"Oh, yes," replied the girl, the suggestion of a smile on her face, and in her voice the suggestion of a tear. "Yes; I was just going."
But she did not go. She turned instead to the end of the alcove and sat down before a table placed by the window. Leaning her elbows upon it she looked about her through a blur of tears.
Seen through her own eyes of longing, it seemed that almost all of the people whom she could see standing before the files of the daily papers were homesick. The reading-room had been a strange study to her during those weeks spent in fruitless search for the work she wanted to do, and it had likewise proved a strange comfort. When tired and disconsolate and utterly sick at heart there was always one thing she could do--she could go down to the library and look at the paper from home. It was not that she wanted the actual news of Denver. She did not care in any vital way what the city officials were doing, what buildings were going up, or who was leaving town. She was only indifferently interested in the fires and the murders. She wanted the comforting companionship of that paper from home.
It seemed there were many to whom the papers offered that same sympathy, companionship, whatever it might be. More than anything else it perhaps gave to them--the searchers, drifters--a sense of anchorage. She would not soon forget the day she herself had stumbled in there and found the home paper. Chicago had given her nothing but rebuffs that day, and in desperation, just because she must go somewhere, and did not want to go back to her boarding-place, she had hunted out the city library. It was when walking listlessly about in the big reading-room it had occurred to her that perhaps she could find the paper from home; and after that when things were their worst, when her throat grew tight and her eyes dim, she could always comfort herself by saying: "After a while I'll run down and look at the paper."
But to-night it had failed her. It was not the paper from home to-night; it was just a newspaper. It did not inspire the belief that things would be better to-morrow, that it must all come right soon. It left her as she had come---heavy with the consciousness that in her purse was eleven dollars, and that that was every cent she had in the whole world.
It was hard to hold back the tears as she dwelt upon the fact that it was very little she had asked of Chicago. She had asked only a chance to do the work for which she was trained, in order that she might go to the art classes at night. She had read in the papers of that mighty young city of the Middle West--the heart of the continent--of its brawn and its brain and its grit. She had supposed that Chicago, of all places, would appreciate what she wanted to do. The day she drew her hard-earned one hundred dollars from the bank in Denver--how the sun had shone that day in Denver, how clear the sky had been, and how bracing the air!--she had quite taken it for granted that her future was assured. And now, after tasting for three weeks the cruelty of indifference, she looked back to those visions with a hard little smile.
She rose to go, and in so doing her eyes fell upon the queer little woman to whom she had yielded her place before the Denver paper. Submerged as she had been in her own desolation she had given no heed to the small figure which came slipping along beside her beyond the bare thought that she was queer-looking. But as her eyes rested upon her now there was something about the woman which held her.
She was a strange little figure. An old-fashioned shawl was pinned tightly about her shoulders, and she was wearing a queer, rusty little bonnet. Her hair was rolled up in a small knot at the back of her head. She did not look as though she belonged in Chicago. And then, as the girl stood there looking at her, she saw the thin shoulders quiver, and after a minute the head that was wearing the rusty bonnet went down into the folds of the Denver paper.
The girl's own eyes filled, and she turned to go. It seemed she could scarcely bear her own unhappiness that day, without coming close to the heartache of another. But when she reached the end of the alcove she glanced back, and the sight of that shabby, bent figure, all alone before the Denver paper, was not to be withstood.
"I am from Colorado, too," she said softly, laying a hand upon the bent shoulders.
The woman looked up at that and took the girl's hand in both of her thin, trembling ones. It was a wan and a troubled face she lifted, and there was something about the eyes which would not seem to have been left there by tears alone.
"And do you have a pining for the mountains?" she whispered, with a timid eagerness. "Do you have a feeling that you want to see the sun go down behind them tonight and that you want to see the darkness come stealing up to the tops?"
The girl half turned away, but she pressed the woman's hand tightly in hers. "I know what you mean," she murmured.
"I wanted to see it so bad," continued the woman, tremulously, "that something just drove me here to this paper. I knowed it was here because my nephew's wife brought me here one day and we come across it. We took this paper at home for more 'an twenty years. That's why I come. 'Twas the closest I could get."
"I know what you mean," said the girl again, unsteadily.
"And it's the closest I will ever get!" sobbed the woman.
"Oh, don't say that," protested the girl, brushing away her own tears, and trying to smile; "you'll go back home some day."
The woman shook her head. "And if I should," she said, "even if I should, 'twill be too late."
"But it couldn't be too late," insisted the girl. "The mountains, you know, will be there forever."
"The mountains will be there forever," repeated the woman, musingly; "yes, but not for me to see." There was a pause. "You see,"--she said it quietly--"I'm going blind."
The girl took a quick step backward, then stretched out two impulsive hands. "Oh, no, no you're not! Why--the doctors, you know, they do everything now."
The woman shook her head. "That's what I thought when I come here. That's why I come. But I saw the biggest doctor of them all today--they all say he's the best there is--and he said right out 'twas no use to do anything. He said 'twas--hopeless."
Her voice broke on that word. "You see," she hurried on, "I wouldn't care so much, seems like I wouldn't care 't all, if I could get there first! If I could see the sun go down behind them just one night! If I could see the black shadows come slippin' over 'em just once! And then, if just one morning--just once!--I could get up and see the sunlight come a streamin'--oh, you know how it looks! You know what 'tis I want to see!"
"Yes; but why can't you? Why not? You won't go--your eyesight will last until you get back home, won't it?"
"But I can't go back home; not now."
"Why not?" demanded the girl. "Why can't you go home?"
"Why, there ain't no money, my dear," she explained, patiently. "It's a long way off--Colorado is, and there ain't no money. Now, George--George is my brother-in-law--he got me the money to come; but you see it took it all to come here, and to pay them doctors with. And George--he ain't rich, and it pinched him hard for me to come--he says I'll have to wait until he gets money laid up again, and--well he can't tell just when 't will be. He'll send it soon as he gets it," she hastened to add.
"But what are you going to do in the meantime? It would cost less to get you home than to keep you here."
"No, I stay with my nephew here. He's willin' I should stay with him till I get my money to go home."
"Yes, but this nephew, can't he get you the money? Doesn't he know," she insisted, heatedly, "what it means to you?"
"He's got five children, and not much laid up. And then, he never seen the mountains. He doesn't know what I mean when I try to tell him about gettin' there in time. Why, he says there's many a one living back in the mountains would like to be livin' here. He don't understand--my nephew don't," she added, apologetically.
"Well, someone ought to understand!" broke from the girl. "I understand! But--" she did her best to make it a laugh--"eleven dollars is every cent I've got in the world!"
"Don't!" implored the woman, as the girl gave up trying to control the tears. "Now, don't you be botherin'. I didn't mean to make you feel so bad. My nephew says I ain't reasonable, and maybe I ain't."
The girl raised her head. "But you are reasonable. I tell you, you are reasonable!"
"I must be going back," said the woman, uncertainly. "I'm just making you feel bad, and it won't do no good. And then they may be stirred up about me. Emma--Emma's my nephew's wife--left me at the doctor's office 'cause she had some trading to do, and she was to come back there for me. And then, as I was sittin' there, the pinin' came over me so strong it seemed I just must get up and start! And"---she smiled wanly---"this was far as I got."
"Come over and sit down by this table," said the girl, impulsively, "and tell me a little about your home back in the mountains. Wouldn't you like to?"
The woman nodded gratefully. "Seems most like getting back to them to find someone that knows about them," she said, after they had drawn their chairs up to the table and were sitting there side by side.
The girl put her rounded hand over on the thin, withered one. "Tell me about it," she said again.
"Maybe it wouldn't be much interesting to you, my dear. It's just a common life--mine is. You see, William and I--William was my husband--we went to Georgetown before it really was any town at all. Years and years before the railroad went through, we was there. Was you ever there?" she asked wistfully.
"Oh, very often," replied the girl. "I love every inch of that country!"
A tear stole down the woman's face. "It's most like being home to find someone that knows about it," she whispered.
"Yes, William and I went there when 'twas all new country," she went on, after a pause. "We worked hard, and we laid up a little money. Then, three years ago, William took sick. He was sick for a year, and we had to live up most of what we'd saved. That's why I ain't got none now. It ain't that William didn't provide."
The girl nodded.
"We seen some hard days. But we was always harmonious--William and I was. And William had a great fondness for the mountains. The night before he died he made them take him over by the window and he looked out and watched the darkness come stealin' over the daylight--you know how it does in them mountains. 'Mother,' he said to me--his voice was that low I could no more 'an hear what he said--'I'll never see another sun go down, but I'm thankful I seen this one.'"
She was crying outright now, and the girl did not try to stop her.
"And that's the reason I love the mountains," she whispered at last. "It ain't just that they're grand and wonderful to look at. It ain't just the things them tourists sees to talk about. But the mountains has always been like a comfortin' friend to me. John and Sarah is buried there--John and Sarah is my two children that died of fever. And then William is there--like I just told you. And the mountains was a comfort to me in all those times of trouble. They're like an old friend. Seems like they're the best friend I've got on earth."
"I know what you mean," said the girl, brokenly. "I know all about it."
"And you don't think I'm just notional," she asked wistfully, "in pinin' to get back while--whilst I can look at them?"
The girl held the old hand tightly in hers with a clasp more responsive than words.
"It ain't but I'd know they was there. I could feel they was there all right, but"--her voice sank with the horror of it--"I'm 'fraid I might forget just how they look!"
"Oh, but you won't," the girl assured her. "You'll remember just how they look."
"I'm scared of it. I'm scared there might be something I'd forget. And so I just torment myself thinkin'--'Now do I remember this? Can I see just how that looks?' That's the way I got to thinkin' up in the doctor's office, when he told me there was nothing to do, and I was so worked up it seemed I must get up and start!"
"You must try not to worry about it," murmured the girl. "You'll remember."
"Well, maybe so. Maybe I will. But that's why I want just one more look. If I could look once more I'd remember it forever. You see I'd look to remember it, and I would. And do you know--seems like I wouldn't mind going blind so much then? When I'd sit facin' them I'd just say to myself: 'Now I know just how they look. I'm seeing them just as if I had my eyes!' The doctor says my sight'll just kind of slip away, and when I look my last look, when it gets dimmer and dimmer to me, I want the last thing I see to be them mountains where William and me worked and was so happy! Seems like I can't bear it to have my sight slip away here in Chicago, where there's nothing I want to look at! And then to have a little left--to have just a little left!--and to know I could see if I was there to look--and to know that when I get there 'twill be--Oh, I'll be rebellious-like here--and I'd be contented there! I don't want to be complainin'--I don't want to!--but when I've only got a little left I want it--oh, I want it for them things I want to see!"
"You will see them," insisted the girl passionately. "I'm not going to believe the world can be so hideous as that!"
"Well, maybe so," said the woman, rising. "But I don't know where 'twill come from," she added doubtfully.
She took her back to the doctor's office and left her in the care of the stolid Emma. "Seems most like I'd been back home," she said in parting; and the girl promised to come and see her and talk with her about the mountains. The woman thought that talking about them would help her to remember just how they looked.
And then the girl returned to the library. She did not know why she did so. In truth she scarcely knew she was going there until she found herself sitting before that same secluded table at which she and the woman had sat a little while before. For a long time she sat there with her head in her hands, tears falling upon a pad of yellow paper on the table before her.
Finally she dried her eyes, opened her purse, and counted her money. It seemed that out of her great desire, out of her great new need, there must be more than she had thought. But there was not, and she folded her hands upon the two five-dollar bills and the one silver dollar and looked hopelessly about the big room.
She had forgotten her own disappointments, her own loneliness. She was oblivious to everything in the world now save what seemed the absolute necessity of getting the woman back to the mountains while she had eyes to see them.
But what could she do? Again she counted the money. She could make herself, some way or other, get along without one of the five-dollar bills, but five dollars would not take one very close to the mountains. It was at that moment that she saw a man standing before the Denver paper, and noticed that another man was waiting to take his place. The one who was reading had a dinner pail in his hand. The clothes of the other told that he, too, was of the world's workers. It was clear to the girl that the man at the file was reading the paper from home; and the man who was ready to take his place looked as if waiting for something less impersonal than the news of the day.
The idea came upon her with such suddenness, so full born, that it made her gasp. They--the people who came to read the Denver paper, the people who loved the mountains and were far from them, the people who were themselves homesick and full of longing--were the people to understand.
It took her but a minute to act. She put the silver dollar and one five-dollar bill back in her purse. She clutched the other bill in her left hand, picked up a pencil, and began to write. She headed the petition: "To all who know and love the mountains," and she told the story with the simpleness of one speaking from the heart, and the directness of one who speaks to those sure to understand. "And so I found her here by the Denver paper," she said, after she had stated the tragic facts, "because it was the closest she could come to the mountains. Her heart is not breaking because she is going blind. It is breaking because she may never again look with seeing eyes upon those great hills which rise up about her home. We must do it for her simply because we would wish that, under like circumstances, someone would do it for us. She belongs to us because we understand.
"If you can only give fifty cents, please do not hold it back because it seems but little. Fifty cents will take her twenty miles nearer home--twenty miles closer to the things upon which she longs that her last seeing glance may fall."
After she had written it she rose, and, the five-dollar bill in one hand, the sheets of yellow paper in the other, walked down the long room to the desk at which one of the librarians sat. The girl's cheeks were very red, her eyes shining as she poured out the story. They mingled their tears, for the girl at the desk was herself young and far from home, and then they walked back to the Denver paper and pinned the sheets of yellow paper just above the file. At the bottom of the petition the librarian wrote: "Leave your money at the desk in this room. It will be properly attended to." The girl from Colorado then turned over her five-dollar bill and passed out into the gathering night.
Her heart was brimming with joy. "I can get a cheaper boarding place," she told herself, as she joined the home-going crowds, "and until something else turns up I'll just look around and see if I can't get a place in a store."
* * * * *
One by one they had gathered around while the woman was telling the story. "And so, if you don't mind," she said, in conclusion, "I'd like to have you put in a little piece that I got to Denver safe, so's they can see it. They was all so worked up about when I'd get here. Would that cost much?" she asked timidly.
"Not a cent," said the city editor, his voice gruff with the attempt to keep it steady.
"You might say, if it wouldn't take too much room, that I was much pleased with the prospect of getting home before sundown to-night."
"You needn't worry but what we'll say it all," he assured her. "We'll say a great deal more than you have any idea of."
"I'm very thankful to you," she said, as she rose to go.
They sat there for a moment in silence. "When one considers," someone began, "that they were people who were pushed too close even to subscribe to a daily paper--"
"When one considers," said the city editor, "that the girl who started it had just eleven dollars to her name--" And then he, too, stopped abruptly and there was another long moment of silence.
After that he looked around at the reporters. "Well, it's too bad you can't all have it, when it's so big a chance, but I guess it falls logically to Raymond. And in writing it, just remember, Raymond, that the biggest stories are not written about wars, or about politics, or even murders. The biggest stories are written about the things which draw human beings closer together. And the chance to write them doesn't come every day, or every year, or every lifetime. And I'll tell you, boys, all of you, when it seems sometimes that the milk of human kindness has all turned sour, just think back to the little story you heard this afternoon."
* * * * *
Slowly the sun slipped down behind the mountains; slowly the long purple shadows deepened to black; and with the coming of the night there settled over the everlasting hills, and over the soul of one who had returned to them, that satisfying calm that men call peace.