XXIII. The Rainbow's End
 

The air was heavy with moisture and very still and warm; a heady fragrance of precocious blooms flavoured the air, vying with the scent of rain. The silence was profound, but shaken now and then by a grumble of distant thunder. The world hung breathless on the issue of the night.

Since evenfall a wall of cloud, massive and portentous, had been climbing up over the western hills, slowly but with ominous steadiness obscuring the moon-swept sky with its far, pale wreaths of stars, blotting it out with monstrous folds and convolutions of impenetrable purple-black. Along its crest fire played like swords in the sunlight, and now and again sheeted flame lightened the monstrous expanse so that it glowed with the pale phosphorescence of a summer sea.

As Duncan hurried homeward over sidewalks chequered in silver and ink, the advance of the cloud army seemed to become accelerated. With increasing frequency gusts of air set the trees a-shiver until their sibilant whispers of warning filled the valley. The rolling of the thunder grew more sharp, more instant upon the flashes.... When there was no wind the air seemed to quiver with terror--as a dog cringes to the whip....

But of this Duncan was barely conscious.

He gained the gate in the fence of wood paling, opened it, and entered. The lawn and house were lit with the unearthly radiance of moonlight threatened by eclipse. He could see the light in Graham's study and, through the open doors, the faint glow of the hall-lamp. But there was no one visible.

He hurried up the path, tortured by impatience, fear, longing, despair....

Then he saw what seemed at first a pale shadow detach itself from darker shades in the shrubbery and move toward him.

"Nat, is it you?"

"Betty!"

His whole heart was in that cry; the girl thrilled to its timbre as though a master hand had struck a chord upon her heart-strings.

"Nat, what--what is it?"

"Betty, I want to tell you something."

She came very slowly toward him, torn alternately by fear and hope. What did he mean?

"Do you happen to remember that I told you a while ago I was engaged to Josie Lockwood?"

[Illustration: "Forever and ever and a day"]

"Nat! Could I forget? ... Why?"

"Because ... it's broken off, Betty."

"Broken off! ... How? Why?"

"Because it had to be, sweetheart: because I love you."

She was very close to him then. Her uplifted face shone like marble in the fading light. "Nat, I ... I don't understand."

"Then, listen--I must tell you. It was all a plan, a scheme, my coming here, Betty. Everything I did, said, thought, was part of a contemptible trick.... I meant to marry Josie Lockwood, whom I'd never seen, for her money. ... Now you know what I was, dear.... But it's different, now. I'm not the same man who came to Radville ten months ago. I've learned a little to understand the right, I hope: I've learned to love and reverence goodness and purity and unselfishness and ... And I want to be a man, the kind of a man you thought me: a man worthy of you and your love, Betty.... Because I love you. I want you to be my wife. ... And, O Betty, Betty, I need you to help me!"

His voice broke. He waited, every nerve and fibre of him tense for her answer. While he had been speaking, the onrush of the storm had blotted out the moon. There was only darkness there in the garden--deep, dense darkness, so thick he could not even see the shimmer of her dress....

Then suddenly she was in his arms, shaking and sobbing, straining him to her.

"Oh, Nat, my Nat! I've loved you from the first day I ever saw you! You know I have."

"Betty! ... sweetheart..."

There came an abrupt, furious patter of heavy drops of water, beating upon the foliage, splashing and rebounding from the house.

"Forever and ever, Nat?"

"Forever and ever and a day, my dear ... my dear!"