A Girl Of The Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XXIV. Wherein Edith Carr Wages a Battle, and Hart Henderson Stands Guard
Many people looked, a few followed, when Edith Carr slowly came down the main street of Mackinac, pausing here and there to note the glow of colour in one small booth after another, overflowing with gay curios. That street of packed white sand, winding with the curves of the shore, outlined with brilliant shops, and thronged with laughing, bare-headed people in outing costumes was a picturesque and fascinating sight. Thousands annually made long journeys and paid exorbitant prices to take part in that pageant.
As Edith Carr passed, she was the most distinguished figure of the old street. Her clinging black gown was sufficiently elaborate for a dinner dress. On her head was a large, wide, drooping-brimmed black hat, with immense floating black plumes, while on the brim, and among the laces on her breast glowed velvety, deep red roses. Some way these made up for the lack of colour in her cheeks and lips, and while her eyes seemed unnaturally bright, to a close observer they appeared weary. Despite the effort she made to move lightly she was very tired, and dragged her heavy feet with an effort.
She turned at the little street leading to the dock, and went to meet the big lake steamer ploughing up the Straits from Chicago. Past the landing place, on to the very end of the pier she went, then sat down, leaned against a dock support and closed her tired eyes. When the steamer came very close she languidly watched the people lining the railing. Instantly she marked one lean anxious face turned toward hers, and with a throb of pity she lifted a hand and waved to Hart Henderson. He was the first man to leave the boat, coming to her instantly. She spread her trailing skirts and motioned him to sit beside her. Silently they looked across the softly lapping water. At last she forced herself to speak to him.
"Did you have a successful trip?"
"I accomplished my purpose."
"You didn't lose any time getting back."
"I never do when I am coming to you."
"Do you want to go to the cottage for anything?"
"Then let us sit here and wait until the Petoskey steamer comes in. I like to watch the boats. Sometimes I study the faces, if I am not too tired."
"Have you seen any new types to-day?"
She shook her head. "This has not been an easy day, Hart."
"And it's going to be worse," said Henderson bitterly. "There's no use putting it off. Edith, I saw some one to-day."
"You should have seen thousands," she said lightly.
"I did. But of them all, only one will be of interest to you."
"Man or woman?"
"Lake Shore private hospital."
"No. Nervous and physical breakdown."
"Phil said he was going back to the Limberlost."
"He went. He was there three weeks, but the strain broke him. He has an old letter in his hands that he has handled until it is ragged. He held it up to me and said: "You can see for yourself that she says she will be well and happy, but we can't know until we see her again, and that may never be. She may have gone too near that place her father went down, some of that Limberlost gang may have found her in the forest, she may lie dead in some city morgue this instant, waiting for me to find her body."
"Hart! For pity sake stop!"
"I can't," cried Henderson desperately. "I am forced to tell you. They are fighting brain fever. He did go back to the swamp and he prowled it night and day. The days down there are hot now, and the nights wet with dew and cold. He paid no attention and forgot his food. A fever started and his uncle brought him home. They've never had a word from her, or found a trace of her. Mrs. Comstock thought she had gone to O'Mores' at Great Rapids, so when Phil broke down she telegraphed there. They had been gone all summer, so her mother is as anxious as Phil."
"The O'Mores are here," said Edith. "I haven't seen any of them, because I haven't gone out much in the few days since we came, but this is their summer home."
"Edith, they say at the hospital that it will take careful nursing to save Phil. He is surrounded by stacks of maps and railroad guides. He is trying to frame up a plan to set the entire detective agency of the country to work. He says he will stay there just two days longer. The doctors say he will kill himself when he goes. He is a sick man, Edith. His hands are burning and shaky and his breath was hot against my face."
"Why are you telling me?" It was a cry of acute anguish.
"He thinks you know where she is."
"I do not! I haven't an idea! I never dreamed she would go away when she had him in her hand! I should not have done it!"
"He said it was something you said to her that made her go."
"That may be, but it doesn't prove that I know where she went."
Henderson looked across the water and suffered keenly. At last he turned to Edith and laid a firm, strong hand over hers.
"Edith," he said, "do you realize how serious this is?"
"I suppose I do."
"Do you want as fine a fellow as Philip driven any further? If he leaves that hospital now, and goes out to the exposure and anxiety of a search for her, there will be a tragedy that no after regrets can avert. Edith, what did you say to Miss Comstock that made her run away from Phil?"
The girl turned her face from him and sat still, but the man gripping her hands and waiting in agony could see that she was shaken by the jolting of the heart in her breast.
"Edith, what did you say?"
"What difference can it make?"
"It might furnish some clue to her action."
"It could not possibly."
"Phil thinks so. He has thought so until his brain is worn enough to give way. Tell me, Edith!"
"I told her Phil was mine! That if he were away from her an hour and back in my presence, he would be to me as he always has been."
"Edith, did you believe that?"
"I would have staked my life, my soul on it!"
"Do you believe it now?"
There was no answer. Henderson took her other hand and holding both of them firmly he said softly: "Don't mind me, dear. I don't count! I'm just old Hart! You can tell me anything. Do you still believe that?"
The beautiful head barely moved in negation. Henderson gathered both her hands in one of his and stretched an arm across her shoulders to the post to support her. She dragged her hands from him and twisted them together.
"Oh, Hart!" she cried. "It isn't fair! There is a limit! I have suffered my share. Can't you see? Can't you understand?"
"Yes," he panted. "Yes, my girl! Tell me just this one thing yet, and I'll cheerfully kill any one who annoys you further. Tell me, Edith!"
Then she lifted her big, dull, pain-filled eyes to his and cried: "No! I do not believe it now! I know it is not true! I killed his love for me. It is dead and gone forever. Nothing will revive it! Nothing in all this world. And that is not all. I did not know how to touch the depths of his nature. I never developed in him those things he was made to enjoy. He admired me. He was proud to be with me. He thought, and I thought, that he worshipped me; but I know now that he never did care for me as he cares for her. Never! I can see it! I planned to lead society, to make his home a place sought for my beauty and popularity. She plans to advance his political ambitions, to make him comfortable physically, to stimulate his intellect, to bear him a brood of red-faced children. He likes her and her plans as he never did me and mine. Oh, my soul! Now, are you satisfied?"
She dropped back against his arm exhausted. Henderson held her and learned what suffering truly means. He fanned her with his hat, rubbed her cold hands and murmured broken, incoherent things. By and by slow tears slipped from under her closed lids, but when she opened them her eyes were dull and hard.
"What a rag one is when the last secret of the soul is torn out and laid bare!" she cried.
Henderson thrust his handkerchief into her fingers and whispered, "Edith, the boat has been creeping up. It's very close. Maybe some of our crowd are on it. Hadn't we better slip away from here before it lands?"
"If I can walk," she said. "Oh, I am so dead tired, Hart!
"Yes, dear," said Henderson soothingly. "Just try to pass the landing before the boat anchors. If I only dared carry you!"
They struggled through the waiting masses, but directly opposite the landing there was a backward movement in the happy, laughing crowd, the gang-plank came down with a slam, and people began hurrying from the boat. Crowded against the fish house on the dock, Henderson could only advance a few steps at a time. He was straining every nerve to protect and assist Edith. He saw no one he recognized near them, so he slipped his arm across her back to help support her. He felt her stiffen against him and catch her breath. At the same instant, the clearest, sweetest male voice he ever had heard called: "Be careful there, little men!"
Henderson sent a swift glance toward the boat. Terence O'More had stepped from the gang-plank, leading a little daughter, so like him, it was comical. There followed a picture not easy to describe. The Angel in the full flower of her beauty, richly dressed, a laugh on her cameo face, the setting sun glinting on her gold hair, escorted by her eldest son, who held her hand tightly and carefully watched her steps. Next came Elnora, dressed with equal richness, a trifle taller and slenderer, almost the same type of colouring, but with different eyes and hair, facial lines and expression. She was led by the second O'More boy who convulsed the crowd by saying: "Tareful, Elnora! Don't 'oo be 'teppin' in de water!"
People surged around them, purposely closing them in.
"What lovely women! Who are they? It's the O'Mores. The lightest one is his wife. Is that her sister? No, it is his! They say he has a title in England."
Whispers ran fast and audible. As the crowd pressed around the party an opening was left beside the fish sheds. Edith ran down the dock. Henderson sprang after her, catching her arm and assisting her to the street.
"Up the shore! This way!" she panted. "Every one will go to dinner the first thing they do."
They left the street and started around the beach, but Edith was breathless from running, while the yielding sand made difficult walking.
"Help me!" she cried, clinging to Henderson. He put his arm around her, almost carrying her from sight into a little cove walled by high rocks at the back, while there was a clean floor of white sand, and logs washed from the lake for seats. He found one of these with a back rest, and hurrying down to the water he soaked his handkerchief and carried it to her. She passed it across her lips, over her eyes, and then pressed the palms of her hands upon it. Henderson removed the heavy hat, fanned her with his, and wet the handkerchief again.
"Hart, what makes you?" she said wearily. "My mother doesn't care. She says this is good for me. Do you think this is good for me, Hart?"
"Edith, you know I would give my life if I could save you this," he said, and could not speak further.
She leaned against him, closed her eyes and lay silent so long the man fell into panic.
"Edith, you are not unconscious?" he whispered, touching her.
"No. just resting. Please don't leave me."
He held her carefully, gently fanning her. She was suffering almost more than either of them could endure.
"I wish you had your boat," she said at last. "I want to sail with the wind in my face."
"There is no wind. I can bring my motor around in a few minutes."
"Then get it."
"Lie on the sand. I can 'phone from the first booth. It won't take but a little while."
Edith lay on the white sand, and Henderson covered her face with her hat. Then he ran to the nearest booth and talked imperatively. Presently he was back bringing a hot drink that was stimulating. Shortly the motor ran close to the beach and stopped. Henderson's servant brought a row-boat ashore and took them to the launch. It was filled with cushions and wraps. Henderson made a couch and soon, warmly covered, Edith sped out over the water in search of peace.
Hour after hour the boat ran up and down the shore. The moon arose and the night air grew very chilly. Henderson put on an overcoat and piled more covers on Edith.
"You must take me home," she said at last. "The folks will be uneasy."
He was compelled to take her to the cottage with the battle still raging. He went back early the next morning, but already she had wandered out over the island. Instinctively Henderson felt that the shore would attract her. There was something in the tumult of rough little Huron's waves that called to him. It was there he found her, crouching so close the water the foam was dampening her skirts.
"May I stay?" he asked.
"I have been hoping you would come," she answered. "It's bad enough when you are here, but it is a little easier than bearing it alone."
"Thank God for that!" said Henderson sitting beside her. "Shall I talk to you?"
She shook her head. So they sat by the hour. At last she spoke: "Of course, you know there is something I have got to do, Hart!"
"You have not!" cried Henderson, violently. "That's all nonsense! Give me just one word of permission. That is all that is required of you."
"`Required?' You grant, then, that there is something `required?'"
"One word. Nothing more."
"Did you ever know one word could be so big, so black, so desperately bitter? Oh, Hart!"
"But you know it now, Hart!"
"And still you say that it is `required?'"
Henderson suffered unspeakably. At last he said: "If you had seen and heard him, Edith, you, too, would feel that it is `required.' Remember----"
"No! No! No!" she cried. "Don't ask me to remember even the least of my pride and folly. Let me forget!"
She sat silent for a long time.
"Will you go with me?" she whispered.
At last she arose.
"I might as well give up and have it over," she faltered.
That was the first time in her life that Edith Carr ever had proposed to give up anything she wanted.
"Help me, Hart!"
Henderson started around the beach assisting her all he could. Finally he stopped.
"Edith, there is no sense in this! You are too tired to go. You know you can trust me. You wait in any of these lovely places and send me. You will be safe, and I'll run. One word is all that is necessary."
"But I've got to say that word myself, Hart!"
"Then write it, and let me carry it. The message is not going to prove who went to the office and sent it."
"That is quite true," she said, dropping wearily, but she made no movement to take the pen and paper he offered.
"Hart, you write it," she said at last.
Henderson turned away his face. He gripped the pen, while his breath sucked between his dry teeth.
"Certainly!" he said when he could speak. "Mackinac, August 27, 1908. Philip Ammon, Lake Shore Hospital, Chicago." He paused with suspended pen and glanced at Edith. Her white lips were working, but no sound came. "Miss Comstock is with the Terence O'Mores, on Mackinac Island," prompted Henderson.
"Signed, Henderson," continued the big man.
Edith shook her head.
"Say, `She is well and happy,' and sign, Edith Carr!" she panted.
"Not on your life!" flashed Henderson.
"For the love of mercy, Hart, don't make this any harder! It is the least I can do, and it takes every ounce of strength in me to do it."
"Will you wait for me here?" he asked.
She nodded, and, pulling his hat lower over his eyes, Henderson ran around the shore. In less than an hour he was back. He helped her a little farther to where the Devil's Kitchen lay cut into the rocks; it furnished places to rest, and cool water. Before long his man came with the boat. From it they spread blankets on the sand for her, and made chafing-dish tea. She tried to refuse it, but the fragrance overcame her for she drank ravenously. Then Henderson cooked several dishes and spread an appetizing lunch. She was young, strong, and almost famished for food. She was forced to eat. That made her feel much better. Then Henderson helped her into the boat and ran it through shady coves of the shore, where there were refreshing breezes. When she fell asleep the girl did not know, but the man did. Sadly in need of rest himself, he ran that boat for five hours through quiet bays, away from noisy parties, and where the shade was cool and deep. When she awoke he took her home, and as they went she knew that she had been mistaken. She would not die. Her heart was not even broken. She had suffered horribly; she would suffer more; but eventually the pain must wear out. Into her head crept a few lines of an old opera:
"Hearts do not break, they sting and ache, For old love's sake, but do not die, As witnesseth the living I."
That evening they were sailing down the Straits before a stiff breeze and Henderson was busy with the tiller when she said to him: "Hart, I want you to do something more for me."
"You have only to tell me," he said.
"Have I only to tell you, Hart?" she asked softly.
"Haven't you learned that yet, Edith?"
"I want you to go away."
"Very well," he said quietly, but his face whitened visibly.
"You say that as if you had been expecting it."
"I have. I knew from the beginning that when this was over you would dislike me for having seen you suffer. I have grown my Gethsemane in a full realization of what was coming, but I could not leave you, Edith, so long as it seemed to me that I was serving you. Does it make any difference to you where I go?"
"I want you where you will be loved, and good care taken of you."
"Thank you!" said Henderson, smiling grimly. "Have you any idea where such a spot might be found?"
"It should be with your sister at Los Angeles. She always has seemed very fond of you."
"That is quite true," said Henderson, his eyes brightening a little. "I will go to her. When shall I start?"
Henderson began to tack for the landing, but his hands shook until he scarcely could manage the boat. Edith Carr sat watching him indifferently, but her heart was throbbing painfully. "Why is there so much suffering in the world?" she kept whispering to herself. Inside her door Henderson took her by the shoulders almost roughly.
"For how long is this, Edith, and how are you going to say good-bye to me?"
She raised tired, pain-filled eyes to his.
"I don't know for how long it is," she said. "It seems now as if it had been a slow eternity. I wish to my soul that God would be merciful to me and make something `snap' in my heart, as there did in Phil's, that would give me rest. I don't know for how long, but I'm perfectly shameless with you, Hart. If peace ever comes and I want you, I won't wait for you to find it out yourself, I'll cable, Marconigraph, anything. As for how I say good-bye; any way you please, I don't care in the least what happens to me."
Henderson studied her intently.
"In that case, we will shake hands," he said. "Good-bye, Edith. Don't forget that every hour I am thinking of you and hoping all good things will come to you soon."