"Perhaps. I don't know," he answered.
"And Bella is so silent, too. Hugh, it must have been a lonely life for you before I came. Those two people, though they love you so much, are not companionable. I think, Hugh, that they aren't able to understand you. You are so brilliant, and they are so dull; you are so articulate, and they are so dumb; you are so warm, so quick to see, to feel, to sympathize, while they are so slow and so cold. Dear Hugh, I'm glad I came. I am stupid myself, but I have enough intelligence to understand you—a little, haven't I, dear?"
"So much more than enough!" The low speech with its tremor of humility was almost lost.
"What a noise the river makes!" he said presently.
"Yes. And the pines. The whole air is full of rushing and sighing and clapping and rattling. Sounds tell me so much now. They fill my whole life. It is very queer. Why, a voice means more to me now, I think, than a face ever did.... Is it a deep river, Hugh?"
"Now it is—deep and dangerous. But it goes down very quickly when the snow at its source has melted. In summer it is a friendly little brook, and in the fall a mere trickle that hardly wets your shoe. I have a boat here tied to the root of one of these trees, a boat I made myself, to pole across when the stream is too deep for wading. I'll take you out in it when the flood's down; it wouldn't last fifteen minutes now. In the spring, Sylvie, a nymph comes down from the mountain, a wild white nymph. She has ice-green hair and frost-white arms; you can see her lashing the water, and if you listen, you can hear her sing and cry. Let's go in, dear; you're tired and cold—I can feel you shivering. We'll start a big fire, and I'll tell you how that nymph caught me once and nearly strangled me with her cold, wet arms. I was trying to save—you'll laugh when I tell you about it—a baby bear."
Pete and Bella made room for them silently about the hearth where Pete had already built up a fire. Sylvie groped her way to the throne from which the other woman slipped half furtively and so noiselessly that Sylvie never guessed her usurpation.
"Hugh is going to tell us a story," she said, and rested her head back so that her small chin pointed out and her slim neck was drawn up—"a wonderful story about the river and a bear. I hope it's a baby bear, Hugh, for you know how I feel about bears. I honestly think that being so afraid of seeing them is what made me blind!" She gave her small, shy laugh. "I thought I saw them everywhere I looked that day and night. It seems so long ago now, and yet it is not so many weeks. I can still hear Hugh's voice calling out to me across the snow. And now," she said, "the snow's all gone and none of you are strangers any more, and—Go on with your story, Hugh."
Pete added a log to the fire so that the flames stretched up bravely and made a great fan of light against which they all seemed painted like ornamental figures, Hugh lounging along the rug to make a striking central figure. Bella was drawn up rigidly on a stiff, hard chair; she hemmed a long, coarse towel with her blunt, work-roughened fingers.
Pete sat opposite Sylvie on the floor, his back against the corner of the fireplace, his knees drawn up in his hands, his head a little bent. He too—from under his long level brows—looked for the most part at Hugh, not devotedly, not wistfully, but with a somber wondering. It was only now and then, and as though he couldn't help it, that the blue, smouldering Northern eyes were turned to Sylvie on her throne. Then they would brighten painfully, and his lips would tighten so that the dimple, meant for laughter, cut itself like a touch of pain into his cheek. The firelight heightened his picturesqueness—the dull blue of his shirt, open at the round, smooth throat, the dark gold-brown of his corduroy trousers, against which the long, tanned hands, knit strongly together, stood out in the rosy, leaping light—beautifully painted against the background of old brown logs.
Yet it was Hugh, after all, who dominated the room by right of his power, his magnetism, the very distortion of his spirit. Here in this lonely square of light and warmth, surrounded by a world of savage, lawless winds heightening the voices of vast loneliness, these three people were imprisoned by him, a Merlin of the West.
He sat up to begin his story, pressing tobacco into his pipe. "Oh, it's not so much of a story, Sylvie. It was last spring when the river was high and I'd been out with my traps. I was coming home along the river edge, pretty tired, a big load on my back. I came around a bend of the river, and not far below me a little black bear, round as a barrel, was trying to scramble over the flood on a very shaky log. The mother was on the other side, but I didn't know that then. Well, there's nothing in God's world, Sylvie, so beguiling as a baby bear. This little fellow was scared by what he was doing, but he was bound he'd get across the river. He'd make a few steps; then he'd back up and half rise on his hind legs. I watched him a long time. Then he made up his mind he'd better make a dash for it. He began scrambling like a frantic kitten, and it was just in the most ticklish spot that he heard me and jumped and went rolling off into the river. I tell you, my heart came right up into my mouth."
"Oh, was he drowned?" wailed Sylvie.
Hugh rose and stood with his back to the fire, dominating the room even more convincingly, with his vivid ugliness. Sylvie's face turned up to him like a white flower to the sun it lives by, without seeing. It was strange to watch the adoration, the worship on that small face, and at the same time to behold the grotesqueness toward which it was directed. Bella was listening with her lowered eyes and tightened lips. She was interested in spite of herself; and Pete's inscrutable face followed the story with absorption.
"Well, in he rolled with a splash and went rattling down the current, turning over and over. Like a fool, I threw away my hides, ran down the bank and jumped in after him—that is, I meant to hold on to a branch and stand out in the water and catch him as he went by. But the nymph I told you about had her own plans. She wrapped her arms round me, and away we went, bear all. Oh, yes, I'd caught the cub all right, and he was about half drowned by that time—no fight left in him.
"Well, for a bit it was a question whether the world wouldn't be quickly and well rid of us both, but we tumbled up against a root and scrambled out, and when I'd rested, I picked up limp and trembling Master Bear and went back for my hides. And while I was collecting them, I heard a sort of grumpy, grumbling sound, and I looked up—and, by Jove, Mother Bear was coming across that log with the longest steps you ever saw. That's when I ran to collect my gun—it was a little farther up the bank than my hides, worse luck!"
Even Bella had forgotten her bitterness in listening, and Pete's parted lips were those of an excited child. Sylvie leaned forward in her chair, her cheeks tingling, her hands locked. Hugh had thrown himself into the action of his story; his face was slightly contorted as though sighting along a gun-barrel, his arm raised, the ungainliness of his deformity strongly accentuated. He was not looking at Sylvie; true to his nature and his habit, he had forgotten every one but that Hugh of adventure and of romance, the one companion of his soul. None of them was watching Sylvie, and when she gave a sharp, little cry, a queer start and then sat utterly still, Hugh accepted it—they all accepted it—as a tribute to his story-telling powers.
But Sylvie, leaning her elbows on her knees, raised trembling hands to her eyes and hid them. She sat very still, very white, while the story went on, vividly imagined, picturesquely told. When it was over, and the mother bear, after a worthy struggle, defeated, Hugh looked about for his applause. It came, grudgingly from Bella, eagerly from Pete—and from Sylvie in a sudden extravagant clapping of hands, a ripple of high, excited laughter, and a collapse in her chair. She had fainted in a limp little heap.
She came to in an instant, but seemed bewildered and, unprotesting, permitted herself to be carried to bed. She declared she felt quite well again and wanted only to be alone. She repeated this moaningly. "Oh, to be alone!"
Hugh seated himself on the end of the bed and kissed her forehead and her hand, but it quivered under his lips and was drawn away.
He came back into the living-room with a pale, bewildered face.
Next day there came out of that room a new Sylvie or rather a dozen new Sylvies: a flighty witch of a Sylvie who tempted her blindness with rash ventures about the rooms and even out of doors, who laughed at Hugh and led him on, and drew him out to his maddest improvisations, who treated Pete to snubs and tauntings that stung like so many little whips; and again a Sylvie who was still and timid and a trifle furtive, who rarely spoke, but sat with locked hands in an attitude of desperate concentration and seemed to be planning something secret and dangerous; and then there was a haughty, touch-me-not Sylvie; and a Sylvie who mysteriously wept. But all of these Sylvies showed an impetuous, new tenderness toward Bella.
"I've been all wrong about you, Bella," she confessed. "I know you're not really old and ugly and cross at all. Let me touch your face." Bella, awkward and flushed, had no choice but to submit to the flick of the light, young fingers. "I'm learning the touch of the blind," Sylvie boasted. "Now, listen—isn't this right? You have thick, straight eyebrows and deep-set eyes; are they blue or brown, Bella, or bright gray?"
"They're gray," said Pete.
Hugh was watching from eyes sunk in a nervous, pallid face. He had come in from his traps in the midst of Sylvie's experiment.
"And she has a nice, straight, strong, short nose, and a mouth that she holds too tight. Loosen your mouth, Bella; it might be very sweet if you gave it a chance. And she has a sharp chin—not pretty, your chin, but—look! If you'd soften your hair, pull it over your ears and forehead—Why do you brush it back that way? It must be unbecoming. And, Bella, it's curly, or would be with a little freedom. What color is your hair?"
"Gray—like my eyes," said Bella, scarlet now, and trying to draw herself away.
"Is it really gray, Pete? Tell me the truth, if you can."
"Her hair is a very light brown," said Pete, flushed as scarlet now as Bella; "sort of a grayish brown; you wouldn't notice any gray hairs, hardly."
"Bella, I'm sure you don't look a day older than thirty-five. Your skin feels smooth and young. Why do you let Hugh call you an old woman? Poor Bella, I'm afraid you've spoiled those two boys?"
Sylvie turned suddenly and imperiously upon the men, and Bella made her escape, not from the room, for she was too stirred, too full of an excited suspense, to bring herself to leave. From a far corner, near the window through which came the soft May wind, she watched them.
"Now, Pete," said Sylvie, "it's your turn. If I'm to learn the touch of the blind, I must have practice. What can I make of you! Come here. Why don't you come?" She stamped her foot. "My, but you are badly trained. Really, Hugh, you ought to discipline him. Wait until I am your sister-in-law."
Hugh started angrily. "Don't joke about that!" he threatened in a harsh, sudden voice.
She turned toward him with quickness and bent her head sidelong as though listening intently for what else he might have to say. Her lips were set close and narrow. She had listened to him like this, almost breathlessly, ever since her sudden faintness, listened as though she would draw his very soul in through her ears.
He too flushed. "It's life and death to me, Sylvie," he pleaded.
"Life and death—life or death," she repeated strangely. She stood, as if turning the speech over in her mind, then gave her head a quick little shake like a diver coming to the surface of deep water, and moved a step toward Pete. "Are you coming, boy, or not? I want to feel your face."
"Do as she says," Hugh commanded harshly, and Pete came slowly to her and stood with his hands locked behind him, bending over the little figure. She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a shake, and smiled.
"Such a big, strong boy! Where's your face?" It winced and paled under her touch. His eyes fell, shifted, could not meet Hugh's, who watched with unsteady breathing and white lips.
"Your face is as smooth as a girl's, Pete. What a wide, low forehead and crisp, short hair; it ripples back from your temples. You must be a pretty boy! A neat nose and a round, hard chin and—oh, Pete, Pete! I believe you have a dimple. How absurd! A great, long dimple like a slit in your right cheek. Why do you blink your eyes so? They're long eyes, with thick, short lashes. What a strong, round neck! I think I like your face."
She patted his cheek, the pat more like a smart slap. He pulled away. "That's for disobedience. Come back. I'm not through with you. Where's your mouth? A big, long mouth. Pete, why does your mouth tremble?" Her hand fell from his lips, and she turned away. "Take me out for a walk, Hugh, please," she said. "This cabin is stuffy, now that the days are warm. I want to sit under the pines and listen to the river. You can tell me one of your wonderful stories about yourself."
"What does it mean, Bella?" Pete asked breathlessly when Hugh had gone out, not so much leading the girl as hurrying after her to save her from the rashness of her impetuous progress. "What does it mean?" Pete was as white as paper.
"I don't know." Bella came over from the window and stood by the fireplace, rolling her arms in her apron and shaking her head. "She's a crazy little witch. She'll drive us mad. Hugh is half mad now—have you noticed? She won't let him touch her. And you, poor boy! Pete, why don't you go away?"
"I've thought about it," he said. "I—I can't." He flung himself down in Hugh's chair and rested his head in his hands.
Bella bent over him. "Poor Pete! It's cruel for you—and," she added softly, uncertainly, "and for me."
"For you too, Bella?" He looked up at her through tears.
She nodded her head, and her face worked. "Perhaps you could take her back to her friends, Pete?"
"And leave Hugh? Didn't you hear what he said, Bella? Life and death! It would kill him if she should go away with me. Or—he'd follow and kill me."
"Yes," Bella assented somberly; "yes, he'd kill you. The devil is still living in his heart."
"No. Sylvie will marry him. Hugh gets his will." Pete shook his head. "Wait a few days—you'll see. She's fighting against him now; I don't know why—some instinct. But though he tells her so many lies, he doesn't lie about one thing. He loves her. He does love her."
"No! No!" Bella's passion, tearing its way through her long habit of repression, was almost terrifying. "He loves the image she has of him. If he knew that she could see him as I do, his love would shrivel up like a flower in a drought. Hugh can't love the truth. He can't love anything but his delusions. Pete, tell her the truth. For God's sake, tell her the truth. Give her back her eyesight. Let her know his name, his story—his face!"
"Don't dare ask me, Bella!"
"Why not?" She seemed to be out of breath, like a person who has been climbing in thin air. Her lips were dry.
"Because—well, would you do it yourself?"
"Ah! He would hate me, if I did. But you, Pete, when Sylvie loved you—and if she knew you, she would surely love you; any woman would—why, then you could bear Hugh's hatred. I have only him—only him."
She locked her hands and lifted them to her forehead and was now making blind steps toward the kitchen door.
Pete followed her, and turning her about, drew down the hands from her face.
"Bella—you? Without saying a word? All these years?"
Under the first pressure of sympathy that her agony had ever known, she could not speak. She bent her head for an instant against his arm, then moved away from him, groping through the kitchen door, back to her unutterable loneliness.
Pete stood staring after her. A new Bella, this, not the cousin, the little cousin from the farm; not the nurse who had saved him from Hugh's hardness and told him limping fairy tales and doctored his hurts; not the accepted necessity, but a woman—a woman young, yes, young. In the instant when he had glimpsed her face, broken and quivering, the tight lips parted and the hair disarranged about flushed, quivering cheeks, the eyes deep with widened pupils, she had revealed beauty and passion—the two halves of youth. How blind, how blind Hugh had been, blind and selfish and greedy, drinking up the woman's heart, feeding upon her youth!
"When you sit so silent, Pete," Sylvie said softly, "I sometimes wonder if you're not staring at me."
"When I'm making a trap," he answered, smiling a little to himself and instinctively shifting his gaze, "I can't very well be staring at you, can I?"
He was kneeling on the ground before the cabin door, she sitting on the low step under the shadow of the roof. Her chin rested on the backs of her hands, the limber wrists bent up a little, the sleeves slipped away from her slim, white wrists. Her face was brightly rosy, her lips very red—at once a little stern, yet very sweet.
"Traps are cruel," she said.
"I think so myself. But we have to make a living, don't we?"
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself sometimes, Pete?"
"For making traps, and catching live things in them?"
"Yes. It's a sort of deceitful cruelty, catching the little blind, wandering wild things."
"Blind?" he repeated blankly, then flushed.
"Yes, blind. But it wasn't only that I meant."
"What else ought I to be ashamed of?"
"Of living on your brother." He winced sharply, but she went on coolly: "Of staying here in the wilderness. You are a big boy now. Many a boy of your age, even smaller and weaker, has gone out in the world to make his own way. There's no reason for you to hide, is there? You haven't sacrificed your life for anyone."
"No," he answered doubtfully, "n-no; but, you see, Sylvie, some one has to take the skins. It isn't safe for Hugh."
"Yes, of course. So that's what you'll do all your life—carry loads to and fro, between this cabin and the trading-station. But if Hugh goes away himself?"
"Yes?" he asked breathlessly.
His skillful hands paused in their fashioning of a snare.
"You know, of course, that he wants to take me away with him, to marry me, to start life again."
"And—and you will, Sylvie?"
"Give me your advice," she said. She pressed her red lips together; her face was bent upon him as though she watched.
"But," he stammered, "you tell me all the time, a dozen times a day, that I'm badly trained. What good's my advice?"
"Are you badly trained?"
"I suppose so."
"You are absurdly unselfish, Pete!" She moved a chip along the ground with her foot, but Pete failed to notice this curious seeing gesture.
"Why? What do you mean?"
She waited, waited until, in the sickness of his vague suspense, his hands had turned cold and the color had sucked itself in irregular heartbeats from his lips.
At last she spoke deliberately. "You would lay down your life for your friend?" she said. It was almost a whisper.
Pete's face went red and white and red again. Through the tumult of his heart he searched for loyal words.
"I love Hugh—if that's what you mean," he said.
"I love you?" she repeated softly, perversely. "Did you say 'Hugh' or 'you,' Pete?"
His face tightened; faint lines came about his mouth. "I said 'Hugh!'"
"Ah—you love only him—nobody else in all the world?"
Her young and wistful voice came to him like a fragrance. He struggled as though his spirit were fighting in deep water. He tried to remember Hugh. He rose up slowly to meet this passionate moment, and now he made a short step toward the waiting girl. She was waiting, breathing fast. Pete's arms quivered at his sides.
A hand gripped the quivering muscles and turned him about. Hugh had come up behind, without sound, on moccasined feet. His face was gray; his eyes were drawn into slits; his distorted mouth was trying to become a straight, hard line. The effort gave a twitch to the pale, lower lip.
Sylvie stood up, singing as though in absent-minded idleness, and vanished into the house. It would have been difficult to tell whether or not she had heard Hugh's arrival.
"What's the matter?" Pete stammered like a boy wakened from a dream to behold a lifted cane. "Let go my arm, Hugh. Your fingers cut."
"Come away from the house," said Hugh coldly, tightening the iron grip as though Pete's wincing gave him satisfaction. "Come up here by the pines. I want to talk to you."
"I'll come," said Pete. "Let go my arm."
There was that in his voice that compelled obedience. Hugh's hand fell and knotted into a fist. Pete walked beside him up the abrupt slope of their hollow to the little hill above the river. Its noise was loud in the still, sunny air. There was no wind stirring. It was high noon. A sloping tent of shadow drooped from the pines and made a dark circle about their roots. In this transparent, purplish tent the brothers faced each other. Pete's lips were tremulous, and Hugh's distorted.
"Now," said Hugh, breathing irregularly and speaking very low, "I'll tell you what I think of you."
"No, Hugh, don't," Pete pleaded. "You'll say things you don't mean—unkind things, terrible things. I don't deserve it from you. You—you think that I—that I—"
"Go on. Don't stop. Tell me what I think—I think—that you—that you—"
It was an unbearable moment, an impossible atmosphere, for the revelation of a first love. Pete felt stripped and shamed.
"You think that I was telling Sylvie, that Sylvie—that I—"
Hugh lifted his hand and struck. The younger man sprang back, then forward, and was at his elder's throat. For an instant they struggled, silently, terribly, slipping on the red pine-needles. Then Pete gave a hard laugh. "Are we tigers?" he asked, and he pulled himself back and leaned, shaking, against a tree-trunk, gripping it with his hands. His blue eyes were cold and blazing in his white face, against which Hugh's blow had made a mark. "You won't strike me again," Pete said. All boyishness was gone from his hard, level voice. "Go on. Say what you like. I'll listen."
"You liar!" stormed Hugh. "You cheat!"
Pete laughed again.
A certain quality in his bitter self-control flicked Hugh. He tried to emulate the young man's coolness.
"I've trusted you," he began again; "and behind my back you have been trying to win the love of the woman who has promised to be my wife."
"I have not."
"You were not making love to her there, then, when I came up behind you? When you were so excited that you didn't hear me? when you were moving toward her—trembling all over? I felt your arm!"
Pete's eyes dropped, then lifted as though under a great weight.
"And you say you're not a liar!"
"I am a liar, though not in the way you mean. We are all liars. We have caught that little blind girl in a trap. We have lied to her, all three of us—Bella and I, and you, Hugh—you have lied most of all."
"She loves me," Hugh panted. "She knows me. She understands me."
"Yes," Pete answered, trembling. "I've seen that. I've kept quiet. Bella and I have given you your happiness. Now you thank me by striking me and calling me a liar and a cheat!"
Hugh, even in the midst of his bitter and suspicious rage, felt the justice of the reproach. He paused, looked about, then came close, put a hand on each of his brother's shoulders, searching the white, young face with his wild eyes.
"I must have Sylvie," he groaned. "Pete, I must. You don't know; you can't know—" He dropped his grizzled head against Pete's neck, and his breath caught. "You don't know what I felt when I saw you there, when I thought—Tell me the truth, Pete. You are not going to take my love, my only joy, my one prize away from me?"
After a long and difficult silence Pete put his arm half mechanically across the twisted, gasping back.
"Of course not, Hugh. I—I couldn't. But I've had to play a part, and it's not come easy. You must have guessed how hard it's been, because you seem to have guessed how I—how Sylvie—Perhaps if I went away?"
He was gripped again, shaken a little. "No, don't leave me. Wait. It won't be long. She will go away with me soon, as soon as she gets over a girl's timidity. Pete, she does love me. She does. Don't stand dumb; tell me that she does."
"She does," Pete repeated tonelessly.
"I'm sorry I struck you. I have a devil's temper. And I think of you as still a boy. I wanted to beat you. A few years ago I would have beaten you." He put this forward as though it were a reasonable excuse.
"Yes." Pete smiled grimly. "I can remember your beatings." He drew himself away. "Shall we go back?"
Hugh still held him, though at arm's length. "First I must have a promise from you." He spoke sternly.
"What do you want?"
"I want your promise to keep hands off, to hold your tongue to the end."
"You won't trust me, then?"
"Not since I watched you moving toward her, not since I felt your arm."
Pete was silent. He studied the ground. There was a sullen look on his face, and his tightened mouth deepened the odd, incongruous dimple.
"Well, perhaps you're right. I promise." He flashed up a blue desperation of young eyes as he asked: "How long will it last, Hugh?"
"Not long. Not long. Surely not long."
"Give me your hand."
They came back down from the hill.
Pete looked forward with white-hot impatience to the day of his trip to the trading-station; twelve hours of relief, it would mean, from the worst pressure of his torment—twelve hours of merciful solitude in the old, voiceful friendliness of his forest trail. He started early, at the break of a sweet, singing dawn. The earth was elastic under his feet, the air tingling and mellow with a taste of growth; the flooded river chattered loudly like a creature half beside itself with joy. Pete came out of the dark and silent cabin in which he had made his tiptoe preparations, and lifted his face, letting the light, soft fingers of the wind, cooler and softer even than Sylvie's, smooth out the knots of suffering from his tired brain. He shook his shoulders before settling them under the load of pelts. He would, he swore, just for this day, be a boy again. He sprang lightly up from the hollow and strode forward with long, swift steps, swinging a companionable stick in his free hand.
Loneliness and the dawn and love had made a poet of the young man, so that he had the release of poetry and forgot reality in its translation into a tale that is told. He thought of Sylvie, but he thought of her as a man thinks of a lovely memory. He went through the wood with his chin lifted, half smiling, almost happy, an integral part of the wild, glad, wistful spring.
It was not until the afternoon when he was nearing the station—just, in fact, before he left the wood-trail for the rutted, frontier road—that his mind was caught as sharply as a cloth by a needle, by the light sound of following steps. In the solitude of that trail which his feet alone had worn, the sound brought him to a stop with a sense of terror and suspense. His mind leaped to Hugh, and for the first time in his loyal life Pete remembered, and remembering, felt a creeping on his skin, that this brother of his, who had grown harsh and jealous and suspicious, had been a murderer. The cold, unkindly memory slid along his senses like a snake. On the edge of the sloping road-bank, studded with little yellow flowers, just where the trees stopped, Pete set down his load and waited, instinctively bracing his body, drawing it back beneath the shelter of one of the big pines.
The steps were light and swift and stealthy. In the purplish confusion of the distance, a tangled and yet ordered regiment of trunks and boughs, sun-splotches and shadow-blots, through which the uncertain trail seemed to rise like a slender thread of smoke to the pale, flecked sky, Pete made out a moving shape. It slipped in and out; it hesitated, hurried, paused, moved on. With a shudder of relief and of surprise, Pete saw it; out from behind the great, close trunks came Sylvie, her chin lifted, her hands stretched out on either side, brushing the swinging branches along the trail, her small head turning from this side to that, as though she listened in suspense.
Pete called out her name and ran quickly to meet her. Forgetting his part of a dull, sullen boy, he spoke eagerly, catching her hand, watching the warm, happy blush flow in her cheeks.
"Where were you?" she asked. She had stood to wait for him as soon as his voice reached her. "I couldn't see—I mean, I lost the sound of your steps. I've been following you for hours and hours and hours. I was so afraid of being lost again that I didn't dare drop too far behind."
"But why didn't you call to me? Why have you come? Is anything wrong at home?"
Her fingers moved uncertainly in his grasp, like the fingers of a shy child. "Nothing is wrong. I wanted to come with you. I wanted to go to the trading-station and the post-office. I didn't dare ask you to take me with you. I was afraid you'd send me home. I suppose I'll be a nuisance, but—Oh, Pete, please be nice to me and take care of me, won't you?" She paused, turned her face away from him and smiled. "After all, since you have called me your wife before witnesses, you ought to introduce me to your friends at the trading-station, oughtn't you? They might think it was queer that I should hide myself, now that the snow has gone."
He dropped her hand. Suddenly he realized the consequences, the necessary effect upon Hugh of this willful venture of hers.
"Does Hugh know where you are?" he asked painfully.
"No. I ran away. I heard you getting ready, and I just felt that I couldn't bear to be left behind. I slipped out of bed so quietly that Bella didn't even stir, and I dressed just as quietly, and when you had gone half across the clearing, I ran out after you, listening to your steps. You see, I have the hearing, as well as the touch, of the blind." This was said with a cunning sort of recklessness; but Pete, absorbed in his anxiety, did not challenge the improbable statement. "Please don't be angry with me, Pete." She touched his hand where it hung at his side. "Can't I have my adventure? Let's call it ours."
In spite of himself, the young man's pulse quickened, but his face and voice were stern.
"Do you know that we'll be very late?" he said. "It will be midnight before we can possibly make it back to the cabin, if you can even do it at all. You'll have to spend the night somewhere at the station. What will they think? They will be anxious, Bella and Hugh."
"But what can they think?" Her cheeks were unexplainably scarlet. "If I choose to trust you to take care of me, why should they grumble? And I won't have to spend the night. You don't know how strong I am. I'm very strong. I don't feel tired. We'll go back by moonlight. There's a beautiful moon."
"It will be almost morning." He made a reckless gesture. "Well, it's too late to think of that now. Come on."
He threw himself down the bank, held up his hands to catch hers, and swung her down beside him. The sun slanted warmly along the road and just ahead flickered the blue ripples of a lake.
Sylvie moved quickly and easily beside him, barely touching his arm with her hand. She seemed definitely to decide to put away her childishness. She treated him as though she had forgotten his supposed youth; she talked straightforwardly, with a certain dignity, about her childhood, about her amusing and pitiful experience as a third-rate little actress, and she asked him a question now and then half diffidently, which he answered in stumbling, careful speech, always weighed upon by his promise, by the deception he must practice, by the dread of what must come. Nevertheless, minute by minute, his pulse quickened. This, God be thanked, would mean the end. The insufferable knot of circumstance, so fantastic, so extravagantly unlivable and unreal, would break, Hugh would tear the tangle of his making to tatters with angry hands when they got back. His difficult trust in Pete's promise would go down under the strain of these long and unexplained hours of Sylvie's absence in his company. It was the last act in the extravaganza, queer and painful, that had twisted them all out of their real shapes for the confusion of a blind waif. This adventure that Sylvie's impatience had planned would bring down the curtain. After all, no matter what came of it, Pete was glad. The color warmed his face; his blue eyes deepened; he smiled down at Sylvie beside him. For this hour she seemed to belong to him rightfully, naturally, by her own will. He let go of his inhibitions and resigned himself to Fate.
When, on the far shore of the lake, the low walls of the trading-station came in sight, a double image, reflected faithfully with the strip of sand at its door, the low, level wall of pines behind and the blue, still sky above, Pete caught the girl's hand in his.
"Here we are, Sylvie," he said. "Keep quiet and follow my lead. Remember, now, that I am supposed to be your husband and you my wife. Can you play that part?"
She nodded, bending down her face so that he saw only the tip of her small, sunburnt chin. She was hatless; the sun struck blue, bright lines in her black hair.
"I'll be careful, Pete."
She pressed his hand, and he returned the pressure.
The station was full of silent curiosity; a couple of squaws, a serious buck Indian, and a bearded trapper or two made little secret of their observation. In the far corner of the big, bare room, down one side of which ran a long and littered counter, there was another, even more interested spectator of the young couple's entrance. He sat at a small table under one of the high, unshaded windows, and from over a spread-out time-table he gave them a large and heavy share of his attention. He was a man of middle age and sturdy build, round, clean-shaven, dressed in Eastern outing clothes of dignified correctness. He put on a pair of glasses to peer closer at the two who came in hand in hand like adventuring children, with the lithe, half-fearful grace of wild things.
A tall and sallow man behind the counter smiled under his long, ragged, blond mustache and made a gesture of polite greeting.
"Well, you've sure kept us in the dark as to your movements, Peter Garth. We had no notion there was a bride in these parts until the sheriff brought us back word the other day. Ma'am, I'm glad to make your acquaintance." He glanced keenly and curiously at Sylvie's averted face.
"I'd have been here before," she said, "but I've been suffering from snow-blindness."
"Ah, that's bad sometimes. Your eyes are better now?"
"Y-yes, I think so."
"I can give you a first-class lotion, lady."
Sylvie and he discussed the lotion while Pete stood, drawn up, proud and silent, his cheeks flushed, waiting to dispose of his pelts. The bartering prolonged itself in spite of his best endeavors. Sylvie seemed to have no sense of peril or anxiety. She insisted upon taking a bite of early supper, forced coffee and bread and meat upon her companion, and chatted affably. Pete saw that the Eastern stranger had riveted upon her his attention, that he observed every gesture, listened to every word, and while she ate, that he walked over and asked a few murmured questions of the trader, nodding his head, then shaking it over the answers as though they confirmed some suspicion or anxiety.
At last Pete could bear the delay no longer. Gruffly he bade Sylvie come with him. He caught her hand and led her out, she looking back over her shoulder like a loath child. They had gone but a few yards along the beach trail when the sober, solid gentleman came out across the porch and waved his hand to them. Pete hastened his steps without replying. Then came a summons in a loud, full, authoritative voice: "Hi, there! One moment, please."
It was already evening; the lake was ruffled rosily under a sunset light. Pete stopped and turned. He waited, pale, tightlipped, and formidable; Sylvie moved a little closer to him. This mysterious summons gave her a first little spasm of distrust and fear. The man's square body and square, serious face bore down upon them, freighted with incongruous judgments. He came sturdily, defying the unspoken threat of loneliness.
He spoke when he came up to them—spoke with evident effort.
"My friends," he said, "I am a minister of the gospel, and though my mission in this wilderness does not rightly include you in its ministrations, still, my conscience, the commands of my Master, will not allow me to neglect so obvious and urgent a call for spiritual aid."
He cleared his throat. "Your name I didn't catch," he said doubtfully, and Pete did not supply the knowledge, "but I heard you introduce this young woman as your wife. I watched her very closely; I watched you, too, sir; I took the liberty of making some inquiries about you. I have had much and varied experience in the study of human nature." Here he put out a broad, clean hand with square finger-tips and lifted Sylvie's brown, unwilling left hand high from her side. "I am a minister of the gospel," he repeated. "In a land where such a symbol is thought much of, this woman has no wedding-ring. There is no register of your marriage here in the one spot where such a registration might have been most conveniently made—"
Sylvie jerked away her fingers; Pete laid down his load and slowly drew his right hand into a terrible fist.
"No, no!" The square-tipped fingers were lifted deprecatingly. "You must not be angry with me, my children. I am not here to judge you. I have no knowledge of your temptation, of your difficulties; you have met and loved in a wild and difficult land. I was not even sure of my surmise. Now, however; your silence and your anger confirm my opinion. I want only to offer you my services. Will you continue in your life and love as I have seen them to be, or will you, if only for the sake of other lives not yet your responsibility—perhaps, will you take advantage of this opportunity which God has now given you and let me make you indeed man and wife?"
Pete's fist was still terrible, and his lips were gathering their words, when Sylvie unbelievably spoke.
"Pete," she asked tremulously, and he felt her drawing even closer to his side, "Pete, don't you want—you do want—I know—I mean, will you, would you—marry me?"
He was dumb as a rock, and gray. His hand opened; he stared from her to the impossible intruder, the worker of the miracle, or rather for he felt like a beast trapped, the strange layer of the snare. For an instant the lake and the forest and the red sky turned in a great wheel before his eyes. Then he caught Sylvie's wrist almost brutally in his hand. "Be quiet!" he said; it was the savage speaking to his woman. "You've gone mad. Come with me. As for you, sir, my marrying or not marrying is none of your business—"
The minister looked sadly up into the young man's white and rigid face.
"God be with you!"
He bowed, turned and walked back along the beach, hands locked behind his broad tweed back, his head bent.
Pete tightened his grip on Sylvie's arm. "Come," he said to her as harshly as before. "We must hurry. It's nearly night."
Sylvie set her small teeth tight, bent down her head, and followed him without a word. Their silence seemed to grow into a pressure, a weight. It bent Pete's shoulders and Sylvie's slender neck, and whitened their lips. All that they did not dare to say aloud bulked itself, huge and thunderous, before the combined consciousness which makes a strange third companion in such dual silences. They dared not pause, or look at each other, or move their strained lips for fear truth, the desperate, treacherous truth, would leap out and link them like a lightning-flash. The somber forest enveloped them. They moved through it as through a deep wall that opened by enchantment. The moon came up, gibbous and white and glittering, paler than silver; and the forest became streaked and mottled with its light. A soft, sudden wind tore the light and shade into eerie, dancing ribbons and tatters and shreds. There were such sounds as are not heard in daylight—moon sounds and cloud sounds and sounds of dark wind; branches talked and other small voices answered in anxious undertones. A moose rubbed his antlers and coughed. They heard his big body hulking through a swamp down there in a well of darkness.
"I can't go so fast." Sylvie's shaken voice moved doubtfully. "I'm tired."
She pulled at his arm and stopped. The whole forest seemed to sway and stir and urge them to haste and secrecy.
"A storm's coming," Pete answered. "I can't carry you, Sylvie, unless I leave my load."
"Do you think I'd let you carry me?" she answered through her set teeth. "I'd rather die here than let you lift me up in your arms. I'll go on till I drop. I don't care for the storm. But I can't walk so fast. How can you see? The moon isn't—can't be, I mean—very, very bright here in the woods."
"The moon? There's a big storm-cloud just going to wipe it out. Listen! Don't you hear that thunder, that wind?"
The storm blew its distant trumpets, shouted louder, trampled the world with great steps, crashed and came upon them with a wet, cold blast. They were stunned with noise, dazzled with flashes, smothered and beaten with long, wet whips. Under a big rocking pine which shouted with a hundred confused tongues they found a dangerous shelter. Not far from them a tree was struck, splitting their ears, half stunning them. When the worst was over, Pete drew Sylvie out relentlessly and started in the heavily falling rain. The storm was drawing away, but the night was still impenetrably black. They walked for a few groping yards when Pete gave a sudden desperate laugh and stopped.
"What's the good of this! We're off the trail. We'll have to wait for the light. My God! How cold and wet and trembling you are." He threw down his pack, took off his coat, wet only on the outside, and wrapped it closely about her. She felt that he parted branches for her, and she knew that they were in a dry, still, scented place whose walls stirred and breathed. She sank down beside him on the smooth pine-needles and crept close. They were giddy, beaten and confused; they felt each other's trembling warmth; for greater comfort she tucked her hands under his arm. Her head dropped back against his shoulder so that her breath fell on his cheek. He felt the silent tears of her humiliation, hot and bitter and human after the cold, impersonal wetness of rain. It was as though a hand drew them together in the darkness; they moved numbly at the same instant, by the same impulse; then with a sort of convulsion they were in each other's arms. Cold, wet, tremulous, their lips met. The night became the beating of a heart.
Hugh sat in his great carved chair, his hands laid out across the bulky arms, his head bent forward a little so that his eyes encompassed all the restless beauty of the fire. After nightfall, when the wind began to shake the cabin, he had built up the fire, and its light now fought ruddily against the whiteness of the moon. Hugh had not lighted his lamp, nor let Bella light it, but he told her to make some strong coffee and keep it hot on the stove. "When Sylvie comes in," he had said, "she'll be exhausted. We'll give her a hot drink and send her to bed, eh, Bella! The foolish child!" This had been said softly, but with a wild, half-vacant look which Bella could not meet.
It was her belief that Pete and Sylvie had gone, not to return that night or any other night. In a desperate, still fashion she guarded this flaming conviction, peering up from long contemplations of it to learn whether there flickered any light of torment on Hugh's face. But all day, after the queer blankness of face and eyes with which he had first received her news of Sylvie's disappearance, he had been alternately gay and tranquil. All morning he had mended his boat, and in the afternoon he had cleaned his gun; and whenever he could cajole Bella into being his audience, he had talked. His talk was all of Sylvie, of her pretty childishness, her sweet, wayward ways, of her shyness, her timidity; and later, when supper was cleared away and he had throned himself in the center of that familiar circle of firelight, he had dropped his beautiful voice to a lower key and had boasted of Sylvie's love for him.
Bella sat on a big log sawed to the height of a low stool. She sat with her face bent down between her hands as though she were saving her eyes from the fire, but those bright, devoted eyes never left Hugh's face, though sometimes they made of it but a blurred image set in the broken crystals of her tears.
Thus, together, they heard the first rumble of the storm and saw the white squares of moonlight wiped from the floor as with a dark cloth. Next, the windows seemed to jump at them and jump away. "Lightning!" said Hugh. "She'll be afraid! Will Pete be able to comfort her? Will he, Bella?" Then, because she took courage to look into his face, she saw that his heart had been burnt all day, but that his faith, stronger than his fear, had kept the flame smothered, almost below his consciousness.
While the storm raged across their roof, beat a brutal tattoo close above their deafened heads, pushed at the door, drove a pool of water under the threshold, Hugh walked up and down, to and fro, from fire to window, from door to wall, but not fast, rather with a sort of stateliness. Sometimes he looked sidelong at Bella's expressionless, listening face. At last he forced himself back to the chair and sat there, mechanically polishing the barrel of his gun, but his tongue still spoke the saga of illusion. It stopped when the storm dropped into the bottomless silence of dawn. Then there was only the dripping from their eaves. Hugh sat there, very white, his gun laid across his lap. Bella, as white, lifted her face.
"They're coming," she whispered, and got stiffly to her feet.
Hugh moved back into his chair, turning sidewise and gathering himself as though for a spring. His nervous hands clutched at his gun. Upon the silence the door opened, and Pete and Sylvie came into the room. Wet and storm-beaten and beautiful they were, with scarlet cheeks.
Pete came quickly over to Hugh's chair; he let fall his pack and gazed resolutely down at his brother's face.
"Sylvie had a fancy to come with me to the trading-station," he said. "She came out after me and didn't overtake me until just where the trail comes out into the road. We hurried back, but the storm caught us. It was pitch-black in the woods; we couldn't keep the trail. We had to wait for daylight. I hope you weren't too anxious about her, Hugh.—Bella"—he glanced over his shoulder—"could you make us some hot coffee and help Sylvie into some dry clothes? We are properly drenched, both of us."
This speaker of terse, authoritative sentences was not the boy that had gone out that morning. That boy was gone forever.
Hugh stood up and looked slowly from Sylvie, who had stayed near the door and held her head up like a queen, to Pete.
"Where were you," he asked gently—"where were you while it stormed?"
Pete moved toward the fire, holding out his hands. "Ugh!" he shivered, "I'm numb with cold."
"Where were you," Hugh repeated, "during the storm?"
Pete lifted his eyes slowly. They were bluer than the blue heart of a sapphire. "Under a pine-tree," he answered casually enough, and then, just as Hugh would have smiled, the color creeping up into his lips, Pete's young and honest blood poured over his forehead, engulfing him, blazing the truth across his face. Bella saw it and clenched her hands. Sylvie's cheeks, too, caught fire. Hugh turned from him, blinded by terror, saw Sylvie's trembling mouth in her dyed countenance, and turned back. He lifted the hand that had held, all this while, to the chair, and balled it into a fist.
"Don't strike him," said Sylvie quietly, not moving from her place by the door. "Don't ever strike him again—Ham Rutherford!"
Hugh's bones seemed to crumble; his knees bent; he leaned back against the chair, holding to it behind him with both hands. The gun clattered to the floor. In the silence Sylvie walked across the room and lifted her face. As if for the first time they saw her eyes, black and brilliant and young, sharpening the softness of her features. She looked at Hugh mercilessly, pitilessly.
"I've been able to see you for a long time now, Ham Rutherford," she said. "And the instant I first saw you, I knew your name. Ever since the night you told me that story about the river, I've been watching you. You are a great and infamous liar! Yes, I know that you once killed a man for telling you that. Kill me if you like, for I am going to repeat it after him—a liar, hideous and deformed outside and in. I have no pity for a liar. Not even your physical misfortune shall shield you! You have made too great a mockery of it. You brought me here, blind, as helpless as one of the things you catch in your traps, and you played the hero with me. And you fed me with lies and lies and lies. I've eaten and drunk them until I'm sick. Now stand up and look at the truth. You are to eat that until you are sick.—No, Bella; no, Pete; I'm going to speak; no one can stop me. I know you love him. How you can look at him and see him as he is and know what he has done and still love him, I can't understand. Now, Hugh Garth—the name you tried to make me love you by—I'll tell these people that love you, some of the beautiful fables with which you tried to win my love. Maybe, then, they will begin to see you as you are. Here is the first: 'There was once a very noble youth who had a friend—'"
"Don't!" Hugh groaned pitifully, his head bent before her.
"Perhaps I won't; after all, it's not interesting unless you're fool enough, or blind enough, to be tricked into fancying it's the truth. But let me tell them some of the other things. This noble youth, this man sacrificed his life for his friend and bore the blame of that friend's guilt. He is as handsome as a Viking, the very ideal of a girl's imagination, strong and shapely and graceful. Has he a humped shoulder and a lame leg and a scarred face revealing his scarred soul? Answer me."
Hugh flinched as though under a lash.
Pete put out his hand uncertainly; his face was drawn with pain. "Sylvie—stop. You must stop. You're too cruel. He did lie to you, but remember, that was because he—"
The brilliant black eyes flashed back at him.
"Because he loved me, you were going to say? When you love a woman, do you try to ruin her life? Do you creep up in the dark under cover of her blindness and touch her with some dreadful, poisonous wound? You don't know my horror of that man, Pete. Oh, he kissed—kissed me!" She shivered. "A murderer! Yes, a murderer. Oh, Ham Rutherford, if I could only make you see yourself! If I could give you my eyes when they opened, and I saw Pete's beauty and Bella's sweetness and the horrible ugliness of you! And then, day by day—you see, I was afraid to let you know that I had seen you. I was in terror of you, of what you might do to me. I was afraid of you all; you had all deceived me. Day by day I learned the utter distortion of you, mind, body, and soul. How could I help but—but—" She faltered and half turned to Pete, holding out her hands. Her indignation at the treachery practiced upon her, an anger that had grown in silence to unbearable heat, had spent itself in words. She was all for consolation now—for sympathy. But Pete stepped back from her. He was looking at Hugh, and his clear, young face was an open wound.
Hugh pushed himself up and slowly lifted his face. It was then that he saw Sylvie's hands stretched out to Pete. He started—no one knew what the convulsive movement meant; but as he started—the gun tripped him. He caught it up carelessly, blindly. There was a flash—a crash. Pete leaped and bent, holding his arm. Blood spurted between his fingers, soaking his wet sleeve; and Sylvie, crying aloud, wrapped him in trembling, protective arms.
"I'm not much hurt," he said half dazedly. "It—it was an accident. He didn't mean it. I was looking at him. The gun went off. He didn't shoot at me.... Hugh!"
The man was staring straight ahead of him, and now he drew his hand across his eyes, the fingers crooked as though they tore a veil.
"Now," he said, "I do see myself just as I am. Yes, I did shoot at you. Yes, I think I meant to kill you. I must have meant to kill you. That's the truth. For the second time I'm a murderer. Yet now, as God lives, even if I am down in the dust, I'll lay hold of my stars. I'm going to walk out of your lives so that they can shape themselves to their own good ends. Sylvie can shape yours with you, Pete." He hesitated a moment. "If a coward, a murderer, can say 'God bless you,' take that blessing!"
He picked up his gun and shuffled across the floor, flinching aside from Bella as though he could bear no further touch or word, and went out of the door, letting in the brightness of the sunrise.
Pete had sunk into a chair, faint from the shock and weakness of his wound; and Sylvie bent over him. For a minute, in great and bitter loneliness Bella stood and watched them; then she followed Hugh.
He had put down his gun and gone slowly up from the hollow and was walking along the river-bank. He had the look of a man who strolls in meditation. When he came to his boat where it lay near the roots of the three big pines, he turned it over—he had been mending its bottom the morning of yesterday—and began to push it down toward the plunging stream. The glitter of morning took all the swirlings and ripplings and plungings of the swift water in its golden hands. Hugh steadied the boat. Above him on the bank Bella spoke quietly.
"Hugh," she said, "look up at me. What are you going to do?"
He lifted his face, still holding to the boat.
"What are you going to do?" she repeated.
"Why do you want to know? You've heard the truth."
She came down the bank and stood beside him so close that her hair, loosened by the wind, was blown against his shoulder. She pressed it back and gazed into his eyes. The inner glow had worn through at last. She was all warmth, all flame now. She smiled with soft and parted lips. "Do you think that was the truth of you, my dear," she said, "my truth of you? I have always seen you as you are. But"—she drew a big breath, like a climber who has reached the height—"but—I came to you, didn't I?"
Hugh's eyes widened, the pupils swallowing her light. "You—you came to me? Not for Pete's sake?"
"Never for his sake."
"But, Bella—you laughed at me."
"Yes, once, for your poor folly in trying to be what you are not. When have I ever laughed at what you are? It's what you are I've loved, my dear, just what you are—a tormented child. Only be honest with me, Hugh. Tell me what do you want: the moon now or—or all the truth?"
"I want the truth—and the end," he said. "I'm going down the river."
She glanced at the flood as though it were a brook. "I am going with you then. You must take me. My life has always been yours."
He laid one of his hands on either of her cheeks so that her face was framed for him to read. It was flushed; the deep eyes were beautiful.
"You—all these empty years! You, Bella." It was as though he saw her now for the first time. The revelation dazzled him. "I've gone thirsty, with wine at my elbow, until it's too late." He shook his shoulders. "Come with me, then, if you must."
She stepped into the boat and sat in the stern, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes in their great and sudden beauty still fixed on his face. The wind blew her hair wildly in a long, streaming veil across her forehead, down her cheek, out over her shoulder. She was beautiful with the joy that was hers at last.
Hugh stepped in and stood to push the boat out from the shore. His eyes never left hers. It was a deep, long look of which her soul drank, quenching its thirst. Very slowly the boat moved; then it turned. A hand seemed to grip it's prow. There was a mighty, confused roaring in their ears; the bank seemed to be snatched back from them. The sunlight, shone into Hugh's face. Suddenly he caught at his oar.
"The river is not so high," he shouted; "the flood's going down." He looked away from her and back. "We have—just a chance. We'll leave it to the river. It may be the end of you and me—or, Bella, it may be the beginning."
He steadied the boat with all his skill. It was drawn with frightful swiftness down the swollen stream.
* * * * *
Before noon Sylvie and Pete moved slowly across the open space and went back along their forest trail. They walked like lovers, and Sylvie's arm helped to support him. Just before he stepped in among the trees he turned for a long, desolate, backward look.
Now the hoop of green, once white as paper under the noon sun, and the level, circular rim of the forest are empty and silent except for the rattling of the river and the moving of the pines against the fixed, grave stars. The human tragedy—or was it comedy?—has burnt itself out like the embers of a camp-fire that will never again be kindled in that lonely spot.