XVIII. The Star in the East

So the search paused, while the searchers rested and revised their plans. Spring opened in the valley as if for them alone. There were mornings "proud and sweet," when the humblest imagination could have pictured Aurora and her train in the jocund clouds that trooped along the sky,--wind-built processions which the wind dispersed. Wild flowers spread so fast they might have been spilled from the rainbow scarf of Iris fleeting overhead. The river was in flood, digging its elbows into its muddy banks. The willow and wild-rose thickets stooped and washed their spring garments in its tide.

Primeval life and love were all around them. Meadow larks flung their brief jets of song into the sunlight; the copses rustled with wings; wood-doves cooed from the warm sunny hollows, and the soft booming of their throaty call was like a beating in the air,--the pulse of spring. They had found their Garden. Humanity in the valley passed before them in forms as interesting and as alien as the brother beasts to Adam: the handsome driver of the jerky, Joe Stratton's successor, who sat at dinner opposite and combed his flowing mustache with his fork in a lazy, dandified way; the darkened faces of sheep-herders enameled by sun and wind, their hair like the winter coats of animals; the slow-eyed farmers with the appetites of horses; the spring recruits for the ranks of labor footing it to distant ranches, each with his back-load of bedding, and the dust of three counties on his garments.

The sweet forces of Nature shut out, for a season, Paul's cri du coeur. One may keep a chamber sacred to one's sadder obligations and yet the house be filled with joy. Further ramifications of the search were mapped out with Jimmy's indifferent assistance. For good reasons of his own, Jimmy did little to encourage an early start. He would explain that his maps were of ancient date and full of misinformation as to stage routes. "See that now! The stages was pulled off that line five year ago, on account of the railroad cuttin' in on them. Ye couldn't make it wid'out ye took a camp outfit. There's ne'er a station left, and when ye come to it, it's ruins ye'll find. A chimbly and a few rails, if the mule-skinners hasn't burned them. 'Tis a country very devoid of fuel; sagebrush and grease-wood, and a wind, bedad! that blows the grass-seeds into the next county."

When these camping-trips were proposed to Moya, she hesitated and responded languidly; but when Paul suggested leaving her even for a day, her fears fluttered across his path and wiled him another way. Vaguely he felt that she was unlike herself--less buoyant, though often restless; and sometimes he fancied she was pale underneath her sun-burned color like that of rose-hips in October. Various causes kept him inert, while strength mounted in his veins, and life seemed made for the pure joy of living.

The moon of May in that valley is the moon of roses, for the heats once due come on apace. The young people gave up their all-day horseback rides and took morning walks instead, following the shore-paths lazily to shaded coverts dedicated to those happy silences which it takes two to make. Or, they climbed the bluffs and gazed at the impenetrable vast horizon, and thought perhaps of their errand with that pang of self-reproach which, when shared, becomes a subtler form of self-indulgence.

But at night, all the teeming life of the plain rushed up into the sky and blazed there in a million friendly stars. After the languor of the sleepy afternoons, it was like a fresh awakening--the dawn of those white May nights. The wide plain stirred softly through all its miles of sage. The river's cadenced roar paused beyond the bend and outbroke again. All that was eerie and furtive in the wild dark found a curdling voice in the coyote's hunting-call.

In a hollow concealed by sage, not ten minutes' walk from the Ferry inn, unknown to the map-maker and innocent of all use, lay a perfect floor for evening pacing with one's eyes upon the stars. It was the death mask of an ancient lake, done in purest alkali silt, and needing only the shadows cast by a low moon to make the illusion almost unbelievable. Slow precipitation, season after season, as the water dried, had left the lake bed smooth as a cast in plaster. Subsequent warpings had lifted the alkali crust into thin-lipped wavelets. But once upon the floor itself the resemblance to water vanished. The warpings and Grumblings took the shape of earth as made by water and baked by fire. Moya compared it to a bit of the dead moon fallen to show us what we are coming to. They paced it soft-footed in tennis shoes lest they should crumble its talc-like whiteness. But they read no horoscopes, for they were shy of the future in speaking to each other,--and they made no plans.

One evening Moya had said to Paul: "I can understand your mother so much better now that I am a wife. I think most women have a tendency towards the state of being unmarried. And if one had--children, it would increase upon one very fast. A widow and a mother--for twenty years. How could she be a wife again?"

Paul made no reply to this speech which long continued to haunt him; especially as Moya wrote more frequently to his mother and did not offer to show him her letters. In their evening walks she seemed distrait, and during the day more restless.

One night of their nightly pacings she stopped and stood long, her head thrown back, her eyes fixed upon the dizzy star-deeps. Paul waited a step behind her, touching her shoulders with his hands. Suddenly she reeled and sank backwards into his arms. He held her, watching her lovely face grow whiter; her eyelids closed. She breathed slowly, leaning her whole weight upon him.

Coming to herself, she smiled and said it was nothing. She had been that way before. "But--we must go home. We must have a home--somewhere. I want to see your mother. Paul, be good to her--forgive her--for my sake!"