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   Chapter 6 No.6

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 25417

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was now four days since John's sentence had been pronounced, and not to be allowed to swim in the heat of a hot September added to the severity of the penalty. The heat as usual made tempers hot and circumstances variously disturbed the household of Grey Pine. Politics vexed and business troubled the master. Of the one he could not talk to his wife-of the other he would not at present, hoping for better business conditions, and feeling that politics and business were now too nearly related to keep them apart. Ann, his wife, thought him depressed-a rare mood for him. Perhaps it was the unusual moist heat. He said, "Yes, yes, dear, one does feel it." She did not guess that the obvious unhappiness of the lad who had won the soldier's heart was being felt by Penhallow without his seeing how he could end it and yet not lessen the value of a just verdict.

Of all those concerned Leila was the one most troubled. On this hot afternoon she saw John disappear into the forest. When Mrs. Ann came out on the porch where she had for a minute left the girl, she saw her sewing-bag on a chair and caught sight of the flowing hair and agile young figure as she set a hand on the low stone wall of the garden and was over and lost among the trees. "Leila, Leila," cried Mrs. Ann, "I told you to finish-" It was useless. "Everything goes wrong to-day," she murmured. "Well, school will civilize that young barbarian, and she must have longer skirts." This was a sore subject and Leila had been vainly rebellious.

Meanwhile the flying girl overtook John, who had things to think about and wished to be alone. "Well," he said, with some impatience, "what is it?"

"Oh, I just wanted a walk, and don't be cross, John."

He looked at her, and perhaps for the first time had the male perception of the beauty of the disordered hair, the pleading look of the blue eyes, and the brilliant colour of the eager flushed face. It was the hair-the wonderful hair. She threw it back as she stood. No one could long be cross to Leila. Even her resolute aunt was sometimes defeated by her unconquerable sweetness.

"I am so sorry for you, John," she said.

"Well, I am not, Leila, if you mean that Uncle Jim was hard on me."

"Yes, he was, and I mean to tell him-I do."

"Please not." She said nothing in the way of reply, but only, "Let us go and see the spring."

"Well, come along."

They wandered far into the untouched forest. "Ah! here it is," she cried. A spring of water ran out from among the anchoring roots of a huge black spruce. He stood gazing down at it.

"Oh, Leila, isn't it wonderful?"

"Were you never here before, John?"

"No, never. It seems as if it was born out of the tree. No wonder this spruce grew so tall and strong. How cold it must keep the old fellow's toes."

"What queer ideas you have, John." She had not yet the gift of fancy, long denied to some in the emergent years of approaching womanhood. "I am tired, John," she said, as she dropped with hands clasped behind her head and hidden in the glorious abundance of darkening red hair, which lay around her on the brown pine-needles like the disordered aureole of some careless-minded saint.

John said, "It is this terrible heat. I never before heard you complain of being tired."

"Oh, it's just nice tired." She lay still, comfortable, with open eyes staring up at the intense blue of the September sky seen through the wide-east limbs of pine and spruce. The little rill, scarce a finger thickness of water, crawled out lazily between the roots and trickled away. The girl was in empty-minded enjoyment of the luxury of complete relaxation of every muscle of her strong young body. The spring was noiseless, no leaf was astir in all the forest around them. The girl lay still, a part of the vast quietness.

John Penhallow stood a moment, and then said, "Good gracious! Leila, your eyes are blue." It was true. When big eyes are wide open staring up at the comrade blue of the deep blue sky, they win a certain beauty of added colour like little quiet lakelets under the azure sky when no wind disturbs their power of reflecting capture.

"Oh, John, and didn't you know my eyes were blue?" She spoke with languid interest in the fact he announced.

"But," he said, looking down at her as he stood, "they're so-so very blue."

"Oh, all the Greys have blue eyes."

He laughed gentle laughter and dropped on the pine-needles of the forest floor. The spring lay between them. He felt, as she did not, the charm of the stillness. He wanted to find words in which to put his desire for expression. She broke into his mood of imaginative seekings.

"How cold it is," she said, gathering the water in the cup of her hand, and then with both hands did better and got a refreshing drink.

"That makes a better cup," he said. "Let us follow the water to the river."

"It never gets there. It runs into Lonesome Man's swamp, and that's the end of him."

"Who, Lonesome Man or the spring? And who was Lonesome Man?"

"Nobody knows. What does it matter?"

He watched her toy with the new-born rill, a mere thread of water, build a Lilliputian dam, and muddle the clear outflow as it broke, and then build again. He had the thought that she had suddenly become younger, more like a child, and he himself older.

"Why don't you talk, John?" she said.

"I can't. I am wondering about that Lonesome Man and what the trees are thinking. Don't you feel how still it is? It's disrespectful to gabble before your betters." He felt it and said it without affectation, but as usual his mood of wandering thought failed to interest Leila.

"I hate it when it's quiet! I like to hear the wind howl in the pines-"

He expressed his annoyance. "You never want to talk anything but horses and swimming. Wait till you come back next spring with long skirts-such a nice well-behaved Miss Grey." He was, in familiar phrase, out of sorts, with a bit of will to annoy a disappointing companion. His mild effort had no success.

"Oh, John, it's awful! You ought to be sorry for me. The more you grow up the more your skirts grow down. Bother their manners! Who cares! Let's go home. It feels just as if it was Sunday."

"It is, in the woods. Well, come along." He walked on in the silence, she thinking of that alarming prospect of school, and he of the escaped slave's secret and, what struck the boy most-the hawk. Never before had he been told anything which was to be sacredly guarded from others. It gave him now a pleasant feeling of having been trusted. Suppose Leila had been told such a thing, how would she feel, and Aunt Ann? He was like a man who has too large a deposit in a doubtful bank. He was vaguely uneasy lest he might tell or in some way betray his sense of possessing a person's confidence.

As they came near the house, Leila said, "Catch me, I'll run you home."

"Tag," he cried.

As they came to the side porch, Ann Penhallow said, "Finish that handkerchief-now, at once. It is time you were taught other than tom-boy ways."

John went by into the house. After dinner the Squire had his usual game of whist, always to the dissatisfaction of Leila, whose thoughts wandered like birds on the wing, from twig to twig. John usually played far better, but just now worse than his cousin, and forgot or revoked, to his uncle's disgust. A man of rather settled habits, now as usual Penhallow went to his library for the company of the pipe, which Ann disliked, and the Tribune, which she regarded as the organ of Satanic politics. Seeing both John and her aunt absorbed in their books, Leila passed quickly back of them, opened the library door, and said softly, "May I come in, Uncle Jim?"

During the last few days he had missed, and he well knew why, John's visits and intelligent questions. Leila was welcome. "Why, of course, pussy cat. Come in. Shut the door; your aunt dislikes the pipe smoke. Sit down." For some reason she desired to stand. "Don't stand," he said, "sit down on my knee." She obeyed. "There," he said, "that's comfy. How heavy you are. Good gracious, child! what am I to do without you?"

"Isn't it awful, Uncle Jim."

"It is-it is. What do you want, my dear? Anything wrong with the horses?"

"No, sir. It's-John-"

"Oh! it's John. Well, what is it?"

"It isn't John-it's John and the horses-I mean John and Dixy. Patrick rides Dixy for exercise every day."

"Well, what's the matter? First it's John, then Dixy, then John and Dixy, and then John and Dixy and Pat."

The girl saw through the amusement he had in teasing her and said with gravity, "I wish you would be serious, Uncle Jim. I want five minutes of uninterrupted attention."

The Squire exploded, "Good gracious! that is Ann Grey all over. You must have heard her say it."

"I did, and you listen, too. Sometimes you don't, Uncle Jim. I guess you weren't well broke when you were young."

"Great Scott! you minx! Some day a girl I know will have to stand at attention. Go ahead."

"Pat's ruining Dixy's mouth. You ought to see him sawing at the curb. You always rode him on the snaffle."

"That boy Pat needs a good licking, Leila."

"But Dixy don't. The fact is, Uncle Jim, you're neglecting the stables for politics."

"Is that your own wisdom, Miss Grey? What with the weight of wisdom and years, you're getting heavy. Try a chair."

"No, I'm quite comfy. It was Josiah who told me. He often comes up to look over the colts, of a Sunday-"

"Nice work for Sunday, Miss Grey."

She made no direct reply. "He told me that horse ought to be ridden by-by John or you, and no one else. He says the way to ruin a horse is to have a lot of people ride him like Pat-they're just spoiling Dixy-"

"What! in four days? Nonsense."

"But," said the counsel in the case, "it's to be ten. It isn't about

John, it's Dixy's mouth, uncle."

"Oh, you darling little liar!" Here she kissed him and was silent. "It won't do," he said. "There's no logic in a kiss, Miss Grey. First comes Ann Grey and says, too much army discipline; and then you tell me what that gossiping old darkey says, and then you try the final argument-a kiss. Can't do it. There will be an end of all discipline. I hate practical jokes. There!"

If he thought to finish the matter thus, he much undervalued the ingenuity and persistency of the young Portia who was now conducting the case.

"Suppose you take a chair, Miss Grey. It is rather warm to provide permanent human seats for stout young women-"

"I'm not stout," said Leila with emphasis, accepting the hint by dropping with coiled legs upon a cushion at his feet. "I'm not stout. I weigh one hundred and thirty and a half pounds. And oh! isn't it hot. I haven't had a swim for-oh, at least five days counting Sunday." The pool was kept free until noon for Leila and her aunt.

"Why didn't you swim?" he asked lightly, being too intellectually busy clearing his pipe to see where the leading counsel was conducting him.

"Why, Uncle Jim, I wouldn't swim if John wasn't allowed too; I just couldn't. I'm going to bed-but, please, don't let Pat ride Dixy."

"I can attend to my stables, Miss Grey. John won't die of heat for want of a swim. You don't seem to concern yourself with those equally overbaked young scamps in Westways."

"Uncle Jim, you're just real mean to-night. Josiah told me yesterday that my cousin beat Tom McGregor because he said it was mean of you to stop the swimming. John said it was just, and Tom said he was a liar, and-oh, my! John licked him-wish I'd seen it."

This was news quite to his liking. He made no reply, lost in wonder over the ways of the mind male and female.

"You ought to be ashamed, you a girl, to want to see a fight. It's time you went to school. Isn't the rector on the porch? I thought I heard him."

Now, of late Leila had got to that stage of the game of thought-interchange when the young proudly use newly acquired word-counters. "I think, Uncle Jim, you're-you're irreverent."

The Squire shut the door on all outward show of mirth, and said gravely,

"Isn't it pronounced irrelevant, my dear Miss Malaprop?"

"Yes-yes," said Leila. "That's a word John uses. It's just short for 'flying the track'!"

"Any other stable slang, Leila?"

He was by habit averse to changing his decisions, and outside of Ann Penhallow's range of authority the Squire's discipline was undisputed and his decrees obeyed. He had been pleased and gaily amused for this half hour, but was of a mind to leave unchanged the penalties he had inflicted.

"Are you through, with this nonsense, Leila?" he said as he rose. "Is this an ingenious little game set up between you

and John?" To his utter amazement she began to cry.

"By George!" he said, "don't cry," which is what a kind man always says when presented with the riddle of tears.

She drew a brown fist across her wet cheeks and said indignantly, "My cousin is a gentleman."

She turned to go by him. "No, dear, wait a moment." He held her arm.

"Please, let me go. When John first came, you said he was a prig-and if he would just do some boy-mischief and kick up his heels like a two-year-old with some fun in him-you said he was a sort of girl-boy-" There were for punctuation sobs and silences.

"And where did you get all this about a prig?" he broke in, amazed.

"Oh, I heard you tell Aunt Ann. And now," said Portia, "the first time he does a real nice jolly piece of mischief you come down on him like-like a thousand of bricks." Her slang was reserved for the Squire, as he well knew.

The blue eyes shining with tears looked up from under the glorious disorder of the mass of hair. It was too much for the man.

"How darned logical you are!" He acknowledged some consciousness of having been inconsistent. He had said one thing and done another. "You are worse than your aunt." Then Leila knew that Ann Penhallow had talked to the Squire. "Well," he said, "what's your opinion, Miss Grey?"

"I think you're distanced."

"What-what! Wait a little. You may tell that young man to ride when he pleases and to swim, and to tell those scamps it's too hot to deprive them of the use of the pool. There, now get out!"

"But-Uncle Jim-I-can't. Oh, I really can't. You've got to do it yourself." This he much disliked to do.

"I hear your aunt calling. Mr. Rivers is going."

She kissed him. "Now, don't wait, Uncle Jim, and don't scold John. He's been no use for these four days. Goodnight," and she left him.

"Well, well," he said, "I suppose I've got to do it."

He found Ann alone.

"About John! I can't stand up against you two. He is to be let off about the riding and swimming. I think you may find it pleasant to tell him, my dear."

She said gravely, "It will come with more propriety from you; but I do think you are right." Then he knew that he had to do it himself.

"Very well, dear," he said. "How that girl is developing. It is time she had other company than John, but Lord! how I shall miss her-"

"And I, James."

He went out for the walk he generally took before bed-time. She lingered, putting things in order on her work-table, wondering what Leila could have said to thus influence a man the village described as "set in his ways." She was curious to know, but not of a mind to question Leila. Before going to bed, she went to her own sitting-room on the left of the hall. It was sacred to domestic and church business. It held a few books and was secured by long custom from men's tobacco smoke. She sat down and wrote to her cousin, George Grey.

"DEAR GEORGE: If politics do not keep you, we shall look for you this month. There are colts to criticize and talk over, Leila is eager to see her unknown cousin before she goes to school near Baltimore this September.

"I believe this town will go for Buchanan, but I am not sure. James and I, as you know, never talk politics. I am distressed to believe as I do that he will vote for Fremont; that 'the great, the appalling issue,' as Mr. Buchanan says, 'is union or disunion' does not seem to affect him. I read Forney's paper, and James reads that wild abolition Tribune. It is very dreadful, and I am without any one I can talk to. My much loved rector is an extreme antislavery man.

"Yours always,

ANN PENHALLOW.

"I am not at all sure of you. Be certain to let us know when to expect you. You know you are-well, I leave your social conscience to say what.

"Yours sincerely,

ANN PENHALLOW."

At breakfast Ann Penhallow sat down to the coffee-urn distributing cheerful good-mornings. The Squire murmured absently over his napkin, "May the Lord make us thankful for this and all the blessings of life." He occasionally varied his grace, and sometimes to Ann's amazement. Why should he ask to be made thankful, she reflected. These occasional slips and variations on the simple phrase of gratitude she had come to recognize as signs of preoccupation, and now glanced at her husband, anxious always when he was concerned. Then, as he turned to John, she understood that between his trained belief in the usefulness of inexorable discipline and an almost womanly tenderness of affection the heart had somehow won. She knew him well and at times read with ease the signs of distress and annoyance or resolute decision. Usually he was gay and merry at breakfast, chaffing the children and eating with the appetite of a man who was using and renewing his tissues in a wholesome way. Now he was silent, absent, and ate little. He was the victim of a combination of annoyances. Had he been wise to commit himself to a reversal of his sentence? Other and more important matters troubled him, but as usual where bothers come in battalions it is the lesser skirmishers who are felt for the moment.

"I see in the hall, Ann," he said, "a letter for George Grey-I will mail it. When does he come?"

"I do not know."

"John," he said, "you will oblige me by riding to the mill and asking Dr. McGregor to come to Westways and see old Josiah. Of course, he will charge it to me." The Squire was a little ashamed of this indirect confession of retreat.

John looked up, hesitated a moment, and said, "What horse, sir?"

"Dixy, of course."

"Another cup, James," said Mrs. Ann tranquilly amused.

John rose, went around the table to his uncle, and said in his finest manner, "I am greatly obliged, sir."

"Oh, nonsense! He's rather fresh, take care."

Then Leila said, "It's very hot, Uncle Jim."

"You small fiend," said Penhallow. "Hot! On your way, John, tell those rascals at Westways they may use the pond." The faint smile on Ann Penhallow's face somehow set the whole business in an agreeably humorous light. The Squire broke into the relief of laughter and rose saying, "Get out of this, all of you, if you want to keep your scalps."

John went to the stable not quite pleased. He had felt that his punishment for a boy-frolic and the unexpected results of Billy's alarm had been pretty large. His aunt had not said so to him, but had made it clear to her husband that the penalty was quite disproportioned to the size of the offence; a remark which had made him the more resolute not to disturb the course of justice; and now this chit of a girl had made him seem like an irresolute fool, and he would have to explain to Rivers, who would laugh. As he went out of the hall-door, he felt a pretty rough little paw in his hand and heard a whisper. "You're just the dearest thing ever was."

Concerning John Penhallow, it is to be said that he did not understand why he was let off so easily. He had a suspicion that Leila was somehow concerned, and also the feeling that he would rather have suffered to the end. However, it would be rather good fun to announce this swimming-permit to the boys.

Seeing from his shop door John riding down the avenue, Josiah came limping across the road. He leaned on the gate facing the boy and looking over the horse and rider with the pleasure of one who, as the Squire liked to say, knew when horse-flesh and man-flesh were suitably matched.

"Girth's a bit slack, Master John. Always look it over, sir, before you mount."

"Thanks, Josiah. Open the gate, please. How lame you are. I am to send the doctor to look after you and Peter Lamb."

The big black man opened the gate and adjusted the girth. "That's right now. I've got the worst rheumatics I ever did have. Peter Lamb's sick too. That's apple-whisky. The Squire's mighty patient with that man, because his mother nursed the Squire when he was a baby. They're near of an age, but you wouldn't think it to look at Peter and the Captain; whisky does hurry up Old Time a lot." And so John got the town gossip. "I ain't no faith in doctorin' rheumatics; wouldn't have him now if I hadn't lost my old buck-eye. My rabbit-foot's turned grey this week. That's a sign of trouble."

John laughed and rode from the gate on which Leila had invited him to indulge in the luxury of swinging. It seemed years ago since she had sung to his astonishment the lyric of the gate. She appeared to him now not much older. And how completely he felt at home. He rode along the old pike through Westways, nodding to Mrs. Lamb, the mother of the scamp whom the Squire was every now and then saving from the consequences of the combination of a revengeful nature and bad whisky. Then Billy hailed John with malicious simplicity.

"Halloa!-John-can't swim-can't swim-ho, ho!"

The butcher's small boy was loading meat on a cart. John stayed to say a word to him, pleased to have the chance, as the boy grinned at Billy's mocking malice. "Halloa! Pole," he called. "My uncle says we fellows may swim. Tell the other fellows."

"Gosh! but that's good-John. I'll tell 'em."

John rode on and fell to thinking of Leila, with some humiliating suspicion in regard to her share in the Squire's change of mind; or was it Aunt Ann's influence? And why did he himself not altogether like it? Why should his aunt and Leila interfere? He wished they had let the matter alone. What had a girl to do with it? He was again conscious that he felt of a sudden older than Leila, and did not fully realize that in the race of life he had gone swiftly past her during these few months, and that in the next year she in turn would sweep past him in the developmental changes of life. Now she seemed to him more timid, more childlike than usual; but long thinkings are not of the psychic habits of normal youth, and Dixy recovered his attention.

He satisfied the well-bred horse, who of late had been losing his temper in the society of a rough groom, ignorant of the necessity for good manners with horses. Neither strange noises nor machines disturbed Dixy as John rode through the busy iron-mills to the door of a small brick house, so well known that no sign announced it as the home of the only medical man available at the mills or in Westways. John tied Dixy to the hitching-post, gnawed by the doctor's horse during long hours of waiting on an unpunctual man.

The doors were open, and as John entered he was aware of an odour of drugs and saw Dr. McGregor sound asleep in an armchair, a red silk handkerchief over his bald head, and a swarm of disappointed flies hovering above him. In the back room the clink and rattle of a pestle and mortar ceased as Tom appeared.

John, in high good-humour, said, "Good afternoon, Tom. My uncle has let up on the swimming. He asked me to let you fellows know."

"It's about time," said Tom crossly. "After all it was your fault and we had to pay for it."

"Now, Tom, you made me pretty angry when you talked to me the other day, and if you want to get me into another row, I won't object; but I was not asked for any names, and I did not put the blame on any one. Can't you believe a fellow?"

"No, I can't. If that parson hadn't come, I'd have licked you."

"Perhaps," said John.

"Isn't any perhaps about it. You look out, that's all."

John laughed. He was just now what the Squire described as horse-happy and indisposed to quarrel. "Suppose you wake up the old gentleman. He can snore."

Tom shook the doctor's shoulder, "Wake up, Dad. Here's John Penhallow."

The Doctor sat up and pulled off his handkerchief. The flies fell upon his bald pate. "Darn the flies," he said. "What is it, John?"

"My uncle wants you to come to Westways to-morrow and doctor old Josiah's rheumatism."

"I'll come."

"He wants you to look after Peter Lamb. He's been drinking again."

"What! that whisky-rotted scamp. It's pure waste of time. How the same milk came to feed the Squire and that beast the Lord knows. He has no more morals than a tom-cat. I'll come, but it's waste of good doctoring." Here he turned his rising temper on Tom. "You and my boy have been having a fight. You licked him and saved me the trouble. I heard from Mr. Rivers what Tom said."

"It was no one's business but Tom's and mine," returned John much amused to know that the peaceful rector must have watched the fight and overheard what caused it. Tom scowled, and the peacemaking old doctor got up, adding, "Be more gentle with Tom next time."

Tom knew better than to reply and went back to pill-making furious and humiliated.

"Good-bye, John," said the Doctor. "I'll see the Squire after I have doctored that whisky sponge." Then John rode home on Dixy.

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