MANY years have passed since last I was here in this silent place on the border of the salt marshes... many years. And though time and absence have blunted somewhat the edge of my regret for the things that came to pass here and hereabouts, neither time nor absence has been able to alleviate the pain which to-day I feel as keenly as I did this day twenty years ago.
Like a living symbol of discontent, casting shadows in its wake, I have skulked drearily across a sun-lit world since last I turned my face from these marshes with a double purpose in view—to escape a tormenting memory and to recapture a lost dream. And now after the passage of all the restless years I have returned to the point of departure no better off than when I set out.
There is a difference though, and I can feel it. For as I sit here in the quiet of falling dusk, it seems to me that an odd, quivering tension is troubling the air, as though actors were silently waiting behind a curtain for the last act of a play in which I am cast for a part. Whether the actors are hostile or friendly, and what is to be the nature of my role, is still withheld from me, for that is the dénouement of the drama and the end of a long, long quest.
TO me this is the fairest spot in the world, and the saddest. In the days of my youth when I first came upon it, I recall how I crept through the rushes and sat watching, as now I watch, the water trails in the marshes fill up with purple and crimson shades as the sun made down the sky.
I have always heard that disappointment follows the footsteps of those who retrace their paths back to the scenes of their youth. Mountains diminish to hills, I am told, and rivers change to muddy streams, nor does the sun ever shine so brightly or the sky seem quite so blue, I have not found it true in this case. If anything, time has intensified the beauty of these marshes. The influence they exert over me is as strong to-day as it was many years ago. I look upon them now, not with diminished vision, but with added appreciation. They have become a vital part of my life.
Through all the years that I have fled this place memory has held it ever fresh in my eyes; and now, as I behold it once more in reality, nothing seems to have changed... even the peculiar stillness hovering over the spot, the sensation of finding oneself quite alone in a lost corner of the world still lingers in the air, holding the soul within me in a calm but watchful hush.
THAT ragged apple tree over there, extending its maimed and cramped limbs from the green curve of the bank, is as gaunt and weird an object as when I first looked on it, yet just as friendly. Perhaps a little more so, now that the years have brought me similar physical defects... but here perhaps I should apologize to this weather-blown old watcher of the marshes, for it at least has remained picturesque.
One of the fascinations of this place for me lies in the fact that it is shut off on three sides from the rest of the world by a tall and thickly laced screen of reeds, the open side giving view to the green level reaches of the salt marshes where flat creeks of water wind slowly, endlessly, and mysteriously into a fantastic and insolvable design of flowing color.
The semicircular inclosure itself is carpeted with a broad mat of springy reeds which time and the elements have beaten low. Though dead, dry and gray, these reeds, from having become so closely interwoven, still retain a feeling of buoyancy, and yield softly without breaking under the weight of the reclining body.
I have said that this natural pavilion by the marshes appeals to me because on three sides it is shut off from the world, and this statement, on second thought, seems to be no less than the truth. Perhaps I am still possessed by some compelling instinct of a distant primitive life thus to find comfort and satisfaction in having safety around me and a clear outlook in front. Whatever the reason may be, I never fail to experience a thrill of expectancy and relief whenever I turn away from the great voice of the sea that chants against the rocks on the other side of this ledge of land—to seek out this hidden pocket in the reeds.
Through fields high in wild grass and, in May time, freckled with daisies, I pick my way until at last, after a careful survey round me, I drop suddenly from view down a declivity concealed by the overgrowth. Immediately I am plunged into a land of wavering twilight and of intimate earthy smells. I pause for a moment to drink in my sensations, then parting a known opening in the rushes, I fling myself down on the mat of reeds to gaze on the green, salt marshes where the waterways slowly glide.
Before me, stretched out like a huge map, and reminiscent of an old geography, lies a silent and unpeopled country; while round me circle the whispering reeds terminating in a high, green bank from which like a garrulous old pensioner, the friendly apple tree hobbles out to greet me.
IN the bygone days, to my knowledge, no other person visited this spot save one who came and passed in the swift flight of a summer, and in passing left no path that mortal foot could follow.
See, over yonder, on the flat surface of the marshes, there lies a small green island decked with a plume of trees?
It was there that I lost a dream.
MEN have fought to realize a dream and men have gone down in defense of one; but my lot has been less fortunate and certainly less spectacular than these, for I have been possessed of a longing that has forced me to wander, restless and unrewarded, across the face of the world in fruitless search of a dream that I lost in the days of my youth, and I have grown old and unbecoming in the quest.
Those who have tasted and died have at least experienced the joy of the dram before the goblet was shattered at their feet, whereas I, who have quaffed from many goblets, have never yet found in any of them a liquor that would appease the flame which even now is parching my throat.
When I first set out in pursuit of this dream, I proceeded with the logical folly characteristic of many madmen. I wandered irresponsibly in strange places, but always with a definite object in view. During the first year of the search I passed through cities and foreign lands as the shadow of a cloud drifts across a field. I was not a part of anything. Places made no impression on me, and I left no impression behind. Like a sightless phantom I moved with outstretched hands, futilely plucking at the air. And in those days I dwelt in pools of spiritual silence.
Once when I was in Egypt my search carried me out into the desert, where through many days of disappointment I endeavored to concentrate on the dream that I had lost. With all my will I strove to recall it from the appalling immensity confronting my burning eyes. But the brooding consistency of the desert silence, and at night the impersonal splendor of the stars, instead of quieting my spirit, awoke within me a strong desire for human companionship. Night after night I continued to struggle alone in this vast, unresponsive stillness, hoping to force myself into that condition of spiritual calm which I knew to be vital to the success of my search. At length, unable to endure it longer, I arose one night from my rug and drew near to the camp of my guides. Their fire lay like a pool of light on the dark floor of the desert, and as I approached I caught the monotonous whining of native instruments and heard the tinkling of flying anklets. Imperceptibly, as though hypnotized, and yet clearly aware of my weakness, I drew nearer, with quickening pulse, to the half-circle of swarthy nomads. Three girls were dancing in the firelight, their supple bodies voluptuously abandoned to the rhythm of the music. And as I watched my eyes grew bright with hunger... and I no longer sought a dream.
The next day I struck camp, and retreated from the scene of my defeat. I returned to Paris and sought to capture my dream in the fleeting glance of a woman, or to hear it floating to me from the cascading notes of a symphony. All day long I walked the streets, peering into the eyes of the women I passed, and at night I drowned myself in a flood of music. But in the feverish turmoil of Paris I fared no better than I had in the austere silence of the desert.
Then, stung by remorse and self-loathing, I denied myself the companionship of my kind, and withdrew to a little hamlet far up on the snow-cloaked shoulder of a mountain. Through the long, cold winter nights, I waited for the dream to come. In the intensity of my longing I fasted for many days and punished my body with exhausting exercise and long exposure to the elements. And in the deep, still valleys of the mountains I groveled in the snow and whimpered for the return of the dream. But I who had forsaken the object of my quest was in turn forsaken. The mountains looked down on my misery and denied me peace. Then, once more, the spirit of rebellion took possession of me and I went down from the mountain to find laughter and forgetfulness in the sun- warmed dissipation of a Mediterranean watering-place.... I met there many who gave me memories, but none who brought me a dream.
ONCE I thought I had found it. In a sultry back yard in London a girl lay dying. Childhood had hardly left her before the city had found her out, used her, enjoyed her, and passed on to its trams and pubs and laughing stalls. As she lay stretched out on a miserable cot, her hot breath falling on the tepid air around us, her wandering eyes sought comfort in the sickly green of a stunted tree.
She was known to me as Molly, and during the early days of her decline we had spent many hours together conversing on subjects which would have brought pious consternation to the matrons of the last "home" that had turned her out redeemed. Instinctively she seemed to divine that, like herself, I too belonged to the unstable and was drifting without a rudder.
Now she lay dying. From time to time a red-faced, perspiring woman came panting out of the kitchen to gaze solicitously at Molly, then returned silently to her labors. Once she wiped her large, raw hands on her apron and timidly stroked the bleached hair of the dying girl. A little later appeared a doctor, aggressively supported by a visiting nurse. After making his patient keenly aware of the fact that she was stubbornly dying the face of a pure, powerful and indignant charitable organization, he took himself off with many ominous shakings of his head. But before he left, the doctor was good enough to explain to me that it was quite a common case.
"Oh, quite common, sir, I assure you," he said. "The wards are full of 'em. They're eaten up, simply eaten up. No fiber moral or physical... weak sisters This girl will die soon. You might give her a few drops from this bottle. It will steady her nerves a bit."
As evening came on Molly grew steadily weaker, and her eyes filled up with dreams. Her thin hand groped for mine, and she made an effort to rise.
"Yes, Molly," I said, bending over her. "What is it? What do you see?"
"Something I can't understand," she answered. "Something new."
"Try, Molly, try," I pleaded.
"It's bright," she gasped, "an' green an' there are trees waving on it in the wind. Oh, Mr. Landor, it's ever so peaceful there."
Her voice faded away as her life streamed out through her eyes. I was trembling violently now and clinging to her hand.
"Is that all, Molly?" I asked. "Is there anything else you see?"
"Yes; I seem to make out something... some one... Lor'! Mr. Landor," she murmured as peace touched the lines of her face.
Quickly, before she died, I bent and kissed her lips.
NOW the sun is rapidly nearing the end of its course, and still I sit here muttering to myself like some old book left to grumble alone on a shelf.
See! There it hangs now behind the island, blazing for a moment through the trees like a burning scarf... it's quenched, and the night is at that stage of darkness which precedes the coming of the stars. The marshes are blotted from view, but soon their wandering waterways will be shot with dancing jets of green and the golden shrubbery of the stars will twist across the sky.
From the high bank above me drifts down the mingled voices of a boy and girl engaged in earnest discussion—fisher folk, perhaps, straying inland from the beach. Although it is impossible for me to miss a word of their conversation, sitting as I am directly at their feet, yet to them I am as far away as though I were squatting in a reed- built tepee on a distant South Sea island.
"But, Joe, you promised. When we started out you said you wouldn't go home so soon."
"Aw, I know, but this walking ain't no fun."
"So you want to go back to Becky, is it? What do you do if you don't walk when you go out at night with her?"
"What's that to you?"
"I'm a finer shape of a girl than her, the flat-breasted, thin-flanked gabby."
"Come, let's see if you're. You'd better let me try."
"What do you think of her now? Oh... Joe!"
"You are fine, Madge, darned if you ain't! Say, let me try again."
"You won't go back if I do?"
"No, let me hold you now."
"Then you can try if you want."
"Madge! Where have you gone to now?"
"The daisies are thick where I am."
The voices die away.
HERE in the darkness I sit apart from life, and like an unregenerate worldling moralize on its ways. The ways of a man with a woman and the ways of a woman with a man; different in method of approach, different perhaps in fundamental purpose, but eventually arriving at the same conclusion. The battle continues as briskly to-day as when the issue was first joined eons ago in the twilight of the jungle. The ambush warfare between women still goes on, and man still fights his brother as merrily as ever for a booty of yielding flesh. And the old, sweet, hateful flame burning between man and woman forever blinds their eyes to the world that lies round them. The curve of a woman's breast, or the swift pressure of her thighs, largely controls the impulses and aspirations of man. In his inability to adjust himself to the most powerful and joyous force in life man still walks on all fours; and in the presence of this force the cumulative experience of the ages drops away, leaving him as helpless to order his conduct as any of his capricious cousins chattering in a. treetop to an audience of trembling leaves.
Here, after years of searching for the one thing in life or death that I truly desire, here on the very spot where my dream fleetingly merged with life, I find my mind distracted by a crude courtship. Forgotten now the dream I have searched in vain to find and reluctantly, but with a furtive thrill, my thoughts return to Scarlet.
FROM out the deep, disturbing past swarm thoughts of Scarlet. Memories long suppressed attack me now. Like swift pursuing insects bearing poison in their stings, they dart around me, but their wings are gorgeous as they poise before the thrust. In bygone days, that poison, sweet and wild, ran riot in my veins.
At a time of conflict and disenchantment this girl, like a scented flame, kindled in me a spark of madness which, dying, left me desperately sane. Though the perfume is gone now—gone utterly and forever—the memory of its fragrance still taints the air I breathe. Even while I pray for the return of my lost dream, I am moved to hopeless laughter. I see myself. The masks have all been used. Poor, painted masks... fatuously grinning!
THE city was pressing down. I could feel it at my back. With lazy, good-natured indifference it seemed to be waiting for me to encompass my own trifling destruction. In my guardedly neurotic mind, New York was assuming the personality of a huge, sponge-like creature implacably bent on absorbing my identity. As a matter of accurate record, I trod its streets unnoticed and betrayed the sincerity of my desire to escape by surrendering of my own free will to the drab routine of its days and nights.
What fascinated me most in the city, I feared most in myself. Under the influence of solitude and ceaseless speculation, I had grown abnormally sensitive and, I suspect a trifle arrogant. Even then there was something for which I was always searching, and although I was unable to define the exact object of my quest, I was dimly aware of its nature. Immersed in a world of fantastic ideals and bitterly checked desires, I had already discarded as inconsequential the aims and ambitions of men as expressed by the people with whom I came into daily contact.
In spite of this vainglorious superiority of youth I had a sincere desire to live, but no equipment with which to set about doing it. From time to time vague rhythms of life ran through me—a passage in a book, glance in a crowded car, the atmosphere of a room or the signal of a ship at night aroused in me a feeling that I was standing on the edge of things, plucking at reality with uncertain fingers.
I had a friend during this period who was much like me. For several years we had been readjusting the world together, changing it bit by bit until we had created something quite new and beautiful, a decent place to live in to our way of thinking.
"But it's impossible," he said one day, getting up from the table with a defeated expression in his eyes. "I'll be with you in a minute."
But my friend never came back to the table. Within sixty seconds he had shot himself cleanly through the heart rather than face the weary problems which centuries of civilization had failed to solve.
They found him in the lavatory, crumpled and unimportant looking, a weak young man, conventionally known as a coward. The bubbles were still on his beer and his castles were floating round me when I was asked to claim the body of this fleeting friend of mine.
"I'll be with you in a minute," he had said, and I wondered where he really was now as I clung to a circular towel and watched the curtain rise higher and higher on the jumbled stage of life. I realized then that I could never go his way. His worn boots bereft of personality remained forever in my mind as a symbol of surrender. There was something within me, something either cowardly or curious which prevented me from voluntarily giving up my seat at the play, as ineptly directed as it seemed to be.
MEANWHILE life was made more unreal for me by the nature of my occupation. From nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, I was grimly engaged in creating beautiful illusions about various commodities bought, but not needed, by a duped public.
"Mr. Landor," my chief once said to me, "do you realize that if you lived in the heart of a dense forest and invented there a more efficient rat trap than had ever been launched on the market by judicious advertising, the world would make a beaten path to your door?"
I was forced to admit that I had never devoted much thought to this particular problem.
"Well, it's true," continued the chief. "Emerson says so. Read Emerson? You must! Great man. Study him. He had the heart of a copy writer. And man, I want you to put some life in this copy. Let the public understand the romance behind these lawn mowers, the part they play in the heart of the home, their power for good in the life of the nation. Pack a punch into every sentence. Make a beaten path."
Thus inspired, I devoted myself to the glorification of lawn mowers until I learned to detest them.
The remarkable seriousness with which my zealous colleagues at the office gathered in their conferences over the most insignificant trifles gave color to my belief that I was passing through a value of unreality from which I would presently emerge into the open space of reason. Surrounded by degrading wall mottoes, and further humiliated by the inspirational speeches of a desk pounding executive, I sometimes wondered if it would not be more admirable of me to take an uncompromising stand at once and apply to be admitted to a home for the mentally defective, where life could be led frankly and agreeably off key.
This attitude of mine, insufferable certainly in one who had hardly been brushed by the wing of life, could not help but be reflected in the spirit of blind detachment with which I approached my work. As a result I was regarded with quite justifiable suspicion by those who paid me for my time. They seemed to realize instinctively that my thoughts were unfumigated aliens invading their beautiful business world, and I was classified as an enemy to the established order of things, both sacred and sublime, all of which had to do with the accumulation of wealth.
The mistrust of those for whom I worked fortified my self-respect, but offered little prospect of advancement. This last consideration hardly disturbed me at all, for I had the satisfaction of knowing that in two years' time, when I had attained the age of twenty-five, I would through the agency of a trust fund left to me by my father, become economically independent of a system I despised.
After the death of my friend I was very much alone. The world was full of a number of things, most of them disturbing. And in my solitude I would dwell on these things. It seemed to me that there was no scheme nor pattern in life, no mounting rhythm nor sense of value. People talked of unreal aims and worked for unreal ends, and died at last in great confusion clinging to unreal gods. To keep alive the majority of men and women were forced to withdraw from life. From blind alleys they looked out through all their weary days on a world which, in the course of a work- day week, had been created for the edification of man; but they did not find it good. In fact, they never found it at all. The world to them was merely a problem on which they were being hurled arbitrarily through space, filled with work and nervous quarrels and a profusion of unsavory smells. To their more fortunate fellow-men, particularly to those for whom I worked, the world was a nice, bright ball to be plastered over as speedily as possible with nice, bright advertisements, and girdled stoutly with slogans. While scientists were quietly revolutionizing life and artists contributing new forms to it, these business- builders came staggering down from the mountain with a billboard brandished aloft.
FINALLY there were women and the tremendous possibilities they presented. There were so many different kinds of women and they had so many ingenious ways of showing that they were different, though still women. To walk along a shopping street on a Saturday afternoon gave me the sensation of swimming against a current of swiftly darting glances, ever changing, ever seeking. In the short course of a block I was able to read a thousand feminine moods and a thousand feminine meanings. The interrupting eyes of women, cut across my thoughts and left me fearfully alert. Arrogant, tender, cruel and alluring, they plunged into my mind and created there a question, a sort of troubled wonderment. Yet whenever I was brought into contact with women by my more astute friends, I was invariably disappointed by a certain underlying sameness characterizing them all. This was due, I realize now, to the obvious fact that they were women, but in those days of unexamined expectations, I looked upon it as being a rather saddening indication.
On the rare occasions when I sat at a table with my friends in the cheerful intimacy of a glass or so of something and the equally stimulating presence of women, I became quite pleased and excited with the prospect. But I was never able to shake off the feeling that beneath their masks of laughter these delightfully animated creatures were dispassionately testing me by their own unfathomable standards. I always divined that when they had satisfied themselves I was of no practicable value to them they would tolerantly include me in the party and apply their talents to more profitable fields of endeavor.
For this there was ample justification. I was rather a sallow and unimposing person, disconcertingly watchful and utterly devoid of technique. It was only natural I should be the loser in these furtive counter-appraisals. Although the women fell far short of my expectations, they still remained women to me and were desirable as such, whereas to them I was merely a vague sort of person of no particular value other than serving as a useful bit of masculine furniture to be propped up in a public place.
Once I found myself sitting alarmingly alone opposite an elderly sort of a girl with discontented eyes made hard and bold by contact with many men.
She was my first woman, and I was none too happy.
Presently she said, "Come on, dear, it's time we were getting home."
As I placed my empty glass on the table I wished that she had given me at least an opportunity to do the urging. There was something rather disconcerting in the way she had said "we." It sounded so intimately inclusive.
A dark side street and a dingy entrance presided over by a collarless West Indian bell boy. Beneath our feet the narrow elevator wheezed and shuddered; and a damp, unpleasant smell followed us up the shaft. The woman was standing close to me, her arm pressed to mine. I was wondering about her arm. The elevator came to a stealthy, insecure stop, and with a grating noise the door slid back. We were at the fifth floor.
"Here we are," said the woman, giving my hand a squeeze. "This is where we get off."
I was being led down a long, dimly lighted hall in which there were many doors, and I walked on guilty tiptoe. No moral consideration troubled me. I was disturbed merely by the sordid method of a procedure which this woman took for granted. I was accepted as a matter of course.
Gas light on a pink bed and the closing of a door. I felt a desperate need to escape. Then it occurred to me that to stave off the inevitable I might try to reform her; but when her lips sought mine, I decided to postpone the reformation indefinitely. She asked me for money and mechanically I gave her what I had. When she had carefully counted off the amount to which she was entitled, she handed back the remaining bills and placed her share on a small table on which there was a bust of Garfield. I remember that—Garfield! Why not Grant or Arthur, I kept wondering. Why Garfield? Then I decided that whoever the bust represented, its presence on that table would still be just as puzzling.
A few moments later she emerged fleshily from an alcove and after looking at her with frank interest I dropped my eyes to the carpet. It was a red carpet with sprawly blobs in it of a deeper hue. The only sensation I experienced was one of disappointment. Although I had never before seen a woman so scantily draped, I had often enough thought about them. This woman now confronting me was unlike anything my mind had ever culled. Her weary looking breasts were heavy and pendulous and the flesh round her hips had been despoiled by the markings of her corsets. I had never considered this contingency before, but now that I saw it, I realized that it was both a natural and pardonable result of girth and civilization. Nevertheless it was an unsightly one. Her thighs seemed dumpy to me and terribly aggressive, and there was something altogether spiritless in the poise of her body. It was naked, but unalive. Yet when she came up to me and twisted her arms round my neck, I trembled in spite of myself and pressed my palms tentatively against her soft flesh.
"Why are you so slow, dearie?" she whispered. "Don't you like me?"
As I raised my head to answer, my eyes were attracted to the doorknob. It was turning noiselessly.
"Don't you like me?" she repeated.
Before I had time to push her from me, the door slowly opened and an oily-haired, bepimpled youth, clad in striped silk pajamas, stood looking at us with an expression of apologetic surprise.
"Hello," he said. "Sorry. Didn't know you had visitors."
In spite of his apologetic attitude he still waited, until with a gesture of impatience, the woman turned from me and hurried over to the door. There was a whispered conversation which made the oaths punctuating it sound terribly in earnest. Several times he thrust out his hand and finally the woman, with a whipped expression on her face, seized the money from the table and brought it back to him.
"More before morning," I heard.
Suddenly I felt tired and shamed. I tried not to look. A wave of sympathy and understanding passed over me, and I realized my own uselessness. People wanted to be real, but conditions had changed. The world was old and rouged. It could never be young again.
The door closed and behind me on the carpet I heard the patter of the woman's bare feet. She placed her hands on my shoulders and leaned against me. I turned and looked at her through different eyes. For some reason I was unable to speak. I was crying. Then moved by a strange impulse I took her face between my hands and kissed her. At the door I looked back and tried to smile, but failed. She was standing in the middle of the red carpet, a white, ridiculous figure, dismayed and incredulous, perhaps a little indignant.
That night I walked the streets and occasionally stopped in at the side doors of dark cafés. Through the gray mist of dawn I returned to my lodgings to change my collar before going to the office. As I walked down Fifth Avenue, a wagon- load of cut flowers clattered past. The air was filled with fragrance. Weary, disillusioned, and a trifle drunk, I followed the wagon, my eyes already filled with new visions.
WHEN people are left much to themselves they think such queer little shame-faced thoughts, and carry on such unbelievable games of the imagination, that I have often felt the courageous foolishness of man is perhaps his only attribute of divinity. Nine-tenths of the time the mind of the average man and woman is forced by the sorry facts of life to be occupied with unpleasant and trifling considerations. It is an ironical thing indeed that the brain should thus become the dwelling place of pygmies.
The expedients of a solitary man were all mine. My few possessions became my friends. I endowed them with all the qualities I admired most in others and which I lacked myself. When occasionally some jest was made at my expense because of my habit of carrying a cane to the office, I never explained to the red-blooded wits that my cane was not an inanimate rod of wood, but a confidential friend, an admirer, in fact, who hugely enjoyed taking walks with me.
This sort of ingrowing thought life was in many ways I realized, both timid and sentimental, but as I look back now on those days of solitude and futile protest, I find in them something of happiness, something which might have led to a truer contact with life than any I have since been able to establish.
There were the Saturday afternoons when, among the first to abandon the oppressive diligence of the office, I would hurry home to prepare for an elaborate walk which I had planned and eagerly looked forward to during the colorless week just passed. From beneath the arch in Washington Square I would usually proceed up Fifth Avenue past the two brown churches set neatly back in their little lawns of green, and on through the valley of silk lofts and sweat shops draped at all hours of the day with heavy shadows. Further up the Avenue, I would run into the feminine maelstrom of the shopping district and here it was that I encountered the glances and experienced the swift little contacts that so often upset my tranquillity. Occasionally, when I caught the happy, carefree eyes of a girl, I would turn mine quickly away, fearing that perhaps she might misunderstand my meaning or that I might be disappointed in the thoughts I was weaving around her.
These walks took me far afield. Without mercy I drove myself on them, hoping thus to gain that mental and bodily repose which comes to one after strenuous exercise. After leaving the glittering shopping district behind, I would continue northward, skirting the east side of Central Park, but never entering it, for I preferred to picture in my mind a fantastic park of my own rather than to see this one in all its artificial reality. Sometimes I found myself on the banks of the Hudson far up above Riverside Drive. Here as I watched the broad stream move onward to the sea, I would rest and speculate idly on the probable destinations of the ships riding quietly there at anchor. It always liberated my mind a little to see at dusk the lights appear on the ships and to picture to myself the scenes taking place along their decks and within their twinkling cabins.
To return to the lights and excitement of the city after one of these quiet, open-air expeditions was like plunging back into a horribly fascinating nightmare from which I had striven to free myself. All the old things were there—the women, the restaurants, the swarming multitudes, and the heady temptation to spend oneself down to the last drop of one's innermost personality in a night of headlong debauchery.
"Why not?" I asked myself.
"Why not, indeed?" replied New York, with bland indifference.
THEN one day I received a letter from an old artist, Hugh MacKellar, a friend of my father's youth who in the course of an untidy life had succeeded in painting a number of good pictures which had at first aroused the ridicule, then the animosity, and at last the recognition of the artistic world. He had been spending the last three years on the Continent, but he was now home and was writing to tell me that his little hut by the sea, such as it was, had room enough for my small frame. He went on to say that while abroad he had assumed another responsibility, this time a girl—his niece, in fact—unceremoniously left to him by his good but nevertheless good-for-nothing brother, who had acquired final promotion by politely drinking himself to death among his mess-room companions in India. This girl was now a sort of ward and was known as Scarlet, a regimental nickname given to her years ago because of her fondness for that color. Scarlet's mother had died when the child was still very young, and as a consequence she had grown to womanhood in the atmosphere of a military post in India, which is not always the best. Scarlet was an unusual product. I would have to be prepared for her, he said. She admitted twenty-three years and treated MacKellar brutally. He had gotten accustomed to her, however, and could stand for her moods. At present she was posing for him when she was not sleeping, eating, or fuming round the house like a caged tiger from the jungle she knew so well. Mrs. Tylor, their estimable cook, was shocked by Scarlet and a little afraid of her. MacKellar rather enjoyed the situation. So much for Scarlet. Did I care to leave the city?
After my encounter with the woman I had a feeling that I was becoming morally and intellectually bankrupt. I was beginning to accept things, things that I knew were false. I was even finding satisfaction in revenging myself against society by hastening the day of my country's economic ruin through the medium of catch-penny advertisements exploiting inferior goods. Unless I abandoned my solitary mode of existence and shook myself free from the influence of the hotly circulating night life round me, I knew that soon I would not be listening to the experiences of my acquaintances, but cheaply participating in them. When not engaged at night in peering, like a shamed but desirous phantom into the eyes of the women I passed on the street, I had been forcing myself to the creation of what I fondly believed to be the better sort of literature—literature so remote from life that fortunately it never lived. Even in this I found no comfort. And now MacKellar's letter. Did I care to leave the city?
I smiled cheerfully and gave a quick, appraising glance round the room containing my few possessions. No, it would not take me long to pack. Then I fell to studying the elaborately drawn and marked map MacKellar had enclosed in his letter, and as my eyes followed the outlines of a ragged coast New York gradually withdrew, until at last the room was filled with the sound of churning water.
AS the heavy train clanked and buckled from the little station, I felt, with unlimited relief, that the last tie binding me to the city and my old ways of life was definitely severed.
Somewhere, hidden, yet close at hand, I sensed the sea, and a great longing to look upon open water took possession of me. I produced MacKellar's map and studied it with a view to finding my way to his cottage, which as well as I could figure lay some five miles off in a grove of trees running down to a beach.
According to the map, I was to take the Station Road. This dusty bit of tape twisted out of sight beneath a small railway bridge close at hand, only to reappear on the other side, sliding lazily over the crest of a brief hill, until finally it settled down to a quiet and comfortable course which carried it across a green stretch of meadowland into the shadowy recesses of a forest rising far off in the distance.
With renewed interest I returned to the map. Apparently the neck of land I was on the point of exploring thrust itself out into the ocean like a battleship plunging headlong through the waves. However, it was not altogether cut off from the mainland, for near its prow a narrow strip of land sprang out at right angles, and running gracefully across the sea, almost touched the opposite shore, thus forming a natural breakwater for small craft in time of stress. This smooth and practically land-locked body of water lay against the lower two-thirds of the battleship's side and was finally absorbed in a series of salt marshes laced by innumerable serpentine currents, which flooded and faded away with the rise and fall of the tide. Thus on one side of this rugged vessel and against its prow the sea dashed endlessly, while the other side lay untroubled in the still waters of a lake. Altogether the promontory suggested an interesting subject for exploration, and as I studied the map I grew impatient to tread the reality.
Here was the road and at the other end of it lay shelter, friendship and the sea. It was enough to send me singing on my way. I lifted my bag from the platform and set off. My steps fell with satisfying lightness on the powdery dust rising in little puffs and spurts over my shoes. I paddled through it with a new feeling of exhilaration, my awareness of the sea becoming more acute as I proceeded. Already I seemed to hear the surf pounding against the rocks. There was a smell of its salt in the air. At any moment now I was prepared to see the ocean break tumultuously in view, and my eyes kept searching the distant vistas ahead. On either side of me smooth green meadows ran rippling back to a border of bush fringed woodland, and occasionally a smaller road turned off from mine to wander neatly across the meadows until it rested at the door of a farmhouse. There was an atmosphere of self-respect and well-being about most of these rustic dwellings that spoke enthusiastically of the industry of their inmates, probably the soil-wedded sons and daughters of men who had at one time snatched a precarious livelihood from the lurching waves.
I drew near the forest and entered into its shadow. It was silent here and cool. Only the notes of birds left a delicate tracery of music across the green dome of the trees, A feeling of peace and restfulness came over me. No longer eager to hurry forward, I dropped my satchel to the roadside, and sat down on a fallen tree. Somewhere behind me I had left a city—escaped from it. Sprawled out at the end of a ribbon of steel tracks the city lay sweltering noisily beneath a hot down-pour of sunlight. Once I had dwelt in this city, been a part of its industry and idleness, an elbowing unit in its endless stampede, fearing it, fighting it, and yet fascinated by it. Now that I was no longer bound to its pavements, drugged by its merciless routine, I felt no fear of New York, but only its tremendous challenge. Here in the dusky green of the woods, sitting at peace and unhurried beneath the slowly moving boughs, I gained a proper perspective on the place I had left behind.
A wagon came lumbering toward me down the road—an ancient vehicle laden with logs—and its driver, a grizzled veteran of the woods, holding the long reins loosely in one hand, plodded through the dust beside his team.
"Hi, there," he said, pulling up in front of me. "I see you're giving yourself a rest. Guess I'll do likewise."
"Not resting so much," I replied with a smile, "as admiring those trees you're so industriously carting away. There won't be many left when you get through."
"No, sonny, that's not so," said the old man. "There'll be trees aplenty when my sons and grandsons are dead and gone, and before that time there'll be another forest where my grandfather worked before I could hold an ax."
From some recess in his withered body, he succeeded in producing a peculiarly patient sounding note, which partook of the nature of both a chirp and a cluck and which seemed to convey to his horses the intelligence that it was about time for them to be getting on. For a few minutes more he stood regarding me, the road, and his team, with impartial indifference, then he carefully assembled his ancient members to resume his measured pace.
"Well, so long, sonny," he said, and repeated that curious, patient note.
Fascinated by his virtuosity and hoping to hear the sound again, I decided to share the way with him.
For some time we plodded along in silence. At length, after a mile of dust had settled in our wake, he reined in his team to ask if I was going in his direction. I had been and would be going in his direction for quite some time if it so happened that he was going in mine. He allowed that he was, and eyed me consideringly.
"Well, then," he said at last, "I guess you might as well put your bag on the cart."
For the third time I had the pleasure of hearing that half-chirp, half-cluck tremble over the old man's lips, and of seeing it take effect upon his horses. To them it meant merely the resumption of an uninteresting occupation, but to me it was one of those altogether pleasant trifles which linger delightfully in the memory long after more important events have passed from mind.
For a matter of a mile we continued on through the cheerfully clinging dust. Gradually, but unremittingly—for I could tell by the strain on my city accustomed thighs—we had been following an up-grade road. I felt that soon we would be treading the quarter deck of the battleship I had pictured in my mind from MacKellar's map. The ocean, however, was still hidden from view.
"See over there, those marshes," the old man said as we broke through the last avenue of trees and the forest gave way on one side to a running slope of lowlands. "No soul's ever found the secret of those marshes. They've called to men and they've eaten men, but nobody yet has been able to figure out just what purpose God intended them for."
The summer sun was still triumphant in the sky, and the marshes lay in the glowing calm of midafternoon. The green plain of waving reeds seemed to cast a spell over me. I was troubled and at the same time attracted.
"They don't do us no good," broke in the old man, "but there they sleep just the same. They're waiting for something, but no one knows what it is."
I looked on the marshes with interest, so tranquil and beautiful they seemed. An atmosphere of tropical luxuriousness lay over them, and as I gazed, I was strongly conscious of their mysterious appeal. It was as though some hidden yet fascinating clanger were quietly stealing through the reeds and observing me from shadowed security out of bright, considering eyes. The extent of this level, water- laced plain was vast. The mainland stood many miles away on the other side, and yet the marshes appeared to fill completely the great space lying between the opposite shore and the out-thrown arm on which I stood. Here and there between the vivid green of the reeds there was a glinting flash of water, while through the marshes themselves innumerable putty colored streams sluggishly twisted.
And over all the hushed expanse there brooded an insecure peace, like a fantastic dream trembling on the brink of a tragic awakening.
THE wagon creaked, the boughs swayed, and time swam drowsily by. We walked in silence as though influenced by the witchery of the marshes. The lift of the road was no longer gradual, but steep and uncompromising. Weary itself of the journey, it was tugging impatiently to wriggle its way over the last grade. As I trudged along, my mind fell into one of those restful conditions of torpor in which tangible objects and active thoughts become subdued and blended in a twilight of untroubled stillness... hazy, distant, yet enveloping.
"There she is," said the old man suddenly.
We stood at the end of the ascent. The horses came to an unrequested stop, raised their heads and sniffed, then fell peacefully to cropping grass by the roadside. The remainder of the land tapered unhurriedly away before us. On the side fronting the sea the cliffs were fluted with many groves that gave to smooth, white beaches. On the other side, lifting forests hid the marshes from view. The road lay along the cliffs, occasionally slipping out of sight down one of the gently sloping indentures. There were gables in the green, but only a few. The place seemed almost uninhabited, as though it had drifted away from the world and been lost on an unknown ocean.
In the air there was the cry of water. The distant rhythm of the surf spilled up over the cliffs. A plume-flecked campus of blue curled out to a cloud banked horizon. Gulls on motionless wings coasted down the air lanes and circled over a group of rocky islands, lying ponderously like a school or dozing leviathans on the ocean's slanting floor.
"There she is," repeated the old man. "Mean and unreliable, but just the same, fit for the labors of man. Those marshes now..."
He snapped the reins without finishing his sentence, and we proceeded along the road.
THE map indicated that its author's abode lay somewhere near at hand, so I consulted my companion.
"Wait a bit," he said. "It's down the road a piece."
Presently he stopped in front of two gray sentinels of granite standing guard at the gates of an estate. The house was barely visible through the trees, under which wound a smooth gravel road between a border of ragged grass, but what caught my eye and held it was the strange carving cut roughly into the flank of one of the granite posts. It was a bas-relief of a large hand, a cruel, gripping hand, crushing in its grasp the body of a deer, whose head was thrown frantically back between an imprisoning finger and the thumb. As I looked at this sinister tragedy in stone I was caught between a feeling of pity and antagonism. Instinctively, I looked about me, as though sensing an unseen enemy.
"Yes," said the old man, following the direction of my gaze, "that's just about the way he strangles this neck of land. John Elliott's like his father before him. For ninety- nine years they got a lease on all that you see in sight and a great deal more besides, and we poor folks here fished and plowed for them—it's him now. Some folks say he counts the sand on the beach to see if the ocean has taken any away."
The old man spat deliberately in the dust and cleared his throat.
"Now, sonny, your place lies somewhere over there in that grove of trees," he continued. "I know it, for I've heard folks speaking of an old artist feller that's shut himself off from the world in a house he's hired from him," and he pointed to the granite hand. "You can cut across the lawn if you want," he went on, "or you can go down the road till you come to the grove. You'll find the place easy enough."
He waved his hand in the general direction of the grove, gathered up his reins and made ready to depart. After thanking him for his companionship and instruction, I hastened down the road, preferring to try the grove rather than to trespass on the lawn of one who displayed such an inhospitable device at his very gates.
IN a short time I found myself in the midst of a grove of tall trees stepping majestically down a gradual slope to a beach sparkling at the end. A yellow half-light filled the place and birds slipped furtively through it among the branches overhead. MacKellar's house lay somewhere at the other end of this sun-mottled avenue of trees. I was not long in finding it. The grassy flue curved sharply to the left and there at the edge of the grove, set back on a little lawn in a cluster of bushes, stood a small two-story cottage. Very neat and inviting it looked with its shingled roof, its small white sides and its windows picked out in green. I crossed the lawn and was about to step over the threshold of the door, when my foot was arrested on the ledge by the sight of a large painting hanging on the wall facing me.
On a low divan, across which was thrown a black silk mantle splashed with scarlet flowers, lay the body of a nude girl. She was partly reclining on one side and her dark, lusterless hair fell over the arm supporting her small head. The painting itself was striking enough with the dead white skin of the girl's body thrown out in bold relief against the silken blackness of the flower-strewn mantle, but what held me transfixed was the claiming appeal, the almost irresistible urgency of the voluptuous figure.
To me it seemed to symbolize all that was desirable and at the same time corrupt in the human flesh... a soft, intoxicating refuge in which to abandon once and for all the dreams and aspirations that trouble the souls of men. Here there was no place for dreams, no need for aspirations; here was only delight, fierce, imprisoning, and futile.
The black, searching eyes of the girl seemed actually to live and glow in the pallor of an oval face made vivid with the scarlet of her full lips. A scarf of the same color, twisted snake-like across her thighs, fell in a strange design on the glossy surface of the mantle. Her breasts were high, imperious, and rather full for those of a girl; and the whole body possessed a luxurious yet indefinably youthful maturity suggestive of a tropical flower prematurely forced into bloom from the rich soil of a moist climate.
As I stood regarding this picture my mind fell into a vortex in which time and space faded away before a windy conflict of emotions, the impulse to become submerged and forgotten beneath suffocating waves of passion and the desire to rise, winged and alone, into some still, blue sky where only thought existed. The glowing eyes were looking deep into mine, and so humanly intense was the challenge in them, that as I returned their gaze, I felt a strange, almost hypnotic, influence impelling me to glance downward. Yielding to the power of those painted eyes, I lowered mine, and there, virtually at my feet, was the living embodiment of the portrait I had just beheld. The girl lay on a black divan, and even in my confusion I could not help realizing that the warmth and radiance of her flesh could never be transferred to canvas. She must have been silently enjoying the profound impression the painting had made on me, for when I looked into her eyes I saw that they were filled with the soft, half caressing glow that kindles in the eyes of some women when under the admiration of men. The girl did not stir, but lay there quietly in full and triumphant consciousness of her beauty. A sigh escaped my lips, and involuntarily I took a step forward. At this moment I was brought back to my surroundings by the gusty entrance of Hugh MacKellar through a door at the end of the room.
"David!" he cried, rushing up to me with his outstretched hands filled with spotted rags and recently cleaned brushes. "If it isn't my flagged and failing Shelley, rancid from the city. Welcome, my boy, to our unsanctimonious sanctuary."
My voice was hardly audible at that moment, but I stammered as ingratiatingly as I could and made friendly grimaces at my host. All the while I felt the mocking eyes of the girl quietly observing my embarrassment.
"That's Scarlet," explained MacKellar with an unceremonious wave of his brushes. "Scarlet, this is David Landor."
"Has he come to stay all summer?" she asked in a dull voice.
"Certainly," he answered. "That is, if you're good to him."
"That all depends," she said. Then extending an arm to me, "Come over here, David."
With a feeling of reluctance I crossed the room and took her hand.
"Do you think you're going to like me?" she asked.
As she idly studied my face through her heavily fringed lashes, I felt that she was coolly expecting an affirmative answer, and I decided to disappoint her.
"I don't know," I said.
"Heavens," she exclaimed, petulantly tossing my hand from her. "How disagreeably honest. What sort of a boy is he, MacKellar?"
"He's a poet," replied MacKellar, "and a damn good boy."
"Oh, he's a poet," she said, "and a damn good boy. What a ghastly combination. Poets and painters, they're always poor and seldom interesting."
"Now you're being disagreeably honest," admonished MacKellar. "Talent's more interesting than wealth, don't you think?"
"Not to me," she announced. "I prefer wealth and I intend to enjoy it in this world if I have to make some man suffer, but right now I'm going to sleep."
Without even glancing at me, she draped the scarf over her body and with a sinuous movement of her hips slid down into a mass of pillows until only the gleaming white of her arms and shoulders could be seen. She yawned lazily displaying her strong white teeth, then, as though overcome with drowsiness, her head fell back and she closed her eyes.
"A remarkable creature," said MacKellar, as he led me from the room. "You'll have to get used to her, David I did. Spoiled, and a bit headstrong, but she has a divine disregard for those disreputable conventions that stand in the way of artistic creation. She must get it from the jungle. She was a part of it once. All day long she'll pose for me most uncomplainingly, until suddenly she takes a notion into her head that she wants to sleep. Then nothing can stop her. Oaths, candy and flattery have no effect, although she will greedily and dishonorably accept the last two. It makes no difference where the sun is or where I am, that girl will sleep. She's like a cat in that respect. Well, David, here's your room."
As I glanced round my tiny quarters the words of my host went flitting through my mind—"like a cat" He was right. Yes, she was like a cat, but disturbingly like a woman, too.... New York, its streets and its women... Where was the sea that I loved? Scarlet... her unclad body... Why should she be here!
With these disjointed thoughts breaking in upon the tranquillity my mind had acquired in the short course of my walk with the ancient woodsman, I turned as if in search of comfort, and gripped the solid flesh of MacKellar's friendly hand. He was a man who responded with childlike gratitude to any show of affection, and his fingers closed firmly upon mine.
"David," he said, "it's good to get you back. You'll be able to refresh your body and air that funny soul of yours this summer."
MY first night in the cottage was a sleepless one, and when at last dawn found its way into the grove and routed the shadows from their berths beneath the trees, I arose from bed and stole out into the fragrant hush of a world paying silent tribute to the rising sun. For a moment I paused to take in a grateful breath of the fresh, earth-scented air, then hurried through the wet grass to the beach where already the lamps burning in the fishermen's huts were winking out.
The beach was still wrapped in the hazy dusk of dawn, and far out against the burnished horizon the great, red sun hung low to the water as though testing the strength of the craggy clouds before mounting into the sky.
Further down the beach I noticed two great rocks standing in dignified aloofness. These I made serve as a natural bathhouse and, between their barnacle incrusted sides, stripped speedily and ran down to the water's edge. Immediately the morning embraced my body with a cold, damp cloak of mist to which even the dark and uninviting sea was preferable. As I gave myself over to the waves I thought of the great amount of physical punishment and mental anguish a man will subject himself to for the sorry satisfaction of making public the fact that his abilities are very much inferior to those of the merest minnow.
The first shock of the water sent me spurting through the surf. In front of me stretched the shadow-stained sea. Thin veils of mist were gracefully lifting from, it. Across the reaches of the ocean the sun sent a shaft of flickering gold through which I swam with increasing fortitude as my normal spirits returned.
About half a mile out from the shore an island lay on the water. It was rocky and barren, and in the early light of day, it appeared to be wallowing in the wash of the waves as if reluctant to leave its slumbers. I shouldered my way through the choppy sea until I had reached one of the outer ledges of this island, where I rested from my exertion and studied the mainland, now green and sparkling beneath the new day. The upper windows of John Elliott's mansion were neatly framed between the foliage of the trees. A little further to the left I was able to trace the course of our grove curving away from the beach. The cliffs swept up majestically from the waves that washed their base, filling their arching caverns with a thousand songs. Along the summit of these lofty walls poplars tossed their branches in a wind driving in from the sea. In front of me stretched a smooth, white ribbon of sand over which the surf ceaselessly ruffled and retreated. Here and there a group of fishing huts squatted on the beach like so many huge frogs patiently contemplating the ocean tumbling always at their feet.
As I half reclined on my submerged couch, my body found the repose that had been denied it in a comfortable bed during the lagging hours of the night. I must have remained for a long time resting thus on this rocky ledge, for when at length I returned across the water and presented myself at the cottage, I found MacKellar already astir and fumingly engaged in stimulating to greater activity a certain Mrs. Tylor, the wife of a fisherman who had but recently received his breakfast from her hands. She was probably reproachfully considering this fact as she silently and deliberately prepared ours.
"The sun, Mrs. Tylor," my host was declaiming as I entered, "is not to be stayed in its course. No more am I. You shrug your shoulders and leer at me, but let me tell you that that golden disc is the very bread and butter of my existence. Isn't the bacon ready yet?"
When he saw me standing in the doorway, he began to complain bitterly about Mrs. Tyler's lack of speed. He was losing valuable time and this woman was losing it for him, no doubt deliberately.
"She won't hurry and I don't seem to be able to do anything about it," he informed me in a whisper so piercing that it was obviously not intended for my ears alone.
We were soon joined by Scarlet, who, enveloped in a flame colored robe of silk, slouched across the room and seated herself at the table without favoring us with a glance.
"Mrs. Tylor, I want my coffee," she announced in a peremptory voice as she rested her chin between the palms of her hands and stared moodily down at her plate.
"Absolutely!" chimed in MacKellar, emboldened by Scarlet's presence. "We all want our coffee."
During the course of the breakfast I had a good opportunity to study the girl opposite me, for she hardly raised her eyes from the table. One of the first things I noticed was that, though sleepy and apparently out of sorts, she nevertheless succeeded in consuming her breakfast with a fair show of relish and an occasional display of white teeth. In this she was human, then—almost too human; her preoccupation with food completely absorbed her attention. Once I had seen a panther feeding... Scarlet was equally beautiful and quite as hungry. Her head was small and delicately shaped, and her hair, tumbling upon it in a series of disordered, but not unstudied loops, gave the picturesque effect of a heavy turban. Beneath the lashes of her lowered lids I caught from time to time the arousingly intimate glow of her deep, black eyes. Once more I was struck by the unnatural pallor of her skin and the vivid scarlet of her lips, and forgetting my resolution to fight against the animal magnetism of her presence, I found myself dwelling on the flowing lines of her body, the darting pose of her head, and the soft skin of her breasts gently curving away beneath the colorful folds of her robe. She was the last woman in the world with whom I would have chosen to sit down to breakfast. The physical appeal of her body was oppressive. It had nothing in common with the morning and the sea from which I had come, but was heavily sweet and intoxicating, enveloping the senses in a tepid bath of fragrance like those moist, breathless perfumes drifting through the corridors of a hothouse.
MacKellar, who was happily beyond the sphere of her influence, and who therefore believed every one else immune, continued to discourse volubly upon the manifold merits of the sun. Scarlet and I sat in two isolated pools of silence, she engrossed with bacon and I consuming her form through covert eyes. Just as MacKellar was achieving a splendid climax, she lifted her heavy lids and regarded him crossly. The sun was a stuffy old maid, she told him, a prying busybody who couldn't wait for the proper time to arise because of her overpowering eagerness to go poking her great nose into other persons' affairs. Quite undaunted by this unfavorable opinion of the agent of his bread and butter, MacKellar contended that the sun would rise and rest at its appointed time regardless of the pitiful affairs of mortals. I was about to remark that the moon had the same disagreeable habits Scarlet had attributed to the sun, when the girl yawned so obviously in our faces that I decided to withhold my contribution to the discussion.
MacKellar rose from the table and began to snatch at his brushes. Scarlet followed him. Taking her scarf from the divan, she draped it over her, then with a slight shrug of her shoulders she let the robe slip to the floor and wound the folds of her diaphanous covering around her body. For the first time her eyes looked full into mine, and I met their gaze with assumed indifference. As I surveyed her body from head to foot I casually hummed a tune beneath my breath—an obvious piece of travesty for which I cursed myself at the time—then, after thoughtfully selecting a book from the shelf, I strolled out to the lawn, where I did not read.
THE days passed as neglectedly over the roof of the cottage as I passed unnoticed before the eyes of Scarlet. From the time of our first meeting she apparently dismissed me completely from her thoughts. With the dignity of a large, beautiful and well established cat she indifferently tolerated my presence in the house. I was accepted, but not received. There were times, however, when I felt certain that, like the incomprehensible creature she suggested, her large, black eyes were lazily following my movements as I came and went about my appointed ways.
I remained much to myself and MacKellar, like an intelligent host, left me to my own devices. The beach now saw me often and there I soon made friends with the fishermen, their sons and their wives and their daughters. Among these people I felt no restraint, no necessity for being on guard. The talk consisted chiefly of boats and nets and rigging, and the prospects of the catch.
In the course of my walks I explored the promontory from end to end, and lay for long, dream-laden hours by the marshes. They never failed to exert a subtle influence over me, these jade-green plains of reeds. In their presence my body was rested and lulled into a state of forgetfulness in which my mind was left free to wander untrammeled across the hills and dales formed by the soft, white clouds plunging through the sky. For some reason the marshes always made me feel physically and spiritually refreshed, and after I had been on the promontory for a few weeks my mind became so crowded with odd notions that I undertook to write them down as I sat before a small table I had moved out to the lawn. But, invariably on these occasions I felt myself becoming gradually more restless as the consciousness of the nude white figure, lying motionless on the divan in the cottage behind me, took possession of my mind. In my anger I conceived the insane fancy that Scarlet was silently taunting me, and deliberately trying to disperse my thoughts. As I labored over my writing I began to entertain for her a feeling akin to hate.
Since my arrival at the cottage no reference had been made to our landlord and neighbor, John Elliott, until one morning MacKellar paused long enough over his coffee to inform me that Elliott had an exceedingly pretty wife.
"There's something strange about her," he said. "Something not quite of this world. It's beautiful and at the same time rather touching. Damn me, if I see how she can stand him! His eyes seek beauty of a different nature."
Scarlet rose from the table and confronted MacKellar. Her robe had fallen back from her shoulders and she stood trembling before us, heedlessly exposing her breasts. Involuntarily I made a motion as if to adjust her robe, but she turned on me with a snarl.
"John Elliott's rich and you hate him for that," she said to MacKellar. "You and your artistic socialism are not worth the price of one of his shoe laces. His eyes are for beauty of another nature, are they? Well, I don't blame him. If you think she's so damned beautiful and touching why don't you get her to pose for your stupid pictures?"
She drew herself up sullenly and left the room. Upstairs a door violently slammed shut.
"She's like that," remarked MacKellar resignedly. "Now I won't be able to get her to pose for me until her sulks wear off. Well, David, let's go for a walk."
A FEW days after this occurrence I had the pleasure of testing for myself the sharp edge of Scarlet's temper. Believing myself alone, I was standing in deep thought before the picture when she came silently up behind me.
"Do you like it?" she asked, sneeringly.
Startled by the sound of her voice, I hesitated a moment to hide my confusion.
"No," I replied at last, "I'm afraid I don't like it."
"Then why do you stand there looking at it?" she continued aggressively. "It isn't the first time, you know."
"For that very reason," I said quietly, turning to her from the picture. "I look at it because I don't like it."
"I'd prefer not to answer that question," I replied, slowly becoming provoked by her sneering attitude. "It's a little too personal."
"Do you know why you don't like that picture?" she demanded, coming closer to me.
"Suppose you tell me," I suggested.
"Because you don't like me," she said. "Because you're just a little afraid of me. Oh, don't smile in that superior way. You know what I mean."
"Perhaps you're right," I answered, "but it seems to me that the animal lies too close to the surface. There's no room for anything else. It's too obvious. I wonder if you know what I mean."
I smiled at her with exasperating politeness and waited. Her hands were unconsciously twisting a paint-smeared rag she had taken from the table. Her eyes never left mine.
"You mean that I'm a beast?" she asked in a low voice.
I shrugged my shoulders indifferently and turned away, but a swift movement behind, me made me look around. As our eyes met she struck me across the mouth with the rag, then stepped back and waited, studying me cautiously.
"That's for your hateful mouth," she said, her voice trembling with anger. "You'll be careful who you insult next time."
As I looked into her blazing eyes an answering spark of anger was ignited in my brain. Blood rushed to my head and strummed in my temples. I knew I ought to leave the room, but I was rooted to the spot. There was a contemptuous smile on her lips.
"Do you want it again?" she asked, drawing back her arm.
With a spring I covered the space between us and seized her wrists. I was probably trying to smear her face with the rag. She dropped it to the floor and pulled her wrists free. The room became quiet... only the sound of our breathing. Then swiftly, like the striking head of a snake, her hand flew to my face, and I felt her nails rip through the skin of my cheek.
Infuriated now beyond all power of reason, I took her by the shoulders to hurl her from me, but her strength was equal to mine. As she fell over backwards on the divan she twined her arms round my neck and dragged me down with her. My head was pressed to her bosom and my lips crushed against her flesh. My breath came in suffocating gasps.
Finally I wrenched my head free from her arms and closed my fingers on her throat. As she struggled her body thrashed beneath mine.
Then fear came into her eyes. Her hands clutched frantically at my wrists and succeeded in loosening my grip. Once more her arms twined round my neck, and head darted up from the pillows, I felt her hot lips close upon mine. The strength seemed to leave my body. I pitched heavily forward in the power of her furious kiss. Blood ran down my cheeks and mingled with our lips. This contact seemed to add to her frenzy, for I could feel her body shuddering against mine. As I felt the madness of desire overcoming my anger, her heavy lashes parted and I saw that her eyes were filled with triumph.... They were gloating eyes.
This sudden intelligence gave me the strength to tear myself from her embrace. I staggered to the door and looked back at the divan. Scarlet was lying motionless among the pillows. She appeared to be calm and indifferent, almost sleepy. As I left the room she yawned.
IT was then that I first came upon this clearing by the marshes. As I plunged distractedly through the fields I stepped over the hidden ledge and was instantly precipitated into the twilight green of the reeds. Dazed by this swift change in my surroundings, I rose to my feet, and passing through a narrow opening in the reeds beheld the great salt marshes spread out before me. The silence and the isolation of the spot—its haunting beauty and old, forgotten charm—touched my troubled spirit with a little of its peace. I sank down on the mat and made an effort to keep my emotion in check, to erase from my mind all memory of what had just passed. She would never conquer me, I swore that. In spite of the glory of her body, I would break it first before that happened. Desire... good God!... A moment, only a moment, then bondage, flesh triumphant! I raised my eyes and looked out over the level plain of green. The island lay burning in the last rays of the setting sun. The waterways were shot with flowing color.
How cool and quiet over there it seemed, the dark trees banked against the fiery wall... hardly a part of the world. My spirit winged its way across the marshes and rested there awhile.
IT is a pleasant and restful thing to swim among the waves far out from shore, and to catch at the turn of a stroke a spray-dashed glimpse of the sun before you bury your face again in the ocean's soft green light. Deep down beneath the shifting leagues lies a mysterious under- land upon whose hollow pampas great, quivering herds of flickering creatures graze delicately on tender grass. In your mind's eye you can picture the silver battalions of the sea filtering through forests of silent trees. There, below you, stretches a land of fronded grottoes where swift and silent tragedies of life and death take place. There, almost within reach of your arm, is a world of hidden beauty, a veiled universe above which your body tumbles like a white cloud through a troubled sky. On the moody solitudes of the sea all is quiet save for the slap and fall of the waves and the song of the wind among them. Here you are alone where you can think swift thoughts as you measure your length along a rolling trough of green. The land world lies behind. You are no longer a part of it. Your life has been transferred to another element. Sometimes a feeling comes to you, a vague, indefinite feeling, hauntingly reminiscent, that you have returned to your natural environment in which you were wont to sport before the garden of the world grew old beneath its weeds.
A FEW days after my encounter with Scarlet an adventure befell me out there on the lonely slopes of the sea which forever after influenced my life and which will continue to influence it until the end.
I was swimming through the choppy seas in the direction of one of the outlying islands when a small sail boat knifing dangerously across my path caused me to look up from the water. A pair of deep blue eyes gazed down into mine. It was a matter of only a moment, that swift, unexpected meeting, but as we regarded each other it was as though two creatures from another world had bewilderingly met in the midst of a mighty solitude.
The sloop cleared me neatly and left me bobbing in its wake. I turned for a last glimpse of the sea-blue eyes that had looked down into mine, then started out once more on my course, but as I thrust my face into the waves I felt as if I had suddenly buried it in a pool of liquid fire. The sharp agony of the contact caused me to throw my body half out of the water. A cry of pain broke from my lips, and blinded, I slipped back into the sea. Soft pulpy objects bobbed against my body—jellyfish in swarms. The flames were now scorching my legs and arms. I gasped for breath and a stream of salt water ran chokingly down my throat. I still had enough presence of mind to realize that I was losing control of myself and that sheer panic would soon send me to the bottom. From the black terror racing round my heart I managed to extract sufficient common sense to twist myself over on my back, and to lie floundering in the waves. Then a clear voice called down to me from somewhere close at hand and in my stricken condition it sounded almost supernaturally sweet and comforting.
The voice said, "Catch the side of the boat!"
"I can't see the damn thing!" I gasped. "I can't even open my eyes."
"Oh, dear, they've blinded you!" the voice exclaimed with real concern. "Grab my hand—quick! Can you pull yourself over the side?"
Two small hands tugged at my arms and aided me into the boat. Still unable to open my eyes, I fell clumsily inboard, and the same ready hands saved my head from striking the swinging boom.
"You're all right now," said the voice. "Keep quiet a moment and get your breath."
I felt the boat take to the wind and heel along. The waves rippled and flapped against her sides. Like a caressing hand a cool breeze ran over my face as my head fell back into the lap of my unseen rescuer.
"It's a funny coincidence," I said after I had recovered my breath, "being snatched like this from a school of infuriated jellyfish. I don't know how to go about thanking you."
"It wasn't such a coincidence," the voice replied, "and you'd better thank my curiosity. I've been following you for some time."
"Mistaking me for a sort of fish," I suggested.
"No," she answered, "I was admiring your swimming and suspecting your sanity. I like to swim myself, but I seldom go any more."
I seemed to detect a faint note of regret in her last remark.
"And out of gratitude to you," I said, endeavoring to get up, "I'm getting you terribly wet."
"Not yet," the voice commanded. "Stay where you are. It's good for me to be useful."
Once more I caught the suggestion of a deeper meaning behind her words. She pressed a wet cloth to my eyes and held my head firmly in her lap.
"You know," she continued, "I almost ran you down a little while ago. I lost track of you in coming about and my curiosity was getting the best of me."
I recalled the sea-blue eyes gazing down at me from the little boat, and from the fleeting glimpse I had caught of the girl at the tiller, I tried to reconstruct her image.
"That was a startling encounter," I remarked. "I didn't know there was a soul within miles and then suddenly your eyes, deep blue—that's all I can remember."
"Didn't you think I was rather forward to shatter your solitude at such close range?" she asked.
"No," I answered, surprised by my own reply, "I thought you were beautiful."
The wet cloth which had been cooling my eyes was promptly thrust into my mouth and held there, stifling further words. Through the cloth I mouthed a protest.
"Well, you deserved it," she said, removing the cloth. "If it wasn't for your eyes I'd keep it there."
Then to my relief she began to laugh.
"You know," she added, "when I looked back and saw you doing such surprising things in the water I thought you'd gone mad. I didn't realize at first what had happened to you."
"The ocean seemed to turn to fire," I replied. "It was like swimming into a burning pool. Then I felt them all around me—unpleasant creatures."
"Perhaps you'll be more sensible the next time."
"The islands are always a challenge," I explained, falling into a sort of loquacious trance out of which I heard myself speaking at random. "I was trying to reach the outer one to-day. Then came the late unpleasantness, and then I heard your voice. You can't imagine how strange it all was. It was like a small white cloud calling down to a swimmer lost among the waves—that's what your voice was to me... a small white cloud dropping into a green valley."
The fever in my eyes was making me drowsy. My words trailed away and for some moments I was content to rest without speaking. As the small craft lilted on its course I imagined that I was flying across the ocean with a strange and beautiful being from another world, a woman much like other women no doubt, but, in some way different. Her eyes, as I recalled them, had been different—deeper and more direct—and her voice had a different quality.
Her fingers were unconsciously running through my hair. This action seemed perfectly natural. She must have thought that I was sleeping, for when I spoke her hand was quickly withdrawn.
"May I know the name of my unseen rescuer?" I asked.
"Haven't you any idea?" she said. "There are not so many of us on the neck of land."
"No," I replied, "I haven't any idea, and that's why I like to talk to you—that's why I'm not afraid. All I know is that my head lies in your lap and that I am conscious of the nearness of your body. I almost envy the blind. I can sense without seeing a kind and lovely creature. Your limbs have made a cushion for my head and I hear your voice above me. It's cool and friendly and filled with peace. It makes me think—"
"I'll gag you again," she interrupted in a warning voice. "MacKellar told me you were a little mad and I believe him now. Poets go on at such a great rate once you've given them the chance."
This remark surprised me into opening my eyes, and gradually, as they became accustomed to the daylight, the woman's face floated into my vision, materializing as it were from the misty sky hovering round her head.
She was not like any other woman I had ever known. I was struck by this at once. Her lips were resolute, yet tenderly conceived. The thought came to me that laughter had once been crushed on them, and that ever since they had remained a trifle rebellious, as though desirous, yet fearful, of trying the experiment again. Her cheek-bones were high and prominent, and her cheeks were tanned to a deep glow. About her face her dark brown hair, spun with copperish glints of red and gold, floated like a wind tossed cloud kindled to fire in the warm rays of the setting sun. Her throat was bare and strangely innocent looking. Delicate blue veins played beneath her clear skin. There was something lovely and fine about her, something not quite of this world, yet very much alive. From the moment my eyes rested on her face, her beauty became necessary to me. I asked nothing more of life. Oddly enough at the time the possessive instinct was absent from my thoughts. I wanted only to be allowed to remain in her presence.
She must have sensed that she was under observation, for as I lay in the bottom of the boat quietly studying her features a deeper flush crept into her cheeks. Her eyes were fixed on the sea. They were steadfast and friendly eyes, as blue as the waves she was watching. Behind her contemplative, almost trance-touched expression there seemed to stir dreams and visions that had very little to do with this world.
"Nevertheless you are very beautiful," I said in spite of myself. "Who are you?"
She kept her eyes on the sea, but I fancied she drew a quick breath.
"Evidently," she remarked ironically, "your eyes haven't been permanently injured."
"I could almost find it in my heart to regret that you are so beautiful," I replied almost to myself. "I'd rather remember a voice."
"You needn't be so upset," she said indifferently. "I'm an old married woman and in a short time I'm going to put you ashore. You've recovered enough to sit up now, don't you think?"
There was nothing left for me to do but to stretch myself along the weather side of the sloop and cling on. She deftly brought the boat about.
"I can sail," I offered in an amicable voice, hoping thereby to reopen the conversation.
"No doubt you're remarkably gifted."
Her small firm chin was rebukingly tilted as she looked at me. She was so studiedly cold that I felt like laughing. There was something delightfully youthful and unfledged about her pose. She had obviously overstated the case in saying that she was an old married woman. I judged that our years were nearly equal.
"Won't you tell me who you are?" I asked.
"What does it matter who I am?" she asked suddenly, almost with a note of irritation. "Why do people have to be tagged and docketed? Think of me as a woman out of life—a chapter that was never written. Anyway you'll find out soon enough."
Her words produced a strange effect on me. It was almost physical. I had the impression that a shadow was creeping over the face of the ocean, trampling down the radiance of the day. And through the failing light we were scudding toward the shadow. It was not to be avoided. Somehow we knew this. And although we accepted the shadow, we feared it. There was a consciousness of fate in the air, something concealed, yet close at hand, always close at hand. Even after I came to know her better this impression still hovered in the background.
"A woman out of life," I repeated in a low voice. "No, that's not it... a harp that has never been played... a song that was never sung."
Her hand worked nervously on the tiller as if she were trying to collect herself after her previous outburst. Then she turned and looked me squarely in the eyes, a faint smile on her lips.
"Minstrel," she said, "have you the magic to strike the chords? Can you find the words in that brain of yours?"
For a moment I remained silent, considering the significance of her questions, then I said, "No, an exquisite thing makes me mute."
"You evade," she replied, "gracefully but not well."
"I'm not evading now," I said. "This is one of the times when I'm honest."
A shade of disappointment settled in her eyes and she turned back to the sea. Instead of heading the sloop inshore as she had threatened she was sending it along parallel with the mainland.
"If you can't sing," she said at length, "you'll have to steer. I'm tired."
I rose and took the tiller. For a few moments she observed me with professional interest, then settled herself on the transom.
"So you don't know who I am?" she said with a sarcastic smile. "Haven't you tried to guess?"
"No," I answered shortly.
"Well, I live in that old gray house over there," she continued, pointing to the shore. "It dominates the beaches. One can't get away from it. I'm Hilda Elliott. Does that mean anything to you?"
There was something more in her question than idle curiosity. Her deep eyes never left my face. They seemed to be searching my mind.
"Naturally," I replied. "I'm ashamed of my slow wits. Hugh has said lots of things about you—favorable things."
"Then in a way we've been introduced," she said.
"But I feel that we've met before," I answered, a trifle self-consciously.
"Where?" she demanded with mock seriousness. "Was it in a garden, perhaps?"
"I can't remember where it was or when," I said. "But why do you ask?"
"Oh, I lived in a garden once," she replied indifferently. "I thought it was there we might have met. That was a long time ago—so long that I've almost forgotten the garden."
"So did I live in a garden once," I said, "but tell me about yours. Mine was filled with peach and cherry blossoms and there were geese with twisting necks. They used to hiss at me ill-temperedly and flap their great wings. I was afraid of them—I would be today."
She settled her chin in her hands and looked back at the wake of the flying sloop. Some minutes passed and when she spoke a veil of remembrance had dropped like a scarf over her eyes.
"I was a little girl when I lived in the garden," she said. "The trees were like bursts of green spray tossed high in the air. The garden was a silent place—nothing ever stirred there, nothing but the drowsy voice of the wind and the waving of boughs. All day long the boughs waved. It was like a world of them. And there were birds in the garden. Their small, happy voices were always sounding among the leaves. These sounds belonged to the garden. They were a part of its stillness."
"Was it a real garden?" I asked. "I mean, could you go back to it now and walk beneath the trees?"
"It must have been a real garden," she replied as if trying to convince herself. "But I could not go back to it. Don't you see, I left the garden and came to live in that old gray house? It's watching us even now. But sometimes I think about the garden and it gets all mixed up like a dream—the trees and the waving boughs and the strange stilly excitement of the place. It used to come over me at times when I was all alone. But the garden wasn't a dream. I know now that it was one of the realest things in my life."
"Realer than the old gray house?" I asked.
Once more her eyes searched mine.
"That's the dream part," she said deliberately. "In spite of its solid walls the old gray house is a dream. One of these days it is doomed to disappear, fading into the shadows it has created. I know this. Look now—is it still there?"
I looked shoreward and saw the stern gables of John Elliott's house standing among the trees. Its upper windows seemed to be staring watchfully at us.
"It's still there," I replied, "but tell me more of your garden. It sounded like an enchanted spot."
Without answering she sprang up quickly from the transom and with light feet made her way forward where she stood looking straight ahead of her, a steadying hand on one of the stays.
"Then head out," she called to me. "Make for open water."
The salt wind caressed her body and threw confusion in her hair. I could see the sensitive curve of her cheek and the soft column of her throat. Her figure was delicately balanced, yet taut and eager. As she stood there a previous remark returned to me—a harp that had never been played. She made me think of that.
Suddenly she swung around on the stay, one of her feet brushing the surface of the water, and came aft to the transom.
"There's not much more to be told," she said, resuming her former position. "I lived in a garden and, like the birds and the boughs, became a part of its stillness. And high up in the air there were other birds. I used to watch them until I became dizzy. Sometimes they would circle down from the sky and as they drew near they seemed to turn into people. At first they were only tiny little people spinning like specks against the blue, then is they came nearer they grew larger and brighter, and they were beautiful. They would come to me, these strangers, and tell me about places on the other side of the stars—quiet valleys cleft in clouds by rivers of flowing sunlight. And some of them would talk with me about things that were to come, beautiful adventures that thrilled the little girl. That's why I asked if I'd met you in the garden," she concluded abruptly. "You might have been one of the strangers, you know."
"I must have been banished," I replied, "without even the solace of memory."
"Banished," she repeated slowly. "But I wasn't banished. I left the garden of my own free will. One day I left it to go outside in search of the great adventure which brought me at last to the old gray house. And now the garden is gone, but just the same it was real. I insist on that."
"Perhaps we might find it again," I suggested, "if we looked for it together."
"Would you help?" she asked with a bright smile.
"I'd search the world over," I replied eagerly.
"I believe you would," she said, a bright light stirring in her eyes.
"That would be the least I could do," I answered a little confused. "Didn't you save me from the jellyfish? And after all, we may not need to go so far. Maybe your garden was only a frame of mind."
When she spoke again I hardly recognized her voice. It was controlled, yet vibrant with emotion punctuated with sharp accents of bitterness and disillusionment.
"That's impossible," she said. "The garden can never be found nor the frame of mind recaptured. It was just like crossing a line. On one side you felt and lived and came near to things. On the other side all was different, and in the midst of life you found yourself unreal, ceasing to live, ceasing to feel, unable to touch things with understanding hands. No one knew that you had died, but you had died. Although your body still went on the life had gone out of it. And it must continue to go on until you have learned to escape it."
Her words closed on this note of mysticism and her eyes were filled with thoughts that I could not follow.
We were beyond the islands now. Far away on the other side of the tapering mainland the sun was hanging low to the marshes. Like the arching wall of a cavern filled with reflected light and slashed with veins of gold the sky curved out behind us. We were sailing against this glowing wall, a black speck on a gleaming sea. High above us a trail of birds drifted landward to the distant woods. Their wings stroked the air with the leisurely pace of a long dusk. A great stillness had gathered round us, and I wondered why such beauty made me sad. It was as if my mortal eyes were unable to look upon an evening sky without suffering a feeling of personal loss. Another sun would soon be gone. Sleep, the pupil of death, was drawing near. Unconsciously I sighed and was startled to hear a merry laugh from Hilda Elliott. I looked at her with an expression of reproach and saw that her face was bright with animation.
"I've been trying to follow you," she remarked lightly, "but you were all wrapped up in the sunset, We'll have to put in now, the wind is dropping."
"I'm afraid I've been getting mixed up in lots of things to-day," I said, pressing a hand to my eyes. "Jellyfish, gardens, and sunsets, and old gray houses."
She sprang from the transom and sat down close beside me. Her arm was touching mine. As I glanced at her over my shoulder she seemed very much of a girl-
"You mustn't take the garden too seriously," she said. "That was a beautiful story with a dramatic end, but you'd better remember the jellyfish. They're real, and I can't be always combing the sea."
Not a trace of her former mood remained. She was composed now and apparently light hearted. The dark cloud had momentarily receded.
"They don't belong, those jellyfish," I said, trying to fall in with her new mood. "There's no rime nor reason to them."
"How can you say that?" she demanded. "They might be very kind to their young."
"But they're too prolific," I protested.
"It's a big ocean," she said.
"And yet it brought us together."
"In a little while we're going to part," she replied. "Steer by that small green dock."
The sloop was not long in reaching the shore. A man came down and took charge. As I turned and followed his mistress up the steps leading to the roadway on the edge of the cliffs he regarded me with undisguised curiosity. When we had achieved the steep ascent Hilda Elliott sat down on a fallen log and regarded in silence the grim carving on her husband's gate. A brooding expression came into her eyes, and all suggestion of laughter left her lips. Then she looked up at me.
"Just the same," she remarked casually as though we had been discussing the topic all afternoon, "I wouldn't go out there any more alone. That is, not unless you don't care whether you come back or not Don't you realize the danger?"
"I never stopped to think," I replied, secretly pleased by her matter-of-fact display of interest in my welfare. "It's less complicated out there. Everything is roomier—less cramped. The escape spirit comes over me. It's always been like that. Sometimes when I look up at the sky I want to spring clear of the earth and its ponderous urgency and go spinning dizzily around in space poking my fingers into the puffy cheeks of clouds."
"Oh, I see," she remarked. "Not content with trying to be a fish you also have ambitions to become a bird."
"Crying for the moon is one of my most serious occupations," I said. "I object to being limited to dry land. We should be a part of all elements. Wouldn't it be nice to go coasting down the dim green lanes of the sea until you had reached its uttermost depths?"
"It all depends," she replied with a serious face. "Do you mean alive or dead?"
"Certainly not dead," I answered indignantly.
She laughed softly and held up a hand to me.
"The way you put it sounds very attractive," she said in a mollifying voice, "but really if I were you I wouldn't try it. Take a walk with me sometime. It would be much healthier."
She rose from the log and extended her hand.
"Will you?" she asked, smiling into my eyes.
I took her hand in mine and muttered a sincere but incoherent affirmative.
"Then I can say good-by with a lighter heart," she said.
When she had disappeared among the trees I reluctantly directed my steps toward the cottage.
FOR a happy space I had forgotten Scarlet. Her white form was stretched on the black divan, and at the sight of her the old stealthy conflict returned. The arrogance of her beauty was exciting. It attracted me even while it sharpened my antagonism.
At the moment of my entrance an altercation was in progress. Scarlet was wearily protesting that she was too tired to go on and MacKellar was damning her and the dying daylight with impartial violence. Mrs. Tylor, both orally and visually outraged, was holding up dishes before her face as she set the table, and peering over their rims. Her husband drank and used strong language as was ordained and proper, but he never abstractly cursed the sun or publicly looked on nude women. MacKellar, she decided, was a blasphemous old fool who was wasting his declining years in painting improper pictures, but not so with Scarlet. The woman in Mrs. Tylor whispered true words in her ear.
When Scarlet saw me she wearily rose from the divan and stood gazing at the canvas while Hugh punctuated his personal opinion of her with vicious little jabs of his brush.
"Hugh," she said, turning from the picture with a certain pride of bearing, "where do you find your magic, you're such an old fuss-box? I simply must stretch."
Then, as if noticing me for the first time, she walked slowly across the room, her scarf draped around her, and placing her hand on my shoulder supported herself as if weary.
"You look all played out, David," she said with unexpected kindness. "So am I. Hugh's been brutal all day."
Mrs. Tylor left the room and slammed the door behind her.
"Come away from that fellow," Hugh commanded.
As her body swayed against mine her heavy perfume caught me in a close embrace and made me forget the wind, soft- edged from the touch of waves.
"But you told me to be nice to him," she protested, glancing over her shoulder at the exasperated MacKellar.
"I'm waiting!" he exclaimed impatiently. "Three minutes, that's all I need. Oh, God!"
She turned quickly and pressed her lips to mine.
"Well, I'm damned!" cried MacKellar. "Things can't go on like this. Come back here and lie down!"
Demurely Scarlet obeyed. Mrs. Tylor emerged from the kitchen puritanically sniffing the air, her eyes riveted on the coffee pot as though salvation lay therein.
"WHAT'S all this I've been hearing about jellyfish and islands?"
When MacKellar confronted me with this unexpected question some days after my meeting with Hilda Elliott we were out on the cliff path taking an early morning walk. For some reason, vague even to myself, I had made no reference to the adventure. My curiosity was now suddenly aroused to discover the source of his information.
"Just what have you been hearing about jellyfish and islands?" I asked.
"Everything," he grunted. "It started a hell of a row."
"How's that?" I demanded.
"Because you were fool enough to try to get yourself drowned," he replied, "and she was fool enough not to let you."
"Who told you about it?" I insisted. "Did she?"
"In a way she did," he answered. "It was last night. I was seeing her husband on business—rent. He loves to take other people's money because he knows it hurts them to give it to him. On the way back I met her. She'd been crying, but she denied it and asked me about your eyes. This surprised me, for I'd never considered your eyes particularly worthy of note and I told her as much. And then she told me that she'd found you out there playing with a lot of jellyfish... you would."
"And the row?" I interrupted.
"She merely said there had been one. The man at the pier must have told and now Elliott's forbidden her to use the boat. Then she laughed. People shouldn't laugh like that."
For some minutes I said nothing, but stood looking down at the blue sea spreading its white ripples along the little beaches. It was a heavy morning, one on which the world seems to cling lovingly to its coverlet of mist. Nature was unrefreshed and reluctant to awaken. Here and there patches of silver gray still floated over the water and the fields. A light breeze blew in fitful, breathless little rallies against which the trees moved languid, protesting limbs. And even the birds in the branches seemed more inclined to observe us comfortably from the shade of their leafy pockets than to proclaim their presence in song. Every sign foretold the leisurely approach of a hot day beneath which the earth would steam, until it dried.
"What sort of a person is Elliott?" I asked at last in a conversational voice.
"He's a madman," replied Hugh deliberately, "a throw-back from some hellish cave, only he has all the curses of civilization. It makes him crueler—more versatile."
"Can she care for such a person as that?"
He subjected me to a look of demolishing pity, then said, "If you were a song bird instead of an ass would you care for the person who stifled your notes?"
"Naturally not, but why does she put up with it?"
"From some mistaken notion of pride," he answered turning away. "Some weird quirk—working things out or some such nonsense as that."
"Perhaps it's fear?" I suggested.
"She's not afraid of the devil himself," he said with conviction. "It's not that. She's got some strange ideas in her head. They should be knocked out. She's like you... impossible."
"And now he's taken away her boat," I remarked in a low voice.
"It's a good thing," Hugh retorted. "One of these days she'll sail so far away that she'll never reach land again."
"But now she's caged, Hugh," I protested. "Shut in, and I did it."
"She's always been caged with him," he said.
When we came to Elliott's gates Hugh stopped and stood regarding the carving, a scowl slowly spreading over his face.
"It's bad craftsmanship to begin with," he observed, "and worse taste. Doesn't that give you a better idea of John Elliott than I could?"
"It made me hate the place and its owner from the moment I first saw the thing," I replied, recalling the morning when I had accompanied the old woodsman along this same road.
"Well, that's what he's trying to do to her," said MacKellar, "only he's doing it slowly and enjoying it more."
We were about to move away when a laugh at our backs made us turn around. Hilda Elliott, with little jewels of spray still glistening in her hair and a blue robe partly concealing her bathing suit, was standing on the top step of the stairs leading up from the beach.
"Good morning," she said, gathering her hair in a great mass and twisting it round her head.
As she stood before us with upraised arms, her head tilted back and her slim young body as straight as a silver birch, she appeared to me as the very embodiment of dawn, a lovely spray-fresh creature newly risen from the sea. Her legs and arms were bare and her feet were caught in sandals. A faded bathing suit, picturesquely tattered, clung to her delicate figure. Hugh must have been caught by the same spell her beauty had cast over me, for he stood gazing at her with concentrated admiration, his fingers working nervously as though searching for a brush. The sky was her background and the sea spread out at her feet. Around her floated the blue robe like a wave bewitched to land.
"What the devil's the meaning of this?" said Hugh, at last.
"Rebellion!" she cried, extending her arms in the air. "Mutiny! If I can't sail, I will swim."
She stopped suddenly as if remembering my presence and looked at me like a child endeavoring to ascertain the merits of a prospective playmate.
"How are your eyes, Mr. Landor?" she asked. "Hugh tells me they're not worthy of note."
"They never were," I replied slowly, "but they will be from this moment. The beauty in them will never die."
She gathered her robe about her and looked questioningly at MacKellar.
"Does he talk like that often?" she demanded.
"Not to me, he doesn't," answered Hugh. "You have to insult the brute to loosen his tongue, but in this instance he's quite justified and, I think, sincere."
She smiled quickly at me, then passed between us and crossed the road. Standing between the granite posts she regarded us with amused eyes.
"You're a pretty pair," she remarked. "The painter and the poet searching the dawn for inspiration."
"If you want to know," MacKellar answered gruffly, "you were the subject of our inspiration this morning."
As she looked from one to the other her face clouded.
"Were you gossiping, Hugh?" she asked with a note of reproof in her voice.
"Yes," said MacKellar defiantly, "if you want to call it that."
"Then I'm going to turn my back on you as a mark of great disapproval," she replied, gathering up her robe. "Pay no attention to him, Mr. Landor. You'd do better to come swimming with me instead."
"He'll do nothing of the sort," MacKellar proclaimed with vigor. "He sees too much of the beach as it is, disappearing from it by day and haunting it by night."
"Mr. Landor will choose between us," she said, challenging me with her eyes.
"I've already chosen," I replied before Hugh could speak. "The beach has it."
"More mutiny and rebellion," MacKellar grumbled. "I wash my hands of the both of you."
"And I kiss my hand to you," she answered, blowing a kiss to Hugh from the water-pinched tips of her fingers. "Good- by, old weasel."
We watched her running across the grass until she had disappeared among the trees, and even then I felt inclined to linger, but MacKellar forcibly drew me away.
"While you two have been wasting precious minutes, I've been struggling to get back to the cottage," he said. "Come on now, hurry. Scarlet might be up."
Scarlet was up. She was eating breakfast and Mrs. Tylor was serving her with the air of one who refuses to be responsible for her actions. As we entered the little door Scarlet looked up at us over the rim of her coffee cup.
"Enter two madmen," she said, putting the cup down. "They are discussing who is the madder."
"I am," replied Hugh, "and I'll be a lot madder if you don't stop stuffing yourself and spoiling your figure before I've painted this picture."
"He is such a considerate uncle," she remarked to me as she rose from the table. "Good morning, David. Run away now. I've got to go to work."
Irritated by her air of indifference, I sat down at the table and drank a cup of coffee while she arranged herself on the divan.
A SPRAY of stars was floating in a low black sky. The sea had grown quiet, as though subdued by the oppressive mass of darkness resting upon it. Along the beach invisible wavelets rustled like songs within a dream. Faint and far off they seemed, as though depressed people were whispering together somewhere in a quiet hallway.
"If a man could walk across the night-filled floor of the sea," I thought to myself, "and stand out there in the blackness with his hand held up to the dripping sky, I wonder how shut off he would feel, how solitary and far away from everything... even unhappy things!"
For some reason I shivered slightly and turned away from the water's edge. My mind was divided by thoughts of two women. It was like a circus field on a cloudy day—confused, colorful and tawdry, uncertain in its gayety. Wind was somewhere near. Shadows scudded across the field, voices shrilled through the wind, and there were other noises and smells to arouse one's interest. Yet over the field hovered the threat of the wind and a feeling of impending trouble. In my mind there were many pictures and many impulses. Both Hilda Elliott and Scarlet were embodied in them.
Scarlet floated gaudily through my thoughts. Her full, white arms seemed to be waving to me from the flap of a bannered tent. She was a side show thought, attractive in her very vulgarity. She was hot and scented and promiscuous, obviously of a more destructive type than the beasts she was asking the crowds to see. She was, nevertheless, desirable. I passed her by impatiently. Though dangerous at close range, she was rather easy to deal with from a distance. It was not so simple a matter to dispose of Hilda Elliott. Her personality was more subtle and enduring.
MacKellar had been right when he said that there was something about her not quite of this world. From the moment she had passed from sight behind the gaunt trees on her husband's lawn, she had not been at any time entirely absent from my mind. I felt that I had come to understand her very intimately during the short course of our conversation. It seemed to me that for the first time in my life I had been in close sympathy with the mind of a woman. This understanding could not be traced so much to the spoken word as to an unmistakable harmony of thought that had sprung up without effort between us. It was like the undemonstrative hand clasp of two kindred spirits after years of separation.
In a sense, Hilda Elliott had already become necessary to me. Her personality had taken possession of my imagination, her laughter had left a responsive echo in my heart. I wondered about her eyes and the thoughts that lay behind them. And incredulously I also wondered if it were possible for me to have fallen in love with her. To others of a more generous and happier nature this spontaneous excitement of interest might come. I had been told that such things happened. In books I had come across both lovely and ludicrous examples of love. Some had been sophomorically lurid, and others tediously lewd; and some had seemed quite reasonable and convincing, beautiful beyond everything else in life; but whatever they had been, I had always remained surreptitiously on the margin of the pages, a stranger to the subject.
As I walked along the beach I argued with myself that I was too wrapped up in my own conceits and too skeptical of human conduct for the love of a woman to overcome the introspective obstructions of my thoughts. With painful reasoning I rejected the existence of such a possibility, and by the very fervor of my logic I was at last forced to admit that I was merely endeavoring to delay an inevitable capitulation. Like a bright light in a tangled confusion of thought the knowledge came to me that even though I were never again to look on Hilda Elliott's face, still she would haunt me to the end of my days. Quietly, but completely I accepted the situation, realizing full well that in all probability, it would lead to nothing but unhappiness.
FOR some time I had been passing and repassing the two isolated rocks which on a previous occasion had served me as a bath house. In my preoccupation I had not at first noticed that a third object was placed between them, like a small rock but recently born to the monolithic old couple looming watchfully over its head. As I stood regarding this unfamiliar object, I began to feel that I was no longer alone on the beach. Another person had been sitting there for some time, quietly observing my actions. Without considering the good taste of my curiosity I approached the rocks and peered between them.
"Good evening, Mr. Landor," came disconcertingly from the shadows.
"Hello," I replied, somewhat taken aback. "What are you doing here?"
"Watching you with great interest," she replied. "Tell me, do all poets stalk? I mean, is it essential, like gout to a rich old uncle or biscuits to a ten-day bride?"
"Or good fellows and fair weather," I suggested.
"Exactly," she answered with a serious face. "Do you believe it always is?"
"I've never had the courage to investigate," I said. "We must have some illusions, you know."
"But don't you think it could be real bad weather just for once when they all get together?" she persisted.
"The song makes no allowance for even a slight shower," I answered.
"Very well," she said with a little sigh, "but it does seem remarkable to me. How about poets and stalking? Does that hold, too?"
"I don't know. I'm not one. I've tried. MacKellar was lying as usual. Anyway did you ever walk comfortably in sliding sand?"
"I have," she replied. "And what's more I can run in sliding sand. For instance—"
Without waiting to finish her sentence she sprang to her feet and flashed away in the darkness. The night closed round her white figure like the velvet lining of a black pocket, and from the depth of the pocket there floated a swift note of laughter. Along the beach I could hear the sound of scattering pebbles, then these grew fainter and silence settled down. Her disappearance had been so sudden and unexpected that for a moment I remained motionless, confused. Then sensing the implied challenge in her flight, I followed her through the mist which had crept in from the sea. And as I ran the dampness split coolingly across my face like ribbons of moist gauze. In a short time I came to a place where there were sharp rocks and boulders. The beach curved here and came to an abrupt stop, and the descending cliffs, running out into the sea, formed a steep barrier on the crest of which dark trees, vaguely defined, waved their arms like impotent magicians at the ocean moving fitfully in its sleep. As I searched among the bowlders I heard the name of Hilda falling unconsciously from my lips, but nothing stirred save the little waves endlessly fingering the sand.
With a feeling of having been duped, I was about to abandon the search when from down the beach I heard a clear call floating through the heavy air like the notes of a distant bell on a thick night. When I returned to the rocks Hilda Elliott was sitting quietly Between them as though she had never stirred.
"That was a fiendish thing to do," I said.
"I was exercising you," she explained innocently, "Taking the stalk out of your joints."
"You were deliberately imperiling my life and limb in a forest of infuriated bowlders," I complained sitting down beside her.
"If you haunt the beach so much," she answered, "you should have discovered all of its secrets by this time."
"I never discovered you before."
"I haven't been here to discover."
"Why did you come down to-night?" I asked.
"While you were watching me stalk I was thinking of you. When I saw you sitting here between the rocks it was as if I had thought you into real life."
"Well, don't think of dragons or mosquitoes," she said, "or we might be very uncomfortable."
"I was thinking of your husband, too."
She looked at me in astonishment for a moment, then burst out laughing. It did my heart good to hear it. When she had finished she said, "That's one of the most impertinent remarks I've ever heard. If it wasn't so ridiculous, I'd be very angry. I think I am, a little."
"I didn't mean anything," I replied. "I was thinking of the trouble I made for you by getting mixed up with those jellyfish."
"Then Hugh was gossiping after all, wasn't he?"
"No, not gossiping. He was scolding me for having started a row and put a stop to your sailing."
"He must have said more than that. Be honest now."
"Yes, he did—you know how he talks."
She rose to her feet and walked down to the water's edge, where she stood with her back to me and her face turned toward the night smothered ocean. She seemed to be deep in thought. As I watched her I rapidly considered the situation and decided that no good purpose would be served by feigning ignorance of her life with John Elliott. It would only make things more strained and unnatural for us both. She slowly retraced her steps and stood looking down at me.
"Yes," she said. "I know how Hugh talks and I know how every one else talks around here, but you mustn't let it affect you. One more drop of commiseration would drive me to terrible things. There's some truth in it all, obviously. Sooner or later you'd find out for yourself, but it's unimportant. It's my particular problem after all, mine to solve, and until I've solved it I'm not seeking another way out." She stopped for a moment and trampled the sand with her foot.
"Hugh's splendid," she continued. "I love him. In fact he's the only person I talk with at all, but he refuses to understand. He puts all his patience into his paint and lashes out with his tongue. You shouldn't take him too seriously. And don't think of me as a pretty princess who had been captured and brought to this place. I came here of my own free will. I left the garden in search of the high adventure—romance, and if I didn't find it I must be partly to blame. I'm a part of the problem, too. Do you understand?"
"I don't understand anything," I replied. "That is I don't understand you, but for all that I'm sorry about the little sloop. It was sort of fun for you and now that's stopped. If it hadn't been for those jellyfish it wouldn't have happened."
"But something else would," she said. "Something always does."
"Yes, as Hugh said, you might have sailed away so far in that little boat of yours that you'd never have reached land alive."
"I don't know as that would make such a great difference, would it?"
"I wish I could shake you a little," I replied.
She laughed lightly and sank down beside me.
"Men are all like that," she answered. "When they don't know what to say they want to fight."
"All right, but wouldn't you have solved your problem a little too easily? Death never clears up anything. It merely adds to the mystery."
"How sure you are about such things," she replied. "The only thing that's real to me in life is the leaving of it and what follows after. All the rest seems to be just a series of false, ineffectual starts leading nowhere."
"But even that is better than a complete stop, isn't it."
"Is it?" she asked with a slight smile. "I'm not so sure about that. Every one seems to be going busily around routing out drab little scraps of life and teasing them to shreds, but it's not so clear to me. After all how do we know that it is life? Isn't it just as sensible to be as much interested in what lies beyond life than in some obvious travesty waiting round the corner?"
She laughed a trifle nervously, I thought, and sifted some sand between her fingers.
"Don't look so upset," she continued. "Haven't you ever felt like that?"
"Yes," I admitted in a low voice. "I left the city to get rid of it—it's such an abject, negative feeling. You see, I happen to be one of those who love life and everything about it, even its obvious travesties, but so far I haven't made much of a success of living. I seem to lack the proper equipment. My mind is too soft. Thoughts form pools there that never drain. They grow stagnant."
Impulsively she reached out and placed her hand on mine. My fingers trembled at her touch and I glanced away fearing that she might read in my eyes the struggle going on within me.
"How serious we are," she said, "talking here in the darkness like a pair of tragic masks. We should try to help each other out instead of adding to the gloom."
"I need a lot of helping at present," I remarked.
"Do you?" she asked, studying my face. "Well so do I. Shall we form a league—a sort of defensive alliance?"
"I've caused you enough trouble already," I replied
"Still lamenting the loss of the sloop," she said. "Don't worry. I'll get her back before long."
"I'd like to be your ally," I replied, "but I'm afraid the arrangement would be too one-sided. I'm not a very helpful person."
"You've helped a lot already," she answered, giving my hand a slight squeeze. "Suppose I should tell you that I came down here to-night merely because Hugh said you were always haunting the beach?"
"I'd feel foolishly happy," I replied.
"Well, that's a start," she said, smiling into my eyes. "Go ahead and feel foolishly happy. The alliance is already working."
This time I took her hand in mine and held it, but I did not speak, knowing in my heart that in the true sense I could never be her friend. Along the beach the wavelets rustled like songs within a dream. In silence we listened to the chorus of little silvery voices. Hilda Elliott was sitting with her head against the rocks. Her eyes were closed. Gently she withdrew her hand from mine.
"You see," she murmured without stirring. "Already we've begun to be friends. We can enjoy each other's silence."
FOR the next few weeks Hilda and I were very much together. Her husband had gone away on one of his periodical and unexplained visits to the city, from which he would presently return heavy-eyed and sullen, to stalk watchfully round his grounds.
"Things won't be like this after he comes back," she warned me once as her searching eyes gazed seaward from the island on which we were sitting. "With a few unpleasant exceptions, my husband dislikes all men."
She seldom made any reference to her husband and always evaded my attempts to lead her into a discussion of her relations with him. During his absence she seemed to be determined to forget his very existence, and I attributed this remark of hers to a sudden realization of the transitory nature of her release.
"It would be nice if we could take the little sloop and sail away forever," I suggested.
She cast me a sympathetic smile, then her face clouded.
"Yes," she said, "but that would be escape without freedom. As you reminded me once, it would solve nothing, and I'm not yet ready for flight. There are things I must settle first."
"It seems to me that flight under any circumstances would be well justified," I replied.
"Some of my husband's friends used to say things like that," she answered. "They were so disinterested that I suspected them when they offered to take me out of it all. But you're different, David. I like you, and because I do I'm going to ask you to change the subject. The sky is far too blue to-day to be filled with man-made clouds."
"But, Hilda," I protested, "what about the years? Time isn't standing still to watch you solve your problem."
"Come now, glum face, you promised to be my ally. No battles, no internal conflict, or I shall instantly break off relations."
I shrugged my shoulders and abandoned the attack, defeated, but still rebellious.
In the meantime we made the most of our freedom. The neck of land, the islands and the ocean surrounding them afforded us endless opportunities for expeditions by water and foot, and I who had already exhaustively explored both land and sea, took pleasure in bringing my companion to the places I had discovered.
Often I used to wait for her in the fields leading down to the marshes. Through the high grass she would come flying to meet me, her arms wide spread and her head thrown back. Something in the buoyancy and rhythm of her movements made me think of the bright strangers she had spoken about in telling me of her garden. She seemed so swift and light that I almost feared she would spring from the earth and flash away forever into space. Then I would hurry to meet her and we would come together with great confusion which would send us tumbling through the high grass.
At times I became dispirited when I thought of the separation that would follow the homecoming of John Elliott. When such thoughts came I found it difficult to conceal my emotions from Hilda and to refrain from telling her the truth concerning the relationship existing between us. These spells were usually accompanied by periods of moodiness during which she would study me with troubled eyes as though fearfully endeavoring to catch the thoughts that were passing through my mind. For the most part, we were happy enough together, and if at times the laughter was a trifle mirthless, Hilda marvelously succeeded in reestablishing an atmosphere of natural and spontaneous comradery.
That summer I was happier than I had ever been before in my life, and at the same time sadder. The days were filled with bright, sun-filtered hours, and at night the stars like golden bees swarmed out across the sky. It was like living in a beautiful dream with the knowledge that an unpleasant awakening was near at hand. I found pleasure in watching Hilda return, cautiously at first and then tumultuously as her confidence in me increased, to the lost garden of her girlhood from which she had so heedlessly departed. From her behavior I gained the impression at times that she realized only too keenly she was paying the garden a fugitive visit and that in a little while she would once more find herself standing alone and cheerless outside its vanishing walls.
As the days passed I could see that she had taken my promise to her very seriously and that in spite of her occasional flashes of coquetry, she confidently relied on me to give her the friendship her spirit craved. Her personality grew more vivid and interesting as I came to know her. A mere suggestion or a fine shade of meaning was all she required to give body to a mood. She was able to make things live because she herself was the very essence of life, an exquisitely real and vital creature whose intellectually honest mind gave warmth and color to her thoughts.
Of Hilda Elliott I still carry the same impression I received when first I looked at her from the bottom of her little boat. To-day the sloop lies rotting in one of those forgotten havens where honest sailboats go when they become weary of the sea, and the small hands that once so skillfully guided the craft have forever yielded up their hold on its tiller, yet in memory she still remains to me as being unlike any other woman I have ever known—braver of spirit, more honest of mind and physically more beautiful.
Once in the early morning just after the sun had risen we came together on the beach and dashed in among the waves. A great roller broke over her and tossed her into my arms. As the wave receded we clung together, alternately laughing and gasping for breath. Then suddenly our eyes met and we became vitally conscious of each other. I found myself looking down into the eyes of a new Hilda. They were touched with languor and expectation as they gazed into mine. The morning was young and she was young and I was fresh with life. I wanted only her and at that moment she knew it. For an instant we stood like statues carved together from a single block, but the racing blood in our bodies warmed through our wet garments and made us thrill with life. Before the expression could fade from her eyes I kissed her mouth and at the touch of my lips I could feel her little finger nails convulsively digging into my arms. Then she wriggled from my grasp and sprang back to the beach, where she stood looking at me out of eyes wide with astonishment. For a moment I thought she was going to laugh, but she turned instead and ran down the beach, her white legs flashing and her hair streaming out behind her. At the steps leading up to the road she stopped and held up her hands to me in an odd little motion of protest, then she inclined her head and hurried up the steps. I went for a long swim and by the time I returned she was dressed and waiting for me on the beach.
"You're an idiot," she announced as I came panting up to her. "Oh, what an idiot! What an exasperating loon!"
I threw myself down on the sand and turned my face to the sun. And together we planned the day, but neither of us referred to the incident of the kiss. I could tell that she was self-conscious. Her businesslike manner betrayed her. As she talked I watched her with amused eyes until at last she gave me a vicious dig with the point of her shoe.
"Don't look at me like that!" she exclaimed, her face flaming. "Go home and put some clothes on your wolfish body."
I departed, supremely happy.
THE evening before John Elliott returned I brought Hilda to this pavilion by the salt marshes, and when I introduced her to it, I invested the ceremony with an air of elaborate mystery. This I did partly from fear lest the scene might fail to impress her as deeply as it had me, and partly to lessen the feeling of restraint which had fallen like a shadow between us.
When we arrived at the border of the bush-fringed declivity I bade her turn her back to me and to remain motionless with closed eyes. Then I slipped quietly down the hidden ledge and called to her in a muffled voice.
"David," she answered, bewildered, "where have you gone? Where are you?"
"Far away from everything," I replied. "You'll never find me now."
In the intervening silence I could hear her moving about on the bank above my head. Then she called to me again and this time I detected a frightened note in her voice.
"David, David, where are you?" she cried.
"At your feet," I answered reassuringly, but even as I spoke she stepped over the ledge and with a startled cry came tumbling down into my arms. Her warm little body was all crumpled and confused and her face was buried in my neck. I could feel her breath coming in short, surprised gasps as her heart throbbed excitedly against mine. Her arms clung to my shoulders and her hair lay round me in a fragrant maze.
"David," she said, "put me down."
Without answering I carried her through the reeds and deposited her on the mat. For an instant she regarded me with frightened eyes, then she smiled and drew a deep breath. I watched her expression as her gaze moved to the marshes and rested there. Slowly her face lighted up with wonder, her eyes seemed to grow deeper and bluer and presently her lips parted in a puzzled smile.
"Why, David," she said in a low voice, "I feel as if I'd been here before. It's all so natural and familiar and yet it's strange... like a half-remembered dream."
"Then you like it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "Your lost chapel by the marshes has become a part of me already. I shall never forget it. See how fresh and green the island lies with the tall trees waving on it. How peaceful it seems over there."
"Hardly a part of this world," I suggested.
"No," she murmured. "It's like another one—a fairer place."
"Cut off from life by quicksand and hidden streams," I continued. "Acres of false ground protected by an army of reeds separate us from the island."
"Somehow it's like life, isn't it?" she replied. "We have to wade through the mire to reach the beautiful things we want."
The silence of the place settled round us. I looked at Hilda and my heart went out to her. She was so near and desirable, so vitally necessary to me. I could not bring myself to face the thought that perhaps this would be the last evening we would spend together. It made me feel rebellious, unfitting me for the role I was supposed to play.
"Hilda," I said, taking her hand and raising it to my lips, "don't you wish we could reach the island together? It's impossible to believe that we'll never be like this again. I can't go on."
"David," she warned in a strained voice, "even now our feet are on false ground."
I dropped my eyes to the small hand lying so confidingly in mine. It's trustfulness disarmed me.
"I shall need your friendship more than ever now," she continued, looking at me with unnaturally bright eyes. "Keep giving it."
The sun dipped down behind the island and lay glowing through the trees like a beautiful Japanese screen. I watched the colors spill out over the shadow-filled plain of the marshes, where they were gathered up by the currents and carried away to the sea.
"Friend," she whispered, lightly pressing my hand, "continue to be my friend—only that."
WHEN I returned to the cottage I stood for a long time on the lawn, striving to reconcile myself to the fact that Hilda had gone back to a house in which she would no longer be alone. A feeling of unutterable loss crept into my heart and settled there for a long sojourn. Silken rugs of moonlight were strewn across the grass, the lilac bushes were sprayed with yellow mist. Against the black trees of the grove the little white cottage stood sharply silhouetted. The quiet beauty of the scene hurt me. Now that I was separated from Hilda its loveliness served only to remind me of her absence. For the first time since I had left the city I felt a desire to return to it.... New York, its streets and its women... one could lose oneself there very easily and destroy beauty in a few short hours, but the memory of it would always linger like a secret betrayal.
A pool of light falling at my feet made me to raise my head. Scarlet was leaning down to me from one of the upper windows of the cottage. In the clear flood of the moon her face had taken on a deathly pallor in which her eyes burned like those of a wild thing in a thicket. Her lips were parted in a half smile and her arms cradled to her breast the heavy waves of her dull thick hair. I experienced then the same sensation that, had come to me when I had first looked on the marshes. Resolution left me, and the beauty of the night no longer hurt my eyes. The promise that lay revealed in hers offered a means of escape from the chill depression surrounding me. Thoroughly abominating myself for the thoughts that were forming in my mind I furtively entertained the idea of acceptance. Why not? Hilda could never be mine. Friends, always friends, a false and insipid relationship. I had my own life to live, my own cravings to satisfy.
I took a step forward and held up my hand to Scarlet. With a supple twist of her body, she snatched the scarf from her shoulders and tossed it from her. Down through the light night air it floated gracefully and coiled itself like a serpent at my feet. For a moment she stood revealed, a soft radiance glowing over her white form. Then with a low laugh she sprang from view and the light went out.
I picked the scarf from the grass and buried my face in its folds. Hilda seemed far away.
THAT night I dreamed that I stood with Hilda on the edge of the marshes. She had taken my hand in hers and was pointing to the island. As though repelled by the message in her eyes, I drew back and muttered, "No, Hilda. No. That way is death."
"But, David," she replied, "with confidence and courage even quicksand can be crossed."
She looked at me appealingly, then turned her eyes to the island. Quiet and peaceful it lay, bathed in a peculiar half light that seemed to partake of the qualities of both night and day, a pale, unearthly glow weirdly beautiful in its deathlike calm and perfection. As I gazed at the island the realization came to me that death itself was waiting for us behind the trees, and with this knowledge, fear like a cold spring chilled my heart.
"Won't you follow me if I lead the way?" she pleaded.
With a supreme effort to master the dread that had taken possession of me, I stepped with her into that other world half-light lying across the marshes. Through the noiselessly waving reeds I followed her reluctantly, fearing at every step that we should sink into the quicksand. The soggy ground felt cold and unpleasant to my feet. Yet the island, which repelled me most of all, strangely drew me onward. The sharp terror of extinction struggled against my desire for eternal freedom with Hilda. I sought her eyes for encouragement and she smiled back at me. At last when we had drawn near to the island I could control my fear no longer. I stopped and drew her back.
"Don't you understand?" she whispered. "It's the only way out for us, the only escape from all that's waiting back there."
As she spoke these words I seemed to recall even in the dream a remark she had once made to me. The night came back again and I could hear the waves rustling along the beach. "Anyway," she had said, "the only thing in life that's real to me is the leaving of it and what follows after." I realized now what she had meant and though I longed with all my being to follow her to the island, the uncertainty of death rather than the love of life restrained me.
"I can't do it!" I cried. "I haven't the strength to go!"
Filled with misery and self-loathing, I knelt at her feet and kissed the hem of her skirt. Then I rose and fled from her over the marshes. Once I turned and looked back. She was standing with an arm extended in a gesture of supplication. An expression of desolation filled her eyes and the smile had died on her lips. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks and I awoke.
IMMEDIATELY after breakfast I returned to my room to consider the strange dream that had come to me. Its significance was unavoidable, and although I was attracted by it I still felt in broad daylight a tremor of the same dread that had caused me to desert Hilda and seek safety on solid ground. As I sat tormented by the thought of having failed the woman I loved, Scarlet entered the room and came up behind me. She leaned down over the back of my chair and, taking my head in her hands, pressed it against her bosom. At first I resisted, then relaxed and let my head sink back. For some reason I thought of a large house with bay windows and scented curtains. Then I thought of a garden heavy with perfume and hidden by streaming vapors. And as I thought the memory of my betrayal of Hilda on the marshes gradually faded away. Leaning far back in the chair, I reached up and clasping Scarlet round the neck, attempted to draw her face down to mine. She gave a short, disagreeable laugh, and flinging my arms aside walked across the room to the window, where she stood leaning out and humming a soft air under her breath. She seemed to have forgotten my presence. The room grew still, save for the low, irritating humming and the sound of the wind outside. Then she turned and faced me, her lips parted in an irritating smile.
"Well, my dear, David," she remarked, "aren't you unusually hospitable this morning?"
I raised my eyes to hers and tried to answer her smile, but failed in the attempt.
"Come here," I said in a low voice. "Scarlet, I want you now. Damn it, do you hear?"
"I prefer to remain where I am," she answered and began to hum again.
"Stop that noise!" I exclaimed, springing from the chair.
She laughed, and as I approached her she continued to watch me with an indulgent smile behind which I seemed to detect a hint of anger. But when I ran my hands up over her arms she made no effort to resist, only standing there looking at me out of her deep, glowing eyes with her lips slightly parted as if awaiting my kiss.
"You beast," I muttered, taking her by the shoulders, "come here!"
With a lithe movement she dropped to one knee and passed under my outstretched arms. Still humming softly to herself she moved over to the bed and sat down. Like a befuddled man I followed her, my hands fluttering crazily before me.
"You beast!" I kept muttering under my breath. "You beast."
I found satisfaction in the word.
When I stood over her she looked up at me and critically studied my face.
"Stop making a fool of yourself," she commanded in a level voice, "and save your caresses for those who want them. I don't. They bore me."
Angered by her indifference, I seized the scarf from the table and tossed it in her face.
"You get out of here!" I said. "Quick! Go!"
"How changeable you are," she said, throwing her head back and showing her white teeth in an unpleasant smile.
With an effort I collected myself and grinned back at her, my hands gripping the edge of the table.
"And you?" I asked.
"I'm enjoying the situation hugely," she replied. "Your actions are quite revealing. How surprised some people would be!"
Then, moved by an impulse to torment myself as well as this creature who was forever challenging me with her beauty, I deliberately recounted to her in detail, omitting Hilda's name, however, the dream that had so distracted me. When I had finished I added, almost gloatingly, "You, too, would have been afraid."
She rose slowly from the bed and confronted me. Her eyes had grown hard and two vivid spots were flaming in her dead white cheeks.
"Do you think I don't know who she is?" she said, her voice coarse with anger. "This woman in your dream? She's that poor, bloodless thing you've been mooning around with like a silly fool for the last few weeks. Why, she's afraid of life—doesn't even know what it is." And she threw her shoulders back as though taunting me with her body.
"And you're afraid of death," I replied, "and so am I. Of the three she's the bravest."
Scarlet laughed unnaturally.
"But let's see who's the wisest," she said and lounged across the room to the door, where she stopped and looked mockingly over her shoulder.
"By the way," she added, "her husband has just returned. He'll put an end to your dreams."
SCARLET was wrong. John Elliott did not put an end to my dreams. A fortnight elapsed before I saw Hilda again, but during every night of our separation she came to me in the same intangible, yet realistic, form. And the dream was always the same. In the calm, unearthly half- light flooding the marshes, we met each night and reenacted the same unfinished drama. At dawn when I awoke, it was always with a poignant feeling of loss that I returned to face another day.
WITH each new day Scarlet would be there to greet me, to taunt me with her body, and to cast confusion across my mind. Her window opened on the grove. At certain times of the day she would lean on the ledge like an idol and quietly follow my movements as I wandered round the cottage or sat writing futile things at my table on the lawn. So aware was I of her presence I could tell without even glancing up that her eyes were on me. Sitting with my back toward her I imagined that I could feel them glowing behind me.
At other times I would come upon her lying silhouetted on the black divan. With sleepy hostility she would watch Hugh as he daubed at the canvas or stood squinting at it in heavy contemplation.
Sometimes I would stop to study her smooth white figure so gentle in its curves. I would wonder then about her beauty and the secret of her strength. Quite deliberately I would endeavor to analyze her out of my thoughts as I had tried to do with the dream; but in this I was no more successful. Scarlet existed and the dream existed. Scarlet was real and the dream was real. Both appealed to me, yet both repelled. I was unable to strike a happy balance with my environment.
And the more I thought of Scarlet the more I came to realize that if I wanted to remain at least intellectually honest I should have to admit my inability to judge whose influence governed me the more, hers or Hilda's. Both were so utterly different; yet, in a way, both were subtly blended.
In spite of her apparent indifference I could sense that Scarlet was deeply interested in my conduct, more so than she had ever been before. There was something in her very quietness, some half concealed light in her eyes that made me think of a beautiful vulture lazily treading the air until the time was fitting to strike, to spiral swiftly down the sky and to smother her victim beneath the shadow of her wings. There were moments when I almost longed for the time to arrive. In my hazy scheme of things there was a joyous place for physical desire, but Scarlet's attraction for me was not joyous. It was of an altogether different nature. In it there was something base and degrading, something tainted in my blood or else as old as the first dark love. I was interested in this. My curiosity was aroused by the prowling nature of my emotions. They made me feel as if I were plumbing the last degradation of the soul before it sprang to freedom. I pictured this place of freedom and there would pass before my eyes a valley dancing with sunlight in which dwelt people who had been bruised and spotted by their contacts with life, people who had stumbled and hurt themselves, but who now knew hurt no longer. Through shameful things they had suffered their way to laughter and had learned to know its worth. I longed to be among these people and to join them there in the sunlit valley. I longed to be a rational creature again and to seek sanity in laughter, but the situation controlled me. I was able neither to meet it nor to escape it.
Scarlet was watching me and Hugh was watching Scarlet, watching her in a way that was unlike him. It was almost as if he were trying to study her moods to reach for me. Powerless to change the situation, I realized nevertheless that my attitude of growing detachment was sorely perplexing this essentially human old creature. I was beginning to learn how poignantly one could abominate oneself. However, he made no effort to encroach upon my thoughts, but let me go freely about my business as he effaced himself in his paint.
"Going out?" he would grunt, peering at his canvas with gloomy concentration.
"Going out," I would answer as I left the room with a feeling of guilt and reluctance.
Once when I was writing Scarlet came to me across the lawn and placed her hand on my arm.
"The old ogre has let me off," she said. "Stroll with me while I stretch."
I rose from the table and walked with her down the grove. Slowly and without purpose we moved beneath the trees. And as we walked she leaned against me as though she needed support. Her head was close to mine and her hair, a nest of fragrant coils, seemed to twine itself round my senses.
"What has come over you, David?" she asked presently. "You've been so different lately. Does that silly dream still trouble you?"
"I'm troubled by many dreams," I answered evasively. "You see I'm one of those unfortunate people whose lives are made wretched by dreams—they come to nothing."
"How can you say that," she replied, "when you've never dreamed of me?"
"What makes you so sure?" I asked.
"Why, David, you don't even talk to me any more," she said. "You used to fight with me and call me a beast. That was something."
"Do you like being called a beast?"
"It doesn't upset me," she replied. "I'm rather fond of being a beast. You're a bit of a beast yourself, David."
"You're right," I said, "but I don't glory in it."
"That's why you're troubled by dreams. They never trouble me. I learned my lesson years ago. When people are dying around you of fever and boredom and drink, being a beast is all that's left. It's pleasant then—gratifying."
"You learned your lesson well," I remarked. "In a way I envy you. You're not a hypocrite and I am."
"That's because you haven't learned your lesson at all," she answered. "You're merely a beast that tries to dream."
Stung by the truth of her remarks, I withdrew my arm from her and returned to the table. I hated and yet admired her for her insight. She was right. I was merely a beast that tried to dream, a beast possessed by a dream and fearful of it.
She followed me to the table and picked up a piece of paper on which I had been writing. In a voice filled with exaggerated emotion she read:
"To me you are as one a god once made
Before the garden of the world grew old,
Who, seeing you so fair and unafraid,
Felt less a god, inscrutable and cold,
And more a man. The fretted ages passed"—
I snatched the paper from her and tore it to bits, thoroughly ashamed of the wretched lines she had made obnoxious to my ears. She looked at me and laughed sarcastically, then her expression changed.
"Who was that for?" she asked.
"For you," I replied. "Couldn't you recognize yourself?"
"That's a lie," she said sharply.
"I intended it to be," I answered.
At this moment Hugh appeared in the doorway of the cottage and made frantic motions at Scarlet.
"I didn't tell you to stay forever," he shouted. "Come back here at once and lie down. Drive her in, David."
Scarlet picked up the pieces of torn paper from the table and sprinkled them over me.
"Take them to her," she said as she turned away.
A few minutes later Mrs. Tylor placed a cup of coffee before me, her solicitude actuated no doubt by the fact that I had been arguing with Scarlet.
"Take this, young man," she said. "You didn't eat speck for breakfast."
Mechanically I sipped the coffee.
THE more I attempted to analyze the dream out of existence, the more real and significant it became to me. The fantastic allegory of it took possession of my imagination, its symbolism became clear and logical, its outcome inevitable—inevitable save for the tormenting knowledge that it was expected of me to make an appalling decision. For the first time in my life I realized how strongly tied to the earth I was in spite of all my complacent and carefully constructed idealism. In the encouraging light of day it was easy enough for me to deceive myself, but at night when the dream came, I was forced to observe in all its nakedness that shivering thing I had always so fondly believed to be my soul. It was a cowering object and an unpleasant one. As I watched it struggle to return to the warmth and comfort of my body, I realized that the stark reality of a dream had the power to destroy in a single night the well-padded hypocrisies of a lifetime. I saw myself then as I really was and as I had always been—an earth-bound slave, secretly rejoicing in the chains he so valiantly rattled when he thought the world was watching.
Even this unavoidable knowledge of my inherent weakness failed to discourage me from hoping that I could still arrive at some safe compromise whereby I could gain Hilda without losing the world. Although I knew that she would be waiting for me at night on the edge of the marshes and that there she would plead with me to follow her to the island, I felt that a chance remained to persuade her to return with me to the comforting security of solid soil. However, if I failed in my purpose and she succeeded in hers, I was convinced that two lives, like two pale stars at daybreak, would be quietly snuffed out. The stars would return on the following night to drift above the marshes, but we should no longer be present to see their yellow reflections splash and tremble in the waterways. We should be gone—absorbed, perhaps, into that sad, still radiance resting upon the island.
DURING the first days of the dream my mind must have been in an abnormal condition of excitement, and I doubt if any of my thoughts or the conclusions I drew from them were wholly sound. Only the dream seemed real to me, only at night did I really live. My waking hours were devoted to thoughts of another world. Life passed me by like an old friend I had once loved well and was now reluctantly losing. I pondered ceaselessly upon the fate that lay in wait for us if I should yield to Hilda's pleading and traverse the short space now separating us from the island. Against the possibility of sharing a future life with her, I weighed the chances of losing her altogether in one of the blind alleys of the dead, a place in which we should be changed to unremembering things forever voicelessly seeking even deeper forgetfulness. Although in life I could never hope to keep her with me, I could at least retain her memory, see her at times, perhaps, and hear the sound of her voice, beyond life I had neither the courage nor the conviction to venture. Hilda had. Her faith was greater than mine, her need more urgent, and her motives of a finer quality. I realized this with a pang of remorse when I considered how selfishly I had denied her the release her spirit was seeking. Repeatedly during the course of the day I resolved to follow her to the island if the dream should return to me, but when night came, my courage invariably failed and I would leave her, standing alone and abandoned on the marshes. Throughout the following day her eyes would haunt me, the silent reproach in them clutching at my heart, holding it still with pity.
The memory of her eyes gave me courage to move with her each night closer and closer to the tree-shaded lawn of the island. On the last night before I saw her in real life we approached very close to its edge. Scarcely a hundred yards of reeds separated us from a little sandy cove stretching out fanwise between an avenue of dark bushes. A necklace of glinting water lay around the island. From this point on, the way would be fraught with peril. The tall trees yielded noiselessly to a noiseless wind which brought across to me the fragrance of hidden flowers, a fragrance far sweeter than any that had ever escaped from earthly petals.
"We're almost there," Hilda said, in a voice I could hardly recognize. "Don't leave me now, David." Her eyes fought to claim mine, and as I fled back over the marshes I could feel her gazing after me with a look that I dared not meet.
When I awoke, a faint scent of flowers lingered in the air. Lighter and purer than the breath of dawn this other- world fragrance floated through the room. With a sensation of uneasiness and suffocation I left my bed and sought the window. A breeze, edged with the smell of salt, came in from the sea. The sky, as though reflecting my uneasiness, was choked with heavy clouds. There was a feeling of storm in the air.
IT was useless for me to tell myself that my imagination was playing tricks with my reason. I knew this, but the knowledge was of no help to me. I could neither shake off, nor reason away, the profound impression made on me by the frequent occurrence of the nightly drama. I felt that it bore some relation to me far more significant than the usual interpretation placed on such things. And now as I leaned out of the window into the face of a gray dawn, I definitely and finally accepted it, not as a manifestation of overwrought nerves, but as an actual part of my life, a thing as real and tangible as the bed on which I lay when Hilda and the marshes came to me at night.
My thoughts turned back to the city now so vague in outline. In the light of what had been happening to me since I left New York, I was able to gain a clearer understanding of the mental and physical reactions I had experienced while treading its pavements. It was plain to me now that my controlling motives had always been physical, glossed over with a superficial veneer of spiritual repression. Although my impulses had been neither morbid nor abnormal, as I understood such things, they had been in such constant conflict that I had lived in an emotional straight-jacket. I had disliked the women I had met, not so much because I had felt myself to be their moral superior, but because they represented to me something I urgently wanted and at the same time was unwilling to take. The spirit of the direct and dominating male was not in me. Confused thinking had made me self-deceitful and roundabout. Although I had never yielded to the physical attraction of women, I had carried round with me the uneasy suspicion that I was merely waiting for a situation to arise in which circumstances would justify the letting down of the bars, in which, rather, the bars would be conveniently let down for me by rosy fingers. Secretly I had comforted myself with the knowledge that I was still young and that there was ample time ahead of me for an emotionally eventful life. When I had met Scarlet I had immediately raised a defensive barrier between us because I felt myself in the presence of a dangerous and destructive influence. In her eyes I had seen promiscuously revealed the same desire I had always tried so carefully to withhold from mine. She had penetrated at a glance the passion-hungry recesses of my heart and had found me out to be a creature very much like herself. And because I had felt that her intuition had given her power over me, my hostility to her had increased.
With Hilda Elliott it had been different. When I had first seen her from the water something from deep within me had gone out to her, something indefinable yet stimulating. It was as if she had awakened in me a love of beauty detached from the destructive desire to possess it. With her I glimpsed the possibilities of a more abundant life and gained a vague conception of what lay in store for man, once he had blazed a trail through the tangled jungle of his soul. With other women it had been different. They had always obscured the issue. Their eyes had been veiled and promising, disillusioned, hard and restless; but within Hilda Elliott there dwelt a divine spark of sanity which gave her the ability to see life as it was, to know herself as she was, and yet to keep on honest terms with both.
And now, in the dream it seemed that she wanted me to abandon life without my ever having lived it. In exchange she offered me what? I knew not, and a wave of rebellion mounted in me. How strange it was that I should be involved in such a situation, that I should have withdrawn so far from the world of which I was once a part. Again the familiar streets of the city stretched out before me. They were thronged with a thousand women and bright with flashing eyes. I held out my arms toward the women, and, there, at the edge of the grove, I saw in fancy, Hilda Elliott walking among the trees. Her step was light and unconsidered, and the joy of life radiated about her. She paused for a moment to gaze up at me and I dwelt on the features of her upturned face, the delicate line curving down from her ear to her chin, the small, straight nose, sensitive and fine, her sunburned cheeks with their aggressive cheek bones and the small head ridiculously burdened by a mass of burnished hair. As she stood there so slim, and alive, life itself seemed a small price to pay for her friendship.
I left the window and hurriedly began to dress.
"I must see her," I kept repeating to myself. "I must see her to-day!"
AT breakfast I had the impression that Scarlet was furtively watching me as though she knew some conflict was taking place in my mind. As I caught a glimpse of her black eyes, the disturbing knowledge came to me that, instead of increasing my desire to avoid her, my mental condition had made her the more desirable to me. Of late I had grown to regard her as being the embodiment of life, standing for the world and much that was acceptable in it. Her physical presence brought comfort to my fear, giving it an earthly and immediately possible means of escape to which I could secretly cling. Against this growing attraction I endeavored to fortify myself by thinking of Hilda, for I understood only too well that my change of heart sprang from a source no higher than a blind, animal instinct of self- preservation.
Even Hugh MacKellar seemed to be more than usually disturbed this morning. From time to time I caught him studying my face with his wise old eyes, and finally he departed so far from his rule of polite unobservance of the movements of those around him, as to inquire how I had been and what, in a general way, I had been doing with my time. When breakfast was over he made the unexpected announcement that inasmuch as he had practically completed work on his canvas he proposed to declare a holiday. It was his pleasure that I should lead him forthwith into the beauties of nature which, he understood, I had conscientiously explored. Paint, of course, was superior, but then he was always willing to take a look at nature in order to gloat over its failure to equal art.
When he had left the room in search of his hat and stick, Scarlet called to me from the divan.
"David," she said, "would you mind bringing my robe from that chair?"
As I tossed the flimsy thing across her my hand touched the soft flesh of her neck. I thrilled suddenly and let it remain there. At the moment I was powerless to do otherwise. She made no movement, but looked at me indifferently between her narrow lids, a faint smile touching her lips.
"Do you want something, David?" she asked.
"No," I muttered, looking away. "What could I want of you?"
"Life," she answered, gazing up at me challengingly out of her shadowy eyes.
My hand slipped over her shoulder and rested beneath the folds of her robe.
"Do you think you could give me life?" I asked.
"If you're not afraid, why don't you kiss me and find out for yourself."
I drew close to her lips and hovered over them, conflicting impulses racing through me. Her smooth lids quivered slightly and her lips from which the smile had fled remained a little parted. Here then was the way out— forgetfulness. As I hesitated a lifetime of memories passed before my eyes.
"David," she whispered. "Your hand. It's hurting me."
At the sound of her voice I started as though emerging from a reverie.
"My hand," I replied. "Oh, yes." And with a feeling of lightness in my head, I turned from her and walked to the door.
"You'd make a perfect lover," she called, "if you could learn to want only one thing at a time."
"Thanks," I said. "I wish I could take your advice."
"Why not?" she asked. "Are you disturbed by a dream?"
"Yes," I answered, turning to her almost helplessly. "You were wrong about John Elliot. He did not end my dreams."
"But I can," she laughed, "and give you sweeter ones instead."
Tempted by the truth that lay behind her words, I studied her face hopefully, desperately.
"I believe you could," I said in a low voice. "You could give me new dreams, Scarlet, and in them I'd be able to lose myself."
"Perhaps you might even find yourself," she reminded, raising herself on one elbow, "and know what you're really like."
"I know," I replied. "Don't you see? That's what I want to forget."
"Then let me help you forget," she said, falling back among the pillows and stretching herself luxuriously. I moved toward her, but the sound of Hugh's stick warned me of his approach. As he entered the room he looked sharply from Scarlet to me, then his eyes returned to Scarlet.
"Get up," he commanded, "and put on your things. You're not posing now. Why can't you leave this boy alone? You'd do well to have nothing to do with her, David. Let's get out of this."
Scarlet smiled sardonically upon us. One bare arm dropped over the side of the divan. Her little nails beat a devil's tattoo on the floor.
"Pigs!" she said, amicably.
IN silence we walked through the grove, until we had come to the beach, where we stood gazing out at the cheerless ocean. The slow rise and fall of its putty- gray waves kept time with the thoughts in my mind. MacKellar seemed disinclined to talk, but a particularly enterprising wave dashing up at our feet aroused him from his preoccupation, and he said abruptly: "Well, David, it's nearly finished. I've an idea you don't like it much."
"It's splendid, Hugh, but I'm a little afraid of it. It's cruel, if you understand what I mean... the earthly beauty of the thing."
"But it's true," said MacKellar, simply.
"That's just the trouble. It's too true. People shouldn't be like that."
"Nothing in art can be too true, David. That's its only reason for life. Ideas grow stale and theories wear out, but art is. If it's good art it's always true, and never old—anyway, people are like that."
He paused to consider this highly personalized question.
"Fundamentally, yes," he replied, "and I would have been more so if I hadn't been smeared with paint all my life. She—for I imagine you're thinking of Scarlet as much as you are of my painting—has nothing else to do. It is her life. I understand it to some extent, for I've been an artist, David. I've worshiped beauty and I've loved it. Some of it too well. But, then, I've created it also!"
"And which do you remember with greater warmth, the beauty you loved too well or the beauty you created?"
"There was a woman once. She died before I had finished her picture."
"Exactly—before I had tried to limit her through possession. To this day she remains a true creation to me, and yet a trifle blurred. Like something wonderful ahead. You're right, David. I see what you're pinning me down to— your Socratic method works."
After stuffing some tobacco in his pipe, he continued meditatively: "It's true enough. Passion is a rather petty outlet for the creative potentialities of man. With woman it's different. She does something with it. Uses it, lives with it, and carries her creation around with her beneath her heart. She carries it with anguish, but also with the joy of the creator. Woman fashions a spark into a life and gives it her breath to breathe. True enough she does not always consciously strive to become a creator—often it's luck, bad luck, some consider it—but the fact is materially the same. A woman is born with the ability to create. She may not consider it the highest form of creation, or the most desirable. She may even turn from it and become an over-emotionalized yearn, a super-sexed voluptuary, or the peer of man in any field of endeavor, but whatever she does, she's born with a head start. Men stumble along in an aimless sort of a way and women quite naturally play blind man's buff with their passions. It's a thing to do—a good thing, for all I know."
After numerous abortive attempts at lighting his pipe he went on, "There's something after all in the saying that all men are children. In a sense it's so. We make a very serious nursery game of our desires, but seldom do we take them beyond the nursery walls. Up to the present, with a few outstanding exceptions, man has succeeded in confining a great constructive force to the narrowest of a thousand splendid outlets. We have to think more, David, and live longer... a great deal longer. Some day..."
"Hugh," I interrupted, "it's consuming me, and it's no good. I don't like it. It's like an interrupting hand held across my eyes. I want to see something, read a little deeper, and, damn it, the hand is there!"
"I understand. It's the old struggle. Your eyes have been touched by unearthly vistas. Your spirit fired by an ideal. You want to rise like a free thing and take to the air, but desire has clipped your wings. I've had my dreams, David, and in my time I've tried to fly, but I've always come a cropper. Now I'm too old to worry much. I dare say you prefer a woman like Hilda Elliott."
Once more I felt that his eyes were quietly studying my face.
"Perhaps," I replied in a low voice, "but I'm afraid of her, too... she seems so decent. I feel rather low in her presence."
"I saw her the other day," he remarked casually. "She's not been well. It seems to me that a shadow has settled on her face. She spoke of you."
"What did she say?"
"Oh, she merely wanted to know what you'd been doing, how you looked, and if you ever said anything about her. She hasn't been out of the house since Elliott returned."
"Yes, I know.... I've spent many a long hour waiting outside his gates."
"Then, if I were in your place," he said, giving me a keen glance, "I'd try going inside for a change."
"I wouldn't like to add to her trouble. She has enough as it is, I imagine."
"That's true, David, but now she is really ill. There's something happening to her. I can't make out what it is, but she's changing, gradually withdrawing from her old interests—not so much losing hold as putting things aside. Before he returned it seemed to me that she had found an unexpected source of happiness in life. She was eager and interested in things, but all that's gone now."
"How did you happen to see her?"
"Why, I'm fond of her, David. I'm an old man, you see, and a painter. He likes to patronize artists. It seems to please a brutal sort of culture he professes, I told you once that he was mad, I think. He's more than mad. In fact he strikes me as being a terrifically controlled demon—controlled, I mean, so far as his relations with the outer world are concerned."
"And she spoke of me, you say?"
"Yes, in a rather indifferent way, when he wasn't present. You used to see her occasionally, didn't you?"
He regarded me with a particularly irritating air of indifference.
"What a hellish hypocrite you are," I said. "This walk's ended so far as I'm concerned."
"You're going in the right direction," he called after me.
ON a fallen tree opposite John Elliott's gateway, I seated myself and gazed up the avenue of trees twisting to his house, parts of which were revealed among the foliage. Day after day for the past two weeks I had been going through this same procedure without once having been rewarded with a glimpse of Hilda. To-day I decided that I should wait only a short time. If she did not come to me within half an hour I should go to her.
Then, like an answering thought, she was with me. I must have turned to study the ocean and the glowering sky above it, for I failed to notice her approach. There was a light step behind me and two hands were rested on my shoulders. I turned and seized both of her hands and closely scanned her face. As MacKellar had said, a shadow seemed to have settled on it. I was startled by what I saw. The tan had left her cheeks and her eyes had grown larger and deeper—there was a haunted look in them. Her firm chin was pointed and her face thinner. Under her heavy mass of hair she seemed to have become strangely spiritualized, as though she had been subjected to a process of refinement through pain.
"Smile for me, David," she said hurriedly. "Laugh if you can! This minute! Oh, where has all the laughter gone?"
Her eyes grew moist and a single tear dropped to her cheek. She turned away. I had never seen her so moved or so human. The unexpectedness of her emotion made me mute. I clung to her hands, but she forcibly withdrew them, looking behind her as she did so.
"I haven't smiled in so long," she continued with a note of apology, "or heard a laugh. Remember the stories you told me the day I fished you out of the sea? They were about small white clouds, submarine grottoes, lost valleys, and lots of other nonsense. Remember?"
I nodded my head.
"I miss all that now," she went on, drawing the back of her hand across her eyes. "You see, I've been ill and I must hurry or he'll be here. He's going to take me sailing. Insists on it. He's been drinking all morning, and, David, I felt like joining him. I hate to watch. Now he's a little gone. You wouldn't notice it, but I do. He knows nothing about the water, and he hates sailing."
"Don't go," I pleaded. "Let me take—"
"What! Are you, too, offering to take me out of it all?"
I remained miserably silent.
"Don't mind," she said. "I didn't mean it. I understand, but I must hurry. Yes, yes, I must hurry. There's so much I want to say."
And again she glanced nervously over her shoulder.
"What's happened to you?" I demanded.
"Do you notice something, then?" she asked. "Oh, yes, I know. You'll tell me I'm sick, but I'm all right, perfectly well. You're a little pale yourself, David. Have you been sleeping? I've seen you sitting here every day from the tower window, so I knew you hadn't forgotten me, but I couldn't come down. It would have attracted attention. But just the same I was a little afraid you'd turn to a knot on this log."
"I'd hardly forgotten you," I said. "In fact you've more in my mind during the last two weeks than before."
"That's a good friend. I thought you'd be anxious, I couldn't do anything about it. Something's been happening to me. There's some sort of trouble here," and she held a hand to her breast. "I go away somehow. Every morning before dawn I seem to drop out of things and when I awake, my maid, poor wretch, is frantically trying to drag me back to life. I've a numb feeling and that's all."
"And you remember nothing?"
"No, there's only a feeling of loss, as if I'd been struggling fearfully somewhere and failed. It's depressing, David. But what about yourself? What's this I hear about a dream? You know my husband sees Scarlet often and she's told him about a dream. Why don't you tell it to me?"
When I had given her a brief, and not altogether accurate summary of the dream, she looked at me with bright eyes.
"Isn't it funny, David," she said, "me fainting and you dreaming. It's strange. Doesn't seem rational, does it? Do you believe there's anything in it?"
"Certainly not," I replied, with forced assurance. "We're both overwrought, that's all."
"Is that all?" she asked, with a note of disappointment. "There might be something in it."
"You must get well," I replied, trying to change the subject. "You're worrying me. I can't bear to see you like this."
"Then you'd be sorry if the dream came true—?"
I laughed in order to cover my uneasiness.
"You're becoming morbid."
"I'm almost at the end of my rope. Your—our friendship has meant so much, David."
She stopped. John Elliott was coming towards us through the trees. The moment my eyes rested on him, I understood why as a girl Hilda had found him attractive. He was magnificent in a glowering, statuesque way. Beneath his gray tweed suit, his tall, powerfully knit frame seemed to long for action. His face was extremely dark and rugged, of a kindly, uneasy aspect and heightened in its youthfulness by the gray hair at his temples. He was at least fifteen years the senior of his wife and gave the impression of being even older. There was a certain fascination about him, a spirit of reckless nonchalance. One felt immediately that one was in the presence of a personality, a rather dubious and sinister personality, but nevertheless an interesting one. What struck me most about him was his eyes. They smoldered in his head. In them I detected a sort of subtle craftiness with which I imagined it would be difficult to deal. MacKellar had said he was a trifle mad. It seemed quite possible. Altogether he was a picturesque and perplexing character.
A servant, bearing a basket from which protruded the necks of several bottles, was following him.
"This is my husband," said Hilda, then, turning to Elliott, she added, "You have heard me speak of David Landor."
Although he spoke in an unexpectedly soft and friendly voice his eyes blazed insanely into mine as though he were facing an antagonist.
"So this is the young man who writes poetry and goes sailing with my wife," he said, dropping a heavy hand on my shoulder. "Well, Mr. Landor, I hope your selection of words is as good as your choice of women."
This speech, made almost affectionately, had all the elements of a warning.
"I'm afraid my selection of words could never do credit to my admiration for your—for Mrs. Elliott," I replied.
A smile momentarily touched the corners of his lips and the grip of his hand tightened on my shoulder.
"I suspect you're quick enough in spite of your highly commendable modesty," he remarked.
Hilda stood in the roadway regarding the carving on the granite post with an expression of distaste; and Elliott, as if divining her thoughts, asked me abruptly:
"What do you think of that, Mr. Landor? You're a sort of an artist. What's your honest opinion?"
"It seems appropriate," I replied.
Hilda looked at me anxiously, then leveled her eyes on the sea.
"Appropriate," said Elliott, thoughtfully regarding the granite hand squeezing the deer in its grasp. "I dare say you're right. That's what I call an honest opinion—almost a personal one."
I smiled at him cheerfully and turned to Hilda.
"Don't be surprised," I said, "if you run into me out there. I'm going to take a swim."
"But there's going to be a storm," she protested.
"Then let it break," laughed Elliott.
He motioned to the servant and with a nod to me he began to descend the stairs to his private pier.
"Good-by, Mr. Landor," he called back. "We'll see each other later. I want to—"
He stumbled and slid down a few steps, and the end of his sentence was lost in an oath.
Hilda held out her hand to me.
"Be careful, David. It's no day for one of your foolhardy expeditions."
"It's no day for you to go sailing."
"It's better that I should."
"Then I'll be closer to you in the water."
She reached out and timidly touched my cheek with the tips of her fingers.
"Good-by," she said. "I'll keep a watch for you on the sea."
"Come, Hilda!" cried Elliott from below. "Damn it, the boat's ready."
She hurried to the steps without pausing to look back, for Elliott in his impatience was coming up to find out what had been detaining his wife.
LOW, oily waves were grossly mugging the beach as the sloop tacked out from shore. A moist breeze veered unsteadily from the cliffs to the sea. The floor of the ocean was carpeted with squalls. Storm clouds puffed out their ashen cheeks all along the horizon, but as yet the sea was comparatively calm. It was waiting lethargically for the fist of the wind.
I watched the boat beat its way with unreefed sails slowly and delicately across the swells, then I hurried to the cottage. By the time I had returned to the beach the small craft was hardly half way to the nearest island. In the strengthening, but still uncertain wind it was having a difficult time keeping its head pointed seaward, gaining only a dozen or so yards on each short-legged tack. Hilda, I felt sure, could have driven the sloop better, and I decided that John Elliott's unsteady hand was at the tiller. I tried to figure out the general drift of his mad intentions—whether he meant to take the boat out to open water or to foot it among the islands.
Either course would be dangerous. If the storm should break now it would be practically impossible for them to beat back to the shore. The coast was sown with jagged rocks and lined with cliffs, and even the occasional beaches flaring out from them would be too deeply smothered beneath the surf to afford a safe landing. The little pier, which had already been partly carried away by the summer storms, was good only for fair weather sailing. The open sea was less dangerous than the shore, but here, too, the chances were all against the sloop. A single slap of the wind would be enough to unmast it.
As I gazed at the sail bobbing among the waves I heartily wished myself aboard, for there at least I would be able to know what was taking place. Here I was merely an impotent spectator, unable either to share or avert the peril of one whose safety meant a great deal more to me than my own. Hilda had said that she would keep a watch for me on the sea, and with this thought in mind I pitched myself into the waves and made for the nearest island.
An ebbing tide added impetus to my stroke, enabling me to make fair headway against the steadily rising waves. The beach was soon left behind and I was now fully committed to the unpleasant prospect of a long swim in the face of an approaching storm.
The water was surprisingly warm. There was a stimulating clutch to it which made me feel able to deal with whatever might lie ahead. From time to time I caught a glimpse of the sloop scudding across my path about a quarter of a mile away, and I wondered if Hilda's eyes were searching the waves for a sight of me.
Apparently, Elliott was inclined to keep the boat near shore, contenting himself with sailing aimlessly within the barrier of the islands. This course would give me a chance to cut across his path, but the peril lay in the fact that when the storm did break, the boat would be in danger of being dashed against one of the low, running reefs lying in wait for it just below the surface of the water. This expedition of Elliott's was merely a drunken whim. The moment anything happened he would be unfit for effective service. Hilda had once told me that although he had lived most of his life on the coast he had but seldom gone sailing. It was an occupation that bored him tremendously and for this reason it was one to which, of recent years, she had devoted most of her time. The sloop had given her an opportunity to be alone, affording her a breathing space in which she had striven to reconstruct from the broken illusions round her a fairly tenable niche in reality.
As I shouldered my way toward the island I reconsidered the conversation that had just passed between us. To me there was a meaning in her sinking spells at dawn a great deal deeper than mere coincidence. In some way her illness was related to the dream. It was a clear case of cause and effect in which both of us were involved. As she herself had said, it did not seem rational; yet, nevertheless, it was true. I knew that it was true and wished that it might have been otherwise. She had caught the significance of the dream immediately and with a thrill of eagerness. I had seen it in her eyes and noted it in her voice. Her words came back to me—"David, I'm almost at the end of my rope." Why? To what torture had this hulking devil been subjecting her? Even now he was risking her life merely because it appealed to a drunken mood.
Rain drops began to splatter about me, and the island which a moment ago had been plainly visible was now obscured by a sudden lurch of the sea and a blanketing downpour of rain. I treaded water and looked for the sailboat. It had vanished utterly from sight. Even had it been within forty yards of me I should have been unable to see it because of the high seas intervening.
Then came the storm like a swift, sure-footed beast and struck the last gleam of light from the sky. I found myself in a dead, gray world of rain and lashing waves, and through it all came the high-pitched voice of the wind and the clamorous churning of water. I was spun helplessly about, and two waves, passing over my head, left me strangling and half blind. The shore was blotted from view and only a deep, bull-throated roaring at my back told me that the surf was once more laying siege to the cliffs.
The unordered bitterness of the first stages of the storm did more to maintain my presence of mind than any deliberate process of reason. The wind seemed to challenge something in me fundamentally antagonistic to its vast chaotic bluster, its overzealous enterprise. Even in the midst of its fury I remembered that I also disliked the prelude to William Tell. The storm, though brutally real, was just a trifle stagy. I felt myself to be in the grip of a great, stupid, unconsidering animal clumsily striking at my existence. Against such a creature, I decided, it would be best to fight with the weapon of non-resistance. To me the storm assumed the aspect of a contest—a short-lived one at best, for I realized that there remained in me no more than a few minutes of energy. If I failed to reach the island within a short time the issue would be clearly decided. I should go down defeated into the untroubled waters lying beneath the tumult of the waves. As the situation stood, however, I had no desire for such an end.
If the sloop had not gone over, I knew that it would be somewhere near, and, also, that it would be dangerously close to the island. Hilda would not abandon me until she had exhausted every possibility of picking me up. She would forego her own chances of escape first, no matter how slim they might be. With the caution of a man feeling his way through a dark and unfamiliar room I felt my way among the waves. Although the wind maintained its velocity the rain had appreciably thinned and I was now able to see before me.
Already I was beginning to experience the first sensations of exhaustion. There was a burning feeling in the pit of my stomach, and my breath came with increasing difficulty. After every few strokes I raised my head from the water in the hope of catching a glimpse of the boat, but always a mounting wave cut short my vision. A feeling of growing helplessness added weight to my arms and legs. My strokes were becoming more feeble and undirected. I was no longer striving to reach the island, but merely to keep my head above water. This unconscious abandonment was the beginning of the end. Finally, after a short and futile effort to make headway against the seas I was forced to abandon all attempts at swimming in order to conserve my strength. As each wave drove over me I yielded to its rush and made no effort to resist. In this way I was able to regain a shred of the energy that had been driven from my body.
A wall of water bore down on me, and climbing with all my might to its summit I looked for the sloop. I had just sufficient time to see it racing along parallel to the island before I was plunged down again into a valley of blinding spray. An unsatisfactory feeling of relief filled my heart. I had seen Hilda and lost her, and in losing her I had in all probability lost myself. Here I was, sanely going down to a sharp and suffocating oblivion within a few hundred yards of the woman I loved without her even knowing that I was near, that I had seen her, and that my last earthly thoughts were centered on her safety.
In that short glimpse of the boat I had noticed its jib streaming futilely from the bow. The scene was graphically etched on my memory—Hilda braced in the stern with the tiller hugged to her breast, Elliott's figure leaning over her in what struck me as an attitude of anger, the little boat with its helpless jib pitching miraculously along through the waves, and as a background, the foam crested summit of the island.
As I mounted with a straining heart to the back of the next wave I threw up one arm and spent my lungs in a long cry across the water. The breath was driven back in my teeth but my gesture had been seen, for almost immediately the boat came about and bore down in my direction. True to her word Hilda had kept a watch for me on the sea. Just before the wave melted I had time to see her raise her hand above her head and Elliott lurch crazily backward as though he had been violently pushed. With this bit of arrested action in my eyes I went down once more into a gulch of water.
To add to my difficulties I became entangled in a floating island of seaweed, and by the time I had succeeded in extricating myself from its coils the waves had nearly done for me. An eternity seemed to have elapsed since I had last seen the boat, and I began to fear some misfortune had overtaken it. When I had seen it I had gained the impression that John Elliott had not been at all favorably disposed to change his course. I now had a mental vision of his fighting with Hilda for the control of the tiller.
Then in the midst of these dreary speculations, I saw the sloop cut through the waves about fifty yards distant and a hundred feet off my position. With the last measure of strength remaining in me I struggled to place myself in its path. Hilda brought the boat's head as close up in the wind as it would sail and as the sloop plunged by she deftly cast the sheet rope around me. At the same moment Elliott hurled a bottle, and I felt the thing whiz past my head. As the sloop luffed perilously in the wind I pulled myself through the water to the leeward side. Elliott leaned down to me and seized my hand.
"Be careful," called Hilda in a warning voice.
Elliott looked back with a dark face.
"Damn you, keep quiet!" he yelled.
Instead of helping me he seemed to be trying to hamper my efforts to climb aboard, but as the boat wallowed over in the opposite direction, he was tossed back, and the dead weight of his falling body did much to aid me in scrambling over the side. I fell on top of him and found myself looking down into his blood-shot eyes. Tired as I was I could hardly resist the temptation to strike the sneering smile from his mouth. For a brief space we gazed hatefully at each other, then I staggered back to Hilda, who had already put the boat under way.
"That bottle was meant for you," she said in a low voice. "Be careful. He's in one of his most playful moods."
"This is the second time you've given me my life," I replied.
"Would you be willing to return the compliment?" she asked, without turning her head from the sea.
I looked away without replying, for there was nothing that I could say. Elliott rose to his knees and began to fumble about the bottom of the boat. When at last he succeeded in finding a bottle he cast himself down on a transom and began the serious business of uncorking his prize.
"I was committing the dead men to the deep, Mr. Landor," he called to me in a thick, apologetic voice, "but that last devil had more life in him than I supposed. I'm afraid I almost struck you. Nothing, of course, could have been further from my mind."
With a final tug he drew the cork, and was about to raise the bottle to his lips when Hilda spoke directly to him.
"Pass that bottle down here," she said. "This man needs a drink."
Elliott regarded her with fuddled amazement, then handed me the bottle with elaborate politeness.
"The lioness fights for her cub," he said. "Drink hearty, my boy; there's body and blood in that wine. Look at me!"
The resounding thump he administered to himself was sufficient to send him sprawling once more to the bottom of the boat, where he remained half covered with water.
"Take the boat and save her if you can," said Hilda, slipping out of her place and motioning me to take the tiller, "but if not, beach her and we'll risk the surf. I'm tired, David."
"The bottle first, Mr. Landor," called Elliott, reaching out his hand.
Hilda passed him the bottle and I braced myself in her place with the tiller caught against my arm. Already I had a course of action in mind. MacKellar's rough map of the sea coast flashed vividly before me. On the other side of the point of land extended a natural breakwater which enclosed the marshes and a still lagoon. Before I could reach this, however, I should be forced to take the sloop at least a mile out to sea until I had succeeded in finding an opening in a reef knifing along for several miles from one of the outer islands. Once through the reef we should have nothing to face save the natural hazards of the storm, until we came to the small opening in the breakwater. Whether the boat could point up sufficiently in the wind to head into this refuge remained to be seen. It was a desperate chance, but a feasible one, and it appealed to me as being a splendid way to outwit the egotistical carelessness of the storm.
After running several hundred yards past the island until I had cleared its reef, I brought the boat about and headed it out to sea, thus definitely putting my plan to the test.
It was a heart-breaking decision to sail away from the shore to which we stood so close, but I realized that in spite of its nearness and its familiar, home-like appearance, the shore was one of our greatest perils. For a lingering moment I gazed back at its fading outline, and Hilda followed my eyes.
"I'm going to try the reef," I told her.
"The opening's about half-way out," she said. "Maybe you'll be able to find it by the change in the water. We've done it before."
I made no reply, but from time to time I lifted my eyes from the sea to study her face. Her hair had come down and was plastered in a damp mat round her cheeks and neck. Her face was pale and drawn, and her thin, white dress, drenched by the rain and the sea, clung tightly to the lines of her body, giving her the appearance of a beautiful draped statue whose eyes had come to life.
"Stick to it," she said. "I'll be all right," and she began to bail the boat, while Elliott, without making any effort to lend a hand, watched her through half closed eyes.
When we reached the outer island, the force of the wind was so great that it felt as if it would tear the little boat from the surface of the sea. The shrieking in the rigging was unnerving to hear. At every onset I expected to see the delicate mast go by the board. The windward stays were as taut as bow strings, but they held fast. I shall never forget the strange scene as it struck me at that moment; the gray, wind-lashed sea on all sides and the waves herding in against us like buffaloes stampeding; John Elliott, unheeding and indolent, partly asleep in the bottom of the boat as the shipped water lapped over his sprawling legs; Hilda, pale and calm, intent on her bailing; and finally myself, sitting shivering and half-drowned in the stern of the boat, anxiously watching for an opening in the reef.
What a cargo of crossed lives and mixed motives, I thought. Elliott, a potential murderer; Hilda, poor wretch, a life in revolt; and I—well, I was no better than a neurotic young man who had been caught in one of life's undercurrents and was being carried whither he knew not.... Probably to death I decided, as I scanned the waves ahead. Hilda's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"There it is," she cried, pointing to some green hillocks rolling ponderously between the white foam flecking the teeth of the reef. "That's open water, David!"
"Damn me!" shouted Elliott, unexpectedly rising from the bottom of the boat. "You two will be dancing with each other next. So it's 'Hilda' and 'David,' now? Get the hell out of my way; I'll sail this boat. Hand over that tiller, Mr. Poet."
As Elliott lurched aft Hilda placed herself between us and from the open neck of her dress quickly drew a thin, steel blade. Her face was as calm as the face of an angel and her voice was casual and unhurried, carrying with it an unmistakable note of determination.
"I never wanted to use this thing on you," she said, "and I hope that even now you won't force me to do it, but if you make any further attempt to interfere..."
She broke off, and Elliott, with an uncertain smile on his swollen lips, stood swaying above her.
"You don't like death," she went on evenly. "I know you don't. I've seen you cower from it before now, but that's exactly what you're bringing about—death! One wave badly met will send us all to the bottom. Do you know what it feels like to drown, to smother until your lungs are heavy with water and then to go down, choking and blind into the wet dark where it's cold and still and hopeless?"
As though she were trying to frighten a child she continued to paint for him a vivid picture of death, and as she spoke a change came over him. Insane terror burned in his eyes, his mouth lost its mean lines, growing oddly flabby, his great body shuddered, and he moved back.
"Do you know what it means to strangle?" she went on, her voice rising against the wind. "To fight for air until your heart snaps and you're dead, the light gone from your eyes and the breath from your body?"
As he backed away she followed him. He stood before her cowering with his hands held up to his face. Hilda was like a different person. I had never seen her so filled with grim determination. Her voice rose higher as she continued:
"Only the boat stands between you and the bottom of the ocean. You can't swim and you'd sink like a rock. You'd go down to death and silence and to other things that lurk down there—things that feed—"
"Stop, damn you!" he cried. "Sail your boat to hell, but get me ashore first," and sinking down on the transom, he raised the bottle to his lips.
Hilda regarded him almost pityingly, then she turned to me and said: "He's like that. Death terrifies him. The mere mention of the word makes him uneasy. Did you think me cruel?"
I had no time to answer, for at that moment a great wave tossed itself across the bow of the boat, completely smothering it in foam. As the craft pitched head down in the water I heard Elliott scream like a stricken animal and saw that his body had been carried half overboard. Hilda sprang forward and seized him by the arms. Still uttering his half- animal cry, he struggled back into the boat and fell sobbing to the bottom. The sloop righted itself and bounded ahead as I drove her at the opening in the reef.
When we neared the rocks I cast a glance at Hilda. Her eyes were fixed anxiously on mine.
"The tide's running out," I said. "If we hit, it's the end of the sail. Give me your hand, Hilda. We'll sink or swim together."
I held out my left hand to her and she took it in both of hers. When she spoke I was surprised by the note of fear in her voice, it was so unlike her.
"Be careful, David," she pleaded, her lips close to my ear. "We can't let it end here. You've got to drive her through. Do it for me, please. We mustn't go down now."
I squeezed her hand reassuringly and watched the reef come on. The next moment we were in the midst of a deafening roar. Spray flew round us and from out of it long, fang-like rocks struck at the boat. Hilda clung to my hand and looked straight ahead. We were lost in a wet hell in which the waves turned to demons. When we emerged from the din the voice of the wind seemed muffled in comparison with the tumult we had left behind.
I looked back at the reef and wondered how we had ever come through. At that moment I loved the sloop as a human being, and as we bore down on the point of land and rounded it, a cry of triumph escaped my lips.
We were running with the waves now and parallel with the breakwater. There was a good chance for the success of my plan. Already we could see the marshes and the quiet water spreading out from them. One long tack to windward and we would be in a position to try for the passage. With a feeling of reluctance I headed the boat away from the narrow strip of land and out once more to the open sea. If only the mast would hold, I felt sure that the sloop would take us home. Hilda pressed close to me, and I could feel her wet clothes clinging to mine.
"You must be cold," she said. "I wish I had something to put over you."
"Here!" came a voice from the bottom of the boat. "Give him another drink. Mr. Landor, I apologize. I really do. I must have been drunk to have behaved so wretchedly. You'll forgive me, won't you?"
Elliott, completely sobered by fear, handed me a bottle from which I took a long drink before I passed it back to him.
"Thanks," I said. "That will last me to shore—I hope."
He took the bottle, but this time he did not drink.
"You cursed eloquently going through the reef," Hilda said with a smile. "I was even trying to think up some new ones to pass along."
"I'll need them in a little while," I told her as I cast a backward look at the low-lying breakwater against which the waves were cannonading in white, dancing plumes.
After a long reach to sea I brought the boat about and headed in. It flew across the waves like a homing bird and as the seas rolled up behind us it seemed to leap away from danger. No one spoke now, for we were all intent on reaching that quiet haven secluded behind the breakwater. As the boat swept steadily on I kept alert for the opening. Presently I made it out, flanked on either side by trees that were bending down in the wind. We were headed directly for it. In a few minutes we should be safe and the adventure ended.
Hilda would return once more with her husband to the bleak house among the trees and I should go back to my small room in the cottage... back to the dream and to Scarlet. Nothing would be changed.
I felt tired and overstrained, and it was only with a great effort that I was able to hold the boat to its course. Then, in a surprisingly short time, the passageway stood out in front of us. One side was formed by the breakwater and the other by an overlapping jetty reaching out from the shore. We were driving now directly at the surf-covered side of the breakwater and should have to keep to our course up to the last moment before it would be wise to put the boat about for a try at the narrow opening. The wind, as if fearing that at the last minute it would be robbed of its toy, lashed furiously round us, plucking maliciously at the rigging. Then, just as the rocks appeared before our bows, I put the boat about for the last time and with spilling sails heeled down the passage into the protected basin of the lagoon.
At an old deserted pier we made fast the boat and climbed stiffly ashore. The moment Elliott was on dry land he once more became master of the situation.
"Hurry," he said to his wife. "I must get you back to the house. Remember, you've not been well."
He held out his hand to me and shook mine heartily.
"Mr. Landor," he said, "I have nothing but the greatest admiration for your seamanship. I hope you'll dine with us soon."
He turned and started up a narrow path leading into the woods. Hilda held back for a moment.
"Why were you so frightened out there?" I asked. "It wasn't like you."
Before she answered she looked back at the waves we had so fortunately placed behind us, then she said in a low voice, "I couldn't bear the thought of our going down with him. It would have been different if we'd been alone. Do you understand, or am I just a superstitious person?"
"I understand," I replied, "or, at least, I think I do. You'd like to leave him behind when that happens?"
"Yes," she answered. "One world is quite enough. I want my chance... some day."
"Alone?" I asked.
"I'm supposed to have a friend," she replied, looking at me enigmatically.
"Only a friend, Hilda?"
"How can I answer that?"
She must have caught the shade of disappointment that passed across my face, for she added, "I can hope, though, and I do... lots of things."
Elliott had turned in the path and was looking back at us with a smile that would have been pleasant had it not been for the disagreeable light in his eyes. Hilda touched my hand and hurried after him through the rain.
I watched them disappear among the trees, then made my way to the cottage where MacKellar, like an affectionate bombshell, was sizzling with oaths and anxiety.
IT stormed steadily for the remainder of the day, and towards evening I was forced to admit the presence in me of the chills and fever that all afternoon had been consuming my body. I made my capitulation by announcing to MacKellar that I was unable to sit down to dinner and was only fit for bed. With a glass of hot lemonade he followed me up to my room and fussily assisted me to tumble in between the sheets while my teeth chattered an accompaniment to his running fire of lamentations.
"You know," he said in leaving me, "I like a damn fool well enough, but you please me altogether too much. What do you mean by picnicking out there in a hurricane? A pretty thing to do! What a restful sort of a guest you make trying to turn yourself into a dancing dolphin."
Receiving no answer to this, he lashed himself into a greater tempest of indignation.
"Of course you had no thought of me left alone all day in the midst of the elements," he continued. "This cottage is none too strong. It's as light as a feather... thistledown! Who am I, anyway? Farragut? Nelson? John Paul Jones? Now you're sick... probably dying. For the love of God go to sleep and make an end of it. I'm miserable!"
Exactly what I was to make an end of he failed to explain, for after tossing another blanket over me, he muttered himself out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him.
Later, as I was lying in a semi-conscious doze, Scarlet came in and stood looking down at me. She was clad in some sort of a tight-fitting robe with a high collar, around which ran a narrow, white band. Her dark eyes looked somberly out from between their heavy lashes. I could catch the rounded outline of her strong breasts as they rose and fell beneath her dress, and the animal magnetism of her body seemed to envelop me like a suffocating blanket. Only the vivid red of her lips relieved the severity of her attire. As she stood there silent and motionless by the bedside, with her white hands clasped in front of her, I began to move uneasily beneath her gaze. Her red, arched lips, so soft and full, fascinated me. I was unable to repress a desire that she should bend down and crush them against my parched ones. Irritated by the thought, which my feverish brain intensified, I said, insultingly, "If the devil had a mother, Scarlet, Hugh could paint you as the Madonna of Hell."
"I'd make the devil a better bride," she remarked ironically. "Don't you think, David?"
"Go away," I muttered, half rising in the bed. "Go marry the devil and all his friends. I don't want you here."
She laughed and bent down to me. I could feel her breath on my dry lips.
"Doesn't my presence bring you comfort?" she asked.
"Not yours," I gasped, sinking back on the pillows.
"Whose then?" she demanded, her face flushing.
"Go away," I repeated. "It doesn't matter."
With an impudent shrug of her shoulders she turned away and walked over to the door.
"Then why don't you send for her?" she said mockingly. "Try it, David, and see how quickly she'll come."
"She'd bring me peace at any rate," I answered. "That's more than you can do."
"Do you think so?" she replied with a strange smile. "Wait. I know you better than she does."
THAT night, when the dream returned, it was slightly different from what it had been on previous visitations. We met as usual in the reed-sheltered pavilion by the marshes, but this time when Hilda came to me it was sorrowfully and with a bowed head. And when she stood before me she held out her arms and I saw that they were covered with dark bruises, and when she raised her head and looked at me out of her deep, unhappy eyes, I saw that round her neck there were ugly marks as though her throat had been squeezed by a powerful hand. At the sight of these signs of violence I began to tremble and cry out in a frenzy of rage like a nervous and overwrought child. When I awoke MacKellar was bending over me with his hands pressed against my chest.
"Lie still," he commanded. "You can't get out of this bed."
"That devil's doing something to her," I panted. "I know it, Hugh, I saw it in his eyes to-day."
"It's dawn now," he said, soothingly. "In a little while I'll scout around and get the lay of the land... that is, if you'll try to sleep."
With my feverish mind harassed by tormenting speculations, I lay shivering in a cold sweat. Where was Hilda now and what was happening to her? Was she still out there on the marshes searching about for me, calling my name and waiting for me to answer, or was she suffering beneath the hands of Elliott? As I tossed miserably between the crumpled sheets I began to mutter my half formed thoughts. MacKeller with a distracted expression sat down at the side of the bed and endeavored to rearrange the pillows. When I impatiently rejected his kindly efforts, he rose and with a tragic sigh went to the window, through which the early morning sunlight was already sending a golden mist. He was on the point of drawing the blind when he stopped abruptly and looked down on the lawn, an expression of incredulity replacing the mask of martyrdom he had previously worn.
"Who is it?" I cried, filled with a sudden suspicion. "What do you see down there?"
"Has all thought of rest vanished utterly from the face of the world?" he demanded, turning from the window. "Has sleep been discovered worthless? Am I alone in my sanity? Am I just—"
"Who is it, Hugh?" I interrupted.
"You know who it is," he snapped. "Knew it all the time... probably arranged it. What an hour for her to be standing on my lawn and looking up at your window! Damn me, if I didn't think she was a ghost."
"Perhaps she is," I muttered.
With an embittered look at me, he left the room. Consumed with anxiety, I awaited his return. In a short time I heard him ascending the stairs in company with some one else, and in my eagerness it seemed to me that they would never reach the top.
"Hugh!" I called, raising myself in the bed.
He appeared in the doorway and with exaggerated ceremony ushered Hilda into the room.
"Here's your ghost," he said. "Now, let's sit down and have a nice little talk after our long night's rest."
She gave him an affectionate smile and came quickly over to the bed.
"What's happened to you?" I asked.
"Nothing," she replied, with a nervous catch in her voice. "It's all right... only I had an odd feeling that something had gone wrong with you. When I awoke this morning—"
"Had the same thing happened?" I interrupted. "Could you tell whether or not you'd fainted?"
"Oh, yes, I can always tell," she continued. "There's a numb feeling back of my heart; it gets chilly there, but this time it was different. I remember nothing except that when I came out of it I had the strangest feeling that somehow I'd lost you... as if you had gone away... suddenly. Then it occurred to me that you might have been taken ill after the sail, and—"
"And well it might," broke in MacKellar. "After that sail, we all should be nervous wrecks. I am."
"Yes, yes," she agreed. "It was terrible, but you know how it is?... I couldn't sleep. So I thought I'd run over to find out. He is sick, isn't he?"
"He's mad," pronounced MacKellar, sitting down in a remote corner with an expression of a night watchman waiting for relief.
In silence I gazed at Hilda, suspiciously studying her pale face. Her hair had been hastily arranged and a soft, satin thing of gray, evidently designed for evening wear, was thrown over her shoulders and gathered round her neck. There was a distressed look in her eyes. They reminded me of the dream. She seemed nervous and ill at ease as she sat by the bed in a huddled attitude. I held out my hand to her and she was about to take it when, as if remembering something, she stopped and drew her cloak around her.
"Then he has been unkind," I said with conviction.
"What do you mean?" she asked uneasily.
"Give me your hand," I replied.
She hesitated, then held out her hand, and as the tears welled slowly to her eyes she bowed her head. MacKellar had leaned forward in his chair. He now smothered an oath. The room became quiet, and I found myself unable to speak because of a choking sensation in my throat. I felt the same desire to cry out I had experienced in the dream and as I clung to her hand I began to tremble violently. The white flesh of her wrist and arm was horribly mottled with heavy blue bruises, which only a maniac could have inflicted.
"And your neck," I whispered at length.
"Don't, David," she protested, her hand involuntarily seeking her throat. "Why torture us both?"
I was about to insist that she should unfasten her cloak when my eyes fell on Scarlet standing in the doorway, regarding the scene with cynical amusement. She had just arisen from her bed, and the garment she had carelessly thrown over her thin nightdress but partly concealed the lines of her body, leaving her splendid arms and shoulders in bold display. Her pale face was slightly flushed now, and her thick, black hair fell across the dead white of her neck in two heavy braids. She looked at Hilda with sleepy arrogance, and Hilda returned her gaze with eyes filled with interest.
"Good morning, Mrs. Elliott," Scarlet said, with an unpleasantly sweet smile.
MacKellar made a grumbling noise in his throat and walked up to her.
"Because he was instrumental in keeping both her husband and herself afloat yesterday," he said, "Mrs. Elliott has been considerate enough to find out if the idiot is still alive. What are you doing up so early? Go back to bed. This will kill you."
"Oh, I merely wanted to find out if the idiot was not yet dead," she replied. "I imagine Mr. Elliott is anxiously waiting his wife's report."
"I think Mr. Elliott was still sleeping when I left the house," Hilda offered casually. "But I'm sure he'd be interested if he knew of my visit."
"I'm sure he would," commented Scarlet, as she stifled a little yawn. With a ghost of a nod she turned her back on us and moved slowly to her room. Hilda, looked thoughtfully after her, then, extending her mutilated arm, she placed her hand on my forehead and said:
"Well, she succeeded in making me feel decidedly immoral. I'm quite cheered up at that. You're going right to sleep now, or else I'm going home. How about it, Hugh?"
"Put the dolt to sleep," he snorted. "I'm going, and when you two have succeeded in driving each other completely insane, just send for me and I'll hurry up and drag you apart."
With the bearing of a driven man he left the room and thumped out his indignation on the creaking stairs. Hilda laughed softly as if to herself, then turned to me.
"You're to go to sleep," she said.
"One moment," I protested. "I want to ask you one more question. Why is it that you still persist in refusing to solve a problem when the solution lies so close at hand? Answer me that."
"Now what are you driving at?" she asked.
"You know what I'm driving at," I continued stubbornly. "Why don't you clear out and leave that man? There's ample justification, God knows."
"But, David," she said, "how do you know I'm looking for justification? Perhaps such freedom as I can gain through man-created laws and institutions no longer interests me. There was a time once when it would have, but that time has passed... it's gone. Since this stupid malady has come over me I seem to have neither the strength nor the desire to start over again. It's as if my will were being consumed by something else. Things don't matter much. A bruised arm is ugly, but it isn't really important. It's only a superficial injury. You shouldn't mind it. I don't."
"That fits in with your theory," I replied in a rather mean spirit. "Didn't you tell me once that the only thing in life that interested you was the leaving of it and what followed after? Do you still feel the same way?"
"About life?" she asked.
"I must have been blue then, David," she said at length, "and I don't think I intended you to take me literally, but perhaps I did."
She stopped and gazed through the window at the limb of a tree stirring up the sunlight as a soft breeze swam through its trembling leaves.
"I don't know whether or not you'll understand me," she continued, "but five years such as I've lived through are rather difficult to forget. Things have happened to me during that time... you don't know... abominable things. I don't think I could ever forget them in this world. You see, David, it's just as if I'd been robbed of my womanhood. Those things that a man wants in a woman, expects of a woman, and which frankly every woman wants in herself have been turned in me to... loathing... spoiled. I'm changed and cheated. Only my mind and the compensating thoughts that have come to me in the repugnant hours of the night have been able to keep me on an even keel, have given me a little hope. Things grow up and spread out until at last it becomes too late to change them."
"So you feel that it's now too late for you to begin again?"
"I'd like to begin again, David, but it would have to be in a different place, an altogether different place, in a new world, in fact, and I'd have to have a new body and a less remembering mind."
"With whom would you begin?" I asked.
"A friend who's a bit of a dolt," she answered with a rather dreary smile. "Don't ask questions, David. We need each other too much for that."
Then she began to stroke my head until my senses became partly lulled. A feeling of drowsiness stole over me, and, dimly, I heard her repeating, "Go to sleep. It's time to rest. No more talk. No more worry... only sleep." And as my surroundings faded away I imagined that my body was enclosed in a cradle of cool, green waves in which I was floating far out on a quiet sea... green, wind-swept miles.
Five days later, with the help of MacKellar, I was able to resume my chair on the lawn where the sunlight, like a yellow scarf, fell over my body, filling my mind with a restful languor from which it would suddenly jerk whenever my thoughts returned to the approaching night and the ordeal of the dream.
IT was at this time that I met a man who, in spite of the brief duration of our friendship and the many years which have elapsed since last we met, I always recall with a spontaneous dash of interest. Hunter Aird, a professor of psychology in a neighboring university, was one of those keenly scientific yet tolerant spirits, who exist like a green oasis in the parched desert of academic life.
For one already a recognized authority in the scientific world he had been surprisingly successful in keeping himself free from the blighting traditions of a sanctified past. He belonged to a small, diligent and greatly disliked group of realists which will in time create a new romance. He sincerely believed—without feeling virtuous for it—that there was still ample room in the world for those whose thoughts and ways of life were diametrically opposed to his; in fact, he rather preferred to associate with such persons. Perhaps it was for this reason that he found me, the slave of impulse, acceptable as a friend.
My meeting with Aird occurred at a fortunate time, during another period of enforced separation from Hilda, and his companionship served to dispel the depressing thoughts tormentingly winding through the corridors of my mind.
I came upon him in the course of a stroll that had taken me to a spot where the land thrust its tapering hull far out into the sea. The place was interesting to me chiefly because of its desolate and rocky formation, but for the fishermen it held an interest of an altogether different nature. Nearby was situated a tavern wherein they could forget for a brief space the sea and the monotony of its waves.
The rocks were gathered here in massive shelves, which, mounting one upon the other from the sea, gave the effect of a great stairway up which in the days of the gods Neptune had probably stridden on his way to Mount Olympus with all his spray bright court. At the extremity of the point a huge rock arched down into the sea like a great crooked finger with its nail buried in foam, and against this massive digit the waves ceaselessly hurled themselves as if endeavoring to make it clench. Far down to the left the black nets of the fishermen lay on yellow sand beneath the sharp light of a sun blazing high in the heavens. To the right the narrow breakwater enclosing the marshes curved out abruptly and ran away to the distant mainland. Along the crest of this friendly reef a few adventurous trees maintained a precarious footing, bending down like timid divers to the surf.
At the highest step of the rocky ascent, where often I had pictured the streaming old God of the Sea as he paused to watch his creatures emerging from the waves, now stood, or rather squatted, a structure known as the Ark. This disreputable abode for the most part consisted of the hull of a ship which years before had been washed up by the sea and upon which a retired fisherman, like an expatriated but still enterprising crab, had reared a small one-story shack where his friends became his debtors and eventually his slaves. Prosperity, with its dirty hands, had approvingly patted this old sailorman upon his once honest back, and beneath the honor he had grown so mean and acquisitive that at last money had remained his only companion. It was a poor companion at best, for he heartily feared to be seen in its company, spending most of the time hypocritically envying the good fortune of the friends he had abandoned. The fishermen listened stolidly to his laments until drink so sharpened their blunted sensibilities that it became necessary to beat him for the sake of decency, after which they departed, reeking through the night down the narrow path winding to their respective homes and inhospitable wives. His life was not pleasant, but it paid. With John Elliott he divided the hate and fear of those who dwelt on the promontory, and there were times when the two of them in the midst of a hostilely silent group of fishermen ceremoniously drank to each other's prosperity. Close to the Ark a few stunted pines clung wretchedly to their scrap of shallow soil. When the wind drove through their branches, it sounded like the accusing wail of the rigging which at one time had carried the old ship out on worthier expeditions. Around the isolated tavern there was always the clamoring of the elements. Men grew drunk to the tumult of the waves and the carousing voice of the wind, while above the roof gulls bent their wings as they wheeled through the spray-drenched air.
Like a large bird abandoned on an unfriendly coast, Aird, when I saw him first, was perched on one of the slabs, where he sat motionless with his face turned expectantly to the sea. He was bird-like in feature and outline, and at this moment he appeared to be unconsciously forlorn. His nose was large and aquiline, and dominated without destroying the other features of his face. One was still conscious of a sharp, clean-cut chin, high, narrow cheek bones and eyes that were blue and rather apologetically inquisitive. As I studied his face I was struck by the thought that the mouth, which in a woman is so expressive of beauty, in a man can be beautifully expressive. His was large and strong and thin- lipped, not ungenerous, but giving the impression of a character intellectually controlled and free from the domination of impulse. With such a mouth Hamlet might have been able to make up his own mind instead of importuning a politely indifferent audience to do so for him. Here was a man, I instinctively felt, who was respected by many, but liked by few and to whom solitude came as a natural and unquestioned heritage.
When he became aware of my presence he greeted me with an unaffected friendliness characteristic of many persons who, either through choice or circumstances, are left much to themselves.
"Good morning," he called, motioning to the rock beside him. "Surf gazing, too?"
"Yes," I replied, accepting his offer to join him. "I never grow tired of this particular spot."
"Nor I," he answered simply. "I've always liked it here."
As I sat beside him on a wave-worn stone I found that his presence made no demands on conversation. There was something composed and restful about him. Yet as I glanced at his sharp, eager profile I felt that here was a person who would understand whatever I had to say. For some minutes we sat without speaking as the wind and the waves filled the world about us with agitated sound.
"These waves must be hypnotic," I remarked at last. "They put my thoughts to sleep."
"I know," he said. "Sometimes they do mine, but at others they seem to help me think. They form a sort of an accompaniment, and after awhile I fall in with their beat."
"People think too damn much," I replied with sudden irritation. "I'm not fond of thinking. That's why I come here—the surf drugs me... pleasantly."
He looked up and smiled, but made no answer, and once more we sat in silence. A little later he remarked laconically:
"I get paid for thinking. It's forced on me."
"That's different," I answered, this time smiling at him. "I was paid for a while, but if I'd kept it up I'd have gone mad."
"Probably you weren't interested in your thoughts."
"I despised them. They were all false. You see I had to persuade people to buy things against their wills, and I was always on the side of the people. I felt sneakingly sorry for them."
Aird laughed outright.
"Well, I'm not much better off," he said. "I have to make people learn things against their wills and sometimes I'm quite sorry for them."
"And so am I," I answered, "and for you too."
Once again he laughed good-humoredly, then turned his face to the sea, and for awhile we watched the waves rush in and hurl themselves against the great, unyielding finger. Spray fell like brilliants at our feet and the drone and churn of the water sounded in our ears. I had a desire to fling myself into the welter of the waves and to become a part of their mad disorder as they unreasoningly attacked the rocks. Aird began to speak, diffidently at first, and then with increasing earnestness.
"You know," he said, "I don't believe people think too much. It strikes me that they dream too much. They try to dream themselves blindly through life instead of first trying to adjust themselves to live intelligently and harmoniously within their own minds and bodies."
"You're as hopeless as I am," I remarked.
"I'm not hopeless," he answered. "I'm older and perhaps a little more experienced in a stuffy way. I'm a sort of intellectual wolf. I watch people and devour them. I'm a consumer of thought—though most of the time I'm hungry."
"People like myself furnish scant intellectual nourishment," I remarked.
He considered me seriously a moment, then grinned.
"You know," he said, "I think you're right. Perhaps you do think a little too much."
"No," I replied, "you were right the first time. I'm afraid I dream too much."
"Don't do it," he replied. "It's debilitating, unless you can put your dreams into action or words. I remember when I was a child people used to blindfold me and give me a tail to pin to a paper jackass hanging on the wall. I never won once, and although I enjoyed the game moderately, I soon grew tired of it. But man hasn't wearied of the game. For several thousand years he has permitted himself to remain blindfolded while he's stumbled destructively over the universe looking for a jackass to which he could pin a tail. Usually he's ended by pinning the tail to himself. And because it's the old, traditional game, the game of his nursery days, he still pretends to enjoy it in spite of his bruised shins. Man is still dreaming in a nursery that looks suspiciously like a cave."
"It's an edifying picture," I said, "but perhaps man likes it that way."
"No, he doesn't," replied Aird. "I don't and you don't. There's no use in draping our bodies with the complicated finery of a civilization we scarcely understand. Why minister so solicitously unto the savage when we ourselves allow the dead weight of old, unventilated thought to retard progress and keep us from seeing the realities of life, much less its dreams. Only the clear eyed can dream to an end."
Aird paused to glance at me with a deprecating smile, then added apologetically, "When I speak in this vein most of my students have the good sense either to go to sleep or to brush up for the class ahead. As you can do neither the one nor the other, Mr. Landor, I'm afraid I'm taking an unfair advantage."
Surprised by the fact that he knew my name, I asked him how he had obtained the information.
"Leaving out the fishing element," he explained, "there are not many souls on this narrow strip of land and here as in other places, a newcomer is immediately marked out and spied upon. My mother, who directs the destiny of our small place overlooking the marshes, keeps me continually supplied with news. You've been the subject of several earnest discussions at our table. For instance, she has come to the conclusion that you swim altogether too far out from shore and as a consequence of your recklessness and her garrulity I have been forced to listen to detailed statements concerning the watery graves of many of her dearest friends. In fact, I hardly see how she has any friends left alive, so many of them has she graphically drowned before my horrified eyes. You'd really be doing me quite a favor if you'd try skirting the coast line for a change."
"For the sake of your peace of mind, I'll consider it," I said. "Evidently you're not a newcomer like myself."
"I was born here," he replied. "Our cottage and the land on which it rests is one of the few pieces of property in the neighborhood that John Elliot doesn't own. I suspect he dislikes us for that reason. My mother knew the old Elliott, his father. She insists he was slightly mad, and for years she's been waiting, and, I believe, secretly hoping, that his son would also go mad. I've a feeling she hasn't so very long to wait. It seems there has always been one crazy man in every generation of that family."
"And his wife?" I asked casually.
"One sees very little of her—too little, I fear. She sails a boat and keeps to herself. She's probably faring in her quiet way the same fate that's overtaken the wives of many of the Elliotts. They've died young, I'm told, or lost their minds. There's some compensation in that."
Masking my true feelings I remarked, "It's an interesting situation—like an old novel somehow."
"Yes," he agreed. "It is interesting in a rather tragic way. However, I imagine she doesn't find it quite so interesting."
"I should hardly think she would," I answered, with a forced laugh. "It must be rather nasty to be tied to a man like Elliott."
He subjected me to a quick scrutiny which I attempted to avoid by turning away. A few minutes later I invented a flimsy pretext to take leave of him. As I walked past the Ark, I paused for a moment to look back. He was following my departure with a friendly smile and resembled more than ever some large, lost bird forced to abandon flight after an unsuccessful struggle with the wind.
A LITTLE more than a week later, after numerous meetings had established a bond of friendship between us, I was sitting on the broad veranda of Aird's cottage. His house, situated on the crest of a slight hill, commanded a sweeping view of the salt marshes. Cool and inviting on the vividly green campus of reeds, the island now lay bathed in the soft light of the evening sun. From where I sat I could clearly trace the narrow, reed-pierced band of water encircling it, and I fancied that I could also distinguish the small fan-shaped beach tapering down to the glinting channel between an avenue of bushes. As I gazed at the island in the full light of day I found it difficult to believe that a spot so calmly beautiful, so utterly real and familiar a feature of the landscape, could inspire me with terror when it appeared to me in a dream. The possibility that this picturesque place could conceal behind its graceful trees the slightest element of the supernatural seemed so infinitely remote that I scoffed at the very idea. Yet even as I scoffed I was unable to shake off a sensation of uneasiness that stole over me as I looked out upon this isolated bit of solid soil so alluringly set in the false ground of the marshes.
Behind us, in the kitchen of the cottage, Mrs. Aird, a delightful person who read the Holy Scriptures and quoted Robert Burns, was contentedly engaged in the preparation of gingerbread, with which, and a glass of milk, we should presently be regaled. Aird had once told me that the dispensing of this slight entertainment had been one of his mother's most pressing activities from the day when he was first placed on solid food. I could not help noticing that although he always received the offering with almost religious devotion, like most people in the formal observance of their sacred obligations, he made an end of it as expeditiously as possible.
On previous visits to this quiet little household I had always taken pleasure in the company of these two friendly spirits, but on this occasion, as I sat watching the sun draw nearer to the tree tops on the island, neither the prospect of Mrs. Aird's gingerbread nor the stimulus of her son's conversation was able to arouse me from the depressing mood into which I had fallen. It had been many days since I had last seen Hilda. From the first morning of my illness I had heard from her only indirectly through Hugh MacKellar, and what I had heard had not served to cast a more cheerful light on the situation.
"David," he had said after he had returned from one of his visits, "I believe her health is seriously endangered. She's still subject to those peculiar fainting spells at dawn. It's not natural. Can't understand it. She looks like the devil—bad. Elliott doesn't give a damn. I can see that, but the suave bounder conducts himself with the utmost concern whenever I call."
At another time he had told me that for various obvious reasons Hilda had expressed the wish that I should make no attempt to see her. As a consequence I had abandoned my long vigils on the fallen log in front of Elliott's inhospitable gates and had given myself over to tormenting speculations as to what was taking place inside the old gray house so completely shut off from the rest of the world behind its barrier of trees.
This profitless occupation, together with the constant recurrence of the dream, did much to retard my recovery and destroy what little mental poise I still retained. Frequently in the course of a walk with Aird I kept thinking to myself what a splendid subject I would make for one of his researches into human conduct had he but known what was going on in my mind. Perhaps he did have some slight suspicion of the overwrought state I was in, for as I look back on it now it seems to me that he made persistent efforts to lead the conversation into channels that would take me out of myself.
On this particular evening he had carried me as far afield as Oxford, which he was casually describing as a "funny old pin-cushion of a place quite overstuffed with cricket," when my thoughts, flying back unbidden from that beautiful spired town, sank broodingly down in my mind. I could listen no longer to Aird. His words became meaningless to me. I was too much wrapped up in my own affairs and I hated myself for being so.
"Aird," I asked, taking an advantage of a brief pause, "what do you think of a man who has neither the strength to live nor the courage to die?"
"He's in a pretty bad way," said Aird. "Do you know any one in that fix?"
"No," I lied, "but I did once."
"How did he get out of it?"
"I don't know. Perhaps he didn't."
"His life must have been an unhappy one," Aird said after a thoughtful interlude, "but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people were like that—neither one way nor the other."
"This man was different," I replied. "He knew what he wanted well enough. He wanted the other way—the way out—but he couldn't take it. In spite of himself, he couldn't. Something held him back."
"What do you suppose it was?" he asked.
"The very thing he wanted most to shake off—life."
"He must have loved it then."
"He did. He loved it as a man does a drug which gives him dreams. Yes, he must have loved life, although he seemed able neither to accept it nor to escape it."
"Your friend was honest at any rate."
"Not honest," I said, "but pursued."
Aird made no reply to this and I continued to speak. Ascribing the story to somebody I had once known, I set my characters in an imaginary environment and caused them to move through virtually the same roles as those that Hilda, her husband, Scarlet, and myself were now playing in grim reality. As I told the story to Aird I could hardly find it in myself to credit the truth of my own statements; they seemed too utterly overdrawn. When I had finished I studied his face thoughtfully to see what impression my words had made on him.
"Well?" I said as the moments passed and still he did not speak. "How does a situation of that kind strike you?"
Aird frowned and puffed noncommittally at his pipe.
"It doesn't strike me at all," he said after a moment. "It sounds like the last, sorrowful slam of an unhinged mind."
"Nonsense, you mean?"
"Not exactly nonsense, but too fantastic for any useful analysis."
"The last slam of an unhinged mind," I repeated. "It's a graphic way of putting things, Aird. I never thought of that. Perhaps my friend was a little mad."
"Most people are," said Aird.
"But don't you see anything in it?" I protested, almost desperately. "He wasn't altogether a coward, this fellow. He wanted something, wanted it badly; in fact he'd have given his life for it, but he wasn't able under the circumstances. It was all real to him, frightfully so, but the man was bewitched, caught up in some sinister magic. Life was laughing at him. He hated to hear it, yet he feared to leave it."
"He wanted two things at once," Aird broke in, "and his wants just didn't jibe. The situation worked on his nerves and he dreamed about it. That's about all Landor. Such things happen to people."
"No, that wasn't all," I said. "There was more to it than that. You see, I knew this man."
"Why are you so interested?" Aird asked, turning on me as he spoke.
"Why am I interested?" I repeated, carefully weighing my words. "Well, for one thing I can understand to some extent the workings of the man's mind. In some ways I'm like that myself. It must have been miserable for him, beating and kicking at the narrow walls of life, yet never able to break through. Enslaved by his body and tormented by his mind. Always looking for something and finding it just a little spoiled. I know how he must have felt. It's difficult to explain, but I've always been alone and thought things, beautiful things, and beastly. My God, the women I've seen and the women I've wanted! The dreams I've had and the songs I've heard. Where are they now? Gone. Women, dreams, and songs, all gone. Life swallows them up. If you're not a genius, your soul starves; if you are, it isolates itself and feeds on its secret food. The man between is the man who suffers. He's neither one thing nor the other. Yet he craves. He looks for love and passion and finds them... standardized, divided. There's no zest nor sparkle, no joy and spontaneity—moral mouthings on one side, vulgar smirks on the other. Society makes either a curse or a cult of lust, and both sides enjoy it in secret. They make things dirty and like them that way.
"This man had a flame in his heart. I know it. It wanted to burn pure and leap high. It wanted to live in the sun, to give warmth and receive warmth. It wanted to be free and filled with glowing things. That's what it wanted, but that's just what it didn't get. Instead the flame was smothered in his heart, where it nagged and tormented him until he became a changed man—warped, suspicious, ingrown.
"Then what happened? He found at last what he was looking for—a woman, to him the most perfect thing in the world, the only perfect thing. With her he could live entire. She was the mate to his flame, the answering spark. But the flames could never meet, could never fuse into a life. Hers was dying, his was blighted. And when he looked at the woman, he felt like a man who was seeing the sun go down for the last time, knowing that thereafter he would dwell in the eternal darkness of the jungle, lapped by its hot life, abandoned to its murky ways, given over to the jungle heart and soul. He knew himself, knew what was in him.
"Then came the dream. It offered a way out, but he couldn't take it. The body had its rights. Its demands were imperious. He was a fool perhaps, and weak, but he was all confused. He saw what he wanted less distinctly now, and always through a thickening vapor rising from the jungle. And in the vapor the other woman was standing and she was desirable. Don't you see, it was all mixed up in him. I don't say he was right or admirable or anything like that, but the man existed, he was like that, and you can't explain him away. He believed in the dream, Aird! It was in him to believe in the dream. What the mind can imagine must exist or can be made to exist. If not in this world, then in another. I believe that, too."
I stopped from the sheer urgency of my words and sat stupidly gazing at my hands, refusing to meet Aird's eyes. Thoughts were tumbling through my mind, but they had neither form nor sequence. I knew that I had spoken vaguely and side-stepped the issue, but nevertheless I felt relieved. Aird started to speak, but I interrupted him.
"What I mean, Aird," I said, "is that there's a lot of love and life and beauty in this world that we can't get at. Some people are willing to accept substitutes. Others prefer to invent things, but occasionally you find somebody who is willing to accept neither one nor the other method of existence, and that person, unless some unusual thing happens, either goes mad or commits a crime. Sometimes he does both, but it's seldom he knows what he's doing. Now when such a one meets a woman of a like mind and she's willing to lead the way out—oh! well, you see it's difficult. There are so many things to decide, particularly if he wants to think straight. And there are so many things to overcome if he happens to be weak—not cast in the hero's mold."
"Landor," said Aird, his voice sounding kind and serious, "when a man is going through such a spiritual conflict as you describe, he must necessarily be alone. I pity your friend and in a way I envy him. I'm a skeptic by training and profession. It's my business to question things, to believe in nothing unless it can be reduced to demonstrable fact. That's my business. But in my heart, securely locked in an unprofessional strong box, there are a lot of hopes and fears that have no foundation in fact."
"You're not so skeptical then as you pretend?"
"I'm afraid not," he replied. "We are all of us more or less bound up in the sanctions and prohibitions of the past, the old creeds and customs, tenets and traditions that have been accepted as irrefragable truths. The world is still littered up with a lot of hypocritical cussedness, some of it vicious and some of it just plain foolish, but until this stuff is cast aside, it doesn't pay for a man to be anything other than skeptical. The time isn't ripe for a person to indulge his soul. If he does he's liable to lose it or else, as you say, go mad or commit a crime."
"The dead still bury the living," I suggested.
"In a sense," he agreed. "But nevertheless we seem to have a well-developed faculty for burying ourselves. The world is like a train running along through a series of tunnels... it's like certain parts of the Italian Riviera, where beauty lies all around you, yet most of your time is spent in the hot, confusing darkness of a tunnel. That's the way we are, Landor, and that's the way life is. We spend altogether too much time in darkness running through tunnels. For a moment we come out of the smoke and confusion to catch a glimpse of beauty, a fleeting vision of reality, peace and plenty and daylight, then suddenly we rush back again into the black mouth of the tunnel, and the vision fades from our eyes. Only the memory remains, and most of us forget that. As the engineers have bored through the mountains and brought us forth to the light that lies on the other side, so some day the scientist will tunnel through the deep confusion of our minds and let in a finer and more orderly conception of life. Then perhaps we shall know where we're going and why we're going, and what to expect at the end."
"When the world has emerged from its last tunnel, we won't be among its passengers."
"I'm afraid not, Landor. There are many tunnels yet ahead and the way still lies up grade. Soon we shall all step off before the journey's end."
"Before we do," I said as I rose to go, "I might be able to help you out with the end of that story."
"It would be interesting to know more about such things," he replied, looking at me attentively, "but for purely personal reasons I should prefer to let it remain only a story."
At this moment Mrs. Aird appeared with her gingerbread and I was forced to resume my chair for fear of committing the unpardonable sin of not receiving her offering with a proper show of reverence. Apparently forgetting that she had entertained me thus on several previous occasions, she said brightly, "I just thought that I'd throw together a little gingerbread. It's very nice in the afternoon."
"What!" exclaimed Aird as though stabbed by the daring originality of the idea. "Gingerbread! Splendid, Mother."
Believing it hardly necessary to act a lie with such callous elaboration, I did my duty with a conservative show of enjoyment. Between us Mrs. Aird sat flushed and triumphant as we dutifully consumed her offering. The sun dropped from view behind the island, leaving a melting light in the sky. The marshes filled up with shadows, among which streaks of crimson fitfully glittered.
IT was dark when I reached the cottage. MacKellar was not at home. Without troubling to strike a light, I groped my way to the stairs. As I was about to reach the landing, I heard in the hallway above me the pattering of bare feet, and Scarlet's voice called down:
"One moment, David, I'm undressed."
"That's nothing new," I replied irritably. "Since when have you become so delicate?"
"You're always so sweet to me," she said with good- natured sarcasm. "I've known officers who would have torn up their commissions to be in your shoes at this minute."
"I wish to God they were," I answered. "Shut your door."
"If you'll only wait a minute," she called.
I could hear her stealthily moving about in the darkness. Then she said:
"Well, David, you can almost have your wish. I know a man—not so far away—who will gladly give me a fortune for my favor. He's said as much... several times."
"Accept it and get dressed," I exclaimed impatiently. "Look out, Pm coming up."
"All right, then," she said. "Come up!"
Somewhere near at hand a door slammed, and without further hesitation I groped my way down the hall. Suddenly my outstretched hands encountered the soft flesh of a woman's body and two strong arms twisted themselves round my neck.
"You thought I'd gone," she whispered, "didn't you?"
Before I had time to reply my lips were closed by hers, and a little tongue of fire seemed to dart through my brain. Weary as I was at that moment, both physically and mentally, I felt unable to resist the madness that had overtaken me in the darkness. Like a tired swimmer I now yielded to Scarlet. My arms slipped down to her hips, my mouth responded to hers, and our bodies clung together.
"You've never been to see me," she whispered as she drew one arm from around my neck and quickly opened a door behind her. "Come in and see how nice it is.... Hugh won't be back for hours."
My hands fluttered over her body like frantic wings and my lips insanely sought her neck. All the while my brain was numb, dark and devoid of thought. I was glad of this, for I was afraid to think. And for the same reason I gave myself over the more completely to the moment. As we stood on the threshold of her room every other impulse in my life was subordinated to my desire to possess this woman. Her body quivered against mine, and I could feel her gently pulling me forward.
"Come, David," she repeated under her breath.
As she spoke, she placed her two small hands against my chest and with all the strength that was in her shoved me violently backward. The door slammed in my face, and as I staggered back against the wall I heard the click of a lock. I sprang at the door, but it held firm. On the other side of it Scarlet was laughing softly. The very nearness of her body added to my rage.
"Oh, you little prig," she called to me. "What becomes of your beautiful dream? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
Without replying I began to kick madly at the door, beating upon it with my hands. A demon of desire had taken possession of me. I was driven blindly to the attack like an unreasoning creature. Much of the hate in my heart was directed against myself. I held Scarlet responsible for this and my anger against her increased. I felt ashamed and yet unable to abandon my object. Then the door opened and she looked fearlessly out at me-
"Why don't you try Hilda?" she asked with a' sneer in her voice. "She'd love to see you now."
At the mention of Hilda's name my desire for Scarlet was consumed in a white hot flame of anger. I wanted her now, but for another reason. My hand shot out through the darkness. I seized her wrists as I had once done on another occasion, but this time I slapped her a full swinging blow on her face. As my hand came heavily down on her flesh I experienced a thrill of pleasure. Like a man intoxicated with brutality I continued to cuff her across the face and head until she began to sway unsteadily from side to side. She made no outcry nor attempt to free herself, but submitted silently to my blows. My strength was exhausted before my anger, and finally, through sheer weariness, I was forced to release her. She sank to the floor and threw her white arms around my knees. I was trembling violently and felt dazed and tired. A deep sigh escaped my lips. It sounded like a third person.
"I'm sorry," she said as she clung to me. "Do you hear, David? I'm sorry. You can do what you want with me now."
"I've done it," I answered, balancing myself against the side of the door.
"David!" she pleaded.
As I looked down at the crumpled figure at my feet, a lump rose in my throat. My whole being was revolted by what I had done. Scarlet's face appeared to be terribly bruised. In the dim light of the hallway I could see a little strip of black sliding over her lower lip and down to her chin. It was fascinating to watch this thread of blood as it crawled like a tiny snake to the white skin of her neck.
I averted my eyes and an unutterable sadness settled down on me. I felt afraid to be left alone with myself and yet unable to remain in the presence of this woman. With a low sob I broke from her grasp and, staggering through the hall to my room, sat down on the edge of my bed.
For a long time I sat there motionless, desperately going back over my conduct. No matter how falsely I shifted my reasoning, there were some facts that could not be avoided. I was no better than John Elliott. That was apparent. In fact, I had surpassed him. He could never have treated his wife as brutally as I had treated Scarlet. Why had I done it? Because she had mentioned Hilda's name, or because she had made a mock of my passion? If it had been for Hilda's sake there might have been some slight justification, but I could not honestly convince myself that Hilda had been the reason. My thoughts went back to the afternoon. It had been so quiet and different on the veranda of Aird's little cottage. I had been different too—another person. Who would have believed that scarcely ten minutes after leaving that peaceful place I should try to take a woman by force and then have beaten her because I had failed in my purpose? How many other primitive and disgusting creatures were slinking about in the twilight of my soul, waiting their chances to confront me?
Unable to stand the darkness any longer I walked over to the table and lit the lamp. Then I began to move restlessly around the room, picking up familiar objects and examining them minutely as though they were new—anything to keep from thinking. Once I went to the door and listened, but it was quiet in the hall. With a little shiver I turned back to the room and stood irresolutely at my table. Some unfinished verses were lying upon it. Without realizing what I was doing, I sat down and began to write.
SOME time later I heard a tapping at my door. With a strange sense of fear I looked up and waited. The tapping continued patiently and at last, mastering my emotions, I called out in an irritable voice.
"Who the devil's there?"
The door opened and MacKellar stood blinking at me.
"It's one," he said, "who began life as an artist, but who seems doomed to end it as a damn duenna. I've seen Hilda. She says she's better... she isn't. There's been a doctor."
"Who sent for him?" I asked.
"I did, of course. Elliott was furious."
"What did he say—the doctor?"
"Very little. Merely looked confused... like a savage handling a watch. Her heart's bad, but he could find nothing organic. I didn't like the way he shook his head. Anybody can do that. When he left he was good enough to say that it was a very interesting case, and recommended a change of scene. Well?"
"Nothing," I said, rising from the table. "Oh, God, there are too many things! What shall we do now?"
"What can we do?" he replied shortly. "She isn't our wife. Here, she sent you this."
He handed me a small square of Academy board which I took eagerly and carried to the lamp.
"Do you like it?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered, my hand shaking slightly as I looked at the picture. "You caught her beautifully, didn't you?"
But I turned my eyes away from the simple little sketch MacKellar had handled so tenderly. At the moment I could not bear to look at Hilda's face. Her eyes were too honest, and between them and mine floated the white bruised face of Scarlet as she had looked up at me from the floor.
"Where do you keep your whiskey?" I asked after a pause.
"Under lock and key," he answered triumphantly.
"Where's the key?" I demanded.
He looked at me with a startled expression which caused me hastily to add, "Oh, it's all right, Hugh, only I'm still in need of a little picking up."
His face cleared, and crossing the room, he took me affectionately by the arm.
"Come along then," he said. "Let's drink some whiskey."
WHENEVER I think back over this period of my life I seem to be able to recall it in complete detail, and yet, at times when my thoughts are otherwise engaged, I suddenly discover in some dusty pigeonhole of my mind a new sheaf of unremembered things, and once more the past is vividly reopened. Little unimportant things, such as the acrid smell of a weed plucked by the roadside, the flight of a hawk across the marshes, or the sound of an ax ringing in the woods, serve to bring back more poignantly to me the exact texture of a forgotten mood than could any deliberate effort of memory.
To-day, for example, the sound of a child's voice caused me unexpectedly to recall the fishermen's children with whom I shared the beach for two days after I had attacked Scarlet. This small voice drifting in at my window awakened a clear echo of the past, bringing back to me with almost photographic distinctness the faces of those vanished children, and, as if it were only yesterday, I remembered the tale they coaxed from my reluctant lips fully twenty years ago.
Because of my encounter with Scarlet I now loathed myself more heartily than ever before, and was eager for the companionship of other people. A feeling of guilt restrained me from either remaining in MacKellar's cottage or visiting Hunter Aird's. And so, as a last resort, I withdrew to the beach, where I strove to forget myself in the company of a wind-weathered band of vagabonds whose clamoring voices mingled with the wash of the waves from early dawn until dark.
Children, I have always felt, are instinctively perceptive of sorrow in their elders, and when not too preoccupied with their own affairs, have a charmingly tactful yet lavish way of expressing their sympathy, particularly if the object of their affection happens to be an evil doer whose crimes have thrust him from the oppressive good graces of organized society.
The children of the fishermen received me with that spirit of free-masonry which exists between all habitual delinquents. They were professionally but not spitefully interested in the exact nature and extent of my offense.
"Whatcha sorry about?" asked one little chap after peering for a long time thoughtfully into my eyes.
"I've been bad," I replied.
"Yeah?" he continued with rising interest. "Whatcha do?"
"I lost my temper," I told him, "and made a terrible fuss of it."
He considered this information judiciously while the other children drew nearer with serious faces. To them this was life, something that touched them intimately. Their spokesman continued:
"Did you kick an' scream and fight?"
"Exactly," I replied. "And now I don't want to go home any more."
"I know," he said with the air of one who had suffered much. "They do git right after you when you go on like that. Las' week I caught it somethin' terrible, didn't I, Natty?"
He looked at Natty for confirmation, and that young lady nodded vigorously with a shy smile on her rather serious and expressive face.
"Natty's my sister, ain't you, Natty?" he continued, and once more the girl made affirmative bobs with her brown curls.
"She's eight," he concluded abruptly.
"I'm the oldest of everybody here," she announced.
"Except me," I said, and Natty was reduced to silence.
It was with these slight but essential formalities that I was received into the band of youthful beachcombers. They amused me, these seaside urchins, but in turn they insisted on being amused, and in spite of my earnest protests, they succeeded on the second day in launching me forth on a story the end of which was still nebulous in my mind.
"Tell us anything," they insisted when I endeavored to escape on the plea of ignorance. "You must know something, some sort of a story. Make one up."
The children were sprawled round me on the sand, their serious faces expectantly turned to mine. From a blue, cloudless sky the sun showered down on us wave upon wave of heat which a breeze blowing in from the sea caught in its cool embrace and tempered pleasantly. At our feet the surf sleepily rose and fell and high over head a scattering of sea gulls diligently searched the sky. As I turned my eyes from one face to another, the stolid patience of the expressions I encountered gave me to understand that further resistance was useless, and rather than risk the general condemnation of my implacable audience, I began with a brave show of confidence, "Well, children, it seems that there was an old deer—"
"When?" interrupted a voice.
"Very well," I agreed hastily, realizing that I had sinned against both convention and good taste. "What I meant to say was, that once upon a time there was an old deer who lived in the forest with her little baby deer, of whom she was very proud. But one day the little deer strayed away from its mother's side and was killed by a woodsman who lived in a clearing in the forest with his wife and their little daughter. Now when the old deer, whose name was Tonka, found out what the woodsman had done, she was so overcome with grief and rage that she decided to revenge herself on the woodsman by stealing his little daughter and killing her in the forest. So one day she stood for a long time watching at the fringe of the trees until at last the little girl came close to her and then Tonka led the child farther and farther away until she had it at her mercy in the deep woods. But when Tonka was about to kill the helpless little girl with her hoofs, the baby smiled up at her and the old deer, remembering her own baby, felt so sad and lonely she decided that instead of killing the woodsman's daughter, she would adopt her in place of the little deer he had killed.
"Well, the years passed, and the child grew up to be a slim and beautiful young girl. Her hair was the color of a rusty cloud when it is kindled by the sun, and her eyes were deep blue and honest, like the sea on a calm day when the sky is high and filled with sunlight. The young members of the herd became her brothers and sisters and she learned how to speak their language, and Tonka was her mother. At night when the moon came out the girl would dance in the moonlight and the deer would stand round in a circle and look on. In the middle of the moon-flooded space and surrounded by the soft, glowing eyes of the deer, she would stand straight and slim, like a silver birch, and dance the Dance of the Trees. With her white arms extended above her head, she would sway from side to side in the clutch of a magic wind, then suddenly as though uprooted by the storm, she would leap high in the air and spin around with her hair whipping out behind her. Then she would stop abruptly and throwing herself down on Tonka's flank she would lie there panting while the older deer told stories of when the forest was young and Pan played among the trees.
"Then one day the Lord of the North rode down the peaceful valley with his swift-footed hounds, and began to hunt the deer. Now this grim knight was so cruel and bloodthirsty that his castle was coated with ice and nothing would grow near it. No living creature ever ventured close to his home nor were there any bird notes in the air. Life was cold and dead at this place and none of the servants was ever known to smile.
"At last, when the Lord of the North came upon the deer, he sent his dogs in chase of them with a loud blast from his horn, and he himself on his coal-black steed, followed in pursuit. The herd broke and fled in a panic of fear, but the great dogs were soon among the stragglers and sprang upon the weakest of them all. The other deer swept on ahead, but the girl remained behind to fight for her little brother so that when the riders came upon them they captured both the deer and the girl, and carried them back to the knight.
"When the knight saw what a beautiful creature they had brought to him from the woods, he had her placed in front of him on his horse and he ordered his men to strap the wounded deer behind him. Thus with his two prizes he rode away from the quiet valley up the bleak, winding passage leading to his castle. And when he finally reached his stronghold, a strange thing took place, for no sooner had the girl's foot touched the frozen ground than the ice melted from the old stone walls and flowers sprang up from between the chinks in the stone. And the dead trees came back to life, golden blossoms covering their branches. There was the sound of a thousand silver wings in the air and a flock of gay plumed birds flew down on the place scattering songs about them. The sun came out from behind the clouds and the ground became springy under foot. It was a remarkable transformation and it seemed that even the cold heart of the Lord of the North was a little thawed, for he carried the girl into the castle and had her dressed in rich garments, and he put jewels in her hair and around her throat. Then he had his servants prepare a table for her on which there were fruits and rare dishes."
"What sort of dishes?" asked Natty's brother in a thick voice.
"Just rare dishes," shouted several of his elders reprovingly.
Thoroughly engrossed now in the story, I continued, "But the girl would have none of the wonderful things until she had been permitted to bathe the wounds of her brother and to give him water to drink, for the poor little deer was very thirsty, his throat was parched, and he longed to go back to the forest from this strange and faraway place.
"The girl lived a long time at the castle, and as the days passed a gradual change took place in the knight. He no longer hunted the deer and his terrible bow hung neglected over the fireplace, while his great dogs dreamed of the hunt in their sleep and grew fat. The gentleness of the girl and her strange kinship with nature had a strong influence over this fierce man and caused him to grow kinder and more thoughtful, although there were still times when he looked longingly up at his bow. His fingers itched to hold it, and his ears ached to hear the thrilling twang of its string.
"Then the girl fell in love with the Lord of the North and they were married. To celebrate his wedding day, the knight allowed the little deer its liberty, and the girl gave it a message to take back to Tonka and her brothers and sisters in the forest. All went well with the girl and her husband until one day when he was alone he spied a deer on his lawn, and unable to resist the temptation, he seized his bow and quiver and shot an arrow at it. The arrow flew straight to its mark, wounding the deer in the leg, and the dogs raced across the lawn to capture it. But just in time the girl came running from the castle and with a word she stopped the dogs. Then she hastened to the deer and found that it was Tonka, who because of her love for the girl had come all the way to see her. When the girl heard the moans of the poor, wounded Tonka, her heart was filled with anger and she vowed never to return to the castle and live with her husband again. So that night when Tonka was able to walk, they faded away into the forest, while the Lord of the North, too proud to ask forgiveness, sat alone in his castle.
"The months passed and the girl once more took up her life with the herd and presently she became the mother of a beautiful baby girl. When Tonka saw the new baby her dim eyes kindled and she proudly nuzzled the little bundle. Then she called the girl over to her and spoke to her for a long time, telling her that no matter what might come to pass never to forget the deer and always to be their friend. Then old Tonka laid her head on the girl's lap and with a little quiver of weariness, gave up forever her mothering of the herd.
"After the death of Tonka, a longing came over the girl to look on the face of her husband. So she took her baby and traveled back to the castle, where she hid herself among the rushes growing on the banks of a brook, and in this place she waited in the hope that he would soon come out on the lawn where she would be able to see what changes time had written in his face. But alone in his castle the Lord of the North was sitting in front of his fireplace thinking of his wife. When he raised his heavy eyes and saw the bushes waving in the distance, he imagined that the deer who had robbed him of her had come back to mock at his solitude and to triumph over him for having been able to call her back to the forest.
"Now the knight still loved the girl so much that he had not touched his bow since she had left him, but the thought that the deer were silently watching his misery was more than he could bear, so once more he seized his bow from above the fireplace and sent an arrow into the bushes. The dogs raced across the lawn and when the knight reached the spot, he found them licking the hands of the dead girl whose brown hair was floating On the current of the stream.
"And that night when the deer were gathered round the pool in the forest, the little stream brought down to them the story of the ending of their sister and they were sore at heart. But the sorrow that dwelt in the heart of the knight as he stood over the body of the dead girl, and held the little baby close to his rough coat, no one will ever know, for now he was all alone. This much we do know, and that is, that he broke his bow across his knee and never more killed a living thing. And he carried the girl back to the forest and buried her there with his own two hands.
"Sometimes even now, when the moon is full and the forest still, the deer come silently from the trees and stand in a sorrowful circle round her grave, just as they used to stand when white and slim, like a silver birch, the girl held her arms above her head and danced the Dance of the Trees."
"An' what became of the new baby?" a small voice asked after a short pause.
"Oh, the baby grew up to be a beautiful girl, as her mother had been before her, and she lived happily ever after with her father, the Lord of the North, who always remembering his wife, became so kind and gentle that he was loved by all the deer and they came to his door whenever they had need of a friend."
A thoughtful silence settled down on the children. Their eyes were filled with the story. Natty drew a deep breath and said, "That was a good story. I wonder how she danced.... I'd liked to been there."
THIS brief interlude in the unhappy drift of time comes back to me now like a friendly note from the past. I can still recall the feeling of relief that came to me when the children, after judicious consideration, agreed that with a few minor exceptions, my story had been well worthy of repetition. It was the concensus of opinion that the slaying of deer was a disgraceful sport in which they vowed never to indulge, and as most of them are by this time either fishermen or fishermen's wives, I dare say their vows have been kept far better than many others they made later on in life.
When the day wore into dusk, I could tell that the imperious demands of hunger were causing the children to regard with secret favor the homes they outwardly professed to deplore. As the manifestations of their appetites became more acute, they diffidently abandoned their various occupations and furtively withdrew in quest of food. Only Natty and her brother were left, the latter with ill- concealed reluctance. The girl sat hunched in the sand, looking out across the darkening ocean. I wondered where her thoughts were straying. Probably her eyes were following the feet of a slim, white girl dancing alone in the moonlight. Presently a vague sigh escaped her and, unwinding her arms from around her knees, she arose and took her brother's eagerly extended hand.
"I like that story," she said, deliberately avoiding my eyes. "Sad stories are sort of nice. They seem like as if they might happen."
Her small brother, now completely mastered by his greed, tugged manfully at her hands, but she resisted long enough to ask, "Are you comin' back to-morrow?"
She moved thoughtfully away, then stopped for a moment to call back through the darkness, "Good night."
"Goo' night," contributed her brother, with an unmistakable note of relief in his husky little voice.
The beach became depressingly empty now that the children were gone.
BUT when to-morrow came I did not return to Natty and her friends. Wearied by two days of self-imposed inactivity, I decided to put into action a plan that had long been taking shape in my mind.
Once when I had been considering the dream, and the strange frequency of its return, the thought had occurred to me that if I could only reach the island and investigate it in the full light of day, I might be able to free myself forever from the terror it inspired in me. For several weeks past I had studied the marshes with this object in view, but the more I considered the island and tried to devise ways and means of reaching it, the slimmer seemed the chance for success in such an undertaking. Cut off from the rest of the world by several miles of false ground and tangled reeds, through which innumerable currents of water twisted, the island seemed as safe from the incursions of man as a coral reef tucked far away from the lanes of trade.
From my observations it appeared to me that the island stood in nearer to the opposite shore and that from there I might be able to find a less hazardous means of approach. As I had never viewed it from this angle, I made up my mind to journey to the mainland to investigate the possibilities of reaching the island from that side.
The road I took was the same one I had followed on arriving from the city. So many things had happened and so many things had changed since first I had felt its dust. I now pictured myself as I had been on the day of my arrival, and the person I saw was almost a stranger to me. Various moods and events came drifting back to mind—the feeling of relief I had experienced when the train pulled out of the little station leaving me standing on the deserted platform; my rest in the quiet woods and the old man with whom I had shared the way; the first sight of the marshes; the carving on Elliott's gate; Scarlet, nude on the black divan, and later the touch of her lips. The ribbon of memory slipped swiftly across my mind, and once more I was looking up from the water into Hilda's deep blue eyes. In swift review there passed before me the happy days we had spent together before Elliott's shadow had fallen between us. Again I saw her sitting white and motionless in the little sloop as the storm raged over the sea, and again I saw her extending a bruised arm with an expression of mute entreaty in her eyes. Wherever my eyes rested I saw her face and wherever my thoughts wandered she wandered with them. When first I had followed this road, I had been a fugitive from the city; now I was a fugitive from myself, from an intangible fear and a host of conflicting impulses.
After skirting a long stretch of meadowland enclosing the inland end of the marshes, I struck directly into the woods and continued through the trees and undergrowth until I had arrived at a point which I figured would bring me out opposite the island. I was not far off in my reckoning, for when I broke through the edge of the forest the island lay almost directly in front of me, and to my great disappointment, about two miles out from shore. The land in between was of the same insecure and treacherous character as that which lay on the other side. As my eyes ran over the intervening space I was forced to exercise all my powers of imagination to prevent my reason from convincing me of the hopelessness of the undertaking. I felt that I was now confronted by a problem more dangerous of solution than the blind fury of wind and wave I had faced alone in the storm. Beneath the suave tranquillity of the marshes there lay in wait an antagonist more deliberately cruel and watchful than the ocean when aroused. The snapping of a twig in the forest caused me to start violently, and by this involuntary reaction I was able to gain some indication of the nervous tension under which I must have been laboring as I studied that remote island in its picturesque setting of green. I glanced over my shoulder at the sun and saw that it was already nearing the spear points of the trees. Only a few more hours of daylight remained in the sky. This knowledge, arousing me from the state of lassitude into which I had fallen, sent me hurrying to the edge of the marshes, where I seized a stick from the undergrowth and began to test the submerged soil which, under a thin sheet of water, ran out from the shore for about two hundred yards. The ground was soft and muddy, but seemed sufficiently firm to bear the weight of my body. Had I found myself alone on a lost planet with unknown dangers surrounding me, I could not have experienced a feeling of greater trepidation than when I left the shore and waded out into the silence and insecurity of the marshes.
Green, slimy water closed over my shoe tops and mud molded itself to my feet. By carefully sounding ahead of me with the stick, I was able to reach a comparatively solid strip of land the end of which, a short distance away, was screened by reeds. As I approached this spot I became aware of a low singing in my ears, and a few mosquitoes struck against my hands and face. Once I was in the reeds the singing grew louder, and a swarm of insects, rising like dust from beneath my feet, vindictively attacked me. With my free hand I fought them off as well as I could, but as the reeds closed over my head my skin began to flame from stings.
The ground was now of a soggier nature, clotted here and there with pools of stagnant water. At every step my feet sank deep into the mud. As I continued, the reeds grew thicker, until finally I was forced to slacken my pace, not only because of the resistance of the growth, but also for fear of plunging into one of the many currents twisting like great, green snakes across my path. My body was bathed in sweat, and the intensely hot air pressing down on the marshes made breathing unpleasant. At times I almost lost control of myself from pain and irritation as the singing plague hummed tormentingly in my ears.
Nevertheless, I had successfully traversed about half the distance separating me from the island when I found myself standing on the brink of a stream so much wider than the others that in order to find a more favorable crossing I was forced to follow its bank. As far as I was able to judge the stream spanned the marshes in a series of great loops. With its steep muddy sides and the uncertain nature of its bed, it served as an effective barrier to further progress—an obstacle filled with all sorts of unpleasant possibilities. After following the bank for some distance, I found that it was taking me considerably off my course; and as there seemed to be no immediate prospect of the stream's growing narrower, I decided that I should either have to abandon the enterprise or risk a crossing without further delay.
Accordingly I slipped down the moist bank into the slow current and started to wade across. The water reached my thighs, and the mud, into which I sank up to my knees, yielded with the greatest reluctance as I moved my feet. As I approached the opposite bank, my progress became more difficult and my footing less secure. Only a few yards separated me from safety, when, as I was just about to grasp the reeds swaying above my head, I felt with a ghastly sensation of finality that I was sinking deeper and deeper into the mire.
Hardly daring to breathe, I remained motionless as the stuff crept slowly up my legs. Then I made one frenzied effort to withdraw my feet, only to find that I was accelerating the speed of my descent. Within an inch of my outstretched hand a tuft of marsh grass was protruding from the bank. For several minutes I dully regarded this possible means of escape before I fully appreciated its value. My mind was numb and heavy, unwilling to function. Idly I extended my arm and almost touched the grass. I tried again and this time came a little closer. Then as it dawned on me that probably this handful of grass was my last chance of life in this world, I centered all my hopes on it. My fingers quivered to secure a hold, and I felt a hot, crazy tension gathering round my eyes. Sweat broke from my pores as I strained forward, but the tuft which a moment before had been within an inch of my hand, was now two inches away. Between the grass and the tips of my fingers the space was growing wider. It was a fearful thing to watch. Hopelessly I looked around for another means of escape, but there was nothing to be found. The marshes were as still as death, and the air seemed to be growing more suffocating. The idea of calling for help came to me, but the possibility of being reached in time by human aid was too obviously remote for even my fear-weakened intelligence to entertain. I wondered what had become of the stick I had been carrying only a few minutes before. Looking about, I saw it floating idly on the current several yards away. That stick would have been useful. It might have saved my life. Now it lay beyond my grasp like the smug moral of an Aesop fable.
The steady advance of the mud along my legs caused me to make one last attempt to reach the grass and from the eagerness of my effort it seemed as though my arms would spring from their sockets. I failed abjectly, and was about to abandon hope when the idea came to me that if I flung myself forward with all my strength in the direction of the grass I might be able to add a few more inches to my reach, and thus either secure a hold or else topple helplessly, face downward, into the muddy water of the stream.
Without giving myself time to consider this possibility, I lurched forward, and falling completely off balance, clutched at the grass. It slipped through my fingers, and with a little splash the water closed over my head. I experienced a sensation of being strangled in the dark. There was a mad pounding in my ears. As I thrashed wildly about in the water, I was suddenly electrified by the realization that my fingers were clawing at the very base of another tuft of grass, growing below the surface of the stream. With a greedy feeling of relief I pulled myself forward until I was able to raise my head from the water. My fingers sank deep into the earth around the roots of the grass and held firm. The mud sucked viciously at my legs, but gradually I drew myself nearer the bank. The tuft I had previously missed was now directly above my head. Very carefully I reached up and seized it. Then began a tortuous hand over hand contest, a slow painful battle of inches in which a fractional miscalculation or the snapping of a reed might have made all the difference between victory and defeat. Imperceptibly I drew myself from the mire until at last I was clear of it. Then I scrambled up the bank of the stream and sprawled in the rank ooze lying between the reeds. It was pleasant to feel and I wallowed in it with animal satisfaction. Now that I was too exhausted to repel their attacks the mosquitoes settled down on me in swarms, but as I looked stupidly at the mud worming through my fingers, I was insensible to pain. Never had life seemed more worth living, and in a vague way I felt that my expedition to the marshes had produced the opposite effect to the one I had expected, or rather, hoped for.
With a gloating feeling I turned my eyes back to the stream from which I had escaped. It was rising. The tide was running in from the sea, and in a short space the current would flood. I considered this with satisfaction, for now I should be able to swim across instead of trusting myself again to its treacherous bed.
As I lay there resting I became dimly aware of the fact that for some minutes past a stray, disconnected picture had been floating through my mind. It was a picture of the western sky overspread with a vast black cloud threatening to consume the sun. It was all clear and distinct in my memory, every detail being so vivid that I was convinced the impression was not a figment of my imagination. The thing had actually happened and a feeling of disquiet crept over me as I tried to trace the picture to its source. Then I sprang to my feet and stood swaying among the reeds. A distant volley of thunder rolled through the heavens, echoed, and died away.
I remembered now where I had seen the picture. Only a short time before, when I had been struggling from the stream, I had gazed up at the sky and unconsciously made a mental note of its appearance. At the time I had failed to appreciate the meaning of the heavy cloud slipping like an unclean thing across the western section of the horizon, but now I appreciated only too keenly its significance. To be overtaken by a storm on the marshes was to be overtaken by death itself. Even if I escaped the quicksand the mosquitoes would be in at the kill. Already my ears were filled with the chanting of their requiem.
While I stood there considering this new danger, a bolt of lightning like a fiery seam ran across the sky, a deluge of thunder fell shuddering through the air, and darkness settled down on the marshes. As though giant hands were squeezing the clouds, rain descended in an overwhelming blanket. With all my reason I strove to beat down the fear that was rising in me. It was as though God or some other supernatural agency had decided to destroy me for my temerity in attempting to reach the island.
For several hundred yards I stumbled on through the rain and darkness, when a flash of lightning, laying bare an area of glistening sand, made me stop abruptly. With absolute certainty I knew that once I had put foot on that reedless plain I was lost beyond all chance of escape. A sensation of nausea filled my stomach, my legs failed, and with a feeling of unspeakable misery, I sank down among the reeds.
Whenever the lightning smote the sky the island sprang quiveringly into view and lay vividly revealed on the marshes, dancing there before my eyes as though it were tempting me on. And through the din of the rain and thunder I hurled at it a curse of impotent rage. Then fear gained the upper hand, and, rising like a distracted creature impelled by its mad desire to escape, I turned my back on the island and fought my way through the reeds. When I reached the edge of the stream I tore off my shoes, and without stopping to consider the consequences, took a shallow dive from the bank. My body shot through the water, and a few strokes brought me to the opposite side. With frenzied haste I climbed over the edge of the stream and lurched onward through the reeds.
The knowledge that the blackness of the storm might merge into that of night sharpened my determination to gain the mainland. Under the-clash of the lightning the sky was palpitating with fire. My ears were sore from the sound of thunder, and as the rain descended the breath was whipped from my body. During the short intervals between the play of the lightning, I was left in thick darkness, through which I staggered with outstretched hands. Beneath the bitter radiance of the lightning the shore ahead of me was occasionally outlined. A dull glow flooding up from behind a hill told me that some farmer's house had been struck. In my mind's eye I could see black figures darting back and forth in the firelight as they strove to save their livestock. The knowledge that human activities were taking place so near at hand gave me an intenser feeling of remoteness and desolation.
That evening on the marshes I sounded the uttermost depths of fear. For a time I was an abject and unqualified coward. And my fear was the more overpowering in that it was made up not only of imaginings, but also of horribly realistic facts. The clammy hand of terror lay against my back urging me ever onward in spite of my exhausted condition. At times I tripped, became tangled in the reeds. Once I missed my footing altogether and splashed into one of the little streams criss-crossing my path. When I emerged, my face was bleeding and my body was covered with slime. Toward the end of my flight I began to curse and rave incoherently. My anger was directed against the island as the cause of my humiliation. I hated the place with the hate of the conquered.
At last, when I reached the short strip of submerged soil lying against the mainland, I ran across it with my body bent forward and my head rolling from side to side. I was sobbing softly to myself. Before I reached the shore my strength gave out. I fell on my face in the mud and water. Like some prehistoric reptile emerging from a swamp I wriggled onto the shore and lay there with my fingers digging at the earth.
Once I turned my head to look back at the island. A bolt of lightning forked directly over it and the tall trees, sharply limned against the unnaturally green background of the reeds, seemed to be stepping silently toward me over the marshes.
"Take them away!" I screamed. My voice was lost in the rain.
I dreamed that night that Hilda was standing alone among the reeds fronting the island. From where I stood I could see her clearly as she turned and held out her arms to me. With a sharp conviction that I was about to lose her I rushed out on the marshes, but before I could reach her side I sank in the quicksand and went struggling down into the dark. As my head sank into the stifling slime my hands, still clutching at the air, grasped two small bare feet. My descent was arrested, and by slipping my hands further up along the legs I was able to pull myself from the quicksand. Then I found myself holding Scarlet in my arms. Her neck and shoulders were covered like a beast's with short, yellow hair, and her head was that of an Indian idol, heavy and obscene, with thick, grinning lips and bleared eyes. She approached her distorted face to mine and gripped me round the waist. Together we fell back on the marshes and the soft, warm mud closed over us. But this time I felt no fear.
When I awoke I rose and went to the window with a feeling of disgust. My skin was raw and feverish and I ached in all my joints.
As the dawn broke I looked down on the silent grove and thought of this unclean thing. Not content with influencing my days, Scarlet had now begun to taint my nights.
BENEATH the golden avalanche of the noonday sun all life was silent in the grove. The trees, transfixed by the heat, stood frozen in a yellow glow. On their limbs each tiny leaf lay glued to its plane of air, and on the lawn each spear of grass stood poised and still. It was as though life at full tide had been caught and crystallized in a setting of dream-swept radiance. Only the chant of the distant surf gave token that nature stirred. Remotely, the slumberous cadence of the waves stole up from the beach, touching the ear soothingly like the distant ticking of an old clock heard in the restless hours of the night. The wind which but a short time before had moved like a sigh through the trees, had drifted back to the sea. An enchanted sleep hung over the place. Even the birds were still, their wings at rest.
In the midst of this trance-like silence, yet unable to yield to its spell, I had been sitting watchfully all morning at my table on the lawn of MacKellar's cottage. Only a moment ago, Scarlet had stood beside me, and as I had looked up at her, my thoughts had unconsciously reverted to the excitingly repulsive dream of the night just past, when clasped in each other's arms we had sunk beneath the soft, warm mud of the marshes.
In some indefinable way Scarlet seemed different to me now, a shade more thoughtful and subdued. Her eyes no longer met mine with their usual glint of challenge. She gave the impression that she was holding herself in reserve, waiting quietly and planning, as though she were playing some game. Without admitting it to myself I was secretly stirred by the idea.
This impression, rather than belief, had grown in me from the evening, only a few days past, when I had seen her huddled at my feet in the semi-darkness of the hall. Now as she stood beside me I felt that in a sense I had placed myself a little deeper in her power. With her I was sharing a secret, and the very nature of that secret had established an intimate bond between us. Also, as a consequence of that mad outbreak of mine, there was a feeling of power in me. It was something altogether foreign to my nature, and not unpleasant. This woman, whose body had so often dominated my thoughts, fired my desire, and swayed my very reason, I had beaten with my hands. The memory of the yielding of her soft flesh against my open palms aroused in me an unhealthy sensation of satisfaction. I might do it again, I thought, as I took in the full, graceful lines of her figure. Even now I could rise from my chair and crumple her to my feet. But mingled with this emotion there was a vague feeling of sympathy... something that drew her as a woman a little closer to me.
Hitherto whenever I had heard stories in which women had suffered at the hands of men, I had always been conventionally outraged, but in the presence of the woman I had beaten I saw things in a new and less chivalrous light, and, ironically, I twisted the feet off of another tame ideal. Few were now left to me of the collection I had been secretly treasuring all my life. Soon I would be stripped of them all—the sooner the better, perhaps.
Scarlet's voice cut in on my thoughts.
"Your face is swollen," she said.
"And yours is better," I replied.
"Mine wasn't so badly bruised... only the lips. I used some ointment stuff and a little paint and powder."
"What did you tell MacKellar?" I asked, despising myself for the question.
"Nothing definite. Merely that I'd been walking and tripped over some blackberry vines. He believes anything I say. It's easier."
She smiled faintly and gazed down the grove with a pensive expression in her eyes.
"That was sportsmanlike of you," I said, after a moment's silence.
"Oh, not particularly. I was partly to blame, you know."
I made no answer to this and she continued rather apologetically, "I'll not bother you much any more, David, but at least we might try to be friends, don't you think?"
"Friendship is not for you," I said. "You'd hate it."
Before she answered she walked a few paces across the lawn.
"And so do you," she replied with a gleam of her old spirit returning to her eyes—then in softer voice, "Would you like me to leave that ointment in your room?"
"No," I said shortly, then added, "Yes. Thanks."
"That's right, David," she called back. "It might relieve your irritation."
From the doorway of the cottage she smiled at me for an instant. I was fascinated by the white flash of her teeth. With a feeling of annoyance I turned back to the table.
AFTER Scarlet had left I took up some lines of verse into which all morning I had been apathetically endeavoring to breathe a little life. At the end of half an hour of mechanical shifting they still limped along on bandaged feet, a dolorous procession of meaningless words. As I scanned the stuff I was discouraged by its extreme futility. Exasperated at last by the smug insincerity of my thoughts, I defaced with a burst of true inspiration all that I had written.
The profound silence of the grove was gradually wearing on my nerves. I had a feeling that unless I received a message from Hilda before another night had passed I should take some unwise action. With the intention of consulting MacKellar about this, I rose from the table and had started for the cottage when I heard my name called out behind me. I turned quickly and saw John Elliott striding across the lawn. His presence shattered the enchantment of the grove.
"You're just the man, Landor," he cried in a hearty voice. "I've been stalking you through the trees."
"My instincts must have warned me," I replied, smiling slightly. "As you see I was about to make good my escape."
"But I would have followed you on like the hound of hell," he said, dropping a heavy hand on my shoulder "When I seek a victim for my hospitality, I'm an implacable man."
He, too, was smiling, but his strange eyes blazed unpleasantly down into mine, and, involuntarily, I stepped back a pace. Tightening his grip on my shoulder, he continued to speak in an unnaturally loud voice, considering his nearness to me.
"Mrs. Elliott has commissioned me to invite you to dine with us to-night," he said. "Ever since that day we went sailing she has been too ill to get out. What a day it was, eh? Will you come?"
"You're very kind," I replied, watching him closely. "I accept with pleasure."
"That's as I thought," he said as though to himself, then glancing over my shoulder he withdrew his hand and took a step forward.
"That invitation also holds for you, young lady," he said in a changed voice. "I'm my wife's messenger." Scarlet was leaning in the doorway, her cheek resting against her white, rounded arm which was held extended above her head along the frame of the door. In her pose, there was something of the slave girl. As she lazily regarded Elliott through half- closed eyes, there was a provocative smile on her lips. In that same intimate way she had often looked at me and now as I saw her thus challenging another with her eyes, I was surprised by a sudden flash of jealousy.
"I hope you're a willing messenger," she said, with a trace of arrogance in her voice. "Otherwise, I might not come."
"More than willing," he replied, walking over to her, "an eager messenger."
"How eager?" she asked.
"You must know already," he said.
Laughing softly, Scarlet moved out to the lawn.
"I know nothing," she flung back at him, "until the proof is in my hands. Men toss away worlds with their lips."
"Only come and I'll show you," he urged.
"It will be very amusing," she replied.
"Good!" he exclaimed, turning briskly back to me as though just remembering my presence. "That's settled. Two birds with one stone. Where's the third? Where's MacKellar? He must come along."
"Here's MacKellar," announced Hugh, as he emerged from the cottage. "What's this about dinner? I've had my dinner."
"Mr. Elliott means this evening," I explained.
"Won't do it," he said fretfully. "Until I've forgotten one meal I never eat the next. My stomach has a lingering memory. As I grow older it becomes more retentive. Ask me to breakfast, Elliott. I can always eat breakfast."
"Come for my sake, Hugh," I pleaded in a low voice.
"No, no, I won't do it," he whispered furiously, nudging me with his elbow and looking wildly about.
"He'll hear you," I warned.
But if Elliott heard he gave no indication.
"We must all bow to the master," he said with a deprecating smile, and once more joined Scarlet, who was standing a little apart from the group.
Together they moved through the grove and disappeared among the trees. I noticed that she was leaning on his arm, her body swaying against his. And once more I felt a stab of unexpected jealousy.
"What's his game, Hugh?" I asked, turning back to MacKellar.
"You mean there?" he said, pointing down the grove.
"No, about the dinner."
"It isn't his game. He just thinks it is. Hilda planned the dinner and made him believe it was his idea. It tickles his devilish sense of irony and he hopes it will torment her."
"Why won't you go, Hugh?"
He regarded me darkly, then turned and made off to the cottage.
"I don't want to go, that's all," he said. "Don't keep after me. You go, and keep your wits about you."
At the door he paused and sourly surveyed me, then added as though delivering a telling thrust, "That is, if you have any left."
THE wide lawn, strewn with weeds, fanned out from the driveway and ran neglected into the hemming darkness. Here and there the ragged grass was stained with shabby patches of yellow, burned out and dead. In the ebbing light the place gave the appearance of being drowned beneath a sea of shadows, a vast plain submerged in the gloom, cheerless and abandoned. The sound of our feet, grating harshly against the gravel of the driveway, cut a jagged discord across the still evening. Like a proclaiming voice refusing to be stilled it tormentingly followed our progress. On either side of us the great, dark trees formed a grim and unfriendly avenue. Above our heads their limbs locked themselves into a canopy of furtively rustling leaves. They had witnessed the passage of the unhappy years, these old, dark trees, and now, like disinterested spectators safely removed from the conflict, they seemed to be gloating in the dusk over the prospect of approaching sorrow.
During the course of our uncommunicative walk from the cottage, I had known that Scarlet was studying my face with her cynically amused eyes. As we drew near the house, which in the curtaining night loomed up like a forbidding fortress at the end of the driveway, I noticed that her expression of assurance was gradually giving way to one of fear. When we were about to ascend the steps leading up to the high porch, she hesitated, and with a little shiver, laid a restraining hand on my arm.
"It's gloomy here, isn't it?" she said in a hushed voice. "If ever I were forced to live in this place I know I'd do something desperate."
Up to this time I had been too absorbed in the thoughts coursing through my mind to be greatly influenced by my surroundings. The mere fact that Hilda had conspired to arrange this dinner in order to have me at it was enough to subordinate all other emotions in me to a warm feeling of happiness, but at Scarlet's words I paused with my foot on the first step and looked up at the house.
Like its owner it was tall and rather loosely constructed and, fittingly enough, it seemed to give off the same atmosphere of smothered hostility. Built entirely of brick and stone in the general shape of a cross, this bleak abode looked less like a private dwelling than a public institution. It had the same uninviting personality as have many of those grim establishments in which charity moves through gloomy corridors. Long rows of black windows looked down on us, and I imagined that behind them generations of vanished Elliotts were standing in hushed attention, their mad eyes fiercely resenting our intrusion. When I thought of Hilda's years of captivity within the damp walls of this dismal mass of stone, I was better able to understand why laughter had been crushed on her lips. Surrounded as she was by all the bitter traditions and repressions of the place, there was little room for wonder if at times her eyes grew haunted as she searched for some means of escape.
Scarlet was breathing softly beside me, her hand still resting lightly on my arm. Her perfume drifting to me spoke of another world. Something of her own disquiet was communicated to my spirit. I thought of streets and women, luxurious places of abandon, whispers thrilling through the dark, intimate laughter stilled by a sigh. As though I were standing in a pool of decadence I absorbed like some parasitical growth the animalism of her body. The chill, revengeful atmosphere washing about the house urged me to seize her in my arms and to flee with her through the trees back to comfort and warmth. Under the pressure of her hand my arm seemed to swell in my sleeve. I longed to cover her body with mad caresses, to consume in a flame of passion the promptings of hope and memory, the obligations of loyalty. And beneath it all there was a feeling in my heart of death, and that feeling alone seemed real. In its grim presence, as if to delay its approach, I was desperately trying to sully all the beautiful values of life. Beneath a flood of obscene thoughts, beastly, slinking things, I strove to smother a voice that was crying out within me for expression. Were it to gain utterance I knew that it would confound me with the sting of its reproach. Closer to me, and more persuasive, another voice was whispering, "Why cling to the old idealism, the empty dream of the weak? Why not live a little with the rest? There's nothing exquisite in life, all joy's hot and coarse... it's all the same."
And as though aware of the nature of my thoughts Scarlet swayed against me, holding my eyes with hers. For a moment her thighs froze to mine. I felt the flooding of the breath within her and the supple vigor of her hips. My hands slipped beneath her cloak and smoothed the silk of her dress.
"David," she whispered, a light of gratification brightening her eyes. "David, dear, are you mad?"
As she spoke the voice within me was released and found expression. It cried out to me to trample and destroy the tainted thoughts clinging to my mind.
"There's light at the end!" it cried. "Light and exquisite beauty."
Abruptly I withdrew from her and hastened up the stairs, a feeling of pity and protest cutting sharply across the confusion of my mind. Somewhere close at hand Hilda was sitting in the dark, waiting like a prisoner for a friendly voice from the outside world. A low laugh followed me up the stairs. Scarlet had misunderstood the meaning of my sudden flight.
"Wait for me, David," she called.
A pursuing wind was running through the trees. It sounded like the wind in a dream, swift and ominous. In its hidden approach there was something terrifying, something of the clutching panic of childhood. With a shrinking dread of being overtaken by some unseen danger I glanced back at the lawn. Scarlet caught up with me and pressed my arm.
"Come, dear," she whispered.
At the touch of her hand I turned quickly away to the door where a subdued youth with an air of unassurance was waiting to let us in. A maid, materializing from the shadows, whisked Scarlet away, up a broad flight of stairs mounting into darkness. I was left alone in the twilight of a wide hall with a door at the far end. Through the door I caught a glimpse of the day dying on the green floor of the marshes. Many doors opened into the hallway, and as I stood there looking nervously about me, I heard my name spoken softly. It was Hilda's voice, but in the eerie darkness of the place it seemed to drift to me from another world. I started and faced about.
"Hilda," I called, unable to check my eagerness, "where are you?"
"Follow your nose," she replied. "Can't you see?"
Directly in front of me heavy portières were swaying gently in the light air. They were only partly drawn, and through the opening I could see a large room at the end of which, near a window looking out on the lawn, Hilda was reclining on a couch. In a corner of the room a large lamp cast a restricted glow over the faded red carpet. From where I had first stood this darkened room had been cut off from my vision, but Hilda from the shadows round her couch had been able to observe me. Through the open window I could trace the dim outline of the trees. Like an invisible snake the wind writhed through them, leaving a wistful stir in the air, and filling it now with the scent of dust and dead flowers.
For one still moment I gazed at Hilda's indistinct form, then running noiselessly over the carpet, I dropped to my knees beside her couch and took her hands in mine. Neither of us spoke, and out on the lawn the soughing of the wind washed like a sorrowful voice against my ears. Hilda was the first to break the silence. She laughed unsteadily and drew her hands away.
"You were nervous out there in the hall, weren't you?" she said.
I nodded and looked closely at her, but in the dim light I was unable to make out her features. Round her face her hair floated in a shadowy mass. Only her eyes seemed to be alive. They were filled with a glad light and, as I looked into them, all of the fears and repressions that had been troubling me were forgotten, and for the first time in many days a feeling of peace took their place.
"But I don't blame you," she went on in a low voice. "This place would make any one nervous. It's old and dead and damp... drenched with stagnant dreams. I shall be glad to get away from it."
"Are you going away?" I asked eagerly.
"No, David, I meant when I did go... some day."
"Why don't you go away now, quickly, out of this nightmare life?"
"Wouldn't you miss me, my ally?"
"I miss you enough as it is."
"My friendship has brought you less happiness than sorrow, I'm afraid."
"Perhaps it has. I haven't thought."
"But you regret it now?"
"I can't regret it, Hilda, any more than I can regret my eyes and lungs because they let me see and breathe. My eyes may stream with tears and my lungs burn with pain, but still I don't regret them—they're a part of me, and so are you, at least your friendship is. Perhaps we are not the happiest of friends. That can't be helped. I wish to God I were a better person, though, a bit more worthy... different."
"Why not? There's little good in pretending. Away from you my heart is as stagnant as the dreams in this house. Only with you do I touch beauty, only with you do I see the light."
"It's in yourself. You have it."
"No, it's not there. There's nothing in me, nothing that I'd care to have come out. What I've seen is disgusting. I hate it. When I'm alone I walk through jungle thoughts, the victim of jungle desires. It's you who have shown me the open country and given me a taste of freedom, but my instincts still hold me to the jungle where the voices are whispering always. I'm different when I'm with you."
She made no reply and the room grew still. With one hand pressed to her eyes she lay among the cushions. I could hear her quietly breathing. In the trees the murmur of the wind rose like a distant threat. The silence lasted until I spoke again.
"Hilda," I asked with a feeling of dread, "do you think that you are ill, seriously?"
"I think I'm dying," she said quietly.
A flood of unreasonable anger immediately followed the sharp stab of pain that shot through me. I felt as though I were being trapped and betrayed, that the cards were stacked against me. Hardly realizing what I was doing I seized her roughly by the arms and thrust my face close to hers.
"What are you saying?" I cried. "Are you, too, trying to torment me?"
"Who has been trying to torment you?" she asked in a little whisper of alarm. "What is it, David? You're strange."
The dream had given me the warning, now Hilda herself had confirmed it. I could no longer delude myself into believing that I was the victim of a mental phase, the passing of which would readmit me to a normal and carefree world. In the light of her words it would be impossible for me to excuse my cowardice in abandoning her on the marshes. Now I should be leaving her to her death in the full knowledge of what I was doing. Unable to answer, I rested my head on the edge of the couch and pressed my cheek to her arm.
"You mustn't take it like that, David," she said. "It's only a feeling of mine—a foolish one, perhaps. I'm ever so much better already, now that I've had a chance to speak with you."
Before I could reply I heard the portières rustle as some one stepped into the room.
"That you, Landor?" Elliott asked.
"Yes," I answered, without raising my head.
"Is my wife with you?"
"Pardon me. It's dark as hell in this room. Would you mind telling her that Scarlet—that Miss MacKellar and I are going down to dinner?"
"She can hear you."
Once more the portières rustled and there was the sound of low voices in the hall. Then I heard Scarlet laughing softly as the footsteps died away.
"Help me to get up," said Hilda. "I can feel that this is going to be a merry little feast."
She threw an arm across my shoulder, and rose quickly from the couch. She swayed dizzily against me and clung to my arm, then steadied herself and led me across the room.
"Hurry," she commanded in a brisk voice. "Let's go to the light and see what we look like. Prepare your smile in advance."
We passed down the long hall, now lighted by hanging lamps, and descended a narrow flight of stairs twisting to the basement.
"The ancient Elliotts frankly enjoyed devouring their food in a cave," she explained. "Now we call the place the 'Grill,' but the spirit remains unchanged."
As she drew me along the winding passage to the meeting place of the ancient Elliotts, the damp, age-old walls seemed to be pressing in on me. In the moist air there was the odor of decaying vegetation, potatoes rotting in the dark.
"It whetted their appetites to swim through this," she continued. "I can see them sniffing it now as a pleasant prelude to the soup. Great noses. Greedy sniffs."
She laughed and turned back to me.
"If you don't help me out a little, David, I'll become hysterical," she said. "My laughter would sound positively maniacal in these narrow walls."
I smiled reassuringly and pressed her hand, but across my eyes there flashed a sudden picture of what Hunter Aird had told me about the wives of many of the Elliotts. In that chill, draughty passageway I caught a swift mental vision of a demented woman beating her hands against the walls while the air was filled with her terrible laughter. With this picture in my eyes I stepped into the light of the "Grill."
As we entered the room Elliott, glass in hand, was standing opposite Scarlet at a ponderous sideboard, but on seeing us he hastily set aside his drink and greeted me with faultless cordiality. Hilda moved over to Scarlet and said a few friendly words, which were received with a punctiliously correct, but unresponsive, smile. A large and unhealthy looking servant, wearing the expression of one who for years had unsuccessfully combated a secret malady, stood in attendance. In his shadow hovered the same unassured youth who had previously ushered us into the house.
The room was long and low. Its brick walls, calcimined at one time to a harsh white, were now dingy. Streaked in places by the trickling moisture, they had a mildewed and leprous look. Clammy walls. Along one side of the room, set close to the ceiling, were several small windows, their lower edges level with the lawn, now invisible in the night. Two brass lamps suspended from the ceiling, served as illumination, and their soft, yellow glow, falling in two interesting arcs of light on the white tablecloth, cast a shower of tiny sparkles among the chinaware and silver. At one end of the room was the sideboard where Elliott had been standing and at the other end, crouching in the shadows like some huge mythical monster, was a great stove.
The room was cheerless and inhospitable. Probably in the old days there had been some practical reason for its existence. It had filled a logical need. When the ancient Elliotts had tilled the land and dwelt in more restricted quarters, the room had in all likelihood been a place of comfort and warmth. Now, like the rest of the house, it was damp, and depressing, more like the tomb of appetites than their sanctuary.
When we were seated at the table, Elliott immediately seized his glass and brandished it aloft.
"May all our dreams come true," he cried, looking directly at me, and by that token I knew that the issue was joined.
He threw back his head and drank deeply, then regarded us with a smile.
"Well, Landor," he asked jovially, "what do you think of that? Was it a good toast?"
"It was obviously in order," I replied. "Do you happen to be interested in dreams?"
"Hugely," he said. "Not my own, though. I enjoy interpreting others."
With a faint smile touching the corners of her lips, Scarlet said, "Perhaps, David, you have one that would amuse Mr. Elliott."
"Don't tell it if it deals with death," Hilda calmly put in. "The Elliotts have always been a childishly superstitious tribe."
She cast a mocking glance at her husband, then turning to Scarlet, continued, "For a strong man he has the most unaccountable terror of death. The mere mention of the word makes him uneasy, doesn't it, John? I suppose you can't understand that, Miss MacKellar... the fear of death as an abstract thing?"
As though expecting an answer she looked brightly from one to the other, but none was forthcoming. For a space no one spoke, then Elliott broke the silence by saying in a voice of suppressed rage: "It's hardly a topic in which Miss MacKellar would be deeply interested. Let's change it."
"How very stupid of me!" exclaimed Hilda contritely. "I should have been more considerate."
Elliott was frowning impatiently into his glass and two spots of red were glowing in Scarlet's dead-white cheeks. As she looked restlessly about her, I was reminded of a cornered animal.
"Life's more interesting to me," she said, with a swift glance at Elliott. "Perhaps your husband agrees."
At her words he raised his angry eyes from his glass and caught her glance with a look filled with meaning.
"Right you are, Miss MacKellar!" he cried. "Here's to life and all that it has to offer!"
Scarlet raised her glass to her lips and drank with Elliott.
"How charmingly virile," said Hilda, with innocent appreciation. "Strength and beauty generously accepting life. Well, here's a toast to death. Will you drink with me, David?"
As she rose from the table I followed her example and extended my glass to hers. Her hand was trembling slightly and beneath her spirit of mockery I caught a hint of tense earnestness.
"Here's to death!" she cried in a ringing voice, dramatically raising her arm, "Death, death, death, and all that it has to offer! Drink, David, and remember, all that it has to offer."
"Sit down, you devil," growled Elliott, half rising from his chair. "Are you mad?"
She calmly resumed her chair and I looked at her with undisguised admiration. Her flushed face and sparkling eyes made it hard to believe that her life was ebbing out, and as the dinner progressed I gradually began to attach less importance to the words she had spoken to me upstairs in the gloomy room. I convinced myself that she had merely yielded to a momentary wave of depression induced by shadows and stifling walls. If I could only prevail on her to escape from this place I felt sure that she would speedily regain her health. I resolved to make the attempt.
For the remainder of the dinner she permitted her husband to dominate the table; and as the wine grew warm in his veins he carried on an overbearing monologue with Scarlet as his chosen audience. It was obvious that he was deliberately trying to belittle Hilda and me by excluding us from the charmed circle of his words. At the same time, through veiled allusion and sarcastic innuendoes, he kept us dangling like ridiculous jumping-jacks in front of Scarlet's amused eyes. Several times in the course of his tirade he so successfully penetrated beneath the surface with his disagreeable insinuations that I was on the point of checking him, but the warning light in Hilda's eyes and her attitude of good-natured detachment restrained me from introducing another element of discord. As the dinner drew to a close he made a last attempt to obliterate from his mind the sting of his previous defeat.
"What's marriage, anyway," he exclaimed with a large gesture, "but an abortive attempt to crystallize an essence that is essentially fluid? The poet, poor wretch, sings about his silly soul. Why? Why does he sing about his silly soul? Merely because he's too damn puny to contain anything heavier."
To thrust his point well home he paused and regarded me with an unpleasant smile, then resumed his one-sided attack, "Give him a heart and a good pair of lungs, put a strong appetite in his belly, breathe into him a proper appreciation of women, and the ability to overcome their scruples, and then harken to his song. Watch him forget his fragrant soul."
His eyes shifted to Hilda, who, with a patient smile, was listening politely. Her indifference seemed to annoy him, and he continued with increased venom, "Those who dream so much about another world are damn seldom able to find their way around in this one. They appreciate poets because, like them, they have no appetite for pleasure, no ability to give it. Tell me, Miss MacKellar, tell me, Scarlet, aren't there some caresses you remember that have expressed more downright passion than all the poems you've ever read, all of them put together?"
"I've never read much poetry," she replied.
He looked at her for an instant with an appreciative eye, then slapping his hand on the table, burst into a loud laugh.
"Splendid," he cried. "You've not read much poetry, but—"
"Oh, I don't know," she interrupted lightly. "Some poets I know can be quite intense when it comes to earthly matters."
She smiled at me across the table, Elliott following her eyes.
"Some poets," he remarked, "seem to cover a lot of ground in spite of their silly dreams."
"All men are forgetful at times," said Scarlet.
To meet their eyes without flinching required all of the self-possession I could command, but in spite of the turmoil within me I was able to remark in a natural voice, "You've only begun to skim the surface, Elliott. You should read a little deeper."
"There's too much slush on the top," he replied, and turned back to Scarlet.
"Perhaps you're right," remarked Hilda, regarding her husband with an expression of rather impersonal antagonism, "but at least the poet can sin and sing about it while other men—you, for one—can only sin and swear. If we must have sin, I prefer it with a song. The other grows so tiresome. It's like a business—dull."
Flushed now and reckless, Elliott stared at her with open hostility.
"More rattle-brained reasoning," he said, contemptuously, rising from the table. "Come," he added to Scarlet, "let's take a walk. It's stuffy here."
As if we had conveniently ceased to exist, he led Scarlet from the room. The servants entered, but on seeing us still standing at the table, withdrew. The moment they were gone a shade of weariness passed over Hilda's face, and she sank in her chair, a scrap of a smile playing round her lips.
"Well, David," she said, "that's what might be known as a merry little dinner party. Four good friends dining in cozy intimacy."
"It could easily have been worse."
"Yes. We could have assaulted each other until the militia interfered. Just one of the remarks you didn't make, but were dying to, would have been enough. It was-kind of you to check them."
"Your masterful detachment helped me. After your first attack you were splendidly indifferent—irritatingly so."
"Only on the surface. It seems that there's still enough strength left in me to feed a healthy temper. If I hadn't been so tired I'd have entered more spiritedly into the conflict."
"Can you give me one good reason, Hilda, for your remaining here any longer?"
In my earnestness I leaned across the table and took her hands in mine. Cold and lifeless, they lay huddled in my palms as though seeking warmth.
"None that would satisfy you," she replied. "I told you once how things were with me. Have you forgotten so soon?"
I made no reply, but stared hopelessly down at the tablecloth as mechanically I warmed her hands. To me there was still so much in life worth seeking that I found it hard to believe she had already abandoned the search.
"Come," she said at last. "You look altogether too dismal. Let's leave this place of mirth for outer darkness."
She led me to the back veranda of the house, where she made me sit down close beside her on the steps. In front of us hung the heavy curtain of the night, behind which the marshes lay concealed. It was a starless evening, the darkness being almost palpable. In vibrating waves of sound the chorus of night things rose from the grass. The scent of damp earth and vegetation floated through the air. The odor was reminiscent of an abandoned garden. Staring into the blackness I could picture what lay before me, an old, forgotten garden over-run with weeds.
"It's not so bad here, is it?" she said, settling herself comfortably.
"No," I replied, "but when I think of that great, black house behind us, I feel as if I were sitting on the edge of a grave."
"How comfortably you put things. Tell me, David, what's been happening to you? Your face looks as if some one had mistaken it for a pincushion."
"I've been out on the marshes with the mosquitoes."
"Yes. I was caught in a storm."
"That was dangerous. I should have been with you."
"That would have been the end of everything."
"Because it would have killed you."
"Would that have been the end? How do you know? It might have been the beginning."
"That's what I was trying to find out. It may have been foolish of me, but I was attempting to reach the island."
"Abjectly. I lost my wits and fled in terror. The rain and the reeds and the quicksand. I was sinking, going down slowly—it was like the dream."
"Not the real dream, David? Not your dream—our dream?"
With a feeling of guilt I remembered that I had never been honest with her about the dream, but had distorted the facts in my favor. She knew nothing about my leaving her night after night on the marshes and rushing back to shore. Partly for her sake, but more so for my own, I had kept much from her. Scarlet knew more about the true significance of the dream than she did. Even Elliott had heard a fairer version. I was troubled by this knowledge. Hilda's questioning voice broke in accusingly on my thoughts.
"It wasn't like the real dream?" she persisted. "The real dream isn't terrible?"
There was a quality of earnestness in her voice which made it impossible for me to continue the deception.
"Yes, Hilda, the real dream is terrible," I replied slowly. "At least, to me it is. My experience on the marshes was very much like it. If anything, I behaved less despicably in real life. That's why I'm troubled. I can't understand myself. I want to find out."
Looking straight in front of me, I told her then the true story of the dream, and the effect it had on me. As I recounted my repeated desertions, I felt as though I were going through some painful operation in which my character was being stripped of all protecting tissue. When I had finished I continued to stare ahead of me. I could hear Hilda breathing softly by my side. She made no reply, but I could see that she, too, was gazing across the night in the direction of the marshes. The silence became unendurable. I turned and looked her full in the face, then laughed abruptly in a false key.
"Well," I asked, "what do you think of your friend now?"
She started and returned my gaze, steadily and without reproach.
"It must be dreadful for you, David," she replied. "To think what you've been going through all summer, and I haven't known. Oh, why didn't you tell me?"
"Doesn't the dream itself answer that question?"
"No. How can you help what happens in a dream? And, after all, it is only a dream. You've no control over yourself when that comes on."
"It's an indication, Hilda."
"Oh, David, don't say that," she said, and there was a note of entreaty in her voice. "Don't try to make me believe that. Why, in reality, you risked your life out there on the marshes for the sake of a dream. It was partly for my sake, too. Isn't that an indication?"
"I proved myself a coward in either case, that's all."
"You mustn't talk like that," she pleaded. "Don't you see what you're doing?"
"I'm showing you what I am," I replied grimly.
She was silent for a while and when she spoke again I detected a note of sadness in her voice.
"It's only natural," she said. "It's to be expected. You've more to live for than I. There's nothing solid to which I care to return, nothing to call me back. I can afford to be fearless."
"But in your heart you're disappointed just the same," I said. "Can you truthfully tell me you're not?"
"Yes," she replied. "I can truthfully tell you that. If anything, I'm rather proud of you. It was a divinely inspired piece of madness, that venture of yours."
She moved down a step and with a little sigh rested her head against my knee.
"Don't let's talk about it any more," she said drowsily. "I feel as if I could rest with you. Once I was never tired, David. Now I'm never anything else."
I touched her neck lightly with the tips of my fingers, and sat motionless as her breathing grew more regular. The minutes slipped past and still she did not stir. Like a weary child, exhausted by the events of the day, she had fallen asleep beside me. A feeling of still happiness warmed my heart. I felt that I could be content always to sit there and guard her in her sleep. I could look at her now without the fear of troubling her with what she might see in my eyes. As I looked down at her small head, and the drooping outline of her body, a bright mist swam before my eyes and danced in the darkness surrounding me. Somewhere beneath that darkness the island lay floating on the marshes. I wondered if, after all, in spite of my doubts and fears, a refuge might not be waiting for us out there at the end of the dream.
ALTHOUGH the evening was well advanced when I left Hilda, I had no desire to return to the cottage. I was strangely alert and happy. An unfamiliar feeling of confidence stimulated my self-respect. I was warmed by a glow of hope. To check this heady sensation of well-being, this unaccountable lightness of heart, a warning voice within me kept asking, "Why should you be happy? For what is there to hope?" And unable to answer this insistent voice, I drove it from my ears. It was encroaching on my new-found sense of freedom, threatening to absorb it.
For some minutes I walked along the cliffs overhanging an invisible sea. From far below came the faint chiming of the surf. Like a shower of silver petals it fell through the silence. No moon, no stars, darkness, and the soft, moist breath of the night.
The narrow cliff path was taking me in the direction of the Ark, where the shelving rocks massed themselves against the waves. Hunter Aird occasionally haunted this spot at night. Moved by a desire to talk with him, I hastened my pace. It had been some time since I had last seen Aird, and now that I came to think of it, I found that I had rather missed his companionship. Of late I had been missing a lot of things. Hardly living at all. But now perhaps things would be different. Happier. Escape no longer seemed so hopelessly impossible. Hilda had been different tonight. I had been quick to notice it.
As I approached the Ark my expansive mood gradually subsided. I no longer felt eager to talk and was almost glad when Hunter Aird's angular figure was nowhere to be seen. For a moment I stood irresolutely studying the dim outline of the squat, amphibious structure. Sharp beams of light crept through its shuttered windows, and from within came the sound of shuffling feet, laughter, and loud voices. Suddenly the door flew open and a stream of light like a golden snake ran swiftly up the trunk of a stunted pine tree near which I was standing. A small fisherman, as though being urged by some powerful, but unseen force, lurched across the threshold as the door slammed behind him.
"They can all go to hell," he muttered comfortingly to himself as he regarded the door, then with drunken inconsistency he began to pound on it and plead for readmittance.
With sympathetic interest I listened to the mouthings of this small soul who had been ejected so unceremoniously from his alcoholic paradise. There was something fundamental in the earnestness of his entreaties. He was obviously sincere in his craving for drink and companionship. Then as suddenly as it had been closed behind him, the door flew open again and he was snatched from sight.
I had a vague impulse to follow him inside, if only to witness his joy at being received back into the fold. But it was not alone for this reason that I desired to enter the Ark. A recrudescence of the craving for excitement that had often plagued me in the city was again stirring. I had no real interest in the fortunes and flounderings of this drunken fisherman, but a strong desire to emulate his example. Like one endeavoring to shake off the familiar hand of an unwelcome companion, I turned impatiently from the door and made my way into the shadow of the rocks.
I hardly know whether or not a person can be both happy and depressed at the same time. Somewhere I think I once read in a book of a character's being "sadly happy" and, if I remember rightly, I thought at the time that the expression was a short cut to nowhere. But as I sat on the rocks and stared out at the dark sea, these two emotions—happiness and sorrow—seemed to blend harmoniously in me into a single mood of tranquillity. I felt that I was on the verge of some glorious fulfillment which, if denied me, would lead to life-long incompleteness.
The air was filled with the din of charging water, and occasionally scarves of spray brushed across my face. As my thoughts turned back to the evening I had spent with Hilda I involuntarily stroked my knee where her head had rested. For more than an hour she had slept peacefully beside me, and although my body had grown numb from the tenseness of its position, I had continued to let her sleep, for she seemed to be in mortal need of it. Later she had awakened with a start and had clung to me as though in fear of being taken away.
"David," she had said in an awed voice.
"Yes, Hilda, what is it?"
"It came to me, too."
"What came to you?"
"The dream. It came to me. Oh, David, it was just as you said, but there were other things."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "What were the other things?"
"You left me alone on the marshes, but on the shore I could see some one waiting for you—a woman. She was calling you back to her, David, and..."
"It was Scarlet."
I made no answer, and she continued hurriedly. "It was Scarlet, David, and I had the strangest feeling. It was so lonely and far away out there, and yet I had no desire to turn back. I felt that something wonderful was just ahead—peace, freedom, happiness. I can feel it still. But something restrained me from going alone. I wanted you, my friend. Around me the reeds were bristling like hostile spears. They were darting at my body and I seized them in my hands, and tore them away. I remember that I was dressed in white and my robe was pierced in many places. Then, flinging the reeds aside, I stretched out my arms and called to you as you fled back to her. The strange, unearthly half-light was draining out of the sky. Soon I would be left alone. I called you with all my strength, and in my heart there was a terrible pain—black emptiness. I wanted you to come back to me and hold me in your arms. I wanted you to kiss me, David, to take me... anything to keep you from that woman, but you went to her!"
She stifled a cry, and springing to her feet, covered her eyes with her hands. She was trembling violently.
"They're swaying," she whispered. "I can see them now, the long, slim reeds on the marshes. Swaying in the twilight like a sea of angry spears."
Then she dropped her hands to her sides and looked me straight in the eyes.
"I wanted you then, David," she said, "as a woman wants a man, and that's how I want you now, but there's more to it than that. I can't explain what I mean, but life—is—opening up... there's light at the end."
As I raised my eyes to hers and saw the undaunted light in them I think I experienced for one clear moment the most exquisite revelation of understanding a man can attain on earth. I felt as though my faculties had been sharpened and intensified, my sympathy extended, my perception deepened. Although Hilda appealed to me in a compellingly personal way, my feeling for her at that moment was almost selfless. It was like a great bird liberated after a long captivity, poised on strong wings and ready to mount into the air lanes of the sky out of pure joy for its tireless existence. I doubt if I saw the actual woman silently confronting me, for she seemed to have blended with life itself, and with something greater beyond. Then the contact snapped and she swayed forward, an expression of exhaustion shadowing her face.
"Take me in your arms and hold me," she said.
I had the strange feeling that I was holding not only her woman's body, but also something that could never be captured or claimed. It was as though some mysterious and beautiful being had brushed against me in its flight. Her head rested on my shoulder and her body relaxed. A feeling of hope stole into my heart like the first faint streaks of dawn. I held her lightly in my arms.
"First I sleep on your knee," she murmured, "then I move up to your shoulders. You're a great comfort, David."
"Now you're going to bed," I told her. "It's high time you did."
"I'll sleep better to-night, I think," she replied.
I took her to the stairs and watched her mount slowly up into the darkness. Once she looked down at me from the shadows and smiled.
"Don't worry," she called in a low voice. "I'm better now. You're not unhappy, are you?"
"No," I replied, "if you're not."
She turned her face back to the darkness and left me standing alone beneath the soft radiance of the hanging lamps. I wondered what would happen to us on the marshes when the dream returned that night.
As I left the house and walked down the driveway, it came to my mind that since dinner neither Scarlet nor Elliott had returned.
UNDER the hypnotic influence of the churning water I must have fallen into a light doze as my mind dwelt on the events of the evening, for suddenly I came back to a consciousness of my surroundings with a feeling that I was no longer alone. Glancing quickly round, I saw a tall figure standing behind me, and in my confusion I gained the impression that the figure was swaying unsteadily back and forth as though it were being fanned in the waves of mist drifting across the rocks.
"That you, Aird?" I asked uneasily.
"No, poet," came the thick-voiced reply. "What the hell would I be doing as Hunter Aird? I'm Elliott. John Elliott. You've met my wife."
Although I was startled by the unexpected presence of Elliott, my instinctive antagonism for the man restrained me from showing my feelings.
"Oh, yes," I replied indifferently. "I left her only a short time ago. We were wondering what had become of you and Scarlet."
"Wondering, were you? Well, I took her home. She's there now, for all I care a damn."
"Evidently your evening has not been an altogether pleasant one."
"Blood and fire one minute, claws the next," he muttered furiously as if to himself. "She's playing with me, but I know her little game and how to play it, too."
For some reason I experienced a feeling of satisfaction on hearing that Scarlet had made a dupe of Elliott. The knowledge pleased me more than I was willing to admit.
"What's the hour?" I asked, rising from the rocks.
At this he laughed and slapped me across the back.
"It's late, poet," he said. "Ever so late. Past three, I suspect. Poor poet, sitting alone by the waves. Is your stomach strong enough to stand whiskey? If it is I'll buy you a drink."
His invitation carried with it an element of challenge, and although I was loath to drink with him, a feeling of pride prompted me to accept. Also, for an altogether different reason, his invitation was not wholly unwelcome. Only a few more hours remained of the night and if I could find some satisfactory pretext to keep from going to bed I would thus be able to escape the dream and its unpleasant consequences. Deliberately to do this would seem like an act of cowardice, but to become involved in a situation from which it would be difficult to withdraw was surely sufficient justification to excuse me for missing the nightly ordeal. I made up my mind quickly and decided to accept.
"It used to be," I said.
"Let's see if it's changed," he replied with a light of triumph in his eyes.
Thrusting his arm through mine, he turned back to the Ark.
THE interior of the place was not altogether unexpected. Lanterns hung from the low cross- beams and the floor and tables were splashed here and there with shifting patches of light. Across one side of the room ran a long bar, against which, as we entered, three late drinkers were leaning in various stages of incompetence. Like age-old oaks enfeebled at last by the elements, these men were finding it difficult to realize that the ground was no longer firm beneath their feet. In order to convince themselves of their stability they were drinking with stubborn courage through the night. I recognized these worthy persons and greeted them as friends. In turn they nodded to me with solemn affability. To Elliott, after a weighty stare of ill-concealed hostility, they eloquently turned their broad backs and called for another drink. Their lack of cordiality was copiously offset by the obsequious attention of the owner who fussily arranged us at a table by which he stood caressing Elliott with his sleepy, red-rimmed eyes.
"Some of your Special, Mr. Elliott?" he suggested.
"Why not?" replied Elliott. "Bring the bottle, ice, and a couple of glasses."
The man laughed obediently and hastened to a locker which he proceeded to open with great unction and rattling of keys, as though he were endeavoring to draw the attention of his prized guest to the care he exercised in the conservation of his private stock. This fat, dull-looking creature, with his loose lips and dishonest eyes, aroused in me a feeling of profound dislike. The mere fact that he was so earnest in his efforts to please Elliott was enough to stimulate my antagonism. After one drink I conceived a desire to insult the man if only for the sake of his master.
"I don't like that person," I said, unreasonably, as I refilled my glass. "Send him away."
"Go away," commanded Elliott, with unexpected readiness. Like a whipped dog the owner withdrew to his bar.
Elliott was already partly drunk, and I suspected, in a rather unreliable mood. Behind his loose and untidy good nature there seemed to lurk a certain grim motive. In his bloodshot eyes, as they studied my face, I detected a red spark of malice. When I raised the glass to my lips, he smiled ironically and I set it down untouched.
"Why don't you drink it, poet?" he said. "It won't hurt you. It might even make you human."
"Like you, for example?" I asked, irritated in spite of myself.
He regarded me with smoldering eyes.
"What do you mean by that, Landor? Are you comparing yourself with me?"
"Yes, and to your disadvantage," I replied with a pleasurable glow of anger. "You were good enough to imply that if I drank your whiskey I might become human, meaning, of course, that as things stand I'm deficient in that greatly overestimated quality. I was merely wondering whether I'd rather be drunk and the way you are, or sober and the way I am. You see, our ideas of what it means to be human hardly coincide."
"Coincide, hell!" he exclaimed. "They're miles apart. If you'd like to know exactly what I think of you and all your damned ideas—"
"Pull in, Elliott," I warned, deliberately emptying my glass. "I've had enough of your opinions for one night. They're both childish and boring. Did you ask me in here to continue your insults?"
"Oh, poet," he said, extending a mollifying hand, "don't be so quick. We've so much in common, the pair of us... almost like brothers."
"What, for instance?" I asked with a faint inkling of the motive behind his drunken mood.
He smiled sleepily at me but made no reply. Presently he sagged forward in his chair, his eyes closed and his hand released the glass.
"What have we in common, Elliott?" I urged, feeling in the back-waters of my mind that in truth we were not so far apart. "Tell me, why are we like brothers?"
"So much in common," he muttered indistinctly. "So much in common. Just like brothers, we are, but I know her game, damn her eyes. She can't play it on me."
His muttering ended in a ponderous sigh, and he slept, his chin resting on his breast. Around the Ark the wind searched diligently and fingered at the shutters. The slap and fall of the surf as it lashed against the rocks drove through the air an insistent volley of sound, the drone of worried water. At the bar the three imperiled oaks were exchanging non-committal snatches of conversation, and at the far end of the room, well out of harm's way, a small, familiar figure lay sprawled across a table. I recognized in him the inebriated man who had been so roughly expelled from the Ark. Even now in his sleep he was clinging to the table with his stubby hands as though anticipating another expulsion. Behind the bar the owner was hovering watchfully near the fishermen, casting them from time to time a glance in which greed and apprehension furtively struggled for control. The minutes passed, the wind sucked at the building and the clamorous voice of the waves filled the air. From the huddled figure at the table snores issued with clock- like regularity. Beneath this medley of sound I sat in a peculiarly soothed frame of mind as the whiskey warmed my spirit. I was grateful for the bottle and reached for it to refill my glass, but as I moved, Elliott, bringing himself up with a start, automatically anticipated my intention.
"What's that, poet?" he said, his dull eyes fixed on my face. "Still there, I see. Want another drink?"
He manipulated the bottle unsteadily and gulped down half a glass of the liquor. This seemed to revive him. He settled back in his chair and looked round the room with aggressively brooding eyes. The fishermen held his attention.
"They're swine, poet," he said with a wave of his hand. "Swine. I hold their lives. Don't notice them."
At the sound of his voice the proprietor hurried joyfully from behind the bar and set before us as tribute a plate of cheese and crackers, across which he had placed with an erring sense of daintiness a large and deadly looking knife, which in former days had done heavier execution. Upon seeing the special attention being shown us, the fishermen muttered together, then laughed sarcastically.
"Don't notice them," cried Elliott, crumbling a cracker between his fingers. "They're swine, I tell you. Their lives are in my hands... like that."
The crumbs fell to the table as he opened his powerful hand. His eyes were blazing now and he was talking in a louder voice. As I looked thoughtfully at the knife, a little, unpleasant fancy, half-formed but fascinating, was shaping itself in my mind. For a moment I permitted myself to dwell upon it, and then I averted my eyes from the long blade and looked up at Elliott almost guiltily. He returned my gaze with a mocking expression. Irritated by his sense of power, I remarked.
"The swine seem to entertain very little regard for their master."
"So you've noticed that, have you, poet?" he asked, drawing his chair close to mine and throwing an arm across my shoulder. "Well, you've got a good pair of eyes in your head, my little man. I suppose you've also noticed that some one else isn't so fond of her master. How about that, my puny poet?"
I threw off his arm and pushed him from me, but his aggressive good nature seemed undisturbed. Still smiling cunningly, he poured himself out another drink and leered at me over the glass.
"Don't do that, poet," he said. "I'm fond of you because you're so fond of my wife. Let's come to an understanding. I'll take Scarlet and you can have—"
"Shut up, Elliott," I said. "You're drunk now or you wouldn't be talking like that—or, perhaps, you would."
Unsteadily he rose to his feet and once more threw an arm around my shoulder. This time he held me in a vice-like grip.
"Oh, the little man's angry," he admonished jeeringly. "What are you so particular about, anyway? Where have I been all summer?"
"Steady, Elliott," I said in a low voice. "You're making a fool of yourself. Let me go."
Tightening his grip, he breathed down in my face, a smile of cruel confidence distorting his lips.
"Don't be frightened, poet," he replied. "I'm fond of you. Want to know why I asked you in here tonight? Want to know?"
"Yes," I said. "Get it over with and sit down."
"You want to know, eh?" he continued teasingly. "Well, listen, poet. You're listening?"
"Yes. What is it?"
"Well, I asked you in here because you're in love with my wife. Do you understand now? Because you're a poor, puny little thing, a sneak, and I wanted to tell you about it."
I twisted free from his grasp, giving him a shove that sent him staggering across the room. He brought up against the bar, where he stood swaying with lowered head as he regarded me with a sarcastic smile.
"Good, little man," he taunted. "Why don't you get angry? Are you afraid of me?"
He held out his two great fists and waited. The men looked up from their glasses and regarded us with mild interest. The owner, behind the bar, stood transfixed, a bottle poised in his hand. A feeling of weakness overcame me. Trembling with suppressed rage I was forced to sit down. I realized that there was some truth in what Elliott had said. I had no desire to fight. Not in his way, at any rate. It would give me little satisfaction to bruise his body and tear at his flesh. He would still be in the world, as much of a problem as ever, as much of a menace to Hilda. If I could only kill him there would be some reason in it, something would be settled. Fighting was a mere waste of time—rumpling inefficiency. I hated it. The room was silent, and in the silence I sat wondering what I should do. Something must be done. I realized that. It was now too late to ward him off. His determination to force the issue was not solely due to liquor.
And all the time my eyes were resting on the knife, running absently along its blade, studying its heavy handle. What had it seen on the high seas, I wondered, as if to escape a perilous thought.
"Well, poet," I heard him saying. "You haven't done anything yet. I'm waiting. Are you dreaming about my wife?"
"Elliott," I said, making one last attempt to silence him. "Come over here and sit down. You don't know what you're doing now."
"Do you hear that, you swine?" he cried, turning to the men. "The poor little chap's afraid of his life, and he tried to tell me I don't know what I'm doing. I know, by God, that he's in love with my—"
I had done the thing. From the moment my eyes had rested on the knife the idea had been fixed in my mind. Before he could finish his sentence, the heavy weapon with a low whir flashed across the patches of light and struck him between the eyes. He took one step forward and held out his arm as though he would engage me in conversation and were only searching for the right word. Then a look of confusion clouded his eyes, and rocking gently on his feet, he buckled to the floor.
The three fishermen looked down at him with drunken curiosity but made no effort to go to his assistance. After a careful examination of the still body, they transferred their gaze to me and smiled blandly.
"You did it very nice, Mr. Landor," said one of them. "Too bad' it wasn't the blade."
The proprietor was crouching by Elliott and applying ice to his head.
"Help me lift him," he asked the men.
They stared at him sullenly, but made no answer. Discomfited by their silence, he screwed his fat neck around and looked at me over his shoulder.
"If he's dead," he said, "I'll see the constable knows."
"If he's dead," I replied, fascinated by the idea, "I think I'll make a good job of it and lay you out beside him."
The man shuddered and turned back to Elliott as though seeking comfort from his inanimate body. I resumed my chair at the table and poured myself out a drink.
Something told me that Elliott was not dead. Now that my anger was passed I was glad of it. To have killed him would have settled nothing. I realized that now. I would still have Hilda to deal with, one problem instead of another. But suppose he were dead. Suppose I had actually killed him. I started to my feet and crossed the room. Elliott's face was pallidly calm and across his forehead blood was flowing from an ugly bruise. As I looked down at the inert mass of flesh I began to feel a throbbing in my ears. A sensation of loneliness took hold of me.
"He isn't dead, is he?" I asked, hardly recognizing my own voice.
For the first time the fishermen became interested to the point of activity. One of them bent over and peered down into Elliott's face.
"He's not dead," he said regretfully, and resumed, with no little effort, an erect position. "He's breathing... like an ox."
I returned to my chair and sat down to wait until Elliott had revived. It would be interesting now to see what he would do. Finally, after half an hour of faithful endeavor, the efforts of the proprietor were successful. A shiver ran through Elliott's body and he opened his eyes.
"Give me a drink," he muttered.
The whiskey gave him strength, and soon, with the assistance of the delighted proprietor, he rose to his feet and stood clinging with one hand to the bar while in the other he held the knife. He seemed to be entirely sober now, and as I watched him I gained the impression that his mind was busily engaged in devising some unfathomable plan. I sat and waited, but he steadily refused to meet my eyes. When he did look up, there was an easy smile on his lips as he gazed thoughtfully at me. He was about to say something, but as if thinking better of it, he remained silent and continued to smile at his thoughts. The owner placed a chair beside him. He motioned the man away. When he had finished another glass of whiskey, he walked carefully across the room to the door, where he halted to look back at me.
"I don't have to dream about my wife," he said, pointing to me with the knife. "I've got her. Understand?"
He went out and quietly closed the door. The room became still and the three men returned to their glasses.
Elliott bore the scar but also the victory. His parting words were more painful for me to bear than any damage he could do to my body. With a feeling of utter defeat I rested my head on my hands and studied the grain in the table. Outside the wind tortured the sobbing pines. The proprietor moved slowly about the room taking the lanterns down from the crossbeams. In his secluded corner the sleeping fisherman continued to snore with unflagging energy. One of the oaks lurched from the bar and sprawled to the floor. Laughing like pleased children the remaining oaks gathered him up between them and dragged him away.
"It's morning now," said the owner in a husky voice.
WHEN I left the Ark, pools of daylight were lying among the clouds. Across the sea crept a putty-colored shadow pushing in front of it a wave of darkness. Ahead of me on the path thin columns of mist rose in the air and floated away among the trees like phantoms saddened by the approach of day. The chill of morning lay round me. My body felt cold and bloodless. Days seemed to have passed since I had set out from MacKellar's cottage to Elliott's house. Since then I had run the gamut of emotions, and now the reaction was setting in.
Years before, in my childhood, I had once stood in the early daylight and looked down at the frost clinging to some cinders my father had placed round a rose bush. I remembered those cinders now. Like them I was burned out and cold.
Smoothly the dawn flooded the sky, filling the pools with colors until at last they broke from their settings and merged into a sea of light in which the rose-tipped clouds floated like dream-built islands.
When I reached the grove I turned in, but hesitated before the heavy darkness of the place. It was as though night had selected this tunnel of trees as an avenue of escape. I had been too long already with the night and, despite my weariness, I was unable to bring myself to tread this passageway of gloom. With a feeling of relief I turned back to the path and walked along the cliffs. Far below me huddled the huts of the fishermen, spirals of smoke curling up from their chimneys. Already a few women were astir, busily engaged in collecting driftwood from the beach. A gull, poised for his plunge, hung over the ocean. As he dropped like a gray smudge through the air, I breathed a warning to the heedless fish below. There was a faint splash of water, then the gull rose with a quivering slip of silver in his claws, and circling inland over the tree tops, dropped like a thought.
Pondering over this daybreak tragedy, I continued along the path until I found myself standing once more in front of Elliott's gate. For a while I stood there studying the granite hand slowly breaking the life of its victim. My gaze dropped from the tortured deer and wandered across the lawn. I wondered whether Hilda was sleeping now or struggling back to life. In fancy I saw myself standing by her bed, waiting for her to open her eyes. Elliott's words returned. "I don't have to dream about my wife. I've got her."
A feeling of futility came over me. Without realizing what I was doing, I moved across the lawn. In my mind still floated a picture of Hilda lying asleep in bed. I was looking down at her—waiting. Her lashes parted and her eyes filled with impossible fulfillment as they rested on my face. Then she smiled and called my name and I, dropping to my knees beside the bed, took her face in my hands. "This will be the beginning of a new day," I murmured. "It will always be morning now."
Quietly I approached the house impelled by this vision. Forgotten now was the fatigue of the evening. I was conscious only of an overpowering desire to be with Hilda.
Then as though my mind had summoned her image, I saw her standing like a distracted apparition in a doorway of a deserted wing of the house. It was but a momentary glimpse before she was gone, wavering like a phantom down the garden path.
So unexpectedly had she flashed across my sight that for a moment I was unable to grasp the real significance of what I had seen. Strangely enough, as I gazed at the barren wing, I was reminded of a story I had once read in which a demented woman had escaped at dawn from an asylum. Hilda had looked much as I had imagined that woman had looked. In the one flash I had caught of her I had seen a stark-eyed creature with dishevelled hair and fluttering hands. For an instant she had stood there tugging at her robe, then melted from view down the garden path. I was disposed to believe that the incident had not occurred, that I had created an illusion of Hilda through association.
I took a few irresolute steps toward the path, and stopped, arrested by the conviction that Hilda had actually been present only a moment ago, and that even now she was somewhere near. In the light morning air a silk scarf was fluttering from a bush. Running across the lawn, I snatched the thing and examined it. There was no doubt. It was hers. I had seen her wearing it many times. I stuffed the scarf into my pocket and started down the path to the garden. The place was deserted. A scent of damp earth and decaying vegetation still lingered in the air, vividly bringing back to me the night just passed when together we had sat on the steps. I glanced quickly up at them, my heart heavy with misgiving.
"Hilda," I called, then spying a path at the end of the abandoned garden, I ran down it, repeatedly calling her name. At the sound of my voice startled wings fluttered in the thicket. The bushes were in the conspiracy. No answer.
Soon I was in the open fields that rose in little hillocks and cantered to the marshes. As I tore through the high, interfering grass it occurred to me that possibly Hilda had fled to the pavilion hidden away among the reeds. Altering my course, I ran in that direction. There were no daisies now. I remember thinking of that. Then as I mounted the next hillock I caught a glimpse of a white figure swaying on the brink of the hidden declivity.
"Hilda!" I called.
The figure crumpled. It dropped from view.
SHE was lying among the reeds, crying softly to herself. When I tried to take her hands from her face she resisted and turned away. To my question she made no reply, but continued to sob in a low unbalanced voice. It was disquieting to hear. From time to time she shuddered and attempted to crawl away among the reeds. Her robe had fallen from her shoulders, leaving her back and arms bare. Only a light nightdress protected her. As though she were a child I gathered her up in my arms and carried her through the reeds. When I placed her on the mat she clung to me, her face hidden in my coat. For some minutes I held her while convulsive sobs shook her body. Then gradually they decreased and she became quiet.
"Hilda," I said.
"Not now, David," she pleaded. "Wait."
Beneath the assault of the newly risen sun, the fog was melting from the marshes. Here and there waves of mist remained floating lightly above the reeds, like small clouds grazing. The island lay bright and clean in its deep, green setting. Round it sparkled the band of water and between the tall trees were narrow panels of the blue sky. Hilda began to speak in a muffled voice, her face still buried in my coat.
"It was dawn, David," she said. "I must have gone off you know, as I do. When I came to, his eyes, all bleared were looking down into mine, close, horrible eyes."
She caught her breath, then continued in a quiet voice, "My body felt crushed and broken. I could hardly breathe. I'm that way now, struggling—"
She put her hand to her throat. An animal noise hurt her. "He had taken me, David, taken me like flesh while I was unconscious. He laughed when I ran from the room. I can hear him still. That's all," she added helplessly. "You see? It's just that."
My arms fell limply from her. As though paralyzed I sat gazing out across the marshes. There was no feeling in me, nothing. I merely wanted to sit there forever, never to speak, never to stir, never to hope nor think. Hilda's sobs fell painfully on the silence, and I became aware that she was calling my name and looking at me. It made no difference now, I would listen, but I should never again be interested.
"But you mustn't mind," she was saying. "Not like that, I mean. It makes no difference, David. It can't make any difference. A thing like that has no place in life, no meaning. I'm the same now as before. Can't you see I'm the same? Look at me, my ally! Oh! Look at me! Body and soul I'm the same. David, do you hear?"
I looked down into her eyes and noticed with a start that tears were dropping from them. "She has been crucified," I thought, as I absently touched a tear with the tip of one of my fingers. Then something gave way within me and my arms went round her crumpled body.
"This will be the beginning of a new day," I heard myself saying. "It will always be morning now. Stop crying, Hilda."
"If you will," she said.
IT was decided that Hilda should go. After what had happened she felt that she could remain no longer under the same roof with Elliott.
"Even a dog has a right to a corner," she said, "but he has succeeded in driving me from mine."
"But where will you go?" I asked her.
"To another corner," she replied indifferently.
She was calmer now and had moved a little away from me. On her wan face there was an expression of resolution and in her bearing there was something aloof, almost bitter. This new mood of hers was the more difficult for me to bear because in it there was something remote, something I was unable to share.
"I don't know exactly where that corner will be," she continued, "but I'd like to start out for it in a ship. The isolation of a temporarily detached universe might give me a sense of security. No walls, no lurking shadows, no corridors of fear."
For a few moments she remained silent, contemplating the picture her words had evoked, then she went on reminiscently:
"Years ago my mother took me across. It must have been in another world, a different life... he wasn't in it then. I can hear now the slap of the waves and the steady throbbing of the engines. And the little rainbows that chased each other across the bow. I can see them as if it were only yesterday. They used to fascinate me, those little rainbows looping through the spray. It might help me out a little now if I tried to repeat the experience. What do you think, David? It might even bring back something of the past in which he had no part—ah, David, don't look so frozen."
My frozen expression, as Hilda had put it, was due to the fact that she had decided to leave as she had always said she would. In her escape I was only to be indirectly involved. At first she had refused to allow me to accompany her even a part of the way, but in the face of my insistent entreaties she had finally consented that I should help her to find a refuge. After that there was to be a separation.
"It's as much for your sake as it is for mine," she said "You must see how it is... things are in the way. My ideas are all upset. There were other problems once, but now they will always remain unsolved."
She looked at me strangely and smiled, then added, as though to herself, "To begin life again I must first be renewed and readjusted. There are no emotions left. I'm empty."
Although I turned an unsympathetic ear to her words I felt something of her meaning. More than her body had been outraged. She was entitled at least to herself. But the thought of the separation facing me destroyed my sense of justice. In its place I experienced a feeling of stubborn resentment.
"I know what you're thinking," she continued, studying my face with considering eyes. "You're trying to make yourself believe that I'm abandoning you, taking myself out of your life, but you're wrong there. Won't you understand and try to help a little? We're different now. You must realize that."
"It's just you, Hilda," I replied without daring to look at her. "There's nothing else. How things will be with me when you're gone I can't say. I'm not very admirable, you know. The voices in the jungle... I'm afraid of them. They whisper. You've never heard."
"How do you know?" she replied, laying her hand on my arm. "Perhaps I, too, have heard them as well as other voices—more insistent ones. We have more to hope for now than we had before."
"Do you mean that some day we shall always be together?" I asked.
"That thought has occurred to me," she replied with an enigmatic smile. "But first we must find the way. Will you follow if I lead?"
"I'll try," I said. "God knows I want to."
"Then meet me here to-night," she answered, rising painfully from the reeds. "It will be our last rendezvous, David. We must scheme like two conspirators, for to-morrow I start on the search."
As though moved by the same thought, we turned and gazed in silence toward the island.
IN a bewildering confusion of mind I spent the remainder of the day wandering purposelessly about the neck of land, revisiting in search of comfort and distraction the places I had grown fond of during the course of the summer. The thing that had befallen Hilda lay like a live coal at the core of my heart, smoldering there until at times it threatened to consume in a surge of rage all other emotions in me. Only the knowledge that no action must be taken that would endanger Hilda's chances of escape gained immunity for Elliott. At this, perhaps the turning point in her life, she was expecting me to stand by her. There was no place in her scheme of things for the satisfaction of personal revenge. Furthermore, I was unable to rid myself of the belief that in a way I had been partly responsible for her suffering. Had I not lost my temper with Elliott, the thing might never have occurred. By my actions at the Ark I had contributed directly to the outrage. Elliott was not alone to blame. Through him I had struck Hilda. Another half turn of the knife and things would have been different.
Then, too, I rather suspected that under a forced spirit of courage, Hilda was endeavoring to make it easier for me, and that, in reality, she was creeping away like a stricken creature to heal her wounds in secret, or else to die of them alone. But she had told me that we had more to hope for now than ever before. Surely she could have meant but one thing by that. Hitherto, the gulf between us had been too wide for bridging, but now, because of this recent tragedy, we were being brought closer together. As I stood by the marshes this thought gained ascendancy in my mind. "It will always be morning now," I repeated to myself, and this single sentence summed up for me all that I hoped for in life—morning, the freshness of a new day, Hilda.
At the cottage I attempted, as far as it was possible, to avoid MacKellar. This was not difficult to do, for already he was absorbed in making sketches for a new canvas. However, he caught me once as I was passing through the room and fastened me with his keen old eyes.
"What's the matter with you?" he demanded. "You don't seem to have any place to sit down. Are there no chairs in this house?"
In spite of my fondness for him, I could not bring myself to tell him what had happened to Hilda. I was trying to forget the thing myself and the fact that another person also shared the knowledge would only serve as a reminder. Anyway, he was better off as it was.
"Come here," he said when he saw me searching for an answer. "Who blew hell's fire into your eyes? Has anything happened—something you can't stand, I mean?"
"Hilda's going away," I said.
"When?" he asked without looking up from his sketch. "Are you going away, too?"
"To-morrow," I replied. "No, only part of the way."
"Then you'll come back?"
"Perhaps, Hugh, but I don't think so. It would be strange here without her, wouldn't it?"
"Not any stranger than it is now with both of you ramping about, but, just the same, you'd better come back—that is, if you think you could."
I made no reply, and he went on, "Did she know you were going to tell me—I mean, did she send any message?"
Without thinking, I answered, "No."
"Well, she's doing the right thing," he said after a pause. "You needn't tell her I wish her luck, but I do. Should have done it years ago. You'd better come back, though. Think you will?"
"I'll try, Hugh."
For a moment he studied my face, then he said, "I don't know what it's all about, but, of course, I have my suspicions. You've been so irrational this summer that I've about given you up as hopeless, but remember, if you want anything that I have, it's yours—and hers. Now, for God's sake, go away and be lovelorn somewhere else."
"Some day we may all be together again," I suggested.
"Connecting rooms in a mad house," he muttered, turning back to his work.
As I walked down through the grove Scarlet leaned out of her window and waved to me. At that moment I saw her only vaguely, as though a mist had drifted between us.
THE chill of Fall lay round me and in the air there was a feeling of the ending of things. Summer was flowing out, bearing on its current a host of intimate associations, none of which would ever return in quite its original mood. The future was uncertain and insecure. To- morrow life would be radically altered. Hilda would drop out of it, and I should be left alone. As I considered the approaching separation, resentment rose up within me. It seemed hardly loyal of her to abandon me in her flight. Now that she had finally committed herself to a new life and was about to gain her freedom, I felt that I was entitled to share it with her. As I made my way across the dark fields to the pavilion by the marshes, this feeling was uppermost in my mind. She had said that it was to be "our last little rendezvous," and the needlessness of the thing irritated me.
Then, without purpose or reason, Scarlet's face floated before me in the darkness. Her full lips were parted and her eyes smiled mockingly at me, leading me on. In them I read a promise of swift and immediate solace. Already the voices in the jungle were beginning to whisper, and already I found myself hearkening to their invitation. With a feeling of revulsion, I passed my hand in front of me to erase the vision from the night. It was gone, and in its place I gazed up at the stenciled sky. The cold perfection of the stars gave me a sensation of loss. Those gleaming points of gold, so remote from life, plagued me with their beauty. In their exquisite aloofness there was something both cruel and stupid. I was seized with a desire to pluck them from their settings and toss them into the sea—anything to blur their clear-cut splendor.
When I parted the reeds, Hilda was already there. The light scarf which I had snatched from the bush that morning lay across her shoulders. She was sitting with her back towards me, and as I stepped into the clearing, I gained the impression that she had been gazing for some minutes at the indistinct outline of the island. At the sound of my step behind her she turned quickly and looked up at me with a shade of fear in her eyes. It was pitiful to see. Then she smiled and held out her hand. I took it in silence and stood looking down at her. Something in the situation brought back to me a night at the beginning of summer when I had stood on the beach and looked down at her as she sat between the two great rocks. That night now seemed to belong to an imagined existence, and I wondered if this night, too, would in time become merely another tormenting reminder of the past.
"There were little waves then," I said absently. "I can hear them now running along the beach... like songs within a dream they sounded."
"And I watched you from the shadow of the rocks," she replied, continuing my thought. "You looked so odd as you stalked through the sand."
"You said as much at the time," I remarked.
"Was it years ago or only a night?" she asked musingly. "Are we the same persons now, or have those two ceased forever to exist? Do you know, David?"
"All I know is that I'm seeing you for the last time," I replied, "and that you're going away to-morrow. I can think of nothing else. It stifles me, even the thought."
"But why do you say for the last time?" she demanded, closely watching my face.
"I don't know. I feel it. Don't you?"
"See," she said in an altered voice, disregarding my question, "I have dressed for the occasion."
Even in the dim light I was able to see that she had made some special effort with her toilet as though hoping to leave me with a beautiful memory of this last evening together.
"It's a new dress, David," she continued. "He has never seen me in it."
Her voice sounded strained, and a wave of fellowship momentarily swept aside the feeling of resentment I had been harboring against her all day.
"I can't believe it's over," I muttered. "I can't believe you're going. This part is the dream."
"It seems strange," she replied, "to leave all this behind and to know that you'll be here seeing it, breathing it, living it, sitting here at night and wondering to yourself about things. Never to look at the marshes again or to follow the path by the cliffs—it makes me feel lonely already, all lost and still inside."
"But some day we may come back together," I suggested.
"Not until that old, bleak house has been destroyed by fire and its ruins turned beneath the plow," she replied, prophetically. "On that day we shall return together and sit here by the marshes."
"Then let me go with you now!" I cried.
"Don't, David," she said. "I hate to hear you plead."
Once more the feeling of resentment claimed my thoughts and I looked impatiently away.
"We've only a short time left," she continued. "I must hurry back to-night, and I wanted you to remember this evening happily, always happily, David."
"That will be impossible until we are together again," I replied shortly.
"Then when I call you must come to me quickly," she said.
"But will you call?"
"Listen to me, David," she said in an odd, low voice. "I shall call and you will hear me, but whether you'll answer me or not I can't say. Only remember this, I shall never abandon you, never. You may wander far in search of me and grow weary in the quest, but as long as a spark of hope remains alive in you the path will still be open."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She made no answer and for a time we sat in silence, her bare white arm and shoulder brushing against my sleeve. Unable to stand the silence, and endeavoring to ward off a desire that was taking possession of me, I began to explain to her the details of the flight. At first she listened attentively, but as I continued to talk I could see that she was no longer interested in what I was saying. Like an obedient schoolgirl whose mind was obviously elsewhere engaged, she sat beside me, looking curiously into my face. Finally, as if desirous of ending the interview, she said, "Yes, David. I'll do that."
"What?" I asked.
"Wait for you down the road until you come along with the carriage. My maid is to carry the bags and we're both to stand in the woods. David."
"What's to become of the little sloop? I hate to leave it behind. It's almost a part of me—the happy part."
"It will stay behind with me, I'm afraid."
"But you're going to see me off—the last of me."
"And I'll wave to you until you grow so small—just a little speck of friendship, and then that too will fade from view,... David!"
She rose to her feet and stood with her face buried in her hands.
"Can I do it?" she whispered. "Can I?"
Her shoulders shook and dry sobs broke from her lips. I sprang from the reeds and took her in my arms, and at the touch of her body I lost control. She dropped her hands and looked into my eyes. There was something she saw in them that made her draw back. This movement served only to intensify my desire and I held her the more fiercely, pressing my lips to her neck. A shudder ran through her and her body stiffened against mine.
"David, David, David," she whispered, beating me back with her hands. "Friends to the end—ah, David, friends!"
With one hand I forced her head back to kiss her lips, then her resistance ceased and she lay limply in my arms, her head thrown back and a twisted smile on her lips.
"And you, too, David?" she said with a note of irony in her voice. "Go on."
The life went out of my arms and I released her. She sank to the reeds at my feet. In a dazed way I looked down at her, then with a feeling of unspeakable regret, I raised my eyes to the cold, unchanging stars. A wan moon set in a pool of yellow haze had floated out across the sky, casting over the stars a spume of mist. Everything seemed confused and shattered. Hilda rose to her feet.
"Good night," she said in a calm voice, and held out her hand. "I'll try to remember all you've told me about to- morrow."
I helped her up the embankment, unable to speak, but when she had taken a few steps from me I managed to call after her: "Good night, Hilda. I'm sorry."
She stopped and hesitated, then with impulsive directness turned and retraced her steps through the clinging grass. I was conscious of a loveliness in her, more poignant than I had ever before experienced. She seemed to be lifted out of herself as if some unknown but exalted force were inspiring her emotions. I felt that she was no longer a part of her environment, that she had transcended life itself. With a feeling of adoration, sharply edged with pain, I raised my eyes to hers and drank in the beauty and tenderness of her face. I tried to speak, but could only mutter incoherently.
"I know how it is," she said, and held out her arms to me. "Kiss me now, David."
For a moment I clung to her as her lips brushed lightly across mine.
"Poor old thing," she whispered. "Don't worry. I understand."
A moment later she was only a shadow moving through the fields.
OVERTAXED by the events of the past two days, and exhausted from lack of sleep, I returned to the cottage. More than ever now I feared the coming of the dream. Although my body cried out for rest, my mind, as though aware of danger, still fought against taking the plunge into the weird unconsciousness inevitably induced by sleep.
The house was dark and I went directly to my room. Once the door was closed, I undressed rapidly and threw myself down on the bed, but the moment my body touched the sheets my veins seemed to tingle with fire. As often in the past I had found myself unable to rest under the strain of mental and physical excitement, a spirit of restlessness now overcame my fatigue. With renewed force my resentment against Hilda returned. If she had understood so well, why had she fought so desperately against me? On our last night together why had she made herself so aloof and unattainable? Why had she been like the stars, flawless and remote, serving only to reveal the depth of my own imperfection? I thought of her neck and shoulders, and the delicacy of her skin so smooth and white and close to me, brushing against my arm. My lips had touched her neck and the memory thrilled through me. Motionless I lay on the bed striving to beat back the corroding impulses that were scorching the most sacred thing in my life. Her woman's beauty drugged my senses, filling me with unsatisfied longing. My arms, rigid against my sides, ached to hold her body.
Then as if to protect Hilda against the assault of my unleashed passion, once more Scarlet's face floated across my vision. I closed my eyes to dwell on her disturbing charm.
When I opened them again, Scarlet was in the room. Like an oriental idol she stood revealed in the drifting light of the moon, her body gleaming through a gauze of black. Her hair, arranged across her head in a high fantastic wave, shone like lacquered teakwood. The moonlight lent it luster.
Silently she moved toward the bed, pausing at each step to listen while her great black eyes rested on my face—alert, devouring, caressing. Preceding her there swam through the air an oppressive wave of perfume beneath which my nerves quivered.
As she approached the bed I watched her through half- closed lids, and not until she leaned over me and covered my mouth with her lips did I show her that I was aware of her overpowering nearness.
SCARLET had triumphed; but it was not until several hours had passed, and she had stolen from the room as silently as she had entered, that I realized the full extent of her victory—and my defeat. Even then I endeavored to stay the flood of realization by seeking an outlet in some trivial form of action. Brushing away the drug-like perfume still lingering in the air, I glanced with dull eyes around the room, and wondered what had become of the moon. Only a moment ago, it seemed, the room had been drenched with its light, which now had drifted away leaving darkness behind. For some reason it became important for me to find out where the moon had gone. I submerged myself in this single interest, and as though destroying some damning piece of evidence, I tossed the sheets aside and felt my way to the window.
The grove was dark and still. Far away in a corner of the sky there was a hint of radiance seeping through a cloud. The moon was there, retreating. Soon even that feeble haze of light would be withdrawn. I shivered nervously and returned to bed. The moment my head touched the pillow, sleep smote my jangled mind with numbing force, and I crumpled into the unconscious.
Then came the dream. I saw Hilda far away on the green plain, moving like a white flame through the reeds. A form—half woman, half beast—was holding me to the shore. It was soft and warm, and beautiful, and it clung to me with shameful and maddening caresses. Although I endured the embrace of its arms I could not bring myself to look at the creature, but kept my eyes fixed on Hilda. Standing now before the island, she was looking back at me. I hesitated and she still waited, her arms outheld to me in an attitude of supplication. When I failed to respond, her arms dropped to her sides, and with bowed head she moved over the narrow band of water separating her from the island. It was then that I tore myself from the hot circle of those tawny arms and rushed out over the marshes in pursuit of Hilda. At the edge of the island she turned and looked back once more with an expression of infinite sadness in her eyes. Then she held out her arms to me and I thought that her lips framed my name. Thus she stood there, waiting with an encouraging smile. Filled with unconquerable terror, I stopped. Hilda turned, and with a last backward look, vanished among the trees. With all my heart I longed to follow her; but now that she was gone, melted forever from the eyes of the world, I lacked the courage to continue alone. I tried to call her name, but no sound came to my lips. Invisible wings were in the air and running feet fled past me. Over the marshes darkness was creeping as the yellow radiance faded above the island. I turned back to the dark figure waiting for me on the shore. But when its arms were once more thrown round my neck there came to me a sudden and overpowering realization of loss. Hilda was gone—dead!
With this knowledge beating at my heart I awoke and sprang from the bed. As I threw on my clothes a voice kept whispering monotonously in my brain, "Hilda is dead. Hilda is dead." Like the beating of those invisible wings across the marshes, the echo of her death was chanted in my ears in muffled waves of sorrow. "Hilda is dead. Hilda is dead." I should never again see her in life. I should never touch her hand or hear the sound of her voice. Hilda was dead. I had let her die. I had let her go out alone.
Then came the cry to my lips, and reason vanished. I had a vague consciousness of tearing open the door and of rushing from the cottage. There were dark trees ahead of me. They were flying past. Wind moved through their branches. It was waiting to strike me down. As I ran sobbing voices in the wind cried after me: "Hilda is dead. Hilda is dead."
I was standing in the dark hallway of Elliott's house. Here the dawn was reluctant to enter and the place felt damp and cheerless. As I hurried up the stairs I remembered that Hilda had once referred to the position of her room. She had seen me from its window as I waited outside in the road. I now groped my way down a dark corridor to where I thought her room was situated. On the way I opened several doors and called her name.
Like a lost breath my words floated through the hall.
At the end of the passage I threw open the last door and entered the room. Then I stopped and a great calmness touched me.
Like a glorious promise the light of dawn rested on her face. Gone now were the lines of suffering, only peace remained. Through the open window a fresh breeze blew in from the sea. In me room there was a sense of freedom and space. There was something almost joyous in the air.
"It will always be morning now," I thought as I looked down at the calm, untroubled face. "Morning for you."
Still hoping that she would awake and smile up at me, I waited, but in my heart I knew that Hilda was past all earthly waking. Her lips would never smile, her lashes never part. I took her face between my hands and the coldness of her skin brought to me the full realization of her departure. Without tears, without sorrow, almost as though seeking rest, I let my head drop to the pillow beside her. A little later a light step hurried across the carpet. Then a strong hand was placed on my shoulder, and I was lifted to my feet. Absently, and without the slightest interest, I studied Elliott's face and noticed that the scar on his forehead had turned from vivid red to blue. He would always bear that mark.
"It was the dream," I explained, absently. "I knew she was gone. I saw her go among the trees... like a flame."
"Damn your dreams to hell!" he cried. "They've robbed me of my wife."
For some reason I smiled at this huge, threatening creature. In his senseless anger, there was something comically out of key. He had lost a piece of property.
"Yes, Elliott," I replied. "The dreamer wins. You didn't want her, anyway."
He raised his arm to strike me, then let it fall to his side. With an expression of fear in his eyes he looked down at the silent figure. At the foot of the bed stood the maid, sobbing quietly, her fingers pecking at the railing. I, too, looked down at Hilda with the knowledge that it would be for the last time, but I knew also that I was not leaving her here behind me. She was out somewhere in the dawn. She was free. I took her hand and rubbed it mechanically in an effort to give it warmth, then placing it gently on the sheet, I turned to the maid with a new suspicion in my mind.
"Didn't she tell you that she had intended to go away to- day?" I asked.
"No, sir," she replied, "but last night she said 'Good- by' to me and not just 'Good night,' as she usually did. I thought it was funny at the time, her saying 'Good-by' and not just 'Good night' like she always used to."
Elliott was drawing away from the bed as though repelled by the sight of death. As I walked to the door he followed me.
"It will be lonely for you now, Landor," he said, and this time he smiled.
"Yes," I replied, looking back at Hilda's sunbright face. "It will be lonely now—always. Already it's shutting down."
WHEN I reached the house Scarlet was standing in the door and at the sight of her my heart was filled with loathing.
"Has anything happened?" she asked.
"She's dead," I replied mechanically.
Her white teeth were startlingly bared. Then her eyes grew soft.
"David," she said, "come back to me."
Without answering I turned away. It occurred to me that she had just said a terrible thing, but why I was unable to decide. Instinctively I sought the pavilion by the marshes.
The day was flowing in and life was beating round me. As I crouched on the mat of reeds and stared blindly at the island, the chirping of birds and trilling of insects rose in a wave of sound. With a golden shout the sun had come into the sky. The day had begun and life was surging back. In the air there was a feeling of speed and reawakening. Hilda was gone, and the world was rushing ahead. It would not wait. Hilda was gone and beneath the glad, imperious flood of sunlight I was alone. In my ears was a steady throbbing like the far-off beating of drums. I should always be alone now... throughout all the days of my life. In my heart I cried to Hilda to send across the marshes the dream I no longer feared. Far away on the island the trees tossed their branches as a buoyant wind circled down the sky. It was a fair, bright day. Life sparkled in the keen air. And in the midst of all this beauty I knelt on the mat of reeds as solitary a creature as the first man in the world—or the last.
AS a man drifts down the stream of his days, the trees standing out on the bank become more beautiful to him, and more eloquent with memory. Old thoughts and fancies, interrupted by the vigorous stages of the journey, return again, like tattered friends, and with them comes a host of haunting associations. Humbled a bit in spirit by the disillusioning years, the traveler welcomes back with secretive eagerness his first conceptions of the meaning and purpose of life, hugging them almost guiltily to his heart to keep them safe from the laughter of a generation that has not yet learned to laugh.
To what good end has he driven his bark so speedily along? What purpose has been served by contesting the right of way down the river? Futile miles. One has hardly had a chance to enjoy the scenery. And what is left? An old man in a battered craft. A dumb, solitary soul on the broad surface of an unknown stream. Only a vista or so stand out ahead. Soon they too will fade.
Thus drifts the traveler with shipped oars and a leaking boat. His eyes are fixed on the bank. He is content now to drift and dream. There is little enough time left, God knows, for a man to sit still and take his bearings. And in gazing thus with reawakened appreciation upon beauty long cast aside, the traveler is sometimes spared the sharp terror of the descent that plunges him into the silent pool of oblivion, where first thoughts and last are merged in a cry for life as life goes shuddering out. No time left for appreciation. The trees fade, the old heart breaks, and the stream continues on. In a single moment the man with all his little complications has become shockingly simplified. Nothing remains of him now but a froth of memory to which credit or blame is attached according to the charity of those who sit in judgment. Death has either solved his problems or erased them. And the stream goes on untroubled.
ALL around me there is life. I feel it keenly to-day, it is so intense and real. Its loveliness bears an authentic touch, its colors and fragrance are genuine. In its very simplicity there is something gripping to those who must soon give it up. Little details such as the groove of a worm through the dust, the fungus on a fallen tree, or the glint of a wing in the bush, mean remarkably more to me now than they did in the so-called idealistic days of my youth. Now when I am an emotional bankrupt, I long most to leave behind some fitting appreciation of the things my eyes have seen and the songs my ears have heard. The revolt of age is grimmer than that of youth. Youth goes forward gloriously with shouts and noisy defiance, while age fights on in silence and oftentimes in shame.
I am alone here and there are trees around me, trees, silence, and sunlight, and the dusty smell of bark. A furtive breeze is creeping through the forest. Here and there an eddy lifts a last year's leaf, peers under it, then drops it back again. Each snapping twig deepens my sense of solitude, each stirring thing is a delight and a mystery to me. They bind me to the past and establish a link with life, yet every bit of beauty that claims my eyes serves only to remind me that, so far as I am concerned, both life and beauty have already been squandered in the market places of the world.
With the tips of my fingers I touch things—bark and woodland grass—and through my veins there passes a feeling of kinship with all growing things, a knowledge of their life, an understanding of their ways. If I would ever look on the face of God I should dwell in the heart of a forest. Yet even here I am bound to earth by a thousand clinging ties.
In vastly different surroundings a strain of this same feeling has come to me, and because of this I am led to marvel at a man's ability to delude himself, at his almost perverted determination to peek at life through his fingers rather than to scan its face.
I was dining at a place in Amalfi, and my head was among the stars. The low sky was powdered with them. I had merely to raise my hand in order to pluck one from its setting and to hurl it into the Mediterranean, slumbering at my feet. A breeze swept down from the heights, leaving a song alive in the olive trees. I glanced about me and felt at peace as my eyes, encountering the eyes of the women diners, lingered to admire the beauty of their arms and the poise of their well- groomed heads. With my senses made acute by wine, and my spirit lulled by the music, a feeling of acceptance came over me. "This," I said to myself with arrogant complacency, "is how the gods once dined when pagans ruled the earth." I loved it all and seemed to understand it. But even then, as I drank from a glass the cost of which would have fed some poor, starved devil, even then in the warm glow of my contentment the nagging thought returned to me that while I dined on manufactured romance, somewhere human souls were being stifled in dark places.
The stars no longer encircled my head, the women became what they were, and the sentimental purring of the orchestra aroused in me a desire to kick the baton from the leader's hand and to flood the place with a torrent of healthy vulgarity.
I rose then from the table and insulted the first person I met, a harmless creature who stood in blank amazement as I made my way from the terrace. People turned and gazed at me, remarking my evil face, and they were right so to do, but I paid no attention to their words. Within me a thought was burning and I clung to it because I knew that it was real.
There was a dirty tavern high up on the dark side of the hill. Men came there to drink and spit, and occasionally they fought. Ideas were worth while there. Even while they cheated each other, these people still believed in things.
I came to this place, a bundle of words and scathing indictments. Beneath the low roof of the tavern I crucified myself. Every one agreed with what I said, every one understood. A girl came over to me and placed her hand on my lips. I told her that she was very much in the way. She laughed, and I began to forget what I was saying. Wine and more wine, the moving of chairs and scraping of feet.
In the midst of this, the Ark came back to me. I heard the drum of the surf, and caught the spirit of the old ship. Suddenly my thought came through and I knew what it was I wanted.
To begin with I wanted to cry, but a funny little man sitting earnestly in a corner aroused my mirth. He was all whiskers and good intentions, but hopelessly drunk. As I made an effort to reach his table, some one placed a glass in my hand. I stopped to drink, but the girl was all around me. No one seemed to object. The room had apparently decided that I should be placed in her care. I resented this. I resented everything. There was something I wanted to do, a place I wanted to see. And I was tired of waiting. I sat down at a table and buried my head in my arms.
When I woke up I was lying in the woods. From behind me came the steady drip of water. It made me nervous. I got to my feet and stood clinging to a tree. There was the girl with her stockings down and her strong legs cut and bruised. She seemed remarkably crumpled and childish. As I studied her face the thought returned to me again. There was a place I wanted to see. I was tired of all this. Standing there in the freshness of the dawn, with the fever of the night behind me, I came to a decision. Then with a feeling of thankfulness I dropped down by the girl. She opened her eyes and smiled sleepily, and her arms curved round my shoulders.
"Don't cry," she murmured. "Don't cry."
And now, as I sit here miles and miles away from that high place in Amalfi, I want to know what it is that a man should love. In God's name what? Certainly not his duty, for the very meaning of the word is too negative and arbitrary. Women? Poor devils, they are human too and as a consequence incomplete and filled with their own troubles. Himself? No comfort there. He is either hiding or on the search. At best he is an unreliable companion, too easily convinced and too quickly aroused to suspicion.
I have come back to the place that I love. I have come back in search of a dream. It seems ridiculous, yet to me it is the only real thing in life, the only thing that matters. If I cannot find it here, there is no place on earth where I can find it. I have tried and failed. Here where I lost the dream I must capture it again, or lose it forever. It is strange that I should have grown old with this fixed idea in my mind. In all other things I am rational enough. People consider me sane. That's the disturbing part of it—perhaps I am sane.
ALL day long and all this week I have been recapitulating my life in an abandoned shack on the beach. The place was turned over to me by a fisherman, who has just completed a house consisting of two rooms instead of one.
Since I returned to this neck of land I have been to the pavilion by the marshes many times, and on each occasion I have been unable to shake off the impression that I was being watched.
This evening, when I had finished writing, I left the shack and returned to the woods, where already spring is well advanced and little shoots of green are thrusting themselves up between the faded brown of old, dead leaves. At sunset my feet turned instinctively toward the marshes. When I reached the pavilion I knelt on the mat and gazed across the reeds at the island sharply outlined against the red glare of the dropping sun. As I strained my eyes to pierce the mystery lying behind the trees, a flood of longing mounted in me, and I began to speak aloud as though in prayer.
"Hilda," I said, "look at me. Look at me now and see what the years have done. Look at me. I offer myself to your eyes. See—in my face the world has written its story. You can trace there the lines of passion and self-indulgence. Look deeper and you will see the soiled print of life stamped on my very soul. I have loved myself and the world. I have clung to little immediate things. I have sought other women and given to each one of them something of myself. You can see that. It is written plainly. I have always felt that you have known. But look again, look deeper. Do you not see one clear flame burning amid the ruins of an altar? Muddy feet have trampled the place and left their tracks behind, but the flame still burns. Look now, I beg you, and recognize the one real thing in my life. You must see it. You must know it. I have nothing else to offer. Across the false grounds of the marshes send back the dream to me. I am ready to come to you now. See, I am here on my knees. I am calling to you. Do you hear? Can you see? Send back the dream to me. Hilda.... Oh, my love!"
My voice failed, a feeling of weakness came over me and I fell forward on my face. In the cool air of the evening my forehead was bathed in sweat. The island had faded from view and darkness settled on the marshes.
"Send back a call," I whispered "Some little sign, something to show you have heard."
Silence and darkness. Then a breath of air passed through the reeds.
SOME minutes later, when I struggled up the embankment and stood knee deep in the weeds and undergrowth, I experienced again the feeling that some one was watching me. Not more than ten yards off I made out a clump of solid blackness even deeper than the night surrounding it. Under ordinary circumstances I should have taken the object for one of the many bushes dotting the field, but to-night I was not so easily reassured. In its very stillness there was something alert and watchful, something suggestive of a crouching form. Then almost imperceptibly the clump melted into the night and a moment later from across the field came the swish of running feet.
TO walk on ground revisited after a number of years is a little like walking on yourself. Something of you, some little spark, has entered into the very soil. It has felt the light touch of your toe and the heavy searching of your foot. The earth has known you intimately. It has tasted of your tears and been gladdened by the sound of your laughter. In it you have stamped a print of the past which now you read with a remembering eye. Each stone and each tree has a special significance. Other people may pass that way, but they will never see what you have seen nor feel what you have felt. The place is yours, for in a sense it is you. And if some old landmark happens to be missing, you feel as though a member had been cut from your own body. The memory is not complete.
A part of my youth is interred in the sod of this-place. Though the ground has been covered by many seasons of fallen leaves and the grass has withered and grown again, something of the person that once was, remains hidden here beneath the leaves and grass.
ON the morning following my adventure by the marshes, I rose early and walked through the wet woods. After I had gone a short way the feeling that I was being followed returned to me. Unable to shake off this impression, I made a detour among the trees before I returned to the path. Although I was unable to discover a trace of any living being, I was convinced that I heard a pursuing whisper running through the leaves.
When I emerged from the woods I found myself in the presence of the Ark. It was much like looking on the transfigured corpse of an old friend. The remains of the tavern were far more picturesque than its memory. Nothing was left of the housing save a mass of moist planks and rotting timbers charitably garnished with patches of moss. The old ship in its last stages of decay had regained a suggestion of its lost dignity. Around the ruins the stunted pines still clung to the shallow soil, their ragged arms extended as if in mock benediction over the crumbling bones of the Ark.
Turning from this melancholy spectacle, I climbed laboriously over the shelving rocks until I had reached the point where the great stone finger arches down into the sea. A curtain of glinting spray sprang up before my eyes and dimmed the tumbling ocean. I felt like a solitary traveler amid the ruins of a deserted city. At my back and sides rose a demolished citadel of jagged rocks, in front of me stretched the lonely leagues of the sea. All inland sounds were drowned by the roar of its waves. In this spot even thought was petrified.
For a long time I stood there looking blankly out at the lurching plain of green. My mind was as empty as the ocean I was facing. It seemed to me that I had come to the end of thought and would dream on forever. Then I turned my back on the ocean. My clothes were drenched with spray. Twenty years before I had moved across these rocks with an untroubled step and a firm limb, but now as I picked my way among them I was forced to exert my strength to the utmost to achieve the steep ascent.
TO-DAY I visited the cottage in the grove. Several times before I had planned to do this, but a feeling of reluctance had held me back. Above my head the birds darted through the trees with the same diligent air of secrecy that had amused me twenty years before. Secure in their leafy domain, they were still playing at being afraid, like children in a dusky garret. As I walked through the grove I could hardly believe that the years had passed. Where were they hiding themselves with all their precious loot? Were they behind the trees laughing at my poverty? With a feeling of protest I looked about me. The grove was empty, but I was almost certain that I heard voices whispering among the trees.
Like myself, the house had died a little. Its door stood open and the interior was filled with shadows. The years had left it friendless. There was much in common between the cottage and myself. Both of us were empty shells from which life and purpose had withdrawn.
Plundering time had ironically tossed aside those things which served best to recall the past. The low divan where Scarlet had once reclined was still in place. It was dust- covered now and crumpled. And the long table, the scene of so many disorderly meals, had not moved an inch from its old position. Every object my eyes encountered spoke eloquently of personal things—the stairs leading to the upper floor, the fireplace heaped with litter, and the hung door to the kitchen. Evidently no tenants had occupied the cottage since MacKellar's régime. For twenty years it had remained much as he had left it. As I glanced about me, I felt that at any moment he might come fuming out of the shadows to begin work on a new canvas.
Preoccupied with my thoughts, I walked over to the table and sat down. A piece of flimsy cloth was lying on the dusty surface. For some minutes I regarded the thing idly, then something vaguely reminiscent made me pick it up. As I did so I caught a sudden picture of MacKellar standing by the fireplace. In one hand he was holding his brushes and in the other a piece of cloth. The picture faded, but the impression remained. I bent over the cloth and examined it closely. It was smeared with streaks of faded color. Had I discovered some rare object of antiquity hidden for centuries amid the ruins of a tomb, I could not have been more impressed than I was as I sat there gazing at this dust-covered bit of stuff. Hugh had held it in his hands. It had tasted the paint of his brushes.
In the dusk of the room he stood before me as he had stood so often in the past, a square, untidy figure, his eyes snapping with animation and his hands making swift little motions in the air.
"Hugh," I whispered, extending my arms to the shadows, "why am I so terribly alone? You were once a living part of this place. Are things over with you? Is there no word you can speak to me now?"
The room grew dark and I felt the presence of some one at my back. Mastering my first impulse to spring to my feet, I waited, every muscle in my body painfully taut. Then, as though only a day had passed since we had last met, John Elliott's voice prosaically broke the silence.
"Good afternoon, Landor," he said. "This comes under the heading of a pleasant surprise."
He had aged, but in spite of his burnt-out appearance there clung to him a sense of power as though his spirit were stubbornly defying extinction. With some malicious intent it was making use of a dead body—inhabiting a mummy. Even his actions seemed automatic, and for that reason more weird to observe. He gave the impression of being a sort of manufactured thing endowed with a sly tenacity of purpose. The flesh had fallen away from his gaunt frame, and his Hair, now thin and listless, had turned completely white. There were deep lines in his face, and round his drooping mouth a look of defeat had settled. But in spite of these ravages of time his eyes blazed as fiercely as ever beneath his heavy brows. In his general bearing there remained a suggestion of the suave and debonair character of former days. His crazy eyes were fairly sparkling with cordiality.
"Why pleasant?" I asked at last. "And why particularly a surprise? Did you think I had died?"
"I was afraid," he began, then hesitated, correcting himself with a smile. "I have often wondered about it."
"Why were you afraid?" I continued, delving behind his words.
"It wasn't fear so much," he said. "I just didn't want you to die. Why should I, Landor?"
"You always hated me," I answered. "Your solicitude did not spring from friendship nor does your pleasure now on seeing me again. What is it? Do you still feel jealous of a dream? Do you still fear it?"
He turned from the table and walked across the room, then wheeled about and faced me.
"Haven't you outgrown that?" he demanded. "Are you still harping on your dream? Are you so mad as to believe that there was any relation between that dream of yours and her—her going?"
"I do," I answered quietly. "And so do you."
"Is that why you've come back?" he asked. "Are you looking for your dream?"
"I am," I replied, smiling at him. "I've come back to find it. And you're about the only person in the world who can understand why."
He walked over to the fireplace and stood with his back to me. I remained seated at the table, waiting for his reply. The conversation had taken a revealing turn. I was interested to see how far he would commit himself.
"Your dream will never return," he said in a low voice.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's too impossible."
"That's hardly a reason."
He looked back at me with a questioning light in his eyes.
"Elliott," I continued, "in your heart you know it will return."
"No, by God!" he flung back, his face growing dark, then as if struck by a new thought, he smiled and added, "If you are so sure yourself, Landor, let me put this cottage at your disposal. Would you consider the offer? It was here that you found your precious dream. The old surroundings might help. What do you say?"
Although I well realized that he had some unpleasant motive behind his invitation, I was tempted to accept. The cottage drew me.
"You're very kind," I replied after a moment's thought. "I should like to live here again."
"Good!" he exclaimed, coming over to me and extending his hand. "I'm glad you have the courage of your convictions. Will you dine with me to-night?"
"Why not?" I said, disregarding his hand. "In a way there is a bond between us. Perhaps it will be severed soon. I hope so, at any rate."
As he looked at me, the smile froze on his lips. It was a remarkable thing to witness. His dead cheeks sagged, and his body, which a moment before had been tense from some inner excitement, gradually became flabby. The man seemed to be decomposing before my eyes. It was as though some piece of clockwork concealed within him had suddenly run down. Even his eyes burned dim. Several times he looked about him helplessly, his long, nervous fingers plucking at his mouth, then with difficulty he cleared his throat. It was plain to see that he was craving something, craving it desperately.
"Do you want water?" I asked, motioning to the kitchen. His behavior was beginning to alarm me.
"Water," he repeated, licking his dry lips. "No, that's not it. Not water."
With an effort he crossed the room, his legs moving clumsily and his body swaying forward. His arms had a mechanical and uncoordinated appearance. Something in his bearing reminded me of the night when he had dragged himself from the Ark. At the door he stopped and twisted his face round until his lost eyes met mine.
"Then I'll be going now," he said, in a flat voice, "but I'll look for you this evening."
I followed him to the door and stood looking after him as he shambled across the lawn. With a feeling of growing uneasiness I wondered what could have come over him. Before he disappeared from view, he stopped and looked back at the cottage, his fingers still plucking at his pouch-like cheeks.
THE gravel crunching beneath my feet sent an unpleasant sensation along my spine. Almost automatically my thoughts reverted to the evening when Scarlet and I had walked up this same driveway together. Even now as it had then, the light was failing and on either side of the drive the ragged lawn drifted away into deepening shadows. Above my head the wind sifted wakefully through the trees. In its thin, whispering voice there was an ominous note. It was not a part of the wind that stirred in the woods or that came in from the sea. It seemed as if it had escaped from some unhappy place and taken refuge in Elliott's trees, where for years it had lain like a soul in pain writhing among the leaves. It gave me a feeling of far-off things silently yet surely approaching... events that could afford to bide their time.
Like a man treading a maze of memories I climbed the steps to the veranda. No one was there to meet me. The place seemed even older than my awakened memories, more remote, more chilling, more cut off from the past. But when I stepped into the great hall the past was there indeed. Here as at the cottage, little seemed to have changed. If possible there was more disorder and a greater littering of furniture—a low divan or so and a table heaped with jars and bottles. In other days the smell of the hall had been moldy, now it had become vicious with some heavy perfume.
Something almost personal in this incense-like atmosphere made me uneasy. A new fear crept into my heart. Through a distant doorway at the other end of the hall I caught a glimpse of the marshes—a vivid sector of green slashed with the gray coils of the waterways. The island was out there somewhere, the island we had watched together. A curtain stirred and I saw a woman standing behind it in an attitude of fear. She appeared to be a servant.
"Good evening," I said, and the figure withdrew into the darkness of the room. "So would the island withdraw," I thought, "into the darkness of the night."
A woman was slowly descending the stairs, her eyes fixed curiously on my face as her hand slipped caressingly over the bannister.
It was an odd thing that when I saw Scarlet again I scarcely realized her. At that moment she was a nebulous association in a chain of thoughts. As a living, tangible person, an actual part of the present, she had no meaning. I seemed to be looking far beyond her down a vista peopled with unrelated incidents, things I had known and felt, but which I had left behind in some other land—in another world. Once more I saw Hugh MacKellar, once more I caught a picture of Hilda running through the fields, and oddly enough, I saw my old Aird sitting alone like a lost gull on the rocks. It was not until Scarlet had drawn near me and subjected me to a close scrutiny that I felt as I had so often felt before, the physical influence of her presence. I became aware of my own body and distrustful of my mind. Something of the old antagonism flamed up in me anew.
When she spoke I was arrested by the familiar sound of her voice, its deep, hateful quality. For some reason I had expected it to be changed, coarser if anything, and more arrogant, but her voice was the voice I had never forgotten, and when she called my name I felt that in truth the years had been standing still behind the curtains of the hall. Neither had she changed greatly physically. Her face had grown a trifle grosser, her lips less firm and more sensual, and shadows had settled permanently beneath her dark eyes. The youthful spring I had once secretly admired had now almost left her body, giving to her movements a slow but compelling force. Although her figure was fuller now, it was more dominating, more primitively appealing. Beneath the folds of a yellow robe it seemed to spurn concealment.
"What on earth are you doing here after such an unsociable absence?" she asked in an easy tone.
"Looking for something," I answered. "Following old tracks."
"You've waited too long, David," she said. "The scent has grown cold. Only the living can give you dreams. I offered to do so once. Do you remember that?"
"It's one of the memories I've always tried to forget."
"Thanks so much," she remarked, dropping to one of the divans and arranging the pillows behind her with studied preoccupation. "It pleases me to know that I made at least a lasting impression."
"It would hardly please you to know what kind of an impression it was."
"Come, David. That's not sporting. I refuse to quarrel with you at this moment. You haven't even been thoughtful enough to touch my hand, and you know I'm really dying to discover if you're real. You were once, but you've changed a lot."
"The years have shown scant discrimination. I'm old now and you're still young, in a sense. Time has been generous with you, given you what you wanted. Me it has ridden heavily."
"Not quite," she interrupted. "I never made a complete conquest. Is there still a chance... any sparks?"
Her hot palm pressed against mine as she suddenly twisted on the divan and pulled at a tasseled cord hanging from the wall. Two curtains parted, disclosing the picture Hugh MacKellar had painted of her many years before. The incident occurred so quickly that she seemed to have disrobed before me.
"Look," she commanded in a low voice. "Look, David. Is not that better than a dream?"
"Very dramatic," I replied, "but you were always a bit stagy. That thing destroys dreams. You've never understood."
Her eyes sought mine, and her fingers clutching round my hand, drew me toward her.
"Is this the answer?" she asked, looking at our clasped hands. "Is this all, David, you whom I have watched for days?"
"Quite," I said abruptly. "More than I ever thought I could bring myself to bear. Cover that picture up. You're silly to draw the comparison."
"Then at least we can take a drink together," she cried with unexpected friendliness as she rose from the divan. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, David, but some day I'll break your heart."
From the table she took a bottle and poured a golden, translucent fluid into two glasses, offering me one of them.
"I drink to your return," she said, "and may you never depart."
As I looked at the glass in my hand the old desire for excitement and forgetfulness once more stirred in me. I recalled the night at the Ark and my futile years abroad. Even the words she had spoken added to my fear. In my own soul I realized that I was far weaker than either she or her husband knew. Nevertheless a spirit of bravado compelled me to respond to her toast. As I raised the glass to my lips I was again aware that a servant girl was watching me from the curtains. She seemed to be trying to communicate with me in an inarticulate way.
At this moment Elliott joined us, and when he too had taken a drink, we sat down near Scarlet and talked about the many changes that had taken place in our lives since last we had been together. Elliott spoke easily and interestingly about various countries that he and Scarlet had visited. In India, he told me with real animation, he had made a study of Eastern occultism, and had become deeply interested in it. Amateurish, of course, but he had learned some things, gained an insight, a mere divination.
The remarkable change that had taken place in the man since the afternoon surprised me. He was no longer now the crumpled creature I had watched shamble across the lawn. His eyes had regained their luster, his voice was firm and self- possessed, his whole bearing bespoke confidence and vigor. Still there was an air about him which gave me the impression that beneath his easy manner he was laboring with some form of repressed excitement.
Elliott drank less frequently than either Scarlet or myself. Once when the conversation flagged he left the hall for a short time. Scarlet poured me a drink just before he returned. Without taking any apparent effect on my mind, the wine was gradually filling me with a sort of contented excitement. All fear and distrust had left me, and with their leaving I was surprised to discover that I no longer disliked my companions. In fact it seemed only natural for the three of us to be sitting there again... the remaining participants in a remote tragedy. The pale hands of the past had reached out and gathered us together again.
The furtive servant brought us food which we ate in our chairs, Scarlet on her divan. I merely pretended to eat as the wine warmed through my body.
It was no longer necessary to try to be entertaining. The only thing that worried me was the face of the servant. It was always in the shadow, yet always turned to me. The air in the hall, had become heavy with smoke. Waves of perfume drifted through it.
"Quite a party," remarked Scarlet as she regarded her husband slouched with closed eyes in his chair. I was puzzled to see him in this attitude. He had scarcely taken anything.
"Do you like it?" I asked, sitting down by her divan and throwing my head back. "I haven't been this way for years."
From a far-off black sky her eyes looked down into mine. A white arm uncoiled and wound itself round my neck. I touched her wrist with the tips of my fingers.
Floating figures filled the darkness, the graceful forms of women writhing through garlands of smoke. While I was studiously intent on following the movements of these figures Scarlet's face approached mine. I could see it slowly descending from the sky, a pallid face with sharp eyes. The situation awoke a memory... the memory of a dream....
I was standing again by the salt marshes and a woman's arms covered with yellow fur were twisted round my neck And the woman who looked at me had the face of a beast—no it was more the face of an obscene carving with thick, sucking lips. The woman leaned against me and as she did so I felt myself being drawn down into the marshes. The mud rose over us and the woman's body clung to mine.
I flung off this memory of a dream and rose from the floor. Scarlet's arms were still extended to me as though thrust from the mud.
"Don't be a fool," she whispered. "It's too late for heroics now—too late for anything but this. He'll stay asleep."
The dream-like cadence of the surf drifted up from the beach. I turned away and listened. Then as if in answer to a familiar voice I walked down the hall and out of the house. The chant of the surf rose up to meet me.
FROM where I am sitting I catch a glimpse of the ocean. A phantom boat is scudding there and a voice in my heart cries, "Head in! Head in!" But the boat holds to its course, then fades from the floor of the sea. Like a sailor cast on a hostile shore I try to trace its whereabouts.
DOWN by the remains of the Ark, where we had first met, I found him again. He was sitting on a shelving rock as though he had never moved. A forlorn figure, he was, looking patiently out to sea for vanished wings.
When Aird held up his hand to me and smiled, the swift transition of his expression immediately dispelled whatever doubt I had previously entertained. In his quiet way he was delighted, and an answering spark of warmth sprang up amid the ruck and litter of my heart, making it feel a little lighter for the friendship of this man. His ability to contain his emotions aroused in me both envy and admiration. And once more, the thought came to me that I had been going through life stamped with the mortifying brand of the emotionalist. I even doubted if I were capable of feeling anything sincerely. For twenty years I had been cherishing an ideal merely to satisfy a false mood.
About Hunter Aird there was no disconcerting overflow of greeting, no hung explanations or forced summaries. He merely shook my hand and turned back to his everlasting sea. When I had seated myself beside him, he asked in a quiet voice, "Well, Landor, how has it worked out for you?"
"By 'it' you mean what?" I parried.
"Things in general," he said, "and you in particular."
"I've kept on living," I replied, "if that's what you mean, but there wasn't any virtue in that. I've lived so that I might look, and I looked so that I might cease to live."
He smiled and said, "Complicated, but characteristic. You never were an easy person to follow."
"You know, Aird," I continued after a moment's silence, "it's a weak thing to say and a cowardly way to feel, but I can't help it—the more I see of life the more I want death. For years it's been like that with me."
"You're courting a veiled woman," he replied gravely. "That's what interests you. Her face may be lovely or it may be—"
"A tragic mask?"
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I've always liked to think of the hereafter as being a place where we'd be able to collect all our happy memories and make them live again."
"And the unhappy ones?"
"They'll float around in the background for the sake of contrast. An hereafter would be a depressing place without its lights and shades."
Under the heckling of the wind the waves were herding in, their arching backs ponderously moving shoreward. I could have stayed on there forever, listening to the pounding of the surf and feeling the moist wind against my face. There was peace here, and contentment, and a release from all the brooding things that lay behind. Already I was beginning to feel rested and refreshed. Aird's voice broke in on my thoughts.
"By the way," he asked, "where have you been putting up since your return?"
I told him about the deserted shack on the beach, mentioning the fact that Elliott had placed his cottage at my disposal. In doing so I endeavored to make my voice sound unstudied, but for some reason it had a defensive ring.
"That was surprisingly thoughtful of John Elliott," he remarked when I had finished. "Have you been to see him?"
"Only once," I replied guiltily. "I dined there the other night."
"Then you know that he married the girl you used to call Scarlet?"
"Naturally," I said, a little resentfully. "I wasn't greatly surprised. I seem to have lost the faculty."
"I'm living alone now, David," he said. "The gingerbread days are over; the old lady has gone. I was only thinking that if at any time you happen to need a berth there's a room over at my place. You can see the island from its windows and at sunset there's a good view. I think you'd like it at the cottage. It's quiet there—almost too quiet."
He broke off rather lamely, like one in doubt of his ground. Although I well understood his invitation had been extended in my best interests, I was unable to check an unreasonable, almost childish feeling of resentment. I deliberately convinced myself that he was trying to meddle in my affairs, that he was attempting to save me from Scarlet and John Elliott, and thereby implying that I lacked the strength to save myself. Perhaps he already suspected something. Perhaps he knew how morally flabby I had become. His quiet, inquiring eyes irritated me. They were altogether too honest and friendly. My head was beginning to ache, and peace had fled from my heart. A desire for the yellow wine returned to me, taking possession of my mind. Why was this man annoying me, placing in my way an opportunity to escape when I had almost resigned myself to captivity?
He rose from the rock and stood with his eyes bent on the far reaches of the ocean, where already the night was gathering. I followed his example and stood beside him. I was trembling slightly now and the fear that he might notice this irritated me the more. Then he turned and looked me squarely in the eyes.
"David," he said quietly, "God knows what it is, but something is hurting you. You seem to have lost part of yourself, and you're afraid to get it back. For some reason you're angry with me now. In a minute you'll probably be telling me to mind my own business, and that's just what I'm going to do. Just the same I want you to remember that I've asked you to make use of my cottage, and that the invitation still holds good. The place is yours whenever you want it—or need it."
"Tell me first what's your objection to Elliott and his wife," I asked stubbornly.
"They're not right," he said in an even voice, "and you know it. Their life is one of debauchery and despair. They're morally and physically rotten. That's what I object to. If I remember rightly there was never any love lost between you and John Elliott. Why do you begin to defend him now? Has he changed so greatly since you saw him last, or have you? Do you know what the fishermen call his house, so evil has its reputation become? They call it the 'Mad- house,' and that's what it is—literally. One of the girls who worked there for a while—a girl brought up from the beach—oh, well, she's a drug fiend now. How did that happen? You must have noticed something, felt something, or did the place please you?"
He held out his hand to me, but I pretended not to notice his action. It suited me to hurt both myself and him. Some devil was squeezing my soul. I could feel his malicious hands beating down the friendly words trying to pass my lips. I wanted with all my heart to accept Aird's invitation, to go immediately with him to his cottage, yet something prevented me. He hesitated and then turned slowly away, looking more forlorn and solitary than ever. When he had gone but a few paces, I wanted to call him back to say a few words showing that I was grateful, but the words would not come. With a feeling of wretchedness I sat down on the rocks and waited for the night to come in from the sea.
LATE that night I heard footsteps in the cottage. This time I was convinced my imagination was not involved. Some one was downstairs, moving slowly across the room. A chair scraped against the floor, then silence—a tense, waiting silence. The sounds began again. I heard them on the stairs, then in the hall, then just outside my door. Like a hunted animal, I slipped from my bed and, crouching in a corner, fumbled for some matches. My fingers were trembling so violently that I was unable to strike a light. The door opened softly, and with its opening, even deeper darkness flooded the room. Then unexpectedly my muscles relaxed and I regained my composure. Although I was unable to see her, I was aware of Scarlet's presence. Her perfume pervaded the room. I struck a match and caught a flash of her pallid face. Before she had time to recover from her surprise, I walked over to the table and lit the lamp. We stood facing each other without speaking, then my nerves snapped.
"What do you want here?" I asked in a sharp voice.
She made no answer, but continued to stand in the door, her eyes fixed on my face. In spite of myself I could not help but admire the intense quality of her beauty, and the consummate art she used in setting it off. Some women are artificially natural, while others are naturally artificial. Scarlet belonged to the latter class. To the end she would retain the physical glory of her body. Nevertheless, as I studied her closely, I knew that something had gone out of her. She was no longer secure in the claim of her beauty. Her confidence had failed.
She was dressed outlandishly, and yet one could hardly think of her as wearing any other costume. Her neck and shoulders were bare, and round her body was wound a black shawl, figured with leaves of gold. Through her hair was twisted a band of olive-colored silk.
The silence became oppressive; I began to drum impatiently on the table.
"What do you want here?" I repeated, my voice sounding strange in my ears.
She remained silent, but a contemptuous smile touched her lips.
"Damn it!" I cried, springing from my chair and advancing across the room. "Answer me."
She stopped smiling and looked at me with an expression of infinite cunning.
"Come in or get out," I added in a quieter tone.
She walked across the room, and drawing a bottle from the folds of her scarf, placed it on the table.
"Were you expecting me?" she said, with a nervous laugh. "Well, I didn't come unprepared."
There was something unnatural in the way she spoke. In her eyes burned a feverish light.
"I've been expecting you for some time," I replied.
"The same modest old David," she said, sitting down. "Always glad to see one."
Her restless fingers were playing with a thin silver chain tucked in at her breast.
"Not necessarily," I threw back. "Any animal will follow its prey, whether it happens to be fat or lean."
"That doesn't insult me at all," she said "It rather pleases me. I can see the picture. I love it. A tigress. She is moving through the green shade of the jungle like a swift shadow. And she is urged on by a desire for blood. Can't you see it, David?"
As she spoke she rose from the chair and stood confronting me with blazing eyes, her body swaying as though she were lashing herself to a rage.
"Can't you see it?" she repeated in a coarse voice. "It's green and hot and moist."
As she moved slowly round the table I watched her. Between her painted lips there was a glimpse of strong white teeth. The excitement of her mood was contaminating. In the silence I heard the pounding of my heart.
"You see it," she said, laughing confidently. "You see it well enough. Don't pretend. Don't stand there like that. You're one of us... you've always been. See the tigress? See her?"
She paused and measured me with her eyes.
"Then if you don't see her," she cried, "feel her!"
The full weight of her body struck me and her teeth cut into the skin of my shoulder. It was confusing to feel her lips enclosing so much pain. I staggered back to the wall and made an effort to thrust her from me.
"Fool!" she cried in a choking voice. "Here and here and here!"
The hot life of her body surged through mine, and the darting pains in my shoulder, instead of arousing anger, awoke in me an answering spark of frenzy.
"The tigress has captured her prey," she whispered, pressing her lips to my neck.
My arms held her.
"David!" she said, and her startled eyes met mine. "David!"
Then her head fell forward and she buckled in my arms. The light faded from her eyes like breath from a mirror. As I struggled to support the dead weight of her body, I felt dazed and unprepared. Her arms dropped from my neck and sagged behind her.
I carried her to the bed and stood looking down at her, my mind filled with conflicting thoughts.
"It's green," she murmured, "green and hot and moist... and we are there in the twilight.... Can't you see it, David?"
Opening her heavy eyes, she looked at me dreamily, then she smiled and her lids closed. Her breath rose and fell regularly as though she were sleeping, her body relaxed voluptuously, and one bare arm slid down over the side of the bed. I went to the table and stood there with my back to the sleeping woman. It seemed to me that hours had passed before I was able to bring myself to move.
Finally I sat down and drank a glass of wine. In a short time a kindling radiance enveloped my body. I rose from the table and approached the bed. She must have felt my hand moving across her shoulder, for she smiled in her stupor and murmured something I was unable to understand. At the sound of her voice I drew back and walked to the window.
How dark and secretive the world had become. Even nature was conspiring against me, driving me back into the room where Scarlet lay and the yellow wine glowed in the lamplight. In sheer rage I beat my hands on the sill until my knuckles bled, then with an oath I faced about and confronted the room as I would an antagonist. There was Scarlet on the bed and the wine on the table—an abundance of blessings at my disposal. I chose the wine and drank avidly. The room became peopled with the white floating figures. They twisted up under the lamp shade, yellow light gilding their breasts and thighs—white floating figures, curving slowly through the air, holding out their arms to me from the shadows. I wondered where Hilda was. And then I saw her. She was standing at the end of a dark tunnel, and her back was turned to me. She was facing a green, sloping country. Without looking back, she drifted into the light. Nothing remained but a strip of green, then that faded from view, and I found myself gazing down at Scarlet. With a twinge of fear I returned to the table where some wine still remained in the bottle. I drank this down and threw on my clothes. If I stayed longer in the room I should eternally regret it. While I dressed I fumbled at the lamp until I had succeeded in extinguishing its flame. In the darkness that followed I heard Scarlet's regular breathing. Then the room dropped away and I became a stranger to time and space.
When reason returned to me I was standing in the cheerless light of a damp dawn by the ruins of the Ark. I was wet and muddy from head to foot, and at the knee of my trousers there was a jagged rent disclosing a clot of stiffened blood. With indifferent eyes I studied the scar, and endeavored to piece together the events of the night. There had been wine and a lot of trees, a nightmare of trees, and before that there had been a jungle, a hot, moist jungle, and Scarlet lying on my bed. Yes, that was it. I could see her white neck and arms and the curve of her breasts. Hilda had been there too, and gone away. I remembered clearly. She had gone into a sloping land where it was green, but she hadn't looked back, and now she would never know that I had been watching her from the other end of the tunnel.
I considered the Ark and the idea occurred to me that it would be highly appropriate were I to lie down among the rotten old timbers and become a part of them. At this thought I laughed aloud, but stopped suddenly. I had left Scarlet in the cottage and no doubt she was still there. I would go back to see. If she had not gone I should drive her from the place.
When I was only a short distance from the cottage, I stopped and drew back into the bushes. Like a debauched goddess, Scarlet was making her way across the lawn. What conflicting impulses surged up in my heart as I watched her weary departure through the dawn.
THIS morning it is as though Summer had cast across both land and sea a mantle of enchantment. In the flight of a night nature has intensified herself. I gaze with a sensation of sharp delight on scenes which have somehow changed, although they are the same as those I have been looking on for many days, I recognize the things around me—the trees, the grass, and the shrubs—and yet they are all different. Through the deep arteries of the earth one can feel the flooding in of life. There is new loveliness in the world.
The sea looks clean and bright. One would swear that it had been but freshly painted. Like a sparkling surface of electric blue, it arches across the world to a sharp horizon now clear of clouds and mist. One would like to run shouting over that painted floor and become intimate with space. There is a South wind to-day. As it spills over the high cliffs, it leaves behind the fragrance of the flowers it cooled in the woods. The strip of beach below looks neat and clean. Women are down there busy with the nets, and far away, like a colony of tents, the fishing fleet is bending to the wind.
Yet in the midst of all this beauty I feel unclean.
Perhaps that's the reason for my reawakened appreciation of the world around me. I have withdrawn somewhat and am no longer a part of it. By my own actions I have sacrificed the right to claim kinship with the things I love. Even the trees must resent the humble caress of my hand. I have receded from the world and all its friendly things.
Well, then, let it go, for this morning a strange thing happened, and for the time being, at least, the world has spun back to its natural orbit.
When it happened I was standing in the abandoned garden at the back of Elliott's house. From the corner of my eyes I could see the high steps on which I had once sat with Hilda. I tried not to look at them and I tried not to think, but memories kept rising to the surface of my brain like flowers floating on a dark pool and opening their petals to the night.
She had fallen asleep with her head resting on my knee, her neck wearily curved and her arms drooping. Yes, it had been like that, and later I had held her in my arms, and then she had mounted the stairs into the shadows. How intense and romantic I had been in those days, and how ridiculously since then had I been floating through life. But all that was over now. I had come to my senses at last. And yet there had been something real about that night. For an instant we had stood before each other as though stripped of all garments and we had found each other pleasing and infinitely clean. Through our minds we had loved with our bodies, and through our bodies we had loved with our minds... no stars, and the smell of weeds and the moist, heavy air from the marshes... only a moment, then she had gone up the stairs to meet the waiting shadows.
With a low curse I dug my heel into the earth and turned from the steps. Only ten feet away from me a girl—she might have been a woman—was standing in the garden path. I knew her at once to be the servant who had so often watched me from the shadows. Her head was bowed like one listening to the chiming of distant bells. In her attitude there was a suggestion of crumpled humility. She was meagerly clad and appeared to be ill. Her thin fingers twisted and untwisted in helpless agony. I could tell it. My own fingers had worked that way often enough. There was a kinship between our fingers.
"Who are you?" I asked.
When she raised her head there was a familiar light in the eyes that met mine.
"I'm Natty," she said in a hurried voice. "You don't remember. Once you told us a story. There was a girl who danced in the moonlight while the deer looked on. I've never forgotten. Well, that's who I am—Natty, the little girl on the beach. My kid brother—don't you remember?"
She made an attempt to smile, but it was far from a success. And all the time her fingers kept squirming together.
"Lots of things are coming back," I said. "But why did I ever tell you that they lived happily ever after, Natty? That was a lie, wasn't it?"
"No," she replied, fiercely. "That wasn't a lie, but all the rest has been."
"Perhaps you're right," I replied. "There's nothing true here."
"Where are they?" she asked in a changed voice, making a jerky motion towards the house. "He's not the only one. The other is just as bad."
"I don't know where they are."
She took a few steps forward and began to speak in a low voice, her eyes darting searchingly around.
"I'm not here any more," she said, "but I know. I tried to tell you many times. They sent me away, but before I left I heard them talking. They've planned it all. See how he's gotten me? Look!"—and she held out her trembling hands—"Look. I'm full of it. I need some now."
Her eyes sharp and eager, pleaded with mine.
"Perhaps you've some of it with you," she hurried on with a note of entreaty in her voice. "Look and see. I'd do anything for it now... anything."
She laughed brazenly. Then covering her face with her working hands stood bowing before me.
"Don't mind what I say," she went on. "I'm all different when I'm like this. I'm not this way myself, honestly I'm not. There's still a little moonlight left, Mr. Landor, but I'll never dance in it."
Once more she tried to smile, but her lips were all wrong. They looked smeared and undirected as though they were not related to her face.
"Mr. Landor," she said, "why don't you go away? There's still time. Why don't you save what's left while you've got the chance? Go away. Go away now! Get out of this place. It's no good. Oh, what can I do to make you go?"
"It's too late, Natty," I replied, taking one of her dry hands in mine. "Don't you see? They've gotten me too."
I laughed a trifle unsteadily as she studied my face with her questioning eyes.
"Oh, well, I helped just a little myself," I suggested.
"Yes," she said. "I know how it is. I helped too, after they started me."
"What can I do?" she continued as if to herself. "How can I help now—here?"
Before I could reply a strange expression came into Natty's eyes. They no longer saw me. For her I had ceased to exist. Following the direction of her gaze, I saw John Elliott standing on the veranda. He was looking at the girl, with a warning expression on his face. It was plain to see that he was far from pleased with our meeting. Natty walked away from me and slowly mounted the steps. In subdued tones, the two of them spoke together, then Natty grew excited and I could hear her pleading with Elliott. Her hands went up as though she were about to seize him by the throat, then they dropped helplessly to her sides and she stood before him sobbing. Elliott thrust his fingers into his vest pocket and produced a small round box which Natty snatched and concealed in her dress.
"Now," I heard him say, "clear out and don't come back."
She hurried down the steps and in her eagerness to escape with her prize, staggered against me as she passed. Her face was working pitifully and little dry gasps came beating from her lips.
I found it hard to believe that she was the same person with whom I had been speaking only a few minutes before. Her hand was clutched to her breast and as she hastened down the path she walked with a shuffling, one-sided gait—the little girl whose mind had once been fired by the picture of a slim white figure dancing in the moonlight.
I walked away, but before I had gone many paces Elliott caught up with me and slipped his arm through mine.
"You see how it is?" he said. "You can't be kind to these people. They take advantage of one. Why that girl's notorious. She worked for us a little while ago, but we had to get rid of her. She's crazy. Too much intermarrying in her stock. The poor thing isn't responsible for what she says. It's devilish inconvenient just the same. People get the wrong impression."
Sick at heart, I smiled at him and nodded agreement.
"I know," I said. "Occultism, and all that."
"I hope she didn't annoy you," he went on, looking at me closely.
Unable to answer him, I walked down the garden path and sought the pavilion by the marshes. I hadn't been there for weeks. As I sat on the reeds and followed the waterways with my listless eyes, my mind was filled with thoughts of Natty.
Natty... poor wretch... "And they lived happily ever after, and the old knight never more was cruel to the deer."
"Sad stories are sort of nice," she had said. "They seem like as if they might happen."
They do happen.
A PERSON alone derives scant comfort in trying to deceive himself. In the presence of others he gains confidence in his ability to lie, his own words for the moment bring him conviction, he admires his own skill in outwitting the probing minds of others. But alone a man becomes a rather sorry object. Brag and strut as he may he cannot deceive himself. He knows with a dreadful knowledge how false and futile he is. Although I have been trying to convince myself to the contrary neither Elliott nor Scarlet are responsible for my present condition. I have been drinking because I wanted to drink. I have been forgetting because I have been afraid to remember. I have been headstrong because I know my own weakness. With a feeling of relief I would abandon myself, yet I am reluctant to depart. Each new day is a false creation of time and I am its creator.
IT is quiet by the marshes. The sun, but newly risen, is feeling its way through the reeds, fingering them here and there with gilded hands and leaving behind on the green a path of yellow light. In the quiet stirring of the day something of the zest and freshness of youth comes back to me—a twinge of its enviable solitude, a breath of its wonderment. Here as the day grows strong I feel myself keenly expectant. Rhythms of life long dormant play over me again like friendly hands on an old fiddle. As green as jade the island lies beneath the morning's golden light. In joyous salutation the trees spring up to the sky. A breeze moves across the reeds and I catch the smell of swamps and beaches, clam shells and tarred boats. It brings back things to mind, little, obscure memories that were hardly a part of life, yet which somehow justified living.
I have watched the sun cleave an aisle through the mist on the marshes. I have seen it climb to the sky and scoff the mist away. In the hush that precedes the birth of day I have knelt on the reeds and watched the earth appear through a mantle of drifting haze. I have been touched by the breath of dawn and have tasted its sharp perfume, and I have been happy. Something came back to me—a shred of strength and hope. Yet in spite of these moments of peace I have felt that all things must perish and be lost, that ecstasy would vanish from my heart, that even the marshes would fade, and that these eyes have looked so long on them would encounter at last only shadows.
It is an abhorrent thing to go down to oblivion. It is a terrifying and destructive thought. To-day as I looked at the island so secure and inaccessible, so set apart from life, I was seized again by the fear that everything must perish and that I should be left in darkness where even fear ceased to exist. I stretched out my arms to the island and called to Hilda—perhaps for the last time. I wanted her to return before it was too late.
DREAMS spun from incense floating in the amber heart of wine. Stained thoughts, and beautiful, edged with sharp regret. The peace of abandonment and quiet of despair.... How strange they are, these evenings passed in shadows tossed by flickering candles, waves of smoke in yellow places, the fragrance of incense mixed with mold of dying walls... silence, dreams, and the far-away voice of the wind.
In such a place it is difficult to distinguish between the false and the true. Sometimes I feel that this hall and its occupants are no longer in life. There is no such place and there are no such persons. It is all false, like the fancies of drugged brains. Yet the fact remains that for me this hall is the most hideously real thing in life. I try to blind myself to its existence, arguing that the hall has vanished and that I am out somewhere in a field tramping through the high grass. Sometimes I catch myself laughing crazily and waving my arms in gestures of defiance.
To know that only a few paces from here green waves are falling on a flat, white beach and children's voices are crying through the spray; to know that somewhere outside this reeking place a great wind is rushing down the sky and that growing things on the earth are feeling the touch of its feet, to know these things and yet to be cut off from them is more at times than my mind can stand. This hall is real enough, its occupants are real, and at last I have been brought face to face with reality in one of God's unfavored places.
ELLIOTT sprawls in his chair. He is muttering to himself. His indifference to his wife and the things round him far surpasses mine.
"Landor?" he called the other night, his voice sounding hollow in the silence of the hall. "Landor, are you listening?"
"Yes, what is it?" I said.
"You're one of us," he began, "you and your ridiculous aims and ideals. You're no better than the rest. And somewhere she is witnessing your defeat. Do you think she's enjoying it?"
"No," I said quietly. "The very fact that it gives you pleasure would close that possibility. You never had anything in common with her."
He made no reply to that but regarded me with brooding malice as he filled his glass with wine. I glanced up at Scarlet, who, with her face framed in her hands, lay gazing into space. It was apparent that she was not interested in her husband's conversation. For a time we sat in silence, then Elliott again began to speak.
"Oh, you're a clever fellow, Landor," he said.
"I'll admit that, but don't think I'm being fooled. Even now you're trying to make me believe that there's nothing in that dream of yours. You'd have me think she died naturally—the way most people do. You'd like me to believe a lot of things, but I don't. I've been in strange places and I've seen strange things. I'm not so easily deceived. In this very house strange things have taken place, but perhaps the strangest of them all is about to occur."
"Death is behind a curtain now, waiting for us all," I said with mock seriousness. "There's nothing strange in that. Who goes first, Elliott?"
"Death!" he cried, starting to his feet and peering fearfully around him. "Death! Where?"
Like terrified wings his words beat through the hall. Panic was in his bloodshot eyes, and the veins stood out on his neck. With a shaking hand he raised his glass to his lips, then sank down on his chair. Completely unmoved, Scarlet looked at his huddled form, but when her eyes shifted to me they were bright with animosity. I thought at first that Elliott had fallen asleep, but after some minutes had passed he began to mutter to himself.
"She'll wait all right," he said. "There's no going back now—no escape.... The dream... Oh, damn the dream!... through all eternity waiting... That's good.... He's one of us now... don't have to lift even my finger... he likes it here... waiting... waiting... waiting... through all the years...."
THIS morning when I staggered along the cliff path and broke into the fields I heard some one calling my name. Hunter Aird was coming in my direction. With head lowered and feet spraddled I stood like some dumb animal and watched him approach. My heart was full of conflict. I wanted to see him and talk with him, I had an impulse to fling myself at his feet and to beg for protection, but an overpowering fear restrained me. He would take me away from my one source of comfort. With him there would be no release, no dreams, no floating figures. Unable to endure this thought, I turned and ran through the high grass. Once I struck my foot against a stone and was hurled to the ground. By the time I had regained my feet Aird was standing only a short distance away. The expression in his eyes infuriated me. He was pitying me. I could feel it. With drunken pride I drew myself up and cursed him roundly.
"Damn your pleading eyes!" I cried. "Go back. Can't you see you're not wanted? We don't belong together."
He held out his hands rather helplessly and in such a tragic way that I laughed at him in derision.
"What an ass you are," I shouted. "For God's sake go away. I'm through with you and your kind forever. You bore me."
He took a step forward, but before he could approach closer I sprang back and started again across the field.
"David!" he called. "David!"
Without looking back I fled toward the marshes, his running feet keeping pace with mine, then falling faintly behind.
"David!" he called again, and as I turned to look back, the light went out of the sky and I felt myself spinning through a green eternity of twilight with his voice still ringing in my ears.
That happened this morning at an early hour. It was noon by the sun when I next opened my eyes to the restful green of the marshes. Bruised and numb, I was lying on the reeds, my mind in a sorry state of confusion. Remote and peaceful the island floated on the marshes. I longed with all my heart to be there in that quiet place. Far away on the other side I could see the curve of the shore, and my thoughts returned to the time when I had waded through the slime in an effort to reach the island.
All round me insect life was singing. The song of the little creatures was drowsy in the heat of the mid-day sun. My ears were filled with a ringing sound and a shower of buzzing notes. In the midst of this my brain began the distasteful task of reconstructing the immediate, yet irrevocable past. I had lost Aird's friendship forever, that was certain. No matter what happened to me, I could never face him again. What a spectacle I must have made, raving before him like a maniac. Oh, well, it had to come some time. We lived in different worlds.
Wind and the smell of stagnant water, the marshes and the island—everything was the same. Only I had changed, and now I was looking on the scene for the last time. I should never come here again. Dull pains moved through my body, but from sheer indifference I refused to change my cramped position. The insects buzzed and the sun sprayed down on my back. I felt dreadfully weak and nauseated. From time to time I shook with convulsive tremors. My heart raced, and then stood chokingly still. As though in sleep, confused words came unguarded from my cracked lips. I was crying. The wretched tears trailed down my cheeks and dropped on my dirty hands. I looked at the tears and wondered who was crying, then I listened and wondered whose voice it was I heard.
"It's over now," the voice was saying, "and even the ending is over. I shall never come back to this place. Hilda, do you hear me? There's nothing left that you can do or that I can do. Soon it will no longer be in my power to break the faith. All faith will have been destroyed. I shall feel no more, think no more, be no more. Even regret will have ceased to be, and with it all memory of what has been. You can no longer reach me with your spirit hands. You who are a part of the dawn could never walk the night through which I move."
EMBERS dying in the dark... they lie on the floor of the sea... smoking embers, white with hate, triumphant as they die.... Spirit hands helplessly beating, poor hands, desperate hands, you cannot reach me now.
IT was morning and I was on the beach, walking by the water's edge. My mind was dim. At the far end of the beach, quite removed from the huts of the fishermen, a number of rocks run out into the sea. When the tide is low it is a fascinating spot for children, because the receding waves leave behind in the hollows of the rocks a chain of sun-warmed pools ideal for the sailing of miniature craft and the paddling of small bare feet.
On this particular morning some vagrant memory of happier days attracted me to the rocks. With caution I picked my way out to the last stony ledge, and sitting down, hazily considered the little waves lapping at my feet. Beneath the green surface of the water, faces floated and peered up at me, faces familiar and unknown, men and women I had passed on the streets, eyes that had lived in my memory and lips that had smiled in my dreams. I was confronted in turn by Hilda, MacKellar, and a little girl who died in London, and then Natty's thin white face swam into my vision and remained there. I brushed my hand across my eyes and looked again. The girl's face would not vanish. Unlike the others, the eyes were closed and features sharply defined.
"Natty," I muttered, "are you too among the dead? If not why are you floating there before me?"
The face still confronted me. In order to convince myself that my imagination was not up to its old tricks I rose to my feet and waded out on the ledge. I could distinguish a body now, the body of a girl left dangling by the tide on the tapering skirt of the rocks. Like one in a trance I bent over and stirred the water with my hand. When I withdrew it some strands of hair were twined round my fingers. My eyes clouded and I was seized with a desire to shout, to arouse the world and give warning. Then something shifted within me. I no longer protested or disbelieved, but accepted the situation quite calmly. Those clinging strands of hair were too pitifully appealing to allow for disbelief. Natty was bound to me in death.
How remarkable, and yet how simple, it was to look at her and know that she was dead. I straightened up and tried to think things out. Death had come to her and given back the peace which life had denied. Perhaps even now her spirit was away somewhere dancing in the moonlight. That would have been her choice, I knew. She had done the logical thing and placed herself beyond all earthly cravings. Elliott's power was broken. She was free now, and forever, from things that did not matter. She was eternally simplified, and at liberty to enjoy the lilt of her own soul. Like a child in sleep she lay with her arms thrown up behind her head. The sea had washed her clean. Gone now the sting and the torment, the nausea and remorse. Natty was much better off, and in my heart I envied her and wished her peace.
When I attempted to lift her from the ledge my strength almost failed me. Several times I slipped on the rocks as I carried her back to the beach. The poor thing was as thin as a starved child, but in my weakened condition it was more than I could do to carry her without frequently stopping to rest. Thus Natty and I made our slow progress down the beach, and the glaring sunlight fell cheerfully over us as though it would bring back life and warmth to the dead girl's cheeks. In life she had tried to warn me, and now that she was dead I was paying her the final tribute.
Already my arms were beginning to ache from their light burden. My over-taxed heart pounded against Natty's silent one. Several times I staggered and fell to my knees in the sand and remained in that attitude until I had regained my strength. When I came in sight of the fishermen's huts I sank down exhausted, letting Natty slip from my arms. Presently a woman came out of one of the houses and I raised my hand to attract her attention. She approached me slowly, but when she caught sight of the other figure lying in the sand she hastened up to us and automatically broke into a volley of lamentation.
"God will punish some one for this," she cried, lifting her arms above her head and shaking her clenched fists in the air. Her hands dropped to her sides and she stood looking at me suspiciously, then turned and hurried down the beach to inform the settlement of the fate that had befallen one of its daughters.
Once more I was left alone with Natty. As I looked at her peaceful face I was moved by a desire to make her appear as well as possible in the eyes of her friends. So I straightened her torn garments and attempted to arrange her hair, which the hot rays of the sun had already partly dried.
Soon we were surrounded by a number of excited men and women, all talking at the same time and to no purpose. Between the legs of their elders, children thrust through their heads and stared curiously at Natty. Then a woman broke from the circle and threw herself down by the body of the dead girl, and a gaunt man with red hands stood gazing at the two figures.
No one paid any attention to me and I was glad of this. Some tissue seemed to have snapped in my brain, leaving me in a mood of hazy indifference. I was aware of all that was going on round me, but the faces of the people were blurred and the voices came from far off. Only Natty's face was clear, and on it my eyes dwelt in dumb entreaty. I wanted her to speak to these people and tell them to be quiet. In particular I wanted her to speak to that silent man looking down at her and explain his grief away.
Now he had lifted her up and was carrying her to the huts. The woman walked behind him as though she were being led by an invisible wire. From time to time her hands jerked out spasmodically from her sides. I rose from the sand and trailed down the beach in the wake of the crowd. The men bore Natty through the door of one of the huts and the people followed him. As she disappeared I muttered to myself, "Good-by, Natty. Live happily ever after."
Then I sat down on a rock. When I looked up some minutes later the men had come out of the hut and were grouped about the door. They were talking quietly together. Several women joined them and the men's voices became loud and excited. John Elliott's name was mentioned and fists were swung aloft in ineffectual rage. An old woman appeared in the door of the hut and hatefully surveyed the gathering. Her short, white hair stood out from her head and her cracked voice grated on my ears.
"Men," she shouted, "John Elliott did it! What are you going to do about it? Your oaths and threats don't help. Why are you standing there?"
"We'll get him," a great fellow shouted. "Don't you worry, mother."
The old woman looked scornfully at the speaker, then pointed a finger at him.
"If he'd taken his two hands," she continued, "if he'd taken his two hands and squeezed the life from her body he couldn't have done worse—he couldn't have been more of a murderer."
The men surged round the door, and something like a smile came to the old woman's face. Once more she extended her arms.
"You're young and you're strong and you're free men," she shouted in her cracked voice. "Do something about it or you won't be worthy of the arms of your women. Punish John Elliott!"
For a moment she held the men with her eyes, then turned quickly away. The gaunt fisherman came to the door and stood looking far out to sea beyond the crowd.
"When we came back from out there," he said in a surprisingly quiet voice, "she was always here to bear a hand, and now when we come back she won't be here any more. You understand? Natty's dead. She won't be here any more— never."
The men remained silent, pressing closer to the door.
"No," continued the man in a tired voice. "She won't be here any more; so maybe you'd like to step inside and see the last of her, see her as she is now all straggled out and dead."
Several men started to enter the house, but he held them back and shook his head.
"I'll bring her out so we can all have a look," he said.
He moved gropingly from the door and reappeared with the dead girl in his arms. The old woman was standing anxiously beside him. She was holding one of Natty's hands.
"Here she is," he called out, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Look at her and thank John Elliott. He's still alive."
At the sight of Natty the anger of the people blazed forth. Men and women alike pressed against the tall fisherman with his dead burden. The cursing of the men and the shrill voices of the women disturbed me. I held out my hand as though to quiet them, and with this movement their anger was immediately transferred to me. I could feel it in the air, but I was not interested. I wanted to be left alone.
"There's one of them now," some one shouted. "He'll warn Elliott."
"Drive him away!" a woman cried. "He had a hand in this."
A shower of stones came at me. One large missile, striking me over the heart, sent me sprawling from the rock. I rose to my feet and made an attempt to approach the crowd. Another volley of stones checked me. I was cut in several places, and the blood from a wound in my forehead ran down into my eyes. I took a few steps forward and tried to speak, but my voice was drowned by the shouts and jeers of the fishermen. Then I smiled and held out my hands. As I did so I felt, or rather heard, a great crash at the base of my skull and I toppled forward into a sea of angry faces.
When I regained consciousness Aird was bending over me.
"They didn't mean it," he said when I opened my eyes. "They didn't understand."
I moved my lips, but no words came.
"Lie still," he continued in a low voice, "and I'll get some one to help me. It's my house this time."
His face floated away and became confused with a cloud hanging directly over me in a blue sky. Far away several voices were calling. I imagined I could distinguish Hunter Aird's. The sea and the land and the sky were swimming in my eyes, and little flames of pain danced over my body. Then daylight streamed from the world.
I CANNOT visit the marshes now, and yet I have been there. Although three days have passed since I resumed these notes and during that time I have not moved from this room, I have stood each night with Hilda by the marshes.
For the first time in twenty years we have been together. For the first time in twenty years I have heard her voice and felt the touch of her hand. She came to me as I was lying in bed, and as I rose to meet her I left my body behind. It was nearly dawn. Far off on the edge of the sea a rosy light was tipping the horizon. To prove to myself that I was not dreaming, I stood by the bed with Hilda and together we looked down at my sleeping image. An old man was in the bed, an old gray stranger. His cheeks were sunken and pale, covered with a stubble of whiskers and his eyes were set in shadows. Deep wrinkles lined his face and touched the corners of a weak and petulant mouth. A soiled bandage was around his forehead and above this his long gray hair bushed out in disorder.
As I gazed down at the body I had quitted, a feeling of shame came over me. I was about to turn away, but Hilda restrained me and, kneeling down by the bed, she kissed this unlovable creature on the lips. The dawn streamed into the room and I could hear birds singing in the green boughs. Beneath the silver lash of the rising sun the sea leaped and sparkled. Then Hilda took me by the hand and we were back once more by the salt marshes. The reeds were round us and the marshes spread out at our feet.
"Hilda," I whispered, "let me never return again."
"You no longer fear the marshes?" she asked.
"Try me," I pleaded.
"When the time comes," she replied, "you will find me waiting here."
She placed the tips of her fingers against my eyes and the scene faded from view. Little sunbeams were playing on the counterpane and the air was sweet with morning fragrance. I awoke with the firm conviction that Hilda had been in the room and that I had stood with her by the marshes. I am still of the same conviction.
FROM my couch on Aird's veranda I am looking down on a scene of tropical splendor. Below me the marshes flare out into the distance, their water ways, now clearly revealed, gliding ceaselessly through the thick, green reeds like restless snakes on the search. Occasionally from the glinting coils a bird darts high in the air, then settles back again as though unable to snap the thread of fascination. There is always a trance-like stillness resting on the marshes, but to-day it seems more profound than ever before, more haunting and touched with mystery. One could almost imagine that they were waiting for something or for some one. The sun is slanting down a clear sky, but before it reaches the horizon, its light will be quenched in a dark cloud boiling up from the western horizon. It is the season of the year when summer is caught without warning and flayed to withered bits.
By my side Aird sits reading from a ponderous looking book. Occasionally we exchange a few words, then he returns to his reading and I to my notes. He strikes me as being one of the most solitary souls alive, and yet he seems to be contented enough. I do not mean that he has ceased intellectually to strive, but merely that he is in harmony with the way he has chosen to live. For one who has been so much alone, so far removed from human contact and complications, he has a remarkable appreciation of life, whereas I who have been bound to life by a thousand clinging fetters feel as though I had been too long alive.
WHEN I was a boy I was always a great one for cutting my initials in the bark of trees. It worked on my imagination to think that in the years to come another person would stand where I had stood, another boy like myself, who would admire my rude design and wonder a little about the vanished carver. No doubt I am still actuated by the same motive, for all day long I have been impelled to drain out the dregs of my life on these trivial pages. Death, what is it? A gasp of surprise in the face of unsuspected beauty, or is it merely a failing voice crying out in protest to unresponsive night? There is no death if Hilda ever lived, but sometimes I wonder if she did live.
How tired a person can be and still continue to cling to life! My body feels as crisp and dry as though it had lain on a slow grill. It is hardly time for me to be so old, yet I am old. I shall never be young again in this world. Like a common pickpocket I have filched the years from the purse of Time, collected life in advance.
There goes the sun now, piling down into a valley of clouds. From the west a wind is footing it over the marshes and the storm song of the reeds is in the air. Aird has laid aside his book and is walking out on the lawn where he stands hawk-like in poise and outline, nervously sniffing in the wind. As I look down on the marshes, over which the light is fading, I recall, as if it were only yesterday, the time I was lost out there in the storm. Once more I can hear the sobbing of the reeds and feel the suffocating assault of the rain, but none of the old terror troubles me now. Thank God, I am free from that.
A gray haze is driving across the twilight, leaping over the marshes like a living veil. As though in anticipation of defeat the trees are already dropping their leaves over the cottage. Aird has turned in the path and is looking back at me.
"Hold tight!" he cries. "It's going to hit this old shack like an express train. I'll fetch you in, David."
And like an overwrought gull driven before the gale he gallops up the path.
SOME hours later.
Why is it that I, who have led such an inglorious life, have been vouchsafed happiness to-night? And why is it that I, who have failed so consistently in all my endeavors, have at the end been allowed to enjoy a glow of triumph?
Round the corners of the house the storm lashed like a stricken reptile. A thousand windy assaults were hurled against the walls and roof, and a limb torn from a neighboring tree came crashing to the veranda where it lay beating its branches against the door like a crippled stranger pleading to be let in from the storm. Lightning sprayed its gold across the marshes and at times the little cottage shuddered as the knife-edged thunder drove through the sky. The voice of the wind ran the scale of human emotions, from bull-throated bellowings of fury to shrieks of impotent rage, and in the lulls between it sobbed and whimpered like a tortured spirit broken in defeat. And there were times when it sounded like a mad woman crooning a crazy lullaby to a dead child in the dark.
As I sat in the yellow lamplight of Aird's room I heard in the voice of the storm a mighty symphony, shot through with themes from the life of man. I heard him cursing and raving as he hurled himself against the naked stakes of life. I heard the muffled cry of his soul protesting against the bondage of his body. Louder and louder the cry rose, until at last it seemed to rip the cords from his straining throat, and in bitter snarls and screaming vent his spleen against the world. In the heart of the storm I heard his cries of defiance, his raptures of desire, his anguish and remorse. I heard him sob in the darkness as he knelt by the body of one he had loved, of one he had loved and destroyed. In the booming voice of the storm I heard the illogical voice of man. I heard his shouts of joy and triumph, his hunger and despair. Then as the storm receded and the wind fell to a minor key I heard a song floating from the lips of one who, spent and broken, had been left behind on the field. Clear and jubilant the song mounted to the arches of the sky, gradually dying away in the upper air. It was the voice of the spirit singing amid the ruins of a man:
"All things he has claimed and lost.
All things he has touched and destroyed.
Yet me he has not destroyed
And me he shall never lose.
Now he is weary of seeking,
His feet are broken and still.
Now shall my song be heard,
For I am the voice of his soul.
I have lived in the din of his body,
I have felt his fever and pain,
And now that the storm is past
I shall sing him upward from death."
Far away over the mainland the thunder muttered and rumbled. From the eves of the cottage the rain dripped steadily. The broken branch kept tapping pitifully against the door.
"And now that the storm is past
I shall sing him upward from death."
The singing faded away in the distance. I looked at Aird, who was standing by the window.
"Did you hear anything?" I asked, and my voice sounded strange in the quiet room.
"A lot of things," he replied, facing me with a smile. "What do you mean, David?"
"I thought I heard some one singing," I said. "A great voice pouring a golden flood against the gates of paradise. I wish you had heard it, Aird."
He came over from the window and sat down beside me.
"Don't go on like that, David," he said, "or you'll be making a nervous wreck of me. You're going to get well now, aren't you?"
"Am I?" I asked. "What did the doctor say?"
"He said you couldn't," replied Aird, looking me straight in the eyes, "but you know and I know he's wrong. You could pull through if you wanted to, if you really cared, couldn't you?"
"Why should I, Aird? There's nothing here for me."
"You're not any too complimentary," he said with a short laugh. "I'd rather looked forward to your visit."
"I know," I replied, placing a hand on his. "It's a funny thing, but I've always had a feeling that the two of us belonged together. That's why I cursed you that day in the field. You've forgiven me for that?"
"I understood at the time," he said. "But damn it, all that has nothing to do with this. I know there's a fight left in you. Are you going to make it?"
"Tell me, Aird," I asked, "is it immoral or cowardly or particularly weak for a man not to want to live? What do you think? As I look back on my life it seems to me that I've never really wanted to live. There was a time, a brief period, when I did, but that passed like a—"
"Dream," he interrupted.
"Yes," I added, looking away. "It passed like that—like a dream at dawn."
Before he spoke again Aird provided me with a cigarette, then lighted his pipe, behind which he sat thoughtfully puffing destruction into globes and minarets of smoke.
"No doubt you'll think it rather ridiculous of me," he said at last, "but there was a time when I wanted to become a leader. I thought it would be a splendid thing to educate the world. I felt that if I succeeded in clearing up only a few universal lies I should be accomplishing a great deal, but on my first attempt I found that all the roads to knowledge were already securely held by an established army of educators—academic mercenaries. There was no way of getting at the people. Even when you broke through the lines, the lies still surrounded the non-combatants like a picket fence. The people hid behind the lies and steadfastly refused to be disillusioned. They are doing it to-day."
He paused for a moment to consider a leisurely disintegrating smoke cloud, then continued:
"So I abandoned my elaborate educational program and began to educate myself. I was not particularly fond of life either, but as time went on I gradually changed. I found myself growing interested. Each day offered me a new vista of knowledge, each night another secret. I studied, applied, and compared. I learned to love life intelligently, instead of emotionally. And I'll tell you, David, there's lots to love in life once you've gotten the hang of it."
"It's too late now for me to learn," I told him. "You see I was never adjusted right to begin with—I didn't work somehow. You've known people like that. They belong to the undisciplined army of the unstable. Men write books about them, then wonder why. So do the readers."
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I can't see anything immoral or weak about not wanting to live. Most people do, or pretend they do, but that doesn't signify anything. If you could assure the average man that one quick gasp would be to his advantage, he would readily find an excuse to justify him in taking it. If the existence of another life were ever satisfactorily proved there would soon be few people left in the world. Heaven would be littered with a lot of amateur suicides, bragging about how easy it was to shake off life's mortal coil. Those who hadn't managed to get themselves run over in a state of grace, would have acquired heavy colds or something of the sort."
"To keep the world filled you must keep it fooled," I suggested.
"The wisest man must always remain a little ignorant," said Aird. "If not he would lose his wisdom. I'd hate to be the man to learn the last secret of life."
"And I'd like to be the one to learn the first secret of death," I replied.
"It would amount to the same thing," he answered.
"But you believe?" I asked after a brief pause.
"I do," he said.
"And shall we be able to take all our happy memories and make them live again?" I continued.
He looked up at me and smiled.
"As a scientist," he said, "I refuse to be interviewed theological questions."
"But as a human being?"
"I unreasonably hope so."
For some minutes we sat in silence, each occupied with his own thoughts. In the distance the mollified storm still grumbled through the sky. A drowsy numbness was creeping over my body. From the base of my skull hot pains occasionally played over me, but I was strangely insensible to them. Only when the spasms closed round my heart was I unable to suppress an involuntary gasp. At these times I felt as though I were being plunged into the black depth of a pool. At last I made an effort to rise, but fell back helplessly. My legs were like withered branches. When Aird helped me from the chair there was no feeling in the soles of my feet. They tapped the floor searchingly.
"You'll feel better, perhaps, in the morning," he suggested.
It was almost a question. In his eyes I read a mute appeal.
"Better, I hope, than I've felt in years," I answered, gripping his hand.
For a moment we stood looking at each other, both of us groping for words and finding none, then we moved slowly across the room.
THERE has been enough scribbling for one day. And what a long day it has been. I am tired.
The room in which I am writing commands a view of the marshes. Out there lightning is still flickering, but now its fangs have been pulled. It waves among the clouds like a golden plume. My bed is near the open window, through which drifts an occasional scent of drenched shrubbery and other growing things. The rain is still falling. There are bogs in the woods tonight and along the cliffs the rollers must be churning—mad things, tearing at eternity. How vividly it all comes back to me and how intimately I have loved this place all my life. My youth lies buried in the soil and Hilda's spirit still hovers over it. I have felt this keenly to-day. Even now I feel that she is looking down at me as she once did from her little boat as I lay in the water... "a small white cloud"... Hilda, do you remember? I called you that.
"And now that the storm is past
I shall sing him upward from death."
Did I really hear a song to-day issuing from the heart of the wind, or was it merely a trick of my mind? I am almost certain I heard it marching up the sky.
"I have lived in the din of his body.
I have felt his fever and pain."
Higher it soared and higher, the battle hymn of the unstable, the triumphant chant of the soul giving the lie to death.
Beneath the fiery plumes of the lightning I can catch, from where I am sitting, an occasional glimpse of the island lying beneath the rain. The trees are sharply edged with gold. Their black trunks glisten.
It will be a clear dawn to-morrow and a fair day. The sun will rise from the sea and loop across the sky. Its light will fall on the pavilion by the marshes and there among the reeds the insects will take up their chorus... shrill, little notes of life dancing in the sun. And through the green marshes the glinting waterways will wind, endlessly circling among the reeds in restless search of the sea. The sun will drop behind the island, catching the trees for a moment against its flaming heart. It will sink, and then the night will come and there will be stars in the sky—the frosty stars of a Fall night, perfect and remote. And out there on the marshes the waterways will be gliding and a sigh will follow after them as the wind runs through the reeds.
I wonder if I shall be here to witness another day. Aird would wish it so. Oh, well, old friend, I have waited too long already. Let me go now. I can accomplish nothing here. I have a feeling to-night that if the dream returns I shall awake in a fairer country than any I have ever known before and that my eyes will look on a face they have searched for years to find.
"IN case I over-sleep to-morrow I'll say good morning now."
Those were the last words that David Landor ever spoke. Sometime later when the golden bar of light disappeared from beneath his door, Aird felt as though the last tie had been severed between them.
For a few minutes he tried to read, but his mind was closed to the subject. Once he went to Landor's door, then with a shrug of his shoulders put on his rain coat and left the room. Making his way to the protected side of the house, he flattened himself against the wall to be free from the dripping eaves. Landor's window was just round the corner. The thought occurred to Aird that the rain might be driving in on his bed. He was about to investigate when a stirring in the darkness arrested his attention. The thing seemed to waver and melt away. He fixed his eyes on the spot and waited for the lightning. When the sky awoke and formed a background he saw against it John Elliott bending low, approaching. He was trying to reach Landor's unprotected window. There was something chilling in his angular advance.
Aird moved round the corner and placed himself before the window. As Elliott rose to his full height Aird seized his upraised arm and twisted it back. The arm seemed to snap like a piece of chalk and Elliott fell writhing to the soggy grass. For a moment the two men struggled together then Elliott with an unexpected burst of strength scrambled to his feet.
"The dream," he muttered. "It's the dream. I knew it would come."
For an instant he wavered drunkenly, then started down the hillside in the direction of the marshes.
"It's the dream," he almost sobbed. "I'll get to the island first."
When Aird reached the edge of the marshes he could hear the man splashing among the reeds. A glow of lightning revealed a swollen plain from which the reeds were thrusting up their points. About twenty yards from the shore Elliott was floundering waist-deep in water. He was raving like a madman. Darkness rushed in on the desolate scene and Aird waited for a sound he knew he should hear. Then he heard it—a long scream shuddering over the marshes. When the lightning came back to the sky, the plain was empty, so empty in fact that Aird was almost convinced that Elliott had never been there.
As Aird turned up the hill the cry still followed him, splitting through the night. The cottage squatted beneath the rain. Quiet lay around it. He went to Landor's window and listened. After he had satisfied himself that his friend was still sleeping he went to the veranda and sat down on a wet chair. The rain had dropped to a drizzle, and the night was well advanced. Already he could catch in the air a hint of the oncoming day. It was like a fresh breath in a crowded room.
For some minutes he had been hearing the sound of voices in the distance. He paid no attention to this, his mind occupied with his thoughts, but when he opened his eyes he was startled to find a bright glare in the east. The voices continued to shout, and as he leveled his eyes on the fringe of a row of trees, a beautifully proportioned flame, like a formal design in a Japanese screen found its way to the sky and swayed there. Before it had time to become convincing, it collapsed and a number of lesser flames took its place, each suspended by a runner of tortured smoke.
Aird had little doubt of what was happening. The beach had risen and come inland. Elliott's house was burning. Natty was being avenged. But Elliott would never know it. When Aird recalled the scream and saw again the funny helpless arm he decided the man had stood enough for one night.
Then dawn rose in the sky and Aird walked to Landor's window. He was lying with one arm across the sill as though he were reaching out to the island. His head was resting on his arm and little drops of rain still glistened in his hair. Something about the still figure arrested Aird. It seemed to him that a change had taken place in Landor's features. His expression was different yet familiar. He felt as if he were seeing again a person he had known many years ago. No miraculous transformation had taken place, but somehow it appeared to Aird that all of the grace and essence of youth had returned to Landor and touched him with triumph that was almost radiant.
Time passed unheeded as he stood in the presence of this friend he had lost, this being so unlike him. Something of the dead man's peace entered into his soul, and yet because he had no one to share it with he felt lonely. He left the window and sat on the steps. Perhaps the strain of the past twenty-four hours had overtaxed his mind, perhaps he was unduly impressionable from lack of sleep. Whatever the reason was, the fact remains that as the dawn spread through the sky and spilled its light across the marshes, he heard, or thought he heard, a clear voice singing the lines that Landor wrote just before he died:
"And now that the storm is past
I shall sing him upward from death."
On a slight hill bearing down on the marshes, they buried him, Aird and the fishermen, and there he lies now, a part of the soil he loved so well, but as Aird stood by the fresh mound he could not shake off the impression that David Landor had just begun to live.