On a Side-Track

by


On a Side-Track (1895) is featured in Foote's collection, The Cup of Trembling and Other Stories.
An illustration for the story On a Side-Track by the author Mary Hallock Foote
Passenger train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, around 1895
An illustration for the story On a Side-Track by the author Mary Hallock Foote
Passenger train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, around 1895
An illustration for the story On a Side-Track by the author Mary Hallock Foote

I

It was the second week in February, but winter had taken a fresh hold: the stockmen were grumbling; freight was dull, and travel light on the white Northwestern lines. In the Portland car from Omaha there were but four passengers: father and daughter,—a gentle, unsophisticated pair,—and two strong-faced men, fellow-travelers also, keeping each other's company in a silent but close and conspicuous proximity. They shared the same section, the younger man sleeping above, going to bed before, and rising later than, his companion; and whenever he changed his seat or made an unexpected movement, the eyes of the elder man followed him, and they were never far from him at any time.

The elder was a plain farmer type of man, with a clean-shaven, straight upper lip, a grizzled beard covering the lower half of his face, and humorous wrinkles spreading from the corners of his keen gray eyes.

The younger showed in his striking person that union of good blood with hard conditions so often seen in the old-young graduates of the life schools of the West. His hands and face were dark with exposure to the sun, not of parks and club-grounds and seaside piazzas, but the dry untempered light of the desert and the plains. His dark eye was distinctively masculine,—if there be such a thing as gender in features,—bold, ardent, and possessive; but now it was clouded with sadness that did not pass like a mood, though he looked capable of moods.

He was dressed in the demi-toilet which answers for dinners in the West, on occasions where a dress-coat is not required. In itself the costume was correct, even fastidious, in its details, but on board an overland train there was a foppish unsuitability in it that "gave the wearer away," as another man would have said—put him at a disadvantage, notwithstanding his splendid physique, and the sad, rather fine preoccupation of his manner. He looked like a very real person dressed for a trifling part, which he lays aside between the scenes while he thinks about his sick child, or his debts, or his friend with whom he has quarreled.

But these incongruities, especially the one of dress, might easily have escaped a pair of eyes so confiding and unworldly as those of the young girl in the opposite section; they had escaped her, but not the incongruity of youth with so much sadness. The girl and her father had boarded the car at Omaha, escorted by the porter of one of the forward sleepers on the same train. They had come from farther East. The old gentleman appeared to be an invalid; but they gave little trouble. The porter had much leisure on his hands, which he bestowed in arrears of sleep on the end seat forward. The conductor made up his accounts in the empty drawing-room, or looked at himself in the mirrors, or stretched his legs on the velvet sofas. He was a young fellow, with a tendency to jokes and snatches of song and talk of a light character when not on duty. He talked sometimes with the porter in low tones, and then both looked at the pair of travelers in No. 8, and the younger man seemed moodily aware of their observation.

On the first morning out from Omaha the old gentleman kept his berth until nine or ten o'clock. At eight his daughter brought him a cup of chocolate and a sandwich, and sat between his curtains, chatting with him cozily. In speaking together they used the language of the Society of Friends.

The young man opposite listened attentively to the girl's voice; it was as sweet as the piping of birds at daybreak. Phebe her father called her.

Afterward Phebe sat in the empty section next her father's. The table before her was spread with a fresh napkin, and a few pieces of old household silver and china which she had taken from her lunch-basket.

She and her father were economical travelers, but in all their belongings there was the refinement of modest suitability and an exquisite cleanliness. Her own order for breakfast was confined to a cup of coffee, which the porter was preparing in the buffet-kitchen.

"Would you mind changing places with me?"

The young man in No. 8 spoke to his companion, who sat opposite reading a newspaper. They changed seats, and by this arrangement the younger could look at Phebe, who innocently gave him every advantage to study her sober and delicate profile against the white snow-light, as she sat watching the dreary cattle-ranges of Wyoming swim past the car window.

Her hair had been brushed, and her face washed in the bitter alkaline waters of the plains, with the uncompromising severity of one whose standards of personal adornment are limited to the sternest ideals of neatness and purity. Yet her fair face bloomed, like a winter sunrise, with tints of rose and pearl and sapphire blue, and the pale gold of winter sunshine was in her satin-smooth hair.

The young man did not fail to include in his study of Phebe the modest breakfast equipment set out before her. He perfectly recalled the pattern of the white-and-gold china, the touch, the very taste, of the thin, bright old silver spoons; they were like his grandmother's tea-things in the family homestead in the country, where he had spent his summers as a boy. The look of them touched him nearly, but not happily, it would seem, from his expression.

The porter came with the cup of coffee, and offered a number of patronizing suggestions in the line of his service, which the young girl declined. She set forth a meek choice of food, blushing faintly in deprecation of the young man's eyes, of which she began to be aware. Evidently she was not yet hardened to the practice of eating in public.

He took the hint, and retired to his corner, opening a newspaper between himself and Phebe.

Presently he heard her call the porter in a small, ineffectual voice. The porter did not come. She waited a little, and called again, with no better result. He put down his newspaper.

"If you will press the button at your left," he suggested.

"The button!" she repeated, looking at him helplessly.

He sprang to assist her. As he did so his companion flung down his paper, and jumped in front of him. The eyes of the two met. A hot flush rose to the young man's eyebrows.

"I am calling the porter for her."

"Oh!" said the other, and he sat down again; but he kept an eye upon the angry youth, who leaned across Phebe's seat, and touched the electric button.

"Little girl hadn't got on to it, eh?" the grizzled man remarked pleasantly, when his companion had resumed his seat.

There was no answer.

"Nice folks; from the country, somewheres back East, I should guess," the imperturbable one continued. "Old man seems sort of sickly. Making a move on account of his health, likely. Great mistake—old folks turning out in winter huntin' a climate."

The young man remained silent, and the elder returned to his paper.

At Cheyenne, where the train halts for dinner, the young girl helped her father into his outer garments, buttoned herself hastily into her homespun jacket bordered with gray fur, pinned her little hat firmly to her crown of golden braids, hid her hands in her muff,—she did not wait to put on gloves,—and led the way to the dining-room.

The travelers in No. 8 disposed of their meal rapidly, in their usual close but silent conjunction, and returned at once to the car.

The old gentleman and his daughter walked the windy platform, and cast rather forlorn glances at the crowd bustling about in the bleak winter sunlight. When they took their seats again, the father's pale blue eyes were still paler, his face looked white and drawn with the cold; but Phebe was like a rose: with her wonderful, pure color the girl was beautiful. The young man of No. 8 looked at her with a startled reluctance, as if her sweetness wounded him.

Then he seemed to have resolved to look at her no more. He leaned his head back in his corner, and closed his eyes; the train shook him slightly as he sat in moody preoccupation with his thoughts, and the miles of track flew by.

At Green River, at midnight, the Portland car was dropped by its convoy of the Union Pacific, and was coupled with a train making up for the Oregon Short Line. There was hooting and backing of engines, slamming of car doors, flashing of conductors' lanterns, voices calling across the tracks. One of these voices could be heard, in the wakeful silence within the car, as an engine from the west steamed past in the glare of its snow-wreathed headlight.

"No. 10 stuck this side of Squaw Creek. Bet you don't make it before Sunday!"

The outbound conductor's retort was lost in the clank of couplings as the train lurched forward on the slippery rails.

"Phebe, is thee awake?" the old gentleman softly called to his daughter, about the small hours.

"Yes, father. Want anything?"

"Are those ventilators shut? I feel a cold draft in the back of my berth."

The ventilators were all shut, but the train was now climbing the Wind River divide, the cold bitterly increasing, and the wind dead ahead. Cinders tinkled on the roaring stovepipes, the blast swept the car roofs, pelting the window panes with fine, dry snow, and searching every joint and crevice defended by the company's upholstery.

Phebe slipped down behind the berth-curtain, and tucked a shawl in at her father's back. Her low voice could be heard, and the old man's self-pitying tones in answer to her tender questionings. He coughed at intervals till daybreak, when there was silence in section No. 7.

In No. 8, across the aisle, the young man lay awake in the strength of his thoughts, and made up passionate sentences which he fancied himself speaking to persons he might never be brought face to face with again. They were people mixed in with his life in various relations, past and present, whose opinions had weighed with him. When he heard Phebe talking to her father, he muttered, with a sort of anguish:—

"Oh, you precious lamb!"

He and his companion made their toilet early, and breakfasted and smoked together, and their taciturn relation continued as before. Snow filled the air, and blotted out the distance, but there were few stationary dark objects outside by which to gauge its fall. They were across the border now, between Wyoming and Idaho, in a featureless white region, a country of small Mormon ranches, far from any considerable town.

The old man slept behind his curtains. Phebe went through the morning routine by which women travelers make themselves at home and pass the time, but obviously her day did not begin until her father had reported himself. She had found a hole in one of her gloves, which she was mending, choosing critically the needle and the silk for the purpose from a very complete housewife in brown linen bound with a brown silk galloon. Again the young man was reminded of his boyhood, and of certain kind old ladies of precise habits who had contributed to his happiness, and occasionally had eked out the fond measure of paternal discipline.

The snow continued; about noon the train halted at a small water station, waited awhile as if in consideration of difficulties ahead, and then quietly backed down upon a side-track. A shock of silence followed. Every least personal movement in the thinly peopled car, before lost in the drumming of the wheels, asserted itself against this new medium. The passengers looked up and at one another; the Pullman conductor stepped out to make inquiries.

The silence continued, and became embarrassing. Phebe dropped her scissors. This time the young man sat still, but the flush rose to his forehead as before. The old gentleman's breathing could be heard behind his curtains; the porter rattling plates in the cooking-closet; the soft rustling of the snow outside. Phebe stepped to her father's berth, and peeped between his curtains; he was still sleeping. Her voice was hushed to the note of a sick-room as she asked,—

"Where are we now, do you know?"

The young man was looking at her, and to him she addressed the question.

With a glance at his companion, he crossed to her side of the car, and took the seat in front of her.

"We are in the Bear Lake valley, just over the border of Idaho, about fifteen miles from the Squaw Creek divide," he answered, sinking his voice.

"Did you hear what that person said in the night, when a train passed us, about our not getting through?"

"I wondered if you heard that." He smiled. "You did not rest well, I'm afraid."

"I was anxious about father. This weather is a great surprise to us. We were told the winters were short in southern Idaho—almost like Virginia; but look at this!"

"We have nearly eight thousand feet of altitude here, you must remember. In the valleys it is warmer. There the winter does break usually about this time. Are you going on much farther?"

"To a place called Volney."

"Volney is pretty high; but there is Boise, farther down. Strangers moving into a new country very seldom strike it right the first time."

"Oh, we shall stay at Volney, even if we do not like it; that is, if we can stay. I have a married sister living there. She thought the climate would be better for father."

After a pause she asked, "Do you know why we are stopping here so long?"

"Probably because we have had orders not to go any farther."

"Do you mean that we are blocked?"

"The train ahead of us is. We shall stay here until that gets through."

"You seem very cheerful about it," she said, observing his expression.

"Ah, I should think so!"

His short lip curled in the first smile she had seen upon his strong, brooding face. She could not help smiling in response, but she felt bound to protest against his irresponsible view of the situation.

"Have you so much time to spend upon the road? I thought the men of this country were always in a hurry."

"It makes a difference where a man is going, and on what errand, and what fortune he meets with on the way. I am not going to Volney."

She did not understand his emphasis, nor the bearing of his words. His eyes dropped to her hands lying in her lap, still holding the glove she had been mending.

"How nicely you do it! How can you take such little stitches without pricking yourself, when the train is going?"

"It is my business to take little stitches. I don't know how to do anything else."

"Do you mean it literally? It is your business to sew?"

The notion seemed to surprise him.

"No; I mean in a general sense. Some of us can do only small things, a stitch at a time,—take little steps, and not know always where they are going."

"Is this a little step—to Volney?"

"Oh, no; it is a very long one, and rather a wild one, I'm afraid. I suppose everybody does a wild thing once in a lifetime?"

"How should you know that?"

"I only said so. I don't say that it is true."

"People who take little steps are sometimes picked up and carried off their feet by those who take long, wild ones."

"Why, what are we talking about?" she asked herself, in surprise.

"About going to Volney, was it not?" he suggested.

"What is there about Volney, please tell me, that you harp upon the name? I am a stranger, you know; I don't know the country allusions. Is there anything peculiar about Volney?"

"She is a deep little innocent," he said within himself; "but oh, so innocent!" And again he appeared to gather himself in pained resistance to some thought that jarred with the thought of Phebe. He rose and bowed, and so took leave of her, and settled himself back into his corner, shading his eyes with his hand.

He ate no luncheon, Phebe noticed, and he sat so long in a dogged silence that she began to cast wistful glances across the aisle, wondering if he were ill, or if she had unwittingly been rude to him. Any one could have shaken her confidence in her own behavior; moreover, she reminded herself, she did not know the etiquette of an overland train. She had heard that the Western people were very friendly; no doubt they expected a frank response in others. She resolved to be more careful the next time, if the moody young man should speak to her again.

Her father was awake now, dressed and sitting up. He was very chipper, but Phebe knew that his color was not natural, nor his breathing right. He was much inclined to talk, in a rambling, childish, excited manner that increased her anxiety.

The young man in No. 8 had evidently taken his fancy; his formal, old-fashioned advances were modestly but promptly met.

"I suppose it is not usual, in these parts, for travelers to inquire each other's names?" the old gentleman remarked to his new acquaintance; "but we seem to have plenty of time on our hands; we might as well improve it socially. My name is David Underhill, and this is my daughter Phebe. Now what might thy name be, friend?"

"My name is Ludovic," said the youth, looking a half-apology at Phebe, who saw no reason for it.

"First or family name?"

"Ludovic is my family name."

"And a very good name it is," said the old gentleman. "Not a common name in these parts, I should say, but one very well and highly known to me," he added, with pleased emphasis. "Phebe, thee remembers a visit we had from Martin Ludovic when we were living at New Rochelle?"

"Thee knows I was not born when you lived at New Rochelle, father dear."

"True, true! It was thy mother I was thinking of. She had a great esteem for Martin Ludovic. He was one of the world's people, as we say—in the world, but not of the world. Yet he made a great success in life. He was her father's junior partner—rose from a clerk's stool in his counting-room; and a great success he made of it. But that was after Friend Lawrence's time. My wife was Phebe Lawrence."

Young Ludovic smiled brightly in reply to this information, and seemed about to speak, but the old gentleman forestalled him.

"Friend Lawrence had made what was considered a competence in those days—a very small one it would be called now; but he was satisfied. Thee may not be aware that it is a recommendation among the Friends, and it used to be a common practice, that when a merchant had made a sufficiency for himself and those depending on him, he should show his sense of the favor of Providence by stepping out and leaving his chance to the younger men. Friend Lawrence did so—not to his own benefit ultimately, though that was no one's fault that ever I heard; and Martin Ludovic was his successor, and a great and honorable business was the outcome of his efforts. Now does thee happen to recall if Martin is a name in thy branch?"

"My grandfather was Martin Ludovic of the old New York house of Lawrence and Ludovic," said the cadet of that name; but as he gave these credentials a profound melancholy subdued his just and natural pride.

"Is it possible!" Friend Underhill exulted, more pleased than if he had recovered a lost bank-note for many hundreds. There are no people who hold by the ties of blood and family more strongly than the Friends; and Friend Underhill, on this long journey, had felt himself sadly insolvent in those sureties that cannot be packed in a trunk or invested in irrigable lands. It was as if on the wild, cold seas he had crossed the path of a bark from home. He yearned to have speech with this graciously favored young man, whose grandfather had been his Phebe's grandfather's partner and dearest friend. The memory of that connection had been cherished with ungrudging pride through the succeeding generations in which the Ludovics had gone up in the world and the Lawrences had come down. Friend Underhill did not recall—nor would he have thought it of the least importance—that a Lawrence had been the benefactor in the first place, and had set Martin Ludovic's feet upon the ladder of success. He took the young man's hand affectionately in his own, and studied the favor of his countenance.

"Thee has the family look," he said in a satisfied tone; "and they had no cause, as a rule, to be discontented with their looks."

Young Ludovic's eyes fell, and he blushed like a girl; the dark-red blood dyed his face with the color almost of shame. Phebe moved uneasily in her seat.

"Make room beside thee, Phebe," said her father; "or, no, friend Ludovic; sit thee here beside me. If the train should start, I could hear thee better. And thy name—let me see—thee must be a Charles Ludovic. In thy family there was always a Martin, and then an Aloys, and then a Charles; and it was said—though a foolish superstition, no doubt—that the king's name brought ill luck. The Ludovic whose turn it was to bear the name of the unhappy Stuart took with it the misfortunes of three generations."

"A very unjust superstition I should call it," pronounced Phebe.

"Surely, and a very idle one," her father acquiesced, smiling at her warmth. "I trust, friend Charles, it has been given thee happily to disprove it in thy own person."

"On the contrary," said Charles Ludovic, "if I am not the unluckiest of my name, I hope there may never be another."

He spoke with such conviction, such energy of sadness, only silence could follow the words. Then the old gentleman said, most gently and ruefully:—

"If it be indeed as thee says, I trust it will not seem an intrusion, in one who knew thy family's great worth, to ask the nature of thy trouble—if by chance it might be my privilege to assist thee. I feel of rather less than my usual small importance—cast loose, as it were, between the old and the new; but if my small remedies should happen to suit with thy complaint, it would not matter that they were trifling—like Phebe's drops and pellets she puts such faith in," he added, with a glance at his daughter's downcast face.

"Dear sir, you have helped me, by the gift of the outstretched hand. Between strangers, as we are, that implies a faith as generous as it is rare."

"Nay, we are not strangers; no one of thy name shall call himself stranger to one of ours. Shall he, Phebe? Still, I would not importune thee"—

"I thank you far more than you can know; but we need not talk of my troubles. It was a graceless speech of mine to obtrude them."

"As thee will. But I deny the lack of grace. The gracelessness was mine to bring up a foolish saying, more honored in the forgetting."

Here Phebe interposed with a spoonful of the medicine her father had referred to so disparagingly. "I would not talk any more now, if I were thee, father. Thee sees how it makes thee cough."

At this, Ludovic rose to leave them; but Phebe detained him, shyly doing the honors of their quarters in the common caravan. He stayed, but a constrained silence had come upon him. The old gentleman closed his eyes, and sometimes smiled to himself as he sat so, beside the younger man, and Phebe had strange thoughts as she looked at them both. Her imagination was greatly stirred. She talked easily and with perfect unconsciousness to Ludovic, and told him little things she could remember having heard about the one generation of his family that had formerly been connected with her own. She knew more about it, it appeared, than he did. And more and more he seemed to lose himself in her eyes, rather than to be listening to her voice. He sat with his back to his companion across the aisle; at length the latter rose, and touched him on the shoulder. He turned instantly, and Phebe, looking up, caught the hard, roused expression that altered him into the likeness of another man.

"I am going outside." No more was said, but Ludovic rose, bowed to Phebe, and followed his curt fellow-passenger.

"What can be the connection between them?" thought the girl. "They seem inseparable, yet not friends precisely. How could they be friends?" And in her prompt mental comparison the elder man inevitably suffered. She began to think of all the tragedies with which young lives are fatalistically bound up; but it was significant that none of her speculations included the possibility of anything in the nature of error in respect to this Charles Ludovic who called himself unhappy.

II

"Stop a moment. I want to speak to you," said Ludovic. The two men were passing through the gentlemen's toilet-room; Ludovic turned his back to the marble washstand, and waited, with his head up, and the tips of his long hands resting in his trousers' pockets. "I have a favor to ask of you, Mr. Burke."

"Well, sir, what's the size of it?"

"You must have heard some of our talk in there; you see how it is? They will never, of themselves, suspect the reason of your fondness for my company. Is it worth while, for the time we shall be together, to put them on to it? It's not very easy, you see; make it as easy as you can."

"Have I tried to make it hard, Mr. Ludovic?"

"Not at all. I don't mean that."

"Am I giving you away most of the time?"

"Of course not. You have been most awfully good. But you're—you're damnably in my way. I see you out of the corner of my eye always, when you aren't square in front of me. I can't make a move but you jump. Do you think I am such a fool as to make a break now? No, sir; I am going through with this; I'm in it most of the time. Now see here, I give you my word—and there are no liars of my name—that you will find me with you at Pocatello. Till then let me alone, will you? Keep your eyes off me. Keep out of range of my talk. I would like to say a word now and then without knowing there's a running comment in the mind of a man across the car, who thinks he knows me better than the people I am talking to—understand?"

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't," said Mr. Burke, deliberately. "I don't know as it's any of my business what you say to your friends, or what they think of you. All I'm responsible for is your person."

"Precisely. At Pocatello you will have my person."

"And have I got your word for the road between?"

"My word, and my thanks—if the thanks of a man in my situation are worth anything."

"I'm dum sorry for you, Mr. Ludovic, and I don't mind doing what little I can to make things easy"—Mr. Burke paused, seeing his companion smile. "Well, yes, I know it's hard—it's dooced almighty hard; and it looks like there was a big mistake somewheres, but it's no business of mine to say so. Have a cigar?"

Young Mr. Ludovic had accepted a number of Mr. Burke's palliative offers of cigars during their journey together; he accepted the courtesy, but he did not smoke the cigars. He usually gave them to the porter. He had an expensive taste in cigars, as in many other things. He paid for his high-priced preferences, or he went without. He was never willing to accept any substitute for the thing he really wanted; and it was very hard for him, when he had set his heart upon a thing, not to approach it in the attitude that an all-wise Providence had intended it for him.

About dusk the snow-plow engines from above came down for coal and water. They brought no positive word, only that the plows and shovelers were at work at both ends of the big cut, and they hoped the track would be free by daybreak. But the snow was still falling as night set in.

Ludovic and Phebe sat in the shadowed corner behind the curtains of No. 7. Phebe's father had gone to bed early; his cough was worse, and Phebe was treating him for that and for the fever which had developed as an attendant symptom. She was a devotee in her chosen school of medicine; she knew her remedies, within the limits of her household experience, and used them with the courage and constancy that are of no school, but which better the wisdom of them all.

Ludovic observed that she never lost count of the time through all her talk, which was growing more and more absorbing; he was jealous of the interruption when she said, "Excuse me," and looked at her watch, or rose and carried her tumblers of medicine alternately to the patient, and woke him gently; for it was now a case for strenuous treatment, and she purposed to watch out the night, and give the medicines regularly every hour.

Mr. Burke was as good as his word; he kept several seats distant from the young people. He had a private understanding, though, with the car officials: not that he put no faith in the word of a Ludovic, but business is business.

When he went to his berth about eleven o'clock he noticed that his prisoner was still keeping the little Quaker girl company, and neither of them seemed to be sleepy. The table where they had taken supper together was still between them, with Phebe's watch and the medicine tumblers upon it. The panel of looking-glass reflected the young man's profile, touched with gleams of lamplight, as he leaned forward with his arms upon the table.

Phebe sat far back in her corner, pale and grave; but when her eyes were lifted to his face they were as bright as winter stars.

It was Ludovic's intention, before he parted with Phebe, to tell her his story—his own story; the newspaper account of him she would read, with all the world, after she had reached Volney. Meantime he wished to lose himself in a dream of how it might have been could he have met this little Phebe, not on a side-track, his chance already spoiled, but on the main line, with a long ticket, and the road clear before them to the Golden Gate.

Under other circumstances she might not have had the same overmastering fascination for him; he did not argue that question with himself. He talked to her all night long as a man talks to the woman he has chosen and is free to win, with but a single day in which to win her; and underneath his impassioned tones, shading and deepening them with tragic meaning, was the truth he was withholding. There was no one to stand between Phebe and this peril, and how should she know whither they were drifting?

He told her stories of his life of danger and excitement and contrasts, East and West; he told her of his work, his ambitions, his disappointments; he carried her from city to city, from camp to camp. He spoke to sparkling eyes, to fresh, thrilling sympathies, to a warm heart, a large comprehension, and a narrow experience. Every word went home; for with this girl he was strangely sure of himself, as indeed he might have been.

And still the low music of his voice went on; for he did not lack that charm, among many others—a voice for sustained and moving speech. Perhaps he did not know his own power; at all events, he was unsparing of an influence the most deliberate and enthralling to which the girl had ever been subjected.

He was a Ludovic of that family her own had ever held in highest consideration. He was that Charles Ludovic who had called himself unhappiest of his name. Phebe never forgot this fact, and in his pauses, and often in his words, she felt the tug of that strong undertow of unspoken feeling pulling him back into depths where even in thought she could not follow him.

And so they sat face to face, with the watch between them ticking away the fateful moments. For Ludovic, life ended at Pocatello, but not for Phebe.

What had he done with that faith they had given him—the gentle, generous pair! He had resisted, he thought that he was resisting, his mad attraction to this girl—of all girls the most impossible to him now, yet the one, his soul averred, most obviously designed for him. His wild, sick fancy had clung to her from the moment her face had startled him, as he took his last backward look upon the world he had forfeited.

His prayer was that he might win from Phebe, before he left her at Pocatello, some sure token of her remembrance that he might dwell upon and dream over in the years of his buried life.

It would not have been wonderful, as the hours of that strange night flew by, if Phebe had lost a moment, now and then, had sometimes wandered from the purpose of her vigil. Her thoughts strayed, but they came back duly, and she was constant to her charge. Through all that unwholesome enchantment her hold upon herself was firm, through her faithfulness to the simple duties in which she had been bred.

Meanwhile the train lay still in the darkness, and Ludovic thanked God, shamelessly, for the snow. How the dream outwore the night and strengthened as morning broke gray and cold, and quiet with the stillness of the desert, we need not follow. More and more it possessed him, and began to seem the only truth that mattered.

He took to himself all the privileges of her protector; the rights, indeed—as if he could have rights such as belong to other men, now, in regard to any woman.

If the powers that are named of good or evil, according to the will of the wisher, had conspired to help him on, the dream could not have drawn closer to the dearest facts of life; but no spells were needed beyond those which the reckless conjurer himself possessed—his youth, his implied misfortunes, his unlikeness to any person she had known, his passion, "meek, but wild," which he neither spoke nor attempted to conceal.

And Phebe sat like a charmed thing while he wove the dream about her. She could not think; she had nothing to do while her father slept; she had nowhere to go, away from this new friend of her father's choosing. She was exhausted with watching, and nervously unstrung. Her hands were ice; her color went and came; her heart was in a wild alarm. She blushed almost as she breathed, with his eyes always upon her; and blushing, could have wept, but for the pride that still was left her in this strange, unwholesome excitement.

It was an ordeal that should have had no witnesses but the angels; yet it was seen of the porter and the conductor and Mr. Burke. The last was not a person finely cognizant of situations like this one; but he felt it and resented it in every fibre of his honest manhood.

"What's Ludovic doing?" he asked himself in heated soliloquy. "He's out of the running, and the old man's sick abed, and no better than an old woman when he's well. What's the fellow thinking of?"

Mr. Burke took occasion to ask him, when they were alone together—Ludovic putting the finishing touches to a shave; the time was not the happiest, but the words were honest and to the point.

"I didn't understand," said Mr. Burke, "that the little girl was in it. Now, do you call it quite on the square, Mr. Ludovic, between you and her? I don't like it, myself; I don't want to be a party to it. I've got girls of my own."

Ludovic held his chin up high; his hands shook as he worked at his collar-button.

"Have you got any boys?" he flung out in the tone of a retort.

"Yes; one about your age, I should guess."

"How would you like to see him in the fix I'm in?"

"I couldn't suppose it, Mr. Ludovic. My boy and you ain't one bit alike."

"Are your girls like her?"

"No, sir; they are not. I ain't worrying about them any, nor wouldn't if they was in her place. But there's points about this thing"—

"We'll leave the points. Suppose, I say, your boy was in my fix: would you grudge him any little kindness he might be able to cheat heaven, we'll say, out of between here and Pocatello?"

"Heaven can take care of itself; that little girl is not in heaven yet. And there's kindnesses and kindnesses, Mr. Ludovic. There are some that cost like the mischief. I expect you're willing to bid high on kindness from a nice girl, about now; but how about her? Has kindness gone up in her market? I guess not. That little creetur's goods can wait; she'd be on top in any market. I guess it ain't quite a square deal between her and you."

Ludovic sat down, and buried his hands in his pockets. His face was a dark red; his lips twitched.

"Are you going to stick to your bargain, or are you not?" he asked, fixing his eyes on a spot just above Mr. Burke's head.

"You've got the cheek to call it a bargain! But say it was a bargain. I didn't know, I say, that the little girl was in it. Your bank's broke, Mr. Ludovic. You ought to quit business. You've got no right to keep your doors open, taking in money like hers, clean gold fresh from the mint."

"O Lord!" murmured Ludovic; and he may have added a prayer for patience with this common man who was so pitilessly in the right. A week ago, and the right had been easy to him. But now he was off the track; every turn of the wheels tore something to pieces.

"There are just two subjects I cannot discuss with you," he said, sinking his voice. "One is that young lady. Her father knows my people. She shall know me before I leave her. They say we shall go through to-night. You must think I am the devil if you think that, without the right even to dispense with your company, I can have much to answer for between here and Pocatello."

"You are as selfish as the devil, that's what I think; and the worst of it is, you look as white as other folks."

"Then leave me alone, or else put the irons on me. Do one thing or the other. I won't be dogged and watched and hammered with your infernal jaw! You can put a ball through me, you can handcuff me before her face; but my eyes are my own, and my tongue is my own, and I will use them as I please."

Mr. Burke said no more. He had said a good deal; he had covered the ground, he thought. And possibly he had some sympathy, even when he thought of his girls, with the young fellow who had looked too late in the face of joy and gone clean wild over his mischance.

It was his opinion that Ludovic would "get" not less than twenty-five years. There were likely to be Populists on that jury; the prisoner's friends belonged to a clique of big monopolists; it would go harder with him than if he had been an honest miner, or a playful cow-boy on one of his monthly "tears."

When Ludovic returned to his section, Phebe had gone to sleep in the corner opposite, her muff tucked under one flushed cheek; the other cheek was pale. Shadows as delicate as the tinted reflections in the hollow of a snow-drift slept beneath her chin, and in the curves around her pathetic eyelids, and in the small incision that defined her pure red under lip. Again the angels, whom we used to believe in, were far from this their child.

Ludovic drew down all the blinds to keep out the glare, and sat in his own place, and watched her, and fed his aching dream. He did not care what he did, nor who saw him, nor what anybody thought.

In the afternoon he took her out for a walk. The snow had stopped; her father was up and dressed, and very much better, and Phebe was radiant. Her sky was clearing all at once. She charged the porter to call her in "just twenty minutes," for then she must give the medicine again. On their way out of the car Ludovic slipped a dollar into the porter's hand. Somehow that clever but corrupted functionary let the time slip by, to Phebe's innocent amazement. Could he have gone to sleep? Surely it must be more than twenty minutes since they had left the car.

"He's probably given the dose himself," said Ludovic. "A good porter is always three parts nurse."

"But he doesn't know which medicine to give."

"Oh, let them be," he said impatiently. "He's talking to your father, and making him laugh. He'll brace him up better than any medicine. They will call you fast enough if you are needed."

They walked the platform up and down in front of the section-house. They were watched, but Ludovic did not care for that now.

"Will you take my arm?"

She hesitated, in amused consideration of her own inexperience.

"Why, I never did take any one's arm that I remember. I don't think I could keep step with thee."

The intimate pronoun slipped out unawares.

"I will keep step with thee."

"I don't know that I quite like to hear you use that word."

"But you used it, just now, to me."

"It was an accident, then."

"Your father says 'thee' to me."

"He is of an older generation; my mother wore the Friends' dress. But those customs had a religious meaning for them to which I cannot pretend. With me it is a sort of instinct; I can't explain it, nor yet quite ignore it."

"Have I offended that particular instinct of yours which attaches to the word 'thee'?"

He seemed deeply chagrined. He was one who did not like to make mistakes, and he had no time to waste in apologizing and recovering lost ground.

"People do say it to us sometimes in fun, not knowing what the word means to us," said Phebe.

In the fresh winter air she was regaining her tone—escaping from him, Ludovic felt, into her own sweet, calm self-possession.

"Then you distinctly refuse me whatever—the least—that word implies? I am one of those who 'rush in'?"

"Oh, no; but you are much too serious. It is partly a habit of speech; we cannot lose the habit of speaking to each other as strangers in three days."

"You were never a stranger to me. I knew you from the first moment I saw you; yet each moment since you have been a fresh surprise."

"I cannot keep up with you," she said, slipping her hand out of his arm. In the grasp of his passionate dream he was striding along regardless, not of her, but of her steps.

"Oh, little steps," he groaned within himself—"oh, little doubting steps, why did we not meet before?"

Oh, blessed hampering steps, how much safer would his have gone beside them!

"What a charming pair!" cried a lady passenger from the forward sleeper. She too was walking, with her husband, and her eye had been instantly taken by the gentle girl with the delicate wild-rose color, halting on the arm of a splendid youth with dare-devil eyes, who did not look as happy as he ought with that sweet creature on his arm.

"Isn't it good to know that the old stories are going on all the same?" said the sentimental traveler. "What do you say—will that story end in happiness?"

"I say that he isn't good enough for her," the husband replied.

"Then he'll be sure to win her," laughed the lady. "He has won her, I believe," she added more seriously, watching the pair where they stood together at the far end of the platform; "but something is wrong."

"Something usually is at that stage, if I remember. Come, let us get aboard."

The sun was setting clear in the pale saffron west. The train from the buried cut had been released, and now came sliding down the track, welcomed by boisterous salutations. Behind were the mighty snow-plow engines, backing down, enwreathed and garlanded with snow.

"A-a-all aboard!" the conductor drawled in a colloquial tone to the small waiting group upon the platform.

Slowly they crept back upon the main track, and heavily the motion increased, till the old chant of the rails began again, and they were thundering westward down the line.

III

Phebe was much occupied with her father, perhaps purposely so, until his bed-time. She made him her innocent refuge. Ludovic kept subtly away, lest the friendly old gentleman should be led into conversation, which might delay the hour of his retiring. He went cheerfully to rest about the time the lamps were lighted, and Phebe sought once more her corner in the empty section, shaded by her father's curtains.

Ludovic, dropping his voice below the roar of the train, asked if he might take the seat beside her.

He took it, and turned his back upon the car. He looked at his watch. He had just three hours before Pocatello. The train was making great speed; they would get in, the conductor said, by eleven o'clock. But he need not tell her yet. Half an hour passed, and his thoughts in the silence were no longer to be borne.

She was aware of his intense excitement, his restlessness, the nervous action of his hands. She shrank from the burning misery in his questioning eyes. Once she heard him whisper under his breath; but the words she heard were, "My love! my love!" and she thought she could not have heard aright. Her trouble increased with her sense of some involuntary strangeness in her companion, some recklessness impending which she might not know how to meet. She rose in her place, and said tremulously that she must go.

"Go!" He sprang up. "Go where, in Heaven's name? Stay," he implored, "and be kind to me! We get off at Pocatello."

"We?" she asked with her eyes in his.

"That man and I. I am his prisoner."

She sank down again, and stared at him mutely.

"He is the sheriff of Bingham County, and I am his prisoner," he repeated. "Do the words mean nothing to you?" He paused for some sign that she understood him. She dropped her eyes; her face had become as white as a snowdrop.

"He is taking me to Pocatello for the preliminary examination—oh, must I tell you this? If I thought you would never read it in the ghastly type"—

"Go on," she whispered.

"Examination," he choked, "for—for homicide. I don't know what the judge will call it; but the other man is dead, and I am left to answer for the passion of a moment with my life. And you will not speak to me?"

But now she did speak. Leaning forward so that she could look him in the eyes, she said:—

"I thought when I saw that man always with you, watching you, that he might be taking you, with your consent, to one of those places where they treat persons for—for unsoundness of the mind. I knew you had some trouble that was beyond help. I could think of nothing worse than that. It haunted me till we began to speak together; then I knew it could not be; now I wish it had been."

"I do not," said Ludovic. "I thank God I am not mad. There is passion in my blood, and folly, perhaps, but not insanity. No; I am responsible."

She remained silent, and he continued defensively:—

"But I am not the only one responsible. Can you listen? Can you hear the particulars? One always feels that one's own case is peculiar; one is never the common sinner, you know.

"I have a friend at Pocatello; he is my partner in business. Two years ago he married a New York girl, and brought her out there to live. If you knew Pocatello, you would know what a privilege it was to have their house to go to. They made me free of it, as people do in the West. There is nothing they could not have asked of me in return for such hospitality; it was an obligation not less sacred on my part than that of family.

"When my friend went away on long journeys, on our common business, it was my place in his absence to care for all that was his. There are many little things a woman needs a man to do for her in a place like Pocatello; it was my pride and privilege to be at all times at the service of this lady. She was needlessly grateful, but she liked me besides: she was one who showed her likes and dislikes frankly. She had grown up in a small, exclusive set of persons who knew one anther's grandfathers, and were accustomed to say what they pleased inside; what outsiders thought did not matter. She had not learned to be careful; she despised the need of it. She thought Pocatello and the people there were a joke. But there is a serious side even to Pocatello: you cannot joke with rattlesnakes and vitriol and slow mines. She made enemies by her gay little sallies, and she would never condescend to explain. When people said things that showed they had interpreted her words or actions in a stupid or a vulgar way, she gave the thing up. It was not her business to adapt herself to such people; it was theirs to understand her. If they could not, then it did not matter what they thought. That was her theory of life in Pocatello.

"One night I was in a place—not for my pleasure—a place where a lady's name is never spoken by a gentleman. I heard her name spoken by a fool; he coupled it with mine, and laughed. I walked out of the place, and forgot what I was there for till I found myself down the street with my heart jumping. That time I did right, you would say.

"But I met him again. It was at the depot at Pocatello. I was seeing a man off—a stranger in the place, but a friend of my friends; we had dined at their house together. This other—I think he had been drinking—I suppose he must have included me in his stupid spite against the lady. He made his fool speech again. The man who was with me heard him, and looked astounded. I stepped up to him. I said—I don't know what. I ordered him to leave that name alone. He repeated it, and I struck him. He pulled a pistol on me. I grabbed him, and twisted it out of his hand. How it happened I cannot tell, but there in the smoke he lay at my feet. The train was moving out. My friend pulled me aboard. The papers said I ran away. I did not. I waited at Omaha for Mr. Burke.

"And there I met you, three days ago; and all I care for now is just to know that you will not think of me always by that word."

"What word?"

"Never mind; spare me the word. Look at me! Do I seem to you at all the same man?"

Phebe slowly lifted her eyes.

"Is there nothing left of me? Answer me the truth. I have a right to be answered."

"You are the same; but all the rest of it is strange. I do not see how such a thing could be."

"Can you not conceive of one wild act in a man not inevitably always a sinner?"

"Oh, yes; but not that act. I cannot understand the impulse to take a life."

"I did not think of his miserable life; I only meant to stop his talking. He tried to take mine. I wish he had. But no, no; I should have missed this glimpse of you. Just when it is too late I learn what life is worth."

"Do men truly do those things for the sake of women? Were you thinking of your friend's wife when you struck him?"

"I was thinking of the man—what a foul-mouthed fool he was—not fit to"—He stopped, seeing the look on Phebe's face.

"Oh, I'm impossible, I know, to one like you! It's rather hard I should have to be compared, in your mind, to a race of men like your father. Have you never known any other men?"

"I have read of all the men other people read of. I have some imagination."

"I suppose you read your Bible."

"Yes: the men in the Bible were not all of the Spirit; but they worshiped the Spirit—they were humble when they did wrong."

"Did women ever love them?"

Phebe was silent.

"Do not talk to me of the Spirit," Ludovic pleaded. "I am a long way from that. At least I am not a hypocrite—not yet. Wait till I am a 'trusty,' scheming for a pardon. Can you not give me one word of simple human comfort? There are just forty minutes more."

"What can I say?"

"Tell me this—and oh, be careful! Could you, if it were permitted a criminal like me to expiate his sin in the world among living men, in human relations with them—could we ever meet? Could you say 'thee' to me, not as to an afflicted person or a child? Am I to be only a text, another instance"—

"Many would not blame you. Neither do I blame you, not knowing that life or those people," said Phebe. "But there was One who turned away from the evil-speakers, and wrote upon the sand."

"But those evil-speakers spoke the truth."

"Can a lie be stopped by a pistol-shot? But we need not argue."

"No; I see how it is. I shall be to you only another of the wretched sons of Cain."

"I am thy sister," she said, and gave him her hand.

He held it in his strong, cold, trembling clasp.

"Darling, do you know where I am going? I shall never see you, never again—unless you are like the sainted women of your faith who walked the prisons, and preached to them in bonds."

"Thy bonds are mine: but I am no preacher."

The drowsy lights swayed and twinkled, the wheels rang on the frozen rails as the wild, white wastes flew by.

"Father shall never know it," Phebe murmured. "He shall never know, if I can help it, why you called yourself unhappy."

"Is it such an unspeakable horror to you?" He winced.

"He has not many years to live; it would only be one disappointment more." She was leaning back in her seat; her eyes were closed; she looked dead weary, but patient, as if this too were life, and not more than her share.

"Has your father any money, dear?"

She smiled: "Do we look like people with money?"

"If they would only let me have my hands!" he groaned. "To think of shutting up a great strong fellow like me"—

It was useless to go on. He sat, bitterly forecasting the fortunes of those two lambs who had strayed so far from the green pastures and still waters, when he heard Phebe say softly, as if to herself,—

"We are almost there."

Mr. Burke began to fold his newspapers and get his bags in order. His hands rested upon the implements of his office—he carried them always in his pockets—while he stood balancing himself in the rocking car, and the porter dusted his hat and coat.

The train dashed past the first scattered lights of the town.

"Po-catello!" the brakeman roared in a voice of triumph, for they were "in" at last.

The porter came, and touched Ludovic on the shoulder.

"Gen'leman says he's ready, sir."

He rose and bent over Phebe. If she had been like any other girl he must have kissed her, but he dared not. He had prayed for a sign, and he had won it—that look of dumb and lasting anguish in her childlike eyes.

Yet, strange passion of the man's nature, he was not sorry for what he had done.

Mr. Burke took his arm in silence, and steered him out of the car; both doors were guarded, for he had feared there might be trouble. He was surprised at Ludovic's behavior.

"What's the matter with him?" the car-conductor asked, looking after the pair as they walked up the platform together. "Is he sick?"

"Mashed," said the porter, gloomily; for Ludovic had forgotten the parting fee. "Regular girl mash, the worst I ever saw."

"He's late about it, if he expects to have any fun," said the conductor; and he began to dance, with his hands in his great-coat pockets, for the night air was raw. He was at the end of his run, and was going home to his own girl, whom he had married the week before.

Friends and family influence mustered strong for Ludovic at the trial six weeks later. His lawyer's speech was the finest effort, it was said, ever listened to by an Idaho jury. The ladies went to hear it, and to look at the handsome prisoner, who seemed to grow visibly old as the days of the trial went by.

But those who are acquainted with the average Western jury need not be told that it was not influence that did it, nor the lawyer's eloquence, nor the court's fine-spun legal definitions, nor even the women's tears. They looked at the boy, and thought of their own boys, or they looked inside, and thought of themselves; and they concluded that society might take its chances with that young man at large. They stayed out an hour, out of respect to their oath, and then brought in a verdict of "Not guilty;" and the audience had to be suppressed.

But after the jury's verdict there is society, and all the tongues that will talk, long after the tears are dry. And then comes God in the silence—and Phebe.

The men all say she is too good for him, whose name has been in everybody's mouth. They say it, even though they do not know the cruel way in which he won her love. But the women say that Phebe, though undeniably a saint (and "the sweetest thing that ever lived"), is yet a woman, incapable of inflicting judgment upon the man she loves.

The case is in her hands now. She may punish, she may avenge, if she will; for Ludovic is the slave of his own remorseless conquest. But Phebe has never discovered that she was wronged. There is something in faith, after all; and there is a good deal in blood, Friend Underhill thinks. "Doubtless the grandson of Martin Ludovic must have had great provocation."


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