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- Barriers Burned Away - 2/81 -
CHAPTER XLVI CHRISTINE'S GRAVE
CHAPTER XLVII SUSIE WINTHROP
CHAPTER XLVIII DR. ARTEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
CHAPTER XLIX BILL CRONK'S TOAST
CHAPTER L EVERY BARRIER BURNED AWAY
From its long sweep over the unbroken prairie a heavier blast than usual shook the slight frame house. The windows rattled in the casements, as if shivering in their dumb way in the December storm. So open and defective was the dwelling in its construction, that eddying currents of cold air found admittance at various points--in some instances carrying with them particles of the fine, sharp, hail-like snow that the gale was driving before it in blinding fury.
Seated at one of the windows, peering out into the gathering gloom of the swiftly coming night, was a pale, faded woman with lustrous dark eyes. An anxious light shone from them, as she tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the darkening road that ran at a distance of about fifty yards from the house. As the furious blast shook the frail tenement, and circled round her in chilly currents from many a crack and crevice, she gave a short, hacking cough, and drew a thin shawl closer about her slight frame.
The unwonted violence of the wind had its effect upon another occupant of the room. From a bed in the corner near the stove came a feeble, hollow voice--"Wife!"
In a moment the woman was bending over the bed, and in a voice full of patient tenderness answered, "Well, dear?"
"Has he come?"
"Not yet; but he MUST be here soon."
The word MUST was emphasized in such a way as to mean doubt rather than certainty, as if trying to assure her own mind of a matter about which painful misgivings could not be banished. The quick ear of the sick man caught the tone, and in a querulous voice he said, "Oh! if he should not get here in time, it would be the last bitter drop in my cup, now full and running over."
"Dear husband, if human strength and love can accomplish it, he will be here soon. But the storm is indeed frightful, and were the case less urgent, I could almost wish he would not try to make his way through it. But then we know what Dennis is; he never stops to consider difficulties, but pushes right on; and if--if he doesn't--if it is possible, he will be here before very long."
In spite of herself, the mother's heart showed its anxiety, and, too late for remedy, she saw the effect upon her husband. He raised himself in bed with sudden and unwonted strength. His eyes grew wild and almost fierce, and in a sharp, hurried voice, he said: "You don't think there is danger? There is no fear of his getting lost? If I thought that I would curse God and die."
"Oh, Dennis, my husband, God forbid that you should speak thus! How can you feel so toward our Best Friend?"
"What kind of a friend has He been to me, pray? Has not my life been one long series of misfortunes? Have I not been disappointed in all my hopes? I once believed in God and tried to serve Him. But if, as I have been taught, all this evil and misfortune was ordered and made my inevitable lot by Him, He has not been my friend, but my enemy. He's been against me, not for me."
In the winter twilight the man's emaciated, unshorn face had the ghostly, ashen hue of death. From cavernous sockets his eyes gleamed with a terribly vindictive light, akin to insanity, and, in a harsh, high voice, as unnatural as his appearance and words, he continued: "Remember what I have gone through! what I have suffered! how often the cup of success that I was raising to my lips has been dashed to the ground!"
"But, Dennis, think a moment."
"Ah! haven't I thought till my heart is gall and my brain bursting? Haven't I, while lying here, hopelessly dying, gone over my life again and again? Haven't I lived over every disappointment, and taken every step downward a thousand times? Remember the pleasant, plentiful home I took you from, under the great elms in Connecticut. Your father did not approve of your marrying a poor school-teacher. But you know that then I had every prospect of getting the village academy, but with my luck another got ahead of me. Then I determined to study law. What hopes I had! I already grasped political honors that seemed within my reach, for you know I was a ready speaker. If my friends could only have seen that I was peculiarly fitted for public life and advanced me sufficient means, I would have returned it tenfold. But no; I was forced into other things for which I had no great aptness or knowledge, and years of struggling poverty and repeated disappointment followed. At last your father died and gave us enough to buy a cheap farm out here. But why go over our experience in the West? My plan of making sugar from the sorghum, which promised so brilliantly, has ended in the most wretched failure of all. And now money has gone, health has gone, and soon my miserable life will be over. Our boy must come back from college, and you and the two little ones--what will you do?" and the man covered his head with the blanket and wept aloud. His poor wife, borne down by the torrent of his sorrow, was on her knees at his bedside, with her face buried in her hands, weeping also.
But suddenly he started up. His sobs ceased. His tears ceased to flow, while his eyes grew hard and fierce, and his hands clenched.
"But he was coming," he said. "He may get lost in the storm this bitter winter night."
He grasped his wife roughly by the arm. She was astonished at his sudden strength, and raised a tearful, startled face to his. It was well she could not see its terrible expression in the dusk; but she shuddered as he hissed in her ear, "If this should happen--if my miserable death is the cause of his death--if my accursed destiny involves him, your staff and hope, in so horrible a fate, what have I to do but curse God and die?"
It seemed to the poor woman that her heart would burst with the agony of that moment. As the storm had increased, a terrible dread had chilled her very soul. Every louder blast than usual had caused her an internal shiver, while for her husband's sake she had controlled herself outwardly. Like a shipwrecked man who is clinging to a rock, that he fears the tide will submerge, she had watched the snow rise from one rail to another along the fence. When darkness set in it was half-way up to the top rail, and she knew it was _drifting_. The thought of her ruddy, active, joyous-hearted boy, whose affection and hopefulness had been the broad track of sunlight on her hard path--the thought of his lying white and still beneath one of these great banks, just where she could never know till spring rains and suns revealed to an indifferent stranger his sleeping-place--now nearly overwhelmed her also, and even her faith wavered on the brink of the dark gulf of despair into which her husband was sinking. Left to herself, she might have sunk for a time, though her sincere belief in God's goodness and love would have triumphed. But her womanly, unselfish nature, her long habit of sustaining and comforting her husband, came to her aid. Breathing a quick prayer to Heaven, which was scarcely more than a gasp and a glance upward, she asked, hardly knowing what she said, "And what if he is _not_ lost? What if God restores him safe and well?"
She shuddered after she had thus spoken, for she saw that her husband's belief in the hostility of God had reached almost the point of insanity. If this test failed, would he not, in spite of all she could say or do, curse God and die, as he had said? But she had been guided in her words more than she knew. He that careth for the fall of the sparrow had not forgotten His children in their sore extremity.
The man in answer to her question relaxed his hold upon her arm, and with a long breath fell back on his pillow.
"Ah!" said he, "if I could only see him again safe and well, if I could only leave you with him as your protector and support, I believe I could forgive all the past and be reconciled even to my hard lot."
"God gives you opportunity so to do, my father, for here I am safe and sound."
The soft snow had muffled the son's footsteps, and his approach had been unnoted. Entering at the back door, and passing through the kitchen, he had surprised his parents in the painful scene above described. As he saw his mother's form in dim outline kneeling at the bed, her face buried in its covering--as he heard his father's significant words--the quick-witted youth realized the situation. While he loved his father dearly, and honored him for his many good traits, he was also conscious of his faults, especially this most serious one now threatening such fatal consequences--that of charging to God the failures and disappointments resulting from defects in his own character. It seemed as if a merciful Providence was about to use this awful dread of accident to the son--a calamity that rose far above and overshadowed all the past--as the means of winning back the alienated heart of this weak and erring man.
The effect of the sudden presence in the sick-room was most marked. The poor mother, who had shown such self-control and patient endurance before, now gave way utterly, and clung for a few moments to her son's neck with hysterical energy, then in strong reaction fainted away. The strain upon her worn and overtaxed system had been too severe.
At first the sick man could only look through the dusk at the outline of his son with a bewildered stare, his mind too weak to comprehend the truth. But soon he too was sobbing for joy.
But when his wife suddenly became a lifeless weight in his son's arms, who in wild alarm cried, "Mother, what is the matter? Speak to me! Oh! I have killed her by my rash entrance," the sick man's manner changed, and his eyes again became dry and hard, and even in the darkness had a strange glitter.
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