The Fire Warden by Robert W. Chambers

I

Open quote

AND of course what I buy is my own,” continued Burleson, patiently. “No man here will question that, I suppose?”

For a moment there was silence in the cross-roads store; then a lank, mud-splashed native arose from behind the stove, shoving his scarred hands deep into the ragged pockets of his trousers.

“Young man,” he said, harshly, “there’s a few things you can’t buy; you may think you can buy ’em—you may pay for ’em, too—but they can’t be bought an’ sold. You thought you bought Grier’s tract; you thought you bought a lot o’ deer an’ birds an’ fish, several thousand acres in timber, and a dozen lakes. An’ you paid for ’em, too. But, sonny, you was took in; you paid for ’em, but you didn’t buy ’em, because Grier couldn’t sell God’s free critters. He fooled ye that time.”

“Is that the way you regard it, Santry?” asked Burleson. “Is that the way these people regard private property?”

“I guess it is,” replied the ragged man, resuming his seat on the flour-barrel. “I cal’late the Lord A’mighty fashioned His wild critters f’r to peramble round about, offerin’ a fair mark an’ no favor to them that’s smart enough to git ’em with buck, bird-shot, or bullet. Live wild critters ain’t for sale; they never was made to buy an’ sell. The spryest gits ’em—an’ that’s all about it, I guess, Mister Burleson.”

A hard-faced young man leaning against the counter, added significantly: “We talked some to Grier, an’ he sold out. He come here, too, just like you.”

The covert menace set two spots of color deepening in young Burleson’s lean cheeks; but he answered calmly:

“What a man believes to be his own he seldom abandons from fear of threats.”

“That’s kinder like our case,” observed old man Santry, chewing vigorously.

Another man leaned over and whispered to a neighbor, who turned a grim eye on Burleson without replying.

As for Burleson and his argument, a vicious circle had been completed, and there was little chance of an understanding; he saw that plainly, but, loath to admit it, turned towards old man Santry once more.

“If what has been common rumor is true,” he said, “Mr. Grier, from whom I bought the Spirit Lake tract, was rough in defending what he believed to be his own. I want to be decent; I desire to preserve the game and the timber, but not at the expense of human suffering. You know better than I do what has been the history of Fox Cross-roads. Twenty-five years ago your village was a large one; you had tanneries, lumber-mills, paper-mills—even a newspaper. To-day the timber is gone, and so has the town except for your homes—twenty houses, perhaps. Your soil is sand and slate, fit only for a new forest; the entire country is useless for farming, and it is the natural home of pine and oak, of the deer and partridge.”

He took one step nearer the silent circle around the stove. “I have offered to buy your rights; Grier hemmed you in on every side to force you out. I do not want to force you; I offer to buy your land at a fair appraisal. And your answer is to put a prohibitive price on the land.”

“Because,” observed old man Santry, “we’ve got you ketched. That’s business, I guess.”

Burleson flushed up. “Not business; blackmail, Santry.”

Another silence, then a man laughed: “Is that what they call it down to York, Mr. Burleson?”

“I think so.”

“When a man wants to put up a skyscraper an’ gits all but the key-lot, an’ if the owner of the key-lot holds out for his price, do they call it blackmail?”

“No,” said Burleson; “I think I spoke hastily.”

Not a sound broke the stillness in the store. After a moment old man Santry opened his clasp-knife, leaned forward, and shaved off a thin slice from the cheese on the counter. This he ate, faded eyes fixed on space. Men all around him relaxed in their chairs, spat, recrossed their muddy boots, stretching and yawning. Plainly the conference had ended.

“I am sorry,” said young Burleson; “I had hoped for a fair understanding.”

Nobody answered.

He tucked his riding-crop under one arm and stood watching them, buttoning his tan gloves. Then with the butt of his crop he rubbed a dry spot of mud from his leather puttees, freed the incrusted spurs, and turned towards the door, pausing there to look back.

“I hate to leave it this way,” he said, impulsively. “I want to live in peace with my neighbors. I mean to make no threats—but neither can I be moved by threats.… Perhaps time will aid us to come to a fair understanding; perhaps a better knowledge of one another. Although the shooting and fishing are restricted, my house is always open to my neighbors. You will be welcome when you come—”

The silence was profound as he hesitated, standing there before them in the sunshine of the doorway—a lean, well-built, faultless figure, an unconscious challenge to poverty, a terrible offence to their every instinct—the living embodiment of all that they hated most in all the world.

And so he went away with a brief “Good-morning,” swung himself astride his horse, and cantered off, gathering bridle as he rode, sweeping at a gallop across the wooden bridge into the forest world beyond.

The September woods were dry—dry enough to catch fire. His troubled eyes swept the second growth as he drew bridle at a gate set in a fence eight feet high and entirely constructed of wire net interwoven with barbed wire, and heavily hedged with locust and buck-thorn.

He dismounted, unlocked the iron gate, led his horse through, refastened the gate, and walked on, his horse following as a trained dog follows at heel.

Through the still September sunshine ripened leaves drifted down through interlaced branches, and the whispering rustle of their fall filled the forest silence. The wood road, carpeted with brilliant leaves, wound through second growth, following the edge of a dark, swift stream, then swept westward among the pines, where the cushion of brown needles deadened every step, and where there was no sound save the rustle of a flock of rose-tinted birds half buried in the feathery fronds of a white pine. Again the road curved eastward; skirting a cleft of slate rocks, through which the stream rushed with the sound of a wind-stirred woodland; and by this stream a man stood, loading a rusty fowling-piece.

Young Burleson had retained Grier’s keepers, for obvious reasons; and already he knew them all by name. But this man was no keeper of his; and he walked straight up to him, bidding him a rather sharp good-morning, which was sullenly returned.

Then Burleson told him as pleasantly as he could that the land was preserved, that he could not tolerate armed trespassing, and that the keepers were charged to enforce the laws.

“It is better,” he said, “to have a clear understanding at once. I think the law governing private property is clearly set forth on the signs along my boundary. This preserve is posted and patrolled; I have done all I could to guarantee public rights; I have not made any application to have the public road closed, and I am perfectly willing to keep it open for public convenience. But it is not right for anybody to carry a gun in these preserves; and if it continues I shall surely apply for permission to close the road.”

“I guess you think you’ll do a lot o’ things,” observed the man, stolidly.

“I think I will,” returned Burleson, refusing to take offence at the insolence.

The man tossed his gun to his shoulder and slouched towards the boundary. Burleson watched him in silence until the fellow reached the netted wire fence, then he called out.

“There is a turnstile to the left.”

But the native deliberately drew a hatchet from his belt, opened the wire netting with one heavy slash, and crawled through. Then wheeling in his tracks outside, he cursed Burleson and shook his gun at him, and finally slouched off towards Fox Cross-roads, leaving the master of the forest a trifle white and quivering under the cutting curb of self-control.

Presently his spasmodic grip on the riding-crop relaxed; he looked about him with a long, quiet breath, flicked a burr from his riding-breeches, and walked on, head lowered and jaw set. His horse followed at his heels.

A mile beyond he met a keeper demolishing a deadfall along the creek, and he summoned him with a good-humored greeting.

“Rolfe, we’re headed for trouble, but it must not come—do you hear? I won’t have it if it can be avoided—and it must be avoided. These poor devils that Grier hemmed in and warned off with his shot-gun patrol are looking for that same sort of thing from me. Petty annoyance shall not drive me into violence; I’ve made it plain to every keeper, every forester, every man who takes wages from me. If I can stand insolence from people I am sorry for, my employés can and must.… Who was that man I met below here?”

“Abe Storm, sir.”

“What was he doing—building deadfalls?”

“Seven, sir. He had three muskrats, a mink, and a string of steel traps when I caught him—”

“Rolfe, you go to Abe Storm and tell him I give him leave to take muskrat and mink along Spirit Creek, and that I’ll allow him a quarter bounty on every unmarked pelt, and he may keep the pelts, too.”

The keeper looked blankly at the master: “Why—why, Mr. Burleson, he’s the dirtiest, meanest market hunter in the lot!”

“You do as I say, Rolfe,” said the master, amiably.

“Yes, sir—but—”

“Did you deliver my note to the fire-warden?”

“Yes, sir. The old man’s abed with miseries. He said he’d send his deputy at noon.”

Burleson laid his gloved hand on his horse’s saddle, looking sharply at the keeper.

“They tell me that Mr. Elliott has seen better fortune, Rolfe.”

“Yes, sir. When the Cross-roads went to pot, he went too. He owned a piece o’ land that was no good only for the timber. He’s like the rest o’ them, I guess—only he had more to lose—an’ he lost it same as all o’ them.”

Burleson drew out his watch, glanced at it, and then mounted.

“Try to make a friend of Abe Storm,” he said; “that is my policy, and you all know it. Help me to keep the peace, Rolfe. If I keep it, I don’t see how they’re going to break it.”

“Very well, sir. But it riles me to—”

“Nonsense! Now tell me where I’m to meet the fire-warden’s deputy. Oh! then I’ll jump him somewhere before long. And remember, Rolfe, that it’s no more pleasure for me to keep my temper than it is for anybody. But I’ve got to do it, and so have you. And, after all, it’s more fun to keep it than to let it loose.”

“Yes, sir,” said Rolfe, grinning like a dusty fox in July.

So Burleson rode on at a canter, presently slacking to a walk, arguing with himself in a low, calm voice:

“Poor devils—poor, half-starved devils! If I could afford to pay their prices I’d do it.… I’ll wink at anything short of destruction; I can’t let them cut the pine; I can’t let them clean out the grouse and deer and fish. As for law-suits, I simply won’t! There must be some decent way short of a shot-gun.”

He stretched out a hand and broke a flaming maple leaf from a branch in passing, drew it through his button-hole, thoughtful eyes searching the road ahead, which now ran out through long strips of swale bordered by saplings.

Presently a little breeze stirred the foliage of the white birches to a sea of tremulous gold; and at the same moment a rider appeared in the marsh beyond, galloping through the blanched swale-grass, which rose high as the horse’s girth.

Young Burleson drew bridle; the slim youth who sat his saddle so easily must be the deputy of the sick fire-warden; this was the time and the place.

As the young rider galloped up, Burleson leaned forward, offering his hand with an easy, pleasant greeting. The hand was unnoticed, the greeting breathlessly returned; two grave, gray eyes met his, and Burleson found himself looking into the flushed face of a young girl.

When he realized this, he took off his cap, and she inclined her head, barely acknowledging his salute.

“I am Mr. Elliott’s daughter,” she said; “you are Mr. Burleson?”

Burleson had the honor of presenting himself, cap in hand.

“I am my father’s deputy,” said the girl, quietly, gathering her bridle and wheeling her horse. “I read your note. Have you reason to believe that an attempt has been made to fire the Owl Vlaie?”

There was a ring of business in her voice that struck him as amusingly delightful—and such a sweet, clear voice, too, untinged with the slightest taint of native accent.

“Yes,” said Burleson, gravely, “I’m afraid that somebody tried to burn the vlaie. I think that a change in the wind alone saved us from a bad fire.”

“Shall we ride over?” inquired the girl, moving forward with unconscious grace.

Burleson ranged his big horse alongside; she set her mount at a gallop, and away they went, wheeling into the swale, knee-deep in dry, silvery grasses, until the deputy fire-warden drew bridle with a side-flung caution: “Muskrats! Look out for a cropper!”

Now, at a walk, the horses moved forward side by side through the pale, glistening sea of grass stretching out on every side.

Over a hidden pond a huge heron stood guard, stiff and shapeless as a weather-beaten stake. Blackbirds with crimson-slashed shoulders rose in clouds from the reeds, only to settle again as they passed amid a ceaseless chorus of harsh protest. Once a pair of summer duck came speeding overhead, and Burleson, looking up, exclaimed:

“There’s a bird I never shoot at. It’s too beautiful.”

The girl turned her head, serious gray eyes questioning his.

“Have you ever seen a wood-duck?—a drake? in full plumage?” he asked.

“Often—before Mr. Grier came.”

Burleson fell silent, restless in his saddle, then said:

“I hope you will see many wood-duck now. My boats on Spirit Water are always at Mr. Elliott’s disposal—and at yours.”

She made the slightest sign of acknowledgment, but said nothing. Once or twice she rose upright, standing straight in her stirrups to scan the distance under a small, inverted hand. East and north the pine forest girdled the vlaie; west and south hardwood timber laced the sky-line with branches partly naked, and the pine’s outposts of white birch and willow glimmered like mounds of crumpled gold along the edges of the sea of grass.

“There is the stream!” said Burleson, suddenly.

“AWAY THEY WENT, KNEE-DEEP IN DRY SILVERY GRASSES” “AWAY THEY WENT, KNEE-DEEP IN DRY SILVERY GRASSES”

She saw it at the same moment, touched her mare with spurred heels, and lifted her clean over with a grace that set Burleson’s nerves thrilling.

He followed, taking the water-jump without effort; and after a second’s hesitation ventured to praise her horse.

“Yes,” she said, indifferently, “The Witch is a good mare.” After a silence, “My father desires to sell her.”

“I know a dozen men who would jump at the chance,” said the young fellow. “But”—he hesitated—“it is a shame to sell such a mare—”

The girl colored. “My father will never ride again,” she said, quietly. “We should be very glad to sell her.”

“But—the mare suits you so perfectly—”

She turned her head and looked at him gravely. “You must be aware, Mr. Burleson, that it is not choice with us,” she said. There was nothing of bitterness in her voice; she leaned forward, patting the mare’s chestnut neck for a moment, then swung back, sitting straight as a cavalryman in her saddle. “Of course,” she said, smiling for the first time, “it will break my heart to sell The Witch, but”—she patted the mare again—“the mare won’t grieve; it takes a dog to do that; but horses—well, I know horses enough to know that even The Witch won’t grieve.”

“That is a radical theory, Miss Elliott,” said Burleson, amused. “What about the Arab and his loving steed?”

“That is not a legend for people who know horses,” she replied, still smiling. “The love is all on our side. You know horses, Mr. Burleson. Is it not the truth—the naked truth, stripped of poetry and freed from tradition?”

“Why strip poetry from anything?” he asked, laughing.

She rode on in silence for a while, the bright smile fading from lips and eyes.

“Oh, you are quite right,” she said; “let us leave what romance there may be in the world. My horse loves me like a dog. I am very happy to believe it, Mr. Burleson.”

From the luminous shadow of her sombrero she looked out across the stretch of marsh, where from unseen pools the wild-duck were rising, disturbed by the sound of their approach. And now the snipe began to dart skyward from under their horses’ feet, filling the noon silence with their harsh “squak! squak!”

“It’s along here somewhere,” said Burleson, leaning forward in his saddle to scan the swale-grass. A moment later he said, “Look there, Miss Elliott!”

In the tall, blanched grasses a velvety black space marked the ashes of a fire, which had burned in a semi-circle, then westward to the water’s edge.

“You see,” he said, “it was started to sweep the vlaie to the pine timber. The wind changed, and held it until the fire was quenched at the shore.”

“I see,” she said.

He touched his horse, and they pressed forward along the bog’s edge.

“Here,” he pointed out, “they fired the grass again, you see, always counting on the west wind; and here again, and yonder too, and beyond that, Miss Elliott—in a dozen places they set the grass afire. If that wet east wind had not come up, nothing on earth could have saved a thousand acres of white pine—and I’m afraid to say how many deer and partridges and woodcock.… It was a savage bit of business, was it not, Miss Elliott?”

She sat her horse, silent, motionless, pretty head bent, studying the course of the fire in the swale. There was no mistaking the signs; a grass fire had been started, which, had the west wind held, must have become a brush fire, and then the most dreaded scourge of the north, a full-fledged forest-fire in tall timber. After a little while she raised her head and looked full at Burleson, then, without comment, she wheeled her mare eastward across the vlaie towards the pines.

“What do you make of it?” he asked, pushing his horse forward alongside of her mare.

“The signs are perfectly plain,” she said. “Whom do you suspect?”

He waited a moment, then shook his head.

“You suspect nobody?”

“I haven’t been here long enough. I don’t exactly know what to do about this. It is comparatively easy to settle cases of simple trespass or deer-shooting, but, to tell the truth, Miss Elliott, fire scares me. I don’t know how to meet this sort of thing.”

She was silent.

“So,” he added, “I sent for the fire-warden. I don’t know just what the warden’s duties may be.”

“I do,” she said, quietly. Her mare struck solid ground; she sent her forward at a gallop, which broke into a dead run. Burleson came pounding along behind, amused, interested at this new caprice. She drew bridle at the edge of the birches, half turned in her saddle, bidding him follow with a gesture, and rode straight into the covert, now bending to avoid branches, now pushing intrusive limbs aside with both gloved hands.

Out of the low bush pines, heirs of the white birches’ heritage, rabbits hopped away; sometimes a cock grouse, running like a rat, fled, crested head erect; twice twittering woodcock whirred upward, beating wings tangled for a moment in the birches, fluttering like great moths caught in a net.

And now they had waded through the silver-birches which fringed the pines as foam fringes a green sea; and before them towered the tall timber, illuminated by the sun.

In the transparent green shadows they drew bridle; she leaned forward, clearing the thick tendrils of hair from her forehead, and sat stock-still, intent, every exquisite line and contour in full relief against the pines.

At first he thought she was listening, nerves keyed to sense sounds inaudible to him. Then, as he sat, fascinated, scarcely breathing lest the enchantment break, leaving him alone in the forest with the memory of a dream, a faint aromatic odor seemed to grow in the air; not the close scent of the pines, but something less subtle.

“Smoke!” he said, aloud.

She touched her mare forward, riding into the wind, delicate nostrils dilated; and he followed over the soundless cushion of brown needles, down aisles flanked by pillared pines whose crests swam in the upper breezes, filling all the forest with harmony.

And here, deep in the splendid forest, there was fire,—at first nothing but a thin, serpentine trail of ashes through moss and bedded needles; then, scarcely six inches in width, a smouldering, sinuous path from which fine threads of smoke rose straight upward, vanishing in the woodland half-light.

He sprang from his horse and tore away a bed of green moss through which filaments of blue smoke stole; and deep in the forest mould, spreading like veins in an autumn leaf, fire ran underground, its almost invisible vapor curling up through lichens and the brown carpet of pine-needles.

At first, for it was so feeble a fire, scarcely alive, he strove to stamp it out, then to smother it with damp mould. But as he followed its wormlike course, always ahead he saw the thin, blue signals rising through living moss—everywhere the attenuated spirals creeping from the ground underfoot.

“I could summon every man in this town if necessary,” she said; “I am empowered by law to do so; but—I shall not—yet. Where could we find a keeper—the nearest patrol?”

“Please follow me,” he said, mounting his horse and wheeling eastward.

In a few moments they came to a foot-trail, and turned into it at a canter, skirting the Spirit Water, which stretched away between two mountains glittering in the sun.

“How many men can you get?” she called forward.

“I don’t know; there’s a gang of men terracing below the lodge—”

“Call them all; let every man bring a pick and shovel. There is a guard now!”

Burleson pulled up short and shouted, “Murphy!”

The patrol turned around.

“Get the men who are terracing the lodge. Bring picks, shovels, and axes, and meet me here. Run for it!”

The fire-warden’s horse walked up leisurely; the girl had relinquished the bridle and was guiding the mare with the slightest pressure of knee and heel. She sat at ease, head lowered, absently retying the ribbon on the hair at her neck. When it was adjusted to her satisfaction she passed a hat-pin through her sombrero, touched the bright, thick hair above her forehead, straightened out, stretching her legs in the stirrups. Then she drew off her right gauntlet, and very discreetly stifled the daintiest of yawns.

“You evidently don’t believe there is much danger,” said Burleson, with a smile which seemed to relieve the tension he had labored under.

“Yes, there is danger,” she said.

After a silence she added, “I think I hear your men coming.”

He listened in vain; he heard the wind above filtering through the pines; he heard the breathing of their horses, and his own heart-beats, too. Then very far away a sound broke out.

“What wonderful ears you have!” he said—not thinking of their beauty until his eye fell on their lovely contour. And as he gazed the little, clean-cut ear next to him turned pink, and its owner touched her mare forward—apparently in aimless caprice, for she circled and came straight back, meeting his gaze with her pure, fearless gray eyes.

There must have been something not only perfectly inoffensive, but also well-bred, in Burleson’s lean, bronzed face, for her own face softened into an amiable expression, and she wheeled the mare up beside his mount, confidently exposing the small ear again.

The men were coming; there could be no mistake this time. And there came Murphy, too, and Rolfe, with his great, swinging stride, gun on one shoulder, a bundle of axes on the other.

“This way,” said Burleson, briefly; but the fire-warden cut in ahead, cantering forward up the trail, nonchalantly breaking off a twig of aromatic black birch, as she rode, to place between her red lips.

Murphy, arriving in the lead, scanned the haze which hung along the living moss.

“Sure, it’s a foolish fire, sorr,” he muttered, “burrowing like a mole gone mad. Rest aisy, Misther Burleson; we’ll scotch the divil that done this night’s worruk!—bad cess to the dhirrty scut!”

“Never mind that, Murphy. Miss Elliott, are they to dig it out?”

She nodded.

The men, ranged in an uneven line, stood stupidly staring at the long vistas of haze. The slim fire-warden wheeled her mare to face them, speaking very quietly, explaining how deep to dig, how far a margin might be left in safety, how many men were to begin there, and at what distances apart.

Then she picked ten men and bade them follow her.

Burleson rode in the rear, motioning Rolfe to his stirrup.

“What do you think of it?” he asked, in a low voice.

“I think, sir, that one of those damned Storms did it—”

“I mean, what do you think about the chances? Is it serious?”

“That young lady ahead knows better than I do. I’ve seen two of these here underground fires: one was easy killed; the other cleaned out three thousand acres.”

Burleson nodded. “I think,” he said, “that you had better go back to the lodge and get every spare man. Tell Rudolf to rig up a wagon and bring rations and water for the men. Put in something nice for Miss Elliott—see to that, Rolfe; do you hear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And, Rolfe, bring feed for the horses—and see that there are a couple of men to watch the house and stables—” He broke out, bitterly, “It’s a scoundrelly bit of work they’ve done!—” and instantly had himself under control again. “Better go at once, Rolfe, and caution the men to remain quiet under provocation if any trespassers come inside.”

II

By afternoon they had not found the end of the underground fire. The live trail had been followed and the creeping terror exterminated for half a mile; yet, although two ditches had been dug to cut the fire off from farther progress, always ahead the haze hung motionless, stretching away westward through the pines.

Now a third trench was started—far enough forward this time, for there was no blue haze visible beyond the young hemlock growth.

The sweating men, stripped to their undershirts, swung pick and axe and drove home their heavy shovels. Burleson, his gray flannel shirt open at the throat, arms bared to the shoulder, worked steadily among his men; on a knoll above, the fire-warden sat cross-legged on the pine-needles, her straight young back against a tree. On her knees were a plate and a napkin. She ate bits of cold partridge at intervals; at intervals she sipped a glass of claret and regarded Burleson dreamily.

To make certain, she had set a gang of men to clear the woods in a belt behind the third ditch; a young growth of hemlock was being sacrificed, and the forest rang with axe-strokes, the cries of men, the splintering crash of the trees.

“I think,” said Burleson to Rolfe, who had just come up, “that we are ahead of the trouble now. Did you give my peaceful message to Abe Storm?”

“No, sir; he wasn’t to home—damn him!”

The young man looked up quickly. “What’s the trouble now?” he asked.

“There’s plenty more trouble ahead,” said the keeper, in a low voice. “Look at this belt, sir!” and he drew from his pocket a leather belt, unrolled it, and pointed at a name scratched on the buckle. The name was “Abe Storm.”

“Where did that come from?” demanded Burleson.

“The man that fired the vlaie grass dropped it. Barry picked it up on patrol. There’s the evidence, sir. The belt lay on the edge of the burning grass.”

“You mean he dropped it last night, and Barry found it where the grass had been afire?”

“No, sir; that belt was dropped two hours since. The grass was afire again.

The color left Burleson’s face, then came surging back through the tightening skin of the set jaws.

“Barry put out the blaze, sir. He’s on duty there now with Chase and Connor. God help Abe Storm if they get him over the sights, Mr. Burleson.”

Burleson’s self-command was shaken. He reached out his hand for the belt, flung away his axe, and walked up the slope of the knoll where the fire-warden sat calmly watching him.

For a few moments he stood before her, teeth set, in silent battle with that devil’s own temper which had never been killed in him, which he knew now could never be ripped out and exterminated, which must, must lie chained—chained while he himself stood tireless guard, knowing that chains may break.

After a while he dropped to the ground beside her, like a man dead tired. “Tell me about these people,” he said.

“What people, Mr. Burleson? My own?”

Her sensitive instinct had followed the little drama from her vantage-seat on the knoll; she had seen the patrol display the belt; she had watched the color die out and then flood the young man’s face and neck; and she had read the surface signs of the murderous fury that altered his own visage to a mask set with a pair of blazing eyes. And suddenly, as he dropped to the ground beside her, his question had swept aside formality, leaving them on the very edge of an intimacy which she had accepted, unconsciously, with her low-voiced answer.

“Yes—your own people. Tell what I should know I want to live in peace among them if they’ll let me.”

She gathered her knees in her clasped fingers and looked out into the forest. “Mr. Burleson,” she said, “for every mental, every moral deformity, man is answerable to man. You dwellers in the pleasant places of the world are pitiless in your judgment of the sullen, suspicious, narrow life you find edging forests, clinging to mountain flanks, or stupidly stifling in the heart of some vast plain. I cannot understand the mental cruelty which condemns with contempt human creatures who have had no chance—not one single chance. Are they ignorant? Then bear with them for shame! Are they envious, grasping, narrow? Do they gossip about neighbors, do they slander without mercy? What can you expect from starved minds, human intellects unnourished by all that you find so wholesome? Man’s progress only inspires man; man’s mind alone stimulates man’s mind. Where civilization is, there are many men; where is the greatest culture, the broadest thought, the sweetest toleration, there men are many, teaching one another unconsciously, consciously, always advancing, always uplifting, spite of the shallow tide of sin which flows in the footsteps of all progress—”

She ceased; her delicate, earnest face relaxed, and a smile glimmered for a moment in her eyes, in the pretty curled corners of her parted lips.

“I’m talking very like a school-marm,” she said. “I am one, by-the-way, and I teach the children of these people—my people,” she added, with an exquisite hint of defiance in her smile.

She rested her weight on one arm and leaned towards him a trifle.

“In Fox Cross-roads there is much that is hopeless, much that is sorrowful, Mr. Burleson; there is hunger, bodily hunger; there is sickness unsolaced by spiritual or bodily comfort—not even the comfort of death! Ah, you should see them—once! Once would be enough! And no physician, nobody that knows, I tell you—nobody through the long, dusty, stifling summers—nobody through the lengthening bitterness of the black winters—nobody except myself. Mr. Burleson, old man Storm died craving a taste of broth; and Abe Storm trapped a partridge for him, and Rolfe caught him and Grier jailed him—and confiscated the miserable, half-plucked bird!”

The hand which supported her weight was clinched; she was not looking at the man beside her, but his eyes never left hers.

“You talk angrily of market hunting, and the law forbids it. You say you can respect a poacher who shoots for the love of it, but you have only contempt for the market hunter. And you are right sometimes—” She looked him in the eyes. “Old Santry’s little girl is bedridden. Santry shot and sold a deer—and bought his child a patent bed. She sleeps almost a whole hour now without much pain.”

Burleson, eyes fixed on her, did not stir. The fire-warden leaned forward, picked up the belt, and read the name scratched with a hunting-knife on the brass buckle.

“Before Grier came,” she said, thoughtfully, “there was misery enough here—cold, hunger, disease—oh, plenty of disease always. Their starved lands of sand and rock gave them a little return for heart-breaking labor, but not enough. Their rifles helped them to keep alive; timber was free; they existed. Then suddenly forest, game, vlaie, and lake were taken from them—fenced off, closed to these people whose fathers’ fathers had established free thoroughfare where posted warnings and shot-gun patrols now block every trodden trail! What is the sure result?—and Grier was brutal! What could be expected? Why, Mr. Burleson, these people are Americans!—dwarfed mentally, stunted morally, year by year reverting to primal type—yet the fire in their blood set their grandfathers marching on Saratoga!—marching to accomplish the destruction of all kings! And Grier drove down here with a coachman and footman in livery and furs, and summoned the constable from Brier Bridge, and arrested old man Santry at his child’s bedside—the new bed paid for with Grier’s buck.…”

She paused; then, with a long breath, she straightened up and leaned back once more against the tree.

“They are not born criminals,” she said. “See what you can do with them—see what you can do for them, Mr. Burleson. The relative values of a deer and a man have changed since they hanged poachers in England.”

They sat silent for a while, watching the men below.

“Miss Elliott,” he said, impulsively, “may I not know your father?”

She flushed and turned towards him as though unpleasantly startled. That was only instinct, for almost at the same moment she leaned back quietly against the tree.

“I think my father would like to know you,” she said. “He seldom sees men—men like himself.”

“Perhaps you would let me smoke a cigarette, Miss Elliott?” he ventured.

“You were very silly not to ask me before,” she said, unconsciously falling into his commonplace vein of easy deference.

“I wonder,” he went on, lazily, “what that débris is on the land which runs back from the store at Fox Cross-roads. It can’t be that anybody was simple enough to go boring for oil.”

She winced; but the smile remained on her face, and she met his eyes quite calmly.

“That pile of débris,” she said, “is, I fancy, the wreck of the house of Elliott. My father did bore for oil and found it—about a pint, I believe.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” cried Burleson, red as a pippin.

“I am not a bit sensitive,” she said. Her mouth, the white, heavy lids of her eyes, contradicted her.

“There was a very dreadful smash-up of the house of Elliott, Mr. Burleson. If you feel a bit friendly towards that house, you will advise me how I may sell ‘The Witch.’ I don’t mind telling you why. My father has simply got to go to some place where rheumatism can be helped—be made bearable. I know that I could easily dispose of the mare if I were in a civilized region; even Grier offered half her value. If you know of any people who care for that sort of horse, I’ll be delighted to enter into brisk correspondence with them.”

“I know a man,” observed Burleson, deliberately, “who would buy that mare in about nine-tenths of a second.”

“Oh, I’ll concede him the other tenth!” cried the girl, laughing. It was the first clear, care-free laugh he had heard from her—and so fascinating, so delicious, that he sat there silent in entranced surprise.

“About the value of the mare,” she suggested, diffidently, “you may tell your friend that she is only worth what father paid for her—”

“Good Lord!” he said, “that’s not the way to sell a horse!”

“Why not? Isn’t she worth that much?”

“What did your father pay for her?”

The girl named the sum a trifle anxiously. “It’s a great deal, I know—”

“It’s about a third what she’s worth,” announced Burleson. “If I were you, I’d add seventy-five per cent., and hold out like—like a demon for it.”

“But I cannot ask more than we paid—”

“Why not?”

“I—don’t know. Is it honorable?”

They looked at each other for a moment, then he began to laugh. To her surprise, she felt neither resentment nor chagrin, although he was plainly laughing at her. So presently she laughed, too, a trifle uncertainly, shy eyes avoiding his, yet always returning curiously. She did not know just why; she was scarcely aware that she took pleasure in this lean-faced young horseman’s company.

“I have always believed,” she began, “that to sell anything for more than its value was something as horrid as—as usury.”

“Such a transaction resembles usury as closely as it does the theory of Pythagoras,” he explained; and presently their laughter aroused the workmen, who looked up, leaning on spade and pick.

“I cannot understand,” she said, “why you make such silly remarks or why I laugh at them. A boy once affected me in the same way—years ago.”

She sat up straight, a faint smile touching her mouth and eyes. “I think that my work is about ended here, Mr. Burleson. Do you know that my pupils are enjoying a holiday—because you choose to indulge in a forest-fire?”

He strove to look remorseful, but he only grinned.

“I did not suppose you cared,” she said, severely, but made no motion to rise.

Presently he mentioned the mare again, asking if she really desired to sell her; and she said that she did.

“Then I’ll wire to-night,” he rejoined. “There should be a check for you day after to-morrow.”

“But suppose the man did not wish to buy her?”

“No chance of that. If you say so, the mare is sold from this moment.”

“I do say so,” she answered, in a low voice, “and thank you, Mr. Burleson. You do not realize how astonished I am—how fortunate—how deeply happy—”

“I can only realize it by comparison,” he said.

What, exactly, did he mean by that? She looked around at him; he was absorbed in scooping a hole in the pine-needles with his riding-crop.

She made up her mind that his speech did not always express his thoughts; that it was very pleasant to listen to, but rather vague than precise.

“It is quite necessary,” he mused aloud, “that I meet your father—”

She looked up quickly. “Oh! have you business with him?”

“Not at all,” said Burleson.

This time the silence was strained; Miss Elliott remained very still and thoughtful.

“I think,” he said, “that this country is only matched in paradise. It is the most beautiful place on earth!”

To this astonishing statement she prepared no answer. The forest was attractive, the sun perhaps brighter than usual—or was it only her imagination due to her own happiness in selling The Witch?

“When may I call upon Mr. Elliott?” he asked, suddenly. “To-night?”

No; really he was too abrupt, his conversation flickering from one subject to another without relevance, without logic. She had no time to reflect, to decide what he meant, before, crack! he was off on another trail—and his English no vehicle for the conveyance of his ideas.

“There is something,” he continued, “that I wish to ask you. May I?”

She bit her lip, then laughed, her gray eyes searching his. “Ask it, Mr. Burleson, for if I lived a million years I’m perfectly certain I could never guess what you are going to say next.”

“It’s only this,” he said, with a worried look, “I don’t know your first name.”

“Why should you?” she demanded, amused, yet instinctively resentful. “I don’t know yours, either, Mr. Burleson—and I don’t even ask you.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you,” he said; “my name is only John William. Now will you tell me yours?”

She remained silent, coping with a candor that she had not met with since she went to parties in a muslin frock. She remembered one boy who had proposed elopement on ten minutes’ acquaintance. Burleson, somehow or other, reminded her of that boy.

“My name,” she said, carelessly, “is Constance.”

“I like that name,” said Burleson.

It was pretty nearly the last straw. Never had she been conscious of being so spontaneously, so unreasonably approved of since that wretched boy had suggested flight at her first party. She could not separate the memory of the innocent youth from Burleson; he was intensely like that boy; and she had liked the boy, too—liked him so much that in those ten heavenly minutes’ acquaintance she was half persuaded to consent—only there was nowhere to fly to, and before they could decide her nurse arrived.

“If you had not told me your first name,” said Burleson, “how could anybody make out a check to your order?”

“Is that why—” she began; and without the slightest reason her heart gave a curious little tremor of disappointment.

“You see,” he said, cheerfully, “it was not impertinence—it was only formality.”

“I see,” she said, approvingly, and began to find him a trifle tiresome.

Meanwhile he had confidently skipped to another subject. “Phosphates and nitrogen are what those people need for their farms. Now if you prepare your soil—do your own mixing, of course—then begin with red clover, and plough—”

Her gray eyes were so wide open that he stopped short to observe them; they were so beautiful that his observation continued until she colored furiously. It was the last straw.

“The fire is out, I think,” she said, calmly, rising to her feet; “my duty here is ended, Mr. Burleson.”

“Oh—are you going?” he asked, with undisguised disappointment. She regarded him in silence for a moment. How astonishingly like that boy he was—this six-foot—

“Of course I am going,” she said, and wondered why she had said “of course” with emphasis. Then she whistled to her mare.

“May I ride with you to the house?” he asked, humbly.

She was going to say several things, all politely refusing. What she did say was, “Not this time.”

Then she was furious with herself, and began to hate him fiercely, until she saw something in his face that startled her. The mare came up; she flung the bridle over hastily, set foot to metal, and seated herself in a flash. Then she looked down at the man beside her, prepared for his next remark.

It came at once. “When may we ride together, Miss Elliott?”

She became strangely indulgent. “You know,” she said, as though instructing youth, “that the first proper thing to do is to call upon my father, because he is older than you, and he is physically unable to make the first call.”

“Then by Wednesday we may ride?” he inquired, so guilessly that she broke into a peal of delicious laughter.

“How old are you, Mr. Burleson? Ten?”

“I feel younger,” he said.

“So do I,” she said. “I feel like a little girl in a muslin gown.” Two spots of color tinted her cheeks. He had never seen such beauty in human guise, and he came very near saying so. Something in the aromatic mountain air was tempting her to recklessness. Amazed, exhilarated by the temptation, she sat there looking down at him; and her smile was perilously innocent and sweet.

“Once,” she said, “I knew a boy—like you—when I wore a muslin frock, and I have never forgotten him. He was extremely silly.”

“Do you remember only silly people?”

“I can’t forget them; I try.”

“Please don’t try any more,” he said.

She looked at him, still smiling. She gazed off through the forest, where the men were going home, shovels shouldered, the blades of axe and spade blood-red in the sunset light.

How long they stood there she scarcely reckoned, until a clear primrose light crept in among the trees, and the evening mist rose from an unseen pond, floating through the dimmed avenues of pines.

“Good-night,” she said, gathered bridle, hesitated, then held out her ungloved hand.

Galloping homeward, the quick pressure of his hand still burning her palm, she swept along in a maze of disordered thought. And being by circumstances, though not by inclination, an orderly young woman, she attempted a mental reorganization. This she completed as she wheeled her mare into the main forest road; and, her happy, disordered thoughts rearranged with a layer of cold logic to quiet them, reaction came swiftly; her cheeks burned when she remembered her own attitude of half-accepted intimacy with this stranger. How did he regard her? How cheaply did he already hold her—this young man idling here in the forest for his own pleasure?

But she had something more important on hand than the pleasures of remorseful cogitation as she rode up to the store and drew bridle, where in their shirt-sleeves the prominent citizens were gathered. She began to speak immediately. She did not mince matters; she enumerated them by name, dwelt coldly upon the law governing arson, and told them exactly where they stood.

She was, by courtesy of long residence, one of them. She taught their children, she gave them pills and powders, she had stood by them even when they had the law against them—stood by them loyally and in the very presence of Grier, fencing with him at every move, combating his brutality with deadly intelligence.

They collapsed under her superior knowledge; they trusted her, fawned on her, whined when she rebuked them, carried themselves more decently for a day or two when she dropped a rare word of commendation. They respected her in spite of the latent ruffianly instinct which sneers at women; they feared her as a parish fears its priest; they loved her as they loved one another—which was rather toleration than affection; the toleration of half-starved bob-cats.

And now the school-marm had turned on them—turned on them with undisguised contempt. Never before had she betrayed contempt for them. She spoke of cowardice, too. That bewildered them. Nobody had ever suggested that.

She spoke of the shame of jail; they had heretofore been rather proud of it—all this seated there in the saddle, the light from the store lamp shining full in her face; and they huddled there on the veranda, gaping at her, stupefied.

Then she suddenly spoke of Burleson, praising him, endowing him with every quality the nobility of her own mind could compass. She extolled his patience under provocation, bidding them to match it with equal patience. She bad them be men in the face of this Burleson, who was a man; to display a dignity to compare with his; to meet him squarely, to deal fairly, to make their protests to his face and not whisper crime behind his back.

And that was all; she swung her mare off into the darkness; they listened to the far gallop, uttering never a word. But when the last distant hoof-stroke had ceased, Mr. Burleson’s life and forests were safe in the country. How safe his game was they themselves did not exactly know.

That night Burleson walked into the store upon the commonplace errand of buying a jack-knife. It was well that he did not send a groom; better still when he explained, “one of the old-fashioned kind—the kind I used as a school-boy.”

“To whittle willow whistles,” suggested old man Santry. His voice was harsh; it was an effort for him to speak.

“That’s the kind,” said Burleson, picking out a one-blader.

Santry was coughing; presently Burleson looked around.

“Find swallowing hard?” he asked.

“Swallerin’ ain’t easy. I ketched cold.”

“Let’s see,” observed Burleson, strolling up to him and deliberately opening the old man’s jaws, not only to Santry’s astonishment, but to the stupefaction of the community around the unlighted stove.

“Bring a lamp over here,” said the young man.

Somebody brought it.

“Tonsilitis,” said Burleson, briefly. “I’ll send you something to-night?”

“Be you a doctor?” demanded Santry, hoarsely.

“Was one. I’ll fix you up. Go home; and don’t kiss your little girl. I’ll drop in after breakfast.”

Two things were respected in Fox Cross-roads—death and a doctor—neither of which the citizens understood.

But old man Santry, struggling obstinately with his awe of things medical, rasped out, “I ain’t goin’ to pay no doctor’s bills fur a cold!”

“Nobody pays me any more,” said Burleson, laughing. “I only doctor people to keep my hand in. Go home, Santry; you’re sick.”

Mr. Santry went, pausing at the door to survey the gathering with vacant astonishment.

Burleson paid for the knife, bought a dozen stamps, tasted the cheese and ordered a whole one, selected three or four barrels of apples, and turned on his heel with a curt good-night.

“Say!” broke out old man Storm as he reached the door; “you wasn’t plannin’ to hev the law on Abe, was you?”

“About that grass fire?” inquired Burleson, wheeling in his tracks. “Oh no; Abe lost his temper and his belt. Any man’s liable to lose both. By-the-way”—he came back slowly, buttoning his gloves—“about this question of the game—it has occurred to me that it can be adjusted very simply. How many men in this town are hunters?”

Nobody answered at first, inherent suspicion making them coy. However, it finally appeared that in a community of twenty families there were some four of nature’s noblemen who “admired to go gunnin’ with a smell-dog.”

“Four,” repeated Burleson. “Now just see how simple it is. The law allows thirty woodcock, thirty partridges, and two deer to every hunter. That makes eight deer and two hundred and forty birds out of the preserve, which is very little—if you shoot straight enough to get your limit!” he laughed. “But it being a private preserve, you’ll do your shooting on Saturdays, and check off your bag at the gate of the lodge—so that you won’t make any mistakes in going over the limit.” He laughed again, and pointed at a lean hound lying under the counter.

“Hounds are barred; only ‘smell-dogs’ admitted,” he said. “And”—he became quietly serious—“I count on each one of you four men to aid my patrol in keeping the game-laws and the fire-laws and every forest law on the statutes. And I count on you to take out enough fox and mink pelts to pay me for my game—and you yourselves for your labor; for though it is my game by the law of the land, what is mine is no source of pleasure to me unless I share it. Let us work together to keep the streams and coverts and forests well stocked. Good-night.”

About eleven o’clock that evening Abe Storm slunk into the store, and the community rose and fell on him and administered the most terrific beating that a husky young man ever emerged from alive.

III

In October the maple leaves fell, the white birches showered the hill-sides with crumpled gold, the ruffed grouse put on its downy stockings, the great hare’s flanks became patched with white. Cold was surely coming; somewhere behind the blue north the Great White Winter stirred in its slumber.

As yet, however, the oaks and beeches still wore their liveries of rustling amber, the short grass on hill-side pastures was intensely green, flocks of thistle-birds disguised in demure russet passed in wavering flight from thicket to thicket, and over all a hot sun blazed in a sky of sapphire, linking summer and autumn together in the magnificence of a perfect afternoon.

Miss Elliott, riding beside Burleson, had fallen more silent than usual. She no longer wore her sombrero and boy’s clothes; hat, habit, collar, scarf—ay, the tiny polished spur on her polished boot—were eloquent of Fifth Avenue; and she rode a side-saddle made by Harrock.

“Alas! alas!” said Burleson; “where is the rose of yesterday?”

“If you continue criticising my habit—” she began, impatiently.

“No—not for a minute!” he cried. “I didn’t mention your habit or your stock—”

“You are always bewailing that soiled sombrero and those unspeakable breeches—”

“I never said a word—”

“You did. You said, ‘Where is the rose of yesterday?’”

“I meant the wild rose. You are a cultivated rose now, you know—”

She turned her face at an angle which left him nothing to look at but one small, close-set ear.

“May I see a little more of your face by-and-by?” he asked.

“Don’t be silly, Mr. Burleson.”

“If I’m not, I’m afraid you’ll forget me.”

They rode on in silence for a little while; he removed his cap and stuffed it into his pocket.

“It’s good for my hair,” he commented, aloud; “I’m not married, you see, and it behooves a man to keep what hair he has until he’s married.”

As she said nothing, he went on, reflectively: “Eminent authorities have computed that a man with lots of hair on his head stands thirty and nineteen-hundredths better chance with a girl than a man who has but a scanty crop. A man with curly hair has eighty-seven chances in a hundred, a man with wavy hair has seventy-nine, a man—”

“Mr. Burleson,” she said, exasperated, “I am utterly at a loss to understand what it is in you that I find attractive enough to endure you.”

“Seventy-nine,” he ventured—“my hair is wavy—”

She touched her mare and galloped forward, and he followed through the yellow sunshine, attendant always on her caprice, ready for any sudden whim. So when she wheeled to the left and lifted her mare over a snake-fence, he was ready to follow; and together they tore away across a pasture, up a hill all purple with plumy bunch-grass, and forward to the edge of a gravel-pit, where she whirled her mare about, drew bridle, and flung up a warning hand just in time. His escape was narrower; his horse’s hind hoofs loosened a section of undermined sod; the animal stumbled, sank back, strained with every muscle, and dragged himself desperately forward; while behind him the entire edge of the pit gave way, crashing and clattering into the depths below.

They were both rather white when they faced each other.

“Don’t take such a risk again,” he said, harshly.

“I won’t,” she answered, with dry lips; but she was not thinking of herself. Suddenly she became very humble, guiding her mare alongside of his horse, and in a low voice asked him to pardon her folly.

And, not thinking of himself, he scored her for the risk she had taken, alternately reproaching, arguing, bullying, pleading, after the fashion of men. And, still shaken by the peril she had so wilfully sought, he asked her not to do it again, for his sake—an informal request that she accepted with equal informality and a slow droop of her head.

Never had she received such a thorough, such a satisfying scolding. There was not one word too much—every phrase refreshed her, every arbitrary intonation sang in her ears like music. And so far not one selfish note had been struck.

She listened, eyes downcast, face delicately flushed—listened until it pleased him to make an end, which he did with amazing lack of skill:

“What do you suppose life would hold for me with you at the bottom of that gravel-pit?”

The selfish note rang out, unmistakable, imperative—the clearest, sweetest note of all to her. But the question was no question and required no answer. Besides, he had said enough—just enough.

“Let us ride home,” she said, realizing that they were on dangerous ground again—dangerous as the gravel-hill.

And a few moments later she caught a look in his face that disconcerted and stampeded her. “It was partly your own fault, Mr. Burleson. Why does not your friend take away the mare he has bought and paid for?”

“Partly—my—fault!” he repeated, wrathfully.

“Can you not let a woman have that much consolation?” she said, lifting her gray eyes to his with a little laugh. “Do you insist on being the only and perfect embodiment of omniscience?”

He said, rather sulkily, that he didn’t think he was omniscient, and she pretended to doubt it, until the badinage left him half vexed, half laughing, but on perfectly safe ground once more.

Indeed, they were already riding over the village bridge, and he said: “I want to stop and see Santry’s child for a moment. Will you wait?”

“Yes,” she said.

So he dismounted and entered the weather-battered abode of Santry; and she looked after him with an expression on her face that he had never surprised there.

Meanwhile, along the gray village thoroughfare the good folk peeped out at her where she sat her mare, unconscious, deep in maiden meditation.

She had done much for her people; she was doing much. Fiction might add that they adored her, worshipped her very footprints!—echoes all of ancient legends of a grateful tenantry that the New World believes in but never saw.

After a little while Burleson emerged from Santry’s house, gravely returning the effusive adieus of the family.

“You are perfectly welcome,” he said, annoyed; “it is a pleasure to be able to do anything for children.”

And as he mounted he said to Miss Elliott, “I’ve fixed it, I think.”

“Fixed her hip?”

“No; arranged for her to go to New York. They do that sort of thing there. I see no reason why the child should not walk.”

“Oh, do you think so?” she exclaimed, softly. “You make me very happy, Mr. Burleson.”

He looked her full in the face for just the space of a second.

“And you make me happy,” he said.

She laughed, apparently serene and self-possessed, and turned up the hill, he following a fraction of a length behind.

In grassy hollows late dandelions starred the green with gold, the red alder’s scarlet berries flamed along the road-side thickets; beyond, against the sky, acres of dead mullein stalks stood guard above the hollow scrub.

“Do you know,” she said, over her shoulder, “that there is a rose in bloom in our garden?”

“Is there?” he asked, without surprise.

“Doesn’t it astonish you?” she demanded. “Roses don’t bloom up here in October.”

“Oh yes, they do,” he muttered.

At the gate they dismounted, he silent, preoccupied, she uneasily alert and outwardly very friendly.

“How warm it is!” she said; “it will be like a night in June with the moon up—and that rose in the garden.… You say that you are coming this evening?”

“Of course. It is your last evening.”

“Our last evening,” she repeated, thoughtfully.… “You said …”

“I said that I was going South, too. I am not sure that I am going.”

“I am sorry,” she observed, coolly. And after a moment she handed him the bridle of her mare, saying, “You will see that she is forwarded when your friend asks for her?”

“Yes.”

She looked at the mare, then walked up slowly and put her arms around the creature’s silky neck. “Good-bye,” she said, and kissed her. Turning half defiantly on Burleson, she smiled, touching her wet lashes with her gloved wrist.

“The Arab lady and the faithful gee-gee,” she said. “I know The Witch doesn’t care, but I can’t help loving her.… Are you properly impressed with my grief?”

There was that in Burleson’s eyes that sobered her; she instinctively laid her hand on the gate, looking at him with a face which had suddenly grown colorless and expressionless.

“Miss Elliott,” he said, “will you marry me?”

The tingling silence lengthened, broken at intervals by the dull stamping of the horses.

After a moment she moved leisurely past him, bending her head as she entered the yard, and closing the gate slowly behind her. Then she halted, one gloved hand resting on the closed gate, and looked at him again.

There is an awkwardness in men that women like; there is a gaucherie that women detest. She gazed silently at this man, considering him with a serenity that stunned him speechless.

Yet all the while her brain was one vast confusion, and the tumult of her own heart held her dumb. Even the man himself appeared as a blurred vision; echoes of lost voices dinned in her ears—the voices of children—of a child whom she had known when she wore muslin frocks to her knees—a boy who might once have been this man before her—this tall, sunburned young man, awkward, insistent, artless—oh, entirely without art in a wooing which alternately exasperated and thrilled her. And now his awkwardness had shattered the magic of the dream and left her staring at reality—without warning, without the courtesy of a “garde à vous!

And his answer? He was waiting for his answer. But men are not gods to demand!—not highwaymen to bar the way with a “Stand and deliver!” And an answer is a precious thing—a gem of untold value. It was hers to give, hers to withhold, hers to defend.

“You will call on us to say good-bye this evening?” she asked, steadying her voice.

A deep color stung his face; he bowed, standing stiff and silent until she had passed through the open door of the veranda. Then, half blind with his misery, he mounted, wheeled, and galloped away, The Witch clattering stolidly at his stirrup.

Already the primrose light lay over hill and valley; already the delicate purple net of night had snared forest and marsh; and the wild ducks were stringing across the lakes, and the herons had gone to the forest, and plover answered plover from swamp to swamp, plaintive, querulous, in endless reiteration—“Lost! lost! she’s lost—she’s lost—she’s lost!”

But it was the first time in his life that he had so interpreted the wild crying of the killdeer plover.

There was a gown that had been packed at the bottom of a trunk; it was a fluffy, rather shapeless mound of filmy stuff to look at as it lay on the bed. As it hung upon the perfect figure of a girl of twenty it was, in the words of the maid, “a dhream an’ a blessed vision, glory be!” It ought to have been; it was brand-new.

“THERE WAS THAT IN BURLESON’S EYES THAT SOBERED HER” “THERE WAS THAT IN BURLESON’S EYES THAT SOBERED HER”

At dinner, her father coming in on crutches, stared at his daughter—stared as though the apparition of his dead wife had risen to guide him to his chair; and his daughter laughed across the little table—she scarcely knew why—laughed at his surprise, at his little tribute to her beauty—laughed with the quick tears brimming in her eyes.

Then, after a silence, and thinking of her mother, she spoke of Burleson; and after a while of the coming journey, and their new luck which had come up with the new moon in September—a luck which had brought a purchaser for the mare, another for the land—all of it, swamp, timber, barrens—every rod, house, barn, garden, and stock.

Again leaning her bare elbows on the cloth, she asked her father who the man could be that desired such property. But her father shook his head, repeating the name, which was, I believe, Smith. And that, including the check, was all they had ever learned of this investor who had wanted what they did not want, in the nick of time.

“If he thinks there is gas or oil here he is to be pitied,” said her father. “I wrote him and warned him.”

“I think he replied that he knew his own business,” said the girl.

“I hope he does; the price is excessive—out of all reason. I trust he knows of something in the land that may justify his investment.”

After a moment she said, “Do you really think we may be able to buy a little place in Florida—a few orange-trees and a house?”

His dreamy eyes smiled across at her.

“Thank God!” she thought, answering his smile.

There was no dampness in the air; she aided him to the garden, where he resumed his crutches and hobbled as far as the wonderful bush that bore a single belated rose.

“In the South,” he said, under his breath, “there is no lack of these.… I think—I think all will be well in the South.”

He tired easily, and she helped him back to his study, where young Burleson presently found them, strolling in with his hands in the pockets of his dinner-jacket.

His exchange of greetings with Miss Elliott was quietly formal; with her father almost tender. It was one of the things she cared most for in him; and she walked to the veranda, leaving the two men alone—the man and the shadow of a man.

Once she heard laughter in the room behind her; and it surprised her, pacing the veranda there. Yet Burleson always brought a new anecdote to share with her father—and heretofore he had shared these with her, too. But now!—

Yet it was by her own choice she was alone there, pacing the moonlit porches.

The maid—their only servant—brought a decanter; she could hear the ring of the glasses, relics of better times.… And now better times were dawning again—brief, perhaps, for her father, yet welcome as Indian summer.

After a long while Burleson came to the door, and she looked up, startled.

“Will you sing? Your father asks it.”

“Won’t you ask me, too, Mr. Burleson?”

“Yes.”

“But I want to show you my rose first. Will you come?—it is just a step.”

He walked out into the moonlight with her; they stood silently before the bush which had so capriciously bloomed.

“Now—I will sing for you, Mr. Burleson,” she said, amiably. And they returned to the house, finding not a word to say on the way.

The piano was in decent tune; she sat down, nodding across at her father, and touched a chord or two.

“The same song—the one your mother cared for,” murmured her father.

And she looked at Burleson dreamily, then turned, musing with bent head, sounding a note, a tentative chord. And then she sang.

A dropping chord, lingering like fragrance in the room, a silence, and she rose, looking at her father. But he, dim eyes brooding, lay back unconscious of all save memories awakened by her song. And presently she moved across the room to the veranda, stepping out into the moonlit garden—knowing perfectly well what she was doing, though her heart was beating like a trip-hammer, and she heard the quick step on the gravel behind her.

She was busy with the long stem of the rose when he came up; she broke it short and straightened up, smiling a little greeting, for she could not have spoken for her life.

“Will you marry me?” he asked, under his breath.

Then the slow, clear words came, “I cannot.”

“I love you,” he said, as though he had not heard her. “There is nothing for me in life without you; from the moment you came into my life there was nothing else, nothing in heaven or earth but you—your loveliness, your beauty, your hair, your hands, the echo of your voice haunting me, the memory of your every step, your smile, the turn of your head—all that I love in you—and all that I worship—your sweetness, your loyalty, your bravery, your honor. Give me all this to guard, to adore—try to love me; forget my faults, forgive all that I lack. I know—I know what I am—what little I have to offer—but it is all that I am, all that I have. Constance! Constance! Must you refuse?”

“Did I refuse?” she faltered. “I don’t know why I did.”

With bare arm bent back and hand pressed over the hand that held her waist imprisoned, she looked up into his eyes. Then their lips met.

“Say it,” he whispered.

“Say it? Ah, I do say it: I love you—I love you. I said it years ago—when you were a boy and I wore muslin gowns above my knees. Did you think I had not guessed it?… And you told father to-night—you told him, because I never heard him laugh that way before.… And you are Jack—my boy that I loved when I was ten—my boy lover? Ah, Jack, I was never deceived.”

He drew her closer and lifted her flushed face. “I told your father—yes. And I told him that we would go South with him.”

“You—you dared assume that!—before I had consented!” she cried, exasperated.

“Why—why, I couldn’t contemplate anything else.”

Half laughing, half angry, she strained to release his arm, then desisted, breathless, gray eyes meeting his.

“No other man,” she breathed—“no other man—” There was a silence, then her arms crept up closer, encircling his neck. “There is no other man,” she sighed.