A GIRL, not much more than a child, was sitting curled up in the low fork of a pepper-tree near the house. A book was crushed under her elbow. She was watching some chickens that pecked about on the bare ground: stupid hens, a proud rooster with glancing green feathers, and a few pigeons, treading daintily like coquettish strangers. A breeze swept the long fronds of the pepper-tree: the hot afternoon sun drew out the spicy smell of peppers, blue-gum, and climbing roses.
A young man came out of the house and stood swinging a gold-handled whip. He was tall and very slender, with gallant blue eyes, a red spot on either cheek, and a little mustache twisted into points; his felt hat sat rakishly on one side of his handsome head. The girl watched him through the pepper-branches till he came toward her. Then she snatched up her book and turned her shoulder to him. He pushed his way through the branches and stood looking at her with a slight, rather appealing smile.
“What are you reading, Milly?” he asked.
The girl did not answer. Her face, bent over the book, showed a brown oval between two thick hanging braids of black hair. She turned a page with an expression of absorbed interest.
“Can’t you speak to a fellow?” demanded the young man impatiently.
She gave no sign of hearing him: and after a moment he turned on his heel and walked away. The girl’s narrow dark eyes watched him over her book. She saw him stop a moment and speak to her mother, who had come out on the steps; then he went on toward the stable.
MILLY’S mother was a fair woman, with smooth bands of blonde hair She had some white sewing on her arm.
“Milly!" she called in a soft, colorless voice.
"What?" said Milly, without moving.
“Come here; I want you to try on your dress."
Milly uncurled herself and dropped out of the tree. She wore a faded blue dress that stopped short above her shoe-tops. Her slim young body was childish; her arms and legs were long and thin. She walked up on the steps, and her mother slipped the white skirt over her head.
"I just want to see about the length," she said. And then, continuing in the same tone: “I wish you wouldn’t act as you do to Walter. I can’t see why you behave so to him. Milly, I think it’s dreadful of you.”
"Make it long," said Milly, looking at the hem of her skirt. "Make it down to my ankles—and make the waist tighter."
"Nonsense! I sha’n’t do anything of the sort—you aren’t old enough for long dresses. Did you hear what I said about Walter?"
“Yes, I heard. I want you to make this dress below my shoe-tops, mother, or else I won't wear it. I’m plenty old enough. I won’t wear it as short as this; I look silly.”
“You’d look silly if you tried to be grown up when you’re only a little girl Well, I’ll let down the hem a little. Now, Milly, I want you to treat Walter differently. I should think you’d be ashamed, when you know he's ill and is here to try and get strong, and we all try to make him comfortable—poor boy!”
MILLY’S mouth closed firmly and her narrow eyes looked out over her mother's bent head with an obstinate expression.
"Do you hear?" asked the mother, in a tone as near impatience as she could arrive at.
"Yes," answered Milly.
“Well, will you do as I say and be a little more pleasant to Walter?”
"No, I won’t be pleasant. I hate him,” sail Milly, coolly.
“Milly! A poor sick boy like that! How dare you say such a thing!”
“I do hate him.”
“Don’t let me hear you use such language again! I don't know what you mean by it. What has he ever done, that you should speak so?"
“He hasn't done anything. I just hate him, that's all.”
“Milly! I must make this dress a good deal broader across the shoulders—how you are growing!” said Milly’s mother, sighing deeply.
“Well, I can’t help growing,” said Milly. with an injured look. “Don’t you want me to grow up? You know you don’t know what to do with me now.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, mother, you often say it.”
“You are a hard child to manage, Milly. You know, you don’t pay the slightest attention to what I say. I feel dreadfully that you should treat a visitor in our house as you do, and without any excuse. Walter thinks he must have hurt your feelings in some way, and he——"
“He hasn’t hurt my feelings," said Milly, with irritation. She stepped out of the white skirt, and her mother picked it up.
“Then why can’t you speak nicely to him? He may not be here much longer——"
Milly turned round suddenly.
“Is he going away?” she asked.
"Well, I don’t know. You know his lungs are weak, and they think the mountain air will be better for him this summer. I don’t know. I wish his folks were here.” Milly’s mother again sighed deeply.
“Why do you? Do you want him to go away?" demanded Milly.
“Oh, I fee! the responsibility—I don’t know what might happen."
THE gentle blonde woman stood looking into the orchard, and her forehead wrinkled with a worried expression. Suddenly she said:
“I do wish he wouldn’t ride that horse!”
A cloud of dust had risen beyond the stable, and it now approached in zigzags. Within the cloud was a piebald horse, and Walter, mounted on a high-peaked Mexican saddle with dangling stirrups. As the horse rushed by, the young man waved his whip and smiled gayly.
"Blücher will throw him one of these days!" said Milly. "He doesn’t know how to ride a bronco. Doesn’t he look silly with that whip!”
Milly’s mother sighed and went into the house. Milly wandered off toward the stable. After a few minutes, she went in, untied the halter of a black horse that was fretting in its stall, put a folded blanket over the animal and cinched it tight, threw the halter up to serve as a bridle, and scrambled upon the horse’s back as it trotted out of the stable. She took the road opposite the one Walter had taken, and, perched sideways on the blanket, struck the horse’s flank with the loose end of the halter. After a time she pulled the horse in to a walk and laid herself flat along its back, looking up into the deep sky, blue-black and mysterious when stared at between narrowed eyelids.
IT was supper-time when she returned to the house. At supper she sat between her mother and an old uncle, crippled with rheumatism, who lived with them. The uncle had scanty hair and a long reddish beard, and Milly hated the way he ate because of his few teeth. Opposite her sat Walter; and, though she never once looked directly at him, she observed him constantly—the dainty way in which he used his fork and spoon, his manner of crumbling bread with the delicate fingers of his left hand, the little cough that interrupted his cheerful talk. Often he glanced at Milly’s face, impassive and contemptuous, but he did not speak to her. It was five weeks now since she had spoken a word to him. He had almost ceased his efforts to be friendly with her. Sometimes Milly saw that he looked pained and puzzled, and this pleased her; and sometimes he laughed at her, and this filled her with rage.
AS soon as supper was over, Milly fled from the house. That night, at midnight, the water was to be turned in from the big wayside ditch to irrigate the orange grove. She ran down through the grove, where all day men had been at work digging little trenches from one tree to another and cuplike depressions round each tree. At the farther end of the grove was another ditch, bordered with dry bushes, and here Milly hid. She had taken a book with her—it was "Moll Flanders"—and for some time it was light enough to read behind the screen of bushes.
Milly lay flat, and pored over her book till she could no longer see the print. Then she sat up and looked about her. The golden glow had faded out of the sky. except a faint smear behind the trees. Stars were coming out by dozens; soon all the sky was thickly spangled. There was a line of tall eucalyptus trees along the edge of the grove, and in one of these a mocking-bird began to sing. His song was bold and liquid, with notes of poignant sweetness; sometimes he piped shrilly, and sometimes his song welled out with the softness of flowing water falling on thirsty land.
MILLY listened to the bird and to the stirring of some small furtive animal in the bushes and the chirping of insects above her head. Then she sprang up to follow and watch the Mexicans at work about the trees. The air grew colder. It was late when she went down to see the lifting of the big gate and the inrush of the water. The men had torches that flared red on the brown flood. The girl’s uncle was there, and Walter too, in a white sweater. She heard the old man say in his mumbling voice:
“You’d better go in now, Walter. You know what Abby said about your catchin' cold.”
“Oh, let me alone! I want to see it. I may not have another chance,” Walter answered impatiently.
The water poured into the main ditch and the side ditches, and spread out into levels about the trees, and the dry earth began to suck it in audibly. The light of the torches was reflected in gleaming reaches among the trees; the figures of the men moved gnomelike about in it.
Milly danced about wildly, partly because she was cold, partly because the scene excited her. It was strange, the lights and shadows, different from every day. She could hear Walter laughing. Suddenly he caught sight of her, and was beside her before she could elude him. He caught her by the shoulder.
“What are you doing out here? Your mother was looking for you! Where have you been?" he cried brusquely.
Milly pulled away from him, writhing in his grasp.
“Let me go!” she panted.
He caught her uplifted arm, laughing.
“What a little spitfire! You look as if you’d like to bite me. Gracious! what fierce eyes! I’m not hurting you."
Milly was strong. She wrenched her arm free and struck at him.
“How dare you touch me! Let me go or I’ll kill you!”
She struck again, and the blow fell on his check, stingingly. He gave her an angry shake and dropped his hands. With a cry Milly sprang back and stood staring at him. He turned to the old uncle, who was making clucking noises of protest, and spelled out emphatically, "V-i-x-e-n!"
MILLY turned and rushed away. She did not care to watch any more; she ran to the house, crept noiselessly to her own room, and bolted the door. She tore off her dress and scrubbed her shoulder where Waller had dared to lay hold of her. There was a faint red mark on the thin little shoulder, and when she lay curled up in her bed she could still feel it burn where he had touched her. She vowed that she would never look at him again, never sit at table with him—they could not compel her. It was dawn when she fell asleep.
But during next day and for several days after that Walter stayed in bed. He had caught a chill. Milly could hear him coughing as her mother, looking pale and worried, went in and out of his room, waiting upon him. Sometimes she heard his voice, gay as ever, though rather hoarse and weak, and heard him laugh. No one else about the house even smiled. The doctor came twice from town, and talked to Milly's mother, looking grave. Milly had been asked once to carry in a tray with Walter's broth, and had sharply refused.
“I will do anything else you want me to, but I won’t go in there,” she said.
And her mother looked at her with cold, condemning eyes, the lids reddened by tears, and said:
“Very well. You are a heartless girl, Milly."
Milly had made no reply. No one told her the result of the doctor’s visits, and she would not ask. Some telegrams were sent and received, but she remained ignorant of what they meant. Then one night her mother told her that it had been decided that Walter should go back home—not to the mountains, after all. This information was curtly given, and Milly made no comment.
A DAY or so later Walter dressed and came outdoors to lie upon a couch under the pepper-tree. This was Milly’s favorite haunt, but now she deserted it. She kept away just far enough so that she could see him, and observe what he was doing. But he no longer seemed to notice her. One afternoon he had been lying there motionless for a long time, and she thought he was asleep. Cautiously she crept nearer and put aside the sweeping leaves and looked at him. How white he was! The long brown lashes lay on his cheeks, his pale lips were slightly parted. One thin hand with its carefully polished nails hung by his side, almost touching the ground. Milly looked at him, hardly breathing, hut all at once he opened his eyes upon hers. What weariness and melancholy in his eyes—and what strange trouble in Milly’s wide gaze! He moved—and she dropped the curtain of pepper-branches and fled, her bare brown feet noiseless in the dust.
“Milly! Milly!" sounded from the house. But she could not bear to be spoken to just then, and she ignored her mother's call, and ran through the grove to where the tall eucalyptus trees grew. In the spring she was used to climb these trees after birds’ eggs. She climbed up into one now, not seeking anything. High up among the thin branches she climbed, and clung there, swaying with the tree, the leaves rustling about her. She stayed there till she was too cramped to hold on any longer.
After that she kept away from the pepper-tree when Walter was outdoors. She always knew when he was coming out. She would watch him from the windows, keeping out of sight behind the curtains. He seemed to sleep a great deal. He had almost stopped smoking, but now and then she would see him roll a cigarette with his thin white fingers and light it, and then throw it away. He did not laugh much now, but when he did, the laugh sounded strange, so boyish and so gay.
THE day that he was to go away, Milly fled from the house in the morning and stayed away till dusk. When she came back the place seemed oddly quiet. The old uncle was smoking his pipe on the door-step; and he looked at Milly timidly as she passed him. Her mother was in the kitchen; her eyes were red, as usual. Milly began to help her silently; and in silence they sat down at the table and ate their supper. Even the old uncle, commonly garrulous, had nothing to say.
Milly’s eyes sometimes rested on his faded old face and trembling hands; sometimes she looked at her mother, pale, worn with patient endurance. Then Milly’s black eyes, intense, full of life, brooding, questioning, would veil themselves again under inscrutable lids. The house seemed strangely empty. It seemed forlorn and shabby and dull and more than ever a place to escape from. And, more strangely, even outside it seemed dull and tiresome. Milly moped and was irritable and more moody than ever. There was no one to talk to. There never had been any one to talk to.
IT was three days after Walter had gone, and in the afternoon a telegram came. Milly was sitting under the tree, sewing—which she hated. Her mother came to the door, and opened the telegram. Milly heard her cry out and saw her sink down suddenly on the step. Milly got up and ran to her. She was staring at the sheet of paper; while the messenger was holding his book for her to sign, and she was groping helplessly for the pencil. Milly took the book and signed it. Her mother looked up at her and whispered:
"He is dead. He died on the way home—all alone—they had to take him off the train—oh, poor boy, poor Walter!"
She burst out crying.
Milly turned pale; her heart was pounding horribly.
AFTER a moment her mother rose, holding her apron against her convulsed face. She went into her own room and shut the door. And Milly stared at the closed door. The telegram had fallen on the floor. She picked it up and looked at it; then she flung it away and rushed from the house. Down by the stable the pinto horse that Walter used to ride was hitched; one of the men was going into town. Milly unfastened the horse and swung herself up into the saddle as the animal broke into a run. A shout followed her, but she did not turn her head. She loosed the lariat and struck the horse viciously.
THE pinto snorted, shook his head, shied, and galloped on. Miles away in the country, when Milly had dropped the bridle loose, the horse shied violently again and stopped short. Milly was thrown. She landed on her side in the road. The fall hurt her. After a few moments she got up, looked at the horse, which stood a short distance away, cocking a black eye at her. She did not try to catch it, but sat down in the weeds by the roadside. She felt pain from her bruises—but it was not this pain that brought the tears into her eyes. She sat staring before her across the plain into the western sky, where a flood of golden light was welling up. The plain was a broad dazzle of light, and the larks were singing in a sweet chorus. Sobs shook Milly’s breast.
“Why am I crying?” she said aloud.
And there was no answer. She could not tell why she was crying as if her heart would break.