Chapter I. A Dream Comes True
 

The long train, which for nearly an hour had been gliding smoothly forward with a soothing, cradling motion of its heavy trucked Pullmans, and a crooning, lullaby sound of its droning wheels, came to a jarring stop at one of the mountain stations, and Lieutenant Allison wakened with a start. The echo of the laugh that he had heard in his dream still sounded in his ears, a tantalizing, compelling note, elusive as the Pipes of Pan, luring as a will-o'-the-wisp. Above the bustle of departing and incoming passengers, the confusion of the station and the grinding of the wheels as the train started again that haunting peal of laughter still rang in his ears, still held him in its thrall, calling him back into the dream from which he had just awakened. Still heavy with sleep and also somewhat light-headed--for he had been traveling for two days and the strain was beginning to tell on him, although the doctors had at last pronounced him able to make the journey home for a month's furlough--he leaned his head against the cool green plush back-rest and stared idly through half-closed eyelids down the long vista of the Pullman aisle. Then his pulses gave a leap and the blood began to pound in his ears and he thought he was back in the base hospital again and the fever was playing tricks on him. For down in the shadowy end of the aisle there moved a figure which his sleep-heavy eyes recognized as the Maiden, the one who had flitted through his weeks of delirium, luring him, beckoning him, calling him, eluding him, vanishing from his touch with a peal of silvery laughter that echoed in his ears with a haunting sweetness long after she and the fever had fled away together in the night, not to return. And now, weeks afterward, here she stood, in the shadowy end of a Pullman aisle, watching him from afar, just as she had stood watching in those other days when he and the fever were wrestling in mortal combat.

He had known her years before he had the fever. Somewhere in his dreamy, imaginative boyhood he had read the Song of Hiawatha, and his glowing fancy had immediately fastened upon the lines which described the Indian girl, Minnehaha, Laughing Water, daughter of the old arrow-maker in the land of the Dacotahs:

  "With him dwelt his dark-eyed daughter,
  Wayward as the Minnehaha,
  With her moods of shade and sunshine,
  Eyes that smiled and frowned alternate,
  Feet as rapid as the river,
  Tresses flowing like the water,
  And as musical a laughter;
  And he named her from the river,
  From the waterfall he named her,
  Minnehaha, Laughing Water."

The image thus conjured up remained in his mind, a tantalizing vision, until at last he found himself filled with a desire to find a maiden like the storied daughter of the ancient arrow-maker in the land of the Dacotahs, dark-eyed, slender as an arrow, sparkling like the sunlight on the water, with laughter like the music of the Falls. Sometimes he saw her in his dreams, and through the long weeks in the hospital at the aviation camp when he had the fever she was with him constantly, beckoning, calling, luring him back to life when he was about to slip over the edge into the bottomless abyss, her laughter ringing in his ears after she had vanished into the mists. Then one night she and the fever had fled hand in hand and after that he could not recall her image, though her memory still tantalized him.

Not until today, when the soothing motion of the long Pullman car and the lullaby droning of the wheels had lulled him to sleep with his elbow on the windowsill and his head resting on his thin, transparent hand, did she come back to him in a dream. In that daytime nap he had suddenly heard her laughter ring out and with flying footsteps followed the sound, hoping to come upon her at every turn, but just when he was about to overtake her the train stopped with a jerk and startled him back into consciousness, with the echo of her laughter still ringing in his ears.

And now, when his pursuit had been vain and her luring laughter had died away in his ears, she came back and stood in the shadowy end of the aisle, watching him with large, luminous eyes, just as she used to come and watch him wrestle with the fever. Breathless, he looked at her, waiting for her to vanish, but she did not. Then it came to him that he might go to her, might reach her this time before she fled. But something lay on his shoulder, something that weighed him down and kept him from moving, kept him from rising and going to her. He tried to shake it off, but it remained. He tried again, keeping his eyes on her all the time. Then the long vista of green plush seats leading to her was blotted out and he found himself gazing into a dusky countenance, while an unctuous voice murmured in his ear:

"How you feelin', Looten't? Gettin' light-headed, wasn't you? Here's the milk you ordered for two o'clock. Just drink it now, Looten't, and you'll feel all right."

Robert Allison mechanically reached out his hand for the glass of milk which the solicitous porter held out to him and dutifully drank it, while the porter hovered over him like an anxious hen, clucking out a constant stream of encouraging remarks.

The porter and the glass finally disappeared down the aisle, and Robert Allison, now wide awake and flooded with returning energy, remembered with a whimsical smile the illusion that had overtaken him at midday. He glanced boldly down the aisle to assure himself that his mind was now free from phantoms. The heavy foliage along the mountainside, through which they had been passing, and which had created a twilight atmosphere in the car, had given way to wide open fields, and the long corridor was flooded from end to end with glaring June sunlight. Robert Allison caught his breath with a start and dug his thumb-nail into the palm of his hand to make sure he was awake. For the illusion of a moment ago was not an illusion at all; she was a flesh and blood girl; she had left her shadowy foothold in the far end of the car and was coming down the aisle toward him. Spellbound, he waited as she approached, slim as a fawn, erect as an arrow, moving as lightly as the ripples that danced upon the surface of the river along whose banks they were rolling. Whether or not she was the image of the vision in his fever dream he would never be table to tell, for already the dream phantom was fading from his mind and the reality taking its place; the Laughing Water of his boyhood fancy had come to life in the person of this slim young girl who was moving down the aisle toward him.

Stupidly he had thought she was coming directly to him, and he experienced a shock of surprise when she passed him with no more than a casual glance. Even with her indifferent passing a thrill seemed to go through him; his blood began to sing in his veins, and through his mind there flashed again the lines which had stirred his boyhood fancy years ago:

  "She the moonlight, starlight, firelight,
  She the sunshine of her people,
  Minnehaha, Laughing Water!"