Those were happy evenings. She on one side of the fire sewing, her finger wound with cloth to hold his giant thimble, fashioning for herself some winter garments out of a gay colored, red, white and black ancient and exquisitely woven Navajo blanket, soft and pliable almost as an old fashioned piece of satin – priceless if she had but known it – which he put at her disposal. While on the other side of the same homely blaze he made her out of the skins of some of the animals that he had killed, shapeless foot coverings, half moccasin and wholly legging, which she could wear over her shoes in her short excursions around the plateau and which would keep her feet warm and comfortable.
By her permission he smoked as he worked, enjoying the hour, putting aside the past and the future and for a few moments blissfully content. Sometimes he laid aside his pipe and whatever work he was engaged upon and read to her from some immortal noble number. Sometimes the entertainment fell to her and she sang to him in her glorious contralto voice, music that made him mad. Once he could stand it no longer. At the end of a burst of song which filled the little room – he had risen to his feet while she sang, compelled to the erect position by the magnificent melody – as the last notes died away and she smiled at him, triumphant and expectant of his praise and his approval, he hurled himself out of the room and into the night; wrestling for hours with the storm which after all was but a trifle to that which raged in his bosom. While she, left alone and deserted, quaked within the silent room till she heard him come back.
Often and often when she slept quietly on one side the thin partition, he lay awake on the other, and sometimes his passion drove him forth to cool the fever, the fire in his soul, in the icy, wintry air. The struggle within him preyed upon him, the keen loving eye of the woman searched his face, scrutinized him, looked into his heart, saw what was there.
She determined to end it, deciding that he must confess his affections. She had no premonition of the truth and no consideration of any evil consequences held her back. She could give free range to her love and her devotion. She had the ordering of their lives and she had the power to end the situation growing more and more impossible. She fancied the matter easily terminable. She thought she had only to let him see her heart in such ways as a maiden may, to bring joy to his own, to make him speak. She did not dream of the reality.
One night, therefore, a month or more after she had come, she resolved to end the uncertainty. She believed the easiest and the quickest way would be to get him to tell her why he was there. She naturally surmised that the woman of the picture, which she had never seen since the first day of her arrival, was in some measure the cause of it; and the only pain she had in the situation was the keen jealousy that would obtrude itself at the thought of that woman. She remembered everything that he had said to her and she recalled that he had once made the remark that he would treat her as he would have his wife treated if he had one; therefore whoever and whatever the picture of this woman was, she was not his wife. She might have been someone he had loved, who had not loved him. She might have died. She was jealous of her, but she did not fear her.
After a long and painful effort the woman had completed the winter suit she had made for herself. He had advised her and had helped her. It was a belted tunic that fell to her knees, the red and black stripes ran around it, edged the broad collar, cuffed the warm sleeves and marked the graceful waist line. It was excessively becoming to her. He had been down into the valley, or the pocket, for a final inspection of the burros before the night, which promised to be severe, fell, and she had taken advantage of the opportunity to put it on.
She knew that she was beautiful; her determination to make this evening count had brought an unusual color to her cheeks, an unwonted sparkle to her eye. She stood up as she heard him enter the other room, she was standing erect as he came through the door and faced her. He had only seen her in the now somewhat shabby blue of her ordinary camp dress before, and her beauty fairly smote him in his face. He stood before her, wrapped in his great fur coat, snow and ice clinging to it, entranced. The woman smiled at the effect she produced.
"Take off your coat," she said gently, approaching him. "Here, let me help you. Do you realize that I have been here over a month now? I want to have a little talk with you. I want you to tell me something."
"Did it ever occur to you," began Enid Maitland gravely enough, for she quite realized the serious nature of the impending conversation, "did it ever occur to you that you know practically all about me, while I know practically nothing about you?"
The man bowed his head.
"You may have fancied that I was not aware of it, but in one way or another you have possessed yourself of pretty nearly all of my short and, until I met you, most uneventful life," she continued.
Newbold might have answered that there was one subject which had been casually introduced by her upon one occasion and to which she had never again referred, but which was to him the most important of all subjects connected with her; and that was the nature of her relationship to one James Armstrong whose name, although he had heard it but once, he had not forgotten. The girl had been frankness itself in following his deft leads when he talked with her about herself, but she had shown the same reticence in recurring to Armstrong that he had displayed in questioning her about him. The statement she had just made as to his acquaintance with her history was therefore sufficiently near the truth to pass unchallenged and once again he gravely bowed in acquiescence.
"I have withheld nothing from you," went on the girl; "whatever you wanted to know, I have told you. I had nothing to conceal, as you have found out. Why you wanted to know about me, I am not quite sure."
"It was because – " burst out the man impetuously, and then he stopped abruptly and just in time.
Enid Maitland smiled at him in a way that indicated she knew what was behind the sudden check he had imposed upon himself.
"Whatever your reason, your curiosity – "
"Don't call it that, please."
"Your desire, then, has been gratified. Now it is my turn. I am not even sure about your name. I have seen it in these books and naturally I have imagined that it is yours."
"It is mine."
"Well, that is really all that I know about you. And now I shall be quite frank. I want to know more. You evidently have something to conceal or you would not be living here in this way. I have never asked you about yourself, or manifested the least curiosity to solve the problem you present, to find the solution of the mystery of your life."
"Perhaps," said the man, "you didn't care enough about it to take the trouble to inquire."
"You know," answered the girl, "that is not true. I have been consumed with desire to know?"
"A woman's curiosity?"
"Not that," was the soft answer that turned away his wrath.
She was indeed frank. There was that in her way of uttering those two simple words that set his pulses bounding. He was not altogether and absolutely blind.
"Come," said the girl, extending her hand to him, "we are alone here together. We must help each other. You have helped me, you have been of the greatest service to me. I can't begin to count all that you have done for me; my gratitude – "
"But that is all that you have ever asked or expected," answered the young woman in a low voice, whose gentle tones did not at all accord with the boldness and courage of the speech.
"You mean?" asked the man, staring at her, his face aflame.
"I mean," answered the girl swiftly, willfully misinterpreting and turning his half-spoken question another way, "I mean that I am sure that some trouble has brought you here. I do not wish to force your confidence – I have no right to do so – yet I should like to enjoy it. Can't you give it to me? I want to help you. I want to do my best to make some return for what you have been to me and have done for me."
"I ask but one thing," he said quickly.
"And what is that?"
But again he checked himself.
"No," he said, "I am not free to ask anything of you."
And that answer to Enid Maitland was like a knife thrust in the heart. The two had been standing, confronting each other. Her heart grew faint within her. She stretched out her hand vaguely, as if for support. He stepped toward her, but before he reached her she caught the back of the chair and sank down weakly. That he should be bound and not free, had never once occurred to her. She had quite misinterpreted the meaning of his remark.
The man did not help her; he could not help her. He just stood and looked at her. She fought valiantly for self-control a moment or two and then utterly oblivious to the betrayal of her feelings involved in the question – the moments were too great for consideration of such trivial matters – she faltered:
"You mean there is some other woman?"
He shook his head in negation.
"I don't understand."
"There was some other woman?"
"Where is she now?"
"But you said you were not free."
"Did you care so much for her that now – that now – "
"Enid," he cried desperately. "Believe me, I never knew what love was until I met you."
The secret was out now, it had been known to her long since, but now it was publicly proclaimed. Even a man as blind, as obsessed, as he could not mistake the joy that illuminated her face at this announcement. That very joy and satisfaction produced upon him, however, a very different effect than might have been anticipated. Had he been free indeed he would have swept her to his breast and covered her sweet face with kisses broken by whispered words of passionate endearment. Instead of that he shrank back from her and it was she who was forced to take up the burden of the conversation.
"You say that she is dead," she began in sweet appealing bewilderment, "and that you care so much for me and yet you – "
"I am a murderer," he broke out harshly. "There is blood upon my hands, the blood of a woman who loved me and whom, boy as I was, I thought that I loved. She was my wife, I killed her."
"Great Heaven!" cried the girl, amazed beyond measure or expectation by this sudden avowal which she had never once suspected, and her hand instinctively went to the bosom of her dress where she kept that soiled, water-stained packet of letters, "are you that man?"
"I am that man that did that thing, but what do you know?" he asked quickly, amazed in his turn.
"Old Kirkby, my uncle Robert Maitland, told me your story. They said that you had disappeared from the haunts of men – "
"And they were right. What else was there for me to do? Although innocent of crime, I was blood guilty. I was mad. No punishment could be visited upon me like that imposed by the stern, awful, appalling fact. I swore to prison myself, to have nothing more forever to do with mankind or womankind with whom I was unworthy to associate, to live alone until God took me. To cherish my memories, to make such expiation as I could, to pray daily for forgiveness. I came here to the wildest, the most inaccessible, the loneliest, spot in the range. No one ever would come here I fancied, no one ever did come here but you. I was happy after a fashion, or at least content. I had chosen the better part. I had work, I could read, write, remember and dream. But you came and since that time life has been heaven and hell. Heaven because I love you, hell because to love you means disloyalty to the past, to a woman who loved me. Heaven because you are here, I can hear your voice, I can see you, your soul is spread out before me in its sweetness, in its purity; hell because I am false to my determination, to my vow, to the love of the past."
"And did you love her so much, then?" asked the girl, now fiercely jealous and forgetful of other things for the moment.
"It's not that," said the man. "I was not much more than a boy, a year or two out of college. I had been in the mountains a year. This woman lived in a mining camp, she was a fresh, clean, healthy girl, her father died and the whole camp fathered her, looked after her, and all the young men in the range for miles on either side were in love with her. I supposed that I was, too, and – well, I won her from the others. We had been married but a few months and a part of the time my business as a mining engineer had called me away from her. I can remember the day before we started on the last journey. I was going alone again, but she was so unhappy over my departure, she clung to me, pleaded with me, implored me to take her with me, insisted on going wherever I went, would not be left behind. She couldn't bear me out of her sight, it seemed. I don't know what there was in me to have inspired such devotion, but I must speak the truth, however it may sound. She seemed wild, crazy about me. I didn't understand it; frankly, I didn't know what such love was – then – but I took her along. Shall I not be honest with you? In spite of the attraction physical, I had begun to feel even then that she was not the mate for me. I don't deserve it, and it shames me to say it of course, but I wanted a better mind, a higher soul. That made it harder – what I had to do, you know."
"Yes, I know."
"The only thing I could do when I came to my senses was to sacrifice myself to her memory because she had loved me so; as it were, she gave up her life for me, I could do no less than be true and loyal to the remembrance. It wasn't a sacrifice either until you came, but as soon as you opened your eyes and looked into mine in the rain and the storm upon the rock to which I had carried you after I had fought for you, I knew that I loved you. I knew that the love that had come into my heart was the love of which I had dreamed, that everything that had gone before was nothing, that I had found the one woman whose soul should mate with mine."
"And this before I had said a word to you?"
"What are words? The heart speaks to the heart, the soul whispers to the soul. And so it was with us. I had fought for you, you were mine, mine. My heart sang it as I panted and struggled over the rocks carrying you. It said the words again and again as I laid you down here in this cabin. It repeated them over and over; mine, mine! It says that every day and hour. And yet honor and fidelity bid me stay. I am free, yet bound; free to love you, but not to take you. My heart says yes, my conscience no. I should despise myself if I were false to the love which my wife bore me, and how could I offer you a blood stained hand?"
He had drawn very near her while he spoke; she had risen again and the two confronted each other. He stretched out his hand as he asked that last question, almost as if he had offered it to her. She made the best answer possible to his demand, for before he could divine what she would be at, she had seized his hand and kissed it, and this time it was the man whose knees gave way. He sank down in the chair and buried his face in his hands.
"Oh, God! Oh, God!" he cried in his humiliation and shame. "If I had only met you first, or if my wife had died as others die, and not by my hand in that awful hour. I can see her now, broken, bruised, bleeding, torn. I can hear the report of that weapon. Her last glance at me in the midst of her indescribable agony was one of thankfulness and gratitude. I can't stand it, I am unworthy even of her."
"But you could not help it, it was not your fault. And you can't help – caring – for me – "
"I ought to help it, I ought not love you, I ought to have known that I was not fit to love any woman, that I had no right, that I was pledged like a monk to the past. I have been weak, a fool. I love you and my honor goes, I love you and my self respect goes, I love you and my pride goes. Would God I could say I love you and my life goes and end it all." He stared at her a little space. "There is only one ray of satisfaction in it at all, one gleam of comfort," he added.
"And what is that?"
"You don't know what the suffering is, you don't understand, you don't comprehend."
"And why not?"
"Because you do not love me."
"But I do," said the woman quite simply, as if it were a matter of course not only that she should love him, but that she should also tell him so.
The man stared at her, amazed. Such fierce surges of joy throbbed through him as he had not thought the human frame could sustain. This woman loved him, in some strange way he had gained her affection. It was impossible, yet she had said so! He had been a blind fool. He could see that now. She stood before him and smiled up at him, looking at him through eyes misted with tears, with lips parted, with color coming and going in her cheek and with her bosom rising and falling. She loved him, he had but to step nearer to her to take her in his arms. There was trust, devotion, surrender, everything, in her attitude and between them, like that great gulf which lay between the rich man and the beggar, that separated heaven and hell, was that he could not cross.
"I never dreamed, I never hoped – oh," he exclaimed as if he had got his death wound, "this cannot be borne."
He turned away, but in two swift steps she caught him.
"Where do you go?"
"Out, out into the night."
"You cannot go now, it is dark; hark to the storm, you will miss your footing; you would fall, you would freeze, you would die."
"What matters that?"
"I cannot have it."
"It would be better so."
He strove again to wrench himself away, but she would not be denied. She clung to him tenaciously.
"I will not let you go unless you give me your word of honor that you will not leave the plateau, and that you will come back to me."
"I tell you that the quicker and more surely I go out of your life, the happier and better it will be for you."
"And I tell you," said the woman resolutely, "that you can never go out of my life again, living or dead," she released him with one hand and laid it upon her heart, "you are here."
"Enid," cried the man.
"No," she thrust him gently away with one hand yet detained him with the other – that was emblematic of the situation between them. "Not now, not yet, let me think, but promise me you will do yourself no harm, you will let nothing imperil your life."
"As you will," said the man regretfully. "I had purposed to end it now and forever, but I promise."
"Your word of honor?"
"My word of honor."
"And you won't break it?"
"I never broke it to a human being, much less will I do so to you?"
She released him. He went into the other room and she heard him cross the floor and open the door and go out into the night, into the storm again.
Left alone in the room she sat down again before the fire and drew from her pocket the packet of letters. She knew them by heart, she had read and re-read them often when she had been alone. They had fascinated her. They were letters from some other man to this man's wife. They were signed by an initial only and the identity of the writer was quite unknown to her. The woman's replies were not with the others, but it was easy enough to see what those replies had been. All the passion of which the woman had been capable had evidently been bestowed upon the writer of the letters she had treasured.
Her story was quite plain. She had married Newbold in a fit of pique. He was an Eastern man, the best educated, the most fascinating and interesting of the men who frequented the camp. There had been a quarrel between the letter writer and the woman, there were always quarrels, apparently, but this had been a serious one and the man had savagely flung away and left her. He had not come back as he usually did. She had waited for him and then she had married Newbold and then he had come back – too late!
He had wanted to kill the other, but she had prevented, and while Newbold was away he had made desperate love to her. He had besought her to leave her husband, to go away with him. He had used every argument that he could to that end and the woman had hesitated and wavered, but she had not consented; she had not denied her love for him any more than she had denied her respect and a certain admiration for her gallant trusting husband. She had refused again and again the requests of her lover. She could not control her heart, nevertheless she had kept to her marriage vows. But the force of her resistance had grown weaker and she had realized that alone she would perhaps inevitably succumb.
Her lover had been away when her husband returned prior to that last fateful journey. Enid Maitland saw now why she had besought him to take her with him. She had been afraid to be left alone! She had not dared to depend upon her own powers any more, her only salvation had been to go with this man whom she did not love, whom at times she almost hated, to keep from falling into the arms of the man she did love. She had been more or less afraid of Newbold. She had soon realized, because she was not blinded by any passion as he, that they had been utterly mismated. She had come to understand that when the same knowledge of the truth came to him, as it inevitably must some day, nothing but unhappiness would be their portion.
Every kind of an argument in addition to those so passionately adduced in these letters urging her to break away from her husband and to seek happiness for herself while yet there was time, had besieged her heart, had seconded her lover's plea and had assailed her will, and yet she had not given way.
Now Enid Maitland hated the woman who had enjoyed the first young love of the man she herself loved. She hated her because of her priority of possession, because her memory yet came between her and that man. She hated her because Newbold was still true to her memory, because Newbold, believing in the greatness of her passion for him, thought it shame and dishonor to his manhood to be false to her, no matter what love and longing drew him on.
Yet there was a stern sense of justice in the bosom of this young woman. She exulted in the successful battle the poor woman had waged for the preservation of her honor and her good name, against such odds. It was a sex triumph for which she was glad. She was proud of her for the stern rigor with which she had refused to take the easiest way and the desperation with which she had clung to him she did not love, but to whom she was bound by the laws of God and man, in order that she might not fall into the arms of the man she did love, in defiance of right.
Enid Maitland and this woman were as far removed from each other as the opposite poles of the earth, but there was yet a common quality in each one, of virtuous womanhood, of lofty morality. Natural, perhaps, in the one and to be expected; unnatural, perhaps, and to be unexpected in the other, but there! Now that she knew what love was and what its power and what its force – for all that she had felt and experienced and dreamed about before were as nothing to what it was since he had spoken – she could understand what the struggle must have been in that woman's heart. She could honor her, reverence her, pity her.
She could understand the feeling of the man, too, she could think much more clearly than he. He was distracted by two passions, for his pride and his honor and for her; she had as yet but one, for him. And as there was less turmoil and confusion in her mind, she was the more capable of looking the facts in the face and making the right deduction from them.
She could understand how in the first frightful rush of his grief and remorse and love the very fact that Newbold had been compelled to kill his wife, of whom she guessed he was beginning to grow a little weary, under such circumstances had added immensely to his remorse and quickened his determination to expiate his guilt and cherish her memory. She could understand why he would do just as he had done, go into the wilderness to be alone in horror of himself and in horror of his fellow men, to think only, mistakenly, of her.
Now he was paying the penalty of that isolation. Men were made to live with one another, and no one could violate that law natural, or by so long an inheritance as to have so become, without paying that penalty. His ideas of loyalty and fidelity were warped, his conceptions of his duty were narrow. There was something noble in his determination, it is true, but there was something also very foolish. The dividing line between wisdom and folly is sometimes as indefinite as that between comedy and tragedy, between laughter and tears. If the woman he had married and killed had only hated him and he had known, it would have been different, but since he believed so in her love he could do nothing else.
At that period in her reflections Enid Maitland saw a great light. The woman had not loved her husband after all, she had loved another. That passion of which he had dreamed had not been for him. By a strange chain of circumstances Enid Maitland held in her hand the solution of the problem. She had but to give him these letters to show him that his golden image had stood upon feet of clay, that the love upon which he had dwelt was not his. Once convinced of that he would come quickly to her arms. She cried a prayer of blessing on old Kirkby and started to her feet, the letters in hand, to call Newbold back to her and tell him, and then she stopped.
Woman as she was, she had respect for the binding conditions and laws of honor as well as he. Chance, nay, Providence, had put the honor of this woman, her rival, in her hands. The world had long since forgotten this poor unfortunate; in no heart was her memory cherished save in that of her husband. His idea of her was a false one, to be sure, but not even to procure her own happiness could Enid Maitland overthrow that ideal, shatter that memory.
She sat down again with the letters in her hand. It had been very simple a moment since, but it was not so now. She had but to show him those letters to remove the great barrier between them. She could not do it. It was clearly impossible. The reputation of her dead sister who had struggled so bravely to the end was in her hands, she could not sacrifice her even for her own happiness.
Quixotic, you say? I do not think so. She had blundered unwittingly, unwillingly, upon the heart secret of the other woman, she could not betray it. Even if the other woman had been really unfaithful in deed as well as in thought to her husband, Enid could hardly have destroyed his recollection of her. How much more impossible it was since the other woman had fought so heroically and so successfully for her honor. Womanhood demanded her silence. Loyalty, honor, compelled her silence.
A dead hand grasped his heart and the same dead hand grasped hers. She could see no way out of the difficulty. So far as she knew, no human soul except old Kirkby and herself knew this woman's story. She could not tell Newbold and she would have to impose upon Kirkby the same silence as she herself exercised. There was absolutely no way in which the man could find out. He must cherish his dream as he would. She would not enlighten him, she would not disabuse his mind, she could not shatter his ideal, she could not betray his wife. They might love as the angels of heaven and yet be kept forever apart – by a scruple, an idea, a principle, an abstraction, honor, a name.
Her mind told her these things were idle and foolish, but her soul would not hear of it. And in spite of her resolutions she felt that eventually there would be some way. She would not have been a human woman if she had not hoped and prayed that. She believed that God had created them for each other, that He had thrown them together. She was enough of a fatalist in this instance at least to accept their intimacy as the result of His ordination. There must be some way out of the dilemma.
Yet she knew that he would be true to his belief, and she felt that she would not be false to her obligation. What of that? There would be some way. Perhaps somebody else knew, and then there flashed into her mind the writer of the letters. Who was he? Was he yet alive? Had he any part to play in this strange tragedy aside from that he had already essayed?
Sometimes an answer to a secret query is made openly. At this juncture Newbold came back. He stopped before her unsteadily, his face now marked not only by the fierceness of the storm outside, but by the fiercer grapple of the storm in his heart.
"You have a right," he began, "to know everything now. I can withhold nothing from you."
He had in his hand a picture and something yellow that gleamed in the light. "There," he continued, extending them toward her, "is the picture of the poor woman, who loved me and whom I killed, you saw it once before."
"Yes," she nodded, taking it from him carefully and looking again in a strange commixture of pride, resentment and pity at the bold, somewhat coarse, entirely uncultured, yet handsome face which gave no evidence of the moral purpose which she had displayed.
"And here," said the man, offering the other article, "is something that no human eye but mine has ever seen since that day. It is a locket I took from her neck. Until you came I wore it next my heart."
"And since then?"
"Since then I have been unworthy her as I am unworthy you, and I have put it aside."
"Does it contain another picture?"
"A man's face."
He shook his head.
"Look and see," he answered. "Press the spring."
Suiting action to word the next second Enid Maitland found herself gazing upon the pictured semblance of Mr. James Armstrong!
She was utterly unable to suppress an exclamation and a start of surprise at the astonishing revelation. The man looked at her curiously, he opened his mouth to question her, but she recovered herself in part at least and swiftly interrupted him in a panic of terror lest she should betray her knowledge.