Chapter 26
 

Beauty Stanton threw a cloak over her bare shoulders and, hurriedly leaving the house by the side entrance, she stood a moment, breathless and excited, in the dark and windy street.

She had no idea why she halted there, for she wanted to run. But the instant she got out into the cool night air a check came to action and thought. Strange sensations poured in upon her--the darkness, lonesome and weird; the wailing wind with its weight of dust; the roar of Benton's main thoroughfare; and the low, strange murmur, neither musical nor mirthful, behind her, from that huge hall she called her home. Stranger even than these emotions were the swelling and aching of her heart, the glow and quiver of her flesh, thrill on thrill, deep, like bursting pages of joy never before experienced, the physical sense of a touch, inexplicable in its power.

On her bare breast a place seemed to flush and throb and glow. "Ah!" murmured Beauty Stanton. "That girl laid her face here--over my heart! What was I to do?" she murmured. "Oh yes--to find her sweetheart--Neale!" Then she set off rapidly, but if she had possessed wings or the speed of the wind she could not have kept pace with her thoughts.

She turned the corner of the main street and glided among the hurrying throng. Men stood in groups, talking excitedly. She gathered that there had been fights. More than once she was addressed familiarly, but she did not hear what was said. The wide street seemed strange, dark, dismal, the lights yellow and flaring, the wind burdened, the dark tide of humanity raw, wild animal, unstable. Above the lights and the throngs hovered a shadow--not the mantle of night nor the dark desert sky.

Her steps took familiar ground, yet she seemed not to know this Benton.

"Once I was like Allie Lee!" she whispered. "Not so many years ago."

And the dark tide of men, the hurry and din, the wind and dust, the flickering lights, all retreated spectral--like to the background of a mind returned to youth, hope, love, home. She saw herself at eighteen--yes, Beauty Stanton even then, possessed of a beauty that was her ruin; at school, the favorite of a host of boys and girls; at home, where the stately oaks were hung with silver moss and the old Colonial house rang with song of sister and sport of brother, where a sweet-faced, gentle-voiced mother--

"Ah ... Mother!" And at that word the dark tide of men seemed to rise and swell at her, to trample her sacred memory as inevitably and brutally as it had used her body.

Only the piercing pang of that memory remained with Beauty Stanton. She was a part of Benton. She was treading the loose board-walk of the great and vile construction camp. She might draw back from leer and touch, but none the less was she there, a piece of this dark, bold, obscure life. She was a cog in the wheel, a grain of dust in the whirlwind, a morsel of flesh and blood for the hungry maw of a wild and passing monster of progress.

Her hurried steps carried her on with her errand. Neale! She knew where to find him. Often she had watched him play, always regretfully, conscious that he did not fit there. His indifference had baffled her as it had piqued her professional vanity. Men had never been indifferent to her; she had seen them fight for her mocking smiles. But Neale! He had been stone to her charm, yet kind, gracious, deferential. Always she had felt strangely shamed when he stood bareheaded before her. Beauty Stanton had foregone respect. Yet respect was what she yearned for. The instincts of her girlhood, surviving, made a whited sepulcher of her present life. She could not bear Neale's indifference and she had failed to change it. Her infatuation, born of that hot-bed of Benton life, had beaten and burned itself to destruction against a higher and better love--the only love of her womanhood. She would have slaved for him. But he had passed her by, absorbed with his own secret, working toward some fateful destiny, lost, perhaps, like all the others there.

And now she learned that the mystery of him--his secret--was the same old agony of love that sent so many on endless, restless roads- -Allie Lee! and he believed her dead!

After all the bitterness, life had moments of sweetest joy. Fate was being a little kind to her--Beauty Stanton. It would be from her lips Neale would hear that Allie Lee was alive--Beauty Stanton's soul seemed to soar with the realization. of how that news would uplift Neale, craze him with happiness, change his life, save him. He was going to hear the blessed tidings from a woman whom he had scorned. Always afterward, then, he would think of Beauty Stanton with a grateful heart. She was to be the instrument of his salvation. Hough and Ancliffe had died to save Allie Lee from the vile clutch of Benton; but to Beauty Stanton, the woman of ill-fame, had been given the power. She gloried in it. Allie Lee was safely hidden in her house. The iniquity of her establishment furnished a haven for the body and life and soul of innocent Allie Lee. Beauty Stanton marveled at the strange ways of life. If she could have prayed, if she had ever dared to hope for some splendid duty, some atonement to soften the dark, grim ending of her dark career, it would not have been for so much as fate had now dealt to her. She was overwhelmed with her opportunity.

All at once she reached the end of the street. On each side the wall of lighted tents and houses ceased. Had she missed her way--gone down a side street to the edge of the desert? No. The rows of lights behind assured her this was the main street. Yet she was far from the railroad station. The crowds of men hurried by, as always. Before her reached a leveled space, dimly lighted, full of moving objects, and noise of hammers and wagons, and harsh voices. Then suddenly she remembered.

Benton was being evacuated. Tents and houses were being taken down and loaded on trains to be hauled to the next construction camp. Benton's day was done! This was the last night. She had forgotten that the proprietor of her hall, from whom she rented it, had told her that early on the morrow he would take it down section by section, load it on the train, and put it together again for her in the next town. In forty-eight hours Benton would be a waste place of board floors, naked frames, debris and sand, ready to be reclaimed by the desert. It would be gone like a hideous nightmare, and no man would believe what had happened there.

The gambling-hell where she had expected to find Neale had vanished, in a few hours, as if by magic. Beauty Stanton retraced her steps. She would find Neale in one of the other places--the Big Tent, perhaps.

This hall was unusually crowded, and the scene had the number of men, though not the women and the hilarity and the gold, that was characteristic of pay-day in Benton. All the tables in the gambling- room were occupied.

Beauty Stanton stepped into this crowded room, her golden head uncovered, white and rapt and strangely dark-eyed, with all the beauty of her girlhood returned, and added to it that of a woman transformed, supreme in her crowning hour. As a bad woman, infatuated and piqued, she had failed to allure Neale to baseness; now as a good woman, with pure motive, she would win his friendship, his eternal gratitude.

Stanton had always been a target for eyes, yet never as now, when she drew every gaze like a dazzling light in a dark room.

As soon as she saw Neale she forgot every one else in that hall. He was gambling. He did not look up. His brow was somber and dark. She approached--stood behind him. Some of the players spoke to her, familiarly, as was her bitter due. Then Neale turned apparently to bow with his old courtesy. Thrill on thrill coursed over her. Always he had showed her respect, deference.

Her heart was full. She had never before enjoyed a moment like this. She was about to separate him from the baneful and pernicious life of the camps--to tender him a gift of unutterable happiness--to give all of him back to the work of the great railroad.

She put a trembling hand on his shoulder--bent over him. "Neale-- come with me," she whispered.

He shook his head.

"Yes! Yes!" she returned, her voice thrilling with emotion.

Wearily, with patient annoyance, he laid down his cards and looked up. His dark eyes held faint surprise and something that she thought might be pity.

"Miss Stanton--pardon me--but please understand--No!"

Then he turned and, picking up his cards, resumed the game.

Beauty Stanton suffered a sudden vague check. It was as if a cold thought was trying to enter a warm and glowing mind. She found speech difficult. She could not get off the track of her emotional flight. Her woman's wit, tact, knowledge of men, would not operate.

"Neale! ... Come with--me!" she cried, brokenly. "There's--"

Some men laughed coarsely. That did not mean anything to Stanton until she saw how it affected Neale. His face flushed red and his hands clenched the cards.

"Say, Neale," spoke up this brutal gamester, with a sneer, "never mind us. Go along with your lady friend ... You're ahead of the game--as I reckon she sees."

Neale threw the cards in the man's face; then, rising, he bent over to slap him so violently as to knock him off his chair.

The crash stilled the room. Every man turned to watch.

Neale stood up, his right arm down, menacingly. The gambler arose, cursing, but made no move to draw a weapon.

Beauty Stanton could not, to save her life, speak the words she wanted to say. Something impeding, totally unexpected, seemed to have arisen.

"Neale--come with--me!" was all she could say.

"No!" he declared, vehemently, with a gesture of disgust and anger.

That, following the coarse implication of the gambler, conveyed to Stanton what all these men imagined. The fools! The fools! A hot vibrating change occurred in her emotion, but she controlled it. Neale turned his back upon her. The crowd saw and many laughed. Stanton felt the sting of her pride, the leap of her blood. She was misunderstood, but what was that to her? As Neale stepped away she caught his arm--held him while she tried to get close to him so she could whisper. He shook her off. His face was black with anger. He held up one hand in a gesture that any woman would have understood and hated. It acted powerfully upon Beauty Stanton. Neale believed she was importuning him. To him her look, whisper, touch had meant only the same as to these coarse human animals gaping and grinning as they listened. The sweetest and best and most exalted moment she had ever known was being made bitter as gall, sickening, hateful. She must speak openly, she must make him understand.

"Allie Lee! ... At my house!" burst out Stanton, and then, as if struck by lightning she grew cold, stiff-lipped.

The change in Neale was swift, terrible. Not comprehension, but passion transformed him into a gray-faced man, amazed, furious, agonized, acting in seeming righteous and passionate repudiation of a sacrilege.

"------!" His voice hurled out a heinous name, the one epithet that could inflame and burn and curl Beauty Stanton's soul into hellish revolt. Gray as ashes, fire-eyed, he appeared about to kill her. He struck her--hard--across the mouth.

"Don't breathe that name!"

Beauty Stanton's fear suddenly broke. Blindly she ran out into the street. She fell once--jostled against a rail. The lights blurred; the street seemed wavering; the noise about her filtered through deadened ears; the stalking figures before her were indistinct and unreal.

"He struck me! He called me------!" she gasped. And the exaltation of the last hour vanished as if it had never been. All the passion of her stained and evil years leaped into ascendency. "Hell--hell! I'll have him knifed--I'll see him dying! I'll wet my hands in his blood! I'll spit in his face as he dies!"

So she gasped out, staggering along the street toward her house. There is no flame of hate so sudden and terrible and intense as that of the lost woman. Beauty Stanton's blood had turned to vitriol. Men had wronged her, ruined her, dragged her down into the mire. One by one, during her dark career, the long procession of men she had known had each taken something of the good and the virtuous in her, only to leave behind something evil in exchange. She was what they had made her. Her soul was a bottomless gulf, black and bitter as the Dead Sea. Her heart was a volcano, seething, turgid, full of contending fires. Her body was a receptacle into which Benton had poured its dregs. The weight of all the iron and stone used in the construction of the great railroad was the burden upon her shoulders. These dark streams of humanity passing her in the street, these beasts of men, these hairy-breasted toilers, had found in her and her kind the strength or the incentive to endure, to build, to go on. And one of them, stupid, selfish, merciless, a man whom she had really loved, who could have made her better, to whom she had gone with only hope for him and unselfish abnegation for herself--he had put a vile interpretation upon her appeal, he had struck her before a callous crowd, he had called her the name for which there was no pardon from her class, a name that evoked all the furies and the powers of hell.

"Oh, to cut him--to torture him--to burn him alive ... But it would not be enough!" she panted.

And into the mind that had been lately fixed in happy consciousness of her power of good there flashed a thousand scintillating, corruscating gleams of evil thought. And then came a crowning one, an inspiration straight from hell.

"By God! I'll make of Allie Lee the thing I am! The thing he struck- -the thing he named!"

The woman in Beauty Stanton ceased to be. All that breathed, in that hour, was what men had made her. Revenge, only a word! Murder, nothing! Life, an implacable, inexplicable, impossible flux and reflux of human passion! Reason, intelligence, nobility, love, womanhood, motherhood--all the heritage of her sex--had been warped by false and abnormal and terrible strains upon her physical and emotional life. No tigress, no cannibal, no savage, no man, no living creature except a woman of grace who knew how far she had fallen could have been capable of Beauty Stanton's deadly and immutable passion to destroy. Thus life and nature avenged her. Her hate was immeasurable. She who could have walked naked and smiling down the streets of Benton or out upon the barren desert to die for the man she loved had in her the inconceivable and mysterious passion of the fallen woman; she could become a flame, a scourge, a fatal wind, a devastation. She was fire to man; to her own sex, ice. Stanton reached her house and entered. Festivities in honor of the last night of Benton were already riotously in order. She placed herself well back in the shadow and watched the wide door.

"The first man who enters I'll give him this key!" she hissed.

She was unsteady on her feet. All her frame quivered. The lights in the hall seemed to have a reddish tinge. She watched. Several men passed out. Then a tall, stalking form appeared, entering.

A ball of fire in Stanton's breast leaped and burst. She had recognized in that entering form the wildest, the most violent and the most dangerous man in Benton--Larry Red King.

Stanton stepped forward and for the first time in the cowboy's presence she did not experience that singular chill of gloom which he was wont to inspire in her.

Her eyes gloated over King. Tall, lean, graceful, easy, with his flushed ruddy face and his flashing blue eyes and the upstanding red hair, he looked exactly what he was--a handsome red devil, fearing no man or thing, hell-bent in his cool, reckless wildness.

He appeared to be half-drunk. Stanton was trained to read the faces of men who entered there; and what she saw in King's added the last and crowning throb of joy to her hate. If she had been given her pick of the devils in Benton she would have selected this stalking, gun-packing cowboy.

"Larry, I've a new girl here," she said. "Come."

"Evenin', Miss--Stanton," he drawled. He puffed slightly, after the manner of men under the influence of liquor, and a wicked, boyish, heated smile crossed his face.

She led him easily. But his heavy gun bumped against her, giving her little cold shudders. The passage opened into a wide room, which in turn opened into her dancing-hall. She saw strange, eager, dark faces among the men present, but in her excitement she did not note them particularly. She led Larry across the wide room, up a stairway to another hall, and down this to the corner of an intersecting passageway.

"Take--this--key!" she whispered. Her hand shook. She felt herself to be a black and monstrous creature. All of Benton seemed driving her. She was another woman. This was her fling at a rotten world, her slap in Neale's face. But she could not speak again; her lips failed. She pointed to a door.

She waited long enough to see the stalking, graceful cowboy halt in front of the right door. Then she fled.