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Four days later he received a note from Miss Hathaway:—
“Nina Randolph is dying; I have just seen her doctor, who is also ours. I do not know if this will interest you. She is at Redwoods.”
An hour later Thorpe was in the train. He had not stopped to deliberate. Nothing could alter the fact that Nina Randolph was his, and eternally. He responded to the summons as instinctively as if she had been his wife for the past ten years. Nor did he shrink from the death-bed scene; hell itself could not be worse than the condition of his mind had been during the past four days.
There was no trap for hire at the station; he walked the mile to the house. It was a pale-blue blazing day. The May sun shone with the intolerable Californian glare. The roads were already dusty. But when he reached the avenue at Redwoods, the temperature changed at once. The trees grew close together, and the creek, full to the top, cooled the air; it was racing merrily along, several fine salmon on its surface. He experienced a momentary desire to spear them. Suddenly he returned to the gates; he had carried into the avenue a sense of something changed. He looked down the road sharply,—the road up which he had come the last time he had visited Redwoods, choking on a lumbering stage. Then he looked up the wooded valley, and back again. It was some moments before he realised wherein lay the change that had disturbed his introspective vision; one of the great redwoods that had stood by the bridge where the creek curved just beyond the entrance to the grounds, was gone. He wondered what had happened to it, and retraced his steps.
The house, the pretty little toy castle with its yellow-plastered brown-trimmed walls, looked the same; he had but an indistinct memory of it. Involuntarily, his gaze travelled to the mountains; they were a mass of blurred redwoods in a dark-blue mist. But they were serene and beautiful; so was all nature about him.
He rang the bell. Cochrane opened the door. The man had aged; but his face was as stolid as ever.
“Mr. Thorpe, sir?” he said.
“Yes; I wish to see Miss—Mrs. Clough.”
“She won’t live the day out, sir.”
“Show me up to her room. I shall stay here. Is any one else with her?”
“No, sir; Mrs. Randolph has been no good these two days, and the maid that has been looking out for Miss Nina is asleep. I’ve been giving her her medicine. We don’t like strange nurses here. Times are changed, and everybody knows now; but we keep to ourselves as much as possible. There’ve been times when we’ve had company—too much; but I made up my mind they should die alone. You can go up, though.”
“Thanks. You can go to sleep, if you wish.”
Cochrane led him down the hall with its beautiful inlaid floor, scratched and dull, up the wide stair with its faded velvet carpet, and opened the door of a large front room.
“The drops on the table are to be given every hour, sir; the next at twenty minutes to two.” He closed the door and went away.
The curtains of the room were wide apart. The sun flaunted itself upon the old carpet, the handsome old-fashioned furniture. Thorpe went straight to the windows, and drew the curtains together, then walked slowly to the bed.
Nina lay with her eyes open, watching him intently. Her face was pallid and sunken; but she looked less unlike her old self. She took his hand and pressed it feebly.
“I am sorry I spoke so roughly the other day,” she said. “But I was not quite myself. I have touched nothing since; I couldn’t, after seeing you. It is that that is killing me; but don’t let it worry you. I am very glad.”
Thorpe sat down beside her and chafed her hands gently. They were cold.
“It was a beautiful little baby,” she said, abruptly. “And it looked so much like you that it was almost ridiculous.”
“I was a brute to have left you, whether you wished it or not. It is no excuse to say that the consequences never entered my head, I was half mad that morning; and after what you had told me, I think I was glad to get away for a time.”
“We both did what we believed to be best, and ruined—well, my life, and your best chance of happiness, perhaps. It is often so, I notice. Too much happiness is not a good thing for the world, I suppose. It is only the people of moderate desires and capacities that seem to get what they want. But it was a great pity; we could have been very happy. Did you care much?”
He showed her his own soul then, naked and tormented,—as it had been from the hour he had received her letters upon his return from the West Indies until Time had done its work upon him,—and as it was now and must be for long months to come. Of the intervening years he gave no account; he had forgotten them. She listened with her head eagerly lifted, her vision piercing his. He made the story short. When he had finished, her head fell back. She gave a long sigh. Was it of content? She made no other comment. She was past conventions; her emotions were already dead. And she was at last in that stage of development wherein one accepts the facts of life with little or no personal application.
“It didn’t surprise me when you came in,” she said, after a moment. “I felt that you would come—My life has been terrible, terrible! Do you realise that! Have they told you? No woman has ever fallen lower than I have done. I am sorry, for your sake; I can’t repent in the ordinary way. I have an account to square with God, if I ever meet Him and He presumes to judge me. If you will forgive me, that is all that I care about.”
“I forgive you! Good God, I wonder you don’t hate me!”
“I did for a time, not because I blamed you, but because I hated everybody and everything. There were intervals of terrible retrospect and regret; but I made them as infrequent as I could, and finally I stifled them altogether. I grew out of touch with every memory of a life when I was comparatively innocent and happy. I strove to make myself so evil that I could not distinguish an echo if one tried to make itself heard; and I succeeded. Now, all that has fallen from me,—in the last few hours, since I have had relief from physical torments,—for I could not drink after I saw you, and I had to pay the penalty. It is not odd, I suppose, that I should suddenly revert: my impulses originally were all toward good, my mental impulses; the appetite was always a purely physical thing; and when Death approaches, he stretches out a long hand and brushes aside the rubbish of life, letting the soul’s flower see the light again for a few moments. Give me the drops. Now that you are here, I want to live as long as I can.”
He lifted her head, and gave her the medicine. She lay back suddenly, pinioning his arm.
“Let it stay there,” she said.
“Are you sure, Nina, that your case is so bad?” he asked. “Couldn’t you make an effort, and let me take you to England?”
She shook her head with a cynical smile. “My machinery is like a dilapidated old engine that has been eaten up with rust, and battered by stones for twenty years. There isn’t a bit of me that isn’t in pieces.”
She closed her eyes, and slept for a half hour. He put both arms about her and his head beside hers.
“Dudley,” she said, finally.
“I had not thought of the baby for God knows how many years. It was no memory for me. But since the other day I have been haunted by that poor little grave in the big forest—”
“Would you like to have it brought down to Lone Mountain?”
She hesitated a moment, then shook her head.
“No,” she said. “In the vault with my mother and—and—him? Oh, no! no!”
“If I build a little vault for you and her will you sign a paper giving me—certain rights?”
Her face illuminated for the first time. “Oh, yes!” she said. “Oh, yes! Then I think I could sleep in peace.”
Thorpe rang for Cochrane and the gardener, wrote the paper, and had it duly witnessed. It took but a few moments, and they were alone again.
“I wonder if I shall see her—and you again, or if my unlucky star sets in this world to rise in the next? Well, I shall know soon.
“I am going, I think,” she said a few moments later. “Would you mind kissing me? Death has already taken the sin out of my body, and down deep is something that never was wholly blackened. That is yours. Take it.”
It was an hour before she died, and during that hour he kissed her many times.
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