MART maintained his deceptive cheer at the break-fast-table, and the haggard look of the earlier hour passed away as he resolutely attacked his chop. He spoke of his exile in a tone of resignation—mixed with humor. "Sure, the old dad will have the laugh on us. He told us this was the jumpin'-off place."
"What will we do about the house?" asked Bertha. "Will we sell or rent?"
"Nayther. Lave it as it is," replied he quickly. "So long as I live I want to feel 'tis here ready for ye whinever ye wish to use it. 'Tis not mine. Without you I never would have had it, and I want no other mistress in it. Sure, every chair, every picture on the walls is there because of ye. 'Tis all you, and no one else shall mar it while I live."
This was the note which was most piercing in her ears, and she hastened to stop it by remarking the expense of maintaining the place—its possible decay and the like; \mt to all this he doggedly replied: "I care not. I'd rather burn it and all there is in it than turn it over to some other woman. Go you to Ben and tell him my will concerning it."
This gave a new turn to her thought. " I don't want to do that. Why don't you go and tell him yourself?" "Didn't the doctor say I must save meself worry?
I hate to ask ye to shoulder the heavy end of this proposition." His face lost its forced smile. "I'm a sick man, darlin'; I know it now, and I must save meself all I can. Ye may send Lucius down and bring him up, or we'll drive down and see him; maybe the ride would do me good, but I can't climb them stairs ag'in."
The temptation to see Ben once more, alone in the bright office, proved too great for Bertha's resolution, and she answered: "All right, I'll go, but only to bring him down to you. You must give the orders about the house."
In spite of his iron determination to be of good cheer in her presence, Mart's lips quivered with pain of parting as he looked round the splendid dining-room, into which the sunlight was pouring. Suddenly he broke forth: "Ye must stay here, darlin'—never mind me. 'Tis a sin and a shame to ask ye to lave all this to go with a poor old—"
"Stop that!" she called, sharply. "I won't listen to any such talk," and he said no more.
They decided to go down about ten o'clock, when the daily tide of his life rode highest. This hour suited his own plan, for a train left for the mountains not long after, and he had resolved to make his escape while Bertha was with Ben in the office. "There will be no need of any change in the house," he thought, "but 'twill do no hurt for them to talk it all over."
For an hour or two he hobbled about the yard and garden, taking a final look at the horses and dogs, and his face was very lax and gray and his voice broken as he talked with his men, who had learned of the doctor's orders, and were awkwardly silent with sympathy. He soon grew tired and came back to the porch to rest and wait for the hour of his departure. Settling into his accustomed chair, which faced directly upon the mountains over which the sun, wearing to the south, was beginning to hang its vivid shadows, he sat like a man of bronze. The clouds which each day clothed the scarred and naked peaks with a mantle of ermine and purple, were already assembling. The range assumed a new and overpowering grandeur in his eyes, for it typified the Big Divide, which lay between him and the country of the soundless, dawnless night.
Up that deep fold which lay between the chieftain and his consort to the north ran the western way—a trail with no returning footprints; and the thought made his heart beat painfully, while a sense of the wonder and the terror of death came to him. He was going away as the wounded grizzly crawls to the thicket to die, unseen of his kind, even of his mate.
To never return! To mount and mount, each league separating him forever from the mansion he had come to enjoy, the wife he loved better than his own life. "I cannot believe it," he whispered, "and yet I must make it so."
Then he began to wonder, grimly, just when his heart would fail, just where it would burst like a rotten cinch. "Will it be on the train? Suppose I last to the coal-switch, then I must climb to the mine. Suppose I live to reach the mine, then what ? Oh, well, 'tis easy to slip from the cliff."
Meanwhile, out under the trees, the gardener was spading turf, the lawn-mower was purring briskly and as though no sentence of death had been passed upon the master of the place. In this Haney saw the world's action typified. The individual is of little value—the race alone counts.
He shuffled down to meet the carriage at the gate, and Lucius helped him in before Bertha could reach him, and they drove off down the street so exactly in their usual way that Bertha was moved to say: "I don't believe it! I can't realize we're quitting this town to-morrow."
"No more can I, but I reckon it's good-bye all the same—for me, anny how. I despise meself for asking ye to go, darlin' — I don't ask it. Stay you! I'm not demanding annything at all. 'Tis fitter for me to go alone. Stay on, darlin'—'twill comfort me to lave ye safe and happy here."
She shook her head with quite as much determination as he. "No, Mart, my mind is made up—I know my job, and I'm going to muckle to it like a little lady, so don't fuss."
The air was beautifully clear and bracing, and a minute later Haney remarked, sadly: "I reckon the doctor knows his trade, but 'tis bitter nonsense to me when a man says the murky wind of the low country is better for a sick man than this."
She was very tender at heart as she replied: "I'm afraid he's right, Mart. I could see you weren't so well here; but I was selfish—I tried to argue different. You'll be better down below, that's dead certain."
"Well, the bets are all laid and the wheel spinning. I'm ready to take me exile—but I hate to drag ye down with me."
"Don't worry about me," she answered, with intent to reassure him. "To be honest, I kind o' like the East."