The Silver Horde by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Chapter IX. And is Granted a Year of Grace
"And so all your privations and hardships went for nothing," said Mildred Wayland, when Boyd had recounted the history of his pilgrimage into the North.
"Yes," he replied; "as a miner, I am a very wretched failure."
She shrugged her shoulders in disapproval.
"Don't use that term!" she cried. "There is no word so hateful to me as 'failure'--I suppose, because father has never failed in anything. Let us say that your success has been delayed."
"Very well. That suits me better, also, but you see I've forgotten how to choose nice words."
They were seated in the library, where for two hours they had remained undisturbed, Emerson talking rapidly, almost incoherently, as if this were a sort of confessional, the girl hanging eagerly upon his every word, following his narrative with breathless interest. The story had been substantially the same as that which, once before, he had related to Cherry Malotte; but now the facts were deeply, intimately colored with all the young man's natural enthusiasm and inmost personal feeling. To his listener it was like some wonderful, far-off romance, having to do with strange people whose motives she could scarcely grasp and pitched amid wild scenes that she could not fully picture.
"And you did all that for me," she mused, after a time.
"It was the only way."
"I wonder if any other man I know would take those risks just for--me."
"Of course. Why, the risk, I mean the physical peril and hardship and discomfort, don't amount to--that." He snapped his fingers. "It was only the unending desolation that hurt; it was the separation from you that punished me--the thought that some luckier fellow might--"
"Nonsense!" Mildred was really indignant. "I told you to fix your own time and I promised to wait. Even if I had not--cared for you, I would have kept my word. That is a Wayland principle. As it is, it was--comparatively easy."
"Then you do love me, my Lady?" He leaned eagerly toward her.
"Do you need to ask?" she whispered from the shelter of his arms. "It is the same old fascination of our girl and boy days. Do you remember how completely I lost my head about you?" She laughed softly. "I used to think you wore a football suit better than anybody in the world! Sometimes I suspect that it is merely that same girlish hero-worship and can't last. But it has lasted--so far. Three years is a long time for a girl like me to wait, isn't it?"
"I know! I know!" he returned, jealously. "But I have lived that time with nothing but a memory, while you have had other things to occupy you. You are flattered and courted by men, scores of men--"
"Legions of men! Oh, I know. Haven't I devoured society columns by the yard? The papers were six months old, to be sure, when I got them, but every mention of you was like a knife stab to me. Jealousy drove me to memorize the name of every man with whom you were seen in public, and I called down all sorts of curses upon their heads. I used to torture my lonely soul with hideous pictures of you--"
"Hideous pictures of me?" The girl perked her head to one side and glanced at him bewitchingly, "You're very flattering!"
"Yes, pictures of you with a caravan of suitors at your heels."
"You foolish boy! Suitors don't come in caravans they come in cabs."
"Well, my simile isn't far wrong in other respects," he replied, with a flash of her spirit. "But anyhow I pictured you surrounded by all the beautiful things of your life here, forever in the scent of flowers, in the lights of drawing-rooms, in the soft music of hidden instruments. God! how I tortured myself! You were never out of mind for an hour. My days were given to you, and I used to pray that my dreams might hold nothing but you. You have been my fetish from the first day I met you, and my worship has grown blinder every hour, Mildred. You were always out of my reach, but I have kept my eyes raised toward you just the same, and I have never looked aside, never faltered." He paused to feast his eyes upon her, and then in a half-whisper finished, "Oh, my Lady, how beautiful you are!"
And indeed she was; for her face, ordinarily so imperious, was now softly alight; her eyes, which other men found cold, were kindled with a rare warmth of understanding; her smile was almost wistfully sweet. To her lover she seemed to bend beneath the burden of her brown hair, yet her slim figure had the strength and poise which come of fine physical inheritance and high spirit. Every gesture, every unstudied attitude, revealed the grace of the well born woman.
It was this "air" of hers, in fact, which had originally attracted him. He recalled how excited he had been in that far-away time when he had first learned her identity--for the name of Wayland was spoken soundingly in the middle West. In the early stages of their acquaintance he had looked upon her aloofness as an affectation, but a close intimacy had compelled a recognition of it as something wholly natural; he found her as truly a patrician as Wayne Wayland, her father, could wish. The old man's domain was greater than that of many princes, and his power more absolute. His only daughter he spoiled as thoroughly as he ruled his part of the financial world, and wilful Mildred, once she had taken an interest in the young college man so evidently ready to be numbered among her lovers, did not pause half way, but made her preference patent to all, and opened to him a realm of dazzling possibilities. He well remembered the perplexities of those first delirious days when her regard was beginning to make itself apparent. She was so different, so wonderfully far removed from all he knew, that he doubted his own senses.
His friends, indeed, lost no opportunity of informing him that he was a tremendously favored young man, but this phase of the affair had caused him little thought, simply because the girl herself had come so swiftly to overshadow, in his regard, every other consideration--even her own wealth and position. At the same time he could not but be aware that his standing in his little world was subtly altered as soon as he became known as the favored suitor of Wayne Wayland's daughter. He began to receive favors from comparative strangers; unexpected social privileges were granted him; his way was made easier in a hundred particulars. From every quarter delicately gratifying distinctions came to him. Without his volition he found that he had risen to an entirely different position from that which he had formerly occupied; the mere coupling of his name with Mildred Wayland's had lifted him into a calcium glare. It affected him not at all, he only knew that he was truly enslaved to the girl, that he idolized her, that he regarded her as something priceless, sacred. She, in turn, frankly capitulated to him, in proud disregard of what her world might say, as complete in her surrender to this new lover as she had been inaccessible in her reserve toward all the rest.
And when he had graduated, how proud of her he had been! How little he had realized the gulf that separated them, and how quick had been his awakening!
It was Wayne Wayland who had shown him his folly. He had talked to the young engineer kindly, if firmly, being too shrewd an old diplomat to fan the flame of a headstrong love with vigorous opposition.
"Mildred is a rich girl," the old financier had told Boyd, "a very rich girl; one of the richest girls in this part of the world; while you, my boy--what have you to offer?"
"Nothing! But you were not always what you are now," Emerson had replied. "Every man has to make a start. When you married, you were as poor as I am."
"Granted! But I married a poor girl, from my own station in life. Fortunately she had the latent power to develop with me as I grew; so that we kept even and I never outdistanced her. But Mildred is spoiled to begin with. I spoiled her purposely, to prevent just this sort of thing. She is bred to luxury, her friends are rich, and she doesn't know any other kind of life. Her tastes and habits and inclinations are extravagant, to put it plainly--yes, worse than extravagant; they are positively scandalous. She is about the richest girl in the country, and by virtue of wealth as well as breeding she is one of the American aristocracy. Oh! people may say what they please, but we have an aristocracy all the same which is just as well marked and just as exclusive as if it rested upon birth instead of bank accounts."
"You wouldn't object to our marriage if I were rich and Mildred were poor," Emerson had said, rather cynically.
"Perhaps not. A poor girl can marry a rich man and get along all right if she has brains; but a very rich girl can't marry a very poor man and be happy unless she is peculiarly constituted. I happen to know that my girl isn't so constituted. She is utterly impossible as a poor man's wife. She can't do anything: she can't economize, she can't amuse herself, she can't be happy without the things she is accustomed to; it is in her blood and training and disposition. She would try, bless you! she would try all right--for a while--but I know her better than she knows herself. You see, I have the advantage of knowing myself and of having known her mother before her. She is a hothouse flower, and adversity would wither her. Mind you, I don't say that her husband must be a millionaire, but he will need a running start on the road to make her happy, and--well, the fellow who gets my girl will make her happy or I'll make him damned miserable!" The old fellow had squared his jaws belligerently at this statement.
"You have nothing against me--personally, I mean?"
"She loves me."
"She seems to. But both of you are young and may get over it before you reach the last hurdle."
"Then you forbid it?" Boyd had queried, his own glance challenging that of her father.
"By no means. I neither forbid nor consent. I merely ask you to stand still and use your eyes for a little while. You have intelligence. Don't be hasty. I am going to tell her just what I have told you, and I think she is sensible enough to realize the truth of my remarks. No! instead of forbidding you Mildred's society, I am going to give you all you want of it. I am going to make you free at our house. I am going to see that you meet her friends and go where she goes. I want you to do the things that she does and see how she lives. The more you see of us, the better it will suit me. I have been studying you for some time, Mr. Emerson, and I think I have read you correctly. After you have spent a few months with us, come to me again and we will talk it over. I may say yes by that time, or you may not wish me to. Perhaps Mildred will decide for both of us."
"That is satisfactory to me."
"Very well! We dine at seven to-night; and we shall expect you."
That Mr. Wayland had made no mistake in his judgment, Emerson had soon been forced to admit; for the more he saw of Mildred's life, the more plainly he perceived the barriers that lay between them. Those months had been an education to him. He had become an integral part of Chicago's richer social world. The younger set had accepted him readily enough on the score of his natural good parts, while the name of Wayne Wayland had acted like magic upon the elders. Yet it had been a cruel time of probation for the young lover, who continually felt the searching eyes of the old man reading him; and despite the fact that Mildred took no pains to conceal her preference for him, there had been no lack of other suitors, all of whom Boyd hated with a perfect hate.
They had never discussed the matter, yet both the lovers had been conscious that the old man's words were pregnant with truth, and after a few months, during which Emerson had made little progress in his profession, Mildred had gone to her father and frankly begged his aid. But he had remained like adamant.
"I have been pretty lenient so far. He will have to make his own way without my help. You know he isn't my candidate."
Recognizing the despair which was possessing her lover, and jealous for her own happiness, Mildred had arranged that both of them, together, should have a talk with her father. The result had been the same. Mr. Wayland listened grimly, then said:
"This request for assistance shows that both of you are beginning to realize the wisdom of my remarks of a year ago."
"I'm not asking aid from you," Emerson had blazed forth. "I can take care of myself and of Mildred."
"Permit me to show you that you can't. Your life and training have not fitted you for the position of Mildred's husband. Have you any idea how many millions she is going to own?"
No, and I don't care to know."
"I don't care to tell you either, but the Wayland fortune will carry such a tremendous responsibility with it that my successor will have to be a stronger man than I am to hold it together. I merely gathered it; he must keep it. You haven't qualified in either respect yet."
Mildred had interrupted petulantly. "Oh, this endless chatter of money! It is disgusting. I only wish we were poor. Instead of a blessing, our wealth is an unmitigated curse--a terrible, exhausting burden. I hear of nothing else from morning till night. It gives us no pleasure, nothing but care and worry and--wrinkles. I can do without horses and motors and maids, and all that. I want to live, really to live." She had arisen and gone over to Boyd, laying her hand upon his shoulder. "I will give it all up. Let us try to be happy without it."
It had been a tense moment for both men. Their eyes had met defiantly, but, reading in the father's face the contempt that waited upon an unmanly decision, Boyd's pride stood up stiffly.
"No," he replied, "I can't let you do that. Not yet, anyhow. Mr. Wayland is right, in a way. If he had not been so decent I would have married you anyhow, but I am indebted to him. He has shown me a lot more of your life than I knew before, and he has made his word good. I am going to ask you to wait, however; for quite a while, it may be. I am going to take a gambler's chance."
"What is it?"
"A gold strike has been made in Alaska--"
"Yes! The Klondike. You have read of it? I am told that the chances there are like those in the days of '49, and I am going."
So it was that he had made his choice, fixing his own time for returning, and so it was that Mildred Wayland had awaited him.
If to-day, after three years of deprivation, she seemed to him more beautiful than ever--the interval having served merely to enhance her charm and strengthen the yearning of his heart--she seemed in the same view still further removed from his sphere. More reserved, more dignified, in the reserve of developed womanhood, her cession was the more gracious and wonderful.
His story finished, Boyd went on to tell her vaguely of his future plans, and at the last he asked her, with something less than an accepted lover's confidence:
"Will you wait another year?"
She laughed lightly. "You dear boy, I am not up for auction. This is not the 'third and last call.' I am not sure I could induce anybody to take me, even if I desired."
"I read the rumor of your engagement in a back number of a San Francisco paper. Is your retinue as large as ever?"
She smiled indifferently. "It alters with the season, but I believe the general average is about the same. You know most of them." She mentioned a number of names, counting them off on her finger-tips. "Then, of course, there are the old standbys, Mr. Macklin, Tommy Turner, the Lawton boys--"
"And Alton Clyde!"
"To be sure; little Alton, like the brook, runs on forever. He still worships you, Boyd, by the way."
"And there are others?"
"Nobody you know."
"Any one in particular?" Boyd demanded, with a lover's insistence.
Miss Wayland's hesitation was so brief as almost to escape his notice. "Nobody who counts. Of course, father has his predilections and insists upon engineering my affairs in the same way he would float a railroad enterprise, but you can imagine how romantic the result is."
"Who is the favored party?" the young man asked, darkly. But she arose to push back the heavy draperies and gaze for a moment out into the deepening twilight. When she answered, it was in a tone of ordinary indifference.
"Really it isn't worth discussing. I shall not marry until I am ready, and the subject bores me." An instant later she turned to regard him with direct eyes.
"Do you remember when I offered to give it all up and go with you, Boyd?"
"I have never forgotten for an instant,"
"You refused to allow it."
"Certainly! I had seen too much of your life, and my pride figured a bit, also."
"Do you still feel the same way?" Her eyes searched his face rather anxiously.
"I do! It is even more impossible now than then. I am utterly out of touch with this environment. My work will take me back where you could not go-- into a land you would dislike, among a people you could not understand. No; we did quite the sensible thing."
She sighed gratefully and settled upon the window-seat, her back to the light. "I am glad you feel that way. I--I--think I am growing more sensible too. I have begun to understand how practical father was, and how ridiculous I was. Perhaps I am not so impulsive--you see, I am years older now--perhaps I am more selfish. I don't know which it is and--I can't express my feelings, but I have had sufficient time since you went away to think and to look into my own soul. Really I have become quite introspective. Of course, my feeling for you is just the same as it was, dear, but I--I can't--" She waved a graceful hand to indicate her surroundings. "Well, this is my world, and I am a part of it. You understand, don't you? The thought of giving it up makes me really afraid. I don't like rough things." She shook herself and gave voice to a delicious, bubbling little laugh. "I am frightfully spoiled." Emerson drew her to him tenderly.
"My darling, I understand perfectly, and I love you too well to take you away from it all; but you will wait for me, won't you?"
"Of course," she replied, quickly. "As long as you wish."
"But I am going to have you!" he cried, insistently. "You are going to be my wife," He repeated the words softly, reverently: "My wife."
She gazed up at him with a puzzled little frown. "What bothers me is that you understand me and my life so well, while I scarcely understand you or yours at all. That seems to tell me that I am unsuited to you in some way. Why, when you told me that story of your hardships and all that, I listened as if it were a play or a book, but really it didn't mean anything to me or stir me as it should. I can't understand my own failure to understand. That awful country, those barbarous people, the suffering, the cold, the snow, the angry sea; I don't grasp what they mean. I was never cold, or hungry, or exhausted. I--well, it is fascinating to hear about, because you went through it, but why you did it, how you felt"--she made a gesture as if at a loss for words. "Do you see what I am trying to convey?"
"Perfectly," he answered, releasing her with a little unadmitted sense of disappointment at his heart. "I suppose it is only natural."
"I do hope you succeed this time," she continued. "I am growing deadly tired of things. Not tired of waiting for you, but I am getting to be old; I am, indeed. Why, at times I actually have an inclination to do fancy- work--the unfailing symptom. Do you realize that I am twenty-five years old!"
"Age of decrepitude! And more glorious than any woman in the world!" he cried.
There was a click outside the library door, and the room, which unnoticed by them had become nearly dark, was suddenly flooded with light. The portieres parted, and Wayne Wayland stood in the opening.
"Ah, here you are, my boy! Hawkins told me you had returned."
He advanced to shake the young man's hand, his demeanor gracious and hearty. "Welcome home. You have been having quite a vacation, haven't you? Let's see, it's two years, isn't it?"
"Three years!" Emerson replied.
"Impossible! Dear, dear, how time flies when one is busy."
"Boyd has been telling me of his adventures," said Mildred. "He is going to dine with us."
"Indeed." Mr. Wayland displayed no great degree of enthusiasm. "And have you returned, like Pizarro, laden with all the gold of the Incas? Or did Pizarro return? It seems to me that he settled somewhere on the Coast." The old man laughed at his own conceit.
"I judge Pizarro was a better miner than I," Boyd smiled. "There were plenty of Esquimau princes whom I might have held for ransom, but if I had done so, all the rest of the tribe would have come to board with them."
"Have you come home to stay?"
"No, sir; I shall return in a few weeks."
Mr. Wayland's cordiality seemed to increase in some subtle manner.
"Well, I am sorry you didn't make a fortune, my boy. But, rich or poor, your friends are delighted to see you, and we shall certainly keep you for dinner. I am interested in that Northwestern country myself, and I want to ask some questions about it."