Running to him, all her repugnance gone, all hef tenderness awake, she put her arm about his shoulders. "Oh, Mart, did he hurt you? Are you worse?"
He raised dim eyes to her, eyes that seemed already filmed with death's opaque curtains, but bravely, slowly smiled. "I'm down but not out, darlin'. That brute of a doctor jolted me hard; I nearly took the count—but I'm—still in the ring. Harness me up, Lucius. I'll show that sawbones the power of mind over matter—the ould croaker!"
He recovered rapidly and was soon able to stagger to his feet. Then, with a return of his wonted humor, he stretched out his big right arm. "I'm not to be put out of business by wan punch from an old puddin' like Steele. I am not the 'stiff' he thinks. He had me agin the ropes, 'tis true, but I'll surprise him yet."
"What did he say?" she persisted in demanding.
He shook his head. "That's bechune the two of us," he nodded warningly at Lucius. "For one thing, he says me heart can't stand the high country. 'It's you to the deep valley,' says he."
Her decision was ready. "All right, then we go\"
He faced her quickly. "Did ye say WE, Bertie? Did ye say it, sweetheart ?"
"I did, Mart—I've changed my mind once more. I'm goin' to stick by you—till you're settled somewhere. I won't leave till-you're better."
The tears blinded his eyes again, and his lips twitched. "You're God's own angel, Bertie, but I don't deserve it. No, stay you here—I'm not worth your sacrifice. No, no, I can't have it! Stay here with Ben and look after the mines."
Her face settled in lines that were not girlish as she repeated: "It's up to me to go, and I'm going, Mart! I didn't realize how bad it was for you here—I didn't, really!"
"It's all wrong, I'm afraid — all wrong," he answered, "but the Lord knows I need you worse than ever."
"Shut off on all that!" she commanded. "Lucius, help me take him outside where the air is better."
Mart put the man away. "One is enough," he said, brusquely; and so, leaning on his strong, young wife, he went slowly out into the dusk where the mother and Miss Franklin were sitting, quite unconscious of the deep significance of the doctor's visit. "Not a word to them," warned Haney—"at any rate, not to-night."
They were now both facing the pain of instantly abandoning all these beautiful and ministering material conditions which money had called round them. It seemed so foolish, so incredibly silly—this mandate of the physician. Could any place on the earth be more healthful, more helpful to human life than this wide-porched, cool-halled house, this garden, this air ? What difference could a few thousand feet make on the heart's action?
The thought of putting away all hope of seeing Ben Fordyce came at last to overtop all Bertha's other regrets as the lordly peak overrode the clouds—and yet she was determined to go. Very quietly she told her mother that she had decided to put off her visit to Sibley, and at 10:30 she drove down to the station and sent her away composedly. At the moment she was glad to get her out of the town, so that she should not share in the grief of next day's departure. To Miss Franklin she then confided the doctor's warning, and together they began to pack.
Haney, with lowering brow and bleeding heart, went to his bed denouncing himself. "I have no right to her. 'Tis the time for me to step out. If the doctor knows his business, 'tis only a matter of a few weeks, annyhow, when my seat in the game will be empty. Why not stay here in me own home and so end it all comfortably?"
This was so simple—and yet he spent most of the night fighting the desire to live out those years the doctor had promised him. It was so sweet to sit opposite that dear girl-face of a morning, to feel her hand on his hair—now and again. "She's only a child—she can wait ten years and still be young." But then came the thought: " 'Tis harder for her to wait than it is for me to go. 'Tis mere selfishness. What can I do in the world? I have no interest in the game outside of her. No, Mart, the consumptive is right, 'tis up to you to slip away, genteel and quiet, so that your widow will not be troubled by anny gossip."
To use the pistol was easy, the handle fitted his hand, but to die so that no shock or shame would come to her, that was his problem. "I will not leave her the widow of a suicide," he resolved. "I must go so sly, so casual-like, that no one will be able to point the finger at her or Ben."
"Can I visit the mine once more?" he had asked Steele. "No," the doctor had replied. "To go a thousand feet higher than this would be fatal."
As he mused on this he began to feel the wonder of the body in which he dwelt. That a machine so bulky and so gross could be so delicate that a change in the pressure of the atmosphere might be fatal astonished him. "I'll soon know," he said, "for I cross the range to-morrow."
The dark shadow of the unseen world, once so dim and far, now rose formidable as a mountain on the horizon of his thought. It was so difficult to leave the house in which he had found peace and a strange kind of happiness (the happiness of a soldier home on parole, convalescent and content under the apple-trees)—it was very hard—and the tenderness, the care, to which his little wife had returned and which filled his heart with sweetness, added to his irresolution.
He fell into deep sleep at last, still in debate with himself.
He woke quietly next morning, like a child, and as his eyes took in the big room in which he had slept for a year, surrounded by such luxury as he had never dreamed of having (even for a day), life seemed very easy of continuance, and Steele a mistaken egotist, a foul destroyer of men's peace; but as he rose to dress and saw himself in the glass, the figure he presented decided his hand. Was this Mart Haney — this unshaven, haggard, and wrinkled old man?
Leaning close to the mirror, he studied his face as if it were a mask. Deep creases ran down on either side of the nose, giving to his gaze the morose expression of an aged, slavering mastiff. His nerveless cheeks depended. His neck was stringy. Puffy sacs lay under the eyes, and the ashen pallor of his skin told how the heart was laboring to maintain life's red current in its round.
As he looked his decision was taken. "Mart, the game has run mostly in your favor for twenty-five years —but 'tis agin ye now. The quiet old gentleman with the bony grin holds the winning fist. Lay down your cards and quit the board this day, like a man. Why drag on like this for a year or two more, a burden to yourself and a curse to her."
And yet, though crippled and gray, death was somehow more dreadful to him at this moment than when in his remorseless and powerful young manhood he had looked again and again into the murderous eyes of those who were eager to shed his blood. He shivered at the thought of the dark river, as those whose limbs having grown pale and thin dread the cold wind of the night.
'T wonder is the mother over there waitin' fer me?" he half whispered. "If ye are, your soul will be floating far above me in the light, while I — burdened by me sins—must wallow below in purgatory. But I go, and the divil take his toll."
There was not much preparation to be made. His will was written, fully attested, and filed in a safe place. His small personal belongings he was willing to leave in Bertha's hands. It was hardest of all to vanish without a word of good-bye to any soul, but this was essential to his plan. "No one must suspect design in me departure," he muttered. " I must drop out—by accident. I must cut loose during the day, too—no night trips for me — in a way that will look natural. If Steele knows his business, Mart Haney will go out of the game on the summit, if not, 'tis easy for a cripple to stagger and fall from a rock. Thank God, I leave her as I found her—small credit to me in that."
Lucius, coming in soon after, found his master unexpectedly cheerful and vigorous.
In answer to his query, the gambler said: "I take me medicine, Lucius, like a Cheyenne. 'Tis all in the game. Some man must lose in order that another may win. The wheel rolls and the board is charged in favor of the bank. Damn the man that squeals when the cards fall fair."