal," thought Keith, "you don't get caught by a pretty girl, in a ragged coat. You have your best clothes on every day."

Next second, as the bird's rich notes rang out, a deeper feeling came to him, and a wave of dissatisfaction with his life swept over him. He suddenly seemed lonelier than he had been. Then the picture of the girl on her knees came back to him, and his heart softened toward her. He determined to see her again. Perhaps, Dr. Balsam knew her?

As the young girl rode back to the hotel she had her reward in a pleasant sensation. She had done a good deed in helping to console a little child, and no kindness ever goes without this reward. Besides, she had met a young, strange man, a country boy, it was true, and very plainly dressed, but with the manner and tone of a gentleman, quite good-looking, and very strong. Strength, mere physical strength, appeals to all girls at certain ages, and Miss Alice Yorke's thoughts quite softened toward the stranger. Why, he as good as picked her up! He must be as strong as Norman Wentworth, who stroked his crew. She recalled with approval his good shoulders.

She would ask the old Doctor who he was. He was a pleasant old man, and though her mother and Mrs. Nailor, another New York lady, did not like the idea of his being the only doctor at the Springs, he had been very nice to her. He had seen her sitting on the ground the day before and had given her his buggy-robe to sit on, saying, with a smile, "You must not sit on the wet ground, or you may fall into my hands."

"I might do worse," she had said. And he had looked at her with his deep eyes twinkling.

"Ah, you young minx! When do you begin flattering? And at what age do you let men off?"

When Miss Alice Yorke arrived at the hotel she found her mother and Mrs. Nailor engaged in an animated conversation on the porch.

The girl told of the little child she had found crying in the road, and gave a humorous account of the young countryman trying to put her on her horse.

"He was very good-looking, too," she declared gayly. "I think he must be studying for the ministry, like Mr. Rimmon, for he quoted the Bible."

Both Mrs. Yorke and Mrs. Nailor thought it rather improper for her to be riding alone on the public roads.

The next day Keith put on his best suit of clothes when he went to school, and that afternoon he walked home around the Ridge, as he had done the day before, thinking that possibly he might meet the girl again, but he was disappointed. The following afternoon he determined to go over to the Springs and see if she was still there and find out who she was. Accordingly, he left the main road, which ran around the base of the Ridge, and took a foot-path which led winding up through the woods over the Ridge. It was a path that Gordon often chose when he wanted to be alone. The way was steep and rocky, and was so little used that often he never met any one from the time he plunged into the woods until he emerged from them on the other side of the Ridge. In some places the pines were so thick that it was always twilight among them; in others they rose high and stately in the full majesty of primeval growth, keeping at a distance from each other, as though, like another growth, the higher they got the more distant they wished to hold all others. Trees have so much in common with men, it is no wonder that the ancients, who lived closer to both than we do nowadays, fabled that minds of men sometimes inhabited their trunks.

Gordon Keith was in a particularly gloomy frame of mind on this day. He had been trying to inspire in his pupils some conception of the poetry contained in history. He told them the story of Hannibal--his aim, his struggles, his conquest. As he told it the written record took life, and he marched and fought and lived with the great Carthaginian captain--lived for conquest.

"Beyond the Alps lies Italy." He had read the tale with lips that quivered with feeling, but as he looked up at his little audience, he met only listless eyes and dull faces. A big boy was preparing a pin to evoke from a smaller neighbor the attention he himself was withholding. The neighbor was Dave Dennison. Dave was of late actually trying to learn something. Dave was the only boy who was listening. A little girl with a lisp was trying in vain to divide her attention between the story and an imprisoned fly the boy next her was torturing, whilst Phrony was reading a novel on the sly. The others were all engaged in any other occupation than thinking of Hannibal or listening to the reader.

Gordon had shut the book in a fit of disappointment and disgust and dismissed the school, and now he was trying with very poor success to justify himself for his outbreak of impatience. His failure spoiled the pleasure he had anticipated in going to the Springs to find out who the Madonna of the Dust was.

At a spot high up on the rocky backbone, one could see for a long way between the great brownish-gray trunks, and Gordon turned out of the dim path to walk on the thick brown carpet of pine-needles. It was a favorite spot with Gordon, and here he read Keats and Poe and other poets of melancholy, so dear to a young man's heart.

Beyond the pines at their eastern edge, a great crag jutted forth in a sort of shoulder, a vast flying-buttress that supported the pine-clad Ridge above--a mighty stone Atlas carrying the hills on its shoulder. From this rock one looked out eastward over the rolling country below to where, far beyond sloping hills covered with forest, it merged into a soft blue that faded away into the sky itself. In that misty space lay everything that Gordon Keith had known and loved in the past. Off there to the eastward was his old home, with its wide fields, its deep memories. There his forefathers had lived for generations and had been the leaders, making their name always the same with that of gentleman.

Farther away, beyond that dim line lay the great world, the world of which he had had as a boy a single glimpse and which he would yet conquer.

Keith had climbed to the crest of the Ridge and was making his way through the great pines to the point where the crag jutted out sheer and massive, overlooking the reaches of rolling country below, when he lifted his eyes, and just above him, half seated, half reclining against a ledge of rock, was the very girl he had seen two days before. Her eyes were closed, and her face was so white that the thought sprang into Keith's mind that she was dead, and his heart leaped into his throat. At the distance of a few yards he stopped and scanned her closely. She had on a riding-habit; her hat had fallen on her neck; her dark hair, loosened, lay about her throat, increasing the deep pallor of her face. Keith's pity changed into sorrow. Suddenly, as he leaned forward, his heart filled with a vague grief, she opened her eyes--as blue as he remembered them, but now misty and dull. She did not stir or speak, but gazed at him fixedly for a little space, and then the eyes closed again wearily, her head dropped over to the side, and she began to sink down.

Gordon sprang forward to keep her from rolling down the bank. As he gently caught and eased her down on the soft carpeting of pine-needles, he observed how delicate her features were; the blue veins showed clearly on her temples and the side of her throat, and her face had that refinement that unconsciousness often gives.

Gordon knew that the best thing to do was to lower her head and unfasten her collar. As he loosened the collar, the whiteness of her throat struck him almost dazzlingly. Instinctively he took the little crumpled handkerchief that lay on the pine carpet beside her, and spread it over her throat reverently. He lifted her limp hand gently and felt her little wrist for her pulse.

Just then her eyelids quivered; her lips moved slightly, stopped, moved again with a faint sigh; and then her eyelids opened slowly, and again those blue eyes gazed up at him with a vague inquiry.

The next second she appeared to recover consciousness. She drew a long, deep breath, as though she were returning from some unknown deep, and a faint little color flickered in her cheek.

"Oh, it's you?" she said, recognizing him. "How do you do? I think I must have hurt myself when I fell. I tried to ride my horse down the bank, and he slipped and fell with me, and I do not remember much after that. He must have run away. I tried to walk, but--but I am better now. Could you catch my horse for me?"

Keith rose and, followed the horse's track for some distance along the little path. When he returned, the girl was still seated against the rock.

"Did you see him?" she asked languidly, sitting up.

"I am afraid that he has gone home. He was galloping. I could tell from his tracks."

"I think I can walk. I must."

She tried to rise, but, with the pain caused by the effort, the blood sprang to her cheek for a second and then fled back to her heart, and she sank back, her teeth catching her lip sharply to keep down an expression of anguish.

"I must get back. If my horse should reach, the hotel without me, my mother will be dreadfully alarmed. I promised her to be back by--"

Gordon did not hear what the hour was, for she turned away her face and began to cry quietly. She tried to brush the tears away with her fingers; but one or two slipped past and dropped on her dress. With face still averted, she began to feel about her dress for her handkerchief; but being unable to find it, she gave it up.

There was something about her crying so quietly that touched the young man very curiously. She seemed suddenly much younger, quite like a little girl, and he felt like kissing her to comfort her. He did the next thing.

"Don't cry," he said gently. "Here, take mine." He pressed his handkerchief on her. He blessed Heaven that it was uncrumpled.

Now there is something about one's lending another a handkerchief that goes far toward breaking down the barriers of conventionality and bridges years. Keith in a moment had come to feel a friendliness for the girl that he might not have felt in years, and he began to soothe her.

"I don't know what is the matter--with me," she said, as she dried her eyes. "I am not--usually so--weak and foolish. I was only afraid my mother would think something had happened to me--and she has not been very well." She made a brave effort to command herself, and sat up very straight. "There. Thank you very much." She handed him his handkerchief almost grimly. "Now I am all right. But I am afraid I cannot walk. I tried, but--. You will have to go and get me a carriage, if you please."

Keith rose and began to gather up his books and stuff them in his pockets.

"No carriage can get up here; the pines are too thick below, and there is no road; but I will carry you down to where a vehicle can come, and then get you one."

She took a glance at his spare figure. "You cannot carry me, you are not strong enough I want you to get me a carriage or a wagon, please. You can go to the hotel. We are stopping at the Springs."

By this time Gordon had forced the books into his pocket, and he squared himself before her.

"Now," he said, without heeding her protest; and leaning down, he slipped his arms under her and lifted her as tenderly and as easily as if she had been a little girl.

As he bore her along, the pain subsided, and she found opportunity to take a good look at his face. His profile was clean-cut; the mouth was pleasant and curved slightly upward, but, under the weight he was carrying, was so close shut as to bring out the chin boldly. The cheekbones were rather high; the gray eyes were wide open and full of light. And as he advanced, walking with easy strides where the path was smooth, picking his way carefully where it was rough, the color rose under the deep tan of his cheeks.

She was the first to break the silence. She had been watching the rising color in his face, the dilation of his nostrils, and feeling the quickening rise and fall of his chest.

"Put me down now and rest; you are tired."

"I am not tired." He trudged on. He would show her that if he had not been able to mount her on her horse, at least it was not from lack of strength.

"Please put me down; it pains me," she said guilefully. He stopped instantly, and selecting a clear place, seated her softly.

"I beg your pardon. I was a brute, thinking only of myself."

He seated himself near her, and stole a glance at her face. Their eyes met, and he looked away. He thought her quite beautiful.

To break the silence, she asked, a little tone of politeness coming into her voice: "May I inquire what your name is? I am Miss Yorke--Miss Alice Yorke," she added, intending to make him feel at ease.

"Gordon Keith is my name. Where are you from?" His manner was again perfectly easy.

"From New York."

"I thought you were."

She fancied that a little change came over his face and into his manner, and she resented it. She looked down the hill. Without a word he rose and started to lift her again. She made a gesture of dissent. But before she could object further, he had lifted her again, and, with steady eyes bent on the stony path, was picking his way down the steep hill.

"I am dreadfully sorry," he said kindly, as she gave a start over a little twinge. "It is the only way to get down. No vehicle could get up here at present, unless it were some kind of a flying chariot like Elijah's. It is only a little farther now."

What a pleasant voice he had! Every atom of pride and protection in his soul was enlisted.

When they reached the road, the young lady wanted Gordon to go off and procure a vehicle at the hotel. But he said he could not leave her alone by the roadside; he would carry her on to a house only a little way around the bend.

"Why, I can carry a sack of salt," he said, with boyish pride, standing before her very straight and looking down on her with frank eyes.

Her eyes flashed in dudgeon over the comparison.

"A girl is very different from a sack of salt."

"Not always--Lot's wife, for instance. If you keep on looking back, you don't know what may happen to you. Come on."

Just then a vehicle rapidly driven was heard in the distance, and the next moment it appeared in sight.

"There comes mamma now," said the girl, waving to the lady in it.

Mrs. Yorke sprang from the carriage as soon as it drew up. She was a handsome woman of middle age and was richly dressed. She was now in a panic of motherly solicitude.

"Oh, Alice, how you have frightened me!" she exclaimed. "You were due at the hotel two hours ago, and when your horse came without you! You will kill me!" She clapped her hands to her heart and panted. "You know my heart is weak!"

Alice protested her sorrow, and Keith put in a word for her, declaring that she had been dreadfully troubled lest the horse should frighten her.

"And well she might be," exclaimed Mrs. Yorke, giving him a bare glance and then turning back to her daughter. "Mrs. Nailor was the first who heard your horse had come home. She ran and told me. And, oh, I was so frightened! She was sure you were killed."

"You might be sure she would be the first to hear and tell you," said the girl. "Why, mamma, one always sprains one's knee when one's horse falls. That is part of the programme. This--gentleman happened to come along, and helped me down to the road, and we were just discussing whether I should go on farther when you came up. Mother, this is Mr. Keith."

Keith bowed. He was for some reason pleased that she did not say anything of the way in which he had brought her down the Ridge.

Mrs. Yorke turned and thanked him with graciousness, possibly with a little condescension. He was conscious that she gave him a sweeping glance, and was sorry his shoes were so old. But Mrs. Yorke took no further notice of him.

"Oh, what will your father say! You know he wanted us to go to California; but you would come South. After Mr. Wickersham told you of his place, nothing else would satisfy you."

"Oh, papa! You know I can settle him," said the girl.

Mrs. Yorke began to lament the wretchedness of a region where there was no doctor of reputation.

"There is a very fine surgeon in the village. Dr. Balsam is one of the best surgeons anywhere," said Keith.

"Oh, I know that old man. No doubt, he is good enough for little common ailments," said Mrs. Yorke, "but in a case like this! What does he know about surgery?" She turned back to her daughter. "I shall telegraph your father to send Dr. Pilbury down at once."

Keith flushed at her manner.

"A good many people have to trust their lives to him," he said coldly. "And he has had about as much surgical practice as most men. He was in the army."

The girl began again to belittle her injury.

It was nothing, absolutely nothing, she declared.

"And besides," she said, "I know the Doctor. I met him the other day. He is a dear old man." She ended by addressing Keith.

"One of the best," said Keith, warmly.

"Well, we must get you into the vehicle and take you home immediately," said her mother. "Can you help put my daughter into the carriage?" Mrs. Yorke looked at the driver, a stolid colored man, who was surly over having had to drive his horses so hard.

Before the man could answer, Gordon stepped forward, and, stooping, lifted the girl, and quietly put her up into the vehicle. She simply smiled and said, "Thank you," quite as if she were accustomed to being lifted into carriages by strange young men whom she had just met on the roadside.

Mrs. Yorke's eyes opened wide.

"How strong you must be!" she exclaimed, with a woman's admiration for physical strength.

Keith bowed, and, with a flush mounting to his cheeks, backed a little away.

"Oh, he has often lifted sacks of salt," said the girl, half turning her eyes on Keith with a gleam of satisfaction in them.

Mrs. Yorke looked at her in astonishment.

"Why, Alice!" she exclaimed reprovingly under her breath.

"He told me so himself," asserted the girl, defiantly.

"I may have to do so again," said Keith, dryly.

Mrs. Yorke's hand went toward the region of her pocket, but uncertainly; for she was not quite sure what he was. His face and air belied his shabby dress. A closer look than she had given him caused her to stop with a start.

"Mr.--ah--?" After trying to recall the name, she gave it up. "I am very much obliged to you for your kindness to my daughter," she began. "I do not know how I can compensate you; but if you will come to the hotel sometime to-morrow--any time--perhaps, there is something--? Can you come to the hotel to-morrow?" Her tone was condescending.

"Thank you," said Keith, quietly. "I am afraid I cannot go to the village to-morrow. I have already been more than compensated in being able to render a service to a lady. I have a school, and I make it a rule never to go anywhere except Friday evening or Saturday." He lifted his hat and backed away.

As they drove away the girl said, "Thank you" and "Good-by," very sweetly.

"Who is he, Alice? What is he?" asked her mother.

"I don't know. Mr. Keith. He is a gentleman."

As Gordon stood by the roadside and saw the carriage disappear in a haze of dust, he was oppressed with a curious sense of loneliness. The isolation of his position seemed to strike him all on a sudden. That stout, full-voiced woman, with her rich clothes, had interposed between him and the rest of his kind. She had treated him condescendingly. He would show her some day who he was. But her daughter! He went off into a revery.

He turned, and made his way slowly and musingly in the direction of his home.

A new force had suddenly come into his life, a new land had opened before him. One young girl had effected it. His school suddenly became a prison. His field was the world.

As he passed along, scarcely conscious of where he was, he met the very man of all others he would rather have met--Dr. Balsam. He instantly informed the Doctor of the accident, and suggested that he had better hurry on to the Springs.

"A pretty girl, with blue eyes and brown hair?" inquired the Doctor.

"Yes." The color stole into Gordon's cheeks.

"With a silly woman for a mother, who is always talking about her heart and pats you on the back?"

"I don't know. Yes, I think so."

"I know her. Is the limb broken?" he asked with interest.

"No, I do not think it is; but badly sprained. She fainted from the pain, I think."

"You say it occurred up on the Ridge?"

"Yes, near the big pines--at the summit."

"Why, how did she get down? There is no road." He was gazing up at the pine-clad spur above them.

"I helped her down." A little color flushed into his face.

"Ah! You supported her? She can walk on it?"

"Ur--no. I brought her down. I had to bring her. She could not walk--not a step."

"Oh! ah! I see. I'll hurry on and see how she is."

As he rode off he gave a grunt.

"Humph!" It might have meant any one of several things. Perhaps, what it did mean was that "Youth is the same the world over, and here is a chance for this boy to make a fool of himself and he will probably do it, as I did." As the Doctor jogged on over the rocky road, his brow was knit in deep reflection; but his thoughts were far away among other pines on the Piscataqua. That boy's face had turned the dial back nearly forty years.

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