The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine
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Down the smooth, white slope we sped, as a bird skims through the air. It seemed to me as if we passed over miles and miles of snow. Sometimes my face was turned down the mountain, where the snow-surface seemed to stretch out illimitably, and then it was turned upward toward the apparently illimitable slopes over which we had passed.
Presently, my position now being in front of the little group that glanced along its glittering way, I saw at some distance below me a long rise or terrace, which ran along the mountain-side for a considerable distance, and which cut off our view of everything below us. As we approached this hillock the descent became much more gradual and our progress slower, and at last I began to fear that our acquired velocity would not be sufficient to carry us up the side of this elevation and so enable us to continue our descent. I therefore called to everybody in the rear to kick out vigorously, and with my shovel I endeavored to assist our progress. As we approached the summit of the elevation we moved slower and slower. I became very anxious, for, should we slide backward, we might find it difficult or impossible to get ourselves and the mattress up this little hill. But the gentleman and myself worked valiantly, and as for Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, they kicked their heels through the frozen crust with such energy that we moved sidewise almost as much as upward. But in a moment the anxious suspense was over, and we rested on the ridge of the long hillock, with the mountain-side stretching down to the plain, which lay not very far below us.
I should have been glad to remain here a few minutes to regain breath, and give some consideration to the rest of our descent, but as some of those behind continued to push, the mattress slid over the edge of the terrace, and down again we went. Our progress now was not so rapid, but it was very much more unpleasant. The snow was thinner; there was little or no crust upon it, and we very soon reached a wide extent of exposed turf, over which we slid, but not without a good deal of bumping against stones and protuberances. Then there was another sheet of snow, which quickened our downward impetus; and, after that, the snow was seen only in occasional patches, and our progress continued over a long slope of short, partly dried grass, which was very slippery, and over which we passed with considerable quickness.
I wished now to bring our uncouth sled to a stop, and to endeavor to make the rest of the descent on foot. But although I stuck out my heels, and tried to thrust the handle of my shovel into the ground, it was of no use. On we went, and the inequalities of the surface gave an irregularity of motion which was uncomfortable and alarming. We turned to this side and that; we bounced and bumped; and the rawhide ropes, which must have been greatly frayed and cut by the snow-crust, now gave way in several places, and I knew that the mattress would soon separate into its original cushions, if indeed they still could be called cushions.Fearing increased danger should we now continue bound together in a bunch, I jerked apart the shawl-knot under my arms, and the next moment, it seemed to me, there was a general dissolution of our connection with each other. Fortunately, we were now near the bottom of the slope, for while some of us stuck fast to the cushions, others rolled over, or slid, independent of any projection, while I, being thrown forward on my feet, actually ran downhill! I had just succeeded in stopping myself when down upon me came the rest of the company, all prostrate in some position or other.
Now from an unwieldy mass of shawls came a cry:
"Oh, Albert Dusante! Where are you? Lucille! Lucille!"
Instantly sprang to one foot good Mrs. Aleshine, her other foot being entangled in a mass of shawls which dragged behind her. Her bonnet was split open and mashed down over her eyes. In her left hand she waved a piece of yellow flannel, which in her last mad descent she had torn from some part of the person of Mrs. Lecks, and in the other a bunch of stout dead weeds, which she had seized and pulled up by the roots as she had passed them. Her dress was ripped open down her rotund back, and the earth from the weed roots had bespattered her face. From the midst of this dilapidation her round eyes sparkled with excitement. Hopping on one foot, the shawls and a part of a cushion dragging behind her, she shouted:
"The Dusantes! They are the Dusantes!"
Then, pitching forward on her knees before the two strange ladies, who had now tumbled into each other's arms, she cried:
"Oh, which is Emily, and which is Lucille?"
I had rushed toward Ruth, who had clung to a cushion and was now sitting upon it, when Mrs. Lecks, who was close beside her, arose to her feet and stood upright. One foot was thrust through her own bonnet, and her clothes gave evidence of the frenzy and power of Mrs. Aleshine's grasp, but her mien was dignified and her aspect stately.
"Barb'ry Aleshine!" she exclaimed, "if them Dusantes has dropped down from heaven at your very feet, can't you give 'em a minute to feel their ribs and see if their legs and arms is broken?"
The younger lady now turned her head toward Mrs. Aleshine. "I am Lucille," she said.
In a moment the good woman's arms were around her neck. "I always liked you the best of the two," she whispered into the ear of the astonished young lady.
Having found that Ruth was unhurt, I ran to the assistance of the others. The gentleman had just arisen from a cushion, upon which, lying flat on his back, he had slid over the grass, still holding under one arm the package from which he had refused to part. I helped him to raise the elder lady to her feet. She had been a good deal shaken, and much frightened, but although a little bruised, she had received no important injury.
I went to fill a leather pocket-cup from a brook nearby, and when I returned I found the gentleman standing, confronted by Mrs. Lecks, Mrs. Aleshine, and Ruth, while his own companions were regarding the group with eager interest.
"Yes," he was saying, "my name is Dusante. But why do you ask at this moment? Why do you show such excited concern on the subject?"
"Why?" exclaimed Mrs. Lecks. "I will tell you why, sir. My name is Mrs. Lecks, and this is Mrs. Aleshine, and if you are the Mr. Dusante with the house on the desert island, this is the Mrs. Craig who was married in that very house, and the gentleman here with the water is Mr. Craig, who wrote you the letter, which I hope you got. And if that isn't reason enough for our wanting to know if you are Mr. Dusante, I'd like to be told what more there could be!"
"It's them! Of course it's them!" cried Mrs. Aleshine. "I had a feelin' while we were scootin' downhill that they was near and dear to us, though exactly why and how, I didn't know. And she's told me she's Lucille, and of course the other must be Emily, though what relations – "
"Am I to understand," interrupted the gentleman, looking with earnest animation from one to the other of us, "that these are the good people who inhabited my house on the island?"
"The very ones!" cried Mrs. Aleshine. "And what relation are you to Emily? and Lucille to her?"
The gentleman stepped backward and laid down the package which he had held under his arm, and advancing toward me with outstretched hands, and with tears starting to his eyes, he exclaimed:
"And this man, then, to whom I owe so much, is Mr. Craig!"
"Owe me!" I said. "It is to you that we owe our very lives, and our escape from death in mid-ocean."
"Do not speak of it," he said, shaking his head, with a sorrowful expression on his face. "You owe me nothing. I would to Heaven it were not so! But we will not talk of that now. And this is Mrs. Craig," he continued, taking Ruth by the hand, "the fair lady whose nuptials were celebrated in my house. And Mrs. Lecks, and Mrs. Aleshine." As he spoke he shook hands with each. "How I have longed to meet you! I have thought of you every day since I returned to my island and discovered that you had been – I wish I could say – my guests. And where is the reverend gentleman? and the three mariners? I hope that nothing has befallen them!"
"Alas! – for three of them at least," ejaculated Mrs. Aleshine; "they have left us, but they are all right. And now, sir, if you could tell us what relation you are to Emily, and what Lucille – "
"Barb'ry!" cried Mrs. Lecks, making a dash toward her friend, "can't you give the man a minute to breathe? Don't you see he's so dumflustered that he hardly knows who he is himself! If them two women was to sink down dead with hunger and hard slidin' right afore your very eyes while you was askin' what relation they was to each other and to him, it would no more'n serve you right! We'd better be seem' if anythin' 's the matter with 'em, and what we can do for 'em."
At this moment the younger of Mr. Dusante's ladies quickly stepped forward. "Oh, Mrs. Craig, Mrs. Lecks, and Mrs. Aleshine!" she exclaimed, "I'm just dying to know all about you!"
"And which, contrariwise," cried Mrs. Aleshine, "is the same with us, exactly."
"And of all places in the world," continued the young lady, "that we should meet here!"
No one could have been more desirous than I was to know all about these Dusantes, and to discuss the strange manner of our meeting; but I saw that Ruth was looking very pale and faint, and that the elder Dusante lady had sat down again upon the ground as though obliged to do so by sheer exhaustion, and I therefore hailed with a double delight the interruption of further explanations by the appearance of two men on horseback who came galloping toward us.
They belonged to the house which I had noticed from the road above, and one of them had seen our swift descent down the mountain-side. At first he had thought the black object he saw sliding over the snow-slopes was a rock or a mass of underbrush, but his keen eye soon told him that it was a group of human beings, and summoning a companion, he had set out for the foot of the mountain as soon as horses could be caught and saddled.
The men were much surprised when they heard the details of our adventure, but as it was quite plain that some members of our party needed immediate nourishment and attention, the questions and explanations were made very short. The men dismounted from their horses, and the elder Dusante lady was placed upon one of them, one man leading the animal and the other supporting the lady. Ruth mounted the other horse, and I walked by her to assist her in keeping her seat; but she held fast to the high pommel of the saddle, and got on very well. Mr. Dusante took his younger companion on one arm, and his package under the other, while Mrs. Lecks, having relieved her foot from the encircling bonnet, and Mrs. Aleshine, now free from the entangling shawls, followed in the rear. The men offered to come back with the horses for them, if they would wait; but the two women declared that they were quite able to walk, and intended to do no waiting, and they trudged vigorously after us. The sun was now high, and the air down here was quite different from that of the mountain-side, being pleasant and almost warm. The men said that the snows above would probably soon melt, as it was much too early in the season for snow to lie long on these lower sides of the mountains.
Our way lay over an almost level plain for about a mile. A portion of it was somewhat rough, so that when we reached the low house to which we were bound, we were all very glad indeed to get there. The house belonged to the two men, who owned a small ranch here. One of them was married, and his wife immediately set herself to work to attend to our needs. Her home was small, its rooms few, and her larder very plain in quality; but everything she had was placed at our disposal. Her own bed was given to the elder Dusante lady, who took immediate possession of it; and after a quickly prepared but plentiful meal of fried pork, corn-bread, and coffee, the rest of us stretched ourselves out to rest wherever we could find a place. Before lying down, however, I had, at Ruth's earnest solicitation, engaged one of the men to ride to the railroad-station to inquire about Mr. Enderton, and to inform him of our safety. By taking a route which ran parallel with the mountain-chain, but at some distance from it, the station, the man said, could be reached without encountering snow.
None of us had had proper rest during the past two nights, and we slept soundly until dark, when we were aroused to partake of supper. All of us, except the elder Dusante lady, who preferred to remain in bed, gathered around the table. After supper a large fire, principally of brushwood, was built upon the hearth; and with the bright blaze, two candles, and a lamp, the low room appeared light and cheery. We drew up about the fire – for the night was cool – on whatever chairs, stools, or boxes we could find, and no sooner had we all seated ourselves than Mrs. Aleshine exclaimed:
"Now, Mr. Dusante, it ain't in the power of mortal man, nor woman neither, – an' if put the other way it might be stronger, – to wait any longer before knowin' what relation Lucille is to Emily, an' you to them, an' all about that house of yours on the island. If I'd blown up into bits this day through holdin' in my wantin' to know, I shouldn't have wondered! An' if it hadn't been for hard sleep, I don't believe I could have held in, nohow!"
"That's my mind exactly," said Mrs. Lecks; "and though I know there's a time for all things, and don't believe in crowdin' questions on played-out people, I do think, Mr. Dusante, that if I could have caught up with you when we was comin' over here, I'd have asked you to speak out on these p'ints. But you're a long-legged walker, which Mrs. Aleshine is not, and it wouldn't have done to leave her behind."
"Which she wouldn't 'a' been," said Mrs. Aleshine, "long legs or short."
Ruth and I added our entreaties that Mr. Dusante should tell his story, and the good ranchman and his wife said that if there was anything to be done in the story-telling line they were in for it, strong; and quitting their work of clearing away supper things, they brought an old hair trunk from another room, and sat down just behind Mrs. Lecks.
The younger Dusante lady, who, having been divested of her wraps, her veil, and the woolen shawl that had been tied over her head, had proved to be a very pretty girl with black eyes, here declared that it had been her intention at the first opportunity to get us to tell our story, but as we had asked first, she supposed we ought to be satisfied first.
"I do not wish, my good friends," said Mr. Dusante, "to delay for a moment longer than necessary your very pardonable curiosity concerning me and my family; and I must say at the same time that, although your letter, sir, gave me a very clear account of your visit to my island, there are many things which naturally could not be contained within the limits of a letter, and about which I am most anxious to make inquiries. But these I will reserve until my own narration is finished.
"My name is Albert Dusante. It may interest you to know that my father was a Frenchman and my mother an American lady from New England. I was born in France, but have lived very little in that country, and for a great part of my life have been a merchant in Honolulu. For the past few years, however, I have been enabled to free myself in a great degree from the trammels of business, and to devote myself to the pursuits of a man of leisure. I have never married, and this young lady is my sister."
"Then what relation," began Mrs. Aleshine, "is she to – ?"
At this moment the hand of Mrs. Lecks, falling heavily into the lap of the speaker, stopped this question, and Mr. Dusante proceeded:
"Our parents died when Lucille was an infant, and we have no near blood relations."
At this the faces of both Mrs. Aleshine and Mrs. Lecks assumed expressions as if they had each just received a letter superscribed in an unknown hand, and were wondering who it could possibly be from.
"The lady who is now resting in the adjoining room," continued Mr. Dusante, "is a dear friend who has been adopted by me as a mother."
"Upon my word!" burst from Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, in as much unison of time and tone as if the words had been a response in a church service, while Miss Lucille leaned back against the wall near which she sat, and laughed gleefully. Mr. Dusante, however, continued his statements with the same quiet gravity with which he had begun.
"This lady was a dear friend of my mother, although younger than she. I adopted her as a mother to my little orphan sister, and, consequently, placed her in the same maternal relation to myself, doing this with much earnest satisfaction, for I hoped to be able to return, as a son, something of the tender care and affection which she would bestow on Lucille as a daughter."
"And she is Emily?" cried Mrs. Aleshine.
"She adopted our name," answered the speaker, "and she is Mrs. Emily Dusante."
"And she is your adopted mother?" said Mrs. Aleshine.
"Adopted mother!" ejaculated Mrs. Lecks.
"Yes," answered Mr. Dusante.
"And that is the only relation she is to you two?" said Mrs. Lecks.
"And you to her?" added Mrs. Aleshine.
"Most assuredly," answered Mr. Dusante.
Here Mrs. Lecks leaned back in her chair, folded her hands in her lap, and ejaculated, "Well, well!" and then allowed her face to assume a rigid intention of having nothing more to say at the present moment.
"One thing is certain," remarked Mrs. Aleshine, in a tone which indicated that she did not care who heard her; "I always liked Lucille the best!"
At this Ruth and I exchanged smiles with Miss Lucille, and Mr. Dusante proceeded:
"I do not wish to occupy too much of your time with our personal affairs, and will therefore state that the island on which you found refuge, and where I wish most heartily I had been present to act as host, was bought by me as a retreat from the annoyances of business and the exactions of society. I built there a good house – "
"Which it truly was," said Mrs. Aleshine, "with fixtures in it for water, and letting it off, which I never saw in a house so far out of town."
"I furnished it suitably," said Mr. Dusante. "We had books and music, and for several years we passed vacations there which were both enjoyable and profitable. But of late my sister has found the place lonely, and we have traveled a good deal, making intermittent and often short visits to the island.
"As I never cared to leave any one on that lonely spot during our absences from it, I arranged a gateway of bars across the only opening in the reef, with the intention of preventing marauding visits from fishing-boats or other small craft which might be passing that way. As the island was out of the ordinary track of vessels, I did not imagine that my bars would ever prove an obstacle to unfortunate castaways who might seek a refuge there."
"Which they didn't," remarked Mrs. Aleshine, "for under we bobbed."
"I never exactly understood," said Mr. Dusante, "and I hope to have it explained to me in due time, how you passed my bars without removing them; and I have had a sore weight upon my conscience since I discovered that shipwrecked persons, fleeing to my house from the perils of the sea, should have found those inhospitable bars in their way – "
"Which is a weight you might as well cast off, and be done with it," said Mrs. Lecks, her deep-set notions on the rights of property obliging her to speak; "for if a man hasn't a right to lock up his house when he goes away and leaves it, I don't know what rights anybody has about anything. Me, or Mrs. Aleshine, or anybody else here who has a house, might just as well go off travelin', or to town visitin', and leave our front door unlocked, and the yard gate swingin' on its hinges, because we was afraid that some tramp or other body with no house or home might come along and not be able to get in and make himself comfortable. Your business, sir, when you left that house and all your belongin's on that island, was to leave everything tight and safe; and the business of people sailin' in ships was to go on their proper way, and not be runnin' into each other. And if these last mentioned didn't see fit to do that, and so got into trouble, they should have gone to some island where there were people to attend to 'em, just as the tramps should go to the poorhouse. And this is what we would have done – not meanin' the poorhouse – if we hadn't been so over long-headed as to get into a leaky boat, which, I wish it understood, is sayin' nothin' against Mr. Craig."
"That's true," said Mrs. Aleshine, "for nobody has got a right to complain that a fellow-bein' locks his own door after him. But it does seem to me, sir, that in such scattered neighborhoods as your island is in, it might be a good thing to leave something to eat an' drink – perhaps in a bottle or in a tin pail – at the outside of your bars for them as might come along shipwrecked, an' not be able to get inside on account of bein' obliged to come in a boat, an' not as we did; an' so, when they found they'd have to go on, they might have somethin' to keep up their strength till they got to another house."
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