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Round Anvil Rock by Nancy Huston Banks

Part 5 out of 5

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This had brought a momentary forgetfulness of the strange look of the
heavens and the earth; but the consciousness of it now rushed back with
increased alarm. There were still no clouds to be seen anywhere, no
visible signs of an approaching storm; but the thick veil of yellowish
vapor was fast drawing an unnatural twilight over the noonday. Through
this awful dimness the sun was shining faintly, like a great globe of
heated copper, thus shedding a strange light, even more alarming than
the sinister darkness.

Every soul in the wilderness must now have shrunk, shuddering and
appalled, before this unmistakable approach of some frightful
convulsion of nature. The people of Cedar House, like all the rest,
could do nothing but wait in agony for the unknown blow to fall. It
seemed an endless time in falling; under the breathless, torturing
suspense the moments became hours, with no change except a darkening of
the unnatural twilight, an increase of the unnatural sultriness, and a
deepening of the unnatural stillness. The little group in the great room
of Cedar House sat still and silent, save as they unconsciously drew
closer together, moved by the instinct of humanity in common danger.

The girl alone kept her post by the open door and her watch over the
forest path, looking for the coming of her lover. She knew that but one
thing could keep him from her side, and with all her longing for his
presence, a thrill of happiness came from his absence. Through all its
distress her heart exulted in the thought that he was faithful in his
service to suffering humanity, even when love itself beckoned him away.
A great tide of religious gratitude rose in her heart sweeping all fear
before it. The love of a man who was both strong and good--the greatest
gift that life could give to any woman--was safely hers. Holding this
assurance to her heart, she grew wonderfully calm. There could be
nothing to fear. In this world or the next, all was well. A wonderful
spiritual exaltation bore her upward on its strong, swift wings, high
above all the surrounding gloom and terror, till she rested on a white
height of perfect peace. There was a rapt look on her quiet, pale face
as she sat thus with it turned toward the forest path. She arose quietly
and stood in the door, gazing at a shadowy form which came suddenly from
under the dark trees. The thick yellow mist wrapped it darkly, but she
presently knew by intuition rather than by sight that Paul was really
coming at last, and she flew toward him like a homing bird. He was
urging his horse, but the animal held back with an unwillingness such as
he had never shown before; so that when the young man saw the girl
flying toward him he leapt from the saddle, leaving the horse to follow
or not as he would, and ran to meet her. As soon as she could speak, she
told him that she was not afraid now that he had come, saying it over
and over; yet she nevertheless clung to him as if she would never let
him go.

"And you will take care of the others, too," she said. "Uncle Robert
doesn't know what to do, nor William. Oh! Look! The poor black people!
There they come running up from the quarters. See how they are crowding
round the door, wild with terror! But you will know what to say to them
as well as the others. I am not afraid, with you," quietly looking up in
his grave face. "Is it the end of the world, dear heart?"

He said that he knew no more than herself what it could be, unless some
terrific tempest might be near. They moved hurriedly on toward the
house, and as they went he told her that he was going to the boat where
he had been called to see a man ill of the plague. The call had come
during the night, but he could not leave another patient to answer it
more quickly. And now he would not leave her, for all the rest of the
world, till they knew what this awful thing was which seemed about to
happen. The white people had come out of the house and stood speechless
and motionless, looking up at the heavens and down at the earth, seeing
both but dimly through that ghastly twilight so awfully lit by that
lurid ball of fire.

"Here comes Father Orin!" cried the doctor. "Look at Toby and my horse;
see how they are walking!"

The horses could be indistinctly seen advancing slowly and reluctantly
through the yellowish gloom with a curious, sliding motion, as if
stepping on ice. Paul started toward them, but paused, struck
motionless, and held by a sight still more strange. The same breathless
stillness brooded over everything; the windless air now weighed like
lead, and yet at this moment the greatest trees and smallest bushes
suddenly began to quiver from bottom to top. As far as the horror-struck
eyes could reach through that unnatural twilight, the mightiest
cottonwoods were now bending and nodding like the frailest reeds. And
then there arose in the far northeast a faint rumbling which rushed
swiftly onward toward the southeast, growing, louder as it came, and
breaking over Cedar House in a thunderous roar. At the deafening crash
Paul turned and ran back to Ruth, catching her in his arms. The ground
was now sliding beneath their feet. The solid earth was waving and
rising and falling like a stormy sea.

"It's an earthquake," he whispered, with his lips against her cheek.
"Don't fear, it will pass."

A second shock followed the first, and there was no lightening of the
dreadful gloom which was one of the greatest horrors of that horrible
time. But the men were rallying now that they knew what they had to
meet, and they quickly and firmly drew the terror-stricken, helpless old
women further away from the house, fearing that the massive logs of its
walls might be shaken down.

"That isn't far enough," said Father Orin. "Come still farther,"
glancing round for the safest refuge. "Merciful God! Look at the river!"

The Ohio, beaten back by the lashed and maddened Mississippi, was
leaping in great furious waves, high and wild, as the ocean's in a
tempest. These monstrous, foaming billows were springing far up the
shores on both sides of the river, and devouring vast stretches of land
covered with gigantic trees. The giants of the forest fell, groaning,
into the boiling, swirling flood which leapt to catch them and swallowed
them up with a hideous, hissing noise. Sunken trees which had lain for
ages on the bottom of the river rose above the water like ghosts rising
to meet the newly slain.

"The boat," moaned Ruth. "Uncle Philip's boat, and the sick man!"

Every eye turned in the direction of the island. No one spoke after that
first look. None marvelled to see that the boat was missing; nothing
afloat could live in that seething maelstrom, thickened with melted
earth and tangled with fallen trees. The overwhelming thing which their
faculties could not grasp was the fact that the island itself was gone.
They could only stand staring, expecting to see it between the
mountainous waves, utterly unable to believe the truth, that it had sunk
out of sight and was resting on the bottom of the river. And as they
were thus still searching the wild, dark flood with incredulous eyes,
they suddenly saw a small row-boat in the middle of the stream. It
darted down a towering wave and flew up the next, and came flying on
like some wild, winged thing, toward the Kentucky shore. Another and a
wilder wave caught it, lifted it aloft, and tossed it still nearer the
land. It was not far away now, and there came a sudden lightening of the
gloom, so that they could see two men in the little boat.

"They can never live to reach the shore!" cried the doctor.

"As God wills," said the priest.

Instinctively every eye but the girl's was scanning the shore, trying to
find something that would float, something that might help to save the
men in the boat. But there was nothing in sight; the fierce waves had
swallowed everything, and the helpless people on the bank could only
turn again to watch the little boat. Ruth's gaze had never wandered from
it, and she still watched it flying from one wave to another, gazing as
intently as she could through the tears that rained over her pale
cheeks. She saw it go up a gigantic wave with a flying leap and dart
down again, and then it was lost to sight so long that they thought it
was gone. But at last it came up near the shore, overturned, and with
only one man clinging to it. He was on the far side of the frail shell,
so that they could not see him distinctly, although he was not far from
the shore and there was more light. And then a swirl of the wild waters
brought him to the nearer side, and raised him higher.

"It's an old man!" sobbed Ruth. "His head is white. Oh! Oh! It's uncle
Philip! It's uncle Philip! He has been to the island. Save him, Paul!"

The doctor had already thrown off his coat, and was throwing aside his
boots. He had not waited for her last words; he was not sure that it
was Philip Alston; but he knew that some fellow-creature was perishing
almost within reach of his arm. He was now running down the trembling
bank, and in another instant had plunged into the boiling, roaring,
furious flood, and was swimming toward that wildly rising and falling
silver head, which shone like a beacon, through the lurid light. It was
hard to keep anything in sight. He was a strong swimmer, but his full
strength had not come back, and the fury of the waves was swirling trees
like straws.

After that one involuntary appeal, Ruth was silent. Her heart almost
stopped beating as she realized what her cry had done. A woman's mind
acts with marvellous quickness when all she loves is at stake. As in a
lightning flash she knew that she had sent her lover to risk his life
for her foster-father, without knowing what she did. What she would have
done had there been time to hesitate she could not tell, dared not
think. It must have been a bitter choice, this risking of her lover's
life against the certainty of her father's death. But now she realized
nothing, felt nothing, except that the desperate die was cast. She did
not notice that the others followed as she flew after Paul to the
river's very brink. The earth had ceased quivering, but the shores were
still crumbling under the crushing blows of the maddened waves. The
thick, dark water coiled unheeded about her feet, as she stood silent,
straining her eyes after her lover as he swam toward that silver head
which still rose and fell with the waves. She did not move when she saw
a gigantic cottonwood lean, uprooted and tottering. She did not utter a
cry when it fell behind him, cutting him off and hiding him, so that
neither he nor the silver head could be seen from the land. She stood as
if turned to stone, waiting--only waiting--hardly hoping that it had not
carried them both down. She began to weep softly, and her hands were
suddenly and unconsciously clasped in silent prayer, when she saw him
once more swimming--still swimming--but coming back around the top of
the tree.

It had struck the little boat in its fall, sending it down to come up in
fragments, but the man was left hanging to a bough, and it was toward
him that Paul Colbert was struggling against the fury of the flood. The
tree hung to the bank by its loosened roots, but its trunk and branches
were swaying wildly, fiercely tossed by the waves. The man was sinking
lower in the water, his strength almost was gone, and his hold was
giving way, when Paul reached him. The white head, turning, revealed
Philip Alston's face and Paul Colbert thought that he shrank under his
touch. Neither spoke for a moment; both needed all their breath to reach
a higher bough.

"Let me help you," gasped Paul Colbert. "Try to climb to the next limb.
It is stronger and steadier."

"Thank you," panted Philip Alston.

They reached it together and could now see the shore, and both looked at
Ruth through the swaying boughs and flying spray. The young man's heart
leapt and his courage rose at the sight of the slender, girlish form. He
saw her stretch out her arms, and remembering that she loved this old
man, panting and struggling at his side, he shouted with all the power
that he had, telling her that he would do his best to bring him to land.
Philip Alston gave him a strange look, and then turned his gaze again
toward the little figure on the shore. In a tone that was even more
strange than his look, he murmured something about being on his way back
from the island. He also said something about going to the boat early in
the morning to countermand an order that he had given on the night

"I changed my mind--I found I couldn't do--"

Paul Colbert did not understand, and scarcely heard the confused,
gasping, hurried words. He was looking at Ruth, and longing to loose his
hold on the bough, long enough to wave the assurance that his voice
could not carry across the roaring waters. And this was the instant that
Nature chose to mock the pitting of his puny powers against her
resistless forces. A fierce wave tore away the roots that the tree bound
to the bank, and hurled it into the flood. It swung round and turned
partly over, burying the bough that they clung to, deep under the water.
Both went down with it and Paul Colbert thought, with the quickness and
clearness of mind that comes to the drowning, that they could never come
up again. When he found his own head once more above water, with his
hand grasping a bough of a smaller tree, which had been driven close to
the shore, he looked round for Philip Alston. There was no silver head
anywhere to be seen now above the thick, dark river. Half stunned, he
gazed again blankly, feeling vaguely that his own head must go down very
soon; his strength was wholly gone; he could not even see the shore,
though it was very near, because he was not strong enough to lift
himself above the trunk of the tree which hid it from his sight. And
then at last he heard Father Orin's voice:--

"Hold fast, my boy. Hold fast just a moment longer. We are coming, Toby
and I. Try to hold on. We are almost there."

They reached him as his hand let go and his head sunk, and they bore him
to the shore and laid him down at Ruth's feet, unconscious, but alive.

* * * * *

When Nature has thus rent the trembling earth and thus smitten appalled
humanity by some stupendous convulsion, the outburst of passion nearly
always passes quickly, and she hastens to console by concealing its
traces. These fatal throes were hardly over before she was quelling the
frenzied river by her sudden coldness, and only a few days had passed
before she was covering its subdued waters with a heavy white sheet of
glittering ice. And then, as if to make the torn land lovely again at
once, she wrapped it in a dazzling robe of spotless snow. Above this she
hurriedly hung the broken boughs of the wrecked cottonwoods with
countless flashing prisms, encrusting the smallest twigs to the very top
in sparkling crystal; and coming down she stilled the murmur of the
reeds under icy helmets--binding all together with crystalline cables of
frost. So that under the rainbow light of the brilliant winter sun the
world was once more radiant with peace and joy and beauty unspeakable.

And Cedar House, too, was now just as it had been before. From its open
door nothing could be seen of the marks left by Nature's passionate
fury; marks which must remain forever unless some more furious passion
should come to erase them. It was hard to tell just how and wherein the
whole face of the country had been so greatly changed. The people of
Cedar House knew that a great lake nearly seventy miles in length and
deeper in places than the height of the tallest trees whose tops barely
showed above the water, had taken the place of a range of high hills
covered with primeval forest. But this was too far away to be seen from
Cedar House, and no one there had the heart to approach it. One sad
pilgrimage had been made, and that was to the ruins of Philip Alston's
house. It was now a mere heap of fallen logs, and although these were
lifted and laid in orderly rows, and the ground searched over inch by
inch, there was nothing but his fine clothes and some simple furniture
to show that it had ever been occupied.

"To think that he lived like this--that he gave me everything and kept
nothing for himself," Ruth said softly through her tears, looking up in
Paul Colbert's troubled face. "Such a desolate, lonely life. It breaks
my heart to think of it. But I would have lived in his house if I could.
I wanted to live in it--I wouldn't have cared how plain and rough it
was. I wanted to live with him and cheer him and make him happy, as if
he had been my own father. I couldn't have loved him more dearly if he
had been. And you would have loved him, too, if you had known him
better. I am sure that you would. You couldn't have helped loving
him--if only for his goodness to me. And he was kind to every one. I
never heard him speak a harsh word of any living thing. It was in being
kind that he lost his life; he must have gone to see the man who was ill
on the boat."

The young doctor looked away and fixed his eyes on the men who were
going over the ground around the cabin.

"Who are those men, Paul? And what are they doing here?" she asked
suddenly, observing that they seemed to be looking for something. "It
hurts me to have strangers handling these things that belonged to him.
What are they looking for? Who are they?"

"Dearest, when a thing like this happens the law has to take certain--"

"What has the law to do with my uncle Philip's clothes? No one shall
touch them but me or you!" bending over the garments and gathering them
up in her arms. "What are they digging for? Make them stop. Oh, stop
them; this spot is like his grave, the only grave he can ever have."

* * * * *

Paul could not tell her then, nor for months afterward, that it was
impossible to stop the search for the gold which was believed to be
buried in the earth of the forest near the ruined cabin. He waited till
the forest was once more quivering with tender young leaves and the
river was gentle and warm again--and she had become his wife. When he
gently told her at last, she looked at him wonderingly like a child, and
was silent for some time. She knew so little about money or the
eagerness for riches. And then she smiled and said that she herself
would certainly claim any gold belonging to Philip Alston that ever
might be found, and that David and the Sisters and Father Orin and Toby
should have the spending of it.

"For that is what he would like and we have no need of more, now that
you are becoming famous. We have all and more than we want. Uncle Robert
has plenty for himself and his sisters. William will soon be going to
Congress, if you and uncle Robert work hard for him. Yes, David and the
Sisters and Father Orin and Toby shall have dear uncle Philip's gold. He
would wish them to have it. Think how generous he always was to them and
every one, and how kind to all. If you only could have known him just a
little longer, dear heart! Knowing him better, you would have known, as
I do, how truly he loved everything fine and noble and great."

He did not reply but silently laid his hand on hers. Sighing and
smiling, she nestled closer to his side. And then as they sat thus with
their eyes on the glorious afterglow, the Angelus began to peal softly
through the shadows, and the Beautiful River seemed in the softened
light to curve its majestic arm more closely around this wonderful new
country, from which a blighting shadow was lifted forever.

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