A Prairie Idyl by Will Lillibridge
A beautiful moonlight night early in September, the kind of night
one remembers for years, when the air is not too cold to be pleasant,
and yet has a suggestion of the frost that is to come. A kind of air
that makes one think thoughts which cannot be put into words, that
calls up sensations one cannot describe; an air which breeds restless
energy; an air through which Mother Nature seems to speak,
sayingHasten, children; life is short and you have much to do.
It was nearing ten o'clock, and a full moon lit up the rolling
prairie country of South Dakota for miles, when the first team of a
little train of six moved slowly out of the dark shadow blots thrown by
the trees at the edge of the Big Sioux, advancing along a dim trail
towards the main road. From the first wagon sounded the suggestive
rattle of tin cooking-utensils, and the clatter of covers on an old
cook stove. Next behind was a load piled high with a compound heap of
tents, tennis nets, old carpets, hammocks, and the manifold
unclassified paraphernalia which twenty young people will collect for a
three weeks' outing.
These wagons told their own story. Camp Eden, the fanciful name
given to the quiet, shady spot where the low chain of hills met the
river; the spot where the very waters seemed to lose themselves in
their own cool depths, and depart sighing through the shallows
beyond,Camp Eden was deserted, and a score of very tired campers were
reluctantly returning to home and work.
Last in the line and steadily losing ground, came a single trap
carrying two people. One of them, a young man with the face of a
dreamer, was speaking. The spell of the night was upon him.
So this is the last of our good timeand now for work. He stopped
the horse and stood up in the wagon. Good-bye, little Camp Eden.
Though I won't be here, yet whenever I see the moon a-shining soand
the air feeling frosty and warm and restlessand the corn stalks
whitening, and the young prairie chickens callingyou'll come back to
me, and I'll think of youand of the Big Siouxand of His eyes
dropped to a smooth brown head, every coil of the walnut hair
It made him think of the many boat rides they two had taken together
in the past two weeks, when he had watched the moonlight shimmering on
rippling, running water, and compared the play of light upon it and
upon that same brown headand had forgotten all else in the
comparison. He forgot all else now. He sat down, and the horse started.
The noisy wagons ahead had passed out of hearing. The pair were alone.
He was silent a moment, looking sideways at the girl. The moonlight
fell full upon her face, drawing clear the line of cheek and chin;
bringing out the curve of the drooping mouth and the shadow from the
long lashes. She seemed to the sensitive lad more than human. He had
loved her for years, with the pure silent love known only to such a
nature as hisand never had he loved her so wildly as now.
He was the sport of a multitude of passions; love and ambition were
the strongest, and they were fighting a death struggle with each other.
How could he leave her for yearsperhaps never see her againand yet
how could he ask her to be the wife of such as he was nowa mere
laborer? And again, his college course, his cherished ambition for
yearshow could he give it up; and yet he felthe knew she loved him,
and trusted him.
He had been looking squarely at her. She turned, and their eyes met.
Each knew the thought of the other, and each turned away. He hesitated
no longer; he would tell her all, and she should judge. His voice
trembled a little as he said: I want to tell you a story, and ask you
a questionmay I?
She looked at him quickly, then answered with a smile: I'm always
glad to hear storiesand at the worst one can always decline to answer
He looked out over the prairie, and saw the lights of the little
townher homein the distance.
It isn't a short story, and I have only so longhe pointed along
the road ahead to the village beyondto tell it in. He settled back
in the seat, and began speaking. His voice was low and soft, like the
Part of the story you know; part of it I think you have guessed; a
little of it will be new. For the sake of that little, I will tell
Thirteen years ago, what is now a little prairie townthen a very
little town indeedgained a new citizena boy of nine. A party of
farmers found him one day, sleeping in a pile of hay, in the market
corner. He lay so they could see how his face was bruisedand how,
though asleep, he tossed in pain. He awoke, and, getting up, walked
with a limp. Where he came from no one knew, and he would not tell; but
his appearance told its own story. He had run away from somewhere. What
had happened they could easily imagine.
It was harvest-time and boys, even though minus a pedigree, were in
demand; so he was promptly put on a farm. Though only a child, he had
no one to care for himand he was made to work ceaselessly.
Years passed and brought a marked change in the boy. How he lived
was a marvel. It was a country of large families, and no one cared to
adopt him. Summers, he would work for his board and clothes, and in
winter, by the irony of Nature, for his board only; yet, perhaps
because it was the warmest place he knew, he managed to attend district
When a lad of fifteen he began to receive wagesand life's horizon
seemed to change. He dressed neatly, and in winter came to school in
the little prairie town. He was put in the lower grades with boys of
ten, and even here his blunders made him a laughing-stock; but not for
long, for he workedworked alwaysand next year was put in the high
There he established a precedentdoing four years' work in
twoand graduated at eighteen. How he did it no one but he himself
knewstudying Sundays, holidays, and evenings, when he was so tired
that he had to walk the floor to keep awakebut he did it.
The speaker stopped a moment to look at his companion. Is this a
bore? Somehow I can't help talking to-night.
No, please go on, said the girl quickly.
Well, the boy graduatedbut not alone. For two years he had worked
side by side with a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl. From the time he had
first seen her she was his idealhis divinity. And she had never
spoken with him five minutes in her life. After graduation, the girl
went away to a big university. Her parents were wealthy, and her every
wish was gratified.
Again the speaker hesitated. When he went on his face was hard, his
And the boyhe was poor and he went back to the farm. He was the
best hand in the country; for the work he received good wages. If he
had worked hard before, he worked now like a demon. He thought of the
girl away at college, and tried at first to crowd her from his
memorybut in vain. Then he worked in self-defenceand to forget.
He saw years slipping byand himself still a farmhand. The thought
maddened him, because he knew he was worthy of something better.
Gradually, his whole life centred upon one objectto save money
for college. Other boys called him close and cold; but he did not care.
He seldom went anywhere, so intent was he upon his one object. On hot
summer nights, tired and drowsy he would read until Nature rebelled,
and he would fall asleep to dream of a girla girl with brown eyes
that made one forgeteverything. In winter, he had more timeand the
little lamp in his room became a sort of landmark: it burned for hours
after every other light in the valley had ceased shining.
Four years passed, and at last the boy had won. In a month he would
pass from the prairie to university life. He had no home, few
friendswho spoke; those who did not were safely packed at the bottom
of his trunk. His going from the little town would excite no more
comment than had his coming. He was all ready, and for the first time
in his life set apart a monththe lastas a vacation. He felt
positively gay. He had fought a hard fightand had won. He saw the
dawning of a great lightsaw the future as a battle-ground where he
would fight; not as he was then, but fully equipped for the
struggle.... But no matter what air-castles he built; they were such as
young men will build to the end of time.
The speaker's voice loweredstopped. He looked straight out over
the prairie, his eyes glistening.
If so far the boy's life had been an inferno, he was to be repaid.
The girlshe of the brown eyeswas home once more, and they met again
as members of a camping party. He half-turned in his seat to look at
her, but she sat with face averted, so quiet, so motionless, that he
wondered if she heard.
Are you listening? he asked.
Listening! Her voice carried conviction, so the lad continued.
For a fortnight he lived a dreamand that dream was Paradise. He
forgot the past, ignored the future, and lived solely for the
momentwith the joy of Nature's own child. It was the pure love of the
idealist and the dreamerit was divine.
Then came the reaction. One day he awokesaw things as they
weresaw again the satire of Fate. At the very time he left for
college, she returneda graduate. She was young, beautiful,
accomplished. He was a mere farmhand, without money or education,
homeless, obscure. The thought was maddening, and one day he suddenly
disappeared from camp. He didn't say good-bye to any one; he felt he
had no apology that he could offer. But he had to go, for he felt the
necessity for work, longed for it, as a drunkard longs for liquor.
Oh! The exclamation came from the lips of the girl beside him.
Iweall wondered why.
Well, that was why.
He fell in with a threshing-crew, and asked to work for his board.
They thought him queer, but accepted his offer. For two days he stayed
with them, doing the work of two men. It seemed as if he couldn't do
enoughhe couldn't become tired. He wanted to think it all out, and he
couldn't with the fever in his blood.
At night he couldn't sleepNature was pitiless. He would walk the
road for miles until morning.
With the third day came relief. All at once he felt fearfully
tired, and fell asleep where he stood. Several of the crew carried him
to a darkened room, and there he slept as a dumb animal sleeps. When he
awoke, he was himself again; his mind was clear and cool. He looked the
future squarely in the face, now, and clearly, as if a finger pointed,
he saw the path that was marked for him. He must go his wayand she
must go hers. Perhaps, after four years or morebut the future was
The boy paused. The lights of the town were nearing, now; but he
still looked out over the moon-kissed prairie.
The rest you know. The dreamer returned. The party scarcely knew
him, for he seemed years older. There were but a few days more of camp
life, and he spent most of the time with the girl. Like a malefactor
out on bail, he was painting a picture for the future. He thought he
had conquered himselfbut he hadn't. It was the same old struggle. Was
not love more than ambition or wealth? Had he not earned the right to
speak? But something held him back. If justice to himself, was it
justice to the girl? Conscience said 'No.' It was hardno one knows
how hardbut he said nothing.
Once more he turned to his companion, in his voice the tenderness of
a life-long passion.
This is the story: did the boy do right? A life's workgreater
than a life itself, hung on the answer to that question.
The girl understood it all. She had always known that she liked him;
but nownowAs he had told his story, she had felt, first, pity, and
then something else; something incomparably sweeter; something that
made her heart beat wildly, that seemed almost to choke her with its
He loved herhad loved her all these years! He belonged to herand
his future lay in her hands.
His future! The thought fell upon her new-found happiness with the
suddenness of a blow. She could keep him, but had she the right to do
so? She saw in him something that he did not suspectand that
something was genius. She knew he had the ability to make for himself a
name that would stand among the great names of the earth.
Then, did his life really belong to her? Did it not rather belong to
himself and to the world?
She experienced a struggle, fierce as he himself had fought. And the
boy sat silent, tense, waiting for her answer.
Yes, she must give him up; she would be brave. She started to speak,
but the words would not come. Suddenly she buried her face in her
hands, while the glistening brown head trembled with her sobs.
It was the last drop to the cup overflowing. A second, and then, his
arms were around her. The touch was electrifyingit was oblivionit
was heavenit wasbut only a young lover knows what.
You have answered, said the boy. God forgive mebut I can't go
Thus Fate sported with two lives.