The Doctor let his eyes rest on her.
"If you knew," he said, with a little, half-apologetic laugh.
In her turn she held up one of her long hands.
"But I do;—you forget I was there all the morning. And you pulled him through. As for the rest—" She stooped suddenly and began to pile together the logs; the Doctor watched her, noting with a trained and sensitive eye the muscular ease and grace of the supple arms and shoulders—like music. "Of course"—she spoke lightly—"they will kill you some day, among them; but—it's worth while, isn't it?—and there isn't much else that is, is there?" Still kneeling, she turned and looked straight up at him. "Do you know what it was like this morning—before you came?"
The Doctor shook his head.
She hesitated a moment, smiling a little. "'Lord, if Thou hadst been here, our brother had not died!'" she quoted.
The Doctor got up quickly from his chair. He knocked the ash from his cigar and laid it down on the tray. "Well," he said, lightly, "I must be off." He squared his shoulders and held out his hand; its grip upon her own trembled very slightly, but he smiled sunnily. "I'll come back for some more music some day."
"Do," the girl said. She had risen and was smiling too.
The Doctor looked about the room wistfully. "Jolly place,—I don't get up very often, do I?"
They smiled at each other again, then the girl, turning abruptly away, walked to the window and came back with a double handful of yellow flowers.
"Will you carry these to your wife? They are the first of the year."
She held the door open for him, and from the little landing watched him down the stairs. At their turn he glanced up for a moment, holding his hat raised silently. She waved him a mute acknowledgment, then going into the room again, closed the door.
The firelight still leaped languidly on the hearth, and on the half-smoked cigar and pile of ashes in the tray. The girl stood a moment looking at these things and the chair, then walked quietly to the piano and sat down before it. But she did not play again.
Meantime the Doctor, an erect and urgent presence in the dusk, had driven through dim streets and climbed again the four flights of the morning, to find the hush of heaven fallen on the house.
"I knew you could save him!" said the pale mother only, lifting blind eyes of worship from the couch.
The Doctor laughed, poured her out with his own hands a sleeping-draught, and sat patiently beside her till she slept, then stole away, leaving injunctions with the nurse, established in his absence, to telephone if there came a crisis—"even," after a moment's hesitation, "in the night."
"Home!"—he gave the order briefly. There were black circles beneath his eyes, making him look thinner than when he left the house that morning; he had no distinct reminiscence of lunch, and he was very tired; but his shoulders no longer ached, his headache was gone, and his hands were perfectly steady.
Odd bits of music hummed perversely through his head, mixing themselves up with all things and rippling the air about him into their own large waves, bearing now and then upon them, like the insistent iteration of an oratorio chorus, fantastic fragments—"If Thou hadst been here!—If Thou hadst been here!" His fingers ached towards the responsive strings, and pulling out his watch, he made a hasty calculation. There should be good fifteen minutes, he decided—toilet allowed for—and he hurried the coachman again and leaned forward, looking with bright, eager eyes into the night, and humming to himself.
One liveried servant opened the house door, another the carriage door, and a third relieved him of his hat and coat. Out of the warmth and brightness his wife advanced to meet him, a child in either hand, their long curls brushed and tied with bright ribbons. Her face was filled with tender solicitude.
"You must be worn out;—what a long day you have made! Would you like the dinner sent in at once, or would you rather wait? Children, don't hang so on papa; he must be dreadfully tired. Oh, and there's a man been waiting over an hour; he simply wouldn't go; but you'll let him come back to-morrow?—you won't try to see any one else tonight?"
The Doctor hesitated a moment, letting all the warmth and brightness sink into him, while his hands played with the soft hair of his little son and daughter. He smiled at his wife, a bright, tired smile.
"Robin," he said, "run down to the carriage; there are some posies there for mamma—from Miss Graham, Louise,—you see I did get a moment's rest."
"Yes," said his wife. She continued to gaze compassionately at the tired man. After a moment she repeated gently, "And the dinner, dear—?"
"No,—don't wait for me; I'll not be long. Have it brought in at once, and—send the man into the office, please."
He stooped and kissed the children, and turning away, went into his office and closed the door behind him.
A WORKING BASIS
BY ABBY MEGUIRE ROACH
Why she married him her friends wondered at the time. Those she made later wondered more. Before long she caught herself wondering. Yes, she had seen it beforehand, more or less. But she had seen other things as well: he had developed unevenly, unexpectedly, if logically. There had been common tastes—which grew obsolete or secondary. As the momentum of what she believed and hoped of him ran down with them both, he crystallized into the man he was, and no doubt virtually had always been.
It was bad enough to have to ask for money, but to have it counted out to you, to be questioned about it like a child, was worse.
"I don't understand," she said in the first months of their marriage. "Are you afraid I won't be judicious, responsible? Mightn't you try before judging?"
"Judicious? Responsible?" He pinched her cheek. (Judith was five feet nine and sweetly sober of mien.) "There are no feminines or diminutives of those words, my dear."
She stepped back. "But with more freedom I could manage better, Sam."
"Manage?"—jocularly. "That is your long suit, isn't it? You feel equal to managing all of us? Could even give me pointers on the business, eh?"
"Why not?" she asked, quietly.
Sam, feet apart, hands in pockets, looked her over with the smile one has for a dignified kitten. "I won't trouble you, my dear. I manage this family." With his pleasantries a lower note struck—and jangled.
"But that isn't the point. I want—"
"Really? You always do. Don't bother to tell me what. If you got this you'd be wanting something else, so what's the use of the expense merely to change the object?" He chuckled at her baffled silence.
"I can't answer when you're like that. But—but, Sam! It isn't fair!" Still she supposed that relevant.
However, money was not the chief thing. He could manage. Let it go.
Having properly impressed her, nothing made Sam feel larger than to bring her a set of pearl-handled knives,—when she had wanted a dollar for kitchen tins. His extravagances were not always generosities. Once, after she had turned her winter-before-last suit and patched new seats into the boy's flannel drawers, because "times were hard," he bought a brace of blooded hunting-dogs.
Next day she opened an account at a department store.
With the promptness of the first of the month and the sureness of death, the bill came. Sam had expressed himself unchecked before she turned in the doorway. "If you will go over it," she said, with all her rehearsal unable, after all, to imitate his nonchalance, "you will find nothing unnecessary. I think there is nothing there for the dogs."
But her cannon-ball affected him no more than a leaf an elephant; he did not know he was hit. It was always so.
In his cool way, however, Sam had all the cumulative jealousy of the primitive male for his long primacy. Some weeks later, when Judith ordered an overcoat for Sam junior sent home on approval, she found the store had been instructed to give her no credit.
She got out, with burning face and heart, without the article. Her first impulse was to shrink from a blow.
But at table that night she recounted her experience: "The very courteous gentleman who informed me of your predicament happened to be a cousin of Mr. Banks, of Head and Banks. (They supply your grain, I believe?) Mrs. Howe (isn't it R. E. Howe who is president of the Newcomb Club?) was at my elbow. The salesgirl has Sam junior's Sunday-school class. Doubtless it will interest them all to know you are in such straits you can't clothe your children."
Ah? She had touched his vulnerable point? Instantly she was swept by compunction, by impulses to make amends, to him, to their love. Their love! That delicate wild thing she kept in a warm, moist, sheltered place, and forbore to look at for yellowing leaves.
Like the battle of Blenheim, it was a famous victory, but what good came of it at last? The overcoat came home, to be sure, with cap and shoes besides. But she was too gallant to press her advantage. Besides, she still looked for him to take a hint.
He did, after his own fashion. "You ought to see Judith here," he laughed to a caller, "practising her kindergarten methods on me." His imperturbability was at once a boast and a slight.
"He doesn't mean it," she apologized, later, protecting herself by defending him. "You know how men are; the best of them a bit stupid about some things. They don't mean to hurt you. You know it, but you can't help crying."
"Oh, I understand!" (That any one should sympathize with her! It was not so much her vanity that suffered as her precious regard for him, her pride in their marriage.) "Nobody minds little things like that against such devotion and constancy. Why, he talks of you all the time, Judith; of your style, your housekeeping. You are his pet boast. He says you can do more with less than anybody he ever saw." And then Judith laughed.
They were all articles of the creed she herself repeated—and doubted more and more. Faithful enough. He never came or went without the customary kiss. When he had typhoid fever, no one might be near him but her, until her exhaustion could no longer be concealed, when he fretted about her—until he fretted himself back into high temperature and had a relapse.
So, run down as she was, she hid it, kept up, went on alone, adding to the score of her inevitable day of reckoning, after the old heroic-criminal woman-way.
She had begun with ideas of their saving together for a purpose; but, not allowed to plan, she must use every opportunity to provide against future stricture; besides, Sam's arbitrary and unregulated spending made her poor little economies both futile and unfair.
"I know nothing about your business. How can I tell if I spend too much?"
"Make your mind easy; I'll keep you posted," he laughed. He was not bothering about dangerous ground.
"Doubtless,"—dryly. "But if I spend too little?"
He did mean it! He didn't care! The half-truth fanned the slow fire growing within her into sudden flame. Judith turned, stammering over the dammed rush of replies.
"My dear, my dear!" he deprecated, amused. "How easily you lose your temper lately, every time there is a discussion of expenses! Why excite yourself?" Why, indeed? Anger put her at a disadvantage, and making her half wrong, half made him right. "I don't say I particularly blame you, but you see for yourself you don't keep your balance, and it's mistaken kindness to tempt any woman's natural feminine weakness for luxury and display."
The retorts were so obvious they were hopeless. She stood looking at him.
His eyebrows lifted; he shrugged his shoulders, went out, and forgot.
Why any of it, indeed? There was no bridge of speech between alien minds. Their life was a continual game of cross-questions and silly answers. Their natures were antipodal; he had the faults that annoyed her most; his virtues were those least compensating.
Was her dream of influencing the children a superstition too, then?
The children! They slipped the house whenever possible; avoided their father with an almost physical effect of dodging an expected blow; when with him, watched his mood to forestall with hasty attention or divert with strained wit, with timorous hilarity when he proved complaisant. The possibilities for harm to them were numberless. She and Sam were losing the children, and the children were losing everything.
For years they had been a physical and mental outlet for her nature. That love had no question of reciprocity or merit. She had always been willing for them. Only it seemed to her all the rest of love should come first. It occurred to her ironically how happy her marriage would have been without her husband.
What was his love worth? It was only taxation—taxation without representation. Had either of them any real love left?
Suddenly she stood on the brink of black emptiness. To live without love; her whole nature, every life-habit, changed! Oh, no, no, no! So the cold water sets the suicide struggling for shore.
Dear, dear! This would not do. Her nerves were getting the best of her; she was losing her own dignity and sweetness—was on the verge of a breakdown.
But to say so would be to invoke doctors, pointless questions, futile drugs, and a period of acute affection from Sam—affection that took the form chiefly of expecting it of her.
At times Judith thought of death as an escape, but she thought of no other as being any more in her own hands; like so many people, she quoted the Episcopal marriage-service as equal authority with the Bible. She was too live to droop and break as some do. She had not made herself the one armor that would have been effective—her own shell. Friction that does not callous, forms a sore. Her love, her utmost self, ached like an exposed nerve. She had not dreamed one's whole being could be so alive to suffering. She must be alone, to get a hand on herself and things again.
At table one night she wanted them all to know she was going away, for several months perhaps, leaving her cousin Anne in charge. It was all arranged.
The amazing innovation surprised Sam into speechlessness.
Judith had had few vacations. There had always been the babies, of course. And Sam's consent had always been so hard to get. His first impulse about everything was to refuse, contradict, begrudge. Then certainly he mustn't be too easily convinced. After that he always moped through her preparations; counted and recounted the cost, and at the last perhaps gave her a handsome new bag when her old one was particularly convenient, and he had supplied only half she had asked for clothes; would hardly tell her good-by for desolate devotion; tracked her with letters full of loneliness, ailments, discomforts. When she had cut short her plans and hurried back, a bit quiet and unresponsive perhaps, "How truly gracious your unselfishness is, my dear!" he observed. "If it comes so hard to show me a little consideration, you would really better keep doing your own way."
"I never do my own way."
"No? Whose then? I fail to recognize the brand."
"That's the trouble. I might as well stop trying."
Now, she could not delay for, nor endure, the conventional comedy.
Since he asked her no questions, she hastened to explain: "I want to rest absolutely. Not even to write letters. You need not bother to, either. Anne will let me know if I am needed. And if I need anything, you will be sure to hear."
"Oh, sure." Sam was recovering.
But he couldn't think she would really go, in that way at least. He thought he knew one good reason why not. Yet, vaguely on guard against her capacity for surprise, he did not risk the satire of asking her plans. To the last Judith hoped he would shame her a little by offering the money; and against his utter disregard her indignation rose slowly, steadily, deepening, widening, drowning out every other feeling for him.
When, after their final breakfast, he kissed her good-by as for the morning only, she took her jewelry and silver, mementos of his self-indulgence in generosity, and pawned them, mailing him the tickets from the station where she piloted herself alone.
She spent a month (in her rest-cure!), writing and destroying letters to him. There was no alternation of moods now. Nor was she seeking a solution of the problem; there was only one.
At last a letter seemed to do: "It cannot hurt you to read, as much as me to write. But it must come. I can see now it has always been coming. Things cannot go on as they are. We are unable to improve them together. I will cast no blame. Perhaps some other woman would have called out a different side of you, or would have minded things less. It is enough that we do not belong together, because we are we and cannot change. We are not only ruining each other's happiness—that is already irrevocable,—we are ruining each other, and the children, and their futures. It is a question of the least wrong. And I am not coming back.
"I want the children, all of them. But if you insist, you take Sam junior and I the girls—and the baby, of course, at least for the present. And you shall provide for us proportionately. There is no use pretending independence; I have given my strength and all the accomplishments I had to you and them. And there is no sense in the mock-heroics that I don't want your money. It isn't your money; it's ours, everything we have. I have borne your children, and saved and kept house and served and nursed for you and them. If you want to divide equally now, I will take that as my share forever. But we can't escape the fact that we have been married and have the children."
She could get an answer in two days.
But it did not come in two days, nor two weeks, nor three; while she burned herself out waiting.
Moreover, her funds were running low. She had waves of the nausea of defeat, fevers of the desperation of the last stand.
Then it occurred to her. Her armor had always been defensive. She had never stooped to neutralize his alkali with acid. But there was one weapon of offence she occasionally used. She wrote: "I am drawing on you to-day through your First National for a hundred and fifty. You will honor it, I think. And if I do not hear from you in a day or two I shall have Judge Harwood call on you as my attorney."
The answer came promptly enough:—"My dear child, I couldn't make out what had struck you, so I hoped you would just feel better after blowing off steam and would get over your fit of nerves. Besides, I have nothing to say except to quote yourself: 'We can't escape the fact that we are married and have the children.' I know you too well to be afraid of your throwing off all obligations like that. It is impossible to fancy you airing our privacies." Bait? or a goad? Oh yes, he counted on her "womanly qualities"—but with no idea of masculine emulation! "If you need advice, think what either of our mothers would say." Her mother! Judith could hear her, "His doing wrong cannot make it right for you to," with logic so unanswerable one forgot to question its relevance. And his! Judith held her partly accountable; some women absolutely fostered tyranny. Their mothers, poor things! Occasionally their fathers were different, but so occasionally that now the times were. "This sudden mood strikes me as very remarkable. 'After all I have done—twelve years of grind to keep you from the brunt of the world; and now...! My dear child, do you realize that there are husbands with violent tempers, husbands who drink and gamble and worse?
"I honored your draft. Do not try it again. And I advise you to use it to come home. We will have Dr. Hunter give you a tonic, and you will find you have fewer morbid fancies occupied with your duties. I shall look for you the end of the week." Surely Sam was moved quite out of himself, that he had no lashes of laughter for her. But the next was more in character: "Bridget threatens to leave. She does not work well under Anne. The children are not manageable under her, either. Little Judith is sallow and fretful. I suspect Anne gives her sweets between meals. I saw a moth flying in my closet to-day...."
Judith pushed the letter away, fidgeted, yet smiled. How well they knew each other. And they used it only to sting and bully! Surely it could be put to better purpose. Had she tried everything? Had Sam fully understood? Sometimes she thought her early excuses had hurt too much for her to admit their truth: much of his unkindness was not intentional, only stupid; slow sympathy, dull sensibility; he did not suffer, nor comprehend, like a savage or a child. If the possibility of separation was new to her, would not he never have thought of it at all? But now, might he not see? Was not his unwonted self-defence itself admission of new enlightenment and approachability?
She sat long in the increasing dusk. Exhausted with struggle, loneliness was on her, crying need of the children, return to the consideration of many things. Admitting that at times it was right to break everything, wrong not to, it was at least the last resort. Love, of course, was over irrevocably; but were there not some things worth saving? Could not she and Sam find some working basis?
What had made their being together most intolerable to her was their persistence in the religion of a vanished god in whose empty ceremonies alone they could now take part together. Of the sacred image nothing was left but the feet of clay. Freed of that desecration, she could cure or endure everything else; her obligations, moreover, would hardly conflict at all.
Looking back at the pressures of nature, society, events, Sam's persistence, she wondered at times if, from the beginning, she had been any more responsible for her marriage than for the color of her hair. There were many such explanations for Sam, too. Not that they made her like him any better, feel him any more akin. But it was true that between the fatalities of heredity and environment that "slight particular difference" that makes the self had but short tether for action and reaction. Oh, she could be generous enough to him if he did not have to be part of herself!
She got up, lit the gas, shutting out the stars, and wrote: "I am coming back to make one more and one last effort. Won't you?" If he would only try!
Sam met her with the magnanimity of forgiveness, the consciousness of kind forgetting. Her redeemed valuables were all in place. Everything should be the same, in spite of—And she put the back of her hand against his lips!
When he dressed for dinner the salvage of the three balls, the spoils of war, were piled in his bureau drawer.
Still he hoped better for the roses by her plate. She had the maid carry them out, explaining in her absence, "No gifts, please, Sam. Substitutes will not do any longer."
Sam played with his fork, smiling, with lips only. How shockingly she showed suffering. Separation had made her appearance unfamiliar; he thought the change all recent. He took pains to compliment the immediate improvement in the pastry, to give her the servants' money unreminded as soon as they were alone.
How characteristic! Judith thought, wearily, letting the bills lie where he laid them.
"That's one of the things for us to settle, Sam," she said, in her new freedom and self-respect discarding the familiar little diplomacies by which she was used to soothe, prepare, manage, the lord of the hearth. "I am not going to ask for money in the future, nor depend on what you happen to give." The manner was a simple statement of fact. "You must make me an allowance through your bookkeeper."
Sam was lounging through his cigar. "So that's it? Still?" He smiled confidentially at the smoke, puffing it from his lower lip. "As accurately as I can recollect, my dear, I have told you seven thousand and three times that I am not on a salary, and don't know from month to month what I will make."
How unchanged everything was! Her determination stiffened. "But you know what you have made. Base it on the year before. Or have a written statement mailed me every month, and file my signature at the bank."
Not quite unchanged; for Sam took the cigar from his mouth and turned slowly to look at her. If he had taken her return for capitulation and had met it according to his code, things were not fitting in. "Really, my dear! Really! What next? Evidently I have never done you justice; you have positive genius in the game—of monopoly; first thing, I'll be begging from you."
Well, why not, as fairly? and why should he think better of her than of himself? But it was too old to go over again. For a breath she waited to see her further way. She had not planned this as the issue, but the moment was obviously crucial, and offered what, in international politics already awry, would constitute a good technical opportunity. If her mirage of regeneration, her hope of an understanding, perhaps even her love, had flung up any last afterglow in this home-coming, it was over now. Indeed, now it seemed an old grief, the present but confirmation concerning a lover ten years lost at sea. She saw the whole man now clearly, the balance of her accusations and excuses; he had neither the modern spirit of equality, nor the medieval quixotism of honor and chivalry; appeal merely stirred the elemental tyranny of strength and masculinity, held as a "divine right"; weakness tempted an instinctive cruelty, half unconscious, half defiant.
It was Sam who spoke first, abruptly, not laughing. Sam who was never angry, was angry now. "I never have understood you in some ways. How a woman like you can forever bring money between us! How you got tainted with this modern female anarchy! You seem to forget that I made the money, it is mine. There is bound to be discussion; I never knew any one so determined to have everything his own way. All the same," the defence rested its case, "it takes two to quarrel, and I won't."
No, his defence was only admission of conscious weakness. He was afraid—of the solution she had discarded. She did not go back to it now. But now she saw the way, the only way, to accomplish reconstruction.
Judith looked at him steadily. Her voice was deadly quiet. "I am sure I have made myself quite plain. We will never discuss this again. You can let me know in the morning which arrangement you choose."
They faced each other with level eyes.
And Sam's shifted.
He never had real nerve, she realized; they didn't—that kind. How had she managed to love him so long?
Late that night he knocked at her door with a formal proposition: Would that do?—dumbly. She changed a point or two: That would do, and signified good night. Sam, looking at her face, turned away from it, hesitated, turned back, broke. Fear increased his admiration, and, to do him justice, the fear was not wholly for conventions and comforts; the man had certain broad moralities and loyalties. A reflex muscular action had set in to regain what he had lost. "Judith! Judith!" he begged.
Her raised hand stopped him. "You are too late, Sam."
"My dear, you mustn't get the idea that I don't love you still."
"Love has nothing to do with it any more. Besides, it is never any use to talk of love without justice."
He went out, dazed and aggrieved. He had always thought they got along as well as most people. He had not been cherishing grudges.
Womanlike, having met the emergency gallantly, after it was all over Judith collapsed. The day of reckoning for which she had so long been running up an account was on her. But the growing assurance rallied her, that her going away and her coming back were equally means to her success in failure.
The reality of their marriage could not have been saved. But they had the children; and to the children was restored much of what their father had largely spoiled in the first place, and she nearly forfeited in the second. For the fact was that Sam did better; the despot is always a moral coward, and always something of the slave to a master. Moreover, her growing invulnerability to hurt through him set, in large measure, the attitude of the household; everybody was more comfortable. She discounted his opinions and complaints; but, in considering the welfare of the greatest number, she sacrificed as little as possible his individual comforts. His interests she studied. And for the rest, she let him go his way and went hers.
Life is a perfect equation: if something is added or subtracted, something is subtracted or added, so long as there is life. Judith got her poise again in time, as strong natures do after any death; with some fibres weakened past mending, gray, but calm. If his side of her nature was stunted, she seemed to blossom all the more richly in other ways. She loved her children in proportion as she had suffered and worked for them. After her domestic years, like so many women, she took fresh start, physically and mentally. Her executive ability found public outlet. She could admit friends again. Freedom from the corrosion of antagonism was happiness. Without the struggle to keep that love which must ask so much of its object, she could give Sam more of that altruism which asks nothing.
THE GLASS DOOR
BY MARY TRACY EARLE
Charlotte and Emory Blake lived at the old Blake place, on the little plateau at the foot of the Colton hill, in a vine-covered stone cottage. The place had belonged to old George Blake. When it came into Emory's hands he sold it to Uncle Billy Kerr, and used the money for a course in a school of pharmacy. Later, Charlotte, who was then Charlotte Hastings, bought it, and, after her marriage, finished paying for it out of its own products, while her husband talked politics or played chess in his drug-store. It was said that when Blake was doing either of these things he was as likely as not to keep a customer standing a half-hour before waiting on him,—and this not so much out of interest in his discussion or his game as from complete lack of interest in the business of selling drugs.
North Pass correctly interpreted this general nonchalance of Blake's as a sign that he was an unwilling partner in the matrimonial venture he had undertaken. Indeed, it was known that the engagement had hung fire for years through no fault of Charlotte's, and everybody had noticed that such mildly loverlike enthusiasm for her society as Blake had shown before he went to the school of pharmacy had disappeared from his manner when he returned. Charlotte had told people that they should marry as soon as he came home, yet the wedding did not come off for two years. During this time it was noticed that although she held her head high and was fertile in good reasons for the delay, her girlish look left her, her features sharpened, and her speech developed an acid reaction; it was at this time, too, that she bargained with Uncle Billy Kerr for the old Blake place, and also borrowed money from the old man to put up a new house. When people saw the house going up it was generally supposed that she was preparing either to rent it or to live in it as an old maid; but when it was completed, to the surprise of every one, Charlotte and Blake were married and moved in.
The morning after the wedding Blake was in his drug-store playing chess as languidly as ever, but Charlotte spent her whole day planting a vegetable-garden, in a mood of unreckoning exaltation such as rarely comes to a woman of her nature, and never comes to her but once. She had felt no such blissful security when Blake and she were first engaged. Blake was weak. She had felt it intensely even when her infatuation for him was too fresh to permit her to reason, and a weak man while unmarried is peculiarly liable to changes of affection. But, on the other hand, a weak man once safely married is completely in the power of his wife; during the last two years of their engagement certain illusions regarding herself and Blake had fallen from her eyes; she had stated both those facts plainly to herself, and they had helped her to decide upon a course of action. There had been moments when she had despised herself for using her stronger will to coerce Blake into the fulfilment of his engagement, but on the morning after the wedding these moments were forgotten, and, as she hoed and raked and planted in the brisk air and the bright spring sunshine, her whole existence seemed uplifted by the knowledge that she and Blake at last belonged unquestionably to each other; that every output of her strength was for their common comfort, and would continue to be as long as they both should live.
As the first year of married life goes, Charlotte's first year was fairly successful. She knew Blake's faults already, and had made up her mind to them, and if there was a frank indifference in his quiet languor, she had made up her mind to that, too. He was never unkind, and there were times when some fresh evidence of her devotion to him would touch him into an appreciation that was almost responsive. And there were other times when she would find him looking at her with an expression which any other observer might have classed as pity, but which she counted as tenderness. On the whole, it seemed to her that time was bringing them together, as she had counted that it would, and with this hope her face lost its sharp outlines.
Her first heavy chagrin was at the time of her baby's birth. When Blake came into the room to inquire for her, and she turned down the bed-cover to show him the little bundle at her side, a look of pain and aversion flashed across his face, and he moved away, begging her not to show the baby to him until it was older. On another day she tried to make him select a name for it, and he refused.
"Call it anything you please," he said at first, but she would not let him go at that.
"I've been thinking," she suggested, with a hesitation that was foreign to her,—"I've been thinking of calling her for your mother—Dorcas."
They were alone in the room, and he was sitting by her bed, but looking away from her into the corner of the room, while she looked anxiously at him. At her words he started, flashing a keen glance at her. "Why should we name her that?" he asked.
There was something so sharply disturbed in his manner, and his distaste for the idea was so evident, that Charlotte flushed in extreme embarrassment.
"I thought you might like to," she explained.
"Well, I wouldn't,—I—I don't think the name's pretty in itself," he declared; adding, with a great effort to speak naturally, "I'd rather name her for you."
Charlotte's lips came together so closely that all the unpleasant lines showed around them. "I certainly shall not name her for myself," she said. "You must think of some other name."
Blake got to his feet. "That's the only one I can think of," he said. "If you don't like it, you can take some other. It's your affair, not mine."
Charlotte's eyes flashed and then filled with tears, for she was very weak. "If I were asking you to father some other man's child, you couldn't act more as if you despised me," she sobbed.
He turned as he was leaving the room and gave her a long look full of exasperation, repugnance, and despair. "You are quite mistaken," he said. "I don't despise you. I despise myself."
For half an hour Charlotte sobbed, her hands clenched at her sides, her tears flowing unchecked; then, quite suddenly, she was calm, and, drying her disfigured face, she began to take account of stock. All that she had before, she reasoned, she still had. The gains of a year might seem to be lost in the outbreak of a moment, yet they still existed as a solid foundation to build upon. There would be constraint at first, but the effort of daily patience would overcome it in time; moreover, there was the baby. Blake might refuse to look at her now, but as she grew and acquired the irresistible graces of a healthy babyhood he would be obliged to see and to yield to her. A man of his nature could not live in the house with a child and not love it. She touched the small form at her side, as if to assure herself that this ally which she had so suffered for had not deserted her. Yes, she had more hope now than ever before, she told herself, and her eyes shone with a passionate tenderness, though her lips were set in a hard line. Suddenly the line broke into a smile.
"I'll name her Hope," she said.
When Hope was two months old she began her mission, and when she had reached six months Blake was vying with Charlotte in his devotion to her. He even plucked up a little interest in his business; sometimes he talked over his place with his wife, and the words which had passed between them over the naming of the child, though unforgotten, seemed so far in the past that Charlotte's courage strengthened with each day. The sense of security which had marked the first months of her married life did not return, but she could feel herself making a strong fight against fate to hold what she had, and, if she were never entirely certain of the issue, at least she fought with the obstinacy which has no knowledge of yielding. Sometimes even her love for Blake seemed to lose itself in this obstinacy, and her tenderness towards her child seemed the only womanly sentiment left in her; but more often her love for her husband mounted high and unmixed above the other feelings as the tremendous, inexplicable passion of her life.
Hope's attainment of six months was marked by an unusual display of energy on the part of Blake. The first cold weather of autumn had come, and when the house doors were closed, Charlotte was surprised to hear her husband declare that the sitting-room, where the baby would spend most of her time in winter, was poorly lighted, and needed to have a glass door substituted for the wooden one which opened on to the front porch. Still more to her surprise, the door was delivered from an adjoining town the next day, and on the following morning Blake rose earlier than usual and hung it before going down to his store. It was the first time he had lifted his hand towards the improvement of Charlotte's house.
He whistled boyishly while he measured and fitted in the hinges, and when it came to holding the door while the hinges were screwed in place, he called to Charlotte. She came, with lips as usual closed very tight, but with cheeks flushed very pink, and when the work was finished she was so atremble that she had to sit down for a moment before she could put breakfast on the table.
To give a reason for the delay, she kept looking at the door. "The room, is perfect now," she said.
Blake swung the new acquisition back and forth, and latched it once or twice to make sure that it was perfectly adjusted. When he was satisfied he glanced at his wife.
"It will give our baby the sunlight," he said, and their eyes met for a moment.
All that day, whenever Charlotte could bring her work into the sitting-room, she sat facing the glass door. She was not exactly happy; she was too strangely excited for happiness; but she was keenly awakened and alert. Every nerve in her seemed keyed up to its ultimate tension, and if the shadow of a cloud passed, even if a red leaf fell outside, she looked out expectantly through the door.
It was middle afternoon when, on looking up, she saw a young woman crossing the porch, leading a little child. Charlotte jumped to her feet, then reseated herself and waited for the tap on the glass. The visitors were strangers to her, and though she could not have told why, as she sat staring at them through the door, her mouth suddenly set into the lines of indomitable obstinacy which had grown so deep around it in the past three years. When she finally crossed the room to open the door, she walked slowly and deliberately, as if she had some definite purpose in mind and meant to accomplish it.
The woman on the outside was the first to speak. "Does Mr. Emory Blake live here?" she asked.
"He does. I am his wife. What can I do for you?" asked Charlotte.
The woman gave a little cry and drew back. "Oh no!" she said, breathlessly.
Charlotte stood, white and stiff and silent, while the other looked about her in a despairing helplessness. She was a frail-looking woman, worn with fatigue and the excited emotions with which timidity spurs itself to action. She looked as if she longed to sit down somewhere, and as if perhaps she could have more courage seated, but Charlotte made no motion to invite her to enter. After a while the newcomer brought her frightened eyes back to the set face in the doorway.
"I am so sorry for you," she said, timidly. "I am his wife."
A shiver of resentment ran convulsively through Charlotte's muscles. "You can be sorry for yourself," she said, roughly.
"But he married me while he was at the school of pharmacy," the other cried, weakly. "I was Nettie Trent. I clerked, and I boarded where he did, and we fell in love and married. He told me about you. You are Charlotte Hastings, aren't you, that wanted to marry him before he left home?"
Charlotte moved her dry lips soundlessly once or twice before she could speak. Then her masterful spirit rose to a new task. She drew herself up and looked down gravely, almost compassionately, upon the woman who had been Nettie Trent.
"I was Charlotte Hastings before my marriage," she said. "I am sorry to be the one to hurt you, but you have been cruelly treated. I was married to Emory Blake before he left home for the school."
The smaller woman gave a little gasp and stood silent, while Charlotte, with the fire in her veins scorching her cheeks and eyes and almost smothering her breath, waited for her to offer some resistance, to assert her own claim, or to ask for proof of the statement which denied it; but Nettie said nothing, and after a moment her gaze dropped from Charlotte's and she began to sob. Charlotte took her by the hand and led her into the room.
Neither of them spoke for a long time. Nettie sat with her face buried in her hands. On one side her child tugged at her dress; on the other, little Hope slept in her cradle. Charlotte stood pale and tall, watching all three.
At last Nettie looked up. "I suppose you think I ought to hate him—now I've found out," she said, "but I don't; I just can't. When we were together he was so sweet to me. I don't think he meant to harm me. He must have thought it would come out all right somehow."
"If I were in your place," Charlotte said, slowly, "I should hate him."
Nettie wiped her eyes and drew her child up into her arms. "But what he did was almost as bad for you as it was for me," she urged, "and you don't hate him."
Charlotte turned suddenly and walked to her own baby's cradle. "Oh, I don't know," she said, in a low voice.
After a moment she came back and sat down. "I must ask you some questions," she said, gravely. "Is this your only child?"
The young woman nodded. Her lips were quivering. "Named Dorcas," she said, brokenly,—"for his mother."
Charlotte flushed and the lines about her lips deepened. "Does he—provide for you?" she asked.
The other nodded once more. "He sends me money once in a while. I wrote him not to worry when he didn't have it. I'm clerking again."
Charlotte made no comment. She was thinking how strange it was that this other woman, who was a frail, poor-spirited thing, should be ready to support herself and child out of love for Blake. In Charlotte's mind, which was pitilessly clear and active, there was room for a passing wonder at the mysterious power which so weak a man could exert over women, even without his will. She was wondering, too, if her own passion for him would ever rise again. At present she was far from loving him; she felt only a bitter resentment, a desire to punish him by holding to him, and a towering obstinacy and pride which refused to be set at fault and put to shame. While she was boldly examining and analyzing herself she glanced at the clock to see how long before he could possibly return; the time was ample, and she continued to sit silent. Presently her baby woke, and she rose and went to it.
As she lifted it from its cradle, Nettie started up and came towards her. Hope hid her face against her mother's neck, but after an instant turned shyly to steal a glance at the stranger.
Nettie sat down again, trembling. "Your baby is like him," she said.
"Very like him," Charlotte answered, and as the baby nestled up to her again, she dropped her cheek against it and tears came into her eyes—scalding tears that seemed to sear their way up from the depths of her heart.
Suddenly the other wife leaned forward, eagerly suspicious. "You have no other children—older?" she asked.
Charlotte looked round blankly, her eyes still wet. "Other children?" she echoed, but Nettie's sharpened face brought her to herself. She wiped her eyes on Hope's dress. "I lost—a child," she said.
"Oh," Nettie murmured, "I'm sorry I asked you. It was older than Dorcas?"
Charlotte stood at bay, with her child strained close to her. She nodded.
"Oh!" Nettie murmured again, in a shaken voice. She looked at Charlotte in despairing envy. "What is this baby named?" she asked.
"This one," Charlotte answered, "we call Hope."
She seated herself and began trotting the child to a slow measure. There were still a few questions which she wished to ask, but the other's simple acceptance of all she said inspired her with cool deliberation. There was plenty of time, and she wished to make no mistake. She must be sure of her own safety, and after that she must do anything she could for the comfort of the other woman. It would probably be very little.
"How did you get here?" she inquired, finally. "You must have asked somebody where Mr. Blake lived."
"No, I didn't have to ask. He'd written me he was boarding with a woman that lived on his old place," Nettie said, "and I knew where that was because he'd often told me all about where he grew up and just the road he used to take from the station to the house, and I remembered every word of it. I didn't like to go to him at his store for fear there would be loafers around, so I came right to his house. I thought I wouldn't mind telling the woman that I was his wife, if she asked me any questions while I waited for him."
"You were very wise," Charlotte said, dryly.
Nettie settled back in her chair, rocking her little girl, who had grown restless and impatient, and as she rocked she began to pour out her heart. "You must think queer of me to sit down here with you like this and not to be in a rush to go," she began, "but I feel like I've got to sit still and—and kind of get my breath before I can start out. I've been so afraid of it that it doesn't seem like I ought to be surprised, but I tell you it pretty near kills me now I know it for sure." She paused and stroked a stray lock of hair away from her child's eyes. "My baby's like him, too," she said, irrelevantly. "My baby's just as like him as yours is."
Charlotte glanced again at the clock. "How do your friends treat you?" she asked, abruptly. "Do they believe you were really married or not?"
A bright flush sprang over Nettie's face. "They believed it at first, of course, just the way I did," she answered, quickly, "but lately they've been suspecting something. It was what they said made me get uneasy. I don't distrust folks right quick myself."
"And none of them tried to make inquiries for you?"—Charlotte put the question seriously, all her nerves tight strung.
"Oh no," Nettie said. "I don't have any family or any friends close enough to me to take trouble like that."
"And I presume you're glad now that they didn't," Charlotte said. "In your place I'd rather find it out for myself."
"Oh, I'd much rather," Nettie answered. "I couldn't have stood having other people find it out, and I'm not going to give anybody that knows me a chance to find out now. You see, I've been afraid of this so long that I've had time to make my plans and to save up money a little. Before I came here I gave up my place and told folks I was going to join Mr. Blake; so I'll not go back. I'll go to New York and get work there."
Charlotte looked at her keenly. "I suppose you're depending on Mr. Blake to help you?" she said.
Again the color sprang into Nettie's face. "Oh no, ma'am," she answered. "I couldn't let him help me now. I did wrong to live with him, but I didn't know he was married, so I don't feel like one of that kind of women; but if I was to take money from him now, I—I shouldn't feel that I was raising my child honest."
Charlotte lifted her baby so that it hid her face. "For him to help you would only be right," she said, from its shelter. "He owes you—money, at least."
The other shook her head. "I couldn't bear it," she said, chokingly. "Oh, you can't understand—nobody could understand unless she'd been through what I have, being left before my baby came, and having people ask me close questions, and then, little by little, losing my own faith. You can't see why, but if I was to take money from him now, it would make me feel my shame, and I don't want to,—I want to feel honest."
Charlotte lowered Hope to her knee. "Perhaps I can understand that—in a way," she said, with twitching lips.
Nettie looked into her face with a helpless, childish perception of the suffering shown in its drawn lines. "You're so good to me—I believe you feel 'most as bad as I do," she declared; "and if I were you, I wouldn't say a word to anybody about my having been here. Nobody knows it. I didn't have to ask my way. There aren't many women would treat me the way you do, and I won't stay here any longer making you feel bad." She rose, still holding her heavy child in her arms. "There isn't anything more we've got to say to each other, is there?" she asked.
"Wait a moment," Charlotte said. She, too, rose, and as she stood looking at the other woman, so much smaller, so much weaker, so blindly trustful, and so patient, her heart, which had sunk in shame, rose suddenly in pity; at that moment if she had opened her lips the truth would have escaped from them, but her stubborn will held her lips closed.
Nettie eyed her with troubled uncertainty, but after a moment moved towards the door.
"Well, I must go," she declared.
"Wait a moment," Charlotte said again. Her voice was so dry and strange that after she had spoken she paused to moisten her lips. Her limbs trembled, and in the glass door which she had opened against the wall she could see the ashen whiteness of her face.
Nettie turned, and the two women confronted each other, each holding her child.
Charlotte put a hand up to her throat. "I have money I could give you," she offered. "Not his, my own."
The other shook her head. "Oh, I couldn't," she exclaimed. "Anyway, I don't need it. I've saved up a good deal. And you've done better than give me money; you've been kind to me." She put out her hand with a little appealing gesture and took Charlotte's, which lay cold in it.
"You'd better go," Charlotte broke out. "You'll meet him coming home if you wait any longer. Here; I'll tell you how to go a roundabout way."
She walked out on to the piazza and led the way down the steps and round to the back of the house, where she stood giving short, sharp directions, when across her hurried words came Blake's voice calling from the front:
"Charlotte! Charlotte! Where are you and Hope?"
For the first time since they had lived together Blake had come home before his hour.
The two women looked at each other. Charlotte pointed to the path which hid itself quickly in the shelter of an orchard. "Run," she whispered. "I'll keep him in the house."
But Nettie stood as if paralyzed, her eyes widening and filling with tears. "Oh, you've been so good—mayn't I see him—mayn't I bid him good-by?" she begged.
Charlotte lifted her voice to answer Blake. "Yes, Emory; stay where you are; I'm bringing Hope," she called. "Hurry!" she whispered to the other woman. "It won't do you any good to see him. Think of what he's done. Hurry, I say!"
Nettie put her hand up to her head. "I—I can't," she murmured. She swayed a little, and before Charlotte could reach out to catch her she had slipped to the ground.
At the same moment Blake came out of the back door of the house. For an instant he stared in bewilderment. Then he was at Nettie's side and had lifted her in his arms.
Charlotte saw his face as he kissed her. A moment later she was indoors on her knees beside her bed, with her face buried in the cover and her hands clutching it.
A cold wind swept through the house. Front and back the doors stood open. The sun was already low in the west and the evening promised to be chill. Presently Charlotte rose. She closed the front door carefully, wrapped Hope in a cloak, and, with her child on her arm, passed out at the back.
Blake had stretched his wife on the back porch and was bending over her. He looked up, and at sight of Charlotte's face he straightened himself.
She paused an instant. "I'm starting to harness the horse," she said. "You can catch the night train at Antioch if I drive fast."
He stood silent, his face working. It was as if strength were being born in him to say something in his own defence.
"She has plans," Charlotte added. "You'd better pick up some of your things in the house."
She passed on, and laying Hope in the bottom of the wagon, harnessed the horse with swift, shaking hands. The sun was out of sight when she drove back to the house. Nettie sat on the steps staring dazedly around her. Blake was not in sight.
"Are you ready?" Charlotte called.
He came out, carrying an old handbag. At the step he hesitated.
She pointed to the back seat, where he was to sit with Nettie and the child, and after an instant he helped them in.
The ride was long and cold. Night fell, and the stars came out in remote, hostile legions. The children slept. Occasionally Nettie and Blake advised together in hushed voices. Charlotte whipped the horse.
As they drew near to the end of their journey Blake leaned forward and touched her arm.
"What about the store?" he asked.
Charlotte broke her long silence harshly. "Your stock will cover what you owe on it, I guess."
At the station she stayed in the wagon. Blake took his wife and Dorcas into the waiting-room and came back for his bag. Charlotte had it ready for him, resting on the wheel.
He did not offer to take it at first, but stood in the beam from the station window, trying to speak.
"Well?" she said.
"I guess there's not much I can say," he choked out.
For a long time she made no answer. Then her breath came with an unexpected gasp. "It wasn't your fault—I made you do it." For a moment more they were silent. Then she shifted the sleeping baby towards him.
"Don't you want to kiss her?" she asked.
He bent his face to the child with a sudden passionate tenderness. As he looked up, his wet eyes met Charlotte's, which were full of tears.
She put out her hand to him. "I guess I've been hard on you," she said.
ELIZABETH AND DAVIE
BY MURIEL CAMPBELL DYAR
When the town doctor, coming out to Turkey Ridge, had given as his verdict that Elizabeth's one chance of life—he could not say how slim the chance in that plain room, having within it the pleasant noise of bees and the spring sun on the floor—lay in her going to the great hospital in the city, it was Davie who fell to sobbing in his worn hands.
"I'll jest die at home, Davie," she said in her quiet voice.
"You'll take the money put away for our buryin' an' go, dearie!" Davie cried out fiercely. His gaunt frame, stooped as a scholar's, shook so pitifully with his grief, she had not the heart to gainsay him, but after she promised him it only shook the more.
"Why, Davie," she chided, brightly, "ain't I always been a-wantin' to see the city streets with the hurryin' people, 'n' tall houses, 'n' churches with towers on 'em? They ain't many folks on th' Ridge'll hev sech a lettin'-out as mine."
"If I only had 'nough saved to go too," he mourned.
She answered him simply: "An' who'd I hev to write to me, with you goin' 'long? It'll seem terrible nice to hear from somebody. I always did love letters. Sence Cousin Tabby died I ain't had one."
"You won't be afeard travellin' so far by yourself?" he asked then, awestruck. Davie had the diffidence of the untravelled. Few men ever left the small farming district of Turkey Ridge for a journey; but if one did so, and the trip were long, he had thereafter a bolder bearing.
"Afeard?" She gave a little trembling laugh which would have deceived no one but a dull old man, now smitten suddenly by sorrow. "The idee o' my bein' afeard! They ain't a mite o' danger o' gettin' run over er lost er nothin'—not a mite."
Under the pretext of bending to hunt for a lost pin she hid the sad fear in her eyes—a fear of all the greater world which was beyond Davie, from whom she had not been parted since her marriage.
But throughout the time of her preparation she went bravely. She would herself have put in order for leaving the house kept spotless even while her disease had crept upon her, but the news of the doctor's words had gone up through the group of farmhouses, huddled like timid sheep on the road, and the kindly neighbor women left their own work, very heavy in the spring-time, to take her household burdens. In a community where no great things ever came save two, and these two birth and death, misfortune drew soul to soul. Because of her gathering weakness she yielded that others should do the tasks which had always hitherto been hers, but she could not be prevented from the packing of the little leather trunk that had held her wedding things. "You're jest makin' me out a foolish, lazy body," she said, her lips seen quivering for the first time. Then, fearful lest she should seem ungrateful for the kindness of her friends, she made haste to ask where, in the trunk, to put her staid, coarse linen, and where her best cap with its fine bow of lavender ribbon, and would they if they were she take her mending-basket along in hopes there might be moments for Davie's socks?
Many a loving offering was tucked in with her belongings to go with her. Now blue-eyed Annie Todd knocked at the door, bringing a bunch of healing herbs from her mother, who could not leave for reason of her nursing baby. Then old Mr. Bayne drove into the dooryard with a pair of knitted bedroom slippers, wrapped carefully in a newspaper. Next Kerrenhappuch Green, perturbed in his long jaw, pottered down to fetch the pinball which his daughter had forgotten when she came to help. Mrs. Glegg, who had lately lost her idiot son, Benje, gave a roll of soft flannel. Miss Panthea Potter contributed a jar of currant jam, three years sealed, and pretended that she was not moved. The minister copied out a verse from the Psalms and fixed it so cunningly about a gold piece that, proud as a girl in her poverty, Elizabeth could not refuse the gentle gift. It was he, too, possessing the advantage of a clerkly hand, who arranged for Elizabeth's admission to the free ward of the hospital, and wrote to his niece Mary, living by good fortune in the city, to have a care over her while there. He told that Mary had a kind, good-humored face, and was herself country born.
"I'll be better able to thank ye all fittenly," the white-haired old woman said, "when I come back to ye well 'n' strong."
The last day before she was to start, all that was possible being done for her, she and Davie were left to themselves, at the minister's suggestion. Forty years before, Davie had brought her to the house, yet in her soft marriage dress. The wedding journey had been the coming up at sunset to the Ridge from her home in the valley, behind his plough-horses, lifting their plodding hoofs as in the furrows. On the clean straw in the back of the wagon rested her small trunk and a hive of bees, shrouded in calico. Tied to the tail-piece was a homesick heifer. While he unhitched the horses and placed her dowry, she entered his door to lay off her bonnet tremulously in the living-room.
Alone with the clumsy carpet-loom which made his winter's work, and his tired week-day hat hanging from a peg against the wall, she had a deep moment. Joining him on the door-step, they sat side by side watching in silence the light die over the scanty fields handed down to him by his father, who had grown bent and weary in wrenching a living from them as he was aging. Neither was young; both were marked by the swift homeliness of the hard-working; but the look on their faces was that which falls when two have gotten an immortal youth and beauty in each other's hearts.
It had been their custom on each succeeding spring to go, if the anniversary ware pleasant, to sit again at evening on the door-step with the sweetness of the straggling spice-bush upon it. Now as they sat there a silence came upon them like that of their wedding-day. Elizabeth broke it first.
"Davie," she whispered, "if I'd say I'd jest like to run through the house a minute by myself, you won't think it queer?"
"No, no," answered Davie, something gripping his chest.
She went slowly, her slippers flapping back and forth on her heels. She sought first the tidy kitchen with its scoured tins, then the living-room with the old loom still in the corner, then the parlor. Here she drew a long, shaken breath. Every Ridge woman loved her parlor with an inherited devotion. Many unrecorded self-sacrifices furnished it. Elizabeth's lay hallowed to her. It was her Place Beautiful. There was a pale, striped paper on the sacred walls, and on the floor an ingrain carpet, dully blue. At the windows were ruffled white curtains—the ruffles and sheer lengths of lawn had lain long in her dreams. The mantel-piece held a row of shells, their delicate pink linings showing, and on either end china vases filled with sprays of plumy grass. Above was the marriage certificate, neatly framed. On the centre-table were sundry piteous ornaments, deeply rooted in her affections. The chairs and the single sofa, angular and sombre, were set about with proud precision. They had been the result of years of careful hoarding of egg-money, and were, to Elizabeth, the achievement of her living.
Holding on to the banister, she climbed the stairs forlornly to the upper chambers. In her own room Davie found her by and by. She was sitting up very straight in her rocker, a baby's long clothes on her lap. Her expression of pain was gone, and in its stead was the strange peace of a woman who sees her first-born. She looked up absently at her husband.
"Melindy Ethel," her voice crooned, "was so little 'n' warm."
"You must jest lay down 'n' rest, dearie," he urged, anxiously. He took the things from her and laid them back, one by one, in the lower drawer of the high, glass-knobbed bureau whence she had taken them. The thin stuff of the little, listless sleeves and yellowed skirts clung to his roughened fingers; he freed them with gentleness.
"An' her hair would hev curled," she said, when the last piece was in.
Davie had been kneeling among his vegetables that summer-time long since that Elizabeth had come to stand beside him in their garden, pushing from her forehead her heavy falling hair, then dark, in the way she had if very glad. Seeing that she had something to tell him, and wondering at her eyes, he waited for her to speak. She did not keep him long. For an instant her serene glance went up to the blue sky. Then her hands stretched out to him.
"Davie," she began, "that old cradle of your ma's—" She broke off shyly.
Davie stayed on his knees. He could not at once answer her, but could only grope toward her blindly. Presently her touch calmed him.
"It rocks from head to foot," he quavered in joy, "'stead o' from side to side—the motion's better for 'em."
Striving to go well through her troubled months until her hour should come, Elizabeth smiled often at Davie, and sometimes the smile was a tender laugh in her throat—Davie clumping excitedly over the farm about his work; Davie bringing home from town the cautious purchase of a child's sack, and crying out in exultation, "It's got tossels on it!" Davie storing singular treasures in a box in the garret—seed-pods which rattled when you shook them; scarlet wood-berries, gay and likely to please; a tin whistle, a rubber ball, a doll with joints, and a folded paper having written on it, "For Croup a poultis of onions and heeting the feet"; and Davie, his importance dropped from him as a garment, coming to put his head down against her shoulder.
"I dun'no'," he said to her, "as a man better feel too uppity 'bout becomin' a pa. It's an awful solemn undertakin', an' the more you think it over the solemner it gets. Seems to me it's somethin' like playin' the fiddle. There can't jest anybody rush in an' play a real good time on a fiddle—takes a terrible lot o' preparin' 'n' hard work to tech them little strings to music. An' mebbe the man that can tech 'em the best is him that's always been clean 'n' honest 'n' real grave. I'm beginnin' to feel so no 'count—why, I dun'no' a note o' fiddle music!"
"Oh, Davie," she had comforted, "it don't seem to me that the man jest born good 'd play the sweetest, but the one who had fought for things."
While she turned the tiny hems and ran the wonderful seams, Davie, winter-bound, sat on the tall stool before his loom, the bobbins wound with rags for a hit and miss. Weaving eked out a slender income. His father's finger-tips, too, had become stained by colors of warp and woof after the end of the pig-killing had been announced by the children racing with the bladders through the thin snow.
On Christmas day he brought down the cradle from the garret, and wiped its gathered dust from it with a white cloth. To please him, Elizabeth spread it ready with the sheets and blankets. The sight of the pillow unmanned him. "The idee o' that stove smokin' so Christmas!" he choked. She turned to him quickly. Their seamed hands met as in that joyous moment among the vegetables, but this time they clasped above a dusted cradle. In view of the increased expenses before the household they made each other no gifts; only Davie put a fir bough and a teething-ring in his box.
Then he wove as though the clack of his shuttle were the beat of a drum going by, then in a vast impatience, then with the bridle hanging on the rim of the manger by the plough-horse which had a saddle gait.
The morning that he clambered, frightened, into the saddle a great cold wave was on the Ridge, with a fierce wind continually blowing. Smoke curled up from the chimneys to perish against the sunny sky. Cattle left in the open crowded in the lee of the straw-stacks, their rough flanks crawling, and in the folds the ewes, yet frail from their travail, stood stung and still, mothering their weak-kneed lambs. Beside the thud of the horse's hoofs toward town there was no sound on the road save a little, dry cracking of the frost. The doctor, as he started in his carriage for Davie's house, drew his robes closely about him and scowled at the fierceness of the blast; but Davie, riding far ahead, his elbows flying wildly up and down, did not know that he had forgotten to fasten his shabby overcoat. Crouched by the silent loom, he clutched helplessly at the hit and miss as Elizabeth went down into that loneliest of all earth's agonies.
But from the beginning the child hung a doomed thing on her breast. After three months they followed her up to the burying-ground, the murmuring of its cedars never again to be wholly out of their ears. Away from the grave Davie gave an exceedingly bitter cry—"She's little to leave!" But Elizabeth's tears fell back in her heart unshed. She waved her handkerchief to Melindy Ethel. "But she's brave like her pa," she said. And Davie stiffened.
Memories of these and other days, mingled with forebodings for the parting, were so heavy upon him that he could get no farther in the night's devotions than the reading of the Bible chapter.
"I can't pray to-night, 'Lisbeth," he said.
Propped with pillows for the last rest before her journey, she was still faithfully brave. "Mebbe the Lord'll jest take care o' me, anyway, bein' as I've tried to do his ways." The old man did not know how wistful was her speech.
In the morning she was early dressed in her decent black. To those who came for the leave-taking she bade good-by with gentle courtesy. Kerrenhappuch Green lent his buggy because of its comfortable seat, but Davie drove her carefully over the six miles to the station. No shriek of an engine's whistle disturbed the quiet of Turkey Ridge; to go into wider ways one must needs start from the nearest town. Once she looked back at the house, set like an ancient brown bird's nest on the narrow fields.
The yellow-bodied stage, going every other day across the country, brought the minister the letter from his niece with the happy tidings of Elizabeth's safe arrival, under her guidance, at the city hospital. The stage-driver viewed the missive with professional interest as he delivered it. The majority of his passengers paid him monotonously in butter or eggs for his services, his trips were tedious, and his ideals were limited. To read and digest all postals and to conjecture at the contents of all envelopes were his reward for handing out the mail at the turning of the lanes. The minister jogged down instantly to Davie's in his sulky, slapping the lines vigorously, if ineffectually, over the back of his brown mare, which understood, with a truly feminine insight, his perplexity before her character. Davie dropped his hoe and ran stumbling to meet him. He read the pages in a tremble. There was something for him from Elizabeth at the bottom of the last one. "Dear Davie," it ran, "are you well an' lookin' jest the same? Don't get lonesome for me. I ain't missin' you a mite."
During the period that she was resting for the operation Mary wrote daily, and every time the letter came the minister jogged down to the farmhouse, for the words were really from the old wife to Davie. Very cheerful words they were for the most part. "If Davie's askin' how the streets look, tell him I can't jest tell, for I come in the night, but the noise is amazin'." "Tell Davie I can see a church tower from the window, an' it's higher 'n' we ever dreamt of its bein', an' sweeter." "Tell Davie to lay listenin' to feet goin' up and down on stones is grand." "Tell Davie I hev seen the surgeon an' that I never thought a great man'd be so kind. I was all in a flutter over him, but when he'd come 'n' had seen me, whatever'd I do but tell him 'bout him 'n' Melindy Ethel, an' the meetin'-house, an' how the road runs by in front o' the farm. An' he said he knew, an' not to mind—as ma ust to. Ain't it strange 'bout his knowin'?"
The letters to Elizabeth were a tremendous labor, for Davie was no speller, and always bashful in the presence of ink. He had only little happenings for his pen—he wrote with his tongue forming the painful syllables about his mouth. But to her they were infinite things—the May rose was blossomed in the garden, and a pair of robins were nesting on a ledge of the loom on finding the room so still; the speckled hen scratched up the pease, and the black cow's calf was lamed; the house dog pined for her and whimpered at the doors, letting the cats lick the edges of his dish; the neighbors had sent donations of a loaf of rye bread, a pitcher of broth, and the half of a new pressed cheese; Kerrenhappuch Green sat with him in the evenings, and he, Davie, was not getting lonesome nor missing her at all. But the one blotted "'Lisbeth, 'Lisbeth," told the true tale of the empty house.
When no letter came from Mary he toiled, white as lint, in his potato-field. There followed two days of sick suspense; then the minister waved to him at the gray fence-rails. So greatly did he dread to hear the news he longed to know, he could not stir from the spot where he stood, but waited, a strained, pathetic figure, for him to make his way across the even furrows. On the fatherly, near-sighted countenance, as he drew nearer, was to be seen such a shining brightness that straightway Davie knew that she whom he loved had issued from her trial. The two men, alike weather-beaten and seamed by a humble work—the shepherd no less than the sheep of his flock anxiously tilling a rocky farm,—had the reticence which is learned in hill solitudes, but in the "Thank God, Davie," and the breaking "Yes, sir," much was spoken.
Now Davie slackened his toil and opened all the windows of the house to freshen the low-ceilinged rooms for Elizabeth's returning. Every morning he picked bunches of spring flowers and arranged them in stiff bouquets on the tables and old bureaus. He took out his Sunday suit from the closet and rebrushed it carefully and laid it with a clean collar and his musty tie. He began to carry himself all at once with something of an air, and he developed a reckless and unnatural enthusiasm about the weather; for to be darkly critical of the season after the thaw was a local point of masculine etiquette which hitherto he had scrupulously observed. The spring had always been in his judgment, sympathetically received, "too terrible warm," or "pointin' right to a late frost that'll kill everything," or, were it not palpably a failure, "so durned nice now that the summer'll be mean." But with the good news coming from the hospital he was ready to declare in response to friendly greetings: "It's the beatin'est time I ever come 'cross. Dun'no' when I hev heerd so many bluebirds or sech chirky ones. An' the sky's wonderful an' the ground's jest right. It's goin' to be a dreadful good year for farmin'."
There was in his mind no premonition of trouble on his receiving from the lumbering stage an envelope directed to him in Elizabeth's own hand. It was only that she was getting able to write to him herself. He took it unopened up to the bench by the May rose to read its contents at his leisure away from the stage-driver's curious gaze. "Dear Davie," the letter said, "the city streets is so wearyin' an' I'm comin' home. If I ain't so well as we hoped, don't mind. 'Tain't like I was young to leave. Mary's comin' with me, for she's long been wantin' to visit the Ridge. Could you meet me with your wagon, Davie?"
She could not tell, what she did not know, that the money for Mary's journey had been sent to her by the minister for his old friend's needs.
* * * * *
The afternoon was very soft and fair when Davie met the train incoming to town from the city. The farms on Turkey Ridge were illumined with growing things like the faint, precious pages of a missal. Doves fluttered on the lowly roofs. Everywhere was the calling of birds and the smell of broken earth. The minister and Mary fell behind along the way. Kerrenhappuch Green, caught walking westward to the creek, his stale pockets bulged by bait, hid with a simple delicacy in the roadside bushes from Davie's face. Only the children hastening from school nodded to him as he passed them, nor hushed the loud clatter of their burring tongues.
It was not for young children to be stricken by that sight upon the road—the pair of patient horses drawing slowly homeward in the shining of the sun a wagon fresh lined with straw, on which lay a homely mother, smiling with old lips; and above her, on the seat, humbly bowed in his Sunday suit, a gray-haired man whose cheeks were wet with tears.
BARNEY DOON, BRAGGART
BY PHILIP VERRILL MIGHELS
The nine dusty citizens of Bitter Hole, having one and all proposed, unsuccessfully, for the hand of Miss Sally Wooster, had about concluded that Bitter Water Valley was a desert, after all, when they finally thought to turn their attention once again to Barney Doon, the cook.
Let it here be stated, nevertheless, there was one thing to prove that the valley was a desert, despite the presence of Barney, and that was the face of the country itself. One-half of that whole Nevada area was a great white blister, forty miles long and fifteen wide, acrid with alkali, flat, barren, and harsh as a sheet of zinc. The valley's remaining territory was covered with gray, dry scrub, four inches high, through which the dusty Overland stage-route was crookedly scratched.
Bitter Hole was the station for the stage. In it flourished the nine dusty citizens, a dusty dog, and a dusty chicken, in addition to Barney and the buxom Miss Sally, whose father was among the citizens enumerated. At the end of the street was a hole, or well, the waters of which, being not precisely fatal to men and horses, had occasioned the growth of the place, there being no other water for leagues along the road.
Here in this land, even when Sally had scorned them, each in turn, the men of the Hole were still agreed there could be no desolation where Barney Doon had residence. Purely and simply they loved the little cook for the fiery suddenness of his temper and the ingenuity of the insults of which he was never guiltless. The sulphurous little demon was, as the miners and teamsters estimated, "only two sizes bigger than a full-grown jack-rabbit." What he lacked in size, however, he more than supplied in expression of countenance. His eyes were centres of incandescence, while the meagre supply of hair he grew bristled redly out from beside his ears like ill-ordered spears. Indeed, such a red-whiskered, bald-headed little parcel of fireworks as Barney was is rarely created.
Calmly considered, it is hardly a matter for marvel that Barney had, from time to time, accommodated every individual in the Hole with a quarrel. Moreover, he had challenged each to mortal combat. Indeed, he had never been known to do anything less. Barney was a challenger first and a cook incidentally. But, ancient and modern tradition through, there never was chronicle of actual encounter in which the fierce little cook cut figure.
And, as a matter of fact, the men esteemed him perhaps somewhat more for the skill and adroitness with which he invariably squirmed out of impending engagements, than they did for all the alacrity and pyrotechnics with which he was wont to surround himself with duelsome entanglements. The boys well knew that if blood were unlet till the bragging, hot little rogue of a Barney stained his record, they would all forget the color of a wound.
It was not without some elemental enthusiasm that the camp, one evening, extended its welcome to a mule-driver newly mustered to their company. The sobriquet by which the man was duly introduced was Slivers. He was swiftly appraised and as quickly assimilated, after which there was only one process required to complete his initiation, namely, that of preparing his mind for a "racket" with Barney Doon.
"Don't lose no time, but git right in at supper," instructed John Tuttle, for the group. "Jest bang him with any old insult you can think of, and leave the rest to Barney. Trot out a plain, home-made slap at the fodder he's dishin' up, fer instance. And when he comes at you with a challenge, don't fergit your privilege of pickin' out the weapons—savvy?"
It chanced that the moment selected for the entertainment was most propitious, inasmuch as Barney had that day declared his devotion to Sally Wooster, and had duly desired her big red hand for his own, only to hear a wild peal of laughter in reply, and to find himself boosted bodily out of the window by the hearty young lady herself. He was not, therefore, exactly in a mood of milk and honey.
It never had failed, and it did not fail to-night, that Barney should conceive himself more than half insulted merely by the sight of a stranger appearing at the board and calmly requiring the wherewithal to satisfy a mountain appetite. Accordingly, when the miners and teamsters all came filing in, dusty, angular, raw-looking of countenance, Barney instantly detected the presence of Slivers among them, and his eyes "lit up shop" without delay.
Slivers, to speak the truth, was easily seen. He was framed like a sky-scraping building, with the girders all plainly suggested. Not without a certain insolence of deliberation, he stared about the room before assuming his seat, and provoked himself to a sneer of opera-bouffe proportions.
"You're his meat already," whispered one of the men. "Set down."
Comrade Slivers thereupon proceeded to comport himself with a studied indifference to the cook which was duly galling. In a grim silence that all who knew him comprehended, Barney went about the table glowering with ferocity. Edging closer and closer to Slivers, the little man seemed itching in his ears to catch some careless word that might, by dint of inventiveness, be construed as a personal affront.
"I can see you ain't got no cook in the camp," said Slivers, loudly, to his neighbor, when Barney was directly behind his chair. "Has that pizened little boy I seen a while ago been playin' keep-house with the grub?"
"What's the matter with the grub, you scion of the wild-ass family?" demanded Barney, exploding like a fulminate.
Slivers looked around and scowled. "Git out, you yawping brat," said he. "You must have been losin' hair for years—one hair a day—for everything you don't know about decent grub. Go look at yer head, and figure out your ignorance."
Sensitive concerning the trackless Sahara which his pate presented, Barney clapped his hand upon it instantly. He could scarcely speak, for rage.
"You—dead lizard!" finally spurted from his safety-valve. "You mongrel viper! Low-bred ooze, disowned and outcast, I'll spoil a grave with your carcass for this! You jelly of cowardice, meet me to-morrow for satisfaction, or I'll swing you about by the tongue, and hurl you to pulp against the sty of a pig!"
Even Slivers somewhat gasped.
"Meet you?" he retorted, arising, to tower above his foeman like a mast. "Iron me, Johnny!—if I can crawl in the hole to find you where you're hidin' I'll make you wish for hair a mile long, to stand on your head in your pitiful scare!"
"Oh, fie! Oh, bah!" said the cook, scanning the teamster's length with ill-concealed awe. "Buzzard, you toy with languages. To-morrow I shall throw tomato-cans in scorn to build your monument."
"All right," answered Slivers. "To-morrow suits me, and we'll fight it out bareback on buckin' broncos, out in the small corral, each feller armed with a stockin' full of rocks for a weapon."
Barney stared for a moment in consternation at the man before him. He had previously grown accustomed to the horrors suggested by pistols, knives, red-hot branding-irons, and even pitchforks, but rocks in a stocking—that smacked of barbarism. Moreover, to mount on the back of a bronco, wild or tame—the very meditation made the walls drop out of his stomach. However, he smiled.
"Child's play!" he answered, with fine disgust. "You warty infant! No matter, an odious child would become a more detestable reptile! Till to-morrow, don't speak to me—don't speak to me! Or I shall cheat myself of the morning's pastime." And with that he strode haughtily away.
"Howlin' coyotes!" said Slivers, when he met the gaze of a dozen pair of gleaming eyes. "Take him dose for dose he's worse than pizen! By gar! just see if he burned any holes in my shirt."
Nearly all night long, however, little Barney lay awake, wildly fashioning excuses to avoid that horrid duel in the morning. He had always escaped by a margin so narrow that no precedent of the past gave assurance of luck for the future. He was mortally afraid that at last he had challenged such a monster of brute courage, malignity, and strength that nothing terrestrial could avert his untimely demise.
Then in the morning the first sight that met his troubled gaze was that of Slivers rounding up a pair of unbroken ponies, as wild as meteors, in the field of honor, hard by the camp. Every cell in Barney's structure was in a panic. How he managed to walk to the water-bench to wash was more than he knew. After that there was no retreat. The citizens of Bitter Hole surrounded him, according to preconcerted arrangement, and began to coach him for his fight.
"Barney, you'd better have a jolt of whiskey in yer vitals," suggested one. "Slivers is a regular expert with a stockin' of rocks."
"If I was you, Barney," said Tuttle, "I'd leave my bronco throw me right at him. Then. I'd turn in the air and soak my heels into Slivers's grub-basket and knock him into pieces small enough to smoke in a cigarette."
"Barney," counselled another, "you take my advice and fight standin' up on your hoss, so you can jump over onto Slivers's bronco and cram your stockin' of rocks down that there mule-driver's neck and choke him clean to death."
They were "herding" the speechless Barney toward the corral, in which the two vicious ponies had now been confined. Slivers himself came forward.
"Leave me see how much the little scarecrow has shrunk in the night," said he.
Barney's wrath was kindled by this. He opened his mouth to deliver a broadside of verbal grape and canister, when he was suddenly interrupted.
A shot and a yell, from down the road, startled every man in camp. Two, three, five more shots barked in swift succession. Miss Sally Wooster herself was drawn from the house by the fusillade.
With Comanche-like whoops, a horseman came dashing madly toward the men, brandishing two huge revolvers as he rode.
"Skete, and drunk in the morning," said Tuttle.
A moment later the rider scattered the population as he rode his weltering pony through the group.
"You lubbers, celebrate!" he yelled, discharging a weapon three times in a second. "There's been a baby born at Red Shirt Canyon! We git in the census! We git on the map! Big Matt Sullivan's wife has got a little boy!"
"A boy!" said Sally Wooster. "Oh my!"
"Is that all?" inquired John Tuttle, on behalf of his somewhat indignant townsmen. "Red Shirt's thirty-seven miles away. We've got something more exciting than that right here in camp."
"Red Shirt's in this same county," protested the horseman, a trifle crestfallen. "I thought you fellers was patriotic."
Barney Doon threw out his chest and swaggered forward.
"Patriotic?" he echoed. "Doggone us, we're the biggest patriots on the coast! No man is a gentleman who wouldn't be a gentleman on such an occasion as this. Skete, you've saved the life of yonder braggart," and he pointed to Slivers. "I couldn't be a gentleman and slay him when a child's been born in this here county. Slivers, you can go your way, without alarm."
"What!" demanded Tuttle. "No fight? All on account of a baby?"
"If I ever!" added Sally Wooster.
A third disgusted person queried, "What's a baby got to do with a duel, and the kid near forty miles away?"
To this one Barney turned with pitying scorn. "You don't know how easy it is to disturb a new-born baby," said he. "There ain't a man but me in camp knows how to behave himself in a holy moment like this here, and I ain't a-goin' to kill no man when a sacred thing like that has went and happened."
"Well, durn his slippery hide!" grumbled Tuttle. "He's gittin' too smart!"
The men were all grinning, including Slivers.
"I reckon Barney knows as much about a baby as a hop-toad knows about arithmetic," said Wooster, winking prodigiously. "He's got us all square beat on kids."
"I don't know about that," replied a lanky individual who had sobered amazingly at the news from Red Shirt Canyon. "I've saw a kid or two myself."
"That so, Moody?" said Slivers. "Well, say, maybe we could work up a bet between you and Barney, to see which knows the most about a youngster."
Barney broke in abruptly. "I'll bet a million dollars I know more about children than all you cusses put together! There ain't a one of you knows how many teeth a baby's got when he's born."
The challenge produced a solemn stillness.
"W-e-l-l, I know they don't git their eyes open for a week," asserted Moody.
"You're clear off, first crack," retorted Barney. "It's nine days, instead of a week."
Again the men were awed to silence.
"Yes, that's right—Barney's correct," presently admitted citizen Wooster.
"You old ninnies!" said his daughter Sally, and she turned away to go to the house.
"Well, anyway," said Slivers, after a brisk bit of widespread conversation with Tuttle, "we've got a scheme. Barney wants to match himself against the whole shebang in knowin' about a kid, and we're goin' to fetch a young un to the Hole and leave him prove his claim."
"Not Sullivan's?" gasped Barney, suddenly overwhelmed at the prospect of proving his erudition on an infant so tender, with a father so brawny.
"Never mind whose," replied the teamster. "You sit quiet and look pretty, and we'll provide the kid."
This they did. The following morning, at daylight, Tuttle and Slivers reappeared at camp, from a pilgrimage, and the mule-driver held in his arms a little red Indian papoose, as fat, dimpled, and pretty as a cherub, and as frightened as a captive baby rabbit.
"Now, then," said the man, placing his charge on the floor, in the midst of a circle of wondering citizens, "there's your kid. Never mind where we got him—there he is. Barney takes charge of him every other day, and the rest of us by turns in between—all that cares to enter the race."
The news having spread, Miss Sally Wooster was among the astonished spectators who beheld the tiny, half-naked, frightened little chieftain-to-be, gazing timidly about him as he sat on the planks, gripping his own little shirt as his one and only acquaintance.
"Lauk!" she said, and laughing immoderately, sped for the door.
"Sally, you ain't to help neither Barney nor us!" called Tuttle.
"Don't you worry," she answered. "It ain't no pie of mine."
The men continued to look at their "young un" in no small quandary of helplessness.
"He's a pretty little cuss," said one of the miners, after a moment. "I wouldn't guess him for more than a yearlin'."
Moody coughed nervously. "One of the first things to do for a child," he ventured, "is to git a thimble to rub on his teeth."
"That's right," said a friend. "My mother used to do that regular."
"What's the matter with putting pants on him fairly early in the fight?" inquired the next man of wisdom.
"First thing my mother always done for us was to make us a bib," drawled one fidgety fellow, tentatively.
"He'd orter be told never to drink, ner chew, ner smoke, ner swear, ner gamble, 'fore it gits too late," added a miner who carefully eschewed all and sundry of these virtues.
"Stub-tailed idiots!" said Barney, in huge disgust.
All eyes focussed on the fiery little cook.
"Well, then," demanded Tuttle, "what is the first thing to do for a little kid like him?"
"The first thing?" answered Barney. "The first thing is—Do you think I'm going to tell you lop-eared galoots all I know about a baby? What I want to know is if he's had a bite to eat?"
"What did you think we'd feed him?" asked Slivers. "Do we look like his mother?"
"Git away, you venomous scum, and let me have him!" demanded Barney.
"Hold on," interrupted Tuttle. "The first day he goes to the feller he picks out himself, only you come last, bein' the challenger. We'll arrange things alphabetical. Adams, you git first shot, to find out if you're popular with the little skeesicks."
Adams turned redder than usual, which is saying much.
"Ah—I don't know nuthin' about kids," he confessed. "Catherwood—see what he can do."
Catherwood also proved to be modest. After him Farnham and Lane waived their alphabetical privilege.
Moody, as nervous as a girl, approached the dumb little man on the floor, and twisting the corner of his coat, inquired in a trembling voice, "Does Bunny love old Goo-goo?"
The child looked up with a frightened little query in his eyes.
"I'd hate to scare him," Moody added. "I don't mind seein' how he takes to Barney."
"Yes, give Barney a show," said Wooster.
Something had been happening to the cook. The tenseness had gone from his usually wiry little body; his eyes were milder; a curve was softening his mouth. Kneeling before the child, he held forth his arms.
"Baby want to go by-by?" he said, and tenderly lifting the little man, he bore him away, while the men looked on in silence.
Half an hour later the man who peeked through the keyhole reported that Barney was singing the youngster to sleep. The words of the song are not readily conveyed, but they sounded like—
"Allonsum sum-sum bill-din, Allonsum sum-sum bill-din, Allonsum sum-sum bill-din,"
repeated times without number. Barney called it an Indian lullaby. As sung it was equally good Cherokee, Chinese, or Russian, being Barney's clearest recollection and interpretation of a song which his mother once had droned.
On the third day following, Slivers, Tuttle, and others held a council of war.
"Barney's goin' to clean up the whole works of us," said the mule-driver, "unless we can manage to work some better combination."
"What can we do?" inquired Tuttle. "The kid sure likes him best."
"That wasn't the point. It's a game of how much we all know about a young un as against little Barney. Now, Moody, on the square, do you think you know as much as him?"
"He knows more than you'd think," confessed Moody. "The—the only little kid I ever had—she died—ten months old."
"Well—that was hell, sure."
Some of the men puckered their lips as if to whistle, but made no sound.
"If only we could paint Barney's face an Irish green, or do something so's the kid would be scared to see him, we might win out yet, perhaps," resumed Slivers, presently. "Got any ideas?"
"I don't think Barney could scare him if he tried," answered Wooster. "Anyhow the pore little scamp ain't cried since he come."
"He ain't laughed any, either," added Moody.
There was neither a cry nor a smile that day, though Barney yearned to hear either one of these baby sounds. The little brown captive clung as always to his tiny shirt, and watched Barney's face with big, brown, questioning eyes. The cook had forgotten his boast. To hold the wee bit of babyhood against his heart, to coax him to eat, to yearn over him, love him, fondle him—these were his passions. A fierce parental jealousy grew in Barney's nature.
But the hour arrived when jealousy changed to a deeper emotion—to worry. All Barney actually knew of a child came through the intuitions of a natural father's heart, but little as this amounted to, Barney was aware that a tiny scamp like this should eat and sleep and creep about and crow. And the little brown "Bunny" had done not one of the pretty baby tricks.
The fiery little cook's new concern was at first concealed. With growing reluctance every time, he resigned the little man to Moody's care as the "contest" required. One night, however, when the dumb, sad bit of an Indian was with Moody, the man was aroused from his dreams by some one's presence. It was Barney, too worried to sleep, surreptitiously come to the tiny captive's fruit-box cradle, and gently urging the wee bronze man to eat of some gruel prepared at that silent hour of the darkness. He was willing that Moody should have the credit of taking good care of the motherless baby, if only the child could be made a little more happy. Thereafter, by night and day, the cook was hovering about the uncomplaining little chieftain; and Moody understood.
By some of the mystic workings of nature, Barney's love and worry extended to Sally. Hiding her feelings from all the men, even from Barney himself, she could not quell the upgush of emotion in her bosom, as she snatched the little Indian once, in secret, to her heart. Without the courage, as yet, to hear the men ridicule her weakness, she nevertheless contrived to place a hundred little comforting things in Barney's path, as he went his rounds of mothering his sad little wild thing from the hills. Her heart began to ache, as it swelled to take in the child and Barney Doon.
The men had lost all spirit of fun in the contest, even to Slivers, who strove, however, to see it through in a bluff, rough-hearted way.
Unexpectedly all of it came to a crisis. It was early in the morning. After a sleepless night Barney had gone in desperate parent-care to receive his foundling back from Moody. In one keen glance he had finally perceived what all their folly was leading to, at last.
With the dumb little chap on his arm he hastened to the dining-shed, where all the men, save Tuttle, were awaiting breakfast.
"You brutes had no right to steal this child!" he cried out, passionately. "He's starving! He's pining away! Look at his thin little legs! Look at his poor little eyes—getting hollow!" Tears were streaming from his own tired eyes as he spoke. "Slivers, you did this!" he charged, angrily. "You tell me where you got him, or I'll shoot you down like a dog!" He had hastened up to the teamster, against whose very breast he thrust a pistol a foot in length.
"By God! he'd do it!" said Slivers, unmoved by the push of the loaded weapon. "Uncock it, Barney. You'd ought to know I wouldn't harm the kid, any quicker than you. I'd do as much as any man if we had to save his life."
"He may not live through the day!" cried Barney. "I'm going to take him home—back to his mother! And if you don't tell me where she is—"
"Hold on, now; I call," interrupted Slivers. "We'll see if you've got any sand. The Injun camp is over across the desert, in Thimbleberry Cove.... Do you reckon you've got the nerve to pack him across?"
A peculiar silence followed this announcement. Barney stood like an animal at bay. His face became deathly white. He fully comprehended the awfulness of that great white dead-land just outside.
Wooster broke the silence. "It looks as if the wind is going to blow harder to-day," he said. "It's stirring up the desert some already. A man could never get two miles out from here, unless the breeze goes down."
Barney, with a crazed, wild look on his face, hastened away to the kitchen.
"I'm glad he didn't take you up on that," said Moody, gazing forth from a window. "Get on to the way the whirlwinds are kickin' up the smoke already."
"I reckon it won't blow no worse than yesterday," replied Slivers. "But I knowed he wouldn't tackle it anyhow. He'll be back here in a minute, to squirm out of the game."
They drummed on the table for fifteen minutes, as they waited. A brisk wind was blowing; the desert began to deliver up its cohorts of dust-clouds, where powdered alkali billowed and eddied and swept across the valley in ever-increasing volumes.