THE story I am about to tell I have never told before. The events in it took place when I was a child of fifteen, an oldish child of fifteen. I had a taste for books and dreams, and a kind of adoring love of older people; a predilection, too, for romance and wonderment. There were many things I meant to do some day.
Among my lesser resolves was one that I had held for a good many years: I mean the resolve some day to be a passenger in the absurd old-fashioned bus that had made its daily journey, ever since I could remember, from my home town to a small town quite off the railroad, and some twelve miles away, the county-seat of that county in which my home was situated.
The bus was an extraordinary-looking vehicle. It had the air of a huge beetle. It creaked and rattled when it was in action. It had enormous dipping springs. It lunged and rolled a bit from side to side as it went. Its top bulged and had ribs across it and a low iron railing around it, convenient for the lashing of ropes to hold the packages of all kinds and sizes with which it usually went laden. There was a door at the back and there were two steps by which to enter. It had the air of being a distinguished character, even among the antiquated and entirely individual types of vehicle still common then in the little old-fashioned town. This air was, no doubt, due chiefly to the large oval pictures painted, not without some skill, on its sides. One of these depicted the rescue of Daniel Boone by Kenton, who with the butt of a large musket was perpetually about to brain a murderous Indian; the other dealt with Smith’s unchanging obligation to Pocahontas.
I hardly think Keats had more lasting enjoyment of his Grecian urn with ‘brede of marble men and maidens overwrought’ than I of those pictures, where, not less than in the more classic example, I saw perpetually preserved what I took to be the most t hrilling and desirable of moments, death forever arrested by unending loyalty and undying affection.
But, interesting as all this was, it was by no means the heart of that strange fascination with which, for so many years, I contemplated the old beetling vehicle. Its fascination lay for me in its daily journey to parts beyond the bounds of my narrow horizon. It plied faithfully every week-day of the year, an envoy extraordinary, ambassador plenipotentiary, between another world and mine. Some day I should see that world and know it.
It must not be supposed, however, that I had in mind only the town to which the bus journeyed, the mere inconsiderable county seat. Children’s imaginations, especially when the child is just emerging into all the glorious possibilities of womanhood, deal not in towns but in worlds. The world outside my own narrow bounds of life, that was what I meant to see and experience.
I can think of only one thing, besides the old bus, which roused my fancy to an equal degree, namely the herds of dumb cattle which were driven past my home always once and sometimes twice a week, to the stockyards which lay somewhere on the outskirts of my home town. If I close my eyes, I can still hear on hot afternoons the dark herds trampling past, a mass of broad backs and spreading horns and wide foreheads, — and dull or occasionally frightened eyes, — and the hurrying hoofs, scuffling the dust.
I had never seen the stockyards. I was never informed very particularly about them, and by some instinct, I suppose, I never inquired too carefully. But I knew this for another world also, and dread as it was, it fascinated me. I believe the hurrying herds stood to me for a kind of world of fearful reality that I meant some day to look into, and the old picture-painted bus for a world of romance, yonder, yonder over the dip of the horizon, which not less, some day, I was determined to know.
Just how I came to take my resolve, and the events which precipitated it — all this has no bearing on the story. The story begins just where I stood that hot day in June waiting for the bus by the dusty mullens beside the pike. I had walked a good mile outside the town so that none of the townspeople would see the beginning of my adventure.
The bus was late, I think, even allowing for my anxiety. It came in sight at last, at a slow beetling pace. I held up a slim finger. But not until he was alongside did the driver begin to draw in the long reins. I ran after the bus a few paces, opened the door, climbed the high steps with a beating heart, and got in.
The driver peeked through the little peek-hole in the roof to make sure I was safe; then he called to his horses, and the vehicle lunged ahead.
The only other passengers were an old man, unknown to me, who carried a basket of eggs, and an old woman w ho lived somewhere outside the town and whom I recognized as her we called the ‘horse-radish woman.’ She stood always on a Saturday at one corner of our town market, grinding and selling horse-radish roots, blinking with red eyes, and always wiping the tears from them before she could make you your change. I recognized her of course at once, but whether she knew me, I do not know. If she did, she gave not the least evidence of it, but looked out absently with squinted red-lidded eyes at the country as we jogged along.
The lovely rolling Kentucky land began to spread out on all sides. Long white curves of the pike flowed slowly behind us and were seen in glimpses through the open front windows ahead of us. Dust rose and settled over us.
A little while before we got to Latonia, the old horse-radish woman, with a tin cup she carried, knocked on the ceiling of the bus near the driver’s peephole, to warn him that she wished to get out. When we arrived at Latonia and the horses were having water at the big trough, the old man with the basket of eggs also left.
But I was going all the way to the county seat and I considered these passengers much below my own level as travelers. They were merely making a convenience of the bus, you see, which just happened to go past their homes; whereas I was off for adventure, my home quite in the other direction, and the world spread wide before me.
It was with a tourist’s pleasure, then, that I looked at that little grouping of houses and the elmand poplar-shaded pike, which in those days was called, and I believe is still called, Latonia; and at the old Latonia Springs Hotel. It was a typical relic of Southern before-the-war hotel architecture, with its white pillars, its long verandas, its wide doorway, its large lawn sombred by very old shade trees.
I had known something of travel. I had lived in France for two years, at school; but there I had always had some one to go about with me. Here, on the contrary, I was alone. I liked the flavor of the adventure; it was novel, and very stimulating. This journey, however poor a thing it might seem to others, had Audrey’s superlative virtue: it was mine own. The old hotel, then, already romantic enough, took on an additional romance in my eyes.
The driver came around now from sponging his horses’ heads and noses at the trough.
‘Going all the way, are you?’
‘Well, you can get out and stretch your legs if you like, for we’ll be here ten minutes.’
But I did not ‘like.’ In the bus I felt safe enough; but if I got out— adventurous spirit though I was — I knew with unconquerable shyness that everybody would be staring at me.
I contented myself with watching the lazy coming and going of a few people; a dog snapping at flies; some chickens taking dust-baths in the road.
What a still, lazy place it was! Some one asked the time. The driver’s watch had stopped. Nobody knew; it appeared not to matter. This seemed no place for clocks. A stout lame man having the look of a Southern war veteran stopped on his cane in the middle of the road, looked around carefully at the outlying country and the shadows, then took a calculating glance at the heavens.
‘Well, I should reckon, colonel,’ he said, addressing the stage driver, ‘it mout be about twenty-two minutes past two. You gen’lly get here about two, but you was a bit late to-day, a leetle bit late, I should say maybe to the amount of about twelve minutes.’
He leaned on his cane again and began dotting his way slowly and heavily through the dust toward the hotel.
I could not have told whether he was in jest or earnest. But as I look back on it now it seems to me curiously fitting that the little town should have had so scant dependence on timepieces, for it lay away from all the world, and there was so little to occupy the attention that the houses, the dusty pike, with its slowly lengthening and slowly shortening shadows, the fields beyond, with their great sycamores and maples, and the sky so little interrupted from edge to edge, must each, indeed, have been to those w ho had so long observed them, a sundial to make clocks seem mere bustling contrivances.
A big fly sailed in one of the bus windows and round and round, droning, and then out; and went with every effect of careful choice and deliberation to settle on the nose of the old dog that lay, alternately napping and snapping, four feet in the sun.
I can give you no idea of the keen enjoyment with which I noted all these details. I take pleasure now in remembering that despite the fact that I had lived in Paris, among its thrilling boulevards and monuments, and had seen some stagey Swiss villages and dramatic little French towns, this little cluster of houses known as Latonia, on a dusty pike in Kentucky, only a few miles from my own home, — this village which never a tourist would have gone to see, — was to me in that droning, incredibly quiet afternoon a very piece of romance; the air itself— I beg you to have patience with me, for really, I tell you only the truth — the very air itself being ‘ambient’ for me; the green fields ‘amburbial’; the white clouds, so nearly at rest in the blue sky, ‘huge symbols of a high romance’; the silver poplars and elms not less than ‘immemorial’; and the old hotel a thing made of dreams, haunted with green and shaded memories of beforethe-war days, across whose verandah might have stepped at any moment, before my unastonished eyes, the actors in some noble human drama.
I remember, too, that my eye found some dusty marigolds, their blooms leaning through a low paling fence of one of the houses. My eye must have passed over many a marigold before that; I probably never saw one until then. I remember noting their singularity and softness of color, so individual and particular compared with the more customary reds and yellows of commoner flowers, so far more memorable and desirable and foreign; a part they seemed, too, of the quietness and strangeness and romance in the midst of which I found myself.
The bus driver was making ready to leave.
The lame war veteran, — for I still take him to have been such, — having got so far as the gate of the Latonia Hotel, was met by a long, lazy-legged darkey coming down the walk, carrying two traveling satchels. Noticeably new-looking they were, and handsome, for that part of the world. He had one under his arm, t he other dangling from the same hand, which left his other hand free to manipulate a long piece of ribbon-grass which he was chewing lazily. The veteran held the gate open, the weight of his body leaning against it.
‘Going away, are they?’
There emerged from the hotel at this moment a man and a woman.
The darkey crossed the road and put the two satchels in the bus — and stood with his hand on the handle of the bus door, holding it wide open, waiting.
I watched the two strangers as they approached. When they reached the bus the man assisted the woman, in a somewhat formal yet indifferent way. She entered and took her seat nearly diagonally opposite to me. The man plunged his hand in his pocket, brought out a coin, and put it in the darkey’s hand, and stooping, for he was tall, entered the bus after her. It swayed a little perilously with his weight, and rocked quite a bit before he finally comfortably seated himself directly across from me.
The driver meanwhile had swung himself up on the high driver’s seat. He opened the peep-hole and looked down, then gathered the reins, and clucked to his horses, and the bus drove off.
If the town had interested me before, I forgot it now, — forgot it quite in the attention, direct and indirect, which I gave to my fellow passengers.
The man was faultlessly dressed. Such clothes were not customary in that corner of the world. The neat derby, the band of which he was even now wiping with a lavender-edged silk handkerchief, was a thing foreign to those parts at that season, cheap straw hats being rather the rule. The tips of the fingers of a pair of new tan gloves were to be seen just looking out from the left breast-pocket of his well-buttoned light gray suit. I could see that he wore a white vest and his shirt had a little hair line of purple in it. His hands were large and very white and well kept, the fingers close fitted together. On one of them a conspicuous Mexican opal smouldered in a massive, very dark gold setting.
I have no words, even to this day, to describe the woman who sat a foot or two from him and to whom he addressed his remarks in an indifferently possessive manner.
She was slight; her hair was of a light brown, her eyes of a distinct orange color. Her face sloped delicately from the forehead, which was low enough to be beautiful, and high enough to suggest nobility of thought, down to the lovely line of chin. Her throat was slender and very white, rising from a turned-down Puritan collar. A Puritan cloak of dust-colored linen, with strappings of orange, fell away under the collar in soft and cool lines. Her brown veil had at its edge a line of orange color also. The brown was a shade lighter than her hair; the orange a shade darker than her eyes. The veil carried with it I cannot say what manner of ethereal graciousness, and fell into a wave or floating line of loveliness as she turned her head. Once, as we dipped into a shaded hollow and across a running stream, a little breeze of coolness came in at the windows. The veil, lifted by it, floated and clung like a living thing to her throat and lips, until her delicate hand put it away gently.
I watched her, very fascinated. She was a creature of another world. That she and the horse-radish woman could live on the same planet spoke volumes for the infinite scale of life.
At first these two new passengers spoke hardly at all. Once the man bent his massive figure to get a better look at the landscape from the window opposite him, and called the attention of his companion to some point in it.
‘There! As I recollect it, the property is not unlike that, Louise. It rolls that way, I mean; and Felton’s line comes into it just as that snake fence comes across there. It is on the other side that the vein of coal is said to begin.’
Though she gave a courteous hearing, I had the impression that she was not really interested.
She watched the country with a kind of well-bred inattentive glance. For myself I could not take my eyes off her. I watched her with that hunger for beauty which is native to the heart of a child. Above all I watched her eyes. The strange, unusual color of them was in itself a kind of romance. She gave one the impression of being a woman unique; something rare and choice, not to be found again or elsewhere.
Once she turned her head and met my full gaze. I was embarrassed, but I need not have been. She set the matter right by addressing me with a gentle courtesy.
‘Do you live out here?’
I shook my head. I meant to reply more fully in a moment when I had recovered myself; but the man spoke.
‘Never heard of Thomas Felton, I suppose; did you? Used to live once in Owen County not far from here.’
I shook my head again and formed the word ‘No.’
The woman gave him a gentle glance; nothing reproving, but he took it in the manner of reproof.
‘Well, I did not know but she might have,’ he explained. Then he settled back a little. ‘Maybe some one else will get in later who does know. I thought them confoundedly stupid at the hotel. Did n’t seem anxious to give any information either. Nobody knows anything in a place like that.’
There was silence again. The fields at one side of the road climbed now, here and there. Low pastures rose to be foothills. Around one of these hills a rocky road appeared sloping down to the pike. Up the road, at a little distance, was a rustic archway like an entrance to a private property. Waiting by the side of the road stood a figure strange to me, in the garb of some monastic order.
The woman did not notice him. Her glance was far off at the horizon at the other side. The man did. He regarded the stranger with a stolid bold curiosity. Then some idea of his own occurred to him, suddenly. As the bus stopped to take on this new passenger, the heavy man rose, to take advantage of its steadiness, no doubt, and stooping so as not to knock his derby against the ceiling of the vehicle, tapped imperatively on the lid of the little peep-hole, and when it was raised, spoke to the driver.
‘ This road leading up at the side here does n’t happen to be the Chorley road, does it, that leads into Felton’s woods? They said there was a road at the foot of a hill that led int o some timber lands belonging to a man named Felton.’
The driver did not understand. The question had to be repeated. While the man repeated it, the Franciscan ■— though I am not entirely sure he was of that order — opened the door of the bus. The woman turned her head now. I saw her orange-colored eyes grow wide and large as they noted him. With habitually bent head and regarding none of us, he entered. As he seated himself in the corner he looked up, however, and his eyes met hers. I saw him start really violently. His color, which was a dark olive, with a too bright crimson under it at the cheek-bones, became suddenly ashy.
There was just that one look between them. The next instant she had turned to the other, returning from his questions with the driver. He had not seen the look that I had noted.
The Franciscan now drew his eyes away from the woman’s face, fumbled in the skirt of his habit, and brought out a prayer-book which he opened with fingers that shook.
The heavy man seated himself, exactly opposite the woman, and beside me and within touch of the Franciscan. He addressed the woman.
‘I just thought that that might be Chorley’s road. They said it ran up a slope. It was n’t, though. I thought I’d like to get a sight of the timber. We may try to make him throw that in, in payment.’
He glanced around at the Franciscan, whose eyes were now entirely on his book, look him in, as it were, then let his glance glide off out one of the windows. After a sufficient time, a kind of courteous pause, he leaned forward a little, raised his derby the least bit, and said, ‘Excuse me, but I suppose you live here?’
The Franciscan looked up, but answered nothing. The color came surging back suddenly into his face, which was haggard. There was a noncommittal look in his eyes, as though his lips were to say, ‘I beg your pardon.’
‘ I supposed you lived here,’ the other said, ‘and I thought you might just happen to know a man named Felton. He came originally from Owen County. We are on here from New York. We are strangers and we know nothing of this country. You don’t happen to know ’ —
The Franciscan gave a gentle smile, raised one slim hand, which yet trembled visibly, — a fine deprecating gesture.
‘Oh, I see.’ The other touched his hat with a little motion of withdrawal and clumsy apology. ‘I see. I did n’t know you were French. I don’t speak French myself. Wish I did! Excuse me. Excuse me.’
Here was an occasion! The adventure was turning squarely toward me. I knew French; I was proud of it and eager to offer my services. I could perfectly well act as translator, interpreter for these two. Moreover, it would give me that great ly to be desired thing, the attention of this beautiful woman. Yet I did not dare all this at once. I would wait a moment. How should I break into the conversation? A child of fifteen, however oldish, is shy. Would it be proper for me to say, ‘Excuse me, but ’ —
As I was thinking of it with a kind of tumult of pride and shyness, the man turned to the woman.
‘Look here, Louise; that’s a fact! You speak French! Ask him if he knows Thomas Felton’s property. Tell him it’s Felton who lived over in Owen County and used to be a wealthy man.’
She turned her clear eyes to the Franciscan and spoke in a pure Parisian French.
‘This man, my husband, wishes me to ask if you know a Thomas Felton who has property out here in this direction.’ In the same tone exactly, she added, ‘Do not let him suspect that you know me.’
‘Let him think’ — the reply came in pure French also — ‘that I speak no English. In this way you and I can converse together.’
Her wonderful orange-colored eyes quivered the least bit as she drew them away from the Franciscan and met the waiting eyes of her husband.
She spoke with perfect composure, however.
‘He says he believes there was such a man hereabouts some years ago.’
Her husband turned quickly as though he himself would further address the Franciscan; then, recollecting that he knew no French, he appealed to her again.
‘Now Louise, look here. Try to get it straight. As I told you, there are two men of that name, a nephew and an uncle. It’s the uncle I want to get hold of. He is the man who owns the property we want. Ask this man how old this Felton is, this man he knows; I can tell by that.’
She turned again to the Franciscan, and spoke again in French. Indeed they spoke nothing else but that sweet and flowing language, a knowledge of which, put me, without my will, in league with them.
‘How do you happen to be here?’ she questioned.
‘I joined the order after I left you,’ he said. ‘That is, they simply allow me to live with them, chiefly on account of my name, I think; that, and, I think, as an act of mercy. As a kind of lay brother — it is simple. But, this man — he is your husband?’
‘Yes, I have been married to him eight months.’
‘ In God’s name! ’ he said, but in a perfectly even conversational tone. ‘And you have suffered. Of course you have suffered.’
They used throughout their conversation, as I have not indicated here, because it sounds forced in English, the familiar and gentle tutoiement, the theeand-thouing of the French.
The husband, understanding nothing of what they said, was watching the two with interest; his small eyes were eager in his heavy face; he was waiting for his answer.
‘Do not let us talk too long,’ the Franciscan said, and turned with a faintly courteous smile, as though to include the heavy man in the conversation. ‘Ask me some more questions,’ he said to the woman; ‘get him to ask some more questions, I mean. In that way we shall have a little time to talk together.’
She addressed her husband.
‘He is not quite sure. He thinks, however, the man he has in mind has a gray beard.’
Her husband drew his large flat fingers down his heavy chin twice, as though stroking an imaginary beard of his own, thoughtfully; his eyes narrowed even more, very speculatively.
‘I see, I see! Well now, like as not it’s the same one.’ Then he put his hands on his knees and leaned forward as though really addressing himself to the business. ‘Look here, Louise, you ask him if this man he knows ever had anything to do with a railway — a railway out West and coal lands out there.’
‘You must give me time. Let me see! How does one say all that? My French is not so fluent as it once was. I shall have to get at it in a roundabout way. Have patience.’
‘Take your time,’ he said, leaning back, ‘only get at it if you can. It’s important.’
She turned now to the Franciscan. But it was he rather who addressed her.
‘But what are you going to do about this horrible marriage?’
‘Nothing, nothing at all.’
‘But, good God, it is desecration. It is like defiling the bread and wine of communion. Does this man kiss you?’
‘ He owns the better part of two railroads,’ she said, with a kind of pitiful look in her eyes. ‘He is here now to push to the wall — if he can — a man already overtaken by mischance and misfortune.’
‘Why do you evade?’ said the other.
‘ He does of course touch you, he owns you, along with the better part of two railroads. He fondles you at his pleasure. I would not have thought it possible. Not you; not you.’
‘You forget,’ she said, and still her voice kept the strangely even tone. ‘My sister was ill, dying, I thought. I could give her everything by this means. I did give her everything. She is better now, as well as she will ever be. She could not bear poverty; it was killing her. She never could. She is better.’
‘But at what horrible, what hellish cost!’ he replied. ‘She was selfish always and complaining; one of the useless ones; and moreover, answer me, does one buy a cracked pitcher, doomed to be broken at any rate, with the most exquisite pearl in the world, priceless above ten sultans’ ransoms? Were it not so horrible it would be ridiculous. Does one, I ask you, do a thing like that?’
She turned to her husband.
‘He says he believes the man you ask about was once engaged in a large coal-mining deal in the West.’
‘ Yes,’ said the heavy man eagerly, leaning forward again to listen to what he could not understand, but with as keen attention as though he comprehended fully.
‘Wait and I will ask him more.’
Again she turned to the other.
‘But you, you also have bought unworthy things at fearful cost ? ’
‘What? In God’s name, what have I bought? I who renounced everything, who have nothing left in this world but the memory of your face and the certainty of death?’
‘You bought for yourself the approval of what you may choose to call your conscience,’ she said in the same almost monotonous, even voice. ‘You bought freedom from the world’s censure, freedom from what the world would have said had you married me.’
He flung out a trembling hand. I thought it would have betrayed him.
‘That! Will you bring up that old mad folly of yours? Would you hope to persuade me it was not my duty to renounce you? They told me I could not possibly get well. You see for yourself. You see now how I am changed. I shall last now, perhaps, six months. You had nothing. I had nothing. What would have become of you, not to speak of all the horror? It was clearly my duty. I leave it to any man.’
‘Yes; always that. The opinion of others,’ she said, but even still without emotion. ‘I do not care for the opinion of a worldful. I accept the fact that you could not get well. I tell you it does not matter. It was for each other God made us; without any regard to circumstance.’
‘A woman’s reason is not reason,’ he said. ‘Any man would tell you it was my duty to give you up. The world is not made as you would have it.’
‘Listen,’ she said. (She interrupted herself to glance with a smile at her husband, and said to him in English, ‘I am trying to explain to him. He is a little dull. He does not understand.’) ‘Listen,’ — she spoke again to the other.
‘ Be reasonable. See it as it is. Do not cheat yourself into thinking this horrible failure of ours was a virtue. Review the facts with me and face them. These are they: we compromised with life; and in a cowardly fashion. I married, to buy my sister health, because I had not the courage to see her suffer. You renounced me and went away so that you might have a certain peace of mind, and because you had not the courage to go counter to tradition and the world’s approval. What would the world have said, — a man as ill as you were to accept the life and devotion of a woman? It was that that tormented and swayed you. You left me, and went away to escape that. We both bought a certain worldly peace of mind, and a kind of conventional selfapproval. And with what? With what did we buy these trifling things? What price did we pay for them? We bought them with the entire wealth and treasure God had given us — the most precious in his treasuries, beside which kings’ ransoms are as nothing. We bought these trifles, these worthless baubles, with the priceless love we had for each other. He gave it to us in such ample measure, you remember. And what did we do with it? What have we to show for it now? In God’s world are there to be found, do you think, two such spendthrifts?’
‘There! It is your old way,’ he replied. ‘You speak always in figures like a poet. It is misleading. Deal only with the facts. I leave them to any one. I was to die of a lingering illness. I had no money. I had only a wealth of horrors to drag you through. A slow death it was to be. You would have had two years of that.’
‘Two years,’ she repeated. ‘I have been married eight months; and I think those eight months have been twice eight years. And two years, two years together, you and I! But oh, il it had been one year only; if we had had but one year together. Only one year!’ There was a kind of pleading in her voice. ‘Only one year! It is as though one were to say “ only springtime,” — “only love,” — “only heaven,” — “only God!”’
‘What does he say?’ said her husband. Perhaps he was curious at the tone of her voice; or merely impatient at the length of their conversation.
‘Tell him anything,’ said the other. ‘We must converse at any cost. Tell him anything you like; only do not cease to speak to me.’
She turned to her husband.
‘He is quite interesting. He thinks he used to know this man when he was a child; that his father had some dealings with him in that very coal affair in Illinois. Let me question him a little more. I will tell you by and by. We must not seem to be too curious Do not interrupt me; just let me lead him on. It may take a few moments.’
The other began now, without waiting for her to take up the conversation.
‘But I tell you, you do not see the thing as it is. It would have been a criminal thing for a man doomed as I was, to link his life with a woman like you, frail, exquisite, young, beautiful, the very rose of the world. Is it permissible for a man to drag a woman with him to the scaffold, even for love? I leave it to any man.’
‘Yes, to any man,’ — her reply was quick on his,—‘but you dare not leave it to a woman. Any man would tell you it is not permissible that one about to die should lay his hand in that of the woman he loves. And any man would grant you, that if the woman is his wife, — if that tradition has bound them, — then it is his right and her duty that they should share fatality, even though they have not the high calling of love. If this man who is my husband were stricken, you, even you, would expect me’ —
The sentence broke and she left it as though there could be no need of making the truth plainer. Instead, she folded her hands tensely.
‘ But, oh, let us not argue. We have squandered God’s treasure, you and I. We have squandered it for the sake of convention, for old precedents, for men’s opinions; just as this man, my husband, buys railway shares and mining properties at the fearful price of his honor, His human kindness, his soul. You despise him and shrink from him. Truly, I cannot, except when he lays his hand upon me; for we are no better than he. That is the horrible part of it. We are all three spendthrifts, the three of us, here in this little space. But oh, what new folly! Only think of our spending these precious, precious moments in argument. Shall we never have done being wasteful!’
He fell in with her thought immediately.
‘You love me still, then.’
‘Yet I have not the right, even now, to so much as touch your hand.’
‘No; yet my hand lies in yours by the hour. These are things one cannot keep from God.’
‘ Do you know ’ — his voice was even — ‘I cannot help wondering if the little girl over there in the corner just might possibly understand.’
‘No; I think not,’ she said gently; ‘besides, if she did, it would not matter.’
‘No, perhaps not. I think she would say nothing I notice that her eyes are shaped somewhat like yours. Some day some man will love her also.’
‘Yes, without doubt. But it is of ourselves I would talk. If there is a heaven, there, there, you shall some day possess me!’
Her husband broke in now, —
‘Are you finding out anything?’
‘Yes, quite a little! ’ She smiled palely, then turned back to the other.
‘How can you lie to him like that!’ he said. ‘And I also.’
‘We waste time,’ she urged. ‘A carriage meets us at the next town. From there he and I are to drive over to the adjoining county. You and I have only a few moments more left at the most in this world together.’
‘Yes.’ His fingers interlaced tightly, resting in his iap. ‘Let us not argue any more. You remember the night by the river, O my beloved?’
‘As though it were the only night in the world.’
‘ I remember that at first I dared not even be near you; I sat on the bank a little away from you,’ he continued; ‘ but by and by the moon came up and all around us was stillness and beauty; the sheep slept in the pasture; the hills were all cool with the light of the moon; I have not forgot; I can never forget I dared just to lay the tips of my fingers on the hem of your gown. You did not notice that. It was as though I had dared lay my hand on the garment of God, but sweeter, sweeter even than that.’
‘ Oh yes, I saw. I saw and felt. And it was exactly as though by that token God had chosen me among women, as he chose the Virgin; only, he chose me there in the moonlight, not for glory and suffering as he chose her, but just for love. He chose and called me for that. I was to love you; was chosen by that touch to love you; only you, among a thousand; only you in all the world of many men. And then, just then, the nightingale, like some little feathered angel of annunciation, broke into song in the trees near by.’
‘Yes; and to me it was as though white fire were all about you — as about some altar; and I was afraid to touch you. I dared not. You were too beautiful, too glorious. The night was too still, too holy. And then, at last, I reached out my hand and dared, as though one were to try a miracle. I laid it on yours. And still I lived. And then, the whole scenery of earth and heaven shifted, after that, — as you know. You leaned and kissed me. Everything was changed forever.’
‘Yes; I know. After that there was nothing but the night and the silence, and thou and I. Even the nightingale did not sing.’
‘And since that night there has been no one else in the world but only thou and I. Other people, do they not seem like shadows, myriads of shadows, like the inconsiderable leaves of a forest that shall fade and fall and be renewed — but only leaves and shadows?’
‘Only thou and I,’ he assented, ‘in the wide forest, in the woods of the world. And soon, soon, soon, I shall walk the woods no more.’
‘Since you must go, do not be discomfited,’ she replied; ‘nor trouble at all this. If as a kind of lasting torment, to match my own, you were permitted, after death, to be near, to see this man kiss and possess me, you have but to remember the night by the river in the moonlight. You are but to remember that this is the only night in the world; that there are no others; that the rest are dreams; that no lips but yours have ever really touched mine.’ Her voice was beautiful, rich; a kind of farewell in itself. ‘You must promise me this.’
Her husband leaned forward a little impatiently.
‘We are nearly there. Can’t you find out, Louise, what I want you to? The thing I want to know is whether he still has an interest in the coal lands. If he has it will be worth a good many thousands. Now do your best. Try.’
‘But you must have patience,’ she said, ‘I am trying to find out something.’
‘ I cannot quite get it out of my head,’ said the other, ‘that we deserve to be damned for this. Does not your conscience misgive you?’
‘No; rather my honor. I have a hatred of deception. It is the only time in my life that I have deceived. And you ? ’
‘I might do penance.’ He smiled, I thought. He drew the cord of his habit through his slim transparent fingers until one of the knots rested in his palms.
‘You could not really mean anything so horrible! And your body, so slim, so beautiful, that I have loved!’
His voice, though it was low, rang also, now, — quivered almost.
‘You forget that the stripes might be sweet, my well-beloved,’ — I could see that his lips trembled, — ‘something still suffered for your sake.’
She put her hand to her brow, a litt le lovely gesture, as though all this troubled her, perhaps dazed her; or perhaps it was some old recollection in his voice.
‘How absurd we are! We shall be parting soon.’
‘ Yes,’ he said, ‘ for always. What can I say to you that you will remember?’
‘Only say that you can never forget the night by the river.’
‘I can never forget it.’
Something in his words fell final, like a fate.
She turned now to her husband. The stage was already slowing up.
‘Is this the county seat? I have found out quite a great deal. I will tell you more about the coal lands as we drive. He is an interesting man.’
Suddenly, from having been intently upon them, my attention became aware of a familiar sound, the thudding hundred-hoofed sound of an approaching herd; I had been so absorbed in the strange world of the other happening that I had not known of their approach. Almost suddenly they were about us, black and brown backs, spreading horns, broad wet noses, massive foreheads.
The driver looked down through the little hole reassuringly.
‘ Just wait till they get past. They ’re on their way to the stockyards!’
We waited, the four of us, huddled together, with a strange kind of intimacy, it seemed, in the bus, while the trampling mass of driven dumb creatures surged and swayed around us, and finally struggled painfully by, each crowding the other, on their way to death. The woman watched them with eyes in which there met fear and pity.
With the last of the herd past, the driver was already opening the stage door. The woman’s husband rose, stooping.
‘ If you’ll allow me I’ll get out first with these.’
He took the satchels and got out of the bus, heavily.
He turned to assist the woman. She did not give him her hand at once. The Franciscan drew back a little to let her pass. She paused the fraction of a moment and gave her hand to him.
When she was beside the large man on the road, he also offered his hand to the Franciscan.
‘Thank you; thank you very much indeed.’
He turned. ‘Guess that’s our surrey over there, Louise.’ The darkey driver of the surrey hurried toward him. ‘Yes; take these.’
The woman followed him. She did not look back. He assisted her into the surrey and followed, himself, his weight bending it heavily to one side as he entered.
I saw them drive away, along a broad cross-road into the lovely rolling country, her brown veil floating a little, unknown to her, but like a living thing, with a little wild waving of its folds. The Franciscan I saw follow a road in another direction. The curve of it soon hid him. I did not see him again.
I remained in the bus. We were to stay only a little while at the county seat, for we were already late. New horses were put to the pole, and within twenty minutes we were driving over the same road by which we had come.
An old gentleman who, I think, was a lawyer returning from county court, was the only other occupant and he was soon dozing. It was a strange ride back. When we came to Latonia the light was so altered as to make a new and lovely adventure of it. The sun was not yet set, but the sunlight had withdrawn to the tops of the tall trees. Below, the hotel lawn was cool, almost twilit, mysterious in shadows. It was there only a little while ago that I had first seen these two coming down the path to enter the bus. The last few hours had changed life for me entirely. Though I did not know it at the time, I know now that the two worlds of reality and of romance—before that distinct and separate in my mind and all untried — were forever mingled with each other now, for me, and were one with my own life. I shall never henceforth be able to see a herd of cattle on a dusty road without seeing those two in their last meeting, nor shall I ever see any who remind me of him or her without a sense of love and death and the inevitable.
This is a true story. I have never told it before. I have kept it locked away as something too cherished, too intimate to share with any one. There always seemed to me a finality about it beyond any story I could ever read. Yet I am telling it now, partly from a sense of honor, partly from a hidden hope; because it was not, after all, finished that day. She may still be living. This may chance to meet her eye. If so, I would have her know that the darkeyed child who rode with them that day came in time, by that strange chance, so much more strange in life than in any story, to meet just what she had met: to meet Love, the glorious and radiant presence, only to find that there walked beside Love, — roadcompanions of the way, — Poverty, and one whose face had all the likeness of Death. And I would have her know that, because of that day, and because of the memory of her in my heart, so long cherished, I, at the chosen moment, laid my hand in that of the shining Presence, — despite those other presences,— to go with it, in what paths soever it might lead me.
It is so, I take it, life deals with us more largely than we know. Fools in our folly; spendthrifts though we may be, throwing priceless wisdom away to the winds, as these two had done; wasting our wealth and our substance of joy irretrievably; careless of God’s treasure intrusted to us; squandering gold worth the ransom of all the kings of the earth, and this for some trifling thing, some inconsiderable bauble; yet God, unknown to us, does most usually, no doubt, save from our wrecked fortunes and our lost argosies something —something precious still, and above price — with which, at a future day, with merciful largesse of wisdom and of love, some other soul may yet be blest and may yet be enriched, as it were by all the treasure of the earth.