I. ALFALFA RANCH
Alfalfa Ranch, low, wide, with spreading verandas all overgrown by roses and woodbine, and commanding on all sides a wide view of the rolling alfalfa-fields, was a most bewitching place for a young couple to spend the first few months of their married life. So Jack and I were naturally much delighted when Aunt Agnes asked us to consider it our own for as long as we chose. The ranch, in spite of its distance from the nearest town, surrounded as it was by the prairies, and without a neighbor within a three-mile radius, was yet luxuriously fitted with all the modern conveniences. Aunt Agnes was a rich young widow, and had built the place after her husband’s death, intending to live there with her child, to whom she transferred all the wealth of devotion she had lavished on her husband. The child, however, had died when only three years old, and Aunt Agnes, as soon as she recovered sufficient strength, had left Alfalfa Ranch, intending never to visit the place again. All this had happened nearly ten years ago, and the widow, relinquishing all the advantages her youth and beauty, quite as much as her wealth, could give her, had devoted herself to work amid the poor of New York.
At my wedding, which she heartily approved, and where to a greater extent than ever before she cast off the almost morbid quietness which had grown habitual with her, she seemed particularly anxious that Jack and I should accept the loan of Alfalfa Ranch, apparently having an old idea that the power of our happiness would somehow lift the cloud of sorrow which, in her mind, brooded over the place. I had not been strong, and Jack was overjoyed at such an opportunity of taking me into the country. High as our expectations were, the beauty of the place far exceeded them all. What color! What glorious sunsets! And the long rides we took, seeming to be utterly tireless in that fresh sweet air!
One afternoon I sat on the veranda at the western wing of the house. The veranda here was broader than elsewhere, and it was reached only by a flight of steps leading up from the lawn on one side, and by a door opposite these steps that opened into Jack’s study. The rest of this veranda was enclosed by a high railing, and by wire nettings so thickly overgrown with vines that the place was always very shady. I sat near the steps, where I could watch the sweep of the great shadows thrown by the clouds that were sailing before the west wind. Jack was inside, writing, and now and then he would say something to me through the open window. As I sat, lost in delight at the beauty of the view and the sweetness of the flower-scented air, I marvelled that Aunt Agnes could ever have left so charming a spot. “She must still love it,” I thought, getting up to move my chair to where I might see still further over the prairies, “and some time she will come back——” At this moment I happened to glance to the further end of the veranda, and there I saw, to my amazement, a little child seated on the floor, playing with the shifting shadows of the tangled creepers. It was a little girl in a daintily embroidered white dress, with golden curls around her baby head. As I still gazed, she suddenly turned, with a roguish toss of the yellow hair, and fixed her serious blue eyes on me.
“Baby!” I cried. “Where did you come from? Where’s your mamma, darling?” And I took a step towards her.
“What’s that, Silvia?” called Jack from within. I turned my head and saw him sitting at his desk.
“Come quick, Jack; there’s the loveliest baby—” I turned back to the child, looked, blinked, and at this moment Jack stepped out beside me.
“Baby?” he inquired. “What on earth are you talking about, Silvia dearest?”
“Why, but—” I exclaimed. “There was one! How did she get away? She was sitting right there when I called.”
“A baby!” repeated my husband. “My dear, babies don’t appear and disappear like East-Indian magicians. You have been napping, and are trying to conceal the shameful fact.”
“Jack,” I said, decisively, “don’t you suppose I know a baby when I see one? She was sitting right there, playing with the shadows, and I—It’s certainly very queer!”
Jack grinned. “Go and put on your habit,” he replied; “the horses will be here in ten minutes. And remember that when you have accounted for her disappearance, her presence still remains to be explained. Or perhaps you think Wah Sing produced her from his sleeve?”
I laughed. Wah Sing was our Chinese cook, and more apt, I thought, to put something up his sleeve than to take anything out.
“I suppose I was dreaming,” I said, “though I could almost as well believe I had only dreamed our marriage.”
“Or rather,” observed Jack, “that our marriage had only dreamed us.”
About a week later I received a letter from Aunt Agnes. Among other things, chiefly relating to New York’s slums, she said:
“I am in need of rest, and if you and Jack could put up with me for a few days, I believe I should like to get back to the old place. As you know, I have always dreaded a return there, but lately I seem somehow to have lost that dread. I feel that the time has come for me to be there again, and I am sure you will not mind me.”
Most assuredly we would not mind her. We sat in the moonlight that night on the veranda, Jack swinging my hammock slowly, and talked of Aunt Agnes. The moon silvered the waving alfalfa, and sifted through the twisted vines that fenced us in, throwing intricate and ever-changing patterns on the smooth flooring. There was a hum of insects in the air, and the soft wind ever and anon blew a fleecy cloud over the moon, dimming for a moment her serene splendor.
“Who knows?” said Jack, lighting another cigar. “This may be a turning-point in Aunt Agnes’s life, and she may once more be something like the sunny, happy girl your mother describes. She is beautiful, and she is yet young. It may mean the beginning of a new life for her.”
“Yes,” I answered. “It isn’t right that her life should always be shadowed by that early sorrow. She is so lovely, and could be so happy. Now that she has taken the first step, there is no reason why she shouldn’t go on.”
“We’ll do what we can to help her,” responded my husband. “Let me fix your cushions, darling; they have slipped.” He rose to do so, and suddenly stood still, facing the further end of the veranda. His expression was so peculiar that I turned, following the direction of his eyes, even before his smothered exclamation of “Silvia, look there!” reached me.
Standing in the fluttering moonlight and shadows was the same little girl I had seen already. She still wore white, and her tangled curls floated shining around her head. She seemed to be smiling, and slightly shook her head at us.
“What does it mean, Jack?” I whispered, slipping out of the hammock.
“How did she get there? Come!” said he, and we walked hastily towards the little thing, who again shook her head. Just at this moment another cloud obscured the moon for a few seconds, and though in the uncertain twilight I fancied I still saw her, yet when the cloud passed she was not to be found.
Aunt Agnes certainly did look as though she needed rest. She seemed very frail, and the color had entirely left her face. But her curling hair was as golden as ever, and her figure as girlish and graceful. She kissed me tenderly, and kept my hand in hers as she wandered over the house and took long looks across the prairie.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, softly. “Just the place to be happy in! I’ve always had a strange fancy that I should be happy here again some day, and now I feel as though that day had almost come. You are happy, aren’t you, dear?”
I looked at Jack, and felt the tears coming to my eyes. “Yes, I am happy. I did not know one could be so happy,” I answered, after a moment.
Aunt Agnes smiled her sweet smile and kissed me again. “God bless you and your Jack! You almost make me feel young again.”
“As though you could possibly feel anything else,” I retorted, laughing. “You little humbug, to pretend you are old!” and slipping my arm round her waist, for we had always been dear friends, I walked off to chat with her in her room.
We took a ride that afternoon, for Aunt Agnes wanted another gallop over that glorious prairie. The exercise and the perfect afternoon brought back the color to her cheeks.
“I think I shall be much better to-morrow,” she observed, as we trotted home. “What a country this is, and what horses!” slipping her hand down her mount’s glossy neck. “I did right to come back here. I do not believe I will go away again.” And she smiled on Jack and me, who laughed, and said she would find it a difficult thing to attempt.
We all three came out on the veranda to see the sunset. It was always a glorious sight, but this evening it was more than usually magnificent. Immense rays of pale blue and pink spread over the sky, and the clouds, which stretched in horizontal masses, glowed rose and golden. The whole sky was luminous and tender, and seemed to tremble with light.
We sat silent, looking at the sky and at the shadowy grass that seemed to meet it. Slowly the color deepened and faded.
“There can never be a lovelier evening,” said Aunt Agnes, with a sigh.
“Don’t say that,” replied Jack. “It is only the beginning of even more perfect ones.”
Aunt Agnes rose with a slight shiver, “It grows chilly when the sun goes,” she murmured, and turned lingeringly to enter the house. Suddenly she gave a startled exclamation. Jack and I jumped up and looked at her. She stood with both hands pressed to her heart, looking—
“The child again,” said Jack, in a low voice, laying his hand on my arm.
He was right. There in the gathering shadow stood the little girl in the white dress. Her hands were stretched towards us, and her lips parted in a smile. A belated gleam of sunlight seemed to linger in her hair.
“Perdita!” cried Aunt Agnes, in a voice that shook with a kind of terrible joy. Then, with a stifled sob, she ran forward and sank before the baby, throwing her arms about her. The little girl leaned back her golden head and looked at Aunt Agnes with her great, serious eyes. Then she flung both baby arms round her neck, and lifted her sweet mouth—
Jack and I turned away, looking at each other with tears in our eyes. A slight sound made us turn back. Aunt Agnes had fallen forward to the floor, and the child was nowhere to be seen.
We rushed up, and Jack raised my aunt in his arms and carried her into the house. But she was quite dead. The little child we never saw again.