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An Awakening








From: Heart Of The Sunset

Time was when Phil Strange boasted that he and his wife had played
every fair-ground and seaside amusement-park from Coney Island to
Galveston. In his battered wardrobe-trunks were parts of old
costumes, scrapbooks of clippings, and a goodly collection of
lithographs, some advertising the supernatural powers of
"Professor Magi, Sovereign of the Unseen World," and others the
accomplishments of "Mlle. Le Garde, Renowned Serpent Enchantress."
In these gaudy portraits of "Magi the Mystic" no one would have
recognized Phil Strange. And even more difficult would it have
been to trace a resemblance between Mrs. Strange and the blond,
bushy-headed "Mlle. Le Garde" of the posters. Nevertheless, the
likenesses at one time had been considered not too flattering, and
Phil treasured them as evidences of imperishable distinction.

But the Stranges had tired of public life. For a long time the
wife had confessed to a lack of interest in her vocation which
amounted almost to a repugnance. Snake-charming, she had
discovered, was far from an ideal profession for a woman of
refinement. It possessed unpleasant features, and even such
euphemistic titles as "Serpent Enchantress" and "Reptilian
Mesmerist" failed to rob the calling of a certain odium, a
suggestion of vulgarity in the minds of the more discriminating.
This had become so distressing to Mrs. Strange's finer
sensibilities that she had voiced a yearning to forsake the
platform and pit for something more congenial, and finally she had
prevailed upon Phil to make a change.

The step had not been taken without misgivings, but a benign
Providence had watched over the pair. Mrs. Strange was a natural
seamstress, and luck had directed her and Phil to a community
which was not only in need of a good dressmaker, but peculiarly
ripe for the talents of a soothsayer. Phil, too, had intended to
embrace a new profession; but he had soon discovered that
Jonesville offered better financial returns to a man of his
accepted gifts than did the choicest of seaside concessions, and
therefore he had resumed his old calling under a slightly
different guise. Before long he acknowledged himself well pleased
with the new environment, for his wife was far happier in draping
dress goods upon the figures of her customers than in hanging
python folds about her own, and he found his own fame growing with
every day. His mediumistic gifts came into general demand. The
country people journeyed miles to consult him, and Blaze Jones's
statement that they confided in the fortune-teller as they would
have confided in a priest was scarcely an exaggeration. Phil did
indeed become the repository for confessions of many sorts.

Contrary to Blaze's belief, however, Strange was no Prince of
Darkness, and took little joy in some of the secrets forced upon
him. Phil was a good man in his way--so conscientious that certain
information he acquired weighed him down with a sense of
unpleasant responsibility. Chancing to meet Dave Law one day, he
determined to relieve himself of at least one troublesome burden.

But Dave was not easily approachable. He met the medium's
allusions to the occult with contemptuous amusement, nor would he
consent to a private "reading," Strange grew almost desperate
enough to speak the ungarnisned truth.

"You'd better pay a little attention to me," he grieved; "I've got
a message to you from the 'Unseen World.'"

"Charges 'collect,' I reckon," the Ranger grinned.

Strange waved aside the suggestion. "It came unbidden and I pass
it on for what it's worth." As Dave turned away he added, hastily,
"It's about a skeleton in the chaparral, and a red-haired woman."

Dave stopped; he eyed the speaker curiously. "Go on," said he.

But a public street, Strange explained, was no place for psychic
discussions. If Dave cared to come to his room, where the
surroundings were favorable to thought transference, and where
Phil's spirit control could have a chance to make itself felt,
they would interrogate the "Unseen Forces" further. Dave agreed.
When they were alone in the fortune-telling "parlor," he sat back
while the medium closed his eyes and prepared to explore the
Invisible. After a brief delay Phil began:

"I see a great many things--that woman I told you about, and three
men. One of 'em is you, the other two is Mexicans. You're at a
water-hole in the mesquite. Now there's a shooting scrape; I see
the body of a dead man." The speaker became silent; evidently his
cataleptic vision was far from perfect. But he soon began to drone
again. "Now I behold a stranger at the same water-hole. He's
alone--he's looking for something. He rides in circles. He's off
his horse and bending over--What? A skeleton! Yes, it's the
skeleton of one of them other Mexicans." Strange's voice became
positively sepulchral as his spirit control took fuller possession
of his earthly shell and as his visions resolved themselves into
clearer outline. "See! He swears an oath to avenge. And now--the
scene changes. Everything dissolves. I'm in a mansion; and the
red-haired woman comes toward me. Over her head floats that
skeleton--"

Dave broke in crisply. "All right! Let's get down to cases. What's
on your mind, Strange?"

The psychic simulated a shudder--a painful contortion, such as any
one might suffer if rudely jerked out of the spirit world.

"Eh? What was I--? There! You've broke the connection," he
declared. "Did I tell you anything?"

"No. But evidently you can."

"I'm sorry. They never come back."

"Rot!"

Phil was hurt, indignant. With some stiffness he explained the
danger of interrupting a seance of this sort, but Law remained
obdurate.

"You can put over that second-sight stuff with the Greasers," he
declared, sharply, "but not with me. So, Jose Sanchez has been to
see you and you want to warn me. Is that it?"

"I don't know any such party," Strange protested. He eyed his
caller for a moment; then with an abrupt change of manner he
complained: "Say, Bo! What's the matter with you? I've got a
reputation to protect, and I do things my own way. I'm getting set
to slip you something, and you try to make me look like a sucker.
Is that any way to act?"

"I prefer to talk to you when your eyes are open. I know all
about--"

"You don't know nothing about anything," snapped the other.
"Jose's got it in for Mrs. Austin."

"You said you didn't know him."

"Well, I don't. He's never been to see me in his life, but--his
sweetheart has. Rosa Morales comes regular."

"Rosa! Jose's sweetheart!"

"Yes. Her and Jose have joined out together since you shot
Panfilo, and they're framing something."

"What, for instance?"

The fortune-teller hesitated. "I only wish I knew," he said,
slowly. "It looks to me like a killing."

Dave nodded. "Probably is. Jose would like to get me, and of
course the girl--"

"Oh, they don't aim to get you. You ain't the one they're after."

"No? Who then?"

"I don't know nothing definite. In this business, you understand,
a fellow has to put two and two together. Sometimes I have to make
one and two count four. I have to tell more'n I'm told; I have to
shoot my game on the wing, for nobody tells me any more'n they
dast. All the same, I'm sure Jose ain't carving no epitaph for
you. From what I've dug out of Rosa, he's acting for a third
party--somebody with pull and a lot of coin--but who it is I don't
know. Anyhow, he's cooking trouble for the Austins, and I want to
stand from under."

Now that the speaker had dropped all pretense, he answered Dave's
questions without evasion and told what he knew. It was not much,
to Dave's way of thinking, but it was enough to give cause for
thought, and when the men finally parted it was with the
understanding that Strange would promptly communicate any further
intelligence on this subject that came his way.

On the following day Dave's duties called him to Brownsville,
where court was in session. He had planned to leave by the morning
train; but as he continued to meditate over Strange's words he
decided that, before going, he ought to advise Alaire of the
fellow's suspicions in order that she might discharge Jose Sanchez
and in other ways protect herself against his possible spite.
Since the matter was one that could not well be talked over by
telephone, Dave determined to go in person to Las Palmas that
evening. Truth to say, he was hungry to see Alaire. By this time
he had almost ceased to combat the feeling she aroused in him, and
it was in obedience to an impulse far stronger than friendly
anxiety that he hired a machine and, shortly after dark, took the
river road.

The Fates are malicious jades. They delight in playing ill-natured
pranks upon us. Not content with spinning and measuring and
cutting the threads of our lives to suit themselves, they must
also tangle the skein, causing us to cut capers to satisfy their
whims.

At no time since meeting Alaire had Dave Law been more certain of
his moral strength than on this evening; at no time had his grip
upon himself seemed firmer. Nor had Alaire the least reason to
doubt her self-control. Dave, to be sure, had appealed to her
fancy and her interest; in fact, he so dominated her thoughts that
the imaginary creature whom she called her dream-husband had
gradually taken on his physical likeness. But the idea that she
was in any way enamoured of him had never entered her mind; that
she could ever be tempted to yield to him, to be false to her
ideals of wifehood, was inconceivable. In such wise do the Fates
amuse themselves.

Alaire had gone to her favorite after-dinner refuge, a nook on one
of the side-galleries, where there was a wide, swinging wicker
couch; and there in a restful obscurity fragrant with unseen
flowers she had prepared to spend the evening with her dreams.

She did not hear Dave's automobile arrive. Her first intimation of
his presence came with the sound of his heel upon the porch. When
he appeared it was almost like the materialization of her
uppermost thought--quite as if a figure from her fancy had stepped
forth full clad.

She rose and met him, smiling. "How did you know I wanted to see
you?" she inquired.

Dave took her hand and looked down at her, framing a commonplace
reply. But for some reason the words lay unspoken upon his tongue.
Alaire's informal greeting, her parted lips, the welcoming light
in her eyes, had sent them flying. It seemed to him that the dim
half-light which illumined this nook emanated from her face and
her person, that the fragrance which came to his nostrils was the
perfume of her breath, and at the prompting of these thoughts all
his smothered longings rose as if at a signal. As mutinous
prisoners in a jail delivery overpower their guards, so did Dave's
long-repressed emotions gain the upper hand of him now, and so
swift was their uprising that he could not summon more than a
feeble, panicky resistance.

The awkwardness of the pause which followed Alaire's inquiry
strengthened the rebellious impulses within him, and quite
unconsciously his friendly grasp upon her fingers tightened. For
her part, as she saw this sudden change sweep over him, her own
face altered and she felt something within her breast leap into
life. No woman could have failed to read the meaning of his sudden
agitation, and, strange to say, it worked a similar state of
feeling in Alaire. She strove to control herself and to draw away,
but instead found that her hand had answered his, and that her
eyes were flashing recognition of his look. All in an instant she
realized how deathly tired of her own struggle she had become, and
experienced a reckless impulse to cast away all restraint and
blindly meet his first advance. She had no time to question her
yearnings; she seemed to understand only that this man offered her
rest and security; that in his arms lay sanctuary.

To both it seemed that they stood there silently, hand in hand,
for a very long time, though in reality there was scarcely a
moment of hesitation on the part of either. A drunken, breathless
instant of uncertainty, then Alaire was on Dave's breast, and his
strength, his ardor, his desire, was throbbing through her. Her
bare arms were about his neck; a sigh, the token of utter
surrender, fluttered from her throat. She raised her face to his
and their lips melted together.

For a time they were all alone in the universe, the center of all
ecstasy. Dave was whispering wild incoherencies as Alaire lay in
his embrace, her limbs relaxed, her flesh touching his, her body
clinging to his.

"Dream-man!" she murmured.

As consciousness returns after a swoon, so did realization return
to Alaire Austin. Faintly, uncertainly at first, then with a
swift, strong effort she pushed herself out of Dave's reluctant
arms. They stood apart, frightened. Dave's gaze was questioning.
Alaire began to tremble and to struggle with her breath.

"Are we--mad?" she gasped. "What have we done?"

"There's no use righting. It was here--it was bound to come out.
Oh, Alaire--!"

"Don't!" She shook her head, and, avoiding his outstretched hands,
went to the edge of the veranda and leaned weakly against a
pillar, with her head in the crook of her arm. Dave followed her,
but the words he spoke were scarcely intelligible.

Finally she raised her face to his: "No! It is useless to deny it-
-now that we know. But I didn't know, until a moment ago."

"I've known, all the time--ever since the first moment I saw you,"
he told her, hoarsely. "To me you're all there is; nothing else
matters. And you love me! God! I wonder if I'm awake."

"Dream-man," she repeated, more slowly. "Oh, why did you come so
late?"

"So late?"

"Yes. We must think it out, the best way we can, I--wonder what
you think of me?"

"You must know. There's no need for excuses; there's nothing to
explain, except the miracle that such great happiness could come
to a fellow like me."

"Happiness? It means anything but that. I was miserable enough
before, what shall I do now?"

"Why, readjust your life," he cried, roughly. "Surely you won't
hesitate after this?"

But Alaire did not seem to hear him. She was staring out into the
night again. "What a failure I must be!" she murmured, finally. "I
suppose I should have seen this coming, but--I didn't. And in his
house, too! This dress is his, and these jewels--everything!" She
held up her hands and stared curiously at the few rings she wore,
as if seeing them for the first time. "How does that make you
feel?"

Dave stirred; there was resentment in his voice when he answered:
"Your husband has sacrificed his claim to you, as everybody knows.
To my mind he has lost his rights. You're mine, mine! By God!" He
waved a vigorous gesture of defiance. "I'll take you away from him
at any cost. I'll see that he gives you up, somehow. You're all I
have."

"Of course the law provides a way, but you wouldn't, couldn't,
understand how I feel about divorce." The mere mention of the word
was difficult and caused Alaire to clench her hands. "We're both
too shaken to talk sanely now, so let's wait--"

"There's something you must understand before we go any further,"
Dave insisted. "I'm poor; I haven't a thing I can call my own, so
I'm not sure I have any right to take you away from all this." He
turned a hostile eye upon their surroundings. "Most people would
say that I've simply wasted my life. Perhaps I have--that depends
upon the way you look at it and upon what you consider worth
while--anyhow, all I can offer you is love--" He broke off
momentarily as if his breath had suddenly failed him. "Greater
love, it seems to me, than any woman ever had."

"Money means so little, and it's so easy to be happy without it,"
Alaire told him. "But I'm not altogether poor. Of course,
everything here is Ed's, but I have enough. All my life I've had
everything except the very thing you offer--and how I've longed
for that! How I've envied other people! Do you think I'll be
allowed, somehow, to have it?"

"Yes! I've something to say about that. You gave me the right when
you gave me that kiss."

Alaire shook her head. "I'm not sure. It seems easy now, while you
are here, but how will it seem later? I'm in no condition at this
minute to reason. Perhaps, as you say, it is all a dream; perhaps
this feeling I have is just a passing frenzy."

Dave laughed softly, confidently. "It's too new yet for you to
understand, but wait. It is frenzy, witchery--yes, and more. To-
morrow, and every day after, it will grow and grow and grow! Trust
me, I've watched it in myself."

"So you cared for me from the very first?" Alaire questioned. It
was the woman's curiosity, the woman's hunger to hear over and
over again that truth which never fails to thrill and yet never
fully satisfies.

"Oh, even before that, I think! When you came to my fire that
evening in the chaparral I knew every line of your face, every
movement of your body, every tone of your voice, as a man knows
and recognizes his ideal. But it took time for me to realize all
you meant to me."

Alaire nodded. "Yes, and it must have been the same with me." She
met his eyes frankly, but when he reached toward her she held him
away. "No, dear. Not yet, not again, not until we have the right.
It would be better for us both if you went away now."

"No, no! Oh, I have so much to say! I've been dumb all my life,
and you've just opened my lips."

"Please! After I've decided what to do--once I feel that I can
control myself better--I'll send for you. But you must promise not
to come until then, for you would only make it harder."

It required all Dave's determination to force himself to obey her
wish, and the struggle nearly kept him from recalling the original
object of his visit. Remembering, he tried to tell Alaire what he
had learned from Phil Strange; but so broken and so unconvincing
was his recital that he doubted if she understood in the least
what he was talking about.

At last he took her hand and kissed her wrist, just over her
pulse, as if to speed a message to her heart, then into her rosy
palm he whispered a tender something that thrilled her.

She stood white, motionless, against the dim illumination of the
porch until he had gone, and not until the last sound of his motor
had died away did she stir. Then she pressed her own lips to the
palm he had caressed and walked slowly to her room.





Next: What Ellsworth Had To Say

Previous: Superstitions And Certainties



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