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- Viola Gwyn - 5/63 -
that all metal "drew lightning." Her husband busied himself stemming the stream of water that seeped beneath the door with empty grain or coffee bags, snatched from the top of a cupboard where they were stored, evidently for the very purpose to which they were now being put.
Gwynne stood coatless in the centre of the kitchen, rolling down his white shirt-sleeves. Behind him cringed Zachariah, holding his master's boots and coat in his shaking hands, his eyes rolling with terror, his lips mumbling an unheard appeal for mercy.
The sitting-room door opened suddenly and the other guest of the house glided into the kitchen. Her eyes were crinkled up as if with an almost unendurable pain, her fingers were pressed to her temples, her red lips were parted.
"Goodness!" she gasped, with a hysterical laugh, not born of mirth, nor of courage, but of the sheerest dismay.
"Don't be skeered," cried Phineas, looking at her over his shoulder. "She'll soon be over. Long as the roof stays on, we're all right,--an' I guess she'll stay."
Kenneth Gwynne bowed very low to the newcomer. The dim candle-light afforded him a most unsatisfactory glimpse of her features. He took in at a glance, however, her tall, trim figure, the burnished crown of hair, and the surprisingly modish frock she wore. He had seen no other like it since leaving the older, more advanced towns along the Ohio,--not even in the thriving settlements of Wayne and Madison Counties or in the boastful village of Crawfordsville. He was startled. In all his journeyings through the land he had seen no one arrayed like this. It was with difficulty that he overcame a quite natural impulse to stare at her as if she were some fantastic curiosity.
The contrast between this surprising creature and the gingham aproned Eliza was unbelievable. There was but one explanation: She was the mistress of the house, Eliza the servant. And yet, even so, how strangely out-of-place, out-of-keeping she was here in the wilderness.
In some confusion he strode over to lend a hand to Phineas Striker. The rustle of silk behind him and the quick clatter of heels, evidenced the fact that the girl had crossed swiftly to Eliza's side.
Later on he had the opportunity to take in all the details of her costume, and he did so with a practised, sophisticated eye. It was, after all, of a fashion two years old, evidence of the slowness with which the modes reached these outposts of civilization. Here was a perfect fitting blue frock of the then popular changeable gros de zane, the skirt very wide, set on the body in large plaits, one in front, one on each side and two behind. The sleeves also were wide from shoulder to elbow, where they were tightly fitted to the lower arm. The ruffles around the neck, which was open and rather low, and about the wrists were of plain bobinet quilling. Her slippers were black, with cross-straps. He had seen such frocks as this, he was reminded, in fashionable Richmond and New York only a year or so before, but nowhere in the west. Add a Dunstable straw bonnet with its strings of satin and the frilled pelerine, and this strange young woman might have just stepped from her carriage in the most fashionable avenue in the land.
Zachariah, lacking his master's good manners, gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the lady, forgetting for the moment his fear of the tempest's wrath. Only the most hair-raising crash of thunder broke the spell, causing him to close his eyes and resume his supplication.
"Now's your chance to get at the lookin' glass, Mr. Gwynne," said Striker. "Right there in the sittin'-room. Go ahead; I'll manage this."
Muttering a word of thanks, the young man turned to leave the room. He shot a glance at his fellow guest. Her back was toward him, she had her hands to her ears, and something told him that her eyes were tightly closed. A particularly loud crash caused her to draw her pretty shoulders up as if to receive the death-dealing bolt of lightning. He heard her murmur again:
Eliza suddenly put an arm about her waist and drew the slender, shivering figure close. As the girl buried her face upon the older woman's shoulder, the latter cried out:
"Land sakes, child, you'll never get over bein' a baby, will ye?"
To which Phineas Striker added in a great voice: "Nor you, neither, Eliza. Ef we didn't have company here you'd be crawlin' under the table or something. She ain't afraid of wild cats or rattlesnakes or Injins or even spiders," he went on, addressing Gwynne, "but she's skeered to death of lightnin'. An' as fer that young lady there, she wouldn't be afeared to walk from here to Lafayette all alone on the darkest night,--an' look at her now! Skeered out of her boots by a triflin' little thunderstorm. Why, I wouldn't give two--"
"My goodness, Phin Striker," broke in his wife, a new note of alarm in her voice, "I do hope them chickens an' turkeys have got sense enough to get under something in this downpour. If they ain't, the whole kit an' boodle of 'em will be drownded, sure as--"
"I never yet see a hen that liked water," interrupted Phineas. "Er a turkey either. Don't you worry about 'em. You better worry about that side-meat you're fryin'. Ef my nose is what it ort to be, I'd say that piece o' meat was bein' burnt to death,--an' that's a lot wuss than bein' drownded. They say drowndin' is the easiest death--"
"You men clear out o' this kitchen," snapped Eliza. "Out with ye! You too, Phin Striker. I'll call ye when the table's set. Now, you go an' set over there in the corner, away from the window, deary, where the lightnin' can't git at you, an'--You'll find a comb on the mantel-piece, Mr. Gwynne, an' Phineas will git you a boot-jack out o' the bedroom if that darkey is too weak to pull your boots off for you. Don't any of you go trampin' all over the room with your muddy boots. I've got work enough to do without scrubbin' floors after a pack of--My land! I do believe it's scorched. An' the corn-bread must be--"
Phineas, after a doubtful look at the stopped-up door-crack, led the way into the sitting-room. Zachariah came last with his master's boots and coat. He was mumbling with suppressed fervour:
"Oh, Lord, jes' lemme hab one mo' chaince,--jes' one mo' chaince. Good Lord! I been a wicked, ornery nigger,--only jes' gimme jes' one mo' chaince. I been a wicked,--Yassuh, Marster Kenneth, I got your boots. Yassuh. Right heah, suh. Oh, Lordy-Lordy! Yassuh, yassuh!"
Seated in a big wooden rocker before the fireplace, Gwynne stretched out his long legs one after the other; Zachariah tugged at the heavy, mud-caked riding-boots, grunting mightily over a task that gave him sufficient excuse for interjecting sundry irrelevant appeals for mercy and an occasional reference to his own unworthiness as a nigger.
The tempest continued with unabated violence. The big, raw-boned Striker, pulling nervously at his beard, stood near a window which looked out upon the barn and sheds, plainly revealed in the blinding, almost uninterrupted flashes of lightning. Such sentences as these fell from his lips as he turned his face from the bleaching flares before they ended in mighty crashes: "That struck powerful nigh,"--or "I seen that one runnin' along the ground like a ball of fire," or "There goes somethin' near," or "That was a tree jest back o' the barn, you'll see in the mornin'."
"Dere won't never be any mo'nin'," gulped the unhappy Zachariah, bending lower to his task, which now had to do with the boot-straps at the bottoms of his master's trouser-legs. Getting to his feet, he proceeded, with a well-trained dexterity that even his terror failed to divert, to draw on the immaculate calf-skin boots with the gorgeous tops. Then he pulled the trouser-legs down over the boots, obscuring their upper glory; after which he smoothed out the wrinkles and fastened the instep straps. Whereupon, Kenneth arose, stamped severely on the hearth several times to settle his feet in the snug-fitting boots, and turned to the looking-glass. He was wielding the comb with extreme care and precision when his host turned from the window and approached.
"Seems to me you're goin' to a heap o' trouble, friend," he remarked, surveying the tall, graceful figure with a rather disdainful eye. "We don't dress up much in these parts, 'cept on Sunday."
"Please do not consider me vain," said the young man, flushing. He smarted under the implied rebuke,--in fact, he was uncomfortably aware of ridicule. "My riding-boots were filthy. I--I--Yes, I know," he broke in upon himself as Phineas extended one of his own muddy boots for inspection. "I know, but, you see, I am the unbidden guest of yourself and Mrs. Striker. The least I can do in return for your hospitality is to make myself presentable--"
"You'll have to excuse my grinnin', Mr. Gwynne," interrupted the other. "I didn't mean any offence. It's jest that we ain't used to good clothes an' servants to pull our boots off an' on, an'--butternut pants an' so on. We're 'way out here on the edge of the wilderness where bluejeans is as good as broadcloth or doe-skin, an' a chaw of tobacco is as good as the state seal fer bindin' a bargain. Lord bless ye, I don't keer how much you dress up. I guess I might as well tell ye the only men up at Lafayette who wear as good clothes as you do are a couple of gamblers that work up an' down the river, an' Barry Lapelle. I reckon you've heerd of Barry Lapelle. He's known from one end of the state to the other, an' over in Ohio an' Kentucky too."
"I have never heard of him."
Striker looked surprised. He glanced at the closed sitting-room door before continuing.
"Well, he owns a couple steamboats that come up the river. Got 'em when his father died a couple o' years ago. His home used to be in Terry Hut, but he's been livin' at Bob Johnson's tavern for a matter of six months now, workin' up trade fer his boats, I understand. He's as wild as a hawk an'--but you'll run across him if you're goin' to live in Lafayette."
"By the way, what is the population of Lafayette?"
Phineas studied the board ceiling thoughtfully for a moment or two. "Well, 'cordin' to people who live in Attica she's got about five
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