The Story of the Child Which Came Out of the Storm
By GILBERT PARKER
COPYRIGHT 1909 BY P. F. COLLIER & SON
"It was as fine a churchful as you ever clapt an eye on;
Oh, the bells was ringin gaily, and the sun was shinin' free;
There was singers, there was clargy—'Bless you both' says Father Tryon—
They was weddin' Mary Callaghan and me.
"There was gatherin' of women, there was hush upon the stairway,
There was whisperin' and smilin', but it was no place for me:
A little ship was comin' into harbor through the fairway—
It belongs to Mary Callaghan and me.
"Shure, the longest day has endin', and the wildest storm has fallin'—
There's a young gossoon in yander, and he sits upon my knee:
There's a churchful for the christenin'—do you hear the imp a-callin'?
He's the pride of Mary Callaghan and me!"
IT WAS a voice worth hearing, and the man was worth seeing, as, standing in a large paddock in front of a house which for the prairie country was a large one, he drove the colt he was breaking round a circle at the end of a long leather rein. He had in his face the look of one who had lived life in more ways than one, and his shoulders had the straightness of one who had known the "'Shun!" of the drill-sergeant, though he was over forty years of age. In this perfect sunlight, with the gold-brown stubble of the reaped land stretching for scores of miles away, he seemed the true representative of a life of energy and happiness. His face was ruddy, his eye bright; but his hat, which usually was set back on his head, was now drawn forward. He seemed to keep his face turned toward the big clap-board house, outside which stood a buggy with a pair of horses. Despite the lilt of the song, the air of triumph in it, and the elation of the body engaged in a task suggestive of the pioneer life—its roughness, its awkwardness, its undisciplined capacity, and its rugged careless beauty, there was a curious watchfulness in the eyes, a smile of emotional expectancy at the lips—in a woman it would be called wistfulness. Indeed, there was something wistful in him too, strong man as he was. He was Irish, and the magic of imagination, with its accompanying sadness, lying behind all mirth and playfulness, was his. Yet he was an incorrigible optimist.
There was a time when he had been an incorrigible idler, a stoic—a thoroughly useless man. Those were the days when, having stepped into old Larry Brennan's house out of the rain, he had stayed ten years doing nothing, till a tragedy had roused him, brought him to his senses, set him upon the highroad of energy, action, and success. Behind him, too, had been Norah Brennan and the Young Doctor—Norah, with such fine teeth in her head, though older than he when he married her, and the Young Doctor, with a pungent humor and good sense, which had stimulated and spurred him on. Norah had not been his first love, but it seemed as though she would be his last one, for he had never looked right or left since he married her. The same old loyalty which had made him cling to the memory of the girl who threw him over long since at Enniskillen, in old Ireland, still made him weave round Norah's head a halo of beauty—one of the blessings of imagination, for Norah was no Rose of Sharon. Five years had gone since he had started the stage-coach from Askatoon to Cowrie, and began to breed and deal in horses; and the world had gone very well with him. He and the Young Doctor were partners in the horse-trading, and they had had as much fun as money out of the business.
He was thinking of the Young Doctor now, wondering why he did not come, protesting inwardly against the miserable delay, seething inwardly, though there was music on his tongue and a lilt to his voice. Round and round went the colt, growing more and more docile under the firm, quiet control of a born master of animals. Would the Young Doctor never come?
"There was gatherin' of women, there was hush upon the stairway,
There was whisperin and smilin', but it was no place for me:
A little ship was comin' into harbor through the fairway—
It belongs to Mary Callaghan and me."
He had sung the verses over and over again, a dozen in all. It was like an obsession, and he was hardly aware of his own persistence—
"He's the pride of Mary Callaghan and me—"
Five years since his own wedding with Norah, and no child—he had not realized when he married that it would be a miracle if a child came to them. In truth, he had not thought at all about that. They had gone through so much together in the days of tragedy that being man and wife was the only thought in his mind when they went to the altar. But with marriage had come the other instinct, and he had dwelt much upon it. He wanted a child as the hart desires the water-springs; and Norah, knowing what was in his mind, willed it so with a will that was pathetic; for something, too, had been born in her which was not there before. Marriage had made her see life with new eyes, and she had discovered many things hidden over forty years. Perhaps it was her great will and stubborn purpose which had at last wrung from the Great Creating Force assent to her diligent prayers, so that she was able to whisper something worth hearing into Nolan's ears one winter night when the frost and ice outside were like a shrine for the warmth in their inflammable Irish souls.
Then the months of patient waiting had gone, with Nolan driving his four-horse—in the gaiety of his heart sometimes his six-horse—team, with his great red stage, and the coaching-horn defying the distant railway with shrill bravery, and receiving the shy congratulations of women-folk and a hearty "Good luck to ye!" from men on every hand. He had become a figure in the West; and, having his millionaire brother-in-law, Terry Brennan, behind him, like a sounding-board, his fame, of its kind, was loud and reached far. There had been many bets as to whether Norah would fulfil the natural hope of man, and when the time came the prairie people were wide-eyed with interest—for Norah was over forty.
The day had arrived. Would the Young Doctor never come out of that clap-board house which soaked the sun like a sponge, and yet was cooled within by the fresh breezes from the prairie? Was the Young Doctor bungling the business, was he—? A man's figure appeared in the doorway, stood for an instant, with head bent and eyes upon the ground, as though to consider something; then there was a quick step to where Nolan stood with the sweating, high-bred colt, which he had mastered.
As the Young Doctor came nearer, Nolan's eyes searched Ins face, then, with a puzzled look, he turned to the colt. "Steady, now, ye bunch o' beauty!" he said. "We'll start ye soon. The trail's waitin' for ye."
"Nolan Doyle," said the Young Doctor, who understood the assumed indifference—that smooth, outer mask which holds the rough, inner pain—"Nolan, you're wanted now."
"Did ye iver see a finer day!" said Nolan, not able to look the Young Doctor in the eyes, for he knew that trouble of some dark kind was come. "Norah'll be glad it's a day like this—'Happy is the birth that the sun shines on; happy are the dead that the rain rains on,'" he added; but his fingers trembled on the rein he held, as he quickly drew the colt nearer. "Ah, what is it, doctor, dear?" he suddenly burst out, with a note of agony in his voice. "Speak—what is it? Is all well? Is it over?"
THE Young Doctor shook his head in negation and ruled his face to calmness.
"Then what is it? Why are ye here? Doesn't she need you? Is it a thing to be done by anny but you?"
"Be still, be still, Nolan," answered the other. "Keep a hand on yourself. You want a child, you want a child, I know—" He paused.
"God knows. What's to it all without a child! What should I be workin' for if it wasn't for a child? Well, then, the child—is it here?" he asked painfully.
" 'Tis not here. She was no lass of twenty. 'Tis not here." The Young Doctor came nearer and laid a hand on Nolan's arm. "Steady now, and choose which it shall be—mother or child. It can't be both. I can save one or the other, not both. Which shall it be? She was no lass. Which shall it be? 'Tis for you to say."
The Young Doctor's words fell like the roar of a waterfall on his ears—"Which shall it be—mother or child? It can't be both."
Was this, then, the end—Norah or Norah's child? How had he longed for "the little imp" as he had sung but now! How he had thought always of a little lad, with hand in his, riding on the box beside him! How had the soul of him rung with the note of fatherhood!
"If it's she that's to stay, there could never be another child," said the Young Doctor.
"Never another, if it's she that's to stay," Nolan murmured, as though hardly grasping the tragic significance of the fact. Yet his face was white, and his eyes were dark with misery.
"You must say—now. There's no time. Is it to be the one you've not seen—or Norah?"
"What's that you're askin' me?" was the low, fierce reply. "God's blood, don't you know? Go on, go on, and tell Norah that she's not to fret that it couldn't be. Go on—to Norah, man," he added with a wild look in his eyes.
With swift steps the Young Doctor disappeared into the dark coolness of the house, leaving behind him the lost hopes of a man whom he had helped in other days to set upon his feet, and start again in life. "You couldn't be sure," he said to himself, as he entered the room where Norah struggled in that sea where man only stands upon the shore and watches till the storm goes down.
HEEDLESS of the colt, which now ran about with the long rein trailing after till a stable-boy, seeing, made it captive, Nolan sat upon the corner of a water-trough and looked at the house with eyes that saw only as through a dim, gray atmosphere which stifled the brain and sense. Norah or the child! Did the Young Doctor believe him then the kind of man that ...! But the thought of the little life that was his, his very own, which he had hoped to cheer him on, and make him work, and give him an end to aim at, it caught at his throat. And soon that little life would be lost, before the eyes had seen the sun, before the hands had reached out into the light of the world, before its voice had signaled back from sentient existence to the dim seas of being whence it had come, that it had found the shore.
In elementary understanding, he saw it all by virtue of the Celtic strain in him; and his brain swam on a flood of new impressions. He had leaped over vast spaces of life and experience in these few moments. How long he sat murmuring to himself, speaking Norah's name, bidding her not to mind—there was always the horses left!—he could not have told; but at last a woman came running from the house toward him. She was fat and scant of breath, and ere she reached him had not voice. Words failing her, she could only beckon to him.
"Is she safe?" he asked in a hoarse voice. Why should women be fat and scant of breath!
The woman nodded.
"Was it a boy?" he asked.
"Ah, a wonderful boy," she said, "with a body like—like a young colt," she added, seeing the young-blood«d horse led away.
"An' the face of him?" he inquired anxiously.
The woman turned her head away. He understood. Life took its tribute through death, and, with a harsh hand, had destroyed its own.
"Norah is asking for you," the woman said. "There never was a braver. Ah, but there's a heart for you! No man deserves it. She would have gone and left the boy alive to you, if she'd known. She sez so. No man's worth it, that's my idee. But it wasn't to be, and it was flying in the face of Providence. But she did her best, poor dearie."
Nolan did not answer, but he could have throttled her for the truths she had uttered.
Inside the darkened room, a few moments later, he turned away from the little lost life which a woman made ready for its return to the nest of earth from whence it had come. He bent over Norah's bed again.
"You're a fine woman, Norah," he said; "the very finest. Come, now, smile at me," he urged. "We've a long way to go together yet. Smile, Norah, girl. You're back again from the Bad Lands. Smile!"
WITH clouded eyes, Norah faintly smiled.
"You've a fine tooth in your head, Norah," he exclaimed—"as good as one that's twenty. I've broke the Enniskillen colt—a beauty," he added. "I'll bring him to your window to-morrow. You shall ride him next year. I'll give him to you. It's the best that's come from Queen of the Isles, tho' she's had twenty. There now, kape aisy."
"Can ye forgive me then, Nolan?" she asked brokenly. "Lord knows, I ought to have wint instead. You'll want some one by you as the years go on—some one, somethin' to live for."
"Sure, you'll be by me, Norah."
"Come away," said the Young Doctor. "She must be left alone."
As Nolan left the room, he said again: "I'll bring the young colt to your window to-morrow."
Her eyes searched the room for what she had lost.
IN VAIN. Norah had no comfort in the high-bred colt, no content in thinking that her own life had been spared. It seemed to her that, in spite of Nolan's cheery ways and whimsical talk and busy life, at the back of his eyes was a reproach; that in the tones of his voice was scorn of her, because she had failed to prove herself as good as any woman. Norah never could realize, never had looked the fact in the face, that she was no longer a slip of a girl. Didn't her father and mother in the cottage under the Rise, whom she and Nolan, before they were married, had nursed back to life, and by which Nolan had paid the price of his ten years' living on them—didn't they always treat her as a child almost? Had not the Young Doctor always addressed her as "Nolan's girl"? Hadn't he always said: "And how is Nolan's girl to-day, Mrs. Doyle?" Who had a better right to be so familiar with her! And Nolan himself, night and morning, wasn't it always: "Honey girl," and "Me child!" How could she remember her age and the passing years? Her waist was little bigger than at twenty, and her hair hung down to her knees. The wrinkles, did they not come from laughing at Nolan's jokes and her brother Shannon's whimsies? Did she not step as light as any lass that tripped to school? How could she remember her age? Yet in her heart of hearts there was no illusion. There was a tiny grave just over the Rise where an ash-tree stood like a sentinel in the gold-brown prairie. Its top could be seen from the window of the great living-room, and her eyes were ever looking that way, while Nolan's head was ever turned from it! Or, if his eyes fell on the tree, a look came into them as though a veil was drawn over his sight. He talked faster and bustled more at such times, making a fuss at whatever he might be doing at the moment—lighting his pipe, sharpening the carving-knife, mending a piece of harness. He never walked in that direction, if he could help it; but Norah stole away over the Rise to the whispering ash every day in summer except a Sunday, when he was away with his stage-coach or at a horse fair, or buying or selling or training. "Shure, 'tis not natural," said her father to her one h right, cold winter day, at the old man's cottage under the Rise; " 'tis blasphemy to take on so, when it was the Lord's doin'. And it never lived at all—'twas held back from livin' by the hand o' God. Can't ye see? Are ye no Christian; are ye no philosopher, little girl?"
"I have no brains." she answered. "'Tis not what I was made for, studyin' out why this was done, or wasn't. 'Tis enough to know 'twas done, an' what's come of it's bein' done."
"And what's come of it's bein' done, then—tell me that?" asked her mother, feebly lifting a cup of tea to her wrinkled mouth.
"Ah, what's come of it! Isn't he atin' his heart out—Nolan?"
" 'Tis only your fancy. There never was a bolder tongue and a better man at table."
"Haven't I heard him singin'? 'Twas like a knife in me! Haven't I heard him talkin' in his sleep? 'Come on, then, me little lad. Up on the box wid ye!' and that kind of thing, he'd say. He's dreamin' now that never dreamt before out loud like that. 'Tisn't brains ye need to know truth. 'Tis a true heart and the quick ear of one that's got it."
"What was the song he sings that struck ye so?" asked her father.
Her eyes took on a strange look as she recited Nolan's song:
"'Shure, the longest day has endin', and the wildest storm has fallin'—
There's a young gossoon in yander, and he sits upon my knee;
There's a churchful for the christenin—do you hear the imp a-callin'?
He's the pride of Mary Callaghan and me!'"
"It's like a man singin' to hide his shame," she added.
"What's that ye're sayin', Norah?" asked her mother. "What's the shame y'are speakin' of, then?"
With a sharp cry Norah stretched out her hands. The barriers that clouded her view of the exact truth had broken down. She saw the whole elementary facts in one revealing moment.
"Oh, shame it is to him that he's denied what is the pride of man," she said. "I know—ah, shure, I know! I oughtn't to have married him. I made him do it—I made him. I drew him into it. 'Twas at the bedside of the two of ye that he ate the dish I made for him. I was never a wife for him, he that ought to have had a girl of twenty."
The true facts had possessed her at last. She saw herself, her vanity, her obtuseness, her self-deceit, her deception to him, laid bare.
"I'm older than him—I'm older," she went on. "I'm an old woman. I never was a wife for him, and he knows it, and he knew it from the first. And I couldn't carry it through with all my willin' and fightin'—'twas no matter for prayin' that, but just flyin' in the face of Providence. But the willin' and the fightin' come to nothin'; and now he's off, he's off to one that's twenty. He's gone to one that's what I was long since, with hair like a sheaf of wheat in the sun, and the rest of her—"
Her hands dropped in despair, she sat down helplessly, and rocked backward and forward in her misery.
"Who's that you're speakin' of?" said her father, with a furtive glance of understanding to her mother and a quick nod of comprehension. "Who's that with the harvest hair, and the rest of her—"
"A harvest for reapin'," Norah broke in with a passionate gesture.
"Hush, for shame on ye!" spoke her mother. "Have ye no pride? The man's yours, and he knows he's yours, and what's to fear, I want to know?"
Norah gave a bitter laugh. "D'ye think all men are like your own husband?" she asked harshly. "Nolan's turned from me to her."
The old man got up and came over to her. "Who is she? Where does she live? Where does he see her, Norah girl?" he asked.
She sprang to her feet. "Don't call me girl again," she cried. "I'm none o' that. I ought to have stayed with you. Shure, me spring was long since done. Me summer is that far gone 'tis but a memory, and me winter's here. And it's cold—God knows it's cold." she said drearily.
"Who is she?" urged her mother.
" 'Tis the sister of Jacques Charron, that keeps the tavern at Pardon's Drive. Nolan passes every day. He never misses a day with his stage-coach now—one day in going and one day in coming, and the long night between."
"Peace, woman!" said her father sharply. "Are ye mad?"
"Last night in his sleep he said her name. And to-day he's gone to her. 'Tis not the stage day. He sent Shannon with the stage yesterday. But he couldn't stay away. So he's gone to her."
SHE turned toward the window and watched the first flurries of a snowstorm coming over the prairie. "Ah, wurra, wurra, I feel that I'd like the storm comin' there to swallow him up; and me with him—and me with him. There'd be peace if the storm would swallow us up together."
"Poor lad, that would be hard on him," said the old man dryly, "if so be it's true that ye made him marry ye."
" 'Twas his duty to stay true," said the old woman. "There was the marriage lines."
"Can ye rule the blood by lines on a paper?" said Norah with a voice so cheerless that her father sat down by her and stroked her hand.
"I heard something about it," he said gently, "and I spoke to the Young Doctor about it; but he said: 'Lave be,' he said. ''Twill work itself out. The Charron girl yonder's a good girl, but only likin' to be noticed by a handsome man. Lave be and he'll right himself,' he said. 'If he doesn't, ye can't cure it by interferin''—that's what he said; an' he's a man that's got more sinse than you or me, or anny of us."
Norah rose. "Yes, we'll lave be," she said. "What's the good of not lavin' it be? If I kill him, I've lost him just as sure as if he wint with the girl. I've thought of killin' us both," she added, with a quiet glitter of her eyes, "but he'd leave me in hell just the same if I did. But if the storm would do it, aye, if the storm would do it—together—"
The drifts of snow softly rising in the distance seemed to fascinate her eyes.
"You'd better be goin', Norah," said her mother solicitously. "You'll only get home now before the storm gets goin' hard."
OUTSIDE the door Norah turned and looked toward the barren arms of the ash-tree standing beside the grave of her baby that perished as it came. She made as if she would go to it through the snow, but changed her mind and went down the slope to her house. Arrived there, she went straight to the barn and summoned one of the hands. A few minutes later, in the growing storm, with the wind becoming sharper every minute, she took the trail to Pardon's Drive alone.
A madness had seized her to go and bring Nolan back or to go and take by the throat the girl that drew him away from her; or to die with him in the storm—in the soft, enfolding, quiet snow which had covered up so many tired pioneers of life.
She did not know quite why she went; but she felt that she must go. Some dark fascination of destiny was on her. The touch of the mystic in her Celtic blood stirred her, absorbed her. She was only conscious that she She was like one who has lost consciousness of life was driving, driving, and forever driving toward Pardon's Drive. How long it was, how cold it was, how still it was, this long road to Pardon's Drive! Did Nolan find it so long as he drove day after day? Ah, no, Nolan found it short, for there was some one waiting at the end, a flower of life, to be plucked for his wearing! Words Nolan had sung in the days before their tragedy haunted her ears now as the horses plunged through deeper and deeper snow, as the rugs on her knees became piled higher and higher with the soft flakes, as the drifts gathered heavier and heavier in the sleigh where she sat.
"It was as fine a churchful as you ever clapt an eye on;
Oh, the bells was ringin' gaily, and the sun was shinin' free;
There was singers, there was clargy—'Bless you both,' says Father Tryon—
They was weddin Mary Callaghan and me."
By and by it seemed that they made no progress. Heavily, with stupefying weariness, the horses plowed their way through the snow. How many hours had she been going? She did not know. Night was falling, and she had no idea where she was, nor did she much care. The cold was numbing, and her body seemed to grow less and less material. She was like one that was slowly withdrawing her soul's self from its mortal home, leaving that home desolate and still and nerveless.
But the horses knew. They had been over this trail how many hundred times! Their feet felt the true road under them—felt it, kept it. Their senses were concentrated on one thing—the end of the journey, rest, food, the warm stable at Pardon's Drive. Their tragedy would be in not getting there; Norah's tragedy might be—would it be?—in getting there.
None knows the silence of this world who has not been blanketed by falling snow and swept by drift. There is no universe, no time, nothing but this wheeling sphere of your own in which you move alone—alone, the whole world dead but you.
INTO this vast solitude, this silence, this dead world, a light suddenly pierced. It was the lantern hanging outside the door of Jacques Charron's tavern at Pardon's Drive.
Yet Norah did not move. She was like one who has lost consciousness of life and time.
They carried her in—it had not been easy to unloose her fingers from the reins. As she was laid down on a sofa she was only conscious of two things—the voice of a child and the voice of Nolan. "Norah! Norah!" Nolan's voice called. It was so very far away.
At length she waked, and it seemed to her that she had been asleep for years, so changed were her feelings, so peaceful was her mind. An old woman sat beside her and leaned forward when her eyes opened.
"So. It is good. I tell them to leave you to me," the old woman said. "I have seen it, that cold. Bien sur! I have seen them all stiff. It was not so with you. You had no heart to fight that cold—so, like that." The quizzical, kindly eyes searched Norah's. "Bien, it is good to sleep."
"How long have I slept—where am I?" Norah asked.
"In Jacques Charron's house, so quiet and nice, voilà." Again the old eyes searched Norah's face.
A cloud gathered in Norah's eyes. "Yes, I remember. 'Twas hard on the horses. 'Twas Nolan's best team. Are they all right? Nolan'd not like to see them bad."
Her eyes went round the room eagerly, plaintively, yet not with the bitter passion, the hopeless pain of—when was it? How long was it since she came? What had happened? Where was Nolan? The child's voice she heard—was it all a dream? Nolan's voice—had it been really Nolan's voice? Had she imagined that his arms were round her, laying her down, stroking her face?
"How long have I been here?" she asked.
"Quelle heure? It was nine to the clock. Now, it is twelve. Certainement! They have gone to bed, all but you and me, and—"
A child's voice rose plaintively in the night—so near. Why did it pierce to Norah's heart, make her tremble so?
She raised herself on her elbow and turned in the direction of the small voice. The old woman opened a door softly, and made a gesture for her to see. Her heart stood still.
There, in a rocking-chair in the next room, in the red light of a great fire, sat the girl, "with hair like a sheaf of wheat," and in her arms, pressed to her breast, was an infant, to whom she was crooning softly.
As Norah gazed with eyes that almost started from her head, a wild passion seized her. It was like some ether poured through her veins. Life seemed suddenly to expand in her. She was in a palpitating atmosphere, which inflamed her whole being. She saw Nolan rise from a couch near the fire, come forward to the golden-haired girl, and touch the child's soft cheek with a forefinger.
"Little darlin'," he said, with a note in his voice that she had never heard in all the days they had lived together.
Then she went mad.
NOLAN looked up, startled, as she rushed forward into the room. In the red light of the fire, with her eyes blazing, her arms outstretched, her fingers crooked like some bird of prey, she looked like an avenger in a Greek tragedy.
" 'Tis as I thought!" she said in a whisper, her lips so dry with passion that she could scarcely speak. " 'Tis as I said! 'Twas for this I was left alone yonder, while the wanton had her way!"
With a startled cry the Charron girl got to her feet with the child, and at first she trembled so that the babe almost fell from her arms, but presently a dark flush of indignation passed over her face, and she drew herself up with pride.
"Imbécile—fool!" she said.
"Hush! Hush—the baby!" said Nolan, and stepped forward toward it. Norah made as though she would come between, but Nolan's arm shot out before her.
"Wait. You will wake the child," he said. He took it tenderly from the girl's arms and placed it in those of the old woman who had entered with Norah. She took the child gently and put its fresh cheek to hers, quavering an old French chanson.
"Into the other room, Ma'am Charron!" aaid Nolan. "For a minute, then—'tis not for a child's ears, this."
He was very quiet, and his eyes dwelt on Norah's face with a look of quiet command when he turned round again to the women standing in the light of the fire. Then he said to the girl:
"Shure, you had better go, Annette. There are things to say."
"Yes, there are things to say," said Norah, trembling. "And you had better stay—Annette!"
THERE was a scorn and an anger in the last words, which made Annette's blood tingle.
"What have you to say to me?" she asked Norah fiercely. Her eyes seemed as red as the fire that burned on the hearth.
"Is there no shame in ye?" said Norah. "I'm his wife. Did ye need to stay and shame me with—"
"Madame, you are a liar, and you are a fool. If I was a man I would kill you." Annette Charron's fingers twitched.
"Ye flaunt the child in my face—" Norah burst out in a high-pitched voice, but got no further, for Nolan caught her arm with a grip that made her cry out.
"Be still, woman!" he said in a voice gone suddenly hard. "Would ye wake the dead? Can't ye let the dead lie in peace with—with the promise I made?"
"What's dead?" asked Norah in a trembling voice, for it came upon her all at once that she had blundered terribly.
"Can't ye be kind?" Nolan protested. "You that's just back from the dead. Norah; A little longer out in the snow and you'd have been lyin' as she is lyin' in there." He jerked his head toward another room with a closed door.
"Who is lyin' in there?" Norah asked with lips trembling.
"The mother of that," he added with a nod toward the child, which Madame Charron was crooning to sleep. "She was caught in the storm too, but it was too strong for her. She gave the child all the warmth she had. And a fine boy it is, the finest iver was almost."
With a cry that came as though from a spirit relieved from prison, Norah swayed, then, fainting, she fell forward. Annette Charron caught her as she fell. She and Nolan laid her on the sofa, and together they set about restoring her.
"You'll forgive her?" said Nolan gently to the girl. "'Twas a madness in her, shure."
The girl did not answer. "We've been such good friends this two years," urged Nolan. "There now, you'd not be hard on her that belongs to me."
The girl looked at him for a moment very steadily, and seemed about to speak, but turned away for a moment and busied herself with adjusting Norah's head to the pillow.
"Then don't you be hard on her—ever," said the girl with meaning in her tone and a face grown pale again after the passion of the last few moments.
"Oh, I've never been hard on her and never will," answered Nolan.
"Monsieur Nolan, you are a fool," rejoined the girl sharply. "There, she is coming to—make her understand the truth," she said firmly. "Make her understand—absolument—I am going to bed," she added, and before he could say more she was gone.
In her place came the old woman, who entered with the child. "It was time Annette go to bed." she said dryly.
PRESENTLY Norah's eyes opened and rested on Nolan's face. Her hand was in his. There was that look in his eyes she had never seen before.
"Who was she?" asked Norah.
"Annette? You know—as good a girl as any, as—"
"No, the dead woman in there," she pointed to the other room.
" 'Twas a stranger come from buryin' her man in the north. And now she's gone, poor woman, and young she was, not over thirty. As fine a little scrap!" he added, catching the child's toe lightly as the old woman then passed in her shuffling walk.
Suddenly he leaned over Norah. "What made ye come here, Norah? What were ye after?"
"Where should a woman be but with her husband?" she answered evasively.
"Thrue for you," he said with a strange look. He knew that he had torn her heart. "Thrue for ye. Where should she be except with her husband—and the child."
She stared at him. Her face grew white. "The child!" she murmured. "Shure, I have no head, Nolan. I don't see at all. at all. I am sorry I spoke so wild and bad to the girl, but there was something in me that drove me crazy. And I don't understand, Nolan dear."
"I've made the child me own, Norah—me own forever and ever. I promised the dead woman I'd do it. I promise for you and for me. She was a fine woman, about your age"—ah, the incomparable liar!—"and she wint away at peace, for she saw in me the makin' of a fine father to her child. Are ye with me in this, Norah?"
Norah saw a light glimmer out of the dark which would grow and grow to a wide radiance, would lighten all her world.
"Oh, give the child to me!" she cried, all the mother-hunger in her, her face glowing, her hands outstretched. The old woman put the babe in her arms. She pressed it to her breast passionately.
Nolan watched her with a wonderful look of pride and content in his face.
"We'll make believe," he said gaily to her in a whisper.
"There's no make believe," she answered with a look of fierceness almost. "It come to me out of the storm—'tis mine, 'tis mine!"
"Acushla," said Nolan gaily. "'tis yours, then;" and he touched the child's cheek.
THE next morning when they left, Nolan's good-by and his gay wink and word to Annette with the hair like a harvest of wheat in the sun were careless enough for Norah to be sure that the farewell of its kind was final. And so it was. But Annette—who knows? The heart of a woman is a strange thing.