THE MAN THOU GAVEST
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
AUTHOR OF JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS, A SON OF THE HILLS, ETC.
FRONTISPIECE BY E.F. WARD
I dedicate this book of mine to the lovely spot where most of it was written
THE MACDOWELL COLONY PETERBOROUGH NEW HAMPSHIRE
"TO HER WHO UNDERSTANDS"
Deep in the pine woods is the little Studio where work is made supremely possible. Around the house the birds and trees sing together and no disturbing thing is permitted to trespass.
Within, like a tangible Presence, an atmosphere of loved labour; good will and high hopes greet the coming guests and speed the parting.
Little Studio in the pine woods, my appreciation and affection are yours!
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
THE MAN THOU GAVEST
The passengers, one by one, left the train but Truedale took no heed. He was the only one left at last, but he was not aware of it, and then, just as the darkness outside caught his attention, the train stopped so suddenly that it nearly threw him from his seat.
"Accident?" he asked the conductor. "No, sah! Pine Cone station. I reckon the engineer come mighty nigh forgetting—he generally does at the end. The tracks stop here. You look mighty peaked; some one expecting yo'?"
"I've been ill. My doctor ordered me to the hills. Yes: some one will meet me." Truedale did not resent the interest the man showed; he was grateful.
"Well, sah, if yo' man doesn't show up—an' sometimes they don't, owing to bad roads—you can come back with us after we load up with the wood. I live down the track five miles; we lie thar fur the night. Yo' don't look equal to taking to yo' two standing feet."
The entire train force of three men went to gather fuel for the return trip and, dejectedly, Truedale sat down in the gloom and silence to await events.
No human being materialized and Truedale gave himself up to gloomy thoughts. Evidently he must return on the train and to-morrow morning take to—just then a spark like a falling star attracted his attention and to his surprise he saw, not a dozen feet away, a tall lank man leaning against a tree in an attitude so adhesive that he might have been a fungus growth or sprig of destroying mistletoe. It never occurred to Truedale that this indifferent onlooker could be interested in him, but he might be utilized in the emergency, so he saluted cordially.
By the upward and downward curve of the glowing pipe bowl, Truedale concluded the man was nodding.
"I'm waiting for Jim White."
"So?" The one word came through the darkness without interest.
"Do you happen to know him?"
"Could you—get me to his place?"
"I reckon. That's what I come ter do."
"I—I had a trunk sent on ahead; perhaps it is in that shed?"
"It's up to—to Jim's place. Can you ride behind me on the mare? Travelling is tarnation bad."
Once they were on the mare's back, conversation dragged, then died a natural death. Truedale felt as if he were living a bit of anti-war romance as he jogged along behind his guide, his grip knocking unpleasantly against his leg as the way got rougher.
It was nine o'clock when, in a little clearing close by the trail, the lights of a cabin shone cheerily and the mare stopped short and definitely.
"I hope White is at home!" Truedale was worn to the verge of exhaustion.
"I be Jim White!" The man dismounted and stood ready to assist his guest.
"Welcome, stranger. Any one old Doc McPherson sends here brings his welcome with him."
About a fortnight later, Conning Truedale stretched his long legs out toward Jim White's roaring fire of pine knots and cones. It was a fierce and furious fire but the night was sharp and cold. There was no other light in the room than that of the fire—nor was any needed.
Jim sat by the table cleaning a gun. Truedale was taking account of himself. He held his long, brown hand up to the blaze; it was as steady as that of a statue! He had walked ten miles that day and felt exhilarated. Night brought sleep, meal time—and often in between times—brought appetite. He had made an immense gain in health.
"How long have I been here, Jim?" he asked in a slow, calm voice.
"Come Thursday, three weeks!" When Jim was most laconic he was often inwardly bursting with desire for conversation. After a silence Conning spoke again:
"Say, Jim, are there any other people in this mountain range, except you and me?"
"Ugh! just bristlin' with folks! Getting too darned thick. That's why I've got ter get into the deep woods. I just naturally hate folks except in small doses. Why"—here Jim put the gun down upon the table—"five mile back, up on Lone Dome, is the Greyson's, and it ain't nine miles to Jed Martin's place. Miss Lois Ann's is a matter o' sixteen miles; what do you call population if them figures don't prove it?"
Something had evidently disturbed White's ideas of isolation and independence—it would all come out later. Truedale knew his man fairly well by that time; at least he thought he did. Again Jim took up his gun and Con thought lazily that he must get over to his shack. He occupied a small cabin—Dr. McPherson's property for sleeping purposes.
"Do yo' know," Jim broke in suddenly; "yo' mind me of a burr runnin' wild in a flock of sheep—gatherin' as yo' go. Yo' sho are a miracle! Now old Doc McPherson was like a shadder when he headed this way—but he took longer gatherin', owin' to age an' natural defects o' build. Your frame was picked right close, but a kind o' flabby layer of gristle and fat hung ter him an' wasn't a good foundation to build on."
Conning gave a delighted laugh. Once Jim White began to talk of his own volition his discourse flowed on until hunger or weariness overtook him. His silences had the same quality—it was the way Jim began that mattered.
"When I first took ter handlin' yo' for ole Doc McPherson, I kinder hated ter take my eyes off yo' fearin' yo' might slip out, but Gawd! yo' can grapple fo' yo' self now and—I plain hanker fur the sticks."
"The sticks?" This was a new expression.
"Woods!" Jim vouchsafed (he despised the stupidity that required interpretation of perfectly plain English), "deep woods! What with Burke Lawson suspected of bein' nigh, an' my duty as sheriff consarnin' him hittin' me in the face, I've studied it out that it will be a mighty reasonable trick fur this here officer of the law to be somewhere else till Burke settles with his friends an' foes, or takes himself off, 'fore he's strung up or shot up."
Truedale turned his chair about and faced Jim.
"Do you know," he said, "you've mentioned more names in the last ten minutes than you've mentioned in all the weeks I've been here? You give me a mental cramp. Why, I thought you and I had these hills to ourselves; instead we're threatened on every side, and yet I haven't seen a soul on my tramps. Where do they keep themselves? What has this Burke Lawson done, to stir the people?"
"You don't call your santers real tramps, do you? Why folks is as thick as ticks up here, though they don't knock elbows like what they do where you cum from. They don't holler out ter 'tract yer attention, neither. But they're here."
"Let's hear more of Burke Lawson." Truedale gripped him from the seething mass of humanity portrayed by White, as the one promising most colour and interest. "Just where does Burke live?"
"Burke? Gawd! Burke don't live anywhere. He is a born floater. He scrooges around a place and raises the devil, then he just naturally floats off. But he nearly always comes back. Since the trap-settin' a time back, he has been mighty scarce in these parts; but any day he may turn up."
"The trap, eh? What about that?" With this Truedale turned about again, for Jim, having finished his work on the gun, had placed the weapon on its pegs on the wall and had drawn near the fire. He ran his hand through his crisp, gray hair until it stood on end and gave him a peculiarly bristling appearance. He was about to enjoy himself. He was as keen for gossip as any cabin woman of the hills, but Jim was an artist about sharing his knowledge. However, once he decided to share, he shared royally.
"I've been kinder waitin' fur yo' to show some interest in us-all," he began, "it's a plain sign of yo' gettin' on. I writ the same to old Doc McPherson yesterday! 'When he takes to noticin',' I writ, 'he's on the mend.'"
Conning laughed good naturedly. "Oh! I'm on the mend, all right," he said.
"Now as to that trap business," Jim took up the story, "I'll have to go back some and tell yo' about the Greysons and Jed Martin—they all be linked like sassages. Pete Greyson lives up to Lone Dome. Pete came from stock; he ain't trash by a long come, but he can act like it! Pete's forbears drank wine and talked like lords; Pete has ter rely on mountain dew and that accounts fur the difference in his goin's-on; but once he's sober, he's quality—is Pete. Pete's got two darters—Marg an' Nella-Rose. Old Doc McPherson use' ter call 'em types, whatever that means. Marg is a type, sure and sartin, but Nella-Rose is a little no-count—that's what I say. But blame it all, it's Nella-Rose as has set the mountains goin', so far as I can see. Fellers come courtin' Marg and they just slip through her fingers an' Nella-Rose gets 'em. She don't want 'em 'cept to play with and torment Marg. Gawd! how them two gals do get each other edgy. Round about Lone Dome they call Nella-Rose the doney-gal—that meaning 'sweetheart'; she's responsible for more trouble than a b'ar with a sore head, or Burke Lawson on a tear."
Conning was becoming vitally interested and showed it, to Jim's delight; this was a dangerous state for White, he was likely, once started and flattered, to tell more than was prudent.
"Jed Martin"—Jim gave a chuckle—"has been tossed between them two gals like a hot corn pone. He'd take Nella-Rose quick enough if she'd have him, but barrin' her, he hangs to Marg so as ter be nigh Nella-Rose in any case. And right here Burke Lawson figgers. Burke's got two naturs, same as old Satan. Marg can play on one and get him plumb riled up to anythin'; Nella-Rose can twist him around her finger and make him act like the Second Coming."
Conning called a halt. "What's the Second Coming?" he asked, his eyes twinkling.
"Meaning?—good as a Bible character," Jim explained huffily. "Gawd, man! do your own thinkin'. I can't talk an' splanify ter onct."
"Oh! I see. Well, go on, Jim."
"There be times of the moon when I declare that no-count Nella-Rose just plain seems possessed; has ter do somethin' and does it! Three months ago, come Saturday, or thereabouts, she took it into her head to worst Marg at every turn and let it out that she was goin' to round up all the fellers and take her pick! She had the blazin' face ter come down here and tell me that! Course Marg knew it, but the two most consarned didn't—meaning Jed and Burke. Least they suspected—but warn't sure. Jed meant to get Burke out o' the way so he could have a clear space to co't Nella-Rose, so he aimed to shoot one o' Burke's feet just enough to lay him up—Jed is the slow, calculatin' kind and an almighty sure shot. He reckoned Burke couldn't walk up Lone Dome with a sore foot, so he laid for him, meanin' afterward to say he was huntin' an' took Burke for a 'possum. Well, Burke got wind of the plot; I'm thinkin' Marg put a flea in his ear, anyway he set a trap just by the path leading from the trail to Lone Dome. Gawd! Jed planted his foot inter it same as if he meant ter, and what does that Burke do but take a walk with Nella-Rose right past the place where Jed was caught! 'Corse he was yellin' somethin' terrible. They helped Jed out and I reckon Nella-Rose was innocent enough, but Jed writ up the account 'gainst Burke and Burke floated off for a spell. He ain't floated back yet—not yet! But so long as Nella-Rose is above ground he'll naturally cum back."
"And Nella-Rose, the little no-count; did she repay Jed, the poor cuss?"
"Nella-Rose don't repay no one—she ain't more'n half real, whatever way you put it. But just see how this fixes a sheriff, will yo'? Knowing what I do, I can't jail either o' them chaps with a cl'ar conscience. Gawd! I'd like to pass a law to cage all females and only let 'em out with a string to their legs!" Then White laughed reminiscently.
"What now, Jim?"
"Gals!" White fairly spit out the word. "Gals!" There was an eloquent pause, then more quietly: "Jest when yo' place 'em and hate 'em proper, they up and do somethin' to melt yo' like snow on Lone Dome in May. I was harkin' back to the little white hen and Nella-Rose. There ain't much chance to have a livin' pet up to Greyson's place. Anything fit to eat is et. Pete drinks the rest. But once Nella-Rose came totin' up here on a cl'ar, moonlight evenin' with somethin' under her little, old shawl. 'Jim' she says—wheedlin' and coaxin'—'I want yo' to keep this here hen fo' me. I'll bring its keep, but I love it, and I can't see it—killed!' That gal don't never let tears fall—they jest wet her eyes and make 'em shine. With that she let loose the most owdacious white bantam and scattered some corn on the floor; then she sat down and laughed like an imp when the foolish thing hopped up to her and flopped onter her lap. Well, I kept the sassy little hen—there wasn't anything else ter do—but one day Marg, she followed Nella-Rose up and when she saw what was going on, she stamped in and cried out: 'So! yo' can have playthings while us-all go starved! Yo' can steal what's our'n,—an' with that she took the bantam and fo' I could say a cuss, she wrung that chicken's neck right fo' Nella-Rose's eyes!"
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Conning; "the young brute! And the other one—what did she do?"
"She jest looked at me—her eyes swimmin'. Nella-Rose don't talk much when she's hurt, but she don't forget. I tell yo', young feller, bein' a sheriff in this settlement ain't no joke. Yo' know folks too well and see the rights and wrongs more'n is good for plain justice."
"Well?" Jim rose and stretched himself, "yo' won't go on the b'ar hunt ter-morrer?"
"No, Jim, but I'll walk part of the way with you. When do you start?"
"'Bout two o' the mornin'."
"Then I'll turn in. Good-night, old man! You've given me a great evening. I feel as if I were suddenly projected into a crowd with human problems smashing into each other for all they're worth. You cannot escape, old man; that's the truth. You cannot escape. Life is life no matter where you find it."
"Now don't git ter talkin' perlite to me," Jim warned. "Old Doc McPherson's orders was agin perlite conversation. Get a scrabble on yer! I'll knock yer up 'bout two or thereabouts."
Outside, Truedale stood still and looked at the beauty of the night. The moon was full and flooded the open space with a radiance which contrasted sharply with the black shadows and the outlines of the near and distant peaks.
The silence was so intense that the ear, straining for sound, ached from the effort. And just then a bewitched hen in White's shed gave a weird cry and Truedale started. He smiled grimly and thought of the little no-count and the tragedy of the white bantam. In the shining light around him he seemed to see her pitiful face as White had described it—the eyes full of tears but never overflowing, the misery and hate, the loneliness and impotency.
At two the next morning Jim tapped on Truedale's window with his gun.
"Comin' fur a walk?"
"You bet!" Con was awake at once and alert. Ten minutes later, closing the doors and windows of his cabin after him, he joined White on the leaf-strewn path to the woods. He went five miles and then bade his host good-bye.
"Don't overwork!" grinned Jim sociably. "I'll write to old Doc McPherson when I git back."
"And when will that be, Jim?"
"I ain't goin' ter predict." White set his lips. "When I stay, I stay, but once I take ter the woods there ain't no sayin'. I'll fetch fodder when I cum, and mail, too—but I ain't goin' ter hobble myself when I take ter the sticks."
Tramping back alone over the wet autumn leaves, Truedale had his first sense of loneliness since he came. White, he suddenly realized, had meant to him everything that he needed, but with White unhobbled in the deep woods, how was he to fill the time? He determined to force himself to study. He had wedged one solid volume in his trunk, unknown to his friends. He would brush up his capacity for work—it could not hurt him now. He was as strong as he had ever been in his life and the prospect ahead promised greater gains.
Yes, he would study. He would write letters, too—real letters. He had neglected every one, especially Lynda Kendall. The others did not matter, but Lynda mattered more than anything. She always would! And thinking of Lynda reminded him that he had also, in his trunk, the play upon which he had worked for several years during hours that should have been devoted to rest. He would get out the play and try to breathe life into it, now that he himself was living. Lynda had said, when last they had discussed his work, "It's beautiful, Con; you shall not belittle it. It is beautiful like a cold, stone thing with rough edges. Sometime you must smooth it and polish it, and then you must pray over it and believe in it, and I really think it will repay you. It may not mean anything but a sure guide to your goal, but you'd be grateful for that, wouldn't you?" Of course he would be grateful for that! It would mean life to him—life, not mere existence. He began to hope that Jim White would stay away a month; what with study, and the play, and the doing for himself, the time ahead was provided for already!
Stalking noiselessly forward, Truedale came into the clearing, passed White's shack, and approached his own with a fixed determination. Then he stopped short. He was positive that he had closed windows and doors—the caution of the city still clung to him—but now both doors and windows were set wide to the brilliant autumn day and a curl of smoke from a lately replenished fire cheerfully rose in the clear, dry air.
"Well, I'll be—!" and then Truedale quietly slipped to the rear of the cabin and to a low, sliding window through which he could peer, unobserved. One glance transfixed him.
The furnishing of the room was bare and plain—a deal table, a couple of wooden chairs, a broad comfortable couch, a cupboard with some nondescript crockery, and a good-sized mirror in the space between the front door and the window. Before this glass a strange figure was walking to and fro, enjoying hugely its own remarkable reflection. Truedale's bedraggled bath robe hung like a mantle from the shoulders of the intruder—they were very straight, slim young shoulders; an old ridiculous fez—an abomination of his freshman year, kept for sentimental reasons—adorned the head of the small stranger and only partly held in check the mass of shadowy hair that rippled from it and around a mischievous face.
Surprise, then wonder, swayed Truedale. When he reached the wonder stage, thought deserted him. He simply looked and kept on wondering. Through this confusion, words presently reached him. The masquerader within was bowing and scraping comically, and in a low, musical voice said:
"How-de, Mister Outlander, sir! How-de? I saw your smoke a-curling way back from home, sir, and I've come a-visiting 'long o' you, Mister Outlander."
Another sweeping curtsey reduced Truedale to helpless mirth and he fairly shouted, doubling up as he did so.
The effect of his outburst upon the young person within was tremendous. She seemed turned to stone. She stared at the face in the window; she turned red and white—the absurd fez dangling over her left ear. Then she emitted what seemed to be one word, so lingeringly sweet was the drawl.
Seeing that there was going to be no other concession, Truedale pulled himself together, went around to the front door and knocked, ceremoniously. The girl turned, as if on a pivot, but spoke no word.
She had the most wonderful eyes—innocent and pleading; she was a mere child and, although she looked awed now, was evidently a forward young native who deserved a good lesson. Truedale determined to give her one!
"If you don't mind," he said, "I'll come in and sit down."
This he did while the big, solemn eyes followed him alertly.
"And now will you be kind enough to tell me what you mean by—wearing my clothes?"
Still the silence and the blank stare.
"You must answer my questions!" Truedale's voice sounded stern. "I suppose you didn't expect me back so soon?"
The deep eyes confirmed this by the drooping of the lids.
"And you broke in—what for?"
"Who are you?"
Really the situation was becoming unbearable, so Truedale changed his tactics. He would play with the poor little thing and reassure her.
"Now that I look at you I see what you are. You're not a human at all. You're a spirit of something or other—probably of one of those perky mountains over yonder. The White Maid, I bet! You had to don my clothes in order to materialize before my eyes and you had to use that word of the hills—so that I could understand you. It's quite plain now and you are welcome to my—my bath robe; I dare say that, underneath it, you are decked out in filmy clouds and vapours and mists. Oh! come now—" The strange eyes were filling—but not overflowing!
"I was only joking. Forgive me. Why—"
The wretched fez fell from the soft hair—the bedraggled robe from the rigid shoulders—and there, garbed in a rough home-spun gown, a little plaid shawl and a checked apron, stood—
"It's the no-count," thought Truedale. Aloud he said, "Nella-Rose!"
With the dropping of the disguise years and dignity were added to the girl and Truedale, who was always at his worst in the presence of strange young women, gazed dazedly at the one before him now.
"Perhaps"—he began awkwardly—"you'll sit down. Please do!" He drew a chair toward her. Nella-Rose sank into it and leaned her bowed head upon her arms, which she folded on the table. Her shoulders rose and fell convulsively, and Truedale, looking at her, became hopelessly wretched.
"I'm a beast and nothing less!" he admitted by way of apology and excuse. "I—I wish you could forgive me."
Then slowly the head was raised and to Truedale's further consternation he saw that mirth, not anguish, had caused the shaking of those deceiving little shoulders.
"Oh! I see—you are laughing!" He tried to be indignant.
"Thank you!" Then, like a response, something heretofore unknown and unsuspected in Truedale rose and overpowered him. His shyness and awkwardness melted before the warmth and glow of the conquering emotion. He got up and sat on the corner of the table nearest his shabby little guest, and looking straight into her bewitching eyes he joined her in a long, resounding laugh.
It was surrender, pure and simple.
"And now," he said at last, "you must stay and have a bite. I am about starved. And you?"
The girl grew sober.
"I'm—I'm always hungry," she admitted softly.
They drew the table close to the roaring fire, leaving doors and windows open to the crisp, sweet; morning air.
"We'll have a party!" Truedale announced. "I'll step over to Jim's cabin and bring the best he's got."
When he returned Nella-Rose had placed cups, saucers, and plates on the table.
"Do you—often have parties?" she asked.
"I never had one before. I'll have them, though, from now on if—if you will come!"
Truedale paused with his arms full of pitchers and platters of food, and held the girl with his admiring eyes.
"And you will let me come and see you—you and your sister and your father? I know all about you. White has explained—everything. He—"
Nella-Rose braced herself against the table and quietly and definitely outlined their future relations.
"No, you cannot come to see us-all. You don't know Marg. If she doesn't find things out, there won't be trouble; when she does find things out there's goin' t' be a right smart lot of trouble brewing!"
This was said with such comical seriousness that Truedale laughed again, but sobered instantly when he recalled the incident of the white bantam which Jim had so vividly portrayed.
"But you see," he replied, "I don't want to let you go after this first party, and never see you again!"
The girl shrugged her shoulders and apparently dismissed the matter. She sat down and, with charming abandon, began to eat. Presently Truedale, amused and interested, spoke again:
"It would be very unkind of you not to let me see you."
"I'm—thinking!" Nella-Rose drew her brows together and nibbled a bit of corn bread meditatively. Then—quite suddenly:
"I'm coming here!"
"You—you mean that?" Truedale flushed.
"Yes. And the big woods—you walk in them?"
"I certainly do."
"Sometimes—I am in the big woods."
"Where—specially?" Truedale was playing this new game with the foolish skill of the novice.
"There's a Hollow—where—" (Nella-Rose paused) "where the laurel tangle is like a jungle—"
Truedale broke in: "I know it! There's a little stream running through it, and—trails."
"Yes!" Nella-Rose leaned back and showed her white teeth alluringly.
"I—I should not—permit this!" For a moment Truedale broke through the thin ice of delight that was luring him to unknown danger and fell upon the solid rock of conservatism.
"Why?" The eyes, so tenderly innocent, confronted him appealingly. "There are nuts there and—and other things! You are just teasing; you'll let me—show you the way about?"
The girl was all child now and made Truedale ashamed to hold her to any absurd course that his standards acknowledged but that hers had never conceived.
"Of course. I'll be glad to have you for a guide. Jim White has no ideas about nuts and things—he goes to the woods to kill something; he's there now. I dare say mere are other things in the mountains besides—prey?"
"Let's sit by the fire!" she suddenly said. "I—I want to tell you—something, and then I must go."
The lack of shyness and reserve might so easily have become boldness—but they did not! The girl was like a creature of the wilds which, knowing no reason for fear, was revelling in heretofore unsuspected enjoyment. Truedale pulled the couch to the hearth for Nella-Rose, piled the pillows on one end and then seated himself on the stump of a tree which served as a settee.
"Now, then!" he said, keeping his eyes on his breezy little guest. "What have you got to tell me—before you go?"
"It's something that happened—long ago. You will not laugh if I tell you? You laugh right much."
"I? You think I laugh a good deal? Good Lord! Some folk think I don't laugh enough." He had his friends back home in mind, and somehow the memory steadied him for an instant.
"P'r'aps they-all don't know you as well as I do." This with amusing conviction.
"Perhaps they don't." Truedale was deadly solemn. "But go on, Nella-Rose. I promise not to laugh now."
"It was the beginning of—you!" The girl turned her eyes to the fire—she was quaintly demure. "At first when I saw you looking in that window, yonder, I was right scared."
Jim White's statement that Nella-Rose wasn't more than half real seemed, in the light of present happenings, little less than bald fact.
"It was the way you looked—way back there when I was ten years old. I had run away—"
"Are you always running away?" asked Truedale from the hollow depths of unreality.
"I run away a smart lot. You have to if you want to—see things and be different."
"And you—you want to be different, Nella-Rose?"
"I—why, can't you see?—I am different."
"Of course. I only meant—do you like to be different."
"I have to like it. I was born with a cawl."
"In heaven's name, what's that?"
"Something over your eyes, and when they take it off you see more, and farther, than any one else. You're part ha'nt."
Truedale wiped his forehead—the room was getting hot, but the heat alone was not responsible for his emotions; he was being carried beyond his depth—beyond himself—by the wild fascination of the little creature before him. He would hardly have been surprised had a draught of air wafted her out of the window like a bit of mountain mist.
"But you mustn't interrupt so much!" She turned a stern face upon him. "I ran away that time to see a—railroad train! One of the niggers told me about it—he said it was the Bogy Man. I wanted to know, so I went to the station. It's a right smart way down and I had to sleep one night under the trees. Don't the stars look starry sometimes?"
The interruption made Truedale jump.
"They certainly do," he said, looking at the soft, dark eyes with their long lashes.
"I wasn't afraid—and I didn't hurry. It was evening, and the sun just a-going down, when I got to the station. There wasn't any one about so I—I ran down the big road the train comes on—to meet it. And then" (here Nella-Rose clasped her hands excitedly and her breath came short), "and then I saw it a-coming and a-coming. The big fire-eye a-glaring and the mighty noise a-snorting and I reckoned it was old Master Satan and I just—couldn't move!"
"Go on! go on!" Truedale bent close to her—she had caught him in the mesh of her dramatic charm.
"I saw it a-coming, and set on—on devouring o' me, and still I couldn't stir. Everything was growing black and black except a big square with that monster eye a-glaring into the soul o' me!"
The girl's face was set—her eyes vacant and wild; suddenly they softened, and her little white teeth showed through the childish, parted lips.
"Then the eye went away, there was a blackness in the square place, and then a face came—a kind face it was—all a-laughing and it—it kept going farther and farther off to one side and I kept a-following and a-following and then—the big noise went rushing by me, and there I was right safe and plump up against a tree!"
"Good Lord!" Again Truedale wiped his brow.
"Since then," Nella-Rose relaxed, "I can shut my eyes and always there is the black square and sometimes—not always, but sometimes—things come!"
"The face, Nella-Rose?"
"No, I can't make that come. But things I want to, do and have. I always think, when I see things, that I'm going to do a big, fine thing some day. I feel upperty and then—poof! off go the pictures and I am just—lil' Nella-Rose again!"
A comically heavy sigh brought Truedale back to earth.
"But the face you saw long ago," Truedale whispered, "was it my face, do you think?"
Nella-Rose paused—then quietly:
"I—reckon it was. Yes, I'm mighty sure it was your face. When I saw it at that window"—she pointed across the room—"I certainly thought my eyes were closed and that—it had come—the kind, good face that saved me!" A sweet, friendly smile wreathed the girl's lips and she rose with rare dignity and held out her thin, delicate hand:
"Mister Outlander, we're going to be neighbours, aren't we?"
"Yes—neighbours!" Truedale took the hand with a distinct sense of suffocation, "but why do you call me an outlander?"
"Because—you are! You're not of our mountains."
"No, I wish I were!"
"Wishing can't make you. You are—or you aren't."
Truedale noted the girl's language. Distorted and crude as it often was, it was never positively illiterate. This surprised him.
"You—oh! you're not going yet!" He put his hand out, for the definite way in which Nella-Rose turned was ominous. Already she seemed to belong to the cabin room—to Truedale himself. Not a suggestion of strangeness clung to her. It was as if she had always been there but that his eyes had been holden.
"I must go!"
"Wait—oh! Nella-Rose. Let me walk part of the way with you. I—I have a thousand things to say."
But she was gone out of the door, down the path.
Truedale stood and looked after her until the long shadows reached up to Lone Dome's sharpest edge. White's dogs began nosing about, suggesting attention to affairs nearer at hand. Then Truedale sighed as if waking from a dream. He performed the duties Jim had left to his tender mercy—the feeding of the animals, the piling up of wood. Then he forced himself to take a long walk. He ate his evening meal late, and finally sat down to his task of writing letters. He wrote six to Brace Kendall and tore them up; he wrote one to his uncle and put it aside for consideration when the effect of his day dreams left him sane enough to judge it. Finally he managed a note to Dr. McPherson and one to Lynda Kendall.
"I think"—so the letter to Lynda ran—"that I will work regularly, now, on the play. With more blood in my own body I can hope to put more into that. I'm going to get it out to-morrow and begin the infusion. I wish you were here to-night—to see the wonderful effect of the moon on the mists—but there! if I said more you might guess where I am. When I come back I shall try to describe it and some day you must see it. Several times lately I have imagined an existence here with one's work and enough to subsist on. No worry, no nerve-racking, and always the tremendous beauty to inspire one! Nothing seems wholly real here."
Then Truedale put down his pen. Nella-Rose crowded Lynda Kendall from the field of vision; later, he simply signed his name and let the note go with that.
As for Nella-Rose, as soon as she left Truedale, her mind turned to sterner matters close at hand. She became aware before long of some one near by. The person, whoever it was, seemed determined to remain hidden but for that very reason it called out all the girl's cunning and cleverness. It might be—Burke Lawson! With this thought Nella-Rose gasped a little. Then, it might be Marg; and here the dark eyes grew hard—the lips almost cruel! She got down upon her knees and crawled like a veritable little animal of the wilds. Keeping close to the ground, she advanced to where the trail from Lone Dome met the broader one, and there, standing undecided and bewildered, was a tall, fair girl.
Nella-Rose sprang to her feet, her eyes ablaze.
"Marg! What you—hounding me for?"
"Nella-Rose, where you been?"
"What's that to you?"
"You've been up to Devil-may-come Hollow!"
"Have I? Let me pass, Marg. Have your mully-grubs, if you please; I'm going home."
As Nella-Rose tried to pass, Marg caught her by the arm.
"Burke's back!" she whispered, "he's hiding up to Devil-may-come! He's been seen and you know it!"
"What if I do?" Nella-Rose never ignored a possible escape for the future.
"You've been up there—to meet him. You ought to be licked. If you don't let him alone—let him and me alone—I'll turn Jed on him, I will; I swear it!"
"What is he—to you!" Nella-Rose confronted her sister squarely. Blue eyes—bold, cold blue they were—looked into dark ones even now so soft and winning that it was difficult to resist them.
"If you let him alone, he'll be everything to me!" Marg blurted out. "What do you want of him, Nella-Rose?—of him or any other man? But if you must have a sweetheart, pick and choose and let me have my day."
The rough appeal struck almost brutally on Nella-Rose's ears. She was as un-moral, perhaps, as Marg, but she was more discriminating.
"I'm mighty tired of cleaning and cooking for—for father and you!" Marg tossed her head toward Lone Dome. "Father's mostly always drunk these days and you—what do you care what becomes of me? Leave me to get a man of my own and then I'll be human. I've been—killing the hog to-day!" Marg suddenly and irrelevantly burst out; "I—I shall never do it again. We'll starve first!"
"Why didn't father?" Nella-Rose said, softly.
"Father? Huh! he couldn't have held the knife. He went for the jug—and got it full! No, I had to do it, but it's the last time. Nella-Rose, tell me where Burke is hidden—tell me! Leave me free to—to win him; let me have my chance!"
"And then who'll kill the pig?" Nella-Rose shuddered.
"Who cares?" Marg flung back.
"No! Find him if you can. Fair play—no favours; what I find is open to you!" Nella-Rose laughed impishly and, darting past her sister, ran down the path.
Marg stood and watched her with baffled rage and hate. For a moment she almost decided to take her chances and seek Burke Lawson in the distant Hollow. But night was coming—the black, drear night of the low places. Marg was desperate, but a primitive conservatism held her. Not for all she hoped to gain would she brave Burke Lawson alone in the secret places of Devil-may-come Hollow! So she followed after Nella-Rose and reached home while her sister was preparing the evening meal.
Peter Greyson, the father, sat huddled in a big chair by the fire. He had arrived at that stage of returning consciousness when he felt that it was incumbent upon him to explain himself. He had been a handsome man, of the dashing cavalry type and he still bore traces of past glory. In his worst moments he never swore before ladies, and in his best he remembered what was due them and upheld their honour and position with fervour.
"Lil' Nella-Rose," he was saying as Marg paused outside the door in the dark, "why don't you marry Burke Lawson and settle down here with me?"
"He hasn't asked me, father."
"He isn't in any position now to pick and choose"—this between hiccoughs and yawns—"I saw him early this morning; I know his back anywhere. I'd just met old Jim White. I reckon Burke was calculating to shoot Jim, but my coming upset his plans. Shooting a sheriff ain't safe business." What Greyson really had seen was Truedale's retreat after parting company with Jim, but not knowing of Truedale's existence he jumped to the conclusion which to his fuddled wits seemed probable, and had so informed Marg upon his return.
"I tell yo', Nella-Rose," he ran on, "yo' better marry Burke and tame him. There ain't nothing as tames a man like layin' responsibilities on him."
"Come, father, let me help you to the table. I don't want to talk about Burke. I don't believe he's back." She steadied the rolling form to the head of the table.
"I tell yo', chile, I saw Burke's back; don't yo' reckon I know Lawson when I see him, back or front? Don't yo' want ter marry Lawson, Nella-Rose?"
"No, I wouldn't have him if he asked me. It would be like marrying a tree that the freshet was rolling about. I'm not going to seek and hide with any man."
"Why don't yo' let Marg have 'im then? She'd be a right smart responsibility."
"She can have him and welcome, if she can find him!" Then, hearing her sister outside, she called:
"Come in, Marg. Shut out the cold and the dark. What's the use of acting like a little old hateful?"
Marg slouched in; there was no other word to describe her indifferent and contemptuous air.
"He's coming around?" she asked, nodding at her father.
"Yes—he's come," Nella-Rose admitted.
"All right, then, I'm going to tell him something!" She walked over to her father and stood before him, looking him steadily in the eyes.
"I—I killed the hog to-day;" she spoke sharply, slowly, as to a dense child. Peter Greyson started.
"Yes. While you were off—getting drunk, and while Nella-Rose was traipsing back there in the Hollow I killed the hog; but I'll never do it again. It sickened the soul of me. I'm as good as Nella-Rose—just as good. If you can't do your part, father, and she won't do hers, that's no reason for me being benastied with such work as I did to-day. You hear me?"
"Sure I hear you, Marg, and I'm plumb humiliated that—that I let you. It—it sha'n't happen again. I'll keep a smart watch next year. A gentleman can't say more to his daughter than that—can he?"
"Saying is all very well—it's the doing." Marg was adamant. "I'm going to look out for myself from now on. You and Nella-Rose will find out."
"What's come to you, Marg?" Peter looked concerned.
"Something that hasn't ever come before," Marg replied, keeping her eyes on Nella-Rose. "There be times when you have to take your life by the throat and strangle it until it falls into shape. I'm gripping mine now."
"It's the killing of that hog!" groaned Peter. "It's stirred you, and I can't blame you. Killing ain't for a lady; but Lord! what a man you'd ha' made, Marg!"
"But I ain't!" Marg broke in a bit wildly, "and other things are not for—for women to do and bear. I'm through. It's Nella-Rose and me to share and share alike, or—"
But there was nothing more to say—the pause was eloquent. The three ate in silence for some moments and then talked of trivial things. Peter Greyson went early to bed and the sisters washed the dishes, sharing equally. They did the out-of-door duties of caring for the scanty live stock, and at last Nella-Rose went to her tiny room under the eaves, while Marg lay down upon the living-room couch.
When everything was at rest once more Nella-Rose stole to the low window of her chamber and, kneeling, looked forth at the peaceful moonlit scene. How still and white it was and how safe and strong the high hills looked! What had happened? Why, nothing could happen and yet—and yet—Then Nella-Rose closed her eyes and waited. With all her might she tried to force the "good, kind face" to materialize, but to no purpose. Suddenly an owl hooted hideously and, like a guilty thing, the girl by the window crept back to bed.
Owls were very wise and they could see things in the dark places with their wide-open eyes! Just then Nella-Rose could not have borne any investigation of her throbbing heart.
Lynda Kendall closed her desk and wheeled about in her chair with a perplexed expression on her strong, handsome face. Generally speaking, she went her way with courage and conviction, but since Conning Truedale's breakdown, an element in her had arisen that demanded recognition and she had yet to learn how to control it and insist upon its subjection.
Her life had been a simple one on the whole, but one requiring from early girlhood the constant use of her faculties. Whatever help she had had was gained from the dependence of others upon her, not hers upon them. She was so strong and sweet-souled that to give was a joy, it was a joy too, for them that received. That she was ever tired and longed for strong arms to uphold her rarely occurred to any one except, perhaps, William Truedale, the invalid uncle of Conning.
At this juncture of Lynda's career, she shrank from William Truedale as she never had before. Had Conning died, she knew she would never have seen the old man again. She believed that his incapacity for understanding Conning—his rigid, unfeeling dealing with him—had been the prime factor in the physical breakdown of the younger man. All along she had hoped and believed that her hold upon old William Truedale would, in the final reckoning, bring good results; for that reason, and a secret one that no one suspected, she kept to her course. She paid regular visits to the old man—made him dependent upon her, though he never permitted her to suspect this. Always her purpose had centred upon Con, who had, at first, appealed to her loyalty and justice, but of late to something much more personal and tender.
The day's work was done and the workshop, in which the girl sat, was beginning to look shadowy in the far corners where evidences of her profession cluttered the dim spaces. She was an interior decorator, but of such an original and unique kind that her brother explained her as a "Spiritual and Physical Interpreter." She had learned her trade, but she had embellished it and permitted it to develop as she herself had grown and expanded.
Lynda looked now at her wrist-watch; it was four-thirty. The last mail delivery had brought a short but inspiring note from Con—per Dr. McPherson.
"I've got my grip again, Lynda! The day brings appetite and strength; the night, sleep! I wonder whether you know what that means? I begin to believe I am reverting to type, as McPherson would say, and I'm intensely interested in finding out—what type? Whenever I think of study, I have an attack of mental indigestion. There is only one fellow creature to share my desolation but I am never lonely—never lacking employment. I'm busy to the verge of exhaustion in doing nothing and getting well!"
Lynda smiled. "So he's not going to die!" she murmured; "there's no use in punishing Uncle William any longer. I'll go up and have dinner with him!"
The decision made, and Conning for the moment relegated to second place, Lynda rose and smiled relievedly. Then her eyes fell upon her mother's photograph which stood upon her desk.
"I'm going, dear," she confided—they were very close, that dead mother and the live, vital daughter—"I haven't forgotten."
The past, like the atmosphere of the room, closed in about the girl. She was strangely cheerful and uplifted; a consciousness of approval soothed and comforted her and she recalled, as she had not for many a day, the night of her mother's death—the night when she, a girl of seventeen, had had the burden of a mother's confession laid upon her young heart....
"Lynda—are you there, dear?"
It had been a frequent, pathetic question during the month of illness. Lynda had been summoned from school. Brace was still at his studies.
"Yes, mother, right here!"
"You are always—right here! Lyn, once I thought I could not stand it, and I was going to run away—going in the night. As I passed your door you awoke and asked for a drink of water. I gave it, trembling lest you might notice my hat and coat; but you did not—you only said: 'What would I do if I woke up some night and didn't have a mother?' Lyn, dear, I went back and—stayed!"
Lynda had thought her mother's mind wandering so she patted the seeking hands and murmured gently to her. Then, suddenly:
"Lyn, when I married your father I thought I loved him—but I loved another! I've done the best I could for you all; I never let any one know; I dared not give a sign, but I want you—by and by—to go to—William Truedale! You need not explain—just go; you will be my gift to him—my last and only gift."
Startled and horrified, Lynda had listened, understood, and grown old while her mother spoke....
Then came the night when she awoke—and found no mother! She was never the same. She returned to school but gave up the idea of going to college. After her graduation she made a home for the father who now—in the light of her secret knowledge—she comprehended for the first time. All her life she had wondered about him. Wondered why she and Brace had not loved and honoured him as they had their mother. His weakness, his superficiality, had been dominated by the wife who, having accepted her lot, carried her burden proudly to the end!
Brace went to college and, during his last year there, his father died; then, confronting a future rich in debts but little else, he and Lynda consequently turned their education to account and were soon self-supporting, full of hope and the young joy of life.
Lynda—her mother's secret buried deep in her loyal, tender heart—began soon after her return from school to cultivate old William Truedale, much to that crabbed gentleman's surprise and apparent confusion. There was some excuse for the sudden friendship, for Brace during preparatory school and college had formed a deep and sincere attachment for Conning Truedale and at vacation time the two boys and Lynda were much together. To be sure the visiting was largely one-sided, as the gloomy house of the elder Truedale offered small inducement for sociability; but Lynda managed to wedge her way into the loneliness and dreariness and eventually for reasons best known to herself became the one bright thing in the old man's existence.
And so the years had drifted on. Besides Lynda's determination to prove herself as her mother had directed, she soon decided to set matters straight between the uncle and the nephew. To her ardent young soul, fired with ambition and desire for justice, it was little less than criminal that William Truedale, crippled and confined to his chair—for he had become an invalid soon after Lynda's mother's marriage—should misunderstand and cruelly misjudge the nephew who, brilliantly, but under tremendous strain, was winning his way through college on a pittance that made outside labour necessary in order to get through. She could not understand everything, but her mother's secret, her growing fondness for the old man, her intense interest in Conning, all held her to her purpose. She, single-handed, would right the wrong and save them all alive!
Then came Conning's breakdown and the possibility of his death or permanent disability. The shock to all the golden hopes was severe and it brought bitterness and resentment with it.
Something deep and passionate had entered into Lynda's relations with Conning Truedale. For him, though no one suspected it, she had broken her engagement to John Morrell—an engagement into which she had drifted as so many girls do, at the age when thought has small part in primal instinct. But Conning had not died; he was getting well, off in his hidden place, and so, standing in the dim workshop, Lynda kissed her mother's picture and began humming a glad little tune.
"I'll go and have dinner with Uncle William!" she said—the words fitting into the tune—"we'll make it up! It will be all right." And so she set forth.
William Truedale lived on a shabby-genteel side street of a neighbourhood that had started out to be fashionable but had been defeated in its ambitions. It had never lost character, but it certainly had lost lustre. The houses themselves were well built and sternly correct. William Truedale's was the best in the block and it stood with a vacant lot on either side of it. The detachment gave it dignity and seclusion.
There had been a time when Truedale hoped that the woman he loved would choose and place furniture and hangings to her taste and his, but when that hope failed and sickness fell upon him, he ordered only such rooms put in order as were necessary for his restricted life. The library on the first floor was a storehouse of splendid books and austere luxury; beyond it were bath and bedroom, both fitted out perfectly. The long, wide hall leading to these apartments was as empty and bare as when carpenter and painter left it. Two servants—husband and wife—served William Truedale, and rarely commented upon anything concerning him or their relations to him. They probably had rooms for themselves comfortably furnished, but in all the years Lynda Kendall had never been anywhere in the house except in the rooms devoted to her old friend's use. Sometimes she had wondered how Con fared, but nothing was ever said on the subject and she and Brace had been, in their visiting, limited to the downstair rooms.
When Lynda was ushered now into the library from the cold, outer hall it was like finding comfort and luxury in the midst of desolation. The opening door had not roused the man by the great open fire. He seemed lost in a gloomy revery and Lynda had time to note, unobserved, the tragic, pain-racked face and the pitifully thin outlines of the figure stretched on the invalid chair and covered by a rug of rare silver fox.
There were birds in gilded cages by the large south window—mute little mites they were; they rarely if ever sang but they were alive! There were plants, too, luxuriously growing in pots and boxes—but not a flower on one! They existed, not joyously, but persistently. A Russian hound, white as snow, lay before the fire; his soft, mournful eyes were fixed upon Lynda, but he did not stir or announce the intrusion. A cat and two kittens, also white, were rolled like snowballs on a crimson cushion near the hearth; Lynda wondered whether they ever played. Alone, like a dead thing amid the still life, William Truedale, helpless—death ever creeping nearer and nearer to his bitter heart—passed his weary days.
As she stood, watching and waiting, Lynda Kendall's eyes filled with quick tears. The weeks of her absence had emphasized every tragic detail of the room and the man. He had probably missed her terribly from his bare life, but he had made no sign, given no call.
Truedale turned his head and fixed his deep-sunk, brilliant eyes upon her.
"Oh! So you've thought better of it?" was all that he said.
"Yes, I've thought better of it. Will you let me stay to dinner?"
"Take off your wraps. There now! draw up the ottoman; so long as you have a spine, rely upon it. Never lounge if you can help it."
Lynda drew the low, velvet-covered stool near the couch-chair; the hound raised his sharp, beautiful head and nestled against her knee. Truedale watched it—animals never came to him unless commanded—why did they go to Lynda? Probably for the same reason that he clung to her, watched for her and feared, with sickening fear, that she might never come again!
"I suppose, since Con's death isn't on my head, you felt that you could forgive me, eh?"
"Well, something like that, Uncle William."
"What business is it of yours what I do with my money—or my nephew?"
These two never approached each other by conventional lines. Their absences were periods in which to store vital topics and questions—their meetings were a series of explosive outbursts.
"None of my business, Uncle William, but if I could not approve, why—"
"Approve! Huh! Who are you that you should judge, approve, or disapprove your elders?"
There was no answer to this. Lynda wanted to laugh, but feared she might cry. The hard, indignant words belied the quivering gladness of the voice that greeted her in every tone with its relief and surrender.
"I've got a good deal to say to you, girl. It is well you came to-day—you might otherwise have been too late. I'm planning a long journey."
"A—long journey?" she said. Through the past years, since the dread disease had attacked Truedale, his travelling had been confined to passing to and from bedchamber and library in the wheelchair.
"You—you think I jest?" There was a grim humour in the burning eyes.
"I do not know."
"Well, then, I'll tell you. I am quite serious. While I have been exiled from your attentions—chained to this rock" (he struck the arms of the chair like a passionate child), "I have reached a conclusion I have always contemplated, more or less. Now that I have recognized that the time will undoubtedly come when you, Con—the lot of you—will clear out, I have decided to prove to you all that I am not quite the dependant you think me."
"Why—what can you mean, Uncle William?"
This was a new phase and Lynda bent across the dog at her knee and put her hand on the arm of the chair. She was frightened, aroused. Truedale saw this and laughed a dry, mirthless laugh.
"Oh! a chair that can roll the length of this house can roll the distance I desire to go. Money can pay for anything—anything! Thank God, I have money, plenty of it. It means power—even to such a thing as I am. Power, Lynda, power! It can snarl and unsnarl lives; it can buy favour and cause terror. Think what I would have been without it all these years. Think! Why, I have bargained with it; crushed with it; threatened and beckoned with it—now I am going to play with it! I'm going to surprise every one and have a gala time myself. I'm going to set things spinning and then I'm going on a journey. It's queer" (the sneering voice fell to a murmur), "all my prison-years I've thought of this and planned it; the doing of it seems quite the simplest part. I wonder now why I have kept behind the bars when, by a little exertion—a little indifference to opinion—I might have broadened my horizon. But good Lord! I haven't wasted time. I've studied every detail; nothing has escaped me. This" (he touched his head—a fine, almost noble head, covered by a wealth of white hair), "this has been doing double duty while these" (he pointed to his useless legs) "have refused to play their part. While I felt conscientiously responsible, I stuck to my job; but a man has a right to a little freedom of his own!"
Lynda drew so close that her stool touched the chair. She bent her cheek upon the shrivelled hand resting upon the arm. The excitement and feverish banter of Truedale affected her painfully. She reproached herself bitterly for having left him to the mercy of his loneliness and imagination. Her interest in, her resentment for, Conning faded before the pitiful display of feeling expressed in every tone and word of Truedale.
The touch of the warm cheek against his hand stirred the man. His eyes softened, his face twitched and, because the young eyes were hidden, he permitted his gaze to rest reverently upon the bowed head. She was the only thing on earth he loved—the only thing that cut through his crust of hardness and despair and made him human. Then, from out the unexpected, he asked:
"Lynda, when did you break your engagement to John Morrell?"
The girl started, but she did not change her position. She never lied or prevaricated to Truedale—she might keep her own counsel, but when she spoke it was simple truth.
"About six months ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"There was nothing to tell, Uncle William."
"There was the fact, wasn't there?"
"Oh! yes, the fact."
"Why did you do it?"
"That—is—a long story." Lynda looked up, now, and smiled the rare smile that only the stricken man understood. Appeal, confusion, and detachment marked it. She longed, helplessly, for sympathy and understanding.
"Well, long stories are welcome enough here, child; especially after the dearth of them. Ring the bell; let's have dinner. Pull down the shades and" (Truedale gave a wide gesture) "put the live stock out! An early meal, a long evening—what better could we add than a couple of long stories?"
In the doing of what Truedale commanded, Lynda found a certain relief. These visits were like grim plays, to be sure, but they were also sacred duties. This one, after the lapse of time filled with new and strange emotions, was a bit grimmer than usual, but it had the effect of a tonic upon the ragged nerves of the two actors.
The round table was set by the fire—it was the manservant who attended now; silver and glass and linen were perfect, and the simple fare carefully chosen and prepared.
Truedale was never so much at his ease as when he presided at these small dinners. He ate little; he chose the rarest bits for his guest; he talked lightly—sometimes delightfully. At such moments Lynda realized what he must have been before love and health failed him.
To-night—shut away from all else, the strain of the past weeks ignored, the long stories deliberately pushed aside—Truedale spoke of the books he had been reading; Lynda, of her work.
"I have two wonderful houses to do," she said, poising a morsel of food gracefully. "One is for a couple recently made rich; they do not dare to move for fear of going wrong. I have that place from garret to cellar. It's an awful responsibility—but lots of fun!"
"It must be. Spending other people's money and making them as good as new at the same time, must be rare sport. And the other contract?"
"Oh! that is another matter." Lynda leaned back and laughed. "I'm toning up an old house. Putting false fronts on, a bit of rouge, filling in wrinkles; in short, giving a side-tracked old lady something to interest her. She doesn't know it, but I'm letting her do the work, and she's very happy. She has a kind of rusty good taste. I'm polishing it without hurting her. The living room! Why, Uncle William, it is a picture. It is a tender dream come true."
"And you are charging for that, you pirate?"
"I do not have to. The dear soul is so grateful that I'm forced to refuse favours."
"Lynda, ring for Thomas." Truedale drew his brows close. "I think I'll—I'll smoke. It may help me to sleep after the long stories and—when I am alone." He rarely indulged in this way—tobacco excited instead of soothed him—but the evening must have all the clear thought possible!
Lynda sat again upon her ottoman—her capacity for sitting hours without a support to her back had always been one of her charms for William Truedale. The old man looked at her now; how strong and fine she was! How reliant and yet—how appealing! How she would always give and give—be used to the breaking point—and rarely understood. Truedale understood her through her mother!
"I want to ask you, Lynda, why do you come here—you of all the world? I have often wondered."
"I—I like to come, generally, Uncle William."
"But—other times, out of the general? You come oftener then. Why?"
And now Lynda turned her clear, dark eyes upon him. A sudden resolve had been taken. She was going to comfort him as she never had before, going to recompense him for the weeks just past when she had failed him while espousing Con's cause. She was going to share her secret with him!
"Just before mother went, Uncle William, she told me—"
The hand holding the cigar swayed—it was a very frail, thin hand.
"That you once—loved her."
The old wound ached as it was bared. Lynda meant to comfort, but she was causing excruciating pain.
"She—told you that? And you so young! Why should she so burden you—she of all women?"
"And—my mother loved you, Uncle William! She found it out too late and—and after that she did her best for—for Brace and me and—father!"
The room seemed swaying, as all else in the universe was, at that moment, for William Truedale. Everything that had gone to his undoing—to the causing of his bitter loneliness and despair—was beaten down by the words that flooded the former darkness with almost terrifying light. For a moment or two he dared not speak—dared not trust his voice. The shock had been great. Then, very quietly:
"And—and why did she—speak at the last?"
Lynda's eyes filled with tears.
"Because," she faltered, "since she could not have come to you without dishonour—she sent me! Her confidence has been the sacredest thing in my life and I have tried to do as she desired. I—I have failed sadly—lately, but try to forgive me for—my mother's sake!"
"And you—have"—the voice trembled pitifully in spite of the effort Truedale made to steady it—"kept silence—since she went; why? Oh! youth is so ignorant, so cruel!" This was said more to himself than to the girl by his knee upon whose bowed head his shrivelled hand unconsciously rested.
"First it was for father that I kept the secret. He seemed so stricken after—after he was alone. And then—since I was trying to be to you what mother wanted me to be—it did not seem greatly to matter. I wanted to win my way. I always meant to tell you, and now, after these weeks of misunderstanding, I felt you should know that there will always be a reason for me, of all the world, to share your life."
"I see! I see!" A great wave of emotion rose and rose, carrying the past years of misery with it. The knowledge, once, might have saved him, but now it had come too late. By and by he would be able to deal with this staggering truth that had been so suddenly hurled upon him, but not now while Katherine Kendall's daughter knelt at his side!
"Lynda, I cannot talk to you about this. When you are older—when life has done its best or its worst for you—you will understand better than you do to-day; but remember this: what you have told me has cut deep, but it has cut, by one stroke, the hardness and bitterness from my heart. Remember this!"
Then with a sudden reversion to his customary manner he said:
"And now tell me about Morrell."
Lynda started; the situation puzzled her. She had meant to comfort—instead she seemed to have hurt and confused her old friend.
"About John Morrell?" she murmured with a rising perplexity; "there isn't much to tell."
"I thought it was a long story, Lynda."
"Somehow it doesn't seem long when you get close to it. But surely you must see, Uncle William, that after—after father and mother—I would naturally be a bit keener than most girls. It would never do for me to marry the wrong man and, of course, a girl never really knows until—she faces the situation at close quarters. I should never have engaged myself to John Morrell—that was the real mistake; and it was only when he felt sure of me—that I knew! Uncle William, I must have my own life, and John—well, he meant to have his own and mine, too. I couldn't stand it! I have struggled up and conquered little heights just as he has—just as Con and Brace have; we've all scrambled up together. It didn't seem quite fair that they should—well, fly their colours from their peaks and that I should" (here Lynda laughed) "cuddle under John's standard. I don't always believe in his standard; I don't approve of it. Much as I like men, I don't think they are qualified to arrange, sort, fix, and command the lives of women. If a woman thinks the abdication justifies the gains, that's all right. If I had sold myself, honourably, to John Morrell I would have kept to the agreement; I hate and loathe women who don't! I'm not belittling the romance and sentiment, Uncle William, but when all's told the usual marriage is a bargain and half the women whine about holding to it—the others play up and, if there is love enough, it pans out pretty well—but I couldn't! You see I had lived with father and mother—felt the lack between them—and I saw mother's eyes when she—let go and died! No! I mean to have my own life!"
"And you are going to forego a woman's heritage—home and children—for such a whim? Your mother had recompenses; are you not afraid of the—future?"
"Not if I respect it and do not dishonour the present."
"A lonely man or woman—an outcast from the ordinary—is a creature of hell!"
Lynda shook her head.
"Go on!" Truedale commanded sternly. "Morrell is a good fellow. From my prison I took care to find that out. Brace did me practical service when he acted as sleuth before your engagement!"
Lynda coloured and frowned.
"I did not know about that," was all she said.
"It doesn't matter—only I'm glad I can feel sorry for him and angry at you. I never knew you could be a fool, Lynda."
"I dare say we all can, if we put our minds to it—sometimes without. Well! that's the whole story, Uncle William."
"It's only the preface. See here, Lynda, did it ever strike you that a woman like you doesn't come to such a conclusion as you have without an experience—a contrast to go by?"
"I—I do not know what you mean, Uncle William."
"I think you do. I have no right to probe, but I have a right to—to help you if I can. You've done much for your mother; can you deny me the—the honour of doing something for her?"
"There's nothing—to do."
"Let us see! You're just a plain girl when all's said and done. You've got a little more backbone and wit than some, but your heart's in the same place as other women's and you're no different in the main. You want the sane, right things just as they do—home, children, and security from the things women dread. A man can give a woman a chance for her best development; she ought to recognize that and—yes—appreciate it."
"Surely!" this came very softly from the lips screened now by two cold shivering hands. "A woman does recognize it; she appreciates it, but that does not exclude her from—choice."
"One man—of course within limits and reason—is as good as another when he loves a woman and makes her love him. You certainly thought you loved Morrell. You had nothing to gain unless you did. You probably earned as much as he."
"That's true. All quite true."
"Then something happened!" Truedale flung his half-smoked cigar in the fire. "What was it, Lynda?"
"There was something. There was—Con!"
"Oh! how—how can you?" Lynda started back. She meant to say "How dare you?"—but the drawn and tortured face restrained her.
"Because I must, Lynda. Because I must. You know I told you I had a story? You must bear with me and listen. Sit down again and try to remember—I am doing this for your mother! I repeat—there was Con. At first you took up arms for him as Brace did; your sex instincts were not awakened. You were all good fellows together until you drifted, blindfolded, into the trap poor Morrell set for you. You thought I was ill-treating Con—disregarding his best interests—starving his soul! Oh! you poor little ignoramus; the boy never had a soul worth mentioning until it got awakened, in self-defense, and grew its own limit. What did you and Brace know of the past—the past that went into Con's making? You were free enough with your young condemnation and misplaced loyalty—but how about justice?"
Lynda's eyes were fixed upon Truedale's face. She had never seen him in this mood and, while he fascinated, he overawed her.
"Why, girl, Con's father, my younger brother, was as talented as Con, but he was a scamp. He had money enough to pave the way to his own destruction. Until it was gone he spurned me—spurned even his own genius. He married a woman as mad as himself and then—without a qualm—tossed her aside to die. He had no sense of responsibility—no shame. He had temperament—a damnable one—and he drifted on it to the end. When it was all over, I brought Conning here. Just at that time—well, it was soon after your mother married your father—this creeping disease fell upon me. If it hadn't been for the boy I'd have ended the whole thing then and there, but with the burden laid upon me I couldn't slip out. It has been a kind of race ever since—this menace mounting higher and higher and the making of Con keeping pace. I swore that if he had talent it must prove itself against hardship, not in luxury. I made life difficult in order to toughen and inspire. I never meant to kill—you must do me that justice. Only you see, chained here, I couldn't follow close enough, and Con had pride, thank God! and he thought he had hate—but he hasn't or he'd have starved rather than accept what I offered. In his heart he—well, let us say—respects me to a certain extent. I saw him widening the space between himself and his inheritance—and it has helped me live; you saw him making a man of himself and it became more absorbing than the opportunity of annexing yourself to a man already made. Oh, I have seen it all and it has helped me in my plan."
"Your—plan?" The question was a feeble attempt to grapple with a situation growing too big and strong. "Your plan—what is your plan?"
"Lynda, I have made my will! Sitting apart and looking on, the doing of this has been the one great excitement of my life. Through the years I have believed I was doing it alone; now I see your mother's guiding hand has led me on; I want you to believe this as—I do!"
"I—I will try, Uncle William." Lynda no longer struggled against that which she could not understand. She felt it must have its way with her.
"This house," Truedale was saying, "was meant for your mother. I left it bare and ready for her taste and choice. After—I go, I want you to fit it out for her—and me! You must do it at once."
"No! No!" Lynda put up a protesting hand, but Truedale smiled her into silence and went on: "I may let you begin to-morrow and not wait! You must fill the bare corners—spare no expense. You and I will be quite reckless; I want this place to be a—home at last."
And now Lynda's eyes were shining—her rare tears blinded her.
"You have always tried indirectly, Lynda, to secure Con's greatest good; you have done it! I mean to leave him a legacy of three thousand a year. That will enable him to let up on himself and develop the talent you think he has. I have seen to it that the two faithful souls who have served me here shall never know want. There will be money, and plenty of it, for you to carry out my wishes regarding this house, should—well—should anything happen to me! After these details are attended to, my fortune, rather a cumbersome one, goes to—Dr. McPherson, my old and valued friend!"
Lynda started violently.
"To—to Dr. McPherson?" she gasped, every desire for Conning up in arms.
"There! there! do not get so excited, Lynda. It is only for—three years. McPherson and I understand."
"It will go to Conning—if—"
"If what?" Lynda was afraid now.
"If he—marries you!"
"Oh! this is beyond endurance! How could you be so cruel, Uncle William?" The hot, passionate tears were burning the indignant face.
"He will not know. The years will test and prove him."
"But I shall know! If you thought best to do this thing, why have you told me?"
"There have been hours when I myself did not know why; I understand to-night. Your mother led me!"
"My mother could never have hurt me so. Never!"
"You must trust—her and me, Lynda."
"Suppose—oh! suppose—Con does not ... Oh! this is degrading!"
"Then the fortune will—be yours. McPherson and I have worked this out—most carefully."
"Mine! Mine! Why"—and here Lynda flung her head back and laughed relievedly—"I refuse absolutely to accept it!"
"In that case it goes—to charities."
A hush fell in the room. Baffled and angry, Lynda dared not trust herself to speak and Truedale sank back wearily. Then came a rattle of wheels in the quiet street—a toot of a taxi horn.
"Thomas has not forgotten to provide for your home trip; but the man can wait. The night is mild"—Truedale spoke gently—"and you and I are rich."
Lynda did not seem to hear. Her thoughts were rushing wildly over the path set for her by her old friend's words.
"Conning would not know!" she grasped and held to that; "he would be able to act independently. At first it had seemed impossible. Her knowledge could affect no one but herself! If"—and here Lynda breathed faster—"if Conning should want her enough to ask her to share his life that the three thousand dollars made possible, why then the happiness of bringing his own to him would be hers!—hers!"
Again the opposite side of the picture held her. "But suppose he did not want her—in that way? Then she, his friend—the one who, in all the world, loved him the best—would profit by it; she would be a wealthy woman, for her mother's sake or"—the alternative staggered her—"she could let everything slip, everything and bear the consequences!"
At this point she turned to Truedale and asked pitifully again:
"Oh! why, why did you do this?"
There was no anger or rebellion in the words, but a pathos that caused the old man to close his eyes against the pleading in the uplifted face. It was the one thing he could not stand.
"Time will prove, child; time will prove. I could not make you understand; your mother might have—I could not. But time will show. Time is a strange revealer. All my life I have been working in darkness until—now! I should have trusted more—you must learn from me.
"There, do not keep the man waiting longer. I wonder—do not do it unless you want to, or think it right—but I wonder if you could kiss me good-bye?"
Lynda rose and, tear-blinded, bent over and kissed him—kissed him twice, once for her mother!—and she felt that he understood. She had never touched her lips to his before, and it seemed a strange ceremony.
An hour later Truedale called for Thomas and was wheeled to his bedroom and helped to bed.
"Perhaps," he said to the man, "you had better put those drops on the stand. If I cannot sleep—" Thomas smiled and obeyed. There had been a time when he feared that small, dark bottle, but not now! He believed too sincerely in his master's strength of character. Having the medicine near might, by suggestion, help calm the restlessness, but it had never been resorted to, so Thomas smiled as he turned away with a cheery:
"Very well, sir; but there will be no need, I hope."
"Good-night, Thomas. Raise the shade, please. It's a splendid night, isn't it? If they should build on that rear lot I could not see the moon so well. I may decide to buy that property."
When Thomas had gone and he was alone at last, Truedale heaved a heavy sigh. It seemed to relieve the restraint under which he had been labouring for weeks.
All his life the possibility of escape from his bondage had made the bondage less unendurable. It was like knowing of a secret passage from his prison house—an exit dark and attended by doubts and fears, but nevertheless a sure passage to freedom. It had seemed, in the past, a cowardly thing to avail himself of his knowledge—it was like going with his debts unpaid. But now, in the bright, moonlit room it no longer appeared so. He had finished his task, had ended the bungling, and had heard a clear call ringing with commendation and approval. There was nothing to hold him back!
Over in the cabinet by the window were a photograph and a few letters; Truedale turned toward them and wondered if Lynda, instead of his old friend McPherson, would find them? He wished he had spoken—but after all, he could not wait. He had definitely decided to take the journey! But he spoke softly as if to a Presence:
"And so—you played a part? Poor girl! how well—you played it! And you—suffered—oh! my God—and I never did you the justice of understanding. And you left your girl—to me—I have tried not to fail you there, Katherine!"
Then Truedale reached for the bottle. He took a swallow of the contents and waited! Presently he took another and a thrill of exhilaration stirred his sluggish blood. Weakly, gropingly, he stretched his benumbed hand out again; he was well on his way now. The long journey was begun in the moonlight and, strange to say, it did not grow dark, nor did he seem to be alone. This surprised him vaguely, he had always expected it would be so different!
And by and by one face alone confronted him—it was brighter than the moonlit way. It smiled understandingly—it, too, had faced the broad highway—it could afford to smile.
Once more the heavy, dead-cold hand moved toward the stand beside the bed, but it fell nerveless ere it reached what it sought.
The escape had been achieved!
The days passed and, unfettered, Jim White remained in the deep woods. After Nella-Rose's disturbing but thrilling advent, Truedale rebounded sharply and, alone in his cabin, brought himself to terms. By a rigid arraignment he relegated, or thought he had relegated, the whole matter to the realm of things he should not have permitted, but which had done no real harm. He brought out the heavy book on philosophy and endeavoured to study. After a few hours he even resorted to the wet towel, thinking that suggestion might assist him, but Nella-Rose persistently and impishly got between his eyes and the pages and flouted philosophy by the magic of her superstition and bewitching charm.
Then Truedale attacked his play, viciously, commandingly. This was more successful. He reconstructed his plot somewhat—he let Nella-Rose in! Curbed and somewhat re-modelled, she materialized and, while he dealt strictly with her, writing was possible.
So the first day and night passed. On the second day Truedale's new strength demanded exercise and recreation. He couldn't be expected to lock himself in until White returned to chaperone him. After all, there was no need of being a fool. So he packed a gunny sack with food and a book or two, and sallied forth, after providing generously for the live stock and calling the dogs after him.
But Truedale was unaware of what was going on about him. Pine Cone Settlement had, since the trap episode, been tense and waiting. Not many things occurred in the mountains and when they did they were made the most of. With significant silence the friends and foes of Burke Lawson were holding themselves in check until he returned to his old haunts; then there would be considerable shooting—not necessarily fatal, a midnight raid or two, a general rumpus, and eventually, a truce.
All this Jim White knew, and it was the propelling factor that had sent him to the deep woods. His sentiments conflicted with duty. Guilty as Lawson was, the sheriff liked him better than he did Martin and he meant, should he come across Burke in "the sticks," to take him off for a bear hunt and some good advice. Thus he would justify his conscience and legal duties. But White, strange to say, was as ignorant as Truedale was of an element that had entered into conditions. It had never occurred to Jim to announce or explain his visitor's arrival. To Pine Cone a "furriner" aroused at best but a superficial interest and, since Truedale had arrived, unseen, at night, why mention him to a community that could not possibly have anything in common with him? So it was that Greyson and a few others, noting Truedale at a distance and losing sight of him at once, concluded that he was Burke, back and in hiding; and a growing but stealthy excitement was in the air. He was supposed by both factions to be with the sheriff, and feeling ran high. In the final estimate, could White have known it, he himself held no small part!
Beloved and hated, Lawson divided the community for and against himself about equally. There were those who defended and swore they would kill any who harmed the young outlaw—he was of the jovial, dare-devil type and as loyal to his friends as he was unyielding to his foes. Others declared that the desperado must be "finished"; the trap disagreement was but the last of a long list of crimes; it was time to put a quietus on one who refused to fall into line—who called the sheriff his friend and had been known to hobnob with revenue men! That, perhaps, was the blackest deed to be attributed to any native.
So all Pine Cone was on the war path and Truedale, heedless and unaware, took his air and exercise at his peril.
The men of the hills had a clear case now, since Peter Greyson had given his evidence, which, by the way, became more conclusive hour by hour as imagination, intoxication, and the delight of finding himself important, grew upon Greyson.