So with Aldebaran. At first it seemed that he could not endure to face the round of useless days now stretching out before him. An eagle, broken-winged and drooping in a cage, he sat within the goat-herd's hut and gloomed upon his lot, and cursed the vital force within that would not let him die.
To fall asleep with all the world within one's grasp and waken empty-handed—that is small bane to one who may spring up again, and by sheer might wrest all his treasures back from Fortune. But to wake helpless as well as empty-handed, the strength for ever gone from arms that were invincible; to crawl, a poor crushed worm, the mark for all men's pity, where one had thought to win the meed of all men's praise, ah, then to live is agony! Each breath becomes a venomed adder's sting.
Most of all Aldebaran thought of Vesta. The stroke that marred his comeliness and took his strength had robbed him of all power to win his happiness. It was written "by the hearth of him who is the bravest she shall keep eternal vigil." As yet he had not risen above the level of his forbears' bravery, only up to it. Now 'twas impossible to show the world a greater courage, shorn as he was of strength. And even had her horoscope willed otherwise, and she should come to him all filled with maiden pity to share his ruined hearth, he could not say her yea. His man's pride rose up in him, rebellious at the thought of pity from one in whose sight he fain would be all that is strong and comely. Looking down upon his twisted limbs, the pain that racked him was greater torture than mere flesh can feel. Although 'twas casting heaven from him, he drew his mantle closer, hiding his disfigured form, and prayed with groans and writhings that she might never look on him again. So days went by.
There came a time when, even through his all-absorbing thought of self, there pierced the consciousness that he no longer could impose upon the goat-herds' bounty. Food was scarce within the hut, and even though he groaned to die, the dawns brought hunger. So at the close of day he dragged him down the mountainside, thinking that under cover of the dusk he would steal into the village and seek a chance to earn his bread.
But as he neared the little town and the sound of evening bells broke on his ear, and lighted windows marked the homes where welcome waited other men, he winced as from a blow. This was the village he had thought to enter in the midst of loud acclaims, its brave deliverer from the Province Terror. Then every window in the hamlet would have blazed for him. Then every door would have been set wide to welcome Aldebaran, the royal son of kings, fittest to bear the Sword of Conquest. And now Aldebaran was but the crippled makeshift of a man, who could not even draw that Sword from out its scabbard; at whose wry features all must turn away in loathing, and some perchance might even set the dogs to snarling at his heels, in haste to have him gone.
"In all the world," he cried in bitterness, "there breathes no other man whom Fate hath used so cruelly! Emptied of hope, robbed of my all, life doth become a prison-house that dooms me to its lowest dungeon! Why struggle any longer 'gainst my lot? Why not lie here and starve, and thus force Death to turn the key, and break the manacles which bind me to my misery?"
While he thus mused, footsteps came up the mountainside, a lusty voice was raised in song, and before he could draw back into cover, a head in a fantastic cap appeared above the bushes. It was the village Jester capering along the path as if the world were thistledown and every day a holiday. But when he saw Aldebaran he stopped agape and crossed himself. Then he pushed nearer.
Now those who saw the Jester only on a market day or at the country fair plying his trade of merriment for all 'twas worth knew not a sage was hid behind that motley or that his sympathies were tender as a saint's. Yet so it was. The motto written deep across his heart was this: "To ease the burden of the world!" It was beyond belief how wise he'd grown in wheedling men to think no load lay on their shoulders. Now he stood and gazed upon the prostrate man who turned away his face and would not answer his low-spoken words: "What ails thee, brother?"
It boots not in this tale what wiles he used to gain Aldebaran's ear and tongue. Another man most surely must have failed, because he shrank from pity as from salt rubbed in a wound, and felt that none could hear his woeful history and not bestow that pity. But if the Jester felt its throbs he gave no sign. Seated beside him on the grass he talked in the light tone that served his trade, as if Aldebaran's woes were but a flight of swallows 'cross a summer sky, and would as soon be gone. And when between his quirks he'd drawn the piteous tale entirely from him, he doubled up with laughter and smote his sides.
"And I'm the fool and thou'rt the sage!" he gasped between his peals of mirth. "Gadzooks! Methinks it is the other way around. Why, look ye, man! Here thou dost go a-junketing through all the earth to find a chance to show unequalled courage, and when kind Fate doth shove it underneath thy very nose, thou turn'st away, lamenting. I've heard of those who know not beans although the bag be opened, and now I laugh to see one of that very kind before me."
Then dropping his unseemly mirth and all his wanton raillery, he stood up with his face a-shine, and spake as if he were the heaven-sent messenger of hope.
"Rise up!" he cried. "Knowest thou not it takes a thousandfold more courage to sheathe the sword when one is all on fire for action than to go forth against the greatest foe? Here is thy chance to show the world the kingliest spirit it has ever known! Here is a phalanx thou mayst meet all single-handed—a daily struggle with a host of hurts that cut thee to the quick. This sheathed sword upon thy side will stab thee hourly with deeper thrusts than any adversary can give. 'Twill be a daily 'minder of thy thwarted hopes. For foiled ambition is the hydra-headed monster of the Lerna marsh. Two heads will rise for every one thou severest. 'Twill be a fight till death. Art brave enough to lift the gauntlet that Despair flings down and wage this warfare to thy very grave?"
Such call to arms seemed mockery as Aldebaran looked down upon his twisted limbs, but as the bloodstone on his finger met his sight his kingly soul leapt up. "I'll keep the oath!" he cried, and struggling to his feet laid hand upon the jewelled hilt that decked his side.
"By sheathed sword, since blade is now denied me," he swore. "I'll win the future that my stars foretold!"
In that exalted moment all things seemed possible, and though his body limped as haltingly he followed on behind his new-found friend, his spirit walked erect, and faced his future for the time, undaunted.
His merry-Andrew of a host made festival when they at last came to his dwelling; lit a great fire upon the hearth, brewed him a drink that warmed him to the core, brought wheaten loaves and set a bit of savoury meat to turning on the spit.
"Ho, ho!" he laughed. "They say it is an ill wind that blows good to none. Now thou dost prove the proverb. The tempest that didst blow thee from thy course mayhap may send me on my way rejoicing. I long have wished to leave this land and seek the distant province where my kindred dwell, but there was never one to take my place. And when I spake of going, my townsmen said me nay. 'Twas quite as bad, they vowed, as if the priest should suddenly desert his parish, with none to shepherd his abandoned flock. 'Who'll cheer us in our doldrums?' they demanded. 'Who'll help us bear our troubles by making us forget them? Thou canst not leave us, Piper, until some other merry soul comes by to set our feet a-dancing.' Now thou art come."
"Yes, I! A merry soul indeed!" Aldebaran cried in bitterness.
"Well, maybe not quite that," his host admitted. "But thou couldst pass as one. Thou couldst at least put on my grotesque garb, couldst learn the quips and quirks by which I make men laugh. Thou wouldst not be the first man who has hid an aching heart behind a smile. The tune thou pipest may not bring thee pleasure, but if it sets the world to dancing it is enough. And, too, it is an honest way to earn thy bread. Canst think of any other?"
Aldebaran hid his face within his hands. "No, no!" he groaned. "There is no other way, and yet my soul abhors the thought, that I, a king's son, should descend to this! The jester's motley and the cap and bells. How can I play such a part?"
"Because thou art a king's son," said the Jester. "That in itself is ample reason that thou shouldst play more royally than other men whatever part Fate may assign thee."
Aldebaran sat wrapped in thought. "Well," was the slow reply after long pause, "an hundred years from now, I suppose, 'twill make no difference how circumstances chafe me now. A poor philosophy, but still there is a grain of comfort in it. I'll take thy offer, friend, and give thee gratitude."
And so next day the two went forth together. Aldebaran showed a brave front to the crowd, glad of the painted mask that hid his features, and no one guessed the misery that lurked beneath his laugh, and no one knew what mighty tax it was upon his courage to follow in the Jester's lead and play buffoon upon the open street. It was a thing he loathed, and yet, 'twas as the Jester said, his training in the royal court had made him sharp of wit and quick to read men's minds; and to the countrymen who gathered there agape, around him in the square, his keen replies were wonderful as wizard's magic.
And when he piped—it was no shallow fluting that merely set the rustic feet a-jig, it was a strange and stirring strain that made the simplest one among them stand with his soul a-tiptoe, as he listened, as if a kingly train with banners went a-marching by. So royally he played his part, that even on that first day he surpassed his teacher. The Jester, jubilant that this was so, thought that his time to leave was near at hand, but when that night they reached his dwelling Aldebaran tore off the painted mask and threw himself upon the hearth.
"'Tis more than flesh can well endure!" he cried. "All day the thought of what I've lost was like a constant sword-thrust in my heart. Instead of deference and respect that once was mine from high and low, 'twas laugh and jibe and pointing finger. And, too," (his voice grew shrill and querulous) "I saw young lovers straying in the lanes together. How can I endure that sight day after day when my arms must remain for ever empty? And little children prattled by their father's side no matter where I turned. I, who shall never know a little son's caress felt like a starving man who looks on bread and may not eat. Far better that I crawl away from haunts of men where I need never be tormented by such contrasts."
The Jester looked down on Aldebaran's wan face. It was as white and drawn as if he had been tortured by the rack and thumbscrew, so he made no answer for the moment. But when the fire was kindled, and they had supped the broth set out in steaming bowls upon the table, he ventured on a word of cheer.
"At any rate," he said, "for one whole day thou hast kept thy oath. No matter what the anguish that it cost thee, from sunrise till sunsetting thou hast held Despair at bay. It was the bravest stand that thou hast ever made. And now, if thou hast lived through this one day, why not another? 'Tis only one hour at a time that thou art called on to endure. Come! By the bloodstone that is thy birthright, pledge me anew thou'lt keep thy oath until the going down of one more sun."
So Aldebaran pledged him one more day, and after that another and another, until a fortnight slowly dragged itself away. And then because he met his hurt so bravely and made no sign, the Jester thought the struggle had grown easier with time, and spoke again of going to his kindred.
"Nay, do not leave me yet," Aldebaran plead. "Wouldst take my only crutch? It is thy cheerful presence that alone upholds me."
"Yet it would show still greater courage if thou couldst face thy fate alone," the Jester answered. "Despair cannot be vanquished till thou hast taught thyself to really feel the gladness thou dost feign. I've heard that if one will count his blessings as the faithful tell their rosary beads he will forget his losses in pondering on his many benefits. Perchance if thou wouldst try that plan it might avail."
So Aldebaran went out determined to be glad in heart as well as speech, if so be it he could find enough of cheer. "I will be glad," he said, "because the morning sun shines warm across my face." He slipped a golden beam upon his memory string.
"I will be glad because that there are diamond sparkles on the grass and larks are singing in the sky." A dew-drop and a bird's trill for his rosary.
"I will be glad for bread, for water from the spring, for eyesight and the power to smell the budding lilacs by the door; for friendly greetings from the villagers."
A goodly rosary, symbol of all the things for which he should be glad, was in his hand at close of day. He swung it gaily by the hearth that night, recounting all his blessings till the Jester thought, "At last he's found the cure."
But suddenly Aldebaran flung the rosary from him and hid his face within his hands. "'Twill drive me mad!" he cried. "To go on stringing baubles that do but set my mind the firmer on the priceless jewel I have lost. May heaven forgive me! I am not really glad. 'Tis all a hollow mockery and pretence!"
Then was the Jester at his wit's end for reply. It was a welcome sound when presently a knocking at the door broke on the painful silence. The visitor who entered was an aged friar beseeching alms at every door, as was the custom of his brotherhood, with which to help the sick and poor. And while the Jester searched within a chest for some old garments he was pleased to give, he bade the friar draw up to the hearth and tarry for their evening meal, which then was well-nigh ready. The friar, glad to accept the hospitality, spread out his lean hands to the blaze, and later, when the three sat down together, warmed into such a cheerfulness of speech that Aldebaran was amazed.
"Surely thy lot is hard, good brother," he said, looking curiously into the wrinkled face. "Humbling thy pride to beg at every door, forswearing thine own good in every way that others may be fed, and yet thy face speaks of an inward joy. I pray thee tell me how thou hast found happiness."
"By never going in its quest," the friar answered. "Long years ago I learned a lesson from the stars. Our holy Abbot took me out one night into the quiet cloister, and pointing to the glittering heavens showed me my duty in a way I never have forgot. I had grown restive in my lot and chafed against its narrow round of cell and cloister. But in a word he made me see that if I stepped aside from that appointed path, merely for mine own pleasure, 'twould mar the order of God's universe as surely as if a planet swerved from its eternal course.
"'No shining lot is thine,' he said. 'Yet neither have the stars themselves a light. They but reflect the Central Sun. And so mayst thou, while swinging onward, faithful to thy orbit, reflect the light of heaven upon thy fellow men.'
"Since then I've had no need to go a-seeking happiness, for bearing cheer to others keeps my own heart a-shine. I pass the lesson on to thee, good friend. Remember, men need laughter sometimes more than food, and if thou hast no cheer thyself to spare, why, thou mayst go a-gathering it from door to door as I do crusts, and carry it to those who need."
Long after the good friar had supped and gone, Aldebaran sat in silence. Then crossing to the tiny casement that gave upon the street, he stood and gazed up at the stars. Long, long he mused, fitting the friar's lesson to his own soul's need, and when he turned away, the old astrologer's prophecy had taken on new meaning.
"As Aldebaran the star shines in the heavens" (no light within itself, but borrowing from the Central Sun), "so Aldebaran the man might shine among his fellows." (Beggared of joy himself, yet flashing its reflection athwart the lives of others.)
When next he went into the town he no longer shunned the sights that formerly he'd passed with face averted, for well he knew that if he would shed joy and hope on others he must go to places where they most abound. What matter that the thought of Vesta stabbed him nigh to madness when he looked on hearth-fires that could never blaze for him? With courage almost more than human he put that fond ambition out of mind as if it were another sword he'd learned to sheathe. At first it would not stay in hiding, but flew the scabbard of his will to thrust him sore as often as he put it from him. But after awhile he found a way to bind it fast, and when he'd found that way it gave him victory over all.
A little child came crying towards him in the market-place, its world a waste of woe because the toy it cherished had been broken in its play. Aldebaran would have turned aside on yesterday to press the barbed thought still deeper in his heart that he had been denied the joy of fatherhood. But now he stooped as gently as if he were the child's own sire to wipe its tears and soothe its sobs. And when with skilful fingers he restored the toy, the child bestowed on him a warm caress out of its boundless store.
He passed on with his pulses strangely stirred. 'Twas but a crumb of love the child had given, yet, as Aldebaran held it in his heart, behold a miracle! It grew full-loaf, and he would fain divide it with all hungering souls! So when a stone's throw farther on he met a man well-nigh distraught from many losses, he did not say in bitterness as once he would have done, that 'twas the common lot of mortals; to look on him if one would know the worst that Fate can do. Nay, rather did he speak so bravely of what might still be wrung from life though one were maimed like he, that hope sprang up within his hearer and sent him on his way with face a-shine.
That grateful smile was like a revelation to Aldebaran, showing him he had indeed the power belonging to the stars. Beggared of joy, no light within himself, yet from the Central Sun could he reflect the hope and cheer that made him as the eye of Taurus 'mong his fellows.
The weeks slipped into months, months into years. The Jester went his way unto his kindred and never once was missed, because Aldebaran more than filled his place. In time the town forgot it ever had another Jester, and in time Aldebaran began to feel the gladness that he only feigned before.
And then it came to pass whenever he went by men felt a strange, strength-giving influence radiating from his presence,—a sense of hope. One could not say exactly what it was, it was so fleeting, so intangible, like warmth that circles from a brazier, or perfume that is wafted from an unseen rose.
Thus he came down to death at last, and there was dole in all the Province, so that pilgrims, journeying through that way, asked when they heard his passing-bell, "What king is dead, that all thus do him reverence?"
"'Tis but our Jester," one replied. "A poor maimed creature in his outward seeming, and yet so blithely did he bear his lot, it seemed a kingly spirit dwelt among us, and earth is poorer for his going."
All in his motley, since he'd willed it so, they laid him on his bier to bear him back again unto his father's house. And when they found the Sword of Conquest hidden underneath his mantle, they marvelled he had carried such a treasure with him through the years, all unbeknown even to those who walked the closest at his side.
When, after many days, the funeral train drew through the castle gate, the king came down to meet it. There was no need of blazoned scroll to tell Aldebaran's story. All written in his face it was, and on his scarred and twisted frame; and by the bloodstone on his finger the old king knew his son had failed not in the keeping of his oath. More regal than the royal ermine seemed his motley now. More eloquent the sheathed sword that told of years of inward struggle than if it bore the blood of dragons, for on his face there shone the peace that comes alone of mighty triumph.
The king looked round upon his nobles and his stalwart sons, then back again upon Aldebaran, lying in silent majesty.
"Bring royal purple for the pall," he faltered, "and leave the Sword of Conquest with him! No other hands will ever be found worthier to claim it!"
That night when tall white candles burned about him there stole a white-robed figure to the flower-strewn bier. 'Twas Vesta, decked as for a bridal, her golden tresses falling round her like a veil. They found her kneeling there beside him, her face like his all filled with starry light, and round them both was such a wondrous shining, the watchers drew aside in awe.
"'Tis as the old astrologers foretold," they whispered. "Her soul hath entered on its deathless vigil. In truth he was the bravest that this earth has ever known."
The porter was lighting the lamps when Mary finished reading. There was one directly above her. She moved her hand so that the light fell on her zodiac ring, and sat turning it this way and that to watch the dull gleams. By the bloodstone on her finger she was vowing that her courage should fail not in helping Jack "pick up the gauntlet which Despair flung down, and wage the warfare to his very grave."
All the way through the story she had read Jack for Aldebaran, and it should be her part to play the role of the Jester who had led him back to hope. She opened the book again at the sentence, "The motto written deep across his heart was this: 'To ease the burden of the world.'" Henceforth that should be her aim in life, to ease Jack's burden. Together, "by sheathed sword since blade was now denied him," they would prove his right to the Sword of Conquest.
Some great load seemed to lift itself from her own shoulders as she made this resolution. She was glad that she had been born in Mars' month. She was glad that this little story had fallen in her way.
It gave her hope and courage. Beggared of joy himself, Jack should yet be "as the eye of Taurus 'mong his fellows."
BACK AT LONE-ROCK
All the rest of the way to Lone-Rock, Mary's waking moments were spent in anticipating her arrival and planning diversions for the days to follow. Now that she was so near, she could hardly wait to see the family. The seven months that she had been away seemed seven years, judging by her changed outlook on life. She felt that she had gone away a mere child, and that she was coming back, years old and wiser. She wondered if they would notice any difference in her.
That Mrs. Ware did, was evident from their moment of greeting. Never before had she broken down and sobbed on Mary's shoulder as she did now. Always she had been the comforter and Mary the one to be consoled, but for a few moments their positions were reversed. Conscious that her coming had lifted a burden from her mother's shoulders, the burden of enduring her anxiety alone, she tiptoed into Jack's room, ready to begin playing the Jester at once with some merry speech which she was sure would bring a smile.
But he was lying asleep, and the jest died on her lips as she stood and gazed at him. She had expected him to look ill, but his face, white and drawn with great dark shadows under his closed eyes, was so much ghastlier than she had pictured, that it was a shock to find him so. She stole out of the room again to the sunny little back porch, as sick at heart as if she had seen him lying in his coffin. He was no more like the strong jolly big brother she had left, than the silent shadow of him. She was thankful that her first sight of him had been while he was asleep. Otherwise she must have betrayed her surprise and distress.
Out on the porch she heard from Norman how it had happened. Jack had seen the danger that threatened two of the workmen, and had sprung forward with a warning cry in time to push them out of the way, but had been caught himself by the falling timbers. The miners had always liked Jack, Norman told her. He could do anything with them. And now they would get down and crawl for him if it would do any good.
From her mother and the nurse Mary heard about the operation that had been made to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. It seemed successful as far as it went. They could not hope to do more than to make it possible for him to sit up in a wheeled chair. The injury had been of such a peculiar character that they were fortunate to accomplish even that much. It would be several weeks before he could attempt it. Jack did not know yet how seriously he had been injured. They were afraid to tell him until he was stronger. The Company was paying all the expenses of his illness, and there was an accident insurance.
At first Mary insisted on sending away Huldah, the faithful woman who had been the maid of all work in her absence, protesting that "a penny saved was a penny earned," and that she herself was amply able to do the work, and that she could economize even if she couldn't bring in any money to the family treasury. But she was soon persuaded of the wisdom of keeping her. The nurse was to leave as soon as Jack was able to sit up, and Mary would have her hands full then. He would need constant attendance at first, the nurse told her, and since he could never take any exercise, only daily massage would keep up his strength.
"I shall begin teaching you how to give it just as soon as he rallies a little more," the nurse promised, "You will have to be both hands and feet for him for many a week to come, poor boy, and feet always. It is good that you are so strong and untiring yourself."
For awhile Mary went about feeling like a visitor, since there was little for her to do either in kitchen or sick-room. Jack had not yet reached the stage when he needed amusement. He seemed glad that she was home, and his eyes followed her wistfully about the room, but he did not attempt to talk much. Sometimes the emptiness of the hours palled on her till she felt that she could not endure it. She wrote long letters to Joyce and Betty and all the school-girls with whom she wanted to keep up a correspondence. She mended everything she could find that needed mending, and she spent many hours telling her mother all that had happened in her absence. But for once in her life her usual resources failed her.
The little mining camp of Lone-Rock was high up in the hills, so that April there was not like the Aprils she had known at the Wigwam. There were still patches of snow under the pine trees above the camp. But the stir of spring was in the air, and every afternoon, while Mrs. Ware was resting, Mary slipped away for a long walk. Sometimes she would scramble up the hill-side to the great over-hanging rock which gave the place its name, and sit looking down at the tiny village below. It was just a cluster of miners' shacks, most of them inhabited by Mexicans. There were the Company's stores and the post-office, and away at the farther end of the one street were the houses of the few American families who had found their way to Lone-Rock, either on account of the mines or the healthful climate of the pine-covered hills. She could distinguish the roof of their own cottage among them, and the chimney of the little, unpainted school-house.
She wondered what the outcome of all their troubles was to be. She couldn't go on in this aimless way, day after day. She must find something to do that would pay her a salary, and it must be something that she could do at home, where she would be needed sorely as soon as the nurse left. Then she would go over and over the same little round. She might teach. She knew that she could pass the examination for a license, but the school was already supplied with a competent teacher, of many years' experience, whom the trustees would undoubtedly prefer to a seventeen year old girl just fresh from school herself.
There was stenography—that was something she could master by herself, and at home, but there was already a stenographer in the Company office, and there was no other place for one in Lone-Rock. Round and round she went like one in a treadmill, always to come back to the starting point, that there was nothing she could do in Lone-Rock to earn money, and she must earn some, and she could not go away from home. Sometimes the hopelessness of the situation gave her a wild caged feeling, as if she must beat herself against the bars of circumstance and make them give way for her pent-up forces to find an outlet.
The only thing that Mrs. Ware could suggest was that they might advertise in the Phoenix papers for summer boarders. She had been told that the year before several camping parties had pitched tents near Lone-Rock, and they had said that if there were a good boarding place in the village it could be filled to overflowing with a desirable class of guests.
So Mary spent an evening, pencil in hand, calculating the probable expenses and income from such a venture. They could not go into it on a large scale, the house was too small. The cost of living was high in Lone-Rock, and the market limited to the canned goods on the shelves of the Company's stores. Her careful figuring proved that there would be so little profit in the undertaking that it would not pay to try. But the evening was not lost. It suggested the vegetable garden, which with Norman's help she proceeded to start the very next morning.
Plain spading in unbroken sod is not exactly what a boy of thirteen would call sport, and Norman started at the task with little enthusiasm. But Mary, following vigorously in his wake with hoe and rake, spurred him on with visions of the good things they should have to eat and the fortune they should make selling fresh garden stuff to the summer campers, till he caught some of her indomitable spirit, and really grew interested in the work. Mary confined her energies to the vegetables which she knew would grow in that locality, and which would be sure to find a ready sale, but Norman gradually enlarged the borders to make experiments of his own, till all the lot back of the house was a well tilled garden.
If it had done nothing but keep her employed out of doors many hours of the day it would have been well worth the effort, for it kept her from brooding over her troubles, and largely took away the caged feeling which had made her so desperate. As the fresh green shoots came up through the soil and she counted the long straight rows, she counted also the dimes each one ought to bring to the family purse, and drew a breath of relief. They would amount to a neat little sum by the end of the season, and by that time maybe some other way would be opened up for her to earn money at home. True, not all the things they planted came up. Fully a third of the garden "failed to answer to roll call," Norman said, but those that did respond to their diligent care amply made up for the failure of the others.
Jack's room in the wing of the cottage had a south door over-looking the garden, and it was a happy day for the entire household when he asked to know what was going on out there. He could not see the garden from the corner where his bed stood, but the nurse propped a large mirror up against a chair in a way to reflect the entire scene. Norman was vigorously hoeing weeds, and Mary, armed with a large magnifying glass, was on a hunt for the worms that were threatening the young plants.
The scene seemed to amuse Jack immensely, and entirely aroused out of his apathy, he began to ask questions, and to suggest various dishes that he would like to sample as soon as the garden could furnish them. Every morning after that he called for the mirror to see how much the garden had grown in the night. It was an event when the first tiny radish was brought in for him to taste, and a matter of family rejoicing, when the first crisp head of lettuce was made into a salad for him, because his enjoyment of it was so evident.
About that time he was able to be propped up in bed a little while each day, and was so much like his old cheerful self that Mary wrote long hopeful letters to Joyce and Betty about his improvement. He joked with the nurse and talked so confidently about going back to work, that Mary began to feel that her worst fears had been unfounded, and that much of her mental anguish on his account had been unnecessary. Sometimes she shared his hopefulness to such an extent that she half regretted leaving school before the end of the year. When the girls wrote about the approaching Commencement and the good times they were having, and of how they missed her, she thought how pleasant it would have been to have had at least the one whole year with them. She was afraid she would be sorry all the rest of her life that she had missed those experiences of Commencement time. The exercises were always so beautiful at Warwick Hall.
She could not wholly regret her return, however, when she saw how much Jack depended on her for entertainment. He was ready to hear all about her escapades at school now, and hours at a time she talked or read to him, choosing with unerring instinct the tales best suited to his mood. Phil kept them supplied with all the current magazines. Phil had been so thoughtful about that, and his occasional letters to Jack had made red-letter days on Mary's calendar. They had been almost as good as visits, they were so charged with his jolly, light-hearted spirit.
But it happened, that the story she intended to read Jack first, The Jester's Sword, still lay unopened on her table. She could not even suggest his likeness to Aldebaran while he talked so hopefully of what he intended to do as soon as he was out of bed. It was evident that he did not realize the utter hopelessness of his condition, or he could not have made such big plans for the future.
"Of course I appreciate your leaving school in the middle of the term," he told her. "It's good for mamma to have you here, and it's fine for me, too, to have you look after me. But I'm sorry you were so badly frightened that you thought it necessary. You'll have to pay up for this holiday, Missy. I shall expect you to study all summer to make up lost time, so that you can catch up with your class and enter Sophomore with them next fall."
To please him she brought out her books and studied awhile every day, reciting her French and Latin to her mother, and wrestling along with the others as best she could. Then, too, it was impossible not to be affected to some extent by his spirit of hopefulness, and several times she gave herself up to the bliss of dreaming of the joyful thing it would be, if he should prove to be right and she could go back to Warwick Hall in the fall. Then, one day the surgeons came up from Phoenix again and made their examination and experiments, and after that the lessons and the day-dreams stopped. Everything stopped, it seemed.
They told him the truth because he would have nothing else, although they shrank from doing it until the last moment of their stay. They knew it would be like giving him his death-blow. Mary, standing in the door, saw the look of unspeakable horror that stole slowly over his face, then his helpless sinking back among the pillows, and the twitching of his hands as he clenched them convulsively. Not a word or a groan escaped him, but the wild despair of his set face and staring eyes was more than she could endure. She rushed out of the room and out of the house to the little loft above the woodshed, where no one could hear her frantic sobbing. It was hours before she ventured back into the house. It would only add to his misery to see her distress, she knew, so she left him to the little mother's ministrations.
Anticipating such a result, the surgeons had brought several appliances to make his confinement less irksome. There was a hammock arrangement with pulleys, by which he might be swung into different positions, and out into a wheeled chair. They fastened the screws into walls and ceiling, put the apparatus in place and carefully tested it before leaving. Then they were at the end of their skill. They could do nothing more. There was nothing that could be done.
Several times in the days that followed, the nurse spoke of the brave way in which Jack seemed to be meeting his fate. But Mrs. Ware shook her head sadly. She knew why no complaint escaped him. She had seen him act the Spartan before to spare her. Mary, too, knew what his persistent silence meant. He was not always so careful to veil the suffering which showed through his eyes when he was alone with her. She knew that half the time when he appeared to be listening to what she was reading, he was so absorbed in his bitter thoughts that he did not hear a word. "An eagle, broken-winged and drooping in a cage, he gloomed upon his lot and cursed the vital force within that would not let him die."
One morning, when he had been settled in his wheeled chair, she brought out the story of the Jester's Sword, saying, tremulously, "Will you do something for me? Jack? Read this little book yourself. I know you don't halfway listen to what I read any more, and I don't blame you, but this seems to have been written just on purpose for you."
He took the book from her listlessly, and opened it because she wished it. Watching him from the doorway, she waited until she saw him glance up from the opening paragraph to the watch-fob lying on the stand at his elbow. Then he looked back at the page, with a slight show of interest, and she knew that the reference to Mars' month and the bloodstone had caught his attention as it had hers. Then she left him alone with it, hoping fervently it would arouse in him at least a tithe of the interest it had awakened in her.
When she came back after awhile he merely handed her the book, saying in an indifferent way, "A very pretty little tale, Mary," and leaned back in his chair with closed eyes, as if dismissing it from his thoughts. She was disappointed, but later she saw him sitting with it in his hand again, closed over one finger as if to keep the place, while he looked out of the window with a faraway expression in his eyes. Later the nurse asked her what book it was he kept under his pillow. He drew it out occasionally, she said, and glanced at one of the pages as if he were trying to memorize it.
That he had at last read it as she read it, putting himself in the place of Aldebaran, Mary knew one day from an unconscious reference he made to it. A sudden wind had blown up, scattering papers and magazines across the room, and fluttering his curtains like flags. She ran in to pick up the wind-blown articles and close the shutters. When everything was in order, as she thought, she turned to go out, but he stopped her, saying almost fretfully, "You haven't picked up that picture that blew down." When she glanced all around the room, unable to discover it, he pointed to the hearth. A photograph had fallen from the mantel, face downward.
"There! Vesta's picture!"
Mary picked it up and turned it over, exclaiming, "Why, no, it is Betty's!"
"That's what I said," he answered, wholly unconscious of his slip of the tongue that had betrayed his secret. Her back was turned towards him, so that he could not see the tears which sprang to her eyes. If already it had come to this, that Betty was the Vesta of his dreams, then his renunciation must be an hundredfold harder than she had imagined.
With a pity so deep that she could not trust herself to speak, she busied herself in blowing some specks of dust from the mantel, as an excuse to keep her back turned. She was relieved when the nurse came in with a glass of lemonade and she could slip out without his seeing her face. She sat down on the back steps, her arms around her knees to think about the discovery she had just made. It made her heart-sick because it added so immeasurably to the weight of Jack's misfortune.
"Oh, why did it have to be?" she demanded again of fate. "It is too cruel that everything the dear boy wanted most should be denied him."
With her thoughts centred gloomily on his injuries, it seemed almost an insult for the sun to shine or for any one to be happy, and she was in no mood to meet any one in a different humour from her own. Added to her dull misery on Jack's account, was a baffled, disappointed feeling that she had not been the comfort to him she had hoped to be. True, she was learning to give him the massage he needed with almost as skilful a touch as the nurse, but she could not see that she had eased his burden mentally, in the least, although she had tried faithfully to carry out the good friar's suggestion. It seemed so hard, when she was ready to make any sacrifice for him, no matter how great, even to exchanging her strength for his helplessness, that the means should be denied her.
While she sat there, longing for some great Angel of Opportunity to open the way for her to help him, a little one was coming in at the back gate, so disguised that she did not recognize it as such. She was even impatient at the interruption. Norman, followed by a half grown Mexican boy trundling a wheel-barrow, came up from the barn, with a whole train of smaller boys running along-side, to support the chicken coop he was wheeling. Norman's face shone with importance, and he called excitedly as he fumbled at the gate latch, "Look, Mary! You can't guess what we've got in this box! A young wild-cat! Lupe wants to sell him."
"For mercy's sake, Norman Ware," she answered, impatiently, "haven't we enough trouble now without your bringing home a wild-cat to add to them? And now, of all times!"
The tone carried even more disapproval than her words. It seemed to insinuate that if he had the proper sympathy for Jack he would not be thinking of anything else but his affliction. Instantly the bright face clouded, and in an injured tone he began to explain:
"I thought brother would like to see it, and he could make the trade for me. He talks Mexican, and I only know a few words, I couldn't make the boys understand more than that they were to bring it along. I don't see why Jack's being sick should keep me from having a nice pet like a wild-cat. He isn't a bit mean, and I haven't had a single thing since the puppy was poisoned."
The procession had paused, and the piercingly bright eyes of each one of the little Mexicans seemed also to be asking why. Mary suddenly had to acknowledge to herself that there wasn't any good reason to prevent. Because one brother was desperately unhappy was no reason why she should cloud the enjoyment of the other one by refusing him something on which he had set his heart.
Norman could not understand the lightning change in her, but he followed joyfully when she answered with a brief, "Well, come on," and led the way around to the south door of Jack's room, and called his attention to the embryo menagerie outside.
To her surprise, for the first time since the surgeons' last visit, Jack laughed. It was an amusing group, the wild-cat in the chicken-coop with its body-guard of dirty, grinning little Mexicans, and Norman circling excitedly around them, explaining that Lupe asked a dollar for it, but that he could only give fifty cents, and for Jack to make him understand.
Jack did make him understand, and conducted the trade to Norman's entire satisfaction. Then recognizing Lupe as one of the boys he had seen around the office, he began to question him in Mexican about the mines and the men. Then it developed that Lupe was the son of one of the men who had been saved by Jack's quick warning, and when the boy repeated what some of the miners had said about him, Jack grew red and did not translate it all. The part he did translate was to the effect that the men wanted him back at the mine. They were having trouble with the "fat boss," their name for the new manager.
The little transaction and talk with the boys seemed to cheer Jack up so much that Mary mentally apologized to the wild-cat for her inhospitable reception, and electrified Norman by an offer to help him build a more suitable cage for it than the coop in which it was confined. Norman, who had unbounded faith in Mary's ability as a carpenter, accepted her offer joyfully. She wasn't like some girls he had known. When she drove a nail it held things together, and whatever she built would be strong enough to hold any beast he might choose to put in it.
"Now, if I could get a couple of coyotes and a badger and a fox or two," he remarked, "I'd be fixed."
Mary, who was sorting over a pile of old boards back of the woodshed, paused in alarm.
"It strikes me, young man," she said, a trifle sarcastically, "that the more some people get the more they want. Your wishes seem to be on the Jack's Bean-stalk scale. They grow to reach the sky in a single night. Suppose you did have those things, you wouldn't be satisfied. It would be a zebra and a giraffe and a jungle tiger next."
"No, it wouldn't," he declared. "I wouldn't know how to take care of them, but I do know how to feed the things that live around here."
"What do you want them for?"
"Well, you know what Huldah said about summer campers. There's always a lot of boys along, and if I had a sort of menagerie they'd want to come over and play circus, and then they'd let me in on their ball-games and things. It's awful lonesome with school out and Billy Downs gone back East. There's so few fellows here my age, and Jack won't let me play much with the little Mexicans. They aren't much fun anyhow when I can't talk their lingo."
Mary straightened up, hammer in hand, and squinted her eyes thoughtfully, a way she had when something puzzled her. It had not occurred to her that Norman had social longings like her own which Lone-Rock failed to satisfy. He watched her anxiously. That preoccupied squint always meant that interesting developments would follow.
"Norman Ware," she said, slowly, "I didn't give you credit for being a genius, but you are as great in one way as Emerson. You've hit on one of his ideas all by yourself. He said, 'If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbours, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten track to his door,' If you want company as bad as all that, you shall have a beaten track to your door. We'll build something better than the neighbours ever dreamed of, and it won't be a mouse-trap, either. There's enough old lumber here to build half a dozen cages, and if you'll pay for the wire netting out of your share of the garden profits, I'll help you put up a menagerie that P.T. Barnum himself wouldn't have been ashamed of."
Norman's answer was a whoop and a double somersault, and he came up on his feet again remarking that she was worth all the fellows in Lone-Rock put together.
"According to what you've just said that isn't very much of a compliment," laughed Mary. Still it gratified her so much that presently she was planning a side-show for the menagerie. There were all her mounted specimens of trap-door spiders and butterflies and desert insects. She would loan the collection occasionally, and her stuffed Gila monster and the arrow-heads and rattle-snake skins that she and Holland had collected.
As she hammered and sawed she told Norman the story of The Jester's Sword. "That is one reason I am taking so much interest in this," she explained. "I've been thinking for days about what the old friar said, that men need laughter sometimes more than food, and if we haven't any cheer to spare ourselves, we may go a-gathering it from door to door as he did crusts and carry it to those who need. That is why I have gone on long walks and made so many calls on the few people that are here, so that I'd have something amusing to tell Jack when I came home. But he has seemed to find my 'crusts of cheer' mighty dry food, and he didn't take half the interest in them that he did in talking to Lupe to-day."
"Lupe will make a beaten track to his door fast enough," prophesied Norman, "when he finds we want to buy more animals. I'll send word to-night to him to set his traps for those coyotes and foxes."
That evening after supper, Jack wheeled himself out on to the porch. It was the first time he had attempted it, and when he had made the trip successfully, he sat a few minutes watching the stars. They seemed unusually brilliant, and he amused himself in tracing the constellations with which he was familiar. It had been a family study at the Wigwam, and they had learned many things from the little Atlas of the Heavens which Mrs. Ware kept among her other old school books. Presently he called Mary.
"I've located Taurus. See, just over that tree top. And there is its red eye, Aldebaran. I wanted you to see what a jolly twinkle he has to-night."
It was the first direct reference he had made to the story, and Mary waited expectantly for him to go on.
"Don't you worry, little pard," he said, after a pause. "I've known all along how you felt about me. But I'm not knocked quite out of the game, even if I am such a wreck. I felt so until I had that talk with Lupe, as if there was no use of my cumbering the ground any longer. But I found out a lot from him. The men want me back. They don't understand the new boss at all. They will do anything for me. So even if I can't walk I can be worth at least half a man to the Company, in just being on the spot to interpret and to keep things running smoothly. I could attend to the correspondence, too, for my head and hands are all right. I know I am as helpless as a baby yet, but if you'll just stand by me, and keep up that treatment, and help me get my strength back, I'll make good, some way or another, just as well as Aldebaran did. By the bloodstone on my watch-fob!" he added, laughingly. "How is that for a fine swear?"
The old hopeful note in his voice made his helplessness more pathetic than ever to Mary, but she answered gaily, "You know I'll stand by you till 'the last cock crows and the last trump blows!' You didn't have to be born in Mars month to make undaunted courage the jewel of your soul."
Perched on the arm of his chair she sat watching the red star for a moment, thinking of the events which had led to his resolution. "It's queer, isn't it," she said aloud. "I almost drove Norman away this afternoon with his beast and his train of little Mexicans. I was so out of patience with him for bringing them here. But how is one to know an Opportunity when it comes in a chicken-coop disguised as a Wild-cat?"
An hundred times that summer, Jack made the story of Aldebaran his own. He had his rare, exalted moments, when all things seemed possible; when despite his helpless body his spirit walked erect, and faced his future for the time undaunted. He had his daily struggle with the host of hurts which cut him to the quick, the reminders of his thwarted hopes and foiled ambitions. Then, too, there were times when the only way he could keep up his courage was to repeat grimly through set teeth, "Tis only one hour at a time that I am called on to endure. By the bloodstone that is my birthright, I'll keep my oath until the going down of one more sun." Before the summer was over it came to pass that more than one soul, given fresh courage by his brave example, looked upon him as the villagers had upon Aldebaran: "A poor, maimed creature in his outward seeming, and yet so blithely does he bear his lot it seems a kingly spirit dwells among us."
Mary's letters to Joyce began to take on a cheerful tone that was vastly encouraging to the toiler in the studio.
"We have revised Emerson," she wrote one July morning. "It is fully as true to say, 'If one can make a better garden, show a bigger circus or put up a more cheerful front to Fate than his neighbours, though he build his house in Lone-Rock, the world will make a beaten track to his door.' The path it has made to ours is a wide one. The boys swarm here all hours of the day, to Norman's delight, the summer campers make our garden the Mecca of their morning pilgrimages, and the cheerful front we put up to Fate seems to be the magnet that draws them back again in the afternoons.
"Really, our shady front porch reminds me sometimes of a popular Summer Resort piazza, it is so gay and chatty. The ladies of the camp come over nearly every day and bring their sewing and fancy work, and Huldah and I serve tea. It would do you good to see how mamma enjoys Mrs. Levering and Mrs. Seldon. They're like the friends she used to have back in Plainsville, and this is the first really good social time she has had since we left there.
"Professor Levering and Professor Seldon seem to find Jack so congenial. They talk to him by the hour on the scientific subjects he loves. It is a Godsend to him to have such a diversion. Mrs. Levering said to me this morning that he is a daily wonder to them all, and a rebuke as well. 'We think we have troubles,' she said, 'until we come over here. Then you make them seem so insignificant that we are ashamed to label them troubles. Oh, you Wares; I never saw such a family! You fairly radiate cheerfulness. I wish you'd tell me how you do it.'
"I told her I supposed it was because we were all such copy-cats. First we imitated the old Vicar of Wakefield so many years that it gave us a cheerful bent of mind, and lately we'd taken the story of Aldebaran to heart and were imitating him and the other Jester. She said, 'Commend me to copy-cats. I'm glad I discovered the species.'
"I am telling you all this in order that you may see that we have managed to keep inflexible to the extent of impressing our neighbours, at least, and there is no need for you to worry about us any more. I hope you will accept Eugenia's invitation and spend that two weeks at the sea-shore in the idlest, most care-free way you can think of, and not give one anxious thought to us. True, our day of great things is over. We no longer lay large plans, and sweep the heavens with a telescope, looking for pleasure on a large scale, among the stars. But it is wonderful how many little things we find now that we used to let slip unheeded, since we've gone to looking for them with a microscope."
Two days later another letter was sent post-haste to Joyce, written in a hurried scrawl with a pencil, clearly showing Mary's agitation.
"Something exciting has happened at last! The Leverings brought a friend to call this afternoon, who has just arrived in Lone-Rock to spend the rest of vacation with them; a grumpy, middle-aged, absent-minded, old professor from the East, who seemed rather bored with us at first. But when he was taken out to the side-show in the 'Zoo,' he waked up in a hurry. His very spectacles gleamed and his gray whiskers bristled with interest when he saw my assortment of pressed wild-flowers from the desert, and the collection of butterflies and trap-door spiders and other insects in my 'Buggery,' as Norman calls it. When I showed him all the data I had collected from text-books and encyclopaedias about the insect and plant life of the desert, and all the notes I had made myself from my own observations, he actually whistled with surprise. He sat and fired questions at me like a Gatling gun for nearly an hour, winding up by asking me if I had any idea what a valuable collection I had made, and if I would be willing to part with it.
"Then it came out that he is a noted naturalist who is preparing a set of books on insects and their relation to plant life, and is spending a year in the West on purpose to study the varieties here. Some of my specimens are so rare he has not come across them before, and he said my notes would save him weeks of time—in fact, would be like a blazed trail through a wilderness, showing him where to go to verify my observations without loss of time.
"Of course, when it comes to the pinch, I don't want to part with my beautiful collection of specimens. It means a great deal to me; I was over four years making it. But it is too great an opportunity to let pass. He is to name the price to-morrow after he has made a careful estimate, so I don't know how much he will offer, but Mrs. Levering says it is sure to be far more than an inexperienced teacher or stenographer could earn in a whole summer.
"How I have worried and fretted and fumed because I had no way to make money here! Now besides what I get for my specimens I am to have a chance to earn a little more. Professor Carnes will be here till cold weather, and since I can give him 'intelligent assistance,' as he calls it, he will have work for me in connection with his notes, copying and indexing them, and gathering new material.
"Now you can go back to saving up for your year abroad, and give the family the honour of claiming one member with a career. Jack is really going back to the office the first of September for a part of every day, at quite a respectable salary considering the length of time he will work. He's too valuable a man to the company for them to part with. As for me, I'm sure something else will turn up as soon as my work for Professor Carnes comes to an end. We Wares can look back over so many Eben-Ezers raised to mark some special time when Providence came to our rescue, that we have no right ever to be discouraged again. Professor Carnes is my last one, though nobody would be more astonished than he to know that he is regarded in the light of an old Israelitish Memorial stone. You will not have such frequent letters from me after this, as I shall be so busy. But Jack says he will attend to my correspondence. He is beginning to write a little every day. Yesterday he wrote to Betty. He has enjoyed her letters so much, telling about her lovely time up in the Maine woods. I am so glad you are to have a vacation, too. So no more at present from your happy little sister."
Like all people who are limited to one hobby, and who pursue one line of study for years regardless of other interests, Professor Carnes took little notice of anything outside of his especial work. If Mary had been a new kind of bug he would have studied her with profound interest, spending days in learning her peculiarities, and sparing no pains in classifying her and assigning her to the place she occupied in the great plan of creation. But being only a human being she attracted his attention only so far as she contributed to the success of his work.
He would go tramping through the woods wherever she led, only vaguely aware of the fact that she had enlisted half a dozen small boys in her service, and that she was turning them into enthusiastic young naturalists before his very eyes. She was not doing this consciously, however. Her motive for inviting them on these expeditions, was simply to include Norman and his friends in her own enjoyment of the summer woods. It was so easy to turn each excursion into a picnic, to build a fire near some spring and set out a simple lunch that seemed a feast of the gods to voracious boyish appetites.
The goodly smell of corn, roasting in the ashes, or fresh fish sizzling on hot stones gave a charm to the learning of wood-lore that it never could have possessed otherwise. At first with the heedlessness of city-bred boys, they crashed through the under-brush with unseeing eyes, and unhearing ears, but it was not long until they had learned the alertness of young Indians, following by signs of bark and leaf and fallen feather, trails more interesting than any detective story.
Gradually the old professor, aroused to the fact that they were valuable assistants, began to take some notice of them. They awakened memories of his own barefooted boyhood, and sometimes when he had had a particularly successful morning, he threw off his habitual abstraction, and as Mary reported to Jack, was "as human as anybody."
It seemed, too, that at these times he saw Mary in a new light; saw her as the boys did, fearless as one of themselves, tireless as a squaw, and a happy-go-lucky comrade who could turn the most ordinary occasion into a jolly outing. Her knack of inventing substitutes when he had left some necessary article at home filled him with mild wonder. He came to believe that her resources were unlimited;
One morning, early in September, he forgot his memorandum book and pencil, and did not discover the fact until he was ready to note some measurements which he could not trust to memory. It was no matter, she assured him cheerfully, as he stood peering helplessly around over his spectacles and slapping his pockets in vain.
"You know Lysander says, 'Where the lion's skin will not reach it must be pieced with the fox's,' I'll find some kind of a substitute for your pencil, somewhere."
After a few moments' absence she came up the hill again with some broad sycamore leaves which she laid on a flat rock. "There!" she exclaimed. "You dictate, and I'll write on these leaves with a hair-pin. Hazel Lee and I used to write notes on them by the hour, playing post-office back at the Wigwam."
Several times during the dictation he looked at her as if about to make some personal remark, then changed his mind. What he had to say needed more explanation than he felt equal to making, and he decided to send Mrs. Levering as his spokesman. Being a relative, she understood the situation he wanted to make plain, and he felt she could deal with the subject better than he. So that afternoon, Mrs. Levering came over on his errand. Mrs. Ware and Mary were sewing, and she plunged at once into her story.
Professor Carnes had been left the guardian of a fifteen-year-old niece, who was born into the world with a delicate constitution, an unhappy disposition and the proverbial gold spoon in her mouth as far as finances were concerned. The poor professor felt that he had been left with something worse than a white elephant on his hands, for he knew absolutely nothing about girls, and Marion, with her morbid, super-sensitive temperament, was a constant puzzle to him. She had been in a convent school until recently. But now her physicians advised that she be taken out and sent to some place in the country where she could lead an active out-door life for an entire year. They recommended a climate similar to the one at Lone-Rock.
The Professor could make arrangements for her to board in Doctor Gray's family, quite near the Wares, and felt that she would be well taken care of there, physically, but he recognized the necessity of providing for her in other ways. She had no resources of her own for entertainment, and he knew she would fret herself into a decline unless some means were provided to interest and amuse her. He had been wonderfully impressed with Mary's ability to make the best of every situation, and after he had once been awakened to the fact that she was an unusual specimen of humanity, had studied her carefully. Now he confided to Mrs. Levering his greatest desire for Marion was that she might grow up to be as self reliant and happy-hearted a young girl as Mary.
Seeing how she had aroused such a love for nature study in the boys, he felt that she might do the same for Marion. It was really a marvel, Mrs. Levering insisted, how she had bewitched both her Carl and Tommy Seldon. They were in a fair way to become as great cranks as the old professor himself. Now this was the proposition he wanted to make. That Mary should take the place of teachers and text-books, for awhile, and devote herself to the task of making Marion forget herself and her imaginary grievances; to interest her in wood-lore to the extent of making her willing to spend much time out of doors, and to imbue her if possible with some of the cheerful philosophy that made the entire Ware family such delightful companions.
"Of course," explained Mrs. Levering, "he understands that one could never be adequately repaid for such a service. It would be worth more than any course at college or any fortune, to Marion, if she could be changed from a listless, unhappy girl to one like yourself. She will tax your ingenuity and require infinite tact and patience, but he feels that you can do more for her than any older person, because she needs healthy, young companionship more than anything else in the world. If you will devote your mornings to her, trying to attain the result he wants in any way you see fit, he will gladly pay you anything in reason. Just let me take back word that you will consider his offer and he will be over here post-haste to make terms with you."
Mary looked inquiringly across at her mother, too bewildered by this sudden prospect of such good fortune, to answer for herself, but Mrs. Ware consented immediately. "I think it a very fortunate arrangement for both girls. There is no one near Mary's age in Lone-Rock, and I have been dreading the winter for her on that account. I am sure she can make a real friend and companion out of Marion, and I can say this for my little girl, it will never be dull for anybody who follows her trail through life."
Mrs. Levering rose to go. "Then it's as good as settled. I'm sure the poor old professor will feel that you've taken a great burden off his shoulders, and that this will be the most profitable year's education that Marion will ever have."
Hardly had their visitor departed, when Mrs. Ware was seized around the waist by a young cyclone that waltzed her through the kitchen, down the garden walk and out to the shade of the tree where Jack sat reading in his wheeled chair. "Tell him, mamma," Mary demanded, breathless and panting. "I'm too happy for words. Then call in the neighbours, and sing the Doxology!"
Later, as she and Jack sat discussing the situation with a zest which left no phase of it untouched, he said teasingly, "You needn't be pluming yourself complacently over all those compliments. Do you realize when all's said and done, they've asked nothing more of you than simply to put on cap and bells and play the jester awhile for that girl's benefit?"
"I don't care," retorted Mary. "I'm not proud, and I can stand the motley as long as it brings in the ducats. It isn't the career I had planned, but—"
She broke off abruptly, and began hunting for her spool of thread which had rolled off into the grass. When she found it she stitched away in silence as if she had forgotten her unfinished sentence.
"What career did you have planned, little sister?" asked Jack, gently, when the silence had lasted a long time. She looked up with a start as if her thoughts had been far away, then said with a deprecatory smile, "I hardly know myself, Jack. I don't mind confessing to you, though I couldn't to any one else, it was so big I couldn't see the top of it."
With her eyes bent on her sewing she told him about the Voice and the Vision that had come to her when she looked up at Edryn's Window for the first time, and how she had been wondering ever since what great duty it was with which she was to keep tryst some day.
"I can always tell you things without fear of being laughed at," she ended, "so I don't mind saying that I believed at the time, it really was the King's Call, and that some great destiny, oh far greater than Joyce's or Betty's awaited me. It seemed so real I don't see how I could have been mistaken, and yet—now—it does seem foolish for me to aspire so high. Doesn't it?"
There was a little break in her voice although she ended with a laugh. Jack watched the brown head bent over her sewing for several minutes before he replied. Then he said in a grave kind tone that Mary always liked, because it seemed so intimate and as if he regarded her as his own age, "Since I've been hurt, I've done a lot of thinking, and I've come to the conclusion that the highest thing a man can aspire to, and the blessedest, is 'to ease the burden of the world.' Either consciously or unconsciously that is what every artist does who paints a master-piece. He helps us bear our troubles by making us forget them—at least, as long as the uplift and the inspiration stay with us. Every author and musician whose work lives, does the same. Every inventor who creates something to make toil easier, and life happier, eases that burden to a degree.
"So I don't think you were mistaken about that call. Your achievement may be greater than the other girls, even here in Lone-Rock, as much bigger and better, as a whole life is bigger and better than a few books and pictures. You've begun on me, and you'll have Marion to try your hand on next. No telling where you will stop. You may be the Apostle of Cheerfulness to the entire far West before you are done. Who knows?"
Although the last words were spoken lightly, Mary felt the seriousness underlying them, and looked up, her face shining, as if some mystery had suddenly been made clear to her.
"Oh, Jack!" she cried. "You don't know how easy that makes every thing. I've looked at life at Lone-Rock as something to be endured merely as a stepping stone to better things. But if you think that this is the beginning of my real tryst, I can answer the call in such a different spirit. By the winged spur of our ancestors," she cried, gaily waving, the ruffle she was hemming, "I'll be 'Ready, aye ready' for whatever comes."
Jack did not go back to the office the first of September. It was the middle of the month before he made the attempt. Norman wheeled him over on his way to school, and Mary, standing in the door to watch them start, felt the tears spring to her eyes as she compared this pitiful going to the buoyant stride with which he used to start to work. Still, he was so much better than they had dared to hope he would be, that when she went back to her room she picked up a red pencil and marked the date on her calendar with a star.
Then she remembered that this was the day the girls would be trooping back to Warwick Hall, and she recalled the opening day the year before, when she had been among them. She wondered who was taking possession of her room, and if the new girls would be as devoted to Betty as the old ones were. She could picture them all, driving up the avenue, singing as they came; then Hawkins's imposing reception and Madam Chartley's greeting. How she longed to be in the bustle of unpacking, and to make the rounds of all her favourite haunts by the river and in the beautiful old garden! Dorene and Cornie wouldn't be there. They were graduated and gone. But Elsie and A.O. and Margaret Elwood and Betty—as she named them over such a homesick pang seized her, that it seemed as if she could not bear the thought of never going back.
The thought of all she was missing, drove her as it used to do, to her shadow-chum for sympathy, and Lloyd was in her thoughts all day. Somehow, when Huldah came back from the grocery, bringing her a letter from Lloyd, she was not at all surprised, although it was the first one she had received from her since she left school, except a little note of sympathy right after Jack's accident.
The surprise came when she opened the letter. She read it over and over, and then, because Jack was at the office and her mother at a neighbour's, she turned to her long-neglected journal for a confidante. She had to hunt through all the drawers of her desk for it, it had been hidden away so long. She felt that the news in the letter was worthy a place in her good times book, for it recorded Lloyd's happiness, which was as dear to her as her own.
"Oh, little Red Book," she wrote, "what an amazing secret I am going to give you to hold! Lloyd is engaged, and not to Phil! She has been engaged since last June to Rob Moore. It is not to be announced formally until Christmas, and they are not to be married for a long time, but Eugenia knows, and Joyce, and her very most intimate friends. She wanted me to know, and to hear it from herself, because she felt that no one could wish her joy more sincerely than her 'little chum.' I am so glad she really called me that, after all my months of make believe.
"But it was the surprise of my life to find that Rob is The Prince and not Phil. Poor Phil! I am sure he was disappointed, and somehow I keep thinking of that more than of Lloyd's happiness. I don't see how she could prefer anybody else to the Best Man."
Here she paused, and began fingering the unwritten leaves of the diary, wondering if the time would ever come when they would hold the record of other engagements. Nearly a third of the pages were still blank. How many nice things she could think of that she would like to be able to write thereon. Maybe they would hold the date of a visit to Oaklea some day, to Mrs. Rob Moore. How odd that sounded. Or what was more probable, since he had already mentioned it in his letters to Jack, a visit from Phil, if he went back to California with his father and Elsie on their return.
And maybe, it might hold the news of Joyce's engagement, some day, or Betty's, and maybe—some far, far-off day, it might hold her own! That seemed a very unlikely thing just now. Princes were an unknown quantity in Lone-Rock. And yet—she looked dreamily away across the hills—there were the words of that song:
"And if he come not by the road, and come not by the hill, And come not by the far seaway, yet come he surely will. Close all the roads of all the world, love's road is open still."
Seizing her pen, she wrote just below her last entry, "It is five months since that dismal day on the train, when I closed the record in this book, as I thought, forever, and wrote after the last of my good times, The End. But it wasn't that at all, and now, no matter how dark the outlook may be after this, I shall never believe that I have reached the end to happiness."