AT THE TIME APPOINTED
* * * * *
By A. Maynard Barbour
THAT MAINWARING AFFAIR
ILLUSTRATED BY E. PLAISTED ABBOTT
12mo. Cloth, $1.50
"Possibly in a detective story the main object is to thrill. If so, 'That Mainwaring Affair' is all right. The thrill is there, full measure, pressed down and running over."—Life, New York
"The book that reminds one of Anna Katherine Green in her palmiest days.... Keeps the reader on the alert, defies the efforts of those who read backward, deserves the applause of all who like mystery."—Town Topics, New York
"The tale is well told, and the intricacies of the plot so adroitly managed that it is impossible to foresee the correct solution of the mysterious case until the final act of the tragedy.... Although vividly told, the literary style is excellent and the story by no means sensational, a fact that raises it above the level of the old-time detective story,"—Brooklyn Daily Eagle
AT THE TIME APPOINTED
A. Maynard Barbour
AUTHOR OF "THAT MAINWARING AFFAIR," ETC.
WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY J. N. MARCHAND
"Yes, greater they who on life's battle-field, With unseen foes and fierce temptations fight" JOHN D. HIGINBOTHAM
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
Copyright, 1903 By J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY Published April, 1903
Electrotyped and Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
TO JOHN D. HIGINBOTHAM
"AS UNKNOWN, AND YET WELL KNOWN"
Chapter I—John Darrell 9
" II—A Night's Work 25
" III—"The Pines" 32
" IV—Life? or Death? 43
" V—John Britton 48
" VI—Echoes from the Past 62
" VII—At the Mines 68
" VIII—"Until the Day Break" 81
" IX—Two Portraits 86
" X—The Communion of Two Souls 95
" XI—Impending Trouble 104
" XII—New Life in the Old Home 109
" XIII—Mr. Underwood "Strikes" First 123
" XIV—Drifting 134
" XV—The Awakening 146
" XVI—The Aftermath 166
" XVII—"She knows her Father's Will is Law" 180
" XVIII—On the "Divide" 194
" XIX—The Return to Camp Bird 206
" XX—Forging the Fetters 216
" XXI—Two Crimes by the Same Hand 224
" XXII—The Fetters Broken 237
" XXIII—The Mask Lifted 247
" XXIV—Foreshadowings 254
" XXV—The "Hermitage" 262
" XXVI—John Britton's Story 269
" XXVII—The Rending of the Veil 274
" XXVIII—"As a Dream when One Awaketh" 278
" XXIX—John Darrell's Story 285
" XXX—After Many Years 295
" XXXI—An Eastern Home 300
" XXXII—Marion Holmes 308
" XXXIII—Into the Fulness of Life 316
" XXXIV—A Warning 321
" XXXV—A Fiend at Bay 330
" XXXVI—Senora Martinez 337
" XXXVII—The Identification 343
" XXXVIII—Within the "Pocket" 352
" XXXIV—At the Time Appointed 360
AT THE TIME APPOINTED
Upon a small station on one of the transcontinental lines winding among the mountains far above the level of the sea, the burning rays of the noonday sun fell so fiercely that the few buildings seemed ready to ignite from the intense heat. A season of unusual drought had added to the natural desolation of the scene. Mountains and foot-hills were blackened by smouldering fires among the timber, while a dense pall of smoke entirely hid the distant ranges from view. Patches of sage-brush and bunch grass, burned sere and brown, alternated with barren stretches of sand from which piles of rubble rose here and there, telling of worked-out and abandoned mines. Occasionally a current of air stole noiselessly down from the canyon above, but its breath scorched the withered vegetation like the blast from a furnace. Not a sound broke the stillness; life itself seemed temporarily suspended, while the very air pulsated and vibrated with the heat, rising in thin, quivering columns.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the rapid approach of the stage from a distant mining camp, rattling noisily down the street, followed by a slight stir within the apparently deserted station. Whirling at breakneck pace around a sharp turn, it stopped precipitately, amid a blinding cloud of dust, to deposit its passengers at the depot.
One of these, a young man of about five-and-twenty, arose with some difficulty from the cramped position which for seven weary hours he had been forced to maintain, and, with sundry stretchings and shakings of his superb form, seemed at last to pull himself together. Having secured his belongings from out the pile of miscellaneous luggage thrown from the stage upon the platform, he advanced towards the slouching figure of a man just emerging from the baggage-room, his hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets, his mouth stretched in a prodigious yawn, the arrival of the stage having evidently awakened him from his siesta.
"How's the west-bound—on time?" queried the young man rather shortly, but despite the curtness of his accents there was a musical quality in the ringing tones.
Before the cavernous jaws could close sufficiently for reply, two distant whistles sounded almost simultaneously.
"That's her," drawled the man, with a backward jerk of his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the sound; "she's at Blind Man's Pass; be here in about fifteen minutes."
The young man turned and sauntered to the rear end of the platform, where he paused for a few moments; then, unconscious of the scrutiny of his fellow-passengers, he began silently pacing up and down, being in no mood for conversation with any one. Every bone in his body ached and his head throbbed with a dull pain, but these physical discomforts, which he attributed to his long and wearisome stage ride, caused him less annoyance than did the fact that he had lost several days' time, besides subjecting himself to numerous inconveniences and hardships, on what he now denominated a "fool's errand."
An expert mineralogist and metallurgist, he had been commissioned by a large syndicate of eastern capitalists to come west, primarily to examine a certain mine recently offered for sale, and secondarily to secure any other valuable mining properties which might happen to be on the market. A promoter, whose acquaintance he had formed soon after leaving St. Paul, had poured into his ear such fabulous tales of a mine of untold wealth which needed but the expenditure of a few thousands to place it upon a dividend-paying basis, that, after making due allowance for optimism and exaggeration, he had thought it might be worth his while to stop off and investigate. The result of the investigation had been anything but satisfactory for either the promoter or the expert.
He was the more annoyed at the loss of time because of a telegram handed him just before his departure from St. Paul, which he now drew forth, and which read as follows:
"Parkinson, expert for M. and M. on trail. Knows you as our representative, but only by name. Lie low and block him if possible. "BARNARD."
He well understood the import of the message. The "M. and M." stood for a rival syndicate of enormous wealth, and the fact that its expert was also on his way west promised lively competition in the purchase of the famous Ajax mine.
"Five days," he soliloquized, glancing at the date of the message, which he now tore into bits, together with two or three letters of little importance. "I have lost my start and am now likely to meet this Parkinson at any stage of the game. However, he has never heard of John Darrell, and that name will answer my purpose as well as any among strangers. I'll notify Barnard when I reach Ophir."
His plans for the circumvention of Parkinson were now temporarily cut short by the appearance of the "double-header" rounding a curve and rapidly approaching—a welcome sight, for the heat and blinding glare of light were becoming intolerable.
Only for a moment the ponderous engines paused, panting and quivering like two living, sentient monsters; the next, with heavy, labored breath, as though summoning all their energies for the task before them, they were slowly ascending the steadily increasing grade, moment by moment with accelerated speed plunging into the very heart of the mountains, bearing John Darrell, as he was to be henceforth known, to a destiny of which he had little thought, but which he himself had, unconsciously, helped to weave.
An hour later, on returning to the sleeper after an unsuccessful attempt at dining, Darrell sank into his seat, and, leaning wearily back, watched with half-closed eyes the rapidly changing scenes through which he was passing, for the time utterly oblivious to his surroundings. Gigantic rocks, grotesque in form and color, flashed past; towering peaks loomed suddenly before him, advancing, receding, disappearing, and reappearing with the swift windings and doublings of the train; massive walls of granite pressed close and closer, seeming for one instant a threatening, impenetrable barrier, the next, opening to reveal glimpses of distant billowy ranges, their summits white with perpetual snow. The train had now reached a higher altitude, and breezes redolent of pine and fir fanned his throbbing brow, their fragrance thronging his mind with memories of other and far-distant scenes, until gradually the bold outlines of cliff and crag grew dim, and in their place appeared a cool, dark forest through which flecks of golden sunlight sifted down upon the moss-grown, flower-strewn earth; a stream singing beneath the pines, then rippling onward through meadows of waving green; a wide-spreading house of colonial build half hidden by giant trees and clinging rose-vines, and, framed among the roses, a face, strong, tender, sweet, crowned with silvered hair—one of the few which sorrow makes beautiful—which came nearer and nearer, bending over him with a mother's blessing; and then he slept.
The face of the sleeper, with its clear-cut, well-moulded features, formed a pleasing study, reminding one of a bit of unfinished carving, the strong, bold lines of which reveal the noble design of the sculptor—the thing of wondrous beauty yet to be—but which still lacks the finer strokes, the final touch requisite to bring it to perfection. Strength of character was indicated there; an indomitable will that would bend the most adverse conditions to serve its own masterful purpose and make of obstacles the paving-stones to success; a mind gifted with keen perceptive faculties, but which hitherto had dealt mostly with externals and knew little of itself or of its own powers. Young, with splendid health and superabundant vitality, there had been little opportunity for introspection or for the play of the finer, subtler faculties; and of the whole gamut of susceptibilities, ranging from exquisite suffering to ecstatic joy, few had been even awakened. His was a nature capable of producing the divinest harmonies or the wildest discords, according to the hand that swept the strings as yet untouched.
For more than an hour Darrell slept. He was awakened by the murmur of voices near him, confused at first, but growing more distinct as he gradually recalled his surroundings, until, catching the name of "Parkinson," he was instantly on the alert.
"Yes," a pleasant voice was saying, "I understand the Ajax is for sale if the owners can get their price, but they don't want less than a cold million for it, and it's my opinion they'll find buyers rather scarce at that figure when it comes to a show down."
"Well, I don't know; that depends," was the reply. "The price won't stand in the way with my people, if the mine is all right. They can hand over a million—or two, for that matter—as easily as a thousand, if the property is what they want, but they've got to know what they're buying. That's what I'm out here for."
Taking a quiet survey of the situation, Darrell found that the section opposite his own—which, upon his return from the dining-car, had contained only a motley collection of coats and grips—was now occupied by a party of three, two of whom were engaged in animated conversation. One of the speakers, who sat facing Darrell, was a young man of about two-and-twenty, whose self-assurance and assumption of worldly wisdom, combined with a boyish impetuosity, he found vastly amusing, while at the same time his frank, ingenuous eyes and winning smile of genuine friendliness, revealing a nature as unsuspecting and confiding as a child's, appealed to him strangely and drew him irresistibly towards the young stranger. The other speaker, whom Darrell surmised to be Parkinson, was considerably older and was seated facing the younger man, hence his back was towards Darrell; while the third member of the party, and by far the eldest, of whose face Darrell had a perfect profile view, although saying little, seemed an interested listener.
The man whom Darrell supposed to be Parkinson inquired the quickest way of reaching the Ajax mine.
"Well, you see it's this way," replied the young fellow. "The Ajax is on a spur that runs out from the main line at Ophir, and the train only runs between there and Ophir twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Let's see, this is Wednesday; we'll get into Ophir to-morrow, and you'll have to wait over until Saturday, unless you hire a rig to take you out there, and that's pretty expensive and an awfully rough jaunt besides."
"I don't mind the expense," retorted the other, "but I don't know as I care to go on any jaunts over your mountain roads when there's no special necessity for it; I can get exercise enough without that."
"I tell you what, Mr. Parkinson," said the young fellow, cordially, "you and your friend here, Mr. Hunter,"—Darrell started at the mention of the latter name,—"had better wait over till Saturday, and in the mean time I'll take you people out to Camp Bird, as we call it, and show you the Bird Mine; that's our mine, you know, and I tell you she is a 'bird,' and no mistake. You'll be interested in looking her over, though I'll tell you beforehand she's not for sale."
"Do I understand that you have an interest in this remarkable mine, Mr. Whitcomb?" Parkinson inquired, a tinge of amusement in his tone.
"Not in the way you mean; that is, not yet, though there's no telling how soon I may have if things turn out as I hope," and the boyish cheek flushed slightly. "But I know what I'm talking about all the same. My uncle, D. K. Underwood, is a practical mining man of nearly thirty years' experience, and what he doesn't know about mines and mining isn't worth knowing. He's interested in a dozen or so of the best mines in the State, but I don't think he would exchange his half-interest in the Bird Mine for all his other holdings put together. She's a comparatively new mine yet, but taking into consideration her depth and the amount of development, she's the best-paying mine in the State. Here, let me show you something." And hastily pulling a note-book from his pocket, he took therefrom a narrow slip of paper which he handed to the expert.
"There's a statement," he continued, "made out by the United States Assay Office, back here at Galena, that will show you the returns from a sixty days' run at the Bird mill; what do you think of that?"
Parkinson's face was still invisible to Darrell, but the latter heard a long, low whistle of surprise. Young Whitcomb looked jubilant.
"They say figures won't lie," he added, in tones of boyish enthusiasm, "but if you don't believe those figures, I've got the cash right here to show for it," accompanying the words with a significant gesture.
Parkinson handed the slip to Hunter, then leaned back in his seat, giving Darrell a view of his profile.
"Sixty days!" he said, musingly. "Seventy-five thousand dollars! I think I would like to take a look at the Bird Mine! I think I would like to make Mr. Underwood's acquaintance!"
Whitcomb laughed exultingly. "I'll give you an opportunity to do both if you'll stop over," he said; "and don't you forget that my uncle can give you some pointers on the Ajax, for he knows every mine in the State."
Mr. Hunter here handed the slip of paper to Whitcomb. "Young man," he said, with some severity, gazing fixedly at Whitcomb through his eye-glasses, "do you mean to say that you are travelling with seventy-five thousand dollars on your person?"
"Certainly, sir," Whitcomb replied, evidently enjoying the situation.
Mr. Hunter shook his head. "Very imprudent!" he commented. "You are running a tremendous risk. I wonder that your uncle would permit it!"
"Oh, that's all right," said Whitcomb, confidently. "Uncle usually comes down himself with the shipments of bullion, and he generally banks the most of his money there at Galena, but he couldn't very well leave this time, so he sent me, and as he was going to use considerable money paying for a lot of improvements we've put in and paying off the men, he told me to bring back the cash. There's not much danger anyway; the West isn't as wild nowadays as it used to be."
Handing a second bit of paper to Parkinson, he added: "There's something else that will interest you; the results of some assays made by the United States Assay Office on some samples taken at random from a new strike we made last week. I'll show you some of the samples, too."
"Great Scott!" ejaculated Parkinson, running his eye over the returns. "You seem to have a mine there, all right!"
"Sure thing! You'll think so when you see it," Whitcomb answered, fumbling in a grip at his feet.
At sight of the specimens of ore which he produced a moment later, his two companions became nearly as enthusiastic as himself. Leaning eagerly forward, they began an inspection of the samples, commenting on their respective values, while Whitcomb, unfolding a tracing of the workings of the mine, explained the locality from which each piece was taken, its depth from the surface, the width and dip of the vein, and other items of interest.
Darrell, who was carefully refraining from betraying any special interest in the party across the aisle, soon became aware that he was not the only interested listener to the conversation. In the section directly in front of the one occupied by Whitcomb and his companions a man was seated, apparently engrossed in a newspaper, but Darrell, who had a three-quarter view of his face, soon observed that he was not reading, but listening intently to the conversation of the men seated behind him, and particularly to young Whitcomb's share in it. Upon hearing the latter's statement that he had with him the cash returns for the shipment of bullion, Darrell saw the muscles of his face suddenly grow tense and rigid, while his hands involuntarily tightened their hold upon the paper. He grew uncomfortable under Darrell's scrutiny, moved restlessly once or twice, then turning, looked directly into the piercing dark eyes fixed upon him. His own eyes, which were small and shifting, instantly dropped, while the dark blood mounted angrily to his forehead. A few moments later, he changed his position so that Darrell could not see his face, but the latter determined to watch him and to give Whitcomb a word of warning at the earliest opportunity.
"Well," said Parkinson, leaning back in his seat after examining the ores and listening to Whitcomb's outline of their plans for the future development of the mine, "it seems to me, young man, you have quite a knowledge of mines and mining yourself."
Whitcomb flushed with pleasure. "I ought to," he said; "there isn't a man in this western country that understands the business better or has got it down any finer than my uncle. He may not be able to talk so glibly or use such high-sounding names for things as you fellows, but he can come pretty near telling whether a mine will pay for the handling, and if it has any value he generally knows how to go to work to find it."
"Well, that's about the 'gist' of the whole business," said Parkinson; he added: "You say he can give me some 'tips' on the Ajax?"
"He can if he chooses to," laughed Whitcomb, "but you'd better not let him know that I said so. He'll be more likely to give you information if you ask him offhand."
"Well," continued Parkinson, "when we get to Ophir, I'll know whether or not I can stop over. I've heard there's another fellow out here on this Ajax business; whether he's ahead of me I don't know. I'll make inquiries when we reach Ophir, and if he hasn't come on the scene yet I can afford to lay off; if he has, I must lose no time in getting out to the mine." Parkinson glanced at Hunter, who nodded almost imperceptibly.
"I guess that's the best arrangement we can make at present," said Parkinson, rising from his seat. "Come and have a smoke with us, Mr. Whitcomb?"
Whitcomb declined the invitation, and, after Hunter and Parkinson had left, sat idly turning over the specimens of ore, until, happening to catch Darrell's eye, he inquired, pleasantly,—
"Are you interested in this sort of thing?"
"In a way, yes," said Darrell, crossing over and taking the seat vacated by Parkinson. "I'm not what you call a mining man; that is, I've never owned or operated a mine, but I take a great interest in examining the different ores and always try to get as much information regarding them as possible."
Whitcomb at once launched forth enthusiastically upon a description of the various samples. Darrell, while careful not to show too great familiarity with the subject, or too thorough a knowledge of ores in general, yet was so keenly appreciative of their remarkable richness and beauty that he soon won the boy's heart.
"Say!" he exclaimed, "you had better stop off at Ophir with us; we would make a mining man of you in less than no time! By the way, how far west are you travelling?"
"Ophir is my destination at present, though it is uncertain how long I remain there."
"Long enough, that we'll get well acquainted, I hope. Going into any particular line of business?"
"No, only looking the country over, for the present."
To divert the conversation from himself, Darrell, by a judicious question or two, led Whitcomb to speak of the expert.
"Parkinson?" he said with a merry laugh. "Oh, yes, he's one of those eastern know-it-alls who come out here occasionally to give us fellows a few points on mines. They're all right, of course, for the men who employ them, who want to invest their money and wouldn't know a mine if they saw one; but when they undertake to air their knowledge among these old fellows who have spent a lifetime in the business, why, they're likely to get left, that's all. Now, this Parkinson seems to be a pretty fair sort of man compared with some of them, but between you and me, I'd wager my last dollar that they'll lose him on that Ajax mine!"
"Why, what's the matter with the Ajax?" Darrell inquired, indifferently.
"Well, as you're not interested in any way, I'm not telling tales out of school. The Ajax has been a bonanza in its day, but within the last year or so the bottom has dropped out of the whole thing, and that's the reason the owners are anxious to sell."
"I hear they ask a pretty good price for the mine."
"Yes, they're trading on her reputation, but that's all past. The mine is practically worked out. They've made a few good strikes lately, so that there is some good ore in sight, and this is their chance to sell, but there are no indications of any permanence. One of our own men was over there a while ago, and he said there wasn't enough ore in the mine to keep their mill running full force for more than six months."
"Is this Hunter an expert also?"
"Oh, no; Parkinson said he was a friend of his, just taking the trip for his health."
Darrell smiled quietly, knowing Hunter to be a member of the syndicate employing Parkinson, but kept his knowledge to himself.
A little later, when Darrell and Whitcomb left together for the dining-car, quite a friendship had sprung up between them. There was that mutual attraction often observed between two natures utterly diverse. Whitcomb was unaccountably drawn towards the dark-eyed, courteous, but rather reticent stranger, while his own frank friendliness and childlike confidence awoke in Darrell's nature a correlative tenderness and affection which he never would have believed himself capable of feeling towards one of his own sex.
"I don't know what is the matter with me," said Darrell, as he seated himself at a table, facing Whitcomb. "My head seems to have a small-sized stamp-mill inside of it; every bone in my body aches, and my joints feel as though they were being pulled apart."
Whitcomb looked up quickly. "Are you just from the East, or have you been out here any time?"
"I stopped for a few days, back here a ways."
"In the mountain country?"
"By George! I believe you've got the mountain fever; there's an awful lot of it round here this season, and this is just the worst time of year for an easterner to come out here. But we'll look after you when we get to Ophir, and bring you round all right."
"Much obliged, but I think I'll be all right after a night's rest," Darrell replied, inwardly resolved, upon reaching Ophir, to push on to the Ajax as quickly as possible, though his ardor was considerably cooled by Whitcomb's report.
When they left the dining-car the train was stopping at a small station, and for a few moments the young men strolled up and down the platform. A dense, bluish-gray haze hung low over the country, rendering the outlines of even the nearest objects obscure and dim; the western sky was like burnished copper, and the sun, poised a little above the horizon, looked like a ball of glowing fire.
Just as the train was about to start Darrell saw the man whose peculiar actions he had noticed earlier, leave the telegraph office and jump hastily aboard. Calling Whitcomb's attention as he passed them, he related his observations of the afternoon and cautioned him against the man. For an instant Whitcomb looked serious.
"I suppose it was rather indiscreet in me to talk as I did," he said, "but it can't be helped now. However, I guess it's all right, but I'm obliged to you all the same."
They passed into the smoker, where Darrell was introduced to Hunter and Parkinson. In a short time, however, he found himself suffering from nausea and growing faint and dizzy.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you will have to excuse me. I'm rather off my base this evening, and I find that smoking isn't doing me any good."
As he rose young Whitcomb sprang instantly to his feet; throwing away his cigar and linking his arm within Darrell's, he insisted upon accompanying him to the sleeper, notwithstanding his protests.
"Good-night, Parkinson," he called, cheerily; "see you in the morning!"
He accompanied Darrell to his section; then dropped familiarly into the seat beside him, throwing one arm affectionately over Darrell's shoulder, and during the next hour, while the sunset glow faded and the evening shadows deepened, he confided to this acquaintance of only a few hours the outlines of his past life and much regarding his hopes and plans for the future. He spoke of his orphaned boyhood; of the uncle who had given him a home in his family and initiated him into his own business methods; of his hope of being admitted at no distant day into partnership with his uncle and becoming a shareholder in the wonderful Bird Mine.
"But that isn't all I am looking forward to," he said, in conclusion, his boyish tones growing strangely deep and tender. "My fondest hope of all I hardly dare admit even to myself, and I don't know why I am speaking of it to you, except that I already like you and trust you as I never did any other man; but you will understand what I mean when you see my cousin, Kate Underwood."
He paused, but his silence was more eloquent to Darrell than words; the latter grasped his hand warmly in token that he understood.
"I wish you all that you hope for," he said.
A few moments later Whitcomb spoke with his usual impetuosity. "What am I thinking of, keeping you up in this way when you are sick and dead tired! You had better turn in and get all the rest you can, and when we reach Ophir to-morrow, just remember, my dear fellow, that no hotels 'go.' You'll go directly home with me, where you'll find yourself in such good hands you'll think sure you're in your own home, and we'll soon have you all right."
For hours Darrell tossed wearily, unable to sleep. His head throbbed wildly, the racking pain throughout his frame increased, while a raging fire seemed creeping through his veins. Not until long past midnight did he fall into a fitful sleep. Strange fancies surged through his fevered brain, torturing him with their endless repetition, their seeming reality. Suddenly he awoke, bewildered, exhausted, oppressed by a vague sense of impending evil.
A NIGHT'S WORK
For a few seconds Darrell tried vainly to recall what had awakened him. Low, confused sounds occasionally reached his ears, but they seemed part of his own troubled dreams. The heat was intolerable; he raised himself to the open window that he might get a breath of cooler air; his head whirled, but the half-sitting posture seemed to clear his brain, and he recalled his surroundings. At once he became conscious that the train was not in motion, yet no sound of trainmen's voices came through the open window; all was dead silence, and the vague, haunting sense of impending danger quickened.
Suddenly he heard a muttered oath in one of the sections, followed by an order, low, but peremptory,—
"No noise! Hand over, and be quick about it!"
Instantly Darrell comprehended the situation. Peering cautiously between the curtains, he saw, at the forward end of the sleeper, a masked man with a revolver in each hand, while the mirror behind him revealed another figure at the rear, masked and armed in like manner. He heard another order; the man was doing his work swiftly. He thought at once of young Whitcomb, but no sound came from the opposite section, and he sank quietly back upon his pillow.
A moment later the curtains were quickly thrust aside, the muzzle of a revolver confronted Darrell, and the same low voice demanded,—
"Hand out your valuables!"
A man of medium height, wearing a mask and full beard, stood over him. Darrell quietly handed over his watch and purse, noting as he did so the man's hands, white, well formed, well kept. He half expected a further demand, as the purse contained only a few small bills and some change, the bulk of his money being secreted about the mattress, as was his habit; but the man turned with peculiar abruptness to the opposite section, as one who had a definite object in view and was in haste to accomplish it. Darrell, his faculties alert, observed that the section in front of Whitcomb's was empty; he recalled the actions of its occupant on the preceding afternoon, his business later at the telegraph office, and the whole scheme flashed vividly before his mind. The man had been a spy sent out by the band now holding the train, and Whitcomb's money was without doubt the particular object of the hold-up.
Whitcomb was asleep at the farther side of his berth. Leaning slightly towards him, the man shook him, and his first words confirmed Darrell's intuitions,—
"Hand over that money, young man, and no fuss about it, either!"
Whitcomb, instantly awake, gazed at the masked face without a word or movement. Darrell, powerless to aid his friend, watched intently, dreading some rash act on his part to which his impetuous nature might prompt him.
Again he heard the low tones, this time a note of danger in them,—
"No fooling! Hand that money over, lively!"
With a spring, as sudden and noiseless as a panther's, Whitcomb grappled with the man, knocking the revolver from his hand upon the bed. A quick, desperate, silent struggle followed. Whitcomb suddenly reached for the revolver; as he did so Darrell saw a flash of steel in the dim light, and the next instant his friend sank, limp and motionless, upon the bed.
"Fool!" he heard the man mutter, with an oath.
An involuntary groan escaped from Darrell's lips. Slight as was the sound, the man heard it and turned, facing him; the latter was screened by the curtains, and the man, seeing no one, returned to his work, but that brief glance had revealed enough to Darrell that he knew he could henceforth identify the murderer among a thousand. In the struggle the mask had been partially pushed aside, exposing a portion of the man's face. A scar of peculiar shape showed white against the olive skin, close to the curling black hair. But to Darrell the pre-eminently distinguishing characteristic of that face was the eyes. Of the most perfect steel blue he had ever seen, they seemed, as they turned upon him in that intense glance, to glint and scintillate like the points of two rapiers in a brilliant sword play, while their look of concentrated fury and malignity, more demon-like than human, was stamped ineffaceably upon his brain.
Having secured as much as he could find of the money, the murderer left hastily and silently, and a few moments later the guards, after a warning to the passengers not to leave their berths, took their departure.
Having partially dressed, Darrell at once sprang across the aisle and took Whitcomb's limp form in his arms. His heart still beat faintly, but he was unconscious and bleeding profusely. All had been done so silently and swiftly that no one outside of Darrell dreamed of murder, and soon the enforced silence began to be broken by hurried questions and angry exclamations. A man cursed over the loss of his money and a woman sobbed hysterically. Suddenly, Darrell's incisive tones rang through the sleeper.
"For God's sake, see if there is a surgeon aboard! Here is a man stabbed, dying; don't stop to talk of money when a life is at stake!"
Instantly all thought of personal loss was for the time forgotten, and half a dozen men responded to Darrell's appeal. When it became known throughout the train what had occurred, the greatest excitement followed. Train officials, hurrying back and forth, stopped, hushed and horror-stricken, beside the section where Darrell sat holding Whitcomb in his arms. Passengers from the other coaches crowded in, eager to offer assistance that was of no avail. A physician was found and came quickly to the scene, who, after a brief examination, silently shook his head, and Darrell, watching the weakening pulse and shortening gasps, needed no words to tell him that the young life was ebbing fast.
Just as the faint respirations had become almost imperceptible, Whitcomb opened his eyes, looking straight into Darrell's eyes with eager intensity, his face lighted with the winning smile which Darrell had already learned to love. His lips moved; Darrell bent his head still lower to listen.
"Kate,—you will see her," he whispered. "Tell her——" but the sentence was never finished.
Deftly and gently as a woman Darrell did the little which remained to be done for his young friend, closing the eyes in which the love-light kindled by his dying words still lingered, smoothing the dishevelled golden hair, wondering within himself at his own unwonted tenderness.
"An awful pity for a bright young life to go out like that!" said a voice at his side, and, turning, he saw Parkinson.
"How did it happen?" the latter inquired, recognizing Darrell for the first time in the dim light.
Briefly Darrell gave the main facts as he had witnessed them, saying nothing, however, of his having seen the face of the murderer.
"Too bad!" said Parkinson. "He ought never to have made a bluff of that sort; there were too many odds against him."
"He was impulsive and acted on the spur of the moment," Darrell replied; adding, in lower tones, "the mistake was in giving one so young and inexperienced a commission involving so much responsibility and danger."
"You knew of the money, then? Yes, that was bad business for him, poor fellow! I wonder, by the way, if it was all taken."
At Darrell's suggestion a thorough search was made, which resulted in the finding of a package containing fifteen thousand dollars which the thief in his haste had evidently overlooked. This, it was agreed, should be placed in Darrell's keeping until the arrival of the train at Ophir.
Gradually the crowd dispersed, most of the passengers returning to their berths. Darrell, knowing that sleep for himself was out of the question, sought an empty section in another part of the car, and, seating himself, bowed his head upon his hands. The veins in his temples seemed near bursting and his usually strong nerves quivered from the shock he had undergone, but of this he was scarcely conscious. His mind, abnormally active, for the time held his physical sufferings in abeyance. He was living over again the events of the past few hours—events which had awakened within him susceptibilities he had not known he possessed, which had struck a new chord in his being whose vibrations thrilled him with strange, undefinable pain. As he recalled Whitcomb's affectionate familiarity, he seemed to hear again the low, musical cadences of the boyish tones, to see the sunny radiance of his smile, to feel the irresistible magnetism of his presence, and it seemed as though something inexpressibly sweet, of whose sweetness he had barely tasted, had suddenly dropped out of his life.
His heart grew sick with bitter sorrow as he recalled the look of mingled appeal and trust which shot from Whitcomb's eyes into his own as his young life, so full of hope, of ambition, of love, was passing through the dim portals of an unknown world. Oh, the pity of it! that he, an acquaintance of but a few hours, should have been the only one to whom those eyes could turn for their last message of earthly love and sympathy; and oh, the impotency of any and all human love then!
Never before had Darrell been brought so near the unseen, the unknown,—always surrounding us, but of which few of us are conscious,—and for hours he sat motionless, lost in thought, grappling with problems hitherto unthought of, but which now perplexed and baffled him at every turn.
At last, with a heavy sigh, he opened his eyes. The gray twilight of dawn was slowly creeping down from the mountain-tops, dispelling the shadows; and the light of a new faith, streaming downward
"From the beautiful, eternal hills Of God's unbeginning past,"
was banishing the doubts which had assailed him.
That night had brought to him a revelation of the awful solitude of a human soul, standing alone on the threshold of two worlds; but it had also revealed to him the Love—Infinite, Divine—that meets the soul when human love and sympathy are no longer of avail.
As the day advanced Darrell grew gradually but steadily worse. After the excitement of the night had passed a reaction set in; he felt utterly exhausted and miserable, the pain returned with redoubled violence, and the fever increased perceptibly from hour to hour.
He was keenly observant of those about him, and he could not but note how soon the tragedy of the preceding night seemed forgotten. Some bemoaned the loss of money or valuables; a few, more fortunate, related how they had outwitted the robbers and escaped with trivial loss, but only an occasional careless word of pity was heard for the young stranger who had met so sad a fate. So quickly and completely does one human atom sink out of sight! It is like the dropping of a pebble in the sea: a momentary ripple, that is all!
About noon Parkinson, who had sought to while away the tedium of the journey by an interview with Darrell, became somewhat alarmed at the latter's condition and went in search of a physician. He returned with the one who had been summoned to Whitcomb's aid. He was an eastern practitioner, and, unfortunately for Darrell, was not so familiar with the peculiar symptoms in his case as a western physician would have been.
"He has a high fever," he remarked to Parkinson a little later, as he seated himself beside Darrell to watch the effect of the remedies administered, "but I do not apprehend any danger. I have given him something to abate the fever and induce sleep. If necessary, I will write out a prescription which he can have filled on his arrival at Ophir, but I think in a few days he will be all right."
They were now approaching the continental divide, the scenery moment by moment growing in sublimity and grandeur. Darrell soon sank into a sleep, light and broken at first, but which grew deeper and heavier. For more than an hour he slept, unconscious that the rugged scenes through which he was then passing were to become part of his future life; that each cliff and crag and mountain-peak was to be to him an open book, whose secrets would leave their indelible impress upon his heart and brain, revealing to him the breadth and length, the depth and height of life, moulding his soul anew into nobler, more symmetrical proportions.
At last the rocks suddenly parted, like sentinels making way for the approaching train, disclosing a broad, sunlit plateau, from which rose, in gracefully rounded contours, a pine-covered mountain, about whose base nestled the little city of Ophir, while in the background stretched the majestic range of the great divide.
A crowd could be seen congregated about the depot, for tidings of the night's tragedy had preceded the train by several hours, and Whitcomb from his early boyhood had been a universal favorite in Ophir, while his uncle was one of its wealthiest, most influential citizens.
As the train slackened speed Parkinson, with a few words to the physician, hastily left to make arrangements for transportation for himself, Hunter, and Darrell to a hotel. Amid the noise and confusion which ensued for the next ten minutes Darrell slept heavily, till, roused by a gentle shake, he awoke to find the physician bending over him and heard voices approaching down the now nearly deserted sleeping-car.
"Yes," said a heavy voice, speaking rapidly, "the conductor wired details; he said this young man did everything for the boy that could be done, and stayed by him to the end."
"He did; he stood by him like a brother," Parkinson's voice replied.
"And he is sick, you say? Well, he won't want for anything within my power to do for him, that's all!"
Parkinson stopped at Darrell's side. "Mr. Darrell," he said, "this is Mr. Underwood, Whitcomb's uncle, you know; Mr. Underwood, Mr. Darrell."
Darrell rose a little unsteadily; the two men grasped hands and for an instant neither spoke. Darrell saw before him a tall, powerfully built man, approaching fifty, whose somewhat bronzed face, shrewd, stern, and unreadable, was lighted by a pair of blue eyes which once had resembled Whitcomb's. With a swift, penetrating glance the elder man looked searchingly into the face of the younger.
"True as steel, with a heart of gold!" was his mental comment; then he spoke abruptly, and his voice sounded brusque though his face was working with emotion.
"Mr. Darrell, my carriage is waiting for you outside. You will go home with me, unless," he added, inquiringly, "you are expecting to meet friends or acquaintances?"
"No, Mr. Underwood," Darrell replied, "I am a stranger here, but, much as I appreciate your kindness, I could not think of intruding upon your home at such a time as this."
"Porter," said Mr. Underwood, with the air of one accustomed to command, "take this gentleman's luggage outside, and tell them out there that it is to go to 'The Pines;' my men are there and they will look after it;" then, turning to Darrell, he continued, still more brusquely:
"This train pulls out in three minutes, so you had better prepare to follow your luggage. You don't stop in Ophir outside of my house, and I don't think you'll travel much farther for a while. You look as though you needed a bed and good nursing more than anything else just now."
"I have given him a prescription, sir," said the physician, "that I think will set him right if he gets needed rest and sleep."
"Humph!" responded Mr. Underwood, gruffly; "he'll get whatever he needs, you can depend on that. You gentlemen assist him out of the car; I'll go and despatch a messenger to the house to have everything in readiness for him there."
At the foot of the car steps Darrell parted from the physician and, leaning on Parkinson's arm, slowly made his way through the crowd to the carriage, where Mr. Underwood awaited him. Parkinson having taken leave, Mr. Underwood assisted the young man into the carriage. A spasm of pain crossed Darrell's face as he saw, just ahead of them, waiting to precede them on the homeward journey, a light wagon containing a stretcher covered with a heavy black cloth, a line of stalwart young fellows drawn up on either side, and he recalled Whitcomb's parting words on the previous night,—"When we reach Ophir to-morrow, you'll go directly home with me."
This was observed by Mr. Underwood, who remarked a moment later as he seated himself beside Darrell and they started homeward,—
"This is a sad time to introduce you to our home and household, Mr. Darrell, but you will find your welcome none the less genuine on that account."
"Mr. Underwood," said the young man, in a troubled voice, "this seems to me the most unwarrantable intrusion on my part to accept your hospitality at such a time——"
Before he could say more, Mr. Underwood placed a firm, heavy hand on his knee.
"You stood by my poor boy, Harry, to the last, and that is enough to insure you a welcome from me and mine. I'm only doing what Harry himself would do if he were here."
"As to what I did for your nephew, God knows it was little enough I could do," Darrell answered, bitterly. "I was powerless to defend him against the fatal blow, and after that there was no help for him."
"Did you see him killed?"
"Tell me all, everything, just as it occurred."
Mr. Underwood little knew the effort it cost Darrell in his condition to go over the details of the terrible scene, but he forced himself to give a clear, succinct, calm statement of all that took place. The elder man sat looking straight before him, immovable, impassive, like one who heard not, yet in reality missing nothing that was said. Not until Darrell repeated Whitcomb's dying words was there any movement on his part; then he turned his head so that his face was hidden and remained motionless and silent as before. At last he inquired,—
"Did he leave no message for me?"
"He mentioned only your daughter, Mr. Underwood; he evidently had some message for her which he was unable to give."
A long silence followed. Darrell, utterly exhausted, sank back into a corner of the carriage. The slight movement roused Mr. Underwood; he looked towards Darrell, whose eyes were closed, and was shocked at his deathly pallor. He said nothing, however, for Darrell was again sinking into a heavy stupor, but watched him with growing concern, making no attempt to rouse him until the carriage left the street and began ascending a long gravelled driveway; then putting his hand on Darrell's shoulder, he said, quite loudly,—
"Wake up, my boy! We're getting home now."
To Darrell his voice sounded faint and far away, like an echo out of a vast distance, and it was some seconds before he could realize where he was or form any definite idea of his surroundings. Gradually he became conscious that the air was no longer hot and stifling, but cool and fragrant with the sweet, resinous breath of pines. Looking about him, he saw they were winding upward along an avenue cut through a forest of small, slender pines, which extended below them on one side and far above them on the other.
A moment later they came out into a clearing, whence he could see, rising directly before him, in a series of natural terraces, the slopes of the sombre-hued, pine-clad mountain which overlooked the little city. Upon one of the terraces of the mountain stood a massive house of unhewn granite, a house representing no particular style of architecture, but whose deep bay-windows, broad, winding verandas, and shadowy, secluded balconies all combined to present an aspect most inviting. To Darrell the place had an irresistible charm; he gazed at it as though fascinated, unable to take his eyes from the scene.
"You certainly have a beautiful home, Mr. Underwood," he said, "and a most unique location. I never saw anything quite like it."
"It will do," said the elder man, quietly, gratified by what he saw in his companion's face. "I built it for my little girl. It was her own idea to have it that way, and she has named it 'The Pines.' Thank God, I've got her left yet, but she is about all."
Something in his tone caused Darrell to glance quickly towards him with a look of sympathetic inquiry. They were now approaching the house, and Mr. Underwood turned, facing him, a smile for the first time lighting up his stern, rugged features, as he said,—
"You will find us what my little girl calls a 'patched-up' family. I am a widower; my widowed sister keeps house for me, and Harry, whom I had grown to consider almost a son, was an orphan. But the family, such as it is, will make you welcome; I can speak for that. Here we are!"
With a supreme effort Darrell summoned all his energies as Mr. Underwood assisted him from the carriage and into the house. But the ringing and pounding in his head increased, his brain seemed reeling, and he was so nearly blinded by pain that, notwithstanding his efforts, he was forced to admit to himself, as a little later he sank upon a couch in the room assigned to him, that his impressions of the ladies to whom he had just been presented were exceedingly vague.
Mr. Underwood's sister, Mrs. Dean, he remembered as a large woman, low-voiced, somewhat resembling her brother in manner, and like him, of few words, yet something in her greeting had assured him of a welcome as deep as it was undemonstrative. Of Kate Underwood, in whom he had felt more than a passing interest, remembering Whitcomb's love for his cousin, he recalled a tall, slender, girlish form; a wealth of golden-brown hair, and a pair of large, luminous brown eyes, whose wistful, almost appealing look haunted him strangely, though he was unable to recall another feature of her face.
Mr. Underwood, who had left the room to telephone for a physician, returned with a faithful servant, and insisted upon Darrell's retiring to bed without delay, a proposition which the latter was only too glad to follow. Darrell had already given Mr. Underwood the package of fifteen thousand dollars found on the train, and now, while disrobing, handed him the belt in which he carried his own money, saying,—
"I'll put this in your keeping for a few days, till I feel more like myself. I lost my watch and some change, but I took the precaution to have this hidden."
He stopped abruptly and seemed to be trying to recall something, then continued, slowly,—
"There was something else in connection with that affair which I wished to say to you, but my head is so confused I cannot think what it was."
"Don't try to think now; it will come to you by and by," Mr. Underwood replied. "You're in good hands, so don't worry yourself about anything, but get all the rest you can."
With a deep sigh of relief Darrell sank on the pillows, and was soon sleeping heavily.
A few moments later Mr. Underwood, coming from Darrell's room, having left the servant in charge, met his sister coming down the long hall. She beckoned, and, turning, slowly retraced her steps, her brother following, to another part of the house, where they entered a darkened chamber and together stood beside a low, narrow couch strewn with fragrant flowers. Together, without a word or a tear, they gazed on the peaceful face of this sleeper, wrapped in the breathless, dreamless slumber we call death. They recalled the years since he had come to them, the dying bequest of their youngest sister, a little, golden-haired prattler, to fill their home with the music of his childish voice and the sunshine of his smile. Already the great house seemed strangely silent without his ringing laughter, his bursts of merry song.
But of whatever bitter grief stirred their hearts, this silent brother and sister, so long accustomed to self-restraint and self-repression, gave no sign. Gently she replaced the covering over the face of the sleeper, and silently they left the room. Not until they again reached the door of Darrell's room was the silence broken; then the brother said, in low tones,—
"Marcia, we've done all for the dead that can be done; it's the living who needs our care now."
"Yes," she replied, quietly, "I was going to see what I could do for him when you had put him to bed."
"Bennett is in there now, and I'm going downstairs to wait for Dr. Bradley; he telephoned that he'd be up in twenty minutes."
"Very well; I'll sit by him till the doctor comes."
When Dr. Bradley arrived he found Darrell in a state of coma from which it was almost impossible to arouse him. From Mr. Underwood and his sister he learned whatever details they could furnish, but from the patient himself very little information could be obtained.
"He has this fever that is prevailing in the mountainous districts, and has it in its worst form," he said, when about to take leave. "Of course, having just come from the East, it would be worse for him in any event than if he were acclimated; but aside from that, the cerebral symptoms are greatly aggravated owing to the nervous shock which he received last night. To witness an occurrence of that sort would be more or less of a shock to nerves in a normal state, but in the condition in which he was at the time, it is likely to produce some rather serious complications. Follow these directions which I have written out, and I'll be in again in a couple of hours."
But in two hours Darrell was delirious.
"Has he recognized any one since I was here?" Dr. Bradley inquired, as he again stood beside the patient.
"I don't think so," Mrs. Dean replied. "I could hardly rouse him enough to give him the medicine, and even then he didn't seem to know me."
"I'll be in about midnight," said the physician, as he again took leave, "and I'll send a professional nurse, a man; this is likely to be a long siege."
"Send whatever is needed," said Mr. Underwood, brusquely, "the same as if 'twere for the boy himself!"
"And, Mrs. Dean," the physician continued, "if he should have a lucid interval, you had better ascertain the address of his friends."
It was nearly midnight. For hours Darrell had battled against the darkening shadows fast settling down upon him, enveloping him with a horror worse than death itself. Suddenly there was a rift in the clouds, and the calm, sweet light of reason stole softly through. He felt a cool hand on his forehead, and, opening his eyes, looked with a smile into the face of Mrs. Dean as she bent over him. Bending still lower, she said, in low, distinct tones:
"Can you tell me the name of your people, and where they live?"
In an instant he comprehended all that her question implied; he must give his own name and the address of the far-away eastern home. He strove to recall it, but the effort was too great; before he could speak, the clouds surged together and all was blotted out in darkness.
LIFE? OR DEATH?
Hour by hour the clouds thickened, obscuring every ray of light, closing the avenues of sight and sound, until, isolated from the outer world by this intangible yet impenetrable barrier, Darrell was alone in a world peopled only with the phantoms of his imagination. Of the lapse of time, of the weary procession of days and nights which followed, he knew nothing. Day and night were to him only an endless repetition of the horrors which thronged his fevered brain.
Again and again he lived over the tragic scene in the sleeping-car, each iteration and reiteration growing in dreadful realism, until it was he himself who grappled in deadly contest with the murderer, and the latter in turn became a monster whose hot breath stifled him, whose malign, demoniacal glance seemed to sear his eyeballs like living fire. Over and over, with failing strength, he waged the unequal contest, striving at last with a legion of hideous forms. Then, as the clouds grew still more dense about him, these shapes grew dim and he found himself, weak and trembling, adrift upon a sea of darkness whose black waves tossed him angrily, with each breath threatening to engulf him in their gloomy depths. Desperately he battled with them, each struggle leaving him weaker than the last, until at length, scarcely breathing, his strength utterly exhausted, he lay watching the towering forms as they swept relentlessly towards him, gathering strength and fury as they came. He saw the yawning abysses on each side, he heard the roar of the on-coming waves, but was powerless to move hand or foot.
But while he waited in helpless terror the waves on which he tossed to and fro grew calm; then they seemed to divide, and he felt himself going down, down into infinite depths. The sullen roar died away; the darkness was flooded with golden light, and through its ethereal waves he was still floating downward more gently than ever a roseleaf floated to earth on the evening's breath. Through the waves of golden light there came to him a faint, distant murmur of voices, and the words,—
"He is sinking fast!"
He smiled with perfect content, wondering dreamily if it would never end; then consciousness was lost in utter oblivion.
* * * * *
Three weeks had elapsed since Darrell came to The Pines. August had given place to September, but the languorous days brought no cessation of the fearful heat, no cooling rain to the panting earth, no promise of renewed life to the drought-smitten vegetation. The timber on the ranges had been reduced to masses of charred and smouldering embers, among which the low flames still crept and crawled, winding their way up and down the mountains. The pall of smoke overhanging the city grew more and more dense, until there came a morning when, as the sun looked over the distant ranges, the landscape was suffused with a dull red glare which steadily deepened until all objects assumed a blood-red hue. Two or three hours passed, and then a lurid light illumined the strange scene, brightening moment by moment, till earth and sky glowed like a mass of molten copper. The heat seemed to concentrate upon that part of the earth's surface, the air grew oppressive, and an ominous silence reigned, in which even the birds were hushed and the dumb brutes cowered beside their masters.
As the brazen glow was fading to a weird, yellow light, an anxious group was gathered about Darrell's bedside. He still tossed and moaned in delirium, but his movements had grown pathetically feeble and the moans were those of a tired child sobbing himself to sleep.
"He cannot hold out much longer," said Dr. Bradley, his fingers on the weakening pulse, "his strength is failing rapidly."
"There will be a change soon, one way or the other," said the nurse, "and there's not much of a chance left him now."
"One chance in a hundred," said Dr. Bradley, slowly; "and that is his wonderful constitution; he may pull through where ninety-nine others would die."
Dr. Bradley watched the sick man in silence, then noting that the room was darkening, he stepped to an open window and cast a look of anxious inquiry at the murky sky. As if in answer to his thought, there came the low rumble of distant thunder, bringing a look of relief and hopefulness to the face of the physician. Returning to the bedside, he gave a few directions, then, as he was leaving, remarked,—
"There will be a change in the weather soon, a change that may help to turn the tide in his favor, provided it does not come too late!"
Hours passed; the distant mutterings grew louder, while the darkness and gloom increased, and the sense of oppression became almost intolerable. Suddenly the leaden mass which had overspread the sky appeared to drop to earth, and in the dead silence which followed could be heard the roar of the wind through the gorges and down the canyons. A moment more, and clouds of dust and debris, the outriders of the coming tempest, rushed madly through the streets in whirling columns towering far above the city. From their vantage ground the dwellers at The Pines watched the course of the storm, but only for a moment; then blinding sheets of water hid even the nearest objects from view, while lightnings flashed incessantly and the thunder crashed and rolled in one ceaseless, deafening roar. The trees waved their arms in wild, helpless terror as one and another of their number were prostrated by the storm, while the dry channels on the mountain-side became raging, foaming torrents. Suddenly the winds changed, a chilling blast swept across the plateau, and to the rush of the wind, the roar of the thunder, and the crash of falling timber was added the sharp staccato of swiftly descending hail.
For nearly an hour the storm raged in its fury, then departed as suddenly as it came; but it left behind a clear atmosphere, crisp as an October morning.
As the storm clouds, touched with beauty by the rays of the setting sun, were settling below the eastern ranges, Dr. Bradley again entered the sick-room. The room was flooded with golden light, and the physician was quick to note the changes which the few hours had wrought in the sick man. The fever had gone and, his strength spent, his splendid energies exhausted, life's forces were ebbing moment by moment.
"He is sinking fast," said Mrs. Dean.
Even as she spoke a smile stole over the pallid features; then, as they watched eagerly for some token of returning consciousness, the nervous system, so long strained to its utmost tension, suddenly relaxed and utter collapse followed.
For hours Darrell lay as one dead, an occasional fluttering about the heart being the only sign of life. But late in the forenoon of the following day the watchers by the bedside, noting each feeble pulsation, thinking it might be the last, felt an almost imperceptible quickening of the life current. Gradually the fluttering pulse grew calm and steady, the faint respirations grew deeper and more regular, until at length, with a long, tremulous sigh, Darrell sank into slumber sweet and restful as a child's, and the watchers knew that the crisis had passed.
It was on one of those glorious October days, when every breath quickens the blood and when simply to live is a joy unspeakable, that Darrell first walked abroad into the outdoor world. Several times during his convalescence he had sunned himself on the balcony opening from his room, or when able to go downstairs had paced feebly up and down the verandas, but of late his strength had returned rapidly, so that now, accompanied by his physician, he was walking back and forth over the gravelled driveway under the pine-trees, his step gaining firmness with every turn.
Seated on the veranda were Mr. Underwood and his sister, the one with his pipe and newspaper, the other with her knitting; but the newspaper had slipped unheeded to the floor, and though Mrs. Dean's skilful fingers did not slacken their work for an instant, yet her eyes, like her brother's, were fastened upon Darrell, and a shade of pity might have been detected in the look of each, which the occasion at first sight hardly seemed to warrant.
"Poor fellow!" said Mr. Underwood, at length; "it's hard for a young man to be handicapped like that!"
"Yes," assented his sister, "and he takes it hard, too, though he doesn't say much. I can't bear to look in his eyes sometimes, they look so sort of pleading and helpless."
"Takes it hard!" reiterated Mr. Underwood; "why shouldn't he. I'm satisfied that he is a young man of unusual ability, who had a bright future before him, and I tell you, Marcia, it's pretty hard for him to wake up and find it all rubbed off the slate!"
"Well," said Mrs. Dean, with a sigh, "everybody has to carry their own burdens, but there's a look on his face when he thinks nobody sees him that makes me wish I could help him carry his, though I don't suppose anybody can, for that matter; it isn't anything that anybody feels like saying much about."
"I'm glad Jack is coming," said Mr. Underwood, after a pause; "he may do him some good. He has a way of getting at those things that you and I haven't, Marcia."
"Yes, he's seen trouble himself, though nobody knows what it was."
Notwithstanding the tide of returning vitality was fast restoring tissue and muscle to Darrell's wasted limbs and firmness and elasticity to his step, it was yet evident to a close observer that some undercurrent of suffering was doing its work day by day; sprinkling the dark hair with gleams of silver, tracing faint lines in the face hitherto untouched by care, working its subtle, mysterious changes.
When a new lease of life was granted to John Darrell and he awoke to consciousness, it was to find that every detail of his past life had been blotted out, leaving only a blank. Of his home, his friends, of his own name even, not a vestige of memory was left. It was as though he had entered upon a new existence.
By degrees, as he was able to hear them, he was given the details of his arrival at Ophir, of his coming to The Pines, of the tragedy which he had witnessed in the sleeping-car, but they awoke no memories in his mind. For him there was no past. As a realization of his condition dawned upon him his mental distress was pitiable. Despite the efforts of physician and nurse to divert his mind, he would lie for hours trying to recall some fragment from the veiled and shrouded past, but all in vain. Yet, with returning physical strength, many of his former attainments seemed to return to him, naturally and without effort. Dr. Bradley one day used a Latin phrase in his hearing; he at once repeated it and, without a moment's hesitation, gave the correct rendering, but was unable to tell how he did it.
"It simply came to me," was all the explanation he could give.
From this the physician argued that the memory of his past life would sooner or later return, and it was this hope alone which at that time saved Darrell from total despair.
Aside from his professional interest in so peculiar a case, Dr. Bradley had become interested in Darrell himself; many of his leisure hours were spent at The Pines, and quite a friendship existed between the two.
In Mr. Underwood and his sister Darrell had found two steadfast friends, each seeming to vie with the other in thoughtful, unobtrusive kindness. His strange misfortune had only deepened and intensified the sympathy which had been first aroused by the peculiar circumstances under which he had come to them. But now, as then, they said little, and for this Darrell was grateful. Even the silent pity which he read in their eyes hurt him,—why, he could scarcely explain to himself; expressed in words, it would have been intolerable. Early in his convalescence Darrell had expressed an unwillingness to trespass upon their kindness by remaining after he could with safety be moved, but the few words they had spoken on that occasion had effectually silenced any further suggestion of the kind on his part. He understood that to leave them would be to forfeit their friendship, which he well knew was of a sort too rare to be slighted or thrown aside.
Of Kate Underwood Darrell knew nothing, except as her father or aunt spoke of her, for he had no recollection of her and she had left home early in his illness to return to an eastern college, from which she would graduate the following year.
With more animation than he had yet shown since his illness, Darrell returned to the veranda. He was flushed and trembling slightly from the unusual exertion, and Dr. Bradley, dropping down beside him, from force of habit laid his fingers on Darrell's wrist, but the latter shook them off playfully.
"No more of that!" he exclaimed, adding, "Doctor, I challenge you for a race two weeks from to-day. What do you say, do you take me up?"
"Two weeks from to-day!" repeated the doctor, with an incredulous smile, at the same time scrutinizing Darrell's form. "Well, yes. When you are in ordinary health I don't think I would care to do much business with you along that line, but two weeks from to-day is a safe proposition, I guess. What do you want to make it, a hundred yards?" he inquired, with a laughing glance at Mr. Underwood.
"One hundred yards," replied Darrell, following the direction of the doctor's glance. "Do you want to name the winner, Mr. Underwood?"
"I'll back you, my boy," said the elder man, quietly, his shrewd face growing a trifle shrewder.
"What!" exclaimed Dr. Bradley, rising hastily;
"I guess it's about time I was going, if that's your estimate of my athletic prowess," and, shaking hands with Darrell, he started down the driveway.
"I'll put you up at about ten to one," Mr. Underwood called after the retreating figure, but a deprecatory wave of his hand over his shoulder was the doctor's only reply.
"Oh," exclaimed Darrell, looking about him, "this is glorious! This is one of the days that make a fellow feel that life is worth living!"
Even as he spoke there came to his mind the thought of what life meant to him, and the smile died from his lips and the light from his eyes.
For a moment nothing was said, then, with the approaching sound of rhythmic hoof-beats, Mr. Underwood rose, deliberately emptying the ashes from his pipe as a fine pair of black horses attached to a light carriage appeared around the house from the direction of the stables.
"You will be back for lunch, David?" Mrs. Dean inquired.
"Yes, and I'll bring Jack with me," was his reply, as he seated himself beside the driver, and the horses started at a brisk trot down the driveway.
With a smile Mrs. Dean addressed Darrell, who was watching the horses with a keen appreciation of their good points.
"This 'Jack' that you've heard my brother speak of is his partner."
"Yes?" said Darrell, courteously, feeling slight interest in the expected guest, but glad of anything to divert his thoughts.
"Yes," Mrs. Dean continued; "they've been partners and friends for more than ten years. His name is John Britton, but it's never anything but 'Dave' and 'Jack' between the two; they're almost like two boys together."
Darrell wondered what manner of man this might be who could transform his silent, stern-faced host into anything boy-like, but he said nothing.
"To see them together you'd wonder at their friendship, too," continued Mrs. Dean, "for they're noways alike. My brother is all business, and Mr. Britton is not what you'd really call a practical business man. He is very rich, for he is one of those men that everything they touch seems to turn to gold, but he doesn't seem to care much about money. He spends a great deal of his time in reading and studying, and though he makes very few friends, he could have any number of them if he wanted, for he's one of those people that you always feel drawn to without knowing why."
Mrs. Dean paused to count the stitches in her work, and Darrell, whose thoughts were of the speaker more than of the subject of conversation, watching her placid face, wondered whether it were possible for any emotion ever to disturb that calm exterior. Presently she resumed her subject, speaking in low, even tones, which a slight, gentle inflection now and then just saved from monotony.
"He's always a friend to anybody in distress, and I guess there isn't a poor person or a friendless person in Ophir that doesn't know him and love him. He has had some great trouble; nobody knows what it is, but he told David once that it had changed his whole life."
Darrell now became interested, and the dark eyes fixed on Mrs. Dean's face grew suddenly luminous with the quick sympathy her words had aroused.
"He always seems to be on the lookout for anybody that has trouble, to help them; that's how he got to know my brother."
Mrs. Dean hesitated a moment. "I never spoke of this to any one before, but I thought maybe you'd be interested to know about it," she said, looking at Darrell with a slightly apologetic air.
"I am, and I think I understand and appreciate your motive," was his quiet reply.
She dropped her work, folding her hands above it, and her face wore a reminiscent look as she continued:
"When David's wife died, twelve years ago, it was an awful blow to him. He didn't say much,—that isn't our way,—but we were afraid he would never be the same again. His brother was out here at that time, but none of us could do anything for him. He kept on trying to attend to business just as usual, but he seemed, as you might say, to have lost his grip on things. It went on that way for nearly two years; his business got behind and everything seemed to be slipping through his fingers, when he happened to get acquainted with Mr. Britton, and he seemed to know just what to say and do. He got David interested in business again. He loaned him money to start with, and they went into business together and have been together ever since. They have both been successful, but David has worked and planned for what he has, while Mr. Britton's money seems to come to him. He owns property all over the State, and all through the West for that matter, and sometimes he's in one place and sometimes in another, but he never stays very long anywhere. David would like to have him make his home with us, but he told him once that he couldn't think of it; that he only stayed in a place till the pain got to be more than he could bear, and then he went somewhere else."
A long silence followed; then, as Mrs. Dean folded her work, she said, softly,—
"It's no wonder he knows just how to help folks who are in trouble, for I guess he has suffered himself more than anybody knows."
A little later she had gone indoors to superintend the preparations for lunch, but Darrell still sat in the mellow, autumn sunlight, his eyes closed, picturing to himself this stranger silently bearing his hidden burden, changing from place to place, but always keeping the pain.
It still lacked two hours of sunset when John Darrell, leaning on the arm of John Britton, walked slowly up the mountain-path to a rustic seat under the pines. They had met at lunch. Mr. Britton had already heard the strange story of Darrell's illness, and, looking into his eyes with their troubled questioning, their piteous appeal, knew at once by swift intuition how hopelessly bewildering and dark life must look to the young man before him just at the age when it usually is brightest and most alluring; and Darrell, meeting the steadfast gaze of the clear, gray eyes, saw there no pity, but something infinitely broader, deeper, and sweeter, and knew intuitively that they were united by the fellowship of suffering, that mysterious tie which has not only bound human hearts together in all ages, but has linked suffering humanity with suffering Divinity.
For more than two hours Darrell, taking little part himself in the general conversation, had watched, as one entranced, the play of the fine features and listened to the deep, musical voice of this stranger who was a stranger no longer.
He was an excellent conversationalist; humorous without being cynical, scholarly without being pedantic, and showing especial familiarity with history and the natural sciences.
At last, while walking up and down the broad veranda, Mr. Britton had paused beside Darrell, and throwing an arm over his shoulder had said,—
"Come, my son, let us have a little stroll."
Darrell's heart had leaped strangely at the words, he knew not why, and in a silence pregnant with deep emotion on both sides, they had climbed to the rustic bench. Here they sat down. The ground at their feet was carpeted with pine-needles; the air was sweet with the fragrance of the pines and of the warm earth; no sound reached their ears aside from the chirping of the crickets, the occasional dropping of a pine-cone, or the gentle sighing of the light breeze through the branches above their heads.
A glorious scene lay outspread before them; the distant ranges half veiled in purple haze, the valleys flooded with golden light, brightened by the autumnal tints of the deciduous timber which marked the courses of numerous small streams, and over the whole a restful silence, as though, the year's work ended, earth was keeping some grand, solemn holiday.
Mr. Britton first broke the silence, as in low tones he murmured, reverently,—
"'Thou crownest the year with Thy goodness!'"
Then turning to Darrell with a smile of peculiar sweetness, he said, "This is one of what I call the year's 'coronation days,' when even Nature herself rests from her labors and dons her royal robes in honor of the occasion."
Then, as an answering light dawned in Darrell's eyes and the tense lines in his face began to relax, Mr. Britton continued, musingly:
"I have often wondered why we do not imitate Nature in her great annual holiday, and why we, a nation who garners one of the richest harvests of the world, do not have a national harvest festival. How effectively and fittingly, for instance, something similar to the old Jewish feast of tabernacles might be celebrated in this part of the country! In the earliest days of their history the Jews were commanded, when the year's harvest had been gathered, to take the boughs of goodly trees, of palm-trees and willows, and to construct booths in which they were to dwell, feasting and rejoicing, for seven days. In the only account given of one of these feasts, we read that the people brought olive-branches and pine-branches, myrtle-branches and palm-branches, and made themselves booths upon the roofs of their houses, in their courts, and in their streets, and dwelt in them, 'and there was very great gladness.' Imagine such a scene on these mountain-slopes and foot-hills, under these cloudless skies; the sombre, evergreen boughs interwoven with the brightly colored foliage from the lowlands; this mellow, golden sunlight by day alternating with the white, mystical radiance of the harvest moon by night."
Mr. Britton's words had, as he intended they should, drawn Darrell's thoughts from himself. Under his graphic description, accompanied by the powerful magnetism of his voice and presence, Darrell seemed to see the Oriental festival which he had depicted and to feel a soothing influence from the very simplicity and beauty of the imaginary scene.
"Think of the rest, the relaxation, in a week of such a life!" continued Mr. Britton. "Re-creation, in the true sense of the word. The simplest joys are the sweetest, but our lives have grown too complex for us to appreciate them. Our amusements and recreations, as we call them, are often more wearing and exhausting than our labors."
For nearly an hour Mr. Britton led the conversation on general subjects, carefully avoiding every personal allusion; Darrell following, interested, animated, wondering more and more at the man beside him, until the latter tactfully led him to speak—calmly and dispassionately, as he could not have spoken an hour before—of himself. Almost before he was aware, Darrell had told all: of his vain gropings in the darkness for some clue to the past; of the helpless feeling akin to despair which sometimes took possession of him when he attempted to face the situation continuously confronting him.
During his recital Mr. Britton had thrown his arm about Darrell's shoulder, and when he paused quite a silence followed.
"Did it ever occur to you," Mr. Britton said at length, speaking very slowly, "that there are hundreds—yes, thousands—who would be only too glad to exchange places with you to-day?"
"No," Darrell replied, too greatly astonished to say more.
"But there are legions of poor souls, haunted by crime, or crushed beneath the weight of sorrow, whose one prayer would be, if such a thing were possible, that their past might be blotted out; that they might be free to begin life anew, with no memories dogging their steps like spectres, threatening at every turn to work their undoing."
For a moment Darrell regarded his friend with a fixed, inquiring gaze, which gradually changed to a look of comprehension.
"I see," he said at length, "I have got to begin life anew; but you consider that there are others who have to make the start under conditions worse than mine."
"Far worse," said Mr. Britton. "Don't think for a moment that I fail to realize in how many ways you are handicapped or to appreciate the obstacles against which you will have to contend, but this I do say: the future is in your own hands—as much as it is in the hands of any mortal—to make the most of and the best of that you can, and with the negative advantage, at least, that you are untrammelled by a past that can hold you back or drag you down."
The younger man laid his hand on the knee of the elder with a gesture almost appealing. "The future, until now, has looked very dark to me; it begins to look brighter. Advise me; tell me how best to begin!"
"In one word," said Mr. Britton, with a smile. "Work! Just as soon as you are able, find some work to do. Did we but know it, work is the surest antidote for the poisonous discontent and ennui of this world, the swiftest panacea for its pains and miseries; different forms to suit different cases, but every form brings healing and blessing, even down to the humblest manual labor."
"That is just what I have wanted," said Darrell, eagerly; "to go to work as soon as possible; but what can I do? What am I fitted for? I have not the slightest idea. I don't care to work at breaking stone, though I suppose that would be better than nothing."
"That would be better than nothing," said Mr. Britton, smiling again, "but that would not be suited to your case. What you need is mental work, something to keep your mind constantly occupied, and rest assured you will find it when you are ready for it. Our Father provides what we need just when we need it. 'Day by day' we have the 'daily bread' for mental and spiritual life, as for temporal. But what you most want to do is to keep your mind pleasantly occupied, and above all things don't try to recall the past. In God's own good time it will return of itself."
"And when it does, what revelations will it bring?" Darrell queried musingly.
"Nothing that you will be afraid or ashamed to meet; of that I am sure," said Mr. Britton, confidently, adding a moment later, in a lighter tone, "It is nearing sunset, my boy, and time that I was taking you back to the house."
"You have given me new courage, new hope," said Darrell, rising. "I feel now as though there were something to live for—as though I might make something out of life, after all."
"I realize," said Mr. Britton, tenderly, as together they began the descent of the mountain path, "as deeply as you do that your life is sadly disjointed; but strive so to live that when the broken fragments are at last united they will form one harmonious and symmetrical whole. It is a difficult task, I know, but the result will be well worth the effort. In your case, my son, even more than in ordinary lives, the words of the poet are peculiarly applicable:
"'A sacred burden is this life ye bear: Look on it, lift it, bear it solemnly; Stand up and walk beneath it steadfastly; Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin, But onward, upward, till the goal ye win.'"
An hour later John Britton stood alone on one of the mountain terraces, his tall, lithe form silhouetted against the evening sky, his arms folded, his face lifted upward. It was a face of marvellous strength and sweetness combined. Sorrow had set its unmistakable seal upon his features; here and there pain had traced its ineffaceable lines; but the firmly set mouth was yet inexpressibly tender, the calm brow was unfurrowed, and the clear eyes had the far-seeing look of one who, like the Alpine traveller, had reached the heights above the clouds, to whose vision were revealed glories undreamed of by the dwellers in the vales below.
And to Darrell, watching from his room the distant figure outlined against the sky, the simple grandeur, the calm triumph of its pose must have brought some revelation concerning this man of whom he knew so little, yet whose personality even more than his words had taken so firm a hold upon himself, for, as the light faded and deepening twilight hid the solitary figure from view, he turned from the window, and, pacing slowly up and down the room, soliloquized:
"With him for a friend, I can meet the future with courage and await with patience the resurrection of the buried past. As he has conquered, so will I conquer; I will scale the heights after him, until I stand where he stands to-night!"
ECHOES FROM THE PAST
During his stay at The Pines Mr. Britton spent the greater portion of his time with Mr. Underwood, either at their offices or at the mines. Darrell, therefore, saw little of his new-found friend except as they all gathered in the evening around the glowing fire in the large family sitting-room, for, notwithstanding the lingering warmth and sunshine of the days, the nights were becoming sharp and frosty, so that an open fire added much to the evening's enjoyment. Each morning, however, before his departure, Mr. Britton stopped for a few words with Darrell; some quaint, kindly bit of humor, the pleasant flavor of which would enliven the entire day; some unhackneyed expression of sympathy whose very genuineness and sincerity made Darrell's position seem to him less isolated and solitary than before; or some suggestion which, acted upon, relieved the monotony of the tedious hours of convalescence.
At his suggestion Darrell took vigorous exercise each day in the morning air and sunshine, devoting his afternoons to a course of light, pleasant reading.
"If you are going to work," said Mr. Britton, "the first requisite is to have your body and mind in just as healthful and normal a condition as possible, in order that you may be able to give an equivalent for what you receive. In these days of trouble between employer and employed, we hear a great deal about the laborer demanding an honest equivalent for his toil, but it does not occur to him to inquire whether he is giving his employer an honest equivalent for his money. The fact is, a large percentage of working-men and working-women, in all departments of labor, are squandering their energies night after night in various forms and degrees of dissipation until they are utterly incapacitated for one honest day's work; yet they do not hesitate to take a full day's wages, and would consider themselves wronged were the smallest fraction withheld."
Darrell found himself rather restricted in his reading for the first few days, as he found but a limited number of books at The Pines, until Mrs. Dean, who had received a hint from Mr. Britton, meeting him one day in the upper hall, led him into two darkened rooms, saying, as she hastened to open the blinds,—
"These are what the children always called their 'dens.' All their books are here, and I thought maybe you'd like to look them over. If you see anything you like, just help yourself, and use the rooms for reading or writing whenever you want to."
Darrell, left to himself, looked about him with much interest. The two rooms were similar in style and design, but otherwise were as diverse as possible. The room in which he was standing was furnished in embossed leather. A leather couch stood near one of the windows, and a large reclining-chair of the same material was drawn up before the fireplace. Near the mantel was a pipe-rack filled with fine specimens of briar-wood and meerschaum pipes. Signs of tennis, golf, and various athletic sports were visible on all sides; in the centre of the room stood a large roll-top desk, open, and on it lay a briar pipe, filled with ashes, just where the owner's hand had laid it. But what most interested Darrell was a large portrait over the fireplace, which he knew must be that of Harry Whitcomb. The face was neither especially fine nor strong, but the winsome smile lurking about the curves of the sensitive mouth and in the depths of the frank blue eyes rendered it attractive, and it was with a sigh for the young life so suddenly blotted out that Darrell turned to enter the second room.
He paused at the doorway, feeling decidedly out of place, and glanced about him with a serio-comic smile. The furnishings were as unique as possible, no one piece in the room bearing any relation or similarity to any other piece. There were chairs and tables of wicker-work, twisted into the most ornate designs, interspersed among heavy, antique pieces of carving and slender specimens of colonial simplicity; divans covered with pillows of every delicate shade imaginable; exquisite etchings and dainty bric-a-brac. In an alcove formed by a large bay-window stood a writing-desk of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and on an easel in a secluded corner, partially concealed by silken draperies, was the portrait of Kate Underwood,—a childish, rather immature face, but with a mouth indicating both sweetness and strength of character, and with dark, strangely appealing eyes.
The walls of both rooms were lined with bookcases, but their contents were widely diverse, and, to Darrell's surprise, he found the young girl's library contained far the better class of books. But even in their selection he observed the same peculiarity that he had noted in the furnishing of the room; there were few complete sets of books; instead, there were one, two, or three volumes of each author, as the case might be, evidently her especial favorites.
But Darrell returned to the other room, which interested him far more, each article in it bearing eloquent testimony to the happy young life of whose tragic end he had now often heard, but of which he was unable to recall the faintest memory. Passing slowly through the room, his attention was caught by a violin case standing in an out-of-the-way corner. With a cry of joy he drew it forth, his fingers trembling with eagerness as he opened it and took therefrom a genuine Stradivarius. At that moment his happiness knew no bounds. Seating himself and bending his head over the instrument after the manner of a true violin lover, he drew the bow gently across the strings, producing a chord of such triumphant sweetness that the air seemed vibrating with the joy which at that instant thrilled his own soul.
Immediately all thought of himself or of his surroundings was lost. With eyes half closed and dreamy he began to play, without effort, almost mechanically, but with the deft touch of a master hand, while liquid harmonies filled the room, quivering, rising, falling; at times low, plaintive, despairing; then swelling exultantly, only to die away in tremulous, minor undertones. The man's pent-up feelings had at last found expression,—his alternate hope and despair, his unutterable loneliness and longing,—all voiced by the violin.
Of the lapse of time Darrell had neither thought nor consciousness until the door opened and Mrs. Dean's calm smile and matter-of-fact voice recalled him to a material world.