The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
The second event in Donna Corblay's life was about to be consummated. For the first time since her arrival in San Pasqual, a babe in arms, she was about to leave it!
All of her uneventful colorless mediocre life Donna had felt a passionate longing to go up into the country on the other side of the range. To her, the long strings of passenger coaches came to San Pasqual as the heralds of another world--poignant pulsations of the greater life beyond the sky-line, and not as the tools of a whimsical circumstance, bringing to Donna a daily consignment of hats. From earliest childhood she had watched the trains disappearing into Tehachapi Pass, tracing their progress northward long after they had disappeared by the smoke wafted over the crest of the bare volcanic range; until with the passage of many trains and many years the desire to see what lay beyond that grim barrier had developed into an obsession. Because of the purple distances that mocked her, the land of sunshine, fruit and flowers was doubly alluring; her desire was as that of a soul that dwells in limbo and longs for the smile of God.
And to-day she was going out into the world, for this was her wedding day. She had received Bob's telegram, asking her to meet him in Bakersfield, and she was going to meet him; alternately she laughed and wept, for the transcendent joy of two Events in one short day had filled her heart to overflowing, leaving no room for vague forebodings of the future.
Donna dressed herself that morning with painstaking detail. Too late she had discovered that she didn't possess a dress fit to wear at any one's wedding, not to mention her own. From time to time she had dreamed of a swagger tailored suit, but the paradox of a swagger tailored suit in San Pasqual had been so apparent always that Donna could not bring herself to the point of submitting to a measurement in the local dry-goods emporium, having the suit made in Chicago and sent out by express. Instead she had resolutely stuck to wash-dresses, which were more suited to the climate and environs of San Pasqual, and added the tailored suit money to her sinking fund in the strong box of the eating-house safe.
No, Donna was not prepared to obey Bob McGraw's summons. She wept a little as she reflected how provincial and plebeian she must appear, stepping down from the train at Bakersfield, clad in a white duck walking suit, white shoes and stockings and a white sailor hat. She wanted Bob to be proud of her, and her heart swelled to bursting at the thought that she must deny him such a simple pleasure. Poor Donna! Once she had thought that suit so beautiful. It was a drummer's sample which she had purchased from a commercial traveler who, claiming to own his own samples, had been prevailed upon to accept a price for the suit when at length he became convinced that under no circumstances would Donna permit him to make her a present of it. He had informed her at the time that it was the very latest Parisian creation and she had believed him.
If Donna had only known how ravishing that simple costume made her appear and what a vision she would be to the hungry eyes of Bob McGraw! Yet, she was ashamed to let even the San Pasqualians see her leaving town in such a dowdy costume, and as she walked up the tracks from the Hat Ranch that momentous morning, bearing aloft a parasol that but the day before had been the joy of her girlish existence, she was fully convinced that a more commonplace addendum to a feminine wardrobe had never been devised.
She was certain that all San Pasqual must know her secret--that this was her wedding day. She shuddered lest the telegraph operator had suspected something, despite Bob's commendable caution, and had incited the townspeople to line up at the depot, there to shower her with rice and hurl antiquated footgear after the train that bore her north. Such horrible rites were preserved and enacted with religious exactitude in San Pasqual.
Until that morning Donna never had really known how ardently she longed to escape from the sordid commonplace lonely little town. With its inhabitants she had nothing in common, although she noted a mental exception to this condition as, from afar, she observed Harley P. Hennage standing in front of the eating-house door, picking his teeth with his gold toothpick. She felt a sudden desire to go to the worst man in San Pasqual and pour out to him the whole wonderful story; then to await his quizzical congratulations and bask for a moment in his infrequent honest childish smile, for Donna had a very great longing to-day to permit some human being to bear with her the burden of her joy.
She was still a block from the center of the town when the train pulled in from the south, the last car coming to a stop close to where she was standing. Donna observed that the male entities of her little world had assembled to see that the train pulled in and out again safely, and had their attention centered upon the new arrivals who were rushing into the eating-house for a hurried snack. She saw her opportunity. There was no necessity for her to brave the crowd at the window in order to purchase a ticket. Decidedly luck was with her this morning. She took her suitcase from Sam Singer, the faithful, climbed aboard the last car, walked through into the next car, which happened to be a sleeper, found a vacant state-room, entered, pulled down the window shade and waited until the train started. As her car rolled past the depot she peered out and saw Harley P. Hennage scratching his head with one hand, while in the other he held a letter which he was reading. Donna could not help wondering who had written a letter to the worst man in San Pasqual.
She was glad of the seclusion of the state-room until the train was a mile outside San Pasqual, when she went out on the observation car. Donna knew she ran little risk of meeting a San Pasqualian in first- class accommodations, and as she sat there, watching the shiny rails unwinding behind her, her luxurious surroundings imparted a sense of charm and comfort which she had never felt before. The scenery in the pass proving uninteresting, she forgot about it and gave herself up to a day-dream which had become a favorite with her of late--a dream which had to do with a little Spanish house surrounded by weeping willows and Lombardy poplars (Donna had once seen a picture of a house so surrounded); of a piano, which she would learn to play, of a perfectly appointed table at which she sat with Bob across the way, smiling at her and assuring her (with his eyes) that he loved her, while his glib tongue informed her that the soup was by far the best he had ever tasted.
As Donna dreamed she smiled--unconsciously--a smile intended for Bob McGraw, and a drummer who sold lace goods for a St. Louis house appropriated that smile to himself. He leered across the aisle familiarly and with a vacuous smile inquired:
"Say, sister! Ain't you the little girl that takes cash in the eatin' house at San Pasqual? I thought your face looked kinder familiar."
Donna suddenly ceased dreaming. She glanced across at her interlocutor, and by reason of long obedience to the unwritten rule of eating-houses which requires that one must be pleasant to customers always, she forgot for a moment that she was on her way to be married. She nodded.
"Goin' up to Bakersfield?"
Again Donna nodded.
"Well, if you ain't got anything on, what's the matter with some lunch and an automobile ride afterward, sister? What're you goin' to do in Bakersfield?"
"I am going to meet a young man at the station" replied Donna sweetly. "A tall young man with a forty-four-inch chest and a pair of hands that will look as big as picnic hams to you when I tell him that you've been impertinent to me."
The face of the impertinent one crimsoned with embarrassment. He mumbled something about not meaning any offense, fussed with his watch- charm for a minute, coughed and finally fled to the day-coach.
Donna smiled after his retreating figure. How good it was, after three years of subjection to the vulgar advances of just such fellows as he, to reflect that at last she was to have a protector! An almost unholy desire possessed her to see Bob climb aboard at the next station, twine his lean hands around that drummer's trachea and shake some manhood into him. This thought suggested reflections upon the present state of Bob's health, so she took his last letter from her hand-bag and read it for the forty-second time. But it was unsatisfactory--it dealt entirely with Donna and his experiences with applicants for lieu land, so she abstracted, one by one, every letter she had ever received from him and read them all. So absorbed was she in their perusal that the other side of the range, which had always been such a matter of primary importance, was now relegated to oblivion.
The brakeman came through the car shouting: "Bakersfield! The next station is Bakersfield!" but Donna did not hear him. She was dreaming of Bob McGraw.
The train came to a stop. Donna dreamed on--and presently a familiar voice spoke at her side.
"Well--sweetheart! The train pulls out again in two minutes and I've been looking for you in every car--"
It was he, looking perfectly splendid in a marvelous blue suit that must have cost at least eighteen dollars. He held out his hands, drew her to him and, in the sight of all mankind, he kissed her, and whispered to her endearing little names. She could not reply to them; she could only take his hand, like a little lost child, and follow him through the car, down the steps and into the hotel bus which was to take them up town. And on the way up town neither spoke to the other, for it seemed to each that even their most commonplace remarks to-day must be freighted with something sacred, in which the inquisitive world at large would be bound to manifest a stupendous interest. And inasmuch as it was plainly none of the world's business--
The bus had stopped in front of a tremendous hotel. It was four stories high! All along the front of the first story it was glass and Donna could look right through it and see everything that was going on inside! She paused on the top step of the bus to view the marvels of this town of less than twenty thousand inhabitants, and then a skeezicks of a boy, very gay in brass buttons, and with a darling little round cap on his perky head, came and took forcible possession of her suit-case. He tore it right out of Bob's hand and ran away with it. Donna was on the point of crying out at the theft, when Bob reached up and lifted her bodily to the ground.
"Reuben! Reuben!" he breathed tenderly in her ear, "don't stare so at the great round world. You're so beautiful," he added, "and I'm so proud of you! Where did you get that marvelous dress?"
She glanced up at him, radiant. He was proud of her! He liked her dress! It was sufficient. Bob McGraw, man of the world, had set the stamp of his approval on his bride, and nothing else mattered any more. She followed him into the hotel, where he checked her suit-case with the skeezicks who had stolen it, and then led her into the dining-room.
"Let's have lunch, Donna" he said, "or at least pretend to. I couldn't eat now. I want to talk. The man who can eat on his wedding day is a vulgarian, and dead to the finer feelings."
They found a secluded table and ordered something, and when the waitress had taken the order and departed, Bob leaned across the table.
"You're so beautiful!" he repeated. "I love you in that white suit."
"I hadn't anything but this old thing, dear. I hated to come up looking like a frump--"
"Listen to the girl! Why, you old sweetheart-"
"Do you love me, Bob?"
"More than ever. In the matter of love, Donna, absence really makes the heart--"
"How much?" She lifted her face toward him adoringly.
"Ten hundred thousand million dollars' worth" he declared, and they both laughed.
"I don't know whether you're a man or just a big boy" Donna told him. She sighed. "But then I don't know anything to-day, except that if I am ever happier than I am this minute I shall die. I shall not be able to stand it. But, dearie! You haven't told me a word about Donnaville!"
So Bob related to her a minute history of himself from the moment he had left her until he had leaned over her in the observation car. He described, with inimitable wit and enjoyment, his experience in the land office, and together they examined the fifty receipts.
"I'm sorry you had to lock Mr. Carey in the room and gag him and tie him up" said Donna regretfully. "Maybe he'll have you arrested!"
"I'm sorry, too, dear. But then it was the only thing I could do and I had to keep him quiet. Oh, I don't care" he added defiantly. "I'd muss up an old crook like Carey every hour for your sake. But he won't have me arrested. That would be too dangerous for him."
"Then you can get the land right away?" she queried.
He shook his head. "The cards haven't even been dealt, sweetheart. My applications will almost certainly be held up six months in the state land office before they are approved by the surveyor-general and forwarded to the Commissioner of the General Land Office at Washington to be passed to patent by the United States. And I shall be very greatly surprised if Carey hasn't a friend in Washington who will see that the granting of the patents is delayed for several years. Then, when the matter cannot be delayed any longer, Carey will induce one of his dummies to protest the applications, alleging that they are part of a gigantic land fraud scheme, and a few more years will go by while this protest is being investigated."
"But you'll win in the long run, will you not?"
He shrugged expressively. "I may. I anticipate that Carey will give me all the time he can to get my water-right developed and earn thirty- nine thousand dollars to pay for the land for my Pagans."
"But I thought Mr. Dunstan had promised to loan you that money?"
"Homer Dunstan is an old man, Donna girl. If he should die in the interim, my name is in the lion's mouth."
"But what are we to do, Bobby?" she quavered, suddenly frightened, as the enormousness of the man's task loomed before her.
"Quien sabe" he said ruefully. "We'll marry first and think of it afterward--that is, if you still think you want to marry a chap whose cash assets represent less than thirty dollars of borrowed money."
She thought swiftly of the boor who had spoken to her on the train that morning; of her dull lonely changeless life in San Pasqual; and the longing for protection was very great indeed. She wanted some one on whom she might lean in the hour of stress and woe, and she had selected him for that signal honor. Why, then, should they not marry? They would not always be poor. He had his work to do and she had hers, and their marriage need not interfere. She wanted to help him, and with her woman's intuition she realized that his was the nature that yearns for the accomplishment of great things when spurred to action by the praise and comfort of a mate in sympathy with his dreams and his ideals. She almost shuddered to think of what might happen to him should he marry a girl who did not understand him! It seemed to her that for his sake, if for no other, she must marry him, and when she raised her brilliant eyes to his he read her answer in their limpid depths.
"Do you need me?" she queried.
"Very much" he answered humbly, "but not enough to insist upon you sharing my poverty with me. You're self-supporting and it isn't fair to you, but rather selfish on my part. And you must realize, Donna dear, that I cannot remain in San Pasqual. I have my work to do; I must make money, and I cannot take you to the place where I hope to make it."
"I expect to be left alone, Bob. But I do not mind that. I've lived alone at the Hat Ranch a long time, dear, and I can stand it a little longer. I do not wish to tie you to my apron-strings and hamper you. What are your plans?"
"Well," he said a little sheepishly, "I thought I'd like to make one more trip into the desert. I have some claims over by Old Woman mountain, in San Bernardino county, and they're pockety. I might clean up a stake in there this winter. It's about the only chance I have to raise the wind, but even then it's a gambler's chance."
He was a Desert Rat! The lure of the waste places was calling to him again, tormenting him with the promise of rich reward in the country just beyond. Donna thought of her own father who had left his bride on a similar errand, and the thought that Bob, too, might not come back stabbed her with sudden anguish. But he was a man, and he knew best; in a desert country some one must do the desert work; he loved it and she would not say him nay. Yet the big tears trembled on her long lashes as she thought of what lay before him and her heart ached that it must be so. He watched her keenly, waiting for the protest which he thought must come. Presently she spoke.
"We must figure on an outfit for you."
His brown eyes lit with admiration, for he realized the grief that lay behind that apparently careless acceptance of his plan, and loved her the more for her courage.
"Yes, I'll need two burros, with packs, and some drills, tools, dynamite and grub--two hundred dollars will outfit me nicely. I'll have to scout around and borrow the money somewhere, and to be quite candid, Donna, I have designs on our gambler friend, Hennage."
She smiled. "Dear, good old Harley P.! He'd grubstake you if it broke the bank."
"Well, I'm going to figure along that line at any rate. So, if you're quite ready, Donna, we'll go down to the court-house, procure the license, hunt up a preacher and take each other for better or for worse."
"I think it will be for better, dear."
"Well, it can't be for worse, I'm sure, than it is to-day. Nevertheless I'm a frightened man."
She ignored this subtle hint of procrastination. "I'm ready, Bob. But before we start, there's one matter that I haven't explained to you. I do not care to have our marriage known. Those talkative people in San Pasqual would--talk, under the circumstances--that is, dear, I want to keep right on at the eating-house until you're ready to take me away from San Pasqual forever. Now, I know that's going to hurt you--that thought of your wife working--but nobody need ever know it, and when you're ready we'll leave the horrible old place and never go back any more. We have so much to do, Bob, and--"
"You do hurt me, Donna" he protested. "You have exacted from me a promise and you are forcing me to fulfill it under circumstances which render it mighty hard. Of course we love each other and I do want to marry you, but ah, Donna, I don't feel like a man to-day, but a mendicant. What can I do, sweetheart? If you marry me to-day you'll have to work if you want to live." There was misery in his glance. "However, all my life I've been doing things differently--or rather indifferently--so why should I stop now? It will at least comfort me out there alone in the desert to know that I have a wife waiting at home for me. I think the joy of that will outweigh the sting of shame that a married pauper must feel--"
"No, no, Bob, you mustn't say that. You mustn't feel that way about it. You are not a pauper." She stood up and he helped her into her coat, and after paying the waitress they departed together for the city hall.
But Bob was a sad bridegroom. Donna had wired him that she had arranged for a two-weeks' vacation, and he had been at pains to acquaint her with the extreme low ebb of his finances, in the hope that she would voluntarily suggest a delay of their marriage, but to his great distress she had not seen fit to take his pathetic hint--she who ordinarily was so quick of comprehension; so, rather than refer to the matter again, he decided to step into a telegraph station immediately after the ceremony and send a hurried call for help to Harley P. Hennage--the gambler being the only man of his acquaintance whom he knew to be sufficiently good-natured and careless with money to respond to his appeal.
When at length they reached the city hall Donna waited, blushing, outside the door of the marriage bureau while Bob entered and parted with two dollars and fifty cents for the parchment which gave him a legal right to commit what he called a social and economic crime. Later he came out and insisted that Donna should return with him to Cupid's window, there to receive the customary congratulations and handshake from Bob's acquaintance who had issued him the license, and who, following the practice of such individuals, felt it incumbent upon him to offer his felicitations to every customer.
Leaving the court-house Bob and Donna wandered about town until they came to a church. A gentleman of color, engaged in washing the church windows, directed them to the pastor's residence in the next block. They accordingly; proceeded to the rectory and Bob rang the front door bell. The pastor answered the bell in person. The bridegroom grinned at him sheepishly while the bride, very much embarrassed, shrunk to the bridegroom's side and gazed timidly at the reverend gentleman rubbing his hands so expectantly in the doorway.
"Won't you come in?" he said, in tones most kindly and hospitable. "Just step right into the parlor and I'll be with you as soon as I can get my spectacles."
"Thank you" said Bob. They entered. The rector went into his study while Bob wagged a knowing head at his broad retreating back.
"He knows what we want, you bet" he whispered. "No flies on that preacher. I like him. I like any man who can do things without a diagram and directions for using."
Donna nodded. She was quite impressed at the clergyman's perspicacity. She was quite self-possessed when he returned with his spectacles, a little black book, his wife and the gardener for witnesses, and a "here-is-the-job-I-love" expression on his amiable features. He examined the license, satisfied himself, apparently, that it was not a forgery, and after standing Bob and Donna up in a corner close to a terra-cotta umbrella-holder filled with pampas plumes, he proceeded with the ceremony.