"Freight! From all I've heard of your doings in Chicago I expected it to come as excess baggage."
It was cool, delicious green dusk—not dark—with a small sickle of moon in the west, and as they drove up the broad avenue towards home the town, the universe, was strangely sweet and satisfying. It seemed as though she had been gone an age—so much had come to her—so thick was the crowd of new experiences standing between her going and her return—so swiftly had her mind expanded in these months of vivid city life. "I'll never go away again," she said to Ben. "This country suits me."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," he answered, softly. In the most natural way he had put Congdon with Haney in the rear seat and had taken the place beside Bertha, and this nearness filled her with pleasure and an unwonted confusion. How big he was! and how splendid his clear, youthful profile seemed as it gleamed silver-white in the light of the big street-lamps. Never had his magnetic young body acted upon her so powerfully, so dangerously. His firm arm touching her own was at once a delight and a dread. She was all woman at last, awake, palpitant with love's full-flooding tide— bewildered, dizzy with rapture. Speech was difficult and her thought had neither sequence nor design.
Fordyce was under restraint also, and the burden of the talk fell upon Congdon, who proceeded in his amusingly hit-or-miss way to detail the important or humorous happenings of the town, and so they rolled along up the wide avenue to the big stone steps before the looming, lamp-lit palace which they called home.
Ben sprang out first, glad of another opportunity to take Bertha's hand, a clasp that put the throbbing pain back in her bosom—filling her with a kind of fear of him as well as of herself—and without waiting for the Captain she ran up the walk towards the wide doorway where Miss Franklin stood in smiling welcome.
Her greeting over, the young wife danced about the hall, crying: "Oh, isn't it big and fine! And aren't you glad it's our own!" She appeared overborne by a returning sense of security and ownership, and ran from room to room with all the ecstasy and abandon of a child—but she stopped suddenly in the middle of her own chamber as if a remorseless hand were clutching at her heart. "But it is not mine!—I must give it all up!"
Thrusting this intruding thought away, she hurried back to the library, where the men were seated at ease, sipping some iced liquor in gross content.
Haney was beaming. "It makes me over new to sniff this air again," he was saying. "'Tis a bad plan to let go your hold on mountain air. Me lungs have contracted a trifle, but they'll expand again. I'll be riding a horse in a month."
Ben was sympathetic, but had eyes only for Bertha, whose improvement (in mind as in bearing) astonished and delighted him. Her trip, coming just at the period when her observation was keenest and her memory most tenacious, had subtly, swiftly ripened her.
Wrought upon by a thousand pictures, moved by strange words and faces, unconsciously changing to the color of each new conception, deriving sweetness and charm from every chance-heard strain of music and poetry, she had opened like a rose.
The middle-aged are prone to go about the world carrying their habits, their prejudices, and their ailments with them to return as they went forth; but youth like Bertha's adventures out into the world eager to be built upon, ready to be transformed from child to adult, as it would seem, in a day.
"She has achieved new distinction!" Ben exulted as he watched her moving about the room, so supple, so powerful, and so graceful, but, though he was careful not to utter one word of praise, he could not keep the glow of admiration from his eyes.
An hour later as he said good-night and went away with Congdon,his heart burned with secret, rebellious fire. "Was it not hateful that this glorious girl should be doomed to live out the sweetest, most alluring of her years with a gross and crippled old man?" To leave her under the same roof with Mart Haney seemed like exposing her to profanation and despair.
They were hardly out of the gate before Congdon broke forth in open praise of her. "When Mart dies, what a witching morsel for some man!"
Fordyce did not answer on the instant, and when he did his voice was constrained. "You don't think he's in immediate danger of it—do you?"
"Quite the contrary. He looks to be on the upgrade; but it's a safe bet she outlives him, and then think of her with a hundred thousand dollars a year to spend! Talk about honey-pots!—and flies!" After a moment's silence he added, musingly: "Funny how one's ideas change. A year ago I thought she was deeply indebted to him; now I feel that with all his money he can't possibly repay her for what she's giving up on his account. And yet his chink has made her what she is. Money is a weird power when applied to a woman. Tiled bath-rooms, silk stockings and bonnets work wonders with the sex. She's improved mightily on this trip."
After leaving Congdon, Ben went to his apartment and telephoned Alice to say that the Haneys had arrived and that he had left them under their own roof in good repair.
"How is the Captain's health?" she asked, with the morbid interest of the invalid gossip.
"He feels the altitude a little, but that is probably only temporary. They both seem very glad to get home."
"He's made a mistake. He can't live here—I am perfectly sure of it. How is she?"
"Very well—and beautifully dressed, which is the main thing," he added, with a slight return of his humor. "They asked after you very particularly."
Unable to sleep, he went out to walk the night, blind envy in his brain and a hot hunger in his heart, moved as he had never been moved before at thought of Haney's nearness to that glowing girl. Their union was monstrous, incredible.
He no longer attempted to deceive himself. He loved this young wife whose expanding personality had enthralled him from their first meeting. It was not alone that she was possessed of bodily charm—she called to him through the mysterious ways which lead the one man to the predestined woman. The affection he had borne towards Alice Heath was but the violet ray of friendship compared to the lambent, leaping, red flame of his passion for Bertha Haney. She represented to him the mysterious potency and romance of the West—typifying its amazing resiliency, its limitless capability of adaptation. In a way that seemed roundabout and strange, but which was, after all, very simple and very direct, she had lifted her family as well as herself out of poverty back into the comfort which was their right. Odd, masculine, unexpected of phrase, she had never been awkward or cheap. Congdon was right, she was capable of high things. She made mistakes, of course, but they were not those which a shallow personality would make— they sprang rather from the overflow of a vigorous and abounding imagination.
"All she needs is contact with people of the right sort. She is capable of the highest culture," he concluded.
That she was more vital to him than any other woman in the world he now knew, but he acknowledged nothing base in this confession. He was not seeking ways to possess her of his love—on the contrary, he was resolved to conduct himself so nobly that she would again trust and respect him. "My love is honorable," he said. "I will go forward as in the beginning—why should I not? — enjoying her companionship as any honest man may do."
The question of his relation to Alice was not so easily settled. She had come to irritate him now. Her changeable, swift-witted, moody, hysterical invalidism had begun to wear upon him intolerably. Everything she did was wrong. It was brutal even to admit this, but he could no longer conceal it either from himself or from her. It was deeply, sadly painful to recall the promise, the complete confidence and happiness with which they had both started towards the West. How sure of her recovery they had been, how gay and confident of purpose! Now she not only refused to listen to his demand for an early marriage, but hampered and annoyed him in a hundred ways. As he walked the silent night he was forced to acknowledge that she had been right in delaying their union. And yet how dependent upon him she was. Her life was so tragically inwound with his that to think of shaking away her hand seemed the act of a sordid egoist.
"And even were I free, nothing is solved."
The situation took on the insoluble and the tragic. In the fashion of well-bred, soundly nurtured American youth he had thought of such complications only as subjects for novelists. "There must be concealment, but not duplicity, in my attitude," he decided. He longed for the constant light of Bertha's face, the frequent touch of her hand. Her laughter was so endlessly charming, her step so firm, so light, so graceful. The grace of her bosom—the sweeping line of her side—
He stopped there. In that direction lay danger. "She trusts me, and I will repay her trust. She has chosen me to be her adviser, putting her wealth in my hands!—Well, why not? We will see whether an honorable man cannot carry forward even so difficult a relationship as this. I will visit her every day, I will enjoy her hospitality as freely as Congdon, and I will fulfil my promise to Alice—if she asks it of me."
But deep under the sombre resolution lay an un-uttered belief in his future, in his happiness—for this is the prerogative of youth. The dim mountains, the sinking crescent moon, and the silence of the plain all seemed somehow to prophesy both happiness and peace.