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The Light Of Western Stars








From: The Light Of Western Stars

Blinded, like a wild creature, Madeline Hammond ran to her room. She
felt as if a stroke of lightning had shattered the shadowy substance of
the dream she had made of real life. The wonder of Danny Mains's story,
the strange regret with which she had realized her injustice to Stewart,
the astounding secret as revealed by Padre Marcos--these were forgotten
in the sudden consciousness of her own love.

Madeline fled as if pursued. With trembling hands she locked the doors,
drew the blinds of the windows that opened on the porch, pushed chairs
aside so that she could pace the length of her room. She was now alone,
and she walked with soft, hurried, uneven steps. She could be herself
here; she needed no mask; the long habit of serenely hiding the truth
from the world and from herself could be broken. The seclusion of her
darkened chamber made possible that betrayal of herself to which she was
impelled.

She paused in her swift pacing to and fro. She liberated the thought
that knocked at the gates of her mind. With quivering lips she whispered
it. Then she spoke aloud:

"I will say it--hear it. I--I love him!"

"I love him!" she repeated the astounding truth, but she doubted her
identity.

"Am I still Madeline Hammond? What has happened? Who am I?" She stood
where the light from one unclosed window fell upon her image in the
mirror. "Who is this woman?"

She expected to see a familiar, dignified person, a quiet, unruffled
figure, a tranquil face with dark, proud eyes and calm, proud lips. No,
she did not see Madeline Hammond. She did not see any one she knew. Were
her eyes, like her heart, playing her false? The figure before her
was instinct with pulsating life. The hands she saw, clasped together,
pressed deep into a swelling bosom that heaved with each panting breath.
The face she saw--white, rapt, strangely glowing, with parted, quivering
lips, with great, staring, tragic eyes--this could not be Madeline
Hammond's face.

Yet as she looked she knew no fancy could really deceive her, that she
was only Madeline Hammond come at last to the end of brooding dreams.
She swiftly realized the change in her, divined its cause and meaning,
accepted it as inevitable, and straightway fell back again into the mood
of bewildering amaze.

Calmness was unattainable. The surprise absorbed her. She could not go
back to count the innumerable, imperceptible steps of her undoing. Her
old power of reflecting, analyzing, even thinking at all, seemed to have
vanished in a pulse-stirring sense of one new emotion. She only felt
all her instinctive outward action that was a physical relief, all her
involuntary inner strife that was maddening, yet unutterably sweet; and
they seemed to be just one bewildering effect of surprise.

In a nature like hers, where strength of feeling had long been inhibited
as a matter of training, such a transforming surprise as sudden
consciousness of passionate love required time for its awakening, time
for its sway.

By and by that last enlightening moment came, and Madeline Hammond faced
not only the love in her heart, but the thought of the man she loved.

Suddenly, as she raged, something in her--this dauntless new
personality--took arms against indictment of Gene Stewart. Her mind
whirled about him and his life. She saw him drunk, brutal; she saw him
abandoned, lost. Then out of the picture she had of him thus slowly grew
one of a different man--weak, sick, changed by shock, growing strong,
strangely, spiritually altered, silent, lonely like an eagle, secretive,
tireless, faithful, soft as a woman, hard as iron to endure, and at the
last noble.

She softened. In a flash her complex mood changed to one wherein she
thought of the truth, the beauty, the wonder of Stewart's uplifting.
Humbly she trusted that she had helped him to climb. That influence
had been the best she had ever exerted. It had wrought magic in her own
character. By it she had reached some higher, nobler plane of trust in
man. She had received infinitely more than she had given.

Her swiftly flying memory seemed to assort a vast mine of treasures
of the past. Of that letter Stewart had written to her brother she
saw vivid words. But ah! she had known, and if it had not made any
difference then, now it made all in the world. She recalled how her
loosened hair had blown across his lips that night he had ridden down
from the mountains carrying her in his arms. She recalled the strange
joy of pride in Stewart's eyes when he had suddenly come upon her
dressed to receive her Eastern guests in the white gown with the red
roses at her breast.

Swiftly as they had come these dreamful memories departed. There was
to be no rest for her mind. All she had thought and felt seemed only to
presage a tumult.

Heedless, desperate, she cast off the last remnant of self-control,
turned from the old proud, pale, cold, self-contained ghost of herself
to face this strange, strong, passionate woman. Then, with hands pressed
to her beating heart, with eyes shut, she listened to the ringing
trip-hammer voice of circumstance, of truth, of fatality. The whole
story was revealed, simple enough in the sum of its complicated details,
strange and beautiful in part, remorseless in its proof of great love
on Stewart's side, in dreaming blindness on her own, and, from the first
fatal moment to the last, prophetic of tragedy.

Madeline, like a prisoner in a cell, began again to pace to and fro.

"Oh, it is all terrible!" she cried. "I am his wife. His wife! That
meeting with him--the marriage--then his fall, his love, his rise,
his silence, his pride! And I can never be anything to him. Could I be
anything to him? I, Madeline Hammond? But I am his wife, and I love him!
His wife! I am the wife of a cowboy! That might be undone. Can my love
be undone? Ah, do I want anything undone? He is gone. Gone! Could he
have meant--I will not, dare not think of that. He will come back. No,
he never will come back. Oh, what shall I do?"

*****

For Madeline Hammond the days following that storm of feeling were
leaden-footed, endless, hopeless--a long succession of weary hours,
sleepless hours, passionate hours, all haunted by a fear slowly growing
into torture, a fear that Stewart had crossed the border to invite the
bullet which would give her freedom. The day came when she knew this
to be true. The spiritual tidings reached her, not subtly as so many
divinations had come, but in a clear, vital flash of certainty. Then she
suffered. She burned inwardly, and the nature of that deep fire showed
through her eyes. She kept to herself, waiting, waiting for her fears to
be confirmed.

At times she broke out in wrath at the circumstances she had failed to
control, at herself, at Stewart.

"He might have learned from Ambrose!" she exclaimed, sick with a
bitterness she knew was not consistent with her pride. She recalled
Christine's trenchant exposition of Ambrose's wooing: "He tell me he
love me; he kees me; he hug me; he put me on his horse; he ride away
with me; he marry me."

Then in the next breath Madeline denied this insistent clamoring of
a love that was gradually breaking her spirit. Like a somber shadow
remorse followed her, shading blacker. She had been blind to a man's
honesty, manliness, uprightness, faith, and striving. She had been dead
to love, to nobility that she had herself created. Padre Marcos's grave,
wise words returned to haunt her. She fought her bitterness, scorned her
intelligence, hated her pride, and, weakening, gave up more and more to
a yearning, hopeless hope.

She had shunned the light of the stars as she had violently dismissed
every hinting suggestive memory of Stewart's kisses. But one night she
went deliberately to her window. There they shone. Her stars! Beautiful,
passionless as always, but strangely closer, warmer, speaking a kinder
language, helpful as they had never been, teaching her now that regret
was futile, revealing to her in their one grand, blazing task the
supreme duty of life--to be true.

Those shining stars made her yield. She whispered to them that they had
claimed her--the West claimed her--Stewart claimed her forever, whether
he lived or died. She gave up to her love. And it was as if he was there
in person, dark-faced, fire-eyed, violent in his action, crushing her to
his breast in that farewell moment, kissing her with one burning kiss of
passion, then with cold, terrible lips of renunciation.

"I am your wife!" she whispered to him. In that moment, throbbing,
exalted, quivering in her first sweet, tumultuous surrender to love, she
would have given her all, her life, to be in his arms again, to meet his
lips, to put forever out of his power any thought of wild sacrifice.

*****

And on the morning of the next day, when Madeline went out upon the
porch, Stillwell, haggard and stern, with a husky, incoherent word,
handed her a message from El Cajon. She read:


El Capitan Stewart captured by rebel soldiers in fight at Agua Prieta
yesterday. He was a sharpshooter in the Federal ranks. Sentenced to
death Thursday at sunset.





Next: The Ride

Previous: The Secret Told



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