SUNSET GAP

The night was as bland as it was dark. Neither stars nor moon lighted
the way of the travelers, but Miles McEvoy’s horses had no need of these
celestial bodies to help them keep the road. They knew it, though it
swept around Simms’ barn and took the cut-off by Decker’s hill, and
plunged straight through Ravenel’s woods. They did not tremble as,
climbing and still climbing, it carried them along the edge of a gorge;
nor did they quake when their hoofs beat on a resounding bridge, though
there were but planks between them and an abyss.

Dew-wet branches touched the faces of those who sat in the sagging old
wagon, and low-flying bats brushed their hair. Owls hooted, hounds
barked, and all the unnamed sad night noises of the mountain reached
their ears. Azalea had known such journeys many and many a time in the
old days when she had traveled in the caravan with Sisson’s actors, but
to Carin and Miss Zillah this plunging ahead up a strange road in the
pitch blackness was a new and not altogether pleasant experience. Mr.
McEvoy may have guessed at their feelings, for he said after a long
silence:

“Mr. Summers was for you-all stopping down at Bee Tree for the night.
You could ‘a’ put up at Mis’ Casey’s by turning her step-ma out’n her
bed. But even then it would have took some studying, for the three of
you would have had to bunk together, and that looked to me a leetle like
crowding the mourners. So I said to Mis’ McEvoy I’d better haul you
right up home and settle you in our spare room.”

“That was very good of you,” said Miss Zillah heartily. “It’s a shame
that you had to wait so long for the train. I’m afraid Mrs. McEvoy will
have cooked supper for us hours ago, and that she’ll be quite discouraged
by this time.”

“No’m, she won’t,” said McEvoy placidly. “She’s been laying in stores
for you-all these two or three days past. All I’m to do is to whoop when
we hit Rattlesnake Turn, and she’ll put the kettle to b’iling.”

“What,” asked Carin from somewhere down in her throat, “is Rattlesnake
Turn, Mr. McEvoy, please?”

“’Tain’t nothin’ but a crook in the road, miss. A few rattlers has been
kilt there on and off, and the folks like to keep the name. It makes it
sound kind of exciting like, and there ain’t so many things to cause
excitement hereabouts. We have to make the most of them we’ve got.” He
gave a little chuckle, and Carin drew a sigh of relief.

“I know,” she said under her breath to Miss Zillah, “that I wouldn’t be
afraid of lions. At least, not terribly afraid. I’d be willing to go
hunting wild beasts if I had a good rifle, but I certainly do hate
snakes.”

“Snakes?” murmured Mr. McEvoy pensively. “Snakes don’t like to be rubbed
the wrong way. Nuther do folks. Take things easy, I say—snakes
included. Go your way and let them go their’n. Of course if they show
fight, why, scotch ’em. I seem to understand snakes.”

His musical drawling voice died away languidly, and no one made any
reply. But Azalea, who knew the mountain people, smiled a little in the
darkness, thinking to herself that Mr. McEvoy’s kind treated their
neighbors much as he did his snakes.

All things come to an end, and the mountain ride was no exception to the
rule. Tired, rather stiff and very hungry, Miss Zillah and the two girls
were helped out on a horse block made of the huge bole of a chestnut
tree, and were ushered by “Mis’ Cassie McEvoy,” into the brightness of
her mountain cabin. (She was given the benefit of her full name by the
neighbors to distinguish her from her sister-in-law who lived “over
beyant.”)

Mrs. McEvoy had the table set, the fire blazing on the open hearth, and
the kettle simply leaping among the coals.

She was quiet and shy, but she wanted her visitors to feel at home and
she told them so in a voice even softer and slower than her husband’s.
She led them into the second room in the cabin—there were only two—and
here, sure enough, was the “company room,” with its two beds heaped high
with feather ticks and covered with hand-woven counterpanes. The walls
were decorated with large framed patent medicine advertisements, very
strong in color, and quite entertaining in subject. One showed St.
George slaying the dragon, the legend below advertising some oil that was
warranted to cure man of almost all his pains and aches. Another
pictured a knight in coat of mail, mounted on a charger, rushing at the
fell castle of Disease, his lance in rest. There were many others, and
in a moment or two Azalea discovered that these went with the rows of
bottles—three deep—upon the mantel shelf. Tall and dark, squat and
ruddy, all much labeled and sampled, they stood there to bear witness to
the chief interest of Mis’ Cassie McEvoy’s life.

“She didn’t look sickly to me,” said Miss Zillah anxiously. “At least no
more so than the mountain women usually do.”

But Mis’ McEvoy did not long leave Miss Zillah in ignorance of her
complaint.

“Anybody’d think,” she said while she busied herself setting her supper
before them, “that I was trying to p’isen ’em, to look at them medicine
bottles in thar. I said to Miles it was a pity I didn’t have no other
place to put ’em—”

“And I told her,” broke in her husband, “that a chimney shelf was whar
folks set out the most costly stuff they had, and by that I reckoned them
medicine bottles was whar they belonged.”

“I’ve been ailing,” said Mis’ McEvoy, looking straight past her husband
at Miss Pace, “for nigh on fifteen years. Nobody,” she said proudly,
“can make out what it is that _does_ ail me. Some says it’s this and
some says it’s that. Some says take this and some says take that.”

“And she heeds ’em,” said McEvoy, with a sound in his throat between a
laugh and a groan. “So if you’ve got anything that’s good for what ails
her, Miss Pace, ma’am, if you’d be so kind as to mention the name of it I
would get it the next time I’m down to the town.”

“Them pictures you see on the wall in the company room,” went on Mis’
McEvoy, “come with the medicine.”

“They do so,” said her husband, passing the chicken to Carin.

Carin and Azalea were just tired enough to feel silly. Each girl knew if
she but caught the eye of the other, she would be off in a fit of
laughter, and this was no time for them to disgrace themselves when they
had come up as bearers of learning and manners, so to speak. So they
looked anywhere except at each other, and only Miss Zillah noticed that
they were choking over their food as they strangled their giggles.

As soon as politeness permitted, they excused themselves, and it was a
happy moment for them when they tumbled onto the high feather bed and lay
there in delicious drowsiness listening to the call of the whippoorwills.
They could hear Miss Zillah softly moving around, and now and then
through half-closed lids they saw her conscientiously brushing her
hair—counting the strokes as she did so—reading her Bible and saying her
prayers. But at last preparations for the night were finished and all
sank to sleep.

“Why call this Sunset Gap?” asked Carin the next morning. “Wouldn’t
Sunrise Gap do as well?”

The sun was streaming gorgeously through the open casement full upon the
bed where the girls lay. Azalea sat up with a start, wondering for a
moment where she was, and how it came that Carin’s voice was in her ears.
Then she saw Miss Zillah’s curls upon the pillow of the adjoining bed,
recognized the triple row of bottles on the mantel shelf, and remembered
that she was now a responsible person. She was a teacher, a kind of
missionary, a somebody with a purpose! It was both amusing and alarming.

“Oh, Carin,” she said with a little nervous laugh, “why ever did we come?
Do you suppose we can do anything worth doing? I’m frightened, honestly
I am.”

Carin sat up in bed too, and Azalea watched her hair turn into shining
gold where the sun played upon it.

“Honey-bird, what’s the matter with you?” Carin demanded. “I thought
people were always brave in the morning and downhearted at night. You
were braver than I was last night coming up that dreadful road in the
dark, and now here you are, getting fussy in broad daylight.”

“Well,” said Azalea, a little ashamed, “we’ve simply got to make a
success, haven’t we? I don’t know as I ever before simply _had_ to make
a success.”

“Take it easy, the way Mr. McEvoy does the snakes,” laughed Carin. “If
you get to feeling so dreadfully wise and responsible you won’t be able
to do a thing.”

“That’s right,” said Miss Zillah from her bed. “I myself have always
been too anxious. It runs in the Pace blood to be serious and
care-taking. But now that I’m middle-aged and have taken time for
thought I see that owls have never been as much liked as larks. So you
be a lark, Azalea. That’s what you naturally are, anyway.”

Azalea gave a little chuckle. She liked Miss Zillah’s way of putting
things; moreover, these particular words stuck in her memory. She
contrived to “be a lark” at breakfast, and she insisted on helping Mis’
Cassie McEvoy with the dishes and on entering with vivacity into the
discussion of whether medicine that was good for rheumatism would cure
heartburn. Two bottles of patent medicine which were enjoying the most
favor just at that time, stood on a tiny shelf above the kitchen table.
One was very fat and contained a dark liquid, and this Azalea secretly
named “Bluebeard.” The other was slender, tall and filled with a pinkish
stuff, and this she called “The Princess Madeline.” She told Carin, and
they amused themselves by watching to see which was most in favor. As
nearly as they could make out, Mis’ Cassie favored Bluebeard of mornings
and so probably turned to Princess Madeline along toward night.

Mr. McEvoy had gone down to Bee Tree to get the three horses which Mr.
Carson was having sent up. Mustard and Paprika were coming, with a
gentle old nag which had been one of Miss Zillah’s best friends for many
years and which bore the name of Minerva. So, the house being tidied,
the four women folk started out—Mis’ Cassie acting as guide—and went to
look at the schoolhouse and the little cabin where Miss Zillah was to set
up housekeeping with the girls.

The log schoolhouse, which had been unused for four years, lay
four-square to the compass, facing the purple south. Not that the south
had any advantage over the other points of the compass in regard to its
color. All the world, except, of course, the immediate foreground, was
purple up at Sunset Gap. The mountains threw up peak after peak through
the purple dimness, and the sky itself lost something of its blue
brightness because of the purple veils which drifted between it and the
sweet-smelling earth.

“Time was,” explained Mis’ Cassie, “when this here school was kep’ up
fine. That was when the Ravenels lived over to the Hall. Mr. Theodore
Ravenel was pore in his health and he come up this-away to git well. He
and his wife and his children lived to the Hall—”

“What is the Hall? Where is it, please?” asked Azalea.

“It’s over beyant,” replied Mis’ Cassie, waving her hand vaguely toward
the slope before them. “But he died, and Mis’ Ravenel took the childer’
and left. I reckon she would have given something toward keeping up the
school if she could have spared the money, but she had four young ones to
rear, and couldn’t see her way to it. The school and the teacher’s house
is just as she left it. My old man’s kept an eye on things. He vowed he
wouldn’t see the place tore to pieces. Thar was plenty hereabouts who
would ‘a’ helped theirselves to the furniture and fixings if he’d let
’em, but he said, no, anybody who had the gift of peering into the future
could see that sometime that school would be set up here ag’in. And what
he said has come true.”

“Yes, it has, hasn’t it?” cried Azalea, delighted as she always was at
any sign of friendliness and hopefulness in the world. “Do hurry, Mrs.
McEvoy, please; I’m just wild to see how the schoolhouse looks.”

Mis’ Cassie slipped the huge key in the door and the four entered the
musty schoolroom. It was, as mountain schools go, a well-equipped room.
There was a fireplace on one side for comfort in mildly chill weather,
and a large sheet iron stove on the other for use on colder days. The
teacher’s platform was backed by a blackboard; there were good desks for
both pupils and teacher, and comfortable seats with backs to them. The
room was well lighted, and no dirtier than might be expected. It is
needless to say, however, that Miss Zillah’s first thought was of the
cleaning it must undergo.

“Where can I find some one to do the cleaning for us, Mrs. McEvoy?” she
asked. “We must have everything scrubbed and the walls whitewashed.”

“Well,” said Mis’ Cassie, “I’d take pride in cleaning out, and Miles, he
could whitewash.”

“But are you strong enough?” asked Miss Zillah kindly. “Taking medicine
all the time as you do, I’m afraid you oughtn’t to do such hard work.”

Mis’ Cassie smiled so that she showed the vacant places between her long
pointed teeth.

“It’s taking all that thar medicine that’s pearted me up so I _can_ do
it,” she said triumphantly. Miss Zillah said no more in the way of
warning, but straightway came to terms with Mis’ Cassie. Azalea and
Carin, looking from the windows, did not really think this the best site
in the world for a schoolhouse.

“I don’t know how it will be with the pupils,” Azalea said, “but I’m
afraid the teachers won’t do a thing but look out of the window.
Honestly, I’ve never seen such views, and you know, Carin, that first and
last I’ve seen something of the mountains.”

“Oh, how I can paint,” Carin sighed happily. “I shall get up early
mornings and work before school. Oh, Azalea, anyone could learn to paint
up here—a person couldn’t keep from painting.”

“I could,” Azalea had to admit. “You know, Carin, if you were a wicked
queen and threatened to cut my head off if I didn’t give you the picture
of a cow, I’d send for my friends and relatives and bid them a tearful
good-bye, for I’d know my last day had come.”

“Now we’ll go to the house, my dears,” said Miss Zillah. “If that only
proves to be anything like as comfortable as the schoolhouse, we shall be
fortunate indeed.”

They passed through a grove of maples, and followed a trail once well
worn, that led them by way of a little bridge over a cheerfully noisy
mountain stream to a little headland from which the mountain shelved
abruptly. Here, among towering white pines, and seeming to be almost a
part of the earth itself, stood a little cabin of logs. They were square
hewn, but so weathered that their color was like that of the tree trunks,
and the slope of the roof was as graceful as the sweeping branches of the
great pines. The windows were closed with board shutters, and the
door—well-made and paneled—was double-locked. Mis’ Cassie, however, was
soon able to admit her guests, and they stood for the first time within
the little room which was to live, forever after, in the minds of all of
them, as a place of peace.




It was a room of good size, divided after a fashion by a huge “rock”
chimney with a fireplace on each side of it—an interesting fact which it
did not take the delighted girls long to discover. A few simple pieces
of furniture stood about the room—some easy chairs, a settee, a table and
a clock. Behind the chimney was the bedroom. Here stood two beds, a
chest of drawers, some straight-backed chairs, and a wide bench with
pail, pitcher, and washbasin. There was nothing more. Nothing more was
needed.

“But the kitchen,” said Miss Zillah, turning her gaze reproachfully upon
Mis’ Cassie.

“Oh, yes,” said Mis’ Cassie, “sure enough—the kitchen.” She led the way
through a door they had not noticed, and there in a lean-to, with a
spring bubbling in a “rock house” fairly by the door, was the little work
room, with its small cooking stove and its shelves of dishes.

“Are the dishes horrid?” demanded Carin, fearing the worst in the matter
of china.

“No!” cried Azalea in the tone of one who makes a discovery. “They’ve
pink towers on them and pictures of trees. Oh, Carin, see, they’re like
that plate your mother has! Aren’t they the dears?”

“Mis’ Ravenel left them plates and cups,” volunteered Mis’ Cassie. “She
said when she put ’em on the shelves that she did hope they’d fall into
the hands of some one who would set store by them. They was what she
used and she was mighty particular about them, but it was such a chore
toting things down the mountains and she’d had such a lot o’ trouble that
she just left things behind her.”

“Well, about all we brought was clothes and bedding,” said Miss Zillah.
“Sister Adnah wanted me to bring along dishes and pictures and curtains
and all manner of things, but I said ‘No, wait. We won’t be needing
pictures or curtains, where there’s a picture out of every window and no
one to be looking in at night, and if we’ve no other dishes we can eat
out of gourds.’”

Miss Zillah gave one of her odd little laughs—one of the gypsy laughs in
which she sometimes indulged.

“It’s a fit home for anybody,” she decided. “I can’t hardly wait to get
my hands on it and clean it up.”

“Well, let’s don’t wait,” cried Azalea. “Mr. McEvoy can bring our things
right here when he comes, can’t he, Mrs. McEvoy. Oh, yes, and is there a
place for the ponies?”

“No,” Mis’ Cassie told them. “The ponies is to be kept at our place.
Miles will fetch ’em when you want them.”

“Some one is coming,” said Azalea under her breath. “I saw some one
walking along the road.”

“Why, Azalea, anybody would think you were Robinson Crusoe. Why should
you be so surprised to see anybody coming down the road?” asked Carin.

Azalea did not answer for a moment. She moved nearer to the door and
looked out; then drew back suddenly.

“Oh,” she said under her breath, “it’s that boy we saw on the cars—that
young man, I mean. You know—Keefe O’Connor.”

“Oh, is that so?” said Carin in the most matter-of-fact way. “How jolly!
Call him in, Azalea.”

But Azalea, the friendly one, Azalea who always liked to talk to people,
and who, up at the McBirney cabin could hardly let anyone pass the door
without saying “come in,” held back unaccountably. Miss Zillah and Mis’
Cassie were still in the kitchen, so they could not be appealed to, and
finally it was Carin who ran out of the door and called. But it really
was not necessary to call, for Keefe O’Connor had already discovered the
little house dropped among the pines as naturally as a ground-bird’s
nest, and he had turned aside to investigate it. When he saw the open
door and the girls, he took off his hat and swung it.

“Isn’t this great!” he cried, not trying to hide his delight. “Do you
live here?”

“We’ve been here only half an hour,” said Carin. “But in half an hour
more I think we may truthfully say that we are living here.”

Keefe took it for granted that he was expected to enter. He looked about
the house with admiring eyes.

“It’s a perfect place,” he said, “for a painter.”

“Oh, Carin’s a painter,” Azalea said quickly. How wonderful, she
thought, that both Keefe and Carin should be artists. It ought to make
them good friends.

“And are you an artist too?” asked Keefe, turning his dark eyes on Azalea
with laughing and admiring inquiry.

“Mercy, no,” said Azalea. “I’m nothing—just a girl.”

[Picture: “I an artist? Mercy, no,” said Azalea. “I’m nothing—just a
girl”]

“Oh, I see,” he said, smiling radiantly.

Carin broke in cheerfully with:

“And are you really staying around here?”

“Yes,” he said; “I’m at the Hall. You remember little Miss Rowantree?
Her father and mother have consented to let me use one of their rooms.
They have a great many, you know.”

“Ravenel Hall?” asked Carin. “Is that the same as Ravenel Hall? We have
just been hearing something of the Ravenels.”

“It’s called Rowantree Hall now,” smiled Keefe. “You see, Rowantree
himself lives there. He’s lord of the manor.”

“Is he so magnificent?” asked Carin, her eyes widening. “I thought no
one lived about here except the mountain folk. Mr. Summers never told me
anything about Mr. Rowantree.”

“Then,” said Keefe O’Connor, “Mr. Summers, whoever he may be, couldn’t
have known very much about the country. To be sure, I haven’t been here
long myself, but from what I’ve seen I should say that Mr. Rowantree was
a very important character.”

“Oh, tell us—” began Carin. But just then Miss Zillah entered.

“My dears,” she said, “Mrs. McEvoy has kindly started the fire. Let us
wash the dust off the dishes without delay. Mrs. McEvoy offers to
provide us with vegetables, and our supplies will soon be here, so
presently we shall have dinner.”

Keefe came forward from the shadow of the huge chimney.

“May I help with the dishes, please?” he asked. If he saw in Miss
Zillah’s eyes a gleam of annoyance that she should have a third person
foisted upon her care he paid no attention to it. She was too
hospitable, moreover, to refuse.

“Yes,” she said, “if you do it well. Then, having paid for your dinner
beforehand, you shall eat it with us.”

Azalea, who was already in the kitchen, heard the answer—and dropped the
dipper.