The habitually quiet, ascetic face of Seth Rivers was somewhat disturbed and his brows were knitted as he climbed the long ascent of Windy Hill to its summit and his own rancho. Perhaps it was the effect of the characteristic wind, which that afternoon seemed to assault him from all points at once and did not cease its battery even at his front door, but hustled him into the passage, blew him into the sitting room, and then celebrated its own exit from the long, rambling house by the banging of doors throughout the halls and the slamming of windows in the remote distance.
Mrs. Rivers looked up from her work at this abrupt onset of her husband, but without changing her own expression of slightly fatigued self-righteousness. Accustomed to these elemental eruptions, she laid her hands from force of habit upon the lifting tablecloth, and then rose submissively to brush together the scattered embers and ashes from the large hearthstone, as she had often done before.
"You're in early, Seth," she said.
"Yes. I stopped at the Cross Roads Post Office. Lucky I did, or you'd hev had kempany on your hands afore you knowed it--this very night! I found this letter from Dr. Duchesne," and he produced a letter from his pocket.
Mrs. Rivers looked up with an expression of worldly interest. Dr. Duchesne had brought her two children into the world with some difficulty, and had skillfully attended her through a long illness consequent upon the inefficient maternity of soulful but fragile American women of her type. The doctor had more than a mere local reputation as a surgeon, and Mrs. Rivers looked up to him as her sole connecting link with a world of thought beyond Windy Hill.
"He's comin' up yer to-night, bringin' a friend of his--a patient that he wants us to board and keep for three weeks until he's well agin," continued Mr. Rivers. "Ye know how the doctor used to rave about the pure air on our hill."
Mrs. Rivers shivered slightly, and drew her shawl over her shoulders, but nodded a patient assent.
"Well, he says it's just what that patient oughter have to cure him. He's had lung fever and other things, and this yer air and gin'ral quiet is bound to set him up. We're to board and keep him without any fuss or feathers, and the doctor sez he'll pay liberal for it. This yer's what he sez," concluded Mr. Rivers, reading from the letter: "'He is now fully convalescent, though weak, and really requires no other medicine than the--ozone'--yes, that's what the doctor calls it--'of Windy Hill, and in fact as little attendance as possible. I will not let him keep even his negro servant with him. He'll give you no trouble, if he can be prevailed upon to stay the whole time of his cure.'"
"There's our spare room--it hasn't been used since Parson Greenwood was here," said Mrs. Rivers reflectively. "Melinda could put it to rights in an hour. At what time will he come?"
"He'd come about nine. They drive over from Hightown depot. But," he added grimly, "here ye are orderin' rooms to be done up and ye don't know who for."
"You said a friend of Dr. Duchesne," returned Mrs. Rivers simply.
"Dr. Duchesne has many friends that you and me mightn't cotton to," said her husband. "This man is Jack Hamlin." As his wife's remote and introspective black eyes returned only vacancy, he added quickly. "The noted gambler!"
"Gambler?" echoed his wife, still vaguely.
"Yes--reg'lar; it's his business."
"Goodness, Seth! He can't expect to do it here."
"No," said Seth quickly, with that sense of fairness to his fellow man which most women find it so difficult to understand. "No--and he probably won't mention the word 'card' while he's here."
"Well?" said Mrs. Rivers interrogatively.
"And," continued Seth, seeing that the objection was not pressed, he's one of them desprit men! A reg'lar fighter! Killed two or three men in dools!"
Mrs. Rivers stared. "What could Dr. Duchesne have been thinking of? Why, we wouldn't be safe in the house with him!"
Again Seth's sense of equity triumphed. "I never heard of his fightin' anybody but his own kind, and when he was bullyragged. And ez to women he's quite t'other way in fact, and that's why I think ye oughter know it afore you let him come. He don't go round with decent women. In fact"--But here Mr. Rivers, in the sanctity of conjugal confidences and the fullness of Bible reading, used a few strong scriptural substantives happily unnecessary to repeat here.
"Seth!" said Mrs. Rivers suddenly, "you seem to know this man."
The unexpectedness and irrelevancy of this for a moment startled Seth. But that chaste and God-fearing man had no secrets. "Only by hearsay, Jane," he returned quietly; "but if ye say the word I'll stop his comin' now."
"It's too late," said Mrs. Rivers decidedly.
"I reckon not," returned her husband, "and that's why I came straight here. I've only got to meet them at the depot and say this thing can't be done--and that's the end of it. They'll go off quiet to the hotel."
"I don't like to disappoint the doctor, Seth," said Mrs. Rivers. "We might," she added, with a troubled look of inquiry at her husband, "we might take that Mr. Hamlin on trial. Like as not he won't stay, anyway, when he sees what we're like, Seth. What do you think? It would be only our Christian duty, too."
"I was thinkin' o' that as a professin' Christian, Jane," said her husband. "But supposin' that other Christians don't look at it in that light. Thar's Deacon Stubbs and his wife and the parson. Ye remember what he said about 'no covenant with sin'?"
"The Stubbses have no right to dictate who I'll have in my house," said Mrs. Rivers quickly, with a faint flush in her rather sallow cheeks.
"It's your say and nobody else's," assented her husband with grim submissiveness. "You do what you like."
Mrs. Rivers mused. "There's only myself and Melinda here," she said with sublime naivete; "and the children ain't old enough to be corrupted. I am satisfied if you are, Seth," and she again looked at him inquiringly.
"Go ahead, then, and get ready for 'em," said Seth, hurrying away with unaffected relief. "If you have everything fixed by nine o'clock, that'll do."
Mrs. Rivers had everything "fixed" by that hour, including herself presumably, for she had put on a gray dress which she usually wore when shopping in the county town, adding a prim collar and cuffs. A pearl-encircled brooch, the wedding gift of Seth, and a solitaire ring next to her wedding ring, with a locket containing her children's hair, accented her position as a proper wife and mother. At a quarter to nine she had finished tidying the parlor, opening the harmonium so that the light might play upon its polished keyboard, and bringing from the forgotten seclusion of her closet two beautifully bound volumes of Tupper's "Poems" and Pollok's "Course of Time," to impart a literary grace to the centre table. She then drew a chair to the table and sat down before it with a religious magazine in her lap. The wind roared over the deep- throated chimney, the clock ticked monotonously, and then there came the sound of wheels and voices.
But Mrs. Rivers was not destined to see her guest that night. Dr. Duchesne, under the safe lee of the door, explained that Mr. Hamlin had been exhausted by the journey, and, assisted by a mild opiate, was asleep in the carriage; that if Mrs. Rivers did not object, they would carry him at once to his room. In the flaring and guttering of candles, the flashing of lanterns, the flapping of coats and shawls, and the bewildering rush of wind, Mrs. Rivers was only vaguely conscious of a slight figure muffled tightly in a cloak carried past her in the arms of a grizzled negro up the staircase, followed by Dr. Duchesne. With the closing of the front door on the tumultuous world without, a silence fell again on the little parlor.
When the doctor made his reappearance it was to say that his patient was being undressed and put to bed by his negro servant, who, however, would return with the doctor to-night, but that the patient would be left with everything that was necessary, and that he would require no attention from the family until the next day. Indeed, it was better that he should remain undisturbed. As the doctor confined his confidences and instructions entirely to the physical condition of their guest, Mrs. Rivers found it awkward to press other inquiries.
"Of course," she said at last hesitatingly, but with a certain primness of expression, "Mr. Hamlin must expect to find everything here very different from what he is accustomed to--at least from what my husband says are his habits."
"Nobody knows that better than he, Mrs. Rivers," returned the doctor with an equally marked precision of manner, "and you could not have a guest who would be less likely to make you remind him of it."
A little annoyed, yet not exactly knowing why, Mrs. Rivers abandoned the subject, and as the doctor shortly afterwards busied himself in the care of his patient, with whom he remained until the hour of his departure, she had no chance of renewing it. But as he finally shook hands with his host and hostess, it seemed to her that he slightly recurred to it. "I have the greatest hope of the curative effect of this wonderful locality on my patient, but even still more of the beneficial effect of the complete change of his habits, his surroundings, and their influences." Then the door closed on the man of science and the grizzled negro servant, the noise of the carriage wheels was shut out with the song of the wind in the pine tops, and the rancho of Windy Hill possessed Mr. Jack Hamlin in peace. Indeed, the wind was now falling, as was its custom at that hour, and the moon presently arose over a hushed and sleeping landscape.
For the rest of the evening the silent presence in the room above affected the household; the half-curious servants and ranch hands spoke in whispers in the passages, and at evening prayers, in the dining room, Seth Rivers, kneeling before and bowed over a rush- bottomed chair whose legs were clutched by his strong hands, included "the stranger within our gates" in his regular supplications. When the hour for retiring came, Seth, with a candle in his hand, preceded his wife up the staircase, but stopped before the door of their guest's room. "I reckon," he said interrogatively to Mrs. Rivers, "I oughter see ef he's wantin' anythin'?"
"You heard what the doctor said," returned Mrs. Rivers cautiously. At the same time she did not speak decidedly, and the frontiersman's instinct of hospitality prevailed. He knocked lightly; there was no response. He turned the door handle softly. The door opened. A faint clean perfume--an odor of some general personality rather than any particular thing--stole out upon them. The light of Seth's candle struck a few glints from some cut-glass and silver, the contents of the guest's dressing case, which had been carefully laid out upon a small table by his negro servant. There was also a refined neatness in the disposition of his clothes and effects which struck the feminine eye of even the tidy Mrs. Rivers as something new to her experience. Seth drew nearer the bed with his shaded candle, and then, turning, beckoned his wife to approach. Mrs. Rivers hesitated--but for the necessity of silence she would have openly protested--but that protest was shut up in her compressed lips as she came forward.
For an instant that awe with which absolute helplessness invests the sleeping and dead was felt by both husband and wife. Only the upper part of the sleeper's face was visible above the bedclothes, held in position by a thin white nervous hand that was encircled at the wrist by a ruffle. Seth stared. Short brown curls were tumbled over a forehead damp with the dews of sleep and exhaustion. But what appeared more singular, the closed eyes of this vessel of wrath and recklessness were fringed with lashes as long and silky as a woman's. Then Mrs. Rivers gently pulled her husband's sleeve, and they both crept back with a greater sense of intrusion and even more cautiously than they had entered. Nor did they speak until the door was closed softly and they were alone on the landing. Seth looked grimly at his wife.
"Don't look much ez ef he could hurt anybody."
"He looks like a sick man," returned Mrs. Rivers calmly.
The unconscious object of this criticism and attention slept until late; slept through the stir of awakened life within and without, through the challenge of early cocks in the lean-to shed, through the creaking of departing ox teams and the lazy, long-drawn commands of teamsters, through the regular strokes of the morning pump and the splash of water on stones, through the far-off barking of dogs and the half-intelligible shouts of ranchmen; slept through the sunlight on his ceiling, through its slow descent of his wall, and awoke with it in his eyes! He woke, too, with a delicious sense of freedom from pain, and of even drawing a long breath without difficulty--two facts so marvelous and dreamlike that he naturally closed his eyes again lest he should waken to a world of suffering and dyspnoea. Satisfied at last that this relief was real, he again opened his eyes, but upon surroundings so strange, so wildly absurd and improbable, that he again doubted their reality. He was lying in a moderately large room, primly and severely furnished, but his attention was for the moment riveted to a gilt frame upon the wall beside him bearing the text, "God Bless Our Home," and then on another frame on the opposite wall which admonished him to "Watch and Pray." Beside them hung an engraving of the "Raising of Lazarus," and a Hogarthian lithograph of "The Drunkard's Progress." Mr. Hamlin closed his eyes; he was dreaming certainly--not one of those wild, fantastic visions that had so miserably filled the past long nights of pain and suffering, but still a dream! At last, opening one eye stealthily, he caught the flash of the sunlight upon the crystal and silver articles of his dressing case, and that flash at once illuminated his memory. He remembered his long weeks of illness and the devotion of Dr. Duchesne. He remembered how, when the crisis was past, the doctor had urged a complete change and absolute rest, and had told him of a secluded rancho in some remote locality kept by an honest Western pioneer whose family he had attended. He remembered his own reluctant assent, impelled by gratitude to the doctor and the helplessness of a sick man. He now recalled the weary journey thither, his exhaustion and the semi-consciousness of his arrival in a bewildering wind on a shadowy hilltop. And this was the place!
He shivered slightly, and ducked his head under the cover again. But the brightness of the sun and some exhilarating quality in the air tempted him to have another outlook, avoiding as far as possible the grimly decorated walls. If they had only left him his faithful servant he could have relieved himself of that mischievous badinage which always alternately horrified and delighted that devoted negro. But he was alone--absolutely alone--in this conventicle!
Presently he saw the door open slowly. It gave admission to the small round face and yellow ringlets of a little girl, and finally to her whole figure, clasping a doll nearly as large as herself. For a moment she stood there, arrested by the display of Mr. Hamlin's dressing case on the table. Then her glances moved around the room and rested upon the bed. Her blue eyes and Mr. Hamlin's brown ones met and mingled. Without a moment's hesitation she moved to the bedside. Taking her doll's hands in her own, she displayed it before him.
"Isn't it pitty?"
Mr. Hamlin was instantly his old self again. Thrusting his hand comfortably under the pillow, he lay on his side and gazed at it long and affectionately. "I never," he said in a faint voice, but with immovable features, "saw anything so perfectly beautiful. Is it alive?"
"It's a dolly," she returned gravely, smoothing down its frock and straightening its helpless feet. Then seized with a spontaneous idea, like a young animal she suddenly presented it to him with both hands and said,--
Mr. Hamlin implanted a chaste salute on its vermilion cheek. "Would you mind letting me hold it for a little?" he said with extreme diffidence.
The child was delighted, as he expected. Mr. Hamlin placed it in a sitting posture on the edge of his bed, and put an ostentatious paternal arm around it.
"But you're alive, ain't you?" he said to the child.
This subtle witticism convulsed her. "I'm a little girl," she gurgled.
"I see; her mother?"
"And who's your mother?"
The child nodded until her ringlets were shaken on her cheek. After a moment she began to laugh bashfully and with repression, yet as Mr. Hamlin thought a little mischievously. Then as he looked at her interrogatively she suddenly caught hold of the ruffle of his sleeve.
"Oo's got on mammy's nighty."
Mr. Hamlin started. He saw the child's obvious mistake and actually felt himself blushing. It was unprecedented--it was the sheerest weakness--it must have something to do with the confounded air.
"I grieve to say you are deeply mistaken--it is my very own," he returned with great gravity. Nevertheless, he drew the coverlet close over his shoulder. But here he was again attracted by another face at the half-opened door--a freckled one, belonging to a boy apparently a year or two older than the girl. He was violently telegraphing to her to come away, although it was evident that he was at the same time deeply interested in the guest's toilet articles. Yet as his bright gray eyes and Mr. Hamlin's brown ones met, he succumbed, as the girl had, and walked directly to the bedside. But he did it bashfully--as the girl had not. He even attempted a defensive explanation.
"She hadn't oughter come in here, and mar wouldn't let her, and she knows it," he said with superior virtue.
"But I asked her to come as I'm asking you," said Mr. Hamlin promptly, "and don't you go back on your sister or you'll never be president of the United States." With this he laid his hand on the boy's tow head, and then, lifting himself on his pillow to a half- sitting posture, put an arm around each of the children, drawing them together, with the doll occupying the central post of honor. "Now," continued Mr. Hamlin, albeit in a voice a little faint from the exertion, "now that we're comfortable together I'll tell you the story of the good little boy who became a pirate in order to save his grandmother and little sister from being eaten by a wolf at the door."
But, alas! that interesting record of self-sacrifice never was told. For it chanced that Melinda Bird, Mrs. Rivers's help, following the trail of the missing children, came upon the open door and glanced in. There, to her astonishment, she saw the domestic group already described, and to her eyes dominated by the "most beautiful and perfectly elegant" young man she had ever seen. But let not the incautious reader suppose that she succumbed as weakly as her artless charges to these fascinations. The character and antecedents of that young man had been already delivered to her in the kitchen by the other help. With that single glance she halted; her eyes sought the ceiling in chaste exaltation. Falling back a step, she called in ladylike hauteur and precision, "Mary Emmeline and John Wesley."
Mr. Hamlin glanced at the children. "It's Melindy looking for us," said John Wesley. But they did not move. At which Mr. Hamlin called out faintly but cheerfully, "They're here, all right."
Again the voice arose with still more marked and lofty distinctness, "John Wesley and Mary Em-me-line." It seemed to Mr. Hamlin that human accents could not convey a more significant and elevated ignoring of some implied impropriety in his invitation. He was for a moment crushed.
But he only said to his little friends with a smile, "You'd better go now and we'll have that story later."
"Affer beckus?" suggested Mary Emmeline.
"In the woods," added John Wesley.
Mr. Hamlin nodded blandly. The children trotted to the door. It closed upon them and Miss Bird's parting admonition, loud enough for Mr. Hamlin to hear, "No more freedoms, no more intrudings, you hear."
The older culprit, Hamlin, retreated luxuriously under his blankets, but presently another new sensation came over him-- absolutely, hunger. Perhaps it was the child's allusion to "beckus," but he found himself wondering when it would be ready. This anxiety was soon relieved by the appearance of his host himself bearing a tray, possibly in deference to Miss Bird's sense of propriety. It appeared also that Dr. Duchesne had previously given suitable directions for his diet, and Mr. Hamlin found his repast simple but enjoyable. Always playfully or ironically polite to strangers, he thanked his host and said he had slept splendidly.
"It's this yer 'ozone' in the air that Dr. Duchesne talks about," said Seth complacently.
"I am inclined to think it is also those texts," said Mr. Hamlin gravely, as he indicated them on the wall. "You see they reminded me of church and my boyhood's slumbers there. I have never slept so peacefully since." Seth's face brightened so interestedly at what he believed to be a suggestion of his guest's conversion that Mr. Hamlin was fain to change the subject. When his host had withdrawn he proceeded to dress himself, but here became conscious of his weakness and was obliged to sit down. In one of those enforced rests he chanced to be near the window, and for the first time looked on the environs of his place of exile. For a moment he was staggered. Everything seemed to pitch downward from the rocky outcrop on which the rambling house and farm sheds stood. Even the great pines around it swept downward like a green wave, to rise again in enormous billows as far as the eye could reach. He could count a dozen of their tumbled crests following each other on their way to the distant plain. In some vague point of that shimmering horizon of heat and dust was the spot he came from the preceding night. Yet the recollection of it and his feverish past seemed to confuse him, and he turned his eyes gladly away.
Pale, a little tremulous, but immaculate and jaunty in his white flannels and straw hat, he at last made his way downstairs. To his great relief he found the sitting room empty, as he would have willingly deferred his formal acknowledgments to his hostess later. A single glance at the interior determined him not to linger, and he slipped quietly into the open air and sunshine. The day was warm and still, as the wind only came up with the going down of the sun, and the atmosphere was still redolent with the morning spicing of pine and hay and a stronger balm that seemed to fill his breast with sunshine. He walked toward the nearest shade--a cluster of young buckeyes--and having with a certain civic fastidiousness flicked the dust from a stump with his handkerchief he sat down. It was very quiet and calm. The life and animation of early morning had already vanished from the hill, or seemed to be suspended with the sun in the sky. He could see the ranchmen and oxen toiling on the green terraced slopes below, but no sound reached his ears. Even the house he had just quitted seemed empty of life throughout its rambling length. His seclusion was complete. Could he stand it for three weeks? Perhaps it need not be for so long; he was already stronger! He foresaw that the ascetic Seth might become wearisome. He had an intuition that Mrs. Rivers would be equally so; he should certainly quarrel with Melinda, and this would probably debar him from the company of the children--his only hope.
But his seclusion was by no means so complete as he expected. He presently was aware of a camp-meeting hymn hummed somewhat ostentatiously by a deep contralto voice, which he at once recognized as Melinda's, and saw that severe virgin proceeding from the kitchen along the ridge until within a few paces of the buckeyes, when she stopped and, with her hand shading her eyes, apparently began to examine the distant fields. She was a tall, robust girl, not without certain rustic attractions, of which she seemed fully conscious. This latter weakness gave Mr. Hamlin a new idea. He put up the penknife with which he had been paring his nails while wondering why his hands had become so thin, and awaited events. She presently turned, approached the buckeyes, plucked a spike of the blossoms with great girlish lightness, and then apparently discovering Mr. Hamlin, started in deep concern and said with somewhat stentorian politeness: "I BEG your pardon--didn't know I was intruding!"
"Don't mention it," returned Jack promptly, but without moving. "I saw you coming and was prepared; but generally--as I have something the matter with my heart--a sudden joy like this is dangerous."
Somewhat mystified, but struggling between an expression of rigorous decorum and gratified vanity, Miss Melinda stammered, "I was only"--
"I knew it--I saw what you were doing," interrupted Jack gravely, "only I wouldn't do it if I were you. You were looking at one of those young men down the hill. You forgot that if you could see him he could see you looking too, and that would only make him conceited. And a girl with YOUR attractions don't require that."
"Ez if," said Melinda, with lofty but somewhat reddening scorn, "there was a man on this hull rancho that I'd take a second look at."
"It's the first look that does the business," returned Jack simply. "But maybe I was wrong. Would you mind--as you're going straight back to the house" (Miss Melinda had certainly expressed no such intention)--"turning those two little kids loose out here? I've a sort of engagement with them."
"I will speak to their mar," said Melinda primly, yet with a certain sign of relenting, as she turned away.
"You can say to her that I regretted not finding her in the sitting room when I came down," continued Jack tactfully.
Apparently the tact was successful, for he was delighted a few moments later by the joyous onset of John Wesley and Mary Emmeline upon the buckeyes, which he at once converted into a game of hide and seek, permitting himself at last to be shamelessly caught in the open. But here he wisely resolved upon guarding against further grown-up interruption, and consulting with his companions found that on one of the lower terraces there was a large reservoir fed by a mountain rivulet, but they were not allowed to play there. Thither, however, the reckless Jack hied with his playmates and was presently ensconced under a willow tree, where he dexterously fashioned tiny willow canoes with his penknife and sent them sailing over a submerged expanse of nearly an acre. But half an hour of this ingenious amusement was brought to an abrupt termination. While cutting bark, with his back momentarily turned on his companions, he heard a scream, and turned quickly to see John Wesley struggling in the water, grasping a tree root, and Mary Emmeline--nowhere! In another minute he saw the strings of her pinafore appear on the surface a few yards beyond, and in yet another minute, with a swift rueful glance at his white flannels, he had plunged after her. A disagreeable shock of finding himself out of his depths was, however, followed by contact with the child's clothing, and clutching her firmly, a stroke or two brought him panting to the bank. Here a gasp, a gurgle, and then a roar from Mary Emmeline, followed by a sympathetic howl from John Wesley, satisfied him that the danger was over. Rescuing the boy from the tree root, he laid them both on the grass and contemplated them exercising their lungs with miserable satisfaction. But here he found his own breathing impeded in addition to a slight faintness, and was suddenly obliged to sit down beside them, at which, by some sympathetic intuition, they both stopped crying.
Encouraged by this, Mr. Hamlin got them to laughing again, and then proposed a race home in their wet clothes, which they accepted, Mr. Hamlin, for respiratory reasons, lagging in their rear until he had the satisfaction of seeing them captured by the horrified Melinda in front of the kitchen, while he slipped past her and regained his own room. Here he changed his saturated clothes, tried to rub away a certain chilliness that was creeping over him, and lay down in his dressing gown to miserable reflections. He had nearly drowned the children and overexcited himself, in spite of his promise to the doctor! He would never again be intrusted with the care of the former nor be believed by the latter!
But events are not always logical in sequence. Mr. Hamlin went comfortably to sleep and into a profuse perspiration. He was awakened by a rapping at his door, and opening it, was surprised to find Mrs. Rivers with anxious inquiries as to his condition. "Indeed," she said, with an emotion which even her prim reserve could not conceal, "I did not know until now how serious the accident was, and how but for you and Divine Providence my little girl might have been drowned. It seems Melinda saw it all."
Inwardly objurgating the spying Melinda, but relieved that his playmates hadn't broken their promise of secrecy, Mr. Hamlin laughed.
"I'm afraid that your little girl wouldn't have got into the water at all but for me--and you must give all the credit of getting her out to the other fellow." He stopped at the severe change in Mrs. Rivers's expression, and added quite boyishly and with a sudden drop from his usual levity, "But please don't keep the children away from me for all that, Mrs. Rivers."
Mrs. Rivers did not, and the next day Jack and his companions sought fresh playing fields and some new story-telling pastures. Indeed, it was a fine sight to see this pale, handsome, elegantly dressed young fellow lounging along between a blue-checkered pinafored girl on one side and a barefooted boy on the other. The ranchmen turned and looked after him curiously. One, a rustic prodigal, reduced by dissipation to the swine-husks of ranching, saw fit to accost him familiarly.
"The last time I saw you dealing poker in Sacramento, Mr. Hamlin, I did not reckon to find you up here playing with a couple of kids."
"No!" responded Mr. Hamlin suavely, "and yet I remember I was playing with some country idiots down there, and you were one of them. Well! understand that up here I prefer the kids. Don't let me have to remind you of it."
Nevertheless, Mr. Hamlin could not help noticing that for the next two or three days there were many callers at the ranch and that he was obliged in his walks to avoid the highroad on account of the impertinent curiosity of wayfarers. Some of them were of that sex which he would not have contented himself with simply calling "curious."
"To think," said Melinda confidently to her mistress, "that that thar Mrs. Stubbs, who wouldn't go to the Hightown Hotel because there was a play actress thar, has been snoopin' round here twice since that young feller came."
Of this fact, however, Mr. Hamlin was blissfully unconscious.
Nevertheless, his temper was growing uncertain; the angle of his smart straw hat was becoming aggressive to strangers; his politeness sardonic. And now Sunday morning had come with an atmosphere of starched piety and well-soaped respectability at the rancho, and the children were to be taken with the rest of the family to the day-long service at Hightown. As these Sabbath pilgrimages filled the main road, he was fain to take himself and his loneliness to the trails and byways, and even to invade the haunts of some other elegant outcasts like himself--to wit, a crested hawk, a graceful wild cat beautifully marked, and an eloquently reticent rattlesnake. Mr. Hamlin eyed them without fear, and certainly without reproach. They were not out of their element.
Suddenly he heard his name called in a stentorian contralto. An impatient ejaculation rose to his lips, but died upon them as he turned. It was certainly Melinda, but in his present sensitive loneliness it struck him for the first time that he had never actually seen her before as she really was. Like most men in his profession he was a quick reader of thoughts and faces when he was interested, and although this was the same robust, long-limbed, sunburnt girl he had met, he now seemed to see through her triple incrustation of human vanity, conventional piety, and outrageous Sabbath finery an honest, sympathetic simplicity that commanded his respect.
"You are back early from church," he said.
"Yes. One service is good enough for me when thar ain't no special preacher," she returned, "so I jest sez to Silas, 'as I ain't here to listen to the sisters cackle ye kin put to the buckboard and drive me home ez soon ez you please.'"
"And so his name is Silas," suggested Mr. Hamlin cheerfully.
"Go 'long with you, Mr. Hamlin, and don't pester," she returned, with heifer-like playfulness. "Well, Silas put to, and when we rose the hill here I saw your straw hat passin' in the gulch, and sez to Silas, sez I, 'Ye kin pull up here, for over yar is our new boarder, Jack Hamlin, and I'm goin' to talk with him.' 'All right,' sez he, 'I'd sooner trust ye with that gay young gambolier every day of the week than with them saints down thar on Sunday. He deals ez straight ez he shoots, and is about as nigh onto a gentleman as they make 'em.'"
For one moment or two Miss Bird only saw Jack's long lashes. When his eyes once more lifted they were shining. "And what did you say?" he said, with a short laugh.
"I told him he needn't be Christopher Columbus to have discovered that." She turned with a laugh toward Jack, to be met by the word "shake," and an outstretched thin white hand which grasped her large red one with a frank, fraternal pressure.
"I didn't come to tell ye that," remarked Miss Bird as she sat down on a boulder, took off her yellow hat, and restacked her tawny mane under it, "but this: I reckoned I went to Sunday meetin' as I ought ter. I kalkilated to hear considerable about 'Faith' and 'Works,' and sich, but I didn't reckon to hear all about you from the Lord's Prayer to the Doxology. You were in the special prayers ez a warnin', in the sermon ez a text; they picked out hymns to fit ye! And always a drefful example and a visitation. And the rest o' the tune it was all gabble, gabble by the brothers and sisters about you. I reckon, Mr. Hamlin, that they know everything you ever did since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, and a good deal more than you ever thought of doin'. The women is all dead set on convertin' ye and savin' ye by their own precious selves, and the men is ekally dead set on gettin' rid o' ye on that account."
"And what did Seth and Mrs. Rivers say?" asked Hamlin composedly, but with kindling eyes.
"They stuck up for ye ez far ez they could. But ye see the parson hez got a holt upon Seth, havin' caught him kissin' a convert at camp meeting; and Deacon Turner knows suthin about Mrs. Rivers's sister, who kicked over the pail and jumped the fence years ago, and she's afeard a' him. But what I wanted to tell ye was that they're all comin' up here to take a look at ye--some on 'em to- night. You ain't afeard, are ye?" she added, with a loud laugh.
"Well, it looks rather desperate, doesn't it?" returned Jack, with dancing eyes.
"I'll trust ye for all that," said Melinda. "And now I reckon I'll trot along to the rancho. Ye needn't offer ter see me home," she added, as Jack made a movement to accompany her. "Everybody up here ain't as fair-minded ez Silas and you, and Melinda Bird hez a character to lose! So long!" With this she cantered away, a little heavily, perhaps, adjusting her yellow hat with both hands as she clattered down the steep hill.
That afternoon Mr. Hamlin drew largely on his convalescence to mount a half-broken mustang, and in spite of the rising afternoon wind to gallop along the highroad in quite as mischievous and breezy a fashion. He was wont to allow his mustang's nose to hang over the hind rails of wagons and buggies containing young couples, and to dash ahead of sober carryalls that held elderly "members in good standing."
An accomplished rider, he picked up and brought back the flying parasol of Mrs. Deacon Stubbs without dismounting. He finally came home a little blown, but dangerously composed.
There was the usual Sunday evening gathering at Windy Hill Rancho-- neighbors and their wives, deacons and the pastor--but their curiosity was not satisfied by the sight of Mr. Hamlin, who kept his own room and his own counsel. There was some desultory conversation, chiefly on church topics, for it was vaguely felt that a discussion of the advisability or getting rid of the guest of their host was somewhat difficult under this host's roof, with the guest impending at any moment. Then a diversion was created by some of the church choir practicing the harmonium with the singing of certain more or less lugubrious anthems. Mrs. Rivers presently joined in, and in a somewhat faded soprano, which, however, still retained considerable musical taste and expression, sang, "Come, ye disconsolate." The wind moaned over the deep-throated chimney in a weird harmony with the melancholy of that human appeal as Mrs. Rivers sang the first verse:--
"Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish, Come to the Mercy Seat, fervently kneel; Here bring your wounded hearts--here tell your anguish, Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal!"
A pause followed, and the long-drawn, half-human sigh of the mountain wind over the chimney seemed to mingle with the wail of the harmonium. And then, to their thrilled astonishment, a tenor voice, high, clear, but tenderly passionate, broke like a skylark over their heads in the lines of the second verse:--
"Joy of the desolate, Light of the straying, Hope of the penitent--fadeless and pure; Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying, Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure!"
The hymn was old and familiar enough, Heaven knows. It had been quite popular at funerals, and some who sat there had had its strange melancholy borne upon them in time of loss and tribulations, but never had they felt its full power before. Accustomed as they were to emotional appeal and to respond to it, as the singer's voice died away above them, their very tears flowed and fell with that voice. A few sobbed aloud, and then a voice asked tremulously,--
"Who is it?"
"It's Mr. Hamlin," said Seth quietly. "I've heard him often hummin' things before."
There was another silence, and the voice of Deacon Stubbs broke in harshly,--
"It's rank blasphemy."
"If it's rank blasphemy to sing the praise o' God, not only better than some folks in the choir, but like an angel o' light, I wish you'd do a little o' that blaspheming on Sundays, Mr. Stubbs."
The speaker was Mrs. Stubbs, and as Deacon Stubbs was a notoriously bad singer the shot told.
"If he's sincere, why does he stand aloof? Why does he not join us?" asked the parson.
"He hasn't been asked," said Seth quietly. "If I ain't mistaken this yer gathering this evening was specially to see how to get rid of him."
There was a quick murmur of protest at this. The parson exchanged glances with the deacon and saw that they were hopelessly in the minority.
"I will ask him myself," said Mrs. Rivers suddenly.
"So do, Sister Rivers; so do," was the unmistakable response.
Mrs. Rivers left the room and returned in a few moments with a handsome young man, pale, elegant, composed, even to a grave indifference. What his eyes might have said was another thing; the long lashes were scarcely raised.
"I don't mind playing a little," he said quietly to Mrs. Rivers, as if continuing a conversation, "but you'll have to let me trust my memory."
"Then you--er--play the harmonium?" said the parson, with an attempt at formal courtesy.
"I was for a year or two the organist in the choir of Dr. Todd's church at Sacramento," returned Mr. Hamlin quietly.
The blank amazement on the faces of Deacons Stubbs and Turner and the parson was followed by wreathed smiles from the other auditors and especially from the ladies. Mr. Hamlin sat down to the instrument, and in another moment took possession of it as it had never been held before. He played from memory as he had implied, but it was the memory of a musician. He began with one or two familiar anthems, in which they all joined. A fragment of a mass and a Latin chant followed. An "Ave Maria" from an opera was his first secular departure, but his delighted audience did not detect it. Then he hurried them along in unfamiliar language to "O mio Fernando" and "Spiritu gentil," which they fondly imagined were hymns, until, with crowning audacity, after a few preliminary chords of the "Miserere," he landed them broken-hearted in the Trovatore's donjon tower with "Non te scordar de mi."
Amidst the applause he heard the preacher suavely explain that those Popish masses were always in the Latin language, and rose from the instrument satisfied with his experiment. Excusing himself as an invalid from joining them in a light collation in the dining room, and begging his hostess's permission to retire, he nevertheless lingered a few moments by the door as the ladies filed out of the room, followed by the gentlemen, until Deacon Turner, who was bringing up the rear, was abreast of him. Here Mr. Hamlin became suddenly deeply interested in a framed pencil drawing which hung on the wall. It was evidently a schoolgirl's amateur portrait, done by Mrs. Rivers. Deacon Turner halted quickly by his side as the others passed out--which was exactly what Mr. Hamlin expected.
"Do you know the face?" said the deacon eagerly.
Thanks to the faithful Melinda, Mr. Hamlin did know it perfectly. It was a pencil sketch of Mrs. Rivers's youthfully erring sister. But he only said he thought he recognized a likeness to some one he had seen in Sacramento.
The deacon's eye brightened. "Perhaps the same one--perhaps," he added in a submissive and significant tone "a--er--painful story."
"Rather--to him," observed Hamlin quietly.
"How?--I--er--don't understand," said Deacon Turner.
"Well, the portrait looks like a lady I knew in Sacramento who had been in some trouble when she was a silly girl, but had got over it quietly. She was, however, troubled a good deal by some mean hound who was every now and then raking up the story wherever she went. Well, one of her friends--I might have been among them, I don't exactly remember just now--challenged him, but although he had no conscientious convictions about slandering a woman, he had some about being shot for it, and declined. The consequence was he was cowhided once in the street, and the second time tarred and feathered and ridden on a rail out of town. That, I suppose, was what you meant by your 'painful story.' But is this the woman?"
"No, no," said the deacon hurriedly, with a white face, "you have quite misunderstood."
"But whose is this portrait?" persisted Jack.
"I believe that--I don't know exactly--but I think it is a sister of Mrs. Rivers's," stammered the deacon.
"Then, of course, it isn't the same woman," said Jack in simulated indignation.
"Certainly--of course not," returned the deacon.
"Phew!" said Jack. "That was a mighty close call. Lucky we were alone, wasn't it?"
"Yes," said the deacon, with a feeble smile.
"Seth," continued Jack, with a thoughtful air, "looks like a quiet man, but I shouldn't like to have made that mistake about his sister-in-law before him. These quiet men are apt to shoot straight. Better keep this to ourselves."
Deacon Turner not only kept the revelation to himself but apparently his own sacred person also, as he did not call again at Windy Hill Rancho during Mr. Hamlin's stay. But he was exceedingly polite in his references to Jack, and alluded patronizingly to a "little chat" they had had together. And when the usual reaction took place in Mr. Hamlin's favor and Jack was actually induced to perform on the organ at Hightown Church next Sunday, the deacon's voice was loudest in his praise. Even Parson Greenwood allowed himself to be non-committal as to the truth of the rumor, largely circulated, that one of the most desperate gamblers in the State had been converted through his exhortations.
So, with breezy walks and games with the children, occasional confidences with Melinda and Silas, and the Sabbath "singing of anthems," Mr. Hamlin's three weeks of convalescence drew to a close. He had lately relaxed his habit of seclusion so far as to mingle with the company gathered for more social purposes at the rancho, and once or twice unbent so far as to satisfy their curiosity in regard to certain details of his profession.
"I have no personal knowledge of games of cards," said Parson Greenwood patronizingly, "and think I am right in saying that our brothers and sisters are equally inexperienced. I am--ahem--far from believing, however, that entire ignorance of evil is the best preparation for combating it, and I should be glad if you'd explain to the company the intricacies of various games. There is one that you mentioned, with a--er--scriptural name."
"Faro," said Hamlin, with an unmoved face.
"Pharaoh," repeated the parson gravely; "and one which you call 'poker,' which seems to require great self-control."
"I couldn't make you understand poker without your playing it," said Jack decidedly.
"As long as we don't gamble--that is, play for money--I see no objection," returned the parson.
"And," said Jack musingly, "you could use beans."
It was agreed finally that there would be no falling from grace in their playing among themselves, in an inquiring Christian spirit, under Jack's guidance, he having decided to abstain from card playing during his convalescence, and Jack permitted himself to be persuaded to show them the following evening.
It so chanced, however, that Dr. Duchesne, finding the end of Jack's "cure" approaching, and not hearing from that interesting invalid, resolved to visit him at about this time. Having no chance to apprise Jack of his intention, on coming to Hightown at night he procured a conveyance at the depot to carry him to Windy Hill Rancho. The wind blew with its usual nocturnal rollicking persistency, and at the end of his turbulent drive it seemed almost impossible to make himself heard amongst the roaring of the pines and some astounding preoccupation of the inmates. After vainly knocking, the doctor pushed open the front door and entered. He rapped at the closed sitting room door, but receiving no reply, pushed it open upon the most unexpected and astounding scene he had ever witnessed. Around the centre table several respectable members of the Hightown Church, including the parson, were gathered with intense and eager faces playing poker, and behind the parson, with his hands in his pockets, carelessly lounged the doctor's patient, the picture of health and vigor. A disused pack of cards was scattered on the floor, and before the gentle and precise Mrs. Rivers was heaped a pile of beans that would have filled a quart measure.
When Dr. Duchesne had tactfully retreated before the hurried and stammering apologies of his host and hostess, and was alone with Jack in his rooms, he turned to him with a gravity that was more than half affected and said, "How long, sir, did it take you to effect this corruption?"
"Upon my honor," said Jack simply, "they played last night for the first time. And they forced me to show them. But," added Jack after a significant pause, "I thought it would make the game livelier and be more of a moral lesson if I gave them nearly all good pat hands. So I ran in a cold deck on them--the first time I ever did such a thing in my life. I fixed up a pack of cards so that one had three tens, another three jacks, and another three queens, and so on up to three aces. In a minute they had all tumbled to the game, and you never saw such betting. Every man and woman there believed he or she had struck a sure thing, and staked accordingly. A new panful of beans was brought on, and Seth, your friend, banked for them. And at last the parson raked in the whole pile."
"I suppose you gave him the three aces," said Dr. Duchesne gloomily.
"The parson," said Jack slowly, "HADN'T A SINGLE PAIR IN HIS HAND. It was the stoniest, deadest, neatest BLUFF I ever saw. And when he'd frightened off the last man who held out and laid that measly hand of his face down on that pile of kings, queens, and aces, and looked around the table as he raked in the pile, there was a smile of humble self-righteousness on his face that was worth double the money."