Katharine Newlin Burt
Part 4 out of 5
"Pretty palatial quarters for a fellow on your job," Lorrimer remarked.
"How did you happen to get here?"
"Some--people I knowed of once lived here." Dickie's voice had taken on a
certain remoteness, and even Lorrimer knew that here questions stopped.
He accepted a chair, declined "the makings," proffered a cigarette.
During these amenities his eyes flew about the room.
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated, "is all that stuff your copying?"
There was a pile of loose and scattered manuscript upon the table under
"Yes, sir," Dickie smiled. "I was plumb foolish to go to all that labor."
Lorrimer drew near to the table and coolly looked over the papers.
Dickie watched him with rather a startled air and a flush that might
have seemed one of resentment if his eyes had not worn their
impersonal, observing look.
"All poetry," muttered Lorrimer. "But some of it only a line--or a
word." He read aloud,--"'Close to the sun in lonely lands--' what's that
"A poem about an eagle by a man named Alfred Tennyson. Ain't it the way a
feller feels, though, up on the top of a rocky peak?"
"Never been on the top of a rocky peak--kind of a sky-scraper sensation,
isn't it? What's all this--'An' I have been faithful to thee, Cynara,
after my fashion'?"
Dickie's face again flamed in spite of himself. "It's a love poem. The
feller couldn't forget. He couldn't keep himself from loving that-away
because he loved so much the other way--well, sir, you better read it for
yourself. It's a mighty real sort of a poem--if you were that sort of a
feller, I mean."
"And this is 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' And here's a sonnet, 'It was
not like your great and gracious ways'--? Coventry Patmore. Well, young
man, you've a catholic taste."
"I don't rightly belong to any church," said Dickie gravely. "My mother
is a Methodist."
Lorrimer moved; abruptly away and moved abruptly back.
"Where were you educated, Dick?"
"I was raised in Millings"--Dickie named the Western State--"I didn't
get only to grammar school. My father needed me to work in his hotel."
"Too bad!" sighed Lorrimer. "Well, I'll bid you good-night. And many
thanks. You've got a fine place here." Again he sighed. "I dare say--one
of these days--"
He was absent and irritable again. Dickie accompanied him down the three
long, narrow flights and climbed back to his loneliness. He was, however,
very much excited by his adventure, excited and disturbed. He felt
restless. He walked about and whistled to himself.
Until now he had had but one companion--the thought of Sheila. It was
extraordinary how immediate she was. During the first dreadful weeks of
his drudgery in the stifling confusions of the restaurant, when even the
memory of Sylvester's tongue-lashings faded under the acute reality of
the head waiter's sarcasms, that love of his for Sheila had fled away and
left him dull and leaden and empty of his soul. And his tiny third-story
bedroom had seemed like a coffin when he laid himself down in it and
tried to remember her. It had come to him like a mountain wind,
overwhelmingly, irresistibly, the desire to live where she lived: the
first wish he had had since he had learned that she was not to be found
by him. And the miracle had accomplished itself. Mrs. Halligan had been
instructed to get a lodger at almost any price for the long-vacant studio
room. She lowered the rent to the exact limit of Dickie's wages. She had
never bargained with so bright-eyed a hungry-looking applicant for
lodgings. And that night he lay awake under Sheila's stars. From then on
he lived always in her presence. And here in the room that had known her
he kept himself fastidious and clean. He shut out the wolf-pack of his
shrewd desires. The room was sanctuary. It was to rescue Sheila rather
than himself that Dickie fled up to the stars. So deeply, so intimately
had she become a part of him that he seemed to carry her soul in his
hands. So had the young dreamer wedded his dream. He lived with Sheila as
truly, as loyally, as though he knew that she would welcome him with one
of those downward rushes or give him Godspeed on sultry, feverish dawns
with a cool kiss. Dickie lay sometimes across his bed and drew her cheek
in trembling fancy close to his until the anguish wet his pillow with
Now to this dual loneliness Lorrimer had climbed, and Dickie felt, rather
gratefully, that life had reached up to the aching unrealities of his
existence. His tight and painful life had opened like the first fold of a
fan. He built upon the promise of a friendship with this questioning,
impertinent, mocking, keenly sympathetic visitor.
But a fortnight passed without Lorrimer's appearing at the restaurant
and, when at last he did come, Dickie, flying to his chair, was greeted
by a cold, unsmiling word, and a businesslike quotation from the menu.
He felt as though he had been struck. His face burned. In the West, a
fellow couldn't do that and get away with it! He tightened an impotent,
thin fist. He filled the order and kept his distance, and, absurdly
enough, gave Lorrimer's tip to another waiter and went without his own
dinner. For the first time in his life a sense of social inferiority, of
humiliation concerning the nature of his work, came to him. He felt the
pang of servitude, a pang unknown to the inhabitants of frontier towns.
When Sheila washed dishes for Mrs. Hudson she was "the young lady from
Noo York who helps round at Hudson's house." Dickie fought this shame
sturdily, but it seemed to cling, to have a sticky pervasiveness. Try as
he might he couldn't brush it off his mind. Nevertheless, it was on the
very heels of this embittering experience that life plucked him up from
his slough. One of the leveling public catastrophes came to Dickie's
aid--not that he knew he was a dumb prayer for aid. He knew only that
every day was harder to face than the last, that every night the stars up
there through Sheila's skylight seemed to glimmer more dully with less
inspiration on his fagged spirit.
The sluggish monotony of the restaurant's existence was stirred that
September night by a big neighboring fire. Waiters and guests tumbled out
to the call of fire-engines and running feet. Dickie found himself
beside Lorrimer, who caught him by the elbow.
"Keep by me, kid," he said, and there was something in his tone
that softened injury. "If you want a good look-in, I can get
through the ropes."
He showed his card to a policeman, pulled Dickie after him, and they
found themselves in an inner circle of the inferno. Before them a tall,
hideous warehouse broke forth into a horrible beauty. It was as though a
tortured soul had burst bars. It roared and glowed and sent up petals of
smoky rose and seeds of fire against the blue-black sky. The crowds
pressed against the ropes and turned up their faces to drink in the
terror of the spectacle.
Lorrimer had out his notebook. "Damn fires!" he said. "They bore me. Does
all this look like anything to you? That fire and those people and their
silly faces all tilted up and turned red and blue and purple--"
He was talking to himself, and so, really, was Dickie when he made his
own statement in a queer tone of frightened awe. "They look like a flower
garden in Hell," he whispered.
Lorrimer threw up his chin. "Say that again, will you?" he snapped out.
"Go on! Don't stop! Tell me everything that comes into your damn young
head of a wandering Martian! Fly at it! I'll take you down."
"You mean," said Dickie, "tell you what I think this looks like?"
"That's what I mean, do."
Dickie smiled a queer sort of smile. He had found a listener at last. A
moment later Lorrimer's pencil was in rapid motion. And the reporter's
eyes shot little stabbing looks at Dickie's unselfconscious face. When
it was over he snapped an elastic round his notebook, returned it to his
pocket, and laid his hand on Dickie's thin, tense arm.
"Come along with me, Dick," said Lorrimer. "You've won. I've been
fighting you and my duty to my neighbor for a fortnight. Your waiter days
are over. I've adopted you. I'm my brother's keeper all right. We'll both
go hungry now and then probably, but what's the odds! I need you. I
haven't been able to hand in a story like that for years. I'm a burnt-out
candle and you're the divine fire. I'm going to educate the life out of
you. I'm going to train you till you wish you'd died young and
ungrammatical in Millings. I may not be much good myself," he added
solemnly, "but God gave me the sense to know the real thing when I see
it. I've been fighting you, calling myself a fool for weeks. Come along,
young fellow, don't hang back, and for your credit's sake close your lips
so you won't look like a case of arrested development. First we'll say
good-bye to the hash-hole and the white apron and then I'll take you up
to your sky parlor and we'll talk things over."
"God!" said Dickie faintly. It was a prayer for some enlightenment.
Hilliard rode up along Hidden Creek on a frosty October morning.
Everywhere now the aspens were torches of gold, the cottonwood trees
smoky and gaunt, the ground bright with fallen leaves. He had the look of
a man who has swept his heart clean of devils...his face was keen with
his desire. He sang as he rode--sweetly an old sentimental Spanish song,
something his mother had taught him; but it was not of his mother he
thought, or only, perhaps, deep down in his subconsciousness, of that
early mother-worship, age-old and most mysterious, which now he had
translated and transferred.
"Sweet, sweet is the jasmine flower--
Let its stars guide thee.
Sweet is the heart of a rose...
Sweet is the thought of thee...
Deep in my heart..."
The dogs were off coursing the woods that afternoon, and the little
clearing lay as still as a green lake under the threatening crest of the
mountain. Cosme slipped from his horse, pulled the reins over his head,
and left him to graze at will.
Miss Blake opened the ranch-house door at his knock. She greeted him with
a sardonic smile. "I don't know whether you'll see your girl or not,"
she said. "Give her time to get over her tantrums."
Cosme turned a lightning look upon her. "Tantrums? Sheila?"
"Oh, my friend, she has a devil of her own, that little angel-face! Make
yourself comfortable." Miss Blake pointed him to a chair. "I'll tell her
She went to the foot of the ladder, which rose from the middle of the
living-room floor, and called heartily, an indulgent laugh in her voice,
"You, Sheila! Better come down! Here's your beau."
There was no answer.
"Hear me, Sheila? Mis-ter Cos-me Hill-iard."
This time some brief and muffled answer was returned. Miss Blake smiled
and went over to her elk-horn throne. There she sat and sewed--an
incongruous occupation it looked.
Cosme was leaning forward, elbows on knees, his face a study of
impatience, anger, and suspicion.
"What made her mad?" he asked bluntly.
"O-oh! She'll get over it. She'll be down. Sheila can't resist a young
man. You'll see."
"What did you do?" insisted the stern, crisp, un-western voice. When
Cosme was angry he reverted rapidly to type.
"Why," drawled Miss Blake, "I crept up when she was drying her hair and I
cut it off." She laughed loudly at his fierce start.
"Cut off her hair! What right--?"
"No right at all, my friend, but common sense. What's the good of all
that fluffy stuff hanging about and taking hours of her time to brush
and wash and what-not. Besides"--she shot a look at him--"it's part of
"By the Lord," said Cosme, "I'd like you to explain."
The woman crossed her legs calmly. She was still indulgently amused.
"Don't lose your head, young man," she advised. "Better smoke."
After an instant Cosme rolled and lighted a cigarette and leaned back in
his chair. His anger had settled to a sort of patient contempt.
"I've put her into breeches, too," said Miss Blake.
"What the devil! What do you mean? She has a will of her own,
"Oh, yes. But you see I've got Miss Sheila just about where I want her.
She's grateful enough for her food and the roof over her head and for the
chance I'm giving her."
"Chance?" He laughed shortly. "Chance to do all your heavy work?"
"Why not say _honest_ work? It's something new to her."
There was a brief, thunderous silence. Cosme's cigarette burned between
his stiff fingers. "What do you mean?" he asked, hoarse with the effort
of his self-control.
She looked at him sharply now. "Are you Paul Carey Hilliard's son--the
son of Roxana Hilliard?" she asked. She pointed a finger at him.
"Yes," he answered with thin lips. His eyes narrowed. His face was all
Latin, all cruel.
"Well"--Miss Blake slid her hands reflectively back and forth on the bone
arms of her chair. She had put down her work. "I was just thinking," she
said slowly and kindly, "that the son of your mother would be rather
extra careful in choosing the mother of his sons."
"I shall be very careful," he answered between the thin lips. "I _am_
She fell back with an air of relief. "Oh," she said, as though
illuminated. "O-oh! I understand. Then it's all right. I didn't read
His face caught fire at her apparent misunderstanding.
"I don't read yours," he said.
"Game? Bless you, I've no game to play. I'm giving Sheila her chance. But
I'm not going to give her a chance at the cost of your happiness. You're
too good a lad for that. I thought you were going to ask her to be your
wife. And I wasn't going to allow you to do it--blind. I was going to
advise you to come back three years from now and see her again. Maybe
this fine clean air and this life and this honest work and the training
she gets from me will make her straight. My God! Cosme Hilliard, have you
set eyes on Hudson? What kind of girl travels West from New York at
Sylvester Hudson's expense and in his company and queens it in the suite
at his hotel?"
"Miss Blake," he muttered, "do you _know_ this?"
The cigarette had burnt itself out. Cosme's face was no longer cruel. It
She laughed shortly. "Why, of course, I know Sheila. I know her whole
history--and it's some history! She's twice the age she looks. Do you
think I'd have her here with me this way without knowing the girl? I tell
you, I want to give her a chance. I don't care if you try to test her
out. I'd like to see if two months has done anything for her. She was
real set on being a good girl when she quit Hudson. I don't _know_, but
I'm willing to bet that she'll turn you down."
From far away up the mountain-side came the fierce baying of the dog
pack. Cosme pulled himself together and stood up. His face had an
ignorant, baffled look, the look of an unskilled and simple mind
caught in a web.
"I reckon she--she isn't coming down," he said slowly, without lifting
his eyes from the floor. "I reckon I'll be going. I won't wait."
He walked to the door, his steps falling without spring, and went out and
so across the porch and the clearing to his horse.
At the sound of the closing door there came a flurry of movement in the
loft. The trap was raised. Sheila came quickly down the ladder. She was
dressed in a pair of riding-breeches and her hair was cropped like Miss
Blake's just below the ears. The quaintest rose-leaf of a Rosalind she
looked, just a wisp of grace, utterly unlike a boy. All the soft, slim
litheness with its quick turns revealed--a little figure of unconscious
sweet enchantment. But the face was flushed and tear-stained, the eyes
distressed. She stood, hands on her belt, at the foot of the ladder.
"Why has he gone? Why didn't he wait?"
Miss Blake turned a frank, indulgent face. But it was deeply
flushed. "Oh, shucks!" she said, "I suppose he got tired. Why didn't
you come down?"
Sheila sent a look down her slim legs. "Oh, because I _am_ a fool. Miss
Blake--did you _really_ burn my two frocks--both of them?" Her eyes
coaxed and filled.
"It's all they're fit for, my dear. You can make yourself new ones. You
know it's more sensible and comfortable, too, to work and ride in
breeches. I know what I'm doing, child.--I've lived this way quite a
number of years. You look real nice. I can't abide female floppery,
anyhow. What's it a sign of? Rotten slavery." She set her very even teeth
together hard as she said this.
But Sheila was neither looking nor listening. She had heard horse's
hoofs. Her cheeks flamed. She ran to the door. She stood on the porch
"Cosme Hilliard! Come back!"
There was no answer. A few minutes later she came in, pale and puzzled.
"He didn't even wave," she said. "He turned back in his saddle and stared
at me. He rode away staring at me. Miss Blake--what did you say to him?
You were talking a long time."
"We were talking," said Miss Blake, "about dogs and how to raise 'em. And
then he up and said goodbye. Oh, Sheila, it's all right. He'll be back
when he's got over being miffed. Why, he expected you to come tumblin'
down the ladder head over heels to see him--a handsome fellow like that!
Shucks! Haven't you ever dealt with the vanity of a young male before?
It's as jumpy as a rabbit. Get to work."
And, as though to justify Miss Blake's prophecy, just ten days later,
Hilliard did come again. It was a Sunday and Sheila had packed her
lunch and gone off on "Nigger Baby" for the day. The ostensible object
of her ride was a visit to the source of Hidden Creek. Really she was
climbing away from a hurt. She felt Hilliard's wordless departure and
prolonged absence keenly. She had not--to put it euphemistically--many
friends. Her remedy was successful. Impossible, on such a ride, to
cherish minor or major pangs. She rode into the smoky dimness of
pine-woods where the sunlight burned in flecks and out again across the
little open mountain meadows, jeweled with white and gold, blue and
coral-colored flowers, a stained-glass window scattered across the
ground. From these glades she could see the forest, an army of tall
pilgrims, very grave, going up, with long staves in their hands, to
worship at a high shrine. The rocks above were very grave, too, and
grim and still against the even blue sky. Across their purplish gray a
waterfall streaked down struck crystal by the sun. An eagle turned in
great, swinging circles. Sheila had an exquisite lifting of heart, a
sense of entire fusion, body blessed by spirit, spirit blessed by body.
She felt a distinct pleasure in the flapping of her short, sun-filled
hair against her neck, at the pony's motion between her unhampered
legs, at the moist warmth of his neck under her hand--and this physical
pleasure seemed akin to the ecstasy of prayer.
She came at last to a difficult, narrow, canon trail, where the pony
hopped skillfully over fallen trees, until, for very weariness of his
choppy, determined efforts, she dismounted, tied him securely, and made
the rest of her climb on foot. Hidden Creek tumbled near her and its
voice swelled. All at once, round the corner of a great wall of rock, she
came upon the head. It gushed out of the mountain-side in a tumult of
life, not in a single stream, but in many frothy, writhing earth-snakes
of foam. She sat for an hour and watched this mysterious birth from the
mountain-side, watched till the pretty confusion of the water, with its
half-interpreted voices, had dizzied and dazed her to the point of
complete forgetfulness of self. She had entered into a sort of a trance,
a Nirvana ... She shook herself out of it, ate her lunch and scrambled
quickly back to "Nigger Baby." It was late afternoon when she crossed the
mountain glades. Their look had mysteriously changed. There was something
almost uncanny now about their brilliance in the sunset light, and when
she rode into the streaked darkness of the woods, they were full of
ghostly, unintelligible sounds. To rest her muscles she was riding with
her right leg thrown over the horn as though on a side saddle--a great
mass of flowers was tied in front of her. She had opened her shirt at the
neck and her head was bare. She was singing to keep up her heart. Then,
suddenly, she had no more need of singing. She saw Cosme walking toward
her up the trail.
His face lacked all its vivid color. It was rather haggard and stern. The
devils he had swept out of his heart a fortnight earlier had, since then,
been violently entertained. He stepped out of the path and waited for
her, his hands on his hips. But, as she rode down, she saw this look
melt. The blood crept up to his cheeks, the light to his eyes. It was
like a rock taking the sun. She had smiled at him with all the usual
exquisite grace and simplicity. When she came beside him, she drew rein,
and at the same instant he put his hand on the pony's bridle. He looked
up at her dumbly, and for some reason she, too, found it impossible to
speak. She could see that he was breathing fast through parted lips and
that the lips were both cruel and sensitive. His hand slid back along
"Nigger Baby's" neck, paused, and rested on her knee. Then, suddenly, he
came a big step closer, threw both his arms, tightening with a python's
strength, about her and hid his face against her knees.
"Sheila," he said thickly. He looked up with a sort of anguish into her
face. "Sheila, if you are not fit to be the mother of my children, you
are _sure_ fit for any man to love."
Her soft, slim body hardened against him even before her face. They
stared at each other for a minute.
"Let me get down," said Sheila.
He stepped back, not quite understanding. She dropped off the horse,
dragging her flowers with her, and faced him. She did not feel small or
slender. She felt as high as a hill, although she had to look up at him
so far. Her anger had its head against the sky.
"Why do you talk about a man's love?" she asked him with a queer sort
of patience. "I think--I hope--that you don't know anything about a
man's love, oh, the _way_ men love!" She thought with swift pain of
Jim, of Sylvester; "Oh, the _way_ they love!" And she found that,
under her breath, she was sobbing, "Dickie! Dickie!" as though her
heart had called.
"Will you take back your horse, please?" she said, choking over these
sobs which hurt her more at the moment than he had hurt her. "I'll never
ride on him again. Don't come back here. Don't try to see me any more. I
suppose it--it--the way you love me--is because I was a barmaid, because
you heard people speak of me as 'Hudson's Queen.'" She conquered one of
the sobs. "I thought that after you'd looked into my face so hard that
night and stopped yourself from--from--my lips, that you had understood."
She shook her head from side to side so violently, so childishly, that
the short hair lashed across her eyes. "No one ever will understand!" She
ran away from him and cried under her breath, "Dickie! Dickie!"
She ran straight into the living-room and stopped in the middle of the
floor. Her arms were full of the flowers she had pulled down from "Nigger
"What did you want to bring in all that truck--?" Miss Blake began,
rising from the pianola, then stopped. "What's the matter with you?" she
asked. "Did your young man find you? I sent him up the trail." Her red
"He insulted me!" gasped Sheila. "He dared to insult me!" She was
dramatic with her helpless young rage. "He said I wasn't fit to--to be
the mother of his children. And"--she laughed angrily, handling behind
Cosme's back the weapon that she had been too merciful to use--"and _his_
mother is a murderess, found guilty of murder--and of worse!"
A sort of ripple of sound behind made her turn.
Cosme had followed her, was standing in the open door, and had heard her
speech. The weapon had struck home, and she saw how it had poisoned all
He vanished without a word. Sheila turned back to Miss Blake a paler
face. She let fall all her flowers.
"Now he'll never come back," she said.
She climbed up the ladder to her loft.
There she sat for an hour, listening to the silence. Her mind busied
itself with trivial memories. She thought of Amelia Plecks.... It would
have comforted her to hear that knock and the rattle of her dinner tray.
The little sitting-room at Hudson's Hotel, with its bit of tapestry and
its yellow tea-set and its vases filled with flowers, seemed to her
memory as elaborate and artificial as the boudoir of a French princess.
Farther than Millings had seemed from her old life did this dark little
gabled attic seem from Millings. What was to be the end of this strange
wandering, this withdrawing of herself farther and farther into the
lonely places! She longed for the noise of Babe's hearty, irrepressible
voice with its smack of chewing, of her step coming up the stairs to that
little bedroom under Hudson's gaudy roof. Could it be possible that she
was homesick for Millings? For the bar with its lights and its visitors
and its big-aproned guardian? Her lids were actually smarting with tears
at the recollection of Carthy's big Irish face.... He had been such a
good, faithful watch-dog. Were men always like that--either watch-dogs
or wolves? The simile brought her back to Hidden Creek. It grew darker
and darker, a heavy darkness; the night had a new soft weight. There
began to be a sort of whisper in the stillness--not the motion of pines,
for there was no wind. Perhaps it was more a sensation than a sound, of
innumerable soft numb fingers working against the silence ... Sheila got
up, shivering, lighted her candle, and went over to the small, four-paned
window under the eaves. She pressed her face against it and started back.
Things were flying toward her. She opened the sash and a whirling scarf
of stars flung itself into the room. It was snowing. The night was blind
WORK AND A SONG
On the studio skylight the misty autumn rain fell that night, as the snow
fell against Sheila's window-panes, with a light tapping. Below it Dickie
worked. He had very little leisure now for stars or dreams. For the first
time in his neglected and mismanaged life he knew the pleasure of
congenial work; and this, although Lorrimer worked him like a slave. He
dragged him over the city and set his picture-painting faculty to labor
in dark corners. Dickie, every sense keen and clean, was not allowed to
flinch. No, his freshness was his value. And the power that was in him,
driven with whip and spur, throve and grew and fairly took the bit in its
teeth and ran away with its trainer.
"Look here, my lad," Lorrimer had said that morning, "you keep on laying
hands on the English language the way you've been doing lately and I'll
have to get a job for you on the staff. Then my plagiarism that has been
paying us both so well comes to an end. I won't have the face to edit
stuff like this much longer." Lorrimer did not realize in his amazement
that Dickie's mind had always busied itself with this exciting and
nerve-racking matter of choosing words. From his childhood, in the face
of ridicule and outrage, he had fumbled with the tools of Lorrimer's
trade. No wonder that now knowledge and practice, and the sort of
intensive training he was under, magically fitted all the jumbled odds
and ends into place. Dickie had stopped looking over his shoulder. The
pursuing pack, the stealthy-footed beasts of the city, had dropped
utterly from his flying imagination. There was only one that remained
faithful--that craving for beauty--half-god, half-beast. Against him
Dickie still pressed his door shut. Lorrimer's gift of work had not
quieted the leader of the pack. But it had brought Dickie something that
was nearly happiness. The very look of him had changed; he looked driven
rather than harried, keen rather than harassed, eager instead of vague,
hungry rather than wistful. Only, sometimes, Dickie's brain would
suddenly turn blank and blind from sheer exhaustion. This happened to him
now. The printed lines he was studying lost all their meaning. He put his
forehead on his hands. Then he heard that eerie, light tapping above him
on the skylight. But he was too tired to look up.
It was on that very afternoon when Sheila rode down the trail with her
flowers tied before her on the saddle, singing to keep up her heart. It
was that very afternoon when she had cried out half-consciously for
"Dickie--Dickie--Dickie"--and now it was, as though the cry had traveled,
that a memory of her leapt upon his mind; a memory of Sheila singing.
She had come into the chocolate-colored lobby from one of her rides with
Jim Greely. She had held a handful of cactus flowers. She had stopped
over there by one of the windows to put them in a glass. And to show
Dickie, a prisoner at his desk, that she did not consider his
presence--it was during the period of their estrangement--she had sung
softly as a girl sings when she knows herself to be alone: a little
tender, sad chanting song, that seemed made to fit her mouth. The pain
her singing had given him that afternoon had cut a picture of her on
Dickie's brain. Just because he had tried so hard not to look at her. Now
it jumped out at him against his closed, wet lids. The very motions of
her mouth came back, the positive dear curve of her chin, the
throat there slim against the light. Hard work had driven her
image a little from his mind lately; it returned now to revenge
his self-absorption--returned with a song.
Dickie got up and wandered about the room. He tried to hum the air, but
his throat contracted. He tried to whistle, but his lips turned stiff. He
bent over his book--no use, she still sang. All night he was tormented by
that chanting, hurting song. He sobbed with the hurt of it. He tossed
about on his bed. He could not but remember how little she had loved him.
All at once there came to him a mysterious and beautiful release. It
seemed that the cool spirit, detached, winged, drew him to itself or
became itself entirely possessed of him. He was taken out of his pain
and yet he understood it. And he began suddenly, easily, to put it into
words. The misery was ecstasy, the hurt was inspiration, the song sang
sweetly as though it had been sung to soothe and not to make him suffer.
"Oh, little song you sang to me"--
Ah, yes, at heart she had been singing to him--
"A hundred, hundred days ago,
Oh, little song, whose melody
Walks in my heart and stumbles so;
I cannot bear the level nights,
And all the days are over-long,
And all the hours from dark to dark
Turn to a little song ..."
Dickie, not knowing how he got there, was at his table again. He was
writing. He was happy beyond any conception he had ever had of happiness.
That there was agony in his happiness only intensified it. The leader of
the wolf-pack, beast with a god's face, the noblest of man's desires,
that passionate and humble craving for beauty, had him by the throat.
So it was that Dickie wrote his first poem.
Winter snapped at Hidden Creek as a wolf snaps, but held its grip as a
bulldog holds his. There came a few November days when all the air and
sky and tree-tops were filled with summer again, but the snow that had
poured itself down so steadily in that October storm did not give way. It
sank a trifle at noon and covered itself at night with a glare of ice. It
was impossible to go anywhere except on snow-shoes. Sheila quickly
learned the trick and plodded with bent knees, limber ankles, and
wide-apart feet through the winter miracle of the woods. It was another
revelation of pure beauty, but her heart was too sore to hold the
splendor as it had held the gentler beauty of summer and autumn. Besides,
little by little she was aware of a vague, encompassing uneasiness. Since
the winter jaws had snapped them in, setting its teeth between them and
all other life, Miss Blake had subtly and gradually changed. It was as
though her stature had increased, her color deepened. Sometimes to Sheila
that square, strong body seemed to fill the world. She was more and more
masterful, quicker with her orders, charier of her smiles, shorter of
speech and temper. Her eyes seemed to grow redder, the sparks closer to
flame, as though the intense cold fanned them.
Once they harnessed the dogs to the sled and rode down the country for
the mail. The trip they made together. Sheila sat wrapped in furs in
front of the broad figure of her companion, who stood at the back of the
sledge, used a long whip, and shouted to the dogs by name in her great
musical voice of which the mountain echo made fine use. They sped close
to the frozen whiteness of the world, streaked down the slopes, and were
drawn soundlessly through the columned vistas of the woods. Here, there,
and everywhere were tracks, of coyotes, fox, rabbit, martin, and the
little pointed patteran of winter birds, yet they saw nothing living.
"What's got the elk and moose this season?" muttered Miss Blake. Nothing
stirred except the soft plop of shaken snow or the little flurry of
drifting flakes. These frost-flakes lay two inches deep on the surface of
the snow, dry and distinct all day in the cold so that they could be
blown apart at a breath. Miss Blake was cheerful on this journey. She
sang songs, she told brief stories of other sled trips. At the
post-office an old, lonely man delivered them some parcels and a vast
bagful of magazines. There was a brief passage of arms between him and
Miss Blake. She accused him of withholding a box of cartridges, and would
not be content till she had poked about his office in dark corners. She
came out swearing at the failure of her search. "I needed that shot,"
she said. "My supply is short. I made sure it'd be here to-day." There
were no letters for either of them, and Sheila felt again that queer
shiver of her loneliness. But, on the whole, it was a wonderful day, and,
under a world of most amazing stars, the small, valiant ranch-house, with
its glowing stove and its hot mess of supper, felt like home.... Not long
after that came the first stroke of fate.
The little old horse left them and, though they shoed patiently for miles
following his track, it was only to find his bones gnawed clean by
coyotes or by wolves. Sheila's tears froze to her lashes, but Miss
Blake's face went a little pale. She said nothing, and in her steps
Sheila plodded home in silence. That evening Miss Blake laid hands on
her.... They had washed up their dishes. Sheila was putting a log on the
fire. It rolled out of her grasp to the bearskin rug and struck Miss
Blake's foot. Before Sheila could even say her quick "I'm sorry," the
woman had come at her with a sort of spring, had gripped her by the
shoulders, had shaken her with ferocity, and let her go. Sheila fell
back, her own hands raised to her bruised shoulders, her eyes
phosphorescent in a pale face.
"Miss Blake, how dare you touch me!"
The woman kicked back the log, turned a red face, and laughed.
"Dare! You little silly! What's to scare me of you?"
An awful conviction of helplessness depressed Sheila's heart, but she
kept her eyes leveled on Miss Blake's.
"Do you suppose I will stay here with you one hour, if you treat me
That brought another laugh. But Miss Blake was evidently trying to make
light of her outbreak. "Scared you, didn't I?" she said. "I guess you
never got much training, eh!"
"I am not a dog," said Sheila shortly.
"Well, if you aren't"--Miss Blake returned to her chair and took up a
magazine. She put the spectacles on her nose with shaking hands. "You're
my girl, aren't you? You can't expect to get nothing but petting from
If she had not been icy with rage, Sheila might have smiled at this. "I
don't know what you mean, Miss Blake, by my being your girl. I work for
you, to be sure. I know that. But I know, too, that you will have to
apologize to me for this."
Miss Blake swung one leg across the other and stared above her glasses.
"Apologize to _you_!"
"Yes. I will allow nobody to touch me."
"Shucks! Go tell that to the marines! You've never been touched, have
you? Sweet sixteen!"
Hudson's kiss again scorched Sheila's mouth and her whole body burned.
Miss Blake watched that fire consume her, and again she laughed.
"I'm waiting for you to apologize," said Sheila again, this time between
small set teeth.
"Well, my girl, wait. That'll cool you off."
Sheila stood and felt the violent beating of her heart. A log in the wall
snapped from the bitter frost.
"Miss Blake," she said presently, a pitiful young quaver in her voice,
"if you don't beg my pardon I'll go to-morrow."
Miss Blake flung her book down with a gesture of impatience. "Oh, quit
your nonsense, Sheila!" she said. "What's a shaking! You know you can't
get out of here. It'd take you a week to get anywhere at all except into
a frozen supper for the coyotes. Your beau's left the country--Madder
told me at the post-office. Make the best of it, Sheila. Lucky if you
don't get worse than that before spring. You'll get used to me in time,
get broken in and learn my ways. I'm not half bad, but I've got to be
obeyed. I've got to be master. That's me. What do you think I've come
'way out here to the wilderness for, if not because I can't stand
anything less than being master? Here I've got my place and my dogs and a
world that don't talk back. And now I've got you for company and to do my
work. You've got to fall into line, Sheila, right in the ranks. Once,
some one out there in the world"--she made a gesture, dropped her chin on
her big chest, and looked out under her short, dense, rust-colored
eyelashes--"tried to break _me_. I won't tell you what he got. That's
where I quit the ways of women--yes, ma'am, and the ways of men." She
stood up and walked over to the window and looked out. The dogs were
sleeping in their kennels, but a chain rattled. "I've broke the
wolf-pack. You've seen them wriggle on their bellies for me, haven't you?
Well, my girl, do you think I can't break you?" She wheeled back and
stood with her hands on her hips. It was at that moment that she seemed
to fill the world. Her ruddy eyes glowed like blood. They were not quite
sane. That was it. Sheila went suddenly weak. They were not _quite_
sane--those red eyes filled with sparks.
The girl stepped back and sat down in her chair. She bent forward,
pressed her hands flat together, palm to palm between her knees, and
stared fixedly down at them. She made no secret of her desperate
Miss Blake's face softened a little at this withdrawal. She came back to
her place and resumed her spectacles.
"I'll tell you why I'm snappy," she said presently. "I'm scared."
This startled Sheila into a look. Miss Blake was moistening her lips.
"That horse--you know--the coyotes got him. I guess he went down and they
fell upon him. Well, he was to feed the dogs with until I could get my
"What do you mean?"
"That's what I buy 'em for. Little old horses, for a couple of bits,
and work 'em out and shoot 'em for dog-feed. Well, Sheila, when they're
fed, they're dogs. But when they're starved--they're wolves ... And I
can't think what's come to the elk this year. To-morrow I'll take out my
little old gun."
To-morrow and the next day and the next she took her gun and strapped on
her shoes and went out for all day long into the cold. Each time she came
back more exhausted and more fierce. Sheila would have her supper ready
and waiting sometimes for hours.
"The dogs have scared 'em off," said Miss Blake. "That must be the
truth." She let the pack hunt for itself at night, and they came back
sometimes with bloody jaws. But the prey must have been small, for they
were not satisfied. They grew more and more gaunt and wolfish. They would
howl for hours, wailing and yelping in ragged cadence to the stars.
Table-scraps and brews of Indian meal vanished and left their bellies
almost as empty as before.
"And," said Miss Blake, "we got to eat, ourselves."
"Hadn't we better go down to the post-office or to Rusty?" Sheila asked
Miss Blake snapped at her. "Harness that team now? As much as your life
is worth, Sheila! And we can't make it on foot. We'd drop in our tracks
and freeze. If it comes to the worst we may have to try it, but--oh, I'll
get something to-morrow."
But to-morrow brought no better luck. During the hunting the dogs were
left on their chains, and Sheila, through the lonely hours, would watch
them through the window and could almost see the wolfishness grow in
their deep, wild eyes. She would try to talk to them, pat them, coax them
into doggy-ness. But day by day they responded more unwillingly. All but
Berg: Berg stayed with her in the house, lay on her feet, leaned against
her knee. He shared her meals. He was beginning to swing his heart from
Miss Blake to her, and this was the second cause for strife.
Since that one outbreak, Sheila had gone carefully. She was dignified,
aloof, very still. She obeyed and slaved as she had never done in the
summer days. The dread of physical violence hung on her brain like a
cloud. She encouraged Berg's affection, and wondered, if it came to a
struggle, whether he would side with her. She was given the opportunity
to put this matter to the test.
Miss Blake was very late that night. It was midnight, a stark midnight of
stars and biting cold, when Berg stood up from his sleep and barked his
low, short bark of welcome. Outside the other dogs broke into their
clamor, drowning all other sound, and in the midst of it the door flew
rudely open. Miss Blake stood and clung to the side of the door. Her face
was bluish-white. She put out her hand toward Sheila, clutching the air.
Sheila ran over to her.
"Twisted my blamed ankle. God!" She hobbled over, a heavy arm round
Sheila, to her chair and sat there while the girl gave her some brandy,
removed the snowshoes, and cut away the boot from a swollen and
"That's the end of my hunting," grunted the patient, who bore the agony
of rubbing and bathing stoically. "And, I reckon, I couldn't have stood
much more." She clenched her hand in Berg's mane. "God! Those dogs! I'll
have to shoot them--next." Sheila looked up to her with a sort of
horrified hope. There was then a way out from that fear.
"I'd rather die, I think," said the woman hoarsely. "I love those dogs."
Sheila looked up into a tender and quivering face--the face of a mother.
"They mean something to me--those brutes. I guess I kind of centered my
heart on 'em--out here alone. I raised 'em up, from puppies, all but Berg
and the mother. They were the cutest little fellows. I remember when
Wreck got porcupine quills in his nose and came to me and lay on his back
and whined to me. It was as if he said, 'Help me, momma.' Sure it was.
And he pretty near died. Oh, damn! If I have to shoot 'em I might just as
well shoot myself and be done with it...Thanks, Sheila. I'll eat my
supper here and then you can help me to bed. When my ankle's all well, we
can have a try for the post-office, perhaps." She leaned back and drew
Berg roughly up against her. She caressed him. He made little soft,
throaty sounds of tenderness.
Sheila came back with a tray and, as she came, Berg pulled himself away
from his mistress and went wagging over to greet her.
"Come here!" snapped Miss Blake. Berg hesitated, cuddled close to Sheila,
and kept step beside her.
Miss Blake's eyes went red. "Come here!" she said again. Berg did not
cringe or hasten. He reached Miss Blake's chair at the same instant as
Sheila, not a moment earlier.
Miss Blake pulled herself up. The tray went shattering to the floor. She
hobbled over to the fire, white with the anguish, took down the whip from
its nail. At that Berg cringed and whined. The woman fell upon him with
her terrible lash. She held herself with one hand on the mantel-shelf,
while with the other she scored the howling victim. His fur came off his
back under the dreadful, knife-edge blows.
"Oh, stop!" cried Sheila. "Stop! You're killing him!" She ran over and
caught Miss Blake's arm.
"Damn you!" said the woman fiercely. She stood breathing fast. Sweat
of pain and rage and exertion stood out on her face. "Do _you_ want
She half-turned, lifting her lash, and at that, with a snarl, Berg
crouched himself and bared his teeth.
Miss Blake started and stared at him. Suddenly she gave in. Pain and
anger twisted her spirit.
"You'd turn my Berg against me!" she choked, and fell heavily down on the
rug in a dead faint.
When she came to she was grim and silent. She got herself with scant
help to bed, her big bed in the corner of the living-room, and for a week
she was kept there with fever and much pain. Berg lay beside her or
followed Sheila about her work, and the woman watched them both with
In January a wind blew steadily from the east and snow came as if to
bury them alive. The cabin turned to a cave, a small square of warmth
under a mountain of impenetrable white; one door and one window only,
opening to a space of sun. Against the others the blank white lids of
winter pressed. Sheila shoveled this space out sometimes twice a day.
The dog kennels were moved into it, and stood against the side of a
snow-bank eight feet high, up which, when they were unchained, the
gaunt, wolfish animals leapt in a loosely formed pack, the great mother,
Brenda, at their head, and padded off into the silent woods in their
hungry search for food.
But, one day, they refused to go. Miss Blake, her whip in her hand,
limped out. The snow had stopped. The day was still and bright again
above the snowy firs, the mountain scraped against the blue sky like a
cliff of broken ice. The dogs had crept out of their houses and were
squatted or huddled in the sun. As she came out they rose and strained at
their tethers. One of them whined. Brenda, the mother, bared her teeth.
One by one, as they were freed, they slunk close to Miss Blake, looking
up into her face. They crowded close at her heels as she went back to the
house. She had to push the door to in their very jaws and they pressed
against it, their heads hung low, sniffing the odor of food. Presently a
long-drawn, hideous howling rose from them. Time and again Miss Blake
drove them away with lash and voice. Time and again they came back. They
scratched at the threshold, whimpered, and whined.
Sheila and Miss Blake gave them what food they would have eaten
themselves that day. It served only to excite their restlessness, to hold
them there at the crack of the door, snuffling and slobbering. The outer
circle slept, the inner watched. Then they would shift, like sentries.
They had a horrible sort of system. Most of that dreadful afternoon Miss
Blake paced the floor, trying to strengthen her ankle for the trip to the
post-office. At sunset, when the small snow-banked room was nearly dark,
she stopped, threw up her head, and looked at Sheila. The girl was
sitting on the lowest step of the ladder washing some dried apples. Her
face had thinned to a silvery wedge between the thick square masses of
her hair. There was a haunted look in her clear eyes. The soft mouth had
"How in God's name," said Miss Blake, "shall I get 'em on their
Sheila stopped her work, and her lips fell helplessly apart. She looked
up at the older woman and shook her head.
Miss Blake's fear snapped into a sort of frenzy. She gritted her teeth
and stamped. "You simpleton!" she said. "You never have a notion in
Sheila stood up quickly. Something told her that she had better be on her
feet. She kept very still. "You will know better than I could what to do
about the dogs," she said quietly. "They'll go back on their chains for
you, I should think. They're afraid of you."
"Aren't you?" Miss Blake asked roughly.
"No. Of course not."
"You little liar! You're scared half out of your wits. You're scared of
the whole thing--scared of the snow, scared of the cold, scared of the
dogs, and scared sick of me. Come, now. Tell me the truth."
It was almost her old bluff, bullying tone, but back of it was a
disorder of stretched nerves. Sheila weighed her words and tried to
weigh her thoughts.
"I don't think I am afraid, Miss Blake. Why should I be afraid of the
dogs, if you aren't? And why should I be afraid of you? You have been
good to me. You are a good woman."
At this Miss Blake threw back her head and laughed. She was terribly like
one of the dogs howling. There was something wild and wolfish in her
broad neck and in the sound she made. And she snapped back into silence
with wolfish suddenness.
"If you're not scared, then," she scoffed, "go and chain up the dogs
For an instant Sheila quite calmly balanced the danger out of doors
against the danger within.
"I think," she said--and managed one of her drifting smiles--"I think I
am a great deal more afraid of the dogs than I am of you, Miss Blake."
The woman studied her for a minute in silence, then she walked over to
her elk-horn throne and sat down on it.
She leaned back in a royal way and spread her dark broad hands across the
"Well," she said coolly, "did you hear what I said? Go out and chain up
Sheila held herself like a slim little cavalier. "If I go out," she said
coolly, "I will not take a whip. I'll take a gun."
"And shoot my dogs?"
"Miss Blake, what else is left for us to do? We can't let them claw down
the door and tear us into bits, can we?"
"You'd shoot my dogs?"
"You said yourself that we might have to shoot them."
Miss Blake gave her a stealthy and cunning look. "Take my gun, then"--her
voice rose to a key that was both crafty and triumphant--"and much good
it will do you! There's shot enough to kill one if you are a first-rate
shot. I lost what was left of my ammunition the day I hurt my ankle. The
new stuff is down at the post-office by now, I guess."
The long silence was filled by the shifting of the dog-watch outside the
"We must chain them up at any cost," said Sheila. Her lips were dry and
felt cold to her tongue.
"Go out and do it, then." The mistress of the house leaned back and
crossed her ankles.
"Miss Blake, be reasonable. You have a great deal of control over the
dogs and I have none. I _am_ afraid of them and they will know it.
Animals always know when you're afraid..." Again she managed a smile.
"I shall begin to think you are a coward," she said.
At that Miss Blake stood up from her chair. Her face was red with a
violent rush of blood and the sparks in her eyes seemed to have broken
"Very good, Miss," she said brutally. "I'll go out and chain 'em up and
then I'll come back and thrash you to a frazzle. Then you'll know how to
obey my orders next time."
She caught up her whip, swung it in her hand, and strode to the door.
"And mind you, Sheila, you won't be able to hide yourself from me. Nor
make a getaway. I'll lock this door outside and winter's locked the
other. You wait. You'll see what you'll get for calling me a coward. Your
friend Berg's gone off on a long hunt ... he's left his friends outside
there and he's left you.... Understand?"
She shouted roughly to the dogs, snapped her whip, threw open the door,
and stepped out boldly. She shut the door behind her and shot a bolt. It
creaked as though it had grown rusty with disuse.
In the stillness--for, except for a quick shuffling of paws, there was no
sound at first--Sheila chose her weapon of defense. She took down from
its place the Eskimo ivory spear, and, holding it short in her hand, she
put herself behind the great elk-horn chair. Her Celtic blood was
pounding gloriously now. She was not afraid; though if there had been
time to notice it, she would have confessed to an abysmal sense of horror
and despair. And again she wondered at her own loneliness and youth and
the astounding danger that she faced. Yes, it was more astonishment than
any other emotion that possessed her consciousness. The horror was below
the threshold practicing its part.
Then anger, astonishment, horror itself were suddenly thrown out of her.
She was left like an empty vessel waiting to be filled with fear. Miss
Blake had cried aloud, "Help, Sheila! Help!" This was followed by a
dreadful screaming. Sheila dropped her spear and leapt to the door. On
it, outside, Miss Blake beat and screamed, "Open, for God's sake!"
Sheila shouted in as dreadful a key. "On your side--the bolt! Miss
Fingers clawed at the bolt, but it would not slip. Through all the
horrible sounds the woman made, Sheila could hear the snarling and
leaping and snapping of the dogs. She dashed to the small, tight window,
broke a pane with her fist, and thrust out her arm. She meant to reach
the bolt, but what she saw took the warm life out of her. Miss Blake had
gone down under the whirling, slobbering pack. The screaming had stopped.
In that one awful look the poor child saw that no human help could save.
She dropped down on the floor and lay there moaning, her hands pressed
over her ears....
So she lay, shuddering and gasping, the great part of the night. At last
the intense cold drove her to the fire. She heaped up the logs high and
hung close above them. Her very heart was cold. Liquid ice moved
sluggishly along her veins. The morning brought no comfort or courage to
her, only a freshening of horror and of fear. The dogs had gone, and all
the winter world lay still about the house.
She was shaken by a regular pulse of nervous sobbing. But, driven by a
sort of restlessness, she made herself coffee and forced some food down
her contracted throat. Then she put on her coat, took down Miss Blake's
six-shooter and cartridge belt, and saw, with a slight relaxing of the
cramp about her heart, that there were four shots in the chamber. Four
shots and eight dogs, but--at least--she could save herself from _that_
death! She strapped the gun round her slim hips, filled her pockets with
supplies--a box of dried raisins, some hard bread, a cake of chocolate,
some matches--pulled her cap down over her ears, and took her snowshoes
from the wall. With closed eyes she put her arm out through the broken
pane, and, after a short struggle, slipped the rusty bolt. Then she went
over to the door and, leaning against it, prayed. Even with the
mysterious strength she drew from that sense of kinship with a superhuman
Power, it was a long time before she could force herself to open. At
last, with a big gasp, she flung the door wide, skirted the house, her
hands against the logs, her eyes shut, ran across the open space,
scrambled up the drift, tied on her snowshoes, and fled away under the
snow-laden pines. There moved in all the wilderness that day no more
hunted and fearful a thing.
The fresh snow sunk a little under her webs, but she was a featherweight
of girlhood, and made quicker and easier progress than would have been
possible to any one else but a child. And her fear gave her both strength
and speed. Sometimes she looked back over her shoulder; always she
strained her ears for the pad of following feet. It was a day of rainbows
and of diamond spray, where the sun struck the shaken snow sifted from
overweighted branches. Sheila remembered well enough the route to the
post-office. It meant miles of weary plodding, but she thought that she
could do it before night. If not, she would travel by starlight and the
wan reflection of the snow. There was no darkness in these clear, keen
nights. She would not tell herself what gave her strength such impetus.
She thought resolutely of the post-office, of the old, friendly man, of
his stove, of his chairs and his picture of the President, of his gun
laid across two nails against his kitchen wall--all this, not more than
eighteen miles away! And she thought of Hilliard, too; of his young
strength and the bold young glitter of his eyes.
She stopped for a minute at noon to drink some water from Hidden Creek
and to eat a bite or so of bread. She was pulling on her gloves again
when a distant baying first reached her ears. She turned faint, seemed to
stand in a mist; then, with her teeth set defiantly, she started again,
faster and steadier, her body bent forward, her head turned back. Before
her now lay a great stretch of undulating, unbroken white. At its farther
edge the line of blue-black pines began again. She strained her steps to
reach this shelter. The baying had been very faint and far away--it might
have been sounded for some other hunting. She would make the woods, take
off her webs, climb up into a tree and, perhaps, attracted by those four
shots--no, three, she must save one--some trapper, some unimaginable
wanderer in the winter forest, would come to her and rescue her before
the end. So her mind twisted itself with hope. But, an hour later, with
the pines not very far away, the baying rose so close behind that it
stopped her heart. Twenty minutes had passed when above a rise of ground
she saw the shaggy, trotting black-gray body of Brenda, the leader of the
pack. She was running slowly, her nose close to the snow, casting a
little right and left over the tracks. Sheila counted eight--Berg, then,
had joined them. She thought that she could distinguish him in the rear.
It was now late afternoon, and the sun slanted driving back the shadows
of the nearing trees, of Sheila, of the dogs. It all seemed
fantastic--the weird beauty of the scene, the weird horror of it. Sheila
reckoned the distance before her, reckoned the speed of the dogs. She
knew now that there was no hope. Ahead of her rose a sharp, sudden
slope--she could never make it. There came to her quite suddenly, like a
gift, a complete release from fear. She stopped and wheeled. It seemed
that the brutes had not yet seen her. They were nose down at the scent.
One by one they vanished in a little dip of ground, one by one they
reappeared, two yards away. Sheila pulled out her gun, deliberately aimed
A spurt of snow showed that she had aimed short. But the loud, sudden
report made Brenda swerve. All the dogs stopped and slunk together
circling, their haunches lowered. Wreck squatted, threw up his head, and
howled. Sheila spoke to them, clear and loud, her young voice ringing out
into that loneliness.
"You Berg! Good dog! Come here."
One of the shaggy animals moved toward her timidly, looking back,
pausing. Brenda snarled.
"Berg, come here, boy!"
Sheila patted her knee. At this the big dog whined, cringed, and began
to swarm up the slope toward her on his belly. His eyes shifted, the
struggle of his mind was pitifully visible--pack-law, pack-power, the
wolf-heart and the wolf-belly, and against them that queer hunger for the
love and the touch of man. Sheila could not tell if it were hunger or
loyalty that was creeping up to her in the body of the beast. She kept
her gun leveled on him. When he had come to within two feet of her, he
paused. Then, from behind him rose the starved baying of his brothers.
Sheila looked up. They were bounding toward her, all wolf these--but more
dangerous after their taste of human blood than wolves--to the bristling
hair along their backs and the bared fangs. Again she fired. This time
she struck Wreck's paw. He lifted it and howled. She fired again. Brenda
snapped sideways at her shoulder, but was not checked. There was one shot
left. Sheila knew how it must be used. Quickly she turned the muzzle up
toward her own head.
Then behind her came a sharp, loud explosion. Brenda leapt high into
the air and fell at Sheila's feet. At that first rifle-shot, Berg fled
with shadow swiftness through the trees. For the rest, it was as though
a magic wall had stopped them, as though, at a certain point, they fell
upon death. Crack, crack, crack--one after another, they came up,
leapt, and dropped, choking and bleeding on the snow. At the end Sheila
turned blindly. A yard behind her and slightly above her there under
the pines stood Hilliard, very pale, his gun tucked under his arm, the
smoking muzzle lowered. Weakly she felt her way up toward him, groping
with her hands.
He slid down noiselessly on his long skis and she stood clinging to his
arm, looking up dumbly into his strained face.
"I heard your shots," he said breathlessly. "You're within a hundred
yards of my house.... For months I've been trying to make up my mind to
come to you. God forgive me, Sheila, for not coming before!"
Swinging his gun on its strap across his shoulder, he lifted her in his
arms, and, like a child, she was carried through the silence of the
woods, all barred with blood-red glimmers from a setting sun.
THE GOOD OLD WORLD AGAIN
Hilliard carried Sheila into the house that he had built for her and laid
her down in that big bedroom that "got the morning sun." For a while it
seemed to him that she would never open her eyes again, and when she did
regain consciousness she was so prostrate with her long fear and the
shock of Miss Blake's death that she lay there too weak to smile or
speak, too weak almost to breathe. Hilliard turned nurse, a puzzled,
anxious nurse. He would sit up in his living-room half the night, and
when sleep overpowered his anxiety he would fall prone on the elk-hide
rug before his fire.
At last Sheila pulled herself up and crept about the house. She spent
a day in the big log chair before Hilliard's hearth, looking very wan,
shrinking from speech, her soft mouth gray and drawn.
"Aren't you ever going to smile for me again?" he asked her, after a long
half-hour during which he had stood as still as stone, his arm along the
pine mantelshelf, looking at her from the shelter of a propping hand.
She lifted her face to him and made a pitiful effort enough. But it
brought tears. They ran down her cheeks, and she leaned back and closed
her lids, but the crystal drops forced themselves out, clung to her
lashes, and fell down on her clenched hands. Hilliard went over to her
and took the small, cold hands in both of his.
"Tell me about what happened, Sheila," he begged her. "It will help."
Word by difficult word, he still holding fast to her hands, she sobbed
and gasped out her story, to which he listened with a whitening face. He
gripped her hands tighter, then, toward the end, he rose with a sharp
oath, lit his cigarette, paced to and fro.
"God!" he said at the last. "And she told you I had gone from the
country! The devil! I can't help saying it, Sheila--she tortured you. She
deserved what God sent her."
"Oh, no!"--Sheila rocked to and fro--"no one could deserve such dreadful
terror and pain. She--she wasn't sane. I was--foolish to trust her ... I
am so foolish--I think I must be too young or too stupid for--for all
this. I thought the world would be a much safer place." She looked up
again, and speech had given her tormented nerves relief, for her eyes
were much more like her own, clear and young again. "Mr. Hilliard--what
shall I do with my life, I wonder? I've lost my faith and trustingness.
I'm horribly afraid."
He stood before her and spoke in a gentle and reasonable tone. "I'll tell
you the answer to that, ma'am," he said. "I've thought that all out
while I've been taking care of you."
She waited anxiously with parted lips.
"Well, ma'am, you see--it's like this. I'm plumb ashamed of myself
through and through for the way I have acted toward you. I was a fool to
listen to that dern lunatic. She told me--lies about you."
"Miss Blake did?"
"Yes, ma'am." His face crimsoned under her look.
Sheila closed her eyes and frowned. A faint pink stole up into her face.
She lifted her lids again and he saw the brightness of anger. "And, of
course, you took her lies for the truth?"
"Oh, damn! Now you're mad with me and you won't listen to my plan!"
He was so childish in this outbreak that Sheila was moved to dim
amusement. "I'm too beaten to be angry at anything," she said. "Just tell
me your plan."
"No," he said sullenly. "I'll wait. I'm scared to tell you now!"
She did not urge him, and it was not till the next morning that he spoke
about his plan. She had got out to her chair again and had made a
pretense of eating an ill-cooked mess of canned stuff which he had
brought to her on a tray. It was after he had taken this breakfast away
that he broke out as though his excitement had forced a lock.
"I'm going down to Rusty to-day," he said. His eyes were shining. He
looked at her boldly enough now.
"And take me?" Sheila half-started up. "And take me?"
"No, ma'am. You're to stay here safe and snug." She dropped back. "I'll
leave everything handy for you. There's enough food here for an army
and enough fuel.... You're as safe here as though you were at the foot
of God's throne. Don't look like that, girl. I can't take you. You're
not strong enough to make the journey in this cold, even on a sled. And
we can't"--his voice sunk and his eyes fell--"we can't go on like this,
"N-no." Sheila's forehead was puckered. Her fingers trembled on the arms
of her chair. "N-no...." Then, with a sort of quaver, she added, "Oh, why
can't we go on like this?--till the snow goes and I can travel with you!"
"Because," he said roughly, "we can't. You take my word for it." After a
pause he went on in his former decisive tone. "I'll be back in two or
three days. I'll fetch the parson."
Sheila sat up straight.
His eyes held hers. "Yes, ma'am. The parson. I'm going to marry
She repeated this like a lesson. "You are going to marry me...."
"Yes, ma'am. You'll have three days to think it over. If you don't want
to marry me when the parson comes, why, you can just go back to Rusty
with him." He laughed a little, came over to her, put a hand on each arm
of her chair, and bent down. She shrank back before him. His eyes had the
glitter of a hawk's, and his red and beautiful lips were soft and eager
and--again--a little cruel.
"No," he said, "I won't kiss you till I come back--not even for good-bye.
Then you'll know how I feel about you. You'll know that I believe that
you're a good girl and, Sheila"--here he seemed to melt and falter
before her: he slipped down with one of his graceful Latin movements and
hid his forehead on her knees--"Sheila, my _darling_--that I know you are
fit--oh, so much more than fit--to be the mother of my children ..."
In half an hour, during which they were both profoundly silent, he came
to her again. He was ready for his journey. She was sitting far back in
her chair, her slim legs stretched out. She raised inscrutable eyes
wide to his.
"Good-bye," he said softly. "It's hard to leave you. Good-bye."
She said good-bye even more softly with no change in her look. And he
went out, looking at her over his shoulder till the last second. She
heard the voice of his skis, hissing across the hard crust of the snow.
She sat there stiff and still till the great, wordless silence settled
down again. Then she started up from her chair, ran across to the window,
and saw that he was indeed gone. She came storming back and threw
herself down upon the hide. She cried like a deserted child.
"Oh, Cosme, I'm afraid to be alone! I'm afraid! Why did I let you go?
Come back! Oh, please come back!"
* * * * *
It was late that night when Hilliard reached Rusty, traveling with all
his young strength across the easy, polished surface of the world. He was
dog-tired. He went first to the saloon. Then to the post-office. To his
astonishment he found a letter. It was postmarked New York and he
recognized the small, cramped hand of the family lawyer. He took the
letter up to his bedroom in the Lander Hotel and sat on the bed, turning
the square envelope about in his hands. At last, he opened it.
"MY DEAR COSME [the lawyer had written ... he had known Hilliard as a
child], It is my strong hope that this letter will reach you promptly and
safely at the address you sent me. Your grandfather's death, on the
fifteenth instant, leaves you, as you are no doubt aware, heir to his
fortune, reckoned at about thirty millions. If you will wire on receipt
of this and follow wire in person as soon as convenient, it will greatly
facilitate arrangements. It is extremely important that you should come
at once. Every day makes things more complicated ... in the management
of the estate. I remain, with congratulations,
"Sincerely your friend, ..."
The young man sat there, dazed.
He had always known about those millions; the expectation of them had
always vaguely dazzled his imagination, tampered more than he was aware
with the sincerity of his feelings, with the reality of his life; but now
the shower of gold had fallen all about him and his fancy stretched its
eyes to take in the immediate glitter.
Why, thought Hilliard, this turns life upside down ... I can begin to
live ... I can go East. He saw that the world and its gifts were as truly
his as though he were a fairy prince. A sort of confusion of highly
colored pictures danced through his quick and ignorant brain. The blood
pounded in his ears. He got up and prowled about the little room. It was
oppressively small. He felt caged. The widest prairie would have given
him scant elbow-room. He was planning his trip to the East when the
thought of Sheila first struck him like a cold wave ... or rather it was
as if the wave of his selfish excitement had crashed against the wave of
his desire for her. All was foam and confusion in his spirit. He was
quite incapable of self-sacrifice--a virtue in which his free life and
his temperament had given him little training. It was simply a war of
impulses. His instinct was to give up nothing--to keep hold of every
gift. He wanted, as he had never in his life wanted anything before, to
have his fling. He wanted his birthright of experience. He had cut
himself off from all the gentle ways of his inheritance and lived like a
very Ishmael through no fault of his own. Now, it seemed to him that
before he settled down to the soberness of marriage, he must take one
hasty, heady, compensating draft of life, of the sort of life he might
have had. He would go East, go at once; he would fling himself into a
tumultuous bath of pleasure, and then he would come back to Sheila and
lay a great gift of gold at her feet. He thought over his plans,
reconstructing them. He got pen and ink and wrote a letter to Sheila. He
wrote badly--a schoolboy's inexpressive letter. But he told his story and
his astounding news and drew a vivid enough picture of the havoc it had
wrought in his simplicity. He used a lover's language, but his letter was
as cold and lumpish as a golden ingot. And yet the writer was not cold.
He was throbbing and distraught, confused and overthrown, a boy of
fourteen beside himself at the prospect of a holiday ... It was a stolen
holiday, to be sure, a sort of truancy from manliness, but none the less
intoxicating for that. Cosme's Latin nature was on top; Saxon loyalty and
conscience overthrown. He was an egoist to his finger-tips that night. He
did not sleep a wink, did not even try, but lay on his back across the
bed, hands locked over his hair while "visions of sugar plums danced
through his head." In the morning he went down and made his arrangements
for Sheila, a little less complete, perhaps, than he had intended, for he
met a worthy citizen of Rusty starting up the country with a sled to
visit his traps and to him he gave the letter and confided his
perplexities. It was a hasty interview, for the stage was about to start.
"My wife will sure take your girl and welcome; don't even have to ask
her," the kind-eyed old fellow assured Hilliard. "We'll be glad to have
her for a couple of months. She'll like the kids. It'll be home for her.
Yes, sir"--he patted the excited traveler on the shoulder--"you pile
into the stage and don't you worry any. I'll be up at your place before
night and bring the lady down on my sled. Yes, sir. Pile in and don't
you worry any."
Cosme wrung his hand, avoided his clear eye, and climbed up beside the
driver on the stage. He did not look after the trapper. He stared
ahead beyond the horses to the high white hill against a low and heavy
sky of clouds.
"There's a big snowstorm a comin' down," growled the driver. "Lucky if we
make The Hill to-day. A reg'lar oldtimer it's agoin' to be. And
Cosme hardly heard this speech. The gray world was a golden ball for him
to spin at his will. Midas had touched the snow. The sleigh started with
a jerk and a jingle. In a moment it was running lightly with a crisp,
cutting noise. Cosme's thoughts outran it, leaping toward their gaudy
goal ... a journey out to life and a journey back to love--no wonder his
golden eyes shone and his cheeks flushed.
"You look almighty glad to be going out of here," the driver made
Hilliard laughed an explosive and excited laugh. "No almighty gladder
than I shall be to be coming back again," he prophesied.
But to prophesy is a mistake. One should leave the future humbly on the
knees of the gods. That night, when Hilliard was lying wakeful in his
berth listening to the click of rails, the old trapper lay under the
driving snow. But he was not wakeful. He slept with no visions of gold or
love, a frozen and untroubled sleep. He had caught his foot in a trap,
and the blizzard had found him there and had taken mercy on his pain.
They did not find his body until spring, and then Cosme's letter to
Sheila lay wet and withered in his pocket.
The first misery of loneliness takes the form of a restless inability to
concentrate. It is as if the victim wanted to escape from himself. After
Cosme's departure Sheila prowled about the silent cabin, began this bit
of work and that, dropped it, found herself staring vaguely, listening,
waiting, and nervously shook herself into activity again. She tried to
whistle, but it seemed like somebody else's music and frightened her
ears. At dusk she fastened sacking across the uncurtained windows,
lighted both Cosme's lamps, bringing the second from her bedroom, and
heaped up a dancing and jubilant fire upon the hearth. In the midst of
this illumination she sat, very stiff and still, in the angular
elk-hide-covered chair, and knitted her hands together on her knee. Her
mind was now intensely active; memories, thoughts, plans, fancies racing
fast and furious like screen pictures across her brain. And they seemed
to describe themselves in loud whispers. She had difficulty in keeping
these voices from taking possession of her tongue.
"I don't want to talk to myself," she murmured, and glanced over
A man has need of his fellows for a shield. Man is man's shelter from
all the storm of unanswered questions. Where am I? What am I? Why am
I?--No reply. No reassuring double to take away the ghost-sense of self,
that unseen, intangible aura of personality in which each of us moves as
in a cloud. In the souls of some there is an ever-present Man God who
will forever save them from this supreme experience. Sheila's religion,
vague, conventional, childish, faltered away from her soul. Except for
her fire, which had a sort of sympathy of life and warmth and motion, she
was unutterably alone. And she was beginning to suffer from the second
misery of solitude--a sense of being many personalities instead of one.
She seemed to be entertaining a little crowd of confused and
argumentative Sheilas. To silence them she fixed her mind on her
She tried to draw Hilliard close to her heart. She had an honest hunger
for his warm and graceful beauty, for his young strength, but this
natural hunger continually shocked her. She tried not to remember the
smoothness of his neck as her half-conscious hands had slipped away from
it that afternoon when he raised her from the snow. It seemed to her that
her desire for him was centered somewhere in her body. Her mind remained
cool, detached, critical, even hostile. She disliked the manner of his
wooing--not that there should have been any insult to the pride of a
nameless little adventurer, Hudson's barmaid, a waif, in being told that
she was a "good girl" and fit to be the mother of this young man's
children. But Sheila knew instinctively that these things could not be
said, could not even be thought of by such a man as Marcus Arundel. She
remembered his words about her mother.... Sheila wanted with a great
longing to be loved like that, to be so spoken of, so exquisitely
entreated. A phrase in Hudson's letter came to her mind, "I handled you
in my heart like a flower" ... Unconsciously she pressed her hand against
her lips, remembered the taste of whiskey and of blood. If only it had
been Dickie's lips that had first touched her own. Blinding tears fell.
The memory of Dickie's comfort, of Dickie's tremulous restraint, had a
strange poignancy.... Why was he so different from all the rest? So much
more like her father? What was there in this pale little hotel clerk who
drank too much that lifted him out and up into a sort of radiance? Her
memory of Dickie was always white--the whiteness of that moonlight of
their first, of that dawn of their last, meeting. He had had no chance in
his short, unhappy, and restricted life--not half the chance that young
Hilliard's life had given him--to learn such delicate appreciations, such
tenderness, such reserves. Where had he got his delightful, gentle
whimsicalities, that sweet, impersonal detachment that refused to yield
to stupid angers and disgusts? He was like--in Dickie's own fashion she
fumbled for a simile. But there was no word. She thought of a star, that
morning star he had drawn her over to look at from the window of her
sitting-room. Perhaps the artist in Sylvester had expressed itself in
this son he so despised; perhaps Dickie was, after all, Hudson's great
work ... All sorts of meanings and symbols pelted Sheila's brain as she
sat there, exciting and fevering her nerves.
In three days Hilliard would be coming back. His warm youth would
again fill the house, pour itself over her heart. After the silence,
his voice would be terribly persuasive, after the loneliness, his eager,
golden eyes would be terribly compelling! He was going to "fetch the
parson" ... Sheila actually wrung her hands. Only three days for this
decision and, without a decision, that awful, helpless wandering, those
dangers, those rash confidences of hers. "O God, where are you? Why don't
you help me now?" That was Sheila's prayer. It gave her little comfort,
but she did fall asleep from the mental exhaustion to which it brought at
least the relief of expression.
When she woke, she found the world a horrible confusion of storm. It
could hardly be called morning--a heavy, flying darkness of drift, a wind
filled with icy edges that stung the face and cut the eyes, a wind with
the voice of a driven saw. The little cabin was caught in the whirling
heart of a snow spout twenty feet high. The firs bent and groaned. There
is a storm-fear, one of the inherited instinctive fears. Sheila's little
face looked out of the whipped windows with a pinched and shrinking
stare. She went from window to hearth, looking and listening, all day. A
drift was blown in under the door and hardly melted for all the blazing
fire. That night she couldn't go to bed. She wrapped herself in blankets
and curled herself up in the chair, nodding and starting in the circle of
For three terrible days the world was lost in snow. Before the end of
that time Sheila was talking to herself and glad of the sound of her own
hurried little voice. Then, like God, came a beautiful stillness and the
sun. She opened the door on the fourth morning and saw, above the fresh,
soft, ascending dazzle of the drift, a sky that laughed in azure, the
green, snow-laden firs, a white and purple peak. She spread out her hands
to feel the sun and found it warm. She held it like a friendly hand. She
forced herself that day to shovel, to sweep, even to eat. Perhaps Cosme
would be back before night. He and the parson would have waited for the
storm to be over before they made their start. She believed in her own
excuses for five uneasy days, and then she believed in the worst of all
her fears. She had a hundred to choose from--Cosme's desertion, Cosme's
death.... One day she spent walking to and fro with her nails driven into
* * * * *
Late that night the white world dipped into the still influence of a full
white moon. Before Hilliard's cabin the great firs caught the light with
a deepening flush of green, their shadows fell in even lavender tracery
delicate and soft across the snow, across the drifted roof. The smoke
from the half-buried chimney turned to a moving silver plume across the
blue of the winter night sky--intense and warm as though it reflected an
The door of the cabin opened with a sharp thrust and Sheila stepped
out. She walked quickly through the firs and stood on the edge of the
open range-land, beyond and below which began the dark ridge of the
primeval woods. She stood perfectly still and lifted her face to the
sky. For all the blaze of the moon the greater stars danced in
radiance. Their constellations sloped nobly across her dazzled vision.
She had come very close to madness, and now her brain was dumb and
dark as though it had been shut into a blank-walled cell. She stood
with her hands hanging. She had no will nor wish to pray. The knowledge
had come to her that if she went out and looked this winter Pan in the
face, her brain would snap, either to life or death. It would burst its
prison ... She stared, wide-eyed, dry-eyed, through the immense cold
height of air up at the stars.
All at once a door flew open in her soul and she knew God ... no visible
presence and yet an enveloping reality, the God of the savage earth, of
the immense sky, of the stars, the God unsullied and untempted by man's
worship, no God that she had ever known, had ever dreamed of, had ever
prayed to before. She did not pray to Him now. She let her soul stand
open till it was filled as were the stars and the earth with light....
The next day Sheila found her voice and sang at her work. She gave
herself an overwhelming task of cleaning and scrubbing. She was on her
knees like a charwoman, sniffing the strong reek of suds, when there came
a knocking at her door. She leapt up with pounding heart. But the
knocking was more like a scraping and it was followed by a low whine. For
a second Sheila's head filled with a fog of terror and then came a homely
little begging bark, just the throaty, snuffling sob of a homeless puppy.
Sheila took Cosme's six-shooter, saw that it was loaded, and, standing in
the shelter of the door, she slowly opened it. A few moments later the
gun lay a yard away on the soapy, steaming floor and Berg was held tight
in her arms. His ecstasy of greeting was no greater than her ecstasy of
welcome. She cried and laughed and hugged and kissed him. That night,
after a mighty supper, he slept on her bed across her feet. Two or three
times she woke and reached her hand down to caress his rough thick coat.
The warmth of his body mounted from her feet to her heart. She thought
that he had been sent to her by that new God. As for Berg, he had found
his God again, the taming touch of a small human hand.
* * * * *
It was in May, one morning in May--she had long ago lost count of her
days--when Sheila stepped across her sill and saw the ground. Just a
patch it was, no bigger than a tablecloth, but it made her catch her
breath. She knelt down and ran her hands across it, sifted some gravel
through her fingers. How strange and various and colorful were the atoms
of stone, rare as jewels to her eyes so long used to the white and violet
monotony of snow. Beyond the gravel, at the very edge of the drift, a
slender crescent of green startled her eyes and--yes--there were a dozen
valorous little golden flowers, as flat and round as fairy doubloons.
Attracted by her cry, Berg came out, threw up his nose, and snuffed.
Spring spoke loudly to his nostrils. There was sap, rabbits were
about--all of it no news to him. Sheila sat down on the sill and hugged
him close. The sun was warm on his back, on her hands, on the boards
"May--May--May--" she whispered, and up in the firs quite suddenly, as
though he had thrown reserve to the four winds, a bluebird repeated her
"May--May--May" on three notes, high, low, and high again, a little
musical stumble of delight. It had begun again--that whistling-away of
winter fear and winter hopelessness.
The birds sang and built and the May flies crept up through the snow and
spun silver in the air for a brief dazzle of life.
The sun was so warm that Berg and Sheila dozed on their doorsill. They
did little else, these days, but dream and doze and wait.
The snow melted from underneath, sinking with audible groans of
collapse and running off across the frozen ground to swell Hidden
Creek. The river roared into a yellow flood, tripped its trees, sliced
at its banks. Sheila snowshoed down twice a day to look at it. It was a
sufficient barrier, she thought, between her and the world. And now,
she had attained to the savage joy of loneliness. She dreaded change.
Above all she dreaded Hilliard. That warmth of his beauty had faded
utterly from her senses. It seemed as faint as a fresco on a
long-buried wall. Intrusion must bring anxiety and pain, it might bring
fear. She had had long communion with her stars and the God whose name
they signaled. She, with her dog friend under her hand, had come to
something very like content.
The roar of Hidden Creek swelled and swelled. After the snow had shrunk
into patches here and there under the pines and against hilly slopes,
there was still the melting of the mountain glaciers.
"Nobody can possibly cross!" Sheila exulted. "A man would have to risk
his life." And it was in one of those very moments of her savage
self-congratulation when there came the sound of nearing hoofs.
She was sitting on her threshold, watching the slow darkness, a
sifting-down of ashes through the still air. It was so very still that
the little new moon hung there above the firs like faint music. Silver
and gray, and silver and green, and violet--Sheila named the delicacies
of dappled light. The stars had begun to shake little shivers of radiance
through the firs. They were softer than the winter stars--their keenness
melted by the warm blue of the air. Sheila sat and held her knees and
smiled. The distant, increasing tumult of the river, so part of the
silence that it seemed no sound at all, lulled her--Then--above it--the
beat of horse's hoofs.
At first she just sat empty of sensation except for the shock of those
faint thuds of sound. Then her heart began to beat to bursting; with
dread, with a suffocation of suspense. She got up, quiet as a thief. The
horse stopped. There came a step, rapid and eager. She fled like a
furtive shadow into the house, fell on her knees there by the hearth, and
hid her face against the big hide-covered chair. Her eyes were full of
cold tears. Her finger-tips were ice. She was shaking--shuddering,
rather--from head to foot. The steps had come close, had struck the
threshold. There they stopped. After a pause, which her pulses filled
with shaken rhythm, her name was spoken--So long it had been since she
had heard it that it fell on her ear like a foreign speech.
She lifted her head sharply. It was not Hilliard's voice.
"Sheila--" There was such an agony of fear in the softly spoken
syllables, there was such a weight of dread on the breath of the speaker,
that, for very pity, Sheila forgot herself. She got up from the floor and
moved dazedly to meet the figure on the threshold. It was dimly outlined
against the violet evening light. Sheila came up quite close and put her
hands on the tense, hanging arms. They caught her. Then she sobbed and
laughed aloud, calling out in her astonishment again and again, softly,
"_You_, Dickie? Oh, Dickie, Dickie, it's--_you_?"
SHEILA AND THE STARS
Hilliard's first messenger had been hindered by death. Several times it
seemed that his second messenger would suffer the same grim prevention.
But this second messenger was young and set like steel to his purpose. He
left the railroad at Millings, hired a horse, crossed the great plain
above the town and braved the Pass, dangerous with overbalanced weights
of melting snow. There, on the lonely Hill, he had his first encounter
with that Arch-Hinderer. A snow-slide caught him and he left his horse
buried, struggling out himself from the cold smother like a maimed insect
to lie for hours by the road till breath and life came back to him. He
got himself on foot to the nearest ranch, and there he hired a fresh
horse and reached Rusty, at the end of the third day.
Rusty was overshadowed by a tragedy. The body of the trapper, Hilliard's
first messenger, had been found under the melting snow, a few days
before, and to the white-faced young stranger was given that stained and
withered letter in which Hilliard had excused and explained his
Nothing, at Rusty, had been heard of Sheila. No one knew even that she
had ever left Miss Blake's ranch--the history of such lonely places is a
sealed book from snowfall until spring. Their tragedies are as dumb as
the tragedies of animal life. No one had ever connected Sheila's name
with Hilliard's. No one knew of his plans for her. The trapper had set
off without delay, not even going back to his house, some little distance
outside of Rusty, to tell his wife that he would be bringing home a
lodger with him. There was, to be sure, at the office a small bundle of
letters all in the same hand addressed to Miss Arundel. They had to wait,
perforce, till the snow-bound country was released.
"It's not likely even now," sly and twinkling Lander of the hotel told
Dickie, "that you can make it to Miss Blake's place. No, sir, nor to
Hilliard's neither. Hidden Creek's up. She's sure some flood this time of
the year. It's as much as your life's good for, stranger."
But Dickie merely smiled and got for himself a horse that was "good in
deep water." And he rode away from Rusty without looking back.
He rode along a lush, wet land of roaring streams, and, on the bank of
Hidden Creek, there was a roaring that drowned even the beating of his
heart. The flood straddled across his path like Apollyon.
A dozen times the horse refused the ford--at last with a desperate toss
of his head he made a plunge for it. Almost at once he was swept from the
cobbled bed. He swam sturdily, but the current whirled him down like a
straw--Dickie slipped from the saddle on the upper side so that the
water pressed him close to the horse, and, even when they both went
under, he held to the animal with hands like iron. This saved his life.
Five blind, black, gasping minutes later, the horse pulled him up on the
farther bank and they stood trembling together, dazed by life and the
warmth of the air.
It was growing dark. The heavy shadow of the mountain fell across them
and across the swollen yellow river they had just escaped. There began to
be a dappling light--the faint shining of that slim young moon. She was
just a silver curl there above the edge of the hill. In an hour she would
set. Her brightness was as shy and subtle as the brightness of a smile.
The messenger pulled his trembling body to the wet saddle and, looking
about for landmarks that had been described to him, he found the faint
trail to Hilliard's ranch. Presently he made out the low building under
its firs. He dropped down, freed the good swimmer and turned him loose,
then moved rapidly across the little clearing. It was all so still.
Hidden Creek alone made a threatening tumult. Dickie stopped before he
came to the door. He stood with his hands clenched at his sides and his
chin lifted. He seemed to be speaking to the sky. Then he stumbled to the
door and called,
She seemed to rise up from the floor and stand before him and put her
hands on his arms.
A sort of insanity of joy, of childish excitement came upon Sheila when
she had recognized her visitor. She flitted about the room, she laughed,
she talked half-wildly--it had been such a long silence--in broken,
ejaculatory sentences. It was Dickie's dumbness, as he leaned against the
door, looking at her, that sobered her at last. She came close to him
again and saw that he was shivering and that streams of water were
running from his clothes to the floor.
"Why, Dickie! How wet you are!"--Again she put her hands on his arms--he
was indeed drenched. She looked up into his face. It was gray and drawn
in the uncertain light.
"That dreadful river! How did you cross it!"
"It would have taken more than a river to stop me," he said in his old,
half-demure, half-ironical fashion. And that was all Sheila ever heard of
that brief epic of his journey. He drew away from her now and went over
to the fire.
"Dickie"--she followed him--"tell me how you came here. How you
knew where I was. Wait--I'll get you some of Cosme's clothes--and a
cup of tea."
This time, exhausted as he was, Dickie did not fail to stand up to take
the cup she brought him. He shook his head at the dry clothes. He didn't
want Hilliard's things, thank you; he was drying out nicely by the fire.
He wasn't a bit cold. He sat and drank the tea, leaning forward, his
elbows on his knees. He was, after all, just the same, she decided--only
more so. His Dickie-ness had increased a hundredfold. There was still
that quaint look of having come in from the fairy doings of a midsummer
night. Only, now that his color had come back and the light of her lamp
shone on him, he had a firmer and more vital look. His sickly pallor had
gone, and the blue marks under his eyes--the eyes were fuller, deeper,
more brilliant. He was steadier, firmer. He had definitely shed the
pitifulness of his childhood. And Sheila did not remember that his mouth
had so sweet a firm line from sensitive end to end of the lips.
Her impatience was driving her heart faster at every beat.
"You _must_, please, tell me everything now, Dickie," she pleaded,
sitting on the arm of Hilliard's second chair. Her cheeks burned; her
hair, grown to an awkward length, had come loose from a ribbon and fallen
about her face and shoulders. She had made herself a frock of
orange-colored cotton stuff--something that Hilliard had bought for
curtains. It was a startling color enough, but it could not dim her gypsy
beauty of wild dark hair and browned skin with which the misty and
spiritual eyes and the slightly straightened and saddened lips made
Dickie looked up at her a minute. He put down his cup and got to his
feet. He went to stand by the shelf, half-turned from her.
"Tell me, at least," she begged in a cracked key of suspense, "do you
know anything about--_Hilliard_?"
At that Dickie was vividly a victim of remorse.
"Oh--Sheila--damn! I _am_ a beast. Of course--he's all right. Only, you
see, he's been hurt and is in the hospital. That's why I came."
"You?--Hilliard?--Dickie. I can't really understand." She pushed back her
hair with the same gesture she had used in the studio when Sylvester
Hudson's offer of "a job" had set her brain whirling.
"No, of course. You wouldn't." Dickie spoke slowly again, looking at the
rug. "I went East--"
He looked up at her and flashed a queer, pained sort of smile. "I am
coming to him, Sheila. I've got to tell you _some_ about myself before I
get around to him or else you wouldn't savvy--"
"Oh." She couldn't meet the look that went with the queer smile, for it
was even queerer and more pained, and was, somehow, too old a look for
Dickie. So she said, "Oh," again, childishly, and waited, staring at
"I went to New York because I thought I'd find you there, Sheila. Pap's
hotel was on fire."
"Did you really burn it down, Dickie?"
He started violently. "_I_ burned it down? Good Lord! No. What made you
think such a thing?"
"Never mind. Your father thought so."
Dickie's face flushed. "I suppose he would." He thought it over, then
shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't. I don't know how it started ... I went
to New York and to that place you used to live in--the garret. I had the
address from the man who took Pap there."
"The studio? _Our_ studio?--_You_ there, Dickie?"
"Yes, ma'am. I lived there. I thought, at first, you might
come ... Well"--Dickie hurried as though he wanted to pass quickly over
this necessary history of his own experience--"I got a job at a hotel."
He smiled faintly. "I was a waiter. One night I went to look at a fire.
It was a big fire. I was trying to think out what it was like--you know
the way I always did. It used to drive Pap loco--I must have been talking
to myself. Anyway, there was a fellow standing near me with a notebook
and a pencil and he spoke up suddenly--kind of sharp, and said: 'Say that
again, will you?'--He was a newspaper reporter, Sheila ... That's how I
got into the job. But I'm only telling you because--"
Sheila hit the rung of her chair with an impatient foot. "Oh, Dickie! How
silly you are! As if I weren't _dying_ to hear all about it. How did you
get 'into the job'? What job?"
"Reporting," said Dickie. He was troubled by this urgency of hers. He
began to stammer a little. "Of course, the--the fellow helped me a lot.
He got me on the staff. He went round with me. He--he took down what I
said and later he--he kind of edited my copy before I handed it in.
He--he was almighty good to me. And I--I worked awfully hard. Like Hell.
Night classes when I wasn't on night duty, and books. Then, Sheila, I
began to get kind of crazy over words." His eyes kindled. And his face.
He straightened. He forgot himself, whatever it was that weighed upon
him. "Aren't they wonderful? They're like polished stones--each one a
different shape and color and feel. You fit 'em this way and that and
turn 'em and--all at once, they shine and sing. God! I never knowed what
was the matter with me till I began to work with words--and that _is_
work. Sheila! Lord! How you hate them, and love them, and curse them, and
worship them. I used to think I wanted _whiskey_." He laughed scorn at
that old desire; then came to self-consciousness again and was
shamefaced--"I guess you think I am plumb out of my head," he apologized.
"You see, it was because I was a--a reporter, Sheila, that I happened to
be there when Hilliard was hurt. I was coming home from the night courts.
It was downtown. At a street-corner there was a crowd. Somebody told me;
'Young Hilliard's car ran into a milk cart; turned turtle. He's hurt.'
Well, of course, I knew it'd be a good story--all that about Hilliard and
his millions and his coming from the West to get his inheritance--it had
just come out a couple of months before...."
"His millions?" repeated Sheila. She slipped off the arm of her chair
without turning her wide look from Dickie and sat down with an air of
deliberate sobriety. "His inheritance?" she repeated.
"Yes, ma'am. That's what took him East. He had news at Rusty. He wrote
you a letter and sent it by a man who was to fetch you to Rusty. You were
to stay there with his wife till Hilliard would be coming back for you.
But, Sheila, the man was caught in a trap and buried by a blizzard. They
found him only about a week ago--with Hilliard's letter in his pocket."
Dickie fumbled in his own steaming coat. "Here it is. I've got it."
"Don't give it to me yet," she said. "Go on."
"Well," Dickie turned the shriveled and stained paper lightly in restless
fingers. "That morning in New York I got up close to the car and had my
notebook out. Hilliard was waiting for the ambulance. His ribs were
smashed and his arm broken. He was conscious. He was laughing and talking
and smoking cigarettes. I asked him some questions and he took a notion
to question _me_. 'You're from the West,' he said; and when I told him
'Millings,' he kind of gasped and sat up. That turned him faint. But when
they were carrying him off, he got a-holt of my hand and whispered, 'Come
see me at the hospital.' I was willing enough--I went. And they took me
to him--private room. And a nice-looking nurse. And flowers. He has lots
of friends in New York--Hilliard, you bet you--" It was irony again and
Sheila stirred nervously. That changed his tone. He moved abruptly and
came and sat down near her, locking his hands and bending his head to
study them in the old way. "He found out who I was and he told me about
you, Sheila, and, because he was too much hurt to travel or even to
write, he asked me to go out and carry a message for him. Nothing would
have kept me from going, anyway," Dickie added quaintly. "When I learned
what had been happening and how you were left and no letters coming from
Rusty to answer his--well, sir, I could hardly sit still to hear about
all that, Sheila. But, anyway--" Dickie moved his hands. They sought the
arms of his chair and the fingers tightened. He looked past Sheila. "He
told me then how it was with you and him. That you were planning to be
married. And I promised to find you and tell you what he said."
"What did he say?"
Dickie spoke carefully, using his strange gift. With every word his
face grew a trifle whiter, but that had no effect upon his eloquence.
He painted a vivid and touching picture of the shattered and wistful
youth. He repeated the shaken words of remorse and love. "I want her to
come East and marry me. I love her. Tell her I love her. Tell her I can
give her everything she wants in all the world. Tell her to come--" And
far more skillfully than ever Hilliard himself could have done, Dickie
pleaded the intoxication of that sudden shower of gold, the
bewildering change in the young waif's life, the necessity he was under
to go and see and touch the miracle. There was a long silence after
Dickie had delivered himself of the burden of his promise. The fire
leapt and crackled on Hilliard's forsaken hearth. It threw shadows and
gleams across Dickie's thin, exhausted face and Sheila's inscrutably
She held out her hand.
"Give me the letters now, Dickie."
He handed her the bundle that had accumulated in Rusty and the little
withered one taken from the body of the trapper. Sheila took them and
held them on her knee. She pressed both her hands against her eyes; then,
leaning toward the fire, she read the letters, beginning with that one
that had spent so many months under the dumb snow.
Berg, who had investigated Dickie, leaned against her knee while she
read, his eyes fixed upon her. She read and laid the pile by on the table
behind her. She sat for a long while, elbows on the arms of her chair,
fingers laced beneath her chin. She seemed to be looking at the fire, but
she was watching Dickie through her eyelashes. There was no ease in his
attitude. He had his arms folded, his hands gripped the damp sleeves of
his coat. When she spoke, he jumped as though she had fired a gun.
"It is not true, Dickie, that things were--were that way between Cosme
and me ... We had not settled to be married ..." She paused and saw that
he forced himself to sit quiet. "Do you really think," she said, "that
the man that wrote those letters, loves me?" Dickie was silent. He would
not meet her look. "So you promised Hilliard that you would take me back
to marry him?" There was an edge to her voice.
Back to Full Books