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In The Valley Of The Shadow

Josephine Daskam Bacon

  Produced by David Widger


  By Josephine Daskam

  Copyright, 1903, by Charles Scribner's Sons

  TO Belden, pacing the library doggedly, the waiting seemed interminable,the strain unnecessarily prolonged. A half-hour ago quick feet hadechoed through the upper halls, windows had opened, doors all butslammed, vague whisperings and drawn breaths had hovered impalpablyabout the whole place; but now all was utterly quiet. His own regularfootfall alone disturbed the unnatural stillness of a large house.

  Outside, the delicious October sun poured down through an atmosphere offaultless blue. The foliage was thick yet, and the red-and-yellowleaves danced heartlessly in the wind. A year ago they had gone on anutting-party, and Clarice had raced with the children and picked upmore than anybody else. Now--even to think of her brought that faintodor of salts-of-lavender and beef-tea that disheartened him so,somehow, when he sat by her bed coaxing her into sipping the stuff.

  Some one was coming down the stairs. It was Peter's step--his new onesince last Friday, when they had all, it seemed, begun to walk and talkand breathe a little differently. Belden hurried across the room andcaught him at the foot of the steps.

  "Well, old man, how goes it?" he demanded, with a determinedcheerfulness.

  His brother-in-law stared at him emptily.

  "It's to-morrow," he said, gripping the newel-post, "to-morrowafternoon. Jameson is coming--they'll do it here. Jameson brings hisspecial nurse for the--the operation, but the other one is due at five,and you get her just the same. I told Henry to put up the dog-cart. Idon't know, though--maybe the runabout--no, the tire's loose. Still, itmight do--"

  "For heaven's sake, Peter, don't bother about it! I'll find a rig. Whatelse does he say?"

  "He says there's a good fighting chance--a very good one. He says hergrit alone--Oh, Belden, what shall we do? _What_ shall we do?"

  Peter sat down heavily on the lowest stair.

  "Only last week she was so well--and yet she really wasn't. I supposehe knows. But it doesn't seem possible--I can't get it through my head.Poor little Caddy! She never had a sick day in her life. No headaches,like most Women, even--no nonsense--Oh, Belden, _what_ shall we do?"

  "Brace up, Peter; think what a good fighting chance means, think ofthat! It's not as if Caddy were old; she has that on her side. She'sseven years behind me, you know."

  Peter scowled. "You're fifty, aren't you?"

  "Not a bit. Only forty-eight, and just that, too. Now you go out and getthe nurse, and I'll stay here. It'll do you a lot of good. Don't mopearound in the house all day--what's the use?"

  "I can't leave the house. Honestly, Belden, I can't. I've tried twice,and I just walk right back. It's no good. There's the cart--and youwon't be long, will you?"

  Belden took up the reins with a vague sense of momentary relief: it wassomething to do. Under the influence of the fresh autumn air his spiritsrose; he found himself enjoying the swift rattle of the cart and thebeat of the horse's feet. After all, think of Caddy's grit; think ofher fine constitution! A fighting chance--that was little enough to say,though. Why couldn't he have put it a little stronger? Hitchcock alwayswas a pessimist.

  At the station the usual crowd of well-dressed suburbanites quietedtheir horses and waited impatiently for the express. As Belden drew upinto line, they greeted him with a subdued interest; coachmen left theirseats to ask how Mrs. Moore was to-day, and when could one see her? Asudden mist came over his eyes as he answered briefly, "Very soon--Ihope."

  The train thundered in; in an incredibly short time all the guests andcommuters were hurried off toward town--where was that nurse?

  As his glance wandered through the thinning crowd, it was met suddenlyand squarely by two brown eyes set in a fresh pink face framed by darkhair lightly sprinkled with gray. The second that he looked into thatwoman's eyes taught him her character, absolutely, as finally as ifhe had grown up with her. One could trust her to the last ditch, hethought.

  She walked straight up to the cart. "I am the nurse sent for by Dr.Hitchcock. Are you Mr. Moore?"

  "I am Mrs. Moore's brother--Mr. Belden," he explained. "Have you yourchecks?"

  "That is all arranged," she returned briefly. "I am all ready. May I askyou to hurry? Dr. Hitchcock was anxious for me to see her before six,when the fever begins."

  His nerves were more sharply edged than he knew: an instant irritationseized him.

  "There is plenty of room in the back of the cart," he insisted, "theexpress people are very uncertain. Would you not better give me thechecks?"

  She swung herself up beside him with a firm, assured motion; for aheavily built woman she carried herself very lightly.

  "I think not," she said decidedly, "the man has started, I am sure. Iwould rather lose no time."

  He bowed and started the horse: he disliked her already. To adeep-seated, involuntary disgust that any woman should have to earn herliving he added a displeased wonder that one should choose this methodof doing it. There must be disagreeable details connected with it,embarrassments, absolute indignities: why did they not marry? This womanwas good-looking enough. She was very obstinate--almost dictatorial. Hisidea of womanhood was hopelessly confused with clouds of white tulle,appealing eyes, and a desire for guidance. It was impossible to connectany of these characteristics with the woman beside him.

  For a while they drove in silence. Then compunction seized him and heremarked on the beauty of the foliage. She assented easily, but seemedno more relieved by the speech than embarrassed by the silence. Itwas impossible to treat her as a hired servant: one felt a strongpersonality in her. Before they reached the house he was searching forconversation that should not bore her.

  As they stepped into the wide hall, where he observed with a shade ofdispleasure that her luggage had come before them, Dr. Hitchcock metthem.

  "Ah, Miss Strong, glad to see you. Come right up. On time, as usual, ofcourse! I was afraid you couldn't make it. Jameson comes to-morrow, youknow--"

  They were up the stairs; Belden stood idly in the hall where they hadleft him. He had had an idea of showing her the house, stating some ofthe facts of Clarice's sudden and terrible need of her, indicating thatin a family so jarred from the very foundations it would be wiser tolook to him than to the bewildered master of the establishment; but thiswas not necessary.

  Evidently she persisted in dispensing with his services.

  His hand slipped to his vest pocket, but he replaced the cigaruncertainly: it seemed not quite the thing to smoke. Ought he to go toPeter? In his mind's eye he saw the poor fellow haunting the landing byCaddy's door; he had an idea that in some way he kept things quiet bydoing this. And how could one be sure that the troubled creature wantedcompany?

  There was a violent ring at the bell, a jarring of wheels on theasphalt. The door flew open and the prettiest little woman imaginable,all fluffy ends and scarlet flowers and orris scent, rushed toward him.

  "Oh, Will! Oh, Will!" she gasped, "isn't it terrible? Where is Peter?Can I see her? Oh, Will!"

  Instinctively he took her in his arms--one always did that with Peter'ssister--and she put her head on his shoulder and cried a little, whilehe patted her and murmured, "There, there!"

  She was so manifestly comforted, and it was so pleasant to comforther--this was what a woman should be. He felt a renewed sense ofcapacity, of readiness for even the most terrible emergency. He led hergently to the great cushioned window-seat and listened sympatheticallyto her excited babblings.

  "It will kill Peter--it will kill him! In--in a great m-many ways, youknow, Will, Peter isn't so--so c-calm as Caddy. He is just bound up inher. Suppose--Oh, Will!"

  "Don't cry,
Sue dear, don't!" he said soothingly. "She has a goodchance--a fine chance, really. These things are mostly resisting power,you know, and grit, and think what a lot of grit Caddy's got!"

  "Oh, I know, I know! Don't you know when the baby died--that firstbaby--and s-she was so weak she could hardly speak? 'Never mind,P-Peter, we'll have another!' Oh, dear, she was so pl-plucky, Will! Andnow to think--"

  He choked a little. "I know, I know," he murmured, "Caddy's a brick. Shealways was."

  She sat up, not wholly withdrawing from his arm, and patted her eyes,breathing brokenly. Little gusts of orris floated toward him.

  "Where are the children?" she asked, almost herself now.

  "They're here--Peter wants them one minute and sends them away the next.I should send them to grandmother's, but he won't hear of it."

  A light step sounded on the stair. The nurse appeared on the lowerlanding. She was dressed in cool blue gingham; the straps of her whiteapron marked the firm, broad lines of her bust and shoulder.

  "Is this Mrs. Wylie?" she said in her clear, assured voice. "Mrs. Moorewould like to see her a moment. Will you come with me?"

  "I will come directly," and Sue gathered together her gloves andhand-bag.

  "She's very good-looking--it's a pity her hair is so gray," she breathedin his ear. As the two women stood together a moment on the landing herealized, not for the first time, that Sue was a little too small. Buthe had never thought her sallow before.

  Peter came in by the greenhouse door, walking slowly, his hands behindhis back. He looked old for the first time in his jolly, persistentlyboyish life.

  "Those chrysanthemums are all drying up," he complained fretfully; "notone of the blamed servants has done a thing since--since--O Lord, Will,what shall we be doing this time tomorrow? Where are the children?Where's Miss Strong? There's a woman for you! Caddy took to herdirectly. She's there now. She's talking to her about the children. Oh,my God!"

  Belden grasped his hand and they walked silently up and down the hall.

  "Aunt Lucia's coming to-night," Peter resumed nervously. "She will driveme mad. Take care of her, will you? If I could have choked her off--butwhen you think she was just like a mother to Cad all these years, whatcan you do? She's got a right. You'd think she'd have got some sensefrom living with Cad so long. I told Henry to go for her--and there youare," he added, as the cart drew up before the open door.

  Belden went slowly down the steps; he detested Aunt Lucia, and Claricehad always stood between them.

  "How do you do?" he began, assisting her from the high seat. Her longcrape veil caught in the wheel, and the numberless black and floatingends of her costume wound themselves about him as he bent down todisentangle her.

  "Oh, Wilmot, this is a terrible day for us all, is it not? Be carefulof the hem of that veil, please. When I kissed Clarice good-by lastChristmas I little thought _what_ a good-by it was! Is she conscious?You have muddied the boa, I think, but never mind. Can I see her oncemore?"

  "For Heaven's sake, Aunt Lucia, anybody would think Caddy was inher grave! She's a long way from it yet, thank God! Of course she'sconscious, and spunky as the--as ever. I don't think you really neededto--"

  "My dear Wilmot, I prepared Clarice for her confirmation, I dressedher for her wedding, and I was here when the children were born. If youthink that I would fail her in this crisis you have a very poor idea ofmy character. But then, I am perfectly aware that you always had. Oh,there is Peter! My poor Peter!" She rushed toward him, and Belden smiledsardonically as his brother-in-law planted a perfunctory kiss on herchin.

  "This may comfort you, Peter, as it has me so often in suchcircumstances. So short, so true, so helpful. 'Underneath are theeverlasting arms!' Do you feel that, Peter?"

  "I--I--yes, indeed, Aunt Lucia--you must want a bite of something, I'msure, driving so far."

  Peter writhed miserably in Aunt Lucia's crape-and-jet arms.

  "Not till I have seen her, Peter. Afterwards I shouldn't mind. I havebrought such a beautiful address by Bishop Hunter. It was delivered onthe occasion of the death of Governor -------, unless I forgot to put itin with my knitted shawl. I believe I did. I will send for it directly.When my dear husband--he was so fond of Clarice--died, I read it morethan anything else, except the Prayer-book, of course. You will surelyfind it a help."

  "Yes, Aunt Lucia. Your room is ready, and--"

  "Not till I have seen her, Peter."

  "Susy is there now, and Miss Strong says nobody else this evening.Tomorrow--"

  Aunt Lucia drew away.

  "Do I understand that Susy Wylie--no relation at all--is preferredbefore the only mother Clarice has had for all these years?"

  Peter winced. "But you weren't here, Aunt Lucia," he argued wearily.

  "Who is Miss Strong?"

  "Here she is!" There was great relief in Peter's voice. "Miss Strong, myaunt, Mrs. Wetherly."

  "Mrs. Moore sends you her best love, and wants you to get thoroughlyrested, so that you can see her the first thing in the morning, Mrs.Wetherly. She says you are not to let them frighten you."

  As if by magic the formidable frown faded from Aunt Lucia's forehead.She smiled approvingly at the nurse.

  "Very well. I should like to ask you a few questions--Clarice was alwaysthoughtful."

  They moved away together. The two men stared at each other.

  "How do you account for that?" Belden queried.

  "Oh, it's her calm way and her voice. You want to do everything shesays. Norah says she's sure Mrs. Moore will get well now, with her totake care of her. By George, Will, if she pulls Caddy through it'll beworth her while, I tell you."

  "Oh, they always do their best. And they all have that habit, I fancy.It's part of the training."

  Peter looked up surprised.

  "You don't like her, eh?"

  "How absurd. I never considered her particularly. I don't care formasculine, dictatorial women, on general principles--"

  "Oh, nonsense! I tell you you've taken a grudge against her, and youwant to get rid of it as soon as possible."

  "I suppose I have a right to my opinion," Belden began hotly, but a waveof remorse surged over him at sight of the other man's drawn, nervousface.

  "Any one would think we had nothing to do but scrap over a trainednurse," he said lightly. "She's all you say, I haven't a doubt, old man,and if she pulls Caddy through, I'll sing her praises louder than any ofyou."

  They sat in silence. A burst of laughter from the kitchen-gardenstartled them, and Belden started up as if to check it.

  "Don't stop 'em--it's the servants. Why shouldn't they laugh?" saidPeter quietly. "I've been thinking it all over. If Caddy--if--if shedoesn't get well, she doesn't want a lot of black and all that. It's badfor the children. And she said the children oughtn't to grow up withouta mother--think of that!"

  "I guess that's all right," said Belden sadly. "Look at my boy there!"

  A slender, stoop-shouldered lad slouched by the long hall-window, hishands in his pockets, an unlighted cigarette in his mouth.

  "Well, well, we all have our load!" Peter's mood had changed utterly, tothe other's astonishment. He seemed gentler, more thoughtful, controlledbeyond belief.

  "I don't see why we shouldn't smoke," he added, and they lighted cigars.

  "You see, we talked it all over," he said, half to himself, "and she'sso reasonable and calm, herself.... She says Margaret's going to grow upjust like her. That's a comfort.. And there's the boy."

  Suddenly the cigar dropped from his lips to the floor.

  "Good God, Belden!" he shouted, "I kept thinking she'd be here, too! Iforgot--I--Oh, what rot! Do you think I'll stand it? Do you think I'llput up with it? Why didn't Hitchcock know before? It was his business toknow! I tell you I'll ruin that man if it takes every dollar I've got!"

  Belden stared at him helplessly. Was this Peter, this red-faced,scowling menace? As he watched him silently the nurse came in from thegreenhouse.

  "Mrs. Moore wants to say good
night to you, Mr. Moore," she said, herdeep, clear voice echoing strangely after the hoarse passion of Peter'srage. "I found these all picked--were you going to take them to her?"

  Peter drew a deep breath and put out a shaking hand for the flowers.

  "I don't know what's the matter with me, Will--I talk like a fool," hehalf whispered. "I can't get used to this damned see-saw. First I'm allready for it, and then I'm nearly wild. And so it goes--up and down, upand down."

  "How is she? Is it all settled for to-morrow? Hitchcock said thatperhaps--"

  "Mrs. Moore is doing very well--really very well. She was a littleexcited when Mrs. Wylie was with her, but she is nicely sleepy now.I think it will be better to stay only a moment. She will get a goodnight's rest to-night, it is so cool. The weather is on our side."

  She smiled into his eyes and nodded gravely. He brightened and squaredhis shoulders. As he went quickly up the stairs, Belden stopped thewoman.

  "Tell me," he said authoritatively, "how is my sister, really? What doyou consider her chance?"

  She looked him easily in the eyes. "It