The Mountain [short story by Helena Sumner Locke, 20 November 1909]

[Editor: A short story written by Helena Sumner Locke.]

The Mountain

(By Sumner Locke.)

“That’s all I want,” said Clarence, pointing with his whip. “See the touch of grey mauve on them hills ! Watch ’em die into blue-black before the moon looks over to light them into silver-white again. That’s all a man wants when he’s got time for sentiment, that an’ the flashing points of the stars — then he don’t go far wrong.”

They shifted their horses and wandered idly down across the plains to the homestead.

There were just the two men, marking a brown spot on the open country. Clarence of Western Run, and his chief man, Roberts, both on horseback, returning after a day among the cattle and the hills.

“Don’t know,” said Roberts, feeling in a hip pocket for tobacco. “Some men might put up with it for eternity, but give me life at times — life where there’s a bit of something beside the bellow of cattle and plain dust and an edge of coloured hills around that.”

Clarence said nothing, thinking hard. Inwardly he ruminated on Roberts’ words. “S’pose it’s grown into me, all this, he thought. “I couldn’t live no other life now.”

There was a mail that day, and Clarence tramped heavily into the shanty. Letters lay on the table waiting.

“Here Roberts — two for you — one for Gilham, take it out.” He threw them across and Roberts, just scanning his, left the room.

Then he ran his thumb along several of his own letters, tossing them down in their turn as he finished them. A couple of bills came first, then friendly newsy epistles from relatives far south. They were discursive of things in general, and touched on the cattle business and the present price of the meat market. Clarence fingered them lightly, and threw them down for further observation after tea. Then a light grey envelope fell to its turn, and got fingered in an odd way before it was finally opened.

“That’s someone — I can’t remember,” said Clarence, pushing his thumb along the edge.

He shifted his wide hat back a bit, and sat on the table. This, apparently, needed more attention.

After reading a bit Clarence started aloud, “. . . . . You promised so long ago that I should see your place — you said it was only a few miles of railway and a day’s drive from Warragoon. Well, I have got as far as that, and shall stay a few weeks with my aunt. Will you not come for me and let me see the wonderful home among the hills, and the big cattle that take up so much of your life?”

Roberts entered the room, and the interruption broke in on Clarence’s dreaming.

“Martin — we’re going south !”

“We might be going anywhere,” said Roberts, “by the tone of your voice and the look on your face.”

“We’re going to Warragoon,” went on Clarence, swinging round with a laugh; “we’re going to get a parcel there — a parcel of people, just for a day’s drive and a couple of nights out here.”

Roberts looked petrified.

“Great Moses, Jack! are you goin’ to entertain the Governor, or —”

“Not by a long rope ! It’s just a little girl ! A little girl as bad big, big soft eyes once — years ago since I saw her goin’ to school.”

“An’ — an’ —”Roberts began to bluster and choke, “are you goin’ to bring her nurse and all that rig along of her into this dust-hole?”

“Goin’ to bring Miss Elisabeth Carter an’ her aunt for a few days’ entertainin’.” Then while Roberts backed on his heels and hunted for words to answer, he continued, shooting his hand out towards the distance, now grey-black through the door.

“Oh Martin, how she’ll like the touch on them hills, dark as a man’s quiet mood one time, and light as a woman’s silver laugh another. She usester have big, soft eyes as takes things in. S’pose she can’t have altered. Women’s nature’s much the same from a child to maturity.”

Martin Roberts ran round and grasped Clarence by the shoulder in a nasty grip.

“Jack — you’re a fair mix-up — an I’m — well, I’m mixed! You’re goin’ to bring a lady — two ladies — way out here for entertainments in this cubby hole. You’re — you’re goin’ to give ’em chunk meat an’ — an’ bread made by the foolest of dough-punchers, called ‘Parker.’ You’re goin’ to give ’em mountains to look at, an’ dust to fill in the time. Jack, you’re —”

Clarence caught him shoulderways.

“I’m goin’ to give that little girl what she asked for. She says it to me when she was twelve: ‘Mister Clarence, can I come an’ see your big cows?’ And I says then : ‘Some day, Miss Bess.’ An’ some day’s come.”

Then Roberts tried to get rational. “There’s only one bedroom.”

“They can have it.” Clarence was picking up his correspondence hastily.

“And there’s more dirt on this floor than Parker could find with his half-blind eyes!”

“You can help him.”

“Jack, them shelves is turning mouldy with the books and things.”

“Burn them out.”

“And tinned stock is run out and ——”

“We can bring stores from Warragoon.” Roberts flew for the kitchen to head off Parker with a dozen orders. He was not quite sure whether he was dreaming them or not, but he wanted to give them now in case he waked up afterwards.

Presently he came back to find Jack Clarence standing looking out into the night.

“Clarence !”

“Yes.” Jack never turned. His mood was happiness, and he did not want to break it. Roberts dropped his voice to low register and spoke almost mournfully.

“Clarence, there ain’t a tablecloth.”

The situation turned thrilling. The two men met face to face, then Clarence burst forth a minute or two of heavy laughter.

“You’ll have to shop a bit while I’m doing the call down there. Get anything — get everything !”

That night they drove away.

Two days after Clarence drove into the house yard. All the way along he had been pointing out the wonders of the country to the girl at his side. She had a soft warmth in her face that he had remembered, and it took him right away, and put an abundance of new life into him to watch her big eyes rise and fall in animation or in distress at his stories about the life and the place.

Roberts sat second and put in a lot of time gracefully inventing answers for the impossible queries of the elderly lady. She was appalled at most things. Never dreamed men could exist so far out without the gentle aid and comfort of the womanly touch. Roberts smiled often behind his big moustache.

The place looked somewhat different on approach to when they had driven away. Parker screwed his face into a thousand angles at the kitchen window to get a look at the “Boss’s visitors.”

“’Ope they note, th’ paint what I cleaned down that there front!” he communed behind the window. Then Roberts cut in quickly through the back door.

“There’s a sack e’r things in the waggon ; better get slippin’ now. Miss Carter ain’t to be kept waitin’, Boss says.”

He plodded out again, and Parker, nervous for the very fear of being laughed at by the only women he’d seen for a year, got going “slippery.” There was a dozen or more of most things — tinned meat and preserved fruits — even chocolate ! In the middle of the hurry he was struck comical at the sight of things, and his face formed curves of pleasure that rooted Roberts the instant he came back to the kitchen.

“What’s the bloomin’ joke?”

“Do I serve the chocolate after or before?”

“Go to — pieces,” shouted Roberts, dashing for the back shed, where he and Clarence were putting in a night or two. Parker went into fits instead.

In the dining room Miss Elizabeth Carter stood staring into the face of Jack Clarence.

“It’s not a bit like what I thought,” she said, with brightness in her big eyes; “its so funny to think of — of all this being your home for all these years. Out there it’s big — big as something I’ve only dreamed of and — and it’s dangerous, isn’t it?”

She put the question right into Jack’s face and he wanted to laugh, but dared not spoil the solemnity of her almost sacred alarm.

“It’s on’y danger when a man’s mad enough to go lookin’ for it,” he said, walking to the door, “Come here, little girl; to you there isn’t much in the changin’ of lights on them hills out there, but it’s more than life to a man who’s been breathing them in for fifteen years. It’s work and danger with the cattle times, but after that it’s nearest to heaven, the calm, the quiet, the changing colours, the sun gettin’ up and goin’ down again.”

“It’s very beautiful,” said Bess with the same quiet in her voice that she had caught from his. “They’re very majestic, those big hills rising straight up across there.”

Then Clarence pointed. “See that big point way past the little ones? We call it “The Mountain.” Well, there’s every mood plays through a man when he’s out there. There are giant rocks to overclimb, and white stone passes that a horse can’t manage; there’s slopes of soft grass lower down like velvet pattened out with coloured flowers. When a man gets there, — well, he’s feeling pretty good about his Maker and things, when he treads ’em down beneath his heavy hoof. That’s change from cattle restin’ there at times . . . .little girl.”

He walked inside the room again, and Bess, in tired mood, found her aunt resting on the reconstructed bed that Parker, under orders, had prepared for them.

In the kitchen a wild war about the proper method of serving the tinned vegetables that had been brought from the town, was taking place between the two other men. Roberts forgot the thin partition between the rooms, and issued his orders with a deliberation that might have done well had he been blasting forth on a foghorn.

“Boil ’em again, you foolhead ! Don’t pass ’em up in the blanky tin ! Truth, we’re not lettin’ on they didn’t come from the back kitchen garden.”

Bess smiled at her aunt, and the old lady, half-asleep after the journey, said nothing.

An enamel dish and jug of water had been set in the room for their visit — another of Roberts’ purchases, easily told by the shop mark which, in his hurry to arrange things on arrival, had been left prominently on the jug. Again Bess smiled as she washed her face, and tidied up her soft falling hair. As she emerged again to find Clarence, Roberts’ voice shot through.

“Don’t put your face near the dining room, you slipper-head, till you’ve scraped it a bit. We don’t want the lady frightened into a fit first go off.”

Then followed a mumbling, which might have been an answer from Parker. The girl did not wait to listen, she walked into the yard front of the house.

A great calm was on the flat plain before her, a dim light of changing colours, mauve and grey and dark blue was settling on everything in the distance. She watched until the last faint shade had died and only the blackness of night shed itself on the hills. A strip of light above them in the sky like a band of white ribbon in the dark hair of a girl held her a minute longer. She wondered until Jack Clarence behind her broke the reverie.

“That’s the moon comin’ up — see how it’ll break the dark there ! First the top gets covered in mist and white, then it rolls down the slope like a gauze veil just unwrapped.”

A clanging bell at the rear suddenly smashed the illusion. Clarence burst into a hearty laugh as he took the girl in.

“That’s Parker. He hasn’t served a lady’s table for ten years an’ he’s got an erratic idea that there ain’t nothing in dinner without a bell to start off.”

Bess laughed with him and went in to find her aunt slightly trembling from the sudden shock of the bell.

“Sorry Mrs —” began Roberts, “but you can’t knock into a heathen anything that’s foreign to him. You want to be five miles off when he gets going with that bell.”

Parker did not put an appearance until hauled in by Roberts half-way through the meal. He was putting in excellent time, bathing the swelling caused by the handy right of that gentleman, which had been directed meaningly. Later on some of the hands on the run clanked in from far and wide. They were hot and tired and dusty, and Parker served them in the kitchen, relating incidents by way of interlude.

“Boss gone cranky over that there girl — takin’ her moonin’ on a blanky plain, and servin’ her with soup an’ chocolate all at once.”

There was a general laugh, and before bed that night Clarence hailed them through the door and they were presented with all their awkwardness and overgrown fads.

Bess said “How are you?” as she shook a hot hand of each, then Clarence fearing a shock of language unsuited to the girl’s ears, gave them a side wink to quit the house.

When Miss Carter crept into bed she sat up looking out into the moon. Clarence’s words were still with her. He had stood an hour in the front yard talking about the place and she had watched his face until she had learnt the true meaning of life from it. When she thought of the day they would return to town, she grew cold. Somehow, she did not want to go out of his life again.

As a child she had listened to him and had grown into years with the anticipation before her that she would meet him again some day. And now the fullness of life was before her. There seemed nothing in things apart from him. She felt herself a necessary part in the rough shanty, a companion to a man whose soul seemed to hold her own.

When she fell asleep, Clarence in the shed, smoking alone, still watching the white-lit plains and the hills.

“She’s no more part of them than they are able to hold their colour for the same hour ! Standin’ there in the moon made me feel different. She’d be the best in a man’s life, but! — God! she wasn’t made for this track! She’d get tired of the waitin’ an’ the dust an’ the rain, at seasons, and the place couldn’t hold her an hour if she was unhappy like. But it’s been good havin’ her, and it strikes shame into the men when they begins to think there is a good woman in the place over-looking a bit of their lives.”

Afterwards he too sank into the slumber among the lights and the calm and the immovableness of the plains and hills.

Elizabeth had asked in her frank way that Jack would ride with her out to the distant grey that bordered the earth at the skyline.

“I want to go to the big hill — to ‘The Mountain’ — you’ll take me there to-morrow, Jack, won’t you?” she had said, and on the morrow when the sun burst through the blue vastness overhead, they rode together across the plains and through the dust, and the great silence that gathered round them almost awed the girl, so that she became as part of the whole thing.

Looking back an hour after, the homestead appeared a mere brown object in the distance ; in front the hills rose in a chain and bound the plains in a circumference of their own immensity.

The great pinnacle to the right, as they rode nearer, threw down a blinding shimmering whiteness that hurt the girl’s eyes so that she had to shade them.

“That’s the ‘White Pass,’” said Clarence, “it’s always like that in the sun.”

“It dazzles me,” said Elizabeth. “I can’t look at it. Is it very near?”

“More’n two hours away,” said Clarence, “the sun will be past the point by then, and you’ll see first the white rocks risin’ over you like pillars of salt that has been left wet. There’s a mile of it a horse can foot below the boulder lot, and there’s more than that a man could climb where a horse won’t budge. Above you is the sheer white rock hanging dangerous, to make a man feel sorter powerless and small in his opinion of his own greatness. Below you slopes the green — a bit of velvet stamped in coloured flowers, stretchin’ a length in the shadow of the left, just a blessed desert garden to show you the greater importance of a maker of worlds.”

The girl’s eyes lit with fine rays of happiness. She listened, intent on every word. The ‘ideal’ of her growing days was magnifying itself so that she was almost afraid to feel so happy. Suddenly she spoke.

“I love it all! How can I go back to town?”

Jack Clarence leaned his hand to hers.

“That’s where you belongs, little girl. You’d find it out before a year. Sometimes here, the big quiet hurts. Even a man, coarse as the tearing cattle life can make him, feels like going on his knees to pray in homage of a mighty something’ that’s oppressin’ him as bein’ a powerful presence somewhere near! It’s too big and solemn for you, little girl, but a little of it’s goin’ to be a pleasant memory for you to take home with you.”

“I shall never forget,” said Miss Carter, looking out under her shading hand, “I shall never — forget.”

“And you’ll know,” said Clarence, not looking her way, but scanning the distant whiteness with half-shut, eyes, “you’ll know that — a man’s in the hills for his lifetime, once he’s touched nature, close as it is here. You’ll know he can remember, too, and though it’s miles and miles, between, yet — yet — in the quiet and the changing lights, there’s livin’ pictures in his vision that’s worth a lot.”

Another hour and they had touched “The Pass,” the horses picking their way for a mile, and then the two, dismounting, left them standing while they clambered on.

The sun shot a radiant course in a straight line with the tops of the hills; soon the bright colour would die behind the ridge and the grey-blue would creep until a darker blue had faded the slopes, that in its turn gave place to blackness of coming night.

Clarence and the girl stood hand in hand to the left, where below them spread the verdant garden of the hills. They had left the white line rocks and watched the shadows of changing eve slowly creeping down the surface of the slopes until they covered the ground.

In the great silence they stood, and neither spoke. To Clarence all things were complete, to the girl a wonderment as to the beginning of all things, and the end. In a dim way the scene below her faded into the active rapid life she had left a week ago. The business of and the jar of a noisy mechanical world took and held her mind for a minute or two. The tender, loving woman in her sobbed in a cruel way at the thought of her return. Again she looked at Clarence and spoke out, breaking the vision and the silence.

“Jack!”

“Yes — Bess.”

“I love it all. Let me stay!”

He turned to face her, as she had turned to him.

“There’s something, somewhere under heaven; as gets into a man an’ a woman an’ holds them for all time, no matter what comes up to put them miles apart. I’m feeling that, my girl, these days; an’ I know I shan’t be unhappy ’bout it, when you has to go back to your own proper life. You don’t know it yet, little girl, but when you’ve got a few more years under, an’ sees yourself as you should be, you’ll know I’m right to say — no. I can’t have you stay.”

“But, Jack ——” The girl’s eyes dimmed as she looked unflinchingly at him . “Jack, I know myself so well, and I know the life down there won’t ever be the same again. You’ve come in to stay now — and — and I can’t let you go out — oh! I can’t let you go out — Jack !”

“I shan’t never go out, little girl Bess; I shan’t never go out, but you are for the bright world of living glad people. I can’t come with you there.”

Dark blue and black were on the mountain slope, the sun had dipped long since, leaving a trail of colour in the sky that had died out also.

“I want to go down,” said Elizabeth, pointing to the green below them.

“It’s a climb round then,” said Clarence. “We must go back by the White Pass, an’ you’ll have to be careful of your footing most of the time.”

He let her walk ahead, watching every turn her feet took. Sometimes a flat stone would sway with her, but every time he was at her elbow to steady her on again. Once he caught her arm of such a sudden that his own feet went between the crevice of some larger rocks. He had to let her go to save pulling her over, and as he fell lengthways backwards, she grasped the boulder in front of her with a little laugh.

Clarence sat up, unhurt, but horror shot into his face in an instant. Elisabeth, in grasping the rock, which was loose on the lime ground field, had dislodged it in a second. It moved slowly, then, propelled by the weight of her leaning body, started to roll down the slope.

Clarence’s mind took in the whole panorama in a fraction of a second. He saw the girl thrown from rock to rock with the impetus of the sudden start. He seemed to be travelling through a terrific space of time, and it was as though he could, never catch hold of her.

He only grabbed her soft body when she had lain still as the deathly silence around on the flat lime ground with her face to the pale night sky.

It was as if a mighty eternity was swimming round the man, who could only hold her there without a word.

Would it not break, this deathlike calm?

Yes — the voice of the girl waking him to a shocking reality.

“You can’t — ride me home, Jack. My — back!”

He laid her flat again and tried to speak, holding both her hands, that gripped his in a vice of the tearing pain she was suffering. He watched her face whitening in the shadow that was over all now. In the space between them he could hardly tell the outline against the white ground. She breathed longer and the grip tightened.

“My girl ——” It was a gasp as he choked out the words.

Then she spoke again, “I’ll — have — to stay out in — The Mountain — after — all!”

She never spoke again, and the moon rising an hour later round him still sitting staring into her face.

* * * * * * * *

It was Roberts who rode out after the wait of hours in the low shanty with the nerve-stricken elderly woman. He never spoke, but lifted the girl from the arms of Clarence without even the question of accident.

Jack stood up and pointed to the deep blackness of the lower ground.

“She said she wanted to go down there,” he said; “we’ll go now.”

Roberts saw his mind, and gently gave the body of the girl into his arms, following step in step as Clarence made for the garden plain.

In the darkness be felt the soft grass under his boots and laid the girl down again.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Clarence with his firm voice set again. “When the moon steals down there’ll be light for us to see. She wanted to stay.”

“Shall I send out the waggon ?” began Roberts with fear in his voice.

Clarence stooped over the girl.

“No! You must fix things different Martin — you must fix things different. We’re not goin’ back again — we’re goin’ to stay out here — in The Mountain.”



Source:
The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Saturday 20 November 1909, page 49

[Editor: Corrected “front of th” to “front of the”; “flat palin” to “flat plain”; “fulness” to “fullness”; “for a mle” to “for a mile”; “stragiht line” to “straight line”.]

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