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Round Anvil Rock: A Romance, Page 2

Nancy Huston Banks



  So far as they knew, there was no tie of blood or relationship bindingthem to the kind people of Cedar House. Yet it was the only home thatthey could remember and very dear to them both.

  It was a great square of rough, dark logs, and seemed now, seen throughthe uncertain light, to stand in the centre of a shadowy hamlet, so manysmaller cabins were clustered around it. The custom of the country wasto add cabin after cabin as the family outgrew the original log house.The instinct of safety, the love of kindred, and the longing for societyin the perilous loneliness of the wilderness held these firstKentuckians very close together. So that as their own villages thus grewaround them and only their own dwelt near them, they naturally became asclannish as their descendants have been ever since.

  The cabin nearest Cedar House contained two rooms, and was used by itsmaster, Judge Knox, for his own bedroom and law office. There was astill larger cabin somewhat more distant from the main building, whichwas intended for the use of his nephew, William Pressley, on themarriage of that young lawyer to Ruth. But the wedding was some time offyet, having been set for Christmas Eve, and the cabin which was towelcome the bride from Cedar House was not quite complete. The smallestand the oldest cabin was David's. The long black line of cabinscrouching under the hillside where the shadows were deepest, marked thequarters of the slaves,--a dark storm-cloud already settling heavily onthe fair horizon of the new state.

  Cedar House itself was the grandest of its time in all that country.Built entirely of huge red cedar logs it was two stories in height, thefirst house of more than one story standing on the shores of thesouthern Ohio. Its roof was the wonder and envy of the whole region formany years. The shingles were of black walnut, elegantly rounded at thebutt-ends. They were fastened on with solid walnut pegs driven in holesbored through both the shingles and the laths with a brace and a bit.For there was not a nail in Cedar House from its firm foundation to itsfine roof. Even the hinges and the latch of the wide front door weremade of wood. The judge often mentioned this fact with much pride, andnever failed to add that the leathern latch-string always hung outside.But he was still prouder of the massive, towering chimney of CedarHouse, and with good reason. The other houses thinly scattered throughthe wilderness had humble chimneys of sticks covered with clay. Thechimney of Cedar House was of rough stone--of one hundred wagon loads,as the judge boasted--which had been hauled with great difficulty over along distance, because there was none near by.

  On the wide hearth of this great chimney a fire was always burning. Nomatter what the season or the weather might be, there was always asolemn ceremony around the hearth when the fire was renewed, at thebeginning and the close of every day all the year round. In winter itwas a glorious bonfire consuming great logs. In summer it was the merestglimmer that could hold a flickering spark. Between winter and summer,as on this mild October evening, a bright flame sometimes danced gaylybehind the big brass andirons, while all the windows and doors were wideopen. But through cold and heat, and burning high or low, the fire wasnever entirely forgotten, never quite permitted to go out. Thus everalight it burned like a sacred flame on the altar of home.

  Streaming from the doors and windows that night, it gave the youth andthe maiden a cheerful welcome as they came up the darkening hillside.Lamplight also began to glimmer, and candles flitted here and therebefore the windows and door, borne by the dark shapes of the servantswho were laying the table for supper. The main room of Cedar Houseopened directly upon the river front; and when brightly lighted, itcould be distinctly seen from without. Ruth and David paused on thethreshold, still unconsciously holding one another's hands, and lookedin.

  There were five persons in the room, three men and two women, and theywere all members of the household with the exception of Philip Alston,the white-haired gentleman, whose appearance bore no other mark of age.And he also might have been considered as one of the family, since hehad been coming to the house daily for many years. He came usually tosee Ruth, but of late he had found it necessary to see William Pressleymore often; and they were talking eagerly and in a low tone, ratherapart, when the boy and girl paused to see and hear what was takingplace within the great room. William Pressley sat in the easiest chairin the warmest corner, close to the hearth. There are some men--and afew women--who always take the softest seat in the best place, and theydo it so naturally that no one ever thinks of their doing anything elseor expects them to sit elsewhere. William Pressley was one of thesepersons. In the next easiest chair, on the other side of the hearth, washis aunt, the widow Broadnax, whose short, broad, shapeless, inertfigure was lying rather than sitting almost buried in a heap ofcushions. This lady was the sister of the judge and the half-sister ofthe other lady, Miss Penelope Knox,--the thin, nervous, restless littleold woman,--who was fidgeting back and forth between the hearth and thedoorway leading to the distant kitchen. The relationship of these twoladies to one another, and the difference in their relationship to thehead of Cedar House, caused much dissension in the household, and gaverise to certain domestic complications which always rose when leastexpected.

  The fire had been freshly kindled with small twigs of the sugar maple,that priceless tree often standing fifty to an acre in the wilderness,and giving the pioneers their best fire-wood, their coolest shade, andtheir sweetest food. Vivid blue sparks were still flashing among thelittle white stars of the gray moss on the big backlog. From the blazingends of the log there came the soft, airy music and the faint, sweetscent of bubbling sap. This main room of Cedar House was very large,almost vast, taking up the whole lower floor. It was the dining room aswell as the sitting room; and when some grand occasion arose, it servedeven as a drawing-room, and did it handsomely, too. This great room ofCedar House always reminded David of the ancient halls in "The FamousHistory of Montilion," a romance of chivalry from which most of hisideas of life were taken, and upon which most of his ideals of livingwere formed. Surely, he thought, the castle of the "Knight of theOracle" could not be grander than this great room of Cedar House.

  The rich dark wood of its walls and floor--all rudely smoothed with thebroadaxe and the whipsaw--hung overhead in massive beams. From theselow, blackened timbers there swung many antique lamps, splendid enoughfor a palace and strangely out of place in a log house of thewilderness. On the rough walls there were also large sconces ofburnished silver but poorly filled with tallow candles. In the barespaces between these silver sconces were the heads of wild animalsmingled with many rifles, both old and new, and other arms of thehunter. Over the tall mantelpiece there were crossed two untarnishedswords which had been worn by the judge's father in the Revolution. Onthe red cedar of the floor, polished by wear and rubbing, there lay theskins of wild beasts, together with costly foreign rugs. The samestrange mixture of rudeness and refinement was to be seen everywherethroughout the room. The table standing in the centre of the floor,ready for the evening meal, was made of unplaned boards, rudely puttogether by the unskilled hands of the backwoods. Yet it was set withthe finest china, the rarest glass, and the richest silver that thegreatest skill of the old world could supply. The chairs placed aroundthe table were made of unpainted wood from the forest, with seats wovenout of the coarse rushes from the river. And there, between the frontwindows, stood Ruth's piano, the first in that part of the wilderness,and as fine as the finest of its day anywhere.

  It is true that something like the same confusion of luxury and wildnesswas becoming more or less common throughout the country. The wain trainswhich had lately followed the packhorse trains over theAlleghanies--with the widening of the Wilderness Road--were alreadybringing many comforts and even luxuries to the cabins of the well-to-dosettlers. But nothing like those which were fetched constantly to CedarHouse ever came to any other household; and it was not the family whocaused them to be brought there. For while the judge was a man of wealthfor his time and place, and able to give his family greater comfort thanhis poorer neighbors could afford, he was fa
r from having the means,much less the taste and culture, to gather such costly, beautiful, andrare things as were gathered together in Cedar House. It was throughPhilip Alston that everything of this kind had come. It was he who hadchosen everything and paid for it, and ordered it fetched over themountains from Virginia or up the river from France or Spain--all asgifts from him to Ruth. It was natural enough that he should give herwhatever he wished her to have, and there was no reason why she shouldnot accept any and everything that he gave. She was held by him and byevery one as his adopted daughter. He had no children of his own, norelations of any degree so far as any one knew, and he was known to begenerous and believed to be very rich. Indeed no one thought much abouthis gifts to Ruth; they had long since become a matter of course, a partof the everyday life of Cedar House. They had begun with Ruth's comingmore than seventeen years before. As a baby she had been rocked in acradle such as never before had been seen in the wilderness,--a very gemof wonderful carving and inlaid work from Spain. As a little child shehad been dressed--as no little one of the wild wood ever had beenbefore--in the finest fabrics and the daintiest needlework from thelooms and convents of France. Very strange things may become familiarthrough use. The simple people of Cedar House and their rude neighborswere well used to all this. They had seen the beautiful blue-eyed babygrow to be a more beautiful child, and the child to a most beautifulmaiden, and always surrounded by the greatest refinement and luxury thatlove and means could bring into the wilderness. Naturally enough theynow found nothing to wonder at, in the daily presence of this radiantyoung figure among them.

  It was only for an instant that the girl and boy stood thus unseen onthe threshold of Cedar House, looking into the great room. Philip Alstonsaw them almost at once. He had been watching and waiting for Ruth, ashe always was when she was out of his sight even for a moment. He sprangup, quickly and alertly, like a strong young man, and went to meet herwith his gallant air. She held up her cheek smilingly; he bent andkissed it, and taking her hand with his grand bow, led her across theroom. The judge and his nephew also arose, as they always did when shecame in or went out. The judge did this unconsciously, without thinking,and scarcely knowing that he did do it; for he was a plain man, ratherawkward and very absent-minded, and deeply absorbed in the study of hisprofession. William Pressley did it with deliberate intention andself-consciousness, as he did everything that he deemed fitting. It washis nature to give grave thought to the least thing that he said or did.It was his sincere conviction that the smallest matter affecting himselfwas of infinitely greater importance than the greatest that couldpossibly concern any one else. There are plenty of people who believethis as sincerely as he believed it, but there are few who show thebelief with his candor. When he now stood up to place a chair for Ruthbeside his own, he did the simple service as if the critical eyes of theworld had been upon him. And his manner was so consciously correct thatno one observed that the chair which he gave her was not so comfortableas his own. He was uncommonly good-looking, also, and tall and shapely,yet there was something about his full figure--that vague,indescribable something--which unmistakably marks the lack of virilityin mind or body, no matter how large or handsome a man may be. He stoodfor a moment after Ruth was seated, and then, seeing that Philip Alstonwas about to lift a candle-stand which was heaped with parcels, he wentto aid him, and the two men together set the little table before her.She looked at it with soft, excited cries of surprise and delight,instantly divining that the unopened parcels and sealed boxes containedmore of the gifts which her foster-father was constantly lavishing uponher. He smiled down at her beaming face and dancing eyes, and thentaking out his pocket-knife he cut the cords and removed the covers ofthe boxes. As the wrappings fell away, there was a shimmer of dazzlingtissues, silver and gold.

  "Oh! oh!" she cried.

  "Just a few pretty trifles, my dear," he said. "You like them?"

  "Like them!"

  Repeating his words she sprang up, and running round the candle-stand,stood on the very tips of her toes so that she might throw her armsabout his neck. He bent his head to meet her upturned face, and if evertenderness shone in a man's pale, grave face, it shone then in his. Ifever love--pure and unselfish--beamed from a man's eyes, it was beamingnow from those looking down in the girl's face. His tender gazefollowed her fondly as she went back to the candle-stand and began toexamine each article again more than once and with lingering and growingdelight. She found new beauties every moment, and pointed them out tothe three men and the boy who were now gathered around her. She calledthe ladies also, over and over, but they did not come, although theycast many glances at the candle-stand.

  Miss Penelope was engaged in making the coffee for supper; and while shedid not consider the making of the coffee for supper quite so vital amatter as the making of the coffee for breakfast, she still could notthink of leaving the hearth under any inducement so long as thecoffee-pot sat on its trivet above the glowing coals. The widow Broadnaxstirred among her cushions once or twice, as if almost on the point oftrying to get out of her chair. She was fonder of finery than herhalf-sister was, and she would have liked very much to see thesebeautiful things nearer. But she was still fonder of her own ease thanof finery, and it was really a great deal of trouble to get out of herdeep, broad low chair. And then she never moved or took her eyes off herhalf-sister while that energetic lady was engaged in making the coffee.

  Knowing the ladies' ways, Ruth did not expect them to come. She wasquite satisfied to have the men share her pleasure in the presents.They were looking at her and not at the gifts lying heaped on thecandle-stand, but she did not notice that. She gave the judge apriceless piece of lace to hold. He took it with the awkward, helplessembarrassment of a manly man handling a woman's delicatebelongings,--the awkwardness that goes straight to a woman's heart,because she sees and feels its true reverence--a reverence just as plainand just as sweet to the simplest country girl as to the wisest woman ofthe world. The perception of it is a matter of intuition, not one ofexperience. The least experienced woman instantly distrusts the man whocan touch her garments with ease or composure. Ruth's gay young voicebroke into a sweet chime of delighted laughter when the judge seized theairy bit of lace as if it had been the heaviest and hottest of crowbars.She laughed again when she looked at his face. He had an odd trick oflifting one of his eyebrows very high and at an acute angle whenperplexed or ill at ease. This eccentric left eyebrow--now quitewedge-shaped--had gone up almost to the edge of his tousled gray hair.Ruth patted his great clumsy hands with her little deft ones.

  "Well, I'll have to take to the woods, if there's no other way ofescape," said the judge, making his greatest threat.

  "You dear!" she said, running her arm through his and giving it a littlesqueeze. "That's right. Hold it tight--be careful, or it will break.Here, William," piling the young man's arms full of delicately tintedgauze, "this is a sunset cloud. And these," casting lengths of exquisitetissue over the boy's shoulder, "these are the mists of the dawn,David,--all silvery white and golden rose and jewelled blue. But--oh!oh!--these are the loveliest of all! A pair of slippers inorange-blossom kid, spangled with silver! Look at them! Just look,everybody!"

  Holding them in her hand she ran round the table again to throw her armsabout Philip Alston's neck the second time, like a happy, excited child.The little white slippers went up with her arms and touched his cheek.And then he drew them down, and clasping her slender wrists, held herout before him and looked at her with fond, smiling eyes.

  "I don't believe that the Empress Josephine has any prettier slippersthan those," he said. "I ordered the prettiest and the finest in Paris."

  "Who fetched all these things?" the judge broke in, with something likea sudden realization of the number and the value of the gifts.

  "Oh, a friend of mine," responded Philip Alston, carelessly, and withoutturning his head,--"a friend who has many ships constantly going andcoming between New Orleans and France. He orders anything I wish; andwhen it comes to
him, he sends it on to me by the first flatboatcordelled up the river."

  "What is his name?" asked the judge, with a persistence very uncommon inhim.

  Philip Alston turned now and glanced at him with an easy, almostbantering smile.

  "I don't like to tell you his name, because you--with a good many otherhonestly mistaken people--are most unjustly prejudiced against him. Andthen you know well enough that I am speaking of my respected and trustedfriend, Monsieur Jean Lafitte."

  The judge dropped the lace as if it had burnt his hand. He went back tohis seat by the window in silence. He sat down heavily and looked atPhilip Alston in perplexity, rubbing his great shock of rough grizzledhair the wrong way as he always did when worried. His thoughts wereplainly to be read on his open, rugged face. This liking of PhilipAlston's for a man under a national ban was an old subject of worry andperplexity. Yet Alston was always as frank and as firm about it as hehad been just now, and the judge's confidence in him was absolute.Robert Knox's own character must have changed greatly before he couldhave doubted the sincerity of any one whom he had known as long, asintimately, and as favorably as he had known Philip Alston. We all judgeothers by ourselves,--whether we do it consciously or not,--since wehave no other way of judging. And the judge himself was so simple, sosincere, so essentially honest, that he could not doubt one who was in away a member of his own family. And then he was absent-minded,unobservant, easy-going, indolent, and the slave of habit, as such anature is apt to be. Moreover, he was not always master of the slightpower of observation which had been given him. That very day, while onhis way home from the court-house, he had stopped at a cabin whereliquor was sold. As a consequence, this sudden touch of uneasiness whicharoused him for an instant was forgotten nearly as suddenly as it came.So that after looking bewilderedly at Philip Alston once or twice, henow began to nod and doze.