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   Chapter 2 No.2

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 22945

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

John was the first to return to the outer world. He stood still, seeing the horse on its legs, Billy unharnessing, Leila for an instant lost to sight. The boy was scared. In his ordered life it was an unequalled experience. Then he saw a merry face above the drift and lying around it a wide-spread glory of red hair on the white snow. In after years he would recall the beauty of the laughing young face in its setting of dark gold and sunlit silver snow.

"Oh, my!" she cried. "That Billy! Don't stand there, John; pull me out,

I'm stuck."

He gave her a hand and she bounded forth out of the drift, shaking off the dry snow as a wet dog shakes off water. "What's the matter, John?"

He was trying to empty neck, pocket and shoes of snow, and was past the limits of what small endurance he had been taught. "I shall catch my death of cold. It's down my back-it's everywhere, and I-shall get-laryngitis."

The brave blue eyes of the girl stared at his dejected figure. She was at heart a gentle, little woman-child, endowed by nature with so much of tom-boy barbarism as was good for her. Just now a feeling of contemptuous surprise overcame her kindliness and her aunt's training. "There's your bag on the snow, and Billy will find your cap. What does a boy want with a bag? A boy-and afraid of snow!" she cried. "Help him with that harness."

He made no reply, but looked about for his lost cane. Then the young despot turned upon the driver. "Wait till Uncle James hears; he'll come down on you."

"My lands!" said Billy, unbuckling a trace, "I'll just say, I'm sorry; and the Squire he'll say, don't let it happen again; and I'll say, yes, sir."

"Yes, until Aunt Ann hears," said Leila, and turned to John. His attitude of utter helplessness touched her.

"Come into the house; you must be cold." She was of a sudden all tenderness.

Through an outside winter doorway-shelter they entered a hall unusually large for an American's house and warmed by two great blazing hickory wood-fires. "Come in," she cried, "you'll be all right. Sit down by the fire; I'll be down in a minute, I want to see where Aunt Ann has put you."

"I am much obliged," said John shivering. He was alone, but wet as he was the place captured an ever active imagination. He looked about him as he stood before the roaring fire. To the right was an open library, to the left a drawing-room rarely used, the hall being by choice the favoured sitting-room. The dining-room was built out from the back of the hall, whence up a broad stairway Leila had gone. The walls were hung with Indian painted robes, Sioux and Arapahoe weapons, old colonial rifles, and among them portraits of three generations of Penhallows. Many older people had found interesting the strange adornment of the walls, where amid antlered trophies of game, buffalo heads and war-worn Indian relics, could be read something of the owner's tastes and history. John stood by the fire fascinated. Like many timid boys, he liked books of adventure and to imagine himself heroic in situations of peril.

"It's all right. Come up," cried Leila from the stair. "Your trunk's there now. There's a fine fire."

Forgetful of the cold ride and of the snow down his back, he was standing before the feathered head-dress of a Sioux Chief and touching the tomahawk below it. He turned as she spoke. "Those must be scalp-locks-three." He saw the prairie, the wild pursuit-saw them as she could not. He went after her upstairs, the girl talking, the boy rapt, lost in far-away battles on the plains.

"This is your room. See what a nice fire. You can dry yourself. Your trunk is here already." She lighted two candles. "We dine at half-past six."

"Thank you; I am very much obliged," he said, thinking what a mannerless girl.

Leila closed the door and stood still a moment. Then she exclaimed, "Well, I never! What will Uncle Jim say?" She listened a moment. No one was in the hall. Then she laughed, and getting astride of the banister-rail made a wild, swift and perilous descent, alighting at the foot in the hall, and readjusting her short skirts as she heard her aunt and uncle on the porch. "I was just in time," she exclaimed. "Wouldn't I have caught it!"

The Squire, as the village called him, would have applauded this form of coasting, but Aunt Ann had other views. "Well!" he said as they came in, "what have you done with your young man?"

Now he was for Leila anything but a man or manly, but she was a loyal little lady and unwilling to expose the guest to Uncle Jim's laughter. "He's all right," she said, "but Billy upset the sleigh." She was longing to tell about that ball in the stable, but refrained.

"So Billy upset you; and John, where is he?"

"He's upstairs getting dried."

"It is rather a rough welcome," remarked her aunt.

"He lost his cap and his cane," said Leila.

"His cane!" exclaimed her uncle, "his cane!"

"I must see him," said his wife.

"Better let him alone, Ann." But as usual she took her own way and went upstairs. She came down in a few minutes, finding her husband standing before the fire-an erect, soldierly figure close to forty years of age.

"Well, Ann?" he queried.

"A very nice lad, with such good manners, James."

"Billy found his cap," said Leila, "but he couldn't get the sleigh set up until the stable men came."

"And that cane," laughed Penhallow. "Was the boy amused or-or scared?"

"I don't know," which was hardly true, but the chivalry of childhood forbade tale-telling and he learned very little. "He was rather tired and cold, so I made him go to his room and rest."

"Poor child!" said Aunt Ann.

James Penhallow looked at Leila. Some manner of signals were interchanged. "I saw Billy digging in the big drift," he said. "I trust he found the young gentleman's cane." Some pitying, dim comprehension of the delicately nurtured lad had brought to the social surface the kindliness of the girl and she said no more.

"It is time to dress for dinner," said Ann. Away from the usages of the

city she had wisely insisted on keeping up the social forms which the

Squire would at times have been glad to disregard. For a moment Ann

Penhallow lingered. "We must try to make him feel at home, James."

"Of course, my dear. I can imagine how Susan Penhallow would have educated a boy, and now I know quite too well what we shall have to undo-and-do."

"You won't, oh! you will not be too hard on him."

"I-no, my dear-but-I suspect his American education has begun already."

"What do you mean?"

"Ask Leila-and Billy. But that can wait." They separated.

While his elders were thus briefly discussing this new addition to the responsibilities of their busy lives, the subject of their talk had been warmed into comfortable repossession of his self-esteem. He set in order his elaborate silver toilet things marked with the Penhallow crest, saw in the glass that his dress and unboylike length of curly hair were as he had been taught they should be; then he looked at his watch and went slowly downstairs.

"Halloa! John," he heard as he reached the last turn of the stairs. "Most glad to see you. You are very welcome to your new home." The man who hailed him was six feet two inches, deep-chested, erect-the West Point figure; the face clean-shaven, ruddy, hazel-eyed, was radiant with the honest feeling of desire to put this childlike boy at ease.

The little gentleman needed no aid and replied, "My dear uncle, I cannot sufficiently thank you." A little bow went with his words, and he placidly accepted his aunt's embrace, while the hearty Miss Leila looked on in silence. The boy's black suit, the short jacket, the neat black tie, made the paleness of his thin large-featured face too obvious. Then Leila took note of the court shoes and silk socks, and looked at Uncle Jim to see what he thought. The Squire reserved what criticism he may have had and asked cheerfully about the journey, Aunt Ann aiding him with eager will to make the boy feel at home. He was quite enough at home. It was all agreeable, these handsome relations and the other Penhallows on the walls. He had been taught that which is good or ill as men use it, pride of race, and in his capacity to be impressed by his surroundings was years older than Leila. He felt sure that he would like it here at Grey Pine, but was surprised to see no butler and to be waited on at dinner by two neat little maids.

When Ann Penhallow asked him about his schools and his life in Europe, he became critical, and conversed about picture-galleries and foreign life with no lack of accuracy, while the Squire listened smiling and Leila sat dumb with astonishment as the dinner went on. He ate little and kept in mind the endless lessons in regard to what he should or should not eat. Meanwhile, he silently approved of the old silver and these well-bred kinsfolk, with a reserve of doubt concerning his silent cousin.

His uncle had at last his one glass of Madeira, and as they rose his aunt said, "You may be tired, John; you ought to go to bed early."

"It is not yet time," he said. "I always retire at ten o'clock."

"He 'retires,'" murmured his uncle. "Come, Ann, we will leave Leila to make friends with the new cousin. Try John at checkers, Leila. She defeats me easily."

"I-never saw any one could beat me at jeu des dames," said John. It was a fine chance to get even with Leila for the humiliating adventures of a not very flattering day.

"Well, take care," said the Squire, not altogether amused. "Come, Ann." Entering the large library room he closed the door, drew over it a curtain, filled his pipe but did not light it, and sat down at the fire beside his wife.

"Well, James," she said, "did you ever see a better mannered lad, and so intelligent?"

"Never-nor any lad who has as good an opinion of his small self. He is too young for his years, and in some ways too old. I looked him over a bit. He is a mere scaffolding, a sickly-looking chap. He eats too little. I heard him remark to you that potatoes disagreed with him and that he never ate apples."

"But, James, what shall we do with him? It is a new and a difficult responsibility."

"Do with him? Oh! make a man of him. Give him and Leila a week's holiday. Turn him loose with that fine tom-boy. Then he must go to school to Mark Rivers with Leila and those two young village imps, the doctor's boy and Grace's, that precious young Baptist. They will do him good. When Mark reports, we shall see further. That is all my present wisdom, Ann. Has the Tribune come? Oh! I see-it is on the table."

Ann was still in some doubt and returned to the boy. "And where do I come in?"

"Feed the young animal and get the tailor in the village to make him some warm rough clothes, and get him boots for the snow-and thick gloves-and a warm ready-made overcoat."

"I will. But, James, Leila will half kill him. He is so thin and pale. He looks hardly older than she does." Then Ann rose, saying, "Well, we shall see, I suppose you are right," and after some talk about the iron-works left him to his pipe.

When she returned to the hall, the two children were talking of

Europe-or rather Leila was listening. "Well," said the little lady, Ann

Penhallow, "how did the game go, John?"

"I am rather out of practice," said John. Leila said nothing. He had been shamefully worsted. "I think I shall go to bed," he remarked, l

ooking at his watch.

"I would," she said. "There are the candles. There is a bathroom next to you."

He was tired and disgusted, but slept soundly. When at breakfast he said that he was not allowed tea or coffee, he was fed with milk, to which with hot bread and new acquaintance with griddle cakes he took kindly. After breakfast he was driven to the village with his aunt and equipped with a rough ready-made overcoat and high boots. He found the dress comfortable, but not to his taste.

When he came back, the Squire and Leila had disappeared and he was left to his own devices. He was advised by his aunt to walk about and see the stables and the horses. That any boy should not want to see the horses was inconceivable in this household. He did go out and walk on the porch, but soon went in chilled and sat down to lose himself in a book of polar travel. He liked history, travel and biographies of soldiers, fearfully desiring to have his own courage tested-a more common boy-wish than might be supposed. He thought of it as he laid down the book and began to inspect again the painted buffalo skins on the wall, letting his imagination wander when once more he touched a Sioux tomahawk with its grim adornment of scalp-locks. He was far away when he heard his aunt say, "You were not out long, John. Did they show you the horses?"

Shy and reserved in novel surroundings, he was rather too much at his ease amid socially familiar things, and now said lightly that he had not seen the stables. "Really, Aunt Ann, I prefer to read or to look at these interesting Indian relics."

"Ask your uncle about them," she said, "but you will find out that horses are important in this household." She left him with the conviction that James Penhallow was, on the whole, right as to the educational needs of this lad.

After lunch his uncle said, "Leila will show you about the place. You will want to see the horses, of course, and the dogs."

"And my guinea pigs," added Leila.

He took no interest in either, and the dogs somewhat alarmed him. His cousin, a little discouraged, led him away into the woods where the ancient pines stood snow laden far apart with no intrusion between them of low shrubbery. Leila was silent, half aware that he was hard to entertain, and then mischievously wilful to give this indifferent cousin a lesson. Presently he stood still, looking up at the towering cones of the motionless pines.

"How stately they are-how like old Vikings!" he said. His imagination was the oldest mental characteristic of this over-guarded, repressed boyhood.

Leila turned, surprised. This was beyond her appreciative capacity. "Once I heard Uncle Jim say something like that. He's queer about trees. He talks to them sometimes just like that. There's the biggest pine over there-I'll show it to you. Why! he will stop and pat it and say, 'How are you?'-Isn't it funny?"

"No, it isn't funny at all. It's-it's beautiful!"

"You must be like him, John."

"I-like him! Do you think so?" He was pleased. The Indian horseman of the plains who could talk to the big tree began to be felt by the boy as somehow nearer.

"Let's play Indian," said Leila. "I'll show you." She was merry, intent on mischief.

"Oh! whatever you like." He was uninterested.

Leila said, "You stand behind this tree, I will stand behind that one." She took for herself the larger shelter. "Then you, each of us, get ready this way a pile of snowballs. I say, Make ready! Fire! and we snowball one another like everything. The first Indian that's hit, he falls down dead. Then the other rushes at him and scalps him."

"But," said John, "how can he?"

"Oh! he just gives your hair a pull and makes believe."

"I see."

"Then we play it five times, and each scalp counts one. Now, isn't that real jolly?"

John had his doubts as to this, but he took his place and made some snowballs clumsily.

"Make ready! Fire!" cried Leila. The snowballs flew. At last, the girl seeing how wildly he threw exposed herself. A better shot took her full in the face. Laughing gaily, she dropped, "I'm dead."

The game pleased him with its unlooked-for good luck. "Now don't stand there like a ninny-scalp me," she cried.

He ran to her side and knelt down. The widespread hair affected him curiously. He touched it daintily, let it fall, and rose. "To pull at a girl's hair! I couldn't do it."

Leila laughed. "A good pull, that's how to scalp."

"I couldn't," said John.

"Well, you are a queer sort of Indian!" She was less merciful, but in the end, to her surprise, he had three scalps. "Uncle Jim will laugh when I tell him," she said. "Shall we go home?"

"No, I want to see Uncle Jim's big tree."

"Oh! he's only Uncle Jim to me. Aunt don't like it. He will tell you some day to call him Uncle Jim. He says I got that as brevet rank the day my mare refused the barnyard fence and pitched me off. I just got on again and made her take it! That's why he's Uncle Jim."

John became thoughtful about that brevet privilege of a remote future. He had, however, persistent ways. "I want to see the big pine, Leila."

"Oh! come on then. It's a long way. We must cut across." He followed her remorselessly swift feet through the leafless bushes and drifts until they came upon a giant pine in a wide space cleared to give the veteran royal solitude. "That's him," cried Leila, and carelessly cast herself down on the snow.

The boy stood still in wonder. Something about the tree disturbed him emotionally. With hands clasped behind his back, he stared up at its towering heights. He was silent.

"What's the matter? What do you see?" She was never long silent. He was searching for a word.

"It's solemn. I like it." He moved forward and patted the huge hole with a feeling of reverence and affection. "I wish he could speak to us. How are you, old fellow?"

Leila watched him. As yet she had no least comprehension of this sense of being kindred to nature. It is rare in youth. As he spoke, a little breeze stirred the old fellow's topmost crest and a light downfall of snow fell on the pair. Leila laughed, but the boy cried, "There! he has answered. We are friends."

"Now, if that isn't Uncle Jim all over. He just does make me laugh."

John shook off the snow. "Let's go home," he said. He Was warm and red with the exercise, and in high good-humour over his success. "Did you never read a poem called 'The Talking Oak'? I had a tutor used to read it to me."

"Now, the idea of a tree talking!" she said. "No, I never heard of it. Come along, we'll be late. That's funny about a tree talking. Can you run?"

They ran, but not far, because deep snow makes running hard. It was after dark when they tramped on to the back porch. John's experience taught him to expect blame for being out late. No one asked a question or made a remark. He was ignored, to his amazement. Whether, as he soon learned, he was in or out, wet or dry, seemed to be of no moment to any one, provided he was punctual at meal-times. It was at first hard to realize the reasonable freedom suddenly in his possession. The appearance of complete want of interest in his health and what he did was as useful a moral tonic as was for the body the educational out-of-doors' society of the fearless girl, his aunt's niece whom he was told to consider as his cousin. To his surprise, he was free to come and go, and what he or Leila did in the woods or in the stables no one inquired. Aunt Ann uneasy would have known all about them, but the Squire urged, that for a time, "let alone" was the better policy. This freedom was so unusual, so unreservedly complete, as to rejoice Leila, who was very ready to use the liberty it gave. In a week the rector's school would shut them up for half of the day of sunlit snow. Meanwhile, John wondered with interest every morning where next those thin active young legs would lead him.

The dogs he soon took to, when Leila's whistle called them,-a wild troop, never allowed beyond the porch or in the house. For some occult reason Mrs. Ann disliked dogs and liked cats, which roamed the house at will and were at deadly feud with the stable canines. No rough weather ever disturbed Leila's out-of-door habits, but when for two days a lazy rain fell and froze on the snow, John declared that he could not venture to get wet with his tendency to tonsilitis. As Leila refused indoor society and he did not like to be left alone, he missed the gay and gallant little lady, and still no one questioned him. On the third day at breakfast Leila was wildly excited. The smooth ice-mailed snow shone brilliant in the sunshine.

"Coasting weather, Uncle Jim," Leila said.

"First class," said her uncle. "Get off before the sun melts the crust."

"Do be careful, dear," said Ann Penhallow, "and do not try the farm hill."

"Yes, aunt." The Squire exchanged signal glances with Leila over the teacup he was lifting. "Come, John," she said. "No dogs to-day. It's just perfect. Here's your sled."

John had seen coasting in Germany and had been strictly forbidden so perilous an amusement. As they walked over the crackling ice-cover of the snow, he said, "Why do you want to sled, Leila? I consider it extremely dangerous. I saw two persons hurt when we were in Switzerland." His imagination was predicting all manner of disaster, but he had the moral courage which makes hypocrisy impossible. From the hill crest John looked down the long silvery slope and did not like it. "It's just a foolish risk. Do you mean to slide down to that brook?"

"Slide! We coast, we don't slide. I think you had better go back and tell

Uncle Jim you were afraid."

He was furious. "I tell you this, Miss Grey-I am afraid-I have been told-well, never mind-that-well--I won't say I'm not afraid-but I'm more afraid of Uncle James than-than-of death."

She stood still a moment as she faced him, the two pair of blue eyes meeting. He was very youthful for his years and was near the possibility of the tears of anger, and, too, the virile qualities of his race were protesting forces in the background of undeveloped character. The sweet girl face grew red and kinder. "I was mean, John Penhallow. I am sorry I was rude."

"No-no," he exclaimed, "it was I who was-was-ill-mannered. I-mean to coast if I die."

"Die," she laughed gaily. "Let me go first."

"Go ahead then." She was astride of the sled and away down the long descent, while he watched her swift flight. He set his teeth and was off after her. A thrill of pleasure possessed him, the joy of swift movement. Near the foot was an abrupt fall to a frozen brook and then a sharp ascent. He rolled over at Leila's feet seeing a firmament of stars and rose bewildered.

"Busted?" cried Leila, who picked up the slang of the village boys to her aunt's disgust.

"I am not what you call busted," said John, "but I consider it most disagreeable." Without a word more he left her, set out up the hill and coasted again. He upset half-way down, rolled over, and got on again laughing. This time somehow he got over the brook and turned crossly on Leila with, "I hope now you are satisfied, Miss Grey."

"You'll do, I guess," said she. "I just wondered if you would back out, John. Let's try the other hills." He went after her vexed at her way of ordering him about, and not displeased with John Penhallow and his new experience in snatching from danger a fearful joy.

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