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- Viola Gwyn - 10/63 -
what it seemed like to me. I can only say that it had something like despair in it,--sadness, unhappiness,--and I could not help feeling that I was the cause of it. When I was a tiny girl he never carried me in his arms. My mother always did that. When I was thirteen years old he hired me out as a servant in a farmer's family and I worked there until I was fourteen. It was not in this neighbourhood. I worked for my board and keep, a thing I could not understand and bitterly resented because he was prosperous. Then my mother fell ill. She was a strong woman, but she broke down in health. He came and got me and took me home. I was a big girl for my age,--as big as I am now,--and strong. I did all the work about the house until my mother was well again. He never gave me a word of appreciation or one of encouragement.
"He was never unkind, he never found fault with me, he never in all his life scolded or switched me when I was bad. Then, one day,--it was three years ago,--he told me to get ready to go down to St. Louis to school. He put me in charge of a trader and his wife who were going down the river by perogue. He gave them money to buy suitable clothes for me,--a large sum of money, it must have been,--and he provided me with some for my own personal use. All arrangements had been made in advance, without my knowing anything about it.
"I stayed there until I was called home by his death. I expected to return to school, but my mother refused to let me go back. She said my place was with her. That was last fall. She is still in the deepest mourning, and I believe will never dress otherwise. I have said all there is to say about my father. I did not love him, I was not grieved when he passed away. It was almost as if a stranger had died."
She paused. He took occasion to remark, sympathetically: "He must have been a strange man."
"He was," she said. "I hope I have made you understand what kind of a man he was, and what kind of a father he was to me. Now, I am coming to the point. This finery you see me in now was purchased without my mother's knowledge or consent,--with money of my own. The box was delivered to Phineas Striker day before yesterday up in Lafayette. I came here to spend the night, in order that I might try them on. I live in town, with my mother. She left the farm after my father's death. She adored him. She could not bear to live out there on the lonely--but, that is of no interest to you. A few weeks ago I asked her if I might not take off the black. She refused at first, but finally consented. I have her promise that I may put on colours sometime this spring. So I wrote to the woman who used to make my dresses in St. Louis,--my father was not stingy with me, so I always had pretty frocks,--and now they have come. My mother does not know about them. She will be shocked when I tell her I have them, but she will not be angry. She loves me. Is your curiosity satisfied? It will have to be, for this is all I care to divulge at present."
He smiled down into her earnest eyes. "My curiosity is appeased," he said. "I should not have slept tonight if you had not explained this tantalizing mystery. Therefore, I thank you. May I have your permission to say that you are very lovely in your new frock and that you are marvellously becoming to it?"
"As you have already said it, I must decline to give you the permission," she replied, naively.
He thought her adorable in this mood. "As a lawyer," he said, "I make a practice of never withdrawing a statement, unless I am convinced by incontrovertible evidence that I was wrong in the first place,--and you will have great difficulty in producing the proof."
"Wait till you see me in my black dress and bonnet,--and mittens," she challenged.
He bowed gallantly. "Only the addition of the veil,--it would have to be a very thick one,--I am sure,--could make me doubt my own eyes. They are witnesses whose testimony it will be very hard to shake."
Her manner underwent another transformation, as swift as it was unexpected. A troubled, harassed expression came into her eyes, driving out the sparkle that had filled them during that all too brief exchange. The smile died on her lips, which remained drawn and slightly parted as if frozen; she seemed for the moment to have stopped breathing. He was acutely alive to the old searching, penetrating look,--only now there was an added note of uneasiness. In another moment all this had vanished, and she was smiling again,--not warmly, frankly as before, but with a strange wistfulness that left him more deeply perplexed than ever.
"I wonder,--" she began, and then shook her head without completing the sentence. After a moment she went on: "Phineas is a long time. I hope all is well."
They heard the kitchen door open and close and Striker's voice loudly proclaiming the staunchness of his outbuildings, a speech cut short by Eliza's exasperation.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Phin Striker, not to come in this here kitchen without wipin' your feet? Might as well be the barn, fer as you're concerned. Go out an' scrape that mud offen your boots."
Deep mumbling and then the opening and shutting of the door again.
"Sometimes, I fear, poor Phineas finds matrimony very trying," said the girl, her eyes twinkling.
Eliza appeared in the doorway. She was rolling down her sleeves.
"How are you two gettin' along?" she inquired, looking from one to the other keenly. "I thought Phin was in here amusin' you the whole time with lies about him an' Dan'l Boone. He used to hunt with old Dan'l when he was a boy, an' if ever'thing happened to them two fellers that he sez happened, why, Phin'd have to be nearly two hundred years old by now an' there wouldn't be a live animal or Indian between here an' the Gulf of Mexico." She seemed a little uneasy. "I hope you two made out all right."
The girl spoke quickly, before her companion could reply. "We have had a most agreeable chat, Eliza. Are you through in the kitchen? If you are, would you mind coming into the bedroom with me? I want you to see the other dress on me, and besides I have a good many things I wish to talk over with you. Good night," she said to Gwynne. "No doubt we shall meet again."
He was dumbfounded. "Am I not to see you in the new dress?" he cried, visibly disappointed. "Surely you are not going to deny me the joy of beholding you in--"
She interrupted him almost cavalierly. "Pray save up some of your compliments against the day when you behold me in my sombre black, for I shall need them then. Again, good night."
"Good night," he returned, bowing stiffly and in high dudgeon.
Eliza, in hurrying past, had snatched one of the candlesticks from the mantel, and now stood holding the bedroom door open for the queenly young personage. A moment later the door closed behind them.
Gwynne was still scowling at the inoffensive door when Striker came blustering into the room.
"Where are the women?" he demanded, stopping short.
A jerk of the thumb was his answer.
"Gone to bed?" with something like an accusing gleam in his eye as his gaze returned to the young man.
"I believe so," replied Gwynne carelessly, as he sat down in the despised rocker and stretched his long legs out to the fire. "I fancy we are safe to smoke now, Striker. We have the parlor all to ourselves. The ladies have deserted us."
Striker took the tobacco pouch from the peg on the mantel and handed it to his guest.
"Fill up," he said shortly, and then walked over to the bedroom door. He rapped timorously on one of the thick boards. "Want me fer anything?" he inquired softly, as his wife opened the door an inch or two.
"No. Go to bed when you're ready an' don't ferget to smother that fire."
"Good night, Phineas," called out another voice merrily.
"Good night," responded Striker, with a dubious shake of his head. He returned to the fireplace.
"Women are funny things," said he, dragging up another chair. "'Specially about boots. I go out 'long about sun-up an' work like a dog all day, an' then when I come in to supper what happens? First thing my wife does is to look at my boots. Then she tells me to go out an' scrape the mud off'm 'em. Then she looks up at my face to see if it's me. Sometimes I get so doggoned mad I wish it wasn't me, so's I could turn out to be the preacher er somebody like that an' learn her to be keerful who she's talkin' to. Supposin' I do track a little mud into her kitchen? It's OUR mud, ain't it? 'Tain't as if it was somebody else's land I'm bringin' into her kitchen. Between us we own every danged bit of land from here to the Middleton dirt-road an' it ain't my fault if it happens to be mud once in awhile. You'd think, the way she acts, I'd been out stealin' somebody else's mud just for the sake of bringin' it into her kitchen.
"An' what makes me madder'n anything else is the way she scolds them pore dogs when they come in with a little mud. As if a dog understood he had to scrape his feet off an' wash his paws an' everything 'fore he c'n step inside his master's cabin. Now you take cats, they're as smart as all get out. They're jist like women. Allus thinkin' about their pussonal appearance. Ever notice a cat walk across a muddy strip o' ground? Why, you'd think they was walkin' on a red hot stove, the way they step. I've seen a cat go fifty rods out of her way to get around a mud-puddle. I recollect seein' ole Maje,--he's our principal tom-cat,--seein' him creepin' along a rail fence nearly half a mile from the house so's he wouldn't have to cross a stretch o' wet ground jist outside the kitchen door. Now, a dog would have splashed right through it an' took the consequences. But ole Maje--NO, SIR! He goes miles out'n his way an' then when he gits home he sets down on the doorstep an' licks his feet fer half an hour er so before he begins to meow so's Eliza'll open the door an' let him in.
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