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Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 18625

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The first Penhallow crossed the Alleghanies long before the War for Independence and on the frontier of civilisation took up land where the axe was needed for the forest and the rifle for the Indian. He made a clearing and lived a hard life of peril, wearily waiting for the charred stumps to rot away.

The younger men of the name in Colonial days and later left the place early, and for the most part took to the sea or to the army, if there were activity in the way of war. In later years, others drifted westward on the tide of border migration, where adventure was always to be had. This stir of enterprise in a breed tends to extinction in the male lines. Men are thinned out in their wooing of danger-the belle dame sans merci. Thus there were but few Penhallows alive at any one time, and yet for many years they bred in old-fashioned numbers.

As time ran on, a Penhallow prospered in the cities, and clinging to the land added fresh acres as new ambitions developed qualities which are not infrequently found in descendants of long-seated American families. It was not then, nor is it now, rare in American life to find fortune-favoured men returning in later days to the homes of their youth to become useful in many ways to the communities they loved. One of these, James Penhallow,-and there was always a James,-after greatly prospering in the ventures of the China trade, was of the many who about 1800 bought great tracts of land on the farther slope of the Pennsylvania Alleghanies. His own purchases lay near and around the few hundred acres his ancestor took up and where an aged cousin was left in charge of the farm-house. When this tenant died, the house decayed, and the next Penhallow weary of being taxed for unproductive land spent a summer on the property, and with the aid of engineers found iron in plenty and soft coal. He began about 1830 to develop the property, and built a large house which he never occupied and which was long known in the county as "Penhallow's Folly." It was considered the more notably foolish because of being set, in unAmerican fashion, deep in the woods, and remote from the highway. What was believed to be the oldest pine-tree in the county gave to the place the popular name of "Grey Pine" and being accepted by the family when they came there to live, "Penhallow's Folly" ceased to be considered descriptive.

The able and enterprising discoverer of mines had two sons. One of them, the youngest, married late in life, and dying soon after left a widow and a posthumous son John, of whom more hereafter. The elder brother was graduated from West Point, served some years with distinction, and marrying found himself obliged to resign his captaincy on his father's death to take charge of the iron-mills and mines, which had become far more important to the family than their extensive forest-holdings on the foot-hills of the western watershed of the Alleghanies.

The country had long been well settled. The farmers thrived as the mills and mines needed increasing supplies of food and the railway gave access to market. The small village of Westways was less fortunate than the county. Strung along the side of the road opposite to Penhallow's woods, it had lost the bustling prosperity of a day when the Conestoga wagons stopped over-night at the "General Wayne Inn" and when as yet no one dreamed that the new railroad would ruin the taverns set at intervals along the highway to Pittsburgh. Now that Westways Crossing, two miles away, had been made the nearest station, Westways was left to live on the mill-wages and such profits as farming furnished.

When Captain James Penhallow repaired the neglected house and kept the town busy with demands for workmen, the village woke up for a whole summer. In the autumn he brought to Grey Pine his wife, Ann Grey, of the well-known Greys of the eastern shore of Maryland. A year or two of discomfort at Western army-posts and a busy-minded, energetic personality, made welcome to this little lady a position which provided unaccustomed luxuries and a limitless range of duties, such as were to her what mere social enjoyments are to many women. Grey Pine-the house, the flower and kitchen-gardens, the church to be built-and the schools at the mills, all were as she liked it, having been bred up amid the kindly despotism of a great plantation with its many dependent slaves.

When Ann Penhallow put Grey Pine and the Penhallow crest on her notepaper, her husband said laughing that women had no rights to crests, and that although the arms were surely his by right of good Cornish descent, he thought their use in America a folly. This disturbed Ann Penhallow very little, but when they first came to Grey Pine the headings of her notepaper were matters of considerable curiosity to the straggling village of Westways, where she soon became liked, respected, and moderately feared. A busy-minded woman, few things in the life of the people about her escaped her notice, and she distributed uninvited counsel or well-considered charity and did her best to restrain the more lavish, periodical assistance when harvests were now and then bad-which made James Penhallow a favourite in the county.

Late in the summer of 1855, John Penhallow's widow, long a wandering resident in Europe, acquired the first serious illness of a self-manufactured life of invalidism and promptly died at Vevey. Her only child, John, was at once ordered home by his uncle and guardian, James Penhallow, and after some delay crossed the sea in charge of his tutor. The dependent little fellow hid under a natural reserve what grief he felt, and accustomed to being sent here and there by an absent mother, silently submissive, was turned over by the tutor to James Penhallow's agent in Philadelphia. On the next day, early in November, he was put in charge of a conductor to be left at Westways Crossing, where he was told that some one would meet him.

The day was warm when in the morning he took his seat in the train, but before noon it became clouded, and an early snow-storm with sudden fall of temperature made the boy sensible that he was ill-clothed to encounter the change of weather. He had been unfortunate in the fact that his mother had for years used the vigilant tyranny of feebleness to enforce upon the boy her own sanitary views. Children are easily made hypochondriac, and under her system of government he became self-attentive, careful of what he ate and extremely timid. There had been many tutors and only twice long residence at schools in Vevey and for a winter in Budapest. The health she too sedulously watched she was fast destroying, and her son was at the time of her death a thin, pallid, undersized boy, who disliked even the mild sports of French lads, and had been flattered and considered until he had acquired the conviction that he was an important member of an important family. His other mother-nature-had given him, happily, better traits. He was an observer, a born lover of books, intelligent, truthful, and trained in the gentle, somewhat formal, manners of an older person. Now for the first time in his guarded life he was alone on a railway journey in charge of the conductor. A more unhappy, frightened little fellow could hardly have been found.

The train paused at many stations; men and women got on or got out of the cars, very common-looking people, surely, he concluded. The day ran by to afternoon. The train had stopped at a station for lunch, but John, although hungry, was afraid of being left and kept the seat which he presumed to be his own property until a stout man took half of it. A little later, a lean old woman said, "Move up, sonny," and sat down. When she asked his name and where he lived, he replied in the coldly civil manner with which he had heard his mother repress the good-natured advances of her wandering countrymen. When again the seat was free, he fell to thinking of the unknown home, Grey Pine, which he had heard his mother talk of to English friends as "our ancestral home," and of the great forests, the mines and the iron-works. Her son would, of course, inherit it, as Captain Penhallow had no child. "Really a great estate, my dear," his mother had said. It loomed large in his young imagination. Who would meet him? Probably a carriage with the liveried driver and the groom immaculate in white-topped boots, a fur cover on his arm. It would, of course, be Captain Penhallow who would make him welcome. Then the cold, which is hostile to imagination, made him shiver as he drew his thin cloak about him and watched the snow squadrons wind-driven and the big flakes blurring his view as they melted on the panes. By and by, two giggling young women near by made comments on his looks and dress. Fragments of their talk he overheard. It was not quite pleasant. "Law! ain't he got curly hair, and ain't he just like a girl doll," and so on in the lawless freedom of democratic feminine speech. The flat Morocco cap and large visor of the French schoolboy and the dark blue cloak with the silver clasp were subjects of comment. One of them offered peanuts or sugar-plums, which he declined with "Much obliged, but I never take them." Now and then he consulted his watch or felt in his pocket to be certain that his bag

gage-check was secure, or looked to see if the little bag of toilet articles at his feet was safe. The kindly attentions of those who noticed his evident discomfort were neither mannerless nor, as he thought, impertinent. A woman said to him that he seemed cold, wouldn't he put around him a shawl she laid on his knees. He declined it civilly with thanks. In fact, he was thinly and quite too lightly clad, and he not only felt the cold, but was unhappy and utterly unprepared by any previous experience for the mode of travel, the crowded car and the rough kindness of the people, who liking his curly hair and refined young childlike face would have been of service if he had accepted their advances with any pleasure. Presently, after four in the afternoon, the brakeman called "All out for Westways Crossing."

John seized his bag and was at the exit-door before the train came to a stand. The conductor bade him be careful, as the steps were slippery. As the engine snorted and the train moved away, the conductor cried out, "Forgot your cane, sonny," and threw the light gold-mounted bamboo from the car. He had a new sense of loneliness as he stood on the roofless platform, half a foot deep in gathering snow, which driven by a pitiless gale from the north blew his cloak about as he looked to see that his trunk had been delivered. A man shifted a switch and coming back said, "Gi'me your check." John decided that this was not safe, and to the man's amusement said that he would wait until the carriage of Captain Penhallow arrived. The man went away. John remained angrily expectant looking up the road. Presently he heard the gay jingle of bells and around a turn of the road came a one-horse sleigh. It stopped beside him. He first saw only the odd face of the driver in a fur cap and earlets. Then, tossing off the bear skins, bounded on to the platform a young girl and shook herself snow-free as she threw back a wild mane of dark red hair.

"Halloa! John Penhallow," she cried, "I'm Leila Grey. I'm sent for you.

I'm late too. Uncle James has gone to the mills and Aunt Ann is busy.

Been here long?"

"Not very," said John, his teeth chattering with cold.

"Gracious! you'll freeze. Sorry I was late." She saw at a glance the low shoes, the blue cloak, the kid gloves, the boy's look of suffering, and at once took possession of him.

"Get into the sleigh. Oh! leave your check on the trunk or give it to me." She was off and away to the trunk as he climbed in, helpless. She undid the counter check, ran across to the guard's house, was back in a moment and tumbled in beside him.

"But, is it safe? My trunk, I mean," said John.

"Safe. No one will steal it. Pat will come for it. There he is now. Tuck in the rugs. Put this shawl around you and over your head." She pinned it with ready fingers.

"Now, you'll be real comfy." The chilled boy puzzled and amused her.

As he became warm, John felt better in the hands of this easy despot, but was somewhat indignant. "To send a chit of a girl for him-John Penhallow!"

"Now," she cried to the driver, "be careful. Why did they send you?"

Billy, a middle-aged man, short-legged and long of body, turned a big-featured head as he replied in an odd boyish voice, "The man was busy giving a ball in the stable."

"A ball"-said John-"in the stable?"

"Oh! that is funny," said the girl. "A ball's a big pill for Lucy, my mare. She's sick."

"Oh! I see." And they were off and away through the wind-driven snow.

The girl, instinctively aware of the shyness and discomfort of her companion, set herself to put him at ease. The lessening snow still fell, but now a brilliant sun lighted the white radiance of field and forest. He was warmer, and the disconnected chat of childhood began.

"The snow is early. Don't you love it?" said the small maid bent on making herself agreeable.

"No, I do not."

"But, oh!-see-the sun is out. Now you will like it. I suppose you don't know how to walk in snow-shoes, or it would be lovely to go right home across country."

"I never used them. Once I read about them in a book."

"Oh! you'll learn. I'll teach you."

John, used to being considered and flattered, as he became more comfortable began to resent the way in which the girl proposed to instruct him. He was silent for a time.

"Tuck in that robe," she said. "How old are you?"

"This last September, fifteen. How old are you?"

"Guess."

"About ten, I think." Now this was malicious.

"Ten, indeed! I'm thirteen and ten months and-and three days," she returned, with the accuracy of childhood about age. "Were you at school in Europe?"

"Yes, in France and Hungary."

"That's queer. In Hungary and France-Oh! then you can speak French."

"Of course," he replied. "Can't you?"

"A little, but Aunt Ann says I have a good accent when I read to her-we often do."

"You should say 'without accent,'" he felt better after this assertion of superior knowledge. She thought his manners bad, but, though more amused than annoyed, felt herself snubbed and was silent for a time. He was quick to perceive that he had better have held his critical tongue, and said pleasantly, "But really it don't matter-only I was told that in France."

She was as quick to reply, "You shouldn't say 'don't matter,' I say that sometimes, and then Uncle James comes down on me."

"Why? I am really at a loss-"

"Oh! you must say 'doesn't'-not 'don't.'" She shook her great mass of hair and cried merrily, "I guess we are about even now, John Penhallow."

Then they laughed gaily, as the boy said, "I wasn't very-very courteous."

"Now that's pretty, John. Good gracious, Billy!" she cried, punching the broad back of the driver. "Are you asleep? You are all over the road."

"Oh! I was thinkin' how Pole, the butcher, sold the Squire a horse that's spavined-got it sent back-funny, wasn't it?"

"Look out," said Leila, "you will upset us."

John looked the uneasiness he felt, as he said, "Do you think it is safe?"

"No, I don't. Drive on, Billy, but do be careful."

They came to the little village of Westways. At intervals Billy communicated bits of village gossip. "Susan McKnight, she's going to marry Finney-"

"Bother Susan," cried Leila. "Be careful."

John alarmed held on to his seat as the sleigh rocked about, while Billy whipped up the mare.

"This is Westways, our village. It is just a row of houses. Uncle James won't sell land on our side. Look out, Billy! Our rector lives in that small house by the church. His name is Mark Rivers. You'll like him. That's Mr. Grace, the Baptist preacher." She bade him good-day. "Stop, Billy!"

He pulled up at the sidewalk. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Crocker," she said, as the postmistress came out to the sleigh. "Please mail this. Any letters for us?"

"No, Leila." She glanced at the curly locks above the thin face and the wrapped up form in the shawl. "Got a nice little girl with you, Leila."

John indignant said nothing. "This is a boy-my cousin, John Penhallow," returned Leila.

"Law! is that so?"

"Get on," cried Leila. "Stop at Josiah's."

Here a tall, strongly built, very black negro came out. "Fine frosty day, missy."

"Come up to the house to-night. Uncle Jim wants you."

"I'll come-sure."

"Now, get along, Billy."

The black was strange to the boy. He thought the lower orders here disrespectful.

"Josiah's our barber," said Leila. "He saved me once from a dreadful accident. You'll like him."

"Will I?" thought John, but merely remarked, "They all seem rather intimate."

"Why not?" said the young Republican. "Ah! here's the gate. I'll get out and open it. It's the best gate to swing on in the whole place."

As she tossed the furs aside, John gasped, "To swing on-"

"Oh, yes. Aunt Ann says I am too old to swing on gates, but I do. It shuts with a bang. I'll show you some day."

"What is swinging on a gate?" said John, as she jumped out and stood in the snow laughing. Surely this was an amazing kind of boy. "Why, did you never hear the rhyme about it?"

"No," said John, "I never did."

"Well, you just get on the gate when it's wide open and give a push, and you sing-

"If I was the President of these United States,

I'd suck molasses candy and swing upon the gates.

"There! Then it shuts-bang!" With this bit of child folklore she scampered away through the snow and stood holding the gate open while Billy drove through. She reflected mischievously that it must have been three years since she had swung on a gate.

John feeling warm and for the first time looking about him with interest began to notice the grandeur of the rigid snow-laden pines of an untouched forest which stood in what was now brilliant sunshine.

As Leila got into the sleigh, she said, "Now, Billy, go slowly when you make the short turn at the house. If you upset us, I-I'll kill you."

"Yes, miss. Guess I'll drive all right." But the ways of drivers are everywhere the same, and to come to the end of a drive swiftly with crack of whip was an unresisted temptation.

"Sang de Dieu!" cried John, "we will be upset."

"We are," shouted Leila. The horse was down, the sleigh on its side, and the cousins disappeared in a huge drift piled high when the road was cleared.

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