THE ROMANTIC RECOLLECTIONS
OF A MAN OF FIFTY
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. SCOTT WILLIAMS
AND WHISTLER BUTTERFLY DECORATIONS
LONDON: JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD
NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY
By THE PHILLIPS PUBLISHING COMPANY
By JOHN LANE COMPANY
* * * * *
IN WHICH YOU SEE A SECRET SPRING
I. Fate Walks Broadway 11
II. Fate Goes A-fishing 17
III. As the Twigs Were Bent 28
IV. Fate Reels In 37
IN WHICH THE SPRING FLOWS IN A LITTLE STREAM
V. Roger Finds the Island 47
VI. Fate Casts Her Die 59
VII. I Ride Knight Errant 66
VIII. The Mists of Eden 74
IN WHICH THE STREAM JOINS WITH OTHERS AND PLUNGES DOWN A CLIFF
IX. Margarita Meets the Enemy and He is Hers 81
X. Fate Spreads an Island Feast 87
XI. Our Parson Proves Capable 94
XII. I Leave Eden 105
IN WHICH THE STREAM WINDS THROUGH A SULLEN MARSH AND BECOMES A BROOK
XIII. Straws that Showed the Wind 111
XIV. The Island Cottage 118
XV. Fate Plays Me in the Shallows 130
XVI. Margarita Comes to Town 141
IN WHICH THE BROOK BECOMES A RIVER AND FLOWS BY GREAT CITIES
XVII. Our Pearl Bathes in Seine Water 149
XVIII. My Pearl of Too Great Price 157
XIX. Fate Lands Me on the Rocks 164
IN WHICH YOU ARE SHOWN THE RIVER'S VERY SOURCES, FAR UNDERGROUND
XX. A Garden Glimpse of Eden 181
XXI. Hester Prynne's Secret 186
XXII. Fate Laughs and Baits Her Hook 196
IN WHICH THE RIVER LEAPS A SUDDEN CLIFF AND BECOMES A CATARACT
XXIII. Fate Spreads Her Net 213
XXIV. Our Second Summer in Eden 221
XXV. The Island Tomb 231
XXVI. A Handful of Memories 235
IN WHICH THE RIVER RUSHES INTO PERILOUS RAPIDS
XXVII. We Bring Our Pearl to Market 247
XXVIII. Arabian Nights in England 257
XXIX. Fate Grips Her Landing Net 273
IN WHICH THE RIVER FINDS THE SEA
XXX. A Terror in the Snow 279
XXXI. Fate Empties Her Creel 289
XXXII. The Sunset End 294
* * * * *
They Crooned Together There, the Woman, the Child and the Birds Frontispiece
Scooped Hundreds—Perhaps Thousands—Out of a Chest to Flee at Dawn 43
The Tall, Gaunt, Silent Woman ... Striding Through the Pastures 49
I Seem to See ... a Beautiful Woman in a Blue Dress Sitting Under a Fruit Tree 105
Persons Born in That Month of That Year Will Never Be Otherwise Than Far Out of the Ordinary 132
Margarita Stopped and Stared at It Several Minutes 144
For Hours and Hours I Walked, Muttering and Cursing 163
Her Weekly Check, Plus a Draft for a Hundred Pounds 174
She Spins Her Hemp and Weaves Osiers into Baskets and Changes Them for Goats' Hams 204
The Gloomy, Faded Glories of the Musty Palace 208
Ah, Faithful Caliban, What Hours of Terrible Tuition Made Thy Task Clear to Thee! 233
He Sketched Her in Charcoal, Dressed (He Would Have It) in Black 240
It Was After the Garden Love-Scene That She Won Her Recalls 250
They Are Still as Death, Tranced in Those Liquid Bell-Tones 270
I Leaned Over the Bank and Cried That I Was There, But She Never Stopped—It Was Terrible 281
It Is a Favourite Claim of Ours Who Are Bidden to That Home That It Is an Enchanted Isle 296
* * * * *
IN WHICH YOU SEE A SECRET SPRING
O I have seen a fair mermaid, That sang beside a lonely sea, And now her long black hair she'll braid, And be my own good wife to me.
O woe's the day you saw the maid, And woe's the song she sang the sea, In hell her long black hair she'll braid, For ne'er a soul at all has she!
Sir Hugh and the Mermaiden.
FATE WALKS BROADWAY
Roger Bradley was walking up Broadway. This fact calls sharply for comment, for he had not done it in years; the thoroughfare was intolerable to him. But one of its impingements upon a less blatant avenue had caught him napping and he found himself entangled in a mesh of theatre dribblings, pool-room loungers, wine-touts and homeward bent women of the middle, shopping class. Being there, he scorned to avail himself of the regularly recurring cross streets, but strode along, his straight, trim bulk, his keen, judicial profile—a profile that spoke strong of the best traditions of American blood—marking him for what he was among a crowd not to be matched, in its way, upon the Western Continent.
At the second slanting of the great, tawdry lane he bent with it and encountered suddenly a little knot of flustered women just descended from the elevated way that doubled the din and blare of the shrieking city. They were bundle-filled, voluble, dressed by any standards save those of their native city, far beyond their probable means and undoubted station. As they stopped unexpectedly and hesitated, damming the flood of hurrying citizens, Roger halted of necessity and stepped backward, but in avoiding them he bumped heavily against the person behind him. A startled gasp, something soft against his shoulder, the sharp edge of a projecting hat, told him that this person was a woman, and stepping sidewise into the shelter of a neighbouring news-stall, he raised his hat with a courtesy alien to the place and hour.
"I beg your pardon, madam," he said, "I trust I have not hurt you?"
"No," said the woman, who wore a heavy grey veil, and as that is literally all she said and as her method of saying it was as convincing as it was simple, one would suppose the incident closed and look to see Roger complete his journey to his club without further adventure.
Do I wish he had? God knows. It was undoubtedly the turning-point in his life and he was forty. Had he gone on to the club where I was waiting for him; had we dined, played out our rubber, dropped in at the occasional chamber concert that was our usual and almost our only dissipation in those days, I should not now be ransacking old letters and diaries from which to make this book, nor would Margarita's picture—her loveliest, as Juliet—lean toward me from the wall. She is smiling; not as one smiles in photographs, but as a flesh-and-blood woman droops over the man she loves and smiles her heart into his lips, reaching over his shoulder. Everything slips behind but you two, herself and you, when you look at it. Sarony, who took it, told me he had never posed such a subject, and I believe him.
Well, well, it's done now. It was twenty years ago that Roger bumped into his fate in that eddy of Broadway and I was as powerless as you are now to disentangle him and keep him for myself, which, selfishly enough, of course, I wanted terribly to do. You see, he was all I had, Roger, and I was hoping we would play the game out together. But—not to have known Margarita? Never to have watched that bending droop of her neck, that extraordinary colouring of her skin—a real Henner skin! I remember Maurice Grau's telling me that he had always thought Henner colour blind till he saw Margarita's neck in her name-part in Faust.
The things that girl used to tell me, before she had any soul, of course, and in the days when I was the third man to whom she had ever spoken more than ten words in her life, were almost enough to pay for all the pain she taught me. Such talks! I can close my eyes and actually smell the sea-weed and the damp sand and hear the inrush of the big combers. She used to sit in the lee of the rocks, all huddled in that heavy, supple army-blue officer's cloak of hers with its tarnished silver clasps, and talk as Miranda must have talked to Ferdinand's old bachelor friend, who probably appreciated the chance—too well, the poor old dog!
I had reached, I think, when I left off my plain unvarnished tale and took to maundering, that precise point in it which exhibits Roger in the act of replacing his hat upon his even then slightly greyish head and striding on. It seems to me that he would not have checked in his stride if the woman had replied after the usual tautological fashion of her sex (we blame them for it, not thinking how wholly in nature it is that they should be so, like the repeated notes of birds, the persistence of the raindrops, the continual flicker of the sun through the always fluttering leaves,) with some such phrase as, "No, indeed, not in the least, I assure you!" or "Not at all, really—don't mention it!" or even, "No, indeed," with a shy bow or a composed one, as the case might be. But this woman uttered merely the syllable, "No," with no modification nor variation, no inclination of the head, no movement forward or back. Her utterance was grave, moreover, and precise; her tone noticeably full and deep. Roger, pausing a moment in the shelter of the news-stall, spoke again at the spur of some unexplainable impulse.
"I was afraid I had stepped directly on your foot—it felt so," he said.
Again she answered simply, "No," and that was his second chance. Now in the face of these facts it is folly to contend that the woman "accosted" him, as his cousin, who was one of the Boston Thayers, put it to me. She did nothing of the kind; she replied twice, to his distinct questions, in the coldest of monosyllables and he could not even have told if she looked at him, her veil was so thick. Let that be definitely understood, once and for all. The chances were even in favour of her being violently pitted from the small-pox, since even twenty years ago, when the city was less cosmopolitan (and from my point of view more interesting) the women of New York of the class that travels unaccompanied and on foot at dusk were not accustomed to go heavily veiled if they had any fair excuse for the contrary course.
Nevertheless to that veiled woman did Roger address himself—unnecessarily, mark you—for the third time. Why did he? He had his chance; two chances in fact. But this is folly, for of course he had no chance at all. Fate stood by that news-stall, with the blear-eyed, frousy woman that tended it looking vacantly on; Fate, veiled, too, and not even monosyllabic in his behalf. I should have known this, I think, even if I had not lived those curious, long eight months in Algeria and slept those dreamless nights under the Algerian stars that got into my blood and call me back now and then; imperiously and never in vain, though I feel older than the stars, and Alif and the rest are dead or exhibiting themselves at the great American memorial fairs that began to flourish about the time this tale begins. No, there was no help: it was written.
"I am glad I did not hurt you," he said, really moving forward now and again raising his hat, "these crowds are dangerous for women at this hour."
He took two steps and stopped suddenly, for a hand slipped under his arm. (You should have seen his cousin's face, the Boston one, when in that relentless way known only to women and eminent artists in cross-examination she got this fact out of me.)
"Will you tell me the quickest way to Broadway?" said the woman to whom he had just spoken.
"To Broadway?" he echoed stupidly, standing stock still, conscious of the grasp upon his arm, a curious sense of the importance of this apparently cheap experience surging over him, even while he resented its banality. "This is Broadway. What do you want of it?"
"I want to show myself on it," said the woman, a young woman, from the voice.
Roger stepped back against the news-stall, dragging her with him, since her hand did not leave his arm.
"To show yourself on it?" he repeated sternly, "and why do you want to do that?"
"To get myself some friends. I have none," said she serenely.
Now you must not think Roger a fool, for he was not. You see, you never heard the voice that spoke to him. If you had, and had possessed any experience or knowledge of the world, you would have realised that the owner of that voice possessed neither or else was a very great and convincing actress. Mere print cannot excuse him, perhaps, but I give you my word he was as a matter of fact excusable, since he was a bachelor. Most men are very susceptible to the human voice, especially to the female human voice, and it has always been a matter of the deepest wonder to me that the men who do not hear a lovely one once in the year are most under the dominion of their females. I mean, of course, the Americans. It is one of the greatest proofs of the power of these belles Americaines that they wield it in spite of the rustiness of this, their chief national weapon.
The bell notes, the grave, full richness of this veiled woman's voice touched Roger deeply and with a brusque motion he drew out from his pocket a banknote and pressed it into the hand under his arm.
"Take this and go home," he said severely. "If you will promise me to call at an address I will give you, I will guarantee you a decent means of livelihood. Will you promise me?"
She reached down without a word into a bag that hung en chatelaine at her waist and drew out something in her turn.
"I have a great many of those," she said placidly, "and more at home. See them!"
And under his face she thrust a double handful of stamped paper—all green.
"Each one of these is called twenty dollars," she informed him, "and some of them are called fifty dollars. They are in the bottom of the bag. I do not think that I need any more."
Roger stared at her.
"Put that away directly," he said, "and lift your veil so that I can see who you are. There is something wrong here."
They stood in the lee of the flaring stall, a pair so obvious in their relation to each other, one would say, as to require no comment beyond the cynical indifference of the red-eyed woman who tended it. No doubt she had long ceased to count the well-dressed, athletic men who drew indifferently clothed young women into the shelter of her stand. And yet no one of his Puritan ancestors could have been further in spirit from her dreary inferences than this Roger. Nor do I believe him to be so exceptional in this as to cause remark. We are not all birds of prey, dear ladies, believe me. Indeed, since you have undertaken the responsibilities of the literary dissecting-room so thoroughly and increasingly; since you have, as one might say, at last freed your minds to us in the amazing frankness of your multitudinous and unsparing pages, I am greatly tempted to wonder if you are not essentially less decent than we. One would never have ventured to suspect it, had you not opened the door....
The woman threw back her veil so that it framed her face like a cloud and Roger looked straight into her eyes. And so the curtain rolled up, the orchestra ceased its irrelevant pipings and the play was begun.
FATE GOES A-FISHING
Roger told me afterward that he literally could not say if it were five seconds or five minutes that he looked into the girl's eyes. He has since leaned to the opinion that it was nearer five minutes, because even the news-woman stared at him and the passing street boys had already begun to collect. Some subconscious realisation of this finally enabled him to drag his eyes away, very much as one drags himself awake when he must, and to realise the picture he presented—a dazed man confronting an extraordinarily lovely girl with her fist full of banknotes on a Broadway kerbstone. An interested cabby caught his eye, wagged his whip masterfully, wheeled up to them and with an apparently complete grasp of the situation whirled them off through a side street with never so much as a "Where to, sir?"
And so he found himself alone with an unknown beauty in a hansom cab, for all the world like a mysterious hero of melodrama, and Roger hated melodrama and was never mysterious in all his life, to say nothing of disliking mystery in anyone connected with him. He says he was extremely angry at this juncture and I believe him.
"What is your name?" he asked shortly. "Have you no parents or friends to protect you from the consequences of this crazy performance? Where do you live?"
"My name is Margarita," she replied directly and pleasantly, "I never had but one parent and he died a few days ago. I live by the sea."
An ugly thrill shot down his spine. No healthy person likes to be alone with a mad woman, and under a brilliant fleeting light he studied her curiously only to receive the certain conviction that whatever his companion might be, she was not mad. Her slate-blue eyes were calm and bright, her lips rather noticeably firm for all their curves—and the mad woman's mouth bewrayeth her inevitably under scrutiny. Nor was she drugged into some passing vacancy of mind: her whole atmosphere breathed a perfectly conscious control of her movements, however misguided the event might prove them. Before this conviction he hesitated slightly.
"You have another name, however," he said gently, "and what do you mean by the sea? What sea?"
For it occurred to him that although her English was perfect, she might be an utter stranger to the country, unthinkably abandoned, with sufficient means to salve her betrayer's conscience.
"Is there more than one sea, then?" she inquired of him with interest. "I thought there was only mine. It is a very large one with high waves—and cold," she added as an after-thought.
Roger gasped. "You did not tell me your other name," he said.
"Josephine," she replied readily, pronouncing the name in the French manner.
"But you have another still?"
"Yes. Dolores," she said, with an evidently accustomed Spanish accent.
"And the last name?" he persisted in despair, noting with some busy corner of his mind that they were drifting down Fifth Avenue.
"That is all there are," she assured him, "surely three different names are sufficient for one person? I do not use the last two—only Margarita."
Roger squared his shoulders, took the banknotes from her unresisting hand and gravely folded them into her bag before he spoke again.
"Listen to me, Miss Margarita," he said slowly and with exaggerated articulation, as one speaks to a child, "what was your father's name? What did the people in the town you live in call him?"
"I told you we lived by the sea—did you forget?" she answered, a shade reprovingly. "There is no town at all. And there are no people. We live alone."
"But your servants must have called him something?" he persisted.
"Hester called my father 'sir' and the boy cannot talk, of course," she said.
"Because he is dumb. His name is Caliban," she added hastily, "and he has no other, only that one."
"What is Hester's name?" Roger demanded doggedly.
"Hester Prynne," said Margarita Josephine Dolores, "and I have had nothing to eat since the man with the shining buttons gave me meat between bread a great many hours ago. I wish I might see another such man. He might be willing to give me more. Will you look out and tell me if you see one?"
"For heaven's sake," Roger cried, "you are hungry! You should have said so before—why didn't you?"
He called out a name to the cabman who took them quickly to a place now called "the old one," because the new one is filled with people who endeavour consistently to look newer than they are, I suppose. The wine is newer certainly, and the manners. At this place, then, in a quaint old corner, they found themselves, and Roger bespoke a meal calculated to please a young woman far more exigent than this lonely dweller by the sea was likely to be. The clearest of soups, the driest of sherry in a tiny glass, something called by the respectful and understanding waiter "sole frite," which was at any rate, quite as good as if it had been that, a hot and savoury poulet roti—and Roger, who had been too busy to take luncheon, looked about him, contentedly well fed, rested his eyes with the clean, coarse linen, the red wine in its straw basket that had come with the poulet, the quiet, worn fittings of the little old-world place, and realised with a shock of surprise that his companion had not spoken a word since the meal began.
This was obviously not because she was famished, though she had the healthy hunger of the creature not yet done with growing, but because, simply, she felt no necessity for speech. She was evidently thinking, for her eyes had the fixed absorption of a child's who dreams over his bread and milk, but conversation she had none. He studied her, amused partly, partly lost in her beauty, for indeed she was beautiful. She had a pure olive skin, running white into the neck—oh, the back of Margarita's neck! That tender nape with its soft, nearly blonde locks that curled short about it below the heavy waves of what she called her "real hair." That was chestnut, dark brown at night. Nature had given her long dark lashes with perfect verisimilitude, but had at the last moment capriciously decided against man's peace and hidden behind them, set deep behind them under flexible Italian brows, those curious slate-blue eyes that fixed her face in your mind inalterably. You could not forget her. I know, because I have been trying for twenty years.
"You are not, I take it, accustomed to dining out, Miss Margarita?" said Roger, amused, contented, ignorant of the cause of his sudden sense of absolute bien etre, or attributing it, man like, to his good dinner.
"Oh, yes," she answered, "I dine out very often. I like it better."
He bit his lip with quick displeasure; she was merely eccentric, then, not naive. For like every other man Roger detested eccentric women. It has always been a marvel to me that women of distinct brain capacity so almost universally fail to realise that we like you better fashionable, even, than eccentric. You do not understand why, dear ladies: you think it must be that we prefer fashion to brains, but indeed it is not so. It is because to be fashionable is for you to be normal, at least, that we tolerate your sheeplike marches and counter-marches across the plain of society.
"Where do you dine when you dine out?" he inquired coldly, to trap her at last into some explanation.
"On the rocks," she answered serenely, "or under the trees. Sometimes on the sand close to the water. I like it better than in the house."
Roger experienced a ridiculous sense of relief.
"Do you dine alone?" he asked and she answered quietly,
"Of course. My father always ate by himself, and Hester, too. Caliban will never let anyone see him eat: I have often tried, but he hides himself."
The waiter brought them at this point an ivory-white salad of endive set with ruby points of beet, drenched in pure olive-oil, and of this soothing luxury Margarita consumed two large plates in dreamy silence.
"I like this food," she remarked at last, "I like it better than Hester's."
Roger grew literally warm with satisfaction. He was still smiling when she spooned out a great mouthful of the delicate ice before her and under his amazed eyes set her teeth in it.
The horror of that humiliating scene woke him, years afterward, through more than one clammy midnight. In one second the peaceful dining-room was a chattering, howling reign of terror. For Margarita, with a choking cry of rage and anguish, threw the ice with terrible precision into the bland face of the waiter who had brought it; threw her glass of water with an equal accuracy into the wide-open eyes of the head waiter, who appeared instantly; threw Roger's wine-glass full into his own horrified face as he rose to catch her death-dealing hand, and lifting with the magnificent single-armed sweep of a Greek war-goddess her chair from behind her, stood facing them, glaring silently, a slate-eyed Pallas gloriously at bay!
The red wine poured down Roger's face like blood; the force of the blow nearly stunned him, but by a supreme effort he bit furiously at his tongue and the pain steadied him. As he swept the table over with a crash and wrenched the chair from her hand (and he took his strength for it) he became aware that the angry excitement behind his back, the threatening babel, had subsided to long-drawn sighs of pity, and realised with a sort of disgusted relief that the blow he had himself suffered from this panting, writhing maenad had somehow changed the situation and that he was an object of horrified sympathy. Mercifully, the room was scantily filled, for it was early, and his curt explanation was accepted in respectful silence.
"Mademoiselle is—is not responsible for her act, I beg you to believe," he said grimly, white with humiliation and pain. "I beg you will accept ..."
The two waiters pocketed a week's earnings in voluble deprecation, the proprietor shrugged his excitement away into an admirable regret, the diners wrenched their eyes from Margarita's face and affected to see nothing as Roger buttoned her cheapish vague-coloured jacket around her and ordered her sternly to straighten her hat. Her fingers literally trembled with rage, her soft, round breasts, strangely distinct in outline to his fingers as he strained the tight jacket over them, rose and fell stormily; in a troubled flash of memory he seemed to be handling some throbbing, shot bird. His own clumsiness and strange, heady elation he attributed to the shock of the wine in his face.
In an incredibly short time the table was upright, the debris removed, the room, except for the indefinable, electric sense of recent tragedy that hovers over such scenes, much as it had been. Roger had carried, fortunately for him, a light overcoat on his arm, and this would hide his white, stained triangle of vest with a little management. Grasping Margarita by the arm he led her out of the room, and for the first time questioned her.
"Are you mad?" he muttered. "What do you mean by such a performance?"
"That man," she answered, her voice vibrating like a swept violoncello, "is a devil. Did you not see what he gave me? It was not food at all, but freezing snow. Snow should not be in a glass, but on the ground. It is plain that he wishes to kill me."
Her resonant voice filled every corner of the room; it was impossible for anyone in it to miss the situation, and with a sudden inspiration Roger spoke with a special distinctness to the proprietor, noticing that the dozen persons at the tables were obviously French, and using that language.
"Mademoiselle is but recently come out of the convent," said he. "She has lived always in the provinces and has never had the honour of tasting such admirable forms of dessert as Monsieur offers his patrons."
The proprietor bowed; an extraordinary mixture of expressions played over his countenance.
"That sees itself, Monsieur," he replied. "The affair is already forgotten. I have summoned a closed carriage for Monsieur."
And thus it was that Roger found himself for the second time in a carriage with Margarita Josephine Dolores, but with a great difference in his attitude toward that young person. It is a fact possibly curious but certainly undeniable, that when one receives a wine-glass full in the face at the hands of an acquaintance, however recent, this acquaintance is placed immediately upon terms of a certain intimacy with one; the ice, at least, is broken. An unconscious conviction of this coloured Roger's tone and shone in his eyes.
"You must never do such a thing as that, Margarita," he said, "that was a terrible thing to do."
"It was a terrible thing that he did to me," replied Margarita composedly.
"Nonsense," said Roger, "perfect nonsense! The man meant you no harm. He brought you only what I had ordered for you."
"You! You told him to try to kill me?" cried this unbelievable Margarita, and turning in her seat with the swiftness of a panther she slapped him, a stinging, biting blow, flat across his cheek. A tornado of answering rage whirled him out of himself and seizing her wrists, he bent them behind her back.
If I seem to be unwarrantably acquainted with Roger's emotions at this crisis, it is only because I understand them from experience, not because he analysed them at length for me. I too have been in conflict, real physical conflict, with Margarita. I too have felt that old unpitying frenzy, that unreasonable delight in vanquishing her furious strength. Something in Roger—I know how suddenly, how amazingly—strained and snapped; the old bonds of civilisation (which with the Anglo-Saxon has always been feminisation) burst and dropped away, and the lust of physical ascendency caught him and swept the pretty legends of moral control and chivalrous forbearing into the dust bins and kitchen middens of nature's great domestic economy. What was it in Margarita that drew that old, primitive passion, that ancient world-stuff out of its decorous grave, all planted with orchids and maiden-hair, that woke it with a rough shout in us and offered us at the same time its natural gratification—a fierce fight and a certain victory? God knows and knows better, perhaps, than the Devil that Roger's ancestors would have been quick to credit with the exclusive knowledge.
Civilisation and her mysterious daughter whom we call nowadays Culture have tried to teach us that golf and lawn tennis and, for the lustiest, fencing, or the control of a spirited horse, must best translate in your house-broken citizen of forty the heat that surged up in Roger then; but to most of us it becomes once or twice apparent in our sidewalk career, our delicate journey from mahogany sideboards to mahogany beds, that this teaching is idiotic to the last degree, however strictly the police have enforced it; and we know that only the man that forged with clenched teeth after Atalanta, tenderly hungry for all her uncaptured whiteness, brutally driving the pace till her heart burst in her side if need be, tasted the supremest ecstasy of the fighting that lifts us that one tantalising step above the savage—the fight for joy. I am convinced that it is after some one of those red glimpses that a certain proportion of us every year of the world's life throws his chest weights out of window, settles his tailor's bill, and is off for Africa or Greenland with a hatchet and a cartridge belt. We become thus inscrutable to our maiden aunts and it may be to ourselves, a little, when we discover that it was not quite exactly the struggle for food and shelter, the fight against the cliffs and elements and animals that we went out into the wilderness to seek. But we are in any event less unreasonable than those belated and blindfolded ones among us who translate the implacable desire too literally and lose its meaning utterly in the garbled text of the midnight city streets.
Roger literally fell upon this vixenish, beautiful creature with the perfectly definite intention of shaking her until her teeth chattered in her head, but he did not achieve this result, for the reason that Margarita fought like a demon; fought, her hands being pinioned, with her supple back, her strong shoulders and her rigid knees. It was like struggling with a malicious little girl of six and a stubborn boy of sixteen rolled into one. She did not cry nor chatter but set her teeth and directed all her superb energy to the actual business in hand. His idea of grasping both her wrists with one hand was out of the question; for two or three delicious, angry moments he essayed this, enraged, amused, breathing hard, while she strained and bent with all her magnificent youth against him, and the years and the rust of the years fell off from him in the heartsome contest, with victory certain but not easy, her submission sure—but not yet! Some subterranean spring welled up in him, some trickle from the everlasting caves that will only be completely levelled over when humanity, decadent, crumbles into them and returns to the primal clay, and he knew that for these few gleaming seconds, snatched from the rest of the greyish hours and weeks, he had been made and destined.
You will, of course, perceive that all this is what I felt when my little turn came; Roger never talked this sort of thing in his life. But unless I am vastly mistaken, he lived it, in those galloping quick-breathed minutes, before he pinioned Margarita, her hands behind her back, with one arm, and held her fast about the knees with the other. Crushed against him, dead weight, she lay, her unconquered eyes sea black now, flat against his, her heart labouring heavily, under his relentless, banding arm.
"Will you be good, you absurd little wildcat? Will you?" he demanded, his voice shaking with laughter and triumph. (And you need not be too ready, O exponent of tolerant hearthstone chivalry, to smile at the triumph! V—l, whom Margarita detested, practically refused to sing Siegfried to her Bruenhilde, because, he said, she made him ridiculous with her virginal strugglings and got him out of breath besides! And he could lift and carry Lilli Lehmann.)
"Will you?" Roger repeated, not loosening his hold of her, for he felt her muscles tense as wire under the soft flesh.
"No, I will not," said Margarita. "I hate you. I will die before I will obey you."
And at this foolish and melodramatic remark, Roger Bradley, descendant of all the Puritans (Whistler used to say that he was by Plymouth Rock out of Mayflower—alas, dear Jimmie!), a respected bachelor, of exemplary habits and no entanglements, deliberately, and with a happy, heartfelt oath, kissed Margarita, at length and somewhat brutally, I fear, in a hired four-wheeler at the junction of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. And of his sensations at this point I cannot speak, because I never had them. I never kissed Margarita but once and then very quickly, because I was convinced that upon my subsequent speed depended my ever seeing her alive again. And she did not struggle at all, because, as a matter of fact, it was perfectly immaterial to her whether I kissed her or not. But that was not the case with Roger's kiss.
AS THE TWIGS WERE BENT
The day that Roger and I first met is as clear in my mind as if, in the current phrase, it were but yesterday. I was a slender little lad of ten and he a great, strapping fifteen-year-old. I was trundling my hoop about the part of the schoolyard usually given over to the little fellows, as blue as indigo, homesick for my mammy-O, and secretly ashamed of the French school-boy cape I had worn at Vevay, which all my mates derided, but she in her woman's thrift had thought too good to throw aside. No doubt she was right, but oh, what you make us suffer, you gentle widow mothers! You would give us the hearts out of your fervent bodies for footballs, you will nurse at our sick beds without rest and deny yourself the comforts of existence, if need be, to start us fairly in the world with a gentle training and schools of the best, but you cannot comprehend that we would far rather go without a meal in private than be the mock of our schoolmates in public. I would have lived on bread and water for a week could I have buried that French cloak at the end of it.
The very sport in which I was engaged was not in use among the other boys of my age, but inconsistently enough, though I was eager to conform as far as the cloak was concerned, wild horses could not have dragged me from my wooden hoop, and I trundled it sulkily up and down the flagged paths.
To me, an odd figure enough to young American eyes, advanced and spoke Monsieur Duval, in whose regard I was the most homelike and natural figure in the landscape, I have no doubt. It was with a real kindness that he called out some cheery nothing, some "Ah! Ah! ca va bien—vous vous amusez, n'est-ce pas?" or such like, and with an equal and unconscious amiability that I replied in like manner. The language was perfectly familiar to me, especially in its present routine connection, and I took off my cap instinctively, as I should have done at Vevay, and probably said something about my being joliment bien amuse, which was purely perfunctory of course, because I wasn't. He passed by and I trundled my hoop along, but only during the space of time required for his complete exit from the scene, for at the precise ending of that time I was violently set upon by three or four boys, dragged, protesting and frightened, to a private retreat, and there informed that my nauseating familiarity with the French language and consequent "showing off" therein must cease incontinently, and that the event of my refusing this ultimatum would be a perilous and not easily forgotten one for a little sneak like me.
Now our school at Vevay had been entirely under the influence, in its secret and really important life, of a circle of English boys, cruelly banished from their natural educational facilities, who made up for this banishment by a careful and systematic insistence on as much as possible of their native school atmosphere, and we little ones were bred up in this very strictly. The word "sneak" was too much for me, and I flew at the offender, which was, I suppose, what he wanted.
It would have gone hard indeed with me had not a tall, broad-shouldered boy, glorious in a jersey enriched with the initials of the school, swung suddenly upon us and twitched me out of the bandit crew by my coat collar.
"What's all this? What are you up to?" he asked briskly.
He had a baseball bat with him—I regarded baseball at that time as a sort of cricket gone mad—and a round visored cap on his thick fair hair. His chin was deeply cleft, his eyes grey-blue, his skin very fair. To me he was an upper-form demi-god and I, seeing nothing odd in his actions, for he was what I called the cock of the school, voiced my trembling plea.
"If you please, sir," I began, whereat he blushed and my captors burst into derisive shouts and capered around us, and thoroughly embarrassed and frightened, I began to snivel into my elbow.
"We don't talk that way over here," he admonished me shortly, "go ahead without any sirs, can't you?"
Well, it all came out finally and he settled it very easily, though not, I am sure, in the way he had at first intended to. I saw his fingers tighten around the bat, I saw him warily measuring his chances against four twelve-year-olds, and realised suddenly that this was not Albion the long desired of some of us at Vevay, but free America, and that this was not really the head boy nor had he any rights in particular beyond any knight's who chooses to ride a-rescuing. Nevertheless I was and am sure he could have punished them all and that without the bat. Suddenly, however, a reflective look came across his face, he stroked the cleft in his chin thoughtfully—a trick he never lost—and said in a quiet, convincing tone:
"You always were an awful fool, Judson," this to the bully. "If you had the sense of a cat you wouldn't haze this little fellow for what he can't help, but instead you'd use him. Why, if I had him in my French class, I'd make him do most of the reciting and keep old Duval busy—he'd never see through it. Think it over. Come on, shaver!"
This he said to me and I trotted off his slave—his fag, I hoped, but vainly, as it proved.
I tell this at length because it illustrates Roger's character so perfectly. Not that he couldn't fight, but he preferred not if a little practical arbitration could be made to do the work of battle. And yet he was rather tactless in a social sense: this was his professional attitude, you understand.
"You're the little French boy," he said, as I followed him. "What's your name, anyhow? I'm Roger Bradley." As if I didn't know!
"If you pl—I mean, mine is Winfred Jerrolds," I said shyly.
"You're not really French, are you?"
It was the first time I had ever been proud of my American blood. I told him about my American mother and my English father, his tragic death and her return to her own country after twelve years of absence; of the acquisition of my wonderful French, which was only the work of two years, of my violin lessons, strictly concealed from the other boys, of my old Swiss nurse, now our cook, of my French poodle, and a score of other secrets never breathed before.
He was deeply interested, inquired the brave details of my father's death, shook hands heartily, and expressed his intention of inviting me to his home some time during the vacation. We parted the best of friends and shall be, I trust, till we part for good and all.
I did not visit him, however, that vacation. Some slight injury, received during a game of his favourite baseball, affected his eyes, and for six months he could not use them at all, so he did not return to school until the next autumn. When we met again it was on a different basis, for I had made good use of my time and had mounted rapidly in my classes. Whether it was because I kept the habit of vacation study (the entire lazy freedom of American school children during the long vacation was very shocking to my mother) or whether my habit of application and concentration, the fact that I had really been taught to study, not merely turned loose with a book in my hands, gave me an advantage over my mates, I do not know, but when Roger came back he found me only three classes below him and graduated from the little boys' playground forever.
That summer he took me home with him and I gazed with deep respect upon the portraits of his ancestors, fading against the dark wainscots of the respectable Boston mansion; played my violin obediently for his mother, who presented me with a volume of Emerson's essays; hung upon the lips of his soldier-uncle, one-armed since Gettysburg, who in his turn listened gravely to my tales of my father; and sedulously avoided his cousin Sarah, who, even then, a fresh-faced girl of eighteen, had begun to feel those responsibilities toward the human race which have since so consistently distinguished her, and pursued me with hideous bits of paper bearing a mocking resemblance to blank cheques, which she called "pledges," by means of which she urged me to begin in the days of my youth the practice of total abstinence, with the result that she has become hopelessly involved in my mind with that revolting practice. They were Unitarians, a doctrine then fashionable in those regions, oddly enough, and greatly to the puzzlement of my dear mother, who could not understand how dissent could ever be so, and who was firmly convinced that "your Bradleys" as she called them, were addicted to ranting prayers on all occasions. In vain I described to her old Madam Bradley with a scrap of frosty lace on her white hair, a terrifying ear trumpet and the manners of a countess; in vain I assured her that Uncle Winthrop would no more be guilty of a ranting prayer than my father would have been: she shook her head gently and urged me to recall my confirmation vows!
My dear mother! To write of her even so slightly is to see her in her neat black dress with its web-like bands of lawn at neck and wrists, directing old Jeanne, bonne-a-tout-faire now in our small establishment, watering our window geraniums from a quaint, long-nosed copper pot, drilling Mr. Boffin, the poodle, in his manners, and, when the early dinner was out of the way, sitting in all simplicity with Jeanne at work upon my shirts—the only example of really democratic institutions that I ever saw in this irascible democracy. I should like to have seen Madam Bradley sewing with the cook and innocently gossiping over the old days!
Well, well, even to have invented so inhumanly possible an ideal as democracy is a great feat and a wonderful exhibition of the powers of our minds on this planet, I suppose. And I am not sure that it is a greater proof of sincerity to practice it while denying it in theory, as they do in the old countries, than to reverse the process in the new ones. Americans are such incurable idealists! And if Plato is right and the idea is the really important part of the matter, then the idea of seventy—or is it eighty, now?—millions of equal lords of creation is really more to the point than the fact that they don't exist. But why, oh why, must equality produce such bad manners? They must have been very bad to make such an impression upon a little lad of ten. And who can explain its extraordinary effect upon the voice? Why does it kill all modulation, all tone-color, all delicate shades of thought and passion equally, and resolve that great gift, which I sometimes think the greatest difference between me and my dog, into a toneless, mumble-chopped grunting?
That was the glory of Margarita's voice: if she but informed you that she would like more bread, your ear relished that series of unimportant syllables precisely as the tongue relishes a satisfying dish; with her, pleading, commanding, refusing, admiring, were four perfectly different tonal processes; a blind man, an Eskimo or a South Sea Islander would have understood that voice perfectly. And even now, merely a shadow of what it once was, it is a lesson to all about her.
When Roger was seventeen and I but twelve he lost two years out of his school-life, and this brought us closer together ultimately, as will be seen. In some more than usually violent game of his favourite baseball at this time he managed to fall so heavily on his chest as slightly to bruise the lung, and a teasing cough that resulted from this terrified his mother, over whom, like so many of her pure-blooded countrywomen, the White Scourge hung threateningly, never very far away. Good luck sent them just then an invitation from a distant cousin, skipper of a large schooner that plied in Southern waters, and she thankfully sent Roger off for a long cruise with him. It was a fine experience, and oh, how bitterly I longed to share it, as the skipper cousin urged me to do! But I was the only son of my mother and she a widow, and so I swallowed my grief and contented myself with writing. It had long been a great grief to me that I must follow him so far behind at college—he had of course decided me on his own university—and one of my contentments at this period was the hope of winning ahead a year and leaving only two between us. This would enable me to enter Yale when he was but half way in his course, which as a matter of fact, I accomplished, to my mother's great pride. She liked Roger, but always found him a little heavy and slow, and secretly cherished my greater facility and more rapid mental development with a fond and wholly female short-sightedness.
Our correspondence was very characteristic at this time: I have specimens of both sides of it. My letters are long and detailed, almost school-diaries. Roger's are few, short and immensely impressive. He had a straightforward, utterly unimaginative style that strikes the heart like Defoe's. He gave the strongest sense of great events always happening, of high seas, bright, strange coasts, racy, vital talk—and all in few, short words.
"We have been rolling hard for three days now," he says in one letter, "and the ship's dog died of colic, which is about the worst sign there is, they say. It may be we shall be wrecked. I wish you were here, Jerry, you would enjoy it. They have stopped trying to coddle me now and I live rough, like the rest. The food is not so very good, but we all eat hard. I hardly ever cough at all now. The captain says I am as handy as the next man."
The oldest of four, he had been looked up to and respected from the nursery. A powerful influence at school, a prince regent at home, wealthy in his own right, he stood in some danger of being spoiled, I suppose. But the bluff skipper cousin, representative of that strange New England Wanderlust, so little exploited in the anemic fiction that so ridiculously caricatures New England life, stamped Roger at this most impressionable age with the clean, downright simplicity, the manly humility so signally characteristic of men who must always be ready to perish in the elements; the ability to hold his tongue and wait. Few families really rooted in that Old England that made the New but can count in some generation their skipper cousin; in these the whitecaps, the tall masts, the spices and hot nights, the scarlet tropics and the dusky, startled natives tip with flame the quiet chronicles of the sisters left at home; and gorgeous peacock fans, rosy, enamelled shells, strings of sandalwood beads, riotous, bloomy embroideries and supple folds of exotic muslin weave their scents and suggestions through the sober-coloured stuff of everyday. Indeed, New England as I have known her, both as a child in her chief and representative city, and as a man in her farthest, least-spoiled hamlets has always seemed to me far more complicated and mysterious, far more vital and suggestive than her too-exclusively-spinsterly chroniclers can comprehend.
I look to see the country turn back to New England, not only with historic pride, but with a rich appreciation of its artistic mother-land—not mistaking her for its bleak and apprehensive maiden aunt!
I am far from her now, that old breeding ground of great, incisive sons, that nest of passions so strong that only a grip of granite—like her sea line—could master them (do you fancy, O languorous, faded South, do you bellow, O strident, bustling West, that because she neither sighed them nor trumpeted them, she had no passions? Allez, allez!) but I can close my eyes at any moment and smell the challenge of her Atlantic winds here on the Mediterranean or feel the heady languor of her miraculous "Indian Summer" there in a London drizzle. It is strange that I, who have said many unhandsome things of her country as a whole, should thus rush into apologia for my mother's birthplace. And yet to think of never having known Margarita!
But of course I should have met her. She would have come to me walking lightly out of the dim Algerian evening or bumped into me some morning in Piccadilly or peered curiously through my leaded pane at Oxford, whither I should undoubtedly have returned, one day, to muse away my middle age. I idled for a happy year there, twenty-odd years ago, while Roger was grinding away at the fantastic matter he called the Law, and liked it well. But fate had not decreed me for a conventional Englishman, which I should doubtless have been, for as a boy I was malleable to a degree, but had reserved me instead for the ends of the earth—and Margarita.
FATE REELS IN
There is nothing more certain than that the bare facts of life are misleading in the extreme. This is doubtless nature's reason for concealing the human skeleton; it is undeniably necessary, but not many of us take it into daily consideration, and nobody but a few negligible anthropologists would dream of bringing it forward as proof of anything in particular. And yet people who are fond of describing themselves as practical persistently fold their hands over their abdomens, shrug their shoulders and reiterate monotonously: "But, my dear fellow, there are the facts! It is only necessary to consider the facts of the case!" or, "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid the bare facts are against you!" I suppose that is why they are so often called bare, because so little of the important, informing or attractive is draped around them.
Consider for instance, the bare facts of Roger's adventure. Here is a man who, meeting a perfectly unknown and singularly beautiful young woman in a questionable locality at dusk, enters into conversation with her, takes her to a French restaurant for dinner, then finds himself embroiled in a disgraceful altercation in which wine-glasses are thrown and chairs waved, and finally escapes with her in a closed carriage, which soon becomes the scene of a violent struggle culminating in a ferocious kiss! The case is really too clear; it is almost too conventional for an art student of any initiative and originality. Anyone possessed of the slightest acquaintance with fiction or the daily papers could tell you instantly that here were a dissipated clubman and a too-unfortunately-stereotyped creature who not only required no description but were best, in the interests of morality, undescribed. And yet Roger was emphatically not dissipated, nor even a clubman, in the sense in which the word appears to be used in America, and Margarita was not in the least unfortunate and so far from stereotyped that she pressed the unusual hard toward the utterly unique.
"Well, well," I hear the practical man, "but this is a case in one—five—ten thousand, surely! We all know—"
My good man, there is absolutely nothing we all know except that we shall certainly die, one day, and from this one bare fact more utterly contradictory inferences have been drawn than I can afford ink to enumerate. Nothing could be more certain than this bare fact, and can you show me anything more productive of human uncertainty? I trow not. What do you know of the private life of the man in the next house? Have you a friend who cannot tell you from one to three melodramatic tales, lying quite within his experience, at which you will gasp, "Why, it's as exciting as a novel!" The best novels never get into print and the most blood-curdling, goose-pimpling dramas are played by the boxholders. The longer I live the more firmly am I convinced that the really quiet life is relatively rare.
To Roger, indeed, after his climax in the four-wheeler, it seemed impossible that life could ever again be quiet. If I have not impressed you with the idea that he was a decent sort of man, I have wasted a whole chapter and demonstrated the folly of attempting authorship at my age, and you will be but poorly prepared to learn that when the cabby knocked at the glass, after heaven knows how many minutes of interested observation, Roger discovered his identity again—and loathed it. His conduct appeared to him indescribably beneath contempt, his situation deplorable. Margarita, sobbing quietly in her corner, seemed unlikely to raise either his spirits or his estimate of himself.
Opening the door of the carriage he repeated his directions to the too-confidential driver and spoke stiffly to his companion.
"I will not attempt to excuse myself to you," he said, "for it would be pointless. If you can believe me, I will try my best to help you to your friends. Can you not tell me the name of one?"
"What is your name?" she asked, her voice only a little shaken from her sobs, which had ceased as soon as he began to speak.
"My name is Roger Bradley," he answered promptly.
"Then that is the name of my first friend," said Margarita Josephine Dolores, "but I hope to find others."
Roger's revulsion of feeling was so great, his state of mind so perturbed and confounded that he crushed them into a short, husky laugh. Had he been the hero of a novel he would undoubtedly have launched into a bitter speech, but he did not.
"Others like me?" he said briefly, and all the bitterness of the novel-hero was there if Margarita had been able to read it. But she only smiled, a little uncertainly, it is true, and replied:
"Yes, I should like them like you—only not so strong," she added softly, with a shy glance at her wrists.
It has been quite unnecessary for me to consult letters or diaries to give me a very clear insight into Roger's feelings at this point, for I myself have experienced them. It was when I took Margarita out in a rowboat and she began to rock herself in it.
"Don't do that, Margarita!" I cried. "That is an idiotic trick."
She continued to rock it.
"Do you hear me, Margarita?" I demanded, tapping her foot with some irritation, for she really was irritating. In fact she completely upset the theory that tact and adaptability constitute her sex's chief charm.
"Of course I hear you. If you kick me, I shall only rock the harder," she answered composedly—and did so.
Shipping the oars carefully I arose, advanced upon Margarita and boxed her ears with determination. I should have done it in mid-ocean. I doubt if sharks in sight would have deterred me. As I was boxing her ears—beautiful, strong ones, they were, not tiny, selfish, high-set bits of porcelain: W—r M—l (who would have been Sir W—r M—l in England to-day) said of Margarita's ears that they were set convincingly low and that he looked to her to demonstrate one of his favourite tests of longevity—in the very act of this boxing. I repeat, I was cruelly bitten in the wrists, and, snorting with rage, pure, primitive, unchivalrous rage, I fell upon that shameless little Pagan and shook her violently, till the teeth rattled in her head. Over we went, the pair of us, struggling like demons, into the chilly, rational water, and as Margarita, like so many people who live by the sea, was utterly ignorant of the art of swimming and like so many people of her temperament, violently averse to the sudden shock of cold water, it was a subdued and dripping young woman that I dragged to the overturned boat and ultimately towed to shore. I worked hard to get her there and had no time for remorse, but as I hurried her up the beach it flooded over me.
"What must you think of me?" I asked her through chattering teeth. "You will not care to meet any more of Roger's friends, I fear."
"Oh, yes," she returned sweetly, looking incomprehensibly lovely—ah, me, that long, smooth line of her hip, that round, sleek head, shining like bronze in the sun! I can see it now—"Oh, yes, I hope he has many more like you, Jerry, but not so strong—you hurt my arm!"
It is useless to ask me why that should have endeared her a hundred times over to me, who would have given a year of my life to kiss her but might not. It did thus endear her, however, and so I know what hot, foolish hope flooded Roger off his footholds of conventions and convictions and floated him away in a warm, alluring sea, where the tropic palm-isles of Fata Morgana were the only shores. I, too, caught a glimpse of those shores; the warmth of that sea was only the blood pounding through my veins, and I knew it, but I shut my eyes and let the waves lap at me a moment. Roger, lucky dog, did not know and did not need to know what was happening to him, and it was not for a moment, but forever, as far as he knew, that he slipped into the current and drifted with it.
It was very characteristic of him that his next words had, apparently, no bearing whatever on his state of mind.
"We are now," he said, "at the station. If you will tell me the name of the town from which you came here, I will see that you get back there. Believe me, it is the only possible thing to do. You cannot stay here. Now, where did you come from?"
It took some few minutes to convince Roger that the girl literally did not know the name of the station at which she had purchased her ticket to New York. She knew she had travelled all day, and that was all. She had slipped out from her home at dawn or before, left the mysterious Hester Prynne asleep, walked five miles (Hester had said it was five miles to the railroad) to a little town where a girl had sold her the clothes she had on for one of her banknotes and advised her to go to New York if she wished to see the world, "which was what I did wish," said Margarita.
A young man behind some bars had given her the ticket and some small money back from another note and a kind old man with white hair and a tall black hat had sat beside her after a while, and pressed so hard against her that she had no room for her knees. She had told him of this inconvenience, but to no avail. He had put his arm about her shoulders and asked her why she did not change her plans and come to Boston. Then she had told him that though she wanted friends she did not care for such old ones, and when he still pressed against her she had asked the man with the shining buttons who looked at her ticket if he would not remove the old man, because she did not like to sit so close to anyone, and she was sure the old man was sitting closer all the time. Then he of the buttons took her somewhere else and bade her sit beside a woman, grey-haired also, who would not talk at all, and left her by and by. After this the buttoned man gave her meat between bread. Still later a young man with beautiful, large eyes inquired if he might sit beside her and she agreed gladly. He smelled very good. He asked where she was going and she said to find friends. He said she would find many on Broadway and that easily; she had only to show herself there. He offered to point out the way there and just as all seemed in the best possible way the buttoned man came again, frowned on the good-smelling young man and took his seat. He talked a good deal to Margarita—so much that she could not very well attend to it. At last he gave her a large grey veil and commanded her to wrap her head in it, and he would look after her when they got to New York. But when they did get to New York she eluded him and asked the way to Broadway, and then she met Roger. So, as the young man had said, there were friends on Broadway. But there were none in the town from which she took the ticket and she had no idea what its name was. Hester never mentioned it. She did not believe it had a name.
All this as the cab rested by the kerbstone. It was perfectly obvious that she was speaking the truth. They had patronised this particular driver long enough, anyway, and Roger paid him liberally and led Margarita into the draggled, dusty station; the new one was not then built. Seated beside her in a relatively dim corner he tried to formulate some plan, but the absurd emptiness of the situation baffled even his practical good sense. How could he take this girl to a town that neither he nor she knew the name of? How, on the other hand, could he fling such a projectile as Margarita into any respectable hotel? What would she do—or say? True, he might possibly have presented her as his sister and kept her sternly in view during every possible moment, but she was not sufficiently well dressed to be his sister. And his overcoat was buttoned suspiciously high. Was he to stroll out of the waiting-room and leave her abandoned, like some undesirable kitten, in the corner? The idea was ludicrous: she must be taken care of. Had she thrust herself upon him, enticed him, challenged him? Assuredly not; moved by some completely inexplicable influence, utterly alien to himself, his birth, his training, he had deliberately and persistently questioned her, prolonged a trifling encounter unjustifiably, whirled her away, literally; and now that he had found no suitable place of deposit it was incredible that he should deliver this extraordinary and self-assumed charge to civil authority. It would have been almost as well to lead her back to Broadway, he told himself sternly. The most exotic foreigner would have found herself in better case, it occurred to him, for interpreters of one sort or another can always be found. But Margarita seemed foreign to this planet, very nearly. What should be said of a person who lived on a nameless shore, served by Hester Prynne and Caliban? Who scooped hundreds—perhaps thousands—out of a chest, to flee at dawn from a town whose name she had never heard mentioned, though she had lived within walking distance of it all her life?
It was absurd—but something must be done. Margarita sat contented and amused, devouring the shabby bustle all around her with her great deep-set eyes, willing, apparently, to sit there indefinitely.
"Will you let me examine your bag?" Roger said at last, and she handed him the coarse, imitation-leather affair. There was a soiled, cheap handkerchief in it, some four hundred dollars in banknotes, and a torn envelope with a town and state written clearly on it.
I have tried to write the name of this town, and when I found that impossible, I tried to invent one to take its place, but I could not do it. Surely it is nothing to any of you who may happen to read this poor attempt of mine to pass my time, nothing, and less than nothing, just what may be the name of the utterly unimportant little backwater of a village from which, if you know the way, you may walk four miles or so to Margarita's home. Undoubtedly many of you sail by it often, but it is hidden from you by the rise of the ground, the high rocks and the great, ancient-looking wall that I helped to pile. These and the reefs protect it quite sufficiently. And I do not want you there. It would prove far too interesting a spot to jaded trippers and trotters—and it is amazing how quickly your new countries grow jaded; more eager for fresh scenes than old Japan herself, Nippon the rice-blest, the imperishable, whence I send these words.
Be satisfied, then, to know that in the direction of this torn envelope Roger held the clew to Margarita's nameless home. Yes, the young woman had sold her the bag with the clothing and advised her to put the banknotes in it. No, she did not know her name. She smelled good—like the young man who advised Broadway.
"Come, Margarita," said Roger gravely, "let us see when you can start," and she followed him submissively to the wicket, matched her stride to his on his discovery that a train which would take them half way was just about to start, and ran beside him to the steps of the car. He motioned to her to mount and she did so, turning at the top of the steps with a face of sudden terror.
"You are not going to leave me, Roger Bradley?" she cried, "where am I going?"
"Certainly I shall not leave you. You are going home," he said quietly, and mounted after her. The guard stared at them, the bell clanged sadly and the train moved out of the station. The play, you see, was well along.
IN WHICH THE SPRING FLOWS IN A LITTLE STREAM
O father, mother, let me be, Never again shall I have rest. For as I lay beside the sea, A woman walked the waves to me, And stole the heart out of my breast.
Sir Hugh and the Mermaiden.
ROGER FINDS THE ISLAND
It goes without saying that I have a retentive memory. Of course I depend very largely upon it for all the small details that Roger has from time to time vouchsafed me in regard to his relations with Margarita, or I could not very well be writing these idle memories, but Roger was always a poor writer—that is to say, so far as comment and amplification and variety of manner may be supposed to make a good one. Witness the following letter, which I received in answer to my plea for details of that strange night journey from New York to Margarita's town. It left a gap in my story of which I never happened to receive any account, and it seemed to me a fairly important gap, though you will see that this was not Roger's view of it.
It is rather late in the day to ask me about that trip to ——. We hardly spoke for a long time, as I am sure I have told you before—either of us. There was no berth to be had for her and no drawing-room car on, so we rode all night in the day coach with a rather mixed lot. I remember they snored and it amused her. She wanted to wake them up and I had to speak sharply to prevent her. The air got very bad and I took her out on the platform for a while. I remember there were any amount of stars and the moon out, too. You know she never talked much. About one o'clock we got to S—— and changed cars for a few minutes' wait.... I think it was then that she asked me abruptly what I meant by a "convent." She said it in French and I saw that she spoke and understood the language, but only in a simple, childish sort of way. I told her it was a big school. "What is that?" she said.... There were a number of Italians on the train, and they were chattering like magpies, but she paid no attention to them, and I was sure she did not understand them. At —— we got out and I asked her if there would be any livery stable open at that hour, for it was not more than four o'clock. She did not know, of course, what a livery stable was and told me that we must either go in a boat or walk. So we walked. The sun rose while we were walking. I think this is all you wanted.
There you have it! Could anything be simpler? "I remember there were any amount of stars ... You know she never talked much."—Oh, Roger, Roger! Must you always have the doing and I the telling? Even to this day, though I would cut off this hand for you, I am jealous of you. "The sun rose while we were walking"! Ah me, to walk with Margarita through the dawn! She was the very dawn of life herself, untarnished, unfatigued, unashamed. To me who have known her, other women are as pictures in a gallery—lovely pictures, many of them, but a little faded and fingermarked, somehow.
We shall have to take that walk for granted. I know that it consisted of a quarter-mile of sleeping village, three quarters of a mile of scattered houses, two miles of widely separated farms and then two last miles of bayberry, salt meadow, coarse grass, rocky sand and blue, inrolling seas. I know how the salty, strengthening air blew Roger's lungs clean of the frightful murk of the car, how the strange, stunted windrocked trees gave an odd, unreal air of Japan to that bleak shore; I can half close my eyes now and lo, Atami and her thundering, surf-swept beach broadens out before me, and the breakers as they come pounding in, chase—not the withered, monkeylike old priest who searches endlessly for something in the sea-weed, girding his clean, faded robe above his bare sticks of legs—but Margarita and me. The camphor trees lose their lacquered green and turn to distant chestnut; the scarlet lily fades to a dull rose marsh flower; the lines of the temple are only quaintly-eaved rocks and ledges, and I am over seas again. I wonder if that is the reason I love this place so? But there were no geyser baths there and I had no rheumatism then! Tout lasse, tout casse, tout passe—even the sciatic nerve, we will hope.
Well, then, after they had made what Roger with his usual accuracy in such matters took for nearly five miles, it occurred to him to ask Margarita how it was that she knew her way so well, for she went through pastures, broken walls, here and there a bit of the country road, with the air of long practice. At first she would not tell him. I can imagine that slanting school-boy look, that quietly malicious indrawing of the corners of the mouth: the most enchanting obstinacy conceivable. They were following at the time a narrow beaten path, perhaps a cattle track, but that was not her guide, for often such a path curved and returned aimlessly on itself or branched off quite widely from the direction she took. At first, as I say, she was deaf to his question, but when he repeated it, patiently, I have no doubt, but evidently determined upon an answer, she yielded, as we all yield to Roger in the end, and confessed that she had once followed Hester to the village and back by this road. Hester had never guessed it, never in fact turned her back when once started, and it had been easy to keep her in sight. At the edge of the town Margarita had felt a little shy and apprehensive of her fate if discovered, so she had sat by the wood-side till Hester appeared again and followed her meekly home.
Since then I have been able to gather some idea of Hester's appearance from various sources, and I own that the situation has always seemed to me picturesque in the extreme: the tall, gaunt, silent woman in her severe, dull dress striding through the pastures, and behind her, stealthily as an Indian—or an Italian avenger—the dark, lovely child, now crouching amongst the bayberry, now defiantly erect, but always graceful as a panther, her hair loose on her slender shoulders. I cannot forbear to add that in this picture of mine, a great vivid letter burns on the woman's breast, inseparable from her name, of course. But this only adds to the sombre power of the picture. It is a thing for Vedder to paint, in witchlike browns and greys.
Margarita had never made this journey but once, but she followed her old trail with the precision of a savage. I myself have gone that way once only: and then but half of the distance, or a little less. It was not in bayberry time, but through a land smooth and blue-white with snow and with a terror pulling my heart out that I am sure I could never endure again. How we flew over the snow! It was all a ghastly glare, a dancing sun in a turquoise sky ... No, no, one does not live through such things twice and I hate even the memory of it. Even with the boiling geyser rumbling behind me, filling the baths with comfort and oblivion, I shiver to my very marrow.
After they had followed a certain marshy band of vivid green for several pasture-lengths, Margarita shook her head slightly, retraced her steps and stopped at a point where three or four great flat stones made a sort of causeway across the glistening, muddy strip, and Roger, following her as she jumped lightly over, saw that they stood upon a little rocky promontory joined only by this strange bit of marsh to the mainland. The strip was here not a hundred feet wide, and winding in on either side of this two little inlets crept sluggishly along and lost themselves in the marsh. The promontory was there very barren and it seemed to Roger that the girl was going to lead him out into the shallow cove that faced them, but a few more steps showed him that just here the point of land curved around this cove, which swept far inland, and broadened out wonderfully into several acres of meadow-hay dotted with sparse, stunted cedars.
Directly before him lay a wet, shining beach, for the tide was half gone, and a hundred yards out, the tops of what might almost have been a built wall of nasty pointed rocks formed a perfect lagoon across the face of the promontory. At high tide these would not show, but they were there, always guarding, always bare-toothed, and as far again beyond them a bell-buoy mounted on a similar ledge seemed to point to the existence of a double barrier. It was a great lonesome bay of the Atlantic that he looked at, its arms on either side desolate, scrubby and forbidding, with not a hint of life. Suddenly, as he stared, wondering, and Margarita stood quiet beside him, a long, quavering bellow came from behind him.
"It is the cow," said Margarita reassuringly, as he whirled around, "she is calling Caliban to milk her, I suppose."
Again the impatient, minor bellow rose on the air, and Roger perceived that what he had carelessly passed over as a great sand dune was in reality a square cottage built of sand, apparently, for it was precisely the colour and texture of sand, sloping off in a succession of outbuildings, just as the cliffs and dunes slope, windowless, nearly, from that side at least, and offering only the anxious cow, peering from the furthest outhouse, as evidence of life. Close up to it on one side, the right, a great, cliff-like spur of rock shot up and ran like a wall for fifty feet, then fell away gradually into the sand of the beach which ran up to meet it; the cottage itself was perched on the beach edge, and beyond it, on the left side, the straggling grass began. They moved on toward this house, then, and as they neared it a long, melancholy howl echoed the cow's lament, a howl with a baying, mellow undertone that lingered on the morning air. For it was honest morning now, a September morning, blowing wild-grapes and sea sand and bayberry into Roger's nostrils. As he stared at the house a great hound crept around the corner of it, baying monotonously, but as he saw Margarita he left off and ran to her, arching his brindled head. He was a Danish hound, beautifully brindled and very massive. She fondled him quietly, smiling as he clumsily threw his great paws about her waist, and pushed him down.
"I am very hungry," said Margarita abruptly, "I think I will have Caliban bring me some warm milk."
She turned her direction slightly and made for the cow stall, and as he stood by the door Roger saw that whatever the internal structure of the building might be, it was certainly covered with rough sand.
"Here is Caliban now," she added, and a loutish looking fellow, small-eyed, heavy-lipped and shock-haired, appeared to rise out of the ground before them, dangling a milk pail on his arm. At sight of Margarita his jaw dropped, he shivered violently and appeared ready to faint, but as she called encouragingly to him he mustered courage to approach and feel of her skirt timidly. He was evidently feeble-minded as well as dumb, for with a sort of croak he dropped the bucket and began to dance clumsily up and down, snapping his fingers the while. Plainly he had thought her gone for good and this was his thanksgiving.
"Milk the cow, Caliban, I am thirsty," said Margarita impatiently, after a moment of this, "and get me some bread. Make haste with it."
He started on a run for the door furthest from the cow stall and appeared almost immediately with a large silver mug and a huge piece torn from a loaf. Squatting beside the cow he balanced the mug between his knees and deftly milked it full. She seized it, drained it thirstily and began munching her bread, holding the mug out to him again to be filled a second time. She bit great mouthfuls from the loaf, like a child of four, and Roger watched her, half amused, half irritated.
"You are not accustomed to the exercise of hospitality, I see," he said finally, and as she looked at him over the silver mug inquiringly, he explained.
"I have walked for more than an hour and I am hungry, too, Miss Margarita," he said. "Won't you offer me anything to eat and drink?"
She shook her head doubtfully.
"I need this bread myself," she said, "and no one drinks from this cup but me. I should not like it. If Caliban will get you another ..."
"Surely he will if you tell him to," Roger suggested mildly.
"Very well," she returned indifferently, "when he has finished milking, I will," and she continued her meal, adding, "I do not think he likes you, for he shows his teeth. He did that when the doctor came to see my father."
I asked Margarita a year or two after this to describe for me how she first entertained Roger: I had already a good idea of his initial hospitality to her in the French restaurant. Here is her letter.
What an odd thing to ask me to tell you—my first hospitality to Roger! But I remember it very well. Only it was not very hospitable, because, of course, I did not know anything about that sort of thing. One has to learn that, like finger bowls and asking people if they slept well. You know I called for some bread and milk and ate them very greedily, standing by the cow so that I could get more when I should want it. By the time I had finished, Caliban had finished milking and then Roger asked me quite politely if I thought he might have something to eat now. You know, dear Jerry, I had never been used to eating with people. All the people I knew ate their meals separately and it never occurred to me that I ought to be there when he ate. And then, I was so sleepy—oh, so sleepy! You know I have always felt sleepy and hungry and angry and things like that so much more than other people seem to. I have to sleep and eat when I feel like sleeping and eating. So I only said, "You had better ask Hester to get you a breakfast. I must go to sleep now," and flung myself down on some fresh hay just beside the cow stall, in the sun, and went to sleep! Was not that a dreadful thing to do? But I did it. I do not know how long I slept, nor how Roger looked when I turned my back on him, but when I opened my eyes he was sitting beside me, smoking a cigar and staring at me. He had been there all the time.
"Did Hester get you a breakfast?" I asked him, stretching myself like a big baby.
"I have not asked her," he said very quietly, "suppose we go in now and see about it, if you are rested."
So we went in, but Hester was not in the kitchen, and when I went up to her room and knocked there was no answer, so I supposed she had gone out for the roots and herbs she used to hunt so much.
"You will have to get it yourself," I told him, "unless Caliban will."
"Are you not willing to do that much for me, then?" he said, and I felt very strange, though I could not explain why. I think now it was because I began to understand that I ought to have done something I had not.
"I would get it for you if I could," I said, "but I do not know how to make a breakfast, nor where Hester keeps her things. Why do you not ask Caliban?"
So then he asked Caliban if he could manage some breakfast for him, but Caliban only stared and walked away.
"Does he understand?" Roger asked me, and I felt that his voice was not the same as it had been.
"I am sure he does," I said. "Will you not do as this man asks you, Caliban?" But he only scowled and turned away.
"You see," I said, "there is nothing to be done until Hester comes." But Roger shook his head and walked over to Caliban.
I am sure he knew it was not that I grudged him food, but that I had no idea at all of how to set about getting it ready. People always have known that what I say is truth, though much of what I say seems to surprise them.
"If you will excuse me," he said, "I will try a slightly different method," and I knew he was very angry. He lifted Caliban in the air by the collar of his coat and gave him several sharp blows on each ear and shook him. Then he threw him away on the floor. Caliban cried like a young dog and sat upon his knees and covered his face. He meant for Roger to excuse him. I was surprised, for I had always been a little afraid of Caliban.
"Get up," said Roger, very quietly, "and make me some coffee and whatever else you have. And see that you obey me in future."
Caliban hurried about and looked here and there and made some coffee and broke eggs in a black pan and cut pieces of bacon. He set a place at the kitchen table and made some biscuits warm in the oven. Roger ate five eggs and a great many pieces of bacon and six biscuits. He gave me some coffee. When he had finished he drew a long breath and gave Caliban a piece of silver money and Caliban kissed it. Then Roger took another cigar and told Caliban to fetch a match and then he asked me if I would like to walk by the sea for a little.
"I ought to find this Hester of yours," he said, "but I won't just yet. I am too comfortable. Will you come out with me?"
So I said I would, and that was all my hospitality, dear Jerry. I had learned better when you came, had I not? This letter has been so long that I cannot write any more.
My Margarita! The very words are not like any other two words. I think no woman's name is so purely sweet to the ear, so grateful on the tongue. My Margarita! Alas, alas....
As to that walk by the sea, I have never been able to get any satisfactory account of it. Any, that is, which could hope to prove satisfactory to one who did not know Roger. Such an one might be incredulous, in face of all that had gone before, when assured that Roger paced back and forth on the firm sand, filling his lungs in the clean sea air, puffing his cigar in perfect silence, Margarita at his heels as silent as he, and the big Danish hound at hers, more silent than either. But so it was. To me who know them both, nothing could seem more natural. They were healthy, well-poised animals, well fed, supplied with plenty of fresh air (a prime necessity to them both) and in congenial company. Neither of them was given to consideration of the past or prognostication of the future; both of them were content. Roger has always had that priceless faculty of reserving mental processes, apparently, until they are necessary. When they are not, he lays them by, as a sportsman lays by his gun, and the teasing, relentless imps that poison the rest of us with futile regrets for the past and vain hopes for the future avoid him utterly. It is the pure Anglo Saxon corner-stone of that great, slow wall which I firmly believe is destined to encircle the world, one day. Your slender, brown peoples with their throbbing, restless brains and curious, trembling fingers may—and doubtless will—build the cathedrals and paint the frescoes therein and write the songs to be sung there; but they must hold their land from Roger and his kind and look to him to guard them safe and unmolested there. Or so it seems to me.
After an hour or so of this walking Caliban approached them, and bending humbly before Roger made it clear that he greatly desired their presence at the cottage. They went after him, Margarita incurious because she was utterly indifferent, Roger wasting no energy, of course, with no facts to proceed upon. At the kitchen he endeavoured to lead them up the narrow stair, and then Margarita asked him if anything was wrong with Hester and if she had sent him.
He nodded his head violently and led her up the stair. In a few moments she returned.
"Hester," she said composedly, "is dead."
"Dead?" Roger echoed in consternation, "are you certain?"
"Oh, yes," she replied, "she is cold, just like my father. She is sitting in her chair. Her eyes are open and she is dead."
Roger stared thoughtfully ahead of him. He never doubted her for a moment. It was always impossible to doubt Margarita.
"I wonder if Caliban will make my breakfast, now?" she added, with a shadow of concern in her voice. "I think he puts more coffee in the pot: I shall be glad of that."
"For heaven's sake," Roger cried sharply, "are you human, child? This woman, if I understand you, has taken care of you from babyhood!"
"Of course," said Margarita, "but I do not like her and she does not like me. She liked my father."
It may seem strange to you that Roger did not immediately ascend the stair and confirm Margarita's report, but he did not. Instead he spoke to Caliban.
"Is the woman dead?" he asked shortly.
The clumsy, slow-witted youth nodded his head and sobbed noisily, with strange animal-like grunts and gulps.
"Has she been dead long, do you think?" Roger asked.
Caliban raised his hand and checked off the five fingers slowly. It was understood that he indicated so many hours. He placed his hand upon his heart, then shook his head from side to side. Suddenly he shifted his features unbelievably and Roger gazed horrified upon a very mask of death: there was no doubt as to what Caliban had seen.
This being so Roger thought a moment and then spoke.
"I am very sleepy, Margarita," he said, "and I don't care to walk back to the village directly, since it would do no especial good. I think I will take a little nap on the beach, if you don't mind, and then I'll go to the village and get help to—to do the various things that must be done. Later I will have a talk with you. Tell me once again—you do not know of any friends or relatives of your father's or Hester's?"
She shook her head, carelessly but definitely.
But this question was beyond the poor lout's intelligence; he could only blubber and fend off possible chastisement.
"Take another nap, if you can, Margarita," said Roger, "and I will go to the beach. Call me if you want me."
She went off to her warm straw, threw herself on it like a tired child, and passed quickly into a deep sleep; he tramped for a moment on the beach, then stretched himself in the lee of a sun-warmed rock and fell into the dreamless, renewing rest that he took as his simple due from nature.
FATE CASTS HER DIE
When he woke it was full sunset. The lonely reefs were red with it, (O Margarita, well I know that hour! Do you remember our talks?) the point of land seemed drowned in it, and with a sense of something inexcusably forgotten and put off, Roger hurried to the house that stood strangely deserted, it seemed, in the dying glow. In just that glow I have watched it, leaning on my oars, and for a few strange minutes, the exact time necessary for the sun to drop behind the coast-hills, I have felt myself a small boy again, crouched in a cane chair before my mother's sewing-table, unable for very terror to drop my feet to the floor as I gazed through wide eyes at the House of Usher, that home of sunset mystery. Such a strange, Poe-like atmosphere could that sanded, secret cottage take upon itself.
Roger pushed rapidly up the beach and entered the house quietly, so quietly that he caught Margarita's last sentences, which struck him as odd even in his utter ignorance of their connection. She was evidently scolding Caliban, for his grunts and shufflings punctuated her pauses.
"It is very saucy and unkind of you, Caliban," she was saying, "and you need not think you can do as you like because Hester is dead. I know she can not walk any more. My father could not walk when he was dead. And you need not think that Roger Bradley will not ask, because he will. He knows everything."
Roger thought that the lout had been teasing her with stupid ghost hints and bade him begone sternly, more vexed than before as he noticed the dim twilight drawing in and realised how late and inconvenient the hour was for all he had to do.
"Can you get me a lantern, Margarita?" he said shortly. "I must get back to the village and try to bring someone out with me to see about the—all the matters that must be attended to—upstairs."
"Upstairs?" she repeated, "what matters?" He blessed her indifference then, and explained as gently as he could the necessity for some disposition of her old housekeeper's body.
"Oh! Hester," she returned, "you cannot do anything to Hester, Roger Bradley, for she has gone."
"Gone," he echoed stupidly.
"Go and see," said Margarita, pointing to the stairway, and he took the steps two at a time. The room that she indicated faced the stairs directly. It was furnished plainly with an ugly wooden bed covered with a bright patchwork quilt, a pine bureau and two cheap chairs. The walls were utterly bare and the floor, but for a woven rug near the bed, of the sort so common in New England. And yet there was an air of homely occupation in the plain chamber, a bright, patched cushion in one chair, a basket full of household mending and such matters, on a small table, a pair of spectacles and a worn Bible beside it. The room had that unmistakable air of recent occupation, that subtle atmosphere of use and wont that no art can simulate—and yet it was empty.
Roger came down the stairs again and summoned Caliban. The fellow lay in a deep sleep, just as he had thrown himself, on the straw beside the cow stall, a full pail of milk beside him. It was hard to wake him, for he scowled and snored and dropped heavily off again after each shaking, but at last he stood conscious before them and appeared to understand Roger's sharp questions well enough, though his only answer was a clumsy twist of his large head and a dismal negative sort of grunt.
Where was Hester's body? Was she really dead? Had anyone been in the house? What had he been doing all the afternoon? One might as well have asked the great hound in the doorway. Even to threats of violence he was dumb, cowering, it is true, but hopelessly and with no attempt to escape whatever penalty his obstinacy might incur.
Roger fell into a perplexed silence and the lout dropped back snoring on his straw.
"I do not see why we came back from Broadway," Margarita observed placidly. "I did not want to, you remember, and now Caliban is too sleepy to get our supper. We shall have to have more bread and milk. Let us eat it on the rocks, Roger Bradley, will you?"
And Roger, in spite of the fact that he was forty and a conspicuously practical person (or was it, perhaps just because of this fact? I confess I am not quite sure!) actually left that house of mystery carrying a yellow earthen pitcher of milk, a crusty loaf of new bread, a great slice of sage cheese and a blueberry pie, followed by Margarita and the Danish hound, Margarita prattling of Broadway, the dog licking her hand, Roger, I have no sort of doubt, intent on conveying the food in good order to its destination!
They sat on the rocks, warm yet with the September sun, and ate with a healthy relish, while the first pale stars came out and the incoming tide lapped the smooth beach. I have been assured that they never in the conversation that followed mentioned the island—though it was not then an island, to be sure—that they were sitting upon, nor the extraordinary events which had happened there and had brought them to it. And I believe it. I also believe, and do not need to be assured, that they talked little of anything. They never did. Again and again I have imparted to Roger some or other of Margarita's amazing conversations with me and he has listened to them with the grave interest of a stranger and even questioned me indolently as to my theory of that stage of her development. I must add that he has never seemed surprised at what she said and has occasionally corrected me in my analyses and prophecies with an acuteness that has astonished me, for he was never by way of being analytic, our Roger. When I once remarked to Clarence King (who was devoted to her) apropos of this silence of theirs that it was like the quiet intimacy of the animals, he looked at me deeply for a moment, then added, "Or the angels, maybe?" which, like most of King's remarks, bears thinking of, dear fellow. I never heard him in my life talk so brilliantly as he did one afternoon stretched on the sand by Margarita, while she fed him wild strawberries from her lap and embroidered the most beautiful butterfly on the lapel of his old velveteen jacket, and Roger tried to ride in on the breakers like the South Sea Islanders.
From time to time Clarence would turn one of those luminous sentences of his and kiss the stained finger tips that fed him (I never did that in my life) and from time to time Roger's splendid tanned body would rise between us and the sun, triumphant on his board or ignominiously flat between the great combers. But he was as calm as the tide and we knew that he would beat it in the end and "get the hang of it" as he promised. She never turned her eyes toward him, that I could see, but I am convinced that she was perfectly aware each time he fell. She never talked much to King and he was always a little jealous of me on that account. But she was very fond of him and always wrote to him when he was off on his ramblings. His letters to her were always in rhyme, the cleverest possible.
There are, of course, whole pages to be written—if one wanted to write them—of that night on the rocks. I naturally don't want to write them. To say that I have not imagined them would be a stupid lie; I am human. But I have never been able to bring myself to the point of view of the modern lady novelist in these matters. Why is it, by the way, that God has hidden so many things in these latter days from the prudent and revealed them unto spinsters?
Not that I need to rely on my imagination: Margarita would have saved me that. Once she got the idea that I was interested in those early days, she was perfectly willing to draw upon her extraordinary memory for all the details I could endure. But of course I could not let her. The darling imbecile—could anything have been so hopelessly enchanting as Margarita? It is impossible. If you can picture to yourself a boy—but that is misleading, directly, when I think of her curled close against me on the rocks, her hand on my arm and all my veins tingling under it. She was all woman. And yet who but me who knew her can ever have heard from the lips of any woman such absolute naivete, such crystal frankness? It was like those dear talks with some lovely, loved and loving child. But that, again, gives you no proper idea. For no child's throat sounds such deep, bell-like tones, such sweet, swooping cadences. And no child's eyes meet yours with that clear beam, only to soften and tremble and swim suddenly with such alluring tenderness that your heart shakes in you and slips out to drown contentedly in those slate-blue depths. No, no, there is no describing Margarita. Perhaps King came nearest to it when he said that she was Eve before the fall, plus a sense of humour! But Eve is distinctly Miltonian to us (unfortunately for the poor woman) and Margarita would have horrified Milton—there is no doubt of it.
Well, well, I left them on the moonlit rocks, and there I had better leave them, I suppose. It is so hard for me to make you understand that Roger was incapable of anything low, when I am apparently doing my best to catalogue actions that can be set only too easily in an extremely doubtful light. All I can say is, pick out the best fellow you know, the one you'd rather have to count on, at a pinch, than another, the one you'd swear to for doing the straight thing and holding his tongue about it—then give him five feet eleven and a half inches and blue eyes and you've Roger. This is rather a poor dodge at character drawing: I know a competent author would never throw himself on your mercy so.
But then, what does it matter? When the members of a man's own household, who have known him from boyhood, fail to understand him and take a satiric pleasure in looking at what he does from the nastiest possible standpoint (none the less nasty because it is a logically possible standpoint) why should I, a confessed amateur, hope to make Roger clear to you if you are determined to misjudge him?
I find myself still a little sore on this point: unnecessarily so, you may be thinking. But you never had to explain it to the family in Boston, you see—and Sarah. I had. I can see her cold, grey-green eyes to this hour, her white starched shirt and her sharp steel belt buckle—ugh! It should be illegal, in a Republic where there are so many less sensible laws, for any woman to be so ostentatiously unattractive....
"Margarita," I said once, very soon after I had met her, "were you ever caught by the tide on those first rocks? See how it has crept up and cut them off."
"Oh yes, often," she answered, "the first night Roger ever came here, for once. Do you not remember, I told you how he carried the blueberry pie and the milk out there and we ate them? He was so hungry! It was then that he looked at me so——"