A Life Tenant
DANE was a tall, robust, handsome man of thirty when he arrived in Zenith City, and he gave immediate token that his coming would prove an epoch in the history of the precocious infant town.
He possessed a little money, much energy, and a talent for inducing other people to accept his point of view. As for his luck, it was unfailing, and everything he undertook succeeded. He acknowledged, with a candor which was as cynical as his good humor, that such luck was a new experience to him. But he repeated gayly the threadbare quotation that there is a tide in each man’s affairs which will float him to prosperity if promptly used, and he added that he was not likely to miss his opportunity. He made no pretense of public spirit in his enterprises, — a sincerity that naturally increased his neighbors’ belief in his honesty, and their desire to share the schemes which resulted in fat profit to him. He started a " general store,” so thoroughly stocked that custom deserted a rival establishment of previous popularity. Six months after his arrival he sold out this store with gain, and opened an office where he received deposits, managed investments, and conducted a banking business in a small way. This was an advance in civilization greatly appreciated by the soberest of the citizens, who became regular depositors, while the ranchmen of——County soon learned to bring thither the results of their cattle - sales, which had hitherto been mostly lavished on riotous living.
Dane was well bred, well educated, and, though favorably inclined to poker and to jovial company, he took no part in the grosser dissipation which degraded the town. His preferred associates were the younger officers at Fort Fletcher, three miles away across the prairie, yet that the association was constant rather than intimate was his fault, not theirs. Close comradeship bound them together, and they would willingly have included Dane ; but his cool reticence nipped confidences as with a frost. Great, then, was the surprise among them when, more than a year after they had made his acquaintance, he manifested an unsuspected capacity for strong feeling. Several of the lieutenants had spent the day in Zenith City, and had persuaded Dane to return with them to the post for an evening’s jollification. As they rode through the ragged outskirts of the town, a woman’s voice called sharply, “ Edna! Edna ! ”
Dane started so visibly in his saddle, and the color rushed so warmly over his dark face, that the officer beside him broke into a laugh. " Who is Edna ? ” he asked.
“ There is only one for me,” Dane answered gravely. “ She is in Virginia, but I hope to bring her to live here soon.”
“ Boys ! He is in love ! He is going to be married ! ” the lieutenant cried across his shoulder to those who followed.
They drew nearer, with gay exclamations of incredulity : —
“ Impossible ! ”
“ Nobody can fall in love without losing his heart. Dane has never had a heart to lose : therefore he cannot be in love.”
Dane, however, had recovered his usual ironical placidity. “ Why have I no heart ? ” he demanded. “ Because I don’t display it for you fellows ? ”
“ Exactly You would not sleep less soundly if the redskins should wipe out the whole regiment in the next campaign.”
“ Teddy stated your case at the club, a night or two ago.”
“ Teddy is keen ! What was the verdict of his discernment ? ”
“ He said that you were like a man who, not owning a house, could not be blamed for inhospitality though he never entertained a guest.”
“ Teddy is wrong. I possess the property he denies me, but it is fully occupied by — a life tenant! ”
The joking vanished before the frankness of Dane’s smile. The inquiries which ensued were made with friendly eagerness, and the diffuseness of his replies was almost as unexpected as his sentiment. He had been engaged to his sweetheart for six years, during which he had not seen her. She was the only child of a wealthy Virginian, who, alarmed by rumors of Dane’s wild youth and the certainty of his empty pockets, had refused to allow her to marry him. Dane had come West with her promise never to give him up, and his own resolve never to claim her until he could prove his disinterestedness. Twice in these six years fortune had slipped from his grasp just when he had thought his hold assured. But now the father was dead, and, through one of those periodical crises which upset our country’s finances, he had left his daughter penniless. Dane’s resolve had endured this practical test. She had promised to marry him so soon as he could go to Virginia for her, and he intended to get away within a couple of weeks.
There was general curiosity to see the bride, a month later, when it became known that Dane had returned from his wedding journey, and had said that he should bring her to service at Fletcher on the following Sunday. It would be his first appearance, also, in the chapel, and the garrison ladies argued favorably for her influence among the younger set by this evidence of its tendencies. A thrill of surprise pervaded the congregation when the two entered together, a surprise which, however, grew less with every succeeding glance at Dane’s wife. She was not very young. She was not very pretty. But there was a brightness in her gray eyes, a sweetness about her delicate lips, which Teddy declared brought to his mind somebody’s lovely ideal of “ a face which made sunshine in a shady place.”
The ladies waited as unanimously as the officers to meet her after service, and “ Mrs. Colonel " invited her and her husband to luncheon. Thus began a social success which did not visibly elate its subject, who was probably used to it. Nor did Dane exult in it.
“ She has a way with her,” he said, when her popularity was pointed out to him. “ Who should be better aware of her power than I, who am the chief of her victims ? ”
It was a power difficult to explain in other fashion than the perspicacious Teddy’s. She was no more brilliant than she was beautiful, yet the soft radiance which surrounded her made her presence a charming abiding-place. And in Zenith City, throughout a winter of exceptional severity and widespread illness, she proved a valuable assistant to an overworked doctor and an inexperienced young priest.
Except, however, in the constant manifestation of his devotion to her, his marriage had neither added to nor subtracted from Dane’s previous habits. Shrewd, cynical, good-humored, he managed various money-making enterprises besides his bank, and joined an occasional poker party at the post according to his wont.
“ He loves her with what is good in him, but she has no influence with what is bad. She is so different from him that she has not yet perceived his limitations nor her own. Something interesting will happen when she does.”
Thus prophesied Teddy ; but nobody was more amazed than he at the manner in which his prophecy was fulfilled.
Early in the succeeding summer Mrs. Dane went to Virginia for a visit, and it was announced that Dane would shortly join her and bring her home again. Those who saw her before her departure reported that her radiance had been sadly overcast in leaving her husband.
“ She did not want to go,”Dane himself said, while watching the noisy process by which the Great Northwest got into midstream. “ She needs a change after all the hardship she went through last winter, but she went away only to please me. She — she " — his voice shook perceptibly — " she would turn her back on heaven, if I wished her to do so.”
“ I should say that she is more likely to take you to heaven against your will,” declared Teddy, to whom this curious utterance was delivered.
“ She is a saint,” Dane murmured half audibly, with a smile, — a smile whose blended tenderness and tyranny Teddy long remembered. “ But she loves my will better than her own ! ” Then he resumed his usual briskness, and discussed the probable arrival of freight for whose safe transport he had become responsible to the consignee, a remote ranchman.
A fortnight later Dane’s bank remained closed one morning, and investigation revealed the fact that he had disappeared with all available funds. Zenith City is not easily startled by any exhibition of the frailty of human nature, but this shook it as with a moral earthquake, and the losses sifted through every class. Everybody had believed in Dane’s prosperity, and had trusted the man who, with so blithe a repudiation of higher motives, had asserted his belief that honesty was the best business policy. Everybody had lost something, from the wealthiest cattle-owner in——County to the widow of a notorious gambler whose disreputable associates had recently deposited a collection for her benefit.
As a first expression of public feeling the rougher citizens desired to tear down the frame bank building, which contained also the rooms to which Dane had brought home his bride. But this was decided to be a futile vengeance, and destructive of the only assets left by the defaulter.
How he had gone, and whither, next became questions of literally vital interest ; for the merest new-comer in Zenith City understood that Dane’s life would not be worth ten minutes’ purchase should that mob find him. When twenty-four hours brought no answer to these questions, their interest grew languid. Dane, who was familiar with the potentialities of his neighbors, was unlikely to have wasted that length of time in getting beyond their reach.
On the second day after the catastrophe half a dozen of the prominent losers were assembled within the bank. It was a rather hopeless consultation, for, though a description of Dane had been telegraphed to Bismarck and to Bozeman, the prairie offered present sanctuary and future escape to a refugee so well endowed with wit and ready money.
The thirty or forty loafers who had hitherto hung about the doors of the bank had deserted to the landing, where the weekly steamer had just arrived. It was the Great Northwest, which on its last down trip had carried Mrs. Dane away. The feelings of that curious assemblage were too intricate for a limited analysis when, amidst the noisy disembarkation of freight and passengers, that lady’s graceful figure appeared on the gangway.
What had brought her back, when she could not have gone further on her journey than to Bismarck? Two facts seemed clear to those perplexed spectators : though she was the wife of a man whom they would lynch at sight, she must be yet more wronged than they, for only ignorance of his plans could have induced her return; though she was the wife of a man who had robbed them, she was the woman to whom half their number had owed kindness during the bitter winter in which Zenith City had learned to rejoice in her presence.
Thus it was that nothing worse than gloomy silence received her when she found herself among those familiar faces. But this was not the welcome Edna Dane had expected from those whom she considered her friends. A haunting anxiety which had forced her to return acquired sudden substance.
“ Some of you would say that you are glad to see me, unless harm had happened to my husband,” she said, standing still and straight, as though her brave spirit braced her frail body to hear the reply. “ Where is he ? ”
“ That is what we want to know ! ” insolently cried the voice of one who was a stranger to her.
There followed a growl, — not loud, but fierce. The animal was well developed in that humanity, and it made itself heard.
The deck-hands, busy unloading boxes and barrels, halted glowingly, anticipating a row. A couple of stalwart fellow passengers drew nearer Mrs. Dane, as she paused beside the gangway. But their protection was not needed.
An elderly man advanced from among those growling roughs. “We don’t know where Dane has gone,” he said harshly. “ But he has robbed us. They will tell you more at the bank. Go to them.”
“ Robbed you ? ” she repeated haughtily. “ That is impossible.” Her bright eyes swept the hard, worn faces, and her haughtiness softened tremulously. “ You believe what you say. You are very troubled, I see ! ” she exclaimed. “ But I swear to you that my husband will make all right for you — if he is alive.”
With that, surrounded by silence, she turned away, and walked swiftly up the long street which led from the riverside to her home. When she entered the bank, the leading citizens there assembled would have been less astounded to see Dane. But the frontier deference for womanhood brought those loungers to their feet instantly. She looked very white and slight, and she clasped her hands on the back of a chair, as though needing support. Yet her eyes did not flinch, nor did her voice falter.
“ I have heard that my husband has left the town, and that there are accusations against him,” she said. “ Will you tell me what you know ? ”
Thereupon she heard what has been already told here, and furthermore that papers had been found which proved ruinous loss to Dane’s investments for his clients during nearly a year, and that his defalcation had been prompted by certain large funds deposited with him recently. These facts were related, without comment, by a man who respected this woman whom he believed more cruelly robbed than himself. When he paused, she covered her face and sank to her knees. For a moment they thought that she was fainting. Then it dawned upon the most spiritually dull of them that she had taken her shame and her grief away from their tribunal. Nobody spoke for a space, nor were they sure whether that space had been long or short when she rose. Color had come into her cheeks, and more than their wonted brightness shone in her gray eyes.
“ Will you listen to me now ? ” she said clearly. “ You know that I left here a fortnight since to go to Virginia for several months. I have returned because the fear has haunted me night and day that my husband needed me.”
Still nobody spoke. Each man knew that her return was indeed a contradiction of the plan with which she had begun her journey. Not one of them doubted her explanation of the impulse which had brought her back. They waited dumbly to hear how she purposed to use her strangely influenced presence among them.
“ My husband has wronged you,” she continued steadily, “ but there is that in his heart which will save him, and restore to you all that he has taken from you. This is why God has led me here. She broke off once more with a quick, quivering sigh. “ I will remain under your care until my husband comes for me and delivers to you the money which belongs to you,” she ended firmly.
There was a chorus of repudiation, a chorus of relief from the spell her intense conviction had laid upon them : —
“ We have no grudge against you.”
“ A man’s wife ain’t responsible for his misdoings.”
“ Dane is n’t likely to come back into a trap, for anybody.”
Dane’s wife smiled a very brave, white smile. “ He will come back for me,” she said, “ and when he has paid you everything he owes you, I think you will let him take me away.”
There were some who felt a choking in their throats which forbade speech, but he who had told the story of Dane’s dishonor was made of sterner stuff.
“ You are a good woman, and we know that Dane is fond of you,” he exclaimed, “ but he will not give up the money for which he has risked so much! This is a state’s-prison job, and the kind of man he is cannot live without his freedom.”
“ He cannot live without me ! " she cried, with a passion which transfigured her. “ Keep me here ; shut me up ; publish it everywhere that I refuse to leave here until he comes for me, and he will come ! ”
They believed her. Half a dozen of the shrewdest and most prosperous citizens of——County, where the quality of shrewdness must be keen indeed to develop prosperity, —they believed her ; they obeyed her.
Their decision and the terms of it were discussed in wide-scattered ranches, on Yellowstone steamers, on wandering “ prairie schooners,” as far east as Bismarck, even so far as Chicago. Jt stirred human nature, according to its quality, to derision or to tears, to scoffing or to confidence.
While they yet disputed concerning his coming. Dane came. He appeared in the twilight to the deputy sheriff, who, since recent events, had been domiciled at the bank. “Send for your betters.” he said roughly. “ I’m going upstairs to my wife.”
Edna Dane had spent those days and nights in the rooms she had first seen as a bride, and for the greater part of the time Teddy’s sister had kept her company, but she was alone on this evening. God knows how far away a woman’s heart hears the step she loves ! She met Dane in the doorway. She made him sit in his own armchair. She knelt beside him and looked into his haggard eyes.
“ I thought you would forgive me anything and meet me anywhere,” he murmured. “They may break their word to you, now that I am in their power. Why have you brought me here ? ”
“ Because I love you,” she answered ; “ not only these dear hands that I kiss, not only this dear head that I hold upon my breast, — I love you, yourself, your soul! ” She laid her face down close on his. “ And he shall save his soul alive,” she whispered, with holy passion.
Zenith City kept its word to Edna Dane. A certain magnanimity runs thread by thread with sternness through the rough woof of the Northwest.
“ She has made him bring back to us what we want,” Zenith City said. “ Let her take away what she wants.”