They kept their secret for a while, or at least they had that special joy of believing that no one in all the world but themselves knew this that had happened to them. But I think that there was one person who knew how to keep a secret even better than these two lovers. Mrs. Taylor made no remarks to any one whatever. Nobody on Bear Creek, however, was so extraordinarily cheerful and serene. That peculiar severity which she had manifested in the days when Molly was packing her possessions, had now altogether changed. In these days she was endlessly kind and indulgent to her "deary." Although, as a housekeeper, Mrs. Taylor believed in punctuality at meals, and visited her offspring with discipline when they were late without good and sufficient excuse, Molly was now exempt from the faintest hint of reprimand.
"And it's not because you're not her mother," said George Taylor, bitterly. "She used to get it, too. And we're the only ones that get it. There she comes, just as we're about ready to quit! Aren't you going to say NOTHING to her?"
"George," said his mother, "when you've saved a man's life it'll be time for you to talk."
So Molly would come in to her meals with muchirregularity; and her remarks about the imperfections of her clock met with no rejoinder. And yet one can scarcely be so severe as had been Mrs. Taylor, and become wholly as mild as milk. There was one recurrent event that could invariably awaken hostile symptoms in the dame. Whenever she saw a letter arrive with the Bennington postmark upon it, she shook her fist at that letter."What's family pride?" she would say to herself. "Taylor could be a Son of the Revolution if he'd a mind to. I wonder if she has told her folks yet."
And when letters directed to Bennington would go out, Mrs. Taylor would inspect every one as if its envelope ought to grow transparent beneath her eyes, and yield up to her its great secret, if it had one. But in truth these letters had no great secret to yield up, until one day--yes; one day Mrs. Taylor would have burst, were bursting a thing that people often did. Three letters were the cause of this emotion on Mrs. Taylor's part; one addressed to Bennington, one to Dunbarton, and the third--here was the great excitement--to Bennington, but not in the little schoolmarm's delicate writing. A man's hand had traced those plain, steady vowels and consonants.
"It's come!" exclaimed Mrs. Taylor, at this sight. "He has written to her mother himself."
That is what the Virginian had done, and here is how it had come about.
The sick man's convalescence was achieved. The weeks had brought back to him, not his whole strength yet--that could come only by many miles of open air on the back of Monte; but he was strong enough now to GET strength. When a patient reaches this stage, he is out of the woods.
He had gone for a little walk with his nurse. They had taken (under the doctor's recommendation) several such little walks, beginning with a five-minute one, and at last to-day accomplishing three miles.
"No, it has not been too far," said he. "I am afraid I could walk twice as far."
"Yes. Because it means I can go to work again. This thing we have had together is over."
For reply, she leaned against him.
"Look at you!" he said. "Only a little while ago you had to help me stand on my laigs. And now--" For a while there was silence between them. "I have never had a right down sickness before," he presently went on. "Not to remember, that is. If any person had told me I could ENJOY such a thing--" He said no more, for she reached up, and no more speech was possible.
"How long has it been?" he next asked her.
She told him.
"Well, if it could be forever--no. Not forever with no more than this. I reckon I'd be sick again! But if it could be forever with just you and me, and no one else to bother with. But any longer would not be doing right by your mother. She would have a right to think ill of me."
"Oh!" said the girl. "Let us keep it."
"Not after I am gone. Your mother must be told."
"It seems so--can't we--oh, why need anybody know?"
"Your mother ain't 'anybody.' She is your mother. I feel mighty responsible to her for what I have done."
"But I did it!"
"Do you think so? Your mother will not think so. I am going to write to her to-day."
"You! Write to my mother! Oh, then everything will be so different! They will all--" Molly stopped before the rising visions of Bennington. Upon the fairy-tale that she had been living with her cow-boy lover broke the voices of the world. She could hear them from afar. She could see the eyes of Bennington watching this man at her side. She could imagine the ears of Bennington listening for slips in his English. There loomed upon her the round of visits which they would have to make. The ringing of the door-bells, the waiting in drawing-rooms for the mistress to descend and utter her prepared congratulations, while her secret eye devoured the Virginian's appearance, and his manner of standing and sitting. He would be wearing gloves, instead of fringed gauntlets of buckskin. In a smooth black coat and waistcoat, how could they perceive the man he was? During those short formal interviews, what would they ever find out of the things that she knew about him? The things for which she was proud of him? He would speak shortly and simply; they would say, "Oh, yes!" and "How different you must findthis from Wyoming!"--and then, after the door was shut behind his departing back they would say--He would be totally underrated, not in the least understood. Why should he be subjected to this? He should never be!
Now in all these half-formed, hurried, distressing thoughts which streamed through the girl's mind, she altogether forgot one truth. True it was that the voice of the world would speak as she imagined. True it was that in the eyes of her family and acquaintance this lover of her choice would be examined even more like a SPECIMEN than are other lovers upon these occasions: and all accepted lovers have to face this ordeal of being treated like specimens by the other family. But dear me! most of us manage to stand it, don t we? It isn't, perhaps, the most delicious experience that we can recall in connection with our engagement. But it didn't prove fatal. We got through it somehow. We dined with Aunt Jane, and wined with Uncle Joseph, and perhaps had two fingers given to us by old Cousin Horatio, whose enormous fortune was of the greatest importance to everybody. And perhaps fragments of the other family's estimate of us subsequently reached our own ears. But if a chosen lover cannot stand being treated as a specimen by the other family, he's a very weak vessel, and not worth any good girl's love. That's all I can say for him.
Now the Virginian was scarcely what even his enemy would term a weak vessel; and Molly's jealousy of the impression which he might make upon Bennington was vastly superfluous. She should have known that he would indeed care to make a good impression; but that such anxiety on his part would be wholly for her sake, that in the eyes of her friends she might stand justified in taking him for her wedded husband. So far as he was concerned apart from her, Aunt Jane and Uncle Joseph might say anything they pleased, or think anything they pleased. His character was open for investigation. Judge Henry would vouch for him.
This is what he would have said to his sweetheart had she but revealed to him her perturbations. But she did not reveal them; and they were not of the order that he with his nature was likely to divine. I do not know what good would have come from her speaking out to him, unless that perfect understanding between lovers which indeed is a good thing. But I do not believe that he could have reassured her; and I am certain that she could not have prevented his writing to her mother.
"Well, then," she sighed at last, "if you think so, I will tell her."
That sigh of hers, be it well understood, was not only because of those far-off voices which the world would in consequence of her news be lifting presently. It came also from bidding farewell to the fairy-tale which she must leave now; that land in which she and he had been living close together alone, unhindered, unmindful of all things.
"Yes, you will tell her," said her lover. "And I must tell her too."
"Both of us?" questioned the girl.
What would he say to her mother? How would her mother like such a letter as he would write to her? Suppose he should misspell a word? Would not sentences from him at this time--written sentences--be a further bar to his welcome acceptance at Bennington?
"Why don't you send messages by me?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "She is not going to like it, anyway," he answered. "I must speak to her direct. It would be like shirking."
Molly saw how true his instinct was here; and a little flame shot upward from the glow of her love and pride in him. Oh, if they could all only know that he was like this when you understood him! She did not dare say out to him what her fear was about this letter of his to her mother. She did not dare because--well, because she lacked a little faith. That is it, I am afraid. And for that sin she was her own punishment. For in this day, and in many days to come, the pure joy of her love was vexed and clouded, all through a little lack of faith; while for him, perfect in his faith, his joy was like crystal.
"Tell me what you're going to write," she said.
He smiled at her. "No."
"Aren't you going to let me see it when it's done?"
"No." Then a freakish look came into his eyes. "I'll let yu' see anything I write to other women." And he gave her one of his long kisses. "Let's get through with it together," he suggested, when they were once more in his sick-room, that room which she had given to him. "You'll sit one side o' the table, and I'll sit the other, and we'll go ahaid; and pretty soon it will be done."
"O dear!" she said. "Yes, I suppose that is the best way."
And so, accordingly, they took their places. The inkstand stood between them. Beside each of them she distributed paper enough, almost, for a presidential message. And pens and pencils were in plenty. Was this not the headquarters of the Bear Creek schoolmarm?
"Why, aren't you going to do it in pencil first?" she exclaimed, looking up from her vacant sheet. His pen was moving slowly, but steadily.
"No, I don't reckon I need to," he answered, with his nose close to the paper. "Oh, damnation, there's a blot!" He tore his spoiled beginning in small bits, and threw them into the fireplace. "You've got it too full," he commented; and taking the inkstand, he tipped a little from it out of the window. She sat lost among her false starts. Had she heard him swear, she would not have minded. She rather liked it when he swore. He possessed that quality in his profanity of not offending by it. It is quite wonderful how much worse the same word will sound in one man's lips than in another's. But she did not hear him. Her mind was among a litter of broken sentences. Each thought which she began ran out into the empty air, or came against some stone wall. So there she sat, her eyes now upon that inexorable blank sheet that lay before her, waiting, and now turned with vacant hopelessness upon the sundry objects in the room. And while she thus sat accomplishing nothing, opposite to her the black head bent down, and the steady pen moved from phrase to phrase.
She became aware of his gazing at her, flushed and solemn. That strange color of the sea-water, which she could never name, was lustrous in his eyes. He was folding his letter." You have finished?" she said.
"Yes." His voice was very quiet. "I feel like an honester man."
"Perhaps I can do something to-night at Mrs. Taylor's," she said, looking at her paper.
On it were a few words crossed out. This was all she had to show. At this set task in letter-writing, the cow-puncher had greatly excelled the schoolmarm!
But that night, while he lay quite fast asleep in his bed, she was keeping vigil in her room at Mrs. Taylor's.
Accordingly, the next day, those three letters departed for the mail, and Mrs. Taylor consequently made her exclamation, "It's come!"
On the day before the Virginian returned to take up his work at Judge Henry's ranch, he and Molly announced their news. What Molly said to Mrs. Taylor and what Mrs. Taylor said to her, is of no interest to us, though it was of much to them.
But Mr. McLean happened to make a call quite early in the morning to inquire for his friend's health.
"Lin," began the Virginian, "there is no harm in your knowing an hour or so before the rest, I am--"
"Lord!" said Mr. McLean, indulgently. Everybody has knowed that since the day she found yu' at the spring."
"It was not so, then," said the Virginian, crossly.
"Lord! Everybody has knowed it right along."
"Hmp!" said the Virginian. "I didn't know this country was that rank with gossips."
Mr. McLean laughed mirthfully at the lover. "Well," he said, "Mrs. McLean will be glad. She told me to give yu' her congratulations quite a while ago. I was to have 'em ready just as soon as ever yu' asked for 'em yourself." Lin had been made a happy man some twelve months previous to this. And now, by way of an exchange of news, he added: "We're expectin' a little McLean down on Box Elder. That's what you'll be expectin' some of these days, I hope."
"Yes," murmured the Virginian, "I hope so too."
"And I don't guess," said Lin, "that you and I will do much shufflin' of other folks' children any more."
Whereupon he and the Virginian shook hands silently, and understood each other very well.
On the day that the Virginian parted with Molly, beside the weight of farewell which lay heavy on his heart, his thoughts were also grave with news. The cattle thieves had grown more audacious. Horses and cattle both were being missed, and each man began almost to doubt his neighbor.
"Steps will have to be taken soon by somebody, I reckon," said the lover.
"By you?" she asked quickly.
"Most likely I'll get mixed up with it."
"What will you have to do?""Can't say. I'll tell yu' when I come back.
So did he part from her, leaving her more kisses than words to remember.
And what was doing at Bennington, meanwhile, and at Dunbarton? Those three letters which by their mere outside had so moved Mrs. Taylor, produced by their contents much painful disturbance.
It will be remembered that Molly wrote to her mother, and to her great-aunt. That announcement to her mother was undertaken first. Its composition occupied three hours and a half, and it filled eleven pages, not counting a postscript upon the twelfth. The letter to the great-aunt took only ten minutes. I cannot pretend to explain why this one was so greatly superior to the other; but such is the remarkable fact. Its beginning, to be sure, did give the old lady a start; she had dismissed the cow-boy from her probabilities.
"Tut, tut, tut!" she exclaimed out loud in her bedroom. "She has thrown herself away on that fellow!"
But some sentences at the end made her pause and sit still for a long while. The severity upon her face changed to tenderness, gradually. "Ah, me," she sighed. "If marriage were as simple as love!" Then she went slowly downstairs, and out into her garden, where she walked long between the box borders. "But if she has found a great love," said the old lady at length. And she returned to her bedroom, and opened an old desk, and read some old letters.
There came to her the next morning a communication from Bennington. This had been penned frantically by poor Mrs. Wood. As soon as she had been able to gather her senses after the shock of her daughter's eleven pages and the postscript, the mother had poured out eight pages herself to the eldest member of the family. There had been, indeed, much excuse for the poor lady. To begin with, Molly had constructed her whole opening page with the express and merciful intention of preparing her mother. Consequently, it made no sense whatever. Its effect was the usual effect of remarks designed to break a thing gently. It merely made Mrs. Wood's head swim, and filled her with a sickening dread. "Oh, mercy, Sarah," she had cried, "come here. What does this mean?" And then, fortified by her elder daughter, she had turned over that first page and found what it meant on the top of the second. "A savage with knives and pistols!" she wailed. "Well, mother, I always told you so," said her daughter Sarah. "What is a foreman?" exclaimed the mother. "And who is Judge Henry?" "She has taken a sort of upper servant," said Sarah. "If it is allowed to go as far as a wedding, I doubt if I can bring myself to be present." (This threat she proceeded to make to Molly, with results that shall be set forth in their proper place.) "The man appears to have written to me himself," said Mrs. Wood. "He knows no better," said Sarah. "Bosh!" said Sarah's husband later. "It was a very manly thing to do." Thus did consternation rage in the house at Bennington. Molly might have spared herself the many assurances that she gave concerning the universal esteem in which her cow-puncher was held, and the fair prospects which were his. So, in the first throes of her despair, Mrs. Wood wrote those eight not maturely considered pages to the great-aunt.
"Tut, tut, tut!" said the great-aunt as she read them. Her face was much more severe today. "You'd suppose," she said, "that the girl had been kidnapped! Why, she has kept him waiting three years!" And then she read more, but soon put the letter down with laughter. For Mrs. Wood had repeated in writing that early outburst of hers about a savage with knives and pistols. "Law!" said the great-aunt. "Law, what a fool Lizzie is!"
So she sat down and wrote to Mrs. Wood a wholesome reply about putting a little more trust in her own flesh and blood, and reminding her among other things that General Stark had himself been wont to carry knives and pistols owing to the necessities of his career, but that he had occasionally taken them off, as did probably this young man in Wyoming. "You had better send me the letter he has written you," she concluded. "I shall know much better what to think after I have seen that."
It is not probable that Mrs. Wood got much comfort from this communication; and her daughter Sarah was actually enraged by it. "She grows more perverse as she nears her dotage," said Sarah. But the Virginian's letter was sent to Dunbarton, where the old lady sat herself down to read it with much attention.
Here is what the Virginian had said to the unknown mother of his sweetheart.
MRS. JOHN STARK WOOD Bennington, Vermont.
Madam: If your daughter Miss Wood has ever told you about her saving a man's life here when some Indians had shot him that is the man who writes to you now. I don't think she can have told you right about that affair for she is the only one in this country who thinks it was a little thing. So I must tell you it, the main points. Such an action would have been thought highly of in a Western girl, but with Miss Wood's raising nobody had a right to expect it.
"Indeed!" snorted the great-aunt. "Well, he would be right, if I had not had a good deal more to do with her 'raising' than ever Lizzie had." And she went on with the letter.
I was starting in to die when she found me. I did not know anything then, and she pulled me back from where I was half in the next world. She did not know but what Indians would get her too but I could not make her leave me. I am a heavy man one hundred and seventy-three stripped when in full health. She lifted me herself from the ground me helping scarce any for there was not much help in me that day. She washed my wound and brought me to with her own whiskey. Before she could get me home I was out of my head but she kept me on my horse somehow and talked wisely to me so I minded her and did not go clean crazy till she had got me safe to bed. The doctor says I would have died all the same if she had not nursed me the way she did. It made me love her more which I did not know I could. But there is no end, for this writing it down makes me love her more as I write it.
And now Mrs. Wood I am sorry this will be bad news for you to hear. I know you would never choose such a man as I am for her for I have got no education and must write humble against my birth. I wish I could make the news easier but truth is the best.
I am of old stock in Virginia English and one Scotch Irish grandmother my father's father brought from Kentucky. We have always stayed at the same place farmers and hunters not bettering our lot and very plain. We have fought when we got the chance, under Old Hickory and in Mexico and my father and two brothers were killed in the Valley sixty-four. Always with us one son has been apt to run away and I was the one this time. I had too much older brothering to suit me. But now I am doing well being in full sight of prosperity and not too old and very strong my health having stood the sundries it has been put through. She shall teach school no more when she is mine. I wish I could make this news easier for you Mrs. Wood. I do not like promises I have heard so many. I will tell any man of your family anything he likes to ask one, and Judge Henry would tell you about my reputation. I have seen plenty rough things but can say I have never killed for pleasure or profit and am not one of that kind, always preferring peace. I have had to live in places where they had courts and lawyers so called but an honest man was all the law you could find in five hundred miles. I have not told her about those things not because I am ashamed of them but there are so many things too dark for a girl like her to hear about.
I had better tell you the way I know I love Miss Wood. I am not a boy now, and women are no new thing to me. A man like me who has travelled meets many of them as he goes and passes on but I stopped when I came to Miss Wood. That is three years but I have not gone on. What right has such as he? you will say. So did I say it after she had saved my life. It was hard to get to that point and keep there with her around me all day. But I said to myself you have bothered her for three years with your love and if you let your love bother her you don't love her like you should and you must quit for her sake who has saved your life. I did not know what I was going to do with my life after that but I supposed I could go somewhere and work hard and so Mrs. Wood I told her I would give her up. But she said no. It is going to be hard for her to get used to a man like me-
But at this point in the Virginian's letter, the old great-aunt could read no more. She rose, and went over to that desk where lay those faded letters of her own. She laid her head down upon the package, and as her tears flowed quietly upon it, "O dear," she whispered, "O dear! And this is what I lost!"
To her girl upon Bear Creek she wrote the next day. And this word from Dunbarton was like balm among the harsh stings Molly was receiving. The voices of the world reached her in gathering numbers, and not one of them save that great-aunt's was sweet. Her days were full of hurts; and there was no one by to kiss the hurts away. Nor did she even hear from her lover any more now. She only knew he had gone into lonely regions upon his errand.
That errand took him far:- Across the Basin, among the secret places of Owl Creek, past the Washakie Needles, over the Divide to Gros Ventre, and so through a final barrier of peaks into the borders of East Idaho. There, by reason of his bidding me, I met him, and came to share in a part of his errand.
It was with no guide that I travelled to him. He had named a little station on the railroad, and from thence he had charted my route by means of landmarks. Did I believe in omens, the black storm that I set out in upon my horse would seem like one to-day. But I had been living in cities and smoke; and Idaho, even with rain, was delightful to me.