"I wonder why the stars look so old, while the world looks so new," she murmured, with her head on his shoulder and her face upturned. "I wonder why there is such a look of changelessness about the heavens, while the earth seems changing so fast!"
Her eyes were wandering over the infinite starry spaces with wondering awe, but he was looking down at her and he started when she cried out in amazement, touched with alarm. She lifted her hand and pointed, and following its direction, he saw that the comet had disappeared.
The celestial visitor was gone almost as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come.
THE PASSING OF PHILIP ALSTON
The cold wind died down with the coming of dawn. Going to the window to call the birds, she found the air grown unseasonably warm and saw that it was filled with a dull mist. Leaning from the window, she looked up the forest path, wondering if Paul had ridden along it during the night on his way to the boat. The low, broad craft was still lying in the same place beside the island, with no movement about it. She thought of the sick man with pity, wishing that she could do something for him; but if Paul had been called in time, all must be well—she had not a doubt of that; and an unconscious smile of pride touched her anxious face. She hardly knew why she felt vaguely anxious and uneasy, but thought that it might be on account of the gloom of the dreary morning, and the strange look of the swollen river. How gray and dark it was, and how heavily it ran, almost like molten lead.
As her wandering gaze followed the stream, she saw something which was still grayer and darker than the troubled waters. She could not tell at first what it was, for it was a long way off, and far up the river. With her hands over her eyes, she strained her sight, but the distance was too great, and the yellow haze too thick. She could make out only a wide, dark line, wavering down from the woods to the water—a strange, moving thing without beginning or end—which seemed to be going faster than the river. The strangeness of the night alarmed her and as she gazed at it, fascinated, she saw David running toward the house and waving his arms to call her attention.
"Look! Look up the river!" he shouted as soon as he had come within hearing. "I was afraid you wouldn't see it. It's an army of squirrels marching steadily, just like soldiers, millions and millions of them! It has been like that for hours. I have been watching it since daylight. The squirrels are trying to cross the river, and thousands and thousands are already drowned. The water is brown with their bodies."
"The poor little things! What in the world can it mean, David? And look at the birds! They don't come at all when I call them. What is the matter with them? I don't see anything to disturb them, yet see how they look! And hear the waterfowl screaming! And the trees, too. Why do the leaves droop like that? How can it be so hot in December? It was never like this before. There isn't a breath of air."
"I have noticed how strange everything seems. The forest is stiller than I ever saw it, but the wild things that live in it are strangely restless. I have been watching them all the morning, and I heard them in the night."
"But what does it mean, dear? Surely some dreadful thing must be going to happen! I wish Paul would come. Have you seen him? He is always riding, and the woods are dangerous in a storm, and it can't be anything else. Why don't you answer? I asked if you had seen him."
The boy turned from gazing at the strange, dark line which was still wavering ceaselessly from the woods to the water.
"Yes, I saw him and Father Orin going home an hour or so ago. They had been out all night." He said this absently, with his eyes turning back to the wonderful spectacle.
"My Paul is wanted in many places at once," she said, forgetting her uneasiness in a woman's pride in the power of the man she loves. "But I hope he found time to visit the sick man on uncle Philip's boat," mindful even then of a woman's wish to draw together the men she loves. "Can you see any clouds, David? I can't—and yet this strange yellow vapor that thickens the air is certainly growing heavier every moment. What can it be? It isn't at all like a fog. I am frightened. Come indoors. I am coming downstairs. Maybe uncle Robert or William can tell us what all this means."
But there was nothing to be learned in the great room below. The men of the family were as helpless as the women. All were waiting and watching for some nameless calamity, weighed down by that overwhelming, paralyzing dread of the unknown which unnerves the bravest and makes the most powerful utterly powerless. The old ladies, trembling and silent, clung close to the chimney-corner, scarcely looking at one another. The judge and his nephew were sitting in silence near the front door which had been opened on account of the sudden heat. They got up hurriedly, and turned nervously, startled even by the faint rustle of Ruth's skirts on the stairs. And before they could speak, the strained stillness was violently torn by a sudden loud, shrill sound, such as none of the terrified listeners had ever heard before—a long, unearthly shriek, which seemed to come from neither brute nor human. For a moment not a cry was uttered, not a word was spoken, and terrified eyes stared unseeingly into whitening faces. And then the judge, suddenly realizing what the sound was, broke into shaken, painful laughter.
"It is the whistle of the steamboat—the first steamboat on the Ohio. How could we have forgotten?" he said. "It is the Orleans passing down the river. Come to the door. We must see it go by. It doesn't stop here and none of us should miss seeing it, for the sight of the first steamer on western waters is something to be stored in memory. Never mind the signs of the storm. There will be many other storms, but never another first steamboat down the Ohio. Come out and see it."
"We can get a better view from the river bank," cried Ruth. "Come along, David!"
Holding hands, the girl and the boy ran to the shore, leaving the others to watch the great spectacle from the doorstep. And thus all stood, marvelling like every living creature whose eyes followed it down that long river. But only the judge could partly grasp the greatness of the event; only he could partly realize what it meant to the West and the world. Yet every one waited and watched as if spellbound, till the last of those first victorious banners of blue smoke thus unfurled over the conquered wilderness, had waved slowly out of sight around the great river's majestic bend.
This had brought a momentary forgetfulness of the strange look of the heavens and the earth; but the consciousness of it now rushed back with increased alarm. There were still no clouds to be seen anywhere, no visible signs of an approaching storm; but the thick veil of yellowish vapor was fast drawing an unnatural twilight over the noonday. Through this awful dimness the sun was shining faintly, like a great globe of heated copper, thus shedding a strange light, even more alarming than the sinister darkness.
Every soul in the wilderness must now have shrunk, shuddering and appalled, before this unmistakable approach of some frightful convulsion of nature. The people of Cedar House, like all the rest, could do nothing but wait in agony for the unknown blow to fall. It seemed an endless time in falling; under the breathless, torturing suspense the moments became hours, with no change except a darkening of the unnatural twilight, an increase of the unnatural sultriness, and a deepening of the unnatural stillness. The little group in the great room of Cedar House sat still and silent, save as they unconsciously drew closer together, moved by the instinct of humanity in common danger.
The girl alone kept her post by the open door and her watch over the forest path, looking for the coming of her lover. She knew that but one thing could keep him from her side, and with all her longing for his presence, a thrill of happiness came from his absence. Through all its distress her heart exulted in the thought that he was faithful in his service to suffering humanity, even when love itself beckoned him away. A great tide of religious gratitude rose in her heart sweeping all fear before it. The love of a man who was both strong and good—the greatest gift that life could give to any woman—was safely hers. Holding this assurance to her heart, she grew wonderfully calm. There could be nothing to fear. In this world or the next, all was well. A wonderful spiritual exaltation bore her upward on its strong, swift wings, high above all the surrounding gloom and terror, till she rested on a white height of perfect peace. There was a rapt look on her quiet, pale face as she sat thus with it turned toward the forest path. She arose quietly and stood in the door, gazing at a shadowy form which came suddenly from under the dark trees. The thick yellow mist wrapped it darkly, but she presently knew by intuition rather than by sight that Paul was really coming at last, and she flew toward him like a homing bird. He was urging his horse, but the animal held back with an unwillingness such as he had never shown before; so that when the young man saw the girl flying toward him he leapt from the saddle, leaving the horse to follow or not as he would, and ran to meet her. As soon as she could speak, she told him that she was not afraid now that he had come, saying it over and over; yet she nevertheless clung to him as if she would never let him go.
"And you will take care of the others, too," she said. "Uncle Robert doesn't know what to do, nor William. Oh! Look! The poor black people! There they come running up from the quarters. See how they are crowding round the door, wild with terror! But you will know what to say to them as well as the others. I am not afraid, with you," quietly looking up in his grave face. "Is it the end of the world, dear heart?"
He said that he knew no more than herself what it could be, unless some terrific tempest might be near. They moved hurriedly on toward the house, and as they went he told her that he was going to the boat where he had been called to see a man ill of the plague. The call had come during the night, but he could not leave another patient to answer it more quickly. And now he would not leave her, for all the rest of the world, till they knew what this awful thing was which seemed about to happen. The white people had come out of the house and stood speechless and motionless, looking up at the heavens and down at the earth, seeing both but dimly through that ghastly twilight so awfully lit by that lurid ball of fire.
"Here comes Father Orin!" cried the doctor. "Look at Toby and my horse; see how they are walking!"
The horses could be indistinctly seen advancing slowly and reluctantly through the yellowish gloom with a curious, sliding motion, as if stepping on ice. Paul started toward them, but paused, struck motionless, and held by a sight still more strange. The same breathless stillness brooded over everything; the windless air now weighed like lead, and yet at this moment the greatest trees and smallest bushes suddenly began to quiver from bottom to top. As far as the horror-struck eyes could reach through that unnatural twilight, the mightiest cottonwoods were now bending and nodding like the frailest reeds. And then there arose in the far northeast a faint rumbling which rushed swiftly onward toward the southeast, growing, louder as it came, and breaking over Cedar House in a thunderous roar. At the deafening crash Paul turned and ran back to Ruth, catching her in his arms. The ground was now sliding beneath their feet. The solid earth was waving and rising and falling like a stormy sea.
"It's an earthquake," he whispered, with his lips against her cheek. "Don't fear, it will pass."
A second shock followed the first, and there was no lightening of the dreadful gloom which was one of the greatest horrors of that horrible time. But the men were rallying now that they knew what they had to meet, and they quickly and firmly drew the terror-stricken, helpless old women further away from the house, fearing that the massive logs of its walls might be shaken down.
"That isn't far enough," said Father Orin. "Come still farther," glancing round for the safest refuge. "Merciful God! Look at the river!"
The Ohio, beaten back by the lashed and maddened Mississippi, was leaping in great furious waves, high and wild, as the ocean's in a tempest. These monstrous, foaming billows were springing far up the shores on both sides of the river, and devouring vast stretches of land covered with gigantic trees. The giants of the forest fell, groaning, into the boiling, swirling flood which leapt to catch them and swallowed them up with a hideous, hissing noise. Sunken trees which had lain for ages on the bottom of the river rose above the water like ghosts rising to meet the newly slain.
"The boat," moaned Ruth. "Uncle Philip's boat, and the sick man!"
Every eye turned in the direction of the island. No one spoke after that first look. None marvelled to see that the boat was missing; nothing afloat could live in that seething maelstrom, thickened with melted earth and tangled with fallen trees. The overwhelming thing which their faculties could not grasp was the fact that the island itself was gone. They could only stand staring, expecting to see it between the mountainous waves, utterly unable to believe the truth, that it had sunk out of sight and was resting on the bottom of the river. And as they were thus still searching the wild, dark flood with incredulous eyes, they suddenly saw a small row-boat in the middle of the stream. It darted down a towering wave and flew up the next, and came flying on like some wild, winged thing, toward the Kentucky shore. Another and a wilder wave caught it, lifted it aloft, and tossed it still nearer the land. It was not far away now, and there came a sudden lightening of the gloom, so that they could see two men in the little boat.
"They can never live to reach the shore!" cried the doctor.
"As God wills," said the priest.
Instinctively every eye but the girl's was scanning the shore, trying to find something that would float, something that might help to save the men in the boat. But there was nothing in sight; the fierce waves had swallowed everything, and the helpless people on the bank could only turn again to watch the little boat. Ruth's gaze had never wandered from it, and she still watched it flying from one wave to another, gazing as intently as she could through the tears that rained over her pale cheeks. She saw it go up a gigantic wave with a flying leap and dart down again, and then it was lost to sight so long that they thought it was gone. But at last it came up near the shore, overturned, and with only one man clinging to it. He was on the far side of the frail shell, so that they could not see him distinctly, although he was not far from the shore and there was more light. And then a swirl of the wild waters brought him to the nearer side, and raised him higher.
"It's an old man!" sobbed Ruth. "His head is white. Oh! Oh! It's uncle Philip! It's uncle Philip! He has been to the island. Save him, Paul!"
The doctor had already thrown off his coat, and was throwing aside his boots. He had not waited for her last words; he was not sure that it was Philip Alston; but he knew that some fellow-creature was perishing almost within reach of his arm. He was now running down the trembling bank, and in another instant had plunged into the boiling, roaring, furious flood, and was swimming toward that wildly rising and falling silver head, which shone like a beacon, through the lurid light. It was hard to keep anything in sight. He was a strong swimmer, but his full strength had not come back, and the fury of the waves was swirling trees like straws.
After that one involuntary appeal, Ruth was silent. Her heart almost stopped beating as she realized what her cry had done. A woman's mind acts with marvellous quickness when all she loves is at stake. As in a lightning flash she knew that she had sent her lover to risk his life for her foster-father, without knowing what she did. What she would have done had there been time to hesitate she could not tell, dared not think. It must have been a bitter choice, this risking of her lover's life against the certainty of her father's death. But now she realized nothing, felt nothing, except that the desperate die was cast. She did not notice that the others followed as she flew after Paul to the river's very brink. The earth had ceased quivering, but the shores were still crumbling under the crushing blows of the maddened waves. The thick, dark water coiled unheeded about her feet, as she stood silent, straining her eyes after her lover as he swam toward that silver head which still rose and fell with the waves. She did not move when she saw a gigantic cottonwood lean, uprooted and tottering. She did not utter a cry when it fell behind him, cutting him off and hiding him, so that neither he nor the silver head could be seen from the land. She stood as if turned to stone, waiting—only waiting—hardly hoping that it had not carried them both down. She began to weep softly, and her hands were suddenly and unconsciously clasped in silent prayer, when she saw him once more swimming—still swimming—but coming back around the top of the tree.
It had struck the little boat in its fall, sending it down to come up in fragments, but the man was left hanging to a bough, and it was toward him that Paul Colbert was struggling against the fury of the flood. The tree hung to the bank by its loosened roots, but its trunk and branches were swaying wildly, fiercely tossed by the waves. The man was sinking lower in the water, his strength almost was gone, and his hold was giving way, when Paul reached him. The white head, turning, revealed Philip Alston's face and Paul Colbert thought that he shrank under his touch. Neither spoke for a moment; both needed all their breath to reach a higher bough.
"Let me help you," gasped Paul Colbert. "Try to climb to the next limb. It is stronger and steadier."
"Thank you," panted Philip Alston.
They reached it together and could now see the shore, and both looked at Ruth through the swaying boughs and flying spray. The young man's heart leapt and his courage rose at the sight of the slender, girlish form. He saw her stretch out her arms, and remembering that she loved this old man, panting and struggling at his side, he shouted with all the power that he had, telling her that he would do his best to bring him to land. Philip Alston gave him a strange look, and then turned his gaze again toward the little figure on the shore. In a tone that was even more strange than his look, he murmured something about being on his way back from the island. He also said something about going to the boat early in the morning to countermand an order that he had given on the night before.
"I changed my mind—I found I couldn't do—"
Paul Colbert did not understand, and scarcely heard the confused, gasping, hurried words. He was looking at Ruth, and longing to loose his hold on the bough, long enough to wave the assurance that his voice could not carry across the roaring waters. And this was the instant that Nature chose to mock the pitting of his puny powers against her resistless forces. A fierce wave tore away the roots that the tree bound to the bank, and hurled it into the flood. It swung round and turned partly over, burying the bough that they clung to, deep under the water. Both went down with it and Paul Colbert thought, with the quickness and clearness of mind that comes to the drowning, that they could never come up again. When he found his own head once more above water, with his hand grasping a bough of a smaller tree, which had been driven close to the shore, he looked round for Philip Alston. There was no silver head anywhere to be seen now above the thick, dark river. Half stunned, he gazed again blankly, feeling vaguely that his own head must go down very soon; his strength was wholly gone; he could not even see the shore, though it was very near, because he was not strong enough to lift himself above the trunk of the tree which hid it from his sight. And then at last he heard Father Orin's voice:—
"Hold fast, my boy. Hold fast just a moment longer. We are coming, Toby and I. Try to hold on. We are almost there."
They reached him as his hand let go and his head sunk, and they bore him to the shore and laid him down at Ruth's feet, unconscious, but alive.
* * * * *
When Nature has thus rent the trembling earth and thus smitten appalled humanity by some stupendous convulsion, the outburst of passion nearly always passes quickly, and she hastens to console by concealing its traces. These fatal throes were hardly over before she was quelling the frenzied river by her sudden coldness, and only a few days had passed before she was covering its subdued waters with a heavy white sheet of glittering ice. And then, as if to make the torn land lovely again at once, she wrapped it in a dazzling robe of spotless snow. Above this she hurriedly hung the broken boughs of the wrecked cottonwoods with countless flashing prisms, encrusting the smallest twigs to the very top in sparkling crystal; and coming down she stilled the murmur of the reeds under icy helmets—binding all together with crystalline cables of frost. So that under the rainbow light of the brilliant winter sun the world was once more radiant with peace and joy and beauty unspeakable.
And Cedar House, too, was now just as it had been before. From its open door nothing could be seen of the marks left by Nature's passionate fury; marks which must remain forever unless some more furious passion should come to erase them. It was hard to tell just how and wherein the whole face of the country had been so greatly changed. The people of Cedar House knew that a great lake nearly seventy miles in length and deeper in places than the height of the tallest trees whose tops barely showed above the water, had taken the place of a range of high hills covered with primeval forest. But this was too far away to be seen from Cedar House, and no one there had the heart to approach it. One sad pilgrimage had been made, and that was to the ruins of Philip Alston's house. It was now a mere heap of fallen logs, and although these were lifted and laid in orderly rows, and the ground searched over inch by inch, there was nothing but his fine clothes and some simple furniture to show that it had ever been occupied.
"To think that he lived like this—that he gave me everything and kept nothing for himself," Ruth said softly through her tears, looking up in Paul Colbert's troubled face. "Such a desolate, lonely life. It breaks my heart to think of it. But I would have lived in his house if I could. I wanted to live in it—I wouldn't have cared how plain and rough it was. I wanted to live with him and cheer him and make him happy, as if he had been my own father. I couldn't have loved him more dearly if he had been. And you would have loved him, too, if you had known him better. I am sure that you would. You couldn't have helped loving him—if only for his goodness to me. And he was kind to every one. I never heard him speak a harsh word of any living thing. It was in being kind that he lost his life; he must have gone to see the man who was ill on the boat."
The young doctor looked away and fixed his eyes on the men who were going over the ground around the cabin.
"Who are those men, Paul? And what are they doing here?" she asked suddenly, observing that they seemed to be looking for something. "It hurts me to have strangers handling these things that belonged to him. What are they looking for? Who are they?"
"Dearest, when a thing like this happens the law has to take certain—"
"What has the law to do with my uncle Philip's clothes? No one shall touch them but me or you!" bending over the garments and gathering them up in her arms. "What are they digging for? Make them stop. Oh, stop them; this spot is like his grave, the only grave he can ever have."
* * * * *
Paul could not tell her then, nor for months afterward, that it was impossible to stop the search for the gold which was believed to be buried in the earth of the forest near the ruined cabin. He waited till the forest was once more quivering with tender young leaves and the river was gentle and warm again—and she had become his wife. When he gently told her at last, she looked at him wonderingly like a child, and was silent for some time. She knew so little about money or the eagerness for riches. And then she smiled and said that she herself would certainly claim any gold belonging to Philip Alston that ever might be found, and that David and the Sisters and Father Orin and Toby should have the spending of it.
"For that is what he would like and we have no need of more, now that you are becoming famous. We have all and more than we want. Uncle Robert has plenty for himself and his sisters. William will soon be going to Congress, if you and uncle Robert work hard for him. Yes, David and the Sisters and Father Orin and Toby shall have dear uncle Philip's gold. He would wish them to have it. Think how generous he always was to them and every one, and how kind to all. If you only could have known him just a little longer, dear heart! Knowing him better, you would have known, as I do, how truly he loved everything fine and noble and great."
He did not reply but silently laid his hand on hers. Sighing and smiling, she nestled closer to his side. And then as they sat thus with their eyes on the glorious afterglow, the Angelus began to peal softly through the shadows, and the Beautiful River seemed in the softened light to curve its majestic arm more closely around this wonderful new country, from which a blighting shadow was lifted forever.