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- Viola Gwyn - 20/63 -
place with incredible swiftness. Scores of absolute strangers turned to him and tendered to him the welcome to be found in a broad and friendly smile.
Shortly after three o'clock he set forth upon his new adventure. Assailed by a strange and unaccustomed timidity,--he would have called it bashfulness had Viola been other than his sister--he approached the young lady's home by the longest and most round-about way, a course which caused him to make the complete circuit of the three-acre pond situated a short distance above the public square--a shallow body of water dignified during the wet season of the year by the high-sounding title of "Lake Stansbury," but spoken of scornfully as the "slough" after the summer's sun had reduced its surface to a few scattered wallows, foul and green with scum. It was now full of water and presented quite an imposing appearance to the new citizen as he skirted its brush-covered banks; in his ignorance he was counting the probability of one day building a handsome home on the edge of this tiny lake.
A man working in a garden pointed out to him Mrs. Gwyn's house half-hidden among the trees at the foot of a small slope.
"That other house, a couple of hundred foot further on,--you can just see it from here,--well, that belonged to Robert Gwyn. I understand his long-lost son is comin' to live in it one of these days. They say this boy when he was a baby was stolen by the Injins and never heard of ag'in until a few months ago. Lived with the Injins right up to the time he was found and couldn't speak a word of English. I have heard that he--what are ye laughin' at, mister?"
"I was laughing at the thought of how surprised you are going to be some day, my friend. Thank you. The house with the green window blinds, you say?"
He proceeded first to the house that was to be his home. It was a good stone's throw from the pretentious two-story frame structure in which Rachel Carter and her daughter lived, but nearer the centre of the town when approached by a more direct route than he had followed. This smaller house, an insignificant, weather-beaten story and a half frame, snuggling among the underbrush, was where his father had lived when he first came to Lafayette. Later on he had erected the larger house and moved into it with his family, renting the older place to a man named Turner.
It was faced by a crudely constructed picket fence, once white but now mottled with scales of dirty sun-blistered paint, and inside the fence rank weeds, burdocks and wild grass flourished without hindrance. He strode up the narrow path to the low front door. Finding it unlocked, he opened it and stepped into the low, roughly plastered sitting-room. The window blinds were open, permitting light and air to enter, and while the room was comparatively bare, there was ample evidence that it had been made ready for occupancy by a hand which, though niggardly, was well trained in the art of making a little go a long way. The bedroom and the kitchen were in order. There were rag carpets on the floors, and the place was immaculately clean. A narrow, enclosed stairway ran from the end of the sitting-room to the attic, where he discovered a bed for his servant. Out at the back was the stable and a wagonshed. These he did not inspect. A high rail fence stretched between the two yards.
As he walked up the path to the front door of the new house, he was wondering how Viola Gwyn would look in her garb of black,--the hated black she had cast aside for one night only. He was oppressed by a dull, cold fear, assuaged to some extent by the thrill of excitement which attended the adventure. What was he to do or say if the door was opened by Rachel Carter? His jaw was set, the palms of his hands were moist, and there was a strange, tight feeling about his chest, as if his lungs were full and could not be emptied. After a moment's hesitation, he rapped firmly on the door with his bare knuckles.
The door was opened by a young coloured woman who wore a blue sunbonnet and carried a red shawl over her arm.
"Is Miss Viola at home?" he inquired.
"Is dis Mistah Gwynne, suh?"
"Come right in, suh, an' set down."
He entered a small box of a hallway, opening upon a steep set of stairs.
"Right in heah, suh," said the girl, throwing open a door at his left.
As he walked into this room, he heard the servant shuffling up the staircase. He deposited his hat and gloves on a small marble-top table in the centre of the room and then sent a swift look of investigation about him. Logs were smouldering in the deep, wide fireplace at the far end of the room, giving out little spurts of flame occasionally from their charred, ash-grey skeletons. The floor was covered with a bright, new rag carpet, and there was a horse-hair sofa in the corner, and two or three stiff, round-backed little chairs, the seats also covered with black horse-hair. A thick, gilt-decorated Holy Bible lay in the centre of the marble-top table, shamed now by contact with the crown of his unsaintly hat. On the mantel stood a large, flat mahogany clock with floral decorations and a broad, white face with vivid black numerals and long black hands. The walls were covered with a gaudy but expensive paper, in which huge, indescribable red flowers mingled regularly with glaring green leaves. Two "mottoes," worked in red and blue worsted and framed with narrow cross-pieces of oak, hung suspended in the corners beside the fireplace. One of them read "God Bless Our Home," the other a sombre line done in black: "Faith, Hope and Charity."
Three black oval oak frames, laden with stiff leaves that glistened under a coat of varnish, contained faded, unlovely portraits,--one of a bewhiskered man wearing a tall beaver hat and a stiff black stock: another of a sloping-shouldered woman with a bonnet, from which a face, vague and indistinct, sought vainly to emerge. The third contained a mass of dry, brown leaves, some wisps of straw, and a few colourless pressed blossoms. On a table in front of one of the two windows stood a spindling Dutch lamp of white and delft blue, with a long, narrow chimney. There were two candlesticks on the mantel.
All these features of the room he took in while he stood beside the centre table, awaiting the entrance of Viola Gwyn. He heard a door open softly and close upstairs, and then some one descending the steps; a few words spoken in the subdued voice of a woman and the less gentle response of the darky servant, who mumbled "Yas'm," and an instant later went out by the front door. Through the window he saw her go down the walk, the red shawl drawn tightly about her shoulders.
He smiled. The clever Viola getting rid of the servant so that she could be alone with him, he thought, as he turned toward the door.
A tall woman in black appeared in the doorway, paused there for a second or two, and then advanced slowly into the room. He felt the blood rush to his head, almost blinding him. His hand went out for the support of the table, his body stiffened and suddenly turned cold. The smile with which he intended to greet Viola froze on his lips.
"God Al--" started to ooze from his stiff lips, but the words broke off sharply as the woman stopped a few steps away and regarded him steadily, silently, unsmilingly. He stood there like a statue staring into the dark, brilliant eyes, sunken deep under the straight black eyebrows. Even in the uncertain light from the curtained windows he could see that her face was absolutely colourless,--the pallor of death seemed to have been laid upon it. Swiftly she lifted a hand to her throat, her eyes closed for a second and then flew wide open again, now filled with an expression of utter bewilderment.
"Is it--is it you, Robert? Is it really you, or am I--" she murmured, scarcely above a whisper. Once more she closed her eyes, tightly; as if to shut out the vision of a ghost,--an unreal thing that would not be there when she looked again.
The sound of her voice released him from the brief spell of stupefaction.
"I know you. I remember you. You are Rachel Carter," he said hoarsely.
She was staring at him as if fascinated. Her lips moved, but no sound issued from them.
He hesitated for an instant and then turned to pick up his hat and gloves. "I came to see your daughter, madame,--as well you know. Permit me to take my departure."
"You are so like your--" she began with an effort, her voice deep and low with emotion. "So like him I--I was frightened. I thought he had--" She broke off abruptly, lowered her head in an attempt to hide from him the trembling lips and chin, and to regain, if possible, the composure that had been so desperately shaken. "Wait!" she cried, stridently. "Wait! Do not go away. Give me time to--to--"
"There is no need for us to prolong--" he began in a harsh voice.
"I will not keep you long," she interrupted, every trace of emotion vanishing like a shadow that has passed. She was facing him now, her head erect, her voice steady. Her dark, cavernous eyes were upon him; he experienced an odd, indescribable sensation,--as of shrinking,--and without being fully aware of what he was doing, replaced his hat upon the table, an act which signified involuntary surrender on his part.
"Where is Viola?" he demanded sternly. "She left word for me to come here. Where is she?"
"She is not here," said the woman.
He started. "You don't mean she has--has gone away with--"
"No. She has gone over to spend the afternoon with Effie Wardlow. I will be frank with you. This is not the time for misunderstanding. She asked Isaac Stain to give you that message at my request,--or command, if you want the truth. I sent her away because what I have to say to you must be said in private. There is no one in the house besides ourselves. Will you do me the favour to be seated? Very well; we will stand."
She turned away to close the hall door. Then she walked to one
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