E-text prepared by Al Haines
A Romance of the West
Author of "When Wilderness Was King," "My Lady of the North," "Bob Hampton of Placer," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Color by N. C. Wyeth
[Frontispiece: The woman never changed her posture, never seemed to realize the approach of dawn; but Winston roused up, lifting his head to gaze wearily forward.]
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ———— New York Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1907 Entered at Stationers' Hall, London All Rights Reserved Published September 21, 1907 Second Edition October 5, 1907 Third Edition, October 10, 1907 Fourth Edition, December 2, 1907 Fifth Edition, December 12, 1907
I A CHANCE MEETING II OUT WITH A ROAD COMPANY III A BREAKING OF ICE IV A NEW DEAL OF THE CARDS V IN OPEN REBELLION VI THE "LITTLE YANKEE" MINE VII A DISMISSAL VIII "HE MEANS FIGHT" IX THE FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCES X A NEW ALLIANCE XI HALF-CONFIDENCES XII THE COVER OF DARKNESS XIII TWO WOMEN XIV UNDERGROUND XV THE PROOF OF CRIME XVI A RETURN TO THE DAY XVII A COUNCIL OF WAR XVIII THE CONFESSION XIX THE POINT OF VIEW XX THE GAME OF FOILS XXI UNDER ARREST XXII THE INTERVENTION OF SWANSON XXIII A NEW VOLUNTEER XXIV AN AVOWAL OF LOVE XXV THE PROOF OF LOVE XXVI BENEATH THE DARKNESS XXVII THE SHADOW OF CRIME XXVIII ACROSS THE DESERT TO THE END XXIX THE SUMMIT OF SUCCESS XXX THE MISSION OF A LETTER
A TALE OF THE WEST
A CHANCE MEETING
There were nine altogether in the party registering. This number included the manager, who, both on and off the stage, quite successfully impersonated the villain—a rather heavy-jawed, middle-aged fellow, of foreign appearance, with coarse, gruff voice; three representatives of the gentler sex; a child of eight, exact species unknown, wrapped up like a mummy; and four males. Beyond doubt the most notable member of the troupe was the comedian "star," Mr. T. Macready Lane, whose well-known cognomen must even now awaken happy histrionic memories throughout the western circuit. The long night's ride from their previous stand, involving as it did two changes of trains, had proven exceedingly wearisome; and the young woman in the rather natty blue toque, the collar of her long gray coat turned up in partial concealment of her face, was so utterly fatigued that she refused to wait for a belated breakfast, and insisted upon being at once directed to her room. There was a substantial bolt decorating the inside of the door, but, rendered careless by sheer exhaustion of both mind and body, she forgot everything except her desire for immediate rest, dropped her wraps upon the only chair visible, and flung herself, fully dressed, upon the bed. Her cheek had barely pressed the hard pillow before she was sleeping like a tired child.
It must have been an hour later when Winston drove in from Flat Rock, shook the powdery snow from off his long fur overcoat, his cheeks still tingling from the sharp wind, and, with fingers yet stiffened by cold, wrote his name carelessly across the lower line of the dilapidated hotel register.
"Can you let me have the same room, Tom?" he questioned familiarly of the man ornamenting the high stool behind the desk.
The latter, busy with some figures, nodded carelessly, and the last arrival promptly picked up his valise from the floor and began climbing the stairs, whistling softly. He was a long-limbed, broad-chested young fellow, with clean-shaven face, and a pair of dark-gray eyes that looked straight ahead of him; and he ran up the somewhat steep steps as though finding such exercise a pleasure. Rounding the upper railing, he stopped abruptly before Number Twenty-seven, flung open the door, took a single step within, and came to a sudden pause, his careless whistling suspended in breathless surprise. With that single glance the complete picture became indelibly photographed upon his memory,—the narrow, sparsely furnished room with roughly plastered walls; the small, cheap mirror; the faded-green window curtain, torn half in two; the sheet-iron wash-stand; the wooden chair, across which rested the gray coat with the blue toque on top; and the single cot bed bearing its unconscious occupant.
Somehow as he gazed, his earliest conscious emotion was that of sympathy—it all appeared so unspeakably pathetic, so homesick, so dismally forlorn and barren. Then that half-upturned face riveted his attention and seemed to awaken a vague, dreamy memory he found himself unable to localize; it reminded him of some other face he had known, tantalizing from its dim indistinctness. Then this earlier impression slightly faded away, and he merely beheld her alone, a perfect stranger appropriating little by little her few claims to womanly beauty. There was no certain guessing at her age as she lay thus, one hand pressed beneath her cheek, her eyes closed, the long, dark lashes clearly outlined against the white flesh, her bosom rising and falling with the steady breathing of absolute exhaustion. She appeared so extremely tired, discouraged, unhappy, that the young man involuntarily closed his teeth tightly, as though some wrong had been personally done to himself. He marked the dense blackness of her heavy mass of hair; the perfect clearness of her skin; the shapeliness of the slender, outstretched figure; the narrow boot, with its high-arched instep, peeping shyly beneath the blue skirt; the something rarely interesting, yet which scarcely made for beauty, revealed unconsciously in the upturned face with its rounded chin and parted lips.
There was no distinct regularity of features, but there was unquestionably character, such character as we recognize vaguely in a sculptured face, lacking that life-like expression which the opened eyes alone are capable of rendering. All this swept across his mind in that instant during which he remained irresolute from surprise. Yet Winston was by nature a gentleman; almost before he had grasped the full significance of it all he stepped silently backward, and gently closed the door. For an uncertain moment he remained there staring blankly at the wood, that haunting memory once again mocking every vain attempt to associate this girl-face with some other he had known before. Finally, leaving valise and overcoat lying in the hall, he retraced his way slowly down the stairs.
"Tom," and the young man leaned against the rough counter, his voice grown graver, "there chances to be a woman at present occupying that room you just assigned me."
"No! Is that so?" and the clerk swung easily down from his high stool, drawing the register toward him. "Must be one of the troupe, then. Let's see—Number Twenty-seven, was n't it? Twenty-seven—oh, yes, here it is. That's a fact," and his finger slowly traced the line as he spelled out the name, "'Miss Beth Norvell.' Oh, I remember her now—black hair, and a long gray coat; best looker among 'em. Manager said she 'd have to be given a room all to herself; but I clean forgot I assigned her to Twenty-seven. Make much of a row?"
The other shook his head, bending down so as to read the name with his own eyes. There was nothing in the least familiar about the sound of it, and he became faintly conscious of an undefined feeling of disappointment. Still, if she was upon the stage, the name quite probably was an assumed one; the very utterance of it left that impression. He walked over toward the cigar stand and picked out a weed, thinking gravely while he held a flaming match to the tip. Somehow he was not altogether greatly pleased with this information; he should have preferred to discover her to be some one else. He glanced at the clerk through the slight haze of blue smoke, his increasing curiosity finding reluctant utterance.
"What troupe is it?" he questioned with seeming carelessness.
"'Heart of the World,'" answered Tom with some considerable increase of enthusiasm. "A dandy play, and a blamed good company, they tell me. Got some fine press notices anyhow, an' a carload o' scenery. Played in Denver a whole month; and it costs a dollar and a half to buy a decent seat even in this measly town, so you can bet it ain't no slouch of a show. House two-thirds sold out in advance, but I know where I can get you some good seats for just a little extra. Lane is the star. You 've heard of Lane, have n't you? Funniest fellow you ever saw; makes you laugh just to look at him. And this—this Miss Norvell, why she's the leadin' lady, and the travellin' men tell me she's simply immense. There's one of their show bills hanging over there back of the stove."
Winston sauntered across to the indicated red and yellow abomination, and dumbly stood staring at it through the blue rings of his cigar. It represented a most thrilling stage picture, while underneath, and in type scarcely a shade less pronounced than that devoted to the eminent comedian T. Macready Lane, appeared the announcement of the great emotional actress, Miss Beth Norvell, together with several quite flattering Western press notices. The young man read these slowly, wondering why they should particularly interest him, and on a sudden his rather grave face brightened into a smile, a whimsical thought flashing into his mind.
"By Jove, why not?" he muttered, as if arguing the matter out with himself. "The report has gone East, and there is nothing more to be accomplished in Flat Rock for at least a month. This snow will have to melt away before they can hope to put any miners to work, and in the meanwhile I might just as well be laying up experiences on the road as wasting my substance in riotous living at Denver. It ought to prove a great lark, and I 've always had ambition to have a try at something of the kind. Well, here 's my chance; and besides, I can't help believing that that girl might prove interesting; her face is, anyhow."
He walked back to where Tom still hung idly over the cigar case.
"Who is running this show outfit?"
"That big fellow writing at the table. His name 's Albrecht," suspiciously. "But see here, I tell you there ain't any use of your hittin' him for 'comps'; he 's tighter than a drum."
"'Comps'? Oh, ye of little faith!" exclaimed Winston genially. "It is n't 'comps' I 'm after, Tommy, it's a job."
Albrecht looked up from his writing, scowling somewhat under his heavily thatched brows, and revealing a coarse face, with little glinting eyes filled with low cunning. At that first glance Winston instinctively disliked the fellow; yet he put his case in a few brief sentences of explanation, and, as the other listened, the managerial frown slightly relaxed.
"Actor?" he questioned laconically, when the younger man paused, his glance wandering appreciatively over the sturdy, erect figure.
"Well, hardly that; at least, merely in an amateur way," and the applicant laughed lightly. "You see, I imagined you might possibly make use of me in some minor capacity until I learn more about the business. I don't care very much regarding pay, but I desire to get a taste of the life."
"Oxactly, mein frient." And the worthy Albrecht became almost briskly cordial in manner. Perhaps here was an "angel" waiting to be plucked in the holy name of art; at least, he appeared well dressed, looked intellectually promising, and expressed himself as totally indifferent regarding salary. Such visitors were indeed few and far between, and the astute manager sufficiently understood his business to permit his heavy features to relax into a hearty, welcoming smile. "Oxactly, young man. Sit down, und I vill see yoost vat vos pest for us both. You vould be an actor; you haf the ambition. Ah! I see it in your eyes, and it gif me great bleasure. But, young man, it vos unfortunate dot I haf not mooch just now to gif you, yet the vay vill open if you only stays mit me. Sure; yaw, I, Samuel Albrecht, vill make of you a great actor. I can see dot in your face, und for dot reason I vill now gif you the chance. You begin at the pottom, but not for long; all I vants now vos a utility man—some one to take small barts, understudy, und be ready to help out mit der scenery und der trunks. I could not bay moch monies for dot," and he spread his beringed hands deprecatingly, "but it vos only der first step on der ladder of fame. Every day I teach you de great art of de actor. You come with me dot way, mein frient?"
"Certainly; that will be perfectly satisfactory."
"Ah," delightedly, "you vos a goot poy, villin' to learn, I see. Next season, who knows, you might be leading man if you vork hardt. I bay you now after one veek's trial, when I know petter vot you are vort, hey?"
Winston carelessly nodded his acceptance of these rather indefinite terms, his hands thrust into his pockets, his gray eyes smiling their appreciation of the situation. Albrecht was deliberately looking him over, as he might a horse he had just purchased.
"You are kinder slim to look at," he confessed at last, thoughtfully. "Are you bretty strong?"
The younger man silently held forth his right arm to the inspection of the other, who fingered the iron rigidity of muscle under the cloth with evident respect.
"God of Yacob!" the manager muttered in unconcealed surprise, "it is vonderful, and you such a slender young man to look at. I vos most afraidt you could not do mein vork, but it is all right. You vill eat mit us at the long table," he waved his hand indefinitely toward the dining-room, "at 12:30, and then I valk mit you over py der Obera House, und show you vat der is to be done mit dot scenery und dem trunks. Mein Gott! it vos vonderful dot muscles vot you haf got—you vould make a great Davy Crockett ven I learns you de business, mein frient."
The manager's appreciation of his new acquisition was so clearly evident that Winston felt compelled to notice it.
"I am rejoiced you appear so well satisfied," he said, rising to his feet.
"Satisfied! Mein Gott," and the overjoyed Albrecht cordially clasped the hand of his new recruit. "It vos a great season of luck for me, mein frient. Dot Meess Norvell, she makes me mooch monies vile I shows her how to be an actress,—oh, it vos yoost beautiful to see her act,—und now you comes mit me also, und cares nottings for vot I bay you, und I can see you haf der actor genius. Mein Gott! it vos too goot to be true."
Winston broke away gladly, and drifted back toward the cigar stand, where the mystified Tommy yet stood staring at him.
"Well, did you get it?" the latter questioned, grinning.
"Thomas," returned the other loftily. "You can hand me out another cigar, and I will thank you not to be quite so familiar in the future. I am now general utility man with the 'Heart of the World' company, and consequently entitled to greater respect."
OUT WITH A ROAD COMPANY
Miss Norvell failed to appear at the noon meal, though Winston met the other members of the company. He found them genial enough, even somewhat boisterous, with the single exception of Mr. Lane, who maintained a dignified and rather gloomy silence, such as became one of his recognized professional standing, after having favored the newcomer with a long, impertinent stare, apparently expressing disapproval. The manager was outwardly in most excellent humor, narrating several stories, at which all, excepting the reserved comedian, laughed quite heartily. At the conclusion of the repast, Albrecht condescended to purchase his new recruit a cigar, and then walked beside him toward the Opera House, where the necessary instructions in new duties promptly began. If Winston had previously imagined his earlier steps toward histrionic honors were destined to be easy ones, he was very soon undeceived under the guidance of the enthusiastic manager. It proved a strenuous afternoon, yet the young fellow had the right stuff in him to make good, that stubborn pride which never surrenders before difficulties; he shut his teeth, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and went earnestly to work.
It was a small, cheaply built theatre, having restricted stage space, while a perfect riff-raff of trunks and detached pieces of canvas scenery littered the wings. At first sight it appeared a confused medley of odds and ends, utterly impossible to bring into any conformity to order, but Albrecht recognized each separate piece of luggage, every detached section of canvas, recalling exactly where it properly belonged during the coming performance. For more than an hour he pranced about the dirty stage, shouting minute directions, and giving due emphasis to them by growling German oaths; while Winston, aided by two local assistants, bore trunks into the various dressing-rooms, hung drop curtains in designated positions, placed set pieces conveniently at hand, and arranged the various required properties where they could not possibly be overlooked during the rush of the evening's performance. Thus, little by little, order was evolved from chaos, and the astute manager chuckled happily to himself in quick appreciation of the unusual rapidity with which the newly engaged utility man grasped the situation and mastered the confusing details. Assuredly he had discovered a veritable jewel in this fresh recruit. At last, the affairs of principal importance having been attended to, Albrecht left some final instructions, and departed for the hotel, feeling serenely confident that this young man would carry out his orders to the letter.
And Winston did. He was of that determined nature which performs thoroughly any work once deliberately undertaken; and, although the merest idle whim had originally brought him to this position of utility man in the "Heart of the World" company, he was already beginning to experience a slight degree of interest in the success of the coming show, and to feel a faint esprit de corps, which commanded his best efforts. Indeed, his temporary devotion to the preparation of the stage proved sufficiently strong to obscure partially for the time being all recollection of that first incentive which had suggested his taking such a step—the young lady discovered asleep in Number Twenty-seven. The remembrance of her scarcely recurred to him all through the afternoon, yet it finally returned in overwhelming rush when, in the course of his arduous labors, he raised up a small leather trunk and discovered her name painted plainly upon the end of it. The chalk mark designating where it belonged read "Dressing-room No. 2," and, instead of rolling it roughly in that direction, as he had rolled numerous others, the new utility man lifted it carefully upon his shoulder and deposited it gently against the farther wall. He glanced with curiosity about the restricted apartment to which Miss Beth Norvell had been assigned. It appeared the merest hole of a place, narrow and ill-ventilated, the side walls and ceiling composed of rough lumber, and it was evidently designed to be lit at night by a single gas jet, inclosed within a wire netting. This apartment contained merely a single rude chair, of the kitchen variety, and an exceedingly small mirror cracked across one corner and badly fly-specked. Numerous rusty spikes, intended to hold articles of discarded clothing, decorated both side walls and the back of the door. It was dismally bare, and above all, it was abominably dirty, the dust lying thick everywhere, the floor apparently unswept for weeks. With an exclamation of disgust Winston hunted up broom and dust-rag, and gave the gloomy place such a cleansing as it probably had not enjoyed since the house was originally erected. At the end of these arduous labors he looked the scene over critically, the honest perspiration streaming down his face, glancing, with some newly awakened curiosity, into the surrounding dressing-rooms. They were equally filthy and unfit for occupancy, yet he did not feel called upon to invade them with his cleansing broom. By four o'clock everything was in proper position, the stage set in perfect order for the opening act, and Winston returned with his report to the hotel, and to the glowing Albrecht.
Miss Norvell joined the company at the supper table, sitting between the manager and Mr. T. Macready Lane, although Winston was quick to observe that she gave slight attention to either, except when addressed directly. She met the others present with all necessary cordiality and good-fellowship, yet there appeared a certain undefined reserve about her manner which led to an immediate hush in the rather free conversation of what Albrecht was pleased to term the "training table," and when the murmur of voices was resumed after her entrance, a somewhat better choice of subjects became immediately noticeable. Without so much as either word or look, the silent influence of the actress was plainly for refinement, while her mere presence at the table gave a new tone to Bohemianism. Winston, swiftly realizing this, began observing the lady with a curiosity which rapidly developed into deeper interest. He became more and more attracted by her unique personality, which persistently appealed to his aroused imagination, even while there continued to haunt him a dim tantalizing remembrance he was unable wholly to master. He assuredly had never either seen or heard of this young woman before, yet she constantly reminded him of the past. Her eyes, the peculiar contour of her face, the rather odd trick she had of shaking back the straying tresses of her dark, glossy hair, and, above all, that quick smile with which she greeted any flash of humor, and which produced a fascinating dimple in her cheek, all served to puzzle and stimulate him; while admiration of her so apparent womanliness began as instantly to replace the vague curiosity he had felt toward her as an actress. She was different from what he had imagined, with absolutely nothing to suggest the glare and glitter of the footlights. Until this time he had scarcely been conscious that she possessed any special claim to beauty; yet now, her face, illumined by those dark eyes filled with quick intelligence, became most decidedly attractive, peculiarly lovable and womanly. Besides, she evidently possessed a rare taste in dress, which met with his masculine approval. Much of this, it is true, he reasoned out later and slowly, for during that first meal only two circumstances impressed him clearly—the depth of feeling glowing within those wonderfully revealing eyes, and her complete ignoring of his presence. If she recognized any addition to their number, there was not the slightest sign given. Once their eyes met by merest accident; but hers apparently saw nothing, and Winston returned to his disagreeable labors at the Opera House, nursing a feeling akin to disappointment.
Concealed within the gloomy shadows of the wings, he stood entranced that night watching her depict the character of a wife whose previous happy life had been irretrievably ruined by deceit; and the force, the quiet originality of her depiction, together with its marvellous clearness of detail and its intense realism, held him captive. The plot of the play was ugly, melodramatic, and entirely untrue to nature; against it Winston's cultivated taste instantly revolted; yet this woman interpreted her own part with the rare instinct of a true artist, picturing to the very life the particular character intrusted to her, and holding the house to a breathless realization of what real artistic portrayal meant. In voice, manner, action, in each minute detail of face and figure, she was truly the very woman she represented. It was an art so fine as to make the auditors forget the artist, forget even themselves. Her perfect workmanship, clear-cut, rounded, complete, stood forth like a delicate cameo beside the rude buffoonery of T. Macready Lane, the coarse villany of Albrecht, and the stiff mannerisms of the remainder of the cast. They were automatons as compared with a figure instinct with life animated by intelligence. She seemed to redeem the common clay of the coarse, unnatural story, and give to it some vital excuse for existence, the howls of laughter greeting the cheap wit of the comedian changed to a sudden hush of expectancy at her mere entrance upon the stage, while her slightest word, or action, riveted the attention. It was a triumph beyond applause, beyond any mere outward demonstration of approval. Winston felt the spell deeply, his entire body thrilling to her marvellous delineation of this common thing, her uplifting of it out of the vile ruck of its surroundings and giving unto it the abundant life of her own interpretation. Never once did he question the real although untrained genius back of those glowing eyes, that expressive face, those sincere, quiet tones which so touched and swayed the heart. In other days he had seen the stage at its best, and now he recognized in this woman that subtle power which must conquer all things, and eventually "arrive."
Early the following morning, tossing uneasily upon a hard cot-bed in the next town listed in their itinerary, he discovered himself totally unable to divorce this memory from his thoughts. She even mingled with his dreams,—a rounded, girlish figure, her young face glowing with the emotions dominating her, her dark eyes grave with thoughtfulness,—and he awoke, at last, facing another day of servile toil, actually rejoicing to remember that he was part of the "Heart of the World." That which he had first assumed from a mere spirit of play, the veriest freak of boyish adventure, had suddenly developed into a real impulse to which his heart gave complete surrender.
To all outward appearances Miss Beth Norvell remained serenely unconscious regarding either his admiration or his presence. It was impossible to imagine that in so small a company he could continually pass and repass without attracting notice, yet neither word nor look passed between them; no introduction had been accorded, and she merely ignored him, under the natural impression, without doubt, that he was simply an ignorant roustabout of the stage, a wielder of trunks, a manipulator of scenery, in whom she could feel no possible interest. A week passed thus, the troupe displaying their talents to fair business, and constantly penetrating into more remote regions, stopping at all manner of hotels, travelling in every species of conveyance, and exhibiting their ability, or lack of it, upon every makeshift of a stage. Sometimes this was a bare hall; again it was an armory, with an occasional opera house—like an oasis in the vast desert—to yield them fresh professional courage. Small cities, straggling towns, boisterous mining camps welcomed and speeded them on, until sameness became routine, and names grew meaningless. It was the sort of life to test character thoroughly, and the "Heart of the World" troupe of strollers began very promptly to exhibit its kind. Albrecht, who was making money, retained his coarse good-nature unruffled by the hardships of travel; but the majority of the stage people grew morose and fretful,—the eminent comedian, glum and unapproachable as a bear; the leading gentleman swearing savagely over every unusual worry, and acting the boor generally; the ingenue, snappy and cat-like. Miss Norvell alone among them all appeared as at first, reserved, quiet, uncomplaining, forming no intimate friendships, yet performing her nightly work with constantly augmenting power. Winston, ever observing her with increasing interest, imagined that the strain of such a life was telling upon her health, exhibiting its baleful effect in the whitening of her cheeks, in those darker shadows forming beneath her eyes, as well as in a shade less of animation in her manner. Yet he saw comparatively little of her, his own work proving sufficiently onerous; the quick jumps from town to town leaving small opportunity for either rest or reflection. He had been advanced to a small speaking part, but the remainder of his waking hours, while he was attired in working-clothes, was diligently devoted to the strenuous labor of his muscles. The novelty of the life had long since vanished, the so eagerly expected experience had already become amply sufficient; again and again, flinging his wearied body upon a cot in some strange room, he had called himself an unmitigated ass, and sworn loudly that he would certainly quit in the morning. Yet the girl held him. He did not completely realize how or why, yet some peculiar, indefinite fascination appeared to bind his destinies to her; he ever desired to see her once again, to be near her, to feel the charm of her work, to listen to the sound of her voice, to experience the thrill of her presence. So strong and compelling became this influence over him that day after day he held on, actually afraid to sever that slight bond of professional companionship.
This was most assuredly through no fault of hers. It was at Shelbyville that she first spoke to him, first gave him the earliest intimation that she even so much as recognized his presence in the company. The house that particular night was crowded to the doors, and she, completing a piece of work which left her cheeks flushed, her slender form trembling from intense emotion, while the prolonged applause thundered after her from the front, stepped quickly into the gloomy shadows of the wings, and thus came face to face with Winston. His eyes were glowing with unconcealed appreciation of her art. Perhaps the quick reaction had partially unstrung her nerves, for she spoke with feverish haste at sight of his uprolled sleeves and coarse woollen shirt.
"How does it occur that you are always standing directly in my passage whenever I step from the stage?" she questioned impetuously. "Is there no other place where you can wait to do your work except in my exit?"
For a brief moment the surprised man stood hesitating, hat in hand.
"I certainly regret having thus unintentionally offended you, Miss Norvell," he explained at last, slowly. "Yet, surely, the occasion should bring you pleasure rather than annoyance."
"Indeed! Why, pray?"
"Because I so greatly enjoy your work. I stood here merely that I might observe the details more carefully."
She glanced directly at him with suddenly aroused interest.
"You enjoy my work?" she exclaimed, slightly smiling. "How extremely droll! Yet without doubt you do, precisely as those others, out yonder, without the slightest conception of what it all means. Probably you are equally interested in the delicate art of Mr. T. Macready Lane?"
Winston permitted his cool gray eyes to brighten, his firmly set lips slightly to relax.
"Lane is the merest buffoon," he replied quietly. "You are an artist. There is no comparison possible, Miss Norvell. The play itself is utterly unworthy of your talent, yet you succeed in dignifying it in a way I can never cease to admire."
She stood staring straight at him, her lips parted, apparently so thoroughly startled by these unexpected words as to be left speechless.
"Why," she managed to articulate at last, her cheeks flushing, "I supposed you like the others we have had with us—just—just a common stage hand. You speak with refinement, with meaning."
"Have you not lived sufficiently long in the West to discover that men of education are occasionally to be found in rough clothing?"
"Oh, yes," doubtfully, her eyes still on his face, "miners, stockmen, engineers, but scarcely in your present employment."
"Miss Norvell," and Winston straightened up, "possibly I may be employed here for a reason similar to that which has induced you to travel with a troupe of barn-stormers."
She shrugged her shoulders, her lips smiling, the seductive dimple showing in her cheeks.
"And what was that?"
"The ambition of an amateur to attain a foothold upon the professional stage."
"Who told you so?"
"Mr. Samuel Albrecht was guilty of the suggestion.
"It was extremely nice of him to discuss my motives thus freely with a stranger. But he told you only a very small portion of the truth. In my case it was rather the imperative necessity of an amateur to earn her own living—a deliberate choice between the professional stage and starvation."
She hesitated slightly, yet there was a depth of respect slumbering within those gray eyes gazing so directly into her darker ones, together with a strength she felt.
"Without very much at first, I fear," she confessed, as though admitting it rather to herself alone, "yet I acknowledge it has since grown upon me, until I have determined to succeed."
His eyes brightened, the admiration in them unconcealed, his lips speaking impulsively.
"And what is more, Miss Norvell, you 'll make it."
"Do you truly believe so?" She had already forgotten that the man before her was a mere stage hand, and her cheeks burned eagerly to the undoubted sincerity of his utterance. "No one else has ever said that to me—only the audiences have appeared to care and appreciate. Albrecht and all those others have scarcely offered me a word of encouragement."
"Albrecht and the others are asses," ejaculated Winston, with sudden indignation. "They imagine they are actors because they prance and bellow on a stage, and they sneer at any one who is not in their class. But I can tell you this, Miss Norvell, the manager considers you a treasure; he said as much to me."
She stood before him, the glare of the stage glinting in her hair, her hands clasped, her dark eyes eagerly reading his face as though these unexpected words of appreciation had yielded her renewed courage, like a glass of wine.
"Really, is that true? Oh, I am so glad. I thought, perhaps, they were only making fun of me out in front, although I have always tried so hard to do my very best. You have given me a new hope that I may indeed master the art. Was that my cue?"
She stepped quickly backward, listening to the voices droning on the stage, but there remained still a moment of liberty, and she glanced uncertainly about at Winston.
"Am I to thank you for giving me such immaculate dressing-rooms of late?" she questioned, just a little archly.
"I certainly wielded the broom."
"It was thoughtful of you," and her clear voice hesitated an instant. "Was—was it you, also, who placed those flowers upon my trunk last evening?"
He bowed, feeling slightly embarrassed by the swift returning restraint in her manner.
"They were most beautiful. Where did you get them?"
"From Denver; they were forwarded by express, and I am only too glad if they brought you pleasure."
"Miracle of miracles! A stage-hand ordering roses from Denver! It must have cost you a week's salary."
"And, alas, the salary has not even been paid."
Her eyes were uplifted to his face, yet fell as suddenly, shadowed behind the long lashes.
"I thank you very much," she said, her voice trembling, "only please don't do it again; I would rather not have you."
Before he could frame a satisfactory answer to so unexpected a prohibition she had stepped forth upon the stage.
This brief interview did not prove as prolific of results as Winston confidently expected. Miss Norvell evidently considered such casual conversation no foundation for future friendship, and although she greeted him when they again met, much as she acknowledged acquaintanceship with the others of the troupe, there remained a quiet reserve about her manner, which effectually barred all thought of possible familiarity. Indeed, that she ever again considered him as in any way differing from the others about her did not once occur to Winston until one evening at Bluffton, when by chance he stood resting behind a piece of set scenery and thus overheard the manager as he halted the young lady on the way to her dressing room.
"Meess Norvell," and Albrecht stood rubbing his hands and smiling genially, "at Gilchrist we are pilled to blay for dwo nights, und der second blay vill be der 'Man from der Vest'—you know dot bart, Ida Somers?"
"Yes," she acknowledged, "I am perfectly acquainted with the lines, but who is to play Ralph Wilde?"
"Mister Mooney, of course. You tink dot I import some actors venever I change der pill?"
She lifted her dark, expressive eyes to his mottled face, slowly gathering up her skirts in one hand.
"As you please," she said quietly, "but I shall not play Ida Somers to Mr. Mooney's Ralph Wilde. I told you as much plainly before we left Denver, and it was for that special reason the 'Heart of the World' was substituted. The more I have seen of Mr. Mooney since we took the road, the less I am inclined to yield in this matter."
Albrecht laughed coarsely, his face reddening.
"Oh, bah!" he exclaimed, gruffly derisive. "Ven you begome star then you can have dem tantrums, but not now, not mit me. You blay vat I say, or I send back after some von else. You bedder not get too gay, or you lose your job damn quick. You don't vant Mooney to make lofe to you? You don't vant him to giss you?—hey, vos dot it?"
"Yes, that was exactly it."
"Ach!—you too nice to be brofessional; you like to choose your lofer, hey? You forget you earn a livin' so. Vot you got against Mooney?"
Miss Norvell, her cheeks burning indignantly, her eyes already ablaze, did not mince words.
"Nothing personally just so long as he keeps away from me," she retorted clearly. "He is coarse, vulgar, boorish, and I have far too much respect for myself to permit such a man to touch me, either upon the stage or off; to have him kiss me would be an unbearable insult."
Albrecht, totally unable to comprehend the feelings of the girl, shifted uneasily beneath the sharp sting of her words, yet continued to smile idiotically.
"Dot is very nice, quite melodramatic, but it is not brofessional, Meess," he stammered, striving to get hold of some satisfactory argument. "Vy, Mooney vos not so pad. Meess Lyle she act dot bart mit him all der last season, and make no kick. Dunder! vat you vant—an angel? You don't hafe to take dot bart mit me, or Meester Lane either, don 't it, hey?"
Miss Norvell turned contemptuously away from him, her face white with determination.
"If you really want to know, there is only one man in all your troupe I would consent to play it with," she declared calmly.
"Und dot is?"
"I do not even know his name," and she turned her head just sufficiently to look directly into Albrecht's surprised face; "but I refer to your new utility man; he, at least, possesses some of the ordinary attributes of a gentleman."
The door of her dressing-room opened and closed, leaving the startled manager standing alone without, gasping for breath, his thick lips gurgling impotent curses, while Winston discreetly drew farther back amid the intricacy of scenery.
A BREAKING OF ICE
The troupe in its wandering arrived at Bolton Junction early on a Saturday afternoon, and Winston, lingering a moment in the hotel office, overheard Miss Norvell ask the manager if they would probably spend Sunday there; and later question the hotel clerk regarding any Episcopalian services in the town. Their rather late arrival, however, kept him so exceedingly busy with stage preparation for the evening's performance that this conversation scarcely recurred to mind until his night's labor had been completed. Then, in the silence of his room, he resolved upon an immediate change in conditions, or else the deliberate giving up of further experiment altogether. He was long since tired enough of it, yet a strange, almost unaccountable attraction for this young woman continued binding him to disagreeable servitude.
He came down stairs the following morning, his plans completely determined upon. He was carefully dressed in the neat business suit which had been packed away ever since his first reckless plunge into theatrical life, and thus attired he felt more like his old self than at any moment since his surrender to the dictation of Albrecht. In some degree self-confidence, audacity, hope, came promptly trooping back with the mere donning of clean linen and semi-fashionable attire, so that Winston "utility" became Winston gentleman, in the twinkling of an eye. The other members of the troupe slept late, leaving him to breakfast alone after vainly loitering about the office in the hope that Miss Norvell might by some chance appear and keep him company. It was almost mortifying to behold that young woman enter the deserted dining-room soon after he had returned to the lonely office, but she gave no sign of recognition in passing, and his returned audacity scarcely proved sufficient to permit his encroachment upon her privacy. He could only linger a moment at the desk in an effort to catch a better view of her through the partially open door.
Nervously gripping a freshly lighted cigar, Winston finally strolled forth upon the wide porch to await, with all possible patience, the opportunity he felt assured was fast approaching. It was a bright spring morning, sufficiently warm to be comfortable without in the sunshine, although the mountains overshadowing the town were yet white with snow. The one long, straggling business street appeared sufficiently lonely, being almost deserted, the shops closed. The notable contrast between its present rather dreary desolation and the wild revelry of the previous night seemed really painful, while the solemn prevailing stillness served to weaken Winston's bold resolutions and brought him a strange timidity. He slowly strolled a block or more, peering in at the shop windows, yet never venturing beyond easy view of the hotel steps. Then he sauntered as deliberately back again. Lane and Mooney were now stationed upon the porch, tipping far back in their chairs, their feet deposited on the convenient railing, smoking and conversing noisily with a group of travelling men. Winston, to his disgust, caught little scraps of the coarse stories exchanged, constantly greeted by roars of laughter, but drew as far away from their immediate vicinity as possible, leaning idly against the rail. Far down the street, from some unseen steeple, a church bell rang solemnly. Listening, he wondered if she would come alone, and a dread lest she might not set his heart throbbing.
Albrecht, looking not unlike a fat hog newly shaven, sauntered out of the open office door, and stared idly about. He spoke a gracious word or two to his rather silent utility man, viewing his well-cut clothing with some apparent misgiving, finally drifting over to join the more congenial group beyond. Winston did not alter his chosen position, but remained with watchful eyes never long straying from off the ladies' entrance, a few steps to his left. All at once that slightly used door opened, and the hot blood leaped through his veins as Miss Norvell stepped forth unaccompanied. She appeared well groomed, looking dainty enough in her blue skirt and jacket, her dark hair crowned by the tasteful blue toque, a prayer-book clasped in one neatly gloved hand. As she turned unconsciously toward the steps, Winston lifted his hat and bowed. With a quick upward glance of surprise the girl recognized him, a sudden flush crimsoning her cheeks, her eyes as instantly dropping before his own. In that sudden revelation the young man appeared to her an utterly different character from what she had formerly considered him; the miracle of good clothing, of environment, had suddenly placed them upon a level of companionship. That Winston likewise experienced something of this same exaltation was plainly evident, although his low voice trembled in momentary excitement.
"I trust you will pardon my presumption," he said, taking the single step necessary to face her, "but I confess having been deliberately waiting here to request the privilege of walking to church beside you."
"Beside me? Indeed!" and both lips and eyes smiled unreservedly back at him. "And how did you chance to guess it was my intention to attend? Is it a peculiarity of leading ladies?"
"As to that I cannot safely say, my acquaintance among them being limited." He was acquiring fresh confidence from her cordial manner. "But I chanced to overhear your questioning the clerk last night, and the bold project at once took possession of me. Am I granted such permission?"
Her dark eyes wandered from their early scrutiny of his eager face toward that small group of interested smokers beyond. What she may have beheld there was instantly reflected in a pursing of the lips, a swift decision.
"I shall be delighted to have your company," she responded, frankly meeting his eyes, "but longer delay will probably make us late, and I abominate that."
As they passed down the steps to the street Winston caught a glimpse of the others. They were all intently gazing after them, while Mooney had even risen to his feet and taken a step forward, his cigar still in his mouth. Then the group behind laughed loudly, and the younger man set his teeth, his cheeks flushed from sudden anger. He would have enjoyed dashing back up the steps, and giving those grinning fools a much-needed lesson, but he glanced aside at his companion, her eyes downcast, seemingly utterly unconscious of it all, and gripped himself, walking along beside her, erect and silent. They traversed the entire deserted block without speaking, each busied indeed with the intricacies of the board walk. Then Winston sought to break the somewhat embarrassing silence, his first words sounding strangely awkward and constrained.
"It was exceedingly kind of you to grant such privilege when we have scarcely even spoken to each other before."
She glanced aside at his grave face, a certain coquettish smile making her appear suddenly girlish.
"Possibly if you realized the exact cause of my complete surrender you might not feel so highly flattered," she confessed, shyly.
"Indeed! You mean why it was you consented so easily? Then possibly you had better inform me at once, for I acknowledge feeling quite conceited already at my good fortune."
She lifted her eyes questioningly, and for the first time he looked directly down into their unveiled depths.
"Then I must certainly make confession. What if I should say, I merely accepted the lesser of two evils—in short, preferred your company to something I considered infinitely worse?"
"You refer to Mooney?"
She nodded, her dark eyes once again shadowed, her cheeks slightly reddening beneath his steady gaze.
"Why, I can scarcely feel greatly flattered at being made the subject of such a choice," Winston acknowledged with frankness. "The very conception brings me uneasiness in fear lest my presence may be unwelcome now that Mooney has been safely left behind. Yet it yields me boldness also, and I venture to ask Miss Norvell what she would probably have answered had Mooney been left out of the problem entirely?"
His low voice held a ring of subdued earnestness, and the face of the woman as quickly lost its smile. An instant she hesitated, her eyes downcast, fully conscious he was anxiously searching her countenance for the exact truth.
"And under those conditions," she responded finally, "Miss Norvell would very probably have answered yes, only it would have been more deliberately uttered, so that you should have realized the measure of her condescension."
"You can have small conception of the intense relief brought me by that last acknowledgment," he explained cheerfully. "Now I can proceed with clear conscience, and shall undoubtedly discover in the church service an expression of my own devout gratitude."
It was an exceedingly alert exchange of words which followed, each cautiously exploring a way in toward a somewhat clearer understanding of the other, yet both becoming quickly convinced that they were not destined for ordinary acquaintanceship. To Miss Norvell observing her companion with shy intentness, this erect, manly young fellow with weather-browned, clean-shaven face and straightforward gray eyes seemed to evince a power of manhood she instinctively felt and surrendered to. His were those elements which a woman of her nature must instantly recognize—physical strength and daring, combined with mental acuteness and indomitable will. The fact of his present unworthy employment added the fascination of mystery to his personality, for it was manifestly impossible to conceive that such a position was all this man had ever achieved in life. And Winston wondered likewise at her, his earlier admiration for the bright attractiveness of face and manner broadening as her mind gave quick response to his leadership. Here was certainly no commonplace girl of the stage, but an educated, refined, ambitious woman, matured beyond her years by experience, her conversation exhibiting a wide range of reading, interwoven, with a deep knowledge of life. They spoke of ideals, of art, of literature, of secret aspirations, not often mentioned during such early acquaintanceship, breaking through that mental barrenness which had characterized their living for weeks, this common ground of thought and interest awakening between them an immediate friendliness and frankness of utterance delightfully inspiring. Almost without comprehending how it occurred they were chatting together as if the eventful years had already cemented their acquaintanceship. With cheeks flushed and eyes glowing from aroused interest Miss Norvell increased in beauty, and Winston observed her with an admiration finding frank expression in his eyes.
It was a small chapel they sought, situated at the extreme end of the straggling street, and the worshippers were few. At the conclusion of the ritual and the sermon the two walked forth together in silence, their former brief intimacy a mere memory, neither realizing exactly how best to resume a conversation which had been interrupted by so solemn a service. It was Miss Norvell who first broke the constraint.
"You are evidently well acquainted with the intricacies of the prayer-book," she remarked quietly, "and hence I venture to inquire if you are a churchman."
"Not exactly, although my parents are both communicants, and I was brought up to attend service."
"Do you know, I am glad even of that? It is a little additional bond between us merely to feel interested in the same church, isn't it? I was guilty during the service of thinking how exceedingly odd it was for us to talk so frankly together this morning when we knew absolutely nothing regarding each other. Would you mind if I questioned you just a little about yourself?"
He glanced aside at her in surprise, all remembrance that they were comparatively strangers having deserted his mind. It seemed as if he had already known her for years.
"Most certainly question; I had no thought of any concealment."
She smiled at the confusedness of his words, yet her own speech was not entirely devoid of embarrassment.
"It does appear almost ridiculous, but really I do not even know your name."
"It is Ned Winston."
"Not so bad a name, is it? Do you mind telling me where your home is?"
"I can scarcely lay claim to such a spot, but my people live in Denver."
She drew a quick, surprised breath, her eyes instantly falling, as though she would thus conceal some half-revealed secret. For a moment her parted lips trembled to a question she hesitated asking.
"I—I believe I have heard of a Colonel Daniel Winston in Denver, a banker," she said finally. "I—I have seen his house."
"He is my father."
Her shadowing lashes suddenly uplifted, the color once again flooding the clear cheeks.
"You are, indeed, becoming a man of mystery," she exclaimed, affecting lightness of utterance. "The son of Colonel Winston acting as utility for a troupe of strollers! I can hardly believe it true."
"It does seem a trifle out of proportion," he confessed, "and I can hardly hope to make the situation entirely clear. Yet I am not quite so unworthy my birthright as would appear upon the surface. I will trust you with a portion of the story, at least, Miss Norvell. I am by profession a mining engineer, and was sent out, perhaps a month ago, by a syndicate of Denver capitalists to examine thoroughly into some promising claims at Shell Rock. I made the examination, completed and mailed my report, and finally, on the same day your company arrived there, I discovered myself in Rockton with nothing to do and several weeks of idleness on my hands. I had intended returning to Denver, but a sudden temptation seized me to try the experiment of a week or two in wandering theatrical life. I had always experienced a boyish hankering that way, and have a natural inclination to seek new experiences. Albrecht was favorably impressed with my application, and hence I easily attained to my present exalted position upon the stage."
"And is that all?"
"Not entirely; there yet remains a chapter to be added to my confessions. I acknowledge I should have long since tired of the life and its hardships, had you not chanced to be a member of the same troupe."
"I, Mr. Winston? Why, we have scarcely spoken to each other until to-day."
"True, yet I strenuously deny that it was my fault. In fact, I had firmly determined that we should, and, having been a spoiled child, I am accustomed to having my own way. This, perhaps, will partially account for my persistency and for my still being with 'The Heart of the World.' But all else aside, I early became intensely interested in your work, Miss Norvell, instantly recognizing that it required no common degree of ability to yield dignity to so poor a thing as the play in which you appear. I began to study you and your interpretation; I never tired of noting those little fresh touches with which you constantly succeeded in embellishing your lines and your 'business,' and how clearly your conception of character stood forth against the crude background of those mummers surrounding you. It was a lesson in interpretative art to me, and one I never wearied of. Then, I must likewise confess, something else occurred."
He paused, looking aside at her, and, as though she felt the spell of that glance, she turned her own face, brightened by such earnest words of praise, their eyes meeting frankly.
"The most natural thing in the world—my admiration for the art only served to increase my early interest in the artist. I began to feel drawn not only to the actress but to the woman," he said gravely.
Her eyes never faltered, but faced him bravely, although her cheeks were like poppies, and her lips faltered in their first bold effort at swift reply.
"I am so glad you honestly think that about my work; so glad you told me. It is a wonderful encouragement, for I know now that you speak as a man of education, of cultivation. You must have seen the highest class of stage interpretation, and, I am sure, have no desire merely to flatter me. You do not speak as if you meant an idle compliment. Oh, you can scarcely conceive how much success will spell to me, Mr. Winston," her voice growing deeper from increasing earnestness, her eyes more thoughtful, "but I am going to tell you a portion of my life-story in order that you may partially comprehend. This is my first professional engagement; but I was no stage-struck girl when I first applied for the position. Rather, the thought was most repugnant to me. My earlier life had been passed under conditions which held me quite aloof from anything of the kind. While I always enjoyed interpreting character as a relaxation, and even achieved, while at school in the East, a rather enviable reputation as an amateur, I nevertheless had a distinct prejudice against the professional stage, even while intensely admiring its higher exponents. My turning to it for a livelihood was a grim necessity, my first week on the road a continual horror. I abhorred the play, the making of a nightly spectacle of myself, the rudeness and freedom of the audiences, the coarse, common-place people with whom I was constantly compelled to consort. You know them, and can therefore realize to some extent what daily association with them must necessarily mean to one of my early training and familiarity with quieter social customs. But my position in the troupe afforded me certain privileges of isolation, while my necessities compelled me to persevere. As a result, the dormant art-spirit within apparently came to life; ambition began to usurp the place of indifference; I became more and more disgusted with mediocrity, and began an earnest struggle toward higher achievements. I had little to guide me other than my own natural instincts, yet I persevered. I insisted on living my own life while off the stage, and, to kill unhappy thought, I devoted all my spare moments to hard study. Almost to my surprise, the very effort brought with it happiness. I began to forget the past and its crudities, to blot out the present with its dull, unpleasant realities, and to live for the future. My ideals, at first but vague dreams, took form and substance. I determined to succeed, to master my art, to develop whatever of talent I might possess to its highest possibility, to become an actress worthy of the name. This developing ideal has already made me a new woman—it has given me something to live for, to strive toward."
She came to a sudden pause, perceiving in the frank gray eyes scanning her animated face a look which caused her own to droop. Then her lips set in firmer resolution, and she continued as though in utter indifference to his presence.
"You may not comprehend all this, but I do. It was the turning-point in my life. And I began right where I was. I endeavored to make the utmost possible out of that miserable melodramatic part which had been assigned to me. I elected to play it quietly, with an intensity to be felt and not heard, the very opposite from the interpretation given by Miss Lyle last season, and I felt assured my efforts were appreciated by the audiences. It encouraged me to discover them so responsive; but Albrecht, Lane, and Mooney merely laughed and winked at each other, and thus hurt me cruelly, although I had little respect for their criticisms. Still, they were professional actors of experience, and I was not yet certain that my judgment might not be wrong. Miss Head, the ingenue, a girl of sweet disposition but little education, praised my efforts warmly, but otherwise your evident appreciation is my only real reward. I spoke to you that evening in the wings not so much to scold you for being in the way, as from a hungry, despairing hope that you might speak some word of encouragement. I was not disappointed, and I have felt stronger ever since."
"I should never have suspected any such purpose. We have never so much as exchanged speech since, until to-day, and then I forced it."
She shook her head, a vagrant tress of her black hair loosening.
"You must be a very young and inexperienced man to expect to comprehend all that any woman feels merely by what she says or does."
"No," smilingly, "I have advanced beyond that stage of development, although the mystery of some womanly natures may always remain beyond me. But can I ask you a somewhat personal question, also?"
"Most assuredly, yet I expressly reserve the privilege of refusing a direct reply."
"Is Beth Norvell your real, or merely your stage name?"
"Why do you ask? That is a secret which, I believe, an actress is privileged to keep inviolate."
"For one particular reason—because I cannot escape a vague impression that somewhere we have met before."
She did not respond immediately, her gloved fingers perceptibly tightening about the prayer-book, her eyes carefully avoiding his own.
"You are mistaken in that, for we have never met," she said slowly, and with emphasis. "Moreover, Beth Norvell is my stage name, but in part it is my true name also." Suddenly she paused and glanced aside at him. "I have spoken with unusual frankness to you this morning, Mr. Winston. Most people, I imagine, find me diffident and uncommunicative—perhaps I appear according to my varying moods. But I have been lonely, and in some way you have inspired my confidence and unlocked my life. I believe you to be a man worthy of trust, and because I thus believe I am now going to request you not to ask me any more. My past life has not been so bright that I enjoy dwelling upon it. I have chosen rather to forget it entirely, and live merely for the future."
They were standing before the door of the ladies' entrance to the hotel by this time, and the young man lifted his hat gravely.
"Your wish shall certainly be respected," he said with courtesy, "yet that does not necessarily mean that our friendship is to end here."
Her face became transfigured by a sudden smile, and she impulsively extended her hand.
"Assuredly not, if you can withstand my vagaries. I have never made friends easily, and am the greater surprised at my unceremonious frankness with you. Yet that only makes it harder to yield up a friendship when once formed. Do you intend, then, to remain with the company? I have no choice, but you have the whole world."
"Yet, my intense devotion to the art of the Thespian holds me captive."
Their eyes met smilingly, and the next instant the door closed quietly between them.
Winston turned aside and entered the gloomy hotel office, feeling mentally unsettled, undetermined in regard to his future conduct. Miss Norvell had proven frankly intimate, delightfully cordial, yet overshadowing it all there remained unquestionably a certain constraint about both words and actions which continued to perplex and tantalize. She had something in her past life to conceal; she did not even pretend to deceive him in this regard, but rather held him off with deliberate coolness. The very manner in which this had been accomplished merely served to stimulate his eagerness to penetrate the mystery of her reserve, and caused him to consider her henceforth as altogether differing from other girls. She had become a problem, an enigma, which he would try to solve; and her peculiar nature, baffling, changeable, full of puzzling moods, served to fascinate his imagination, to invite his dreaming. A strange thrill swept him when he caught a fleeting glimpse of white skirt and well-turned ankle as she ran swiftly up the steep staircase, yet, almost at the same instant, he returned to earth with a sudden shock, facing Mooney, when the latter turned slowly away from the window and sneeringly confronted him. The mottled face was unpleasantly twisted, a half-smoked cigar tilted between his lips. An instant the half-angry eyes of the two men met.
"Must have made a conquest, from all appearances," ventured the leading man with a knowing wink. "Not so damned hard to catch on with, is she, when the right man tries it?"
There was a swift, passionate blow, a crash among the overturned chairs, and Mooney, dazed and trembling, gazed up from the floor at the rigid, erect figure towering threateningly above him, with squared shoulders and clenched fists.
"Utter another word like that, you cur," said Winston, sternly, "and I 'll break your head. Don't you dare doubt that I 'll keep my word."
For a breathless moment he stood there, glowering down at the shrinking wretch on the floor. Then, his face, still set and white with passion, he turned contemptuously away. Mooney, cursing cowardly behind his teeth, watched him ascend the stairs, but the younger man never so much as glanced below.
A NEW DEAL OF THE CARDS
For the two performances following there occurred an enforced shift of actors, owing to Mr. Mooney's being somewhat indisposed; and Winston, aided by considerable prompting from the others, succeeded in getting through his lines, conscious of much good-natured guying out in front, and not altogether insensible to Miss Norvell's efforts not to appear amused. This experience left him in no pleasanter frame of mind, while a wish to throw over the whole thing returned with renewed temptation. Why not? What was he continuing to make such a fool of himself for, anyhow? He was assuredly old enough to be done with chasing after will-o'-the-wisps; and besides, there was his constant liability to meet some old acquaintance who would blow the whole confounded story through the Denver clubs. The thought of the probable sarcasm of his fellows made him wince. Moreover, he was himself ashamed of his actions. This actress was nothing to him; he thoroughly convinced himself of that important fact at least twenty times a day. She was a delightful companion, bright, witty, full of captivating character, attractively winsome, to be sure, yet it was manifestly impossible for him ever to consider her in any more serious way. This became sufficiently clear to his reasoning, yet, at the same time, he could never quite break free. She seldom appeared to him twice the same—proving as changeable as the winds, her very nature seeming to vary with a suddenness which never permitted his complete escape from her fascinations, but left him to surmise how she would greet him next. Frank or distant, filled with unrestrained gayety or dignified by womanly reserve, smiling or grave, the changeable vagaries of Miss Norvell were utterly beyond his guessing, while back of all these outward manifestations of tantalizing personality, there continually lurked a depth of hidden womanhood, which as constantly baffled his efforts at fathoming. It piqued him to realize his own helplessness, to comprehend how completely this girl turned aside his most daring efforts at uncovering the true trend of her heart and life. She refused to be read, wearing her various masks with a cool defiance which apparently bespoke utter indifference to his good opinion, while constantly affording him brief, tantalizing glimpses into half-revealed depths that caused his heart to throb with anticipation never entirely realized.
It did not once occur to his mind that such artifices might be directed as much toward herself as him; he lacked the conceit which could have convinced him that they merely marked a secret struggle for mastery, a desperate effort to crush an inclination to surrender before the temptation of the moment. It was a battle for deliverance being fought silently behind a mask of smiles, an exchange of sparkling commonplace; yet ever beneath this surface play she was breathing a fervent prayer that he would go away of his own volition and leave her free. Far more clearly than he, the woman recognized the utter impossibility of any serious purpose between them, and she fought his advances with every weapon in her armory, her very soul trembling behind the happy smiling of her lips. It was bravely attempted, and yet those dull weapons of defence served merely to increase his interest, to awaken his passion, and thus bind him more strongly to her. Safe once again from general observation, he returned to the obscurity of the wings and to the routine handling of trunks and scenery, feeling totally unable to permit her to pass entirely out of his life. Within her own room she dampened her pillow with tears of regret and remorse, yet finally she sank to sleep strangely happy because he lingered. It was the way of a woman; it was no less the way of a man.
It was thus that the "Heart of the World" players came to fulfil their engagement at San Juan upon a Saturday night. This was the liveliest camp in all that mountain region, a frantic, feverish, mushroom city of tents and shacks, sprawling frame business blocks, and a few ugly brick abominations, perched above the golden rocks of the Vila Valley, bounded on one side by the towering cliffs, on the other by the pitiless desert. In those days San Juan recognized no material distinction between midnight and noon-day. All was glitter, glow, life, excitement along the streets; the gloomy overhanging mountains were pouring untold wealth into her lap, while vice and crime, ostentation and lawlessness, held high carnival along the crowded, straggling byways. The exultant residents existed to-day in utter carelessness of the morrow, their one dominant thought gold, their sole acknowledged purpose those carnal pleasures to be purchased with it. Everything was primitive, the animal yet in full control, the drinking, laughing, fighting animal, filled with passion and blood-lust, worshipping bodily strength, and governed by the ideals of a frontier society wherein the real law hung dangling at the hip. Saloons, gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels flaunted themselves shamelessly upon every hand; the streets exhibited one continual riot, while all higher life was seemingly rendered inactive by inordinate grasping after wealth, and reckless squandering of it on appetite and vice; over all, as if blazoned across the blue sky, appeared the ever-recurring motto of careless humanity, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow ye die." Hardly a week before a short railroad spur had been constructed up the narrow, rock-guarded valley from Bolton Junction, eighteen miles to the northward, and over those uneven rails the "Heart of the World" troupe of adventurous strollers arrived at San Juan, to find lodgment in that ramshackle pile of boards known locally as the "Occidental Hotel."
The San Juan Opera House, better known as the Gayety, was in truth merely an adjunct to the Poodle-Dog Saloon, the side-doors from the main floor opening directly into the inviting bar-room, while those in the gallery afforded an equally easy egress into the spacious gambling apartments directly above. It was a monstrous ugly building, constructed entirely of wood most hastily prepared; the stage was utilized both night and day for continuous variety entertainments of the kind naturally demanded by the motley gathering. These, however, were occasionally suspended to make room for some adventurous travelling company to appear in the legitimate drama, but at the close of every evening performance the main floor was promptly cleared, the rows of chairs pushed hastily back from the centre, and the space thus vacated utilized for a general dance, which invariably continued until dawn.
When the drop-curtain slowly rose that Saturday evening fully three thousand people crowded the hall, eager for any fresh excitement; and ready enough either to taunt or applaud a performer, as the whim moved them. Bearded miners conspicuous in red shirts; cattlemen wearing wide sombreros and hairy "chaps"; swarthy Mexicans lazily puffing the inseparable cigarette; gamblers attired in immaculate linen, together with numerous women gaudy of cheek and attire, composed a frontier audience full of possibilities. The result might easily prove good or evil, according to the prevailing temper, but fortunately the "Heart of the World" quickly caught the men's fancy, the laughter ringing loud in appreciation of Mr. Lane's ardent buffoonery, while the motley crowd sat in surprised silence evincing respect, as Miss Norvell drove home to their minds the lesson of a woman's sorrow and struggle against temptation. It was well worth while looking out across the oil-lamp footlights upon those hard-faced, bearded men, those gaudily attired women, thus held and controlled by perfectly depleted emotion, the vast audience so silent that the click of the wheel, the rattle of ivory chips in the rooms beyond, became plainly audible. There was inspiration in it likewise, and never before did Beth Norvell more clearly exhibit her native power, her spark of real genius.
Winston found little to do in his department that night, either on or off the stage, as the company expected to spend Sunday in the place. Consequently, he was only slightly behind the other members of the troupe in attaining the hotel at the conclusion of the evening's performance. Indeed, he was earlier than many, for most of the male members had promptly adjourned to the convenient bar-room, with whatsoever small sums of money they could wring from out the reluctant palm of Albrecht. Winston chanced to pause for a moment at the cigar stand to exchange a pleasant good-night word with the seemingly genial clerk.
"You one of the actors?" questioned the latter, exhibiting some slight interest.
The young man nodded indifferently, not feeling unduly proud of the distinction.
"Sorry I couldn't have been there," the other went on cordially. "The boys tell me you gave 'em a mighty fine show, but I 'm here to bet that some of your people wish they 'd steered clear of San Juan."
"Why, that fat fellow—what's his name?—oh, yes, Albrecht—the sheriff was in here hunting him with some papers he had to serve, and it would have made you laugh just to see that duck climb out when I met him yonder on the street a few minutes ago, and gave him the highball. Guest of the house, you know, and we did n't want him pinched in here; besides, we understood he carried the scads for the rest of your bunch, and we naturally wanted our share. The sheriff's out tryin' to find him now; but Lord! the fellow 's safe enough out of the county by this time, if he skipped the way I advised him he 'd better. There was an extra ore train goin' down to Bolton to-night, and he just had time to catch it on the run."
The dramatic situation slowly dawned on Winston while the clerk was speaking.
"Do you mean to tell me Albrecht has actually skipped out?" he questioned, anxiously. "Did he leave any money?"
"Sure; he paid your folks' board till Monday. You bet I looked after that."
"Board till Monday!" and Winston totally forgot himself. "That is n't salary, man; there is something infernally dirty about this whole deal. Why, he took in over three thousand dollars to-night, and he's got all of that, and at least a week's receipts besides—the infernal cur! Was he alone?"
"Tall fellow with clipped black moustache, and bald head."
"Lane; I expected as much; they're birds of a feather. When can they get out of the Junction?"
"Well, the first train scheduled goes east at four o'clock, but it 's generally late."
Winston walked twice across the floor, alternately swearing and thinking.
"Is there any way I could get there before that time?" he questioned, finally, his square jaw setting firm.
"Well, I reckon you might, by goin' hossback across the old trail, but you 'd need to have a guide in the dark, and you 'd find it a hell of a hard ride."
The young engineer stood a moment staring out of the window into the night. The street was well illumined by the numerous saloon lights, and he could perceive scattering flakes of snow in the air, blown about by the gusty wind. He no longer felt the slightest doubt regarding Albrecht's desertion, and a wave of indignation swept over him. He did not greatly care himself regarding the small amount of money due for his services, but it was a dirty, contemptible trick, and he resented being so easily made the victim of such a scheme. Suddenly he wondered how this unexpected occurrence might affect the others. With one of them alone in mind he strode back to the counter, his teeth clinched savagely.
"What is the number of Miss Norvell's room?"
"Fifty-four—first door to the right of the stairs."
He took the steep flight of steps at a run, caught a glimpse of dimly reflected light shining through the closed transom, and rapped sharply. There was a hurried movement within, and her voice spoke.
"What is wanted?"
"I am Mr. Winston, and I must speak with you at once."
His tone was sufficiently low and earnest to make her realize instantly some grave emergency. Without hesitation the door was held open, and she stood before him in the faint light of the single lamp, wearing a fleecy white wrapper, her dark hair partially disarranged, her eyes seeking his own in bewilderment.
"What is it?"
"Are you aware that both Albrecht and Lane have skipped out?"
"Why, no," her cheeks suddenly paling, her fingers clasping the edge of the door. "Do you mean they have deserted us here to—to take care of ourselves?"
He nodded. "Yes, that's about it. What I came to ask was, does that fellow owe you any money?"
For an instant she hesitated, as if in lingering distrust of his exact purpose, her lips parted, her face still plainly picturing the shock of discovery.
"What difference can that possibly make now? Why do you require to know?"
"Because I half believe you have been left penniless. Albrecht has not even spoken about any pay to me since I joined the company; and when I learned he had deliberately left us stalled here, my first thought was of your unpleasant situation if my suspicions proved true."
"If they were, what is there you can do?"
"The hotel clerk says it is possible to reach the Junction on horseback before any trains leave there on the main line. I propose to make him disgorge, but I must know first exactly how things stand. Have you any money?"
She stood gazing at him, her anger, shame, all forgotten in the fascination of Winston's determined face. For the first time she thoroughly comprehended the cool, compelling power of this man, and it mastered her completely. She felt no longer the slightest doubt of what he purposed doing, and her woman heart swelled responsively to his masculine strength.
"I—I have n't got a dollar," she confessed simply, her lashes drooping over her lowered eyes.
"What does that fellow owe you?"
"Two hundred and sixty dollars; he has merely dribbled out what little I have been actually compelled to ask for."
A moment he remained standing there, breathing hard. Once she ventured to glance up inquiringly, only to catch his stern eyes, and as instantly lower her own.
"All right, Miss Norvell," he said finally, the words seeming fairly to explode from between his lips. "I understand the situation now, and you are to remain here until I come back. I 'll get your money, don't fear, if I have to trail him clear to Denver, but I 'll take what little the miserable thief owes me out of his hide."
The next moment he was down below in the office rapidly preparing for action, and Miss Norvell, leaning far out across the banister, listened to his quick, nervous words of instruction with an odd thrill of pride that left her cheeks crimson.
IN OPEN REBELLION
"It wus about the durndest fight as ever I see," explained Bill Hicks confidentially to a group of his cronies in the bar-room of the Poodle-Dog, while he tossed down a glass of red liquor, and shook the powdered snowflakes from his bearskin coat. "He wus a sorter slim, long-legged chap, thet young actor feller I showed the trail down ter Bolton ter, an' he scurcely spoke a word all durin' thet whol' blame ride. Search me, gents, if I c'd git either head er tail outer jist whut he wus up to, only thet he proposed ter knock ther block off some feller if he had the good luck ter ketch 'im. Somehow, I reckoned he 'd be mighty likely ter perform the job, the way his jaw set an' his eyes flared. Leastwise, I didn't possess no rip-roarin' ambition fer ter be thet other feller. Still, I didn't suppose he was no whirlwind."
Bill mechanically held out his drained glass, and, warming up somewhat, flung his discarded overcoat across a vacant bench, his eyes beginning to glow with reawakened enthusiasm.
"But, by gory, he wus! He wus simply chain lightnin', thet kid, an' the way he handed out his dukes wus a sight fer sore eyes. I got onto the facts sorter slow like, neither of us bein' much on the converse, but afore we hed reached Bolton I managed to savvy the most of it. It seems thet feller Albrecht—the big, cock-eyed cuss who played Damon, ye recollect, gents—wus the boss of the show. He wus the Grand Moke, an' held the spuds. Well, he an' thet one they call Lane jumped the ore train last night, carryin' with 'em 'bout all the specie they'd been corrallin' fer a week past, and started hot-foot fer Denver, intendin' ter leave all them other actor people in the soup. This yere lad hed got onter the racket somehow, an' say, he wus plumb mad; he wus too damn mad ter talk, an' when they git thet fur gone it's 'bout time fer the innocent spectator ter move back outen range. So he lassoed me down at Gary's barn fer ter show him the ol' trail, an' we had one hell of a night's ride of it. But, gents, I would n't o' missed bein' thar fer a heap. It was a great scrape let me tell you. We never see hide ner hair of thet Albrecht or his partner till jist afore the main-line train pulled in goin' north. The choo-choo wus mighty nigh two hours late, so it wus fair daylight by then, an' we got a good sight o' them two fellers a-leggin' it toward the station from out the crick bottom, whar they 'd been layin' low. They wus both husky-lookin' bucks, an' I was sufficient interested by then ter offer ter sorter hold one of 'em while the kid polished off the other. But Lord! that wan't his style, no how, and he just politely told me ter go plumb ter hell, an' then waltzed out alone without nary a gun in his fist. He wus purty white round the lips, but I reckon it wus only mad, fur thar wus n't nothin' weak about his voice, an' the way he lambasted thet thief wus a caution ter snakes. Say, I 've heerd some considerable ornate language in my time, but thet kid had a cinch on the dictionary all right, an' he read them two ducks the riot act good an' plenty. Thet long-legged Lane, he did n't have no sand, an' hung back and did n't say much, but the other feller tried every sneakin' trick a thief knows, only he bucked up agin a stone wall every time. Thet young feller just simply slathered him; he called him every name I ever heerd, an' some considerable others, an' finally, when the train was a-pullin' in, the cuss unlimbered his wad, an' began peelin' off the tens an' twenties till I thought the whole show wus over fer sure. But Lord! I didn't know thet kid—no more did thet Albrecht."
Hicks wet his lips with his tongue, pausing, after the manner of a good raconteur, to gaze calmly about upon the faces of his auditors.
"I could n't see jist how much the feller disgorged, but he wus almighty reluctant an' nifty about it; an' then I heerd him say, sneerin'-like, 'Now, damn yer, how much more do you want?' An', gents, what do yer think thet actor kid did? Cop ther whole blame pile? Not on yer whiskers, he didn't. He jist shoved them scads what hed been given him careless-like down inter his coat pocket, an' faced Mister Manager. 'Not a dirty penny, Albrecht,' he said, sorter soft-like; 'I 'm a-goin' to take whut yer owe me out of yer right now.' An', by gory, gents, he sure did. I can't say as how I see much o' the fracas, 'ceptin' the dust, but when thet long-legged Lane jerked out a pearl-handled pop-gun I jist naturally rapped him over the knuckles with my '45.' an' then tossed him over inter the bunch. Say, thet beat any three-ringed circus ever I see. The kid he pounded Albrecht's head on the platform, occasionally interestin' Lane by kickin' him in the stomick, while I jist waltzed 'round promiscous-like without seein' no special occasion to take holt anywhar. I reckon they 'd a been thar yit, if the train hands had n't pried 'em apart, an' loaded the remains onter a keer. An' then thet actor kid he stood thar lookin' fust at me, an' then after them keers. 'Hicks,' he panted, 'did I git fifty dollars' worth?' 'I rather reckon ye did,' I said, thoughtfully, 'en maybe it mought be a hundred.' An' then he laughed, an' brushed the dust off his clothes. 'All right, then,' says he; 'let's eat.' An' I never see no nicer feller after he got thet load offen his mind."
Winston, totally unconscious that he had thus achieved an enviable reputation in certain rather exclusive social circles of San Juan, proceeded straight to the hotel, pausing merely a moment in the wash-room to make himself a trifle more presentable, tramped up the stairs, and rapped briskly at Miss Norvell's door. He was still flushed with victory, while the natural confidence felt in her appreciation of his efforts yielded him a sense of exhilaration not easily concealed. The door was promptly opened, and, with her first glance, she read the success of his mission pictured within his face. As instantly her eyes smiled, and her hand was extended in the cordiality of welcome.
"I can perceive without a word being spoken that you discovered your man," she exclaimed, "and I am so glad!"
"Yes," he returned, stepping past, and emptying his pockets on the white coverlet of the bed. "There is the money."
She glanced at the pile doubtfully.
"Why, yours, of course. The money you told me Albrecht owed you."
She turned, somewhat embarrassed, her eyes upon his surprised face.
"Do you mean that was all you got?" she questioned finally. "Did he send nothing for the others? Did n't you know he was equally in debt to every member of the company?"
With these words the entire situation dawned upon him for the first time. He had been thinking only about Miss Norvell, and had permitted the rascally manager to escape with the greater portion of his stolen goods. The realization of how easily he had been tricked angered him, his face darkening. She read the truth as quickly, and, before he found speech in explanation, had swept the little pile of loose bills into her lap.
"Wait here a moment, please," she exclaimed quickly; "I shall be right back."
He remained as bidden, wondering dimly as to her purpose, yet her brief absence yielded but little opportunity for thought. He met her at the door with an indignantly suspicious question:
"What have you been doing? Surely, you have n't given all that money away?"
The girl smiled, a gleam of defiance visible in the uplifted eyes.
"Every cent of it. Why, what else could I do? They actually have nothing, and must get back to Denver or starve."
For an instant he completely lost his self-control.
"Why did n't you tell me first?" he asked sharply. "Did you suppose I collected my own money, and could therefore meet your expenses?"
He never forgot the expression which swept instantly into her face—the quick indignation that leaped from the depths of those dark eyes.
"I was not aware I had ever requested any help from Mr. Winston," she returned clearly, her slight form held erect. "Your following after Albrecht was entirely voluntary, but I naturally presumed the money you brought back belonged to me. You said it did, and hence I supposed it could be disposed of at my own discretion."
"You have exhibited none."
"That would seem to depend entirely upon the point of view. Until I request your aid, however, your criticism is not desired."
Both voice and manner were so cold that they were equivalent to dismissal, but Winston hesitated, already beginning to regret the bitter harshness of his speech. Beneath his steady gaze her cheeks flamed hotly.
"We have been friends," he began more humbly. "Would you mind telling me something regarding your plans? Just now I feel unable to offer you either aid or advice."
Her face perceptibly brightened, as if this new mood quickly appealed to her.
"That sounds ever so much better," she admitted, glancing up into his face. "I have never enjoyed being scolded, as though I were a child who had done wrong. Besides, I am quite convinced in this case I have done precisely right. I think you would admit it also if you only had patience to hear my story. I know exactly what I intend doing, or I should never have given all that money away. I have an engagement."
"An engagement? Where? Is there another troupe playing here?"
She shrugged her shoulders, her hands clasped.
"No, not in the sense you mean; not the legitimate. I am going to appear at the Gayety."
Winston stood grasping the back of the chair, staring straight at her, his body motionless. For an instant he was conscious of a sudden revulsion of feeling, a vague distrust of her true character, a doubt of the real nature of this perverse personality. Such a resolution on her part shocked him with its recklessness. Either she did not in the least appreciate what such action meant, or else she woefully lacked in moral judgment. Slowly, those shadowed dark eyes were uplifted to his face, as if his very silence had awakened alarm. Yet she merely smiled at the gravity of his look, shaking her dark hair in coquettish disdain.
"Again you apparently disapprove," she said with pretence of carelessness. "How easily I succeed in shocking you to-day! Really, a stranger might imagine I was under particular obligations to ask your permission for the mere privilege of living. We have known each other by sight for all of two weeks, and yet your face already speaks of dictation. Evidently you do not like the Gayety."