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Mr. Jack Hamlin's Mediation by Bret Harte

Part 7 out of 7

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She ran so fast that for a time she almost kept pace with the
doctor and Hoskins in the wagon on the distant trail. Then she
dived into the underwood again, and making a short cut through the
forest, came at the end of two hours within hailing distance of the
cabin,--footsore and exhausted, in spite of the strange excitement
that had driven her back. Here she thought she heard voices--his
voice among the rest--calling her, but the same singular revulsion
of feeling hurried her vaguely on again, even while she experienced
a foolish savage delight in not answering the summons. In this
erratic wandering she came upon the spring she had found on her
first entrance in the forest a year ago, and drank feverishly a
second time at its trickling source. She could see that since her
first visit it had worn a great hollow below the tree roots and now
formed a shining, placid pool. As she stooped to look at it, she
suddenly observed that it reflected her whole figure as in a cruel
mirror,--her slouched hat and loosened hair, her coarse and
shapeless gown, her hollow cheeks and dry yellow skin,--in all
their hopeless, uncompromising details. She uttered a quick,
angry, half-reproachful cry, and turned again to fly. But she had
not gone far before she came upon the hurrying figures and anxious
faces of the doctor and Hoskins. She stopped, trembling and
irresolute.

"Ah," said the doctor, in a tone of frank relief. "Here you are!
I was getting worried about you. Waya said you had been gone since
morning!" He stopped and looked at her attentively. "Is anything
the matter?"

His evident concern sent a warm glow over her chilly frame, and yet
the strange sensation remained. "No--no!" she stammered.

Doctor Ruysdael turned to Hoskins. "Go back and tell Waya I've
found her."

Libby felt that the doctor only wanted to get rid of his companion,
and became awed again.

"Has anybody been bothering you?"

"No."

"Have the diggers frightened you?"

"No"--with a gesture of contempt.

"Have you and Waya quarreled?"

"Nary"--with a faint, tremulous smile.

He still stared at her, and then dropped his blue eyes musingly.
"Are you lonely here? Would you rather go to San Jose?"

Like a flash the figures of the two smartly dressed women started
up before her again, with every detail of their fresh and wholesome
finery as cruelly distinct as had been her own shapeless ugliness
in the mirror of the spring. "No! NO!" she broke out vehemently
and passionately. "Never!"

He smiled gently. "Look here! I'll send you up some books. You
read--don't you?" She nodded quickly. "Some magazines and papers.
Odd I never thought of it before," he added half musingly. "Come
along to the cabin. And," he stopped again and said decisively,
"the next time you want anything, don't wait for me to come, but
write."

A few days after he left she received a package of books,--an odd
collection of novels, magazines, and illustrated journals of the
period. She received them eagerly as an evidence of his concern
for her, but it is to be feared that her youthful nature found
little satisfaction in the gratification of fancy. Many of the
people she read of were strange to her; many of the incidents
related seemed to her mere lies; some tales which treated of people
in her own sphere she found profoundly uninteresting. In one of
the cheaper magazines she chanced upon a fashion plate; she glanced
eagerly through all the others for a like revelation until she got
a dozen together, when she promptly relegated the remaining
literature to a corner and oblivion. The text accompanying the
plates was in a jargon not always clear, but her instinct supplied
the rest. She dispatched by Hoskins a note to Doctor Ruysdael:
"Please send me some brite kalikers and things for sewing. You
told me to ask." A few days later brought the response in a good-
sized parcel.

Yet this did not keep her from her care of the stock nor her
rambles in the forest; she was quick to utilize her rediscovery of
the spring for watering the cattle; it was not so far afield as the
half-dried creek in the canyon, and was a quiet sylvan spot. She
ate her frugal midday meal there and drank of its waters, and,
secure in her seclusion, bathed there and made her rude toilet when
the cows were driven home. But she did not again look into its
mirrored surface when it was tranquil!

And so a month passed. But when Doctor Ruysdael was again due at
the cabin, a letter was brought by Hoskins, with the news that he
was called away on professional business down the coast, and could
not come until two weeks later. In the disappointment that
overcame her, she did not at first notice that Hoskins was gazing
at her with a singular expression, which was really one of
undisguised admiration. Never having seen this before in the eyes
of any man who looked at her, she referred it to some vague
"larking" or jocularity, for which she was in no mood.

"Say, Libby! you're gettin' to be a right smart-lookin' gal. Seems
to agree with ye up here," said Hoskins with an awkward laugh.
"Darned ef ye ain't lookin' awful purty!"

"G'long! "said Liberty Jones, more than ever convinced of his
badinage.

"Fact," said Hoskins energetically. "Why, Doc would tell ye so,
too. See ef he don't!"

At this Liberty Jones felt her face grow hot. "You jess get!" she
said, turning away in as much embarrassment as anger. Yet he
hovered near her with awkward attentions that pleased while it
still angered her. He offered to go with her to look up the cows;
she flatly declined, yet with a strange satisfaction in his evident
embarrassment. This may have lent some animation to her face, for
he drew a long breath and said:--

"Don't go pertendin' ye don't know yer purty. Say, let me and you
walk a bit and have a talk together." But Libby had another idea
in her mind and curtly dismissed him. Then she ran swiftly to the
spring, for the words "The Doc will tell ye so, too" were ringing
in her ears. The doctor who came with the two beautifully dressed
women! HE--would tell her she was pretty! She had not dared to
look at herself in that crystal mirror since that dreadful day two
months ago. She would now.

It was a pretty place in the cool shade of the giant trees, and the
hoof-marks of cattle drinking from the run beneath the pool had not
disturbed the margin of that tranquil sylvan basin. For a moment
she stood tremulous and uncertain, and then going up to the shining
mirror, dropped on her knees before it with her thin red hands
clasped on her lap. Unconsciously she had taken the attitude of
prayer; perhaps there was something like it in her mind.

And then the light glanced full on the figure that she saw there!

It fell on a full oval face and throat guileless of fleck or stain,
smooth as a child's and glowing with health; on large dark eyes, no
longer sunk in their orbits, but filled with an eager, happy light;
on bared arms now shapely in contour and cushioned with firm flesh;
on a dazzling smile, the like of which had never been on the face
of Liberty Jones before!

She rose to her feet, and yet lingered as if loath to part from
this delightful vision. Then a fear overcame her that it was some
trick of the water, and she sped swiftly back to the house to
consult the little mirror which hung in her sleeping-room, but
which she had never glanced at since the momentous day of the
spring. She took it shyly into the sunshine, and found that it
corroborated the reflection of the spring. That night she worked
until late at the calico Doctor Ruysdael had sent her, and went to
bed happy. The next day brought her Hoskins again with a feeble
excuse of inquiring if she had a letter for the doctor, and she was
surprised to find that he was reinforced by a stranger from
Hoskins's farm, who was equally awkward and vaguely admiring. But
the appearance of the TWO men produced a singular phase in her
impressions and experience. She was no longer indignant at
Hoskins, but she found relief in accepting the compliments of the
stranger in preference, and felt a delight in Hoskins's discomfiture.
Waya, promoted to the burlesque of a chaperone, grinned with
infinite delight and understanding.

When at last the day came for the doctor's arrival, he was duly met
by Hoskins, and as duly informed by that impressible subordinate of
the great change in Liberty's appearance. But the doctor was far
from being equally impressed with his factor's story, and indeed
showed much more interest in the appearance of the stock which they
met along the road. Once the doctor got out of the wagon to
inspect a cow, and particularly the coat of a rough draught horse
that had been turned out and put under Liberty's care. "His skin
is like velvet," said the doctor. "The girl evidently understands
stock, and knows how to keep them in condition."

"I reckon she's beginning to understand herself, too," said
Hoskins. "Golly! wait till ye see HER."

The doctor DID see her, but with what feelings he did not as
frankly express. She was not at the cabin when they arrived, but
presently appeared from the direction of the spring where, for
reasons of her own, she had evidently made her toilet. Doctor
Ruysdael was astounded; Hoskins's praise was not exaggerated; and
there was an added charm that Hoskins was not prepared for. She
had put on a gown of her own making,--the secret toil of many a
long night,--amateurishly fashioned from some cheap yellow calico
the doctor had sent her, yet fitting her wonderfully, and showing
every curve of her graceful figure. Unaccented by a corset,--an
article she had never known,--even the lines of the stiff,
unyielding calico had a fashion that was nymph-like and suited her
unfettered limbs. Doctor Ruysdael was profoundly moved. Though a
philosopher, he was practical. He found himself suddenly
confronted not only by a beautiful girl, but a problem! It was
impossible to keep the existence of this woodland nymph from the
knowledge of his distant neighbors; it was equally impossible for
him to assume the responsibility of keeping a goddess like this in
her present position. He had noticed her previous improvement, but
had never dreamed that pure and wholesome living could in two
months work such a miracle. And he was to a certain degree
responsible, HE had created her,--a beautiful Frankenstein, whose
lustrous, appealing eyes were even now menacing his security and
position.

Perhaps she saw trouble and perplexity in the face where she had
expected admiration and pleasure, for a slight chill went over her
as he quickly praised the appearance of the stock and spoke of her
own improvement. But when they were alone, he turned to her
abruptly.

"You said you had no wish to go to San Jose?"

"No." Yet she was conscious that her greatest objection had been
removed, and she colored faintly.

"Listen to me," he said dryly. "You deserve a better position than
this,--a better home and surroundings than you have here. You are
older, too,--a woman almost,--and you must look ahead."

A look of mingled fright, reproach, and appeal came into her
eloquent face. "Yer wantin' to send me away?" she stammered.

"No," he said frankly. "It is you who are GROWING away. This is
no longer the place for you."

"But I want to stay. I don't wanter go. I am--I WAS happy here."

"But I'm thinking of giving up this place. It takes up too much of
my time. You must be provided"--

"YOU are going away?" she said passionately.

"Yes."

"Take me with you. I'll go anywhere!--to San Jose---wherever you
go. Don't turn me off as dad did, for I'll foller you as I never
followed dad. I'll go with you--or I'll die!"

There was neither fear nor shame in her words; it was the outspoken
instinct of the animal he had been rearing; be was convinced and
appalled by it.

"I am returning to San Jose at once," he said gravely. "You shall
go with me--FOR THE PRESENT! Get yourself ready!"

He took her to San Jose, and temporarily to the house of a patient,--
a widow lady,--while he tried, alone, to grapple with the problem
that now confronted him. But that problem became more complicated
at the end of the third day, by Liberty Jones falling suddenly and
alarmingly ill. The symptoms were so grave that the doctor, in his
anxiety, called in a brother physician in consultation. When the
examination was over, the two men withdrew and stared at each other.

"Of course there is no doubt that the symptoms all point to slow
arsenical poisoning," said the consulting doctor.

"Yes," said Ruysdael quickly, "yet it is utterly inexplicable, both
as to motive and opportunity."

"Humph!" said the other grimly, "young ladies take arsenic in
minute doses to improve the complexion and promote tissue,
forgetting that the effects are cumulative when they stop suddenly.
Your young friend has 'sworn off' too quickly."

"But it is impossible," said Doctor Ruysdael impatiently. "She is
a mere child--a country girl--ignorant of such habits."

"Humph! the peasants in the Tyrol try it on themselves after
noticing the effect on the coats of cattle."

Doctor Ruysdael started. A recollection of the sleek draught horse
flashed upon him. He rose and hastily re-entered the patient's
room. In a few moments he returned. "Do you think I could remove
her at once to the mountains?" he said gravely.

"Yes, with care and a return to graduated doses of the same poison;
you know it's the only remedy just now," answered the other.

By noon the next day the doctor and his patient had returned to the
cabin, but Ruysdael himself carried the helpless Liberty Jones to
the spring and deposited her gently beside it. "You may drink
now," he said gravely.

The girl did so eagerly, apparently imbibing new strength from the
sparkling water. The doctor meanwhile coolly filled a phial from
the same source, and made a hasty test of the contents by the aid
of some other phials from his case. The result seemed to satisfy
him. Then he said gravely:

"And THIS is the spring you had discovered?"

The girl nodded.

"And you and the cattle have daily used it?"

She nodded again wonderingly. Then she caught his hand appealingly.

"You won't send me away?"

He smiled oddly as he glanced from the waters of the hill to the
brimming eyes. "No."

"No-r," tremulously, "go away--yourself?"

The doctor looked this time only into her eyes. There was a
tremendous idea in his own, which seemed in some way to have solved
that dreadful problem.

"No! We will stay here TOGETHER."

. . . . . .

Six months later there was a paragraph in the San Francisco press:
"The wonderful Arsenical Spring in the Santa Cruz Mountain, known
as 'Liberty Spring,' discovered by Doctor Ruysdael, has proved such
a remarkable success that we understand the temporary huts for
patients are to be shortly replaced by a magnificent Spa Hotel
worthy of the spot, and the eligible villa sites it has brought
into the market. It will be a source of pleasure to all to know
that the beautiful nymph--a worthy successor to the far-famed
'Elise' of the German 'Brunnen'--who has administered the waters to
so many grateful patients will still be in attendance, although it
is rumored that she is shortly to become the wife of the
distinguished discoverer."

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