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A few hours later, a wild, mountain storm was raging outside, the wind roaring down the canyon from the icy fields above, driving the fast falling snow in every direction, with blinding fury.
Within doors, however, a happy group were seated around the fire, oblivious of the storm outside, or with just enough consciousness of its fury to add to the enjoyment of the warmth and comfort inside.
Miss Gladden was, as usual, becomingly gowned in a house dress of rich, warm color, while she had persuaded Lyle to put on a dark blue dress of her own, which, with a very little change, fitted as though originally intended for her, and also to dress her beautiful, golden hair high on her head, thus producing a change in her appearance which astonished even Miss Gladden herself.
The perfectly fitting gown revealed the outlines of her well developed and finely proportioned form; its color seemed to enhance the delicacy of her face and the brilliancy of her eyes, while the graceful coiffure showed to good advantage the beautifully shaped head, and added to her dignity. She seemed suddenly to have been transformed from shy, reserved girlhood, to graceful, royal womanhood.
As she, with Miss Gladden, entered the room where Rutherford awaited them, that young gentleman started suddenly, and turning, gazed at the regal little beauty, with her golden coronet, in undisguised admiration, much to the amusement of both ladies.
“Great Cæsar!” he exclaimed, “what metamorphosis is this? Excuse me, Miss Maverick, I really couldn’t help it; I thought you were a sort of little girl, you know, and you are,––begging your pardon,––a very beautiful young lady.”
Both ladies laughed merrily, and Miss Gladden secretly resolved that Lyle, in the future, should always be dressed becomingly, if her influence could accomplish anything in that direction.
The afternoon passed very pleasantly in looking over the beautiful views which Rutherford had collected since he left his distant, eastern home. The pictures taken among the mountains had developed finely, and they all grew enthusiastic over them. Then there were pictures of his friends, in groups and singly, and in laughable combinations and positions; among them, some which Rutherford had taken of his friend, Tom Durston, and his family, at the ranch where he had stopped over night on his way out. There was one of Tom himself, in a futile attempt to milk a refractory cow, where he lay sprawling ingloriously upon the ground, the milk bucket pouring its foaming contents over him, the excited cow performing a war dance, while two others, more peaceably inclined, looked on in mild-eyed astonishment: chickens were flying in every direction, with outstretched necks and wings, while in the background, a company of geese were hissing their disapproval of the scene.
The girls laughed until the tears were in their eyes. “How did you ever get such a picture? and so perfect!” they asked.
“Oh, I just happened to,” he answered, “I was out that morning, with my kodak all ready, looking for a subject, and I saw Tom milking, and thought it would be fun to take a picture of him to send back to the class-boys, you know; I held the kodak up and was just ready––when that old cow sent him flying quicker than lightning, and I caught the picture all right. I’m going to mail him one copy.”
There was a picture of Tom’s baby, taking his bath, his mouth wide open and his eyes shut, crying lustily for his mother, who had deserted him to run to Tom’s assistance. Then there were pictures of Rutherford’s home and friends, among them, that of a brother, older than himself, which particularly attracted Lyle’s attention; she looked at it long and earnestly. He was sitting in an easy attitude, smoking a cigar, and looking at the face of a beautiful, dark-eyed girl, of about her own age, which appeared above him, encircled by the light clouds of smoke,––just the face and no more. Rutherford stated that it was his brother and their only sister, and explained the process by which it was taken, but the picture remained in Lyle’s memory for many a day.
After a while, Houston, returning a little early on account of the storm, joined them, and the four friends spent the most enjoyable evening which they had yet known together, notwithstanding the storm.
It had been an eventful day. To Lyle, and one or two of the others, it was the beginning of a new life, though they did not then realize it; the first, faint flush that heralds the coming of the sun to brighten the new day, but which is so subtle and silent, that few are aware of its presence.
Houston, on his return to the house at noon, had given, in answer to Rutherford’s eager inquiries, an account of the “skirmish” as he called it. Rutherford was so proud of his friend, and of the victory he had won, that at the first opportunity, he told the story to Miss Gladden, before Houston had even returned to the office. Miss Gladden was enthusiastic in her admiration of the course he had taken, so different from many of the young men she had known in wealthy, aristocratic circles, in thus defending a poor, friendless girl, subject to insult because she had the misfortune, under such circumstances, to be beautiful; and obeying the impulses of her noble-hearted, high-spirited nature, she went to Houston, as she saw him standing alone a few minutes after dinner, and extending her hand, with a bright smile, said:
“Sir Knight, I want to thank you, in Lyle’s name and my own, for the chivalric course you have taken this morning.”
She could get no further; Houston, still holding her hand, interrupted her.
“Do not thank me, Miss Gladden; I have only done what it is the duty of every true man to do.”
“Then,” said Miss Gladden, interrupting him in turn, “true men must be exceedingly rare. I know very few, Mr. Houston, who would champion the cause of a girl in Lyle’s circumstances, in the manner you have done,” and then, with much feeling, she spoke of some of Lyle’s trials, and of her own determination to help her.
A beautiful woman is never so lovely as when defending the cause of some sister less fortunate than herself, and Houston thought he had never seen Miss Gladden so beautiful as at that moment, and the thought must in some way have conveyed itself to his eyes, for there was something in his glance that brought a bright color to Miss Gladden’s cheek, and an added tenderness to her soulful eyes; something that remained with her all that day, and somehow made life, even in the heart of the mountains, shut out from the rest of the world, look more inviting, more alluring than it had ever done before.
With Houston, also, the memory of those eyes with their depths of tenderness, and the hand whose touch had thrilled him with its magnetism, lingered, and brightened all that stormy afternoon.
To Lyle, this day seemed the beginning of a new epoch in her solitary, isolated life. For the first time, she had found genial companionship, human sympathy and love, and chivalrous protection; for Miss Gladden had hastened to tell her of the part Mr. Houston had taken in her defense; and as the slowly maturing bud suddenly unfolds in the morning sunlight, so in the new light and warmth which she had found that day, her nature had suddenly expanded into mature, conscious womanhood.
That evening, as the little group of friends were separating for the night, Miss Gladden having already gone up-stairs, Lyle, with a new dignity and grace, walked over to where Houston stood by the fire, with dreamy, thoughtful eyes.
“Mr. Houston,” said she, in low, sweet tones, “Miss Gladden has told me of your kindness toward me to-day, and though she has thanked you for us both, yet I wish to thank you personally.”
“Miss Maverick,” he replied in his grave, gentle manner, “you are more than welcome to any kindness I can do for you, but do not thank me for what I did to-day; that was nothing, I would have been a beast not to have done that little.”
“If you could know,” she said, earnestly, “how rare such kindness and protection have been in my past life, you would realize that it does not seem like ‘nothing’ to me.”
To Houston, Lyle seemed much less mature than Miss Gladden, and though he had been quick to observe the added charm in her manner that evening, still she seemed to him little more than a child. Her words, and something in the expression of those star-like eyes, touched him deeply, and taking her hands in his, he answered tenderly:
“My dear child, I am very sorry for the loneliness of your past life, and I want you, from this time, to regard me as a brother, and if there should be any way in which I could protect you, or help you, do not hesitate to tell me freely.”
For the first time in all those weary years within her recollection, Lyle went to her rest that night with a heart satisfied; for as yet, only the surface of her affections had been stirred, and the hidden depths below were still unfathomed, awaiting the influence of some mightier power.
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