E-text prepared by Al Haines
STEPHEN FRENCH WHITMAN
Author of "Predestined," Etc.
[Frontispiece: "COME CLOSER, I WANT TO LOOK AT YOU."]
D. Appleton and Company New York :: 1922 :: London
Copyright, 1922, by D. Appleton and Company
Copyright, 1921-1922, by The Ridgway Company
Lilla Delliver's parents, killed in a railway accident, left their child a legacy other than the fortune that the New York newspapers mentioned in the obituaries.
The mother had been tall, blonde, rather wildly handsome, with the look of one of those neurotic queens who suppress under a proud manner many psychic disturbances. Painfully fastidious in her tastes, she had avoided every unnecessary contact with mediocrity. Reclining on a couch in her boudoir, she read French novels saturated with an exquisite sophistication. Then, letting the book slip from her fingers, she gazed into space, as listless as a lady immured in a seraglio on the Bosphorous. At night, if the opera was Tristan, she went down to her limousine with the furtive eagerness of a woman escaping from monotony into a secret world. She drove home with feverish cheeks, and when her husband spoke to her she gave him the blank stare of a somnambulist.
After a busy social season she was liable to melancholia. She sat by the window in a charming negligee, paler than a camellia, hardly turning her head when, at twilight, her child was led in to kiss her.
Recovering, somehow, she traveled.
On those journeys every possible hardship was neutralized by wealth. Yet even for her the sea could not always be calm, or the skies of the Midi and the Riviera blue. In Venice, at midnight, the soft, hoarse cries of the gondoliers made her toss fretfully on her canopied bed. In Switzerland, as dawn flushed the snow peaks, awakened by the virile voices of the guides, she started up from her pillow in a daze of resentment and perverse antipathy.
She calmed herself by listening to the sermons of swamis in yellow robes, and by sitting in cathedrals with her eyes fixed upon the splendor of the altar.
Wherever they traveled, her husband went about inquiring for new physicians—"specialists in neurasthenia." But then he usually felt the need of a physician's services also.
He was taller than his wife, a brownish, meager, handsome man with dark circles round his eyes. A doctor had once told him that some persons never had more than a limited amount of nervous energy; so he was always trying to conserve his share, as if the prolongation of his idle life were very important. Yet he was not dull. He had written several essays, on classical subjects, that were privately circulated in sumptuous bindings. He played Brahms with unusual talent. But certain colors and perfumes set his nerves on edge, while the sight of blood, if more than a drop or two, made him feel faint.
Disillusioned from travel, because they had viewed all those fair, exotic scenes through the blurred auras of their emotional infirmities, he and his wife returned to their home in New York. There they were protected against all contact with ugliness, all ignoble influences, all sources of unhappiness except themselves.
It was a stately old house—for two hundred years the Dellivers and the Balbians had been stately families—a house always rather dim, its shadows aglimmer with richness, and here and there a beam of light illuminating some flawless, precious object. It was a house of silent servants, of faces imprinted with a gracious weariness, of beautifully modulated low voices, of noble reticence. Yet all the while the place quivered from secret transports of anguish.
In this atmosphere Lilla, the child, was like a delicate instrument on which are recorded, to be ultimately reproduced, myriad vibrations too subtle for appreciation by the five senses. Or, one might say, the small, apparent form that this man and this woman had created in their likeness—as it were a fatal sublimation of their blended physical selves—became the fragile vessel into which, drop by drop, the essences of all their most unfortunate emotions were being distilled.
Sometimes, at a moment of perspicacity, the father's face was distorted by a spasm of remorse. Looking at his child, he was thinking:
"By what right have we done this?"
For that matter, he was always oppressed by miseries foreign to normal men. For instance, he fluctuated between the ardors of a pagan and an anchorite, at one hour reembracing aestheticism, at another fleeing back to a bleak sanctuary where he hoped to escape some vague, immense reproach. Too complex for an irrevocable decision, too weak to stand firm against the pressure either of pantheism or an absolutely spiritual idea, he was an insignificant creature worried and torn between two vast antagonists.
Then, too, he was afflicted with a frequent symptom of neuroticism, namely, superstition; and this superstition was sharpened by the usual morbid forebodings—the characteristic expectations of calamity.
He accepted the idea that there were persons who could fathom the destinies of others, that the palm of one's hand was cryptic with one's future fortunes, and that the remotest planets had an influence on one's life. Furtively, then, as one might enter a place dedicated to some shameful mystery, this erudite, handsome, wretched gentleman slipped into the sanctums of the diviners, where, with a feeling of degradation and imbecility, yet with a pounding heart, he listened to prophecies uttered by the aid of playing cards, horoscopes, and crystal balls.
All he asked was some assurance that he would presently find peace. They all promised him that this desire of his would soon be realized.
Perhaps they would have called it realized by that crash of trains in the night, which he and his wife hardly heard before their fine, restless bodies were bereft of life.
So one day, when Lilla was six years old, the drawing-room suddenly blossomed with white roses. Next morning the orphan was taken away by Aunt Althea Balbian to another house, on lower Fifth Avenue.
Miss Balbian's house provided an appropriate setting for its pale, aristocratic, chastely fervent owner. But its sedate, antiquated, brick exterior—unaltered since the presidency of Andrew Jackson—afforded hardly a hint of the conservative beauty that pervaded it.
Here the glitter of old chandeliers fell upon the suave outlines of colonial furniture upholstered with sage green and mulberry-colored fabrics, chimney pieces of mellow marble carved into graceful flourishes and bearing on their shelves quaint bric-a-brac, family portraits in frames that it would have been a sacrilege to furbish up—ladies dressed in the fashion of 1812, French and English gentlemen in antique uniforms, a few of these likenesses doubly precious because they were painted so naively. But this "early-American" effect was adulterated by objects that Miss Balbian had acquired on her travels, such as medieval chalices, coffers covered with vellum and encrusted with jewels, and a few authenticated paintings from that period when the men of Italy, at a breath of inspiration from the Athenian tomb, perceived, instead of the glamour of a celestial paradise, the gorgeousness of this world.
In this gracefully puritanical atmosphere, these latter treasures, imbued with a disturbing alien richness, were like thoughts that a woman, hedged round by innumerable obscure oppressions, might gather from afar and store away in her heart.
Lilla, in this environment, became a juvenile epicurean, precocious in aesthetic judgment, intolerant of everything that was not exquisite. Her opinions amused and touched her aunt, who, for a while, derived from that imitation a nearly maternal pride. Miss Althea Balbian redoubled her efforts to form Lilla according to her most exalted ideas; and, as a result, she implanted in that little charge still more complexities of impulse—a greater sensitiveness to the lures of mortal beauty, together with something of her own recoil from all the ultimate consequences of that sensitiveness.
In fine, the devoted woman was preparing Lilla unwittingly for an accentuation of the conflict that already had been prefigured in her parents.
The child was so fragile-looking, there was about her so strange an air of sensibility, that many persons who had known her father and mother shook their heads in pity. Some suggested that she ought to be reared in the country, to play hard all day "close to nature." But the play of other children exhausted her, as if she, too, possessed "only a limited amount of nervous energy." She had nervous headaches and feverish spells from no apparent cause. When the weather was changing, or when a thunder storm impended, the governess found it hard to manage her. Then, suddenly, certain odors and sounds filled her with indistinct visions of felicity. At night, when there was music in the house, she crept from her bed to the staircase, and sat listening with burning cheeks and icy hands.
Next day there came over her an immense, hazy discontent with everything. And her tragic little face—her eyes, skin, and fluffy hair all harmonized in the most delicate shade of brown—resembled the face of some European grande amoureuse seen through the small end of an opera glass.
"Yes," said Miss Balbian at last to the charming, quiet ladies who sat in her library drinking tea from old china cups. "Lilla is a strange, I may say a startling, child." And allowing herself one of her rare public failures of expression—a look of uneasiness—she added, half swallowing her words, "I sometimes ask myself——"
Nearly every spring, Aunt Althea, craving "her beloved Europe," took Lilla abroad.
Escorted by an elderly courier who had the appearance of a gentleman in waiting at the Vatican, they moved with royal deliberation, patronizing luxurious hotels, celebrated landscapes, notable art collections. The governess was supplemented with the best local teachers of music and languages; but it was Aunt Althea, with her proud fastidiousness, her eclecticism at once virginal and ardent, who set the keynote for Lilla's education.
All the young girl's inherited repugnances were enhanced. All her sensibilities were aggravated. With the lapse of time and the expansion of her world, her impassionable nature vibrated still more extravagantly, at the most subtle stimuli, between the poles of happiness and pain—which two sensations sometimes seemed to her identical.
Now she was lovelier than her mother had ever been—a tall, fragile, pale brown creature whose carefully composed lips, whose deliberately slow grace, only half concealed that inner intensity of hers.
She had, indeed, the exceptional, agitating look—that softly fatal aspect—-which is seen in those who are destined to extraordinary lives. It was as though strange, unprecipitated events were clinging round her slender body like an aura: the promises of unparalleled adventures in love, perhaps also in tragedy. Before her twentieth year she had given this presentiment to many men, who, with a thrill that may have been partly fear, longed to be the cause of those raptures, and to accept the perils.
In an alley of Constantine, in fierce sunshine that oppressed and stimulated her delicate tissues, she stood before an old Arab who, seated on the ground, told her fortune by strewing sand on a board.
"You will be loved by men," he said, after contemplating apathetically the curlicues of sand. "And will be the death of men," he added, closing his eyes as if bored; for out there, in the mountains beyond Constantine, love and death, as partners in the fates of fair women, were commonplace.
Before returning to America, Aunt Althea always managed a visit to Rome. On her first day there, the spinster drove out alone, returning at twilight with her eyelids swollen and red. She had been, she said, to the English cemetery; but she declared that nobody whom she had known was buried there.
They visited American ladies who had married into the Roman nobility. In those historic palaces the great rooms were cool, dim, and resonant, the women's voices died away in space between the tapestried walls and the ceilings frescoed with pagan deities. Through the tall doorway entered young men with medieval faces, in quest of a cup of tea.
To Lilla these descendants of medieval despots seemed curiously dwarfed by their surroundings.
But her eyes were apt to turn wistful when she passed the shabby cafes where famous artists had sat brooding over the masterpieces that she admired. Then she thought of Bohemian studios at dusk, and of geniuses aquiver, like dynamos, with the powers that had taken possession of them. She envied the women whose lives were united to theirs in an atmosphere where beauty was always being recreated, who basked in that radiance of art which love, perhaps, had inspired.
Of all the arts it was music that cast over Lilla the strongest spell.
During the winter season in New York, she haunted concert halls where celebrated musicians played their works. The new music, however, strident with the echoes of industrialism, dissonant with the tumult of great cities, repelled her. She turned instinctively toward the harmonious romanticism and idealism of a previous age. She felt that the compositions of Schumann and Schubert were the language that had always been imprisoned in her heart, that could never reach her lips, but that she now heard, by a miracle, freed and in its perfection.
When the concert was over, she could hardly prevent herself from joining the women who surged toward the author of those sounds, as if impelled by an inexorable force—or possibly by an idea that they must mingle their lives with the life of the stranger who could so interpret their souls, make clear to them their secrets, and give them, at least momentarily, a coherent glimpse of their ideals.
One afternoon, in the exit of a concert hall, Lilla met Brantome, a critic of music.
He was a robust-looking old Frenchman with white hair and the mustaches of a Viking, displaying a leonine countenance out of which gazed a pair of eyes that seemed to have been made tragical by some profound chagrin. In his youth, a student in Paris, he had written some scores of songs, half a dozen sonatas, and a symphony. These efforts, though technically brilliant, had soon passed into oblivion. After a long while, during which nobody had heard a sound from him, Brantome had popped up in the United States to begin his critical career. Now he was courted not only in artistic circles but also in the fashionable world, where one might sometimes see his haggard old face relentlessly revealed beneath fine chandeliers, ironical and weary, as if crushed beneath the combined weight of disillusionment and renown.
At sight of Lilla he stopped in the concert hall doorway; and, when he had peered at her closely, he rumbled in her ear:
"I see that this afternoon of bad music has not fooled you. You don't wear the look that I discovered on your face the other day, when they had been playing Schumann."
"Oh, but Schumann!" And with a nervous laugh she said, "If I had been Clara Wieck——"
"You would have married him just as she did, eh? Ah, well, maybe there will be other Robert Schumanns. In fact, two years ago I found a certain young man—but now he is dying."
He lost the smile that had come to him at this contact. With a shrug he passed on, leaving with her the thought of beauty enmeshed by death. She wondered who this young man was, who might have been another Robert Schumann, but now was dying.
Of all her suitors the most persistent was Cornelius Rysbroek.
In their childhood he had drawn for her amusement Spanish galleons, the domes of Mogul palaces, and a fantastic damsel, that he called a bayadere, languishing on a balcony. His thin, sallow little face bent close to the printed page, he had read Ivanhoe to her. At parties, it was she to whom he had brought the choicest favors.
Departing to school, he had addressed her in melancholy verses—doggerel decorated with references to flowers turned to dust, setting suns that would never rise again, countless symbols of hopeless passion and impending tragedy.
But, as an anti-climax, he always showed up alive in vacation time.
During his college years he had apparently forgotten her, had made himself conspicuous by some highly pessimistic theories, and had tried the Byronic gesture. Then, after Commencement, meeting her unexpectedly, he had turned a yellowish white.
Now Cornelius Rysbroek had become a lean, neat hypochondriac, highly cultivated, with fine instincts and excruciating aversions, bored by his leisure, yet incapable of action, and inconstant in every aspiration except this love of his. Whenever she refused him he sailed away, after threatening to plunge into some wild, dramatic waste, but always compromising on the easiest, beaten path. He returned sadder and sallower than ever, having contracted in his imagination some new, obscure ailment, and with his old ailment, his longing for Lilla, still gnawing at his heart.
But Lilla, so fragile and moody, dreamed of physical strength and a triumphant will.
Where was he?
She was enervated by melancholy, scorched by impatience, then chilled by an indefinable foreboding, just as her father had been. Putting on a figured veil to blur her blush of shame, she slipped away to visit the soothsayers that fashionable women patronized. In a shadowy room hung with Oriental curtains, the shrewd crystal gazer informed her that all would soon be well. "A great love was in store for her."
She kept in her desk a magazine picture of Lawrence Teck, the explorer, whom she had never met, but whose likeness, singular amid innumerable presentments of the human face, had arrested her first glance and fascinated her mind.
His aquiline countenance, darkened and corrugated by fierce suns, expressed that virility which kept driving him back, for his contentment, into remote and dangerous places. But his salient features suggested also the patience and wisdom of those who have suffered hardship and derived extraordinary thoughts from solitude. It pleased her to note that his was the brow of a scholar—he had written learned volumes about the jungle peoples, was the most picturesque authority on the Islamic world since Burton, and his monographs on African diseases had added to his romantic reputation the luster of benevolence. She liked to picture him as finding in his travels and work the stimulation that less serious, aimless men might seek in love.
When she read his books, there unrolled before her the esoteric corners of the desert, the strange charm and depravity of little-known Oriental cities, the deadly richness of equatorial forests, peopled by human beasts whose claws were hammered steel, whose fangs were poisoned arrows, and who carried in their thick skulls the condensed miasma of their hiding places.
She seemed to see him passing through those physical dangers and corroding mental influences, a superior being of unalterable health and sanity, perhaps protected because of a grand destiny still unrevealed to him. She longed to participate in that destiny, or, at any rate, to be responsible somehow for it.
"Where are you? What are your thoughts?" she would whisper, staring at the likeness of this peculiarly congenial stranger.
Late at night, at that hour when bizarre fancies and actions may seem natural, she would ask him:
"Don't you know that I exist? Then I must make you know it."
So she tried to cast forth into space a flood of feeling strong enough to reach him—a projection of her identity, her appearance, and her infatuation. All her secret ardors that had never been so strongly focused upon a definite personality found their centering point in him, whose imagined nature seemed to be so emphatically what she needed to appease and complete her nature. She was like one of those antique sorceresses who would cast over distant hearts the spells that must inevitably recoil upon their makers.
But when she had remained for a long while motionless and tense, she rose wearily, with a low laugh of disillusionment and ridicule.
Little by little her thoughts of him were obscured by other thoughts, by weakly apposite conjectures that had different men as their objects. And when different men made love to her, once or twice, maybe at a conjunction of exquisite scenery, music, and impatience, of confused longings and eloquent persuasion, she was tempted to consent. But just in time she stilled that tremulous smile, and averted that dizzy look in the depths of which lurked a fatal sweetness.
Then, when life seemed to her unbearably monotonous, she went to a week-end party at the Brassfields' house in the country.
The Brassfields' country house was copied from an historic French chateau. In the drawing-room, the high walls, from which well-known portraits stood forth, were paneled with amber-hued wood overlaid with elaborate gilt traceries; they ended in a wide golden frieze that curved inward to inclose a ceiling painted with roguish goddesses after the manner of Watteau. Here and there, between chairs and sofas the arms of which seemed composed of half-melted ingots, appeared a baroque cabinet filled with small, precious objects. Or from a creamy pedestal the marble features of some ancient sybarite regarded without surprise this modern richness based upon the past.
Emerging from the dining room, the ladies crossed the large amber rug, like moving images made of multicolored light.
Below their negligible bodices hung draperies of brocade interwoven with metallic threads, of lace dyed the colors of exotic flowers, of tulle embroidered with iridescent beads. Parting into groups, they dotted the drawing-room with the gorgeousness of peacock blue and jade green, the joyousness of petunias and the melancholy of orchids, or the pale, intermelting tints of rainbows seen through the spangle of a shower.
Some, unfurling fans before their bosoms, sank down upon the chairs and sofas. Others stood beside the large chimney piece, talking to the men, and smoking cigarettes that were thrust into jeweled holders.
A few emerged through the French windows upon the terrace to enjoy the moonlit landscape, wherein Nature herself had been taught to show a charming artificiality.
An esplanade overlooked an aquatic garden, with three pools full of water flowers massed round statues. Below, in broad stages that fell away toward a wooded valley, lay other gardens, deriving a vague stateliness from their successive balustrades and sculptured fountains. The moonlight, while blanching the geometrical pattern of the paths, and frosting the rectangular flowerbeds, imparted to the whole surrounding, billowing panorama an appearance of unreality.
"Where's Lilla?" Fanny Brassfield inquired of a young man in the doorway of the drawing-room, in her clear, grating voice that seemed made to express an involuntary disdain of everything not comprised in her luxurious little world. She had just seen one of her most recent lions, old Brantome, on his way toward the music room amid a group of ladies; and this had recalled to her mind another celebrity, who, five minutes before, had arrived from the city after she had given up expecting him.
"Shall I find her?"
"Never mind, my surprise can wait."
Fanny Brassfield followed Brantome and his coterie into the music room, her attractive, bony features revealing a quizzical expression. In the glitter of the big chandelier her coiffure appeared extraordinarily blonde, her green eyes, especially frosty; and the eighteenth century ladies in the gilded frames seemed suddenly, despite their histories, insipid in comparison with this modern face, emancipated from a thousand traditional reactions.
As for Lilla, she was sitting in the dim library with Cornelius Rysbroek, who was harping on the old tune.
She believed that she could discern in him already the first hints of middle age. His lifeless, brown hair was receding above his temples. His small mustaches, which ought to have made him debonair, seemed on his sallow face like the worthless disguise of a pessimist at the feast of life.
Her look of compassion struck him silent. He smiled in self-contempt, then uttered a sharp sigh, pressed his palm to his forehead, and produced a tiny silver box, from which he took a tablet.
"More antipyrene?" she demanded reproachfully.
"My sinus is pretty bad to-night. This salt air blowing in from the Sound——"
He declared that he was going away again. "His health made it necessary." He had hung round New York long enough, enduring an impossible climate because of an idiotic hope. He uttered the word "Arizona." He spoke of hot deserts, solitudes under the stars, mirages less mocking than his aspirations. As he contemplated her delicately fervent face, her tapering, graceful body, wrapped like something very precious in pale gold, his eyes glittered with tears.
And once more she began the familiar rigmarole. Her lips shaped the immemorial complaint, "Why isn't our friendship enough—why must we always be clouding our old congeniality——" And so on. These inexorable words, combined with her look of pity and reproach—a look that seemed almost amorous on her fair face—gave him an impression of immense perfidiousness.
He turned bitter. He asked her where the ideal suitor could be loitering—the strange knight for whom she used to watch as a little girl, the fairytale prince from another kingdom, who was to sweep her off her feet by the force of his perfections, and carry her away.
As he spoke, there stole through the doorway the first notes of Vienna Carnival. In the music room old Brantome had been persuaded to play Schumann.
"I know, at least," said Cornelius, "that you haven't found him yet!"
In his voice there was a gloating that made her again turn toward him that unique face of hers, whose brownish pallor, in harmony with her large eyes and fluffy hair, appeared to reflect amid the shadows the radiance disseminated from her dress. In his unhappy eyes she now perceived something that had not been there before—a desperation, as though his heart had suffered too long from a sense of inferiority to the unknown and unrevealed antagonist, who was to win this treasure. For an instant, in fact, there was something weakly ferocious, not quite sane, in this visage that had been familiar to her since childhood. Then his habitual, well-bred, wooden look, as a door might shut on a glimpse of an inferno.
He muttered, in his throaty, queerly didactic voice:
"Well, one must be philosophical in this life. You'll teach me that, won't you?" He got up, patting the pocket of his waistcoat, where he kept the little vial of oil of peppermint, which he always touched to his tongue when he threw aside his cigarette on his way to a dancing partner. "Are they at it?" he asked, cocking his ear toward the music of Schumann. "Or is it only that old chap hammering the piano?"
"Don't ask me to dance to-night," she returned, closing her eyes.
"I wasn't." With the parody of a merry smile, he explained, "You know I can't dance with you any more. You know you make my legs tremble like the devil."
With an exclamation intended for a laugh, looking unusually bored and vacuous, he went out of the room like a man in an earthquake sedately strolling away between reeling and crumbling walls.
Lilla was approaching the music room doorway—round which some men were standing with the respectful looks of persons at the funeral of a stranger—when a laughing young woman intercepted her.
"Do come over here. Madame Zanidov is telling our fortunes."
Anna Petrovna Zanidov, one of the Russian aristocrats that the revolution had scattered through the world, was a thin, black-haired woman with a faintly Tartar cast of countenance, a dead-white complexion that made her seem denser than ordinary flesh, and somewhat the look of an idol before whose blank yet sophisticated eyes had been performed many extraordinary rites. Tonight her strangeness was made doubly emphatic by a gown of oxidized silver tissue painted over in dull colors with a barbaric design.
She was said to be a clairvoyant. Rumor had it that she had foreseen her husband's murder by Lenin's Mongolians, and that, since her arrival in America, she had predicted accurately some sensational events, including a nearly fatal accident in the polo field.
Now, turning her sharp, dead-white profile to right and left, encountering everywhere a frivolous eagerness, Madame Zanidov protested:
"Really, I ask you if this is the proper atmosphere!"
She explained that she regarded very seriously "this gift" of hers, which had astonished people even in her childhood. She agreed that it was inexplicable, unless by the theory that the future, if it did not already exist, was at least somehow prefigured. Yet she believed that this prearrangement of events was not so rigid as to exclude a certain amount of free will. In other words, one who had been forewarned of a special result, if a special course were pursued, might escape the result by pursuing another course. "For as you know," she added, looking round her at the women who were losing their smiles, "the impression that I receive is often far from amusing. How can one tell beforehand? So I consent to do this only because, if what I see is unpleasant, my warning may possibly help one to evade it."
A lady objected that prophecy frequently had just the opposite effect. She referred to the attractive power of anticipation. Then she cited instances where persons had made every effort to realize even the most unfortunate predictions, as if hypnotized by their dread into a feeling that the tragic outcome was inevitable. Of course, on the other hand, she admitted, a happy prediction might have a tonic effect, heartening one to pluck victory from apparent failure. Or else, just by setting in action the magnetic power of expectancy, it might even draw mysteriously into one's life a wealth or a fame that had seemed unattainable, a love that had appeared to be impossible.
When she had voiced this last opinion, the other ladies' faces were softened by a gentle acquiescence. Their necklaces flashed with the rising of their bosoms; their heads leaned forward in thought; and the mingled odors of their perfumes were like exhalations from the innermost recesses of their hearts.
By this time, apparently, the proper atmosphere had been established. Madame Zanidov consented to display her powers.
All the women drew their chairs closer.
She took the hand of a young girl whose features were alive with an invincible gay selfishness. Madame Zanidov hardly glanced at the other's palm. Closing her almond-shaped eyes, contracting her brows, she let an unnatural fixed smile settle upon her lips. And now, indeed, it seemed to them that some of the mystery of Asia had informed her rigid person, or was escaping, together with a thick, sweet scent, from the folds of her metallic and barbarically painted gown.
"Do not be afraid," she said, without opening her eyes.
Even the girl whose hand she held had ceased to smile.
There was a long silence, pervaded by the faint harmonies of Vienna Carnival.
"For you have nothing to fear," the Russian quietly announced at last. "All that you must pass through—how much confusion and twitter I am conscious of!—will hardly touch you. Few heartaches, few tears. Some day you will find yourself in a tawny land of harsh outlines: it is probably southern Spain. There you will meet a man as lithe as a panther, his shoulders covered with gold, driving his sword through the neck of a bull. You are speaking to him at night. He kisses your hands. But that, too, will soon end in laughter. You will marry three times, but never be a widow."
She opened her eyes, to gaze thoughtfully at Lilla.
They asked Madame Zanidov if she really saw those things. She replied that her perceptions were at times exactly like pictures. For example, she had seen the matador's lunge, as a splendid plasticity of violet silk and tinsel, and then the bright blood gushing from the neck of the bull.
In subdued voices they began to discuss "the possession of human beings by occult forces." One spoke of astounding passages set down through automatic writing. Another mentioned psychometry. "But psychometrists got impressions only from the past!" Whereupon they stared at the Russian. Their eyes, which had been lightly touched with a black pencil, were no longer sophisticated. Their rouged lips were relaxed by that superstitious awe which, even in cultivated societies, is ever waiting to invade the feminine mind.
Madame Zanidov was still looking at Lilla.
"Yes," some one proposed. "Try her."
"She doesn't wish it," Madame Zanidov remarked.
But after a moment of hesitation Lilla held out her hand. Once more everybody became silent and intent. The music of Schumann softly intruded into this stillness.
"Ah," the Russian murmured, "here is something different."
With her eyelids pressed together, she began:
"You are sitting alone. You are writing letters, which will pass through many hands of different colors. One would think that those hands would grow warm from touching your letters. Now you are not writing any more letters. You are wearing a black dress." Madame Zanidov leaned forward as if striving with her closed eyes to pierce a sudden opacity. "This is very odd," she declared. "I can see no more pictures. For there is a darkness which grows larger and larger, which obscures everything. So now I must discover what this darkness means. Please be patient for a few moments."
Some one whispered:
"It's getting quite uncanny,"
Lilla's senses reached out to clench themselves upon the normality of her surroundings. But beneath that normality, that familiar solidity, her innate mysticism, her instinctive habit of foreboding, seemed to perceive a basis invisible yet similar—a solution, so to speak, from which material things and events were continually being evolved, the fluid containing all the elements of the crystalization. And this foreigner, with her idol-like face and meager, rigid body, her aspect of long acquaintance with the very essence of materiality, became the ageless oracle, the rewarder of humanity's incorrigible credulity. So, like the bejeweled princesses in the Mesopotamian temples, the Latin ladies who had crept trembling into the Aventine caves, the Renaissance beauties who, in the huts of witches, had turned whiter than their ruffs, Lilla remained motionless, her gaze fixed apprehensively on the clairvoyant.
The latter said:
"It will soon be plainer, for the moon is rising. No, what a nuisance! It is still very dark, because the moonlight is shut out by great masses of foliage, great tangles of vines. Such a place! Gigantic thickets, through which wild beasts are prowling, and above them the trunks of huge trees. Wait, I have found a path. It leads to a clearing in the midst of this forest. Here I can see much better. There are human beings here, and a feeling of sadness."
At a general stir, one of the ladies suggested nervously:
"Perhaps you'd better——"
But Madame Zanidov was saying:
"The people in the clearing are black savages. They sit round a body that is stretched on the ground and covered with a cloth. Is it the savages who are so sad? I think not. I cannot describe the one who lies in the midst of them. The cloth is drawn up to cover even his face. But I feel that it is some one who has loved you. He is dead. That is to say, he will be dead when the scene that I am describing is realized; but now he is alive——"
Lilla, raising her eyes, saw in the doorway, with Fanny Brassfield, a tall man, a stranger, whose countenance was aquiline and swarthy. It was Lawrence Teck, the explorer.
In the music room some musicians were playing a waltz; but Lilla and Lawrence Teck were walking on the terrace.
She said to herself, "This is a dream"; for she had come to believe that only in dreams did one realize, even in faint counterpart, one's deepest desires. She stood still. The world—this new world drenched in an unprecedented quality of moonlight—gradually became distinct. She gave him, through that veil of silvery beams, a long look of verification.
As in his picture he seemed at once rugged and fine, resolute and gentle. He was very quiet, like one who has willed to be so; but a certain shyness remained in him, and presently announced itself to her. Whereupon, remembering that she was beautiful, and that her beauty had a way of troubling men, Lilla felt her own timidity transmuted into joy.
"Are your jungles better than this?" she asked.
"The charm of my jungles overlies a welter of stupid cruelty and deadly waste. Would it surprise you to know that I should like to see all the world as nobly ordered as this landscape?"
She did not grasp the meaning of the words, being too deeply occupied with seizing upon those syllables, those living tones, and dropping them one by one into the treasury of her heart.
Glancing down at the aquatic garden, he remarked:
"These three basins would please my Mohammedan friends, who like to see their flowers inverted in still water, like a mirage come true."
"Yes, no doubt they have their ideals."
"And often dream of them in very pleasant places."
He described certain gardens of the East. He made her see nests of color unexpectedly blooming in the midst of deserts, behind walls of sundried mud overgrown with Persian roses, and with airy pavilions mirrored in pools that were seldom darkened by a cloud. Under date palms the white-robed Arabs sat smoking. From time to time black slaves brought them coffee flavored with ambergris. After sundown, at the hour called "maghrib," when the sky was turning green, having performed their ceremonial ablutions, they prayed.
"Behind the formal words? Who knows? For whatever they desired most. Probably for something that nobody would suspect."
"And the women?" she ventured, looking at him sidewise.
In those remote walled towns they still remained invisible. Their minds, restricted to puerilities, had never grown up. Their bodies were so lax that their short weekly promenade to the cemetery exhausted them. Seated on cushions, they spent their time listening to cuckoo clocks and music boxes, smelling perfumes, putting their jewelry away in caskets, then bedizening themselves all over again. Their servants, who had known in childhood the hurly burly of caravanserais and slave markets, told them of a world where everybody was possessed by a thousand devils of ingenuity and wit. And those scented ladies with feeble flesh, hollow eyes, and the brains of parrots, after listening for a while in vague regret, all at once became bored. Whereupon they fell to playing parchesi and eating sweetmeats.
In such sheltered and languid lives Lilla seemed to perceive a similarity to her own life. Or, at least, she felt that her life, if he knew it in detail, would seem to him almost as trivial.
"Poor souls," she said. "But one surely finds others out there," she persisted, unfurling her large fan of yellow plumes, and looking at it intently. "White women, for example, the women of the empire builders? At such meetings, in those far-off places, romance must be almost inevitable. Each finds in the other an overwhelming congeniality? The loneliness round about exerts a tremendous persuasion?"
"Oh, yes," he assented, with a smile. "Especially if the lady smokes a pipe."
He told her of an Englishwoman whom he had met in the Masai veldt, hunting for maneless lions—an amazon in breeches and boots, at the head of her own safari. Week after week she had led her dark-skinned retainers through the wilds, cheerily doctoring them in their sicknesses, herself never ailing or weary. At the charge of a lion she had withheld her fire till the last possible moment. By night, the safari encamped, she had sat before her tent in a folding chair, one knee cocked over the other, a pipe between her teeth, listening to the gossip of ragged wanderers who had been attracted by the firelight and the smell of burning fat.
"I find such women incomprehensible," Lilla declared, with a profound animosity to that huntress whose body was so strong, whose nerves were so sound, whose courage had been proved in the face of charging lions, who took life without a twinge and doubtless gloated over the blood that she had shed.
Lawrence Teck, after a moment's struggle with himself, blurted out:
"I assure you that when we fellows dream of women it's of a different sort."
"Oh, of course. Of the one that you've left behind, I suppose."
Sometimes, he assented presently; in which case the one at home would be immensely enriched by that wide separation. But it often happened that such an exile, when no specially congenial woman had given him her heart, constructed from his imagination an ideal, a vision capable of brightening the wilderness with the most exquisite charms. Or else he might find an unattainable ideal ready-made. Thus it was that uncouth sailors, on long voyages, treasured the photographs of unknown actresses in fancy costume, as a religious devotee might treasure an ikon. Or thus a soldier in some Congo fort, while gradually succumbing to the malefic spell of the encircling forests, yearned toward the portrait of a princess that he had clipped from an old illustrated magazine—toward a divinity whom he could never know, but whom he adored because her nature and life were so different from his.
"How romantic men are!" she exclaimed, turning away her head.
He seemed abashed; but he returned:
"And are women never tempted to renounce that famous practicality of theirs?"
She walked on along the terrace. The moonlight intensified her ethereal aspect; and nothing could have been more emphatic than the contrast between her seeming fragility and his apparent strength.
At a recollection she walked more and more slowly, her pace according with the faltering of her heart beats. But it was in an almost indifferent tone that she inquired:
"You are really going back to Africa day after to-morrow?"
"Yes, everything's settled."
She paused, staring across the gardens, watching the slow withdrawal from that scene of its peculiar charm.
"Why are you returning?"
He hesitated. Well, he had reason to believe, he said, that not far north of the Zambesi there was an unmapped, ruined city similar to the stone city called Zimbabwe, which adventurers from Phoenicia were supposed to have built four thousand years ago, as a mining town of the fabled Land of Ophir. Who knew what ancient idols, what Himyarite inscriptions, what trinkets of gold, might not be found there?
"How can such a matter be important enough to make you risk your life amid deadly fevers and insects, venomous reptiles, wild beasts and wilder men?"
In that respect the expedition would be tame. The journey into the interior would consist of undramatic drudgeries and discomforts, of association with a primitive folk whom he had never failed to make his friends, of precautions that would confound the reptiles, the fevers, and the disease-bearing insects. As for the wild beasts, they asked nothing better than to be left alone.
"Oh, yes," she assented, trailing her fan along the balustrade, "a hero must be modest on such points. Yet it seems to me an abnormal vanity that drives one into those places, just in order that one may say, 'It's I who have found a new pile of ruins, a few scraps of gold, in a jungle.'"
After a moment's reflection, he confessed:
"I gave you my secondary reason, because I thought you might find it more interesting than my chief one."
It was true, he said, that he hoped to find a new Zimbabwe there; but his principal task would be to make a geological survey of some territory believed to be very rich in certain minerals. He was going for a group of capitalists who, if he brought back an encouraging report, would obtain large concessions for exploiting the land. It was a gamble; the territory in question was virtually unexplored. That region, moreover, was peopled by a tribe opposed to exploitation, and, for that matter, even to visits from their white-skinned nominal rulers. But he had always been successful in dealing with savages; so, since this was to be as much a diplomatic mission as a geological survey, he had seemed the one for the task.
From this explanation she derived the idea that he was not a rich man, that perhaps until recently he had never thought of money as important, but that now, for some reason, he had determined that his fortune must be increased.
The waltz had ended. The dancers were appearing on the terrace. Some, descending the staircases between the pools, wandered away through the gardens. Here and there a match flared up against unnaturally tinted foliage. Farther on, a spangled dress shimmered beside a fountain, then, accompanied by a dark shadow, disappeared into a charmille. A clock in the valley struck eleven, its last vibrations mingling with a laugh that rose, through the moonbeams, from a marble kiosk enveloped in flowers. And as the breeze, heavy with the fragrance of many blossoms, caressed her face, Lilla felt that the gardens must be full of hidden persons each of whom had at last found the amorous complement.
At the end of the esplanade, in the light of the French windows, Cornelius Rysbroek's face appeared, then drifted away.
"What is that fellow's name?" asked Lawrence Teck. "Just now he wanted me to take him along to Africa. He seemed quite unhappy, especially when I had to tell him no. Indeed, he gave me a rather curious impression of misery and recklessness. What is it? An unfortunate love affair?"
"So it's that," she vouchsafed, staring at him intently, "which starts men off to the wilds?"
"Sometimes it's that which brings them back from the wilds. I could give you an instance——"
They, too, were now descending the steps between the pools.
The leafy alleys, silvered by the moon, and redolent of flowers that had been made magical by the alchemy of night, surrounded them. They came to a spot where a circular wall of foliage, rising behind stone benches, hemmed in a fountain, above which a marble antique warrior was lifting in his arms a marble girl, who struggled against that seizure with a convulsive energy, while her upturned face wore a look of happiness. Lawrence Teck made the comment:
"It appears that a rather primitive Greek gentleman has found a nymph bathing in a pool. If I remember, mortals who tried to capture nymphs were liable to die."
"Yes," she assented, staring at the upturned face of the captive. "He should not have tried."
"But no doubt it's hard for them to be reasonable at such times, especially when the person that they try to catch seems so strange, yet so overwhelmingly congenial—the embodied dream."
"Then she should have prevented him."
"Perhaps she tried to, with the usual success when it's a question of love in opposition to fear."
Lilla turned aside, drawing a cloud of golden tulle around her slender shoulders. "Does that acuteness also come to one in the jungle?" She seated herself upon the nearest stone bench. "What is that story of yours?"
"A story of one of those sentimental exiles and the picture of his ideal."
The man, he said, had found the picture in a tattered magazine in the Afrika Hotel at Zanzibar. Of all the thousands of fair faces that he had seen depicted or in the flesh, it was this face whose peculiar beauty clutched suddenly at his pulse. But it was not so much the physical beauty that exerted the spell; nor was it, in this instance, the attractiveness of the incomprehensible. For the man divined from his contemplation of those features the nature of the woman, all her complexities, and even her emotional fragilities. There came to him the well-known conviction, "It's she that I've always been seeking." At dawn, smothering under his mosquito net, with the din of Arab and Hindu, Masai and Swahili voices drifting in through his shutters, his first waking thought was of her.
He cut out the picture and kept it in his notebook.
It was there, against his breast, for many months. It traveled into still stranger places. It passed, through Gallaland and Abyssinia, into the country of the Blue Nile spearmen, across Darfur and Wadai, where the Emir's men rode out in the helmets and chain mail that their ancestors had copied from the Crusaders. It crossed the Sahara, skirting the strongholds of the Senussia Brotherhood, penetrating the wastes patrolled by the Tuaregs, ferocious camel riders whose mouths were always muffled in black bandages. It went north to the steppes of the Ziban, from which the tribe of the Ouled Nail scattered their feather-crowned dancing girls from Ceuta to Suez. And in the Atlas it entered the hill castles of Kabyles, whose unveiled, fierce-eyed, red-haired women, drenched with half a dozen perfumes, and clattering with silver, coral, turquoise and gold, were swifter than snakes with their knives.
At last it was yellow and crinkled, that picture of the fair unknown, which had become for him, in consequence of so many vivid reveries, like a living companion.
There were days when he forgot her. Then suddenly, under those desert constellations, he remembered her with a thrill. Or else, before the tent of some nomad sheikh, all at once she fluttered from the notebook to the silken carpet, on which girls with little brown feet had just been making their cuirasses of gold coins leap to the music of flageolets and drums.
And sometimes, though he had never before been superstitious, he felt that this picture was a sort of amulet. For twice when he was in danger, and there seemed to be small hope of his survival, there had come to him the fortifying thought, "Not yet, because I haven't found her in reality."
"Just a picture!" Lilla uttered, thinking of another picture that had been hardly less potent.
Yes, but when he returned home, after a dozen efforts and discouragements one day, merely by chance, he saw her alive, breathing. She whirled past in a limousine. She disappeared into the haze of a city street in summer. Whereupon he thought, "I was not mistaken; it's inevitable." He accepted the fatalism of his Arab friends, who believe that every man's destiny is fixed.
"He found her again?"
"Finally. There were difficulties."
"And they were happy ever after?"
He did not reply.
She looked over this magical garden toward the future, which now appeared like one of those deserts, but bereft of all enchantment, and covered with clouds that were not positive enough to rain. Then, gazing at the marble warrior that had seized the marble nymph, she said:
"I suppose it was you?"
"Yes," he assented, and pressed her hand to his lips.
When she had reached her room she stood dazzled by the rays of the declining moon, and stifled by the sweetness of the night. The clock in the valley struck one, as if marking the end of a time that had been interminable in its tediousness and bleakness. In the mirror she saw her pale brown eyes, skin and tresses invested with a new allurement, a new ardor.
His face sprang out before her—against the moonlit wall, in the glazing of the pictures, on the dial of the clock. She saw his gray eyes surrounded by the fine wrinkles of those who have peered across glaring sands, and his black eyebrows united above his aquiline nose. The qualities that made him her antithesis redoubled his worth; and the prestige of romance clung round his head like a nimbus.
As she moved to and fro, the moonbeams followed her and embraced her; they glorified her slender figure whose reflections she saw with a new pride. The pale rays passed through her bosom, like a current from the fabled regions of felicity. They renewed in her breast that agitation as if all her fibers were emerging from inertia into the fullness of life.
She lay on her bed wide eyed, as if floating in a tepid sea, buoyed up by happiness and wonder.
Then she sat upright, stricken with terror. She had seen a clearing in a jungle, and black savages seated round a body covered over with a cloth. For a moment she thought that she had seen Madame Zanidov also, trailing her barbaric gown away through a shaft of moonlight.
It was mid-afternoon when Lilla emerged from her room.
A servant informed her that "everybody" was motoring or playing golf. She entered the library, lustrous with its rows of books and its deep-toned paintings hung against wooden panels. Between half-drawn window curtains passed rays of sunshine that came to rest upon vases of flowers arranged in porcelain bowls; but the corners of the room were steeped in shadows. A man who had been sitting on a couch amid these shadows rose to his feet.
She sought the gloom beyond the fireplace, in order that her changed face might not betray her. But even here her paleness was emphasized, and her eyes, with faint purple streaks below them, took on a look of deeper anxiety. Her features began to quiver as if her soul were revealing itself beneath a transparent mask.
"What has happened?"
She managed to reply:
"A great mistake. Because that picture seemed congenial to you in those lonely places you thought that the original must be the same? You were wrong. Physically and temperamentally we belong to different worlds. You couldn't rest in mine, and I couldn't enter yours. If you knew me," she added, in a hushed voice, "you'd find me contemptible, in all my weaknesses." She lowered her head, then, raising her eyes, which were full of fear, besought him, "Tear it out of your heart! Destroy it!"
"There, it's done. How easy it was to obey you!"
And they stood face to face in a pallor that was like a scintillation of white-hot metal, both knowing that their lips, though they uttered first a thousand similar phrases, would presently be united.
Then he came close, catching in his strong grasp her writhing hands. But she stopped him with a look like a flashing sword—a look as poignant as though they had been lovers for years and now must love no longer. And so, in fact, they had been, heart drawn to heart by a strange likeness of accidental or of fatal events, one longing groping through space toward another longing. Apart, just by aid of their imaginations, they had progressed already from indefinite to precise emotions, from vague to fixed visions, each attaining in thought a consummation that mocked this present struggle. And this profound mutual intimacy, an accomplished fact in the realm of mind, was suddenly projected into the physical atmosphere, so that the glances of these two, who had just now met each other, clashed in an almost terrible intimacy, as though the question were not "Never," but "Never again."
Wrenching her hands away, she made a despairing gesture.
"Tear it out," she repeated. "It's only by doing so that you can please me."
"Will you help me to kill it? Will you lend a hand by making your beauty hideous, your nature repulsive? Come and take a drive with me. Just an hour or two. How long do you need to destroy it?"
"Ah," she breathed, closing her eyes in pain.
In a broad-brimmed hat that matched her muslin gown she went down the steps to his car. The high, gray walls of the house disappeared behind a rush of trees; the conical turret roofs of slate sank quickly away.
From the terrace Cornelius Rysbroek stared at the distant gateway through which they had vanished.
The car rushed through the countryside. The orderly fields stretched away toward gentle slopes on which cows were grazing. Here and there a village abruptly spread out its roofs, which rotated on the axis of a spire. All the windows gave back the light of late afternoon; and far off, against a hollow between two hills, like wine in a cup, there was a ruddy flash of water. It was the Sound; and beyond the Sound lay the sea.
A cloud covered the setting sun.
"So you pretend to begrudge me this perfected feeling, this verification, that I'll carry back with me!"
He told her that over there he would build a perfect similacrum of her out of his thoughts, as an enchanter might form at will in the twinkling of an eye the likeness of some one who was far away. "You shall even move and speak," he predicted, "and I'll make your glances and your words whatever I want them to be. Look out for yourself! That is sorcery. I shall have taken a part of you away from yourself, across the ocean, to Africa where the forests are full of magicians. Over here you'll no longer be complete. You'll turn your eyes southeast with a sense of missing something from your heart."
He gazed ahead at the road that the car was devouring with an endless purr of triumph. He pursued his fancy, while the car pursued the glimmer of the Sound, which was escaping amid the first thin veils of the twilight.
He promised that she, to whom everything uncouth and primitive was repugnant, would smile beside him in those equatorial tangles, or, at any rate, that she would do so in his dream of her. In the camp surrounded by a hedge of thorns, in the firelight flickering on the shoulder blades and teeth of the negroes, the wraith of her living self would sit at his side, radiant in the dress that she had worn last night. "Real as you'll seem to me," he said, "I sha'n't have to worry about the striped mosquitoes stinging you on the shoulders; and when we others go plodding along, no helmet or terai need hide that hair of yours. Since you'll be made of my thoughts, you'll be invulnerable. You'll catch up your little train to run across a field of ferns in pursuit of some small, inquisitive wild beast. When the tribes make dances for us, they won't know that a beautiful white lady, in a golden decollete gown, is seated before them, as happy as if that hullabaloo were a ballet by Stravinsky."
In the twilight, by a road hemmed in with sumac, they came to a small, rustic restaurant, which perched on a cliff above the waters of the Sound. An old waiter led them between empty tables to a veranda overlooking the waves. He seated them by the railing, along which trailed a honeysuckle vine.
They had come for tea or for dinner?
"Dinner!" exclaimed Lawrence. "Here, take this, and carry your sane and practical face away. Wait, you might bring us some tea." He reached across the table to feel her hand, which was as cold as ice. "I've frozen you!"
"No," she returned, almost inaudibly.
The odor of the honeysuckle was mingled with the smell of the sea. The old waiter came and departed like a shade. They were alone on the veranda, above the waves over which the rising moon had just thrown a silver net.
But it was a beam of light from the doorway that illuminated the angles of his face, at which she looked with a sensation of faintness. She bent her neck; her hat brim concealed her eyes.
By this time to-morrow!
"Let me hear your voice," he pleaded. "At least I'll fill my mind with those tones; and when I'm alone I can put them together into the words, 'I love you.'"
As if conjured up by this utterance, a breeze swept over them, full of the fragrance of honeysuckle and the acridity of the sea, like the immense, soft breath with which nature blows upon the kindled human heart, fanning it into a sudden conflagration. And the rustling of the vines, together with the murmur of the water, expanded into a sigh which seemed to issue from the multitude of lovers who somewhere—everywhere—at that moment, were swaying toward the irresistible embrace; and from the innumerable flowers of the earth, in the act of relinquishing the sweetness beloved by bees; and, indeed, from that whole spread of mortal consciousness which nature, moved by a supreme necessity, has subjected to this world-wide tyranny.
She lifted her head as if striving to rise above that smothering flood, and in the moonlight her face was revealed to him—her eyes humid, her lips twisted into an unprecedented shape, her whole aspect, in its startling maturity, like that of the immortal goddess whose genius and nature had suddenly possessed this flesh and blood.
Rising, she turned away in a movement of denial that came too late. He followed her to the end of the veranda; and there at last—or, as it seemed to them, again—he took her in his arms. For an instant her averted face imitated the marble nymph's face, her slender and flexible body the nymph's struggling body, before she became limp at his kiss.
In the doorway of the dining room she paused to look back at the veranda. She wanted to remember every arabesque that the vines were tracing in silhouette against the moonlit sea; but she could not see anything distinctly. As she left the restaurant some one presented her with a little bunch of flowers.
It was her wedding bouquet.
They were married in a village rectory. The minister, peering over his horn-rimmed spectacles, stood before a mantelpiece on which a black marble clock was flanked by clusters of wax fruit under glass.
Lilla borrowed a cloak from the minister's wife, and Lawrence drove straight to New York.
She appeared in the doorway of the living room wearing a white burnoose, her pale brown hair caught up in a loose knot, her feet thrust into yellow Moorish slippers much too large for her. In the thin morning sunlight Lawrence, dressed for his journey, was locking a metal trunk. Lilla sat down and fixed her eyes on the clock.
The furniture of the living room, gathered from various parts of the Mohammedan world, was carved and inlaid. In the corners long-barreled muskets, with stocks of mother of pearl, flanked cabinets full of brittle copies of the Koran, witch doctors' switches, and outlandish fetishes. Above these objects there dangled from the molding the cagelike silver head armor of the Wadai cavalry horses, the tassels of Algerian marriage palanquins, oval shields of bullock-hide and bucklers of hammered brass, crude drums and harps from Uganda. On the four walls, against pieces of reddish bark cloth, gleamed savage weapons arranged in circular trophies—the war spears of the Wanandi, the swords of the Masai, the bows and poisoned arrows of the Wakamba, besides jeweled yataghans, scimitars with gilded hilts, and damascened pistols. Over the bookcases—which were crammed full of heavy volumes, portfolios, and maps—appeared framed photographs; among the likenesses of Europeans in duck tunics one saw the visages of Egyptians, Persians, and Arabs, or some ghastly black apparition daubed with white paint and crowned with a shako of squirrel fur and plumes.
In the air there was a faint odor of skins, dried herbs, sandalwood, and camphor. But on the center table, in a large African gourd that had been polished till it looked like porcelain, stood the little bouquet that some one had presented to her at the restaurant.
These flowers, because neither he nor she had thought to give them water, were already faded.
"Have you telephoned to the Brassfields?"
"Yes," she said, with a wan smile, "and caused quite a sensation."
A small, wiry, middle-aged man, with an honest, lantern-jawed face, entered the living room bearing a breakfast tray. After one glance, keeping his eyes cast down, he bowed respectfully.
He was Parr, Lawrence Teck's valet in America and right-hand man in Africa.
With her head bent forward, she stared at some petals that had fallen from the gourd. Her neck rose from the white burnoose in a curve of the palest amber; her delicate lips were parted; her loosened tresses were filled with the feeble sunshine. She seemed to symbolize quiet. But when the telephone bell rang she started violently.
It was a call from Long Island, where Aunt Althea Balbian was summering. The servants had learned of Lilla's whereabouts from the Brassfields. Aunt Althea had fallen seriously ill in the night.
Parr showed his downcast eyelids and lantern jaws in the doorway.
"A maid is here from madam's house downtown with a steamer trunk and three suitcases."
"Tell her to take them back," Lilla said in a muffled voice.
She had planned to go as far as London with Lawrence.
She went to a bookcase, knelt down, and scanned the titles of the books.
"I shall read these," she murmured. "I shall take them home with me, stack by stack, and read them all. At night I'll read the ones that are worn from your hands, the dog-eared ones full of pencil marks. Show me those that you care for most. Have you any little book that's gone with you everywhere, that's shabby from your constant use? I want to keep it in my handbag in the daytime and under my pillow at night."
He turned away to the window. She sat on her heels before the bookcase, the white folds of the burnoose flowing out round her, her fragile hands in her lap, her soft palms upturned, her fluffy hair trailing down to frame her sad face.
"Don't forget to leave me the key. There will always be flowers here; but the moment they fade fresh ones will take their place. What chair do you like to sit in? On winter nights I'll come here, and draw your favorite chair toward the fire, and sit opposite. I won't let these cruel weapons, these hideous painted faces, frighten me. I'll tell myself that nothing can prevent us from being together again. Yes," she declared, in a deadened voice, "my thoughts are going to form armor round you. Just wait! When you're alone out there, and everything's silent, you'll wonder what it is that makes the air round you electric. It will be my thoughts of you."
The clock struck the hour. She rose; but at the doorway she paused, drooping and tremulous, so that he could take her in his arms again. Her head sank back; her curling lashes veiled her eyes, and a sob, swelling her throat, escaped through her quivering lips. Her knees bent, and with a look of anguish she cried distractedly:
She believed that her heart had stopped beating.
She was in the bedroom, lying on the couch spread over with a leopard skin. He was sitting beside her. His face expressed alarm; for she shivered convulsively, turning her head from side to side, and biting her lips. He urged her to have courage.
"Courage! When I shall never see you again?"
"What an idea!"
She touched his dark cheek with her fingers on which the nails were like gems. Her eyes, extraordinarily enlarged, and swimming in a mournful tenderness, regarded his face, as if striving to impress it forever upon her mind.
"Give it up," she pleaded once more. "Don't scorn my intuition."
"It's necessary," he said. "More so now than ever."
"Money! As if there were no other way! And even if there weren't——"
Parr knocked on the door.
"Shall I call the taxi, sir?"
Lying motionless, staring at the ceiling, she faltered:
"All right. I'll dress."
But she could hardly drag herself to her feet.
As she pinned on her hat she longed for a veil, such a heavily figured veil as she had put on when setting out to the fortune teller's, who had said, "A great love is in store for you." "How dreadfully I look! This is the picture of me that he must take away with him." She entered the living room as Parr and the taxi driver were carrying out the valises. She took a flower from the gourd. A petal fell off; and the taxi driver, brushing past her, ground it into the rug.
In the outer corridor, which she did not remember having passed through last night, she held out her hand. Lawrence gave her the key; she slipped it down the neck of her muslin frock, and it struck a chill through her bosom.
When the ship had carried him away she returned uptown and took a train for Long Island.
Aunt Althea lay in a four-post bed near a window through which she might see the sunshine resting on the small Italian garden. Her colorless face was stamped with a look of almost infantile acquiescence, though it was only three days since she had sat out there in the garden, thinking:
"When Lilla comes back I'll ask her whether she wouldn't like a little run over to Rome, before the season sets in."
The sick woman tell asleep. Her hair appeared grayer, her skin more nearly transparent, than ordinarily. All her various ardors had not slipped away from her without leaving on her countenance the marks of their transmutation, a peculiar nobility that owed half its fineness to unacknowledged suffering.
In the night the nurse decided to wake the physician, who was dozing in one of the guest rooms. Aunt Althea had conquered time, had regained her "beloved Europe." Somewhere in the New York house there was a photograph of her, taken in her twenty-fifth year. She, too, it seemed, had once been charming, full of young grace and eager expectancy. And now she was in her twenty-fifth year again, and driving through Rome to the English cemetery. She reached it. She met some one there, to whom she spoke in Italian. It was a rendezvous of lovers. And Lilla heard the sigh:
"Don't go. Don't smile at my intuition——"
Later, after seeming to listen intently, Aunt Althea cried:
"What are they calling? All massacred at Adowa!" She uttered a moan, "I knew it!"
To the doctor's surprise she lived through the following day. By evening everybody had become hopeful of her recovery. Aunt Althea, turning her faded, aristocratic head on the pillow, said:
"You must go and rest, Lilla. I shall be all right now. How badly you look! How I must have worried you! They shouldn't have spoiled your party. You see it wasn't worth while."
She passed away at dawn.
It was a morning of unusual brightness. A high wind caught up and scattered broadcast the petals from the Italian garden, as though that spot had served its only purpose. Now and then a swift cloud cast a shadow over the landscape, then passed on, leaving everything as brilliant as before. The boughs of the trees tapped urgently against the windowpanes, calling attention to the sparkling clarity of space. And Lilla, sitting alone in her room, wondered, "Will she meet him out there? Does fate finally relent? Or are those moments that she had with him—so few, while others are allowed so many!—supposed to be enough happiness for her?"
For a while Lilla remained in the house on Long Island.
She sat in the pergola holding on her lap a closed book, between the pages of which she kept Lawrence's cablegrams and letters from London. Toward sunset she rose and went down across the meadow to the brook, where some willows leaned over the water. As the twilight gathered, a smell of wood smoke made her think of camp fires; and casting a look around her at the suave landscape she tried to picture the jungle.
Then, when she recalled their brief hours together, a filmy curtain appeared to ascend before her eyes; and that relationship, which because of her profound, psychic agitation had been almost dreamlike while in progress, assumed a perfect clarity, a new value. And now, with the dissipation of that haze cast over all her senses by his nearness, she perceived him, himself, far more distinctly than when he had been with her. "Ah, what was I thinking of to let him go!" She felt that another woman, not cursed with her ineptitude in that crisis, would have held him back.
"But you were cruel enough not to give up going of your own accord," she sighed in the twilight. And, turning wearily back toward the house, she reflected that if she had been fatally weak he had been fatally strong, and that, after all, those two antithetical defects were strangely similar.
When she was most gloomy, Fanny Brassfield came to visit her for a few days.
That vigorous blonde woman, ruddy from golf and thin from horseback riding, with calm nerves and an endless fund of gossip, brought a vital thrill into the Long Island house. Yet to Lilla this very vigor was oppressive instead of tonic; and resentment came over her as she scrutinized her friend's satirical face, which seemed to typify all the women who progressed successfully through life, as if their natures, victoriously adamantine, had bestowed upon them this brilliant hardness of complexion, this sophisticated, frosty, conquering glance. Lucky women, who were so emphatically of the same essence as the phenomena round them, who accepted life with the simplicity of natural creatures, who never saw, beneath the pageantry of these appearances, a peeping horror that cast one down from joy to despair! Even death seemed natural to them, apparently, so long as they themselves escaped its touch.
"One must resign oneself to all these things," said Fanny, in her clear, loud voice. "One must learn to rise above them. These periods of mourning are really a mistake. All this sitting still, dressed in black! One takes medicine when one's ill. A dose of pleasure ought to be the prescription when one's sad."
She added that physical exercise was also very important.
In a striped woolen sports suit, a felt hat turned over one ear and a walking stick in her hand, Fanny Brassfield presented herself at Lilla's bedside while the garden was still full of mist. She prescribed, on this occasion, a walk before breakfast.
They trudged through bypaths where the bushes were gemmed with dew. From a wooded hilltop they saw, gliding along the highway, the cars of men who were bound for their safe occupations in the city.
Lilla regained the house exhausted, pale from fatigue, while Fanny Brassfield seemed bursting with energy.
In the evening time began to hang rather heavily for Fanny. She persuaded Lilla to play the piano for her. Then she glanced over the books in which the paragraphs were shortest, ran through a few magazines, kicked off her slippers, put her feet on a stool, lighted a cigarette, and fell back upon gossip. Madame Zanidov was now visiting in Maine. Cornelius Rysbroek had gone to Mexico.
"Mexico! Aren't things rather unsettled there?"
"Perhaps he's gone where things are unsettled because everything is too much settled here," replied Fanny, with her satirical smile.
"Oh," said Fanny, luxuriously stretching herself like a cat that needs exercise, "if one of these timid souls is hit hard enough, there's no telling what he'll do."
Before the end of summer Lilla returned to the house on lower Fifth Avenue.
In the hall paved with black and white tiles, the chasteness of the ivory-colored wainscot set off two stately consoles, on which lamps with cylindrical shades of painted parchment were reflected in antique mirrors. The drawing-room furniture, from the eighteenth century, displayed its discreet elegance against the sage green walls and the formal folds of the mulberry-colored curtains; while over the chimney piece, which was ornamented with three vases of the Renaissance in silver gilt, a painting by Bronzino focused the gaze upon a triumph of romance over formality. This painting, in this room, was like a gesture of Aunt Althea's real self.
"How well she kept her secret," Lilla thought "She was rather heroic, it seems."
And she felt as surprised a sadness as though she were the first who had not quite appreciated the departed.
The prophecy of Madame Zanidov—"that incredible balderdash!"—even woke her in the night.
She discovered the date of Lawrence's birth, then went to a woman with birdlike eyes, who was seated behind a table on which stood some little Hindu idols and a vase of gilded lotus buds. The astrologer, when she had made some marks on a sheet of paper, and had added up some figures, confessed that "these next few months were going to be a critical time for him." "You see, here are Saturn and Uranus——"
Emerging from the sanctum, Lilla felt the pavement move beneath her feet.
Presently she sought out the teachers of New Thought, whose faces were as serene as though they had found a talisman by which death itself might be vanquished. They calmed her with benignant smiles, then informed her that fear was as potent in bringing about disaster as optimism was in preventing it. In those consultation rooms, where the walls were dotted—rather unnecessarily, it seemed to Lilla—with mottoes exhorting her to love, they gave her the recipe in gentle voices that were nearly lyrical. But gradually she got the idea that they were speaking to her in a foreign language. Drowsiness assailed her, as though a malignant power, determined that she should not gain this peace, had cast over her a spell of mental lethargy.
Nevertheless, she persisted. In the bookshops the customers turned to regard this tall beauty clad in black, who, with a mournful eagerness, leaned over the counters devoted to "inspirational literature."
One rainy afternoon she threw those books aside and went to church.
Here was an awesomeness appropriate to a mortal conception of God—a distant glitter of candles beyond colossal pillars, a fragrance of stale incense, a silence in which the shadowy crimson of banners, suspended high in the nave, was like a soft blaring of celestial trumpets. Exaltation took hold of her as she recalled the miracles of orthodox faith and the eternal promise of compassion.
She prayed for a long while, lost in the sweetness of the incense, her heart quivering from the memory of her few hours of love.
Whenever she received a letter from him she tore open the envelope with one movement, and pressed against her face those crackling sheets of paper that seemed to exhale the odor of a far-off land. He had written it in the wilds, before his tent, while a naked black messenger stood waiting. The letter sealed, the messenger had stuck it into a split wand, and straightway had set off at a trot toward the coast.
Now she wanted to know precisely what his surroundings looked like. When she had pored over the map she collected all the books about that region.
She was surprised to find it impregnated with romance.
It was the "Eldorado" of remote antiquity. Thither, in the dawn of recorded history, had gone the Phoenician galleys, full of hook-nosed men in purple and brass, their beards scented with spikenard. From the mining towns that they built in the jungle, surrounded by cyclopean walls and adorned with grotesque stone images, came the stores of gold with which the Sidonians enriched King Solomon. To-day all those workings were apparently exhausted. The Zimbabwe—the cities of stone—had crumbled; the jungle had closed in; and in that wilderness only a heap of rubble, or the choked mouth of a pit, remained here and there to mark the source of the metal that had gilded the temple at Jerusalem, and the Semitic shrines to Baal and Astoreth.
But a new letter told her that he had crossed the Zambesi.
He had gone into a land almost wholly unexplored by its present claimants, full of fever-breeding marshes, barren mountain gorges, and great forests. The inhabitants were an unconquered race of warriors called the Mambava, fiercer than the lions and leopards about them, hostile to strangers, and given to uncanny customs. They worshipped among other things—perhaps in consequence of the old Phoenician occupation—the moon. At certain periods of the year their forests thundered with the music of drums; their towns were deserted except for the women and children. Then the stranger who had ventured into their country might see, from his hiding place, hordes of black men moving to a secret rendezvous, their painted faces framed in monkey hair, their limbs covered with amulets, their shields rising in time to an interminable chanting in a minor key.
Sometimes, in the corridor outside the door of Lawrence's rooms, she encountered a small, dapper young man with an inquisitive face, who lived on the floor above. He usually carried under his arm a leather portfolio. Nothing could have been more interested than his look when he passed this sad-eyed woman in mourning, whose identity and story he had learned from the janitor.
When she had shut the living-room door behind her, for a moment she closed her eyes in order that she might not see the weapons on the walls. Then she kindled the fire. The blazing logs sent over her a wave of heat; but she shivered while listening to the sound of sleet on the glass.
"He might be here with me. We might have felt together the security and peace of this warm room, and laughed at the storm outside."
One evening she ripped from their frames the photographs of savages smeared with white paint and crowned with fur and feathers. She threw them into the fire. As the flames consumed them, she leaned, forward like those who try to annihilate their enemies by destroying their likenesses.
For a long while she sat beside the empty chair, shading her eyes from the blaze with a translucent hand. But suddenly she stood up, tense and quaking. Her dilated eyes were fixed upon a point in space, from which an overwhelming impression had rushed in upon her—a flood of distant emotion, a sort of voiceless cry, in a flash traversing half the earth and unerringly reaching her.
Little by little her nerves and muscles relaxed. Moving as though her limbs were weighted with lead, after carefully drawing the fire screen in front of the glowing embers, she put on her black toque, her long coat of black fur and her black gloves.
As she crossed the sidewalk to her car, an eddy of wind raised up before her, head high, a whirl of snowflakes that resembled a wraith for one moment, before it was whipped away into the darkness.
A month after that stormy night when Lilla had felt the impact of some far-off gush of feeling, the newspapers published a despatch reporting the death of Lawrence Teck at the hands of savages. Four months passed, however, before Lilla received a letter from Parr, the valet.
It had happened in the country of the Mambava. That tribe, despite their well-known animosity to strangers, had not been hostile to Lawrence. Indeed, he had won the friendship of their king. Yet it was in the king's stronghold that the tragedy had happened.
There had been a beer dance, a disorderly festival ending in a clash between the Mambava warriors and Lawrence's camp police. Almost without warning the rifles had cracked, the spears had begun to fly. Lawrence, throwing himself between the parties, had been among the first to fall. Then a frenzy had seized the savages; a panic, the intruders. It had been a massacre—a headlong flight amid the Mambava forests, through which Parr, himself badly wounded, and half the time unconscious, had been dragged by five Mohammedan survivors. They had gained an outpost fort where, ever since, Parr had lain hovering between life and death, not only crippled by his wounds, but also stricken with the black-water fever. Then, at last, he had gathered strength enough to scrawl these lines.
Her friends were surprised that she "took it as well as she did." Considering her emotional legacy, they had expected a collapse. On the contrary she remained, as it seemed, almost passionless. She did not show even that desire for sympathy which is characteristic of hysterical natures.
Fanny Brassfield noticed presently, however, that Lilla could no longer look at negroes without turning pale, that her antipathy to certain colors, sounds, and perfumes had increased, and that sometimes she appeared to be listening to a voice inaudible to others.
It was the voice of her thoughts, which she heard, now and then, just as if some one were whispering in her ear.
She became subject to reveries in which there were frequent lapses from all mental function. Then, of a sudden, she was filled with a longing for movement.
She went abroad alone, and settled herself in a villa on the French Riviera.
Every morning there appeared on the terrace of a neighboring villa a young Frenchwoman in a white straw hat and a white dress, carrying an ebony cane, and followed by a brown spaniel. In the evening the stranger might be seen pacing behind the marble urns in a gown of gold and silver lace, or perhaps in a black dress spotted with large medallions of pearl and turquoise. A tall man walked by her side; and when their silhouettes stood out against the luminous sea there came to Lilla, with the interminable odor of roses, a soft laugh of happiness.
The sound floated across a gulf as wide as that which separates one world from another.
As for Lilla, her world lay in the past; and all this semitropical luxuriance of nature, enriched and complicated by an insatiable mankind, was lost in such mistiness as had risen round her in childhood—when her world had seemed to lie in the future. Sometimes those past events, from her continual rehearsal of them, attained recreation; the precious scenes surrounded her visibly and almost tangibly; and the dark garden of the villa became the other garden, the threshold of love. Then she realized that this was one more delusion due to her abnormal state of mind. In her terror she reached out through the shadows to grasp at something that might help her to regain contact with reality. She clutched a rose, and as she crushed its sweetness to her face its thorn pierced her lip. She burst into a fit of crying and laughing at this reassurance—this proof that there existed, after all, a material world, of beauty inextricably mingled with despair.