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Chapter 16

The Aftermath

As Darrell entered his room its dim solitude seemed doubly grateful after the glare of the crowded rooms he had lately left. His brain whirled from the unusual excitement. He wanted to be alone with his own thoughts—alone with this new, overpowering joy, and assure himself of its reality. He seated himself by an open window till the air had cooled his brow, and his brain, under the mysterious, soothing influence of the night, grew less confused; then, partially disrobing, he threw himself upon his bed to rest, but not to sleep.

Again he lived over the last few weeks at The Pines, comprehending at last the gracious influence which, entering into his barren, meagre life, had rendered it so inexpressibly rich and sweet and complete. Ah, how blind! to have walked day after day hand in hand with Love, not knowing that he entertained an angel unawares!

And then had followed the revelation, when the scales had fallen from his eyes before the vision of lovely maiden-womanhood which had suddenly confronted him. He recalled her as she stood awaiting his tardy recognition—recalled her every word and look throughout the evening down to their parting, and again he seemed to hold her in his arms, to look into her eyes, to feel her head upon his breast, her kisses on his lips.

But even with the remembrance of those moments, while yet he felt the pressure of her lips upon his own, pure and cool like the dewy petals of a rose at sunrise, there came to him the first consciousness of pain mingled with the rapture, the first dash of bitter in the sweet, as he recalled the question in her eyes and the half-whispered, "I wondered if there might have been a 'Kathie' in the past."

The past! How could he for one moment have forgotten that awful shadow overhanging his life! As it suddenly loomed before him in its hideous blackness, Darrell started from his pillow in horror, a cold sweat bursting from every pore. Gradually the terrible significance of it all dawned upon him,—the realization of what he had done and of what he must, as best he might, undo. It meant the relinquishment of what was sweetest and holiest on earth just as it seemed within his grasp; the renunciation of all that had made life seem worth living! Darrell buried his face in his hands and groaned aloud. So it was only a mockery, a dream. He recalled Kate's words: "I hardly dare go to sleep for fear I will wake up and find it all a dream," and self-reproach and remorse added their bitterness to his agony. What right had he to bring that bright young life under the cloud overhanging his own, to wreck her happiness by contact with his own misfortune! What would it be for her when she came to know the truth, as she must know it; and how was he to tell her? In his anguish he groaned,—

"God pity us both and be merciful to her!"

For more than an hour he walked the room; then kneeling by the bed, just as a pale, silvery streak appeared along the eastern horizon, he cried,—

"O God, leave me not in darkness; give me some clew to the vanished past, that I may know whether or not I have the right to this most precious of all thine earthly gifts!"

And, burying his face, he strove as never before to pierce the darkness enveloping his brain. Long he knelt there, his hands clinching the bedclothes convulsively, even the muscles of his body tense and rigid under the terrible mental strain he was undergoing, while at times his powerful frame shook with agony.

The silvery radiance crept upward over the deep blue dome; the stars dwindled to glimmering points of light, then faded one by one; a roseate flush tinged the eastern sky, growing and deepening, and the first golden rays were shooting upward from a sea of crimson flame as Darrell rose from his knees. He walked to the window, but even the sunlight seemed to mock him—there was no light for him, no rift in the cloud darkening his path, and with a heavy sigh he turned away. The struggle was not yet over; this was to be a day of battle with himself, and he nerved himself for the coming ordeal.

After a cold bath he dressed and descended to the breakfast-room. It was still early, but Mr. Underwood was already at the table and Mrs. Dean entered a moment later from the kitchen, where she had been giving directions for breakfast for Kate and her guests. Both were shocked at Darrell's haggard face and heavy eyes, but by a forced cheerfulness he succeeded in diverting the scrutiny of the one and the anxious solicitude of the other. Mr. Underwood returned to his paper and his sister and Darrell had the conversation to themselves.

"Last night's dissipation proved too much for me," Darrell said, playfully, in reply to some protest of Mrs. Dean's regarding his light appetite.

"You don't look fit to go down town!" she exclaimed; "you had better stay at home and help Katherine entertain her guests. I noticed you seemed to be very popular with them last night."

"I'm afraid I would prove a sorry entertainer," Darrell answered, lightly, as he rose from the table, "so you will kindly excuse me to Miss Underwood and her friends."

"Aren't you going to wait and ride down?" Mr. Underwood inquired.

"Not this morning," Darrell replied; "a brisk walk will do me good." And a moment later they heard his firm step on the gravelled driveway.

Mr. Underwood having finished his reading of the morning paper passed it to his sister.

"Pretty good write-up of last night's affair," he commented, as he replaced his spectacles in their case.

"Is there? I'll look it up after breakfast; I haven't my glasses now," Mrs. Dean replied. "I thought myself that everything passed off pretty well. What did you think of Katherine last night, David?"

The lines about his mouth deepened as he answered, quietly,—

"She'll do, if she is my child. I didn't see any finer than she; and old Stockton's daughter, with all her father's millions, couldn't touch her!"

"I had no idea the child was so beautiful," Mrs. Dean continued; "she seemed to come out so unexpectedly some way, just like a flower unfolding. I never was so surprised in my life."

"I guess the little girl took a good many of 'em by surprise, judging by appearances," Mr. Underwood remarked, a shrewd smile lighting his stern features.

"Yes, she received a great deal of attention," rejoined his sister. "I suppose," she added thoughtfully, "she'll have lots of admirers 'round here now."

"No, she won't," Mr. Underwood retorted, with decision, at the same time pushing back his chair and rising hastily; "I'll see to it that she doesn't. If the right man steps up and means business, all right; but I'll have no hangers-on or fortune-hunters dawdling about!"

His sister watched him curiously with a faint smile. "You had better advertise for the kind of man you want," she said, dryly, "and state that 'none others need apply,' as a warning to applicants whom you might consider undesirable."

Mr. Underwood turned quickly. "What are you driving at?" he demanded, impatiently. "I've no time for beating about the bush."

"And I've no time for explanations," she replied, with exasperating calmness; "you can think it over at your leisure."

With a contemptuous "Humph!" Mr. Underwood left the house. After he had gone his sister sat for a while in deep thought, then, with a sigh, rose and went about her accustomed duties. She had been far more keen than her brother to observe the growing intimacy between her niece and Darrell, and she had seen some indications on the previous evening which troubled her, as much on Darrell's account as Kate's, for she had become deeply attached to the young man, and she well knew that her brother would not look upon him with favor as a suitor for his daughter.

Meanwhile, Darrell, on reaching the office, found work and study alike impossible. The room seemed narrow and stifling; the medley of sound from the adjoining offices and from the street was distracting. He recalled the companions of his earlier days of pain and conflict,—the mountains,—and his heart yearned for their restful silence, for the soothing and uplifting of their solemn presence.

Having left a brief note on Mr. Underwood's desk he closed his office, and, leaving the city behind him, started on foot up the familiar canyon road. After a walk of an hour or more he left the road, and, striking into a steep, narrow trail, began the ascent of one of the mountains of the main range. It still lacked a little of midday when he at last found himself on a narrow bench, near the summit, in a small growth of pines and firs. He stopped from sheer exhaustion and looked about him. Not a sign of human life was visible; not a sound broke the stillness save an occasional breath of air murmuring through the pines and the trickling of a tiny rivulet over the rocks just above where he stood. Going to the little stream he caught the crystal drops as they fell, quenching his thirst and bathing his heated brow; then, somewhat refreshed, he braced himself for the inevitable conflict.

Slowly he paced up and down the rocky ledge, giving no heed to the passage of time, all his faculties centred upon the struggle between the inexorable demands of conscience on the one hand and the insatiate cravings of a newly awakened passion on the other. Vainly he strove to find some middle ground. Gradually, as his brain grew calm, the various courses of action which had at first suggested themselves to his mind appeared weak and cowardly, and the only course open to him was that of renunciation and of self-immolation.

With a bitter cry he threw himself, face downward, upon the ground. A long time he lay there, till at last the peace from the great pitying heart of Nature touched his heart, and he slept on the warm bosom of Mother Earth as a child on its mother's breast.

The sun was sinking towards the western ranges and slowly lengthening shadows were creeping athwart the distant valleys when Darrell rose to his feet and, after silently drinking in the beauty of the scene about him, prepared to descend. His face bore traces of the recent struggle, but it was the face of one who had conquered, whose mastery of himself was beyond all doubt or question. He took the homeward trail with firm step, with head erect, with face set and determined, and there was in his bearing that which indicated that there would be no wavering, no swerving from his purpose. His own hand had closed and bolted the gates of the Eden whose sweets he had but just tasted, and his conscience held the flaming sword which was henceforth to guard those portals.

A little later, as Darrell in the early twilight passed up the driveway to The Pines, he was conscious only of a dull, leaden weight within his breast; his very senses seemed benumbed and he almost believed himself incapable of further suffering, till, as he approached the house, the sight of Kate seated in the veranda with her father and aunt and the thought of the suffering yet in store for her thrilled him anew with most poignant pain.

His face was in the shadow as he came up the steps, and only Kate, seated near him, saw its pallor. She started and would have uttered an exclamation, but something in its expression awed and restrained her. There was a grave tenderness in his eyes as they met hers, but the light and joy which had been there when last she looked into them had gone out and in their place were dark gloom and despair. She heard as in a dream his answers to the inquiries of her father and aunt; heard him pass into the house accompanied by her aunt, who had prepared a substantial lunch against his return, and, with a strange sinking at her heart, sat silently awaiting his coming out.

It had been a trying day for her. On waking, her happiness had seemed complete, but Darrell's absence on that morning of all mornings had seemed to her inexplicable, and when her guests had taken their departure and the long day wore on without his return and with no message from him, an indefinable dread haunted her. She had watched eagerly for Darrell's return, believing that one look into his face would banish her forebodings, but, instead, she had read there only a confirmation of her fears. And now she waited in suspense, longing, yet dreading to hear his step.

At last he came, and, as he faced the light, Kate was shocked at the change which so few hours had wrought. He, too, was touched by the piteous appeal in her eyes, and there was a rare tenderness in voice and smile as he suggested a stroll through the grounds according to their custom, which somewhat reassured her.

Perhaps Mr. Underwood and his sister had observed the old shadow of gloom in Darrell's face, and surmised something of its cause, for their eyes followed the young people in their walk up and down under the pines and a softened look stole into their usually impassive faces. At last, as they passed out of sight on one of the mountain terraces, Mrs. Dean said, with slight hesitation,—

"Did it ever occur to you, David, that Katherine and Mr. Darrell are thrown in each other's society a great deal?"

Mr. Underwood shot a keen glance at his sister from under his heavy brows, as he replied,—

"Come to think of it, I suppose they are, though I can't say as I've ever given the matter much thought."

"Perhaps it's time you did think about it."

"Come, Marcia," said her brother, good-humoredly, "come to the point; are you, woman-like, scenting a love-affair in that direction?"

Mrs. Dean found herself unexpectedly cornered. "I don't say that there is, but I don't know what else you could expect of two young folks like them, thrown together constantly as they are."

"Well," said Mr. Underwood, with an air of comic perplexity, "do you want me to send Darrell adrift, or shall I pack Puss off to a convent?"

"Now, David, I'm serious," his sister remonstrated, mildly. "Of course, I don't know that anything will come of it; but if you don't want that anything should, I think it's your duty, for Katherine's sake and Mr. Darrell's also, to prevent it. I think too much of them both to see any trouble come to either of them."

Mr. Underwood puffed at his pipe in silence, while the gleaming needles in his sister's fingers clicked with monotonous regularity. When he spoke his tones lacked their usual brusqueness and had an element almost of gentleness.

"Was this what was in your mind this morning, Marcia?"

"Well, maybe so," his sister assented.

"I don't think, Marcia, that I need any one to tell me my duty, especially regarding my child. I have my own plans for her future, and I will allow nothing to interfere with them. And as for John Darrell, he has the good, sterling sense to know that anything more than friendship between him and Kate is not to be thought of for a moment, and I can trust to his honor as a gentleman that he will not go beyond it. So I rather think your anxieties are groundless."

"Perhaps so," his sister answered, doubtfully, "but young folks are not generally governed much by common sense in things of this kind; and then you know, David, Katherine is different from us,—she grows more and more like her mother,—and if she once got her heart set on any one, I don't think anybody—even you—could make her change."

The muscles of Mr. Underwood's face suddenly contracted as though by acute pain.

"That will do, Marcia," he said, gravely, with a silencing wave of his hand; "there is no need to call up the past. I know Kate is like her mother, but she has my blood in her veins also,—enough that when the time comes she'll not let any childish sentimentality stand in the way of what I think is for her good."

Mrs. Dean silently folded her knitting and rose to go into the house. At the door, however, she paused, and, looking back at her brother, said, in her low, even tones,—

"I have said my last word of this affair, David, no matter what comes of it. You think you understand Katherine better than I, but you may find some day that it's better to prevent trouble than to try to cure it."

Meanwhile, Darrell and Kate had reached their favorite seat beneath the pines and, after one or two futile attempts at talking, had lapsed into a constrained silence. To Kate there came a sudden realization that the merely friendly relations heretofore existing between them had been swept away; that henceforth she must either give the man at her side the concentrated affection of her whole being or, should he prove unworthy,—she glanced at his haggard face and could not complete the supposition even to herself. He was troubled, and her tender heart longed to comfort him, but his strange appearance held her back. At one word, one sign of love from him, she would have thrown herself upon his breast and begged to share his burden in true woman fashion; but he was so cold, so distant; he did not even take her hand as in the careless, happy days before either of them thought of love.

Kate could endure the silence no longer, and ventured some timid word of loving sympathy.

Darrell turned, facing her, his dark eyes strangely hollow and sunken.

"Yes," he said, in a low voice, "God knows I have suffered since I saw you, but I deserve to suffer for having so far forgotten myself last night. That is not what is troubling me now; it is the thought of the sorrow and wretchedness I have brought into your pure, innocent life,—that you must suffer for my folly, my wrong-doing."

"But," interposed Kate, "I don't understand; what wrong have you done?"

"Kathie," he answered, brokenly, "it was all a mistake—a terrible mistake of mine! Can you forgive me? Can you forget? God grant you can!"

"Forgive! Forget!" she exclaimed, in bewildered tones; "a mistake?" her voice faltered and she paused, her face growing deathly pale.

"I cannot think," he continued, "how I came to so forget myself, the circumstances under which I am here, the kindness you and your people have shown me, and the trust they have reposed in me. I must have been beside myself. But I have no excuse to offer; I can only ask your forgiveness, and that I may, so far as possible, undo what has been done."

While he was speaking she had drawn away from him, and, sitting proudly erect, she scanned his face in the waning light as though to read there the full significance of his meaning. Her cheeks blanched at his last words, but there was no tremor in her tones as she replied,—

"I understand you to refer to what occurred last night; is that what you wish undone—what you would have me forget?"

"I would give worlds if only it might be undone," he answered, "but that is an impossibility. Oh Kathie, I know how monstrous, how cruel this must seem to you, but it is the only honorable course left me after my stupidity, my cursed folly; and, believe me, it is far more of a kindness even to you to stop this wretched business right here than to carry it farther."

"It is not necessary to consider my feelings in the matter, Mr. Darrell. If, as you say, you found yourself mistaken, to attempt after that to carry on what could only be a mere farce would be simply unpardonable. A mistake I could forgive; a deliberate deception, never!"

The tones, so unlike Kate's, caused Darrell to turn in pained surprise. The deepening shadows hid the white, drawn face and quivering lips; he saw only the motionless, slender figure held so rigidly erect.

"But, Kathie—Miss Underwood—you must have misunderstood me," he said, earnestly. "I have acted foolishly, but in no way falsely. You could not, under any circumstances, accuse me of deception——"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Darrell," she interposed, more gently; "I did not intend to accuse you of deception. I only meant that, regardless of any personal feeling, it was, as you said, better to stop this; that to carry it farther after you had found you did not care for me as you supposed—or as I was led to suppose——" She paused an instant, uncertain how to proceed.

"Kathie, Kathie! what are you saying?" Darrell exclaimed. "What have I said that you should so misunderstand me?"

"But," she protested, piteously, struggling to control her voice, "did you not say that it was all a mistake on your part—that you wished it all undone? What else could I understand?"

"My poor child!" said Darrell, tenderly; then reaching over and possessing himself of one of her hands, he continued, gravely:

"The mistake was mine in that I ever allowed myself to think of loving you when love is not for me. I have no right, Kathie, to love you, or any other woman, as I am now. I did not know until last night that I did love you. Then it came upon me like a revelation,—a revelation so overwhelming that it swept all else before it. You, and you alone, filled my thoughts. Wherever I was, I saw you, heard you, and you only. Again and again in imagination I clasped you to my breast, I felt your kisses on my lips,—just as I afterwards felt them in reality."

He paused a moment and dropped the hand he had taken. Under cover of the shadows Kate's tears were falling unchecked; one, falling on Darrell's hand, had warned him that there must be no weakening, no softening.

His voice was almost stern as he resumed. "For those few hours I forgot that I was a being apart from the rest of the world, exiled to darkness and oblivion; forgot the obligations to myself and to others which my own condition imposes upon me. But the dream passed; I awoke to a realization of what I had done, and whatever I have suffered since is but the just penalty of my folly. The worst of all is that I have involved you in needless suffering; I have won your love only to have to put it aside—to renounce it. But even this is better—far better than to allow your young life to come one step farther within the clouds that envelop my own. Do you understand me now, Kathie?"

"Yes," she replied, calmly; "I understand it from your view, as it looks to you."

"But is not that the only view?"

She did not speak at once, and when she did it was with a peculiar deliberation.

"The clouds will lift one day; what then?"

Darrell's voice trembled with emotion as he replied, "We cannot trust to that, for neither you nor I know what the light will reveal."

She remained silent, and Darrell, after a pause, continued: "Don't make it harder for me, Kathie; there is but one course for us to follow in honor to ourselves or to each other."

They sat in silence for a few moments; then both rose simultaneously to return to the house, and as they did so Darrell was conscious of a new bearing in Kate's manner,—an added dignity and womanliness. As they faced one another Darrell took both her hands in his, saying,—

"What is it to be, Kathie? Can we return to the old friendship?"

She stood for a moment with averted face, watching the stars brightening one by one in the evening sky.

"No," she said, presently, "we can never return to that now; it would seem too bare, too meagre. There will always be something deeper and sweeter than mere friendship between us,—unless you fail me, and I know you will not."

"And do you forgive me?" he asked.

She turned then, looking him full in the eyes, and her own seemed to have caught the radiance of the stars themselves, as she answered, simply,—

"No, John Darrell, for there is nothing to forgive."