Preble Key returned to his hotel from the convent, it is to be feared, with very little of that righteous satisfaction which is supposed to follow the performance of a good deed. He was by no means certain that what he had done was best for the young girl. He had only shown himself to her as a worldly monitor of dangers, of which her innocence was providentially unconscious. In his feverish haste to avert a scandal, he had no chance to explain his real feelings; he had, perhaps, even exposed her thwarted impulses to equally naive but more dangerous expression, which he might not have the opportunity to check. He tossed wakefully that night upon his pillow, tormented with alternate visions of her adorable presence at the hotel, and her bowed, renunciating figure as she reentered the convent gate. He waited expectantly the next day for the message she had promised, and which he believed she would find some way to send. But no message was forthcoming. The day passed, and he became alarmed. The fear that her escapade had been discovered again seized him. If she were in close restraint, she could neither send to him, nor could he convey to her the solicitude and sympathy that filled his heart. In her childish frankness she might have confessed the whole truth, and this would not only shut the doors of the convent against him, under his former pretext, but compromise her still more if he boldly called. He waylaid the afternoon procession; she was not among them. Utterly despairing, the wildest plans for seeing her passed through his brain,--plans that recalled his hot-headed youth, and a few moments later made him smile at his extravagance, even while it half frightened him at the reality of his passion. He reached the hotel heart-sick and desperate. The porter met him on the steps. It was with a thrill that sent the blood leaping to his cheeks that he heard the man say:--
"Sister Seraphina is waiting for you in the sitting-room."
There was no thought of discovery or scandal in Preble Key's mind now; no doubt or hesitation as to what he would do, as he sprang up the staircase. He only knew that he had found her again, and was happy! He burst into the room, but this time remembered to shut the door behind him. He looked eagerly towards the window where she had stood the day before, but now she rose quickly from the sofa in the corner, where she had been seated, and the missal she had been reading rolled from her lap to the floor. He ran towards her to pick it up. Her name--the name she had told him to call her--was passionately trembling on his lips, when she slowly put her veil aside, and displayed a pale, kindly, middle-aged face, slightly marked by old scars of smallpox. It was not Alice; it was the real Sister Seraphina who stood before him.
His first revulsion of bitter disappointment was so quickly followed by a realization that all had been discovered, and his sacrifice of yesterday had gone for naught, that he stood before her, stammering, but without the power to say a word. Luckily for him, his utter embarrassment seemed to reassure her, and to calm that timidity which his brusque man-like irruption might well produce in the inexperienced, contemplative mind of the recluse. Her voice was very sweet, albeit sad, as she said gently:--
"I am afraid I have taken you by surprise; but there was no time to arrange for a meeting, and the Lady Superior thought that I, who knew all the facts, had better see you confidentially. Father Cipriano gave us your address."
Amazed and wondering, Key bowed her to a seat.
"You will remember," she went on softly, "that the Lady Superior failed to get any information from you regarding the brother of one of our dear children, whom he committed to our charge through a--a companion or acquaintance--a Mrs. Barker. As she was armed with his authority by letter, we accepted the dear child through her, permitted her as his representative to have free access to his sister, and even allowed her, as an unattended woman, to pass the night at the convent. We were therefore surprised this morning to receive a letter from him, absolutely forbidding any further intercourse, correspondence, or association of his sister with this companion, Mrs. Barker. It was necessary to inform the dear child of this at once, as she was on the point of writing to this woman; but we were pained and shocked at her reception of her brother's wishes. I ought to say, in justice to the dear child, that while she is usually docile, intelligent, and tractable to discipline, and a devote in her religious feelings, she is singularly impulsive. But we were not prepared for the rash and sudden step she has taken. At noon to-day she escaped from the convent!"
Key, who had been following her with relief, sprang to his feet at this unexpected culmination.
"Escaped!" he said. "Impossible! I mean," he added, hurriedly recalling himself, "your rules, your discipline, your attendants are so perfect."
"The poor impulsive creature has added sacrilege to her madness--a sacrilege we are willing to believe she did not understand, for she escaped in a religious habit--my own."
"But this would sufficiently identify her," he said, controlling himself with an effort.
"Alas, not so! There are many of us who go abroad on our missions in these garments, and they are made all alike, so as to divert rather than attract attention to any individuality. We have sent private messengers in all directions, and sought her everywhere, but without success. You will understand that we wish to avoid scandal, which a more public inquiry would create."
"And you come to me," said Key, with a return of his first suspicion, in spite of his eagerness to cut short the interview and be free to act,--"to me, almost a stranger?"
"Not a stranger, Mr. Key," returned the religieuse gently, "but to a well-known man--a man of affairs in the country where this unhappy child's brother lives--a friend who seems to be sent by Heaven to find out this brother for us, and speed this news to him. We come to the old pupil of Father Cipriano, a friend of the Holy Church; to the kindly gentleman who knows what it is to have dear relations of his own, and who only yesterday was seeking the convent to"--
"Enough!" interrupted Key hurriedly, with a slight color. "I will go at once. I do not know this man, but I will do my best to find him. And this--this--young girl? You say you have no trace of her? May she not still be here? I should have some clue by which to seek her--I mean that I could give to her brother."
"Alas! we fear she is already far away from here. If she went at once to San Luis, she could have easily taken a train to San Francisco before we discovered her flight. We believe that it was the poor child's intent to join her brother, so as to intercede for her friend--or, perhaps, alas! to seek her."
"And this friend left yesterday morning?" he said quickly, yet concealing a feeling of relief. "Well, you may depend on me! And now, as there is no time to be lost, I will make my arrangements to take the next train." He held out his hand, paused, and said in almost boyish embarrassment: "Bid me God speed, Sister Seraphina!"
"May the Holy Virgin aid you," she said gently. Yet, as she passed out of the door, with a grateful smile, a characteristic reaction came over Key. His romantic belief in the interposition of Providence was not without a tendency to apply the ordinary rules of human evidence to such phenomena. Sister Seraphina's application to him seemed little short of miraculous interference; but what if it were only a trick to get rid of him, while the girl, whose escapade had been discovered, was either under restraint in the convent, or hiding in Santa Luisa? Yet this did not prevent him from mechanically continuing his arrangements for departure. When they were completed, and he had barely time to get to the station at San Luis, he again lingered in vague expectation of some determining event.
The appearance of a servant with a telegraphic message at this moment seemed to be an answer to this instinctive feeling. He tore it open hastily. But it was only a single line from his foreman at the mine, which had been repeated to him from the company's office in San Francisco. It read, "Come at once--important."
Disappointed as it left him, it determined his action; and as the train steamed out of San Luis, it for a while diverted his attention from the object of his pursuit. In any event, his destination would have been Skinner's or the Hollow, as the point from which to begin his search. He believed with Sister Seraphina that the young girl would make her direct appeal to her brother; but even if she sought Mrs. Barker, it would still be at some of the haunts of the gang. The letter to the Lady Superior had been postmarked from "Bald Top," which Key knew to be an obscure settlement less frequented than Skinner's. Even then it was hardly possible that the chief of the road agents would present himself at the post-office, and it had probably been left by some less known of the gang. A vague idea, that was hardly a suspicion, that the girl might have a secret address of her brother's, without understanding the reasons for its secrecy, came into his mind. A still more vague hope, that he might meet her before she found her brother, upheld him. It would be an accidental meeting on her part, for he no longer dared to hope that she would seek or trust him again. And it was with very little of his old sanguine quality that, travel-worn and weary, he at last alighted at Skinner's. But his half careless inquiry if any lady passengers had lately arrived there, to his embarrassment produced a broad smile on the face of Skinner.
"You're the second man that asked that question, Mr. Key," he said.
"The second man?" ejaculated Key nervously.
"Yes the first was the sheriff of Sierra. He wanted to find a tall, good-looking woman, about thirty, with black eyes. I hope that ain't the kind o' girl you're looking arter--is it? for I reckon she's gin you both the slip."
Key protested with a forced laugh that it was not, yet suddenly hesitated to describe Alice; for he instantly recognized the portrait of her friend, the assumed Mrs. Barker. Skinner continued in lazy confidence:--
"Ye see they say that the sheriff had sorter got the dead wood on that gang o' road agents, and had hemmed 'em in somewhar betwixt Bald Top and Collinson's. But that woman was one o' their spies, and spotted his little game, and managed to give 'em the tip, so they got clean away. Anyhow, they ain't bin heard from since. But the big shake has made scoutin' along the ledges rather stiff work for the sheriff. They say the valley near Long Canyon's chock full o' rock and slumgullion that's slipped down."
"What do you mean by the big shake?" asked Key in surprise.
"Great Scott! you didn't hear of it? Didn't hear of the 'arthquake that shook us up all along Galloper's the other night? Well," he added disgustedly, "that's jist the conceit of them folks in the bay, that can't allow that ANYTHIN' happens in the mountains!"
The urgent telegrams of his foreman now flashed across Key's preoccupied mind. Possibly Skinner saw his concern, "I reckon your mine is all right, Mr. Key. One of your men was over yere last night, and didn't say nothin'."
But this did not satisfy Key; and in a few minutes he had mounted his horse and was speeding towards the Hollow, with a remorseful consciousness of having neglected his colleagues' interests. For himself, in the utter prepossession of his passion for Alice, he cared nothing. As he dashed down the slope to the Hollow, he thought only of the two momentous days that she had passed there, and the fate that had brought them so nearly together. There was nothing to recall its sylvan beauty in the hideous works that now possessed it, or the substantial dwelling-house that had taken the place of the old cabin. A few hurried questions to the foreman satisfied him of the integrity of the property. There had been some alarm in the shaft, but there was no subsidence of the "seam," nor any difficulty in the working. "What I telegraphed you for, Mr. Key, was about something that has cropped up way back o' the earthquake. We were served here the other day with a legal notice of a claim to the mine, on account of previous work done on the ledge by the last occupant."
"But the cabin was built by a gang of thieves, who used it as a hoard for their booty," returned Key hotly, "and every one of them are outlaws, and have no standing before the law." He stopped with a pang as he thought of Alice. And the blood rushed to his cheeks as the foreman quietly continued:--
"But the claim ain't in any o' their names. It's allowed to be the gift of their leader to his young sister, afore the outlawry, and it's in HER name--Alice Riggs or something."
Of the half-dozen tumultuous thoughts that passed through Key's mind, only one remained. It was purely an act of the brother's to secure some possible future benefit for his sister. And of this she was perfectly ignorant! He recovered himself quickly, and said with a smile:--
"But I discovered the ledge and its auriferous character myself. There was no trace or sign of previous discovery or mining occupation."
"So I jedged, and so I said, and thet puts ye all right. But I thought I'd tell ye; for mining laws is mining laws, and it's the one thing ye can't get over," he added, with the peculiar superstitious reverence of the Californian miner for that vested authority.
But Key scarcely listened. All that he had heard seemed only to link him more fatefully and indissolubly with the young girl. He was already impatient of even this slight delay in his quest. In his perplexity his thoughts had reverted to Collinson's: the mill was a good point to begin his search from; its good-natured, stupid proprietor might be his guide, his ally, and even his confidant.
When his horse was baited, he was again in the saddle. "If yer going Collinson's way, yer might ask him if he's lost a horse," said the foreman. "The morning after the shake, some of the boys picked up a mustang, with a make-up lady's saddle on." Key started! While it was impossible that it could have been ridden by Alice, it might have been by the woman who had preceded her.
"Did you make any search?" he inquired eagerly; "there may have been an accident."
"I reckon it wasn't no accident," returned the foreman coolly, "for the riata was loose and trailing, as if it had been staked out, and broken away."
Without another word, Key put spurs to his horse and galloped away, leaving his companion staring after him. Here was a clue: the horse could not have strayed far; the broken tether indicated a camp; the gang had been gathered somewhere in the vicinity where Mrs. Barker had warned them,--perhaps in the wood beyond Collinson's. He would penetrate it alone. He knew his danger; but as a SINGLE unarmed man he might be admitted to the presence of the leader, and the alleged claim was a sufficient excuse. What he would say or do afterwards depended upon chance. It was a wild scheme--but he was reckless. Yet he would go to Collinson's first.
At the end of two hours he reached the thick-set wood that gave upon the shelf at the top of the grade which descended to the mill. As he emerged from the wood into the bursting sunlight of the valley below, he sharply reined in his horse and stopped. Another bound would have been his last. For the shelf, the rocky grade itself, the ledge below, and the mill upon it, were all gone! The crumbling outer wall of the rocky grade had slipped away into immeasurable depths below, leaving only the sharp edge of a cliff, which incurved towards the woods that had once stood behind the mill, but which now bristled on the very edge of a precipice. A mist was hanging over its brink and rising from the valley; it was a full-fed stream that was coursing through the former dry bed of the river and falling down the face of the bluff. He rubbed his eyes, dismounted, crept along the edge of the precipice, and looked below: whatever had subsided and melted down into its thousand feet of depth, there was no trace left upon its smooth face. Scarcely an angle of drift or debris marred the perpendicular; the burial of all ruin was deep and compact; the erasure had been swift and sure-- the obliteration complete. It might have been the precipitation of ages, and not of a single night. At that remote distance it even seemed as if grass were already growing ever this enormous sepulchre, but it was only the tops of the buried pines. The absolute silence, the utter absence of any mark of convulsive struggle, even the lulling whimper of falling waters, gave the scene a pastoral repose.
So profound was the impression upon Key and his human passion that it at first seemed an ironical and eternal ending of his quest. It was with difficulty that he reasoned that the catastrophe occurred before Alice's flight, and that even Collinson might have had time to escape. He slowly skirted the edge of the chasm, and made his way back through the empty woods behind the old mill-site towards the place where he had dismounted. His horse seemed to have strayed into the shadows of this covert; but as he approached him, he was amazed to see that it was not his own, and that a woman's scarf was lying over its side saddle. A wild idea seized him, and found expression in an impulsive cry:--
The woods echoed it; there was an interval of silence, and then a faint response. But it was HER voice. He ran eagerly forward in that direction, and called again; the response was nearer this time, and then the tall ferns parted, and her lithe, graceful figure came running, stumbling, and limping towards him like a wounded fawn. Her face was pale and agitated, the tendrils of her light hair were straying over her shoulder, and one of the sleeves of her school-gown was stained with blood and dust. He caught the white and trembling hands that were thrust out to him eagerly.
"It is YOU!" she gasped. "I prayed for some one to come, but I did not dream it would be YOU. And then I heard YOUR voice--and I thought it could be only a dream until you called a second time."
"But you are hurt," he exclaimed passionately. "You have met with some accident!"
"No, no!" she said eagerly. "Not I--but a poor, poor man I found lying on the edge of the cliff. I could not help him much, I did not care to leave him. No one WOULD come! I have been with him alone, all the morning! Come quick, he may be dying."
He passed his arm around her waist unconsciously; she permitted it as unconsciously, as he half supported her figure while they hurried forward.
"He had been crushed by something, and was just hanging over the ledge, and could not move nor speak," she went on quickly. "I dragged him away to a tree, it took me hours to move him, he was so heavy,--and I got him some water from the stream and bathed his face, and blooded all my sleeve."
"But what were you doing here?" he asked quickly.
A faint blush crossed the pallor of her delicate cheek. She looked away quickly. "I--was going to find my brother at Bald Top," she replied at last hurriedly. "But don't ask me now--only come quick, do."
"Is the wounded man conscious? Did you speak with him? Does he know who you are?" asked Key uneasily.
"No! he only moaned a little and opened his eyes when I dragged him. I don't think he even knew what had happened."
They hurried on again. The wood lightened suddenly. "Here!" she said in a half whisper, and stepped timidly into the open light. Only a few feet from the fatal ledge, against the roots of a buckeye, with HER shawl thrown over him, lay the wounded man.
Key started back. It was Collinson! His head and shoulders seemed uninjured; but as Key lifted the shawl, he saw that the long, lank figure appeared to melt away below the waist into a mass of shapeless and dirty rags. Key hurriedly replaced the shawl, and, bending over him, listened to his hurried respiration and the beating of his heart. Then he pressed a drinking-flask to his lips. The spirit seemed to revive him; he slowly opened his eyes. They fell upon Key with quick recognition. But the look changed; one could see that he was trying to rise, but that no movement of the limbs accompanied that effort of will, and his old patient, resigned look returned. Key shuddered. There was some injury to the spine. The man was paralyzed.
"I can't get up, Mr. Key," he said in a faint but untroubled voice, "nor seem to move my arms, but you'll just allow that I've shook hands with ye--all the same."
"How did this happen?" said Key anxiously.
"Thet's wot gets me! Sometimes I reckon I know, and sometimes I don't. Lyin' thar on thet ledge all last night, and only jest able to look down into the old valley, sometimes it seemed to me ez if I fell over and got caught in the rocks trying to save my wife; but then when I kem to think sensible, and know my wife wasn't there at all, I get mystified. Sometimes I think I got ter thinkin' of my wife only when this yer young gal thet's bin like an angel to me kem here and dragged me off the ledge, for you see she don't belong here, and hez dropped on to me like a sperrit."
"Then you were not in the house when the shock came?" said Key.
"No. You see the mill was filled with them fellers as the sheriff was arter, and it went over with 'em--and I"--
"Alice," said Key, with a white face, "would you mind going to my horse, which you will find somewhere near yours, and bringing me a medicine case from my saddle-bags?"
The innocent girl glanced quickly at her companion, saw the change in his face, and, attributing it to the imminent danger of the injured man, at once glided away. When she was out of hearing, Key leaned gravely over him:--
"Collinson, I must trust you with a secret. I am afraid that this poor girl who helped you is the sister of the leader of that gang the sheriff was in pursuit of. She has been kept in perfect ignorance of her brother's crimes. She must NEVER know them--nor even know his fate! If he perished utterly in this catastrophe, as it would seem--it was God's will to spare her that knowledge. I tell you this, to warn you in anything you say before her. She MUST believe, as I shall try to make her believe, that he has gone back to the States--where she will perhaps, hereafter, believe that he died. Better that she should know nothing--and keep her thought of him unchanged."
"I see--I see--I see, Mr. Key," murmured the injured man. "Thet's wot I've been sayin' to myself lyin' here all night. Thet's wot I bin sayin' o' my wife Sadie,--her that I actooally got to think kem back to me last night. You see I'd heerd from one o' those fellars that a woman like unto her had been picked up in Texas and brought on yere, and that mebbe she was somewhar in Californy. I was that foolish--and that ontrue to her, all the while knowin', as I once told you, Mr. Key, that ef she'd been alive she'd bin yere--that I believed it true for a minit! And that was why, afore this happened, I had a dream, right out yer, and dreamed she kem to me, all white and troubled, through the woods. At first I thought it war my Sadie; but when I see she warn't like her old self, and her voice was strange and her laugh was strange--then I knowed it wasn't her, and I was dreamin'. You're right, Mr. Key, in wot you got off just now--wot was it? Better to know nothin'--and keep the old thoughts unchanged."
"Have you any pain?" asked Key after a pause.
"No; I kinder feel easier now."
Key looked at his changing face. "Tell me," he said gently, "if it does not tax your strength, all that has happened here, all you know. It is for HER sake."
Thus adjured, with his eyes fixed on Key, Collinson narrated his story from the irruption of the outlaws to the final catastrophe. Even then he palliated their outrage with his characteristic patience, keeping still his strange fascination for Chivers, and his blind belief in his miserable wife. The story was at times broken by lapses of faintness, by a singular return of his old abstraction and forgetfulness in the midst of a sentence, and at last by a fit of coughing that left a few crimson bubbles on the corners of his month. Key lifted his eyes anxiously; there was some grave internal injury, which the dying man's resolute patience had suppressed. Yet, at the sound of Alice's returning step, Collinson's eyes brightened, apparently as much at her coming as from the effect of the powerful stimulant Key had taken from his medicine case.
"I thank ye, Mr. Key," he said faintly; "for I've got an idea I ain't got no great time before me, and I've got suthin' to say to you, afore witnesses"--his eyes sought Alice's in half apology-- "afore witnesses, you understand. Would you mind standin' out thar, afore me, in the light, so I kin see you both, and you, miss, rememberin', ez a witness, suthin' I got to tell to him? You might take his hand, miss, to make it more regular and lawlike."
The two did as he bade them, standing side by side, painfully humoring what seemed to them to be wanderings of a dying man.
"Thar was a young fellow," said Collinson in a steady voice, "ez kem to my shanty a night ago on his way to the--the--valley. He was a sprightly young fellow, gay and chipper-like, and he sez to me, confidential-like, 'Collinson,' sez he, 'I'm off to the States this very night on business of importance; mebbe I'll be away a long time--for years! You know,' sez he, 'Mr. Key, in the Hollow! Go to him,' sez he, 'and tell him ez how I hadn't time to get to see him; tell him,' sez he, 'that RIVERS'--you've got the name, Mr. Key?--you've got the name, miss?--'that RIVERS wants him to say this to his little sister from her lovin' brother. And tell him,' sez he, this yer RIVERS, 'to look arter her, being alone.' You remember that, Mr. Key? you remember it, miss? You see, I remembered it, too, being, so to speak, alone myself"--he paused, and added in a faint whisper--"till now."
Then he was silent. That innocent lie was the first and last upon his honest lips; for as they stood there, hand in hand, they saw his plain, hard face take upon itself, at first, the gray, ashen hues of the rocks around him, and then and thereafter something of the infinite tranquillity and peace of that wilderness in which he had lived and died, and of which he was a part.
Contemporaneous history was less kindly. The "Bald Top Sentinel" congratulated its readers that the late seismic disturbance was accompanied with very little loss of life, if any. "It is reported that the proprietor of a low shebeen for emigrants in an obscure hollow had succumbed from injuries; but," added the editor, with a fine touch of Western humor, "whether this was the result of his being forcibly mixed up with his own tanglefoot whiskey or not, we are unable to determine from the evidence before us." For all that, a small stone shaft was added later to the rocks near the site of the old mill, inscribed to the memory of this obscure proprietor," with the singular legend: "Have ye faith like to him?" And those who knew only of the material catastrophe looking around upon the scene of desolation it commemorated, thought grimly that it must be faith indeed, and--were wiser than they knew.
"You smiled, Don Preble," said the Lady Superior to Key a few weeks later, "when I told to you that many caballeros thought it most discreet to intrust their future brides to the maternal guardianship and training of the Holy Church; yet, of a truth, I meant not YOU. And yet--eh! well, we shall see."