Alan did not mean to be oversoon in going back to Four Winds, but three days later a book came to him which Captain Anthony had expressed a wish to see. It furnished an excuse for an earlier call. After that he went often. He always found the Captain courteous and affable, old Emily grimly cordial, Lynde sometimes remote and demure, sometimes frankly friendly. Occasionally, when the Captain was away in his yacht, he went for a walk with her and her dogs along the shore or through the sweet-smelling pinelands up the lake. He found that she loved books and was avid for more of them than she could obtain; he was glad to take her several and discuss them with her. She liked history and travels best. With novels she had no patience, she said disdainfully. She seldom spoke of herself or her past life and Alan fancied she avoided any personal reference. But once she said abruptly, "Why do you never ask me to go to church? I've always been afraid you would."
"Because I do not think it would do you any good to go if you didn't want to," said Alan gravely. "Souls should not be rudely handled any more than bodies."
She looked at him reflectively, her finger denting her chin in a meditative fashion she had.
"You are not at all like Mr. Strong. He always scolded me, when he got a chance, for not going to church. I would have hated him if it had been worthwhile. I told him one day that I was nearer to God under these pines than I could be in any building fashioned by human hands. He was very much shocked. But I don't want you to misunderstand me. Father does not go to church because he does not believe there is a God. But I know there is. Mother taught me so. I have never gone to church because Father would not allow me, and I could not go now in Rexton where the people talk about me so. Oh, I know they do—you know it, too—but I do not care for them. I know I'm not like other girls. I would like to be but I can't be—I never can be—now."
There was some strange passion in her voice that Alan did not quite understand—a bitterness and a revolt which he took to be against the circumstances that hedged her in.
"Is not some other life possible for you if your present life does not content you?" he said gently.
"But it does content me," said Lynde imperiously. "I want no other—I wish this life to go on forever—forever, do you understand? If I were sure that it would—if I were sure that no change would ever come to me, I would be perfectly content. It is the fear that a change will come that makes me wretched. Oh!" She shuddered and put her hands over her eyes.
Alan thought she must mean that when her father died she would be alone in the world. He wanted to comfort her—reassure her—but he did not know how.
One evening when he went to Four Winds he found the door open and, seeing the Captain in the living room, he stepped in unannounced. Captain Anthony was sitting by the table, his head in his hands; at Alan's entrance he turned upon him a haggard face, blackened by a furious scowl beneath which blazed eyes full of malevolence.
"What do you want here?" he said, following up the demand with a string of vile oaths.
Before Alan could summon his scattered wits, Lynde glided in with a white, appealing face. Wordlessly she grasped Alan's arm, drew him out, and shut the door.
"Oh, I've been watching for you," she said breathlessly. "I was afraid you might come tonight—but I missed you."
"But your father?" said Alan in amazement. "How have I angered him?"
"Hush. Come into the garden. I will explain there."
He followed her into the little enclosure where the red and white roses were now in full blow.
"Father isn't angry with you," said Lynde in a low shamed voice. "It's just—he takes strange moods sometimes. Then he seems to hate us all—even me—and he is like that for days. He seems to suspect and dread everybody as if they were plotting against him. You—perhaps you think he has been drinking? No, that is not the trouble. These terrible moods come on without any cause that we know of. Even Mother could not do anything with him when he was like that. You must go away now—and do not come back until his dark mood has passed. He will be just as glad to see you as ever then, and this will not make any difference with him. Don't come back for a week at least."
"I do not like to leave you in such trouble, Miss Oliver."
"Oh, it doesn't matter about me—I have Emily. And there is nothing you could do. Please go at once. Father knows I am talking to you and that will vex him still more."
Alan, realizing that he could not help her and that his presence only made matters worse, went away perplexedly. The following week was a miserable one for him. His duties were distasteful to him and meeting his people a positive torture. Sometimes Mrs. Danby looked dubiously at him and seemed on the point of saying something—but never said it. Isabel King watched him when they met, with bold probing eyes. In his abstraction he did not notice this any more than he noticed a certain subtle change which had come over the members of his congregation—as if a breath of suspicion had blown across them and troubled their confidence and trust. Once Alan would have been keenly and instantly conscious of this slight chill; now he was not even aware of it.
When he ventured to go back to Four Winds he found the Captain on the point of starting off for a cruise in his yacht. He was urbane and friendly, utterly ignoring the incident of Alan's last visit and regretting that business compelled him to go down the lake. Alan saw him off with small regret and turned joyfully to Lynde, who was walking under the pines with her dogs. She looked pale and tired and her eyes were still troubled, but she smiled proudly and made no reference to what had happened.
"I'm going to put these flowers on Mother's grave," she said, lifting her slender hands filled with late white roses. "Mother loved flowers and I always keep them near her when I can. You may come with me if you like."
Alan had known Lynde's mother was buried under the pines but he had never visited the spot before. The grave was at the westernmost end of the pine wood, where it gave out on the lake, a beautiful spot, given over to silence and shadow.
"Mother wished to be buried here," Lynde said, kneeling to arrange her flowers. "Father would have taken her anywhere but she said she wanted to be near us and near the lake she had loved so well. Father buried her himself. He wouldn't have anyone else do anything for her. I am so glad she is here. It would have been terrible to have seen her taken far away—my sweet little mother."
"A mother is the best thing in the world—I realized that when I lost mine," said Alan gently. "How long is it since your mother died?"
"Three years. Oh, I thought I should die too when she did. She was very ill—she was never strong, you know—but I never thought she could die. There was a year then—part of the time I didn't believe in God at all and the rest I hated Him. I was very wicked but I was so unhappy. Father had so many dreadful moods and—there was something else. I used to wish to die."
She bowed her head on her hands and gazed moodily on the ground. Alan, leaning against a pine tree, looked down at her. The sunlight fell through the swaying boughs on her glory of burnished hair and lighted up the curve of cheek and chin against the dark background of wood brown. All the defiance and wildness had gone from her for the time and she seemed like a helpless, weary child. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her.
"You must resemble your mother," he said absently, as if thinking aloud. "You don't look at all like your father."
Lynde shook her head.
"No, I don't look like Mother either. She was tiny and dark—she had a sweet little face and velvet-brown eyes and soft curly dark hair. Oh, I remember her look so well. I wish I did resemble her. I loved her so—I would have done anything to save her suffering and trouble. At least, she died in peace."
There was a curious note of fierce self-gratulation in the girl's voice as she spoke the last sentence. Again Alan felt the unpleasant impression that there was much in her that he did not understand—might never understand—although such understanding was necessary to perfect friendship. She had never spoken so freely of her past life to him before, yet he felt somehow that something was being kept back in jealous repression. It must be something connected with her father, Alan thought. Doubtless, Captain Anthony's past would not bear inspection, and his daughter knew it and dwelt in the shadow of her knowledge. His heart filled with aching pity for her; he raged secretly because he was so powerless to help her. Her girlhood had been blighted, robbed of its meed of happiness and joy. Was she likewise to miss her womanhood? Alan's hands clenched involuntarily at the unuttered question.
On his way home that evening he again met Isabel King. She turned and walked back with him but she made no reference to Four Winds or its inhabitants. If Alan had troubled himself to look, he would have seen a malicious glow in her baleful brown eyes. But the only eyes which had any meaning for him just then were the grey ones of Lynde Oliver.
During Alan's next three visits to Four Winds he saw nothing of Lynde, either in the house or out of it. This surprised and worried him. There was no apparent difference in Captain Anthony, who continued to be suave and friendly. Alan always enjoyed his conversations with the Captain, who was witty, incisive, and pungent; yet he disliked the man himself more at every visit. If he had been compelled to define his impression, he would have said the Captain was a charming scoundrel.
But it occurred to him that Emily was disturbed about something. Sometimes he caught her glance, full of perplexity and—it almost seemed—distrust. She looked as if she felt hostile towards him. But Alan dismissed the idea as absurd. She had been friendly from the first and he had done nothing to excite her disapproval. Lynde's mysterious absence was a far more perplexing problem. She had not gone away, for when Alan asked the Captain concerning her, he responded indifferently that she was out walking. Alan caught a glint of amusement in the older man's eyes as he spoke. He could have sworn it was malicious amusement.
One evening he went to Four Winds around the shore. As he turned the headland of the cove, he saw Lynde and her dogs not a hundred feet away. The moment she saw him she darted up the bank and disappeared among the firs.
Alan was thunderstruck. There was no room for doubt that she meant to avoid him. He walked up to the house in a tumult of mingled feelings which he did not even then understand. He only realized that he felt bitterly hurt and grieved—puzzled as well. What did it all mean?
He met Emily in the yard of Four Winds on her way to the spring and stopped her resolutely.
"Miss Oliver," he said bluntly, "is Miss Lynde angry with me? And why?"
Emily looked at him piercingly.
"Have you no idea why?" she asked shortly.
"None in the world."
She looked at him through and through a moment longer. Then, seeming satisfied with her scrutiny, she picked up her pail.
"Come down to the spring with me," she said.
As soon as they were out of sight of the house, Emily began abruptly.
"If you don't know why Lynde is acting so, I can't tell you, for I don't know either. I don't even know if she is angry. I only thought perhaps she was—that you had done or said something to vex her—plaguing her to go to church maybe. But if you didn't, it may not be anger at all. I don't understand that girl. She's been different ever since her mother died. She used to tell me everything before that. You must go and ask her right out yourself what is wrong. But maybe I can tell you something. Did you write her a letter a fortnight ago?"
"A letter? No."
"Well, she got one then. I thought it came from you—I didn't know who else would be writing to her. A boy brought it and gave it to her at the door. She's been acting strange ever since. She cries at night—something Lynde never did before except when her mother died. And in daytime she roams the shore and woods like one possessed. You must find out what was in that letter, Mr. Douglas."
"Have you any idea who the boy was?" Alan asked, feeling somewhat relieved. The mystery was clearing up, he thought. No doubt it was the old story of some cowardly anonymous letter. His thoughts flew involuntarily to Isabel King.
Emily shook her head.
"No. He was just a half-grown fellow with reddish hair and he limped a little."
"Oh, that is the postmaster's son," said Alan disappointedly. "That puts us further off the scent than ever. The letter was probably dropped in the box at the office and there will consequently be no way of tracing the writer."
"Well, I can't tell you anything more," said Emily. "You'll have to ask Lynde for the truth."
This Alan was determined to do whenever he should meet her. He did not go to the house with Emily but wandered about the shore, watching for Lynde and not seeing her. At length he went home, a prey to stormy emotions. He realized at last that he loved Lynde Oliver. He wondered how he could have been so long blind to it. He knew that he must have loved her ever since he had first seen her. The discovery amazed but did not shock him. There was no reason why he should not love her—should not woo and win her for his wife if she cared for him. She was good and sweet and true. Anything of doubt in her antecedents could not touch her. Probably the world would look upon Captain Anthony as a somewhat undesirable father-in-law for a minister, but that aspect of the question did not disturb Alan. As for the trouble of the letter, he felt sure he would easily be able to clear it away. Probably some malicious busybody had become aware of his frequent calls at Four Winds and chose to interfere in his private affairs thus. For the first time it occurred to him that there had been a certain lack of cordiality among his people of late. If it were really so, doubtless this was the reason. At any other time this would have been of moment to him. But now his thoughts were too wholly taken up with Lynde and the estrangement on her part to attach much importance to anything else. What she thought mattered incalculably more to Alan than what all the people in Rexton put together thought. He had the right, like any other man, to woo the woman of his choice and he would certainly brook no outside interference in the matter.
After a sleepless night he went back to Four Winds in the morning. Lynde would not expect him at that time and he would have more chance of finding her. The result justified his idea, for he met her by the spring.
Alan felt shocked at the change in her appearance. She looked as if years of suffering had passed over her. Her lips were pallid, and hollow circles under her eyes made them appear unnaturally large. He had last left the girl in the bloom of her youth; he found her again a woman on whom life had laid its heavy hand.
A burning flood of colour swept over her face as they met, then receded as quickly, leaving her whiter than before. Without any waste of words, Alan plunged abruptly into the subject.
"Miss Oliver, why have you avoided me so of late? Have I done anything to offend you?"
"No." She spoke as if the word hurt her, her eyes persistently cast down.
"Then what is the trouble?"
There was no answer. She gave an unvoluntary glance around as if seeking some way of escape. There was none, for the spring was set about with thick young firs and Alan blocked the only path.
He leaned forward and took her hands in his.
"Miss Oliver, you must tell me what the trouble is," he said firmly.
She pulled her hands away and flung them up to her face, her form shaken by stormy sobs. In distress he put his arm about her and drew her closer.
"Tell me, Lynde," he whispered tenderly.
She broke away from him, saying passionately, "You must not come to Four Winds any more. You must not have anything more to do with us—any of us. We have done you enough harm already. But I never thought it could hurt you—oh, I am sorry, sorry!"
"Miss Oliver, I want to see that letter you received the other evening. Oh"—as she started with surprise—"I know about it—Emily told me. Who wrote it?"
"There was no name signed to it," she faltered.
"Just as I thought. Well, you must let me see it."
"I cannot—I burned it."
"Then tell me what was in it. You must. This matter must be cleared up—I am not going to have our beautiful friendship spoiled by the malice of some coward. What did that letter say?"
"It said that everybody in your congregation was talking about your frequent visits here—that it had made a great scandal—that it was doing you a great deal of injury and would probably end in your having to leave Rexton."
"That would be a catastrophe indeed," said Alan drily. "Well, what else?"
"Nothing more—at least, nothing about you. The rest was about myself—I did not mind it—much. But I was so sorry to think that I had done you harm. It is not too late to undo it. You must not come here any more. Then they will forget."
"Perhaps—but I should not forget. It's a little too late for me. Lynde, you must not let this venomous letter come between us. I love you, dear—I've loved you ever since I met you and I want you for my wife."
Alan had not intended to say that just then, but the words came to his lips in spite of himself. She looked so sad and appealing and weary that he wanted to have the right to comfort and protect her.
She turned her eyes full upon him with no hint of maidenly shyness or shrinking in them. Instead, they were full of a blank, incredulous horror that swallowed up every other feeling. There was no mistaking their expression and it struck an icy chill to Alan's heart. He had certainly not expected a too ready response on her part—he knew that even if she cared for him he might find it a matter of time to win her avowal of it—but he certainly had not expected to see such evident abject dismay as her blanched face betrayed. She put up her hand as if warding a blow.
"Don't—don't," she gasped. "You must not say that—you must never say it. Oh, I never dreamed of this. If I had thought it possible you could—love me, I would never have been friends with you. Oh, I've made a terrible mistake."
She wrung her hands piteously together, looking like a soul in torment. Alan could not bear to see her pain.
"Don't feel such distress," he implored. "I suppose I've spoken too abruptly—but I'll be so patient, dear, if you'll only try to care for me a little. Can't you, dear?"
"I can't marry you," said Lynde desperately. She leaned against a slim white bole of a young birch behind her and looked at him wretchedly. "Won't you please go away and forget me?"
"I can't forget you," Alan said, smiling a little in spite of his suffering. "You are the only woman I can ever love—and I can't give you up unless I have to. Won't you be frank with me, dear? Do you honestly think you can never learn to love me?"
"It is not that," said Lynde in a hard, unnatural voice. "I am married already."
Alan stared at her, not in the least comprehending the meaning of her words. Everything—pain, hope, fear, passion—had slipped away from him for a moment, as if he had been stunned by a physical blow. He could not have heard aright.
"Married?" he said dully. "Lynde, you cannot mean it?"
"Yes, I do. I was married three years ago."
"Why was I not told this?" Alan's voice was stern, although he did not mean it to be so, and she shrank and shivered. Then she began in a low monotonous tone from which all feeling of any sort seemed to have utterly faded.
"Three years ago Mother was very ill—so ill that any shock would kill her, so the doctor Father brought from the lake told us. A man—a young sea captain—came here to see Father. His name was Frank Harmon and he had known Father well in the past. They had sailed together. Father seemed to be afraid of him—I had never seen him afraid of anybody before. I could not think much about anybody except Mother then, but I knew I did not quite like Captain Harmon, although he was very polite to me and I suppose might have been called handsome. One day Father came to me and told me I must marry Captain Harmon. I laughed at the idea at first but when I looked at Father's face I did not laugh. It was all white and drawn. He implored me to marry Captain Harmon. He said if I did not it would mean shame and disgrace for us all—that Captain Harmon had some hold on him and would tell what he knew if I did not marry him. I don't know what it was but it must have been something dreadful. And he said it would kill Mother. I knew it would, and that was what drove me to consent at last. Oh, I can't tell you what I suffered. I was only seventeen and there was nobody to advise me. One day Father and Captain Harmon and I went down the lake to Crosse Harbour and we were married there. As soon as the ceremony was over, Captain Harmon had to sail in his vessel. He was going to China. Father and I came back home. Nobody knew—not even Emily. He said we must not tell Mother until she was better. But she was never better. She only lived three months more—she lived them happily and at rest. When I think of that, I am not sorry for what I did. Captain Harmon said he would be back in the fall to claim me. I waited, sick at heart. But he did not come—he has never come. We have never heard a word of or about him since. Sometimes I feel sure he cannot be still living. But never a day dawns that I don't say to myself, 'Perhaps he will come today'—and, oh—"
She broke down again, sobbing bitterly. Amid all the daze of his own pain Alan realized that, at any cost, he must not make it harder for her by showing his suffering. He tried to speak calmly, wisely, as a disinterested friend.
"Could it not be discovered whether your—this man—is or is not living? Surely your father could find out."
Lynde shook her head.
"No, he says he has no way of doing so. We do not know if Captain Harmon had any relatives or even where his home was, and it was his own ship in which he sailed. Father would be glad to think that Frank Harmon was dead, but he does not think he is. He says he was always a fickle-minded fellow, one fancy driving another out of his mind. Oh, I can bear my own misery—but to think what I have brought on you! I never dreamed that you could care for me. I was so lonely and your friendship was so pleasant—can you ever forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive, as far as you are concerned, Lynde," said Alan steadily. "You have done me no wrong. I have loved you sincerely and such love can be nothing but a blessing to me. I only wish that I could help you. It wrings my heart to think of your position. But I can do nothing—nothing. I must not even come here any more. You understand that?"
There was an unconscious revelation in the girl's mournful eyes as she turned them on Alan. It thrilled him to the core of his being. She loved him. If it were not for that empty marriage form, he could win her, but the knowledge was only an added mocking torment. Alan had not known a man could endure such misery and live. A score of wild questions rushed to his lips but he crushed them back for Lynde's sake and held out his hand.
"Good-bye, dear," he said almost steadily, daring to say no more lest he should say too much.
"Good-bye," Lynde answered faintly.
When he had gone she flung herself down on the moss by the spring and lay there in an utter abandonment of misery and desolation.
Pain and indignation struggled for mastery in Alan's stormy soul as he walked homeward. So this was Captain Anthony's doings! He had sacrificed his daughter to some crime of his dubious past. Alan never dreamed of blaming Lynde for having kept her marriage a secret; he put the blame where it belonged—on the Captain's shoulders. Captain Anthony had never warned him by so much as a hint that Lynde was not free to be won. It had all probably seemed a good joke to him. Alan thought the furtive amusement he had so often detected in the Captain's eyes was explained now.
He found Elder Trewin in his study when he got home. The good Elder's face was stern and anxious; he had called on a distasteful errand—to tell the young minister of the scandal his intimacy with the Four Winds people was making in the congregation and remonstrate with him concerning it. Alan listened absently, with none of the resentment he would have felt at the interference a day previously. A man does not mind a pin-prick when a limb is being wrenched away.
"I can promise you that my objectionable calls at Four Winds will cease," he said sarcastically, when the Elder had finished. Elder Trewin got himself away, feeling snubbed but relieved.
"Took it purty quiet," he reflected. "Don't believe there was much in the yarns after all. Isabel King started them and probably she exaggerated a lot. I suppose he's had some notion like as not of bringing the Captain over to the church. But that's foolish, for he'd never manage it, and meanwhile was giving occasion for gossip. It's just as well to stop it. He's a good pastor and he works hard—too hard, mebbe. He looked real careworn and worried today."
The Rexton gossip soon ceased with the cessation of the young minister's visits to Four Winds. A month later it suffered a brief revival when a tall grim-faced old woman, whom a few recognized as Captain Anthony's housekeeper, was seen to walk down the Rexton road and enter the manse. She did not stay there long—watchers from a dozen different windows were agreed upon that—and nobody, not even Mrs. Danby, who did her best to find out, ever knew why she had called.
Emily looked at Alan with grim reproach when she was shown into his study, and as soon as they were alone she began with her usual abruptness, "Mr. Douglas, why have you given up coming to Four Winds?"
"You must ask Lynde that, Miss Oliver," he said quietly.
"I have asked her—and she says nothing."
"Then I cannot tell you."
Anger glowed in Emily's eyes.
"I thought you were a gentleman," she said bitterly. "You are not. You are breaking Lynde's heart. She's gone to a shadow of herself and she's fretting night and day. You went there and made her like you—oh, I've eyes—and then you left her."
Alan bent over his desk and looked the old woman in the face unflinchingly.
"You are mistaken, Miss Oliver," he said earnestly. "I love Lynde and would be only too happy if it were possible that I could marry her. I am not to blame for what has come about—she will tell you that herself if you ask her."
His look and tone convinced Emily.
"Who is to blame then? Lynde herself?"
"The Captain then?"
"Not in the sense you mean. I can tell you nothing more."
A baffled expression crossed the old woman's face. "There's a mystery here—there always has been—and I'm shut out of it. Lynde won't confide in me—in me who'd give my life's blood to help her. Perhaps I can help her—I could tell you something. Have you stopped coming to Four Winds—has she made you stop coming—because she's got such a wicked old scamp for a father? Is that the reason?"
Alan shook his head.
"No, that has nothing to do with it."
"And you won't come back?"
"It is not a question of will. I cannot—must not go."
"Lynde will break her heart then," said Emily in a tone of despair.
"I think not. She is too strong and fine for that. Help her all you can with sympathy but don't torment her with any questions. You may tell her if you like that I advise her to confide the whole story to you, but if she cannot don't tease her to. Be very gentle with her."
"You don't need to tell me that. I'd rather die than hurt her. I came here full of anger against you—but I see now you are not to blame. You are suffering too—your face tells that. All the same, I wish you'd never set foot in Four Winds. She wasn't happy before but she wasn't so miserable as she is now. Oh, I know Anthony is at the bottom of it all in some way but I won't ask you any more questions since you don't feel free to answer them. But are you sure that nothing can be done to clear up the trouble?"
"Too sure," said Alan's white lips.