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The Cassowary; What Chanced in the Cleft Mountains, Page 2

Stanley Waterloo



  Weary of fighting off thoughts, tired with the insistent intrusions ofmemory, John Stafford, who had awakened refreshed and himself again,leaned back in his seat and gave himself up to the bitter-sweet of thehome-coming after long absence. Landing from the steamer in SanFrancisco, Stafford had still felt himself to be in a strange country,though the people proclaimed themselves Americans of the Americans inevery look and turn and voice. But the blue sky and the blue bay, themountains and the outdoor life of the people, gave Stafford still thefeeling that he was yet in a foreign land, as he had been for five yearsor more.

  He had not counted the time from the first six weeks after his departurefrom America.

  Across mountains, deserts, prairies, plains and rolling hills withpeopled cities in their sheltering folds, Stafford held his way towardthe East. He hardly knew his destination. To New York, or to stop to thecentral whirlpool of life in America where goes most of what is fromthe West toward the outer edges of the roaring market place of theIndian name, built where the sluggish river flows, juggled by the handof man out of the great inland Sea of Michigan into the MississippiValley, where it originally belonged. To one of the two cities he wasindifferently bound.

  Now, with eyes closed, and lips firmly and perhaps grimly set, Staffordlooked the past in the face, and speculated as to the future. To him itwas all undetermined. He could give it no continuous thought, for thepast kept haunting him, as it had, more and more, with every mile on theway from the Pacific Coast.

  His had been one of the tragedies of life and love. A strong man,upright, conscientious, brilliant and familiar with social risks, he hadyet fallen in love with a married woman, the wife of a brute, an animalunsuited to her in every way, but still the wife.

  It had been a love as wonderful as it was blameless. The two had met,and had involuntarily, by the mere force of a natural gravitation, beendrawn toward each other, and, since they fitted, the inevitable hadtaken place. The very fibres of their souls had intertwined. It was thestory, old as time, of love barred by the law which men have made forgood, a story the material for which exists in all lands and among allraces, in all climates and under all conditions, whether it be wheregather the softest of the lazy mists which float beneath the palms ofthe Equator or as near the North Pole as the musk ox browses. The womanunrighteously married and the man unmarried--or the reverse--will cometogether. Like wire of gold through armorer's bronze, a perfectcloisonne, will come, sometimes, the close relationship. And, where isthe fault of loving involuntarily, helplessly, but sinning not at all?Nature is God's and has her paths, and Love is but the index finger ofthe two.

  But John Stafford and Mary Eversham were not of the sort to violate theconscience by yielding to fond desire. The right was first with thissplendid man and woman. One sweet privilege they allowed themselves,that of a full confession to each other of all that was in their hearts,and then they separated, he to seek in Russia such forgetfulness asstrenuous work might bring, she to bear patiently the weight of a barrenlife. Now he had fought his fight in the frigid Northern Orient, andhad returned, a winning American, but objectless and restless.

  The man musing there gloomily at last aroused himself: "I'll think nomore," he muttered; "I'll exhibit a little common sense;" and he devotedhis attention to what was going on about him.

  The storm had passed. As morning neared, it lessened somewhat in itsforce, and when daylight came, opaque and dim, it ended suddenly. Theblizzard groaned and then dropped into nothingness.

  It was a curious and impressive sight which was afforded those on thetrain as they streamed out and massed themselves upon the platforms--forthose in the sleepers dressed hurriedly and came out only a little laterthan the occupants of the other cars, who had slight dressing to do--andit was a sight in no degree encouraging. About them was but an endlessreach of dead, unenlivened dreary white, the dull white of a tombstone,and they knew that they were the helpless prisoners of this solitude.They were appalled. It affected them all, though differently, accordingto their character.

  Food for days they had, certainly, and heat for the present. This was onthe credit side. On the other side were a variety of threateningpossibilities. Weak people have died in snowbound trains. Should they beimprisoned for long there would be no heat, and the cold in themountains is something that seeks the very marrow. Such cold they mighthave to endure. Some one spoke shudderingly of a singular death causedby this bitter enemy in a train stalled years before not far from theplace where they were now almost entombed, for the canyons in the rearwere filled by this time and by no possibility could the train be movedin one direction or another. The story was that of the death of awonderful little personage who, though nearly thirty years of age, wasonly thirty inches in height, most famous of dwarfs, the Mexican woman,Lucia Zerete. Wrap her warmly as they would, they could not save her.The frost permeated her slight body and she died upon the unheatedtrain. The allusion brought a shudder. That awful frost in the air seeksall humanity within its limits, and then, for the more fragile, theworld may no longer be going round.

  The sky lightened gradually, and toward noon the clouds broke so thatthe sun shone for a brief space, but there came no real brightness. Thesun did his best, but it was little. He was trying to send his rays tothe depths of the canyon, but was not succeeding very well. He isadmirable at straight work, this luminary who gives us heat and lightand life--but when it comes to giving quality to rays which have to beagain reflected, he is only moderately efficient. The sides of thecanyon laughed at him. "You may lighten and heat our enclosed depthssomewhat," they said, "but you cannot give to the canyon the realsunshine. You may be lord of our solar system, but we upheaving rocks ofthis particular region of this particular planet can temper your forcebeyond all reason!"

  Incidents enough were occurring in Stafford's car. The porter,apparently a white man, and a blonde, was just ushering in a forlorncompany of wayside travelers, and gave them seats in the vacant places,of which there were not a few, for travel was light on the line, theseshort February days of the year when the "Great Storm" burst, not herealone, but, later, upon the Atlantic States, and played with men and alltheir work for a day and a night, giving to the human pigmy a terrifyinglesson of his own insignificance when the forces of Nature take hold inearnest to shake and tumble into fragments the cherished works of herordinarily spoiled darling, Man.

  "This car has the best accommodations, and so they are bringing the waypassengers in here," the Porter explained, as he strove to makecomfortable a tearful woman, whose whole being seemed to be absorbed inthe effort to make the world know that she had left her two childrenalone at home, while she made the five-mile journey by rail to thenearest town, and back, to buy some family stores, the nature, price andquantity of which she was by no means loth to describe in detail.

  "I meant to take the 'commodation," she repeated to whomsoever listenedto her, "but the 'commodation didn't come, and they put me on theexpress, and I thought it was fine to ride on the through passenger,that never stops at our station, but I've got enough of the express,stuck all this time in the snow, and there are my poor children lockedup at home."

  The men fidgeted in their seats, and the women, one or two of them, wentto the wayside passenger and gave her the aid, comfort and support oflistening to her, as the one form of consolation possible. By no meansalone was the woman in her murmurings. There were others quite asquerulous and restless, particularly one man, a stormy mountaincharacter, who was a storekeeper in the town where the complaining womanlived, and who announced that he must get home somehow and at once. Theday passed miserably. The prisoners had not yet settled down into apatient acquiescence with what was.