There was a strife ‘twixt man and maid —
Oh that was at the birth o’ time!
But what befell ‘twixt man and maid,
Oh that’s beyond the grip o’ rhyme.
’Twas: ‘Sweet, I must not bide wi’ you,’
And: ‘Love, I canna bide alone’;
For baith were young, and baith were true,
And baith were hard as the nether stone.
Nicholas Tarvin sat in the moonlight on the unrailed bridge that crossed the irrigating ditch above Topaz, dangling his feet over the stream. A brown, sad-eyed little woman sat beside him, staring quietly at the moon. She was tanned with the tan of the girl who does not mind wind and rain and sun, and her eyes were sad with the settled melancholy of eyes that know big mountains, and seas of plain, and care, and life. The women of the West shade such eyes under their hands at sunset in their cabin-doors, scanning those hills or those grassless, treeless plains for the homecoming of their men. A hard life is always hardest for the woman.
Kate Sheriff had lived with her face to the West and with her smouldering eyes fixed upon the wilderness since she could walk. She had advanced into the wilderness with the railroad. Until she had gone away to school, she had never lived where the railroad ran both ways. She had often stayed long enough at the end of a section with her family to see the first glimmering streaks of the raw dawn of civilisation, usually helped out by the electric light; but in the new and still newer lands to which her father’s civil engineering orders called them from year to year there were not even arc lamps. There was a saloon under a tent, and there was the section-house, where they lived, and where her mother had sometimes taken to board the men employed by her husband. But it was not these influences alone that had produced the young woman of twenty-three who sat near Tarvin, and who had just told him gently that she liked him, but that she had a duty elsewhere.
This duty, as she conceived it, was, briefly, to spend her life in the East in the effort to better the condition of the women of India. It had come to her as an inspiration and a command two years before, toward the end of her second year at the St. Louis school, where she went to tie up the loose ends of the education she had given herself in lonely camps.
Kate’s mission had been laid on her one April afternoon, warmed and sunned with the first breath of spring. The green trees, the swelling buds, and the sunlight outside had tempted her from the prospect of a lecture on India by a Hindu woman; and it was finally because it was a school duty not to be escaped that she listened to Pundita Ramabai’s account of the sad case of her sisters at home. It was a heart-breaking story, and the girls, making the offerings begged of them in strange accents, went from it stilled and awed to the measure of their natures, and talked it over in the corridors in whispers, until a nervous giggle broke the tension, and they began chattering again.
Kate made her way from the hall with the fixed, inward-looking eye, the flaming cheek, and airborne limbs of one on whom the mantle of the Spirit has descended. She went quickly out into the school-garden, away from everybody, and paced the flower-bordered walks, exalted, rich, sure, happy. She had found herself. The flowers knew it, the tender-leaved trees overhead were aware, the shining sky had word. Her head was high; she wanted to dance, and, much more, she wanted to cry. A pulse in her forehead went beat, beat; the warm blood sang through her veins; she stopped every little while to take a deep draught of the good air. In those moments she dedicated herself.
All her life should take breath from this hour; she vowed it to the service this day revealed to her, as once to the prophets — vowed all her strength and mind and heart. The angel of the Lord had laid a command upon her. She obeyed joyfully.
And now, after two years spent in fitting herself for her calling, she returned to Topaz, a capable and instructed nurse, on fire for her work in India, to find that Tarvin wished her to stay at Topaz and marry him.
‘You can call it what you like,’ Tarvin told her, while she gazed at the moon; ‘you can call it duty, or you can call it woman’s sphere, or you can call it, as that meddling missionary called it at church to-night, “carrying the light to them that sit in darkness.” I’ve no doubt you’ve got a halo to put to it; they’ve taught you names enough for things in the East. But for me, what I say is, it’s a freeze-out.’
‘Don’t say that, Nick! It’s a call.’
‘You’ve got a call to stay at home; and if you haven’t heard of it, I’m a committee to notify you,’ said Tarvin doggedly. He shied a pebble into the irrigating ditch, and eyed the racing current with lowering brows.
‘Dear Nick, how can you bear to urge any one who is free to stay at home and shirk after what we’ve heard to-night?’
‘Well, by the holy smoke, some one has got to urge girls to stand by the old machine, these days! You girls are no good at all under the new regulations until you desert. It’s the road to honour.’
‘Desert!’ gasped Kate. She turned her eyes on him.
‘Well, what do you call it? That’s what the little girl I used to know on Section 10 of the N.P. and Y. would have called it. O Kate dear, put yourself back in the old days; remember yourself then, remember what we used to be to each other, and see if you don’t see it that way. You’ve got a father and mother, haven’t you? You can’t say it’s the square thing to give them up. And you’ve got a man sitting beside you on this bridge who loves you for all he’s worth — loves you, you dear old thing, for keeps. You used to like him a little bit too. Eh?’
He slid his arm about her as he spoke, and for a moment she let it rest there.
‘Does that mean nothing to you either? Don’t you seem to see a call here, too, Kate?’
He forced her to turn her face to him, and gazed wistfully into her eyes for a moment. They were brown, and the moonlight deepened their sober depths.
‘Do you think you have a claim?’ she asked, after a moment.
‘I’ll think almost anything to keep you. But no; I haven’t any claim — or none at least that you are not free to jump. But we all have a claim; hang it, the situation has a claim. If you don’t stay, you go back on it. That’s what I mean.’
‘You don’t take a serious view of things, Nick,’ she said, putting down his arm.
Tarvin didn’t see the connection; but he said good-humouredly, ‘Oh yes, I do! There’s no serious view of life I won’t take in fun to please you.’
‘You see — you’re not in earnest.’
There’s one thing I’m in earnest about,’ he whispered in her ear.
‘Is there?’ She turned away her head.
‘I can’t live without you.’ He leaned toward her, and added in a lower voice: ‘Another thing, Kate — I won’t.’
Kate compressed her lips. She had her own will. They sat on the bridge beating out their difference until they heard the kitchen clock in a cabin on the other side of the ditch strike eleven. The stream came down out of the mountains that loomed above them; they were half-a-mile from the town. The stillness and the loneliness closed on Tarvin with a physical grip as Kate got up and said decisively that she must go home. He knew she meant that she must go to India, and his own will crumpled helplessly for the moment within hers. He asked himself whether this was the will by which he earned his living, the will which at twenty-eight had made him a successful man by Topaz standards, which was taking him to the State Legislature, and which would one day take him much further, unless what ceased to be what. He shook himself scornfully; but he had to add to himself that after all she was only a girl, if he did love her, before he could stride to her side, as she turned her back on him, and say, ‘See here, young woman, you’re away off!’
She did not answer, but walked on.
‘You’re not going to throw your life away on this Indian scheme,’ he pursued. ‘I won’t have it. Your father won’t have it. Your mother will kick and scream at it, and I’ll be there to encourage her. We have some use for your life, if you haven’t. You don’t know the size of your contract. The land isn’t fit for rats; it’s the Bad Lands — yes, that’s just what it is, a great big Bad Lands — morally, physically, and agriculturally, Bad Lands. It’s no place for white men, let alone white women; there’s no climate, no government, no drainage; and there’s cholera, heat, and fighting until you can’t rest. You’ll find it all in the Sunday papers. You want to stay right where you are, young lady!’
She stopped a moment in the road they were following back to Topaz and glanced at his face in the moonlight. He took her hand, and, for all his masterfulness, awaited her word with parted lips.
‘You’re a good man, Nick, but,’ she drooped her eyes, ‘I’m going to sail on the 31st for Calcutta.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56