"Garry is saving his money against the fatal day," he laughed one night. "He has become a rank miser! Joe says he goes for days at a time, borrowing his tobacco, and he won't play anything but penny-ante now, when he can be coaxed to play at all!"
Miss Sarah was too kind to look at him directly that evening.
"The regeneration of Garry is one of the things which had made my life most happy," she answered. And then, paving the way for what she knew was on his mind. "I suppose you will be surprising us yourself, one of these days. And no doubt you'll be just as happily positive as Garry is, that your choice is the only one in the world."
They were alone in the big living-room. Caleb was still in town, gossiping with Hardwick Elliott. And Steve's bruised smile clutched at Miss Sarah's heart.
"I!" he overdid his amusement. "I have lived too much alone, I'm afraid, ever to prove very attractive to any woman's fancy. Bachelors are not always born; they are sometimes the habits of loneliness."
"Stuff and nonsense!" the good woman ridiculed him. "Why—why, if it weren't for a suspicion that you might have your eye on some small person or other, I'd drop everything and hunt one up for you, myself. Why, Stephen, what a remark for me to hear from you!"
Both were silent for a moment.
"Marriage is a mighty—expensive proposition," he commented at length, profoundly.
"Is Garry such a plutocrat any more?"
"That is not a fair illustration for us to employ," he countered, and Barbara Allison was not the only woman who loved his lazily final statements. "Both Garry and Miriam have been taught that there are worse things than the hardship of making last year's limousine do for another season."
Miss Sarah laughed at this drollery. She was a better antagonist than most. She had practiced on Caleb.
"Can't one girl learn what another has been taught?" she wanted to know. "Stephen, do you mean to sit there and infer that you could continue to care for a girl who could not care for you, just for yourself?"
His reply told her how tired he had become in trying to stem the tide of doubt alone. It warned her, too, that she had gone too close, for he veered off sharply. Steve persisted in generalities, but he wanted to talk.
"I have been wondering if that is not an old-fashioned attitude," he said. "Women, they tell, us, have broadened since they usurped many places in the business world once held by men. They are looking mighty keen-eyed toward the vote now, and a share in the legislation of their growing affairs, or at least so they explain. You have heard many men say 'business is business.' Maybe you have watched quite a few charming brides walk to the altar, and wondered if that wasn't their sentiment, too."
She chose to be suddenly vexed with him.
"I do not like such humor, and of course you are joking. I have heard Garrett Devereau talk in just such a strain too often to be amused by it. And if you mean——"
"If I meant it, I was crying the baby," stated the man coldly, and Miss Sarah knew that he was rebuking himself. "I could care for such a girl—yes. But I doubt if I would marry a woman who had even the smallest doubt. There are too many sharp places to be smoothed over, without chancing that tragedy of discontent. It's merely habit that's to blame again, that's all." He cast about for a parallel. "One does not miss sugar so very much from a meal, until he knows he can't have it. And then—well, Miss Sarah, I have many times talked peevishly, for a man, because there was none to be had."
"We are talking of women. What about salt?" she inquired quickly.
"That is very indispensable, too, but——"
"Of the two which do you always take care shall not be missing from your pack, whenever you turn into the woods?"
"I see where you are heading, but——"
"I do not like dissemblance, Stephen," she warned. "You know without the salt of love the sugar of life can grow sickeningly cloying."
He did not win his argument, but defeat gave him far more happiness than could have come from victory. Leaving her that night, he closed his hand over her delicate fingers in a clasp which left her smiling in wonder after he had gone. She watched horse and rider disappear into the whiteness of the new winter till both were lost to her sight.
"Bless the boy," she murmured then. "Bless the boy!" And to Caleb, her brother, when he came stamping in: "I surely must take a hand with these children. They have been left to their own devices long enough."
Caleb had recovered his good-natured view of the whole affair; he was given to grinning those days at her flutterings. On more than one occasion he told her, none too flatteringly, that she made him think of an officious hen with a brood which a high rate of mortality and prowling night-raiders had left bereft of all save two of her hatch. But this particular witticism did not bother her in the least, perhaps because she realized how pat the comparison was. Instead of silencing him she showed him the letter which she constructed some days later—constructed most painstakingly, the second week in December. She deigned to read it aloud to him, before she dispatched it on its journey.
"Barbara, dear child," she wrote, "this is the appeal of a lonesome spinster lady who finds that winter, still only a lusty infant here, is the season for younger, warmer pulses. I am very tired of Caleb's continued company; that is, with nothing to leaven it. The keenest of epigrammarians, my dear, becomes very commonplace, you know, to ears too long tuned to one voice. So I am writing you in dignified desperation to come to me this holiday season—Caleb is not always as epigrammatic as I could wish.
"I am going to be positive that you will come, unless you have already made other plans. And, on second thought, if you have already done so, I am going to fall back upon the privileged tyranny of one who once carried you in her arms. You must come to me this Christmas!"
There was another whole paragraph of rambling, repeated arguments, and then a full page devoted to the beauties of the hills and season.
"The days are diamond brilliant," she wrote, "and the nights as drily cold and crisp as Caleb's few last cherished bottles of champagne. We have a foot of snow, two feet in the ell of the house where the mint-bed lies, and that has afforded Caleb much peace of mind, too. The roots will live nicely under their warm blanket, you see—all of which must read frivolously to you, coming from staid Miss Sarah. I can only plead that already I must be less lonely for anticipation of your arrival. Are you well? You will find new roses for your cheeks in this climate. And you may telegraph your acceptance, this once, if you are too busy to write, although you know I deplore the lack of those punctillios which once made of all custom and etiquette a most charming thing."
It was signed, "Yours, my dear, Sarah Hunter."
There was a quaint twist to the letter S; sharp angles in the chirography which a newer decade of femininity might have found sadly lacking in a largeness of loops now indispensable as indication of "character." And there was a postscript, of course.
"Stephen O'Mara has been several times to dinner, since your departure. He is working very hard, but most successfully, I am sure, for he appears to be very happy. He is thinner than he was, but who could have guessed that the boy he was would grow to be such a handsome man! Men with eyes like his and such voices used to break the hearts of susceptible maids, when I was sixteen. Do come! S. H."
She read it aloud from beginning to end, nor did she falter much when Caleb greeted the postscript with a shout of joy. Caleb was most high-spirited those days, for the line in regard to the progress of Steve's work was in truth an under-statement if anything, even though the assurance of his happiness might have been called a misconstruance of facts. Caleb had almost begun to think that he had done Dexter Allison, his friend, an injustice. He had begun to congratulate himself on having said nothing to him directly.
"What do you think of it?" his sister asked pleasantly, when she had finished reading. "Will it—do?"
"If you mean—will it fetch her, I can only say Heaven knows!" Indeed he was enjoying himself. "You feel positive that she cares for him, you say? . . . But I thought you were always inclined to believe Steve rather easy to look at, even as a boy?"
"I was!" maintained Miss Sarah. Her voice grew girlish. "Do you remember the night you gave him my old hunting coat, Cal, and he went to sleep with it in his arms?"
Some of the teasing note left her brother's voice.
"Then why do you tell Barbara—why do you seem to infer—" he foundered hopelessly.
"Stupid!" said Miss Sarah. "Will she come?"
"She won't!" he stated solidly.
When he spoke in that tone Miss Sarah always chose to believe the contrary, and events in this instance proved her right. Barbara did not wire. She wrote a long letter full of little twists and turns which led at last to the subject which Miss Sarah had mentioned so parenthetically.
"I am delighted at the prospect of getting away from town for a week," she closed as she had opened her reply—"delighted at Mr. O'Mara's splendid success. Last night I overheard father telling some business associates that he would one day be the biggest power in the north country, unless something happened to check him soon. That was very flattering, wasn't it? It will make you very proud, I know. Tell Mr. O'Mara I wished to be recalled to him. As I have already warned you in this letter, father insists on coming with me. I think he must be a little tired of the city himself, for he is very restless. And remind Uncle Cal that I am to have the wish-bone, or I will not come at all!"
This reply Miss Sarah also read aloud to her brother, in a voice that was not quite Christian, however, for it was gloating in tone.
"There!" she breathed, "and, Cal, aren't you ashamed sometimes to have your judgment so often refuted by a mere woman?"
Caleb had been reading in the Morrison Standard that the East Coast Company had made unbelievable strides in its work, in spite of many conspiring hard-luck circumstances; he was frowning over that oddly veiled compliment of Allison's, which his daughter had so innocently repeated, but he was glad to hear that Dexter, too, planned to run up for the year-end. He was a bit bored himself. Now he grinned over another thought.
"She fails to mention whether she ever noticed the color of his eyes," he choked a little, "or—or the heart-breaking quality of his voice! Maybe she hasn't noticed 'em yet herself, eh?"
Miss Sarah scorned to answer. She went upstairs to her desk and she wrote two letters that night, before she retired. One went back to Barbara. The other had not so far to travel, but it was longer in reaching its destination.
BLUE FLANNEL AND CORDUROY
The world was snow-bound—all that small world which lay between the hills in the valley at Thirty-Mile. For two days it had been snowing, great flakes so plume-like that they seemed almost artificial, making one think of the blizzards which originate high in theatre-flies under the sovereignty of a stage-hand who sweats at his task of controlling the elements. For two days it snowed so heavily that all work moved but intermittently at the up-river camp; and then, two days before Christmas, the mercury dropped sharply into the bulbs and the weather cleared.
Stephen O'Mara, standing at a window of his cabin late in the afternoon, peering out upon that cold white world, was wondering if she would have found it as wonderful as it seemed to him at that moment; he was wondering whether he would have to break a fresh trail himself, upon snow-shoes, if he were to join Fat Joe and Garry in town for the holiday, when a team of horses came toiling into view far across the snow. It was Big Louie, sitting huge and stolid upon his load of supplies, coming in a whole day late and cracking his long lash over the glossy backs of the bays which the lash was never allowed to touch. Behind him another sledge appeared in turn, with two figures on the seat, but even at that distance they looked neither so huge nor so stolidly reconciled to the bite of the wind. Fallon was driving; Shayne was beating his arms across his chest. And the second team was fagged and caked with frozen lather. Big Louie had been breaking trail for twelve bitterly hard hours, but his animals were still far from spent—not so tired in fact but what they could throw forward their heads and nicker at the sight of warm stables. Big Louie loved horses as he loved nothing else in his whole dull world. Sober he fed them bits of sugar, with strange throat-sounds which they must have understood, it seemed; drunk he threatened the life of any man who might chance to maltreat them. That was the reason Steve had made Big Louie his head-teamster only two weeks before.
From his window he watched the heavy loads crawl up to the store-house door; he watched the drivers throw tarpaulins over the boxes and knew that they were too weary to unload that night. And he was still there at the frosted pane when the three men, Big Louie still plowing ahead, hove into view again from the direction of the stables and came straight toward his own shack. He opened the door and bade them enter before they had had a chance to knock. The swagger in the shoulders of two of them told him what to expect. Big Louie was only clumsy, as usual.
"You did well to make it," he told the latter, kindly, as he always addressed him. His nod to the others, who reeked of white whiskey, was in part a question, in no wise a welcome. "Well?" he asked.
Apparently there had been a conference beforehand, for there was no hesitancy on the part of Fallon, who had been ordained spokesman.
"We've come for our time," he growled.
Steve nodded gravely.
"I see," he murmured. "May I ask what's your grievance, this time."
They were the satellites of Harrigan. Because of that he had kept them all where his eyes could find them at times. And even though their arch-leader in discontent had not crossed his path in many days he listened now to an echo of Harrigan's activities.
"They're offering three a day in the Reserve camps." Fallon should not have gloated. "Three a day and a bonus for the high week cut. We're going back to the river."
"I see," again observed Steve. "Are they guaranteeing this wage for as long as you want to work."
Apparently they had decided, too, that there should be no bargaining.
"We want our time," Fallon reiterated. "This is going to be a man's year on the river!"
"You, also?" Steve inquired of Shayne.
That worthy gloated too.
"Yes, me also," he came back, "an' a hundred others, before the ice goes out."
Big Louie he had given up for lost long before that, and yet it was with Big Louie that Steve made a sincere effort.
"I'd like to have you stay, Louie," he faced the third man. "I need you, for you can do more with horses than any man I know. You are worth three a day to me. Do you care to think it over?"
Big Louie's eyes had been mournful when he stumbled in out of the cold. They were that now. He started to turn toward the window for a look at the stables, and then thought better of it. Resolutely, for him, he shook his head.
"I am done—me," he muttered. "I work for no company that will leave honest men to starve."
It was hopeless from the start, yet Steve tried again.
"I can promise you work as long as you are able to hold a rein," he offered, but he moved nearer the door while he was speaking. "That is all I can promise."
Perhaps Fallon believed that Big Louie was weakening; perhaps he felt that the situation was too highly dramatic to be wasted, for he made a wide flourish with one hand.
"We want our time, and we want it now," he threatened. "We're going to show you who bosses this river, before we're done with you!"
Fallon shouldn't have gloated; he shouldn't have threatened. And Shayne shouldn't have smiled. Steve had slipped the latch loose. Now he swung open the door.
"Call for your time at the Morrison office," he said evenly, "and if you're going—why, go!"
By collar and belt he swung him back and drove him sprawling into a drift.
"Are you in a hurry, too, Shayne?" he asked pleasantly, and Shayne buried his head beside Fallon's in the snow. Then Steve closed the door carefully and turned again to Big Louie.
"Louie," he said, "I make it a rule to urge no man who does not wish to stay. If it needs persuasion to keep you, I do not want you here. But you are running with the wrong crowd, Louie; you'll learn it someday—but someday may be too late."
The big, dreamy-eyed man was hardly listening, but he gestured toward the door. And Steve treated his departure kindly, as he had always treated his presence. Outside where Shayne and Fallon had picked themselves up, Big Louie hesitated and fumbled in his pocket with a cold-cramped hand. He delivered the letter which had been entrusted to him, before he went down the hill. There are many men like Big Louie who are pitifully faithful until events outstrip their intellects. Steve was sorry for him; and a half hour later, after he had read Miss Sarah's prim note requesting his presence at dinner at seven-thirty, Christmas eve, he grew sorrier still while he watched the ill-assorted trio meet once more, blanket-packs upon their backs and snow-shoes on their feet. Big Louie had joined the other two from the direction of the stables. There were words between them, for Steve saw the huge man's arm lift to strike Shayne to the ground, and then drop harmlessly back to his side. And Steve knew what that bit of pantomime meant. Big Louie had been to bid his team good-bye. There was a smudge of brown sugar across his coat, though the watcher was too far away to see that. But he knew that Big Louie had been crying, knew that Shayne had smiled. It was the second time that Shayne had smiled that evening—his second bad mistake. Long after they had disappeared into the north toward the Reserve Company's camps, Steve wondered that it had not cost him his life.
Miss Sarah's note which had been almost a week on the way was very primly correct, but the inevitable postscript which under-ran it sounded a more intimate note.
"We are not excessively formal as a rule, Stephen," she wrote, "so a dinner jacket will be adequate. As I am expecting two other guests besides your friends, Mr. Morgan and Garrett Devereau, I must ask you to let no business matters interfere with your promptness."
Steve dared not let himself wonder who those other guests would prove to be, Miriam Burrell, he knew, had already written Garry that this was to be the saddest Christmas, and the merriest, that she had ever known, giving as respective reasons her inability to be with him, and the fact that she was so entirely his. Because he would not let himself hope this time he was not disappointed, or at least so he told himself, when he found only Dexter Allison with Caleb, the next afternoon near six. And on a sudden thought his eyes went roving around the room then, looking for Archibald Wickersham; but Miss Sarah gave him no time for a protracted scrutiny.
"Your room is ready, Stephen," she told him, and steered him toward the stairs. "You have an hour in which to dress—and you know already that I am old-maidenishly strict."
Surely Archibald Wickersham was the other guest whom they were expecting. Allison's very presence argued that. Yet Steve's nose played him a startling trick as he mounted upward. He could have sworn that he smelled that faint perfume which always made him remember, now, his first letter from her; had he not been afraid to hope he would have been positive that there was a flurry of skirts retreating above him. But he knew that she could not have come. He knew it! And then, three-quarters of an hour later, when he had dressed and turned again to the stairway, she was there at the foot of the flight, waiting for him to appear. In a little low pink satin gown that made rounded her slenderness—made her appear even smaller than she was—she gave him an elaborate courtesy from the main floor, and flung up at him her laughter.
"Merry Christmas, Sir Galahad," she called.
Just as he had paused there a half-score of years before, Stephen O'Mara paused now, with Caleb and Miss Sarah again gazing up at him. It was the first time Sarah Hunter had seen the grown-up Steve in conventional black and white; her emotions were much the same as they had been on that remoter day. But Steve did not even see her glowing face below him in that instant, nor Caleb's, nor that of Allison either, who watching Steve's eyes, had suddenly ceased to smile. Caleb knew what his sister's thoughts were, however, for he was recalling that black velvet suit with silver buttons himself. While Steve and Barbara were shaking hands he gained her ear in whispered admiration.
"Sarah," he commented, "Sarah, you are clever!"
Miss Sarah was on the point of taking Dexter Allison's arm to lead the way to table. Her reply was tuned to Caleb's ear alone.
"She had thought of him in terms of blue flannel and corduroy long enough," she said. "If you please, Dexter—Stephen, do you and Barbara want any dinner?"
Those two were still shaking hands. Steve, who was only dimly aware of the fact that Garry and Fat Joe had arrived, the latter guilty of his first dinner jacket and enormously proud of his guilt, stood looking at Barbara while she was chattering at him, without hearing distinctly a word she spoke. Miss Sarah's question helped to bring him back.
"You look as though I were a wraith," the girl accused him. "Am I so pale after a few weeks of sophisticated city air?"
But her man had taken command of himself again, by then.
"I thought you looked like—shall I tell you what I thought?"
"Most certainly," she was forced to insist. "Wasn't it a bald enough invitation for a pretty speech?"
"I thought you looked like a small pink bon-bon," responded Steve leisurely, and while the rest laughed at her discomfiture, Fat Joe leaned over and nudged Garry.
"What'd I tell you?" he demanded. "What'd I tell you? Say, ain't he working well to-night?"
But for once Joe had himself been misled into premature enthusiasm such as he had decried in Garry. For if Barbara had, in Miss Sarah's phrase, been thinking of Steve in terms of blue flannels and corduroy, until then, before the dinner ended she was aware of a difference in the attitude of this man who loved her, too great to be explained by the clothes he wore. The very light in his eyes, whenever she contrived to catch him gazing at her, convinced her of what was behind his new restraint; and then, immediately, perversely, she set herself to break it down by those very methods best calculated to strengthen it. More than once that evening Dexter Allison withdrew from the general conversation to watch the play of his daughter's glances upon O'Mara's tanned face; several times he fell to chewing his lip as was his custom when deeply perplexed. Complications scarcely ever troubled Dexter Allison. He was beginning to awake to one now which already worried him more than he cared to admit.
There was no keeping the girl within doors after dinner was over. She ran upstairs and changed into moccasins and white blanket coat, and skirt that barely met the moccasin tops half-way. And Steve, who had changed too and was waiting for her when she came down, had knotted a crimson scarf about the middle of his belted jacket to match the white one twisted about her throat. With much approval Miss Sarah noted, while she watched them away on snow shoes, the bit of color it added to his soberer garb; she promised herself to recall it to Caleb at some future date. Caleb had very pronounced views regarding the lack of vanity in men's dress. But for the time being she was content to go upstairs and be alone with her campaigning.
The man and girl climbed far that night in quite unbroken silence. They had reached the crest of the first hill and stopped with the higher ridges in front of them, black bulks filigreed with white, before Barbara decided that she would have to make him talk.
"Aren't you going to say anything at all?" she challenged then.
She needed no explanation of his mood. To a woman there is no subtler flattery than a man's dumb acknowledgement of her unattainability. He talked when she bade him talk, but she was not positive whether she was vexed or not because their conversation was of common-place things: The work he was doing, upon which he was aggravatingly reticent, or the severity of the last storm, or the amazing clarity of the night. Certainty, however, was hers that he was no longer sure of himself—that he was fighting silently against a growing conviction that she was beyond his reach.
It made her very happily sad, somehow, and when Steve told her about Big Louie and his horses, the sadness became a lump in her throat, and a blur in her eyes which the man could not help but see.
"It is too bad," he said slowly. "I have been sorrier for him myself, since his going, than I've been over anything for years. I do not know just why, but I'm afraid for him. The others—" He stopped there, catching himself before he had said too much. "I could always tell Big Louie how I wanted a thing done, and know without one little bit of doubt that he would stick to my orders. But that is the trouble with his kind. Because he has no initiative of his own, he has to depend upon the ideas which other men supply him. And there is no guarantee whether they will be good or bad ideas."
From the first he talked fitfully that night. On other occasions she had noticed how his mind seemed to veer, whimsically, from one topic to another with little apparent continuity of thought, only to swing back again, just when she was beginning to feel that she had lost the thread of inference, to point his argument with parallels that were new and delightful wisdoms to her ears. But to-night his grave-voiced divergences, oftener than not, left her thoughts behind his thoughts.
"It is a very easy country to get lost in," he next remarked, when he had had to insist that his sense of direction, and not hers, should be the one to be trusted. "He was never able to go fifty rods into the brush himself, without getting completely turned around, and he was born in these hills, at that."
Then he had to tell her that it was Big Louie to whom he was referring, before she understood quite what he meant. But he abandoned that trend, freakishly, the very next moment.
"It doesn't seem complicated," he pondered. "To a man who has come into the world with his sense of north and south and east and west all safely relegated to his backbone instead of having to depend upon the flighty functions of his brain for his guide, it's about the simplest thing there is. He finds his way without thinking about the lay of the land, or moss on the trees, or the sun or stars. But the other one—the one who has to stop and reason that he must travel so many miles to the west to reach home in the afternoon, because he came that many in the morning—why, he even gets to doubting his compass, until night catches him without a roof over his head and no wood collected for a camp-fire."
Long before then she had learned how sensitive a thing was his spirit—and she wanted him to go on.
"It must be a terrible thing to—to know that one is lost." Her hands were buried deep in her pockets; she found it hard to keep pace with his stride. "I am always afraid of the night noises in the woods."
It was the girl in her which had spoken at which he smiled, but his smile was absent-minded.
"That is very strange, too," he accepted her lead, after contemplating it for a time. "It is always the one who can't trust his compass who loses his head, once he knows he's mixed up. Big Louie was that way. He was lost once, for two days, before we found him; he was half mad with terror and pretty near dead with fatigue. He had been running in a big circle for hours, and we had to corner him before he would see that we were friends. He'd been listening to the night noises, you see; dwelling on the blackness and the silence and his lack of a fire, until his brain was no longer any use to him."
"What should one do?" she asked him faintly, when she knew that he was waiting for her to speak. Yet his answer persisted in adding to that word-image which his mind was molding.
"Quit letting yourself look back over your shoulder, to see if anything is following you!" He was suddenly gruff, and she knew that he was talking at himself. "Quit dwelling on the crackle in the brush, and the darkness, and the things you are afraid to fear. The wise man stops when he knows he's lost his bearings; he busies himself collecting wood for a fire, if not to keep the chill from his body by exercise, then because it keeps his mind off himself. And he sleeps if he can. Anyhow he lies quiet and rests. And when morning comes he uses his reason better for having rested, if his instincts still play him false. He has a look at the stars before daybreak; he watches the sun come up, and he holds a straight line by the height of land, or by the river flow, and he hits familiar country soon."
This time the girl did not interrupt him. She was watching his face.
"And that doesn't apply just to one little corner of the woods, or one little corner of life, either, does it?" he mused. "When a man's instinct fails him, he can stop and get his bearings back; when he's afraid he can kindle a fire within him, always, if he'll only rustle around before it gets too dark to search for fuel. But at that it isn't so very easy, in life, to get one's bearings straight again. It's stormy, some nights, maybe, and the stars don't shine; sometimes day dawns cloudy and the sun is not advertising its location too strongly. Instinct has always been strong in me, but there have been times, too, when I have had to hold my eyes mighty steady on some object far beyond me, to keep my line dead straight." He stopped short and faced her. "You would be afraid, yes," he told her, "but you would try hard to discipline yourself. You would never go rushing blindly into a worse tangle, spending your strength and breaking your sanity down. Big Louie is a child; discipline is wasted on him. And—and I have always been able to find my way myself."
She knew now toward what point he had been talking. Mentally he had been wandering, as Big Louie once wandered in the flesh, in a wide circle that fetched up again against that doubt in himself which was hurting her, even while it was making her happy. He had taken the example of Big Louie and applied it to his own life, and suddenly the girl realized how infinitely greater was his philosophy thereof than was hers.
"I shall try to remember that," she answered soberly. "If ever I am lost I—I shall try to wait confidently for daylight, and keep my eyes to the fore."
She was near to tears when he stooped and knelt in the snow to tighten a thong slipping from one webbed foot. Below them stretched a plain of shimmering frost-points, bounded by inscrutable walls of black timber. Somewhere within the warmer heart of a swamp a fox yapped hungrily; somewhere within her own heart his whimsical discourse had awakened a sense of the mystery of his wilderness—its friendship for those who love it—its implacable enmity for those who do not understand. And he looked up just when that emotion came flooding into her face.
"It is wonderful—wonderful—wonderful!" she breathed, throwing out both arms with that ecstatic impulsiveness which he knew so well. "Now I know why you said men always return to it, once they have felt its spell."
"You are lovelier than you know!" came back from him, almost gruffly again; and she could not parry with lightness so swift and strained a speech.
"You always tell me very pretty things," was all she could think of to say in reply.
But then, rising, he flung back his head and shook himself as if throwing off a burden too restraining and irksome. He laughed aloud, and from that minute until he loosed her feet from the snowshoes he was more like her "blue flannel and corduroy" lover again. But his attack no longer made her fear herself.
"If I cared for you, yes," he made her admit before he would let her go in that night. "If I cared for you, my engagement to no man could stand in the way. But that is the reason I know I do not care."
She had seen him grave with doubt that night; seen him fight to shake it off. There was doubt in his answer now.
"Because I am not——" But he could not force himself to ask it.
"Because I could never care as you would demand the woman should care who marries you."
She wanted to help him a little, she didn't know just why. Pity is a very dangerous emotion, when pity is not sought.
"You are loving me that way this minute," he said, but his words were dogged. "Loving me more than you know."
There was neither reference to her letter nor mention of that night at Thirty-Mile when she had stolen out to bid him good-bye. Other long tramps followed, on other pale and zero nights, but his attitude remained much the same. Whimsically at times he shared his innermost thoughts with her; always he told her that he cared, with a gentleness in the telling that made it hard for her to listen. Barbara least of all realized what those days were doing to her, but before that week had run its course even Caleb's eyes were opened to the change in Steve.
"I told you so," he said, but he took no delight in recommending it to his sister's attention. "If he didn't know it before, she's taught him this trip that he hasn't a chance."
"Your sensation is ancient history, Cal," was all she would reply.
And even though, so far as Steve's peace of mind was concerned, Miss Sarah's scheming had not helped at all, that tiny lady still chose to view her activities complacently the day Barbara took leave of her again.
"Write me every detail of your plans," Miss Sarah ordered her. "Proxy bridal preparations are better than none, my dear, and I am madly interested."
At the last minute Barbara bobbed her dark head in reply.
"I will," she promised meekly. And then, wide eyes vague with fear: "Aunt Sarah, I—I'm not sure that I want to be—married at all!"
* * * * * *
"You will be coming back," he told her again the day he put her on the train. "You will be back in the spring?"
It was his old, hopeful challenge, with all the hope left out.
"I think so," she faltered in return. "I mean to come and see the completion of your work, if father will let me." She knew a moment of confusion. "I wonder, many nights, if you are safe, up here in the hills."
Indeed, Miss Sarah had made progress, though the surface indications were small. The girl would never think of him again simply in terms of blue flannel and corduroy. But that was not the most disturbingly vivid memory which she carried away with her.
"I love you," he framed the words silently as the train was pulling out, and although their positions were reversed, the moment was so reminiscent of that day when he had leaned out of her father's switch engine cab and asked if she wanted a ride, that it made her throat ache.
She waved a small gloved hand to him on the platform.
She did not want to go.
SETTING THE STAGE
There are two interviews which should be mentioned here, if for no other reason then merely because they were both so entirely the outcome of Miss Sarah's Christmas party. Neither of them were long; the last one which took place between Wickersham and the girl he was to marry was the briefer of the two. But her prettily serious argument that the first of May was too early a date for their wedding, in view of the work which he had to do and her own state of unpreparedness, left him so white of face that she felt guiltily sorry for him for many days to follow—felt guiltier still at the relief she experienced when she had established that reprieve. The other interview was longer, and took place days earlier, but it was no more of a delight to Archibald Wickersham.
Dexter Allison had returned home almost a week in advance of his daughter, pleading stress of business, but in spite of the demands upon his time and attention, he had found it impossible to forget the night of the dinner, when he had watched his daughter's eyes upon Stephen O'Mara's face.
Allison had never professed a knowledge of women. Like her mother, Barbara had been many, many times an enigma which he who had often taken men's souls apart had not dared even to try to solve. Partly because of that, partly because his observation in other quarters had taught him the dangerous futility of it, he had lifted his voice neither in encouragement nor protest of Archibald Wickersham. The two had grown up from childhood together—Barbara and the man whom she was engaged to marry—and more than once her father had assured himself that at least there was a long knowledge of each other's shortcomings to make for safety in the long run.
His own dislike for Wickersham he had never allowed to sway his middle course of non-interference. And he had never liked the boy; never learned to like the man he had grown to be. Underneath Dexter Allison's jovial exterior there was a cynicism which for hardness would have made Garry Devereau's worst moments seem mere childish fits of spleen. Men do not watch other men whimper and beg for mercy—little rascals who have been nipped in a greater schemer's trap—without beginning to wonder, soon or late, how much of man is warped and twisted; and he had been watching Archie Wickersham now for months. He believed that men's men were not women's men, the oft-repeated epigram to the contrary. He had eaten too many dinners at which the lion of the evening who sat on the charming hostess's right hand, was a man of rank and a thing of ranker repute. But after his first shock at the realization that his baby was a woman grown, he had promised himself that her engagement and Wickersham's should be a long one; promised that the man into whose keeping she was given should have earned the title in full.
Wickersham's code, in many respects, was above reproach. Allison had taken pains to ascertain that. But beyond that he did not let himself go; he neither allowed himself to wonder at, nor regret, her choice. He was too honest to decry in another much which he knew would not measure up to Golden Rule standards in himself. And he had a really great man's unshakable faith in his own flesh and blood.
Yet he had been troubled more than a little since his Christmas trip to Morrison. When he turned a page he turned it for all time, but in the last day or two he had caught himself surrepticiously trying to steal a glance at some which had only just rustled into place. Dexter Allison had left brilliant men of cross-examination panting impotently at the barrenness of their efforts; he had known it and enjoyed it to the full. But he knew, too, that he could never face, jauntily or otherwise, one reproach in the dusky eyes of the girl with whom he had more than once played truant, to breakfast with Caleb and Miss Sarah. And he was facing that thought, nearer to panic than he had ever been before, the night before New Year's, when Wickersham was announced at nine. He was thinking of Barbara's mother when he beckoned his guest to a chair, shook his head over his red cheeks, and offered a cigar.
"Devilish cold weather," he grunted, none too graciously, for he had not wanted to be disturbed just then.
The younger man admitted that it was. His mind, plainly, was not upon the weather, but he found difficulty in introducing a topic of his own choosing. Outspokenness had never been one of Archie Wickersham's boldest characteristics, so Allison assisted him now. Allison liked a man to be outspoken.
"Well," he demanded, "let's hear it. What's on your mind?"
There are times when hatred will betray 'most any man. Hatred now led Wickersham to speak not wisely but with venom.
"I want you to refuse to renew your name on the East Coast notes," he said. "They are due on the second."
Few men had ever said "I want you to" to Dexter Allison and, as he put it, "gotten away with it to any great extent." And of all nights this one in particular was the least likely to prove propitious for such an attempt. That was Wickersham's oversight.
"So!" said Dexter, "so! Well, now for your reason."
Wickersham had not learned until after Barbara's departure that she was spending the holidays in Morrison, for he had himself expected to be away. And it is only fair to the girl to say that she had honestly forgotten to apprise him of her plan, in her real excitement at going. But finding it out for himself had not made the fact any pleasanter to Wickersham.
"It should be clear enough without explanation," he enunciated each word nicely, "if you want that road they are building."
Allison glanced up, surprised at the tone employed.
"Meaning of course I do," he mused. "And yet—and yet, I don't know!"
Fear burned in the tall, thin man's eyes that night—fear that made his hatred for the absent man who was teaching him fear anything but a pretty thing to watch.
"I've tried to buy off their men." He was holding himself with an effort that made him tremble. "I've held up their supplies on every track that we control, but they've had the luck with them. They've made up lost time by working day and night. I've——"
"You've set a drunken fool to steal his plans," drawled the other with deadly sarcasm, "like a second-rate, one-night-stand villain. Don't forget to mention that, too!"
In many ways it resembled an earlier conference which they had shared together; in many points it differed from it. For if Allison had goaded the other man, on that former occasion, largely from a malicious delight in stirring him to verbal violence, such a thought was farthest from his mind now. Allison was talking from a new angle. If a turned page was a turned page to him, at least his memory was good. His lounging body shifted a little.
"Archie, do you remember what I told you about that woods-rat, as you called him once? Did I tell you that he would fight? Well, listen and listen closely while I repeat it for you. He hasn't even warmed to it yet!"
Wickersham went yellow at that, but his icy self-control held firm. He did not break into vituperation this night; he smiled, though his voice was only a whisper.
"Men have dropped out of sight before now, in those woods," he husked. "I'll win, or I'll see that he lies and rots in one of his own sink-holes."
A big voice is a wonderful weapon at times. Allison's booming bass made Wickersham's threat seem only mean and hollow when the heavy man leaped to his feet and shook a finger under that high-bridged nose.
"No you won't!" he snapped. "No you won't! And if I didn't know, after hearing you talk, that you haven't stuff enough in you to be dangerous, I'd fix you so you'd be in no condition to bushwhack anybody for the next six months. I'm in a bad mood to-night. Drop out of sight, eh? You'll play this fair—fair at least as I see it by my standards, and they are better standards than yours. You've come dictating to me, ordering me to slip a knife into their backs. Are you that kind of a sneak? Did you think I was? Now listen again, and listen well, for I mean what I say!
"I want that railroad, if the man who is building it is too weak to keep me from taking it away from him. But if I don't get it on such a basis, I'll know that there is a man at the head of it who is big enough to take care of my share of it. Have you got that? Very well. And now go back to your melodrama, if you want to. Steal his men, if he will let you; fight him every inch of his construction—that is your job—and I'll still insist that it is his fault if he is tardy on the first of May. But it's you and O'Mara from now on, Archie. I'll be a spectator now! And, by Gad, don't you ever come near me again with a request that I . . . don't you ever let me hear you threaten that you——"
Allison's face was suffused before he finished, and Wickersham, astounded past utterance, slid from his chair away from that flourishing hand which had become a fist. It was no scene to take place between a man and his prospective son-in-law. Realizing that Allison tried to laugh, deprecatingly, at his temper.
"Go out and get him, Archie," he invited. "I'll be watching, don't doubt that. And I know how much you want to win. It's a bigger stake than most folks realize!"
Like Barbara he tried to make his side of the interview kindly at the end, but he sent the other man away wondering whether he had understood that last remark, and afraid to think that he had. And two other things Allison had done. For once he had started to pay hush money to his conscience. Once and for all, like Fat Joe, he had registered at last a refusal to interfere in any way that might spoil the climax of the "big show" for which Fate or Chance or Destiny, or whatever men may call it, was setting the stage, with an unhurried calm that contrasted, ironically, with the mad haste of her actors.
But he watched, as he had promised he would. The same day that more than half of O'Mara's men went on strike and deserted to the Reserve Company's payroll, the news reached him that a trainload of laborers had been shot in to take their places—those very types of laborers which Steve himself had warned Elliott would not last an hour, in the event of trouble. For a week Allison wondered that there was no clash between the displaced men who believed that the river was theirs alone and this new corps which Garry Devereau was handling at the lower end of construction, not by physical prowress, as Fat Joe had ruled, but just as surely and all because, as Joe himself put it, he could damn a man merely by bidding him good-morning.
"Honey crossed north to-day to have a look at his winter cut," Joe would observe to his chief at supper at Thirty-Mile; and before the night was many hours older Allison too, in Manhattan, would have learned by wire in less picturesque phraseology, that Archie Wickersham was missing no chances.
"They have now finished hauling their logs to the river," Joe told Steve one night after a prolonged scouting trip. "They are turning their attention to their float dams, now!"
And when that news was relayed to the big man who never ceased to watch he understood why there had been no violence when the rivermen went on strike.
With a clumsiness that shamed him Allison contrived to pass on to his daughter all such bits of gossip which dribbled down to him; that is, all which appertained strictly to Stephen O'Mara's race against time, and not to the opposition which he was meeting. Her excitement was a bubbling thing, innocent of suspicion or premonition, but he was like a war-worn veteran who stands watching column after column wheel into position, waiting the word to go in, and knows he cannot respond.
Many times Barbara tried to write to Steve in those days and each time destroyed the badly scored sheet, either in dismay at the wilful intimacy of her pen or disgusted with its stilted aloofness. She saw less and less of Wickersham that winter, partly because his affairs were monopolizing all his time, partly because she managed to spend most of her waking hours with Miriam Burrell or her father, who appeared doubly, humbly glad of her companionship. Always she insisted that Stephen O'Mara would win through; she made happy, petty wagers with both of them, in anticipation of their journey north, against the first of May. But there was one bit of news which her father had not been able to pass on to her. For Dexter Allison had had no way of learning of a night when the man who was most in their thoughts had finally lifted a bleak face from his arms, in his cabin up-river, and forced himself, hard-eyed, to acknowledge one defeat.
It was the bitterest January that the hill country had known in twenty years; but mile by mile that month the twin lines of steel crept steadily into the north under the urgings of Garry's smooth voice. The snowfall for February broke all records for half that period; but Steve, with his handful of men at Thirty-Mile, put his piling down. And then it rained—it rained until small brooks ran torrents and the river tumbled white and thunderous its entire length.
The snow went off the last of March that spring and the gorges could not carry away the water. The sun turned summer hot; it burned the higher ridges dry while the valleys still lay hidden in flood. It was August temperature, the third Sunday in April, when Stephen O'Mara stood and watched, beneath the glare of kerosene torches, his bridge at Thirty-Mile go into position between dark and dawn.
There was no man among them that day who did not show upon his face the strain they had been under. They were few, they were unshaven and dirty and lean as hungry hounds; but they were the men whom Steve had once bidden Hardwick Elliott to watch, once they had begun to scent combat. Fat Joe was no longer plump. Steve was worn down to actual thinness. And it would have taken a careful eye to have selected the chief from their ranks that Sunday.
The huge timbers had dropped into place like bits of jig-sawed puzzle. At three in the afternoon, too tired both in body and soul for elation, Steve watched them drive home the last spike and heard their hoarse effort at a cheer. He had turned to start toward his shack, not like a man who knows that the end of a well-nigh hopeless task is in sight, but like a beaten man. The first of May meant more to Steve than any clause of the East Coast Company's contract could convey. He had not had even one letter since he put her upon her train. Wickersham's appearance on horseback, at the head of the valley, picking his way around the flooded meadow, halted him in his heavy-footed climb. A whistle shrilled, far to the south of them, down the completed track. And then, after ten years and more, they were face to face again.
"That bridge will have to go down!" Wickersham was breathing hard, for all that he had been riding. "I'm going through with my drive to-day!"
He had dismounted. Steve smiled at him.
"You're a whole week previous, Wickersham," he said, wearily. "I'll be signaling for your first load of logs in less than sixty hours."
Archibald Wickersham wished that he could have believed it impossible, for it would have given him courage and lent conviction to his stand. But he knew just how fast those few remaining miles of open roadbed would be spanned. His eyes were furtive; there was no body to his voice.
"My men are on the banks," he blustered. "My first head of logs has started down. It's too late to argue now—too late for your promises that none but fools ever believed!" The sure irrevocability of what he was saying blanched his cheeks. "I cannot wait for a miracle to be performed. My timber must come out on this flood."
Stephen O'Mara had whipped him once, but men had interfered. This day Chance or Destiny or Fate—whatever you may choose to call it—saved him from destruction. The lean and weary man who had not been out of his clothes for three days and three nights, save for a plunge in the icy river, had taken his first step forward, when the whistle screamed a nearer warning.
She had told him that she would come to see the finish of his race, but he had long since stopped believing that. And now when she stood and waved her hand at him from the brass-railed observation platform of Allison's private car which a switch engine, out of patience with the grade, was shunting across the lower end of the clearing, he could only stand and stare dully, no faith in his eyes.
The loud plaid of her father's garb flashed behind her in the doorway. Hardwick Elliott's fine face peered over his shoulder. And Wickersham, who had not seen his fiance in a month, had started toward them, stiffly erect in his immaculate whipcord habit. Wickersham was smiling; Wickersham was safe again. For Fate or Chance or Destiny who had been setting the stage was bringing on her principals. She would brook no ad lib now.
A low mutter in the north became an ominous murmur while Steve was following slowly in Wickersham's steps, and he realized what it meant. He stopped to stare at his handful of men, rearing their heads to listen, too. Steve had been all winter alone with the puzzle of his own inferiority which he could never understand. And a minute later, when he had reached out to help to the ground a little blue clad figure with fur at throat and wrists, she drew the be-furred edge of her skirt about her ankles and laughingly refused his assistance, and jumped to the ground unaided. She was far too excited to know what she was doing; she hardly saw him at all in that first moment, but the act spelled much to him. His hands were grimy, his face stubbly and streaked with sweat and mud, and he had been months alone with his too-sensitive spirit.
"You should not be here," was all he said to her. "This is no place for you."
He shook hands with the men, mechanically—Allison quizzical, Elliott concerned. He went back to his bridge. The water had come up a half foot in the last few minutes some one—Fat Joe, perhaps—told him; it was sucking greedily at the piles. And in the north the ominous murmur had become a rhythmic roar.
Wickersham's men were driving the river. They were singing "Harrigan, That's Me!"
IT HAPPENS IN BOOKS
It is said that men remember many things when death is imminent; and for days and days something had been dying hard in Stephen O'Mara's breast. His step was slow that afternoon when he drew apart to take up his position alone upon a bit of higher ground, his shoulders heavy and drooping; yet his brain was feverishly active. Recollection of many long gone days—thoughts of many things—came darting to his mind; but they were not thoughts of desperate, last-minute expedients which might stave off this present crisis. For if he had believed that force alone would win for him; if he had had faith that mere numbers could save his construction, he would not have left Garry Devereau with his scores of laborers, busy five miles to the south. Steve was not thinking of his construction now; it had become a dim and remote consideration. It had lost its importance in his scheme of things.
They came slowly at first—Wickersham's logs—thudding heavily, one by one, into the underpinnings of the bridge, sliding free or lodging cross-current as the case might be; then in a thicker and thicker tide that ground and up-ended and settled with the weight of the coffee-colored flood behind it. In the beginning the handful of men who had put those timbers into place set themselves, doggedly, to save their completed structure, until the man who had worked with them, shoulder to shoulder, through the night called them with a nod back to the bank. Obediently then they collected in a small knot behind him, murmurous, gutterally grumbling; waiting his further word they squatted on their haunches, staring hungrily at their chief who stood in seeming surrender, head bowed before them.
The coming of Wickersham's men was not a thing of degrees. They poured into view through the brush fringe at the north edge of the marsh and halted, but only for an instant.
"Who is your friend at the time when you need a friend?——Harrigan, that's me!"
The maudlin menace of that chorus rocketed from ridge to ridge. Then, a tight-ranked mass of humanity, they had formed and were sweeping forward again, stepping out to the beat of the ragtime which was their marching hymn. And still the man who stood apart from the rest gave no sign that he was aware of their approach. Once he did straighten; when separate faces began to be distinguishable in that reeling mob he turned and gazed, emptily, toward the group a few yards away—Wickersham putty-skinned before this storm which he had brewed; Allison himself pale; and the girl whose eyes were staring back at him with no clear understanding in their depths. He made no move toward action, not even when the singing pack surged up and spread out before him, until a jostling crescent, straggling at the points, half encircled him and swallowed up as well the little knot behind which had come bristling to its feet. Their onslaught had seemed an irresistible thing, bent upon instant violence; and yet little by little their syncopated defiance died away until they, too, were staring uncertainly at that worn and mud-stained figure which seemed to hang its head. His very inertia robbed them of their impetus.
"Harrigan, that's me!" they faltered now, and there came a lull in the valley at Thirty-Mile, broken only by heavy breathing and the crunch of logs jamming beneath the bridge, and the ugly swirl of backed-up water. It held quiet while Steve looked up, mildly, and scanned the ring in front of him and nodded in recognition to a sullen few; then oaths broke that silence, and a command for room to pass. An upheaval disrupted the crescent's centre. Steve saw Big Louie's face high above the heads of his shorter companions; he watched him plow heavily forward. Shayne he glimpsed, automatically, and Fallon, faithful henchmen. And then Harrigan stood forth.
Long arms dangling, palms back, almost to his knees, that red-headed one minced forward on the balls of his feet. Harrigan was redeeming a promise many weeks overdue. It was spring, and Harrigan had come back!
"I'm here," he spoke to that bowed head, "if you are afther carin' to welcome me!"
"I've been expecting you, Harrigan."
Again that startling mildness.
There is little wonder that it deceived the riverman. Listening, watching O'Mara's slack form even Fat Joe's face burned; even Archie Wickersham's dared flash in triumph. And Harrigan's went savagely exultant.
"You talked out loud to me, once," he taunted. "Is it so difficult you find it now to speak up so I can hear?"
"Would you promise to listen to argument, Harrigan?"
Vilification tore at the other's lips, until friend and enemy marveled at what Steve took in silence.
"You have begun many things in this counthry," the obscene tirade ended. "You came out of these woods with rags on your back and started at bein' a gentleman when we were only bhoys. You've made a gr-reat success av it with the ladies, we'll gr-rant you that; but you should have stuck to your soft and lily-white pastime. For when you aimed to turn this river into a gentleman's proposition you started something too big for you to finish. I'm taking it off your hands, now. Can't you even talk back like a man?"
There must be fire starting over in the north-east, Steve meditated with an irrelevance strange even to himself—and that reference to her surely was not needed! Yes, there was a smudge of smoke rising behind Twin-face; people should be more careful whore they dropped matches in an unseasonably hot spring like this—and Harrigan's sneer for the boy who had come, wonder-eyed, out of the wilderness and looked upon the picture-thing in kilted velvet which she had been was certainly squandered viciousness now. Past and present they trouped before him, thoughts that spanned years of time and covered leagues of country, yet long before Harrigan had finished with his question Steve knew how he was going to answer it. He didn't have to debate that, and deliberation only gave him the keener joy of anticipation.
All his life opposition had been a familiar of his. Days of hunger he had known and cold, and nights of black discouragement, but never so black until now but what he had been able to hold his vision clear. But that vision was not his any longer to contemplate.
Circumstance had been his handicap; Circumstance he had met and thought to bend to his will; and yet Circumstance had beaten him; in the end Custom was laughing in his face. Beside those intangible antagonists which had been his this personal enemy was only puny, only braggard and swaggering and cheap. But it was a bone and muscle antagonist; it was an entity—a thing upon which one might hurl oneself and spend one's bitter intoleration.
Steve had stopped thinking; he had had too much of thought. Suddenly that question which had been a riddle to him was a riddle no longer. He had the answer, and could see himself as others no doubt had seen him—a fool who had believed in the supremacy of fineness; a boy who had reached for the moon. But it left the issue clearer now. He, too, was a riverman; the degree was different, that was all. And rivermen did not vex their brains with abstract problems; they fought with their hands. His bowed head came back then, and the mass of men, catching sight of the mad, glad light that flared in his eyes, rolled back to give them room. He laughed at Harrigan. He was laughing at himself. They heard and marveled at the pleasantry of his answer.
"Maybe you are right, Harrigan," he said. "You may be—I do not know. I have started big things and left them unfinished. But you are wrong for the rest of it, Harrigan, for I am going—to—finish—you!"
Men tell of that encounter now; it is already epic on the river. One may listen to its details, and he chance into any of a half dozen places:—Mulcahy's, Laduc's, or Whitted's that once was Brown's. And always one will hear different details, but always one accord of verdict. They will tell you that no man ever went through worse vengeance and stayed a living man.
For like a blast of wrath O'Mara lifted and struck him. Harrigan's hands had not left his hips before he met the ground, and he was back on his feet like a bounding ball only to go down again before the smashing impact of those blows. Caution he tried to use in rising and they searched out his face, his chin, and drove him hither and yon. Open fighting was not the river style of fighting and he closed this time and wrapped his gorilla arms about this fury who fought with lightning strokes to keep him off. His greater weight o'erbore them both; he broke away and his hob-nailed boots, lashing out, bit the flesh of O'Mara's temple—they tore the turf where his face had been.
There was madness in Harrigan's hideous roarings of hate, madness in his blind rushes; but his bull-strength availed at first. He weathered destruction and managed to close again. This time the lighter man was ready for the scuff of those armed boots; he twisted and covered his face with his shoulder, and only his shirt ripped open to let blood stream from the rent. On their feet they rocked—to their knees! Faces grinding into the earth they strained and broke away. And always Harrigan came back and found him, blindly. Once his hairy hands searched O'Mara's face and O'Mara's forehead went wet with the agony of fingers tearing at his eye-sockets. Dropping he escaped that gouging grip, coming up he caught Harrigan's chin and turned him over backward.
Harrigan squandered his strength in drunken rushes, his breath in screams of hate. He tore forward when the other had already stepped aside, and Steve, shaking away the blood that was trickling rivulets into his eyes, met him returning. There came a time when Harrigan's enveloping arms found him less readily; came a change when Harrigan had to stand up and fight. And then, with deadly, insensate purpose which made the other's madness a wild and futile thing, Stephen O'Mara set himself to chop his face to pieces. Flail-like blows he side-stepped, and whipped to the other's eyes. That open guard he feinted wider and laid flesh open raw. Harrigan could no longer curse, for his lips were puffy things pulped between his own teeth and those merciless knuckles. He could only sob, great groaning gasps for breath—and then he couldn't see!
And now Steve was laughing aloud. He knew that she was watching; knew what loathing was in her eyes. And he—he was a riverman! Sobbing himself for air, dripping crimson from forehead and shoulder, he set himself and swung from the waist. Like a pole-axed ox, Harrigan stopped as he was lurching in. His mouth sagged; his eyes flew wide in a fixed and stupid stare. Then his legs folded under him and he swayed limply down. But that blast of wrath would not let him lie! It raised him and beat him down again; raised him and beat him down. By his throat Steve swung him up—by throat and buckled belt. High over his head he swung that bulk and lashed forward from his heels. And Harrigan went back to his panting followers; twisting and spinning, his body swept Shayne and Fallon to the ground.
Allison had not stirred, nor putty-faced Wickersham, nor the girl who stood with hands at breasts. And now toward them Stephen O'Mara wheeled. His legs would fail him, and he steadied them; blood blinded him, and he wiped it away. Swaying giddily, he managed, somehow, a smile.
"Wickersham, I have met the man whom you hired to fight for you," he called clearly, "and he has earned his wage! Are you man enough to step forward now and fight for yourself?"
Wickersham clucked drily in his throat, and lifted an elbow to shield his face. Shrinking back behind the first shelter that chance afforded him he put the girl between him and his fear. And then weakness seized upon that sick and swaying man, but he spoke to her—to the unspeakable horror in her eyes.
"Barbara," he called thickly, "Barbara!"
He groped toward her, and she cried out, and drew back from such hands as those. Then a black wall rose before him and shut her from his sight. Fat Joe caught him as he fell.
Like huddled sheep, O'Mara's men and Wickersham's watched Joe bear him up the hill. Shayne and Fallon were bending over Harrigan; by the others he lay ignored. It was a mob without a leader until, as is the way in all crises, a new leader arose. Big Louie, stolid face no longer stolid, strode between those two factions and achieved the unknown heights for which his eyes had always hungered.
"I work for no man but is a man," he boomed. "That bridge—she still is hold!"
Steve had bidden Hardwick Elliott watch these men if their big moment ever came. And Elliott and Allison watched now. They were sheep no longer, nor malcontents, nor misled tools of cunning. Like wolves they followed that nameless man who was out upon the jam. Wickersham's men were back on the river, but that bridge would continue to hold! And while they worked, while Elliott and her father watched spellbound, blindly Barbara Allison turned, with no thought of what she was doing, and walked blindly into the brush.
The river was running clear by dusk when they raised the first hue and cry for her. It was dark when a runner bore the news to the cabin on the hillside that she was missing. And when men had been beating the woods for her for twelve hours as best they could in the dark, and no word came that she was found, Fat Joe no longer dared let lie in sleep his friend whose body he had cleansed and bandaged. At daybreak Joe waked him and told him Barbara was lost. They tried to argue with him, for his knees were still unsteady; even Allison whose jovial body seemed to have shrunk during his hours of waiting tried to convince him that the men now looking for her would find her soon or had already found her, perhaps. But he brushed them away while he was dressing; he threw off the hands that tried to detain him. And it was Steve who found her, as he had known it would he, just before a second night of dread was closing in upon her.
In circles of ever increasing radius he traveled at a foxtrot which thoughts of Fallon and Shayne and Harrigan would not let him abandon; but he had to run her down when he caught sight of her, for she fled like a wild thing before him. Floundering in a cedar swamp, soaked to the knees, little blue be-furred suit heavy with black muck, he came up with her. She was kneeling, shaking with terror, face hidden by her loosened hair, when he bent over her and raised her to her feet.
"Please," she whimpered, "Oh, please——"
Yet when he spoke her name her head leaped back and she recognized him instantly.
"I tried to wait," she chattered with all the voice she had left. "I tried to sit still until someone came for me, but I thought I knew the way. I tried not to listen to the noises; I remembered about the stars; and I knew I shouldn't run. But I thought you were—I thought you were——"
Remembered terror choked her. Consciousness slipped away.
By the same trail which once had led him to the "city" of Morrison he carried her now to that cabin which stood on the balsam knoll in the crook of the west branch; nor was it far for she had traveled straight, though in the wrong direction. But it was long after dark when the river gleamed ahead of him through the trees, jet and glassy in the deep pools, streaked with blurred star-reflections in the riffles. A grown woman is a grown man's burden, even though she seem very small to him; and Steve had to travel slowly. His head was spinning from fatigue and the throb of the jagged tear above his temple when the log building, streaked white with clay chinking, loomed up ahead, and yet involuntarily he stopped there a moment with his burden.
He had pictured, many times, a night when he would bring her there, with both of them watching the moon in the rapids and listening to the waves lipping the banks. This was not that night; that night would never be. But the rebellion and bitterness was gone from his heart. After he had removed her wet shoes and stockings and brush-whipped suit and sheer black blouse, and she slept the sleep of exhaustion into which she had slipped from unconsciousness without even opening her eyes, he built a fire and sat before it until morning came. And when it dawned and she waked dazedly while he was preparing breakfast, he had finished reconstructing many things.
Her eyes went from wall to wall, frightened still and questioning at first, so he merely nodded and went outside and left her to remember alone. Returning with wood on his arm he found recollection of much in her gaze. She was looking at the thin heeled, buttoned boots before the fireplace; the stockings and furred garments cleaned of mud and dried on the backs of chairs. A cloud of color stole up from the blanket edge at her throat to the line of her hair.
"You were wet," he explained simply, "and you were too spent to help yourself. I could not let you sleep in them."
"I understand," her answer faltered a little. "I was just thinking. . . . I knew such things happened, but I thought it was only in books."
Drowsily she watched him bending over frying pan and coffee pot, content herself to lie and rest. But after a time, with fuller awakening, the bandage about his head claimed her attention. To her it seemed impossible that this smoothly shaven man in clean blue shirt could be the same one who had emerged from a struggle still sickeningly brutish to her. Involuntarily she shuddered a little without knowing that he watched.
"I am going to the spring for fresh water," he told her then. "There will be time for you to dress; and breakfast will be ready when I come back."
Submissive before his tone she replied that she was hungry; that she would be ready, too. She had donned blouse and skirt and stocking and shoes and finished braiding her hair when he re-entered. He showed her a tin basin outside filled with icy water for her face and hands. And then they sat down in silence to breakfast.
Once he had dreamed what their first meal together in that room would be like. This morning when she insisted upon pouring the coffee and scorched her hand in the attempt and chided him for careless housekeeping, pain showed in his smile. But she did not immediately understand. She only realized how sombre he was; how thin he looked and tired. Again her eyes went to the bandage around his head. It had a fascination for her, even though it filled her with repulsion for a decision which, she knew now, might have been hers, two days before. But eventually it was to that topic she turned.
"You have been very good to me," she said. "Far better than I was to you—the day before yesterday. I can never hope to thank you enough for coming to help me."
Wistful she had seen him, and grave and sober-eyed, but never sad until now.
"I should have helped you," she went on. "I would have, only I had come expecting . . . I thought to see——" Two days before when she alighted from her father's car, her heart a tumult in her ears, she could have told him perhaps. She could not tell him now. "I am not used to such things," she finished weakly.
"I know," was all he replied, but the words were final, somehow. They thrust her back, roughly, from any share in his thoughts. They ate again in silence.
"Miriam would have helped," she forgot herself and argued aloud once. "She would not have failed. But—blood sickens me, I think."
"It was neither a pretty nor prepossessing sight," he helped to excuse her, but excuse nor pardon was not what she wanted.
"I told you that you would find out someday," she murmured. "I warned you you would wake suddenly and see how shallow I am."
Until she had finished eating he would not talk. But she had finished now. He faced her with an abruptness that startled her.
"Waking has been no sudden thing with me! I finished with dreams a long time back, but you are what you have been always in my thoughts. It's conditions I've waked to, not you!"
With unwitting gruffness he had sometimes spoken to her, but never with constrained vehemence such as that.
"Why should I find fault in anything you have done, or failed to do?" he demanded of both her and himself. "Why should you be apologetic or regretful. Such a thing as I had to do two days ago has held no place in your world, and never could, but I can't find it in myself to be apologetic, either, because it is a part of mine. I meant to kill him—wanted to kill him—because I was certain of your scorn! That was vindictive; that was foolish for a man. But as for the rest of it—I know I may have it all to do over again, any day. It was a vulgar brawl to you; to me——"
"Not just a brawl," she contradicted quickly, anxious to be understood. "Just—oh, so needlessly brutal. At first it left me only dazed and nauseated, but after I had had time to think, I made myself see your side of it. You must crush insubordination. And still it seems as though there might have been a less horrible way."
"He had balked my work," he told her sternly. "He has fired upon me from cover, when he dared not come out into the open. He has been taking money for his work from a man who was bent on beating me at any cost. Could I ask him please not to spoil my bridge? Is that your idea of a man's way?"
She had given no thought to Wickersham until that moment, and now she thought of him only in connection with a night when she had found him alone in her father's office and wondered at the stale odor of alcohol.
"I do not know," she hesitated. "I am not sure, only——"
"You should know!" But he was less vehement now. Wearily he set himself to get at it in his own fashion. "Some men are only physical cowards," he went on. "But you have almost made a moral coward of me. Yes, you had nearly made me afraid to be the man I must be, if I am to do my work."
"There are other fields——"
He would not let her argue that.
"There is no other field for me at present. This is my work and while I continue in it men who oppose me with their brains I will fight with my brain. But men who force me to meet them with fists I must beat with like weapons. There is no alternative. I have no choice—unless I quit. And that is the reason I know that this is the end, for you and me!"
Sadness she had never known before in his voice, nor the edge which was cutting all it came against. Now it grew gentler, with that gentleness he saved for her alone.
"Once we argued whether I was 'good enough' for you, and we wasted many words that day, for 'good enough' can cover too many qualities to be a safe basis for general comparison. I have been arguing it with myself, blind to the vital question, but I am blind no longer. Combat which sickened you has cleared my eyes. What if I did believe that I was not good enough to touch your little finger? What if you believed that too? Would that have hindered us, in the end? You know it wouldn't; you have seen too many women give themselves to men whom they knew were unworthy in a hundred ways, because they could not help themselves. But that way would never have done for me."
"It isn't that," she cut in desperately. "I know you are big and fine and clean. It isn't that——"
But he knew better than she did what it was she could not phrase. He left her dry of lip now, for he had read her thoughts.
"My ways would have had to be your ways, and we have learned at last what I have feared for long and long. They lie too far apart for them ever to meet. My man's way is not your woman's way, but I could not stay a man in your eyes if I let it become secondary to yours; and I would have to do just that to earn you. Once I thought that there was no height I could not scale to gain your side. I worked for you, but that is no way for a man to work. He must work because he is a man and needs must win as big as he can to keep his own self-respect.
"I promised to teach you to love me, and I've failed. And knowing that my failure is not all my own fault is not going to make it any easier for me. You've taught me loneliness I'm never going to forget as long as I live, but I don't love you any the less for that. I dreamed big dreams for both of us." His voice was dreary of a sudden. "I promised I'd make those dreams come true, because I thought my life could be your life. I've not done so; that thing could never be. I've talked bigger than I could practice, and that is not going to help my self-confidence any, but as it stands now I can earn it back. I couldn't have done that if I had married you, and waked some day to find you shrinking from me. It would have killed it, and my self-respect too, to have learned too late that you believed still in your own greater fineness."
"I tell you it is not that," she cried out. "Can't I make you understand——"
"You have made me understand till I am sure," he stated. "I am no longer vexing myself with trivial things. Birth? My name means as much as yours. Education? You would not tell me, would you, that I am not wiser in most ways you'd think to mention. I'd break any man who gave to your ears many things I have learned." He was whimsical for a flash. "I could outspell you without an effort; books have been my partners when you had rather dance. Oh, you could not lose me, no matter where you strayed in fields like that. In any way you care to mention I have outstripped you, for I decided long ago that I must know more than you. Yet I have not forgotten how to play, either.
"You have been uncertain; I have seen that. You are certain now. And the fundamental thing remains unchanged. In me there is that man who once man-handled Harrigan—and you didn't want me to touch you! You don't have to tell me any more that you can't love me. When you drew away from me, that was enough."
His voice held a question, but the girl couldn't answer at first.
"Wasn't it?" he repeated very gently, for he would have it from her own lips.
Her face lifted. Her eyes were blurred with tears, but she nodded in affirmation.
So roughly that the dishes rattled he rose.
"I do not want your pity," he ended it. "I am the wrong sort of a man for you."
She sat and watched him put the room in order, and that hurt her more than anything else, for he would not let her help. He made her change her high-heeled boots for moccasins which he brought and laced upon her feet; but the remainder of the day it was the old Steve who helped her over the bad bits of going and talked disconnectedly of many things meanwhile. And yet no longer the old Steve, who had been so entirely her own. Hers was the sad face when they entered the clearing at Thirty-Mile and a hoarse shout saluted her return. In her father's embrace she clung and wondered that she did not cry. And two pages had turned for her that day, for she sent Wickersham back his ring the same night the private car rolled down to Morrison.
Harrigan was with Archibald Wickersham when the package, unaccompanied by explanation, reached the latter in his hotel room in town. Harrigan was waiting for a reply to a question which he had just asked, when Wickersham opened the box and sat fingering for a while the thin hoop of gold with its single brilliant stone. Once Fat Joe had spoken prophetically; this was the hour he had foreseen. And when Wickersham raised his head the riverman's battered face lighted shockingly with triumph.
"Go out and get him," said Wickersham. "And see that you get him—for good!"
For two days and two nights the girl fought on alone against the outcry of her own heart, and as on a former occasion she chose again the open roads for her battlefield. While she pounded Ragtime mercilessly over the little-traveled northern highways, she struggled rebelliously with stubborn arguments which only left her more and more bewildered, the more conclusive they became. She summoned parallels by the score to her support, but she lacked the trick of facile finality, somehow, which had always marked his usage of such argument. Hard moments she knew when she closed her teeth tight upon her decision and told herself that it was final, but the next moment, after she had laid whip across the black horse's flank and faced homeward, she was biting her lips in shaken, panic contemplation of another thought which would not be denied.
There were times without number when Barbara hated the one whose very gentleness toward her was making her position hardest to maintain; times when she hated the work which, absorbing him by day at least, must be making his suffering less difficult to endure. For she understood that there was still much for him to do, although the hill-country was already ringing with his victory. And throughout every hour she hated herself most of all for that spirit behind the doubt which was swinging her, pendulum-like, between brain's reason and heart's desire.
Barbara needed her mother in those days of wretchedness, for she came and went as blind to the helpless misery which followed her always from the eyes of her father as she was heedless of who might read the misery in her own. She turned a chill, set face to the one attempt to help made by Miriam Burrell, who, at the first inkling of violence on the river and possible danger to Garry Devereau, had come rushing overnight into the hills, purposed never to leave them again unless it was with him, as the wife of the man she loved. Barbara wanted her mother, and when that occurred to Miss Sarah, the latter could no longer continue in passive sympathy. Without compunction or loss of more time, she reversed a decision at which she had arrived herself only a short time before. For Miss Sarah had stopped campaigning. Caleb, with fire in his eye, had brought her the story of how "her boy" Steve had broken Harrigan with his bare hands. She had had little to say concerning that episode, but her brother, noting that she did not condemn it as regrettable, wondered too that he had never noticed before how hard his sister's eyes could be. The news that Barbara was lost had reached Miss Sarah hours before Allison's private car brought the girl and her father and Hardwick Elliott back to Morrison. Thereupon, with her first glimpse of Barbara's wanly mute and suffering face, she had pieced the details together; she had told herself, with sorrow and understanding in her heart, that she must no longer interfere. And now, though she did summon Barbara to her, the end of the second endless day, it was with no thought for evasion or finesse. Barbara obeyed that summons reluctantly. In the face of an almost sullen light in the girl's eyes when she entered on lagging feet, the older woman knew that she could not have persisted in such an attempt, even had she planned to employ it. Additional warning was not needed, but Barbara's first words told her that the hour was long past for such methods.
At first the girl refused to sit down. She wandered aimlessly around the room, switching nervously at her booted ankles with her riding-crop, to stop suddenly and raise a pale and stormy face.
"I know why you sent for me," she exclaimed, "and I know just what you think of me. But I must tell you, Miss Sarah, that there is nothing which can alter now, the least little bit, a decision which I know is wisest and best!"
So she had the first word, never dreaming that Miss Sarah had seen to that. Nor did the latter smile or seem to proffer argument at first. Oh, Miss Sarah had the true instincts of a big soul!
"Barbara," she answered quietly, after her formal firmness had prevailed and the girl had seated herself, "Barbara, when I sent for you it was not with a belief that I might influence you, for both of us know that this is your problem alone. I merely hoped to comfort, that was all. More than once I have been guilty of trying to manage you a little, but you will forgive me, I know, when I tell you that I have loved Stephen almost all his life, as though he were my own, and hoped as long for his great happiness. On more than one occasion I contrived situations which I thought might make your choice my happiness, too. I know now that I was no better than any other meddling old woman, whose efforts are well meant but dangerous for all that. And I will meddle no more. But—but my heart aches a little, too, to-day, Barbara. May I just talk to you?"
Barbara blinked in surprise at the subdued sadness in the older woman's voice. But her lips remained sullen.
"There is nothing more to be said," she reiterated uncompromisingly. "I tell you I am sure!"
And from that statement, minutes before she had thought to hear it, Miss Sarah learned, thankfully, just how deep was the girl's uncertainty.
"Then I need not fear that I may sway you one inch from your own way of reasoning." Her gentle voice might have held relief. "For you will not consider it argument when I agree with you that hard and fast reasoning is not always a dependable guide for a woman."
The girl was switching her ankles again.
"Why isn't it?" she demanded abruptly, hungry for it now that the other, ostensibly, did not want to argue. "If reason is no guide, what else is there left?"
"My dear, I do not know," acknowledged Miss Sarah. "Intuition is a much over-worked word. And yet, had hard and fast reason been your guide, you would not have refused Stephen, I am sure. For it would be difficult to name one particular in which he is not entirely a man."
The violet eyes grew quickly hostile. The girl was keen enough to argue, but she was in no mood for refutation.
"I am afraid that I do not follow you?" came coldly from her.
"There comes a day in every woman's life, of course," Miss Sarah ignored sweetly the interruption, "when she has to leave girlhood behind. And lest that sound bromidic and trite, I will add that I do not mean the trivial material things of immaturity, but rather the happy irresponsibility which has no place in a woman's life."
That statement offered a plain enough opening.
"Am I responsible for his unhappiness?" Barbara flashed out. "Is the fault entirely mine because——" She faltered, ashamed of her abruptness which had brought a hurt bit of color to Miss Sarah's cheeks. "I never gave him to understand—I told him always I could not care!"
"Please bear with me a little to-day." Miss Sarah's sweetness had become humble. "I seem vagarious, I know. And we are not considering Stephen, Barbara. If you had been doing so, all these hours while you have been wasting your nervous energy in tearing around the country-side, it would be different. But women never consider the man in such a situation, do they? Aren't they too entirely heedless for that? I was merely trying to tell you that the day has come when you must consider well your own happiness."
Instantly Barbara condemned such a doctrine.
"If that is true of others," she retorted, "they are even more despicable than I know myself to be."
Until that moment Caleb Hunter's tiny sister had kept her brave eyes clear. They clouded now. They went beyond that pale and sullen and stormily pretty visage.
"I was a woman like that," she said, with her quaint simplicity of accent. "Do you look upon me with any such degree of scorn? I was face to face with such a decision; and yet not the same either, for mine was far simpler than yours. But I considered neither his happiness nor my own, simply because I lost sight of the years and years to come, in the momentary joy I found in his—his importunity. He was very big and strong and cheerful, like Stephen, Barbara, and I was sure he would not grudge me my last moment of girl-vanity, when I did surrender—to-morrow."
There the quaint voice caught and broke. The girl's eyes flew wider and hotter shame for her sulkiness stained her cheeks. For suddenly Miss Sarah was fighting against tears.
"I did not know," Barbara breathed her contrition. "I never dreamed——"
"No one ever does," faltered Miss Sarah. "I—I am an old, faded, hopelessly unmarried woman to you, my dear—oh, child, you need not protest a kinder opinion! I am just 'Caleb Hunter's spinster sister' to the people of this village. But to—to myself, Barbara, I am at times the same girl who waited, roses in her hair and roses in her cheeks, for him to come, so that I might tell him that I was his, body and soul. And he never came! Oh, my dear, I do not mean to break down like this, for you have your own heart-ache. But I trusted to reason. I told myself that to-morrow would be soon enough. And when to-morrow came—they let me—go to him. He died very bravely, Barbara, to save the life of another.
"Since you are so sure, I can tell you this without seeming to warn you—without being accused of attempting to influence you. But now you know why I say that every woman, if heedlessness for which she is perhaps not to blame will not let her consider the happiness of the man she loves, should still take care that she does not barter for an hour of quickened pulses the happiness of her whole life. I was innocent enough. It was harmless play to me. But I have paid—and paid—and paid! I would not have you, whom I cherish, rise each morning and wonder why you had to be the only one to suffer out of thousands who played the same way. And now will you please forgive me this uncontrolled moment? I usually inflict them upon no one; I hide them in my room. But, Barbara, I was so proud of him—so sure—so positive that he was the only man in the world! And I lost my chance to tell him how much I cared."
The riding-crop lay neglected on the floor. It had slipped and clattered down while Barbara sat and stared at the tiny woman who was dabbing at her eyes with a very girlish square of linen. And then slowly Barbara rose and took an uncertain step or two. She sank to her knees and pillowed her head upon Miss Sarah's lap. Momentarily she had forgotten the struggle which was going on in her own heart. Now even pity for the other could not keep her from turning hack to it.
"But I do not know," she gasped. "I—sometimes I think I must care, and then I am afraid——" She lifted a face dry-eyed and tense. "I ought to be proud of him, too. If I loved him I would be, wouldn't I? If I cared I wouldn't ask anything more than just what he is. Don't you see I'm only petty and rotten with snobbishness?"
Miss Sarah sniffed, ever so delicately.
"What a sentimental old woman I am!" she exclaimed. "And, my dear, you talk as though you had just discovered a new and terribly perplexing complication. Don't you know that it is as old as the feminine mind itself?" Her handkerchief came down, then, disclosing eyes that were very bright and very tender. "Why, a woman never loves a man merely for what he is! She always reserves a few little things, at least, which she means—well, to rearrange. She loves him just a bit more for what she secretly promises herself he shall be."
Barbara's sullenness was gone.
"I know," she whispered. "I thought of that, too, long ago. But it isn't just a—little thing. A few days ago, Miss Sarah, when we took the train to go up north, I could scarcely wait for the engine to draw us there. I think I counted every click of the rails, I know I sang his name in my heart with every click. And then, when I wanted to walk straight off the steps of the car into his arms—when I . . . Why do you sit there and listen and not say that you loathe me as I do myself? I know that he is all man, but his work and my world—oh, when that terrible thing happened, and he came lurching toward me, instead of helping him, do you know what I did? I was sick at the sight of him—sick at the reck and grime and blood of him! I just wanted to get away, and—and shudder at the thought of——"
Miss Sarah's composure had returned, but her face grew more sober still. This was a different, a graver thing, even than she had expected.
"Your world?" Deliberately now she dared to argue. "Barbara, didn't you know, from the beginning, that his world would have to be yours? Did you ever think that you could change him—that way?"
Barbara moved her head.
"I wanted both," she said. "I wanted all I have—and him, too. I learned that night he took care of me how much I cared; I know he'd be as careful of me, all his life. But I had thought that he might be able to do as father has done and let other men handle the—— But he knows now! He understands me! I tell you I'm no good. I've no backbone. I'm just pink and white flesh without any spirit!"
The other woman sat and smoothed the bright head and wished she knew what to say. "It would please me to know just what stuff she is made of, too," Miss Sarah had once admitted to her brother. She wondered if at last she knew.
"I do not know what to tell you," she murmured slowly. "I thought if I talked with you I might be able to help you, but I am afraid now that I cannot. He is a better man than you are woman, Barbara; because he has builded with his hands, he has reared him a soul as well. He knows the depths, and the heights are far more wonderful for such knowledge. Oh, dear me, I wish I knew——"
She paused there, shaken by her own impotence. Doubt and aching regret were overwhelming her.
"I have told Mr. Wickersham that I will not marry him." The brown head burrowed lower and muffled the words. "I know that I could let no other man so—so much as touch me now. Is that—caring enough?"
But Miss Sarah only half heard the question. She was expecting no surrender now.
"——Nor how to advise you," she struggled on. "For you have lived as all girls like you live. You've lived for yourself; hoped for yourself; prayed for yourself—as all women pray, I suppose, directly or indirectly. And yet is merely a question of whether you could live with him in his world, day for day and night for night? Is it as simple as that? I have told you what difference one day made with me. Have you thought what it might mean to wake and realize that you must live without him, all the rest of your life?"
Miss Sarah had stopped hoping. And so there was sheer amazement in the triumph which rose and drove the regret from her faded pink-and-white face when the girl's dark-fringed eyes lifted.
Since Stephen O'Mara had brought her back to her father, Barbara had wondered why she did not cry. Great tears were sliding noiselessly down her cheeks when she raised her head.
"I've tried to think—I haven't dared," Barbara sobbed. "But he doesn't want me now. He doesn't want the kind of a girl I am any more!"
Thus in her moment of capitulation did the girl's heart cry aloud the one thought which, unknown to her, had been her unbearable pain. And straightway Miss Sarah's illuminated countenance became a glorification of her spirit. Silently she leaned over and folded the kneeling one round.
Later she found it possible to speak.
"You have convinced me forever of the futility of all snap judgments," said she, and she marveled at the shyness in her own voice, "but you could never convince me of that. You may go home now, Barbara, for you have worn yourself out. But to-morrow I would suggest that you—ask him for corroboration, if you still hold to such an opinion."
Instantly Barbara rose and bobbed her head. She had always been a slim creature of moods mercurial; she would always be that. And now her violet eyes radiated anticipation, perverse and impish and far, far different from the sullen dullness which had filled them an hour before. Miss Sarah had spoken with well-seasoned wisdom, as was her wont: there are sometimes big moments which are the bigger for lack of analysis. The girl did not know why, all in one breath, she no longer feared nor doubted—but she knew! And that was a world and all of joy. She bobbed her head.