"Theoretically your idea has much to commend it, but it is quite impracticable," Mr. Squiggs announced with some finality. "It could never be brought into effect."
"If a corporation can determine the value of the service rendered by each of its hundred thousand employees, why cannot a nation determine the value of the service rendered by each of its hundred million citizens?"
"THERE'S something for you to chew on, Squiggs," said Transley. "You argue your case well, Grant; I believe you have our legal light rather feazed—that's the word, isn't it, Mr. Murdoch?—for once. I confess a good deal of sympathy with your point of view, but I'm afraid you can't change human nature."
"I am not trying to do that. All that needs changing is the popular idea of what is right and what is wrong. And that idea is changing with a rapidity which is startling. Before the war the man who made money, by almost any means, was set up on a pedestal called Success. Moralists pointed to him as one to be emulated; Sunday school papers printed articles to show that any boy might follow in his footsteps and become great and respected. To-day, for following precisely the same practices, the nation demands that he be thrown into prison; the Press heaps contumely upon him; he has become an object of suspicion in the popular eye. This change, world wide and quite unforeseen, has come about in five years."
"Is that due to a new sense of right and wrong, or to just old-fashioned envy of the rich which now feels strong enough to threaten where it used to fawn?" Y.D.'s wife asked, and Grant was spared a hard answer by the rancher's interruption, "Hit the profiteer as hard as you like. He's got no friends."
"That depends upon who is the profiteer—a point which no one seems to have settled. In the cities you may even hear prosperous ranchers included in that class—absurd as that must seem to you," Grant added, with a smile to Y.D. "Require every man to give service according to his returns and you automatically eliminate all profiteers, large and small."
"But you will admit," said Mrs. Squiggs, "that we must have some well-off people to foster culture and give tone to society generally?"
"I agree that the boy who is brought up in a home with a bath tub, and all that that stands for, is likely to be a better citizen than the boy who doesn't have that advantage. That's why I want every home to have a bath tub."
Mrs. Squiggs subsided rather heavily. In youth her Saturday night ablutions had been taken in the middle of the kitchen floor.
"I have a good deal of sympathy," said Transley, "with any movement which has for its purpose the betterment of human conditions. Any successful man of to-day will admit, if he is frank about it, that he owes his success as much to good luck as to good judgment. If you could find a way, Grant, to take the element of luck out of life, perhaps you would be doing a service which would justify you in keeping those millions which worry you so. But I can't see that it makes any difference to the prosperity of a country who owns the wealth in it, so long as the wealth is there and is usefully employed. Money doesn't grow unless it works, and if it works it serves Society just the same as muscle does. You could put all your wealth in a strong-box and bury it under your house up there on the hill, and it wouldn't increase a nickel in a thousand years, but if you put it to work it makes money for you and money for other people as well. I'm a little nervous about new-fangled notions. It's easier to wreck the ship than to build a new one, which may not sail any better. What the world needs to-day is the gospel of hard work, and everybody, rich and poor, on the job for all that's in him. That's the only way out."
"We seem to have much in common," Grant returned. "Hard work is the only way out, and the best way to encourage hard work is to find a system by which every man will be rewarded according to the service rendered."
At this point Mrs. Transley arose, and the men moved out into the living-room to chat on less contentious subjects. After a time the women joined them, and Grant presently found himself absorbed in conversation with the old rancher's wife. Zen seemed to pay but little attention to him, and for the first time he began to realize what consummate actresses women are. Had Transley been the most suspicious of husbands—and in reality his domestic vision was as guileless as that of a boy—he could have caught no glint of any smoldering spark of the long ago. Grant found himself thinking of this dissembling quality as one of nature's provisions designed for the protection of women, much as the sombre plumage of the prairie chicken protects her from the eye of the sportsman. For after all the hunting instinct runs through all men, be the game what it may.
Before they realized how the time had flown Linder was protesting that he must be on his way. At the gate Transley put a hand on Grant's shoulder.
"I'm prepared to admit," he said, "that there's a whole lot in this old world that needs correcting, but I'm not sure that it can be corrected. You have a right to try out your experiments, but take a tip and keep a comfortable cache against the day when you'll want to settle down and take things as they are. It is true and always has been true that a man who is worth his salt, when he wants a thing, takes it—or goes down in the attempt. The loser may squeal, but that seems to be the path of progress. You can't beat it."
"Well, we'll see," said Grant, laughing. "Sometimes two men, each worth his salt, collide."
"As in the meadow of the South Y.D.," said Transley, with a smile. "You remember that, Y.D.—when our friend here upset the haying operations?"
"Sure, I remember, but I'm not holdin' it agin him now. A dead horse is a dead horse, an' I don't go sniffin' it."
"Perhaps I ought to say, though," Grant returned, "that I really do not know how the iron pegs got into that meadow."
"And I don't know how your haystacks got afire, but I can guess. Remember Drazk? A little locoed, an' just the crittur to pull off a fool stunt like that. When the fire swept up the valley, instead of down, he made his get-away and has never been seen since. I reckon likely there was someone in Landson's gang capable o' drivin' pegs without consultin' the boss."
The little group were standing in the shadow and Grant had no opportunity to notice the sudden blanching of Zen's face at the mention of Drazk.
"You're wrong about his not having been seen again, Y.D.," said Grant. "He managed to locate me somewhere in France. That reminds me, he had a message for you, Mrs. Transley. I'm afraid Drazk is as irresponsible as ever, provided he hasn't passed out, which is more than likely."
Grant shook hands cordially with Y.D. and his wife, with Squiggs and Mrs. Squiggs, with Transley and Mrs. Transley. Any inclination he may have felt to linger over Zen's hand was checked by her quick withdrawal of it, and there was something in her manner quite beyond his understanding. He could have sworn that the self-possessed Zen Transley was actually trembling.
The next day Wilson paid his usual visit to the field where Grant was plowing, and again was he the bearer of a message. With much difficulty he managed to extricate the envelope from a pocket.
"Dear Mr. Grant," it read, "I am so excited over a remark you dropped last night I must see you again as soon as possible. Can you drop in to-night, say at eight. Yours,—ZEN."
Grant read the message a second time, wondering what remark of his could have occasioned it. As he recalled the evening's conversation it had been most about his experiment, and he had a sense that he had occupied a little more of the stage than strictly good form would have suggested. However, it was HIS scheme that had been under discussion, and he did not propose to let it suffer for lack of a champion. But what had he said that could be of more than general interest to Zen Transley? For a moment he wondered if she had created a pretext upon which to bring him to the house by the river, and then instantly dismissed that thought as unworthy of him. At any rate it was evident that his addressing her by her Christian name in the last message had given no offence. This time she had not called him "The Man-on-the-Hill," and there was no suggestion of playfulness in the note. Then the signature, "Yours, Zen"; that might mean everything, or it might mean nothing. Either it was purely formal or it implied a very great deal indeed. Grant reflected that it could hardly be interpreted anywhere between those two extremes, and was it reasonable to suppose that Zen would use it in an ENTIRELY formal sense? If it had been "yours truly," or "yours sincerely," or any such stereotyped conclusion, it would not have called for a second thought, but the simple word "yours"—
"If only she were," thought Grant, and felt the color creeping to his face at the thought. It was the first time he had dared that much. He had not bothered to wonder much where or how this affair must end. Through all the years that had passed since that night when she had fallen asleep on his shoulder, and he had watched the ribbons of fire rising and falling in the valley, and the smell of grass-smoke had been strong in his nostrils, through all those years Zen had been to him a sweet, evasive memory to be dreamed over and idealized, a wild, daring, irresponsible incarnation of the spirit of the hills. Even in these last few days he had followed the path simply because it lay before him. He had not sought her out in all that great West; he had been content with his dream of the Zen of years gone by; if Fate had brought him once more within the orbit of his star surely Fate had a purpose in all its doings. One who has learned to believe that no bullet will find him unless "his name and number are on it" has little difficulty in excusing his own indiscretions by fatalistic reasoning.
He wrote on the back of the note, "Look for me at eight," and then, observing that the boy had not brought teddy along, he inquired solicitously for the health of the little pet.
"He's all right, but mother wouldn't let me bring him. Said I might lose him." The tone in which the last words were spoken implied just how impossible such a thing was. Lose teddy! No one but a mother could think such an absurdity.
"But I got a knife!" Wilson exclaimed, his mind darting to a happier subject. "Daddy gave it to me. Will you sharpen it? It is as dull as a pig."
Grant was to learn during the day that all the boy's figures of speech were now hung on the family pig. The knife was as dull as a pig; the plow was as rough as a pig; the horses, when they capered at a corner, were as wild as a pig; even Grant himself, while he held the little chap firmly on his knee, received the doubtful compliment of being as strong as a pig. He went through the form of sharpening the knife on the leather lines of the harness, and was pleased to discover that Wilson, with childish dexterity of imagination, now pronounced it as sharp as a pig.
The boy did not return to the field in the afternoon, and Grant spent the time in a strange admixture of happiness over the pleasant companionship he had found in this little son of the prairies and anticipation of his meeting with Zen that night. All his reflection had failed to suggest the subject so interesting to her as to bring forth her unconventional note, but it was enough for him that his presence was desired. As to the future—he would deal with that when he came to it. As evening approached the horses began their usual procedure of turning their heads homeward at the end of each furrow. Beginning about five o'clock, they had a habit of assuming that each furrow was obviously the last one for the day, and when the firm hand on the lines brought them sharply back to position they trudged on with an apologetic air which seemed to say that of course they were quite willing to work another hour or two but they supposed their master would want to be on his way home. Today, however, he surprised them, and the first time they turned their heads he unhitched, and, throwing himself lightly across Prince's ample back, drove them to their stables.
Grant prepared his supper of bacon and eggs and fried potatoes, bread and jam and black tea, and ate it from the kitchen table as was his habit except on state occasions. Sometimes a touch of the absurdity of his behavior would tickle his imagination—he, who might dine in the midst of wealth and splendor, with soft lights beating down upon him, soft music swelling through arching corridors, soft-handed waiters moving about on deep, silent carpetings, perhaps round white shoulders across the table and the faint smell of delicate perfumes—that he should prefer to eat from the white oilcloth of his kitchen table was a riddle far beyond any ordinary intellect. And yet he was happy in this life; happy in his escape from the tragic routine of being decently civilized; happier, he knew, than he ever could be among all the artificial pleasures that wealth could buy him. Sometimes, as a concession to this absurdity, he would set his table in the dining-room with his best dishes, and eat his silent meal very grandly, until the ridiculousness of it all would overcome him and he would jump up with a boyish whoop and sweep everything into the kitchen.
But to-night he had no time for make-belief. Supper ended, he put a basin of water on the stove and went out to give his horses their evening attention, after which he had a wash and a careful shave and dressed himself in a light grey suit appropriate to an autumn evening. And then he noticed that he had just time to walk to Transley's house before eight o'clock.
Zen received him at the door; the maid had gone to a neighbor's, she said, and Wilson was in bed. It was still bright outside, but the sheltered living-room, to which she showed him, was wrapped in a soft twilight.
"Shall we have a lamp, or the fireplace?" she asked, then inferentially answered by saying that a cool wind was blowing down from the mountains. "I had the maid build the fire," she continued, and he could see the outline of her form bending over the grate. She struck a match; its glow lit up her cheeks and hair; in a moment the dry wood was crackling and ribbons of blue smoke were curling into the chimney.
"I have been so anxious to see you—again," she said, drawing a chair not far from his. "A chance remark of yours last night brought to memory many things—things I have been trying to forget." Then, abruptly, "Did you ever kill a man?"
"You know I was in the war," he returned, evading her question.
"Yes, and you do not care to dwell on that phase of it. I should not have asked you, but you will be the better able to understand. For years I have lived under the cloud of having killed a man."
"Yes. The day of the fire—you remember?"
Grant had started from his chair. "I can't believe it!" he exclaimed. "There must have been justification!"
"YOU had justification at the Front, but it doesn't make the memory pleasant. I had justification, but it has haunted me night and day. And then, last night you said he was still alive, and my soul seemed to rise up again and say, 'I am free!'"
"Yes. I thought I had killed him that day of the fire. It is rather an unpleasant story, and you will excuse me repeating the details, I know. He attacked me—we were both on horseback, in the river—I suppose he was crazed with his wild deed, and less responsible than usual. He dragged me from my horse and I fought with him in the water, but he was much too strong. I had concluded that to drown myself, and perhaps him, was the only way out, when I saw a leather thong floating in the water from the saddle. By a ruse I managed to flip it around his neck, and the next moment he was at my mercy. I had no mercy then. I understand how it might be possible to kill prisoners. I pulled it tight, tight—pulled till I saw his face blacken and his eyes stand out. He went down, but still I pulled. And then after a little I found myself on shore.
"I suppose it was the excitement of the fire that carried me on through the day, but at night—you remember?—there came a reaction, and I couldn't keep awake. I suddenly seemed to feel that I was safe, and I could sleep."
Grant had resumed his seat. He was deeply moved by this strange confidence; he bent his eyes intently upon her face, now shining in the ruddy light from the fire-place. Her frank reference to the event that night seemed to create a new bond between them; he knew now, if ever he had doubted it, that Zen Transley had treasured that incident in her heart even as he had treasured it.
"I was so embarrassed after the—the accident, you know," she continued. "I knew you must know I had been in the water. For days and weeks I expected every hour to hear of the finding of the body. I expected to hear the remark dropped casually by every new visitor at the ranch, 'Drazk's body was found to-day in the river. The Mounted Police are investigating.' But time went on and nothing was heard of it. It would almost have been a relief to me if it had been discovered. If I had reported the affair at once, as I should have done, all would have been different, but having kept my secret for a while I found it impossible to confess it later. It was the first time I ever felt my self-reliance severely shaken.... But what was his message, and why did you not tell me before?"
"Because I attached no value to it; because I was, perhaps, a little ashamed of it. I learned something of his weaknesses at the Front. According to Drazk's statement of it he won the war, and could as easily win another, if occasion presented itself, so when he said, 'If ever you see Y.D.'s daughter tell her I'm well; she'll be glad to hear it,' I put it down to his usual boasting and thought no more about it. I thought he was trying to impress me with the idea that you were interested in him, which was a very absurd supposition, as I saw it."
"Well, now you know," she said, with a little laugh. "I'm glad it's off my mind."
"Of course your husband knows?"
"No. That made it harder. I never told Frank."
She arose and walked to the fire-place, pretending to stir the logs. When she had seated herself again she continued.
"It has not been easy for me to tell all things to Frank. Don't misunderstand me; he has been a model husband, according to my standards."
"According to your standards?"
"According to my standards—when I married him. If standards were permanent I suppose happy matings would be less unusual. A young couple must have something in common in order to respond at all to each other's attractions, but as they grow older they set up different standards, and they drift apart."
She paused, and Grant sat in silence, watching the glow of the firelight upon her cheek.
"Why don't you smoke?" she exclaimed, suddenly springing up. "Let me find you some of Frank's cigars."
Grant protested that he smoked too much. She produced a box of cigars and extended them to him. Then she held a match while he got his light.
"Your standards have changed?" said Grant, taking up the thread when she had sat down again.
"They have. They have changed more than Frank's, which makes me feel rather at fault in the matter. How could he know that I would change my ideal of what a husband should be?"
"Why shouldn't he know? That is the course of development. Without changing ideals there would be stagnation."
"Perhaps," she returned, and he thought he caught a note of weariness in her voice. "But I don't blame Frank—now. I rather blame him then. He swept me off my feet; stampeded me. My parents helped him, and I was only half disposed to resist. You see, I had this other matter on my mind, and for the first time in my life I felt the need of protection. Besides, I took a matter-of-fact view of marriage. I thought that sentiment—love, if you like—was a thing of books, an invention of poets and fiction writers. Practical people would be practical in their marriages, as in their other undertakings. To marry Frank seemed a very practical course. My father assured me that Frank had in him qualities of large success. He would make money; he would be a prominent man in circles of those who do things. These predictions he has fulfilled. Frank has been all I expected—then."
"But you have changed your opinion of marriage—of the essentials of marriage?"
"Do YOU need to ask that? I was beginning to see the light—beginning to know myself—even before I married him, but I didn't stop to analyze. I plunged ahead, as I have always done, trusting not to get into any position from which I could not find a way out. But there are some positions from which there is no way out."
Grant reflected that possibly his experience had been somewhat like hers in that respect. He, too, had been following a path, unconcerned about its end.... Possibly for him, too, there would be no way out.
"Frank has been all I expected of him," she repeated, as though anxious to do her husband justice. "He has made money. He spends it generously. If I live here modestly, with but one maid, it is because of a preference which I have developed for simplicity. I might have a dozen if I asked it, and I think Frank is somewhat surprised, and, it may be, disappointed, that I don't ask it. Although not a man for display himself, he likes to see me make display. It's a strange thing, isn't it, that a husband should wish his wife to be admired by other men?"
"Some are successful in that," Grant remarked.
"Some are more successful than they intend to be."
"Frank, for instance?" he queried, pointedly.
"I have not sought any man's admiration," she went on, with her astonishing frankness. "I am too independent for that. What do I care for their admiration? But every woman wants love."
Grant had changed his position, and sat with his elbows upon his knees, his chin resting upon his hands. "You know, Zen," he said, using her Christian name deliberately, "the picture I drew that day by the river? That is the picture I have carried in my mind ever since—shall carry to the end. Perhaps it has led me to be imprudent—"
"Has brought me here to-night, for example."
"You had my invitation."
"True. But why develop another situation which, as you say, has no way out?"
"Do you want to go?"
"No, Zen, no! I want to stay—with you—always! But organized society must respect its own conventions."
She arose and stood by his chair, letting her hand fall beside his cheek.
"You silly boy!" she said. "You didn't organize society, nor subscribe to its conventions. Still, I suppose there must be a code of some kind, and we shall respect it. You had your chance, Denny, and you passed it up."
"Had my chance?"
"Yes. I refused you in words, I know, but actions speak louder—"
"But when you told me you were engaged what could I honorably do?"
"More—very much more—than you can do now. You could have shown me my mistake. How much better to have learned it then, from you, than later, by my own experience! You could have swept me off my feet, just as Frank did. You did nothing. If I had sought evidence to prove how impractical you are, as compared with my super-practical husband, I would have found it in the way you handled, or rather failed to handle, that situation."
"What would your super-practical husband do now if he were in my position?" he said, drawing her hands into his.
"I don't know."
"You do! He says that any man worth his salt takes what he wants in this world. Am I worth my salt?"
"There are different standards of value.... Goodness! how late it is! You must go now, and don't come back before, let us say, Wednesday."
Whatever may have been Grant's philosophy about the unwisdom of creating a situation which had no way out he found himself looking forward impatiently to Wednesday evening. An hour or two at Zen's fireside provided the social atmosphere which his bachelor life lacked, and as Transley seemed unappreciative of his domestic privileges, remaining in town unless his business brought him out to the summer home, it seemed only a just arrangement that they should be shared by one who valued them at their worth.
The Wednesday evening conversation developed further the understanding that was gradually evolving between them, but it afforded no solution of the problem which confronted them. Zen made no secret of the error she had made in the selection of her husband, but had no suggestions to offer as to what should be done about it. She seemed quite satisfied to enjoy Grant's conversation and company, and let it go at that—an impossible situation, as the young man assured himself. She dismissed him again at a quite respectable hour with some reference to Saturday evening, which Grant interpreted as an invitation to call again at that time.
When he entered Saturday night it was evident that she had been expecting him. A cool wind was again blowing down from the mountains, laden with the soft smell of melting snow, and the fire in the grate was built ready for the match.
"I am my own maid to-night," she said, as she stooped to light it. "Sarah usually goes to town Saturday evening. Now we shall see if someone is in good humor."
The fire curled up pleasantly about the wood. "There!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. "All is well. You see how economical I am; if we must spend on fires we save on light. I love a wood fire; I suppose it is something which reaches back to the original savage in all of us."
"To the days when our great ancestors roasted their victims while they danced about the coals," said Grant, completing the picture. "And yet they say that human nature doesn't change."
"Does it? I think our methods change with our environments, but that is all. Wasn't it you who propounded a theory about an age when men took what they wanted by force giving way to an age in which they took what they wanted by subtlety? Now, I believe, you want society to restrain the man of clever wits just as it has learned to restrain the man of big biceps. And when that is done will not man discover some other means of taking what he wants?"
She had seated herself beside him on a divanette and the joy of her nearness fired Grant with a very happy intoxication. It recalled that night on the hillside when, as she had since said, she felt safe in his protection.
"I am really very interested," she continued. "I followed the argument at the table on Sunday with as much concern as if it had been my pet hobby, not yours, that was under discussion. If I said little it was because I did not wish to appear too interested."
Her amazing frankness brought Grant, figuratively, to his feet at every turn. She seemed to have no desire to conceal her interest in him, her attachment for him. Hers was such candor as might well be born of the vast hillsides, the great valleys, the brooding silences of her girlhood. Yet it seemed obvious that she must be less candid with Transley....
"I am glad you were interested," he answered. "I was afraid I was rather boring the company, but it was MY scheme and I had to stand up for it. I fear I made few converts."
"You were dealing with practical men," she returned, "and practical men are never converted to a new idea. That is one of the things I have learned in my years of married life, Dennison. Practical men find many ways of turning an old idea to advantage, but they never evolve new ones. New ideas come from dreamers—theoretical fellows like you."
"The dreamer is always a lap ahead of the rest of civilization, and the funny thing is that the rest always thinks itself much more sane than the dreamer, out there blazing the way."
"That's not remarkable," she replied. "That's logical. The dreamer blazes the way—proves the possibilities of his dream—and the practical man follows it up and makes money out of it. To a practical man there is nothing more practical than making money."
"Did I convert you?" he pursued.
"I was not in need of conversion. I have been a follower of the new faith—an imperfect and limping follower, it is true—ever since you first announced it."
"I believe you are laughing at me."
"Certainly not! I have been brought up in an environment where there is no standard higher than the money standard. Not that my father or husband are dishonest; they are rigidly honest according to their ideas of honesty. But to say that a man must give actual service for every dollar he gets or it isn't his—that is a conception of honesty so far beyond them as to be an absurdity. But I have wanted to ask you how you are going to enforce this new idealism."
"Idealism is not enforced. We aspire to it; we may not attain to it. Christianity itself is idealism—the idealism of unselfishness. That ideal has never been attained by any considerable number of people, and yet it has drawn all humanity on to somewhat higher levels as surely as the moon draws the tide. Superficial persons in these days are drawing pictures of the failure of Christianity, which has failed in part; but they could find a much more depressing subject by painting a world from which all Christian idealism had been removed."
"But surely you have some plan for putting your theories to the test—some plan which will force those to whom idealism appeals in vain. We do not trust to a man's idealism to keep him from stealing; we put him in jail."
"All that will come in time, but the question for the seeker after truth is not 'Will it work?' but 'Is it true?' I fancy I can see the practical men of Moses' time leaning over his shoulder as he inscribed the Ten Commandments and remarking 'No use of putting that down, Moses; you can never enforce it.' But Moses put it down and left the enforcement to natural law and the growing intelligence of the generations which have followed him. We are too much disposed to think it possible to evade a law; to violate it, and escape punishment; but if a law is true, punishment follows violation as implacably as the stars follow their courses. And if society has failed to recognize the law that service, and service only, should be able to command service in return, society must suffer the penalty. We have only to look about us to see that society is paying in full for its violations.
"Yes, I have plans, and I think they would work, but the first thing is the ideal—the new moral sense—that value must not be accepted without giving equal value in return. Society, of course, will have to set up the standards of value. That is a matter of detail—a matter for the practical men who come in the wake of the idealist. But of this I am certain—and I hark back to my old theme—that just as society has found a means of preventing the man who is physically superior from taking wealth without giving service in return, so must society find a means to prevent men who are mentally superior from taking wealth without giving service in return. The superior person, mark you, will still have an advantage, in that his superiority will enable him to EARN more; we shall merely stop him taking what he does not earn. That must come. I think it will come soon. It is the next step in the social evolution of the race."
She had drunk in his argument as one who hangs on every word, and her wrapt face turned toward his seemed to glow and thrill him in return with a sense of their spiritual oneness. She did not need to tell him that Transley never talked to her like this. Transley loved her, if he loved her at all, for the glory she reflected upon him; he was proud of her beauty, of her daring, of her physical charm and self-reliance. The deeper side of her mental life was to Transley a field unexplored; a field of the very existence of which he was probably unaware. Grant looked into her eyes, now close and responsive, and found within their depths something which sent him to his feet.
"Zen!" he exclaimed. "The mystery of life is too much for me. Surely there must be an answer somewhere! Surely the puzzle has a system to it—a key which may some day be found! Or can it be just chaos—just blind, driveling, senseless chaos? In our own lives, why should we be stranded, helpless, wrecked, with the happiness which might have been ours hung just beyond our reach? Is there no answer to this?"
"I suppose we disobeyed the law, back in those old days. We heard it clearly enough, and we disobeyed. I allowed myself to be guided by motives which were not the highest; you seemed to lack the enterprise which would have won you its own reward. And as you have said, those who violate the law must suffer for it. I have suffered."
She drew up her chin; he could see the firm muscles set beneath the pink bloom of her flesh.... He had not thought of Zen suffering; all his thought of her had been very grateful to his vanity, but he had not thought of her suffering. He extended his hands and took hers within them.
"I have sometimes wondered," he said, "why there is no second chance; why one cannot wipe the slate clear of everything that has been and start anew. What a world this might be!"
"Would it be any better? Or would we go on making our mistakes over again? That seems to be the only way we learn."
"But a second chance; the idea seems so fair, so plausible. Suppose you are shooting on the ranges, for instance; you are allowed a shot or two to find your nerve, to get your distance, to settle yourself to the business in hand. But in this business of life you fire, and if some distraction, some momentary influence or folly sends your aim wild, the shot is gone and you are left with all the years that follow to think about it. You can do nothing but think about it—the most profitless of all occupations."
"For you there is a second chance," she reminded him. "You must have thought of that."
"No—no second chance."
She drew herself up slightly and away from him. "I have been very frank with you, Dennison," she said. "Suppose you try being frank with me?"
In her eyes was still the fire of Zen of the Y.D., a woman unconquered and unconquerable. She gave the impression that she accepted the buffetings of life, but no one forced them upon her. She had erred; she would suffer. That was fair; she accepted that. But as Grant gazed on her face, tilted still in some of its old-time recklessness and defiance, he knew that the day would come when she would say that her cup was full, and, throwing it to the winds, would start life over, if there can be such a thing as starting life over. And something in her manner told him that day was very, very near.
"All right," he said, "I will be frank. Fate HAS brought within my orbit a second chance, or what would have been a second chance had my heart not been so full of you. She was a girl well worth thinking about. When an employee introduces herself to you with a declaration of independence you may know that you have met with someone out of the ordinary. I am not speaking of these days of labor scarcity; it takes no great moral quality to be independent when you have the whip-hand. But in the days before the war, with two applicants for every position, a girl who valued her freedom of spirit more than her job—more than even a very good job—was a girl to think about."
"And you thought about her?"
"I did. I was sick of the cringing and fawning of which my wealth made me the object; I loathed the deference paid me, because I knew it was paid, not to me, but to my money—I was homesick to hear someone tell me to go to hell. I wanted to brush up against that spirit which says it is as good as anybody else—against the manliness which stands its ground and hits back. I found that spirit in Phyllis Bruce."
"Phyllis Bruce—rather a nice name. But are the men and women of the East so—so servile as you suggest?"
"No! That is where I was mistaken. Generations of environment had merely trained them into docility of habit. Underneath they are red-blooded through and through. The war showed us that. Zen—the proudest moment of my life—except one—was when a kid in the office who couldn't come into my room without trembling jumped up and said 'We WILL win!'—and called me Grant! Think of that! Poor chap.... What was I saying? Oh, yes; Phyllis. I grew to like her—very much—but I couldn't marry her. You know why."
Zen was looking into the fire with unseeing eyes. "I am not sure that I know why," she said at length. "You couldn't marry me. It was your second chance. You should have taken it."
"Would that be playing the game fairly—with her?"
She rested her fingers lightly on the back of his hand, extending them gently down until they fell between his own.
"Denny, you big, big boy!" she murmured. "Do you suppose every man marries his first choice?"
"It has always seemed to me that a second choice is a makeshift. It doesn't seem quite square—"
"No. I fancy some second choices are really first choices. Wisdom comes with experience, you know."
"Not always. At any rate I couldn't marry her while my heart was yours."
"I suppose not," she answered, and again he noted a touch of weariness in her voice. "I know something of what divided affection—if one can even say it is divided—means. Denny, I will make a confession. I knew you would come back; I always was sure you would come back. 'Then,' I said to myself, 'I will see this man Grant as he is, and the reality will clear my brain of all this idealism which I have woven about him.' Perhaps you know what I mean. We sometimes meet people who impress us greatly at the time, but a second meeting, perhaps years later, has a very different effect. It sweeps all the idealism away, and we wonder what it was that could have charmed us so. Well—I hoped—I really hoped for some experience like that with you. If only I could meet you again and find that, after all, you were just like other men; self-centred, arrogant, kind, perhaps, but quite superior—if I could only find THAT to be true then the mirage in which I have lived for all these years would be swept away and my old philosophy that after all it doesn't matter much whom one marries so long as he is respectable and gives her a good living would be vindicated. And so I have encouraged you to come here; I have been most unconventional, I know, but I was always that—I have cultivated your acquaintance, and, Denny, I am SO disappointed!"
"Disappointed? Then the mirage HAS cleared away?"
"On the contrary, it grows more distorted every day. I see you towering above all your fellow humans; reaching up into a heaven so far above them that they don't even know of its existence. I see you as really The Man-On-the-Hill, with a vision which lays all this selfish, commonplace world at your feet. The idealism which I thought must fade away is justified—heightened—by the reality."
She had turned her face to him, and Grant, little as he understood the ways of women, knew that she had made her great confession. For a moment he held himself in check.... then from somewhere in his subconsciousness came ringing the phrase, "Every man worth his salt.... takes what he wants." That was Transley's morality; Transley, the Usurper, who had bullied himself into possession of this heart which he had never won and could never hold; Transley, the fool, frittering his days and nights with money! He seized her in his arms, crushing down her weak resistance; he drew her to him until, as in that day by a foothill river somewhere in the sunny past, her lips met his and returned their caress. He cared now for nothing—nothing in the whole world but this quivering womanhood within his arms....
"You must go," she whispered at length. "It is late, and Frank's habits are somewhat erratic."
He held her at arm's length, his hands upon her shoulders. "Do you suppose that fear—of anything—can make me surrender you now?"
"Not fear, perhaps—I know it could not be fear—but good sense may do it. It was not fear that made me send you home early from your previous calls. It was discretion."
"Oh!" he said, a new light dawning, and he marvelled again at her consummate artistry.
"But I must tell you," she resumed, "Frank leaves on a business trip to-morrow night. He will be gone for some time, and I shall motor into town to see him off. I am wondering about Wilson," she hurried on, as though not daring to weigh her words; "Sarah will be away—I am letting her have a little holiday—and I can't take Wilson into town with me because it will be so late." Then, with a burst of confession she spoke more deliberately. "That isn't exactly the reason, Dennison; Frank doesn't know I have let Sarah go, and I—I can't explain."
Her face shone pink and warm in the glow of the firelight, and as the significance of her words sank in upon him Grant marvelled at that wizardry of the gods which could bring such homage to the foot of man. A tenderness such as he had never known suffused him; her very presence was holy.
"Bring the boy over and let him spend the night with me. We are great chums and we shall get along splendidly."
Grant spent his Sunday forenoon in an exhaustive house-cleaning campaign. Bachelor life on the farm is not conducive to domestic delicacy, and although Grant had never abandoned the fundamentals he had allowed his interpretation of essential cleanliness to become somewhat liberal. The result was that the day of rest usually confronted him with a considerable array of unwashed pots and pans and other culinary utensils. To-day, while the tawny autumn hills seemed to fairly heave and sigh with contentment under a splendor of opalescent sunshine, he scoured the contents of his kitchen until they shone; washed the floor; shook the rugs from the living-room and swept the corners, even behind the gramophone; cleared the ashes from the hearth and generally set his house in order, for was not she to call upon him that evening on her way to town, and was not little Wilson—he of the high adventures with teddy-bear and knife and pig—to spend the night with him?
When he was able to view his handiwork with a feeling that even feminine eyes would find nothing to offend, Grant did an unwonted thing. He unlocked the whim-room and opened the windows that the fresh air might play through the silent chamber. To the west the mountains looked down in sombre placidity as they had looked down every bright autumn morning since the dawn of time, their shoulders bathed in purple mist and their snow-crowned summits shining in the sun. For a long time Grant stood drinking in the scene; the fertile valley lying with its square farms like a checker-board of the gods, with its round little lakes beating back the white sunshine like coins from the currency of the Creator; the ruddy copper-colored patches of ripe wheat, and drowsy herds motionless upon the receding hills; the blue-green ribbon of river with its yellow fringes of cottonwood and bluffs of forbidding spruce, and behind and over all the silent, majestic mountains. It was a sight to make the soul of man rise up and say, "I know I stand on the heights of the Eternal!" Then as his eyes followed the course of the river Grant picked out a column of thin blue smoke, and knew that Zen was cooking her Sunday dinner.
The thought turned him to his dusting of the whim-room, and afterwards to his own kitchen. When he had lunched and dressed he took a stroll over the hills, thinking a great deal, but finding no answer. On his return he descried the familiar figure of Linder in a semi-recumbent position on the porch, and Linder's well-worn car in the yard.
"How goes it, Linder?" he said, cheerily, as he came up. "Is the Big Idea going to fructify?"
"The Big Idea seems to be all right. You planned it well."
"Thanks. But is it going to be self-supporting—I mean in the matter of motive power. Would it run if you and I and Murdoch were wiped out?"
"Everything must have a head."
"Democracy must find its own head—must grow it out of the materials supplied. If it doesn't do that it's a failure, and the Big Idea will end in being the Big Fizzle. That's why I'm leaving it so severely alone—I want to see which way it's headed."
"I could suggest another reason," said Linder, pointedly.
"Another reason for what?"
"For your leaving it so severely alone."
"What are you driving at?" demanded Grant, somewhat petulantly. "You are in a taciturn mood to-day, Linder."
"Perhaps I am, Grant, and if so it comes from wondering how a man with as much brains as you have can be such a damned fool upon occasion."
"Drop the riddles, Linder. Let me have it in the face."
"It's just like this, Grant, old boy," said Linder, getting up and putting his hand on his friend's shoulder, "I feel that I still have an interest in the chap who saved all of me except what this empty sleeve stands for, and it's that interest which makes me speak about something which you may say is none of my business. I was out here Monday night to see you, and you were not at home. I came out again Wednesday, and you were not at home. I came last night and you were not at home, and had not come back at midnight. Your horses were in the barn; you were not far away."
"Why didn't you telephone me?"
"If I hadn't cared more for you than I do for my job and the Big Idea thrown in I could have settled it that way. But, Grant, I do."
"I believe you. But why this sudden worry over me? I was merely spending the evening at a neighbor's."
"Yes—at Transley's. Transley was in town, and Mrs. Transley is—not responsible—where you are concerned."
"I saw it all that night at dinner there. Some things are plain to everyone—except those most involved. Now it's not my job to say to you what's right and wrong, but the way it looks to me is this: what's the use of setting up a new code of morality about money which concerns, after all, only some of us, if you're going to knock down those things which concern all of us?"
Grant regarded his foreman for some time without answering. "I appreciate your frankness, Linder," he said at length. "Your friendship, which I can never question, gives you that privilege. Man to man, I'm going to be equally frank with you. To begin with, I suppose you will admit that Y.D.'s daughter is a strong character, a woman quite capable of directing her own affairs?"
"The stronger the engine the bigger the smash if there's a wreck."
"It's not a case of wrecking; it's a case of trying to save something out of the wreck. Convention, Linder, is a torture-monger; it binds men and women to the stake of propriety and bids them smile while it snuffs out all the soul that's in them. We have pitted ourselves against convention in economic affairs; shall we not—"
"No! It was pure unselfishness which led you into the Big Idea. That isn't what's leading you now."
"Well, let me put it another way. Transley is a clever man of affairs. He knows how to accomplish his ends. He applied the methods—somewhat modified for the occasion—of a landshark in winning his wife. He makes a great appearance of unselfishness, but in reality he is selfish to the core. He lavishes money on her to satisfy his own vanity, but as for her finer nature, the real Zen, her soul if you like—he doesn't even know she has one. He obtained possession by false pretences. Which is the more moral thing—to leave him in possession, or to throw him out? Didn't you yourself hear him say that men who are worth their salt take what they want?"
"Since when did you let him set YOUR standards?"
"That's hardly fair."
"I think it is. I think, too, that you are arguing against your own convictions. Well, I've had my say. I deliberately came out to-day without Murdoch so that I might have it. You would be quite justified in firing me for what I've done. But now I'm through, and no matter what may happen, remember, Linder will never have suspected anything."
"That's like you, old chap. We'll drop it at that, but I must explain that Zen is going to town to-night to meet Transley, and is leaving the boy with me. It is an event in my young life, and I have house-cleaned for it appropriately. Come inside and admire my handiwork."
Linder admired as he was directed, and then the two men fell into a discussion of business matters. Eventually Grant cooked supper, and just as they had finished Mrs. Transley drove up in her motor.
"Here we are!" she cried, cheerily. "Glad to see you, Mr. Linder. Wilson has his teddy-bear and his knife and his pyjamas, and is a little put out, I think, that I wouldn't let him bring the pig."
"I shall try and make up the deficiency," said Grant, smiling broadly, as the boy climbed to his shoulder. "Won't you come in? Linder, among his other accomplishments learned in France, is an excellent chaperon."
"Thank you, no; I must get along. I shall call early in the morning, so that you will not be delayed on Wilson's account."
"No need of that; he can ride to the field with me on Prince. He is a great help with the plowing."
"I'm sure." She stepped up to Grant and drew the boy's face down to hers. "Good-bye, dear; be a good boy," she whispered, and Wilson waved kisses to her as the motor sped down the road.
Linder took his departure soon after, and Grant was surprised to find himself almost embarrassed in the presence of his little guest. The embarrassment, however, was all on his side. Wilson was greatly interested in the strange things in the house, and investigated them with the romantic thoroughness of his years. Grant placed a collection of war trophies that had no more fight in them at the child's disposal, and he played about until it was time to go to bed.
Where to start on the bedtime preparations was a puzzle, but Wilson himself came to Grant's aid with explicit instructions about buttons and pins. Grant fervently hoped the boy would be able to reverse the process in the morning, otherwise—
Suddenly, with a little dexterous movement, the child divested himself of all his clothing, and rushed into a far corner.
"You have to catch me now," he shouted in high glee. "One, two—"
Evidently it was a game, and Grant entered into the spirit of it, finally running Wilson to earth on the farthest corner of the kitchen table. To adjust the pyjamas was, as Grant confessed, a bigger job than harnessing a four-horse team, but at length it was completed.
"You must hear my prayer, Uncle Man-on-the-Hill," said the boy. "You have to sit down in a chair."
Grant sat down and with a strange mixture of emotions drew the little chap between his knees as he listened to the long-forgotten prattle. He felt his fingers running through Wilson's hair as other fingers, now long, long turned to dust, had once run through his....
At the third line the boy stopped. "You have to tell me now," he prompted.
"But I can't, Willie; I have forgotten."
"Huh, you don't know much," the child commented, and glibly quoted the remaining lines. "And God bless Daddy and Mamma and teddy-bear and Uncle Man-on-the-Hill and the pig. Amen," he concluded, accompanying the last word with a jump which landed him fairly in Grant's lap. His little arms went up about his friend's neck, and his little soft cheek rested against a tanned and weather-beaten one. Slowly Grant's arms closed about the warm, lithe body and pressed it to his in a new passion, strange and holy. Then he led him to the whim-room, turned down the white sheets in which no form had ever lain and placed the boy between them, snuggled his teddy down by his side and set his knife properly in view upon the dresser. And then he leaned down again and kissed the little face, and whispered, "Good night, little boy; God keep you safe to-night, and always." And suddenly Grant realized that he had been praying....
He withdrew softly, and only partly closed the door; then he chose a seat where he could see the little figure lying peacefully on the white bed. The last shafts of the setting sun were falling in amber wedges across the room. He picked up a book, thinking to read, but he could not keep his attention on the page; he found his mind wandering back into the long-forgotten chambers of its beginning, conjuring up from the faint recollections of infancy visions of the mother he had hardly known.... After a while he tip-toed to the whim-room door and found that Wilson, with his arms firmly clasped about his teddy-bear, was deep in the sleep of childhood.
"The dear little chap," he murmured. "I must watch by him to-night. It would be unspeakable if anything should happen him while he is under my care."
He felt a sense of warmth, almost a smothering sensation, and raised his hand to his forehead. It came down covered with perspiration.
"It's amazingly close," he said, and walked to one of the French windows opening to the west. The sun had gone down, and a brooding darkness lay over all the valley, but far up in the sky he could trace the outline of a cloud. Above, the stars shone with an unwonted brightness, but below all was a bank of blue-black darkness. The air was intensely still; in the silence he could hear the wash of the river. Grant reflected that never before had he heard the wash of the river at that distance.
"Looks like a storm," he commented, casually, and suddenly felt something tighten about his heart. The storms of the foothill country, which occasionally sweep out of the mountains and down the valleys on the shortest notice, had no terror for him; he had sat on horseback under an oilskin slicker through the worst of them; but to-night! Even as he watched, the distant glare of lightning threw the heaving proportions of the thundercloud into sharp relief.
He turned to his chair, but found himself pacing the living-room with an altogether inexplicable nervousness. He had held the line many a bad night at the Front while Death spat out of the darkness on every hand; he had smoked in the faces of his men to cover his own fear and to shame them out of theirs; he had run the whole gamut of the emotion of the trenches, but tonight something more awesome than any engine of man was gathering its forces in the deep valleys. He shook himself to throw off the morbidness that was settling upon him; he laughed, and the echo came back haunting from the silent corners of the house. Then he lit a lamp and set it, burning low, in the whim-room, and noted that the boy slept on, all unconcerned.
"Damn Linder, anyway!" he exclaimed presently. "I believe he shook me up more than I realized. He charged me with insincerity; me, who have always made sincerity my special virtue.... Well, there may be something in it."
A faint, indistinct growling, as of the grinding of mighty rocks, came down from the distances.
"The storm will be nothing," he assured himself. "A gust of wind; a spatter of rain; perhaps a dash of hail; then, of a sudden, a sky so calm and peaceful one would wonder how it ever could have been disturbed." Even as he spoke the house shivered in every timber as the gale struck it and went whining by.
He rushed to the whim-room, but found the boy still sleeping soundly. "I must stay up," he reasoned with himself; "I must be on hand in case he should be frightened."
Suddenly it occurred to Grant that, quite apart from his love for Wilson, if anything should happen the child in his house a very difficult situation would be created. Transley would demand explanations—explanations which would be hard to make. Why was Wilson there at all? Why was he not at home with Sarah? Sarah away from home! Why had Zen kept that a secret?... How long had this thing been going on, anyway? Grant feared neither Transley nor any other man, and yet there was something akin to fear in his heart as he thought of these possibilities. He would be held accountable—doubly accountable—if anything happened the child. Even though it were something quite beyond his control; lightning, for example—
The gale subsided as quickly as it had come, and the sudden silence which followed was even more awesome. It lasted only for a moment; a flash of lightning lit up every corner of the house, bursting like white fire from every wall and ceiling. Grant rushed to the whim-room and was standing over the child when the crash of thunder came upon them. The boy stirred gently, smiled, and settled back to his sleep.
Grant drew the blinds in the whim-room, and went out to draw them in the living-room, but the sight across the valley was of a majesty so terrific that it held him fascinated. The play of the lightning was incessant, and with every flash the little lakes shot back their white reflection, and distant farm window-panes seemed heliographing to each other through the night. As yet there was no rain, but a dense wall of cloud pressed down from the west, and the farther hills were hidden even in the brightest flashes.
Turning from the windows, Grant left the blinds open. "Only cowardice would close them," he muttered to himself, "and surely, in addition to the other qualities Linder has attributed to me, I am not a coward. If it were not for Willie I could stand and enjoy it."
Presently rain began to fall; a few scattered drops at first, then thicker, harder, until the roof and windows rattled and shook with their force. The wind, which had gone down so suddenly, sprang up again, buffeting the house as it rushed by with the storm. Grant stood in the whim-room, in the dim light of the lamp turned low, and watched the steady breathing of his little guest with as much anxiety as if some dread disease threatened him. For the first time in his life there came into Grant's consciousness some sense of the price which parents pay in the rearing of little children. He thought of all the hours of sickness, of all the childish hurts and dangers, and suddenly he found himself thinking of his father with a tenderness which was strange and new to him. Doubtless under even that stern veneer of business interest had beat a heart which, many a time, had tightened in the grip of fear for young Dennison.
As the night wore on the storm, instead of spending itself quickly as Grant had expected, continued unabated, but his nervous tension gradually relaxed, and when at length Wilson was awakened by an exceptionally loud clap of thunder he took the boy in his arms and soothed his little fears as a mother might have done. They sat for a long while in a big chair in the living-room, and exchanged such confidences as a man may with a child of five. After the lad had dropped back into sleep Grant still sat with him in his arms, thinking....
And what he thought was this: He was a long while framing the exact thought; he tried to beat it back in a dozen ways, but it circled around him, gradually closed in upon him and forced its acceptance. "Linder called me a fool, and he was right. He might have called me a coward, and again he would have been right. Linder was right."
Some way it seemed easy to reach that conclusion while this little sleeping form lay in his arms. Perhaps it had quickened into life that ennobling spirit of parenthood which is all sacrifice and love and self-renunciation. The ends which seemed so all-desirable a few hours ago now seemed sordid and mean and unimportant. Reaching out for some means of self-justification Grant turned to the Big Idea; that was his; that was big and generous and noble. But after all, was it his? The idea had come in upon him from some outside source—as perhaps all ideas do; struck him like a bullet; swept him along. He was merely the agency employed in putting it into effect. It had cost him nothing. He was doing that for society. Now was the time to do something that would cost; to lay his hand upon the prize and then relinquish it—for the sake of Wilson Transley!
"And by God I'll do it!" he exclaimed, springing to his feet. He carried the child back to his bed, and then turned again to watch the storm through the windows. It seemed to be subsiding; the lightning, although still almost continuous, was not so near. The air was cooling off and the rain was falling more steadily, without the gusts and splatters which marked the storm in its early stages. And as he looked out over the black valley, lighted again and again by the glare of heaven's artillery, Grant became conscious of a deep, mysterious sense of peace. It was as though his soul, like the elements about him, caught in a paroxysm of elemental passion, had been swept clean and pure in the fire of its own upheaval.
"What little incidents turn our lives!" he thought. "That boy; in some strange way he has been the means of bringing me to see things as they are—which not even Linder could do. The mind has to be fertilized for the thought, or it can't think it. He brought the necessary influence to bear. It was like the night at Murdoch's house, the night when the Big Idea was born. Surely I owe that to Murdoch, and his wife, and Phyllis Bruce."
The name of Phyllis Bruce came to him with almost a shock. He had been so occupied with his farm and with Zen that he had thought but little of her of late. As he turned the matter over in his mind now he felt that he had used Phyllis rather shabbily. He recalled having told Murdoch to send for her, but that was purely a business transaction. Yet he felt that he had never entirely forgotten her, and he was surprised to find how tenderly the memory of her welled up within him. Zen's vision had been clearer than his; she had recognized in Phyllis Bruce a party to his life's drama. "The second choice may be really the first," she had said.
Grant lit a cigar and sat down to smoke and think. The matter of Phyllis needed prompt settlement. It afforded a means to burn his bridges behind him, and Grant felt that it would be just as well to cut off all possibility of retreat. Fortunately the situation was one that could be explained—to Phyllis. He had come out West again to be sure of himself; he was sure now; would she be his wife? He had never thought that line out to a conclusion before, but now it proved a subject very delightful to contemplate.
He had told himself, back in those days in the East, that it would not be fair to marry Phyllis Bruce while his heart was another's. He had believed that then; now he knew the real reason was that he had allowed himself to hope, against all reason, that Zen Transley might yet be his. He had harbored an unworthy desire, and called it a virtue. Well—the die was cast. He had definitely given Zen up. He would tell Phyllis everything.... That is, everything she needed to know.
It would be best to settle it at once—the sooner the better. He went to his desk and took out a telegraph blank. He addressed it to Phyllis, pondered a minute in a great hush in the storm, and wrote,
"I am sure now. May I come? Dennison."
This done he turned to the telephone, hurrying as one who fears for the duration of his good resolutions. It was a chance if the line was not out of business, but he lifted the receiver and listened to the thump of his heart as he waited.
Presently came a voice as calm and still as though it spoke from another world, "Number?"
He gave the number of Linder's rooms in town; it was likely Linder had remained in town, but it was a question whether the telephone bell would waken him. He had recollections of Linder as a sound sleeper. But even as this possibility entered his mind he heard Linder's phlegmatic voice in his ear.
"Oh, Linder! I'm so glad I got you. Rush this message to Phyllis Bruce.... Linder?... Linder!"
There was no answer. Nothing but a hollow, empty sound on the wire, as though it led merely into the universe in general. He tried to call the operator, but without success. The wire was down.
He turned from it with a sense of acute impatience. Was this an omen of obstacles to bar him now from Phyllis Bruce? He had a wild thought of saddling a horse and riding to town, but at that moment the storm came down afresh. Besides, there was the boy.
Suddenly came a quick knock at the door; the handle turned, and a drenched, hatless figure, with disheveled, wet hair, and white, drawn face burst in upon him. It was Zen Transley.
"How is he—how is Wilson?" she demanded, breathlessly.
"Sound as a bell," he answered, alarmed by her manner. The self-assured Zen was far from self-assurance now. "Come, see, he is asleep."
He led her into the whim-room and turned up the lamp. The lad was sleeping soundly, his teddy-bear clasped in his arms, his little pink and white face serene under the magic skies of slumberland. Grant expected that Zen would throw herself upon the child in her agitation, but she did not. She drew her fingers gently across his brow, then, turning to Grant,
"Rather an unceremonious way to break into your house," she said, with a little laugh. "I hope you will pardon me.... I was uneasy about Wilson."
"But tell me—how—where did you come from?"
"From town. Let me stand in your kitchen, or somewhere."
"You're wet through. I can't offer you much change."
"Not as wet as when you first met me, Dennison," she said, with a smile. "I have a good waterproof, but my hat blew off. It's somewhere on the road. I couldn't see through the windshield, so I put my head out, and away it went."
Then both laughed, and an atmosphere that had been tense began to settle back to normal. Grant led her out to the living-room, removed her coat, and started a fire.
"So you drove out over those roads?" he said, when the smoke began to curl up around the logs. "You had your courage."
"It wasn't courage, Dennison; it was terror. Fear sometimes makes one wonderfully brave. After I saw Frank off I went to the hotel. I had a room on the west side, and instead of going to bed I sat by the window looking out at the storm and at the wet streets. I could see the flashes of lightning striking down as though they were aimed at definite objects, and I began to think of Wilson, and of you. You see, it was the first night I had ever spent away from him, and I began to think....
"After a while I could bear it no longer, and I rushed down and out to the garage. There was just one young man on night duty, and I'm sure he thought me crazy. When he couldn't dissuade me he wanted to send a driver with me. You know I couldn't have that."
She was looking squarely at him, her face strangely calm and emotionless. Grant nodded that he followed her reasoning.
"So here I am," she continued. "No doubt you think me silly, too. You are not a mother."
"I think I understand," he answered, tenderly. "I think I do."
They sat in silence for some time, and presently they became aware of a grey light displacing the yellow glow from the lamp and the ruddy reflections of the fire. "It is morning," said Grant. "I believe the storm has cleared."
He stood beside her chair and took her hand in his. "Let us watch the dawn break on the mountains," he said, and together they moved to the windows that overlooked the valley and the grim ranges beyond. Already shafts of crimson light were firing the scattered drift of clouds far overhead....
"Dennison," she said at length, turning her face to his, "I hope you will understand, but—I have thought it all over. I have not hidden my heart from you. For the boy's sake, and for your sake, and for the sake of 'a scrap of paper'—that was what the war was over, wasn't it?—"
"I know," he whispered. "I know."
"Then you have been thinking, too?... I am so glad!" In the growing light he could see the moisture in her bright eyes glisten, and it seemed to him this wild, daring daughter of the hills had never been lovelier than in this moment of confession and of high resolve.
"I am so glad," she repeated, "for your sake—and for my own. Now, again, you are really the Man-on-the-Hill. We have been in the valley of late. You can go ahead now with your high plans, with your Big Idea. You will marry Miss Bruce, and forget."
"I shall remember with chastened memory, but I shall never forget," he said at length. "I shall never forget Zen of the Y.D. And you—what will you do?"
"I have the boy. I did not realize how much I had until to-night. Suddenly it came upon me that he was everything. You won't understand, Dennison, but as we grow older our hearts wrap up around our children with a love quite different from that which expresses itself in marriage. This love gives—gives—gives, lavishly, unselfishly, asking nothing in return."
"I think I understand," he said again. "I think I do."
They turned their eyes to the mountains, and as they looked the first shafts of sunlight fell on the white peaks and set them dazzling like mighty diamond-points against the blue bosom of the West. Slowly the flood of light poured down their mighty sides and melted the mauve shadows of the valley. Suddenly a ray of the morning splendor shot through the little window in the eastern wall of the living-room and fell fairly upon the woman's head, crowning her like a halo of the Madonna.
"It is morning on the mountains—and on you!" Grant exclaimed. "Zen, you are very, very beautiful." He raised her hand and pressed her fingers to his lips.
As they stood watching the sunlight pour into the valley a sharp knock sounded on the door. "Come," said Dennison, and the next moment it swung open and Phyllis Bruce entered, followed immediately by Linder. A question leapt into her eyes at the remarkable situation which greeted them, and she paused in embarrassment.
"Phyllis!" Grant exclaimed. "You here!"
"It would seem that I was not expected."
"It is all very simple," Grant explained, with a laugh. "Little Willie Transley was my guest overnight. On account of the storm his mother became alarmed, and drove out from the city early this morning for him. Mrs. Transley, let me introduce Miss Bruce—Phyllis Bruce, of whom I have told you."
Zen's cordial handshake did more to reassure Phyllis than any amount of explanations, and Linder's timely observation that he knew Wilson was there and was wondering about him himself had valuable corroborative effect.
"But now—YOUR explanations?" said Grant. "How comes it, Linder?"
"Simple enough, from our side. When I got back to town last night I found Murdoch highly excited over a telegram from Miss Bruce that she would arrive on the 3 a.m. train. He was determined to wait up, but when the storm came on I persuaded him to go home, as I was sure I could identify her. So I was lounging in my room waiting for three o'clock when I got your telephone call. All I could catch was the fact that you were mighty glad to get me, and had some urgent message for Miss Bruce. Then the connection broke."
"I see. And you, of course, assured Miss Bruce that I was being murdered, or meeting some such happy and effective ending, out here in the wilderness."
"Not exactly that, but I reported what I could, and Miss Bruce insisted upon coming out at once. The roads were dreadful, but we had daylight. Also, we have a trophy."
Linder went out and returned in a moment with a sadly bedraggled hat.
"My poor hat!" Zen exclaimed. "I lost it on the way."
"It is the best kind of evidence that you had but recently come over the road," said Linder, significantly.
"I think no more evidence need be called," said Phyllis. "May I lay off my things?"
"Certainly—certainly," Grant apologized. "But I must introduce one more exhibit." He handed her the telegram he had written during the night. "That is the message I wanted Linder to rush to you," he said, and as she read it he saw the color deepen in her cheeks.
"I'm going to get breakfast, Mr. Grant," Zen announced with a sudden burst of energy. "Everybody keep out of the kitchen."
"Guess I'll feed up for you, this morning, old chap," said Linder, beating a retreat to the stables.
And when Phyllis had laid aside her coat and hat and had straightened her hair a little in the glass above the mantelpiece she walked straight to Grant and put both her hands in his. "Let me see this boy, Willie Transley," she said.
Grant led her into the whim-room, where the boy still slept soundly, and drew aside the blinds that the morning light might fall about him. Phyllis bent over the child. "Isn't he dear?" she said, and stooped and kissed his lips.
Then she stood up and looked for what seemed to Grant a very long time at the panorama of grandeur that stretched away to the westward.
"When may I expect an answer, Phyllis?" he said at length. "You know why my question has been so long delayed. I shall not attempt to excuse myself. I have been very, very foolish. But to-day I am very, very wise. May I also be very, very happy?"
He had taken her hands in his, and as she did not resist he drew her gently to him.
"Little Willie christened me The Man-on-the-Hill," he whispered. "I have tried to live on the hill, but I need you to keep me from falling off."
"What about your settlement plan? I thought you wanted me for that."
"We will give our lives to that, together, Phyllis, to that, and to making this house a home. If God should give us—"
He did not finish the thought, for the form of Phyllis Bruce trembled against his, and her lips had murmured "Yes."...
"Mr. Grant! Mr. Grant! The telephone is ringing," called the clear voice of Zen Transley. "Shall I take the message?"
"Please do," said Dennison, inwardly abjuring the efficiency of the lineman who had already made repairs.
"It's Mr. Murdoch, and he's highly excited, and he says have you Phyllis Bruce here."
"Tell him I have, and I'm going to keep her."