Chapter XXXVI. What Should He Do
 

The next morning, it was evident to Sibyl Andres that the man who said his name was Henry Marston had not slept.

All that day, she watched the battle--saw him fighting with himself. He kept apart from her, and spoke but little. When night came, as soon as supper was over, he again left the cabin, to spend the long, dark hours in a struggle that the girl could only dimly sense. She could not understand; but she felt him fighting, fighting; and she knew that he fought for her. What was it? What terrible unseen force mastered this man,--compelled him to do its bidding,--even while he hated and loathed himself for submitting?

Watchful, ready, hoping, despairing, the helpless girl could only pray that her companion might be given strength.

The following morning, at breakfast, he told her that he must go to Granite Peak to signal. His orders were to lock her in the cabin, and to go alone; but he would not. She might go with him, if she chose.

Even this crumb of encouragement--that he would so far disobey his master--filled the girl's heart with hope. "I would love to go with you, Mr. Marston," she said, "but if it is going to make trouble for you, I would rather stay."

"You mean that you would rather be locked up in the cabin all day, than to make trouble for me?" he asked.

"It wouldn't be so terrible," she answered, "and I would like to do something--something to--to show you that I appreciate your, kindness to me. There's nothing else I can do, is there?"

The man looked at her wonderingly. It was impossible to doubt her sincerity. And Sibyl, as she saw his face, knew that she had never before witnessed such mental and spiritual anguish. The eyes that looked into hers so questioningly, so pleadingly, were the eyes of a soul in torment. Her own eyes filled with tears that she could not hide, and she turned away.

At last he said slowly, "No, Miss Andres, you shall not stay in the cabin to-day. Come; we must go on, or I shall be late."

At Granite Peak, Sibyl watched the signal flashes from distant Fairlands--the flashes that Aaron King was watching, from the peak where they had sat together that day of their last climb. As the man answered the signals with his mirror, and the girl beside him watched, the artist was training his glass upon the spot where they stood; but, partially concealed as they were, the distance was too great.

When Sibyl's captor turned, after receiving the message conveyed by the flashes of light, his face was terrible to see; and the girl, without asking, knew that the crisis was drawing near. Deadly fear gripped her heart; but she was strangely calm. On the way back to the cabin, the man scarcely spoke, but walked with bent head; and the girl felt him fighting, fighting. She longed to cry out, to plead with him, to demand that he tell her why he must do this thing; but she dared not. She knew, instinctively that he must fight alone. So she watched and waited and prayed. As they were crossing the face of the canyon wall, on the narrow ledge, the man stopped and, as though forgetting the girl's presence, stood looking moodily down into the depths below. Then they went on. That night, he did not leave the cabin as soon as they had finished their evening meal, but sat on one of the rude seats with which the little hut was furnished, gazing into the fire.

The girl's heart beat quicker, as he said, "Miss Andres, I would like to ask your opinion in a matter that I cannot decide satisfactorily to myself."

She took the seat on the other side of the rude fireplace.

"What is it, Mr. Marston?"

"I will put it in the form of a story," he answered. Then, after a wait of some minutes, as though he found it hard to begin, he said, "It is an old story, Miss Andres; a very common one, but with a difference. A young man, with every chance in the world to go right, went wrong. He was well-born. He was fairly well educated. His father was a man of influence and considerable means. He had many friends, good and bad. I do not think the man was intentionally bad, but I do not excuse him. He was a fool--that's all--a fool. And, as fools must, he paid the price of his foolishness.

"A sentence of thirty years in the penitentiary is a big price for a young man to pay for being a fool, Miss Andres. He was twenty-five when he went in--strong and vigorous, with a good mind; the prospects years of prison life--but that's not the story. I could not hope to make you understand what a thirty years sentence to the penitentiary means to a man of twenty-five. But, at least, you will not wonder that the man watched for an opportunity to escape. He prayed for an opportunity. For ten years,--ten years,--Miss Andres, the man watched and prayed for a chance to escape. Then he got away.

"He was never a criminal at heart, you must understand. He had no wish, now, to live a life of crime. He wished only to live a sane, orderly, useful, life of freedom. They hunted him to the mountains. They could not take him, but they made it impossible for him to escape--he was starving--dying. He would not give himself up to the twenty years of hell that waited him. He did not want to die--but he would die rather than go back.

"Then, one day, when he was very near the end, a man found him. The poor hunted devil of a convict aroused his pity. He offered help. He gave the wretched, starving creature food. He arranged to furnish him with supplies, until it would be safe for him to leave his hiding place. He brought him food and clothing and books. Later, when the convict's prison pallor was gone, when his hair and beard were grown, and the prison manner and walk were, in some measure, forgotten; when the officers, thinking that he had perished in the mountains, had given up looking for him; his benefactor gave him work--beautiful work in the orange groves--where he was safe and happy and useful and could feel himself a man.

"Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the man was grateful? Do you wonder that he worshipped his benefactor--that he looked upon his friend as upon his savior?"

"No," said the girl, "I do not wonder. It was a beautiful thing to do--to help the poor fellow who wanted to do right. I do not wonder that the man who had escaped, loved his friend."

"But listen," said the other, "when the convict was beginning to feel safe; when he saw that he was out of danger; when he was living an honorable, happy life, instead of spending his days in the hell they call prison; when he was looking forward to years of happiness instead of to years of torment; then his benefactor came to him suddenly, one day, and said, 'Unless you do what I tell you, now--unless you help me to something that I want, I will send you back to prison. Do as I say, and your life shall go on as it is--as you have planned. Refuse, and I will turn you over to the officers, and you will go back to your hell for the remainder of your life.'

"Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the convict obeyed his master?"

The girl's face was white with despair, but she did not lose her self-control. She answered the man, thoughtfully--as though they were discussing some situation in which neither had a vital interest. "I think, Mr. Marston," she said, "that it would depend upon what it was that the man wanted the convict to do. It seems to me that I can imagine the convict being happier in prison, knowing that he had not done what the man wanted, than he would he, free, remembering what he had done to gain his freedom. What was it the man wanted?"

Breathlessly, Sibyl waited the answer.

The man on the other side of the fire did not speak.

At last, in a voice hoarse with emotion, Henry Marston said, "Freedom and a life of honorable usefulness purchased at a price, or hell, with only the memory of a good deed--which should the man choose, Miss Andres?"

"I think," she replied, "that you should tell me, plainly, what it was that the man wanted the convict to do."

"I will go on with the story," said the other.

"The convict's benefactor--or, perhaps I should say, master--loved a woman who refused to listen to him. The girl, for some reason, left home, very suddenly and unexpectedly to any one. She left a hurried note, saying, only, that she was going away. By accident, the man found the note and saw his opportunity. He guessed that the girl would go to friends in the mountains. He saw that if he could intercept her, and keep her hidden, no one would know what had become of her. He believed that she would marry him rather than face the world after spending so many days with him alone, because her manner of leaving home would lend color to the story that she had gone with him. Their marriage would save her good name. He wanted the man whom he could send back to prison to help him.

"The convict had known his benefactor's kindness of heart, you must remember, Miss Andres. He knew that this man was able to give his wife everything that seems desirable in life--that thousands of women would have been glad to marry him. The man assured the convict that he desired only to make the girl his wife before all the world. He agreed that she should remain under the convict's protection until she was his wife, and that the convict should, himself, witness the ceremony." The man paused.

When the girl did not speak, he said again, "Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the convict obeyed his master?"

"No," said the girl, softly, "I do not wonder. But, Mr. Marston," she continued, hesitatingly, "what do you think the convict in your story would have done if the man had not--if he had not wanted to marry the girl?"

"I know what he would have done in that case," the other answered with conviction. "He would have gone back to his twenty years of hell. He would have gone back to fifty years of hell, if need be, rather than buy his freedom at such a price."

The girl leaned forward, eagerly; "And suppose--suppose--that after the convict had done his master's bidding--suppose that after he had taken the girl away from her friends--suppose, then, the man would not marry her?"

For a moment there was no sound in the little room, save the crackling of the fire in the fire-place, and the sound of a stick that had burned in two, falling in the ashes.

"What would the convict do if the man would not marry the girl?" persisted Sibyl.

Her companion spoke with the solemnity of a judge passing sentence; "If the man violated his word--if he lied to the convict--if his purpose toward the girl was anything less than an honorable marriage--if he refused to keep his promise after the convict had done his part--he would die, Miss Andres. The convict would kill his benefactor--as surely as there is a just God who, alone, can say what is right and what is wrong."

The girl uttered a low cry.

The man did not seem to notice. "But the man will do as he promised, Miss Andres. He wishes to make the girl his wife. He can give her all that women, these days, seem to desire in marriage. In the eyes of the world, she would be envied by thousands. And the convict would gain freedom and the right to live an honorable life--the right to earn his bread by doing an honest man's work. Freedom and a life of honorable service, at the price; or hell, with only the memory of a good deed--which should he choose, Miss Andres? The convict is past deciding for himself."

The troubled answer came out of the honesty of the girl's heart; "Mr. Marston, I do not know."

A moment, the man on the other side of the fireplace waited. Then, rising, he quietly left the cabin. The girl did not know that he was gone, until she heard the door close.

       *       *       *       *       *

In that log hut, hidden in the deep gorge, in the wild Cold Water country, Sibyl Andres sat before the dying fire, waiting for the dawn. On a high, wind-swept ledge in the Galena mountains, Aaron King grimly walked his weary beat. In Clear Creek Canyon, Myra Willard and Conrad Lagrange waited, and Brian Oakley planned for the morrow. Over in the Galena Valley, an automobile from Fairlands stopped at the mouth of a canyon leading toward Granite Peak. Somewhere, in the darkness of the night, a man strove to know right from wrong.