Dr. Thornberg stretched himself on the soft, green grass beside the spring and placed his medicine case under his head.
"Poor old Don," he said to his horse, "you are tired, too. But we are over the mountain now and the sun is an hour high. We have time to rest a little."
He closed his eyes, hoping to catch a nap, but presently there came to his ears an unwelcome sound of crackling twigs and rustling underbrush.
"It's a girl's step," he decided, after listening critically for a moment. "One of those summer boarders, I suppose. O Lord! I must walk back with her and be talked to death – and Don objects to being led."
But his face brightened as a tall, slender girl, with a camera in one hand and a wide sun hat slung over her shoulder, pushed aside the lowhanging branches and stepped out into the open space around the spring.
"Good evening, Miss Nina." He would have risen to his feet, but she stopped him with an impatient gesture.
"Lie still and rest," she commanded, "You've been riding all night and all day. Now don't try to deny it. I saw you start out at five o'clock last evening."
"I rested a while last night," he said.
She had knelt down by the spring and was launching dead leaves on its surface and watching them float down the tiny stream that trickled from it.
"Yes, I fancy you've rested," she said; "you sat in a splint-bottomed chair and held a sick baby for a few hours so its mother could sleep, or if you slept there were two or three other humans in your bed and ten in the room and the windows were closed to keep out the night air. I've heard how you rest."
She stooped to drink at the spring, and then leaned back against a great rock beside it, waiting for him to change the subject. He always changed the subject when she mentioned his work – sometimes skilfully, sometimes very awkwardly. She took a barbarous delight in speaking to him of his good deeds and watching him writhe.
"I thought at first you were one of Uncle Dick's boarders," he said.
"Thank you," she answered, with scornful emphasis. "Do you mean to say that I look like a parasite?"
"I will say that your appearance is that of a typical proletarian if you are particularly desirous of my saying it. Otherwise I shall not do such violence to the truth."
"He thinks that is a compliment," Nina said reflectively, to the branches above his head, "but it isn't."
Dr. Thornberg looked up at the branches also, but he saw only the picture Nina made leaning against the gray, lichen-grown rock, with her short-cropped, boyish curls, scornful red lips, dress-reform blouse, and thick-soled little boots extended and crossed below an unusually short golf skirt. In this Rip Van Winkle community, where bicycling was still considered unlady-like and sweaters almost immoral, Nina was somewhat startling.
"To give a painfully accurate diagnosis of the case," he said teasingly, "I must confess you look to me like a crank."
"That is better," said Nina encouragingly, "If you keep on improving at this rate you will soon be able to flatter a girl of my species as skillfully as any other kind."
"Oh, are you a species, then?" he questioned in a very much frightened voice. "Are there others? I had hoped, you know, that you were merely a freak."
She laughed. They were very good comrades, these two children of nature, and always laughed at each other's jokes, even if they were not especially brilliant ones.
"I had forgotten," the man said, with a sudden change of manner, "I have a message for you."
"From over the mountain?" queried Nina. "Does old Father Johnson still insist on my coming over to help him hold camp-meeting?"
"No, he has given up that idea, but really it isn't strange that these people think you will do anything and everything they ask. You spoil them."
"And who sets me the example?" Nina retorted rather sharply. "To quote Father Johnson, 'coon needn't call 'possum varmint.' "
"I don't know how I could have forgotten that message," the doctor said, ignoring her allusion to his work, "but I reckon it's because the first glimpse of you always makes me forget that there is such a thing as trouble."
"At first glimpse," mocked Nina sotto voce, "he thought I was a summer boarder. Problem: Which summer boarder?"
"I stopped at Granny Peterson's," he went on, hardly noticing the interruption. "You know she took poor, little Lucile, when the Whitings turned her out of their house!"
"Yes, I know."
"Lucile wants you to come there in the morning. She made me promise to tell you," he added in an apologetic tone, which brought a flash of indignation to Nina's eyes. "She was half delirious and I couldn't quiet her any other way. Her child is dead and the poor girl wants it buried in a white dress. Granny made a little blue calico slip for it, but Lucile can't bear the thought of that. 'When Nina comes,' she said to me, 'Nina won't let them bury him in blue calico.' "
The doctor's voice had grown a trifle husky, and Nina was diligently examining the slide of her camera.
"Granny's son has sent for her to come and live with him," the doctor said, "but she refuses to go because, of course, she could not take Lucile with her, and she is determined not to leave the poor girl shelterless."
"But they are penniless now," Nina said; "they are on the verge of starvation." "So she confessed to me," the doctor said, "but she is determined to stay with Lucile."
Nina smote the camera beside her with a small clenched fist. "I'l do it," she cried. "Tell Granny she must go to her son. I'll take care of Lucile."
"But your aunt–" the doctor began.
"My house is my castle," answered Nina roughly. "if Aunt Dolores prefers her own house she can go back to it whenever she chooses."
"But what will 'they' say?" the man protested, knowing well his protest was useless.
"Let them say," she answered, with a shrug of her straight, young shoulders.
It was a month later that Nina, sorting the morning mail, found a letter for Lucile. Aunt Dolores speculated on the probable nature of its contents while opening her Sunday School Times.
"It is the first letter she has, received since she came here," Aunt Dolores said. "Perhaps it is from her child's father. Did you ever ask her, Nina, who he was? She refused to tell others, but she surely would tell you."
"I have not asked her," answered Nina. "And I shall not ask her. Nor shall you."
"In my day," said Aunt Dolores severely, "girls were taught not to speak disrespectfully to their elders. It may be from her brother," she added presently, but he has written to no one since he left, not even to the Whitings. Poor boy, he must be heart-broken over his sister's disgrace."
Nina was opening her own letters and made no reply.
"What are you going to do with her?" Aunt Dolores inquired in a hopeless voice.
"I am going to keep her here as long as I live and will her half my property when I die."
"Nina! what would your poor, dead mother say?"
"I don't know," answered Nina, "I know you said last year that you were delighted when Lucile visited me for two weeks. 'She can introduce you to so many desirable people,' you said.'"
"Quite true," assented Nina's logical aunt, but she can not now. You know perfectly well that even the Whitings who adopted her when she was an infant have cast her off."
Nina cut the pages of a magazine in chilling silence – but Aunt Dolores was not chilled.
"If you kept her here as a servant," that lady lamented, "I would feel that we were disgraced forever. But to have her at your table, Nina, to take her driving, as you insist on doing. I suppose when the roads are better you will get another bicycle and take her wheeling with you."
"I really hadn't thought of that," answered Nina sweetly. "Thank you so much for the suggestion. I shall order one today." She rose and left the room, taking Lucile's letter with her. She stopped at Lucile's door to leave the letter, then went on to her own room and stood looking out at an open window. The air of gay nonchalance with which she faced the world slipped from her like a mask. The slender figure drooped a little. Once or twice she shivered, though she was standing in a full blaze of spring sunshine.
"I thought I was beginning to forget," she said. "He isn't worth remembering." She started as there came a sudden, imperious tap at the door.
"Come in," she called.
Lucile opened the door and came across the room. In her hands was the letter Nina had given her a moment before, in her eyes a ghastly fear.
"Lucile!" Nina put both arms around the trembling girl. "Come and lie down. You are not well. Oh, Lucile, I wish I could convince you that you are not half so bad as you think yourself."
The words burst forth almost against her will. It was the first time she had spoken a word to Lucile that she would not have spoken a year ago when she was her guest.
"Oh, Lucile, because you have given all for love, 'estate, good fame–"
"Don't," gasped Lucile. "I came to you for help."
Nina had almost carried her across the room and laid her on the couch. She stood looking down at her for a moment in puzzled silence.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand," she said gently. "Please tell me how I can help you."
"Don't quote Emerson to me," cried Lucile. "Don't try to make me think I'm a martyr. Tell me I must not – must not marry him."
"I don't quite understand," Nina said again; "If you mean the man you – loved so much, I see no reason why you should not marry him." "Don't say that, Nina. It would be wrong–wrong. Tell me it would be wrong," she pleaded, "and make me believe it, Nina."
Nina looked down at the frail, little figure cowering among the gay pillows.
"I shall do no such thing," she said bluntly, "at least not without some reason for it. You've got some Quixotic notion in your head. You always were too conscientious, Lucile."
But Lucile raised her face appealingly from the pillows and the agony in her eyes wrung a cry of alarm from the older girl.
"Oh Lucile, tell me about it. How can I help you? If he loves you and wants you how can it be wrong? I thought," she hesitated, "that the letter was from your brother."
"It was," moaned Lucile.
"He did not desert you, then." Nina realized suddenly that the room was full of sunshine. "He followed the man? Is that why–"
"He is the man."
The sunshine faded from the room. Nina struggled against the darkness that was closing around her, though her–crushing her heart.
"It can't be," she moaned. "It can't be. Not Hugh."
"Oh Nina, you mustn't blame him. It was not his fault."
"And he left you–to starve–how could–"
"He was sick," Lucile protested, wearily, "and, besides, I never wrote him about my trouble. He wrote from the hospital and then–I thought he must be dead until today. Read this–" she thrust the letter into Nina's hand. "I have not read it. I saw that he wanted me to go to him, and I dared not read the rest – I am so weak and wicked. You will save me, Nina, from that."
"Yes," answered Nina's white lips, "I will save you from that."
"And you will not blame him? Truly, Nina, it was all my fault. When he found out how we cared he went away – for that post-graduate course–you remember, Nina?"
Yes, Nina remembered.
"And last summer he wrote that he was going farther – going across the continent, Nina, without seeing me again, but I begged him so to come and tell me goodby. Just to come and kiss me goodby. I thought we were strong enough for that. I did not understand myself–or him–or human nature. It was my fault."
She lay back on the pillows, exhausted, and Nina left the room, returning at once with a sleeping draught.
"Drink this," she whispered, and sat by the couch smoothing back Lucile's soft hair until she fell asleep.
Sitting there with the strange, new pain struggling with the old pain in her heart, Nina's eyes fell on the letter that had slipped from its envelope and lay on the floor at her feet.
"I am not your brother." The words stared up at her in Hugh's familiar hand.
Not Lucile's brother! With trembling hands and straining eyes Nina tore out the meaning of the next few sentences.
"You know how Col. Whiting found us when he was visiting his brother on the Mississippi. You know that I remember the little woman who tied us in the raft together – a frail little woman with big, dark eyes like yours, Lucile, the woman whose picture was in your locket. I have no doubt that she was your mother, but I do not believe she was mine. The face that I cried for in the darkness of that horrible night on the raft was a fair woman's face, framed in fair hair, like mine. I told you this once when we were children; do you remember? And you cried so, thinking I might not be your brother, that I never mentioned it again, and forgot it long ago, but in the hospital that fair face haunted my delirium and I remembered. O Lucile, I am so glad. So glad that I began at the wrong end of the letter and told you how glad I am before I told you why I am glad. Come to me, darling–"
The letter fell from Nina's hands. She rose to her feet, slowly, as if struggling against a great weight that would have dragged her down.
"Darling," she repeated, fiercely, "darling."
From the mirror across the room a face looked back at her that she had never seen before – a face with straight, white lips, and evil eyes, full of hate. She stood rigid, motionless, trying to thrust from her mind the doctor's words: "I can do nothing more for her. She may live a year, she may die tomorrow. Nothing but a great joy can save her."
She bowed her face in her hands. When, after a long while, she raised her head the hate had gone from her eyes.
She drew a small trunk from her closet, carried it to Lucile's room and began packing it hastily with Lucile's clothes, adding ribbons, laces and dainty lingerie from her own wardrobe. She laid out a dark, tailor-made suit that she had given Lucile the week before, and collected carefully all the little necessities of travel. When everything was done that Nina could do she stood by the couch a moment, looking down at the sleeping girl.
"Darling," she whispered, chokingly. "He called her darling."
Stooping to the floor, where it had fallen, she took up the letter Hugh had written, and laid it in Lucile's hand. The empty envelope she pressed for a moment to her lips, then slipped it into the pocket of her boyish blouse.
"I think I may keep this," she said; "Lucile has everything."
When Dr. Thornberg rode up the avenue in the early twilight Nina was in the hammock under the live-oaks. She greeted him cordially.
"I heard that you have sent Lucile to a Florence Crittendon home," he said, after a little desultory conversation. "I told the gossips they must be mistaken. Such a change–in her condition–"
"I have sent her away," answered Nina. "You can't expect a fellow to be philanthropic very long at a stretch."
And she laughed lightly at the only half-concealed disapproval in the doctor's eyes.