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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Emigrant Trail By Geraldine Bonner Characters: 19859

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Susan was riding alone on the top of the bluffs. The evening before, three men returning from the Oregon country to the States, had bivouacked with them and told them that the New York Company was a day's march ahead, so she had gone to the highlands to reconnoiter.

Just here the bluffs swept inward toward the river, contracting the bottom to a valley only a few miles in width. Through it the road lay, a well-worn path crossed as with black stripes by the buffalo runs. Susan's glance, questing ahead for the New York train, ran to the distance where the crystal glaze of the stream shrunk to a silver thread imbedded in green velvet. There was a final point where green and silver converged in a blinding dazzle, and over this the sun hung, emerging from a nebulous glare to a slowly defining sphere.

Turning to the left her gaze lost itself in the endlessness of the plains. It was like looking over the sea, especially at the horizon where the land was drawn in a straight, purplish line. She could almost see sails there, small sails dark against a sky that was so remote its color had faded to an aerial pallor. As the journey had advanced the influence of these spacious areas had crept upon her. In the beginning there had been times when they woke in her an unexplained sadness. Now that was gone and she loved to ride onward, the one item of life in the silence, held in a new correspondence with the solemn immensity. It affected her as prayer does the devotee. Under its inspiration she wondered at old worries and felt herself impervious to new ones.

With eyes on the purple horizon her thoughts went back to her home in Rochester with the green shutters and the brasses on the door. How far away it seemed! Incidents in its peaceful routine were like the resurgences of memory from a previous incarnation. There was no tenderness in her thoughts of the past, no sentiment clung to her recollections of what was now a dead phase of her life. She was slightly impatient of its contented smallness, of her satisfaction with such things as her sewing, her cake making, her childish conferences with girl friends on the vine-grown porch. They seemed strangely trivial and unmeaning compared to the exhilarating present. She was living now, feeling the force of a rising growth, her horizon widening to suit that which her eyes sought, the dependence of her sheltered girlhood gone from her as the great adventure called upon untouched energies and untried forces. It was like looking back on another girl, or like a woman looking back on a child.

She had often spoken to David of these past days, and saw that her descriptions charmed him. He had asked her questions about it and been surprised that she did not miss the old existence more. To him it had seemed ideal, and he told her that that was the way he should like to live and some day would, with just such a servant as Daddy John, and a few real friends, and a library of good books. His enthusiasm made her dimly realize the gulf between them-the gulf between the idealist and the materialist-that neither had yet recognized and that only she, of the two, instinctively felt. The roughness of the journey irked David. The toil of the days wore on his nerves. She could see that it pained him to urge the tired animals forward, to lash them up the stream banks and drive them past the springs. And only half understanding his character-fine where she was obtuse, sensitive where she was invulnerable, she felt the continued withdrawal from him, the instinctive shrinking from the man who was not her mate.

She had silently acquiesced in the idea, entertained by all the train, that she would marry him. The doctor had intimated to her that he wished it and from her childhood her only real religion had been to please her father. Yet half a dozen times she had stopped the proposal on the lover's lips. And not from coquetry either. Loth and reluctant she clung to her independence. A rival might have warmed her to a more coming-on mood, but there was no rival. When by silence or raillery she had shut off the avowal she was relieved and yet half despised him for permitting her to take the lead. Why had he not forced her to listen? Why had he not seized her and even if she struggled, held her and made her hear him? She knew little of men, nothing of love, but she felt, without putting her thoughts even to herself, that to a man who showed her he was master she would have listened and surrendered.

Riding back to the camp she felt a trifle remorseful about her behavior. Some day she would marry him-she had got far enough to admit that-and perhaps it was unkind of her not to let the matter be settled. And at that she gave a petulant wriggle of her shoulders under her cotton blouse. Wasn't that his business? Wasn't he the one to end it, not wait on her pleasure? Were all men so easily governed, she wondered.

Looking ahead across the grassed bottom land, she saw that the train had halted and the camp was pitched. She could see David's tall stooping figure, moving with long strides between the tents and the wagons. She laid a wager with herself that he would do certain things and brought her horse to a walk that she might come upon him noiselessly and watch. Of course he did them, built up her fire and kindled it, arranged her skillets beside it and had a fresh pail of water standing close by. It only remained for him to turn as he heard the sound of her horse's hoofs and run to help her dismount. This, for some reason, he did not do and she was forced to attract his attention by saying in a loud voice:

"There was nothing to be seen. Not a sign of a wagon from here to the horizon."

He looked up from his cooking and said: "Oh, you're back, Susan," and returned to the pan of buffalo tallow.

This was a strange remissness in the slave and she was piqued. Contrary to precedent it was her father who helped her off. She slid into his arms laughing, trying to kiss him as she slipped down, then standing with her hands on his shoulders told him of her ride. She was very pretty just then, her hair loose on her sunburned brow, her face all love and smiles. But David bent over his fire, did not raise his eyes to the charming tableau, that had its own delightfulness to the two participants, and that one of the participants intended should show him how sweet Susan Gillespie could be when she wanted.

All of which trivial matter combined to the making of momentous matter, momentous in the future for Susan and David. Shaken in her confidence in the subjugation of her slave, Susan agreed to his suggestion to ride to the bluffs after supper and see the plains under the full moon. So salutary had been his momentary neglect of her that she went in a chastened spirit, a tamed and gentle maiden. They had orders not to pass out of sight of the twin fires whose light followed them like the beams of two, watchful, unwinking eyes.

They rode across the bottom to where the bluffs rose, a broken bulwark. That afternoon Susan had found a ravine up which they could pass. She knew it by a dwarfed tree, a landmark in the naked country. The moonlight lay white on the barrier indented with gulfs of darkness, from each of which ran the narrow path of the buffalo. The line of hills, silver-washed and black-caverned, was like a rampart thrown across the entrance to the land of mystery, and they like the pygmy men of fairyland come to gain an entry. It was David who thought of this. It reminded him of Jack and the Beanstalk, where Jack, reaching the top of the vine, found himself in a strange country. Susan did not remember much about Jack. She was engrossed in recognizing the ravine, scanning the darkling hollows for the dwarf tree.

It was a steep, winding cut, the tree, halfway up its length, spreading skeleton arms against a sky clear as a blue diamond. They turned into it and began a scrambling ascent, the horses' hoofs slipping into the gutter that the buffaloes had trodden out. It was black dark in the depths with the moonlight slanting white on the walls.

"We're going now to find the giants," David called over his shoulder. "Doesn't this seem as if it ought to lead us up right in front of Blunderbore's Castle?"

"The buffalo runs are like trenches," she answered. "If you don't look out your horse may fall."

They tied their horses to the tree and climbed on foot to the levels above. On the earth's floor, unbroken by tree or elevation, there was not a shadow. It lay silver frosted in the foreground, darkening as it receded. In the arch above no cloud filmed the clearness, the moon, huge and mottled, dominating the sky. The silence was penetrating; not a breath or sound disturbed it. It was the night of the primitive world, which stirred the savage to a sense of the infinite and made him, from shell or clay or stone, carve out a God.

Without speaking they walked forward to a jutting point and looked down on the river. The current sparkled like a dancer's veil spread on the grass. They could not hear its murmur or see the shifting disturbance of its shallows, only received the larger impression of the flat, gleaming tide split by the black shapes of islands. David pointed to the two sparks of the camp fires.

"See, they're looking after us as if they were alive and knew they mustn't lose sight of us."

"They look quite red in the moonlight," she answered, interested.

"As if they belonged to man and a drop of human blood had colored them."

"What a queer idea. Let's walk on along the bluffs."

They turned and moved away from the lights, slipping down into the darkness of the channeled ravines and emerging onto the luminous highlands. The solemnity of the night, its brooding aloofness in which they held so small a part, chilled the girl's high self-reliance. Among her fellows, in a setting of light and action, she was all proud

independence. Deprived of them she suffered a diminution of confidence and became if not clinging, at least a feminine creature who might some day be won. Feeling small and lonely she insensibly drew closer to the man beside her, at that moment the only connecting link between her and the living world with which her liens were so close.

The lover felt the change in her, knew that the barrier she had so persistently raised was down. They were no longer mistress and slave, but man and maid. The consciousness of it gave him a new boldness. The desperate daring of the suitor carried him beyond his familiar tremors, his dread of defeat. He thrust his hand inside her arm, timidly, it is true, ready to snatch it back at the first rebuff. But there was none, so he kept it there and they walked on. Their talk was fragmentary, murmured sentences that they forgot to finish, phrases trailing off into silence as if they had not clear enough wits to fit words together, or as if words were not necessary when at last their spirits communed. Responding to the instigation of the romantic hour the young girl felt an almost sleepy content. The arm on which she leaned spoke of strength, it symbolized a protection she would have repudiated in the practical, sustaining sunshine, but that now was very sweet.

David walked in a vision. Was it Susan, this soft and docile being, close against his side, her head moving slowly as her eyes ranged over the magical prospect? He was afraid to speak for fear the spell would break. He did not know which way his feet bore him, but blindly went on, looking down at the profile almost against his shoulder, at the hand under which his had slid, small and white in the transforming light. His silence was not like hers, the expression of a temporary, lulled tranquility. He had passed the stage when he could delay to rejoice in lovely moments. He was no longer the man fearful of the hazards of his fate, but a vessel of sense ready to overflow at the slightest touch.

It came when a ravine opened at their feet and she drew herself from him to gather up her skirts for the descent. Then the tension broke with a tremulous "Susan, wait!" She knew what was coming and braced herself to meet it. The mystical hour, the silver-bathed wonder of the night, a girl's frightened curiosity, combined to win her to a listening mood. She felt on the eve of a painful but necessary ordeal, and clasped her hands together to bear it creditably. Through the perturbation of her mind the question flashed-Did all women feel this way? and then the comment, How much they had to endure that they never told!

It was the first time any man had made the great demand of her. She had read of it in novels and other girls had told her. From this data she had gathered that it was a happy if disturbing experience. She felt only the disturbance. Seldom in her life had she experienced so distracting a sense of discomfort. When David was half way through she would have given anything to have stopped him, or to have run away. But she was determined now to stand it, to go through with it and be engaged as other girls were and as her father wished her to be. Besides there was nowhere to run to and she could not have stopped him if she had tried. He was launched, the hour had come, the, to him, supreme and awful hour, and all the smothered passion and hope and yearning of the past month burst out.

Once she looked at him and immediately looked away, alarmed and abashed by his appearance. Even in the faint light she could see his pallor, the drops on his brow, the drawn desperation of his face. She had never in her life seen anyone so moved and she began to share his agitation and wish that anything might happen to bring the interview to an end.

"Do you care? Do you care?" he urged, trying to look into her face. She held it down, not so much from modesty as from an aversion to seeing him so beyond himself, and stammered:

"Of course I care. I always have. Quite a great deal. You know it."

"I never knew," he cried. "I never was sure. Sometimes I thought so and the next day you were all different. Say you do. Oh, Susan, say you do."

He was as close to her as he could get without touching her, which, the question now fairly put, he carefully avoided doing. Taller than she he loomed over her, bending for her answer, quivering and sweating in his anxiety.

The young girl was completely subdued by him. She was frightened, not of the man, but of the sudden revelation of forces which she did not in the least comprehend and which made him another person. Though she vaguely understood that she still dominated him, she saw that her dominion came from something much more subtle than verbal command and imperious bearing. All confusion and bewildered meekness, she melted, partly because she had meant to, partly because his vehemence overpowered her, and partly because she wanted to end the most trying scene she had ever been through.

"Will you say yes? Oh, you must say yes," she heard him imploring, and she emitted the monosyllable on a caught breath and then held her head even lower and felt an aggrieved amazement that it was all so different from what she had thought it would be.

He gave an exclamation, a sound almost of pain, and drew away from her. She glanced up at him, her eyes full of scared curiosity, not knowing what extraordinary thing was going to happen next. He had dropped his face into his hands, and stood thus for a moment without moving. She peered at him uneasily, like a child at some one suffering from an unknown complaint and giving evidence of the suffering in strange ways. He let his hands fall, closed his eyes for a second, then opened them and came toward her with his face beatified. Delicately, almost reverently, he bent down and touched her cheek with his lips.

The lover's first kiss! This, too, Susan had heard about, and from what she had heard she had imagined that it was a wonderful experience causing unprecedented joy. She was nearly as agitated as he, but through her agitation, she realized with keen disappointment that she had felt nothing in the least resembling joy. An inward shrinking as the bearded lips came in contact with her skin was all she was conscious of. There was no rapture, no up-gush of anything lovely or unusual. In fact, it left her with the feeling that it was a duty duly discharged and accepted-this that she had heard was one of life's crises, that you looked back on from the heights of old age and told your grandchildren about.

They were silent for a moment, the man so filled and charged with feeling that he had no breath to speak, no words, if he had had breath, to express the passion that was in him. Inexperienced as she, he thought it sweet and beautiful that she should stand away from him with averted face. He gazed at her tenderly, wonderingly, won, but still a thing too sacred for his touch.

Susan, not knowing what to do and feeling blankly that something momentous had happened and that she had not risen to it, continued to look on the ground. She wished he would say something simple and natural and break the intolerable silence. Finally, she felt that she could endure it no longer, and putting her hand to her forehead, pushed back her hair and heaved a deep sigh. He instantly moved to her all brooding, possessive inquiry. She became alarmed lest he meant to kiss her again and edged away from him, exclaiming hastily:

"Shall we go back? We've been a long time away."

Without speech he slid his hand into the crook of her arm and they began to retrace their steps. She could feel his heart beating and the warm, sinewy grasp of his fingers clasped about hers. The plain was a silver floor for their feet, in the starless sky the great orb soared. The girl's embarrassment left her and she felt herself peacefully settling into a contented acquiescence. She looked up at him, a tall shape, black between her and the moon. Her glance called his and he gazed down into her eyes, a faint smile on his lips. His arm was strong, the way was strangely beautiful, and in the white light and the stillness, romance walked with them.

There was no talk between them till they reached the horses. In the darkness of the cleft, hidden from the searching radiance, he drew her to him, pressing her head with a trembling hand against his heart. She endured it patiently but was glad when he let her go and she was in the saddle, a place where she felt more at home than in a man's arms with her face crushed against his shirt, turning to avoid its rough texture and uncomfortably conscious of the hardness of his lean breast. She decided not to speak to him again, for she was afraid he might break forth into those protestations of love that so embarrassed her.

At the camp Daddy John was up, sitting by the fire, waiting for them. Of this, too, she was glad. Good-bys between lovers, even if only to be separated by a night, were apt to contain more of that distressful talk. She called a quick "Good night" to him, and then dove into her tent and sat down on the blankets. The firelight shone a nebulous blotch through the canvas and she stared at it, trying to concentrate her thoughts and realize that the great event had happened.

"I'm engaged," she kept saying to herself, and waited for the rapture, which, even if belated, ought surely to come. But it did not. The words obstinately refused to convey any meaning, brought nothing to her but a mortifying sensation of being inadequate to a crisis. She heard David's voice exchanging a low good night with the old man, and she hearkened anxiously, still hopeful of the thrill. But again there was none, and she could only gaze at the blurred blot of light and whisper "I'm engaged to be married," and wonder what was the matter with her that she should feel just the same as she did before.

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