THE HOSTESS JAILER

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.”