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Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”

The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library.

The words had been spoken by their friend Alida Stair, as they sat at tea on her lawn at Pangbourne, in reference to the very house of which the library in question was the central, the pivotal “feature.” Mary Boyne and her husband, in quest of a country place in one of the southern or southwestern counties, had, on their arrival in England, carried their problem straight to Alida Stair, who had successfully solved it in her own case; but it was not until they had rejected, almost capriciously, several practical and judicious suggestions that she threw it out: “Well, there’s Lyng, in Dorsetshire. It belongs to Hugo’s cousins, and you can get it for a song.”

The reasons she gave for its being obtainable on these terms — its remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes, and other vulgar necessities — were exactly those pleading in its favor with two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual architectural felicities.

“I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was thoroughly uncomfortable,” Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two, had jocosely insisted; “the least hint of ‘convenience’ would make me think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with the pieces numbered, and set up again.” And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous precision, their various suspicions and exactions, refusing to believe that the house their cousin recommended was really Tudor till they learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was literally in the grounds till she assured them of the deplorable uncertainty of the water supply.

“It’s too uncomfortable to be true!” Edward Boyne had continued to exult as the avowal of each disadvantage was successively wrung from her; but he had cut short his rhapsody to ask, with a sudden relapse to distrust: “And the ghost? You’ve been concealing from us the fact that there is no ghost!”

Mary, at the moment, had laughed with him, yet almost with her laugh, being possessed of several sets of independent perceptions, had noted a sudden flatness of tone in Alida’s answering hilarity.

“Oh, Dorsetshire’s full of ghosts, you know.”

“Yes, yes; but that won’t do. I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. Is there a ghost at Lyng?”

His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had flung back tantalizingly: “Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”

“Never know it?” Boyne pulled her up. “But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?”

“I can’t say. But that’s the story.”

“That there’s a ghost, but that nobody knows it’s a ghost?”

“Well — not till afterward, at any rate.”

“Till afterward?”

“Not till long, long afterward.”

“But if it’s once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn’t its signalement been handed down in the family? How has it managed to preserve its incognito?”

Alida could only shake her head. “Don’t ask me. But it has.”

“And then suddenly –” Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of divination –“suddenly, long afterward, one says to one’s self, ‘That was it?'”

She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same surprise flit across Alida’s clear pupils. “I suppose so. One just has to wait.”

“Oh, hang waiting!” Ned broke in. “Life’s too short for a ghost who can only be enjoyed in retrospect. Can’t we do better than that, Mary?”

But it turned out that in the event they were not destined to, for within three months of their conversation with Mrs. Stair they were established at Lyng, and the life they had yearned for to the point of planning it out in all its daily details had actually begun for them.

It was to sit, in the thick December dusk, by just such a widehooded fireplace, under just such black oak rafters, with the sense that beyond the mullioned panes the downs were darkening to a deeper solitude: it was for the ultimate indulgence in such sensations that Mary Boyne had endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of the Middle West, and that Boyne had ground on doggedly at his engineering till, with a suddenness that still made her blink, the prodigious windfall of the Blue Star Mine had put them at a stroke in possession of life and the leisure to taste it. They had never for a moment meant their new state to be one of idleness; but they meant to give themselves only to harmonious activities. She had her vision of painting and gardening against a background of gray walls, he dreamed of the production of his long-planned book on the “Economic Basis of Culture”; and with such absorbing work ahead no existence could be too sequestered; they could not get far enough from the world, or plunge deep enough into the past.

Dorsetshire had attracted them from the first by a semblance of remoteness out of all proportion to its geographical position. But to the Boynes it was one of the ever-recurring wonders of the whole incredibly compressed island — a nest of counties, as they put it — that for the production of its effects so little of a given quality went so far: that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a difference.

“It’s that,” Ned had once enthusiastically explained, “that gives such depth to their effects, such relief to their least contrasts. They’ve been able to lay the butter so thick on every exquisite mouthful.”

The butter had certainly been laid on thick at Lyng: the old gray house, hidden under a shoulder of the downs, had almost all the finer marks of commerce with a protracted past. The mere fact that it was neither large nor exceptional made it, to the Boynes, abound the more richly in its special sense — the sense of having been for centuries a deep, dim reservoir of life. The life had probably not been of the most vivid order: for long periods, no doubt, it had fallen as noiselessly into the past as the quiet drizzle of autumn fell, hour after hour, into the green fish-pond between the yews; but these back-waters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion, and Mary Boyne had felt from the first the occasional brush of an intenser memory.

The feeling had never been stronger than on the December afternoon when, waiting in the library for the belated lamps, she rose from her seat and stood among the shadows of the hearth. Her husband had gone off, after luncheon, for one of his long tramps on the downs. She had noticed of late that he preferred to be unaccompanied on these occasions; and, in the tried security of their personal relations, had been driven to conclude that his book was bothering him, and that he needed the afternoons to turn over in solitude the problems left from the morning’s work. Certainly the book was not going as smoothly as she had imagined it would, and the lines of perplexity between his eyes had never been there in his engineering days. Then he had often looked fagged to the verge of illness, but the native demon of “worry” had never branded his brow. Yet the few pages he had so far read to her — the introduction, and a synopsis of the opening chapter — gave evidences of a firm possession of his subject, and a deepening confidence in his powers.

The fact threw her into deeper perplexity, since, now that he had done with “business” and its disturbing contingencies, the one other possible element of anxiety was eliminated. Unless it were his health, then? But physically he had gained since they had come to Dorsetshire, grown robuster, ruddier, and fresher-eyed. It was only within a week that she had felt in him the undefinable change that made her restless in his absence, and as tongue-tied in his presence as though it were she who had a secret to keep from him!

The thought that there was a secret somewhere between them struck her with a sudden smart rap of wonder, and she looked about her down the dim, long room.

“Can it be the house?” she mused.

The room itself might have been full of secrets. They seemed to be piling themselves up, as evening fell, like the layers and layers of velvet shadow dropping from the low ceiling, the dusky walls of books, the smoke-blurred sculpture of the hooded hearth.

“Why, of course — the house is haunted!” she reflected.

The ghost — Alida’s imperceptible ghost — after figuring largely in the banter of their first month or two at Lyng, had been gradually discarded as too ineffectual for imaginative use. Mary had, indeed, as became the tenant of a haunted house, made the customary inquiries among her few rural neighbors, but, beyond a vague, “They du say so, Ma’am,” the villagers had nothing to impart. The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.

“And I suppose, poor, ineffectual demon, that’s why it beats its beautiful wings in vain in the void,” Mary had laughingly concluded.

“Or, rather,” Ned answered, in the same strain, “why, amid so much that’s ghostly, it can never affirm its separate existence as the ghost.” And thereupon their invisible housemate had finally dropped out of their references, which were numerous enough to make them promptly unaware of the loss.

Now, as she stood on the hearth, the subject of their earlier curiosity revived in her with a new sense of its meaning — a sense gradually acquired through close daily contact with the scene of the lurking mystery. It was the house itself, of course, that possessed the ghost-seeing faculty, that communed visually but secretly with its own past; and if one could only get into close enough communion with the house, one might surprise its secret, and acquire the ghost-sight on one’s own account. Perhaps, in his long solitary hours in this very room, where she never trespassed till the afternoon, her husband had acquired it already, and was silently carrying the dread weight of whatever it had revealed to him. Mary was too well-versed in the code of the spectral world not to know that one could not talk about the ghosts one saw: to do so was almost as great a breach of goodbreeding as to name a lady in a club. But this explanation did not really satisfy her. “What, after all, except for the fun of the frisson,” she reflected, “would he really care for any of their old ghosts?” And thence she was thrown back once more on the fundamental dilemma: the fact that one’s greater or less susceptibility to spectral influences had no particular bearing on the case, since, when one did see a ghost at Lyng, one did not know it.

“Not till long afterward,” Alida Stair had said. Well, supposing Ned had seen one when they first came, and had known only within the last week what had happened to him? More and more under the spell of the hour, she threw back her searching thoughts to the early days of their tenancy, but at first only to recall a gay confusion of unpacking, settling, arranging of books, and calling to each other from remote corners of the house as treasure after treasure of their habitation revealed itself to them. It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the first rapturous flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the old house, she had pressed like a novel heroine a panel that opened at her touch, on a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unsuspected flat ledge of the roof — the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on all sides too abruptly for any but practised feet to scale.

The view from this hidden coign was enchanting, and she had flown down to snatch Ned from his papers and give him the freedom of her discovery. She remembered still how, standing on the narrow ledge, he had passed his arm about her while their gaze flew to the long, tossed horizon-line of the downs, and then dropped contentedly back to trace the arabesque of yew hedges about the fish-pond, and the shadow of the cedar on the lawn.

“And now the other way,” he had said, gently turning her about within his arm; and closely pressed to him, she had absorbed, like some long, satisfying draft, the picture of the gray-walled court, the squat lions on the gates, and the lime-avenue reaching up to the highroad under the downs.

It was just then, while they gazed and held each other, that she had felt his arm relax, and heard a sharp “Hullo!” that made her turn to glance at him.

Distinctly, yes, she now recalled she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow of anxiety, of perplexity, rather, fall across his face; and, following his eyes, had beheld the figure of a man — a man in loose, grayish clothes, as it appeared to her — who was sauntering down the lime-avenue to the court with the tentative gait of a stranger seeking his way. Her short-sighted eyes had given her but a blurred impression of slightness and grayness, with something foreign, or at least unlocal, in the cut of the figure or its garb; but her husband had apparently seen more — seen enough to make him push past her with a sharp “Wait!” and dash down the twisting stairs without pausing to give her a hand for the descent.

A slight tendency to dizziness obliged her, after a provisional clutch at the chimney against which they had been leaning, to follow him down more cautiously; and when she had reached the attic landing she paused again for a less definite reason, leaning over the oak banister to strain her eyes through the silence of the brown, sun-flecked depths below. She lingered there till, somewhere in those depths, she heard the closing of a door; then, mechanically impelled, she went down the shallow flights of steps till she reached the lower hall.

The front door stood open on the mild sunlight of the court, and hall and court were empty. The library door was open, too, and after listening in vain for any sound of voices within, she quickly crossed the threshold, and found her husband alone, vaguely fingering the papers on his desk.

He looked up, as if surprised at her precipitate entrance, but the shadow of anxiety had passed from his face, leaving it even, as she fancied, a little brighter and clearer than usual.

“What was it? Who was it?” she asked.

“Who?” he repeated, with the surprise still all on his side.

“The man we saw coming toward the house.”

He seemed honestly to reflect. “The man? Why, I thought I saw Peters; I dashed after him to say a word about the stable-drains, but he had disappeared before I could get down.”

“Disappeared? Why, he seemed to be walking so slowly when we saw him.”

Boyne shrugged his shoulders. “So I thought; but he must have got up steam in the interval. What do you say to our trying a scramble up Meldon Steep before sunset?”

That was all. At the time the occurrence had been less than nothing, had, indeed, been immediately obliterated by the magic of their first vision from Meldon Steep, a height which they had dreamed of climbing ever since they had first seen its bare spine heaving itself above the low roof of Lyng. Doubtless it was the mere fact of the other incident’s having occurred on the very day of their ascent to Meldon that had kept it stored away in the unconscious fold of association from which it now emerged; for in itself it had no mark of the portentous. At the moment there could have been nothing more natural than that Ned should dash himself from the roof in the pursuit of dilatory tradesmen. It was the period when they were always on the watch for one or the other of the specialists employed about the place; always lying in wait for them, and dashing out at them with questions, reproach, or reminders. And certainly in the distance the gray figure had looked like Peters.

Yet now, as she reviewed the rapid scene, she felt her husband’s explanation of it to have been invalidated by the look of anxiety on his face. Why had the familiar appearance of Peters made him anxious? Why, above all, if it was of such prime necessity to confer with that authority on the subject of the stable-drains, had the failure to find him produced such a look of relief? Mary could not say that any one of these considerations had occurred to her at the time, yet, from the promptness with which they now marshaled themselves at her summons, she had a sudden sense that they must all along have been there, waiting their hour.

II

Weary with her thoughts, she moved toward the window. The library was now completely dark, and she was surprised to see how much faint light the outer world still held.

As she peered out into it across the court, a figure shaped itself in the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blot of deeper gray in the grayness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her heart thumped to the thought, “It’s the ghost!”

She had time, in that long instant, to feel suddenly that the man of whom, two months earlier, she had a brief distant vision from the roof was now, at his predestined hour, about to reveal himself as not having been Peters; and her spirit sank under the impending fear of the disclosure. But almost with the next tick of the clock the ambiguous figure, gaining substance and character, showed itself even to her weak sight as her husband’s; and she turned away to meet him, as he entered, with the confession of her folly.

“It’s really too absurd,” she laughed out from the threshold, “but I never can remember!”

“Remember what?” Boyne questioned as they drew together.

“That when one sees the Lyng ghost one never knows it.”

Her hand was on his sleeve, and he kept it there, but with no response in his gesture or in the lines of his fagged, preoccupied face.

“Did you think you’d seen it?” he asked, after an appreciable interval.

“Why, I actually took you for it, my dear, in my mad determination to spot it!”

“Me — just now?” His arm dropped away, and he turned from her with a faint echo of her laugh. “Really, dearest, you’d better give it up, if that’s the best you can do.”

“Yes, I give it up — I give it up. Have you?” she asked, turning round on him abruptly.

The parlor-maid had entered with letters and a lamp, and the light struck up into Boyne’s face as he bent above the tray she presented.

“Have you?” Mary perversely insisted, when the servant had disappeared on her errand of illumination.

“Have I what?” he rejoined absently, the light bringing out the sharp stamp of worry between his brows as he turned over the letters.

“Given up trying to see the ghost.” Her heart beat a little at the experiment she was making.

Her husband, laying his letters aside, moved away into the shadow of the hearth.

“I never tried,” he said, tearing open the wrapper of a newspaper.

“Well, of course,” Mary persisted, “the exasperating thing is that there’s no use trying, since one can’t be sure till so long afterward.”

He was unfolding the paper as if he had hardly heard her; but after a pause, during which the sheets rustled spasmodically between his hands, he lifted his head to say abruptly, “Have you any idea how long?”

Mary had sunk into a low chair beside the fireplace. From her seat she looked up, startled, at her husband’s profile, which was darkly projected against the circle of lamplight.

“No; none. Have YOU?” she retorted, repeating her former phrase with an added keenness of intention.

Boyne crumpled the paper into a bunch, and then inconsequently turned back with it toward the lamp.

“Lord, no! I only meant,” he explained, with a faint tinge of impatience, “is there any legend, any tradition, as to that?”

“Not that I know of,” she answered; but the impulse to add, “What makes you ask?” was checked by the reappearance of the parlor maid with tea and a second lamp.

With the dispersal of shadows, and the repetition of the daily domestic office, Mary Boyne felt herself less oppressed by that sense of something mutely imminent which had darkened her solitary afternoon. For a few moments she gave herself silently to the details of her task, and when she looked up from it she was struck to the point of bewilderment by the change in her husband’s face. He had seated himself near the farther lamp, and was absorbed in the perusal of his letters; but was it something he had found in them, or merely the shifting of her own point of view, that had restored his features to their normal aspect? The longer she looked, the more definitely the change affirmed itself. The lines of painful tension had vanished, and such traces of fatigue as lingered were of the kind easily attributable to steady mental effort. He glanced up, as if drawn by her gaze, and met her eyes with a smile.

“I’m dying for my tea, you know; and here’s a letter for you,” he said.

She took the letter he held out in exchange for the cup she proffer him, and, returning to her seat, broke the seal with the languid gesture of the reader whose interests are all inclosed in the circle of one cherished presence.

Her next conscious motion was that of starting to her feet, the letter falling to them as she rose, while she held out to her husband a long newspaper clipping.

“Ned! What’s this? What does it mean?”

He had risen at the same instant, almost as if hearing her cry before she uttered it; and for a perceptible space of time he and she studied each other, like adversaries watching for an advantage, across the space between her chair and his desk.

“What’s what? You fairly made me jump!” Boyne said at length, moving toward her with a sudden, half-exasperated laugh. The shadow of apprehension was on his face again, not now a look of fixed foreboding, but a shifting vigilance of lips and eyes that gave her the sense of his feeling himself invisibly surrounded.

Her hand shook so that she could hardly give him the clipping.

“This article — from the ‘Waukesha Sentinel’ — that a man named Elwell has brought suit against you — that there was something wrong about the Blue Star Mine. I can’t understand more than half.”

They continued to face each other as she spoke, and to her astonishment, she saw that her words had the almost immediate effect of dissipating the strained watchfulness of his look.

“Oh, that!” He glanced down the printed slip, and then folded it with the gesture of one who handles something harmless and familiar. “What’s the matter with you this afternoon, Mary? I thought you’d got bad news.”

She stood before him with her undefinable terror subsiding slowly under the reassuring touch of his composure.

“You knew about this, then — it’s all right?”

“Certainly I knew about it; and it’s all right.”

“But what is it? I don’t understand. What does this man accuse you of?”

“Oh, pretty nearly every crime in the calendar.” Boyne had tossed the clipping down, and thrown himself comfortably into an arm-chair near the fire. “Do you want to hear the story? It’s not particularly interesting — just a squabble over interests in the Blue Star.”

“But who is this Elwell? I don’t know the name.”

“Oh, he’s a fellow I put into it — gave him a hand up. I told you all about him at the time.”

“I daresay. I must have forgotten.” Vainly she strained back among her memories. “But if you helped him, why does he make this return?”

“Oh, probably some shyster lawyer got hold of him and talked him over. It’s all rather technical and complicated. I thought that kind of thing bored you.”

His wife felt a sting of compunction. Theoretically, she deprecated the American wife’s detachment from her husband’s professional interests, but in practice she had always found it difficult to fix her attention on Boyne’s report of the transactions in which his varied interests involved him. Besides, she had felt from the first that, in a community where the amenities of living could be obtained only at the cost of efforts as arduous as her husband’s professional labors, such brief leisure as they could command should be used as an escape from immediate preoccupations, a flight to the life they always dreamed of living. Once or twice, now that this new life had actually drawn its magic circle about them, she had asked herself if she had done right; but hitherto such conjectures had been no more than the retrospective excursions of an active fancy. Now, for the first time, it startled her a little to find how little she knew of the material foundation on which her happiness was built.

She glanced again at her husband, and was reassured by the composure of his face; yet she felt the need of more definite grounds for her reassurance.

“But doesn’t this suit worry you? Why have you never spoken to me about it?”

He answered both questions at once: “I didn’t speak of it at first because it did worry me — annoyed me, rather. But it’s all ancient history now. Your correspondent must have got hold of a back number of the ‘Sentinel.'”

She felt a quick thrill of relief. “You mean it’s over? He’s lost his case?”

There was a just perceptible delay in Boyne’s reply. “The suit’s been withdrawn — that’s all.”

But she persisted, as if to exonerate herself from the inward charge of being too easily put off. “Withdrawn because he saw he had no chance?”

“Oh, he had no chance,” Boyne answered.

She was still struggling with a dimly felt perplexity at the back of her thoughts.

“How long ago was it withdrawn?”

He paused, as if with a slight return of his former uncertainty. “I’ve just had the news now; but I’ve been expecting it.”

“Just now — in one of your letters?”

“Yes; in one of my letters.”

She made no answer, and was aware only, after a short interval of waiting, that he had risen, and strolling across the room, had placed himself on the sofa at her side. She felt him, as he did so, pass an arm about her, she felt his hand seek hers and clasp it, and turning slowly, drawn by the warmth of his cheek, she met the smiling clearness of his eyes.

“It’s all right — it’s all right?” she questioned, through the flood of her dissolving doubts; and “I give you my word it never was righter!” he laughed back at her, holding her close.

III

One of the strangest things she was afterward to recall out of all the next day’s incredible strangeness was the sudden and complete recovery of her sense of security.

It was in the air when she woke in her low-ceilinged, dusky room; it accompanied her down-stairs to the breakfast-table, flashed out at her from the fire, and re-duplicated itself brightly from the flanks of the urn and the sturdy flutings of the Georgian teapot. It was as if, in some roundabout way, all her diffused apprehensions of the previous day, with their moment of sharp concentration about the newspaper article, — as if this dim questioning of the future, and startled return upon the past,-had between them liquidated the arrears of some haunting moral obligation. If she had indeed been careless of her husband’s affairs, it was, her new state seemed to prove, because her faith in him instinctively justified such carelessness; and his right to her faith had overwhelmingly affirmed itself in the very face of menace and suspicion. She had never seen him more untroubled, more naturally and unconsciously in possession of himself, than after the cross-examination to which she had subjected him: it was almost as if he had been aware of her lurking doubts, and had wanted the air cleared as much as she did.

It was as clear, thank Heaven! as the bright outer light that surprised her almost with a touch of summer when she issued from the house for her daily round of the gardens. She had left Boyne at his desk, indulging herself, as she passed the library door, by a last peep at his quiet face, where he bent, pipe in his mouth, above his papers, and now she had her own morning’s task to perform. The task involved on such charmed winter days almost as much delighted loitering about the different quarters of her demesne as if spring were already at work on shrubs and borders. There were such inexhaustible possibilities still before her, such opportunities to bring out the latent graces of the old place, without a single irreverent touch of alteration, that the winter months were all too short to plan what spring and autumn executed. And her recovered sense of safety gave, on this particular morning, a peculiar zest to her progress through the sweet, still place. She went first to the kitchen-garden, where the espalier pear-trees drew complicated patterns on the walls, and pigeons were fluttering and preening about the silvery-slated roof of their cot. There was something wrong about the piping of the hothouse, and she was expecting an authority from Dorchester, who was to drive out between trains and make a diagnosis of the boiler. But when she dipped into the damp heat of the greenhouses, among the spiced scents and waxy pinks and reds of old-fashioned exotics, — even the flora of Lyng was in the note!-she learned that the great man had not arrived, and the day being too rare to waste in an artificial atmosphere, she came out again and paced slowly along the springy turf of the bowling-green to the gardens behind the house. At their farther end rose a grass terrace, commanding, over the fish-pond and the yew hedges, a view of the long house-front, with its twisted chimney-stacks and the blue shadows of its roof angles, all drenched in the pale gold moisture of the air.

Seen thus, across the level tracery of the yews, under the suffused, mild light, it sent her, from its open windows and hospitably smoking chimneys, the look of some warm human presence, of a mind slowly ripened on a sunny wall of experience. She had never before had so deep a sense of her intimacy with it, such a conviction that its secrets were all beneficent, kept, as they said to children, “for one’s good,” so complete a trust in its power to gather up her life and Ned’s into the harmonious pattern of the long, long story it sat there weaving in the sun.

She heard steps behind her, and turned, expecting to see the gardener, accompanied by the engineer from Dorchester. But only one figure was in sight, that of a youngish, slightly built man, who, for reasons she could not on the spot have specified, did not remotely resemble her preconceived notion of an authority on hot-house boilers. The new-comer, on seeing her, lifted his hat, and paused with the air of a gentleman — perhaps a traveler-desirous of having it immediately known that his intrusion is involuntary. The local fame of Lyng occasionally attracted the more intelligent sight-seer, and Mary half-expected to see the stranger dissemble a camera, or justify his presence by producing it. But he made no gesture of any sort, and after a moment she asked, in a tone responding to the courteous deprecation of his attitude: “Is there any one you wish to see?”

“I came to see Mr. Boyne,” he replied. His intonation, rather than his accent, was faintly American, and Mary, at the familiar note, looked at him more closely. The brim of his soft felt hat cast a shade on his face, which, thus obscured, wore to her short-sighted gaze a look of seriousness, as of a person arriving “on business,” and civilly but firmly aware of his rights.

Past experience had made Mary equally sensible to such claims; but she was jealous of her husband’s morning hours, and doubtful of his having given any one the right to intrude on them.

“Have you an appointment with Mr. Boyne?” she asked.

He hesitated, as if unprepared for the question.

“Not exactly an appointment,” he replied.

“Then I’m afraid, this being his working-time, that he can’t receive you now. Will you give me a message, or come back later?”

The visitor, again lifting his hat, briefly replied that he would come back later, and walked away, as if to regain the front of the house. As his figure receded down the walk between the yew hedges, Mary saw him pause and look up an instant at the peaceful house-front bathed in faint winter sunshine; and it struck her, with a tardy touch of compunction, that it would have been more humane to ask if he had come from a distance, and to offer, in that case, to inquire if her husband could receive him. But as the thought occurred to her he passed out of sight behind a pyramidal yew, and at the same moment her attention was distracted by the approach of the gardener, attended by the bearded pepper-and-salt figure of the boiler-maker from Dorchester.

The encounter with this authority led to such far-reaching issues that they resulted in his finding it expedient to ignore his train, and beguiled Mary into spending the remainder of the morning in absorbed confabulation among the greenhouses. She was startled to find, when the colloquy ended, that it was nearly luncheon-time, and she half expected, as she hurried back to the house, to see her husband coming out to meet her. But she found no one in the court but an under-gardener raking the gravel, and the hall, when she entered it, was so silent that she guessed Boyne to be still at work behind the closed door of the library.

Not wishing to disturb him, she turned into the drawing-room, and there, at her writing-table, lost herself in renewed calculations of the outlay to which the morning’s conference had committed her. The knowledge that she could permit herself such follies had not yet lost its novelty; and somehow, in contrast to the vague apprehensions of the previous days, it now seemed an element of her recovered security, of the sense that, as Ned had said, things in general had never been “righter.”

She was still luxuriating in a lavish play of figures when the parlor-maid, from the threshold, roused her with a dubiously worded inquiry as to the expediency of serving luncheon. It was one of their jokes that Trimmle announced luncheon as if she were divulging a state secret, and Mary, intent upon her papers, merely murmured an absent-minded assent.

She felt Trimmle wavering expressively on the threshold as if in rebuke of such offhand acquiescence; then her retreating steps sounded down the passage, and Mary, pushing away her papers, crossed the hall, and went to the library door. It was still closed, and she wavered in her turn, disliking to disturb her husband, yet anxious that he should not exceed his normal measure of work. As she stood there, balancing her impulses, the esoteric Trimmle returned with the announcement of luncheon, and Mary, thus impelled, opened the door and went into the library.

Boyne was not at his desk, and she peered about her, expecting to discover him at the book-shelves, somewhere down the length of the room; but her call brought no response, and gradually it became clear to her that he was not in the library.

She turned back to the parlor-maid.

“Mr. Boyne must be up-stairs. Please tell him that luncheon is ready.”

The parlor-maid appeared to hesitate between the obvious duty of obeying orders and an equally obvious conviction of the foolishness of the injunction laid upon her. The struggle resulted in her saying doubtfully, “If you please, Madam, Mr. Boyne’s not up-stairs.”

“Not in his room? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Madam.”

Mary consulted the clock. “Where is he, then?”

“He’s gone out,” Trimmle announced, with the superior air of one who has respectfully waited for the question that a well-ordered mind would have first propounded.

Mary’s previous conjecture had been right, then. Boyne must have gone to the gardens to meet her, and since she had missed him, it was clear that he had taken the shorter way by the south door, instead of going round to the court. She crossed the hall to the glass portal opening directly on the yew garden, but the parlor maid, after another moment of inner conflict, decided to bring out recklessly, “Please, Madam, Mr. Boyne didn’t go that way.”

Mary turned back. “Where did he go? And when?”

“He went out of the front door, up the drive, Madam.” It was a matter of principle with Trimmle never to answer more than one question at a time.

“Up the drive? At this hour?” Mary went to the door herself, and glanced across the court through the long tunnel of bare limes. But its perspective was as empty as when she had scanned it on entering the house.

“Did Mr. Boyne leave no message?” she asked.

Trimmle seemed to surrender herself to a last struggle with the forces of chaos.

“No, Madam. He just went out with the gentleman.”

“The gentleman? What gentleman?” Mary wheeled about, as if to front this new factor.

“The gentleman who called, Madam,” said Trimmle, resignedly.

“When did a gentleman call? Do explain yourself, Trimmle!”

Only the fact that Mary was very hungry, and that she wanted to consult her husband about the greenhouses, would have caused her to lay so unusual an injunction on her attendant; and even now she was detached enough to note in Trimmle’s eye the dawning defiance of the respectful subordinate who has been pressed too hard.

“I couldn’t exactly say the hour, Madam, because I didn’t let the gentleman in,” she replied, with the air of magnanimously ignoring the irregularity of her mistress’s course.

“You didn’t let him in?”

“No, Madam. When the bell rang I was dressing, and Agnes–”

“Go and ask Agnes, then,” Mary interjected. Trimmle still wore her look of patient magnanimity. “Agnes would not know, Madam, for she had unfortunately burnt her hand in trying the wick of the new lamp from town–” Trimmle, as Mary was aware, had always been opposed to the new lamp–” and so Mrs. Dockett sent the kitchen-maid instead.”

Mary looked again at the clock. “It’s after two! Go and ask the kitchen-maid if Mr. Boyne left any word.”

She went into luncheon without waiting, and Trimmle presently brought her there the kitchen-maid’s statement that the gentleman had called about one o’clock, that Mr. Boyne had gone out with him without leaving any message. The kitchen-maid did not even know the caller’s name, for he had written it on a slip of paper, which he had folded and handed to her, with the injunction to deliver it at once to Mr. Boyne.

Mary finished her luncheon, still wondering, and when it was over, and Trimmle had brought the coffee to the drawing-room, her wonder had deepened to a first faint tinge of disquietude. It was unlike Boyne to absent himself without explanation at so unwonted an hour, and the difficulty of identifying the visitor whose summons he had apparently obeyed made his disappearance the more unaccountable. Mary Boyne’s experience as the wife of a busy engineer, subject to sudden calls and compelled to keep irregular hours, had trained her to the philosophic acceptance of surprises; but since Boyne’s withdrawal from business he had adopted a Benedictine regularity of life. As if to make up for the dispersed and agitated years, with their “stand-up” lunches and dinners rattled down to the joltings of the dining-car, he cultivated the last refinements of punctuality and monotony, discouraging his wife’s fancy for the unexpected; and declaring that to a delicate taste there were infinite gradations of pleasure in the fixed recurrences of habit.

Still, since no life can completely defend itself from the unforeseen, it was evident that all Boyne’s precautions would sooner or later prove unavailable, and Mary concluded that he had cut short a tiresome visit by walking with his caller to the station, or at least accompanying him for part of the way.

This conclusion relieved her from farther preoccupation, and she went out herself to take up her conference with the gardener. Thence she walked to the village post-office, a mile or so away; and when she turned toward home, the early twilight was setting in.

She had taken a foot-path across the downs, and as Boyne, meanwhile, had probably returned from the station by the highroad, there was little likelihood of their meeting on the way. She felt sure, however, of his having reached the house before her; so sure that, when she entered it herself, without even pausing to inquire of Trimmle, she made directly for the library. But the library was still empty, and with an unwonted precision of visual memory she immediately observed that the papers on her husband’s desk lay precisely as they had lain when she had gone in to call him to luncheon.

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long, silent, shadowy room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there audibly breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her short-sighted eyes strained through them, half discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible propinquity she threw herself suddenly on the bell-rope and gave it a desperate pull.

The long, quavering summons brought Trimmle in precipitately with a lamp, and Mary breathed again at this sobering reappearance of the usual.

“You may bring tea if Mr. Boyne is in,” she said, to justify her ring.

“Very well, Madam. But Mr. Boyne is not in,” said Trimmle, putting down the lamp.

“Not in? You mean he’s come back and gone out again?”

“No, Madam. He’s never been back.”

The dread stirred again, and Mary knew that now it had her fast.

“Not since he went out with — the gentleman?”

“Not since he went out with the gentleman.”

“But who was the gentleman?” Mary gasped out, with the sharp note of some one trying to be heard through a confusion of meaningless noises.

“That I couldn’t say, Madam.” Trimmle, standing there by the lamp, seemed suddenly to grow less round and rosy, as though eclipsed by the same creeping shade of apprehension.

“But the kitchen-maid knows — wasn’t it the kitchen-maid who let him in?”

“She doesn’t know either, Madam, for he wrote his name on a folded paper.”

Mary, through her agitation, was aware that they were both designating the unknown visitor by a vague pronoun, instead of the conventional formula which, till then, had kept their allusions within the bounds of custom. And at the same moment her mind caught at the suggestion of the folded paper.

“But he must have a name! Where is the paper?”

She moved to the desk, and began to turn over the scattered documents that littered it. The first that caught her eye was an unfinished letter in her husband’s hand, with his pen lying across it, as though dropped there at a sudden summons.

“My dear Parvis,” –who was Parvis?–“I have just received your letter announcing Elwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now no farther risk of trouble, it might be safer–”

She tossed the sheet aside, and continued her search; but no folded paper was discoverable among the letters and pages of manuscript which had been swept together in a promiscuous heap, as if by a hurried or a startled gesture.

“But the kitchen-maid saw him. Send her here,” she commanded, wondering at her dullness in not thinking sooner of so simple a solution.

Trimmle, at the behest, vanished in a flash, as if thankful to be out of the room, and when she reappeared, conducting the agitated underling, Mary had regained her self-possession, and had her questions pat.

The gentleman was a stranger, yes–that she understood. But what had he said? And, above all, what had he looked like? The first question was easily enough answered, for the disconcerting reason that he had said so little–had merely asked for Mr. Boyne, and, scribbling something on a bit of paper, had requested that it should at once be carried in to him.

“Then you don’t know what he wrote? You’re not sure it was his name?”

The kitchen-maid was not sure, but supposed it was, since he had written it in answer to her inquiry as to whom she should announce.

“And when you carried the paper in to Mr. Boyne, what did he say?”

The kitchen-maid did not think that Mr. Boyne had said anything, but she could not be sure, for just as she had handed him the paper and he was opening it, she had become aware that the visitor had followed her into the library, and she had slipped out, leaving the two gentlemen together.

“But then, if you left them in the library, how do you know that they went out of the house?”

This question plunged the witness into momentary inarticulateness, from which she was rescued by Trimmle, who, by means of ingenious circumlocutions, elicited the statement that before she could cross the hall to the back passage she had heard the gentlemen behind her, and had seen them go out of the front door together.

“Then, if you saw the gentleman twice, you must be able to tell me what he looked like.”

But with this final challenge to her powers of expression it became clear that the limit of the kitchen-maid’s endurance had been reached. The obligation of going to the front door to “show in” a visitor was in itself so subversive of the fundamental order of things that it had thrown her faculties into hopeless disarray, and she could only stammer out, after various panting efforts at evocation, “His hat, mum, was different-like, as you might say–”

“Different? How different?” Mary flashed out at her, her own mind, in the same instant, leaping back to an image left on it that morning, but temporarily lost under layers of subsequent impressions.

“His hat had a wide brim, you mean? and his face was pale–a youngish face?” Mary pressed her, with a white-lipped intensity of interrogation. But if the kitchen-maid found any adequate answer to this challenge, it was swept away for her listener down the rushing current of her own convictions. The stranger–the stranger in the garden! Why had Mary not thought of him before? She needed no one now to tell her that it was he who had called for her husband and gone away with him. But who was he, and why had Boyne obeyed his call?

IV

It leaped out at her suddenly, like a grin out of the dark, that they had often called England so little–“such a confoundedly hard place to get lost in.”

A confoundedly hard place to get lost in! That had been her husband’s phrase. And now, with the whole machinery of official investigation sweeping its flash-lights from shore to shore, and across the dividing straits; now, with Boyne’s name blazing from the walls of every town and village, his portrait how that wrung her! hawked up and down the country like the image of a hunted criminal; now the little compact, populous island, so policed, surveyed, and administered, revealed itself as a Sphinx-like guardian of abysmal mysteries, staring back into his wife’s anguished eyes as if with the malicious joy of knowing something they would never know!

In the fortnight since Boyne’s disappearance there had been no word of him, no trace of his movements. Even the usual misleading reports that raise expectancy in tortured bosoms had been few and fleeting. No one but the bewildered kitchen-maid had seen him leave the house, and no one else had seen “the gentleman” who accompanied him. All inquiries in the neighborhood failed to elicit the memory of a stranger’s presence that day in the neighborhood of Lyng. And no one had met Edward Boyne, either alone or in company, in any of the neighboring villages, or on the road across the downs, or at either of the local railway-stations. The sunny English noon had swallowed him as completely as if he had gone out into Cimmerian night.

Mary, while every external means of investigation was working at its highest pressure, had ransacked her husband’s papers for any trace of antecedent complications, of entanglements or obligations unknown to her, that might throw a faint ray into the darkness. But if any such had existed in the background of Boyne’s life, they had disappeared as completely as the slip of paper on which the visitor had written his name. There remained no possible thread of guidance except — if it were indeed an exception — the letter which Boyne had apparently been in the act of writing when he received his mysterious summons. That letter, read and reread by his wife, and submitted by her to the police, yielded little enough for conjecture to feed on.

“I have just heard of Elwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now no farther risk of trouble, it might be safer–” That was all. The “risk of trouble” was easily explained by the newspaper clipping which had apprised Mary of the suit brought against her husband by one of his associates in the Blue Star enterprise. The only new information conveyed in the letter was the fact of its showing Boyne, when he wrote it, to be still apprehensive of the results of the suit, though he had assured his wife that it had been withdrawn, and though the letter itself declared that the plaintiff was dead. It took several weeks of exhaustive cabling to fix the identity of the “Parvis” to whom the fragmentary communication was addressed, but even after these inquiries had shown him to be a Waukesha lawyer, no new facts concerning the Elwell suit were elicited. He appeared to have had no direct concern in it, but to have been conversant with the facts merely as an acquaintance, and possible intermediary; and he declared himself unable to divine with what object Boyne intended to seek his assistance.

This negative information, sole fruit of the first fortnight’s feverish search, was not increased by a jot during the slow weeks that followed. Mary knew that the investigations were still being carried on, but she had a vague sense of their gradually slackening, as the actual march of time seemed to slacken. It was as though the days, flying horror-struck from the shrouded image of the one inscrutable day, gained assurance as the distance lengthened, till at last they fell back into their normal gait. And so with the human imaginations at work on the dark event. No doubt it occupied them still, but week by week and hour by hour it grew less absorbing, took up less space, was slowly but inevitably crowded out of the foreground of consciousness by the new problems perpetually bubbling up from the vaporous caldron of human experience.

Even Mary Boyne’s consciousness gradually felt the same lowering of velocity. It still swayed with the incessant oscillations of conjecture; but they were slower, more rhythmical in their beat. There were moments of overwhelming lassitude when, like the victim of some poison which leaves the brain clear, but holds the body motionless, she saw herself domesticated with the Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of the fixed conditions of life.

These moments lengthened into hours and days, till she passed into a phase of stolid acquiescence. She watched the familiar routine of life with the incurious eye of a savage on whom the meaningless processes of civilization make but the faintest impression. She had come to regard herself as part of the routine, a spoke of the wheel, revolving with its motion; she felt almost like the furniture of the room in which she sat, an insensate object to be dusted and pushed about with the chairs and tables. And this deepening apathy held her fast at Lyng, in spite of the urgent entreaties of friends and the usual medical recommendation of “change.” Her friends supposed that her refusal to move was inspired by the belief that her husband would one day return to the spot from which he had vanished, and a beautiful legend grew up about this imaginary state of waiting. But in reality she had no such belief: the depths of anguish inclosing her were no longer lighted by flashes of hope. She was sure that Boyne would never come back, that he had gone out of her sight as completely as if Death itself had waited that day on the threshold. She had even renounced, one by one, the various theories as to his disappearance which had been advanced by the press, the police, and her own agonized imagination. In sheer lassitude her mind turned from these alternatives of horror, and sank back into the blank fact that he was gone.

No, she would never know what had become of him — no one would ever know. But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long, lonely evenings knew. For it was here that the last scene had been enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused Boyne to rise and follow him. The floor she trod had felt his tread; the books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the intense consciousness of the old, dusky walls seemed about to break out into some audible revelation of their secret. But the revelation never came, and she knew it would never come. Lyng was not one of the garrulous old houses that betray the secrets intrusted to them. Its very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian of the mysteries it had surprised. And Mary Boyne, sitting face to face with its portentous silence, felt the futility of seeking to break it by any human means.

V

“I don’t say it wasn’t straight, yet don’t say it was straight. It was business.”

Mary, at the words, lifted her head with a start, and looked intently at the speaker.

When, half an hour before, a card with “Mr. Parvis” on it had been brought up to her, she had been immediately aware that the name had been a part of her consciousness ever since she had read it at the head of Boyne’s unfinished letter. In the library she had found awaiting her a small neutral-tinted man with a bald head and gold eye-glasses, and it sent a strange tremor through her to know that this was the person to whom her husband’s last known thought had been directed.

Parvis, civilly, but without vain preamble,–in the manner of a man who has his watch in his hand,–had set forth the object of his visit. He had “run over” to England on business, and finding himself in the neighborhood of Dorchester, had not wished to leave it without paying his respects to Mrs. Boyne; without asking her, if the occasion offered, what she meant to do about Bob Elwell’s family.

The words touched the spring of some obscure dread in Mary’s bosom. Did her visitor, after all, know what Boyne had meant by his unfinished phrase? She asked for an elucidation of his question, and noticed at once that he seemed surprised at her continued ignorance of the subject. Was it possible that she really knew as little as she said?

“I know nothing — you must tell me,” she faltered out; and her visitor thereupon proceeded to unfold his story. It threw, even to her confused perceptions, and imperfectly initiated vision, a lurid glare on the whole hazy episode of the Blue Star Mine. Her husband had made his money in that brilliant speculation at the cost of “getting ahead” of some one less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young Robert Elwell, who had “put him on” to the Blue Star scheme.

Parvis, at Mary’s first startled cry, had thrown her a sobering glance through his impartial glasses.

“Bob Elwell wasn’t smart enough, that’s all; if he had been, he might have turned round and served Boyne the same way. It’s the kind of thing that happens every day in business. I guess it’s what the scientists call the survival of the fittest,” said Mr. Parvis, evidently pleased with the aptness of his analogy.

Mary felt a physical shrinking from the next question she tried to frame; it was as though the words on her lips had a taste that nauseated her.

“But then–you accuse my husband of doing something dishonorable?”

Mr. Parvis surveyed the question dispassionately. “Oh, no, I don’t. I don’t even say it wasn’t straight.” He glanced up and down the long lines of books, as if one of them might have supplied him with the definition he sought. “I don’t say it wasn’t straight, and yet I don’t say it was straight. It was business.” After all, no definition in his category could be more comprehensive than that.

Mary sat staring at him with a look of terror. He seemed to her like the indifferent, implacable emissary of some dark, formless power.

“But Mr. Elwell’s lawyers apparently did not take your view, since I suppose the suit was withdrawn by their advice.”

“Oh, yes, they knew he hadn’t a leg to stand on, technically. It was when they advised him to withdraw the suit that he got desperate. You see, he’d borrowed most of the money he lost in the Blue Star, and he was up a tree. That’s why he shot himself when they told him he had no show.”

The horror was sweeping over Mary in great, deafening waves.

“He shot himself? He killed himself because of that? ”

“Well, he didn’t kill himself, exactly. He dragged on two months before he died.” Parvis emitted the statement as unemotionally as a gramophone grinding out its “record.”

“You mean that he tried to kill himself, and failed? And tried again?”

“Oh, he didn’t have to try again,” said Parvis, grimly.

They sat opposite each other in silence, he swinging his eyeglass thoughtfully about his finger, she, motionless, her arms stretched along her knees in an attitude of rigid tension.

“But if you knew all this,” she began at length, hardly able to force her voice above a whisper, “how is it that when I wrote you at the time of my husband’s disappearance you said you didn’t understand his letter?”

Parvis received this without perceptible discomfiture. “Why, I didn’t understand it — strictly speaking. And it wasn’t the time to talk about it, if I had. The Elwell business was settled when the suit was withdrawn. Nothing I could have told you would have helped you to find your husband.”

Mary continued to scrutinize him. “Then why are you telling me now?”

Still Parvis did not hesitate. “Well, to begin with, I supposed you knew more than you appear to — I mean about the circumstances of Elwell’s death. And then people are talking of it now; the whole matter’s been raked up again. And I thought, if you didn’t know, you ought to.”

She remained silent, and he continued: “You see, it’s only come out lately what a bad state Elwell’s affairs were in. His wife’s a proud woman, and she fought on as long as she could, going out to work, and taking sewing at home, when she got too sick-something with the heart, I believe. But she had his bedridden mother to look after, and the children, and she broke down under it, and finally had to ask for help. That attracted attention to the case, and the papers took it up, and a subscription was started. Everybody out there liked Bob Elwell, and most of the prominent names in the place are down on the list, and people began to wonder why–”

Parvis broke off to fumble in an inner pocket. “Here,” he continued, “here’s an account of the whole thing from the ‘Sentinel’–a little sensational, of course. But I guess you’d better look it over.”

He held out a newspaper to Mary, who unfolded it slowly, remembering, as she did so, the evening when, in that same room, the perusal of a clipping from the “Sentinel” had first shaken the depths of her security.

As she opened the paper, her eyes, shrinking from the glaring head-lines, “Widow of Boyne’s Victim Forced to Appeal for Aid,” ran down the column of text to two portraits inserted in it. The first was her husband’s, taken from a photograph made the year they had come to England. It was the picture of him that she liked best, the one that stood on the writing-table up-stairs in her bedroom. As the eyes in the photograph met hers, she felt it would be impossible to read what was said of him, and closed her lids with the sharpness of the pain.

“I thought if you felt disposed to put your name down–” she heard Parvis continue.

She opened her eyes with an effort, and they fell on the other portrait. It was that of a youngish man, slightly built, in rough clothes, with features somewhat blurred by the shadow of a projecting hat-brim. Where had she seen that outline before? She stared at it confusedly, her heart hammering in her throat and ears. Then she gave a cry.

“This is the man–the man who came for my husband!”

She heard Parvis start to his feet, and was dimly aware that she had slipped backward into the corner of the sofa, and that he was bending above her in alarm. With an intense effort she straightened herself, and reached out for the paper, which she had dropped.

“It’s the man! I should know him anywhere!” she cried in a voice that sounded in her own ears like a scream.

Parvis’s voice seemed to come to her from far off, down endless, fog-muffled windings.

“Mrs. Boyne, you’re not very well. Shall I call somebody? Shall I get a glass of water?”

“No, no, no!” She threw herself toward him, her hand frantically clenching the newspaper. “I tell you, it’s the man! I know him! He spoke to me in the garden!”

Parvis took the journal from her, directing his glasses to the portrait. “It can’t be, Mrs. Boyne. It’s Robert Elwell.”

“Robert Elwell?” Her white stare seemed to travel into space. “Then it was Robert Elwell who came for him.”

“Came for Boyne? The day he went away?” Parvis’s voice dropped as hers rose. He bent over, laying a fraternal hand on her, as if to coax her gently back into her seat. “Why, Elwell was dead! Don’t you remember?”

Mary sat with her eyes fixed on the picture, unconscious of what he was saying.

“Don’t you remember Boyne’s unfinished letter to me — the one you found on his desk that day? It was written just after he’d heard of Elwell’s death.” She noticed an odd shake in Parvis’s unemotional voice. “Surely you remember that!” he urged her.

Yes, she remembered: that was the profoundest horror of it. Elwell had died the day before her husband’s disappearance; and this was Elwell’s portrait; and it was the portrait of the man who had spoken to her in the garden. She lifted her head and looked slowly about the library. The library could have borne witness that it was also the portrait of the man who had come in that day to call Boyne from his unfinished letter. Through the misty surgings of her brain she heard the faint boom of half-forgotten words — words spoken by Alida Stair on the lawn at Pangbourne before Boyne and his wife had ever seen the house at Lyng, or had imagined that they might one day live there.

“This was the man who spoke to me,” she repeated.

She looked again at Parvis. He was trying to conceal his disturbance under what he imagined to be an expression of indulgent commiseration; but the edges of his lips were blue. “He thinks me mad; but I’m not mad,” she reflected; and suddenly there flashed upon her a way of justifying her strange affirmation.

She sat quiet, controlling the quiver of her lips, and waiting till she could trust her voice to keep its habitual level; then she said, looking straight at Parvis: “Will you answer me one question, please? When was it that Robert Elwell tried to kill himself?”

“When–when?” Parvis stammered.

“Yes; the date. Please try to remember.”

She saw that he was growing still more afraid of her. “I have a reason,” she insisted gently.

“Yes, yes. Only I can’t remember. About two months before, I should say.”

“I want the date,” she repeated.

Parvis picked up the newspaper. “We might see here,” he said, still humoring her. He ran his eyes down the page. “Here it is. Last October–the–”

She caught the words from him. “The 20th, wasn’t it?” With a sharp look at her, he verified. “Yes, the 20th. Then you did know?”

“I know now.” Her white stare continued to travel past him. “Sunday, the 20th–that was the day he came first.”

Parvis’s voice was almost inaudible. “Came here first?”

“Yes.”

“You saw him twice, then?”

“Yes, twice.” She breathed it at him with dilated eyes. “He came first on the 20th of October. I remember the date because it was the day we went up Meldon Steep for the first time.” She felt a faint gasp of inward laughter at the thought that but for that she might have forgotten.

Parvis continued to scrutinize her, as if trying to intercept her gaze.

“We saw him from the roof,” she went on. “He came down the lime avenue toward the house. He was dressed just as he is in that picture. My husband saw him first. He was frightened, and ran down ahead of me; but there was no one there. He had vanished.”

“Elwell had vanished?” Parvis faltered.

“Yes.” Their two whispers seemed to grope for each other. “I couldn’t think what had happened. I see now. He tried to come then; but he wasn’t dead enough–he couldn’t reach us. He had to wait for two months; and then he came back again–and Ned went with him.”

She nodded at Parvis with the look of triumph of a child who has successfully worked out a difficult puzzle. But suddenly she lifted her hands with a desperate gesture, pressing them to her bursting temples.

“Oh, my God! I sent him to Ned–I told him where to go! I sent him to this room!” she screamed out.

She felt the walls of the room rush toward her, like inward falling ruins; and she heard Parvis, a long way off, as if through the ruins, crying to her, and struggling to get at her. But she was numb to his touch, she did not know what he was saying. Through the tumult she heard but one clear note, the voice of Alida Stair, speaking on the lawn at Pangbourne.

“You won’t know till afterward,” it said. “You won’t know till long, long afterward.”

END

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One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concered it was a true story.

He told it me with such direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere; and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focused, shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and me, and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from everyday realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. “He was mystifying!” I said, and then: “How well he did it!…It isn’t quite the thing I should have expected of him of all people, to do well.”

Afterwards as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey–I hardly know which word to use–experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.

Well, I don’t resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts for ever, throw no light on that.

That much the reader must judge for himself.

I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a great public movement, in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged suddenly. “I have,” he said, “a preoccupation–”

“I know,” he went on, after a pause, “I have been negligent. The fact is–it isn’t a case of ghosts of apparitions–but–it’s an odd thing to tell of, Redmond–I am haunted. I am haunted by something–that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings…”

He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when we speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. “You were at Saint Athelstan’s all through,” he said, and for a moment that seemed to me quite irrelevant. “Well”–and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings, that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.

Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him–a woman who had loved him greatly. “Suddenly,” she said, “the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn’t care a rap for you–under his very nose…”

Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long ago; he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I couldn’t cut–anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort–as it were by nature. We were at school together at Saint Athelstan’s College in West Kensington for almost all our school time. He came into the school as my co-equal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it was at school I heard first of the “Door in the Wall”–that I was to hear of a second time only a month before his death.

To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.

And it came into his life quite early, when he was a little fellow between five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. “There was,” he said, “a crimson Virginia creeper in it – all one bright uniform crimson, in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow, though I don’t clearly remember how, and there were horse-chesnut leaves upon the clean pavement ouside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out for horse-chesnut leaves every year and I ought to know.

“If I’m right in that, I was about five years and four months old.”

He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy–he learned to talk at an abnormally early age, and he was so sane and “old-fashioned”, as people say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was two, and he was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess. His father was a stern, pre-occupied lawyer, who gave him little attention and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life grey and dull, I think. And one day he wandered.

He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away, nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door stood out quite distinctly.

As his memory of that childish experience ran, he did at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, and attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him–he could not tell which–to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning–unless memory has played him the queerest trick–that the door was unfastened, and that he could go in as he chose.

I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never explained, that his father would be very angry if he went in through that door.

Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in his pockets and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead, ball taps, pattern books of wallpaper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these things, and coveting, passionately desiring, the green door.

Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest hesitation should grip him again; he went plumb with outstretched hand through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he came into the garden that has haunted all his life.

It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden into which he came.

There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well-being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad–as only in rare moments, and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there…

Wallace mused before he went on telling me. “You see,” he said, with the doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, “there were two great panthers there…. Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid. There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball. One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small hand I held out, and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.

“You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen’s carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy–in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating, and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of homecoming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said, “Well?” to me, and lifted me and kissed me and put me down and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad red steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves.

“Along this cool avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down–I recall the pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face–asking me questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant things, I know, though what they were I was never able to recall…. Presently a Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of reddy brown and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking up at me and grinning, and presently leaped to my shoulder. So we two went on our way in great happiness.”

He paused.

“Go on,” I said.

“I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I remember, and a place gay with parakeets, and came through a broad shaded colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire. And there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out clearly and some that are vaguer; but all these people were beautiful and kind. In some way–I don’t know how–it was conveyed to me that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome and love in their eyes. Yes–”

He mused for a while. “Playmates I found there. That was much to me, because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a grass-covered court where there was a sundial set about with flowers. And as one played one loved….

“But–it’s odd–there’s a gap in my memory. I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to play it all over again–in my nursery–by myself. No! All I remember is the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me…. Then presently came a sombre woman, wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried a book, and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a hall–though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game and stood watching as I was carried away. ‘Come back to us!’ they cried. ‘Come back to us soon!’ I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born….

“It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures, you understand, but realities.”

Wallace paused gravely–looked at me doubtfully.

“Go on,” I said. “I understand.”

“They were realities–yes, they must have been; people moved and things came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to and fro. I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the woman’s face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see more of this book and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again the conflict and the fear.

“‘And next?’ I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the grave woman delayed me.

“‘Next?’ I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.

“But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, in that chill hour of afternnon before the lamps are lit; and I was there, a wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear playfellows who had called after me, ‘Come back to us! Come back to us soon!’ I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee I stood had gone–whither had they gone?”

He halted again, and remained for a time staring into the fire.

“Oh! The woefulness of that return!” he murmured.

“Well?” I said, after a minute or so.

“Poor little wretch I was!–brought back to this grey world again! As I realized the fullness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping and my disgraceful home-coming remain with me still. I see again the benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke to me–prodding me first with his umbrella. ‘Poor little chap,’ said he; ‘and are you lost then?’–and me a London boy of five and more! And he must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous, and frightened, I came back from the enchanted garden to the steps of my father’s house.

“That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden–the garden that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that difference from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that–that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and altogether extraordinary dream…. H’m!–naturally there followed a terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess–everyone….

“I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairy-tale books were taken away from me for a time–because I was too ‘imaginative’. Eh! Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school…. And my story was driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow–my pillow that was often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request: ‘Please God I may dream of the garden. O! take me back to my garden.’ Take me back to my garden! I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added to it, I may have changed it; I do not know…. All this, you understand, is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak of that wonder glimpse again.”

I asked an obvious question.

“No,” he said, “I don’t remember that I ever attempted to find my way back to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn’t till you knew me that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period–incredible as it seems now–when I forgot the garden altogether– when I was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at Saint Athelstan’s?”

“Rather!”

“I didn’t show any signs, did I, in those days of having a secret dream?”

2

He looked up with a sudden smile.

“Did you ever play North-West Passage with me? . . . No, of course you didn’t come my way!”

“It was the sort of game,” he went on, “that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way that wasn’t plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless direction, and working one`s way round through unaccustomed streets to my goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried rather desperately a street that seemed a cul de sac, and found a passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. ‘I shall do it yet,’ I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and the green door that led to the enchanted garden!

“The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that wonderful garden, wasn’t a dream!” . . . .

He paused.

“I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn’t for a moment think of going in straight away. You see . . . For one thing my mind was full of the idea of getting to school in time–set on not breaking my record for punctuality. I must surely have felt SOME little desire at least to try the door–yes, I must have felt that . . . But I seem to remember the attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering determination to get to school. I was immediately interested by this discovery I had made, of course–I went on with my mind full of it–but I went on. It didn’t check me. I ran past tugging out my watch, found I had ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat . . . Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Of course, I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t always be there. School boys have limited imaginations. I suppose I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me . . . Yes, I must have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.

“I didn’t go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought down impositions upon me and docked the margin of time necessary for the detour. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the meantime the enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to myself.

“I told–What was his name?–a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call Squiff.”

“Young Hopkins,” said I.

“Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him, I had a feeling that in some way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.

“Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing and wholly curious to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett–you remember him?–and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren’t there by any chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were . . .

“A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the praise of Crawshaw–you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the composer?–who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl in green–.”

Wallace’s voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. “I pretended not to hear,” he said. “Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby became outrageously virtuous, and said I’d have to–and bear out my words or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you`ll understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby though Crawshaw put in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared, and a little frightened, I behaved altogether like a silly little chap, and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my enchanted garden, I led the way presently–cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame–for a party of six mocking, curious and threatening school-fellows.

“We never found the white wall and the green door . . .”

“You mean?–”

“I mean I couldn’t find it. I would have found it if I could.

“And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn’t find it. I never found it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy days, but I’ve never come upon it again.”

“Did the fellows–make it disagreeable?”

“Beastly . . . . . Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn’t for Carnaby, but for the garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet friendly women and the waiting playfellows and the game I had hoped to learn again, that beautiful forgotten game . . .

“I believed firmly that if I had not told– . . . I had bad times after that–crying at night and woolgathering by day. For two terms I slackened and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was YOU–your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the grind again.”

3

For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then he said: “I never saw it again until I was seventeen.

“It leapt upon me for the third time–as I was driving to Paddington on my way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things.

“We clattered by–I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. ‘Yes, sir!’ said the cabman, smartly. ‘Er– well–it’s nothing,’ I cried. ‘MY mistake! We haven’t much time! Go on!’ and he went on . . .

“I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father’s house, with his praise–his rare praise–and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I smoked my favourite pipe–the formidable bulldog of adolescence–and thought of that door in the long white wall. ‘If I had stopped,’ I thought, ‘I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed Oxford–muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things better!’ I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.

“Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me, very fine, but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another door opening–the door of my career.”

He stared again into the fire. Its red lights picked out a stubborn strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished again.

“Well”, he said and sighed, “I have served that career. I have done–much work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since then. Yes–four times. For a while this world was so bright and interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity that the half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold promise that I have done something to redeem. Something–and yet there have been disappointments . . . .

“Twice I have been in love–I will not dwell on that–but once, as I went to someone who, I know, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl’s Court, and so happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. ‘Odd!’ said I to myself, ‘but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It’s the place I never could find somehow–like counting Stonehenge–the place of that queer day dream of mine.’ And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had no appeal to me that afternoon.

“I had just a moment’s impulse to try the door, three steps aside were needed at the most–though I was sure enough in my heart that it would open to me–and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I was sorry for my punctuality–I might at least have peeped in I thought, and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time made me very sorry . . . .

“Years of hard work after that and never a sight of the door. It’s only recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again. Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork–perhaps it was what I’ve heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don’t know. But certainly the keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently, and that just at a time with all these new political developments –when I ought to be working. Odd, isn`t it? But I do begin to find life toilsome, its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to want the garden quite badly. Yes–and I’ve seen it three times.”

“The garden?”

“No–the door! And I haven’t gone in!”

He leaned over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he spoke. “Thrice I have had my chance–THRICE! If ever that door offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in out of this dust and heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities. I will go and never return. This time I will stay . . . . I swore it and when the time came–I DIDN’T GO.

“Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter. Three times in the last year.

“The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants’ Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three. You remember? No one on our side–perhaps very few on the opposite side–expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford, we were both unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his cousin’s motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall and door–livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. ‘My God!’ cried I. ‘What?’ said Hotchkiss. ‘Nothing!’ I answered, and the moment passed.

“‘I’ve made a great sacrifice,’ I told the whip as I got in. ‘They all have,’ he said, and hurried by.

“I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion was as I rushed to my father’s bedside to bid that stern old man farewell. Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs–it`s no secret now you know that I’ve had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher’s, and the talk had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the reconstructed ministry lay always just over the boundary of the discussion. Yes –yes. That’s all settled. It needn’t be talked about yet, but there’s no reason to keep a secret from you . . . . Yes–thanks! thanks! But let me tell you my story.

“Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs’ presence. I was using the best power of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously directed to the point that concerns me. I had to. Ralphs’ behaviour since has more than justified my caution . . . . Ralphs, I knew, would leave us beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices. . . . And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.

“We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker’s marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs’ as we sauntered past.

“I passed within twenty inches of the door. ‘If I say good-night to them, and go in,’ I asked myself, ‘what will happen?’ And I was all a-tingle for that word with Gurker.

“I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems. ‘They will think me mad,’ I thought. ‘And suppose I vanish now!–Amazing disappearance of a prominent politician!’ That weighed with me. A thousand inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis.”

Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly; “Here I am!” he said.

“Here I am!” he repeated, “and my chance has gone from me. Three times in one year the door has been offered me–the door that goes into peace, into delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone–”

“How do you know?”

“I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that held me so strongly when my moments came. You say, I have success–this vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it.” He had a walnut in his big hand. “If that was my success,” he said, and crushed it, and held it out for me to see.

“Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets. At nights–when it is less likely I shall be recognised–I go out. I wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all departments, wandering alone–grieving–sometimes near audibly lamenting–for a door, for a garden!”

4

I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling his words, his tones, and last evening’s Westminster Gazette still lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the club was busy with him and the strange riddle of his fate.

They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way . . . . .

My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.

It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night–he has frequently walked home during the past Session–and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something–I know not what–that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination.

We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?

The End

(ack: classicshorts.com)

 

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ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. THAT WAS ALL. AND SIXTY CENTS of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 Bat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she cluttered out of the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One Eight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 78 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was with out gloves.

Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice-what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. I his dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men-who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

The End

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Between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.

A dark leaden-coloured mass is creeping over the sky towards the sun. Red zigzags of lightning gleam here and there across it. There is a sound of far-away rumbling. A warm wind frolics over the grass, bends the trees, and stirs up the dust. In a minute there will be a spurt of May rain and a real storm will begin.

Fyokla, a little beggar-girl of six, is running through the village, looking for Terenty the cobbler. The white-haired, barefoot child is pale. Her eyes are wide-open, her lips are trembling.

“Uncle, where is Terenty?” she asks every one she meets. No one answers. They are all preoccupied with the approaching storm and take refuge in their huts. At last she meets Silanty Silitch, the sacristan, Terenty’s bosom friend. He is coming along, staggering from the wind.

“Uncle, where is Terenty?”

“At the kitchen-gardens,” answers Silanty.

The beggar-girl runs behind the huts to the kitchen-gardens and there finds Terenty; the tall old man with a thin, pock-marked face, very long legs, and bare feet, dressed in a woman’s tattered jacket, is standing near the vegetable plots, looking with drowsy, drunken eyes at the dark storm-cloud. On his long crane-like legs he sways in the wind like a starling-cote.

“Uncle Terenty!” the white-headed beggar-girl addresses him. “Uncle, darling!”

Terenty bends down to Fyokla, and his grim, drunken face is overspread with a smile, such as come into people’s faces when they look at something little, foolish, and absurd, but warmly loved.

“Ah! servant of God, Fyokla,” he says, lisping tenderly, “where have you come from?”

“Uncle Terenty,” says Fyokla, with a sob, tugging at the lapel of the cobbler’s coat. “Brother Danilka has had an accident! Come along!”

“What sort of accident? Ough, what thunder! Holy, holy, holy…. What sort of accident?”

“In the count’s copse Danilka stuck his hand into a hole in a tree, and he can’t get it out. Come along, uncle, do be kind and pull his hand out!”

“How was it he put his hand in? What for?”

“He wanted to get a cuckoo’s egg out of the hole for me.”

“The day has hardly begun and already you are in trouble….”Terenty shook his head and spat deliberately. “Well, what am I to do with you now? I must come… I must, may the wolf gobble you up, you naughty children! Come, little orphan!”

Terenty comes out of the kitchen-garden and, lifting high his long legs, begins striding down the village street. He walks quickly without stopping or looking from side to side, as though he were shoved from behind or afraid of pursuit. Fyokla can hardly keep up with him.

They come out of the village and turn along the dusty road towards the count’s copse that lies dark blue in the distance. It is about a mile and a half away. The clouds have by now covered the sun, and soon afterwards there is not a speck of blue left in the sky. It grows dark.

“Holy, holy, holy…” whispers Fyokla, hurrying after Terenty. The first rain-drops, big and heavy, lie, dark dots on the dusty road. A big drop falls on Fyokla’s cheek and glides like a tear down her chin.

“The rain has begun,” mutters the cobbler, kicking up the dust with his bare, bony feet. “That’s fine, Fyokla, old girl. The grass and the trees are fed by the rain, as we are by bread. And as for the thunder, don’t you be frightened, little orphan. Why should it kill a little thing like you?”

As soon as the rain begins, the wind drops. The only sound is the patter of rain dropping like fine shot on the young rye and the parched road.

“We shall get soaked, Fyokla,” mutters Terenty. “There won’t be a dry spot left on us….Ho-ho, my girl! It’s run down my neck! But don’t be frightened, silly….The grass will be dry again, the earth will be dry again, and we shall be dry again. There is the same sun for us all.”

A flash of lightning, some fourteen feet long, gleams above their head. There is a loud peal of thunder, and it seems to Fyokla that something big, heavy, and round is rolling over the sky and tearing it open, exactly over her head.

“Holy, holy, holy…” says Terenty, crossing himself. “Don’t be afraid, little orphan! It is not from spite that it thunders.”

Terenty’s and Fyokla’s feet are covered with lumps of heavy, wet clay. It is slippery and difficult to walk, but Terenty strides on more and more rapidly. The weak little beggar-girl is breathless and ready to drop.

But at last they go into the count’s copse. The washed trees, stirred by a gust of wind, drop a perfect waterfall upon them. Terenty stumbles over stumps and begins to slacken his pace.

“Whereabouts is Danilka?” he asks. “Lead me to him.”

Fyokla leads him into a thicket, and, after going a quarter of a mile, points to Danilka. Her brother, a little fellow of eight, with hair as red as ochre and a pale sickly face, stands leaning against a tree, and, with his head on one side, looking sideways at the sky. In one hand he holds his shabby old cap, the other is hidden in an old lime tree. The boy is gazing at the stormy sky, and apparently not thinking of his trouble. Hearing footsteps and seeing the cobbler he gives sickly smile and says:

“A terrible lot of thunder, Terenty….I’ve never heard so much thunder in all my life.”

“And where is your hand?”

“In the hole….Pull it out, please, Terenty!”

The wood had broken at the edge of the hole and jammed Danilka’s hand: he could push it farther in, but could not pull it out. Terenty snaps off the broken piece, and the boy’s hand, red and crushed, is released.

“It’s terrible how it’s thundering,” the boy says again, rubbing his hand. “What makes it thunder, Terenty?”

“One cloud runs against the other,” answers the cobbler. The party come out of the copse, and walk along the edge of it towards the darkened road. The thunder gradually abates, and its rumbling is heard far away beyond the village.

“The ducks flew by here the other day, Terenty,” says Danilka, still rubbing his hand. “They must be nesting in the Gniliya Zaimishtcha marshes….Fyokla, would you like me to show you a nightingale’s nest?”

“Don’t touch it, you might disturb them,” says Terenty, wringing the water out of his cap. “The nightingale is a singing-bird, without sin. He has had a voice given him in his throat, to praise God and gladden the heart of man. It’s a sin to disturb him.”

“What about the sparrow?”

“The sparrow doesn’t matter, he’s a bad, spiteful bird. He is like a pickpocket in his ways. He doesn’t like man to be happy. When Christ was crucified it was the sparrow brought nails to the Jews, and called ‘alive! alive!’ ”

A bright patch of blue appears in the sky.

“Look!” says Terenty. “An ant-heap burst open by the rain! They’ve been flooded, the rogues!”

They bend over the ant-heap. The downpour has damaged it; the insects are scurrying to and fro in the mud, agitated, and busily trying to carry away their drowned companions.

“You needn’t be in such a taking, you won’t die of it!” says Terenty, grinning. “As soon as the sun warms you, you’ll come to your senses again….It’s a lesson to you, you stupids. You won’t settle on low ground another time.”

They go on.

“And here are some bees,” cries Danilka, pointing to the branch of a young oak tree.

The drenched and chilled bees are huddled together on the branch. There are so many of them that neither bark nor leaf can be seen. Many of them are settled on one another.

“That’s a swarm of bees,” Terenty informs them. “They were flying looking for a home, and when the rain came down upon them they settled. If a swarm is flying, you need only sprinkle water on them to make them settle. Now if, say, you wanted to take the swarm, you would bend the branch with them into a sack and shake it, and they all fall in.”

Little Fyokla suddenly frowns and rubs her neck vigorously. Her brother looks at her neck, and sees a big swelling on it.

“Hey-hey!” laughs the cobbler. “Do you know where you got that from, Fyokla, old girl? There are Spanish flies on some tree in the wood. The rain has trickled off them, and a drop has fallen on your neck—that’s what has made the swelling.”

The sun appears from behind the clouds and floods the wood, the fields, and the three friends with its warm light. The dark menacing cloud has gone far away and taken the storm with it. The air is warm and fragrant. There is a scent of bird-cherry, meadowsweet, and lilies-of-the-valley.

“That herb is given when your nose bleeds,” says Terenty, pointing to a woolly-looking flower. “It does good.”

They hear a whistle and a rumble, but not such a rumble as the storm-clouds carried away. A goods train races by before the eyes of Terenty, Danilka, and Fyokla. The engine, panting and puffing out black smoke, drags more than twenty vans after it. Its power is tremendous. The children are interested to know how an engine, not alive and without the help of horses, can move and drag such weights, and Terenty undertakes to explain it to them:

“It’s all the steam’s doing, children…. The steam does the work…. You see, it shoves under that thing near the wheels, and it…you see…it works…”

They cross the railway line, and, going down from the embankment, walk towards the river. They walk not with any object, but just at random, and talk all the way…. Danilka asks questions, Terenty answers them…

Terenty answers all his questions, and there is no secret in Nature which baffles him. He knows everything. Thus, for example, he knows the names of all the wild flowers, animals, and stones. He knows what herbs cure diseases, he has no difficulty in telling the age of a horse or a cow. Looking at the sunset, at the moon, or the birds, he can tell what sort of weather it will be next day. And indeed, it is not only Terenty who is so wise. Silanty Silitch, the innkeeper, the market-gardener, the shepherd, and all the villagers, generally speaking, know as much as he does. These people have learned not from books, but in the fields, in the wood, on the river bank. Their teachers have been the birds themselves, when they sang to them, the sun when it left a glow of crimson behind it at setting, the very trees, and wild herbs.

Danilka looks at Terenty and greedily drinks in every word. In spring, before one is weary of the warmth and the monotonous green of the fields, when everything is fresh and full of fragrance, who would not want to hear about the golden may-beetles, about the cranes, about the gurgling streams, and the corn mounting into ear?

The two of them, the cobbler and the orphan, walk about the fields, talk unceasingly, and are not weary. They could wander about the world endlessly. They walk, and in their talk of the beauty of the earth do not notice the frail little beggar-girl tripping after them. She is breathless and moves with a lagging step. There are tears in her eyes; she would be glad to stop these inexhaustible wanderers, but to whom and where can she go? She has no home or people of her own; whether she likes it or not, she must walk and listen to their talk.

Towards midday, all three sit down on the river bank. Danilka takes out of his bag a piece of bread, soaked and reduced to a mash, and they begin to eat. Terenty says a prayer when he has eaten the bread, then stretches himself on the sandy bank and falls asleep. While he is asleep, the boy gazes at the water, pondering. He has many different things to think of. He has just seen the storm, the bees, the ants, the train. Now, before his eyes, fishes are whisking about. Some are two inches long and more, others are no bigger than one’s nail. A viper, with its head held high, is swimming from one bank to the other.

Only towards the evening our wanderers return to the village. The children go for the night to a deserted barn, where the corn of the commune used to be kept, while Terenty, leaving them, goes to the tavern. The children lie huddled together on the straw, dozing.

The boy does not sleep. He gazes into the darkness, and it seems to him that he is seeing all that he has seen in the day: the storm-clouds, the bright sunshine, the birds, the fish, lanky Terenty. The number of his impressions, together with exhaustion and hunger, are too much for him; he is as hot as though he were on fire, and tosses from side to side. He longs to tell someone all that is haunting him now in the darkness and agitating his soul, but there is no one to tell. Fyokla is too little and could not understand.

“I’ll tell Terenty to-morrow,” thinks the boy.

The children fall asleep thinking of the homeless cobbler, and, in the night, Terenty comes to them, makes the sign of the cross over them, and puts bread under their heads. And no one sees his love. It is seen only by the moon which floats in the sky and peeps caressingly through the holes in the wall of the deserted barn.

The End

(ack: classicshorts.com)

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PLEASE, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of You, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.

If I didn’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring. Sometimes it does that. If I could think of something else. If I could think of something else. Knobby if I counted five hundred by fives, it might ring by that time. I’ll count slowly. I won’t cheat. And if it rings when I get to three hundred, I won’t stop; I won’t answer it until I get to five hundred. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty…. Oh, please ring. Please.

This is the last time I’ll look at the clock. I will not look at it again. It’s ten minutes past seven. He said he would telephone at five o’clock. “I’ll call you at five, darling.” I think that’s where he said “darling.” I’m almost sure he said it there. I know he called me “darling” twice, and the other time was when he said good-by. “Good-by, darling.” He was busy, and he can’t say much in the office, but he called me “darling” twice. He couldn’t have minded my calling him up. I know you shouldn’t keep telephoning them–I know they don’t like that. When you do that they know you are thinking about them and wanting them, and that makes them hate you. But I hadn’t talked to him in three days-not in three days. And all I did was ask him how he was; it was just the way anybody might have called him up. He couldn’t have minded that. He couldn’t have thought I was bothering him. “No, of course you’re not,” he said. And he said he’d telephone me. He didn’t have to say that. I didn’t ask him to, truly I didn’t. I’m sure I didn’t. I don’t think he would say he’d telephone me, and then just never do it. Please don’t let him do that, God. Please don’t.

“I’ll call you at five, darling.” “Good-by, darling.,’ He was busy, and he was in a hurry, and there were people around him, but he called me “darling” twice. That’s mine, that’s mine. I have that, even if I never see him again. Oh, but that’s so little. That isn’t enough. Nothing’s enough, if I never see him again. Please let me see him again, God. Please, I want him so much. I want him so much. I’ll be good, God. I will try to be better, I will, If you will let me see him again. If You will let him telephone me. Oh, let him telephone me now.

Ah, don’t let my prayer seem too little to You, God. You sit up there, so white and old, with all the angels about You and the stars slipping by. And I come to You with a prayer about a telephone call. Ah, don’t laugh, God. You see, You don’t know how it feels. You’re so safe, there on Your throne, with the blue swirling under You. Nothing can touch You; no one can twist Your heart in his hands. This is suffering, God, this is bad, bad suffering. Won’t You help me? For Your Son’s sake, help me. You said You would do whatever was asked of You in His name. Oh, God, in the name of Thine only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, let him telephone me now.

I must stop this. I mustn’t be this way. Look. Suppose a young man says he’ll call a girl up, and then something happens, and he doesn’t. That isn’t so terrible, is it? Why, it’s gong on all over the world, right this minute. Oh, what do I care what’s going on all over the world? Why can’t that telephone ring? Why can’t it, why can’t it? Couldn’t you ring? Ah, please, couldn’t you? You damned, ugly, shiny thing. It would hurt you to ring, wouldn’t it? Oh, that would hurt you. Damn you, I’ll pull your filthy roots out of the wall, I’ll smash your smug black face in little bits. Damn you to hell.

No, no, no. I must stop. I must think about something else. This is what I’ll do. I’ll put the clock in the other room. Then I can’t look at it. If I do have to look at it, then I’ll have to walk into the bedroom, and that will be something to do. Maybe, before I look at it again, he will call me. I’ll be so sweet to him, if he calls me. If he says he can’t see me tonight, I’ll say, “Why, that’s all right, dear. Why, of course it’s all right.” I’ll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he’ll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.

I think he must still like me a little. He couldn’t have called me “darling” twice today, if he didn’t still like me a little. It isn’t all gone, if he still likes me a little; even if it’s only a little, little bit. You see, God, if You would just let him telephone me, I wouldn’t have to ask You anything more. I would be sweet to him, I would be gay, I would be just the way I used to be, and then he would love me again. And then I would never have to ask You for anything more. Don’t You see, God? So won’t You please let him telephone me? Won’t You please, please, please?

Are You punishing me, God, because I’ve been bad? Are You angry with me because I did that? Oh, but, God, there are so many bad people –You could not be hard only to me. And it wasn’t very bad; it couldn’t have been bad. We didn’t hurt anybody, God. Things are only bad when they hurt people. We didn’t hurt one single soul; You know that. You know it wasn’t bad, don’t You, God? So won’t You let him telephone me now?

If he doesn’t telephone me, I’ll know God is angry with me. I’ll count five hundred by fives, and if he hasn’t called me then, I will know God isn’t going to help me, ever again. That will be the sign. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five. . . It was bad. I knew it was bad. All right, God, send me to hell. You think You’re frightening me with Your hell, don’t You? You think. Your hell is worse than mine.

I mustn’t. I mustn’t do this. Suppose he’s a little late calling me up –that’s nothing to get hysterical about. Maybe he isn’t going to call–maybe he’s coming straight up here without telephoning. He’ll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don’t like you to cry. He doesn’t cry. I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.

He doesn’t wish that about me. I don’t think he even knows how he makes me feel. I wish he could know, without my telling him. They don’t like you to tell them they’ve made you cry. They don’t like you to tell them you’re unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you’re possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games. Oh, I thought we didn’t have to; I thought this was so big I could say whatever I meant. I guess you can’t, ever. I guess there isn’t ever anything big enough for that. Oh, if he would just telephone, I wouldn’t tell him I had been sad about him. They hate sad people. I would be so sweet and so gay, he couldn’t help but like me. If he would only telephone. If he would only telephone.

Maybe that’s what he is doing. Maybe he is coming on here without calling me up. Maybe he’s on his way now. Something might have happened to him. No, nothing could ever happen to him. I can’t picture anything happening to him. I never picture him run over. I never see him lying still and long and dead. I wish he were dead. That’s a terrible wish. That’s a lovely wish. If he were dead, he would be mine. If he were dead, I would never think of now and the last few weeks. I would remember only the lovely times. It would be all beautiful. I wish he were dead. I wish he were dead, dead, dead.

This is silly. It’s silly to go wishing people were dead just because they don’t call you up the very minute they said they would. Maybe the clock’s fast; I don’t know whether it’s right. Maybe he’s hardly late at all. Anything could have made him a little late. Maybe he had to stay at his office. Maybe he went home, to call me up from there, and somebody came in. He doesn’t like to telephone me in front of people. Maybe he’s worried, just alittle, little bit, about keeping me waiting. He might even hope that I would call him up. I could do that. I could telephone him.

I mustn’t. I mustn’t, I mustn’t. Oh, God, please don’t let me telephone him. Please keep me from doing that. I know, God, just as well as You do, that if he were worried about me, he’d telephone no matter where he was or how many people there were around him. Please make me know that, God. I don’t ask YOU to make it easy for me–You can’t do that, for all that You could make a world. Only let me know it, God. Don’t let me go on hoping. Don’t let me say comforting things to myself. Please don’t let me hope, dear God. Please don’t.

I won’t telephone him. I’ll never telephone him again as long as I live. He’ll rot in hell, before I’ll call him up. You don’t have to give me strength, God; I have it myself. If he wanted me, he could get me. He knows where I ram. He knows I’m waiting here. He’s so sure of me, so sure. I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you. I should think it would be so sweet to be sure.

It would be so easy to telephone him. Then I’d know. Maybe it wouldn’t be a foolish thing to do. Maybe he wouldn’t mind. Maybe he’d like it. Maybe he has been trying to get me. Sometimes people try and try to get you on the telephone, and they say the number doesn’t answer. I’m not just saying that to help myself; that really happens. You know that really happens, God. Oh, God, keep me away from that telephone. Kcep me away. Let me still have just a little bit of pride. I think I’m going to need it, God. I think it will be all I’ll have.

Oh, what does pride matter, when I can’t stand it if I don’t talk to him? Pride like that is such a silly, shabby little thing. The real pride, the big pride, is in having no pride. I’m not saying that just because I want to call him. I am not. That’s true, I know that’s true. I will be big. I will be beyond little prides.

Please, God, keep me from, telephoning him. Please, God.

I don’t see what pride has to do with it. This is such a little thing, for me to be bringing in pride, for me to be making such a fuss about. I may have misunderstood him. Maybe he said for me to call him up, at five. “Call me at five, darling.” He could have said that, perfectly well. It’s so possible that I didn’t hear him right. “Call me at five, darling.” I’m almost sure that’s what he said. God, don’t let me talk this way to myself. Make me know, please make me know.

I’ll think about something else. I’ll just sit quietly. If I could sit still. If I could sit still. Maybe I could read. Oh, all the books are about people who love each other, truly and sweetly. What do they want to write about that for? Don’t they know it isn’t tree? Don’t they know it’s a lie, it’s a God damned lie? What do they have to tell about that for, when they know how it hurts? Damn them, damn them, damn them.

I won’t. I’ll be quiet. This is nothing to get excited about. Look. Suppose he were someone I didn’t know very well. Suppose he were another girl. Then I d just telephone and say, “Well, for goodness’ sake, what happened to you?” That’s what I’d do, and I’d never even think about it. Why can’t I be casual and natural, just because I love him? I can be. Honestly, I can be. I’ll call him up, and be so easy and pleasant. You see if I won’t, God. Oh, don’t let me call him. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

God, aren’t You really going to let him call me? Are You sure, God? Couldn’t You please relent? Couldn’t You? I don’t even ask You to let him telephone me this minute, God; only let him do it in a little while. I’ll count five hundred by fives. I’ll do it so slowly and so fairly. If he hasn’t telephoned then, I’ll call him. I will. Oh, please, dear God, dear kind God, my blessed Father in Heaven, let him call before then. Please, God. Please.

Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twentyfive, thirty, thirty-five.

The End

(ack: classicshorts.com)

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TRUE!-NERVOUS–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to tell how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture–a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees–very gradually–I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded–with what caution–with what foresight–with what dissimulation I went to work!

I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it–oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly–very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha!–would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously–oh, so cautiously–cautiously (for the hinges creaked)–I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights–every night just at midnight–but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers–of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back–but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers), and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out: “Who’s there?”

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;–just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or grief–oh no!–it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself: “It is nothing but the wind in the chimney–it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “it is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him. had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel–although he neither saw nor heard–to feel the presence of my head within the room.

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little–a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it–you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily–until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and full upon the vulture eye.

It was open–wide, wide open–and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness–all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray, as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.

And now–have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?–now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker’ and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!–do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me–the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once–once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye–not even his–could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out–no stain of any kind–no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all–ha! ha!

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock–still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart–for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night: suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled–for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search–search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:–it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness–until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale,–but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased–and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound–much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath–and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly–more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observation of the men–but the noise steadily increased. Oh, God; what could I do? I foamed–I raved–I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder–louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!–no, no! They heard!–they suspected–they knew!–they were making a mockery of my horror!–this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!–and now–again!–hark! louder! louder! louder!

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!–tear up the planks!–here, here!–it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The End

 

 

 

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“The whole show is dreadful,” she cried, coming out of the menagerie of M. Martin. She had just been looking at that daring speculator “working with his hyena”–to speak in the style of the program.

“By what means,” she continued, “can he have tamed these animals to such a point as to be certain of their affection for—-.”

“What seems to you a problem,” said I, interrupting, “is really quite natural.”

“Oh!” she cried, letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips.

“You think that beasts are wholly without passions?” I asked her. “Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”

She looked at me with an air of astonishment.

“Nevertheless,” I continued, “the first time I saw M. Martin, I admit, like you, I did give vent to an exclamation of surprise. I found myself next to an old soldier with the right leg amputated, who had come in with me. His face had struck me. He had one of those intrepid heads, stamped with the seal of warfare, and on which the battles of Napoleon are written. Besides, he had that frank good-humored expression which always impresses me favorably. He was without doubt one of those troopers who are surprised at nothing, who find matter for laughter in the contortions of a dying comrade, who bury or plunder him quite lightheartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way of bullets; in fact, one of those men who waste no time in deliberation, and would not hesitate to make friends with the devil himself. After looking very attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie getting out of his box, my companion pursed up his lips with an air of mockery and contempt, with that peculiar and expressive twist which superior people assume to show they are not taken in. Then when I was expatiating on the courage of M. Martin, he smiled, shook his head knowingly, and said, `Well known.’

“How `well known’? I said. `If you would only explain to me the mystery I should be vastly obliged.’

“After a few minutes, during which we made acquaintance, we went to dine at the first restaurateur’s whose shop caught our eye. At dessert a bottle of champagne completely refreshed and brightened up the memories of this odd old soldier. He told me his story, and I said he had every reason to exclaim, `Well known.'”

When she got home, she teased me to that extent and made so many promises that I consented to communicate to her the old soldier’s confidences. Next day she received the following episode of an epic which one might call “The Frenchman in Egypt.”

During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provençal soldier fell into the hands of the Mangrabins, and was taken by these Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the Nile.

In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the French army, the Mangrabins made forced marches, and only rested during the night. They camped round a well overshadowed by palm trees under which they had previously concealed a store of provisions. Not surmising that the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner, they contented themselves with binding his hands, and after eating a few dates, and giving provender to their horses, went to sleep.

When the brave Provençal saw that his enemies were no longer watching him, he made use of his teeth to steal a scimitar, fixed the blade between his knees, and cut the cords which prevented using his hands; in a moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and dagger, then taking the precaution to provide himself with a sack of dried dates, oats, and powder and shot, and to fasten a scimitar to his waist he leaped onto a horse, and spurred on vigorously in the direction where he thought to find the French army. So impatient was he to see a bivouac again that he pressed on the already-tired courser at such speed that its flanks were lacerated with his spurs, and at last the poor animal died, leaving the Frenchman alone in the desert. After walking some time in the sand with all the courage of an escaped convict, the soldier was obliged to stop, as the day had already ended. In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at night, he felt he had not strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had been able to find a small hill, on the summit of which a few palm trees shot up into the air; it was their verdure seen from afar which had brought hope and consolation to his heart. His fatigue was so great that he lay down upon a rock of granite, capriciously cut out like a camp bed; there he fell asleep without taking any precaution to defend himself while he slept. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His last thought was one of regret. He repented having left the mangrabins, whose nomad life seemed to smile on him now that he was afar from them and without help. He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite and produced an intolerable heat for he had had the stupidity to place himself inversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and shuddered–they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.

But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eye around him, the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread farther than sight could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck with a bright light. It might have been a sea of looking glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapor carried up in streaks made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on fire.

The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity, immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand, ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day, with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.

The Provençal threw his arms around the trunk of one of the palm trees, as though it were the body of a friend, and then in the shelter of the thin straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness the implacable scene, which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud, to measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill, sounded faintly, and aroused no echo–the echo was in his own heart. The Provençal was twenty-two years old; he loaded his carbine.

“There’ll be time enough,” he said to himself, laying on the ground the weapon which alone could bring him deliverance.

Looking by turns at the black expanse and the blue expanse, the soldier dreamed of France–he smelled with delight the gutters of Paris–he remembered the towns through which he had passed, the faces of his fellow soldiers, the most minute details of his life. His southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved Provence, in the play of the heat which waved over the spread sheet of the desert. Fearing the danger of this cruel mirage, he went down the opposite side of the hill to that by which he had come up the day before. The remains of a rug showed that this place of refuge had at one time been inhabited; at a short distance he saw some palm trees full of dates. Then the instinct which binds us to life awoke again in his heart. He hoped to live long enough to await the passing of some Arabs, or perhaps he might hear the sound of cannon, for at this time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt.

This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the palms had been cultivated by a former inhabitant–the savory, fresh meat of the dates was proof of the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an almost insane joy. He went up again to the top of the hill, and spent the rest of the day in cutting down one of the sterile palm trees, which the night before had served him for shelter. A vague memory made him think of the animals of the desert; and in case they might come to drink at the spring, visible from the base of the rocks but lost farther down, he resolved to guard himself from their visits by placing a barrier at the entrance of his hermitage.

In spite of his diligence, and the strength which the fear of being devoured asleep gave him, he was unable to cut the palm in pieces, though he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the king of the desert fell; the sound of its fall resounded far and wide, like a sign the solitude; the soldier shuddered as though he had heard some voice predicting woe.

But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased parent, he tore off from this beautiful tree the tall broad green leaves which are its poetic adornment, and used them to mend the mat on which he was to sleep.

Fatigued by the heat and his work, he fell asleep under the red curtains of his wet cave.

In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary noise; he sat up, and the deep silence around him allowed him to distinguish the alternative accents of a respiration whose savage energy could not belong to a human creature.

A profound terror, increased still further by the darkness, the silence, and his waking images, froze his heart within him. He almost felt his hair stand on end, when by straining his eyes to their utmost he perceived through the shadows two faint yellow lights. At first he attributed these lights to the reflection of his own pupils, but soon the vivid brilliance of the night aided him gradually to distinguish the objects around him in the cave, and he beheld a huge animal lying but two steps from him. Was it a lion, a tiger, or a crocodile?

The Provençal was not educated enough to know under what species his enemy ought to be classed; but his fright was all the greater, as his ignorance led him to imagine an terrors at once; he endured a cruel torture, noting every variation of the breathing close to him without daring to make the slightest movement. An odor, pungent like that of a fox, but more penetrating, profounder–so to speak–filled the cave, and when the Provençal became sensible of this, his terror reached its height, for he could not longer doubt the proximity of a terrible companion, whose royal dwelling served him for shelter.

Presently the reflection of the moon, descending on the horizon, lit up the den, rendering gradually visible and resplendent the spotted skin of a panther.

This lion of Egypt slept, curled up like a big dog, the peaceful possessor of a sumptuous niche at the gate of a hotel; its eyes opened for a moment and closed again; its face was turned toward the man. A thousand confused thoughts passed through the Frenchman’s mind first he thought of killing it with a bullet from his gun, but he saw there was not enough distance between them for him to take proper aim–the shot would miss the mark. And if it were to wake!–the thought made his limbs rigid. He listened to his own heart beating in the midst of’ the silence, and cursed the too violent pulsations which the flow of blood brought on, fearing to disturb that sleep which allowed him time to think of some means of escape.

Twice he placed his hand on his scimitar, intending to cut off the head of his enemy; but the difficulty of cutting stiff, short hair compelled him to abandon this daring project. To miss would be to die for certain, he thought; he preferred the chances of fair fight, and made up his mind to wait till morning; the morning did not leave him long to wait.

He could now examine the panther at ease; its muzzle was smeared with blood.

“She’s had a good dinner,” he thought, without troubling himself as to whether her feast might have been on human flesh “She won’t be hungry when she gets up.”

It was a female. The fur on her belly and flanks was glistening white; many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet; her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart of her dress, yellow like unburnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the characteristic blotches the form of rosettes which distinguish the panther from every other feline species.

This tranquil and formidable hostess snored in an attitude as graceful as that of a cat lying on a cushion. Her bloodstained paws, nervous and well armed, were stretched out before her face, which rested upon them, and from which radiated her straight, slender whiskers, like threads of silver.

If she had been like that in a cage, the Provençal would doubtless have admired the grace of the animal, and the vigorous contrasts of vivid color which gave her robe an imperial splendor; but just then his sight was troubled by her sinister appearance.

The presence of the panther, even asleep, could not fail to produce the effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on the nightingale.

For a moment the courage of the soldier began to fail before this danger, though no doubt it would have risen at the mouth of a cannon charged with shell. Nevertheless, a bold thought brought daylight in his soul and sealed up the source of the cold sweat which sprang forth on his brow. Like men driven to bay who defy death and offer their body to the smiter, so he, seeing in this merely a tragic episode, resolved to play his part with honor to the last.

“The day before yesterday the Arabs would have killed me perhaps,” he said; so considering himself as good as dead already, he waited bravely, with excited curiosity his enemy’s awakening.

When the sun appeared, the panther suddenly opened her eyes; then she put out her paws with energy, as if to stretch them and get rid of cramp. At last she yawned, showing the formidable apparatus of her teeth and pointed tongue, rough as a file.

“A regular petite maîtresse,” thought the Frenchman, seeing her roll herself about so softly and coquettishly. She licked off the blood which stained her paws and muzzle, and scratched her head with reiterated gestures full of prettiness. “All right, make a little toilet,” the Frenchman said to himself, beginning to recover his gaiety with his courage; “we’ll say good morning to each other presently,” and he seized the small, short dagger which he had taken from the Mangrabins. At this moment the panther turned her head toward the man and looked at him fixedly without moving.

The rigidity of her metallic eyes and their insupportable luster made him shudder, especially when the animal walked toward him. But he looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him; then with a movement both gentle and amorous, as though he were caressing the most beautiful of women, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the head to the tail, scratching the flexible vertebrae which divided the panther’s yellow back. The animal waved her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman accomplished this interesting flattery, she gave forth one of those purrings by which our cats express their pleasure; but this murmur issued from a throat so powerful and so deep that it resounded through the cave like the last vibrations of an organ in a church. The man, understanding the importance of his caresses, redoubled them in such a way as to surprise and stupefy his imperious courtesan. When he felt sure of having extinguished the ferocity of his capricious companion, whose hunger had so fortunately been satisfied the day before, he got up to go out of the cave; the panther let him go out, but when he had reached the summit of the hill she sprang with the lightness of a sparrow hopping from twig to twig, and rubbed herself against his legs, putting up her back after the manner of all the race of cats. Then regarding her guest with eyes whose glare had softened a little, she gave vent to that wild cry which naturalists compare to the grating of a saw.

“She is exacting,” said the Frenchman, smilingly.

He was bold enough to play with her ears; he caressed her belly and scratched her head as hard as he could.

When he saw that he was successful, he tickled her skull with the point of his dagger, watching for the right moment to kill her, but the hardness of her bones made him tremble for his success.

The sultana of the desert showed herself gracious to her slave; she lifted her head, stretched out her and manifested her delight by – the tranquility of her attitude. It suddenly occurred to the soldier that to kill this savage princess with one blow he must poignard her in the throat.

He raised the blade, when the panther, satisfied no doubt, laid herself gracefully at his feet, and cast up at him glances in which, in spite of their natural fierceness, was mingled confusedly a kind of good will. The poor Provençal ate his dates, leaning against one of the palm trees, and casting his eyes alternately on the desert in quest of some liberator and on his terrible companion to watch her uncertain clemency.

The panther looked at the place where the date stones fell, and every time that he threw one down her eyes expressed an incredible mistrust.

She examined the man with an almost commercial prudence. However, this examination was favorable to him, for when he had finished his meager meal she licked his boots with her powerful rough tongue, brushing off with marvelous skill the dust gathered in the creases.

“Ah, but when she’s really hungry!” thought the Frenchman. In spite of the shudder this thought caused him, the soldier began to measure curiously the proportions of the panther, certainly one of the most splendid specimens of its race. She was three feet high and four feet long without counting her tail; this powerful weapon, rounded like a cudgel, was nearly three feet long. The head, large as that of a lioness, was distinguished by a rare expression of refinement. The cold cruelty of a tiger was dominant, it was true, but there was also a vague resemblance to the face of a sensual woman. Indeed, the face of this solitary queen had something of the gaiety of a drunken Nero: she had satiated herself with blood, and she wanted to play.

The soldier tried if he might walk up and down, and the panther left him free, contenting herself with following him with her eyes, less like a faithful dog than a big Angora cat, observing everything and every movement of her master.

When he looked around, he saw, by the spring, the remains of his horse; the panther had dragged the carcass all that way; about two thirds of it had been devoured already. The sight reassured him.

It was easy to explain the panther’s absence, and the respect she had had for him while he slept. The first piece of good luck emboldened him to tempt the future, and he conceived the wild hope of continuing on good terms with the panther during the entire day, neglecting no means of taming her, and remaining her good graces.

He returned to her, and had the unspeakable joy of seeing her wag her tail with an almost imperceptible movement at his approach. He sat down then, without fear, by her side, and they began to play together; he took her paws and muzzle, pulled her ears, rolled her over on her back, stroked her warm, delicate flanks. She let him do what ever he liked, and when he began to stroke the hair on her feet she drew her claws in carefully.

The man, keeping the dagger in one hand, thought to plunge it into the belly of the too-confiding panther, but he was afraid that he would be immediately strangled in her last conclusive struggle; besides, he felt in his heart a sort of remorse which bid him respect a creature that had done him no harm. He seemed to have found a friend, in a boundless desert; half unconsciously he thought of his first sweetheart, whom he had nicknamed “Mignonne” by way of contrast, because she was so atrociously jealous that all the time of their love he was in fear of the knife with which she had always threatened him.

This memory of his early days suggested to him the idea of making the young panther answer to this name, now that he began to admire with less terror her swiftness, suppleness, and softness. Toward the end of the day he had familiarized himself with his perilous position; he now almost liked the painfulness of it. At last his companion had got into the habit of looking up at him whenever he cried in a falsetto voice, “Mignonne.”

At the setting of the sun Mignonne gave, several times running, a profound melancholy cry. “She’s been well brought up,” said the lighthearted soldier; “she says her prayers.” But this mental joke only occurred to him when he noticed what a pacific attitude his companion remained in. “Come, ma petite blonde, I’ll let you go to bed first,” he said to her, counting on the activity of his own legs to run away as quickly as possible, directly she was asleep, and seek another shelter for the night.

The soldier waited with impatience the hour of his flight, and when it had arrived he walked vigorously in the direction of the Nile; but hardly had he made a quarter of a league in the sand when he heard the panther bounding after him, crying with that sawlike cry more dreadful even than the sound of her leaping.

“Ah!” he said, “then she’s taken a fancy to me, she has never met anyone before, and it is really quite flattering to have her first love.”

That instant the man fell into one, of those movable quicksands so terrible to travelers and from which it is impossible to save oneself. Feeling himself caught, he gave a shriek of alarm; the panther seized him with her teeth by the collar, and, springing vigorously backward, drew him as if by magic out of the whirling sand.

“Ah, Mignonne!” cried the soldier, caressing her enthusiastically; “we’re bound together for life and death but no jokes, mind!” and he retraced his steps.

From that time the desert seemed inhabited. It contained a being to whom the man could talk, and whose ferocity was rendered gentle by him, though he could not explain to himself the reason for their strange friendship. Great as was the soldier’s desire to stay upon guard, he slept.

On awakening he could not find Mignonne; he mounted the hill, and in the distance saw her springing toward him after the habit of these animals, who cannot run on account of the extreme flexibility of the vertebral column. Mignonne arrived, her jaws covered with blood; she received the wonted caress of her companion, showing with much purring how happy it made her. Her eyes, full of languor, turned still more gently than the day before toward the Provençal who talked to her as one would to a tame animal.

“Ah! Mademoiselle, you are a nice girl, aren’t you? Just look at that! So we like to be made much of, don’t we? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? So you have been eating some Arab or other, have you? That doesn’t matter. They’re animals just the same as you are; but don’t you take to eating Frenchmen, or I shan’t like you any longer.”

She played like a dog with its master, letting herself be rolled over, knocked about, and stroked, alternately; sometimes she herself would provoke the soldier, putting up her paw with a soliciting gesture.

Some days passed in this manner. This companionship permitted the Provençal to appreciate the sublime beauty of the desert; now that he had a living thing to think about, alternations of fear and quiet, and plenty to eat, his mind became filled with contrast and his life began to be diversified.

Solitude revealed to him all her secrets, and enveloped him in her delights. He discovered in the rising and setting of the sun sights unknown to the world. He knew what it was to tremble when he heard over his head the hiss of a bird’s wing, so rarely did they pass, or when he saw the clouds, changing and many-colored travelers, melt one into another. He studied in the night time the effect of the moon upon the ocean of sand, where the simoom made waves swift of movement and rapid in their change. He lived the life of the Eastern day, marveling at its wonderful pomp; then, after having reveled in the sight of a hurricane over the plain where the whirling sands made red, dry mists and death-bearing clouds, he would welcome the night with joy, for then fell the healthful freshness of the stars, and he listened to imaginary music in the skies. Then solitude taught him to unroll the treasures of dreams. He passed whole hours in remembering mere nothings, and comparing his present life with his past.

At last he grew passionately fond of the panther; for some sort of affection was a necessity.

Whether it was that his will powerfully projected had modified the character of his companion, or whether, because she found abundant food in her predatory excursions in the desert, she respected the man’s life, he began to fear for it no longer, seeing her so well tamed.

He devoted the greater part of his time to sleep, but he was obliged to watch like a spider knits web that the moment of his deliverance might not escape him, if anyone should pass the line marked by the horizon. He had sacrificed his shirt to make a flag with, which he hung at the top of a palm tree, whose foliage he had torn off. Taught by necessity, he found the means of keeping it spread out, by fastening it with little sticks; for the wind might not be blowing at the moment when the passing traveler was looking through the desert.

It was during the long hours, when he had abandoned hope, that he amused himself with the panther. He had come to learn the different inflections of her voice, the expressions of her eyes; he had studied the capricious patterns of all the rosettes which marked the gold of her robe. Mignonne was not even angry when he took hold of the tuft at the end of her tail to count her rings, those graceful ornaments which glittered in the sun like jewelry. It gave him pleasure to contemplate the supple, fine outlines of her form, the whiteness of her belly, the graceful pose of her head. But it was especially when she was playing that he felt most pleasure in looking at her; the agility and youthful lightness of her movements were a continual surprise to him; he wondered at the supple way in which she jumped and climbed, washed herself and arranged her fur, crouched down and prepared to spring. However rapid her spring might be, however slippery the stone she was on, she would always stop short at the word “Mignonne.”

One day, in a bright midday sun, an enormous bird coursed through the air. The man left his panther to look at this new guest; but after waiting a moment the deserted sultana growled deeply.

“My goodness! I do believe she’s jealous,” he cried, seeing her eyes become hard again; “the soul of Virginie has passed into her body; that’s certain.”

The eagle disappeared into the air, while the soldier admired the curved contour of the panther.

But there was such youth and grace in her form! she was beautiful as a woman! The blond fur of her robe mingled well with the delicate tints of faint white which marked her flanks.

The profuse light cast down by the sun made this living gold, these russet markings, to burn in a way to give them an indefinable attraction.

The man and the panther looked at one another with a look full of meaning; the coquette quivered when she felt her friend stroke her head; her eyes flashed like lightning–then she shut them tightly.

“She has a soul,” he said, looking at the stillness of this queen of the sands, golden like them, white like them, solitary and burning like them.

“Well,” she said, “I have read your plea in favor of beasts; but how did two so well adapted to understand each other end?”

“Ah, well! you see, they ended as all great passions do end–by a misunderstanding. For some reason one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

“Yet sometimes at the best moments a single word or a look is enough–but anyhow go on with your story.”

“It’s horribly difficult, but you will understand, after what the old villain told me over his champagne.

“He said–`I don’t know if I hurt her, but she turned round, as if enraged, and with her sharp teeth caught hold of my leg–gently, I daresay; but I, thinking she would devour me, plunged my dagger into her throat. She rolled over, giving a cry that froze my heart; and I saw her dying, still looking at me without anger. I would have given all the world–my cross even, which I lied not then–to have brought her to life again. It was as though I had murdered a real person; and the soldiers who had seen my flag, and were come to my assistance, found me in tears.’

“`Well sir,’ he said, after a moment of silence, `since then I have been in war in Germany, in Spain, in Russia, in France; I’ve certainly carried my carcass about a good deal, but never have I seen anything like the desert. Ah! yes, it is very beautiful!’

” ‘What did you feel there?’ I asked him.

“‘Oh! that can’t be described, young man. Besides, I am not always regretting my palm trees and my panther. I should have to be very melancholy for that. In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.’

Yes, but explain—-‘

“‘Well,’ he said, with an impatient gesture, ‘it is God without mankind.'”

The End

(ack: classicshorts.com)

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