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Arcadia in Avernus by Will Lillibridge

 

                  “For they have sown the wind, and
                   they shall reap the whirlwind.

CHAPTER I—PRELUDE

Silence, the silence of double doors and of padded walls was upon the private room of the down-town office. Across the littered, ink-stained desk a man and a woman faced each other. Threads of gray lightened the hair of each. Faint lines, delicate as pencillings, marked the forehead of the woman and radiated from the angles of her eyes. A deep fissure unequally separated the brows of the man, and on his shaven face another furrow added firmness to the mouth. Their eyes met squarely, without a motion from faces imperturbable in middle age and knowledge of life.

The man broke silence slowly.

“You mean,” he hesitated, “what that would seem to mean?”

“Why not?” A shade of resentment was in the answering voice.

“But you're a woman—”

“Well—”

“And married—”

The note of resentment became positive. “What difference does that make?”

“It ought to.” The man spoke almost mechanically. “You took oath before man and higher than man—”

The woman interrupted him shortly.

“Another took oath with me and broke it.” She leaned gracefully forward in the big chair until their eyes met. “I'm no longer bound.”

“But I—”

“I love you!” she interjected.

The man's eyebrows lifted.

“Love?” he inflected.

“Yes, love. What is love but good friendship—and sex?”

The man was silent.

A strong white hand slid under the woman's chin and her elbow met the desk.

“I meant what you thought,” she completed slowly.

“But I cannot—”

“Why?”

“It destroys all my ideas of things. Your promise to another—”

“I say he's broken his promise to me.”

“But your being a woman—”

“Why do you expect more of me because I'm a woman? Haven't I feelings, rights, as well as you who are a man?” She waited until he looked up. “I ask you again, won't you come?”

The man arose and walked slowly back and forth across the narrow room. At length he stopped by her chair.

“I cannot.”

In swift motion his companion stood up facing him.

“Don't you wish to?” she challenged.

The hand of the man dropped in outward motion of deprecation.

“The question is useless. I'm human.”

“Why shouldn't we do what pleases us, then?” The voice was insistent. “What is life for if not for pleasure?”

“Would it be pleasure, though? Wouldn't the future hold for us more of pain than of pleasure?”

“No, never.” The words came with a slowness that meant finality. “Why need to-morrow or a year from now be different from to-day unless we make it so?”

“But it would change unconsciously. We'd think and hate ourselves.”

“For what reason? Isn't it Nature that attracts us to each other and can Nature be wrong?”

“We can't always depend upon Nature,” commented the man absently.

“That's an artificial argument, and you know it.” A reprimand was in her voice. “If you can't depend upon Nature to tell you what is right, what other authority can you consult?”

“But Nature has been perverted,” he evaded.

“Isn't it possible your judgment instead is at fault?”

“It can't be at fault, here.” The voice was neutral as before. “Something tells us both it would be wrong—to do—as we want to do.”

Once more they sat down facing each other, the desk between them as at first.

“Artificial convention, I tell you again.” In motion graceful as nature the woman extended her hand, palm upward, on the polished desk top. “How could we be other than right? What do we mean by right, anyway? Is there any judge higher than our individual selves, and don't they tell us pleasure is the chief aim of life and as such must be right?”

The muscles at the angle of the man's jaw tightened involuntarily.

“But pleasure is not the chief end of life.”

“What is, then?”

“Development—evolution.”

“Evolution to what?” she insisted.

“That we cannot answer as yet. Future generations must and will give answer.”

“It's for this then that you deny yourself?” A shade almost of contempt was in the questioning voice.

The taunt brought no change of expression to the man's face.

“Yes.”

The woman walked over to a bookcase, and, drawing out a volume, turned the pages absently. Without reading a word, she came back and looked the man squarely in the face.

“Will denying yourself help the world to evolve?”

“I think so.”

“How?”

“My determination makes me a positive force. It is my Karma for good, that makes my child stronger to do things.”

“But you have no child,”—swiftly.

Their eyes met again without faltering.

“I shall have—sometime.”

Silence fell upon them.

“Where were you a century ago?” digressed the woman.

“I wasn't born.”

“Where will your child be a hundred years from now?”

“Dead likewise, probably; but the force for good, the Karma of the life, will be passed on and remain in the world.”

Unconsciously they both rose to their feet.

“Was man always on the earth?” she asked.

The question was answered almost before spoken.

“No.”

“Will he always be here?”

“Science says 'no.'”

The woman came a step forward until they almost touched.

“What then becomes of your life of denial?” she challenged.

“You make it hard for me,” said the man, simply.

“But am I not right?” She came toward him passionately. “I come near you, and you start.” She laid her hand on his. “I touch you, and your eyes grow warm. Both our hearts beat more quickly. Look at the sunshine! It's brighter when we're so close together. What of life? It's soon gone—and then? What of convention that says 'no'? It's but a farce that gives the same thing we ask—at the price of a few words of mummery. Our strongest instincts of nature call for each other. Why shouldn't we obey them when we wish?” She hesitated, and her voice became tender. “We would be very happy together. Won't you come?”

The man broke away almost roughly.

“Don't you know,” he demanded, “it's madness for us to be talking like this? We'll be taking it seriously, and then—”

The woman made a swift gesture of protest.

“Don't. Let's be honest—with each other, at least. I'm tired of pretending to be other than I am. Why did you say 'being true to my husband'? You know it's mockery. Is it being true to live with a man I hate because man's law demands it, rather than true to you whom Nature's law sanctions? Don't speak to me of society's right and wrong! I despise it. There is no other tribunal than Nature, and Nature says 'Come.'”

The man sat down slowly and dropped his head wearily into his hands.

“I say again, I cannot. I respect you too much. We're intoxicated now being together. In an hour, after we're separate—”

She broke in on him passionately.

“Do you think a woman says what I have said on the spur of the moment? Do you think I merely happened to see you to-day, merely happened to say what I've said? You know better. This has been coming for months. I fought it hard at first; with convention, with your idea of right and wrong. Now I laugh at them both. Life is life, and short, and beyond is darkness. Think what atoms we are; and we struggle so hard. Our life that seems to us so short—and so long! A thousand, perhaps ten thousand such, end to end, and we have the life of a world. And what is that? A cycle! A thing self-created, self-destructive: then of human life—nothingness. Oh, it's humorous! Our life, a ten thousandth part of that nothingness; and so full of tiny—great struggles and worries!” She was silent a moment, her throat trembling, a multitude of expressions shifting swiftly on her face.

“Do you believe in God?” she questioned suddenly.

“I hardly know. There must be—”

“Don't you suppose, then, He's laughing at us now?” She hesitated again and then went on, almost unconsciously. “I had a dream a few nights ago.” The voice was low and very soft. “It seemed I was alone in a desert place, and partial darkness was about me. I was conscious only of listening and wondering, for out of the shadow came sounds of human suffering. I waited with my heart beating strangely. Gradually the voices grew louder, until I caught the meaning of occasional words and distinctly saw coming toward me the figure of a man and a woman bearing a great burden, a load so great that both together bent beneath the weight and sweat stood thick upon their brows. The edges of the burden were very sharp so that the hands of the man and the woman bled from the wounds and their shoulders were torn grievously where the load had shifted: those of the woman more than the man, for she bore more of the weight. I marvelled at the sight.

“Suddenly an intense brightness fell about me and I saw, near and afar, other figures each bearing similar burdens. The light passed away, and I drew near the man and questioned him.

“'What rough load is that you carry?' I asked.

“'The burden of conventionality,' answered the man, wearily and with a note of surprise in his voice.

“'Why do you bear it needlessly?' I remonstrated.

“'We dare not drop it,' said the woman, hopelessly, 'lest that light, which is the searchlight of public opinion, return, showing us different from the others.'

“Even as she spoke the illumination again fell upon us, and by its brightness I saw a drop of blood gather slowly from the wounds on the woman's hand and fall into the dust at her feet.”

A silence fell upon the inmates of the tiny muffled office.

“But the burden isn't useless,” said the man, gently. “The condemnation of society is an hourly reality. From the patronage of others we live. The sun burns us, but we submit, for in return it gives life.”

The woman arose with an abrupt movement, and looked down at him coldly.

“Are you a man, and use those arguments?” An expression akin to contempt formed about her mouth. “Are you afraid of a united voice the individuals of which you despise?”

The first hint of restrained passion was in the answering voice.

“You taunt me in safety, for you know I love you.” He looked up at her unhesitatingly. “Man's law is artificial, that I know; but it's made for conditions which are artificial, and for such it's right. Were we as in the beginning, Nature's law, which beside the law of man is no law, would be right; but we're of the world as it is now. Things are as they are, and we must conform or pay the price.” He hesitated. His face settled back into a mask. “And that price of non-conformity is too high,” he completed steadily.

The eyes of the woman blazed and her hands tightened convulsively.

“Oh, you're frozen—fossilized, man! I called you man! You're not a man at all, but a nineteenth century machine! You're run like a motor, from a power house; by the force of conventional thought, over wires of red tape. Fie on you! I thought to meet a human being, not a lifeless thing.” She looked at him steadily, her chin in the air, a world of scorn in her face. “Go on sweating beneath the useless load! Go on building your structure of artificiality that ends centuries from now in nothingness! Here's happiness to you in your empty life of self-effacement, with your machine prompted acts, years considered!” Without looking at him, one hand made scornful motion of dismissal. “Good-bye, ghost of man; I wash my hands of you.”

“Wait, Eleanor!” The man sprang to his feet, the mask lifting from his face, and there stood revealed a multitude of emotions, unseen of the world, that flashed from the depths of his brown eyes and quivered in the angles of his mouth. He came quickly over and took her hand between his own.

“I'm proud of you,”—a world of tenderness was in his voice—“unspeakably proud—for I love you. I've done my best to keep us apart, yet all the time I believed with you. Nature is higher than man, and no power on earth can prove it otherwise.” He looked into the softest of brown eyes, and his voice trembled. “Beside you the world is nothing. Its approval or its condemnation are things to be laughed at. With you I challenge conventionality—society—everything.” He bent over her hand almost reverently and touched it softly with his lips.

“Farewell—until I come,” he said.

CHAPTER II—THE LEAP

A man and a woman emerged from the dilapidated day-car as it drew up before the tiny, sanded station which marked the terminus of the railway. The man was tall, clean-shaven, quick of step and of glance. The woman was likewise tall, well-gloved, and, strange phenomenon at a country station, carried no parcels.

Though easily the centre of attention, the couple were far from being alone. On the contrary, the car and platform fairly swarmed with humanity. Men mostly composed the throng that alighted—big, weather-stained fellows in rough jeans and denims. In the background, as spectators moved or lounged a sprinkling of others: thinner, lighter, enveloped in felt, woollen and buckskin, a fringe of heavy hair peeping out at their backs beneath the broad hat-brims. A few women were intermingled. Coarsely gowned, sun-browned, they stood; themselves like suns, but each the centre of a system of bleach-haired minor satellites. It was into this heterogeneous mass that the tall man elbowed his way, a neat grip in either hand; the woman following closely in his wake, her skirts carefully lifted.

Clear of the out-flowing stream the man put down the satchels, and looked over the heads of the motley crowd into the still more motley street beyond. Two short rows of one-story buildings, distinctive by the brightness of new lumber on their sheltered side, bordered a narrow street, half clogged by the teams of visiting farmers. Not the faintest clue to a hostelry was visible, and the eyes of the man wandered back, interrupting by the way another pair of eyes frankly inquisitive.

The curious one was short; by comparison his face was still shorter, and round. From his chin a tiny tuft of whiskers protruded, like the handle of a gourd. Never was countenance more unmistakably labelled good-humored, Americanized German.

The eyes of the tall man stopped.

“Is there a hotel in this”—he groped for a classification—“this city?” he asked.

A rattling sound, startlingly akin to the agitated contents of over-ripe vegetables, came from somewhere in the internal mechanism of the small man. Inferentially, the inquiry was amusing to the questioned, likewise the immediately surrounding listeners who became suddenly silent, gazing at the stranger with the wonder of young calves.

At length the innate spirit of courtesy in the German triumphed over his amusement.

“Hans Becher up by the postoffice takes folks in.” The inward commotion showed indications of resumption. “I never heard, though, that he called his place a hotel!”

“Thank you,” and the circle of silence widened.

The man and the woman walked up the street. Beneath their feet the cottonwood sidewalk, despite its newness, was warped in agony under sun and storm. Big puddles of water from a recent rain stood in the hollows of the roadway, side by side with tufts of native grasses fighting bravely for life against the intruder—Man. A fresh, indescribable odor was in their nostrils; an odor which puzzled them then, but which later they learned to recognize and never forgot—the pungent scent of buffalo grass. A stillness, deeper than of Sabbath, unbelievable to urban ears, wrapped all things, and united with an absence of broken sky line, to produce an all-pervading sense of loneliness.

Hans Becher did not belie his name. He was very German. Likewise the little woman who courtesied at his side. Ditto the choice assortment of inquisitive tow-heads, who stared wide-eyed from various corners. He shook hands at the door with each of his guests,—which action also was unmistakably German.

“You would in my house—put up, you call it?” he inquired in labored English, while the little woman polished two speckless chairs with her apron, and with instinctive photographic art placed them stiffly side by side for the visitors.

“Yes, we'd like to stay with you for a time,” corroborated the tall man.

The little German ran his fingers uncertainly through his hair for a moment; then his round face beamed.

“We should then become to each other known. Is it not so?” Without pausing for an answer, he put out a big hand to each in turn. “I am Hans Becher, and this”—with elaborate indications—“this my wife is—Minna.”

Minna courtesied dutifully, lower than before. The little Bechers were not classified, but their connection was apparent. They calmly sucked their thumbs.

The lords of creation obviously held the rostrum. It was the tall man who responded.

“My name is Maurice, Ichabod Maurice.” He looked at the woman, his companion, from the corner of his eye. “Allow me, Camilla, to present Mr. Becher.” Then turning to his hosts, “Camilla Maurice: Mr. and Mrs. Becher.”

The tall lady shook hands with each.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, and smiled a moment into their eyes. Thus Camilla Maurice made friends.

There were a few low-spoken words in German and Minna vanished.

“She will dinner make ready,” Hans explained.

The visitors sat down in their chairs, with Hans opposite studying them narrowly; singly and together.

“The town is very new,” suggested Ichabod.

“One year ago it was not.” The German's short legs crossed each other nervously and their owner seized the opportunity to make further inspection. “It is very new,” he repeated absently.

Camilla Maurice stood up.

“Might we wash, Mr. Becher?” she asked.

The ultimate predicament was all at once staring the little man in the face.

“To be sure.... I might have known.... You will a room—desire.” ... He ran his fingers through his hair, and inspiration came. “Mr. Maurice,” he motioned, “might I a moment with you—speak?”

“Certainly, Mr. Becher.”

The German saw light, and fairly beamed as he sought the safe seclusion of the doorway.

“She is your sister or cousin—nein?” he asked.

There was the faintest suggestion of a smile in the corners of Ichabod's mouth.

“No, she is neither my sister nor my cousin, Mr. Becher.”

Hans heaved a sigh of relief: it had been a close corner.

“She is your wife. One must know,” and he mopped his brow.

“Certainly—one must know,” very soberly.

Alone together in the little unfinished room under the rafters, the woman sat down on the corner of the bed, physical discomfort forgotten in feminine curiosity.

“Those names—where did you get them?” she queried.

“They came to me—at the moment,” smiled the man.

“But the cold-blooded horror of them!... Ichabod!”

“The glory has departed.”

His companion started, and the smile left the man's face.

“And Camilla?”—slowly.

“Attendant at a sacrifice.”

Of a sudden the room became very still.

Ichabod, exploring, discovered a tiny wash basin and a bucket of water.

“You wished to wash, Camilla?”

The woman did not move.

“They were very kind”—she looked through the window with the tiny panes: “have we any right to—lie to them?”

“We have not lied.”

“Tacitly.”

“No. I'm Ichabod Maurice and you're Camilla Maurice. We have not lied.”

“But—”

“The past is dead, dead!”

The woman's face dropped into her hands. Woman ever weeps instinctively for the dead.

“You are sorry that it is—so?” There was no bitterness in the man's voice, but he did not look at her, and Camilla misunderstood.

“Sorry!” She came close, and a soft warm face pressed tightly against his face. “Sorry!” Her arms were around him. “Sorry!” again repeated. “No! No! No! No, without end! I'm not sorry. I'm Camilla Maurice, the happiest woman in the world!”

Later they utilized the tin basin and the mirror with a crack across its centre. Dinner was waiting when they went below.

To a casual observer, Hans had been very idle while they were gone. He sat absently on the doorstep, watching the grass that grew almost visibly in the warm spring sun. Occasionally he tapped his forehead with his finger tips. It helped him to think, and just now he sadly needed assistance.

“Who were these people, anyway?” he wondered. Not farmers, certainly. Farmers did not have hands that dented when you pressed them, and farmers' wives did not lift their skirts daintily from behind. Hans had been very observant as his visitors came up the muddy street. No, that was not the way of farmers' wives: they took hold at the sides with both hands, and splashed right through on their heels.

Hans pulled the yellow tuft on his chin. What could they be, then? Not summer boarders. It was only early spring; and, besides, although the little German was an optimist, even he could not imagine any one selecting a Dakota prairie for an outing. Yet ... No, they could not be summer boarders.

But what then? In his intensity Hans actually forgot the grass and, unfailing producer of inspiration, ran his fingers frantically through his mane.

“Ah—at last—of course!” The round face beamed and a hard hand smote a harder knee, joyously. That he had not remembered at once! It was the new banker, to be sure. He would tell Minna, quite as a matter of fact, for there could be no mistake. Hank Judge, the machine agent, and Eli Stevens, the proprietor of the corner store, had said only yesterday there was to be a bank. Looking up the street the little man spied a familiar figure, and sprang to his feet as though released by a spring, his hand already in the air. There was Hank Judge, now, and he didn't know—

“Dinner, Hans,” announced Minna at his elbow.

Holding the child of his brain hard in both hands lest it should escape prematurely, the little German went inside to preside over a repast, the distinctively German incense of which ascended most appetizingly.

Hans, junior, in a childish treble, spoke an honest little German blessing, beginning “Mein Vater von Himmel,” and emphasized by the raps of Hans senior's knuckles on certain other small heads to keep their owners quiet.

“Fresh lettuce and radishes!” commented Camilla, joyously.

“Raised in our own garden hinein,” bobbed Minna, in ecstasy.

“And sauerkraut—” began Ichabod.

“From cabbages so large,” completed Hans, spreading his arms to designate an imaginary vegetable of heroic proportions.

“They must have grown very fast to be so large in May,” commented Camilla.

Hans and Minna exchanged glances—pitying, superior glances—such as we give behind the backs of the infirm, or the very old; and the subject of vegetables dropped.

“A great country for a bank, this,” commented Mr. Becher, with infinite finesse and between intermittent puffs at a hot potato.

“Is that so?”

Hans nodded violent confirmation, then words, English words, being valuable to him, he came quickly to the test.

“You will build for the bank yourself, is it not so?”

It was not the German and Minna who exchanged glances this time.

“No, I shall not build for the bank myself, Mr. Becher.”

“You will rent, perhaps?” Hans's faith was beautiful.

“No, I shall not rent.”

The German's face fell. To have wasted all that thought; for after all it was not the banker!

Minna, senior, stared in surprise, and her attention being diverted, Minna the younger seized the opportunity to inundate herself with a cup of hot coffee.

The spell was broken.

“I'm going to take a homestead,” explained Ichabod.

Hans's fork paused in mid-air and his mouth forgot to close. At the point where the German struck, the earth was very hard.

“So?” he interrogated, weakly.

At this juncture the difference between the two Minnas, which had been transferred from the table to the kitchen, was resumed; and although Ichabod ate the remaining kraut to the last shred, and Camilla talked to Hans of the Vaterland in his native German, each knew the occasion was a failure. An ideal had been raised, the ideal of a Napoleon of finance, a banker; and that ideal materializing, lo there stood forth a farmer! Ach Gott von Himmel!

After dinner Hans stood in the doorway and pointed out the land-office. Ichabod thanked him, and under the impulse of habit felt in his pocket for a cigar. None was there, and all at once he remembered Ichabod Maurice did not smoke. Strange he should have such an abominable inclination to do so just then; but nevertheless the fact remained. Ichabod Maurice never had smoked.

He started up the street.

A small man, with very high boots and a very long moustache, sat tipped back in the sun in front of the land-office. He was telling a story; a good one, judging from the attention of the row of listeners. He grasped the chair tightly with his left hand while his right, holding a cob pipe, gesticulated actively. The story halted abruptly as Ichabod came up.

“Howdy!” greeted the little man.

Maurice nodded.

“Don't let me interrupt you,” he temporized.

“Not at all,” courtesied the teller of stories, as he led the way inside. “I've told that one until I'm tired of it, anyway.” He tapped the ashes from his pipe-bowl, meditatively. “A fellow has to kill the time some way, though, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” acquiesced Ichabod.

The agent took a chair behind the battered pine desk, and pointed to another opposite.

“Any way I can help you?” he suggested.

“Yes,” answered Maurice. “I'm thinking of taking a homestead.”

The agent looked his visitor up and down and back again; then, being native born, his surprise broke forth in idiom.

“Well, I'm jiggered!” he avowed.

It was Ichabod's turn to make observation.

“I believe you; you look it,” he corroborated at length.

Again the little man stared; and in the silence following, a hungry-looking bird-dog thrust his thin muzzle in at the door, and sniffed.

“Get out,” shouted the owner at the intruder, adding in extenuation: “I'm busy.” He certainly was “jiggered.”

Ichabod came to the rescue.

“I called to learn how one goes at it to take a claim,” he explained. “The modus operandi isn't exactly clear in my mind.”

The agent braced up in his chair.

“I suppose you'll say it's none of my business,” he commented, “but as a speculation you'd do a lot better to buy up the claims of poor cusses who have to relinquish, than to settle yourself.”

“I'm not speculating. I expect to build a house, and live here.”

“As a friend, then, let me tell you you'll never stand it.” A stubby thumb made motion up the narrow street. “You see this town. I won't say what it is—you realize for yourself; but bad as it is, it's advanced civilization alongside of the country. You'll have to go ten miles out to get any land that's not taken.” He stopped and lit his pipe. “Do you know what it means to live alone ten miles out on the prairie?”

“I've never lived in the country.”

“I'll tell you, then, what it means.” He put down his pipe and looked out at the open door. His face changed; became softer, milder, younger. His voice, when he spoke, added to the impression of reminiscence, bearing an almost forgotten tone of years ago.

“The prairie!” he apostrophized. “It means the loneliest place on God's earth. It means that living there, in life you bury yourself, your hopes, your ambitions. It means you work ever to forget the past—and fail. It means self, always; morning, noon, night; until the very solitude becomes an incubus. It means that in time you die, or, from being a man, become as the cattle.” The speaker turned for the first time to the tall man before him, his big blue eyes wide open and round, his voice an entreaty.

“Don't move into it, man. It's death and worse than death to such as you! You're too old to begin. One must be born to the life; must never have known another. Don't do it, I say.”

Ichabod Maurice, listening, read in that appeal, beneath the words, the wild, unsatisfied tale of a disappointed human life.

“You are dissatisfied, lonesome—There was a time years ago perhaps—”

“I don't know.” The glow had passed and the face was old again, and heavy. “I remember nothing. I'm dead, dead.” He drew a rough map from his pocket and spread it out before him.

“If you'll move close, please, I'll show you the open lands.”

For an hour he explained homesteads, preemptions and tree claims, and the method of filing and proving up. At parting, Ichabod held out his hand.

“I thank you for your advice,” he said.

The man behind the desk puffed stolidly.

“But don't intend to follow it,” he completed.

Instinctively, metaphor sprang to the lips of Ichabod Maurice.

“A small speck of circumstance, which is near, obliterates much that is in the distance.” He turned toward the door. “I shall not be alone.”

The little agent smoked on in silence for some minutes, gazing motionless at the doorway through which Ichabod had passed out. Again the lean bird-dog thrust in an apologetic head, dutifully awaiting recognition. At length the man shook his pipe clean, and leaned back in soliloquy.

“Man, woman, human nature; habit, solitude, the prairie.” He spoke each word slowly, and with a shake of his head. “He's mad, mad; but I pity him”—a pause—“for I know.”

The dog whined an interruption from the doorway, and the man looked up.

“Come in, boy,” he said, in recognition.

CHAPTER III—THE WONDER OF PRAIRIE

Ichabod and Camilla selected their claim together. A fair day's drive it was from the little town; a half-mile from the nearest neighbor, a Norwegian, without two-score English words in his vocabulary. Level it was, as the surface of a lake or the plane of a railroad bed.

Together, too, they chose the spot for their home. Camilla sobbed over the word; but she was soon dry-eyed and smiling again. Afterwards, side by side, they did much journeying to and from the nearest sawmill—each trip through a day and a night—thirty odd miles away. The mill was a small, primitive affair, almost lost in the straggling box-elders and soft maples that bordered the muddy Missouri, producing, amid noisy protestations, the most despisable of all lumber on the face of the globe—twisting, creeping, crawling cottonwood.

Having the material on the spot, Ichabod built the house himself, after a plan never before seen of man; joint product of his and Camilla's brains. It took a month to complete; and in the meantime, each night they threw their tired bodies on the brown earth, indifferent to the thin canvas, which alone was spread between them and the stars.

Too utterly weary for immediate sleep, they listened to the sounds of animal life—wholly unfamiliar to ears urban trained—as they stood out distinct by contrast with a silence otherwise absolute as the grave.

... The sharp bark of the coyote, near or far away; soft as an echo, the gently cadenced tremolo of the prairie owl. To these, the mere opening numbers of the nightly concerts, the two exotics would listen wonderingly; then, of a sudden, typical, indescribable, lonely as death, there would boom the cry which, as often as it was repeated, recalled to Ichabod's mind the words of the little man in the land-office, “loneliest sound on earth”—the sound which, once heard, remains forever vivid—the night call of the prairie rooster. Even now, new and fascinating as it all was, at the last wailing cry the two occupants of the tent would reach out in the darkness until their hands met. Not till then would they sleep.

In May, they finished and moved their few belongings into the odd little two-room house. True to instinct, Ichabod had built a fireplace, though looking in any direction until the earth met the sky, not a tree was visible; and Camilla had added a cozy reading corner, which soon developed into a sleeping corner,—out-of-door occupations in sun and wind being insurmountable obstacles to mental effort.

But what matter! One straggling little folio, the local newspaper, made its way into the corner each week—and that was all. They had cut themselves off from the world, deliberately, irrevocably. It was but natural that they should sleep. All dead things sleep!

Month after month slipped by, and the first ripple of local excitement and curiosity born of their advent subsided. Ichabod knew nothing of farming, but to learn was simple. It needed only that he watch what his neighbors were doing, and proceed to do likewise. He learned soon to hold a breaking-plough in the tough prairie sod, and to swear mightily when it balked at an unusually tough root. As well, he came to know the oily feel of flax as he scattered it by hand over the brown breaking. Later he learned the smell of buckwheat blossoms, and the delicate green coloring of sod corn, greener by contrast with its dark background.

Nor was Camilla idle. The dresses she had brought with her, dainty creations of foreign make, soon gave way to domestic productions of gingham and print. In these, the long brown hands neatly gloved, she struggled with a tiny garden, becoming in ratio as passed the weeks, warmer, browner, and healthier.

“Are you happy?” asked Ichabod, one day, observing her thus amid the fruits of her hands.

Camilla hesitated. Catching her hand, Ichabod lifted her chin so that their eyes met.

“Tell me, are you happy?” he repeated.

Another pause, though her eyes did not falter.

“Happier than I ever thought to be.” She touched his sleeve tenderly. “But not completely so, for—” she was not looking at him now,—“for I love you, and—and—I'm a woman.”

They said no more; and though Ichabod went back to his team, it was not to work. For many minutes he stood motionless, a new problem of right and wrong throbbing in his brain.

Fall came slowly, bringing the drowsy, hazy days of so-called Indian Summer. It was the season of threshing, and all day long to the drowse of the air was added, near and afar, all-pervading through the stillness, the sleepy hum of the separator. Typical voice of the prairie was that busy drone, penetrating to the ears as the ubiquitous odor of the buffalo grass to the nostril, again bearing resemblance in that, once heard, memory would reproduce the sound until recollection was no more.

Winter followed, and they, who had thought the earth quiet before, found it still now indeed. Even the voice of the prairie-chicken was hushed; only the sharp knife-like cutting of spread wings told of a flock's passage at night. The level country, mottled white with occasional drifts, and brown from spots blown bare by the wind, stretched out seemingly interminable, until the line of earth and sky met.

Idle perforce, the two exotics would stand for hours in the sunshine of their open doorway, shading their eyes from the glare and looking out, out into the distance that was as yet only a name—and that the borrowed name of an Indian tribe.

“What a country!” Camilla would say, struck each time anew with a never-ending wonder.

“Yes, what a country,” Ichabod would echo, unconscious that he had repeated the same words in the same way a score of times before.

In January, a blizzard settled upon them, and for two days and nights they took turns keeping the big kitchen stove red hot. The West knows no such storms, now. Man has not only changed the face of the earth, but, in so doing, has annihilated that terror of the past—the Dakota blizzard.

In those days, though, it was very real, as Ichabod learned. He had prepared for winter, by hauling a huge pile of cordwood and stacking it, as a protection to windward, the full length of the little cabin, thinking the spot always accessible; but he had builded in ignorance.

The snow first commenced falling in the afternoon. By the next morning the tiny house was buried to the window sashes. Looking out, there could be seen but an indistinct slanting white wall, scarcely ten feet away: a screen through which the sunlight filtered dimly, like the solemn haze of a church. The earth was not silent, now. The falling of the sleet and snow was as the striking of fine shot, and the sound of the wind a steady unceasing moan, resembling the sigh of a big dynamo at a distance.

Slowly, inch by inch, during that day the snow crept up the window panes until, before the coming of darkness without, it fell within. Banked though they were on three sides, on the fourth side, unprotected, the cold penetrated bitterly,—a cold no living thing could withstand without shelter. Then it was that Ichabod and Camilla feared to sleep, and that the long vigil began.

By the next morning there was no light from the windows. The snow had drifted level with the eaves. Ichabod stood in the narrow window frame, and, lowering the glass from the top, beat a hole upward with a pole to admit air. Through the tunnel thus formed there filtered the dull gray light of day: and at its end, obstructing, there stood revealed a slanting drab wall,—a condensed milky way.

The storm was yet on, and he closed the window. To get outside for fuel that day was impossible, so with an axe Ichabod chopped a hole through the wall into the big pile, and on wood thus secured sawed steadily in the tiny kitchen, while the kerosene lamp at his side sputtered, and the fire crackled in a silence, like that surrounding a hunted animal in its den.

Many usual events had occurred in the lives of the wandering Ichabod and Camilla, which had been forgotten; but the memory of that day, the overwhelming, incontestible knowledge of the impotency of wee, restless, inconsequent man, they were never to forget.

“Tiny, tiny, mortal!” laughed the storm. “To think you would combat Nature, would defy her, the power of which I am but one of many, many manifestations!” And it laughed again. The two prisoners, listening, their ears to the tunnel, heard the sound, and felt to the full its biting mockery.

Next day the siege was raised, and the sun smiled as only the sun can smile upon miles and miles of dazzling snow crystals. Ichabod climbed out—by way of the window route—and worked for hours with a shovel before he had a channel from the tiny, submerged shanty to the light of day beyond. Then together he and Camilla stood side by side in the doorway, as they had done so many times before, looking about them at the boundless prairie, drifted in waves of snow like the sea: the wonder of it all, ever new, creeping over them.

“What a country!” voiced Camilla.

“What a country, indeed,” echoed Ichabod.

“Lonely and mysterious as Death.”

“Yes, as Death or—Life.”

CHAPTER IV—A REVELATION

Time, unchanging automaton, moved on until late spring. Paradox of nature, the warm brown tints of chilly days gave place under the heat of slanting suns to the cool green of summer. All at once, sudden as though autochthonal, there appeared meadow-larks and blackbirds: dead weeds or man-erected posts serving in lieu of trees as vantage points from which to sing. Ground squirrels whistled cheerily from newly broken fields and roadways. Coveys of quail, tame as barn-yard fowls, played about the beaten paths, and ran pattering in the dust ahead of each passing team. Again, from its winter's rest, lonely, uncertain as to distance, came the low, booming call of the prairie rooster. Nature had awakened, and the joy of that awakening was upon the land.

Of a morning in May the faded, dust-covered day-coach drew in at the tiny prairie village. A little man alighted. He stood a moment on the platform, his hands deep in his pockets, a big black cigar between his teeth, and looked out over the town. The coloring of the short straggling street was more weather-stained than a year ago, yet still very new, and the newcomer smiled as he looked; a big broad smile that played about his lips, turning up the corners of his brown moustache, showing a flash of white teeth, and lighting a pair of big blue eyes which lay, like a woman's, beneath heavy lashes. In youth, that smile would have been a grin; but it was no grin now. The man was far from youth, and about the mouth and eyes were deep lines, which told of one who knew of the world.

Slowly the smile disappeared, and as it faded the little man puffed harder at the cigar. Evidently something he particularly wished to explain would not become clear to his mind.

“Of all places,” he soliloquized, “to have chosen—this!”

He started up the street, over the irregular warping sidewalk.

“Hotel, sir-r?” The formula was American, the trilling r's distinctly German.

The traveller turned at the sound, to make acquaintance with Hans Becher; for it was Hans Becher, very much metamorphosed from the retiring German of a year ago. He made the train regularly now.

The small man nodded and held out his grip; together they walked up the street. In front of the hotel they stopped, and the stranger pulled out his watch.

“Is there a livery here?” he asked.

“Yes; at the street end—the side to the left hand.”

“Thanks. I'll be back with you this evening.”

Hans Becher stared, open-mouthed, as the man moved off.

“You will not to dinner return?”

The little man stopped, and smiled without apparent reason.

“No. Keep the grip. I expect to lunch,” again he smiled without provocation, “elsewhere. By the way,” he added, as an afterthought, “can you tell me where Mr. Maurice—Ichabod Maurice—lives?”

The German nodded violent confirmation of a direction indicated by his free hand.

“Straight out, eight miles. Little house with paint”—strong emphasis on the last—“white paint.”

“Thanks.”

Hans saw the escape of an opportunity.

“They are friends of yours, perhaps?”—he grasped at it.

The little man did not turn, but the smile that seemed almost a habit, sprang to his face.

“Yes, they're—friends of mine,” he corroborated.

Hans, personification of knowledge, stood bobbing on the doorstep, until the trail of smoke vanished from sight, then brought the satchel inside and set it down hard.

“Her brother has come,” he announced to the wide-eyed Minna.

Wessen Bruder?” Minna was obviously excited, as attested by the lapse from English.

“Are we not now Americans naturalized?” rebuked Hans, icily. Suddenly he thawed. “Whose brother! The brother of Camilla Maurice, to be sure.”

Minna scrutinized the bag, curiously.

“Did he so—inform you?” she questioned unadvisedly.

“It was not necessary. I have eyes.”

Offended masculine dignity clumped noisily toward the door; instinctive feminine diplomacy sprang to the rescue.

“You are so wise, Hans!”

And Peace, sweet Peace, returned to the household of Becher.

Meanwhile the little man had secured a buggy, and was jogging out into the country. He drove very leisurely, looking about him curiously. Of a sudden he threw down his cigar, and sniffed at the air.

“Buffalo grass, I'll wager! I've heard of it,” and in the instinctive action of every newcomer he sniffed again.

Camilla Maurice sat in front of her tiny house, the late morning sun warm about her; one hand supported a book, slanted carefully to avoid the light, the other held the crank of a barrel-churn. As she read, she turned steadily, the monotonous chug! chug! of the tumbling cream drowning all other sounds.

Suddenly the shadow of a horse passed her and a rough livery buggy stopped at her side. She looked up. Instinctively her hand dropped the crank, and her face turned white; then equally involuntarily she returned to her work, and the chug! chug! continued.

“Does Ichabod Maurice,” drawling emphasis on the name, “live here?” asked a voice.

“He does.” Camilla's chin was trembling; her answer halted abruptly.

The man looked down at her, genuine amusement depicted upon his face.

“Won't you please stop your work for a moment, Camilla?”

With the name, one hand made swift movement of deprecation. “Pardon if I mistake, but I take it you're Camilla Maurice?”

“Yes, I'm Camilla Maurice.”

“Quite so! You see, Ichabod and I were old chums together in college—all that sort of thing; consequently I've always wanted to meet—”

The woman stood up. Her face still was very white, but her chin did not tremble now.

“Let's stop this farce,” she insisted. “What is it you wish?”

The man in the buggy again made a motion of deprecation.

“I was just about to say, that happening to be in town, and incidentally hearing the name, I wondered if it were possible.... But, pardon, I haven't introduced myself. Allow me—” and he bowed elaborately. “Arnold, Asa Arnold.... You've heard Ichabod mention my name, perhaps?”

The woman held up her hand.

“Again I ask, what do you wish?”

“Since you insist, first of all I'd like to speak a moment with Ichabod.” His face changed suddenly. “For Heaven's sake, Eleanor, if he must alter his name, why did he choose such a barbaric substitute as Ichabod?”

“Were he here”—evenly—“he'd doubtless explain that himself.”

“He's not here, then?” No banter in the voice now.

“Never fear”—quickly—“he'll return.”

A moment they looked into each other's eyes; challengingly, as they had looked unnumbered times before.

“As you suggest, Eleanor,” said the man, slowly, “this farce has gone far enough. Where may I tie this horse? I wish to speak with you.”

Camilla pointed to a post, and silently went toward the house. Soon the man followed her, stopping a moment to take a final puff at his cigar before throwing it away.

Within the tiny kitchen they sat opposite, a narrow band of warm spring sunshine creeping in at the open door separating them. The woman looked out over the broad prairie, her color a trifle higher than usual, the lids of her eyes a shade nearer together—that was all. The man crossed his legs and waited, looking so small that he seemed almost boyish. In the silence, the drone of feeding poultry came from the back-yard, and the sleepy breathing of the big collie on the steps sounded plainly through the room.

A minute passed. Neither spoke. Then, with a shade of annoyance, the man shifted in his chair.

“I thought, perhaps, you'd have something you wished to say. If not, however—” He paused meaningly.

“You said a moment ago, you wished to speak to me.”

“As usual, you make everything as difficult as possible.” The shade of annoyance became positive. “Such being the case, we may as well come to the point. How soon do you contemplate bringing this—this incident to a close?”

“The answer to that question concerns me alone.”

An ordinary man would have laughed; but Asa Arnold was not an ordinary man—not at this time.

“As your husband, I can't agree with you.”

Camilla Maurice took up his words, quickly.

“You mistake. You're the husband of Eleanor Owen. I'm not she.”

The man went on calmly, as though there had been no interruption.

“I don't want to be hard on you, Eleanor. I don't think I have been hard on you. A year has passed, and I've known you were here from the first day. But this sort of thing can't go on indefinitely; there's a limit, even to good nature. I ask you again, when are you coming back?”

The woman looked at her companion, for the first time steadily. Even she, who knew him so well, felt a shade of wonder at the man who could adjust all the affairs of his life in the same voice with which he ordered his dinner. Before, she had always thought this attitude of his pure affectation. Now she knew better, knew it mirrored the man himself. He had done this thing. Knowing her whereabouts all the time, he had allotted her the past year, as an employer would grant a holiday to an assistant. Now he asked her to return to the old life, as calmly as one returns in the fall to the city home after an outing! Only one man in the world could have done that thing, and that man was before her—her husband by law—Asa Arnold!

The wonder of it all crept into her voice.

“I'm not coming back, can't you understand? I'm never coming back,” she repeated.

The man arose and stood in the doorway.

“Don't say that,” he said very quietly. “Not yet. I won't begin, now, after all these years to make protestations of love. The thing called Love we've discussed too often already, and without result. Anyway, that's not the point. We never pretended to be lovers, even when we were married. We were simply useful, very useful to each other.”

Camilla started to interrupt him, but, preventing, he held up his hand.

“We talked over a certain possibility—one now a reality—before we were married.” He caught the look upon her face. “I don't say it was ideal. It simply was,” he digressed slowly in answer, then hurried on: “That was only five years ago, Eleanor, and we were far from young.” He looked at her, searchingly. “You've not forgotten the contract we drew up, that stood above the marriage obligation, above everything, supreme law for you and me?” Instinctively his hand went to an inner pocket, where the rustle of a paper answered his touch. “Remember; it's not a favor I ask of you, but the fulfilment of your own word. Think a moment before you say you'll never return.”

Camilla Maurice found an answer very difficult. Had he been angry, or abusive, it would have been easy; but as it was—

“You overlook the fact of change. A lifetime isn't required for that.”

“I overlook nothing.” The man went back to his chair. “You remember, as well as I, that we considered the problem of change—and laughed at it. I repeat, we're no longer in swaddling clothes.”

“Be that as it may, I tell you the whole world looks different to me now.” The speaker struggled bravely, but the ghastliness of such a discussion wore on her nerves, and her face twitched. “No power on earth could make me keep that contract since I've changed.”

The suggestion of a smile played about the man's mouth.

“You've succeeded, perhaps, in finding that for which we searched so long in vain, an æsthetic, non-corporeal love?”

“I refuse to answer a question which was intended as an insult.”

The words out of her mouth, the woman regretted them.

“Though quick yourself to take offence, you seem at no great pains to avoid giving affront to another.” The man voiced the reprimand without the twitch of an eyelid, and finished with another question: “Have you any reason for doing as you've done, other than the one you gave?”

“Reason! Reason!” Camilla Maurice stared again. “Isn't it reason enough that I love him, and don't love you? Isn't it sufficient reason to one who has lived until middle life in darkness that a ray of light is in sight? Of all people in the world, you're the one who should understand the reason best!”

“Would any of those arguments be sufficient to break another contract?”

“No, but one I didn't mention would. Even when I lived with you, I was of no more importance than a half-dozen other women.”

“You didn't protest at time of the agreement. You knew then my belief and,” Arnold paused meaningly, “your own.”

A memory of the past came to the woman; the dark, lonely past, which, even yet, after so many years, came to her like a nightmare; the time when she was a stranger in a strange town, without joy of past or hope of future; most lonely being on God's earth, a woman with an ambition—and without friends.

“I was mad—I see it now—lonely mad. I met you. Our work was alike, and we were very useful to each other.” One white hand made motion of repugnance at the thought. “I was mad, I say.”

“Is that your excuse for ignoring a solemn obligation?” Arnold looked her through. “Is that your excuse for leaving me for another, without a word of explanation, or even the conventional form of a divorce?”

“It was just that explanation—this—I wished to avoid. It's hard for us both, and useless.”

“Useless!” The man quickly picked up the word. “Useless! I don't like the suggestion of that word. It hints of death, and old age, and hateful things. It has no place with the living.”

He drew a paper from his pocket, slowly, and spread it on his knee.

“Pardon me for again recalling past history, Eleanor; but to use a word that is dead!... You must have forgotten—” The writing, a dainty, feminine hand, was turned toward her, tauntingly, compellingly.

The man waited for some response; but Camilla Maurice was silent. That bit of paper, the shadow of a seemingly impossible past, made her, for the time, question her identity, almost doubt it.

Five years ago, almost to the day, high up in a city building, in a dainty little room, half office, half atelier, a man and a woman had copied an agreement, each for the other, and had sworn an oath ever to remain true to that solemn bond.... She had brought nothing to him, but herself; not even affection. He, on the other hand, had saved her from a life of drudgery by elevating her to a position where, free of the necessity of struggling for a bare existence, she might hope to consummate the fruition of at least a part of her dreams. On her part....

Witnesseth: The said Eleanor Owen is at liberty to follow her own inclinations as she may see fit; she is to remain free of any and all responsibilities and restrictions such as customarily attach to the supervision of a household, excepting as she may elect to exercise her wifely prerogatives; being absolutely free to pursue whatsoever occupation or devices she may desire or choose, the same as if she were yet a spinster....

In Consideration of Which: The said Eleanor Owen agrees never so to comport herself that by word or conduct will she bring ridicule.... dishonor upon the name....

Recollection of it all came to her with a rush; but the words ran together and swam in a maddening blur—the roar from the street below, dull with distance; the hum of the big building, with its faint concussions of closing doors; the air from the open window, not like the sweet prairie air of to-day, but heavy, smoky, typical breath of the town, yet pregnant with the indescribable throb of spring, impossible to efface or to disguise! The compelling intimacy and irrevocability of that memory overwhelmed her, now; a dark, evil flood that blotted out the sunshine of the present.

The paper rustled, as the man smoothed it flat with his hand.

“Shall I read?” he asked.

The woman's face stood clear—cruelly clear—in the sunlight; about her mouth and eyes there was an expression which, from repetition, we have learned to associate with the circle surrounding a new-made grave: an expression hopelessly desperate, desperately hopeless.

Of a sudden her chin trembled and her face dropped into her hands.

“Read, if you wish”; and the smooth brown head, with its thread of gray, trembled uncontrollably.

“Eleanor!” with a sudden vibration of tenderness in his voice. “Eleanor,” he repeated.

But the woman made no response.

The man had taken a step forward; now he sat down again, looking through the open doorway at the stretch of green prairie, with the road, a narrow ribbon of brown, dividing it fair in the middle. In the distance a farmer's wagon was rumbling toward town, a trail of fine dust, like smoke, suspended in the air behind. It rattled past, and the big collie on the step woke to give furious chase in its wake, then returned slowly, a little conscious under the stranger's eye, to sleep as before. Asa Arnold sat through it all, still as one devitalized; an expression on his face no man had ever seen before; one hopeless, lonely, akin to that of the woman.

“Read, if you wish,” repeated Camilla, bitterly.

For a long minute her companion made no motion.

“It's unnecessary,” he intoned at last. “You know as well as I that neither of us will ever forget one word it contains.” He hesitated and his voice grew gentle. “Eleanor, you know I didn't come here to insult you, or to hurt you needlessly;—but I'm human. You seem to forget this. You brand me less than a man, and then ask of me the unselfishness of a God!”

Camilla's white face lifted from her hands.

“I ask nothing except that you leave me alone.”

For the first time the little man showed his teeth.

“At last you mention the point I came here to arrange. Were you alone, rest assured I shouldn't trouble you.”

“You mean—”

“I mean just this. I wouldn't be human if I did what you ask—if I condoned what you've done and are still doing.” He was fairly started now, and words came crowding each other; reproachful, tempestuous.

“Didn't you ever stop to think of the past—think what you've done, Eleanor?” He paused without giving her an opportunity to answer. “Let me tell you, then. You've broken every manner of faith between man and woman. If you believe in God, you've broken faith with Him as well. Don't think for a moment I ever had respect for marriage as a divine institution, but I did have respect for you, and at your wish we conformed. You're my wife now, by your own choosing. Don't interrupt me, please. I repeat, God has no more to do with ceremonial marriage now than he had at the time of the Old Testament and polygamy. It's a man-made bond, but an obligation nevertheless, and as such, at the foundation of all good faith between man and woman. It's this good faith you've broken.” A look of bitterness flashed over his face.

“Still, I could excuse this and release you at the asking, remaining your friend, your best friend as before; but to be thrown aside without even a 'by your leave,' and that for another man—” He hesitated and finished slowly:

“You know me well enough, Eleanor, to realize that I'm in earnest when I say that while I live the man has yet to be born who can take something of mine away from me.”

Camilla gestured passionately.

“In other words: while growling hard at the dog who approached your bone, you have no hesitation in stealing from another!” The accumulated bitterness of years of repression spoke in the taunt.

Across the little man's face there fell an impenetrable mask, like the armor which dropped about an ancient ship of war before the shock of battle.

“I'm not on trial. I've not changed my name—” he nodded significantly toward the view beyond the open door,—“and sought seclusion.”

Again the bitterness of memory prompted Camilla to speak the harshest words of her life.

“No, you hadn't the decency. It was more pleasure to thrust your shame daily in my face.”

Arnold's color paled above the dark beard line; but the woman took no heed.

“Why did you wait a year,” continued the bitter voice, “to end in—this? If it must have been—why not before?”

“I repeat, I'm not on trial. If you've anything to say, I'll listen.”

Something new in the man's face caught Camilla's attention, softened the tone of her voice.

“I've only this to say. You've asked for an explanation and a promise; but I can give you neither. If there ever comes a time when I feel they're due you, and I'm able to comply, I'll give them both gladly.” The absent look of the past returned to her eyes. “Even if I wished, I couldn't give you an explanation now. I can't make myself understand the contradiction. Somehow, knowing you so long, your beliefs crept insistently into my loneliness. It seems hideous now, but I was honest then. I believed them, too. I don't blame you; I only pity you. You were the embodiment of protest against the established, of the non-responsibility of the individual, of skepticism in everything. Your eternal 'why' covered my horizon. Every familiar thing came to bear a question I couldn't answer. My whole life seemed one eternal doubt. One thing I'd never known, and I questioned it most of all; the one thing I know now to be the truth,—the greatest truth in the world.” For an instant the present crowded the past from Camilla's mind, but only for an instant. “Whatever I was at the time, you'd made me—with your deathless 'why.' When I signed the obligation of that day, I believed it was of my own free will; but I know now it was you who wrote it for both of us—you, with your perpetual interrogation. I don't accuse you of doing this deliberately, maliciously. We were both deceived; but none the less the fact remains.” A shadow, almost of horror, passed over her face.

“Time passed, and though you didn't know, I was in Hell. Reason told me I was right. Instinct, something, called me a drag. I tried to compromise, and we were married. Then, for the first time, came realization. We were the best of friends,—but only friends.”

“You wonder how I knew. I didn't tell you then. I couldn't. I could only feel, and that not clearly. The shadow of your 'why' was still dark upon me. What I vaguely felt then, though, I know now; as I recognize light or cold or pain.” Her voice assumed the tone of one who speaks of mysteries; slow, vibrant. “In every woman's mind the maternal instinct should be uppermost; before everything, before God,—unashamed, inevitable. It's unmistakably the distinction of a good woman from a bad. The choosing of the father of her child is a woman's unfailing test of love.”

The face of the man before her dropped into his hands, but she did not notice.

“Gropingly I felt this, and the knowledge came almost as an inspiration. It gave a clue to—”

“Stop!” The man's eyes blazed, as he leaped from his chair. “Stop!”

He took a step forward, his hand before him, his face twitching uncontrollably. The collie on the step awoke, and seeing his mistress threatened, growled ominously.

“Stop, I tell you!” Arnold choked for words. This the man of “why,” whom nothing before could shake!

Camilla paled as her companion arose, and the dog, bristling, came inside the room.

“Get out!” blazed the man, with a threatening step, and the collie fled.

The interruption loosed words which came tumbling forth in a torrent, as Arnold returned to face her.

“You think I'm human, and yet tell me that to my face?” His voice was terrible. “You women brand men cruel! No man on earth would speak as you have spoken to a woman he'd lived with for four years!” The sentences crowded over each other, like water over a fall—his eyes flashing like a spray.

“I told you before, I'm not on trial; that it was not my place to defend. I don't do so now; but since you've spoken, I'll answer your question. You ask why I didn't come a year ago, hinting that I wanted to be more cruel. God! the blindness and injustice of you women! Because we men don't show—Bah!... I was paying my own price. We weren't living by the marriage vow; it was but a farce. Our own contract was the vital thing, and it had said—But I won't repeat. God, it was bitter! But I thought you'd come back. I loved you still.” He paused for words, breathing hard.

“You say, I'll never know what love is. Blind! I've always loved you until this moment, when you killed my love. You say I was untrue. It's false. I swear it before—you, as you were once,—when you were my god. Had you trusted me, as I trusted you, there'd have been no thought of unfaithfulness in your mind.”

The woman sank back in the chair, her face covered, her whole body trembling; but Asa Arnold went on like the storm.

“Yes, I was ever true to you. From the first moment we met, and against my own beliefs. You didn't see. You expected me to protest it daily: to repeat the tale as a child repeats its lesson for a comfit. Blind, I say, blind! You'll charge that I never told you that I loved you. You wouldn't have believed me, even had I done so. Besides, I didn't realize that you doubted, until the time when you were learning—” he walked jerkily across the room and took up his hat,—“learning the thing you threw in my face.” He started to leave, but stopped in the doorway, without looking back. “You tell me you've suffered. For the first time in my life I say to another human being: I hope so.” He turned, unsteadily, down the steps.

“Wait,” pleaded the woman. “Wait!”

The man did not stop, or turn.

Camilla Maurice sank back in the chair, weak as one sick unto death, her mind a throbbing, whirling chaos,—as of a patient under an anæsthetic. Something she knew she ought to do, intended doing, and could not. She groped desperately, but overwhelming, insistent, there had developed in her a sudden, preventing tumult—in paradox, a confusion in rhythm—like the beating of a great hammer on an anvil, only incredibly more swift than blows from human hands. Over and over again she repeated to herself the one word: “wait,” “wait,” “wait,” but mechanically now, without thought as to the reason. Then, all at once, soft, all-enfolding, kindly Nature wrapped her in darkness.

She awoke with the big collie licking her hand, and a numbness of cramped limbs that was positive pain. A long-necked pullet was standing in the doorway, with her mouth open; others stood wondering, beyond. The sun had moved until it no longer shone in at the tiny south windows, and the shadow of the house had begun to lengthen.

Camilla stood up in the doorway; uncertain, dazed. A great lump was on her forehead, which she stroked absently, without surprise at its presence. She looked about the yard, and, her breath coming more quickly, at the prairie. A broad green plain, parted by the road squarely in the centre, smiled at her in the sunlight. That was all. She stepped outside and shaded her eyes with her hand. Not a wagon nor a human being was in sight.

Again the weakness and the blackness came stealing over her; she sank down on the doorstep.

“O God, what have I done!” she wailed.

The hens returned to their search for bugs; but the big collie stayed by her side, whimpering and fondling her hand.

CHAPTER V—THE DOMINANCE OF THE EVOLVED

The keen joy of life was warmly flooding Ichabod Maurice this spring day. Not life for the sake of an ambition or a duty, but delight in the mere animal pleasure of existence. He had risen early, and, a neighbor with him, they had driven forth: stars all about, perpendicular, horizontal, save in the reddening east, upon their long day's drive to the sawmill. The two teams plodded along steadily, their footfall muffled in the soft prairie loam; the earth elsewhere soundless, with a silence which even yet was a marvel to the city man.

The majesty of it held him silent until day dawned, and with the coming of the sun there woke in unison the chorus of joyous animal life. Then Ichabod, his long legs dangling over the dashboard, lifted up a voice untrained as the note of a loon, and sang lustily, until his companion on the wagon ahead,—boy-faced, man-bodied,—grinned perilously.

The long-visaged man was near happiness that morning,—unbelievably near. By nature unsocial, by habit, city inbred, artificially taciturn, there came with the primitive happiness of the moment the concomitant primitive desire for companionship. He smiled self-tolerantly when, obeying an instinct, he wound the lines around the seat, and went ahead to the man, who grinned companionably as he made room beside him.

“God's country, this.” Ichabod's hand made an all-including gesture, as he seated himself comfortably, his hat low over his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” and the grin was repeated.

The tall man reflected. Sunburned, roughly dressed, unshaven as he, Maurice, was, this boy-man never failed the word of respect. Ichabod examined him curiously out of his shaded lids. Big brown hands; body strong as a bull; powerful shoulders; neck turned like a model; a soft chin under a soft, light beard; gentle blue eyes—all in all, a face so open that its very legibility seemed a mark. It reddened now, under the scrutiny.

“Pardon,” said Ichabod. “I was thinking how happy you are.”

“Yes, sir.” And the face reddened again.

Ichabod smiled.

“When is it to be, Ole?”

The big body wriggled in blissful embarrassment.

“As soon as the house is built,”—confusedly.

“You're building very fast, eh?”

The Swede grinned confirmation. Words were of value to Ole.

“I see the question was superfluous,” and Ichabod likewise smiled in genial comradery. A moment later, however, the smile vanished.

“You're very content as it is, Ole,” he digressed, equivocally; “but—supposing—Minna were already the wife of a friend?”

The Swede stared in breathless astonishment.

“She isn't, though” he gasped at length in startled protest.

“But supposing—”

“It would be so. I couldn't help it.”

“You'd do nothing?” rank anarchy in the suggestion.

“What would there be to do?”

Ichabod temporized.

“Supposing again, she loved you, and didn't love her husband?” Ole scratched his head, seeing very devious passages beyond. “That would be different,” and he crossed his legs.

Ichabod smiled. The world over, human nature is fashioned from one mould.

“Supposing, once more, it's a year from now,—five years from now. You've married Minna, but you're not happy. She's grown to hate you,—to love another man?”

Ole's faith was beautiful.

“It's not to be thought of. It's impossible!”

“But supposing,” urged Ichabod.

The boy-man was silent for a very long minute; then his face darkened, and the soft jaw grew hard.

“I don't know—” he said slowly,—“I don't know, but I think I kill that man.”

Ichabod did not smile this time.

“We're all much alike, Ole. I think you would.”

They drove on; far past the town, now; the sun high in the sky; dew sparkling like prisms innumerable; the prairie colorings soft as a rug—its varied greens of groundwork blending with the narrow line of fresh breaking rolling at their feet.

“You were born in this country?” asked Ichabod suddenly.

“In Iowa. It's much like this—only rougher.”

“You'll live here, always?”

The Swede shook his head and the boy's face grew older.

“No; some day, we're going to the city—Minna and I. We've planned.”

Ichabod was thoughtful a minute.

“I'm a friend of yours, Ole.”

“A very good friend,” repeated the mystified Swede.

“Then, listen, and don't forget.” The voice was vibrant, low, but the boy heard it clearly above the noise of the wagon. “Don't do it, Ole; in God's name, don't do it! Stay here, you'll be happy.” He looked the open-mouthed listener deep in the eyes. “If you ever say a prayer, let it be the old one, even though it be an insult to a just God:—'Lead us not into temptation.' Avoid, as you would avoid death, the love of money, the fever of unrest, the desire to become greater than your fellows, the thirst to know and to taste all things, which is the spirit of the city. Live close to Nature, where all is equal and all is good; where sleep comes in the time of sleep, and work when it is day. Do that labor which comes to you at the moment, leaving to-morrow to Nature.” He crossed his long legs, and pressed his hat down over his eyes. “Accept life as Nature gives it, day by day. Don't question, and you'll find it good.” He repeated himself slowly. “That's the secret. Don't doubt, or question anything.”

In the Swede's throat there was a rattling, which presaged speech, but it died away.

“Do you love children, Ole?” asked Ichabod, suddenly.

The boy face flushed. Ole was very young.

“I—” he lagged.

“Of course you do. Every living human being does. It's the one good instinct, which even the lust of gain doesn't down. It's the tie that binds,—the badge of brotherhood which makes the world one.” He gently laid his hand on the broad shoulder beside him.

“Don't be ashamed to say you love children, boy, though the rest of the world laugh,—for they're laughing at a lie. They'll tell you the parental instinct is dying out with the advance of civilization; that the time will come when man will educate himself to his own extinction. It's false, I tell you, absolutely false.” Ichabod had forgotten himself, and he rushed on, far above the head of the gaping Swede.

“There's one instinct in the world, the instinct of parenthood, which advances eternal, stronger, infinitely, as man's mind grows stronger. So unvarying the rule that it's almost an index of civilization itself, advancing from a crude instinct of the body-base and animal—until it reaches the realm of the mind: the highest, the holiest of man's desires: yet stronger immeasurably, as with the educated, things of the mind are stronger than things of the body. Those who deny this are fools, or imposters,—I know not which. To do so is to strike at the very foundation of human nature,—but impotently,—for in fundamentals, human nature is good.” Unconsciously, a smile flashed over the long face.

“Talk about depopulating the earth! All the wars of primitive man were inadequate. The vices of civilization have likewise failed. Even man's mightiest weapon, legislation, couldn't stay the tide for a moment, if it would. While man is man, and woman is woman, that long, above government, religion,—life and death itself,—will reign supreme the eternal instinct of parenthood.”

Ichabod caught himself in his own period and stopped, a little ashamed of his earnestness. He sat up in the seat preparatory to returning to his own wagon, then dropped his hand once more on the boy's shoulder.

“I'm old enough to be your father, boy, and have done, in all things, the reverse of what I advised you. Therefore, I know I was wrong. We may sneer and speak of poetry when the words proceed from another, my boy; but, as inevitable as death, there comes to every man the knowledge that he stands accursed of Nature, who hasn't heard the voice of his own child call 'father!'”

He clambered down, leaving the speechless Ole sprawling on the wagon-seat. Back in his own wagon, he smiled broadly to himself.

“Strange, how easily the apple falls when it's ripe,” he soliloquized.

They drove on clear to the mill without another word; without even a grin from the broad-faced Ole, who sat in ponderous thought in the wagon ahead. To a nature such as his the infrequency of a new idea gives it the force of a cataclysm; during its presence, obliterating everything else.

It was nearly noon when they reached the narrow fringe of trees and underbrush—deciduous and wind-tortured all—which bordered the big, muddy, low-lying Missouri; and soon they could hear the throb of the engine at the mill, and the swish of the saw through the green lumber; a sound that heard near by, inevitably carries the suggestion of scalpel and living flesh. Nothing but green timber was sawed thereabout in those days. The country was settling rapidly, lumber was imperative, and available timber very, very limited.

Returning, the heavy loads grumbled slowly along, so slowly that it was nearly evening, and their shadows preceded them by rods when they reached the little prairie town. They stopped to water their teams; and Ole, true to the instincts of his plebeian ancestry, went in search of a glass of beer. He returned, quickly, his face very red.

“A fellow in there is talking about—about Mrs. Maurice,” he blurted.

“In the saloon, Ole?”

The Swede repeated the story, watching the tall man from the corner of his eye.

A man, very drunk, was standing by the bar, and telling how, in coming to town, he had seen a buggy drive away from the Maurice home very fast. He had thought it was the doctor's buggy and had stopped in to see if any one was sick.

The fellow had grinned here and drank some more, before finishing the story; the surrounding audience winking at each other meanwhile, and drinking in company.

Then he went on to tell how Camilla Maurice had sat just inside the doorway, her face in her hands, sobbing,—so hard she hadn't noticed him; and—and—it wasn't the doctor who had been there at all!

Ichabod had been holding a pail of water so that a horse might drink. At the end he motioned Ole very quietly, to take his place.

“Finish watering them, and—wait for me, please.”

It was far from what the Swede had expected; but he accepted the task, obediently.

The only saloon of the town stood almost exactly opposite Hans Becher's place, flush with the street. A long, low building, communicating with the outer world by one door—sans glass—its single window in front and at the rear lit it but imperfectly at midday, and now at early evening made faces almost indistinguishable, and cast kindly shadow over the fly specks and smoke stains of a low roof. A narrow pine bar, redolent of tribute absorbed from innumerable passing “schooners,” stretched the entire length of the room at one side; and back of it, in shirt sleeves and stained apron, presided the typical bar-keeper of the frontier. All this Ichabod saw as he stepped inside; then, himself in shadow, he studied the group before him.

Railroad and cattle men, mostly, made up the gathering, with a scant sprinkling of farmers and others unclassified. A big, ill-dressed fellow was repeating the tale of scandal for the benefit of a newcomer; the narrative moving jerkily over hiccoughs, like hurdles.

“—I drew up to th' house quick, an' went up th' path quiet like,”—he tapped thunderously on the bar with a heavy glass for silence—“quiet—sh-h—like; an' when I come t' th' door, ther' 't was open, an'—as I hope—hope t' die,... drink on me, b'ys, aller y'—set 'm up, Barney ol' b'y, m' treat,... hope t' die, ther' she sat, like this—” He looked around mistily for a chair, but none was convenient, and he slid flat to the floor in their midst, his face in his hands, blubbering dismally in imitation.... “Sat (hic) like this; rockin' an' moanin' n' callin' his name: Asa—Asa—Asa—(hic) Arnold—'shure 's I'm a sinner she—”

He did not finish. Very suddenly the surrounding group had scattered, and he peered up through maudlin tears to learn the cause. One man alone stood above him. The room had grown still as a church.

The drunken one blinked his watery eyes and showed his yellow teeth in a convivial grin.

“G'd evnin', pard.... Serve th'—th' gem'n, Barney; m' treat.” Again the teeth obtruded. “Was jes'—”

“Get up!”

He of the story winked harder than before.

“Bless m'—” He paused for an expletive, hiccoughed, and forgetting what had caused the halt, stumbled on:—“Didn' rec'gniz' y' b'fore. Shake, ol' boy. S—sh-sorry for y'.” Tears rose copiously. “Tough—when feller's wife—”

Interrupting suddenly a muffled sound like the distant exhaust of a big engine—the meeting of a heavy boot with an obstacle on the floor. “Get up!”

A very mountain of human brawn resolved itself upward; a hand on its hips; a curse on its lips.

[Illustration: “You'll apologize.”]

“You damned lantern-faced—” No hiccough now, but a pause from pure physical impotence, pending a doubtful struggle against a half-dozen men.

“Order, gentlemen!” demanded the bar-keeper, adding emphasis by hammering a heavy bottle on the bar.

“Let him go,” commanded Ichabod very quietly; but they all heard through the confusion. “Let him go.”

The country was by no means the wild West of the story-papers, but it was primitive, and no man thought, then, of preventing the obviously inevitable.

Ichabod held up his hand, suggestively, imperatively, and the crowd fell back, silent,—leaving him facing the big man.

“You'll apologize!” The thin jaw showed clear, through the shade of brown stubble on Ichabod's face.

For answer, the big man leaning on the bar exhibited his discolored teeth and breathed hard.

“How shall it be?” asked Ichabod.

A grimy hand twitched toward a grimier hip.

“You've seen the likes of this—”

Ichabod turned toward the spectators.

“Will any man lend me—”

“Here—”

“Here—”

“And give us a little light.”

“Outside,” suggested the saloon-keeper.

“We're not advertising patent medicine,” blazed Ichabod, and the lamps were lit immediately.

Once more the long-visaged man appealed to the group lined up now against the bar.

“Gentlemen—I never carried a revolver a half-hour in my life. Is it any more than fair that I name the details?”

“Name 'm and be quick,” acquiesced his big opponent before the others could speak.

“Thanks, Mr. Duggin,” with equal swiftness. “These, then, are the conditions.” For three seconds, that seemed a minute, Ichabod looked steadily between his adversary's bushy eyebrows. “The conditions,” he repeated, “are, that starting from opposite ends of the room, we don't fire until our toes touch in the middle line.”

“Good!” commended a voice; but it was not big Duggin who spoke.

“I'll see that it's done, too,”—added a listening cattleman, grasping Ichabod by the hand.

“And I.”

The building had been designed as a bowling-alley and was built the entire length of the lot. With an alacrity born of experience, the long space opposite the bar was cleared, and the belligerents stationed one at either end, their faces toward the wall. Midway between them a heavy line had been drawn with chalk, and beside it stood a half-dozen grim men, their hands resting suggestively on their hips. The room was again very quiet, and from out-of-doors penetrated the shrill sound of a schoolboy whistling “Annie Laurie” with original variations. So exotic seemed the entire scene in its prairie setting, that it might have been transferred bodily from the stage of a distant theatre and set down here,—by mistake.

“Now,” directed a voice. “You understand, men. You're to face and walk to the line. When your feet touch—fire; and,” warningly—“remember, not before. Ready, gentlemen. Turn.”

Ichabod faced about, the cocked revolver in his hand, the name Asa Arnold singing in his ears. A terrible cold-white anger was in his heart against the man opposite, who had publicly caused the resurrection of this hated, buried thing. For a moment it blotted out all other sensations; then, rushing, crowding came other thoughts,—vision from boyhood down. In the space of seconds, faded scenes of the dead past took on sudden color and as suddenly vanished. Faces, he had forgotten for years, flashed instantaneously into view. Voices long hushed in oblivion, re-embodied, spoke in accents as familiar as his own. Inwardly he was seething with the myriad shifting pictures of a drowning man. Outwardly he walked those half-score steps to the line, unflinchingly; came to certain death,—and waited: personification of all that is cool and deliberate—of the sudden abundant nerve in emergencies which comes only to the highly evolved.

Duggin, the big man, turned likewise at the word and came part way swiftly; then stopped, his face very pale. Another step he took, with another pause, and with great drops of perspiration gathering on his face, and on the backs of his hands. Yet another start, and he came very near; so near that he gazed into the blue of Ichabod's eyes. They seemed to him now devil's eyes, and he halted, looking at them, fingering the weapon in his hand, his courage oozing at every pore.

Out of those eyes and that long, thin face stared death; not hot, sudden death, but nihility, cool, deliberate, that waited for one! The big beads on his forehead gathered in drops and ran down his cheeks. He tried to move on, but his legs only trembled beneath him. The hopeless, unreasoning terror of the frightened animal, the raw recruit, the superstitious negro, was upon him. The last fragment of self-respect, of bravado even, was in tatters. No object on earth, no fear of hereafter, could have made him face death in that way, with those eyes looking into his.

The weapon shook from Duggin's hand to the floor,—with a sound like the first clatter of gravel on a coffin lid; and in abasement absolute he dropped his head; his hands nerveless, his jaw trembling.

“I beg your pardon—and your wife's,” he faltered.

“It was all a lie? You were drunk?” Ichabod crossed the line, standing over him.

A rustle and a great snort of contempt went around the room; but Duggin still felt those terrible eyes upon him.

“I was very drunk. It was all a lie.”

Without another word Ichabod turned away, and almost immediately the other men followed, the door closing behind them. Only the bar-keeper stood impassive, watching.

That instant the red heat of the liquor returned to the big man's brain and he picked up the revolver. Muttering, he staggered over to the bar.

“D—n him—the hide-faced—” he cursed. “Gimme a drink, Barney. Whiskey, straight.”

“Not a drop.”

“What?”

“Never another drop in my place so long as I live.”

“Barney, damn you!”

“Get out! You coward!”

“But, Barney—”

“Not another word. Go.”

Again Duggin was sober as he stumbled out into the evening.

                  * * * * *

Ichabod moved slowly up the street, months aged in those last few minutes. Reaction was inevitable, and with it the future instead of the present, stared him in the face. He had crowded the lie down the man's throat, but well he knew it had been useless. The story was true, and it would spread; no power of his could prevent. He could not deceive himself, even. That name! Again the white anger born of memory, flooded him. Curses on the name and on the man who had spoken it! Why must the fellow have turned coward at the last moment? Had they but touched feet over the line—

Suddenly Ichabod stopped, his hands pressed to his head. Camilla, home—alone! And he had forgotten! He hurried back to the waiting Swede, an anathema that was not directed at another, hot on his lips.

“All ready, Ole,” he announced, clambering to the seat.

The boy handed up the lines lingeringly.

“Here, sir.” Then uncontrollable, long-repressed curiosity broke the bounds of deference. “You—heard him, sir?”

“Yes.”

Ole edged toward his own wagon.

“It wasn't so?”

“Duggin swore it was a lie.”

“He—”

“He swore it was false, I say.”

They drove out into the prairie and the night; the stars looking down, smiling, as in the morning which was so long ago, the man had smiled,—looking upward.

“Tiny, tiny mortal,” they twinkled, each to the other. “So small and hot, and rebellious. Tiny, tiny, mortal!”

But the man covered his face with his hands, shutting them out.

CHAPTER VI—BY A CANDLE'S FLAME

Asa Arnold sat in the small upstairs room at the hotel of Hans Becher. It was the same room that Ichabod and Camilla had occupied when they first arrived; but he did not know that. Even had he known, however, it would have made slight difference; nothing could have kept them more constantly in his mind than they were at this time. He had not slept any the night before; a fact which would have spoken loudly to one who knew him well; and this morning he was very tired. He lounged low in the oak chair, his feet on the bed, the usual big cigar in his mouth.

This morning, the perspective of the little man was anything but normal. Worse than that, he could not reduce it to the normal, try as he might.

His meeting with Camilla yesterday had produced a deep and abiding shock; for either of them to have been so moved signified the stirring of dangerous forces. They—and especially himself—who had always accepted life, even crises, so calmly; who had heretofore laughed at all display of emotion—for them to have acted as they had, for them to have spoken to each other the things they had spoken, the things they could not forget, that he never could forgive—it was unbelievable! It upset all the established order of things!

His anger of yesterday against Camilla had died out. She was not to blame; she was a woman, and women were all alike. He had thought differently before; that she was an exception; but now he knew better. One and all they were mere puppets of emotion, and fickle.

In a measure, though, as he had excused Camilla he had incriminated Ichabod. Ichabod was the guilty one, and a man. Ichabod had filched from him his possession of most value; and without even the form of a by-your-leave. The incident of last evening at the saloon (for he had heard of it in the hour, as had every one in the little town) had but served to make more implacable his resentment. By the satire of circumstances it had come about that he again, Asa Arnold, had been the cause of another's defending the honor of his own wife,—for she was his wife as yet,—and that other, the defender, was Ichabod Maurice!

The little man's face did not change at the thought. He only smoked harder, until the room was blue; but though he did not put the feeling in words even to himself, he knew in the depths of his own mind that the price of that last day was death. Whether it was his own death, or the death of Ichabod, he did not know; he did not care; but that one of them must die was inevitable. Horrible as was the thought, it had no terror for him, now. He wondered that it did not have; but, on the contrary, it seemed to him very ordinary, even logical—as one orders a dinner when he is hungry.

He lit another cigar, calmly. It was this very imperturbability of the little man which made him terrible. Like a great movement of Nature, it was awful from its very resistlessness; its imperviability to appeal. Steadily, as he had lit the cigar, he smoked until the air became bluer than before. In a ghastly way, he was trying to decide whose death it should be,—as one decides a winter's flitting, whether to Florida or California; only now the question was: should it be suicide, or,—as in the saloon yesterday,—leave the decision to Chance? For the time the personal equation was eliminated; the man weighed the evidence as impartially as though he were deciding the fate of another.

He sat long and very still; until even in the daylight the red cigar-end grew redder in the haze. Without being conscious of the fact, he was probably doing the most unselfish thinking of his life. What the result of that thought would have been no man will ever know, for of a sudden, interrupting, Hans Becher's round face appeared in the doorway.

“Ichabod Maurice to see you,” coughed the German, obscured in the cloud of smoke which passed out like steam through the opening.

It cannot be said that Asa Arnold's face grew impassive; it was that already. Certain it was, though, that behind the mask there occurred, at that moment, a revolution. Born of it, the old mocking smile sprang to his lips.

“The devil fights for his own,” he soliloquized. “I really believe I,”—again the smile,—“I was about to make a sacrifice.”

“Sir?”

“Thank you, Hans.”

The German's jaw dropped in inexpressible surprise.

“Sir?” he repeated.

“You made a decision for me, then. Thank you.”

“I do not you understand.”

“Tell Mr. Maurice I shall be pleased to see him.”

The round face disappeared from the door.

Donnerwetter!” commented the little landlord in the safe seclusion of the stairway. Later, in relating the incident to Minna, he tapped his forehead, suggestively.

Ichabod climbed the stair alone. “To your old room,” Hans had said; and Ichabod knew the place well. He knocked on the panel, a voice answered: “Come,” and he opened the door. Arnold had thrown away his cigar and opened the window. The room was clearing rapidly.

Ichabod stepped inside and closed the door carefully behind him. A few seconds he stood holding it, then swung it open quickly and glanced down the hallway. Answering, there was a sudden, scuttling sound, not unlike the escape of frightened rats, as Hans Becher precipitately disappeared. The tall man came back and for the second time slowly closed the door.

Asa Arnold had neither moved nor spoken since that first word,—“come”; and the self-invited visitor read the inaction correctly. No man, with the knowledge Ichabod possessed, could have misunderstood the challenge in that impassive face. No man, a year ago, would have accepted that challenge more quickly. Now—But God only knew whether or no he would forget,—now.

For a minute, which to an onlooker would have seemed interminable, the two men faced each other. Up from the street came the ring of a heavy hammer on a sweet-voiced anvil, as Jim Donovan, the blacksmith, sharpened anew the breaking ploughs which were battling the prairie sod for bread. In the street below, a group of farmers were swapping yarns, an occasional chorus of guffaws interrupting to punctuate the narrative. The combatants heard it all, as one hears the drone of the cicada on a sleepy summer day; at the moment, as a mere colorless background which later, Time, the greater adjuster, utilizes to harmonize the whole memory.

Ichabod had been standing; now he sat down upon the bed, his long legs stretched out before him.

“It would be useless for us to temporize,” he initiated. “I've intruded my presence in order to ask you a question.” The long fingers locked slowly over his knees. “What is your object here?”

The innate spirit of mockery sprang to the little man's face.

“You're mistaken,” he smiled; “so far mistaken, that instead of your visit being an intrusion, I expected you”—an amending memory came to him—“although I wasn't looking for you quite so soon, perhaps.” He paused for an instant, and the smile left his lips.

“As to the statement of object. I think”—slowly—“a disinterested observer would have put the question you ask into my mouth.” He stared his tall visitor up and down critically, menacingly. Of a sudden, irresistibly, a very convulsion shot over his face. “God, man, you're brazen!” he commented cumulatively.

Ichabod had gambled with this man in the past, and had seen him lose half he possessed without the twitch of an eyelid. A force which now could cause that sudden change of expression—no man on earth knew, better than Ichabod, its intensity. Perhaps a shade of the same feeling crept into his own answering voice.

“We'll quarrel later, if you wish,”—swiftly. “Neither of us can afford to do so now. I ask you again, what are your intentions?”

“And I repeat, the question is by right mine. It's not I who've changed my name and—and in other things emulated the hero of the yellow-back.”

Ichabod's face turned a shade paler, though his answer was calm.

“We've known each other too well for either to attempt explanation or condemnation. You wish me to testify first.” The long fingers unclasped from over his knee. “You know the story of the past year: it's the key to the future.”

A smile, sardonic, distinctive, lifted the tips of Arnold's big moustaches.

“Your faith in your protecting gods is certainly beautiful.”

Ichabod nursed a callous spot on one palm.

“I understand,”—very slowly. “At least, you'll answer my question now, perhaps,” he suggested.

“With pleasure. You intimate the future will be but a repetition of the past. It'll be my endeavor to give that statement the lie.”

“You insist on quarrelling?”

“I insist on but one thing,”—swiftly. “That you never again come into my sight, or into the sight of my wife.”

One of Ichabod's long hands extended in gesture.

“And I insist you shall never again use the name of Camilla Maurice as your wife.”

The old mocking smile sprang to Asa Arnold's face.

“Unconsciously, you're amusing,” he derided. “The old story of the mouse who forbids the cat.... You forget, man, she is my wife.”

Ichabod stood up, seemingly longer and gaunter than ever before.

“Good God, Arnold,” he flashed, “haven't you the faintest element of pride, or of consistency in your make-up? Is it necessary for a woman to tell you more than once that she hates you? By your own statement your marriage, even at first, was merely of convenience; but even if this weren't so, every principle of the belief you hold releases her. Before God, or man, you haven't the slightest claim, and you know it.”

“And you—”

“I love her.”

Asa Arnold did not stir, but the pupils of his eyes grew wider, until the whole eye seemed black.

“You fool!” he accented slowly. “You brazen egoist! Did it never occur to you that others than yourself could love?”

Score for the little man. Ichabod had been pinked first.

“You dare tell me to my face you loved her?”

“I do.”

“You lie!” blazed Ichabod. “Every word and action of your life gives you the lie!”

Not five minutes had passed since he came in and already he had forgotten!

Asa Arnold likewise was upon his feet and they two faced each other,—a bed length between; in their minds the past and future a blank, the present with its primitive animal hate blazing in their eyes.

“You know what it means to tell me that.” Arnold's voice was a full note higher than usual. “You'll apologize?”

“Never. It's true. You lied, and you know you lied.”

The surrounding world turned dark to the little man, and the dry-goods box with the tin dipper on its top, danced before his eyes. For the first time in his memory he felt himself losing self-control, and by main force of will he turned away to the window. For the instant all the savage of his nature was on the surface, and he could fairly feel his fingers gripping at the tall man's throat.

A moment he stood in the narrow south window, full in the smiling irony of Nature's sunshine; but only a moment. Then the mocking smile that had become an instinctive part of his nature spread over his face.

“I see but one way to settle this difficulty,” he intimated.

A taunt sprang to Ichabod's tongue, but was as quickly repressed.

“There is but one, unless—” with meaning pause.

“I repeat, there is but one.”

Ichabod's long face held like wood.

“Consider yourself, then, the challenged party.”

They were both very calm, now; the immediate exciting cause in the mind of neither. It seemed as if they had been expecting this time for years, had been preparing for it.

“Perhaps, as yesterday, in the saloon?” The points of the big moustaches twitched ironically. “I promise you there'll be no procrastination as—at certain cases recorded.”

The mockery, malice inspired, was cleverly turned, and Ichabod's big chin protruded ominously, as he came over and fairly towered above the small man.

“Most assuredly it'll not be as yesterday. If we're going to reverse civilization, we may as well roll it away back. We'll settle it alone, and here.”

Asa Arnold smiled up into the blue eyes.

“You'd prefer to make the adjustment with your hands, too, perhaps? There'd be less risk, considering—” He stopped at the look on the face above his. No man vis-à-vis with Ichabod Maurice ever made accusation of cowardice. Instead, instinctive sarcasm leaped to his lips.

“Not being of the West, I don't ordinarily carry an arsenal with me, in anticipation of such incidents as these. If you're prepared, however,—” and he paused again.

Ichabod turned away; a terrible weariness and disgust of it all—of life, himself, the little man,—in his face. A tragedy would not be so bad, but this lingering comedy of death—One thing alone was in his mind: to have it over, and quickly.

“I didn't expect—this, either. We'll find another way.”

He glanced about the room. A bed, the improvised commode, a chair, a small table with a book upon it, and a tallow candle—an idea came to him, and his search terminated.

“I may—suggest—” he hesitated.

“Go on.”

Ichabod took up the candle, and, with his pocket-knife, cut it down until it was a mere stub in the socket, then lit a match and held the flame to the wick, until the tallow sputtered into burning.

“You can estimate when that light will go out?” he intimated impassively.

Asa Arnold watched the tall man, steadily, as the latter returned the candle to the table and drew out his watch.

“I think so,” sotto voce.

Ichabod returned to his seat on the bed.

“You are not afraid, perhaps, to go into the dark alone?”

“No.”

“By your own hand?”

“No,” again, very slowly. Arnold understood now.

“You swear?” Ichabod flashed a glance with the question.

“I swear.”

“And I.”

A moment they both studied the sputtering candle.

“It'll be within fifteen minutes,” randomed Ichabod.

Arnold drew out his watch slowly.

“It'll be longer.”

That was all. Each had made his choice; a trivial matter of one second in the candle's life would decide which of these two men would die by his own hand.

For a minute there was no sound. They could not even hear their breathing. Then Arnold cleared his throat.

“You didn't say when the loser must pay his debt,” he suggested.

Ichabod's voice in answer was a trifle husky.

“It won't be necessary.” A vision of the future flashed, sinister, inevitable. “The man who loses won't care to face the necessity long.”

Five minutes more passed. Down the street the blacksmith was hammering steadily. Beneath the window the group of farmers had separated; their departing footsteps tapping into distance and silence.

Minna went to the street door, calling loudly for Hans, Jr., who had strayed,—and both men started at the sound. The quick catch of their breathing was now plainly audible.

Arnold shifted in his chair.

“You swear—” his voice rang unnaturally sharp, and he paused to moisten his throat,—“you swear before God you'll abide by this?”

“I swear before God,” repeated Ichabod slowly.

A second, and the little man followed in echo.

“And I—I swear, I, too, will abide.”

Neither man remembered that one of this twain, who gave oath before the Deity, was an agnostic, the other an atheist!

A lonely south wind was rising, and above the tinkle of the blacksmith's hammer there sounded the tap of the light shade as it flapped in the wind against the window-pane. Low, drowsy, moaning,—typical breath of prairie,—it droned through the loosely built house, with sound louder, but not unlike the perpetual roar of a great sea-shell.

Ten minutes passed, and the men sat very still. Both their faces were white, and in the angle of the jaw of each the muscles were locked hard. Ichabod was leaning near the candle. It sputtered and a tiny globule of hot tallow struck his face. He winced and wiped the drop off quickly. Observing, Arnold smiled and opened his lips as if to make comment; then closed them suddenly, and the smile passed.

Two minutes more the watches ticked off; very, very slowly. Neither of the men had thought, beforehand, of this time of waiting. Big drops of sweat were forming on both their faces, and in the ears of each the blood sang madly. A haze, as from the dropping of a shade, seemed to have formed and hung over the room, and in unison sounds from without acquired a certain faintness, like that born of distance. Through it all the two men sat motionless, watching the candle and the time, as the fascinated bird watches its charmer; as the subject watches the hypnotist,—as if the passive exercise were the one imperative thing in the world.

“Thirteen minutes.”

Unconsciously, Arnold was counting aloud. The flame was very low, now, and he started to move his chair closer, then sank back, a smile, almost ghastly, upon his lips. The blaze had reached the level of the socket, and was growing smaller and smaller. Two minutes yet to burn! He had lost.

He tried to turn his eyes away, but they seemed fastened to the spot, and he powerless. It was as though death, from staring him in the face, had suddenly gripped him hard. The panorama of his past life flashed through his mind. The thoughts of the drowning man, of the miner who hears the rumble of crumbling earth, of the prisoner helpless and hopeless who feels the first touch of flame,—common thought of all these were his; and in a space of time which, though seeming to him endless, was in reality but seconds.

Then came the duller reaction and the events of the last few minutes repeated themselves, impersonally, spectacularly,—as though they were the actions of another man; one for whom he felt very sorry. He even went into the future and saw this same man lying down with a tiny bottle in his hand, preparing for the sleep from which there would be no awakening,—the sleep which, in anticipation, seemed so pleasant.

Concomitant with this thought the visionary shaded into the real, and there came the determination to act at once, this very afternoon, as soon as Ichabod had gone. He even felt a little relief at the decision. After all, it was so much simpler than if he had won, for then—then—He laughed gratingly at the thought. Cursed if he would have known what to have done, then!

The sound roused him and he looked at his watch. A minute had passed, fourteen from the first and the flame still sputtered. Was it possible after all—after he had decided—that he was not to lose, that the decision was unnecessary? There was not in his mind the slightest feeling of personal elation at the prospect, but rather a sense of injury that such a scurvy trick should be foisted off upon him. It was like going to a funeral and being confronted, suddenly, with the grinning head of the supposed dead projecting through the coffin lid. It was unseemly!

Only a minute more: a half now—yes, he would win. For the first time he felt that his forehead was wet, and he mopped his face with his handkerchief jerkily; then sank back in the chair, instinctively shooting forward his cuffs in motion habitual.

“Fifteen seconds.” There could be no question now of the result; and the outside world, banished for the once, returned. The blacksmith was hammering again, the strokes two seconds apart, and the fancy seized the little man to finish counting by the ring of the anvil.

“Twelve, ten, eight,” he counted slowly. “Six” was forming on the tip of the tongue when of a sudden the tiny flame veered far over toward the holder, sputtered and went out. For the first time in those interminable minutes, Arnold looked at his companion. Ichabod's face was within a foot of the table, and in line with the direction the flame had veered. Swift as thought the small man was on his feet, white anger in his face.

“You blew that candle!” he challenged.

Ichabod's head dropped into his hands. An awful horror of himself fell crushingly upon him; an abhorrence of the selfishness that could have forgotten—what he forgot; and for so long,—almost irrevocably long. Mingled with this feeling was a sudden thanksgiving for the boon of which he was unworthy; the memory at the eleventh hour, in time to do as he had done before his word was passed. Arnold strode across the room, his breath coming fast, his eyes flashing fire. He shook the tall man by the shoulder roughly.

“You blew that flame, I say!”

Ichabod looked up at the furious, dark face almost in surprise.

“Yes, I blew it,” he corroborated absently.

“It would have burned longer.”

“Perhaps—I don't know.”

Arnold moved back a step and the old smile, mocking, maddening, spread over his face; tilting, perpendicular, the tips of the big moustaches.

“After all—” very slowly—“after all, then, you're a coward.”

The tall man stood up; six-feet-two, long, bony, immovable: Ichabod himself again.

“You know that's a lie.”

“You'll meet me again,—another way, then?”

“No, never!”

“I repeat, you're a cursed coward.”

“I'd be a coward if I did meet you,” quickly.

Something in Ichabod's voice caught the little man's ear and held him silent, as, for a long half-minute, the last time in their lives, the two men looked into each other's eyes.

“You'll perhaps explain.” Arnold's voice was cold as death. “You have a reason?”

Ichabod walked slowly over to the window and leaned against the frame. Standing there, the spring sunshine fell full upon his face, drawing clear the furrows at the angles of his eyes and the gray threads of his hair. He paused a moment, looking out over the broad prairie shimmering indistinctly in the heat, and the calm of it all took hold of him, shone in his face.

“I've a reason,” very measuredly, “but it's not that I fear death, or you.” He took up his hat and smoothed it absently. “In future I shall neither seek, nor avoid you. Do what you wish—and God judge us both.” Without a glance at the other man, he turned toward the door.

Arnold moved a step, as if to prevent him going.

“I repeat, it's my right to know why you refuse.” His feet shifted uneasily upon the floor. “Is it because of another—Eleanor?”

Ichabod paused.

“Yes,” very slowly. “It's because of Eleanor—and another.”

The tall man's hand was upon the knob, but this time there was no interruption. An instant he hesitated; then absently, slowly, the door opened and closed. A moment later indistinct, descending steps sounded on the stairway.

Alone, Asa Arnold stood immovable, looking blindly at the closed door, listening until the tapping feet had passed into silence. Then, in a motion indescribable, of pain and of abandon, he sank back into the single chair.

His dearest enemy would have pitied the little man at that moment!

CHAPTER VII—THE PRICE OF THE LEAP

In the chronology of the little town, day followed day, as monotonously as ticks the tall clock on the wall. Only in multiple they merged into the seasons which glided so smoothly, one into the other, that the change was unnoticed, until it had taken place.

Thus three months passed by, and man's work for the year was nearly done. The face of the prairie had become one of many colors; eternal badge of civilization as opposed to Nature, who paints each season with its own hue. Beside the roadways great, rank sunflowers turned their glaring yellow faces to the light. In every direction stretched broad fields of flax; unequally ripening, their color scheme ranging from sky blue of blossoms to warm browns of maturity. Blotches of sod corn added here and there a dash of green to the picture. Surrounding all, a setting for all, the unbroken virgin prairie, mottled green and brown, stretched, smiling, harmonious, beneficent; a land of promise and of plenty for generations yet unborn.

All through the long, hot summer Asa Arnold had stayed in town, smoking a big pipe in front of the hotel of Hans Becher. Indolent, abnormally indolent, a stranger seeing him thus would have commented; but, save Hans the confiding, none other of the many interested observers were deceived. No man merely indolent sleeps neither by night nor by day; and it seemed the little man never slept. No man merely indolent sits wide-eyed hour after hour, gazing blankly at the earth beneath his feet—and uttering never a word. Brooding, not dreaming, was Asa Arnold; brooding over the eternal problem of right and wrong. And, as passed the slow weeks, he moved back—back on the trail of civilization, back until Passion and not Reason was the god enthroned; back until one thought alone was with him morning, noon, and night,—and that thought preponderant, overmastering, deadly hate.

Observant Curtis, the doctor, shrugged his shoulders.

“The old, old trail,” he satirized.

It was to Bud Evans, the little agent, that he made the observation.

“Which has no ending,” completed the latter.

The doctor shrugged afresh.

“That has one inevitable termination,” he refuted.

“Which is—”

“Madness—sheer madness.”

The agent was silent a moment.

“And the end of that?” he suggested.

Curtis pursed his lips.

“Tragedy, or a strait-jacket. The former, in this instance.”

Evans was silent longer than before.

“Do you really mean that?” he queried at last, significantly.

“I've warned Maurice,”—sententiously. “I can do no more.”

“And he?” quickly.

“Thanked me.”

“That was all?”

“That was all.”

The two friends looked at each other, steadily; yet, though they said no more, each knew the thought of the other, each knew that in future no move of Asa Arnold's would pass unnoticed, unchallenged.

Again, weeks, a month, passed without incident. It was well along in the fall and of an early evening that a vague rumor of the unusual passed swiftly, by word of mouth, throughout the tiny town. Only a rumor it was, but sufficient to set every man within hearing in motion.

On this night Hans Becher had eaten his supper and returned to the hotel office, as was his wont, for an evening smoke, when, without apparent reason, Bud Evans and Jim Donovan, the blacksmith, came quietly in and sat down.

“Evening,” they nodded, and looked about them.

A minute later Dr. Curtis and Hank Judge, the machine man, dropped unostentatiously into chairs. They likewise muttered “Evening,” and made observation from under their hat-brims. Others followed rapidly, until the room was full and dark figures waited outside. At last Curtis spoke.

“Your boarder, Asa Arnold, where is he, Hans?”

The unsuspecting German blew a cloud of smoke.

“He a while ago went out.” Then, as an afterthought: “He will return soon.”

Silence once more for a time, and a steadily thickening haze of smoke in the room.

“Did he have supper, Hans?” queried Bud Evans, impatiently.

Again the German's face expressed surprise.

“No, it is waiting for him. He went to shoot a rabbit he saw.”

The men were on their feet.

“He took a gun, Hans?”

“A rifle, to be sure.” The mild brown eyes glanced up reproachfully. “A man does not go hunting without—... What is this!” he completed in consternation, as, finding himself suddenly alone, he hurried outside and stood confusedly scratching his bushy poll, in the block of light surrounding the open doorway.

The yard was deserted. As one snuffs a candle, the men had vanished. Hans' pipe had gone out and he went inside for a match. Though the stars fell, the German must needs smoke. Only a minute he was gone, but during that time a group of horsemen had gathered in the street. Others were coming across lots, and still others were emerging from the darkness of alleys. Some were mounted; some led by the rein, wiry little bronchos. Watching, it almost seemed to the German that they sprang from the ground.

“Are you all ready?” called a voice, Bud Evans' voice.

“Here—”

“Here—”

“All ready?”

“Yes—”

“We're off, then.”

There was a sudden, confused trampling, as of cattle in stampede; a musical creaking of heavy saddles; a knife-like swish of many quirts through the air; a chorus of dull, chesty groans as the rowels of long spurs bit the flanks of the mustangs, and they were gone—down the narrow street, out upon the prairie, their hoof beats pattering diminuendo into silence; a cloud of dust, grayish in the starlight, marking the way they had taken.

Jim Donovan, the blacksmith, came running excitedly up from a side street. He stopped in front of the hotel, breathlessly. Holding his sides, he followed with his eyes the trail of dust leading out into the night.

“Have they gone?” he panted. “I can't find another horse in town.”

“Where is it to?” sputtered the German.

“Have they gone, I say?”

Hans gasped.

“Yes, to be sure.”

“They'll never make it.” The blacksmith mopped his brow with conviction. “He has an hour's start.”

Hans grasped the big man by the coat.

“Who is too late?” he emphasized. “Where are they going?”

Jim Donovan turned about, great pity for such density in his eyes.

“Is it possible you don't understand? It's to Ichabod Maurice's they're going, to tell him of Arnold.” The speaker mopped his face anew. “It's useless though. They're too late,” he completed.

“But Arnold is not there,” protested the German. “He went for a rabbit, out on the breaking. He so told me.”

“He lied to you. He's mad. I tell you they're too late,” repeated the smith, obstinately.

Hans clung tenaciously to the collar.

“Some one knew and told them?” He pointed in the direction the dust indicated.

“Yes, Bud Evans; but they wouldn't believe him at first, and”—bitterly—“and waited.” Donovan shook himself free, and started down the walk. “I'm going to bed,” he announced conclusively.

Meanwhile the cloud of dust was moving out over the prairie like the wind. The pace was terrific, and the tough little ponies were soon puffing steadily. Small game, roused from its sleep by the roadside, sprang winging into the night. Once a coyote, surprised, ran a distance confusedly ahead in the roadway; then, an indistinct black ball, it vanished amongst the tall grass.

Well out on the prairie, Bud Evans, the leader, raised in his stirrups and looked ahead. There was no light beyond where the little cottage should be. The rowels of his spur dug anew at the flank of his pony as he turned a voice like a fog-horn back over his shoulder.

“The place is dark, boys,” he called. “Hurry.”

Answering, a muttering sound, not unlike an approaching storm, passed along the line, and in accompaniment the quirts cut the air anew.

Silent as the grave was the little farmstead when, forty odd minutes from the time of starting, they steamed up at the high fence bounding the yard. One of Ichabod's farm horses whinnied a lone greeting from the barn as they hastily dismounted and swarmed within the inclosure.

“We're too late,” prophesied a voice.

“I'm glad my name's not Arnold, if we are,” responded another, threateningly.

Hurrying up the path in advance, the little land-agent stumbled over a soft, dark object, and a curse fell from his lips as he recognized the dead body of the big collie.

“Yes, we're too late,” he echoed.

The door of the house swung ajar, creaking upon its hinges; and, as penetrates the advance wave of a flood, the men swarmed through the doorway inside, until the narrow room was blocked. Simultaneously, like torches, lighted matches appeared aloft in their hands, and the tiny whitewashed room flashed into light. As simultaneously there sprang from the mouth of each man an oath, and another, and another. Waiting outside, not a listener but knew the meaning of that sound; and big, hairy faces crowded tightly to the one small window.

For a moment not a man in the line stirred. Death was to them no stranger; but death such as this—

In more than one hand the match burned down until it left a mark like charcoal, and without calling attention. One and all they stood spellbound, their eyes on the floor, their lips unconsciously uttering the speech universal of anger and of horror, the instinctive language of anathema.

On the floor, sprawling, as falls a lifeless body, lay the long Ichabod. On his forehead, almost geometrically near the centre, was a tiny, black spot, around it a lighter red blotch; his face otherwise very white; his hair, on the side toward which he leaned, a little matted; that was all.

Prostrate across him, in an attitude of utter abandon, reposed the body of a woman, soft, graceful, motionless now as that of the man: the body of Camilla Maurice. One hand had held his head and was stained dark. On her lips was another stain, but lighter. The meaning of that last mark came as a flash to the spectators, and the room grew still as the figures on the floor.

Suddenly in the silence the men caught their breath, with the quick guttural note that announces the unexpected. That there was no remaining life they had taken for granted—and Camilla's lips had moved! They stared as at sight of a ghost; all except Curtis, the physician.

“A lamp, men,” he demanded, pressing his ear to Camilla's chest.

“Help me here, Evans,” he continued without turning. “I think she's fainted is all,” and together they carried their burden into the tiny sleeping-room, closing the door behind.

That instant Ole, the Swede, thrust a curious head in at the outer doorway. He had noticed the light and the gathering, and came to ascertain their meaning. Wondering, his big eyes passed around the waiting group and from them to the floor. With that look self-consciousness left him; he crowded to the front, bending over the tall man and speaking his name.

“Mr. Maurice,” he called. “Mr. Maurice.”

He snatched off his own coat, rolling it under Ichabod's head, and with his handkerchief touched the dark spot on the forehead. It was clotted already and hardening, and realization came to the boy Swede. He stood up, facing the men, the big veins in his throat throbbing.

“Who did this?” he thundered, crouching for a spring like a great dog. “Who did this, I say?”

It was the call to action. In the sudden horror of the tragedy the big fellows had momentarily forgotten their own grim epilogue. Now, at the words, they turned toward the door. But the Swede was in advance, blocking the passage.

“Tell me first who did this thing,” he challenged, threateningly.

A hand was laid gently upon his shoulder.

“Asa Arnold, my boy,” answered a quiet voice, which continued, in response to a sudden thought, “You live near here; have you seen him to-night?”

The Swede dropped the bar.

“The little man who stays with Hans Becher?”

The questioner nodded.

“Yes, a half-hour ago.” The boy-man understood now. “He stopped at my house, and—”

“Which direction did he go?”

Ole stepped outside, his arm stretched over the prairie, white now in the moonlight.

“That way,” he indicated. “East.”

As there had been quiescence before, now there was action. No charge of cavalry was ever more swift than their sudden departure.

“East, toward Schooner's ranch,” was called and repeated as they made their way back to the road; and, following, the wiry little bronchos groaned in unison as the back cinch to each one of the heavy saddles, was, with one accord, drawn tight. Then, widening out upon the reflected whiteness of prairie, there spread a great black crescent. A moment later came silence, broken only by the quivering call of a lone coyote.

Ole watched them out of sight, then turned back to the door; the mood of the heroic passed, once more the timid, retiring Swede. But now he was not alone. Bud Evans was quietly working over the body on the floor, laying it out decently as the quick ever lay out the dead.

“Evans,” called the doctor from the bedroom. As the agent responded, Ole heard the smothered cry of a woman in pain.

The big boy hesitated, then sat down on the doorstep. There was nothing now for him to do, and suddenly he felt very tired. His head dropped listlessly into his hands; like a great dog, he waited, watching.

Minutes passed. On the table the oil lamp sputtered and burned lower. Out in the stable the horse repeated its former challenging whinny. Once again through the partition the listener caught the choking wail of pain, and the muffled sound of the doctor's voice in answer.

At last Bud Evans came to the door, his face very white. “Water,” he requested, and Ole ran to the well and back. Then, impassive, he sat down again to wait.

Time passed, so long a time it seemed to the watcher that the riders must soon be returning. Finally Evans emerged from the side room, walking absently, his face gray in the lamplight.

The Swede stood up.

“Camilla Maurice, is she hurt?” he asked.

The little agent busied himself making a fire.

“She's dead,” he answered slowly.

“Dead, you say?”

“Yes, dead,”—very quietly.

The fire blazed up and lit the room, shining unpityingly upon the face of the man on the floor.

Evans noticed, and drawing off his own coat spread it over the face and hands, covering them from sight; then, uncertain, he returned and sat down, mechanically holding his palms to the blaze.

A moment later Dr. Curtis appeared at the tiny bedroom entrance; and, emerging as the little man had done before him, he closed the door softly behind. In his arms he carried a blanket, carefully rolled. From the depths of its folds, as he slowly crossed the room toward the stove, there escaped a sudden cry, muffled, unmistakable.

The doctor sank down wearily in a chair. Ole, the boy-faced, without a question brought in fresh wood, laying it down on the floor very, very softly.

“Will he—live?” asked Bud Evans, suddenly, with an uncertain glance at the obscuring blanket; and hearing the query, the Swede paused in his work to listen.

The big doctor hesitated, and cleared his throat.

“I think so; though—God forgive me—I hope not.” And he cleared his throat again.

 
 
 

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