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Nicky Dyer and the schoolmistress sat upon the slope of a hill, one of a low range overlooking an arid Californian valley. These sunburnt slopes were traversed by many narrow footpaths, descending, ascending, winding among the tangle of poison-oak and wild-rose bushes, leading from the miners' cabins to the shaft-houses and tunnels of the mine which gave to the hills their only importance. Nicky was a stout Cornish lad of thirteen, with large light eyes that seemed mildly to protest against the sportive relation which a broad, freckled, turned-up nose bore to the rest of his countenance; he was doing nothing in particular, and did it as if he were used to it. The schoolmistress sat with her skirts tucked round her ankles, the heels of her stout little boots driven well into the dry, gritty soil. There was in her attitude the tension of some slight habitual strain--perhaps of endurance--as she leaned forward, her arms stretched straight before her, with her delicate fingers interlocked. Whatever may be the type of Californian young womanhood, it was not her type; you felt, looking at her cool, clear tints and slight, straight outlines, that she had winter in her blood.
She was gazing down into the valley, as one looks at a landscape who has not yet mastered all its changes of expression; its details were blurred in the hot, dusty glare; the mountains opposite had faded to a flat outline against the indomitable sky. A light wind blew up the slope, flickering the pale leaves of a manzanita, whose burnished, cinnamon-colored stems glowed in the sun. As the breeze strengthened, the young girl stood up, lifting her arms, to welcome its coolness on her bare wrists.
"Nicky, why do the trees in that hollow between the hills look so green?"
"There'll be water over there, miss; that's the Chilano's spring. I'm thinkin' the old cow might 'a' strayed over that way somewheres; they mostly goes for the water, wherever it is."
"Is it running water, Nicky,--not water in a tank?"
"Why, no, miss; it cooms right out o' the rock as pretty as iver you saw! I often goes there myself for a drink, cos it tastes sort o' different, coomin' out o' the ground like. We wos used to that kind o' water at 'ome."
"Let us go, Nicky," said the girl. "I should like to taste that water, too. Do we cross the hill first, or is there a shorter way?"
"Over the 'ill's the shortest, miss. It's a bit of a ways, but you've been longer ways nor they for less at th' end on't."
They "tacked" down the steepest part of the hill, and waded through a shady hollow, where ferns grew rank and tall,--crisp, faded ferns, with an aromatic odor which escaped by the friction of their garments, like the perfume of warmed amber. They reached at length the green trees, a clump of young cottonwoods at the entrance to a narrow canon, and followed the dry bed of a stream for some distance, until water began to show among the stones. The principal outlet of the spring was on a small plantation at the head of the canon, rented of the "company" by a Chilian, or "the Chilano," as he was called; he was not at all a pastoral-looking personage, but, with the aid of his good water, he earned a moderately respectable living by supplying the neighboring cabins and the miners' boarding-house with green vegetables. After a temporary disappearance, as if to purge its memory of the Chilano's water-buckets, the spring again revealed itself in a thin, clear trickle down the hollowed surface of a rock which closed the narrow passage of the canon. Young sycamores and cottonwoods shut out the sun above; their tangled roots, interlaced with vines still green and growing, trailed over the edge of the rock, where a mass of earth had fallen; green moss lined the hollows of the rock, and water-plants grew in the dark pools below.
The strollers had left behind them the heat and glare; only the breeze followed them into this green stillness, stirring the boughs overhead and scattering spots of sunlight over the wet stones. Nicky, after enjoying for a few moments the schoolmistress' surprised delight, proposed that she should wait for him at the spring, while he went "down along" in search of his cow. Nicky was not without a certain awe of the schoolmistress, as a part of creation he had not fathomed in all its bearings; but when they rambled on the hills together, he found himself less uneasily conscious of her personality, and more comfortably aware of the fact that, after all, she was "nothin' but a woman." He was a trifle disappointed that she showed no uneasiness at being left alone, but consoled himself by the reflection that she was "a good un to 'old 'er tongue," and probably felt more than she expressed.
The schoolmistress did not look in the least disconsolate after Nicky's departure. She gazed about her very contentedly for a while, and then prepared to help herself to a drink of water. She hollowed her two hands into a cup, and waited for it to fill, stooping below the rock, her lifted skirt held against her side by one elbow, while she watched with a childish eagerness the water trickle into her pink palms. Miss Frances Newell had never looked prettier in her life. A pretty girl is always prettier in the open air, with her head uncovered. Her cheeks were red; the sun just touched the roughened braids of dark brown hair, and intensified the glow of a little ear which showed beneath. She stooped to drink; but Miss Frances was destined never to taste that virgin cup of water. There was a trampling among the bushes, overhead; a little shower of dust and pebbles pattered down upon her bent head, soiling the water. She let her hands fall as she looked up, with a startled "Oh!" A pair of large boots were rapidly making their way down the bank, and the cause of all this disturbance stood before her,--a young man in a canvas jacket, with a leathern case slung across his shoulder, and a small tin lamp fastened in front of the hat which he took off while he apologized to the girl for his intrusion.
"Miss Newell! Forgive me for dropping down on you like a thousand of brick! You've found the spring, I see."
Miss Frances stood with her elbows still pressed to her sides, though her skirt had slipped down into the water, her wet palms helplessly extended. "I was getting a drink," she said, searching with the tips of her fingers among the folds of her dress for a handkerchief. "You came just in time to remind me of the slip between the cup and the lip."
"I'm very sorry, but there is plenty of water left. I came for some myself. Let me help you." He took from one of the many pockets stitched into the breast and sides of his jacket a covered flask, detached the cup, and, after carefully rinsing, filled and handed it to the girl. "I hope it doesn't taste of 'store claret;' the water underground is just a shade worse than that exalted vintage."
"It is delicious, thank you, and it doesn't taste in the least of claret. Have you just come out of the mine?"
"Yes. It is measuring-up day. I've been toddling through the drifts and sliding down chiflons"--he looked ruefully at the backs of his trousers legs--"ever since seven o'clock this morning. Haven't had time to eat any luncheon yet, you see." He took from another pocket a small package folded in a coarse napkin. "I came here to satisfy the pangs of hunger and enjoy the beauties of nature at the same time,--such nature as we have here. Will you excuse me, Miss Newell? I'll promise to eat very fast."
"I'll excuse you if you will not ask me to eat with you."
"Oh, I've entirely too much consideration for myself to think of such a thing; there isn't enough for two."
He seated himself, with a little sigh, and opened the napkin on the ground before him. Miss Newell stood leaning against a rock on the opposite side of the brook, regarding the young man with a shy and smiling curiosity. "Meals," he continued, "are a reckless tribute to the weakness of the flesh we all engage in three times a day at the boarding-house; a man must eat, you know, if he expects to live. Have you ever tried any of Mrs. Bondy's fare, Miss Newell?"
"I'm sure Mrs. Bondy tries to have everything very nice," the young girl replied, with some embarrassment.
"Of course she does; she is a very good old girl. I think a great deal of Mrs. Bondy; but when she asks me if I have enjoyed my dinner, I always make a point of telling her the truth; she respects me for it. This is her idea of sponge cake, you see." He held up admiringly a damp slab of some compact pale-yellow substance, with crumbs of bread adhering to one side. "It is a little mashed, but otherwise a fair specimen."
Miss Frances laughed. "Mr. Arnold, I think you are too bad. How can she help it, with those dreadful Chinamen? But I would really advise you not to eat that cake; it doesn't look wholesome."
"Oh, as to that, I've never observed any difference; one thing is about as wholesome as another. Did you ever eat bacon fried by China Sam? The sandwiches were made of that. You see I still live." The sponge cake was rapidly disappearing. "Miss Newell, you look at me as if I were making away with myself, instead of the cake,--will you appear at the inquest?"
"No, I will not testify to anything so unromantic; besides, it might be inconvenient for Mrs. Bondy's cook." She put on her hat, and stepped along the stones towards the entrance to the glen.
"You are not going to refuse me the last offices?"
"I am going to look for Nicky Dyer. He came with me to show me the spring, and now he has gone to hunt for his cow."
"And you are going to hunt for him? I hope you won't try it, Miss Frances: a boy on the track of a cow is a very uncertain object in life. Let me call him, if you really must have him."
"Oh, don't trouble yourself. I suppose he will come after a while. I said I would wait for him here."
"Then permit me to say that I think you had better do as you promised."
Miss Frances recrossed the stones, and seated herself, with a faint deprecatory smile.
"I hope you don't mind if I stay," Arnold said, moving some loose stones to make her seat more comfortable. "You have the prior right to-day, but this is an old haunt of mine. I feel as if I were doing the honors; and to tell you the truth, I am rather used up. The new workings are very hot and the drifts are low. It's a combination of steam-bath and hoeing corn."
The girl's face cleared, as she looked at him. His thin cheek was pale under the tan, and where his hat was pushed back the hair clung in damp points to his forehead and temples.
"I should be very sorry to drive you away," she said. "I thought you looked tired. If you want to go to sleep, or anything, I will promise to be very quiet."
Arnold laughed. "Oh, I'm not such an utter wreck; but I'm glad you can be very quiet. I was afraid you might be a little uproarious at times, you know."
The girl gave a sudden shy laugh. It was really a giggle, but a very sweet, girlish giggle. It called up a look of keen pleasure to Arnold's face.
"Now I call this decidedly gay," he remarked, stretching out his long legs slowly, and leaning against a slanting rock, with one arm behind his head. "Miss Frances, will you be good enough to tell me that my face isn't dirty?"
"Truth compels me to admit that you have one little daub over your left eyebrow."
"Thank you," said Arnold, rubbing it languidly with his handkerchief. His hat had dropped off, and he did not replace it; he did not look at the girl, but let his eyes rest on the thread of falling water that gleamed from the spring. Miss Frances, regarding him with some timidity, thought: How much younger he looks without his hat! He had that sensitive fairness which in itself gives a look of youth and purity; the sternness of his face lay in the curves which showed under his mustache, and in the silent, dominant eye.
"You've no idea how good it sounds to a lonely fellow like me," he said, "to hear a girl's laugh."
"But there are a great many women here," Miss Frances observed.
"Oh yes, there are women everywhere, such as they are; but it takes a nice girl, a lady, to laugh!"
"I don't agree with you at all," replied Miss Frances coldly. "Some of those Mexican women have the sweetest voices, speaking or laughing, that I have ever heard; and the Cornish women, too, have very fresh, pure voices. I often listen to them in the evening when I sit alone in my room. Their voices sound so happy"--
"Well, then it is the home accent,--or I'm prejudiced. Don't laugh again, please, Miss Frances; it breaks me all up." He moved his head a little, and looked across at the girl to assure himself that her silence did not mean disapproval. "I admit," he went on, "that I like our Eastern girls. I know you are from the East, Miss Newell."
"I am from what I used to think was East," she said, smiling. "But everything is East here; people from Indiana and Wisconsin say they are from the East."
"Ah, but you are from our old Atlantic coast. I was sure of it when I first saw you. If you will pardon me, I knew it by your way of dressing."
The young girl flushed with pleasure; then, with a reflective air: "I confess myself, since you speak of clothes, to a feeling of relief when I saw your hat the first Sunday after I came. Western men wear such dreadful hats."
"Good!" he cried gayly. "You mean my hat that I call a hat." He reached for the one behind his head, and spun it lightly upward, where it settled on a projecting branch. "I respect that hat myself,--my other hat, I mean; I'm trying to live up to it. Now, let me guess your State, Miss Newell: is it Massachusetts?"
"No,--Connecticut; but at this distance it seems like the same thing."
"Oh, pardon me, there are very decided differences. I'm from Massachusetts myself. Perhaps the points of difference show more in the women,--the ones who stay at home, I mean, and become more local and idiomatic than the men. You are not one of the daughters of the soil, Miss Newell."
She looked pained as she said, "I wish I were; but there is not room for us all, where there is so little soil."
Arnold moved uneasily, extracted a stone from under the small of his back and tossed it out of sight with some vehemence. "You think it goes rather hard with women who are uprooted, then," he said. "I suppose it is something a roving man can hardly conceive of,--a woman's attachment to places, and objects, and associations; they are like cats."
Miss Newell was silent.
Arnold moved restlessly; then began again, with his eyes still on the trickle of water: "Miss Newell, do you remember a poem--I think it is Bryant's--called 'The Hunter of the Prairies'? It's no disgrace not to remember it, and it may not be Bryant's."
"I remember seeing it, but I never read it. I always skipped those Western things."
Arnold gave a short laugh, and said, "Well, you are punished, you see, by going West yourself to hear me repeat it to you. I think I can give you the idea in the Hunter's own words:--
"'Here, with my rifle and my steed, And her who left the world for me'"--
The sound of his own voice in the stillness of the little glen, and a look of surprise in the young girl's quiet eyes, brought a sudden access of color to Arnold's face. "Hm-m-m," he murmured to himself, "it's queer how rhymes slip away. Well, the last line ends in free. You see, it is a man's idea of happiness,--a young man's. Now, how do you suppose she liked it,--the girl, you know, who left the world, and all that? Did you ever happen to see a poem or a story, written by a woman, celebrating the joys of a solitary existence with the man of her heart?"
"I suppose that many a woman has tried it," Miss Newell said evasively, "but I'm sure she"--
"Never lived to tell the tale?" cried Arnold.
"She probably had something else to do, while the hunter was riding around with his gun," Miss Frances continued.
"Well, give her the odds of the rifle and the steed; give the man some commonplace employment to take the swagger out of him; let him come home reasonably tired and cross at night,--do you suppose he would find the 'kind' eyes and the 'smile'? I forgot to tell you that the Hunter of the Prairies is always welcomed by a smile at night."
"He must have been an uncommonly fortunate man," she said.
"Of course he was; but the question is: Could any living man be so fortunate? Come, Miss Frances, don't prevaricate!"
"Well, am I speaking for the average woman?"
"Oh, not at all,--you are speaking for the very nicest of women; any other kind would be intolerable on a prairie."
"I should think, if she were very healthy," said Miss Newell, hesitating between mischief and shyness, "and not too imaginative, and of a cheerful disposition; and if he, the hunter, were above the average,--supposing that she cared for him in the beginning,--I should think the smile might last a year or two."
"Heavens, what a cynic you are! I feel like a mere daub of sentiment beside you. There have been moments, do you know, even in this benighted mining camp, when I have believed in that hunter and his smile!"
He got up suddenly, and stood against the rock, facing her. Although he kept his cool, bantering tone, his breathing had quickened, and his eyes looked darker.
"You may consider me a representative man, if you please: I speak for hundreds of us scattered about in mining camps and on cattle ranches, in lighthouses and frontier farms and military posts, and all the Godforsaken holes you can conceive of, where men are trying to earn a living, or lose one,--we are all going to the dogs for the want of that smile! What is to become of us if the women whose smiles we care for cannot support life in the places where we have to live? Come, Miss Frances, can't you make that smile last at least two years?" He gathered a handful of dry leaves from a broken branch above his head and crushed them in his long hands, sifting the yellow dust upon the water below.
"The places you speak of are very different," the girl answered, with a shade of uneasiness in her manner. "A mining camp is anything but a solitude, and a military post may be very gay."
"Oh, the principle is the same. It is the absolute giving up of everything. You know most women require a background of family and friends and congenial surroundings; the question is whether any woman can do without them."
The young girl moved in a constrained way, and flushed as she said, "It must always be an experiment, I suppose, and its success would depend, as I said before, on the woman and on the man."
"An 'experiment' is good!" said Arnold, rather savagely. "I see you won't say anything you can't swear to."
"I really do not see that I am called upon to say anything on the subject at all!" said the girl, rising and looking at him across the brook with indignant eyes and a hot glow on her cheek.
He did not appear to notice her annoyance.
"You are, because you know something about it, and most women don't: your testimony is worth something. How long have you been here,--a year? I wonder how it seems to a woman to live in a place like this a year! I hate it all, you know,--I've seen so much of it. But is there really any beauty here? I suppose beauty, and all that sort of thing, is partly within us, isn't it?--at least, that's what the goody little poems tell us."
"I think it is very beautiful here," said Miss Frances, softening, as he laid aside his strained manner, and spoke more quietly. "It is the kind of place a happy woman might be very happy in; but if she were sad--or--disappointed"--
"Well?" said Arnold, pulling at his mustache, and fixing a rather gloomy gaze upon her.
"She would die of it! I really do not think there would be any hope for her in a place like this."
"But if she were happy, as you say," persisted the young man, "don't you think her woman's adaptability and quick imagination would help her immensely? She wouldn't see what I, for instance, know to be ugly and coarse; her very ignorance of the world would help her."
There was a vague, pleading look in his eyes. "Arrange it to suit yourself," she said. "Only, I can assure you, if anything should happen to her, it will be the--the hunter's fault."
"All right," said he, rousing himself. "That hunter, if I know him, is a man who is used to taking risks! Where are you going?"
"I thought I heard Nicky."
They were both silent, and as they listened, footsteps, with a tinkling accompaniment, crackled among the bushes below the canon. Miss Newell turned towards the spring again. "I want one more drink before I go," she said.
Arnold followed her. "Let us drink to our return. Let this be our fountain of Trevi."
"Oh, no," said Miss Frances. "Don't you remember what your favorite Bryant says about bringing the 'faded fancies of an elder world' into these 'virgin solitudes'?"
"Faded fancies!" cried Arnold. "Do you call that a faded fancy? It is as fresh and graceful as youth itself, and as natural. I should have thought of it myself, if there had been no fountain of Trevi."
"Do you think so?" smiled the girl. "Then imagination, it would seem, is not entirely confined to homesick women."
"Come, fill the cup, Miss Frances! Nicky is almost here."
The girl held her hands beneath the trickle again, until they were brimming with the clear sweet water.
"Drink first," said Arnold.
"I'm not sure that I want to return," she replied, smiling, with her eyes on the space of sky between the treetops.
"Nonsense,--you must be morbid. Drink, drink!"
"Drink yourself; the water is all running away!"
He bent his head, and took a vigorous sip of the water, holding his hands beneath hers, inclosing the small cup in the larger one. The small cup trembled a little. He was laughing and wiping his mustache, when Nicky appeared; and Miss Frances, suddenly brightening and recovering her freedom of movement, exclaimed, "Why, Nicky! You have been forever! We must go at once, Mr. Arnold; so good-by! I hope"--
She did not say what she hoped, and Arnold, after looking at her with an interrogative smile a moment, caught his hat from the branch overhead, and made her a great flourishing bow with it in his hand.
He did not follow her, pushing her way through the swaying, rustling ferns, but he watched her light figure out of sight. "What an extraordinary ass I've been making of myself!" He confided this remark to the stillness of the little canon, and then, with long strides, took his way over the hills in an opposite direction.
It was the middle of July when this little episode of the spring occurred. The summer had reached its climax. The dust did not grow perceptibly deeper, nor the fields browner, during the long brazen weeks that followed; one only wearied of it all, more and more.
So thought Miss Newell, at least. It was her second summer in California, and the phenomenon of the dry season was not so impressive on its repetition. She had been surprised to observe how very brief had been the charm of strangeness, in her experience of life in a new country. She began to wonder if a girl, born and brought up among the hills of Connecticut, could have the seeds of ennui subtly distributed through her frame, to reach a sudden development in the heat of a Californian summer. She longed for the rains to begin, that in their violence and the sound of the wind she might gain a sense of life in action by which to eke out her dull and expressionless days. She was, as Nicky Dyer had said, "a good un to 'old 'er tongue," and therein lay her greatest strength as well as her greatest danger.
Miss Newell boarded at Captain Dyer's. The prosperous ex-mining captain was a good deal nearer to the primitive type than any man Miss Newell had ever sat at table with in her life before, but she had a thorough respect for him, and she felt that the time might come when she could enjoy him--as a reminiscence. Mrs. Dyer was kindly, and not more of a gossip than her neighbors; and there were no children,--only one grandchild, the inoffensive Nicky. The ways of the house were somewhat uncouth, but everything was clean and in a certain sense homelike. To Miss Newell's homesick sensitiveness it seemed better than being stared at across the boarding-house table by Boker and Pratt, and pitied by the engineer. She had a little room at the Dyers', which was a reflection of herself so far as a year's occupancy and very moderate resources could make it; perhaps for that very reason she often found her little room an intolerable prison. One night her homesickness had taken its worst form, a restlessness, which began in a nervous inward throbbing and extended to her cold and tremulous finger-tips. She went softly downstairs and out on the piazza, where the moonlight lay in a brilliant square on the unpainted boards. The moonlight increased her restlessness, but she could not keep away from it. She dared not walk up and down the piazza, because the people in the street below would see her; she stood there perfectly still, holding her elbows with her hands, crouched into a little dark heap against the side of the house.
Lights were twinkling, far and near, over the hills, singly, and in clusters. Black figures moved across the moonlit spaces in the street. There were sounds of talking, laughing, and singing; dogs barking; occasionally a stir and tinkle in the scrub, as a cow wandered past. The engines throbbed from the distant shaft-houses. A miner's wife was hushing her baby in the next house, and across the street a group of Mexicans were talking all at once in a loud, monotonous cadence.
In her early days at the mines there had been a certain piquancy in her sense of the contrast between herself and her circumstances, but that had long passed into a dreary recognition of the fact that she had no real part in the life of the place.
She recalled one afternoon when Arnold had passed the schoolhouse, and found her sitting alone on the doorstep. He had stopped to ask if that "mongrel pack on the hill were worrying the life out of her," and had added with a laugh, in answer to her look of silent disapproval, "Oh, I mean the dear lambs of your flock. I saw two of them just now on the trail, fighting over a lame donkey. The clans were gathering on both sides; there will be a pitched battle in a few minutes. The donkey was enjoying it. I think he was asleep!" The day had been an unusually hard one, and the patient little schoolmistress was just then struggling with a distracted sense of unavailing effort. Arnold's grim banter had brought the tears, as blood follows a blow. He got down from his horse, looking wretched at what he had done. "I am a brute, I believe,--worse than any of the pack. You have so much patience with them,--please have a little with me. Trust me, I am not utterly blind to your sufferings. Indeed, Miss Newell, I see them, and they make me savage!" With the gentlest touch he had lifted her hand, held it in his a moment, and then had mounted his horse and ridden away.
Yes, he did understand,--she felt sure of that. What an unutterable rest it would be if she could go to some one with the small worries of her life! But she could not yield to such impulses. It was different with men. She had often thought of Arnold's words that day at the spring, all the more that he had never, before or since, revealed so much of himself to her. Under an apparently careless frankness and extravagance of speech he was a reticent man; but lightly spoken as the words had been, were they not the sparks and ashes blown from a deep and smothered core of fire? She seemed to feel its glow on her cheek as she recalled his singular persistence and the darkening of his imperious eyes. No, she would not permit herself to think of that day at the spring.
There was a bright light in the engineer's office across the street. She could see Arnold through the windows (for, like a man, he did not pull his shades down) at one of the long drawing-tables. He worked late, it seemed. He was writing; he wrote rapidly page after page, tearing each sheet from what appeared to be a paper block, and tossing it on the table beside him; he covered only one side of the paper, she noticed, thinking with a smile of her own small economies. Presently he got up, swept the papers together in his hands, and stooped over them. He is numbering and folding them, she thought, and now he is directing the envelope,--to whom, I wonder! He turned, and as he walked towards the window she saw him put something into the pocket of his coat. He lighted a cigar, and began walking, with long strides, up and down the room, one hand in his pocket; the other he occasionally rubbed over his eyes and head, as if they hurt him. She remembered that the engineer had headaches, and wished that somebody would ask him to try valerian. Is he ever really lonely? she thought. What can he, what can any man, know of loneliness? He may go out and walk about on the hills; he may go away altogether, and take the risks of life somewhere else. A woman must take no risks. There is not a house in the camp where he might not enter to-night, if he chose; he might come over here and talk to me. The East, with all its cherished memories and prejudices and associations, seemed so hopelessly far away; they two alone, in that strange, uncongenial new world which had crowded out the old, seemed to speak a common language: and yet how little she really knew of him!
Suddenly the lights disappeared from the windows of the office. She heard a door unlock, and presently the young man's figure crossed the street and turned up the trail past the house.
Two other figures going up halted, and the taller one said, "Will you go up on the hill, to-night, Arnold?"
"What for?" said Arnold, slackening his pace without stopping.
"Oh, nothing in particular,--to see the senoritas."
"Oh, thank you, Boker, I've seen the senoritas."
He walked quickly past the men, and the shorter one, who had not spoken, called after him rather huskily,--
"W-what do you think of the little school-ma'am?"
Arnold turned back and confronted the speaker in silence.
"I say! Is she thin 'nough to suit you?" the heavy-playful one persisted.
"Shut up, Jack!" said his comrade. "You're a little high now, you know."
He dragged him on, up the trail; the voices of the two men blended with the night chorus of the camp as they passed out of sight.
Miss Newell sat perfectly still for a while; then she went to her room, and threw herself down on the bed, listening to an endless mental repetition of those words that the faithless night had brought to her ear. The moonlight had left the piazza, and crept round to the side of the house; it shone in at the window, touching the girl's cold fingers pressed to her burning cheeks and temples. She got up, drew the curtain, and groped her way back to the bed, where she lay for hours, trying to convince herself that her misery was out of all proportion to the cause, and that those coarse words could make no real difference in her life.
They did make a little difference: they loosened the slight, indefinite threads of intercourse which a year had woven between these two exiles. Miss Newell was prepared to withdraw from any further overtures of friendship from the engineer; but he made it unnecessary for her to do so,--he made no overtures. On the night of Pratt's tipsy salutation he had abruptly decided that a mining camp was no place for a nice girl, with no acknowledged masculine protector. In Miss Newell's circumstances a girl must be left entirely alone, or exposed to the gossip of the camp. He knew very well which she would choose, and so he kept away,--though at considerable loss to himself, he felt. It made him cross to watch her pretty figure going up the trail every morning and to reflect that so much sweetness and refinement should not be having its ameliorating influence on his own barren and somewhat defiant existence.
The autumn rains set in early, and the winter was unusually severe. Arnold had a purpose which kept him hard at work and very happy in those days.
During the long December nights he was shut up in his office, plodding over his maps and papers, or smoking in dreamy comfort by the fire. He was seldom interrupted, for he had earned the character of a social ingrate and hardened recluse in the camp. He had earned it quite unconsciously, and was as little troubled by the fact as by its consequences. On the evening of New Year's Day he crossed the street to the Dyers' and asked for Miss Newell. She presently greeted him in the parlor, where she looked, Arnold thought, more than ever out of place, among the bead baskets, and splint frames inclosing photographs of deceased members of the Dyer family, and the pallid walls, weak-legged chairs, and crude imaginings in worsted work. Her apparent unconsciousness of these abominations was another source of irritation. It is always irritating to a man to see a charming woman in an unhappy and false position, where he is powerless to help her. Arnold had not expected that it would be a very exhilarating occasion,--he remembered the Dyer parlor,--but it was even less pleasant than he had expected. He sat down, carefully, in a glued chair whose joints had opened with the dry season and refused to close again; he did not know where the transfer of his person might end. Captain Dyer was present, and told a great many stories in a loud, tiring voice. Miss Frances sat by with some soft white knitting in her hands, and her attitude of patient attention made Arnold long to attack her with some savage pleasantries on the subject of Christmas in a mining camp; it seemed to him that patience was a virtue that could be carried too far, even in woman. Then Mrs. Dyer came in, and manoeuvred her husband out into the passage; after some loudly suggestive whispering there, she succeeded in getting him into the kitchen, and shut the door. Arnold got up soon after that, and said good-evening.
Miss Newell remained in the parlor for some time, after he had gone, moving softly about. She had gathered her knitting closely into her clasped hands; the ball trailed after her, among the legs of the chairs, and when in her silent promenade she had spun a grievous tangle of wool she sat down, and dropped the work out of her hands with a helpless gesture. Her head drooped, and tears trickled slowly between the slender white fingers which covered her face. Presently the fingers descended to her throat and clasped it close, as if to still an intolerable throbbing ache which her half-suppressed tears had left.
At length she rose, picked up her work, and patiently followed the tangled clue until she had recovered her ball; then she wound it all up neatly, wrapped the knitting in a thin white handkerchief, and went to her room.
With the fine March weather--fine in spite of the light rains--the engineer was laying out a road to the new shaft; it wound along the hillside where Miss Newell had first seen the green trees, by the spring. The engineer's orders included the building of a flume, carrying the water down from the Chilano's plantation into a tank, built on the ruins of the rock which had guarded the sylvan spring. The discordant voices of a gang of Chinamen profaned the stillness which had framed Miss Frances' girlish laughter; the blasting of the rock had loosened, to their fall, the clustering trees above, and the brook below was a mass of trampled mud.
The engineer's visits to the spring gave him no pleasure, in those days. He felt that he was the inevitable instrument of its desecration; but over the hill, just in sight from the spring, carpenters were putting a new piazza round a cottage that stood remote from the camp, where a spur of the hills descended steeply towards the valley. Arnold took a great interest in this cottage. He was frequently to be seen there in the evening, tramping up and down the new piazza, and offering to the moon, that looked in through the boughs of a live-oak at the end of the gallery, the incense of his lonely cigar. Sometimes he would take the key of the front door from his pocket, enter the silent house, and wander from one room to another, like a restless but not unhappy ghost; the moonlight, touching his face, showed it strangely stirred and softened. His was no melancholy madness.
Arnold was leaning on the gate of this cottage, one afternoon, when the schoolmistress came down the trail from the camp. She did not appear to see him, but turned off from the trail at a little distance from the cottage, and took her way across the hill behind it. Arnold watched her a few minutes, and then followed, overtaking her on the hills above the new road, where she had sat with Nicky Dyer nearly a year ago.
"I don't like to see you wandering about here, alone," he said. "The men on the road are a scratch gang, picked up anyhow, not like the regular miners. I hope you are not going to the spring!"
"Why?" said she. "Did you not drink to our return?"
"But you would not drink with me, so the spell did not work; and now the spring is gone,--all its beauty, I mean. The water is there, in a tank, where the Chinamen fill their buckets night and morning, and the teamsters water their horses. We'll go over there, if you would like to see the march of modern improvements."
"No," she said; "I had rather remember it as it was; still, I don't believe in being sentimental about such things. Let us sit down a while."
A vague depression, which Arnold had been aware of in her manner when they met, became suddenly manifest in her paleness and in a look of dull pain in her eyes.
"But you are hurt about it," he said. "I wish I hadn't told you in that brutal way. I'm afraid I'm not many degrees removed from the primeval savage, after all."
"Oh, you needn't mind," she said, after a moment. "That was the only place I cared for, here, so now there will be nothing to regret when I go away."
"Are you going away, then? I'm very sorry to hear it; but of course I'm not surprised. You couldn't be expected to stand it another year; those children must have been something fearful."
"Oh, it wasn't the children."
"Well, I'm sorry. I had hoped"--
"Yes," said she, with a modest interrogation, as he hesitated, "what is it you had hoped?"
"That I might indirectly be the means of making your life less lonely here. You remember that 'experiment' we talked about at the spring?"
"That you talked about, you mean."
"I am going to try it myself. Not because you were so encouraging,--but--it's a risk anyway, you know, and I'm not sure the circumstances make so much difference. I've known people to be wretched with all the modern conveniences. I am going East for her in about two weeks. How sorry she will be to find you gone! I wrote to her about you. You might have helped each other; couldn't you stand it, Miss Newell, don't you think, if you had another girl?"
"I'm afraid not," she said very gently. "I must go home. You may be sure she will not need me; you must see to it that she doesn't need--any one."
They were walking back and forth on the hill.
"I was just looking for the cottonwood-trees; are they gone too?" she asked.
"Oh yes; there isn't a tree left in the canon. Don't you envy me my work?"
"I suppose everything we do seems like desecration to somebody. Here am I making history very rapidly for this colony of ants." She looked down with a rueful smile as she spoke.
"I wish you had the history of the entire species under your foot, and could finish it at once."
"I'm not sure that I would; I'm not so fond of extermination as you pretend to be."
"Well, keep the ants if you like them, but I am firm on the subject of the camp children. There are blessings that brighten as they take their flight. I pay my monthly assessment for the doctor with the greatest cheerfulness; if it wasn't for him, in this climate, they would crowd us off the hill."
"Please don't!" she said wearily. "Even I don't like to hear you talk like that; I am sure she will not."
He laughed softly. "You have often reminded me of her in little ways: that was what upset me at the spring. I was very near telling you all about her that day."
"I wish that you had!" she said. They were walking towards home now. "I suppose you know it is talked of in the camp," she said, after a pause. "Mr. Dyer told me, and showed me the house, a week ago. And now I must tell you about my violets. I had them in a box in my room all winter. I should like to leave them as a little welcome to her. Last night Nicky Dyer and I planted them on the bank by the piazza under the climbing-rose; it was a secret between Nicky and me, and Nicky promised to water them until she came; but of course I meant to tell you. Will you look at them to-night, please, and see if Nicky has been faithful?"
"I will, indeed," said Arnold. "That is just the kind of thing she will delight in. If you are going East, Miss Newell, shall we not be fellow-travelers? I should be so glad to be of any service."
"No, thank you. I am to spend a month in Santa Barbara, and escort an invalid friend home. I shall have to say good-by, now. Don't go any farther with me, please."
That night Arnold mused late, leaning over the railing of the new piazza in the moonlight. He fancied that a faint perfume of violets came from the damp earth below; but it could have been only fancy, for when he searched the bank for them they were not there. The new sod was trampled, and a few leaves and slight, uptorn roots lay scattered about, with some broken twigs from the climbing-rose. He had found the gate open when he came, and the Dyer cow had passed him, meandering peacefully up the trail.
* * * * *
The crescent moon had waxed and waned since the night when it lighted the engineer's musings through the wind-parted live-oak boughs, and another slender bow gleamed in the pale, tinted haze of twilight. The month had gone, like a feverish dream, to the young schoolmistress, as she lay in her small, upper chamber, unconscious of all save alternate light and darkness, and rest following pain. When, at last, she crept down the short staircase to breathe the evening coolness, clinging to the stair-rail and holding her soft white draperies close around her, she saw the pink light lingering on the mountains, and heard the chorus to the "Sweet By and By" from the miners' chapel on the hill. It was Sunday evening, and the house was piously "emptied of its folk." She took her old seat by the parlor window, and looked across to the engineer's office; its windows and doors were shut, and the dogs of the camp were chasing each other over the loose boards of the piazza floor. She laughed a weak, convulsive laugh, thinking of the engineer's sallies of old upon that band of Ishmaelites, and of the scrambling, yelping rush that followed. He must have gone East, else the dogs had not been so bold. She looked down the valley where the mountains parted seaward, the only break in the continuous barrier of land that cut off her retreat and closed in about the atom of her own identity. The thought of that immensity of distance made her faint.
There were steps on the porch,--not Captain Dyer's, for he and his good wife were lending their voices to swell the stentorian chorus that was shaking the church on the hill; the footsteps paused at the door, and Arnold himself opened it. He had not, evidently, expected to see her.
"I was looking for some one to ask about you," he said. "Are you sure you are able to be down?"
"Oh yes. I've been sitting up for several days. I wanted to see the mountains again."
He was looking at her intently, while she flushed with weakness, and drew the fringes of her shawl over her tremulous hands.
"How ill you have been! I have wished myself a woman, that I might do something for you! I suppose Mrs. Dyer nursed you like a horse."
"Oh no; she was very good; but I don't remember much about the worst of it. I thought you had gone home."
"Home! Where do you mean? I didn't know that I had ever boasted of any reserved rights of that kind. I have no mortgage, in fact or sentiment, on any part of the earth's surface, that I'm acquainted with!"
He spoke with a hard carelessness in his manner which make her shrink.
"I mean the East. I am homeless, too, but all the East seems like home to me."
"You had better get rid of those sentimental, backward fancies as soon as possible. The East concerns itself very little about us, I can tell you! It can spare us."
She thrilled with pain at his words. "I should think you would be the last one to say so,--you, who have so much treasure there."
"Will you please to understand," he said, turning upon her a face of bitter calmness, "that I claim no treasure anywhere,--not even in heaven!"
She sat perfectly still, conscious that by some fatality of helpless incomprehension every word that she said goaded him, and she feared to speak again.
"Now I have hurt you," he said in his gentlest voice. "I am always hurting you. I oughtn't to come near you with my rough edges! I'll go away now, if you will tell me that you forgive me!"
She smiled at him without speaking, while her fair throat trembled with a pulse of pain.
"Will you let me take your hand a moment? It is so long since I have touched a woman's hand! God! how lonely I am! Don't look at me in that way; don't pity me, or I shall lose what little manhood I have left!"
"What is it?" she said, leaning towards him. "There is something strange in your face. If you are in trouble, tell me; it will help me to hear it. I am not so very happy myself."
"Why should I add my load to yours? I seem always to impose myself upon you, first my hopes, and now my--no, it isn't despair; it is only a kind of brutal numbness. You must have the fatal gift of sympathy, or you would never have seen my little hurt."
Miss Frances was not strong enough to bear the look in his eyes as he turned them upon her, with a dreary smile. She covered her face with one hand, while she whispered,--
"Is it--you have not lost her?"
"Yes! Or, rather, I never had her. I've been dreaming like a boy all these years,--'In sleep a king, but waking, no such matter.'"
"It is not death, then?"
"No, she is not dead. She is not even false; that is, not very false. How can I tell you how little it is, and yet how much! She is only a trifle selfish. Why shouldn't she be? Why should we men claim the exclusive right to choose the best for ourselves? It was selfish of me to ask her to share such a life as mine; and she has gently and reasonably reminded me that I'm not worth the sacrifice. It's quite true. I always knew I wasn't. She put it very delicately and sweetly;--she's the sweetest girl you ever saw. She'd marry me to-morrow if I could add myself, such as I am,--she doesn't overrate me,--to what she has already; but an exchange she wasn't prepared for. In all my life I never was so clearly estimated, body and soul. I don't blame her, you understand. When I left her, three years ago, I saw my way easily enough to a reputation, and an income, and a home in the East; she never thought of anything else; I never taught her to look for anything else. I dare say she rather enjoyed having a lover working for her in the unknown West; she enjoyed the pretty letters she wrote me; but when it came to the bare bones of existence in a mining camp, with a husband not very rich or very distinguished, she had nothing to clothe them with. You said once that to be happy here a woman must not have too much imagination; she hadn't quite enough. I had to be dead honest with her when I asked her to come. I told her there was nothing here but the mountains and the sunsets, and a few items of picturesqueness which count with some people. Of course I had to tell her I was but little better off than when I left. A man's experience is something he cannot set forth at its value to himself; she passed it over as a word of no practical meaning. There her imagination failed her again. She took me frankly at my own estimate; and in justice to her I must say I put myself at the lowest figures. I made a very poor show on paper."
"You wrote to her!" exclaimed Miss Frances. "You did not go on? Oh, you have made a great mistake! Do go: it cannot be too late. Letters are the most untrusty things!"
"Wait," he said. "There is something else. She has a head for business; she proposed that I should come East, and accept a superintendentship from a cousin of hers, the owner of a gun-factory in one of those shady New England towns women are so fond of. She intimated that he was in politics, this cousin, and of course would expect his employees to become part of his constituency. It's a very pretty little bribe, you see; when you add the--the girl, it's enough to shake a man--who wants that girl. I'm not worth much to myself, or to anybody else, apparently, but by Heaven I'll not sell out as cheap as that!
"It all amounts to nothing except one more illusion gone. If there is a woman on this earth that can love a man without knowing for what, and take the chances of life with him without counting the cost, I have never known her. I asked you once if a woman could do that. You hadn't the courage to tell me the truth. I wouldn't have been satisfied if you had; but I'm satisfied now."
"I believed she would be happy; I believe she would be, now, if only you would go to her and persuade her to try."
"I persuade her! I would never try to persuade a woman to be my wife were I dying for love of her! I don't think myself invented by nature to promote the happiness of woman, in the aggregate or singly. I know there are men who do: let them urge their claims. I thought that she loved me; that was another illusion. She will probably marry the cousin, and become the most loyal of his constituents. He is welcome to her; but there's a ghostly blank somewhere. How I have tired you! You'll be in bed another week for this selfishness of mine." He stopped, while a sudden thought brought a change to his face. "But when are you going home?"
"I cannot go," she said. Her weakness came over her like a cloud, darkening the room and pressing upon her heavily. "Will you give me your arm?"
At the stairs she stopped, and leaning against the wall looked at him with wide, hopeless eyes.
"We are cut off from everything. My friend does not need me now; she has gone home,--alone. She is dead!"
Arnold took a long walk upon the hills that night, and smoked a great many cigars in gloomy meditation. He was thinking of two girls, as young men who smoke a great many cigars without counting them often are; he was also thinking of Arizona. He had fully made up his mind to resign, and depart for that problematic region as soon as his place was filled; but an alternative had presented itself to him with a pensive attractiveness,--an alternative unmistakably associated with the fact that the schoolmistress was to remain in her present isolated circumstances. It even had occurred to him that there might be some question of duty involved in his "standing by her," as he phrased it to himself, "till she got her color back." There was an unconscious appeal in the last words he had heard her speak which constrained him to do so. He was not in the habit of pitying himself, but had there been another soul to follow this mental readjustment of himself to his mutilated life, it would surely have pitied the eagerness with which he clung to this one shadow of a duty to a fellow-creature. It was the measure of his loneliness.
It was late in November. The rains had begun again with sound and fury; with ranks of clouds forming along the mountain sides, and driven before the sea-winds upward through the gulches; with days of breeze and sunshine, when the fog veil was lightly lifted and blown apart, showing the valley always greener; with days of lowering stillness, when the veil descended and left the mountains alone, like islands of shadow rising from a sea of misty whiteness.
On such a lowering day, Miss Frances stood at the junction of three trails, in front of the door of the blacksmith's shop. She was wrapped in a dark blue cloak, with the hood drawn over her head; the cool dampness had given to her cheeks a clear, pure glow, and her brown eyes looked out with a cheerful light. She was watching the parting of the mist in the valley below; for a wind had sprung up, and now the rift widened, as the windows of heaven might have opened, giving a glimpse of the world to the "Blessed Damozel." All was dark above and around her; only a single shaft of sunlight pierced the fog, and startled into life a hundred tints of brightness in the valley. She caught the sparkle on the roofs and windows of the town ten miles away; the fields of sunburnt stubble glowed a deep Indian red; the young crops were tenderest emerald; and the line of the distant bay, a steel-blue thread against the horizon.
Arnold was plodding up the lower trail on his gray mare, fetlock deep in mud. He dismounted at the door of the shop, and called to him a small Mexican lad with a cheek of the tint of ripe corn.
"Here, Pedro Segundo! Take this mare up to the camp! Can you catch?" He tossed him a coin. "Bueno!"
"Mucho bueno!" said Pedro the First, looking on approvingly from the door of his shop.
Arnold turned to the schoolmistress, who was smiling from her perch on a pile of wet logs.
"I'm perfectly happy!" she said. "This east wind takes me home. I hear the bluebirds, and smell the salt-marshes and the wood-mosses. I'm not sure but that when the fog lifts we shall see white caps in the valley."
"I dare say there are some very good people down there," said Arnold, with deliberation, "but all the same I should welcome an inundation. Think what a climate this would be, if we could have the sea below us, knocking against the rocks on still nights, and thundering at us in a storm!"
"Don't speak of it! It makes me long for a miracle, or a judgment, or something that's not likely to happen."
"Meantime, I want you to come down the trail, and pass judgment on my bachelor quarters. I can't stand the boarding-house any longer! By Jove, I'm like the British footman in 'Punch,'--'what with them legs o' mutton and legs o' pork, I'm a'most wore out! I want a new hanimal inwented!' I've found an old girl down in the valley who consents to look after me and vary the monotony of my dinners at the highest market price. She isn't here yet, but the cabin is about ready. I want you to come down and look it over. I'm a perfect barbarian about color! You can't put it on too thick and strong to suit me. I dare say I need toning down."
They were slipping and sliding down the muddy trail, brushing the raindrops from the live-oak scrub as they passed. A subtle underlying content had lulled them both, of late, into an easier companionship than they had ever found possible before, and they were gay with that enjoyment of wet weather which is like an intoxication after seven months of drought.
"Now I suppose you like soft, harmonious tints and neutral effects. You're a bit of a conservative in everything, I fear."
"I think I should like plenty of color here, or else positive white; the monotony of the landscape and its own deep, low tones demand it. A neutral house would fade into an ash heap under this sun."
"Good! Then you'll like my dark little den, with its barbaric reds and blues."
They were at the gate of the little cottage, overlooking the valley. The gleam of sunlight had faded and the fog curtain rolled back. The house did indeed seem very dark as they entered. It was only a little after four o'clock, but the cloudy twilight of a short November day was suddenly descending upon them. The schoolmistress looked shyly around, while Arnold tramped about the rooms and sprung the shades up as high as they would go.
They were in a small, irregular parlor, wainscoted and floored in redwood, and lightly furnished with bamboo. This room communicated by a low arch with the dining-room beyond.
"I have some flags and spurs and old trophies to hang up there," he said, pointing to the arch; "and perhaps I can get you to sew the rings on the curtain that's to hang underneath. I don't want too much of the society of my angel from the valley, you know; besides, I want to shield her from the vulgar gaze, as they do the picture of the Madonna."
"It will serve you right if she never comes at all!"
"Oh, she's pining to come. She's dying to sacrifice herself for twenty-five dollars a month. Did I tell you, by the way, that I've had a rise in my salary? There is a rise in the work, too, which rather overbalances the increase of pay, but that's understood; for a good many years it will be more work than wage, but at the other end I hope it will be more wage than work. You don't seem to be very much interested in my affairs; if you knew how seldom I speak of them to any one but yourself, you might perhaps deign to listen."
"I am listening; but I'm thinking, too, that it's getting very late."
"See, here is my curtain!" he said, dragging out a breadth of heavy stuff. He took it to the window, and threw it over a Chinese lounge that stood beneath. "It's an old serape I picked up at Guadalajara five years ago: the beauty of having a house is that all the old rubbish you have bored yourself with for years immediately becomes respectable and useful. I expect to become so myself. You don't say that you like my curtain!"
"I think it is very pagan looking, and rather--dirty."
"Well, I shan't make a point of the dirt. I dare say the thing would look just as well if it was clean. Won't you try my lounge?" he said, as she looked restlessly towards the door. "It was invented by a race that can loaf more naturally than we do: it takes an American back some time to relax enough to appreciate it."
Miss Frances half reluctantly drew her cloak about her, and yielded her Northern slenderness to the long Oriental undulations of the couch. Her head was thrown back, showing her fair throat and the sweet upward curves of her lips and brows.
Arnold gazed at her with too evident delight.
"Why won't you sit still? You cannot deny that you have never been so comfortable in your life before."
"It's a very good place to 'loaf and invite one's soul,'" she said, rising to a sitting position; "but that isn't my occupation at present. I must go home. It is almost dark."
"There is no hurry. I'm going with you. I want you to see how the little room lights up. I've never seen it by firelight, and I'll have my house-warming to-night!"
"Oh no, indeed! I must go back. There's the five o'clock whistle, now!"
"Well, we've an hour yet. You must get warm before you go."
He went out, and quickly returned with an armful of wood and shavings, which he crammed into the cold fireplace.
"What a litter you have made! Do you think your mature angel from the valley will stand that sort of thing?"
As she spoke, the rain descended in violence, sweeping across the piazza, and obliterating the fast-fading landscape. They could scarcely see each other in the darkness, and the trampling on the roof overhead made speech a useless effort. Almost as suddenly as it had opened upon them the tumult ceased, and in the silence that followed they listened to the heavy raindrops spattering from the eaves.
Arnold crossed to the window, where Miss Frances stood shivering and silent, with her hands clasped before her.
"I want you to light my fire," he said, with a certain concentration in his voice.
"Why do you not light it yourself?" She drew away from his outstretched hand. "It seems to me you are a bit of a tyrant in your own house."
He drew a match across his knee and held it towards her: by its gleam she saw his pale, unsmiling face, and again that darkening of the eyes which she remembered.
"Do you refuse me such a little thing,--my first guest? I ask it as a most especial grace!"
She took the match, and knelt with it in her hands; but it only flickered a moment, and went out. "It will not go for me. You must light it yourself."
He knelt beside her and struck another match. "We will try together," he said, placing it in her fingers and closing his hand about them. He held the trembling fingers and the little spark they guarded steadily against the shaving. It kindled; the flame breathed and brightened and curled upward among the crooked manzanita stumps, illuminating the two entranced young faces bending before it. Miss Frances rose to her feet, and Arnold, rising too, looked at her with a growing dread and longing in his eyes.
"You said to-day that you were happy, because in fancy you were at home. Is that the only happiness possible to you here?"
"I am quite contented here," she said. "I am getting acclimated."
"Oh, don't be content: I am not; I am horribly otherwise. I want something--so much that I dare not ask for it. You know what it is,--Frances!"
"You said once that I reminded you--of her: is that the reason you--Am I consoling you?"
"Good God! I don't want consolation! That thing never existed; but here is the reality; I cannot part with it. I wish you had as little as I have, outside of this room where we two stand together!"
"I don't know that I have anything," she said under her breath.
"Then," said he, taking her in his arms, "I don't see but that we are ready to enter the kingdom of heaven. It seems very near to me."
They are still in exile: they have joined the band of lotus-eaters who inhabit that region of the West which is pervaded by a subtle breath from the Orient, blowing across the seas between. Mrs. Arnold has not yet made that first visit East which is said by her Californian friends to be so disillusioning, and the old home still hovers, like a beautiful mirage, on the receding horizon.
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