BERTHA was eating her supper, after a hard day's work in her little hotel, when a little yellow envelope was handed to her. The words of the message were few, but they were meaning-full: "Come at once. Mart hurt, not expected to live." It was signed by Williams. While still she sat stunned and hesitant, under the weight of this demand, another and much more explicit telegram came: "Johnson, superintendent, is ordered to fetch you with special train. Don't delay. Mart needs you—is calling for you. Come at once!"
The phrase "is calling for you" reached her heart— decided her. She rose, and, with a word of explanation to her housekeeper, put on her hat, and threw a cloak over her arm. "I've got to go to Cripple. Captain Haney is sick, and I've got to go to him. I don't know when I'll be back," she said. "Get along the best you can." Her face was white but calm, and her manner deliberate. "Send word to mother that Mart is hurt, and I've gone up to see him. Tell her not to worry."
To her night clerk, who had come on duty, she quietly remarked: "I reckon you'll have to look after things to-morrow. I'll try to get back the day after. If I don't, Lem Markham will take my place." While still she stood arranging the details of her business a short, dark man stepped inside the door, and very kindly and gravely explained his errand. "I'm Johnson, the division superintendent. They've telegraphed me for a special, and I'm going to take you up myself. Mart is a friend of mine," he added, with some feeling.
She thanked him with a look and a quick clasp of his hand, and together they hurried into the street and down to the station, where a locomotive coupled to a single coach stood panting like a fierce animal, a cloud of spark-lit smoke rolling from its low stack. The coach was merely a short caboose; but the girl stepped into it without a moment's hesitation, and the engine took the track like a spirited horse. As the fireman got up speed the car began to rock and roll violently, and Johnson remarked to the girl: "I guess you'd better take my chair; it's bolted to the floor, and you can hang on when we go round the curves."
She obeyed instantly, and with her small hands gripping the arm-rests of the rude seat cowered in silence, while the clambering monster rushed and roared over the level lands and labored up the grades, shrieking now and again, as if in mingled pain and warning. Johnson and the brakeman, for the most part, kept to the lookout in the turret, and the girl rode alone—rode far, passing swiftly from girlhood to womanhood, so full of enforced meditation were the hours of that ride. It seemed that she was leaving something sweet and care-free behind her, and it was certain that she was about to face death. She had one perfectly clear conception, and that was that the man who had been most kind to her, and to whom she had given her promise of marriage, was dying and needed her—was calling for her through the night.
Burdened with responsibility from her childhood, accustomed to make her own decisions, she had responded to this prayer, knowing dimly that this journey denoted a new and portentous experience—a fundamental change in her life.
She had admired and liked Haney from the first, but her feeling even yet was very like that of a boy for a man of heroic statue—her regard had very little of woman's passion in it. She was appalled and benumbed by the thought that she was soon to look upon him lying prone. That she might soon be called upon to meet those bold eyes closing in death she had been warned, and yet she did not shrink from it. The nurse, latent in every woman, rose in her, and she ached with desire of haste, longing to lay her hand upon the suffering man in some healing way. His kindness, his gentleness, during the days of his final courtship had sunk deep—his generosity had been so full, so free, so unhesitating.
She thought of her mother, and as a fuller conception of the alarm and anxiety she would feel came to her, she decided to send her a telegram. "She will know it was my duty to go," she decided. "As for the hotel— what does it matter now ?" Nothing seemed to matter, indeed, save the speed of her chariot.
The night was long, interminably long. Once and again Johnson came down out of his perch, and spoke a few clumsy words of well-meaning encouragement, but found her unresponsive. Her brain was too busy with taking leave of old conceptions and in mastering new duties to be otherwise than vaguely grateful to her companions. Her mind was clear on one other point—this journey committed her to Marshall Haney. There could be no further hesitation. "Some time, soon, if he lives, I must marry him," she thought, and the conception troubled her with a new revelation of what that relationship might mean. She felt suddenly very small, very weak, and very helpless. "He must be good to me," she murmured. And then, as the words of his prayer to her came back, she added: "And I'll be good to him."
Far and farther below her shone the lights in the little hotel, and the busy and jocund scenes of her girlish life receded swiftly. At this moment her desk and the little sitting-room where the men lounged seemed a haven of peace and plenty, and the car, rocking and plunging through the night, was like a ship rising and falling on wild seas under unknown stars.
The clear light of the mountain dawn was burnishing brass into gold as the locomotive with its tolling bell slid up the level track at the end of its run, and came to a stealthy halt beside the small station.
"Here we are!" called Johnson from his turret, and Bertha rose, stiff and sore with the long night's ride, her resolution cooled to a kind of passive endurance. "I'm ready!" she called back.
Williams met her at the step. "It's all right, sis. Mart's still here—and waiting for you."
Instantly, at sight of his ugly, familiar, friendly face, she became alert, clear-brained. "How is he?"