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Round Anvil Rock: A Romance

Nancy Huston Banks

  Produced by Gene Smethers and PG Distributed Proofreaders







  "The Angelus was pealing from the bell of the littlelog chapel."]



  In weaving a romance round a real rock and through actual events, thistale has taken no great liberty with fact. It has, indeed, claimed thefreedom of fiction only in drawing certain localities and incidentssomewhat closer together than they were in reality. And it has done thisnotably in but three instances: by allowing the Wilderness Road to seemnearer the Ohio River than it really was; by anticipating theestablishment of the Sisters of Charity; and by disregarding thetradition that Philip Alston had gone from the region of Cedar Housebefore the time of the story, and that he died elsewhere. Thesedeviations are all rather slight, yet they are, nevertheless, essentialto any faithful description of the country, the time, and the people,which this tale tries to describe. The Wilderness Road--everywhere--cameso close to the life of the whole country that no true story of the timecan ever be told apart from it. The Sisters of Charity were establishedso early and did so much in the making of Kentucky, that a few monthsearlier in coming to one locality or a few years later in reachinganother, cannot make their noble work any less vitally a part of everytale of the wilderness. The influence of Philip Alston over the countryin which he lived, lasted so much longer than his life, and the precisedate and manner of his death are go uncertain, that his romantic careermust always remain inseparably interwoven with all the romance ofsouthern Kentucky. And it is for these reasons that this story of nearlya hundred years ago, has thus claimed a few of the many privileges offiction.





























  "The Angelus was pealing from the bell of the little log chapel"

  "A dark, confused ... writhing mass of humanity"

  "'I wanted to shake the hand of a man like you'"

  Father Orin and Toby

  "For she also was riding a great race"

  "She was making an aeolian harp"




  The Beautiful River grows very wide in making its great bend aroundwestern Kentucky. On the other side, its shores are low for many miles,but well guarded by giant cottonwoods. These spectral trees stand closeto its brink and stretch their phantom arms far over its broad waters,as if perpetually warding off the vast floods that rush down from theNorth.

  But the floods are to be feared only in the winter or spring, never inthe summer or autumn. And nearly a hundred years ago, when the river'sshores were bound throughout their great length by primeval forests,there was less reason to fear at any season. So that on a day of Octoberin the year eighteen hundred and eleven, the mighty stream lay safelywithin its deep bounds flowing quietly on its way to join the Father ofWaters.

  So gently it went that there was scarcely a ripple to break its silverysurface. It seemed indeed hardly to move, reflecting the shadowycottonwoods like a long, clear, curving mirror which was dimmed only bythe breath of the approaching dusk. Out in the current beyond theshadows of the trees, there still lingered a faint glimmer of theafterglow's pale gold. But the red glory of the west was dying behindthe whitening cottonwoods and beyond the dense dark forest--reaching onand on to the seeming end of the earth--a billowing sea of everdeepening green. The last bright gleam of golden light was passing awayon the white sail of a little ship which was just turning the distantbend, where the darkening sky bent low to meet the darkened wilderness.

  The night was creeping from the woods to the waters as softly as thewild creatures crept to the river's brim to drink before sleeping. Thestill air was lightly stirred now and then by rushing wings, as themyriad paroquets settled among the shadowy branches. The soft murmuringof the reeds that fringed the shores told where the waterfowl hadalready found resting-places. The swaying of the cane-brakes--near andfar--signalled the secret movements of the wingless wild things whichhad only stealth to guard them against the cruelty of nature and againstone another. The heaviest waves of cane near the great Shawnee Crossingmight have followed a timid red deer. For the Shawnees had vanished fromtheir town on the other side of the Ohio. Warriors and women andchildren--all were suddenly and strangely gone; there was not even acanoe left to rock among the rushes. The swifter, rougher waving of thecane farther off may have been in the wake of a bold gray wolf. Thehowling of wolves came from the distance with the occasional gusts ofwind, and as often as the wolves howled, a mysterious, melancholybooming sounded from the deeper shadows along the shores. It was anuneasy response from the trumpeter swans, resting like some wonderfulsilver-white lilies on the quiet bosom of the dark river.

  A great river has all the sea's charm and much of its mystery andsadness. The boy standing on the Kentucky shore was under this spell ashe listened to these sounds of nature at nightfall on the Ohio, andwatched the majestic sweep of its waters--unfettered andunsullied--through the boundless and unbroken forests. Yet he turnedeagerly to listen to another sound that came from human-kind. It was thewild music of the boatman's horn winding its way back from the littleship, now far away and rounding the dusky bend. Partly flying and partlyfloating, it stole softly up the shadowed river. The melody echoed fromthe misty Kentucky hills, lingered under the overhanging trees, rambledthrough the sighing cane-brakes, loitered among the murmuringrushes--thus growing ever fainter, sweeter, wilder, sadder, as it came.He did not know why this sound of the boatman's horn always touched himso keenly and moved him so deeply. He could not have told why his eyesgrew strangely dim as he heard it now, or why a strange tightening camearound his heart. He was but an ignorant lad of the woods. It was notfor him to know that these few notes--so few, so simple, so artlesslyblown by a rude boatman--touched the deep fountain of the soul, loosingthe mighty torrent pent up in every human breast. Pity, tenderness,yearning, the struggle and the triumph of life,--the boy felt everythingand all unknowingly, but with quivering sensibility. For he was notmerely an ignorant lad; he was also one of those who are set apartthroughout their lives to feel many things which they are neverpermitted to comprehend.

  When the last echo of the boatman's horn had melted among the darklinghills, he turned as instinctively as a sun-worshipper faces the east anddrank in another musical refrain. The Angelus was pealing faintly fromthe bell of the little log chapel far up the river, hidden among thetre
es. The faith which it betokened was not his own faith, nor the faithof those with whom he lived, but the beauty and sweetness of the tokenappealed to him none the less. How beautiful, how sweet it was! As itthus came drifting down with the river's deepening shadows, he thoughtof the little band of Sisters--angels of charity--kneeling under thatrough roof; those brave gentlewomen of high birth and delicate breedingwho were come with the very first to take an heroic part in the makingof Kentucky and, so doing, in the winning of the whole West. As the boythought of them with a swelling heart,--for they had been kind tohim,--it seemed that they were braver than the hunters, more courageousthan the soldiers. Listening to the appeal of the Angelus stealing sotenderly through the twilight, with the strain of poetry that was in himthrilling in response, he felt that the prayers then going up must fillthe cruel wilderness with holy incense; that the coming of these gentleSisters must subdue the very wild beasts, as the presence of the lovelymartyrs subdued the lions of old.

  "Ah, David! David!" cried a gay young voice behind him. "Dreamingagain--with your eyes wide open. And seeing visions, too, no doubt."

  He turned with a guilty start and looked up at Ruth. She was standingnear by but higher on the river bank, and her slender white form washalf concealed by the drooping foliage of a young willow tree. There wassomething about Ruth herself that always made him think of a youngwillow with every graceful wand in bloom. And now--as nearlyalways--there was a flutter of soft whiteness about her, for the day wasas warm as mid-summer. He could not have told what it was that she wore,but her fluttering white garments might have been woven of the miststraining over the hills, so ethereal they looked, seen through thegolden green of the delicate willow leaves that were still gilded bythe afterglow which had vanished from the shadowed river. Her smilingface could not have been more radiant had the sunlight shone full uponit. The dusk of evening seemed always lingering under the long curlinglashes that made her blue eyes so dark, and her hair was as black atmidday as at midnight. So that now--when she shook her head at theboy--a wonderful long, thick, silky lock escaped its fastenings, and thewind caught it and spun it like silk into the finest blue-black floss.

  "Yes, sir, you've been dreaming again! You needn't pretend you werethinking--you don't know how to think. Thinking is not romantic enough.I have been here watching you for a long time, and I know just howromantic the dreams are that you have been dreaming. I could tell by theway you turned,--this way and that,--looking up and down the river. Italways bewitches you when the sun goes and the shadows come. I knew Ishould find you here, just like this; and I came on purpose to wake andscold you."

  She pretended to draw her pretty brow into a frown, but she could nothelp smiling.

  "Seriously, dear, you must stop dreaming. It is a dreadful thing to be adreamer in a new country. State makers should all be wide-awake workers.You are out of place here; as Uncle Philip Alston says--"

  "Then why did he put me here?" the boy burst out bitterly.

  "David!" she cried in wounded reproach, "how can you? It hurts me tohear you say things like that. I can't bear to hear any one say anythingagainst him--I love him so. And from you--who owe him almost as much asI do--"

  The tears were very near. But she was a little angry, too, and her blueeyes flashed.

  "No; no one owes him so much--as myself. He couldn't have been sogood--no one ever could be so good to any one else as he has always beento me. Still"--softening suddenly, for she was fond of the boy, andsomething in his sensitive face went to her tender heart--"think, David,dear, we owe him everything we have,--our names, our home, our clothes,our education, our very lives. We must never for a moment forget that itwas he who found us all alone--you in a cabin on the Wilderness Road andme in a boat at Duff's Fort--and brought us in his own arms to CedarHouse. And you know as well as I do that he would have given us a homein his own house if it had not been so rough and bare a place, a merecamp. And then there was no woman in it to take care of us, and we wereonly little mites of babies--poor, crying, helpless morsels of humanity.Where do you think we came from, David? I wonder and wonder and wonder!"wistfully, with her gaze on the darkening river.

  It was an old question, and one that they had been asking themselvesand one another and every one, over and over, ever since they had beenold enough to think. The short story which Philip Alston had told wasall that he or any one knew or ever was to know. The boy silently shookhis head. The girl went on:--

  "Sometimes I am sorry that we couldn't live in his house. You would haveunderstood him better and have loved him more--as he deserves. It isonly that you don't really know each other," she said gently. "And thenI should like to do something for him--something to cheer him--who doeseverything for me. It must be very sad to be alone and old. It grievesme to see him riding away to that desolate cabin, especially on stormynights. But he never will let me come to his house, though I beg andbeg. He says it is too rough, and that too many strange men are comingand going on business."

  "Yes; too many strange men on very strange business."

  She did not hear or notice what he said, because the sound of horses'feet echoing behind them just at that moment caused her to turn herhead. Two horsemen were riding along the river bank, but they were along way off and about turning into the forest path as her gaze fellupon them. She stood still, silently looking after them till theydisappeared among the trees.

  "Father Orin and Toby will get home before dark to-night. That issomething uncommon," she said with a smile.

  Toby was the priest's horse, but no one ever spoke of the one withoutthinking of the other; and then, Toby's was a distinct and widelyrecognized personality.

  "But who is the stranger with them, David? Oh, I remember! It must bethe new doctor,--the young doctor who has lately come and who is curingthe Cold Plague. The Sisters told me. They said that he and Father Orinoften visited the sick together and were already great friends. How tallhe is--even taller than Father Orin, and broader shouldered. I shouldlike to see his face. And how straight he sits in the saddle. You wouldexpect a man who holds himself so to carry a lance and tilt fearlesslyat everything that he thought was wrong."

  She turned, quickly tossing the willow branches aside and laughinggayly. "There now, that will set you off thinking of your knights again!But you must not. Truly, you must not. For it is quite true, dear; youare a dreamer, a poet. You do indeed belong to the Arcadian Hills. Youshould be there now, playing a gentle shepherd's pipe and herding hispeaceful flocks. And instead--alas!"--she looked at him in perplexitywhich was partly real and partly assumed--"instead you are here in thisawful wilderness, carrying a rifle longer and heavier than yourself, andtrying to pretend that you like to kill wild beasts, or can endure tohurt any living thing."

  David said nothing; there seemed to be no response for him to make. Whena well-grown youth of eighteen or thereabouts is spoken to by a girlnear his own age as he had just been spoken to by Ruth, he rarely findsanything to say. No words could do justice to what he feels. And thereis nothing for him to do either, unless it be to take refuge in adignified silence which disdains the slightest notice of the offence.This was what David resorted to, and, bending down, he calmly andquietly raised his forgotten rifle from the ground to his shoulder. Hedid it very slowly and impressively, however, in the hope that Ruthmight realize the fact that he had killed the buck whose huge horns madethe rifle's rest on his cabin walls. But she saw and realized only thathe was wounded, and instantly darted toward him like a swallow. Shecaught his rigid rifle arm and clung to it, looking up in his set face.Her blue eyes were already filling with tears while the smile was stillon her lips. That was Ruth's way; her smiles and tears were even closertogether than most women's are; she was nearly always quiveringly poisedbetween gayety and sadness; like a living sunbeam continually glancingacross life's shadows.

  "What is it, David, dear?" she pleaded, with her sweet lips close to hisear. "What foolish thing have I said? You must know--whatever itwas--that it was all in fun. Why, I woul
dn't have you different, dear,if I could! I couldn't love you so much if you were not just what youare. And yet," sighing, "it might be better for you."

  She laid her head against his shoulder and drew closer to him in thatsoft little nestling way of hers. David looked straight over the lovelyhead, keeping his grim gaze as high as he could. He knew how it would beif his stern gray eyes were to meet Ruth's wet blue ones. He was still aboy, but trying to be a man--and beginning to understand. No man withhis heart in the right place could hold out against her pretty coaxing.It was sweet enough to wile the very birds out of the trees. It made nodifference that he had been used to her wiles from babyhood up. To beused to Ruth's ways only made them harder to resist. No stranger couldpossibly have foreseen his defeat as clearly as David foresaw his at themoment that she started toward him. But self-respect required him tostand firm as long as possible, although he felt the strength going outof his rifle arm under her clinging touch. She felt it going, too, andbegan to smile through her tears. And then, sure of her victory, shethrew caution to the winds--as older and wiser women have done tooopenly in vanquishing stronger and more masterful men. She let him seethat she knew she had conquered, which is always a fatal mistake on thepart of a woman toward a man. Smiling and dimpling, she put up her handand patted his cheek--precisely as if he had been a child.

  The boy shrunk as if the caress had been a touch of fire. He broke awayand strode off up the hillside with his longest, manliest stride. Thishumiliation was past bearing or forgiving. He could have forgiven beingcalled a dreamer--a useless drone--among the men of clear heads andstrong hands who had already wrested a great state from the wilderness,and who, through this conquest, were destined to become the immortalfounders of the Empire of the West. He could have overlooked beingspoken to like a child by a girl who might be younger than himself forall he or she knew to the contrary--though this would have been harder.He might even have forgiven that pat on his cheek which was downy withbeard, had he been either younger or older. But as it was--well, thematter may safely be left to the sympathy of the man who remembers themost sensitive time of his own youth; that trying period when he feelshimself to be no longer a boy and nobody else considers him a man.

  David did not know where he was going or what he meant to do. He wasblindly striding up the river bank away from Ruth, fairly aflame withthe determination to do something--anything--to prove his manhood. Fornothing ever makes a boy resolve quite so suddenly and firmly to becomea man instantly as to be treated by a girl as he had been by Ruth. Hadthe most desperate danger then come in David's way, he would have hailedand hazarded it with delight. But he could not think of anything tooverwhelm her with just at that moment, and so he could only stride onin helpless, angry silence. Ruth flew after him as if her thin whiteskirts had been strong, swift wings. She overtook him before he had gonevery far, and clung to him again more than ever like some beautifulwhite spirit of the woods wreathed in mist, with her soft blown garmentsand her softer blown hair. She merely wound herself around him at first,breathless and panting. But as soon as she caught her breath thecoaxing, the laughing, and the crying came all together. David kept fromlooking down as long as he could, but his pace slackened and his armagain relaxed. Finally--taken off guard--he glanced at the face so nearhis breast. The dusk could not dim its beauty and only made it morelovely. No more resistance was possible for him--or for any man orboy--who saw Ruth as she looked then. David's big rough hand was nowsurrendered meekly enough to the quick clasp of her little fingers,and--forgetting all the daring deeds that he meant to do--he was ledlike any lamb up the hill to the open door of Cedar House.