John Brent/Chapter XV
Two long hours I had kept Mr. Clitheroe in talk. For my friend’s sake I would have prolonged the interview indefinitely. For my own, too. He was a new character to me, this gentle soul, so sadly astray. My filial feeling for him deepened momently. And as my pity grew more exquisitely painful, I shrank still from quitting him, and so acknowledging that the pity was hopeless.
We approached the fort. The fiddlers three were dragging their last grumbling notes out of drowsy strings. The saints began to stream by toward their wagons. We turned away to avoid recognition.
Miss Clitheroe and Brent joined us, — a sadder pair than we. The stars showed me the glimmer of tears in her eyes. But her look was brave and steady. She left my friend, and laid her hand on her father’s arm. A marked likeness, and yet a contrast more marked, between these two. He had given her his refinement, a quality so in him and of him that he colored whatever came near him with an emanation from himself, and so was blinded to its real crude tints. By this medium he made in his description that black hole of a coal mine, where so many of his years had been buried, a grotto of enchantment. He filled the world with illusions. Whatever was future and whatever was past, seen through his poetic imagination, seemed to him so beautiful, or so strange and interesting, that he lost all care for the discomforts of the present. And this same refinement of nature deluded him in judging character. Bad and base motives seemed to him so ugly, that he refused to see them, shrank from belief in them, and insisted upon trusting that men were (is honorable as himself. He was a man for prosperity. What did fate mean by maltreating him with the manifold adversities of his life? To what end was this sad error?
A strange contrast, with all the likeness, between his daughter and him. A more vigorous being had mingled its life with hers. Or perhaps the stern history of her early days had taught her to forge the armor of self-protection. She seemed to have all her father’s refinement, but she used it to surround and seclude herself, not to change and glorify others. Godiva was not more delicately hidden from the vulgar world by the mantle of her own golden hair, than this sweet lady by her veil of gentle breeding.
As she took her father’s arm to lead him away to the camp, I could read in her look that there were no illusions for her. But she clave to her father, — the blinder and more hopelessly errant he might be, the closer she clave. He might reject her guidance; she still stood by to protect him, to sweeten his life, and when the darkness came, which she could not but foresee, to be a light to him. However adversity had thus far failed to teach him self-possession, it had made her a heroine and a martyr, — a noble and unselfish soul, such as, one among the myriads, God educates to shame the base and the trifling, and to hearten and inspire the true.
“Now, dear father,” she said, “we must bid these kind friends good night. We start early. We need rest.”
She held out her hand to me.
“Dear lady,” said I, taking her aside a moment while Brent spoke to Mr. Clitheroe, “we are acquaintances of to-day; but campaigners must despise ceremony. Your father has told me much of your history. I infer your feelings. Consider me as a brother. Nothing can be done to aid you?”
“Your kindness and your friend’s kindness touch me greatly. Nothing can be done.”
She sobbed a little. I still held her hand.
“Nothing!” said I, “nothing! Will you go on with these people? you, a lady! with your fate staring you in the face!”
She withdrew her hand and looked at me steadily with her large gray eyes. What a woman to follow into the jaws of death!
“My fate,” she said, “can be no worse than the old common fate of death. That I accept, any other I defy. God does not leave the worthy to shame.”
“We say so, when we hope.”
“I say it and believe.”
“Come, Ellen dear,” called her father.
There was always between them, whenever they spoke, by finer gentleness of tone and words of endearment, a recognition of how old and close and exclusive was their union. Only when Sizzum was present at tea, the tenderness, under that coarsening influence, passed away from the father’s voice and manner, making the daughter’s more and more tender, that she might win him back to her.
“Good bye!” she said. “We shall remember each other kindly.”
“Yes, gentlemen,” said Mr. Clitheroe. “This has been quite the pleasantest episode of our journey. You must not forget us when you are roaming through this region again.”
He said this with his light, cheerful manner They turned away. It seemed as if Death arose and parted us. We followed at a distance and watched them safe to their wagon. The night wind had risen, and went sighing over the desert reaches, bringing with it the distant howling of wolves.
“Do not speak to me,” said Brent, “I will talk to you by and by.”
He left me and went toward our horses. It had been imprudent to leave them so long at night, with bad spirits about.
I looked into the fort again. The dancers had gone. Bottery was fumbling drunkenly over his fiddle. A score of men were within the house carousing. Old Bridger’s whiskey had evidently flowed freely. In one corner Larrap had unrolled a greasy faro-cloth and was dealing. Murker backed him. They were winning largely. They bagged their winnings out of sight, as fast as they fell in. Sizzum, rather to my surprise, was a little excited with liquor, and playing recklessly, losing sovereigns by the handful. As he lost, he became furious. He struck Larrap in the face and called him cheat. Larrap gave him an ugly look, and then, assuming a boozy indifference, caught Sizzum by the hand and vowed he was his best friend. Murker kept aloof from the dispute. The game began again. Again Sizzum and the Mormons lost. Again Sizzum slapped the dealer, and, catching the faro-cloth, tore it in two. The two gamblers saw that they were in danger. They had kept themselves sober and got the others drunk for such a crisis. They hurried out of the way. Sizzum and his brother saints chased them; but presently, losing sight of them in the dusk, they staggered off toward camp, singing uproariously. Their leader on this festival had somewhat forgotten the dignity of the apostle and captain.
This low rioting was doubly disgusting to me, after the sad evening with our friends. I found Sizzum more offensive as a man of the world than as a saint. I say man of the world, because the gambling scenes of nominal gentlemen are often just as hateful, if more decorous, than those of that night. I walked slowly off toward camp, sorrowful and sick at heart. Baseness and vulgarity had never seemed to me so base and vulgar till now.
I suddenly heard a voice in the bushes. It was Larrap. He was evidently persuading his comrade to some villany. I caught a suspicious word or two.
“Ah!” thought I, “you want our horses. We will see to that.”
I walked softly by. Brent was seated by the embers of a camp-fire, cowered in a heap, like a cold Indian. He raised his face. All the light had gone out of him. This trouble had suddenly worn into his being, like the shirt of Nessus, and poisoned his life.
“John,” said I, “I never knew you despondent before.”
“This is not despondency.”
“I cannot offer to cheer you.”
“It is bitter. Wade. I have yearned to be a lover for years. All at once I find the woman I have seen and thought of, and known from my first conscious moment. The circumstances crowded my love into sudden intensity. I made the observations and did the work of months of acquaintance in those few moments while we were at tea. My mind always acts quick. I seem always to have been discussing my decisions with myself, years before the subject of decision comes to me. Whatever happens, falls on me with the force of a doom. I loved Miss Clitheroe’s voice the instant I heard its brave tenderness answering her father. I loved her unseen, and would have died for her that moment. When she appeared, and I saw her face and read her heart, I knew that it was the old dream, — the old dream that I never thought would be other than a dream. The ancient hope and expectation, coeval with my life, was fulfilled. She is the other self I have been waiting for and seeking for.”
“Have you told her so?”
“Can a man stop the beating of his heart? Can a man not breathe? Not in words, perhaps I did not use the lover words. But she understood me. She did not seem surprised. She recognizes such a passion as her right and desert.”
“A great-hearted woman can see how a man worthy of her can nullify time and space, and meet her, soul to soul, in eternity from the first.”
“So I meet her; but circumstances here are stronger than love.”
“Can she do nothing with her father?”
“Nothing. She failed in England when this delusion first fell upon him.”
“Did she know what it meant for her and him?”
“Hardly. She even fancied that they would be happier in America than at home, where she saw that his old grandeur was always reproaching him.”
“Did he conceal from her the goal and object of his emigration?”
“She knew he was, or supposed himself to be, a Mormon. But Mormonism was little more than a name to her. She believed his perversion only a transitory folly. It is but recently, only since they were away from succor, off in the desert, that she has perceived her own risk. She hoped that the voyage from England would disenchant her father, and that she could keep him in the States. No; he was committed; he was impracticable. You have seen yourself how far his faith is shaken. Just so far that his crazy cheerfulness has given place to moping; but he will hear nothing of reason.”
“What does she anticipate?”
“She says she only dares to endure. Day by day they both wear away. Day by day her father’s bright hope dwindles away. Day by day she perceives the moment of her own danger approaching. She could not speak to me of it; but I could feel by her tone her disgust and disdain of Sizzum. O, how steady and noble she is! All for her father! All to guide him with the fewest pangs to that desolate death she knows must come! She gave me a few touches of their past history, so that I could see how much closer and tenderer than the common bond of parent and child theirs had been.”
“That I saw, from the old gentleman’s story. Sorrow and poverty ennoble love.”
“She thanked me and you so sweetly for our society, and the kind words we had given them. She had not seen her father so cheerful, so like himself, since they had left England.”
“What a weary pilgrimage they must have had, poor errant souls!”
“Wade, Wade! how this tragedy of theirs cures me forever of any rebellion against my own destiny. A helpless woman’s tragedy is so much bitterer than anything that can befall a man.”
“Must we say helpless, John?”
“Are we two an army, that we can take them by force? She has definitely closed any further communication on our part. She said that I could not have failed to notice how Elder Sizzum disliked our presence. I must promise her not to be seen with them in the morning. Sizzum would find some means to punish her father, and that would be torture to her. It seems that villain plays on the old man’s religious superstitions, and can terrify him almost to madness.”
“The villain! And yet how far back of him lies the blame, that such terrors can exist in any man’s mind, when God is Love.”
“I promised her not to see her again — for you and myself; to see her no more. That good-bye was final. Now let me alone for a while, my dear old boy; I am worn out and heart-broken.”
He mummied himself in his blankets, and lay on the grass, motionless as a dead man. It was not his way to shirk camp duties. Indeed, his volunteer services had left me in arrears.
I put our fire-arms in order in case of attack, and extinguished our fire. Our horses, too, I drove in and tethered close by. My old suspicion of Murker and Larrap had revived from their mutterings. I thought that, after their great winnings of to-night, they would feel that they could make nothing more of the mail party, and might seize the chance to stampede or steal some of the Mormon horses or ours. It was a capital chance in the sleepy hours after the revel. Horse-stealing, since the bad example of Diomed, has never gone out of fashion. Fulano and Pumps were great prizes. I knew that Larrap hated Brent for his undisguised abhorrence and the ugly words and collision of to-day. The pair bore good-will to neither of us. Their brutality had jarred with us from the beginning. I knew they would take personal pleasure in serving us a shabby trick out of their dixonary. On the whole, I determined to watch all night.
Easy to purpose; hard to perform. I leaned against my saddle and thought over the day. How I pitied poor Brent! Pitied him the more thoroughly, since I was hardly less a lover than he. Long afterwards, long after the misery of love dead in despair, comes the time when one can say, “Ich habe gelebt und geliebet”; can know, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” But no such soothing poetry could sing resignation to my friend in his unselfish misery. All he could do — all I could do — was to bear the agony of this sudden cruel wrong; to curse the chances of life that had so weakened the soul of our new friend and so darkened his sight that he could not know truth from falsehood. Doubly to curse the falsehood. Before, it had only been something to scorn. Here tragedy entered. The mean, miserable, ludicrous invention of Mormonism, the foolish fable of an idler, had grown to be a great masterly tyranny. These two souls were clutched by this foul ogre, and locked up in an impregnable prison. And we two were baffled. Of what use was our loyalty to woman? What vain words those unuttered words of our knightly vow to succor all distressed damsels, — the vow that every gentleman takes upon himself, as earnestly now, and wills to keep as faithfully, as any Artegall in the days gone by, when wrong took cruder and more monstrous form! More monstrous form! Could any wrong be more detestable! Did knight, who loved God and honored his lady, ever encounter more paynim-like horde than this, — the ignorant misled by the base?
In such dreary protest and pity I passed an hour. The evening breeze had strengthened into a great gusty wind, blowing from the mountains to the southward. I drowsed a little. A perturbed slumber overcame me. The roaring night-wind aroused me at intervals with a blast more furious, and I woke to perceive ominous and turbulent dreams flitting from my brain, — dreams of violence, tyranny, and infamous outrage.
Suddenly another sensation went creeping along my nerves. I sat bolt upright. There was a feeling of human presence, of stealthy approach coming up against the night-wind and crushing its roar with a sound more penetrating.
Brent, too, was on the alert.
“Some one at our horses,” he whispered.
We dashed forward. There was a rustle of flight through the bushes. We each fired a shot. The noise ceased.
“Stop!” said my friend, as I was giving chase. “We must not leave the horses. They will stampede them while we are off.”
“They? perhaps it was only a cayote or a wolf. Why, Fulano! old fellow!”
Fulano trotted up, neighing, and licked my hand. His lariat had been cut, — a clean cut with a knife. We were only just in time.
“We must keep watch till morning,” said I. ‘‘I have been drowsing. I will take the first hour.”
Brent, with a moan of weariness, threw himself down again on the grass. I sat watchful.
The night-wind went roaring on. It loves those sweeps and surges of untenanted plain, as it loves the lifts and levels of the barren sea. The fitful gale rushed down as if it boiled over the edge of some great hollow in the mountains, and then stayed to gather force for another overflow. In its pauses I could hear the stir and murmur of the Mormon cattle, a thousand and more. But once there came a larger pause; the air grew silent, as if it had never known a breeze, or as if all life and motion between earth and sky were utterly and forever quelled.
In that one instant of dead stillness, when the noise of the cattle was hushed, and our horses ceased champing to listen, I seemed to hear the clang of galloping hoofs, not far away to the southward.
Galloping hoofs, surely I heard them. Or was it only the charge of a fresh blast down the mountain-side, uprooting ancient pines, and flinging great rocks from crag to chasm?
And that strange, terrible, human, inhuman sound, outringing the noise of the hoofs, and making the silence a ghastly horror, — was it a woman’s scream?
No; it could only be my fevered imagination, that found familiar sounds in the inarticulate voices of the wilderness. I listened long and intently. The wind sighed, and raved, and threatened again. I heard the dismal howling of wolves far away in the darkness.
I kept a double watch of two hours, and then, calling Brent to do his share, threw myself on the grass and slept soundly.