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   Chapter 20 No.20

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 7321

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

If events had been moving rapidly with Lewis, they had by no means been at a standstill at Nadir since that troubled day on which he had rebelled, quarreled, and fled, leaving behind him wrath and tears and awakened hearts where all had been apathy and somnolence.

Many happenings at Nadir were dated from the day that Lewis went away. Late that night mammy and Mrs. Leighton, aided by trembling Natalie, had had to carry the Reverend Orme from his chair in the school-room to his bed. The left side of his face was drawn grotesquely out of line, but despite the disfigurement, there was a look of peace in his ravaged countenance, as of one who welcomes night joyfully and calmly after a long battle.

Perhaps it was this look of peace that made Ann Leighton regard this latest as the lightest of all the calamities that had fallen upon her frail shoulders. She felt that in a measure the catastrophe had brought the Reverend Orme back-nearer to her heart. Her heart, which had seemed to atrophy and shrivel from disuse since the poignant fullness of the last days of Shenton, was suddenly revivified. Love, pity, tender care,-all the discarded emotions,-returned to light up her withered face and give it beauty. Night and day she stayed beside the Reverend Orme, reading aright his slightest movement.

To Natalie one need stood out above all others-the need for Lewis. At first she waited for news of him, but none came; then she sought out Dom Francisco. Word was passed to the cattlemen. They said Lewis had been bound for Oeiras. A messenger was sent to Oeiras. He came back with the news that Lewis had never arrived there. He had been traced half-way. After that no one on the long straight trail had seen the boy. The wilderness had swallowed him.

Dom Francisco came almost daily to see the Reverend Orme. "Behold him!" he cried at his first visit, aghast at the havoc the stroke had played with the tall frame. "He is but a boy, he has fathered but two children-and yet-behold him! He is broken!" The sight of the Reverend Orme, suddenly grown pitifully old, seemed to work on the white-haired, but sturdy, cattle-king by reflection. He, too, grew old suddenly.

Natalie was the first to notice it. She began to nurse the old man as she nursed her father,-to treat him as she would a child. When one day he spoke almost tremulously of the marriage that was to be, she did not even answer him, contenting herself with the smile with which one humors extreme youth clamoring for the moon. Gradually, without any discussion or open refusal on the part of Natalie, it became understood not only to Dom Francisco, but to all the circle at Nadir, that she would never marry the old cattle-king.

The sudden departure of Lewis, the Reverend Orme's breakdown, with its intimate worry displacing all lesser cares, the absorption of Ann Leighton as her husband's constant attendant-these things made of Natalie a woman in a night. She assumed direction of the house, and calmly ordered mammy around in a way that warmed that old soul, born to cheerful servitude. She hired a goatherd and rigidly oversaw his handiwork. Then she approached Dom Francisco one evening as he sat at her father's bedside and told him that he must find a purchaser for the goats-all of them.

The Reverend Orme, although he heard, took no interest in any temporal affair. Mrs. Leighton looked up and asked mildly:

"Why, dear?"

"Because we need money," said Natalie. "No doctor would come here. We must take father away."

No one recoiled from the idea; but it was new to them all except Natalie. It took days and days for it to sink in. It was on Dom Francis

co that Natalie most exerted herself. He had aged, and age had made him weak. He fell a slow, but easy, prey to her youth, grown sweetly dominant. He himself would arrange to buy the enormous herd of goats, the greatest in the country-side. And, finally, with a great shrinking from the definite implication, he agreed to buy back Nadir as well.

No mere argument could have led the old man to such a concession. It was love-love for these strangers that he had cherished within his gates, love for the gloomy man whom he had seen young and then old, love for Ann and Natalie and mammy, with their quiet ways, love for the very way of life of all of them-a way distantly above anything he had ever dreamed before their coming, that drove him, almost against his will, to speed their parting. He sent for money. He himself spent long, wistful hours preparing the ox-wagon, the litter, and the horses that were to bear them away.

Then one night the Reverend Orme slept and awoke no more. In the morning Natalie went into the room and found her mother sitting very still beside the bed, one of the Reverend Orme's hands in both of hers. Tears followed each other slowly down her cheeks. She did not brush them away.

"Mother!" cried Natalie, in the first grip of premonition.

"Hush, dear!" said Mrs. Leighton. "He is gone."

They buried him at the very top of the valley, where the eye, guided by the parallel hills, sought ever and again the great mountain thirty miles away. In that clear air the distant mountain seemed very near. There were those who said they could see the holy cross upon its brow.

That night Mrs. Leighton and mammy sat idle and staring in the house. Suddenly they had realized that for them the years of tears had passed. They looked at each other and wondered by what long road calm had come to them. Not so Natalie. Natalie was out in the night, out upon the hills.

She climbed the highest of them all. As she stumbled up the rise, she lifted her eyes to the stars. The stars were very high, very far, very cold. They struck at her sight like needles.

Natalie covered her eyes. She stood on the crest of the hill. Her glorious hair had fallen and wrapped her with its still mantle. Her slight breast was heaving. She could hear her struggling heart pounding at its cage. She drew a long breath. With all the strength: of her young lungs she called: "Lew, where are you? O, Lew, you must come! O, Lew, I need you!"

The low hills gave back no echo. It was not silence that swallowed her desperate cry, but distance, overwhelming distance. She stared wide-eyed across the plain. Suddenly faith left her. She knew that Lewis, could not hear. She knew that she was alone. She crumpled into a little heap on the top of the highest hill, buried her face in her soft hair, and sobbed.

The conviction that their wilderness held Lewis no longer brought a certain strength to Natalie's sudden womanhood. It was as though Fate had cried to her, "The burden is all thine; take it up," and with the same breath had given her the sure courage that comes with renunciation. She answered Dom Francisco's wistful questioning before it could take shape in words.

"We cannot stay," she said. "We must go. You will still help us to go."

Nature's long silences breed silence in man. Dom Francisco ceased to question even with his eyes. He made all ready, delivered them into the hands of trusted henchmen, and bade them God's speed. They struck out for the sea, but not by the long road that Lewis and the stranger had followed. There was a nearer Northern port. Toward it they set their faces, Consolation Cottage their goal.

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