THE THING FROM THE LAKE
ELEANOR M. INGRAM
Author of "From the Car Behind", "The Unafraid", etc.
Copyright, 1921, by J. B. Lippincott Company Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company at the Washington Square Press Philadelphia, U. S. A.
"As well give up the Bible at once, as our belief in apparitions."—WESLEY.
The house cried out to me for help.
In the after-knowledge I now possess of what was to happen there, that impression is not more clearly definite than it was at my first sight of the place. Let me at once set down that this is not the story of a haunted house. It is, or was, a beleaguered house; strangely besieged as was Prague in the old legend, when a midnight army of spectres unfurled pale banners and encamped around the city walls.
Of course, I did not know all this, the day that my real-estate agent brought his little car to a stop before the dilapidated farm. I believed the house only appealed to be lived in; for deliverance from the destroying work of neglect and time. A spring rain was whispering down from a gray sky, dripping from broken gutters and eaves with a patter like timid footsteps hurrying by, yet even in the storm the house did not look dreary.
"There, Mr. Locke, is a bargain," the agent called back to me, where I sat in my car. "Finest bit in Connecticut for a city man's summer home! Woodland, farm land, lake and a house that only needs a few repairs to be up-to-date. Look at that double row of maples, sir. Shade all summer! Fine old orchard, too; with a trifle of attention."
I nodded, surveying the house with an eagerness of interest that surprised myself. A box-like, fairly large structure of commonplace New England ugliness, it coaxed my liking as had no other place I had ever seen; it wooed me like a determined woman. And as one would long to clothe beautifully a beloved woman, I looked at the house and foresaw what an architect could do for it; how creamy stucco; broad white porches and a gay scarlet roof would transform it.
"Come inside," my agent urged, hope in his voice as he observed my face; "let me show you the interior. I brought the keys along. Of course, the rooms may seem a bit musty. No one has lived in it for—some time. It's the old Michell property; been in the family for a couple of hundred years. Last Michell is dead, now, and it's being sold for the benefit of some religious institute the old gentleman left it to. Trifle wet to walk over the land today! But I've a plan and measurements in my portfolio."
I said that we would go in. If he had but known the fact, the place was already sold to me; before I left my car, before I entered the house, before I had seen the hundred-odd acres that make up the estate.
There was a narrow, flagged path to the veranda, where the planking moved and creaked under our weight while my companion unlocked the front door. Rather astonishingly, the air of the long-closed place was neither musty nor damp, when we stepped in. Instead, there was a faint, resinous odor, very pleasant and clean; perhaps from the cedar of which the woodwork largely consisted.
The house was partially furnished. Not, of course, with much that I would care to retain, but a few good antiques stood out among their commonplace associates. A large bedroom on the north side, which I appointed as my own at first sight, held an old rosewood set including a four-posted, pineapple-carved bed. I threw open the shutters in this room and looked out.
I received the first jar to my satisfaction. On this side of the place, the grounds ran down a slight slope for perhaps half a block to the five-acre hollow of shallow water and lush growth which the agent called a lake. From it flowed a considerable creek, winding behind the house and away on its journey to the Sound. For that under-water marsh I felt a shock of violent dislike.
"You don't care for the lake?" my companion deprecated, at my elbow. "Fine trout in that stream, though! I'd like you to see it in the sunshine."
"I should care more for it if it was a lake, not a swamp," I answered.
"Oh, but that is only because the old dam is down," he exclaimed eagerly. "That lets all the water out, you see. Why, if the dam were put back, you'd have as pretty a lake for a canoe as there is in the State! Its natural depth is four or five feet all over, and about eight or ten where the stream flows through to the dam. Even yet, a few wild duck stop there spring and fall, and when I was a boy I've seen heron. Put back the dam, Mr. Locke, and I'll guarantee you'll never say swamp again!"
"We will try it," I said. "Now let us find a lawyer and see how quickly I can be put in possession."
We drove back to the little town from which we had that morning started out, and where my agent lived; my sleek car following his small one with somewhat the effect of a long-limbed panther striding behind an agitated mouse.
It appeared that the sale was simply consummated. I do not mean that all the formalities were completed in a day. But by nightfall I could feel myself the owner of the place.
Perhaps it was the giddiness of being a land-owner for the first time, or perhaps it was the abject wretchedness of the only hotel in town that inspired the whim which seized me during my solitary dinner. I had spent one night here, and did not welcome the prospect of a second. A return to New York was not practicable, because I had arranged to meet several contractors and an architect at the farm, next morning, to discuss the alterations I wanted made. Why not drive out to my new house this evening and sleep tonight in the rosewood-furnished bedroom?
The idea gained favor as I contemplated it. I could go over the house tonight and sketch more clearly what I wanted done, while I would be on the ground when my men arrived next morning. There was an allure of camping out about it, too.
In the end I went, of course.
It was dark when I stabled my roadster in the barn that was part of my new possessions; where the car seemed to glitter disdain of the hay-littered, ragged shelter. Equipped with a flashlight, suitcase and bundle, I followed a faint path that wound its way to the house through wet blackberry vines whose thorns had outlived the winter. My steps broke the blank silence that brooded over the place. At this season there was no insect life; nor any other stirring thing within hearing or sight. But just as I stepped upon the veranda, I heard a vague sound from the lake that lay a few hundred feet to the north. There was no wind, yet the water had seemed to move with a sound like the smacking of soft, glutinous lips. Or as if some soft body drew itself from a bed of clinging mud. I wondered idly if the tide could run this far back from Long Island Sound.
The house reiterated the impression of welcoming me. I shut and locked the old door behind me, and went up to the room I had chosen as my own. There I unshuttered and opened the windows, lighted one of the candles I had brought and set it on a little bookcase filled with dingy volumes, and threw my blankets on the bed. I had moved in!
My pleasant sense of proprietorship continued to grow. Before I thought of sleep, I had been through the house several times from cellar to attic and accumulated a list of things to be done. Back in my room, an hour passed in revising the list, by candle-light.
Near ten o'clock, I rolled myself in a dressing-gown and my blankets, spread an automobile robe over the four-posted bed, and fell asleep.
"Beware of her fair hair, for she excels All women in the magic of her locks." —SHELLEY (Trans.).
It trailed suavely through my fingers, slipping across my palm like a belt of silk. It glided with the noiseless haste of a thing in flight. Quite naturally, even in the dazed moment of awakening I closed my hand upon it. It was soft in my grasp, yet resilient; solid, yet supple. If I may speak irrationally, it felt as if it must be fragrant. It was a strange visitor to my experience, yet I recognized its identity unerringly as a blind man gaining sight might identify a flower or a bird. In brief, it was—it only could be an opulent braid of hair.
When I grasped it, it ceased to move.
In the dense darkness of my bedroom, I lay still and considered. I was alone, or rather, should have been alone in the old house I had bought the day before. The agent assured me that it had been unoccupied for years. Who, then, was my guest? A passer-by seeking refuge in a supposedly deserted house would hardly have moved about with such silent caution. A tramp of this genus would be a rarity indeed. I had nothing with me of value to attract a thief. The usual limited masculine jewelry—a watch, a pair of cuff-links, a modest pin—surely were not sufficiently tempting to snare so dainty a bird of prey as one wearing such plumage as I held. I have not a small fist, yet that braid was a generous handful. How did it come to trail across my bed, in any case? And why was its owner locked in silence and immobility? Surely startled innocence would have cried out, questioned my grasp or struggled against it! My captive did neither.
I began to paint a picture against the darkness; the picture of a crouching woman, fear-paralyzed; not daring to stir, to sob or pant or shiver lest she betray herself. Or, perhaps, a woman who was not hushed by panic, but by deliberation. A woman who slowly levelled a weapon, assuring her aim in the blank darkness by such guides as my breathing and the taut direction of her imprisoned tresses. An ugly woman could not have such hair as this. Or, could she? I had a doubtful recollection of various long-haired demonstrators glimpsed in drugshop windows, who were not beautiful. Yes, but they would never have found themselves in such a situation as this one! Only resolve or recklessness could bring a woman to such a pass; and with spirit and this hair no woman could be ugly.
How quiet she was! I suddenly reflected that she must be thinking the same thing of me, since neither of us had moved during a considerable space of time. Possibly she fancied me only half-aroused, and hoped that I would relapse into sleep without realizing upon what my drowsy grasp had closed. No doubt it would have been the course of chivalry for me to pretend to do so, but it was not the course of curiosity.
The deadlock could not last indefinitely. Apparently, though, it must be I who should break it. As quietly as possible, I brought my left hand forward to grope along that silken line which certainly must guide me to the intruder herself. My hand slipped along the smooth surface to the full reach of my arm; and encountered nothing. Check, for the first attempt! The candle and matches I had bought in the village were also beyond my reach, unless I released my captive and rolled across the bed toward the little bookcase where I had placed them beside the flashlight. If I should speak, what would she do? And—a new thought!—was she alone in the house?
There came a gentle draw at the braid, instantly ceasing as I automatically tightened my hold. The pretense that I slept was ended. I spoke, as soothingly and kindly as I could manage.
"If you will let me strike a light, we can explain to each other. Or, if you will agree not to escape——?"
In spite of my efforts, my voice boomed startlingly through the dark, still room. No reply followed, but the braid quivered and suddenly relaxed from its tension. She must have come closer to me. Delighted by so much success attained and intrigued by the novelty of the adventure, I moved slightly, stretching my free arm in the direction of the flashlight.
"I am not a difficult person," I essayed encouragement. "Nor too dull, I hope, to understand a mistake or a necessity. Nor am I affiliated with the police! Permit me——"
I halted abruptly. A cool edge of metal had been laid across the wrist of my groping hand. As the hand came to rest, palm uppermost, I could feel, or imagined I could feel my pulse beating steadily against the menacing pressure of the blade. The warning was eloquent and sufficient; I moved no further toward my flashlight. Of course, if I had lifted my right hand from its guard of the braid, I could easily have pinioned the arm which poised the knife before I suffered much harm. But I might have lost my captive in the attempt; an event for which I was not ready, yet.
"Check," I admitted. "Although, it is rather near a stalemate for us both, isn't it?"
The knife pressed closer, suggestively.
"No," I dissented with the mute argument. "I think not. I do not believe you could do it; not in cold blood, anyway!"
"You do not know," insisted the closer pressing blade, as if with a tongue.
"No, I do not know," I translated aloud. "But I am confident enough to chance it. What reason have you for desperate action? I would not harm you. Have I not a right to curiosity? This is my house, you know. Or perhaps you did not know that?"
A sigh stirred the silence, blending with the ceaseless whisper of the rain that had recommenced through the night. The braid did not move in my right hand, nor did the blade touching my left.
"Speak!" I begged, with an abrupt urgency that surprised myself. "You are the invader. Why? What would you have from me? If I am to let you go, at least speak to me, first! This is—uncanny."
"There is magic in the third time of asking," came a breathed, just audible whisper. "Yet, be warned; call not to you that which you may neither hold nor forbid."
"But I do call—if that will make you speak to me," I returned, my pulses tingling triumph. "Although, as to not holding you——"
"You fancy you hold me? It is not you who are master of this moment, but I who am its mistress."
Her voice had gained in strength; a soft voice, yet not weak, used with a delicate deliberation that gave her speech the effect of being a caprice of her own rather than a result of my compulsion. Yet, I thought, she must be crouched or kneeling beside me, on the floor, held like the Lady of the Beautiful Tresses.
"Still, I doubt if you have the disposition to use your advantage," I began.
"You mean, the cruelty," she corrected me.
"I am from New York," I smiled. "Let me say, the nerve. If you pressed that knife, I might bleed to death, you know."
"Would you hear a story of a woman of my house, and her anger, before you doubt too far?"
"Tell me," I consented; and smiled in the darkness at the transparent plan to distract my attention from that imprisoned braid.
She was silent for so long that I fancied the plan abandoned, perhaps for lack of a tale to tell. Then her voice leaped suddenly out of the blackness that closed us in, speaking always in muted tones, but with a strange, impassioned urgency and force that startled like a cry. The words hurried upon one another like breaking surf.
"See! See! The fire leaps in the chimney; it breathes sparks like a dreadful beast—it is hungry; its red tongues lick for that which they may not yet have. Already its breath is hot upon the wax image on the hearth. But the image is round of limb and sound. Yes, though it is but toy-large, it is perfect and firm! See how it stands in the red shine: the image of a man, cunningly made to show his stalwartness and strength and bravery of velvet and lace! The image of a great man, surely; one high in place and power. One above fear and beyond the reach of hate!
"The woman sits in her low chair, behind the image. The fire-shine is bright in her eyes and in her hair. On either side her hair flows down to the floor; her eyes look on the image and are dreadfully glad. Ha, was not Beauty the lure, and shall it not be the vengeance?
"The nine lamps have been lighted! The feathers have been laid in a circle! The spell has been spoken; the spell of Hai, son of Set, first man to slay man by the Dark Art!
"The man is at the door of the woman's house. Yes, he who came in pride to woo, and proved traitor to the love won—he is at her door in weakness and pain.
"As the wax wastes, the man wastes! As the mannikin is gone, the man dies!
"On her doorstep, he begs for life. He is coward and broken. He suffers and is consumed. He calls to her the love-names they both know. And the woman laughs, and the door is barred.
"The door is barred, but what shall bar out the Enemy who creeps to the nine lamps?
"See, the fire shines through the wax! The image is grown thin and wan. Three days, three nights, it has shrunk before the flames. Three days, three nights, the woman has watched. As the fire is not weary, she is not weary. As the fire is beautiful, she is beautiful.
"The man is borne to her door again. He lifts up his hands and cries to her. But now he begs for death. Now he knows anguish stronger than fear. And the woman laughs, and the door is barred.
"The fire shines on a lump of wax. The man is dead. From her chair the woman has arisen and stands, triumphant.
"But what crouches behind her, unseen? The lamps are cast down! The pentagram is crossed! The Horror takes its own."
The impassioned speech broke off with the effect of a snapped bar of thin metal. In the silence, the steady whisper of rain came to my ears again, continuing patiently. I became aware of a rich yet delicate fragrance in the air I breathed. It was not any perfume I could identify, either as a composition or as a flower scent. If I may hope to be understood it sparkled upon the senses. It produced a thirst for itself, so that the nostrils expanded for it with an eagerness for the new pleasure. I found myself breathing deeply, almost greedily, before answering my prisoner's story.
"'Sister Helen,'" I quoted, as lightly as I could.
"And do you think Rossetti had no truth to base his poem upon?" her quiet voice flowed out of the darkness, seeming scarcely the same speech as the swift, irregular utterance of a moment before. "Do you think that all the traditions and learning of the younger world meant—nothing?"
"Are you asking me to believe in witchcraft and sorcery?"
"I ask nothing."
"Not even to believe that you will press the knife if I refuse to free you?"
"Not even that; now!"
Compunction smote me. Her voice sounded more faint, as if from fatigue or discouragement. It seemed to me that the blade against my wrist had relaxed its menace of pressure and just rested in position. I seemed to read my lady's weariness in the slackened vigilance. Perhaps she was really frightened, now that her brave attempt to lull me into incaution had failed.
"Listen, please," I spoke earnestly. "I am going to set you free. I apologize for keeping you captive so long! But you will admit the provocation to my curiosity? You will forgive me?"
A sigh drifted across the darkness.
"I ask no questions," I urged. "But will you not trust me to make a light and give what help I can? You are welcome to use the house as you please. Or, if you are lost or stormbound, my car is in the old barn and I will drive you anywhere that you say. Let us not spoil our adventure by suspicion. In good faith——"
I opened my hand, releasing the lovely rope by which I had detained my prisoner. Then, with a quickening pulse, I waited. Would she stay? Would she spring up and escape? Would she thank me, or would she reply with some eccentricity unpredictable as her whim to tell me that tale?
She did none of these things. The braid of hair, freed entirely, continued to lie supinely across my open palm. The coolness of the blade still lightly touched my wrist. She might be debating her course of action, I reflected. Well, I was in no haste to conclude the episode!
When the silence had lasted many moments, however, I began to grow restive. Anxiety tinged my speculations. Suppose she had fainted? Or did she doubt my intentions, and was her quietness that of one on guard? I stirred tentatively.
Two things happened simultaneously with my movement. The braid glided away from me, while the knife slipped from its position and tinkled upon the floor. I started up, perception of the truth seizing my slow wits, and reached for my flashlight.
There was no one in the room except myself. Down my blanket was slipping a severed braid of hair, perhaps a foot in length, jaggedly cut across at the end farthest from my hand. Leaning over, I saw on the floor beside the bed a paper-knife of my own; a sharp, serviceable tool that formed part of my writing kit. Before going to bed, I had taken it from my suitcase to trim a candle-wick, and had left it upon the bookstand.
Now I understood why her voice had sounded more distant than seemed reasonable while I held her beside me. No doubt she had hacked off the detaining braid almost as soon as I grasped it. The knife she had pressed against my wrist to keep me where I lay while she made ready for flight; or amused herself with me. Flight? Say rather that she had leisurely withdrawn! Perhaps she had not even heard my magnanimous speech offering her the freedom that she already possessed. If she had stayed to hear me, probably she had laughed.
Perhaps she was still in the house.
I rose and lighted a candle, under the impulsion of that idea, reserving my flashlight for the search. But there was no one in any of the dusty, sparsely furnished rooms and halls through which I hunted. The ancient locks on doors and windows were fastened as I had left them, although my lady certainly had entered and left at her pleasure. Puzzled and amused, I finally returned to my bedchamber.
There was some difference in that room. I was conscious of the fact as soon as I entered and closed the door behind me. The candle still burned where I had left it, flickering slightly in some current of air. There was no change that the eye could find, no sound except the rain, yet I felt an extreme reluctance to go on even a step from where I stood. What I wanted to do was to tear open the door behind me, to rush out into the hall and slam the door shut between this room and myself.
Why? I looked around me, sending the beam of the flashlight playing over the quiet place. Nothing, of course! I walked over to the bookcase, took up the braid I had left there, and sat down in an old armchair to study my trophy. On principle and by habit I had no intention of being mastered by nerves. It was humiliating to discover that I could be made nervous by the mere fact of being in an unoccupied farmhouse after midnight.
The braid was magnificent. It was as broad as my palm, yet compressed so tightly that it was thick and solid to the touch. If released over someone's shoulders, it would have been a sumptuous cloak, indeed! In what madness of panic had the girl sacrificed this beauty? How she must hate me, now the panic was past! The color, too, was unique, in my experience; a gold as vivid as auburn. Or was it tinged with auburn? As I leaned forward to catch the candle-light, a drift of that fragrance worn by my visitor floated from her braid.
At once I knew what had changed in the room. The air that had been so pure when the house was opened, now was heavy with an odor of damp and mould that had seeped into the atmosphere as moisture will seep through cellar walls. One would have said that the door of some hideous vault had been opened into my bedchamber. This stench struggled, as it were, with the volatile perfume that clung about the braid; so that my senses were thrust back and forth between disgust and delight in the strangest wavering of sensation.
I made the strongest effort to put away the effect this wavering had upon me. I forced myself to sit still and think of normal things; of the men whom I was to see next morning, of the plans I meant to discuss with them.
Useless! The stench was making me ill. A wave of giddiness swept over me, and passed. My heart was beating slowly and heavily. Something in my head pulsed in unison. I felt a frightful depression, that suddenly burst into an attack of fear gripping me like hysteria. I wanted to shriek aloud like a woman, to cover my eyes and run blindly. But at the same time my muscles failed me. Will and strength were arrested like frozen water.
As I sat there, facing the door of the room, I became aware of Something at the window behind my back. Something that pressed against the open window and stared at me with a hideous covetousness beside which the greed of a beast for its prey is a natural, innocent appetite. I felt that Thing's hungry malignance like a soft, dreadful mouth sucking toward me, yet held away from me by some force vaguely based on my own resistance. And I understood how a man may die of horror.
Yet, presently, I turned around. Weak and sick, with dragging effort I turned in my chair and faced the black, uncurtained window where I felt It to be.
Nothing was there, to sight or hearing. I sat still, and combated that which I knew was there. In the profound stillness, I heard the wind stir the naked branches of the trees, the flowing water through the fragments of the one-time dam, the sputtering of my candle which needed trimming. Sweat ran down my face and body, drenching me with cold. It crouched against the empty window, staring at me.
After a time, the presence seemed not so close. At last, I seemed to know It was gone. In the gush of that enormous relief my remaining strength was swept away like a swimmer in a torrent and I collapsed half-fainting in my chair.
When I was able, I rose and walked through the house again. Again the rooms showed nothing to my flashlight except dull furniture, walls peeling here and there from long neglect, pictures of no merit and dreary subject. I had expected nothing, and I found nothing.
It was on my way upstairs to my bedroom that a sentence from the invisible lady's story came back to my mind.
"What crouches behind her, unseen? The Horror takes Its own——"
The bedroom door opened quietly under my hand. The rain had ceased and a freshening breeze came from the west, filling the room with sweet country air. The candle had burned down. While I stood there, the flame flickered out.
After a brief indecision, I made my way to the bed, rolled myself in the blankets, and laid down between the four pineapple-topped posts. This time I kept the flashlight at my hand. But almost at once I slept, and slept heavily far into a bright, windy March morning.
"Wide is the seat of the man gentle of speech." —INSTRUCTION OF KE' GEMNI.
On the second day after my return to New York, my Aunt Caroline Knox called me up on the telephone.
There are reasons why I always feel myself at a disadvantage with Aunt Caroline. The first of these brings me to a trifling matter that I should have set down before, but which I have made a habit of ignoring so far as possible in both thought and speech. As was Lord Byron, I am slightly lame. I admit that is the only quality in common; still, I like the romantic association. Now, my limp is very slight, and I never have found it interfered much with things I cared to do. In fact, I am otherwise somewhat above the average in strength and vigor. But from my boyhood Aunt Caroline always made a point of alluding to the physical fact as often as possible. She considered that course a healthful discipline.
"My nephew," she was accustomed to introduce me. "Lame since he was seven. Roger, do not scowl! Yes; run over trying to save a pet dog. A mongrel of no value whatever!"
Which would have left some doubt as to whether she referred to poor Tatters or to me, had it not been for her exceeding pride in our family tree.
The second reason for my disadvantage before her, was her utter contempt for my profession as a composer of popular music.
Today her voice came thinly to me across the long-distance wire.
"Your Cousin Phillida has failed in her examinations again," she announced to me, with a species of tragic repose. "In view of her father's intellect and my—er—my family's, her mental status is inexplicable. Although, of course, there is your own case!"
"Why, she is the most educated girl I know," I protested hastily.
"I presume you mean best educated, Roger. Pray do not quite lose your command of language."
I meant exactly what I had said. Phillida has studied since she was three years old, exhaustively and exhaustedly. A vision of her plain, pale little face rose before me when I spoke. It is a burden to be the only child of a professor, particularly for a meek girl.
"She has studied insufficiently," Aunt Caroline pursued. "She is nineteen, and her position at Vassar is deplorable."
"Her health——" I murmured.
"Would not have hampered her had she given proper attention to athletics! However, I did not call up to hear you defend Phillida in a matter of which you are necessarily ignorant. Her father and I are somewhat better judges, I should suppose, than a young man who is not a student in any true sense of the word and ignores knowledge as a purpose in life. Not that I wish to wound or depreciate you, Roger. There is, I may say, a steadiness of moral character beneath your frivolity of mind and pursuit. If my poor brother had trained you more wisely; if you had been my son——"
"Thank you, Aunt," I acknowledged the benevolent intention, with an inward quailing at the clank of fetters suggested. "Was there something I can do for you?"
"Will you meet Phillida at the Grand Central and bring her home? I cannot have her cross New York alone and take a second train out here. Her father has a lecture this afternoon and I have a club meeting at the house."
"With pleasure, Aunt! What time does her train get in?"
"Half after four. Thank you, Roger. And, she looks on you as an elder brother. I believe an attitude of cool disapproval on your part might impress upon her how she has disappointed the family."
"Leave it to me, Aunt. May I take her to tea, between trains, and get out to your place on the six o'clock express?"
"If you think best. You might advise her seriously over the tea."
"A dash of lemon, as it were," I reflected. "Certainly, Aunt, I could."
"Very well. I am really obliged!"
"The pleasure is mine, Aunt."
But that it was going to be Phillida's, I had already decided. She would need the support of tea and French pastry before facing her home. As for treating her with cool disapproval, I would sooner have spent a year at Vassar myself. It was my intention to meet her with a box of chocolates instead of advice. Phil was not allowed candy, her complexion being under cultivation. On the occasions when we were out together it had been my custom to provide a box of sweets, upon which she browsed luxuriously, bestowing the remnants upon some street child before reaching her home.
From the telephone I turned back to that frivolous pursuit of which my aunt had spoken with such tactfully veiled contempt. She was not softened by the respectable fortune I had made from several successful musical comedies and a number of efforts which my publishers advertise as "high-class parlor pieces for the home." In fact, she felt it to be a grievance that my lightness should be better paid than the Professor's learning. In which she was no doubt right!
Ever since my return from my newly purchased farm in Connecticut, however, I had not been working for money or popular approval, but for my own pleasure. There was a Work upon which I spent only special hours of delicious leisure and infinite labor. It held all that was forbidden to popular compositions; depth and sorrow and dissonances dearer than harmony. I called it a Symphony Polynesian, and I had spent years in study of barbaric music, instruments and kindred things that this love-child of mine might be more richly clothed by a tone or a fancy. Aunt Caroline had interrupted, this morning, at a very point of achievement toward which I had been working through the usual alternations of enjoyment and exasperation, elevation and dejection that attend most workmen. Pausing only to set my alarm-clock, I hurried into recording what I had found, in the tangible form of paper and ink.
I always set the alarm-clock when I have an engagement, warned by dire experiences.
Aunt Caroline had summoned me about eleven in the morning. When the strident voice of the clock again aroused me, I had just time to dress and reach the Grand Central by half-past four. I recognized that I was hungry, that the vicinity was snowed over with sheets of paper, that the piano keys had acquired another inkstain, and my pipe had charred another black spot on the desk top. Well, it had been a good day; and Phillida's tea would have to be my belated luncheon or early dinner. Even so, it was necessary to make haste.
It was in that haste of making ready that I uncovered the braid of glittering hair which I had brought from Connecticut. I use no exaggeration when I say it glittered. It did; each hair was lustrous with a peculiar, shining vitality, and crinkled slightly along its full length. With a renewed self-reproach at sight of its humbled exile and captivity, I took up the trophy of my one adventure. While I am without much experience, such a quantity seemed unusual. Also, I had not known such a mass of hair could be so soft and supple in the hand. My mother and little sister died before I can remember; and while I have many good friends, I have none intimate enough to educate me in such matters. Perhaps a consciousness of that trifling physical disadvantage of mine has made me prefer a good deal of solitude in my hours at home.
The faint, tenacious yet volatile perfume drifted to my nostrils, as I held the braid. Who could the woman be who brought that costly fragrance into a deserted farmhouse? For so exquisite and unique a fragrance could only be the work of a master perfumer. There was youth in that vigorous hair, coquetry in the individual perfume, panic in her useless sacrifice of the braid I held; yet strangest self-possession in the telling of that fanciful tale of sorcery to me.
On that tale, told dramatically in the dark, I had next morning blamed the weird waking nightmare that I had suffered after her visit. The horror of the night could not endure the strong sun and wind of the March morning that followed. Like Scrooge, I analyzed my ghost as a bit of undigested beef or a blot of mustard. Certainly the thing had been actual enough while it lasted, but my reason had thrust it away. That was over, I reflected, as I laid the braid back in the drawer. But surely the lady was not vanished like the nightmare? Surely I should find her in some neighbor's daughter, when my house was finished and I went there for the summer? She could not hide from me, with that bright web about her head whose twin web I held.
It had grown so late that I had to take a taxicab to the Terminal, just halting at a shop long enough to buy a box of the chocolates my cousin preferred. But when I reached the great station and found my way through the swirl of travelers to the track where Phil's train should come in, I was told the express had been delayed.
"Probably half an hour late," the gateman informed me. "Maybe more! Of course, though, she may pull in any time."
Which meant no tea for Phillida; instead, a rush across town to the Pennsylvania station to catch the train for her home. As I could not leave my post lest she arrive in my absence, it also meant nothing to eat for me until we reached Aunt Caroline's hospitality; which was cool and restrained rather than festive.
I foresaw the heavy atmosphere that would brood over all like a cold fog, this evening of Phil's disgraceful return from the scholastic arena. Ascertaining from the gateman that the erring train was certain not to pull in during the next ten minutes, I sought a telephone booth.
"Aunt Caroline, Phil's train is going to be very late, possibly an hour late," I misinformed my kinswoman, when her voice answered me. "I have had nothing to eat since breakfast, and she will be hungry long before we reach your house. May I not take her to dinner here in town?"
"Please do not call your cousin 'Phil'," she rebuked me, and paused to deliberate. "You had no luncheon, you say?"
"Why not? Were you ill?"
"No; just busy. I forgot lunch. I am beginning to feel it, now. Still, if you wish us to come straight home, do not consider me!"
I knew of old how submission mollified Aunt Caroline. She relented, now.
"Well——! You are very good, Roger, to save your uncle a trip into the city to meet her. I must not impose upon you. But, a quiet hotel!"
"Phillida does not deserve pampering enjoyment. I am consenting for your sake."
"Thank you, Aunt. I wonder, then, if you would mind if we stopped to see a show that I especially want to look over, for business reasons? We could come out on the theatre express; as we have done before, you remember?"
"Thank you. I'll take good care of her. Good-bye."
The receiver was still talking when I hung up. There is no other form of conversation so incomparably convenient.
The train arrived within the half-hour. With the inrush of travelers, I sighted Phillida's sober young figure moving along the cement platform. She walked with dejection. Her gray suit represented a compromise between fashion and her mother's opinion of decorum, thus attaining a length and fulness not enough for grace yet too much for jauntiness. Her solemn gray hat was set too squarely upon the pale-brown hair, brushed back from her forehead. Her nice, young-girl's eyes looked out through a pair of shell-rimmed spectacles. She was too thin and too pale to content me.
When she saw me coming toward her, her face brightened and colored quite warmly. She waved her bag with actual abandon and her lagging step quickened to a run.
"Cousin Roger!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "Oh, how good of you to come!"
She gripped my hands in a candid fervor of relief and pleasure.
"I am so glad it is you," she insisted. "I was sorry the train could not be later; I wished, almost, it would never get in—and all the time it was you who were waiting for me!"
"It was, and now you are about to share an orgy," I told her. "I have your mother's permission to take you to dinner, Miss Knox."
"Here? In town? Just us?"
"Yes. And afterward we will take in any show you fancy. How does that strike you?"
She gazed up at me, absorbing the idea and my seriousness. To my dismay, she grew pale again.
"I—I really believe it will keep me from just dying."
I pretended to think that a joke. But I recognized that my little cousin was on the sloping way toward a nervous breakdown.
"No baggage?" I observed. "Good! I hope you did not eat too much luncheon. This will be an early dinner."
She waited to take off the spectacles and put them in her little bag.
"I do not need them except to study, but I didn't dare meet Mother without them," she explained. "No; I could not eat lunch, or breakfast either, Cousin Roger. Nor much dinner last night! Oh, if you knew how I dread—the grind! I should rather run away."
"So we will; for this evening."
"Yes. Where—where were you going to take me?"
We had crossed the great white hall to street level, and a taxicab was rolling up to halt before us. Surprised by the anxiety in the eyes she lifted to mine, I named the staid, quietly fastidious hotel where I usually took her when we were permitted an excursion together.
"Unless you have a choice?" I finished.
"I have." She breathed resolution. "I want to go to a restaurant with a cabaret, instead of going to the theatre. May I? Please, may I? Will you take me where I say, this one time?"
Her earnestness amazed me. I knew what her mother would say. I also knew, or thought I knew that Phillida needed the mental relaxation which comes from having one's own way. In her mood, no one else's way, however, wise or agreeable, will do it all.
"All right," I yielded. "If you will promise me, faith of a gentlewoman, to tell Aunt Caroline that I took you there and you did not know where you were going. My shoulders are broader than yours and have borne the buffeting of thirty-two years instead of nineteen. Had you chosen the place, or shall I?"
To my second surprise, she answered with the name of an uptown place where I never had been, and where I would have decidedly preferred not to take her.
"They have a skating ballet," she urged, as I hesitated. "I know it is wonderful! Please, please——?"
I gave the direction to the chauffeur and followed my cousin into the cab. It seemed a proper moment to present the chocolates from my overcoat pocket. When she proved too languid to unwrap the box, I was seriously uneasy.
"You cannot possibly know how dreadful it is to be the only child of two intellectual people who expect one to be a credit," she excused her lack of appetite, nervously twitching the gilt cord about the package. "And to be stupid and a disappointment! Yes, as long as I can remember, I have been a disappointment. If only there had been another to divide all those expectations. If only you had been my brother!"
"Heaven forbid!" I exclaimed hastily. "That is——"
"Don't bother about explaining," she smiled wanly, "I understand. But you are distinguished, and you look it. I never will be, and I am ugly. Mother expects me to be an astronomer like Father and work with him, or to go in for club life and serious writing as she does. I never can do either."
"Neither could I, Phil."
"You are clever, successful. Everybody knows your name. When we are out, and people or an orchestra play your music, Mother always says: 'A trifle of my nephew's, Roger Locke. Very original, is it not? Of course, I do not understand music, but I hear that his last light opera——' And then she leans back and just eats up all the nice things said about your work. She would never let you know it, but she does. And that is the sort of thing she wants from me. I—I want to make cookies, and I love fancywork."
The taxicab drew up with a jerk before the gaudy entrance to Silver Aisles.
I imagine Phillida had the vaguest ideas of what such places were like. When we were settled at a table in a general blaze of pink lights, beside a fountain that ran colored water, I regarded her humorously. But she seemed quite contented with her surroundings, looking about her with an air I can best describe as grave excitement. At this hour, the room was not half filled, and the jazz orchestra had withdrawn to prepare for a hard night's work.
After I had ordered our dinner, I glanced up to see her fingers busied loosening the severe lines of her brushed back hair.
"Everyone here looks so nice," she said wistfully. "I wish my hair did shine and cuddle around my face like those women's does. Do—do I look queer, Cousin? You are looking at me so——?"
"I was thinking what pretty eyes you have."
Her pale face flushed.
"Most truthfully. As for the hair, isn't that a matter of bottled polish and hairdressers? But you remind me of a question for you. Isn't a braid of hair this wide," I laid off the dimensions on the table, "this long, and thick, a good deal for a woman to own?"
"Show me again."
I obeyed, while she leaned forward to observe.
"Not one girl in a hundred has so much," she pronounced judgment. "Who is she? Probably it isn't all her own, anyhow!"
"It is not now, but it was," I said remorsefully.
"How could you tell? Did you measure it?"—with sarcasm. "Do you remember the maxim we used to write in copybooks? 'Measure a thousand times, and cut once?' One has to be cautious!"
"I cut it first, and then measured."
"What? Tell me."
At last she was interested and amused. There was no reason why I should not tell her of my midnight adventure. We never repeated one another's little confidences.
She listened, with many comments and exclamations, to the story of the unseen lady, the legend of the fair witch, the dagger that was a paper-knife by day and the severed tresses. She did not hear of the singular nightmare or hallucination that had been my second visitor. My reason had accounted for the experience and dismissed it. Some other part of myself avoided the memory with that deep, unreasoning sense of horror sometimes left by a morbid dream.
The dinner crowd had flowed in while we ate and talked. A burst of applause aroused me to this fact and the commencement of the first show of the evening. The orchestra had taken their places.
"They will hardly begin with their best act," I remarked, surprised by Phillida's convulsive start and rapt intentness upon the stretch of ice that formed the exhibition floor. "Your ballet on skates probably will come later."
"I did not come to see the ballet," she answered, her voice low.
"No? What, then?"
"A—man I know?"
Once when I was a little fellow, I raced headlong into the low-swinging branch of a tree, the bough striking me across the forehead so that I was bowled over backward amid a shower of apples. I felt a twin sensation, now.
"Someone from your home town or your college town?" I essayed a casual tone.
"Neither. He belongs here, and they call him Flying Vere. He—Look! Look, Cousin!"
I turned, and saw that the first performer was upon the ice floor.
He came down the center like a silver-shod Mercury. In the silence, for the orchestra did not accompany his entrance, the faint musical ringing of his skates ran softly with him. My first unwilling recognition of his good looks and athletic grace was followed by an equally reluctant admission of his skill. Reluctant, because my anger and bewilderment were hot against the man. My little cousin, my pathetic, unworldly Phillida—and this cabaret entertainer! At the mere joining of their names my senses revolted. What could they have in common? How had she seen him? Having seen him, it was easy to understand how he had fascinated her inexperience. Only, what was his object?
He had seen us, where we sat. I saw his dark eyes fix upon her and flash some message. Her plain little face irradiated, her fingers unconsciously twisting and wringing her napkin, she leaned forward to watch and answer glance for glance.
I would rather not put into words my thoughts. Yet, I watched his performance. In spite of myself, he held me with his swift, certain skill, his vitality and youth.
He was gone, with the swooping suddenness of his appearance. The jazz music clattered out. Phillida turned back to me and began to speak with a hushed rapture that baffled and infuriated me.
"You understand, Cousin Roger? Now that you have seen him, you do understand? No! Let me talk, please. Let me tell you, if I can. It began last summer, at the school where I was cramming for college work. Oh, how tired I was of study! How tired of it I am, and always shall be! I think that side of me never will get rested. Then, in the woods, I met him. He was stopping at a hotel not far away. I—we——"
I waited for her to go on. Instead, she abruptly spread wide her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"After all, I cannot tell you. Not even you, Cousin! He—he liked me. He treated me just as a really, truly girl who would have partners at dances and wear fluffy frocks and curl her hair. He thought I was pretty!"
The naive wonder and triumph of her cry, the challenge in her brown eyes, to my belief, were moving things. I registered some ugly mental comments on the rearing of Phil and the kind of humility that is not good for the soul.
"Why not?" I demanded. "Of course!"
She shook her head.
"No. Thank you, but—no! Not pretty, except to him. Only to him, because he loves me."
I do not know what impatience I exclaimed. She checked me, leaning across the table to grasp my hand in both hers.
"Hush! Oh, hush, dear Cousin Roger! For it is quite too late. We were married six months ago; last autumn."
When I could, I asked:
"Married legally, beyond mistake? Were you not under eighteen years old?"
"I was eighteen years and a half. There is no mistake at all. We walked over to the city hall in the nearest town, and took out our license, and were married."
"Very well. I will take you home to your father and mother, now; then see this man, myself. If there is indeed no flaw in the marriage and it cannot be annulled, a divorce must be arranged. Any money I have or expect to have would be a small price to set you free from the miserable business. But the first thing is to get you home. We will start now."
She detained my hand when I would have signalled our waiter. Her eyes, shining and solemn as a small child's, met mine.
"No, Cousin, please! I am not going home any more. At least, not alone. I asked you to bring me here where he is, because I am going to stay with my husband."
"Never," I stated firmly.
"Not if I have to send for your father and take you home by force."
"You cannot. I am of age."
"Phillida, I am responsible for you to your parents tonight. Let me take you home, explain things to them, and then decide your course."
"But that is what I most do not want to do!" she naively exclaimed.
"You will not?"
"I'm sorry. No."
"Then I must see the man."
I recalled the man we had just seen on the skating floor, with a qualm of quite unreasonable bitterness. That anxiety of Phillida's had a flavor of irony for me.
"Hardly," I returned. "There are fortunately other means of persuasion than physical force."
"Oh! But you cannot persuade him to give me up."
I was silent. At which, being a woman, she grew troubled.
"How could you?" she urged.
"You have had no opportunity of judging what influence money has on some people, Phil."
She laughed out in relief.
"Is that all? Try, Cousin."
"You trust him so much?"
"In everything, forever!"
"Then if I succeed in buying him off, promise me that you will come home with me."
"If he takes money to leave me?"
"I should die. But I will promise if you want me to, because I know it never will happen. Just as I might promise to do anything, when I knew that I never would have to carry it out."
"Very well," I accepted the best I could get. "I will go find him."
"There is no need. He is coming here to our table as soon as he is free."
"I will not have you seen with him in this place."
"But I am going to stay here with him," she said.
Her eyes, the meek eyes of Phillida, defied me. My faint authority was a sham. What could be done, I recognized, must be done through the man.
We sat in silence, after that. Presently, her gaze fixed aslant on me as if to dare my interference, she drew up a thin gold chain that hung about her neck and ended beneath her blouse. From it she unfastened a wedding ring and gravely put the thing on her third finger, the school-girl romanticism of the gesture blended with an air of little-girl naughtiness. She looked more fit for a nursery than for this business.
I could tell from the change in her expression when the man was approaching. I rose, meaning to meet him and turn him aside from our table. But Phillida halted me with one deftly planted question.
"You would not leave me alone in this place, Cousin?"
Certainly I would not leave her alone at a table here; not even alone in appearance while I had my interview with the man close at hand. Yet it seemed impossible to speak before her. She calmly answered my perplexity.
"You must talk to him here, of course. I—want to listen to you both. Indeed, I shall not interfere at all, or be angry or hurt! I know how good you mean to be, dear; only, you do not understand."
I sat down again, perforce. When the man's shadow presently fell across our table, it did not soothe me to see Phil thrust her hand in his, her small face enraptured, her fingers locking about his with a caress plain as a kiss. She said proudly, if tremulously:
"Cousin Roger, this is my husband. Mr. Locke, Ethan dear."
He said nothing. His hesitating movement to offer his hand I chose to ignore. I admit that my spirit rose against him to the point of loathing as he stood there, tall, correct in attire—the focus of admiring glances from other diners—in every way the antithesis of my poor Phillida.
"Sit down," I bade curtly, when he did not speak. "Miss Knox insists that we have our interview here. I should have preferred otherwise, but her presence must not prevent what has to be said."
"It won't prevent anything I want to say, Mr. Locke," he answered.
He spoke with a drawl. Not the drawl of affectation, nor the drawl of South or West so cherished by the romantic, but the slow, deliberate speech of New England's upper coasts. It had the oddest effect, that honest, homely accent on the lips of a performer in this place. Phil drew him down to the third chair at the table. After which, she folded her hands on the edge of the cloth as if to signify to me how she kept her promise of neutrality, and looked fixedly at her glass of water instead of at either of us. Plainly, all action was supposed to proceed from me.
"My cousin has just told me of her marriage," I opened, as dryly concise as I could manage explanation. "It is of course impossible that she should adopt your way of living, as she seems to have in mind. You may not understand, yet, that it also is impossible for you to adopt hers. No doubt you have supposed her to be the daughter of wealthy people, or at least people of whom money could be obtained. You were wrong. Professor Knox has nothing but his modest salary. Her parents are of the scholarly, not of the moneyed class. She has no kin who could or would support her husband or pay largely to be rid of him. Of all her people, I happen to be the best off, financially. It happens also that I am not sentimental, nor alarmed at the idea of newspaper exploitation for either of us. It is necessary that all this be plainly set forth before we go further.
"Now, for your side: you have involved Miss Knox to the extent of marriage. To free her from this trap into which her inexperience has walked is worth a reasonable price. I will pay it. I shall take her home to her father and mother tonight, and consult my lawyer tomorrow. He will conduct negotiations with you. The day Miss Knox is divorced from you without useless scandal or trouble-making, I will pay to you the sum agreed upon with my lawyer. If you prefer to make yourself objectionable, you will get nothing, now or later."
He took it all without a flicker of the eyelids, not interrupting or displaying any affectation of being insulted. I acknowledge, now, that it was an outrageous speech to make to a man of whom I knew nothing. But it was so intended; summing up what I considered an outrageous situation brought about by his playing upon a young girl's ignorance of such fellows as himself. Phillida's usually pale cheeks were burning. Several times she would have broken in upon me with protests, if Vere had not silenced her by the merest glances of warning. A proof of his influence over her which had not inclined me toward gentleness with him!
When I finished there was a pause before he turned his dark eyes to mine, and held them there.
"Honest enough!" he drawled, with that incongruous coast-of-Maine tang to his leisureliness. "I'll match you there, Mr. Locke. I don't care whether you make fifty thousand a year with your music writing, or whether you grind a street-piano with a tin-cup on top. It's nothing to me. I guess we can do without your lawyer, too. Because, you see, I married Mrs. Vere because I wanted her; and I figure on supporting her. If her folks are too cultivated to stand me, I'm sorry. But they won't have to see me. So that's settled!"
He was honest. His glance drove that fact home to me with a fist-like impact. There was nothing I was so poorly prepared to meet.
Phillida's hands went out to him in an impulsive movement. He covered them both with one of his for a moment before gently putting them in her lap with a gesture of reminder toward the revellers all about us. The delicacy of that thought for her was another disclosure of character, unconsciously made. Worthy or unworthy, he did love Phil.
I am not too dully obstinate to recognize a mistake of my own. Whatever my bitterness against the man, I had to accord him some respect. I sat for a while striving to align my forces to attack this new front.
"I don't blame you for thinking what you said, Mr. Locke," his voice presently spoke across my perplexity. "I can see the way things came to you; finding me here, and all! I'm glad to have had this chance to talk it out with one of my wife's relations. I'd like them to know she'll be taken care of. Outside of that, I guess there is nothing we have to say to each other."
"I suppose I owe you both an apology," I said stiffly.
"Oh, that's all right—for both of us! I can see how much store you set by her."
"But what are you going to do with her, man?" I burst forth. "Do you expect to keep her here; sitting at a table in this place and watching you do your turn, making your fellow performers her friends, seeing and learning——?" I checked my outpouring of disgust. "Or do you propose to shut her up in some third-class boarding house day and night while you hang around here? Good heavens, Vere, do you realize what either life would be for an nineteen-year-old girl brought up as she has been?"
"As for bringing up," he retorted, "I guess she couldn't be a lot more miserable than her folks worried her into being. But—you're right about the rest. That's why I was going to leave her with her folks yet a while, until I had a place for her. I mean, while I saved up enough to get the place."
"But I wrote to him when I failed in my exams, Cousin Roger," Phillida broke in. "I told him that I would not go home. I could not bear it. I was coming to him, and he would just have to keep me with him or I should die. Indeed, I do not care about places. I think it will be lovely fun to sit here and watch him, or go behind the scenes with him and make friends with the other people. I—I am surprised that you are so narrow, Cousin Roger, when all your own best friends are theatrical people and artists and you think so highly of them."
I answered nothing to that. The distance between the stage and this class of cabaret show was not to be traversed in a few seven-league words. I looked at Vere, who returned my look squarely and soberly.
"You needn't worry about her being here, Mr. Locke," he said. "I know better than that! But she has to come to me; it's her right, don't you think? I'll promise you to take her to a better place as soon as I can manage."
"What kind of a place?"
"I'm saving to get a place in the country," he answered diffidently. "I'm a countryman, and Phillida thinks she'd like it."
"You?" I exclaimed, unable to smother my derision and unbelief. My glance summed up his fastidious apparel and grooming, the gloss on his curling dark hair and the dubious diamond on his little finger.
He reddened through his clear, dark skin, but his eyes were not those of a man taken in a lie.
"Did you take notice of what I do here?" He asked me, with the first touch of humility I had seen in him. "I couldn't dance or sing or do parlor tricks. I wasn't bred to parlors or indoors. But I learned to skate pretty fancy from a boy up. My folks' farm was on one side of a lake and the schoolhouse on the other. About November that lake used to freeze solid. My brother and I used to skate five miles to school, and back again, before we were six years old. We lived on skates about half the year, I guess. Well—you don't care about the rest; how the farm was just about big enough to support my elder brother and his family, and I came to New York. Nor how I found New York pretty well filled up with folks who knew considerably more than I did. It was the manager of this place who advertised for expert skaters, who dressed me up like this, and paid me the first living wages I'd had in the city. All the same, I was bred a farmer, and I mean to get back to it. Always have! You're a man, Mr. Locke, and I'd hate you to think I was a shimmy dancer on ice and nothing else, or I wouldn't mention it. My father would have taken the buggy-whip to me, I guess, if he'd lived to see me in this rig. Soon as I've enough put by, I'll shed this perfumed suit and the cheap jewelry and take my wife where she can have a chance to forget I ever wore them."
"But I like them," put in Phillida ardently. "Please do not fuss so, Ethan; because I really do."
"Do you?" I turned upon her. "Are you sure, then, that it is not all this cabaret glamour you really are in love with? Would you care for him as an ordinary, hard-working fellow in a pair of overalls and a flannel shirt? No applause, no lights, no stage?"
She laughed up at me.
"You have forgotten that I met Ethan while he was on a vacation from his work here, and roughing it. When I married him, I had hardly seen him in anything except his Navy flannel shirt, scrubby trousers, and funny blunt-toed shoes."
"You served in the war?" I asked him.
"Yes. On a submarine chaser. Got pneumonia from exposure and was invalided home just before the Armistice."
"And you came back here?"
"I came here," he corrected me. "I enlisted from Maine. I was discharged in New York. That was when I couldn't find anything I could do, until this skating trick came along."
I sat thinking for a time; as long thoughts as I could command. The obvious course was to send for Phillida's father. Yet what could that vague and learned gentleman do that I could not? I visioned the Professor standing in this riotous, gaudy restaurant, swinging his eye-glasses by their silk ribbon and peering at Vere in helpless distaste and consternation. It was practically certain that Phil would refuse to go home with him.
What if she did go home? I could picture the scene there, when the truth came out. The mortification of her people, the gossip in the little town, her outcast position among the girls and boys with whom she had grown up—what a martyrdom for a sensitive spirit! Of course, the only possible thing considered by Aunt Caroline would be a prompt divorce.
If Phillida refused to consent to a divorce, how could she live at home as the wife of a man her parents had pronounced unfit to receive? If she yielded and gave up Vere, would she be much better off? An embarrassment to her family, the heroine of a stolen marriage and Reno freedom, what chance of happiness would she have in her conventional circle? Especially as she neither was a beauty nor the dashing type of girl who might make capital of such a reputation. Probably she would bury herself in nunlike seclusion, stay in her room when callers came, and wear a veil when she went out to walk.
Meanwhile, she would break her heart for Vere.
Could matters be any worse if she tried life with him, even if the experiment eventually proved a failure and ended in a divorce instead of beginning there? Might not her parents be spared much they most dreaded, if their friends could be told simply that Phillida had made a love match and was with her husband?
Finally, Phillida was a human creature with the right to manage her own life. Had any of us the right to lay hands upon her existence and mould it to our fancy?
I looked up from my revery to find the eyes of both of them fixed on me as if I held their doom balanced upon my palm. Perhaps, in a sense, I did.
"Phil, will you come home to your father and mother, and consider all this a bit more before you decide?" I asked her.
I thought I knew the answer to this, and I did.
"No, Cousin Roger," she refused firmly. "Please forgive me. I know how kind you mean to be, but—no! I shall stay with Ethan. If ever you love anyone, you will understand."
I accepted the decision. There was no reason why I should think of the woman who had spoken to me across the darkness in a voice of melody and power, or why I should seem to feel again the exquisite, live softness of her braid within my hand. But it was so.
"Very well," I said. "Vere, it is to you, then, as Phillida's husband, that I must address any plans. I do not pretend to like the course she has taken. I do not know what action her parents may take, although I believe they will listen to my advice. Putting all that aside, she refuses to come with me and you agree that she cannot stay here.
"I have just bought a farm in Connecticut, intending to use it as a summer home. There are some alterations and repairs being made, but little is to be changed inside the house and it is in perfectly livable shape. Here is my offer. Take Phillida there, and I will make you manager of the place. I will pay all reasonable expenses of putting the land into proper condition and getting such stock and equipment as you judge best; all expenses and up-keep of the house and whatever salary usually is drawn by such managers of small estates. I shall be there, on and off, but you and Phillida must take charge of everything. I am neither a farmer nor a housekeeper, and do not wish to be either. I bought the place only because New York is too hot to work in during three months of the year, and I hate summer resorts. Keep my room ready, and you will find I disturb you little. Of course, hire what servants are necessary.
"Now, if you make the place self-supporting inside of five years, I will deed the whole thing to you two. To put it better, if you succeed in making the farm pay a living for yourselves, I will make it over to you and withdraw. If you fail—well, I suppose you will be no worse off than you are now!"
They were stricken speechless. Perhaps my attitude had not pointed to such a conclusion of our interview. Phillida told me long afterward that she expected me to bid them good-evening and abandon them forever, as my mildest course; with alternative possibilities such as summoning a policeman and having Vere haled to prison. Seeing their condition, I rose.
"I will stroll about and leave you a chance to talk it over," I declared; although there are few ordeals I dislike more than displaying my limp about such public rooms.
Vere stopped me, rising as I rose.
"No need of that, for us," he answered, facing me across the little table. "About giving us your farm, Mr. Locke, that's for the future! Just now, the manager's job is plenty big enough to thank you for. I wish I could say it better. If you'll stay here with Phillida for ten minutes, until I can get back, I'll be obliged."
"Where are you going?"
"To resign here, and get my outfit into a suitcase."
He had taken up my challenge like a man, at least. There were none of the hesitations and excuses to stay in town that I had half expected. It pleased me that he decided for Phil as well as himself. Some of my ideas about marriage are antiquated, I admit. I nodded to him, and sat down again.
It is unnecessary to record the childish things Phillida tried to say to me, while he was gone.
"I am so happy," was her apology for threatened tears. "I never knew anyone—except Ethan—could be so kind. And—and, will you tell Father and Mother?"
"Yes." I winced, though, at that prospect. "Give me that little bag you carry on your wrist."
She obeyed, wide-eyed.
"You do tote a powder-puff. I did not know whether Aunt Caroline permitted it. Rub it on your nose," I advised, passing the bit of fluff to her.
While she complied, almost like a normally frivolous girl, I used the moment to transfer a few banknotes to the bag, so some need might not find her penniless.
Vere came back in not much more than the promised ten minutes. He had changed to gray street clothes and carried a suitcase. I noted that the diamond had disappeared from his finger and his curly head looked as if it had been held under a water-faucet and vigorously toweled to lessen the brilliantine gloss.
"If you'll tell us where your farm is, Mr. Locke, we'll start," he volunteered.
Phillida looked up at him with eyes of adoring trust.
"I had the porter at the Terminal check my suitcase to be called for. We shall have to get it, dear."
In spite of myself, I smiled at their amazing promptitude. There was both reassurance and pathos in its unconscious youth. All this eagerness pressing forward—where? They did not know, nor I. Certainly we did not dream how strange a goal awaited one of us three, or on what weird, desolate path that traveler's foot was already set.
"You had better go to a good hotel for tonight," I modified their plan. "Tomorrow is time enough to go out to the farm, by daylight. Phil has had enough excitement for one day. I will write full directions for the trip, Vere, on the back of this timetable of the railroad you must take."
They were enchanted with this suggestion. Indeed, they were in a state of mind to have assented if I advised them to sit out on a park bench until morning.
Yet, when I had put them and their scanty luggage into a taxicab, I suffered a bad pang of misgiving. What responsibility was I assuming in letting my little-girl cousin go like this? What did I know of this man, or where he would take her? I think Phillida divined something of my trouble, for she leaned out the door to me and held up her face like a child's to be kissed.
"I am so happy," she whispered.
I turned to Vere; who had a long envelope in readiness to put in my hand.
"I guess you might like to have these for a while, Mr. Locke," he said, with one of his slow, straightforward glances.
With which farewells I had to be content, and watch their taxi swing out into the bright-dark flow of traffic where it was lost from my sight. After which, I entered another taxicab by my unromantic self and was driven to that railroad station where I would find a train bound to the college town that was the home of Aunt Caroline and her husband. One always thought of Phil's parents in that order, although the Professor was a moderately distinguished scientist and his spouse merely masterful in her own limited circle.
The envelope Vere had given me contained their marriage certificate, his release from the Navy, and his membership card in the American Legion.
"Fair speech is more rare than the emerald found by slave maidens on the pebbles."—PTAH-HOTEP.
At ten o'clock, next morning, I was summoned from my sleep by the bell of the telephone beside my bed. It was not a pleasant sleep, although I had not returned to my apartment until dawn. Nightmare doubts galloped ruthless hoofs over any repose.
Phillida's voice came over the wire to me like the morning song of a bird.
"Good-morning, Cousin Roger. We are going to take the train in a few moments. But I could not leave New York without telling you how happy I am. Are you—did I wake you up? I was afraid that I might, but Ethan said you would like me to call, even so."
"My dear, it was the kindest thought you ever had," I told her fervently.
"Was it?" she hesitated. "Then—were they pretty dreadful to you at home?"
"Do you suppose they will do anything dreadful about us?"
It did not seem necessary to tell her that Aunt Caroline did not know where the runaways had gone, and was thereby debarred from hasty action. Phillida's father had privately agreed with me in this.
"I am so very happy, Cousin Roger!"
"I am glad, Phil."
"And you will come to the farm soon?"
"Soon," I promised.
So the nightmares of immediate anxiety for her galloped themselves away, routed for that time. Like my gold-fish when their bowl has been unduly shaken, I sank down again into the quieted waters of my little world and absorption in my own affairs. There have been hours when I wondered if I was of more importance than they, as a matter of cosmic fact.
A month passed before I kept my promise to go to the farm in Connecticut.
As a first reason, I wanted to leave my young couple alone for a period of adjustment. Also, I was curious to see how they would handle the business left to them. I held telephone conversations with Phillida, and with various contractors now and then. I sent out the furnishings for my own room. Everything else I purposely left to the experimenters.
There was a second reason, more obscure. I wanted to keep for a while the little mystery of the lady who had come to the farmhouse room in the dark of the night. She was pure romance, a rare incident in a prosaic age. My table had been bare of such delicately spiced morsels, and I relished the savor of this one upon my palate. I was not quite ready to find her in the matter-of-fact daughter of some neighbor, who had sought shelter from the storm in that supposedly empty house and probably mistaken me for a tramp.
Perhaps I was equally reluctant to go back and prove that the adventure was ended, that she had been a bird of passage who had gone on with no thought of return.
With all these delays, and the fact that my work really kept me busy in town, April was verging toward May when I finally saw the last of my luggage put into the car and started on my fifty-mile drive to the house by the lake. I did not take this first visit very seriously, or intend it to be over long. To be a constraint upon the household I had established, or assume a right there, was far from the course I planned. It was not certain Vere and I would be comfortable housemates. But to stay away altogether would have hurt Phillida as much as to stay too long, I considered. Probably a week would be about enough for this time.
So lightly, so ignorantly, I stepped from the first great division of my life into the second; not hearing the closing of the gate through which there was no turning back.
"The very room, coz she was in, Seemed warm from floor to ceilin'." —THE COURTIN'.
I arrived at noon, when a bright sun set the country air afloat with motes like dust of gold. The place seemed drenched in golden light. Even the young grass had gold in its green, and the lake glittered hot with yellow sparkles.
The house was transformed. The cream-colored stucco that hid its homely walls, deep, arched porches that took the place of the old shallow affairs, scarlet Spanish tiles where bleached shingles had been—all united in giving it the gayest, most modern air imaginable. A gravel drive curved in beneath the new porte-cochere, inviting the wheels of my car to explore. Grass had been put in order, flower-beds laid out. The new dam was up, and the miniature lake no longer suggested a swamp. If the place had appealed to me in its dreary neglect, now it held out its arms to me and laughed an invitation.
As I stepped from my car, I heard running feet and a girl sped around the veranda to meet me. She cast herself into my arms before I fairly realized this was Phillida. A Phillida as new to my eyes as the house! After the first greetings I held her off to analyze the change.
She was tanned and actually rosy. The corners of her once sad little mouth turned up instead of down and developed—I looked twice—yes, developed a dimple. The dull hair I always had seen brushed plainly back, now was parted on one side and fluffed itself across her forehead and about her cheeks with an astonishing effectiveness. She was attired in a China-blue linen frock with a scarlet sash knotted in front quite daringly, for Phillida.
"Why, Phil, how pretty we are!" I admired.
She looked up at me like a praised little girl, and smoothed the sash. I noticed she wore above her wedding ring that "diamond" which once had adorned Vere's finger so distastefully to me. It shone bravely in the sunlight with quite a display of fire. Tracing my gaze, she held out her hand for me to see.
"Yes, it was his, Cousin Roger. Of course, we have not very much money yet, and I do not care about all the engagement rings that ever were thought of. But, I was afraid people up here might notice that I had none and think slightingly of Ethan. So I asked him, and we went to a jeweler, who made it smaller to fit me. It is not a false stone, you know. It is a white topaz, and I love it better than the biggest diamond."
"Then you are still happy?"
"Forever and ever, world without end," she answered solemnly.
We went in.
Sun and sweet wind had worked white magic in the long-closed house. Quaint furniture, no longer dust-grimed but lustrous with cleanliness and polish, had quite a different air. Fresh upholstery in cheerful tints, fresh paper on the walls, good rugs, order and daintiness everywhere changed the interior out of my recognition. Already the atmosphere of home and cheer was established.
"Come see your rooms," Phillida invited, enraptured by my admiration. "They are so pretty!"
She ran up the stairs, around the passage, and ushered me into the room of graceful adventure and grotesque nightmare. I stopped on the threshold.
I had ordered the partition removed between the two chambers on this side, giving me one large room. This, with the little bathroom attached, occupied the entire large frontage of the house. This long, spacious room; floors covered by my Chinese rugs, walls echoing the rugs' smoke-blue, my piano in a bright corner, my special easychairs and writing-table in their due places, welcomed me with such familiar comfort that I could not identify the neglected chamber where I had slept one night in the old bed with the four pineapple-topped posts. The windows were opened, and white curtains with their over-draperies of blue silk were swinging in and out on a fresh breeze where the Horror of my dream had seemed to press itself against the black panes. Decidedly, I must have had a bad attack of indigestion that night!
"See how nice?" Phillida was urging appreciation at my side. "We swung those lovely old hangings from the arch, so they can be drawn across the bedroom end of your room, if you like. Although I do not know why you should like, everything is so pretty! Your long Venetian mirror came safely, and all your darling lamps. And—and I hope you like it so well, Cousin Roger, that you will stay here always!"
When she left me alone, I walked to the different windows, contemplating the stretches of lawn dotted with budding apple trees and the lake that lay beyond shining in the sun. Was Phillida's charming wish to become a fact, I wondered? Could this rest and calm hold me content here, where I had meant merely to pause and pass on? I looked at the yellow country road meandering past the lake into unseen distance. Should I ever see my Lady of the Beautiful Tresses come that way, or travel that road to where she lived? If I did meet her, would she forgive me the loss of her braid? There would be a test for the sweetness of her disposition!
When a chiming dinner-gong summoned me downstairs, I found Vere awaiting me beside Phillida. We shook hands, and he made some brief, pleasant speech about their having expected me sooner. If pale, timid Phil had become a surprising butterfly, Vere had taken the reverse progress toward the sober grub. I like him better in outing clothes, although he showed even more the unusual good looks which so unreasonably prejudiced me against him. If he felt any strain in our meeting, his slow, tranquil trick of speech and manner covered it. I hope I did as well! It was then I discovered that his wife's pet name for him fitted like a glove. She called him "Drawls."
The luncheon was good; cooked and served by a middle-aged Swedish woman named Cristina. Afterward, I was conducted into the kitchen by the lady of the house, to view the new fittings and improvements. Most odd and pretty it was to see Phillida in that role of housewife, and to watch her pride in Vere and deference to him. Let me record that I never saw the daughter of Aunt Caroline fail in this settled course toward her husband. Whether it was born of revulsion from her mother's hectoring domestic methods, or of consciousness that outsiders might rate Vere below his wife in station and education, so her respect for him must forbid their slight, I do not know. But I never saw her oppose him or speak rudely to him before other people. I suppose they may have had the usual conjugal differings, neither of them being angelic. If so, no outsider ever glimpsed the fact.
We spoke of nothing serious on that first day. They both showed me the various improvements finished or progressing, indoors or out.
We dined as agreeably as we had lunched. Quite early, afterward, I excused myself, and left together the two who were still on their honeymoon.
At the door of my room, I pushed a wall-switch that lighted simultaneously three lamps. In this I had repeated the arrangement used by me for years in my city apartment. I have a demand for light somewhere in my make-up, and no reason for not indulging it. There flashed out of the dusk a large lamp upon my writing-table, a tall floor-lamp beside the piano, and a reading-lamp on a stand beside my bed at the far end of the room. All three were shaded in a smoke-blue and rose-color effect that long since had caught my fancy for night work; the shades inset with imitation semi-precious stones, rough-cut things of sapphire, tourmaline-pink and baroque pearl.
I lay emphasis upon this, to make clear how normal, serene and even familiar in effect was the room into which I came. Yet, as I closed the door behind me and stood in that softly brilliant radiance, a shudder shook me from head to foot with the violence of an electric shock. A sense of suffocation caught at my throat like an unseen hand.
Both sensations were gone in the time of a drawn breath, leaving only astonishment in their wake. Presently I went on with the purpose that had brought me upstairs; lifting a portfolio to the table and beginning to unpack the work which I had been doing in New York. As I laid out the first sheets of music, there drifted to my ears that vague sound from the lake I had heard on my first night visit here, while I stood on the tumble-down porch. The sound that was like the smack of glutinous lips, or some creature drawing itself out of thick, viscid slime. As before, I wondered what movement of the shallow waters could produce that result. Not the tide, now, for the new dam was up and the lake cut off from Long Island Sound. The pouring of the waterfall flowed on as a reminder of that fact.
The sound was not repeated. The dusk outside the windows offered nothing unusual to be seen. I finished my unpacking and sat down at my writing-table.
I am not accustomed to heed time. There never has been anyone to care what hours I kept, and I work best at night. Midnight was long past when I thought of rest.
I declare that I thought of nothing more; not even recalling the vague unease felt on entering the room. A day spent in the fresh air, followed by an evening of hard work and journeyings between the piano and table, had left me utterly weary. When I lay down, it was to sleep at once.
"I have made a story that hath not been heard; A great feat of arms that hath not been seen!" —AMENEMHE'ET.
I woke slowly. It seemed that I struggled to wakefulness as a spent swimmer struggles toward shore. Up, up through deep poles of sleep I dragged myself, driven by some dimly sensed necessity. Peril had stolen upon me in my unconsciousness, a stalking beast. I knew that with nightmare certainty. It was as if my soul stood affrighted beside my brain, wailing upon its ally to arouse and stand with it against the menace. And my brain answered, but with infinite difficulty; like a drugged warrior who hears the clang of battle and forces numbed limbs to stir, arise and grasp the sword.
I was awake. Suddenly; the swimmer reaching the surface!
How shall I describe Fear incarnate? The Horror was at the open window opposite the foot of my bed, staring in upon me with slavering covetousness of the prey It watched. I lay there, and felt It seek for me across the darkness with tentacles of evil that groped for some part of me upon which It might lay hold.
The room was still. Between the draperies, the window showed nothing to the eye except a dark square faintly tinged with the night luminance of the sky. There was nothing to see; nothing to hear. But gradually I became aware of a hideous odor of mould and mildew, of must and damp decay that loaded the air with disgust.
I lay there, and opposed the approach of the Thing with all the will of resistance in me. The sweat poured from my whole body, so that I lay as in water and the drenched linen of my sleeping-suit clung coldly to me.
It could not pass the defense of my will. I felt the malevolent fury of Its striving. Like the antennae of some monstrous insect brushing about my body, I felt Its evil desires wavering about my mental self, examining, searching where It might seize. It had not yet found the weakness It sought. If It did——?
The sickening, vault-like air I must breathe fought for It. So did the darkness. All this time, or the time that seemed so long, I had no more command of my body than a cataleptic patient. Every ounce of force in me had rushed to support the two warriors of the battle: the brain and will that opposed the clutching menace. But now, as I grew more and more fully awake, out of very loathing and danger I drew determination. Slowly, painfully, I began to free my right arm and hand from this paralysis.
As I advanced in resolution, the Thing seemed to recoil. Inch by inch, I moved my hand across the bed toward my reading-lamp on the stand beside me. In proportion as I moved, the dreadful tentacles drew back and away. A last effort, and the chain was in my fingers. I jerked spasmodically.
Rosy light from the lamp flashed over the room. All the quiet comfort of the place sprang into view as if to reassure me; the piano open as I had left it, the table strewn with my evening's work, each bit of furniture, each drapery or trinket undisturbed.
The Thing was gone. In the hush I heard my panting breath and the tick of my watch on the stand. It was two o'clock in the morning. As I mechanically read the hour, a cock somewhere shrilled its second call before dawn. The Horror had been true to the legendary time of apparitions.
Weak and chilled, I presently made an attempt to rise. But at the movement, a wave of sickness swept through me. The room seemed to rock and swing. I had just time to recognize the grip of faintness before I fell back on the pillow.
* * * * *
Vivifying sweetness was in my nostrils, which expanded avidly for this new air. Perfume that was a tonic, a subtle elixir; that sparkled upon the senses, sank suavely and healingly through me, so that I seemed to draw refreshment with each breath. Reluctantly, I aroused more and more in response to this unusual stimulant; which somehow gave delicious rest yet drew me from it into life.
I could have sworn someone had touched me. With some exclamation on my lips, I started up; to find myself in darkness. The lamps I had left lighted burned no longer.
This time there was no terror in my awakening. No Thing of nightmare pressed against my window-space. The fragrance persisted; the ghastly smell of mould and corruption was gone. But I wanted light for all that! Reaching for the lamp beside me on its stand, I found the little chain. I felt the chain draw in my fingers and heard the click that should have meant light; but no answering brightness sprang up.
Instead, across the dark came a voice; a voice low-pitched, soft without weakness, keen with exultation:
"Victory! Victory! You have no need of light—who conquered in darkness! The Enemy has fled. It has covered the Unspeakable Eyes from the eyes of a man. By the will of a man Its will has been forbidden. It has dragged Itself back to the Barrier and cowers there for this time. Oh, soldier on the dreadful Frontier, be proud, putting off your armor tonight! Be proud, and rest."
Those practical people who are never unnerved by the intangible, may gauge if they can the weirdness of this address following my first experience, and then smile their contempt of me. For I confess to a moment of uncanny chill. The voice was that of the woman who had trailed her braid of hair into my grasp, the night I first slept here. But, how did she know of the Thing's visit to me? I had not spoken nor uttered a cry throughout Its visitation. How could she have knowledge of that silent struggle between It and me, or of my escape so narrowly won. How, unless she too——?
I groped for a glass of water left on my stand. I drank, and felt my dry throat relax.
"Who are you?" I asked.
A sigh trembled toward me.
"I am one who stands on the threshold of your beautiful world, as a traveler stands outside a lighted palace, gazing where she may not enter, and feeling the winter about her."
"Do not suppose me quite a superstitious fool," I said bruskly. "You are a woman. The woman who left a very real braid of hair in my hands, not long ago, to save herself from capture!"
"Yes. Yet, I am neither more nor less real than the One which came for you a while since."
"Then my nightmare was real? A thing of flesh and blood, or clever mechanism? You know it. Perhaps you produced it?"
The rush of my angry suspicion dashed in useless heat against her cool melancholy.
"Real? What is real?" she challenged me. "Turn to the sciences that you should understand better than I, and ask. Stretch out your arm. For a million years men have vowed you touch empty air. They saw and felt it empty. But now a child knows air swarms with life. In that thin nothingness, crowd and move the distributors of death, disease, health, vigor—existence itself. The water you have just tasted is pure and clear in the glass? Pure? Each drop is an ocean of inhabitants clean and unclean. I speak commonplaces. But is there no knowledge not yet commonplace? Oh man, with all the unfathomed universe about us, dare you pronounce what is real?"
"What is natural," I began.
She interrupted me.
"Doubtless what is not natural cannot and does not exist. Have you, then, measured Nature? He was a great thinker, one of deep knowledge, who compared Man to a child wandering on the shore of a vast ocean and picking up a pebble here and there."
"Of what would you convince me? And, why?"
"Of what? Danger! Why? Would you watch a man enter a jungle where some hideous beast crouched in ambush, while you neither warned nor armed him? I am here to turn you back. I am the native of that country who runs to cry warning to a stranger; to put into his hand the weapon of understanding."
So solemn, so urgent a sincerity was in her voice, that again chill touched me. The clammy dampness of my garments hung on my limbs as a reminder of the Thing, real or unreal, that twice had made Its presence felt beyond denial. Wild as her words might be, their incredible suggestion was matched by my experience. I sought with my eyes for her, before answering. The room was dark, yet the darker bulk of furniture loomed out enough to be distinguishable. No figure was visible, even traced by the direction of her voice. I was certain that any movement to seek her would mean her flight.
"Do you mean that you want me to go away from this place?" I questioned.
The sigh came again, just audibly.
"Yes. Why should you die?"
Was I wrong in fancying the sigh regretful? Did I not hear a wistful reluctance in her tone? Excitement ran along my veins like burning oil on flowing water. The woman hidden in the dark, the association of her voice with the strange, exquisite fragrance I breathed, the thought of beauty in her born of that lovely braid of hair I had seized—all blended in a spell of human magic. I have said I was a man much alone, and a lame man who craved adventure.
"Just now," I said, "you spoke of some victory. You called me—soldier."
"Is it not victory to have driven back the Dark One? Is he not a soldier who, aroused in the night to meet dreadful assault, sets his face to the enemy and battles front to front? Before the Eyes men and women have died or lost reason, or fled across half the world, broken by fear. What are the wars of man with man, compared with a man's battle against the Unknown? I honor you! I salute you! But—soldier alone on the forbidden Frontier, go! Join your fellows in the world alloted to you; live, nor seek to tread where mankind is not sent."