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The Blue Castle

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CHAPTER XXI

"We'll just sit here," said Barney, "and if we think of anything worth while saying we'll say it. Otherwise, not. Don't imagine you're bound to talk to me."

"John Foster says," quoted Valancy, "'If you can sit in silence with a person for half an hour and yet be entirely comfortable, you and that person can be friends. If you cannot, friends you'll never be and you need not waste time in trying.'"

"Evidently John Foster says a sensible thing once in a while," conceded Barney.

They sat in silence for a long while. Little rabbits hopped across the road. Once or twice an owl laughed out delightfully. The road beyond them was fringed with the woven shadow lace of trees. Away off to the southwest the sky was full of silvery little cirrus clouds above the spot where Barney's island must be.

Valancy was perfectly happy. Some things dawn on you slowly. Some things come by lightning flashes. Valancy had had a lightning flash.

She knew quite well now that she loved Barney. Yesterday she had been all her own. Now she was this man's. Yet he had done nothing—said nothing. He had not even looked at her as a woman. But that didn't matter. Nor did it matter what he was or what he had done. She loved him without any reservations. Everything in her went out wholly to him. She had no wish to stifle or disown her love. She seemed to be his so absolutely that thought apart from him—thought in which he did not predominate—was an impossibility.

She had realised, quite simply and fully, that she loved him, in the moment when he was leaning on the car door, explaining that Lady Jane had no gas. She had looked deep into his eyes in the moonlight and had known. In just that infinitesimal space of time everything was changed. Old things passed away and all things became new.

She was no longer unimportant, little, old maid Valancy Stirling. She was a woman, full of love and therefore rich and significant—justified to herself. Life was no longer empty and futile, and death could cheat her of nothing. Love had cast out her last fear.

Love! What a searing, torturing, intolerably sweet thing it was—this possession of body, soul and mind! With something at its core as fine and remote and purely spiritual as the tiny blue spark in the heart of the unbreakable diamond. No dream had ever been like this. She was no longer solitary. She was one of a vast sisterhood—all the women who had ever loved in the world.

Barney need never know it—though she would not in the least have minded his knowing. But she knew it and it made a tremendous difference to her. Just to love! She did not ask to be loved. It was rapture enough just to sit there beside him in silence, alone in the summer night in the white splendour of moonshine, with the wind blowing down on them out of the pine woods. She had always envied the wind. So free. Blowing where it listed. Through the hills. Over the lakes. What a tang, what a zip it had! What a magic of adventure! Valancy felt as if she had exchanged her shop-worn soul for a fresh one, fire-new from the workshop of the gods. As far back as she could look, life had been dull—colourless—savourless. Now she had come to a little patch of violets, purple and fragrant—hers for the plucking. No matter who or what had been in Barney's past—no matter who or what might be in his future—no one else could ever have this perfect hour. She surrendered herself utterly to the charm of the moment.

"Ever dream of ballooning?" said Barney suddenly.

"No," said Valancy.

"I do—often. Dream of sailing through the clouds—seeing the glories of sunset—spending hours in the midst of a terrific storm with lightning playing above and below you—skimming above a silver cloud floor under a full moon—wonderful!"

"It does sound so," said Valancy. "I've stayed on earth in my dreams."

She told him about her Blue Castle. It was so easy to tell Barney things. One felt he understood everything—even the things you didn't tell him. And then she told him a little of her existence before she came to Roaring Abel's. She wanted him to see why she had gone to the dance "up back."

"You see—I've never had any real life," she said. "I've just—breathed. Every door has always been shut to me."

"But you're still young," said Barney.

"Oh, I know. Yes, I'm 'still young'—but that's so different from young," said Valancy bitterly. For a moment she was tempted to tell Barney why her years had nothing to do with her future; but she did not. She was not going to think of death tonight.

"Though I never was really young," she went on—"until tonight," she added in her heart. "I never had a life like other girls. You couldn't understand. Why,"—she had a desperate desire that Barney should know the worst about her—"I didn't even love my mother. Isn't it awful that I don't love my mother?"

"Rather awful—for her," said Barney drily.

"Oh, she didn't know it. She took my love for granted. And I wasn't any use or comfort to her or anybody. I was just a—a—vegetable. And I got tired of it. That's why I came to keep house for Mr. Gay and look after Cissy."

"And I suppose your people thought you'd gone mad."

"They did—and do—literally," said Valancy. "But it's a comfort to them. They'd rather believe me mad than bad. There's no other alternative. But I've been living since I came to Mr. Gay's. It's been a delightful experience. I suppose I'll pay for it when I have to go back—but I'll have had it."

"That's true," said Barney. "If you buy your experience it's your own. So it's no matter how much you pay for it. Somebody else's experience can never be yours. Well, it's a funny old world."

"Do you think it really is old?" asked Valancy dreamily. "I never believe that in June. It seems so young tonight—somehow. In that quivering moonlight—like a young, white girl—waiting."

"Moonlight here on the verge of up back is different from moonlight anywhere else," agreed Barney. "It always makes me feel so clean, somehow—body and soul. And of course the age of gold always comes back in spring."

It was ten o'clock now. A dragon of black cloud ate up the moon. The spring air grew chill—Valancy shivered. Barney reached back into the innards of Lady Jane and clawed up an old, tobacco-scented overcoat.

"Put that on," he ordered.

"Don't you want it yourself?" protested Valancy.

"No. I'm not going to have you catching cold on my hands."

"Oh, I won't catch cold. I haven't had a cold since I came to Mr. Gay's—though I've done the foolishest things. It's funny, too—I used to have them all the time. I feel so selfish taking your coat."

"You've sneezed three times. No use winding up your 'experience' up back with grippe or pneumonia."

He pulled it up tight about her throat and buttoned it on her. Valancy submitted with secret delight. How nice it was to have some one look after you so! She snuggled down into the tobaccoey folds and wished the night could last forever.

Ten minutes later a car swooped down on them from "up back." Barney sprang from Lady Jane and waved his hand. The car came to a stop beside them. Valancy saw Uncle Wellington and Olive gazing at her in horror from it.

So Uncle Wellington had got a car! And he must have been spending the evening up at Mistawis with Cousin Herbert. Valancy almost laughed aloud at the expression on his face as he recognised her. The pompous, bewhiskered old humbug!

"Can you let me have enough gas to take me to Deerwood?" Barney was asking politely. But Uncle Wellington was not attending to him.

"Valancy, how came you here!" he said sternly.

"By chance or God's grace," said Valancy.

"With this jail-bird—at ten o'clock at night!" said Uncle Wellington.

Valancy turned to Barney. The moon had escaped from its dragon and in its light her eyes were full of deviltry.

"Are you a jail-bird?"

"Does it matter?" said Barney, gleams of fun in his eyes.

"Not to me. I only asked out of curiosity," continued Valancy.

"Then I won't tell you. I never satisfy curiosity." He turned to Uncle Wellington and his voice changed subtly.

"Mr. Stirling, I asked you if you could let me have some gas. If you can, well and good. If not, we are only delaying you unnecessarily."

Uncle Wellington was in a horrible dilemma. To give gas to this shameless pair! But not to give it to them! To go away and leave them there in the Mistawis woods—until daylight, likely. It was better to give it to them and let them get out of sight before any one else saw them.

"Got anything to get gas in?" he grunted surlily.

Barney produced a two-gallon measure from Lady Jane. The two men went to the rear of the Stirling car and began manipulating the tap. Valancy stole sly glances at Olive over the collar of Barney's coat. Olive was sitting grimly staring straight ahead with an outraged expression. She did not mean to take any notice of Valancy. Olive had her own secret reasons for feeling outraged. Cecil had been in Deerwood lately and of course had heard all about Valancy. He agreed that her mind was deranged and was exceedingly anxious to find out whence the derangement had been inherited. It was a serious thing to have in the family—a very serious thing. One had to think of one's—descendants.

"She got it from the Wansbarras," said Olive positively. "There's nothing like that in the Stirlings—nothing!"

"I hope not—I certainly hope not," Cecil had responded dubiously. "But then—to go out as a servant—for that is what it practically amounts to. Your cousin!"

Poor Olive felt the implication. The Port Lawrence Prices were not accustomed to ally themselves with families whose members "worked out."

Valancy could not resist temptation. She leaned forward.

"Olive, does it hurt?"

Olive bit—stiffly.

"Does what hurt?"

"Looking like that."

For a moment Olive resolved she would take no further notice of Valancy. Then duty came uppermost. She must not miss the opportunity.

"Doss," she implored, leaning forward also, "won't you come home—come home tonight?"

Valancy yawned.

"You sound like a revival meeting," she said. "You really do."

"If you will come back——"

"All will be forgiven."

"Yes," said Olive eagerly. Wouldn't it be splendid if she could induce the prodigal daughter to return? "We'll never cast it up to you. Doss, there are nights when I cannot sleep for thinking of you."

"And me having the time of my life," said Valancy, laughing.

"Doss, I can't believe you're bad. I've always said you couldn't be bad——"

"I don't believe I can be," said Valancy. "I'm afraid I'm hopelessly proper. I've been sitting here for three hours with Barney Snaith and he hasn't even tried to kiss me. I wouldn't have minded if he had, Olive."

Valancy was still leaning forward. Her little hat with its crimson rose was tilted down over one eye. Olive stared. In the moonlight Valancy's eyes—Valancy's smile—what had happened to Valancy! She looked—not pretty—Doss couldn't be pretty—but provocative, fascinating—yes, abominably so. Olive drew back. It was beneath her dignity to say more. After all, Valancy must be both mad and bad.

"Thanks—that's enough," said Barney behind the car. "Much obliged, Mr. Stirling. Two gallons—seventy cents. Thank you."

Uncle Wellington climbed foolishly and feebly into his car. He wanted to give Snaith a piece of his mind, but dared not. Who knew what the creature might do if provoked? No doubt he carried firearms.

Uncle Wellington looked indecisively at Valancy. But Valancy had turned her back on him and was watching Barney pour the gas into Lady Jane's maw.

"Drive on," said Olive decisively. "There's no use in waiting here. Let me tell you what she said to me."

"The little hussy! The shameless little hussy!" said Uncle Wellington.





CHAPTER XXII

The next thing the Stirlings heard was that Valancy had been seen with Barney Snaith in a movie theatre in Port Lawrence and after it at supper in a Chinese restaurant there. This was quite true—and no one was more surprised at it than Valancy herself. Barney had come along in Lady Jane one dim twilight and told Valancy unceremoniously if she wanted a drive to hop in.

"I'm going to the Port. Will you go there with me?"

His eyes were teasing and there was a bit of defiance in his voice. Valancy, who did not conceal from herself that she would have gone anywhere with him to any place, "hopped in" without more ado. They tore into and through Deerwood. Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, taking a little air on the verandah, saw them whirl by in a cloud of dust and sought comfort in each other's eyes. Valancy, who in some dim pre-existence had been afraid of a car, was hatless and her hair was blowing wildly round her face. She would certainly come down with bronchitis—and die at Roaring Abel's. She wore a low-necked dress and her arms were bare. That Snaith creature was in his shirt-sleeves, smoking a pipe. They were going at the rate of forty miles an hour—sixty, Cousin Stickles averred. Lady Jane could hit the pike when she wanted to. Valancy waved her hand gaily to her relatives. As for Mrs. Frederick, she was wishing she knew how to go into hysterics.

"Was it for this," she demanded in hollow tones, "that I suffered the pangs of motherhood?"

"I will not believe," said Cousin Stickles solemnly, "that our prayers will not yet be answered."

"Who—who will protect that unfortunate girl when I am gone?" moaned Mrs. Frederick.

As for Valancy, she was wondering if it could really be only a few weeks since she had sat there with them on that verandah. Hating the rubber-plant. Pestered with teasing questions like black flies. Always thinking of appearances. Cowed because of Aunt Wellington's teaspoons and Uncle Benjamin's money. Poverty-stricken. Afraid of everybody. Envying Olive. A slave to moth-eaten traditions. Nothing to hope for or expect.

And now every day was a gay adventure.

Lady Jane flew over the fifteen miles between Deerwood and the Port—through the Port. The way Barney went past traffic policemen was not holy. The lights were beginning to twinkle out like stars in the clear, lemon-hued twilight air. This was the only time Valancy ever really liked the town, and she was crazy with the delight of speeding. Was it possible she had ever been afraid of a car? She was perfectly happy, riding beside Barney. Not that she deluded herself into thinking it had any significance. She knew quite well that Barney had asked her to go on the impulse of the moment—an impulse born of a feeling of pity for her and her starved little dreams. She was looking tired after a wakeful night with a heart attack, followed by a busy day. She had so little fun. He'd give her an outing for once. Besides, Abel was in the kitchen, at the point of drunkenness where he was declaring he did not believe in God and beginning to sing ribald songs. It was just as well she should be out of the way for a while. Barney knew Roaring Abel's repertoire.

They went to the movie—Valancy had never been to a movie. And then, finding a nice hunger upon them, they went and had fried chicken—unbelievably delicious—in the Chinese restaurant. After which they rattled home again, leaving a devastating trail of scandal behind them. Mrs. Frederick gave up going to church altogether. She could not endure her friends' pitying glances and questions. But Cousin Stickles went every Sunday. She said they had been given a cross to bear.





CHAPTER XXIII

On one of Cissy's wakeful nights, she told Valancy her poor little story. They were sitting by the open window. Cissy could not get her breath lying down that night. An inglorious gibbous moon was hanging over the wooded hills and in its spectral light Cissy looked frail and lovely and incredibly young. A child. It did not seem possible that she could have lived through all the passion and pain and shame of her story.

"He was stopping at the hotel across the lake. He used to come over in his canoe at night—we met in the pines down the shore. He was a young college student—his father was a rich man in Toronto. Oh, Valancy, I didn't mean to be bad—I didn't, indeed. But I loved him so—I love him yet—I'll always love him. And I—didn't know—some things. I didn't—understand. Then his father came and took him away. And—after a little—I found out—oh, Valancy,—I was so frightened. I didn't know what to do. I wrote him—and he came. He—he said he would marry me, Valancy."

"And why—and why?——"

"Oh, Valancy, he didn't love me any more. I saw that at a glance. He—he was just offering to marry me because he thought he ought to—because he was sorry for me. He wasn't bad—but he was so young—and what was I that he should keep on loving me?"

"Never mind making excuses for him," said Valancy a bit shortly. "So you wouldn't marry him?"

"I couldn't—not when he didn't love me any more. Somehow—I can't explain—it seemed a worse thing to do than—the other. He—he argued a little—but he went away. Do you think I did right, Valancy?"

"Yes, I do. You did right. But he——"

"Don't blame him, dear. Please don't. Let's not talk about him at all. There's no need. I wanted to tell you how it was—I didn't want you to think me bad——"

"I never did think so."

"Yes, I felt that—whenever you came. Oh, Valancy, what you've been to me! I can never tell you—but God will bless you for it. I know He will—'with what measure ye mete.'"

Cissy sobbed for a few minutes in Valancy's arms. Then she wiped her eyes.

"Well, that's almost all. I came home. I wasn't really so very unhappy. I suppose I should have been—but I wasn't. Father wasn't hard on me. And my baby was so sweet while he lived. I was even happy—I loved him so much, the dear little thing. He was so sweet, Valancy—with such lovely blue eyes—and little rings of pale gold hair like silk floss—and tiny dimpled hands. I used to bite his satin-smooth little face all over—softly, so as not to hurt him, you know——"

"I know," said Valancy, wincing. "I know—a woman always knows—and dreams——"

"And he was all mine. Nobody else had any claim on him. When he died, oh, Valancy, I thought I must die too—I didn't see how anybody could endure such anguish and live. To see his dear little eyes and know he would never open them again—to miss his warm little body nestled against mine at night and think of him sleeping alone and cold, his wee face under the hard frozen earth. It was so awful for the first year—after that it was a little easier, one didn't keep thinking 'this day last year'—but I was so glad when I found out I was dying."

"'Who could endure life if it were not for the hope of death?'" murmured Valancy softly—it was of course a quotation from some book of John Foster's.

"I'm glad I've told you all about it," sighed Cissy. "I wanted you to know."

Cissy died a few nights after that. Roaring Abel was away. When Valancy saw the change that had come over Cissy's face she wanted to telephone for the doctor. But Cissy wouldn't let her.

"Valancy, why should you? He can do nothing for me. I've known for several days that—this—was near. Let me die in peace, dear—just holding your hand. Oh, I'm so glad you're here. Tell Father good-bye for me. He's always been as good to me as he knew how—and Barney. Somehow, I think that Barney——"

But a spasm of coughing interrupted and exhausted her. She fell asleep when it was over, still holding to Valancy's hand. Valancy sat there in the silence. She was not frightened—or even sorry. At sunrise Cissy died. She opened her eyes and looked past Valancy at something—something that made her smile suddenly and happily. And, smiling, she died.

Valancy crossed Cissy's hands on her breast and went to the open window. In the eastern sky, amid the fires of sunrise, an old moon was hanging—as slender and lovely as a new moon. Valancy had never seen an old, old moon before. She watched it pale and fade until it paled and faded out of sight in the living rose of day. A little pool in the barrens shone in the sunrise like a great golden lily.

But the world suddenly seemed a colder place to Valancy. Again nobody needed her. She was not in the least sorry Cecilia was dead. She was only sorry for all her suffering in life. But nobody could ever hurt her again. Valancy had always thought death dreadful. But Cissy had died so quietly—so pleasantly. And at the very last—something—had made up to her for everything. She was lying there now, in her white sleep, looking like a child. Beautiful! All the lines of shame and pain gone.

Roaring Abel drove in, justifying his name. Valancy went down and told him. The shock sobered him at once. He slumped down on the seat of his buggy, his great head hanging.

"Cissy dead—Cissy dead," he said vacantly. "I didn't think it would 'a' come so soon. Dead. She used to run down the lane to meet me with a little white rose stuck in her hair. Cissy used to be a pretty little girl. And a good little girl."

"She has always been a good little girl," said Valancy.





CHAPTER XXIV

Valancy herself made Cissy ready for burial. No hands but hers should touch that pitiful, wasted little body. The old house was spotless on the day of the funeral. Barney Snaith was not there. He had done all he could to help Valancy before it—he had shrouded the pale Cecilia in white roses from the garden—and then had gone back to his island. But everybody else was there. All Deerwood and "up back" came. They forgave Cissy splendidly at last. Mr. Bradly gave a very beautiful funeral address. Valancy had wanted her old Free Methodist man, but Roaring Abel was obdurate. He was a Presbyterian and no one but a Presbyterian minister should bury his daughter. Mr. Bradly was very tactful. He avoided all dubious points and it was plain to be seen he hoped for the best. Six reputable citizens of Deerwood bore Cecilia Gay to her grave in decorous Deerwood cemetery. Among them was Uncle Wellington.

The Stirlings all came to the funeral, men and women. They had had a family conclave over it. Surely now that Cissy Gay was dead Valancy would come home. She simply could not stay there with Roaring Abel. That being the case, the wisest course—decreed Uncle James—was to attend the funeral—legitimise the whole thing, so to speak—show Deerwood that Valancy had really done a most creditable deed in going to nurse poor Cecilia Gay and that her family backed her up in it. Death, the miracle worker, suddenly made the thing quite respectable. If Valancy would return to home and decency while public opinion was under its influence all might yet be well. Society was suddenly forgetting all Cecilia's wicked doings and remembering what a pretty, modest little thing she had been—"and motherless, you know—motherless!" It was the psychological moment—said Uncle James.

So the Stirlings went to the funeral. Even Cousin Gladys' neuritis allowed her to come. Cousin Stickles was there, her bonnet dripping all over her face, crying as woefully as if Cissy had been her nearest and dearest. Funerals always brought Cousin Stickles' "own sad bereavement" back.

And Uncle Wellington was a pall-bearer.

Valancy, pale, subdued-looking, her slanted eyes smudged with purple, in her snuff-brown dress, moving quietly about, finding seats for people, consulting in undertones with minister and undertaker, marshalling the "mourners" into the parlour, was so decorous and proper and Stirlingish that her family took heart of grace. This was not—could not be—the girl who had sat all night in the woods with Barney Snaith—who had gone tearing bareheaded through Deerwood and Port Lawrence. This was the Valancy they knew. Really, surprisingly capable and efficient. Perhaps she had always been kept down a bit too much—Amelia really was rather strict—hadn't had a chance to show what was in her. So thought the Stirlings. And Edward Beck, from the Port road, a widower with a large family who was beginning to take notice, took notice of Valancy and thought she might make a mighty fine second wife. No beauty—but a fifty-year-old widower, Mr. Beck told himself very reasonably, couldn't expect everything. Altogether, it seemed that Valancy's matrimonial chances were never so bright as they were at Cecilia Gay's funeral.

What the Stirlings and Edward Beck would have thought had they known the back of Valancy's mind must be left to the imagination. Valancy was hating the funeral—hating the people who came to stare with curiosity at Cecilia's marble-white face—hating the smugness—hating the dragging, melancholy singing—hating Mr. Bradly's cautious platitudes. If she could have had her absurd way, there would have been no funeral at all. She would have covered Cissy over with flowers, shut her away from prying eyes, and buried her beside her nameless little baby in the grassy burying-ground under the pines of the "up back" church, with a bit of kindly prayer from the old Free Methodist minister. She remembered Cissy saying once, "I wish I could be buried deep in the heart of the woods where nobody would ever come to say, 'Cissy Gay is buried here,' and tell over my miserable story."

But this! However, it would soon be over. Valancy knew, if the Stirlings and Edward Beck didn't, exactly what she intended to do then. She had lain awake all the preceding night thinking about it and finally deciding on it.

When the funeral procession had left the house, Mrs. Frederick sought out Valancy in the kitchen.

"My child," she said tremulously, "you'll come home now?"

"Home," said Valancy absently. She was getting on an apron and calculating how much tea she must put to steep for supper. There would be several guests from "up back"—distant relatives of the Gays' who had not remembered them for years. And she was so tired she wished she could borrow a pair of legs from the cat.

"Yes, home," said Mrs. Frederick, with a touch of asperity. "I suppose you won't dream of staying here now—alone with Roaring Abel."

"Oh, no, I'm not going to stay here," said Valancy. "Of course, I'll have to stay for a day or two, to put the house in order generally. But that will be all. Excuse me, Mother, won't you? I've a frightful lot to do—all those "up back" people will be here to supper."

Mrs. Frederick retreated in considerable relief, and the Stirlings went home with lighter hearts.

"We will just treat her as if nothing had happened when she comes back," decreed Uncle Benjamin. "That will be the best plan. Just as if nothing had happened."





CHAPTER XXV

On the evening of the day after the funeral Roaring Abel went off for a spree. He had been sober for four whole days and could endure it no longer. Before he went, Valancy told him she would be going away the next day. Roaring Abel was sorry, and said so. A distant cousin from "up back" was coming to keep house for him—quite willing to do so now since there was no sick girl to wait on—but Abel was not under any delusions concerning her.

"She won't be like you, my girl. Well, I'm obliged to you. You helped me out of a bad hole and I won't forget it. And I won't forget what you did for Cissy. I'm your friend, and if you ever want any of the Stirlings spanked and sot in a corner send for me. I'm going to wet my whistle. Lord, but I'm dry! Don't reckon I'll be back afore tomorrow night, so if you're going home tomorrow, good-bye now."

"I may go home tomorrow," said Valancy, "but I'm not going back to Deerwood."

"Not going——"

"You'll find the key on the woodshed nail," interrupted Valancy, politely and unmistakably. "The dog will be in the barn and the cat in the cellar. Don't forget to feed her till your cousin comes. The pantry is full and I made bread and pies today. Good-bye, Mr. Gay. You have been very kind to me and I appreciate it."

"We've had a d——d decent time of it together, and that's a fact," said Roaring Abel. "You're the best small sport in the world, and your little finger is worth the whole Stirling clan tied together. Good-bye and good-luck."

Valancy went out to the garden. Her legs trembled a little, but otherwise she felt and looked composed. She held something tightly in her hand. The garden was lying in the magic of the warm, odorous July twilight. A few stars were out and the robins were calling through the velvety silences of the barrens. Valancy stood by the gate expectantly. Would he come? If he did not——

He was coming. Valancy heard Lady Jane Grey far back in the woods. Her breath came a little more quickly. Nearer—and nearer—she could see Lady Jane now—bumping down the lane—nearer—nearer—he was there—he had sprung from the car and was leaning over the gate, looking at her.

"Going home, Miss Stirling?"

"I don't know—yet," said Valancy slowly. Her mind was made up, with no shadow of turning, but the moment was very tremendous.

"I thought I'd run down and ask if there was anything I could do for you," said Barney.

Valancy took it with a canter.

"Yes, there is something you can do for me," she said, evenly and distinctly. "Will you marry me?"

For a moment Barney was silent. There was no particular expression on his face. Then he gave an odd laugh.

"Come, now! I knew luck was just waiting around the corner for me. All the signs have been pointing that way today."

"Wait." Valancy lifted her hand. "I'm in earnest—but I want to get my breath after that question. Of course, with my bringing up, I realise perfectly well that this is one of the things 'a lady should not do.'"

"But why—why?"

"For two reasons." Valancy was still a little breathless, but she looked Barney straight in the eyes, while all the dead Stirlings revolved rapidly in their graves and the living ones did nothing because they did not know that Valancy was at that moment proposing lawful marriage to the notorious Barney Snaith. "The first reason is, I—I"—Valancy tried to say "I love you" but could not. She had to take refuge in a pretended flippancy. "I'm crazy about you. The second is—this."

She handed him Dr. Trent's letter.

Barney opened it with the air of a man thankful to find some safe, sane thing to do. As he read it his face changed. He understood—more perhaps than Valancy wanted him to.

"Are you sure nothing can be done for you?"

Valancy did not misunderstand the question.

"Yes. You know Dr. Trent's reputation in regard to heart disease. I haven't long to live—perhaps only a few months—a few weeks. I want to live them. I can't go back to Deerwood—you know what my life was like there. And"—she managed it this time—"I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. That's all."

Barney folded his arms on the gate and looked gravely enough at a white, saucy star that was winking at him just over Roaring Abel's kitchen chimney.

"You don't know anything about me. I may be a—murderer."

"No, I don't. You may be something dreadful. Everything they say of you may be true. But it doesn't matter to me."

"You care that much for me, Valancy?" said Barney incredulously, looking away from the star and into her eyes—her strange, mysterious eyes.

"I care—that much," said Valancy in a low voice. She was trembling. He had called her by her name for the first time. It was sweeter than another man's caress could have been just to hear him say her name like that.

"If we are going to get married," said Barney, speaking suddenly in a casual, matter-of-fact voice, "some things must be understood."

"Everything must be understood," said Valancy.

"I have things I want to hide," said Barney coolly. "You are not to ask me about them."

"I won't," said Valancy.

"You must never ask to see my mail."

"Never."

"And we are never to pretend anything to each other."

"We won't," said Valancy. "You won't even have to pretend you like me. If you marry me I know you're only doing it out of pity."

"And we'll never tell a lie to each other about anything—a big lie or a petty lie."

"Especially a petty lie," agreed Valancy.

"And you'll have to live back on my island. I won't live anywhere else."

"That's partly why I want to marry you," said Valancy.

Barney peered at her.

"I believe you mean it. Well—let's get married, then."

"Thank you," said Valancy, with a sudden return of primness. She would have been much less embarrassed if he had refused her.

"I suppose I haven't any right to make conditions. But I'm going to make one. You are never to refer to my heart or my liability to sudden death. You are never to urge me to be careful. You are to forget—absolutely forget—that I'm not perfectly healthy. I have written a letter to my mother—here it is—you are to keep it. I have explained everything in it. If I drop dead suddenly—as I likely will do——"

"It will exonerate me in the eyes of your kindred from the suspicion of having poisoned you," said Barney with a grin.

"Exactly." Valancy laughed gaily. "Dear me, I'm glad this is over. It has been—a bit of an ordeal. You see, I'm not in the habit of going about asking men to marry me. It is so nice of you not to refuse me—or offer to be a brother!"

"I'll go to the Port tomorrow and get a license. We can be married tomorrow evening. Dr. Stalling, I suppose?"

"Heavens, no." Valancy shuddered. "Besides, he wouldn't do it. He'd shake his forefinger at me and I'd jilt you at the altar. No, I want my old Mr. Towers to marry me."

"Will you marry me as I stand?" demanded Barney. A passing car, full of tourists, honked loudly—it seemed derisively. Valancy looked at him. Blue homespun shirt, nondescript hat, muddy overalls. Unshaved!

"Yes," she said.

Barney put his hands over the gate and took her little, cold ones gently in his.

"Valancy," he said, trying to speak lightly, "of course I'm not in love with you—never thought of such a thing as being in love. But, do you know, I've always thought you were a bit of a dear."





CHAPTER XXVI

The next day passed for Valancy like a dream. She could not make herself or anything she did seem real. She saw nothing of Barney, though she expected he must go rattling past on his way to the Port for a license.

Perhaps he had changed his mind.

But at dusk the lights of Lady Jane suddenly swooped over the crest of the wooded hill beyond the lane. Valancy was waiting at the gate for her bridegroom. She wore her green dress and her green hat because she had nothing else to wear. She did not look or feel at all bride-like—she really looked like a wild elf strayed out of the greenwood. But that did not matter. Nothing at all mattered except that Barney was coming for her.

"Ready?" said Barney, stopping Lady Jane with some new, horrible noises.

"Yes." Valancy stepped in and sat down. Barney was in his blue shirt and overalls. But they were clean overalls. He was smoking a villainous-looking pipe and he was bareheaded. But he had a pair of oddly smart boots on under his shabby overalls. And he was shaved. They clattered into Deerwood and through Deerwood and hit the long, wooded road to the Port.

"Haven't changed your mind?" said Barney.

"No. Have you?"

"No."

That was their whole conversation on the fifteen miles. Everything was more dream-like than ever. Valancy didn't know whether she felt happy. Or terrified. Or just plain fool.

Then the lights of Port Lawrence were about them. Valancy felt as if she were surrounded by the gleaming, hungry eyes of hundreds of great, stealthy panthers. Barney briefly asked where Mr. Towers lived, and Valancy as briefly told him. They stopped before the shabby little house in an unfashionable street. They went in to the small, shabby parlour. Barney produced his license. So he had got it. Also a ring. This thing was real. She, Valancy Stirling, was actually on the point of being married.

They were standing up together before Mr. Towers. Valancy heard Mr. Towers and Barney saying things. She heard some other person saying things. She herself was thinking of the way she had once planned to be married—away back in her early teens when such a thing had not seemed impossible. White silk and tulle veil and orange-blossoms; no bridesmaid. But one flower girl, in a frock of cream shadow lace over pale pink, with a wreath of flowers in her hair, carrying a basket of roses and lilies-of-the-valley. And the groom, a noble-looking creature, irreproachably clad in whatever the fashion of the day decreed. Valancy lifted her eyes and saw herself and Barney in the little, slanting, distorting mirror over the mantelpiece. She in her odd, unbridal green hat and dress; Barney in shirt and overalls. But it was Barney. That was all that mattered. No veil—no flowers—no guests—no presents—no wedding-cake—but just Barney. For all the rest of her life there would be Barney.

"Mrs. Snaith, I hope you will be very happy," Mr. Towers was saying.

He had not seemed surprised at their appearance—not even at Barney's overalls. He had seen plenty of queer weddings "up back." He did not know Valancy was one of the Deerwood Stirlings—he did not even know there were Deerwood Stirlings. He did not know Barney Snaith was a fugitive from justice. Really, he was an incredibly ignorant old man. Therefore he married them and gave them his blessing very gently and solemnly and prayed for them that night after they had gone away. His conscience did not trouble him at all.

"What a nice way to get married!" Barney was saying as he put Lady Jane in gear. "No fuss and flub-dub. I never supposed it was half so easy."

"For heaven's sake," said Valancy suddenly, "let's forget we are married and talk as if we weren't. I can't stand another drive like the one we had coming in."

Barney howled and threw Lady Jane into high with an infernal noise.

"And I thought I was making it easy for you," he said. "You didn't seem to want to talk."

"I didn't. But I wanted you to talk. I don't want you to make love to me, but I want you to act like an ordinary human being. Tell me about this island of yours. What sort of a place is it?"

"The jolliest place in the world. You're going to love it. The first time I saw it I loved it. Old Tom MacMurray owned it then. He built the little shack on it, lived there in winter and rented it to Toronto people in summer. I bought it from him—became by that one simple transaction a landed proprietor owning a house and an island. There is something so satisfying in owning a whole island. And isn't an uninhabited island a charming idea? I'd wanted to own one ever since I'd read Robinson Crusoe. It seemed too good to be true. And beauty! Most of the scenery belongs to the government, but they don't tax you for looking at it, and the moon belongs to everybody. You won't find my shack very tidy. I suppose you'll want to make it tidy."

"Yes," said Valancy honestly. "I have to be tidy. I don't really want to be. But untidiness hurts me. Yes, I'll have to tidy up your shack."

"I was prepared for that," said Barney, with a hollow groan.

"But," continued Valancy relentingly, "I won't insist on your wiping your feet when you come in."

"No, you'll only sweep up after me with the air of a martyr," said Barney. "Well, anyway, you can't tidy the lean-to. You can't even enter it. The door will be locked and I shall keep the key."

"Bluebeard's chamber," said Valancy. "I shan't even think of it. I don't care how many wives you have hanging up in it. So long as they're really dead."

"Dead as door-nails. You can do as you like in the rest of the house. There's not much of it—just one big living-room and one small bedroom. Well built, though. Old Tom loved his job. The beams of our house are cedar and the rafters fir. Our living-room windows face west and east. It's wonderful to have a room where you can see both sunrise and sunset. I have two cats there. Banjo and Good Luck. Adorable animals. Banjo is a big, enchanting, grey devil-cat. Striped, of course. I don't care a hang for any cat that hasn't stripes. I never knew a cat who could swear as genteelly and effectively as Banjo. His only fault is that he snores horribly when he is asleep. Luck is a dainty little cat. Always looking wistfully at you, as if he wanted to tell you something. Maybe he will pull it off sometime. Once in a thousand years, you know, one cat is allowed to speak. My cats are philosophers—neither of them ever cries over spilt milk.

"Two old crows live in a pine-tree on the point and are reasonably neighbourly. Call 'em Nip and Tuck. And I have a demure little tame owl. Name, Leander. I brought him up from a baby and he lives over on the mainland and chuckles to himself o' nights. And bats—it's a great place for bats at night. Scared of bats?"

"No; I like them."

"So do I. Nice, queer, uncanny, mysterious creatures. Coming from nowhere—going nowhere. Swoop! Banjo likes 'em, too. Eats 'em. I have a canoe and a disappearing propeller boat. Went to the Port in it today to get my license. Quieter than Lady Jane."

"I thought you hadn't gone at all—that you had changed your mind," admitted Valancy.

Barney laughed—the laugh Valancy did not like—the little, bitter, cynical laugh.

"I never change my mind," he said shortly.

They went back through Deerwood. Up the Muskoka road. Past Roaring Abel's. Over the rocky, daisied lane. The dark pine woods swallowed them up. Through the pine woods, where the air was sweet with the incense of the unseen, fragile bells of the linnæas that carpeted the banks of the trail. Out to the shore of Mistawis. Lady Jane must be left here. They got out. Barney led the way down a little path to the edge of the lake.

"There's our island," he said gloatingly.

Valancy looked—and looked—and looked again. There was a diaphanous, lilac mist on the lake, shrouding the island. Through it the two enormous pine-trees that clasped hands over Barney's shack loomed out like dark turrets. Behind them was a sky still rose-hued in the afterlight, and a pale young moon.

Valancy shivered like a tree the wind stirs suddenly. Something seemed to sweep over her soul.

"My Blue Castle!" she said. "Oh, my Blue Castle!"

They got into the canoe and paddled out to it. They left behind the realm of everyday and things known and landed on a realm of mystery and enchantment where anything might happen—anything might be true. Barney lifted Valancy out of the canoe and swung her to a lichen-covered rock under a young pine-tree. His arms were about her and suddenly his lips were on hers. Valancy found herself shivering with the rapture of her first kiss.

"Welcome home, dear," Barney was saying.





CHAPTER XXVII

Cousin Georgiana came down the lane leading up to her little house. She lived half a mile out of Deerwood and she wanted to go in to Amelia's and find out if Doss had come home yet. Cousin Georgiana was anxious to see Doss. She had something very important to tell her. Something, she was sure, Doss would be delighted to hear. Poor Doss! She had had rather a dull life of it. Cousin Georgiana owned to herself that she would not like to live under Amelia's thumb. But that would be all changed now. Cousin Georgiana felt tremendously important. For the time being, she quite forgot to wonder which of them would go next.

And here was Doss herself, coming along the road from Roaring Abel's in such a queer green dress and hat. Talk about luck. Cousin Georgiana would have a chance to impart her wonderful secret right away, with nobody else about to interrupt. It was, you might say, a Providence.

Valancy, who had been living for four days on her enchanted island, had decided that she might as well go in to Deerwood and tell her relatives that she was married. Otherwise, finding that she had disappeared from Roaring Abel's, they might get out a search warrant for her. Barney had offered to drive her in, but she had preferred to go alone. She smiled very radiantly at Cousin Georgiana, who, she remembered, as of some one known a long time ago, had really been not a bad little creature. Valancy was so happy that she could have smiled at anybody—even Uncle James. She was not averse to Cousin Georgiana's company. Already, since the houses along the road were becoming numerous, she was conscious that curious eyes were looking at her from every window.

"I suppose you're going home, dear Doss?" said Cousin Georgiana as she shook hands—furtively eyeing Valancy's dress and wondering if she had any petticoat on at all.

"Sooner or later," said Valancy cryptically.

"Then I'll go along with you. I've been wanting to see you very especially, Doss dear. I've something quite wonderful to tell you."

"Yes?" said Valancy absently. What on earth was Cousin Georgiana looking so mysterious and important about? But did it matter? No. Nothing mattered but Barney and the Blue Castle up back in Mistawis.

"Who do you suppose called to see me the other day?" asked Cousin Georgiana archly.

Valancy couldn't guess.

"Edward Beck." Cousin Georgiana lowered her voice almost to a whisper. "Edward Beck."

Why the italics? And was Cousin Georgiana blushing?

"Who on earth is Edward Beck?" asked Valancy indifferently.

Cousin Georgiana stared.

"Surely you remember Edward Beck," she said reproachfully. "He lives in that lovely house on the Port Lawrence road and he comes to our church—regularly. You must remember him."

"Oh, I think I do now," said Valancy, with an effort of memory. "He's that old man with a wen on his forehead and dozens of children, who always sits in the pew by the door, isn't he?"

"Not dozens of children, dear—oh, no, not dozens. Not even one dozen. Only nine. At least only nine that count. The rest are dead. He isn't old—he's only about forty-eight—the prime of life, Doss—and what does it matter about a wen?"

"Nothing, of course," agreed Valancy quite sincerely. It certainly did not matter to her whether Edward Beck had a wen or a dozen wens or no wen at all. But Valancy was getting vaguely suspicious. There was certainly an air of suppressed triumph about Cousin Georgiana. Could it be possible that Cousin Georgiana was thinking of marrying again? Marrying Edward Beck? Absurd. Cousin Georgiana was sixty-five if she were a day and her little anxious face was as closely covered with fine wrinkles as if she had been a hundred. But still——

"My dear," said Cousin Georgiana, "Edward Beck wants to marry you."

Valancy stared at Cousin Georgiana for a moment. Then she wanted to go off into a peal of laughter. But she only said:

"Me?"

"Yes, you. He fell in love with you at the funeral. And he came to consult me about it. I was such a friend of his first wife, you know. He is very much in earnest, Dossie. And it's a wonderful chance for you. He's very well off—and you know—you—you——"

"Am not so young as I once was," agreed Valancy. "'To her that hath shall be given.' Do you really think I would make a good stepmother, Cousin Georgiana?"

"I'm sure you would. You were always so fond of children."

"But nine is such a family to start with," objected Valancy gravely.

"The two oldest are grown up and the third almost. That leaves only six that really count. And most of them are boys. So much easier to bring up than girls. There's an excellent book—'Health Care of the Growing Child'—Gladys has a copy, I think. It would be such a help to you. And there are books about morals. You'd manage nicely. Of course I told Mr. Beck that I thought you would—would——"

"Jump at him," supplied Valancy.

"Oh, no, no, dear. I wouldn't use such an indelicate expression. I told him I thought you would consider his proposal favourably. And you will, won't you, dearie?"

"There's only one obstacle," said Valancy dreamily. "You see, I'm married already."

"Married!" Cousin Georgiana stopped stock-still and stared at Valancy. "Married!"

"Yes. I was married to Barney Snaith last Tuesday evening in Port Lawrence."

There was a convenient gate-post hard by. Cousin Georgiana took firm hold of it.

"Doss, dear—I'm an old woman—are you trying to make fun of me?"

"Not at all. I'm only telling you the truth. For heaven's sake, Cousin Georgiana,"—Valancy was alarmed by certain symptoms—"don't go crying here on the public road!"

Cousin Georgiana choked back the tears and gave a little moan of despair instead.

"Oh, Doss, what have you done? What have you done?"

"I've just been telling you. I've got married," said Valancy, calmly and patiently.

"To that—that—aw—that—Barney Snaith. Why, they say he's had a dozen wives already."

"I'm the only one round at present," said Valancy.

"What will your poor mother say?" moaned Cousin Georgiana.

"Come along with me and hear, if you want to know," said Valancy. "I'm on my way to tell her now."

Cousin Georgiana let go the gate-post cautiously and found that she could stand alone. She meekly trotted on beside Valancy—who suddenly seemed quite a different person in her eyes. Cousin Georgiana had a tremendous respect for a married woman. But it was terrible to think of what the poor girl had done. So rash. So reckless. Of course Valancy must be stark mad. But she seemed so happy in her madness that Cousin Georgiana had a momentary conviction that it would be a pity if the clan tried to scold her back to sanity. She had never seen that look in Valancy's eyes before. But what would Amelia say? And Ben?

"To marry a man you know nothing about," thought Cousin Georgiana aloud.

"I know more about him than I know of Edward Beck," said Valancy.

"Edward Beck goes to church," said Cousin Georgiana. "Does Bar—does your husband?"

"He has promised that he will go with me on fine Sundays," said Valancy.

When they turned in at the Stirling gate Valancy gave an exclamation of surprise.

"Look at my rosebush! Why, it's blooming!"

It was. Covered with blossoms. Great, crimson, velvety blossoms. Fragrant. Glowing. Wonderful.

"My cutting it to pieces must have done it good," said Valancy, laughing. She gathered a handful of the blossoms—they would look well on the supper-table of the verandah at Mistawis—and went, still laughing, up the walk, conscious that Olive was standing on the steps, Olive, goddess-like in loveliness, looking down with a slight frown on her forehead. Olive, beautiful, insolent. Her full form voluptuous in its swathings of rose silk and lace. Her golden-brown hair curling richly under her big, white-frilled hat. Her colour ripe and melting.

"Beautiful," thought Valancy coolly, "but"—as if she suddenly saw her cousin through new eyes—"without the slightest touch of distinction."

So Valancy had come home, thank goodness, thought Olive. But Valancy was not looking like a repentant, returned prodigal. This was the cause of Olive's frown. She was looking triumphant—graceless! That outlandish dress—that queer hat—those hands full of blood-red roses. Yet there was something about both dress and hat, as Olive instantly felt, that was entirely lacking in her own attire. This deepened the frown. She put out a condescending hand.

"So you're back, Doss? Very warm day, isn't it? Did you walk in?"

"Yes. Coming in?"

"Oh, no. I've just been in. I've come often to comfort poor Aunty. She's been so lonesome. I'm going to Mrs. Bartlett's tea. I have to help pour. She's giving it for her cousin from Toronto. Such a charming girl. You'd have loved meeting her, Doss. I think Mrs. Bartlett did send you a card. Perhaps you'll drop in later on."

"No, I don't think so," said Valancy indifferently. "I'll have to be home to get Barney's supper. We're going for a moonlit canoe ride around Mistawis tonight."

"Barney? Supper?" gasped Olive. "What do you mean, Valancy Stirling?"

"Valancy Snaith, by the grace of God."

Valancy flaunted her wedding-ring in Olive's stricken face. Then she nimbly stepped past her and into the house. Cousin Georgiana followed. She would not miss a moment of the great scene, even though Olive did look as if she were going to faint.

Olive did not faint. She went stupidly down the street to Mrs. Bartlett's. What did Doss mean? She couldn't have—that ring—oh, what fresh scandal was that wretched girl bringing on her defenceless family now? She should have been—shut up—long ago.

Valancy opened the sitting-room door and stepped unexpectedly right into a grim assemblage of Stirlings. They had not come together of malice prepense. Aunt Wellington and Cousin Gladys and Aunt Mildred and Cousin Sarah had just called in on their way home from a meeting of the missionary society. Uncle James had dropped in to give Amelia some information regarding a doubtful investment. Uncle Benjamin had called, apparently, to tell them it was a hot day and ask them what was the difference between a bee and a donkey. Cousin Stickles had been tactless enough to know the answer—"one gets all the honey, the other all the whacks"—and Uncle Benjamin was in a bad humour. In all of their minds, unexpressed, was the idea of finding out if Valancy had yet come home, and, if not, what steps must be taken in the matter.

Well, here was Valancy at last, a poised, confident thing, not humble and deprecating as she should have been. And so oddly, improperly young-looking. She stood in the doorway and looked at them, Cousin Georgiana timorous, expectant, behind her. Valancy was so happy she didn't hate her people any more. She could even see a number of good qualities in them that she had never seen before. And she was sorry for them. Her pity made her quite gentle.

"Well, Mother," she said pleasantly.

"So you've come home at last!" said Mrs. Frederick, getting out a handkerchief. She dared not be outraged, but she did not mean to be cheated of her tears.

"Well, not exactly," said Valancy. She threw her bomb. "I thought I ought to drop in and tell you I was married. Last Tuesday night. To Barney Snaith."

Uncle Benjamin bounced up and sat down again.

"God bless my soul!" he said dully. The rest seemed turned to stone. Except Cousin Gladys, who turned faint. Aunt Mildred and Uncle Wellington had to help her out to the kitchen.

"She would have to keep up the Victorian traditions," said Valancy, with a grin. She sat down, uninvited, on a chair. Cousin Stickles had begun to sob.

"Is there one day in your life that you haven't cried?" asked Valancy curiously.

"Valancy," said Uncle James, being the first to recover the power of utterance, "did you mean what you said just now?"

"I did."

"Do you mean to say that you have actually gone and married—married—that notorious Barney Snaith—that—that—criminal—that——"

"I have."

"Then," said Uncle James violently, "you are a shameless creature, lost to all sense of propriety and virtue, and I wash my hands entirely of you. I do not want ever to see your face again."

"What have you left to say when I commit murder?" asked Valancy.

Uncle Benjamin again appealed to God to bless his soul.

"That drunken outlaw—that——"

A dangerous spark appeared in Valancy's eyes. They might say what they liked to and of her but they should not abuse Barney.

"Say 'damn' and you'll feel better," she suggested.

"I can express my feelings without blasphemy. And I tell you have covered yourself with eternal disgrace and infamy by marrying that drunkard——"

"You would be more endurable if you got drunk occasionally. Barney is not a drunkard."

"He was seen drunk in Port Lawrence—pickled to the gills," said Uncle Benjamin.

"If that is true—and I don't believe it—he had a good reason for it. Now I suggest that you all stop looking tragic and accept the situation. I'm married—you can't undo that. And I'm perfectly happy."

"I suppose we ought to be thankful he has really married her," said Cousin Sarah, by way of trying to look on the bright side.

"If he really has," said Uncle James, who had just washed his hands of Valancy. "Who married you?"

"Mr. Towers, of Port Lawrence."

"By a Free Methodist!" groaned Mrs. Frederick—as if to have been married by an imprisoned Methodist would have been a shade less disgraceful. It was the first thing she had said. Mrs. Frederick didn't know what to say. The whole thing was too horrible—too nightmarish. She was sure she must wake up soon. After all their bright hopes at the funeral!

"It makes me think of those what-d'ye-call-'ems," said Uncle Benjamin helplessly. "Those yarns—you know—of fairies taking babies out of their cradles."

"Valancy could hardly be a changeling at twenty-nine," said Aunt Wellington satirically.

"She was the oddest-looking baby I ever saw, anyway," averred Uncle Benjamin. "I said so at the time—you remember, Amelia? I said I had never seen such eyes in a human head."

"I'm glad I never had any children," said Cousin Sarah. "If they don't break your heart in one way they do it in another."

"Isn't it better to have your heart broken than to have it wither up?" queried Valancy. "Before it could be broken it must have felt something splendid. That would be worth the pain."

"Dippy—clean dippy," muttered Uncle Benjamin, with a vague, unsatisfactory feeling that somebody had said something like that before.

"Valancy," said Mrs. Frederick solemnly, "do you ever pray to be forgiven for disobeying your mother?"

"I should pray to be forgiven for obeying you so long," said Valancy stubbornly. "But I don't pray about that at all. I just thank God every day for my happiness."

"I would rather," said Mrs. Frederick, beginning to cry rather belatedly, "see you dead before me than listen to what you have told me today."

Valancy looked at her mother and aunts, and wondered if they could ever have known anything of the real meaning of love. She felt sorrier for them than ever. They were so very pitiable. And they never suspected it.

"Barney Snaith is a scoundrel to have deluded you into marrying him," said Uncle James violently.

"Oh, I did the deluding. I asked him to marry me," said Valancy, with a wicked smile.

"Have you no pride?" demanded Aunt Wellington.

"Lots of it. I am proud that I have achieved a husband by my own unaided efforts. Cousin Georgiana here wanted to help me to Edward Beck."

"Edward Beck is worth twenty thousand dollars and has the finest house between here and Port Lawrence," said Uncle Benjamin.

"That sounds very fine," said Valancy scornfully, "but it isn't worth that"—she snapped her fingers—"compared to feeling Barney's arms around me and his cheek against mine."

"Oh, Doss!" said Cousin Stickles. Cousin Sarah said, "Oh, Doss!" Aunt Wellington said, "Valancy, you need not be indecent."

"Why, it surely isn't indecent to like to have your husband put his arm around you? I should think it would be indecent if you didn't."

"Why expect decency from her?" inquired Uncle James sarcastically. "She has cut herself off from decency forevermore. She has made her bed. Let her lie on it."

"Thanks," said Valancy very gratefully. "How you would have enjoyed being Torquemada! Now, I must really be getting back. Mother, may I have those three woollen cushions I worked last winter?"

"Take them—take everything!" said Mrs. Frederick.

"Oh, I don't want everything—or much. I don't want my Blue Castle cluttered. Just the cushions. I'll call for them some day when we motor in."

Valancy rose and went to the door. There she turned. She was sorrier than ever for them all. They had no Blue Castle in the purple solitudes of Mistawis.

"The trouble with you people is that you don't laugh enough," she said.

"Doss, dear," said Cousin Georgiana mournfully, "some day you will discover that blood is thicker than water."

"Of course it is. But who wants water to be thick?" parried Valancy. "We want water to be thin—sparkling—crystal-clear."

Cousin Stickles groaned.

Valancy would not ask any of them to come and see her—she was afraid they would come out of curiosity. But she said:

"Do you mind if I drop in and see you once in a while, Mother?"

"My house will always be open to you," said Mrs. Frederick, with a mournful dignity.

"You should never recognise her again," said Uncle James sternly, as the door closed behind Valancy.

"I cannot quite forget that I am a mother," said Mrs. Frederick. "My poor, unfortunate girl!"

"I dare say the marriage isn't legal," said Uncle James comfortingly. "He has probably been married half a dozen times before. But I am through with her. I have done all I could, Amelia. I think you will admit that. Henceforth"—Uncle James was terribly solemn about it—"Valancy is to me as one dead."

"Mrs. Barney Snaith," said Cousin Georgiana, as if trying it out to see how it would sound.

"He has a score of aliases, no doubt," said Uncle Benjamin. "For my part, I believe the man is half Indian. I haven't a doubt they're living in a wigwam."

"If he has married her under the name of Snaith and it isn't his real name wouldn't that make the marriage null and void?" asked Cousin Stickles hopefully.

Uncle James shook his head.

"No, it is the man who marries, not the name."

"You know," said Cousin Gladys, who had recovered and returned but was still shaky, "I had a distinct premonition of this at Herbert's silver dinner. I remarked it at the time. When she was defending Snaith. You remember, of course. It came over me like a revelation. I spoke to David when I went home about it."

"What—what," demanded Aunt Wellington of the universe, "has come over Valancy? Valancy!"

The universe did not answer but Uncle James did.

"Isn't there something coming up of late about secondary personalities cropping out? I don't hold with many of those new-fangled notions, but there may be something in this one. It would account for her incomprehensible conduct."

"Valancy is so fond of mushrooms," sighed Cousin Georgiana. "I'm afraid she'll get poisoned eating toadstools by mistake living up back in the woods."

"There are worse things than death," said Uncle James, believing that it was the first time in the world that such a statement had been made.

"Nothing can ever be the same again!" sobbed Cousin Stickles.

Valancy, hurrying along the dusty road, back to cool Mistawis and her purple island, had forgotten all about them—just as she had forgotten that she might drop dead at any moment if she hurried.





CHAPTER XXVIII

Summer passed by. The Stirling clan—with the insignificant exception of Cousin Georgiana—had tacitly agreed to follow Uncle James' example and look upon Valancy as one dead. To be sure, Valancy had an unquiet, ghostly habit of recurring resurrections when she and Barney clattered through Deerwood and out to the Port in that unspeakable car. Valancy, bareheaded, with stars in her eyes. Barney, bareheaded, smoking his pipe. But shaved. Always shaved now, if any of them had noticed it. They even had the audacity to go in to Uncle Benjamin's store to buy groceries. Twice Uncle Benjamin ignored them. Was not Valancy one of the dead? While Snaith had never existed. But the third time he told Barney he was a scoundrel who should be hung for luring an unfortunate, weak-minded girl away from her home and friends.

Barney's one straight eyebrow went up.

"I have made her happy," he said coolly, "and she was miserable with her friends. So that's that."

Uncle Benjamin stared. It had never occurred to him that women had to be, or ought to be, "made happy."

"You—you pup!" he said.

"Why be so unoriginal?" queried Barney amiably. "Anybody could call me a pup. Why not think of something worthy of the Stirlings? Besides, I'm not a pup. I'm really quite a middle-aged dog. Thirty-five, if you're interested in knowing."

Uncle Benjamin remembered just in time that Valancy was dead. He turned his back on Barney.

Valancy was happy—gloriously and entirely so. She seemed to be living in a wonderful house of life and every day opened a new, mysterious room. It was in a world which had nothing in common with the one she had left behind—a world where time was not—which was young with immortal youth—where there was neither past nor future but only the present. She surrendered herself utterly to the charm of it.

The absolute freedom of it all was unbelievable. They could do exactly as they liked. No Mrs. Grundy. No traditions. No relatives. Or in-laws. "Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away," as Barney quoted shamelessly.

Valancy had gone home once and got her cushions. And Cousin Georgiana had given her one of her famous candlewick spreads of most elaborate design. "For your spare-room bed, dear," she said.

"But I haven't got any spare-room," said Valancy.

Cousin Georgiana looked horrified. A house without a spare-room was monstrous to her.

"But it's a lovely spread," said Valancy, with a kiss, "and I'm so glad to have it. I'll put it on my own bed. Barney's old patch-work quilt is getting ragged."

"I don't see how you can be contented to live up back," sighed Cousin Georgiana. "It's so out of the world."

"Contented!" Valancy laughed. What was the use of trying to explain to Cousin Georgiana. "It is," she agreed, "most gloriously and entirely out of the world."

"And you are really happy, dear?" asked Cousin Georgiana wistfully.

"I really am," said Valancy gravely, her eyes dancing.

"Marriage is such a serious thing," sighed Cousin Georgiana.

"When it's going to last long," agreed Valancy.

Cousin Georgiana did not understand this at all. But it worried her and she lay awake at nights wondering what Valancy meant by it.

Valancy loved her Blue Castle and was completely satisfied with it. The big living-room had three windows, all commanding exquisite views of exquisite Mistawis. The one in the end of the room was an oriel window—which Tom MacMurray, Barney explained, had got out of some little, old "up back" church that had been sold. It faced the west and when the sunsets flooded it Valancy's whole being knelt in prayer as if in some great cathedral. The new moons always looked down through it, the lower pine boughs swayed about the top of it, and all through the nights the soft, dim silver of the lake dreamed through it.

There was a stone fireplace on the other side. No desecrating gas imitation but a real fireplace where you could burn real logs. With a big grizzly bearskin on the floor before it, and beside it a hideous, red-plush sofa of Tom MacMurray's régime. But its ugliness was hidden by silver-grey timber wolf skins, and Valancy's cushions made it gay and comfortable. In a corner a nice, tall, lazy old clock ticked—the right kind of a clock. One that did not hurry the hours away but ticked them off deliberately. It was the jolliest looking old clock. A fat, corpulent clock with a great, round, man's face painted on it, the hands stretching out of its nose and the hours encircling it like a halo.

There was a big glass case of stuffed owls and several deer heads—likewise of Tom MacMurray's vintage. Some comfortable old chairs that asked to be sat upon. A squat little chair with a cushion was prescriptively Banjo's. If anybody else dared sit on it Banjo glared him out of it with his topaz-hued, black-ringed eyes. Banjo had an adorable habit of hanging over the back of it, trying to catch his own tail. Losing his temper because he couldn't catch it. Giving it a fierce bite for spite when he did catch it. Yowling malignantly with pain. Barney and Valancy laughed at him until they ached. But it was Good Luck they loved. They were both agreed that Good Luck was so lovable that he practically amounted to an obsession.

One side of the wall was lined with rough, homemade book-shelves filled with books, and between the two side windows hung an old mirror in a faded gilt frame, with fat cupids gamboling in the panel over the glass. A mirror, Valancy thought, that must be like the fabled mirror into which Venus had once looked and which thereafter reflected as beautiful every woman who looked into it. Valancy thought she was almost pretty in that mirror. But that may have been because she had shingled her hair.

This was before the day of bobs and was regarded as a wild, unheard-of proceeding—unless you had typhoid. When Mrs. Frederick heard of it she almost decided to erase Valancy's name from the family Bible. Barney cut the hair, square off at the back of Valancy's neck, bringing it down in a short black fringe over her forehead. It gave a meaning and a purpose to her little, three-cornered face that it never had possessed before. Even her nose ceased to irritate her. Her eyes were bright, and her sallow skin had cleared to the hue of creamy ivory. The old family joke had come true—she was really fat at last—anyway, no longer skinny. Valancy might never be beautiful, but she was of the type that looks its best in the woods—elfin—mocking—alluring.

Her heart bothered her very little. When an attack threatened she was generally able to head it off with Dr. Trent's prescription. The only bad one she had was one night when she was temporarily out of medicine. And it was a bad one. For the time being, Valancy realised keenly that death was actually waiting to pounce on her any moment. But the rest of the time she would not—did not—let herself remember it at all.





CHAPTER XXIX

Valancy toiled not, neither did she spin. There was really very little work to do. She cooked their meals on a coal-oil stove, performing all her little domestic rites carefully and exultingly, and they ate out on the verandah that almost overhung the lake. Before them lay Mistawis, like a scene out of some fairy tale of old time. And Barney smiling his twisted, enigmatical smile at her across the table.

"What a view old Tom picked out when he built this shack!" Barney would say exultantly.

Supper was the meal Valancy liked best. The faint laughter of winds was always about them and the colours of Mistawis, imperial and spiritual, under the changing clouds were something that cannot be expressed in mere words. Shadows, too. Clustering in the pines until a wind shook them out and pursued them over Mistawis. They lay all day along the shores, threaded by ferns and wild blossoms. They stole around the headlands in the glow of the sunset, until twilight wove them all into one great web of dusk.

The cats, with their wise, innocent little faces, would sit on the verandah railing and eat the tidbits Barney flung them. And how good everything tasted! Valancy, amid all the romance of Mistawis, never forgot that men had stomachs. Barney paid her no end of compliments on her cooking.

"After all," he admitted, "there's something to be said for square meals. I've mostly got along by boiling two or three dozen eggs hard at once and eating a few when I got hungry, with a slice of bacon once in a while and a jorum of tea."

Valancy poured tea out of Barney's little battered old pewter teapot of incredible age. She had not even a set of dishes—only Barney's mismatched chipped bits—and a dear, big, pobby old jug of robin's-egg blue.

After the meal was over they would sit there and talk for hours—or sit and say nothing, in all the languages of the world, Barney pulling away at his pipe, Valancy dreaming idly and deliciously, gazing at the far-off hills beyond Mistawis where the spires of firs came out against the sunset. The moonlight would begin to silver the Mistawis dusk. Bats would begin to swoop darkly against the pale, western gold. The little waterfall that came down on the high bank not far away would, by some whim of the wildwood gods, begin to look like a wonderful white woman beckoning through the spicy, fragrant evergreens. And Leander would begin to chuckle diabolically on the mainland shore. How sweet it was to sit there and do nothing in the beautiful silence, with Barney at the other side of the table, smoking!

There were plenty of other islands in sight, though none were near enough to be troublesome as neighbours. There was one little group of islets far off to the west which they called the Fortunate Isles. At sunrise they looked like a cluster of emeralds, at sunset like a cluster of amethysts. They were too small for houses; but the lights on the larger islands would bloom out all over the lake, and bonfires would be lighted on their shores, streaming up into the wood shadows and throwing great, blood-red ribbons over the waters. Music would drift to them alluringly from boats here and there, or from the verandahs on the big house of the millionaire on the biggest island.

"Would you like a house like that, Moonlight?" Barney asked once, waving his hand at it. He had taken to calling her Moonlight, and Valancy loved it.

"No," said Valancy, who had once dreamed of a mountain castle ten times the size of the rich man's "cottage" and now pitied the poor inhabitants of palaces. "No. It's too elegant. I would have to carry it with me everywhere I went. On my back like a snail. It would own me—possess me, body and soul. I like a house I can love and cuddle and boss. Just like ours here. I don't envy Hamilton Gossard 'the finest summer residence in Canada.' It is magnificent, but it isn't my Blue Castle."

Away down at the far end of the lake they got every night a glimpse of a big, continental train rushing through a clearing. Valancy liked to watch its lighted windows flash by and wonder who was on it and what hopes and fears it carried. She also amused herself by picturing Barney and herself going to the dances and dinners in the houses on the islands, but she did not want to go in reality. Once they did go to a masquerade dance in the pavilion at one of the hotels up the lake, and had a glorious evening, but slipped away in their canoe, before unmasking time, back to the Blue Castle.

"It was lovely—but I don't want to go again," said Valancy.

So many hours a day Barney shut himself up in Bluebeard's Chamber. Valancy never saw the inside of it. From the smells that filtered through at times she concluded he must be conducting chemical experiments—or counterfeiting money. Valancy supposed there must be smelly processes in making counterfeit money. But she did not trouble herself about it. She had no desire to peer into the locked chambers of Barney's house of life. His past and his future concerned her not. Only this rapturous present. Nothing else mattered.

Once he went away and stayed away two days and nights. He had asked Valancy if she would be afraid to stay alone and she had said she would not. He never told her where he had been. She was not afraid to be alone, but she was horribly lonely. The sweetest sound she had ever heard was Lady Jane's clatter through the woods when Barney returned. And then his signal whistle from the shore. She ran down to the landing rock to greet him—to nestle herself into his eager arms—they did seem eager.

"Have you missed me, Moonlight?" Barney was whispering.

"It seems a hundred years since you went away," said Valancy.

"I won't leave you again."

"You must," protested Valancy, "if you want to. I'd be miserable if I thought you wanted to go and didn't, because of me. I want you to feel perfectly free."

Barney laughed—a little cynically.

"There is no such thing as freedom on earth," he said. "Only different kinds of bondages. And comparative bondages. You think you are free now because you've escaped from a peculiarly unbearable kind of bondage. But are you? You love me—that's a bondage."

"Who said or wrote that 'the prison unto which we doom ourselves no prison is'?" asked Valancy dreamily, clinging to his arm as they climbed up the rock steps.

"Ah, now you have it," said Barney. "That's all the freedom we can hope for—the freedom to choose our prison. But, Moonlight,"—he stopped at the door of the Blue Castle and looked about him—at the glorious lake, the great, shadowy woods, the bonfires, the twinkling lights—"Moonlight, I'm glad to be home again. When I came down through the woods and saw my home lights—mine—gleaming out under the old pines—something I'd never seen before—oh, girl, I was glad—glad!"

But in spite of Barney's doctrine of bondage, Valancy thought they were splendidly free. It was amazing to be able to sit up half the night and look at the moon if you wanted to. To be late for meals if you wanted to—she who had always been rebuked so sharply by her mother and so reproachfully by Cousin Stickles if she were one minute late. Dawdle over meals as long as you wanted to. Leave your crusts if you wanted to. Not come home at all for meals if you wanted to. Sit on a sun-warm rock and paddle your bare feet in the hot sand if you wanted to. Just sit and do nothing in the beautiful silence if you wanted to. In short, do any fool thing you wanted to whenever the notion took you. If that wasn't freedom, what was?





CHAPTER XXX

They didn't spend all their days on the island. They spent more than half of them wandering at will through the enchanted Muskoka country. Barney knew the woods as a book and he taught their lore and craft to Valancy. He could always find trail and haunt of the shy wood people. Valancy learned the different fairy-likenesses of the mosses—the charm and exquisiteness of woodland blossoms. She learned to know every bird at sight and mimic its call—though never so perfectly as Barney. She made friends with every kind of tree. She learned to paddle a canoe as well as Barney himself. She liked to be out in the rain and she never caught cold.

Sometimes they took a lunch with them and went berrying—strawberries and blueberries. How pretty blueberries were—the dainty green of the unripe berries, the glossy pinks and scarlets of the half ripes, the misty blue of the fully matured! And Valancy learned the real flavour of the strawberry in its highest perfection. There was a certain sunlit dell on the banks of Mistawis along which white birches grew on one side and on the other still, changeless ranks of young spruces. There were long grasses at the roots of the birches, combed down by the winds and wet with morning dew late into the afternoons. Here they found berries that might have graced the banquets of Lucullus, great ambrosial sweetnesses hanging like rubies to long, rosy stalks. They lifted them by the stalk and ate them from it, uncrushed and virgin, tasting each berry by itself with all its wild fragrance ensphered therein. When Valancy carried any of these berries home that elusive essence escaped and they became nothing more than the common berries of the market-place—very kitchenly good indeed, but not as they would have been, eaten in their birch dell until her fingers were stained as pink as Aurora's eyelids.

Or they went after water-lilies. Barney knew where to find them in the creeks and bays of Mistawis. Then the Blue Castle was glorious with them, every receptacle that Valancy could contrive filled with the exquisite things. If not water lilies then cardinal flowers, fresh and vivid from the swamps of Mistawis, where they burned like ribbons of flame.

Sometimes they went trouting on little nameless rivers or hidden brooks on whose banks Naiads might have sunned their white, wet limbs. Then all they took with them were some raw potatoes and salt. They roasted the potatoes over a fire and Barney showed Valancy how to cook the trout by wrapping them in leaves, coating them with mud and baking them in a bed of hot coals. Never were such delicious meals. Valancy had such an appetite it was no wonder she put flesh on her bones.

Or they just prowled and explored through woods that always seemed to be expecting something wonderful to happen. At least, that was the way Valancy felt about them. Down the next hollow—over the next hill—you would find it.

"We don't know where we're going, but isn't it fun to go?" Barney used to say.

Once or twice night overtook them, too far from their Blue Castle to get back. But Barney made a fragrant bed of bracken and fir boughs and they slept on it dreamlessly, under a ceiling of old spruces with moss hanging from them, while beyond them moonlight and the murmur of pines blended together so that one could hardly tell which was light and which was sound.

There were rainy days, of course, when Muskoka was a wet green land. Days when showers drifted across Mistawis like pale ghosts of rain and they never thought of staying in because of it. Days when it rained in right good earnest and they had to stay in. Then Barney shut himself up in Bluebeard's Chamber and Valancy read, or dreamed on the wolfskins with Good Luck purring beside her and Banjo watching them suspiciously from his own peculiar chair. On Sunday evenings they paddled across to a point of land and walked from there through the woods to the little Free Methodist church. One felt really too happy for Sunday. Valancy had never really liked Sundays before.

And always, Sundays and weekdays, she was with Barney. Nothing else really mattered. And what a companion he was! How understanding! How jolly! How—how Barney—like! That summed it all up.

Valancy had taken some of her two hundred dollars out of the bank and spent it in pretty clothes. She had a little smoke-blue chiffon which she always put on when they spent the evening at home—smoke-blue with touches of silver about it. It was after she began wearing it that Barney began calling her Moonlight.

"Moonlight and blue twilight—that is what you look like in that dress. I like it. It belongs to you. You aren't exactly pretty, but you have some adorable beauty-spots. Your eyes. And that little kissable dent just between your collar bones. You have the wrist and ankle of an aristocrat. That little head of yours is beautifully shaped. And when you look backward over your shoulder you're maddening—especially in twilight or moonlight. An elf maiden. A wood sprite. You belong to the woods, Moonlight—you should never be out of them. In spite of your ancestry, there is something wild and remote and untamed about you. And you have such a nice, sweet, throaty, summery voice. Such a nice voice for love-making."

"Shure an' ye've kissed the Blarney Stone," scoffed Valancy. But she tasted these compliments for weeks.

She got a pale green bathing-suit, too—a garment which would have given her clan their deaths if they had ever seen her in it. Barney taught her how to swim. Sometimes she put her bathing-dress on when she got up and didn't take it off until she went to bed—running down to the water for a plunge whenever she felt like it and sprawling on the sun-warm rocks to dry.

She had forgotten all the old humiliating things that used to come up against her in the night—the injustices and the disappointments. It was as if they had all happened to some other person—not to her, Valancy Snaith, who had always been happy.

"I understand now what it means to be born again," she told Barney.

Holmes speaks of grief "staining backward" through the pages of life; but Valancy found her happiness had stained backward likewise and flooded with rose-colour her whole previous drab existence. She found it hard to believe that she had ever been lonely and unhappy and afraid.

"When death comes, I shall have lived," thought Valancy. "I shall have had my hour."

And her dust-pile!

One day Valancy had heaped up the sand in the little island cove in a tremendous cone and stuck a gay little Union Jack on top of it.

"What are you celebrating?" Barney wanted to know.

"I'm just exorcising an old demon," Valancy told him.