Very little was known of her late husband, yet that little was of a sufficiently awe-inspiring character to satisfy the curiosity of Laurel Spring. A man of unswerving animosity and candid belligerency, untempered by any human weakness, he had been actively engaged as survivor in two or three blood feuds in Kentucky, and some desultory dueling, only to succumb, through the irony of fate, to an attack of fever and ague in San Francisco. Gifted with a fine sense of humor, he is said, in his last moments, to have called the simple-minded clergyman to his bedside to assist him in putting on his boots. The kindly divine, although pointing out to him that he was too weak to rise, much less walk, could not resist the request of a dying man. When it was fulfilled, Mr. MacGlowrie crawled back into bed with the remark that his race had always "died with their boots on," and so passed smilingly and tranquilly away.
It is probable that this story was invented to soften the ignominy of MacGlowrie's peaceful end. The widow herself was also reported to be endowed with relations of equally homicidal eccentricities. Her two brothers, Stephen and Hector Boompointer, had Western reputations that were quite as lurid and remote. Her own experiences of a frontier life had been rude and startling, and her scalp--a singularly beautiful one of blond hair--had been in peril from Indians on several occasions. A pair of scissors, with which she had once pinned the intruding hand of a marauder to her cabin doorpost, was to be seen in her sitting room at Laurel Spring. A fair-faced woman with eyes the color of pale sherry, a complexion sallowed by innutritious food, slight and tall figure, she gave little suggestion of this Amazonian feat. But that it exercised a wholesome restraint over the many who would like to have induced her to reenter the married state, there is little reason to doubt. Laurel Spring was a peaceful agricultural settlement. Few of its citizens dared to aspire to the dangerous eminence of succeeding the defunct MacGlowrie; few could hope that the sister of living Boompointers would accept an obvious mesalliance with them. However sincere their affection, life was still sweet to the rude inhabitants of Laurel Spring, and the preservation of the usual quantity of limbs necessary to them in their avocations. With their devotion thus chastened by caution, it would seem as if the charming mistress of Laurel Spring House was secure from disturbing attentions.
It was a pleasant summer afternoon, and the sun was beginning to strike under the laurels around the hotel into the little office where the widow sat with the housekeeper--a stout spinster of a coarser Western type. Mrs. MacGlowrie was looking wearily over some accounts on the desk before her, and absently putting back some tumbled sheaves from the stack of her heavy hair. For the widow had a certain indolent Southern negligence, which in a less pretty woman would have been untidiness, and a characteristic hook and eyeless freedom of attire which on less graceful limbs would have been slovenly. One sleeve cuff was unbuttoned, but it showed the blue veins of her delicate wrist; the neck of her dress had lost a hook, but the glimpse of a bit of edging round the white throat made amends. Of all which, however, it should be said that the widow, in her limp abstraction, was really unconscious.
"I reckon we kin put the new preacher in Kernel Starbottle's room," said Miss Morvin, the housekeeper. "The kernel's going to-night."
"Oh," said the widow in a tone of relief, but whether at the early departure of the gallant colonel or at the successful solution of the problem of lodging the preacher, Miss Morvin could not determine. But she went on tentatively:--
"The kernel was talkin' in the bar room, and kind o' wonderin' why you hadn't got married agin. Said you'd make a stir in Sacramento--but you was jest berried HERE."
"I suppose he's heard of my husband?" said the widow indifferently.
"Yes--but he said he couldn't PLACE YOU," returned Miss Morvin.
The widow looked up. "Couldn't place ME?" she repeated.
"Yes--hadn't heard o' MacGlowrie's wife and disremembered your brothers."
"The colonel doesn't know everybody, even if he is a fighting man," said Mrs. MacGlowrie with languid scorn.
"That's just what Dick Blair said," returned Miss Morvin. "And though he's only a doctor, he jest stuck up agin' the kernel, and told that story about your jabbin' that man with your scissors--beautiful; and how you once fought off a bear with a red-hot iron, so that you'd have admired to hear him. He's awfully gone on you!"
The widow took that opportunity to button her cuff.
"And how long does the preacher calculate to stay?" she added, returning to business details.
"Only a day. They'll have his house fixed up and ready for him to-morrow. They're spendin' a heap o' money on it. He ought to be the pow'ful preacher they say he is--to be worth it."
But here Mrs. MacGlowrie's interest in the conversation ceased, and it dropped.
In her anxiety to further the suit of Dick Blair, Miss Morvin had scarcely reported the colonel with fairness.
That gentleman, leaning against the bar in the hotel saloon with a cocktail in his hand, had expatiated with his usual gallantry upon Mrs. MacGlowrie's charms, and on his own "personal" responsibility had expressed the opinion that they were thrown away on Laurel Spring. That--blank it all--she reminded him of the blankest beautiful woman he had seen even in Washington--old Major Beveridge's daughter from Kentucky. Were they sure she wasn't from Kentucky? Wasn't her name Beveridge--and not Boompointer? Becoming more reminiscent over his second drink, the colonel could vaguely recall only one Boompointer--a blank skulking hound, sir--a mean white shyster--but, of course, he couldn't have been of the same breed as such a blank fine woman as the widow! It was here that Dick Blair interrupted with a heightened color and a glowing eulogy of the widow's relations and herself, which, however, only increased the chivalry of the colonel--who would be the last man, sir, to detract from--or suffer any detraction of--a lady's reputation. It was needless to say that all this was intensely diverting to the bystanders, and proportionally discomposing to Blair, who already experienced some slight jealousy of the colonel as a man whose fighting reputation might possibly attract the affections of the widow of the belligerent MacGlowrie. He had cursed his folly and relapsed into gloomy silence until the colonel left.
For Dick Blair loved the widow with the unselfishness of a generous nature and a first passion. He had admired her from the first day his lot was cast in Laurel Spring, where coming from a rude frontier practice he had succeeded the district doctor in a more peaceful and domestic ministration. A skillful and gentle surgeon rather than a general household practitioner, he was at first coldly welcomed by the gloomy dyspeptics and ague-haunted settlers from riparian lowlands. The few bucolic idlers who had relieved the monotony of their lives by the stimulus of patent medicines and the exaltation of stomach bitters, also looked askance at him. A common-sense way of dealing with their ailments did not naturally commend itself to the shopkeepers who vended these nostrums, and he was made to feel the opposition of trade. But he was gentle to women and children and animals, and, oddly enough, it was to this latter dilection that he owed the widow's interest in him--an interest that eventually made him popular elsewhere.
The widow had a pet dog--a beautiful spaniel, who, however, had assimilated her graceful languor to his own native love of ease to such an extent that he failed in a short leap between a balcony and a window, and fell to the ground with a fractured thigh. The dog was supposed to be crippled for life even if that life were worth preserving--when Dr. Blair came to the rescue, set the fractured limb, put it in splints and plaster after an ingenious design of his own, visited him daily, and eventually restored him to his mistress's lap sound in wind and limb. How far this daily ministration and the necessary exchange of sympathy between the widow and himself heightened his zeal was not known. There were those who believed that the whole thing was an unmanly trick to get the better of his rivals in the widow's good graces; there were others who averred that his treatment of a brute beast like a human being was sinful and unchristian. "He couldn't have done more for a regularly baptized child," said the postmistress. "And what mo' would a regularly baptized child have wanted?" returned Mrs. MacGlowrie, with the drawling Southern intonation she fell back upon when most contemptuous.
But Dr. Blair's increasing practice and the widow's preoccupation presently ended their brief intimacy. It was well known that she encouraged no suitors at the hotel, and his shyness and sensitiveness shrank from ostentatious advances. There seemed to be no chance of her becoming, herself, his patient; her sane mind, indolent nerves, and calm circulation kept her from feminine "vapors" of feminine excesses. She retained the teeth and digestion of a child in her thirty odd years, and abused neither. Riding and the cultivation of her little garden gave her sufficient exercise. And yet the unexpected occurred! The day after Starbottle left, Dr. Blair was summoned hastily to the hotel. Mrs. MacGlowrie had been found lying senseless in a dead faint in the passage outside the dining room. In his hurried flight thither with the messenger he could learn only that she had seemed to be in her usual health that morning, and that no one could assign any cause for her fainting.
He could find out little more when he arrived and examined her as she lay pale and unconscious on the sofa of her sitting room. It had not been thought necessary to loosen her already loose dress, and indeed he could find no organic disturbance. The case was one of sudden nervous shock--but this, with his knowledge of her indolent temperament, seemed almost absurd. They could tell him nothing but that she was evidently on the point of entering the dining room when she fell unconscious. Had she been frightened by anything? A snake or a rat? Miss Morvin was indignant! The widow of MacGlowrie--the repeller of grizzlies--frightened at "sich"! Had she been upset by any previous excitement, passion, or the receipt of bad news? No!--she "wasn't that kind," as the doctor knew. And even as they were speaking he felt the widow's healthy life returning to the pulse he was holding, and giving a faint tinge to her lips. Her blue-veined eyelids quivered slightly and then opened with languid wonder on the doctor and her surroundings. Suddenly a quick, startled look contracted the yellow brown pupils of her eyes, she lifted herself to a sitting posture with a hurried glance around the room and at the door beyond. Catching the quick, observant eyes of Dr. Blair, she collected herself with an effort, which Dr. Blair felt in her pulse, and drew away her wrist.
"What is it? What happened?" she said weakly.
"You had a slight attack of faintness," said the doctor cheerily, "and they called me in as I was passing, but you're all right now."
"How pow'ful foolish," she said, with returning color, but her eyes still glancing at the door, "slumping off like a green gyrl at nothin'."
"Perhaps you were startled?" said the doctor.
Mrs. MacGlowrie glanced up quickly and looked away. "No!--Let me see! I was just passing through the hall, going into the dining room, when--everything seemed to waltz round me--and I was off! Where did they find me?" she said, turning to Miss Morvin.
"I picked you up just outside the door," replied the housekeeper.
"Then they did not see me?" said Mrs. MacGlowrie.
"Who's they?" responded the housekeeper with more directness than grammatical accuracy.
"The people in the dining room. I was just opening the door--and I felt this coming on--and--I reckon I had just sense enough to shut the door again before I went off."
"Then that accounts for what Jim Slocum said," uttered Miss Morvin triumphantly. "He was in the dining room talkin' with the new preacher, when he allowed he heard the door open and shut behind him. Then he heard a kind of slump outside and opened the door again just to find you lyin' there, and to rush off and get me. And that's why he was so mad at the preacher!--for he says he just skurried away without offerin' to help. He allows the preacher may be a pow'ful exhorter--but he ain't worth much at 'works.'"
"Some men can't bear to be around when a woman's up to that sort of foolishness," said the widow, with a faint attempt at a smile, but a return of her paleness.
"Hadn't you better lie down again?" said the doctor solicitously.
"I'm all right now," returned Mrs. MacGlowrie, struggling to her feet; "Morvin will look after me till the shakiness goes. But it was mighty touching and neighborly to come in, Doctor," she continued, succeeding at last in bringing up a faint but adorable smile, which stirred Blair's pulses. "If I were my own dog--you couldn't have treated me better!"
With no further excuse for staying longer, Blair was obliged to depart--yet reluctantly, both as lover and physician. He was by no means satisfied with her condition. He called to inquire the next day--but she was engaged and sent word to say she was "better."
In the excitement attending the advent of the new preacher the slight illness of the charming widow was forgotten. He had taken the settlement by storm. His first sermon at Laurel Spring exceeded even the extravagant reputation that had preceded him. Known as the "Inspired Cowboy," a common unlettered frontiersman, he was said to have developed wonderful powers of exhortatory eloquence among the Indians, and scarcely less savage border communities where he had lived, half outcast, half missionary. He had just come up from the Southern agricultural districts, where he had been, despite his rude antecedents, singularly effective with women and young people. The moody dyspeptics and lazy rustics of Laurel Spring were stirred as with a new patent medicine. Dr. Blair went to the first "revival" meeting. Without undervaluing the man's influence, he was instinctively repelled by his appearance and methods. The young physician's trained powers of observation not only saw an overwrought emotionalism in the speaker's eloquence, but detected the ring of insincerity in his more lucid speech and acts. Nevertheless, the hysteria of the preacher was communicated to the congregation, who wept and shouted with him. Tired and discontented housewives found their vague sorrows and vaguer longings were only the result of their "unregenerate" state; the lazy country youths felt that the frustration of their small ambitions lay in their not being "convicted of sin." The mourners' bench was crowded with wildly emulating sinners. Dr. Blair turned away with mingled feelings of amusement and contempt. At the door Jim Slocum tapped him on the shoulder: "Fetches the wimmin folk every time, don't he, Doctor?" said Jim.
"So it seems," said Blair dryly.
"You're one o' them scientific fellers that look inter things--what do YOU allow it is?"
The young doctor restrained the crushing answer that rose to his lips. He had learned caution in that neighborhood. "I couldn't say," he said indifferently.
"'Tain't no religion," said Slocum emphatically; "it's jest pure fas'nation. Did ye look at his eye? It's like a rattlesnake's, and them wimmin are like birds. They're frightened of him--but they hev to do jest what he 'wills' 'em. That's how he skeert the widder the other day."
The doctor was alert and on fire at once. "Scared the widow?" he repeated indignantly.
"Yes. You know how she swooned away. Well, sir, me and that preacher, Brown, was the only one in that dinin' room at the time. The widder opened the door behind me and sorter peeked in, and that thar preacher give a start and looked up; and then, that sort of queer light come in his eyes, and she shut the door, and kinder fluttered and flopped down in the passage outside, like a bird! And he crawled away like a snake, and never said a word! My belief is that either he hadn't time to turn on the hull influence, or else she, bein' smart, got the door shut betwixt her and it in time! Otherwise, sure as you're born, she'd hev been floppin' and crawlin' and sobbin' arter him--jist like them critters we've left."
"Better not let the brethren hear you talk like that, or they'll lynch you," said the doctor, with a laugh. "Mrs. MacGlowrie simply had an attack of faintness from some overexertion, that's all."
Nevertheless, he was uneasy as he walked away. Mrs. MacGlowrie had evidently received a shock which was still unexplained, and, in spite of Slocum's exaggerated fancy, there might be some foundation in his story. He did not share the man's superstition, although he was not a skeptic regarding magnetism. Yet even then, the widow's action was one of repulsion, and as long as she was strong enough not to come to these meetings, she was not in danger. A day or two later, as he was passing the garden of the hotel on horseback, he saw her lithe, graceful, languid figure bending over one of her favorite flower beds. The high fence partially concealed him from view, and she evidently believed herself alone. Perhaps that was why she suddenly raised herself from her task, put back her straying hair with a weary, abstracted look, remained for a moment quite still staring at the vacant sky, and then, with a little catching of her breath, resumed her occupation in a dull, mechanical way. In that brief glimpse of her charming face, Blair was shocked at the change; she was pale, the corners of her pretty mouth were drawn, there were deeper shades in the orbits of her eyes, and in spite of her broad garden hat with its blue ribbon, her light flowered frock and frilled apron, she looked as he fancied she might have looked in the first crushing grief of her widowhood. Yet he would have passed on, respecting her privacy of sorrow, had not her little spaniel detected him with her keener senses. And Fluffy being truthful--as dogs are--and recognizing a dear friend in the intruder, barked joyously.
The widow looked up, her eyes met Blair's, and she reddened. But he was too acute a lover to misinterpret what he knew, alas! was only confusion at her abstraction being discovered. Nevertheless, there was something else in her brown eyes he had never seen before. A momentary lighting up of RELIEF--of even hopefulness--in his presence. It was enough for Blair; he shook off his old shyness like the dust of his ride, and galloped around to the front door.
But she met him in the hall with only her usual languid good humor. Nevertheless, Blair was not abashed.
"I can't put you in splints and plaster like Fluffy, Mrs. MacGlowrie," he said, "but I can forbid you to go into the garden unless you're looking better. It's a positive reflection on my professional skill, and Laurel Spring will be shocked, and hold me responsible."
Mrs. MacGlowrie had recovered enough of her old spirit to reply that she thought Laurel Spring could be in better business than looking at her over her garden fence.
"But your dog, who knows you're not well, and doesn't think me quite a fool, had the good sense to call me. You heard him."
But the widow protested that she was as strong as a horse, and that Fluffy was like all puppies, conceited to the last degree.
"Well," said Blair cheerfully, "suppose I admit you are all right, physically, you'll confess you have some trouble on your mind, won't you? If I can't make you SHOW me your tongue, you'll let me hear you USE it to tell me what worries you. If," he added more earnestly, "you won't confide in your physician--you will perhaps--to--to--a--FRIEND."
But Mrs. MacGlowrie, evading his earnest eyes as well as his appeal, was wondering what good it would do either a doctor, or--a--a--she herself seemed to hesitate over the word--"a FRIEND, to hear the worriments of a silly, nervous old thing--who had only stuck a little too closely to her business."
"You are neither nervous nor old, Mrs. MacGlowrie," said the doctor promptly, "though I begin to think you HAVE been too closely confined here. You want more diversion, or--excitement. You might even go to hear this preacher"--he stopped, for the word had slipped from his mouth unawares.
But a swift look of scorn swept her pale face. "And you'd like me to follow those skinny old frumps and leggy, limp chits, that slobber and cry over that man!" she said contemptuously. "No! I reckon I only want a change--and I'll go away, or get out of this for a while."
The poor doctor had not thought of this possible alternative. His heart sank, but he was brave. "Yes, perhaps you are right," he said sadly, "though it would be a dreadful loss--to Laurel Spring--to us all--if you went."
"Do I look so VERY bad, doctor?" she said, with a half-mischievous, half-pathetic smile.
The doctor thought her upturned face very adorable, but restrained his feelings heroically, and contented himself with replying to the pathetic half of her smile. "You look as if you had been suffering," he said gravely, "and I never saw you look so before. You seem as if you had experienced some great shock. Do you know," he went on, in a lower tone and with a half-embarrassed smile, "that when I saw you just now in the garden, you looked as I imagined you might have looked in the first days of your widowhood--when your husband's death was fresh in your heart."
A strange expression crossed her face. Her eyelids dropped instantly, and with both hands she caught up her frilled apron as if to meet them and covered her face. A little shudder seemed to pass over her shoulders, and then a cry that ended in an uncontrollable and half-hysterical laugh followed from the depths of that apron, until shaking her sides, and with her head still enveloped in its covering, she fairly ran into the inner room and closed the door behind her.
Amazed, shocked, and at first indignant, Dr. Blair remained fixed to the spot. Then his indignation gave way to a burning mortification as he recalled his speech. He had made a frightful faux pas! He had been fool enough to try to recall the most sacred memories of that dead husband he was trying to succeed--and her quick woman's wit had detected his ridiculous stupidity. Her laugh was hysterical--but that was only natural in her mixed emotions. He mounted his horse in confusion and rode away.
For a few days he avoided the house. But when he next saw her she had a charming smile of greeting and an air of entire obliviousness of his past blunder. She said she was better. She had taken his advice and was giving herself some relaxation from business. She had been riding again--oh, so far! Alone?--of course; she was always alone--else what would Laurel Spring say?
"True," said Blair smilingly; "besides, I forgot that you are quite able to take care of yourself in an emergency. And yet," he added, admiringly looking at her lithe figure and indolent grace, "do you know I never can associate you with the dreadful scenes they say you have gone through."
"Then please don't!" she said quickly; "really, I'd rather you wouldn't. I'm sick and tired of hearing of it!" She was half laughing and yet half in earnest, with a slight color on her cheek.
Blair was a little embarrassed. "Of course, I don't mean your heroism--like that story of the intruder and the scissors," he stammered.
"Oh, THAT'S the worst of all! It's too foolish--it's sickening!" she went on almost angrily. "I don't know who started that stuff." She paused, and then added shyly, "I really am an awful coward and horribly nervous--as you know."
He would have combated this--but she looked really disturbed, and he had no desire to commit another imprudence. And he thought, too, that he again had seen in her eyes the same hopeful, wistful light he had once seen before, and was happy.
This led him, I fear, to indulge in wilder dreams. His practice, although increasing, barely supported him, and the widow was rich. Her business had been profitable, and she had repaid the advances made her when she first took the hotel. But this disparity in their fortunes which had frightened him before now had no fears for him. He felt that if he succeeded in winning her affections she could afford to wait for him, despite other suitors, until his talents had won an equal position. His rivals had always felt as secure in his poverty as they had in his peaceful profession. How could a poor, simple doctor aspire to the hand of the rich widow of the redoubtable MacGlowrie?
It was late one afternoon, and the low sun was beginning to strike athwart the stark columns and down the long aisles of the redwoods on the High Ridge. The doctor, returning from a patient at the loggers' camp in its depths, had just sighted the smaller groves of Laurel Springs, two miles away. He was riding fast, with his thoughts filled with the widow, when he heard a joyous bark in the underbrush, and Fluffy came bounding towards him. Blair dismounted to caress him, as was his wont, and then, wisely conceiving that his mistress was not far away, sauntered forward exploringly, leading his horse, the dog hounding before him and barking, as if bent upon both leading and announcing him. But the latter he effected first, for as Blair turned from the trail into the deeper woods, he saw the figures of a man and woman walking together suddenly separate at the dog's warning. The woman was Mrs. MacGlowrie--the man was the revival preacher!
Amazed, mystified, and indignant, Blair nevertheless obeyed his first instinct, which was that of a gentleman. He turned leisurely aside as if not recognizing them, led his horse a few paces further, mounted him, and galloped away without turning his head. But his heart was filled with bitterness and disgust. This woman--who but a few days before had voluntarily declared her scorn and contempt for that man and his admirers--had just been giving him a clandestine meeting like one of the most infatuated of his devotees! The story of the widow's fainting, the coarse surmises and comments of Slocum, came back to him with overwhelming significance. But even then his reason forbade him to believe that she had fallen under the preacher's influence--she, with her sane mind and indolent temperament. Yet, whatever her excuse or purpose was, she had deceived him wantonly and cruelly! His abrupt avoidance of her had prevented him from knowing if she, on her part, had recognized him as he rode away. If she HAD, she would understand why he had avoided her, and any explanation must come from her.
Then followed a few days of uncertainty, when his thoughts again reverted to the preacher with returning jealousy. Was she, after all, like other women, and had her gratuitous outburst of scorn of THEIR infatuation been prompted by unsuccessful rivalry? He was too proud to question Slocum again or breathe a word of his fears. Yet he was not strong enough to keep from again seeking the High Ridge, to discover any repetition of that rendezvous. But he saw her neither there, nor elsewhere, during his daily rounds. And one night his feverish anxiety getting the better of him, he entered the great "Gospel Tent" of the revival preacher.
It chanced to be an extraordinary meeting, and the usual enthusiastic audience was reinforced by some sight-seers from the neighboring county town--the district judge and officials from the court in session, among them Colonel Starbottle. The impassioned revivalist--his eyes ablaze with fever, his lank hair wet with perspiration, hanging beside his heavy but weak jaws--was concluding a fervent exhortation to his auditors to confess their sins, "accept conviction," and regenerate then and there, without delay. They must put off "the old Adam," and put on the flesh of righteousness at once! They were to let no false shame or worldly pride keep them from avowing their guilty past before their brethren. Sobs and groans followed the preacher's appeals; his own agitation and convulsive efforts seemed to spread in surging waves through the congregation, until a dozen men and women arose, staggering like drunkards blindly, or led or dragged forward by sobbing sympathizers towards the mourners' bench. And prominent among them, but stepping jauntily and airily forward, was the redoubtable and worldly Colonel Starbottle!
At this proof of the orator's power the crowd shouted--but stopped suddenly, as the colonel halted before the preacher, and ascended the rostrum beside him. Then taking a slight pose with his gold-headed cane in one hand and the other thrust in the breast of his buttoned coat, he said in his blandest, forensic voice:--
"If I mistake not, sir, you are advising these ladies and gentlemen to a free and public confession of their sins and a--er--denunciation of their past life--previous to their conversion. If I am mistaken I--er--ask your pardon, and theirs and--er--hold myself responsible--er--personally responsible!"
The preacher glanced uneasily at the colonel, but replied, still in the hysterical intonation of his exordium:--
"Yes! a complete searching of hearts--a casting out of the seven Devils of Pride, Vain Glory"--
"Thank you--that is sufficient," said the colonel blandly. "But might I--er--be permitted to suggest that you--er--er--SET THEM THE EXAMPLE! The statement of the circumstances attending your own past life and conversion would be singularly interesting and exemplary."
The preacher turned suddenly and glanced at the colonel with furious eyes set in an ashy face.
"If this is the flouting and jeering of the Ungodly and Dissolute," he screamed, "woe to you! I say--woe to you! What have such as YOU to do with my previous state of unregeneracy?"
"Nothing," said the colonel blandly, "unless that state were also the STATE OF ARKANSAS! Then, sir, as a former member of the Arkansas BAR--I might be able to assist your memory--and--er--even corroborate your confession."
But here the enthusiastic adherents of the preacher, vaguely conscious of some danger to their idol, gathered threateningly round the platform from which he had promptly leaped into their midst, leaving the colonel alone, to face the sea of angry upturned faces. But that gallant warrior never altered his characteristic pose. Behind him loomed the reputation of the dozen duels he had fought, the gold-headed stick on which he leaned was believed to contain eighteen inches of shining steel--and the people of Laurel Spring had discretion.
He smiled suavely, stepped jauntily down, and made his way to the entrance without molestation.
But here he was met by Blair and Slocum, and a dozen eager questions:--
"What was it?" "What had he done?" "WHO was he?"
"A blank shyster, who had swindled the widows and orphans in Arkansas and escaped from jail."
"And his name isn't Brown?"
"No," said the colonel curtly.
"What is it?"
"That is a matter which concerns only myself and him, sir," said the colonel loftily; "but for which I am--er--personally responsible."
A wild idea took possession of Blair.
"And you say he was a noted desperado?" he said with nervous hesitation.
The colonel glared.
"Desperado, sir! Never! Blank it all!--a mean, psalm-singing, crawling, sneak thief!"
And Blair felt relieved without knowing exactly why.
The next day it was known that the preacher, Gabriel Brown, had left Laurel Spring on an urgent "Gospel call" elsewhere.
Colonel Starbottle returned that night with his friends to the county town. Strange to say, a majority of the audience had not grasped the full significance of the colonel's unseemly interruption, and those who had, as partisans, kept it quiet. Blair, tortured by doubt, had a new delicacy added to his hesitation, which left him helpless until the widow should take the initiative in explanation.
A sudden summons from his patient at the loggers' camp the next day brought him again to the fateful redwoods. But he was vexed and mystified to find, on arriving at the camp, that he had been made the victim of some stupid blunder, and that no message had been sent from there. He was returning abstractedly through the woods when he was amazed at seeing at a little distance before him the flutter of Mrs. MacGlowrie's well-known dark green riding habit and the figure of the lady herself. Her dog was not with her, neither was the revival preacher--or he might have thought the whole vision a trick of his memory. But she slackened her pace, and he was obliged to rein up abreast of her in some confusion.
"I hope I won't shock you again by riding alone through the woods with a man," she said with a light laugh.
Nevertheless, she was quite pale as he answered, somewhat coldly, that he had no right to be shocked at anything she might choose to do.
"But you WERE shocked, for you rode away the last time without speaking," she said; "and yet"--she looked up suddenly into his eyes with a smileless face--"that man you saw me with once had a better right to ride alone with me than any other man. He was"--
"Your lover?" said Blair with brutal brevity.
"My husband!" returned Mrs. MacGlowrie slowly.
"Then you are NOT a widow," gasped Blair.
"No. I am only a divorced woman. That is why I have had to live a lie here. That man--that hypocrite--whose secret was only half exposed the other night, was my husband--divorced from me by the law, when, an escaped convict, he fled with another woman from the State three years ago." Her face flushed and whitened again; she put up her hand blindly to her straying hair, and for an instant seemed to sway in the saddle.
But Blair as quickly leaped from his horse, and was beside her. "Let me help you down," he said quickly, "and rest yourself until you are better." Before she could reply, he lifted her tenderly to the ground and placed her on a mossy stump a little distance from the trail. Her color and a faint smile returned to her troubled face.
"Had we not better go on?" she said, looking around. "I never went so far as to sit down in the woods with HIM that day."
"Forgive me," he said pleadingly, "but, of course, I knew nothing. I disliked the man from instinct--I thought he had some power over you."
"He has none--except the secret that would also have exposed himself."
"But others knew it. Colonel Starbottle must have known his name? And yet"--as he remembered he stammered--"he refused to tell me."
"Yes, but not because he knew he was my husband, but because he knew he bore the same name. He thinks, as every one does, that my husband died in San Francisco. The man who died there was my husband's cousin--a desperate man and a noted duelist."
"And YOU assumed to be HIS widow?" said the astounded Blair.
"Yes, but don't blame me too much," she said pathetically. "It was a wild, a silly deceit, but it was partly forced upon me. For when I first arrived across the plains, at the frontier, I was still bearing my husband's name, and although I was alone and helpless, I found myself strangely welcomed and respected by those rude frontiersmen. It was not long before I saw it was because I was presumed to be the widow of ALLEN MacGlowrie--who had just died in San Francisco. I let them think so, for I knew--what they did not--that Allen's wife had separated from him and married again, and that my taking his name could do no harm. I accepted their kindness; they gave me my first start in business, which brought me here. It was not much of a deceit," she continued, with a slight tremble of her pretty lip, "to prefer to pass as the widow of a dead desperado than to be known as the divorced wife of a living convict. It has hurt no one, and it has saved me just now."
"You were right! No one could blame you," said Blair eagerly, seizing her hand.
But she disengaged it gently, and went on:--
"And now you wonder why I gave him a meeting here?"
"I wonder at nothing but your courage and patience in all this suffering!" said Blair fervently; "and at your forgiving me for so cruelly misunderstanding you."
"But you must learn all. When I first saw MacGlowrie under his assumed name, I fainted, for I was terrified and believed he knew I was here and had come to expose me even at his own risk. That was why I hesitated between going away or openly defying him. But it appears he was more frightened than I at finding me here--he had supposed I had changed my name after the divorce, and that Mrs. MacGlowrie, Laurel Spring, was his cousin's widow. When he found out who I was he was eager to see me and agree upon a mutual silence while he was here. He thought only of himself," she added scornfully, "and Colonel Starbottle's recognition of him that night as the convicted swindler was enough to put him to flight."
"And the colonel never suspected that you were his wife?" said Blair.
"Never! He supposed from the name that he was some relation of my husband, and that was why he refused to tell it--for my sake. The colonel is an old fogy--and pompous--but a gentleman--as good as they make them!"
A slightly jealous uneasiness and a greater sense of shame came over Blair.
"I seem to have been the only one who suspected and did not aid you," he said sadly, "and yet God knows"--
The widow had put up her slim hand in half-smiling, half-pathetic interruption.
"Wait! I have not told you everything. When I took over the responsibility of being Allen MacGlowrie's widow, I had to take over HER relations and HER history as I gathered it from the frontiersmen. I never frightened any grizzly--I never jabbed anybody with the scissors; it was SHE who did it. I never was among the Injins--I never had any fighting relations; my paw was a plain farmer. I was only a peaceful Blue Grass girl--there! I never thought there was any harm in it; it seemed to keep the men off, and leave me free--until I knew you! And you know I didn't want you to believe it--don't you?"
She hid her flushed face and dimples in her handkerchief.
"But did you never think there might be another way to keep the men off, and sink the name of MacGlowrie forever?" said Blair in a lower voice.
"I think we must be going back now," said the widow timidly, withdrawing her hand, which Blair had again mysteriously got possession of in her confusion.
"But wait just a few minutes longer to keep me company," said Blair pleadingly. "I came here to see a patient, and as there must have been some mistake in the message--I must try to discover it."
"Oh! Is that all?" said the widow quickly. "Why?"--she flushed again and laughed faintly--"Well! I am that patient! I wanted to see you alone to explain everything, and I could think of no other way. I'm afraid I've got into the habit of thinking nothing of being somebody else."
"I wish you would let me select who you should be," said the doctor boldly.
"We really must go back--to the horses," said the widow.
"Agreed--if we will ride home together."
They did. And before the year was over, although they both remained, the name of MacGlowrie had passed out of Laurel Spring.
* * * * * * * * * * * *