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"Please don't," he said, quietly. "I have never thought of her in that way--"
"Then come away from this wretched place. I detest the whole country--the fisheries, the people, everything. This isn't your proper sphere. Why come away, now, at once, and begin something new, something worth while?"
"Do you realize the hopes, the heartaches, the vital effort I have put into this enterprise?" he questioned.
But she only said:
"I don't like it. It isn't a nice business. Let father take the plant over. If you need money, I have plenty--"
"Wait!" he interrupted, sharply. "Sit down, I want to talk to you." He drew the wrap closer about her shoulders and led her to a deck-chair. The change in him was becoming more apparent. He knew now that he had never felt the same since his first meeting with Mildred upon the arrival of _The Grande Dame_. Even then she had repelled him by her lack of sympathy. She had shown no understanding of his efforts, and now she revealed as complete a failure to grasp his code of honor. It never occurred to her that any loyalty of man to man could offset her simple will. She did not see that his desertion of George would be nothing short of treachery.
It seemed to him all at once that they had little in common. She was wrapped completely in the web of her own desires; she would make her prejudices a law for him. Above all, she could not respond to the exultation of his success. She had no conception of the pride of accomplishment that is the wine of every true man's life. He had waged a bitter fight that had sapped his very soul, he had made and won the struggle that a man makes once in a lifetime, and now, just when he had proved himself strong and fair in the sight of his fellows, she asked him to forego it all. Engrossed in her own egoism, she required of him a greater sacrifice than any he had made. Now that he had shown his strength, she wanted to load him down with golden fetters--to make him a dependent. Was it because she feared another girl? She had tried to help him, he knew--in her way--and the thought of it touched him. That was like the Mildred he had always known--to act fearlessly, heedless of what her father might do or say. Somehow he had never felt more convinced of the sincerity of her love, but he found himself thinking of it as of something of the past. After all, what she had done had been little, considering her power. She had given carelessly, out of her abundance, while Cherry--He saw it all now, and a sudden sense of loyalty and devotion to the girl who had really shared his struggles swept over him in a warm tide. It was most unlike his distant worship of Mildred. She had been his dream, but the other was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.
For a long time the two sat talking while these thoughts took gradual form in the young man's mind, and although the deck was deserted, Miss Wayland had no need now to curb her once headstrong wooer.
He could not put into words the change that was working in him; but she saw it, and, grasping its meaning at last, she began to battle like a mother for her child. His awakening had been slow, and hers was even slower; but once she found her power over him waning, her sense of loss grew and grew as he failed to answer to her half-spoken appeal.
Womanlike, she capitulated at last. What matter if he stayed here where his hopes were centred? This life in the North had claimed him, and she would wait until he came for her. But still he did not respond, and it was not long until she had persuaded herself that his battle with the wilderness had put red blood into his veins, and his conduct had been no worse than that of other men. Finally she tried to voice these thoughts, but she only led him to a stiff denial of the charges she wished to forgive. As she saw him slipping further away from her, she summoned all her arts to rekindle the flame which had burned so steadily; and when these failed, she surrendered every prejudice. It was his love she wanted.
All else was secondary. At last she knew herself. She could have cried at the sudden realization that he had not kissed her since their parting in Chicago; and when she saw he had no will to do so, the memory of his last embrace arose to torture her. She was almost glad when a launch bringing her father came from the sh.o.r.e, and the old man joined them.
The two men bore themselves with unbending formality, unable as yet to forget their mutual wrongs. The interruption gave Boyd the opportunity he had not been brave enough to make, and he bade them both good-bye, for the tide was at its flood, and the hour of their departure was at hand.
There was a meaningless exchange of words, and a handshake in the glare from the cabin lights that showed Mildred's pallid lips and frightened eyes. Then Emerson went over the side, and the darkness swallowed him up.
The girl clutched at her father's arm, standing as if frozen while the creak of rowlocks grew fainter and fainter and died away. Then she turned.
"You see--he came!" she said.
The old man saw the agony that blanched her cheeks, and answered, gently:
"Yes, daughter!" He struggled with himself, "And if you wish it, he may come again."
"But he won't come again. That is what makes it so hard; he will never come back."
She turned away, but not quickly enough to keep him from seeing that her eyes were wet. Wayne Wayland beheld what he would have given half his mighty fortune to prevent. He cried out angrily, but she antic.i.p.ated his thought.
"No, no, you must never injure him again, for he was right and we were wrong. You see I--couldn't understand."
He left her staring into the night, and walked heavily below.
Emerson felt a great sense of relief and deliverance as he leaned against his oars. His heart sang to the murmur of the waters overside; for the first time in many months he felt young and free. How blind he had been and how narrow had been his escape from a life that could lead to but one result! The girl was sweet and good and wonderful in many ways, but--three years had altered him more than he had realized. He had begun to understand himself that very afternoon, when Cherry had told him her own unhappy secret. The shock of her disclosure had roused him from his dream, and once he began to see himself as he really was the rest had come quickly. He had been doubtful even when he went out to the yacht, but what happened there had destroyed the last trace of uncertainty. He knew that for him there was but one woman in all the world. It was no easy battle he had fought with himself. He had been reared to respect the conventions, and he knew that Cherry's life had not been all he could wish. But he fronted the issue squarely, and tried to throttle his inbred prejudice.
Although he had felt the truth of Fraser's arguments and of Cherry's own words, he had still refused to yield until his love for the girl swept over him in all its power; then he made his choice.
The one thing he found most difficult to accept was her conduct with Hilliard. Those other charges against the girl were vague and shadowy, but this was concrete, and he was familiar with every miserable detail of it.
It took all his courage to face it, but he swore savagely that if the conditions had been reversed, Cherry would not have faltered for an instant. Moreover, what she had done had been done for love of him; it was worse than vile to hesitate. Her past was her own, and all he could rightfully claim was her future. He shut his teeth and laid his course resolutely for her landing, striving to leave behind this one hideous memory, centring his mind upon the girl herself and shutting out her past.
It was the bitterest fight he had ever waged; but when he reached the sh.o.r.e and tied his skiff, he was exalted by the knowledge that he had triumphed, that this painful episode was locked away with all the others.
Now that he had conquered, he was filled with a consuming eagerness. As he stole up through the shadows he heard her playing, and when he drew nearer he recognized the notes of that song that had banished his own black desolation on the night of their first meeting. He paused outside the open window and saw by the shaded lamplight that she was playing from memory, her fingers wandering over the keyboard without conscious effort. Then she took up the words, with all the throbbing tenderness that lives in a deep, contralto voice:
"Last night I was dreaming of thee, love--was dreaming; I dreamed thou didst promise--"
Cherry paused as if entranced, for she thought she heard another voice join with hers; then she bowed her head and sobbed in utter wretchedness, knowing it for nothing more than her own fancy. Too many times, as in other twilights past, she had heard that mellow voice blend with hers, only to find that her ears had played her false and she was alone with a memory that would never die.
Of all the days of her life this was the saddest, this hour the loneliest, and the tears she had withheld so bravely as long as there was work to do came now in unbidden profusion.
To face those people on the yacht had been an act of pure devotion to Boyd, for her every instinct had rebelled against it; yet she had known that some desperate stroke in his defence must be delivered instantly.
Otherwise the ruin of all his hopes would follow. She had hit upon the device of using Constantine and Chakawana largely by chance, for not until the previous day had she learned the truth. She had not dared to hope for such unqualified success, nor had she foreseen the tragic outcome. She had simply carried her plan through to its natural conclusion. Now that her work was done, she gave way completely and wept like a little girl. He was out there now with his love. They would never waste a thought upon that other girl who had made their happiness possible. The thought was almost more than she could bear. Never again could she have Boyd to herself, never enjoy his careless friendship as of old; even that was over, now that he knew the truth.
The first and only kiss he had ever given her burned fresh upon her lips.
She recalled that evening they had spent alone in this very room, when he had seemed to waver and her hopes had risen at the dawning of a new light in his eyes. At the memory she cried aloud, as if her heart would break:
He entered noiselessly and took her in his arms.
"Yes, dear!" he murmured. But she rose with a startled exclamation, and wrenched herself from his embrace. The piano gave forth a discordant crash. Shrinking back as from an apparition, she stared into his flushed and smiling face; then breathed:
"You! Why are you--here!"
"Because I love you!"
She closed her eyes and swayed as if under the spell of wonderful music; he saw the throbbing pulse at her throat. Then she flung out her hands, crying, piteously:
"Go away, please, before I find it is only another dream."
She raised her lids to find him still standing there then felt him with fluttering fingers.
"Our dreams have come true," he said, gently, and strove to imprison her hand.
"No, no!" Her voice broke wildly. "You don't mean it. You--you haven't come to stay."
"I have come to stay if you will let me, dear."
She broke from his grasp end moved quickly away.
"Why are you here? I left you out there with--her. I made your way clear.
Why have you come back? What more can I do? Dear G.o.d! What more can I do?"
She was panting as if desperately frightened.
"There is but one thing more you can do to make me happy. You can be my wife."
"But I don't understand!" She shook her head hopelessly. "You are jesting with me. You love Miss Wayland."
"No. Miss Wayland leaves to-night, and I shall never see her again."
"Then you won't marry her?"