Read CHAPTER VIII - RENUNCIATION of The Man of the Desert , free online book, by Grace Livingston Hill, on ReadCentral.com.

They had entered a strip of silvery sand, about two miles wide, and rode almost in silence, for a singular shyness had settled upon them.

The girl was conscious of his eyes upon her with a kind of tender yearning as if he would impress the image on his mind for the time when she would be with him no more.  Each had a curious sense of understanding the other’s thoughts, and needing no words.  But as they neared a great rustling stretch of corn he looked at her keenly again and spoke: 

“You are very tired, I’m sure.”  It was not a question but she lifted her eyes to deny it, and a flood-tide of sweet colour swept over the cheeks.  “I knew it,” he said, searching her raised eyes.  “We must stop and rest after we have passed through this corn.  There is a spot under some trees where you will be sheltered from the sun.  This corn lasts only a mile or so more, and after you have rested we will have only a short distance to go”-he caught his breath as though the words hurt him-“our journey is almost over!” They rode in silence through the corn, but when it was passed and they were seated beneath the trees the girl lifted her eyes to him filled with unspeakable things.

“I haven’t known how to thank you,” she said earnestly, the tears almost in evidence.

“Don’t, please!” he said gently.  “It has been good to me to be with you.  How good you never can know.”  He paused and then looked keenly at her.

“Did you rest well last night, your first night under the stars?  Did you hear the coyotes, or feel at all afraid?”

Her colour fled, and she dropped her glance to Billy’s neck, while her heart throbbed painfully.

He saw how disturbed she was.

“You were afraid,” he charged gently.  “Why didn’t you call?  I was close at hand all the time.  What frightened you?”

“Oh, it was nothing!” she said evasively.  “It was only for a minute.”

“Tell me, please!” his voice compelled her.

“It was just for a minute,” she said again, speaking rapidly and trying to hide her embarrassment.  “I woke and thought I heard talking and you were not in sight; but it was not long before you came back with an armful of wood, and I saw it was almost morning.”

Her cheeks were rosy, as she lifted her clear eyes to meet his searching gaze and tried to face him steadily, but he looked into the very depths of her soul and saw the truth.  She felt her courage going from her, and tried to turn her gaze carelessly away, but could not.

At last he said in a low voice full of feeling: 

“You heard me?”

Her eyes, which he had held with his look, wavered, faltered, and drooped.  “I was afraid,” he said as her silence confirmed his conviction.  “I heard some one stirring.  I looked and thought I saw you going back to your couch.”  There was grave self-reproach in his tone, but no reproach for her.  Nevertheless her heart burned with shame and her eyes filled with tears.  She hid her glowing face in her hands and cried out: 

“I am so sorry.  I did not mean to be listening.  I thought from the tone of your voice you were in trouble.  I was afraid some one had attacked you, and perhaps I could do something to help -”

“You poor child!” he said deeply moved.  “How unpardonable of me to frighten you.  It is my habit of talking aloud when I am alone.  The great loneliness out here has cultivated it.  I did not realize that I might disturb you.  What must you think of me?  What can you think?”

“Think!” she burst forth softly.  “I think you are all wrong to try to keep a thing like that to yourself!”

And then the full meaning of what she had said broke upon her, and her face crimsoned with embarrassment.

But he was looking at her with an eager light in his eyes.

“What do you mean?” he asked.  “Won’t you please explain?”

Hazel was sitting now with her face entirely turned away, and the soft hair blowing concealingly about her burning cheeks.  She felt as if she must get up and run away into the desert and end this terrible conversation.  She was getting in deeper and deeper every minute.

“Please!” said the gentle, firm voice.

“Why, I-think-a-a-woman-has a right-to know-a thing like that!” she faltered desperately.

“Why?” asked the voice again after a pause.

“Because-she-she-might not ever-she might not ever know there was such a love for a woman in the world!” she stammered, still with her head turned quite away from him.  She felt that she could never turn around and face this wonderful man of the desert again.  She wished the ground would open and show her some comfortable way of escape.

The pause this time was long, so long that it frightened her, but she dared not turn and look at him.  If she had done so she would have seen that he was sitting with bowed head for some time, in deep meditation, and that at last he lifted his glance to the sky again as if to ask a swift permission.  Then he spoke.

“A man has no right to tell a woman he loves her when he cannot ask her to marry him.”

“That,” said the girl, her throat throbbing painfully, “that has nothing to do with it.  I-was-not talking about-marrying!  But I think she has a right to know.  It would-make a difference all her life!” Her throat was dry and throbbing.  The words seemed to stick as she tried to utter them, yet they would be said.  She longed to hide her burning face in some cool shelter and get away from this terrible talk, but she could only sit rigidly quiet, her fingers fastened tensely in the coarse grass at her side.

There was a longer silence now, and still she dared not look at the man.

A great eagle appeared in the heaven above and sailed swiftly and strongly towards a mountain peak.  Hazel had a sense of her own smallness, and of the fact that her words had made an exquisite anguish for the soul of her companion, yet she could not think of anything to say that would better matters.  At last he spoke, and his voice was like one performing a sad and sacred rite for one tenderly beloved: 

“And now that you know I love you can it possibly make any difference to you?”

Hazel tried three times to answer, but every time her trembling lips would frame no words.  Then suddenly her face went into her hands and the tears came.  She felt as if a benediction had been laid upon her head, and the glory of it was greater than she could bear.

The man watched her, his arms longing to enfold her and soothe her agitation, but he would not.  His heart was on fire with the sweetness and the pain of the present moment, yet he could not take advantage of their situation upon the lonely plain, and desecrate the beauty of the trust she had put upon him.

Then her strength came again, and she raised her head and looked into his waiting eyes with a trembling, shy glance, yet true and earnest.

“It will make a difference-to me!” she said.  “I shall never feel quite the same towards life again because I know there is such a wonderful man in the world.”

She had fine control of her voice now, and was holding back the tears.  Her manner of the world was coming to her aid.  He must not see how much this was to her, how very much.  She put out a little cold hand and laid it timidly in his big brown one, and he held it a moment and looked down at it in great tenderness, closed his fingers over it in a strong clasp, then laid it gently back in her lap as though it were too precious to keep.  Her heart thrilled and thrilled again at his touch.

“Thank you,” he said simply, a great withdrawing in his tone.  “But I cannot see how you can think well of me.  I am an utter stranger to you.  I have no right to talk of such things to you.”

“You did not tell me,” answered Hazel.  “You told-God.”  Her voice was slow and low with awe.  “I only overheard.  It was my fault-but-I am not-sorry.  It was a great-thing to hear!”

He watched her shy dignity as she talked, her face drooping and half turned away.  She was exquisitely beautiful in her confusion.  His whole spirit yearned towards hers.

“I feel like a monster,” he said suddenly.  “You know I love you, but you do not understand how, in this short time even, you have filled my life, my whole being.  And yet I may not ever try or hope to win your love in return.  It must seem strange to you -”

“I think I understand,” she said in a low voice; “you spoke of all that in the night-you know.”  It seemed as if she shrank from hearing it again.

“Will you let me explain it thoroughly to you?”

“If-you think best.”  She turned her face away and watched the eagle, now a mere speck in the distance.

“You see it is this way.  I am not free to do as I might wish-as other men are free.  I have consecrated my life to the service of God in this place.  I know-I knew when I came here-that it was no place to bring a woman.  There are few who could stand the life.  It is filled with privations and hardships.  They are inevitable.  You are used to tender care and luxury.  No man could ask a sacrifice like that of a woman he loved.  He would not be a man if he did.  It is not like marrying a girl who has felt the call herself, and loves to give her life to the work.  That would be a different matter.  But a man has no right to expect it of a woman -” he paused to find the right words and Hazel in a small still voice of dignity reminded him: 

“You are forgetting one of the reasons.”

“Forgetting?” he turned towards her wonderingly and their eyes met for just an instant, then hers were turned away again.

“Yes,” she went on inscrutably.  “You thought I-was not-fit!”

She was pulling up bits of green from the ground beside her.  She felt a frightened flutter in her throat.  It was the point of the thorn that had remained in her heart.  It was not in nature for her not to speak of it, yet when it was spoken she felt how it might be misunderstood.

But the missionary made answer in a kind of cry like some hurt creature.

“Not fit!  Oh, my dear!  You do not understand -”

There was that in his tone that extracted the last bit of rankling thorn from Hazel’s heart and brought the quick blood to her cheeks again.

With a light laugh that echoed with relief and a deep new joy which she dared not face as yet, she sprang to her feet.

“Oh, yes, I understand,” she said gaily, “and it’s all true.  I’m not a bit fit for a missionary.  But oughtn’t we to be moving on?  I’m quite rested now.”

With a face that was grave to sadness he acquiesced, fastening the canvas in place on the saddle, and putting her on her horse with swift, silent movements.  Then as she gathered up the reins he lingered for an instant and taking the hem of her gown in his fingers he stooped and touched his lips lightly, reverently to the cloth.

There was something so humble, so pathetic, so self-forgetful in the homage that the tears sprang to the girl’s eyes and she longed to put her arms about his neck and draw his face close to hers and tell him how her heart was throbbing in sympathy.

But he had not even asked for her love, and there must be silence between them.  He had shown that it was the only way.  Her own reserve closed her lips and commanded that she show no sign.

And now they rode on silently for the most part, the horses’ hoofs beating rapidly in unison.  Now and then a rabbit scuttled on ahead of them or a horned toad hopped out of their path.  Short brown lizards palpitated on bits of wood along the way; now and then a bright green one showed itself and disappeared.  Once they came upon a village of prairie dogs and paused to watch their antics for a moment.  It was then as they turned away that she noticed the bit of green he had stuck in his buttonhole and recognized it for the same that she had played with as they talked by the wayside.  Her eyes charged him with having picked it up afterwards and his eyes replied with the truth, but they said no words about it.  They did not need words.

It was not until they reached the top of a sloping hill, and suddenly came upon the view of the valley with its winding track gleaming in the late afternoon sun, the little wooden station and few cabins dotted here and there, that she suddenly realized that their journey together was at an end, for this was the place from which she had started two days before.

He had no need to tell her.  She saw the smug red gleam of their own private car standing on the track not far away.  She was brought face to face with the fact that her friends were down there in the valley and all the stiff conventionalities of her life stood ready to build a wall between this man and herself.  They would sweep him out of her life as if she had never met him, never been found and saved by him, and carry her away to their tiresome round of parties and pleasure excursions again.

She lifted her eyes with a frightened, almost pleading glance as if for a moment she would ask him to turn with her back to the desert again.  She found his eyes upon her in a long deep gaze of farewell, as one looks upon the face of a beloved soon to be parted from earth.  She could not bear the blinding of the love she saw there, and her own heart leaped up anew to meet it in answering love.

But it was only this one flash of a glance they had, when they were aware of voices and the sound of horses’ hoofs, and almost instantly around the clump of sage-brush below the trail there swept into sight three horsemen, Shag Bunce, an Indian, and Hazel’s brother.  They were talking excitedly, and evidently starting out on a new search.

The missionary with quick presence of mind started the horses on, shouting out a greeting, and was answered with instant cheers from the approaching party, followed by shots from Shag Bunce in signal that the lost was found; shots which immediately seemed to echo from the valley and swell into shouting and rejoicing.

Then all was confusion at once.

The handsome, reckless brother with gold hair like Hazel’s embraced her, talking loud and eagerly; showing how he had done this and that to find her; blaming the country, the horses, the guides, the roads; and paying little heed to the missionary who instantly dropped behind to give him his place.  It seemed but a second more before they were surrounded with eager people all talking at once, and Hazel, distressed that her brother gave so little attention to the man who had saved her, sought thrice to make some sort of an introduction, but the brother was too much taken up with excitement, and with scolding his sister for having gotten herself lost, to take it in.

Then out came the father, who, it appeared, had been up two nights on the search, and had been taking a brief nap.  His face was pale and haggard.  Brownleigh liked the look of his eyes as he caught sight of his daughter, and his face lighted as he saw her spring into his arms, crying:  “Daddy!  Daddy!  I’m so sorry I frightened you!”

Behind him, tall and disapproving, with an I-told-you-so in her eye, stood Aunt Maria.

“Headstrong girl,” she murmured severely.  “You have given us all two terrible days!” and she pecked Hazel’s cheek stiffly.  But no one heard her in the excitement.

Behind Aunt Maria Hazel’s maid wrung her hands and wept in a kind of hysterical joy over her mistress’ return, and back of her in the gloom of the car vestibule loomed the dark countenance of Hamar with an angry, red mark across one cheek.  He did not look particularly anxious to be there.  The missionary turned from his evil face with repulsion.

In the confusion and delight over the return of the lost one the man of the desert prepared to slip away, but just as he was about to mount his pony Hazel turned and saw him.

“Daddy, come over here and speak to the man who found me and brought me safely back again,” she said, dragging her father eagerly across the platform to where the missionary stood.

The father came readily enough and Hazel talked rapidly, her eyes shining, her cheeks like twin roses, telling in a breath of the horrors and darkness and rescue, and the thoughtfulness of her stranger-rescuer.

Mr. Radcliffe came forward with outstretched hand to greet him, and the missionary took off his hat and stood with easy grace to shake hands.  He was not conscious then of the fire of eyes upon him, cold society stares from Aunt Maria, Hamar and young Radcliffe, as if to say, How dared he presume to expect recognition for doing what was a simple duty!  He noted only the genuine heartiness in the face of the father as he thanked him for what he had done.  Then, like the practical man of the world that he was, Mr. Radcliffe reached his hand into his pocket and drew out his check book remarking, as if it were a matter of course, that he wished to reward his daughter’s rescuer handsomely, and inquiring his name as he pulled off the cap from his fountain pen.

Brownleigh stood back stiffly with a heightened colour, and an almost haughty look upon his face.

“Thank you,” he said coldly, “I could not think of taking anything for a mere act of humanity.  It was a pleasure to be able to serve your daughter,” and he swung himself easily into the saddle.

But Mr. Radcliffe was unaccustomed to such independence in those who served him and he began to bluster.  Hazel, however, her cheeks fairly blazing, her eyes filled with mortification, put a hand upon her father’s arm.

“Daddy, you don’t understand,” she said earnestly; “my new friend is a clergyman-he is a missionary, daddy!”

“Nonsense, daughter!  You don’t understand these matters.  Just wait until I am through.  I cannot let a deed like this go unrewarded.  A missionary, did you say?  Then if you won’t take anything for yourself take it for your church; it’s all the same in the end,” and he gave a knowing wink towards the missionary whose anger was rising rapidly, and who was having much ado to keep a meek and quiet spirit.

“Thank you!” he said again coldly, “not for any such service.”

“But I mean it!” grumbled the elder man much annoyed.  “I want to donate something to a cause that employs a man like you.  It is a good to the country at large to have such men patrolling the deserts.  I never thought there was much excuse for Home Missions, but after this I shall give it my hearty approval.  It makes the country safer for tourists.  Come, tell me your name and I’ll write out a check.  I’m in earnest.”

“Send any contribution you wish to make to the general fund,” said Brownleigh with dignity, mentioning the address of the New York Board under whose auspices he was sent out, “but don’t mention me, please.”  Then he lifted his hat once more and would have ridden away but for the distress in Hazel’s eyes.

Just then the brother created a digression by rushing up to his father.  “Dad, Aunt Maria wants to know if we can’t go on, with this train.  It’s in sight now, and she is nearly crazy to get on the move.  There’s nothing to hinder our being hitched on, is there?  The agent has the order.  Do, dad, let’s get out of this.  I’m sick of it, and Aunt Maria is unbearable!”

“Yes, certainly, certainly, Arthur, speak to the agent.  We’ll go on at once.  Excuse me, Mr. - Ah, what did you say was the name?  I’m sorry you feel that way about it; though it’s very commendable, very commendable, I’m sure.  I’ll send to New York at once.  Fifth Avenue, did you say?  I’ll speak a good word for you.  Excuse me, the agent is beckoning me.  Well, good-bye, and thank you again!  Daughter, you better get right into the car.  The train is almost here, and they may have no time to spare,” and Mr. Radcliffe hastened up the platform after his son and the agent.