By Katharine Newlin Burt
Author Of The Branding Iron, Etc.
Under a noon sun the vast, flat country, buried deep in snow, lay like a paper hoop rimmed by the dark primeval forest; its surface shone with an unbearable brightness as of sun-struck glass, every crystal gleaming and quivering with intense cold light. To the north a single blunt, low mountain-head broke the evenness of the horizon line.
Hugh Garth seemed to leap through paper like a tiny active clown as he dropped down into the small space shoveled clear in front of his hidden cabin door. The roof was weighted with drift, so that a curling mass like the edge of a wind-crowded wave about to break hung low over the eaves. Long icicles as thick as a man's arm stretched from roof to ground in a row of twisted columns. Under this overhanging cornice of snow near the door there was a sudden icy purple darkness.
As Hugh plunged down into it, his face lost a certain rapt brightness and shadowed deeply. He let slip the load of fresh pelts from his back, drew his feet from the skis which he stuck up on their ends in the snow, and removed the fur cap from his head and the huge dark spectacles from his eyes. Then, crouching, he went in at the low, ill-hung door. It stuck to its sill, and he cursed it; all his movements expressed the anger of frustration. He slammed the door behind him.
Buried in drifts, the cabin was dim even at this bright hour of noon. The stove glowed in a corner with a subdued redness, its bulging cheeks and round mouth dully scarlet. The low room was pleasant to look at, for it had the beauty of brown bark and the salmon tints of old rough boards, and its furniture, wrought painstakingly by an unskillful hand, had the charm of all handwork even when unskilled. Some of the chairs were rudely carved, one great throne especially, awkward, pretentious, and carefully ornate.
There was, too, a solid table in the center of the floor; and on it a woman was setting heavy earthenware plates nicked and discolored. She was heavy and discolored herself, but like the stove, she too seemed to have a dull glow. She was no longer young, but she might still have encouraged her youthfulness to linger pleasantly; she was not in the least degree beautiful, but she might have fostered a charm that lurked somewhere about her small, compact body and in her square, dark face. Her hair of a sandy brown was stretched back brutally so that her bright, devoted eyes—gray and honest eyes, very deep-set beneath their brows—lacked the usual softness and mystery of women's eyes. Her lips were tight set; her chin held out with an air of dogged effort which seemed to possess no relation to her mechanical occupation, yet to have a strong habitual relation to her state of mind. She seemed, in fact, under a shell of self-control, to conceal an inner light, like a dimly burning dark-lantern. Her expression was dumb. She moved about like a deaf-mute. Indeed, her stillness and stony self-repression were extraordinary.
A youth rose from a chair near the stove and greeted Hugh as he entered.
"Hullo," he said. "How many did you get?"
It was the eager questioning of a modest, affectionate boy who curbs his natural effervescence of greeting like a well-trained dog. The tone was astonishingly young, a quiet, husky boy-voice.
"Damn you, Pete!" was snarled at him for answer. "Haven't you got my boot mended yet?"
The boot, still lacking its heel, lay on the floor near the stove, and Hugh now picked it up and hurled it half across the room.
"I have to get out into this ice chest of a wilderness and this flaming glare that cuts my eyeballs open, and work till the sweat freezes on my face, and then come home to find you loafing by the fire as if you were a house cat—purring and rubbing against my legs when I come in," he snarled. "Thanking me for a quiet nap and a saucer of milk, eh? You loafer! What do I keep you for? You gorge the bread and meat I earn by sweating and freezing, and you keep your sluggish mountain of bones covered. A year or two ago I'd have urged you along with a stick. I used to get some work out of you then. But you think you're too big for that, now, don't you? You fancy I'm afraid of your bigness, eh? Well, do you want me to try it out? What about it?"
During the first part of his brother's speech, Pete had faced him, but in the middle he had turned his back and stood in front of one of the clumsy windows. He looked out now at a white wall of snow, above which shone the dazzle of the midday. He whistled very softly to himself and sank his hands deep into the pockets of his corduroys. He did not answer the snarling question, but his wide, quiet mouth, exquisitely shaped, ran into a smile and a dimple, deep and narrow, cut into his thin and ruddy cheek.
Between the woman, who went on with her work as though no one had come into the room, and the silent smiling youth, Hugh Garth prowled the floor like a shadow thrown by a moving light.
He was a man of forty-five, gray-haired, misshapen, heavy above the waist and light to meanness below; a man lame in one leg and with an ill-proportioned face, malicious, lined, lead-colored; a man who limped and leaped about the room with a fierce energy, the while his tongue, gifted with a rich and resonant voice, poured vitriol upon the silence.
Suddenly the woman spoke. She turned back on the threshold of the kitchen door through which her work had been taking her to and fro during Garth's outbreak. Her voice was monotonous and smothered; it had its share in her unnatural self-repression.
"Why don't you tell him to be quiet, Pete? You've been chopping wood since daybreak to make up for what he didn't do last week, and you only came in about ten minutes before he did. Why don't you speak out? You're getting to be pretty close to a man now, and it isn't suitable for you to let yourself be talked to that way. You always stand like a fool and take it from him."
Pete turned. "Oh, well," he answered good-humoredly, "I guess maybe he's tired. Let up, Hugh, will you? I'll finish your boot after dinner."
"The hell you will! You'll do it now!" Venting on his brother his anger at the woman's intervention, Garth swung his misshapen body around the end of the table and thrust an elbow violently against Pete's chest. The attack was so unexpected that Pete staggered, lost his balance, and stepping down into the shallow depression of a pebbled hearth, fell, twisting his ankle. The agony was sharp. After a dumb minute he lifted a white face and pulled himself up, one hand clutching the board mantel. "Now you've done it!" he said between his teeth. "How will you get your pelts to the station now? I won't be able to take them."
There ensued a dismayed silence. The woman had come back from the kitchen and stood with a steaming dish in her hands. After the brief pause of consternation she set down the dish and went over to Pete. "Here," she said, "sit down and let me take off your moccasin and bathe your ankle before it begins to swell."
Hugh Garth had seated himself in the thronelike chair at the head of the table. His expression was still defiant, indifferent, and lordly. "Come and eat your dinner, both of you," he commanded. "You've had your lesson, Pete. After this, I guess you'll do what I tell you to—not choose the work that happens to suit your humor. Don't, for God's sake, baby him, Bella. Don't start being a grandmother before you've ever been a sweetheart. You're too young for the one even if you're getting a bit too old for the other!"
Bella flushed deep and hot. She went to her place, and Pete hobbled to his, opposite his brother. Between them the woman sat, dyed deep in her sudden unaccustomed wave of scarlet. Pete's whiteness too was stained in sympathy. But Hugh only chuckled. "As for the pelts," he said royally, "I'll take them down myself."
Bella looked slowly up.
"You think I don't mean it, I suppose?" Hugh demanded.
They did not answer, but the eyes of the boy and the woman met. This silence and this dumb exchange of understanding infuriated Garth. He clinched his hands on the carved arms of his chair and leaned a little forward.
"I'll take the pelts myself," he repeated boisterously. "I'm not afraid to be seen at the station. I'm sick of skulking. Buried here—with my talents—in this damn country, spending my days trapping and skinning beasts to keep the breath in our three useless bodies. Wouldn't death be better for a man like me? Easier to bear? Fifteen years of it! Fifteen years! My best years!" He stared over Pete's head. "In all that time no beauty to feed my starved senses, no work for my starved brain, no hope for my starved heart." The woman and the youth watched him still in silence. "That fox I killed this morning had a better life to lose than I."
"It wouldn't be safe for you to go, Hugh," said Pete gently.
The sneer deepened the flush on Pete's face, but he answered with the same gentleness, fixing his blue eyes on his brother's.
"Because not two months ago there was a picture of you tacked up in the post-office."
Bella's face whitened, and Hugh's cheeks grew a shade more leaden. "T-two months ago!" he stammered painfully; "but that's not p-possible. They—they've given me up. They've f-forgotten me. They th-think I'm dead. After fifteen years? My God, Pete! Why didn't you tell me?" He pleaded the last with a shaken sort of sharpness, in pitiful contrast to the bombast of the preceding speech.
"I didn't see the good of telling you. I was waiting until this trip to see if the picture was still there, and maybe to ask some questions."
"What does it mean?" whispered Bella.
"It means they've some fresh reason to hunt me—some fresh impulse—God knows what or why. How can we tell out here, buried in the snows of fifteen winters. Well!" He struck his hands down on the table edge and stood up. He drew his mouth into a crooked smile and looked at the other two as a naughty child looks at its doting but disapproving elders. The smile transfigured his ugliness. "I've a fancy to see that picture. Want to be reminded of what I looked like fifteen years ago. I was a handsome fellow then. I'm going to take the pelts."
Pete looked dumbly up at him, his lips parted. Bella twisted her apron about her hands. Both seemed to know the hopelessness of protest. In the same anxious dumbness they watched Garth make ready for his trip. As he pulled his cap down close about his ears, Pete at last found his voice.
"Hugh," he began doubtfully, "I wish you wouldn't risk it. We can get on without supplies until next trading-day, when I'll surely be all right."
"Hold your tongue! I'm going," was the answer. "I tell you, the spirit of adventure has me. Who knows what I may meet with out there?" He flung back the door and, pointing with a long arm, stood silhouetted against the dazzle.
"Beauty? Opportunity? Danger? Hope? Death? I shan't shirk it this time. I'll meet whatever comes. But—" He came back a step into the room. His harsh face melted to a shamefaced gentleness; his voice softened. "If they get me down there, if I don't come back, you two try to think kindly of me, will you? I know what you think of me now. I know you won't see me as I am—no one but God will ever do me that kindness; but you two—be easy with me in your memories."
Bella, her arms now twisted to their red elbows in her apron, took a few stiff steps across the floor. Her face was expressionless, her eyes lowered. Garth smiled at them both and went out, shutting the door. They heard him singing as he put on his skis:
A hundred men were riding, A-hunting for Pierre. They rode and rode, but nothing could they find. They rode around by moonlight; They rode around by day; They rode and rode, but nothing could they find.
Then came the sharp scraping of his runners across the surface of the snow on a level with the buried roof. It lessened from a hissing speech to a hissing whisper. It sighed away. Bella sat down abruptly on a chair, pulled in her chin like an unhappy child; her bosom lifted as though a sob would force its way out.
"If he doesn't come back!" she murmured. "If he doesn't come back!" She was speaking to God.
Pete blinked, swallowed hard and began to talk fast and hopefully.
"He'll come back. I don't believe he'll get halfway there, Bella," he reassured the woman. "He'll come to his senses. You know how moody he is. Come over here and doctor up my ankle, please. 'Make a fuss over me, Bell.' Isn't that what I used to say?"
He coaxed until at last she came and knelt before him and removed his moccasin and heavy woolen sock. The strong white foot was like marble, but the ankle was swollen and discolored. Bella clicked her tongue. "He is a brute, you know!" She laughed shortly. Since Garth's departure she had become almost a human being. The deaf-mute look had melted from her, and a sardonic humor emerged; her eyes cleared; she could even smile. "Why do we care so much for him, Pete—the two of us?"
Pete winced under her touch and puckered his brows. "Because he's such a kid, I guess. He's always fretting after the moon."
"Don't you ever get angry with him, Pete? He does treat you shameful sometimes."
"N-no. Not often. He's always sorry and ashamed afterward. He'd like to be as kind as God. I believe if he could only fool us into thinking he was God, he could act like Him—ouch, Bella! Go easy."
"You're an awful smart boy, Pete. It's a sin you've never had any schooling."
"Schooling! Gosh! I've had all the schooling I could digest. Hugh beat it into me. He's taught me all he had in his head and a whole lot he never ought to have had there, I guess. But you've taught me most, Bella—that's the truth of it."
"Me! I never knew anything. They saw to that. They never did anything for me at home but abuse me. Hugh Garth was the only relation I ever had in the world that spoke kind to me. Remember how I used to run over from my folks to tuck you into bed in your little room above the shop, Pete? No, you were too little."
"Of course, I remember," the boy replied. "The ankle's fine now, Bella. Let up. I can't stand that rubbing. Let me stick the foot up on another chair. There—that's great. It doesn't hurt near so bad now. I remember Hugh's bookshop; yes, I do—honest! I remember sitting on the ladder and listening to him talk to the students when they came in. He always was a gorgeous talker, Bella. They used to stand around and listen to his yarns like kids to a fairy story. Just the same as you and I do now—when we can get him into a good humor. But, you know, he used to like strangers best—to talk to, I mean."
Bella assented, bitterly. She had begun to clear the table of its almost untouched meal. "Because he could put it over better with a stranger. It isn't the truth Hugh likes—about himself, or others."
Pete had begun to whittle a piece of wood. He was a charming figure, slouching down in his chair, slim and graceful, his shapely golden head ruffled, his chin pressed against his chest. His expression was indescribably sweet and boyish, the shadow of anxiety and pain accentuating a wistful if determined cheerfulness. He was deliberately entertaining Bella, diverting her mind from its agony of apprehension. She saw through him, but like a sick child she took the entertainment languidly.
"Now, you're too dead bent on the truth, Bella. You know you are. You're a regular bear for the truth."
"I can't see anything else," she said gloomily. "Things are just so to me—no blinking them."
He put his head a little to one side and contemplated her. "What do you see when you look into the water-bucket, Bella?"
"The water-bucket?" She flushed. "Just because you caught me prinking that once!"
"Well, if you had a mirror, what would you see in it, then?"
"An ugly old woman, Pete."
"There! Your mind's just the wrong-side-out of Hugh's. He won't see himself ugly, and you won't see yourself pretty. I'm the only sane fellow in this house."
"And you never in your life saw a pretty woman to remember her. Besides, you're too young." She said it with a tart sweetness and vanished into the kitchen.
With her departure Pete's whittling ceased, his hands fell slack and he began to stare out through the snow-walled window. His anxiety for Hugh slipped imperceptibly into a vague pondering over his own youthfulness. That's what those two were always telling him, sometimes savagely, sometimes tenderly! "You're too young." What did it mean to him, anyhow, that he was "too young"? A desolation from which at times he suffered in secret overcame him.
He was twenty-one or -two—or his memory lied. They had never celebrated his birthdays, but he was five or six years old when Hugh had been so suddenly, so unexplainably taken from the house, back there in the little Eastern college town where they had lived. It was a few months later that Bella—Cousin Bella, who worked at "the farm"—came for him, a furtive, desperate Bella with a bruised face—a Bella tight-strung for flight, for a breaking of the galling accustomed ties of her life, for a terrible plunge into unknown adventure. She had muttered to him, as she dressed him and bundled together a few of his belongings, that they "were going to Hugh"—only it was another name she used, a name since blotted from their lives.
Hugh had sent for them. She was the only person in the world that Hugh could trust. But no one must know where they were going. They must be away by the time the man who took charge of the shop came back in the morning.
Pete remembered the journey. He remembered the small frontier station where they left the train at last. He remembered that strange, far-flung horizon, streaked with dawn, and his first taste of the tangy, heady air. There had been a long, long drive and a parting with the friendly driver where Bella turned on to the trail through the woods. It had been dim and dark and terrible among the endless regiments of trees—mazy and green and altogether bewildering. And after vague hop-o'-my-thumb wanderings, he had a disconnected memory of Hugh—a wild, rugged, ragged, bearded Hugh who caught him up fiercely as though he had an ogrish hunger for the feel of little boys. It was night when they came to Hugh's hiding-place. For miles Pete had been carried in his brother's arms. Bella had limped behind them. There had been a ford, he remembered; the splashing water had roused Pete, and he stayed awake afterward until he found himself before a dancing fire of logs in a queer, dark, resinous-smelling house, very low, with unglazed windows. He remembered, too, that Bella had burst out crying. That was the queerest memory of them all—that crying of Bella's.—Even now he could not understand exactly why she had cried so then.
The frightened, furtive life they had all led since—the life of scared wild things—had left its mark on Pete. His fear for Hugh now threw him back into the half-forgotten state of apprehension which had been the atmosphere of all his little boyhood. He had not known then why strange men were creatures to be feared and shunned. In fact, he had never been told the reason for Hugh's flight. Only, bit by bit, he had pieced together hints and vague allusions until he knew that this strange, embittered, boasting poet of a brother had killed or had been accused of killing. In his loyal boy mind Hugh Garth was promptly acquitted. It was the world that was wrong—not Hugh. Yet to-day, after all the long years of carefulness, he had gone back to the cruelty of the world.
Like a beast the boy's anxiety for his brother began to prowl about the walls of his mind. He imagined Hugh appearing at the trading-station. He pictured the curious glances of the Indians and the white natives. This limping, extravagant, energetic Hugh with his whitening hair and eyebrows and flaring hazel eyes—with his crooked nose and mouth, his magnificently desperate manner and his magnificently desperate voice—attention would inevitably fasten upon him anywhere; how much more in an empty land such as this! Pete fancied the inquiring looks turned from the man to the man's posted picture. It was no longer a faithful likeness, of course; still, it was a likeness. There was no other man in all the world like Hugh! He was made of odd, fantastic fragments, of ill-fitting parts—physically, mentally, spiritually. It was as if a soul had seen itself in a crooked mirror and had fashioned a form to match the distorted image. Hugh wouldn't, couldn't force himself to be inconspicuous. He would swagger; he would talk loud; his big, beautiful voice would challenge attention, create an audience. He would have some impossible, splendid tale to tell.
Pete sat up straighter in his chair, gingerly rearranging the ankle, and lifted his blue and haunted eyes—the eyes of the North—to the window.
The dazzle of noon had faded to a glow. The short winter day was nearly done. There would be a long violet twilight, and then, the blaze of stars.
But for his aching ankle Pete would be sliding out on soundless skis, now poised for breathless flight down some long slope, now leaping fallen trees or buried ditches. He spent half of his wild young restlessness in such long night runs when, in a sort of ecstasy, he outraced the stifled longings of his exiled youth. But there would be no ski-running for several nights now. He was a prisoner, and at a time when imprisonment was hard to bear.
If only there were some way of getting quick news of Hugh! Why had Bella and he let this thing happen? Why had they stood helplessly by and allowed the rash fool to go singing to his own destruction? They might have held him by force, if not by argument, long enough to bring him to his senses. They had been weak; they were always weak before Hugh's magnetic strength—always the audience, the following; Bella, for all her devastating tongue, no less than himself. And Hugh's liberty, perhaps his life, might be the price of their acquiescence.
Straining forward in his chair, listening, there came to Pete, across the silence, the sound of skis.
He rose and hopped to the door, flinging it wide. He could not see above the top of the drift which rose just beyond the roof to a height of nine or ten feet, but listening intently, he thought he recognized a familiar slight unevenness in the sliding of the skis.
"Bella!" he shouted, his boy-voice ringing with relief. "Bella! Here's Hugh. He's come back."
Bella was instantly at his side. They stood waiting in the doorway. Against the violet sky darkening above the blue wall of snow, a bulky figure rose, blotting out the light. It half slid, half tumbled down upon them, clumsy and shapeless.
"Let us in," panted Hugh. "Let us in."
Slipping his feet from the straps of his skis, he staggered past them and they saw that he was carrying a woman in his arms.
"Shut the door," Hugh whispered, and laid his burden down on a big black bear-hide near the stove. He knelt beside it. He had no eyes for anything else. Pete, hobbling to him, gazed curiously down, and Bella knelt opposite and drew away Hugh's mackinaw coat, with which he had wrapped his trove. It was not a woman whom they looked down upon, but a girl, and very young—perhaps not yet seventeen—a girl with cropped dark curly hair and a face so wan and blue and at the same time so scorched by the snow-glare that its exquisiteness of feature was all the more marked. Hugh's handkerchief was tied loosely across her eyes.
"I heard her crying in the snow," he said with ineffable tenderness; "crying like a little bleating lamb with cold and pain and hunger and fright—the most pitiful thing in God's cruel trap of life. She's blind—snow-blind."
Pete gave a sharp exclamation, and Bella gently removed the handkerchief. The small figure moaned and moved its head. The lids of her eyes were swollen and discolored.
"Snow-blind," echoed Bella.
"A bad case," said Hugh. "Get her some soup, Bella, and—perhaps, hot water—I don't know." He looked up helplessly.
Bella went to the kitchen. She had regained her old look of dumbness. Beside the figure on the floor Pete touched one of the girl's small clenched hands. It was like ice. At the touch she moaned, and Hugh ordered sharply: "Let her alone." So the boy dragged himself up again and stood by the mantel, watching Hugh with puzzled and wondering eyes.
"Think what she's been through," Hugh murmured, "that little delicate thing, wandering for two days, out in this cold—scared by the woods, blinded by the pain, starving. When I found her, you'd have thought she'd be afraid of a wild man like me, but she just lifted up her arms like a baby and dropped her head on my shoulder. She—she patted my cheek—"
Bella brought the soup, and Hugh, raising the small black head on the crook of his arm, forced a spoonful between the clenched teeth. The girl swallowed and began again to whimper: "Oh, my eyes! My eyes! They hurt me so!" She turned her face against Hugh's chest and clung to him.
"They'll be better soon," he soothed her; then fiercely to Bella: "Can't we do something? Don't you know what to do?"
Again Bella went to the kitchen, moving like an automaton. Hugh coaxed and murmured, feeding the girl in spite of her pain. He managed to force a little of the soup down her throat, and a faint stain of color came back to her lips and cheeks. Bella presently reappeared with salve and lotion, and Hugh helped her hold the swollen lids apart, his big hands very skillful, while she gently washed out the eyes. Then they put the salve on her sun-scorched face. She sighed as though in some relief, and again snuggled against Hugh.
"Don't go away, please," she pleaded in a sweet trickle of voice. "I'm scared to feel you gone. You're so warm. You're so strong. Will you talk to me again, please? Your voice is so comforting, so beau-ti-ful."
So Hugh talked. The others drew away and watched and listened. They did not look at each other. For some reason Pete was ashamed to meet Bella's eyes. As usual, they were the audience, those two. They sat, each in a chair, the width of the room apart; below them, his grizzled head and warped face transfigured by its new tenderness, Hugh bent over the child in his arms. Pete held his tumult of curiosity, of interest, in leash. He could hear his heart pounding.
"You're safe now, and warm," Hugh was murmuring. "No need to be scared, no need. I'll take care of you. Go to sleep. I'm strong enough to keep off anything. You're safe and snug as a little bird in its nest. That's right. Go to sleep."
Pete's blue eyes dwelt on this amazing spectacle with curious wonder. This was a Hugh he had never seen before. For the first time in fifteen years, he realized, the man had forgotten himself.
To Hugh Garth the girl told her story at last. She seemed to realize only dimly that there were two other living beings in this house, to her a house of darkness peopled only by voices—Pete's modest, rare boy speeches, Bella's brief, smothered statements. The great music of Hugh's utterance must indeed have filled her narrowed world. So it was to him she turned—he was always near her, sitting on the pelt beside the chair to which, after a day and night in Bella's bed, she was helped.
She had a charming fashion of speech, rather slow motions of her lips, which had some difficulty with "r" and "s," a difficulty which she evidently struggled against conscientiously, and as she talked, she gesticulated with her slim little hands. She was a touching thing sitting there in Hugh's carved throne—he an abdicated monarch at her feet, knee in hand, grizzled head tilted back, hazel eyes raised to her and filled with adoration.
"I am called Sylvie Doone," she said with that quaint struggle over the "S." "I was always miserable at home." She gave the quick sigh of a child. "You see, my father died when I was very little, and then my mother married again. We lived in the grimmest little town, hardly more than a dozen houses, beside a stream, up in Massachusetts—farming country, but poor farming, hard farming, the kind that twists the men with rheumatism, and makes the women all pinched and worn. Mother was like that. She died when I was thirteen. You see—there I was, so queerly fixed. I had to live with Mr. Pynche—there was no other home for me anywhere. And he kind of resented it. He had enough money not to need me for work—a sister of his did the housework better than I could—and yet he was poor enough to hate having to feed me and pay for my clothes. I was always feeling in the way, and a burden. There was nothing I could do.
"Then I saw something about the movies in a magazine, and pictures of girls, not much better-looking than me, making lots of money. I borrowed some money from a drug-store clerk who wanted to keep company with me—I've paid it back—and I went to New York. I did get a job. But I'm not a good actress."
She faltered over the rest—a commonplace story of engagements, of failures, until she found herself touring the West with a wretched theatrical troupe. "We were booked for a little town off there beyond your woods, and the train was stalled in a snowstorm. We got on a stage-coach, but it got stuck in a drift on one of those dreadful roads. I was freezing cold, and I thought I'd make a short cut through the woods. The road was running along the edge of a big forest of pines. I cut off while they were all working to dig out the horses.
"Mr. Snaring said, 'Look out for the bears!' and I laughed and ran up what looked like a snow-buried trail. There was a hard crust. The woods were all glittering and so beautiful. I ran into them, laughing. I was so glad to get away by myself from those people into the woods where it was so silent and sort of solemn—like being in a church again. I can't think how I got so lost. I meant to come round back to the road, but before I knew it, I didn't know which way the road was. The pines were so dense, so all alike, they looked almost as if they kept sort of shifting about me. I tried to follow back on my footprints, but in some places snow had shaken down from the branches. And there were so many—so dreadfully many other tracks—of animals—" She put her hands over her face and shrank down in her chair.
"Forget about them, Sylvie," Hugh admonished gently. "Even if there had been bears about, they wouldn't likely have bothered you any."
"I can't bring myself to tell you about that time—I can't!"
"Don't, then—only, how did you live through the night, my dear?"
"I don't know—except that I never stayed still. I got out from the trees because I was afraid of bears, and I lost my hat. The sun was like fire shining up from underneath and down from up above. My eyes began to hurt almost at once, and by the time night came, it was agony. The darkness didn't seem to help me any either; the glare still seemed to come in under my lids. I couldn't sleep for the pain. I knew I'd freeze if I stood still, so I kept moving all night, trampling round in circles, I suppose. Next morning the terrible glare began again. Then everything went red. I was nearly crazy when you found me, Mr. Garth."
"Please call me Hugh," he murmured, taking her hand in his. "I feel in a way that you belong to me now—I saved you from dying alone there in the cold and brought you back to my home. I've got jettison rights, Sylvie." She let him hold her hand, and flushed.
"You'll never know what it felt like to hear your voice call to me, to feel you pulling me up. I'd only just dropped a few minutes before, but I'd never have struggled up. It would have been the end." She trembled in the memory, and he patted her hand. "I don't know why a man like you lives off here in this wild place, but thank God, you do live here! Though," she added with wistfulness, twisting her soft mouth, "though I can't ever quite see why God should care much for a Sylvie Doone." She touched the lids of her closed eyes. "I wonder why it doesn't worry me more not to be able to see. Now that the pain's gone, I don't seem to care much."
"Thank God. Perhaps, though," he added half-grudgingly, "in a few days you'll see again."
She smiled. "I'd just love to see you. You must be wonderful!"
"What makes you think that?" he asked, his warped face glowing.
"You're so strong and young, such thick hair, such finely shaped hands and such a voice." Sylvie's associates had been of a profession that deals perpetually in personalities. "If I'd been blind a long time, I suppose I could just run my hand over your face, and I'd know what you look like. But I can't tell a thing." She felt for his face and brushed it eagerly with her fingers, laughing at herself. "I just know that you have thick eyelashes and are clean-shaven. Is Bella your wife? And that big little boy your son?"
He started. "No, she's a faithful thing, the boy's nurse. And the kid's my young brother—a great gawk of a boy for his age, a regular bean-pole."
"It's so hard to tell anything about people if you can't see them. I wouldn't have thought he was so big. Is he about fourteen or fifteen? He speaks so low and gently; he might be any age."
"And a man's height—pretty near too big to lick, though he needs it."
"And Bella, what's she like?"
"A dried-up mummy of a woman."
The kitchen door creaked. Hugh started and shot a look over his shoulder. Bella stood on the kitchen threshold with an expressionless face and lowered eyelids.
"Why did you jump?" asked Sylvie nervously.
Hugh wet his lips with his tongue. "Nothing. The door creaked. Go on. Tell me more, child," he urged.
"No. I want to hear about you now. Tell me your story."
Hugh clenched his hands and flushed darkly. He glanced over his shoulder with a furtive look, but Bella had gone.
"No one else rightly knows my story, Sylvie. Will you promise me never to speak of it, to Bella, to Pete, to any one?"
"Of course, I promise." Her face beamed with the pride of a child entrusted with a secret.
Then, lowering his voice and moving closer to her chair, he began a fictitious history, a history of persecuted and heroic innocence, of reckless adventure, of daring self-sacrifice. The girl listened with parted lips. Her cheeks glowed. And behind the door, Bella too listened, straining her ears.
The murmur of Hugh's recital, rising now and then to some melodramatic climax, then dropping cautiously, rippled on, broken now and again by Sylvie's ejaculations. Behind the door Bella stood like a wooden block, colorless and stolid as though she understood not a syllable of what she heard. But after a rigid hour she faltered away, stumbled across the kitchen and out into the snow.
There, in the broad light of the setting sun, Pete rhythmically bent and straightened over his saw. The tool sang with a hissing, ringing rhythm, and the young man drove it with a lithe, long swing of body, forward and back, forward and back, in alternate postures of untiring grace. The air was not cold. There was the cloudy softness premonitory of a spring storm; the sun glowed like a dying fire through a long, narrow rift in the shrouded west. Pete had thrown aside his coat and drawn in his belt. The collar of his flannel shirt was open and turned back; his head was bare. The bright gold of his short hair, the scarlet of his cheeks, the vivid blue of his brooding eyes, made shocks of color against the prevailing whiteness. Even the indigo of his overalls and the dark gray of his shirt stood out with a curious value of tint and texture. His bare hands and forearms glowed. He was whistling with a boy's vigor and a bird's sweetness.
Bella caught Pete's arm as it bent for one of the strong forward sweeps. He stopped, let go of his saw, and turned to her, smiling.
Then—the smile gone: "What's wrong?"
Her eyes flamed in her pale, tense face. "We've got to stop it, Pete," she said. "It's horrible!"
"What? Don't stand out here with those bare arms, Bella." He was pulling his own shirt-sleeves down over his glistening bronze forearms as he spoke.
"We can't talk in the house," she said, "and I've got to talk. I—Do you know what Hugh's doing—what he's telling that girl? What he's letting her believe?"
Pete shook his head, but at the same time turned his blue eyes away from her toward the glowing west.
"Lies," said Bella. She laughed a short, explosive laugh. "He's got his ideal audience at last—a blind one. She thinks he's young and handsome and heroic. Pete, she thinks he's a hero. She thinks he's buried himself out here for the sake of somebody else. Oh, it's a regular romance, and it's been going on for hours—it's still going on. By now he believes it all himself. He's putting in the details. And Sylvie: 'Oh!' she's saying, and 'Ah, Mr. Garth, how you must have suffered! How wonderful you are!' And—look at me Pete—do you want to know what we are—according to him—you and I?"
He did not turn his eyes from the west, even when she shook his arm.
"I'm a dried-up mummy of a woman—faithful?—yes, I'm faithful—an old servant. And you're a child, an overgrown bean-pole of a boy, fourteen or fifteen years old."
The young man stood tall and still—a statue of golden youth in the golden light—the woman clutching at his arm, her face twisted, her eyes afire, all the colorlessness of her body and the suppressed flame of her spirit pitilessly apparent.
"Look at me, Pete."
"Well," he sighed gently, "what of it?" He looked down at her and smiled. "It's the first good time he's had for fifteen years. You know we don't make him happy. I don't grudge him his joy, Bella, do you? It can't last long, anyway. Fairy tales can't hurt her—Hugh believes—almost—in his own inventions. She'll be going back—her friends will be hunting for her. I'll let her think I'm a bean-pole of a boy if it makes him any happier to have me one. And why do you care?"
She drew in her breath. "Oh, I don't suppose I care—so much," she said haltingly. "But—think of the girl."
His eyes widened a little and fell. "The girl?"
"She's falling in love with him!"
Pete threw back his head and laughed aloud. "Oh, Bella, you know, that's funny!"
"It's not. It's tragic. It's horrible. You'll see. Watch her face."
"I have watched it." He spoke dreamily. "It's a very pretty and sweet face."
"Pete, Hugh's robbing you."
"Yes, you're young. You're ready for loving. This child—God sent her to you, to get you out of this desolation, to lead you back to loving and living, to give you what you ought to have—Life."
It was as though she had struck him. He started and drew himself away. "Shut up, Bella," he said with boyish roughness and limped past her into the house.
In these days Hugh must have known that his magic-making, as he led the little blind girl through the forest of his romancing, was at the mercy of those two that knew him for what he really was; except for queer, wild, threatening looks now and again, he gave no sign. He played his part magnificently, even trusting them to come in with help when they were given their cue. He had dominated them for so long that even they and the picture of him that they held in their minds were not so real as his dreams. It was a queer game, queer and breathless, played in this narrow space shut in by the white wilderness. And as the slow days went by, the low log house seemed to be filled more and more with smothered and conflicting emotions. A dozen times the whole extravaganza came near collapse; a dozen times Hugh saved it by a word, or Pete and Bella by a silence. Their parts were not easy, and although Pete still smiled, his young clear face grew whiter and more strained. Sylvie treated him always as though he were a child. She would pat his head and rumple his hair if he sat near her; once, suddenly, she kissed him lightly on the cheek, after he had moved the chair for her.
"You're a dear, quiet boy," she said. "I frightened you to death, then, didn't I? Hasn't anyone ever kissed you before?" His cheek burned so that, touching it with her fingers, she laughed. "I've made you blush, poor kid! I know. Boys hate petting, don't they? You'll have to get used to it, Pete, because I mean to pet you—oh, a lot! You need some one to draw you out. These two people snub you too much. Boys of fourteen aren't quite children, after all, are they? Besides, they're interesting. I know. I was fourteen myself not such ages back. You're not cross, are you, Pete?"
His eyes were misty, and his hands were cold. He could not understand his own emotion, his own pain. He muttered something and got himself away. She called him "sullen" and was angry with him, complaining to Hugh at supper that "Petey" had been "a bear" to her. Hugh simulated a playful annoyance and began to scold; then a sort of nervous fury came over him. He stamped and struck the table and snarled at Pete. The young man rose at his place and stared at his brother silently. There were two splotches of deep color on his cheeks. Sylvie protested: "Don't, please, be so angry with him. I was only teasing, just in fun. Bella, tell Hugh to stop. I had no business to kiss Pete. But I just wanted to pet something."
Hugh's threatening suddenly stopped, and Pete sat down. In the strained silence Bella laughed. Her laughter had the sound of a snapped bow-string. Sylvie had pushed her chair back a little from the table and was turning her head quickly from one to the other of them. Her mouth showed a tremble of uncertainty. It was easy to see that she sensed a tension, a confusion. Hugh leaned forward and broke into a good-humored rattle of speech, and as Pete and Bella sat silent, Sylvie gradually was reassured. Near the end of the meal she put out her hand toward Pete.
"Please don't be so cross with me, Pete! Give me a shake for forgiveness."
He touched her hand, his eyes lowered, and drew his fingers away. She laughed.
"How shy you are—a wild, forest thing! I'll have to civilize you."
"Leave him alone," admonished Hugh softly, "leave him alone."
As he said this, he did not look at Sylvie, but gazed somberly at Pete. It was a strange look, at once appealing and threatening, pitiful and dangerous. Pete fingered his fork nervously. Finally Bella stood up and began to clear the table with an unaccustomed clatter of noisy energy.
"How long are you going to keep it up, Pete?" she asked him afterward. He was helping her wash the dishes, drying them deftly with a piece of flour-sacking.
"Since we've let it begin, we'll have to go on with it to a finish," he answered coldly. "After all"—he paused, polished a platter and turned away to put it on its shelf—"he's not doing anything so dreadful—just twisting the facts a little. I am an ignorant lout. I might as well be fourteen, for all I know."
"And I am a mummy of a woman?"
In pity for her he made to put his arm about her. "Don't be a goose, Bella," he said, but she flung his hand from her. "Why does it make you so sore and angry?" he asked wistfully. "Hugh is not pretty to look at, but perhaps Sylvie sees him better than we do—in a way; and if she learns to love him while she's blind, then, when she sees him, if she ever sees him—"
"Chances are she never will. If her eyes don't get better soon, they likely never will."
"Isn't it horrible?"
"You don't seem to think so. So long's she has Hugh to paint pictures for her, what does she need eyes for? What's to come of it, Pete? She's falling in love with the fine figure of a hero he's made her believe he is. But how can he marry her?"
"Couldn't he go off somewhere else and marry her and start again? Honest, I think if Hugh had some one who thought he was a god, he'd likely enough be one. He—he lives by—illusion—isn't that the word? It's kind of easy to be noble when some one you love believes you to be, isn't it? That's Hugh; he—"
Bella threw down her rag, turned fiercely upon him and gripped his shoulders.
"Are you a man or a child?" she said. "You love this girl yourself!"
"No!" he cried and broke from her and went limping out into the frosty night with its comfortless glitter of stars.
As soon as his ankle was stronger, Pete spent all day and most of the night on his skis, trying to outrun the growing shadow of his misery. Hugh's work fell on his shoulders. He had not only his accustomed chores, the Caliban duties of woodchopping and water-carrying, the dressing of wild meat, the dish-drying and heavier housework, the repairs about the cabin—but he had the trapping. In Hugh's profound new absorption he seemed to have forgotten the necessity for making a livelihood. During the first years of their exile they had lived on his savings, ordering their supplies by the mail, which left them at the foot of that distant trail leading into the forest. Thence Hugh, under shelter of night, would carry them—lonely, terrible journeys that taxed even his strength. When Pete grew big enough to load, he was sent to the trading-station, and Hugh became an expert trapper. The savings were not entirely spent, but they were no longer touched; the pelts brought a livelihood.
Pete had had his instructions concerning his behavior at the trading-station; many years before, he had stammered a legend of a sickly father who had died, who was buried back there by the lonely cabin where he and his "mother" chose to live. Bella and Hugh had even dug up a mound for which they had fashioned a rude cross. It could be seen, in summer, from the living-room window—that mock grave more terrible in its suggestions than a real grave ever could have been. There was also a hiding-place under the boards of the floor. No one had ever seen the grave or driven Hugh into hiding. It was not an inquisitive country, and its desolation was forbidding. Pete had learned to discourage the rare sociability of the other traders.
Now, however, the young man had not only to trade his pelts but to trap them, and for this business of trapping which was distasteful to him, he had not a tithe of Hugh's skill. His bundle of pelts brought him a sorry supply of necessities. He was ashamed, himself, and having dumped the burden from his shoulders to the kitchen floor would hurry into the other room, not to see Bella's expression when she opened her bundles.
To-night Pete was tired; the load had not been heavy, but the snow was beginning to soften under the mild glowing of an April sun, and his skis had tugged at his feet and gathered a clogging mass. His body ached, and there was a sullen and despairing weight upon his spirit. A mob of rebels danced in his heart. He watched Hugh's face, saw the flaring adoration of his eyes, thought that Sylvie must feel the scorch of them on her cheek, so close. In his own eyes there showed a brooding fire.
Bella broke into the room.
"Look here," she said, "you'd better get to trapping again, Hugh Garth. Pete's pelts don't bring a quarter of what we need—especially these days."
Sylvie quivered as though a wound had been touched. "Oh, you mean me," she said, "I know you mean me. I'm making trouble. I'm eating too much. I'll go. Pete, has anybody been asking about me at the post-office, trying to find me? They must be hunting for me." She had stood up and was clasping and unclasping her hands. Hugh and Pete protested in one breath: "Nonsense, Sylvie!"
And Pete went on with: "There hasn't been anyone asking about you, but—so much the better for us. You're safe here, and comfortable, aren't you? And—Hugh, you tell her what it means to us to have her here."
It was more of a speech than he had made since Sylvie's arrival, and it was not just the speech, in tone or manner, of a fourteen-year-old boy. There was a new somber note in his voice, too—some of the youthful quality had gone out of it. Sylvie took a step toward him, to thank him, perhaps, perhaps to satisfy, by laying her hand upon him, a sudden bewilderment; but in her blindness she stumbled on the edge of the hearth, and to save her from falling, Pete caught her in his arms. For an instant he held her close, held her fiercely, closer and more fiercely than he knew, and Sylvie felt the strength of him and heard the pounding of his heart. Then Hugh plucked her away with a smothered oath. He put her into a chair, crushed her hand in one of his, and turned upon Bella.
"Go back into the kitchen," he ordered brutally; "trapping's not your business. You mind your cooking."
"Be careful, Hugh!" Bella's whisper whistled like a falling lash, "I'll not stand that tone from you. Be careful!"
"Oh," pleaded Sylvie, "why do you all quarrel so? Off here by yourselves with nobody else to care, I'd think you would just love each other. I love you all—yes, I do, even you, Bella, though I know you hate me. Bella, why do you hate me? Why does it make you so angry to have me here? Does it make your work so much harder? I'll soon be better; I'm learning to feel my way about. I'll be able to help you. I should think you'd be glad to have a girl in the house—another woman. I'm sorry to be a nuisance, really I am. I'd go if I could."
The lonely, deep silence, always waiting to fall upon them, shut down with suddenness at the end of her sweet, tearful quaver of appeal. For minutes no one spoke. Then Pete followed Bella out of the room. She had not answered Sylvie's beseeching questions, but had only stood with lowered head, her face working, her hands twisting her dress. She had run out just as her face cramped as though for tears.
When the other two had gone, Hugh captured both of Sylvie's hands in his. "You don't mean that, do you?" he asked brokenly. "You don't mean you'd go away if you could, Sylvie!"
At Hugh's voice she started and the color rushed into her cheeks. "If I make you quarrel, if I'm a nuisance, if Pete and Bella hate me so!"
"But I"—he said—"I love you." He drew her head—she was sitting in her chair again—against his side. "No, don't smile at me like that; I don't mean the sort of love you think. I love you terribly. Can't you feel how I love you? Listen, close against my heart. Don't be frightened. There, now you know how I love you!"
He rained kisses on her head resting droopingly against him.
"How can a man like you love me?" she asked with wistful uncertainty.
"A man like me?" Hugh groaned. "Ah, but I do—I do! You must stay with me always. Sylvie, somehow we will be married—you—and I!"
"Now it frightens me," she whispered, "being blind. It does frighten me now. I want so terribly to see your face, your eyes. Oh, you mustn't marry a blind girl, a waif. You've been so noble, you've suffered so terribly. You ought to have some wonderful woman who would understand your greatness, would see all that you are."
"Now," he sighed, "now I am great—because you think I am; that's water to me—after a lifetime of thirst."
"Hugh, am I good enough for you?" She was sobbing and laughing at the same time.
It was too much for him. He drew himself gently away. He whispered: "I can't bear being loved—being happy. I'll go out by myself for a bit alone. Sylvie, Sylvie! Every instant I—I worship you!" He threw himself down before her and pressed his face against her knees. She caressed the thick, grizzled hair. He stood up and then stumbled away from her, more blind than she, out of the house into the gathering night.
In the big, rudely carved chair Sylvie leaned back her head and pressed her hands to her unseeing eyes. She was not sorry that Hugh had left her, for she was oppressed and unnerved by her own emotions. Until he had kissed her hair, she had not known that she loved him—or rather loved an invisible presence that had enveloped her in an atmosphere of sympathy, of protection, that had painted itself, so to speak, in heroic colors and proportions against her darkness, that had revealed both strength and tenderness in touch and movement, and warm, deep voice.
For until now Sylvie's life had been entirely lacking in protection and tenderness; she had never known sympathy—her natural romanticism had been starved. The lacks in her life Hugh had supplied the more lavishly because he was aided, in her blindness, by the unrestricted powers of her fancy. But now in all the fervor of this, Sylvie felt, also for the first time, the full bitterness of her blindness. If she could see him—if only once! If she could see him!
And there came to Sylvie unreasonably, disconnectedly, a keen memory of Pete's embrace when he had caught her up from falling on the hearth. A boy of fourteen? Strange that he should be so strong, that his heart should beat so loud, that his arms should draw themselves so closely, so powerfully about her. What were they really like, these people who moved unseen around her and who exerted such great power over her sudden helplessness?
She got up and began to walk to and fro restlessly, gropingly across the room. She wished now that Hugh would come back. He had been with her so constantly that she had grown utterly dependent upon him. The dense red fog that lay so thick about her, frightened her when Hugh was not there to keep her mind busy with his talk to paint pictures for her, to command her with his magnetic presence. She stood still and strained her eyes. She must see again. If she tried hard, the red fog would surely lift. Happiness, and her new love, they would be strong enough to dispel the mist. There—already it was a shade lighter! She almost thought that she could make out the brightness of the fire. She went toward it and sat down on the bear-skin, holding out her tremulous, excited hands. And with a sudden impulse toward confidence she called: "Pete, O Pete! Come here a moment, please."
He came, and she beckoned to him with a gesture and an upward, vaguely directed smile, to sit beside her. She was aware of the rigid reserve of his body holding itself at a distance.
"Pete," she said wistfully, "what can I do to make you love me?"
He uttered a queer, sharp sound, but said nothing.
"Are you jealous?"
"No, Sylvie," he muttered.
"Oh, how I wish I could see you, Pete! I know then I'd understand you better. Pete, try to be a little more—more human. Tell me about yourself. Haven't you a bit of fondness for me? You see, I want—Pete—some day perhaps I'll be your sister—"
"Then he has asked you to marry him?"
He was usually so quiet that she was startled at this new tone.
"Don't," she said. "Hush! We have only just found out. He went away because he couldn't bear his own happiness. Pete—" She felt for him and her hand touched his cheek. "Oh, Pete, your face is wet. You're crying."
"No, I'm not," he denied evenly. "It was melting from the roof when I came in."
She sighed. "You are so strange, Pete. Will you let me kiss you now—since you are going to be my big little brother?"
"I can't," he whispered. "I can't."
She laughed and crooked her arm about his neck, forcing his face down to hers. His lips were hard and cool.
The face that Sylvie imagined a boy's face, shy and blushing, half frightened, half cross, perhaps a trifle pleased, was so white and patient a face in its misery that her blind tenderness seemed almost like an intentional cruelty. It was an intensity of feeling almost palpable, but Sylvie's mouth remained unburnt, though it removed itself with a pathetic little twist of disappointment.
"You don't need to say anything," she said, "You've shown me how you feel. You can't like me. You are sorry I came. And I want so dreadfully for some one just now to talk to—to help me, to understand. It's all dark and wonderful and frightening. I wish I had a brother—"
She bent her face to her knees and began to cry simply and passionately. At that Pete found it easy to forget himself. He put his arm very carefully about her, laying one of his hands on her bent head and stroking her hair.
"You have a brother," he said. "Right here."
The dark small silken head shook. "No. You don't like me."
"I do—I do. Please tell me everything you feel like telling; I'd like awfully to help you, to understand, to listen to you. You see, you've been so much with Hugh, I haven't had a chance to know you as he does. And I guess—well—maybe I'm sort of shy."
She lifted her head at that, took his stroking hand and held it in both of hers under her chin, as a little girl holds her pet kitten for the pleasure of its warmth. "You must get over being shy with me, Pete. We both love Hugh; we both admire him so. I'd so love to talk to you about him—"
"Then do, Sylvie."
"I've never seen him," she sighed, "and you can see him all day long, Pete; will you try your best now to describe Hugh to me—every bit of him? Tell me the color of his eyes and the shape of his face and—everything. Tell me all you remember about him always."
"I—I'm no good at that, Sylvie. A fellow you see all day long—why, you don't know what he looks like, 'specially if he's your own brother."
"Well, you certainly know the color of his eyes."
"He has hazel eyes—I think you'd call them—"
"Yes?" she drank in his words eagerly, pressing his hand tighter in her excitement. "Go on. If only you were a girl, now, you'd do this so much better."
"I—I—but I don't know what else to say, Sylvie. He is very strong."
"Of course. I know that. Didn't he pick me up out of the snow and carry me home? He moved as though he had a feather on his arm. You are very strong too, Pete—very strong. Are your eyes hazel?"
"I always liked blue eyes. I like to imagine that Hugh is just the Viking sort of man I dreamed about when I was a little girl. You think I'm a silly goose, don't you?"
"Don't keep trying to pull your hand away, dear; you can't guess how it comforts me. I'm awfully alone here, and strange. I don't suppose you know how queer and frightening it's been—this getting lost and being brought here in the dark, and then—living on in the dark, just trusting my instincts, my intuitions, instead of my eyes. Voices tell a lot about people, don't they?—more than I ever dreamed they could. Pete, there is nothing in that—that splendid, generous thing Hugh did, the thing I am not to talk about, nothing to keep Hugh now from going back to the world—some place—that is, far away from where it happened—and beginning again, is there?"
"I hope not, Sylvie."
She sighed. "Of course it was wonderful. If he hadn't told me of it, I never should have known half of his greatness; yet I can't help wishing he were free. It's sad to think there will always be the memory of that dreadful suffering and danger in his life."
"Very sad," said Pete.
"How alone we both are—he and I! Bella, and you, Pete—don't be angry, please—I don't think you quite understand Hugh, quite appreciate him."
"He has always been lonely. You are so young, and Bella is so stupid—stupid and cross."
"No, she isn't, Sylvie. I know Bella a lot better than you do. She's not stupid or cross—"
"Well, I like you to stick up for your old nurse. She certainly must have loved you a lot to bring you way out here and to stay here all these years to take care of you. I wonder where she'll go and what she'll do when Hugh and I get married. You're too old for a nurse now, Pete. Do you mind if I lean back against you that way? It's so comfortable. I'd be happier without Bella, Pete, you know."
"Would you, Sylvie? Well, Bella and I will have to go away together somewhere, I guess."
"I didn't say you, dear. I love you a lot—next best to Hugh. There's something awfully sweet about you—you great strong overgrown thing! Your heart goes thump-thump-thump-thump, as though it was as big as the sun.... I feel much better and happier now. Things have got steady again. Only—I wish Hugh would come back."
Pete gave a strangled sigh.
"He'll be back." And he began to draw himself away from her. "I think I hear him now, Sylvie."
"Stay where you are," she laughed. "Don't be ashamed of being found with a sister leaning against you and holding your hand. Are you afraid of Hugh? I think sometimes he's rather hard with you—I'll have to speak to him about that. Oh"—in a sudden ecstasy—"how happy I am! I feel as light as the air. I want every one to be happy. Tell me when Hugh comes in how happy he looks, Pete—promise me, quick! There he is at the door now."
"Yes," he whispered, "I promise. Let me go, please, Sylvie."
He pulled himself away and stood up. At the instant, the door was opened and shut quickly, stealthily. It was Hugh, breathing hard, gray with fear.
"They're coming," he said harshly. "Pete, they're after me. Men are coming across the flat."
"Did they see you?" Pete demanded anxiously.
"I don't think so." Hugh was breathing fast; he had evidently fled across the snow at top speed.
"Get in, then, quick—out of sight." Pete was already tearing up boards above that long-waiting place of hiding. Hugh was about to step down into it when he glanced up and saw Sylvie. She was standing as the unseeing stand in moments of frightened bewilderment, her hands clasped, her head turning from side to side. "Look here," whispered Hugh, still absorbed in his own danger, "don't let them know that Sylvie just wandered in here. Don't let them start asking her any questions; it's too dangerous. Let her be—one of the family." He smiled maliciously. "Let her be your wife, Pete." Then, as though that picture had fired his love through its hint of jeopardy, he held out both arms suddenly: "Come here, Sylvie—lead her to me, Pete."
The boy obeyed. But as her uncertain arms trembled about Hugh's shoulders Pete turned sharply away. He heard the quick, anxious murmur of their voices:
"Hugh, dearest—are you afraid?" And his: "Trust me, little darling. Love me." A kiss.
Then a sharp, whispered summons: "Quick, can't you, Pete? Get these boards down."
When Pete turned, Hugh had dropped into the darkness, and Sylvie stood flushed and with her hands over her face.
Bella had meantime been collecting the most characteristic of Hugh's belongings—those that could not be supposed to belong to Pete—and now thrust them down into the hiding-place. The boards were rearranged, the rug laid evenly over them. Then the three stood staring at one another, listening helplessly to the nearing sounds.
"Oh, Pete," Sylvie gasped, "tell me what I must do—or what I ought to say."
"Tell them," said Bella, "what Hugh told you—that you are Pete's wife. They'll be looking for a different household from that, and it will help to put them off."
"But—but Pete won't look old enough."
"Yes, he will. He looks older than you," Bella declared harshly. "You sit down and keep quiet; that's the best you can do; and for God's sake don't look so scared. There's a grave outside to show them, and nobody digs up a six-year-old grave. They won't find Hugh. Nobody's ever seen him. Don't shake so, Sylvie. They may not even be after him; this country has sheltered other outlaws, you know. Hush! I hear them. I'll be in the kitchen. Pete, be taking off your outdoor clothes. They'll have seen Hugh's tracks even if they haven't seen him, so somebody's got to have just come in. Be whistling and talking, natural and calm. Remember we're all at home, just quiet and happy—no reason to be afraid. That's it."
Through her darkness Sylvie heard the knocking and Pete's opening of the door, the scraping of snow, the questions, the simplicity of Pete's replies.
Then she was made known. "My wife, gentlemen!" And a moment later: "My mother!" And she heard Bella's greeting, loud and cheerful like that of a woman who is glad to see a visitor. Chairs were drawn up and cigarettes rolled and lighted. She smelt the sharp sweetness of the smoke. There was brief talk of the weather; Sylvie felt that while they talked, the two strangers searched the place and the faces of its inmates with cold, keen, suspicious eyes. She was grateful now for her blindness. There came a sharp statement:
"We're looking for Ham Rutherford, the murderer." Sylvie's heart contracted in her breast.
"Well, sir," laughed Pete, in his most boyish, light-hearted fashion, "that sounds interesting. But it's a new name to me."
"It's an old case, however," said the man, the man who spoke more like an Easterner than the sheriff. "Fifteen years old! They've dug it up again back East. The daughter of the man that was killed came into some money and thinks she can't spend it any better than in hunting down her father's murderer. Now, we've traced Rutherford to this country, and pretty close to this spot. He made a getaway before trial, and he came out here fifteen years ago. About two years later he sent back East for his kid brother—he'd be about your age now, Mr.—what you say your name was?—Garth, Peter Garth. You'll have to excuse the sheriff; he's bound to search your place." Sylvie had heard the footsteps going through the three rooms. "A woman named Bertha Scrane, a distant cousin of Rutherford's to whom he'd been kind, brought the child out. Now, Missis—what's your name?"
"Bella Garth," she said tranquilly. "I came out here with my husband, who died six years ago. He's buried out there under the snow. I've lived here with my son and my son's wife."
"Yes. It's not the household we'd been expecting to find. It's a lonely place, Missis." He looked at Sylvie. "I should think you'd prefer going to some town."
"We're used to it here now," Bella answered.
"How'd your husband happen here, ma'am?"
"His health was poor; he'd heard of this climate, and he wanted to try trapping. He got on first-rate until the illness came so bad on him, and Pete's done well ever since. We haven't suffered any."
"No, I guess not. You don't look like you'd suffered."
The talk went on, an awkward, half-disguised cross-questioning as to Bella's birthplace, her life before she came out, her husband's antecedents. She was extraordinarily calm, ready and reasonable with her replies.
"Well, sir"—the sheriff strolled back into the room—"I reckon these aren't the parties we're after. But look a-here, this is a description of Ham Rutherford. Likely you might have had a glimpse of him since you came into the country. When he made his getaway he was about thirty-two, height five feet eight, ugly, black-haired, noticeable eyes, manner violent. He was deformed, one leg shorter, one shoulder higher than the other, mouth twisted, and a scar across the nose. He'd been hurt in a fire when he was a child—"
Sylvie broke into a spontaneous ripple of mirth, the full measure of her relief. "Goodness," she said with utter spontaneity. "There's certainly never been a monster like that in this house, has there, Pete?"
It did more than all that had gone before to convince the inquisitors. From that minute there was a distinct relaxation; the evening, indeed, turned to one of sociability.
"We hate to inconvenience you, ma'am, but it seems like at this distance from town we've got to ask you for supper and a place to sleep."
If it had not been for the thought of Hugh in hiding, that supper and the evening about the hearth would have been to Sylvie a pleasant one. The men, apparently laying aside all suspicion, were entertaining; their adventurous lives had bristled with exciting, moving, humorous experience. It was Sylvie herself, prompted by curiosity, believing as she did that the monster the sheriff had described bore no possible resemblance to the man she loved, who asked suddenly:
"Do tell us about the man you're hunting for now—this Rutherford? Tell us about what he did."
The Easterner gave her a look, and Bella, seeing it, chimed in: "Yes, sure. Tell us about his crime."
Pete stood up and rolled another cigarette. Try as he might to steady his fingers, they trembled. He had never heard Hugh's story. He did not want to hear it. The very name of Rutherford that had, in what now seemed to him another age, belonged to Hugh and to him was terrible in his ears. A sickness of dread seized him. Fortunately the eyes of neither of the men were upon him. Sylvie had their whole attention.
The detective spoke. "He was a storekeeper back in a university town, way East, where I came from. He kept a bookshop and had a heap of book-learning. I remember him myself, though I was a youngster. He was a wonderful, astonishing sort of chap, though as ugly as the devil; had a great gift of narration, never told the truth in his life, I guess, but that only made him all the more entertaining. And he had a temper—phew! Redhot! He'd fly out and storm and strike in all directions. That's what did for him. Some fool quarrel about a book it was, and the man, a frequenter of the shop, a scholar, a scientist, professor at the university, accused Rutherford of lying. Rutherford had a heavy brass paper-cutter in his hand. The professor had a nasty tongue in his head. Well, a tongue's no match for a paper-cutter. The professor said too much, called Rutherford a hump-backed liar and got a clip on the head that did for him."
"It's an ugly story," said Sylvie. Bella and Pete retained their silence.
"Murder ain't pretty telling, as a general thing," remarked the sheriff.
"No, though I've heard of cases where a man was justified in killing another man—I mean to save some one he loved from dreadful suffering," Sylvie replied.
"Well, ma'am, I don't know about that. I've read stories that make it look that way, but in all my experience, it's the cowards and the fools that kill, and they do it because they're lower down, closer to the beast, or perhaps to an uncontrolled child, than most of us."
"But there was a time," Bella said, with a smothered passion, "when an insult to a gentleman's honor had to be avenged."
"Yes, ma'am," drawled the sheriff, "in them history days things was fixed up to excuse animal doin's, kind of neater and easier and more becomin' than they are now. Well, Mr. Garth, can we have our beds? We've kept these ladies up talkin' long enough. Your mother looks plum wore out."
They slept in the bed usually shared by Pete and Hugh. Pete lay on the floor in the living-room not far from his brother's hiding-place—lay there rigid and feverish, staring at the night. Sylvie, at Bella's side, slept no better. Her imagination went over and over the story of Ham Rutherford's crime. She saw the little dark bookshop, the professor's thin, sneering face, the hideous anger of the cripple, the blow, the dead body, Rutherford's arrest. And when her brain was sick, it would turn for relief to the noble story of Hugh's self-sacrifice, only to be balked by a sense of unreality. What the detective had told, briefly and dryly, lived in her mind convincingly; but Hugh's romance, that had glowed on his tongue, now lay lifeless on her fancy. Back her mind would go to the bookshop, the gibing professor, the heavy paper-cutter.
In the dawn she heard Bella get up with a deep-shaken sigh and go about her preparations for breakfast. But it was noon before the two men left.
Hugh came up from his hiding-place like a man risen from the dead. They helped him to his chair before the fire; they poured coffee down him, rubbed his blue, stiff hands. He sat looking up pitifully, his eyes turning from one to the other of them like those of a beaten hound. All the masterfulness, all the bombast, had been crushed out of him; even the splendor of his flaring hazel eyes was dimmed—they were hollow, hopeless, old. For a long time he did not speak, only drank the coffee and submitted himself meekly to their ministrations; then at last he touched Sylvie with a trembling hand.
"Sylvie," he whispered brokenly.
"Hugh, dear, you're safe now; please speak; please laugh; you frighten me more than anything—why is he so silent, Pete? Bella, tell me what's wrong?"
"He's been crouching there on the damp, cold ground for hours," said Bella, "not knowing what might happen." Her voice trembled; she passed a hand as shaking as her voice across Hugh's bent head. "You're safe now. You're safe now," she murmured.
Hugh's teeth chattered, and he bent closer to the fire.
"Ugh—it was cold down there," he said, "like a grave! Sylvie, come here." Just an echo of his old imperious fashion it was—though the look was that of a beggar for alms. "Give me those warm little hands of yours." She knelt close to him, rubbed his hands in hers, looking up at Pete with a tremulous mouth that asked for advice.
"He'll be all right in a minute," said Pete. "You talk to him, Sylvie."
"Yes, you talk—you talk. Do you remember how I talked to you when you were afraid of the bears—ah!" He drew her head savagely against his breast, folded his arms about it, stroked the hair. "Sylvie! Is it all right? Can it be—the same?"
"Yes, yes, why not?"
"Were you frightened?"
"Not after the first. After they had described you, I knew that they were looking for the wrong man, and then I felt all right. I didn't know—poor Hugh!—how cold and cramped you were. What a shame that you took a false alarm and hid yourself! I don't believe there would have been a bit of danger if you'd stayed out. They'd never even heard of you, I suppose."
Her talk, so gay, so strangely at cross-purposes with reality, was like a vivifying wine to him. The color came back into his face; a wild sort of relief lighted his eyes.
"Then it didn't occur to you, Sylvie, that that brute might have been me—that the men might, after all, have been describing me—eh?" he asked, risking all his hope on one throw.
She laughed, and, lifting herself a little in his arms, touched her soft mouth to his. "But, Hugh, you told me your story, don't you remember? And it is gloriously, mercifully different from Rutherford's."
He put his chin on his fist and stared over her head into the fire. She felt the slackening of his embrace and searched his arms with questioning fingers. "Why are you cross, Hugh? Did I say anything to hurt you? Let's forget Ham Rutherford. I wonder where he is, poor, horrible wretch!"
"Dead—dead—dead," Hugh muttered. "Dead and buried—or he ought to be. O God!" he groaned, and crushed her close against him; "I can't ask you to love me, Sylvie—to marry me. Now you know what it is like to love a man who must be afraid of other men. What right have I to ask any woman to share my life?"
"But, Hugh—if I love you?"
"And you do love me?" he asked.
He laughed out at that, stood up, drawing her to stand beside him. "Bella—Pete," he called, "do you hear—you two?" He beckoned them close, laid a hand on them, drew first one, then the other toward Sylvie. "She loves me. She sees me as I am!" Suddenly he put his grizzled head on Sylvie's shoulder and wept. She felt her way back to the chair, sat down, and drew him to kneel with his arms about her, her head bent over him, her small hands caressing him. She looked at Pete for help, for explanations, but she could not see his pale, tormented face.
After a while Hugh was calm and sat at her feet, smoking. But he was unnaturally silent, and his eyes brooded upon her haggardly.
It was several days before Hugh regained his old vigor and buoyancy; then it came to life like an Antaeus flung down to mother earth. His hour of doubt, of self-distrust, of compunction, was whirled away like an uprooted tree on the flood of his happiness. He flung reason and caution to the four winds; he dared Bella or Pete to betray him, he played his heroic part with boisterous energy; his tongue wagged like a tipsy troubadour's. What an empty canvas, a palette piled with rainbow tints, a fistful of clean brushes would be to an artist long starved for his tools, such was Sylvie's mind to Hugh. She was darkness for him to scrawl upon with light; she was the romantic ear to his romantic tongue; she was the poet reader for his gorgeous imagery. He had not only the happiness of the successful lover, but even more, the happiness of the successful creator. What he was creating was the Hugh that might have been.
With Sylvie clinging to his hand, he now went out singing—the three of them together, great Hugh and happy artist Hugh all but welded into one man for her and for her love. Those were splendid days, days of fantastic happiness. Hugh's joy, his sense of freedom, gave him a tenfold gift of fascination.
Yet one day—one of those dim, moist spring days more colorful to Hugh's heart than any of his days—there cut into his consciousness like a hard, thin edge, a sense of a little growing change in Sylvie. It had been there—the change,—slightly, dimly there, ever since the sheriff's visit. It was not that she doubted Hugh—such a suspicion would have struck him instantly aware and awake—but that she had become in some way uncertain of herself, restless, depressed, afraid. And it was always his love-making that brought the reaction, a curious, delicate, inner recoil, so delicate and slight, so deep beneath the threshold of her consciousness, that in the blind glory of his self-intoxication he missed it altogether—might, indeed, have gone on missing it, as she would have gone on ignoring or repressing it, if it had not been for their kiss on the mountain-top.
This was one of Hugh's madnesses; he would take Sylvie up a mountain and show her his kingdom, show her himself as lord of the wilderness. He had been there before many times, to the top of their one mountain, always under protest from Bella and Pete. It was a bare rock exposed to half the world and all the eyes of Heaven; and for a man in hiding, a man who lived, yet whose name was carved above a grave, it was a very target for untoward accident. Some trader or trapper down in the forest might look up and behold the misshapen figure black and bold, against the sky. Yet there was never so mighty a Hugh as when he stood there defiant and alone. Now he wanted Sylvie to sense that tragic magnificence.
So they went out, Hugh's arm about her, as strange a pair of lovers as ever tempted the spring—the great, scarred, uncouth, gray cripple and the slim, unseeing girl, groping and clinging, absolutely shut off from any contact with reality as long as this man should interpret creation for her. Sylvie turned back to wave at Pete, whom they had left standing in the doorway.
"I'll be hunting for you if you stay out late," he called—to which Hugh shouted back: "You hunting for us! Don't fancy I can't take care of this child, myself."
"Both of them blind!" Pete muttered to himself in answer.
They were moving rather slowly across the rough, sagebrush-covered flat, and presently Hugh led Sylvie into the fragrant silence of the forest trail. To her it was all scent and sound. Hugh whispered to her what this drumming meant and that chattering and that sudden rattle almost under their feet.
They had to go slowly, Sylvie touching the trees here and there, along her side of the trail. He lifted her over logs and fallen trees, and sometimes, before he set her down, he kissed her. Then Sylvie would turn her head shyly, and he would laugh. Thus they made slow, sweet progress.
"I see more in the woods with your eyes than I ever could with my own," she told him.
"I have eyes for us both," he answered. "That's why God gave me the eyes I have, because He knew the use I'd be making of them."
"Is this the trail Pete follows to the trading-station?" she asked. "I wish you could take me there, Hugh, or—would you let him take me?"
He tightened his arm. "I can't bear to have you out of my sight," he answered.
She sighed. "It seems so queer that they haven't tried to find me. Do you suppose they think that I'm dead? Did Pete mail my letter to Miss Foby, I wonder?"
"What does Miss Foby matter?" he asked jealously. "What does anything matter to you but—me? Here we leave Pete's trail and I take you straight up the mountain, dear one. We'll rest now and then; when we get to the rocky place just below the top, I'll carry you. Are you happy? I always feel as if my heart melted with the snow when spring comes—a wild, free, tumbling feeling of softness and escape."
She sighed. "Yes—if only I could see. I miss my eyes out of doors more than in the house. Does snow-blindness really last so long? Perhaps it was the nervous shock and the exhaustion as much as the glare. I am sure it all will just go suddenly some day. I stare and stare sometimes, and I feel as if I might see—almost."
He frowned. "You mustn't miss anything when you have me, Sylvie. Do you suppose I miss anything, now that I have you? My career, my old friends, my old life, my liberty, the world? That for everything!" He snapped his fingers. "If only I have you."
"You love me so much," she answered, as though she were oppressed, "it frightens me sometimes."
"When you are wholly mine—" he began. "Well, wait till we get to the top of the mountain; there I'll tell you all my plans. They're as big and beautiful as the world. I feel, with your love, that I can move mountains. I can fashion the world close to my heart's desire. We'll leave this blank spot and go to some lovely, warm, smiling land where the water is turquoise and the sky aquamarine—"
"And perhaps my sight will come back." It was almost a prayer.
He did not answer. They had come to a sharp sudden ascent. He took her in his arms, scrambled across the tumbled rocks, and set her down beside him on the great granite crest that rose like the edge of a gray wave. The clean, wild wind smote her and shook her and pressed back her hair and dress. She clung to him.
"Is it steep? Are we on the edge of a cliff, Hugh? I'm not afraid!"
"We're on the very top of the world," he told her breathlessly, his voice filled with a sense of awe, "our world, Sylvie, I'm master here. There's no greater mind than my own in all that dark green circle. It's pines, pines, pines to the edge of the earth, Sylvie, an ocean of purple and green—silver where the wind moves, treading down, like Christ walking on the water. And the sky is all gray, like stone."
"Can you see the flat, the cabin?"
"The flat, yes—a round green spot, way down there behind us. The cabin? No. That's in a hollow, you may be sure, well out of sight. I'm an outlaw, dearest, remember. There's a curve of the river, like a silver elbow. And Sylvie, up above us, an eagle is turning and turning in a huge circle. He thinks he's king. But, Sylvie, it's our world—yours and mine. This is our marriage."
She drew back. "What do you mean?"
"Haven't you a feeling for such images? We'll go before a parson—don't be afraid. Would I frighten you, Sylvie? I love you too much for that. Why, Sylvie, what's wrong?"
When his lips, clinging and compelling, had left hers, she bent her face to his arm and began to cry.
"Oh, I don't know. I don't know.... But please don't kiss me like that, not like that!"
He released her and half turned, but her hands instantly hunted for him, found him and clung.
"Hugh, don't be angry. Be patient with me. Try to understand. Perhaps it's because I am in the dark. I do love you. I do. But you must wait. Soon it will be spring for me, too. You don't understand? You're angry? But I can't explain it any better."
"You can lay your hand on me," he said hoarsely. "God knows I'm real enough." And he thought so! "My love for you is here like a granite block, Sylvie."
"I know. It is the one thing in the darkness that is real. I know you—your love, splendid and strong and brave. Wait just a little, Hugh. Try to be patient. Suddenly it will all come right. The fog will lift. Then we'll really be on top of the mountain." She laughed, but rather sadly.
"I will always hate this mountain-top," he said. "I used to love it. I was so close to happiness, and now you've snatched it out of my reach." He drew in sobbing breaths.
"No—it's myself I'm keeping from happiness, not you," she answered. "I know it will come right, but you must not hurry me. Dear Hugh, be patient." She found his hand and raised it, a dead weight, to her lips. "Please be patient. Let's go down out of this wind. I can't see your world, and I'm cold."
So, in silence—a dull gray silence Hugh led her down into the valley.
They came down the hill rapidly and carelessly. Hugh, stung by pain and anger, threw himself over the rocks, and Sylvie was too proud to show her timidity or to ask for help. She crept and climbed up and down, saving herself with groping hand, letting one foot test the distances before she put the other down. At last the rattle of his progress sounded so far below that she quavered: "Aren't you going to wait for me, Hugh?"
He stopped short, and for a moment watched her silently; then, smitten by the pathos of her progress—a little child, she seemed, against the mountain toppling so close behind her—he came swinging up to her and gave her his hand.
"You need me, anyway, don't you?" he asked with a tender sort of roughness.
She couldn't answer because she didn't want him to know that he had made her cry. She kept her face turned from him and hurried along at his side.
"Why do you go so fearfully fast?" she was forced at last to protest.
"Because I want to get down from this accursed mountain. I want to get down into the woods again where I was happy."
"Hugh"—she pulled at his arm—"you are only a child after all."
"Well—" She stopped. "Go home alone, then. I'll be no worse off than when you found me the first time. Pete will come out and hunt for me. He has a far sweeter temper than you, Hugh, and doesn't think only of himself."
He swung away at that, resting his hand against a big rock to clear a hole; then, seeing her about to step down into it, he pivoted back, caught her up bodily in his arms, and, laughing, ran with her down the hill, bounding over the rocks, leaping over the crevices, while she clung to him in fright.
"You silly child!" he cried. "This is the way I'll take you home. Now I've got you, and I'll punish you well, too." She clung to him and begged him to stop. She was frightened by their rash, plunging progress, by his speech. She struggled. "Let me down. I won't be carried like this against my will. Hugh, let me down!"
"All right!" He fairly flung her from him on a grassy spot. He was about to leave her when a rushing rattle sounded above them. The boulder he had twice used to turn his own weight upon was charging down the hillside! Just in time he caught Sylvie, threw her to one side and fell prone, helpless, in the path of the slide. He cried out, flinging up his arm, and, as though his cry had been of magic, the boulder faltered and stopped. A root half buried just above his body had made a hollow and a ledge; it had rocked the rolling fragment back up on its haunches, so to speak, and balanced it to a stop.
"Hugh! Hugh!" sobbed Sylvie. "What was it? Are you hurt?"
She crept up to him.
"No," Hugh told her, breathing heavily. "It was a rolling rock."
"How did you stop it? You must be hurt, crushed, bruised."
"My arm's wrenched—not badly." He had in fact wrenched it slightly.
"Your poor arm! You were so quick, so strong. You didn't think of your own life. And I've been so cruel. Hugh, Hugh, kiss me."
Hugh took his reward, none the less sweet to his strange nature, in that it was only potentially earned. And joy, like a warm flood, crept up again to his heart. He sat on the hillside and held his small love close. One of his arms moved stiffly, and he groaned a little. She rubbed it for him.
"You'd better come home and let Bella and me fix it. It may be badly hurt. You're sure it isn't broken?" she asked.
"Lean on me! I'll help you down. You can tell me where to step."
"Nonsense," he laughed, his very blood singing warm with relief. "A strained arm won't hurt my walking apparatus. We had a lover's quarrel, didn't we? And the boulder was peacemaker. Bless the boulder!"
"Don't joke, dear. You saved my life at the risk of your own. Are you always doing insane, generous, dangerous things? Think if you had been—" She shivered.
"Do you suppose my life is worth anything to me without yours, Sylvie?" He bent his head and kissed her again, but he had learned his lesson, and there was restraint and timidity in that kiss.
"The sun's come out," cried Sylvie.
"Yes, it's splendidly bright. There's a clean slit in the sky; there at the western edge the dark gray cap is being lifted inch by inch, the way a boy lifts his cap to see the butterfly he's caught. All's gold behind it, Sylvie, burning gold. The rocks are like bright copper. And the pines, they're incandescent, phosphorescent green—"
"If I could only see it!"
Down near the pines a tall, still figure stood watching them. It was Pete, and his smile, usually so frank and sweet, had now a sardonic twist. As they came down out of their sun into his shadow, he spoke with a drag to his syllables.
"Hullo," he said. "That was a narrow escape you had, you two!"
The voice might have been a pistol-shot for the start it gave to Hugh.
"Why, it's Pete. We must be late, Pete," Sylvie called joyously. "Did you see how Hugh saved my life? He threw himself down before the rock and stopped it. He's hurt his poor arm. The great stone was right on top of us, and he threw me out of the way and set his own strength against it. I couldn't see the rock, Pete, but it felt like a mountain."
"It was big enough to smash you both," said Pete.
He looked at Hugh, whose eyes glared in a strained, shamed face. The older man's fingers worked nervously; he opened his lips and closed them again. It was easy to understand the travail of his mind, unwilling to forego the imaginary bit of heroism, and yet abashed by the boy's awareness of the lie.
Pete gave one short laugh; then, springing suddenly across a fallen tree that separated them, he caught Sylvie up into his arms.
"You can't carry her with a wrenched arm," he said, half gayly, half tauntingly, "and at the best rate she can go, it will be night before we get her home. I'm strong. I'll carry her myself."
Sylvie laughed protesting that she was being treated like a doll, and resigned herself to Pete's swift, smooth stride. It was as though she were skimming through space, so quietly did his moccasined feet press the pine-needled earth, so exquisitely did his young strength save her from any jar. He whistled softly through his teeth as he ran in long, swift strides. And as he did not speak to her, she lay silent, yet strangely peaceful and happy. Hugh was left far behind. The forest fragrance moved cool and resinous against her face.
"I feel as if we could go on and on forever," she said with a sigh, "forever and ever and ever."
"We will," he answered through his teeth, hardly pausing in his whistling for the odd reply. "We will."
But for all that, he set her gently and suddenly down, and she knew that she stood again at the cabin door.
"Pete, where are you?" she asked.
But he had disappeared, still in utter silence, like a genie whose task is done.
"What did he say to you? What did he say to you?" asked Hugh again and again.
Sylvie laughed at him.
"He didn't say anything—hardly a word, except that he pretended he was going on forever. He said: 'We will, we will.' That's absolutely all, Hugh. Don't be so silly. What could he say?"
"I don't know," Hugh answered. "He might have made fun of me."
"Fun of you! After saving my life! I'd have boxed his ears! No, no, Peter wouldn't do that. He's afraid of me."
She was so proud of this that Hugh, perforce, laughed. It was after supper, and they had walked a little way from the cabin. They were standing just above the river on a little hillock topped with three big pines. The dusk was thick about them; stars pricked the soft sky. Sylvie was wrapped in Hugh's coat, and they were linked by their hands hanging at their sides. Every one but Sylvie had been very silent at supper, but she had told her story of Hugh's heroism again and again until finally even Hugh had grumbled at "the fuss."
"What makes you think anyone could be afraid of you?" He smiled down at the small dark head which did not reach his shoulder.
"He's afraid I'll kiss him. Don't grip my hand that way; it hurts. You couldn't be jealous of a boy! Besides, I don't kiss him any more. I never have kissed him but that once—no, twice, when I told him that I was going to be his sister."
"You told him that?" Hugh's voice had an odd anxiety. "How did he take it?"
"I don't think he was very enthusiastic. He loves you so much, Hugh; you are the very heart of his universe, and I suppose he is jealous of your love for me. Since then he's avoided me and is as dumb as a fish when I talk to him. I think his body has outgrown his mind, Hugh."