Shapes that Haunt the Dusk
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
HENRY MILLS ALDEN
Harper & Brothers Publishers New York and London
Copyright, 1891, 1893, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1905, 1906, 1907, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
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All rights reserved.
GEORG SCHOCK THE CHRISTMAS CHILD
RICHARD RICE THE WHITE SLEEP OF AUBER HURN
HOWARD PYLE IN TENEBRAS
MADELENE YALE WYNNE THE LITTLE ROOM
HARRIET LEWIS BRADLEY THE BRINGING OF THE ROSE
HILDEGARDE HAWTHORNE PERDITA
M. E. M. DAVIS AT LA GLORIEUSE
F. D. MILLET A FADED SCAPULAR
E. LEVI BROWN AT THE HERMITAGE
H. W. McVICKAR THE REPRISAL
The writers of American short stories, the best short stories in the world, surpass in nothing so much as in their handling of those filmy textures which clothe the vague shapes of the borderland between experience and illusion. This is perhaps because our people, who seem to live only in the most tangible things of material existence, really live more in the spirit than any other. Their love of the supernatural is their common inheritance from no particular ancestry, but is apparently an effect from psychological influences in the past, widely separated in time and place. It is as noticeable among our Southerners of French race as among our New-Englanders deriving from Puritan zealots accustomed to wonder-working providences, or among those descendants of the German immigrants who brought with them to our Middle States the superstitions of the Rhine valleys or the Hartz Mountains. It is something that has tinged the nature of our whole life, whatever its varied sources, and when its color seems gone out of us, or, going, it renews itself in all the mystical lights and shadows so familiar to us that, till we read some such tales as those grouped together here, we are scarcely aware how largely they form the complexion of our thinking and feeling.
The opening story in this volume is from a hand quite new, and is, we think, of an excellence quite absolute, so fresh is it in scene, character, and incident, so delicately yet so strongly accented by a talent trying itself in a region hardly yet visited by fiction. Its perfect realism is consistent with the boldest appeal to those primitive instincts furthest from every-day events, and its pathos is as poignant as if it had happened within our own knowledge. In its way, it is as finely imaginative as Mr. Pyle's wonderfully spiritualized and moralized conception of the other world which he has realized on such terms as he alone can command; or as Mrs. Wynne's symphony of thrills and shudders, which will not have died out of the nerves of any one acquainted with it before. Mr. Millet's sketch is of a quality akin to that of Mr. McVickar's slighter but not less impressive fantasy: both are "in the midst of men and day," and command such credence as we cannot withhold from any well-confirmed report in the morning paper. Mr. Rice's story is of like temperament, and so, somewhat, is Miss Hawthorne's, and Mr. Brown's, and Miss Bradley's, while Miss Davis's romance is of another atmosphere, but not less potent, because it comes from farther, and wears a dreamier light.
Such as they severally and differently and collectively are, the pieces are each a masterpiece and worthy the study of every reader who feels that there are more things than we have dreamt of in our philosophy. The collection is like a group of immortelles, gray in that twilight of the reason which Americans are so fond of inviting, or, rather, they are like a cluster of Indian pipe, those pale blossoms of the woods that spring from the dark mould in the deepest shade, and are so entirely of our own soil.
W. D. H.
The Christmas Child
BY GEORG SCHOCK
The moonlight was so bright across the clock that it showed the time, and its tick was solemn, as though the minutes were marching slowly by. There was no other sound in the room except the breathing of Conrad, who lay in shadow, sleeping heavily, his head a black patch among the pillows. Mary's hair looked like gold in the pale light which reflected in her open eyes. She had been lying so, listening to the tick and watching the hands, for hours.
When they marked eleven she began to stir; her feet made no more sound than shadows; the cold air struck her body like a strange element. Conrad did not move as she went into the kitchen and softly closed the door. She groped her way to the chair where she had left her clothes and put them on, wrapped herself in a shawl, and slipped out.
There was no snow, but a keen cold as befitted the night of the 24th of December, and between two fields the ice on the Northkill glittered. The air was so clear that far away appeared the great black barrier of the mountains. Across the sky, as across deep water, was a radiance of light, serene and chill,—of clouds like foam, of throbbing stars, of the moon glorious in her aura. In the towns at that hour the people were ready to begin the coming day with prayer and the sound of bells: here sky and earth themselves honored the event with light and silence in a majestic expectation.
As she made her way over the frozen grass she looked as detached from the world's affairs as some shrouded lady at her nightly journey along a haunted path. The great Swiss barn was dead silent; its red front, painted with moons and stars, looked patriarchal; it had its own pastoral and dignified associations. She hesitated at the middle door, then she lifted the wooden bar and pushed it back cautiously. The darkness seemed to come out to meet her, and when she had shut herself in she was engulfed as though the ready earth had covered her a few nights too soon.
The straw rustled when she stepped on it, and she was afraid to risk a movement, so she crouched and made herself small. The air was thick and pungent, freezing draughts played upon her through the cracks of the door, and her foot tingled, but she did not move. After a while she saw two luminous disks which halted, glared, and approached, and she patted the furry body until it curled up on her skirt and lay there purring. She felt it grow tense at a tiny squeak and scuttle, but she kept still.
More than half an hour had gone when something happened. A horse stamped, a cock set up a sudden chatter, the cat leaped to a manger, and a cow scrambled to her feet. The darkness was full of movement,—wings fluttered, timbers shook under kicking hoofs and rubbing hides, tossed heads jarred the rings that held them fast. Then from the corner in which stood the splendid yoke of black oxen, the pride of the farm, there came a long, deep sound, as of something primeval mourning.
Two minutes after, Conrad was roused by a noise in the kitchen. The house door stood wide, showing a great rectangle of moonlight, there was a rush of cold air, and his bare foot struck Mary, doubled up where she had fallen. He shouted, and an old woman ran in with her gray hair flying.
"Conrad!" she exclaimed, almost in a scream.
"I don't know," he answered. He had his wife in his arms and held her out like a child showing a broken toy.
The old woman bethought herself first. "Take her in and lay her on the bed," she ordered. While she worked he began to hurry on his clothes, moving as though he were stupid; then he came up to the bed.
"Aunt Hannah, what has she?" he begged. She gave him a look, and he suddenly burst into a great storm of tears.
"Hurry!" she said. "Take Dolly and a whip and go to Bernville first. If the doctor isn't home, go along to Mount Pleasant; but bring a doctor. Ach!" she seized his hand in her excitement.
Mary's eyes were opening—blue, wide, and terrified. "Don't take Dolly," she said, quite loud. "Dolly knows too much." Then her eyes closed again.
Conrad went into the kitchen, still sobbing, and the old woman followed.
"I must take Dolly," he whispered. "Aunt Hannah, for God's sake, what has she?"
"I don't know what she means about Dolly. Maybe I can find out till you get back. She'll soon come to. You better be careful going out of the barnyard. It might worry her if she hears the hoofs."
The young man checked his crying. "I take her through the fields," he said, and went out softly.
In the light of the candle which contended with the moonbeams Hannah's wrinkled face looked witchlike as she bent over the bed. Presently Mary started and her eyes searched the room with a terrified stare; she seemed to be all at once in the midst of some dreadful happening.
"Aunt Hannah," she exclaimed, "don't let them come for me!"
The old woman bent over her. "How do you feel?" she asked, in her soft and friendly Dutch.
"Don't let them come!"
"Nobody comes, Mary. It is all right, only you are not so good. After while somebody is coming. Then you are glad!"
"Keep them out! I don't want to go!"
"You don't go off; you stay right here with me and Conrad."
Hannah's hand shook, but she still spoke reassuringly. "Were you in the barn, Mary?"
"Yes. You know how it is said that on Christmas eve, twelve o'clock, the animals talk. I thought so much about it, and I made up my mind to go and hear what they had to say. I was in the middle stable that's empty, and I waited, and all of a sudden—" She stopped, trembling.
"Just don't think about it," Hannah urged, but she went on:
"All of a sudden—Dolly stamped—and they all woke up—the cows and the sheep, and the cat was scared and the big rooster cackled,—and then the oxen—Ach, Aunt Hannah! One of them said, 'They will carry out the mistress in the morning.'"
"You don't go, for all," the old woman soothed her. "Think of who is coming, Mary. That's a better thing to think about. It's so lucky to have it on Christmas day. She will have good fortune then, and see more than others."
The pinched face grew bright. The trembling soul was not to go out alone before, becoming a part of the great current of maternity, it had had the best of what is here.
"I take such good care of her. I look after her all the time," said Mary.
* * * * *
The sun was gone, but the west was still as pink as coral and the twilight gave a wonderful velvety look to the meadows. In the rye-fields the stalks, heavy-headed already, dipped in the wind which blew the last apple-blossoms about like snow. A row of sturdy trees grew along Conrad Rhein's front fence, and there was a large orchard in the rear. The log house was just the color of a nest among the pale foliage.
The place was so quiet that the irritable note of a couple of chimney-swallows, swooping about in pursuit of an invisible purpose, sounded loud. Hannah Rhein looked up from the small stocking she was knitting to watch them. Her secular occupation was contradicted by her black silk "Sunday dress," and there was a holiday appearance about the little girl who sat very still, looking as though stillness were habitual with her.
"You better run out to the gate. Maybe you can see them," Hannah said. The child went, and stood looking down the road so long that she rolled up her knitting and followed. "There they are!" she exclaimed. "Father and Aunt Calista. Don't forget to give her a kiss when she gets out."
Conrad Rhein's austere face expressed no pleasure as he stepped from the carriage and helped his companion, but she was not to be depressed by a brother-in-law's gravity. Calista Yohe, moving lightly in her pink delaine dress, resembled the prickly roses coming into bloom beside the gate, which would flourish and fade imperturbably in accordance with their own times and seasons. At present she looked as though the fading were remote. She shook hands joyfully and seized the carpet-bag which Hannah had taken.
"I guess I don't let you carry that," she said. "It's heavy."
The little girl put up her face, and Calista kissed her without speaking to her, and went on talking:
"You are right, Dolly is hot. We drove good and hard. Conrad didn't want to do it to give her the whip, but I don't like to ride slow. Let's sit on the porch awhile."
The child placed her bench near the old woman's chair, but she watched the young one admiringly. Calista did not notice her.
"How are the folks?" Hannah asked.
"They are good."
"Had they a big wedding?"
"I guess! It was teams on both sides of the road all the way down to where you turn, and they had three tables. She wore such a nice dress, too; such a silk it was, with little flowers in."
"How did it go while you were there?"
"Oh, all right; she's a nice girl and he and I could always get along; but it wasn't like my home. If a man gets married once, he doesn't want his sister afterwards," Calista said, cheerfully.
"Well, you stay here now. We are glad to have you. Conrad he is quiet and I am getting along, so it's not such a lively place, but I guess you can make out."
"Well, I think!" said Calista, "I like to work. Is Conrad always so crabbed? He hardly talked anything all the way over."
"He hasn't much to say, but he is easy to get along with. He doesn't look much to anything but the farm."
"Doesn't he go out in company?" Calista asked, eagerly.
"Once in a while, but not often. He doesn't look for that any more." Hannah sighed and stroked the child's head, which rested against her knee, and the movement caught Calista's eye.
"She favors Mary," she said. "All that light hair and her white skin. That's a pretty dress she has on." She stooped and examined the blue merino. "Did you work that sack?"
"No, I had it worked. I think she looks nice. Conrad bought her those blue beads for a present. She was so glad."
"Does she always wear white stockings?"
"When she is dressed. Conrad he wants it all of the best."
"Does he think so much of her?"
"He doesn't make much with her; he is not one to show if he thinks much; but would be strange if he didn't. And as well off as he is, and no one to spend it on!"
Calista looked out through the orchard and across the fields of rye and wheat over which the spring night was falling. "He has a fine place for sure," she said. "He takes long in the barn."
"I guess he went off," said Hannah, peacefully.
"I didn't see him leave."
"It may be he went to Albrecht's."
"Who are they? Young people?"
"Yes. John Albrecht he is about Conrad's age, and his wife was such a friend to Mary. They have two little ones come over sometimes to play around."
"Is that all in the family?"
"His mother; she lives with her, a woman so crippled up she can't walk."
Calista looked as satisfied as a strategist who finds himself in control of a desired situation: its difficulties made her spirits rise. Her eyes wandered about and fixed upon the child again. "She gets sleepy early for such a big girl," she said. "Wasn't she five on Christmas?"
"Yes. She wanted to see you, so I let her stay up to-night; and anyhow I didn't want to be sitting up-stairs when you got here."
"Do you sit with her evenings?"
"Till she goes to sleep. If you leave her in the dark she is so scared I pity her, and I don't want her to get excited. I have no trouble with her other times. She listens to me, and she is real smart to help; she can pick strawberries and pull weeds, and she always enjoys to go along for eggs. She is like her father, she hasn't much to say. She will run around in the orchard and play with her doll-baby the whole day, and she is pretending all the time."
The little girl opened her eyes, very blue with sleep. With her rosy color and the white and blue of her little garments she looked like a cherub smiling out of the canvas of a German painter,—the soft companion of an older and more pensive grace. Hannah watched her tenderly.
"Now come, Mary, we go to bed," she said.
"I guess I'd make such a fuss with that child and sit with her nights!" Calista thought, her prominent hazel eyes following in rather a catlike fashion. They followed in the same way more than once during the next few weeks. She would brush the little girl's hair when Hannah was busy, or call her to a meal, but at other times she passed her by. At first Mary was inclined to pursue the pretty stranger, and on the second evening she ran up to her to show the results of the egg-hunting, but she never did it again.
She was the only one whom Calista failed to please. The neighbors who came to visit soon returned, and on Saturday night there were three carriages at the gate and three young men in the parlor. Conrad did not pay much attention to her, but one day he told her that one of her admirers was "not such a man that you ought to go riding with," and she said: "All right. It was two asked me to go to-night. I take the other one." She went through the work singing, and Hannah sat on the porch more than usual, and began to wonder how she had gotten on so long alone.
Calista had been there only a few weeks when Hannah said at supper one evening: "I guess I go to see your aunt Sarah, Conrad. It's six years since I went. I couldn't leave the work before, but now Calista gets along so good I can go a little."
"Just do it," said Calista, heartily. "Mary and I can keep house."
The child smiled and made a timid movement.
"All right," Conrad said. "I take you to the stage any time."
Mary cried when Hannah went, and the old woman was distressed. "I feel bad to leave her," she said. "I would take her along if I had time to get her ready."
"Ach, go on!" Calista said, laughing. "There is Conrad now with the team. Mary will have good times. She can stem the cherries this morning." She picked up the little girl and held her out to kiss her aunt. "Don't you worry," she called, as the carriage started.
She came out on the back porch presently with a large basket of ox-hearts.
"Now let's see how smart you can be," she said. "Sit down on the step and I put the basket beside you. Pick them clean." Mary looked rather frightened at the size of the task, but she set to work. She stemmed and stemmed until her hands were sticky and her fingers ached. A thick yellow sunbeam came crawling to her feet; the flies buzzed, diving through the air as though it were heavy; the cat beside her slept and woke. It seemed to the child that she had always been in that spot and that there would never be anything but a hot morning and piles of shining cherries. She was looking toward the orchard where her swing hung empty when Calista hurried by the door. "Have you done them all?" she called. "Not? Well, then you finish them quick."
The cherries lasted until dinner-time, and when that was over Mary climbed on her father's bed and slept all afternoon. When she came out the first thing she saw was the egg-basket piled full. "If you want to go along for eggs you ought to be here when I am ready," said Calista.
The little creature made no noise, but her father looked at her hard as he sat down to supper. "What's the matter?" he asked.
She did not answer, and Calista said, "Oh—!" with the peculiar German inflection of contemptuous patience. Conrad said no more.
After supper Mary wandered out, and her aunt had to call her several times. "Where were you?" she asked.
"Down there." The child pointed to the orchard. "A lady was there."
Calista went to the edge of the porch and shaded her eyes. "I don't see her," she said. "Who was she?"
"I don't know."
"Did you never see her before?"
"What did she look like?"
Mary thought hard, with the puzzled face of one who lacks words and comparisons to convey an image that is clear enough. Calista walked a little way into the orchard, then she looked up and down the road.
"Wasn't it Mrs. Albrecht?" she asked. "Well, I guess it makes nothing. Come, you must go to bed. I stay with you." With a mocking expression she held out her hand as to a very small child, and the little girl walked into the house without a word, not noticing the hand.
When she was asleep Calista came back to the porch with some sewing. Conrad appeared from the barn, stood about for a moment, and strolled toward the orchard; then he walked in the garden for a while; finally he sat on the step with his back to her, saying nothing and looking at the sky. She preserved the silence of a bird-tamer.
"It's a nice evening," he said at last.
"Good weather for hay."
"One field is about ready to cut. You better tell Aunt Hannah to come home. It's too much work for you, with the men to cook for."
"Just you let her stay and enjoy herself. I get along all right."
After a pause she asked, "Did you see some one in the orchard just now?"
"Mary she ran down after supper, and she said a strange lady was there. I wondered who it was."
"I didn't see her," he said, dully, as though he spoke from the midst of some absorbing thought; then he got up and walked away. "You better go in and light the lamp if you want to sew," he said, roughly.
Calista took her things and went at once, looking as though she were so well satisfied that she could afford to be amused.
Though in the next two weeks she had plenty of company Conrad never joined them: he spent the evenings with John Albrecht, drove to Bernville, or went to bed early. He worked much harder than usual, and his cheeks grew thin under his stubble of black beard. Calista did not trouble him with conversation.
"Don't you feel good?" she once asked, and when he gave a surly answer she said, carelessly, "You better get something from the doctor," and began to sing immediately afterwards. But she knew how he looked even when her back was turned, and she often stared at Mary in a meditative way as though the child were the doubtful quantity in an important calculation.
She was watching her so one day, when little John Albrecht and his sister had come over and the three were very busy on the grass near the kitchen window with two dolls and the old tiger-cat. In the afternoon silence their little voices sounded clear and sweet. The cat escaped to a cherry-tree and they chased him gayly, but he went to sleep in an insulting way in spite of the lilac switch that John flourished.
"Look out!" Mary called.
John looked around and said, "For what?" and she went over to him.
There was a conversation which Calista could not hear; Mary pointed several times to a spot in the sunny grass; then he went running down the road and Katie followed, looking as though she would cry when she had time, and leaving her doll behind her.
Calista went out. "What did you say to John to make them run off?" she asked.
"I told him to look out, he would hit the lady with the switch."
"She was there."
"Where is she now?"
"I don't know."
"Can't you see her?"
Calista looked all about. Not a soul was in sight on the road; in the orchard and the fields nothing moved but the wind; the yard was empty except for the cat slipping round the corner with his mottled coat shining. "Now listen," she said, not unkindly. "I saw you out of the window, and there was no lady here. Why do you tell a story like that?"
The child looked at her in a preoccupied way and did not answer.
"I can't have you say things that are not so, Mary. If you do it again, I have to whip you. Now pick up your doll-baby and come in."
She spoke of it to Conrad that evening, but he did not pay much attention.
"I don't know if there is something wrong with Mary or, if she does see some one, who it is," she said. "Do you know if there are gipsies around?" He scarcely answered, and in a few minutes she heard him drive down the road. She smiled to herself as she hurried through her work. Then she put Mary to bed, though it was much earlier than usual, and began to dress, while the little girl lay watching from among the pillows.
Calista enjoyed the water like a sleek creature of two elements; her white skirts crackled and flared; her hair hid her waist. When she had finished her green dimity looked like foliage around a flower, and her hazel eyes turned green to match it.
"I'm going on the front porch," she said. "You go to sleep like a good girl."
She had sat with Mary in the evening as long as she could do so without inconvenience. Now she saw no reason for continuing it. She had not imagination enough to know what she was inflicting. Mary gazed after her as a shipwrecked woman might watch a plank drifting out of reach, but she said nothing; she shut her eyes and lay still for many minutes. She was a timid child but not cowardly, and such tangible things as a cross dog, a tramp, and a blacksnake in the orchard she had faced bravely, but her terror of the dark was indefinite and unendurable. She opened her eyes, shut them, and opened them again, looking for something dreadful. The furniture was shapeless, the bedclothes dimly white, and each time she looked it was darker. She did not know what she expected, and to see nothing was almost worse. A carriage going down the road comforted her as long as she could hear it, but it left a thicker silence. She pressed her lids together, breathing quickly,—to move was like inviting something to spring on her,—then she slid out of bed and ran down the stairs, gave a frightened glance at the front door behind which sat her aunt, who would send her up again, and slipped across the back porch into the orchard.
Calista heard nothing. In the hot June evening she was fresh and cool enough to be akin to the rejoicing fields, a nymph of beech or willow. Now and then she looked down the road and saw no one, but she did not seem disappointed. It was quite dark and the fireflies were trailing up and down when wheels stopped at the gate, and she drew back behind a lilac-bush that screened the porch, and sat still.
Conrad, striding up the path, started when he saw her. "Oh, it's you!" he said, coldly. She gave a short answer, and he stood frowning at nothing and looking very tall and black. "Want to take a little ride?" he asked.
"No, I guess not."
"You stay at home too much," he said, presently. "You haven't been off the place since Aunt Hannah left."
"I don't care to go. I can't leave Mary here all alone. It wouldn't be safe."
She stayed silently in her corner as though waiting for him to leave—a white shadow beside the black mass of the lilac-bush. Dolly at the gate tossed her head until the reins scraped on the gate-post. Down in the orchard a whippoorwill cried.
He was like a horse that takes the bit and the driver was his own will—his own self. She made no resistance when he threw himself down beside her: she was pliant, her cheek cool, she even looked at him haughtily. He did not know that she slipped out of his arms just before he would have released her, nor that she was all one flame of triumphant happiness. She seemed as untouched as the starlight.
"Calista," he stammered, "I hope you overlook it."
"What about my sister Mary?" she asked, dryly. "I thought you didn't look to any one else."
"I didn't. I tell you the truth. I was unwilling. I fought it off all I could, but now I give in. I can do no more."
"So you think you like me as well as you like her?"
"Calista, I would ask you if Mary stood here and heard us."
The woman seemed to bloom like an opening rose. She looked at him, but it was as though she saw some vision of success that she was just about to grasp. "I am satisfied," she said.
There was a sound on the walk, and they lifted their heads; then they were scarcely conscious of each other's presence. Up from the gate, her nightdress hanging about her feet, her hair pale in the dim light, came the little girl. She climbed the steps and passed fearlessly into the dark house, smiling at the two with the radiant content of happy childhood, soothed and petted,—her small right hand held up as if in the clasp of another hand.
* * * * *
Calista would have chosen to clean the whole house or do a harvest-time baking rather than write one letter, so she asked most of the guests verbally and put off the others as long as she could. Conrad had taken Hannah to Bernville to have a new silk dress fitted and buy colored sugar for the wedding-cakes when she began the invitations. By three o'clock they were finished, and she counted them and laid them beside the inkstand. Then she washed her hands, spread a sheet on the floor, and got out a pile of soft white stuff, all puffs and lace and ruffles—the work of weeks.
She sewed happily, looking out now and then at the trees, which tossed like green waves under the roaring August rain. Sometimes a gust drove a shower down the chimney and made the logs hiss. The room was warm and still; in the interval of work it seemed to have paused and be sleeping. The tiger-cat, with his paws folded under him, lay beside the hearth, and Mary on her little bench nursed her doll peacefully. Calista began to sing a German hymn; the words were awful, but their very solemnity made her happier by contrast:
"Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende! Hin geht die Zeit, her kommt der Tod.
"Look here, Mary," she said. "Isn't this pretty?" The child came, and Calista held up the soft stuff around her; it made the little face look beautifully pink and white. She touched it lightly, smiling, then she wandered over to the window with her doll and looked out into the rain.
"Es kann vor Nacht leicht anders werden, Als es am fruehen Morgen war,"
Five minutes later she asked, good-naturedly, "What are you looking at?" Mary did not answer. "Didn't you hear what I said? What's going on out there?" Calista repeated.
"You said I shouldn't say it," the child whispered.
"When I see the lady."
"Where do you see her?"
"Coming out of the orchard."
Certain old stories returning to Calista's mind made her look at Mary for a minute as though the child had manifested strange powers. She went to the window and her thimble clicked on the sill as she leaned forward; then she touched her cheek. "Do you feel good?" she asked.
She looked out again. "I want you to know for sure that no one is there," she said, earnestly. "Now tell me: do you see a lady?"
"Yes, ma'am. She is coming up here."
Calista was very sober. "If your aunt Hannah doesn't teach you not to tell stories, then I must," she said. "I can't have you like this. Soon I can't believe you anything. Come here." Mary came as if pulled. "Now mind, I do this so that you don't say what isn't so again." She gave the child two good slaps on the mouth with her strong hand.
The inherited spirit of resistance to coercion, that had made pioneers and martyrs of Mary Rhein's ancestors, was let loose too soon: it made an imp of her. She darted silently like an insect from under Calista's hand, seized the inkstand, and threw it with all her might at the beautiful white gown. The ink poured out, dripping from fold to fold, and the stand thudded on the sheet and scattered the last drops. Mary gave one look and ran across the porch and out to the road in the rain.
Calista sat still for a moment, then she got up weakly. "Doesn't look much like a wedding-dress now," she murmured. "It's no use doing anything to it. It's done for." She wiped the inkstand on a stained flounce before setting it on the table. "Now," she said, as though some one were present who would disapprove, "I give it to her good. I better fetch her in and have it done before they get back."
The sky was low but the rain was gentle when she started down the road, and her shawl made a bright spot between the fields, green as chromos. Mary had gone toward the creek, and she followed as far as the bridge; then, as there was no one in sight, she turned up-stream. It was deep just there and very full, carrying leaves and twigs so that it was like a little flood, and the water caught the dipping branches of the willows and swept them along. The shellbarks looked forlorn in the rain, and the ground was so soft that it gave under her feet. Her skirts and shoes were heavy with wet before she saw Mary.
The child looked as though she were being crowded out of life. She was crying, with small weak sounds like a wretched little animal, her hair was dark with water, and the rain drove across her face. At the sight of Calista she began to run slowly with much stumbling; her crying mixed with the sound of the stream. Calista followed as fast as she could.
A little way up the creek was a log bridge without a rail. Conrad had put it up for his own convenience, and Calista never tried to cross it.
"Ach!" she thought, "I don't hope she runs out there!" Then she began to call, but Mary did not look back. She fell over a root, picked herself up, and went on, with her knees shaking.
Suddenly she began to cry very loud, as a child does when it sees comfort, and went on much faster, making for the bridge. As she ran along the log her arms were out to meet some one.
Calista stared for a couple of seconds, then she raced like a savage down to the first bend, her red shawl flying behind her.
It lay in a pool on the kitchen floor when Conrad and Hannah came in; it was the first thing they saw, and their voices stopped as though a hand had been laid upon their mouths. Mary was lying on the settle and Calista was doubled up against it with her face hidden.
"What's wrong?" Conrad asked. She said nothing, and when he tried to lift her she writhed away from him. Hannah ran to Mary. The blankets were warm, but the small creature was quite cold.
"Now it is time you say what has happened," she said, and Conrad stood silently by.
Calista sat up, looking deadly sick. The story came out in fragments, and at the end she bowed her head, shivering and staring at nothing.
"Did she say this before?" Hannah asked.
Calista told wearily, and the old woman listened, a spectator of strange things to which she alone had the clue.
"Is that all?"
"Ach, yes! I can't remember any more. Now do what you want to do."
Hannah spoke like a judge sentencing a criminal: "So you thought she told lies and you whipped her—that little thing! Now I tell you something, Calista Yohe. That night she was born I said to Mary—your sister Mary!—that once she came on Christmas she would be lucky and see more than we see, and Mary was glad, and the last thing she said was: 'I look after her. I take care of her.' And they say one that dies and leaves something unfinished must come back to finish it up. I guess Mary knew when to come.
"And you are glad. I don't say you just wished this to her, but you thought would be fine not to have her around once you got married to Conrad. She was lucky not to be here till you got a good hold of her.
"You might have thought whether I would let her with you that didn't want her, to be in the way. But I am old. It is a good thing Mary fetched her. Now I see to her myself. Don't you dare touch her."
Conrad had been perfectly still, with the face of a man in a nightmare, but now he went to the shaking woman and lifted her in his arms. Hannah looked at them for a moment. Then she set a great kettle of water to heat, took up the child and went out, leaving them alone together, and they heard her footsteps in the room above as she went back and forth, getting what she needed.
The White Sleep of Auber Hurn
BY RICHARD RICE
The thing happened in America; that is one reason for believing it. Another land would absorb it, or at least give a background to shadow over its likelihood, the scenery and atmosphere to lend an evanescent credibility, changing it in time to a mere legend, a tale told out of the hazy distance. But in America it obtrudes; it stares eternally on in all its stark unforgetfulness, absorbing its background, constantly rescuing itself from legend by turning guesswork and theory into facts, till it appears bare, irremediable, and complete,—witnessed at high noon, and in New Jersey of all places, flat, unillusive, and American.
The thing was as clear a fact in its unsubtle, shadowless mystery as was he—that is, as was the shell and husk of him lying there in the next room after I had watched the life and the person drawn out, leaving only mere barren lees to show what had gone. Hours it lay there to prove the thing, to settle it in my mind, to let me believe eternally in it. Then we buried it deep under the big pile of scree on my hill. As I write I can see the white stones from the window.
It is not all guesswork to begin with; indeed it is not guesswork at any moment if the end is always in view, and we had to begin with the end. I tell you it was as plain as daylight. People saw him, heard him talk; saw him get off the train at Newark to mail my letter—this one—addressed to my engineers in Trenton; heard him say, "Promised Crenshaw to post this before reaching the city; guess this is my last chance to keep it." It is a little thing that counts; you can't get by that; it alone is final; but there were a dozen more. Ezekiel saw him on the platform hunting for the right box for west-bound mail, and saw him post the letter after considerable trouble. When I heard that, I yielded to the incredulous so far as to telephone to Trenton, asking if the firm had received it. I did that, though I held the letter in my hand at the time, and knew it had never left this house. Ezekiel was sure that he mailed the letter, that it went from his hand into the box. He was watching carefully because just then the train began to move; but Auber, leisurely ignoring this, appeared to be comparing his watch with the station clock, and finally looked up at the moving train as if in disapproval. Ezekiel lost sight of him in the crowd, and then, at the same moment, he was taking his seat opposite again.
Ezekiel said, "I thought you were going to miss the train, characteristically, for the sake of setting your watch." And Auber replied, rather queerly: "Great God! It's impossible now; I can see that." Ezekiel did not know what he meant, but remembered it afterward when we were talking the whole thing over in this room.
Besides Ezekiel, there were four men who saw him after the train left Newark; and the porter remembered holding the vestibule door and trap-platform open for some one as the train pulled out.
Then there is my coachman who drove him to the train, here in Barrelton, who had his tip of a silver dollar from him. Put it in his pocket—and then—lost it, of course. You see, there's the most conclusive link in the chain. If William had produced his dollar, or my engineer had received that letter, the whole thing would fall through—jugglery and imposition, mere ordinary faking. The hypnotic theory might still hold, but it must stretch fifty miles to an improbable source in a man who is, at the time, dying strangely on my bed.
Of course, there is no use asking if any one on the train touched him,—not only saw and heard him, but shook hands with him, let us say. It is the same story as William's, or not so good. Ezekiel is sure that he shook hands when Auber first boarded the train; Judson is sure that he did so when he stepped across the aisle to ask about me. Yet, I tell you that would have made no difference; let him have been as impalpable as the very air of the car, those men would have felt the flesh, just as William felt his silver dollar. "Fulfilment of sure expectation on the ground of countless identical experiences," your psychologist would explain. Illusion and fact were indistinguishable; and though I happened to watch the facts, and the others the illusion, their testimony is as good as mine.
There is the testimony of four men that, when the smash came, they saw him thrown from his seat, head first, into the window-jamb, and lie for a moment half through the shattered pane. Just before this, he had taken out his watch. Its familiar picture-face, and also its enamelled hands exactly together at twelve o'clock, had caught Ezekiel's eye. He said that Auber looked at the watch, and then leaned forward as if to call attention to the view from the window. It was then that the smash came. When Ezekiel and some others, who were only thrown to the floor, looked up again, Auber was gone.
You see, the time is identical; we calculated it exactly, for the train left Newark on time and takes just six minutes to reach the bridge; that is, at exactly noon. When I noticed the hour here, it was, perhaps, a few minutes later, and that is not a difference in timepieces, for it was by his own watch on the bedside table. No one saw him on the train or on the bridge after that. It seems conclusive, just that alone. They finally decided that he must have fallen from the window and somehow rolled from the sleepers into the river.
Actually no one else in the Pullman was badly hurt. The men picked themselves up and rushed to the doors of the car, or climbed out of the windows. Ezekiel put his head through the shattered pane which Auber had struck. Men were running toward the car ahead, from which screams came. In the excitement of rescuing those from the telescoped coach, Auber was forgotten; but when it was all over, Ezekiel and Judson looked everywhere for him, till they assured themselves that he was not on the bridge.
At all events, that is how he came to be reported among "The Missing,—known by friends to have been on the train,—Auber Hurn, the artist."
During that night, when Ezekiel and Judson had come down in response to my telegrams, we sat here, talking endlessly, guessing, relating, slowly developing the theory of the thing, delving into our minds for memories of him, gradually getting below the facts, gradually working back to them, examining the connections, completing the chain. The main fact, the culmination, had to be the soulless shell of him, lying there in the next room. Our theory began far away from that, in what he used to call "white sleep," and more especially in a curious occasional association between the dreams of this sleep and the landscape pictures that he painted. What impressed you most as he recounted one of those half-conscious dream concoctions, that he named "white-sleep fancies," was the remarkable scenery, the setting of the dream. This was in character with his pictures, for about them both you felt that peculiarly pervasive "sense of place," for which his landscape is of course famous, and which in these dreams was emphasized through a subtle ominousness of atmosphere. You perceived what the place stood for, its sensational elements, and you began vaguely to imagine the kind of event for which it would form a suitable background. In his pictures the element was a sort of dream-infusion, as though in each scene the secret goddess, the Naiad of the spot, must have stood close to him as he painted, and thrilled him to understanding at her impalpable touch. Whatever the exact nature of these creative intuitions, there was between his art and his dreams a lurking connection, out of which, as we believed, finally grew his strange faculty for seeing beyond the scene, an intuition for certain events associated with what we called "an ominous locality."
This faculty began to distinguish itself from mere psychical fancy through a curious contact of one of Auber's dreams with his actual experience.
The dream, which came at irregular intervals during a number of years, began with a sense of color, a glare to dazzle the eyes, till, as Auber insisted, he awaked and saw the sunset glow over a stretch of forest. He was on a hillside field, spotted with daisies and clumps of tall grass. On one side a stone wall, half hidden by the grass and by a sumac hedge in full bloom, curved over the sky-line. All this was exactly expressible by a gesture, and when he reached the bottom of the field he looked back for a long time, and made the gesture appreciatively. It was at this point that he always recognized the recurring dream; but he could never remember how it was going to end. Then he entered the wood on a grassy path, and for a long time the tall tasselled grasses brushed through his fingers as he walked. Suddenly it grew dark, and feeling that "it would be folly to continue," he tried hard to remember the point of the dream. Just as he seemed to recollect it, the sound of running water came to him, as from a ravine, and he knew that "he could not escape." The low sound of running water,—the little lonely gurgle of a deep-wood brook, all but lost in the loam and brush of the silent forest,—why should he feel an incomprehensible distaste for the place? He tried feverishly to recollect the outcome of the dream, but all memory of it had fled. Nor could he bring himself to continue on the path; when he tried to take another step his leg dangled uselessly in front, his foot beating flimsily on the ground till he brought it back beside the other. The longer he listened to the sound of the running water, the stronger grew his aversion for the place. This continued indefinitely, till he awoke.
You perceived the vague sense of "ominous locality" developed out of the simplest details. There is a recognizable introduction, the field, the stone wall, the grass striking his fingers; but there is no ending, nothing happens; the dream-spell at last dissolves, and the sleeper wakes. His aversion to the sound of the brook can, therefore, come from no conscious knowledge of a portending catastrophe in the dream. It was always Auber's fancy that the dream would really end in a catastrophe, which, though the mind proper continue in ignorance, casts its ominous shadow through the subconsciousness upon the surroundings of the event.
It was also a fanciful idea of his that dreams in general imply a subconscious state coexisting constantly with the actual realm of thought, but penetrated by our consciousness only when the will is least active, or during sleep. With ordinary mortals sleep and consciousness are so nearly incompatible that the notion of actual mental achievement during sleep is unthought of. Dreams are allowed to run an absurd riot through the brain, disturbing physical rest. The remedy for this universal ailment and waste of time was to be found in "white sleep," a bit of Indian mysticism, purporting to accomplish a partial detachment of mind and body, so that the will, which is always the expression of the link between these two, is, for the time, dissolved. The body rests, but the unfettered mind enters upon a "will-less state of pure seeing," where dreams no longer remain the meaningless fantasies of blind sleep, but become luminous with idea and sequence. With the body thus left behind, the intellect rises to the zenith of perception, where the blue veil of earthly knowledge is pierced and transcended.
How often had we heard Auber talk in his fantastically learned fashion, with an amused seriousness lighting up his face. At what point he began to see something more than amusement in his dreams and theories, I never knew; but the serious beginning of the thing took shape in an incident which not even the most fervent theorist could have created for the sake of a theory.
It was up among the little knobby hills to the north of my farm. We were as usual sketching, and Auber had been going on all the afternoon about the mournful scenery, talking of nothing but browns, and grays, and "mountain melancholy." He had a way of stringing out a ceaseless jargon while he worked,—an irritating trick caught in the Paris studios. At the end of the afternoon, he held up a remarkable sketch, suggesting the color scheme for a picture in the atmosphere of oncoming dusk—a bit of path over the hill toward the sun.
"You have struck it most certainly," I said. "Be wary of finishing that; it is strangely suggestive as it is."
He nodded; and then, as we packed up, he said, "Do you know, I have felt vaguely intimate with this spot, as if I had been here before, as if I were painting a reminiscence." I remarked tritely on the commonness of this feeling.
At the bottom of a hillside meadow I was hunting for the entrance of a path into a patch of woods. Auber, instead of helping me, kept gazing back at the fading light while he made random observations on the nature of the sky-line,—one of his cant hobbies. "See how crudely the character of everything is defined up there against the sky," I heard him say, while I continued to search for the path. "Now even a sheep or a cow, or an inanimate thing, like that stone wall, for instance,—see how its character as a wall comes out as it sweeps over the top." At this moment, a little drop of surprise in his voice made me look around. He was walking backwards, one arm extended toward the hill in a descriptive gesture. "Why, it is the dream!" he murmured in hushed excitement. "Ah, of course! I might have known it. Now, I'll turn to find the path."
"I wish you would," I said.
He started abruptly. Then he came slowly, and touched me in a queer evasive way on my shoulder. Finally he drew a long breath, and gripped me by the arm. "Don't you recognize it?" "It's the dream! See! The stone wall—the field—the sumac! Now that's the first sumac—"
"Oh, come along!" I said; "there are twenty such fields. That is curious, though: you made the gesture. Do you recognize it all exactly?"
"It's it! the whole thing—and now, you see, I'm turning to find the path."
I admitted that it was curious, and said that it would be interesting to see how it all turned out.
For a long time Auber followed in silence, which I tried to relieve by bantering comments. I was some distance ahead, when I heard him say, "The grass is brushing through my hands."
"Why not?" I laughed, but it rang false, for I recollected the detail. It was childishly simple; perhaps that was why the thing bothered me. I noticed that in the growing darkness the forest took on a peculiar look. It had been partly burnt over, leaving the ground black, and some of the trees gaunt, upbristling, and sentinel-like. The place, even in broad daylight, would have had a night-struck appearance. At this hour, when the sudden forest darkness had just fallen, there was a sense of unusual gloom, easily connecting itself with strange forebodings.
Perhaps it had been five minutes, when Auber said, "I am conscious that I cannot take my hands out of the grass."
As I said, it was a simple thing. With an odd impulse, I groped back toward him till I found his wrists, and then shook them violently above his head. We stood there for several moments performing this absurd pantomime in the darkness. His arms, with the sleeves rolled up, felt heavy with flesh in my grip. I seemed to be handling things of dead, cold flesh.
Then Auber said, "I can still feel my hands down in the grass."
I drew back in a strange horror; but, at the same moment, we both stood stock-still to listen: from some distance to the right came the trickling sound of water. It was barely perceptible, and we listened hard, indefinitely, while the silence congealed in our ears, and the darkness condensed about our eyes, filling up space, and stopping thought save just for the sound of the brook. It seemed a sort of growing immobility, eternal, like after death.
At last Auber spoke, laying a hand on my shoulder: "It is over; let us go ahead."
After a while we talked about it. There was little to "go" on. You see, nothing happens, and, as Auber expressed it, "the psychological data are ineffective for lack of an event." But though the whole thing remained then a purely psychical experience, and did not "break through," yet it had something of the fulness of fate. Auber, as usual, had a theory: in the dream some manifestation was undoubtedly striving to break through, but he had been unable to facilitate the process. The present experience, he decided, was immature, a mere coincidence. The outcome might yet, however, be foreseen through the dream, if the creative perception of "white sleep" could be attained.
That is the affair which started the whole thing. Auber must have taken the suggestion it contained much more seriously than any of us for several years imagined; nor did we connect the long contemplativeness of the man with any definite purpose. The thing was too vague and illusive to become a purpose at all.
Before long there were half a dozen instances, some trivial, or seemingly coincidental, but all forming our theory. There is one Ezekiel recounted, as we sat here talking that night. It was just a matter of old Horace MacNair's coming in on them once during a thunder-storm. The family were sitting in the big hall; the ladies with their feet up on chairs to insulate them from the lightning; young Vincent Ezekiel teasing them by putting his on the mantelpiece. At one point in the storm came a terrible crash, and Auber jumped up, starting toward the door. Then he came back and sat down quietly. They laughed, and asked if he had been struck.
"No," he said, quite seriously, "not by the lightning, but by a curious idea that I saw Horace MacNair opening the door. I suppose I must have dreamed it; I was nearly asleep."
The Ezekiels looked at one another in surprise, and Mrs. Ezekiel said: "There is something curious in that, for the last time Horace was here, just before he died, he came in the midst of a thunder-storm as we were sitting here, much as we are now. And, why! I remember that he had come over because he expected to see you, but you had not arrived."
"That's so," put in young Vincent, "because he said that if you had been here, you wouldn't have been too afraid of the lightning to stand up and shake hands. And by Jove! I had my feet on the mantelpiece! I remember that, because when he saw me he laughed, and lined his up beside mine."
"He was wearing a gray rain-coat, and high overshoes that you made fun of," added Auber, shortly, and then kept an embarrassed silence.
That was true, Ezekiel said; and Auber had not seen the man in five years.
There were many cases which we strung that night on the threads of our theory, all working toward its completion; and yet we neared the end with misgiving and doubt, for we had the necessity of believing, if we would keep ourselves still sane. All of us had noticed that so far as there was an element of terror in the strange incidents, it lay in the fact of a subtle undercurrent of connections, as if Fate were dimly pointing all the while toward the invisible culmination. Suddenly there would be a new manifestation of Auber's faculty, and a new instance would be added, illusive, baffling, and yet forming each time new threads in the vague warp and woof of something that we called our theory. "There it is again," we would say to ourselves, as we sent the ghostly shuttle flying in our psychological loom.
This undercurrent appeared to touch the incident of Horace MacNair, for it seemed that the old artist had walked over to the Ezekiels that night on purpose to talk with Auber about making a series of pictures of the salt marshes along the Passaic River. Old Horace was dead of his heart before Auber arrived, but the suggestion was repeated by Ezekiel; and Auber, taking it as something like a dying request from his old master, besides appreciating its value, set to work at once.
The long reaches of the Passaic tidal lagoon, with their mists and blowing swamp-grass, are crossed by the trestles of all the railways which enter New York from the south. It was old Horace MacNair's idea that this place, more travelled, more unnoticed, and yet more picturesque, perhaps, than any spot near the metropolis, might be the making of Auber's reputation. The varied, moody tones of the marsh-land, forever blending in a pervasive atmosphere of desolate beauty, suited Auber's peculiar style. Here he would paint what passed in the popular eye for the dullest commonplace, and would interpret, at the same time, both this landscape and his little-understood art.
While he worked I frequently visited Auber on his yawl Houri, which was canvassed over for an outdoor studio, and anchored at the point from which he wished to paint. One day we were tied up to a pile by the Central Railroad trestle. It was just the heat of the day, and Auber, stretched out on a deck chair, was taking a sort of siesta. His eyes were closed, and he had let his cigar go out. Whether it was due to the light through the colored awning, I was not sure, but I was suddenly attracted by a dull vacancy that seemed to be forming in his countenance. It stole upon the features as if they were being slowly sprinkled with fine dust, blotting their expression into a flat lifelessness. Then the rush of a train passing over the bridge disturbed him. With a fleeting look of pain he sat up, glanced first furtively at me, and then stared hard around.
"Was there a train?" he asked, at length.
"It did not stop here on the bridge for anything?"
"No, of course not."
"Of course not," he agreed, absently. "How long ago?"
"Perhaps two minutes," I said.
He examined his watch. After a while he got up, seeming to pull himself together with an effort, and began scraping nervously on his picture. I noticed that the palette-knife trembled in his hand.
"What is the matter?" I asked, finally.
"I feel very much upset," he replied, and sank weakly on the hatch. "I was on that train and—"
I had to jump below to the ice-chest; Auber seemed to have fainted. Jerry, the skipper, and I applied cold water for five minutes, and then Auber revived and asked for whiskey.
"I was on the train," he began again, persistently. "Several people, whom I knew, must have been in the chair-car with me, because I seemed to be taking part in a conversation. Was there a Pullman on the train?" he asked, abruptly.
"Yes," I said; "at the end."
The answer seemed to reassure him unhappily. "I was on the train," he continued, "but I could not think where I had come from. There were vague recollections of a walk, then of a long drive in the dark. Now I was on the train, and yet I was somehow not there even now." I poured out more whiskey, but he pushed it aside absently. "I was not there, nor was I here; for when I moved, something seemed to be folded about me, like bedclothes. It was all a kind of duplication, and I could be on the train or in the other place at will. That is why it seemed confused and unreal. We were talking about some matter of business. I held a list of figures that I referred to now and then. Once I leaned forward to look out of the window; it was just here. I was pointing, and saying to some one, 'There is my last salt marsh!' when a great shock stopped the words, and sent me against something in front. For a moment I was conscious that you were leaning over me. Then I had a strange feeling of becoming gradually detached, as if from my very self. A weight and a feeling of bedclothes slipped from me; there was alternate glaring light and enveloping darkness. Finally the light prevailed, and I found myself looking up into this hideous awning."
"Well," I said, "that is a very queer dream!"
"Yes; it was white sleep," he replied, slowly; "but something was added this time." He put his hand on my arm appealingly. "I knew it would come; I have had the beginnings of that dream before." He spoke as if from a tragic winding-sheet, a veil spun in the warp of his own fancy and also in the very woof of Fate; and out of this veil, through which none of us ever saw, he was stretching his hand to ask of me—what?
I did what I could. Auber consented to come at once to my farm till rest should partly restore him. We reached here that night. It was just two weeks ago; in thought, it is, for me, a lifetime. It was a time of suspense and waiting when diversion seemed almost irreverent, but at last it was forced upon us by that ever-moving providence which stood back of the whole affair. My dam broke at the upper farm. Chance? Nothing of the sort! I went up to see how it had happened, and found some rotten joists and rust-eaten girders. They are in the course of events. Auber went with me while I should see things set to rights.
It was a simple incident, but somehow I suspected it of finality even as we started out of the yard on the long drive. I was suspicious of that knobby hill region, which was connected with the incipient indications of the whole affair. On arriving in the late afternoon, however, nothing could be more natural than that Auber, having inspected the dam, should stroll on to the pasture, where he once sketched the path that runs down to his dream-meadow.
I went back to the farmhouse, and wrote to my engineers a detail of the breach in the dam, then sat down on the porch to enjoy a smoke. The day was warm and dreamy; the sun, filtering through the September haze, rested on the eyelids like a caressing hand. I was soon half asleep, peering lazily at the view which zigzags down between the knobby hills to the more cultivated farm-lands that we had left hours behind us, when the telephone rang. I got up and answered it:
"William?—at the farm? Oh yes—a message, a telegram—for Mr. Hurn, you say? Is it important?—Well, go ahead—What! Must take 11.10 express—crisis on Wall Street?—meet on train—Who?—Ezekiel."
It had come, then! Chance? No. A railroad merger; stockholders interested. At first I said: "I won't tell him." Then I thought: "After this supposed Sentence is delayed and delayed till he no longer looks on the world as his prison cell, and the whole matter evaporates in a psychological mist, he will say: 'Our superstitions, my dear friend, and your loving care, cost me just twenty thousand dollars that trip. My picture of the twilight path, which you would have interrupted, won't replace a hundredth part of that.'"
I wandered down to the broken dam; there beside the breach, with the river sucking darkly through, Josiah Peacock stood, contemplating the scene with his practical eye against to-morrow's labor. Suddenly I found myself mentioning the telegram. He said, "Then you'll have to drive back to-night." I felt alarmed; surely this was none of my doing. Presently I was taking the short cut through the woods. The red glow of sunset was fading behind me, and darkness already gathered among the trees. Aware of a vague anxiety that impelled me forward, an odd notion that I might be late for something, I began to hurry along, the gaunt tree trunks watching like sentinels as I passed. Was I looking for Auber Hurn? It was strangely reminiscent, not a real experience. "This is absurd," I said to myself at length, and straightened my foot to stop. Instead, I unexpectedly leaped over a fallen log, and continued with nervous strides, while I flung back a sneaking glance of embarrassment.
On the turns of the path darkness closed in rapidly; the outlines of objects loomed uncertainly distant through the forest. Gradually I became aware that at the end of a dim vista down which I was hurrying, something white had formed itself in the path. I stopped to look, but could make out nothing clearly. It remained dimly ahead, and I approached, a few steps at a time, peering through the obscure gray shadows, striving to concentrate my vision. At last I recognized that it was Auber Hurn in his shirt-sleeves, standing still in the middle of the path. Apparently he, too, was trying to see who was coming.
"Auber!" I called. I was not sure that he replied.
When I was very close I began at once, as if involuntarily: "Auber, you see, I came to meet you. There is a message from Ezekiel—a Wall Street panic, or something. He wants you to meet him on the 11.10 to-mor—It will be necess—Auber?" Had I been talking to the air? I looked about me. "Auber!—Auber Hurn!" I called. There was no one there; but in the hush of listening there came, as if wandering to me through the forest, the little lost gurgle of a distant brook.
For a moment I stood fascinated by a reminiscence—and then, a sudden fear swelling in my throat, I ran. Back on the path I fled, my legs seeming to go of themselves, hurling my body violently along; my feet pounding behind, as if in pursuit, whirling around the turns, then down the last straight aisle, past the sentinel trees, out into the light.
When I reached the farmyard, a fresh team was being hitched to our carriage.
"What! Has Mr. Hurn come back?" I asked, shakily.
"No," said Josiah, "but I thought maybe you'd want things ready. Didn't you find him?"
"Why—no," I replied, and then repeated firmly, "No, I did not."
I sat down, exhausted, on the porch, and waited. At the end of ten minutes Auber Hurn entered the gate, crossed to the buggy, and got in. Josiah, from between the horses where he was buckling a knee-guard, looked up in surprise. "You got that message, Mr. Hurn?"
"Yes," said Auber, speaking very distinctly. "Mr. Crenshaw just gave it to me."
Josiah turned to me. "I thought you said—" he began.
"I was mistaken—I mean, I misunderstood you," I interposed.
Josiah stared, and then finished the harnessing. "Your coats are here under the seat," he remarked. I took my place mechanically. Mrs. Josiah came with some milk and sandwiches. I finished mine hurriedly, and took the reins.
Auber sank back into his corner without a word, leaving me to feel only a sense of desperate confused isolation, of lonely helplessness.
At length Auber said, in a voice that startled me, a low, contented voice: "You were on the path? You went to find me yourself?"
"Yes," I answered; and then, after a long time, "And you were not there—yourself?"
"No, I was not there." He leaned back against the cushions, and I thought he smiled. "I was in that hill meadow. I went to sleep there for a short time."
It was two o'clock when we drove into the yard. William was waiting to take the horses.
As we went into the house, William asked if he should have the trap for the 11.10 express. I could not answer, and Auber said, looking at me in the light of the open door, "Yes, certainly."
I can see him now in the cheerless white hallway, his tall figure exaggerated in a long driving-cloak, his high features sharpened in the light of the lantern.
In taking off my coat I felt, in the pocket, the letter I had written to my engineer in Trenton. I laid it on the hall table. "You might post that to-morrow before you get to New York," I said, casually.
Then I lighted him to his room, and we said "good night."
Undressing mechanically, I went to bed, and after a long time I slept, exhausted.
A rumbling noise; then, after it had ceased, the realization that a carriage had driven out of the yard—that was what woke me up. The clock on my bureau said half past ten. For a moment I forgot what that meant; and then sliding out of bed, I tiptoed quickly down the hall. Putting my ear to Auber's door, I listened—till I had made sure. From within came the dull breathing of a sleeper. Throwing on a few clothes, I went down-stairs. The waitress was dusting in the hall.
"Where has the carriage gone?" I asked her.
"Why, sir," she said, "William is taking Mr. Hurn to the station."
After a while I had the courage to say cautiously, "I thought Mr. Hurn was still asleep; I did not hear him come down."
"He came down ten minutes ago," she replied, "and in a great hurry, with no time for breakfast."
"You saw him?" I cross-examined.
"Yes. The carriage was waiting, and he seemed in a great hurry, though he did run back to take a letter from the table there."
I was standing between the table and the maid.
"Well, of course you're right," I said, carelessly, and at that moment I put my hand on the letter. I turned my back and put it in my pocket.
I went hurriedly to the barn. The runabout trap and the mare were out. Then I finished dressing, and had breakfast. Soon after, William drove into the yard, and I called from the library window—"Where have you been?"
"Just to the station, sir."
"What for? Has my freight arrived?"
"Mr. Hurn, for the 11.10,"—he explained respectfully.
"Ah, yes!" I cried, in an overvoice; "I keep forgetting that I have just waked up. You saw him off? Ah—did he leave any message for me? I overslept, and did not see him this morning."
"No, sir; I had no message," he replied. "But he's a liberal man, Mr. Hurn, sir." He grinned and slapped his pocket; then, with a look of doubt, he straightened out one leg to allow his hand inside; the look grew more doubting; he stood up and searched systematically, under the seat, everywhere.
"Guess it rolled out," I said, very much interested. "What was it?"
"A silver dollar," he answered, mournfully.
"Oh, well, I'll make that up," I called, and shut the window.
I took out my watch and made a calculation; Auber's train was probably at Newark. I could stand it no longer, and I went toward his room, stamping on the bare floor, whistling nervously, and rattling the rickety balustrade. I banged open the door and began to shout: "Auber! you've missed your——"
He did not move. He was lying on his back, with his arms extended evenly outside the bedclothes, which were tucked close around his breast. He lay as if in state, with that dull dusty pallor on his face, and that eyeless vacancy of an effigy on a marble tomb—a voidness of expression, with masklike indications of duration and immobility. On the reading-table, at his bedside, I noticed his watch lying face up. It was two or three minutes of the noon hour.
Sitting down on the bed, I touched Auber on the shoulder. He did not move. An intuition, growing till it all but became an idea, and then remaining short of expressibility, unable to perceive even its own indefiniteness—a film for impressions where there is no light—such was the vagueness of my guess concerning the metamorphosis that was taking place. Yet I began to understand that Auber Hurn, the real man, was not there, not on the bed, not in my house at all. It was as if the Person were being gradually deducted, leaving only the prime flesh to vouch for the man's existence. Even as I sat in wonder, with my eyes upon him, the life tinge faded utterly from his skin. There was a fleeting shadow as if of pain. His breast sank in a long outbreathing, and then, after seconds and minutes, it did not rise again. I listened. The room seemed to be listening with me. The silence became stricken with awe, with the interminable and unanswering awe—the muteness of death.
We believed in the thing. Ezekiel and Judson came down in response to my telegrams, and we sat here talking it all over, hours through the night. It was inevitable to believe in it. We took his body up in the darkness, and buried it in the scree on my hill; then we came back to Auber's room, and faced each other by the empty bed.
"This is not for the practical world, or for the law," I said. "No coroner on earth could return a verdict here."
"We could never see the thing clearly again if the practical world got hold of it," said Judson. "Look; you have to believe so much!" He had picked up Auber's purse from the table, where it had lain beside his watch. He opened it over the bed. A roll of bills fell out—and one silver dollar.
"That belongs to William, before the law," said Ezekiel.
BY HOWARD PYLE
One morning, after I had dressed myself and had left my room, I came upon an entry which I had never before noticed, even in this my own house. At the further end a door stood ajar, and wondering what was in the room beyond, I traversed the long passageway and looked within. There I saw a man sitting, with an open book lying upon his knees, who, as I laid one hand upon the door and opened it a little wider, beckoned to me to come and read what was written therein.
A secret fear stirred and rustled in my heart, but I did not dare to disobey. So, coming forward (gathering away my clothes lest they should touch his clothes), I leaned forward and read these words:
"WHAT SHALL A MAN DO THAT HE MAY GAIN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN?"
I did not need a moment to seek for an answer to the question. "That," said I, "is not difficult to tell, for it has been answered again and again. He who would gain the kingdom of heaven must resist and subdue the lusts of his heart; he must do good works to his neighbors; he must fear his God. What more is there that man can do?"
Then the leaf was turned, and I read the Parable.
The town of East Haven is the full equation of the American ideal worked out to a complete and finished result. Therein is to be found all that is best of New England intellectuality—well taught, well trained; all that is best of solidly established New England prosperity; all that is best of New England progressive radicalism, tempered, toned, and governed by all that is best of New England conservatism, warmed to life by all that is best and broadest of New England Christian liberalism. It is the sum total of nineteenth-century American cultus, and in it is embodied all that for which we of these days of New World life are striving so hard. Its municipal government is a perfect model of a municipal government; its officials are elected from the most worthy of its prosperous middle class by voters every one of whom can not only read the Constitution, but could, if it were required, analyze its laws and by-laws. Its taxes are fairly and justly assessed, and are spent with a well-considered and munificent liberality. Its public works are the very best that can be compassed, both from an artistic and practical stand-point. It has a free library, not cumbersomely large, but almost perfect of its kind; and, finally, it is the boast of the community that there is not a single poor man living within its municipal limits.
Its leisure class is well read and widely speculative, and its busy class, instead of being jealous of what the other has attained, receives gladly all the good that it has to impart.
All this ripeness of prosperity is not a matter of quick growth of a recent date; neither is its wealth inherited and held by a few lucky families. It was fairly earned in the heyday of New England commercial activity that obtained some twenty-five or thirty years ago, at which time it was the boast of East Haven people that East Haven sailing-vessels covered the seas from India to India. Now that busy harvest-time is passed and gone, and East Haven rests with opulent ease, subsisting upon the well-earned fruits of good work well done.
With all this fulness of completion one might think that East Haven had attained the perfection of its ideal. But no. Still in one respect it is like the rest of the world; still, like the rest of the world, it is attainted by one great nameless sin, of which it, in part and parcel, is somehow guilty, and from the contamination of which even it, with all its perfection of law and government, is not free. Its boast that there are no poor within its limits is true only in a certain particular sense. There are, indeed, no poor resident, tax-paying, voting citizens, but during certain seasons of the year there are, or were, plenty of tramps, and they were not accounted when that boast was made.
East Haven has clad herself in comely enough fashion with all those fine garments of enlightened self-government, but underneath those garments are, or were, the same vermin that infested the garments of so many communities less clean—parasites that suck existence from God's gifts to decent people. Indeed, that human vermin at one time infested East Haven even more than the other and neighboring towns; perhaps just because its clothing of civilization was more soft and warm than theirs; perhaps (and upon the face this latter is the more likely explanation of the two) because, in a very exaltation of enlightenment, there were no laws against vagrancy. Anyhow, however one might account for their presence, there the tramps were. One saw the shabby, homeless waifs everywhere—in the highways, in the byways. You saw them slouching past the shady little common, with its smooth greensward, where well-dressed young ladies and gentlemen played at lawn-tennis; you saw them standing knocking at the doors of the fine old houses in Bay Street to beg for food to eat; you saw them in the early morning on the steps of the old North Church, combing their shaggy hair and beards with their fingers, after their night's sleep on the old colonial gravestones under the rustling elms; everywhere you saw them—heavy, sullen-browed, brutish—a living reproach to the well-ordered, God-fearing community of something cruelly wrong, something bitterly unjust, of which they, as well as the rest of the world, were guilty, and of which God alone knew the remedy.
No town in the State suffered so much from their infestation, and it was a common saying in the town of Norwark—a prosperous manufacturing community adjoining East Haven—that Dives lived in East Haven, and that Lazarus was his most frequent visitor.
The East Haven people always felt the sting of the suggested sneer; but what could they do? The poor were at their doors; they knew no immediate remedy for that poverty; and they were too compassionate and too enlightened to send the tramps away hungry and forlorn.
So Lazarus continued to come, and Dives continued to feed him at the gate, until, by-and-by, a strange and unexpected remedy for the trouble was discovered, and East Haven at last overcame its dirty son of Anak.
Perhaps if all the votes of those ultra-intelligent electors had been polled as to which one man in all the town had done most to insure its position in the van of American progress; as to who best represented the community in the matter of liberal intelligence and ripe culture; as to who was most to be honored for steadfast rectitude and immaculate purity of life; as to who was its highest type of enlightened Christianity—an overwhelming if not unanimous vote would have been cast for Colonel Edward Singelsby.
He was born of one of the oldest and best New England families; he had graduated with the highest honors from Harvard, and finished his education at Goettingen. At the outbreak of the rebellion he had left a lucrative law practice and a probable judgeship to fight at the head of a volunteer regiment throughout the whole war, which he did with signal credit to himself, the community, and the nation at large. He was a broad and profound speculative thinker, and the papers which he occasionally wrote, and which appeared now and then in the more prominent magazines, never failed to attract general and wide-spread attention. His intelligence, clear-cut and vividly operating, instead of leading him into the quicksands of scepticism, had never left the hard rock of earnest religious belief inherited from ten generations of Puritan ancestors. Nevertheless, though his feet never strayed from that rock, his was too active and living a soul to rest content with the arid face of a by-gone orthodoxy; God's rain of truth had fallen upon him and it, and he had hewn and delved until the face of his rock blossomed a very Eden of exalted Christianity. To sum up briefly and in full, he was a Christian gentleman of the highest and most perfect type.
Besides his close and profound studies in municipal government, from which largely had sprung such a flawless and perfect type as that of East Haven, he was also interested in public charities, and the existence of many of the beneficial organizations throughout the State had been largely due to his persistent and untiring efforts. The municipal reforms, as has been suggested, worked beautifully, perfectly, without the grating of a wheel or the creaking of a joint; but the public charities—somehow they did not work so well; they never did just what was intended, or achieved just what was expected; their mechanism appeared to be perfect, but, as is so universally the case with public charities, they somehow lacked a soul.
It was in connection with the matter of public charities that the tramp question arose. Colonel Singelsby grappled with it, as he had grappled with so many matters of the kind. The solution was the crowning work of his life, and the result was in a way as successful as it was paradoxical and unexpected.
Connected with the East Haven Public Library was the lecture-room, where an association, calling itself the East Haven Lyceum, and comprising in its number some of the most advanced thinkers of the town, met on Thursdays from November to May to discuss and digest matters social and intellectual. More than one good thing that had afterward taken definite shape had originated in the discussions of the Lyceum, and one winter, under Colonel Singelsby's lead, the tramp question was taken up and dissected.
He had, Colonel Singelsby said, studied that complex question very earnestly and for some time, and to his mind it had resolved itself to this: not how to suppress vagrancy, but how to make of the vagrant an honest and useful citizen. Repressive laws were easily passed, but it appeared to him that the only result achieved by them was to drive the tramp into other sections where no such laws existed, and which sections they only infested to a greater degree and in larger numbers. Nor in these days of light was it, in his opinion, a sufficient answer to that objection that it was the fault of those other communities that they did not also pass repressive laws. The fact remained that they had not passed them, and that the tramps did infest their precincts, and such being the case, it was as clear as day (for that which injures some, injures all) that the wrong of vagrancy was not corrected by merely driving tramps over the limits of one town into those of another. Moreover, there was a deeper and more interior reason against the passage of such repressive laws; to his thinking it behooved society, if it would root out this evil, to seek first the radix from which it drew existence; it behooved them first to very thoroughly diagnose the disease before attempting a hasty cure. "So let us now," said he, "set about searching for this radix, and then so drive the spade of reform as to remove it forever."
The discussion that followed opened a wide field for investigation, and the conclusion finally reached during the winter was not unlike that so logically deduced by Mr. Henry George at a later date. The East Haven Lyceum, however, either did not think of or did not care to advocate such a radical remedy as Mr. George proposed. They saw clearly enough that, apart from the unequal distribution of wealth, which may perhaps have been the prime cause of the trouble, idleness and thriftlessness are acquired habits, just as industry and thrift are acquired habits, and it seemed to them better to cure the ill habit rather than to upset society and then to rebuild it again for the sake of benefiting the ill-conditioned few.
So the result of the winter's talk was the founding of the East Haven Refuge, of which much has since been written and said.
Those interested in such matters may perhaps remember the article upon the Refuge published in one of the prominent magazines. A full description of it was given in that paper. The building stood upon Bay Street overlooking the harbor; it was one of the most beautiful situations in the town; without, the building was architecturally plain, but in perfect taste; within, it was furnished with every comfort and convenience—a dormitory immaculately clean; a dining-room, large and airy, where plain substantial food, cooked in the best possible manner, was served to the inmates. There were three bath-rooms supplied with hot and cold water, and there was a reading and a smoking-room provided not only with all the current periodicals, but with chess, checkers, and backgammon-boards.
At the same time that the Refuge was being founded and built, certain municipal laws were enacted, according to which a tramp appearing within the town limits was conveyed (with as little appearance of constraint as possible) to the Refuge. There for four weeks he was well fed, well clothed, well cared for. In return he was expected to work for eight hours every day upon some piece of public improvement: the repaving of Main Street with asphaltum blocks was selected by the authorities as the initial work. At the end of four weeks the tramp was dismissed from the Refuge clad in a neat, substantial, well-made suit of clothes, and with money in his pocket to convey him to some place where he might, if he chose, procure permanent work.
The Refuge was finished by the last of March, and Colonel Singelsby was unanimously chosen by the board as superintendent, a position he accepted very reluctantly. He felt that in so accepting he shouldered the whole responsibility of the experiment that was being undertaken, yet he could not but acknowledge that it was right for him to shoulder that burden, who had been foremost both in formulating and advocating the scheme, as well as most instrumental in carrying it to a practical conclusion. So, as was said, he accepted, though very reluctantly.
The world at large was much disposed to laugh at and to ridicule all the preparation that Dives of East Haven made to entertain his Lazarus. Nevertheless, there were a few who believed very sincerely in the efficacy of the scheme. But both those who believed and those who scoffed agreed in general upon one point—that it was altogether probable that East Haven would soon be overrun with such a wilderness of tramps that fifty Refuges would not be able to supply them with refuge.
But who shall undertake to solve that inscrutable paradox, human life—its loves, its hates?
The Refuge was opened upon the 1st of April; by the 29th there were thirty-two tramps lodged in its sheltering arms, all working their eight hours a day upon the repaving of Main Street. That same day—the 29th—five were dismissed from within its walls. Colonel Singelsby, as superintendent, had a little office on the ground-floor of the main building, opening out upon the street. At one o'clock, and just after the Refuge dinner had been served, he stood beside his table with five sealed envelopes spread out side by side upon it. Presently the five outgoing guests slouched one by one into the room. Each was shaven and shorn; each wore clean linen; each was clad in a neat, plain, gray suit of tweed; each bore stamped upon his face a dogged, obstinate, stolid, low-browed shame. The colonel gave each the money enclosed in the envelope, thanked each for his service, inquired with pleasant friendliness as to his future movements and plans, invited each to come again to the Refuge if he chanced to be in those parts, shook each by a heavy, reluctant hand, and bade each a good-by. Then the five slouched out and away, leaving the town by back streets and byways; each with his hat pulled down over his brows; each ten thousand times more humiliated, ten thousand times more debased in his cleanliness, in his good clothes, and with money in his pocket, than he had been in his dirt, his tatters, his poverty.
They never came back to East Haven again.
The capacity of the Refuge was 50. In May there were 47 inmates, and Colonel Singelsby began to apprehend the predicted overflow. The overflow never came. In June there were 45 inmates; in July there were 27; in August there were 28; in September, 10; in October, 2; in November, 1; in December there were none. The fall was very cold and wet, and maybe that had something to do with the sudden falling off of guests, for the tramp is not fond of cold weather. But even granting that bad weather had something to do with the matter, the Refuge was nevertheless a phenomenal, an extraordinary success—but upon very different lines than Colonel Singelsby had anticipated; for even in this the first season of the institution the tramps began to shun East Haven even more sedulously than they had before cultivated its hospitality. Even West Hampstead, where vagrancy was punished only less severely than petty larceny, was not so shunned as East Haven with the horrid comforts of its Refuge.
As was said, the records of the Refuge showed that one inmate still lingered in the sheltering arms of that institution during a part of the month of November. That one was Sandy Graff.
Sandy Graff did not strictly belong to the great peregrinating leisure class for whose benefit the Refuge had been more especially founded and built. Those were strangers to the town, and came and went apparently without cause for coming and going. Little or nothing was known of such—of their name, of their life, of whence they came or whither their footsteps led. But with Sandy Graff it was different; he belonged identically to the place, and all the town knew him, the sinister tragedy of his history, and all the why and wherefore that led to his becoming the poor miserable drunken outcast—the town "bummer"—that he was.
There is something bitterly enough pathetic in the profound abasement of the common tramp—frouzy, unkempt, dirty, forlorn; without ambition further than to fill his belly with the cold leavings from decent folks' tables; without other pride than to clothe his dirty body with the cast-off rags and tatters of respectability; without further motive of life than to roam hither and yon—idle, useless, homeless, aimless. In all this there is indeed enough of the pathetic, but Sandy Graff in his utter and complete abasement was even more deeply, tragically sunken than they. For them there was still some sheltering aegis of secrecy to conceal some substratum in the uttermost depths of personal depravity; but for Sandy—all the world knew the story of his life, his struggle, his fall; all the world could see upon his blotched and bloated face the outer sign of his inner lusts; and what deeper humiliation can there be than for all one's world to know how brutish and obscene one may be in the bottom of one's heart? What deeper shame may any man suffer than to have his neighbors read upon his blasted front the stamp and seal of all, all his heart's lust, set there not only as a warning and a lesson, not only a visible proof how deep below the level of savagery it is possible for a God-enlightened man to sink, but also for self-gratulation of those righteous ones that they are not fallen from God's grace as that man has fallen?
One time East Haven had been Sandy Graff's home, and it was now the centre of his wanderings, which never extended further than the immediately neighboring towns. At times he would disappear from East Haven for weeks, maybe months; then suddenly he would appear again, pottering aimlessly, harmlessly, around the streets or byways; wretched, foul, boozed, and sodden with vile rum, which he had procured no one knew how or where. Maybe at such times of reappearance he would be seen hanging around some store or street corner, maundering with some one who had known him in the days of his prosperity, or maybe he would be found loitering around the kitchen or out-house of some pitying Bay-Streeter, who also had known him in the days of his dignity and cleanliness, waiting with helpless patience for scraps of cold victuals or the dregs of the coffee-pot, for no one drove him away or treated him with unkindness.
Sandy Graff's father had been a cobbler in Upper Main Street, and he himself had in time followed the same trade in the same little, old-fashioned, dingy, shingled, hip-roofed house. In time he had married a good, sound-hearted, respectable farmer's daughter from a neck of land across the bay, known as Pig Island, and had settled down to what promised to be a decent, prosperous life.
So far as any one could see, looking from the outside, his life offered all that a reasonable man could ask for; but suddenly, within a year after he was married, his feet slipped from the beaten level pathway of respectability. He began taking to drink.
Why it was that the foul fiend should have leaped astride of his neck, no man can exactly tell. More than likely it was inheritance, for his grandfather, who had been a ship-captain—some said a slave-trader—had died of mania a potu, and it is one of those inscrutable rulings of Divine Providence that the innocent ones of the third and fourth generation shall suffer because of the sins of their forebears, who have raised more than one devil to grapple with them, their children, and children's children. Anyhow, Sandy fell from grace, and within three years' time had become a confirmed drunkard.