The snow had ceased falling. No wind stirred among the trees that covered the hillsides, and every shrub, every leaf and twig, still bore its feathery, white load. Slowly the train labored upward, with two engines to take it the steepest part of the climb from the valley below. David Thryng gazed out into the quiet, white wilderness and was glad. He hoped Carew's Crossing was not beyond all this, where the ragged edge of civilization, out of which the toiling train had so lately lifted them, would begin again.
He glanced from time to time at the young woman near the door who sat as the bishop had left her, one slight hand grasping the handle of her basket, and with an expression on her face as placid and fraught with mystery as the scene without. The train began to crawl more heavily, and, looking down, Thryng saw that they were crossing a trestle over a deep gorge before skirting the mountain on the other side. Suddenly it occurred to him that he might be carried beyond his station. He stopped the smiling young brakeman who was passing with his flag.
"Let me know when we come to Carew's Crossing, will you?"
"Next stop, suh. Are you foh there, suh?"
"Yes. How soon?"
"Half an houh mo', suh. I'll be back d'rectly and help you off, suh. It's a flag station. We don't stop there in winter 'thout we're called to, suh. Hotel's closed now."
"Hotel? Is there a hotel?" Thryng's voice betokened dismay.
"Yes, suh. It's a right gay little place in summah, suh." He passed on, and Thryng gathered his scattered effects. Ill and weary, he was glad to find his long journey so nearly at an end.
On either side of the track, as far as eye could see, was a snow-whitened wilderness, seemingly untouched by the hand of man, and he felt as if he had been carried back two hundred years. The only hint that these fastnesses had been invaded by human beings was an occasional rough, deeply red wagon road, winding off among the hills.
The long trestle crossed, the engines labored slowly upward for a time, then, turning a sharp curve, began to descend, tearing along the narrow track with a speed that caused the coaches to rock and sway; and thus they reached Carew's Crossing, dropping down to it like a rushing torrent.
Immediately Thryng found himself deposited in the melting snow some distance from the station platform, and at the same instant, above the noise of the retreating train, he heard a cry: "Oh, suh, help him, help him! It's poor little Hoyle!" The girl whom he had watched, and about whom he had been wondering, flashed by him and caught at the bridle of a fractious colt, that was rearing and plunging near the corner of the station.
"Poor little Hoyle! Help him, suh, help him!" she cried, clinging desperately, while the frantic animal swung her off her feet, close to the flying heels of the kicking mule at his side.
Under the heavy vehicle to which the ill-assorted animals were attached, a child lay unconscious, and David sprang forward, his weakness forgotten in the demand for action. In an instant he had drawn the little chap from his perilous position and, seizing the mule, succeeded in backing him to his place. The cause of its fright having by this time disappeared, the colt became tractable and stood quivering and snorting, as David took the bridle from the girl's hand.
"I'll quiet them now," he said, and she ran to the boy, who had recovered sufficiently to sit up and gaze in a dazed way about him. As she bent over him, murmuring soothing words, he threw his arms around her neck and burst into wild sobbing.
"There, honey, there! No one is hurt. You are not, are you, honey son?"
"I couldn't keep a holt of 'em," he sobbed.
"You shouldn't have done it, honey. You should have let me get home as best I could." Her face was one which could express much, passive as it had been before. "Where was Frale?"
"He took the othah ho'se and lit out. They was aftah him. They—"
"S-sh. There, hush! You can stand now; try, Hoyle. You are a man now."
The little fellow rose, and, perceiving Thryng for the first time, stepped shyly behind his sister. David noticed that he had a deformity which caused him to carry his head twisted stiffly to one side, and also that he had great, beautiful brown eyes, so like those of a hunted fawn as he turned them upon the stranger with wide appeal, that he seemed a veritable creature of the wilderness by which they were surrounded.
Then the girl stepped forward and thanked him with voice and eyes; but he scarcely understood the words she said, as her tones trailed lingeringly over the vowels, and almost eliminated the "r," so lightly was it touched, while her accent fell utterly strange upon his English ear. She looked to the harness with practised eye, and then laid her hand beside Thryng's, on the bridle. It was a strong, shapely hand and wrist.
"I can manage now," she said. "Hoyle, get my basket foh me."
But Thryng suggested that she climb in and take the reins first, although the animals stood quietly enough now; the mule looked even dejected, with hanging head and forward-drooping ears.
The girl spoke gently to the colt, stroking him along the side and murmuring to him in a cooing voice as she mounted to the high seat and gathered up the reins. Then the two beasts settled themselves to their places with a wontedness that assured Thryng they would be perfectly manageable under her hand.
David turned to the child, relieved him of the basket, which was heavy with unusual weight, and would have lifted him up, but Hoyle eluded his grasp, and, scrambling over the wheel with catlike agility, slipped shyly into his place close to the girl's side. Then, with more than childlike thoughtfulness, the boy looked up into her face and said in a low voice:—
"The gen'l'man's things is ovah yandah by the track, Cass. He cyant tote 'em alone, I reckon. Whar is he goin'?"
Then Thryng remembered himself and his needs. He looked at the line of track curving away up the mountain side in one direction, and in the other lost in a deep cut in the hills; at the steep red banks rising high on each side, arched over by leafy forest growth, with all the interlacing branches and smallest twigs bearing their delicate burden of white, feathery snow. He caught his breath as a sense of the strange, untamed beauty, marvellous and utterly lonely, struck upon him. Beyond the tracks, high up on the mountain slope, he thought he spied, well-nigh hid from sight by the pines, the gambrel roof of a large building—or was it a snow-covered rock?
"Is that a house up there?" he asked, turning to the girl, who sat leaning forward and looking steadily down at him.
"That is the hotel."
"A road must lead to it, then. If I could get up there, I could send down for my things."
"They is no one thar," piped the boy; and Thryng remembered the brakeman's words, and how he had rebelled at the thought of a hotel incongruously set amid this primeval beauty; but now he longed for the comfort of a warm room and tea at a hospitable table. He wished he had accepted the bishop's invitation. It was a predicament to be dropped in this wild spot, without a store, a cabin, or even a thread of blue smoke to be seen as indicating a human habitation, and no soul near save these two children.
The sun was sinking toward the western hilltops, and a chillness began creeping about him as the shadows lengthened across the base of the mountain, leaving only the heights in the glowing light.
"Really, you know, I can't say what I am to do. I'm a stranger here—"
It seemed odd to him at the moment, but her face, framed in the huge sunbonnet,—a delicate flower set in a rough calyx,—suddenly lost all expression. She did not move nor open her lips. Thryng thought he detected a look of fear in the boy's eyes, as he crept closer to her.
In a flash came to him the realization of the difficulty. His friend had told him of these people,—their occupations, their fear of the world outside and below their fastnesses, and how zealously they guarded their homes and their rights from outside intrusion, yet how hospitable and generous they were to all who could not be considered their hereditary enemies.
He hastened to speak reassuring words, and, bethinking himself that she had called the boy Hoyle, he explained how one Adam Hoyle had sent him.
"The doctor is my friend, you know. He built a cabin somewhere within a day's walk, he told me, of Carew's Crossing, on a mountain top. Maybe you knew him?"
A slight smile crept about the girl's lips, and her eyes brightened. "Yes, suh, we-all know Doctah Hoyle."
"I am to have the cabin—if I can find it—live there as he did, and see what your hills will do for me." He laughed a little as he spoke, deprecating his evident weakness, and, lifting his cap, wiped the cold moisture from his forehead.
She noted his fatigue and hesitated. The boy's questioning eyes were fixed on her face, and she glanced down into them an answering look. Her lips parted, and her eyes glowed as she turned them again on David, but she spoke still in the same passive monotone.
"Oh, yes. My little brothah was named foh him,—Adam Hoyle,—but we only call him Hoyle. It's a right long spell since the Doctah was heah. His cabin is right nigh us, a little highah up. Theah is no place wheah you could stop nighah than ouahs. Hoyle, jump out and help fetch his things ovah. You can put them in the back of the wagon, suh, and ride up with us. I have a sight of room foh them."
The child was out and across the tracks in an instant, seizing a valise much too heavy for him, and Thryng cut his thanks short to go to his relief.
"I kin tote it," said the boy shrilly.
"No, no. I am the biggest, so I'll take the big ones. You bring the bundle with the strap around it—so. Now we shall get on, shan't we? But you are pretty strong for a little chap;" and the child's face radiated smiles at the praise.
Then David tossed in valise and rug, without which last no Englishman ever goes on a journey, and with much effort they managed to pull the box along and hoist it also into the wagon, the body of which was filled with corn fodder, covered with an old patchwork quilt.
The wagon was of the rudest, clumsiest construction, the heavy box set on axles without springs, but the young physician was thankful for any kind of a conveyance. He had been used to life in the wild, taking things as he found them—bunking in a tent, a board shanty, or out under the open sky; with men brought heterogeneously together, some merely rough woodsmen in their natural environment, others the scum of the cities to whom crime was become first nature, decency second, and others, fleeing from justice and civilized law, hiding ofttimes a fine nature delicately reared. During this time he had seldom seen a woman other than an occasional camp follower of the most degraded sort.
Inured thus, he did not find his ride, embedded with good corn fodder, much of a hardship, even in a springless wagon over mountain roads. Wrapped in his rug, he braced himself against his box, with his face toward the rear of the wagon, and gazed out from under its arching canvas hood at the wild way, as it slowly unrolled behind them, and was pleased that he did not have to spend the night under the lee of the station.
The lingering sunlight made flaming banners of the snow clouds now slowly drifting across the sky above the white world, and touched the highest peaks with rose and gold. The shadows, ever changing, deepened from faintest pink-mauve through heliotrope tints, to the richest violet in the heart of the gorges. Over and through all was the witching mystery of fairy-like, snow-wreathed branches and twigs, interwoven and arching up and up in faint perspective to the heights above, and down, far down, to the depths of the regions below them; and all the time, mingled with the murmur of the voices behind him, and the creaking of the vehicle in which they rode, and the tramp of the animals when they came to a hard roadbed with rock foundation,—noises which were not loud, but which seemed to be covered and subdued by the soft snow even as it covered everything,—could be heard a light dropping and pattering, as the overladen last year's leaves and twigs dropped their white burden to the ground. Sometimes the great hood of the wagon struck an overhanging bough and sent the snow down in showers as they passed.
Heavily they climbed up, and warily made their descent of rocky steeps, passing through boggy places or splashing in clear streams which issued from springs in the mountain side or fell from some distant height, then climbing again only to wind about and again descend. Often the way was rough with boulders that had never been blasted out,—sometimes steeply shelving where the gorge was deepest and the precipice sheerest. Past all dangers the girl drove with skilful hand, now encouraging her team with her low voice, now restraining them, where their load crowded upon them over slippery, shelving rocks, with strong pulls and sharp command. David marvelled at her serenity under the strain, and at her courage and deftness. With the calmness of the boy nestling at her side, he resigned himself to the sweet witchery of the time and place. Glancing up at the high seat behind him, he saw the child's feet dangling, and knew they must be cold.
"Why can't your little brother sit back here with me?" he said; "I'll cover him with my rug, and we'll keep each other warm."
He saw the small hunched back stiffen, and try to appear big and manly, but she checked the team at a level dip in the road.
"Yes, sonny, get ovah theah with the gentleman. It'll be some coldah now the sun's gone." But the little man was shyly reluctant to move. "Come, honey. Sistah'd a heap rathah you would."
Then David reached up and gently lifted the atom of manhood, of pride, sensitiveness, and affection, over where he caused him to snuggle down in the fodder close to his side.
For a while the child sat stiffly aloof, but gradually his little form relaxed, and his head drooped sideways in the hollow of the stranger's shoulder, held comfortably by Thryng's kindly encircling arm. Soon, with his small feet wrapped in the warm, soft rug, he slept soundly and sweetly, rocked, albeit rather roughly, in the jolting wagon.
Thryng also dreamed, but not in sleep. His mind was stirred to unusual depths by his strange surroundings—the silence, the mystery, the beauty of the night, and the suggestions of grandeur and power dimly revealed by the moonlight which bathed the world in a flood of glory.
He was uplifted and drawn out of himself, and at the same time he was thrown back to review his life and to see his most inward self, and to marvel and question the wherefore of it all. Why was he here, away from the active, practical affairs which interest other men? Was he a creature of ideals only, or was he also a practical man, taking the wisest means of reaching and achieving results most worth while? He saw himself in his childhood—in his youth—in his young manhood—even to the present moment, jogging slowly along in a far country, rough and wild, utterly dependent on the courtesy of a slight girl, who held, for the moment, his life in her hands; for often, as he gazed into the void of darkness over narrow ledges, he knew that only the skill of those two small hands kept them from sliding into eternity: yet there was about her such an air of wontedness to the situation that he was stirred by no sense of anxiety for himself or for her.
He took out his pipe and smoked, still dreaming, comparing, and questioning. Of ancient family, yet the younger son of three generations of younger sons, all probability of great inheritance or title so far removed from him, it behooved that he build for himself—what? Fortune, name, everything. Character? Ah, that was his heritage, all the heritage the laws of England allowed him, and that not by right of English law, but because, fixed in the immutable, eternal Will, some laws there are beyond the power of man to supersede. With an involuntary stiffening of his body, he disturbed for an instant the slumbering child, and quite as involuntarily he drew him closer and soothed him back to forgetfulness; and they both dreamed on, the child in his sleep, and the man in his wide wakefulness and intense searching.
His uncle, it is true, would have boosted him far toward creating both name and fame for himself, in either army or navy, but he would none of it. There was his older brother to be advanced, and the younger son of this same uncle to be placed in life, or married to wealth. This also he might have done; well married he might have been ere now, and could be still, for she was waiting—only—an ideal stood in his way. Whom he would marry he would love. Not merely respect or like,—not even both,—but love he must; and in order to hold to this ideal he must fly the country, or remain to be unduly urged to his own discomfiture and possibly to their mutual undoing.
As for the alternatives, the army or the navy, again his ideals had formed for him impassable bars. He would found his career on the saving rather than the taking of life. Perhaps he might yet follow in the wake of armies to mend bodies they have torn and cut and maimed, and heal diseases they have engendered—yes—perhaps—the ideals loomed big. But what had he done? Fled his country and deftly avoided the most heart-satisfying of human delights—children to call him father, and wife to make him a home; peace and wealth; thrust aside the helping hand to power and a career considered most worthy of a strong and resourceful man, and thrown personal ambition to the winds. Why? Because of his ideals—preferring to mend rather than to mar his neighbor.
Surely he was right—and yet—and yet. What had he accomplished? Taken the making of his life into his own hands and lost—all—if health were really gone. One thing remained to him—the last rag and remnant of his cherished ideals—to live long enough to triumph over his own disease and take up work again. Why should he succumb? Was it fate? Was there the guidance of a higher will? Might he reach out and partake of the Divine power? But one thing he knew; but one thing could he do. As the glory of white light around him served to reveal a few feet only of the way, even as the density beyond seemed impenetrable, still it was but seeming. There was a beyond—vast—mysterious—which he must search out, slowly, painfully, if need be, seeing a little way only, but seeing that little clearly, revealed by the white light of spirit. His own or God's? Into the infinite he must search—search—and at last surely find.