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Through the Valley of Illusion

BY ARTHUR STRINGER


I

THE kindly old doctor had pounded Sudworth about a good deal, and then, turning grave in the midst of his quiet jocularity, had said, by way of preparation, that a relapse from pneumonia was a more or less serious thing at times. After that he had slowly placed the stethoscope on his desk once more, and looked at his patient with questioning and yet kindly eyes. Then he drummed thoughtfully on the desk-top with his short, strong fingers, and asked the other if there chanced to be any particular part of Mexico he had a liking for.

For a pitiful moment or two the old doctor's quiet laughter and intimate little conmmonplaces, as he had busily tapped and explored and listened, had all but misled his patient. But from the moment of that ultimate question a veil seemed to fall between Sudworth and the life that lay so close about him. He knew that thereafter he must touch all things with muffled hands, as through a mist.

"It's not—not that?" cried Sudworth, poignantly, catching at the old doctor's elbow in a passing moment of darkness.

The old doctor still tried to laugh a little, and then lied stoutly, as doctors often must. The sudden pallor of the patient disturbed him.

"No, no, my dear fellow, of course not!" he said, with an affectionate hand on the other's shoulder. "It's not quite that, but it may be, you know, if we don't catch it in time. A year or two in Mexico often—er—does wonders."

"A year or two!" repeated Sudworth, thinly. The fuller meaning of what it all stood for was piercing slowly through his dazed senses. "But I hate the place!"

The old doctor handed him a little tapering glass filled with port-wine. "Young man," and he looked at him almost sternly, "do you ever pull up to think over just how lucky you are to have a good comfortable bank account—to possess half a million or so to do what you like with? I know men, plenty of 'em, poor devils, tied down here to die, held to the East by poverty! And with wives, too!"

"With wives?" Sudworth repeated, without expression.

"So think a little what your luck means. You are able to get away from the city—"

"But what's life—to me—away from the city?" cried Sudworth.

"Life is life," almost wearily answered the other, "the world over!"

"But to me life here in the city means so much!" Sudworth looked up suddenly. "Why couldn't I run up the State somewhere for a few weeks?"

Their eyes met for a silent moment.

"It's too late, my boy; too late for that! I want to get you out West and a good six thousand feet up before I can feel safe. And the sooner the better. Now what do you say to Colorado?"

"Must I leave it?" pleaded Sudworth.

"To-morrow!" was the doctor's answer.

Muffled up in his hansom, Sudworth gazed out through the misty windows at the city. Already it seemed far away, shadowy, insubstantial. It lay before him, a world which he knew he must look upon for the last time; and even as he looked it appeared to take on new aspects. Over it crept a forlorn sense of beauty and romance. It seemed to lie about him glorified by some softening evanescence.

With his glove he wiped the gathering mist from the hansom window, and looked out hungrily, as a prisoner might, upon the life and color and busy movement of the city streets. Turning into Fifth Avenue, he watched for the familiar faces in the line of open carriages that drifted by. It would be, he knew, for the last time. He looked after them wistfully.

The things he had loved! He repeated it again and again. And how would she accept it, he wondered,—she, with her grave gray eyes in which was written so plainly her woman's capability for suffering, with her proud line of mouth and lip that could not altogether hide some inner passion for sacrifice, some unuttered pleading for her woman's right of pain.

"When this sort of thing happens, a man always ought to thank God he's free!" the old doctor had said to him.

In that lay the bitterest sting of it all. And he rebelled hotly at the seeming injustice of a sick man being put to such a test. Could he call himself free? Although they had known their troubled moments—Alice Hilliard and he—through even those final days of estrangement he could not evade the consciousness of how ultimate and absolute had been her love for him. He had seen and known it long ago—from the days when he had stood before her so boyish, so untried. Each passing estrangement, even, was nothing more than the inevitable back current of a river at too high flood, a momentary uncertain eddy in the passionate impetuosity of hearts still young.

For one weak moment he told himself that he would go to her, that she should understand everything, and know what it was costing him, to the bitterest end. But the grave gray eyes seemed to gaze in at him through the misty windows, and as he looked out on them his tattered line of courage crept hack to him, and he won. Alone he must go, like a man. For all time she must be given up. Those were the words that swayed emptily back and forth in his tired brain as he drove past under her windows that afternoon, and for the last time looked up, yet saw nothing but gloomy brownstone and closely drawn blinds.

As he looked, an open victoria drew briskly up at the curb beside him. Something familiar in the poise of the fur-clad figure, something unmistakable in the glint of the wintry sun on the bright chestnut hair, started his heart throbbing chokingly. He knew but one thing, and that was that he could not go without speaking to her.

"Alice!" he cried, fumbling and fighting desperately with the hansom window swung down maddeningly before him.

"Alice!" he cried tremulously, pushing back the window and leaning out into the cold wintry air. "Alice!"

The woman in the carriage looked up quickly, and smiled and nodded as he swept past.

Then it was he realized it was not Alice, but her sister Margaret, who gayly waved a huge fur muff after him as she laughed at the mistake.

Gayly he waved his gloved hand back at her, and then dropped into his cushioned seat, and watched the mist gather once more on the windows.


II

Warriner's wife's sister was waiting for the brougham. She walked languidly up and down the room, with a wealth of watered silk train over her arm.

"Where's Margaret?" Warriner asked, buried in his evening paper. "Isn't she going?"

"No; Margaret is hopeless," said the girl, wearily. "She's staying home to play button with the baby!"

Warriner looked at her, for the moment detached. He noticed that in some way her face had missed the softer lines of Margaret's. It was only her second season, but she seemed bent on shaking the last petal from her girlhood.

The girl ceased walking, and dropped moodily into a chair by the fire. Her slippered foot tapped impatiently on the floor. Her eyes wandered emptily about the walls. Warriner was wondering, vaguely, when she would tire of it all, and when, if ever, the change would come. The impatiently tapping foot came to a stop.

"Where did you pick up that Hebe in bronze, Alfred?" she asked suddenly, standing on tiptoe to reach the little figure from the high mantel-shelf. She stopped to blow a trace of dust from it, and turned it over curiously in her gloved hands.

"It belonged to a man named Sudworth."

The Hebe fell from her gloved fingers to her lap.

"And what happened?"

"He had to go away."

The gloved fingers still played nervously with the bronze figure in her lap.

"Oh, I see; the—er—law, I suppose?" She said it lightly, but she dared not look round.

"No-o-o; he just went away," answered Warriner from behind his paper.

"Then it was love?" The other smiled.

"No; it was lungs."

"Oh!" said she. "Tell me about it."

"I have told you," said Warriner. "There's nothing more!"

"But who was this Sudworth?" asked the girl, studying her hair in the mirror. Her gloved hands clasped the arms of her chair. Warriner could not see her face.

"A good fellow," he said, simply; "an unspeakably good fellow!"

"Oh, then he did die!" said the girl, laughing, and turning from the mirror. Some intangible sense of escape made her reckless.

"Alice!" reproved her brother-in-law; "Alice!" Then, sorrowfully, after looking up at her for a moment in silence, "Surely your two seasons haven't made you that bad?"

The girl sighed, and looked at him with gently reproving eyes, in which he could see, or thought he could see, some smouldering passion for self-sacrifice and devotion. He took the bronze Hebe from her hand.

"Poor chap; he was the best fellow I ever knew!"

"‘Alas, poor Yorick!’" said the girl.

Her sister's husband frowned.

"But good follows are so rare, Alfred," lamented the other, carefully spreading the watered silk at her feet. "They are so rare! Now tell me about him, please!"

"There's nothing more to tell," said Warriner. "He gave me this little Hebe the last time I saw him."

"But when?"

"The night he said good-by to us all. He left me the little thing—well, as a sort of remembrance."

"What did he say? What did he do?"

"He said he wanted us to help him away. His doctor had ordered him off to the West,—off to Banff, up among the Canadian Rockies. But he couldn't crawl off to the desert without one last night of it. So he insisted on spending the evening with us—the Solemn Seven, they used to call us. It was only play, of course, but with him as he was it was madness, we knew. Still, he insisted on it, and some way or other we couldn't refuse him, and so we saw the evening out with him. Most men, I suppose, would have been knocked off their legs by the news, coming the way it did—so suddenly, I mean. But he seemed to take it all with a wistful grin, and then off he went to his wilderness."

"But did he really know, did he think he—he was dying?" asked the girl, tremulously.

"Oh yes, he knew. But he didn't know we did. He kept saying to us that he'd be back again. All along he kept speaking of it as a little—well, as a sort of hunting trip. He joked about his old doctor, too, and I remember how he said, with his fine, quiet laugh, that he'd be back, sound as a dollar, in a month or two. 'In a year, at any rate,' he adding rather quickly, putting his hand up to his side and turning pretty white as he spoke. But he knew all along the East was death to him. We all felt pretty sure we'd never see him again. And he knew it, too; but he didn't know we knew, so he played his part out to the end, and would have no coddling. He insisted on the theatre, and a supper, and carriages for all of us—no funereal four-wheelers, he laughed, but hansoms. For the sake of old times."

"And then what?" asked the girl, two great tears running slowly down lier averted face.

"He tried to make a speech at the end of our supper, but a fit of coughing came over him, and we had to lift him into an arm-chair and give him chopped ice to eat. They wanted me to take him home, but he quieted down in a few minutes, and then, with his boyish smile, he stood up and drank to our health. Then some one else stood up and proposed the same to him. The rest saw it was a mistake, but it was too late, so we had to see it through.

"He sat it out beautifully. To this day I can remember that light, jaunty, gentlemanly laugh of his, as one by one they said good-by to him, and wrung his hand, and went off with wet eyes and quiet faces!"

"And then?" asked the girl.

"Then he gave way—broke down, in fact, as soon as we were alone, and begged me to drive back with him. 'Good-by, old city! Good-by!' he said, laughingly, as we turned from the glare of Broadway into the quietness and darkness of the Avenue. In his rooms that night he gave me the Hebe. 'Here's a little thing I want you to keep, old man,' he said, as he handed it to me. 'It's a Hebe, I'm told—Hebe, who lived among the gods till she slipped with her cups, and then, I suppose, they bundled her off to some prehistoric wilderness or other.' And that was the last time I ever saw him."

"But what of her,—the woman?" asked the girl.

"Must there be a woman?"

The girl's voice was low, and her head was on her breast. "Did—did he say there was no woman?"

"No, for there was. That's the worst part of it!"

"Then why didn't he go to her at such a time? Surely she—" The girl stopped.

"He didn't have the heart, poor fellow, He told me as much that night. They had had some foolish little quarrel, and he let that stand as the excuse. Yet all along he knew—in fact, I could see that he knew it—that she would have gone with him. But he talked vaguely about not spoiling her young life, and said he couldn't drag a girl off to a wilderness and chain her for life to a walking cough. So he never told her."

"And the woman,—what became of her?"

Warriner looked into a white face that frightened him.

"I never knew. He never told me, you see, who or what she was." Then he added: "But there were plenty of ways for the woman to have found out, I think, if she had cared!"


III

The tawny-haired young hotel guide went whistling down the tortuous bridle-path of the Corkscrew. The girl stood alone on the summit of Tunnel Mountain, leaning dazed against the rustic exedra that stood in a clump of stunted pines.

She could have said it was all a trick of the fancy, had not the shrill clarity of the mountain air tingled so tangibly in her nostrils. The long journey across the continent, the dust and the noise and the days of level prairie, the first green glimpse of the foot-hills, the stepping out before the strange little highland station-house of pine logs, the ride in the rumbling old omnibus up through the steep road that wound along the little town of tiny pine chalets, the coolness of the still air of the late afternoon, the tinkling of many waters, the long climb up the Corkscrew to the summit of Tunnel Mountain,—it all seemed so unreal, so like a dream, so like a vague memory of some half-forgotten Swiss excursion of her girlhood days, that she closed her eyes for a moment or two, and shut out the glare of the blue-white snow-fields and the closer gloom of the mountain-sides towering about her.

She sat down on the little exedra of rock and pine, and endeavored to clutch something palpable from the dim impressions that danced about her wearied mind. The young hotel guide had told her—in French, for he was a child of the Swiss Alps—that he knew the gentleman well. Every afternoon, between four and five, he had said, the gentleman climbed the Corkscrew and rested for half an hour or so on the summit. Yes, he had been in Banff for two years, if he remembered aright. At first they had carried him up to the Sanitarium, white, and wrapped in blankets. A few weeks later the gentleman had been able to drive out in a cart, and by June he was able to walk up the Corkscrew and back alone.

The consciousness of what this meant to her crept over the girl in one great wave of unutterable thankfulness. He was not dead. He was not even dying. He was alive and well; strong and vigorous; stronger and more vigorous, perhaps, than she was herself.

She opened her eyes and looked down where the tumbling Spray and the narrow Bow River twined like blue ribbons through the quiet valley below—so far below that the little town of chalets nestling among the dark pines looked like a child's play village to her, standing among play trees. The sweet thin air left a tang, almost a taste, in her throat. The wide outlook, the serenity of those imperturbable mountains brooding in the golden afternoon sunlight, gave her a sense of isolation, of ineffable peace.

In what place better, she thought, could a woman come to meet the man she loved? The man she loved! She stopped at the thought. It was two years—two long years! There was the possibility that, after all, it might prove, if not a tragic mistake, at least some humiliating comic blunder even harder to bear. Both of them—how might they not have changed in those two years? Perhaps, after all, it was too late.


IV

A step sounded on the rough path. The girl looked up and saw a tall figure swinging towards her through the gathering twilight. For days she had brooded over just what those first words were to be, and just how she should greet him.

She tried to rise to her feet and speak. She could not move. Her heart beat drunkenly, and a roaring of wind came in her ears.

"I'm late to-day!" said the man, simply.

He threw himself down in the rustic seat opposite her.

"But it's the first time, isn't it?" he said, speaking with the old boyish smile, and pushing back his cap with the old boyish gesture.

The girl's eyes dilated. Then it was a dream, after all. It was all a dream world; she was a dream woman, looking down on a dream man, and the sky and the mountains and the pines about her were dreams as well!

He was speaking to her, and she turned to him, wonderingly.

"Dear, I'm sorry about it," he said. "It has pained you, I know; and you have always been so good, Alice, and so generous. It was Macfarlane; he has had a bad day of it. I knew you would be up here waiting, waiting, the same as you have waited ever since that first day!"

Pausing, he turned his eyes, tender with a strange light, to her face. He drew back with a sudden little cry.

"Why, how you have changed! Alice, what is it? You are so white to-day, so tired-looking, so—"

He stopped short, for the girl had put her hand up to her throat and slipped weakly to the earth, uttering a little cry of anguish. He was mad, she whispered.

"Mad?" said the man, quietly, not moving where he sat. "After all, it is a sort of madness, isn't it? But it is the only way—I explained that to you long ago—and it has its reward, you know. Think, Alice, of nothing but three dying men and a dull young doctor to talk to most of the year! What poor devil could live alone in such quietness as this, in such silence, in such unspeakable solitude? I thought you understood, and were never to bring it up again!"

The girl crept slowly back to her seat.

"No, no; it's not madness, Alice; it's the only way left for me to escape madness, or worse!"

The girl turned her white face to him.

"Jamie!" she wailed, going back to the old name. "Jamie, do you know me?"

He laughed quietly.

"Yes, dear; of course I know you!"

But he did not see her. His eyes went through and beyond her, gazing into space and dream. A new light came into the girl's face as she watched him.

"Jamie," she said, in a voice so low it was almost a whisper, "do you—do you still care for me?"

"I have loved you always!" he said to the wind and pines.

With a sudden hunger the girl stretched out her arms to him. He shook his head sadly. A touch of the old whimsical smile played about his mouth.

"No, no," he said, forlornly. "That doesn't do; for it's then you always get away from me. I don't want to lose you for all the rest of the day."

Oh, what a lot, what a lot lay before her in life, she told her throbbing heart. What a task she had! What a patient hand she must reach out to him in that valley of illusion!

A revulsion of feeling, a singing reaction, surged thrillingly through her.

She laughed at him, almost hysterically.

"Tell me," she said, companionably—"tell me what you do all the time here."

"About Aileen and everything?" he asked, simply.

"Yes, Aileen and everything, from the beginning," she answered, with a mysterious pang at the unknown name.

"Well, at eight I go up to the Cave and Basin for my plunge. See, you can just get a glimpse of it from here,—but of course you know. Then I go back to the chalet,—the chalet you said you didn't like, it looked so plain and bare and little among the pines there. It's not like a brownstone front, is it? Then I milk Aileen."

"Oh!" was all the girl said.

"Then I have cream and coffee and bread and eggs, and you know eggs are a most woful luxury up here. Then I usually take Aileen out for her grass, except Sundays, when I go to see Macfarlane. He's getting ready to go off, poor fellow; and I have to write his letters for him. Funny chap; he makes me declare that he's always gaining, and that he'll be able to go East soon, and yet, in a way, he knows he's got to go—the longer way. He insists that I'm to take his chalet and his dog, at the end. When they brought him up here they said he wouldn't last a week, but, bless you, he's been a year dying. Then the doctor comes over from the Sanitarium and lectures me about bathing too early and smoking too much and sitting up here after sundown. Then I wait till it's time to come up the Corkscrew once more,—to the summit, and you!"

The girl sighed.

"That ridiculous young doctor keeps telling me that when I'm able to climb Mount Rundle he'll give me my ticket of leave. Think of it, go East once more! But I knew well enough I'd never find you on Mount Rundle. so I've stuck to the Corkscrew."

While he spoke he picked up the glove she had left lying on the seat, and kept nervously buttoning and unbuttoning it in his fingers.

"If it weren't so lonely," he continued, "it would be— Well, if I could only coax you down to the chalet and only keep you there with me, dear me, dear me, my Alice, how merrily we could put in the days! There would be Aileen, and the books, and a bit of fishing now and then, and the fire in winter, and the peaks in summer, and Macfarlane's dog, perhaps, and the pines, and—" He paused, fingering the glove carelessly. It refused to unbutton. He raised it closer to his eyes. Then he stopped abruptly.

From the glove he looked up suddenly through the dusk at the girl. Its mate was on her hand. The evening breeze was rippling her chestnut-brown hair; the cold half-light shone luminously on her pale face.

He drew his hand slowly across his bewildered eyes. He opened his lips to speak, but said nothing.

The girl stretched out her arms, and ran to him with a childish little cry.

"Dreamer!" she said, through her tears.

He took the living, breathing woman to his breast. A star came out over the white summits of the Rockies. The evening stillness of the mountains lay rapturously around them.

"It was so lonely!" he said, still holding her.


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.