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   Chapter 24 THE HEAVENS OPEN

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 19378

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Conrad and Lucy rode along a street skirting the brow of the mesa until the houses of the town in the valley below became few and straggling. Down the last roadway cut across the sides of the canyon they descended to the bottom of the ravine. Thence upward it was so narrow that the bed of the creek and the road left only scant margins of rocky soil. In these grew cottonwoods, willows, and a few other trees, whose overarching branches made a green and pleasant vista. The creek wound crookedly down the valley, frequently crossing the road, while here and there the walls of the gulch drew so close together that the track was forced into the bed of the stream. Notwithstanding the recent rains, the water was too shallow to reach above their horses' knees.

The way was quite deserted, and after leaving the town they saw no other travellers. A cool, damp wind came down the ravine and Lucy took off her hat and let it toss back her brown curls. They had grown longer since the early Spring, and now clustered in soft rings around her ears and neck. A touch of sadness lingered upon her spirits, because of the distressing scene with Miss Dent. It was the first difference that had ever arisen between them. A poignant longing filled her heart, also, because this was to be her final interview with the man she loved. The painful duty she had set herself filled the background of her consciousness and laid upon her manner an unusual reserve.

But these more sombre emotions mingled with the gladness of the knowledge that she was beloved, and all combined to invest her with a new maturity of womanliness, a sweet dignity that sent filtering through Conrad's eager love a sensation of wonder and reverence. It could not be possible that this lovely, this adorable being would receive his homage, would consent to love him! But he would try. She was willing to ride with him, and there was hope in that. And, yes, he would not forget that he must tell her about his unworthy life-he must tell her even before he asked her to marry him. But oh, how beautiful she was, how sweet! Every movement of her head, her arm, her body, every twinkling smile, every fleeting dimple, poured fresh wine into his blood. A torrent of love and admiration was sweeping through him, and from it were constantly breaking off and flowing over their friendly talk little cascades of compliment, of admiring speech, of sentences glowing with hints of his feeling.

But Lucy quickly caught the trend of every one and turned it back with laughing retort and merry speech. He could not get within her guard, and every deft turn of her jesting, foiling replies made him only the more eager. He forgot that he was going to make confession, forgot to watch the dark clouds that were rising above the mountain tops, forgot everything but this alluring creature, who grew more alluring every moment, and yet would not let him loose the torrents of loving speech. And Lucy, in the sweet excitement of letting him say a little, and again a little, and then a little more, yet keeping up her guard and never letting him reach the danger point, Lucy also forgot what she had meant to keep constantly in mind. Now and then duty put out a warning hand. But-the exhilaration of the present moment, the precious consciousness of his love, the thrilling pleasure of this Cupid's dance-she could not give it up so quickly. Presently she would tell him.

Thus has it been Love's habit, ever since Love came to live in this world, to dance with happy and forgetful foot over volcanoes ready to engulf him in their fires, beneath clouds ready to drown him with their pouring sorrows. No matter what the dangers, when the maid lures and the man pursues, Love knows only his own delight. So went Lucy and Curtis up the beautiful canyon road, thrilling with the happiness that can be but once,-before the first kiss has brushed away the exquisite bloom of love,-forgetting alike the bonds they had put upon themselves and the dangers that lurked in the threatening storm.

At last the darkening atmosphere caused Conrad to notice how high the clouds had risen. "I'm afraid there's going to be a bad storm, Miss Bancroft," he said, "and perhaps we'd better turn back. When we started I didn't think it would rain before night, but those clouds are piling up fast and they look as if they meant business. I'm sorry, for a little ways above here there's a beautiful place, where the walls of the canyon spread out and you get a splendid view. I wanted to take you there, and tell you-" It was not so easy after all, to loose the torrents of speech, and for a bare instant he hesitated. It was enough to give Lucy her chance.

She shot at him a single sparkling glance, and broke in with, "Oh, I'll race you there!" As she spoke she touched her horse and darted ahead, leaving him alone in the middle of the road at the very beginning of his declaration. The wind blew her curls into a tangled frame for her laughing face as she looked back over her shoulder. He quickly spurred Brown Betty forward, but she had got so much the start that it was some moments before he was again at her side.

"You took me by surprise," he said as they slowed their horses at the foot of a steeper incline, "and handicapped me, or you wouldn't have got so far away. When we go back I'll race you all the way down the canyon, if you like."

"Agreed!" she laughed. "Wouldn't it be jolly to go at a gallop all the way down the canyon, from the mountains to Golden? But the poor horses!"

"I think we'd better turn back, Miss Bancroft. I don't like the look of those clouds. It's going to be a regular deluge, I'm afraid. But first, I want to tell you-"

"Oh, my hat! I've dropped it!" she exclaimed. Curtis leaned over easily, picked it up, and hung it on his own pommel. Her eyes were twinkling and the dimples were playing hide-and-seek with a wilful little smile that hovered around her mouth. "So awkward of me," she said apologetically, "and how readily you picked it up! I wish I could do that! Do you know, Mr. Conrad, you've never given me those lessons in the cowboy's art, roping and riding and all that, you promised ever so long ago."

"We'll begin them whenever you say the word. After I tell you-"

"About that beautiful place? Oh, yes! Can't we go that far? I'd love to see it!" She was bounding ahead again, but he was quickly beside her. A quizzical look was on his face and a touch of mastery in his manner as he leaned toward her and rested his hand upon her horse's neck.

"Now, if you try to run away again," he said banteringly, "it's you who will have the handicap!" She gathered up her bridle and with a touch of her quirt wheeled her horse half way around and away from his detaining hand. The whim had seized her to start flying back down the road, "just a little way," she thought, "just to tease him." But as she turned she met a glowing look that checked her impulse.

"Lucy!" he was saying, and his voice lingered over her name like a soft and warm caress, "Lucy! I love you. Will you be my wife?"

It had come, the question she had meant not to let him ask, and at once it sobered her spirits and brought back the remembrance of what she must tell him. Her head drooped until her brown curls half hid her crimsoning face, and her voice was low and troubled. "Indeed, Mr. Conrad, I can never be any man's wife. My father needs me. I shall never marry, and I shall stay with him as long as he lives."

"I know how devoted you are to your father, Lucy-" he stopped, and repeated her name as if he loved the sound of it it-"Lucy, and it is so sweet and beautiful that it makes me love you even more. Tell me, Lucy, do you love me?"

The question took her unawares, and he saw her hand tremble. She hesitated for a moment before replying, with dignity: "I have told you I could not marry you. Isn't that enough?" Unconsciously they had again headed their horses toward the mountains and were walking slowly up the canyon.

"No, Lucy; it isn't enough!" he exclaimed eagerly. "Something tells me that perhaps you do care a little for me, and if you do I want to know it-I must know it!"

"I shall never see you again after to-day. You must be satisfied with that," she replied, tossing her head and turning her face away from his shining and pleading eyes.

"How can I be satisfied-" he began, and the wind blew her hair as she turned her head away and showed one little pink-tinted ear nestling among the curls. His gaze devoured it. "How can I," he went on, "when you-when you have such a beautiful ear!"

"What difference does it make when we can never see each other again?" Her manner was evasive and her speech hesitating, for she was trying hard to bring herself to the point of telling him the fateful secret.

"All the difference in the world! Lucy, sweetheart! Tell me if you care!" He leaned toward her and took her wrist in his hand.

"It had come, this question she had not meant to let him ask"

"You've no right to ask that question again! I shall say no more than I have said already." She made an effort to release her arm, but he would not relax his firm, though gentle and caressing, grasp.

"Lucy, I would never beg for a woman's love, nor ask her to try to care for me, if she didn't love me, of herself. But when the woman I love with all my heart won't deny that she loves me, then I must hear her say in her own sweet voice that she does. Lucy, darling, tell me that you love me!"

She was trembling from head to foot, but she drew herself together with fresh determination and held her head up proudly as she answered, looking straight ahead: "I have told

you that I shall never marry, and that after to-day I shall never see you again. That must be enough, for I shall say no more."

He let go her wrist, and she tapped her horse to a faster pace. She was thinking intently, trying to frame in her mind the best words in which to make her confession. Suddenly, over the top of a steep incline, they came upon a wide and splendid view. The sides of the canyon seemed to melt and flow back, giving far-ranging sight of the sombre purple mountains towering toward heaven and of the hills dwindling down into the plain.

"Lucy," he exclaimed, "here is the beautiful place of which I told you. I wanted to bring you here to tell you of my love, because this is the most beautiful spot I know. Lucy, darling, I love you with all my heart, and if you cannot deny that you love me, then it is my right, the right of my love, to hear you say that you do. Never mind about not leaving your father and meaning never to marry. We'll talk about that afterward. Won't you tell me now that you do love me?"

Her eyes dropped from the high and wide horizon to her horse's mane. She tried to say, "I do not love you," but her heart rose in rebellion and forbade the untruth. She opened her lips, but no sound came from them. Curtis bent toward her, trying to take her hand, but she drew it away. With all her strength she was contending for her determination against both him and the traitor within her own heart. He leaned nearer, pleading in tones that were half loving command and half loving entreaty, "Lucy! Lucy, love! Look up! Let me see your eyes, your dear, beautiful eyes!"

Lucy clasped her hands together hard and bowed her head. He was bending over her, his shoulder touching hers. She heard his voice, soft and rich with love, whispering, "Lucy, darling!" And suddenly, scarcely knowing what she did, she lifted her head and looked into his eyes. Instantly his arms were about her, and he heard her murmuring, "I do love you! Oh, I do love you!" He bent his ardent face to hers, but before their lips met she started away, freeing herself from his encircling arms.

"Stop!" she cried, putting out a forbidding hand, as she moved her horse away. "You have made me tell you, against my will, that I love you. Now you must listen while I tell you who I am." There was a suggestion of defiance in the poise of her head and in the flashing of her eyes as they looked squarely into his.

"And you must understand," she went on, "that after I tell you this I want you to forget everything that has passed between us this afternoon, just as I shall do. For I am the daughter of Sumner L. Delafield!"

In an instant his arms were about her again. "Lucy, dearest, you've told me no news! I've known it since yesterday."

She struggled to free herself. "But my father-you hate him-you-you wish to kill him-I heard what you said to him that day at your ranch, last Spring-and afterward I happened to find out who he is."

A wave of crimson deepened the color of his sunbrowned face. "All that is dead and buried," he said, "and I am ashamed of it, now. I want you to help me forget that I allowed such base thoughts to master me so long. I'm going to your father this afternoon to tell him that I have forgiven the old debt, and everything else, and to ask him to forgive me. My poor little girl! I never dreamed your dear heart was being worried by that affair!"

She let him fold her in his caress, whispering happily, "I knew all the time you wouldn't do it-I knew you wouldn't hurt daddy, or anybody."

A loud clap of thunder rolled and echoed over the mountains, and a splash of raindrops fell on their faces. Conrad looked at the dense black clouds and at the gray veil dropping athwart the mountains, and turned to Lucy with alarm in his face. "We must start back at once and ride down that canyon for all we're worth! This storm is going to be a corker, but maybe we can beat the worst of it. I've done wrong to bring you so far-but I can't regret it now, sweetheart!"

They started at a gallop down the long canyon road. The patter of big drops that had given them warning quickly increased to a steady, beating downpour that drenched them to the skin. An almost tangible darkness was sifting through the atmosphere. It filled the sky overhead, drifted down the ravine, and seemed to settle, making a thick twilight under the arching trees. Blinding zigzags of lightning slashed the clouds and played through the middle air, and a terrific roar and boom and rattle of thunder kept up in the mountains behind them and echoed back and forth between the walls of the gulch.

The creek was already rising, and each time they had to cross it they found its muddy torrent swifter and higher. The road was rocky, and in many places had been made slippery by the rain, and there were frequent steep inclines down which they dared not go at a rapid gait. They had put behind them hardly more than a third of the distance when Conrad, looking backward, saw a cloud of inky blackness settle and drop upon the earth. A deep, booming sound mingled with a deafening clap of thunder. The ground trembled. The horses quivered with fright and darted forward at a faster pace. Lucy saw Curtis's face blench in the half darkness.

"What is it?" she asked, glancing backward anxiously.

"That was a cloudburst," he answered in a tone that thrilled with comprehension. "It struck back there, just this side of our beautiful spot, and a mountain of water will soon come tearing down behind us. We've got to ride like the wind! Perhaps we can make the first road that crosses the ravine, and you can go up there while I ride on and warn the town."

"No! I'll ride on with you."

"I can't let you do that," was his swift reply. "Are you frightened, dearest?"

"No," she answered in a steady tone; "I'm not frightened at all. And I'm going to ride on with you. It would be easy to die with you, if we must-but I couldn't live without you, now."

He bent toward her and touched her arm with loving reverence as they galloped on at the swiftest speed possible. The horses needed neither whip nor spur, but with ears laid back and necks outstretched were fleeing down the dim canyon for their lives. As they bounded up a low bank, where the road crossed the creek bed again, Lucy's horse stumbled, slipped, and fell with his forelegs doubled under him. He gave a scream of pain and terror. Lucy, freeing her foot from the stirrup as he fell, jumped to one side. Curtis checked Brown Betty, leaned over, and grasped the girl around the waist. She helped him with an upward spring, and as he lifted her to the saddle he shifted his own seat to the back, and they galloped on, leaving the crippled horse to his certain fate.

Behind them they could hear the booming, rattling roar of the avalanche of water that was sweeping down between the canyon walls. And presently, piercing through even its rumbling tumult and the crashing thunder, they heard the death cry of the horse they had left behind, and knew that he had been engulfed in the mountainous wave that was rushing toward them at a speed they could not hope to equal. Lucy trembled at the sound and nestled her head against Conrad's shoulder.

As they neared the first road cutting across the gulch Curtis lowered his head to Lucy's ear: "Sweetheart, we are almost at the first road out. I can put you off and you can run up there and be safe."

"No," she whispered back; "don't stop for an instant. Every second will mean many lives. I'm going with you to whatever end there is, and I'm not afraid."

Brown Betty's flanks were steaming. The froth from her mouth flecked her neck and legs and body, to be quickly washed off by the drenching rain. Behind them they could hear, coming nearer and nearer, the fateful roar of the rushing waters. The canyon walls opened out, and, looming vaguely in the dim light, they could see the first houses of the town. With full lungs Conrad shouted at the top of his voice:

"Run! A cloudburst! A cloudburst is coming! Run for your lives!"

They dashed on, and the houses became more frequent. There were lights in the windows, though it was little past mid-afternoon. Curtis, shouting his warning over and over, put the bridle in Lucy's hands and drew his revolver. They were rushing down the main street, through the most thickly built portion of the town. Pointing upward, he added the noise of pistol shots to his clamor. Men and women came to their doors, caught the meaning of his cries, heard the roar of the coming flood, and rushed out and up the side streets, shouting warnings as they ran.

"My father-the bank-can we go so far?" asked Lucy breathlessly.

"Yes-we'll call him," Conrad assured her, glancing back over his shoulder. Behind them rose a din of shouts and yells and screams of terror, mingling with the peals of thunder and the roar of the waters. The street was full of people running this way and that. And a little farther back, through the dusky light, he saw a brown, foaming wall of water, its crest topping the roofs of the houses, its front a mass of half-engulfed trees and houses and pieces of lumber and arms and legs and bodies of men and animals that boiled up from its foot, tossed and whirled a moment on its breast, and sank into the flood.

Curtis ground his teeth together. They were still three blocks from the bank. "We'll never make it," he thought; "but we'll try!" His arm gathered Lucy closer to his breast, his spur touched Brown Betty's heaving flank, and with another loud shout of warning and an encouraging cry to the mare they darted on with a fresh burst of speed.

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