Salome put her hand upon my arm. The path was steep, and I should have offered her assistance, but I had not thought of it. Not a word was spoken until we had reached the end of the path. Here the brow of the hill curved around in the form of a semicircle, and was studded with cedars, like emeralds in a crown. Before us, not a dozen steps away, rose the ancient edifice we had come to view. It was made of solid masonry, and seemed good for hundreds of years to come.
"Here we are."
Salome was panting a little as she said this, in a barely audible voice. I looked at the gray pile in silent contemplation. Its style suggested massiveness, although the building was not of any great size. The part comprising the vestibule and bell-tower was octagon in shape, and the turret was at least a hundred feet in air. Behind this were the ivy-covered walls of the body of the church. It was at that time when the earth grows still before drawing her night robes about her. In the western sky the sun's last streamers flared out like a gorgeous fan, and on their tips some shy diamonds glittered evasively. From the fields around us came the sweet breath of the spring, smelling of the richer fragrance of early summer. The birds were still; the stamping of our horses in the road below was the only sound.
"Shall we go in?"
I started, although the tones were low and like the music of rippling water. When I turned my head, the brown eyes looking into mine had a mournful expression. The impressiveness of it all was upon her, too. There must have been a certain look of inquiry upon my face, for she went on, in the same wonderful voice:
"It's never locked, you know. I like that custom about a Catholic church. So often the soul would enter into a holy place and be alone in prayer. Shall we enter? I think there is enough light for us to see."
In reply, I drew closer to her, and held out my arm. She took it lightly, and in the deepening twilight we walked to the broad, wooden door. It yielded reluctantly to the pressure of my hand, on account of its size and weight, and together we entered the shadows of the sacred place.
The door settled heavily into place behind us, and we were in almost complete darkness. Somewhere in front of us was a glimmer of light. I felt the slight figure at my side drawing me forward, and I put myself under her guidance. Crossing the vestibule, we passed into the room beyond. Although we trod lightly, the bare floor sent up sounds which echoed loudly, it seemed to us. A ghostly light filled the chamber into which we had come, and made it look much larger than it really was. The roof was lost above us, but there, before us, were the plain, brown, wooden benches forming the pews, and the nave leading down to the altar railing. Along this a worn strip of carpet was placed. Slowly we went forward, awed by the silent majesty of a place of worship. All at once there came to me a realization of the peculiar position in which I was placed—walking down a church aisle with a beautiful girl upon my arm—and my face grew red. I could tell it by the hot tingling at my neck and temples, but the gloom was deep enough to hide it from her. The sudden force of what such a proceeding as this might mean made my heart—my staid, old, methodical heart—throb unwontedly. I hoped that the gloved hand resting so near to it did not feel its throbbings, although they sounded in my ears like a hammer on an anvil.
We had reached the railing. Before us rose the altar, with its images and its unlit tapers, its cloth of gold, and its silver appurtenances. A stretch of carpeted floor lay between it and us. Directly this side the railing was a narrow ledge. Salome suddenly bent her knees and rested them upon this, placed her elbows upon the railing and bent her head in her hands. For a moment I gazed at the black bowed figure, then found myself imitating her attitude. In the stillness of the old church we knelt alone. Around us was utter silence, and the paling light of a dead day. Perhaps in the dark corners the ghosts of confessed sins were lurking; above the spot where we knelt many a "Benedicite" had fallen upon humble hearts waiting to receive it. She was praying. Perhaps confessing to the Great Absolver the sinless sins which bore no crimson stain, and praying His favor for the ones she loved. As well might a flower of the fields bow down and breathe out tales of grave misdeeds, for her heart was like a flower—yea, like the closed cup of a lily at night, garbed in purity as white as holiness.
I watched her through the fingers I had placed over my face. This surely was no sin, for my own heart was not still enough for prayer. She was very still, and only her small ear and a portion of her cheek were visible. What did this half-stifling feeling mean which rose up in my throat? I had never seen a woman in prayer, alone. Away back through the dimly lit aisles which led to a distant boyhood my mind had sometimes strayed, and viewed a small white figure kneeling at its mother's side at bedtime. That was myself, and her petitions were doubtless sent up by the little cot where I lay asleep. A young girl praying! It is as sacred as the miracle of birth. And by this simple act, this girl had placed in me a greater trust than words could speak. She deemed me good enough to be by her side when she approached her Creator—and was I worthy? I knew I was not. And though my life had been free from those polluting sins which glow like rubies in the souls of some men, I felt that here I had no fitting place, that her prayers would be clogged by the unholiness of my presence. She knelt, immovable as the statued Christ which hung almost over our heads. The glow in the stained-glass windows to our left had turned to a gray blur; the outlines of her figure were growing indistinct. As suddenly and as quickly as she had knelt, she arose, and with the freedom of a child took my arm as we retraced our steps.
A young moon was tilted over in the sky near the horizon as we gained the open. The limitless depths above us were aglow with millions of sparkling stars. We stood for a moment before going down to our horses.
"We'll be a little late getting back."
Again it was my companion who broke the silence.
"I'm sorry, for it will be because of me."
She laughed,—the bubbling notes so like the falling of a forest rivulet over a low rock ledge.
"It will not matter, unless we count the loss of sleep. Mother and father know how I love the night, and when they know where I am, and whom I am with, they are not concerned."
"I would gladly lose a night's rest for an experience like this. You have made me very much your debtor. How solemn and beautiful it all is!" My eyes took in all visible things in a comprehensive glance. "Do you come here often?"
"No; I only care to come at the close of day, and my parents are getting too old to be dragged around to humor my whims. It is too far to come alone, and so I miss it."
"Then did I really perform some sort of service for you in accompanying you here? I had imagined the favor all on your side."
"Let's call it square," she smiled. "I showed you the place, and you acted as my protector and escort. A very even bargain, I think. We had better go now. We will have a fine ride home."
It was very dark on the cedar-bordered walk down which we went, and while I longed to offer assistance, I refrained. When we came to the road, however, we found that there was enough light. The horses were restless at their posts, and we mounted with considerable difficulty after I had unhitched them. But Salome, peerless horsewoman that she was, quickly had hers in hand, and mine soon became tractable of its own accord. We proceeded at a smart canter until we reached the turnpike. There Salome suggested a gallop, and I could do nothing but assent, although fast riding was something to which I was not accustomed. But I gradually accommodated myself to the long, undulating leaps of my mount, and then began to enjoy it. It was highly exhilarating as well as novel. Salome sat as though part of the animal she managed so well, and as we swept along I kept my eyes upon her in a kind of wonder. It was so new to me, and the skill with which her small hand managed her mettled horse was nothing short of a marvel.
We did not talk much during this part of our ride. Occasionally she would fling a remark across at me above the thud of the hammering feet, but I think the beauty of the night and the wonderful silence sat upon our minds, and made our tongues unwilling for speech. Sometimes the road was open and clear, and then I could see her eyes, like veiled stars. And around and about us were fields of growing corn and ripening wheat, and infolding us close, as in a filmy garment, was that indescribable odor of green things and of dew-wet turf. Then the pike would sweep around a curve, like the stretch of a winding river, and bordering each side of the highway were clumps and rows of gigantic forest-trees. Oftentimes their boughs would intertwine above, and what seemed to be the black mouth of a tunnel would confront us. Into this apparent pit of darkness we would dash, but the horses never shied. They knew well the ground their fleet hoofs were spurning, and they knew that farther on was home,—a good stall, and a rack full of musky clover hay. Under the trees I could not see Salome. Now and again some sparks of fire would shoot out when a hoof struck a stone. Then out into the open again. The pace our steeds had assumed of their own free will was no mean one, and when scarcely an hour had gone we were riding slowly through the meadow to the big whitewashed gate giving entrance to the yard. The young moon had grown weary, and tumbled out of the sky; but the stars seemed brighter—they looked as though the dew which sparkled on the grass below us had washed their tiny faces on its way to earth. The Milky Way appeared as a phantom lace curtain stretched across the sky.
I opened the gate from my horse, and held it back for Salome to pass through. When she had done this, I followed, and the gate clanged back. The noise of its shutting notified Inky and Jim of our arrival, for they were waiting sleepily as we came up to the fine stone steps of the old home, and at once took charge of the horses. I helped Salome up the steps by placing my hand beneath her elbow. We stood for a moment on the edge of the porch.
"We must move around gently," I suggested. "The old folks have doubtless been asleep an hour."
"Bless their dear hearts!" she answered with earnest fervor. "Mother says you move like a mouse," she resumed, and I could see the faint glint of her teeth as she smiled. "My room is upstairs, and I am not so likely to disturb them. Have you enjoyed your day?"
"It has been very pleasant," I answered warmly. "I feel more grateful to you than I can say for being so nice to a stranger who happens to be a guest in your home. But I love the woods, and the fields, and the pure, fresh air which blows straight down from heaven. This much we have in common. Will you let me go with you again—sometimes? I would not bore you, nor presume too much."
In my great earnestness I had come closer to her.
"I am out of doors a great deal, and you may go with me often, if you wish. I enjoyed having you to-day."
This was said just as seriously as my question had been put. Then, in one of those rare changes of which her nature was capable, she added:
"You know I need a protector in my various rambles, and you shall be my esquire when I go forth in state to see my flower subjects scattered all over the farm. My knight-errant, too, to espouse my cause should snake, or dog, or an enraged animal of the pastures seek to do me harm."
"Gladly, your majesty," I answered gallantly, falling into the spirit which her words betokened, and bowing low. "Behold your vassal; command me when you will."
A whispered "good-night," a faint echo of that enchanting laugh, and she had slipped through the door and was gone.
I did not tarry long, for the beauty of the night had suddenly paled. Everything had grown darker, and, by habit, I thought of my easy-chair and pipe, and went in also. Salome was standing at the farther end of the long, broad hall, with a lighted candle in her hand. Her hat had been removed, and her tangled hair was half down. The riding habit had also disappeared, and she was robed in some sort of a loose house gown which fell away into a train. Her back was towards me, and she had one foot on the first step of the curved stairway which went up from that point. She heard me turn the key in the lock, and looked back. I went towards her; why, I do not know. She waited until I had come quite close.
"I haven't anything very particular to say," I began, I fear very confusedly. But my foolish feet had led me to her, obedient to the dictates of a foolish mind, and I had to speak first.
"I have been in mother's room," she answered, opening her eyes very wide, as a child does when it hears a sound in the dark. "I went for this wrapper, and would you believe it, I did not waken either of them! Mother sleeps very lightly, too!"
"You have performed quite a feat," I assured her, at once put at ease by her genuineness. "Have you planned anything for to-morrow?"
"Father has some sheep on the lower farm that are sick, and I am going to take them some salt, because that is good for their blood."
"May I help you salt the sheep? I'll carry the salt, if you will let me go."
She turned her head sideways, with a slight uplifting of the brows, as though hesitating.
"Ye-e-e-s, I guess so," she replied at last, doubtfully. "Do you know anything about sheep?"
"Nothing more than I have read. They are very docile, I believe, and a great many of our clothes come from their backs."
"But that isn't all." There was the wisdom of Solomon on the fresh young face, shadowed by disarranged tresses. "Some of them have horns, like a cow, only they grow back instead of out. And they'll run you sometimes, when they take a notion. Can you run, Mr. Stone?"
The picture which came to my mind of the staid and dignified Abner Stone flying across a meadow with coat-tails streaming, and an irate ram at his heels, brought a broad smile to my face.
"Yes; I can run. But I promise not to desert you if danger comes."
"Then be ready in the morning. I will say good-night again, for I know you must tell this day's doings to your pipe before you retire."
Our entire conversation at the foot of the stair had been in low whispers, and I whispered back her good-night, and turned to go. Then, like Lot's wife, I looked behind me. She had reached the first landing, where the stairway curved. She saw me, and peered forward, holding the candle above her head. The loose sleeve of her dress fell back with the motion, and the bare symmetry of her rounded forearm gleamed upon the blackness like ivory upon ebony. I waved my hand; she waved hers, then was gone.
I sank into a chair and bowed my head in my hands, my soul torn by the pangs of a new birth.
Only a few old negroes were astir when I stepped from the house the next morning. Even the master had not arisen. The stars and the sun's forerunners were having a battle on the broad field overhead; one by one the stars were vanquished and their lamps extinguished. I stood upon the lowest step of the flight in front of the house, and watched the misty, uncertain shapes of trees and bushes gradually evolve themselves into distinguishable outlines. The process was slow, because a kind of vapor lay upon everything, and it resisted strenuously the onslaught of the sun. But it gave way, as darkness ever must before light, and, as if by magic, the curtain which night had placed was rolled away, and little by little the landscape was revealed. Along the creek, which ran just beyond the pike, and parallel with it, hung a dense wall of fog, against which it seemed the arrows of day fell, blunted. The air was cool and fresh, and I drew it deep down into my lungs, feeling the sluggish blood start afresh with each draught.
With the dawning of that day came the dawning of a new life for me. I realized that I had been living in a darkened room, and that a window had suddenly been thrown open, letting in upon me a shower of golden light, with the songs of birds and the incense of flowers. My old life had been a contented one, had known the pleasures to be derived from association with books and God's great out-door miracles. The new life, whose silver dawn was beginning to tip my soul with a strange radiance, held untold joys which belong rightly to heaven, and which numbed my mind as I strove blindly after comprehension. I was as a little child left all at once alone upon the world. I stood, helpless, trying to centralize my disordered thoughts, with a strange oppressed feeling in my breast which deep respirations could not drive away. I was deeply, deeply troubled, and my mind was in a maze. But one idea possessed me, and that doggedly asserted itself, overriding the tumult in my brain. I was longing, madly longing, to see again her whom I loved. The word in my mind was like the touch of a white-hot iron, and I started as if stung, and fell to pacing nervously up and down. It could not be; it could not be! That child of nineteen,—I a man of forty-five! The idea was monstrous! What an old fool I had been! I did not know my own mind, that was all. I would be all right in a day or two. But still that sinking feeling weighed above my heart, and my usually calm pulse was rioting with something other than exercise.
"Let it be love!" I cried at last, in my troubled soul. "The painful bliss of this half hour's experience is worth the cost of denial, for she shall never know!"
Thus did I, poor worm, commune in my fool's heaven, recking not, nor knowing, that I was setting at naught the plans of my Creator.
At breakfast I was myself, although my hand trembled when I conveyed food to my mouth, and I felt my cheeks coloring when she came in a little late, arrayed in a pink-flowered, flowing gown, and looking as fresh as though she had just risen, bathed in dew, from the blue-and-crimson cup of a morning-glory.
"How did you rest after your night ride?" she smiled, sitting by me and resting her elbows on the edge of the table, then pillowing her round chin in her pink palms.
"I slept better for my outing," I answered promptly, lying with the ease of a schoolboy. The truth was, my sleep had been broken and poor.
"It's a good thing for Stone that you're back," thundered Mr. Grundy. "You're so everlastingly fond of running over all creation, and he has the rovingest disposition I ever saw. Goin' down to salt those sheep this mornin', S'lome?"
"Yes, sir. I made a compact with Mr. Stone last night to act as my esquire on all my expeditions. You've often said I should have some one to go along with me."
"Don't let her impose on you, Stone," responded the old gentleman, throwing a quick wink in my direction. "She's young, you know, and don't know as much as mother. She'll have you climbing an oak tree to get a young hawk out of its nest likely as not."
Salome laughed, while I boldly assured them that I would make the effort should she desire such a thing. Mrs. Grundy was quiet, as usual. She contented herself listening to the conversation of the others, and seldom took her eyes off the girl it was plain to see she worshipped.
"Get ready for a walk this morning, Mr. Stone!" called Salome, a short time after breakfast, peeping over the balustrades at the top of the stair. "The lower farm is about two miles, and the walk will be good for us."
"I'll get my hat and stick; are you coming now?"
"As soon as I can get in another dress. I'll meet you in the locust grove. Tell Tom to get you the salt, and I'll be there before you have missed me."
She was gone with a pattering of little feet.
I went into my room for my stick and hat with a grim smile upon my face. The steady ground which I had thought beneath me was becoming shifting sand. I went slowly around the house to the negro quarters with bowed head, briefly gave Tom his mistress' orders, and stood apathetically while the darky hastened away to obey.
A quick scurrying in the grass, and the pressure of two small paws upon my trousers' leg brought me to myself, and I bent down to pat the yellow head of Fido, who had espied me, and instantly besought recognition.
"You poor, dumb, faithful thing," I apostrophized, looking at the bright eyes which shone love into mine. "You are spared this agony of soul, and the futile efforts to solve problems which cannot be known. You love me, and I love you; why could we both not be content?"
"Is Fido going, too?"
I composed my face with an effort, and straightened up as the cheery voice hailed me. She was coming towards me like a woodland sprite, floating, it seemed to me, for her gliding step was so free from any pronounced undulation. Her dress of blue checked gingham just escaped the ground, and she wore a gingham sunbonnet with two long strings, which she held in either hand. The sunbonnet was tilted back, and her laughing face, with its rich, delicate under-color of old wine, was fit for a god to kiss.
"Yes, we will take him along if you do not object. He was the companion of my rambles before you came. We will make a congenial three."
Tom approached with a bucket of salt, which, after an exaggerated scrape of the foot and a pull at his forelock, he handed to me, and we set out.
Our way led through the orchard at the back of the house, where grew, I think, all sorts of apples known to man. Each bough was freighted with its burden of round, green fruit, and here and there an Early Harvest tree was spattered with golden patches, where the ripened apples hung in their green bower. Beyond the orchard lay a woods pasture, formed of a succession of gentle swells, the heavy bluegrass turf soft as an Oriental carpet to the feet, while scattered about were hundreds of magnificent trees, mostly oak and poplar. Dotting the sward were numerous little white balls on long stems,—dandelions gone to seed. These Salome plucked constantly, and, filling her cheeks with wind, would blow like Boreas, until her face was purple. When I inquired the purpose of this queer performance, I was shyly informed that it was to tell if her sweetheart loved her. If she blew every one of the pappus off at one breath, he loved her; if she didn't, he didn't love her. She was certainly very much concerned about the matter, for every ball she came to she plucked and blew. Sometimes all the pappus disappeared, and sometimes they didn't, and so she never reached a decided conclusion.
The pasture crossed, a rail fence rose up before us. I at once stepped forward to let down a gap, but Salome halted me.
"The idea!" she declared. "I don't mind that at all. You stand just where you are, and turn your back; I'll call you when I'm over."
I blushed, and obeyed.
A wheat-field of billowy gold stretched before us when I joined her. A narrow path ran through it, curving sinuously, as a path made by chance will. This we followed, Salome going in front. The wheat was ready for the reaper, and the full heads were swelled to bursting. Salome gathered some, threshed them between her hands, blew out the chaff, and offered me part of the grain, eating the other herself. It was pasty, but not unpleasant, and I ate it because it was her gift. We were walking peacefully along, through the waist-high grain, when Salome gave a little scream and jumped back, plump into my arms. Even in my excitement I saw the tail of a black snake vanishing across the path. I released her quickly, of course, but the touch of her figure was like wine in my veins.
"I beg your pardon!" she said humbly; "but the ugly thing frightened me. It darted out so quickly, and I almost stepped upon it. You couldn't get one of the negroes to follow this path any farther. They are very superstitious, you know, and are firm believers in signs."
"I'm sorry you were startled so; perhaps I had better go in front," I ventured.
"No; you sha'n't. I'm not really afraid of snakes, except when I run upon one unexpectedly. I kill them when I get a chance."
And so she started out again in advance of me, and began telling the various beliefs of the negroes. I learned from her that their lives were almost governed by "signs," and that some very trivial thing would deter them from a certain course of action. There were ways to escape the spell of witches, to avoid snakes, and to keep from being led into a morass by jack-o'-lanterns. This folk-lore of the darkies was exceedingly interesting to me, told in the charming manner which characterized the speech of my companion.
The wheat-field ended at the pike, and here another fence was passed in the same manner as the first one. Then we swung down the dusty road together, side by side. To the right and left of us dog-fennel was blooming, and the "Jimpson" weed flared its white trumpets in a brave show. Occasionally a daisy lifted its yellow, modest head, and Salome took great delight in getting me to tell her which was daisy and which was fennel. My ignorance caused many a blunder, to her high amusement; but at last I discovered that the daisy's head was larger than that of its humble brother. A half-mile's walk along the pike brought us to an old sagging gate, which I pushed open, and we went through. A grassy hill was before us, sloping down to a cool hollow where a spring bubbled out from beneath a moss-grown old rock.
There were trees and bushes, and a soft green bank, and we joined hands and ran like two school-children till we reached the spring. Of course she must have a drink, so down she knelt, and plunged her pouting lips into the cool water. Her hair, tangled and loosened by our run, fell in wavy strands about her face. When she had drunk her fill, it was my turn, and so I stretched out full length, and carefully put my lips just where hers had been. Never had water tasted so sweet! I was taking it in, in long, cool swallows, when a sudden pressure on the back of my head bobbed my face deep into the spring. I turned my head with a smile, to find her standing back and laughing like a child at the trick she had played.
"You rascal!" I fumed good-naturedly, "I'll pay you back!"
Another peal of laughter was her only answer, caused, no doubt, by my wet face and the water dripping from my chin.
"Yonder come the sheep," she said. "Get up, and let's salt them."
I arose and picked up the bucket. Coming slowly up the hollow were five or six shabby-looking sheep. Their wool stood on them in patches, and they seemed scarcely able to walk.
"What's the matter with them?" I queried.
"See how rusty the poor things look!" Her voice told of deep concern. "Father says they have the scab, and it must be a dreadful disease, like leprosy. Let's go meet them, and save them the trouble of walking so far."
I could not help smiling at the tender heart this speech betrayed, but I went with her. As we neared the sorry-looking group, Salome took a handful of salt and placed it upon a large flat stone. They rushed at it eagerly, despite their weakened state, and lapped it with their tongues. We put out more salt, at a dozen different places, so that all might have enough, then went back to the bank by the spring, and while she sat down in the shade and held her bonnet in her lap, I reclined by her side, and looked up at her, content.
"Do you love the country as much as you seem to?" she asked, gazing blissfully up at the dense foliage of the elm tree under which we were resting.
"I could not love it more; it is a wonder which never ends, and an enduring delight. If I could think that Paradise was like this day, and this place, I would not care when death came."
"I'm so glad," she answered, with the simplicity and directness of a child. "I have been in cities, and I don't see how a soul can live there. It seems to me that mine would cramp and dwindle until it died if I had to live in a big town. Even the large and beautiful places of worship speak more of the human than of the divine. It seems that men go because they must, and that women go to show their clothes. This is my religion and my temple." She smiled in real joy as she waved her hand about her in a gesture comprehending everything bounded by the horizon. "Look at the roof of my temple. Was there ever one so high built by mortals, and was there ever a pigment mixed that could give it the tint which mine holds? And it is not always the same. To-day it is a pale blue, marked with delicate lines of cloud. At twilight it will darken to azure; to-night it will be studded with a million gems. And no prayer falls back from that roof upon the head of the sender, for the stars are the portholes through which they go to heaven. Do you never think that way?"
I shook my head slowly.
"It is very beautiful," I said, "and equally true, no doubt, but I had never thought of it in just that way. I love this life because I can't help but love it. The forests, the meadows, the fields, and the brooks are what my soul craves; yet if you ask me why, I cannot tell you. I have been happier the few short weeks I have spent in your home than I was all the rest of my life. Since you have come, my happiness has deepened."
I dared not look up, but kept my eyes on the four-leaf clover I was plucking to pieces.
"I'm glad I've helped make your visit pleasant."
Her voice was in the same low sweet tones which she had before employed, and I knew by this she attached no particular significance to my last sentence.
"When mother wrote me that you had come to board with us, I was a little displeased, for I was jealous of the sweet accord in which we all dwelt, and did not want it marred. But when she told me all about you, and your habits, my feelings changed. I do not wish to draw any unjust comparisons, but there are very few people with tastes and inclinations like yours and mine,—don't you think so?"
This naive frankness almost amused me.
"I think you are right. I never knew any one who would care for just the things we do, and they are certainly the most innocent pleasures which the world affords."
A sudden darkening of the landscape and a breath of cool air accentuated the silence which fell at this point. We both looked up, and saw the edge of a blue-black cloud peeping over the shoulder of a northwestern hill.
"I'm afraid we'll get wet," said Salome, rising hastily, and surveying her airy garments dubiously. "There isn't even a cabin between here and home. I wouldn't care a fig, but mother always hates for me to be out in a storm. We can only do our best, and walk rapidly."
With the salt bucket in my left hand, and her hand in my right, I helped her up the hill the best I could. Fido limped behind. He had been lost nearly all the time since we started,—chasing rabbits, doubtless,—and had only made his appearance a few moments before the cloud startled us. We gained the pike directly, and as we hurried towards the wheat-field the cloud grew with alarming rapidity, and a scroll-work of flame began to show about its outer edges.
"Isn't it beautiful?" whispered Salome. "But we're going to catch it."
And we did. Half-way across the wheat-field the first big drops splashed against our faces, blown by strong gusts of wind. I gazed around helplessly for shelter. A few yards to our right rose the cumbersome shape of a last year's straw-rick; it was better than nothing.
"Come!" I said, taking her arm firmly. "I'll find you shelter."
She consented silently, and I crushed a path for her through the ripe grain until we reached the rick. The rain was beginning to pelt us sharply. Furiously I went to work, tearing out straw by the handfuls, armfuls, and in a few seconds I had excavated a hole large enough for Salome to enter in a crouching posture.
"Get in!" I commanded. I think she little liked the tone of authority I had assumed, for if there ever was a petted being, it was she, yet she obeyed, and cuddled up in her refuge out of reach of the driving rain.
I sat down by the side of her covert, and rested my back against the rick. I also turned up my coat-collar, and pulled my hat well down upon my head; but I soon saw that a good soaking was in store for me.
"Why don't you come in, too?" she asked in guileless innocence. "I can make room for you, and you will surely get wet out there. Aren't you afraid of rheumatism? Father has it if he gets his toe damp."
"I'll get along all right," I replied. "There doesn't much rain strike me, and I never had the rheumatism in my life."
I didn't tell her of the trouble with my breathing, and the attack that would be almost sure to follow this exposure.
We both grew quiet after this, and listened to the swish of the rain and the mighty howling of the wind. It had grown very dark, and the air was chilly. The lightning was incessant, and traced zigzag pathways of fire across the sombre heavens. The thunder was terrific, and often shook the solid earth. I asked Salome if she was not afraid, but she laughed from her snug retreat, and said she loved it all. What manner of girl was this, who feared nothing, and who loved Nature even when she was at war with herself?
The strife of the elements ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The thunder rumbled away in the east; the rain stopped falling, and a rift of blue showed through the dun masses overhead. This was followed by a broad shaft of sunlight, which struck on the golden sea around us with a shimmering radiance. I jokingly called Salome a "hayseed" when she emerged from her shelter, for her brown hair was sprinkled with wisps of straw. She ignored the epithet in her solicitation for my welfare, and proceeded straightway to place her hand upon my shoulders and back to see if I was wet.
"You're soaking!" she declared in genuine alarm. "You must have a hot whiskey toddy and six grains of quinine the minute you get home!"
I made a wry face; but she only shook her head in a determined way, and announced that she would see to it in person. As for herself, she was as dry as a butterfly which had just emerged from a chrysalis, and I congratulated myself upon the care I had taken of her. But before we reached home she was in a plight almost equal to my own, for the wind had blown the wheat across the path, and it was impossible for me to remove it entirely.
As a consequence, her ladyship was at once hustled off to bed by good Mrs. Grundy, and treated to the same remedy she had prescribed for me. I took a rather stiff toddy, and changed my clothes, and felt no ill effects from my experience.
After the first wild flush which had attended the discovery of the awakening of my affection for this girl had subsided, I became, in a degree, calmer. But it was there, deep in my soul, and I could feel it growing, growing, as steadily as my heart was beating. And I was old enough to know that in time it would conquer me, and drag me to her feet like a fettered slave before his master. My will seemed, in a measure, paralyzed, and I made no effort to escape. Something warned me that it would be useless. And so I drifted, living in a careless sort of lotos dream, which I could have wished would last forever. Now there were scented, joyful days, when we strolled through dales and wooded hollows, listening to Nature's great orchestra as it played its never-ending symphony. Perfect nights, when the heavy air would be redolent of the honeysuckles' wafted souls and the breath of sleepy roses. From the cabins in the locust grove would float the tinkling of the banjo, the untrained guffaw of the negro men, and the wild, half-barbaric notes of an old-time melody. And the stars would shine in glory above us, and we would sit on the steps and talk of the things we both loved. The old folks on the settee would get sleepy and go in, and we would sit there by the hour, and still my secret was my own. I think she guessed it, but this blissful existence was too sweet to be ended by some foolish words which had better remain forever in my heart, even though they ate it out.
August came. It was half gone ere I realized that she would go back to Bellwood early in September. How and where the days had gone I could not tell. Week after week had slipped by, and, forgetting that time was passing, I lived in my fool's paradise, and gave no thought to the days that were speeding away on silken wings. Harvest had come and gone; the fierce heat of a Kentucky summer made the days sultry, but the nights were good to live. I had lived through it all as in a kind of waking dream. But in the worship-chamber of my heart I had built an altar, and on it was placed the first and only love of my life. The fire which glowed there was as pure as Easter dawn, yet it was as intense as the still white heat you may see in a furnace. And the time was coming when she would go away.
One night I wandered, restless, down into the tree-grown yard. We had sat together that night, as usual, but my lips had been mute. The time had come when there was but one thing to say, and I had resolved not to say it. And so she had left me early, saying, in her impetuous way, that I was unsociable. Back and forth the long avenue I paced, thinking of the day she came home, of the many, many times we had been together; thinking of the pure, unselfish, Christian womanhood which crowned her with its consecrating light. Back and forth, back and forth, and her sweet young face burned itself into my mind with every step I took. Down the avenue, then up, and I leaned against the corrugated trunk of an oak, and fastened my eyes upon the windows of her room. The blinds were drawn, but she was up, for a light showed through them. Salome! Salome!—that was the one thought of my mind, the one bitter cry from my aching heart. There was a shadow on the curtain; a bare, uplifted arm was silhouetted against it. God bless you, Salome! My Salome! Good-night!
The next day I kept to my room, sending word that my head was troubling me. In the afternoon I went out and sat upon the porch, turning my troubled face towards the peaceful west. The sun was sinking, swathed in purple robes. Far stretching on either side were azure seas, with dun-colored islands dotting their broad expanses. Below me wound the dusty pike, like a yellow ribbon, flanked on one side by the half-dry creek, and on the other by a field of tasselled corn. A crow sat upon the dead limb of a sycamore, and cawed, and cawed, in noisy unrest. The weight which had been placed upon my breast two months before seemed like a millstone now. The consciousness of hopelessness made it heavier than before.
"Has your headache gone, Mr. Stone?"
She had come to the doorway without my knowledge, and now advanced towards me with a tender, questioning look upon her face.
"Yes," I answered in quiet desperation, turning my face from her. "The pain has gone to my heart."
She stood beside me, silently, and I felt the muscles hardening in my cheeks, as I shut my jaws tight to keep back the flood of words which rushed to my lips, and clamored for utterance. Presently I felt that I could speak rationally.
"How long before you return to school?"
"Three weeks; I wish I did not have to go."
"Let's walk down to the grape-vine swing," I proposed abruptly, turning to her with set face.
She held her sunbonnet in her hand,—the same bonnet she always wore out of doors about the farm,—and she settled it on her brown, fluffy hair as I arose. The swing was in one corner of the yard, quite away from the house, and it had come to be one of our favorite resorts at twilight. This afternoon she occupied it, as was her custom, and I sat at the base of a walnut tree close by her. Something had fallen upon her usually gay spirits, and checked the outpourings of her mind. She sat silent, holding to the arms of her swing, and looking with earnest eyes out over the varied landscape. I watched her, while the fierce pulsings of my temples blurred my eyes, and made her seem as in a sea of mist. The noises of the day had lulled to echoes. The peace of a summer twilight was stealing stealthily over all the land. From a far-off pasture came the silvery tinkle of a sheep-bell; the unutterably mournful cooing of a dove was borne from the forest. The whispering leaves above us rustled gently before the approach of the Angel of the Dusk. The sylvan solitude became as an enchanted spot where none were living but she and I. Why—oh, why could it not last forever, just as it was that moment! But Time does not halt for love or hate, and she was going away,—out of my life, to leave it as a barren rock in a burning desert. The intense longing of my gaze caused her to turn towards me. She dropped her eyes, while her cheeks grew rosy as the sunset.
The sweet name fell in trembling accents from my lips. She caught her breath quickly, but did not look up. I arose and stood before her, with my hands clasped in front of me.
"I love you, Salome!" I said in husky tones, for my voice would barely come. "You have called into life that love which God has given every man. It possesses me as utterly as the winds of heaven possess the earth. It has made me as weak as a child, and, like a child, I have told you. I was not strong enough to keep it from you. Should you detest me for giving way as I have, I would not blame you. I am a middle-aged man; you are a little girl, and I have no right to ask anything from you. Your life is before you; mine is over half spent. But I love you, and I would die for you, Salome—Salome, my precious one!"
I turned from her, and set my teeth upon my lip, for my confession had shaken my soul to its uttermost depths. Not for the earth, nor for heaven would I have touched her white hand. Through the swirling blood which benumbed my consciousness I felt a presence near me,—her presence. I turned with a low cry. She was standing there, close to me. Her bonnet had fallen off, and in the deep twilight her brown hair glowed like an aureole about a saint. One swift, hurt, appealing glance from her uplifted eyes, and she sank, quivering, upon my breast, sobbing, "Abner! Abner!"
God of mercy, I thank thee! I thank thee!
* * * * *
Once more we sat on the steps. The bewitching beauty of the August night lay around us. The yellow harvest moon sailed on as calmly as though it were used to beholding lovers. I held her hand in a kind of stupefied satisfaction, feeling as though under the spell of some powerful opiate. She was so close to me!—the skirt of her gingham gown had fallen over one of my feet. I touched her hair, so tenderly, and smoothed it back from her pure forehead. How could it be? This young creature, so full of life and health, encompassed with all that wealth and love could give—to love me!—me, a simple bookworm and lover of Nature, who had come into her life by chance. The golden hours of that enchanted night still glow like letters of fire upon the web of memory. It was the one perfect period in my quiet and uneventful existence,—the one brief time when life was full, and I held to my lips the cup of all earthly happiness. And the changing years cannot rob me of the recollection.
The next day Salome was seized with a severe headache. She did not leave the house, and of course I did not see her, as she stayed in her room upstairs. We felt no especial concern, although she was not accustomed to such attacks, and with the coming of night her head grew easier. I went out after supper to pace up and down the avenue, to smoke my pipe, and to watch the windows of her room. I remained in the yard till nearly eleven, and the light was still burning when I went in. The next morning Mrs. Grundy told me that Salome had some fever, and that a doctor had been sent for. I heard the news in silent fear, and my heart sank. I longed to tell this good old woman what her daughter was to me; but Salome had said nothing about it, and I could not speak without her consent.
The doctor came, an important-looking young fellow whom I felt inclined to kick off the porch the moment he set foot on it. When he descended from the sick room he pompously announced that it was only an ordinary cold, which would quickly disappear before the remedies which he had left. But the days went by, and she grew no better, and I never saw her. How my heart hungered for a glance of her sweet face; how my eyes longed to look into the clear, brown depths of hers. One morning I was told that a leading physician from Louisville had been summoned. Dr. Yandel came—and stayed. Typhoid fever is a grim foe which requires vigilance as well as medical skill.
I went about like one distraught with a cold hand gripping my heart. It was then she asked to see me. I went to her room for a few moments, and came out with my face gray, and a pitiful, broken prayer to God. Two weeks—and one night they came for me. Like a broken, shattered lily she lay, but her lips smiled with their last breath, and whispered—"Abner."
Blinded and weak, I groped my way out into the night, and sat down. My yellow dog found me, and crept, whining, between my knees. When I lifted my stricken face to the sky, I thought I saw a misty shallop touch the strand of heaven, and a slender white figure with brown hair step onto the plains of Paradise.
* * * * *
The following changes have been made to the text:
Page 16: "hard biscuit" changed to "hard biscuits".
Page 86: "give her royal welcome" changed to "give her a royal welcome".