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Gradually the springtide crept upward into the heart of the mountains, quickening the pulses of the rocks themselves until even the mosses and lichens slumbering at their feet awakened to renewed life. Bits of green appeared wherever a grass root could push its way through the rocky soil, and fragile wild flowers gleamed, starlike, here and there, fed by tiny rivulets which trickled from slowly melting snows on the summits far above.
With the earliest warm days Darrell had started forth to explore the surrounding mountains, eager to learn the secrets which they seemed ever challenging him to discover. New conditions confronted him, sometimes baffling him, but always inciting to renewed effort. His enthusiasm was so aroused that often, when his day's work was done, taking a light lunch with him, he pursued his studies while the daylight lasted, walking back in the long twilight, and in the solitude of his room making full notes of the results of that day's research before retiring for the night.
Returning one evening from one of these expeditions he saw, pacing back and forth before the office building, a figure which he at once recognized as that of Mr. Britton. Instantly all thought of work or weariness was forgotten, and he hastened forward, while Mr. Britton, catching sight of Darrell rapidly approaching, turned and came down the road to meet him.
"A thousand welcomes!" Darrell cried, as soon as they were within speaking distance; "say, but this is glorious to see you here! How long have I kept you waiting?"
"A few hours, but that does not matter; it does us good to have to stop and call a halt on ourselves once in a while. How are you, my son?" And as the two grasped hands the elder man looked searchingly through the gathering dusk into the face of the younger. Even in the dim twilight, Darrell could feel that penetrating glance reading his inmost soul.
"I am well and doing well," he answered; "my physical health is perfect; as for the rest—your coming is the very best thing that could have happened. Are you alone?" he asked, eagerly, "or did Mr. Underwood come with you?"
"I came alone," Mr. Britton replied, with quiet emphasis, linking his arm within Darrell's as they ascended the road together.
"How long have you been in town?"
"But two days. I am on my way to the coast, and only stopped off for a few days. I shall spend to-morrow with you, go back with you Saturday to The Pines, and go on my way Monday."
Having made his guest as comfortable as possible in his own room, Darrell laid aside his working paraphernalia, his hammer, and bag of rock specimens, and donning a house coat and pair of slippers seated himself near Mr. Britton, all the time conscious of the close but kindly scrutiny with which the latter was regarding him.
"This is delightful!" he exclaimed; "but it is past my comprehension how Mr. Underwood ever let you slip off alone!"
Mr. Britton looked amused. "I told him I was coming to see you, and I think he intended coming with me till he heard me order my saddle-horse for the trip. I think that settled the matter. I believe there can be no perfect interchange of confidence except between two. The presence of a third party—even though a mutual friend—breaks the magnetic circuit and weakens the current of sympathy. Our interviews are necessarily rare, and I want to make the most of them; therefore I would come to you alone or not at all."
"Yes," Darrell replied; "your visits are so rare that every moment is precious to me, and think of the hours I lost by my absence to-day!"
"Do you court Dame Nature so assiduously every day, subsisting on cold lunches and tramping the mountains till nightfall?"
"Not every day, but as often as possible," Darrell replied, smiling.
"And I suppose if I were not here you would now be burrowing into that pile over there?" Mr. Britton said, glancing significantly towards the table covered to a considerable depth with books of reference, note-books, writing-pads, and sheets of closely written manuscript.
"Let me show you what I am doing; it will take but a moment," said Darrell, springing to his feet.
He drew forth several sets of extensive notes on researches and experiments he was making along various lines of study, in which Mr. Britton became at once deeply interested.
"You have a good thing here; stick to it!" he said at length, looking up from the perusal of Darrell's geological notes, gathered from his studies of the rock formations in that vicinity. "You have a fine field in which to pursue this branch, and with the knowledge you already have on this subject and the discoveries you are likely to make, you may be able to make some very valuable contributions to the science one of these days."
"That is just what I hope to do!" exclaimed Darrell eagerly; "just what I am studying for day and night!"
"But you must use moderation," said Mr. Britton, smiling at the younger man's enthusiasm; "you are young, you have years before you in which to do this work, and this constant study, night and day, added to your regular routine work, is too much for you. You are looking fagged already."
"If I am, it is not the work that is fagging me," Darrell replied, quickly, his tones becoming excited; "Mr. Britton, I must work; I must accomplish all I can for two reasons. You say I have years before me in which to do this work. God knows I hope I haven't got to work years like this,—only half alive, you might say,—and when the change comes, if it ever does, you know, of course, I cannot and would not remain here."
"I understand you would not remain here," said Mr. Britton slowly, and laying his hand soothingly on the arm of his agitated companion, "but you can readily see that not only your education, but your natural trend of thought, is along these lines; therefore, when you are fully restored to your normal self you will be the more—not the less—interested in these things, and I predict that no matter when the time comes for you to leave, you will, after a while, return to continue this same line of work amid the same surroundings, but, we hope, under far happier conditions."
Darrell shook his head slowly. "It does not seem to me that I would ever wish to return to a place where I had suffered as I have here."
Mr. Britton smiled, one of his slow, sad, sweet smiles that Darrell loved to watch, that seemed to dawn in his eyes and gradually to spread until every feature was irradiated with a tender, beneficent light.
"I once thought as you do," he said, gently, "but after years of wandering, I find that the place most sacred to me now is that hallowed by the bitterest agony of my life."
Without replying Darrell unconsciously drew nearer to his friend, and a brief silence followed, broken by Mr. Britton, who inquired, in a lighter tone,—
"What is the other reason for your constant application to your work? You said there were two."
Darrell bowed his head upon his hands as he answered in a low, despairing tone,—
"To stop thinking, thinking, thinking; it will drive me mad!"
"I have been there, my boy; I know," Mr. Britton responded; then, after a pause, he continued:
"Something in the tenor of your last letter made me anxious to come to you. I thought I detected something of the old restlessness. Has the coming of spring, quickening the life forces all around you, stirred the life currents in your own veins till your spirit is again tugging at its fetters in its struggles for release?"
With a startled movement Darrell raised his head, meeting the clear eyes fixed upon him.
"How could you know?" he demanded.
"Because, as Emerson says, 'the heart in thee is the heart of all.' There are few hearts whose pulses are not stirred by the magic influence of the springtide, and under its potent spell I knew you would feel your present limitations even more keenly than ever before."
"Thank God, you understand!" Darrell exclaimed; then continued, passionately: "The last three weeks have been torture to me if I but allowed myself one moment's thought. Wherever I look I see life—life, perfect and complete in all its myriad forms—the life that is denied to me! This is not living,—this existence of mine,—with brain shackled, fettered, in many ways helpless as a child, knowing less than a child, and not even mercifully wrapped in oblivion, but compelled to feel the constant goading and galling of the fetters, to be reminded of them at every turn! My God! if it were not for constant work and study I would go mad!"
In the silence which followed Darrell's mind reverted to that autumn day on which he had first met John Britton and confided to him his trouble; and now, as then, he was soothed and strengthened by the presence beside him, by the magnetism of that touch, although no word was spoken.
As he reviewed their friendship of the past months he became conscious for the first time of its one-sidedness. He had often unburdened himself to his friend, confiding to him his griefs, and receiving in turn sympathy and counsel; but of the great, unknown sorrow that had wrought such havoc in his own life, what word had John Britton ever spoken? As Darrell recalled the bearing of his friend through all their acquaintance and his silence regarding his own sufferings, his eyes grew dim. The man at his side seemed, in the light of that revelation, stronger, grander, nobler than ever before; not unlike to the giant peaks whose hoary heads then loomed darkly against the starlit sky, calm, silent, majestic, giving no token of the throes of agony which, ages agone, had rent them asunder except in the mystic symbols graven on their furrowed brows. In that light his own complaints seemed puerile. At that moment Darrell was conscious of a new fortitude born within his soul; a new purpose, henceforth to dominate his life.
A heavy sigh from Mr. Britton broke the silence. "I know the fetters are galling," he said, "but have patience and hope, for, at the time appointed, the shackles will be loosened, the fetters broken."
Darrell faced his companion, a new light in his eyes but recently so dark with despair, as he asked, earnestly and tenderly,—
"Dearest and best of friends, is there no time appointed for the lifting of the burden borne so nobly and uncomplainingly, 'lo, these many years?'"
With a grave, sweet smile the elder man shook his head, and, rising, began pacing up and down the room. "There are some burdens, my son, that time cannot lift; they can only be laid down at the gates of eternity."
With a strange, choking sensation in his throat Darrell rose, and, going to the window, stood looking out at the dim outlines of the neighboring peaks. Their vast solitude no longer oppressed him as at the first; it calmed and soothed him in his restless moods, and to-night those grim monarchs dwelling in silent fellowship seemed to him the embodiment of peace and rest.
After a time Mr. Britton paused beside him, and, throwing his arm about his shoulders, asked,—
"What are your thoughts, my son?"
"Only a whim, a fancy that has taken possession of me the last few days, since my wanderings among the mountains," he answered, lightly; "a longing to bury myself in some sort of a retreat on one of these old peaks and devote myself to study."
"And live a hermit's life?" Mr. Britton queried, with a peculiar smile.
"For a while, yes," Darrell replied, more seriously; "until I have learned to fight these battles out by myself, and to conquer myself."
"There are battles," said the other, speaking thoughtfully, "which are waged best in solitude, but self is conquered only by association with one's fellows. Solitude breeds selfishness."
Mr. Britton had resumed his pacing up and down, but a few moments later, as he approached Darrell, the latter turned, suddenly confronting him.
"My dear friend," he said, "you have been everything to me; you have done everything for me; I ask you to do one thing more,—forgive and answer this question: How have you conquered?"
The look of pain that crossed his companion's face filled Darrell with regret for what he had said, but before he could speak again Mr. Britton replied gently, with his old smile,—
"I doubt whether I have yet wholly conquered; but whatever victory is mine, I have won, not in solitude and seclusion, but in association with the sorrowing, the suffering, the sinning, and in sharing their burdens I found rest from my own."
He paused a moment, then continued, his glowing eyes holding Darrell as though under a spell:
"I know not why, but since our first meeting you have given me a new interest, a new joy in life. I have been drawn to you and I have loved you as I thought never again to love any human being, and some day I will tell you what I have told no other human being,—the story of my life."
On Saturday Mr. Britton and Darrell returned to The Pines. The increasing intimacy between them was evident even there. For the last day or so Mr. Britton had fallen into the habit of addressing Darrell by his Christian name, much to the latter's delight. For this Mrs. Dean laughingly called him to account, compelling Mr. Britton to come to his own defence.
"'John,'" he exclaimed; "of course I'll call him 'John.' It seems wonderfully pleasant to me. I've always wanted a namesake, and I can consider him one."
"A namesake!" ejaculated Mrs. Dean, smiling broadly; "I wonder if there's a poor family or one that's seen trouble of any kind anywhere around here that hasn't a 'John Britton' among its children! I should think you had namesakes enough now!"
"One might possibly like to have one of his own selection," he replied, dryly.
As Darrell took leave of Mr. Britton the following Monday morning the latter said,—
"By the way, John, whenever you are ready to enter upon that hermit life let me know; I'll provide the hermitage."
"Are you joking?" Darrell queried, unable to catch his meaning.
"Never more serious in my life," he replied, with such unusual gravity that Darrell forbore to question further.
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