Chapter XIV. At Mint Spring.
 

When those days at Prescott were over, and Mr. and Mrs. Manning had left for their camp in Granite Basin, Kitty Reid returned to Williamson Valley reluctantly. She felt that with Phil definitely out of her life the last interest that bound her to the scenes of her girlhood was broken. Before many weeks the ranch would be sold. A Prescott agent had opened negotiations for an eastern client who would soon be out to look over the property; and Mr. Reid felt, from all that the agent had said, that the sale was assured. In the meantime Kitty would wait as patiently as she could. To help her, there would be Helen's visit, and there was her friendship with Professor Parkhill. It was not strange, considering all the circumstances, that the young woman should give her time more generously than ever to the only person in the neighborhood, except Patches, perhaps, who she felt could understand and appreciate her desires for that higher life of which even her own parents were ignorant.

And the professor did understand her fully. He told her so many times each day. Had he not given all the years of his little life to the study of those refining and spiritualizing truths that are so far above the comprehension of the base and ignoble common herd? Indeed, he understood her language; he understood fully, why the sordid, brutal materialism of her crude and uncultured environment so repulsed and disgusted her. He understood, more fully than Kitty herself, in fact, and explained to her clearly, that her desires for the higher intellectual and spiritual life were born of her own rare gifts, and evidenced beyond all question the fineness and delicacy of her nature. He rejoiced with her--with a pure and holy joy--that she was so soon to be set free to live amid the surroundings that would afford her those opportunities for the higher development of her intellectual and spiritual powers which her soul craved. All this he told her from day to day; and then, one afternoon, he told her more.

It was the same afternoon that Patches had so unexpectedly found Helen and Stanford in their Granite Basin camp. Kitty and the professor had driven in the buckboard to Simmons for the mail, and were coming back by the road to the Cross-Triangle, when the man asked, "Must we return to the ranch so soon? It is so delightful out here where there is no one to intrude with vulgar commonplaces, to mar our companionship."

"Why, no," returned Kitty. "There is no need for us to hurry home." She glanced around. "We might sit over there, under those cedars on the hill, where you found me with Mr. Patches that day--the day we saw Yavapai Joe, you remember."

"If you think it quite safe to leave the vehicle," he said, "I should be delighted."

Kitty tied the horses to a convenient bush at the foot of the low hill, and soon they were in the welcome shade of the cedars.

"Miss Reid," the professor began, with portentous gravity, "I must confess that I have been rather puzzled to account for your presence here that day with such a man as that fellow Patches. You will pardon my saying so, I am sure, but you must have observed my very deep interest in you. I also chanced to see you with him one day in Prescott, in the park. You don't mind my speaking of it?"

"Not at all, Professor Parkhill," Kitty returned, smiling as she thought how ignorant the professor was of the cowboy's real character. "I like Patches. He interests me very much; and there is really no reason why I should not be friendly with him. Don't you think that I should be kind to our cowboys?"

"I suppose so," the professor sighed. "But it hurts me to see you have anything whatever in common with such a man. It shocks me to know that you must, in any degree, come in touch with such fellows. I shall be very glad, indeed, when you are free from any such kindly obligations, and safe among those of your own class."

Kitty found it very hard to reply. She did not wish to be disloyal to Patches and her many Williamson Valley friends; nor did she like to explain how Patches had played a part for the professor's benefit, for she felt that by not exposing the deception she had, in a way, been a party to it. So she said nothing, but seemed to be silently weighing the value of her learned companion's observations. At least, it so appeared to the professor, and in her ready acceptance of his implied criticism of her conduct he found the encouragement he needed for that which followed.

"You must understand, Miss Reid, that I have become exceedingly zealous for your welfare. In these months that we have been so much together your companionship--your spiritual and intellectual companionship, I should say--has come to be very dear to me. As our souls have communed, I have felt myself uplifted and inspired. I have been strengthened and encouraged, as never before, to climb on toward the mountain peaks of pure intellectuality. If I am not mistaken, you, too, have felt a degree of uplift as a result of our fellowship, have you not?"

"Yes, indeed, Professor Parkhill," Kitty answered sincerely. "Our talks together have meant much more to me than I can tell. I shall never forget this summer. Your friendship has been a wonderful influence in my life."

The little man moved uneasily and glanced timidly around. "I am truly glad to know that our companionship has not been altogether distasteful to you; I felt sure that it was not, but I--ahem!--I am glad to hear your confirmation of my opinion. It--ah--it enables me to say that which for several weeks past has been weighing heavily on my mind."

Kitty looked at him with the manner of a trusting disciple waiting for the gems of truth that were about to fall from the lips of a venerable teacher.

"Miss Reid--ah--why need our beautiful and mutually profitable companionship cease?"

"I fear that I do not understand, Professor Parkhill," she answered, puzzled by his question.

He looked at her with just a shade of mild--very mild--rebuke, as he returned, "Why, I think that I have stated my thought clearly. I mean that I am very desirous that our relation--the relation which we both have found so helpful--should continue. I am sure that we have, in these months which we have spent together, sufficient evidence that our souls vibrate in perfect harmony. I need you, dear friend; your understanding of my soul's desires is so sympathetic; I feel that you so complement and fill out, as it were, my spiritual self. I need you to encourage, to inspire, to assist me in the noble work to which I am devoting all my strength."

She looked at him, now, with an expression of amazement. "Do you mean--" she faltered in confusion while the red blood colored her cheeks.

"Yes," he answered, confidently. "I am asking you to be my wife. Not, however," he added hastily, "in the common, vulgar understanding of that relation. I am offering you, dear friend, that which is vastly higher than the union of the merely animal, which is based wholly upon the purely physical and material attraction. I am proposing marriage of our souls--a union, if you please, of our higher intellectual and spiritual selves. I feel, indeed, that by those higher laws which the vulgar, beastlike minds are incapable of recognizing, we are already one. I sense, as it were, that oneness which can exist only when two souls are mated by the great over-soul; I feel that you are already mine--that, I am--that we are already united in a spiritual union that is--"

The young woman checked him with a gesture, which, had he interpreted it rightly, was one of repulsion. "Please stop, Professor Parkhill," she gasped in a tone of disgust.

He was surprised, and not a little chagrined. "Am I to understand that you do not reciprocate my sentiment, Miss Reid? Is it possible that I have been so mistaken?"

Kitty turned her head, as though she could not bear even to look at him. "What you ask is so impossible," she said in a low tone. "Impossible!"

Strive as she might, the young woman could not altogether hide her feeling of abhorrence. And yet, she asked herself, why should this man's proposal arouse in her such antagonism and repugnance? He was a scholar, famed for his attainments in the world of the highest culture. As his wife, she would be admitted at once into the very inner circle of that life to which she aspired, and for which she was leaving her old home and friends. He had couched his proposal in the very terms of the spiritually and intellectually elect; he had declared himself in that language which she had so proudly thought she understood, and in which she had so often talked with him; and yet she was humiliated and ashamed. It was, to her, as though, in placing his offer of marriage upon the high, pure ground of a spiritual union, he had insulted her womanhood. Kitty realized wonderingly that she had not felt like this when Phil had confessed his love for her. In her woman heart, she was proud and glad to have won the love of such a man as Phil, even though she could not accept the cowboy as her mate. On that very spot which the professor had chosen for his declaration, Patches had told her that she was leaving the glorious and enduring realities of life for vain and foolish bubbles--that she was throwing aside the good grain and choosing the husks. Was this what Patches meant? she wondered.

"I regret exceedingly, Miss Reid," the professor was saying, "that the pure and lofty sentiments which I have voiced do not seem to find a like response in your soul. I--"

Again she interrupted him with that gesture of repulsion. "Please do not say any more, Professor Parkhill. I--I fear that I am very human, after all. Come, it is time that we were returning to the house."

All through the remaining hours of that afternoon and evening Kitty was disturbed and troubled. At times she wanted to laugh at the professor's ridiculous proposal; and again, her cheeks burned with anger; and she could have cried in her shame and humiliation. And with it all her mind was distraught by the persistent question: Was not the professor's conception of an ideal mating the legitimate and logical conclusion of those very advanced ideas of culture which he represented, and which she had so much admired? If she sincerely believed the life represented by the professor and his kind so superior--so far above the life represented by Phil Acton--why should she not feel honored instead of being so humiliated and shamed by the professor's--she could not call it love? If the life which Phil had asked her to share was so low in the scale of civilization; if it were so far beneath the intellectual and spiritual ideals which she had formed, why did she feel so honored by the strong man's love? Why had she not felt humiliated and ashamed that Phil should want her to mate with him? Could it be, she asked herself again and again, that there was something, after all, superior to that culture which she had so truly thought stood for the highest ideals of the race? Could it be that, in the land of Granite Mountain, there was something, after all, that was as superior to the things she had been taught as Granite Mountain itself was superior in its primeval strength and enduring grandeur to the man-made buildings of her school?

It was not strange that Kitty's troubled thoughts should turn to Helen Manning. Clearly, Helen's education had led to no confusion. On the contrary, she had found an ideal love, and a happiness such as every true, womanly woman must, in her heart of hearts, desire.

It was far into the night when Kitty, wakeful and restless, heard the sound of a horse's feet. She could not know that it was Honorable Patches riding past on his way to the ranch on the other side of the broad valley meadows.

Weary in body, and with mind and spirit exhausted by the trials through which he had passed, Patches crept to his bed. In the morning, when he delivered his message, the Dean, seeing the man's face, urged him to stay for the day at the ranch. But Patches said no; Phil was expecting him, and he must return to the outfit in Granite Basin. As soon as breakfast was over he set out.

He had ridden as far as the head of Mint Wash, and had stopped to water his horse, and to refresh himself with a cool drink and a brief rest beside the fragrant mint-bordered spring, when he heard someone riding rapidly up the wash the way he had come. A moment later, Kitty, riding her favorite Midnight, rounded a jutting corner of the rocky wall of the bluff.

As the girl caught sight of him, there beside the spring, she waved her hand in greeting. And the man, as he waved his answer, and watched her riding toward him, felt a thrill of gladness that she had come. The strong, true friendship that began with their very first meeting, when she had been so frankly interested in the tenderfoot, and so kindly helpful, and which had developed so steadily through the year, gave him, now, a feeling of comfort and relief. Wearied and worn by his disappointment and by his struggle with himself, with the cherished hope that had enabled him to choose and endure the hard life of the range brought to a sudden end, with his life itself made so empty and futile, he welcomed his woman friend with a warmth and gladness that brought a flush of pleasure to Kitty's cheek.

For Kitty, too, had just passed through a humiliating and disappointing experience. In her troubled frame of mind, and in her perplexed and confused questioning, the young woman was as glad for the companionship of Patches as he was glad to welcome her. She felt a curious sense of relief and safety in his presence--somewhat as one, who, walking over uncertain bogs or treacherous quicksands, finds, all at once, the solid ground.

"I saw you go past the house," she said, when she reached the spring where he stood awaiting her, "and I decided right then that I would go along with you to Granite Basin and visit my friends the Mannings. They told me that I might come this week, and I think they have had quite enough honeymooning, anyway. You know where they are camped, do you?"

"Yes," he answered. "I saw them yesterday. But, come! Get down and cool off a bit. You've been riding some, haven't you?"

"I wanted to catch you as soon as I could," she laughed, as she sprang lightly to the ground. "And you see you gained a good start while I was getting Midnight saddled. What a pretty spot! I must have a drink of that water this minute."

"Sorry I have no cup," he said, and then he laughed with the pleasure of good comradeship as she answered:

"You forget that I was born to the customs of this country." And, throwing aside her broad hat, she went down on the ground to drink from the spring, even as he had done.

As the man watched her, a sudden thought flashed into his mind--a thought so startling, so unexpected, that he was for the moment bewildered.

"Talk about the nectar of the gods!" cried Kitty with a deep breath of satisfaction, as she lifted her smiling face from the bright water to look up at him. And then she drank again.

"And now, if you please, sir, you may bring me some of that water-cress; we'll sit over there in the shade, and who cares whether Granite Basin, the Mannings, and your fellow cow-punchers, are fifteen or fifty miles away?"

He brought a generous bunch of the water-cress, and stretched himself full length beside her, as she sat on the ground under a tall sycamore.

"Selah!" he laughed contentedly. "We seem to lack only the book of verses, the loaf and the jug; the wilderness is here, all right, and that's a perfectly good bough up there, and, of course, you could furnish the song; I might recite 'The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck,' but, alas! we haven't even a flask and biscuit."

"What a pity that you should be so near and yet so far from paradise!" she retorted quickly. Then she added, with a mischievous smile, "It just happens that I have a sandwich in my saddle pocket."

"Won't you sing? Please do," he returned, with an eagerness that amused her.

But she shook her head reprovingly. "We would still lack the jug of wine, you know, and, really, I don't think that paradise is for cow-punchers, anyway, do you?"

"Evidently not," he answered. And at her jesting words a queer feeling of rebellion possessed him. Why should he be condemned to years of loneliness? Why must he face a life without the companionship of a mate? If the paradise he had sought so hard to attain were denied him, why should he not still take what happiness he might?

He was lying flat on his back, his hands clasped beneath his head, watching an eagle that wheeled, a tiny black speck, high under the blue arch of the sky. He seemed to have forgotten his companion.

Kitty leaned toward him, and held a sprig of water-cress over his upturned face. "I haven't a penny," she said, "but I'll give you this."

He sat up quickly. "Even at that price, my thoughts might cost you too much. But you haven't told me what you have done with our dear friend the professor? Haven't you a guilty conscience, deserting him like this?"

Kitty held up both hands in a gesture of dismay. "Don't, Patches, please don't. Ugh! if you only knew how good it is to be with a man again!"

He laughed aloud in a spirit of reckless defiance. "And Phil is over in Granite Basin. I neglected to tell you that he knows the location of the Mannings' camp, as well as I."

Kitty was a little puzzled by the tone of his laughter, and by his words. She spoke gravely. "Perhaps I should tell you, Patches--we have been such good friends, you and I--Phil--"

"Yes!" he said.

"Phil is nothing to me, Patches. I mean--"

"You mean in the way he wanted to be?" He helped her with a touch of eager readiness.

"Yes."

"And have you told him, Kitty?" Patches asked gently.

"Yes--I have told him," she replied.

Patches was silent for a moment. Then, "Poor Phil!" he said softly. "I understand now; I thought that was it. He is a man among thousands, Kitty."

"I know--I know," she returned, as though to dismiss the subject. "But it simply couldn't be."

Patches was looking at her intently, with an expression in his dark eyes that Kitty had never before seen. The man's mind was in a whirl of quick excitement. As they had talked and laughed together, the thought that had so startled him, when her manner of familiar comradeship had brought such a feeling of comfort to his troubled spirit, had not left him. From that first moment of their meeting a year before there had been that feeling between them, of companionship, a feeling which had grown as their acquaintance had developed into the intimate friendship that had allowed him to speak to her as he had spoken that day under the cedars on the ridge. What might that friendship not grow into! He thought of her desire for the life that he knew so well, and how he could, while granting every wish of her heart, yet protect her from the shams and falseness. And with these thoughts was that feeling of rebellion against the loneliness of his life.

Kitty's words regarding Phil removed the barrier, as it were, and the man's nature, which prompted him so often to act without pausing to consider, betrayed him into saying, "Would you be greatly shocked, Kitty, if I were to tell you that I am glad? That, while I am sorry for Phil, I am glad that you have said no to him?"

"You are glad?" she said wonderingly. "Why?"

"Because, now, I am free to say what I could not have said had you not told me what you have. I want you, Kitty. I want to fill your life with beauty and happiness and contentment. I want you to go with me to see and know the natural wonders of the world, and the wonders that men have wrought. I want to surround you with the beauties of art and literature, with everything that your heart craves. I want you to know the people whose friendship would be a delight to you. Come with me, girl--be my wife, and together we will find--if not paradise, at least a full and useful and contented and happy life. Will you come, Kitty? Will you come with me?"

As she listened her eyes grew big with wonder and delight. It was as though some good genie had suddenly opened wide the way to an enchanted laud. Then the gladness went swiftly from her face, and she said doubtingly, "You are jesting with me, Patches."

As she spoke his cowboy name, the man laughed aloud. "I forgot that you do not even know me--I mean, that you do not know my name."

"Are you some fairy prince in disguise, Sir Patches?"

"Not a fairy, dear, and certainly not a prince; just a man, that's all. But a man, dear girl, who can offer you a clean life, an honored name, and all of which I have spoken. But I must tell you--I always knew that I would tell you some day, but I did not dream that it would be to-day. My name is Lawrence Knight. My home is in Cleveland, Ohio. Your father can easily satisfy himself as to my family and my own personal life and standing. It is enough for me to assure you now, dear, that I am abundantly able to give you all that I have promised."

At the mention of his name, Kitty's eyes grew bright again. Thanks to her intimate friend and schoolmate, Helen Manning, she knew much more of Lawrence Knight than that gentleman supposed.

"But, tell me," she asked curiously, trembling with suppressed excitement, "why is Mr. Lawrence Knight masquerading here as the cowboy Honorable Patches?"

He answered earnestly. "I know it must seem strange to you, dear, but the simple truth is that I became ashamed of myself and my life of idle uselessness. I determined to see if I could take my place among men, simply as a man. I wanted to be accepted by men for myself, for my manhood, if you like, and not because of my--" he hesitated, then said frankly--"my money and social position. I wanted to depend upon myself--to live as other men live, by my own strength and courage and work. If I had given my real name, when I asked for work at the Cross-Triangle--someone would have found me out before very long, and my little experiment would have failed, don't you see?"

While he spoke, Kitty's excited mind had caught at many thoughts. She believed sincerely that her girlhood love for Phil was dead. This man, even as Patches the cowboy, with a questionable shadow on his life, had compelled her respect and confidence, while in his evident education and social culture he had won her deepest admiration. She felt that he was all that Phil was, and more. There was in her feeling toward him, as he offered himself to her now, no hint of that instinctive repulsion and abhorrence with which she had received Professor Parkhill's declaration of spiritual affinity. Her recent experience with the Master of Aesthetics had so outraged her womanly instincts that the inevitable reaction from her perplexed and troubled mind led her to feel more deeply, and to be drawn more strongly, toward this man with whom any woman might be proud to mate. At the same time, the attractions of the life which she knew he could give her, and for which she longed so passionately, with the relief of the thought that her parents would not need to sacrifice themselves for her, were potent factors in the power of Lawrence Knight's appeal.

"It would be wonderful," she said musingly. "I have dreamed and dreamed about such things."

"You will come with me, dear? You will let me give you your heart's wish--you will go with me into the life for which you are so fitted?"

"Do you really want me, Patches?" she asked timidly, as though in her mind there was still a shadow of doubt.

"More than anything in the world," he urged. "Say yes. Kitty. Say that you will be my wife."

The answer came softly, with a hint of questioning, still.

"Yes."

Kitty did not notice that the man had not spoken of his love for her. There were so many other things for her to consider, so many other things to distract her mind. Nor did the man notice that Kitty herself had failed to speak in any way that little word, which, rightly understood, holds in its fullest, deepest meaning, all of life's happiness--of labor and accomplishment--of success and triumph--of sacrifice and sorrow; holds, in its fullest, deepest meaning, indeed, all of life itself.