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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesViola Gwyn - Chapter 3. Something About Clothes, And Men, And Cats
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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 3. Something About Clothes, And Men, And Cats Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :827

Click below to download : Viola Gwyn - Chapter 3. Something About Clothes, And Men, And Cats (Format : PDF)

Viola Gwyn - Chapter 3. Something About Clothes, And Men, And Cats


Smiling over the settler's whimsical humour, Gwynne turned to his companion, anticipating a responsive smile. Instead he was rewarded by an expression of acute dismay in her dark eyes. He recalled seeing just such a look in the eyes of a cornered deer. She met his gaze for a fleeting instant and then, turning away, walked rapidly over to the little window, where she peered out into the darkness. He waited a few moments for her to recover the composure so inexplicably lost, and then spoke,--not without a trace of coldness in his voice.

"Pray have this chair." He drew the rocking-chair up to the fireplace, setting it down rather sharply upon the strip of rag carpet that fronted the wide rock-made hearth. "You need not be afraid to be left alone with me. I am a most inoffensive person."

He saw her figure straighten. Then she faced him, her chin raised, a flash of indignation in her eyes.

"I am not afraid of you," she said haughtily. "Why should you presume to make such a remark to me?"

"I beg your pardon," he said, bowing. "I am sorry if I have offended you. No doubt, in my stupidity, I have been misled by your manner. Now, will you sit down--and be friendly?"

His smile was so engaging, his humility so genuine, that her manner underwent a swift and agreeable change. She advanced slowly to the fireplace, a shy, abashed smile playing about her lips.

"May I not stand up for a little while?" she pleaded, with mock submissiveness. "I do so want to grow tall."

"To that I can offer no objection," he returned; "although in my humble opinion you would do yourself a very grave injustice if you added so much as the eighth of an inch to your present height."

"I feel quite small beside you, sir," she said, taking her stand at the opposite end of the hearth, from which position she looked up into his admiring eyes.

"I am an overgrown, awkward lummix," he said airily. "The boys called me 'beanpole' at college."

"You are not an awkward lummix, as you call yourself,--though what a lummix is I have not the slightest notion. Mayhap if you stood long enough you might grow shorter. They say men do,--as they become older." She ran a cool, amused eye over his long, well-proportioned figure, taking in the butter-nut coloured trousers, the foppish waistcoat, the high-collared blue coat, and the handsome brown-thatched head that topped the whole creation. He was almost a head taller than she, and yet she was well above medium height.

"How old are you?" she asked, abruptly. Again she was serious, unsmiling.

"Twenty-five," he replied, looking down into her dark, inquiring eyes with something like eagerness in his own. He was saying over and over again to himself that never had he seen any one so lovely as she. "I am six years older than you. Somehow, I feel that I am younger. Rather odd, is it not?"

"Six years," she mused, looking into the fire. The glow of the blazing logs cast changing, throbbing shadows across her face, now soft and dusky, like velvet, under the warm caress of the firelight. "Sometimes I feel much older than nineteen," she went on, shaking her head as if puzzled. "I remember that I was supposed to be very large for my age when I was a little girl. Everybody commented on my size. I used to be ashamed of my great, gawky self. But," she continued, shrugging her pretty shoulders, "that was ages ago."

He drew a step nearer and leaned an elbow on the mantel.

"You say you knew my father," he said, haltingly. "What was he like?"

She raised her eyes quickly and for an instant studied his face curiously, as if searching for something that baffled her understanding.

"He was very tall," she said in a low voice. "As tall as you are."

"I have only a dim recollection of him," he said. "You see, I made my home with my grandparents after I was five years old." He did not offer any further information. "As a tiny lad I remember wishing that I might grow up to be as big as my father. Did you know him well?"

If she heard, she gave no sign as she turned away again. This time she walked over to the cabin door, which she opened wide, letting in a rush of chill, damp air. He felt his choler rise. It was a deliberate, intentional act on her part. She desired to terminate the conversation and took this rude, insolent means of doing so. Never had he been so flagrantly insulted,--and for what reason? He had been courteous, deferential, friendly. What right had she,--this insufferable peacock,--to consider herself his superior? Hot words rushed to his lips, but he checked them. He contented himself with an angry contemplation of her slender, graceful figure as she poised in the open doorway, holding the latch in one hand while the other was pressed against her bare throat for protection against the cold night air. Her ringlets, flouted by the wind, threshed merrily about the crown of her head. He noted the thick coil of hair that capped the shapely white neck. Despite his rancour and the glowering gaze he bent upon her, he was still lamentably conscious of her perfections. He had it in his heart to go over and shake her soundly. It would be a relief to see her break down and whimper. It would teach her not to be rude to gentlemen!

The two dogs came racing up to the threshold. She half-knelt and stroked their heads.

"No, no!" she cried out to them. "You cannot come in! Back with you, Shep! Pete! That's a good dog!"

Then she arose and quickly closed the door.

"The wind is veering to the south," she said calmly, as she advanced to the fireplace. She was shivering. "That means fair weather and warmer. We may even see the sun to-morrow."

She held out her hands to the blaze.

"Won't you have this chair now?" he said stiffly, formally. She was looking down into the fire, but he saw the dimple deepen in her cheek and an almost imperceptible twitching at the corner of her mouth. Confound her, was she laughing at him? Was he a source of amusement to her?

She turned her head and glanced up at him over her shoulder. He caught a strained, appealing gleam in her eyes.

"Please forgive me if I was rude," she said, quite humbly.

He melted a little. He no longer desired to shake her. "I feared I had in some way offended you," he said.

She shook her head and was silent for a moment or two, staring thoughtfully at the flames. A faint sigh escaped her, and then she faced him resolutely, frankly.

"You have succeeded fairly well in concealing your astonishment at seeing me here in this hut, dressed as I am," she said, somewhat hurriedly. "You have been greatly puzzled. I am about to confess something to you. You will see me again,--often perhaps,--if you remain long in this country. It is my wish that you should not know who I am to-night. You will gain nothing by asking questions, either of me or of the Strikers. You will know in the near future, so let that be sufficient. At first I--"

"You have my promise not to disregard your wishes in this or any other matter," he said, bowing gravely. "I shall ask no questions."

"Ah, but you have been asking questions all to yourself ever since you came into this cabin and saw me--in all this finery--and you will continue to ask them," she declared positively. "I do not blame you. I can at least account for my incomprehensible costume. That much you shall have, if no more. This frock is a new one. It has just come up the river from St. Louis. I have never had it on until to-day. Another one, equally as startling, lies in that bedroom over there, and beside it on the bed is the dress I came here in this afternoon. It is a plain black dress, and there is a veil and a hideous black bonnet to go with it." She paused, a bright little gleam of mingled excitement and defiance in her eyes.

"You--you have lost--I mean, you are in mourning for some one?" he exclaimed. The thought rushed into his mind: Was she a widow? This radiantly beautiful girl a widow?

"For my father," she stated succinctly. "He died almost a year ago. I was in school at St. Louis when it happened. I had not seen him for two years. My mother sent for me to come home. Since that time I have worn nothing but black,--plain, horrible black. Do not misjudge me. I am not vain, nor am I as heartless as you may be thinking. I had and still have the greatest respect for my father. He was a good man, a fine man. But in all the years of my life he never spoke a loving word to me, he never caressed me, he never kissed me. He was kindness itself, but--he never looked at me with love in his eyes. I don't suppose you can understand. I was the flesh of his flesh, and yet he never looked at me with love in his eyes.

"As I grew older I began to think that he hated me. That is a terrible thing to say,--and you must think it vile of me to say it to you, a stranger. But I have said it, and I would not take it back. I have seen in his eyes,--they were brooding, thoughtful eyes,--I have seen in them at times a look--Oh, I cannot tell you what it seemed like to me. I can only say that it had something like despair in it,--sadness, unhappiness,--and I could not help feeling that I was the cause of it. When I was a tiny girl he never carried me in his arms. My mother always did that. When I was thirteen years old he hired me out as a servant in a farmer's family and I worked there until I was fourteen. It was not in this neighbourhood. I worked for my board and keep, a thing I could not understand and bitterly resented because he was prosperous. Then my mother fell ill. She was a strong woman, but she broke down in health. He came and got me and took me home. I was a big girl for my age,--as big as I am now,--and strong. I did all the work about the house until my mother was well again. He never gave me a word of appreciation or one of encouragement.

"He was never unkind, he never found fault with me, he never in all his life scolded or switched me when I was bad. Then, one day,--it was three years ago,--he told me to get ready to go down to St. Louis to school. He put me in charge of a trader and his wife who were going down the river by perogue. He gave them money to buy suitable clothes for me,--a large sum of money, it must have been,--and he provided me with some for my own personal use. All arrangements had been made in advance, without my knowing anything about it.

"I stayed there until I was called home by his death. I expected to return to school, but my mother refused to let me go back. She said my place was with her. That was last fall. She is still in the deepest mourning, and I believe will never dress otherwise. I have said all there is to say about my father. I did not love him, I was not grieved when he passed away. It was almost as if a stranger had died."

She paused. He took occasion to remark, sympathetically: "He must have been a strange man."

"He was," she said. "I hope I have made you understand what kind of a man he was, and what kind of a father he was to me. Now, I am coming to the point. This finery you see me in now was purchased without my mother's knowledge or consent,--with money of my own. The box was delivered to Phineas Striker day before yesterday up in Lafayette. I came here to spend the night, in order that I might try them on. I live in town, with my mother. She left the farm after my father's death. She adored him. She could not bear to live out there on the lonely--but, that is of no interest to you. A few weeks ago I asked her if I might not take off the black. She refused at first, but finally consented. I have her promise that I may put on colours sometime this spring. So I wrote to the woman who used to make my dresses in St. Louis,--my father was not stingy with me, so I always had pretty frocks,--and now they have come. My mother does not know about them. She will be shocked when I tell her I have them, but she will not be angry. She loves me. Is your curiosity satisfied? It will have to be, for this is all I care to divulge at present."

He smiled down into her earnest eyes. "My curiosity is appeased," he said. "I should not have slept tonight if you had not explained this tantalizing mystery. Therefore, I thank you. May I have your permission to say that you are very lovely in your new frock and that you are marvellously becoming to it?"

"As you have already said it, I must decline to give you the permission," she replied, naively.

He thought her adorable in this mood. "As a lawyer," he said, "I make a practice of never withdrawing a statement, unless I am convinced by incontrovertible evidence that I was wrong in the first place,--and you will have great difficulty in producing the proof."

"Wait till you see me in my black dress and bonnet,--and mittens," she challenged.

He bowed gallantly. "Only the addition of the veil,--it would have to be a very thick one,--I am sure,--could make me doubt my own eyes. They are witnesses whose testimony it will be very hard to shake."

Her manner underwent another transformation, as swift as it was unexpected. A troubled, harassed expression came into her eyes, driving out the sparkle that had filled them during that all too brief exchange. The smile died on her lips, which remained drawn and slightly parted as if frozen; she seemed for the moment to have stopped breathing. He was acutely alive to the old searching, penetrating look,--only now there was an added note of uneasiness. In another moment all this had vanished, and she was smiling again,--not warmly, frankly as before, but with a strange wistfulness that left him more deeply perplexed than ever.

"I wonder,--" she began, and then shook her head without completing the sentence. After a moment she went on: "Phineas is a long time. I hope all is well."

They heard the kitchen door open and close and Striker's voice loudly proclaiming the staunchness of his outbuildings, a speech cut short by Eliza's exasperation.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Phin Striker, not to come in this here kitchen without wipin' your feet? Might as well be the barn, fer as you're concerned. Go out an' scrape that mud offen your boots."

Deep mumbling and then the opening and shutting of the door again.

"Sometimes, I fear, poor Phineas finds matrimony very trying," said the girl, her eyes twinkling.

Eliza appeared in the doorway. She was rolling down her sleeves.

"How are you two gettin' along?" she inquired, looking from one to the other keenly. "I thought Phin was in here amusin' you the whole time with lies about him an' Dan'l Boone. He used to hunt with old Dan'l when he was a boy, an' if ever'thing happened to them two fellers that he sez happened, why, Phin'd have to be nearly two hundred years old by now an' there wouldn't be a live animal or Indian between here an' the Gulf of Mexico." She seemed a little uneasy. "I hope you two made out all right."

The girl spoke quickly, before her companion could reply. "We have had a most agreeable chat, Eliza. Are you through in the kitchen? If you are, would you mind coming into the bedroom with me? I want you to see the other dress on me, and besides I have a good many things I wish to talk over with you. Good night," she said to Gwynne. "No doubt we shall meet again."

He was dumbfounded. "Am I not to see you in the new dress?" he cried, visibly disappointed. "Surely you are not going to deny me the joy of beholding you in--"

She interrupted him almost cavalierly. "Pray save up some of your compliments against the day when you behold me in my sombre black, for I shall need them then. Again, good night."

"Good night," he returned, bowing stiffly and in high dudgeon.

Eliza, in hurrying past, had snatched one of the candlesticks from the mantel, and now stood holding the bedroom door open for the queenly young personage. A moment later the door closed behind them.

Gwynne was still scowling at the inoffensive door when Striker came blustering into the room.

"Where are the women?" he demanded, stopping short.

A jerk of the thumb was his answer.

"Gone to bed?" with something like an accusing gleam in his eye as his gaze returned to the young man.

"I believe so," replied Gwynne carelessly, as he sat down in the despised rocker and stretched his long legs out to the fire. "I fancy we are safe to smoke now, Striker. We have the parlor all to ourselves. The ladies have deserted us."

Striker took the tobacco pouch from the peg on the mantel and handed it to his guest.

"Fill up," he said shortly, and then walked over to the bedroom door. He rapped timorously on one of the thick boards. "Want me fer anything?" he inquired softly, as his wife opened the door an inch or two.

"No. Go to bed when you're ready an' don't ferget to smother that fire."

"Good night, Phineas," called out another voice merrily.

"Good night," responded Striker, with a dubious shake of his head. He returned to the fireplace.

"Women are funny things," said he, dragging up another chair. "'Specially about boots. I go out 'long about sun-up an' work like a dog all day, an' then when I come in to supper what happens? First thing my wife does is to look at my boots. Then she tells me to go out an' scrape the mud off'm 'em. Then she looks up at my face to see if it's me. Sometimes I get so doggoned mad I wish it wasn't me, so's I could turn out to be the preacher er somebody like that an' learn her to be keerful who she's talkin' to. Supposin' I do track a little mud into her kitchen? It's OUR mud, ain't it? 'Tain't as if it was somebody else's land I'm bringin' into her kitchen. Between us we own every danged bit of land from here to the Middleton dirt-road an' it ain't my fault if it happens to be mud once in awhile. You'd think, the way she acts, I'd been out stealin' somebody else's mud just for the sake of bringin' it into her kitchen.

"An' what makes me madder'n anything else is the way she scolds them pore dogs when they come in with a little mud. As if a dog understood he had to scrape his feet off an' wash his paws an' everything 'fore he c'n step inside his master's cabin. Now you take cats, they're as smart as all get out. They're jist like women. Allus thinkin' about their pussonal appearance. Ever notice a cat walk across a muddy strip o' ground? Why, you'd think they was walkin' on a red hot stove, the way they step. I've seen a cat go fifty rods out of her way to get around a mud-puddle. I recollect seein' ole Maje,--he's our principal tom-cat,--seein' him creepin' along a rail fence nearly half a mile from the house so's he wouldn't have to cross a stretch o' wet ground jist outside the kitchen door. Now, a dog would have splashed right through it an' took the consequences. But ole Maje--NO, SIR! He goes miles out'n his way an' then when he gits home he sets down on the doorstep an' licks his feet fer half an hour er so before he begins to meow so's Eliza'll open the door an' let him in.

"Ever' so often I got to tie a litter of kittens up in a meal-bag an' take 'em over to the river an' drownd 'em, an' I want to tell you it's a pleasure to do it. You never in all your life heerd of anybody puttin' a litter of pups in a bag an' throwin' 'em in the river, did ye? No, sirree! Dogs is like men. They grow up to be useful citizens, mud er no mud. Why, if I had a dog what sat down on the doorstep an' licked his paws ever' time he got mud on 'em I'd take him out an' shoot him, 'cause I'd know he wasn't no kind of a dog at all. Now, Eliza's tryin' to make me act like a cat, an' me hatin' cats wuss'n pison. There's setch a thing as bein' too danged clean, don't you think so? Sort o' takes the self-respect away from a man. Makes you feel as if you'd ort to have petticoats on in place o' pants. How do you like that terbaccer?"

Throughout the foregoing dissertation, Gwynne had sat with his moody gaze fixed upon the flaring logs, which Striker had kicked into renewed life with the heel of one of his ponderous boots, disdaining the stout charred poker that leaned against the chimney wall. He was pulling dreamily at the corncob pipe; the fragrant blue smoke, drifting toward the open fireplace, was suddenly caught by the draft and drawn stringily into the hot cavern where it was lost in the hickory volume that swept up the chimney.

He had taken in but a portion of his host's remarks; his thoughts were not of dogs and cats but of the perplexing girl who eagerly gave him her confidence in one moment and shrank into the iciest reticence the next. Her unreserved revelations concerning her own father, uttered with all the frankness of an intimate, and the childish ingenuousness with which she accounted for her raiment, followed so closely, so abruptly by the most insolent display of bad manners he had ever known, gave him ample excuse for reflection, and if he failed to obtain the full benefit of Striker's discourse it was because he had no power to command his addled thoughts. As a matter of fact, he was debating within himself the advisability of asking his host a few direct and pointed questions. A fine regard for Striker's position deterred him,--and to this regard was added the conviction that his host would probably tell him to mind his own business and not go prying into the affairs of others. He came out of his reverie in good time to avoid injury to his host's feelings.

"It is admirable," he assured him promptly. "Do you cure it yourself or does it come up the river from Kentucky?"

"Comes from Kentucky. We don't have much luck tryin' to raise terbaccer in these parts."

Whereupon Mr. Striker went into a long and intelligent lecture upon the products of the soil in that section of Indiana; what to avoid and what to cultivate; how to buy and how to sell; the traders one could trust and those who could not be trusted out of sight; the short corn crop of the year before and the way he lost half a dozen as fine shoats as you'd see in a lifetime on account of wild hogs coming out of the woods and enticin' 'em off. He interrupted himself at one stage in order to get up and close the door to the kitchen. Zachariah was snoring lustily.

"Whenever you feel like goin' to bed, jist say so," he said at last, as his guest drew his huge old silver watch from his pocket and glanced at it.

"I have been doing a little surmising, Mr. Striker," said the other. "You have only this sitting-room and one bedroom. The ladies are occupying the latter. My servant has gone to bed in the kitchen. I am wondering where you and I are to dispose ourselves."

"I could see you was doin' some figgerin', friend. Well, fer that matter, so was I. 'Tain't often she comes to spend the night here, an' when she does me an' Eliza give her our room an' bed an' we pull an extry straw tick out here in the room an' make the best of it. Now, as I figger it out, Eliza is usin' that straw tick herself, 'cause she certainly wouldn't ever dream of gettin' into bed with--with--er--her. Not but what she's clean an' all that,--I mean Eliza,--but you see, she used to be a hired girl once upon a time, an'--an'--well, that sort of makes a--"

"My fellow-guest confided to me a little while ago that she too had been a hired girl, Mr. Striker, so I don't see--"

"Did she tell you that?" demanded Phineas sharply.

"She did," replied Gwynne, enjoying his host's consternation.

"Well, I'll be tee-totally danged," exploded the settler. He got up suddenly and turning his back to his guest, knocked the burnt tobacco from his pipe against the stone arch of the fireplace. "I guess I better rake the ashes over these here coals," said he, "'cause if I don't an' the cabin took fire an' burnt us all alive Eliza'd never git done jawin' me about it." Presently he stood off and critically surveyed his work. "I guess that'll fix her so's she won't spit any sparks out here an' set fire to the carpet. As I was sayin', I reckon I'll have to make up a bed here in front of the fireplace fer myself, an' let you go up to the attic. We got a--"

"I was afraid of this, Mr. Striker. You are putting yourselves out terribly on my account. I can't allow it, sir. It is too much to ask--"

"Now, don't you worry about us. You ain't puttin' us out at all. One night last winter,--the coldest night we had,--Eliza an' me slep' on the kitchen floor with nary a blanket er quilt, an' I had to git up every half hour to put wood on the fire so's we wouldn't freeze to death, all because Joe Wadley an' his wife an' her father an' mother an' his sister with her three children dropped in sort of unexpected on account of havin' their two wagons git stuck in a snow drift a mile er so from here. No, sirree, don't you worry. There's a spare tick up in the attic what we use fer strangers when they happen along, an' Zachariah has put your blankets right here by the door,--an' your pistols, too, I see,--so whenever you're ready, I'll lead the way up the ladder an' show you where you're to roost. There's a little winder at one end, so's you c'n have all the air you want,--an', my stars, there's a lot of it to-night, ain't there? Jist listen to her whistle. Sounds like winter. She's changed, though, an' I wouldn't be surprised if we'd find the moon is shinin'."

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