The Chalice Of Courage: A Romance of Coloradoскачать книгу бесплатно
They had been so much together in that month they had learned what love was. When he came back it would be different, he would not come alone. The first human being he met would bring the world to the door of the lonely but beloved cabin in the mountains – the world with its questions, its inferences, its suspicions, its denunciations and its accusations! Some kind of an explanation would have to be made, some sort of an answer would have to be given, some solution of the problem would have to be arrived at. What these would be she could not tell.
Newbold's departure was like the end of an era to her. The curtain dropped, when it rose again what was to be expected? There was no comfort except in the thought that she loved him. So long as their affections matched and ran together nothing else mattered. With the solution of it all next to her sadly beating heart she was still supremely confident that Love, or God – and there was not so much difference between them as to make it worth while to mention the One rather than the Other – would find the way.
Their leave taking had been singularly cold and abrupt. She had realized the danger he was apt to incur and she had exacted a reluctant promise from him that he would be careful.
"Don't throw your life away, don't risk it even, remember that it is mine," she had urged.
And just as simply as she had enjoined it upon him he had promised. He had given his word that he would not send help back to her but that he would bring it back, and she had confidence in that word. A confidence that had he been inclined to break his promise would have made it absolutely impossible. There had been a long clasp of the hands, a long look in the eyes, a long breath in the breast, a long throb in the heart and then – farewell. They dared no more.
Once before he had left her and she had stood upon the plateau and followed his vanishing figure with anxious troubled thought until it had been lost in the depths of the forest below. She had controlled herself in this second parting for his sake as well as her own. Under the ashes of his grim repression she realized the presence of live coals which a breath would have fanned into flame. She dared nothing while he was there, but when he shut the door behind him the necessity for self-control was removed. She had laid her arms on the table and bowed her head upon them and shook and quivered with emotions unrelieved by a single tear – weeping was for lighter hearts and less severe demands!
His position after all was the easier of the two. As of old it was the man who went forth to the battle field while the woman could only wait passively the issue of the fight. Although he was half blinded with emotion he had to give some thought to his progress, and there was yet one task to be done before he could set forth upon his journey toward civilization and rescue.
It was fortunate, as it turned out, that this obligation detained him. He was that type of a merciful man whose mercies extended to his beasts.
The poor little burros must be attended to and their safety assured so far as it could be, for it would be impossible for Enid Maitland to care for them. Indeed he had already exacted a promise from her that she would not leave the plateau and risk her life on the icy stairs with which she was so unfamiliar.
He had gone to the corral and shaken down food enough for them which if it had been doled out to them day by day would have lasted longer than the week he intended to be absent; of course he realized that they would eat it up in half that time, but even so they would probably suffer not too great discomfort before he got back.
All these preparations took some little time. It had grown somewhat late in the morning before he started. There had been a fierce storm raging when he first looked out and at her earnest solicitation he had delayed his departure until it had subsided.
His tasks at the corral were at last completed; he had done what he could for them both, nothing now remained but to make the quickest and safest way to the settlement. Shouldering the pack containing his ax and gun and sleeping bag and such provisions as would serve to tide him over until he reached human habitations, he set forth. He did not look up to the hut; indeed, he could not have seen it for the corral was almost directly beneath it; but if it had been in full view he would not have looked back, he could not trust himself to; every instinct, every impulse in his soul would fain drag him back to that hut and to the woman. It was only his will and, did he but know it, her will that made him carry out his purpose.
He would have saved perhaps half a mile on his journey if he had gone straight across the lake to the mouth of the ca?on. We are creatures of habit. He had always gone around the lake on the familiar trail and unconsciously he followed that trail that morning. He was thinking of her as he plodded on in a mechanical way over the trail which followed the border of the lake for a time, plunged into the woods, wound among the pines and at last reached that narrow rift in the encircling wall through which the river flowed. He had passed along the white way oblivious to all his surroundings, but as he came to the entrance he could not fail to notice what he suddenly saw in the snow.
Robinson Crusoe when he discovered the famous footprint of Man Friday in the sand was not more astonished at what met his vision than Newbold on that winter morning. For there, in the virgin whiteness, were the tracks of a man!
He stopped dead with a sudden contraction of the heart. Humanity other than he and she in that wilderness? It could not be! For a moment he doubted the evidence of his own senses. He shook his pack loose from his shoulders and bent down to examine the tracks to read if he could their indications. He could see that some one had come up the ca?on, that someone had leaned against the wall, that someone had gone on. Where had he gone?
To follow the new trail was child's play for him. He ran by the side of it until he reached the knoll. The stranger had stopped again, he had shifted from one foot to another, evidently he had been looking about him seeking someone, only Enid Maitland of course. The trail ran forward to the edge of the frozen lake, there the man had put on his snow shoes, there he had sped across the lake like an arrow and like an arrow himself, although he had left behind his own snow shoes, Newbold ran upon his track. Fortunately the snow crest upbore him. The trail ran straight to the foot of the rocky stairs. The newcomer had easily found his way there.
With beating heart and throbbing pulse, Newbold himself bounded up the acclivity after the stranger, marking as he did so evidences of the other's prior ascent. Reaching the top like him he ran down the narrow path and in his turn laid his hand upon the door.
He was not mistaken, he heard voices within. He listened a second and then flung it open, and as the other had done, he entered.
Way back on the trail, old Kirkby and Robert Maitland, the storm having ceased, were rapidly climbing up the ca?on. Fate was bringing all the actors of the little drama within the shadow of her hand.
THE ODDS AGAINST HIM
The noise of the opening of the door and the in-rush of cold air that followed awoke Enid Maitland to instant action. She rose to her feet and faced the entrance through which she expected Newbold to reappear – for of course the newcomer must be he – and for the life of her she could not help that radiating flash of joy at that momentary anticipation which fairly transfigured her being; although if she had stopped to reflect she would have remembered that not in the whole course of their acquaintance had Newbold ever entered her room at any time without knocking and receiving permission.
Some of that joy yet lingered in her lovely face when she tardily recognized the newcomer in the half light. Armstrong, scarcely waiting to close the door, sprang forward joyfully with his hands outstretched.
"Enid!" he cried.
Naturally he thought the look of expectant happiness he had surprised upon her face was for him and he accounted for its sudden disappearance by the shock of his unexpected, unannounced, abrupt, entrance.
The warm color had flushed her face, but as she stared at him her aspect rapidly changed. She grew paler. The happy light that had shone in her eyes faded away and as he approached her she shrank back.
"You!" she exclaimed almost in terror.
"Yes," he answered smilingly, "I have found you at last. Thank God you are safe and well. Oh, if you could only know the agonies I have gone through. I thought I loved you when I left you six weeks ago, but now – "
In eager impetuosity he drew nearer to her. Another moment and he would have taken her in his arms, but she would have none of him.
"Stop," she said with a cold and inflexible sternness that gave pause even to his buoyant joyful assurance.
"Why, what's the matter?"
"The matter? Everything, but – "
"No evasions, please," continued the man still cheerfully but with a growing misgiving. His suspicions in abeyance for the moment because of his joy at seeing her alive and well arose with renewed force. "I left you practically pledged to me," he resumed.
"Not so fast," answered Enid Maitland, determined to combat the slightest attempt to establish a binding claim upon her.
"Isn't it true?" asked Armstrong. "Here, wait," he said before she could answer, "I am half frozen, I have been searching for you since early morning in the storm." He unbuttoned and unbelted his huge fur coat as he spoke and threw it carelessly on the floor by his Winchester leaning against the wall. "Now," he resumed, "I can talk better."
"You must have something to eat then," said the girl.
She was glad of the interruption since she was playing for time. She did not quite know how the interview would end, he had come upon her so unexpectedly and she had never formulated how she should say to him that which she felt she must say. She must have time to think, to collect herself, which he on his part was quite willing to give her, for he was not much better prepared for the interview than she. He really was hungry and tired; his early journey had been foolhardy and in the highest degree dangerous. The violence of his admiration for her, added to the excitement of her presence and the probable nearness of Newbold as to whose whereabouts he wondered, were not conducive to rapid recuperation. It would be comfort to him also to have food and time.
"Sit down," she said. "I shall be back in a moment."
The fire of the morning was still burning in the stove in the kitchen; to heat a can of soup, to make him some buttered toast and hot coffee were the tasks of a few moments. She brought them back to him, set them on the table before him and bade him fall to.
"By Jove," exclaimed the man after a little time as he began to eat hastily but with great relish what she had prepared, while she stood over him watching him silently, "this is cozy. A warm, comfortable room, something to eat served by the finest woman in the world, the prettiest girl on earth to look at – what more could a man desire? This is the way it's going to be always in the future."
"You have no warrant whatever for saying or hoping that," answered the girl slowly but decisively.
"Have I not?" asked the man quickly. "Did you not say to me a little while ago that you liked me better than any man you had ever met and that I might win you if I could? Well, I can, and what's more I will in spite of yourself." He laughed. "Why, the memory of that kiss I stole from you makes me mad." He pushed away the things before him and rose to his feet once more. "Come, give me another," he said; "it isn't in the power of woman to stand out against a love like mine."
"Louise Newbold did," she answered very quietly, but with the swiftness and the dexterity of a sword thrust by a master hand, a mighty arm.
Armstrong stared at her in open-mouthed astonishment.
"What do you know about Louise Rosser or Newbold?" he asked at last.
"All that I want to know."
"And did that damned hound tell you?"
"If you mean Mr. Newbold, he never mentioned your name, he does not know you exist."
"Where is he now?" thundered the man.
"Have no fear," answered the woman calmly, "he has gone to the settlements to tell them I am safe and to seek help to get me out of the mountains."
"Fear!" exclaimed Armstrong, proudly, "I fear nothing on earth. For years, ever since I heard his name in fact, I have longed to meet him. I want to know who told you about that woman, Kirkby?"
"He never mentioned your name in connection with her."
"But you must have heard it somewhere," cried the man thoroughly bewildered. "The birds of the air didn't tell it to you, did they?"
"She told me herself," answered Enid Maitland.
"She told you! Why, she's been dead in her grave five years, shot to death by that murderous dog of a husband of hers."
"A word with you, Mr. Armstrong," said the woman with great spirit. "You can't talk that way about Mr. Newbold; he saved my life twice over, from a bear and then in the cloud burst which caught me in the ca?on."
"That evens up a little," said Armstrong. "Perhaps for your sake I will spare him."
"You!" laughed the woman contemptuously. "Spare him! Be advised, look to yourself; if he ever finds out what I know, I don't believe any power on earth could save you."
"Oh," said Armstrong carelessly enough, although he was consumed with hate and jealousy and raging against her clearly evident disdain, "I can take care of myself, I guess. Anyway, I only want to talk about you, not about him or her. Your father – "
"Is he well?"
"Well enough, but heart-broken, crushed. I happened to be in his house in Philadelphia when the telegram came from your uncle that you were lost and probably dead. I had just asked him for your hand," he added, smiling grimly at the recollection.
"You had no right to do that."
"I know that."
"It was not, it is not, his to give."
"Still, when I won you I thought it would be pleasant all around if he knew and approved."
"And did he?"
"Not then, he literally drove me out of the house; but afterward he said if I could find you I could have you; and I have found you and I will have you whether you like it or not."
"Never," said the woman decisively.
The situation had got on Armstrong's nerves, and he must perforce show himself in his true colors. His only resources were his strength, not of mind but of body. He made another most damaging mistake at this juncture.
"We are alone here, and I am master, remember," he said meaningly. "Come, let's make it up. Give me a kiss for my pains and – "
"I have been alone here for a month with another man," answered Enid Maitland, who was strangely unafraid in spite of his threat. "A gentleman, he has never so much as offered to touch my hand without my permission; the contrast is quite to your disadvantage."
"Are you jealous of Louise Rosser?" asked Armstrong, suddenly seeing that he was losing ground and casting about desperately to account for it, and to recover what was escaping him. "Why, that was nothing, a mere boy and girl affair," he ran on with specious good humor, as if it were all a trifle. "The woman was, I hate to say it, just crazy in love with me, but I really never cared anything especially for her, it was just a harmless sort of flirtation anyway. She afterward married this man Newbold and that's all there was about it."
The truth would not serve him and in his desperation and desire he staked everything on this astounding lie. The woman he loved looked at him with her face as rigid as a mask.
"You won't hold that against me, will you?" pleaded the man. "I told you that I'd been a man among men, yes among women, too, here in this rough country and that I wasn't worthy of you; there are lots of things in my past that I ought to be ashamed of and I am, and the more I see you the more ashamed I grow, but as for loving any one else all that I've ever thought or felt or experienced before now is just nothing."
And this indeed was true, and even Enid Maitland with all her prejudice could realize and understand it. Out of the same mouth, it was said of old, proceeded blessing and cursing, and from these same lips came truth and falsehood; but the power of the truth to influence this woman was as nothing to the power of falsehood. She could never have loved him, she now knew; a better man had won her affections, a nobler being claimed her heart; but if Armstrong had told the truth regarding his relationship to Newbold's wife and then had completed it with his passionate avowal of his present love for her, she would have at least admired him and respected him.
"You have not told me the truth," she answered directly, "you have deliberately been false."
"Can't you see," protested the man, drawing nearer to her, "how much I love you?"
"Oh, that, yes I suppose that is true; so far as you can love anyone I will admit that you do love me."
"So far as I can love anyone?" he repeated after her. "Give me a chance and I'll show you."
"But you haven't told the truth about Mrs. Newbold. You have calumniated the dead, you have sought to shelter yourself by throwing the burden of a guilty passion upon the weaker vessel, it isn't man-like, it isn't – "
Armstrong was a bold fighter, quick and prompt in his decisions. He made another effort to set himself right. He staked his all on another throw of the dice, which he began to feel were somehow loaded against him.
"You are right," he admitted, wondering anxiously how much the woman really knew. "It wasn't true, it was a coward's act, I am ashamed of it. I'm so mad with love for you that I scarcely know what I am doing, but I will make a clean breast of it now. I loved Louise Rosser after a fashion before ever Newbold came on the scene. We were pledged to each other, a foolish quarrel arose, she was jealous of other girls – "
"And had she no right to be?"
"Oh, I suppose so. We broke it off anyway, and then she married Newbold, out of pique, I suppose, or what you will. I thought I was heart-broken at the time, it did hit me pretty hard; it was five or six years ago, I was a youngster then, I am a man now. The woman has been dead long since. There was some cock-and-bull story about her falling off a cliff and her husband being compelled to shoot her. I didn't half believe it at the time and naturally I have been waiting to get even with him. I have been hating him for five years, but he has been good to you and we will let bygones be bygones. What do I care for Louise Rosser, or for him, or for what he did to her, now? I am sorry that I said what I did, but you will have to charge it to my blinding passion for you. I can truthfully say that you are the one woman that I have ever craved with all my heart. I will do anything, be anything, to win you."
It was very brilliantly done, he had not told a single untruth, he had admitted much, but he had withheld the essentials after all. He was playing against desperate odds, he had no knowledge of how much she knew, or where she had learned anything. Everyone about the mining camp where she had lived had known of his love for Louise Rosser, but he had not supposed there was a single human soul who had been privy to its later developments, and he could not figure out any way by which Enid Maitland could have learned by any possibility any more of the story than he had told her. He had calculated swiftly and with the utmost nicety, just how much he should confess. He was a keen witted, clever man and he was fighting for what he held most dear, but his eagerness and zeal, as they have often done, overrode his judgment, and he made another mistake at this juncture. His evil genius was at his elbow.
"You must remember," he continued, "that you have been alone here in these mountains with a man for over a month; the world – "
"What, what do you mean?" exclaimed the girl, who indeed knew very well what he meant, but who would not admit the possibility.
"It's not every man," he added, blindly rushing to his doom, "that would care for you or want you – after that."
He received a sudden and terrible enlightenment.
"You coward," she cried, with upraised hand, whether in protest or to strike him neither ever knew, for at that moment the door opened the second time that morning to admit another man.
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