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I acknowledge I should have long since tired of the life and its hardships, had you not chanced to be a member of the same troupe. Why, we have scarcely spoken to each other until to-day. In fact, I had firmly determined that we should, and, having been a spoiled child, I am accustomed to having my own way. This, perhaps, will partially account for my persistency and for my still being with 'The Heart of the World.
I began to study you and your interpretation; I never tired of noting those little fresh touches with which you constantly succeeded in embellishing your lines and your 'business,' and how clearly your conception of character stood forth against the crude background of those mummers surrounding you. It was a lesson in interpretative art to me, and one I never wearied of. Then, I must likewise confess, something else occurred.
I began to feel drawn not only to the actress but to the woman," he said gravely. Her eyes never faltered, but faced him bravely, although her cheeks were like poppies, and her lips faltered in their first bold effort at swift reply. It is a wonderful encouragement, for I know now that you speak as a man of education, of cultivation. You must have seen the highest class of stage interpretation, and, I am sure, have no desire merely to flatter me.
You do not speak as if you meant an idle compliment. Oh, you can scarcely conceive how much success will spell to me, Mr. Winston," her voice growing deeper from increasing earnestness, her eyes more thoughtful, "but I am going to tell you a portion of my life-story in order that you may partially comprehend. This is my first professional engagement; but I was no stage-struck girl when I first applied for the position.
Rather, the thought was most repugnant to me. My earlier life had been passed under conditions which held me quite aloof from anything of the kind. While I always enjoyed interpreting character as a relaxation, and even achieved, while at school in the East, a rather enviable reputation as an amateur, I nevertheless had a distinct prejudice against the professional stage, even while intensely admiring its higher exponents.
My turning to it for a livelihood was a grim necessity, my first week on the road a continual horror. I abhorred the play, the making of a nightly spectacle of myself, the rudeness and freedom of the audiences, the coarse, common-place people with whom I was constantly compelled to consort.
You know them, and can therefore realize to some extent what daily association with them must necessarily mean to one of my early training and familiarity with quieter social customs. But my position in the troupe afforded me certain privileges of isolation, while my necessities compelled me to persevere.
As a result, the dormant art-spirit within apparently came to life; ambition began to usurp the place of indifference; I became more and more disgusted with mediocrity, and began an earnest struggle toward higher achievements.
I had little to guide me other than my own natural instincts, yet I persevered. I insisted on living my own life while off the stage, and, to kill unhappy thought, I devoted all my spare moments to hard study. Almost to my surprise, the very effort brought with it happiness. I began to forget the past and its crudities, to blot out the present with its dull, unpleasant realities, and to live for the future.
My ideals, at first but vague dreams, took form and substance. I determined to succeed, to master my art, to develop whatever of talent I might possess to its highest possibility, to become an actress worthy of the name. This developing ideal has already made me a new woman—it has given me something to live for, to strive toward.
Then her lips set in firmer resolution, and she continued as though in utter indifference to his presence. It was the turning-point in my life. And I began right where I was. I endeavored to make the utmost possible out of that miserable melodramatic part which had been assigned to me. I elected to play it quietly, with an intensity to be felt and not heard, the very opposite from the interpretation given by Miss Lyle last season, and I felt assured my efforts were appreciated by the audiences.
It encouraged me to discover them so responsive; but Albrecht, Lane, and Mooney merely laughed and winked at each other, and thus hurt me cruelly, although I had little respect for their criticisms. Still, they were professional actors of experience, and I was not yet certain that my judgment might not be wrong.
I spoke to you that evening in the wings not so much to scold you for being in the way, as from a hungry, despairing hope that you might speak some word of encouragement. I was not disappointed, and I have felt stronger ever since. We have never so much as exchanged speech since, until to-day, and then I forced it. But can I ask you a somewhat personal question, also?
That is a secret which, I believe, an actress is privileged to keep inviolate. Most people, I imagine, find me diffident and uncommunicative—perhaps I appear according to my varying moods. But I have been lonely, and in some way you have inspired my confidence and unlocked my life. I believe you to be a man worthy of trust, and because I thus believe I am now going to request you not to ask me any more.
My past life has not been so bright that I enjoy dwelling upon it. I have chosen rather to forget it entirely, and live merely for the future. I have never made friends easily, and am the greater surprised at my unceremonious frankness with you. Yet that only makes it harder to yield up a friendship when once formed. Do you intend, then, to remain with the company? I have no choice, but you have the whole world.
Winston turned aside and entered the gloomy hotel office, feeling mentally unsettled, undetermined in regard to his future conduct. Miss Norvell had proven frankly intimate, delightfully cordial, yet overshadowing it all there remained unquestionably a certain constraint about both words and actions which continued to perplex and tantalize.
She had something in her past life to conceal; she did not even pretend to deceive him in this regard, but rather held him off with deliberate coolness. The very manner in which this had been accomplished merely served to stimulate his eagerness to penetrate the mystery of her reserve, and caused him to consider her henceforth as altogether differing from other girls.
She had become a problem, an enigma, which he would try to solve; and her peculiar nature, baffling, changeable, full of puzzling moods, served to fascinate his imagination, to invite his dreaming. A strange thrill swept him when he caught a fleeting glimpse of white skirt and well-turned ankle as she ran swiftly up the steep staircase, yet, almost at the same instant, he returned to earth with a sudden shock, facing Mooney, when the latter turned slowly away from the window and sneeringly confronted him.
The mottled face was unpleasantly twisted, a half-smoked cigar tilted between his lips. An instant the half-angry eyes of the two men met. Don't you dare doubt that I 'll keep my word. Then, his face, still set and white with passion, he turned contemptuously away.
Mooney, cursing cowardly behind his teeth, watched him ascend the stairs, but the younger man never so much as glanced below. Mooney's being somewhat indisposed; and Winston, aided by considerable prompting from the others, succeeded in getting through his lines, conscious of much good-natured guying out in front, and not altogether insensible to Miss Norvell's efforts not to appear amused.
This experience left him in no pleasanter frame of mind, while a wish to throw over the whole thing returned with renewed temptation. Why not? What was he continuing to make such a fool of himself for, anyhow? He was assuredly old enough to be done with chasing after will-o'-the-wisps; and besides, there was his constant liability to meet some old acquaintance who would blow the whole confounded story through the Denver clubs.
The thought of the probable sarcasm of his fellows made him wince. Moreover, he was himself ashamed of his actions. This actress was nothing to him; he thoroughly convinced himself of that important fact at least twenty times a day. She was a delightful companion, bright, witty, full of captivating character, attractively winsome, to be sure, yet it was manifestly impossible for him ever to consider her in any more serious way.
This became sufficiently clear to his reasoning, yet, at the same time, he could never quite break free. She seldom appeared to him twice the same—proving as changeable as the winds, her very nature seeming to vary with a suddenness which never permitted his complete escape from her fascinations, but left him to surmise how she would greet him next. Frank or distant, filled with unrestrained gayety or dignified by womanly reserve, smiling or grave, the changeable vagaries of Miss Norvell were utterly beyond his guessing, while back of all these outward manifestations of tantalizing personality, there continually lurked a depth of hidden womanhood, which as constantly baffled his efforts at fathoming.
It piqued him to realize his own helplessness, to comprehend how completely this girl turned aside his most daring efforts at uncovering the true trend of her heart and life. She refused to be read, wearing her various masks with a cool defiance which apparently bespoke utter indifference to his good opinion, while constantly affording him brief, tantalizing glimpses into half-revealed depths that caused his heart to throb with anticipation never entirely realized. It did not once occur to his mind that such artifices might be directed as much toward herself as him; he lacked the conceit which could have convinced him that they merely marked a secret struggle for mastery, a desperate effort to crush an inclination to surrender before the temptation of the moment.
It was a battle for deliverance being fought silently behind a mask of smiles, an exchange of sparkling commonplace; yet ever beneath this surface play she was breathing a fervent prayer that he would go away of his own volition and leave her free. Far more clearly than he, the woman recognized the utter impossibility of any serious purpose between them, and she fought his advances with every weapon in her armory, her very soul trembling behind the happy smiling of her lips.
It was bravely attempted, and yet those dull weapons of defence served merely to increase his interest, to awaken his passion, and thus bind him more strongly to her. Safe once again from general observation, he returned to the obscurity of the wings and to the routine handling of trunks and scenery, feeling totally unable to permit her to pass entirely out of his life. Within her own room she dampened her pillow with tears of regret and remorse, yet finally she sank to sleep strangely happy because he lingered.
It was the way of a woman; it was no less the way of a man. It was thus that the "Heart of the World" players came to fulfil their engagement at San Juan upon a Saturday night. This was the liveliest camp in all that mountain region, a frantic, feverish, mushroom city of tents and shacks, sprawling frame business blocks, and a few ugly brick abominations, perched above the golden rocks of the Vila Valley, bounded on one side by the towering cliffs, on the other by the pitiless desert.
In those days San Juan recognized no material distinction between midnight and noon-day. All was glitter, glow, life, excitement along the streets; the gloomy overhanging mountains were pouring untold wealth into her lap, while vice and crime, ostentation and lawlessness, held high carnival along the crowded, straggling byways.
The exultant residents existed to-day in utter carelessness of the morrow, their one dominant thought gold, their sole acknowledged purpose those carnal pleasures to be purchased with it. Everything was primitive, the animal yet in full control, the drinking, laughing, fighting animal, filled with passion and blood-lust, worshipping bodily strength, and governed by the ideals of a frontier society wherein the real law hung dangling at the hip. Saloons, gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels flaunted themselves shamelessly upon every hand; the streets exhibited one continual riot, while all higher life was seemingly rendered inactive by inordinate grasping after wealth, and reckless squandering of it on appetite and vice; over all, as if blazoned across the blue sky, appeared the ever-recurring motto of careless humanity, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow ye die.
It was a monstrous ugly building, constructed entirely of wood most hastily prepared; the stage was utilized both night and day for continuous variety entertainments of the kind naturally demanded by the motley gathering. These, however, were occasionally suspended to make room for some adventurous travelling company to appear in the legitimate drama, but at the close of every evening performance the main floor was promptly cleared, the rows of chairs pushed hastily back from the centre, and the space thus vacated utilized for a general dance, which invariably continued until dawn.
When the drop-curtain slowly rose that Saturday evening fully three thousand people crowded the hall, eager for any fresh excitement; and ready enough either to taunt or applaud a performer, as the whim moved them. Bearded miners conspicuous in red shirts; cattlemen wearing wide sombreros and hairy "chaps"; swarthy Mexicans lazily puffing the inseparable cigarette; gamblers attired in immaculate linen, together with numerous women gaudy of cheek and attire, composed a frontier audience full of possibilities.
The result might easily prove good or evil, according to the prevailing temper, but fortunately the "Heart of the World" quickly caught the men's fancy, the laughter ringing loud in appreciation of Mr. Lane's ardent buffoonery, while the motley crowd sat in surprised silence evincing respect, as Miss Norvell drove home to their minds the lesson of a woman's sorrow and struggle against temptation.
It was well worth while looking out across the oil-lamp footlights upon those hard-faced, bearded men, those gaudily attired women, thus held and controlled by perfectly depleted emotion, the vast audience so silent that the click of the wheel, the rattle of ivory chips in the rooms beyond, became plainly audible. There was inspiration in it likewise, and never before did Beth Norvell more clearly exhibit her native power, her spark of real genius.
Winston found little to do in his department that night, either on or off the stage, as the company expected to spend Sunday in the place. Consequently, he was only slightly behind the other members of the troupe in attaining the hotel at the conclusion of the evening's performance. Indeed, he was earlier than many, for most of the male members had promptly adjourned to the convenient bar-room, with whatsoever small sums of money they could wring from out the reluctant palm of Albrecht.
Winston chanced to pause for a moment at the cigar stand to exchange a pleasant good-night word with the seemingly genial clerk. The young man nodded indifferently, not feeling unduly proud of the distinction. Guest of the house, you know, and we did n't want him pinched in here; besides, we understood he carried the scads for the rest of your bunch, and we naturally wanted our share.
The sheriff's out tryin' to find him now; but Lord! There was an extra ore train goin' down to Bolton to-night, and he just had time to catch it on the run. You bet I looked after that. Why, he took in over three thousand dollars to-night, and he's got all of that, and at least a week's receipts besides—the infernal cur! Was he alone? When can they get out of the Junction?
The street was well illumined by the numerous saloon lights, and he could perceive scattering flakes of snow in the air, blown about by the gusty wind. He no longer felt the slightest doubt regarding Albrecht's desertion, and a wave of indignation swept over him. He did not greatly care himself regarding the small amount of money due for his services, but it was a dirty, contemptible trick, and he resented being so easily made the victim of such a scheme.
Suddenly he wondered how this unexpected occurrence might affect the others. With one of them alone in mind he strode back to the counter, his teeth clinched savagely. There was a hurried movement within, and her voice spoke. Winston, and I must speak with you at once.
Without hesitation the door was held open, and she stood before him in the faint light of the single lamp, wearing a fleecy white wrapper, her dark hair partially disarranged, her eyes seeking his own in bewilderment. What I came to ask was, does that fellow owe you any money? Why do you require to know? Albrecht has not even spoken about any pay to me since I joined the company; and when I learned he had deliberately left us stalled here, my first thought was of your unpleasant situation if my suspicions proved true.
I propose to make him disgorge, but I must know first exactly how things stand. Have you any money? For the first time she thoroughly comprehended the cool, compelling power of this man, and it mastered her completely. She felt no longer the slightest doubt of what he purposed doing, and her woman heart swelled responsively to his masculine strength. Once she ventured to glance up inquiringly, only to catch his stern eyes, and as instantly lower her own.
I 'll get your money, don't fear, if I have to trail him clear to Denver, but I 'll take what little the miserable thief owes me out of his hide. Search me, gents, if I c'd git either head er tail outer jist whut he wus up to, only thet he proposed ter knock ther block off some feller if he had the good luck ter ketch 'im.
Somehow, I reckoned he 'd be mighty likely ter perform the job, the way his jaw set an' his eyes flared. Leastwise, I didn't possess no rip-roarin' ambition fer ter be thet other feller. Still, I didn't suppose he was no whirlwind. He wus simply chain lightnin', thet kid, an' the way he handed out his dukes wus a sight fer sore eyes.
I got onto the facts sorter slow like, neither of us bein' much on the converse, but afore we hed reached Bolton I managed to savvy the most of it. It seems thet feller Albrecht—the big, cock-eyed cuss who played Damon, ye recollect, gents—wus the boss of the show. He wus the Grand Moke, an' held the spuds. Well, he an' thet one they call Lane jumped the ore train last night, carryin' with 'em 'bout all the specie they'd been corrallin' fer a week past, and started hot-foot fer Denver, intendin' ter leave all them other actor people in the soup.
This yere lad hed got onter the racket somehow, an' say, he wus plumb mad; he wus too damn mad ter talk, an' when they git thet fur gone it's 'bout time fer the innocent spectator ter move back outen range. So he lassoed me down at Gary's barn fer ter show him the ol' trail, an' we had one hell of a night's ride of it.
But, gents, I would n't o' missed bein' thar fer a heap. It was a great scrape let me tell you. We never see hide ner hair of thet Albrecht or his partner till jist afore the main-line train pulled in goin' north. The choo-choo wus mighty nigh two hours late, so it wus fair daylight by then, an' we got a good sight o' them two fellers a-leggin' it toward the station from out the crick bottom, whar they 'd been layin' low.
They wus both husky-lookin' bucks, an' I was sufficient interested by then ter offer ter sorter hold one of 'em while the kid polished off the other. But Lord! He wus purty white round the lips, but I reckon it wus only mad, fur thar wus n't nothin' weak about his voice, an' the way he lambasted thet thief wus a caution ter snakes.
Say, I 've heerd some considerable ornate language in my time, but thet kid had a cinch on the dictionary all right, an' he read them two ducks the riot act good an' plenty. Thet long-legged Lane, he did n't have no sand, an' hung back and did n't say much, but the other feller tried every sneakin' trick a thief knows, only he bucked up agin a stone wall every time.
Thet young feller just simply slathered him; he called him every name I ever heerd, an' some considerable others, an' finally, when the train was a-pullin' in, the cuss unlimbered his wad, an' began peelin' off the tens an' twenties till I thought the whole show wus over fer sure. I didn't know thet kid—no more did thet Albrecht. Cop ther whole blame pile? Not on yer whiskers, he didn't. He jist shoved them scads what hed been given him careless-like down inter his coat pocket, an' faced Mister Manager.
I can't say as how I see much o' the fracas, 'ceptin' the dust, but when thet long-legged Lane jerked out a pearl-handled pop-gun I jist naturally rapped him over the knuckles with my ' Say, thet beat any three-ringed circus ever I see. The kid he pounded Albrecht's head on the platform, occasionally interestin' Lane by kickin' him in the stomick, while I jist waltzed 'round promiscous-like without seein' no special occasion to take holt anywhar.
I reckon they 'd a been thar yit, if the train hands had n't pried 'em apart, an' loaded the remains onter a keer. An' then thet actor kid he stood thar lookin' fust at me, an' then after them keers. He was still flushed with victory, while the natural confidence felt in her appreciation of his efforts yielded him a sense of exhilaration not easily concealed.
The door was promptly opened, and, with her first glance, she read the success of his mission pictured within his face. As instantly her eyes smiled, and her hand was extended in the cordiality of welcome. The money you told me Albrecht owed you.
Did n't you know he was equally in debt to every member of the company? He had been thinking only about Miss Norvell, and had permitted the rascally manager to escape with the greater portion of his stolen goods.
The realization of how easily he had been tricked angered him, his face darkening. She read the truth as quickly, and, before he found speech in explanation, had swept the little pile of loose bills into her lap. He met her at the door with an indignantly suspicious question: "What have you been doing? Surely, you have n't given all that money away? Why, what else could I do?
They actually have nothing, and must get back to Denver or starve. Winston," she returned clearly, her slight form held erect. You said it did, and hence I supposed it could be disposed of at my own discretion. Until I request your aid, however, your criticism is not desired. Beneath his steady gaze her cheeks flamed hotly. Just now I feel unable to offer you either aid or advice. Besides, I am quite convinced in this case I have done precisely right. I think you would admit it also if you only had patience to hear my story.
I know exactly what I intend doing, or I should never have given all that money away. I have an engagement. Is there another troupe playing here? I am going to appear at the Gayety. For an instant he was conscious of a sudden revulsion of feeling, a vague distrust of her true character, a doubt of the real nature of this perverse personality.
Such a resolution on her part shocked him with its recklessness. Either she did not in the least appreciate what such action meant, or else she woefully lacked in moral judgment. Slowly, those shadowed dark eyes were uplifted to his face, as if his very silence had awakened alarm. Yet she merely smiled at the gravity of his look, shaking her dark hair in coquettish disdain. Really, a stranger might imagine I was under particular obligations to ask your permission for the mere privilege of living.
We have known each other by sight for all of two weeks, and yet your face already speaks of dictation. Evidently you do not like the Gayety. But truly, since you ask the question, I do not like the Gayety. It is far too noisy, too dirty, too gaudy, and too decidedly primitive. But then, beggars may not always be choosers, you know. I am no bright, scintillating 'star'; I am not even a mining engineer possessing a bank account in Denver; I am merely an unknown professional actress, temporarily stranded, and the good angel of the Gayety offers me twenty dollars a week.
That is my answer. There is another way out. As you gently suggested, I am a mining engineer possessing a bank account at Denver. I will most gladly draw a sight draft to-morrow, and pay your expenses back to that city, if you will only accept my offer. Is this fair? He moistened his dry lips, realizing that he was being forced into an apparently brutal bluntness he had sincerely hoped to avoid. I have never been accustomed to listening to such words, Mr.
Winston, nor do I now believe I merit them. I choose to earn my own living, and I retain my own self-respect, even although while doing this I am unfortunate enough to forfeit yours. Yet, his was a dogged resolution that would not easily confess defeat. It is always a great misfortune for any man to repose trust and confidence in the character of a woman, and then suddenly awaken to discover himself deceived. Under these circumstances I should be unworthy of friendship did I fail in plain speaking.
To me, your reckless acceptance of this chance engagement at the Gayety seems inexpressibly degrading; it is a lowering of every ideal with which my imagination has heretofore invested your character. I am not puritanical, but I confess having held you to a higher plane than others of my acquaintance, and I find it hard to realize my evident mistake. Yet, surely, you cannot fully comprehend what it is you are choosing, I was with you last night, true, but I considered it no honor to appear upon that stage, even with the 'Heart of the World,' and it hurt me even then to behold you in the midst of such surroundings.
But deliberately to take part in the regular variety bill is a vastly more serious matter. It is almost a total surrender to evil, and involves a daily and nightly association with vice which cannot but prove most repugnant to true womanhood. Surely, you do not know the true nature of this place? The Gayety is a mere adjunct to the Poodle-Dog saloon and the gambling hell up-stairs.
They are so closely connected that on the stage last evening I could easily hear the click of ivory chips and the clatter of drinking glasses. One man owns and controls the entire outfit, and employs for his variety stage any kind of talent which will please the vicious class to which he caters. All questioning as to morality is thoroughly eliminated. Did you comprehend this? Winston, in the first place, I deny your slightest right to question me in this manner, or to pass moral judgment upon my motives.
I chance to possess a conscience of my own, and your presumption is almost insulting. While you were absent in pursuit of Albrecht, the manager of the Gayety, having chanced to learn the straits we were in, called upon me here with his proposal. It appeared an honorable one, and the offer was made in a gentlemanly manner.
However, I did not accept at the time, for the plain reason that I had no desire whatever to appear upon that stage, and in the midst of that unpleasant environment. I decided to await your return, and learn whether such a personal sacrifice of pride would be necessary. Now, I believe I recognize my duty, and am not afraid to perform it, even in the face of your displeasure.
I am going to deliver the parting scene from the 'Heart of the World,' and I do not imagine my auditors will be any the worse for hearing it. I certainly regret that the Gayety is an adjunct to a saloon; I should greatly prefer not to appear there, but, unfortunately, it is the only place offering me work.
I may be compelled to sink a certain false pride in order to accept, but I shall certainly not sacrifice one iota of my womanhood. You had no cause even to intimate such a thing. Professional necessity can never afford to be quite so punctilious, cannot always choose the nature of its environments: the nurse must care for the injured, however disagreeable the task; the newspaper woman must cover her assignment, although it takes her amid filth; and the actress must thoroughly assume her character, in spite of earlier prejudices.
The woman who deliberately chooses this life must, sooner or later, adjust herself to its unpleasant requirements; and if her womanhood remain true, the shallow criticism of others cannot greatly harm her. I had three alternatives in this case—I could selfishly accept my handful of money, go to Denver, and leave these other helpless people here to suffer; I could accept assistance from you, a comparative stranger; or I could aid them and earn my own way by assuming an unpleasant task.
I chose the last, and my sense of right upholds me. A spirit of independence always made quick appeal to his favor, and this girl's outspoken defiance of his good opinion set his heart throbbing. Back of her outward quietness of demeanor there was an untamed spirit flashing into life. Am I, then, to understand that your future is definitely decided upon? You really purpose dedicating your life to dramatic art? Oh, no; one never does that, you know, unless, possibly, the ideals are very low; but more than I can hope to find elsewhere.
Even now I am certainly happier in the work than I have been for years. This has become a positive passion, an inspiration. I may never become the perfected artist of which I sometimes dream, yet it must be that I have within me a glimmering of that art.
I feel it, and cannot remain false to it. She flushed to the roots of her hair, yet her lips laughed lightly. But really, there is small need yet of discussing such a possibility. I shall be among your audiences at the Gayety. I do not altogether agree that your choice has been a correct one, but I do sincerely believe in you,—in your motives,—and, whether you desire it or not, I propose to constitute myself your special guardian.
There is likely to be trouble at the Gayety, if any drunken fool becomes too gay. A moment she remained looking at her reflected face in the little mirror, her fingers clinched as if in pain. Beyond its stern guardianship Echo Canyon stretched grim and desolate, running far back into the very heart of the gold-ribbed mountains. The canyon, a mere shapeless gash in the side of the great hills, was deep, long, undulating, ever twisting about like some immense serpent, its sides darkened by clinging cedars and bunches of chaparral, and rising in irregular terraces of partially exposed rock toward a narrow strip of blue sky.
It was a fragment of primitive nature, as wild, gloomy, desolate, and silent as though never yet explored by man. A small clear stream danced and sang over scattered stones at the bottom of this grim chasm, constantly twisting and curving from wall to wall, generally half concealed from view by the dense growth of overhanging bushes shadowing its banks.
High up along the brown rock wall the gleam of the afternoon sun rested warm and golden, but deeper down within those dismal, forbidding depths there lingered merely a purple twilight, while patches of white snow yet clung desperately to the steep surrounding hills, or showered in powdery clouds from off the laden cedars whenever the disturbing wind came soughing up the gorge.
Early birds were beginning to flit from tree to tree, singing their welcome to belated Springtime; a fleecy cloud lazily floating far overhead gave deeper background to the slender strip of over-arching blue. It all combined to form a nature picture of primeval peace, rendered peculiarly solemn by those vast ranges of overshadowing mountains, and more deeply impressive by the grim silence and loneliness, the seemingly total absence of human life.
Yet in this the scene was most deceptive. Neither peace nor loneliness lurked amid those sombre rock shadows; over all was the dominance of men—primitive, fighting men, rendered almost wholly animal by the continued hardships of existence, the ceaseless struggle after gold. The vagrant trail, worn deep between rocks by the constant passage of men and mules, lay close beside the singing water, while here and there almost imperceptible branches struck off to left or right, running as directly as possible up the terraced benches until the final dim traces were completely lost amid the low-growing cedars.
Each one of these led as straight as nature would permit to some specific spot where men toiled incessantly for the golden dross, guarding their claims with loaded rifles, while delving deeper and deeper beneath the mysterious rocks, ever seeking to make their own the secret hoards of the world's great storehouse.
Countless centuries were being rudely unlocked through the ceaseless toil of pick and shovel, the green hillsides torn asunder and disfigured by ever-increasing piles of debris, while eager-eyed men struggled frantically to obtain the hidden riches of the rocks.
Here and there a rudely constructed log hut, perched with apparent recklessness upon the brink of the precipice, told the silent story of a claim, while in other places the smouldering remains of a camp-fire alone bespoke primitive living. Yet every where along that upper terrace, where in places the seductive gold streak lay half uncovered to the sun, were those same yawning holes leading far down beneath the surface; about them grouped the puny figures of men performing the labors of Hercules under the galling spur of hope.
On this higher ledge, slightly beyond a shallow intersecting gorge shadowed by low-growing cedars, two men reclined upon a rock-dump, gazing carelessly off six hundred feet sheer down into the gloomy depths of the canyon below. Just beyond them yawned the black opening of their shaft-hole, the rude windlass outlined against the gray background of rock, while somewhat to the left, seemingly overhanging the edge of the cliff, perched a single-roomed cabin of logs representing home.
The two partners were sitting silent and idle, a single rifle lying between them on the dump. Hicks was tall, lank, seamed of face, with twinkling gray eyes, a goat's beard dangling at his chin to the constant motion of his nervous jaws; and Brown, twenty years his junior, was a young, sandy-haired giant, limited of speech, of movement, of thought, with freckled cheeks and a downy little moustache of decidedly red hue.
They had been laboriously deciphering a letter of considerable length and peculiar illegibility, and the slow but irascible Stutter had been swearing in disjointed syllables, his blue eyes glaring angrily across the gully, where numerous moving figures, conspicuous in blue and red shirts, were plainly visible about the shaft-hole of the "Independence," the next claim below them on the ledge. Yet for the moment neither man spoke otherwise. Finally, shifting uneasily, yet with mind evidently made up for definite action, Hicks broke the prolonged silence.
It sorter strikes me thet the lawyer hes give us the straight tip all right, an' thar 's no other way fer gittin' the cinch on them ornary fellers over thar," and the speaker waved his hand toward the distant figures. You an' I could swar, of course, thet the damned cusses hed changed the stakes on us more 'n onct, an' thar 's no doubt in our two minds but what they 're a-followin' out our ore-lead right now, afore we kin git down ter it.
We ain't got a darn thing but our own muscle, an' the rights of it, which latter don't amount ter two bumps on a log. Fer about three weeks we 've been watchin' them measly skunks take out our mineral, an' for one I 'm a-goin' ter quit. I never did knuckle down ter thet sort, an' I 'm too old now ter begin. The lawyer says ez how we ain't got no legal proof, an' I reckon it's so. But I 'm damned if I don't git some.
Thar ain't a minin' engineer in San Juan that 'll come up yere fer us. Them fellers hes got 'em all on the hip; but I reckon, if we hunt long 'nough, we kin find some feller in Colorado with nerve 'nough to tackle this yere job, an' I 'm a-goin' out gunnin' for jist that man. I 'm a-goin' ter draw out every blamed cent we 've got in the bank down at San Juan. Then I 'll strike out an' hunt till I find a minin' engineer thet 's got a soul of his own, an' grit 'nough behind it ter root out the facts.
I 've been a-prospecttn' through these here mountings fer thirty years, an' now thet I 've hit somethin' worth havin', I 'm hanged if I 'm a-goin' ter lie down meek ez Moses an' see it stole out plumb from under me by a parcel o' tin-horn gamblers. Not me, by God! If I can't git a cinch on sich a feller ez I want, then I 'll come back an' blow a hole through that Farnham down at San Juan. I reckon I 'll go in an' tell him so afore I start. You an' Mike kin tend ter thet all right, an' you bet I 'm goin' ter have some news fer yer when I git home, my boy.
It was not easy for him to converse, and he therefore never uttered a word unless the situation demanded the sacrifice. He could swear, however, with considerable fluency, but just now even that relief seemed inadequate. Finally, the older man disappeared behind the scrub, and, except for those more distant figures about the dump of the "Independence," the blond giant remained apparently alone.
But Stutter had long ago become habituated to loneliness; the one condition likely to worry him was lack of occupation. He scrambled to his feet and climbed the dump, until able to lean far over and look down into the black mouth of the uncovered shaft. Oi tought maybe ye'd run off an' left me to rot down in the hole. Whut 's up now, ye freckled-face ilephant, yer?
He m-m-m-meant business all r-right, an' hed f-f-forty rounds b-b-buckled on him. H-here goes, Mike," and Brown grasped the warped handle of the windlass and began to grind slowly, coiling the heavy rope, layer upon layer, around the straining drum. He brought the huge ore-bucket to the surface, dumped its load of rock over the edge of the shaft-hole, and had permitted it to run down swiftly to the waiting Mike, when a slight noise behind sent the man whirling suddenly about, his hand instinctively reaching forth toward the discarded but ready rifle.
A moment he stared, incredulous, at the strange vision fronting him, his face quickly reddening from embarrassment, his eyes irresolute and puzzled. Scarcely ten feet away, a woman, rather brightly attired and apparently very much at her ease, sat upon a rather diminutive pony, her red lips curved in lines of laughter, evidently no little amused at thus startling him.
Brown realized that she was young and pretty, with jet black, curling hair, and eyes of the same color, her skin peculiarly white and clear, while she rode man fashion, her lower limbs daintily encased within leggings of buckskin. She had carelessly dropped her reins upon the high pommel of the saddle, and as their glances fairly met, she laughed outright. It make me joy. He was quite young, never greatly accustomed to companionship with the gentler sex, and of a disposition strongly opposed to being laughed at.
Besides, he felt seriously his grave deficiencies of speech. Yet beneath his steady, questioning gaze her face slightly sobered, a faint flush becoming apparent in either cheek. You moost not care just for me. Biff, bang, kill; ver' bad," and she clapped her gauntleted hands together sharply. I just like know more 'bout mine—Americano's mine; you show me how it vork. I Mercedes Morales, an' I like ver' much de brav' Americanos. Brown was not greatly accustomed to having his rather fiery top-knot thus openly referred to in tones of evident admiration.
It was a subject he naturally felt somewhat sensitive about, and in spite of the open honesty of the young girl's face, he could not help doubting for a moment the sincerity of her speech. Her most notable beauty was the liquid blackness of her eyes.
Not de big mine—bah! I care not for dat kind—but just one leetle mine, vere I no be 'fraid to go down. Den I look at you, so big, vid de beautiful red hair, an' de kin' face, an' I sink he vood let me see how dey do such tings—he vas nice fellow, if he vas all mud on de clothes.
Si, for I know nice fellow, do I not, amigo? Si, bueno. It 's t-too blame dirty d-d-down below fer y-your sort. B-b-besides, my p-pardner ain't yere, an' he m-m-might not l-like it. Who vas de pardner? He vas ver' nice fellow, too—but no so pretty like you; he old man an' swear—Holy Mother, how he swear!
He tol' me once come out any time an' see hees mine. I not know vere it vas before. Maybe de angels show me. You vas vat Beell call Stutter Brown, I tink maybe? Why not you shoot me? I no 'fraid de dirt. The agitated Mr. Brown coughed, his uneasy glances straying down the open shaft. He would gladly, and with extreme promptness, have shoved the cold muzzle of his Colt beneath the nose of any man at such moment of trial; but this young girl, with a glance and a laugh, had totally disarmed him.
Disturbed conscience, a feeling akin to disloyalty, pricked him, but the temptation left him powerless to resist—those black eyes held him already captive; and yet in this moment of wavering indecision, that teasing hand once again rested lightly upon his shirt-sleeve. But maybe it's so because you no like me? Eet make glad de heart—make eet to sing like de birds. Now I know eet vill be as I vish.
He leaned out over the dark shaft, his supporting hand on the drum. For one brief second he vaguely wondered if she could be a witch, and he looked furtively aside, only to perceive her bright eyes smiling happily at him. Then suddenly a totally bald head shot up through the opening, a seamed face the color of parchment, with squinting gray eyes, peered suspiciously about, while a gnarled hand reached forth, grasped a post in support, and dragged out into the sunlight a short, sturdy body.
Mike straightened up, with a peculiar jerk, on the dump, spat viciously over the edge of the canyon, and drew a short, black pipe from out a convenient pocket in his shirt. He made no audible comment, but stood, his back planted to the two watchers; and Stutter cleared his throat noisily. An' wus this Hicks's orthers, Stutter?
Don't s-see how n-no harm kin be d-d-done. H'ist the female into the bucket, ye overgrown dood! Leaning far over to listen, the young miner heard the bucket touch bottom, and then, with a quick word of warning to the man grasping the handle, he swung himself out on the taut rope, and went swiftly down, hand over hand.
Mike, still grumbling huskily to himself, waited until the windlass ceased vibrating, securely anchored the handle with a strip of raw-hide, and composedly sat down, his teeth set firmly on the pipe-stem, his eyes already half closed. It was an obstinate, mulish old face, seamed and creased, the bright sunlight rendering more manifest the leather-like skin, the marvellous network of wrinkles about eyes and mouth.
Not being paid for thought, the old fellow now contented himself with dozing, quite confident of not being quickly disturbed. In this he was right. The two were below for fully an hour, while above them Mike leaned with back comfortably propped against the windlass in perfect contentment, and the hobbled pony peacefully cropped the short grass along the ledge. Then the brooding silence was abruptly broken by a voice rising from out the depths of the shaft, while a vigorous shaking of the dangling rope caused the windlass to vibrate sharply.
Old Mike, with great deliberation stowing away his pipe, unslipped the raw-hide, and, calmly indifferent to all else except his necessary labor, slowly hauled the girl to the surface. She was radiant, her eyes glowing from the excitement of unusual adventure, and scrambled forth from the dangling bucket without awaiting assistance.
Before Brown attained to the surface, the lady had safely captured the straying pony and swung herself lightly into the saddle. Squaring his broad shoulders with surprise as he came out, his face flushed, his lips set firm, the young giant laid restraining fingers on her gloved hand. Sapristi, why not? Once she glanced shyly back, with a little seductive wave of the gauntleted hand, and then suddenly dropped completely out of view down the steep descent of the trail.
Old Mike struck another match, and held the tiny flame to his pipe-bowl. The younger man wheeled suddenly about and faced him. Ye 're a broight one, ye are. That's the Mexican dancer down at the Gayety at San Juan, no less; and it's dollars to doughnuts, me bye, that that dom Farnham sint her out here to take a peek at us. It wud be loike the slippery cuss, an' I hear the two of thim are moighty chummy.
CHAPTER VII A DISMISSAL The far from gentle orchestra at the Gayety was playing with a vivacity which set the pulses leaping, while the densely packed audience, scarcely breathing from intensity of awakened interest, were focussing their eager eyes upon a slender, scarlet-robed figure, an enveloping cloud of gossamer floating mistily about her, her black hair and eyes vividly contrasting against the clear whiteness of her skin, as she yielded herself completely to the strange convolutions of her weird dance.
The wide stage was a yellow flood of light, and she the very witch of motion. This was her third encore, but, as wildly grotesque as ever, her full skirts shimmering in the glare of the foot-lights, her tripping feet barely touching the sanded floor, her young, supple figure, light as a fairy, weaving in the perfect rhythm of music, the tireless child of Mexico leaped and spun, wheeled and twirled,—at times apparently floated upon the very air, her bare white arms extended, her wonderful eyes blazing from the exhilaration of this moment of supreme triumph.
Beth Norvell, neatly gowned for the street, her own more sedate performance already concluded, had paused for a single curious instant in the shadow of the wings, and remained looking out upon that scarlet figure, flitting here and there like some tropical bird, through the gaudy glare of the stage. Winston, waiting patiently for twenty minutes amid the denser gloom just inside the stage door, watched the young girl's unconsciously interested face, wondering alike at both himself and her.
This entire adventure remained an unsolved problem to his mystified mind—how it was she yet continued to retain his interest; why it was he could never wholly succeed in divorcing her from his life. He endeavored now to imagine her a mere ordinary woman of the stage, whom he might idly flirt with to-night, and quite as easily forget to-morrow.
Yet from some cause the mind failed to respond to such suggestion. There was something within the calm, womanly face as revealed beneath the reflection of garish light, something in the very poise of the slender figure bending slightly forward in aroused enthusiasm, which compelled his respect, aroused his admiration. She was not a common woman, and he could not succeed in blinding himself to that fact.
Even the garish, cheap environments, the glitter and tinsel, the noise and brutality, had utterly failed to tarnish Beth Norvell. She stood forth different, distinct, a perfectly developed flower, rarely beautiful, although blooming in muck that was overgrown with noxious weeds. Winston remained clearly conscious that some peculiar essence of her native character had mysteriously perfumed the whole place—it glorified her slight bit of stage work, and had already indelibly impressed itself upon those rough, boisterous Western spirits out in front.
Before her parting lips uttered a line she had thoroughly mastered them, the innate purity of her perfected womanhood, the evident innocence of her purpose, shielding her against all indecency and insult. The ribald scoffing, the insolent shuffling of feet, the half-drunken uneasiness, ceased as if by magic; and as her simple act proceeded, the stillness out in front became positively solemn, the startled faces picturing an awakening to higher things.
It was a triumph far exceeding the noisy outburst that greeted the Mexican—a moral victory over unrestrained lawlessness won simply by true womanliness, unaided and alone. That earlier scene had brought to Winston a deeper realization of this girl's genius, a fresher appreciation of the true worth of her esteem. No struggle of heart or head could ever again lower her in his secret thought to the common level. The swinging strains of the dancer's accompaniment concluded with a blare of noisy triumph, the mad enthusiasts out in front wildly shouting her name above the frantic din of applause, while, flushed and panting, the agile Mexican dancer swept into the darkened wings like a scarlet bird.
It is an art, and you must let me thank you. I dance because I lofe to; because it sets my blood on fire. I no care for all your airs of fine lady. I certainly spoke in kindness and appreciation. Would you permit me to pass? She did not know why she felt thus vindictive; to save her soul she could not have told the reason, yet deep down within her passionate heart there existed a hatred for this white, silent American, whose slightest word sounded to her like rebuke. She stood there still, watching suspiciously, smouldering dislike burning in her black eyes, when Winston suddenly stepped from the concealing shadows with a word of unexpected greeting.
She noticed the sudden flush sweep into Miss Norvell's cheek, the quick uplifting of her eyes, the almost instant drooping again of veiling lashes, and, quickly comprehending it all, stepped promptly forward just far enough to obtain a clear view of the young man's face. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful.
Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed. Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least. A regular snow maiden, with blue eyes, and yellow hair curling on her shoulders, pale and slender, and always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners.
What the characters of the four sisters were we will leave to be found out. The clock struck six and, having swept up the hearth, Beth put a pair of slippers down to warm. Somehow the sight of the old shoes had a good effect upon the girls, for Mother was coming, and everyone brightened to welcome her.
Meg stopped lecturing, and lighted the lamp, Amy got out of the easy chair without being asked, and Jo forgot how tired she was as she sat up to hold the slippers nearer to the blaze. Marmee must have a new pair. What will we get? We must go shopping tomorrow afternoon, Meg. Come here, Amy, and do the fainting scene, for you are as stiff as a poker in that. Save me! Jo gave a despairing groan, and Meg laughed outright, while Beth let her bread burn as she watched the fun with interest.
Come on, Meg. Hagar, the witch, chanted an awful incantation over her kettleful of simmering toads, with weird effect. I always wanted to do the killing part. She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world. Has anyone called, Beth? How is your cold, Meg?
Jo, you look tired to death. Come and kiss me, baby. March got her wet things off, her warm slippers on, and sitting down in the easy chair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table, Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, over-turning, and clattering everything she touched.
Beth trotted to and fro between parlor kitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, as she sat with her hands folded. As they gathered about the table, Mrs. A letter! Three cheers for Father!
He is well, and thinks he shall get through the cold season better than we feared. March, patting her pocket as if she had got a treasure there. Beth ate no more, but crept away to sit in her shadowy corner and brood over the delight to come, till the others were ready.
Now come and hear the letter. Very few letters were written in those hard times that were not touching, especially those which fathers sent home. In this one little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted.
I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women. Beth said nothing, but wiped away her tears with the blue army sock and began to knit with all her might, losing no time in doing the duty that lay nearest her, while she resolved in her quiet little soul to be all that Father hoped to find her when the year brought round the happy coming home.
Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.
Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.
Where are our bundles? Mine is dishes and dusters, and envying girls with nice pianos, and being afraid of people. We ought to have our roll of directions, like Christian. What shall we do about that? They talked over the new plan while old Hannah cleared the table, then out came the four little work baskets, and the needles flew as the girls made sheets for Aunt March.
It was uninteresting sewing, but tonight no one grumbled. At nine they stopped work, and sang, as usual, before they went to bed. No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano, but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoiled the most pensive tune.
They had always done this from the time they could lisp The first sound in the morning was her voice as she went about the house singing like a lark, and the last sound at night was the same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old for that familiar lullaby. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies.
She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes.
Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day. In spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and pious nature, which unconsciously influenced her sisters, especially Jo, who loved her very tenderly, and obeyed her because her advice was so gently given. We used to be faithful about it, but since Father went away and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things.
You can do as you please, but I shall keep my book on the table here and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do me good and help me through the day. Jo put her arm round her and, leaning cheek to cheek, read also, with the quiet expression so seldom seen on her restless face. How funny! Hide the basket, quick! Amy came in hastily, and looked rather abashed when she saw her sisters all waiting for her. Many of them! Thank you for our books.
But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present? Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread into one big plate.
March, smiling as if satisfied. Fortunately it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the queer party. A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in. It is good angels come to us!
In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. March gave the mother tea and gruel, and comforted her with promises of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if it had been her own.
The girls meantime spread the table, set the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table. Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three cheers for Marmee! Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and Meg enacted escort with great dignity. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied them.
There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work. The morning charities and ceremonies took so much time that the rest of the day was devoted to preparations for the evening festivities. Being still too young to go often to the theater, and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed.
Very clever were some of their productions, pasteboard guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter boats covered with silver paper, gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond shaped bits left in sheets when the lids of preserve pots were cut out.
The big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels. The smallness of the company made it necessary for the two principal actors to take several parts apiece, and they certainly deserved some credit for the hard work they did in learning three or four different parts, whisking in and out of various costumes, and managing the stage besides. It was excellent drill for their memories, a harmless amusement, and employed many hours which otherwise would have been idle, lonely, or spent in less profitable society.
On Christmas night, a dozen girls piled onto the bed which was the dress circle, and sat before the blue and yellow chintz curtains in a most flattering state of expectancy. There was a good deal of rustling and whispering behind the curtain, a trifle of lamp smoke, and an occasional giggle from Amy, who was apt to get hysterical in the excitement of the moment. Presently a bell sounded, the curtains flew apart, and the operatic tragedy began.
This cave was made with a clothes horse for a roof, bureaus for walls, and in it was a small furnace in full blast, with a black pot on it and an old witch bending over it. The stage was dark and the glow of the furnace had a fine effect, especially as real steam issued from the kettle when the witch took off the cover. A moment was allowed for the first thrill to subside, then Hugo, the villain, stalked in with a clanking sword at his side, a slouching hat, black beard, mysterious cloak, and the boots.
After pacing to and fro in much agitation, he struck his forehead, and burst out in a wild strain, singing of his hatred for Roderigo, his love for Zara, and his pleasing resolution to kill the one and win the other. I need thee! Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised both, and proceeded to call up the spirit who would bring the love philter.
Hither, hither, from thy home, Airy sprite, I bid thee come! Born of roses, fed on dew, Charms and potions canst thou brew? Bring me here, with elfin speed, The fragrant philter which I need. Make it sweet and swift and strong, Spirit, answer now my song! A soft strain of music sounded, and then at the back of the cave appeared a little figure in cloudy white, with glittering wings, golden hair, and a garland of roses on its head.
Waving a wand, it sang Hither I come, Afar in the silver moon. Take the magic spell, And use it well, Or its power will vanish soon! Another chant from Hagar produced another apparition, not a lovely one, for with a bang an ugly black imp appeared and, having croaked a reply, tossed a dark bottle at Hugo and disappeared with a mocking laugh. Having warbled his thanks and put the potions in his boots, Hugo departed, and Hagar informed the audience that as he had killed a few of her friends in times past, she had cursed him, and intends to thwart his plans, and be revenged on him.
Then the curtain fell, and the audience reposed and ate candy while discussing the merits of the play. A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again, but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentery had been got up, no one murmured at the delay.
It was truly superb. A tower rose to the ceiling, halfway up appeared a window with a lamp burning in it, and behind the white curtain appeared Zara in a lovely blue and silver dress, waiting for Roderigo. He came in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks, a guitar, and the boots, of course. Kneeling at the foot of the tower, he sang a serenade in melting tones. Zara replied and, after a musical dialogue, consented to fly. Then came the grand effect of the play.
Roderigo produced a rope ladder, with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend. Alas for Zara! It caught in the window, the tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in the ruins.
I told you so! Act as if it was all right! Though decidedly shaken by the fall from the tower upon him, Roderigo defied the old gentleman and refused to stir. This dauntless example fired Zara. She also defied her sire, and he ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout little retainer came in with chains and led them away, looking very much frightened and evidently forgetting the speech he ought to have made.
Act third was the castle hall, and here Hagar appeared, having come to free the lovers and finish Hugo. Hugo, getting thirsty after a long warble, drinks it, loses his wits, and after a good deal of clutching and stamping, falls flat and dies, while Hagar informs him what she has done in a song of exquisite power and melody.
He was called before the curtain, and with great propriety appeared, leading Hagar, whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the performance put together. Act fourth displayed the despairing Roderigo on the point of stabbing himself because he has been told that Zara has deserted him.
Just as the dagger is at his heart, a lovely song is sung under his window, informing him that Zara is true but in danger, and he can save her if he will. A key is thrown in, which unlocks the door, and in a spasm of rapture he tears off his chains and rushes away to find and rescue his lady love. Act fifth opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro. Don Pedro refuses, because he is not rich. They shout and gesticulate tremendously but cannot agree, and Rodrigo is about to bear away the exhausted Zara, when the timid servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously disappeared.
The bag is opened, and several quarts of tin money shower down upon the stage till it is quite glorified with the glitter. This entirely softens the stern sire. Tumultuous applause followed but received an unexpected check, for the cot bed, on which the dress circle was built, suddenly shut up and extinguished the enthusiastic audience. Roderigo and Don Pedro flew to the rescue, and all were taken out unhurt, though many were speechless with laughter.
It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers. It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely. Old Mr. What in the world put such a thing into his head?
He is an odd old gentleman, but that pleased him. He knew my father years ago, and he sent me a polite note this afternoon, saying he hoped I would allow him to express his friendly feeling toward my children by sending them a few trifles in honor of the day. I could not refuse, and so you have a little feast at night to make up for the bread-and-milk breakfast. He brought the flowers himself, and I should have asked him in, if I had been sure what was going on upstairs. He looked so wistful as he went away, hearing the frolic and evidently having none of his own.
How pretty it is! March, smelling the half-dead posy in her belt. Where are you? As Meg appeared, Scrabble whisked into his hole. Jo shook the tears off her cheeks and waited to hear the news. Only see! A regular note of invitation from Mrs. Gardiner for tomorrow night! Yours is as good as new, but I forgot the burn and the tear in mine.
Whatever shall I do? The front is all right. I like to fly about and cut capers. Now go and answer your note, and let me finish this splendid story. Simple as the toilets were, there was a great deal of running up and down, laughing and talking, and at one time a strong smell of burned hair pervaded the house.
Meg wanted a few curls about her face, and Jo undertook to pinch the papered locks with a pair of hot tongs. She did take off the papers, but no cloud of ringlets appeared, for the hair came with the papers, and the horrified hairdresser laid a row of little scorched bundles on the bureau before her victim. What have you done? My hair, oh, my hair!
I always spoil everything. Just frizzle it, and tie your ribbon so the ends come on your forehead a bit, and it will look like the last fashion. Jo in maroon, with a stiff, gentlemanly linen collar, and a white chrysanthemum or two for her only ornament. March, as the sisters went daintily down the walk.
Have you you both got nice pocket handkerchiefs? Is my sash right? And does my hair look very bad? If you see me doing anything wrong, just remind me by a wink, will you? I never can. Gardiner, a stately old lady, greeted them kindly and handed them over to the eldest of her six daughters.
Half a dozen jovial lads were talking about skates in another part of the room, and she longed to go and join them, for skating was one of the joys of her life. She telegraphed her wish to Meg, but the eyebrows went up so alarmingly that she dared not stir.
No one came to talk to her, and one by one the group dwindled away till she was left alone. She could not roam about and amuse herself, for the burned breadth would show, so she stared at people rather forlornly till the dancing began. Meg was asked at once, and the tight slippers tripped about so briskly that none would have guessed the pain their wearer suffered smilingly.
Jo saw a big red headed youth approaching her corner, and fearing he meant to engage her, she slipped into a curtained recess, intending to peep and enjoy herself in peace. I wish every one would say Jo instead of Josephine. How did you make the boys stop calling you Dora? I love dearly to hear people describe their travels.
Let me see Do you think she is pretty? Both peeped and criticized and chatted till they felt like old acquaintances. Wonder how old he is? I see you pegging away at your books, no, I mean studying hard. Nothing but grinding or skylarking.
You may laugh, if you want to. It is funny, I know. Please come. The hall was empty, and they had a grand polka, for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, which delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring. She beckoned, and Jo reluctantly followed her into a side room, where she found her on a sofa, holding her foot, and looking pale. That stupid high heel turned and gave me a sad wrench. Sallie has some girls staying with her.
Get me my rubbers, and put these slippers with our things. Gardiner was taking a little private refreshment. Making a dart at the table, she secured the coffee, which she immediately spilled, thereby making the front of her dress as bad as the back. And there was Laurie, with a full cup in one hand and a plate of ice in the other.
I was looking for someone to give this to. May I take it to your sister? They had a merry time over the bonbons and mottoes, and were in the midst of a quiet game of Buzz, with two or three other young people who had strayed in, when Hannah appeared.
Meg forgot her foot and rose so quickly that she was forced to catch hold of Jo, with an exclamation of pain. Slipping out, she ran down and, finding a servant, asked if he could get her a carriage. Please let me take you home.
Hannah hated rain as much as a cat does so she made no trouble, and they rolled away in the luxurious close carriage, feeling very festive and elegant. Laurie went on the box so Meg could keep her foot up, and the girls talked over their party in freedom. Did you? Was he nice? His hair is auburn, not red, and he was very polite, and I had a delicious redowa with him.
Did you hear us? What were you about all that time, hidden away there? With many thanks, they said good night and crept in, hoping to disturb no one, but the instant their door creaked, two little nightcaps bobbed up, and two sleepy but eager voices cried out Tell about the party!
But it does seem so nice to have little suppers and bouquets, and go to parties, and drive home, and read and rest, and not work. She had not heart enough even to make herself pretty as usual by putting on a blue neck ribbon and dressing her hair in the most becoming way.
Everyone seemed rather out of sorts and inclined to croak. Beth had a headache and lay on the sofa, trying to comfort herself with the cat and three kittens. Jo would whistle and make a great racket getting ready. March, crossing out the third spoiled sentence in her letter. There was a momentary lull, broken by Hannah, who stalked in, laid two hot turnovers on the table, and stalked out again. Hannah never forgot to make them, no matter how busy or grumpy she might be, for the walk was long and bleak.
The poor things got no other lunch and were seldom home before two.
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