The Dive. Ii


UNDER a pale and fading light Ronald Ronald was thrashing his way about in a jungle — a jungle of underbrush bound together with netted festoons of dog-brier and wild grapevines. He beat them down before him with a stout club, trampling them wearily underfoot as he advanced. He felt himself to be near exhaustion; but there was always something that gave him the courage for one more rod. What was it that did this? he asked himself in a kind of stupor.

He was not quite alone: there was another presence behind, following submissively at the end of a rawhide leading-string which he held in his left hand. But this seemed to have nothing to do with it. He was drawn forward by something that lay waiting for him beyond. Just what this something was, he could not at all bring his mind to focus upon. But there came to him again and again, in waves, the assurance that he knew, if he could but think clearly enough to remember.

One more curtain of dry and crackling branches between himself and a broader diffusion of light ahead. He braced his feet and pushed his body against this curtain with all his strength, tearing his way and carrying a latticed snarl of the thorny creepers with him. His lunge brought him out stumbling into a small cleared space near the edge of a great descent. He saw, as if he had expected it, that he was on the rim of a cliff partly enclosing the upper end of a long, deep, and narrow valley, the bottom of which was already wrapped in twilight. He made out in a blur of dizziness that the saddled pony had forced its way through behind him; then he sank down on the carpet of parched grass and weeds to wait for things to stop whirling blackly.

His mind was like two confused and intermingled liquids of different densities, one of which, he seemed to know, would presently rise clear to the top while the other sank. He tried to think back along the trails he had followed — or were they roads? The two terms jostled each other in his thought. One item emerged sharp and tangible enough: Chiswick Valley. Not so long ago, he had come into Chiswick Valley, and this was the lower part of it that lay spread before him. How had he come? One scrap of an odd sort of answer popped back from nowhere: ‘— a-straddle of a volcano.’ Meaningless. But was it? or had he merely happened to lose the meaning somehow? Anyway, there could be no doubt about the real answer, for here was the indubitable pony, familiar enough to him now that he stared at it cropping the dried grass.

Patiently he set about visualizing the just accomplished stage of his journey. Another detail came with certainty: the long descent into the Upper Valley. Then another blur. There was a rude cart-path, half swallowed in dense encroaching bushes, through which the pony had ambled with a swishing noise. But was there not also a straight brown road, pulverized by innumerable hoofs and wheels? Neither image gave his mind the equilibrium it wanted. He saw, at one and the same time, the track rankly overgrown, and, much as if this had been transparent, something else underlying it — the ghost, as it were, of the dusty brown thoroughfare that had once traversed the place. Ah, but had it? The road, or trail, or whatever it liked to call itself, remained with him like two photographs, each clear enough in itself, taken on one film.

There was another curious circumstance. He was uncertain of the last house in the Upper Valley — the last before, at a quite definite small red schoolhouse, he had turned into the woods. Not uncertain what that last house was like, but uncertain whether it was there at all. One moment he saw it, in a little pocket of a dell, with outbuildings attached, a roofed wellhouse in front, and a mill-pond behind. The next moment he saw only the empty dell, with a brook flowing through its greenery. In ostensible connection with that shadowy house, a name became articulate in his memory — a man’s name, Elijah. No, Abijah. Well, which? Then a third name displaced both: Eustace. Eustace’s house. Who might Eustace be? A click in his memory shut off speculation here, as if someone had slammed in his face the door of a lighted room which he wanted to enter. It broke on him with the starkness of a winter dawn, bringing a dismay that swelled through his whole being until it was terror, that he did not know who he was.

He began making hysterical efforts to get back one step further into his immediate past. His mind caught hold of one corner of a sort of moving picture. Running Indians. There were also gaunt bronzed men, not Indians, with grim faces, smudged and half lost in smoke. And sounds — a din of yelled orders, the pop of musketry, the occasional boom of a field-piece, making earth and air shudder. These attached themselves to another name — John Stark. Now he had it: Battle of Bennington, of course! But forthwith there came again that same click in his memory. The details vanished, and in their stead he had nothing but a sharp awareness of a page in a book—a right-hand page, the text straggling down in a narrowed column past a sketch-map toward a topic that stood out in boldfaced type near the bottom: ‘Successes in the North (1777).’

His effort frayed out into trivialities. He heard clearly spoken, in a high and querulous voice which he seemed to have known ages ago, a phrase which he could not for the life of him make sense of: ‘ — these queer new-fangled s’s.’ He worked over this as if it had been of immense importance, and then gravely substituted ‘here’ for ‘queer.’ This pleased some fastidious sense of sound inside him. The words were like actual physical things, which he was to find and slip into notches already shaped to fit them with precision.

When he opened his eyes, things no longer blurred together in that mad whirl. On the height there was only a vanishing gray dimness, through which the first stars twinkled out one by one. He strained his eyes downward. The Lower Valley was filled with a great standing pool of darkness, near the bottom of which he made out, faint and wraith-like, a level body of mist. At this he stared, endeavoring to pierce through it to what lay at the bottom.

A rustling east breath from the opposite wall fanned him. He saw with a start that what he was looking at was the smooth expanse of a lake. Out of the night below it sprang to his vision as things do in a lightning flash. He could see the mist, clinging above and reflected below. The surface of the water was like tarnished silver. ‘Almost dawn,’ he muttered in bewilderment. No sooner had he heard this said, than he wanted to deny it testily. He knew well enough that it was not long after sunset. Also, he realized that the lake which had presented itself, whether or no its counterpart lay down there in the Valley, was nothing that he could truly have seen with his physical eyes, in that light. He passed a hand nervously across his face. The whole mirage of a lake was gone like a cobweb that one brushes away. Then, perversely, he was flooded with dismay because the lake was not there.

There followed a short interval in which he understood everything perfectly, within a narrow ring of immediate circumstances. The rim of a reddish moon showed above the east wall across the gorge. Somewhere back in the woods a screech-owl began spreading its immemorial woes broadcast on the night. All this was familiar. He got up and went to the pony, which he could still hear crunching the withered grass with a faint tearing noise. He tethered the animal to a sapling at the edge of the cleared place, unsaddled him, and hung the saddle over the lowest limb of a tree. From one of the saddle-bags he produced a folding candle-lantern. Without a second’s hesitation he lighted it — with flint and steel and a tinder-box.

He patted the pony and promised it water. It whinnied softly as he walked away toward the edge of the cliff. Every one of these movements was obvious and comprehensible to him. But as soon as he tried to get beyond, into past or future, there was no sense or meaning.

Between two trees at the edge of the descent he stepped into the path. He followed it down, understanding by some sixth sense that he had done so countless times before. He even knew, without the least thought, which roots and stones were secure footing, and which would tear away or teeter precariously. The shadows of his legs, thrown by the swung lantern, crisscrossed rhythmically on the steep rock wall and effaced whole boulders and clumps of bushes with the clipping motion of shears. The incessant wail of the screech-owl came to him more faintly. He did not pause until he reached a flat ledge of rock twenty or thirty feet from the bottom.

There he lost himself again for a moment in another of those strange fits of mental biplicity, based this time on the automatic cropping up in his mind of two words— ‘shelf,’and the queer word ‘chaps.’ Chaps? What chaps? English slang. Fellows. No. Then a line from—was it Shakespeare? — ‘Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chaps.’ There might, he thought, be a gleam here, if he could work it out. Chaps — jaws. Lion’s jaws? Not that. And ‘ shelf ’! He gave it up, and peered down over the edge of the flat rock.

Nothing there but darkness. What had stopped him? Something in the texture of the silence, over which he puzzled, frowning. Suddenly he had it: water falling over rocks. He strained his ears for this sound. There was nothing audible except the crickets and that one everlasting screech-owl. A kind of stagnating quality in the stillness made him think of death — the valley of the shadow of death. He shivered imperceptibly.

But he was going on down. There was that which called him as if from the darkness below, and to which everything inside him answered. He understood in a vague way that the call itself had really come from inside him. It was nothing more than his inward certitude that down there, in some mysterious way, all would be accounted for, justified. Walking along the flat ledge back near the cliff, he found with relief that he knew precisely where to look for the continuation of the path. It led down a rock stairway and then eased off to a level among waist-high shrubs. Here was a sudden pocket of damp, cold air. He shivered again, this time with the merely physical chill. The dankness was one more breath of familiarity touched with strangeness.


He was now on the floor of the Valley itself. He paused.

At the blackest point of the shadow ahead, a dog broke out into a shrill yelping clamor. He understood that it was neither fear nor anger, nor yet warning, but only — welcome. He could hear the dog pounding toward him on the hard ground, tearing its throat with cries, tossing its body into the air as if only by turning completely inside-out could it express the furious abandon of its delight. He stooped down as it neared him, and murmured a caressing word. Instantly there fell a dead stillness between himself and the animal. Instead of the anticipated transport, there came one low, drawn-out, ululating whine. He could feel the dog’s hair bristling as if it had risen along his own back. The voice in which he had just spoken to the dog was one which he had never heard before in his life. He stood and trembled, in a renewal of overwhelming psychic terror.

Quick, light steps came toward him, stopped a second, came on again more swiftly.

‘Ronald!’ It was the unbearable excess of joy breaking over into a cry uttered by the most familiar voice in the whole world.

In the firm arms that swept round him, he knew at last the answer to the dark riddle of his existence. The lips that found his own in a long ardor of possession, of fulfillment, summed up everything. He stood dazed with the rightness and expectedness of it, encircling her with his left arm and holding the lantern stiffly away from her in his right hand, not knowing that he did so. They stood motionless while the great brown collie danced round them, uttering soft whines and nuzzling them alternately for recognition.

Suddenly she was crying, in little broken-off sobs that constricted her whole body. Rising from somewhere inside her, they tore at something inside him. The lantern went out as it fell; his freed hand, behind her head, pressed her cheek more tightly against his. It was the gesture of his tenderness charging her never to sob again but for joy.

‘My dear love!’ he murmured; and after a little, again, brokenly, ‘Oh, my dear love!’ It was all he could say.

With her first cry his identity had swept over him like the waters of a pent-up freshet suddenly released, until he was drowned in it. The past and the present were washed clear. In the one surge of clarity he had both found himself and lost himself again in the sense of her. It seemed to him then that never in his life had there been anything to stand in the way of his certainty of himself and of her, of himself as hers. The period of wondering who and where he was, the singular speculation about a house that both was and was not, his groping for the name of the ledge on which he had stood, the dog’s spasm of terror — all that was not only a forgotten dream, but a dream that had occurred to someone else entirely. He, Ronald Ronald, was in the secure valley of home, under its shielding wall. He stood within a stone’s throw of the Devil’s Chaps, the ledge forming the mouth and jaws of that vast stone face which watched eternally over the Valley with its sardonic and inscrutable regard, giving the whole locality its nickname of Devil’s-Pate Valley. It had all been familiar to him from the dawn of his memory. And he was fastened in the arms of his wife.

What words was she breathing into his ear? — ‘It must be that God has brought you to me.’

‘That may indeed be,’ he answered her. ‘But only let me know that ’t is well with you and the child. And what word from Eustace? Is father better?’

She was still sobbing a little, and trying to nod assent against his shoulder; but this she could hardly manage, he was holding her so fixedly, and they both laughed, as young lovers since the beginning of the world have always done at such trifles.

‘Yes,’ he repeated, ‘why may it not be that God has had care of me? There has been more than one piece of hot work in the field, and I in the thick of it. And there was hazard in the journey, as indeed I had foreknowledge. Yet here I am — and with no help save that of a good pony which is spent with the journey and waits up yonder for food and water.’

She pushed him a little away, keeping her hands on his shoulders. ‘But why,’she demanded, ‘must you undertake these perils without need? Always the rashest boy! You might have cost your general a stout soldier, and me — ’

‘ An indifferent husband,’ he supplied; then drew her back closer. ‘The birds fly in their seasons,’ he said, ‘but I never heard that they ask first whether the way be free of dangers. It was to you, and — I must. And did you have no need of me? Something was for ever crying your need into my ear, and would not be silent; I heard it in the night, and on the march, and through the sentry’s watch. Was it only my need that spoke?’

‘Ay,’she answered quietly, ‘there was need — great need. But now’ — she laughed happily — ‘here are you, and what need of anything? Father Abijah is as he was — no more ailing. From your brother, no tidings still. — But did you surely come without harm, my Ronald?’

He laughed too, because she had laughed, and because he was in the giddiness of pure joy.

‘That I did,’ he assured her—‘at least, with no worse scath than by some thousands of brambles up yonder, where I had thought there was a path.’

She was serious again.

‘Few have come, these many months, by any path that leads to this place,’ she said. ‘And — fewer have gone. — But, oh! great goosecap that I am, to stand gabbling here — and you so spent and famished! And he has never, never seen his babe, has he, Tubal?’ She affected to put this to the dog.

‘While I have you thus —’

But she was pulling at his sleeve, in a sudden intolerant gust of solicitude. He knew: she was going to be inexorable, ruthless, until she had him properly looked after, showered with creature comforts. He supposed it was one of the traits without which she would not have been Martha; certainly it was one common to all the women whom the Ronalds married. He stooped to pick up the extinguished lantern, and to let Tubal vent himself in a wild transport of caresses: then he started on, Martha haling him after her by the wrist as one does a resisting child. He barely made out the steep gable of the farmhouse, dominating a shadowy huddle of outbuildings.

‘Tell me, then,’ he said, ‘of the child. Our son — think of that! Yes, I know: I had your letter in the North, of Elim Whittaker, who had it of Nathan.’

Her clutch tightened on his wrist, and her pace slackened.

‘Oh, never was such a babe!’ she affirmed. ‘When you take him, you will perceive and understand what it was that drew you. He thought it was his wife, the silly! When a man has his first child to play with, what is a doll of a wife, that he should keep her in remembrance? Tell me that, thou great vanity! But, oh, he is the strongest, and the best — ! The blue eyes, like yours— ! And the straight, back — ! He has but just found that his wrists do most wonderfully turn, and he lies on his back watching his two hands turn to and fro, and never wearies of it.’

‘Which of us twain, I ask you now,’ said Ronald, with a crushing severity, ‘has the greater cause to look on the child with a jaundiced eye — your own words to be the judge? And, pray, was not his name to be Joel, after your father?’

‘ His name is to be Ronald Joel, after my father and his own.’ She said it with a triumphant kind of tenderness. ‘And he shall be called Ronald, lest —’

He caught a glimpse of her omnipresent fear. It was true enough that the desolation of widowhood might descend on her at any instant, almost before she had crossed the threshold of life and love. In bestowing his name upon the boy, she was squarely reckoning with the common lot of young wives and mothers in those troublous times. For his own part, he was strong in youth’s illusion of immortality. But he could only tighten his clasp in comprehension of her pervasive dread.

She lingered again in the shadow of the great gable.

‘There is one matter,’ she said in a low voice, ‘ that you need prepare yourself against. Father Abijah is — is not altogether as you have known him.’

‘Not — near death? You cannot mean that?’

‘T is not so much the body, ailing though that be. But — the mind fails. In one small matter, nothing if you but understand it aright, he does not do himself justice. There may be that which would be overlooked by all who love him.’

She would say no more. She checked his questions by raising the latch. They passed through a wedge of yellow candlelight into the great warm kitchen that had always been to Ronald a familiar everyday sort of heaven.


His first minutes under his own roof were marred, as home-comings most often are, by the impact of too many crowding emotions of the first magnitude, crossing and interrupting one another. Later, lie was to sink gratefully into the remembered sereneness of everything — the freshly sanded floor, the gleam of brass and pewter, the vast fireplace with its smouldering logs ready to be blown into flame, the ticking of the great clock that was too tall for the room and had been allowed to thrust its head through the ceiling, the bottle-green Windsor chairs, the Windsor settle covered with a brown bearskin, the still cradle, and Martha moving among all these about her tasks as airily as if she danced to some tinkling gavotte by Rameau.

But what he first experienced was a shock. It was the shock of actually seeing her, by the tell-tale light of the candles. Her tiredness, the worn pallor of her face, the look of added years in her eyes and the lines of her mouth, her general air as of one inflexibly resolved to carry all the way a burden she could but stagger under — it made him cry out at his first real sight of her.

This in turn brought an outcry, in the testy and querimonious voice of an old man, from the kitchen bedroom, and Ronald must hurry in and pay his filial respects. The change in Abijah Ronald, even as seen by the dim light that flowed in through the open door, was immeasurably disturbing to his son. It was not merely the change from a seer to a dotard, though it was all that: there was in it, besides, a suggestion of something odious, abominable, inhuman yet too utterly human; something that struck at the root of the son’s self-respect by causing in him a strong instinctive revulsion for which he must curse and loathe himself, powerless though he was to stamp it out of his heart . He could not have phrased any part of this feeling; yet it was so definite that it sickened him. Why was it that his father regarded him with suspicion, subtly resented his presence there, perhaps his very existence?

From grappling with himself at the bedside of his father, Ronald turned back to receive at the door the bundle which Martha held in outstretched arms — the child that was hers and, incredibly, his — his little sleeping son, Ronald Joel. He drew both the woman and the child into a gentle embrace, so that the little thing lay between its parents, held by her. Ronald looked down at it, the shy wonder of paternity dawning in his boyish eyes. He saw, through a suspicion of tears, that it had fabulously long black lashes, like Martha’s, and hair like hers, brown with glints of red-gold where the light touched it slantwise. He smiled down at it; and instantly, as if it had been an echo, a smile fluttered across the face of his sleeping son.

‘Dreaming of his supper, mayhap!’ whispered Martha.

Ronald knit his brows in a portentous frown. He pretended to be furious with her for this crass invasion of his sentimental rights. His own eyes had just seen that his son’s smile was like butterflies and dancing elves, and he was not going to have it dismissed by Martha with any such crude levity. Mauling and manhandling his pretty fancies like that! He leaned forward and kissed her defiantly, to show the completeness of his disapproval. Already the jealous egotism of paternity had clutched him.

The old man in the bedroom began to weep, in little whimpering snarls like those of an animal. Some unnamable suggestion in the sound froze Ronald’s blood. When Martha released herself to put Ronald Joel back into the cradle, he let her go almost coldly. The thing that his father had become — not that he at all understood it just yet—seemed, somehow, an outrage on all humanity. A frost of misanthropy chilled everything for him.

But Martha was her warm and sunny and unruffled self. That she should be, was almost more than he could lake in; it recalled his attention from his own feelings and warmed him to himself again, for a moment, through admiration of her. She was younger than he, — barely twenty,—and it was manifest that her poise had nothing to do with obtuseness as to her fatherin-law’s actual condition; yet she was somehow above and beyond this present horror, to a degree which made Ronald feel himself indescribably callow.

She went to the door of the bedroom. ‘You will have your tea now, Father Abijah?’ she called.

There was a mumbled assent. She knelt by the hearth to pour and stir. The aromatic pungency of sassafras filled the room.

‘ ’T would doubtless pleasure your father,’ she said, ‘ if you were to fetch it to him’; and she held out the greenand-gold china cup in its deep saucer.

‘Nay, you!' croaked Abijah. ‘You, always.’

She checked Ronald’s angry exclamation with a gesture, and herself passed into the room. Ronald strode back and forth, scowling blackly and knowing himself ineffectual. Through the cavernous dimness of the bedroom he could see Martha pause by the high four-posted bed and, holding the saucer with one hand, raise the old man with the other. He sat up, and she slipped the bolster behind his back. Ronald was just at the turn of his stride. In that moment he saw what froze him to the spot. His look followed the bony and claw-like fingers of Abijah in the terrible fascination with which one looks at a crawling snake. The old man’s eyes had become two hot devouring coals, with glints in them of senile cunning and of triumph. Ronald was staring appalled, against his volition, at the suddenly revealed horror of a dotard’s monstrous and sterile concupiscence.

‘Martha!’ He cried out her name in a terrible and choking voice, and would have started forward to tear her away.

In a trice she had dropped the cup and saucer. It was deliberate. Ronald could see her fingers coolly unclose and let the two dishes fall.

At the crash that followed, the old man was suddenly different, years and leagues away. ‘I would not have seen this untoward thing,’ he said in a voice more like that which Ronald remembered, ‘for the worth of a whole merchantman’s cargo of such tea as we had once. ’T was a piece from my own mother’s set of dishes. From France she had it, a many years ago, and this was the first ever I saw broke.’

He felt not a vestige of responsibility for what had happened. Ronald wondered sardonically whether his father meant to blame him for startling Martha, or her for allowing herself to be startled, or both. Ronald was alien in that moment to his father, his wife, his child, himself, the very house to which he had made his way with such labor and peril, thinking it home.

He looked stupidly at the great clock, still ticking away as leisurely as if its task were not in time but in eternity. Altogether he had been in the house a scant six minutes.

Martha brushed past him, with a sign that he was to say and do nothing. She filled another cup with the brew, took it to Abijah, and removed the traces of the mishap.

‘There, Father Abijah,’ she said, ‘I am sure you will sleep now.’

Her impassiveness struck Ronald as in itself a sickening abnormity. She received the cup from the old man; then she stepped back into the kitchen and, latching the door behind her, turned to face her husband.

‘ You give me black looks, dear heart,’ she said.

‘If thou and I were but to change places,’ he said with a face like flint, ‘I would sear the place with a hot iron.’

He spoke with the implacable fury of youth when its normality is outraged. He had no sooner got the words out, though, than he felt himself once more as a child in the presence of an inscrutable wisdom, ancient and mysteriously derived.

She dropped her hands in a hopeless gesture. ‘You do not understand,’ she said wearily. ‘Oh, is there no pity in you? Not for me, — God knows I want none, — but for him.’

‘Nevertheless, it is for you that I have most pity, that you can be so blind as to suffer this thing to continue. And for myself,’ he added bitterly. ‘As for him, there be other humors that I should counsel, and of better pertinency. You prate of pity! Bethink you that we deal with a father’s itching lust after the wife of his son.’

‘Bethink you that we deal with a father.’ She looked at him fearlessly, with an almost appraising candor, as if wondering how much she could hope to make him understand; then went on tentatively, “T is you who are blinded, my Ronald. And think you self-pity is any light for such devious ways? Oh, believe me, you do but soil and wrong yourself with these angers.’

‘He soils you with his touch. Ay, the very look of his eyes is a festering abomination.'

She waived this. ‘Hearken but patiently to me for a little,’ she said. ‘I know myself, and I know him. All men, ’t would seem, know Abijah Ronald better than do his sons.’ Ronald winced, but she did not pause. ‘If I know him best, ’t is because, these many weeks, I have been the one to listen perforce to his prayers and lamentations, and ofttimes to his delirium. He has opened forth his whole soul, so that ’tis like a book, simple to read. His whole life is without stain or blemish. He is a strong man, broken at the last by his own strength.’

‘A dark saying,’ said Ronald.

‘Yet a true one. — Tell me, are not some men driven and rent all their lives by passions that were born in them, while others of lesser turbulence easily rule and curb themselves?’

Ronald nodded, a scarlet shame in his face. This was not all a consequence of the prudery of thought and speech in which he had been reared, and through which Martha was driving to essentials: there was in it also a trace of something vicarious and not ignoble. Ronald blushed, as extreme youth does, because the sins and shames of other men hurt him inwardly, defacing his whole image of himself as a man, of manhood itself. As for Martha, her cheeks were pink, but with excitement. She seemed inordinately young, girlish, as she stood there, a wisp of incarnate bravery and imagination, expounding life to her husband, and looking, while she did it, as if life would never dare lay an ungentle finger on her. Ronald’s eyes fell before her level regard.

‘Your father,’ she went on, ‘is of those who have conquered the unruly part of themselves at a most great cost. Others have deemed him a cold and forbidding man, of a stern and frowning piety, the safest of all men from sins of the flesh. You too — yes, and your brother, if I mistake not— have thought of him as a being saintlike and far removed from the frailties of them we call bad men.’ This struck home: that was exactly how Ronald always had felt toward his father, regarding him with far more of awe than affection. ‘Consider, then,’ she hurried on, ‘that his whole life, whether sleeping or waking, has been one long fiery battle against this demon of appetence in his own nature. You know, do you not,’— her face crimsoned, — ‘that your father did not wed until he was thirty years older than you are now? Yet all those years he lived without one hidden sin to repent. All his days have passed in chastity and honor. You know well how all uncleanness enraged him: ’t was for no reason save the hourly fear and hatred of it in himself. When he was most merciless to others, the scourge was in very truth for his own soul. He dared countenance no weakness, lest it tempt him to clemency for his own.

‘A whole lifetime his spirit has been cumbered with this incubus: what wonder, then, if at this last he be broken in both mind and body? All that Abijah Ronald was he gave, and gladly, to this one end, that he keep himself without stain. Saving a few memories, there is left scarce a fibre of the man he was. He died fighting against the adversary in his own heart. Would there had been enough of him to last out the little time that remains, say I! No more gallant life was ever lived.’

Tears came; she choked them back. She had forgotten herself, and wellnigh forgotten Ronald. Her look pierced through him; she had eyes for nothing less than the discarnate and quintessential part of Abijah Ronald, the thing she must somehow make manifest to his son. This reality, the son now suspected, he had never had a true glimpse of before; and, strangely perhaps, it came to him in a great lift of emotion that he had never had a true glimpse of Martha before, either. Her sheer greatness was beyond everything. It abased him utterly, and at the same time robbed him of the words to express his abasement.

‘All that is left us,’ she resumed, ‘is to keep the taste of defeat from his lips. When this dire frailty comes upon him, we must affect not to perceive it. His own power over himself is spent, and we have strength aplenty: why, then, higgle about the trifle more or less used to save him from himself? All that needs is to be the least, blind, patient with him. ’T is an easy thing to turn his mind from the distemper, which is but of the body. Arouse old memories, or set his thoughts running on the fortunes of our arms against the King’s men, or but speak to him of the work of his own hands and brain, and briefly he is himself again. ’T was in truth for that I let fall the dish of tea just now. Was not that better done than to fling his trouble in his face with curses, as you would have done? There would be neighbors enough, in all conscience, to point the finger and shoot out the tongue at him, had they seen what you have seen. If his own son join that base hue and cry, he goes down to his grave a bitter and beaten man. Were not that more defiling to the soul than his touch can be to the body? It is in my thought that what we have to do is fasten his mind on all that which he was, and ever for fend from him this other. And if,’she ended valiantly, ‘his touch be in very truth noxious to the soul, better mine suffer a slight damage than his be utterly destroyed.’

‘No more—say no more!’ cried Ronald. ‘ Only forgive! ’

The next instant she was weeping in his arms. ‘— All, all yours,’ were the words that he caught.

They were more than he could answer. Gently he pushed up the sleeve of her kirtle and pressed his lips to the very place where the withered fingers of Abijah had fastened like pincers on the rounded whiteness above her elbow. The kiss thrilled and sang in his veins like the first kiss of first love. Words could not have said so much just then. His recantation was complete in its humility. Martha had stamped herself upon him as she was in her great moment, with the rapt and visionary look in her eyes of one who has got beyond logic and self-justification and all little things. Her words and, still more, what she was in herself had washed him clean of jealous rage and self-pity. A whole cycle of growth had passed over him, all in a few moments of time. More, even, than when he had held his firstborn, he felt himself beginning to be a man — for what is the real beginning of manhood, but to feel one’s self less than a noble woman? Ronald had turned the last page of his youth.

But he was not to catch up with her: that was clear. Already she was deep in her interrupted task of making him comfortable. Before he could rid himself of the stains of travel and clothe himself in the clean, tight-fitting garments of two years ago, she was calling him back to a feast that would have made his scarecrow comrades of the Continental Army rub their unbelieving eyes. At sight of it his soldier’s conscience smote him, for he remembered suddenly the abandoned pony up on the height . But even that, it seemed, was all right: Martha had already dispatched their Indian satellite Paskahegan with oats and water, and he would lead the animal round into the Valley by the lower road.

Ronald was centuries away from the privation and strain and ghastliness of warfare. It seemed to him, in his serenity, that there had never been any such thing as the armed struggle for independence. Sitting there at the laden kitchen table, with Martha smiling and glowing across it, he could have sworn that this alone was reality, and all that contradicted it a grotesque nightmare of impossibilities. When his eyes, chancing on the dial of the tall clock, told him that it was still no more than early evening, he was astounded and incredulous. It seemed to him that there could have been no past, night after night as far as he could remember, except sitting there just in that way; and that there could be no other future, night after night, so long as he lived. He was already forgetting how many past hours of discomfort, danger, and solitary longing he had spent in order to accumulate the need of home that had consummated itself in the sweetness, the lingering and almost terrible beauty, of this one hour.


Later, when the two lay hushed and wordless in the great bedroom above the kitchen, hardly breathing lest either miss one pulse-beat of their supreme mutuality, it seemed to Ronald that his marriage was a thing as new as the first sunrise of creation. It also seemed to him that it had begun under singularly happy auspices. For this he felt grateful to a certain shy fastidiousness in himself, and still more to a kind of invulnerable daintiness that he could but reverence and wish to preserve in Martha. He remembered, against his wish, the strain of blunt impudicity in the talk of some of his married comrades, and how this strain had appeared whenever the talk verged on the prospects of peace and an interval at home; and he shuddered, not in pious self-approval, but in something like grateful wonderment at the luck that had created him sensitive to the texture of his young wife’s exquisiteness. Not coy, certainly not cold, she had an unconscious rarity, any affront to which would have been the worst possible affront to his own self-respect. He was glad that there had never been any importunate crude invasion of the citadel of her privacy. More than two years before, they had drawn each other into a warmed and sunlighted caravansery of tremulous enchantment, and half deliberately left passion waiting at the door. The lately sounded call to arms, and his answer, might have done something to deepen the pitch of their young gravity; but fundamentally, he was sure, those few days of the broken honeymoon had owed their piercing sweetness to just themselves, their profound and fervent awareness of each other. He lay, now, suffused in the recovered sense of that beginning, until he had it all through his blood, wonderfully vibrating. It made this first night at home with the mother of his child precisely what he would have had it if it were to be the last of his life. He was breathless with awe and gratitude.

Gratitude to what, to whom? To Martha, first: that was of course. But then a strange thought occurred to him, at first a mere whimsical flicker in his mind, afterward a light that steadied and glowed until he could almost read his own soul anew by the lambency of it. It was to his father, Abijah Ronald, as truly as to Martha, that he owed gratitude for the perfection of his own bridal. He was reaping where his father had sown. Every second, every heartburn, every separate agony of the prolonged and fiery ordeal through which the father had kept himself pure according to the awful exaction of his code, had gone into the making of the son. Half the son’s battle against himself had been won for him vicariously, years before he came into the world. They had spoken of helping preserve to the end the old man’s hard-won victory: why, he was his father’s victory.

A partial revelation flooded him of what Abijah Ronald had done it all for. Not with conscious design, perhaps, — he might have thought first of his own rectitude, the evil that imperiled his own secret soul, — but with the effect of conscious design, as it was worked out by the inscrutable will at the back of things. The continuity of life had hold of Ronald. Here he was, a cleanhearted lad, a chivalrous mate to his bride: and what he was now had quite definitely something to do with the invisible past of that crumbling wreckage of body and spirit that lay asleep in a room below, and that he had surveyed, not so long ago, with unappeasable loathing. And it must have something to do in turn with the invisible future of that little bundle of unformed energies that lay sleeping in the cradle not far from his side; nay, with the future of his children’s children. His thought groped among unborn generations, conjuring images of radiant youths and maidens every one of whom owed something to the harsh self-imposed conditions of an old man’s life, whose very name might never reach them. Everything was purposive, so far as its results were concerned, whatever the original intention. It was an intelligible way of looking at things, an idea the mind could work on. It was almost a complete guide to living.

For the first time in his twenty-two years he experienced absolute tenderness for his father. His emotion reached out to embrace even the objects that were the work of his father’s hands. He felt a queer little rush of compassion for the very clock-case in the kitchen, the cornice of which, projecting through a hole cut in the floor of this very room, was integral with each of his earliest recollections. Into the whole house under whose sloping eaves he now lay had been wrought the same qualities of which Abijah had built his own life and character. Fine things, solid things, put together to last.

Martha’s words slipped imperceptibly into the mid-stream of his thoughts. ‘ When Eustace went away in that wild and violent haste, ’t was in part your father’s doing. I knew at the time no more than you; but it has come out since, by little and little, in your father’s mumblings. He is very like a child at times. He saw that Eustace wanted to marry me, — oh, what was I, that two such brothers should be offering me love? — and he cursed him and commanded him to let me alone. Eustace knew by then that I loved you and not him. But he was proud, and without a word he parted in anger from his father. You know why your father had set his face like a flint against Eustace’s winning me?’

‘If by reason of that one forgotten incontinency of his youth,’said Ronald, ' there was a most grave injustice done. For the fault was clearly the woman’s, who was the older, and not my brother’s. But, oh! I am glad you have told me this, for I have Eustace’s forgiveness to ask when we meet again. I had long thought he parted in jealous anger against his only brother.’

‘That could scarce have been,’ she returned, ‘for I had his last farewell, and he spoke of you in all brotherly love, praising you to the skies and saying I had chosen nobly.*

‘ ’T is strange,’said Ronald musingly, ‘ that in a single night you should give me my son, my father, and, now, my brother. And yet not so strange, but meet, and most like you. You unbar curious doors to me, dear heart! ’T is certain you handle the keys of a new heaven and a new earth.’

’Ah, my dear!’ she answered softly, ‘ ’t was I who entered the new heaven, made out of the old earth, when your lanthorn came bobbing down the path this night. — How now? ’

There was a summons from below, in the querulous voice of Abijah. Martha raised herself to slip from the bed, but Ronald caught her wrist.

‘Hearken again,’ he whispered.

Once more, distinctly, came the cry:

‘ Ronnie! ’

‘Go quickly,’ she breathed.

‘What is amiss, father?’ he asked when he had hastily opened the door of the bedroom off the kitchen.

His father was struggling to sit upright. Ronald helped him, with an arm round his shoulders. The gaunt feebleness of Abijah’s frame hurt him almost unbearably. For a moment, before Abijah spoke, he thought he was in the presence of death.

‘I — I don’t know,’ answered his father. His tone sounded more puzzled than anything else. ‘ Something comes on me — weakness — like waves.’ He panted for breath. ‘It is — death-like. Death, mayhap. Call Eustace for me, that’s a brave little lad. I was about to go to him. ’T is likely I swooned.’

Ronald saw that his father was wandering somewhere in the past, and that his present physical weakness had given him a shock, without in the least setting his memory straight. How far back had his father gone? Evidently he, Ronald, was only a young boy.

‘Eustace is not returned yet,’ he said at a venture.

The old man revolved this painfully. ‘Tell him —’

The effort to formulate his message was too much. Some shutter fell on this section of his memory, and he began over in another context. But he had recurred to a time before anything had defaced his relation with the elder son; that was what was significant and gladdening.

‘Ronnie,’ Abijah said, ‘you are nigh to a man grown now.’ He touched his son’s arm with a stiff, embarrassed fondness. ‘Ever since you was born I have prayed that you might be a good man — a better than ever your father was.’

Ronald brushed away his tears. ‘That I could never, never be, father,’he said.

Abijah acknowledged this only by a catch in his voice as he went on, ‘ I have thought now and again that, come the right and due time, you and Martha might be for starting life together.’

‘Yes, father, I — we mean to.’

The old man sighed with relief. ‘ If I die—’ he said, and left it pending. ‘Ay, a good maid — never a better, saving one.’

This was in answer to something never said, or perhaps said years ago.

He seemed to have dozed off against the supporting arm. Ronald laid him gently back upon the pillow, and waited a long time to make sure that his breathing was that of natural sleep. Then he tiptoed out. While his hand was still on the latch, a loud cry startled and electrified him. It was almost a deep shout, in a great baying voice such as he had not heard from his father for years.

‘“Believe it”? I tell ye, John Treddlecomb, I know it! Ye may bandy all the King’s words, and all your fine Roman Latin to boot, and ye may, if so it please ye to do, misdoubt what your own eyes see, but I tell ye that wheel will turn, and keep turning while the water runs — ay, and do its office too. When I open that gate, as, under Providence, I do before another sun goes down, ye shall see the power that runs in the water harnessed like a wild stallion to the treadmill. Nay, within this se’nnight ye shall see it grind you corn, and whet you axes, and saw you timbers, and bore you holes in solid iron — if so be you can a-bear it, and not hide yourself in the forest for very shame! Pah! you with your great swelling words—!’

He trailed away into disconnected rumblings, then into a doze. Ronald waited,and listened again to his breathing until it was calm and even. He latched the door noiselessly and passed through the kitchen toward the stairs. When he rejoined Martha he was still thrilling to the spirit that had once raced in his father’s being, with a power like that of the unharnessed water in the mill-race.

And, after all, he did not find out the secret of Martha’s pallor and physical exhaustion until, in her own time, she chose to let him. He might, when the morrow came, take up his share of the burden common to all of the Lower Valley; but at least he should drain, on this one night, every drop of the cup of peace which home offers the veteran of wars.


He awoke, as it seemed to him, preposterously early, to find Martha already stirring. He made one drowsy protest; then she told him everything— the long drought, followed by the pestilence; the failure of the springs and wells; the spread of the sickness; her efforts to keep it from her child, her father-in-law, and herself; her daily labor of drawing water and distributing it among the Seven Farms, with the red oxen yoked to the great wain; her watching with the sick and the dying; the fidelity and serviceableness of Paskahegan, the last of a dispossessed tribe and their ancient servitor, without whom, so she said, she could have done nothing. He gathered incidentally that for many nights she had not removed her clothes, and that she had been able to do so on this night only because two of the sickest had just died.

Ronald took it all in, asked questions, made her repeat parts of it. One detail struck him forcibly: she had boiled the water for their own drinking, ‘to take out the flavor of fish and frogs,’ and cooled it in earthen vessels. Theirs was the only house in which this had been done — and theirs was the only house, and they almost the only persons, to remain unaffected by the pestilence. This set him thinking that the whole trouble lay at the bottom of his own well. If that were so, he meant to find it out. He dressed, went down into the kitchen, and put his hand on the water-bucket that always stood by the end of the stone sink. It was empty.

For some reason, that trivial circumstance directed his notice to an inexplicable emptiness in the room. He fell to wondering about this, and paused. Of a sudden he perceived that the great clock in the fireplace corner was not ticking off the seconds. He tiptoed over to it, opened the long door that was like a black coffin-lid, and felt inside for the weights. It was clear that Martha, in the excitement of having him, had forgotten to wind the clock.

In that superstitious and impressible hour of the gray preceding dawn, the fact disconcerted him. The stopping of the clock seemed like a symbol of a life’s stopping — the life of the clock’s owner and maker. Ronald started to pull the weight down. The wooden works gave out a clacking noise that startled him, shattering the silence of the house as if that had been something fragile and valuable. He desisted, meaning to wind the clock the rest of the way later on, after his father was awake. He placed the hands by guess, set the pendulum swinging, and closed the door. Then, cautiously, he raised the latch of the door leading to his father’s room. There had been no significance after all, thank Heaven, in his ironic symbolism. His father’s breathing was still the same slow, even rise and fall. Ronald stole back across the kitchen to take up the empty bucket.

Swinging it in his hand as he passed toward the well below the cliff, under a sky of pearl, he had for one instant a dismayed feeling. It was as if it had occurred to him that he was going to be snatched away from everything — or, perhaps, that everything was going to dissolve round him and leave him floating there alone, anchored in a void of space and time. The Valley was ghostly in the dimness of its mists.

He thought of Martha, and shivered. Suddenly, he did not want things to dissolve round him; he wanted them to be there always for him, as they had always been. His fear was like seeing a solid form without any shadow attached to it, or a shadow without any solid form to make it. It passed quickly. There, towering above him, was the friendly cliff, the everlasting bulwark of their quietude; and there, figured upon it in great blotches of rock and boulder and ledge, was that likeness of a human visage, or rather a Satanic one, which had given the place its traditionary name, ‘Devil’s-Pate Valley.’ This too seemed to him rather a friendly than a grim piece of reality. All reality was friendly, on this one morning.

He attached the bucket and let the rope unwind itself whirring from the windlass. When the filled bucket came up, he lifted it out to the well-curb and sniffed at it. Then he tilted the bucket and took a mouthful of the water. He spat it out with a grimace. The well must be cleaned before it was used much; that was certain.

Breakfast was a hurried affair. After it Paskahegan appeared from nowhere, stolid and inarticulate as ever, expressive only where grunts would serve, neither manifesting surprise at anything nor acknowledging the manifestation of it by others. Ronald had long had a curious feeling that his father materialized and dematerialized Paskahegan at will. Now it was Martha who did it; that was all the difference. Ever since Ronald could remember, Paskahegan had been the same, to the last bronzed wrinkle.

He had the oxen already yoked to the wain and the two great casks loaded upon it. These the two men set to work filling. Ronald drew, using two buckets alternately, while the Indian poured. By the time Martha had given Abijah his breakfast, the day’s water-supply was ready for her to distribute.

Ronald bent and kissed her, and waved his hand gayly as she trudged off leading the red oxen. ‘ Better times coming, lass!’ he called after her. He was happy, excited. There was nothing that he did not relish to the full. Even the comic dilemma of Tubal, wondering whether he more wanted to go with Martha or stay with Ronald, and looking the picture of woe when it dawned upon him that, whichever he did, he certainly could not do the other — even this struck Ronald as immense. After two years of the monotony and squalor and hideous waste of soldiering, he was going to have the time of his life — cleaning a well.

First they rolled a third cask down from the barn and filled it for an emergency supply. The sun came up over the east wall, burning off the mist and the dew. The leaves of bushes and low trees began to droop and look dusty in the fervent heat. Exertion in that parching sunlight began to mean acute bodily discomfort. But nothing could daunt Ronald. He whistled as he worked the heavy windlass, and kept the buckets coming up almost as fast as Paskahegan could empty them. When he found, by the black ring that showed farther and farther above the waterlevel, that they were really making progress, he redoubled his efforts. The water came roiled and muddy, with pieces of mouldering leaves in it. Then there was a draught at which the dipped bucket grated on the rocks of the bottom. A few turns more, and they had done all that they could to the well without going into it.

The slow oxen were coming back up the Valley road behind Martha. Ronald could see their hoofs kicking up little reddish spirts of dust like the smoke of puff-balls.

He was in high feather. He shouted, and waved a greeting. Martha waved back — a trifle wearily, he thought. He did a snatch of war-dance in a circle round Paskahegan, with furious comic flourishes of his arms and legs, amused because the Indian only stared at him, unblinking. Martha, still far down the road, made the motions of clapping her hands in applause. Ronald executed a courtly bow. He had never been so content.

Then he began to clamber down the shaft of the well.

At first the damp chill was grateful to his skin, after the baking dryness above. Ten feet more, and he began to shiver. He kept on, though, straddling the diameter of the shaft, finding the crevices with his toes and leaning forward with his hands against the wall. Half-way down, he began to think that perhaps he had never properly considered the depth of a fifty-foot well. When he looked up, the saturnine face of old Paskahegan, cut like a black cameo against a tiny circle of robin’segg blue, seemed forbiddingly remote. It was easier to keep on down.

A foul odor began to attack his nostrils: an odor dank, execrable, mephitic; a breath from some grisly animal corruption. He wondered if he were going to be ill. Bending down by lowering his hands on the wall in front of him, he peered into the gloom below to see if he could make out anything. He was opening his lips to call for a lantern to be lowered to him on a string. The first syllable was already rumbling and bellowing in the shaft, as if it were going to break his ear-drums.

He did not know when the dislodged stone fell. He heard a crash, only it seemed to be inside his head. For the fraction of a second he thought that his own shout really had burst his eardrums. There was a scream, ‘Ronald! in a woman’s voice. Against a crushing resistance, he tried to lift his head toward— what? A searing white light flashed, once, as if a shutter in his brain had silently opened and closed.

Then he was whirling — whirling —


It was the middle of the first Sunday forenoon of September when it was found that Elijah Ronald’s grandson was not, as had been supposed, oversleeping in his bed. When his motorcycle was discovered in its usual place in the barn, it was disconcerting to the theory that he had posted home to attend to some matter of studies and examinations. But there were always independent fishing excursions and solitary rambles about Chiswick; and it was late Sunday evening before anyone was disturbed at all. Even then no one was enough disturbed to hint real alarm to the others.

When on Monday morning Ronald had not appeared, it was different. The boy’s father commandeered the motorcycle, to hurry home and learn that nothing was known there of Ronald’s whereabouts. The rest of the day was spent in searching and asking questions about Chiswick, a process as fruitless as it was frantic.

Early on Tuesday morning Ronald’s Uncle Eustace was completing his second trip through the rugged hills to the east of the Reservoir. He had gone through them the first time on the preceding afternoon, hoping valiantly that his nephew had merely twisted an ankle among the rocks, and would be lying helpless somewhere within reach of a shout. Eustace had shouted himself hoarse, and listened to the futile echoes of his own voice. Now he was coming out on the east shore of the Reservoir, a few hundred yards below the gorge.

There he saw something that very few living persons ever had seen, and none unless they were approaching the age of Payne Gilbert. The Reservoir had been draining continuously since the Saturday night before, and the floor of the gorge was now empty, except for the reduced trickle of Salter’s Run through the middle of it.

Eustace walked along up the shore to where it shelved away into the lower end of the gorge, and then kept on between the rising walls toward the Shelf, stepping among slimy rocks that, less than twenty-four hours ago, had lain under several feet of water. Near a certain hillock (one of the twin islands) not many feet from the spot on which Abijah Ronald had laid the foundation of his house, he solved one of his pet antiquarian riddles. He had long known that the old colloquial designation of this whole terrain was Devil’sPate Valley, but he had never found any reason why. Approaching the west wall from this angle, he came front to front with the Devil’s Pate itself, the chin and throat, revealed by the subsidence of the water below the Shelf, completing the likeness. The discovery might have interested him more if he had had Ronald at his elbow to explain it to. This was, in fact, his exact thought as he stepped round a black standing pool below the Shelf, thinking to go on up the path and so back to the farmhouse.

He noticed, as he made the circuit of the pool, that the round cavity which contained it must once have been the mouth of a well. The well, of course, it then broke upon him, in which the first Ronald Ronald was killed! He stepped nearer, drawn by a shuddering fascination. In the opening, wedged there by the current, was a tangle of branches, sharply pronged like antlers, and bleached a leprous white.

Then Eustace had his moment of frozen horror. Projecting upward through the tangle, and so like it in color that he had already stared at it without perceiving it, was the sole of a bloodless human foot.

Eustace was so sick and dizzy that he will never know much about how he got Ronald’s body up the path to the level part of the Shelf. Until this point, curiously enough, he had thought of the tragedy as his tragedy; and it had left him reeling. Now it dawned in his mind that he was the one who had to tell his own father, and Ronald’s father, and — Ronald’s mother. This last was beyond all horror. He threw himself down by the white body of the boy who had so nearly been his boy, and weeping shook him until he was exhausted.

When he covered Ronald Ronald’s face with a white handkerchief, he could not help noticing that it had a strange and unreal beauty, like that of certain lost marbles of antiquity, of such surpassing loveliness that they could be suffered to come down to us only as legends. He also noticed that the look had nothing to do with any schoolboy of eighteen. It was as if Ronald had outlived himself by several years before he died, Eustace thought.

‘It is often said,’ he mused, ‘that a drowning person lives through centuries in a few moments. I wonder what he could have lived through, that put that into his face.’

(The End)