Read CHAPTER VI of The Man Thou Gavest, free online book, by Harriet T. Comstock, on ReadCentral.com.

Wisdom had all but conquered Nella-Rose’s folly when she came in sight of Calvin Merrivale’s store.  But-who knows?-perhaps the girl’s story had been written long since, and she was not entirely free.  Be that as it may, she paused, for no reason whatever as far as she could tell, and carefully took one dozen eggs from the basket and hid them under some bushes by the road!  Having done this she went forward so blithely and lightly that one might have thought her load had been considerably eased.  She appeared before Calvin Merrivale, presently, like a refreshing apparition from vacancy.  It was high noon and Merrivale was dozing in a chair by the rusty stove, in which a fire, prepared against the evening chill, was already burning.

“How-de, Mister Merrivale?” Calvin sprang to his feet.

“If it ain’t lil’ Nella-Rose.  How’se you-all?”

“Right smart.  I’ve brought you three dozen eggs and ten pounds of pork.”  Nella-Rose almost said po’k-not quite!  “And you must be mighty generous with me when you weigh out-let me see!-oh, yes, pepper, salt, and sugar.”

“I’ll lay a siftin’ more in the scale, Nella-Rose, on ‘count o’ yo’ enjoyin’ ways.  But I can’t make this out”-he was counting the eggs-yo’ said three dozen aigs?”

“Three dozen, and ten pounds of pork!” This very firmly.

Merrivale counted again and as he did so Nella-Rose remembered!  The red came to her face-the tears to her ashamed eyes.

“Stop!” she said softly, going close to the old man.  “I forgot.  I took one dozen out!”

Merrivale stood and looked at her and then, what he thought was understanding, came to his assistance.

“Who fo’, Nella-Rose, who fo’?”

There was no reply to this.

“Yo’ needn’t be afraid to open yo’ mind ter me, Nella-Rose.  Keeping sto’ is a mighty help in gettin’ an all-around knowin’ o’ things.  Folks jest naterally come here an’ talk an’ jest naterally I listen, an’ ’twixt Jim White, the sheriff, an’ old Merrivale, there ain’t much choosin’, jedgmatically speakin’.  I know White’s off an’ plannin’ ter round up Burke Lawson from behind, as it war.  T’warnt so in my day, lil’ Nella-Rose.  When we-uns had a reckonin comin’, we naterally went out an’ shot our man; but these torn-down scoundrels like Jed Martin an’ his kind they trap ’em an’ send ’em to worse’n hell.  Las’ night”-and here Merrivale bent close to Nella-Rose-“my hen coop was ’tarnally gone through, an’ a bag o’ taters lifted.  I ain’t makin’ no cry-out.  I ain’t forgot the year o’ the fever an’-an’-well, yo’ know who-took care o’ me day an’ night till I saw faces an’ knew ’em!  What’s a matter o’ a hen o’ two an’ a sack o’ taters when lined up agin that fever spell?  I tell yo’, Nella-Rose, if yo’ say thar war three dozen aigs, thar war three dozen aigs, an’ we’ll bargain accordin’!”

And now the dimples came slowly to the relieved face.

“I’ll-I’ll bring you an extra dozen right soon, Mister Merrivale.”

“I ain’t a-goin’ ter flex my soul ’bout that, Nella-Rose.  Aigs is aigs, but human nater is human nater; an’ keepin’ a store widens yo’ stretch o’ vision.  Now, watch out, lil’ girl, an’ don’t take too much fo’ granted.  When a gun goes off yo’ hear it; but when skunks trail, yo’ don’t get no sign, ’less it’s a smell!”

Nella-Rose took her packages, smiled her thanks, and ran on.  She ate her lunch by the bushes where the eggs lay hidden, then depositing in the safe shelter the home bundles Merrivale had so generously weighed, she put the eggs in the basket, packed with autumn leaves, and turned into the trail leading away from the big road.

Through the bare trees the clear sky shone like a shield of blue-gray metal.  It was a sky open for storm to come and pass unchecked.  The very stillness and calm were warnings of approaching disturbance.  Nature was listening and waiting for the breaking up of autumn and the clutch of frost.

It was only two miles from the Centre to White’s clearing and the afternoon was young when Nella-Rose paused at the foot of the last climb and took breath and courage.  There was a tangled mass of rhododendrons by the edge of the wood and suddenly the girl’s eyes became fixed upon it and her heart beat wildly.  Something alive was crouching there, though none but a trained sense could have detected it!  They waited-the hidden creature and the quivering girl!  Then a pair of eager, suspicious eyes shone between the dead leaves of the bushes; next a dark, thin face peered forth-it was Burke Lawson’s!  Nella-Rose clutched her basket closer-that was all.  After a moment she spoke softly, but clearly: 

“I’m alone.  You’re safe.  How long have you been back?”

“Mor’n two weeks!”

Nella-Rose started.  So they had known all along, and while she had played with Marg the hunt might at any moment have become deadly earnest.

“More’n two weeks,” Lawson repeated.

“Where?” The girl’s voice was hard and cold.

“In the Holler.  Miss Lois Ann helped-but Lord! you can’t eat a helpless old woman out of house and home.  Last night-

“Yes, yes; I know.  And oh, Burke, Mister Merrivale hasn’t forgot-the fever and your goodness.  He won’t give you up.”

“He won’t need to.  I’m right safe, ’cept for food.  There’s an old hole, back of a deserted still-I can even have a bit of fire.  The devil himself couldn’t find me.  After a time I’m going-

“Where?  Where, Burke?”

“Nella-Rose, would you come with me?  ’Twas you as brought me back-I had to come.  If you will-oh! my doney-gal-

“Stop! stop, Burke.  Some one might be near.  No, no; I couldn’t leave the hills-I’d die from the longing, you know that!”

“If I-dared them all-could you take me, Nella-Rose?  I’d run my chances with you!  Night and day you tug and pull at the heart o’ me, Nella-Rose.”

Fear, and a deeper understanding, drove Nella-Rose to the wrong course.

“When you dare to come out-when they-all let you stay out-then ask me again, Burke Lawson.  I’m not going to sweetheart with one who dare not show his head.”

Her one desire was to get Lawson away; she must be free!

“Nella-Rose, I’ll come out o’ this.”

“No! no!” the girl gasped, “they’re not after you to shoot you, Burke; Jed Martin is for putting you in jail!”

“Good God-the sneaking coward.”

“And Jim White is off raising a posse, he means to-to see fair play.  Wait until Jim comes back; then give yourself up.”

“And then-then, Nella-Rose?”

The young, keen face among the dead leaves glowed with a light that sent the blood from Nella-Rose’s heart.

“See”-she said inconsequently-“I have” (she counted them out), “I have a dozen eggs; give them to Miss Lois Ann!”

“Let me touch you, Nella-Rose!  Just let me touch your lil’ hand.”

“Wait until Jim White comes back!”

Then, because a rabbit scurried from its shelter, Burke Lawson sank into his, and Nella-Rose in mad haste took to the trail and was gone!  A moment later Lawson peered out again and tried to decide which way she went, but his wits were confused-so he laughed that easy, fearless laugh of his and put in his hat the eggs Nella-Rose had left.  Then, crawling and edging along, he retraced his steps to that hole in the Hollow where he knew he was as safe as if he were in his grave.

With distance and reassurance on her side, Nella-Rose paused to take breath.  She had been thoroughly frightened.  Her beautiful plans, unsuspected by all the world, had been threatened by an unlooked-for danger.  She had never contemplated Burke Lawson as a complication.  She was living day by day, hour by hour.  Jim White she had accepted as a menace-but Burke never!  She was no longer the girl Lawson had known, but how could she hope to make him understand that?  Her tender, love-seeking nature had, in the past, accepted the best the mountains offered-and Burke had been the best.  She had played with him-teased Marg with him-revelled in the excitement, but now?  Well, the blindness had been torn from her eyes-the shackles from her feet.  No one, nothing, could hold her from her own!  She must not be defrauded and imprisoned again!

Yes, that was it-imprisoned just when she had learned to use her wings!

Standing in the tangle of undergrowth, Nella-Rose clenched her small hands and raised wide eyes to the skies.

“I seem,” she panted-and at that moment all her untamed mysticism swayed her-“like I was going along the tracks in the dark and something is coming-something like that train long ago!”

Then she closed her eyes and her uplifted face softened and quivered.  Behind the drooping lids she saw-Truedale!  Quite vividly he materialized to her excited fancy.  It was the first time she had ever been able to command him in this fashion.

“I’m going to him!” The words were like a passionate prayer rather than an affirmation.  “I’m going to follow like I followed long ago!” She clutched the basket and fled along.

And while this was happening, Truedale, in his cabin, was working as he had not worked in years.  He had burned all his bridges and outlying outposts; he was waiting for White, and his plans were completed.  He meant to confide everything to his only friend-for such Jim seemed in the hazy and desolated present-then he would marry Nella-Rose off-hand; there must be a minister somewhere!  After that?  Well, after that Truedale grasped his manuscript and fell to work like one inspired.

Lynda Kendall would never have known the play in its present form.  Truedale’s ideal had always been to portray a free woman-a super-woman; one who had evolved into the freedom from shattered chains.  He now had a heroine free, in that she had never been enslaved.  If one greater than he had put a soul in a statue, Truedale believed that he could awaken a child of nature and show her her own beautiful soul.  He had outlined, a time back, a sylvan Galatea; and now, as he sat in the still room, the framework assumed form and substance; it breathed and moved him divinely.  It and he were alone in the universe; they were to begin the world-he and-

Just then the advance messenger of the coming change of weather entered by way of a lowered window.  It was a smart little breeze and it flippantly sent the ashes flying on the hearth and several sheets of paper broadcast in the room.  Truedale sprang to recover his treasures; he caught four or five, but one escaped his notice and floated toward the door, which was ajar.

“Whew!” he ejaculated, “that was a narrow escape,” and he began to sort and arrange the sheets on the table.

“Sixty, sixty-one, sixty-two.  Now where in thunder is that sixty-three?”

A light touch on his arm made him spring to his feet, every nerve a-tingle.

“Here it is!  It seemed like it came to meet me.”

“Nella-Rose!”

The girl nodded, holding out the paper.

“So you have come?  Why-did you?”

The dimples came into play and Truedale stood watching them while many emotions flayed him; but gradually his weakness passed and he was able to assume an extremely stern though kindly manner.  He meant to set the child right; he meant to see only the child in her until White returned; he would ignore the perilously sweet woman-appeal to his senses until such time as he could, with safety, let them once more hold part in their relations with each other.

But even as he arrived at this wise conclusion, he was noting, as often before he had noted, the fascinating colour and quality of Nella-Rose’s hair.  It was both dark and light.  If smoke were filled with sunlight it would be something like the mass of more or less loosened tendrils that crowned the girl’s pretty head.  Stern resolve began to melt before the girlish sweetness and audacity, but Truedale made one last struggle; he thought of staunch and true Brace Kendall!  And, be it to Brace Kendall’s credit, the course Conning endeavoured to take was a wise one.

“See here, Nella-Rose, you ought not to come here-alone!”

“Why?  Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Of course.  But why did you come?” This was risky.  Truedale recognized it at once.

“Just to say-’how-de’!  You certainly do look scroogy.”

At this Truedale laughed.  Nella-Rose’s capacity for bringing forth his happier, merrier nature was one of her endearing charms.

“You didn’t come just for that, Nella-Rose!” This with stern disapproval.

“Take off the scroogy face-then I’ll tell you why I came.”

“Very well!” Truedale smiled weakly.  “Why?”

“I’m right hungry.  I-I want a party.”

Of course this would never do.  White, or one of the blood-and-thunder raiders, might appear.

“You must go, Nella-Rose.”

“Not”-here she sat down firmly and undid her ridiculous plaid shawl-“not till you give me a bite.  Just a mighty little bite-I’m starving!”

At this Truedale roared with laughter and went hurriedly to his closet.  The girl must eat and-go.  Mechanically he set about placing food upon the table.  Then he sat opposite Nella-Rose while she ate with frank enjoyment the remains of his own noon-day meal.  He could not but note, as he often did, the daintiness with which she accomplished the task.  Other women, as Truedale remembered, were not prepossessing when attacking food; but this girl made a gracious little ceremony of the affair.  She placed the small dishes in orderly array before her; she poised herself lightly on the edge of the chair and nibbled-there was no other word for it-as a perky little chipmunk might, the morsels she raised gracefully to her mouth.  She was genuinely hungry and for a few minutes devoted her attention to the matter in hand.

Then, suddenly, Nella-Rose did something that shattered the last scrap of self-control that was associated with the trusty Kendall and his good example.  She raised a bit of food on her fork and held it out to Truedale, her lovely eyes looking wistfully into his.

“Please!  I feel so ornery eating alone.  I want to-share!  Please play party with me!”

Truedale tried to say “I had my dinner an hour ago”; instead, he leaned across his folded arms and murmured, as if quite outside his own volition: 

“I-I love you!”

Nella-Rose dropped the fork and leaned back.  Her lids fell over the wide eyes-the smile faded from her lips.

“Do you belong to any one-else, Nella-Rose?”

“No-oh! no.”  This like a frightened cry.

“But others-some one must have told you-of love.  Do you know what love means?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

And now she looked at him.  Her eyes were dark, her face deadly pale; her lips were so red that in the whiteness they seemed the only trace of colour.

“How do I know?  Why because-nothing else matters.  It seems like I’ve been coming all my life to it-and now it just says:  ’Here I am, Nella-Rose-here’!”

“I, too, have been coming to it all my life, little girl.  I did not know-I was driven.  I rebelled, because I did not know; but nothing else does matter, when-love gets you!”

“No.  Nothing matters.”  The girl’s voice was rapt and dreamy.  Truedale put his hands across the space dividing them and took hold of hers.

“You will be-mine, Nella-Rose?”

“Seems like I must be!”

“Yes.  Doesn’t it?  Do you-you must understand, dear?  I mean to live the rest of my life here in the hills-your hills.  You once said one was of the hills or one wasn’t; will they let me stay?”

“Yes”-almost fiercely-“but-but your folks-off there-will they let you stay?”

“I have no folks, Nella-Rose.  I’m lonely and poor-at least I was until I found you!  The hills have given me-everything; I mean to serve them well in return.  I want you for my wife, Nella-Rose; we’ll make a home-somewhere-it doesn’t matter; it will be a shelter for our love and-” He stopped short.  Reality and conventions made a last vain appeal.  “I don’t want you ever again to go out of my sight.  You’re mine and nothing could make that different-but” (and this came quickly, desperately) “there must be a minister somewhere-let’s go to him!  Do not let us waste another precious day.  When he makes you mine by his”-Truedale was going to say “ridiculous jargon” but he modified it to-“his authority, no one in all God’s world can take you from me.  Come, come now, sweetheart!”

In another moment he would have had her in his arms, but she held him off.

“I’m mighty afraid of old Jim White!” she said.

Truedale laughed, but the words brought him to his senses.

“Then you must go, darling, until White returns.  After I have explained to him I will come for you, but first let me hold you-so! and kiss you-so!  This is why-you must go, my love!”

She was in his arms, her lifted face pressed to his.  She shivered, but clung to him for a moment and two tears rolled down her cheeks-the first he had ever seen escape her control.  He kissed them away.

“Of what are you thinking, Nella-Rose?”

“Thinking?  I’m not thinking; I’m-happy!”

“My-sweetheart!” Again Truedale pressed his lips to hers.

“Us-all calls sweetheart-’doney-gal’!”

“My-my doney-gal, then!”

“And”-the words came muffled, for Truedale was holding her still-“and always I shall see your face, now.  It came to-day like it came long ago.  It will always come and make me glad.”

Truedale lifted her from his breast and held her at arms’ length.  He looked deep into her eyes, trying to pierce through her ignorance and childishness to find the elusive woman that could meet and bear its part in what lay before.  Long they gazed at each other-then the light in Nella-Rose’s face quivered-her mouth drooped.

“I’m going now,” she said, “going till Jim White comes back.”

“Wait-my-

But the girl had slipped from his grasp; she was gone into the misty, threatening grayness that had closed in about them while love had carried them beyond their depths.  Then the rain began to fall-heavy, warning drops.  The wind, too, was rising sullenly like a monster roused from its sleep and slowly gathering power to vent its rage.

Into this darkening storm Nella-Rose fled unheedingly.  She was not herself-not the girl of the woods, wise in mountain lore; she was bewitched and half mad with the bewildering emotions that, at one moment frightened her-the next, carried her closer to the spiritual than she had ever been.