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   Chapter 7 No.7

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 18103

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Before the period of which I write, the county and town had unfailingly voted the Democratic ticket. But for half a decade the unrest of the cities reflected in the journals had been disturbing the minds of country communities in the Middle States. In the rural districts of Pennsylvania there had been very little actively hostile sentiment about slavery, but the never ending disputes over Kansas had at last begun to weaken party ties, and more and more to direct opinion on to the originating cause of trouble.

The small voting population of Westways had begun to suspect of late that James Penhallow's unwillingness to discuss politics meant some change in his fidelity to the party of which Buchanan was the candidate. What Mrs. Ann felt she had rather freely allowed to be known. The little groups which were apt to gather about the grocer's barrels at evening discussed the grave question of the day with an interest no previous presidential canvass had caused, and this side eddy of quiet village life was now agreeably disturbed by the great currents of national politics. Westways began to take itself seriously, as little towns will at times, and to ask how this man or that would vote at the coming election in November. The old farmers who from his youth still called the Squire "James" were Democrats. Swallow, the only lawyer the town possessed, was silent, which was felt as remarkable in a man who usually talked much more than occasion demanded and wore a habit-mask of good-fellowship, which had served to deceive many a blunt old farmer, but not James Penhallow.

At Grey Pine there was a sense of tension. Penhallow was a man slow in thinking out conclusions, but in times demanding action swiftly decisive. He had at last settled in his mind that he must leave his party and follow a leader he had known in the army and never entirely trusted. Whether he should take an active share in the politics of the county troubled him, as he had told Rivers. He must, of course, tell his wife how he had resolved to vote. To speak here and there at meetings, to throw himself into the contest, was quite another matter. His wife would feel deeply grieved. Between the two influential feelings the resolution of forces, as he put it to himself with a sad smile, decided him to hold his tongue so far as the outer world was concerned, to vote for the principles unfortunately represented by Fremont, but to have one frank talk with Ann Penhallow. There was no need to do this as yet, and he smiled again at the thought that Mrs. Ann was, as he pretty well knew, playing the game of politics at Westways. He might stop her. He could ask her to hold her hand, but to let her continue on her way and to openly make war against her, that he could not do. It did not matter much as the State in any case would go for Buchanan. He hesitated, and had better have been plain with her. She knew that he had been long in doubt, but did not as yet suspect how complete was his desertion of opinions she held to as she did to her religious creed. He found relief in his decision, and too in freedom of talk with Rivers, who looked upon slavery as simply wicked and had no charity for the section so little responsible for an inherited curse they were now driven by opponent criticism to consider a blessing for all concerned.

John too was asking questions and beginning now and then to wonder more and more that what Westways discussed should never be mentioned at Grey Pine. He rode Dixy early in the mornings with Leila at his side, fished or swam in the afternoons, and so the days ran on. On September 30th, Ann was to take Leila to the school in Maryland. Three days before this terrible exile was to begin, as they turned in at the gate of the stable-yard, Leila said, "I have only three days. I want to go and see the Indian graves and the spring, and all the dear places I feel as if I shall never see again."

"What nonsense, Leila. What do you mean?"

"Oh, Aunt Ann says I will be so changed in a year, I won't know myself."

"You mean, you won't see things then as they are seen now."

"Yes, that's what I wanted to say, but you always know how to find the right words."

"Perhaps," he said. "Things never look just the same tomorrow, but they may look-well, nicer-or-I can't always find the right word. Suppose we walk to the graves after lunch and have a good talk." It was so agreed.

They were never quite free from the chance of being sent on errands, and as Aunt Ann showed signs they well knew, they slipped away quietly and were gone before the ever-busy lady had ready a basket of contributions to the comfort of a sick woman in the village. They crossed the garden and were lost to view in the woods before Leila spoke. "We just did it. Billy will have to go." They laughed merrily at their escape.

"Just think, John, how long it is since you came. It seems years. Oh, you were a queer boy! I just hated you."

"I do suppose, Leila, I must have looked odd with that funny cap and the cane-"

"And the way you looked when I told you about swinging on the gate. I hadn't done that for-oh, two years. What did you think of me?"

"I thought you were very rude, and then-oh, Leila! when you came up out of the drift-" He hesitated.

"Oh, go on; I don't mind-not now."

"I thought you beautiful with all that splendid hair on the snow."

"Oh, John! How silly!" Whether or not she was unusually good to look at had hardly ever before occurred to her. She flushed slightly, pleased and wondering, with a new seed of gentle vanity planted in her simple nature, a child on the threshold of the womanly inheritance of maidenhood.

Then he said gravely, "It is wonderful to me how we have changed. I shall miss you. To think you are the only girl I ever played with, and now when you come back at Christmas-"

"I am not to come back then, John. I am to stay with my uncles in

Baltimore and not come home until next June."

"You will be a young lady in long skirts and your hair tucked up. It's dreadful."

"Can't be helped, John. You will look after Lucy, and write to me."

"And you will write to me, Leila?"

"If I may. Aunt says they are very strict. But I shall write to Aunt Ann, of course."

"That won't be the same."

"No."

They walked on in silence for a little while, the girl gazing idly at the tall trees, the lad feeling strangely aware, freshly aware, as they moved, of the great blue eyes and of the sun-shafts falling on the abundant hair she swept back from time to time with a careless hand. Presently she stood still, and sat down without a word on the moss-cushioned trunk of a great spruce, fallen perhaps a century ago. She was passing through momentary moods of depression or of pleasure as she thought of change and travel, or nourishing little jealous desires that her serious-minded cousin should miss her.

The cousin turned back. "You might have invited me to sit down, Miss Grey." He laughed, and then as he fell on the brown pine-needles at her feet and looked up, he saw that her usual quick response to his challenge of mirth was wanting.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked.

"Oh, about Aunt Ann and Uncle Jim, and-and-Lucy, and who will ride her-"

"You can trust Uncle Jim about Lucy."

"I suppose so," said the girl rather dolefully and too near to the tears she had been sternly taught to suppress.

"Isn't it queer," he said, "how people think about the same things? I was just going to speak of Aunt Ann and Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim often talks to me and to Mr. Rivers about the election, but if I say a word or ask a question at table, Aunt Ann says, 'we don't talk politics.'"

"But once, John, I heard Mr. Rivers say that slavery was a curse and wicked. Uncle Jim, he said Aunt Ann's people held slaves, and he didn't want to talk about it. I couldn't hear the rest. I told you once about this."

"How you hear things, Leila. Prince Fine Ear was a trifle to you."

"Who was Prince Fine Ear?" she asked.

"Oh, he was the fairy prince who could hear the grass grow and the roses talk. It's a pretty French fairy tale."

"What a gabble there must be in the garden, John."

"It doesn't need Prince Fine Ear to hear. Don't these big pines talk to you sometimes, and the wind in the pines-the winds-?"

"No, they don't, but Lucy does."

Something like a feeling of disappointment faintly disturbed the play of his fancies. "Let us go to the graves."

"Yes, all right, come."

They got no further than the cabin and again sat down near by, Leila carelessly gathering the early golden-rod in her lap as they sat leaning against the cabin logs.

"This is our last walk," she said, arranging the golden plumes. "There is a white golden-rod; find me another, John."

He went away to the back of the cabin and returning threw in her lap a half dozen. "Old Josiah says the blacks in the South think it is good luck to find the first white golden-rod. Then, he says, you must have a luck-wish. What shall it be? Come-quick

now."

"Oh, I-don't know. Yes, I wish to have Lucy at that terrible boarding-school."

John laughed. "Oh, Leila, is that the best you can do?"

"Yes, wish a wish for me, if mine doesn't suit."

Then he said, "I wish the school had small-pox and you had to stay at

Grey Pine."

"I didn't think you'd care as much as that. Aren't these flowers beautiful? Wish me a real wish."

"Then, I wish that when we grow up you would marry me."

"Well, John, you are a silly." She took on an air of authoritative reprimand. "Why, John, you are only a boy, but you ought to know better than to talk such nonsense."

"And you," he said, "are just a little girl."

"Oh, I'm not so very little," returned Miss Grey.

"When I'm older, I shall ask you again; and if you say no, I'll ask again-and-until-"

"What nonsense, John. Let's go home."

He rose flushed and troubled, and said, "Are you vexed, Leila?"

"No, of course not; but it was foolish of you."

He made no reply, in fact hardly heard her. He was for the moment older in some ways than his years. What had strangely moved him disturbed Leila not at all. She talked on lightly, laughing at times, and was answered briefly; for although he had no desire to speak, the unfailing courteous ways of his foreign education forced him to disregard his desire to say. "Oh, do let me alone; you don't understand." He hardly understood himself or the impulsive stir of emotion-a signal of coming manhood. Annoyed by his unwillingness to talk, she too fell to silence, and they walked homeward.

During the time left to them there was much to do in the way of visits to the older village people and some of the farmer families who had been here on the soil nearly as long as the Penhallows. There were no other neighbours near enough for country intercourse, and the life at Grey Pine offered few attractions to friends or relatives from the cities unless they liked to tramp with the Squire in search of game. The life was, therefore, lonely and would for some women have been unendurable; but as the Baptist preacher said to Rivers, "Duties are enough to satisfy Mrs. Penhallow, and I do guess she enjoys her own goodness like the angels must do."

Mark Rivers answered, "That is pretty nearly true, but I wish she would not invent duties which don't belong to women."

"About the election, you mean?"

"Yes. It troubles me, and I am sure it troubles the Squire. What about yourself, Grace?" and a singularly sad smile went with the query and a side glance at his friend's face. He had been uneasy about him since Grace had bent a little in the House of Rimmon.

"Oh, Rivers, the roof has got to leak. I have kept away from Mrs. Penhallow. I can't accept her help and then preach against her party, and-I mean to do it. I've wrestled with this little sin and-I don't say I wasn't tempted-I was. Now I am clear. We Baptists can stand what water leaks down on us from Heaven."

"You mean to preach politics, Grace?"

"Yes, that's what I mean to do. Oh! here comes Mrs. Penhallow."

They had met in front of Josiah's shop. As Mrs. Penhallow approached, Mr.

Grace discovering a suddenly remembered engagement hurried away, and

Rivers went with her along the rough sidewalk of Westways.

"I go away to-morrow with Leila," she said, "and Mr. Penhallow goes to Pittsburgh. We shall leave John to you for at least a week. He will give you no trouble. He has quite lost his foreign boyish ways, and don't you think he is like my husband?"

"He is in some ways very like the Squire."

"Yes, in some things-I so rarely leave home that this journey to

Baltimore with Leila seems to me like foreign travel."

"Does Leila like it?"

"No, but it is time she was thrown among girls. She is less than she was a mere wild boy. It is strange, Mark, that ever since John came she has been less of a hoyden-and more of a simple girl."

"It is," he said, "a fine young nature in a strong body. She has the promise of beauty-whatever that may be worth."

"Worth! It is worth a great deal," said Mrs. Ann. "It helps. The moral value of beauty! Ah, Mark Rivers, I should like to discuss that with you. She is at the ugly duck age. Now I must go home. I want you to look after some things while I am away, and Mr. Penhallow is troubled about his pet scamp, Lamb."

She went on with her details of what he was to do, until he said laughing, "Please to put it on paper."

"I will. Not to leave John quite alone, I have arranged for you to dine with him, and I suppose he will go to you in the mornings for his lessons as usual."

"Oh, yes, of course. I enjoy these fellows, but the able ones are John and Tom McGregor. Tom is in the rough as yet, but he will come out all right. I shall lose him in a year. He is over seventeen and is to study medicine. But what about Lamb?"

"I am wicked enough to wish he were really ill. It is only the usual drunken bout, but he is a sort of Frankenstein to the Squire because of that absurd foster-brother feeling. He is still in bed, I presume."

"As you ask it," said Rivers, "I will see him, but if he belongs to any flock, he is a black sheep of Grace's fold. Anything else, Mrs. Penhallow?" he asked smiling-"but don't trust my memory."

"If I think of anything more, I shall make a note of it and, of course, you will see us at the station-the ten o'clock train-and give me a list of the books you wanted. I may find them in Philadelphia."

"Thank you."

"Oh," she said, turning back, "I forgot. My cousin, George Grey, is coming, but he is so uncertain that he may come as he advises me in ten days, or as is quite possible to-morrow, or not at all."

"Very good. If he comes, we will try to make Grey Pine agreeable."

"That is really all, Mark, I think," and the little lady went away, with a pleasant word for the long familiar people as she went by.

In the afternoon Leila saw the Squire ride to the mills with John, and went herself to the stable for a last mournful interview with Lucy. It was as well that her aunt with unconscious good sense kept her busy until dinner-time. The girl was near to accepting the relieving bribe of unrestrained tears, being sad and at the age of those internal conflicts which at the time of incomplete formation of character are apt to trouble the more sensitive sex. A good hard gallop would have cured her anticipative homesickness, for it must be a very black care indeed that keeps its seat behind the rider.

The next morning the rector and John were at the station of Westways Crossroads when the Grey Pine carriage drove up. Mrs. Ann and Leila were a half hour too early, as was Mrs. Penhallow's habit. Billy was on the cart with the baggage, grinning as usual and full of self-importance.

"Well, Billy," said Leila, talking to every one to conceal her child-grief at this parting with the joyous activities of her energetic young life. "Well, Billy, it's good-bye for a year."

"Won't have no more fun, Miss Leila-and nobody to snowball Billy, this winter."

"No, not this winter."

"Found another ground-hog yesterday. I'll let her alone till you come back."

John laughed. "Miss Leila will have long skirts and-hoops, Billy. There will be no more coasting and no more snowballing or digging up ground-hogs."

"Hoops-what for?" said Billy. John laughed.

"Please don't, John," she said, "it's too dreadful. Oh! I hear the whistle."

"Mark," said Mrs. Ann, "if George Grey comes-James, did you leave the wine-closet key?"

"Yes, my dear."

He turned to Leila, and kissing her said, "A year is soon over. Be a good girl, my child. It is about as bad for me as for you. God bless you. There, get on, Ann. Yes, the trunks are all right. Good-bye."

He stood a moment with John looking after the vanishing train. Then, he said, "No need to stay here with me, Mark," and the rector understanding him left him waiting for the westbound train and walked home across the fields with John Penhallow.

John was long silent, but at last said, "It will be pretty lonesome without Leila."

"Nice word, lonesome, John. Old English, I believe-has had its adventures like some other words. Lonely doesn't express as well the idea of being alone and sorrowful. We must do our best for your uncle and aunt. Your turn to leave us will come, and then Leila will be lonesome."

"I don't think she will care as much."

Rivers glanced at the strong young face. "Why do you say that?"

"I don't know, Mr. Rivers. I-she is more of a child than I am."

"That hardly answers my question. But I must leave you. I am going to see that scamp misnamed Lamb. See you at dinner. Don't cultivate lonesomeness, John. No one is ever really alone."

Leaving his pupil to consider what John thought rather too much of an enigma, the young clergyman took to the dusty highway which led to Westways. John watched the tall figure awkwardly climbing a snake fence, and keeping in mind for explanation the clergyman's last remark he went away through the woods.

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