CHARLES FAILLE stood on the steps of the Imperial House at Firestone, Kansas, wondering why he had stopped off at this ugly little town, when he might have been in Kansas City by this time, or well on his way to Chicago. It was one of those still, hot summer afternoons that give one a strange sense of pause, as if the heart of the world had suddenly stopped beating and earth hung poised, for one brief moment, in the midst of eternity. The suspended stillness filled Faille with a sense of premonition, as if he had only to reach out his hand to touch hovering death.
Faille was a small gray man of fortyfive. Few people gave him a second glance, or remembered him after a casual meeting. Only a tailor or a cloth dealer could have judged the excellence of his apparel; only a sympathetic observer would have noticed the sensitive curve of his lips and the intelligence, the seeking friendliness, in his shy brown eyes. He was accustomed to being overlooked — accustomed to the indifference of eyes that met his own, but to-day, as he stood on the hotel steps, it seemed to him that the occasional passer-by regarded him with suspicion and hostility.
It was too ridiculous to think that, after traveling around the world, he should be stricken with car-sickness on the last lap of his journey. He had managed to control his illness through the day; but the moment his head touched the pillow of his berth, an unbearable nausea had overwhelmed him. He was, therefore, making the journey to Boston by easy stages. There was no need for him to hurry — there was nothing, nobody waiting for him. But one had to go somewhere, and Boston had been his home for many years. At Denver he had felt so much better that he had decided to go straight through to Chicago. However, almost immediately, his sickness had returned; and it grew worse so rapidly that he soon realized he would have to stop over at Kansas City. During one of the paroxysms that assailed him, he remembered a traveling man who had told him that he lived in Firestone, Kansas, and had boasted of the good hotel at that place. Firestone was the next station, and although Kansas City was only a few hours farther on, he felt that he could not endure another mile of that jolting, swaying motion; that swimming heat and grinding noise; the smells of orange-peel and exhausted humanity. Underneath the steam-pipe by his seat a fluff of hair-combings floated in the dust, filling him with unutterable loathing. It was the last straw; he could go no farther.
Firestone lay on the flat parched breast of the prairie, writhing, twisting, warping beneath the blazing August sun, which beat down upon it with brazen glare; and Faille had no sooner left the train than he had a frantic desire to get back into it. To his relief, however, he found that the hotel was surprisingly clean and comfortably furnished; but his room was stifling in the mid-afternoon heat, and although his body cried out for the bed, he could not bring his mind to submit.
There was something depressing and fatalistic in the little square park that faced the hotel. In the centre a castiron fountain sent up a thin spray, which seemed to fall back with a discouraged splash into the trough that surrounded it. A few dilapidated benches were scattered along the dusty paths, and at one side stood a battered bandstand, half covered by a wilted vine. Most of the buildings around the square of the park were of frame, sadly in need of paint or repair.
‘Can anything really be as hideous as this?’ Faille thought; then, irritably, ‘Where does this infernal heat come from? Perhaps if I hired a jitney I might be cooler.’ But a rise of nausea at the thought of motion drove him back into the deserted office of the hotel. They had sprinkled the floor, and the air was filled with a mouldy, earthy smell, and his footsteps on the bare boards seemed to reverberate, like walking in a cave. However, it was cooler and more restful than his room, and he seated himself in one of the leather chairs near an electric fan whose drowsy hum soothed and quieted him.
The hotel clerk, a boy of nineteen or twenty, with a fat, sulky face, glanced at him indifferently, and Faille was faintly amused to see him take a little box from the desk drawer and begin to manicure his nails with painstaking t horoughness. Presently the boy paused in the midst of his clipping and polishing, to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand.
‘Heat’s fierce, ain’t it? Stayin’ overnight?' he inquired languidly.
‘Yes,’ Faille replied in an exhausted voice; ‘and I am wondering if there are any pleasant walks, any points of interest— ’ It was not so much the question of a conscientious traveler, as of one who seeks an escape.
The clerk gave a short laugh, but his voice was bitter as he replied, ‘No, there ain’t any pleasant walks, and if there ’s any points of interest around this burg, I never saw them.’
‘Then it is n’t your home?’ Faille inquired.
‘Humph! I was born here, so I reckon you’d call it home; but it ain’t goin’ to be long. I got two good offers I ’m considerin’ now. One’s travelin’ and the other’s with a Victrola concern in Kansas City. The K.C. job would n’t mean as much money, but there’s other things to be considered. I’d be locat - ed right in the city, and that’s worth something,’ he continued argumentatively, as he polished his nails with the palm of his hand. ‘Why, say!’ — he grew vehement — ‘you can’t reelize what it means to live in a place like this. There’s absolootely nothin’ to do. Forepaugh’s circus used to make this their winter-quarters, but, honestly, even the animals could n’t stand it, and now they take ’em to some town in Connecticut; got as far as they could without jumpin’in the ocean.’ He burst into a loud laugh, which broke off suddenly, giving it the effect of a sharp report, as he glanced at the clock. ‘I got to make that 5.20 train, and the bus is late, as usual,’he remarked bitterly; and as he replaced his toilette articles and reached for his hat, he added with fine sarcasm: ‘No, I could n’t recommend any points of interest around this place.’
Faille had the office to himself, and he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the chair, trying to forget his discomfort in recalling the different countries he had seen, the people he had met. It was like a dream — nothing seemed to have touched more than the surface of his mind. He had stored no real impressions — only a deepening sense of his own loneliness — and his regret — from which there seemed no escape.
As he sat half dozing, wholly quiescent, the memory of his wife’s face as she lay dead rose before him — that poor plain face; not even death could give it dignity or make it anything but commonplace and peevish. And yet she had never been peevish. Not once, through all the years of her invalidism, had he ever heard her complain. She had been intensely interested in her symptoms and new treatments, just as formerly she had been interested in her Sunday-School class and the meticulous housekeeping that occupied her when Faille was an underpaid newspaper reporter, never dreaming of the sudden wealth that would come to him from a box of half-forgotten shares of stock that had impoverished his father and embittered his mother. The turn in fortune had come too late for his parents, and Faille soon felt that it had come too late for him as well.
When Charles Faille went to Boston from his home in a small New England town, he had no difficulty in securing a place on one of the city papers. He knew how to write, and he considered his job merely an apprenticeship to larger literary ventures. He was the only child of parents who were middleaged when he was born, and he had grown up in an atmosphere of silent repression. He had been uncomfortable in his home, with its harsh inhibitions, its foolish prohibitions, and he was glad to leave it; nevertheless, he was often hideously homesick as he sat alone in his lodging-house room or wandered the streets at night, looking in at lighted windows where family groups were gathered about the dining-table or engaged in some social diversion.
Once he went into a neighboring church and sat through a long dry sermon, for the sake of being with people w ho had gathered together with a common friendly impulse. No one noticed him until he was passing out, when a tall, rather faded lady approached him timidly.
‘You are a stranger, aren’t you?’ She smiled nervously. ‘I — I think I have n’t seen you here before. I’m Miss Parr. I’m on the committee to welcome strangers. Would n’t you like to stay to Sunday School and meet some of the young people?’
Faille saw that she was painfully embarrassed, and her kind voice and anxious eyes made him answer gently as he refused her invitation; but all the afternoon he was filled with a little exhilaration, as if something pleasant and unexpected had happened to him.
After that he dropped into the church with more or less regularity, and presently he was being introduced by Miss Parr, he was walking home from church with her, and going in for Sundaynight tea. She was ten years older than he, and she had a small income of her own; and although she rarely allowed him to spend any money on her, she never tried to mother him. Indeed, there was a fluttering sweetness in her dependence on him that touched and appealed to his sensitive nature; and something in the frail droop of her head made him think of a flower, a day before yesterday’s flower, left to wilt in stagnant water.
He could scarcely have told how it came about. He did n’t pretend to himself that he was in love with her; but she was so kind, and he could see that she cared.
As soon as they were married Amelia insisted on turning her small principal over to him; which he would not permit, but he never forgot it.
Then, almost immediately, had come the change in their fortunes, but not before he had acknowledged that, despite Amelia’s goodness and devotion, she bored him intolerably. She liked to entertain her Sunday-School class, but she was miserable and tongue-tied when he attempted to bring home any of his new acquaintances. She loved to have her house kept in a state of rigid orderliness; but she did n’t make it comfortable, and sometimes Faille derived a sardonic amusement from the knowledge that she often locked the door on her servants, and cleaned and scoured her closets and bureau-drawers to her heart’s content. Whenever he showed her any of his writing, her invariable comment was: ‘Why, that’s lovely, Charles; you ought to keep right on.’
And although Faille remained faithful to his wife, he gradually withdrew into himself. He never failed in courtesy, and after her invalidism, he was lavish in allowing her every luxury and care; but it was with a physical revulsion that he looked upon her long yellow face, with its faded blue eyes and sunken mouth. The combined efforts of maid and nurse could not keep her sparse hair from falling in straight wisps about her face. He hated to touch her bony hands, with their big red knuckles and dry skin. He often wondered what she thought about as she lay there day after day, week after week, year after year, staring at the walls, or knitting miles of wool into shawls, socks, and slippers, which she sent to the church fairs. She never complained, and she never showed any interest in outside things; and after Faille stopped talking to her about himself, she never showed any curiosity about his doings; she never seemed glad or sorry to see him come or go, when he stopped at her room morning and evening to inquire, with punctilious kindness, for her comfort.
Even that last night, he felt pity, but no tenderness, for her. Her skin, drawn tightly over the bony structure of her face, seemed to glisten like the yellow surface of an egg; her short rapid breath was the only sound in the room. He sat beside her for a long time, pretending to shade his eyes from the night-light, but in reality to avoid looking at her. Presently she moved, and he was conscious of her eyes gazing at him.
‘ What is it, Amelia? ’ he asked gently, overcoming a momentary repugnance to lay his hand over hers. A quiver passed over her face, and faintly, like a voice carried from a great distance, she whispered, —
‘If you could only have loved me, Charles! ’
Faille sat in an agony of embarrassment. He felt that he must speak, and as he groped despairingly for the right word, that mournful dying gaze seemed suddenly not fixed upon him, but to be looking beyond — as if it would break down all barriers, to the very naked soul of things; then her lids fell, and with a long sigh, the fluttering in her breast was still.
Faille was horror-stricken to think that he had let his wife die without saying some reassuring word. He went over every detail of their life together, reconstructed her life as she must have lived it, hungering for his love, yearning for his tenderness. ‘If she could only have filled her life with other things! he mourned. He exaggerated his own coldness and lack of sympathy. He had longed for freedom, and now his freedom appalled him, for often it came upon him like a terror that she was the only person who had ever needed his love, and he had denied her. ‘If you could only have loved me, Charles !’ It would have been so easy to pretend.
He knew that he had grown morbid, and in an attempt to escape his obsession, he had joined a party going to Europe. He found a certain interest in travel, and after a time he had gone on alone, until he had been away two years, and had circled the globe.
Faille was roused by the sound of a telephone-bell shrilling; and as he started up, dazed, the clerk smiled as he sorted the mail. ‘Had a nap, ain’t you?’ he asked. ‘It’s cooler too. Supper’s ready any time you are, but the doors close promptly at seven-thirty,’ he warned.
Before supper, Faille sauntered down one of the residence streets. It was indeed cooler, and the sun fell in long slanting shadows before him. The ugly rectangular houses no longer annoyed him. Once he laughed aloud as he passed a row of new, top-heavy, badly proportioned bungalows. He was reminded of a Boer woman he had met in South Africa; she had the same overhanging brows and broad ungainly girth.
Presently he had reached the outskirts of the town, and, thinking to take a different route back to the hotel, he turned into a side street, — Arbor Street, the lamp-post read, — and found himself facing an old square brick house, surrounded by three or four acres of ground laid out in a vegetable garden. A few fine trees sheltered the house, whose brick walls, beaten and scarred by sun and rain, had faded to lovely neutral tones of pink, citron, and lemon. A vine, heavy with grapes, was festooned upon a trellis, which led from the side door to an old-fashioned well. On the ground near-by was a great heap of tomatoes, which made a brilliant splotch of color against the greenery beyond. An azure filet of smoke from somewhere back of the house brought the faint pungent odor of a bonfire to his nostrils. The place seemed to enfold the stillness of the late afternoon, and for a moment it seemed to Faille that a peaceful hand was laid upon his heart.
As he stood leaning against the picket fence that surrounded the place, a woman came from the side door of the house. She picked up a heavy wooden box that stood on the porch, and something in the ease with which she lifted it, and her free swinging stride, gave him an impression of unusual physical strength and poise. She was a tall woman of about forty years; her black hair was streaked with gray, and her weatherbeaten face was ploughed by two deep furrows from eyes to mouth, like arid water-courses.
She carried the box to the well, and seating herself on the curb, began to sort the tomatoes. He wondered if she were preparing them for market.
Presently she glanced up, and it seemed to Faille that her piercing dark eyes registered every feature of his face and apparel; there was no surprise, no inquiry, in her eyes; rather, a bleak impassivity in her level gaze. In momentary confusion, he touched his hat and walked on.
Faille ate his supper without appetite, and despite the change in temperature, he found his room unbearably hot and stuffy; and as soon as his head touched the pillow, the old nausea was upon him, rushed at him, engulfed him, swept him into a whirlpool of horror and nightmare.
A week later Faille opened his eyes to see a strange man sitting by his bedside; his linen was none too clean, and he wore a shapeless alpaca coat frayed at the edges; but there was something in the steady gray eyes and the soft firm fingers on his wrist, which told him that he was in the hands of a physician.
‘Have — have I been ill?' Faille whispered wonderingly.
‘Well, I should say you have, and a pretty scare you gave us,’the doctor replied in a booming voice. ‘No one knew where you came from or what you were doing here. — Are you a Mason?’ he demanded abruptly.
‘No,’ Faille replied in a bewildered way.
‘Elk? Belong to the church? Not that I care a continental,’ the doctor chuckled, ‘but every society, church, and organization in Firestone has claimed you. It’s been a job to keep all the home-made nurses in town from “sitting up” with you. If you had n’t gotten better pretty soon, I was going to send over to Topeka for a trained nurse. I judged you could afford it, as there was nearly a thousand dollars in your pants pocket. The clerk downstairs gave it to me, and I got it in my safe at the office. D’you think it’s safe to carry that much money around with you?’ he inquired severely — which struck Faille as funny, and he laughed weakly, as he demanded: ‘What’s the matter with me? I don’t feel sick.’
‘Well, you’re not sick now. On a guess, I should say you w ere nervously exhausted; but you had a fever and stomach upsetment that kept me bothered for a few days. However, all you need now is rest. Yes, you been right popular,’ the doctor continued after a little pause; ‘even old Miss Gaum, who runs a little truck-farm out Arbor Street, inquired for you, and she ain’t one to be curious about folks usually.’
Faille lay for a moment trying to remember. Arbor Street — a truckfarm. Then he inquired: ‘Does she live in an old brick house with a white picket fence around it?’ He could n’t remember whether there had really been a brick house or he had dreamed of one.
‘Yes,’ the doctor replied; ‘it’s the old Forbes place, but she bought it some years ago. She ain’t native to these parts, and the townspeople think she’s kinda peculiar, but I guess she just minds her own business.’
The voice trailed off in Faille’s ears to a confused murmur. It seemed to him that he lay looking into a garden with heaps of glowing tomatoes scattered about. He could smell grapes ripening on a trellis, and little wisps of smoke from a bonfire floated before his eyes like censer wreaths; an uneven brick pavement, stained with green mould and splashed with cool shadows of late afternoon, led to an old-fashioned well, from which, surprisingly enough, Miss Gaum seemed to emerge, fixing him with her dark, piercing gaze. He did not hear her speak, but he knew that she was inviting him to enter her garden. He put one hand on the picket and vaulted across the fence; and he felt no dismay that he did not land on his feet, but floated with a light buoyancy over Miss Gaum’s head into delicious, cool, green depths —
‘There, he’s off, and he’s liable to sleep like that for hours,’ the doctor said softly, as he rose from his chair. ‘I ’ll look in on him after lodge, in case he needs anything.’
Faille recovered quickly, but he seemed drained of all initiative. Each day he told himself that to-morrow he must continue his journey; but each day found him sitting on the hotel verandah or in the shade of the lit tle park, and nearly every afternoon he sat for an hour in Miss Gaum’s garden; for once, in the early days of his convalescence, as he loitered outside her white picket fence, she had spoken to him and invited him to enter.
One evening, as Miss Gaum washed her hands at the pump, she said abruptly, ‘I believe mebby you better come up here and stay a week or two. You’d sleep better than in that stuffy hotel, and if you don’t mind lack of style, I could feed you as good as they do.’
Faille accepted without protest. He liked his big bare chamber, which held everything for his comfort but not a superfluous article. This was true of the whole house. It was the most orderly house he had ever seen — not the fussy orderliness that Amelia had loved to maintain. He remembered two enormous Dresden vases, with elaborate ornamental flowers and figures upon them, that had decorated Amelia’s mantel. She had never allowed anyone but herself to touch them, and she used to spend hours cleaning them, wrapping an orange-wood stick with cotton and poking it into every crevice and cranny, rinsing them with hot soapsuds, and drying them with little wads of tissue paper and soft towels. ‘It’s the hot soapsuds rinse that gives them the lustre’ she would explain earnestly as she lifted them back into their places.
After Faille went to Miss Gaum’s to stay, he spent nearly every waking hour in her garden. All of his childhood had been spent in or near the country, and during the past two years he had lived for weeks at a time in the vast silences of mountains with snowcapped peaks, rushing cascades, and hidden pools; he had tramped through still dark forests, and had watched the stars wheel through the sky as he lay on the desert sands; but in this little Kansas garden he seemed to touch, for the first time in his life, the spiritual essence of Nature.
But he was not idle, for very soon he began to help with the work. He liked to gather and sort the vegetables for market, and to pump water into the little irrigating ditches Miss Gaum had devised. He could hardly wait for the day they were to pick apples in the orchard, which grew on an up-climbing hill back of the house. And as he worked, he liked to watch Miss Gaum, reaching, bending, lifting; she would walk straight up a ladder as if she were mounting the steps of her house; he had never seen such perfect motor-control or such lack of self-consciousness. He often wondered about her. There were days at a time when she scarcely spoke, days when her dark sunken eyes held a still, controlled despair that aroused his speculation and conjecture. She never asked him questions about himself, and when he spoke of his travels, she listened attentively but without comment. It was when he ventured some opinion of abstract, human significance that she startled him with her instant comprehension, with some comment so wise, so penetrating, that he wondered what form Fate had chosen for her to break herself against.
It was the day they were picking apples that Faille put the question to her.
‘What do you think about?’ he asked. ‘I have the feeling that you are always thinking — not about apples or garden truck, but — something,’ he ended vaguely.
She gave him a keen glance, and it seemed to him that her face grew gray and bleak as she picked up a basket; and as she walked away, she replied, briefly, ‘The dead.’
For a moment Faille felt dizzy, as if he had been walking along in safety and had suddenly come to the edge of an abyss. For days he had n’t thought of Amelia, but instantly the whole green garden was invaded by her mournful eyes; her sad, far-away voice.
He turned and stumbled into the house.
That evening, after supper, Miss Gaum lighted a fire on the hearth. ‘Winter will be here before we know it,’ she said, as she added twisted wisps of paper to the blaze. ‘You’d better warm a while before you go upstairs; and anyway,’ — she rose brusquely from her stooping posture, — ‘I guess it’s about time you and me had a talk. You say you been watching me think; well, I been watching you too, and if you want to, you can tell me about it.’
And with this queer invitation. Faille poured out his story. He told it without reticence or reserve, as if he were thinking aloud. ‘It does n’t sound like much, as I tell it,’ he finished; ‘not enough to send me around the world, but I can’t get away — it dogs my footsteps everywhere. Other men could fill up their lives — marry again,’— he stammered a little, — ‘but there’s a morbid weakness in me. I’m not poor, you know, and I ought to do some big work in the world, but — ’ he finished helplessly.
‘You might’s well go back wherever it is you live,’ Miss Gaum replied after a long pause. ‘I guess you and me are prisoners, in for a life term.’ She smiled a distant, mirthless, inscrutable smile. ‘But then, far’s that’s concerned, I suppose we’re all prisoners to something or other; nobody really escapes, not even those men that marry again and fill up their lives. If it ain’t a dead person, it’s something we’ve done ourselves that’s our jailer.’
‘ But does one have to submit to the tyranny of the dead — of the past?’ he protested.
‘Well, it’s there, ain’t it?’ she asked. ‘I suppose it was my answering you the way I did this afternoon that’s set you off this way. I do think about the dead a good deal, but I guess I think more about that truck-garden, and whether I’m going to keep the blight out of my orchard, than I realized. But I been thinking about you too lately, thinking you better not be hanging around here much longer. You’re in good health. I watched you lift them barrels yesterday; you could n’t have budged them three weeks ago. You said something about Boston once; I guess that’s your home, is n’t it?’ And as Faille nodded silently, she continued in her toneless, musing voice: ‘I been to Boston lots of times, and I should think it’d be a nice place for an educated man like you to live. You see I was n’t born out here. You’d never be able to guess where I was born, so I’ll tell you — under a tent-top’; and at Faille’s interested glance, she nodded slowly. ‘I suppose you never heard of the Gaum family of trapeze performers?’ At his negative sign she smiled dimly. ‘You would n’t, but for three generations our family was one of the best known in the circus world. All of my brothers and sisters were born within smell of the tan-bark, and our father and mother began training us before we left the cradle. I was only four years old the first time they took me up on the swings for a public performance. It’s a rough, hard life, but not the way people on the outside think. You have to work like a slave, and you’d better believe there isn’t much dissipating among the acrobats and trapeze performers, when not only their jobs, but their lives, depend upon a clear brain and steady nerves.
‘When I was eighteen my mother died; my father was beginning to get old, and suddenly the family seemed to break up. One sister married and left the circus, another went with Sells Brothers, two of the boys went on a vaudeville circuit, but father and I stuck. At that time he was one of the ring-masters and helped train the young performers. Pretty soon I had a working partner, Joe Capello. Joe was a Castilian, a handsome fellow with plenty of nerve, but there was something funny about him too — “Jumpy,” they used to call him. He was easily affected by the weather, and sometimes, before we’d ever been out in the ring, he’d say restlessly, “This audience don’t feel good”; and sure enough, those were the days we could n’t get any enthusiasm into them. Well, as so often happens in that sort of teamwork, Joe and I fell in love.’ There was not a tremor of emotion in Miss Gaum’s voice as she continued. ‘ But our lovemaking never interfered with our work. As a matter of fact, I always had a queer feeling as soon as I went up the rope — as if I was n’t there. Kinda like a machine — I forgot I had a will of my own.’ She paused over the inadequacy of words to express her meaning.
‘ I suppose all artists have that peculiar, impersonal motor-control; that sense of acting without their own volition,’ Faille suggested.
‘Yes, I guess so, but I don’t know just what some of them big words mean.’ She smiled faintly. ‘But anyway, it seemed as if Joe knew what I was going to do before t he thought was fully formed in my mind. I was so sure of him that I nev er hesitated to do anything he told me to. Out I would fly through space, as sure of those strong hands as I am of reaching an apple on one of those trees in the orchard. Like all people of his race, Joe had a bad temper, was often jealous and unreasonable; but circus people are used to that sort of thing, and some way we don’t make as much of it as people do who are shut up in houses.
‘ We had one act that I don’t believe has ever been excelled. We called it the Leap of Death, and we practised a year and a half before we gave it at a performance, and then, if you’ll believe it, we did it too well, or at least, it looked too easy; anyway, we did n’t get a handclap. My father fixed up a lot of business to make it look more difficult and dangerous than it really was, and we took more time to work up to our climax. Well, it made a hit then—the audience went wild. Joe loved that. I can see him now, bowing and smiling and kissing his hands and swaggering as we left the tent.
‘One night we quarreled. It was n’t over a woman — just some silly thing I’d be ashamed to tell you. But Joe was so unreasonable, he said such outrageous things, that I got mad too — a thing I seldom did. I hated him. I hate him now when I think of it,’ she said quietly. ‘ I could n’t sleep all night, and the next morning when he began nagging at me, I felt as if I could kill him where he stood.
‘The Leap of Death was one of those acts that require every ounce of nerve and concentration that one can bring to bear; a slip of a hair’s breadt h, a miscalculation of a fraction of a second, would mean a bad spill, although there was n’t much real danger, as my father never let us go up without the net. We stood on lit tle platforms at the very top of opposite sides of the tent; and that day as I watched Joe bowing and scraping and showing his big white teeth to the audience below, an evil thought leaped into my brain. Suppose I missed him and he went bouncing into the net below — it would take that vain grin off his face fast, enough, and no one would ever know. Suddenly I saw Joe staring at me, and it seemed to me that his face went white. “Is he sick?” I thought swiftly; but just then my father blew his whistle and I forgot everything but the act. Out, out I swung, and Joe swept past me; back again, I fell, hanging by my knees, and as Joe’s trapeze reached the tent-top for the third time, I tensed my muscles to catch him as he leaped on the downward sweep. Then my heart seemed to plunge clean out of my body; I gave a terrified lunge, reaching, clutching at emptiness. Joe had leaped a second too soon, and as I grabbed wildly for the rope, I caught a glimmer of his desperate, accusing eyes as he crashed into and through the net.’
For a long time there was silence in the room, and the only movement was the soft dropping of the ash from the calcined wood on the hearth, which fluttered down in snowy heaps, like lit tle white graves.
‘He read your mind?’ Faille asked, in a tense voice.
‘Yes, he always could. Clairvoyant, they used to call him,’ she answered sombrely. ‘But that time he read the impulse of an angry woman, and failed to follow the mind of the artist. Well, his neck was broken by the fall, but no one ever suspected a thing. But as for that, what was there to suspect? Accidents happen in the circus, but not as often as you’d think, considering the risks we take; and if anyone was to blame, it was the management, for using a rotten rope-stake.’
‘And then you left the circus?' Faille prompted, after another pause.
‘Not at once,’ she replied. ‘My nerve was n’t shaken, at least, not when I was performing, those things become almost automatic. But for a long time I never lay down at night but I’d see Joe’s eyes staring at me — sometimes they were laughing eyes, teasing, tender, but mostly they were filled with a terrible, haunting reproach. Sometimes I see them even yet.’
‘I know,’ Faille shivered, as he bent and stirred the coals to blaze.
‘Well, all at once,’ she continued, ‘I began to have a curious dislike for everything about the circus — the gossiping people, the smells of animals, tarpaulin, tan-bark. I hated the jolting trains, the noisy street parades. And just at that time my father died and left an insurance policy of five t housand dollars.
‘ I had n’t been out here for years, but we used to make it winter-quarters when I was a child, and I’d always remembered the place because one winter we’d taken a little house at the edge of town, as some of the children were sick and my mother wanted to get us away from the quarters.
‘Of course, they all thought I was crazy. I was young and making good money. I came from circus people, and I knew nothing of life outside the circus. I guess I ran away, same as you did.’
Faille sat looking at Miss Gaum as she bent forward in profile. Her heavy low-heeled shoes showed beneath the hem of her faded print gown, and her work-worn hands lay folded in her lap. He tried to visualize her in the trappings of her gay and tragic past. All impulsive forces seemed gone; all desires, urgencies. There was something immutable and fatelike in her pose and the dark immobility of her face. Suddenly he felt his heart beating quickly, and he reached out and touched her arm.
‘And do you forget sometimes — out there in your garden?’ he asked breathlessly.
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘But when I’m out there it does n’t seem to make much difference — not about Joe, nor you, nor me, nor anybody. You ’ll know what I mean wh en you get to work. ’
‘But how — how can I have a garden on a city lot?’ Faille demanded with childish literalism.
‘That’s a funny thing. I don’t believe it makes any difference where t he garden is — nor whether it is large or small. You can do a lot with a little space.’
‘And I’ll be able to get away — ' he persisted.
‘No.’ There was a hint of impatience in her voice. ‘It’ll always be there. I don’t know’s you’ll want to get away. You’re one of that kind; so’m I; but we can’t help that, can we?’
‘No, I don’t suppose we can,’ he agreed soberly.
‘Well, then we got to learn to live with it; after a time, when your garden gets growing, the thing doesn’t seem very important: it’s unreal — kind of interesting, like something you might read in a book,’ she finished wit h the first hint of awkwardness.
‘You know,’ — she rose and laid her hand for a moment on his shoulder, — ‘it — it don’t even have to be a garden. I reckon there’s plenty of other things you could do.’
In the morning Faille walked up to the hotel and ordered the bus to call for him and his traps the next day.
Leavin’ town?' the clerk inquired with easy familiarity. ‘Well, it seems to have agreed with you out here.’
‘Yes,’ Faille replied, ‘but it’s time I was getting on my way.’
‘Gee, I envy you. I thought I was goin’ to get away before this; but nothin’ good, bad, or indifferent ever happened to anybody in this burg. Goin’ West, ain’t you?’
‘No,’ Faille replied good-naturedly; ‘I’m returning to my home in Boston.’
‘Good-night!’ the boy exclaimed. ‘We didn’t know but you was goin’ in the truckin’ business with old lady Gaum. Heard you been helpin’ her with her garden.’
‘Well, I may make a garden when I get home,’ Faille smiled; ‘or perhaps I shall write a story about one.’
‘That so?’ the boy gave him an interested glance. ‘They tell me there is n’t much money in literchure since the war, but it’s absorbin’. I don’t suppose you noticed them bus signs advertisin’ the hotel? I wrote ’em, and honestly, I was dead to the world while I was doin’ it. Funny thing, too, — I had an ulcerated tooth at the time.’
Faille broke into a sudden hearty laugh. ‘Did you forget about the tooth?’ he demanded.
‘Say,’ — the boy regarded him tolerantly, — ‘I guess you never had an ulcerated tooth. No, I didn’t forget about it, but it did n’t seem to matter
— at least not so much.’
Faille walked slowly over into the little park. The leaves of the trees had taken on the sandal and saffron tints of October, and the vine that festooned the bandstand hung in handfuls of russet lace. The air was filled with tender autumn mists, and once or twice a passer-by nodded him a friendly greeting. He seated himself on one of the benches, and sat idly watching a skinny old man who was digging up the turf at one side of the path, turning it under with vigorous slaps and prods of his spade. Presently the old man straightened up and, catching Faille’s eye, gave him a friendly, toothless smile. ‘Pity they don’t plough up the hull place,’ he remarked; ‘the grass is deader’n a doornail, but if they’d jest plough it under, it’d be fine fer next year’s crop.’
Faille was a fairly well-read man, but it happened that he had never read Voltaire’s immortal handbook of philosophy, and for a long time he sat thinking of all the dead hopes and dreams, the failures and experiences, that are being ploughed under all over the world, ploughed under to strengthen the new crop. And with a sudden sense of revelation, he thought of Amelia with her Sunday-School class, her Dresden vases, and the interminable shawls t hat she had knitt ed. ‘She was n’t nearly as unhappy as I thought she was — and how much wiser than I,’ he mused with whimsical tenderness. ‘Those things were her garden, poor dear.’