Chapter I. Something Before Unknown
 

Clara Heyward was dressed in deep mourning, and it was evident that the emblems of bereavement were not worn merely in compliance with a social custom. Her face was pallid from grief, and her dark beautiful eyes were dim from much weeping. She sat in the little parlor of a cottage located in a large Californian city, and listened with apathetic expression as a young man pleaded for the greatest and most sacred gift that a woman can bestow. Ralph Brandt was a fine type of young vigorous manhood; and we might easily fancy that his strong, resolute face, now eloquent with deep feeling, was not one upon which a girl could look with indifference. Clara's words, however, revealed the apparent hopelessness of his suit.

"It's of no use, Ralph," she said; "I'm in no mood for such thoughts."

"You don't believe in me; you don't trust me," he resumed sadly. "You think that because I was once wild, and even worse, that I'll not be true to my promises and live an honest life. Have I not been honest when I knew that being so might cost me dear? Have I not told you of my past life and future purposes when I might have concealed almost everything?"

"It's not that, Ralph. I do believe you are sincere; and if the dreadful thing which has broken me down with sorrow had not happened, all might have been as you wish. I should have quite as much confidence in a young man who, like you, has seen evil and turned resolutely away from it, as in one who didn't know much about the world or himself either. What's more, father--"

At the word "father" her listless manner vanished, and she gave way to passionate sobs. "His foul murder is always before me," she wailed. "Oh, we were so happy! he was so kind, and made me his companion! I don't see how I can live without him. I can't think of love and marriage when I remember how he died, and that the villain who killed him is at large and unpunished. What right have I to forget this great wrong and to try to be happy? No, no! the knife that killed him pierced my heart; and it's bleeding all the time. I'm not fit to be any man's wife; and I will not bring my great sorrow into any man's home."

Brandt sprang up and paced the room for a few moments, his brow contracted in deep thought. Then, apparently coming to a decision, he sat down by his companion and took her cold, unresisting hand.

"My poor little girl," he said, kindly, "you don't half understand me yet. I love you all the more because you are heart-broken and pale with grief. That is the reason I have spoken so earnestly to- night. You will grieve yourself to death if left alone; and what good would your death do any one? It would spoil my life. Believe me, I would welcome you to my home with all your sorrow--all the more because of your sorrow; and I'd be so kind and patient that you'd begin to smile again some day. That's what your father would wish if he could speak to you, and not that you should grieve away your life for what can't be helped now. But I have a plan. It's right in my line to capture such scoundrels as the man who murdered your father; and what's more, I know the man, or rather I used to in old times. I've played many a game of euchre with him in which he cheated me out of money that I'd be glad to have now; and I'm satisfied that he does not know of any change in me. I was away on distant detective duty, you know, when your father was killed. I won't ask you to go over the painful circumstances; I can learn them at the prison. I shall try to get permission to search out Bute, desperate and dangerous as he is--"

"Oh, Ralph, Ralph," cried the girl, springing up, her eyes flashing through her tears, "if you will bring my father's murderer to justice, if you will prevent him from destroying other lives, as he surely will, you will find that I can refuse you nothing."

Then she paused, shook her head sadly, and withdrew the hand she had given him. "No," she resumed, "I shouldn't ask this; I don't ask it. As you say, he is desperate and dangerous; and he would take your life the moment he dreamed of your purpose. I should only have another cause for sorrow."

Brandt now smiled as if he were master of the situation. "Why, Clara," he exclaimed, "don't you know that running down and capturing desperadoes is now part of my business?"

"Yes; but you can get plenty of work that isn't so dangerous."

"I should be a nice fellow to ask you to be my wife and yet show I was afraid to arrest your father's murderer. You needn't ask me to do this; you are not going to be responsible for my course in the least. I shall begin operations this very night, and have no doubt that I can get a chance to work on the case. Now don't burden your heart with any thoughts about my danger. I myself owe Bute as big a grudge as I can have against any human being. He cheated me and led me into deviltry years ago, and then I lost sight of him until he was brought to the prison of which your father was one of the keepers. I've been absent for the last three months, you know; but I didn't forget you or your father a day, and you remember I wrote you as soon as I heard of your trouble. I think your father sort of believed in me; he never made me feel I wasn't fit to see you or to be with you, and I'd do more for him living or dead than for any other man."

"He did believe in you, Ralph, and he always spoke well of you. Oh, you can't know how much I lost in him! After mother died he did not leave me to the care of strangers, but gave me most of his time when off duty. He sent me to the best schools, bought me books to read, and took me out evenings instead of going off by himself, as so many men do. He was so kind and so brave; oh, oh! you know he lost his life by trying to do his duty when another man would have given up. Bute and two others broke jail. Father saw one of his assistants stabbed, and he was knocked down himself. He might have remained quiet and escaped with a few bruises; but he caught Bute's foot, and then the wretch turned and stabbed him. He told me all with his poor pale lips before he died. Oh, oh! when shall I forget?"

"You can never forget, dear; I don't ask anything contrary to nature. You were a good daughter, and so I believe you will be a good wife. But if I bring the murderer to justice, you will feel that a great wrong has been righted--that all has been done that can be done. Then you'll begin to think that your father wouldn't wish you to grieve yourself to death, and that as he tried to make you happy while he was living, so he will wish you to be happy now he's gone."

"It isn't a question of happiness. I don't feel as if I could ever be happy again; and so I don't see how I can make you or any one else happy."

"That's my lookout, Clara. I'd be only too glad to take you as you are. Come, now, this is December. If I bring Bute in by Christmas, what will you give me?"

She silently and eloquently gave him her hand; but her lips quivered so she could not speak. He kissed her hand as gallantly as any olden-time knight, then added a little brusquely:

"See here, little girl, I'm not going to bind you by anything that looks like a bargain. I shall attempt all I've said; and then on Christmas, or whenever I get back, I'll speak my heart to you again just as I have spoken now."

"When a man acts as you do, Ralph, any girl would find it hard to keep free. I shall follow you night and day with my thoughts and prayers."

"Well, I'm superstitious enough to believe that I shall be safer and more successful on account of them. Clara, look me in the eyes before I go."

She looked up to his clear gray eyes as requested.

"I don't ask you to forget one who is dead; but don't you see how much you are to one who is living? Don't you see that in spite of all your sorrow you can still give happiness? Now, be as generous and kind as you can. Don't grieve hopelessly while I'm gone. That's what is killing you; and the thought of it fills me with dread. Try to think that you still have something and some one to live for. Perhaps you can learn to love me a little if you try, and then everything won't look so black. If you find you can't love me, I won't blame you--, and if I lose you as my wife, you won't lose a true, honest friend."

For the first time the girl became vaguely conscious of, the possibility of an affection, a tie superseding all others; she began to see how it was possible to give herself to this man, not from an impulse of gratitude or because she liked him better than any one else, but because of a feeling, new, mysterious, which gave him a sort of divine right in her. Something in the expression of his eyes had been more potent than his words; something subtle, swift as an electric spark had passed from him to her, awakening a faint, strange tumult in the heart she thought so utterly crushed. A few moments before, she could have promised resolutely to be his wife; she could have permitted his embrace with unresponsive apathy. Now she felt a sudden shyness. A faint color stole into her pale face, and she longed to be alone.

"Ralph," she faltered, "you are so generous, I--I don't know what to say."

"You needn't say anything till I come back. If possible, I will be here by Christmas, for you shouldn't be alone that day with your grief. Good-by."

The hand she gave him trembled, and her face was averted now.

"You will try to love me a little, won't you?"

"Yes," she whispered.