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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesViola Gwyn - Chapter 2. The Strange Young Woman
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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 2. The Strange Young Woman Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2360

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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 2. The Strange Young Woman

CHAPTER II. THE STRANGE YOUNG WOMAN

The tempest by now had subsided to a distant, rumbling murmur, although the rain still beat against the window-panes in fitful gusts, the while it gently played the long roll on the clapboards a scant two feet above the tallest head. Far-off flashes of lightning cast ghastly reminders athwart the windows, fighting the yellow candle glow with a sickly, livid glare.

Kenneth's fellow-guest was standing near the stove, her back toward him as he entered the kitchen. The slant of the "ceiling" brought the crown of her head to within a foot or so of the round, peeled beams that supported the shed-like roof, giving her the appearance of abnormal height. As a matter of fact, she was not as tall as the gaunt Eliza, who, like her husband and the six-foot guest, was obliged to lower her head when passing through the kitchen door to the yard.

The table was set for four, in the middle of the little kitchen; rude hand-made stools, without backs, were in place. A figured red cloth covered the board, its fringe of green hanging down over the edges. The plates, saucers and coffee-cups were thick and clumsy and gaudily decorated with indescribable flowers and vines done entirely in green--a "set," no doubt, selected with great satisfaction in advance of the Striker nuptials. There were black-handled case-knives, huge four-tined forks, and pewter spoons. A blackened coffee-pot, a brass tea-kettle and a couple of shallow skillets stood on the square sheet-iron stove. "Come in and set down, Mr. Gwynne," said Mrs. Striker, pointing to a stool. With the other hand she deftly "flopped" an odorous corn-cake in one of the skillets. There was a far from unpleasant odor of grease.

"I can't help thanking my lucky stars, Mrs. Striker, that I got here ahead of that storm," said he, moving over to his appointed place, where he remained standing. "We were just in time, too. Ten minutes later and we would have been in the thick of it. And here we are, safe and sound and dry as toast, in the presence of a most inviting feast. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your kindness."

"Oh, it's--it's nothing," said she, diffidently. Then to Striker: "Put 'em here on the table, you big lummix. Set down, everybody."

The young lady sat opposite Gwynne. She lowered her head immediately as Phineas began to offer up his established form of grace. The unhappy host got himself into a dire state of confusion when he attempted to vary the habitual prayer by tacking on a few words appertaining to the recent hurricane and God's goodness in preserving them all from destruction as well as the hope that no serious damage had been done to other live-stock and fowls, or to the life and property of his neighbours,--amen!

To which Zachariah, seated on a roll of blankets in the corner, appended a heartfelt amen, and then sank back to watch his betters eat, much as a hungry dog feasts upon anticipation. He knew that he was to have what was left over, and he offered up a silent prayer of his own while wistfully speculating on the prospects.

The two colonial candlesticks stood in the centre of the table, a foot or two apart. When Gwynne lifted his head after "grace," he looked directly between them at his vis-a-vis. For a few seconds he stared as if spell-bound. Then, realizing his rudeness and conscious of an unmistakable resentment in her eyes, he felt the blood rush to his face, and quickly turned to stammer something to his host,--he knew not what it was.

Never had he looked upon a face so beautiful, never had he seen any one so lovely as this strange young woman who shared with him the hospitality of the humble board. He had gazed for a moment full into her deep, violet eyes,--eyes in which there was no smile but rather a cool intentness not far removed from unfriendliness,--and in that moment he forgot himself, his manners and his composure.

The soft light fell upon warm, smooth cheeks; a broad, white brow; red, sensitive lips and a perfect mouth; a round firm chin; a delicate nose,--and the faint shadows of imperishable dimples that even her unsmiling expression failed to disturb.

Not even in his dreams had he conjured up a face so bewilderingly beautiful.

Her hair, which was puffed and waved over her ears, took on the shade of brown spun silk on which the light played in changing tones of bronze. It was worn high on her head, banded a la grecque, with a small knot on the crown from which depended a number of ringlets ornamented with bowknots. Her ears were completely hidden by the soft mass that came down over them in shapely knobs. She wore no earrings,--for which he was acutely grateful, although they were the fashion of the day and cumbersomely hideous,--and her shapely throat was barren of ornament. He judged her to be not more than twenty-two or -three. A second furtive glance caught her looking down at her plate. He marvelled at the long, dark eyelashes.

Who was she? What was she doing here in the humble cot of the Strikers? Certainly she was out of place here. She was a tender, radiant flower set down amongst gross, unlovely weeds. That she was a person of consequence, to whom the Strikers paid a rude sort of deference, softened by the familiarity of long association but in no way suggestive of relationship, he was in no manner of doubt.

He was not slow to remark their failure to present him to her. The omission may have been due to ignorance or uncertainty on their part, but that was not the construction he put upon it. Striker was the free-and-easy type who would have made these strangers known to each other in some bluff, awkward manner,--probably by their Christian names; he would never have overlooked this little formality, no matter how clumsily he may have gone about performing it. It was perfectly plain to Gwynne that it was not an oversight. It was deliberate.

His slight feeling of embarrassment, and perhaps annoyance, evidently was not shared by the young lady; so far as she was concerned the situation was by no means strained. She was as calm and serene and impervious as a princess royal.

She joined in the conversation, addressed herself to him without constraint, smiled amiably (and adorably) upon the busy Eliza and her jovial spouse, and even laughed aloud over the latter's account of Zachariah and the silver-top boots. Gwynne remarked that it was a soft, musical laugh, singularly free from the shrill, boisterous qualities so characteristic of the backwoods-woman. She possessed the poise of refinement. He had seen her counterpart,--barring her radiant beauty,--many a time during his years in the cultured east: in Richmond, in Philadelphia, and in New York, where he had attended college.

He was subtly aware of the lively but carefully guarded interest she was taking in him. He felt rather than knew that she was studying him closely, if furtively, when his face was turned toward the talkative host. Twice he caught her in the act of averting her gaze when he suddenly glanced in her direction, and once he surprised her in a very intense scrutiny,--which, he was gratified to observe, gave way to a swift flush of confusion and the hasty lowering of her eyes. No doubt, he surmised with some satisfaction, she was as vastly puzzled as himself, for he must have appeared equally out-of-place in these surroundings. His thoughts went delightedly to the old, well-beloved story of Cinderella. Was this a Cinderella in the flesh,--and in the morning would he find her in rags and tatters, slaving in the kitchen?

He noticed her hands. They were long and slim and, while browned by exposure to wind and sun, bore no evidence of the grinding toil to which the women and girls of the frontier were subjected. And they were strong, competent hands, at that.

The food was coarse, substantial, plentiful. (Even Zachariah could see that it was plentiful.) Solid food for sturdy people. There were potatoes fried in grease, wide strips of side meat, apple butter, corn-cakes piping hot, boiled turnips, coffee and dried apple pie. The smoky odor of frying grease arose from the skillets and, with the grateful smell of coffee, permeated the tight little kitchen. It was a savoury that consoled rather than offended the appetite of these hardy eaters.

Striker ate largely with his knife, and smacked his lips resoundingly; swigged coffee from his saucer through an overlapping moustache and afterwards hissingly strained the aforesaid obstruction with his nether lip; talked and laughed with his mouth full,--but all with such magnificent zest that his guests overlooked the shocking exhibition. Indeed, the girl seemed quite accustomed to Mr. Striker's table-habits, a circumstance which created in Kenneth's questing mind the conviction that she was not new to these parts, despite the garments and airs of the fastidious East.

They were vastly interested in the account of his journey through the wilderness.

"Nowadays," said Striker, "most people come up the river, 'cept them as hail from Ohio. You must ha' come by way of Wayne an' Madison Counties."

"I did," said his guest. "We found it fairly comfortable travelling through Wayne County. The roads are decent enough and the settlers are numerous. It was after we left Madison County that we encountered hardships. We travelled for a while with a party of emigrants who were heading for the settlement at Strawtown. There were three families of them, including a dozen children. Our progress was slow, as they travelled by wagon. Rumours that the Indians were threatening to go on the warpath caused me to stay close by this slow-moving caravan for many miles, not only for my own safety but for the help I might be able to render them in case of an attack. At Strawtown we learned that the Indians were peaceable and that there was no truth in the stories. So Zachariah and I crossed the White River at that point and struck off alone. We followed the wilderness road,--the old Indian trace, you know,--and we travelled nearly thirty miles without seeing a house. At Brown's Wonder we met a party of men who had been out in this country looking things over. They were so full of enthusiasm about the prairies around here,--the Wea, the Wild Cat and Shawnee prairies,--that I was quite thrilled over the prospect ahead, and no longer regretted the journey which had been so full of privations and hardships and which I had been so loath to undertake in the beginning. Have you been at Thorntown recently?"

"Nope. Not sence I came through there some years ago. It was purty well deserted in those days. Nothin' there but Injin wigwams an' they was mostly run to seed. At that time, Crawfordsville was the only town to speak of between Terry Hut an' Fort Wayne, 'way up above here."

"Well, there are signs of a white settlement there now. Some of the old French settlers are still there and other whites are coming in. I had heard a great deal about the big Indian village at Thorntown, and was vastly disappointed in what I found. I am quite romantic, Miss--ahem!--quite romantic by nature, having read and listened to tales of thrilling adventures among the redskins, as we call them down my way, until I could scarce contain myself. I have always longed for the chance to rescue a beautiful white captive from the clutches of the cruel redskins. My valour--"

"And I suppose you always dreamed of marrying her as they always do in stories?" said she, smiling.

"Invariably," said he. "Alas, if I had rescued all the fair maidens my dreams have placed in jeopardy, I should by this time have as many wives as Solomon. Only, I must say in defence of my ambitions, I should not have had as great a variety. Strange as it may seem, I remained through all my adventures singularly constant to a certain idealistic captive. She looked, I may say, precisely alike in each and every case. Poor old Solomon could not say as much for his thousand wives. Mine, if I had them, would be so much alike in face and form that I could not tell one from the other,--and, now that I am older and wiser,--though not as wise as Solomon,--I am thankful that not one of these daring rescues was ever consummated, for I should be very much distressed now if I found myself married to even the most beautiful of the ladies my feeble imagination conceived."

This subtle touch of gallantry was over the heads of Mr. and Mrs. Striker. As for the girl, she looked momentarily startled, and then as the dimples deepened, a faint flush rose to her cheeks. An instant later, the colour faded, and into her lovely eyes came a cold, unfriendly light. Realizing that he had offended her with this gay compliment,--although he had never before experienced rebuff in like circumstances,--he hastened to resume his narrative.

"We finally came to Sugar River and followed the road along the southern bank. You may know some of the settlers we found along the river. Wisehart and Kinworthy and Dewey? They were among the first to come to this part of the country, I am informed. Fine, brave men, all of them. In Crawfordsville I stopped at the tavern conducted by Major Ristine. While there I consulted with Mr. Elston and Mr. Wilson and others about the advisability of selling my land up here and my building lots in Lafayette. They earnestly advised me not to sell. In their opinion Lafayette is the most promising town on the Wabash, while the farming land in this section is not equalled anywhere else in the world. Of course, I realize that they are financially interested in the town of Lafayette, owning quite a lot of property there, so perhaps I should not be guided solely by their enthusiasm."

"They are the men who bought most of Sam Sargeant's lots some years back," said Striker, "when there wasn't much of anything in the way of a town,--them and Jonathan Powers, I think it was. They paid somethin' like a hundred an' fifty dollars for more'n half of the lots he owned, an' then they started right in to crow about the place. I was workin' down at Crawfordsville at the time. They had plenty of chance to talk, 'cause that town was full of emigrants, land-grabbers, travellers an' setch like. That was before the new county was laid out, you see. Up to that time all the land north of Montgomery County was what was called Wabash County. It run up as fer as Lake Michigan, with the jedges an' courts an' land offices fer the whole district all located in Crawfordsville. Maybe you don't know it, but Tippecanoe County is only about six years old. She was organized by the legislature in 1826. To show you how smart Elston and them other fellers was, they donated a lot of their property up in Lafayette to the county on condition that the commissioners located the county seat there. That's how she come to be the county seat, spite of the claims of Americus up on the east bank of the Wabash.

"Maybe you've heard of Bill Digby. He's the feller that started the town o' Lafayette. Well, a couple o' days after he laid out the town o' Lafayette,--named after a Frenchman you've most likely heerd about,--he up an' sold the whole place to Sam Sargeant fer a couple o' hundred dollars, they say. He kept enough ground fer a ferry landin' an' a twenty-acre piece up above the town fer specolatin' purposes, I understand. He afterwards sold this twenty-acre piece to Sam fer sixty dollars, an' thought he done mighty well. When I first come to the Wea, Lafayette didn't have more'n half a dozen cabins. I went through her once on my way up to the tradin' house at Longlois, couple a mile above. You wouldn't believe a town could grow as fast as Lafayette has in the last couple o' years. If she keeps on she'll be as big as all get-out, an' Crawfordsville won't be nowhere. Tim Horran laid out Fairfield two-three years back, over east o' here. Been a heap o' new towns laid out this summer, all around here. But I guess they won't amount to much. Josiah Halstead and Henry Ristine have jest laid out the town o' Columbia, down near the Montgomery line. Over on Lauramie Crick is a town called Cleveland, an' near that is Monroe, jest laid out by a feller named Major. There's another town called Concord over east o' Columbia. There may be more of 'em, but I ain't heerd of 'em yet. They come up like mushrooms, an' 'fore you know it, why, there they are.

"This land o' yours, Mr. Gwynne, lays 'tween here an' this new settlement o' Columbia, an' I c'n tell you that it ain't to be beat anywheres in the country. I'd say it is the best land your fa--er--ahem!" The speaker was seized with a violent and obviously unnecessary spell of coughing. "Somethin' must ha' gone the wrong way," he explained, lamely. "Feller ort to have more sense'n to try to swaller when he's talkin'."

"Comes of eatin' like a pig," remarked his wife, glaring at him as she poured coffee into Gwynne's empty cup. "Mr. Gwynne'll think you don't know any better. He never eats like this on Sunday," she explained to their male guest.

"I got a week-day style of eatin' an' one strickly held back fer Sunday," said Phineas. "Same as clothes er havin' my boots greased."

Kenneth was watching the face of the girl opposite. She was looking down at her plate. He observed a little frown on her brow. When she raised her eyes to meet his, he saw that they were sullen, almost unpleasantly so. She did not turn away instantly, but continued to regard him with a rather disconcerting intensity. Suddenly she smiled. The cloud vanished from her brow, her eyes sparkled. He was bewildered. There was no mistaking the unfriendliness that had lurked in her eyes the instant before. But in heaven's name, what reason had she for disliking him?

"If you believe all that Phineas says, you will think you have come to Paradise," she said. At no time had she uttered his name, in addressing him, although it was frequently used by the Strikers. She seemed to be deliberately avoiding it.

"It is a present comfort, at least, to believe him," he returned. "I hope I may not see the day when I shall have to take him to task for misleading me in so vital a matter."

"I hope not," said she, quietly.

As he turned to Striker, he caught that worthy gazing at him with a fixed, inquisitive stare. He began to feel annoyed and uncomfortable. It was not the first time he had surprised a similar scrutiny on the part of one or the other of the Strikers. Phineas, on being detected, looked away abruptly and mumbled something about "God's country."

The young man decided it was time to speak. "By the way you all look at me, Mr. Striker, I am led to suspect that you do not believe I am all I represent myself to be. If you have any doubts, pray do not hesitate to express them."

Striker was boisterously reassuring. "I don't doubt you fer a second, Mr. Gwynne. As I said before, the whole county has been expectin' you to turn up. We heerd a few days back that you was in Crawfordsville. If me an' Eliza seem to act queer it's because we knowed your father an'--an', well, I can't help noticin' how much you look like him. When he was your age he must have looked enough like you to be your twin brother. We don't mean no disrespect, an' I hope you'll overlook our nateral curiosity."

Kenneth was relieved. The furtive looks were explained.

"I am glad to hear that you do not look upon me as an outlaw or--"

"Lord bless you," cried Striker, "there ain't nobody as would take you fer an outlaw. You ain't cut out fer a renegade. We know 'em the minute we lay eyes on 'em. Same as we know a Pottawatomy Injin from a Shawnee, er a jack-knife from a Bowie. No, there ain't no doubt in my mind about you bein' your father's son--an' heir, as the sayin' goes. If you turn out to be a scalawag, I'll never trust my eyes ag'in."

The young man laughed. "In any case, you are very good to have taken me in for the night, and I shall not forget your trust or your hospitality. Wolves go about in sheep's clothing, you see, and the smartest of men are sometimes fooled." He turned abruptly to the girl. "Did you know my father, too?"

She started violently and for the moment was speechless, a curious expression in her eyes.

"Yes," she said, at last, looking straight at him: "Yes, I knew your father very well."

"Then, you must have lived in these parts longer than I have suspected," said he. "I should have said you were a newcomer."

Mrs. Striker made a great clatter of pans and skillets at the stove. The girl waited until this kindly noise subsided.

"I have lived in this neighbourhood since I was eight years old," she said, quietly.

Striker hastened to add: "Somethin' like ten or 'leven years,--'leven, I reckon, ain't it?"

"Eleven years," she replied.

Gwynne was secretly astonished and rather skeptical. He would have taken oath that she was twenty-two or -three years old, and not nineteen as computation made her.

"She ain't lived here all the time," volunteered Eliza, somewhat defensively. "She was to school in St. Louis fer two or three years an'--"

The young lady interrupted the speaker coldly. "Please, Eliza!"

Eliza, looking considerably crestfallen, accepted the rebuke meekly. "I jest thought he'd be interested," she murmured.

"She came up the Wabash when she was nothin' but a striplin'," began Striker, not profiting by his wife's experience. He might have gone on at considerable length if he had not met the reproving, violet eye. He changed the subject hastily. "As I was sayin', we've had a powerful lot o' rain lately. Why, by gosh, last week you could have went fishin' in our pertato patch up yander an' got a mess o' sunfish in less'n no time. I never knowed the Wabash to be on setch a rampage. An' as fer the Wild Cat Crick and Tippecanoe River, why, they tell me there ain't been anything like--How's that?"

"Is Wabash an Indian name?" repeated Kenneth.

"That's what they say. Named after a tribe that used to hunt an' fish up an' down her, they say."

"There was once a tribe of Indians in this part of the country," broke in the girl, with sudden zest, "known as the Ouabachi. We know very little about them nowadays, however. They were absorbed by other and stronger tribes far back in the days of the French occupation, I suppose. French trappers and voyageurs are known to have traversed and explored the wilderness below here at least one hundred and fifty years ago. There is an old French fort quite near here,--Ouiatanon."

"She knows purty nigh everything," said Phineas, proudly. "Well, I guess we're about as full as it's safe to be, so now's your chance, Zachariah."

He pushed back his stool noisily and arose. Taking up the two candlesticks, he led the way to the sitting-room, stopping at the door for a word of instruction to the negro. "You c'n put your blankets down here on the kitchen floor when you're ready to go to bed. Mrs. Striker will kick you in the mornin' if you ain't awake when she comes out to start breakfast."

"Yassuh, yassuh," grinned the hungry darkey. "Missus won't need fo' to kick more'n once, suh,--'cause Ise gwine to be hungry all over ag'in 'long about breakfus time,--yas-SUH!"

"Zachariah will wash the dishes and--" began Kenneth, addressing Mrs. Striker, who was already preparing to cleanse and dry her pots and pans. She interrupted him.

"He won't do nothin' of the kind. I don't let nobody wash my dishes but myself. Set down here, Zachariah, an' help yourself. When you're done, you c'n go out an' carry me in a couple of buckets o' water from the well,--an, that's all you CAN do."

"I guess I'll go out an' take a look around the barn an' pens," said Phineas, depositing the candles on the mantelpiece. "See if everything's still there after the storm. No, Mr. Gwynne,--you set down. No need o' you goin' out there an' gettin' them boots o' your'n all muddy."

He took up the lantern and lighted the tallow wick from one of the candles. Then he fished a corncob pipe from his coattail pocket and stuffed it full of tobacco from a small buckskin bag hanging at the end of the mantel.

"He'p yourself to tobaccer if you keer to smoke. There's a couple o' fresh pipes up there,--jest made 'em yesterday,--an' it ain't ag'inst the law to smoke in the house on rainy nights. Used to be a time when we was first married that I had to go out an' git wet to the skin jest because she wouldn't 'low no tobaccer smoke in the house. Many's the time I've sot on the doorstep here enjoyin' a smoke with the rain comin' down so hard it'd wash the tobaccer right out o' the pipe, an' twice er maybe it was three times it biled over an'--What's that you say?"

"I did not say anything, Phineas," said the girl, shaking her head mournfully. "I am wondering, though, where you will go when you die."

"Where I c'n smoke 'thout runnin' the risk o' takin' cold, more'n likely," replied Phineas, winking at the young man. Then he went out into the windy night, closing the door behind him.

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