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We set out next morning from Galen’s Rancho. Considerable snow had fallen during the night, but only sufficient to make the splendid scenery more lovely. Every branch and spray was laden with its modicum of snow; often the yellow autumnal edges of the leaves showed all round a little tuft like an opal set in a golden frame. The sun was shining brightly, and the air was not so chilly as it had been the day before. So that Kenmuir was very positive in his prophecy that the snow would soon disappear, and that we should have a glorious Indian summer.
The trail was smooth and firm underneath its white covering, and the marvels of the road were a continual surprise and delight. The snow seemed to embellish everything and the air was so exhilarating, that had it not been for the thought of the poor sufferer in the Valley, we must have enjoyed it with the lightest of spirits.
When we reached Inspiration Point the whole panorama was a scene of enchantment. The mist was floating upward, tinged with all the prismatic hues. The granite towers of the Valley seemed to pierce into the blue vault with their fretwork of pine-trees all powdered with snow. Every nook held its tuft of downy plumes, and every vine trailing over the rocky ledges was tricked out with fairy-like grace and clearness.
The vast Hum-moo was like a colossal Milan Cathedral, with its thousand and one minarets, and pinnacles, glistening in dazzling whiteness on a ground of translucent azure.
The North Dome was a smooth cone of softest white, save where the sun’s rays had decorated it with a cap of bright cerise. Tis-sa-ack was crowned with a diadem of unspeakable glory, and shone resplendent above all.
In view of so much natural beauty it was difficult to urge Kenmuir forward; he had that peculiar habit of standing stock-still and dilating on the manifold beauties and pointing them out seriatim.
I was obliged to repeat,—“Yes, I see it all; but we must keep moving, for Placida will be expecting us.”
Upon this hint he would make a fresh start, but the whole way down the mountain was a series of exclamations of delight.
We put our mustangs to the gallop when we reached the level ground of the Valley, and the crunch of their feet over the iced pools and the ring of their bridles sounded sweet in the frosty air.
As we neared the homestead we caught sight of Oswald Naunton in conversation with Mrs. Nell. Radd, followed by Rollo, was mooning about in the distance, evidently in some disgrace from the solicitude evinced by his canine friend.
We soon caught the drift of the conversation, for there is some acoustic property in the Valley that conveys sound far and clear as the famous Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s, London.
“Of course I paid him the money for the skins, Nell,” said Mr. Naunton.
“Ah, a course you did!” responded Nell, sharply. “I’d like to see the man as wouldn’t back another to go to the devil right on end, and leave his wife to live on huckleberries. I make no account on ’em no hows.”
“He said he wanted to buy groceries,” pleaded Mr. Naunton.
“Now, Mr. Naunton, don’t you go to tell me as you don’t know that he always takes his groceries in a likid form! If it’s grain, why it’s whiskey; if it’s molasses, then it’s rum; and if it’s berries, he’ll take them in gin. It makes no sort o’ difference to him, so it’s likid. It’s fortunate the Almighty didn’t think o’ making the sea o’ liquor instead o’ salt water, for he’d had it drunk dry if there’s many such swallows as Radd’s.”
“Well, well,” said Naunton, in a compromising tone, “he does not often get it, you know; but how came he by that dreadful scratch on his face?”
“Wall, I don’t mind owning up that I do give him a claw-down now and then,” said Mrs. Radd, imitating the action with her long bony fingers, as though they took an individual delight in the performance, as a musician will sometimes drum unconsciously on a table.
“I’m not the woman to go back o’ what I do. When he comes worrying around spouting pottery and smelling like a whiskey mill, I know straight away that he bought no more groceries nor he can hold in a mug, and I do give him a claw-down.”
Here Mr. Naunton perceived us and hastened to greet us.
“You are welcome, indeed, my good friend,” he exclaimed, heartily shaking me by the hand. “The sight of you will make our invalid a new woman!”
“I’m darned if this isn’t the folk from the city,” said Nell, under her breath. “Good-day ma’am,” she continued, aloud, making a bob curtsey, “but you’ve fann’d out well to come in through the storm to see Mrs. Naunton—afore she dies,” she added in a whisper; “not that it’ll help her, for she is a gone coon!”
“Nell!” called Mr. Naunton, looking hack to where she stood, her arms akimbo, the most ungainly figure,—“don’t you want to stay and make some light biscuits for this lady? She has not forgotten how good they used to be in the upper Valley.”
“You bet!” cried Nell. “She’s ‘good fat.’”
Radd has once been a type-setter, hence Nell’s vernacular.
“Tell Radd to remain; your huckleberry supper will not get cold,” laughed Mr. Naunton, anxious in his heart to keep the pair in order to give them a comfortable meal.
Here Zanita came bounding along looking like a big dragon-fly. Her long thin arms and legs extended in opposite directions.
“That’s my colt you are riding! He isn’t a colt now, but he was once. Do you know it?”
“O!” she ejaculated, eying me attentively, “you are the one that came before with the man in spectacles and a big nose; you were mighty fond of adian-drums, but you can’t have any now, they are all froze up. Give me a ride, won’t you? You used to do.”
Here we reached the cottage, looking sad yet beautiful in its frost-nipped vines.
So soon as I was dismounted Zanita had scrambled into my saddle and was off careering about wildly.
Placida lay on a lounge that had been constructed for her in the sitting-room, which, with this exception, remained unchanged. She looked as many consumptives do,—very sweet and beautiful, without any of those painful disfigurements which precede dissolution in other diseases. Her eyes were soft and clear, and her color was, if anything, brighter; and had I not known to the contrary, should have pronounced her stronger than when I first saw her.
Little Rosalind nestled at her mother’s side making up a bouquet of late autumn leaves and flowers for her.
Mrs. Naunton received me with a glow of grateful pleasure that words failed to interpret.
I took a seat beside her, clasping her white slender fingers in mine, and in those moments I realized all the compensation which awaits on charitable acts, and with which we ought to be satisfied.
Mr. Naunton stood by rubbing his hands gleefully.
“We shall do now, my darling! This is the medicine we have been wanting. This is the strength you needed. Why, you are already worth ten per cent more than you were an hour ago.”
And he stooped, partly to conceal the glistening drops in his eyes, and partly to stroke tenderly his wife’s soft brown hair, which Rosalind had combed out all over the pillow. In truth, the flush of pleasure seemed to give the invalid new strength and life. Propped up with pillows she conversed easily, no cough disturbing her.
Kenmuir and the “squirrel” came in after a while, the latter explaining her absence on the ground that she had to attend to the horses.
“Neo-wah, the Indian, is not to be trusted! I have to attend to my colt Jeroboam myself,” she said.
We passed a pleasant, happy evening. Nell doing wonders in the matter of cookery, and Radd in the new rôle of waiter, into which his wife unceremoniously thrust him, keeping us in continual merriment by his ludicrous blunders. Rollo also considered himself bound to make himself useful, and carried in a basket of fruit, and any other article convenient to be laid hold of.
“Ho! Radd; hold hard with the coffee!” cried Mr. Naunton, as the former was proceeding to pour it over the pudding, in mistake for a dark compound Nell had instructed him was “sarce.”
“I guess you had better look smart or he’ll sweeten your tea with salt,” cried Nell, grimly, popping in her head, instinctively alive to the short-comings of her spouse.
“If there’s a wrong way and a right one, Radd alus pitches on the wrong. I make no doubt he’ll try to walk on his hands some day, just ’cause the Almighty has given him feet. If ever he’s drowned I should never look down stream, he’s certain to float up he’s so contrary.”
But Radd was too keenly sympathetic with the genial glow of friendship around him to be troubled by his wife’s objurgations, and directly she was out of hearing proposed a toast,—
“Our welcome guest!” And after dinner, seated round the great hearth-stone, the pine logs roaring and cracking, his courage rose so high that he volunteered to entertain us with a song. We all caught eagerly at the proposition, and after a timorous glance toward the kitchen, Radd burst forth in his rich baritone, “Oft in the stilly night.” The simple pathos of his voice and manner were truly delightful, and at the termination, all begged for another song.
Rollo looked doubtful, went and sniffed about the kitchen, then re-turned wagging his tail as an assurance that the coast was clear. Radd went on and sang us song after song, making the rafters resound with melody.
“This evening seems like old times,” said Mr. Naunton, “and I will venture to say that we shall have many of them. For the snow will set in finally in a week or two, and then the Professor may bid good-by to his wife for the winter, for he cannot get her out until the thaw comes in the spring.”
“I’m glad of that,” cried the sprite. “Serve him right for letting his nose grow so long. Why doesn’t he cut a piece off like papa does his heard?”
“Zanita,” said her mother, “what did you promise me?”
“Not to talk, mamma,” and she relapsed into quiet.
“That would never do,” I resumed, laughing. “I must get back some way, for if I should leave my husband for a month he would be mistaken for a debonnaire instead of a professor.”
Here we heard Zanita in high altercation with Nell in the kitchen:
“O, you are a right smart un, you are, but you’re not a-going to put that here flat-tail rat into th’ stove and make believe as I been a cooking on it for a ground squirrel. No, no, I haven’t been around these diggins for more nor fifteen year not to know a rat from a squirrel!”
“You could not if his tail was cut off,” persisted Zanita.
“You git!” retorted Nell, “or I’ll cut the tip of your nose off.”
“They ought to have cut yours when you were a little girl, like papa cuts the puppies’ ears, to make you smart!”
Having delivered this parting salute, Zanita was seen bounding over the sward in a race with Rollo.
“Young varmint!” we heard Nell muttering; “no need to cutherears. She’s too smart, by far, already!”
“Radd,” said Mrs. Naunton, “I wish you would whistle in Rollo; that child will be roving the country all night. She has not a bit of fear.”
When we broke up for the night, Placida whispered me that she wanted to speak to me privately.
“Had you not better defer it until to-morrow?” I said; “after all this talking, you must need sleep.”
“No,” she replied, “I never can sleep until morning, and if you will remain with me Oswald will be glad of a night’s undisturbed rest,—it is so long since he had one: he is so afraid of my not waking him when I want anything, that he never goes soundly to sleep.
“Now Oswald,” she said, gayly raising herself upon her arm, “give me a kiss and go to bed like a good boy, and don’t get up until you are called to-morrow morning.”
The “good boy” looked very happy, and did as he was bid.
I drew the manzanita easy-chair close to the bed.
“I will rest for a little while,” she said, and closed her eyes.
For about half an hour we both remained silent. I could not help observing then how much she had changed; how thin and wan she looked; and how cadaverous was the whiteness of her brow.
We were both roused from our reflections by a piercing howl from Rollo, repeated at momentary intervals until he was quieted by Radd’s voice.
“Is it moonlight?” said Placida, “that Rollo bays the moon?”
“I think not,” I said, whilst a cold shudder crept over me. I did not like that evil omen.
Presently she took my hand and gazed upon me with those deep dreamy eyes in which the soul’s unfathomable mystery seemed to dwell, and said, very calmly, “I want to talk to you about my children. I felt that I could not go until I had seen you and spoken of them; but now I have very little time left here,—very little. I feel anxious about Zanita. She is a child whom her father will never be able to manage, for the reason that she can manage him; and she would, therefore, grow up quite wild and undisciplined. You know her peculiar temperament requires peculiar treatment, and also careful study to develop her remarkable talents and powers. She requires to be guided with a firmness that her father will never exercise over her. I feel that we owe more responsibility to her than usual from the circumstances which preceded her birth.
“Oswald chanced to have visited the Valley in one of his sketching rambles and he came back so thoroughly imbued with the marvelous grandeur that I caught the infection and resolved to accompany him on his next tour; and, finally, filled with the romance and poetry of our honeymoon, we talked ourselves into settling here. The effect upon us was as though we had been semi-consciously transplanted to another world, so highly was our imagination wrought upon by the weird and supernatural atmosphere which surrounded us and in which we freely reveled. I am sure sometimes, if our conversations could have been overheard by sober-minded persons, we should have been regarded as laboring under aberration of mind.
“We built up a fantastic fairy tale of our own lives and dwelt in it, until it became part of ourselves and our real existence. The common-place outer world, as you can understand, living here in the Valley, re-ceded from our view, and we felt as though an eternal separation had taken place; and for me it had so, indeed, for I have never quitted it,—never been outside these granite walls for eight years,—and now my body will never leave the Valley.
“We often said that it seemed as if we had died without the consciousness of the transition, and arisen in the future life; had advanced one step into that heaven we are promised and which I hope soon to see. I account for much in Zanita’s disposition by these pre-natal circumstances, which give her a stronger claim than ordinary on my watchfulness and care.
“I know, my dear friend, that you will not hesitate to undertake any charge or sacrifice to accomplish a good work; and that if I tell you that I wish to leave my child to your sole care, and ask you to fulfill the duty from which I am taken, I may then go in peace and fully trust that I have done the best I could.”
I took the shadowy form in my arms and promised to be a mother to her child.
Here Rollo set up another fearful wail and woke up Rosie, who came running into the sitting-room in her little naked feet to look for her mother. She crept closely to the tender embrace of Placida.
“O, mamma!” she sobbed, nervously, “I thought some one called out that you were gone, and I came to see. Dear mamma, don’t go! say you will never leave little Cozy! Zanita says you will go.”
“Not until the Great Father sends for me; but not now, my darling. I will not leave you; so go to sleep again.”
Stroking her mother’s hair with her little dimpled hands, she was soon asleep, and I carried her to my bed, for I had my old chamber with the door opening on to the sitting-room.
“I have only a few words more to say, and then I shall send you to bed, too,” said Mrs. Naunton.
“I should so much prefer sleeping in this dear old chair by your side,” I answered.
“Yes, it is very comfortable; many an hour Oswald and myself have slept in it together,—even, sometimes, with a young lady between us. He used to call it our nest,” said Placida, with a sigh.
“I have mentioned the subject we were speaking upon often to Oswald; but he cannot bring himself to believe I am really ‘going,’ and will not discuss it. Yet he may understand what a boon it is to him when I am no longer here, to be relieved from the care of that child, and will appreciate it then as deeply as I do. For my darling little Cozy he will be all sufficient, and she will soon become so to him. Now farewell, dear friend! I am quite happy,” she whispered, and pressed my hand with both hers affectionately. “Be sure we shall meet again. Now I am going to sleep,” “sleep”—I thought I heard her murmur—“in God.”
I sat by her several hours, and her soft breathing told me that she was peacefully sleeping.
I looked upon the inscrutable mystery of the fading out of life, but my mind failed to understand or realize it.
Was it possible that she was stealing away like the tints of a rainbow? Vanishing from our sight with the beams of the sunset,—silently moving toward heaven as the moonlight creeps up the cloud-capped dome of Tis-sa-ack? So it was, and a vague, supernatural fear seemed to thrill my whole being.
At dawn I returned to my room, having first awakened Mr. Naunton, to take my watch.
I had slept some hours, when I was aroused by Rollo’s awesome wail. I stole softly into the sitting-room.
“She is asleep,” whispered Mr. Naunton. Hooked at her closely; she had not moved or changed. A celestial sweetness radiated the whole face, shadowed only by the long dark lashes which drooped over the semi-closed eyes. Her rich brown hair circled the saint-like head as in a frame, and on the parted lips lingered the ripple of a passed smile,—
“As though last by angels kissed.”
But no breath came from them or stirred the delicate pink nostrils.
She was gone unknown to us all, we knew not why or whither. She had left us the semblance of a saint to look upon as an assurance that we had once possessed her; but the beloved Placida had flown, as she had said, with the “snow-flakes,” and, with all things fair, and pure, and true, had returned to the hands of the Creator.
Oswald Naunton’s grief was of the most frantic kind.
He refused absolutely to believe the fact, and wished to employ all sorts of remedies to resuscitate her, as from a swoon or syncope. Not until I took him forcibly by the hand, and made him approach and look at her, could he realize the calamity.
“Look at her, speak to her yourself; she will tell you how it is with her.” He gazed earnestly upon her.
“Placida, my mourning blossom,” he gasped out.
“Death!” was the answer written visibly on every line of her face.
He beat his brow and tore his hair, and raved in a sort of frenzy, staggering about the house like one whose brain is surcharged with poisonous fumes. He was as madly drunk with grief as an opium-eater with his drug. He upbraided himself, the Almighty, and every one around in the most furious invectives; his judgment had no more control than that of a raving maniac. I was obliged to entreat Radd to carry the two children out into the forest, and keep them there for the day.
Poor Rosie had sobbed herself into a state of exhaustion; whilst Zanita, somewhat bewildered, was yet half enjoying the state of excitement.
She followed her father with a curious watchfulness that insured her mimicking the scene at some future time.
“Father’s right mad because mamma is gone, isn’t he? But she said she should go; she is gone to the Spirit Land, she told me so; and I’m to be good, and not tease Cozy. The rocks are higher there, and there are plenty of big waterfalls, and no bucking mules. I wish mamma had taken me. Mu-wah says they are going to put mamma in the ground like the cow that died; but they sha’n’t; I’ll dig her up again. I’ll work all right, and Rollo will help me with his paws. She must be burnt on a big fire,—that’s the way to the Spirit Land, Mu-wah says,—and have her heart taken out.”
She was full of the excitement of the moment, and kept on discussing it with every one.
“Isn’t papa mad?” she exclaimed. “Will he go on breaking everything in the house? I wish he would throw that pitcher of molasses at Nell’s head. She would fly round like a wild cat.”
Kenmuir wept softly like a woman, every now and then approaching the lounge on tiptoe to look at the dead. I had no time to indulge in the deep sorrow I felt, but every once and awhile had so far to yield as to have a good cry, and then resume my occupation.
Nell kept us all more or less in our senses and the commonplace, by constant suggestions about “decent folk having decent funerals, and how it was unlucky that there were so few people and no minister in the Valley to come and visit the body; that it was a right sweet corpse as she had ever seen;” whereupon Mr. Naunton swore furiously that no one should approach his wife but me.
Nell protruded her tooth, and sidled off into the hack premises. Just then old Methuselah wandered up, looked in upon us from the lintel of the door, but was driven remorselessly away by the wretched husband, who accused him of the murder of his wife in having advised him not to take her out of the Valley when she first became sick.
He turned away, shaking his old mop head dolefully. I followed him apace to tell him that Mr. Naunton was quite beside himself, and knew not what he was saying.
“No, no,” said the old man; “hut when such young things marry and become mothers there is little hope for their lives. I always said how it would be. I suppose I had better come to the funeral though?”
“O, certainly; we shall need you to make one of the four to hear the coffin.”
“I could carry her on one arm myself, little sylph-like creature! Just like the Princess Charlotte, heir to the British throne, who died the other day in her accouchement. Such children ought to be kept in pinafores, and not allowed to marry.”
“Mrs. Naunton had been married nine years, and the Princess Charlotte must have been dead forty,” I replied.
“Well, well, time flies. It’s time I was thinking about getting married myself; but she married too young, poor thing! poor young thing!” and he wished me good day.
Three terrible days we passed beside poor Placida, waiting until her husband’s paroxysm of grief should abate, or nature become exhausted.
Finally, toward the close of the third day, I noticed that he had at last fallen asleep in his chair, and, taking advantage of this to go outside the door to breathe the freshness of the wintry air, my eyes were further gladdened by the sight of the Professor, accompanied by Mr. Galen, of Galen’s Rancho.
Without my knowing, the thoughtful Radd had been to Sonora and telegraphed to my husband the sad news; and, by a fortunate occurrence, he was able to start at once, knowing how much I should need his help and comfort under the painful circumstances.
The funeral took place next day.
Poor Placida was laid under the shadow of the great tombstone shaped “sentinel,” the only monument Naunton would hear of, and, indeed, it was a magnificent one. It rose like a single slab of white granite, detached from the rest two thousand feet high, and its oval form always gave it, to my fancy, the shape of a tombstone.
I took some of her best loved flowers and planted them around her. Zanita behaved shockingly at the grave, uttering wild Indian yells, and protesting that her mother should not be put in a hole like a cow, but burnt on a big fire of logs that Mu-wah could make.
The Professor had recommended that she should be taken to the funeral, thinking it would have a subduing and awe-inspiring effect upon her. But as yet we had little idea of the wild spirit we had to deal with. Little Rosie, who was left behind, had formed the idea that the procession was some sort of ceremony to restore her mother to her usual state, and wept bitterly when we all returned without the coffin.
“O, where have you taken my dear mamma? Where have you put her? I would rather have her that way, quiet, and not opening her eyes, than taken away altogether. O, let me go to her!”
“She is gone to the Spirit Land,” said Zanita, sententiously; “but I don’t think she has gone all right, on account of putting her in the ground. She ought to have been burnt.”
Rosie’s eyes dilated with horror.
“And if you want to go to her, Cozy, I’ll put you on a big pile and burn you up, and you’ll go quite straight. O, wouldn’t you blaze!” she cried,—“you are so fat!”
Poor Cozy burst into a fit of despair.
“Zanita,” I said, “cease teasing the child. How can you be so cruel?” I took Rosie to my heart and soothed her.
I persuaded my husband to remain in the Valley as long as possible, for Oswald Naunton’s sake; for although he was now calm and subdued from the effect of reaction, yet he was evidently a broken-hearted man, and would never be himself again.
The light of life had left him, and only existence remained; and O, what a weary thing is mere existence! Living until it is time to die. Life a hopeless waiting, and dread speculation of what the next may be.
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