They lived on the verge of a vast stony level, upheaved so far above the surrounding country that its vague outlines, viewed from the nearest valley, seemed a mere cloud-streak resting upon the lesser hills. The rush and roar of the turbulent river that washed its eastern base were lost at that height; the winds that strove with the giant pines that half way climbed its flanks spent their fury below the summit; for, at variance with most meteorological speculation, an eternal calm seemed to invest this serene altitude. The few Alpine flowers seldom thrilled their petals to a passing breeze; rain and snow fell alike perpendicularly, heavily, and monotonously over the granite bowlders scattered along its brown expanse. Although by actual measurement an inconsiderable elevation of the Sierran range, and a mere shoulder of the nearest white-faced peak that glimmered in the west, it seemed to lie so near the quiet, passionless stars, that at night it caught something of their calm remoteness.
The articulate utterance of such a locality should have been a whisper; a laugh or exclamation was discordant; and the ordinary tones of the human voice on the night of the 15th of May, 1868, had a grotesque incongruity.
In the thick darkness that clothed the mountain that night, the human figure would have been lost, or confounded with the outlines of outlying bowlders, which at such times took upon themselves the vague semblance of men and animals. Hence the voices in the following colloquy seemed the more grotesque and incongruous from being the apparent expression of an upright monolith, ten feet high, on the right, and another mass of granite, that, reclining, peeped over the verge.
“I lost the trail, and climbed up the slide.”
Here followed a stumble, the clatter of stones down the mountain-side, and an oath so very human and undignified that it at once relieved the bowlders of any complicity of expression. The voices, too, were close together now, and unexpectedly in quite another locality.
“Looey Napoleon's declared war agin Germany.”
Notwithstanding this exclamation, the interest of the latter speaker was evidently only polite and perfunctory. What, indeed, were the political convulsions of the Old World to the dwellers on this serene, isolated eminence of the New?
“I reckon it's so,” continued the first voice. “French Pete and that thar feller that keeps the Dutch grocery hev hed a row over it; emptied their six-shooters into each other. The Dutchman's got two balls in his leg, and the Frenchman's got an onnessary buttonhole in his shirt-buzzum, and hez caved in.”
This concise, local corroboration of the conflict of remote nations, however confirmatory, did not appear to excite any further interest. Even the last speaker, now that he was in this calm, dispassionate atmosphere, seemed to lose his own concern in his tidings, and to have abandoned every thing of a sensational and lower-worldly character in the pines below. There were a few moments of absolute silence, and then another stumble. But now the voices of both speakers were quite patient and philosophical.
“Hold on, and I'll strike a light,” said the second speaker. “I brought a lantern along, but I didn't light up. I kem out afore sundown, and you know how it allers is up yer. I didn't want it, and didn't keer to light up. I forgot you're always a little dazed and strange-like when you first come up.”
There was a crackle, a flash, and presently a steady glow, which the surrounding darkness seemed to resent. The faces of the two men thus revealed were singularly alike. The same thin, narrow outline of jaw and temple; the same dark, grave eyes; the same brown growth of curly beard and mustache, which concealed the mouth, and hid what might have been any individual idiosyncrasy of thought or expression,—showed them to be brothers, or better known as the “Twins of Table Mountain.” A certain animation in the face of the second speaker,—the first-comer,—a certain light in his eye, might have at first distinguished him; but even this faded out in the steady glow of the lantern, and had no value as a permanent distinction, for, by the time they had reached the western verge of the mountain, the two faces had settled into a homogeneous calmness and melancholy.
The vague horizon of darkness, that a few feet from the lantern still encompassed them, gave no indication of their progress, until their feet actually trod the rude planks and thatch that formed the roof of their habitation; for their cabin half burrowed in the mountain, and half clung, like a swallow's nest, to the side of the deep declivity that terminated the northern limit of the summit. Had it not been for the windlass of a shaft, a coil of rope, and a few heaps of stone and gravel, which were the only indications of human labor in that stony field, there was nothing to interrupt its monotonous dead level. And, when they descended a dozen well-worn steps to the door of their cabin, they left the summit, as before, lonely, silent, motionless, its long level uninterrupted, basking in the cold light of the stars.
The simile of a “nest” as applied to the cabin of the brothers was no mere figure of speech as the light of the lantern first flashed upon it. The narrow ledge before the door was strewn with feathers. A suggestion that it might be the home and haunt of predatory birds was promptly checked by the spectacle of the nailed-up carcasses of a dozen hawks against the walls, and the outspread wings of an extended eagle emblazoning the gable above the door, like an armorial bearing. Within the cabin the walls and chimney-piece were dazzlingly bedecked with the party-colored wings of jays, yellow-birds, woodpeckers, kingfishers, and the poly-tinted wood-duck. Yet in that dry, highly-rarefied atmosphere, there was not the slightest suggestion of odor or decay.
The first speaker hung the lantern upon a hook that dangled from the rafters, and, going to the broad chimney, kicked the half-dead embers into a sudden resentful blaze. He then opened a rude cupboard, and, without looking around, called, “Ruth!”
The second speaker turned his head from the open doorway where he was leaning, as if listening to something in the darkness, and answered abstractedly,—
“I don't believe you have touched grub to-day!”
Ruth grunted out some indifferent reply.
“Thar hezen't been a slice cut off that bacon since I left,” continued Rand, bringing a side of bacon and some biscuits from the cupboard, and applying himself to the discussion of them at the table. “You're gettin' off yer feet, Ruth. What's up?”
Ruth replied by taking an uninvited seat beside him, and resting his chin on the palms of his hands. He did not eat, but simply transferred his inattention from the door to the table.
“You're workin' too many hours in the shaft,” continued Rand. “You're always up to some such d—n fool business when I'm not yer.”
“I dipped a little west to-day,” Ruth went on, without heeding the brotherly remonstrance, “and struck quartz and pyrites.”
“Thet's you!—allers dippin' west or east for quartz and the color, instead of keeping on plumb down to the 'cement'!”*
* The local name for gold-bearing alluvial drift,—the bed of a prehistoric river.
“We've been three years digging for cement,” said Ruth, more in abstraction than in reproach,—“three years!”
“And we may be three years more,—may be only three days. Why, you couldn't be more impatient if—if—if you lived in a valley.”
Delivering this tremendous comparison as an unanswerable climax, Rand applied himself once more to his repast. Ruth, after a moment's pause, without speaking or looking up, disengaged his hand from under his chin, and slid it along, palm uppermost, on the table beside his brother. Thereupon Rand slowly reached forward his left hand, the right being engaged in conveying victual to his mouth, and laid it on his brother's palm. The act was evidently an habitual, half mechanical one; for in a few moments the hands were as gently disengaged, without comment or expression. At last Rand leaned back in his chair, laid down his knife and fork, and, complacently loosening the belt that held his revolver, threw it and the weapon on his bed. Taking out his pipe, and chipping some tobacco on the table, he said carelessly, “I came a piece through the woods with Mornie just now.”
The face that Ruth turned upon his brother was very distinct in its expression at that moment, and quite belied the popular theory that the twins could not be told apart. “Thet gal,” continued Rand, without looking up, “is either flighty, or—or suthin',” he added in vague disgust, pushing the table from him as if it were the lady in question. “Don't tell me!”
Ruth's eyes quickly sought his brother's, and were as quickly averted, as he asked hurriedly, “How?”
“What gets me,” continued Rand in a petulant non sequitur, “is that YOU, my own twin-brother, never lets on about her comin' yer, permiskus like, when I ain't yer, and you and her gallivantin' and promanadin', and swoppin' sentiments and mottoes.”
Ruth tried to contradict his blushing face with a laugh of worldly indifference.
“She came up yer on a sort of pasear.”
“Oh, yes!—a short cut to the creek,” interpolated Rand satirically.
“Last Tuesday or Wednesday,” continued Ruth, with affected forgetfulness.
“Oh, in course, Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday! You've so many folks climbing up this yer mountain to call on ye,” continued the ironical Rand, “that you disremember; only you remembered enough not to tell me. SHE did. She took me for you, or pretended to.”
The color dropped from Ruth's cheek.
“Took you for me?” he asked, with an awkward laugh.
“Yes,” sneered Rand; “chirped and chattered away about OUR picnic, OUR nose-gays, and lord knows what! Said she'd keep them blue-jay's wings, and wear 'em in her hat. Spouted poetry, too,—the same sort o' rot you get off now and then.”
Ruth laughed again, but rather ostentatiously and nervously.
“Ruth, look yer!”
Ruth faced his brother.
“What's your little game? Do you mean to say you don't know what thet gal is? Do you mean to say you don't know thet she's the laughing-stock of the Ferry; thet her father's a d——d old fool, and her mother's a drunkard and worse; thet she's got any right to be hanging round yer? You can't mean to marry her, even if you kalkilate to turn me out to do it, for she wouldn't live alone with ye up here. 'Tain't her kind. And if I thought you was thinking of—”
“What?” said Ruth, turning upon his brother quickly.
“Oh, thet's right! holler; swear and yell, and break things, do! Tear round!” continued Rand, kicking his boots off in a corner, “just because I ask you a civil question. That's brotherly,” he added, jerking his chair away against the side of the cabin, “ain't it?”
“She's not to blame because her mother drinks, and her father's a shyster,” said Ruth earnestly and strongly. “The men who make her the laughing-stock of the Ferry tried to make her something worse, and failed, and take this sneak's revenge on her. 'Laughing-stock!' Yes, they knew she could turn the tables on them.”
“Of course; go on! She's better than me. I know I'm a fratricide, that's what I am,” said Rand, throwing himself on the upper of the two berths that formed the bedstead of the cabin.
“I've seen her three times,” continued Ruth.
“And you've known me twenty years,” interrupted his brother.
Ruth turned on his heel, and walked towards the door.
“That's right; go on! Why don't you get the chalk?”
Ruth made no reply. Rand descended from the bed, and, taking a piece of chalk from the shelf, drew a line on the floor, dividing the cabin in two equal parts.
“You can have the east half,” he said, as he climbed slowly back into bed.
This mysterious rite was the usual termination of a quarrel between the twins. Each man kept his half of the cabin until the feud was forgotten. It was the mark of silence and separation, over which no words of recrimination, argument, or even explanation, were delivered, until it was effaced by one or the other. This was considered equivalent to apology or reconciliation, which each were equally bound in honor to accept.
It may be remarked that the floor was much whiter at this line of demarcation, and under the fresh chalk-line appeared the faint evidences of one recently effaced.
Without apparently heeding this potential ceremony, Ruth remained leaning against the doorway, looking upon the night, the bulk of whose profundity and blackness seemed to be gathered below him. The vault above was serene and tranquil, with a few large far-spaced stars; the abyss beneath, untroubled by sight or sound. Stepping out upon the ledge, he leaned far over the shelf that sustained their cabin, and listened. A faint rhythmical roll, rising and falling in long undulations against the invisible horizon, to his accustomed ears told him the wind was blowing among the pines in the valley. Yet, mingling with this familiar sound, his ear, now morbidly acute, seemed to detect a stranger inarticulate murmur, as of confused and excited voices, swelling up from the mysterious depths to the stars above, and again swallowed up in the gulfs of silence below. He was roused from a consideration of this phenomenon by a faint glow towards the east, which at last brightened, until the dark outline of the distant walls of the valley stood out against the sky. Were his other senses participating in the delusion of his ears? for with the brightening light came the faint odor of burning timber.
His face grew anxious as he gazed. At last he rose, and re-entered the cabin. His eyes fell upon the faint chalk-mark, and, taking his soft felt hat from his head, with a few practical sweeps of the brim he brushed away the ominous record of their late estrangement. Going to the bed whereon Rand lay stretched, open-eyed, he would have laid his hand upon his arm lightly; but the brother's fingers sought and clasped his own. “Get up,” he said quietly; “there's a strange fire in the Canyon head that I can't make out.”
Rand slowly clambered from his shelf, and hand in hand the brothers stood upon the ledge. “It's a right smart chance beyond the Ferry, and a piece beyond the Mill, too,” said Rand, shading his eyes with his hand, from force of habit. “It's in the woods where—” He would have added where he met Mornie; but it was a point of honor with the twins, after reconciliation, not to allude to any topic of their recent disagreement.
Ruth dropped his brother's hand. “It doesn't smell like the woods,” he said slowly.
“Smell!” repeated Rand incredulously. “Why, it's twenty miles in a bee-line yonder. Smell, indeed!”
Ruth was silent, but presently fell to listening again with his former abstraction. “You don't hear anything, do you?” he asked after a pause.
“It's blowin' in the pines on the river,” said Rand shortly.
“You don't hear anything else?”
Rand, who had been listening with an intensity that distorted the left side of his face, interrupted him impatiently.
“Like a woman sobbin'?”
“Ruth,” said Rand, suddenly looking up in his brother's face, “what's gone of you?”
Ruth laughed. “The fire's out,” he said, abruptly re-entering the cabin. “I'm goin' to turn in.”
Rand, following his brother half reproachfully, saw him divest himself of his clothing, and roll himself in the blankets of his bed.
Rand hesitated. He would have liked to ask his brother another question; but there was clearly nothing to be done but follow his example.
“Good-night, Ruthy!” he said, and put out the light. As he did so, the glow in the eastern horizon faded, too, and darkness seemed to well up from the depths below, and, flowing in the open door, wrapped them in deeper slumber.
Thank you for reading!