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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 2
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The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 2 Post by :samuraiwarrior Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Noailles Murfree Date :May 2012 Read :3375

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The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

A voice was calling from out the rising mists, calling again and again, hailing the house. Briscoe dropped the lid of the piano and strode to the door, followed by Bayne, the ladies standing irresolute on the hearthrug and gazing apprehensively after them.

The sudden changes incident to the mountain atmosphere were evidenced in the opaque density of the fog that had ensued on the crystalline clearness of the sunset. It hung like a curtain from the zenith to the depths of the valley, obscuring all the world. It had climbed the cliffs; it was shifting in and out among the pillars of the veranda; it even crossed the threshold as the door was opened, then shrank back ghostly-wise, dissolving at the touch of the warm home radiance. As the lamp-light flickered out, illuminating its pervasive pallor, the new-comer urged a very lame horse to the steps of the veranda. The two friends waiting within looked at each other in uncertainty as to their policy in admitting the stranger. Then as his rapid footfalls sounded on the veranda, and a stalwart figure appeared in the doorway, Briscoe tilted the shade of the lamp on the table to throw its glare full on the new-comer's face, and broke forth with an acclaim of recognition and welcome.

To be sure, he was but a casual acquaintance, and Briscoe's cordiality owed something of its fervor to his relief to find that the visitor was of no untoward antecedents and intentions. An old school-fellow he had been long ago in their distant city home, who chanced to be in the mountains on a flying trip--no belated summer sojourner, no pleasure-seeker, but concerned with business, and business of the grimmest monitions. A brisk, breezy presence he had, his cheeks tingling red from the burning of the wind and sun and the speed of his ride. He was tall and active, thirty-five years of age perhaps, with a singularly keen eye and an air intimating much decision of character, of which he stood in need for he was a deputy collector of the revenue service, and in the midst of a dangerous moonshining raid his horse had gone dead lame.

"I hardly expected to find you still here at this season," he said to Briscoe, congratulating himself, "but I took the chances. You must lend me a horse."

Briscoe's instincts of hospitality were paramount, and he declared that he would not allow the new-comer to depart so summarily. He must stay and dine; he must stay the night; he must join the hunt that was planned for to-morrow--a first-rate gun was at his disposal.

"I'll get you back to Glaston without delay. I'll let you drive the dog-cart with Fairy-foot, the prettiest bit of horse-flesh that ever wore a shoe--trots to beat the band! You can hunt all day with Bayne and me, and a little before sunset you can start for Shaftesville, and she will whisk you there in an hour and a quarter, twenty miles. You needn't start till five o'clock to catch the seven-ten train, with lots of time to spare."

In spite of all denial, the telephone bell was presently jangling as Briscoe rang up the passenger-agent at the railroad depot in the little town of Shaftesville, twenty miles away.

"Twenty-six--yes, Central, I _did say twenty-six!... Hello, Tucker, is that you?... See here--Mr. Frank Dean will be there with the dog-cart and Fairy-foot to-morrow evening to catch the seven-ten train for Glaston--leaves here about an hour by sun. Will you do me the favor to hire a responsible party there to bring the mare back?... Can't spare a man from here. Lost two of my dogs--yes, my fine, full-blooded hounds--you remember Damon and Pythias? Strayed off from the pack, and all hands and the cook have got to get out straightway and hunt them. Wolves--awfully afraid they will get the hounds. Outnumber them and pull them down--fierce at this season.... Yes, I hope so! You'll look out for Fairy-foot?... Thanks, awfully.... Yes, _he would do--careful fellow! Tell him to drive slowly coming back. Dean will race her down there at the top of her speed. (Hush up, Frank, _I know what I am talking about.) Mr. Dean will be there all right. Thank you very much. Do as much for you some day. Goo'-by."

But Dean's protests were serious. His duties admitted of no trifling. He wanted no such superfine commodity as Fairy-foot, but a horse stout and sound he must have to-night and the favor of leaving his disabled steed in Briscoe's stable. He explained that his misfortune in laming the horse and the fog combined had separated him from the revenue posse just from a secluded cove, where his men had discovered and raided an illicit distillery in a cavern, cutting the copper still and worm to bits, demolishing the furnace and fermenters, the flake-stand and thumper, destroying considerable store of mash and beer and singlings, and seizing and making off with a barrel of the completed product. A fine and successful adventure it might have seemed, but there were no arrests. The moonshiners had fled the vicinity. For aught the officer had to show for it, the "wild-cat" was a spontaneous production of the soil. He made himself very merry over this phase of the affair, when seated at the prettily appointed dinner table of the bungalow, and declared that however the marshal might regard the matter, he could not call it a "water-haul."

The repast concluded, he insisted that he must needs be immediately in the saddle again. He scarcely stayed for a puff of an after-dinner cigar, and when he had bidden the ladies adieu both Bayne and Briscoe went with him to the stable, to assist in the selection of a horse suited to his needs. Little Archie ran after them, begging to be admitted to their company. Briscoe at once caught him up to his shoulder, and there he was perched, wisely overlooking the choice of an animal sound and fresh and strong as the three men made the tour from stall to stall, preceded by a brisk negro groom, swinging a lantern to show the points of each horse under discussion.

In three minutes the revenue officer, mounted once more, tramped out into the shivering mists and the black night. The damp fallen leaves deadened the sound of departing hoofs; the obscurities closed about him, and he vanished from the scene, leaving not a trace of his transitory presence.

Briscoe lingered in the stable, finding a jovial satisfaction in the delight of little Archie in the unaccustomed experience, for the child had the time of his life that melancholy sombre night in the solitudes of the great mountains. His stentorian shouts and laughter were as bluff as if he were ten years old, and as boisterous as if he were drunk besides. Briscoe had perched him on the back of a horse, where he feigned to ride at breakneck speed, and his cries of "Gee!" "Dullup!" "G'long!" rang out imperiously in the sad, murky atmosphere and echoed back, shrilly sweet, from the great crags. The stable lantern showed him thus gallantly mounted, against the purple and brown shadows of the background, his white linen frock clasped low by his red leather belt, his cherubic legs, with his short half hose and his red shoes, sticking stiffly out at an angle of forty-five degrees, his golden curls blowing high on his head, his face pink with joy and laughter. The light shone too in the big, astonished eyes of the fine animal he bestrode, now and then turning his head inquisitively toward Briscoe--who stood close by with a cautious grasp on the skirts of the little boy--as if wondering to feel the clutch of the infantile hands on his mane and the tempestuous beat of the little feet as Archie cried out his urgency to speed.

Archie would not willingly have relinquished this joy till dawn, and the problem how to get him peaceably off the horse became critical. He had repeatedly declined to dismount, when at length a lucky inspiration visited Briscoe. The amiable host called for an ear of corn, and with this he lured the little horseman to descend, in order to feed a "poor pig" represented as in the last stages of famine and dependent solely on the ministrations of the small guest. Here renewed delights expanded, for the "poor pig" became lively and almost "gamesome," being greatly astonished by the light and men and the repast at this hour of the night. As he was one of those gormands who decline no good thing, he affably accepted Archie's offering, so graciously indeed that the little fellow called for another ear of corn more amply to relieve the porcine distresses, the detail of which had much appealed to his tender heart. It seemed as if the choice of the good Mr. Briscoe lay between the fiction of riding an endless race or playing the Samaritan to the afflicted pig, when in the midst of Archie's noisy beatitudes sleep fell upon him unaware, like a thief in the night. As he waited for the groom to reappear with the second relay of refreshments, Briscoe felt the tense little body in his clasp grow limp and collapse; the eager head with its long golden curls drooped down on his shoulder; the shout, already projected on the air, quavered and failed midway, giving place to a deep-drawn sigh, and young Royston was fairly eclipsed for the night, translated doubtless to an unexplored land of dreams where horses and pigs and revenue officers and mountains ran riot together "in much admired disorder." Briscoe bore him tenderly in his arms to the house, and, after transferring him to his nurse, rejoined with Bayne the ladies in the hall.

Here they found a change of sentiment prevailing. Although failing in no observance of courtesy, Mrs. Briscoe had been a little less than complaisant toward the departed guest. This had been vaguely perceptible to Briscoe at the time, but now she gency constrained him."

"I don't see why you should have asked him to dine," she said to her husband. "He was difficult to persuade, and only your urgency constrained him."

Her face was uncharacteristically petulant and anxious as she stood on the broad hearth at one side of the massive mantelpiece, one hand lifted to the high shelf; her red cloth gown with the amber-tinted gleams of the lines of otter fur showed richly in the blended light of fire and lamp. Her eyes seemed to shrink from the window, at which nevertheless she glanced ever and anon.

"I delight in the solitude here, and I have never felt afraid, but I think that since this disastrous raid that revenue officer is in danger in this region from the moonshiners, and that his presence at our house will bring enmity on us. It really makes me apprehensive. It was not prudent to entertain him, and certainly not at all necessary--it was almost against his will, in fact."

"Well, well, he is gone now," returned Briscoe easily, lifting the lid of the piano and beginning to play a favorite air. But she would not quit the subject.

"While you three were at the stable I thought I heard a step on the veranda--you need not laugh--Lillian heard it as well as I. Then, when you were so long coming back, I went upstairs to get a little shawl to send out to you to put over Archie as you came across the yard--the mists are so dank--and I saw--I am _sure I saw--just for a minute--a light flicker from the hotel across the ravine."

Briscoe, his hands crashing out involuntarily a discordant chord, looked over his shoulder with widening eyes. "Why, Gladys, there is not a soul in the hotel now!"

"That is why the light there seemed so strange."

"Besides, you know, you _couldn't have seen a light for the mists."

"The mists were shifting; they rose and then closed in again. Ask Lillian--she happened to be standing at the window there, and she said she saw the stars for a few moments."

"_Now, now, now!_" exclaimed Briscoe remonstrantly, rising and coming toward the hearth. "You two are trying to get up a panic, which means that this delicious season in the mountains is at an end for us, and we must go back to town. Why can't you understand that Mrs. Royston saw the stars and perhaps a glimpse of the moon, and that then you both saw the glimmer of their reflection on the glass of the windows at the vacant hotel. Is there anything wonderful in that? I appeal to Julian."

"I don't know anything about the conditions here, but certainly that explanation sounds very plausible. As to the step on the veranda, Ned and I can take our revolvers and ascertain if anyone is prowling about."

The proposition appealed to Mrs. Briscoe, and she was grateful for the suggestion, since it served, however illogically, to soothe her nerves. She looked at Bayne very kindly when he came in with his host, from the dripping densities of the fog, his face shining like marble with the pervasive moisture, his pistol in his hand, declaring that there was absolutely nothing astir. But indeed there was more than kind consideration in Mrs. Briscoe's look; there was question, speculation, an accession of interest, and he was quick to note an obvious, though indefinable, change in Mrs. Royston's eyes as they rested upon him. She had spent the greater portion of the evening tete-a-tete with her hostess, the men being with the horses. He was suddenly convinced that meantime he had been the theme of conversation between the two, and--the thought appalled him!--Mrs. Briscoe had persuaded her friend that to see again the woman who had enthralled him of yore was the lure that had brought him so unexpectedly to this solitude of the mountains. His object was a matter of business, they had been told, to be sure, but "business" is an elastic and comprehensive term, and in fact, in view of the convenience of mail facilities, it might well cloak a subterfuge. Naturally, the men had not divulged to the women the nature of the business, more especially since it concerned the qualifications of a prospective attorney-in-fact. This interpretation of his stay Bayne had not foreseen for one moment. His whole being revolted against the assumption--that he should languish again at the feet of this traitress; that he should open once more his heart to be the target of her poisonous arrows; that he should drag his pride, his honest self-respect, in the dust of humiliation! How could they be so dull, so dense, as to harbor such a folly? The thought stung him with an actual venom; it would not let him sleep; and when toward dawn he fell into a troubled stupor, half waking, half dreaming, the torpid state was so pervaded with her image, the sound of her voice, that he wrested himself from it with a conscious wrench and rose betimes, doubtful if, in the face of this preposterous persuasion, he could so command his resolution as to continue his stay as he had planned.

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