AFTER Alice Heath's carriage had driven away, Haney returned to his chair, and with eyes fixed upon the distant peaks gave himself up to a review of all that the sick woman had said, and entered also upon a forecast of the game.
He was not entirely unprepared for her revelation. He was, indeed, too wise not to know that Bertha must sometime surely find in another and younger man her heart's hunger, but his wish had set that dark day far away in the future. Moreover, he had relied on her promise to confide in him, and it hurt him to think that she had not fulfilled her pledge; yet even in this he sought excuses for her.
"She may love him without knowing it. Annyhow, he's a fine young lad, far better for her than an old shoulder-shot cayuse like meself." His sense of un-worthiness became the solvent of other and sweeter emotions. His wealth no longer seemed capable of bridging the deep chasm widening between them.
This day had shown a black sky to him, even before Alice Heath's disturbing call, for Bertha had been darkly brooding at breakfast, and silent at lunch, and immediately after rising from the table had gone away alone, without a word of explanation to any member of her household. She had not even taken her dogs with her, and her face was set and almost sullen as she passed out of the door and down the walk. All this was so unlike her that Mart was greatly troubled. It gave weight and significance to every word of Alice Heath's warning.
Bertha was gone till nearly six o'clock, and her mood seemed no whit lightened as she entered the gate and came slowly up the walk. To Mart's humbly spoken query, "What troubles ye, darlin' ?" she made no reply, but went at once to her room.
The old gambler seemed pitiably helpless and forlorn as he sat there in his accustomed chair waiting her return. The bees and birds were busy among the vines, and all the well-oiled machinery of his splendid home was going forward to the end that his sweet girl-wife should be served. If she were unhappy, of what value were these soft rugs, these savory dishes, this shining silver? There was, in truth, something mocking and terrifying in the swift, well-trained action of the servants, who went about their tasks unmoved and apparently unacquainted with any change in the mind of their young mistress.
In the kitchen the cook was carefully compounding the soup while watching the roast. Lucius, deft and absorbed, was preparing the table, arranging the coffee service and deciding upon the china. On the seat under the pear-trees Miss Franklin was chatting with Mrs. Gilman, and in the barn the coachman could be heard giving the horses their evening taste of green grassó "and yet how empty, aimless, and foolish it all is if Bertha is unhappy," thought the master.
He grew alarmed for fear she would not come down; but at last he heard her light step on the stairs, and when she came in view his dim eyes were startled by the transformation in her. She had put on the plainest of her gowns, and she wore no jewels. By other ways which he felt but could not analyze she expressed some portentous shift of mood. He could not define why, but her step scared him, so measured and resolute it seemed.
She called to her mother and Miss Franklin and then asked, "Has dinner been announced?"
Her tone was quiet and natural, and Mart was relieved. He answered with attempt at jocularity, "Lucius is this minute winkin' at me over the soup-tureen."
As they took seats at the table Mrs. Gilman exclaimed, "Why, dearie, where did you dig up that old waist?"
" Will it do to visit Sibley in?"
"No indeed! I should say not. When you go back there I want you to wear the best you've got. They'll consider it an insult if you don't."
A faint smile lighted Bertha's pale face. "I don't think they'll take it so hard as all that."
"Are you goin' to Sibley?" asked Mart, an anxious tone in his voice.
"I thought of it. Mother is going over to-night, and I rather guess I'll run over with her. I've never been back, you see, since that night."
There was something ominous in her restraint, in her abstraction of glance, and especially in her lack of appetite. She took little account of her guests and seemed profoundly engaged upon some inward calculation. The beautifully spread table, which would have thrilled her a few short weeks ago, was powerless to even hold her gaze, and it was Lucius (deft and watchful) who brought the meal to a successful conclusionó for the mother was awed and helpless in the presence of the queenly daughter whom wealth had translated into something almost too high and shining for her to lay hand upon.
Miss Franklin did her best, but she was not a person of light and dancing intellectual feet, and she had never understood Haney, anyhow. Altogether it was a dismal and difficult half-hour.
When the coffee came on Bertha rose abruptly, saying, "Come out into the garden, Mart, I've got something to say to you."
He obeyed with a sense of being called to account, and as they walked slowly across the grass, which the light of a vivid orange sunset had made transcendent-ly green, he glanced to the west with foreboding that this was the last time he should look upon the kingly peak at sunset time. A flaming helmet of cloud shone upon the chief, and all the lesser heights were a deep, purple bank out of which each serrate summit rose without perspective, sharply set against the other like a monstrous silhouette of cardboard.
It should have been indeed a very sweet and odorous and peaceful hour. The murmur of the water from the fountain had the lulling sound of a hive of bees as they settle to rest, and to the suffering man it seemed impossible that this, his cherished world, could change to the black chaos which the loss of his adorable wife would bring upon it.
The settee was of wire, and curved so that when they had taken seats they faced each other, and the sight of her, so slender, so graceful, so womanly, filled him with a fury of hate against the assassin who had torn him to pieces, making him old before his time, a cripple, impotent, inert, and scarred.