The Blue Castle-6

CHAPTER XXI

 We'll just sit here," said Barney, "and if we think of anything worth while saying we'll say it.  Otherwise, not.  Don't imagine you're bound to talk to me."

"John Foster says," quoted Valancy, "'If you can sit in silence with a person for half an hour and yet be entirely comfortable, you and that person can be friends.  If you cannot, friends you'll never be and you need not waste time in trying.'"

"Evidently John Foster says a sensible thing once in a while," conceded Barney.

They sat in silence for a long while.  Little rabbits hopped across the road.  Once or twice an owl laughed out delightfully.  The road beyond them was fringed with the woven shadow lace of trees.  Away off to the southwest the sky was full of silvery little cirrus clouds above the spot where Barney's island must be.

Valancy was perfectly happy.  Some things dawn on you slowly.  Some things come by lightning flashes.  Valancy had had a lightning flash.

She knew quite well now that she loved Barney.  Yesterday she had been all her own.  Now she was this man's.  Yet he had done nothing — said nothing.  He had not even looked at her as a woman. But that didn't matter.  Nor did it matter what he was or what he had done.  She loved him without any reservations.  Everything in her went out wholly to him.  She had no wish to stifle or disown her love.  She seemed to be his so absolutely that thought apart from him — thought in which he did not predominate — was an impossibility.

She had realised, quite simply and fully, that she loved him, in the moment when he was leaning on the car door, explaining that Lady Jane had no gas.  She had looked deep into his eyes in the moonlight and had known.  In just that infinitesimal space of time everything was changed.  Old things passed away and all things became new.

She was no longer unimportant, little old maid Valancy Stirling. She was a woman, full of love and therefore rich and significant —  justified to herself.  Life was no longer empty and futile, and death could cheat her of nothing.  Love had cast out her last fear.

Love!  What a searing, torturing, intolerably sweet thing it was —  this possession of body, soul and mind!  With something at its core as fine and remote and purely spiritual as the tiny blue spark in the heart of the unbreakable diamond.  No dream had ever been like this.  She was no longer solitary.  She was one of a vast sisterhood — all the women who had ever loved in the world.

Barney need never know it — though she would not in the least have minded his knowing.  But SHE knew it and it made a tremendous difference to her.  Just to love!  She did not ask to be loved.  It was rapture enough just to sit there beside him in silence, alone in the summer night in the white splendour of moonshine, with the wind blowing down on them out of the pine woods.  She had always envied the wind.  So free.  Blowing where it listed.  Through the hills.  Over the lakes.  What a tang, what a zip it had!  What a magic of adventure!  Valancy felt as if she had exchanged her shop- worn soul for a fresh one, fire-new from the workshop of the gods. As far back as she could look, life had been dull — colourless —  savourless.  Now she had come to a little patch of violets, purple and fragrant — hers for the plucking.  No matter who or what had been in Barney's past — no matter who or what might be in his future — no one else could ever have this perfect hour.  She surrendered herself utterly to the charm of the moment.

"Ever dream of ballooning?' said Barney suddenly.

"No," said Valancy.

"I do — often.  Dream of sailing through the clouds — seeing the glories of sunset — spending hours in the midst of a terrific storm with lightning playing above and below you — skimming above a silver cloud floor under a full moon — wonderful!"

"It does sound so," said Valancy.  "I've stayed on earth in my dreams."

She told him about her Blue Castle.  It was so easy to tell Barney things.  One felt he understood everything — even the things you didn't tell him.  And then she told him a little of her existence before she came to Roaring Abel's.  She wanted him to see why she had gone to the dance "up back."

"You see — I've never had any real life," she said.  "I've just —  breathed.  Every door has always been shut to me."

"But you're still young," said Barney.

"Oh, I know.  Yes, I'm 'still young' — but that's so different from YOUNG," said Valancy bitterly.  For a moment she was tempted to tell Barney why her years had nothing to do with her future; but she did not.  She was not going to think of death tonight.

"Though I never was really young," she went on — "until tonight," she added in her heart.  "I never had a life like other girls.  You couldn't understand.  Why," — she had a desperate desire that Barney should know the worst about her — "I didn't even love my mother. Isn't it awful that I don't love my mother?"

"Rather awful — for her," said Barney drily.

"Oh, she didn't know it.  She took my love for granted.  And I wasn't any use or comfort to her or anybody.  I was just a — a —  vegetable.  And I got tired of it.  That's why I came to keep house for Mr. Gay and look after Cissy."

"And I suppose your people thought you'd gone mad."

"They did — and do — literally," said Valancy.  "But it's a comfort to them.  They'd rather believe me mad than bad.  There's no other alternative.  But I've been LIVING since I came to Mr. Gay's.  It's been a delightful experience.  I suppose I'll pay for it when I have to go back — but I'll have HAD it."

"That's true," said Barney.  "If you buy your experience it's your own.  So it's no matter how much you pay for it.  Somebody else's experience can never be yours.  Well, it's a funny old world."

"Do you think it really is old?" asked Valancy dreamily.  "I never believe THAT in June.  It seems so young tonight — somehow.  In that quivering moonlight — like a young, white girl — waiting."

"Moonlight here on the verge of up back is different from moonlight anywhere else," agreed Barney.  "It always makes me feel so clean, somehow — body and soul.  And of course the age of gold always comes back in spring."

It was ten o'clock now.  A dragon of black cloud ate up the moon. The spring air grew chill — Valancy shivered.  Barney reached back into the innards of Lady Jane and clawed up an old, tobacco-scented overcoat.

"Put that on," he ordered.

"Don't you want it yourself?" protested Valancy.

"No.  I'm not going to have you catching cold on my hands."

"Oh, I won't catch cold.  I haven't had a cold since I came to Mr. Gay's — though I've done the foolishest things.  It's funny, too — I used to have them all the time.  I feel so selfish taking your coat."

"You've sneezed three times.  No use winding up your 'experience' up back with grippe or pneumonia."

He pulled it up tight about her throat and buttoned it on her. Valancy submitted with secret delight.  How nice it was to have some one look after you so!  She snuggled down into the tobaccoey folds and wished the night could last forever.

Ten minutes later a car swooped down on them from "up back." Barney sprang from Lady Jane and waved his hand.  The car came to a stop beside them.  Valancy saw Uncle Wellington and Olive gazing at her in horror from it.

So Uncle Wellington had got a car!  And he must have been spending the evening up at Mistawis with Cousin Herbert.  Valancy almost laughed aloud at the expression on his face as he recognised her. The pompous, bewhiskered old humbug!

"Can you let me have enough gas to take me to Deerwood?" Barney was asking politely.  But Uncle Wellington was not attending to him.

"Valancy, how came you HERE!" he said sternly.

"By chance or God's grace," said Valancy.

"With this jail-bird — at ten o'clock at night!" said Uncle Wellington.

Valancy turned to Barney.  The moon had escaped from its dragon and in its light her eyes were full of deviltry.

"ARE you a jail-bird?"

"Does it matter?" said Barney, gleams of fun in HIS eyes.

"Not to me.  I only asked out of curiosity," continued Valancy.

"Then I won't tell you.  I never satisfy curiosity."  He turned to Uncle Wellington and his voice changed subtly.

"Mr. Stirling, I asked you if you could let me have some gas.  If you can, well and good.  If not, we are only delaying you unnecessarily."

Uncle Wellington was in a horrible dilemma.  To give gas to this shameless pair!  But not to give it to them!  To go away and leave them there in the Mistawis woods — until daylight, likely.  It was better to give it to them and let them get out of sight before any one else saw them.

"Got anything to get gas in?" he grunted surlily.

Barney produced a two-gallon measure from Lady Jane.  The two men went to the rear of the Stirling car and began manipulating the tap.  Valancy stole sly glances at Olive over the collar of Barney's coat.  Olive was sitting grimly staring straight ahead with an outraged expression.  She did not mean to take any notice of Valancy.  Olive had her own secret reasons for feeling outraged. Cecil had been in Deerwood lately and of course had heard all about Valancy.  He agreed that her mind was changed and was exceedingly anxious to find out whence the derangement had been inherited.  It was a serious thing to have in the family — a very serious thing. One had to think of one's — descendants.

"She got it from the Wansbarras," said Olive positively.  "There's nothing like that in the Stirlings — nothing!"

"I hope not — I certainly hope not," Cecil had responded dubiously. "But then — to go out as a servant — for that is what it practically amounts to.  Your cousin!"

Poor Olive felt the implication.  The Port Lawrence Prices were not accustomed to ally themselves with families whose members "worked out."

Valancy could not resist temptation.  She leaned forward.

"Olive, does it hurt?"

Olive bit — stiffly.

"Does WHAT hurt?"

"Looking like that."

For a moment Olive resolved she would take no further notice of Valancy.  Then duty came uppermost.  She must not miss the opportunity.

"Doss," she implored, leaning forward also, "won't you come home —  come home tonight?"

Valancy yawned.

"You sound like a revival meeting," she said.  "You really do."

"If you will come back — "

"All will be forgiven."

"Yes," said Olive eagerly.  Wouldn't it be splendid if SHE could induce the prodigal daughter to return?  "We'll never cast it up to you.  Doss, there are nights when I cannot sleep for thinking of you."

"And me having the time of my life," said Valancy, laughing.

"Doss, I can't believe you're bad.  I've always said you couldn't be bad — "

"I don't believe I can be," said Valancy.  "I'm afraid I'm hopelessly proper.  I've been sitting here for three hours with Barney Snaith and he hasn't even tried to kiss me.  I wouldn't have minded if he had, Olive."

Valancy was still leaning forward.  Her little hat with its crimson rose was tilted down over one eyes — Valancy's smile — what had happened to Valancy!  She looked — not pretty — Doss couldn't be pretty — but provocative, fascinating — yes, abominably so.  Olive drew back.  It was beneath her dignity to say more.  After all, Valancy must be both mad AND bad.

"Thanks — that's enough," said Barney behind the car.  "Much obliged, Mr. Stirling.  Two gallons — seventy cents.  Thank you."

Uncle Wellington climbed foolishly and feebly into his car.  He wanted to give Snaith a piece of his mind, but dared not.  Who knew what the creature might do if provoked?  No doubt he carried firearms.

Uncle Wellington looked indecisively at Valancy.  But Valancy had turned her back on him and was watching Barney pour the gas into Lady Jane's maw.

"Drive on," said Olive decisively.  "There's no use in waiting here.  Let me tell you what she said to me."

"The little hussy!  The shameless little hussy!" said Uncle Wellington.

 

CHAPTER XXII

 The next thing the Stirlings heard was that Valancy had been seen with Barney Snaith in a movie theatre in Port Lawrence and after it at supper in a Chinese restaurant there.  This was quite true — and no one was more surprised at it than Valancy herself.  Barney had come along in Lady Jane one dim twilight and told Valancy unceremoniously if she wanted a drive to hop in.

"I'm going to the Port.  Will you go there with me?"

His eyes were teasing and there was a bit of defiance in his voice. Valancy, who did not conceal from herself that she would have gone anywhere with him to any place, "hopped in" without more ado.  They tore into and through Deerwood.  Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, taking a little air on the verandah, saw them whirl by in a cloud of dust and sought comfort in each other's eye.  Valancy, who in some dim pre-existence had been afraid of a car, was hatless and her hair was blowing wildly round her face.  She would certainly come down with bronchitis — and die at Roaring Abel's. She wore a low-neck dress and her arms were bare.  That Snaith creature was in his shirt-sleeves, smoking a pipe.  They were going at the rate of forty miles an hour — sixty, Cousin Stickles averred. Lady Jane could hit the pike when she wanted to.  Valancy waved her hand gaily to her relatives.  As for Mrs. Frederick, she was wishing she knew how to go into hysterics.

"Was it for this,'' she demanded in hollow tones, that I suffered the pangs of motherhood?"

"I will NOT believe," said Cousin Stickles solemnly, "that our prayers will not yet be answered."

"Who — WHO will protect that unfortunate girl when I am gone?" moaned Mrs. Frederick.

As for Valancy, she was wondering if it could really be only a few weeks since she had sat there with them on that verandah.  Hating the rubberplant.  Pestered with teasing questions like black flies. Always thinking of appearances.  Cowed because of Aunt Wellington's teaspoons and Uncle Benjamin's money.  Poverty-stricken.  Afraid of everybody.  Envying Olive.  A slave to moth-eaten traditions. Nothing to hope for or expect.

And now every day was a gay adventure.

Lady Jane flew over the fifteen miles between Deerwood and the Port — through the Port.  The way Barney went past traffic policemen was not holy.  The lights were beginning to twinkle out like stars in the clear, lemon-hued twilight air.  This was the only time Valancy ever really liked the town, and she was crazy with the delight of speeding.  Was it possible she had ever been afraid of a car?  She was perfectly happy, riding beside Barney.  Not that she deluded herself into thinking it had any significance.  She knew quite well that Barney had asked her to go on the impulse of the moment — an impulse born of a feeling of pity for her and her starved little dreams.  She was looking tired after a wakeful night with a heart attack, followed by a busy day.  She had so little fun.  He'd give her an outing for once.  Besides, Abel was in the kitchen, at the point of drunkenness where he was declaring he did not believe in God and beginning to sing ribald songs.  It was just as well she should be out of the way for a while.  Barney knew Roaring Abel's repertoire.

They went to the movie — Valancy had never been to a movie.  And then, finding a nice hunger upon them, they went and had fried chicken — unbelievable delicious — in the Chinese restaurant.  After which they rattled home again, leaving a devastating trail of scandal behind them.  Mrs. Frederick gave up going to church altogether.  She could not endure her friends' pitying glances and questions.  But Cousin Stickles went every Sunday.  She said they had been given a cross to bear.

 

CHAPTER XXIII

 On one of Cissy's wakeful nights, she told Valancy her poor little story.  They were sitting by the open window.  Cissy could not get her breath lying down that night.  An inglorious gibbous moon was hanging over the wooded hills and in its spectral light Cissy looked frail and lovely and incredibly young.  A child.  It did not seem possible that she could have lived through all the passion and pain and shame of her story.

"He was stopping at the hotel across the lake.  He used to come over in his canoe at night — we met in the pines down the shore.  He was a young college student — his father was a rich man in Toronto. Oh, Valancy, I didn't mean to be bad — I didn't, indeed.  But I loved him so — I love him yet — I'll always love him.  And I — didn't know — some things.  I didn't understand.  Then his father came and took him away.  And — after a little — I found out — oh, Valancy, — I was so frightened.  I didn't know what to do.  I wrote him — and he came.  He — he said he would marry me, Valancy."

"And why — and why? — "

"Oh, Valancy, he didn't love me any more.  I saw that at a glance. He — he was just offering to marry me because he thought he ought to — because he was sorry for me.  He wasn't bad — but he was so young — and what was I that he should keep on loving me?"

"Never mind making excuses for him," said Valancy a bit shortly. "So you wouldn't marry him?''

"I couldn't — not when he didn't love me any more.  Somehow — I can't explain — it seemed a worse thing to do than — the other.  He — he argued a little — but he went away.  Do you think I did right, Valancy?"

"Yes, I do.  YOU did right.  But he — "

"Don't blame him, dear.  Please don't.  Let's not talk about him at all.  There's no need.  I wanted to tell you how it was — I didn't want you to think me bad — "

"I never did think so."

"Yes, I felt that — whenever you came.  Oh, Valancy, what you've been to me!  I can never tell you — but God will bless you for it. I know He will — 'with what measure ye mete.'"

Cissy sobbed for a few minutes in Valancy's arms.  Then she wiped her eyes.

"Well, that's almost all.  I came home.  I wasn't really so very unhappy.  I suppose I should have been — but I wasn't.  Father wasn't hard on me.  And my baby was so sweet, Valancy — with such lovely blue eyes — and little rings of pale gold hair like silk floss — and tiny dimpled hands.  I used to bite his satin-smooth little face all over — softly, so as not to hurt him, you know — "

"I know," said Valancy, wincing.  "I know — a woman ALWAYS knows —  and dreams — "

"And he was ALL mine.  Nobody else had any claim on him.  When he died, oh, Valancy, I thought I must die too — I didn't see how anybody could endure such anguish and live.  To see his dear little eyes and know he would never open them again — to miss his warm little body nestled against mine at night and think of him sleeping alone and cold, his wee face under the hard frozen earth.  It was so awful for the first year — after that it was a little easier, one didn't keep thinking 'this day last year' — but I was so glad when I found out I was dying."

"'Who could endure life if it were not for the hope of death?'" murmured Valancy softly — it was of course a quotation from some book of John Foster's.

"I'm glad I've told you all about it," sighed Cissy.  "I wanted you to know."

Cissy died a few nights after that.  Roaring Abel was away.  When Valancy saw the change that had come over Cissy's face she wanted to telephone for the doctor.  But Cissy wouldn't let her.

"Valancy, why should you?  He can do nothing for me.  I've known for several days that — this — was near.  Let me die in peace, dear —  just holding your hand.  Oh, I'm so glad you're here.  Tell Father good-bye for me.  He's always been as good to me as he knew how —  and Barney.  Somehow, I think that Barney — "

But a spasm of coughing interrupted and exhausted her.  She fell asleep when it was over, still holding to Valancy's hand.  Valancy sat there in the silence.  She was not frightened — or even sorry. At sunrise Cissy died.  She opened her eyes and looked past Valancy at something — something that made her smile suddenly and happily. And, smiling, she died.

Valancy crossed Cissy's hands on her breast and went to the open window.  In the eastern sky, amid the fires of sunrise, an old moon was hanging — as slender and lovely as a new moon.  Valancy had never seen an old, old moon before.  She watched it pale and fade until it paled and faded out of sight in the living rose of day.  A little pool in the barrens shone in the sunrise like a great golden lily.

But the world suddenly seemed a colder place to Valancy.  Again nobody needed her.  She was not in the least sorry Cecilia was dead.  She was only sorry for all her suffering in life.  But nobody could ever hurt her again.  Valancy had always thought death dreadful.  But Cissy had died so quietly — so pleasantly.  And at the very last — something — had made up to her for everything.  She was lying there now, in her white sleep, looking like a child. Beautiful!  All the lines of shame and pain gone.

Roaring Abel drove in, justifying his name.  Valancy went down and told him.  The shock sobered him at once.  He slumped down on the seat of his buggy, his great head hanging.

"Cissy dead — Cissy dead," he said vacantly.  "I didn't think it would 'a' come so soon.  Dead.  She used to run down the lane to meet me with a little white rose stuck in her hair.  Cissy used to be a pretty little girl.  And a good little girl."

"She has always been a good little girl," said Valancy.

 

CHAPTER XXIV

 Valancy herself made Cissy ready for burial.  No hands but hers should touch that pitiful, wasted little body.  The old house was spotless on the day of burial.  Barney Snaith was not there.  He had done all he could to help Valancy before it — he had shrouded the pale Cecilia in white roses from the garden — and then had gone back to his island.  But everybody else was there.  All Deerwood and "up back" came.  They forgave Cissy splendidly at last.  Mr. Bradly gave a very beautiful funeral address.  Valancy had wanted her old Free Methodist man, but Roaring Abel was obdurate.  He was a Presbyterian and no one but a Presbyterian minister should bury HIS daughter.  Mr. Bradly was very tactful.  He avoided all dubious points and it was plain to be seen he hoped for the best.  Six reputable citizens of Deerwood bore Cecilia Gay to her grave in decorous Deerwood cemetery.  Among them was Uncle Wellington.

The Stirlings all came to the funeral, men and women.  They had had a family conclave over it.  Surely now that Cissy Gay was dead Valancy would come home.  She simply could not stay there with Roaring Abel.  That being the case, the wisest course — decreed Uncle James — was to attend the funeral — legitimise the whole thing, so to speak — show Deerwood that Valancy had really done a most creditable deed in going to nurse poor Cecilia Gay and that her family backed her up in it.  Death, the miracle worker, suddenly made the thing quite respectable.  If Valancy would return to home and decency while public opinion was under its influence all might yet be well.  Society was suddenly forgetting all Cecilia's wicked doings and remembering what a pretty, modest little thing she had been — "and motherless, you know — motherless!"  It was the psychological moment — said Uncle James.

So the Stirlings went to the funeral.  Even Cousin Gladys' neuritis allowed her to come.  Cousin Stickles was there, her bonnet dripping all over her face, crying as woefully as if Cissy had been her nearest and dearest.  Funerals always brought Cousin Stickles' "own sad bereavement" back.

And Uncle Wellington was a pall-bearer.

Valancy, pale, subdued-looking, her slanted eyes smudged with purple, in her snuff-brown dress, moving quietly about, finding seats for people, consulting in undertones with minister and undertaker, marshalling the "mourners" into the parlour, was so decorous and proper and Stirlingish that her family took heart of grace.  This was not — could not be — the girl who had sat all night in the woods with Barney Snaith — who had gone tearing bareheaded through Deerwood and Port Lawrence.  This was the Valancy they knew.  Really, surprisingly capable and efficient.  Perhaps she had always been kept down a bit too much — Amelia really was rather strict — hadn't had a chance to show what was in her.  So thought the Stirlings.  And Edward Beck, from the Port road, a widower with a large family who was beginning to take notice, took notice of Valancy and thought she might make a mighty fine second wife.  No beauty — but a fifty-year-old widower, Mr. Beck told himself very reasonably, couldn't expect everything.  Altogether, it seemed that Valancy's matrimonial chances were never so bright as they were at Cecilia Gay's funeral.

What the Stirlings and Edward Beck would have thought had they known the back of Valancy's mind must be left to the imagination. Valancy was hating the funeral — hating the people who came to stare with curiosity at Cecilia's marble-white face — hating the smugness —  hating the dragging, melancholy singing — hating Mr. Bradly's cautious platitudes.  If she could have had her absurd way, there would have been no funeral at all.  She would have covered Cissy over with flowers, shut her away from prying eyes, and buried her beside her nameless little baby in the grassy burying-ground under the pines of the "up back" church, with a bit of kindly prayer from the old Free Methodist minister.  She remembered Cissy saying once, "I wish I could be buried deep in the heart of the woods where nobody would ever come to say, 'Cissy Gay is buried here.' and tell over my miserable story."

But this!  However, it would soon be over.  Valancy knew, if the Stirlings and Edward Beck didn't, exactly what she intended to do then.  She had lain awake all the preceding night thinking about it and finally deciding on it.

When the funeral procession had left the house, Mrs. Frederick sought out Valancy in the kitchen.

"My child," she said tremulously, "you'll come home NOW?"

"Home," said Valancy absently.  She was getting on an apron and calculating how much tea she must put to steep for supper.  There would be several guests from "up back" — distant relatives of the Gays' who had not remembered them for years.  And she was so tired she wished she could borrow a pair of legs from the cat.

"Yes, home," said Mrs. Frederick, with a touch of asperity.  "I suppose you won't dream of staying here now — alone with Roaring Abel."

"Oh, no, I'm not going to stay HERE," said Valancy.  "Of course, I'll have to stay for a day or two, to put the house in order generally.  But that will be all.  Excuse me, Mother, won't you? I've a frightful lot to do — all those "up back" people will be here to supper."

Mrs. Frederick retreated in considerable relief, and the Stirlings went home with lighter hearts.

"We will just treat her as if nothing had happened when she comes back," decreed Uncle Benjamin.  "That will be the best plan.  Just as if nothing had happened."

 

CHAPTER XXV

 On the evening of the day after the funeral Roaring Abel went off for a spree.  He had been sober for four whole days and could endure it no longer.  Before he went, Valancy told him she would be going away the next day.  Roaring Abel was sorry, and said so.  A distant cousin from "up back" was coming to keep house for him —  quite willing to do so now since there was no sick girl to wait on —  but Abel was not under any delusions concerning her.

"She won't be like you, my girl.  Well, I'm obliged to you.  You helped me out of a bad hole and I won't forget it.  And I won't forget what you did for Cissy.  I'm your friend, and if you ever want any of the Stirlings spanked and sot in a corner send for me. I'm going to wet my whistle.  Lord, but I'm dry!  Don't reckon I'll be back afore tomorrow night, so if you're going home tomorrow, good-bye now."

"I MAY go home tomorrow," said Valancy, "but I'm not going back to Deerwood."

"Not going — "

"You'll find the key on the woodshed nail," interrupted Valancy, politely and unmistabably.  "The dog will be in the barn and the cat in the cellar.  Don't forget to feed her till your cousin comes.  The pantry is full and I made bread and pies today.  Good- bye, Mr. Gay.  You have been very kind to me and I appreciate it."

"We've had a d —  — d decent time of it together, and that's a fact," said Roaring Abel.  "You're the best small sport in the world, and your little finger is worth the whole Stirling clan tied together. Good-bye and good-luck."

Valancy went out to the garden.  Her legs trembled a little, but otherwise she felt and looked composed.  She held something tightly in her hand.  The garden was lying in the magic of the warm, odorous July twilight.  A few stars were out and the robins were calling through the velvety silences of the barrens.  Valancy stood by the gate expectantly.  Would he come?  If he did not —

He was coming.  Valancy heard Lady Jane Grey far back in the woods. Her breath came a little more quickly.  Nearer — and nearer — she could see Lady Jane now — bumping down the lane — nearer — nearer — he was there — he had sprung from the car and leaning over the gate, looking at her.

"Going home, Miss Stirling?"

"I don't know — yet," said Valancy slowly.  Her mind was made up, with no shadow of turning, but the moment was very tremendous.

"I thought I'd run down and ask if there was anything I could do for you," said Barney.

Valancy took it with a canter.

"Yes, there is something you can do for me," she said, evenly and distinctly.  "Will you marry me?"

For a moment Barney was silent.  There was no particular expression on his face.  Then he gave an odd laugh.

"Come, now!  I knew luck was just waiting around the corner for me. All the signs have been pointing that way today."

"Wait."  Valancy lifted her hand.  "I'm in earnest — but I want to get my breath after that question.  Of course, with my bringing up, I realise perfectly well that this is one of the things 'a lady should not do.'"

"But why — why?"

"For two reasons."  Valancy was still a little breathless, but she looked Barney straight in the eyes while all the dead Stirlings revolved rapidly in their graves and the living ones did nothing because they did not know that Valancy was at that moment proposing lawful marriage to the notorious Barney Snaith.  "The first reason is, I — I — "  Valancy tried to say "I love you" but could not.  She had to take refuge in a pretended flippancy.  "I'm crazy about you. The second is — this."

She handed him Dr. Trent's letter.

Barney opened it with the air of a man thankful to find some safe, sane thing to do.  As he read it his face changed.  He understood —  more perhaps than Valancy wanted him to.

"Are you sure nothing can be done for you?"

Valancy did not misunderstand the question.

"Yes.  You know Dr. Trent's reputation in regard to heart disease. I haven't long to live — perhaps only a few months — a few weeks.  I want to LIVE them.  I can't go back to Deerwood — you know what my life was like there.  And" — she managed it this time — "I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.  That's all."

Barney folded his arms on the gate and looked gravely enough at a white, saucy star that was winking at him just over Roaring Abel's kitchen chimney.

"You don't know anything about me.  I may be a — murderer."

"No, I don't.  You MAY be something dreadful.  Everything they say of you may be true.  But it doesn't matter to me."

"You care that much for me, Valancy?" said Barney incredulously, looking away from the star and into her eyes — her strange, mysterious eyes.

"I care — that much," said Valancy in a low voice.  She was trembling.  He had called her by her name for the first time.  It was sweeter than another man's caress could have been just to hear him say her name like that.

"If we are going to get married," said Barney, speaking suddenly in a casual, matter-of-fact voice, "some things must be understood."

"Everything must be understood," said Valancy.

"I have things I want to hide," said Barney coolly "You are not to ask me about them."

"I won't," said Valancy.

"You must never ask to see my mail."

"Never."

"And we are never to pretend anything to each other."

"We won't," said Valancy.  "You won't even have to pretend you like me.  If you marry me I know you're only doing it out of pity."

"And we'll never tell a lie to each other about anything — a big lie or petty lie."

"Especially a petty lie," agreed Valancy.

"And you'll have to live back on my island.  I won't live anywhere else."

"That's partly why I want to marry you," said Valancy.

Barney peered at her.

"I believe you mean it.  Well — let's get married, then."

"Thank you," said Valancy, with a sudden return of primness.  She would have been much less embarrassed if he had refused her.

"I suppose I haven't any right to make conditions.  But I'm going to make one.  You are never to refer to my heart or my liability to sudden death.  You are never to urge me to be careful.  You are to forget — absolutely forget — that I'm not perfectly healthy.  I have written a letter to my mother — here it is — you are to keep it.  I have explained everything in it.  If I drop dead suddenly — as I likely will do — "

"It will exonerate me in the eyes of your kindred from the suspicion of having poisoned you," said Barney with a grin.

"Exactly."  Valancy laughed gaily.  "Dear me, I'm glad this is over.  It has been — a bit of an ordeal.  You see, I'm not in the habit of going about asking men to marry me.  It is so nice of you not to refuse me — or offer to be a brother!"

"I'll go to the Port tomorrow and get a license.  We can be married tomorrow evening.  Dr. Stalling, I suppose?"

"Heavens, no."  Valancy shuddered.  "Besides, he wouldn't do it. He'd shake his forefinger at me and I'd jilt you at the altar.  No, I want my old Mr. Towers to marry me."

"Will you marry me as I stand?" demanded Barney.  A passing car, full of tourists, honked loudly — it seemed derisively.  Valancy looked at him.  Blue homespun shirt, nondescript hat, muddy overalls.  Unshaved!

"Yes," she said.

Barney put his hands over the gate and took her little, cold ones gently in his.

"Valancy," he said, trying to speak lightly, "of course I'm not in love with you — never thought of such a thing as being in love. But, do you know, I've always thought you were a bit of a dear."

 


                                       

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