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It was some relief to my heart when, within half a mile of the house, I met my husband who had just arrived, and having been informed of the terrible crisis that we were in, he had come on to meet me.
“My poor Sylvia!” he exclaimed, as he lifted me from the saddle, the better to give me a fond caress.
I laid my head on the breast where I had found shelter from this world’s sorrow for so many years, and burst into heavy sobs.
I could afford to weep now that he was present to act for me. This reliance, this help in need that makes a unity of love so precious, is the greatest boon granted us here below. For a few minutes I remained in his encircling arms, he stroking me gently and murmuring,—
“My poor child! you are overtried and overworked. Leave the rest to me.”
But soon I was able to tell him of the dreadful discovery we had just made.
“Terrible!” he said—“very terrible! He must have fallen over the cliff and been dashed to pieces.”
I calmed myself and we continued our march.
My husband speedily mastered all the facts in his clear way, and made a resumé which was some comfort to me:—
“No trace of Zanita having been found on the débris, the evidence that the woman saw her, combined with the Indian’s Mono story, would go to show that she is safe and well somewhere, and will doubtless turn up in her wild way in process of time. But we must question the Indian with an interpreter.”
Thus my good husband kept on talking all the way home; and so judicious was his treatment of my nervous excitement, that before we reached the cottage I was quite calmed and pacified, and able to undertake the painful task that lay before me of communicating the sad news to Rosie. She, poor child! rushed out to meet me and clung round my neck. She seemed to glean from my face that the mystery was solved. Her father had returned, and Kenmuir, looking jaded and worn, was just riding up.
“In vain,” said he, shaking his head. “Unsuccessful.”
On approaching me he too read in my face the preface to the awful disclosure, and was silent. I made him a sign that I must speak to Rosie alone, and motioned him to the Professor, whilst I went to my room followed by the poor child.
“Rosie, my darling!” I said, “a fearful accident has happened. He has fallen from the rocks and is very much shattered. They are bringing him home.”
Rosie had uttered a little cry when I first spoke, now she interrupted quickly,—
“We have not seen her. She was not there; but Mrs. Radd saw her alone last night, and she has probably gone off on the Mono trail.”
Rosie’s large blue eyes dilated with horror. “Gone off!” she cried, “and never sought help: left on the cruel rocks all torn and lacerated, to die! O, aunty!”—and her face flushed—“it is not possible!”
“We know nothing, dear, for certain. We have not seen her, but that is our conjecture. We shall learn more to-morrow.”
“Can he not speak?” she said, after a pause.
“No, my darling, I fear we shall never hear his voice again.”
Rosie was trembling all over, but rising with an effort, as though she dreaded to pursue the conversation, she said,—
“Aunty, let me get you some tea; you look as though you were going to faint.”
“No dear, I shall not faint, but you may give me a cup of tea; and there’s poor Kenmuir who has ridden some hundred and fifty miles, no doubt, without ever being out of saddle.”
I went into the sitting-room. Kenmuir was standing with his arms folded and head dropped down. There was a dark shade of sorrow on his usually bright face.
“O, Mrs. Brown!” he said, “how grieved I am for that young man. There was something noble in him that I could not but like,”—and then he added, in a whisper, “my soul shrinks back affrighted from the solution that my judgment gives of the event.”
“Good God! What?” I said.
“No, no,” he murmured, clasping his hands, while the big drops of sweat oozed out from his forehead,—“I cannot tell you my suspicion. We will wait.”
“Be ready to prevent Rosie from seeing the corpse,” I said. “They are to take him to your hut, and you must sleep here.”
“O, that makes no difference,” he said; “I would as soon remain near the poor boy dead as alive, but I think we ought to try the Mono trail at once, and when I have taken a cup of tea and an hour’s rest I will start again.”
“O, impossible!” I exclaimed. “You must have already ridden one hundred and fifty miles.”
“Nearly that, for I diverged to the Mariposa Grove and Big Trees, and several sheep ranchos, and three horses broke down under me. The first thing is to examine the Indian, and learn where he last saw her. I dread being too late again. If I had gone off on that track last night I might have saved him. Poor lad! his handsome young face will haunt me many a day.”
Here Rosie appeared with the tea. She pressed Kenmuir’s hand affectionately. There was still a rigidity about her face that was more alarming than the most violent burst of grief,—a wild, horrified look, which made her blue eyes assume a shade of black.
I looked out, fearing she had seen the arrival of the party, but they were not in sight.
“What has she seen? What does she suspect?” I said to Kenmuir, as she turned to seek her father.
“My God! not what I do, or she will go mad,” he said, passing his hand over his brow
What did he suspect? I had not the courage to press the inquiry. I felt that I had borne as much as I could, for that day, of horrible excitement. My head was beginning to feel as in a dream of hideous phantasmagoria.
Mr. Naunton was much shocked, but on the whole somewhat relieved when he found that it was not his own child, and felt quite sure that now Zanita was safe somewhere.
Presently Kenmuir intimated that the party was coming. I beguiled Rosie into my room at the other side of the house; for there is something about the appearance of a corpse, however enveloped, which at once tells the sad fact that life is no more. Some shrinking consciousness we have that there has taken place some supernatural change, which has a sort of repulsion and terror for us; and I wished to spare my darling this shock if possible.
It was only a few moments before Kenmuir rapped at my door, saying,—
“Mrs. Brown, you are wanted.”
Then turning to Rosie, I said, “They have brought him home, dear child, and I am going to him; remain here unless I send for you; try to prepare yourself for the worst. I can give you no hope.”
The same look of horror passed over her face, which she strove to hide in the pillow as I left her to attend the corpse of her lover.
It was found impossible to remove any of the clothes; so mutilated was the once graceful form, that it seemed held together only by the garments. We wrapt him in a sheet and tied a linen cloth about the head, leaving the fair white forehead uncovered.
Ah! how beautiful he looked in death. I stooped and kissed his closed eyes, with their deep long lashes resting on the rounded cheeks where the remains of his brilliant color yet lingered, and my tears dropped softly on those curved and haughty lips which had appealed so piteously to me but the day before.
“O life, so few the days we live!
Would that the boon which thou dost give
Were life indeed.”
But here was the end of the sad life drama, in which we had all played our parts; and there lay the hero, with his secret forever locked within his marble lips. O, that they had told it yesterday, he had now been alive and happy, with our Rose-bud in his bosom; for then he would never have gone with Zanita, who, no doubt, allured him into that mad danger. It was the opinion of all that he had fallen backwards from the projecting pinnacle of rock, which shelved out over the Valley from Glacier Point. No doubt he had turned giddy and lost his balance.
“I think we ought to make a strong oak coffin, lined with cedar, and send him to his friends,” said Kenmuir.
“There is the difficulty,” I said; “we know absolutely nothing of his antecedents.”
“Under the circumstances, I think we ought to look in his desk.”
We had taken from his pockets a few keys and trifling articles, and with one of them we opened the desk. There was a great deal of poetry, which seemed original, in his handwriting, and some letters, of no importance, addressed to Mr. Egremont. Only one contained a striking and mysterious inclosure. It consisted of a second envelope addressed to “His Highness the Prince Augustus of Cumberland;” the letter was written in a delicate female hand, and commenced, “My dear husband.” The whole letter was a strong pathetic appeal to be taken back in the name of their former love, and of their child; but the tenor of the communication left the impression that it had not been written by a wife or a lady. It concluded with a curious demand for a larger allowance. There was no date or address to this document; it was signed by the pet name “Maggy.”
Was it really addressed to our poor friend; was that his true name, and did he preserve his incognito from some circumstantial necessity? All was a deep and terrible mystery; but many expressions of Zanita’s now recurred to my mind, which led to the belief that she, at least, had fathomed its depths. When she reappeared, no doubt much would he explained.
In the mean time old Mophead had gone to bring up the Indian, in order to have massed together all the knowledge of the language which the three possessed,—Naunton, Kenmuir, and himself.
Bill, who had come in with my husband, was a carpenter as well as a guide, and he set about the melancholy task of making a coffin. Poor Mr. Naunton walked away, saying, in response to some suggestion from Bill, “I cannot give any directions about that work; it takes me right back to that day when my sweet saint went to her home in heaven, and left the Valley but a gloomy wilderness to me. If she had taken the two little ones with her, I should have been thankful; then we might all have gone together.”
Methley here came in with the Indian, now untied. The former was shaking his old mophead dolefully.
“I make no account of him,” he said. “Where is Mu-wah? He says that Mu-wah knows all about it; but he has certainly seen our little lady on the Mono trail, unless the scamp is making up the story; and I can’t, for my life, see why he should.”
Mu-wah was not visible—had not been seen by any of us. Ah Chow said he had never returned from the deer feast; but this the Indian denied, and said that he had. It was nearly certain that the Indian knew whatever Mu-wah knew; but was possessed with the notion that Muwah should reveal it himself, and again volunteered,—“Him fetch him.”
He was promised a dollar if he brought Mu-wah back before morning, for we all conceived the impression that Mu-wah was some way in league with Zanita in assisting her hiding.
We all went to take an hour’s rest. I looked in upon Rosie; she was lying quite still, with her face in the pillow, but she looked up as I approached; there was no sign of weeping, but her eyes wore the same awe-stricken expression.
“Aunty,” she said gently, “may I see him before—before”—and her soft lips quivered so that she could not finish the sentence. She made another effort and said, “I know what that hammering is; they are putting the nails in my heart!”
That loving little heart had divined all. I pressed her in my arms, hoping that she might be moved to tears.
“Rest to-night, darling, and to-morrow you shall see him; his face is still beautiful.”
“Is it?” she answered, and the lips again quivered and prevented farther utterance.
I lay down, but sleep, in the soothing oblivion which brings repose, visited me not. My soul seemed to go into a semi-trance: that mystic land of shadows, where our bitterest sufferings in actual life are intensified by a vague helplessness which seems to surround us. The mountains of granite which we have to traverse are endless, and boundless as the despair with which we continue to struggle to ascend them; the sky pours down a flood of hot lava, or freezing snow, which annihilates us, and yet we seem to be surviving in death. We have no power, we give up and succumb under our misery; we cannot lie down and die—this luxury of despair is denied us.
I have often thought that if man is doomed to eternal torment for his crimes, this vividly conscious dream of agony must be the realization of it; for bitter as was the misery of our actual life at this moment, my dream was wrought up to be fifty times more wretched. Every spot I had visited on the previous day I was again toiling over, with feet more heavily weary and a heart bursting to overflowing.
Poor Egremont’s condition was more mangled, and the wretched portions of his limbs were constantly falling away; his face was distorted, and excruciatingly painful. Yet I had to look at it, and I had no power to seek relief by turning away. The Indians were jabbering, like the blue jay, an unintelligible tongue, yet we were compelled to find out what they said.
At last my soul, having traversed the dark paths of yesterday, continued the journey onward in search of Zanita: over the rocks and through the Upper Valley, where I seemed to see her in company with Mrs. Radd,—gliding like a ghostly phantom, whom we cried to in vain, and could not reach or touch, though we strained every nerve and sinew. She yet floated away, and still we had to follow, and follow in an agony of dread and anguish. Hither, thither, over rugged boulders, over great barriers of fallen trees, whose ragged arms pointing upward made a chevaux-de-frise over the boiling rapids of rushing torrents; under the cascades of the Upper Valley, flowing from the endless melting snow of the huge sierras; through the green rippling river, which, when we entered with our naked feet, seemed no longer water but coiling green and purple snakes, that hissed and sputtered as we passed.
Still the soft white semblance swept on; the folds of her muslin drapery, like the gauzy mist of the falls, left nothing in the eager grasp but moisture. Now we thought she was taking the Mono trail, anon that she would sweep up the inaccessible cañon of the outlet of the Valley. Yet as she is wafted toward the bare frowning side of Tis-sa-ack, there comes an indefinable superstition over us,—that we are chasing the goddess herself, and no longer Zanita. Up the side of that bold and austere height she rolls like a fleecy cloud of morning mist: what mortal steps can follow! yet stop we cannot. Will Death enfold us in his cold embrace at last? No, we must go on, on.
Our drooping forms are hurried on toward the fearful edge where six thousand feet overhang the Mirror Lake.
If she is mortal she must be dashed to pieces there, and we must share her fate; for we seem to have gained on her, and nearly touch her. On, onward she flies, and we pursue; nearer, and nearer to the edge,—and now she is on the brink. We can see the surging world below more dizzily before us, and the lake shimmering in the moonlight.
One plunge, and she is over! But I have caught the white dress, and hold it firmly in my grasp,—the piece is left in my hand!
I awakened with a stifled cry.
“O, husband! she is in the lake.”
“Who, dear?” he answered. “You have had a nightmare, and woke me with your cry.”
“Zanita!” I gasped, wiping the perspiration from my brow. “I am persuaded that she is in the lake.”
I had grasped the sheet so convulsively that the marks were still fresh. The Professor endeavored to persuade me to sleep again.
“O no!” I exclaimed, “not for the world; such agony I never experienced in my waking moments—a perfect hell of torments. Besides, they will all be ready to go out on the search again, and I am deter-mined to go to the Mirror Lake.”
I related my dream excitedly to Kenmuir, though not to Mr. Naunton.
“Do not let this idea distress you,” said Kenmuir, who nevertheless spoke as though he believed it every word,—“it is only a dream, and I had an idea myself of going there.”
I noticed the same dark look in his eyes, of which he seemed conscious, for he looked away as he continued: “I will follow the trail you have dreamed of, and will come out on the shoulder of Tis-sa-ack, which walls in the lake; you and the Professor can go there by the Val-ley route, and then, if we can find nothing, we can all go up to the cañon together toward Lake Tomaya, and on to the Mono trail to meet Mu-wall; and then I think we shall have encompassed her round.”
Thinking I would not awaken Rosie if she was asleep, we stole off quietly: Naunton and Kenmuir together on foot, and the Professor and myself on horseback. Ah Chow, who seemed aroused to the consciousness that the affairs transpiring were very important, and that he ought to be equal to them, had prepared a cold roast fowl, which he divided between the parties, and insisted with a kindly smile upon our taking, saying,
“Him muchec care of Missy Rossy.”
“Take care of her, good Ah Chow,” I said. But I hoped we might re-turn ere she was fairly awake.
Next: Mother’s Arms • Contents • Previous: Over the Brink