by Leslie Burton Blades
THE BLIND LOVE OF A BLIND HERO
BY A BLIND AUTHOR
[Transcriber's Note: This novel was originally serialized in four installments in All-Story Weekly magazine from October 5, 1918, to October 26, 1918. The original breaks in the serial have been retained, but summaries of previous events preceding the second and third installments have been moved to the end of this e-book. The Table of Contents which follows the introduction was created for this electronic edition.]
On the editorial page of last week's ALL-STORY WEEKLY we announced a new serial by a new author. "Claire" is a story of such subtle insight, of so compassionate an understanding of human nature, and of so honest an attack on the eternal problem of love and living, that it can well afford to take its chances on its own merits. But Lawrence Gordon, the blind hero of the triangle tragedy, which runs its inevitable course in the mountain cabin of Philip Ortez, takes on a new interest, when we learn that his creator is himself a blind man.
Born of mining people in Colorado, Blades lost two fingers and the sight of both eyes when as a lad of nine years he refused to take the dare of some playmates and set off a giant firecracker. While still a youth he entered the Colorado State School for the Blind. Here he spent six years. In the crash at Creede, when the bottom fell out of so many mining fortunes, the Blades family lost their all. Then young Blades took up the burden of his own keep. For two successful years he maintained himself at the University of Colorado by teaching music. When the family moved to Oregon, the indomitable Leslie followed. At Eugene he entered the State University and continued to support himself by music and lectures. After receiving his degrees of B.A. and M.A. he was a substitute teacher in the English Department.
For some time he has made his home at San Dimas, where his regular contributions on a variety of themes to the magazine section of The Express have brought him something more than local prestige. He is deeply interested in the drama, and has several plays to his credit. "When He Came Home," a play of his dealing with the return of a blind soldier from the war, has become a favorite with one of the California circuits.
"Claire" is his first novel, and though he is still on the sunny side of thirty, this arresting story is a promising portent of what we may expect from the powerful pen of this blind man with an artist's vision.—THE EDITOR.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. DISASTER. 256 II. THE WATER OF LIFE. 260 III. THE WAY OF THE PRIMITIVE. 262 IV. MUTUAL DISLIKE. 266 V. THE FACE OF DEATH. 269 VI. THE STONE THREAT. 274 VII. PLAYING WITH FIRE. 498 VIII. THE TIGHTENING NET. 501 IX. CLAIRE'S ABASEMENT. 505 X. HOW SIMPLE THE SOLUTION! 509 XI. THE MAKING OF A KNIGHT ERRANT. 513 XII. THE UNHORSING OF A KNIGHT ERRANT. 697 XIII. FAINT HEART AND FAIR LADY. 702 XIV. PHILIP TO THE RESCUE. 706 XV. UTTER EXHAUSTION. 711 XVI. THE QUESTION ANSWERED. 714 XVII. ANGLES OF A TRIANGLE. 151 XVIII. THE ROMANTIC REALIST. 155 XIX. THE LAST DISCUSSION. 160 XX. THE LAW OF LIFE. 164 XXI. INTO THE SUNLIGHT. 168
In the confusion Lawrence stood still. Over the howling wind and smashing sea, he heard thin voices shouting orders. Another mass of water swept over the deck. Near him a woman screamed piteously. Instinctively, the masculine desire to protect womanhood made him ache to help her, but he bit his lip and clung to the rail. If he could only see! Never before in his five years of blindness had he felt the full horror of it. He had taught himself to forget his loss of sight. It is useless to waste time in sentimental moping, he would say, but now—
"God, when will it end?" he muttered savagely.
The City of Panama lurched back and forth like a rocking-horse. Somewhere forward they must be lowering the boats. He stumbled along the deck, holding to the rail for support. The spray dashed in his face, and he could feel the water from his hair trickling into his ears. He shook his head and laughed grimly, but he could not hear his own laughter. The terrific noise of the wind drowned everything else. It became increasingly difficult to keep his hold on the rail. He was wet to the waist. Each time the wave struck him higher, and he noticed that the lurching grew heavier. He was strong, six feet of hard muscle, but the water was stronger. His mouth was filled with it, and his ears seemed bursting. His rugged features twisted into hard lines. As he struggled forward, he raged at the blindness that kept him from seeing.
"Not a chance, not a chance," he repeated over and over, as he strained to hold the deck. There was a lull in the wind, and he marveled at the absence of human sound. Suddenly he divined the cause. His mind became a chaos of rage and fear.
"They have left me," he cried; "left me without a thought." He shut his teeth hard, then ducked as another heavy beating weight of water crashed over him. It seemed it would never lift and leave him free to breathe. His arms and feet no longer seemed a part of him. He wondered if the vessel were under the surface, and nerved himself to let go. But he could not. The rail was his only hope of life. Slowly the water began to draw his fingers away from it. The next surge sent his body out—somewhere. He struck forward with both hands and kicked his feet mechanically. Was it the roar of the wind or the weight of the water itself that beat into his ears? The sudden pain in his lungs, told him that he had reached the surface. How good the air felt! Shaking the water out of his ears, he listened. Nothing but the wind was audible.
It seemed to him that he had been swimming for hours in the icy waves. Events on the ship, the shock of the boiler explosion, the rush for the deck, all seemed to have happened long ago.
"If I could only see," he thought, "I might find the ship again." It occurred to him that he might be swimming in a circle, and he resolved to keep in one direction, but how? He remembered that he had always tended to swim to the left, so he increased his right-arm stroke. Suddenly a heavy timber struck him. He gasped with pain, and sank under the surface. When he came up, his hand struck the same piece of wood. With a desperate effort, he dragged himself up on it, twisting his arms and legs about it to maintain his hold.
The water, swirled by the wind, lashed him as he lay on the timber. "Land may be within sight," he thought, "and I shall never know." His fear and the cold began to work upon his imagination. He had a clear mental picture of a sandy beach backed with trees. He felt sure he was being carried past it into the open sea.
Hours passed. He began to rave at the water, at life, at everything. Mixed, tangled masses of images heaped themselves in utter disorder in his brain: passages of verse, bits of his trained laboratory jargon, phrases from half-forgotten books, the delicate curves of the Water Sprite at the exposition, and, above all, a fierce gnawing pain in his side.
Over the roar of the wind he heard something else. Was it the tumbling of breakers? He listened, then concluded that it was his imagination. But they came nearer, louder; he sat up on his plank, his nerves tense. The board lurched sidewise, spurn around, and the swell it was riding broke over him with a force that knocked him from his position. Over and over he rolled, until, almost unconscious, he felt his body dragging along the sand. The undertow was pulling at him. He fought furiously, digging his hands into the sand, and clawing desperately up the steep sloping beach. The next breaker caught him and rolled him past the water-line. He scrambled to his feet, and ran shakily ahead, neither knowing nor caring what was before him.
Behind him he heard the water sweeping in. He was out of its reach, but still he ran. A rock caught him above the knees and sent him headlong into the sand. He became unconscious, and lay still, half doubled up.
When he recovered consciousness and sat up, a fierce sun was beating down upon him. His head ached, and he was hungry. "There may be people within call," he thought. Rising unsteadily, the soreness of his muscles coming home to him, he gave a prolonged "Hello-o." A faint echo was his answer. He formed a trumpet of his hands and shouted louder. The echo came back stronger. "Only cliffs," he concluded.
The gnaw of hunger increased. "Clams are my best chance," he reasoned, and, turning, he groped his way to the water. When the incoming breakers washed his knees, he stopped. The intense dread that his experience had given him was crying retreat, but he stood his ground. Stooping over, he began digging in the sand. His cut and bleeding hands burned with the salt water, but he dug steadily, moving rapidly along the beach. At last his fingers turned up a round, ridged object. Feeling the edge of it he knew that he had found what he sought. He wanted to eat the clam at once, but reluctantly dropped it into his pocket, and went on digging.
When he had filled his pocket he straightened up and started toward the shore. As he waded through the last shallow wash of the wave, his foot caught in something soft, and he fell. He rose, and then on second thought stooped to feel what had tripped him. His hand touched a mass of wet, tangled hair. He jerked it back hurriedly and screamed. The strain he had been under was telling. Nerving himself, he reached again, and touched a face.
"A woman! Another human being! Thank God!"
Then he clutched his throat in desperation. She might be dead. He stooped and dragged the body up on the sand. He was afraid to find out if she were dead or alive, and sat beside her, timidly touching her hair.
"Fool!" he muttered at last. "If she is not dead, she soon will be." He leaned over, listening for her breathing. At first there was only the sound of the waves, then he heard her breathing come faintly. He took off his coat, emptied out the clams, and dipped it in the ocean. Coming back, he wrung it out over her face. He knelt beside her, and rubbed her arms and throat.
His hands were his trained observers. As he worked over her, they gave him a detailed picture which sank deep into his memory. She was splendidly made. His fingers caught the delicate curve of her throat and shoulders. Her skin was satin to his touch. He knew that the fine hair, the smooth skin, the curve and grace of her body belonged to a beautiful woman.
Taking her arms, he worked them vigorously. When he was beginning to despair, she coughed, moaned a little, and turned over on her side.
He wondered if she had her eyes open. He dared not feel to see, and sat silent, anxious, waiting for her to speak.
It seemed to him that eternity passed before she murmured, "Oh, oh! Where am I?"
"I do thank God," he exclaimed earnestly.
"Where am I?" she repeated as she sat up.
"I do not know," he answered. "Presumably somewhere on the coast of Chile." Her eyes opened very wide and gazed at him as she said, "Are we the only ones?"
"I cannot tell," he replied, smiling a little. "I am blind, you see."
"Yes, I know," she said softly. "I saw you on shipboard."
"The first consciousness I had of you," he continued, "was when I stumbled over you while getting my breakfast."
"Breakfast? Where is it?"
He laid one hand on the pile of clams. She looked down at them, and burst out laughing, uncontrollably.
"It is not much," he said, "but we primitive people are simple in our needs. I worked to get them, goodness knows."
She was looking around her, twisting her long brown hair in her hands. At last she shuddered. "It's desperately lonely. Nothing but sea and mountains. I'm afraid I can't walk," she said.
"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Can't walk?"
She turned toward him, smiling faintly. "I was struck when I washed overboard, and my ankle, I think, is broken. I am sorry," she added.
Her tone was slightly apologetic, and he laughed nervously. "Oh, that's all right," he said, assuringly, then stammered, "I mean—" He hesitated, and she laughed.
"I mean that we can get along," he continued, stubbornly. "Heaven knows I am sorry. But you can't realize what it means to have some one near you who can see."
She did not answer for a minute, then said quietly: "Shall we breakfast before beginning anything else?"
He reached in his pocket for his penknife. It was gone. The blank expression of disgust on his face made her ask: "What is it?"
"My knife," he said. "It is gone."
They sat opposite each other, the clams between them. Each followed a different trend of ideas. He was raging at this last mishap, and considering means of opening the clams. She was conjecturing over the fate of the City of Panama and wondering what she could do, alone here with this blind man. Her night-gown and a heavy skirt had been all she had worn when she had rushed on deck in the night. She looked around her at the rocks and thought how foolish she had been to leave her shoes.
At last he rose and began to grope back along the beach.
Noticing that his hands were torn and bleeding, she said, hastily: "Don't do that. What are you looking for, anyway?"
"Stones," he answered, stopping.
"I will direct you," she to him. "Left—right—a little ahead now." Guided by her, he moved until his hand touched a small stone. He found two of them and came back to her side.
She watched him while he tried to break a clam-shell between the two rocks. "Let me," she said, taking hold of one of them. "Your hands are too badly cut." He hesitated.
"Please," she said. "I can at least do the woman's part and prepare the meal. Especially when you bring it to me."
He laughed and gave up the stones.
"I am desperately thirsty," she said, breaking open the shells.
"I feel as though my tongue were swelling fast," he admitted.
They dug the tiny clams from the shells, and ate for a few minutes in silence, then she said: "I can't go any more of them."
He wondered if she were not hungry, but said nothing. After eating a few more, he understood. Then he, too, stopped.
"I've got to find water," he said. He waited for her to speak.
At last she said: "I can see nothing that might indicate fresh water. Where will you go?"
"Up the beach, I suppose."
"There are mountains up the beach, and back of us, too. You could never find your way out." Her tone was despairing.
"True," he admitted.
There was a long pause. Then she said slowly: "It seems to be your only hope, doesn't it? Well, I guess you had better go. God bless you!" she concluded as though it were her last word.
Suddenly it occurred to him that he had been thinking and talking of himself alone. The idea of parting from this woman who could see, whom it seemed to him he had found as his own means of salvation, immediately became impossible.
"I am going to take you with me," he stated quietly.
"You forget," she said, "I cannot walk."
He had forgotten it for the moment. Now it filled him with new terror. He laid his hand on hers. "I can't help it," he said finally, "I can't leave you. I will carry you."
"Oh, no!" Her protest was genuine.
He felt her fear that she would hamper him. "Don't be foolish," he said as though he had known her for years, "I am not being gallant. This is not a time for gallantry. I am simply being sensible. You can't sit here, can you?"
"I can't help myself, can I? I can't walk."
"I can help it," he retorted.
"It would simply make your chance of escape impossible," she argued. "It is preposterous. Why should you? Your life is worth to you as much as mine is to me. I know what that means. I would not stay here if I could help it. I would not sacrifice my life for yours. Neither shall you sacrifice yours for mine."
"See here," he demanded, "who are you and where did you get that attitude toward life?"
It was one he knew. It was the hard, relentless theory of the struggle of animal survival which his thinking in college had led him to accept. There was in it no touch of duty, no sense of obligation, and very little pity. He had called himself a hard materialist, and had never lived up to his theory. Now here beside him in this outlandish situation was a woman quietly arguing his own philosophy of life to him against herself.
She laughed. "It's my way of thinking, and I mean it," she said, twisting her hair up on her head. "I got it out of four years of thought and reading in a college, and I do not thank the college for it. I find it very inconvenient, but it is my belief. I have tried to live by it."
"So is it mine," he said, "and I mean to live by it."
"Very well," she answered. "That aggressive tone against me is not necessary. Go ahead and get through if you can. Good-by, my friend."
"I'm afraid you do not understand," he answered her steadily. "I want to live. To do it, you are necessary to me. I need your eyes. Very well, whether you like it or not, you are going with me."
He rose quickly, and stretched his muscles. His head ached, his whole being cried for water. He knew he could not carry her far, but without her he was powerless.
"Suppose," she suggested, her eyes flashing from hazel to deep-brown, "suppose you do take me. Have you any assurance that my eyes will serve you rightly?"
"Your own life, which is pleasant to you, will depend upon your eyes serving me rightly," he said coldly, as he stooped over her.
She laid a restraining hand on his arm. "And in the long days that we may have to go on together, what will you do in return for my eyes?"
"Carry you," he answered.
"Very well, but there are two things you must know," she said quietly. "First, that I am married; second, that I am quite as steadfast in my belief as I said. If you make one single attempt to establish more than a frank comradeship, based on mutual support in our unforeseen partnership, my eyes will serve you falsely."
He laughed a little as he picked her up. She gasped with pain.
"I can't help hurting you," he said gently.
"It's all right," she answered, putting her arm around his neck so that he might the more easily bear her. "We are off on our great adventure. The halt and the blind! Such a mad pair!"
He smiled, and started slowly up the beach.
"I shall have to develop a system of one word guides," she mused.
"Left—right—slow—ahead—all right—and so on," he admitted.
Suddenly she laughed out merrily. "My friend, a stranger pilgrimage the world never knew. What is your name?"
"Lawrence," he said.
"Mine," she answered, "is Claire. Go a little to the left."
He turned slightly, and plodded through the sand.
THE WATER OF LIFE.
Still exhausted from his recent battle with the waves, Lawrence was not in the best condition for this new struggle. Before he had gone far, he was forced to rest. He lowered Claire to the ground carefully and dropped beside her. His effort in carrying her had made him breathe hard, the sun was beating down on them, and his throat was dry and parched. Speaking was becoming difficult.
"If we don't find water soon, we're ended," he managed to say.
"I'm afraid we are," she admitted. "Do you know, Lawrence, you shouldn't try to carry me. I weigh over a hundred and thirty pounds. That is too much for any man. Without me, you might make it, even though you couldn't travel so steadily ahead."
"Perhaps," he agreed. "I've thought of that. But, you see, I would have to feel my way. At best I'd get a lot of falls. I might walk off a precipice. That doesn't appeal to me, now that I've set myself to winning."
"And yet you are almost certain to wear yourself out to no purpose if you carry me," she repeated. "If you could do it and get me through, I'd never stop you. I've a husband in America who loves me, and I want to get back to him, but you aren't equal to it. I see no advantage in dying a mile or ten miles inland. For one's grave, this is as good a place as any."
She spoke of dying in a matter-of-fact way that made him feel strange, though he thought of it in exactly the same way himself. He believed that he was a mere animal and that death was a mere cessation of energy. "I wonder if she feels just as I do about it," he pondered. "Perhaps not. But it can't matter anyway. Here we are, and death does seem fairly certain."
He was breathing more regularly now, though his throat burned and his tongue stuck to his mouth disagreeably.
"We'd better be moving," he said, rising with an effort.
"As you please," she assented.
Then, as he lifted her: "My ankle is swollen dreadfully. If we could find water, I'd bathe it and put a stick splint on it."
He did not answer. Silence fell between them while he plodded ahead. They started up the mountainside, and the way became increasingly difficult. There was a dense undergrowth through which he was compelled to shove his feet. There were rocks which she could not see, down which he was constantly slipping. Her directions barely kept him from bumping into the trees that grew closer and closer together. Occasionally she pushed a branch aside from before him, and laughed as he stooped to pass under, throwing her forward so that she had to cling to his neck to keep her position.
On and on he forced his way, his teeth clenched, his breath broken by the strain. She made herself as easy to carry as she could, but beyond that she showed no sign of sympathy. Again and again he was obliged to stop and put her down while he rested. His head was throbbing frightfully. He gave up trying to talk.
During one of their frequent rests she had asked him quietly, her eyes filled with a soft, calculative haze: "How much are you good for, Lawrence?"
He had answered: "Till we find water." She had laughed a little at that, and it had sounded unpleasant to him.
Now she said again: "You don't face facts, do you?" He made no answer.
She continued: "It's strange how we humans are always so overdetermined. One ought to know by the time he is grown that he is a puppet in the hands of circumstance. Now I go on hoping that you can carry me out to life and my husband, and you plod determinedly on as if you were really able to do it. Of course, you may, but it is entirely dependent upon outside things."
He was too tired to answer, even to think. Besides, that was exactly his view of the situation.
"You see," she went on, "here we are, two distinct groups of living cells, each loving life and wanting it. Our pasts have been very different, our futures would have been; but here we are. I am resentful, because you are blind, because you are not stronger, because I cannot walk. You are probably resenting the same things. Perhaps you resent my saying what I do. You want me to reassure you and to promise success. If I did, you would know in your real mind that I was lying to you for the sake of getting you to do more. Yet both of us would feel happier if I could do it. I can't."
He stood up and took her in his arms without a word.
"We are going a few yards farther," she laughed. "Well, if ever any animal deserved life, you do."
He bit his lip and climbed on up the hill. In his mind he was saying over and over: "Just a mere intellect, nothing more. That's all she is." Yet in his arms she felt very feminine. The sense of her body so close to him seemed strangely out of keeping with her talk.
He remembered a few other women of her type; he wondered what the end of their daily association would be. Then gradually his thinking ceased to be clear. His thirst more and more wove itself into his consciousness until his mind was a blurred fantasmagoria, in which, repeating itself over and over in the midst of strange ideas, would come the flashing sound of unattainable water. He did not talk, he did not think. Through the trees he wound his way with the grim determination of a beast fighting against death.
The sun passed its zenith and sank slowly. It grew cooler in the forest through which he lurched, but he was hardly aware of it. Claire, too, was rapidly losing control over herself. She had ceased to talk, save to utter dull, monosyllabic commands to him. The pain from her ankle and her own thirst were blending into a dizzying maze of torture.
As darkness settled over the forest, she grew afraid. Ordinarily it would have been a delight to her, here among the trees, but now the shadowing night filled her with ideas of horror. She forgot her theories, and clung to him so that he was the more hampered. She grew afraid lest he should drop her, lest he should give up the fight, and with that came an overwhelming desire to urge him on. She thought of wild tales that she might tell to spur his faltering strength. At first she resisted, then as her desire for life grew within her, she began to lie to him. "It isn't far, just a little way to water," she whispered.
He struggled unsteadily forward. They had passed the top of the ridge and were descending the other side. He was scarcely aware of his own motion. He did not hear her directions, and stumbled against the trees. When her ankle struck a bough, she realized in a flash of pain that he was not listening to her. Then she felt him sinking down.
Gripping his shoulder, she shouted: "Go on! Water ahead!" He heard her, his mouth opened, and he gathered himself up to stumble a few steps farther through the darkness. They seemed to be deep in a wooded ravine. He staggered again and fell.
She was thrown violently forward, and flung out a hand to save herself. As she lay there, half-dazed, suddenly she felt her fingers grow cold and wet. Water! A small stream, no larger than that from a hydrant, was trickling over the rock.
Dragging herself to it, she drank greedily. She dipped her hands in it. She laughed joyously and splashed. For a few minutes she played like a child. Then she remembered Lawrence.
Lifting her hands full of water, she threw it on his face. His mouth was open, and a few drops fell upon his black tongue. She threw another handful, then took her skirt and, wetting it, wrung it into his mouth. He twisted over on his side and muttered: "Water."
She gave him more, and as he sat up, she said eagerly: "Here, Lawrence, here."
Taking his hand, she pulled him toward the stream. He drank ravenously, plunging his face and hands into the little line of water, making queer noises over it.
Claire began to grow cold, and her ankle pained her till she shook like a fevered person. He turned and sat up.
"You cold?" he managed to mutter.
She wanted to say "No," but her will was worn out. "Yes," she answered, "very cold."
He laughed a little guttural laugh as he drew off his coat. "Take it," he said, dropping it near her hand.
She took the coat and drew it on. Lawrence was drinking again from the stream. She listened to him for a time, as she lay there in the darkness, then gradually her suffering and the strain under which she had been, won the victory over her consciousness, and she heard no more.
He lay where he was, half unconscious. At last he began to feel the chill of the place and drew himself up toward Claire. She did not move. "We've got to do the best we can," he thought, and moved close to her so that their bodies might warm each other.
THE WAY OF THE PRIMITIVE.
Claire was the first to wake. She sat up and gazed around her. The morning sun was just breaking through a heavy fog that had drifted in from the ocean. Her clothes were damp, and she was chilled through, while her swollen and discolored ankle throbbed with steady pain. She looked down at the sleeping man beside her, and her forehead gathered in a little thoughtful frown. Then she looked around her again. Despite the knowledge of their desperate situation, she could not help noticing the beauty of the scene.
Great trees grew in massive profusion all about them. Heavy tropical moss hung from the branches and trailed its green mat over the stones. Birds were beginning to sing, their notes breaking the silence of the place in sharp thrills. Then she studied her companion. Finally, she laughed aloud.
"Lawrence," she said gaily.
He turned and sat up, yawning drowsily. "What is it?" he demanded.
"We are certainly the primitive pair."
"H-m, I suppose. Anyhow, I feel better for my sleep."
"It's beastly cold," returned Claire, "and my ankle is playing fits and jerks with me."
"We'll have to do something about it," he said earnestly. She did not answer.
"We can bind it up, I presume," he went on. "But it's a frightful inconvenience."
"Admitted," she said quickly. "It can't be helped, however."
"I'm very much for a fire," he suggested, as though he had not noticed the hints of hardness in her voice.
"Some twenty feet ahead is a flat rock. We might build one there. Have you matches?"
He shook his head. "We'll have to go it primeval."
"But I don't see how," she began.
"Never mind," he answered, with a malicious grin. "I do know some few things."
"Perhaps you also know how to find food when there isn't any," she retorted.
He rose without replying.
"Well," she continued, "I see plenty of roots and stuff. We may as well prepare to eat them. It's unbelievable that I should be here, and with you. It's a horrible nightmare, this being stranded and lame out here somewhere with a blind man."
He winced, but answered quietly: "I'm not especially charmed myself. I could prefer other things."
She looked at him and smiled. "Don't ever let me repeat those sentiments," she said, simply. "I'm sorry. Of course you aren't to blame, and I shouldn't have said that."
He stepped forward timidly. "Will you suggest the best means of finding dry wood?" he asked, as though the matter were forgotten.
She pursed her lips and looked around her. "This moss seems to be feet deep," she said at last. "You might dig up some that is dry, and with that as a starter you can add twigs."
He stopped and began to tear away the moss. His hands were stiff, but he worked rapidly and before long he had a heap of the brown, dry stuff from underneath.
She watched him silently. When he stopped, she said: "Straight to your left is the rock. Get the fire started. Then you can move the invalid."
He took the moss and felt his way to the rock, which was eight or ten feet square and practically flat, standing up almost a foot from the ground.
"Now, for a dry stick or two," he said, cheerily.
She directed him, and at last he found what he thought would do. Then began the age-old procedure of twisting a pointed stick between one's hands, the point resting on another piece of wood, until friction brought a flame. It was a long, hard experiment; several times he stopped to rest; but the consciousness of the skeptical expression he knew to be on her face sent him quickly back again to his task. At last the moss began to burn. True, it smoked much and flamed little, but he gathered twigs from the shrubs near by and in time had a good fire. Then he carried Claire to the rock and set her down beside it. She leaned her elbow on the edge and said, happily: "It's quite a success, Lawrence. I really feel as though we were progressing."
"Our woodcraft will doubtless improve with experience," he answered.
"Next, I guess we had better bathe your ankle," he observed, as though giving due care to the order of procedure.
"Very well," she replied.
At her suggestion he gathered moss and wet it in the tiny stream. She wound it about her ankle and held it tightly.
"Now the surgeon orders splints and bandages," she said.
He brought several sticks, and with a strip which she tore from the lining of his coat, she bound them fast.
"There," she said, sighing, for the pain was wearing. "That ought to help. I wonder what our distant grandparents did in such cases."
"Made the best of it," he said cheerfully. "Many of them died, I suppose."
"And we are back again at their game. Whether we can outwit the master strategist and survive, is at least interesting to try."
"In any event, we'll have to eat to do it," he said shortly.
She studied the greenery about her, meditatively. "It's probable that most any of these things are edible, but are they nourishing?"
"We'll try them. Which shall I get?" he asked.
"I hate to start in on roots or leaves. If we only had some berries!"
He got up determinedly. "I'll go down the ravine and hunt. If I get mixed in directions, I'll shout."
She watched him go, and when he had disappeared through the trees she felt strangely sadder and very much alone. She fell to wondering if he were really so necessary to her. Sooner or later would come the inevitable problem between them. Would he fall in love with her, and would she, in the days that they might be alone together, find his companionship growing into any really vital proportion in her life? That she, Claire Barkley, rich and independent, whose life had been selfish to a marked degree and who had never considered anything except from the point of view of vigor, perfection, or beauty, should ever love a blind man was incredible.
"No," she thought, "not even the closest of daily relationships with him could ever make me really care. He is not of my life." She wondered how much she would sacrifice for him if it were necessary in their pilgrimage toward civilization, and she answered herself, frankly: "No more than I must to maintain a balance in our forced business partnership." She knew that was all this meant to her.
From down the ravine she heard him shouting lustily, and she answered, her clear, rich voice waking pleasant echoes as she called. She waited for some time before he came. In his arms he carried a bundle of branches loaded with red berries, while in one hand was a clump of large mushrooms.
Claire watched him as he approached, and was surprised at the ease with which he walked. There was less hesitation in his stride than she had thought, and he came briskly through the trees, dodging as though by instinct.
When he reached the rock, it was characteristic of her that she said: "You came through those trees remarkably well."
He laughed. "I have an uncanny way of feeling things on my face before they touch me. I experimented somewhat with it in the laboratory at college. It's a sort of tropism, perhaps, such as bugs have, that enables them to keep between two planks or that turns plant-roots toward the sun. Anyway, I've brought some breakfast. These berries may be good, and these other things may be toadstools. I brought them along."
"How does one tell?" she asked.
"Oh, mushrooms are pink underneath and ribbed like a fan."
She examined them and said they might be mushrooms, they looked it. He sat down again, but not until he had replenished the fire.
"They may be poison, both of them," he hazarded. "That's our sporting chance. Will you try them?"
Claire took some of the berries and ate them. "I don't feel anything yet," she announced after a minute's solemn munching.
"Oh, you probably won't for several hours anyway," he said lightly. Then he continued: "If we could devise a way, we might heat water and cook the mushrooms. Then, too, I've been thinking we might even catch a bird."
"Neither sounds very simple."
"Nothing in life is simple," he replied. "At home, in America, where we leave food-getting to the farmer, dress from a store, and go to heaven by way of a minister, things are fairly well arranged, but here we aren't even sure of salvation unless we mind the business of thinking." He continued after a pause. "Of course, I don't especially remember that I counted on heaven. It always seemed a bit distant in the face of living and working. Perhaps, however, you counted it as vital."
"I was fairly occupied with more immediate things," she answered. "However, that is a different world from this. What we did then can't especially matter to us here. This is our place of business, so to speak, and social life doesn't factor."
"I see." He accepted the snub thoughtfully. "But this business of ours will grow exceedingly irksome without talk. I doubt if we can find the means of escape an all-sufficient topic."
"We haven't boiled our water yet," she said. "And the bird is still free to roam."
He did not carry on his line of thought aloud. If she had known what was going on in his mind, she might have been angered. He was wondering just how much thinking she was capable of. Certain that she was beautiful, he had scarcely allowed that to occupy him. His experience had led him to estimate people almost wholly by their ability to be open-minded. In his struggle against blindness, he had concluded that open minds were rare indeed, and persons who limited his freedom of action or tended to baby him he had grown to dismiss with a shrug. Claire did not belong to that class. "She has shown remarkable willingness to let me go my own pace," he thought, "but is this due to her mind or to mere indifference?" He decided at last that the relationship would be tiresome for both of them, and that she was not especially eager to prevent it from being so. This conclusion led him to adopt a definite attitude toward her. She could do as she pleased; he, for his part, would treat her simply as an uninteresting person, a machine that furnished the eyes which he could use in his travel to liberty.
He recalled how, when he had been displeased with convention, he had thought of life in the wild as the best possible means of liberty, and he laughed.
Claire looked up. "What is there amusing just now?"
"Myself, and you."
"Why, pray, am I amusing?" Then she was sorry she had said it.
"Because you are you."
"And are you other than yourself?" she asked scornfully.
"Not at all, but my own particular interests seem infinitely more important to me than there is any possibility of yours doing."
"You mean to say that you are an egotist."
"Frankly, I am," he agreed. "One is an egotist, I suppose, when he finds himself and his needs and whims essentially worth while. I'll admit I find mine so. Perhaps you feel the same about yours. One scarcely knows where egotism and vanity meet or end in a woman." He smiled, for he meant that to provoke, and it did.
Claire's voice was edged when she replied. "A very penetrating remark. With men generally, vanity seems to be a widely extended cloak to spread over all things in a woman that they cannot dispose of in any other way. If I find you dull, or if I am not struck with your ability, or if you do not seem to me sufficiently fascinating, I am possessed of feminine vanity."
"Precisely. And why not? If I choose to regard myself as all those things which you deny, why shouldn't I find the fault in you rather than in myself?"
"Because it may be in you," suggested Claire.
"It may, but that doesn't alter the case. I quite agree that you are right, but none the less you are at fault, because I, Lawrence, am the most important of all things to me."
She did not answer. The conversation seemed to her useless. She saw no reason for arguing the matter, and she half suspected that he was simply teasing her. Besides, she could not but feel that to sit here in his coat and discuss egotism was a trifle ridiculous. He was merely trying to establish a friendship in talk which she did not care to encourage. That was her conclusion.
As he rose to gather more sticks, he asked: "Do you happen to see a rock that flattens to an edge?"
Told where he might find one, he brought it and struck it hard against their boulder. It did not break. "It may do," he said thoughtfully, and began to grind it against the side of the other rock. He worked steadily and long, and the result was a fairly good edge, which was nicked and toothed, but still an edge. He laid it down with a sigh of contentment.
"My first tool," he commented.
All day Lawrence worked, and when night came he had hollowed out a piece of log to a depth of some eighteen inches, leaving six inches of solid wood in the bottom. Both were very well pleased with the result. With the coming of darkness, he gathered more berries, and heated water in his log kettle. They were able to cook the mushrooms and to bind her ankle in moss soaked in hot water. The building of a shelter was discussed, but both decided to resume their journey on the following day, so they slept again in the heavy moss.
In the morning, Claire was glad indeed of the hot water, for it warmed her, and her ankle felt much better. They decided to follow the little stream which would doubtless wind its way somehow around the present ridge back to the ocean. Accordingly, they kept down the ravine, which cut across the ridge in a southerly direction.
For the whole of that day and the next they followed the stream, which grew to a small creek. At noon of the third day they dropped suddenly down a steep slope to find themselves at the juncture of their stream, with a river which flowed through a deep gorge out to the ocean. They determined to follow it up toward its head.
"Somewhere inland must be a town," argued Claire. "At any rate, it's the only way we can go."
After living for four days on berries, they were beginning to feel acutely the need of other food, but they discussed the problem at length without arriving at any feasible solution. Two days later fortune temporarily relieved their difficulty.
They were following along the side of a steep ridge overlooking the river, when Claire suddenly stopped him and gave a cry of delight. Near them a small, furry animal, caught in a tangled mass of wirelike creepers, was struggling to free itself. He killed the creature with his stone-edged tool, and after barbecuing it on the end of a stick, they ate it ravenously. Each of them would have disliked the whole scene at any other time, but now neither thought anything of it until after they were satisfied.
Leaning back against a rock, Lawrence stroked his chin, rapidly becoming invisible under a heavy beard. "I hadn't known I was so hungry for real food," he laughed.
Brown as a gipsy, her hair filled with tiny green leaves, Claire looked at him, her eyes shining with the warm light of satisfied hunger. "We ate like two beasts," she remarked languidly, and laughed. "It was simply disgraceful."
"I know," he began to muse, "it doesn't take long for the most polished man—not that I ever was that—to become a savage."
"You look the part," she laughed. "I suppose I do, too. My hair is matted hopelessly; the curliness makes it worse. My face, too, is rapidly hardening under this sun. If only I had a few more clothes—" She stopped and looked at him. "I feel the need of them," she finished lamely.
Claire had worn his coat continuously from the first night, and his undershirt was tearing from contact with bush and tree. He grinned contentedly, however.
"If you approach nakedness as rapidly as I," he chuckled, "I fear we both will have to avoid civilization. Undisguised humanity isn't tolerated there."
She flushed warmly, then laughed.
"I wonder why people are so afraid of being seen," Lawrence went on. "Of course, there's the warmth and natural protection of clothing, but one would feel so much freer without the encumbrance of shirt-stud and feathered plume."
"We need them to complete a personality," said Claire. "I know few people who would inspire respect in their elemental state. Stripped of advertising silk and diamond, they wouldn't be so suggestive of wealth."
"But why be so eager to impress others with your power?"
She turned toward him with a faint smile. "If you didn't ask that as mere conversation, I would think you childish. You know very well why. It probably goes back to the days when the possession of a fish-hook, more or less, meant surer life. It has come to mean, now, that the decoration of an extra feather or white flannel trousers means advantageous position, the place of more power, more pleasure; in short, greater fulness of living."
"But we are living fully, goodness knows," he interrupted. "This last week we have had to exert our wits and bodies in more ways than we ever did before in all our lives. True, I do miss my modeling somewhat." He spoke the last with a soft mellowness in his voice and a wistfulness that made her look at him quickly.
"Modeling?" she asked.
He nodded slowly.
"What sort of modeling?" she insisted.
"Oh, probably poor, for the most part. I did some work that was beginning to make its way, though."
"You mean sculpture?"
He nodded again.
She looked at him earnestly. Here was a new revelation. She had wondered at this man's apparent keen sense of form, and his imaginative power when he spoke of color or mentioned line, and she had been sure from his occasional word that he was a wide student of literature.
"What did you do at home?" she asked abruptly.
"Oh, played with living," he said indifferently.
She felt irritated that he would not tell her more of his life, yet she remembered that she had practically refused to discuss her own with him.
"See here, Lawrence," she said suddenly, "we aren't quite fair with each other, are we?"
"Why not?" he answered quietly. "I carry you toward your old life, you guide me toward mine. It's a fair business, with equal investment. I'm not complaining."
She was silent and watched him as he lay on his back, dreaming of days at home with his work. As he lay there, she studied his hands. They were practically healed, and she noticed they were well-shaped, the fingers long and tapering, yet with an appearance of unusual strength. She knew already that they were sensitive; when he had cut out a piece of wood to heat water in, she had seen that. So they were sculptor's hands. What a revelation, and what a pity that he was blind! She fell to wondering if he really was good at his work, or whether he merely fancied he was and hewed away without real artistry, deceived by his blindness. She studied his face in repose. Then her mind came back to his hands, and she felt a sudden sense of displeasure, a little chagrin, and some wonder, accompanied by the feeling that she wished he had not carried her. She did not quite know why, yet the dependence on him made her restless. Suddenly she wondered poignantly what he thought of her. The more she wondered, the more she wanted to know, and at last she ventured, "Are you asleep?"
"What is it?" He sat up and waited.
"What do you think of me?" She was surprised to find herself waiting eagerly for his answer.
He laughed outright, a gay, hearty laugh.
"Claire," he said merrily, "you embarrass me dreadfully. You see, I haven't thought much about you. However, if you like, I'll study you for a week and report."
Hot anger surged up in her. "You needn't bother," she said dryly. "Our lives are so utterly different in every phase that nothing could be gained."
He lay back carelessly. "So I had decided," he replied, and lapsed into silence again.
She could have cried with vexation. For the first time in her life Claire was utterly humiliated, and there grew within her an aggressive dislike for this man, a determination to make him feel her power and to punish him for his indifference. She did not want him to love her, by any means, but he had never even shown her the courteous deference, the admiration or regard that she was accustomed to receive from men. Her mind went back over the past week, and she grew more humiliated, more angry. Tears of vexation came to her eyes, but she brushed them away fiercely.
"Shall we take the remains of our meat and move on toward the habitats of men?" said Lawrence, sitting up.
She controlled herself to answer, "As you please."
He stooped to lift her into his arms. She flushed warm as his hands slipped under her, and he straightened up. She hesitated, and wanted not to do it, but realized the necessity, and put her arm around his neck.
"I shall be grateful when I can walk," was her comment.
"It will make our progress more rapid," he agreed, and she was angry again. She knew that he thought only in terms of the most efficient means of getting ahead. A longing possessed her to make him realize that he was physically distasteful to her.
"We are so vastly different," she said, "it is disagreeable to be carried this way."
Lawrence flushed, and she was pleased. At least he understood now.
"Of course," he admitted calmly, "it isn't pleasant, but I suppose one must make the best of a bad bargain."
There was silence for a while, then he said suddenly, "I think I realize, Claire, that a blind man is at best a poor companion for a woman who is accustomed to being amused, and whose interests are those of the society glow-worm."
Claire resented the picture, but she kept her voice steady. "Surely at home you had your own social group," she said pleasantly.
"Of a sort, yes. We were all workers, not going in much for form, entertainment, and that sort of thing. We generally sat in the gallery at the opera, and did mostly as we pleased everywhere. None of us were rolling in wealth. We worked for the love of it, and looked to the future for pay."
"I see." She was thinking fast. "You were struggling young artists." Her voice was sugar-coated.
"We were struggling young artizans," he answered, seemingly indifferent to her irony.
As he made slower progress when he talked, she did not attempt to carry on the conversation. The stops for rest were gradually lengthening out, and he was getting hard and wiry so that his endurance was greater. He was quicker at catching himself when he stumbled, and he did not puff so hard between grades. Claire felt the easier swing of his body when he walked, and noticed that he was growing surer of foot and more graceful in movement, and she realized that except for his eyes he was a splendid specimen of manhood. She now admitted all these things to herself, but they only added to her feeling against him. She wondered if he had been as indifferent to all women as he was to her, and was displeased that she wondered.
Suddenly Lawrence stopped and put her down by his side. Claire looked up at him and saw his forehead gathering in a frown.
"What is it?" she asked anxiously.
"You are letting your thoughts obstruct your eyes," he said simply. "I have walked into three boulders without your knowing it."
"I am sorry," she said earnestly. "It was silly of me."
He laughed and sat down. "You see, as eyes you can't afford to think. At other times perhaps I, too, should wander into abstractions, but at present it won't work."
"I know it," she admitted contritely. "I won't repeat it."
"What," he asked, "is the subject of all this meditation?"
She blushed, and her eyes darkened. She wondered whether she should tell the truth, started to do so, then changed her mind. "I was asking myself what my husband was probably doing and thinking."
"Poor fellow!" Lawrence was sincerely thoughtful. "I can imagine what it must be to him, supposing you lost at sea. Yes, he must be suffering badly. I don't believe I would change places with him."
Claire started at Lawrence. "Are you flattering me?" she asked coldly.
"Not at all," he replied. "I am merely stating the truth. I have an imagination, my dear lady. I can quite grasp your husband's position. You would certainly be a loss to a man who loved you, and I shouldn't care to be that man."
"Shouldn't you?" she said instinctively, and bit her lip for saying it.
"Not under the circumstances," answered Lawrence. "I never did fancy the idea of death visiting my loved ones. I have never got over its having done so."
"Oh"—her voice softened—"then you have lost your—" She waited.
"I am an orphan," he said bruskly.
She was ashamed of her relief. How ridiculous it was to have imagined him, even for an instant, as a married man! He was so cold, so impersonal; of course, he had never married, and never would. Well, that was best; a blind man had no right to marry. He owed it to himself and to any woman not to place her in the position of caring for him, handicapped as he was, and so unable to give her the companionship, the comradeship a woman deserved. She could see how he would treat a wife: feed her well, clothe her, care for her comfort, and talk to her if she desired, but he would never be tender, loving, sympathetic, or understanding. No, he could not be; he was too self-centered, too much the artist. That last seemed to her a correct estimate of him, and she settled her mind on it as being final.
"So you are alone in the world?" Claire said, renewing the conversation.
"Quite," answered Lawrence. "I am as free from family hindrances as a young wolf that runs his first season's hunt alone."
She thought how apt a comparison he had made. "So you regard the family as a hindrance?"
"Oh—no and yes. One can never do quite as he pleases while a family and its wishes, aims, and loves are concerned. They always hold him down to some extent. He is an equal hindrance to them. They love each other, and as a result they have to sacrifice their individual wishes. But the family keeps man more social, more gregarious, and less selfish. If we were as free from family love as is the wolf I mentioned, we would be able to live our lives more completely, and, on the other hand, we would die in greater numbers. The love of man and woman for each other and their children lifts humanity out of its serfdom, but it also places limitations. You ought to know more about that than I, however," he laughed. "I merely theorize."
"So I noticed," Claire observed. "One can easily gather that you aren't experienced."
"No. My parents died when I was small. I had to work my way through school. The accident made it somewhat harder, but I got along." He was plainly matter of fact.
"Oh!" She exclaimed at his words more forcefully than she had intended.
He smiled a little, comprehendingly. "Yes, it explains a lot, doesn't it?" He spoke carelessly. "You doubtless can now understand my lack of social grace."
She thought to deny it, but that seemed foolish. He was silent, and there seemed little use in talking. Claire knew she understood him well enough.
THE FACE OF DEATH.
In the days that followed they talked but little. Lawrence had fallen into the habit of speaking only when she seemed to desire conversation, and his mind was occupied with planning their escape. If he thought of her in any other way than merely as his eyes, he never showed it. Though watchful of her comfort, in every act and word, he was markedly impersonal.
Following the river, they had progressed steadily north and east over increasingly higher and rougher ground. The tropical vegetation of intertwining crimson was now changing to a faint gold. There were days when they were forced to make long detours over broken ridges to get around some deep gorge through which the gray-green stream dashed its foamy way downward. They were well into the mountains, and above them the higher Andes raised their snowy peaks in forbidding austerity. It was daily growing colder, and their clothes were now only ragged strips. Then came days when sharp, biting winds whipped through the canyon they followed, or headed against them on some plateau, and they were forced to face new issues. Food was less plentiful, and winter was at hand. To be sure they were in the tropics, but on the mountains the air was cold, and warmer clothes became imperative.
Claire's ankle was almost well. After weeks of pain, which she had borne bravely, it was healing, and the time was near when she would be able to walk. Shoes were absolutely essential for her. Furthermore, Lawrence's own shoes were worn through, and his walking was becoming a continual pain. In spite of Claire's increasingly careful guidance, he stepped on small, sharp rocks that dug into his flesh. He did not complain, but Claire knew that he was suffering. The times when he stepped out freely became more and more seldom, and his face was usually taut.
They were, indeed, a pitiable couple. Lawrence's thin face was shaggy with hair. Claire's once soft skin was now brown and hard. Both were thin and wiry, with the gaunt lines of the undernourished showing plainly.
One morning, to fight the frost that bit into them, they were forced to build a fire long before dawn. As they sat huddled together over it, Lawrence finally broached the subject that had been engrossing both their minds for days.
"Claire," he said thoughtfully, "we can't make it through. We'll have to find a place somewhere and prepare for winter. It's tough, but it's inevitable. I hate to give up now, but it will be even worse for us if we don't get meat, fur, and a house against the snow that will soon be covering everything."
"I know," she said sadly, her thin hands supporting her chin. "It seems as though we had played our long farce to its end. Death is as inexorable in its demands as life." The circles under her eyes were great half-moons.
"We have done well, though," he argued. "We've done better than well. Who would have believed that a blind man and a crippled woman could have come as far as this?"
"I didn't believe it, Lawrence," she said, and her voice and eyes were full of a warmth that had grown of late to be fairly constant. "I didn't believe it, and I wouldn't believe it now if I were told the story back home."
"I'm not sure; I might have," Lawrence said proudly. "I know the blind and their capabilities."
"I'm learning to know them," she admitted, and lapsed into silence.
"Shall we go into camp, then," he asked, as if they had not mentioned anything else.
Claire hesitated, then said slowly: "It's our only chance. Are you willing to spend a winter with me?" Her eyes glanced amusedly at him.
Catching the note in her voice, Lawrence laughed. "It seems inevitable," he said, "and, anyway, I couldn't ask for a better companion. You don't disturb me, and I don't irritate you—that is, not especially."
She looked at him impatiently. "Don't you?" she said, meditatively. "Well, I'm glad I don't bother you."
"Yes," he assented seriously. "You've been mighty open-minded, Claire, and you haven't hampered me with incredulities."
"Oh, that is what you mean."
He moved uneasily, his muscles drawing a little. Claire saw and wondered.
"Yes," Lawrence said shortly. "When morning comes, we'll hunt for a location."
They ceased speaking, each occupied with his own thoughts.
Claire was asking herself what the winter would mean to her, spent with this silent man, and he was questioning how long she would continue to regard him as a mere imperfect carrier, devoid of the stuff that men are made of. Sometimes when her body was in his arms, he had wondered if she was capable of love, but always he had remembered her husband, her social life, her assumption of superior reserve, and had forced himself into a habitual attitude of indifference. The strain was telling on his will, however, and often he longed to make this woman see him as he was. He thought of the old days in his studio when he had proved himself master of blindness in his power to imagine and carry the sense of form into the carved stone. He recalled the praise of his comrades, and over all else there surged in him the swift, warm blood of the artist.
"Lawrence," said Claire suddenly, "at what do you value human life?"
"That depends," he answered, "on whose life it is."
"Well, at what would you value mine?" she demanded.
"From varying points of view, at varying prices. From your husband's point of view, it is invaluable. From your own, it is worth more than anything else. From my point of view, it is worth as much as my own, since without you mine ceases."
"Then your care of me and all your trouble is merely because you value your own life."
"What else?" He moved uneasily.
She ignored that question. "If you could get through without me, would you do it?"
"That depends on circumstances. If I could get through without you, and do it quickly, and could not get through with you"—he paused—"I should leave you behind."
"And suppose, when I can walk, I do that myself?"
He smiled. "As you please," he said quietly. "I advise you to make your estimate well, however. My hands and strength are assets which you might have trouble in doing without."
"And do you estimate the whole of our relationship on a carefully itemized basis of material gain and loss?"
"Claire, isn't that your understanding, stated by yourself, of our partnership?"
"Yes, but—well, it's hard to estimate human companionship."
"I know it." He shifted nearer the fire. "I've tried to estimate yours."
"Indeed?" Her voice was full of interest.
"I've failed. You are worth a great deal, potentially."
"Exactly what do you mean?"
"I mean just this"—he stood up suddenly and faced her, his shadow covering her like an ominous cloud—"that as Mrs. Claire Barkley you are worth nothing to me except eyes, and, therefore, your personality and conversation are of value only as time-fillers."
"Go on," she said steadily.
"But as Claire, the almost starved, ragged human being who is living with me through a prolonged war with death, you are worth everything to me—everything that I value."
"But isn't that what I have been from the beginning?" she flashed.
He answered slowly. "Yes—in a way."
Once more they lapsed into silence. In turn she tried to estimate his worth to her, but failed. She began to recall the men she knew, and concluded that she was without a standard of measurement. One by one she pictured them and cast them aside, as somehow not the scale by which to evaluate this man. At last, she began to think of her husband. It had not occurred to her to think of him in comparison with Lawrence before, and it made her wonder at her doing so now.
She fell to dreaming of the man who had been her lover in girlhood, and her husband and dear companion these past six years. He was surely at home, aching, yearning for the little girl he had lost. She could see him sitting before the fireplace in their big living-room, his head on his hands, his tired face in repose, while he gazed into the flames and longed and longed for her. The picture grew in clearness. She saw the joy that would be his when they met again, and she felt around her those dear arms, crushing her against him in a rapture of reunion. In sudden contrast, she was again conscious of the cold, impersonal arms of the man beside her. As she thought of the difference she hated Lawrence wildly. At least, her husband knew her worth. He knew her golden treasure-house of love; he knew her as she was.
This blind man before her there, unkempt, hard, expressionless, what did he know of her? What could he know, born of poor people, and working his way among inferiors? She almost laughed aloud. Why, at home this man, who had carried her in his arms, would have been one of her wards, an object of her charities. But would he? Lawrence was an artist. She considered that.
"Isn't it light enough to get moving, Claire?" His rich, warm tones broke in upon her thought like a shattering cataract. How musical and vibrant his voice was!
"I think so." She stood up unsteadily.
"Good. We'd better go down nearer the river. We will want a sheltered ravine for our winter camp."
"Very well." She threw her arm over his shoulder. "It isn't far down, and it's clear going. When we start again, I'll be able to walk. And then I'll lead you, Mr. Lawrence." She spoke half in jest.
"And if we are alive, I shall make it possible for you to do so comfortably. I hope for something to make shoes of." He answered with a frank, sincere joy at her being able to walk, and she was ashamed of her anger. He was not to blame for being anxious to have her well, to have felt otherwise would certainly have been to be a fool indeed. She should rejoice with him, for then they could get home that much sooner, home to her husband and her old life. She warmed at the idea, and felt a sense of gratitude toward Lawrence that was good and wholesome. "I have been silly," she thought. "He is really not to be expected to fall and adore me, and certainly I ought not to blame him for being blind. He couldn't help that, either."
"Lawrence," she said aloud, "I am a beastly unjust wretch."
"I don't see it," he protested.
"But you ought to see it. I don't play fair with you."
"You said that once before, I believe. I don't agree any more now that I did then."
"But I think all sorts of beastly things." She could not understand her frankness.
"Oh"—he paused. "So do I. But as I am not a Puritan, I scarcely hold myself responsible to you for my thoughts. One's thoughts are his own, and, as long as he keeps them to himself, he is entitled to as many as he pleases, of whatever variety he prefers."
"Do you think so?"
"Of course, and so do you."
"Yes, I did—but it seemed to me," she faltered, "that in the present case—oh, well, let it go." She laughed nervously, and said no more.
Lawrence wondered at her silence, and wanted to know very much what she thought, but he told himself that after all it was none of his business.
They had reached the river. The water rushed from the mouth of a gorge in rapids that sent its every drop sparkling and flashing over a great rock into a mass of white foam below.
"Oh," cried Claire, "it's beautiful, beautiful!"
He put her down and laughed. "It sounds as if it were leaping from points of light into cloud-banked foam."
She stared at him in amazement. "It is," she said in a subdued tone. "How did you know?"
"One learns," he said carelessly. "And how about a camp?"
Her admiration of him vanished into the commonplace.
"We can't find it here," she said, hiding her appreciation of the scene under her professional-guide tone.
He frowned. "Nowhere close?"
"No. And what is worse, we'll have to go over a mountain. The stream here is rushing right out from between cliff walls."
Lawrence's spirit sank, but he did not show it. "We'd better eat what little we have left and then be off," he suggested simply.
That morning was the beginning of their hardest experience since they first left the beach. Scarcely had they started to climb over the great ridge, which broke into sheer precipice at the river, when a sharp wind rose and cut through their unprotected bodies. Claire drew in against him as close as she could, while he tried to give her more protection with his arms. The slope was steep and filled with loose rocks so that he lost ground at every step. They were forced to stop often, and by noon he was worn out, and they were both bitterly cold. Claire thought they were near the top, so Lawrence nerved himself to press on.
Night found them standing on the crest of the ridge, in the face of a bitter wind; before them, across a small plateau, rose a still higher mountain around the northern side of which a ravine cut its jagged gash away from the river. Claire stared at the scene until her courage broke down.
"We can never do it, Lawrence," she moaned, and her head sank wearily against his shoulder. Her cry was the aching moan of a heart-broken child. The proud, self-contained Claire was gone. It stirred Lawrence strangely, and for the first time a warm tenderness for her came over him. He drew her to him, and tried to comfort her. Her poor undernourished body shook with the sobs that despair and the cold wrung from her, and, though his own hands and body were blue, he tried to warm her. Had he seen the ground ahead of them, he, too, might have given up, but blindness was the barring wall of black which shut out even defeat. He clenched his teeth firmly, and lifted Claire in his arms again resolutely.
"We've got to do it, Claire," he said, "and we will."
She attempted to paint the scene before him in graphic detail, her words broken by sobs. When she finished he started forward.
"We'll follow the gulf," he stated. "We must keep going, Claire. We don't dare to stop."
"We can't. It's dark, and will be black soon," she answered.
"We've got to do it," Lawrence repeated. "It isn't the first night of my life I've struggled against a black so dense its nothingness seemed overpowering."
She strained her eyes through the gathering night to turn him into the smoothest way, lapsing into jerky, habitual words of guidance.
In the darkness they entered the ravine and staggered down to its broken bottom. The time soon came when she could see hardly anything until they were almost upon it, and the white face of a boulder spotting the endless black before her filled her with a vague dread. Often they paused to rest, but the cold drove them on again. Claire almost ceased to direct him, and Lawrence gritted his teeth till they hurt him and forged ahead.
Once he slipped and fell, but got to his feet again and went on. Claire was not injured beyond a few bruises, but she noticed that he limped more than before and her fear increased.
How they ever fought that night through neither knew, but morning came at last and found them still staggering down the ravine. They were almost out of it now and were entering a rather heavy pine forest. Fortunately the gulf they followed had turned around the mountain in the direction of the river, and their desire for water drove them to keep on. To their blue and shaking bodies all feeling had grown vague, tingling, and uncertain. When Claire looked at Lawrence she could have screamed. His lips were drawn back, and his hairy cheeks and sightless eyes flashed before her the image of a dehumanized death mask. Her own face must look like that, she thought, and buried her head on his shoulder. Through that morning he struggled on, faltering, lurching, resting a little, girding himself against the death now so surely at hand. In his mind thought had ceased to be coherent; his starved body, whipped by the cold, was beginning to play with the imagery.
He gurgled a grim little laugh, and all clear thought was at an end. Claire heard and looked at him wonderingly. She knew that she was freezing, and she had resigned herself, but this man, what was he doing? He still lunged through the trees, where, at all events it seemed a little warmer. She heard him muttering incoherent jargon that gradually cleared to speech. "We'll go on, Claire. We'll go on to the end. I've got to do it. I need my life. I need you!"
She started and listened, though even in her present state she grew resentful. "So that was it," she thought; "he's waiting to get me out before he breaks into his love. He wants his rescue as an argument." Then her thinking was broken into detached images. She saw her husband and cried aloud to him. She had pictures flashing in her mind of him, of old scenes, parties, places they had been together, tenements she had visited in her charity work, the beach that morning when Lawrence had found her, and in and through it all she heard words falling from his lips that recalled later, stung her to wrath.
"I need you, Claire," she heard him again, and then, "I shall use you, Claire. You will be my masterpiece. It is you, proud, superior, human, social, intellectual, sexed, vital, you, carrying in your being the whole tumultuous riot of the ages gone, and hiding it under a guarded social exterior, not knowing when in a sentence it breaks through, you, you, Claire, you, the woman!"
He stumbled, regained his balance, and plunged through a fringe of pines, staggered against one, then another, cursed, and went again forward and out into a clearing. She saw it vaguely before them. At first she doubted, then, as he let his hold on her slip, she gripped his neck with arms that scarcely felt the body they closed around.
"Lawrence," she screamed in a voice that was shrill—"Lawrence, a cabin, a cabin!"
He sank down with her clinging to him still. "I know," he muttered, "I've got to find one." Then he lay quiet.
She freed herself and crept toward the house. She was at the back of it, and she was obliged to crawl slowly on hands and knees around to the front. There was a door, she pushed on it, but it did not open. She grew angry at it, and beat against it with her fists, abusing it for its obstinacy. When at last it opened she laughed wildly.
Before her, his tall body, clad in warm, heavy clothes, stood a man whose dark eyes grew wet with tears of pity the instant they saw her. He lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her inside. She had a fleeting sense of being at home, she thought he was her husband and threw her arms around him passionately, then, remembering Lawrence, she murmured as he laid her down, "Out there—behind the cabin!" and was unconscious.
The man turned and hurried out. In a few minutes he came back, carrying Lawrence, and his face was lined with pity at the state of these two human beings.
He laid them together on a wide berth at the side of the cabin and began to work over them alternately. Swiftly and deftly he heated blankets and prepared food. He wound them in the hot cloth, chafed their hands and arms, and forced brandy down their throats.
Lawrence's eyelids drew back.
"The man is blind," muttered the stranger in Spanish.
Claire was looking at him dazedly and reaching greedily toward the kettle that simmered over a great open fireplace.
He brought a bowl of hot savory soup and started feeding them. Lawrence swallowed mechanically, but he could hardly get the spoon out of Claire's mouth.
"Not too much, senora," he said, turning away.
When he looked again toward them they were both asleep. The utter exhaustion of their long night claimed rest. He walked over to Claire and stood looking down at her.
"She was beautiful," he thought. "And he is blind. Ah, well, for her, beauty is again possible, but for him"—he shrugged his shoulders—"it is bad, bad!" he said softly, and, turning to a shelf of books that stood against the wall, he drew out a volume and sat down before the fire to read.
THE STONE THREAT.
When Claire awoke she stared around her for a few minutes before the events of their frantic struggle came back to her. Her eyes strayed to the figure before the fireplace. Idly she noted the lustrous, wavy black hair and deep brown eyes protected by unusually heavy lashes. It was clearly the face of a thinker, a dreamer, yet there was something sensual about the mouth, potentially voluptuous, abandoned, and suggestive of tremendous passion that slumbered close beneath the brain that was so actively awake. Claire ached, and her body tingled with the unaccustomed warmth. She lay quiet, looking at the fire, her mind still uncertain in its action, weaving sharp, dynamic images about this new personality. While his appearance gripped and awed her strangely, at the same time she felt drawn to him. She turned and threw out her hand. Her host closed his book and looked up, smiling.
"Ah, la senora se siente mejor?" His deep, rich voice, although lighter than Lawrence's, was full of music, but she did not understand his words. Her blank expression told him, and he smiled again.
"I remember, you spoke English," he said with only the slightest accent. "Are you better, madame?"
She answered his warm smile and said weakly: "Much better, thank you!"
"And your husband?" Claire saw that he was looking beyond her, and she turned to find Lawrence at her side. Instinctively she resented his being there. The warm blood rushed to her face.
"He—oh—he will be all right, I trust!" she stammered falteringly, and her host looked puzzled. Her impulse was to tell him that Lawrence was not her husband, but she thought better of it and said nothing about the relationship.
"He had a long, desperate struggle to bring me here," she said instead. "You see, I broke my ankle and he had to carry me."
"Oh!" The man rose, his face filled with respect as he looked at Lawrence asleep beside her.
"From where did he carry you?" he asked.
"From the coast," she shuddered. "It has been terrible!"
His face expressed utter amazement as he repeated: "From the coast? It is a miracle!"
She made no reply, for Lawrence stirred and tried to sit up.
"You'd better lie still," the stranger said kindly. "You deserve rest, my friend." Then, as to himself, he added: "It is the first miracle in which I can believe."
Claire stared at him, and he laughed softly. "Pardon, madame! I am an unhappy seeker after truth," he apologized, throwing a log on the fire.
For Lawrence and Claire the days that followed were uneventful days of recovery from their hardship. Slowly both of them grew stronger and resumed their normal habits of thought and speech. Their host was a gentle nurse, kindly and considerate. Claire assumed her wonted attitude of the cultured woman, a guest in the house of a friend, and the Spaniard met her with the polished courtesy of a cosmopolitan. Lawrence, too, became the usual man that he was, careless of little niceties, indifferent to form, but a charming companion and a delightful guest.
From the first he and Philip became intensely interested in each other. They discovered early that each was a thinker and a searcher in his own way for the one great solution of life.
During the first half-hour Claire had demanded of their rescuer where they were and how soon they could get back to civilization. Philip had laughed gently.
"You are on the borders of Bolivia," he told her, "and the nearest railroad is two hundred miles away. It is impossible to get out until spring. Long ere this snow will have barred the way through the one pass that leads out and we are prisoners—the three of us. You will have to accept the hospitality of Philip Ortez until the spring."
Lawrence had accepted the verdict with calm indifference.
"Oh, well," he said, "it's hard on you, but as far as I'm concerned, one place is as good as another."
"I shall enjoy your company," their host laughed.
After voicing polite thanks, Claire, in her own thought, had rebelled against the situation vehemently. She wanted to get home, she wanted to get away from everything that suggested her last weeks of suffering, she wanted to get away from these men. Her heart leaped to the ever-recurring dream of the husband, whose arms should take her up and hold her warmly against the memory of their separation.
"Then there is no way out?" she asked again.
"None, madame," and Philip Ortez bowed. "You will have to be the guest of a humble mountaineer."
"I shall enjoy it, I am sure," she answered. "It is simply a woman's natural desire for home which leads me to ask again."
His eyes clouded. Claire somehow found herself fancying a tragic mystery in the life of this man, and then rebuked herself for romancing. Certainly, such fancies were not her habit, and she wondered why they were occurring to her.
The cabin stood on the very edge of the forest through which Lawrence had carried Claire the last morning of their long march. Protected by its pines, the little house fronted on a small lake, a place where the river which they had followed widened to a half-mile, and stayed thus with scarcely any current save directly through the center. All around the lake the forest stretched its massed green, and here Philip trapped. The lake, in its turn, provided him with fish.
The week after their arrival snow had heaped itself into the ravine and piled up high around the cabin. Ice was beginning to form on the edge of the lake, and their host was preparing for his winter's work. They were too weak to go with him, and he left them in possession of the cabin.
At first there had been an unaccountable awkwardness between Lawrence and Claire, and it had left a reserve which was difficult to overcome. Lawrence had explained their situation to Philip; the Spaniard had been apologetically gracious, but there was something in Claire's nature that made her wish that Lawrence had never been thought of as her husband. Dressed in Philip's clothes, and in the presence of a roof and fire, she felt a desire to be free from the memory of the days when she had clung about Lawrence's neck, and, above all, she felt that she was not able to meet him with understanding. His blindness in these surroundings seemed to set a sudden and impassable barrier between them, and made her ill at ease when she was alone with him.
Lawrence was irritated that she should so immediately react into what he called the old conventional habit toward blind people, and keep it standing like a stupid but solid wall between all their talk. Now that she was no longer dependent on him, she appeared to him more attractive. He thought of her husband, and wondered if Claire's attitude toward himself was tempered with the thought of the man at home. "Surely," he told himself, "she can't be allowing that to come between us, for it is so obviously quite unnecessary." Then he began to wonder how much of her life was centered about her husband. What sort of man was he, and did she love him devotedly? As he thought, there crept into his feeling a sense of irritation against the unknown man who was obstructing his friendship with the woman he had carried half through the Andes Mountains.
Then the longing for his work came over him, and there were times when he felt he must do something. He spoke needlessly sharp words to Claire. Though she concealed her anger, there grew between them a continuous straining born out of mutual misunderstanding and a great submerged tangle of emotions.
One morning when Ortez in snow-shoes and fur had gone for the day to look after his traps, Claire washed up the tin dishes they used, and sat down before the fire opposite Lawrence. His head was in his hands and his face was somber.
"You look sad this morning," she said casually.
"Do I?" he answered. "I'm not—especially. I was just planning a piece of work, dreaming it out in outline."
She looked at him thoughtfully. His forehead was high and broad, she thought, and his hands— Their days in the wilderness rushed back over her. She was angry at the memories they brought her, and doubly angry at Lawrence, as if he only were responsible.
"It's inconceivable," she said calmly, "that you, without seeing, can really carve anything true to form and line." In her voice was incredulity and unbelief.
He rose suddenly, his face white, and said, with an intensity that startled her: "That sentiment is as familiar to me as my name. I have heard it from sight-bigoted people from the days when I made my first attempt to go back to my school work. I am rather weary of it."
She sat staring at him for a moment, then she laughed. She could not have told why she did it, and she was instantly sorry. The blood rushed to his face.
"I shall create that which will forever assure you that I can carve true to the most familiar form and line you know," he said fiercely.
Her face was as crimson as his now, though she felt ice cold.
"What do you mean?" she demanded, her voice unsteady.
He laughed bitterly. In his own heart a fierce volcanic surge was raging which he did not attempt to control.
"Do you think that I, trained as I am to gather fact from touch, could carry you through weeks of hell in my arms, against my breast, and not know you, you as you are, Claire Barkley? I shall carve you, you with your cold reserve suppressing the emotional chaos within you, and you will not fail to recognize yourself."
Claire gripped the chair arms. Anger, fear, doubt, then the knowledge that he could do as he said, swept over her in rapidly succeeding waves, and gathered at last into a steel hate that she felt must last through eternity.
"You, you would do that, after I guided you here! You would take advantage of what I could not help, and—and—" she choked, and then said swiftly—"so, under your indifferent exterior you used your touch that way these days! Oh, you—you beast!"
Lawrence laughed coolly. "I could no more help it than I can avoid being here."
"Lies!" she exclaimed. "A gentleman could help it!"
"Perhaps, but not an artist."
"And what of beauty, of your boasted purity of art, is there in that?"
"All," he said calmly. "If you knew, oh, if I could make you see what every artist knows"—he was talking passionately now, his face illumined in spite of his blind eyes—"you would realize, that I could not help it, that I glory in it, and that it was and is the way of art."
He rose and walked the floor, pouring out his creed in a stream of burning words. "I am a machine, a sensitive thing that registers what it feels and knows, that is all. You touch me, my brain registers that touch, and something in me, the will to live, the desire to create, the insistent shout for expression says, 'Take that and carve it in stone.' If I could see, if I were not blind, I would have been a painter. I would have painted you, almost naked as you were, your eyes filled with the hunger for life, your face tense with racing thoughts, I would have painted you fully, all of you, as you were in night-gown and skirt there in that forest, and you would have shouted to all the world from my canvas, 'Look at me, I am the primitive, the wild, the passionate, the tender, the selfish and unselfish living woman. See me as I am, cultured, refined, educated, elemental withal, and the emblem of humanity as it is, still stained with the traditional mud of superstition and blood that marks its origin. Oh, I would have painted you so, and now I shall carve you so!"
He stopped, and Claire looked at him wildly, her eyes aflame with hate and admiration.
"You would use another human being that way?" she gasped.
"I would use any one, I would, I will, at any cost to them, to me, if the outcome be a piece of art, a work that in its truth, its immortal beauty, shall stand a lasting testimony that I, Lawrence Gordon, have mastered blindness and registered life correctly."
A great light swept over her mind; that was the key to him. He would sacrifice himself to conquer blindness—but would he, she wondered, and instantly her thought found expression.
"Would you crush yourself to create that mastery of blindness?"
He laughed. "I have, I am doing it," he said. "I would go through all the torment of the world if I might create something lasting, true, and beautiful."
Claire leaned forward, her lips apart, her eyes bright. That she hated this man she was sure, yet all her woman's soul was awed by what she now saw behind his mask of blindness. Then a new thought came to her.
"Might it not be," she asked subtly, "if you hold suffering to be the key to beauty that you would profit more at last by denying the impulse to create the thing you are planning?"
He laughed again. "I hold that pain is only the spur to progress. I care nothing for the sentimentalism you are talking now. I carried you through the wilderness, I suffered and bore it, I staggered through nights and days with your warm body against mine that I might live, and now—now I know the value of life, I understand as never before the pain our fathers paid. I know the bitter animal war against environment, evolution whipped into action by pain, hunger, fear of death, and I shall carve that, all that, into the statue of one woman."
"And what of me, me and you as such, Claire and Lawrence, who were there through that struggle in the wilderness?" The speech leaped from somewhere in her being before she knew it, and with it came knowledge that stung her into tearful self-hate.
"We shall go back to our old lives, I suppose, and live them out."
It was what she had expected him to say, yet the calm matter-of-fact statement hurt her as nothing he had ever said before.
Lawrence dropped into the arm-chair again, and rested his head on his hand. He was calmer now, and, reviewing in his mind what he had said, he was beginning to ask himself why had he given way to this sudden resentment against Claire. If she doubted him because he was blind, was that any more than others had done? He had never burst out against them. What was the matter with him? He surveyed the whole trend of his life up to this minute: how he had broken at late adolescence from a glowing idealist to a wanderer through varying paths of thought; always stirred, stimulated, and swept on by contact with other people, books he had read, women for whom he had occasional fancies of love, until gradually he settled into his assured manner. It was exercise he needed, that and work.
He asked himself if he seriously loved Claire, and answered unequivocally that he did not. He wanted her friendship very much, indeed, but love, not at all. If she had been single, perhaps—but no, he did not care about her that way, that was all. He had been too long shut up here in the cabin with her and without work. He must get some wood and amuse himself carving things with Ortez's knife; it would be good practise, and, at the same time, relieve his nerves. He was sorry he had let himself go; Claire must not be hurt.
"Claire," he said quietly, "if I wounded you, if I said things I ought not, pardon me! I am getting nervous doing nothing, and I am not myself these days."
She laughed calmly. "Oh, very well!" she said. "I wonder that we don't come to blows, cooped up here as we are. I think next time Philip makes his rounds I'll go with him."
"It would be a good thing," answered Lawrence. "I'd like it myself."
Claire did not keep up the talk. She, too, was thinking fast, and facing new problems that demanded her attention. She was surprised to find that her resentment toward Lawrence was completely gone. What would her husband think of him? What would he do when she returned, when she told him of her journey with this blind man through weeks and weeks of wilderness when they were almost naked. She stopped, that was what Lawrence had said, 'almost naked.' Her flesh tingled as she saw the picture which he said he would like to paint of her.
What would she, Claire Barkley, do if such a picture were painted? She buried her face deep in her hands, but in her heart she knew that she would respect the man who painted it. And if Lawrence carved her so in stone, and did it as he thought he could—she pondered over that for some time.
"I think," she said aloud, and Lawrence raised his head, "that if I were to stay shut up here alone as Philip does, I should go crazy before spring."
"It all depends on how your mind is occupied," he laughed.
She blushed guiltily, and was glad he could not see her face.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. Don't forget this magazine is issued weekly, and that you will get the continuation of this story without waiting a month.