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The Unjust Steward or The Minister's Debt written by Margaret Oliphant who was a Scottish novelist and historical writer. This book was published in 1896. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Summit House Mystery
The Earthly Purgatory
PUBLISHERS' INTRODUCTORY NOTE
Chapter I. A HUT IN THE PRECIPICE
Chapter II. THE UNWELCOME GUEST
Chapter III. A STRANGE DISMISSAL
Chapter IV. THE HOSTESS JAILER
Chapter V. THE NORTHERN LADIES
Chapter VI. EVENTS ON DEER MOUNTAIN
Chapter VII. THE GODSON POSSIBILITY
Chapter VIII. THE WORDLESS LETTERS
Chapter IX. THE SPECTRE IN THE FOREST
Chapter X. A SKELETON IN THE FIRE
Chapter XI. THE MYSTERIOUS 'DOLPHUS
Chapter XII. THE SECRET OF THE OAK
Chapter XIII. A SOB IN THE DARK
Chapter XIV. THE GOING OUT OF EVE
Chapter XV. THE QUESTION OF GUILT
Chapter XVI. A CALL FOR HELP
Chapter XVII. HERMIONE'S ADVOCATE
Chapter XVIII. A STARTLING DISCLOSURE
Chapter XIX. TANGLED IN THE COIL
Chapter XX. THE TERRIBLE CONFESSION
Chapter XXI. OPENING THE PAST
Chapter XXII. THE EARTHLY PURGATORY
Chapter XXIII. WHAT 'DOLPHUS KNOWS
Chapter XXIV. THE WOMAN WITH A SECRET
Chapter XXV. LOST IN THE MAZE
Chapter XXVI. A TORTURED CONSCIENCE
Chapter XXVII. A HOUND ON THE SCENT
Chapter XXVIII. PROBING A DEEP WOUND
Chapter XXIX. FORGED LETTERS
Chapter XXX. THE VISION IN THE HUT
Chapter XXXI. A FLASH OF LIGHT
Chapter XXXII. WHAT A TERRIER FOUND
Chapter XXXIII. THE RESTORATION
Chapter XXXIV. ALL THAT HAPPENED
Chapter XXXV. READJUSTMENTS
"The story's the thing" is a creed to which novel readers are supposed to give unanimous adherence. Art, literary style, study of character, and other of the higher, subtler elements of fiction, good as they are acknowledged to be, must yield first place to "the story," and afterwards shift for themselves the best way they may. How many so-called novel readers adhere to this creed is a matter of question—probably not as many as its exponents believe. Unquestionably there are two forms of fiction—the one in which art, and style, and character are pre-eminent, and control the course of the story, and the one in which "the story's the thing," and often the only thing. But why should not these two forms of fiction be blended? Why should not the art of George Eliot or Mr. Meredith be wedded to the thrilling action and absorbing mystery of Anthony Hope and Sir A. Conan Doyle?
In this story, "The Summit House Mystery," Miss Dougall has illustrated so well the possibilities of combining an exciting story with the charm of real literary art, that it must be considered as a model for a better school of popular fiction. In substance and in form it is unusually satisfying. The mystery with which it deals is so impenetrable as to baffle the cleverest reader until the very sentence in which, literally in a flash of light, the secret is revealed; yet from the beginning the story progresses steadily, logically, and without straining or melodramatic claptrap, to the inevitable solution. It is not, in the ordinary sense, a detective story, altho the two elements of concealment and search are present. It is not a "love story," but love, of the noblest order, supplies the cause and the support of the terrible mystery throughout the book. It is, as one has aptly said, a story of mystery "into which a soul has been infused." The rare distinction of its style and the beauty of its language place it far above stories of its class. A wonderful setting is given, high up on the summit of Deer Mountain, in Georgia, and the story seems to take on a quiet dignity, as well as a deeper atmosphere of mystery, from the lofty solitude. Seldom have the beauties of the mountains, "in all their varying moods of cloud, and mist, and glorious night," been painted in truer colors. "The Summit House Mystery" must inevitably set a higher standard for such novels, and the public will thus gain more than this one good story if it shall have, as it deserves, an immense popular success.
The Summit House Mystery
In the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains the tree-clad ridges fold and coil about one another. In this wooded wilderness the trend of each slope, the meandering of each stream, take unlooked-for turnings, and the valleys cross and twist. It is such a region as we often find in dreams, where the unexpected bars the way or opens out into falling vistas down which our souls must speed, chasing some hope or chased by unknown fears.
On a certain day a man called Neil Durgan passed through the village of Deer Cove, in the mountains of Northern Georgia. When he had left the few wooden buildings and the mill round which they clustered, he took a path by the foaming mill-stream and ascended the mountain of Deer.
For more than a century before the freeing of the slaves, the Durgans had been one of the proudest and richest families of Georgia. This man was the present head of the house, sole heir to the loss of all its lands and wealth. He was growing old now. Disappointment, Poverty, and Humility walked with him. Yet Joy, the fugitive, peeped at him through the leafless forest, from the snow-flakes of the dogwood and from the violets in the moss, laughed at him in the mountain torrent, and wooed him with the scent of the warming earth. Humility caught and kissed the fleeting spirit, and led her also in attendance upon the traveller's weary feet.
Deer Cove is more than two thousand feet in altitude; Deer Mountain rises a thousand feet above. Half-way up, Durgan came to the cabin of a negro called Adam. According to the usage of the time, the freedman's surname was Durgan, because he had been born and bred on the Durgan estates. Adam was a huge black negro. He and Durgan had not met since they were boys.
Adam's wife set a good table before the visitor. She was a quadroon, younger, lithe and attractive. Both stood and watched Durgan eat—Adam dumb with pleasure, the negress talking at times with such quick rushes of soft words that attentive listening was necessary.
"Yes, Marse Neil, suh; these ladies as lives up here on Deer, they's here for their health—they is. Very nice ladies they is, too; but they's from the North! They don't know how to treat us niggers right kind as you does, suh! They's allus for sayin' 'please' an' 'thank 'e,' and 'splaining perjinks to Adam an' me. But ef you can't board with these ladies, marsa, ther's no place you can live on Deer—no, there ain't, suh."
Durgan had had his table set before the door, and ate looking at the chaos of valleys, domes, and peaks which, from this height, was open to the view. The characteristic blue haze of the region was over all. The lower valleys in tender leaf had a changeful purple shimmer upon them, as seen in the peacock's plumage. The sun rained down white light from a fleecy sky. The tree-tops of the slope immediately beneath them were red with sap.
After a mood of reflection Durgan said, "You live well. These ladies must pay you well if you can afford dinners like this."
"Yes, Marse Neil, suh; they pays better than any in these parts. Miss Hermie, she's got right smart of sense, too, 'bout money. Miss Birdie, she's more for animals and flowers an' sich; but they pays well, they does."
"Look me out two good men to work with me in the mine, Adam."
Adam showed his white teeth in respectful joy. "That's all right, suh."
"Of course, as you are working for these ladies, you will look for my men in your spare time."
"That's all right, suh."
Durgan put down sufficient payment for his food, took up his travelling satchel, and walked on. From the turn of the rough cart-road on which the cabin stood the rocky summit was visible, and close below it the gables of a solitary dwelling.
"A rough perch for northern birds!" said he to himself, and then was plunged again in his own affairs. The branches, arching above, shut out all prospect. He plodded on.
The upper side of the mountain was a bald wall of rock. Where, part way up, the zigzag road abutted on this precipice it met a foot-trail to the summit, and at the same point an outer ledge of flat rock gave access to an excavation near at hand in the precipice. A wooden hut with a rude bench at its door stood on the ledge, the only legacy of a former miner. Durgan perceived that his new sphere was reached. He rested upon the bench and looked about him wistfully.
He was a large, well-built man, with patrician cast of feature, brown skin, and hair that was almost gray. His clothes were beginning to fray at the edges. They were the clothes of a man of fashion whose pockets had long been empty. His manner was haughty, but subdued by that subtle gentleness which failure gives to higher natures. A broken heart, a head carried high—these evoke compassion which can seldom be expressed.
He could look over the foot-hills to where cloud-shadows were slowly sailing upon the blue, billowy reaches of the Georgian plains. In that horizon, dim with sunlight, Durgan had sucked his silver spoon, and possessed all that pertains to the lust of the eye and the pride of life. The cruel war had wrapped him and his in its flames. When it was over, he had sought relief in speculation, and time had brought the episode of love. He had fought and lost; he had played and lost; he had married and lost. Out of war and play and love he had brought only himself and such a coat as is as much part of a man as its fur is part of an animal.
After a while he unfolded a letter already well worn. He read it for the last time with the fancy that it was well to end the old life where he hoped to commence the new one.
The letter was written in New York, and dated a month before. It was from his wife.
"It is very well for you to say that you would not want money from me if I came to live in the south with you, but I do not believe you could earn your own living, and it would ill become my social position to acknowledge a husband who was out at elbows and working like a convict. I think, too, that it is cant for you to preach to me and say that 'it would be well for us to try and do better.' Is it my fault that you have lost all self-respect, refusing to enter good society, to interest yourself in the arts and all that belongs to the spiritual side of life? Is it my fault that a spiritually minded man has given me the sympathy which you cannot even understand? I desire that you never again express to me your thoughts about a friendship which is above your comprehension.
"If your rich cousin will let you delve for him for a pittance I shall not interfere. I might tell him he could not put his mine into worse hands! I shall not alter the agreement we made ten years ago, which is that while you remain at a distance, and refrain from annoyance, I shall not seek legal separation."
The husband looked with a faint smile at the crest of the Durgans on the fashionable notepaper, at the handwriting in which a resolute effort at fashion barely concealed a lack of education. In the diction and orthography he discerned the work of a second mind, and it was with a puzzled, as well as a troubled air, that he tore the paper into atoms and let them flutter over the precipice in the soft breeze. But the puzzle was beyond his reading, and the trouble he cast into the past. Whatever good he had deserved at the hands of his wife, it was not in his nature to feel that Providence dealt too hardly with him. As he rose to examine his new scene of work, the phrase of the huge negro returned to his mind, and he muttered to himself, "Yes, suh; that's all right!"
He found a pick and hammer in the shed, and set himself instantly to break the rock where the vein of mica had already been worked. Weary as he soon became, he was glad to suppose that, having failed in dealing with his kind, he must wrestle now only with the solid earth, and in the peace of the wilderness.
The angels, looking down upon him, smiled; for they know well that the warfare of the world is only escaped by selfishness, not by circumstance.
The sun set glorious over the peaks of the Cherokee ridges, and their crimson outline lay dark, like a haven for the silver boat of the descending moon, when Durgan, satchel in hand, climbed the ascending foot-trail.
The cart-road evidently reached the summit by further turnings; but this footpath, wending through close azalea scrub and under trees, emerged between one gable of the summit house and the higher rocks above it. On the other three sides of the house its open lands were broad enough.
This had been the dwelling of the former miner. Durgan, already heralded by the barking of watch-dogs, could hardly pause to look at a place which would have been his perquisite had it not been bought at a fancy price by woman's caprice.
The low shingled dwelling, weathered and overgrown by vines, was faced by a long, open porch. Its lawn was already bordered by a fringe of crocus flowers. The house was old, but, beyond a group of trees, a new barn and carriage-house were standing. The fences of garden, field, and meadow were also new. The whole property bore marks of recent improvements which betokened wealth and taste.
A prim little lady met Durgan in the porch. Her hair was gray; she wore a dress of modified fashion. Even the warm glamour of the evening light and the matchless grace of hanging vines could give but small suggestion of romance to Miss Smith's neat, angular figure and thin face; but of her entire goodness Durgan, after the first glance, had never a doubt. She put on spectacles to read the letter of introduction which he brought from the owner of Deer Mountain and of the mine. She was startled by something she read there, but only betrayed her excitement by a slight trembling, hardly seen.
The letter read, she greeted Durgan in the neat manner of an established etiquette which, like her accent, savored of a New England education.
"Take a chair, for I guess you're tired. Yes, we bought this land from General Durgan Blount, and, of course, we've had dealing with him. That's about the extent of our acquaintance."
She swayed in a light rocking-chair, and for some minutes obviously thought over the request which the letter contained that she should give Durgan a temporary home as a paying guest. He employed the time in looking at books and pictures, which were of no mean quality, but seemed to have been recently collected.
At last she said, "Come to think of it, I don't see why you shouldn't stop with us a while. My sister isn't at home just now, but I guess I'll say 'Yes.' It isn't good for folks to be too much alone. We've a real comfortable room over the harness-room in the carriage-house. You'll have to sleep there, as we've no room in the house, and I guess what we eat will be good enough." A moment's pause and she added, "My sister won't be quite agreeable, perhaps, not being accustomed——"
"Of course, I quite understand, you're not in the habit of doing such a——"
"I did not mean that we felt too grand."
Miss Smith made this answer to his interruption with crisp decision, but as she did not return to the interrupted subject, he was left uncertain.
While she busied herself for his entertainment, Durgan, surprised into great contentment, sat watching the darkness gather beyond the low arches of the porch. The room was warmed, and at that hour lit, by logs blazing in an open chimney. It was furnished with simple comfort and the material for pleasant occupations. Glass doors stood open to the mild, still night. The sweet, cool scent of the living forest wandered in to meet the fragrance of the burning logs.
There was one uneasy element in Durgan's sense of rest—he dreaded the advent of the sister who might not be "quite agreeable."
Out of the gloaming, stooping under the tendrils of the vine, a young woman came quickly and stopped upon the threshold. She seemed a perfect type of womanhood, lovely and vigorous. One arm was filled with branches of dogwood bloom, the other hand held in short leash a mastiff. Her figure, at once lithe and buxom, her rosy and sun-browned face, soft lips, aquiline nose, and curly hair gave Durgan sincere astonishment, altho he had formed no expectation. But his attention was quickly focussed upon an indescribable depth of hope and fear in her eyes. Before she spoke he had time to notice more consciously the clear brown skin, crimson-tinted on the round of the cheek, the nose delicately formed and curved, and the startled terror and pleading look in her sad brown eyes.
The dog, probably at the suggestion of a nervous movement on the leash, began to growl, and was silenced by a caress as Durgan introduced himself and explained his errand.
"It is very late," she said gravely. "It will surely be difficult for you to find your way down the mountain again."
"Miss Smith has very kindly acceded to my cousin's request." Durgan spoke in the soft, haughty tone of reserve which was habitual to him.
The girl's tone, quick and subdued, had in it the faint echo of a cry. "Oh, I don't think you would like to stay here. Oh, I don't think you——"
Miss Smith came to the door to announce his supper.
"Mr. Durgan is going to stop a while with us, Bertha. It's no use his having a mile's climb from the Cove to his work every day—at least not that I know of. I've been fixing up the room over the carriage-house; I tell him the barns are a sight better built than the house."
It appeared to Durgan that she was reasoning with the younger sister as a too indulgent mother reasons with a spoilt tyrant of the nursery. The effort seemed successful.
Without further comment Bertha said, "We bought this old house along with the ground, but we built the rest. We took great care that they should be good models for the people here, who are rather in need of high standards in barns and—other things."
"In many other things," said Durgan. "I have not been familiar with my own State since the war, and the poverty and sloth I have seen in the last few days sadly shocked me."
Durgan had not of late been accustomed to kindness from women. It was years since he had eaten and talked with such content as he did that evening. If his material comforts were due to the essential motherliness in Miss Smith's nature, it was Bertha's generous beauty and lively mind that gave the added touch of delight. Miss Smith swayed in her rocking-chair, her neat feet tapping the ground, and put in shrewd, kindly remarks; Bertha discussed the prospects of the mine with well-bred ease. Durgan assumed that, as is often the case in the Northern States, the growing wealth of the family had bestowed on the younger a more liberal education than had fallen to the lot of the elder. At the hour for retiring he felt for them both equal respect and equal gratitude.
The stairs to his chamber ran up outside the carriage-house. The room was pleasant—a rainy-day workroom, containing a divan that had been converted into a bed. Books, a shaded lamp, even flowers, were there. As a sick man luxuriates in mere alleviation, as the fugitive basks in temporary safety, so Durgan, who had resigned himself to the buffets of fortune, felt unspeakably content with the present prospect of peace.
He read till late, and, putting out what was by then the only light upon Deer Mountain, he lay long, watching the far blaze of other worlds through the high casement. To his surprise he heard an almost noiseless step come up the stairs; then a breathless listening. He had been given no key, but one was now gently inserted in the lock and turned from without.
Durgan smiled to himself, but the smile grew cynical.
When Durgan woke in the sunshine the door had been unlocked and the key removed.
The sisters, and the good cheer they offered, were the same at breakfast as on the former evening; but the incident of the night had disturbed Durgan's feeling of respect.
Adam and his wife were betimes at their work as day servants. They had, as commanded, brought two negro laborers for the mine. Durgan shouldered his pick and marched before his men.
They went by the cart-road, under the arching branches. Suddenly, through the wood, Bertha appeared, walking alone in the sparkling morning. It seemed a chance meeting till the negroes had gone on.
Blushing nervously and very grave, she spoke, begging Durgan to find another lodging. Her voice, as she gave her reason, faltered. "I am sure that my sister is not strong enough for the extra care."
Durgan said within himself that the reason was false. He stiffened himself to that dull sense of disappointment to which he was accustomed. "I can only do as you bid me," said he.
"I am afraid you will need to camp out. Believe me, I am very sorry. My sister"—again the voice faltered—"is not very strong. She would try to have visitors for my sake, and so she will not admit that this would be too much—but——"
Again Durgan was sure that her reason was in some way false. This woman was so honest that her very lies were transparent.
"And so—and on this account, I must ask you, Mr. Durgan, to be good enough to—conceal from my sister that I have made this request."
She dropped her eyes in confusion; her face was flushed, her hands fluttering as she clasped them restlessly; but she was perfectly resolute.
About her and above the trees were gray. The dogwood alone held out horizontal sprays—white flowers veined in bright mahogany. Above, the sky was blue—a gorgeous blue—and, on a gray bough that hung over, this hue was seen again where the gay bluebird of the south swelled out its glossy crimson throat in song.
As Durgan looked at this beautiful woman and the wild solitude, he felt as deeply puzzled as annoyed. General Durgan Blount had well remarked, as he wrote the letter of introduction, that the presence of a gentleman of Durgan's age and position would certainly appear to be an advantage in the precincts of the lonely dwelling.
"May I ask if you have heard anything to my disadvantage?"
"Oh, nothing! It is for your——" She stopped, her distress growing, but began again very rapidly. "I know it must seem very strange to you; and living alone as we do, it is a great thing for us not to appear odd or strange to anyone. And so—that is the reason I ask you to be so good as——"
She paused, raising her sad eyes for an answering flash of sympathy which his reticence did not give. It was not Durgan's way to give any play to feeling in manner or tone.
Then she said impulsively, "I am trusting you. Don't you see I am trusting you with the secret of my interference? I don't want my sister to know, and I don't want anyone to know, that I have spoken. Hermie would be vexed with me, and other people would think it very odd."
"I thank you for trusting me."
He was lifting his hat and moving when she stayed him.
"I hope you believe that I regret this—that I will do all I can to make your stay on the mountain pleasant for you."
His eyes twinkled. "Pardon me for thinking that you have done all you can to make it unpleasant for me. Your house is not a good one to leave."
"Still, I hope you will remain our friend, and I beg"—she flushed scarlet at her reiteration—"I implore you, when you return for your things, to give my sister no hint that I have interfered, or to speak of it to your cousin."
She went back into the woods, her head bowed. Durgan looked after her with solicitude.
There was one other house nearer to the mine than Deer Cove. A small farm belonging to "mountain whites" lay on the other side, but cut off from the road by precipice and torrent. Thither in the early evening Durgan, by steep detour, bent his way, but found his journey useless. The family was in excess of the house-room, and the food obviously unclean.
More weary with his work than laborer bred to toil can ever be, again in the gloaming he climbed to the summit of Deer. He began the ascent with the intention of taking his possessions to the miserable inn at Deer Cove, but on his way reflected that one night more could make little difference to the comfort of the sisters. He would speak to Bertha apart, and ask if he might remain till morning.
The sisters were found together, and Durgan was dumb. Until he was confronted with evidence that Bertha had really given no hint to her sister, he had not realized that, in cancelling the arrangement, much would devolve on his own tact and readiness of excuse. He grew impatient of the mystery, ate the supper that Miss Smith's careful housewifery had prepared, and having no explanation to offer, accepted the early retirement which her compassion for his evident weariness proposed. As on the night before, Bertha offered no opposition.
The work had broken at a touch Durgan's long habit of insomnia. He slept soon and soundly.
Waking in the utter silence of the mountain dawn, his brain proceeded to fresh activities. He reviewed the events of the previous night and morning with more impartial good-nature. From the picture of Miss Smith's motherly age, shrewd wit, equable temper, and solid virtues, he turned to the healthful beauty of the younger sister. He saw again the interview on the road. How transparent her blushes! How deep the hope and terror in her eyes! How false the ring of her tone when she murmured her ostensible excuse! Surely this was a girl who had been sore driven before she lied or asked secrecy of a stranger!
He remembered that the first night someone had locked him in. A caged feeling roused him to see if he were again a prisoner. He rose, tried the door, and it opened.
Dark ruby fire of the dawn was kindling behind the eastern peaks. Dark as negroes' hair lay the heads and shoulders of all the couchant hills. Their sides were shrouded in moving mists; the valleys were lost; only in one streak of sky above the ruby dawn had the stars begun to fail.
He saw a woman's figure crouching on the porch of the dwelling-house. The wind was moaning.
The woman was sitting on the low flooring of the porch, her feet on the ground, her elbows on her knees, her head held forward, her whole attitude indicative of watching. He thought she slept at her post or else the wind and darkness covered his slight movement of the door.
Either someone was in great need of compassion, perhaps help, or he was outraged by a surveillance which merited displeasure. He awaited the swift daybreak of the region. Every moment light increased visibly.
When the mists, like white sea-horses, were seen romping down the highways of the valleys; when the tree-tops were seen tossing and the eastern sky was fleeced with pink, as if the petals of some gigantic rose were shaken out, Durgan went across the grass and confronted Bertha before she could retire.
With a sudden impulse of fear she put her finger to her lips; then, ashamed, sought to cancel the gesture. She had not changed her gown from the evening before, but was wrapped in furs.
"Last night you locked me in; to-night you watch my door. What is the matter? Are you afraid of me?" He had noticed her abortive signal; his customary tones met any need for quiet of which he could conceive.
"You!" Her lips formed the word. She seemed confounded by his suddenness. "You!"
He gained no idea from the repeated monosyllable.
"I will pack up my traps and go at once, rather than rob you of further sleep. Perhaps you will kindly make my excuses to your sister." He was turning, but added, "I evidently owe you an apology for remaining last night. I hope you understand that I had no excuse to give your sister—none, at least, that would not have been too true to suit you or too untrue to suit me."
She made an imperious gesture; she spoke so low that he wondered at the power of command in her tone. "Go back and take your sleep out—you need it. Come to breakfast without saying that you have seen me. I have no explanation. I have nothing to say—except—" she lifted a weary face—"except that I hoped you were too tired to be wakeful."
His incredulity was overcome by pity. "Can I do you no service?"
She shook her head. "I have already asked far too much." Her voice sank as she spoke.
"We are neighbors, and I think we must be friends. You are evidently in need of help."
"From heaven—yes. But from you only what I have said."
Durgan furnished the wooden hut that stood on the ledge of the cliff between the road and the mine. Adam's wife baked his bread and made his bed. Durgan fell into the fanciful habit of calling her "Eve."
"Oh, Marse Neil, honey; Adam an' Eve they was white folks. Thought you'd have known your Bible better 'an us pore niggers, an' we knows that much, sure 'nough—yes, we does, suh."
When Eve spoke her words came in a multitude, soft and quick.
"Wasn't mighty surprised you didn't stop with those Northern ladies. Very nice ladies they is, but they's the mightiest 'ticlar 'bout their house, an' the workin'est folks I ever did see. 'Tain't a sign o' good fam'ly—no, Marse Neil, suh—gettin' up near sun-up in the mornin', and allers a-doin'. 'Tain't like quality, an' you couldn't never have stopped. But they's powerful nice ladies, Miss Hermie an' Miss Birdie, an' I don't go to say a word against them, no, suh."
Durgan watched to see if anyone else had a word to say against these ladies. From the loungers of Deer Cove, from the country folk who ascended Deer to sell their produce at the summit house, from the very children who trooped up the road with field flowers and pet animals, he heard the same testimony. In the whole countryside the sisters had the reputation of being gentle and just. Too methodical and thrifty to appear quite liberal in the eyes of the shiftless, too unconscious of the distinction of color to appear quite genteel, they were yet held in favor, and were to the whole region a source of kindly interest and guileless extortion. No other strangeness was attributed to them than that which "being from the North" implied.
Young Blount, the son of the landowner, soon rode over to see his cousin. The Blounts were one of the few rich Southern families who, owning a line of merchant ships, had not lost the source of their wealth in the war. They spent part of their time in this mountain region, of which a large area was their own.
The old General had not changed with the times, but the new epoch had stamped the son with a sense of responsibility for the humanity at his gates which his slave-owning forefathers had never known. He was twenty years younger than Durgan. Having looked upon a devastated land from his schoolroom windows, he had never acquired the patrician manner. He was affable and serious.
When arrived at Durgan's camp he tied his beautiful horse to a tree, and remained for the night. The two sat on the open rock by a fire of logs. Before darkness fell the visitor had pointed out every village, hamlet, and cabin which lay within the wide prospect which they overlooked.
The inhabitants of this land were, each for his respective station, poor, most of them miserably poor and thriftless. Blount took an interest in each individual. He was a gossip as confirmed as any club-man or idle dowager; but the objects of his interest were not his equals, and their benefit was the end he held in view.
The greenery of the valleys was rising like a tide upon slopes, and merging its verdure in the flush of flowing sap and ruddy buds which colored the upland forest; but, far and near, the highest hills still held up their gray woodlands to the frosty skies.
After listening to a long chronicle of his humbler neighbors, Durgan held out his pipe for a moment, and said casually—
"And the Northern ladies?"
"Ah, yes; despite the Northern flavor, they are a godsend to the place, if you will! Our people come from far and near to see their new-fangled barn, and carriage-house, and kitchen stoves. It's as elevating to our mountaineers"—he gave a laugh—"as the summer hotels they are building in the Tennessee Mountains or at Nashville are to the people of those parts. A new idea, an object-lesson. Most useful for children and fools. Our mountain whites are obstinate as mules. They think they know everything because they have never seen anything to arouse their curiosity. You can talk a new notion into a pig's head sooner than into them; but after they have seen an object, fingered it, and talked it over for a year or two, they imagine that it had its origin in their own minds. It was a good enough day for us when these ladies came here; and then, they put some money into circulation."
Durgan, with little further inquiry, soon heard all that gossip had to tell.
Miss Bertha, he said, had been delicate. After some years of travel in Europe, a high altitude in a mild climate, and quiet, had been prescribed. A chance of travel had brought them to this place, and the invalid's fancy had fixed itself on this site. Miss Smith, he said, was rather niggardly, but she had recognized that it was worth while to humor her sister's fancy by buying the place.
"She is fanciful, then?"
"I did not mean to imply that. You see, there are not many houses in the whole mountain range at this altitude to choose from, and this neighborhood is quiet and safe. The choice was not unnatural, but I spoke of it being 'humored' because the General put on a fancy price. He likes to rook a Northerner, and it was not to his interest to separate the house from the mine."
"You would say, then, that they are not fanciful or—eccentric in any way?"
"I should rather say that they have displayed great sense and moderation, never raising a suggestion of their Northern sympathies. They ride about and administer charity in a judicious way. They have even won over the General. Both he and I have a great respect for them. Their financial affairs are in the hands of an excellent firm of New York lawyers. They have friends who keep up a very regular correspondence. They are both fine women. It is refreshing to come across a little genuine culture in these wilds. I enjoy them every time I call."
In harmony with this last statement, young Blount called at the summit house the next morning, and took his noonday meal with the sisters. When he was riding down the mountain road again he called out, on passing the mine:
"Oh, Neil Durgan—say—why did you leave those quarters? Miss Smith says she gave you leave to stop. Are you anchoriting?"
The unwilling anchorite took comfort in the thought that his discomfort and his silence were offered to, and accepted by, a woman who, for some inscrutable reason, seemed to stand in need of them.
"None so poor but that he has something to give!" he muttered.
The sisters made all their expeditions on horseback, and, on the upward ride, the horses were commonly breathed on the zigzag of the road which abutted on the mine. Miss Smith, who was disposed to be offended by Durgan's quick change of residence, was dry and formal when he greeted them; but Bertha bent kind glances upon him, and always made time to chat. Her manner to men had the complete frankness and dignity which is more usually acquired by older women; and she always appeared to be on perfectly open terms with her sister. Her talk was always replete with interest in the passing events of Deer.
For the first week that Durgan delved he supposed that there were no events on Deer Mountain. Bertha aided him to discover them. She had fraternized closely with her solitudes, not only by directing all things concerning the garden, fields, meadows, and live-stock of the little summit farm, but also by extending her love and sympathy to the whole mountain of Deer and to all the changes in the splendid panorama round about.
"'Nothing happens!'" cried she, playfully, echoing Durgan. "Open your eyes, Master Miner, lest by burrowing you become a veritable mole! Can you only recognize the thrill of events when they are printed in a vulgar journal?"
So Durgan's observation was stimulated.
First, there were the events of the weather—what Bertha called the "scene-shifting."
To-day the veil of blue air would be so thin that, in a radius of many miles, the depth of each gorge, the molding of each peak, was so clear that the covering forest would be revealed like a carpet of fern, each tree a distinct frond when the eye focussed upon it. The rocky precipices would declare each cave and crevice in sharply outlined shadow, and emerald forms far off would look so near that house and fence and wandering paths were seen. At such an hour the Cherokee ridges would stand like the great blue-crested waves of ocean, and the "Great Smokies" be like clouds, turquoise-tinted, on the northern horizon.
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