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SUN IN THE VALLEY

By Arthur Stringer

ALL through the long winter she watched him from her sun-lit châlet window. Even late into ther eluctant, mountain Spring, she had looked for him, day by day, with languid anxiety, and had forgotten her own weakness in beholding him there, silently battling with their common enemy. The first bright morning he had crept, ghost-like, out into the sun, her tired heart had bounded like a young girl's.

When the brisk little sanatorium physician had casually remarked the strange coincidence of their cases, and, laughingly, dubbed them both prisoners of what he called "the five-thousand-feet tyranny," she had felt strangely drawn toward her unknown neighbor. She was on the point of asking many things more about him, but some momentary, new-born sense of shyness came over her, and the busy little doctor went on his way, and Margaret Wayburn went back to her window.

Their châlets were the last two above the sanatorium, on the winding Banff roadway that led to the springs. Far below them lay the little village and many hurrying waters. Above them were the pines and the snows and leagues of sun-bathed solitude. So, while men and women came and went again, once more happy and whole in body, the tall young Easterner had himself been looking out from his own windows at the frail woman, who appeared so girlish and flower-like in the great chair that always faced the window. He had gazed out, enviously, at her first brief excursion in an outlandish little mountain-cart, and had looked on, with consuming misery, when she and her trained nurse played their first languid game of tennis.

Once, many weeks later, they had met face to face. It was a memorable day. He had been down to the village for the post that morning, and she had ridden out to Sun Dance Cañon and back. As they met on, the narrow little mountain roadway, his heart was thumping so madly that he could do nothing more than bow gravely and pass on to his gate. But that morning she had gazed long into her mirror, and looked over her gowns—many sadly crumpled gowns, that she had not so much as thought of for months.

Then they met, formally.

It was the brisk little sanatorium doctor who brought them together. Cuthbertson looked down at the slender oval of her pale face, at the shadows of tender blue under the great, brooding, unsatisfied eyes, at the too full crimson of the lips, with their line of strange wistfulness—and they made him forget many things. She, too, gazed back into the unhappy face of the man, who was old before his years, who with her had walked the valley of the double shadow, who with her had found and lost many things. And, of a sudden, all the world changed for her.

On the next day, he sent her a basket of flowers, and a little note, after the manner of people of the living world. She pushed back her medicine bottles, and made room for them on her bedroom table, clinging to them, childishly, and fondling them, and even crying over them a little.

Two days later, they ventured forth together, on the sedatest of excursions to the cave and basin, she carefully bundled up in her outlandish little mountain-cart. And once back in her room that evening, she had been heard to sing, as she tried doing her hair in a new way. Then, she gaily declared that she was hungrier than any bear, and, for the first time in months, insisted on studying the record-sheets kept by her nurse from day to day.

One bright afternoon, the two exiles rode up the Corkscrew—she had laughingly told him that she had ridden her first horse over the tanbark of Durland's—and dismounted on the summit of Tunnel Mountain, sending their ponies back with the guide.

The air was soft with early Summer, and full of the golden light of a late afternoon. About them towered the eternal snows of the Selkirks. Beneath them were valleys of dusk and silence, and twining green ribbons of rivers, and slopes of peaceful pine, through which they could see little, home-like clusters of châlets, where, they knew, men and women were fighting their desperate final battle of life and death.

Together, they sat facing the east, wistful-eyed and silent. She had just told him that people in Banff always faced the east—always looked longingly out from those barrier mountains to where, half a world away, lay cities and the fullness of life, movement and tumult and laughter, memories and regrets.

The woman sighed. The man's eyes were still turned out over the great mountains, where the broken valley of the Bow River dashed and fought and twined eastward to the foothills and the world beyond. To Cuthbertson, it was like a first glimpse out through his prison bars.

"Doesn't it seem hard"—and, even as he spoke, he kept his face turned still toward his lost east—"doesn't it seem hard that men and women who hunger for all that life holds—that you and I, who demand its movement and color and delirious play of good and bad, and have cried out for its last bitter drop, should find ourselves shut out, in this way, from all that world we desire so much?"

She felt the shadow of some other life fall mistily between them, and fought against it.

"Yes," she laughed, "here we sit, like two old eagles on a rock, looking out on it all!"

"And beholding it eternally beyond us!" he said, bitterly.

"But, after all," she asked, musingly, "is it so different?"

"Haven't you always wanted it back? Wouldn't you run away to it this moment, if you could?" he asked, impetuously, not noticing the shadow that crept into her face.

"I have been very happy here!" she said, simply.

"But haven't you always hungered for that other, older life?"

"Yes, it was different," she sighed, "at first."

Her mind flashed back to that last parting with her own people—the gray afternoon; the fine, drifting rain; the loneliness and sense of desolation that had fallen suddenly on her; the gush of hot, hopeless tears that had rained down her face, as she stood and watched their carriage rumble away to the little station; the last flutter of a white handkerchief; and, then, the first black hour of her solitude, when the final link that bound her to all the world seemed shattered.

Then, for a moment, she gazed about her, at the great mountains and the pines and the valleys of eternal silence. The vastness and the beauty and the solemn majesty of the scene filled her heart with a new thankfulness, and she said, in an undertone:

"But still, life is life!"

"But is mere living life?" he cried. "Don't you always feel that we are shadows, disembodied spirits, mere ghosts, brooding our days away up here, forever beyond the gates?"

"Were you always so happy there?"

"No, not altogether; but, still, I feel like an outcast Adam here. And the guardian angel, in our case, is a frock-coated little gentleman, with a flaming stethoscope."

She laughed and breathed deep.

"It might be worse!" she said.

He looked at her, for the first time, long and intently. His first thought was that she must have been a very beautiful girl. His second thought was, as their eyes met, that she was an even more beautiful woman. He had noticed of late, for reasons he could not fathom, that her mere presence half-reconciled him to his exile.

"After all, I suppose it's that old drunkenness for doing things," he said, apologetically. "But, oh, if they'd only given us ten years more of it!—only ten years more of it! Then, we might have packed up and crept away here, tired and satisfied!"

"Yet, could we?" she asked. "Wasn't that passion for living the very thing that defeated itself? It was always so hurried and feverish and elusive—that old life, stich a mad clutching at everything, that the very reality of it escaped us!"

"Yes, I've felt that."

"Whoso loveth the world shall lose the world! I've often thought that such a sorrow as ours is the chastening blow, that is more a kindness than a cruelty, in the end."

He smiled, grimly, and shook his head. Action, aggression, opposition, that had been the philosophy of his life.

"Don't you remember the bear that knocked the fly off his master's forehead? He smashed the poor man's skull through that little attention, didn't he?"

He noticed the distress with which her grave eyes looked at him, and smiled, repentantly.

"You see how hard it's going to be, making a philosopher of me! This way of looking at things is all so new to me! The men and women in those big cities of ours are always too busy and hurried to think these things over and work them out for themselves!"

"But, some day, they must awaken."

"Yes, I suppose so. But, if Wittenberg had been a school of practical science, and Elsinore an engineer's office, I guess we'd never have had a Hamlet."

He looked at her, and placed his hand on hers.

"But I do want you to teach me to feel and think!"

"Which means to live," she said, happily. He still held her hand in his, for the world and its ways counted as nothing to them. Their eyes met, unembarrassed, and, for the second time, the thought came to him that once she must have been a very beautiful girl. The sun sank lower over the Selkirks. A fresh chilliness came into the clear, afternoon air. A new happiness and a new sense of curiosity took possession of him.

"Will you tell me how it was you—you came here?" he asked her.

She laughed, sadly, and looked out over the mountains a moment, before she answered.

"It was such a foolish thing. We were living in Washington that Winter."

"Go on."

"It was after a legation dance. I drove all the way home, through the cold morning air, without a wrap!"

"Thinking so hard—of him?" said the other, as a vague flame of jealousy for all that lost youth and girlhood crept through him.

"Yes," she answered, without regret, "thinking of him! Now tell me how—how it happened with you."

"Just as foolishly. It was all over my first-born, my one and only bridge. A March freshet was going to swallow up my three months' work, and my reputation with it."

"Yes?"

"It was frightful weather—up on the Canada Atlantic road. I fought with it for two days, wet through and without sleep, I think. I saved the bridge; but you see it rather got the better of me, in the end."

"I am glad—it was that way," she murmured.

She rose from their rocky little seat, and looked down at him, out of eyes that were luminous with a new light.

"We have both walked the valley of lost hope, then," she said. And, as they rode homeward down the winding bridle-path of the Corkscrew, she was strangely silent, and, from time to time, he wondered just what that lost hope in her life had been. As they turned up toward the little châlets on the hill, and he looked at the pale face, slightly flushed with the air and movement, it was he, himself, who said gratefully to his own heart:

"It might be worse!"

From that time on, the days seemed to slip magically away. Each morning, he sent Margaret Wayburn his Herald, six days old, and now and then flowers, or a little basket of fruit, which, she knew only too well, had come all the way from a strange region of such things known as "Broadway." Once, over the first box of chocolates which he had sent in to her, she had wept openly and foolishly—it was so much a memory and a symbol of lost things to her.

She, in return, gave him many of her books to read; some of them, indeed, they even read together. A day that stood out and remained forever in their memory was the afternoon they read together the story of Sebastian Van Storck, from Walter Pater's "Imaginary Portraits." One declaration of faith from the lips of that gentle Dutch philosopher, with whom they had so much in common, refused for all time to be driven from Cuthbertson's mind.

"Joy is but the name of a passion, in which the mind passes to a greater perfection or power of thinking; as grief of the passion, in which it passes to a less."

He struggled manfully to catch at the twilight contentment, the Indian Summer sort of happiness, of his gentler and more fragile companion. She saw this effort on his part, and helped him joyously and as best she could. Sometimes, she fought with him against his blacker moods. Sometimes, she slipped over to his châlet, with an armful of flowers she had gathered with her own hand; or rearranged, with mock sternness, some new piece of furniture; or shook her head, gravely, over his neglected garden.

She had a piano sent up to her own châlet, and, in bad weather, when the mood for reading before the cheery little fire passed, she played for him; and sometimes sang—tenderly and beautifully, he thought, though, happily, he never dreamed just how much the effort was costing her.

Often, too, they made little journeys off to the different mountains close about Banff, and sometimes, in fine weather, went fishing for a long, glorious, golden day.

One day, she startled him by solemnly asking if the little launches on Devil's Lake were one-half as fine as the swan boats in Central Park. And, day by day, the drag-net of memory kept bringing up to them the names of common friends and forgotten scenes and things that had been left mistily behind them.

Yet, through all that harking back to the past, there was one question which Cuthbertson shunned most jealously. Just how free her hand and her heart might be, he had never dared to ask. Just what that lost hope had been, he had not the courage to fathom.

Nor was he the only one half-willing to let such riddles remain unanswered, pleading with fate that the awakening might not come until the end. Margaret forlornly argued with her rebellious soul that he and she were no longer of the world where such things counted. She tried to tell herself that this thing so like death had severed all those old ties for them, if what she mutely feared might indeed be true. She asked, hungrily, only for the passing moment. She clung, desperately, to those poignantly happy days, with a belated and strangely altered passion to drain existence to the last drop, as Cuthbertson had put it.

He, in turn, began to feel, more and more, how much he owed to this gentle and wistful-eyed woman, still a girl in so many things. He often questioned himself if she were not right, if the blow which had shattered the body, and allowed the soul to grope and creep up to the sun through its broken shell, had not been kinder than he had at first thought. She had taught him to love flowers, to see beauty in trifling things, to wonder at sunsets and rain and snow, to catch the spirit of the quieter and littler things of life, the things which the old-time man of action in him, crushing feverishly on to his ends, had missed.

He beheld his old East, and all that it stood for, growing more and more insubstantial. He even caught himself, at times, weaving fancies about the future, and, all along, found himself battling more desperately than ever for his lost health, and gazing less often eastward over the mountains. He was startled to find how smoothly and quickly the weeks slipped past.

Then, early Autumn came to Banff. Summer was over and gone once more in the valley of lost hopes. They were together on the summit of Tunnel Mountain, intangibly saddened at the touch of Winter in the cooling air, drawn closer to each other by some fugitive sense of loss.

Margaret looked out over the peaks touched with wine-glow, that softest curtain of rose-mist which Twilight lowers about her barren snows. The ghost of a breeze gently rippled the musing woman's bright, brown hair, as she faced the silent mountains, so wrapped in Autumnal peace.

"Love is the wine-glow on the wastes of life!" she had once said to Cuthbertson, from that same outlook, and her brooding eyes seemed to be saying it again. She was very happy.

"To think," she said, dreamily, "to think I came here to die!"

He, too, wondered at the strange sense of happiness that had taken possession of him. He looked at the fresher color of the slender oval of her face, at the dusk-lidded eyes, at the wind-blown tresses of hair, and the full knowledge of his love came to him, quietly, softly—as the flower unfolds.

He turned to her, and took her idle hands in his, as he had done in the same place so many days before.

"If God would only grant me a thousand years of such peace and silence and sunlight—with you!" he cried.

"Perhaps He will, some time!" she said, musingly, looking away.

"No, I don't mean that! I want you here, now, on this earth!"

She lifted one eloquent hand to her breast, and did not answer. But he understood.

"We will not—we must not—no, no; neither of us could die!" he protested, passionately.

The brooding, unsatisfied eyes smiled down at him, as the woman, and never the girl, can smile.

"All these weeks I have wanted to ask you something, and have never dared," he went on. "May I now?"

"Yes," she answered, faintly.

"It is if you—can't you guess?"

She nodded. "I, too, have wanted to ask the same thing," she answered, timidly, yet without guile.

They were boy and girl again, in the garden of youth.

"Then it can be?" he cried, impetuously. But she drew back, waiting and ready to face the worst in that one moment. "Can you say you are free, absolutely free?" she asked, pale and grave even to sternness.

"Free, free as that big cloud over Cascade Mountain!" he answered, boyishly.

It was more than she had asked for, she told her throbbing heart. It was so much more than she had asked for!

"And, from the first day, I have loved you, and wanted you!"

"But you have forgotten!" she forlornly cried.

"Can you, and will you, love me? Will you come with me?"

"We are shadows, ghosts!" she murmured.

He only drew her down to him, and held her captive there in his arms.

"Ghosts! Then we'll wring the last drop of happiness from our ghostland!"

She looked at him one lingering, frightened, girlish moment. Then, for all time, there could be no turning back. In the quiet twilight, he kissed her. And their kiss was far from being the kiss of ghosts.

Again and still again, she turned back to him, and held him to her bosom, hungrily. In that alone, she was strangely different from the girl—for she had learned how lonely life could be.

It was two weeks later that the brisk little doctor from the sanatorium chucklingly put down his auricular stethoscope, and beamed at her over his spectacles.

"Tell me," he said, "how would you like to take a trip East—in a few weeks, say?"

She turned on him, startled and white.

"What do you mean?" she cried.

"I mean there's not any use your staying around here much longer, Miss Wayburn. You're cured, you know!"

She put her hand up to her throat, with a little cry of horror, and her eyes were wide with anguish.

"No, no!" she moaned; "not that, not that!"

The little doctor looked at her, dumfounded. His patients had never been in the habit of taking such things after that fashion. She had misunderstood him, obviously.

"I mean, you're cured, perfectly cured, Miss Wayburn! You can go where you like—with precaution, of course, for the next year or two, you know! It's marvelous, this improvement during the last two or three months; quite marvelous!"

She caught feverishly at his arm.

"You must promise me one thing," she panted. "You must say nothing about this—nothing! Promise me!"

The little doctor went away with knitted brows, carrying with him a picture of a pale-faced woman pacing up and down and wringing her hands. Never before had he known patients who were not ready to shake the dust of Banff off their feet with joy. He wondered just what tie could be holding the woman to what he had long called the Valley of Lost Cases.

Some subtle difference in Margaret did not escape even Cuthbertson, lost as he was in the maze of many new emotions. More feverishly than ever, she seemed to thirst for all that the passing moment might hold. She accepted each happy hour with a pathetic tremulousness that disturbed him and filled him with wonder. A veil, which, with all her efforts, she could not thrust aside, had fallen between them. She was of one world; he was of another.

It was one tranquil morning, late in September, that she turned to him suddenly, as they sat watching the drifting mists above Bow Falls.

"Tell me, if you were well and strong again, if they came and told you that you were quite free to go back to—to that old world of yours again, you would go, wouldn't you?"

He gazed at her for a moment, out of startled eyes, and then looked, uneasily, into the valley below. A flush stole over his face, and he found it hard to answer her.

"I didn't mean to hurt you, dear; only, I wanted to know," she said, pitifully. She told herself it was not right to put him to such a test.

"I could never leave you!" he said, at last; "never!"

"But if you were free?" she still pleaded, tremulously.

He took her troubled face between his two sunburnt hands, and she knew her love no longer drifted on the wavering tides of her belief in him.

"You are life; my world, everything to me, now!" And with his lips he kissed away the quiet tears that had crept into her eyes. He drew her to his breast, and she was content to lie there, happy, satisfied, protesting within herself that she had nothing more to ask of life, arguing with her heart that her cup of happiness was full to the brim. But, for all time, she must be of one world, and he of another.

Before Margaret's open fire that evening, they talked over the arrangements for their marriage, as other men and women of the world do and have done. From her windows, she had pointed out to him, as darkness settled over the valley of the Bow, the little horseshoe of lights in the lower village, which she always fancied to look so like the box-circle of the Metropolitan on an all-star night.

"For a year, now, I've peopled that little circle of lights with ghosts. I've given theatre-parties to them, and watched them rustle in and fill box after box. I've married them off, and made them happy, and killed a few of them—and I've actually seen a Brünhilde step out from the wings there, in that dark clump of pines, and have taken the rain on the roof for the patter of their gloved hands!"

For the first time, he realized that, with all her protests of happiness, with all her resignation, she was homesick, through fleeting moments at least, for that world of men and women and color and movement and light.

"Wouldn't you like to have a bridesmaid or two come out?" he asked her; "just for the wedding, and for the sake of old times?"

"No, no, dear!" she cried. "They are not of our world now. They are not of us, and they would only—only make us unhappy, perhaps!"

Through a little gust of sudden tears, she clung to him, silently, piteously.

It was decided that it should be a very quiet affair, in the little village chapel. Banff would be deserted by that time. There would be left only that ghostlike remnant which lingered on to battle, despairingly, for a month or two more of existence. But Margaret said there should be flowers and music; those two things she could not forego.

Then, a silence fell over them, and they looked into the fire, thinking their own thoughts.

The busy little doctor from the sanatorium found them there, when he bustled in an hour later to thank Margaret for the gift of her discarded bath-chair to his children's ward. If his coming brought a strange constraint with it, he failed to notice it.

"Hadn't we better tell him?" whispered Margaret, uneasily, as she rose to meet him.

Cuthbertson flushed up like a boy.

"No, no; not yet!" he cried, guiltily. Then, the brisk, incisive voice of the little doctor broke in on them.

"By the way, when are you going east?" It was Cuthbertson to whom he spoke.

"Banff suits me so well, doctor—" stammered the other.

"You don't mean you are going to——?"

"Yes, I intend to stay here—always!" the other broke in, decisively.

"Do you know. Miss Wayburn, I've a pretty grave suspicion this big neighbor of yours has robbed a bank or two in his time!"

"Doctor!"

"—or made away with somebody's money before he came West!"

The half-smile of interrogation died on her lips.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Well, when a man up here comes to me and gets pounded about, and is told that he's sound as a dollar, and is ordered to pack up and go back to his work, he usually goes. We don't need to argue with 'em, as a rule. But, when he hangs around and says he'll try the goat-shooting the other side of Stephen for a month or two, and the trout-fishing down Emerald Lake way for a month or two, and châlet life up in the mountains for a year or two, it looks bad, very bad!"

The woman gazed at her lover for one long, silent minute, and then she knew the meaning of it all. In that ultimate, supreme moment, they stood together again, re-united, of one world.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.