Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 12 page 206
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AS it--could it be?" Bella asked mutely, with wildly beating heart.
Hildegarde, too, was wide-eyed and pale, though even in the dusk, plain to see the vigorous upstanding figure was not a bent old man's. Bella felt the happy blood come flooding back about her heart; only to ebb again with a suddenness so mighty, that it seemed to withdraw from her, not gladness only, but volition and all feeling--seemed to want to carry out life itself upon its backward tide.
For the man had trodden down the flowers in the border, and pushed his way through the syringa thicket. He stood at the open window, looking in.
"Well, Mr. Louis Cehviot," said Mrs. Mar, with an affectation of calmness, "where did you drop from?" And then Hildegarde's helmeted figure rose up like some spirit of woman out of another time. But she stood quite still, and she looked as if she knew she was dreaming.
Cheviot vaulted over the low sill, and came toward her with eyes of wonder. "What 's all this for? Why are you like that?"--but he had grasped her hand.
"That absurd thing on her head? It was to show the boys," explained Mrs. Mar. "A ball--"
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"Are you sure you are you?" Hildegarde found her voice at last.
"Much surer than I am that you are you. I saw your light from the street, and I felt I could n't possibly wait to go round and ring the bell. I thought I must come and look in and see what you were like, though I must say I did n't expect--" He was shaking hands with Mrs. Mar now, but he glanced over his shoulder at the tall white figure and past it to Bella. "I believe I 've succeeded in scaring at least one of the party. How do you do, Bella? Feel me. I 'm not a ghost!"
"My dear boy," interrupted Mrs. Mar, speaking in her most matter of fact tone, "Sit down and tell us all about it." She at all events was not too agitatied to put her marker in the book before she closed it, and she took up her crochet.
Hildegarde was still standing there, but she had taken off the helmet and held it in her hand. "Are you--are you alone?" she asked.
"I suppose you 've heard nothing of Mr. Mar?" said Mrs. Mar, who had never in her life been heard to refer to that gentleman in any more intimate fashion.
"Oh, yest, I have." Cheviot sat down. Hildegarde still stood there. "I was with him between five and six months."
"With father! Has he been to the Klondike, too?"
"No; but I 've been to Golovin."
"Your last letter, nine months ago, said you were coming by the next boat," Mrs. Mar arraigned him.
"Yes, but I had n't heard from Hildegarde when I wrote that."
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"What difference did that make?"
"The difference of my following her suggestion to look out for Mr. Mar. I had to go to Golovin to do it."
"Is that where he is now?" demanded his wife. "Why on earth has n't he written?"
Cheviot felt in his inner pocket, as he said, "No, Mr. Mar 's at Nome."
"He--he 's not ill?" faltered Hildegarde.
"No, on the contrary, he 's better than he 's been for years."
"Then what on earth 's he doing at Nome?" demanded Mrs. Mar. "Why did n't he go to the place he 's been talking about for all these--"
"Well?" and then, with her peculiar incisiveness, "What 's he got to show for it all?"
Cheviot did not wonder that Mar would rather not return to face that particular look in the polished onyx eyes. "I don't know,"--he hesitatied--"that there 's very much to show--as yet."
"It ought n't to surprise anybody." The lady turned the highly polished stones in her head with an added glitter.
"When is he home?" asked Hildegarde, with a pitiful lip.
"Perhaps next summer."
"Perhaps! echoed the girl.
Even Mrs. Mar stopped crocheting a moment. "Hush, Hildegarde. Let him tell us." But she must not be supposed to be over-anxious. "Have you just come? Have you had anything to eat?"
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"Oh, thank you--in the train. First of all, I must give you the letters he 's sent." He handed one to Mrs. Mar, and one to Hildegarde. Another he laid on the table under the lamp. It was addressed to Messrs. Trennor and Harry Mar. Mother and daughter hurriedly read and exchanged letters.
"Well, Miss Bella, how 's the world treating you?" and Cheviot talked on in his old half-ironic fashion to the pale girl putting away a heap of tangled silver thread in a work-box.
Mrs. Mar's eye, grown even harder and brighter in the last moments, fell upon the envelop under the lamp. She did not scruple to tear it open. But there was little enlightenment even in the epistle to "the boys."
"He says you 'll give us the particulars." Mrs. Mar flung the notice at Cheviot as if plainly to advertise her intention to hold him responsible if those same particulars were not reassuring.
Cheviot told briefly how he had found Mr. Mar at the mission, how an eavesdropper had overheard their private talk, and how Mr. mar reached his journey's end only to find that the thirty-year-old secret had been filched from him, and other men (who had n't known it but three days), how they had gathered in the harvest."
"Not all--surely father got something?"
"By the time he reached Anvil Creek he found it staked from end to end."
Mrs. Mar was plying the crochet-needle with a rapidity superhuman. "Of course he 'd be too late," she said, with a deadly quietness. "Give him thirty years' start, and he 'll be too late."
"It was an outrage that a handful of men should
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have been able to gobble the entire creek," said Cheviot hurriedly. "The laws will be changed, beyond a doubt. They 're monstrous. Every miner has been able to take out a power of attorney, and he could locate for his entire family, for all his friends--even for people who don't exist."
"And those missionaries took it all!"
"Not the missionaries. They were chivvied out of the game by a reindeer herder they 'd let into the secret. It 's too long a story to tell you now, but the herder gave the missionaries the slip, and got word to some friends of his. The rascals formed a district and elected a recorder. By the time we got there, there was n't an inch left for the man who 'd discoverd the gold."
In the pause Hildegarde hunted wildly in her mind for something to say--something that would prevent her mother from speaking--but the girl's tongue could find no word, her mind refused to act.
Fortunately, the story had reduced even Mrs. Mar to silence.
"In the end Christianson and Björk did n't fare much better than Mr. Mar, though I believe they got something. But the herder and his friends are millionaires."
It was more than one of the company could bear. Mrs. Mar got up and left the room.
Cheviot met Hildegarde's eyes. There was that in his face that gave her the sense of leaning on him in spirit--of being in close alliance with him.
"Poor, poor father!" she said, in a half whisper. "Does he take it dreadfully to heart?"
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"Well, you can imagine it was n't an easy thing to bear."
"No, but why is n't he here--we 'll all help him to bear it."
Cheviot looked at the door through which Mrs. Mar had disappeared. His eyes said plain as print, "Will she?"
But father must come home!" Hildegarde broke in on the eloquent silence, as though upon some speech of Cheviot's. "What is he thinking of--he does n't mean--"
Her agitation was so great she hardly notice that Bella had finished putting the things away in the work-box, and was leaving the room. The moment she had shut the door, "He can't face it," said Cheviot.
"Oh, but that 's madness. He must be told that we--that I--he must come home. Why, it 's the most dreadful thing I ever heard of in my life, his bearing it all alone." Her tears were falling. "Tell me--there 's nothing in the letters--Louis,"--she leaned forward--"you and I always tell each other the truth, don't we?"
"I'm afraid we do," he said, with his old look.
"Then tell me what 's in fahter's mind. What has he said to you?
"That he will stay up there till--somehow--he has either made his pile, or made his exit."
"The girl laid her head down beside the shining helmet on the table, and wept convulsively.
"I had to tell you." Cheviot had come close to her, and his voice was half indignant, half miserable.
Blindly she put out a hand and grasped his arm. "Thank you--you--you have been good. His letter to
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me says that you--that you--Louis!" Suddenly she lifted her wet face, "I am 'unendingly grateful.'"
"Well, I hope you 'll get over it." He drew his arm out of her grasp, and walked about the room.
Hildegarde followed him with tear-wet eyes that grew more and more bewildered. "I can't understand how you 're here. I thought navigation would n't be open for a month."
"I came out with dogs over the ice."
She stared incredulous. "How did you come?"
"Round the coast of Norton Bay, down across the Yukon, and over to the Kuskoquim, and then by the old Russian route to Kadiak Island?"
"How in the world did you know the way?"
"Part of the time I had native guides."
"Was n't it a very terrible journey?"
"I don't know that I 'd do it again."
"And when you got down to Kadiak Island."
"I waited a week for the boat."
"They run in winter!"
"Yes. Kadiak comes in for a swing eastward of the warm Japanese current. The boats ply regularly to Sitka."
"It must have taken you a long time to do all that first part on your own two feet."
He did n't answer.
"When did you see father last?"
"On the morning of the 8th of December, when I cracked my whip over my dog-team and turned my back on Nome."
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"Heavens! Why, that 's--"
"Over three months ago." Most men would have paused a moment for contemplation of their prowess or at least of their hardships, but Cheviot was ready to put his achievement at once and for ever behind him--ready, not only to imagine the general interest somewhere else, but to lead the way thither. "To be exact, it was three months and sixteen days ago; but your father was all right when I left him, and he had supplies."
"Has he any friends?"
"He 's got a dog he 's very thick with, and he 's got a comfortable tent."
"A tent, in that climate!"
"It 's all anybody has. No lumber for cabins; little even for sluices, hardly enough for rockers--to rock out the dust, you know. Wood is dearer than gold."
"I assure you there was only one thing he was really in want of."
"What was that?"
"Some way to get word to you. He knew you 'd be anxious. He wants you not to take his failure to heart. He thinks a great deal about that, because he says you helped--"
"He wanted me to make it quite clear to you that in spite of everything he was n't sorry he 'd tried it. And you must n't be sorry either. You must write to him, Hildegarde, and reassure him."
She nodded and turned away her face, but she put up her hand like one who cannot bear much more.
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"He was afraid you were fretting about him. I never saw him more awfully pleased and glad than when I made up my mind to come out over the ice."
"That appalling journey! You did it for him?"
"No, I did n't."
He waited, as if for a sign, and then, speaking almost surlily, "I did it for myself," he said. "I 'd been away long enough."
"Yes," said Hildegarde, yes, indeed."
"I could n't bear it any longer, sitting there in the dark and cold, and the"--she raised her eyes--"the--oh, it 's not such a bad place as people make out; if you are n't eating your heart out to know--"
"What 's father doing?" she asked hastily.
"Waiting to hear from you. Waiting, like everybody else, for the ice to go out."
"What will he do when the ice goes out?"
"He 's got some claims," Cheviot lowered his voice to say. "He does n't want anybody but you to know, for fear there 's nothing in them. But as shoon as the frost is enough out of the ground to yield to pick and shovel, he means to rock out a few tons of gravel and see."
"Do it himself!"--then, as Cheviot did not answer at once, "It 's simply dreadful! It 's-- I can't bear it." She hid her face.
"Don't, Hildegarde. I wish you would n't cry."
"Are you going back there?"
"No, oh, no; I 'm not even going back to the Klondike."
Mrs. Mar opened the door behind them. "It must be hours since you made that miserable meal in the train," she said. "Come in here and have some supper."
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Cheviot would have declined but that he knew he must some time submit to a tête-à- tête. Best get it over.
After the dining-room door shut behind her mother and Cheviot, Hildegarde still sat there. The only movement about the white figure under the lamp was the salt water that welled up constantly and constantly overflowed the wide, sad eyes. The handle of the other door turned softly--a girl's face looked in.
"Bella"--the motionless figure rose out of the chair and the one at the threshold came swiftly in. "Bella"--the voice was muffled--"my father--my father does n't mean ever to come home."
The incoming figure stopped. "Do the letters say that?" Bella asked, awestruck.
"No, Louis says so."
"Well, I think it was very heartless of him."
"No, it was n't. I made him. It would have been infinitely worse to be always waiting."
"To be always waiting is perhaps the worst," said Bella, with lowered eyes.
"Yes, worst of all."
Bella roused herselsf and came nearer to her friend. "But for Mr. Mar--why, it 's impossible--don't you believe it, dear. It 's absurd to think--"
"He 'll never come back. You 'll see he 'll nver come back, unless--"
"Unless"--Hildegarde cleared her tear-veiled voice--"unless some one goes and brings him home."
"Don't you see, he 's failed. He 's been enormously
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kind;--he 's been wonderful, but he could n't get my father to come home."
"Are you thinking one of the boys might?"
Hildegarde shook her head. "They could n't make him."
"She looked round the room with eyes that again were filling. But they came back to Bella's face. "Father would do it for me," she said; "don't you know he would?"
"Well," said the other, staring, "if not for you, for no one."
"Yes, yes, he 'd do it for me!" Hildegarde moved about the room with a restlessness unusual in her. She went to each window in turn, pulled dwon the blinds and drew the curtains; and still she moved about the room. Excitement had drunk her tears. Her face was full of light.
Bella did not stir, but no look or move of Hildegarde's escaped her. She fixed her eyes on the gleaming dragons that crawled at the hem of Hildegarde's skirt. The voices in the next room were audible, but not the words.
Across the street the tireless female had again struck up her favorite march.
"You 'd have to go alone," Bella said presently.
"Yes, I 'd have to go alone."
"It 's an awful journey."
"I suppose so."
"Yes, and the people--the roughest sort of people."
"I would n't be afraid--at least, not much."
"I should n't dare to."
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"No, no, you 're younger. And besides, even if I were the younger, I 'm the one who could do it." Not often that Hildegarde laid herself open to a charge of arrogance. "Yes," she said, with rising excitement, "I could do it, only"--and the high look fell--"it costs a great deal." She stood quite still looking down upon Brunhild's shield, that showed on the dark carpet like a tiny circular pool of gleaming water. Still that maddening piano over the way! "The boys would n't help me," Hildegarde thought out loud, "they 've already--they 'll be disgusted enough as it is." She sat down, still with her eyes on the shield, as if she did n't dare lose sight of it a moment. "Of course mother would n't dream--" After a little pause, "And Louis would say I was mad. But I must think--I must think!" She leaned her tilted chin on her hand, and still like one hypnotized she stared at the metal disk shining there in the shadow. "I must find a way. Father shall not be left up there another winter."
Nothing more, till Bella brought out quite low the words, "I could get you the money."
"Bella!" Hildegarde dropped her hand and sat back. "Would you?"
Instead of answereing, "I would n't dare to go myself," Bella said.
"Oh, you could n't possibly." (Had Bella really meant that she might lend--) "Even if there were any need of it you could n't go." Hildegarde's lips only were saying words, her mind was already faring away on an immense and wonderful journey, that she--she was competent to undertake. "You are n't the kind, anyway," she wound up bluntly, coming back.
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"Nobody would think you were the kind either--nobody but me."
"Yes, yes. You 've always understood that I was n't a bit like what people thought," and, indeed, few who supposed they knew Hildegarde Mar but would have been surprised at the look in her face to-night, for once betraying not alone a passionate partizanship with her father's stranded and embittered existence, but the glow that even the thought of "going to the rescue" may light in a generous heart, and reflect in the quietest face.
"You could do anything you meant to," said Bella, marvelling a little at the new beauty in her friend, "anything. But this--you 'd have to be very brave to go on such a--"
"No, I would n't. I long to go."
No great surprise to Bella after all, this admission that Hildegarde, the reticent, the cold, was really buning with all sorts of eagerness that had never been suffered expression.
But there was something more here to-night. Like many another, Hildegarde could have gone through hardship and suffering for the sake of any one she loved, but the look on her face as she sat there under the light, revealed the fact that this journey Bella shrank from even thinking of, that Hildegarde herself had called "appalling," made yet its own strange appeal to the girl, apart from love of her father, independent of the joy of service.
"You think if I did it, it would be because I 'm brave and a good daughter, and things like that. No, it 's none of those things. It 's because, while other people have been going to New York and to Mexico, to London
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and to Paris, and--and--the farthest places, while they traveled north, south, east, west, I 've sat here in this little house in Valdivia, and sewed and planted a garden and heard everybody else saying good-by, and listened to that woman over the way playing 'Partant pour la Syrie,' and have still stayed here, and sewed, and gardened, and only heard about the world. I 've done it long enough! I 'm going to the North, too! Hildegarde stood up with eyes that looked straight forward into space. A movement from the other seemed to bring the would-be traveler back. "If anybody will help me," she said, turning her eyes on Bella's face.
The younger girl was on her feet. In the silence the two moved toward each other. Bella lifted her arms and threw them about Hildegarde's neck. "I 've told you I 'll help you."
"I love you very much already, but if you 'd do that for me--" The shining eyes pieced out the broken phrase.
Bella turned her graceful little head toward the dining-room door. Cheviot had raised his voice. But they could n't hear the words.
"There 's only one thing"--Bella spoke in a whisper--"just think a moment; all those hundreds of miles with a dog team over the ice, in an arctic winter. If anybody else had done such a thing we should never have heard the last of it. The world would n't be long in having another book on heroism in high latitudes. But we all know that man"--she moved her head in the direction of the voice--"we 'll never hear of it again. He 's done that gigantic journey just for you,"--Hildegarde disengaged herself--"and to be with you again.
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And here you are planning to go away. It is n't my business, but I think you 'll be making a terrible mistake, Hildegarde, if you--"
Her friend turned from her with unusual abruptness.
"He 's nicer than ever," Bella persisted. He 's charming. I always said so."
"And I always said"--Hildegarde stopped and looked at Bella with an odd intentness. "You 're a nicer girl than you used to be."
"Thank you," said the other, smiling faintly, but she saw that she had failed.
"And I don't mean because you 're willing to help me in this."
"What do you mean?"
"There 'd be only one thing that could prevent my letting you lend me the money."
"Well, you certainly need n't worry about paying it back."
"It would take two or three years, but that could be managed now that Trenn and Harry want to give me an allowance. It is n't that."
Bella waited wondering.
"It is that I could n't take a great, great help from you, and go so far away, carrying anything in my heart that--that I 'd kept hid--anything that concerned you."
A quick fear leapt into Bella's face.
"For one might n't come back, you know," the other added.
"There 's only one thing we 've never straightened out," said Bella, "and that 's my tangle."
"I have my share in the thing, I mean. But as I said,
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you could n't do now--what you did--when you were little."
"Oh!" Bella drew a sharp breath of relief. "When I was little I know I was a beast."
"You told Louis Cheviot about the altar, and the patron saint; about--"
"Yes," said Bella hastily. "It was pretty mean of me, but I was only twelve."
"It was n't only when you were twelve." Gratitude, common prudence, should have bridled Hildegarde's tongue, but there was something of the judgment day about this hour. Hearts must needs be opened and secrets known. "It was after," she went on, driven by this new necessity to leave nothing hidden if she was to take Bella's help, "it was six years after--when you were eighteen. You had gone away knowing quite well how--how I was feeling about-- You knew how I was feeling. Yet you could write pretty heartlessly, considering all things. That gay letter about your engagement. You could write with that insincere air of expecting me to be as happy as you were."
"You surely see it would have been unpardonable of me to have sympathized with you. I had to assume you did n't care. You would have done the same."
"No, I would n't."
Bella looked at her. "That 's true," she said, quite low. "You would have shown that you were sorry for me, even in the middle of being happy yourself. You could have done it and not hurt. But I could n't. I did n't know how. The nearest I could come to it was just to pretend I thought you 'd got over it--that you did n't care any longer."
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They looked at each other a moment without speaking. Bella with quivering face glided forward.
"Dearest, dearest"--she took Hildegarde's hand, she caught it to her breast. "You are n't going to let him--the Other--spoil two lives!"
"At least I 'm ready to risk what 's sure to happen."
"What 's sure to happen?"
"His coming while I 'm away." Hildegarde flung out the words with a passion Bella had never seen in her before. "Yes, that 's what will happen. I shall have waited for him at home here all my life till this summer. And this summer, while I 'm gone, he 'll come to Valdivia. You 'll see! He 'll come."
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