Chapter LXXVII

The horse plodded slowly down the gravelled drive of the road house and turned into the main highway. It was very dark on earth, and very bright in the heavens. The afternoon fog had cleared away, dissipated in the warm air from the sand hills, for the day had been hot. Overhead flared thousands of stars, throwing the world small. Nan, shivering in reaction, nestled against her husband. He drew her close. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and sighed happily. Neither spoke.

At first Keith's whole being was filled with rage. His mind whirled with plans for revenge. On the morrow he would hunt down Morrell and Sansome. At the thought of what he would do to them, his teeth clamped and his muscles stiffened. Then he became wholly preoccupied with Nan's narrow escape. His quick mind visualized a hundred possibilities--suppose he had gone on Durkee's expedition? Suppose Mex Ryan had not happened to remember his name? Suppose Mrs. Sherwood and Krafft had not found him? Suppose they had been an hour later? Suppose--He leaned over tenderly to draw the lap robe closer about her. She had stopped shivering and was nestling contentedly against him.

But gradually the storm in Keith's soul fell. The great and solemn night stood over against his vision, and at last he could not but look. The splendour of the magnificent skies, the dreamy peace of the velvet-black earth lying supine like a weary creature at rest--these two simple infinities of space and of promise took him to themselves. An eager glad chorus of frogs came from some invisible pool. The slithering sound of the sand dividing before the buggy wheels whispered. Every once in a while the plodding horse sighed deeply.

With the warm cozy feel of the woman, his woman, in the hollow of his arm, his spirit stilled and uplifted by the simple yet august and eternal things before him, Keith fell into inchoate rumination. The fever of activity in the city, the clash of men's interests, greeds, and passions, the tumult and striving, the sweat and dust of the arena fell to nothing about his feet. He cleared his vision of the small necessary unessentials, and stared forth wide-eyed at the big simplicities of life--truth as one sees it, loyalty to one's ideal, charity toward one's beaten enemy, a steadfast front toward one's unbeaten enemy, scorn of pettiness, to be unafraid. Unless the struggle is for and by these things, it is useless, meaningless. And one's possessions--Keith's left arm tightened convulsively. He had come near to losing the only possession worth while. At the pressure Nan stirred sleepily.

"Are we there, dear?" she inquired, raising her head.

Keith had reined in the horse, and was peering into the surrounding darkness. He laughed.

"No, we seem to be here," he replied, "And I'm blest if I know where 'here' is! I've been day-dreaming!"

"I believe I've been asleep," confessed Nan.

They both stared about them, but could discern nothing familiar in the dim outlines of the hills. Not a light flickered.

"Perhaps if you'd give the horse his head, he'd take us home. I've heard, they would," suggested Nan.

"He's had his head completely for the last two hours. That theory is exploded. We must have turned wrong after leaving Jake's Place."

"Well, we're on a road. It must go somewhere."

Keith, with some difficulty, managed to awaken the horse. It sighed and resumed its plodding.

"I'm afraid we're lost," confessed Keith.

"I don't much care," confessed Nan.

"He seems to be a perfectly safe horse," said he.

By way of answer to this she passed her arms gently about his neck and bent his lips to hers. The horse immediately stopped.

"Seems a fairly intelligent brute, too," observed Keith, after a few moments.

"Did you ever see so many stars?" said she.

The buggy moved slowly, on through the night. They did not talk. Explanations and narrative could wait until the morrow--a distant morrow only dimly foreseen, across this vast ocean of night. All sense of tune or direction left them; they were wandering irresponsibly, without thought of why, as children wander and get lost. After a long time they saw a silver gleam far ahead and below them.

"That must be the bay," said Keith. "If we turn to the right we ought to get back to town."

"I suppose so," said Nan.

A very long time later the horse stopped short with an air of finality, and refused absolutely to proceed. Keith descended to see what was the matter.

"The road seems to end here," he told her. "There's a steep descent just ahead."

"What now?"

"Nothing," he replied, climbing back into the buggy.

The horse slumbered profoundly. They wrapped the lap robe around themselves. For a tune they whispered little half-forgotten things to each other. The pauses grew longer and longer. With an effort she roused herself to press her lips again to his. They, too, slept. And as dawn slowly lighted the world, they must have presented a strange and bizarre silhouette atop the hill against the paling sky--the old sagging buggy, the horse with head down and ears adroop, the lovers clasped in each other's arms.

Silently all about them the new day was preparing its great spectacle. The stars were growing dim; the masses of eastern hills were becoming visible. A full rich life was swelling through the world, quietly, stealthily, as though under cover of darkness multitudes were stealing to their posts. Shortly, when the signal was given, the curtain would roll up, the fanfare of trumpets would resound--A meadow lark chirped low out of the blackness. And another, boldly, with full throat, uttered its liquid, joyous song. This was apparently the signal. The east turned gray. Mt. Tamalpais caught the first ghostly light. And ecstatically the birds and the insects and the flying and crawling and creeping things awakened, and each in his own voice and manner devoutly welcomed the brand-new day with its fresh, clean chances of life and its forgetfulness of old, disagreeable things. The meadow larks became hundreds, the song sparrows trilled, distant cocks crowed, and a dog barked exuberantly far away.

Keith stirred and looked about him. Objects were already becoming dimly visible. Suddenly something attracted his attention. He held his head sideways, listening. Faintly down the little land breeze came the sound of a bell. It was the Vigilante tocsin. Nan sat up, blinking and putting her hair back from her eyes. She laughed a little happily.

"Why, it's the dawn!" she cried, "We've been out all night!"

"The dawn," repeated Keith, his arm about her, but his ear attuned to the beat of the distant bell. "The gray dawn of better things."