Julia came in and was quite as outspoken in her regret, and both refused to say good-bye at the moment. "We'll see you at the station," they said, and Bertha went away, feeling the pain of parting less keen by reason of this promise.
Afterwards, as the hour for departure came near, she hoped they would not come. It was less difficult to say "I'll see you again" than to utter the curt "goodbye" which means so much in Anglo-Saxon life.
They came, however, together with several others of her friends, but in the bustle and confusion of the depot not much of sentiment could be uttered, and, though she felt that she was going for a long stay, she was prodigal of promises to return soon.
Patrick Haney was there, but refused to go with them. "Sure I'm at the jumpin'-off place now, and to immigrate furder would be to put meself in the hands of the murtherin' redskins." His talk was the touch of comedy which the situation needed. "Av ye don't mind I'll stay wid Fan," he said, a little more seriously, to Haney, who replied:
"All right, 'tis as Fan says," and so they entered the train for the upward climb.
Haney himself had only joy of the return. He sat at one of the windows of the library car and studied the prairie swells with a faint, musing smile, till the darkness fell, and was up early next morning, eager and curious, to see how the increasing altitude would affect him. Only towards the end of the second day after eating his dinner did he begin to feel oppressed.
"I smell the altitude," he confessed—"me breath is short enin' a bit, but 'tis good to see the peaks again."
In this long ride the girl-wife dwelt dangerously on the bright face of Ben Fordyce. It was the thought of seeing him again that came at last to steal away her regret at parting from her Eastern friends. The splendor of the Eastern world faded at last, and she, too, soared gladly towards the mountains. Every doubt was swallowed up in a pleasure which was at once pure and beyond her control.
Ben would be at the station, she was certain, for Lucius had wired to him the time of their arrival, and he had instantly replied. "I'll be there, and very glad to see you"—these words, few and simple, were addressed to Marshall Haney, but they thrilled her almost as if Ben had spoken them to her. Was he as glad to have her return as she was to meet him again ?
"A fine lad," remarked Haney, as he pocketed the envelope. "I wonder does he marry soon? He'd better decide now. I reckon Alice is not long for this climate—poor girl!"
His remark, so simple in itself, pierced to the centre of Bertha's momentary self-deception. "I have no right to think of him. He belongs to Alice Heath!" But the feeling that she herself belonged to Marshall Haney was gone. That she owed him service was true, but since the night of his drunkenness she had definitely and finally abandoned all thought of being his wife, soul to soul, in the rite that sanctifies law. True, he had kept his word, he had not offended again, but the mischief was done. To return to the plane on which they had stood when she gave her promise was impossible.
The day and the hour were such as make the plain lover content with his world. The earth, a mighty robe of closely woven velvet, mottled softly in variant greens, swept away to the west, under a soaring convexity of saffron sky, towards a cloudy altar whereon small wisps of vapor were burning down to golden embers, while beneath lay the dark-blue Rampart range. It was a world for horsemen, for free rovers, and for swift and tireless desert-kine. The course of winds, it lay, a playground for tempests that formed along the great divide and swept down over the antlike homes of men, acknowledging no barrier, exultant of their strength of wing and the weight of their horizon-touching armament.
Bertha loved this land, but only because it was an approach to the hills. She would have shuddered at its desolate, limitless sweep, treeless, shelterless, had not the dim forms of the distant peaks she loved so well rose just beyond. She lost her doubt as they approached, welcoming them as the gates of home. She forgot all save the swelling tide of longing in her heart.
As the train drew slowly in she caught sight of Ben's intent face among the throng, and was moved to the point of beating upon the window. He seemed careworn and older in this glimpse, but at sight of her his sunny smile came back radiantly to his lips and glinted like sunshine from his eyes. In tremulous voice she called: "There he is!"
Self-revelation lay in this ecstatic cry and in the glad haste which kept her on her feet; but Haney, unsuspicious, content, found no cause for jealousy in her innocent and unrestrained delight at getting home.
Progress down the aisle seemed intolerably slow, for the passengers ahead of her, stubbornly sluggish, barred her way, but at last she stood looking into her lover's face, her eager hand pressed between his palms.
"Welcome home!" he called, and drew her to him as if moved almost beyond his control with desire to clasp her to his bosom. In that instant they forgot all their doubts and scruples—overpowered by the sense of each other's nearness.
She was the first to recover her self-command, and, pushing him away with a quick, decisive gesture, turned to aid Mart, whom Lucius was bringing slowly down the step.
Her heart was still laboring painfully as she faced Congdon, but she contrived to return his greeting as he remarked with quizzical glance, "I hope you'll not find our little town dull, Mrs. Haney."
Dull! She wanted to scream out her joy. She felt like racing to the big black team to throw her arms about their necks. Dull! There was no other spot in all the world so exalting as this small town and its over-peering peaks.
"Where is Mrs. Congdon?" she succeeded in asking at last.
"She has visitors and couldn't come," he answered. "But where's that 'mobile we've heard so much about ?" "Coming by fast freight."