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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter VI - The Meeting in the Turnpike
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The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter VI - The Meeting in the Turnpike Post by :alltraff Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :3261

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter VI - The Meeting in the Turnpike (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter VI - The Meeting in the Turnpike

On a late September afternoon Dan rode leisurely homeward along the
turnpike. He had reached New York some days before, but instead of hurrying
on with Champe, he had sent a careless apology to his expectant
grandparents while he waited over to look up a missing trunk.

"Oh, what difference does a day make?" he had urged in reply to Champe's
remonstrances, "and after going all the way to Paris, I can't afford to
lose my clothes, you know. I'm not a Leander, my boy, and there's no Hero
awaiting me. You can't expect a fellow to sacrifice the proprieties for
his grandmother."

"Well, I'm going, that's all," rejoined Champe, and Dan heartily responded,
"God be with you," as he shook his hand.

Now, as he rode slowly up the turnpike on a hired horse, he was beginning
to regret, with an impatient self-reproach, the three tiresome days he had
stolen from his grandfather's delight. It was characteristic of him at the
age of twenty-one that he began to regret what appeared to be a pleasure
only after it had proved to be a disappointment. Had the New York days been
gay instead of dull, it is probable that he would have ridden home with an
easy conscience and a lordly belief that there was something generous in
the spirit of his coming back at all.

A damp wind was blowing straight along the turnpike, and the autumn fields,
brilliant with golden-rod and sumach, stretched under a sky which had
clouded over so suddenly that the last rays of sun were still shining upon
the mountains.

He had left Uplands a mile behind, throwing, as he passed, a wistful glance
between the silver poplars. A pink dress had fluttered for an instant
beyond the Doric columns, and he had wondered idly if it meant Virginia,
and if she were still the pretty little simpleton of six months ago. At the
thought of her he threw back his head and whistled gayly into the
threatening sky, so gayly that a bluebird flying across the road hovered
round him in the air. The joy of living possessed him at the moment, a mere
physical delight in the circulation of his blood, in the healthy beating of
his pulses. Old things which he had half forgotten appealed to him suddenly
with all the force of fresh impressions. The beauty of the September
fields, the long curve in the white road where the tuft of cedars grew, the
falling valley which went down between the hills, stood out for him as if
bathed in a new and tender light. The youth in him was looking through his
eyes.

And the thought of Virginia went merrily with his mood. What a pretty
little simpleton she was, by George, and what a dull world this would be
were it not for the pretty simpletons in pink dresses! Why, in that case
one might as well sit in a library and read Horace and wear red flannel.
One might as well--a drop of rain fell in his face and he lowered his head.
When he did so he saw that Betty was coming along the turnpike, and that
she wore a dress of blue dimity.

In a flash of light his first wonder was that he should ever have preferred
pink to blue; his second that a girl in a dimity gown and a white chip
bonnet should be fleeing from a storm along the turnpike. As he jumped from
his horse he faced her a little anxiously.

"There's a hard shower coming, and you'll be wet," he said.

"And my bonnet!" cried Betty, breathlessly. She untied the blue strings and
swung them over her arm. There was a flush in her cheeks, and as he drew
nearer she fell back quickly.

"You--you came so suddenly," she stammered.

He laughed aloud. "Doesn't the Prince always come suddenly?" he asked. "You
are like the wandering princess in the fairy tale--all in blue upon a
lonely road; but this isn't just the place for loitering, you know. Come up
behind me and I'll carry you to shelter in Aunt Ailsey's cabin; it isn't
the first time I've run away, with you, remember." He lifted her upon the
horse, and started at a gallop up the turnpike. "I'm afraid the steed
doesn't take the romantic view," he went on lightly. "There, get up,
Barebones, the lady doesn't want to wet her bonnet. Lean against me, Betty,
and I'll try to shelter you."

But the rain was in their faces, and Betty shut her eyes to keep out the
hard bright drops. As she clung with both hands to his arm, her wet cheek
was hidden against his coat, and the blue ribbons on her breast were blown
round them in the wind. It was as if one of her dreams had awakened from
sleep and come boldly out into the daylight; and because it was like a
dream she trembled and was half ashamed of its reality.

"Here we are!" he exclaimed, in a moment, as he turned the horse round the
blasted tree into the little path amid the vegetables. "If you are soaked
through, we might as well go on; but if you're half dry, build a fire and
get warm." He put her down upon the square stone before the doorway, and
slipping the reins over the branch of a young willow tree, followed her
into the cabin. "Why, you're hardly damp," he said, with his hand on her
arm. "I got the worst of it."

He crossed over to the great open fireplace, and kneeling upon the hearth
raked a hollow in the old ashes; then he kindled a blaze from a pile of
lightwood knots, and stood up brushing his hands together. "Sit down and
get warm," he said hospitably. "If I may take upon myself to do the duties
of free Levi's castle, I should even invite you to make yourself at home."
With a laugh he glanced about the bare little room,--at the uncovered
rafters, the rough log walls, and the empty cupboard with its swinging
doors. In one corner there was a pallet hidden by a ragged patchwork quilt,
and facing it a small pine table upon which stood an ash-cake ready for the
embers.

The laughter was still in his eyes when he looked at Betty. "Now where's
the sense of going walking in the rain?" he demanded.

"I didn't," replied Betty, quickly. "It was clear when I started, and the
clouds came up before I knew it. I had been across the fields to the woods,
and I was coming home along the turnpike." She loosened her hair, and
kneeling upon the smooth stones, dried it before the flames. As she shook
the curling ends a sparkling shower of rain drops was scattered over Dan.

"Well, I don't see much sense in that," he returned slowly, with his gaze
upon her.

She laughed and held out her moist hands to the fire. "Well, there was more
than you see," she responded pleasantly, and added, while she smiled at him
with narrowed eyes, "dear me, you've grown so much older."

"And you've grown so much prettier," he retorted boldly.

A flush crossed her face, and her look grew a little wistful. "The rain has
bewitched you," she said.

"You may call me a fool if you like," he pursued, as if she had not spoken,
"but I did not know until to-day that you had the most beautiful hair in
the world. Why, it is always sunshine about you." He put out his hand to
touch a loose curl that hung upon her shoulder, then drew it quickly back.
"I don't suppose I might," he asked humbly.

Betty gathered up her hair with shaking hands, which gleamed white in the
firelight, and carelessly twisted it about her head.

"It is not nearly so pretty as Virginia's," she said in a low voice.

"Virginia's? Oh, nonsense!" he exclaimed, and walked rapidly up and down
the room.

Beyond the open door the rain fell heavily; he heard it beating softly on
the roof and dripping down upon the smooth square stone before the
threshold. A red maple leaf was washed in from the path and lay a wet bit
of colour upon the floor. "I wonder where old man Levi is?" he said
suddenly.

"In the rain, I'm afraid," Betty answered, "and he has rheumatism, too; he
was laid up for three months last winter."

She spoke quietly, but she was conscious of a quiver from head to foot, as
if a strong wind had swept over her. Through the doorway she saw the young
willow tree trembling in the storm and felt curiously akin to it.

Dan came slowly back to the hearth, and leaning against the crumbling
mortar of the chimney, looked thoughtfully down upon her. "Do you know what
I thought of when I saw you with your hair down, Betty?"

She shook her head, smiling.

"I don't suppose I'd thought of it for years," he went on quickly; "but
when you took your hair down, and looked up at me so small and white, it
all came back to me as if it were yesterday. I remembered the night I first
came along this road--God-forsaken little chap that I was--and saw you
standing out there in your nightgown--with your little cold bare feet. The
moonlight was full upon you, and I thought you were a ghost. At first I
wanted to run away; but you spoke, and I stood still and listened. I
remember what it was, Betty.--'Mr. Devil, I'm going in,' you said. Did you
take me for the devil, I wonder?"

She smiled up at him, and he saw her kind eyes fill with tears. The
wavering smile only deepened the peculiar tenderness of her look.

"I had been sitting in the briers for an hour," he resumed, after a moment;
"it was a day and night since I had eaten a bit of bread, and I had been
digging up sassafras roots with my bare fingers. I remember that I rooted
at one for nearly an hour, and found that it was sumach, after all. Then I
got up and went on again, and there you were standing in the moonlight--"
He broke off, hesitated an instant, and added with the gallant indiscretion
of youth, "By George, that ought to have made a man of me!"

"And you are a man," said Betty.

"A man!" he appeared to snap his fingers at the thought. "I am a
weather-vane, a leaf in the wind, a--an ass. I haven't known my own mind
ten minutes during the last two years, and the only thing I've ever gone
honestly about is my own pleasure. Oh, yes, I have the courage of my
inclinations, I admit."

"But I don't understand--what does it mean?--I don't understand," faltered
Betty, vaguely troubled by his mood.

"Mean? Why, it means that I've been ruined, and it's too late to mend me.
I'm no better than a pampered poodle dog. It means that I've gotten
everything I wanted, until I begin to fancy there's nothing under heaven I
can't get." Then, in one of his quick changes of temper, his face cleared
with a burst of honest laughter.

She grew merry instantly, and as she smiled up at him, he saw her eyes like
rays of hazel light between her lashes. "Has the black crow gone?" she
asked. "Do you know when I have a gray day Mammy calls it the black crow
flying by. As long as his shadow is over you, there's always a gloom at the
brain, she says. Has he quite gone by?"

"Oh, he flew by quickly," he answered, laughing, "he didn't even stay to
flap his wings." Then he became suddenly grave. "I wonder what kind of a
man you'll fall in love with, Betty?" he said abruptly.

She drew back startled, and her eyes reminded him of those of a frightened
wild thing he had come upon in the spring woods one day. As she shrank from
him in her dim blue dress, her hair fell from its coil and lay like a gold
bar across her bosom, which fluttered softly with her quickened breath.

"I? Why, how can I tell?" she asked.

"He'll not be black and ugly, I dare say?"

She shook her head, regaining her composure.

"Oh, no, fair and beautiful," she answered.

"Ah, as unlike me as day from night?"

"As day from night," she echoed, and went on after a moment, her girlish
visions shining in her eyes:--

"He will be a man, at least," she said slowly, "a man with a faith to fight
for--to live for--to make him noble. He may be a beggar by the roadside,
but he will be a beggar with dreams. He will be forever travelling to some
great end--some clear purpose." The last words came so faintly that he bent
nearer to hear. A deep flush swept to her forehead, and she turned from him
to the fire. These were things that she had hidden even from Virginia.

But as he looked steadily down upon her, something of her own pure fervour
was in his face. Her vivid beauty rose like a flame to his eyes, and for a
single instant it seemed to him that he had never looked upon a woman until
to-day.

"So you would sit with him in the dust of the roadside?" he asked, smiling.

"But the dust is beautiful when the sun shines on it," answered the girl;
"and on wet days we should go into the pine woods, and on fair ones rest in
the open meadows; and we should sing with the robins, and make friends with
the little foxes."

He laughed softly. "Ah, Betty, Betty, I know you now for a dreamer of
dreams. With all your pudding-mixing and your potato-planting you are
moon-mad like the rest of us."

She made a disdainful little gesture. "Why, I never planted a potato in my
life."

"Don't scoff, dear lady," he returned warningly; "too great literalness is
the sin of womankind, you know."

"But I don't care in the least for vegetable-growing," she persisted
seriously.

The humour twinkled in his eyes. "Thriftless woman, would you prefer to
beg?"

"When the Major rode by," laughed Betty; "but when I heard you coming, I'd
lie hidden among the briers, and I'd scatter signs for other gypsies that
read, 'Beware the Montjoy.'"

His face darkened and he frowned. "So it's the Montjoy you're afraid of,"
he rejoined gloomily. "I'm not all Lightfoot, though I'm apt to forget it;
the Montjoy blood is there, all the same, and it isn't good blood."

"Your blood is good," said Betty, warmly.

He laughed again and met her eyes with a look of whimsical tenderness.
"Make me your beggar, Betty," he prayed, smiling.

"You a beggar!" She shook a scornful head. "I can shut my eyes and see your
fortune, sir, and it doesn't lie upon the roadside. I see a well-fed
country gentleman who rises late to breakfast and storms when the birds are
overdone, who drinks his two cups of coffee and eats syrup upon his
cakes--"

"O pleasant prophetess!" he threw in.

"I look and see him riding over the rich fields in the early morning,
watching from horseback the planting and the growing and the ripening of
the corn. He has a dozen servants to fetch the whip he drops, and a dozen
others to hold his bridle when he pleases to dismount; the dogs leap round
him in the drive, and he brushes away the one that licks his face. I see
him grow stout and red-faced as he reads a dull Latin volume beside his
bottle of old port--there's your fortune, sir, the silver, if you please."
She finished in a whining voice, and rose to drop a courtesy.

"On my word, you're a witch, Betty," he exclaimed, laughing, "a regular
witch on a broomstick."

"Does the likeness flatter you? Shall I touch it up a bit? Just a dash more
of red in the face?"

"Well, I reckon it's true as prophecy ever was," he said easily. "It isn't
likely that I'll ever be a beggar, despite your kindly wishes for my soul's
welfare; and, on the whole, I think I'd rather not. When all's said and
done, I'd rather own my servants and my cultivated acres, and come down
late to hot cakes than sit in the dust by the roadside and eat sour grapes.
It may not be so good for the soul, but it's vastly more comfortable; and
I'm not sure that a fat soul in a lean body is the best of life, Betty."

"At least it doesn't give one gout," retorted Betty, mercilessly, adding as
she went to the door: "but the rain is holding up, and I must be going.
I'll borrow your horse, if you please, Dan." She tied on her flattened
bonnet, and with her foot on the threshold, stood looking across the wet
fields, where each spear of grass pieced a string of shining rain drops.
Over the mountains the clouds tossed in broken masses, and loose streamers
of vapour drifted down into the lower foldings of the hills. The cool smell
of the moist road came to her on the wind.

Dan unfastened the reins from the young willow, and led the horse to the
stone at the entrance. Then he threw his coat over the dampened saddle and
lifted Betty upon it. "Pooh! I'm as tough as a pine knot." He scoffed at
her protests. "There, sit steady; I'd better hold you on, I suppose."

Slipping the reins loosely over his arm, he laid his hand upon the blue
folds of her skirt. "If you feel yourself going, just catch my shoulder,"
he added; "and now we're off."

They left the little path and went slowly down the turnpike, under the
dripping trees. Across the fields a bird was singing after the storm, and
the notes were as fresh as the smell of the rain-washed earth. A fuller
splendour seemed to have deepened suddenly upon the meadows, and the
golden-rod ran in streams of fire across the landscape.

"Everything looks so changed," said Betty, wistfully; "are you sure that we
are still in the same world, Dan?"

"Sure?" he looked up at her gayly. "I'm sure of but one thing in this life,
Betty, and that is that you should thank your stars you met me."

"I don't doubt that I should have gotten home somehow," responded Betty,
ungratefully, "so don't flatter yourself that you have saved even my
bonnet." From its blue-lined shadow she smiled brightly down upon him.

"Well, all the same, I dare to be grateful," he rejoined. "Even if you
haven't saved my hat,--and I can't honestly convince myself that you
have,--I thank my stars I met you, Betty." He threw back his head and sang
softly to himself as they went on under the scudding clouds.

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