It was a great night at the Lone Star schoolhouse--a night
when the Spirit was present with power and when God was very near
to man. So it seemed to Asa Skinner, servant of God and Free
Gospeller. The schoolhouse was crowded with the saved and
sanctified, robust men and women, trembling and quailing before the
power of some mysterious psychic force. Here and there among this
cowering, sweating multitude crouched some poor wretch who had felt
the pangs of an awakened conscience, but had not yet experienced
that complete divestment of reason, that frenzy born of a
convulsion of the mind, which, in the parlance of the Free
Gospellers, is termed "the Light." On the floor before the
mourners' bench lay the unconscious figure of a man in whom
outraged nature had sought her last resort. This "trance" state
is the highest evidence of grace among the Free Gospellers, and
indicates a close walking with God.
Before the desk stood Asa Skinner, shouting of the mercy and
vengeance of God, and in his eyes shone a terrible earnestness, an
almost prophetic flame. Asa was a converted train gambler who used
to run between Omaha and Denver. He was a man made for the
extremes of life; from the most debauched of men he had become the
most ascetic. His was a bestial face, a. face that bore the stamp
of Nature's eternal injustice. The forehead was low, projecting
over the eyes, and the sandy hair was plastered down over it and
then brushed back at an abrupt right angle. The chin was heavy,
the nostrils were low and wide, and the lower lip hung loosely
except in his moments of spasmodic earnestness, when it shut like
a steel trap. Yet about those coarse features there were deep,
rugged furrows, the scars of many a hand-to-hand struggle with the
weakness of the flesh, and about that drooping lip were sharp,
strenuous lines that had conquered it and taught it to pray. Over
those seamed cheeks there was a certain pallor, a greyness caught
from many a vigil. It was as though, after Nature had done her
worst with that face, some fine chisel had gone over it, chastening
and almost transfiguring it. Tonight, as his muscles twitched with
emotion, and the perspiration dropped from his hair and chin, there
was a certain convincing power in the man. For Asa Skinner was a
man possessed of a belief, of that sentiment of the sublime before
which all inequalities are leveled, that transport of conviction
which seems superior to all laws of condition, under which
debauchees have become martyrs; which made a tinker an artist and
a camel-driver the founder of an empire. This was with Asa Skinner
tonight, as he stood proclaiming the vengeance of God.
It might have occurred to an impartial observer that Asa
Skinner's God was indeed a vengeful God if he could reserve
vengeance for those of his creatures who were packed into the Lone
Star schoolhouse that night. Poor exiles of all nations; men from
the south and the north, peasants from almost every country of
Europe, most of them from the mountainous, night-bound coast of
Norway. Honest men for the most part, but men with whom the world
had dealt hardly; the failures of all countries, men sobered by
toil and saddened by exile, who had been driven to fight for the
dominion of an untoward soil, to sow where others should gather,
the advance guard of a mighty civilization to be.
Never had Asa Skinner spoken more earnestly than now. He felt
that the Lord had this night a special work for him to do. Tonight
Eric Hermannson, the wildest lad on all the Divide, sat in his
audience with a fiddle on his knee, just as he had dropped in on
his way to play for some dance. The violin is an object of
particular abhorrence to the Free Gospellers. Their antagonism to
the church organ is bitter enough, but the fiddle they regard as a
very incarnation of evil desires, singing forever of worldly
pleasures and inseparably associated with all forbidden things.
Eric Hermannson had long been the object of the prayers of the
revivalists. His mother had felt the power of the Spirit weeks
ago, and special prayer-meetings had been held at her house for her
son. But Eric had only gone his ways laughing, the ways of youth,
which are short enough at best, and none too flowery on the Divide.
He slipped away from the prayer-meetings to meet the Campbell boys
in Genereau's saloon, or hug the plump little French girls at
Chevalier's dances, and sometimes, of a summer night, he even went
across the dewy cornfields and through the wild-plum thicket to
play the fiddle for Lena Hanson, whose name was a reproach through
all the Divide country, where the women are usually too plain and
too busy and too tired to depart from the ways of virtue. On such
occasions Lena, attired in a pink wrapper and silk stockings and
tiny pink slippers, would sing to him, accompanying herself on a
battered guitar. It gave him a delicious sense of freedom and
experience to be with a woman who, no matter how, had lived in big
cities and knew the ways of town folk, who had never worked in the
fields and had kept her hands white and soft, her throat fair and
tender, who had heard great singers in Denver and Salt Lake, and
who knew the strange language of flattery and idleness and mirth.
Yet, careless as he seemed, the frantic prayers of his mother
were not altogether without their effect upon Eric. For days he
had been fleeing before them as a criminal from his pursuers, and
over his pleasures had fallen the shadow of something dark and
terrible that dogged his steps. The harder he danced, the louder
he sang, the more was he conscious that this phantom was gaining
upon him, that in time it would track him down. One Sunday
afternoon, late in the fall, when he had been drinking beer with
Lena Hanson and listening to a song which made his cheeks burn, a
rattlesnake had crawled out of the side of the sod house and thrust
its ugly head in under the screen door. He was not afraid of
snakes, but he knew enough of Gospellism to feel the significance
of the reptile lying coiled there upon her doorstep. His lips were
cold when he kissed Lena goodbye, and he went there no more.
The final barrier between Eric and his mother's faith was his
violin, and to that he clung as a man sometimes will cling to his
dearest sin, to the weakness more precious to him than all his
strength, In the great world beauty comes to men in many guises,
and art in a hundred forms, but for Eric there was only his violin.
It stood, to him, for all the manifestations of art; it was his
only bridge into the kingdom of the soul.
It was to Eric Hermannson that the evangelist directed his
impassioned pleading that night.
"Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Is there a Saul here
tonight who has stopped his ears to that gentle pleading, who has
thrust a spear into that bleeding side? Think of it, my brother;
you are offered this wonderful love and you prefer the worm that
dieth not and the fire which will not be quenched. What right have
you to lose one of God's precious souls? Saul, Saul, why
persecutest thou me?"
A great joy dawned in Asa Skinner's pale face, for he saw that
Eric Hermannson was swaying to and fro in his seat. The minister
fell upon his knees and threw his long arms up over his head.
"O my brothers! I feel it coming, the blessing we have prayed
for. I tell you the Spirit is coming! just a little more prayer,
brothers, a little more zeal, and he will be here. I can feel his
cooling wing upon my brow. Glory be to God forever and ever,
The whole congregation groaned under the pressure of this
spiritual panic. Shouts and hallelujahs went up from every lip.
Another figure fell prostrate upon the floor. From the mourners'
bench rose a chant of terror and rapture:
"Eating honey and drinking wine,
Glory to the bleeding Lamb!
I am my Lord's and he is mine,
Glory to the bleeding Lamb!"
The hymn was sung in a dozen dialects and voiced all the vague
yearning of these hungry lives, of these people who had starved all
the passions so long, only to fall victims to the barest of them
A groan of ultimate anguish rose from Eric Hermannson's bowed
head, and the sound was like the groan of a great tree when it
falls in the forest.
The minister rose suddenly to his feet and threw back his
head, crying in a loud voice:
"Lazarus, come forth! Eric Hermannson, you are lost, going
down at sea. In the name of God, and Jesus Christ his Son, I throw
you the life line. Take hold! Almighty God, my soul for his!"
The minister threw his arms out and lifted his quivering face.
Eric Hermannson rose to his feet; his lips were set and the
lightning was in his eyes. He took his violin by the neck and
crushed it to splinters across his knee, and to Asa Skinner the
sound was like the shackles of sin broken audibly asunder.
For more than two years Eric Hermannson kept the austere faith
to which he had sworn himself, kept it until a girl from the East
came to spend a week on the Nebraska Divide. She was a girl of
other manners and conditions, and there were greater distances
between her life and Eric's than all the miles which separated
Rattlesnake Creek from New York City. Indeed, she had no business
to be in the West at all; but ah! across what leagues of land and
sea, by what improbable chances, do the unrelenting gods bring to
us our fate!
It was in a year of financial depression that Wyllis Elliot
came to Nebraska to buy cheap land and revisit the country where he
had spent a year of his youth. When he had graduated from Harvard
it was still customary for moneyed gentlemen to send their
scapegrace sons to rough it on ranches in the wilds of Nebraska or
Dakota, or to consign them to a living death in the sagebrush of
the Black Hills. These young men did not always return to the ways
of civilized life. But Wyllis Elliot had not married a
half-breed, nor been shot in a cowpunchers' brawl, nor wrecked by
bad whisky, nor appropriated by a smirched adventuress. He had
been saved from these things by a girl, his sister, who had been
very near to his life ever since the days when they read fairy
tales together and dreamed the dreams that never come true. On
this, his first visit to his father's ranch since he left it six
years before, he brought her with him. She had been laid up half
the winter from a sprain received while skating, and had had too
much time for reflection during those months. She was restless and
filled with a desire to see something of the wild country of which
her brother had told her so much. She was to be married the next
winter, and Wyllis understood her when she begged him to take her
with him on this long, aimless jaunt across the continent, to taste
the last of their freedom together. it comes to all women of her
type--that desire to taste the unknown which allures and terrifies,
to run one's whole soul's length out to the wind--just once.
It had been an eventful journey. Wyllis somehow understood that
strain of gypsy blood in his sister, and he knew where to take her.
They had slept in sod houses on the Platte River, made the
acquaintance of the personnel of a third-rate opera company on the
train to Deadwood, dined in a camp of railroad constructors at the
world's end beyond New Castle, gone through the Black Hills on
horseback, fished for trout in Dome Lake, watched a dance at
Cripple Creek, where the lost souls who hide in the hills
gathered for their besotted revelry. And now, last of all, before
the return to thraldom, there was this little shack, anchored on
the windy crest of the Divide, a little black dot against the
flaming sunsets, a scented sea of cornland bathed in opalescent air
and blinding sunlight.
Margaret Elliot was one of those women of whom there are so
many in this day, when old order, passing, giveth place to new;
beautiful, talented, critical, unsatisfied, tired of the world at
twenty-four. For the moment the life and people of the Divide
interested her. She was there but a week; perhaps had she stayed
longer, that inexorable ennui which travels faster even than the
Vestibule Limited would have overtaken her. The week she
tarried there was the week that Eric Hermannson was helping Jerry
Lockhart thresh; a week earlier or a week later, and there would
have been no story to write.
It was on Thursday and they were to leave on Saturday. Wyllis
and his sister were sitting on the wide piazza of the ranchhouse,
staring out into the afternoon sunlight and protesting against the
gusts of hot wind that blew up from the sandy riverbottom twenty
miles to the southward.
The young man pulled his cap lower over his eyes and remarked:
"This wind is the real thing; you don't strike it anywhere
else. You remember we had a touch of it in Algiers and I told you
it came from Kansas. It's the keynote of this country."
Wyllis touched her hand that lay on the hammock and continued
"I hope it's paid you, Sis. Roughing it's dangerous business;
it takes the taste out of things."
She shut her fingers firmly over the brown hand that was so
like her own.
"Paid? Why, Wyllis, I haven't been so happy since we were
children and were going to discover the ruins of Troy together some
day. Do you know, I believe I could just stay on here forever and
let the world go on its own gait. It seems as though the tension
and strain we used to talk of last winter were gone for good, as
though one could never give one's strength out to such petty things
Wyllis brushed the ashes of his pipe away from the silk
handkerchief that was knotted about his neck and stared moodily off
at the skyline.
"No, you're mistaken. This would bore you after a while. You
can't shake the fever of the other life. I've tried it. There was
a time when the gay fellows of Rome could trot down into the
Thebaid and burrow into the sandhills and get rid of it. But it's
all too complex now. You see we've made our dissipations so dainty
and respectable that they've gone further in than the flesh, and
taken hold of the ego proper. You couldn't rest, even here. The
war cry would follow you."
"You don't waste words, Wyllis, but you never miss fire. I
talk more than you do, without saying half so much. You must have
learned the art of silence from these taciturn Norwegians. I think
I like silent men."
"Naturally," said Wyllis, "since you have decided to marry the most
brilliant talker you know."
Both were silent for a time, listening to the sighing of the
hot wind through the parched morning-glory vines. Margaret spoke
"Tell me, Wyllis, were many of the Norwegians you used to know
as interesting as Eric Hermannson?"
"Who, Siegfried? Well, no. He used to be the flower of the
Norwegian youth in my day, and he's rather an exception, even now.
He has retrograded, though. The bonds of the soil have tightened
on him, I fancy."
"Siegfried? Come, that's rather good, Wyllis. He looks like
a dragon-slayer. What is it that makes him so different from the
others? I can talk to him; he seems quite like a human being."
"Well," said Wyllis, meditatively, "I don't read Bourget
as much as my cultured sister, and I'm not so well up in analysis,
but I fancy it's because one keeps cherishing a perfectly
unwarranted suspicion that under that big, hulking anatomy of his,
he may conceal a soul somewhere. Nicht wahr?"
"Something like that," said Margaret, thoughtfully, "except
that it's more than a suspicion, and it isn't groundless. He has
one, and he makes it known, somehow, without speaking."
"I always have my doubts about loquacious souls," Wyllis
remarked, with the unbelieving smile that had grown habitual with
Margaret went on, not heeding the interruption. "I knew it
from the first, when he told me about the suicide of his cousin,
the Bernstein boy. That kind of blunt pathos can't be summoned at
will in anybody. The earlier novelists rose to it, sometimes,
unconsciously. But last night when I sang for him I was doubly
sure. Oh, I haven't told you about that yet! Better light your
pipe again. You see, he stumbled in on me in the dark when I was
pumping away at that old parlour organ to please Mrs. Lockhart
It's her household fetish and I've forgotten how many pounds of
butter she made and sold to buy it. Well, Eric stumbled in, and in
some inarticulate manner made me understand that he wanted me to
sing for him. I sang just the old things, of course. It's queer
to sing familiar things here at the world's end. It makes one
think how the hearts of men have carried them around the world,
into the wastes of Iceland and the jungles of Africa and the
islands of the Pacific. I think if one lived here long enough one
would quite forget how to be trivial, and would read only the great
books that we never get time to read in the world, and would
remember only the great music, and the things that are really worth
while would stand out clearly against that horizon over there. And
of course I played the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
for him; it goes rather better on an organ than most things do. He
shuffled his feet and twisted his big hands up into knots and
blurted out that he didn't know there was any music like that in
the world. Why, there were tears in his voice, Wyllis! Yes, like
Rossetti, I heard his tears. Then it dawned upon me that it
was probably the first good music be had ever heard in all his
life. Think of it, to care for music as he does and never to hear
it, never to know that it exists on earth! To long for it as we
long for other perfect experiences that never come. I can't tell
you what music means to that man. I never saw any one so
susceptible to it. It gave him speech, he became alive. When I had
finished the intermezzo, he began telling me about a little
crippled brother who died and whom he loved and used to carry
everywhere in his arms. He did not wait for encouragement. He
took up the story and told it slowly, as if to himself, just sort
of rose up and told his own woe to answer Mascagni's. It overcame
"Poor devil," said Wyllis, looking at her with mysterious
eyes, "and so you've given him a new woe. Now he'll go on
wanting Grieg and Schubert the rest of his days and never getting
them. That's a girl's philanthropy for you!"
Jerry Lockhart came out of the house screwing his chin over
the unusual luxury of a stiff white collar, which his wife insisted
upon as a necessary article of toilet while Miss Elliot was
at the house. Jerry sat down on the step and smiled his broad, red
smile at Margaret.
"Well, I've got the music for your dance, Miss Elliot. Olaf
Oleson will bring his accordion and Mollie will play the organ,
when she isn't lookin' after the grub, and a little chap from
Frenchtown will bring his fiddle--though the French don't mix with
the Norwegians much."
"Delightful! Mr. Lockhart, that dance will be the feature of
our trip, and it's so nice of you to get it up for us. We'll see
the Norwegians in character at last," cried Margaret, cordially.
"See here, Lockhart, I'll settle with you for backing her in
this scheme," said Wyllis, sitting up and knocking the ashes out of
his pipe. "She's done crazy things enough on this trip, but to
talk of dancing all night with a gang of half-mad Norwegians and
taking the carriage at four to catch the six o'clock train out of
Riverton--well, it's tommyrot, that's what it is!"
"Wyllis, I leave it to your sovereign power of reason to
decide whether it isn't easier to stay up all night than to get up
at three in the morning. To get up at three, think what that
means! No, sir, I prefer to keep my vigil and then get into a
"But what do you want with the Norwegians? I thought you were
tired of dancing."
"So I am, with some people. But I want to see a Norwegian
dance, and I intend to. Come, Wyllis, you know how seldom it is
that one really wants to do anything nowadays. I wonder when I
have really wanted to go to a party before. It will be something
to remember next month at Newport, when we have to and don't want
to. Remember your own theory that contrast is about the only thing
that makes life endurable. This is my party and Mr. Lockhart's;
your whole duty tomorrow night will consist in being nice to the
Norwegian girls. I'll warrant you were adept enough at it once.
And you'd better be very nice indeed, for if there are many such
young Valkyries as Eric's sister among them, they would simply tie
you up in a knot if they suspected you were guying them."
Wyllis groaned and sank back into the hammock to consider his
fate, while his sister went on.
"And the guests, Mr. Lockhart, did they accept?"
Lockhart took out his knife and began sharpening it on the sole of
"Well, I guess we'll have a couple dozen. You see it's pretty
hard to get a crowd together here any more. Most of 'em have gone
over to the Free Gospellers, and they'd rather put their feet in
the fire than shake 'em to a fiddle."
Margaret made a gesture of impatience. "Those Free Gospellers
have just cast an evil spell over this country, haven't they?"
"Well," said Lockhart, cautiously, "I don't just like to pass
judgment on any Christian sect, but if you're to know the chosen by
their works, the Gospellers can't make a very proud showin', an'
that's a fact. They're responsible for a few suicides, and they've
sent a good-sized delegation to the state insane asylum, an' I
don't see as they've made the rest of us much better than we were
before. I had a little herdboy last spring, as square a little
Dane as I want to work for me, but after the Gospellers got hold of
him and sanctified him, the little beggar used to get down on his
knees out on the prairie and pray by the hour and let the cattle
get into the corn, an' I had to fire him. That's about the way it
goes. Now there's Eric; that chap used to be a hustler and the
spryest dancer in all this section-called all the dances. Now he's
got no ambition and he's glum as a preacher. I don't suppose we
can even get him to come in tomorrow night."
"Eric? Why, he must dance, we can't let him off," said
Margaret, quickly. "Why, I intend to dance with him myself."
"I'm afraid he won't dance. I asked him this morning if he'd
help us out and he said, 'I don't dance now, any more,' " said
Lockhart, imitating the laboured English of the Norwegian.
"'The Miller of Hofbau, the Miller of Hofbau, O my Princess!'"
chirped Wyllis, cheerfully, from his hammock.
The red on his sister's cheek deepened a little, and she
laughed mischievously. "We'll see about that, sir. I'll not admit
that I am beaten until I have asked him myself."
Every night Eric rode over to St. Anne, a little village in
the heart of the French settlement, for the mail. As the road lay
through the most attractive part of the Divide country, on several
occasions Margaret Elliot and her brother had accompanied him.
Tonight Wyllis had business with Lockhart, and Margaret rode
with Eric, mounted on a frisky little mustang that Mrs. Lockhart
had broken to the sidesaddle. Margaret regarded her escort very
much as she did the servant who always accompanied her on long
rides at home, and the ride to the village was a silent one. She
was occupied with thoughts of another world, and Eric was wrestling
with more thoughts than had ever been crowded into his head before.
He rode with his eyes riveted on that slight figure before him, as
though he wished to absorb it through the optic nerves and hold it
in his brain forever. He understood the situation perfectly. His
brain worked slowly, but he had a keen sense of the values of
things. This girl represented an entirely new species of humanity
to him, but he knew where to place her. The prophets of old, when
an angel first appeared unto them, never doubted its high origin.
Eric was patient under the adverse conditions of his life, but
he was not servile. The Norse blood in him had not entirely lost
its self-reliance. He came of a proud fisher line, men who were
not afraid of anything but the ice and the devil, and he had
prospects before him when his father went down off the North Cape
in the long Arctic night, and his mother, seized by a violent
horror of seafaring life, had followed her brother to America.
Eric was eighteen then, handsome as young Siegfried, a giant in
stature, with a skin singularly pure and delicate, like a Swede's;
hair as yellow as the locks of Tennyson's amorous Prince, and eyes
of a fierce, burning blue, whose flash was most dangerous to women.
He had in those days a certain pride of bearing, a certain
confidence of approach, that usually accompanies physical
perfection. It was even said of him then that he was in love with
life, and inclined to levity, a vice most unusual on the Divide.
But the sad history of those Norwegian exiles, transplanted in an
arid soil and under a scorching sun, had repeated itself in his
case. Toil and isolation had sobered him, and he grew more and
more like the clods among which he laboured. It was as though some
red-hot instrument had touched for a moment those delicate
fibers of the brain which respond to acute pain or pleasure, in
which lies the power of exquisite sensation, and had seared them
quite away. It is a painful thing to watch the light die out of
the eyes of those Norsemen, leaving an expression of impenetrable
sadness, quite passive, quite hopeless, a shadow that is never
lifted. With some this change comes almost at once, in the first
bitterness of homesickness, with others it comes more slowly,
according to the time it takes each man's heart to die.
Oh, those poor Northmen of the Divide! They are dead many a
year before they are put to rest in the little graveyard on the
windy hill where exiles of all nations grow akin.
The peculiar species of hypochondria to which the exiles of
his people sooner or later succumb had not developed in Eric until
that night at the Lone Star schoolhouse, when he had broken his
violin across his knee. After that, the gloom of his people
settled down upon him, and the gospel of maceration began its work.
"If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out," et cetera. The
pagan smile that once hovered about his lips was gone, and he was
one with sorrow. Religion heals a hundred hearts for one that it
embitters, but when it destroys, its work is quick and deadly, and
where the agony of the cross has been, joy will not come again.
This man understood things literally: one must live without
pleasure to die without fear; to save the soul, it was necessary to
starve the soul.
The sun hung low above the cornfields when Margaret and her
cavalier left St. Anne. South of the town there is a stretch of
road that runs for some three miles through the French settlement,
where the prairie is as level as the surface of a lake. There the
fields of flax and wheat and rye are bordered by precise rows of
slender, tapering Lombard poplars. It was a yellow world that
Margaret Elliot saw under the wide light of the setting sun.
The girl gathered up her reins and called back to Eric, "It
will be safe to run the horses here, won't it?"
"Yes, I think so, now," he answered, touching his spur to his
pony's flank. They were off like the wind. It is an old
saying in the West that newcomers always ride a horse or two
to death before they get broken in to the country. They are
tempted by the great open spaces and try to outride the horizon, to
get to the end of something. Margaret galloped over the level
road, and Eric, from behind, saw her long veil fluttering in the
wind. It had fluttered just so in his dreams last night and the
night before. With a sudden inspiration of courage he overtook her
and rode beside her, looking intently at her half-averted face.
Before, he had only stolen occasional glances at it, seen it in
blinding flashes, always with more or less embarrassment, but now
he determined to let every line of it sink into his memory. Men of
the world would have said that it was an unusual face, nervous,
finely cut, with clear, elegant lines that betokened ancestry. Men
of letters would have called it a historic face, and would have
conjectured at what old passions, long asleep, what old sorrows
forgotten time out of mind, doing battle together in ages gone, had
curved those delicate nostrils, left their unconscious memory in
those eyes. But Eric read no meaning in these details. To him
this beauty was something more than colour and line; it was a flash
of white light, in which one cannot distinguish colour because all
colours are there. To him it was a complete revelation, an
embodiment of those dreams of impossible loveliness that linger by
a young man's pillow on midsummer nights; yet, because it held
something more than the attraction of health and youth and
shapeliness, it troubled him, and in its presence he felt as the
Goths before the white marbles in the Roman Capitol, not knowing
whether they were men or gods. At times he felt like uncovering
his head before it, again the fury seized him to break and despoil,
to find the clay in this spirit-thing and stamp upon it. Away from
her, he longed to strike out with his arms, and take and hold; it
maddened him that this woman whom he could break in his hands
should be so much stronger than he. But near her, he never
questioned this strength; he admitted its potentiality as he
admitted the miracles of the Bible; it enervated and conquered him.
Tonight, when he rode so close to her that he could have touched
her, he knew that he might as well reach out his hand to
take a star.
Margaret stirred uneasily under his gaze and turned questioningly
in her saddle.
"This wind puts me a little out of breath when we ride fast,"
Eric turned his eyes away.
"I want to ask you if I go to New York to work, if I maybe
hear music like you sang last night? I been a purty good hand to
work," he asked, timidly.
Margaret looked at him with surprise, and then, as she studied
the outline of his face, pityingly.
"Well, you might--but you'd lose a good deal else. I shouldn't
like you to go to New York--and be poor, you'd be out of
atmosphere, some way," she said, slowly. Inwardly she was
thinking: There he would be altogether sordid, impossible--a
machine who would carry one's trunks upstairs, perhaps. Here he is
every inch a man, rather picturesque; why is it? "No," she
added aloud, "I shouldn't like that."
"Then I not go," said Eric, decidedly.
Margaret turned her face to hide a smile. She was a trifle
amused and a trifle annoyed. Suddenly she spoke again.
"But I'll tell you what I do want you to do, Eric. I want you
to dance with us tomorrow night and teach me some of the Norwegian
dances; they say you know them all. Won't you?"
Eric straightened himself in his saddle and his eyes flashed
as they had done in the Lone Star schoolhouse when he broke his
violin across his knee.
"Yes, I will," he said, quietly, and he believed that he
delivered his soul to hell as he said it.
They had reached the rougher country now, where the road wound
through a narrow cut in one of the bluffs along the creek, when a
beat of hoofs ahead and the sharp neighing of horses made the
ponies start and Eric rose in his stirrups. Then down the gulch in
front of them and over the steep clay banks thundered a herd of
wild ponies, nimble as monkeys and wild as rabbits, such as horse-
traders drive east from the plains of Montana to sell in the
farming country. Margaret's pony made a shrill sound, a neigh that
was almost a scream, and started up the clay bank to meet them, all
the wild blood of the range breaking out in an instant. Margaret
called to Eric just as he threw himself out of the saddle and
caught her pony's bit. But the wiry little animal had gone mad and
was kicking and biting like a devil. Her wild brothers of the
range were all about her, neighing, and pawing the earth, and
striking her with their forefeet and snapping at her flanks. It
was the old liberty of the range that the little beast fought for.
"Drop the reins and hold tight, tight!" Eric called, throwing
all his weight upon the bit, struggling under those frantic
forefeet that now beat at his breast, and now kicked at the wild
mustangs that surged and tossed about him. He succeeded in
wrenching the pony's head toward him and crowding her withers
against the clay bank, so that she could not roll.
"Hold tight, tight!" he shouted again, launching a kick at a
snorting animal that reared back against Margaret's saddle. If she
should lose her courage and fall now, under those hoofs-- He
struck out again and again, kicking right and left with all his
might. Already the negligent drivers had galloped into the cut,
and their long quirts were whistling over the heads of the herd.
As suddenly as it had come, the struggling, frantic wave of wild
life swept up out of the gulch and on across the open prairie, and
with a long despairing whinny of farewell the pony dropped her head
and stood trembling in her sweat, shaking the foam and blood from
Eric stepped close to Margaret's side and laid his hand on her
saddle. "You are not hurt?" he asked, hoarsely. As he raised his
face in the soft starlight she saw that it was white and drawn and
that his lips were working nervously.
"No, no, not at all. But you, you are suffering; they struck
you!" she cried in sharp alarm.
He stepped back and drew his hand across his brow.
"No, it is not that," he spoke rapidly now, with his hands
clenched at his side. "But if they had hurt you, I would beat
their brains out with my hands. I would kill them all. I
was never afraid before. You are the only beautiful thing that
has ever come close to me. You came like an angel out of the sky.
You are like the music you sing, you are like the stars and the
snow on the mountains where I played when I was a little boy. You
are like all that I wanted once and never had, you are all that
they have killed in me. I die for you tonight, tomorrow, for all
eternity. I am not a coward; I was afraid because I love you more
than Christ who died for me, more than I am afraid of hell, or hope
for heaven. I was never afraid before. If you had fallen--oh, my
God!" He threw his arms out blindly and dropped his head upon the
pony's mane, leaning ]imply against the animal like a man struck
by some sickness. His shoulders rose and fell perceptibly with his
laboured breathing. The horse stood cowed with exhaustion and
fear. Presently Margaret laid her hand on Eric's head and said
"You are better now, shall we go on? Can you get your horse?"
"No, he has gone with the herd. I will lead yours, she is not
safe. I will not frighten you again." His voice was still husky,
but it was steady now. He took hold of the bit and tramped home in
When they reached the house, Eric stood stolidly by the pony's
head until Wyllis came to lift his sister from the saddle.
"The horses were badly frightened, Wyllis. I think I was pretty
thoroughly scared myself," she said as she took her brother's arm
and went slowly up the hill toward the house. "No, I'm not hurt,
thanks to Eric. You must thank him for taking such good care of
me. He's a mighty fine fellow. I'll tell you all about it in the
morning, dear. I was pretty well shaken up and I'm going right to
bed now. Good night."
When she reached the low room in which she slept, she sank
upon the bed in her riding dress, face downward.
"Oh, I pity him! I pity him!" she murmured, with a long sigh
of exhaustion. She must have slept a little. When she rose again,
she took from her dress a letter that had been waiting for her at
the village post-office. It was closely written in a long,
angular hand, covering a dozen pages of foreign note-paper, and
My Dearest Margaret: if I should attempt to say how like
a winter hath thine absence been, I should incur the risk of
being tedious. Really, it takes the sparkle out of everything.
Having nothing better to do, and not caring to go anywhere in
particular without you, I remained in the city until Jack Courtwell
noted my general despondency and brought me down here to his place
on the sound to manage some open-air theatricals he is getting up.
As You Like It is of course the piece selected. Miss
Harrison plays Rosalind. I wish you had been here to take the
part. Miss Harrison reads her lines well, but she is either a
maiden-all-forlorn or a tomboy; insists on reading into the part
all sorts of deeper meanings and highly coloured suggestions wholly
out of harmony with the pastoral setting. Like most of the
professionals, she exaggerates the emotional element and quite
fails to do justice to Rosalind's facile wit and really brilliant
mental qualities. Gerard will do Orlando, but rumor says he is
epris of your sometime friend, Miss Meredith, and his memory
is treacherous and his interest fitful.
My new pictures arrived last week on the Gascogne. The
Puvis de Chavannes is even more beautiful than I thought it in
Paris. A pale dream-maiden sits by a pale dream-cow and a
stream of anemic water flows at her feet. The Constant, you
will remember, I got because you admired it. It is here in
all its florid splendour, the whole dominated by a glowing
sensuosity. The drapery of the female figure is as wonderful
as you said; the fabric all barbaric pearl and gold, painted
with an easy, effortless voluptuousness, and that white,
gleaming line of African coast in the background recalls
memories of you very precious to me. But it is useless to
deny that Constant irritates me. Though I cannot prove the
charge against him, his brilliancy always makes me suspect him
Here Margaret stopped and glanced at the remaining pages of
this strange love-letter. They seemed to be filled chiefly with
discussions of pictures and books, and with a slow smile she laid
She rose and began undressing. Before she lay down she went
to open the window. With her hand on the sill, she hesitated,
feeling suddenly as though some danger were lurking outside, some
inordinate desire waiting to spring upon her in the darkness. She
stood there for a long time, gazing at the infinite sweep of the
"Oh, it is all so little, so little there," she murmured.
"When everything else is so dwarfed, why should one expect love to
be great? Why should one try to read highly coloured suggestions
into a life like that? If only I could find one thing in it all
that mattered greatly, one thing that would warm me when I am
alone! Will life never give me that one great moment?"
As she raised the window, she heard a sound in the plum bushes
outside. It was only the house-dog roused from his sleep, but
Margaret started violently and trembled so that she caught the foot
of the bed for support. Again she felt herself pursued by some
overwhelming longing, some desperate necessity for herself, like
the outstretching of helpless, unseen arms in the darkness, and the
air seemed heavy with sighs of yearning. She fled to her bed with
the words, "I love you more than Christ who died for me!" ringing
in her ears.
About midnight the dance at Lockhart's was at its height.
Even the old men who had come to "look on" caught the spirit of
revelry and stamped the floor with the vigor of old Silenus. Eric
took the violin from the Frenchmen, and Minna Oleson sat at the
organ, and the music grew more and more characteristic--rude, half
mournful music, made up of the folksongs of the North, that the
villagers sing through the long night in hamlets by the sea, when
they are thinking of the sun, and the spring, and the fishermen so
long away. To Margaret some of it sounded like Grieg's Peer
Gynt music. She found something irresistibly infectious in
the mirth of these people who were so seldom merry, and she felt
almost one of them. Something seemed struggling for freedom in
them tonight, something of the joyous childhood of the nations
which exile had not killed. The girls were all boisterous with
delight. Pleasure came to them but rarely, and when it came, they
caught at it wildly and crushed its fluttering wings in their
strong brown fingers. They had a hard life enough, most of them.
Torrid summers and freezing winters, labour and drudgery and
ignorance, were the portion of their girlhood; a short wooing, a
hasty, loveless marriage, unlimited maternity, thankless sons,
premature age and ugliness, were the dower of their womanhood. But
what matter? Tonight there was hot liquor in the glass and hot
blood in the heart; tonight they danced.
Tonight Eric Hermannson had renewed his youth. He was no
longer the big, silent Norwegian who had sat at Margaret's feet and
looked hopelessly into her eyes. Tonight he was a man, with a
man's rights and a man's power. Tonight he was Siegfried indeed.
His hair was yellow as the heavy wheat in the ripe of summer, and
his eyes flashed like the blue water between the ice packs in the
north seas. He was not afraid of Margaret tonight, and when he
danced with her he held her firmly. She was tired and dragged on
his arm a little, but the strength of the man was like an all-
pervading fluid, stealing through her veins, awakening under her
heart some nameless, unsuspected existence that had slumbered there
all these years and that went out through her throbbing fingertips
to his that answered. She wondered if the hoydenish blood of some
lawless ancestor, long asleep, were calling out in her tonight,
some drop of a hotter fluid that the centuries had failed to cool,
and why, if this curse were in her, it had not spoken before. But
was it a curse, this awakening, this wealth before undiscovered,
this music set free? For the first time in her life her heart held
something stronger than herself, was not this worthwhile? Then she
ceased to wonder. She lost sight of the lights and the faces and
the music was drowned by the beating of her own arteries. She saw
only the blue eyes that flashed above her, felt only the
warmth of that throbbing hand which held hers and which the blood
of his heart fed. Dimly, as in a dream, she saw the drooping
shoulders, high white forehead and tight, cynical mouth of the man
she was to marry in December. For an hour she had been crowding
back the memory of that face with all her strength.
"Let us stop, this is enough," she whispered. His only answer
was to tighten the arm behind her. She sighed and let that
masterful strength bear her where it would. She forgot that this
man was little more than a savage, that they would part at dawn.
The blood has no memories, no reflections, no regrets for the past,
no consideration of the future.
"Let us go out where it is cooler," she said when the music
stopped; thinking, I am growing faint here, I shall be all
right in the open air. They stepped out into the cool, blue
air of the night.
Since the older folk had begun dancing, the young Norwegians
had been slipping out in couples to climb the windmill tower into
the cooler atmosphere, as is their custom.
"You like to go up?" asked Eric, close to her ear.
She turned and looked at him with suppressed amusement. "How
high is it?"
"Forty feet, about. I not let you fall." There was a note of
irresistible pleading in his voice, and she felt that he
tremendously wished her to go. Well, why not? This was a night of
the unusual, when she was not herself at all, but was living an
unreality. Tomorrow, yes, in a few hours, there would be the
Vestibule Limited and the world.
"Well, if you'll take good care of me. I used to be able to
climb, when I was a little girl."
Once at the top and seated on the platform, they were silent.
Margaret wondered if she would not hunger for that scene all her
life, through all the routine of the days to come. Above them
stretched the great Western sky, serenely blue, even in the night,
with its big, burning stars, never so cold and dead and far away as
in denser atmospheres. The moon would not be up for twenty minutes
yet, and all about the horizon, that wide horizon, which
seemed to reach around the world, lingered a pale white light, as
of a universal dawn. The weary wind brought up to them the heavy
odours of the cornfields. The music of the dance sounded faintly
from below. Eric leaned on his elbow beside her, his legs swinging
down on the ladder. His great shoulders looked more than ever like
those of the stone Doryphorus, who stands in his perfect, reposeful
strength in the Louvre, and had often made her wonder if such men
died forever with the youth of Greece.
"How sweet the corn smells at night," said Margaret nervously.
"Yes, like the flowers that grow in paradise, I think."
She was somewhat startled by this reply, and more startled
when this taciturn man spoke again.
"You go away tomorrow?"
"Yes, we have stayed longer than we thought to now."
"You not come back any more?"
"No, I expect not. You see, it is a long trip halfway across
"You soon forget about this country, I guess." It seemed to
him now a little thing to lose his soul for this woman, but that
she should utterly forget this night into which he threw all his
life and all his eternity, that was a bitter thought.
"No, Eric, I will not forget. You have all been too kind to
me for that. And you won't be sorry you danced this one night,
"I never be sorry. I have not been so happy before. I not be
so happy again, ever. You will be happy many nights yet, I only
this one. I will dream sometimes, maybe."
The mighty resignation of his tone alarmed and touched her.
It was as when some great animal composes itself for death, as when
a great ship goes down at sea.
She sighed, but did not answer him. He drew a little closer
and looked into her eyes.
"You are not always happy, too?" he asked.
"No, not always, Eric; not very often, I think."
"You have a trouble?"
"Yes, but I cannot put it into words. Perhaps if I could do
that, I could cure it."
He clasped his hands together over his heart, as children do when
they pray, and said falteringly, "If I own all the world, I give
Margaret felt a sudden moisture in her eyes, and laid her hand
"Thank you, Eric; I believe you would. But perhaps even then
I should not be happy. Perhaps I have too much of it already."
She did not take her hand away from him; she did not dare.
She sat still and waited for the traditions in which she had always
believed to speak and save her. But they were dumb. She belonged
to an ultra-refined civilization which tries to cheat nature with
elegant sophistries. Cheat nature? Bah! One generation may do
it, perhaps two, but the third-- Can we ever rise above nature or
sink below her? Did she not turn on Jerusalem as upon Sodom, upon
St. Anthony in his desert as upon Nero in his seraglio? Does she
not always cry in brutal triumph: "I am here still, at the bottom
of things, warming the roots of life; you cannot starve me nor tame
me nor thwart me; I made the world, I rule it, and I am its
This woman, on a windmill tower at the world's end with a
giant barbarian, heard that cry tonight, and she was afraid! Ah!
the terror and the delight of that moment when first we fear
ourselves! Until then we have not lived.
"Come, Eric, let us go down; the moon is up and the music has
begun again," she said.
He rose silently and stepped down upon the ladder, putting his
arm about her to help her. That arm could have thrown Thor's
hammer out in the cornfields yonder, yet it scarcely touched her,
and his hand trembled as it had done in the dance. His face was
level with hers now and the moonlight fell sharply upon it. All
her life she had searched the faces of men for the look that lay in
his eyes. She knew that that look had never shone for her before,
would never shine for her on earth again, that such love comes to
one only in dreams or in impossible places like this, unattainable
always. This was Love's self, in a moment it would die. Stung by
the agonized appeal that emanated from the man's whole being, she
leaned forward and laid her lips on his. Once, twice and again she
heard the deep respirations rattle in his throat while she held
them there, and the riotous force under her head became an
engulfing weakness. He drew her up to him until he felt all the
resistance go out of her body, until every nerve relaxed and
yielded. When she drew her face back from
his, it was white with fear.
"Let us go down, oh, my God! let us go down!" she muttered.
And the drunken stars up yonder seemed reeling to some appointed
doom as she clung to the rounds of the ladder. All that she was to
know of love she had left upon his lips.
"The devil is loose again," whispered Olaf Oleson, as he saw Eric
dancing a moment later, his eyes blazing.
But Eric was thinking with an almost savage exultation of the
time when he should pay for this. Ah, there would be no quailing
then! if ever a soul went fearlessly, proudly down to the gates
infernal, his should go. For a moment he fancied he was there
already, treading down the tempest of flame, hugging the fiery
hurricane to his breast. He wondered whether in ages gone, all the
countless years of sinning in which men had sold and lost and flung
their souls away, any man had ever so cheated Satan, had ever
bartered his soul for so great a price.
It seemed but a little while till dawn.
The carriage was brought to the door and Wyllis Elliot and his
sister said goodbye. She could not meet Eric's eyes as she gave
him her hand, but as he stood by the horse's head, just as the
carriage moved off, she gave him one swift glance that said, "I
will not forget." In a moment the carriage was gone.
Eric changed his coat and plunged his head into the water tank
and went to the barn to hook up his team. As he led his horses to
the door, a shadow fell across his path, and he saw Skinner rising
in his stirrups. His rugged face was pale and worn with looking
after his wayward flock, with dragging men into the way of
"Good morning, Eric. There was a dance here last night?" he
"A dance? Oh, yes, a dance," replied Eric, cheerfully.
"Certainly you did not dance, Eric?"
"Yes, I danced. I danced all the time."
The minister's shoulders drooped, and an expression of profound
discouragement settled over his haggard face. There was almost
anguish in the yearning he felt for this soul.
"Eric, I didn't look for this from you. I thought God had set
his mark on you if he ever had on any man. And it is for things
like this that you set your soul back a thousand years from God. 0
foolish and perverse generation!"
Eric drew himself up to his full height and looked off to
where the new day was gilding the corn-tassels and flooding the
uplands with light. As his nostrils drew in the breath of the dew
and the morning, something from the only poetry he had ever read
flashed across his mind, and he murmured, half to himself, with
"'And a day shall be as a thousand years, and a thousand years
as a day.'"