The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XI. And He Did Eat
After the meal he wanted to lie down in the grasses and watch the clouds sail by, but she would have none of it. She haled him away to the brookside. There she showed him how to wash dishes by filling them half full of water in which fine gravel has been mixed, and then whirling the whole rapidly until the tin is rubbed quite clean. Never was prosaic task more delightful. They knelt side by side on the bank, under the dense leaves, and dabbled in the water happily. The ferns were fresh and cool. Once a redbird shot confidently down from above on half-closed wing, caught sight of these intruders, brought up with a swish of feathers, and eyed them gravely for some time from a neighbouring treelet. Apparently he was satisfied with his inspection, for after a few minutes he paid no further attention to them, but went about his business quietly. When the dishes had been washed, Mary stood over Bennington while he packed them in the bundle and strapped them on the saddle.
"Now," said she at last, "we have nothing more to think of until we go home."
She was like a child, playing with exhaustless spirits at the most trivial games. Not for a moment would she listen to anything of a serious nature. Bennington, with the heavier pertinacity of men when they have struck a congenial vein, tried to repeat to some extent the experience of the last afternoon at the rock. Mary laughed his sentiment to ridicule and his poetics to scorn. Everything he said she twisted into something funny or ridiculous. He wanted to sit down and enjoy the calm peace of the little ravine in which they had pitched their temporary camp, but she made a quiet life miserable to him. At last in sheer desperation he arose to pursue, whereupon she vanished lightly into the underbrush. A moment later he heard her clear laugh mocking him from some elder thickets a hundred yards away. Bennington pursued with ardour. It was as though a slow-turning ocean liner were to try to run down a lively little yacht.
Bennington had always considered girls as weak creatures, incapable of swift motion, and needing assistance whenever the country departed from the artificial level of macadam. He had also thought himself fairly active. He revised these ideas. This girl could travel through the thin brush of the creek bottom two feet to his one, because she ran more lightly and surely, and her endurance was not a matter for discussion. The question of second wind did not concern her any more than it does a child, whose ordinary mode of progression is heartbreaking. Bennington found that he was engaged in the most delightful play of his life. He shouted aloud with the fun of it. He had the feeling that he was grasping at a sunbeam, or a mist-shape that always eluded him.
He would lose her utterly, and would stand quite motionless, listening, for a long time. Suddenly, without warning, an exaggerated leaf crown would fall about his neck, and he would be overwhelmed with ridicule at the outrageous figure he presented. Then for a time she seemed everywhere at once. The mottled sunlight under the trees danced and quivered after her, smiling and darkening as she dimpled or was grave. The little whirlwinds of the gulches seized the leaves and danced with her too, the birches and aspens tossed their hands, and rising ever higher and wilder and more elf-like came the mocking cadences of her laughter.
After a time she disappeared again. Bennington stood still, waiting for some new prank, but he waited in vain. He instituted a search, but the search was fruitless. He called, but received no reply. At last he made his way again to the dell in which they had lunched, and there he found her, flat on her back, looking at the little summer clouds through wide-open eyes.
Her mood appeared to have changed. Indeed that seemed to be characteristic of her; that her lightness was not so much the lightness of thistle down, which is ever airy, the sport of every wind, but rather that of the rose vine, mobile and swaying in every breeze, yet at the same time rooted well in the wholesome garden earth. She cared now to be silent. In a little while Bennington saw that she had fallen asleep. For the first time he looked upon her face in absolute repose.
Feature by feature, line by line, he went over it, and into his heart crept that peculiar yearning which seems, on analysis, half pity for what has past and half fear for what may come. It is bestowed on little children, and on those whose natures, in spite of their years, are essentially childlike. For this girl's face was so pathetically young. Its sensitive lips pouted with a child's pout, its pointed chin was delicate with the delicacy that is lost when the teeth have had often to be clenched in resolve; its cheek was curved so softly, its long eyelashes shaded that cheek so purely. Yet somewhere, like an intangible spirit which dwelt in it, unseen except through its littlest effects, Bennington seemed to trace that subtle sadness, or still more subtle mystery, which at times showed so strongly in her eyes. He caught himself puzzling over it, trying to seize it. It was most like a sorrow, and yet like a sorrow which had been outlived. Or, if a mystery, it was as a mystery which was such only to others, no longer to herself. The whole line of thought was too fine-drawn for Bennington's untrained perceptions. Yet again, all at once, he realized that this very fact was one of the girl's charms to him; that her mere presence stirred in him perceptions, intuitions, thoughts--yes, even powers--which he had never known before. He felt that she developed him. He found that instead of being weak he was merely latent; that now the latent perceptions were unfolding. Since he had known her he had felt himself more of a man, more ready to grapple with facts and conditions on his own behalf, more inclined to take his own view of the world and to act on it. She had given him independence, for she had made him believe in himself, and belief in one's self is the first principle of independence. Bennington de Laney looked back on his old New York self as on a being infinitely remote.
She awoke and opened her eyes slowly, and looked at him without blinking. The sun had gone nearly to the ridge top, and a Wilson's thrush was celebrating with his hollow notes the artificial twilight of its shadow.
She smiled at him a little vaguely, the mists of sleep clouding her eyes. It is the unguarded moment, the instant of awakening. At such an instant the mask falls from before the features of the soul. I do not know what Bennington saw.
"Mary, Mary!" he cried uncontrolledly, "I love you! I love you, girl."
He had never before seen any one so vexed. She sat up at once.
"Oh, why did you have to say that!" she cried angrily. "Why did you have to spoil things! Why couldn't you have let it go along as it was without bringing that into it!"
She arose and began to walk angrily up and down, kicking aside the sticks and stones as she encountered them.
"I was just beginning to like you, and now you do this. Oh, I am so angry!" She stamped her little foot. "I thought I had found a man for once who could be a good friend to me, whom I could meet unguardedly, and behold! the third day he tells me this!"
"I am sorry," stammered Bennington, his new tenderness fleeing, frightened, into the inner recesses of his being. "I beg your pardon, I didn't know--Don't! I won't say it again. Please!"
The declaration had been manly. This was ridiculously boyish. The girl frowned at him in two minds as to what to do.
"Really, truly," he assured her.
She laughed a little, scornfully. "Very well, I'll give you one more chance. I like you too well to drop you entirely." (What an air of autocracy she took, to be sure!) "You mustn't speak of that again. And you must forget it entirely." She lowered at him, a delicious picture of wrath.
They saddled the horses and took their way homeward in silence. The tenderness put out its flower head from the inner sanctuary. Apparently the coast was clear. It ventured a little further. The evening was very shadowy and sweet and musical with birds. The tenderness boldly invaded Bennington's eyes, and spoke, oh, so timidly, from his lips.
"I will do just as you say," it hesitated, "and I'll be very, very good indeed. But am I to have no hope at all?"
"Why can't you keep off that standpoint entirely?"
"Just that one question; then I will."
"Well," grudgingly, "I suppose nothing on earth could keep the average mortal from hoping; but I can't answer that there is any ground for it."
"When can I speak of it again?"
"I don't know--after the Pioneer's Picnic."
"That is when you cease to be a mystery, isn't it?"
She sighed. "That is when I become a greater mystery--even to myself, I fear," she added in a murmur too low for him to catch.
They rode on in silence for a little space more. The night shadows were flowing down between the trees like vapour. The girl of her own accord returned to the subject.
"You are greatly to be envied," she said a little sadly, "for you are really young. I am old, oh, very, very old! You have trust and confidence. I have not. I can sympathize; I can understand. But that is all. There is something within me that binds all my emotions so fast that I can not give way to them. I want to. I wish I could. But it is getting harder and harder for me to think of absolutely trusting, in the sense of giving out the self that is my own. Ah, but you are to be envied! You have saved up and accumulated the beautiful in your nature. I have wasted mine, and now I sit by the roadside and cry for it. My only hope and prayer is that a higher and better something will be given me in place of the wasted, and yet I have no right to expect it. Silly, isn't it?" she concluded bitterly.
Bennington made no reply.
They drew near the gulch, and could hear the mellow sound of bells as the town herd defiled slowly down it toward town.
"We part here," the young man broke the long silence. "When do I see you again?"
"I do not know."
The girl shook herself from a reverie. "If you want me to believe you, come every afternoon to the Rock, and wait. Some day I will meet you there."
She was gone.