Prefaces, like much study, are a weariness to the flesh; to some people, not to me. I can conceive of no literary proposition more attractive than the opportunity to write unlimited prefaces. Let me write the preface and I care not who writes the book. Unfortunately for my desires, I can only be prefatory in the case of my own. Happily my own are sufficiently numerous to afford me some scope in the indulgence of this passion for forewords.
I suppose no one ever sat down to write a preface until after he had written the book. It is like the final pat that the fond parent gives to the child before it is allowed to depart in its best clothes. I have seen the said parent accompany the child quite a distance on the way, keeping up a continual process of adjustment of raiment which it was evidently loath to discontinue.
And that is my case exactly. Here is the novel with which I have done my best, which I have written and rewritten after long and earnest thought, and yet I cannot let it go forth without some final, shall I say caress? And as it is, I really have nothing of importance to say! The final pats and pulls and tugs and smoothings do not materially add to the child's appearance or increase its fascination, and I am at a loss to find a reason for the preface except it be the converse of the statement about the famous and much disliked Dr. Fell!
Perhaps, if I admit to you that I have been in the cañon, that I have followed the course of the brook, that I have seen that lake, that I have tramped those trails, it will serve to make you understand, dear reader, how real and actual it all is to me. Yes, I have even looked over the precipice down which the woman fell. I have talked with old Kirkby; Robert Maitland is an intimate friend of mine; I have even met his brother in Philadelphia and as for that glorious girl Enid – well, being a married man, I will refrain from any personal appraisement of her qualities. But I can with propriety dilate upon Newbold, and even Armstrong, bad as he was, has some place in my regard.
If these people shall by any chance seem real to you and become your friends as they are mine, another of those pleasant ties that bind the author and his public together will have been woven, knotted, forged. Never mind the method so long as there is a tie. And with this hope, looking out up the winter snows that might have covered the range, as I have often seen them there, I bid you a happy good morning.
Cyrus Townsend Brady
St. George's Rectory, Kansas City, Missouri.
Thanksgiving Day, 1911.
Drink of the Chalice of Courage!
Pressed to the trembling lip,
The dark-veiled fears
From the passing years,
Like a dusty garment slip.
Drink of the Chalice of Courage!
Poured for the Hero's feast,
When the strength divine
Of its subtle wine
Is shared with the last and least.
Drink of the Chalice of Courage!
The mead of mothers and men,
And the sinewed might
Of the Victor's might,
Be yours, again and again.
The huge concave of the rocky wall towering above them threw the woman's scream far into the vast profound of the cañon. It came sharp to the man's ear, yet terminated abruptly; as when two rapidly moving trains pass, the whistle of one is heard shrill for one moment only to be cut short on the instant. Brief as it was, however, the sound was sufficiently appalling; its suddenness, its unexpectedness, the awful terror in its single note, as well as its instantaneity, almost stopped his heart.
With the indifference of experience and long usage he had been riding carelessly along an old pre-historic trail through the cañon, probably made and forgotten long before the Spaniards spied out the land. Engrossed in his thoughts, he had been heedless alike of the wall above and of the wall below. Prior to that moment neither the over-hanging rock that curved above his head nor the almost sheer fall to the river a thousand feet beneath the narrow ledge of the trail had influenced him at all. He might have been riding a country road so indifferent had been his progress. That momentary shriek dying thinly away into a strange silence changed everything.
The man was riding a sure-footed mule, which perhaps somewhat accounted for his lack of care, and it seemed as if the animal must also have heard and understood the meaning of the woman's scream, for with no bridle signal and no spoken word the mule stopped suddenly as if petrified. Rider and ridden stood as if carved from stone.
The man's comprehending, realizing fear almost paralyzed him. At first he could scarcely force himself to do that toward which his whole being tended – look around. Divining instantly the full meaning of that sudden cry, it seemed hours before he could turn his head; really her cry and his movement were practically simultaneous. He threw an agonized glance backward on the narrow trail and saw – nothing! Where there had been life, companionship, comradeship, a woman, there was now vacancy.
The trail made a little bend behind him, he could see its surface for some distance, but not what lay beneath. He did not need the testimony of his eyes for that. He knew what was down there.
It seemed to his distorted perceptions that he moved slowly, his limbs were like lead, every joint was as stiff as a rusty hinge. Actually he dropped from the mule's back with reckless and life-defying haste and fairly leaped backward on his path. Had there been any to note his progress, they would have said he risked his own life over every foot of the way. He ran down the narrow shelf, rock strewn and rough, swaying upon the unfathomable brink until he reached the place where she had been a moment since. There he dropped on one knee and looked downward.
She was there! A few hundred feet below the trail edge the cañon wall, generally a sheer precipice, broadened out into a great butte, or buttress, which sloped somewhat more gently to the foaming, roaring river far beneath. About a hundred and fifty feet under him a stubby spur with a pocket on it jutted out from the face of the cliff; she had evidently struck on that spur and bounded off and fallen, half rolling, to the broad top of the butte two hundred or more feet below the pocket.
Three hundred and fifty feet down to where she lay he could distinguish little except a motionless huddled mass. The bright blue of her dress made a splotch of unwonted color against the reddish brown monotones of the mountain side and cañon wall. She was dead, of course; she must be dead, the man felt. From that distance he could see no breathing, if such there were; indeed as he stared she grew less and less distinct to him, his eyes did not fill with tears, but to his vision the very earth itself, the vast depths of the cañon, the towering wall on the other side, seemed to quiver and heave before him. For the first time in his life the elevation made him dizzy, sick. He put his hands to his face to shut out the sight, he tore them away to look again. He lifted his eyes toward the other side across the great gulf to the opposing wall which matched the one upon which he stood, where the blue sky cloudless overhung.
"God!" he whispered in futile petition or mayhap expostulation.
He was as near the absolute breaking point as a man may go and yet not utterly give way, for he loved this woman as he loved that light of heaven above him, and in the twinkling of an eye she was no more. And so he stared and stared dumbly agonizing, wondering, helpless, misty-eyed, blind.
He sank back from the brink at last and tried to collect his thoughts. What was he to do? There was but one answer to that question. He must go down to her. There was one quick and easy way; over the brink, the way she had gone. That thought came to him for a moment, but he put it away. He was not a coward, life was not his own to give or to take, besides she might be alive, she might need him. There must be some other way.
Determining upon action, his resolution rose dominant, his vision cleared. Once again he forced himself to look over the edge and see other things than she. He was a daring, skillful and experienced mountaineer; in a way mountaineering was his trade. He searched the side of the cañon to the right and the left with eager scrutiny and found no way within the compass of his vision to the depths below. He shut his eyes and concentrated his thoughts to remember what they had passed over that morning. There came to him the recollection of a place which as he had viewed it he had idly thought might afford a practicable descent to the river's rim.
Forgetful of the patient animal beside him, he rose to his feet and with one last look at the poor object below started on his wild plunge down the trail over which some men might scarcely have crept on hands and knees. Sweat bedewed his forehead, his limbs trembled, his pulses throbbed, his heart beat almost to bursting. Remorse sharpened by love, passion quickened by despair, scourged him, desperate, on the way. And God protected him also, or he had fallen at every uncertain, hurried, headlong step.
And as he ran, thoughts, reproaches, scourged him on. Why had he brought her, why had he allowed her to take that trail which but for him and for her had probably not been traversed by man or woman or beast, save the mountain sheep, the gray wolves, or the grizzly bear, for five hundred years. She had protested that she was as good a mountaineer as he – and it was true – and she had insisted on accompanying him; he recollected that there had been a sort of terror in her urgency, – he must take her, he must not leave her alone, she had pleaded; he had objected, but he had yielded, the joy of her companionship had meant so much to him in his lonely journeying, and now – he accused himself bitterly as he surged onward.
After a time the man forced himself to observe the road, he discovered that in an incredibly short period, perhaps an hour, he had traversed what it had taken them four times as long to pass over that very day. He must be near his goal. Ah, there it was at last, and in all the turmoil and torture of his brain he found room for a throb of satisfaction when he came upon the broken declivity. Yes, it did afford a practicable descent; some landslide centuries back had made there a sort of rude, rough, broken, megalithic stairway in the wall of the cañon. The man threw himself upon it and with bleeding hands, bruised limbs and torn clothing descended to the level of the river.
Two atoms to the eye of the Divine, in that vast rift in the gigantic mountains. One unconscious, motionless, save for faint gasping breaths; the other toiling blindly along the river bank, fortunately here affording practicable going, to the foot of the great butte upon whose huge shoulder the other lay. The living and the dead in the waste and the wilderness of the everlasting hills.
Unconsciously but unerringly the man had fixed the landmarks in his mind before he started on that terrific journey. Without a moment of incertitude, or hesitation, he proceeded directly to the base of the butte and as rapidly as if he had been fresh for the journey and the endeavor. Up he climbed without a pause for rest. It was a desperate going, almost sheer at times, but his passion found the way. He clawed and tore at the rocks like an animal, he performed feats of strength and skill and determination and reckless courage marvelous and impossible under less exacting demands. Somehow or other he got to the top at last; perhaps no man in all the ages since the world's first morning when God Himself upheaved the range had so achieved that goal.
The last ascent was up a little stretch of straight rock over which he had to draw himself by main strength and determination. He fell panting on the brink, but not for a moment did he remain prone; he got to his feet at once and staggered across the plateau which made the head of the butte toward the blue object on the further side beneath the wall of the cliff above, and in a moment he bent over what had been – nay, as he saw the slow choking uprise of her breast, what was – his wife.
He knelt down beside her and looked at her for a moment, scarce daring to touch her. Then he lifted his head and flung a glance around the cañon as if seeking help from man. As he did so he became aware, below him on the slope, of the dead body of the poor animal she had been riding, whose misstep, from whatever cause he would never know, had brought this catastrophe upon them.
Nothing else met his gaze but the rocks, brown, gray, relieved here and there by green clumps of stunted pine. Nothing met his ear except far beneath him the roar of the river, now reduced almost to a murmur, with which the shivering leaves of aspens, rustled by the gentle breeze of this glorious morning, blended softly like a sigh of summer. No, there was nobody in the cañon, no help there. He threw his head back and stretched out his arms toward the blue depths of the heavens above, to the tops of the soaring peaks, and there was nothing there but the eternal silence of a primeval day.
"God! God!" he murmured again in his despair.
It was the final word that comes to human lips in the last extremity when life and its hopes and its possibilities tremble on the verge. And no answer came to this poor man out of that vast void.
He bent to the woman again. What he saw can hardly be described. Her right arm and her left leg were bent backward and under her. They were shattered, evidently. He was afraid to examine her and yet he knew that practically every other bone in her body was broken as well. Her head fell lower than her shoulders, the angle which she made with the uneven rock on which she lay convinced him that her back was broken too. Her clothing was rent by her contact with the rocky spur above, it was torn from the neck downward, exposing a great red scar which ran across her sweet white young breast, blood oozing from it, while in the middle of it something yellow and bright gleamed in the light. Her cheek was cut open, her glorious hair, matted, torn and bloody, was flung backward from her down-thrown head.
She should have been dead a thousand times, but she yet lived, she breathed, her ensanguined bosom rose and fell. Through her pallid lips bloody foam bubbled, she was still alive.
The man must do something. He did not dare to move her body, yet he took off his hat, folded it, lifted her head tenderly and slipped it underneath; it made a better pillow than the hard rock, he thought. Then he tore his handkerchief from his neck and wiped away the foam from her lips. In his pocket he had a flask of whiskey, a canteen of water that hung from his shoulder somehow had survived the rough usage of the rocks. He mingled some of the water with a portion of the spirit in the cup of the flask and poured a little down her throat. Tenderly he took his handkerchief again, and wetting it laved her brow. Except to mutter incoherent prayers again and again he said no word, but his heart was filled with passionate endearments, he lavished agonized and infinite tenderness upon her in his soul.
By and by she opened her eyes. In those eyes first of all he saw bewilderment, and then terror and then anguish so great that it cannot be described, pain so horrible that it is not good for man even to think upon it. Incredible as it may seem, her head moved, her lips relaxed, her set jaw unclenched, her tongue spoke thickly.
"God!" she said.
The same word that he had used, that final word that comes to the lips when the heart is wrung, or the body is racked beyond human endurance. The universal testimony to the existence of the Divine, that trouble and sometimes trouble alone, wrings from man. No human name, not even his, upon her lips in that first instant of realization!
"How I – suffer," she faltered weakly.
Her eyes closed again, the poor woman had told her God of her condition, that was all she was equal to. Man and human relationships might come later. The man knelt by her side, his hands upraised.
"Louise," he whispered, "speak to me."
Her eyes opened again.
"Will," the anguished voice faltered on, "I am – broken – to pieces – kill me. I can't stand – kill me" – her voice rose with a sudden fearful appeal – "kill me."
Then the eyes closed and this time they did not open, although now he overwhelmed her with words, alas, all he had to give her. At last his passion, his remorse, his love, gushing from him in a torrent of frantic appeal awakened her again. She looked him once more in the face and once more begged him for that quick relief he alone could give.
That was her only plea. There has been One and only One, who could sustain such crucifying anguish as she bore without such appeal being wrested from the lips, yet even He, upon His cross, for one moment, thought God had forsaken and forgotten Him!
She was silent, but she was not dead. She was speechless, but she was not unconscious, for she opened her eyes and looked at him with such pitiful appeal that he would fain hide his face as he could not bear it, and yet again and again as he stared down into her eyes he caught that heart breaking entreaty, although now she made no sound. Every twisted bone, every welling vein, every scarred and marred part on once smooth soft flesh was eloquent of that piteous petition for relief. "Kill me" she seemed to say in her voiceless agony. Agony the more appalling because at last it could make no sound.
He could not resist that appeal. He fought against it, but the demand came to him with more and more terrific force until he could no longer oppose it. That cup was tendered to him and he must drain it. No more from his lips than from the lips of Him of the Garden could it be withdrawn. Out of that chalice he must drink. It could not pass. Slowly, never taking his eyes from her, as a man might who was fascinated or hypnotized, he lifted his hand to his holster and drew out his revolver.
No, he could not do it. He laid the weapon down on the rock again and bowed forward on his knees, praying incoherently, protesting that God should place this burden on mere man. In the silence he could hear the awful rasp of her breath – the only answer. He looked up to find her eyes upon him again.
Life is a precious thing, to preserve it men go to the last limit. In defense of it things are permitted that are permitted in no other case. Is it ever nobler to destroy it than to conserve it? Was this such an instance? What were the conditions?
There was not a human being, white or red, within five days' journey from the spot where these two children of malign destiny confronted each other. That poor huddled broken mass of flesh and bones could not have been carried a foot across that rocky slope without suffering agonies beside which all the torture that might be racking her now would be as nothing. He did not dare even to lay hand upon her to straighten even one bent and twisted limb, he could not even level or compose her body where she lay. He almost felt that he had been guilty of unpardonable cruelty in giving her the stimulant and recalling her to consciousness. Nor could he leave her where she was, to seek and bring help to her. With all the speed that frantic desire, and passionate adoration, and divine pity, would lend to him, it would be a week before he could return, and by that time the wolves and the vultures – he could not think that sentence to completion. That way madness lay.
The woman was doomed, no mortal could survive her wounds, but she might linger for days while high fever and inflammation supervened. And each hour would add to her suffering. God was merciful to His Son, Christ died quickly on the cross, mere man sometimes hung there for days.
All these things ran like lightning through his brain. His hand closed upon the pistol, the eternal anodyne. No, he could not. And the tortured eyes were open again, it seemed as if the woman had summoned strength for a final appeal.
"Will," she whispered, "if you – love me – kill me."
He thrust the muzzle of his weapon against her heart, she could see his movement and for a moment gratitude and love shone in her eyes, and then with a hand that did not tremble, he pulled the trigger.
A thousand thunder claps could not have roared in his ear with such detonation. And he had done it! He had slain the thing he loved! Was it in obedience to a higher law even than that writ on the ancient tables of stone?
For a moment he thought incoherently, the pistol fell from his hand, his eyes turned to her face, her eyes were open still, but there was neither pain, nor appeal, nor love, nor relief in them; there was no light in them; only peace, calm, darkness, rest. His hand went out to them and drew the lids down, and as he did so, something gave way in him and he fell forward across the red, scarred white breast that no longer either rose or fell.