Bertha did not wait for him to begin, and her first words smote like bullets. "Mart, I'm going back to Sibley."
He looked at her with startled eyes — his brow wrinkling into sorrowful lines. "For how long?"
"I don't know—it may be a good while. I'm going away to think things over." Then she added, firmly, "I may not come back at all, Mart."
"For God's sake, don't say that, girlie! You don't mean that!" His voice was husky with the agony that filled his throat. "I can't live without ye now. Don't go—that way."
"I've got to go, Mart. My mind ain't made up to this proposition. I don't know about living with you any more."
"Why not? What's the matter, darling ? Can't ye put up with me a little longer? I know I'm only a piece of a man—but tell me the truth. Can't you stay with me—as we are?"
She met him with the truth, but not the whole truth. "Everybody thinks I married you for your money, Mart—it ain't true—but the evidence is all against me. The only way to prove it a lie is to just naturally pull out and go back to work. I hate to leave, so long as you—feel about me as you do—but, Mart, I'm 'bleeged' to do it. My mind is so stirred up—I don't enjoy anything any more. I used to like everything in the house —all my nice things—the dresses and trinkets you gave me. It was fun to run the kitchen—now it all goes against the grain some way. Fact is, none of it seems mine."
His eyes were wet with tears as he said: "It's all my fault. It's all because of what I said last night—" She stopped him. "No, it ain't that—it ain't your fault, it's mine. Something's gone wrong with me. I love this home, and my dogs and horses and all—and yet I can't enjoy 'em any more. They don't belong to me—now that's the fact, Mart."
"I'll make 'em yours, darlin', I'll deed 'em all over to you."
"No, no, that won't do it. My mind has got to change. It's all in my mind. Don't you see? I've got to get away from the whole outfit and think it all out. If I can come back I will, but you mustn't bank on my return, Mart. You mustn't be surprised if I settle on the other side of the range."
"I know," he said, sadly. "I know your reason and I don't blame you. 'Tis not for an old derelict like me to hold you—but you must let me give you some of me money—'tis of no value to me now. If ye do not let me share it with you me heart will break entirely."
"I haven't a right to a cent of it, Mart—I owe you more than I can ever pay. No, I can't afford to take another cent."
In the pause which followed his face took on a look of new resolution. "Bertie, I've had something happen to me to-day. I've learned something I should have known long since."
Her look of surprise deepened into dismay as he went on: "I know what's the matter with you, girlie. 'Tis after seeing Ben your face always shines. You love him, Bertie—and I don't blame you—"
A carriage driving up to the gate brought diversion, and she sprang up, her face flushed, her eyes big and scared. "There comes Dr. Steele! I'd plumb forgot about his call."
"Sohad I," he answered, as he rose to meet his visitor.
Dr. Steele, a gray-haired, vigorous man, entered the gate and came hurriedly up the path, something fateful in his stride. He greeted them both casually, smile-lessly. "I've got to get that next train," he announced, mechanically looking at his watch, "and that leaves me just twenty minutes in which to thump you."
Bertha was in awe of this blunt, tactless man of science, and as they moved towards the house listened in chilled silence while he continued: "Brent writes me that you were doing pretty well down by the lake. Why didn't you stay ? He says he advised you not to come back."
"This is me home," answered Haney, simply.
Lucius took Bertha's place at Mart's shoulder and the three men went into the library, leaving her to wait outside in anxious solitude. There was something in the doctor's manner which awed her, filled her with new conceptions, new duties.
Steele was one of these cold-blooded practitioners who do not believe in the old-fashioned manner. "Cheery suggestion" was nonsense to him. His examination was to Bertha, as to Haney, a dreaded ordeal. However, Brent had advised it, and they had agreed to submit to it, and now here he was, and upon his judgment she must rest.
For half an hour she waited in the hall, almost without moving, so far-reaching did this verdict promise to be. Her anxiety deepened into fear as Steele came out of the room and walked rapidly towards her. "He's a very sick man," he burst forth, irritably. "Get him away from here as quickly as you can—but don't excite him. Don't let him exert himself at all till you reach a lower altitude. Keep him quiet and peaceful, and don't let him clog himself up with starchy food—and above all, keep liquors away from him. He shouldn't have come back here at all. Brent warned him that he couldn't live up here. Slide him down to sea-level— if he'll go—and take care of him. His heart will run along all right if he don't overtax it. He'll last for years at sea-level."
"He hates to leave—he says he won't leave," she explained.
The man of science shrugged his shoulders. "All right! He can take his choice of roads"—he used an expressive gesture—"up or down. One leads to the New Jerusalem and is short—as he'll find out if he stays here. Good-night! I must get that train."
"Wait a minute!" she called after him. "Is there anything I can do? Did you leave any medicine?"
He turned and came back. "Yes, a temporary stimulant, but medicine is of little use. If you can get away to-morrow, you do it."
She stood a few minutes at the library door listening, waiting, and at last (hearing no sound), opened the door decisively and went in.
Haney, ghastly pale, in limp dejection, almost in collapse, was seated in an easy-chair, with Lucius holding a glass to his lips. He was stripped to his undershirt and looked like a defeated, gray old gladiator, fallen helpless in the arena, deserted by all the world save his one faithful servant—and Bertha's heart was wrenched with a deep pang of pity and remorse as she gazed at him. The doctor's warning became a command. To desert him in returning health was bad enough, to desert him now was impossible.