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   Chapter 17 No.17

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 17035

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Great Moments

They were a long way from camp, and night impended.

"We won't go back," Jed decided. "We'll go on over to th' S Bar S an' put up for th' night."

VB said nothing, but of a sudden his heart commenced to hammer away so lustily that the pulse in the back of his neck felt like blows from metal.

It was beyond the middle of April, and he knew that Gail must have returned from the coast; for days he had been wondering when he would see her again, had been itching to ask questions of every chance passer who might know of her return. Yet that unaccountable diffidence had kept him from mentioning it even to Jed. Now, though, that he was to go for himself, that he was to see her-

He gripped the Captain fiercely with his knees. He told himself, in an attempt to be sane, that this discomfiture was merely because he had been out of the sight of women so long.

They rode into the Thorpe ranch after dark. Lights shone from the windows, and Jed, knowing the place, declared that they were eating.

"Hello, Bob!" he cried when Thorpe himself threw the door open. "Keep a couple of stoppers to-night?"

"Well, Jed, you're a rough-looking old rascal; but I s'pose we'll have to take you in. Who else-that young animal-tamer, VB?"

"Right!" laughed Jed.

VB, peering into the lighted room, saw a figure jump up from the table and hurry toward the door.

As it came between him and the light it seemed to be crowned with a halo, a radiant, shimmering, golden aura.

Then her voice called in welcome: "Hello, Mr. Avery!" Before Jed could make answer she had gone on, as though ignoring him. "Hello, Mr. VB! Aren't you coming in to shake hands?"

VB wanted to laugh, like a boy with a new gun; his spirits bubbled up into his throat and twisted into laughter any words that might have formed, but he managed to answer:

"I'll feed the Captain-then I'll be in."

Without a word she turned back.

Long ago-years ago, it seemed-he had drawn away from her to go to the Captain; then it was the love of the horse that took him. Now, however, it was nothing but confusion that drove him away. Not that he held the Captain less dear, but he wanted to put off that meeting with Gail, to delay until he could overcome that silly disorganization of his powers of self-control.

Out in the corral he flung his arms about the black's head and laughed happily into the soft neck.

"VB, you're a fool-a silly fool!" he whispered.

But if it was so, if being a fool made him that happy, he never wanted to regain mental balance.

It was a big evening for VB, perhaps the biggest of his life. Bob Thorpe and his family ate with the men. Democracy unalloyed was in his soul. He mingled with them not through condescension, but through desire, and his family maintained the same bearing. Not a cow-puncher in the country but who respected Mrs. Thorpe and Gail and would welcome an opportunity to fight for them.

The men had finished their meal before VB and Jed entered. Mrs. Thorpe made excuses and went out, leaving the four alone. While Jed talked to her father, Gail, elbows on the table, chatted with VB, and Young VB could only stare at his plate and snatch a glance at her occasionally and wonder why it was that she so disturbed him.

Later Bob took Jed into his office, and when Gail and VB were left alone the constraint between them became even more painful. Try as he would, the man could not bring his scattered wits together for coherent speech. Just being beside that girl after her long absence was intoxicating, benumbing his mind, stifling in him all thought and action, creating a thralldom which was at once agony and peace. An intuitive sensing of this helplessness had made him delay seeing her that evening; now that he was before her he never wanted to leave; he wanted only to sit and listen to her voice and watch the alert expressiveness of her face-a mute, humble worshiper.

And this attitude of his forced a reaction on the girl. At first she talked vivaciously, starting each new subject with an enthusiasm that seemed bound to draw him out, but when he remained dumb and helpless in spite of her best efforts to keep the conversation going, her flow of words lagged. Long, wordless intervals followed, and a flush came into the girl's cheeks, and she too found herself woefully self-conscious. She sought for the refuge of diversion.

"Since you won't talk to me, Mr. VB," she said with an embarrassed laugh, "you are going to force me to play for you."

"It isn't that I won't-I can't," he stammered. "And please play."

He sat back in his chair, relieved, and watched the fine sway of her body as she made the big full-toned instrument give up its soul. Music, that-not the tunes that most girls of his acquaintance had played for him; a St. Saens arrangement, a MacDowell sketch, a bit of Nevin, running from one theme into another, easily, naturally, grace everywhere, from the phrasing to the movements of her firm little shoulders. And VB found his self-possession returning, found that he was thinking evenly, sanely, under the quieting influence of this music.

Then Gail paused, sitting silent before the keyboard, as though to herald a coming climax. She leaned closer over the instrument and struck into the somber strains of a composition of such grim power and beauty that it seemed to create for itself an oddly receptive attitude in the man, sensitizing his emotional nature to a point where its finest shades were brought out in detail. It went on and on through its various phases to the end, and on the heavy final chord the girl's hands dropped into her lap. For a moment she sat still bent toward the keyboard before turning to him. When she did face about her flush was gone. She was again mistress of the situation and said:

"Well, are you ever going to tell me about yourself?"

VB's brows were drawn, and his eyes closed, but before he opened them to look at her a peculiar smile came over his face.

"That man Chopin, and his five-flat prelude-" he said, and stirred with a helpless little gesture of one hand as though no words could convey the appreciation he felt.

"I wonder if you like that as well as I do?" she asked.

He sat forward in his chair and looked hard at her. The constraint was wholly gone; he was seriously intent, thinking clearing, steadily now.

"I used to hear it many times," he said slowly, "and each time I've heard it, it has meant more to me. There's something about it, deep down, covered up by all those big tones, that I never could understand-until now. I guess," he faltered, "I guess I've never realized how much a man has to suffer before he can do a big thing like that. Something about this,"-with a gesture of his one hand,-"this house and these hills, and what I've been through out here, and the way you play, helps me to understand what an accomplishment like that must have cost."

She looked at him out of the blue eyes that had become so grave, and said:

"I guess we all have to suffer to do big things; but did you ever think how much we have to suffer to appreciate big things?"

And she went on talking in this strain with a low, even voice, talking for hours, it seemed, while VB listened and wondered at her breadth of view, her sympathy and understanding.

She was no longer a little, sunny-haired girl, a bit of pretty down floating along through life. Before, he had looked on her as such; true, he had known her as sympathetic, balanced, with a keen appreciation of values. But her look, her tone, her insight into somber, grim truths came out with emphasis in the atmosphere created by that music, and to Young VB, Gail Thorpe had become a woman.

A silence came, and they sat through it with that ease which comes only to those who are in harmony. No constraint now, no flushed faces, no awkward meeting of eyes. The new understanding which had come made even silence eloquent and satisfying.

Then the talk commenced, slowly at first, gradually quickening. It was of many things-of her winter, of her days in the East, of her friends. And through it Gail took the lead, talking as few women had ever talked to him before; talking of personalities, yet deviating from them to deduce a principle here, apply a maxim there, and always showing her humanness by building the points about individuals and the circumstances which surround them.

"Don't you ever get lonely here?" he asked abruptly, thinking that she must have moments of

discontent in these mountains and with these people.

"No. Why should I?"

"Well, you've been used to things of a different sort. It seems to be a little rough for a girl-like you."

"And why shouldn't a nicer community be too fine for a girl like me?" she countered. "I'm of this country, you know. It's mine."

"I hadn't thought of that. You're different from these people, and yet," he went on, "you're not like most women outside, either. You've seemed to combine the best of the two extremes. You-"

He looked up to see her gazing at him with a light of triumph in her face. VB never knew, but it was that hour for which she had waited months, ever since the time when she declared to her father, with a welling admiration for the spirit he must have, that he who broke the Captain was a man.

Here he was before her, talking personalities, analyzing her! Four months before he would not even linger to say good-by! Surely the spell of her womanhood was on him.

"Oh!" she cried, bringing her hands together. "So you've been thinking about me-what sort of a girl I am, have you?"

Her eyes were aflame with the light of conquest.

Then she said soberly: "Well, it's nice to have people taking you seriously, anyhow."

"That's all any of us want," he answered her; "to be taken seriously, and to be worthy of commanding such an attitude from the people about us. Sometimes we don't realize it until we've thrown away our best chances and then-well, maybe it's too late."

On the words he felt a sudden misgiving, a sudden waning of faith. And, bringing confusion to his ears, was the low voice of this girl-woman saying: "I understand, VB, I understand. And it's never too late to mend!"

Her hand lay in her lap, and almost unconsciously he reached out for it. It came to meet his, frankly, quickly, and his frame was racked by a great, dry sob which came from the depths of his soul.

"Oh, do you understand, Gail?" he whispered doubtfully. "Can you-without knowing?"

He had her hands in both his and strained forward, his face close to hers. The small, firm fingers clutched his hardened ones almost desperately and the blue eyes, so wide now, looking at him so earnestly, were filmed with tears.

"I think I've understood all along," she said, keeping her voice even at the cost of great effort. "I don't know it all-the detail, I mean. I don't need to. I know you've been fighting, VB, nobly, bravely. I know-"

He rose to his feet and drew her up with him, pulling her close to him, closer and closer. One arm slipped down over her shoulders, uncertainly, almost timidly. His face bent toward hers, slowly, tenderly, and she lifted her lips to meet it. It was the great moment of his life. Words were out of place; they would have been puerile, disturbing sounds, a mockery instead of an agency to convey an idea of the strength of his emotions. He could feel her breath on his cheek, and for an instant he hung above her, delaying the kiss, trembling with the tremendous passion within him.

And then he backed away from her-awkwardly, threatening to fall, a limp hand raised toward the girl as though to warn her off.

"Oh, Gail, forgive me!" he moaned. "Not yet! Great God, Gail, I'm not worthy!"

His hoarse voice mounted and he stood backed against the far wall, fists clenched and stiff arms upraised. She took a faltering step toward him.

"Don't!" she begged. "You are-you-"

But he was gone into the night, banging the door behind him, while the girl leaned against her piano and let the tears come.

He was not worthy! He loved; she knew he loved; she had come to meet that great binding, enveloping emotion willingly, frank with the joy of it, as became her fine nature. Then he had run from her, and for her own sake! All the ordeals he had been through in those last months were as brief, passing showers compared with the tempest that raged in him as he rode through the night; and it continued through the hours of light and of darkness for many days. Young VB was a man who feared his own love, and beyond that there can be no greater horror.

He sought solace in the Captain, in driving himself toward the high mark he had set out to attain, but the ideal exemplified in the noble animal seemed more unattainable than ever and he wondered at times if the victory he sought were not humanly impossible. The knowledge that only by conquering himself could he keep his love for Gail Thorpe unsullied never left him, and beside it a companion haunter stalked through and through his consciousness-the fact that they had declared themselves to each other. He was carrying not alone the responsibility of reclaiming his own life; he must also answer for the happiness of a woman!

In those days came intervals when he wondered if this thing were really love. Might it not be something else-a passing hysteria, a reaction from the inner battle? But he knew it was a love stronger than his will, stronger than his great tempter, stronger than the prompting to think of the future when he saw the Thorpe automobile coming up the road that spring day on the first trip the girl had made to the ranch that year. And under the immense truth of the realization he became bodily weak.

Doubt of his strength, too, became more real, more insistent than it had ever been; its hateful power mingled with the thirst, and his heart was rent. What if that love should prove stronger than this discretion which he had retained at such fearful cost, and drag him to her with the stigma he still bore and wreck her!

Gail saw the constraint in him the instant she left the car, and though their handclasp was firm and long and understanding, it sobered her smile.

She tried to start him talking on many things as they sat alone in the log house, but it was useless. He did not respond. So, turning to the subject that had always roused him, that she knew to be so close to his heart, she asked for the Captain.

"In the corral," said VB, almost listlessly. "We'll go out."

So they went together and looked through the gate at the great animal. The Captain stepped close and stretched his nose for Gail to rub, pushing gently against her hand in response.

"Oh, you noble thing!" she whispered to him. "When you die, is all that strength of yours to be wasted? Can't it be given to some one else?"

She looked full on VB, then down at the ground, and said: "You've never told me how you broke the Captain. No one in the country knows. They know that he almost killed you; that you fought him a whole week. But no one knows how. Won't-won't you tell me? I want to know, because it was a real achievement-and yours."

He met her gaze when it turned upward, and for many heartbeats they stood so, looking at each other. Then VB's eyes wavered and he moved a step, leaning on the bars and staring moodily at the stallion.

"It hurts to think about it," he said. "I don't like to remember. That is why I have never told any one. It hurt him and it hurt me."

She waited through the silence that followed for him to go on.

"I've worked and rubbed it and curried it, and nursed the hair to grow over the place. It looks just like a cinch mark now-like the mark of service. No one would ever notice. But it isn't a mark of labor. I marked the Captain-I had to do it-had to make him understand me. It laid his side open, and all the nursing, all the care I could give wouldn't make up for it. It's there. The Captain knows it; so do I."

She followed his gaze to the little rough spot far down on the sleek side.

"All wild things have to be broken," she said. "None of them ever become tame of their own volition. And in the breaking a mark is invariably left. The memory hurts, but the mark means nothing of itself, once it is healed. Don't you realize that?

"We all bear marks. The marks of our environment, the marks of our friends, the marks of those we-we love. Some of them hurt for a time, but in the end it is all good. Don't you believe that? We see those who are very dear to us suffer, and it marks us; sometimes just loving leaves its mark. But-those are the greatest things in the world. They're sacred.

"The marks on a woman who goes through fire for a man, say; the marks of a-a mother. They hurt, but in the end they make the bond tighter, more holy."

She waited. Then asked again: "Don't you believe that?"

After a long pause VB answered in a peculiarly bitter voice: "I wish I knew what I believe-if I do believe!"

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