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VAL BECOMES AN AUTHOR
Quite as marked had been the change in Val that year. Every time Kent saw her, he recognized the fact that she was a little different; a little less superior in her attitude, a little more independent in her views of life. Her standards seemed slowly changing, and her way of thinking. He did not see her often, but when he did the mockery of their friendship struck him more keenly, his inward rebellion against circumstances grew more bitter. He wondered how she could be so blind as to think they were just pals, and no more. She did think so. All the little confidences, all the glances, all the smiles, she gave and received frankly, in the name of friendship.
"You know, Kent, this is my ideal of how people should be," she told him once, with a perfectly honest enthusiasm. "I've always dreamed of such a friendship, and I've always believed that some day the right man would come along and make it possible. Not one in a thousand could understand and meet one half-way--"
"They'd be liable to go farther," Kent assented dryly.
"Yes. That's just the trouble. They'd spoil an ideal friendship by falling in love."
"Darned chumps," Kent classed them sweepingly.
"Exactly. Pal, your vocabulary excites my envy. It's so forcible sometimes."
Kent grinned reminiscently. "It sure is, old girl."
"Oh, I don't mean necessarily profane. I wonder what your vocabulary will do to the secret I'm going to tell you." The sweet-peas had reached the desired height and profusion of blossoms, thanks to the pails and pails of water Val had carried and lavished upon them, and she was gathering a handful of the prettiest blooms for him. Her cheeks turned a bit pinker as she spoke, and her hesitation raised a wild hope briefly in Kent's heart.
"What is it?" He had to force the words out.
"I--I hate to tell, but I want you to--to help me."
"Well?" To Kent, at that moment, she was not Manley's wife; she was not any man's wife; she was the girl he loved--loved with the primitive, absorbing passion of the man who lives naturally and does not borrow his morals from his next-door neighbor. His code of ethics was his own, thought out by himself. Val hated her husband, and her husband did not seem to care much for her. They were tied together legally. And a mere legality could not hold back the emotions and the desires of Kent Burnett. With him, it was not a question of morals: it was a question of Val's feeling in the matter.
Val looked up at him, found something strange in his eyes, and immediately looked away again.
"Your eyes are always saying things I can't hear," she observed irrelevantly.
"Are they? Do you want me to act as interpreter?"
"No. I just want you to listen. Have you noticed anything different about me lately, Kent?" She tilted her head, while she passed judgment upon a cluster of speckled blossoms, odd but not particularly pretty.
"What do you mean, anyway? I'm liable to get off wrong if I tell you--"
"Oh, you're so horribly cautious! Have I seemed any more content--any happier lately?"
Kent picked a spray of flowers and puled them ruthlessly to pieces. "Maybe I've kinda hoped so," he said, almost in a whisper.
"Well, I've a new interest in life. I just discovered it by accident, almost--"
Kent lifted his head and looked keenly at her, and his face was a lighter shade of brown than it had been.
"It seems to change everything. Pal, I--I've been writing things."
Kent discovered he had been holding his breath, and let it go in a long sigh.
"Oh!" After a minute he smiled philosophically. "What kinda things?" he drawled.
"Well, verses, but mostly stories. You see," she explained impulsively, "I want to earn some money--of my own. I haven't said much, because I hate whining; but really, things are growing pretty bad--between Manley and me. I hope it isn't my fault. I have tried every way I know to keep my faith in him, and to--to help him. But he's not the same as he was. You know that. And I have a good deal of pride. I can't--oh, it's intolerable having to ask a man for money! Especially when he doesn't want to give you any," she added naively. "At first it wasn't necessary; I had a little of my own, and all my things were new. But one must eventually buy things--for the house, you know, and for one's personal needs--and he seems to resent it dreadfully. I never would have believed that Manley could be stingy--actually stingy; but he is, unfortunately. I hate to speak of his faults, even to you. But I've got to be honest with you. It isn't nice to say that I'm writing, not for any particularly burning desire to express my thoughts, nor for the sentiment of it, but to earn money. It's terribly sordid, isn't it?" She smiled wistfully up at him. "But there seems to be money in it, for those who succeed, and it's work that I can do here. I have oceans of time, and I'm not disturbed!" Her lips curved into bitter lines. "I do so much thinking, I might as well put my brain to some use." With one of her sudden changes of mood, she turned to Kent and clasped both hands upon his arm.
"Now you see, pal, how much our friendship means to me," she said softly. "I couldn't have told this to another living soul! It seems awfully treacherous, saying it even to you--I mean about him. But you're so good--you always understand, don't you, pal?"
"I guess so." Kent forced the words out naturally, and kept his breath even, and his arms from clasping her. He considered that he performed quite a feat of endurance.
"You're modest!" She gave his arm a little shake. "Of course you do. You know I'm not treacherous, really. You know I'd do anything I could for him. But this is something that doesn't concern him at all. He doesn't know it, but that is because he would only sneer. When I have really sold something, and received the money for it, then it won't matter to me who knows. But now it's a solemn secret, just between me and my pal." Her yellow-brown eyes dwelt upon his face.
Kent, stealing a glance at her from under his drooped lids, wondered if she had ever given any time to analyzing herself. He would have given much to know if, down deep in her heart, she really believed in this pal business; if she was really a friend, and no more. She puzzled him a good deal, sometimes.
"Well--if anybody can make good at that business, you sure ought to; you've got brains enough to write a dictionary." He permitted himself the indulgence of saying that much, and he was perfectly sincere. He honestly considered Val the cleverest woman in the world.
She laughed with gratification. "Your sublime confidence, while it is undoubtedly mistaken, is nevertheless appreciated," she told him primly, moving away with her hands full of flowers. "If you've got the nerve, come inside and read some of my stuff; I want to know if it's any good at all."
Presently he was seated upon the couch in the little, pathetically bright front room, and he was knitting his eyebrows over Val's beautifully regular handwriting,--pages and pages of it, so that there seemed no end to the task,--and was trying to give his mind to what he was reading instead of to the author, sitting near him with her hands folded demurely in her lap and her eyes fixed expectantly upon his face, trying to read his decision even as it was forming.
Some verses she had tried on him first. Kent, by using all his determination of character, read them all, every word of them.
"That's sure all right," he said, though, beyond a telling phrase or two,--one line in particular which would stick in his memory:
"Men live and love and die in that lonely land,"--
he had no very clear idea of what it was all about. Certain lines seemed to go bumping along, and one had to mispronounce some of the final words to make them rhyme with others gone before, but it was all right--Val wrote it.
"I think I do better at stories," she ventured modestly. "I wrote one--a little story about university life--and sent it to a magazine. They wrote a lovely letter about it, but it seems that field is overdone, or something. The editor asked me why, living out here in the very heart of the West, I don't try Western stories. I think I shall--and that's why I said I should need your help. I thought we might work together, you know. You've lived here so long, and ought to have some splendid ideas--things that have happened, or that you've heard--and you could tell me, and I'd write them up. Wouldn't you like to collaborate--'go in cahoots' on it?"
"Sure." Kent regarded her thoughtfully. She really was looking brighter and happier, and her enthusiasm was not to be mistaken. Her world had changed. "Anything I can do to help, you know--"
"Of course I know, I think it's perfectly splendid, don't you? We'll divide the money--when there is any, and--"
"Will we?" His tone was noncommittal in the extreme.
"Of course. Now, don't let's quarrel about that till we come to it. I have a good idea of my own, I think, for the first story. A man comes out here and disappears, you know, and after a while his sister comes to find him. She gets into all kinds of trouble--is kidnapped by a gang of robbers, and kept in a cave. When the leader of the gang comes back--he has been away on some depredation--you see, I have only the bare outline of the story yet--and, well, it's her brother! He kills the one who kidnapped her, and she reforms him. Of course, there ought to be some love interest. I think, perhaps, one member of the gang ought to fall in love with her, don't you know? And after a while he wins her--"
"She'll reform him, too, I reckon."
"Oh, yes. She couldn't love a man she couldn't respect--no woman could."
"Oh!" Kent took a minute to apply that personally. It was of value to him, because it was an indication of Val's own code. "Maybe," he suggested tentatively, "she'd get busy and reform the whole bunch."
"Oh, say--that would be great! She's an awfully sweet little thing--perfectly lovely, you know--and they'd all be in love with her, so it wouldn't be improbable. Don't you remember, Kent, you told me once that a man would do anything for a woman, if he cared enough for her?"
"Sure. He would, too." Kent fought back a momentary temptation to prove the truth of it by his own acquiescence in this pal business. He was saved from disaster by a suspicion that Val would not be able to see it from his point of view, and by the fact that he would much rather be pals than nothing.
She would have gone on, talking and planning and discussing, indefinitely. But the sun slid lower and lower, and Kent was not his own master. The time came when he had to go, regardless of his own wishes, or hers.
When he came again, the story was finished, and Val was waiting, with extreme impatience, to read it to him and hear his opinion before she sent it away. Kent was not so impatient to hear it, but he did not tell her so. He had not seen her for a month, and he wanted to talk; not about anything in particular--just talk about little things, and see her eyes light up once in a while, and her lips purse primly when he said something daring, and maybe have her play something on the violin, while he smoked and watched her slim wrist bend and rise and fall with the movement of the bow. He could imagine no single thing more fascinating than that--that, and the way she cuddled the violin under her chin, in the hollow of her neck.
But Val would not play--she had been too busy to practice, all spring and summer; she scarcely ever touched the violin, she said. And she did not want to talk--or if she did, it was plain that she had only one theme. So Kent, perforce, listened to the story. Afterward, he assured her that it was "outa sight." As a matter of fact, half the time he had not heard a word of what she was reading; he had been too busy just looking at her and being glad he was there. He had, however, a dim impression that it was a story with people in it whom one does not try to imagine as ever being alive, and with a West which, beyond its evident scarcity of inhabitants, was not the West he knew anything about. One paragraph of description had caught his attention, because it seemed a fairly accurate picture of the bench land which surrounded Cold Spring Coulee; but it had not seemed to have anything to do with the story itself. Of course, it must be good--Val wrote it. He began to admire her intensely, quite apart from his own personal subjugation.
Val was pleased with his praise. For two solid hours she talked of nothing but that story, and she gave him some fresh chocolate cake and a pitcher of lemonade, and urged him to come again in about three weeks, when she expected to hear from the magazine she thought would be glad to take the story; the one whose editor had suggested that she write of the West.
In the fall, and in the winter, their discussions were frequently hampered by Manley's presence. But Val's enthusiasm, though nipped here and there by unappreciative editors, managed, somehow, to live; or perhaps it had developed into a dogged determination to succeed in spite of everything. She still wrote things, and she still read them to Kent when there was time and opportunity; sometimes he was bold enough to criticize the worst places, and to tell her how she might, in his opinion, remedy them. Occasionally Val would take his advice.
So the months passed. The winds blew and brought storm and heat and sunshine and cloud. Nothing, in that big land, appreciably changed, except the people; and they so imperceptibly that they failed to realize it until afterward.
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