The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Had Bassett had some wider knowledge of Dick's condition he might have succeeded better during that bad hour that followed. Certainly, if he had hoped that the mere statement of fact and its proof would bring results, he failed. And the need for haste, the fear of the pursuit behind them, made him nervous and incoherent.
He had first to accept the incredible, himself - that Dick Livingstone no longer existed, that he had died and was buried deep in some chamber of an unconscious mind. He made every effort to revive him, to restore him into the field of consciousness, but without result. And his struggle was increased in difficulty by the fact that he knew so little of Dick's life. David's name meant nothing, apparently, and it was the only name he knew. He described the Livingstone house; he described Elizabeth as he had seen her that night at the theater. Even Minnie. But Dick only shook his head. And until he had aroused some instinct, some desire to live, he could not combat Dick's intention to return and surrender.
"I understand what you are saying," Dick would say. "I'm trying to get it. But it doesn't mean anything to me."
He even tried the war.
"War? What war?" Dick asked. And when he heard about it he groaned.
"A war!" he said. "And I've missed it!"
But soon after that he got up, and moved to the door.
"I'm going back," he said.
"They're after me, aren't they?"
"You're forgetting again. Why should they be after you now, after ten years?"
"I see. I can't get it, you know. I keep listening for them."
Bassett too was listening, but he kept his fears to himself.
"Why did you do it?" he asked finally.
"I was drunk, and I hated him. He married a girl I was crazy about." Bassett tried new tactics. He stressed the absurdity of surrendering for a crime committed ten years before and forgotten.
"They won't convict you anyhow," he urged. "It was a quarrel, wasn't it? I mean, you didn't deliberately shoot him?"
"I don't remember. We quarreled. Yes. I don't remember shooting him."
"What do you remember?"
Dick made an effort, although he was white to the lips.
"I saw him on the floor," he said slowly, and staggered a little.
"Then you don't even know you did it."
"I hated him."
But Bassett saw that his determination to surrender himself was weakening. Bassett fought it with every argument he could summon, and at last he brought forward the one he felt might be conclusive.
"You see, you've not only made a man's place in the world, Clark, as I've told you. You've formed associations you can't get away from. You've got to think of the Livingstones, and you told me yesterday a shock would kill the old man. But it's more than that. There's a girl back in your town. I think you were engaged to her."
But if he had hoped to pierce the veil with that statement he failed. Dick's face flushed, and he went to the door of the cabin, much as he had gone to the window the day before. He did not look around when he spoke.
"Then I'm an unconscionable cad," he said. "I've only cared for one woman in my life. And I've shipwrecked her for good."
"You mean - "
"You know who I mean."
Sometime later Bassett got on his horse and rode out to a ledge which commanded a long stretch of trail in the valley below. Far away horsemen were riding along it, one behind the other, small dots that moved on slowly but steadily. He turned and went back to the cabin.
"We'd better be moving," he said, "and it's up to you to say where. You've got two choices. You can go back to Norada and run the chance of arrest. You know what that means. Without much chance of a conviction you will stand trial and bring wretchedness to the people who stood by you before and who care for you now. Or you can go on over the mountains with me and strike the railroad somewhere to the West. You'll have time to think things over, anyhow. They've waited ten years. They can wait longer."
To his relief Dick acquiesced. He had become oddly passive; he seemed indeed not greatly interested. He did not even notice the haste with which Bassett removed the evidences of their meal, or extinguished the dying fire and scattered the ashes. Nor, when they were mounted, the care with which they avoided the trail. He gave, when asked, information as to the direction of the railroad at the foot of the western slope of the range, and at the same instigation found a trail for them some miles beyond their starting point. But mostly he merely followed, in a dead silence.
They made slow progress. Both horses were weary and hungry, and the going was often rough and even dangerous. But for Dick's knowledge of the country they would have been hopelessly lost. Bassett, however, although tortured with muscular soreness, felt his spirits rising as the miles were covered, and there was no sign of the pursuit.
By mid-afternoon they were obliged to rest their horses and let them graze, and the necessity of food for themselves became insistent. Dick stretched out and was immediately asleep, but the reporter could not rest. The magnitude of his undertaking obsessed him. They had covered perhaps twenty miles since leaving the cabin, and the railroad was still sixty miles away. With fresh horses they could have made it by dawn of the next morning, but he did not believe their jaded animals could go much farther. The country grew worse instead of better. A pass ahead, which they must cross, was full of snow.
He was anxious, too, as to Dick's physical condition. The twitching was gone, but he was very pale and he slept like a man exhausted and at his physical limit. But the necessity of crossing the pass before nightfall or of waiting until dawn to do it drove Bassett back from an anxious reconnoitering of the trail at five o'clock, to rouse the sleeping man and start on again.
Near the pass, however, Dick roused himself and took the lead.
"Let me ahead, Bassett," he said peremptorily. "And give your horse his head. He'll take care of you if you give him a chance."
Bassett was glad to fall back. He was exhausted and nervous. The trail frightened him. It clung to the side of a rocky wall, twisting and turning on itself; it ran under milky waterfalls of glacial water, and higher up it led over an ice field which was a glassy bridge aver a rushing stream beneath. To add to their wretchedness mosquitoes hung about them in voracious clouds, and tiny black gnats which got into their eyes and their nostrils and set the horses frantic.
Once across the ice field Dick's horse fell and for a time could not get up again. He lay, making ineffectual efforts to rise, his sides heaving, his eyes rolling in distress. They gave up then, and prepared to make such camp as they could.
With the setting of the sun it had grown bitterly cold, and Bassett was forced to light a fire. He did it under the protection of the mountain wall, and Dick, after unsaddling his fallen horse, built a rough shelter of rocks against the wind. After a time the exhausted horse got up, but there was no forage, and the two animals stood disconsolate, or made small hopeless excursions, noses to the ground, among the moss and scrub pines.
Before turning in Bassett divided the remaining contents of the flask between them, and his last cigarettes. Dick did not talk. He sat, his back to the shelter, facing the fire, his mind busy with what Bassett knew were bitter and conflicting thoughts. Once, however, as the reporter was dozing off, Dick spoke.
"You said I told you there was a girl," he said. "Did I tell you her name?"
"All right. Go to sleep. I thought if I heard it it might help."
Bassett lay back and watched him.
"Better get some sleep, old man," he said.
He dozed, to waken again cold and shivering. The fire had burned low, and Dick was sitting near it, unheeding, and in a deep study. He looked up, and Bassett was shocked at the quiet tragedy in his face.
"Where is Beverly Carlysle now?" he asked. "Or do you know?"
"Yes. I saw her not long ago."
"Is she married again?"
"No. She's revived 'The Valley,' and she's in New York with it."
Dick slept for only an hour or so that night, but as he slept he dreamed. In his dream he was at peace and happy, and there was a girl in a black frock who seemed to be a part of that peace. When he roused, however, still with the warmth of his dream on him, he could not summon her. She had slipped away among the shadows of the night.
He sat by the fire in the grip of a great despair. He had lost ten years out of his life, his best years. And he could not go back to where he had left off. There was nothing to go back to but shame and remorse. He looked at Bassett, lying by the fire, and tried to fit him into the situation. Who was he, and why was he here? Why had he ridden out at night alone, into unknown mountains, to find him?
As though his intent gaze had roused the sleeper, Bassett opened his eyes, at first drowsily, then wide awake. He raised himself on his elbow and listened, as though for some far-off sound, and his face was strained and anxious. But the night was silent, and he relaxed and slept again.
Something that had been forming itself in Dick's mind suddenly crystallized into conviction. He rose and walked to the edge of the mountain wall and stood there listening. When he went back to the fire he felt in his pockets, found a small pad and pencil, and bending forward to catch the light, commenced to write... At dawn Bassett wakened. He was stiff and wretched, and he grunted as he moved. He turned over and surveyed the small plateau. It was empty, except for his horse, making its continuous, hopeless search for grass.