CHAPTER I LOVE UNKNOWN
From its long sweep over the unbroken prairie a heavier blast than usual shook the slight frame house. The windows rattled in the casements, as if shivering in their dumb way in the December storm. So open and defective was the dwelling in its construction, that eddying currents of cold air found admittance at various points—in some instances carrying with them particles of the fine, sharp, hail-like snow that the gale was driving before it in blinding fury.
Seated at one of the windows, peering out into the gathering gloom of the swiftly coming night, was a pale, faded woman with lustrous dark eyes. An anxious light shone from them, as she tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the darkening road that ran at a distance of about fifty yards from the house. As the furious blast shook the frail tenement, and circled round her in chilly currents from many a crack and crevice, she gave a short, hacking cough, and drew a thin shawl closer about her slight frame.
The unwonted violence of the wind had its effect upon another occupant of the room. From a bed in the corner near the stove came a feeble, hollow voice—"Wife!"
In a moment the woman was bending over the bed, and in a voice full of patient tenderness answered, "Well, dear?"
"Has he come?"
"Not yet; but he MUST be here soon."
The word MUST was emphasized in such a way as to mean doubt rather than certainty, as if trying to assure her own mind of a matter about which painful misgivings could not be banished. The quick ear of the sick man caught the tone, and in a querulous voice he said, "Oh! if he should not get here in time, it would be the last bitter drop in my cup, now full and running over."
"Dear husband, if human strength and love can accomplish it, he will be here soon. But the storm is indeed frightful, and were the case less urgent, I could almost wish he would not try to make his way through it. But then we know what Dennis is; he never stops to consider difficulties, but pushes right on; and if—if he doesn't—if it is possible, he will be here before very long."
In spite of herself, the mother's heart showed its anxiety, and, too late for remedy, she saw the effect upon her husband. He raised himself in bed with sudden and unwonted strength. His eyes grew wild and almost fierce, and in a sharp, hurried voice, he said: "You don't think there is danger? There is no fear of his getting lost? If I thought that I would curse God and die."
"Oh, Dennis, my husband, God forbid that you should speak thus! How can you feel so toward our Best Friend?"
"What kind of a friend has He been to me, pray? Has not my life been one long series of misfortunes? Have I not been disappointed in all my hopes? I once believed in God and tried to serve Him. But if, as I have been taught, all this evil and misfortune was ordered and made my inevitable lot by Him, He has not been my friend, but my enemy. He's been against me, not for me."
In the winter twilight the man's emaciated, unshorn face had the ghostly, ashen hue of death....