A MOUNTAIN WOMAN
By Elia Wilkinson Peattie
My best Friend, and kindest Critic,
Transcriber's Note: I have omitted signature designations and have closed abbreviations, e.g., "do n't" becoming "don't," etc. In addition, I have made the following changes to the text:
PAGE LINE ORIGINAL CHANGED TO 38 19 seem to seemed to 47 9 beafsteak beefsteak 56 4 divertisement divertissement 91 19 divertisement divertissement 155 17 scarfs. scarves. 169 20 scarfs, scarves,
MOST of the tales in this little book have been printed before. "A Mountain Woman" appeared in Harper's Weekly, as did "The Three Johns" and "A Resuscitation." "Jim Lancy's Waterloo" was printed in the Cosmopolitan, "A Michigan Man" in Lippincott's, and "Up the Gulch" in Two Tales. The courtesy of these periodicals in permitting the stories to be republished is cordially acknowledged.
E. W. P.
A MOUNTAIN WOMAN
JIM LANCY'S WATERLOO
THE THREE JOHNS
UP THE GULCH
A MICHIGAN MAN
A LADY OF YESTERDAY
A Mountain Woman
IF Leroy Brainard had not had such a respect for literature, he would have written a book.
As it was, he played at being an architect—and succeeded in being a charming fellow. My sister Jessica never lost an opportunity of laughing at his endeavors as an architect.
"You can build an enchanting villa, but what would you do with a cathedral?"
"I shall never have a chance at a cathedral," he would reply. "And, besides, it always seems to me so material and so impertinent to build a little structure of stone and wood in which to worship God!"
You see what he was like? He was frivolous, yet one could never tell when he would become eloquently earnest.
Brainard went off suddenly Westward one day. I suspected that Jessica was at the bottom of it, but I asked no questions; and I did not hear from him for months. Then I got a letter from Colorado.
"I have married a mountain woman," he wrote. "None of your puny breed of modern femininity, but a remnant left over from the heroic ages,—a primitive woman, grand and vast of spirit, capable of true and steadfast wifehood. No sophistry about her; no knowledge even that there is sophistry. Heavens! man, do you remember the rondeaux and triolets I used to write to those pretty creatures back East? It would take a Saga man of the old Norseland to write for my mountain woman. If I were an artist, I would paint her with the north star in her locks and her feet on purple cloud. I suppose you are at the Pier. I know you usually are at this season. At any rate, I shall direct this letter thither, and will follow close after it. I want my wife to see something of life. And I want her to meet your sister."
"Dear me!" cried Jessica, when I read the letter to her; "I don't know that I care to meet anything quite so gigantic as that mountain woman. I'm one of the puny breed of modern femininity, you know. I don't think my nerves can stand the encounter."
"Why, Jessica!" I protested. She blushed a little.
"Don't think bad of me, Victor. But, you see, I've a little scrap-book of those triolets upstairs." Then she burst into a peal of irresistible laughter. "I'm not laughing because I am piqued," she said frankly. "Though any one will admit that it is rather irritating to have a man who left you in a blasted condition recover with such extraordinary promptness. As a philanthropist, one of course rejoices, but as a woman, Victor, it must be admitted that one has a right to feel annoyed. But, honestly, I am not ungenerous, and I am going to do him a favor. I shall write, and urge him not to bring his wife here. A primitive woman, with the north star in her hair, would look well down there in the Casino eating a pineapple ice, wouldn't she? It's all very well to have a soul, you know; but it won't keep you from looking like a guy among women who have good dressmakers. I shudder at the thought of what the poor thing will suffer if he brings her here."
Jessica wrote, as she said she would; but, for all that, a fortnight later she was walking down the wharf with the "mountain woman," and I was sauntering beside Leroy. At dinner Jessica gave me no chance to talk with our friend's wife, and I only caught the quiet contralto tones of her voice now and then contrasting with Jessica's vivacious soprano. A drizzling rain came up from the east with nightfall. Little groups of shivering men and women sat about in the parlors at the card-tables, and one blond woman sang love songs. The Brainards were tired with their journey, and left us early. When they were gone, Jessica burst into eulogy.
"That is the first woman," she declared, "I ever met who would make a fit heroine for a book."
"Then you will not feel under obligations to educate her, as you insinuated the other day?"
"Educate her! I only hope she will help me to unlearn some of the things I know. I never saw such simplicity. It is antique!"
"You're sure it's not mere vacuity?" "Victor! How can you? But you haven't talked with her. You must to-morrow. Good-night." She gathered up her trailing skirts and started down the corridor. Suddenly she turned back. "For Heaven's sake!" she whispered, in an awed tone, "I never even noticed what she had on!"
The next morning early we made up a riding party, and I rode with Mrs. Brainard. She was as tall as I, and sat in her saddle as if quite unconscious of her animal. The road stretched hard and inviting under our horses' feet. The wind smelled salt. The sky was ragged with gray masses of cloud scudding across the blue. I was beginning to glow with exhilaration, when suddenly my companion drew in her horse.
"If you do not mind, we will go back," she said.
Her tone was dejected. I thought she was tired.
"Oh, no!" she protested, when I apologized for my thoughtlessness in bringing her so far. "I'm not tired. I can ride all day. Where I come from, we have to ride if we want to go anywhere; but here there seems to be no particular place to—to reach."
"Are you so utilitarian?" I asked, laughingly. "Must you always have some reason for everything you do? I do so many things just for the mere pleasure of doing them, I'm afraid you will have a very poor opinion of me."
"That is not what I mean," she said, flushing, and turning her large gray eyes on me. "You must not think I have a reason for everything I do." She was very earnest, and it was evident that she was unacquainted with the art of making conversation. "But what I mean," she went on, "is that there is no place—no end—to reach." She looked back over her shoulder toward the west, where the trees marked the sky line, and an expression of loss and dissatisfaction came over her face. "You see," she said, apologetically, "I'm used to different things—to the mountains. I have never been where I could not see them before in my life."
"Ah, I see! I suppose it is odd to look up and find them not there."
"It's like being lost, this not having anything around you. At least, I mean," she continued slowly, as if her thought could not easily put itself in words,—"I mean it seems as if a part of the world had been taken down. It makes you feel lonesome, as if you were living after the world had begun to die."
"You'll get used to it in a few days. It seems very beautiful to me here. And then you will have so much life to divert you."
"Life? But there is always that everywhere."
"I mean men and women."
"Oh! Still, I am not used to them. I think I might be not—not very happy with them. They might think me queer. I think I would like to show your sister the mountains."
"She has seen them often."
"Oh, she told me. But I don't mean those pretty green hills such as we saw coming here. They are not like my mountains. I like mountains that go beyond the clouds, with terrible shadows in the hollows, and belts of snow lying in the gorges where the sun cannot reach, and the snow is blue in the sunshine, or shining till you think it is silver, and the mist so wonderful all about it, changing each moment and drifting up and down, that you cannot tell what name to give the colors. These mountains of yours here in the East are so quiet; mine are shouting all the time, with the pines and the rivers. The echoes are so loud in the valley that sometimes, when the wind is rising, we can hardly hear a man talk unless he raises his voice. There are four cataracts near where I live, and they all have different voices, just as people do; and one of them is happy—a little white cataract—and it falls where the sun shines earliest, and till night it is shining. But the others only get the sun now and then, and they are more noisy and cruel. One of them is always in the shadow, and the water looks black. That is partly because the rocks all underneath it are black. It falls down twenty great ledges in a gorge with black sides, and a white mist dances all over it at every leap. I tell father the mist is the ghost of the waters. No man ever goes there; it is too cold. The chill strikes through one, and makes your heart feel as if you were dying. But all down the side of the mountain, toward the south and the west, the sun shines on the granite and draws long points of light out of it. Father tells me soldiers marching look that way when the sun strikes on their bayonets. Those are the kind of mountains I mean, Mr. Grant."
She was looking at me with her face transfigured, as if it, like the mountains she told me of, had been lying in shadow, and waiting for the dazzling dawn.
"I had a terrible dream once," she went on; "the most terrible dream ever I had. I dreamt that the mountains had all been taken down, and that I stood on a plain to which there was no end. The sky was burning up, and the grass scorched brown from the heat, and it was twisting as if it were in pain. And animals, but no other person save myself, only wild things, were crouching and looking up at that sky. They could not run because there was no place to which to go."
"You were having a vision of the last man," I said. "I wonder myself sometimes whether this old globe of ours is going to collapse suddenly and take us with her, or whether we will disappear through slow disastrous ages of fighting and crushing, with hunger and blight to help us to the end. And then, at the last, perhaps, some luckless fellow, stronger than the rest, will stand amid the ribs of the rotting earth and go mad."
The woman's eyes were fixed on me, large and luminous. "Yes," she said; "he would go mad from the lonesomeness of it. He would be afraid to be left alone like that with God. No one would want to be taken into God's secrets."
"And our last man," I went on, "would have to stand there on that swaying wreck till even the sound of the crumbling earth ceased. And he would try to find a voice and would fail, because silence would have come again. And then the light would go out—"
The shudder that crept over her made me stop, ashamed of myself.
"You talk like father," she said, with a long-drawn breath. Then she looked up suddenly at the sun shining through a rift in those reckless gray clouds, and put out one hand as if to get it full of the headlong rollicking breeze. "But the earth is not dying," she cried. "It is well and strong, and it likes to go round and round among all the other worlds. It likes the sun and moon; they are all good friends; and it likes the people who live on it. Maybe it is they instead of the fire within who keep it warm; or maybe it is warm just from always going, as we are when we run. We are young, you and I, Mr. Grant, and Leroy, and your beautiful sister, and the world is young too!" Then she laughed a strong splendid laugh, which had never had the joy taken out of it with drawing-room restrictions; and I laughed too, and felt that we had become very good companions indeed, and found myself warming to the joy of companionship as I had not since I was a boy at school.
That afternoon the four of us sat at a table in the Casino together. The Casino, as every one knows, is a place to amuse yourself. If you have a duty, a mission, or an aspiration, you do not take it there with you, it would be so obviously out of place; if poverty is ahead of you, you forget it; if you have brains, you hasten to conceal them; they would be a serious encumbrance.
There was a bubbling of conversation, a rustle and flutter such as there always is where there are many women. All the place was gay with flowers and with gowns as bright as the flowers. I remembered the apprehensions of my sister, and studied Leroy's wife to see how she fitted into this highly colored picture. She was the only woman in the room who seemed to wear draperies. The jaunty slash and cut of fashionable attire were missing in the long brown folds of cloth that enveloped her figure. I felt certain that even from Jessica's standpoint she could not be called a guy. Picturesque she might be, past the point of convention, but she was not ridiculous.
"Judith takes all this very seriously," said Leroy, laughingly. "I suppose she would take even Paris seriously."
His wife smiled over at him. "Leroy says I am melancholy," she said, softly; "but I am always telling him that I am happy. He thinks I am melancholy because I do not laugh. I got out of the way of it by being so much alone. You only laugh to let some one else know you are pleased. When you are alone there is no use in laughing. It would be like explaining something to yourself."
"You are a philosopher, Judith. Mr. Max Mueller would like to know you."
"Is he a friend of yours, dear?"
Leroy blushed, and I saw Jessica curl her lip as she noticed the blush. She laid her hand on Mrs. Brainard's arm.
"Have you always been very much alone?" she inquired.
"I was born on the ranch, you know; and father was not fond of leaving it. Indeed, now he says he will never again go out of sight of it. But you can go a long journey without doing that; for it lies on a plateau in the valley, and it can be seen from three different mountain passes. Mother died there, and for that reason and others—father has had a strange life—he never wanted to go away. He brought a lady from Pennsylvania to teach me. She had wonderful learning, but she didn't make very much use of it. I thought if I had learning I would not waste it reading books. I would use it to—to live with. Father had a library, but I never cared for it. He was forever at books too. Of course," she hastened to add, noticing the look of mortification deepen on her husband's face, "I like books very well if there is nothing better at hand. But I always said to Mrs. Windsor—it was she who taught me—why read what other folk have been thinking when you can go out and think yourself? Of course one prefers one's own thoughts, just as one prefers one's own ranch, or one's own father."
"Then you are sure to like New York when you go there to live," cried Jessica; "for there you will find something to make life entertaining all the time. No one need fall back on books there."
"I'm not sure. I'm afraid there must be such dreadful crowds of people. Of course I should try to feel that they were all like me, with just the same sort of fears, and that it was ridiculous for us to be afraid of each other, when at heart we all meant to be kind."
Jessica fairly wrung her hands. "Heavens!" she cried. "I said you would like New York. I am afraid, my dear, that it will break your heart!"
"Oh," said Mrs. Brainard, with what was meant to be a gentle jest, "no one can break my heart except Leroy. I should not care enough about any one else, you know."
The compliment was an exquisite one. I felt the blood creep to my own brain in a sort of vicarious rapture, and I avoided looking at Leroy lest he should dislike to have me see the happiness he must feel. The simplicity of the woman seemed to invigorate me as the cool air of her mountains might if it blew to me on some bright dawn, when I had come, fevered and sick of soul, from the city.
When we were alone, Jessica said to me: "That man has too much vanity, and he thinks it is sensitiveness. He is going to imagine that his wife makes him suffer. There's no one so brutally selfish as your sensitive man. He wants every one to live according to his ideas, or he immediately begins suffering. That friend of yours hasn't the courage of his convictions. He is going to be ashamed of the very qualities that made him love his wife."
There was a hop that night at the hotel, quite an unusual affair as to elegance, given in honor of a woman from New York, who wrote a novel a month.
Mrs. Brainard looked so happy that night when she came in the parlor, after the music had begun, that I felt a moisture gather in my eyes just because of the beauty of her joy, and the forced vivacity of the women about me seemed suddenly coarse and insincere. Some wonderful red stones, brilliant as rubies, glittered in among the diaphanous black driftings of her dress. She asked me if the stones were not very pretty, and said she gathered them in one of her mountain river-beds.
"But the gown?" I said. "Surely, you do not gather gowns like that in river-beds, or pick them off mountain-pines?"
"But you can get them in Denver. Father always sent to Denver for my finery. He was very particular about how I looked. You see, I was all he had—" She broke off, her voice faltering.
"Come over by the window," I said, to change her thought. "I have something to repeat to you. It is a song of Sydney Lanier's. I think he was the greatest poet that ever lived in America, though not many agree with me. But he is my dear friend anyway, though he is dead, and I never saw him; and I want you to hear some of his words."
I led her across to an open window. The dancers were whirling by us. The waltz was one of those melancholy ones which speak the spirit of the dance more eloquently than any merry melody can. The sound of the sea booming beyond in the darkness came to us, and long paths of light, now red, now green, stretched toward the distant light-house. These were the lines I repeated:—
"What heartache—ne'er a hill! Inexorable, vapid, vague, and chill The drear sand levels drain my spirit low. With one poor word they tell me all they know; Whereat their stupid tongues, to tease my pain, Do drawl it o'er and o'er again. They hurt my heart with griefs I cannot name; Always the same—the same."
But I got no further. I felt myself moved with a sort of passion which did not seem to come from within, but to be communicated to me from her. A certain unfamiliar happiness pricked through with pain thrilled me, and I heard her whispering,—
"Do not go on, do not go on! I cannot stand it to-night!"
"Hush," I whispered back; "come out for a moment!" We stole into the dusk without, and stood there trembling. I swayed with her emotion. There was a long silence. Then she said: "Father may be walking alone now by the black cataract. That is where he goes when he is sad. I can see how lonely he looks among those little twisted pines that grow from the rock. And he will be remembering all the evenings we walked there together, and all the things we said." I did not answer. Her eyes were still on the sea.
"What was the name of the man who wrote that verse you just said to me?"
I told her.
"And he is dead? Did they bury him in the mountains? No? I wish I could have put him where he could have heard those four voices calling down the canyon."
"Come back in the house," I said; "you must come, indeed," I said, as she shrank from re-entering.
Jessica was dancing like a fairy with Leroy. They both saw us and smiled as we came in, and a moment later they joined us. I made my excuses and left my friends to Jessica's care. She was a sort of social tyrant wherever she was, and I knew one word from her would insure the popularity of our friends—not that they needed the intervention of any one. Leroy had been a sort of drawing-room pet since before he stopped wearing knickerbockers.
"He is at his best in a drawing-room," said Jessica, "because there he deals with theory and not with action. And he has such beautiful theories that the women, who are all idealists, adore him."
The next morning I awoke with a conviction that I had been idling too long. I went back to the city and brushed the dust from my desk. Then each morning, I, as Jessica put it, "formed public opinion" to the extent of one column a day in the columns of a certain enterprising morning journal.
Brainard said I had treated him shabbily to leave upon the heels of his coming. But a man who works for his bread and butter must put a limit to his holiday. It is different when you only work to add to your general picturesqueness. That is what I wrote Leroy, and it was the unkindest thing I ever said to him; and why I did it I do not know to this day. I was glad, though, when he failed to answer the letter. It gave me a more reasonable excuse for feeling out of patience with him.
The days that followed were very dull. It was hard to get back into the way of working. I was glad when Jessica came home to set up our little establishment and to join in the autumn gayeties. Brainard brought his wife to the city soon after, and went to housekeeping in an odd sort of a way.
"I couldn't see anything in the place save curios," Jessica reported, after her first call on them. "I suppose there is a cookingstove somewhere, and maybe even a pantry with pots in it. But all I saw was Alaska totems and Navajo blankets. They have as many skins around on the floor and couches as would have satisfied an ancient Briton. And everybody was calling there. You know Mr. Brainard runs to curios in selecting his friends as well as his furniture. The parlors were full this afternoon of abnormal people, that is to say, with folks one reads about. I was the only one there who hadn't done something. I guess it's because I am too healthy."
"How did Mrs. Brainard like such a motley crew?"
"She was wonderful—perfectly wonderful! Those insulting creatures were all studying her, and she knew it. But her dignity was perfect, and she looked as proud as a Sioux chief. She listened to every one, and they all thought her so bright."
"Brainard must have been tremendously proud of her."
"Oh, he was—of her and his Chilcat portieres."
Jessica was there often, but—well, I was busy. At length, however, I was forced to go. Jessica refused to make any further excuses for me. The rooms were filled with small celebrities.
"We are the only nonentities," whispered Jessica, as she looked around; "it will make us quite distinguished."
We went to speak to our hostess. She stood beside her husband, looking taller than ever; and her face was white. Her long red gown of clinging silk was so peculiar as to give one the impression that she was dressed in character. It was easy to tell that it was one of Leroy's fancies. I hardly heard what she said, but I know she reproached me gently for not having been to see them. I had no further word with her till some one led her to the piano, and she paused to say,—
"That poet you spoke of to me—the one you said was a friend of yours—he is my friend now too, and I have learned to sing some of his songs. I am going to sing one now." She seemed to have no timidity at all, but stood quietly, with a half smile, while a young man with a Russian name played a strange minor prelude. Then she sang, her voice a wonderful contralto, cold at times, and again lit up with gleams of passion. The music itself was fitful, now full of joy, now tender, and now sad:
"Look off, dear love, across the sallow sands, And mark yon meeting of the sun and sea, How long they kiss in sight of all the lands, Ah! longer, longer we."
"She has a genius for feeling, hasn't she?" Leroy whispered to me.
"A genius for feeling!" I repeated, angrily. "Man, she has a heart and a soul and a brain, if that is what you mean! I shouldn't think you would be able to look at her from the standpoint of a critic."
Leroy shrugged his shoulders and went off. For a moment I almost hated him for not feeling more resentful. I felt as if he owed it to his wife to take offence at my foolish speech.
It was evident that the "mountain woman" had become the fashion. I read reports in the papers about her unique receptions. I saw her name printed conspicuously among the list of those who attended all sorts of dinners and musicales and evenings among the set that affected intellectual pursuits. She joined a number of women's clubs of an exclusive kind.
"She is doing whatever her husband tells her to," said Jessica. "Why, the other day I heard her ruining her voice on 'Siegfried'!"
But from day to day I noticed a difference in her. She developed a terrible activity. She took personal charge of the affairs of her house; she united with Leroy in keeping the house filled with guests; she got on the board of a hospital for little children, and spent a part of every day among the cots where the sufferers lay. Now and then when we spent a quiet evening alone with her and Leroy, she sewed continually on little white night-gowns for these poor babies. She used her carriage to take the most extraordinary persons riding.
"In the cause of health," Leroy used to say, "I ought to have the carriage fumigated after every ride Judith takes, for she is always accompanied by some one who looks as if he or she should go into quarantine."
One night, when he was chaffing her in this way, she flung her sewing suddenly from her and sprang to her feet, as if she were going to give way to a burst of girlish temper. Instead of that, a stream of tears poured from her eyes, and she held out her trembling hands toward Jessica.
"He does not know," she sobbed. "He cannot understand."
One memorable day Leroy hastened over to us while we were still at breakfast to say that Judith was ill,—strangely ill. All night long she had been muttering to herself as if in a delirium. Yet she answered lucidly all questions that were put to her.
"She begs for Miss Grant. She says over and over that she 'knows,' whatever that may mean."
When Jessica came home she told me she did not know. She only felt that a tumult of impatience was stirring in her friend.
"There is something majestic about her,-something epic. I feel as if she were making me live a part in some great drama, the end of which I cannot tell. She is suffering, but I cannot tell why she suffers."
Weeks went on without an abatement in this strange illness. She did not keep her bed. Indeed, she neglected few of her usual occupations. But her hands were burning, and her eyes grew bright with that wild sort of lustre one sees in the eyes of those who give themselves up to strange drugs or manias. She grew whimsical, and formed capricious friendships, only to drop them.
And then one day she closed her house to all acquaintances, and sat alone continually in her room, with her hands clasped in her lap, and her eyes swimming with the emotions that never found their way to her tongue.
Brainard came to the office to talk with me about her one day. "I am a very miserable man, Grant," he said. "I am afraid I have lost my wife's regard. Oh, don't tell me it is partly my fault. I know it well enough. And I know you haven't had a very good opinion of me lately. But I am remorseful enough now, God knows. And I would give my life to see her as she was when I found her first among the mountains. Why, she used to climb them like a strong man, and she was forever shouting and singing. And she had peopled every spot with strange modern mythological creatures. Her father is an old dreamer, and she got the trick from him. They had a little telescope on a great knoll in the centre of the valley, just where it commanded a long path of stars, and they used to spend nights out there when the frost literally fell in flakes. When I think how hardy and gay she was, how full of courage and life, and look at her now, so feverish and broken, I feel as if I should go mad. You know I never meant to do her any harm. Tell me that much, Grant."
"I think you were very egotistical for a while, Brainard, and that is a fact. And you didn't appreciate how much her nature demanded. But I do not think you are responsible for your wife's present condition. If there is any comfort in that statement, you are welcome to it."
"But you don't mean—" he got no further.
"I mean that your wife may have her reservations, just as we all have, and I am paying her high praise when I say it. You are not so narrow, Leroy, as to suppose for a moment that the only sort of passion a woman is capable of is that which she entertains for a man. How do I know what is going on in your wife's soul? But it is nothing which even an idealist of women, such as I am, old fellow, need regret."
How glad I was afterward that I spoke those words. They exercised a little restraint, perhaps, on Leroy when the day of his terrible trial came. They made him wrestle with the demon of suspicion that strove to possess him. I was sitting in my office, lagging dispiritedly over my work one day, when the door burst open and Brainard stood beside me. Brainard, I say, and yet in no sense the man I had known,—not a hint in this pale creature, whose breath struggled through chattering teeth, and whose hands worked in uncontrollable spasms, of the nonchalant elegant I had known. Not a glimpse to be seen in those angry and determined eyes of the gayly selfish spirit of my holiday friend.
"She's gone!" he gasped. "Since yesterday. And I'm here to ask you what you think now? And what you know."
A panorama of all shameful possibilities for one black moment floated before me. I remember this gave place to a wave, cold as death, that swept from head to foot; then Brainard's hands fell heavily on my shoulders.
"Thank God at least for this much," he said, hoarsely; "I didn't know at first but I had lost both friend and wife. But I see you know nothing. And indeed in my heart I knew all the time that you did not. Yet I had to come to you with my anger. And I remembered how you defended her. What explanation can you offer now?"
I got him to sit down after a while and tell me what little there was to tell. He had been away for a day's shooting, and when he returned he found only the perplexed servants at home. A note was left for him. He showed it to me.
"There are times," it ran, "when we must do as we must, not as we would. I am going to do something I have been driven to do since I left my home. I do not leave any message of love for you, because you would not care for it from a woman so weak as I. But it is so easy for you to be happy that I hope in a little while you will forget the wife who yielded to an influence past resisting. It may be madness, but I am not great enough to give it up. I tried to make the sacrifice, but I could not. I tried to be as gay as you, and to live your sort of life; but I could not do it. Do not make the effort to forgive me. You will be happier if you simply hold me in the contempt I deserve."
I read the letter over and over. I do not know that I believe that the spirit of inanimate things can permeate to the intelligence of man. I am sure I always laughed at such ideas. Yet holding that note with its shameful seeming words, I felt a consciousness that it was written in purity and love. And then before my eyes there came a scene so vivid that for a moment the office with its familiar furniture was obliterated. What I saw was a long firm road, green with midsummer luxuriance. The leisurely thudding of my horse's feet sounded in my ears. Beside me was a tall, black-robed figure. I saw her look back with that expression of deprivation at the sky line. "It's like living after the world has begun to die," said the pensive minor voice. "It seems as if part of the world had been taken down."
"Brainard," I yelled, "come here! I have it. Here's your explanation. I can show you a new meaning for every line of this letter. Man, she has gone to the mountains. She has gone to worship her own gods!"
Two weeks later I got a letter from Brainard, dated from Colorado.
"Old man," it said, "you're right. She is here. I found my mountain woman here where the four voices of her cataracts had been calling to her. I saw her the moment our mules rounded the road that commands the valley. We had been riding all night and were drenched with cold dew, hungry to desperation, and my spirits were of lead. Suddenly we got out from behind the granite wall, and there she was, standing, where I had seen her so often, beside the little waterfall that she calls the happy one. She was looking straight up at the billowing mist that dipped down the mountain, mammoth saffron rolls of it, plunging so madly from the impetus of the wind that one marvelled how it could be noiseless. Ah, you do not know Judith! That strange, unsophisticated, sometimes awkward woman you saw bore no more resemblance to my mountain woman than I to Hercules. How strong and beautiful she looked standing there wrapped in an ecstasy! It was my primitive woman back in her primeval world. How the blood leaped in me! All my old romance, so different from the common love-histories of most men, was there again within my reach! All the mystery, the poignant happiness were mine again. Do not hold me in contempt because I show you my heart. You saw my misery. Why should I grudge you a glimpse of my happiness? She saw me when I touched her hand, not before, so wrapped was she. But she did not seem surprised. Only in her splendid eyes there came a large content. She pointed to the dancing little white fall. 'I thought something wonderful was going to happen,' she whispered, 'for it has been laughing so.'
"I shall not return to New York. I am going to stay here with my mountain woman, and I think perhaps I shall find out what life means here sooner than I would back there with you. I shall learn to see large things large and small things small. Judith says to tell you and Miss Grant that the four voices are calling for you every day in the valley.
"Yours in fullest friendship,
Jim Lancy's Waterloo
"WE must get married before time to put in crops," he wrote. "We must make a success of the farm the first year, for luck. Could you manage to be ready to come out West by the last of February? After March opens there will be no let-up, and I do not see how I could get away. Make it February, Annie dear. A few weeks more or less can make no difference to you, but they make a good deal of difference to me."
The woman to whom this was written read it with something like anger. "I don't believe he's so impatient for me!" she said to herself. "What he wants is to get the crops in on time." But she changed the date of their wedding, and made it February.
Their wedding journey was only from the Illinois village where she lived to their Nebraska farm. They had never been much together, and they had much to say to each other.
"Farming won't come hard to you," Jim assured her. "All one needs to farm with is brains."
"What a success you'll make of it!" she cried saucily.
"I wish I had my farm clear," Jim went on; "but that's more than any one has around me. I'm no worse off than the rest. We've got to pay off the mortgage, Annie."
"Of course we must. We'll just do without till we get the mortgage lifted. Hard work will do anything, I guess. And I'm not afraid to work, Jim, though I've never had much experience."
Jim looked out of the window a long time, at the gentle undulations of the brown Iowa prairie. His eyes seemed to pierce beneath the sod, to the swelling buds of the yet invisible grass. He noticed how disdainfully the rains of the new year beat down the grasses of the year that was gone. It opened to his mind a vision of the season's possibilities. For a moment, even amid the smoke of the car, he seemed to scent clover, and hear the stiff swishing of the corn and the dull burring of the bees.
"I wish sometimes," he said, leaning forward to look at his bride, "that I had been born something else than a farmer. But I can no more help farming, Annie, than a bird can help singing, or a bee making honey. I didn't take to farming. I was simply born with a hoe in my hand."
"I don't know a blessed thing about it," Annie confessed. "But I made up my mind that a farm with you was better than a town without you. That's all there is to it, as far as I am concerned."
Jim Lancy slid his arm softly about her waist, unseen by the other passengers. Annie looked up apprehensively, to see if any one was noticing. But they were eating their lunches. It was a common coach on which they were riding. There was a Pullman attached to the train, and Annie had secretly thought that, as it was their wedding journey, it might be more becoming to take it. But Jim had made no suggestion about it. What he said later explained the reason.
"I would have liked to have brought you a fine present," he said. "It seemed shabby to come with nothing but that little ring. But I put everything I had on our home, you know. And yet, I'm sure you'll think it poor enough after what you've been used to. You'll forgive me for only bringing the ring, my dear?"
"But you brought me something better," Annie whispered. She was a foolish little girl. "You brought me love, you know." Then they rode in silence for a long time. Both of them were new to the phraseology of love. Their simple compliments to each other were almost ludicrous. But any one who might have chanced to overhear them would have been charmed, for they betrayed an innocence as beautiful as an unclouded dawn.
Annie tried hard not to be depressed by the treeless stretches of the Nebraska plains.
"This is different from Illinois," she ventured once, gently; "it is even different from Iowa."
"Yes, yes," cried Jim, enthusiastically, "it is different! It is the finest country in the world! You never feel shut in. You can always see off. I feel at home after I get in Nebraska. I'd choke back where you live, with all those little gullies and the trees everywhere. It's a mystery to me how farmers have patience to work there."
Annie opened her eyes. There was evidently more than one way of looking at a question. The farm-houses seemed very low and mean to her, as she looked at them from the window. There were no fences, excepting now and then the inhospitable barbed wire. The door-yards were bleak to her eyes, without the ornamental shrubbery which every farmer in her part of the country was used to tending. The cattle stood unshedded in their corrals. The reapers and binders stood rusting in the dull drizzle.
"How shiftless!" cried Annie, indignantly. "What do these men mean by letting their machinery lie out that way? I should think one winter of lying out would hurt it more than three summers of using."
"It does. But sheds are not easily had. Lumber is dear."
"But I should think it would be economy even then."
"Yes," he said, "perhaps. But we all do that way out here. It takes some money for a man to be economical with. Some of us haven't even that much."
There was a six-mile ride from the station. The horses were waiting, hitched up to a serviceable light wagon, and driven by the "help." He was a thin young man, with red hair, and he blushed vicariously for Jim and Annie, who were really too entertained with each other, and at the idea of the new life opening up before them, to think anything about blushing. At the station, a number of men insisted on shaking hands with Jim, and being introduced to his wife. They were all bearded, as if shaving were an unnecessary labor, and their trousers were tucked in dusty top-boots, none of which had ever seen blacking. Annie had a sense of these men seeming unwashed, or as if they had slept in their clothes. But they had kind voices, and their eyes were very friendly. So she shook hands with them all with heartiness, and asked them to drive out and bring their womenkind.
"I am going to make up my mind not to be lonesome," she declared; "but, all the same, I shall want to see some women."
Annie had got safe on the high seat of the wagon, and was balancing her little feet on the inclined foot-rest, when a woman came running across the street, calling aloud,—
"Mr. Lancy! Mr. Lancy! You're not going to drive away without introducing me to your wife!"
She was a thin little woman, with movements as nervous and as graceless as those of a grasshopper. Her dun-colored garments seemed to have all the hue bleached out of them with wind and weather. Her face was brown and wrinkled, and her bright eyes flashed restlessly, deep in their sockets. Two front teeth were conspicuously missing; and her faded hair was blown in wisps about her face. Jim performed the introduction, and Annie held out her hand. It was a pretty hand, delicately gloved in dove color. The woman took it in her own, and after she had shaken it, held it for a silent moment, looking at it. Then she almost threw it from her. The eyes which she lifted to scan the bright young face above her had something like agony in them. Annie blushed under this fierce scrutiny, and the woman, suddenly conscious of her demeanor, forced a smile to her lips.
"I'll come out an' see yeh," she said, in cordial tones. "May be, as a new housekeeper, you'll like a little advice. You've a nice place, an' I wish yeh luck."
"Thank you. I'm sure I'll need advice," cried Annie, as they drove off. Then she said to Jim, "Who is that old woman?"
"Old woman? Why, she ain't a day over thirty, Mis' Dundy ain't."
Annie looked at her husband blankly. But he was already talking of something else, and she asked no more about the woman, though all the way along the road the face seemed to follow her. It might have been this that caused the tightening about her heart. For some way her vivacity had gone; and the rest of the ride she asked no questions, but sat looking straight before her at the northward stretching road, with eyes that felt rather than saw the brown, bare undulations, rising every now and then clean to the sky; at the side, little famished-looking houses, unacquainted with paint, disorderly yards, and endless reaches of furrowed ground, where in summer the corn had waved.
The horses needed no indication of the line to make them turn up a smooth bit of road that curved away neatly 'mid the ragged grasses. At the end of it, in a clump of puny scrub oaks, stood a square little house, in uncorniced simplicity, with blank, uncurtained windows staring out at Annie, and for a moment her eyes, blurred with the cold, seemed to see in one of them the despairing face of the woman with the wisps of faded hair blowing about her face.
"Well, what do you think of it?" Jim cried, heartily, swinging her down from her high seat, and kissing her as he did so. "This is your home, my girl, and you are as welcome to it as you would be to a palace, if I could give it to you."
Annie put up her hands to hide the trembling of her lips; and she let Jim see there were tears in her eyes as an apology for not replying. The young man with the red hair took away the horses, and Jim, with his arm around his wife's waist, ran toward the house and threw open the door for her to enter. The intense heat of two great stoves struck in their faces; and Annie saw the big burner, erected in all its black hideousness in the middle of the front room, like a sort of household hoodoo, to be constantly propitiated, like the gods of Greece; and in the kitchen, the new range, with a distracted tea-kettle leaping on it, as if it would like to loose its fetters and race away over the prairie after its cousin, the locomotive.
It was a house of four rooms, and a glance revealed the fact that it had been provided with the necessaries.
"I think we can be very comfortable here," said Jim, rather doubtfully.
Annie saw she must make some response. "I am sure we can be more than comfortable, Jim," she replied. "We can be happy. Show me, if you please, where my room is. I must hang my cloak up in the right place so that I shall feel as if I were getting settled."
It was enough. Jim had no longer any doubts. He felt sure they were going to be happy ever afterward.
It was Annie who got the first meal; she insisted on it, though both the men wanted her to rest. And Jim hadn't the heart to tell her that, as a general thing, it would not do to put two eggs in the corn-cake, and that the beefsteak was a great luxury. When he saw her about to break an egg for the coffee, however, he interfered.
"The shells of the ones you used for the cake will settle the coffee just as well," he said. "You see we have to be very careful of eggs out here at this season."
"Oh! Will the shells really settle it? This is what you must call prairie lore. I suppose out here we find out what the real relations of invention and necessity are—eh?"
Jim laughed disproportionately. He thought her wonderfully witty. And he and the help ate so much that Annie opened her eyes. She had thought there would be enough left for supper. But there was nothing left.
For the next two weeks Jim was able to be much with her; and they amused themselves by decorating the house with the bright curtainings that Annie had brought, and putting up shelves for a few pieces of china. She had two or three pictures, also, which had come from her room in her old home, and some of those useless dainty things with which some women like to litter the room.
"Most folks," Jim explained, "have to be content with one fire, and sit in the kitchen; but I thought, as this was our honeymoon, we would put on some lugs."
Annie said nothing then; but a day or two after she ventured,—
"Perhaps it would be as well now, dear, if we kept in the kitchen. I'll keep it as bright and pleasant as I can. And, anyway, you can be more about with me when I'm working then. We'll lay a fire in the front-room stove, so that we can light it if anybody comes. We can just as well save that much."
Jim looked up brightly. "All right," he said. "You're a sensible little woman. You see, every cent makes a difference. And I want to be able to pay off five hundred dollars of that mortgage this year."
So, after that, they sat in the kitchen; and the fire was laid in the front room, against the coming of company. But no one came, and it remained unlighted.
Then the season began to show signs of opening,—bleak signs, hardly recognizable to Annie; and after that Jim was not much in the house. The weeks wore on, and spring came at last, dancing over the hills. The ground-birds began building, and at four each morning awoke Annie with their sylvan opera. The creek that ran just at the north of the house worked itself into a fury and blustered along with much noise toward the great Platte which, miles away, wallowed in its vast sandy bed. The hills flushed from brown to yellow, and from mottled green to intensest emerald, and in the superb air all the winds of heaven seemed to meet and frolic with laughter and song.
Sometimes the mornings were so beautiful that, the men being afield and Annie all alone, she gave herself up to an ecstasy and kneeled by the little wooden bench outside the door, to say, "Father, I thank Thee," and then went about her work with all the poem of nature rhyming itself over and over in her heart.
It was on such a day as this that Mrs. Dundy kept her promise and came over to see if the young housekeeper needed any of the advice she had promised her. She had walked, because none of the horses could be spared. It had got so warm now that the fire in the kitchen heated the whole house sufficiently, and Annie had the rooms clean to exquisiteness. Mrs. Dundy looked about with envious eyes.
"How lovely!" she said.
"Do you think so?" cried Annie, in surprise. "I like it, of course, because it is home, but I don't see how you could call anything here lovely."
"Oh, you don't understand," her visitor went on. "It's lovely because it looks so happy. Some of us have—well, kind o' lost our grip."
"It's easy to do that if you don't feel well," Annie remarked sympathetically. "I haven't felt as well as usual myself, lately. And I do get lonesome and wonder what good it does to fix up every day when there is no one to see. But that is all nonsense, and I put it out of my head."
She smoothed out the clean lawn apron with delicate touch. Mrs. Dundy followed the movement with her eyes.
"Oh, my dear," she cried, "you don't know nothin' about it yet! But you will know! You will!" and those restless, hot eyes of hers seemed to grow more restless and more hot as they looked with infinite pity at the young woman before her.
Annie thought of these words often as the summer came on, and the heat grew. Jim was seldom to be seen now. He was up at four each morning, and the last chore was not completed till nine at night. Then he threw himself in bed and lay there log-like till dawn. He was too weary to talk much, and Annie, with her heart aching for his fatigue, forbore to speak to him. She cooked the most strengthening things she could, and tried always to look fresh and pleasant when he came in. But she often thought her pains were in vain, for he hardly rested his sunburned eyes on her. His skin got so brown that his face was strangely changed, especially as he no longer had time to shave, and had let a rough beard straggle over his cheeks and chin. On Sundays Annie would have liked to go to church, but the horses were too tired to be taken out, and she did not feel well enough to walk far; besides, Jim got no particular good out of walking over the hills unless he had a plough in his hand.
Harvest came at length, and the crop was good. There were any way from three to twenty men at the house then, and Annie cooked for all of them. Jim had tried to get some one to help her, but he had not succeeded. Annie strove to be brave, remembering that farm-women all over the country were working in similar fashion. But in spite of all she could do, the days got to seem like nightmares, and sleep between was but a brief pause in which she was always dreaming of water, and thinking that she was stooping to put fevered lips to a running brook. Some of these men were very disgusting to Annie. Their manners were as bad as they could well be, and a coarse word came naturally to their lips.
"To be master of the soil, that is one thing," said she to herself in sickness of spirit; "but to be the slave of it is another. These men seem to have got their souls all covered with muck." She noticed that they had no idea of amusement. They had never played anything. They did not even care for base-ball. Their idea of happiness appeared to be to do nothing; and there was a good part of the year in which they were happy,—for these were not for the most part men owning farms; they were men who hired out to help the farmer. A good many of them had been farmers at one time and another, but they had failed. They all talked politics a great deal,—politics and railroads. Annie had not much patience with it all. She had great confidence in the course of things. She believed that in this country all men have a fair chance. So when it came about that the corn and the wheat, which had been raised with such incessant toil, brought them no money, but only a loss, Annie stood aghast.
"I said the rates were ruinous," Jim said to her one night, after it was all over, and he had found out that the year's slavish work had brought him a loss of three hundred dollars; "it's been a conspiracy from the first. The price of corn is all right. But by the time we set it down in Chicago we are out eighteen cents a bushel. It means ruin. What are we going to do? Here we had the best crop we've had for years—but what's the use of talking! They have us in their grip."
"I don't see how it is," Annie protested. "I should think it would be for the interest of the roads to help the people to be as prosperous as possible."
"Oh, we can't get out! And we're bound to stay and raise grain. And they're bound to cart it. And that's all there is to it. They force us to stand every loss, even to the shortage that is made in transportation. The railroad companies own the elevators, and they have the cinch on us. Our grain is at their mercy. God knows how I'm going to raise that interest. As for the five hundred we were going to pay on the mortgage this year, Annie, we're not in it."
Autumn was well set in by this time, and the brilliant cold sky hung over the prairies as young and fresh as if the world were not old and tired. Annie no longer could look as trim as when she first came to the little house. Her pretty wedding garments were beginning to be worn and there was no money for more. Jim would not play chess now of evenings. He was forever writing articles for the weekly paper in the adjoining town. They talked of running him for the state legislature, and he was anxious for the nomination.
"I think I might be able to stand it if I could fight 'em!" he declared; "but to sit here idle, knowing that I have been cheated out of my year's work, just as much as if I had been knocked down on the road and the money taken from me, is enough to send me to the asylum with a strait-jacket on!"
Life grew to take on tragic aspects. Annie used to find herself wondering if anywhere in the world there were people with light hearts. For her there was no longer anticipation of joy, or present companionship, or any divertissement in the whole world. Jim read books which she did not understand, and with a few of his friends, who dropped in now and then evenings or Sundays, talked about these books in an excited manner.
She would go to her room to rest, and lying there in the darkness on the bed, would hear them speaking together, sometimes all at once, in those sternly vindictive tones men use when there is revolt in their souls.
"It is the government which is helping to impoverish us," she would hear Jim saying. "Work is money. That is to say, it is the active form of money. The wealth of a country is estimated by its power of production. And its power of production means work. It means there are so many men with so much capacity. Now the government owes it to these men to have money enough to pay them for their work; and if there is not enough money in circulation to pay to each man for his honest and necessary work, then I say that government is in league with crime. It is trying to make defaulters of us. It has a hundred ways of cheating us. When I bought this farm and put the mortgage on it, a day's work would bring twice the results it will now. That is to say, the total at the end of the year showed my profits to be twice what they would be now, even if the railway did not stand in the way to rob us of more than we earn. So that it will take just twice as many days' work now to pay off this mortgage as it would have done at the time it was contracted. It's a conspiracy, I tell you! Those Eastern capitalists make a science of ruining us."
He got more eloquent as time went on, and Annie, who had known him first as rather a careless talker, was astonished at the boldness of his language. But conversation was a lost art with him. He no longer talked. He harangued.
In the early spring Annie's baby was born,—a little girl with a nervous cry, who never slept long at a time, and who seemed to wail merely from distaste at living. It was Mrs. Dundy who came over to look after the house till Annie got able to do so. Her eyes had that fever in them, as ever. She talked but little, but her touch on Annie's head was more eloquent than words. One day Annie asked for the glass, and Mrs. Dundy gave it to her. She looked in it a long time. The color was gone from her cheeks, and about her mouth there was an ugly tightening. But her eyes flashed and shone with that same—no, no, it could not be that in her face also was coming the look of half-madness! She motioned Mrs. Dundy to come to her.
"You knew it was coming," she said, brokenly, pointing to the reflection in the glass. "That first day, you knew how it would be."
Mrs. Dundy took the glass away with a gentle hand.
"How could I help knowing?" she said simply. She went into the next room, and when she returned Annie noticed that the handkerchief stuck in her belt was wet, as if it had been wept on.
A woman cannot stay long away from her home on a farm at planting time, even if it is a case of life and death. Mrs. Dundy had to go home, and Annie crept about her work with the wailing baby in her arms. The house was often disorderly now; but it could not be helped. The baby had to be cared for. It fretted so much that Jim slept apart in the mow of the barn, that his sleep might not be disturbed. It was a pleasant, dim place, full of sweet scents, and he liked to be there alone. Though he had always been an unusual worker, he worked now more like a man who was fighting off fate, than a mere toiler for bread.
The corn came up beautifully, and far as the eye could reach around their home it tossed its broad green leaves with an oceanlike swelling of sibilant sound. Jim loved it with a sort of passion. Annie loved it, too. Sometimes, at night, when her fatigue was unbearable, and her irritation wearing out both body and soul, she took her little one in her arms and walked among the corn, letting its rustling soothe the baby to sleep.
The heat of the summer was terrible. The sun came up in that blue sky like a curse, and hung there till night came to comfort the blistering earth. And one morning a terrible thing happened. Annie was standing out of doors in the shade of those miserable little oaks, ironing, when suddenly a blast of air struck her in the face, which made her look up startled. For a moment she thought, perhaps, there was a fire near in the grass. But there was none. Another blast came, hotter this time, and fifteen minutes later that wind was sweeping straight across the plain, burning and blasting. Annie went in the house to finish her ironing, and was working there, when she heard Jim's footstep on the door-sill. He could not pale because of the tan, but there was a look of agony and of anger-almost brutish anger—in his eyes. Then he looked, for a moment, at Annie standing there working patiently, and rocking the little crib with one foot, and he sat down on the door-step and buried his face in his brown arms.
The wind blew for three days. At the end of that time every ear was withered in the stalk. The corn crop was ruined.
But there were the other crops which must be attended to, and Jim watched those with the alertness of a despairing man; and so harvest came again, and again the house was filled with men who talked their careless talk, and who were not ashamed to gorge while this one woman cooked for them. The baby lay on a quilt on the floor in the coolest part of the kitchen. Annie fed it irregularly. Sometimes she almost forgot it. As for its wailing, she had grown so used to it that she hardly heard it, any more than she did the ticking of the clock. And yet, tighter than anything else in life, was the hold that little thing had on her heart-strings. At night, after the interminable work had been finished—though in slovenly fashion—she would take it up and caress it with fierceness, and worn as she was, would bathe it and soothe it, and give it warm milk from the big tin pail.
"Lay the child down," Jim would say impatiently, while the men would tell how their wives always put the babies on the bed and let them cry if they wanted to. Annie said nothing, but she hushed the little one with tender songs.
One day, as usual, it lay on its quilt while Annie worked. It was a terribly busy morning. She had risen at four to get the washing out of the way before the men got on hand, and there were a dozen loaves of bread to bake, and the meals to get, and the milk to attend to, and the chickens and pigs to feed. So occupied was she that she never was able to tell how long she was gone from the baby. She only knew that the heat of her own body was so great that the blood seemed to be pounding at her ears, and she staggered as she crossed the yard. But when she went at last with a cup of milk to feed the little one, it lay with clenched fists and fixed eyes, and as she lifted it, a last convulsion laid it back breathless, and its heart had ceased to beat.
Annie ran with it to her room, and tried such remedies as she had. But nothing could keep the chill from creeping over the wasted little form,—not even the heat of the day, not even the mother's agonized embrace. Then, suddenly, Annie looked at the clock. It was time to get the dinner. She laid the piteous tiny shape straight on the bed, threw a sheet over it, and went back to the weltering kitchen to cook for those men, who came at noon and who must be fed—who must be fed.
When they were all seated at the table, Jim among them, and she had served them, she said, standing at the head of the table, with her hands on her hips:—
"I don't suppose any of you have time to do anything about it; but I thought you might like to know that the baby is dead. I wouldn't think of asking you to spare the horses, for I know they have to rest. But I thought, if you could make out on a cold supper, that I would go to the town for a coffin."
There was satire in the voice that stung even through the dull perceptions of these men, and Jim arose with a cry and went to the room where his dead baby lay.
About two months after this Annie insisted that she must go home to Illinois. Jim protested in a way.
"You know, I'd like to send you," he said; "but I don't see where the money is to come from. And since I've got this nomination, I want to run as well as I can. My friends expect me to do my best for them. It's a duty, you know, and nothing less, for a few men, like me, to get in the legislature. We're going to get a railroad bill through this session that will straighten out a good many things. Be patient a little longer, Annie."
"I want to go home," was the only reply he got. "You must get the money, some way, for me to go home with."
"I haven't paid a cent of interest yet," he cried angrily. "I don't see what you mean by being so unreasonable!"
"You must get the money, some way," she reiterated.
He did not speak to her for a week, except when he was obliged to. But she did not seem to mind; and he gave her the money. He took her to the train in the little wagon that had met her when she first came. At the station, some women were gossiping excitedly, and Annie asked what they were saying.
"It's Mis' Dundy," they said. "She's been sent to th' insane asylum at Lincoln. She's gone stark mad. All she said on the way out was, 'Th' butter won't come! Th' butter won't come!'" Then they laughed a little—a strange laugh; and Annie thought of a drinking-song she had once heard, "Here's to the next who dies."
Ten days after this Jim got a letter from her. "I am never coming back, Jim," it said. "It is hopeless. I don't think I would mind standing still to be shot down if there was any good in it. But I'm not going back there to work harder than any slave for those money-loaners and the railroads. I guess they can all get along without me. And I am sure I can get along without them. I do not think this will make you feel very bad. You haven't seemed to notice me very much lately when I've been around, and I do not think you will notice very much when I am gone. I know what this means. I know I am breaking my word when I leave you. But remember, it is not you I leave, but the soil, Jim! I will not be its slave any longer. If you care to come for me here, and live another life—but no, there would be no use. Our love, like our toil, has been eaten up by those rapacious acres. Let us say goodby."
Jim sat all night with this letter in his hand. Sometimes he dozed heavily in his chair. But he did not go to bed; and the next morning he hitched up his horses and rode to town. He went to the bank which held his notes.
"I'll confess judgment as soon as you like," he said. "It's all up with me."
It was done as quickly as the law would allow. And the things in the house were sold by auction. All the farmers were there with their wives. It made quite an outing for them. Jim moved around impassively, and chatted, now and then, with some of the men about what the horses ought to bring.
The auctioneer was a clever fellow. Between the putting up of the articles, he sang comic songs, and the funnier the song, the livelier the bidding that followed. The horses brought a decent price, and the machinery a disappointing one; and then, after a delicious snatch about Nell who rode the sway-backed mare at the county fair, he got down to the furniture,—the furniture which Jim had bought when he was expecting Annie.
Jim was walking around with his hands in his pockets, looking unconcerned, and, as the furniture began to go off, he came and sat down in the midst of it. Every one noticed his indifference. Some of them said that after all he couldn't have been very ambitious. He didn't seem to take his failure much to heart. Every one was concentrating attention on the cookingstove, when Jim leaned forward, quickly, over a little wicker work-stand.
There was a bit of unfinished sewing there, and it fell out as he lifted the cover. It was a baby's linen shirt. Jim let it lie, and then lifted from its receptacle a silver thimble. He put it in his vest-pocket.
The campaign came on shortly after this, and Jim Lancy was defeated. "I'm going to Omaha," said he to the station-master, "and I've got just enough to buy a ticket with. There's a kind of satisfaction in giving the last cent I have to the railroads."
Two months later, a "plain drunk" was registered at the station in Nebraska's metropolis. When they searched him they found nothing in his pockets but a silver thimble, and Joe Benson, the policeman who had brought in the "drunk," gave it to the matron, with his compliments. But she, when no one noticed, went softly to where the man was sleeping, and slipped it back into his pocket, with a sigh. For she knew somehow—as women do know things—that he had not stolen that thimble.
THE equinoctial line itself is not more imaginary than the line which divided the estates of the three Johns. The herds of the three Johns roamed at will, and nibbled the short grass far and near without let or hindrance; and the three Johns themselves were utterly indifferent as to boundary lines. Each of them had filed his application at the office of the government land-agent; each was engaged in the tedious task of "proving up;" and each owned one-third of the L-shaped cabin which stood at the point where the three ranches touched. The hundred and sixty acres which would have completed this quadrangle had not yet been "taken up."
The three Johns were not anxious to have a neighbor. Indeed, they had made up their minds that if one appeared on that adjoining "hun'erd an' sixty," it would go hard with him. For they did not deal in justice very much—the three Johns. They considered it effete. It belonged in the East along with other outgrown superstitions. And they had given it out widely that it would be healthier for land applicants to give them elbow-room. It took a good many miles of sunburnt prairie to afford elbow-room for the three Johns.
They met by accident in Hamilton at the land-office. John Henderson, fresh from Cincinnati, manifestly unused to the ways of the country, looked at John Gillispie with a lurking smile. Gillispie wore a sombrero, fresh, white, and expansive. His boots had high heels, and were of elegant leather and finely arched at the instep. His corduroys disappeared in them half-way up the thigh. About his waist a sash of blue held a laced shirt of the same color in place. Henderson puffed at his cigarette, and continued to look a trifle quizzical.
Suddenly Gillispie walked up to him and said, in a voice of complete suavity, "Damn yeh, smoke a pipe!"
"Eh?" said Henderson, stupidly.
"Smoke a pipe," said the other. "That thing you have is bad for your complexion."
"I can take care of my complexion," said Henderson, firmly.
The two looked each other straight in the eye.
"You don't go on smoking that thing till you have apologized for that grin you had on your phiz a moment ago."
"I laugh when I please, and I smoke what I please," said Henderson, hotly, his face flaming as he realized that he was in for his first "row."
That was how it began. How it would have ended is not known—probably there would have been only one John—if it had not been for the almost miraculous appearance at this moment of the third John. For just then the two belligerents found themselves prostrate, their pistols only half-cocked, and between them stood a man all gnarled and squat, like one of those wind-torn oaks which grow on the arid heights. He was no older than the others, but the lines in his face were deep, and his large mouth twitched as he said:—
"Hold on here, yeh fools! There's too much blood in you to spill. You'll spile th' floor, and waste good stuff. We need blood out here!"
Gillispie bounced to his feet. Henderson arose suspiciously, keeping his eyes on his assailants.
"Oh, get up!" cried the intercessor. "We don't shoot men hereabouts till they git on their feet in fightin' trim."
"What do you know about what we do here?" interrupted Gillispie. "This is the first time I ever saw you around."
"That's so," the other admitted. "I'm just down from Montana. Came to take up a quarter section. Where I come from we give men a show, an' I thought perhaps yeh did th' same here."
"Why, yes," admitted Gillispie, "we do. But I don't want folks to laugh too much—not when I'm around—unless they tell me what the joke is. I was just mentioning it to the gentleman," he added, dryly.
"So I saw," said the other; "you're kind a emphatic in yer remarks. Yeh ought to give the gentleman a chance to git used to the ways of th' country. He'll be as tough as th' rest of us if you'll give him a chance. I kin see it in him."
"Thank you," said Henderson. "I'm glad you do me justice. I wish you wouldn't let daylight through me till I've had a chance to get my quarter section. I'm going to be one of you, either as a live man or a corpse. But I prefer a hundred and sixty acres of land to six feet of it."
"There, now!" triumphantly cried the squat man. "Didn't I tell yeh? Give him a show! 'Tain't no fault of his that he's a tenderfoot. He'll get over that."
Gillispie shook hands with first one and then the other of the men. "It's a square deal from this on," he said. "Come and have a drink."
That's how they met—John Henderson, John Gillispie, and John Waite. And a week later they were putting up a shanty together for common use, which overlapped each of their reservations, and satisfied the law with its sociable subterfuge.
The life wasn't bad, Henderson decided; and he adopted all the ways of the country in an astonishingly short space of time. There was a freedom about it all which was certainly complete. The three alternated in the night watch. Once a week one of them went to town for provisions. They were not good at the making of bread, so they contented themselves with hot cakes. Then there was salt pork for a staple, and prunes. They slept in straw-lined bunks, with warm blankets for a covering. They made a point of bringing reading-matter back from town every week, and there were always cards to fall back on, and Waite sang songs for them with natural dramatic talent.
Nevertheless, in spite of their contentment, none of them was sorry when the opportunity offered for going to town. There was always a bit of stirring gossip to be picked up, and now and then there was a "show" at the "opera-house," in which, it is almost unnecessary to say, no opera had ever been sung. Then there was the hotel, at which one not only got good fare, but a chat with the three daughters of Jim O'Neal, the proprietor—girls with the accident of two Irish parents, who were, notwithstanding, as typically American as they well could be. A half-hour's talk with these cheerful young women was all the more to be desired for the reason that within riding distance of the three Johns' ranch there were only two other women. One was Minerva Fitch, who had gone out from Michigan accompanied by an oil-stove and a knowledge of the English grammar, with the intention of teaching school, but who had been unable to carry these good intentions into execution for the reason that there were no children to teach,—at least, none but Bow-legged Joe. He was a sad little fellow, who looked like a prairie-dog, and who had very much the same sort of an outlook on life. The other woman was the brisk and efficient wife of Mr. Bill Deems, of "Missourah." Mr. Deems had never in his life done anything, not even so much as bring in a basket of buffalo chips to supply the scanty fire. That is to say, he had done nothing strictly utilitarian. Yet he filled his place. He was the most accomplished story-teller in the whole valley, and this accomplishment of his was held in as high esteem as the improvisations of a Welsh minstrel were among his reverencing people. His wife alone deprecated his skill, and interrupted his spirited narratives with sarcastic allusions concerning the empty cupboard, and the "state of her back," to which, as she confided to any who would listen, "there was not a rag fit to wear."
These two ladies had not, as may be surmised, any particular attraction for John Henderson. Truth to tell, Henderson had not come West with the intention of liking women, but rather with a determination to see and think as little of them as possible. Yet even the most confirmed misogynist must admit that it is a good thing to see a woman now and then, and for this reason Henderson found it amusing to converse with the amiable Misses O'Neal. At twenty-five one cannot be unyielding in one's avoidance of the sex.
Henderson, with his pony at a fine lope, was on his way to town one day, in that comfortable frame of mind adduced by an absence of any ideas whatever, when he suddenly became conscious of a shiver that seemed to run from his legs to the pony, and back again. The animal gave a startled leap, and lifted his ears. There was a stirring in the coarse grasses; the sky, which a moment before had been like sapphire, dulled with an indescribable grayness.
Then came a little singing afar off, as if from a distant convocation of cicadae, and before Henderson could guess what it meant, a cloud of dust was upon him, blinding and bewildering, pricking with sharp particles at eyes and nostrils. The pony was an ugly fellow, and when Henderson felt him put his forefeet together, he knew what that meant, and braced himself for the struggle. But it was useless; he had not yet acquired the knack of staying on the back of a bucking bronco, and the next moment he was on the ground, and around him whirled that saffron chaos of dust. The temperature lowered every moment. Henderson instinctively felt that this was but the beginning of the storm. He picked himself up without useless regrets for his pony, and made his way on.
The saffron hue turned to blackness, and then out of the murk shot a living green ball of fire, and ploughed into the earth. Then sheets of water, that seemed to come simultaneously from earth and sky, swept the prairie, and in the midst of it struggled Henderson, weak as a little child, half bereft of sense by the strange numbness of head and dullness of eye. Another of those green balls fell and burst, as it actually appeared to him, before his horrified eyes, and the bellow and blare of the explosion made him cry out in a madness of fright and physical pain. In the illumination he had seen a cabin only a few feet in front of him, and toward it he made frantically, with an animal's instinctive desire for shelter.
The door did not yield at once to his pressure, and in the panic of his fear he threw his weight against it. There was a cry from within, a fall, and Henderson flung himself in the cabin and closed the door.
In the dusk of the storm he saw a woman half prostrate. It was she whom he had pushed from the door. He caught the hook in its staple, and turned to raise her. She was not trembling as much as he, but, like himself, she was dizzy with the shock of the lightning. In the midst of all the clamor Henderson heard a shrill crying, and looking toward the side of the room, he dimly perceived three tiny forms crouched in one of the bunks. The woman took the smallest of the children in her arms, and kissed and soothed it; and Henderson, after he had thrown a blanket at the bottom of the door to keep out the drifting rain, sat with his back to it, bracing it against the wind, lest the frail staple should give way. He managed some way to reach out and lay hold of the other little ones, and got them in his arms,—a boy, so tiny he seemed hardly human, and a girl somewhat sturdier. They cuddled in his arms, and clutched his clothes with their frantic little hands, and the three sat so while the earth and the heavens seemed to be meeting in angry combat.
And back and forth, back and forth, in the dimness swayed the body of the woman, hushing her babe.
Almost as suddenly as the darkness had fallen, it lifted. The lightning ceased to threaten, and almost frolicked,—little wayward flashes of white and yellow dancing in mid-air. The wind wailed less frequently, like a child who sobs in its sleep. And at last Henderson could make his voice heard.
"Is there anything to build a fire with?" he shouted. "The children are shivering so."
The woman pointed to a basket of buffalo chips in the corner, and he wrapped his little companions up in a blanket while he made a fire in the cooking-stove. The baby was sleeping by this time, and the woman began tidying the cabin, and when the fire was burning brightly, she put some coffee on.
"I wish I had some clothes to offer you," she said, when the wind had subsided sufficiently to make talking possible. "I'm afraid you'll have to let them get dry on you."
"Oh, that's of no consequence at all! We're lucky to get off with our lives. I never saw anything so terrible. Fancy! half an hour ago it was summer; now it is winter!"
"It seems rather sudden when you're not used to it," the woman admitted. "I've lived in the West six years now; you can't frighten me any more. We never die out here before our time comes."
"You seem to know that I haven't been here long," said Henderson, with some chagrin.
"Yes," admitted the woman; "you have the ear-marks of a man from the East."
She was a tall woman, with large blue eyes, and a remarkable quantity of yellow hair braided on top of her head. Her gown was of calico, of such a pattern as a widow might wear.
"I haven't been out of town a week yet," she said. "We're not half settled. Not having any one to help makes it harder; and the baby is rather fretful."
"But you're not alone with all these little codgers?" cried Henderson, in dismay.
The woman turned toward him with a sort of defiance. "Yes, I am," she said; "and I'm as strong as a horse, and I mean to get through all right. Here were the three children in my arms, you may say, and no way to get in a cent. I wasn't going to stand it just to please other folk. I said, let them talk if they want to, but I'm going to hold down a claim, and be accumulating something while the children are getting up a bit. Oh, I'm not afraid!"
In spite of this bold assertion of bravery, there was a sort of break in her voice. She was putting dishes on the table as she talked, and turned some ham in the skillet, and got the children up before the fire, and dropped some eggs in water,—all with a rapidity that bewildered Henderson.
"How long have you been alone?" he asked, softly.
"Three months before baby was born, and he's five months old now. I—I—you think I can get on here, don't you? There was nothing else to do."
She was folding another blanket over the sleeping baby now, and the action brought to her guest the recollection of a thousand tender moments of his dimly remembered youth.
"You'll get on if we have anything to do with it," he cried, suppressing an oath with difficulty, just from pure emotion.
And he told her about the three Johns' ranch, and found it was only three miles distant, and that both were on the same road; only her cabin, having been put up during the past week, had of course been unknown to him. So it ended in a sort of compact that they were to help each other in such ways as they could. Meanwhile the fire got genial, and the coffee filled the cabin with its comfortable scent, and all of them ate together quite merrily, Henderson cutting up the ham for the youngsters; and he told how he chanced to come out; and she entertained him with stories of what she thought at first when she was brought a bride to Hamilton, the adjacent village, and convulsed him with stories of the people, whom she saw with humorous eyes.
Henderson marvelled how she could in those few minutes have rescued the cabin from the desolation in which the storm had plunged it. Out of the window he could see the stricken grasses dripping cold moisture, and the sky still angrily plunging forward like a disturbed sea. Not a tree or a house broke the view. The desolation of it swept over him as it never had before. But within the little ones were chattering to themselves in odd baby dialect, and the mother was laughing with them.
"Women aren't always useless," she said, at parting; "and you tell your chums that when they get hungry for a slice of homemade bread they can get it here. And the next time they go by, I want them to stop in and look at the children. It'll do them good. They may think they won't enjoy themselves, but they will."
"Oh, I'll answer for that!" cried he, shaking hands with her. "I'll tell them we have just the right sort of a neighbor."
"Thank you," said she, heartily. "And you may tell them that her name is Catherine Ford."
Once at home, he told his story.
"H'm!" said Gillispie, "I guess I'll have to go to town myself to-morrow."
Henderson looked at him blackly. "She's a woman alone, Gillispie," said he, severely, "trying to make her way with handicaps—"
"Shet up, can't ye, ye darned fool?" roared Gillispie. "What do yeh take me fur?"
Waite was putting on his rubber coat preparatory to going out for his night with the cattle. "Guess you're makin' a mistake, my boy," he said, gently. "There ain't no danger of any woman bein' treated rude in these parts."
"I know it, by Jove!" cried Henderson, in quick contriteness.
"All right," grunted Gillispie, in tacit acceptance of this apology. "I guess you thought you was in civilized parts."
Two days after this Waite came in late to his supper. "Well, I seen her," he announced.
"Oh! did you?" cried Henderson, knowing perfectly well whom he meant. "What was she doing?"
"Killin' snakes, b'gosh! She says th' baby's crazy fur um, an' so she takes aroun' a hoe on her shoulder wherever she goes, an' when she sees a snake, she has it out with 'im then an' there. I says to 'er, 'Yer don't expec' t' git all th' snakes outen this here country, d' yeh?' 'Well,' she says, 'I'm as good a man as St. Patrick any day.' She is a jolly one, Henderson. She tuk me in an' showed me th' kids, and give me a loaf of gingerbread to bring home. Here it is; see?"
"Hu!" said Gillispie. "I'm not in it." But for all of his scorn he was not above eating the gingerbread.
It was gardening time, and the three Johns were putting in every spare moment in the little paling made of willow twigs behind the house. It was little enough time they had, though, for the cattle were new to each other and to the country, and they were hard to manage. It was generally conceded that Waite had a genius for herding, and he could take the "mad" out of a fractious animal in a way that the others looked on as little less than superhuman. Thus it was that one day, when the clay had been well turned, and the seeds arranged on the kitchen table, and all things prepared for an afternoon of busy planting, that Waite and Henderson, who were needed out with the cattle, felt no little irritation at the inexplicable absence of Gillispie, who was to look after the garden. It was quite nightfall when he at last returned. Supper was ready, although it had been Gillispie's turn to prepare it.
Henderson was sore from his saddle, and cross at having to do more than his share of the work. "Damn yeh!" he cried, as Gillispie appeared. "Where yeh been?"
"Making garden," responded Gillispie, slowly.
"Making garden!" Henderson indulged in some more harmless oaths.
Just then Gillispie drew from under his coat a large and friendly looking apple-pie. "Yes," he said, with emphasis; "I've bin a-makin' garden fur Mis' Ford."
And so it came about that the three Johns knew her and served her, and that she never had a need that they were not ready to supply if they could. Not one of them would have thought of going to town without stopping to inquire what was needed at the village. As for Catherine Ford, she was fighting her way with native pluck and maternal unselfishness. If she had feared solitude she did not suffer from it. The activity of her life stifled her fresh sorrow. She was pleasantly excited by the rumors that a railroad was soon to be built near the place, which would raise the value of the claim she was "holding down" many thousand dollars.