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The Song of the Opal by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

 

JOHN DENE stood for a moment in the squat doorway of his rock hut, his slouch hat brushing the heavy lintel, and his square shoulders almost touching the rough framework on either side; then, mounting the short outer flight of steps that led to the flat roof above, he seated himself on the rude parapet and bared his forehead to the crisp October night wind. He breathed into his lungs with conscious delight the aromatic perfume of the “rosum” weed, whose yellow blossoms, faintly visible in the starlight, overlaid the abrupt slopes and wide levels of the prairie stretching away to his right. On his left, the mountains, a mile or so away, were banked like a semicircle of soft dark cloud against the clear sky. There was a fire-fly or two astir among the late-blooming flowers, whose faint odor came up to him in little balmy puffs from the garden patch about the cabin door; and a night bird now and then flitted on stealthy wing from one clump of trees in the hollow below to another. But it was very still, so still that he could hear the musical drip-drop of the water falling from the spring into the reedy pool at the head of the hollow; the howl of a coyote somewhere on Quarry Mountain rang so distinctly on his ear that he clutched his rifle and threw it instinctively to his shoulder. But he smiled and laid it on his knee again as the echo of a burst of laughter, familiar, cheery, prolonged, came floating across the valley from the store over in Logan's Gap.

They were in truth talking about him there. Or, to be more accurate, old Uncle Dicky Crawls, tilted back against the chimney jamb, in a rawhide-bottomed chair, with a cob pipe between his toothless gums, was talking, and “the boys” were listening respectfully. A handful of gnarled and knotted mesquite roots blazed in the wide fireplace by way of a light, the dingy kerosene-lamp on one end of the counter barely illuminating with its dim circle the greasy pages of the ledger wherein Joe Matthews, the storekeeper, was perfunctorily recording the business of the day. The boys, long, lank, and middle-aged for the most part, with grave faces and keen, humorous eyes, sat in an irregular semicircle about the hearth. The store door was open; the flat-topped mountain on the farther side of the Gap seemed to stand squarely across it in the luminous darkness; the wire fence, zigzagging along the hard, smooth road, gleamed like a strand of silver thread where the out-streaming firelight found and touched it. Half a dozen horses, whose high-pommelled saddles were adorned with hairy, many-coiled lariats, were hitched to the saplings on the wind-sheltered side of the store, and as many dogs lounged on the steps or dozed under their owners' chairs within.

“When I seen him come a-ridin' up to the Gap las' C'rismus a year,” Uncle Dicky was saying, “I knowed lak a shot thet he wuz a-hidin' out. Some o' you boys 'lowed ez how he looked mighty biggaty; en' thet this here pre-cink wa'n't a-goin' to hol' him mo'n a week 'thout a interview with a rope an' a lim'. But yo' unk Dicky ain't off'n mistakened, an' yo' unk Dicky tuk him by the han' at oncet. An' now they ain't no man nowher's roun' the Gap who hez mo' the respeck of his feller-citizens than Jack Dene. Naw, sir! I hadn't no doubt whatsomedever thet he hez killed his man wher' he come fum. An' I don't no mo' b'leeve his name air Jack Dene than I b'leeve Billy Pitt thar hed that wrestle with a catamount t'other day over on Jim-Ned.”

Billy Pitt drew a playful bead on Uncle Dicky with his stubby but unerring rifle, and joined in the good-natured laugh at his own expense —that resonant laugh which, echoing across the still valley, found John Dene a-dreaming on his house-top.

“I ain't keerin' what his name mought be,” he said, when the laugh subsided; “he's mighty fa'r an' squar', Jack is.”

“Thet's so,” assented Matthews, looking up from his ledger, but keeping an inky finger on his column of figures; “an' he's nigh 'bout the contrivinest pusson I ever seen. Thet thar rock house o' his'n, which he hev quayried the rock en' put up hisse'f, I 'low it's the beatenes' house in creation. Made out'n rock, ever' bit, sir, chimbly an' all, an' a reg'lar chimbly-she'f over the fireplace! It's 'stonishin' how thet rock do cut, anyhow,” he concluded, meditatively.

“He 'ain't teched the ole quayry, hez he?” asked Red Nabers from his corner of the fireplace.

“God-a-mighty, naw!” cried Uncle Dicky, bringing his chair down to the floor with a jerk. “Thet ole quayry were here when I come to Comanche County; an' thet wuz befo' the Injuns lef'. I heered the tales 'bout them Digger people fum a chief hisse'f. An' thet ole quayry ain't a-goin' to be teched—not to git rock out'n—whilse my head air hot.”

“Co'se not, Unk Dicky, co'se not,” said Matthews, to whom the old quarry really belonged, in a soothing tone. “Jack Dene 'ain't teched the ole quayry. Didn't I he'p him haul ever' las' one o' them slabs thet his cabin air made out'n? Howsomedever, he does bogue roun' thar mighty studdy a-s'archin' for them turkles Uncle Dicky's been a-noratin' 'bout ever sence I were born.”

“Thet's all fa'r an' squar',” said the old man, tilting his chair back and resuming his pipe. “He air welcome to dig for them leetle turkles ez much ez he pleases. I don't keer. I wisht to the Lord he could mek out what them Digger people wuz a'ter.”

“Is it p'intedly yo' 'pinion, Unk Dicky,” inquired Green Nabers, the stalwart twin of Red, “thet the ole quayry hes been dug for di'mon's?”

“Waal, ez to di'mon's,” replied Uncle Dicky, deliberately, “I ain't sho in my min'. But what air sho air thet oodles o' time ago thet ole quayry wuz dug by somebody fer somepn. An' thet somepn wa'n't buildin' rock, nuther. Thar's the quayry, an' thar's them turkle-shape rocks all scattered roun' the aidge o' the pit; an' ever' las' one of them turkles hev been busted open. 'Tain't one in a bushel, 'cordin' to my calkilation, ez hed anything inside. But I hev foun' 'em myse'f with a holler in the middle, an' I hain't no doubt whatsomedever thet in thet holler them Digger people foun'—min' yer, I don't edzackly say di'mon's, but somepn of nigh 'bout ekal vally. I 'ain't nuver come 'crost a whole turkle yit, an' ef Jack Dene kin fine one whilse he air a-hidin' out an' a-puttin' in o' his time, I'll be pow'ful rej'iced.”

John Dene, sitting alone on the roof of his odd little hut, would have laughed outright had he known that the chief reason for his popularity in Logan Gap Precinct was due to a belief that he was in hiding for a crime—a murder, perhaps—committed “wher' he come fum.” Yet his neighbors would have sympathized in a hardly less degree with the real cause of his presence among them. Restless themselves, nomads by instinct, wrought of the stuff from which pioneers are moulded, they at least would have understood that nameless feeling, so inexplicable to the conservatism of his family, which had made of him—John Dene, of Dene Place—a wanderer, and, the more pious among his kindred did not scruple to add, a vagabond on the face of the earth. He had it, perhaps—who knows?—this strain of lawlessness—from the beautiful savage woman whom his far-away ancestor had married somewhere over seas, and brought to his stately home in England to die. She had sent down to him too, they said, glancing at her portrait, her bright tawny hair, and the soft, yellowish brown eyes with their curious-shifting lights, and her firm, slim hands, and lithe, straight body. Anyway, concluded the prim, angular Denes, with a touch of scorn in their dry voices, it was not the Dene blood that had sent him when a mere lad gypsying about green English lanes; and later, when the vast estate came into his own hands, drove him irresistibly from its power and responsibility into barbarous and unknown countries.

He sighed a little in the darkness now, as a memory of that fair, far-away home of his boyhood came to him with a breath of the English flowers abloom in his garden patch. But he laid his hand, palm downward, upon the giant slab that roofed his hut, and at the touch a curious sense of freedom and content seemed to thrill along his arm and expand his heart.

“They manage well enough without me there,” he said to himself; and a smile, which was not in the least cynical, curled the lip under his long, brown mustache, as he thought of the upright and respectable Dene who managed Dene Place, while its owner, the vagabond Jack, loafed away his existence on the frontier of Texas.

He gathered his rifle into the hollow of his arm and stood up, casting, as was his wont, a last look over the valley before going down into his cabin. He uttered a sudden exclamation, startled by the glimmer of a light over the crest of Quarry Mountain. It seemed to be moving along the upper edge of the old quarry, now dipping out of sight, now twinkling like a star against the dark blue of the sky, as if the hand that held it were lifted high above the owner's head. Jack frowned; he was almost as jealous of the old quarry as Uncle Dicky himself. “Who can be prowling around there this time of night, I wonder?” he muttered.

He followed the movements of the flickering torch until it vanished suddenly in the neighborhood of the burned thicket. “Some of Crawls's boys hunting wild-cat,” he decided, finally, as he turned to descend the stone stairway.

It was not yet sunrise the next morning when he started across the valley for his daily walk to the mountains. The pale disk of the harvest-moon hung yet in the vaporous sky, with one slowly fading star at its side. But a rosy light was shimmering along the edges of the eastern horizon, and a brisk west wind was lifting the misty shadows from the hollows. His own step was as elastic and springy as the brown turf beneath his feet. A dispassionate observer watching him as he made his way between the ragged cotton-rows, with the shaggy retriever at his heels, might have conceded that the Denes did well to be angry. This tall figure, supple and erect, which appeared to such advantage in the simple frontier dress; this manly, handsome face, with its careless air of independence and content—what credit would not these have reflected upon the family in general had their owner but seen fit to follow the traditions of the family!

He dipped a wooden bucket in the reed-fringed pool below the spring, and carried it brimming to Roland his horse, stabled in a rude shed on the farther side of the field, then strode whistling on his way. He followed the little trail which he had himself made up the steep face of the mountain. On the level top he paused and looked back. The valley below was steeped in a soft grayish shadow, but the outlying prairie in its yellow mantle was already agleam with the morning sun. Beyond stretched a chain of pyramidal, flat-topped hills, cut at almost regular intervals by clean gaps, through which glowed purple inner distances. From the cabins dotted about the prairie thin spirals of blue smoke were rising; and in the fields about them, white with bursting cotton-bolls, he could see the figures of women and children mooving to and fro. A few horse were hitched already to the saplings around the store in the Gap, and a mover's wagon, with dingy cover, was creeping slowly townward along the white road.

He gazed a moment at the familiar picture spread out beneath him, and went leisurely on across the rock-strewn ridge. The wild thyme crushed by his feet filled all the air with heart-some fragrance; the thickets of prickly- pear were ablaze with the red and gold of ripening fruit; the dwarf shine-oaks, loaded with clusters of dark, shining acorns, were overlaid here and there with a fine, filmy net-work of love-vine, which was radiant with dew-drops; a mockingbird sang in the red-haw tree near the mouth of the new quarry; a squirrel, with bushy tail curled over his back, ran slowly across an open space beyond, defying the weaponless hunter. When he came around the point of burned thicket so plainly visible from his own house-top he stopped abruptly; the dog uttered a low growl, instantly hushed at an imperious gesture from his master. A woman was sitting on the edge of the old quarry. Her face was turned away from him, but the outlines of her form were young and gracious in the close-fitting black gown she wore; her throat arose full and white from the kerchief knotted loosely about it; her bare head, crowned with a wavy coil of golden-bronze hair, was small and shapely. Her hands were lying idly in her lap, and he saw, as he drew nearer, that in one of them she held a short, thick, almost grotesque-looking hammer. A little pile of stones lay in a heap by her side. He continued to advance noiselessly while noting these details, and he stood quite near her on the ledge of gray rock before she seemed aware of his presence. When she turned her head with a faint, startled cry, he was not surprised to find her beautiful and young. He had expected, somehow, just this delicate, oval face, with its velvety, magnolia-leaf pallor; these golden-brown eyes, with their phosphorescent depths, the long curling lashes, the slender dark brows, the scarlet lips, and round girlish chin. Speech failed him utterly for the second during which they gazed into each other's eyes; she with her first look of surprise changing visibly from frowning inquiry to a kind of troubled delight; he with a strange, confused stopping and starting of his pulses that thrilled him from head to foot.

“Pray, do not let me disturb you,” he stammered at length. “I—I was only passing by.”

“Are you come from far?” was her unexpected response. Her voice was singularly low and musical; the flavor of her speech was distinctly foreign, though the words were pronounced correctly and with a kind of quaint precision.

He had taken off his hat, and he made a gesture with it towards his cabin, whose flat roof gleamed whitely in the valley below. “There is my home,” he said; then catching, as if by inspiration, her real meaning, he added: “Yes. I come from England.”

“From England.” She repeated the words after him slowly; and another question rose into her eyes and trembled perceptibly on her lips; but she lowered her eyelids suddenly and remained silent.

“Are you searching for the jewel?” he asked, with a smile and a significant glance at the hammer in her lap.

Her colorless face grew a shade paler; her fingers tightened their grasp about the clumsy handle of the hammer. “Yes,” she replied, gravely, after a momentary pause. But, springing to her feet, she shook the fragments of stone and moss from her skirts, and went on, in a lighter tone, “It is a foolish old legend; but I suppose everybody who hears it comes up and tries to find the opal—and so I come too.”

She drew a black woollen scarf over her head as she spoke, and gathered its folds under her chin; then, with a slight formal gesture of adieu, she stepped into the path and went rapidly down the mountain-side, bounding from ledge to ledge with the grace and fleetness of a young fawn. When she had at last disappeared from his sight, Dene walked deliberately to a rocky recess near by, and drew from its hiding-place his own hammer. He looked at it curiously a moment, turning it over and over in his hand; then, with a quick upward jerk of his elbow, he sent it spinning into the air, and watched its downward course as it leaped clanging from point to point, and dropped heavily into a brier-grown ravine below. “I will never use it again,” he said, with a whimsical laugh. “I have found the jewel of the old quarry. Who can she be?” he went on. “Where did she come from? Not from Logan Gap Pre-cink, surely. Ah! I will ask Uncle Dicky. Are you come from far? Now, why should she have asked me that? Have I ever heard before that the jewel of the old quarry is an opal?”

He threw himself at full length upon the ground, and took from the pocket of his blue flannel overskirt a little volume of Border Ballads. But the morning's adventure had gone to his head. With his eyes fixed steadily upon the printed page, he caught himself repeating mechanically, Are you come from far? Are you come from far?

He closed the book with a snap, and got up. “I think I'll go down to the store and get my mail,” he declared, aloud.

The sunlight lay warm and quivering on the reaches of yellow flowers and the clumps of purple thistle abloom on the wind-swept ridges of the prairies. There was a twitter of nonpareils in among the feathery branches of the scattering mesquite bushes; and at almost every turn of the winding path a whir of wings sounded beneath his feet, and a covey of young partridges arose with shrill cries, and dropped and disappeared again under the warm shelter of the weeds. As he approached the store a horseman came riding swiftly down the Gap from the west. The silver ornaments of his bridle shone through the cloud of gray dust which enveloped him. A second horse, without saddle or bridle, followed a few paces behind him. He halted in front of the store, and was courteously asking of Matthews, as Dene came up, directions to Ranger's Spring, some two or three miles distant. The horse he bestrode was a fine, powerfully built iron-gray, with black flowing mane and tail; the other, which had stopped in the shadow of the mountain, and was daintily cropping the short mesquite grass, was a small, beautifully formed bay mare, whose skin had the gloss and smoothness of satin. A genuine feeling of admiration stirred Dene at the sight of these two handsome animals, and he glanced up at their owner with the ready compliment of the frontiersman on his lips. But the greeting died in his throat, and he involuntarily fell back a step or two. The new-comer was a man long past middle-age—old in years, perhaps, though a look of almost brutal strength pervaded his whole person. His wrinkled face, half hidden by a bushy white beard which descended almost to his knees, was brown as time-stained parchment; his dark, deeply sunken eyes glowed like carbuncles beneath thick, bristly brows; his long, hooked nose was thin, with narrow nostrils that closed curiously with each indrawn breath. His legs, as he sat erect upon the tall horse, seemed much too short for his thick square body, and his powerful-looking arms much too long; his brown, vein-knotted hands were misshapen and large, the finger-nails claw-like in their length and sharpness. Altogether he was a sinister-looking personage, and Dene was sensible of something like a feeling of relief when he replaced his wide-brimmed hat upon his head and rode away. The mare threw up her pretty head in response to a low whistle, and galloped lightly after him.

“What the d-l is he doin' roun' yer agin?” It was Uncle Dicky who spoke. He was standing on the door-step, gazing after the stranger, his wrinkled old face expressing as much dislike as its genial outlines would permit. “He ain't a'ter no good, I'll lay. What the d-l does he want?”

“A rope and a limb, I reckon,” said Dene, good-naturedly, quoting one of Uncle Dicky's familiar sayings. “Who is he, anyhow, Uncle Dicky?”

“Hello, Jack! howdy? He's a durn Mexican—thet's what he is. He useter call hisse'f Don Hosy. I d' know what he mought call hisse'f now. I 'ain't seen him sence '67, en' thet's nigh twenty year ago, jis a'ter I come home fum the wah. They wa'n't scarcely no white folks out yer then. Me an' Jim Crump wuz campin' down yonder at Ranger's Spring, an' this yer Don Hosy wuz layin' roun' yer a-doin' of the Lord knows what. He hed a gal long o' him which he purtended wuz his own chile. An' I don't no mo' b'leeve thet gal wuz Don Hosy's chile than I b'leeve —” The speaker's eyes wandered vaguely around the group of listeners.

“No yer don't, Unk Dicky!”

“I ain't a-honin ter be a eggsample.”

“'Light on Joe Crump; he's been a-braggin'.”

Uncle Dicky grinned. “Waal,” he continued, “thet gal wuz here 'long o' the Mexican one day, an' the nex' day she wa'n't nowher's to be seen. An' ef I'd of had my way, Don Hosy'd of had a rope en' a lim' then. Durn his yaller hide! what's he purtendin' he don't know whar Ranger's Spring is for?”

“Mighty fine hosses he's got,” ventured one of the boys.

“An' I'd swear on a stack o' Bibles high ez this sto' thet he stole 'em,” retorted the old man, angrily.

Dene followed Matthews into the store, and asked if there were any letters for him. Matthews went behind the counter, and took from under it the candle-box that served as a post-office, and grabbled among the miscellaneous contents. He handed out a package or two, a bundle of newspapers, and a thick square envelope bearing a foreign post-mark.

“Hasn't that fishing-tackle of mine—” Dene began; he stopped abruptly. Uncle Dicky had returned to his seat by the fireplace, and Matthews was addressing him across the counter:

“Hez that furrin gal got her school, Unk Dicky?”

“Sech a fool time o' year ter git up a school,” put in Red Nabers, from the doorway, “an' all the childern in the cotton-patch, an' the Lord knows when the crap'll be in. 'Sides, who's knowin' ef the gal air fitten to teach?”

“Shet yo' mouth, Red,” said Uncle Dicky, shortly. “She hev been tried by the school boa'd in the town o' Comanche—”

“Eggsamined ye mean, Fink Dicky,” corrected Billy Pitt.

“She hev been tried by the school boa'd in the town o' Comanche,” repeated the old man, ignoring the abashed young Billy, “an' Doc Hamilton hev giv' her her papers, an' I don't keer if ever' blame chile in the pre-cink air in the cotton-patch. I nuver seen my ole woman an' Polly's gal childern tek sech a streak to anybody befo' in all my born days, an' thar in my house thet gal air goin' to stay, school er no school, long's we kin keep her.”

“She's kind o' furrin lak, ain't she?” asked Matthews, timidly.

“I d' knaw, an' I don't keer. She kin speak United States, an' she kin keep Polly's gal childern out'n mis-cheef; an' I'll lay she air caperbul o' teacher ary voter in this here doggon settlement, much less the childern.”

“Co'se, Unk Dicky, co'se,” admitted Matthews. “Hello, Jack! ye goin'? Ye mus' of come to git a chunk o' fire.”

Jack heard neither this nor the other friendly sarcasms which were flung after him as he quitted the store. She had come to stay, then. She felt evidently the same romantic interest in the legend of the old quarry that had stirred himself from the moment he had set foot in this remote little valley. She would be often there, no doubt; she would—He pulled himself together, with a short laugh, and set resolutely to work in his little field.

“I cannot get that girl out of my head, and I am not going to try,” he murmured that night, in a half-aggrieved tone; “and, by Jove! I'll take her some flowers to-morrow.”

He was walking impatiently up and down the narrow garden path in the odorous dusk. The few hardy roses glimmered palely on the over-grown bushes; they were almost scentless. But there was a pungent perfume from the marigolds in the heart of the asparagus bed; by daylight these were a blaze of vivid orange. A straggling array of blue and white larkspur filled all one corner of the patch; a mass of brown gold-dusted nasturtiums shone against the sombre wall of the cabin, and the ragged mignonette clustered about the door-step was still in bloom. “Yes,” he repeated, “to-morrow I will take her some flowers.”

He saw her the next morning long before he reached the foot of the mountain. She was coming down the winding path; her shawled head was bent upon her breast. He could see her slender form now clearly defined against the blue sky, now moving between gray masses of rock. Once she stopped and stooped; he felt sure that she was hiding her hammer in some fern-hung cleft.

He waited for her by a lichen-covered bowlder jutting out from the abrupt curve of the mountain. He thought that a faint look of pleasure came into her eyes when she caught sight of him; and as she drew near he greeted her silently, holding out the flowers, a great awkward dewy posy. “I thank you, señor,” she said, simply, taking them, and looking at him over them with wonderful shining eyes, golden brown as the nasturtiums themselves.

He had meant to tell her of the garden-patch about his cabin door, and of the homely mother flowers he had planted there, but before he could bring himself to speak she was gone.

The next day he was up betimes. A monotonous, windless rain was falling, the sort of rain through which the bob-whites call, and which seems to hush every other living thing on the prairie into silence. In spite of it he went up to the quarry, telling himself persistently that she could not possibly be there, yet wholly taken aback when he did not find her there.

Twenty-four hours later the rain was over, and the October sun warmer and more golden still on the clean-washed boulders. She was there. He heard the little clicking sound of her hammer as he came up the trail. She received his flowers as before, with a kind of gentle gravity. And this time he found it easy enough to say: “They are all English flowers. I planted them around my cabin yonder when I first came. And you've no idea how they bloom. If the gardener—if some of the people at home who grow flowers could see them, they would turn green with envy.”

“Why did you come?” she demanded, abruptly.

Again he divined the undercurrent of her thought. “Oh,” he replied, a trifle embarrassed, “I can hardly say. I had a restless sort of feeling that seemed to drive me, and I drifted about the world until I found myself here. The place suited me, and so I have stayed on. I suppose I shall have to go back some day.”

“When you have found the opal?” Her tone was light, but a frown contracted her smooth forehead as she spoke.

“Yes, when I have found the opal,” he said, flushing at a sudden mental vision of his hammer flying out into space and dropping downward.

“Do you know the tradition?” she asked. Her eyes were fixed on the little rock hut in the valley.

“I know Uncle Dicky's version of it,” he replied, smiling.

“There is a beautiful and wonderful jewel—an opal—which may be found here—” she began, in measured monotone.

“In a turtle-shaped stone. I know,” he interrupted, gayly.

“But it is not a jewel only,” she went on, unheeding; “it is a talisman that brings to its possessor riches and power and—oh, I know not what beside.” Surely a cold pallor was creeping over her lovely face. “They are very rare, those jewels. And they say that only a man or a woman of the slave people can find them.”

“Slave people!” he echoed, inquiringly.

“I forgot that you do not know,” she answered, turning her large eyes upon him and smiling wistfully. “A long, oh, a very long time ago, a people, a dark and terrible people, used to come here from—from another country to seek for those jewels. But they had not the power themselves to find them. And they brought with them the strange, beautiful white people whom they had conquered and made to be their slaves. And it was that of all the people in the whole world those slaves only might find those jewels. So the masters sat and watched with eyes like coals of fire while the white slaves digged and brought up the little turtle-shaped stones from the quarry. And it was only once in a great while that an opal was found in the little stones; and then there was strife and bloodshed among the masters. And many slaves died to find one opal. Oh yes, the masters were dark and terrible, but the slaves were white and lovely. The men were tall and strong and beautiful”—she lifted her eyes that said like you to his, and then dropped them so that the long, silken lashes rested on her white cheek—“and the women were lithe and graceful—”

“Like you,” he breathed involuntarily.

A faint flush passed over her face and died away along her full throat. “They say,” she presently added, looking up suddenly, “that some of those slave people still live in that far country and elsewhere, and that if they came they might find the opal for their masters.”

“If they found it they would most likely keep it for themselves. I should,” he declared, lightly.

“Oh, you would not dare!” she cried, her voice sharpened by some inexplicable feeling; it sounded like terror. “But it is a foolish tale,” she resumed, more naturally, rising and stepping down into the trail.

He followed her hastily as she began the descent. She heard his footsteps behind her and paused, looking back at him over her shoulder.

“Do you know,” he found himself saying before he knew it—“do you know that I do not even know your name?”

“My name is Atla,” she replied, after a momentary hesitation. And she sped rapidly on her way.

He returned to the quarry. Atla! It seemed to him as if he ought to have known it without the telling, that soft-syllabled name— the only name that could ever have been hers. He did not find it strange that she should not have told him her surname. Let that be for the outside world. He did not wish to know it. He would be glad for her to have no other for him until she should be called Atla Dene! “And why not?” he reasoned, as if in answer to the inevitable arguments of all the Denes. “Why should she not be my wife? I have never looked at a woman in all my life before. I will never look at any other after her. I am my own master, and if I can win her, why—so much for the Denes!”

After that there were many meetings on the mountain-top in the hazy dawn of the sweet Indian-summer mornings. Sometimes she did not come, and then the day was a blank to him, though he busied himself as usual about his field and cabin, and hunted with ardor betweenwhiles over the browning prairies and up the leaf-strewn mountain ravines. He rarely saw any of the Gap folks nowadays. He kept purposely away from the store, where, had he but known it, his “keepin' comp'ny” with the new school-teacher was a topic of friendly interest.

“I seen 'em a-settin' on the aidge o' the ole quayry,” Uncle Dicky told the boys, “when I wuz boguein' roun' thar 'mongst the rocks. An' I 'lowed innardly ez how they mus' be gittin' ready to jine. Lord! it air plumb natchl fer young folks ter jine. Yo' unk Dicky hev been thar.”

To this simple-minded people there was nothing strange or unconventional in these early morning meetings on Quarry Mountain. Jack Dene was “courtin',” that was all. And by-and-by there would come the wedding, and an infair, perhaps, at Uncle Dicky's, at which all the girls and boys about the Gap would dance. This love affair between the man who was “hidin' out” and the soft-voiced “furrin” young teacher who came down from the mountain of mornings to marshal her tow-headed flock into the log schoolhouse, and the unexplained stay of Don José, who rarely showed himself at the Gap, however, were the subjects mostly discussed by the circle around Matthews's mesquite fire.

Dene, who had never seen Don Jose since the day of his arrival, had long ago forgotten the evil-favored old Mexican.

One morning, when he seated himself as usual beside the young girl on the edge of the quarry, he was conscious of some change in her appearance. It puzzled him for a moment, and then he made it out to be her dress. She wore white—she whom he had always seen robed in sombre black. A curious sort of rapture possessed him as he looked at the slight figure in its girlish gown of clinging wool. He bent towards her, his lips almost touching her hair, and murmured ssome word inarticulate even to himself. But he started back in dismay when she raised her eyes to his. She had been weeping. Her cheeks, usually so pale, were flushed, and her eyelids were swollen and heavy. He turned away troubled and embarrassed, and began pulling nervously at a tuft of thyme which grew in a fissure of the ledge beside him. The loose root gave way suddenly, and a stone detached itself from the crevice and dropped out. He caught it as it fell. A thrill of excitement stirred him as he turned it over in his palm. Here was at last one of Uncle Dicky's “turkles”—a small oval of dark, corrugated rock. He laid it on the ledge and seized the hammer lying in Atla's lap. An exclamation broke from her which he neither heard nor heeded. He struck a vigorous blow, and the two halves of the sphere flew apart.

Was it a bit of glowing red-hot coal which fell from the pink, almond-shaped cavity and lay throbbing and quivering upon the gray ledge? Was it a great drop of shining, transparent dew with a heart of greenish flame? Was it a living, leaping, azure-tipped blaze? A sheaf of ardent, purple-shotted rays ? He uttered a cry of admiration as he picked it up.

“See, Atla, the opal!”

But her face was buried in her hands. She was rocking herself to and fro, and moaning in unmistakable anguish. He looked at her wonderingly; then thrusting the gem into the breast-pocket of his shirt, he leaned over and touched her gently on the arm. “What is it? What is it, Atla?”

“Oh,” she moaned, “I knew it from the first that you were one of us. Do you not see,” she cried, facing him suddenly, “have you not understood, that I am one of that race which possesses the power to find the talismanic jewel? Do you not see that you, too, are of that fated slave people? My mother died—here—on this vvery edge of this accurse quarry”—she looked around shudderingly. “He brought her here when she, too, was young, hardly older than I am now, to search for the opal. She laid me in the arms of my old nurse when he took her away, and she never came back. And it was that only I was left who might find it for him. It was for this that he had me taught to speak the tongue of the dear good people who live here. It was for this that he brought masters to show me music and singing, and the way to gather little children about my knee and teach them to read from pictured books. It was that he might bring me here find set me to the task without exciting suspicion. He brought me here— himself— at night, and explained to me in his cold and terrible way how I must search for the little round stones and break them with the hammer. He comes nightly to see whether I have been truly at work. Last night he called me with the strange, awful call. I heard him in the cabin, where I sat with the children, and I came. Ah!” a long, quivering cry escaped her, and she buried her face again in her hands. He had hardly heard her frantic outburst of words. He had made no effort to understand her, conscious only of an overwhelming desire to take her in his arms and soothe her out of the superstitious delusion, whatever it might be, into which she had fallen.

“There is a song of the opal,” she went on, lifting her head and regarding him with wild eyes; “it was sad when my mother sang it, sad as life and death even to my baby ears; it is weird and strange when my nurse croons it yonder—yonder in the far land where she waits for me in the shadows of the passion-vine; it is terrible when the master chants it.” She broke abruptly into a kind of rude rhythmic strain, her voice scarcely reaching farther than the half-heedless ears of her companion:

“Fateful and wondrous art thou, O far-shining Opal, compeller of stars in their courses; of red gold in the rock-hidden chambers; of woman, yea, woman, white-bosomed, with long-lidded eyes that speak passion.

“Alas, thou art sealed in the womb of the mountain! hidden in roseate flint is the joy of thy shining. Who forth can compel thee? who master thy secret?

“Nay, before me I drive the white slave-gang, tawny-haired, and with cheeks that are pallid. Deep in the womb of the earth let them burrow; they alone have the power to conjure thee!

“Leap from the matrix, my Beauty! The white slave from the depth of the quarry hath fetched thee. Mine enemy, now in my hand lies thy heart-beat. Red gold, thou art mine; and woman, yea, woman, white-bosomed, with long-lidded eyes that speak passion!”

She paused. “There is yet a stanza,” she said, “but I—I—” She faltered, and a rain of tears gushed from beneath her down-drooped eyelids.

He was almost beside himself with love and compassion. He leaned towards her, drawing her hands from her face, and compelling her eyes to meet his. “Atla,” he whispered, “look at me. I love you—I love you!”

As she drooped against his breast with a long-drawn, sobbing sigh, the hammer lying on the moss-grown ledge dropped over into the pit, slipped down between the weather-worn rocks, and rested out of sight in the bottom of the quarry.

When the hour came for the gathering of her little flock, he descended the mountain with her. It was the first time. It was the beginning of their life-journey together, he told her, gayly, helping her with all a lover's carefulness along the path she had so often traversed alone. They stopped by the boulder where he had once watched her coming down with the dew-wet posy in his hand.

“How I hate Polly Crawls's tow-headed brats!” he exclaimed, playfully, when she turned at last to leave him.

“They are not tow-headed at all,” she remonstrated, seriously. “They are dear little girls, and I love them—Jack.” How sweet and strange the familiar name sounded on her lips!

“Do you? Well, then, I will come over to Uncle Dicky's this very night to see them—and you,” he laughed. Then, as a sudden recollection struck him, “A slave!” he cried—“a slave did you call me, Atla?” He caught her hands in his and drew her towards him. “A slave! Why, I am a king!”

He felt her long, firm fingers grow cold and tighten like manacles upon his wrists as he spoke. Her eyes dilated, and a gray pallor swept over her face. He followed the direction of her gaze. The old Mexican, Don José, was coming slowly along the narrow pathway from around the spur of the mountain. His shaggy head was bent; his bushy brows knit together; his lips were moving silently; his long arms swung loosely at his side. He looked impassively at the girl as he passed, and turned his deeply set eyes for a second upon her companion. A flame leaped into them like a sudden flash of lightning. A curious numbness crept over John Dene, and a sensation which in all his life he had never felt before—a sensation of abject, unreasoning, unreasonable terror— possessed him. It was gone before he could define it, and Don José with lowered eyelids went slowly on his way, and disappeared behind a thick-set motte of live-oak.

“He knows!” gasped Atla, the ashen gray in her cheeks fading to a ghastly white.

“Knows what? Who?” Dene asked, bewildered. Then, a vague light struggling into his brain, he exclaimed, “Is he—is Don José—”

“Don José is my master,” she whispered, hoarsely, glancing fearfully over her shoulder. “Oh, he knows!” she sobbed, wildly. “Madre de Dios, he knows!”

He clasped her to his breast, soothing her with caresses and incoherent words. “But listen, Atla,” he insisted at length; “listen, you absurd child. Are you really afraid of Don José? Is it because of the opal? If you feel like this, why, let him have it. I—”

At this she clung only the more frantically to him. “Never! never!” she almost shrieked. “Oh! promise me that you will hide it from him. Promise! promise!”

“I will promise anything you like, my darling,” he replied; “but surely you know that in this country at least no one is a slave; that you can leave Don José if he is your guardian—whatever he is—at any moment you wish. I will take you away myself. Ah, when you are my wife he will not dare to come near you.”

She lifted her face from his breast and gave him an eager, searching look. “You will take me away?” she asked, breathlessly.

He gathered her more closely in his arms. “So far away, Atla, that he can never find you again.”

“When?” she demanded, almost sharply.

“Now—this very moment,” he responded, laughingly, sweeping her a step or two forward.

But she repeated her question yet more gravely: “When? Will it be to-night?”

He looked at her, doubtful whether he had heard aright.

“Listen,” she continued, hurriedly, clasping her hands about his arm: “if you will take me away, let it be to-night. I am afraid of him —Mother of God, how I am afraid! To-night, Jack, if you will—let it be to-night. I will wait for you around the mountain in the edge of the Gap, by the big rock in the shadow. I will have Huayrie there. Oh, she is mine, the beautiful creature! She will come to me if I but call her ever so lightly. I know where he hides her when he comes at night to the Gap, and waits beyond the west ridge for the midnight, to creep up to the flurry. I will wait for you with Huayrie, and when it is night— as soon as it is well night—you will come for me, and you will take me away.”

He covered her feverish lips with kisses. Would he come? Oh, love and life! All the blood in his heart leaped and throbbed at the thought.

“Do you understand, Atla?” he said at last. “By this time to-morrow you will be my wife, and we will be setting our faces towards England.”

“You will come?” she repeated, a tender color dawning upon her tear-wet cheeks.

“Yes, I will come.”

“But you will not go to your cabin, Jack! You must not go to your cabin. Promise me that too!” She exclaimed, as if struck by some new and terrifying thought.

He smiled indulgently. His mind was already busied with plans for their flight, and he murmured some sort of assent, with his lips upon hers. And then she left him. He watched her out of sight. At the last turn of the path she paused and smiled back at him, waving a light adieu with her slender hand.

He turned mechanically in the direction of his cabin, but halted perplexed, smiling at the recollection of the half-promise he had given. “But I will keep it,” he said to himself, tenderly—“the first promise made to my sweetheart. Oh yes, I will keep it. I can send a line to Uncle Dicky from town; that will do just as well.” And he struck once more into the trail and went up the mountain.

Towards nightfall he came out upon the point overlooking the valley. The world below was suffused with the serene radiance of sunset. Miles away the straggling little town shone like an enchanted city, its spires tipped with gold, its windows gleaming like many-colored jewels. A young moon hung tenderly luminous in the western sky; above it a bank of fleecy cloud was gathering; a flock of wild-geese shaped their arrowy flight southward with sharp cries across the slowly coming twilight.

“There's a norther behind that flock of geese, and plenty of Uncle Dicky's rain-seed in that bank of cloud,” commented the lonely watcher.

Lights appeared at the store and twinkled here and there in the scattered cabins. It was night in the valley. His heart gave a great bound. He cast one last long look around, and began the descent.

When he reached the foot of the mountain he made his way quietly to the shed where Roland was stabled. He threw the high-pommelled saddle on the horse's back, and buckled the girth rapidly and deftly. She was there by this time waiting for him. He put a foot in the stirrup, and laid his hand on Roland's arched neck. All at once there flashed across his mind a thought of his mother's picture, lying in its tiny oval case on his mantel. Could he leave behind him that dear shadow of a face which in all his life had never worn a frown for him? After all it was not really a promise. She was half crazed by some superstitious fear, poor child. He smiled, and touched the hilt of his knife, and felt the handle of the pistol in his bolt. He walked rapidly across the field, hard beset not to shout aloud the exultation that possessed him. In the lithe garden-patch he paused a moment. The sweet familiar perfume of the night-hidden flowers moved him strangely. He stooped and plucked a lavender leaf in the darkness. Its dewy fragrance brought before him a swift vision of his waiting bride. He thrust it in his bosom and went into the cabin. The dog, lying across the threshold, leaped up against him, barking joyously. He found the miniature without striking a light, and came out, shutting the heavy door behind him. As he stepped again into the garden-path a misshapen form rose up from behind the tangled morning-glory and cypress vines. The dog sprang forward with a growl, which changed into a frightened whine. There was no other outcry, scarcely a struggle; a long keen blade flashed in the starlight, once, twice, thrice; and borne backward by powerful, sinewy arms, John Dene sank heavily to the ground, crushing the late-blooming roses and the mignonette in his fall. Don José drew the knife out of his victim's breast with some difficulty, kneeling upon the body. Then, with unerring instinct, he plunged his hand in the breast-pocket of the hunting-shirt, and drew forth the opal. It flashed like a meteor in the darkness as he opened his palm for a second to gloat upon it. Stooping still lower then, he fumbled about the wound whence gushed a palpitating stream of blood. Once, twice, thrice he buried his clinched hand in the warm red rivulet, letting it trickle slowly through his knotty fingers.

A kind of exultant sigh escaped his lips as he stood erect. Then he glided stealthily across the uneven field to the shed where Roland stood awaiting his master.

The upturned face of the master grew whiter and whiter; his limbs stiffened; a warm reeking odor of blood mingled with the breath of the English flowers. The dog watching beside him shivered and moaned like a thing possessed.

Around the spur of the mountain Atla was waiting; she held the jewelled bridle in her hand, standing close beside Huayrie. Now and again she laid her soft cheek against the satin shoulder of her playmate, and caressed her with Syllables of an unknown and musical language. She laughed joyously when the mare responded with a half-breathed whinny of delight. “Oh, my Huayrie,” she whispered, “he is coming!”

She had forgotten all her fears. Down at the Crawlses' cabin awhile ago, as she stepped towards the open door, old Granny Crawls, sitting in the chimney-corner, had said, “Lord, chile, ye air thet peart and rosy thet it air a plumb pleasure to look at ye!”

“Oh, my Huayrie,” she breathed once more, “he is coming!”

The sound of a horse's feet treading softly as only Roland could tread, trained to a hunter's need, was on the still air. Nearer it came and nearer; swifter too, and in that she read her lover's impatience. A second more and the horse and his rider had turned the shadow of the rock and had paused. A long arm, down-stretched, caught her lithe, light form in its grip of steel, and sung her to the saddle. A terrible voice hissed in her ear a single sentence in a strange, uncouth tongue. Her head drooped forward on her breast. Don José seized the mare's bridle-rein, and a moment later the clatter of horses' hoofs flying westward came echoing down the Gap on the first long shuddering wail of the coming norther.

Now this was that strain of the Song of the Opal which Atla wist not how to sing to her lover that morning on the crest of Quarry Mountain:

“Yea, thou art loosed from the womb of thy mother, rejoicing and lovely and prowl, but not yet, not yet hast thou put on thy strength as a garment. Far shining but impotent art thou till thou comest from the blood bath!

“Thrice in the blood of thy Finder—his heart's blood—thrice must I bathe thee, my Opal, my Mistress, compeller of stars in their courses; of red gold in rock-hidden chambers; of woman, yea, woman, white-bosomed, with long-lidded eyes that speak passion!

“Drink deep of the blood of the White Slave, my Beauty; drink deep, and so clothe thee with power as a garment!”

 
 
 

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