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Chapter 23

Summer waned. The long hot days dragged by. The fading rushes along the river drooped wearily over their dry beds. The yellowing leaves of the trees hung dejected; they were mute petitioners for cool breezes and rain. The grasshoppers chirped monotonously, the locusts screeched shrilly, both being products of the long hot summer, and survivors of the heat, inclined to voice their exultation far into the fall season.

September yielded them full sway, and burned away day by day, week by week, dusty and scorching, without even a promise of rain. October, however, dawned, misty and dark; the clouds crept up reluctantly at first and then, as if to make amends for neglect, trooped black and threatening toward the zenith. Storm followed storm, and at evening, after the violent crashing thunder and vivid lightning and driving torrents of rain had ceased, a soft, steady downpour persisted all night and all the next day.

The drought was broken. A rainy fall season was prophesied. The old danger of the river rising in flood was feared.

After the sear and lifeless color of the fields and forests, what a welcome relief to Daren Lane were the freshened green, the dawning red, the tinging gold! The forest on the hill was soft and warm, and but for the gleams of autumn, would have showed some of the tenderness of spring. Down in the lowlands a sea of color waved under a blue, smoky, melancholy haze.

Lane climbed high that Sunday afternoon and penetrated deep into the woods.

There was rest here. The forest was rich, warm with the scent of pine, of arbor vitae. There was the haunting promise of more brilliant hues. Thoughts swept through Lane's mind. The great striving world was out of sight. Here in the gold-flecked shade, under the murmuring pines and pattering poplars, there was a world full of joy, wise in its teaching, significant of the glory that was fading but which would come again.

Lane loved the low hills, the deep, colorful woods in autumn. There he lost himself. He learned. Silence and solitude taught him. From there he had vision of the horde of men righting down the false impossible trails of the world. He felt the sweetness, the frailty, the dependence, the glory and the doom of women battling with life. He realized the hopeless traits of human nature. Like dead scales his egotism dropped from him. He divined the weaving of chances, the unknown and unnamed, the pondering fates in store. The dominance of pain over all--the wraith of the past--the importunity of a future never to be gained--the insistence of nature, ever-pressing closer its ruthless claims--all these which became intelligible to Lane, could not keep life from looming sweet, hopeful, wonderful, worthy man's best fight.

And sometimes the old haunting voices whispered to him out of the river shadows--deeper, different, strangely more unintelligible than ever before, calling more to his soul.

Next morning Lane got up at the usual hour and went outdoors, but returned almost immediately.

"The river is rising fast. Listen. Hear that roar. There's a regular old Niagara just below."

"I imagined that roar was the wind."

"The water has come up three feet since daylight. I guess I'll go down now and pull in some driftwood."

"Oh, Daren! Don't be so adventurous. When the river is high there's a dangerous rapid below."

"You're right about that. But I won't take any risks. I can easily manage the boat, and I'll be careful."

The following three days it rained incessantly. Outside, on the gravel walks, there was a ceaseless drip, drip, drip.

Friday evening the rain ceased, the murky clouds cleared away and for a few moments a rainbow mingled its changing hues with the ruddy glow of the setting sun. The next day dawned bright and dear.

Lane was indeed grateful for a change. Mel had been unaccountably depressed during those gloomy days. And it worried him that this morning she did not appear her usual self.

"Mel, are you well?" he asked.

"Yes, I am perfectly well," she replied. "I couldn't sleep much last night on account of that roar."

"Don't wonder. This flood will be the greatest ever known in Middleville."

"Yes, and that makes more suffering for the poor."

"There are already many homeless. It's fortunate our cottage is situated on this high bank. Just look! I declare, jostling logs and whirling drifts! There's a pen of some kind with an object upon it."

"It's a pig. Oh! poor piggy!" said Mel, compassionately.

A hundred yards out in the rushing yellow current a small house or shed drifted swiftly down stream. Upon it stood a pig. The animal seemed to be stolidly contemplating the turbid flood as if unaware of its danger.

Here the river was half a mile wide, and full of trees, stumps, fences, bridges, sheds--all kinds of drifts. Just below the cottage the river narrowed between two rocky cliffs and roared madly over reefs and rocks which at a low stage of water furnished a playground for children. But now that space was terrible to look upon and the dull roar, with a hollow boom at intervals, was dreadful to hear.

"Daren--I--I've kept something from you," said Mel, nervously. "I should have told you yesterday."

"What?" interrupted Lane, sharply.

"It's this. It's about poor Blair.... He--he's dead!"

Lane stared at her white face as if it were that of a ghost.

"Blair! You should have told me. I must go to see him."

It was not a long ride from the terminus of the car line to where the Maynards lived, yet measured by Lane's growing distress of mind it seemed a never-ending journey.

He breathed a deep breath of relief when he got off the car, and when the Maynard homestead loomed up dark and silent, he hung back slightly. A maid admitted Lane, and informed him that Mr. Maynard was ill and Mrs. Maynard would not see any one. Margaret was not at home. The maid led Lane across the hall into the drawing-room and left him alone.

In the middle of the room stood a long black cloth-covered box. Lane stepped forward. Upon the dark background, in striking contrast, lay a white, stern face, marble-like in its stone-cold rigidity. Blair, his comrade!

The moment Lane saw the face, his strange fear and old gloomy bitterness returned. Something shot through him which trembled in his soul. To him the story of Blair's sacrifice was there to read in his quiet face, and with it was an expression he had never seen, a faint wonder of relief, which suggested peace.

How strange to look upon Blair and find him no longer responsive! Something splendid, loyal, generous, loving had passed away. Gone was the vital spark that had quickened and glowed to noble thoughts; gone was the strength that had been weakness; gone the quick, nervous, high-strung spirit; gone the love that had no recompense. The drawn face told of physical suffering. Hard Blair had found the world, bitter the reward of the soldier, wretched the unholy worship of money and luxury, vain and hollow mockery the home of his boyhood.

Lane went down the path and out of the gate. He had faint perceptions of the dark trees along the road. He came to a little pine grove. It was very quiet. There was a hum of insects, and the familiar, sad, ever-present swishing of the wind through the trees. He listened to its soft moan, and it eased the intensity of his feelings. This emotion was new to him. Death, however, had touched him more than once. Well he remembered his stunned faculties, the unintelligible mystery, the awe and the grief consequent on the death of his first soldier comrade in France. But this was different; it was a strange disturbance of his heart. Oppression began to weight him down, and a nameless fear.

He had to cross the river on his way home to the cottage. In the middle of the bridge he halted to watch the sliding flood go over the dam, to see the yellow turgid threshing of waves below. The mystic voices that had always assailed his ears were now roaring. They had a message for him. It was death. Had he not just looked upon the tragic face of his comrade? Out over the tumbling waters Lane's strained gaze swept, up and down, to and fro, while the agony in his heart reached its height. The tumult of the flood resembled his soul. He spent an hour there, then turned slowly homeward.

He stopped at the cottage gate. It was now almost dark. The evening star, lonely and radiant, peeped over the black hill. With some strange working at his heart, with some strange presence felt, Lane gazed at the brilliant star. How often had he watched it! Out there in the gloom somewhere, perhaps near at hand, had lurked the grim enemy waiting for Blair, that now might be waiting for him. He trembled. The old morbidness knocked at his heart. He shivered again and fought against something intangible. The old conviction thrust itself upon him. He had been marked by fate, life, war, death! He knew it; he had only forgotten.

"Daren! Daren!"

Mel's voice broke the spell. Lane made a savage gesture, as if he were in the act of striking. Thought of Mel recalled the stingingly sweet and bitter fact of his love, and of life that called so imperiously.

Zane Grey

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