A WHITE squall broke from the eastward, and ripped loose the canvas that had been dropped but not secured. The air was full of spray and slanting rain. The little yacht, no larger than a catboat, drove helplessly on the breakers.
When the firmament comes down with a shout, and the sea rises to meet it, and the sands are hidden by the breakers, on which one’s boat drives helplessly, the world looks somewhat less indifferently predestined. It occurred to the solitary navigator that, while life might be a heavy and an unintelligible thing, he did not wish to let it go.
He tied a towline around his waist, plunged into the surf and undertow, came at last to the sands, then shook the water from his eyes, and laughed. The little yacht filled and foundered behind him. It took some hours of labor to work her into the foam beyond the crash of the surf. He keeled, emptied, and heaved her, on rollers of driftwood and spar, above the tide line.
Past noon, and seaward toward Nantucket the low clouds were driving level, but the sun was now hot overhead. He spread wet properties to dry among the sand dunes, which lay in low menacing line, like forts for defense of the inland country from the sea. The flat yellow beach ran east and west, curbing away from sight. The dunes ran parallel to the beach, and, parallel to the dunes, a forest of evergreens and stunted pines hid behind it whatever habitations there might be on the seaboard. He climbed from dune to dune, looking for signs of them, and came upon a path. It led through scant growths in warm hollows, and he followed it to the wood’s edge. There began a straight gravel and sand walk laid neatly with bordering stones. It shimmered and led away into the green gloom. With the glare of the sunlight on the sands, the woods for some time were in deep twilight to his eyes; but even if the walk had not been visible by its whiteness against the bed of needles, he could still have followed it by the bordering stones and by the feeling of the gravel under his feet. It was wide and straight, such as might be in a tended garden of clipped boxwood borders and trim beds, rather than astray in a forest of wind-stunted pines.
“It looks like a path with intentions,” he thought. “I don’t mind following one that leads somewhere; this one looks as if it led somewhere. An irresponsible squall blew me at it with some accuracy. That looks like a gate ahead.”
Was his, after all, he thought, perhaps only the common experience of a man when his first youth is over ? One comes upon a place of negations. Friends have fallen away each to his separate plodding path. The zest of the morning is gone; the eager questions are weary of their no answers; there is little honor that is unstained in the market-place. Cui bono ? he asks, — grows restless of his restless ways. He goes seeking companionship of sand and sea and firmament, trying to shake off the memory of men furious in the market-place, of women whose delight was in their empty hours, of all his own days behind him half furious and half empty. Sand and sea and firmament there are around, but of life, that unintelligible thing, they offer no interpretation. “ What shapest thou in the world ? ” they seem to say. “It was shaped long ago, huge, indifferent, and predestined.” It seems an omen to consider, however idly, if one is storm-driven, and in a wild wind-stunted forest comes on an ordered walk, so laid that one can follow it even with eyes closed, and leading to a visible gate with brick pillars.
He drew nearer the pillared gateway. At that moment he heard a voice calling distantly in the woods aside. He stopped and listened.
“Stephen!” it called.
He turned toward it into the woods, and listened again.
The evergreen trunks grew thickly with low branches, and the ground was carpeted deep with their needles. He went on, thinking, “There’s another perturbed spirit abroad. It ’s not calling me.”
A young girl sat on the needles under a low pine, where thin threads of sunlight came through. Her face was turned toward him, and her eyes were closed.
“Why, you are not Stephen! ” she said.
“I’m just as much at your service.”
“Do you see the gate?”
“I saw one a moment ago.”
“Please take my hand.”
She stood up; her eyes remained closed; she smiled brightly and explained, —
“You see, I am blind.”
They went slowly through the thick woods toward the path.
“Sometimes when I leave the path I forget where it is, and have to wait till they miss me. They’ve been a long time missing me to-day.” She laughed, and added, “Perhaps it wasn’t so long, but it seemed so. Once it blew and rained on the trees, then I wondered why they did n’t come. How long ago was it when it rained ? ”
“I’ve been in the surf and my watch has stopped. It must have been some hours,” he said; and thought, “Four or five at least,” and wondered.
She spoke again. “You have had trouble, have n’t you ? ”
“My boat went ashore in the squall.”
“But you liked that!” she cried. “I don’t mean that. It must have been before. There is something in your voice that remembers, but it does n’t remember being frightened. It remembers being sad.”
They came to the gravel walk while lie spoke of the sudden squall that had overcome his careless seamanship, and of the plunge through the surf that had saved the boat.
“I’m so glad you came!” she cried, stopping and stretching out her other hand. “Are n’t you glad ?”
As to such quaint trustfulness of motion and question, he thought them explained by her misfortune and the experiences that go with it. When chance is cruel, one’s fellow men turn kind. But it seemed as well to make haste to give himself an identity.
“My name is Philip Arbiter. I’m a harmless person of no consequence,” he said, “whom you don’t know.”
“Oh, but I think I do!” she said. Then with hesitation, “I think so.”
Here they came to the brick gateway. Within was a garden with sandy paths, boxwood borders, neat beds of geraniums, and lilac bushes along the walks. It was full of the scent of lilacs. A large house of warm red brick stood beyond it, and on the porch was an old man with the sunlight on his head, which had fallen forward as he sat sunken in his armchair.
“Do you see any one?” she asked.
“There is some one who seems asleep in a chair on the porch.”
“ That is my grandfather. Stephen is the gardener and coachman, and all the rest that he can be,” she explained. “He must have gone to the village, and Annette has forgotten. She is Stephen’s wife, and they take care of us. Grandfather is General Cope, and I’m Lydia Cope. He is very old and not well. We two are all that belong to each other now. We ’ll let him sleep, poor grandfather, won’t we, if you don’t mind waiting ? Do you, now you know about us ? He is so old, he sleeps a great deal.”
She led the way accurately to a bench overhung by the wall lilacs, and he sat on the sandy gravel in the sun, and looked at her face, which was healthy with open air, sea wind, and pine woods. Her forehead was low and wide, her hair a quiet brown; her mouth was thin-lipped and delicate, now smiling and now changing swiftly its expression, as if, the eyes being darkened, those shadows of mood and thought that glimmer and flash and sleep in the eyes of the seeing had fled thither with their tremulous confessions and reserves. She seemed eager to talk and listen, happy with relief from solitude and fear, and with the excitement of a visitor brought by the wind and sea.
“Oh, I knew by your voice that you would be kind, just as I knew you had been sad, and were not Stephen. Stephen’s voice is soft but not true, because he is a servant and can’t be cross when he wants to, perhaps, poor Stephen! He steps as if some one were watching him, and you step as if you did n’t care if there were. One can’t tell how Annette steps, because she starches her skirts so noisily. Just after the storm something came toward me in the woods stepping like Stephen, and I called, but it went away. So it could n’t have been Stephen. It could n’t. have been any person. It must have been a dog from the village. You see I have to know things by listening.”
Two sounds would seem to be forever abroad in the sandy garden, — where the flowers only grew on the lilac bushes and in the watered and fertilized beds, — two sounds, the beat of the sea on the resonant shore, like the sound of a low drum or the groaning of stringed instruments, and the wind continually in the pines.
The old general still sat motionless with head hung forward. Arbiter looked at him narrowly.
General Cope’s had been a familiar name to him in years past. Arbiter tried to remember in what battles of the Civil War the name had appeared,and recalled them dimly. He remembered better some fifteen years back, when he was a boy in his father’s house, seeing there one Captain Morris Cope, with his daughter, a little wisp of a child in a black frock. This was just before Captain Cope went to his regiment in the West, and was killed among the mountains. He seemed to remember, too, hearing later that the child had become blind, and that no one else was left of the general’s family; but even these things he remembered somewhat dindy.
So that was old General Cope. He seemed very motionless and pale in the glare of the sunlight, some hundreds of yards away across the geraniums and boxwood. And this was Morris’s daughter Lydia, who was saying, —
— “To listen and listen. When you listen so long in the dark, you hear sounds inside of sounds. There are the sea, and the wind in the pines. Sometimes I think that the sea is the sound of all the people in the world complaining, and I pick out the different voices; and then I think the wind is the voices of messengers saying it will be better by and by, and I wonder how it is that the sea is never comforted and the wind never discouraged. Tell me, — your voice sounds as if you remembered — remembered something, — did I hear it once when I could see you ? Do you remember ? ”
“I remember Captain Cope and his little daughter. They came to my father’s house, and she rode my big dog in Washington Square. Then they went away. I never saw them but once. You are that little Lydia ? ”
She drew a breath of relief.
“Yes. Then I was right. But I was wrong about Stephen.”
She seemed to puzzle over the last, and fell silent.
“So we are old friends,” he said.
“Are n’t you glad ?”
“Yes. Partly because when we were friends before, it was a time when I was glad of a variety of things, and sure of them.”
“I remember your voice, somehow, better than the name. Was I very little ? ”
“Rather, to remember it at all now.”
“It was pleasanter then, and one remembers all one can, when there is n’t so much since.”
“Pleasanter! Yes, it was pleasanter then; ”he went on after some silence, “ because now it seems to me that every one is blind in a way, and walks with the feet of the blind, and has only the instincts of the blind to guide him. Sometimes he discovers this, and finds himself all astray in very bewildering woods, He hears mysterious steps that come near and go away without helping him. I think it was I who was lost in the woods to-day. You discovered that I was foolish enough to be depressed, did n’t you ? Perhaps, after all, you were leading me when I seemed to be leading you. Would you be glad if that were so ? ”
“Would you? Why?”
“I don’t know. It is n’t living to have everything done for you. Does n’t to live mean doing things ?”
“Doing things! That’s what I’ve been about this long time, doing business, doing pastime, doing everything. I did n’t find it so. But where would you lead me, if you undertook it ? To listen to old Nature’s voices, to feel one’s self answering in the same language, to brood and dream, to build a world within and people it with shadows? Is that to live?”
“What is it, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps General Cope could tell us. He ‘had his world as in his time.’ In his time men heard oracles and acted too. We’re busy enough now, but we don’t generally notice it’s for nothing in particular. Some people say, ‘ Turn in on yourself and you’ll find what you look for;’ and other people say, ‘ Go out of yourself, and keep busy, and you’ll find it.’ But if neither is true what shall we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why, we’ve come by as different roads as possible. We’ve explored them to the limit, and we are reporting that neither of them is living at all. What do we want?”
“ I don’t know.”
He glanced up, noticing the break in her voice. She seemed to droop, as if under too heavy a weight, and stretched out her hand. The unconscious appeal of the habitual motion moved him to compunction for his half idle talk, the chance overflow of his melancholy, which melancholy was perhaps after all but a passing phase of his period of life, the normal phenomenon of a transition stage. If life was unfair to us, we might be fair to each other. The situation was unfair.
In the silence following he turned back again to look at the old general, who seemed to sleep in an odd posture, so sunken, his white head hung forward. Arbiter got to his feet suddenly. A suspicion and a conviction came over him, with two distinct shocks.
“I’m hungry enough for casual piracy,” he said. “Are you?”
“ We ’ll find Annette. Oh, feel where the sun is ! It must be past noon! ”
“Let me do it. Will you wait here ?”
He walked quickly up the sandy path to the porch, and there bent over, looked into the fine bowed-down face, lifted the large hand white and bony, and laid it down. He looked about him, and listened, and heard only the vague sounds of the surf, and the wind that blew sea scents into the lilac-scented garden. He saw only the sandy paths, the boxwood and geraniums, and Lydia sitting with closed eyes and folded hands under the hedge of purple lilacs. The general had died in his sleep, it would seem, by the peace on his face, and that many hours since, — some time during the morning. The body was quite cold.
He closed the general’s eyelids, and stood looking back and forth between him and Lydia.
“I don’t know about, this soft-footed Stephen and starched Annette,” he thought. He went into the house softly. In the hall was an old standing clock. A stair with carved banisters mounted from the hall. He went on from empty room to empty room of the large quiet house. Parlor, dining-room, and library were immaculate and ordered. The sunlight sifted through their stiff white curtains, hanging motionless, for the windows were closed. A driveway in the shadow of the farther side of the house was still wet with the late rain. The bedrooms were bright and fresh, with open windows. The third floor seemed to have been occupied by Stephen and Annette.
In all the bedrooms were signs of hasty ransacking. Something had been hurriedly searched for. On the driveway were marks of hoof and wheel made since the rain. In the library was a small steel safe. Arbiter pulled on the combination knob. The door came smoothly open, and the drawers were empty.
“Careless of Stephen,” he thought, and went exploring in the kitchen. “I wonder if he got enough to pay for expatriation. Annette seems to have been an irreproachable housekeeper.”
He pictured them to himself, the prim respectful couple; he fancied this secretive Stephen coming on the porch, respectfully observing the old soldier sleeping his last placid sleep, and being struck with the advantage of the circumstances. He withdraws respectfully, the discreet Stephen, consults with Annette, who comes out and observes for herself, respectfully but starchily. Into the woods by the stone-bordered walk then goes Stephen, soft-footed; sees Lydia forlorn under her dripping pine. “Stephen!” she calls. Tiptoes out again Stephen, and finds Annette busy. Away with them then, whither is no particular matter. To the devil in course of time. Bon voyage then, Stephen and Annette! A low-lived world, toward which one had to be blind in order to be innocent, or some hardfighting soldier in order to die honorably, with the sunlight on a white head. At least something of this kind appeared to have been the case with Stephen and Annette.
Arbiter came out again on the porch, carrying a pitcher and glasses. The sun hung southwestward over the woods. Their shadow fell over the lilac hedge and brick gate, over the geranium beds, and nearly to the steps of the porch. Yellow butterflies fluttered over the geraniums. Lydia sat with her hands folded on her knees, quiet like the lilac blossoms that hung above her head. There were more things hanging over her head than seemed right. When they fell, they would knock the foundations from under her life,and bring it down with a crash, unless one built something under it first to take the place.
“I suppose that’s my business,” he thought. Seeing that the squall had blown him at the wood walk with such accuracy, likely it was some gray fate, or the spirits of Lydia’s dead friends looking after her still, watching her as they had done in their lives, — Captain Cope, for instance, or the dead general, who in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, had become a restless spirit blown around the pendent, huge,predestined, indifferent world, and so become able to use personal influence with an irresponsible squall blowing over Nantucket; who was quiet and peaceful enough now in the flesh, but in the spirit must be anxious as to what was going to be done about it. What was going to be done about it?
He set the pitcher softly on the gravel, sat down on the steps, and stared down the path which ran undeviating out of the brick gate, and through the woods, to where in due distance it would cease among the sand dunes, where his scattered properties must be well dried by this time, where the little yacht lay side over on the beach, and the sea beat its summoning drum, and seaward the little waves danced on the long swells, and the islands were far away, hazy, and anchored in the rocking sea. There the steamers went by from city to city.
Love, one supposed, might be a plant that would grow if one tended it, like geraniums, watered, and set about with boxwood borders; if one put pine woods between it and reckless sea winds, and insisted on its growing. She was very sweet and gentle, saintly perhaps as people sometimes become who are set apart by misfortune, very full of mysterious instincts, undiscoverable things. One must build around her first, or else the sea would break over the geranium beds, instead of being but a melancholy sound, an endless and inconclusive debate.
One must choose. Choices were brief, and endless too, like the ridges of watersheds, where fallen rains are split, and go splashing away to different eternities. Why, perhaps, not so different. They might all come to one in the end. But they travel different countries the meanwhile. One could n’t debate this thing long now. One must put up that bulwark without delay.
“I take it there’s only one kind that would do the work,” he thought.
He took up the pitcher and went down the sandy path, and came to the lilacs.
“Your Stephen and Annette seem to have gone out, both of them; but I found the pantry and took liberties with it, — one pitcher of milk, some remarkable biscuits, four apples, — very nice liberties. The general— looks as if his dreams were pleasant.”
By the sudden change in her face he saw that he had not allowed well for that sensitive ear, to which all voices and sounds were composite and revealing.
“What is it?” she asked quickly. “What has happened ?”
“Why, this has happened to me. It comes in the shape of a question. Do you think, if happiness does n’t lie either within us or without us, it might lie between us ? There are people who say love is a great medicine between men and women,a kind of traveler’s vade mecum for a journey in the world. They say, too, it’s a plant that grows to a wonder, if one tends to it, morning and noon and night. If I lend you my eyes for the rest of time, will you lend me yours ? They see where mine don’t. If I promise to tend the plant morning and noon and night, will you promise to help ? We won’t be alone then. We’ll have each other whatever happens.”
“What do you — But I’m blind! I shall always be blind!”
“If you were n’t, you would n’t need me. Or would you? Your need is my salvation. That’s a cryptic saying. I’ll explain by and by. Oh well, by and by will look after itself, I dare say. Just now there’s milk in our pitcher and bread in our hands. Are you glad I came ? ”
“ Why, so am I. This road looks as if it led somewhere.”
He watched her lips, wondering what undiscovered things were veiled by the single word she had spoken quietly, what secret altars lay behind the veil, with choirs and smoking censers, a whole religion with its own peculiar faith and ritual.
“You are like one of the Beatitudes, Lydia. Do you know, it’s half past four by the clock in the hall.”