Between the Hill and the Valley

It was one of the moist, pleasantly odorous nights of early spring.
There was a chill in the evening air, but the grass was growing green
in sheltered spots, and Jeffrey Miller had found purple-petalled
violets and pink arbutus on the hill that day. Across a valley filled
with beech and fir, there was a sunset afterglow, creamy yellow and
pale red, with a new moon swung above it. It was a night for a man to
walk alone and dream of his love, which was perhaps why Jeffrey Miller
came so loiteringly across the springy hill pasture, with his hands
full of the mayflowers.

He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of forty, and looking no younger,
with dark grey eyes and a tanned, clean-cut face, clean-shaven save
for a drooping moustache. Jeffrey Miller was considered a handsome
man, and Bayside people had periodical fits of wondering why he had
never married. They pitied him for the lonely life he must lead alone
there at the Valley Farm, with only a deaf old housekeeper as a
companion, for it did not occur to the Bayside people in general that
a couple of shaggy dogs could be called companions, and they did not
know that books make very excellent comrades for people who know how
to treat them.

One of Jeffrey’s dogs was with him now–the oldest one, with white
breast and paws and a tawny coat. He was so old that he was half-blind
and rather deaf, but, with one exception, he was the dearest of living
creatures to Jeffrey Miller, for Sara Stuart had given him the
sprawly, chubby little pup years ago.

They came down the hill together. A group of men were standing on the
bridge in the hollow, discussing Colonel Stuart’s funeral of the day
before. Jeffrey caught Sara’s name and paused on the outskirts of the
group to listen. Sometimes he thought that if he were lying dead under
six feet of turf and Sara Stuart’s name were pronounced above him, his
heart would give a bound of life.

“Yes, the old kunnel’s gone at last,” Christopher Jackson was saying.
“He took his time dyin’, that’s sartain. Must be a kind of relief for
Sara–she’s had to wait on him, hand and foot, for years. But no doubt
she’ll feel pretty lonesome. Wonder what she’ll do?”

“Is there any particular reason for her to do anything?” asked Alec
Churchill.

“Well, she’ll have to leave Pinehurst. The estate’s entailed and goes
to her cousin, Charles Stuart.”

There were exclamations of surprise from the other men on hearing
this. Jeffrey drew nearer, absently patting his dog’s head. He had not
known it either.

“Oh, yes,” said Christopher, enjoying all the importance of exclusive
information. “I thought everybody knew that. Pinehurst goes to the
oldest male heir. The old kunnel felt it keen that he hadn’t a son. Of
course, there’s plenty of money and Sara’ll get that. But I guess
she’ll feel pretty bad at leaving her old home. Sara ain’t as young as
she used to be, neither. Let me see–she must be thirty-eight. Well,
she’s left pretty lonesome.”

“Maybe she’ll stay on at Pinehurst,” said Job Crowe. “It’d only be
right for her cousin to give her a home there.”

Christopher shook his head.

“No, I understand they’re not on very good terms. Sara don’t like
Charles Stuart or his wife–and I don’t blame her. She won’t stay
there, not likely. Probably she’ll go and live in town. Strange she
never married. She was reckoned handsome, and had plenty of beaus at
one time.”

Jeffrey swung out of the group and started homeward with his dog. To
stand by and hear Sara Stuart discussed after this fashion was more
than he could endure. The men idly watched his tall, erect figure as
he went along the valley.

“Queer chap, Jeff,” said Alec Churchill reflectively.

“Jeff’s all right,” said Christopher in a patronizing way. “There
ain’t a better man or neighbour alive. I’ve lived next farm to him for
thirty years, so I ought to know. But he’s queer sartainly–not like
other people–kind of unsociable. He don’t care for a thing ‘cept dogs
and reading and mooning round woods and fields. That ain’t natural,
you know. But I must say he’s a good farmer. He’s got the best farm in
Bayside, and that’s a real nice house he put up on it. Ain’t it an odd
thing he never married? Never seemed to have no notion of it. I can’t
recollect of Jeff Miller’s ever courting anybody. That’s another
unnatural thing about him.”

“I’ve always thought that Jeff thought himself a cut or two above the
rest of us,” said Tom Scovel with a sneer. “Maybe he thinks the
Bayside girls ain’t good enough for him.”

“There ain’t no such dirty pride about Jeff,” pronounced Christopher
conclusively. “And the Millers _are_ the best family hereabouts,
leaving the kunnel’s out. And Jeff’s well off–nobody knows how well,
I reckon, but I can guess, being his land neighbour. Jeff ain’t no
fool nor loafer, if he is a bit queer.”

Meanwhile, the object of these remarks was striding homeward and
thinking, not of the men behind him, but of Sara Stuart. He must go to
her at once. He had not intruded on her since her father’s death,
thinking her sorrow too great for him to meddle with. But this was
different. Perhaps she needed the advice or assistance only he could
give. To whom else in Bayside could she turn for it but to him, her
old friend? Was it possible that she must leave Pinehurst? The thought
struck cold dismay to his soul. How could he bear his life if she went
away?

He had loved Sara Stuart from childhood. He remembered vividly the day
he had first seen her–a spring day, much like this one had been; he,
a boy of eight, had gone with his father to the big, sunshiny hill
field and he had searched for birds’ nests in the little fir copses
along the crest while his father plowed. He had so come upon her,
sitting on the fence under the pines at the back of Pinehurst–a child
of six in a dress of purple cloth. Her long, light brown curls fell
over her shoulders and rippled sleekly back from her calm little brow;
her eyes were large and greyish blue, straight-gazing and steadfast.
To the end of his life the boy was to carry in his heart the picture
she made there under the pines.

“Little boy,” she had said, with a friendly smile, “will you show me
where the mayflowers grow?”

Shyly enough he had assented, and they set out together for the
barrens beyond the field, where the arbutus trailed its stars of
sweetness under the dusty dead grasses and withered leaves of the old
year. The boy was thrilled with delight. She was a fairy queen who
thus graciously smiled on him and chattered blithely as they searched
for mayflowers in the fresh spring sunshine. He thought it a
wonderful thing that it had so chanced. It overjoyed him to give the
choicest dusters he found into her slim, waxen little fingers, and
watch her eyes grow round with pleasure in them. When the sun began to
lower over the beeches she had gone home with her arms full of
arbutus, but she had turned at the edge of the pineland and waved her
hand at him.

That night, when he told his mother of the little girl he had met on
the hill, she had hoped anxiously that he had been “very polite,” for
the little girl was a daughter of Colonel Stuart, newly come to
Pinehurst. Jeffrey, reflecting, had not been certain that he had been
polite; “But I am sure she liked me,” he said gravely.

A few days later a message came from Mrs. Stuart on the hill to Mrs.
Miller in the valley. Would she let her little boy go up now and then
to play with Sara? Sara was very lonely because she had no playmates.
So Jeff, overjoyed, had gone to his divinity’s very home, where the
two children played together many a day. All through their childhood
they had been fast friends. Sara’s parents placed no bar to their
intimacy. They had soon concluded that little Jeff Miller was a very
good playmate for Sara. He was gentle, well-behaved, and manly.

Sara never went to the district school which Jeff attended; she had
her governess at home. With no other boy or girl in Bayside did she
form any friendship, but her loyalty to Jeff never wavered. As for
Jeff, he worshipped her and would have done anything she commanded. He
belonged to her from the day they had hunted arbutus on the hill.

When Sara was fifteen she had gone away to school. Jeff had missed her
sorely. For four years he saw her only in the summers, and each year
she had seemed taller, statelier, further from him. When she graduated
her father took her abroad for two years; then she came home, a
lovely, high-bred girl, dimpling on the threshold of womanhood; and
Jeffrey Miller was face to face with two bitter facts. One was that he
loved her–not with the boy-and-girl love of long ago, but with the
love of a man for the one woman in the world; and the other was that
she was as far beyond his reach as one of those sunset stars of which
she had always reminded him in her pure, clear-shining loveliness.

He looked these facts unflinchingly in the face until he had grown
used to them, and then he laid down his course for himself. He loved
Sara–and he did not wish to conquer his love, even if it had been
possible. It were better to love her, whom he could never win, than to
love and be loved by any other woman. His great office in life was to
be her friend, humble and unexpectant; to be at hand if she should
need him for ever so trifling a service; never to presume, always to
be faithful.

Sara had not forgotten her old friend. But their former comradeship
was now impossible; they could be friends, but never again
companions. Sara’s life was full and gay; she had interests in which
he had no share; her social world was utterly apart from his; she was
of the hill and its traditions, he was of the valley and its people.
The democracy of childhood past, there was no common ground on which
they might meet. Only one thing Jeffrey had found it impossible to
contemplate calmly. Some day Sara would marry–a man who was her
equal, who sat at her father’s table as a guest. In spite of himself,
Jeffrey’s heart filled with hot rebellion at the thought; it was like
a desecration and a robbery.

But, as the years went by, this thing he dreaded did not happen. Sara
did not marry, although gossip assigned her many suitors not unworthy
of her. She and Jeffrey were always friends, although they met but
seldom. Sometimes she sent him a book; it was his custom to search for
the earliest mayflowers and take them to her; once in a long while
they met and talked of many things. Jeffrey’s calendar from year to
year was red-lettered by these small happenings, of which nobody knew,
or, knowing, would have cared.

So he and Sara drifted out of youth, together yet apart. Her mother
had died, and Sara was the gracious, stately mistress of Pinehurst,
which grew quieter as the time went on; the lovers ceased to come, and
holiday friends grew few; with the old colonel’s failing health the
gaieties and lavish entertaining ceased. Jeffrey thought that Sara
must often be lonely, but she never said so; she remained sweet,
serene, calm-eyed, like the child he had met on the hill. Only, now
and then, Jeffrey fancied he saw a shadow on her face–a shadow so
faint and fleeting that only the eye of an unselfish, abiding love,
made clear-sighted by patient years, could have seen it. It hurt him,
that shadow; he would have given anything in his power to have
banished it.

And now this long friendship was to be broken. Sara was going away. At
first he had thought only of her pain, but now his own filled his
heart. How could he live without her? How could he dwell in the valley
knowing that she had gone from the hill? Never to see her light shine
down on him through the northern gap in the pines at night! Never to
feel that perhaps her eyes rested on him now and then as he went about
his work in the valley fields! Never to stoop with a glad thrill over
the first spring flowers because it was his privilege to take them to
her! Jeffrey groaned aloud. No, he could not go up to see her that
night; he must wait–he must strengthen himself.

Then his heart rebuked him. This was selfishness; this was putting his
own feelings before hers–a thing he had sworn never to do. Perhaps
she needed him–perhaps she had wondered why he had not come to offer
her such poor service as might be in his power. He turned and went
down through the orchard lane, taking the old field-path across the
valley and up the hill, which he had traversed so often and so
joyfully in boyhood. It was dark now, and a few stars were shining in
the silvery sky. The wind sighed among the pines as he walked under
them. Sometimes he felt that he must turn back–that his pain was
going to master him; then he forced himself to go on.

The old grey house where Sara lived seemed bleak and stricken in the
dull light, with its leafless vines clinging to it. There were no
lights in it. It looked like a home left soulless.

Jeffrey went around to the garden door and knocked. He had expected
the maid to open it, put Sara herself came.




“Why, Jeff,” she said, with pleasure in her tones. “I am so glad to
see you. I have been wondering why you had not come before.”

“I did not think you would want to see me yet,” he said hurriedly. “I
have thought about you every hour–but I feared to intrude.”

“_You_ couldn’t intrude,” she said gently. “Yes, I have wanted to see
you, Jeff. Come into the library.”

He followed her into the room where they had always sat in his rare
calls. Sara lighted the lamp on the table. As the light shot up she
stood clearly revealed in it–a tall, slender woman in a trailing gown
of grey. Even a stranger, not knowing her age, would have guessed it
to be what it was, yet it would have been hard to say what gave the
impression of maturity. Her face was quite unlined–a little pale,
perhaps, with more finely cut outlines than those of youth. Her eyes
were clear and bright; her abundant brown hair waved back from her
face in the same curves that Jeffrey had noted in the purple-gowned
child of six, under the pines. Perhaps it was the fine patience and
serenity in her face that told her tale of years. Youth can never
acquire it.

Her eyes brightened when she saw the mayflowers he carried. She came
and took them from him, and her hands touched his, sending a little
thrill of joy through him.

“How lovely they are! And the first I have seen this spring. You
always bring me the first, don’t you, Jeff? Do you remember the first
day we spent picking mayflowers together?”

Jeff smiled. Could he forget? But something held him back from speech.

Sara put the flowers in a vase on the table, but slipped one starry
pink cluster into the lace on her breast. She came and sat down beside
Jeffrey; he saw that her beautiful eyes had been weeping, and that
there were lines of pain around her lips. Some impulse that would not
be denied made him lean over and take her hand. She left it
unresistingly in his clasp.

“I am very lonely now, Jeff,” she said sadly. “Father has gone. I have
no friends left.”

“You have me,” said Jeffrey quietly.

“Yes. I shouldn’t have said that. You are my friend, I know, Jeff.
But, but–I must leave Pinehurst, you know.”

“I learned that tonight for the first time,” he answered.

“Did you ever come to a place where _everything_ seemed ended–where
it seemed that there was nothing–simply nothing–left, Jeff?” she
said wistfully. “But, no, it couldn’t seem so to a man. Only a woman
could fully understand what I mean. That is how I feel now. While I
had Father to live for it wasn’t so hard. But now there is nothing.
And I must go away.”

“Is there anything I can do?” muttered Jeffrey miserably. He knew now
that he had made a mistake in coming tonight; he could not help her.
His own pain had unmanned him. Presently he would say something
foolish or selfish in spite of himself.

Sara turned her eyes on him.

“There is nothing anybody can do, Jeff,” she said piteously. Her
eyes, those clear child-eyes, filled with tears. “I shall be
braver–stronger–after a while. But just now I have no strength left.
I feel like a lost, helpless child. Oh, Jeff!”

She put her slender hands over her face and sobbed. Every sob cut
Jeffrey to the heart.

“Don’t–don’t, Sara,” he said huskily. “I can’t bear to see you suffer
so. I’d die for you if it would do you any good. I love you–I love
you! I never meant to tell you so, but it is the truth. I oughtn’t to
tell you now. Don’t think that I’m trying to take any advantage of
your loneliness and sorrow. I know–I have always known–that you are
far above me. But that couldn’t prevent my loving you–just humbly
loving you, asking nothing else. You may be angry with my presumption,
but I can’t help telling you that I love you. That’s all. I just want
you to know it.”

Sara had turned away her head. Jeffrey was overcome with contrition.
Ah, he had no business to speak so–he had spoiled the devotion of
years. Who was he that he should have dared to love her? Silence alone
had justified his love, and now he had lost that justification. She
would despise him. He had forfeited her friendship for ever.

“Are you angry, Sara?” he questioned sadly, after a silence.

“I think I am,” said Sara. She kept her stately head averted. “If–if
you have loved me, Jeff, why did you never tell me so before?”

“How could I dare?” he said gravely. “I knew I could never win
you–that I had no right to dream of you so. Oh, Sara, don’t be angry!
My love has been reverent and humble. I have asked nothing. I ask
nothing now but your friendship. Don’t take that from me, Sara. Don’t
be angry with me.”

“I _am_ angry,” repeated Sara, “and I think I have a right to be.”

“Perhaps so,” he said simply, “but not because I have loved you. Such
love as mine ought to anger no woman, Sara. But you have a right to be
angry with me for presuming to put it into words. I should not have
done so–but I could not help it. It rushed to my lips in spite of me.
Forgive me.”

“I don’t know whether I can forgive you for not telling me before,”
said Sara steadily. “_That_ is what I have to forgive–not your
speaking at last, even if it was dragged from you against your will.
Did you think I would make you such a very poor wife, Jeff, that you
would not ask me to marry you?”

“Sara!” he said, aghast. “I–I–you were as far above me as a star in
the sky–I never dreamed–I never hoped—-”

“That I could care for you?” said Sara, looking round at last. “Then
you were more modest than a man ought to be, Jeff. I did not know that
you loved me, or I should have found some way to make you speak out
long ago. I should not have let you waste all these years. I’ve loved
you–ever since we picked mayflowers on the hill, I think–ever since
I came home from school, I know. I never cared for anyone
else–although I tried to, when I thought you didn’t care for me. It
mattered nothing to me that the world may have thought there was some
social difference between us. There, Jeff, you cannot accuse me of not
making my meaning plain.”

“Sara,” he whispered, wondering, bewildered, half-afraid to believe
this unbelievable joy. “I’m not half worthy of you–but–but”–he bent
forward and put his arm around her, looking straight into her clear,
unshrinking eyes. “Sara, will you be my wife?”

“Yes.” She said the word clearly and truly. “And I will think myself a
proud and happy and honoured woman to be so, Jeff. Oh, I don’t shrink
from telling you the truth, you see. You mean too much to me for me to
dissemble it. I’ve hidden it for eighteen years because I didn’t think
you wanted to hear it, but I’ll give myself the delight of saying it
frankly now.”

She lifted her delicate, high-bred face, fearless love shining in
every lineament, to his, and they exchanged their first kiss.