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Chapter 25

The "Hermitage"

Deep within the heart of the Rockies a June day was drawing to its close. Behind a range of snow-crowned peaks the sun was sinking into a sea of fire which glowed and shimmered along the western horizon and in whose transfiguring radiance the bold outlines of the mountains, extending far as the eye could reach in endless ranks, were marvellously softened; the nearer cliffs and crags were wrapped in a golden glory, while the hoary peaks against the eastern sky wore tints of rose and amethyst, and over the whole brooded the silence of the ages.

Less than a score of miles distant a busy city throbbed with ceaseless life and activity, but these royal monarchs, towering one above another, their hands joined in mystic fellowship, their heads white with eternal snows, dwelt in the same unbroken calm in which, with noiseless step, the centuries had come and gone, leaving their footprints in the granite rocks.

Amid those vast distances only two signs of human handiwork were visible. Close clinging to the sides of a rugged mountain a narrow track of shining steel wound its way upward, marking the pathway of civilization in its march from sea to sea, while near the summit of a neighboring peak a quaint cabin of unhewn logs arranged in Gothic fashion was built into the granite ledge.

On a small plateau before this unique dwelling stood John Britton and John Darrell, the latter absorbed in the wondrous scene, the other watching with intense satisfaction the surprise and rapture of his young companion. They stood thus till the sun dipped out of sight. The radiance faded, rose and amethyst deepened to purple; the mountains grew sombre and dun, their rugged outlines standing in bold relief against the evening sky. A nighthawk, circling above their heads, broke the silence with his shrill, plaintive cry, and with a sigh of deep content Darrell turned to his friend.

"What do you think of it?" the latter asked.

"It is unspeakably grand," was the reply, in awed tones.

Beckoning Darrell to follow, Mr. Britton led the way to the cabin, which he unlocked and entered.

"Welcome to the 'Hermitage!'" he said, smilingly, as Darrell paused on the threshold with an exclamation of delight.

A huge fireplace, blasted from solid rock, extended nearly across one side of the room. Over it hung antlers of moose, elk, and deer, while skins of mountain lion, bear, and wolf covered the floor. A large writing-table stood in the centre of the room, and beside it a bookcase filled with the works of some of the world's greatest authors.

Darrell lifted one book after another with the reverential touch of the true book-lover, while Mr. Britton hastily arranged the belongings of the room so as to render it as cosey and attractive as possible.

"The evenings are so cool at this altitude that a fire will soon seem grateful," he remarked, lighting the fragrant boughs of spruce and hemlock which filled the fireplace and drawing chairs before the crackling, dancing flames.

Duke, who had accompanied them, stretched himself in the firelight with a low growl of satisfaction, at which both men smiled.

It was the first time Darrell had ever seen his friend in the rôle of host, but Mr. Britton proved himself a royal entertainer. His experiences of mountain life had been varied and thrilling, and the cabin contained many relics and trophies of his prowess as huntsman and trapper. As the evening wore on Mr. Britton opened a small store-room built in the rock, and took therefrom a tempting repast of venison and wild fowl which his forethought had ordered placed there for the occasion. To Darrell, sitting by the fragrant fire and listening to tales of adventure, the time passed only too swiftly, and he was sorry when the entrance of the man with his luggage recalled them to the lateness of the hour.

"There is a genuine hermit for you," Mr. Britton remarked, as the man took his departure after agreeing to come to the cabin once a day to do whatever might be needed.

"Who is he?" Darrell asked.

"No one knows. He goes by the name of 'Peter,' but nothing is known of his real name or history. He has lived in these mountains for thirty years and has not visited a city or town of any size in that time. He is a trapper, but acts as guide during the summers. He is very popular with tourist and hunting parties that come to the mountains, but nothing will induce him to leave his haunts except as he occasionally goes to some small station for supplies."

"Where does he live?"

"In a cabin about half-way down the trail. He is a good cook, a faithful man every way, but you will find him very reticent. He is one of the many in this country whose past is buried out of sight."

Mr. Britton then led the way to two smaller rooms,—a kitchen, equipped with a small stove, table, and cooking utensils, and a sleeping-apartment, its two bunks piled with soft blankets and wolf-skins.

As Darrell proceeded to disrobe his attention was suddenly attracted by an object in one corner of the room which he was unable to distinguish clearly in the dim light. Upon going over to examine it more closely, what was his astonishment to see a large crucifix of exquisite design and workmanship. As he turned towards Mr. Britton the latter smiled to see the bewilderment depicted on his face.

"You did not expect to find such a souvenir of old Rome in a mountain cabin, did you?" he asked.

"Perhaps not," Darrell admitted; "but that of itself is not what so greatly surprises me. Are you a——" He paused abruptly, without finishing the question.

"I will answer the question you hesitate to ask," the other replied; "no, I am not a Catholic; neither am I, in the strict sense of the word, a Protestant, or one who protests, since, if I were, I would protest no more earnestly against the errors of the Catholic Church than against the evils existing in other so-called Christian churches."

Darrell's eyes returned to the crucifix.

"That," continued Mr. Britton, "was given me years ago by a beloved friend of mine—a priest, now an archbishop—in return for a few services rendered some of his people. I keep it for the lessons it taught me in the years of my sorrow, and whenever my burden seems greater than I can bear, I come back here and look at that, and beside the suffering which it symbolizes my own is dwarfed to insignificance."

A long silence followed; then, as they lay down in the darkness, Darrell said, in subdued tones,—

"I have never heard you say, and it never before occurred to me to ask, what was your religion."

"I don't know that I have any particular religion," Mr. Britton answered, slowly; "I have no formulated creed. I am a child of God and a disciple of Jesus, the Christ. Like Him, I am the child of a King, a son of the highest Royalty, yet a servant to my fellow-men; that is all."

The following morning Mr. Britton awakened Darrell at an early hour.

"Forgive me for disturbing your slumbers, but I want you to see the sunrise from these heights; I think you will feel repaid. You could not see it at the camp, you were so hemmed in by higher mountains."

Darrell rose and, having dressed hastily, stepped out into the gray twilight of the early dawn. A faint flush tinged the eastern sky, which deepened to a roseate hue, growing moment by moment brighter and more vivid. Chain after chain of mountains, slumbering dark and grim against the horizon, suddenly awoke, blushing and smiling in the rosy light. Then, as rays of living flame shot upward, mingling with the crimson waves and changing them to molten gold, the snowy caps of the higher peaks were transformed to jewelled crowns. There was a moment of transcendent beauty, then, in a burst of glory, the sun appeared.

"That is a sight I shall never forget, and one I shall try to see often," Darrell said, as they retraced their steps to the cabin.

"You will never find it twice the same," Mr. Britton answered; "Nature varies her gifts so that to her true lovers they will not pall."

After breakfast they again strolled out into the sunlight, Mr. Britton seating himself upon a projecting ledge of granite, while Darrell threw himself down upon the mountain grass, his head resting within his clasped hands.

"What an ideal spot for my work!" he exclaimed.

Mr. Britton smiled. "I fear you would never accomplish much with me here. I must return to the city soon, or you will degenerate into a confirmed idler."

"I have often thought," said Darrell, reflectively, "that when I have completed this work I would like to attempt a novel. It seems as though there is plenty of material out here for a strong one. Think of the lives one comes in contact with almost daily—stranger than fiction, every one!"

"Your own, for instance," Mr. Britton suggested.

"Yours also," Darrell replied, in low tones; "the story of your life, if rightly told, would do more to uplift men's souls than nine-tenths of the sermons."

"The story of my life, my son, will never be told to any ear other than your own, and I trust to your love for me that it will go no farther."

"Of that you can rest assured," Darrell replied.

As the sun climbed towards the zenith they returned to the cabin and seated themselves on a broad settee of rustic work under an overhanging vine near the cabin door.

"I have been wondering ever since I came here," said Darrell, "how you ever discovered such a place as this. It is so unique and so appropriate to the surroundings."

"I discovered," said Mr. Britton, with slight emphasis on the word, "only the 'surroundings.' The cabin is my own work."

"What! do you mean to say that you built it?"

"Yes, little by little. At first it was hardly more than a rude shelter, but I gradually enlarged it and beautified it, trying always, as you say, to keep it in harmony with its surroundings."

"Then you are an artist and a genius."

"But that is not the only work I did during the first months of my life here. Come with me and I will show you."

He led the way along the trail, farther up the mountain, till a sharp turn hid him from view. Darrell, following closely, came upon the entrance of an incline shaft leading into the mountain. Just within he saw Mr. Britton lighting two candles which he had taken from a rocky ledge; one of these he handed to Darrell, and then proceeded down the shaft.

"A mine!" Darrell exclaimed.

"Yes, and a valuable one, were it only accessible so that it could be developed without enormous expense; but that is out of the question."

The underground workings were not extensive, but the vein was one of exceptional richness. When they emerged later Darrell brought with him some specimens and a tiny nugget of gold as souvenirs.

"The first season," said Mr. Britton, "I worked the mine and built the cabin as a shelter for the coming winter. The winter months I spent in hunting and trapping when I could go out in the mountains, and hibernated during the long storms. Early in the spring I began mining again and worked the following season. By that time I was ready to start forth into the world, so I gave Peter an interest in the mine, and he works it from time to time, doing little more than the representation each year."

As they descended towards the cabin Mr. Britton continued: "I have shown you this that you may the better understand the story I have to tell you before I leave you as sole occupant of the Hermitage."