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- Jeff Briggs's Love Story - 5/17 -
"Kin I do anythin' for ye, miss, at the Forks?"
Miss Mayfield looked up quietly. "I think not," she said indifferently, as if the flaming-Jeff was a very common occurrence.
Jeff here permitted the mare to bolt fifty yards, caught her up sharply, swung her round on her off hind heel, permitted her to paw the air once or twice with her white-stockinged fore-feet, and then, with another dash forward, pulled her up again just before she apparently took Miss Mayfield and her chair in a running leap.
"Are you sure, miss?" asked Jeff, with a flushed face and a rather lugubrious voice.
"Quite so, thank you," she said coldly, looking past this centaur to the wooded mountain beyond.
Jeff, thoroughly crushed, was pacing meekly away when a childlike voice stopped him.
"If you are going near a carpenter's shop you might get a new shutter for my window; it blew away last night."
"It did, miss?"
"Yes," said the shrill voice of Aunt Sally, from the doorway, "in course it did! Ye must be crazy, Jeff, for thar it stands in No. 8, whar ye must have put it after ye picked it up outside."
Jeff, conscious that Miss Mayfield's eyes were on his suffused face, stammered "that he would attend to it," and put spurs to the mare, eager only to escape.
It was not his only discomfiture; for the blacksmith, seeing Jeff's nervousness and anxiety, was suspicious of something wrong, as the world is apt to be, and appeased his conscience after the worldly fashion, by driving a hard bargain with the doubtful brother in affliction--the morality of a horse trade residing always with the seller. Whereby Master Jeff received only eighty dollars for horse and outfit--worth at least two hundred--and was also mulcted of forty dollars, principal and interest for past service of the blacksmith. Jeff walked home with forty dollars in his pocket--capital to prosecute his honest calling of innkeeper; the blacksmith retired to an adjoining tavern to discuss Jeff's affairs, and further reduce his credit. Yet I doubt which was the happier--the blacksmith estimating his possible gains, and doubtful of some uncertain sequence in his luck, or Jeff, temporarily relieved, boundlessly hopeful, and filled with the vague delights of a first passion. The only discontented brute in the whole transaction was poor Rabbit, who, missing certain attentions, became indignant, after the manner of her sex, bit a piece out of her crib, kicked a hole in her box, and receiving a bad character from the blacksmith, gave a worse one to her late master.
Jeff's purchases were of a temporary and ornamental quality, but not always judicious as a permanent investment. Overhearing some remark from Miss Mayfield concerning the dangerous character of the two- tined steel fork, which was part of the table equipage of the "Half- way House," he purchased half a dozen of what his aunt was pleased to specify as "split spoons," and thereby lost his late good standing with her. He not only repaired the window-shutter, but tempered the glaring window itself with a bit of curtain; he half carpeted Miss Mayfield's bed-room with wild-cat skins and the now historical bear- skin, and felt himself overpaid when that young lady, passing the soft tabbyskins across her cheek, declared they were "lovely." For Miss Mayfield, deprecating slaughter in the abstract, accepted its results gratefully, like the rest of her sex, and while willing to "let the hart ungalled play," nevertheless was able to console herself with its venison. The woods, besides yielding aid and comfort of this kind to the distressed damsel, were flamboyant with vivid spring blossoms, and Jeff lit up the cold, white walls of her virgin cell with demonstrative color, and made--what his aunt, a cleanly soul, whose ideas of that quality were based upon the absence of any color whatever, called--"a litter."
The result of which was to make Miss Mayfield, otherwise lanquid and ennuye, welcome Jeff's presence with a smile; to make Jeff, otherwise anxious, eager, and keenly attentive, mute and silent in her presence. Two symptoms bad for Jeff.
Meantime Mr. Mayfield's small conventional spirit pined for fellowship, only to be found in larger civilizations, and sought, under plea of business, a visit to Sacramento, where a few of the Mayfield type, still surviving, were to be found.
This was a relief to Jeff, who only through his regard for the daughter, was kept from open quarrel with the father. He fancied Miss Mayfield felt relieved too, although Jeff had noticed that Mayfield had deferred to his daughter more often than his wife--over whom your conventional small autocrat is always victorious. It takes the legal matrimonial contract to properly develop the first-class tyrant, male or female.
On one of these days Jeff was returning through the woods from marketing at the Forks, which, since the sale of Rabbit, had became a foot-sore and tedious business. He had reached the edge of the forest, and through the wider-spaced trees, the bleak sunlit plateau of his house was beginning to open out, when he stopped instantly. I know not what Jeff had been thinking of, as he trudged along, but here, all at once, he was thrilled and possessed with the odor of some faint, foreign perfume. He flushed a little at first, and then turned pale. Now the woods were as full of as delicate, as subtle, as grateful, and, I wot, far healthier and purer odors than this; but this represented to Jeff the physical contiguity of Miss Mayfield, who had the knack--peculiar to some of her sex--of selecting a perfume that ideally identified her. Jeff looked around cautiously; at the foot of a tree hard by lay one of her wraps, still redolent of her. Jeff put down the bag which, in lieu of a market basket, he was carrying on his shoulder, and with a blushing face hid it behind a tree. It contained her dinner!
He took a few steps forwards with an assumption of ease and unconsciousness. Then he stopped, for not a hundred yards distant sat--Miss Mayfield on a mossy boulder, her cloak hanging from her shoulders, her hands clasped round her crossed knees, and one little foot out--an exasperating combination of Evangeline and little Red Riding Hood in everything, I fear, but credulousness and self- devotion. She looked up as he walked towards her (non constat that the little witch had not already seen him half a mile away!) and smiled sweetly as she looked at him. So sweetly, indeed, that poor Jeff felt like the hulking wolf of the old world fable, and hesitated--as that wolf did not. The California faunae have possibly depreciated.
"Come here!" she cried, in a small head voice, not unlike a bird's twitter.
Jeff lumbered on clumsily. His high boots had become suddenly very heavy.
"I'm so glad to see you. I've just tired poor mother out--I'm always tiring people out--and she's gone back to the house to write letters. Sit down, Mr. Jeff, do, please!"
Jeff, feeling uncomfortably large in Miss Mayfield's presence, painfully seated himself on the edge of a very low stone, which had the effect of bringing his knees up on a level with his chin, and affected an ease glaringly simulated.
"Or lie down, there, Mr. Jeff--it is so comfortable."
Jeff, with a dreadful conviction that he was crashing down like a falling pine-tree, managed at last to acquire a recumbent position at a respectful distance from the little figure.
"There, isn't it nice?"
"Yes, Miss Mayfield."
"But, perhaps," said Miss Mayfield, now that she had him down, "perhaps you too have got something to do. Dear me! I'm like that naughty boy in the story-book, who went round to all the animals, in turn, asking them to play with him. He could only find the butterfly who had nothing to do. I don't wonder he was disgusted. I hate butterflies."
Love clarifies the intellect! Jeff, astonished at himself, burst out, "Why, look yer, Miss Mayfield, the butterfly only hez a day or two to--to--to live and--be happy!"
Miss Mayfield crossed her knees again, and instantly, after the sublime fashion of her sex, scattered his intellect by a swift transition from the abstract to the concrete. "But you're not a butterfly, Mr. Jeff. You're always doing something. You've been hunting."
"No-o!" said Jeff, scarlet, as he thought of his gun in pawn at the "Summit."
"But you do hunt; I know it."
"You shot those quail for me the morning after I came. I heard you go out--early--very early."
"Why, you allowed you slept so well that night, Miss Mayfield."
"Yes; but there's a kind of delicious half-sleep that sick people have sometimes, when they know and are gratefully conscious that other people are doing things for them, and it makes them rest all the sweeter."
There was a dead silence. Jeff, thrilling all over, dared not say anything to dispel his delicious dream. Miss Mayfield, alarmed at his readiness with the butterfly illustration, stopped short. They both looked at the prospect, at the distant "Summit Hotel"--a mere snow-drift on the mountain--at the clear sunlight on the barren plateau, at the bleak, uncompromising "Half-way House," and said nothing.
"I ought to be very grateful," at last began Miss Mayfield, in quite another voice, and a suggestion that she was now approaching real and profitable conversation, "that I'm so much better. This mountain air has been like balm to me. I feel I am growing stronger day by day. I do not wonder that you are so healthy and so strong as you are, Mr. Jeff."
Jeff, who really did not know before that he was so healthy, apologetically admitted the fact. At the same time, he was miserably conscious that Miss Mayfield's condition, despite her ill health, was
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