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A Prairie Idyl by Will Lillibridge


A beautiful moonlight night early in September, the kind of night one remembers for years, when the air is not too cold to be pleasant, and yet has a suggestion of the frost that is to come. A kind of air that makes one think thoughts which cannot be put into words, that calls up sensations one cannot describe; an air which breeds restless energy; an air through which Mother Nature seems to speak, saying—“Hasten, children; life is short and you have much to do.”

It was nearing ten o'clock, and a full moon lit up the rolling prairie country of South Dakota for miles, when the first team of a little train of six moved slowly out of the dark shadow blots thrown by the trees at the edge of the Big Sioux, advancing along a dim trail towards the main road. From the first wagon sounded the suggestive rattle of tin cooking-utensils, and the clatter of covers on an old cook stove. Next behind was a load piled high with a compound heap of tents, tennis nets, old carpets, hammocks, and the manifold unclassified paraphernalia which twenty young people will collect for a three weeks' outing.

These wagons told their own story. “Camp Eden,” the fanciful name given to the quiet, shady spot where the low chain of hills met the river; the spot where the very waters seemed to lose themselves in their own cool depths, and depart sighing through the shallows beyond,—Camp Eden was deserted, and a score of very tired campers were reluctantly returning to home and work.

Last in the line and steadily losing ground, came a single trap carrying two people. One of them, a young man with the face of a dreamer, was speaking. The spell of the night was upon him.

“So this is the last of our good time—and now for work.” He stopped the horse and stood up in the wagon. “Good-bye, little Camp Eden. Though I won't be here, yet whenever I see the moon a-shining so—and the air feeling frosty and warm and restless—and the corn stalks whitening, and the young prairie chickens calling—you'll come back to me, and I'll think of you—and of the Big Sioux—and of—” His eyes dropped to a smooth brown head, every coil of the walnut hair glistening.

It made him think of the many boat rides they two had taken together in the past two weeks, when he had watched the moonlight shimmering on rippling, running water, and compared the play of light upon it and upon that same brown head—and had forgotten all else in the comparison. He forgot all else now. He sat down, and the horse started. The noisy wagons ahead had passed out of hearing. The pair were alone.

He was silent a moment, looking sideways at the girl. The moonlight fell full upon her face, drawing clear the line of cheek and chin; bringing out the curve of the drooping mouth and the shadow from the long lashes. She seemed to the sensitive lad more than human. He had loved her for years, with the pure silent love known only to such a nature as his—and never had he loved her so wildly as now.

He was the sport of a multitude of passions; love and ambition were the strongest, and they were fighting a death struggle with each other. How could he leave her for years—perhaps never see her again—and yet how could he ask her to be the wife of such as he was now—a mere laborer? And again, his college course, his cherished ambition for years—how could he give it up; and yet he felt—he knew she loved him, and trusted him.

He had been looking squarely at her. She turned, and their eyes met. Each knew the thought of the other, and each turned away. He hesitated no longer; he would tell her all, and she should judge. His voice trembled a little as he said: “I want to tell you a story, and ask you a question—may I?”

She looked at him quickly, then answered with a smile: “I'm always glad to hear stories—and at the worst one can always decline to answer questions.”

He looked out over the prairie, and saw the lights of the little town—her home—in the distance.

“It isn't a short story, and I have only so long”—he pointed along the road ahead to the village beyond—“to tell it in.” He settled back in the seat, and began speaking. His voice was low and soft, like the prairie night-wind.

“Part of the story you know; part of it I think you have guessed; a little of it will be new. For the sake of that little, I will tell all.”

“Thirteen years ago, what is now a little prairie town—then a very little town indeed—gained a new citizen—a boy of nine. A party of farmers found him one day, sleeping in a pile of hay, in the market corner. He lay so they could see how his face was bruised—and how, though asleep, he tossed in pain. He awoke, and, getting up, walked with a limp. Where he came from no one knew, and he would not tell; but his appearance told its own story. He had run away from somewhere. What had happened they could easily imagine.

“It was harvest-time and boys, even though minus a pedigree, were in demand; so he was promptly put on a farm. Though only a child, he had no one to care for him—and he was made to work ceaselessly.

“Years passed and brought a marked change in the boy. How he lived was a marvel. It was a country of large families, and no one cared to adopt him. Summers, he would work for his board and clothes, and in winter, by the irony of Nature, for his board only; yet, perhaps because it was the warmest place he knew, he managed to attend district school.

“When a lad of fifteen he began to receive wages—and life's horizon seemed to change. He dressed neatly, and in winter came to school in the little prairie town. He was put in the lower grades with boys of ten, and even here his blunders made him a laughing-stock; but not for long, for he worked—worked always—and next year was put in the high school.

“There he established a precedent—doing four years' work in two—and graduated at eighteen. How he did it no one but he himself knew—studying Sundays, holidays, and evenings, when he was so tired that he had to walk the floor to keep awake—but he did it.”

The speaker stopped a moment to look at his companion. “Is this a bore? Somehow I can't help talking to-night.”

“No, please go on,” said the girl quickly.

“Well, the boy graduated—but not alone. For two years he had worked side by side with a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl. From the time he had first seen her she was his ideal—his divinity. And she had never spoken with him five minutes in her life. After graduation, the girl went away to a big university. Her parents were wealthy, and her every wish was gratified.”

Again the speaker hesitated. When he went on his face was hard, his voice bitter.

“And the boy—he was poor and he went back to the farm. He was the best hand in the country; for the work he received good wages. If he had worked hard before, he worked now like a demon. He thought of the girl away at college, and tried at first to crowd her from his memory—but in vain. Then he worked in self-defence—and to forget.

“He saw years slipping by—and himself still a farmhand. The thought maddened him, because he knew he was worthy of something better.

“Gradually, his whole life centred upon one object—to save money for college. Other boys called him close and cold; but he did not care. He seldom went anywhere, so intent was he upon his one object. On hot summer nights, tired and drowsy he would read until Nature rebelled, and he would fall asleep to dream of a girl—a girl with brown eyes that made one forget—everything. In winter, he had more time—and the little lamp in his room became a sort of landmark: it burned for hours after every other light in the valley had ceased shining.

“Four years passed, and at last the boy had won. In a month he would pass from the prairie to university life. He had no home, few friends—who spoke; those who did not were safely packed at the bottom of his trunk. His going from the little town would excite no more comment than had his coming. He was all ready, and for the first time in his life set apart a month—the last—as a vacation. He felt positively gay. He had fought a hard fight—and had won. He saw the dawning of a great light—saw the future as a battle-ground where he would fight; not as he was then, but fully equipped for the struggle.... But no matter what air-castles he built; they were such as young men will build to the end of time.”

The speaker's voice lowered—stopped. He looked straight out over the prairie, his eyes glistening.

“If so far the boy's life had been an inferno, he was to be repaid. The girl—she of the brown eyes—was home once more, and they met again as members of a camping party.” He half-turned in his seat to look at her, but she sat with face averted, so quiet, so motionless, that he wondered if she heard.

“Are you listening?” he asked.

“Listening!” Her voice carried conviction, so the lad continued.

“For a fortnight he lived a dream—and that dream was Paradise. He forgot the past, ignored the future, and lived solely for the moment—with the joy of Nature's own child. It was the pure love of the idealist and the dreamer—it was divine.

“Then came the reaction. One day he awoke—saw things as they were—saw again the satire of Fate. At the very time he left for college, she returned—a graduate. She was young, beautiful, accomplished. He was a mere farmhand, without money or education, homeless, obscure. The thought was maddening, and one day he suddenly disappeared from camp. He didn't say good-bye to any one; he felt he had no apology that he could offer. But he had to go, for he felt the necessity for work, longed for it, as a drunkard longs for liquor.”

“Oh!” The exclamation came from the lips of the girl beside him. “I—we—all wondered why—.”

“Well, that was why.

“He fell in with a threshing-crew, and asked to work for his board. They thought him queer, but accepted his offer. For two days he stayed with them, doing the work of two men. It seemed as if he couldn't do enough—he couldn't become tired. He wanted to think it all out, and he couldn't with the fever in his blood.

“At night he couldn't sleep—Nature was pitiless. He would walk the road for miles until morning.

“With the third day came relief. All at once he felt fearfully tired, and fell asleep where he stood. Several of the crew carried him to a darkened room, and there he slept as a dumb animal sleeps. When he awoke, he was himself again; his mind was clear and cool. He looked the future squarely in the face, now, and clearly, as if a finger pointed, he saw the path that was marked for him. He must go his way—and she must go hers. Perhaps, after four years or more—but the future was God's.”

The boy paused. The lights of the town were nearing, now; but he still looked out over the moon-kissed prairie.

“The rest you know. The dreamer returned. The party scarcely knew him, for he seemed years older. There were but a few days more of camp life, and he spent most of the time with the girl. Like a malefactor out on bail, he was painting a picture for the future. He thought he had conquered himself—but he hadn't. It was the same old struggle. Was not love more than ambition or wealth? Had he not earned the right to speak? But something held him back. If justice to himself, was it justice to the girl? Conscience said 'No.' It was hard—no one knows how hard—but he said nothing.”

Once more he turned to his companion, in his voice the tenderness of a life-long passion.

“This is the story: did the boy do right?” A life's work—greater than a life itself, hung on the answer to that question.

The girl understood it all. She had always known that she liked him; but now—now—As he had told his story, she had felt, first, pity, and then something else; something incomparably sweeter; something that made her heart beat wildly, that seemed almost to choke her with its ecstasy.

He loved her—had loved her all these years! He belonged to her—and his future lay in her hands.

His future! The thought fell upon her new-found happiness with the suddenness of a blow. She could keep him, but had she the right to do so? She saw in him something that he did not suspect—and that something was genius. She knew he had the ability to make for himself a name that would stand among the great names of the earth.

Then, did his life really belong to her? Did it not rather belong to himself and to the world?

She experienced a struggle, fierce as he himself had fought. And the boy sat silent, tense, waiting for her answer.

Yes, she must give him up; she would be brave. She started to speak, but the words would not come. Suddenly she buried her face in her hands, while the glistening brown head trembled with her sobs.

It was the last drop to the cup overflowing. A second, and then, his arms were around her. The touch was electrifying—it was oblivion—it was heaven—it was—but only a young lover knows what.

“You have answered,” said the boy. “God forgive me—but I can't go away now.”

Thus Fate sported with two lives.


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