Free Range Lanning/Chapter 32
"THE INNER SHRINE"
THE mare herself was in a far from safe condition. And if the marshal had roused himself from his grief and hurried up the slope on foot he would have found the fugitive out of the saddle and walking by the side of the played-out Sally, forcing her with slaps on the hip to keep in motion. She went on, stumbling, her head down, and the sound of her breathing was a horrible thing to hear. But she must keep in motion, for, if she stopped in this condition, Sally would never run again.
Andrew forced her relentlessly on. At length her head came up a little and her breathing was easier and easier. Before dark that night he came on a deserted shanty, and there he took Sally under the shelter, and, tearing up the floor, he built a fire which dried them both. The following day he walked again, with Sally following like a dog at his heels. One day later he was in the saddle again, and Sally was herself once more. Give her one feed of grain, and she would have ran again that famous race from beginning to end.
But Andrew, stealing out of the Roydon mountains into the lower ground, had no thought of another race. He was among a district of many houses, many men, and, for the final stage of his journey, he waited until after dusk had come and then saddled Sally and cantered into the valley.
It was late on the fourth night after he left Los Toros that Andrew came again to the house of John Merchant and left Sally in the very place among the trees where the pinto had stood before. There was no danger of discovery on his approach, for it was a wild night of wind and rain. The drizzling mists of the last three days had turned into a steady downpour, and rivers of water had been running from his slicker on the way to the ranch house. Now he put the slicker behind the saddle, and from the shelter of the trees surveyed the house.
It was bursting with music and light; every moment or so automobiles, laboring through the mud, hummed up to the house or left it, bringing guests and taking them away; it must be the reception before the wedding. For some reason he had always imagined the house wrapped in black night as it was the time of his first coming, and it baffled him, this music, this noise, this radiance behind every wind. Sometimes the front door was opened and voices stole out to him; sometimes even through the closed door he heard the ghostly tinkling of some girl's laughter.
And that was to Andrew the most melancholy sound in the world.
The rain, trickling even through the foliage of the evergreen, decided him to act at once. It might be that all the noise and light were, after all, an advantage to him, and, running close to the ground, he skulked across the dangerous open stretch and came into the safe shadow of the wall of the house.
Once there, it was easy to go up to the roof by one of the rain pipes, the same low roof from which he had escaped on the time of his last visit. On the roof the rush and drumming of the rain quite covered any sound he made, but he was drenched before he reached the window of Anne's room. Could he be sure that on her second visit she would have the same room? He settled that by a single glance. The curtain was not drawn, and a lamp, turned low, burned on the table beside the bed. The room was quite empty. The lamp reassured him, for the first person to enter the apartment would be sure to turn up the wick.
The window was fastened, but he worked back the fastening iron with the blade of his knife and raised himself into the room. He closed the window behind him. At once the noise of rain and the shouting of the wind faded off into a distance, and the voices of the house came more clearly to him. But he dared not stay to listen, for the water was dripping around him; he must move before a large dark spot showed on the carpet, and he saw, moreover, exactly where he could best hide. There was a heavily curtained alcove at one end of the room, and behind this shelter he hid himself. In case of a crisis the window was straight ahead of him; also, he could watch the door into the hall by pushing back the curtain.
And here he waited. How would she come? Would there be some one with her? Would she come laughing, with all the triumph of the dance bright in her face?
Behind him and about him he touched silken things, a mingling of fragrances reached him; apparently he had found the closet she used as a dressing room and every sight and scent—for a twilight came from the lamp and stole through above the curtain—spoke of Anne Withero and of her gentleness and all that nameless purity which he connected with her. He fell into a sort of sad-happy dream behind the curtain. Vaguely he heard the shrill droning of the violins die away beneath him, and the slipping of many dancing feet on a smooth floor fell to a whisper and then ceased. Voices sounded in the hall, but he gave no heed to the meaning of all this. Not even the squawking of horns, as automobiles drove away, conveyed any thought to him; he wished that this moment could be suspended to an eternity.
Parties of people were going down the hall; he heard soft flights of laughter and many young voices. People were calling gayly to one another and then by an inner sense rather than by a sound he knew that the door was opened into the room. He leaned and looked, and he saw Anne Withero close the door behind her and lean against it. In the joy of her triumph that evening?
No, her head was fallen, and he saw the gleam of her hand at her breast. He could not see her face clearly, but the bent head spoke eloquently of defeat. She came forward at length.
Thinking of her as the reigning power in that dance and all the merriment below him, Andrew had been imagining her tall, strong, with compelling eyes commanding admiration. He found all at once that she was small, very small; and her hair was not that keen fire which he had pictured. It was simply a coppery glow, marvelously delicate, molding her face. She went to a great full-length mirror; he had not seen it until her reflection suddenly flashed out at him from it with a touch of dull-green fire at her throat. Was that a jewel?
He had not time to see. She had raised her head for one instant to look at her image, and then she bowed her head again and placed her hand against the edge of the mirror for support. Little by little, through the half light, he was making her out and now the curve of this arm, from wrist to shoulder, went through Andrew like a phrase of music. He stepped out from behind the curtain, and, at the sound of the cloth swishing back into place, she whirled on him. If he could have had a picture of her as she stood there with the first fear parting her lips and darkening her eyes, I suppose that Andrew Lanning would have parted with the rest of Anne Withero with small pain indeed.
"I've come to do no harm," he said hastily. "Do not be afraid!"
She was speechless; her raised hand did not fall; it was as if she were frozen where she stood.
"I shall leave you at once," said Andrew quietly, "if you are badly frightened. You have only to tell me."
He had come closer. Now he was astonished to see her turn swiftly toward the door and touch his arm with her hand. "Hush!" she said. "Hush! They may hear you!"
She glided to the door into the hall and turned the lock softly and came to him again.
It made Andrew weak to see her so close, and he searched her face with a hungry and jealous fear, lest she should be different from his dream of her. "You are the same," he said with a sigh of relief. "And you are not afraid of me?"
"Hush! Hush!" she repeated. "Afraid of you? Don't you see that I'm happy, happy, happy to see you again?"
She drew him forward a little, and her hand touched his as she did so. She turned up the lamp, and a flood of strong yellow light went over the room.
"But you have changed," said Anne Withero with a little cry. "Oh, you have changed! What have they been doing to you?"
He was dumb. Something cold that had been forming about his heart was breaking away and crumbling, and a strange warmth and weakness was coming in his blood. She was answering her own question. "I know. They've been hounding you—the cowards!"
"Does it make no difference to you—all that I've done?" asked Andrew.
"What is it that should make a difference?"
"I have killed a man."
"Ah, it was that brother to the Dozier man. But I've learned about him. He was a bloodhound like his brother, but treacherous. I've learned everything about him, and people say it was a good thing that he died. Besides, it was in fair fight. Fair fight? It was one against six!"
"Don't," said Andrew, breathing hard, "don't say that! You make me feel that it's almost right to have done what I've done. But besides him—all the rest—do they make no difference?"
"All of what?"
"People say things about me. They even print them." He winced as he spoke.
But she was fierce again; her passion made her tremble. "When I think of it!" she murmured. "When I think of it, the rotten injustice makes me want to choke 'em all! Why, to-day I heard—I can't repeat it. It makes me sick—sick! And you're only a boy, Andrew Lanning!"
It was a staggering blow. He was not altogether sure that he was glad to hear this statement. He made himself his full height.
"Some people would smile if they heard you say that," said Andrew.
"If you draw yourself up like that again I'll laugh at you. Andrew Lanning, I say, you're just a boy. You're not two years older than I am. Why, they've hounded you and bullied you until they've made you think you are bad, Andrew. They've even made you a little bit proud of the hard things people say about you. Isn't that true?"
Was it any wonder that Andrew could not answer? He felt all at once so supple that he was hot tallow which those small fingers would mold and bend to suit themselves.
"Sit down here!" she commanded.
Meekly he obeyed. He sat on the edge of his chair, with his hat held with both hands, and his eyes widened as he stared at her—like a person coming out of a great darkness into a great light.
And tears came into the eyes of the girl.
"You're as thin as a starved—wolf," she said, and closed her eyes and shuddered.
"And all the time I've been thinking of you as you were when I saw you here before—the same clear, steady eyes and the same direct smile. Oh, you see, I've never forgotten that night! What girl would? It was like something out of a play—but so much finer! But they've made you older they've burned the boy out of you with pain! And I've been thinking about you just cantering through wild, gay adventures. Are you ill now?"
He had leaned back in the chair and gathered his hat close to his breast, crushing it.
"I'm not ill," said Andrew. His voice was hoarse and thick. "I'm just listening to you. Go on and talk."
"About you?" asked the girl.
"I don't hear your words—hardly; I just hear the sound you make." He leaned forward again and cast out his arm so that the palm of his hand was turned up beneath her eyes. She could see the long, lean fingers. It suddenly came home to her that every strong man in the mountain desert was in deadly terror of that hand. Anne Withero was shaken for the first time, and her smile went out.
"Listen to me," he was saying in that tense whisper which was oddly like the tremor of his hand, "I've been hungry for that voice all these weeks—and months—and thousands of years. Go on and talk!"
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," said the girl, very grave. "I'm going to break up this cowardly conspiracy against you. I've written to my father to get the finest lawyer in the land and send him out here to make you—legal—again. Oh, I wrote a letter that'll make dad's blood boil! You'll have to meet dad, Andrew Lanning."
He began to smile, and shook his head.
"It's no use," he said. "Perhaps your lawyer could help me on account of Bill's death, but he couldn't help me from Hal."
"Are you—do you mean you're going to fight the other man, too?"
"He killed his horse chasing me," said Andrew. "I couldn't stop to fight him because I was comin' down here to see you. But when I go away I've got to find him and give him a chance back at me. It's only fair."
"Because he killed a horse trying to get you you're going to give him a chance to shoot you?"
Her voice had become shrill. She lowered it instinctively toward the end and cast a glance of apprehension toward the door.
"You are quite mad," said the girl.
"You don't understand," said Andrew. "His horse was Gray Peter—the stallion."
The simple sentence seemed to mark the vast gulf of difference between them. She only stared at Andrew, and for the first time she grew aware of the fact that he was dripping on her carpet and that his clothes were tattered—remarkably ragged, in fact—and that he was by no means clean.
"I've ridden Gray Peter myself," went on Andrew. "And I would rather have killed a man than have seen Gray Peter die. Hal had Peter's head in his arms," he added softly. "And he'll never give up the trail until he's had it out with me. He wouldn't be half a man if he let things drop now."
And she forgot the dripping, the ragged clothes, the dirt. In some manner she saw the whole picture of the death of Gray Peter in the saddened face of Andrew. If she had felt above him the moment before she now felt infinitely beneath him.
"So you have to fight Hal Dozier?"
"But when that's done——"
"When that's done one of us will be dead. If it's me, of course, there's no use worryin'; if it's Hal, of course, I'm done in the eyes of the law. Two—murders!"
His eyes glinted and his fingers quivered. It sent a cold thrill through the girl.
"But they say he's a terrible man, Andrew. You wouldn't let him catch you?"
"I won't stand and wait for him," said Andrew gravely. "But if we fight I think I'll kill him."
It was said with perfect lack of braggadocio.
"What makes you think that?" She was more curious than shocked.
"It's just a sort of feeling that you get when you look at a man; either you're his master or you aren't. You see it in a flash."
"Have you ever seen your master?" asked the girl slowly.
"I'll want to die when I see that," he said simply.
Suddenly she clenched her hands and sat straight up.
"It's got to be stopped," she said hotly. "It's all nonsense, and I'm going to see that you're both stopped."
"You can't stop me."
She was not angry, but very curious. It was, in fact, difficult to be angry with a man who kept his eyes upon her with a look of mortal hunger, mortal stillness.
"Of course," she said, without smiling, "I'm not a fighting man."
It was as though, when words failed him, he relied upon a gesture to take their place. She followed the glint of his eyes and the movement of his hand, and was sorry she had made that last remark. Too late she knew she had precipitated the trouble. She would have stopped him, but it was like raising a hand to halt an avalanche. She felt lost, as though a horse had taken the bit in his teeth and was whirling her on into danger, out of control. The emotion which had been in the quivering gesture of his hand and in the glint of his eyes was stamped freely on his whole face now. It was in his pallor, in the deep lines beside the mouth, in his very deep breathing, and, above all, it flowed into the quality of his voice, which did not rise in pitch or in volume, but which took on a peculiar edge—something that went to her heart.
"Four days ago," he said, "you could have taken me in the hollow of your hand. I would have come to you and gone from you at a nod. That time is about to end."
He paused a little, and looked at her in such a manner that she was frightened, but it was a pleasant fear. It made her interlace her ringers with nervous anxiety, but it set a fire in her eyes.
'That time is ending," said Andrew. "You are about to be married."
"And after that you will never look at me again, never think of me again?"
"I hope not," he answered. "I strongly hope not. I shall make myself busy with that purpose."
"But why? Is a marriage a blot or a stain?"
"It is a barrier," he answered.
"Even to thoughts? Even to friendship?"
A very strange thing happened in the excited mind of Anne Withero. It seemed to her that Charles Merchant sat, a filmy ghost, beside this tattered fugitive. He was speaking the same words that Andrew spoke, but his voice and his manner were to Andrew Lanning what moonshine is to sunlight. She had looked upon marriage simply as an acquisition, a gain, an inevitable event toward which all womankind must move. And now a new point of view was opened to her, and she saw marriage as a bitter loss, a great gain and a great sacrifice, a chance for joy and a certainty for aching sorrow, an inevitable trial by fire to which all womankind moves. She had been thinking of Charles Merchant as a social asset; she began to think of him now as a possessing force. Anne Withero possessed by Charlie Merchant! A faded smile came and went on her lips.
"What you have told me," she said, "means more than you may think to me. Have you come all this distance to tell me?"
"All this distance to talk?" he said. He seemed to sit back and wonder. "Have I traveled four days?" he went on. "Has Gray Peter died, and have I been under Hal Dozier's rifle only to speak to you?" He suddenly recalled himself.
"No, no! I have come to give you a wedding present,"
He watched her color change.
"Are you angry? Is it wrong to give you a present?"
"No," she answered in a singular, stifled voice.
"It is this watch." It was a large gold watch and a chain of very old make that he put into her hand. "It is for your son," said Andrew.
She stood up; he rose instinctively.
"When I look at it I'm to remember that you are forgetting me?"
A little hush fell upon them.
"Are you laughing at me, Anne?"
He had never called her by her name before, and yet it came as naturally upon his lips as a child's name, say, comes upon the tongue of its playmate.
She stood, indeed, with the same smile upon her lips, but her eyes were fixed and looked straight past him. They were dim and obscured by moisture. And presently he saw a tear pass slowly down her face. Her hand remained without moving, with the watch in it exactly as he had placed it there. A great awe came upon Andrew. All before he had felt that he was the master with the upper hand while they talked together.
But now she wept, and his heart was humbled. It shocked him and crushed him with a feeling that in her were motives so deeply drawn, flowing from sources so remote that he could never have understood her even if she were to speak. All that mysterious power which is womanhood came upon him and about him like still and holy things—the whisper of rain in the evening when it is easiest to die, the pure and melancholy cold of autumn, the fragrance of a garden passed unknown in the night.
It became impossible for him to bear the sight of her eyes. If he remained she might speak, and he feared to hear her. A sense of a third presence, of another soul in the room overwhelmed him; he could not give it a name, and therefore he called it God.
She had not stirred when he slipped without a noise through the window and was instantly swallowed in the rushing of the wind and rain.