Chapter XX. Myra's Prayer and the Ranger's Warning
 

That same afternoon, while Sibyl Andres was making music for Aaron King in the spring glade, Brian Oakley, on his way down the canyon, stopped at the old place where Myra Willard and the girl were living. Riding into the yard that was fenced only by the wild growth, he was greeted cordially by the woman with the disfigured face, who was seated on the porch.

"Howdy, Myra," he called in return, as he swung from the saddle; and leaving the chestnut to roam at will, he went to the porch, his spurs clinking softly over the short, thick grass.

"Where's Sibyl?" he asked, seating himself on the top step.

"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Oakley," the woman answered, smiling. "You really didn't expect me to, did you?"

The Ranger laughed. "Did she take gun, basket, rod or violin? If I know whether she's gone shooting berrying, fishing or fiddling, it may give me a clue--or did she take all four?"

The woman watched him closely. "She took only her violin. She went sometime after lunch--down the canyon, I think. Do you wish particularly to see her, Mr. Oakley?"

It was evident to the woman that the officer was relieved. "Oh, no; she wouldn't be going far with her violin. If she went down the canyon, it's all right anyway. But I stopped in to tell the girl that she must be careful, for a while. There's an escaped convict ranging somewhere in my district. I received the word this morning, and have been up around Lone Cabin and Burnt Pine and the head of Clear Creek to see if I could start anything. I didn't find any signs, but the information is reliable. Tell Sibyl that I say she must not go out without her gun--that if I catch her wandering around unarmed, I'll pack her off back to civilization, pronto."

"I'll tell her," said Myra Willard, "and I'll help her to remember. It would be better, I suppose, if she stayed at home; but that seems so impossible."

"She'll be all right if she has her gun," asserted the Ranger, confidently. "I'd back the girl against anything I ever met up with--when she has her artillery. By the way, Myra, have your neighbors below called yet?"

"No--at least, not while I have been at home. I have been berrying, two or three times. They might have come while I was out."

"Has Sibyl met them yet?" came the next question.

"She has not mentioned it, if she has."

"H-m-m," mused Brian Oakley.

The woman's love for the girl prompted her to quick suspicion of the Ranger's manner.

"What is it, Mr. Oakley?" she asked. "Has the child been indiscreet? Has she done anything wrong? Has she been with those men?"

"She has called upon one of them several times," returned Brian, smiling. "Mr. King is painting that little glade by the old spring at the foot of the bank, you know, and I guess she stumbled onto him. The place is one of her favorite spots. But bless your heart, Myra, there's no harm in it. It would be natural for her to get interested in any one making a picture of a place she loves as she does that old spring glade. She has spent days at a time there--ever since she was big enough to go that far from home."

"It's strange that she has not mentioned it to me," said the woman--troubled in spite of the Ranger's reassuring words.

The man directed his attention suddenly to his horse; "Max! You let Sibyl's roses alone." The animal turned his head questioningly toward his master. "Back!" said the Ranger, "back!" At his word, the chestnut promptly backed across the yard until the officer called, "That will do," when he halted, and, with an impatient toss of his head, again looked toward the porch, inquiringly. "You are all right now," said the man. Whereupon the horse began contentedly cropping the grass.

"I met Mr. King, accidentally, once, at the depot in Fairlands," continued the woman with the disfigured face. "He impressed me, then, as being a genuinely good man--a true gentleman. But, judging from his books, Conrad Lagrange is not a man I would wish Sibyl to meet. I have wondered at the artist's friendship with him."

"I tell you, Myra, Lagrange is all right," said Brian Oakley, stoutly. "He's odd and eccentric and rough spoken sometimes; but he's not at all what you would think him from the stuff he writes. He's a true man at heart, and you needn't worry about Sibyl getting anything but good from an acquaintance with him. As for King--well--Conrad Lagrange vouches for him. If you knew Lagrange, you'd understand what that means. He and the young fellow's mother grew up together. He swears the lad is right; and, from what I've seen of him, I believe it. It doesn't follow, though, that you don't need to keep your eyes open. The girl is as innocent as a child--though she is a woman--and--well--accidents have happened, you know." As he spoke he glanced unconsciously at the scars that disfigured the naturally beautiful face of the woman.

Myra Willard blushed as she answered sadly, "Yes, I know that accidents have happened. I will talk with Sibyl; and will you not speak to her too? She loves you so, and is always guided by your wishes. A little word or two from you would be an added safeguard."

"Sure I'll talk to her," said the Ranger, heartily--rising and whistling to the chestnut. "But look here, Myra,"--he said, pausing with his foot in the stirrup,--"the girl must have her head, you know. We don't want to put her in the notion that every man in the world is a villain laying for a chance to do her harm. There are clean fellows--a few--and it will do Sibyl good to meet that kind." He swung himself lightly into the saddle.

The woman smiled; "Sibyl could not think that all men are evil, after knowing her father and you, Mr. Oakley."

The Ranger laughed as he turned Max toward the opening in the cedar thicket. "Will was what God and Nelly made him, Myra; and I--if I'm fairly decent it's because Mary took me in hand in time. Men are mostly what you women make 'em, anyway, I reckon."

"Don't forget that you and Mrs. Oakley are coming for supper to-morrow," she called after him.

"No danger of our forgetting that," he answered. "Adios!" And the chestnut loped easily out of the yard.

Myra Willard kept her place on the porch until the sound of the horse's galloping feet died away down the canyon. But, as she listened to the vanishing sound of the Ranger's going, her eyes were looking far away--as though his words had aroused in her heart memories of days long past. When the last echo had lost itself in the thin mountain air, she went into the house.

Standing before the small mirror that served--in the rude, almost camp-like furnishings of the house--for both herself and Sibyl, she studied the face reflected there--turning her head slowly, as if comparing the beautiful unmarked side with the other that was so hideously disfigured. For some time she stood there, unflinchingly giving herself to the torture of this contemplation of her ruined loveliness; drinking to its bitter dregs the sorrowful cup of her secret memories; until, as though she could bear no more, she drew back--her eyes wide with pain and horror, her marred features twisted grotesquely in an agony of mental suffering. With a pitiful moan she sank upon her knees in prayer.

In the earnestness of her spirit--out of the deep devotion of her love--as she prayed God for wisdom to guide the girl entrusted to her care, she spoke aloud. "Let me not rob her, dear Christ, of love; but help me to help her love aright. Help me, that in my fear for her I do not turn her heart against her mate when he shall come. Help me, that I do not so fill her pure mind with doubt and distrust of all men that she will look for evil, only. Help me, that I do not teach her to associate love wholly with that which is base and untrue. Grant, O God, that her beautiful life may not be marred by a love that is unworthy."

As the woman with the disfigured face rose from her knees, she heard the voice of Sibyl, who was coming up the old road toward the cedars--singing as she came.

When Sibyl entered the house, a moment later, Myra Willard, still agitated, was bathing her face. The girl, seeing, checked the song upon her lips; and going to the woman who in everything but the ties of blood was mother to her, sought to discover the reason for her troubled manner, and tried to soothe her with loving words.

The woman held the girl close in her arms and looked into the lovely, winsome face that was so unmarred by vicious thoughts of the world's teaching.

"Dear child, do you not sometimes hate the sight of my ugliness?" she said. "It seems to me, you must."

With her arms about her companion's neck, Sibyl pressed her pure, young lips to those disfiguring scars, in an impulsive kiss. "Foolish Myra," she cried, "you know I love you too well to see anything but your own beautiful self behind the scars. To me, your face is all like this"--and she softly kissed, in turn, the woman's unmarred cheek. "Whatever made the marks, I know that they are not dishonorable. So I never think of them at all, but see only the beautiful side--which is really you, you know."

"No,"--answered Myra Willard, gently,--"my scars are not dishonorable. But the world does not see with your pure eyes, dear child. The world sees only the ugly, disfigured side of my face. It never looks at the other side. And listen, dear heart, so the world often sees dishonor where there is no dishonor It sees evil in many things where there is only good."

"Yes," returned the girl, "but you have never taught me to see with the eyes of the world. So, to me, what the world sees, does not matter."

"Pray that it may never matter, child," answered the woman with the disfigured face, earnestly.

Then, as they went out to the porch, she asked, "Did you meet Mr. Oakley as you were coming home?"

Sibyl laughed and colored with a confusion that was new to her, as she answered, "Yes, I did--and he scolded me."

"About your going unarmed?"

"No,--but he told me about that too. I don't see why, whenever a poor criminal escapes, he always comes into our mountains. I don't like to 'pack a gun'--unless I'm hunting. But Brian Oakley didn't scold me for that, though--he knows I always do as he says. He scolded because I hadn't told you about my going to see Mr. King, in the spring glade." She laughed, conscious of the color that was in her cheeks. "I told him it didn't matter whether I told you or not, because he always knows every single move I make, anyway."

"Why didn't you tell me, dear?" asked the woman. "You never kept anything from me, before--I'm sure."

"Why dearest," the girl answered frankly, "I don't know, myself, why I didn't tell you"--which, Myra Willard knew, was the exact truth.

Then Sibyl told her foster-mother everything about her acquaintance with the artist and Conrad Lagrange--from the time she first watched the painter, from the arbor in the rose garden, where she met the novelist; until that afternoon, when she had invited them to supper, the next day. Only of her dancing before the artist, the girl did not tell.

Later in the evening, Sibyl--saying that she would sing Myra to sleep--took her violin to the porch, outside the window; and in the dusk made soft music until the woman's troubled heart was calmed. When the moon came up from behind the Galenas, across the canyon, the girl tiptoed into the house, to bend over the sleeping woman, in tender solicitude. With that mother tenderness belonging to all true women, she stooped and softly kissed the disfigured face upon the pillow. At the touch, Myra Willard stirred uneasily; and the girl--careful to make no sound--withdrew.

On the porch, she again took up her violin as if to play; but, instead, sat motionless--her face turned down the canyon--her eyes looking far away. Then, quickly, she put aside the instrument, and--as though with sudden yielding to some inner impulse--slipped out into the grassy yard. And there, in the moon's white light,--with only the mountains, the trees, and the flowers to see,--she danced, again, as she had danced before the artist in the glade--with her face turned down the canyon, and her arms outstretched, longingly, toward the camp in the sycamores back of the old orchard.

Suddenly, from the room where Myra Willard slept, came that shuddering, terror-stricken cry.

The girl, fleet-footed as a deer, ran into the house. Kneeling, she put her strong young arms about the cowering, trembling form on the bed. "There, there, dear, it's all right."

The woman of the disfigured face caught Sibyl's hand, impulsively. "I--I--was dreaming again," she whispered, "and--and this time--O Sibyl--this time, I dreamed that it was you."