Chapter XXIII. In the Elbow Rock Rapids.
 

The day following that night of Brian Kent's uneasy wakefulness was a hard day for the man and the woman in the little log house by the river.

For Brian, the morning dawned with a sense of impending disaster. He left his room while the sky was still gray behind the eastern mountains, and the mist that veiled the brightness of the hills seemed to hide in its ghostly depths legions of shadowy spirits that from his past had assembled to haunt him. The sombre aisles and caverns of the dimly lighted forest were peopled with shadowy memories of that life which he had hoped would never again for him awake. And the river swept through its gray world to the crashing turmoil at Elbow Rock like a thing doomed to seek forever in its own irresistible might the destruction of its ever-living self.

As one moving in a world of dreams, he went about his morning's work. "Old Prince" whinnied his usual greeting, but received no answer. "Bess" met him at the barnyard gate, but he did not speak. The sun leaped above the mountain-tops, and the world was filled with the beauty of its golden glory. From tree and bush and swaying weed, from forest and pasture, and garden and willow-fringed river-bank, the birds voiced their happy greetings to the new day. But the man neither saw nor heard.

When he went to the house with his full milk-pail, and Betty Jo met him at the kitchen-door with her cheery "Good-morning!" he tried resolutely to free himself from the mood which possessed him, but only partially succeeded. Several times, as the two faced each other across the breakfast table, Brian saw the gray eyes filled with questioning anxiety, as though Betty Jo, also, felt the presence of some forbidding spectre at the meal.

After several vain attempts to find something they could talk about, Betty Jo boldly acknowledged the situation by saying: "What in the world is the matter with us, this morning, Mr. Burns? I am possessed with the feeling that there is some one or something behind me. I want to look over my shoulder every minute."

At her words, Brian involuntarily turned his head for a quick backward glance.

"There!" cried Betty Jo, with a nervous laugh, not at all like her normal, well-poised self. "You feel it, too!"

Brian forced a laugh in return: "It is the weather, I guess." He tried to speak with casual ease. "The atmosphere is full of electricity this morning. We'll have a thunder-storm before night, probably."

"And was it the electricity in the air that kept you tramping up and down your room last night until almost morning?" she demanded abruptly, with her characteristic opposition to any evasion of the question at issue.

Brian retorted with a smile: "And how do you know that I tramped up and down my room last night?"

The color in Betty Jo's cheeks deepened as she answered, "I did not sleep very well either."

"But, I surely did not make noise enough for you to hear in your room?" persisted Brian.

The color deepened still more in Betty Jo's checks, as she answered honestly: "I was not in my room when I heard you." She paused, and when he only looked at her expectantly, but did not speak, continued, in a hesitating manner quite unlike her matter-of-fact self: "When I could not sleep, and felt so as though there were somebody or something in the house that had no business here, I became afraid, and opened my door so I would not feel so much alone; and then I saw the light under the door of your room, and,--" she hesitated, but finished with a little air of defiance,--"and I went and listened outside your door to see if you were up."

"Yes?" said Brian Kent, gently.

"And when I heard you walking up and down, I wanted to call to you; but I thought I better not. It made me feel better, though, just to know that you were there; and so, pretty soon, I went back to my room again."

"And then?" said Brian.

"And then," confessed Betty Jo, "whatever it was that was keeping me awake came back, and went on keeping me awake until I was simply forced to go to you for help again."

Poor Betty Jo! She knew very well that she ought not to be saying those things to the man who, while he listened, could not hide the love that shone in his eyes.

And Brian Kent, as he thought of this woman, whom he loved with all the strength of his best self, creeping to the door of his room for comfort in the lonely night, scarcely dared trust himself to speak. At last, when their silence was becoming unbearable, he said, gently: "You poor child! Why didn't you call to me?"

And Betty Jo, hearing in his voice that which told her how near he was to the surrender that would bring disaster to them both, was aroused to the defense. The gray eyes never wavered as she answered, bravely: "I was afraid of that, too."

And so Betty Jo confessed her love that answered so to his need; but, in her very confession, saved their love from themselves. If she had lowered her eyes--Brian Kent, in reverent acknowledgment, bowed his head before her. Then, rising, he walked to the window, where he stood for some time looking out, but seeing nothing.

"It was that horrid man coming yesterday that has so upset us," said Betty Jo, at last. "We were getting on so beautifully, too. I wish he had gone somewhere else for his vegetables and eggs and things!"

Brian was able to smile at this as he turned to face her again, and they both knew that,--for that time, at least,--the danger-point was safely past.

"I wish so, too," he agreed; "but never mind; Auntie Sue will be home in a day or two, and then everything will be all right again."

But when he had taken his hat and was starting out for the day's work, Betty Jo asked, "What are you doing to-day?"

"I was going to work on the fence around the clearing," he answered. "Why?"

"I--I--wish you could find something to do nearer the house," came the slow answer. "Couldn't you work in the garden, perhaps?"

"I should say I could!" he returned heartily.

All that forenoon, as Betty Jo went about her household duties she felt the presence of the thing that filled her so with fear and dread. With vigorous determination she scolded herself for being so foolish, and argued with herself that it was all a nervous fancy born of her restless night. But, the next moment, she would start with a sudden fear and turn quickly as if to face some one whose presence she felt behind her. And Brian, too, as he worked in the garden, caught himself often in the act of pausing to look about with nervous apprehension.

During the noonday meal they made a determined effort to laugh at themselves, and by the time dinner was over had almost succeeded. But when Brian, as he pushed back his chair, said, jestingly, "Well, am I to work in the garden again this afternoon?" Betty Jo answered, emphatically, "Indeed you are! I will not stay another minute in this house alone. Goodness knows what I will do to-night!"

There was no jest in the man's voice as he answered: "I'll tell you what you will do to-night,--you will go to bed and you will go to sleep. You will leave the door to your room wide-open, and I shall lie right there on that couch, so near that a whisper from you will reach me. We will have no more of this midnight prowling, I promise you. If any ghost dares appear, we--"

The reassuring words died on Brian Kent's lips. His eyes, looking over Betty Jo's shoulders, were fixed and staring, and the look on his face sent a chill of horror to the girl's heart. She dared not move nor look around as he sat like a man turned to stone.

A woman's laugh broke the dead silence.

With a scream, Betty Jo sprung to her feet and whirled about.

As one in a trance, Brian Kent arose and stood beside her.

The woman, who stood in the open doorway, laughed again.

Martha Kent's heavy drinking the night before, when her clubhouse friends in a wild debauch had tried to help her to forget, was the climax of many months of like excesses. The mood in which she had sent the man Green from her room was the last despairing flicker of her better instincts. Moved by her memories of better things,--of a better love and dreams and ideals,--she had spent a little hour or two in sentimental regret for that which she had so recklessly cast aside. And then, because there was within her no foundation of abiding principle for her sentiment, she had again put on the character which had so separated her from the life of the man to whom she was married, indeed, but with whom she was never one. With the burning consciousness of what she might have been and of what she was ever tormenting her, she sank, as the hours passed, deeper and deeper into the quicksands of physical indulgence until, in her mad determination to destroy utterly her ability to feel remorse, she lost all mental control of herself, and responded to every insane whim of her drink-disordered brain.

As she stood there, now, in the doorway of that little log house by the river,--face to face with the man and the woman who, though they were united in their love, were yet separated by the very fact of her existence,--she was, in all her hideous, but pitiful, repulsiveness, the legitimate creation of those life-forces which she so fitly personified.

Betty Jo instinctively drew closer to Brian's side.

"Hello, Brian, dear!" said the woman, with a drunken leer. "Thought I'd call to see you in your charming love-nest that Harry Green raved so about. Can't you introduce me to your little sweetheart?"

"No?" she continued, and laughed again. Then coming an unsteady step toward them, she added, thickly: "Very well, Brian, old sport; you won't introduce me,--I'll have to introduce myself." She grinned with malicious triumph at Betty Jo: "Don't be frightened, my dear. It's all right. I'm nobody of importance,--just his wife,--that's all,--just his wife."

Betty Jo, with a little cry, turned to the man who stood as if stricken dumb with horror. "Brian?" she said. "Oh, Brian?"

It was the first time she had ever addressed him by his given name, and Brian Kent, as he looked, saw in those gray eyes no hint of doubt or censure, but only the truest love and sympathy. Betty Jo had not failed in the moment of her supreme testing.

"It's true, all right, isn't it, Brian?" said Martha Kent. "I'm his wife fast enough, my dear. But you don't need to worry,--you two. I'm a good sport,--I am. I've had my fun. No kick coming from me. Just called to pay my respects,--that's all. So-long, Brian, old sport! Good-bye, my dear!"

With an uncertain wave of her hand, she staggered through the doorway and passed from their sight.

In the little log house by the river the two who had kept the fineness of their love stood face to face.

For Betty Jo, the barrier which Brian Kent had maintained between them to protect her from his love was no longer a thing unknown. But the revelation, coming as it did, had brought no shadow of distrust or doubt of the man to whom she had so fully entrusted herself. It had, indeed, only strengthened her faith in him and deepened her love.

For one glorious triumphal moment the very soul of the man exulted in the truth which Betty Jo made known to him. Then he turned slowly away, for he dared not trust himself to look at her a moment longer.

With bowed head he paced up and down the room. He went to the table which held Auntie Sue's sewing-basket, and fingered the trifles there. Then, slowly, he passed through the open door to the porch, where Betty Jo, through the window, near which she stood, saw him look away over the river and the mountains.

Suddenly, she saw him start, and stare intently at some nearer object that had caught his attention. As Betty Jo watched, he moved to the edge of the porch, and, stooping, grasped the railing with his hands;--his head and shoulders were thrust forward; his lips were parted; his whole attitude was that of the most intense and excited interest. Then, straightening up, he threw back his head, and laughed aloud. But his laughter alarmed the girl, who ran to the door, crying, "What is it, Brian?"

"Look!" he shouted, madly, and pointed toward the river. "Look, Betty Jo!"

Martha Kent, alone in one of the clubhouse boats, was rowing with drunken clumsiness toward the head of the Elbow Rock rapids.

The woman's friends had missed her, and, guessing, from some remark she had made, where she had gone, had sent four men of the party after her; for they realized that she was in no condition to be alone in a boat on the river, particularly on that part of the stream near Auntie Sue's place. After leaving Brian and Betty Jo, she had gone back to her boat in the eddy at the foot of the garden, and was pulling out into the stream when she saw her friends approaching. With a drunken laugh, she waved her hand, and began rowing from them directly toward the swift water. The men shouted for her to stop, and pulled with all their strength. But the woman, taking their calls as a challenge, rowed the harder, while every awkward pull of the oars carried her nearer the deadly grip of the current.

Betty Jo, as she reached Brian's side, and saw what was happening on the river, grasped the man's arm appealingly, with a cry: "Brian! Brian! She is going into the rapids! She will be carried down to Elbow Rock!"

But Brian Kent, for the moment, was beside himself. All that he had suffered,--all that the woman out there on the river had cost him in anguish of soul,--all that she had taken from him of happiness,--came before him with blinding vividness; and now,--now,--in her drunkenness, she was making her own way to her own destruction.

"Of course she is!" he shouted, in answer to Betty Jo. "Her friends yonder are driving her to it! Could anything be more fitting?"

As though grasped by powerful unseen hands beneath the surface, the boat shot forward. The woman, feeling the sudden pull of the current, stopped rowing, and looked about as if wondering what had happened. Her friends, not daring to follow closer to the dangerous water, were pulling madly for the landing at the foot of the garden. The boat in the middle of the river moved faster.

"Look, Betty Jo, look!" shouted the man on the porch, madly. "It's got her now--the river has got her--look!"

With a scream of fear, the woman in the boat dropped her oars, and grasped the gunwale of the little craft.

Brian Kent laughed.

Betty Jo shrank back from him, her eyes, big with horror, fixed upon his face. Then, with a quick movement, she sprang toward him again, and, catching his arm, shook him with all her strength and struck him again and again with her fist.

"Brian! Brian!" she cried. "You are insane!"

The man looked down at her for an instant with an expression of bewildered astonishment on his face, as one awakened from a dream. He raised his hand and drew it across his forehead and eyes.

The boat with the helpless woman was already past the front of the house.

Betty Jo cried again as if calling the man she loved from a distance: "Brian! Brian!"

With a sudden movement, the man jerked away from her. The next instant, he had leaped over the railing of the porch to the ground below and was running with all his might toward the river, at an angle which would put him opposite or a little below the boat when he reached the bank.

With a sob, Betty Jo followed as fast as she could.

As Brian Kent raced toward the river's edge, the powerful current drew the boat with the woman into the first rough water of the rapids, and, as the skiff was shaken and tossed by the force that was sweeping it with ever-increasing speed toward the wild turmoil at Elbow Rock, the woman screamed again and again for help.

The warring forces of the stream whirled the little craft about, and she saw the man who was nearing the bank. She rose to her feet in the rocking boat, and stretched out her arms,--calling his name, "Brian! Brian! Brian!" Then the impact of the boat against a larger wave of the rapids brought her to her knees, and she clung to the thwarts with piteous cries.

Betty Jo and the clubhouse men, who had overtaken her, saw Brian as he reached the river opposite the boat. For a little way he raced the tumbling waters until he had gained a short distance ahead of the skiff; then they saw him, without an instant's pause, leap from the high bank far out into the boiling stream.

Running along the bank, the helpless watchers saw the man fighting his way toward the boat. One moment, he disappeared from sight, dragged beneath the surface by the powerful currents with which he wrestled. The next instant, the boiling waters would toss him high on the crest of a rolling wave, only to drag him down again a second later. But, always, he drew nearer and nearer the object of his struggle, while the rapids swept both the helpless woman and the tossing boat and the swimming man onward toward the towering cliff, and the thunder-roar of the mad waters below grew louder and louder.

The splendid strength of arms and shoulders which Brian Kent had acquired by his months of work with his ax on the timbered mountain-side sustained him now in his need. With tremendous energy, he breasted the might of the furious river. To the watchers it seemed at times that it was beyond the power of human muscles to endure the terrific strain. Then he gained the boat, and they saw him striving with desperate energy to drag it toward the opposite shore and so into the currents that would carry it past the menacing point of the cliff and perhaps to the safety of the quiet water below.

All that human strength could do in that terrible situation, Brian Kent did. But the task was beyond the power of mortal man.

For an instant the breathless watchers on the bank thought there was a chance; but the waters with mad fury dragged their victims back, and, with terrific power, hurled them forward toward the frowning rocks.

It was quickly over.

In that wild turmoil of the boiling, leaping, seething, lashing, hammering waves, the boat, with the woman who crouched on her knees on the bottom, and the man who clung to the side of the craft, appeared for a second lifted high in the air. The next instant, the crash of breaking wood sounded above the thundering roaring of the waters. The man and the woman disappeared. The wreck of the boat was flung again and again against the cliff, until, battered and broken, it was swept away around the point.

Against the dark wall of rock Brian Kent's head and shoulders appeared for an instant, and they saw that he held the woman in his arms. The furious waters closed over them. For the fraction of a second, the man's hand and arm appeared again above the surface, and was gone.

Betty Jo sank to the ground with a low cry of anguish, and hid her face.

Another moment, and she was aroused by a loud shout from one of the men who had caught a glimpse of the river's victims farther out at the point of the rocky cliff.

Springing to her feet, Betty Jo started madly up the trail that leads over the bluff. The men followed.

Immediately below Elbow Rock there is a deep hole formed by the waters that pour around the point of the cliff, and below this hole a wide gravelly bar pushing out from the Elbow Rock side of the stream forces the main volume of the river to the opposite bank. In the shallow water against the upper side of the bar they found them.

With the last flicker of his consciousness, Brian Kent had felt his feet touch the bottom where the water shoals against the bar, and, with his last remaining strength, had dragged himself and the body of the woman into the shallows.

Betty Jo was no hysterical weakling to spend the priceless seconds of such a time in senseless ravings. The first-aid training which she had received at school gave her the necessary knowledge which her native strength of character and practical common sense enabled her to apply. Under her direction, the men from the clubhouse worked as they probably never had worked before in all their useless lives.

But the man and the woman whose life-currents had touched and mingled,--drawn apart to flow apparently far from each other, but drawn together again to once more touch, and, as one, to endure the testing of the rapids,--the man and the woman had not brought to the terrible ordeal the same strength.

One was drawn into the Elbow Rock rapids by the careless indifference and the reckless spirit that was born of the life she had chosen; by her immediate associates and environment; and by the circumstances that were, at the last analysis, of her own making.

The other braved the same dangers, strong in the splendid spirit that had set him against such terrible odds to attempt the woman's rescue. From his work on the timbered mountain-side, from his life in the clean atmosphere of the hills, and from the spiritual and mental companionship of that little log house by the river, he had brought to his testing the splendid strength which enabled him to endure.

Somewhere in that terrible conflict with the wild waters at Elbow Rock, while the man whose life she had so nearly ruined by her wantonness was fighting to save her, the soul of Martha Kent went from the bruised and battered body which Brian drew at last from the vicious grasp of the currents.

But the man lived.