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

It was only an instant before she opened her eyes, for that subconscious state, that warns even in sleep of things that are going on outside the world of slumber, told her there was another soul present.

She awakened suddenly and looked up at him, the rosiness of sleep upon her cheeks and the dewiness of it upon her eyelids.  She looked most adorable with the long red slant of sunset from the open door at her feet and the wonder of his coming in her face.  Their eyes met, and told the story, before brain had time to give warning of danger and need of self-control.

“Oh, my darling!” the man said and took a step towards her, his arms outstretched as if he would clasp her, yet daring hardly to believe that it was really herself in the flesh.

“My darling!  Have you really come to me?” He breathed the question as though its answer meant life or death to him.

She arose and stood before him, trembling with joy, abashed now that she was in his presence, in his home, unbidden.  Her tongue seemed tied.  She had no word with which to explain.  But because he saw the love in her eyes and because his own need of her was great, he became bolder, and coming closer he began to tell her earnestly how he had longed and prayed that God would make a way for him to find her again; how he had fancied her here in this room, his own dear companion-his wife!

He breathed the word tenderly, reverently and she felt the blessing and the wonder of the love of this great simple-hearted man.

Then because he saw his answer in her eyes, he came near and took her reverently in his arms, laid his lips upon hers, and thus they stood for a moment together, knowing that after all the sorrow, the longing, the separation, each had come into his own.

It was some time before Hazel could get opportunity to explain how she came all unknowingly to be in his house, and even then he could not understand what joyful circumstance had set her face fortward and dropped her at his door.  So she had to go back to the letter, the letter which was the cause of it all, and yet for the moment had been forgotten.  She brought it forth now, and his face, all tender with the joy of her presence, grew almost glorified when he knew that it was she who had been his mother’s tender nurse and beloved friend through the last days of her life.

With clasped hands they talked together of his mother.  Hazel told him all:  how she had come upon her that summer’s day, and her heart had yearned to know her for his sake; and how she had gone back again, and yet again; all the story of her own struggles for a better life.  When she told of her cooking lessons he kissed the little white hands he held, and when she spoke of her hospital work he touched his lips to eyes and brow in reverent worshipfulness.

“And you did all that because ?” he asked and looked deep into her eyes, demanding hungrily his answer.

“Because I wanted to be worthy of your love!” she breathed softly, her eyes down-drooped, her face rosy with her confession.

“Oh, my darling!” he said, and clasped her close once more.  Almost the letter itself was forgotten, until it slipped softly to the floor and called attention to itself.  There was really after all no need for the letter.  It had done its intended work without being read.  But they read it together, his arm about her shoulders, and their heads close, each feeling the need of the comforting love of the other because of the bereavement each had suffered.

And thus they read: 

          “MY DEAR SON: 

“I am writing this letter in what I believe to be the last few days of my life.  Long ago I made our dear doctor tell me just what would be the signs that preceded the probable culmination of my disease.  He knew I would be happier so, for I had some things I wished to accomplish before I went away.  I did not tell you, dear son, because I knew it could but distress you and turn your thoughts away from the work to which you belong.  I knew when you came home to me for that dear last visit that I had only a little while longer left here, and I need not tell you what those blessed days of your stay were to me.  You know without my telling.  You perhaps will blame yourself that you did not see how near the end it was and stay beside me; but John, beloved, I would not have been happy to have had it so.  It would have brought before you with intensity the parting side of death, and this I wished to avoid.  I want you to think of me as gone to be with Jesus and with your dear father.  Besides, I wanted the pleasure of giving you back again to your work before I went away.

“It was because I knew the end was near that I dared do a lot of things that I would have been careful about otherwise.  It was in the strength of the happiness of your presence that I forced myself to walk again that you might remember your mother once more on her feet.  Remember now when you are reading this I shall be walking the golden streets with as strong and free a gait as you walk your desert, dear.  So don’t regret anything of the good time we had, nor wish you had stayed longer.  It was perfect, and the good times are not over for us.  We shall have them again on the other side some day when there are no more partings forever.

“But there is just one thing that has troubled me ever since you first went away, and that is that you are alone.  God knew it was not good for man to be alone, and He has a helpmeet for my boy somewhere in the world, I am sure.  I would be glad if I might go knowing that you had found her and that she loved you as I loved your father when I married him.  I have never talked much about these things to you because I do not think mothers should try to influence their children to marry until God sends the right one, and then it is not the mother who should be the judge, of course.  But once I spoke to you in a letter.  You remember?  It was after I had met a sweet girl whose life seemed so fitted to belong to yours.  You opened your heart to me then and told me you had found the one you loved and would never love another-but she was not for you.  My heart ached for you, laddie, and I prayed much for you then, for it was a sore trial to come to my boy away out there alone with his trouble.  I had much ado not to hate that girl to whom you had given your love, and not to fancy her a most disagreeable creature with airs, and no sense, not to recognize the man in my son, and not to know his beautiful soul and the worth of his love.  But then I thought perhaps she couldn’t help it, poor child, that she didn’t know enough to appreciate you; and likely it was God’s good leading that kept you from her.  But I have kept hoping that some time He would bring you to love another who was more worthy than she could have been.

“Dear, you have never said anything more about that girl, and I hope you have forgotten her, though sometimes when you were at home I noticed that deep, far-away look in your eyes, and a sadness about your lips that made me tremble lest her memory was just as bright as ever.  I have wanted you to know the sweet girl Hazel Radcliffe who has been my dear friend and almost daughter-for no daughter could have been dearer than she has been to me, and I believe she loves me too as I love her.  If you had been nearer I would have tried to bring you two together, at least for once, that you might judge for yourselves; but I found out that she was shy as a bird about meeting any one-though she has hosts of young men friends in her New York home-and that she would have run away if you had come.  Besides, I could not have given you any reason but the truth for sending for you, and I knew God would bring you two together if it was His will.  But I could not go happy from this earth without doing something towards helping you just to see her once, and so I have asked her to give you this letter with her own hand, if possible, and she has promised to do so.  You will come home when I am gone and she will have to see you, and when you look on her sweet face if you do not feel as your mother does about her, it is all right, dear son; only I wanted you just to see her once because I love her so much, and because I love you.  If you could forget the other and love this one it seems as though I should be glad even in heaven, but if you do not feel that way when you see her, John, don’t mind my writing this letter, for it pleased me much to play this little trick upon you before I left; and the dear girl must never know-unless indeed you love her-and then I do not care-for I know she will forgive me for writing this silly letter, and love me just the same.

“Dear boy, just as we never liked to say good-bye when you went away to college, but only ’Au revoir,’ so there won’t be any good-bye now, only I love you.

“YOUR MOTHER.”

Hazel was weeping softly when they finished the letter, and there were tears in the eyes of the son, though they were glorified by the smile that shone upon the girl as he folded the letter and said: 

“Wasn’t that a mother for a fellow to have?  And could I do anything else than give myself when she gave all she had?  And to think she picked out the very one for me that I loved of all the world, and sent her out to me because I was too set in my way to come back after her.  It is just as if my mother sent you down as a gift from heaven to me, dear!” and their lips met once more in deep love and understanding.

The sun was almost setting now, and suddenly the two became aware that night was coming on.  The Indian would be returning and they must plan what to do.

Brownleigh rose and went to the door to see if the Indian were in sight.  He was thinking hard and fast.  Then he came back and stood before the girl.

“Dear!” he said, and the tone of his voice brought the quick colour to her cheeks; it was so wonderful, so disconcerting to be looked at and spoken to in that way.  She caught her breath and wondered if it were not a dream after all.  “Dear,” another of those deep, searching looks, “this is a big, primitive country and we do things in a most summary way out here sometimes.  You must tell me if I go too fast; but could-would you-do you think you love me enough to marry me at once-to-night?”

“Oh!” she breathed, lifting her happy eyes.  “It would be beautiful to never have to leave you again-but-you hardly know me.  I am not fitted, you know.  You are a great, wonderful missionary, and I-I am only a foolish girl who has fallen in love with you and can’t ever be happy again without you.”

She buried her face in the arm of the chair and cried happy, shamed tears, and he gathered her up in his arms and comforted her, his face shining with a glorified expression.

“Dear,” he said when he could speak again, “dear, don’t you know that is all I want?  And don’t ever talk that way again about me.  I am no saint, as you’ll very well find out, but I’ll promise to love and cherish you as long as we both shall live.  Will you marry me to-night?”

There was a silence in the little room broken only by the low crackling of the dying fire.

She lifted shy glad eyes to his, and then came and laid her two hands in his.

“If you are quite sure you want me,” she breathed softly.

The rapture of his face and the tenderness of his arms assured her on that point.

“There is just one great regret I have,” said the young man, lifting his eyes towards his mother’s picture.  “If she only could have known it was you that I loved.  Why didn’t I tell her your name?  But then - Why, my dear, I didn’t know your name.  Do you realize that?  I haven’t known your name until now.”

“I certainly did realize it,” said Hazel with rosy cheeks.  “It used to hurt dreadfully sometimes to think that even if you wanted to find me you wouldn’t know how to go about it.”

“You dear!  Did you care so much?” His voice was deep and tender and his eyes were upon her.

“So much!” she breathed softly.

But the splash of red light on the floor at their feet warned them of the lateness of the hour and they turned to the immediate business of the moment.

“It is wonderful that things are just as they are to-night,” said Brownleigh in his full, joyous tones.  “It certainly seems providential.  Bishop Vail, my father’s old college chum, has been travelling through the West on missionary work for his church, and he is now at the stopping place where you spent last night.  He leaves on the midnight train to-night, but we can get there long before that time, and he will marry us.  There is no one I would rather have had, though the choice should have been yours.  Are you going to mind very much being married in this brief and primitive manner?”

“If I minded those things I should not be worthy of your love,” said Hazel softly.  “No, I don’t mind in the least.  Only I’ve really nothing along to get married in-nothing suitable for a wedding gown.  You won’t be able to remember me in bridal attire-and there won’t be even Amelia Ellen for bridesmaid.”  She smiled at him mischievously.

“You darling!” he said laying his lips upon hers again.  “You need no bridal attire to make you the sweetest bride that ever came to Arizona, and I shall always remember you as you are now, as the most beautiful sight my eyes ever saw.  If there was time to get word to some of my colleagues off at their stations we should have a wedding reception that would outrival your New York affairs so far as enthusiasm and genuine hearty good will is concerned, but they are all from forty to a hundred miles away from here and it will be impossible.  Are you sure you are not too tired to ride back to the stopping place to-night?” He looked at her anxiously.  “We will hitch Billy to the wagon, and the seat has good springs.  I will put in plenty of cushions and you can rest on the way, and we will not attempt to come back to-night.  It would be too much for you.”

She began to protest but he went on: 

“No, dear, I don’t mean we’ll stay in that little hole where you spent last night.  That would be awful!  But what would you say to camping in the same spot where we had our last talk?  I have been there many times since and often spend the night there because of its sweet association with you.  It is not far, you know, from the railroad-a matter of a few minutes’ ride-and there is good water.  We can carry my little tent and trappings, and then take as much of a wedding trip afterwards as you feel you have strength for before we return, though we shall have the rest of our lives to make one dear long wedding trip of, I hope.  Will that plan suit you?”

“Oh, it will be beautiful,” said Hazel with shining eyes.

“Very well, then.  I will get everything ready for our start and you must rest until I call you.”  With that he stooped and before she realized what he was doing gently lifted her from her feet and laid her down upon his couch over in the corner, spreading a many-coloured Indian blanket over her.  Then he deftly stirred up the fire, filled up the kettle, swung it back over the blaze, and with a smile went out to prepare Billy and the wagon.

Hazel lay there looking about her new home with happy eyes, noting each little touch of refinement and beauty that showed the character of the man who had lived his life alone there for three long years, and wondering if it were really herself, the lonely little struggling nurse with the bitter ache in her heart, who was feeling so happy here to-day-Hazel Radcliffe, the former New York society girl, rejoicing ecstatically because she was going to marry a poor home missionary and live in a shanty!  How her friends would laugh and sneer, and how Aunt Maria would lift her hands in horror and say the family was disgraced!  But it did not matter about Aunt Maria.  Poor Aunt Maria!  She had never approved of anything that Hazel wanted to do all her life.  As for her brother-and here her face took on a shade of sadness-her brother was of another world than hers and always had been.  People said he was like his dead mother.  Perhaps the grand man of the desert could help her brother to better things.  Perhaps he would come out here to visit them and catch a vision of another kind of life and take a longing for it as she had done.  He could not fail at least to see the greatness of the man she had chosen.

There was great comfort to her in this hour to remember that her father had been interested in her missionary, and had expressed a hope that she might meet him again some day.  She thought her father would have been pleased at the choice she had made, for he had surely seen the vision of what was really worth while in life before he died.

Suddenly her eyes turned to the little square table over by the cupboard.  What if she should set it?

She sprang up and suited the action to the thought.

Almost as a child might handle her first pewter set Hazel took the dishes from the shelves and arranged them on the table.  They were pretty china dishes, with a fine old sprigged pattern of delicate flowers.  She recognized them as belonging to his mother’s set, and handled them reverently.  It almost seemed as if that mother’s presence was with her in the room as she prepared the table for her first meal with the beloved son.

She found a large white towel in the cupboard drawer that she spread on the rough little table, and set the delicate dishes upon it:  two plates, two cups and saucers, knives and forks-two of everything!  How it thrilled her to think that in a little while she would belong here in this dear house, a part of it, and that they two would have a right to sit together at this table through the years.  There might come hardships and disappointments-of course there would.  She was no fool!  Life was full of disappointments for everybody, as well as of beautiful surprises!  But come what would she knew by the thrill in her heart that she would never be sorry for this day in which she had promised to become the wife of the man of the desert, and she would always cherish the memory of this her first setting of the little table, and let it make all future settings of that table a holy ordinance.

She found a can of soup in the cupboard, and made it hot in a small saucepan on the fire, and set forth on the table crackers and cheese, a glass of jelly, a small bottle of stuffed olives and some little cakes she had brought with her in her suit-case.  She had thought she might need something of the sort when she landed in Arizona, for there was no telling but she might have to ride across the desert to find her missionary; and sure enough that had been the case.

It looked very cozy when Brownleigh came in to say that the wagon was ready and he thought he saw the Indian in the dusk coming across the plain, but he stopped short without speech, for here before him was the picture which his mind and heart had painted for him many a time:  this girl, the one girl in all the earth for him, kneeling beside his hearth and dishing up the steaming soup into the hot dishes, the firelight playing on her sweet face and golden hair, and every line and motion of her graceful body calling for his adoration!  So he stood for one long minute and feasted his hungry eyes upon the sight, until she turned and saw his heart in his eyes, and her own face grew rosy with the joy and the meaning of it all.

And so they sat down to their first meal in the little house together, and then having sent the Indian back to the fort with a message, they took their way forth in the starlight together to begin their wedding journey.