WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
The hour came when Magdalene Virey stirred Adam to his depths.
"Wansfell," she said, with a rare and wonderful tremor in her voice, "I love the silence, the loneliness, the serenity--even the tragedy of this valley of shadows. Ah! It is one place that will never be popular with men--where few women will ever come. Nature has set it apart for wanderers of the wastelands, men like you, unquenchable souls who endure, as you said, to fight, to strive, to seek, to find...And surely for lost souls like me! Most men and all women must find death here, if they stay. But there is death in life. I've faced my soul here, in the black, lonely watches of the desert nights. And I would endure any agony to change that soul, to make it as high and clear and noble as the white cone of the mountain yonder."
Mysterious and inscrutable, the desert influence had worked upon Magdalene Virey. On the other hand, forces destructive to her physical being had attacked her. It was as if an invisible withering wind had blown upon a flower in the night. Adam saw this with distress. But she laughed at the truth of it--laughed without mockery. Something triumphant rang like a bell in her laugh. Always, in the subtlety of character she had brought with her and the mystery she had absorbed from the desert, she stayed beyond Adam's understanding. It seemed that she liked to listen to his ceaseless importunities; but merciless to herself and aloof from Virey, she refused to leave Death Valley.
"Suppose I pack the burros and tuck you under my arm and take you, anyway?" he queried, stubbornly.
"I fancy I'd like you to tuck me under your arm," she replied, with the low laugh that came readily now, "but if you did--it would be as far as you'd get."
"How so?" he demanded, curiously.
"Why, I'd exercise the prerogative of the eternal feminine and command that time should stand still right there."
A sweetness and charm, perhaps of other days, a memory of power, haunted face and voice then.
"Time--stand still?" echoed Adam, ponderingly. "Magdalene, you are beyond me."
"So it seems. I'm a little beyond myself sometimes. You will never see in me the woman who has been courted, loved, spoiled by men."
"Well, I grasp that, I guess. But I don't care to see you as such a woman. I might not----"
"Ah! you might not respect me," she interrupted. "Alas!...But, Wansfell, if I had met you when I was eighteen I would never have been courted and loved and ruined by men...You don't grasp that, either."
Adam had long ceased to curse his density. The simplicity of him antagonised her complexity. His had been the blessed victory over her bitterness, her mockery, her consciousness of despair. His had been the gladness of seeing her grow brown and strong and well, until these early June days had begun to weaken her. That fact had augmented his earnestness to get her to leave the valley. But she was adamant. And all his importunities and arguments and threats she parried with some subtle femininity of action or look or speech that left him bewildered.
The time came when only early in the mornings or late in the afternoons could they walk to their accustomed seat near the gateway of the valley and climb to the promontories. Nature moved on remorselessly with her seasons, and the sun had begun to assume its fiery authority during most of the daylight hours.
One morning before sunrise they climbed, much against Adam's advice, to a high point where Mrs. Virey loved to face east at that hour. It was a hard climb, too hard for her to attempt in the heat and oppression that had come of late. Nevertheless, she prevailed upon Adam to take her, and she had just about strength enough to get there.
They saw the east luminous and rosy, ethereal and beautiful, momentarily brightening with a rayed effulgence that spread from a golden centre behind the dark bold domes of the Funeral Mountains. They saw the sun rise and change the luminous dawn to lurid day. One moment, and the beauty the glory, the promise were as if they had never been. The light over Death Valley at that height was too fierce for the gaze of man.
On the way down, at a narrow ledge, where loose stones made precarious footing, Adam cautioned his companion and offered to help her. Waving him on, she followed him with her lithe free step. Then she slipped off the more solid trail to a little declivity of loose rocks that began to slide with her toward a slope, where, if she went over it, she must meet serious injury. She did not scream. Adam plunged after her and, reaching her with a long arm just as she was about to fall, he swung her up as if she had only the weight of a child. Then, holding her in his arms, he essayed to wade out of the little stream of sliding rocks. It was difficult only because he feared he might slip and fall with her. Presently he reached the solid ledge and was about to set her upon her feet.
"Time--stand still here!" she exclaimed, her voice full of the old mockery of herself, with an added regret for what might have been, but could never be, with pathos, with the eternal charm of woman who could never separate her personality, her consciousness of her sex, from their old relation to man.
Adam halted his action as if suddenly chained, and he gazed down upon her, where she rested with her head on the bend of his left elbow. There was a smile on the brown face that had once been so pale. Her large eyes, wide open, exposed to the sky, seemed to reflect its dark blue colour and something of its mystery of light. Adam saw wonder there, and reverence that must have been for him, but seemed incredible, and the shading of unutterable thoughts.
"Put me down," she said.
"Why did you say, 'Time--stand still here'?" he asked as he placed her upon her feet.
"Do you remember the time when I told you how words and lines and verses of the poets I used to love come to mind so vividly out here? Sometimes I speak them, that is all."
"I understand. All I ever read has come back to me here on the desert, as clear as the print on the page seen so many years ago. I used to hate Sunday School when I was a boy. But now, often, words of the Bible come before my mind...But are you telling me the whole truth? Why did you say, 'Time--stand still here, when I held you in my arms?"
"What a boy you are!" she murmured, and her eyes held a gladness for the sight of him. "Confess, now, wouldn't that moment have been a beautiful one for time to stop--for life to stand still--for the world to be naught--for thought and memory to cease?"
"Yes, it would," he replied, "but no more beautiful than this moment while you stand there so. When you look like that you make me hope."
"For what?" she queried, softly.
"Wansfell, you are the only man I've ever known who could have held me in his arms and have been blind and dead to the nature of a woman...Listen. You've done me the honour to say I have splendid thoughts and noble emotions. I hope I have. I know you have inspired many. I know this valley of death has changed my soul. But, Wansfell, I am a woman, and a woman is more than her high and lofty thoughts--her wandering inspirations. A woman is a creature of feeling, somehow doomed...When I said, 'Time--stand still here,' I was false to the woman in me that you idealise. A thousand thoughts, emotions, memories, desires, sorrows, vanities prompted the words of which you have made me ashamed. But to spare myself a little, let me say that it would indeed be beautiful for me to have you take me up into your arms--and then for time to stand still forever."
"Do you mean that--so--you'd feel safe, protected, at rest?" he asked, with emotion.
"Yes, and infinitely more. Wansfell, it is a woman's fate that the only safe and happy and desired place for her this side of the grave is in the arms of the man she loves. A real man--with strength and gentleness--for her and her alone!...It is a terrible thing in women, the need to be loved. As a baby I had that need--as a girl--and as a woman it became a passion. Looking back now, through the revelation that has come to me here in this valley of silence--when thought is clairvoyant and all-pervading--I can see how the need of love, the passion to be loved, is the strongest instinct in any woman. It is an instinct. She can no more change it than she can change the shape of her hand. Poor fated women! Education, freedom, career may blind them to their real nature. But it is a man, the right man, that means life to a woman. Otherwise the best in her dies...That instinct in me--for which I confess shame--has been unsatisfied despite all the men who have loved me. When you have saved me--perhaps from injury--and took me into your arms, the instinct over which I have no control flashed up. While it lasted, until you looked at me, I wanted that moment to last forever. I wanted to be held that way--in your great, strong arms--until the last trumpet sounded. I wanted you to see only me, feel only me, hold only me, live for only me, love me beyond all else on earth and in heaven!"
As she paused, her slender brown hands at her heaving breast, her eyes strained as if peering through obscurity at a distant light. Adam could only stare at her in helpless fascination. In such moods as this she taught him as much of the mystery of life as he had taught her of the nature of the desert.
"Now the instinct is gone," she continued. "Chilled by your aloofness! I am looking at it with intelligence. And, Wansfell, I'm filled with pity for women. I pity myself, despite the fact that my mind is free. I can control my acts, if not my instincts and emotions. I am bound. I am a woman. I am a she-creature. I am little different from the fierce she-cats, the she-lions--any of the she-animals that you've told me fight to survive down on your wild Colorado Desert...That seems to me the sex, the fate, the doom of women. Ah! no wonder they fight for men--spit and hiss and squall and scratch and rend! It's a sad thing, seen from a woman's mind. That great mass of women who cannot reason about their instincts, or understand the springs of their emotions--they are the happier. Too much knowledge is bad for my sex. Perhaps we are wrongly educated. I am the happier for what you have taught me. I can see myself now with pity instead of loathing. I am not to blame for what life has made me. There are no wicked women. They must be loved or they are lost... My friend, the divinity in human life is seen best in some lost woman like me."
"Magdalene Virey," protested Adam, "I can't follow you...But to say you are a lost woman--that I won't listen to."
"I was a lost woman," interrupted Mrs. Virey, her voice rising out of the strong, sweet melody. "I had my pride and I defied the husband whose heart I broke and whose life I ruined. I scorned the punishment, the exile he meted out to me. That was because I was thoroughbred. But all the same I was lost. Lost to happiness, to hope, to effort, to repentance, to spiritual uplift. Death Valley will be my tomb, but there will be resurrection for me...It is you, Wansfell, you have been my salvation...You have the power. It has come from your strife and agony on the desert. It is beyond riches, beyond honour. It is the divine in you that seeks and finds the divine in unfortunates who cross your wandering trail."
Adam, rendered mute, could only offer his hand; and in silence he led her down the slope.
That afternoon, near the close of the hot hours, Adam lay in the shade of the brush shelter he had erected near the Virey shack. He was absorbed in watching a tribe of red ants, and his posture was so unusual that it gave pause to Virey, who had come down from the slope. The man approached and curiously gazed at Adam, to see what he was doing.
"Looking for grains of gold?" inquired Virey, with sarcasm. "I'll lend you my magnifying glass."
"I'm watching these red ants," replied Adam, without looking up.
Virey bent over and, having seen, he slowly straightened up.
"Go to the ant, thou sluggard!" he ejaculated, and this time without sarcasm.
"Virey, I'm no sluggard," returned Adam. "It's you who are that. I'm a worker."
"Wansfell, I was not meaning you," said Virey. "There are things I hate you for, but laziness is certainly not included in them...I never worked in my life. I had money left me. It was a curse. I thought I could buy everything. I bought a wife--the big-eyed woman to whom you devote your services--and your attentions...And I bought for myself the sweetness of the deadly nightshade flower--a statue of marble, chiselled in the beautiful curves of mocking love--a woman of chain lightning and hate...If I had lived by industry, as live those red ants you're watching, I might not now have one foot in my grave in Death Valley."
Thus there were rare instances when Virey appeared a man with the human virtues of regret, of comprehension, of intolerance, but never a word issued from his lips that was not tinged with bitterness. Had the divinity in him been blasted forever? Or was it a submerged spark that could quicken only to a touch of the woman lost to him? Adam wondered. Sometimes a feeling of pity for Virey stole over him, but it never lasted long. Adam had more respect for these red ants than for some men, despite the alleged divinity. He abhorred the drones of life. The desert taught how useless were the idlers--how nature ruthlessly cut them off.
The red ants had a hill some few paces from the shelter where Adam lay. One train of ants, empty handed, as it were, travelled rapidly from the ant hill toward the camp litter; and another train staggered under tremendous burdens in the other direction. At first Adam thought these last were carrying bits of bread, then he thought they were carrying grains of gravel, and then he discovered, by moving closer to watch, that they were carrying round black-and-white globules, several times as large as their own bodies. Presently he concluded that these round objects were ant eggs which the tribe was moving from one hill to another. It was exceedingly interesting to watch them. He recognised them as the species of desert ant that could bite almost as fiercely as a scorpion. Their labour was prodigious. The great difficulty appeared to be in keeping the eggs in their jaws, These burdens were continually falling out and rolling away. Some ants tried many times and in many ways to grasp the hard little globules. Then, when this was accomplished, came the work compared with which the labour of man seemed insignificant. After getting a start the loaded ants, made fair progress over smooth, hard ground, but when they ran into a crust of earth or a pebble or a chip they began the toil of a giant. The ant never essayed to go round the obstacle. He surmounted it.. He pushed and lifted and heaved, and sometimes backed over, dragging his precious burden behind him. Others would meet a little pitfall and, instead of circling it to get to the ant hill, they would roll down, over and over, with their eggs, until they reached the bottom. Then it was uphill work on the other side, indefatigable, ceaseless, patient, wonderful.
Adam presently had to forego his little sentiment about the toil of the ants over their eggs. The black-and-white globules were seeds of maize. On the night before, Adam's burro Jinny had persisted around camp until he gave her the last of some maize left in one of his packs. Jinny had spilled generous quantities of the maize in the sand, and the ants were carrying home the seeds.
How powerful they were! How endowed with tireless endurance and a persistence beyond human understanding! The thing that struck Adam so singularly was that these ants did not recognise defeat. They could not give up. Failure was a state unknown to their instincts. And so they performed marvellous feats. What was the spirit that actuated them? The mighty life of nature was infinitely strong in them. It was the same as the tenacity of the lichen that lived on the desert rocks, or the eyesight of the condor that could see its prey from the invisible heights of the sky, or the age-long destructive movements of the mountain tops wearing down to the valleys.
When Adam got up from his pleasant task and meditation he was surprised to find Mrs. Virey standing near with eyes intent on him. Then it became incumbent upon him to show her the toils of the red ants. She watched them attentively for a while.
"Wonderful little creatures!" she exclaimed. "So this watching is one of the secrets of your desert knowledge, Wansfell, I can't compare these ants to men. They are far superior. They have order, purpose. They are passionless, perfect organisations to carry on their lives. They will work and live--the descendants of this very tribe of ants--long after the race of men has disappeared off the face of the earth...But wonderful as they are, and interesting as are their labours, I'd prefer to watch you chop wood, or, better, to climb the slope with your giant stride."
That night, sometime late, Adam was awakened by a gale that swooped up through the gateway from the valley. It blew away the cool mountain air which had settled down from the heights. It was a warmer wind than any Adam had ever before experienced at night. It worried him. Forerunner, it must be, of the midnight furnace winds that had added to the fame of Death Valley! It brought a strange, low, hollow roar, unlike any other sound in nature. It was a voice. Adam harkened to the warning. On the morrow he would again talk to Virey. Soon it might be too late to save Magdalene Virey. She had obstructed his will. She would not leave without her husband. She had bidden Adam stay there in Death Valley to serve her, but she seemed to have placed her husband beyond Adam's reach. The ferocity in Adam had never found itself in relation to Virey. Adam had persuaded and argued with the persistence of the toiling ant, but to work his way with Virey seemed to demand the swoop of the desert hawk.
This strange warm wind, on its first occurrence during Adam's stay in the valley, rose to a gale and then gradually subsided until it moaned away mournfully. Its advent had robbed Adam of sleep; its going seemed to leave a deader silence, fraught with the meaning of its visit.
Adam could sleep no more. This silence belied the blinking of the stars. It disproved the solidarity of the universe. Nothing lived, except his soul, that seemingly had departed from his body in a dream, and now with his vague thoughts and vaguer feelings wandered over the wastelands, a phantom in the night. Silence of utter solitude--most intense, dead, dreaming, waiting, sepulchre-like, awful! Where was the rustle of the wings of the bats? The air moved soundlessly, and it seemed to have the substance of shadows. A dead solitude--a terrible silence! A man and the earth! The wide spaces, the wild places of the earth as it was in the beginning! Here could be the last lesson to a thinking man--the last development of a man into savage or god.
There! Was that a throb of his heart or a ring in his ear? Crack of a stone, faint, far away, high on the heights, a lonely sound making real the lonely night. It relieved Adam. The tension of him relaxed. And he listened, hopefully, longing to hear another break in the silence that would be so insupportable.
As he listened, the desert moon, oval in shape, orange hued and weird, sailed over the black brow of the mountain and illumined the valley in a radiance that did not seem of land or sea. The darkness of midnight gave way to orange shadows, mustering and shading, stranger than the fantastic shapes of dreams.
Another ring of rock on rock, and sharp rattle, and roll on roll, assured Adam that the weathering gods of the mountain were not daunted by the silence and the loneliness of Death Valley. They were working as ever. Their task was to level the mountain down to the level of the sea. The stern, immutable purpose seemed to vibrate in the ringing cracks and in the hollow reports. These sounds in their evenness and perfect rhythm and lonely tone established once more in Adam's disturbed consciousness the nature of the place. Death Valley! The rolling of rocks dispelled phantasms.
Then came a low, grating roar. The avalanche of endless broken rocks had slipped an inch. It left an ominous silence. Adam stirred restlessly in his blankets. There was a woman in the lee of that tremendous sliding slope a woman of delicate frame, of magnificent spirit, of a heart of living flame. Every hour she slept or lay wide-eyed in the path of that impending cataclysm was one of exceeding peril. Adam chafed under the invisible bonds of her will. Because she chose to lie there, fearless, beyond the mind of man to comprehend, was that any reason why he should let her perish? Adam vowed that he would end this dread situation before another nightfall. Yet when he thought of Magdalene Virey his heart contracted. Only through the fierce spirit of the desert could he defy her and beat down the jailer who chained her there. But that fierce spirit of his seemed obstructed by hers, an aloof thing, greater than ferocity, beyond physical life.
And so Adam lay sleepless, listening to the lonely fall of sliding rocks, the rattle and clash, and then the hollow settling. Then he listened to the silence.
It was broken by a different note, louder, harsher--the rattle and bang of a stone displaced and falling from a momentum other than its own. It did not settle. Heavy and large, it cracked down to thud into the sand and bump out through the brush. Scarcely had it quieted when another was set in motion, and it brought a low, sliding crash of many small rocks. Adam sat up, turning his ear toward the slope. Another large stone banged down to the sands. Adam heard the whiz of it, evidently hurtling through the air between his camp and the Vireys'. If that stone had struck their shack!
Adam got up and, pulling on his boots, walked out a little way from the camp. What an opaque orange gloom! Nevertheless, it had radiance. He could see almost as well as when the full moon soared in silver effulgence. More cracking and rolling of little rocks, and then the dislodgment of a heavy one, convinced Adam that a burro was climbing the slope or a panther had come down to prowl around camp. At any rate the displacement of stones jarred unnaturally on Adam's sensitive ear.
Hurrying across to the Virey shack, he approached the side farther from the slope and called through the brush wall, "Mrs. Virey!"
"Yes. What do you want, Wansfell?" she replied, instantly. She had been wide awake.
"Have you heard the sliding rocks?"
"Indeed I have! All through that strange roar of wind--and later."
"You and Virey better get up and take your blankets out a ways, where you will not be in danger. I think there's a burro or a panther up on the slope. You know how loose the stones are--how at the slightest touch they come sliding and rolling. I'll go up and scare the beast away."
"Wansfell, you're wrong," came the reply, with that old mockery which always hurt Adam. "You should not insult a burro--not to speak of a panther."
"What?" queried Adam, blankly.
"It is another kind of an animal."
But for that subtle mockery of voice Adam would have been persuaded the woman was out of her head, or at least answering him in her sleep.
"Mrs. Virey, please----"
"Wansfell, it's a sneaking coyote," she called, piercingly, and then she actually uttered a low laugh.
Adam was absolutely dumbfounded. "Coyote!" he ejaculated.
"Yes. It's my husband. It's Virey. He found out the rolling rocks frightened me at night. So he climbs up there and rolls them...Sees how close he can come to hitting the shack!...Oh, he's done that often!"
An instant Adam leaned there with his head bent to the brush wall, as if turned to stone. Then like a man stung he leaped up and bounded round the shack toward the slope.
In the orange radiance on that strange, moon-blanched slope he dimly saw a moving object. It stood upright. Indeed, no burro or panther! Adam drew a deep and mighty breath for the yell that must jar the very stones from their sockets.
"HYAR!" he yelled in stentorian roar. Like thunder the great sound pealed up the slope. "COME DOWN OR I'LL WRING YOUR NECK!"
Only the clapping, rolling, immeasurable echoes answered him. The last hollow clap and roll died away leaving the silence deader than before.
Adam spent the remainder of that night pacing to and fro in the orange-hued shadows, fighting the fierce, grim violence that at last had burst its barrier. Adam could have wrung the life out of this Virey with less compunction than he would have in stamping on the head of a venomous reptile. Yet it was as if a spirit kept in the shadow of his form, as he strode the bare shingle gazing up at the solemn black mountains and at the wan stars.
Adam went down to the gateway between the huge walls. A light was kindling over the far-away Funeral range, and soon a glorious star swept up, as if by magic, above the dark rim of the world. The morning star shining down into Death Valley! No dream--no illusion--no desert mirage! Like the Star of Bethlehem beckoning the Wise Men to the East, it seemed to blaze a radiant path for Adam down across the valley of dim, mystic shadows. What could be the meaning of such a wonderful light? Was that blue-white lilac-haloed star only another earth upon which the sun was shining? Adam lifted his drawn face to its light and wrestled with the baser side of his nature. He seemed to be dominated by the spirit that kept close to his side. Magdalene Virey kept vigil with him on that lonely beat. It was her agony which swayed and wore down his elemental passion. Would not he fail her if he killed this man? Virey's brutality seemed not the great question at issue for him.
"I'll not kill him--yet!"
Thus Adam eased the terrible contention within him.
When he returned to camp the sun had risen red and hot, with a thin, leaden haze dulling its brightness. No wind stirred. Not a sound broke the stillness. Magdalene Virey sat on the stone bench under the brush shelter, waiting for him. She rose as he drew near. Never had he seen her like this, smiling a welcome that was as true as her presence, yet facing him with darkened eyes and tremulous lips and fear. Adam read her. Not fear of him, but of what he might do!
"Is Virey back yet?" he asked.
"Yes. He just returned. He's inside--going to sleep."
"I want to see him--to get something off my mind," said Adam.
"Wait--Adam!" she cried, and reached for him as he wheeled to go toward the shack.
One glance at her brought Adam to a standstill, and then to a slow settling down upon the stone seat, where he bowed his head. Life had held few more poignant moments than this, in his pity for others. Yet he thrilled with admiration for this woman. She came close to him, leaned against him, and the quiver of her body showed she needed the support. She put a shaking hand on his shoulder.
"My friend--brother," she whispered, "if you kill him--it will undo--all the good you've done--for me."
"You told me once that the grandest act of a man was to fight for the happiness--the life of a woman," he replied.
"True! And haven't you fought for my happiness, and my life, too? I would have died long ago. As for happiness--it has come out of my fight, my work, my effort to meet you on your heights--more happiness than I deserve--than I ever hoped to attain...But if you kill Virey--all will have been in vain."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it is I who ruined him," she replied, in low, deep voice, significant of the force behind it. "As men go in the world he was a gentleman, a man of affairs, happy and carefree. When he met me his life changed. He worshipped me. It was not his fault that I could not love him. I hated him because they forced me to marry him. For years he idolised me...Then--then came the shock--his despair, his agony. It made him mad. There is a very thin line between great love and great hate."
"What--what ruined him?" demanded Adam.
"Adam, it will be harder to confess than any other ordeal of my whole life. Because--because you are the one man I should have met years ago...Do you understand? And I--who yearn for your respect--for your--Oh, spare me!...I who need your faith--your strange incomprehensible faith in me--I, who hug to my hungry bosom the beautiful hopes you have in me--I must confess my shame to save my husband's worthless life."
"No. I'll not have you--you humiliating yourself to save him anything. I give my word. I'll never kill Virey unless he harms you."
"Ah! But he has harmed me. He has struck me...Wansfell! don't leap like that. Listen. Virey will harm me, sooner or later. He is obsessed with his one idea--to see me suffer. That is why he has let you and me wander around together so much. He hoped in his narrow soul to see you come to love me, and me to love you--so through that I should fall again--to suffer more anguish--to offer more meat for his hellish revenge...But, lo! I am uplifted--forever beyond his reach--never to be rent by his fiendish glee...unless you kill him--which would stain my hands with his blood--bring back the doom of soul from which you rescued me!"
"Magdalene, I swear I'll never kill Virey unless he kills you," declared Adam, as if forced beyond endurance.
"Ah, I ask no more!" she whispered, in passionate gratitude. "My God! how I feared you--yet somehow gloried in your look!...And now listen, friend, brother--man who should have been my lover--I hurry to my abasement. I kill the she-thing in me and go on to my atonement. I fight the instincts of a woman. I sacrifice a possible paradise, for I am young and life is sweet."
She circled his head with her arm and drew it against her heaving breast. The throbs of that tortured heart beat, beat, beat all through Adam's blood, to the core of his body.
"My daughter Ruth was not Virey's child," she went on, her voice low, yet clear as a bell. "I was only nineteen--a fool--mad--driven. I thought I was in love, but it was only one of those insane spells that so often ruin women. For years I kept the secret. Then I could not keep it any longer. At the height of Virey's goodness to me, and his adoration, and his wonderful love for Ruth, I told him the truth. I had to tell it...That killed his soul. He lived only to make me suffer. The sword he held over my head was the threat to tell my secret to Ruth. I could not bear that. A thousand deaths would have been preferable to that...So in the frenzy of our trouble we started west for the desert. My father and Ruth followed us--caught up with us at Sacramento. Virey hated Ruth as passionately as he had loved her. I dared not risk him near her in one of his terrible moods. So I sent Ruth away with my father, somewhere to southern California. She did not know it was parting forever. But, O God in heaven--how I knew it!...Then, in my desperation, I dared Virey to his worst. I had ruined him and I would pay to the last drop of blood in my bitter heart. We came to Death Valley, as I told you, because the terror and desolation seemed to Virey to be as close to a hell on earth as he could find to hide me. Here he began indeed to make me suffer--dirt and vermin and thirst and hunger and pain! Oh! the horror of it all comes back to me!...But even Death Valley cheated him. You came, Wansfell, and now--at last--I believe in God!"
Adam wrapped a long arm around her trembling body and held her close. At last she had confessed her secret. It called to the unplumbed depths of him. And the cry in his heart was for the endless agony of woman. And it was a bitter cry of doubt. If Magdalene Virey had at last found faith in God, it was more than Adam had found, though she called him the instrument of her salvation. A fierce and terrible rage flamed in him for the ruin of her. Like a lion he longed to rise up to slay. Blood and death were the elements that equalised wrong. Yet through his helpless fury whispered a still voice into his consciousness--she had been miserable and now she was at peace; she had been lost and now she was saved. He could not get around that. His desert passion halted there. He must go on alone into the waste places and ponder over the wonder of this woman and what had transformed her. He must remember her soul-moving words and, away somewhere in the solitude and silence, learn if the love she intimated was a terrible truth. It could not be true now, yet the shaking of her slender form communicated itself to his, and there was inward tumult, strange, new, a convulsive birth of a sensation dead these many years--dead since that dusky-eyed Margarita Arallanes had tilted her black head to say, "Ah so long ago and far away!"
Memory surged up in Adam, moving him to speak aloud his own deeply hidden secret, by the revelation of which he might share the shame and remorse and agony of Magdalene Virey.
"I will tell you my story," he said, and the words were as cruel blades at the closed portals of his heart. Huskily he began, halting often, breathing hard, while the clammy sweat beaded upon his brow. What was this life--these years that deceived with forgetfulness? His trouble was there as keen as on the day it culminated. He told Magdalene of his boyhood, of his love for his brother Guerd, and of their life in the old home where all, even friendships of the girls, was for Guerd and nothing for him. As he progressed Magdalene Virey's own agony was forgotten. The quiver of her body changed to strung intensity, the heaving of her bosom was no longer the long-drawn breath to relieve oppression. Remorselessly as she had bared her great secret, Adam confessed his little, tawdry, miserable romance--his wild response to the lure of a vain Mexican girl, and his fall, and the words that had disillusioned him.
"Ah, so long ago and far away!" echoed Magdalene Virey, all the richness of her wonderful voice gathering in a might of woman's fury. "Oh, such a thing for a girl to say!...And Adam--she, this Margarita, was the only woman you ever loved--ever knew that way?"
"And she was the cause of your ruin?"
"Indeed she was, poor child!"
"The damned hussy!" cried Magdalene, passionately. "And you--only eighteen years old? How I hate her! And what of the man who won her fickle heart?"
Adam bowed as a tree in a storm. "He--he was my brother."
"Oh no!" she burst out. "The boy you loved--the brother! Oh, it can't be true!"
"It was true...And, Magdalene--I killed him."
Then with a gasp she enveloped him, in a fierce, protective frenzy of tenderness, arms around him, pressing his face to her breast, hanging over him as a mother over her child.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God! How terrible!...Your brother!...And I thought my secret, my sin, my burden so terrible! Oh, my heart bleeds for you... Wansfell, poor unhappy wanderer!"