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Wanderer of the Wasteland

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 16

   At sunset Adam cooked supper for the Vireys, satisfying his own needs after they had finished. Virey talked lightly, even joked about the first good meal he had sat down to on the desert. His wife, too, talked serenely, sometimes with the faintly subtle mockery, as if she had never intimated that a dividing spear threatened her heart. That was their way to hide the truth and emotion when they willed. But Adam was silent.
   Alone, out under the shadow of the towering gate to the valley, he strode to and fro, absorbed in a maze of thoughts that gradually cleared, as if by the light of the solemn stars and virtue of the speaking silence. He had chanced upon the strangest and most fatal situation in all his desert years. Yes, but was it by chance? Straight as an arrow he had come across the barrens to meet a wonderful woman who was going to love him, and a despicable man whom he was going to kill. That seemed the fatality which rang in his ears, shone in the accusing stars, hid in the heavy shadows. It was a matter of feeling. His intelligence could not grasp it. Had he been in Death Valley four days or four months? Was he walking in his sleep, victim of a nightmare? The desert, faithful always, answered him. This was nothing but the flux and reflux of human passion, contending tides between man and woman, the littleness, the curse, the terror, and yet the joy of life. Death Valley yawned at his feet, changeless and shadowy, awful in its locked solemnity of solitude, its voicelessness, its desolation that had been desolation in past ages. He could doubt nothing there. His thought seemed almost above human error. A spirit spoke for him.
   Virey had dragged his wife to this lonely and dismal hellhole on earth to share his misery, to isolate her from men, to hide her glory of charm, to gloat over her loneliness, to revenge himself for a wrong, to feed his need of possession, his terrible love that had become hate, to watch the slow torture of her fading, wilting, drooping in this ghastly valley, to curse her living, to burn endlessly in torment because her soul would elude him for ever, to drive her to death and die with her.
   Death Valley seemed a harmonious setting for this tragedy and a fitting grave for its actors. The worst in nature calling to the darkest in mankind! What a pity Virey could not divine his littleness--that he had been a crawling maggot in the peopled ulcer of the world--that in the great spaces where the sun beat down was a fiery cleansing.
   But Magdalene Virey was a riddle beyond solving. Nevertheless, Adam pondered every thought that would stay before his consciousness. Any woman was a riddle. Did not the image of Margarita Arrallanes flash up before him--that dusky-eyed, mindless, soulless little animal, victim of nature born in her? Adam's thought halted with the seeming sacrilege of associating Magdalene Virey with memory of the Mexican girl. This Virey woman had complexity--she had mind, passion nobility, soul. What had she done to earn her husband's hate? She had never loved him--that was as fixed in Adam's sight as the North Star. Nor had she loved another man, at least not with the passion and spirit of her wonderful womanhood. Adam divined that with the intensity of feeling which the desert loneliness and solitude had taught him. He could have felt the current of any woman's great passion, whether it was in torrent, full charged and devastating, or at its lowering ebb. But, as inevitable as was life itself, there was the mysterious certainty that Magdalene Virey had terribly wronged her husband. How? Adam had repudiated any interest in what had driven them here; not until this moment had he permitted his doubt to insult the woman. Yet how helpless he was! His heart was full of unutterable pity. He could never have loved Magdalene Virey as a man, but as a brother he was yearning to change her, save her. What else in life was worth living for, except only the dreams on the heights, the walks along the lonely trails? By his own agony he had a strange affinity for anyone in trouble, especially a woman, and how terribly he saw the tragedy of Magdalene Virey! And it was not only her death that he saw. Death in a land where death reigned was nothing. For her he hated the certainty of physical pain, the turgid pulse, the red-hot iron band at the temples, the bearing down of weighted air, the drying up of flesh and blood. More than all he hated the thought of death of her spirit while her body lived. There would be a bloodless murder long before her blood stained Virey's hands.
   But this thought gave Adam pause. Was he not dealing with a personality beyond his power to divine? What did he know of this strange woman? He knew naught, but felt all. She was beautiful, compelling, secretive, aloof, and proud, magnificent as a living flame. She was mocking because knowledge of the world, of the frailty of women and falsity of men, had been as an open page. She had lived in sight of the crowded mart, the show places where men and women passed, knowing no more of earth than that it was a place for graves. She was bitter because she had drunk bitterness to the dregs. But the sudden up-flashing warmth of her, forced out of her reserve, came from a heart of golden fire. Adam constituted himself an omniscient judge, answerable only to his conscience. By all the gods he would be true to the truth of this woman!
   Never had she been forced into this desert of desolation. That thought of Adam's seemed far back in the past. She had dared to come. Had Death Valley and the death it was famed for any terrors for her? By the side of her husband she had willingly come, unutterably despising him, infinitely brave where he was cowardly, scornfully and magnificently prepared to meet any punishment that might satisfy him. Adam saw how, in this, Magdalene Virey was answering to some strange need in itself. Let the blind, weak, egoist Virey demand the tortures of the damned! She would pay. But she was paying also a debt to herself. Adam's final conception of Magdalene Virey was that she had been hideously wronged by life, by men; that in younger days of passionate revolt she had transgressed the selfish law of husbands; that in maturer years, with the storm and defeat and disillusion of womanhood, she had risen to the heights, she had been true to herself; and with mockery of the man who could so underestimate her, who dared believe he could make her a craven, whimpering, guilty wretch, she had faced the desert with him. She had seen the great love that was not love change to terrible hate. She had divined the hidden motive. She let him revel in his hellish secret joy. She welcomed Death Valley.
   Adam marvelled at this unquenchable spirit, this sublime effrontery of a woman. And he hesitated to dare to turn that spirit from its superb indifference. But this vacillation in him was weak. What a wonderful experience it would be to embody in Magdalene Virey the instinct, the strife, the nature of the desert! With her mind, if he had the power to teach, she would grasp the lesson in a single day.
   And lastly, her unforgettable implication, "the crowning agony," of what he might bring upon her. There could be only one interpretation of that--love. The idea thrilled him, but only with wonder and pity. It took possession of Adam's imagination. Well, such love might come to pass! The desert storms bridged canyons with sand in one day. It was a place of violence. The elements waited not upon time or circumstance. The few women Adam had come in contact with on the desert had loved him. Even the one-eyed Mohave Jo, that hideous, unsexed, monstrous deformity of a woman, whom he had left grovelling in the sand at his feet, shamed at last before a crowd of idle, gaping, vile men--even she had awakened to this strange madness of love. But Adam had not wanted that of any woman, since the poignant moment of his youth on the desert, when the dusky-eyed Margarita had murmured of love so fresh and sweet to him, "Ah, so long ago and far away!"
   Least of all did Adam want the love of Magdalene Virey.
   "If she were young and I were young! Or if she had never...!" Ah! even possibilities, like might-have-beens, were useless dreams. But the die was cast. Serve Magdalene Virey he would, and teach her the secret of the strength of the sand wastes and the lonely hills, and that the victory of life was not to yield. Fight for her, too, he would. In all the multiplicity of ways he had learned, he would fight the solitude and loneliness of Death Valley, the ghastliness so inimical to the creative life of a woman, the heat, the thirst, the starvation, the poison air, the furnace wind, storm and flood and avalanche. Just as naturally, if need be, if it fatefully fell out so, he would lay his slaying hands in all their ruthless might upon the man who had made her dare her doom.
   When, next morning at sunrise hour, Adam presented himself at the Virey camp, he was greeted by Mrs. Virey, seemingly a transformed woman. She wore a riding suit, the worn condition of which attested to the rough ride across the mountain. What remarkable difference it made in her appearance! It detracted from her height. And the slenderness of her, revealed rather than suggested by her gowns, showed much of grace and symmetry. She had braided her hair and let it hang. When the sun had tanned her white face and hands Magdalene Virey would really be transformed.
   Adam tried not to stare, but his effort was futile.
   "Good morning," she said, with a bright smile.
   "Why, Mrs. Virey, I--I hardly knew you!" he stammered.
   "Thanks. I feel complimented. It is the first time you've looked at me. Shorn of my dignity--no, my worldliness, do I begin well, desert man?...No more stuffy dresses clogging my feet! No more veils to protect my face! Let the sun burn! I want to work. I want to help. I want to learn. If madness must be mine, let it be a madness to learn what in this God-forsaken land ever made you the man you are. There, Sir Wansfell, I have flung down the gage."
   "Very well," replied Adam, soberly.
   "And now," she continued, "I am eager to work. If I blunder, be patient. If I am stupid, make me see. And if I faint in the sun or fall beside the trail, remember, it is my poor body that fails, and not my will."
   So, in the light of her keen interest, Adam found the humdrum mixing of dough and the baking of bread a pleasure and a lesson to him, rather than a task.
   "Ah! how important are the homely things of life!" she said. "A poet said 'we live too much in the world.'...I wonder did he mean just this. We grow away from or never learn the simple things. I remember my grandfather's farm--the ploughed fields, the green corn, the yellow wheat, the chickens in the garden, the mice in the barn, the smell of hay, the smell of burning leaves, the smell of the rich brown earth...Wansfell, not for years have I remembered them. Something about you, the way you worked over that bread, like a nice old country lady, made me remember...Oh, I wonder what I have missed!"
   "We all miss something. It can't be helped. But there are compensations, and it's never too late."
   "You are a child, with all your bigness. You have the mind of a child."
   "That's one of my few blessings...Now you try your hand at mixing the second batch of dough."
   She made a picture on her knees, with her sleeves rolled up, her beautiful hands white with flour, her face beginning to flush. Adam wanted to laugh at her absolute failure to mix dough, and at the same moment he had it in him to weep over the earnestness, the sadness, the pathetic meaning of her.
   Eventually they prepared the meal, and she carried Virey's breakfast in to him. Then she returned to eat with Adam.
   "I shall wash the dishes," she announced.
   "No," he protested.
   Then came a clash. It ended with a compromise. And from that clash Adam realised he might dominate her in little things, but in a great conflict of wills she would be the stronger. It was a step in his own slow education. There was a constitutional difference between men and women.
   Upon Adam's resumption of the work around the shack Mrs. Virey helped him as much as he would permit, which by midday was somewhat beyond her strength. Her face sunburned rosily and her hands showed the contact with dirt and her boots were dusty.
   "You mustn't overdo it," he advised. "Rest and sleep during the noon hours."
   She retired within the shack and did not reappear till the middle of the afternoon. Meanwhile, Adam had worked at his tasks, trying at the same time to keep an eye on Virey who wandered around aimlessly over the rock-strewn field, idling here and plodding there. Adam saw how Virey watched the shack; and when Magdalene came out again he saw her and grew as motionless as the stone where he leaned. Every thought of Virey's must have been dominated by this woman's presence, the meaning of her, the possibilities of her, the tragedy of her.
   "Oh, how I slept!" she exclaimed. "Is it work that makes you sleep?"
   "Indeed yes."
   "Ah! I see my noble husband standing like Mephistopheles, smiling at grief...What's he doing over there?"
   "I don't know, unless it's watching for you. He's been around like that for hours."
   "Poor man!" she said, with both compassion and mockery. "Watching me? What loss of precious time--and so futile! It is a habit he contracted some years ago...Wansfell, take me down to the opening in the mountain there, so that I can look into Death Valley."
   "Shall I ask Virey?" queried Adam, in slight uncertainty.
   "No. Let him watch or follow or do as he likes. I am here in Death Valley. It was his cherished plan to bury me here. I shall not leave until he takes me--which will be never. For the rest, he is nothing to me. We are as far apart as the poles."
   On the way down the gentle slope Adam halted amid sun-blasted shrubs, scarcely recognisable as greasewood. Here he knelt in the gravel to pluck some flowers so tiny that only a trained eye could ever have espied them. One was a little pink flower with sage colour and sage odour; another a white daisy, very frail, and without any visible leaves; and a third was a purple-red flower, half the size of the tiniest buttercup, and this had small dark-green leaves.
   "Flowers in Death Valley!" exclaimed Mrs. Virey, in utter amaze.
   "Yes. Flowers of a day! They sprang up yesterday; to-day they bloom, to-morrow they will die. I don't know their names. To me their blossoming is one of the wonders of the desert. I think sometimes that it is a promise. A whole year the tiny seeds lie in the hot sands. Then comes a mysterious call and the green plant shoots its inch-long stalk to the sun. Another day beauty unfolds and there is fragrance on the desert air. Another day sees them wither and die."
   "Beauty and fragrance indeed they have," mused the woman. "Such tiny flowers to look and smell so sweet! I never saw their like. Flowers of a day!...They indeed give rise to thoughts too deep for tears!"
   Adam led his companion to the base of the mountain wall, and around the corner of the opening, so that they came suddenly and unexpectedly into full view of Death Valley. He did not look at her. He wanted to wait a little before doing that. The soft gasp which escaped her lips and the quick grasping of his hand were significant of the shock she sustained.
   Their position faced mostly down the valley. It seemed a vast level, gently sloping up to the borders where specks of mesquites dotted the sand. Dull grey and flat, these league-wide wastes of speckled sand bordered a dazzling-white sunlit belt, the winding bottom of the long bowl, the salty dead stream of Death Valley. Miles and miles below, two mountain ranges blended in a purple blaze, and endless slanting lines of slopes ran down to merge in the valley floor. The ranges sent down offshoots of mountains that slanted and lengthened into the valley. One bright-green oasis, that, lost in the vastness, was comparable to one of the tiny flowers Adam had plucked out of the sand, shone wonderfully and illusively out of the glare of grey and white. A dim, mystic scene!
   "O God!...It is my grave!" cried Magdalene Virey.
   "We are all destined for graves," replied Adam, solemnly. "Could any grave elsewhere be so grand--so lonely--so peaceful?...Now let us walk out a little way, to the edge of that ridge, and sit there while the sun sets."
   On this vantage point they were out some distance in the valley, so that they could see even the western end of the Panamint range, where a glaring sun had begun to change its colour over the bold black peaks. A broad shadow lengthened across the valley and crept up the yellow foothills to the red Funeral Mountains. This shadow marvellously changed to purple, and as the radiance of light continued to shade, the purple deepened. Over all the valley at the western end appeared a haze the colour of which was nameless. Adam felt the lessening heat of the sinking sun. Half that blaze was gone. It had been gold and was now silver. He swept his gaze around jealously, not to miss the transformations; and his companion, silent and absorbed, instinctively turned with him. Across the valley the Funerals towered, ragged and sharp, with rosy crowns; and one, the only dome-shaped peak, showed its strata of grey and drab through the rose. Another peak, farther back, lifted a pink shaft into the blue sky. What a contrast to the lower hills and slopes, so beautifully pearl grey in tint! And now, almost the instant Adam had marked the exquisite colours, they began to fade. On that illimitable horizon line there were soon no bright tones left. Far to the south, peaks that had been dim now stood out clear and sharp against the sky. One, gold capped and radiant, shadowed as if a cloud had come between it and the sun. Adam turned again to the west, in time to see the last vestige of silver fire vanish. Sunset!
   A sombre smoky sunset it was now, as if this Death Valley was the gateway of hell and its sinister shades were upflung from fire. Adam saw a vulture sail across the clear space of sky, breasting the wind. It lent life to the desolation.
   The desert day was done and the desert shades began to descend. The moment was tranquil and sad. It had little to do with the destiny of man--nothing except that by some inscrutable design of God or an accident of evolution man happened to be imprisoned where nature never intended man to be. Death Valley was only a ragged rent of the old earth, where men wandered wild, brooding, lost, or where others sought with folly and passion to dig forth golden treasure. The mysterious lights changed. A long pale radiance appeared over the western range and lengthened along its bold horizon. The only red colour left was way to the south, and that shone dim. The air held a solemn stillness.
   "Magdalene Virey," said Adam, "what you see there resembles death--it may be death--but it is peace. Does it not rest your troubled soul? A woman must be herself here."
   She, whose words could pour out in such torrent of eloquence, was silent now. Adam looked at her then, into the shadowed eyes. What he saw there awed him. The abyss seen through those beautiful, unguarded windows of her soul was like the grey scored valley beneath, but lighting, quickening with thought, with hope, with life. Death Valley was a part of the earth dying, and it would become like a canyon on the burned-out moon; but this woman's spirit seemed everlasting. If her soul had been a whited sepulchre, it was in the way of transfiguration. Adam experienced a singular exaltation in the moment, a gladness beyond his comprehension, a sense that the present strange communion there between this woman's awakening and the terrible lessons of his life was creating for him a far-distant interest, baffling, but great in its inspiration.
   In the gathering twilight he led her back to camp, content that it seemed still impossible for her to speak. But the touch of her hand at parting was more eloquent than any words.
   Then alone, in his blankets, with gaze up at the inscrutable, promising stars, Adam gave himself over to insistent and crowding thoughts, back of which throbbed a dominating, divine hope in his power to save this woman's life and soul, and perhaps even her happiness.
   Next day Adam's natural aggressiveness asserted itself, controlled now by an imperturbable spirit that nothing could daunt. He approached Virey relentlessly, though with kindness, even good nature, and he began to talk about Death Valley, the perilous nature of the camping spot, the blasting heat of midsummer and the horror of the midnight furnace winds, the possibility of the water drying up. Virey was cold, then impatient, then intolerant, and finally furious. First he was deaf to Adam's persuasion, then he tried to get out of listening, then he repudiated all Adam had said, and finally he raved and cursed. Adam persisted in his arguments until Virey strode off.
   Mrs. Virey heard some of this clash. Apparently Adam's idea of changing her husband amused her. But when Virey returned for supper he was glad enough to eat, and when Adam again launched his argument it appeared that Mrs. Virey lost the last little trace of mockery. She listened intently while Adam told her husband why he would have to take his wife away from Death Valley before midsummer. Virey might as well have been stone deaf. It was not Virey, however, who interested the woman, but something about Adam that made her look and listen thoughtfully.
   Thus began a singular time for Adam, unmatched in all his desert experience. He gave his whole heart to the task of teaching Magdalene Virey and to the wearing down of Virey's will. All the lighter tasks that his hands had learned he taught her. Then to climb to the heights, to pick the ledges for signs of gold or pan the sandy washes, to know the rocks and the few species of vegetation, to recognise the illusion of distance and colour, to watch the sunsets and the stars became daily experiences. Hard as work was for her delicate hands and muscles, he urged her to their limit. During the first days she suffered sunburn, scalds, skinned fingers, bruised knees, and extreme fatigue. When she grew tanned and stronger he led her out on walks and climbs so hard that he had to help her back to camp. She learned the meaning of physical pain, and to endure it. She learned the blessing it was to eat when she was famished, to rest when she was utterly weary, to sleep when sleep was peace.
   Through these brief, full days Adam attacked Virey at every opportunity, which time came to be, at length, only during meals. Virey would leave camp, often to go up the slope of weathered rocks, a dangerous climb that manifestly fascinated him. Reaching a large rock that became his favourite place, he would perch there for long hours, watching, gazing down like a vulture waiting for time to strike its prey. All about him seemed to suggest a brooding wait. He slept during the midday hours and through the long nights. At dusk, which was usually bedtime for all, Adam often heard him, talking to Mrs. Virey in a low, hard, passionate voice. Sometimes her melodious tones, with the mockery always present when she spoke to her husband, thrilled Adam, while at the same moment it filled him with despair. But Adam never despaired of driving Virey to leave the valley. The man was weak in all ways except that side which pertained to revenge. Notwithstanding the real and growing obstacle of this passion, Adam clung to his conviction that in the end Virey would collapse. When, however, one day the Indians came, and Virey sent them away with a large order for supplies, Adam gave vent to a grim thought, "Well, I can always kill him."
   All the disgust and loathing Adam felt for this waster of life vanished in the presence of Magdalene Virey. If that long-passed sunset hour over Death Valley had awakened the woman, what had been the transformation of the weeks? Adam had no thoughts that adequately expressed his feeling for the change in her. It gave him further reverence for desert sun and heat and thirst and violence and solitude. It gave him strange new insight into the mystery of life. Was any healing of disease or agony impossible--any change of spirit--any renewal of life? Nothing in relation to human life was impossible. Magnificently the desert magnified and multiplied time, thought, effort, pain, health, hope--all that could be felt.
   It seemed to Adam that through the physical relation to the desert he was changing Magdalene Virey's body and heart and soul. Brown her face and hands had grown; and slowly the graceful, thin lines of her slender body had begun to round out. She was gaining. If it had not been for her shadowed eyes, and the permanent sadness and mockery in the beautiful lips, she would have been like a girl of eighteen. Her voice, too, with its contralto richness, its mellow depth, its subtle shades of tone, proclaimed the woman. Adam at first had imagined her to be about thirty years old, but as time passed by, and she grew younger with renewed strength, he changed his mind. Looking at her to guess her age was like looking at the desert illusions. Absolute certainty he had, however, of the reward and result of her inflexible will, of splendid spirit, of sincere gladness. She had endured physical toil and pain to the limit of her frail strength, until she was no longer frail. This spirit revived what had probably been early childish love of natural things; and action and knowledge developed it until her heart was wholly absorbed in all that it was possible to do there in that lonesome fastness. With the genius and intuition of a woman she had grasped at the one solace left her--the possibility of learning Adam's lesson of the desert. What had taken him years to acquire she learned from him or divined in days. She had a wonderful mind.
   Once, while they were resting upon a promontory that overhung the valley, Adam spoke to her. She did not hear him. Her eyes reflected the wonder and immensity of the waste beneath her. Indeed, she did not appear to be brooding or thinking. And when he spoke again, breaking in upon her abstraction, she was startled. He forgot what he had intended to say, substituting a query as to her thoughts.
   "How strange!" she murmured. "I didn't have a thought. I forgot where I was. Your voice seemed to come from far off."
   "I spoke to you before, but you didn't hear," said Adam. "You looked sort of, well--watchful, I'd call it."
   "Watchful? Yes, I was. I feel I was, but I don't remember. This is indeed a strange state for Magdalene Virey. It behoves her to cultivate it. But what kind of a state was it?...Wansfell, could it have been happiness?"
   She asked that in a whisper, serious, and with pathos, yet with a smile.
   "It's always happiness for me to watch from the heights. Surely you are finding happy moments?"
   "Yes, many thanks to you, my friend. But they are conscious happy moments, just sheer joy of movement, or sight of beauty, or a thrill of hope, or perhaps a vague dream of old, far-off, unhappy things. And it is happiness to remember them...But this was different. It was unconscious. I tell you, Wansfell, I did not have a thought in my mind! I saw--I watched. Oh, how illusive it is!"
   "Try to recall it," he suggested, much interested.
   "I try--I try," she said, presently, "but the spell is broken."
   "Well, then, let me put a thought into your mind," went on Adam. "Dismukes and I once had a long talk about the desert. Why does it fascinate all men? What is the secret? Dismukes didn't rate himself high as a thinker. But he is a thinker. He knows the desert. To me he's great. And he and I agreed that the commonly accepted idea of the desert's lure is wrong. Men seek gold, solitude, forgetfulness. Some wander for the love of wandering. Others seek to hide from the world. Criminals are driven to the desert. Besides these, all travellers crossing the desert talk of its enchantments. They all have different reasons. Loneliness, peace, silence, beauty, wonder, sublimity--a thousand reasons! Indeed, they are all proofs of the strange call of the desert. But these men do not go deep enough."
   "Have you solved the secret?" she asked, wonderingly.
   "No, not yet," he replied, a little sadly. "It eludes me. It's like finding the water of the mirage."
   "It's like the secret of a woman's heart, Wansfell."
   "Then if that is so--tell me."
   "Ah! no woman ever tells that secret."
   "Have you come to love the desert?"
   "You ask me that often," she replied, in perplexity. "I don't know. I--I reverence--I fear--I thrill. But love--I can't say that I love the desert. Not yet. Love comes slowly and seldom to me. I loved my mother...Once I loved a horse."
   "Have you loved men?" he queried.
   "No!" she flashed, in sudden passion, and her eyes burned dark on his. "Do you imagine that of me?...I was eighteen when I--when they married me to Virey. I despised him. I learned to loathe him...Wansfell, I never really loved any man. Once I was mad--driven!"
   How easily could Adam strike the chords of her emotion and rouse her to impassioned speech! His power to do this haunted him, and sometimes he could not resist it until wistfulness or trouble in her eyes made him ashamed.
   "Some day I'll tell you how I was driven once--ruined," he said.
   "Ruined! You? Why, Wansfell, you are a man! Sometimes I think you're a god of the desert!...But tell me--what ruined you, as you mean it?"
   "No, not now. I'm interested in your--what is it?--your lack of power to love."
   "Lack! How little you know me! I am all power to love. I am a quivering mass of exquisitely delicate, sensitive nerves. I am a seething torrent of hot blood. I am an empty heart, deep and terrible as this valley, hungry for love as it is hungry for precious rain or dew. I am an illimitable emotion, heaving like the tides of the sea. I am all love."
   "And I--only a stupid blunderer," said Adam.
   "You use a knife, relentlessly, sometimes. Wansfell, listen... I have a child--a lovely girl. She is fourteen years old--the sweetest...Ah! Before she was born I did not love her--I did not want her. But afterward! Wansfell, a mother's love is divine. But I had more than that. All--all my heart went out to Ruth...Love! Oh, my God! does any man know the torture of love?...Oh, I know! I had to leave her--I had to give her up and I'll never--never see--her--again!"
   The woman bowed with hands to her face and all her slender body shook.
   "Forgive me!" whispered Adam, huskily, in distress. It was all he could say for a moment. She had stunned him. Never had he imagined her as a mother. "Yet--yet I'm glad I know now. You should have told me. I am your friend. I've tried to be a--a brother. Tell me, Magdalene. You'll be the--the less troubled. I will help you. I think I understand--just a little. You seemed to me only a very young woman--and you're a mother! Always I say I'll never be surprised again. Why, the future is all surprise! And your little girl's name is Ruth? Ruth Virey. What a pretty name!"
   Adam had rambled on, full of contrition, hating himself, trying somehow to convey sympathy. Perhaps his words, his touch on her bowed shoulder, helped her somewhat, for presently she sat up, flung back her hair, and turned a tear-stained face to him. How changed, how softened, how beautiful! Slowly her eyes were veiling an emotion, a glimpse of which uplifted him.
   "Wansfell, I'm thirty-eight years old," she said.
   "No! I can't believe that!" he ejaculated.
   "It's true."
   "Well, well! I guess I'll go back to figuring the desert. But speaking of age--you guess mine. I'll bet you can't come any nearer to mine."
   Gravely she studied him, and in the look and action once more grew composed.
   "You're a masculine Sphinx. Those terrible lines from cheek to jaw--they speak of agony, but not of age. But you're grey at the temples. Wansfell, you are thirty-seven--perhaps forty."
   "Magdalene Virey!" cried Adam, aghast. "Do I look so old? Alas for vanished youth!...I am only twenty-six."
   It was her turn to be amazed. "We had better confine ourselves to other riddles than love and age. They are treacherous...Come, let us be going."

Chapter 17 >