A Book of Romance
And Some Half-Told Tales
HENRY VAN DYKE
"Let X represent the unknown quantity."
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Copyright, 1912, by Charles Scribner's Sons
Published October, 1912. Reprinted October, December, 1912; July, 1916; May, 1918; March, 1919; December, 1919; July, 1921.
Leather Edition, September, 1913; May, 1916; February, 1917; June, 1920; May, 1921.
* * * * *
IN THANKFULNESS TO THE MEMORY OF
DEAR DAUGHTER DOROTHEA
RAY OF LIGHT SONG OF JOY HEART OF LOVE
* * * * *
A deeper crimson in the rose, A deeper blue in sky and sea, And ever, as the summer goes, A deeper loss in losing thee!
A deeper music in the strain Of hermit-thrush from lonely tree; And deeper grows the sense of gain My life has found in having thee.
A deeper love, a deeper rest, A deeper joy in all I see; And ever deeper in my breast A silver song that comes from thee.
H. v. D.
August 1, 1912.
There is a chain of little lakes—a necklace of lost jewels—lying in the forest that clothes the blue Laurentian Mountains in the Province of Quebec.
Each of these hidden lakes has its own character and therefore its own charm. One is bright and friendly, with wooded hills around it, and silver beaches, and red berries of the rowan-tree fringing the shores. Another is sombre and lonely, set in a circle of dark firs and larches, with sighing, trembling reeds along the bank. Another is only a round bowl of crystal water, the colour of an aquamarine, transparent and joyful as the sudden smile on the face of a child. Another is surrounded by fire-scarred mountains, and steep cliffs frown above it, and the shores are rough with fallen fragments of rock; it seems as if the setting of this jewel had been marred and broken in battle, but the gem itself shines tranquilly amid the ruin, and the lichens paint the rocks, and the new woods spring bright green upon the mountains. There are many more lakes, and all are different. The thread that binds them together is the little river flowing from one to another, now with a short, leaping passage, now with a longer, winding course.
You may follow it in your canoe, paddling through the still-waters, dropping down the rapids with your setting-pole, wading and dragging your boat in the shallows, and coming to each lake as a surprise, something distinct and separate and personal. It seems strange that they should be sisters; they are so unlike. But the same stream, rising in unknown springs, and seeking an unknown sea, runs through them all, and lives in them all, and makes them all belong together.
The thread which unites the stories in this book is like that. It is the sign of the unknown quantity, the sense of mystery and strangeness, that runs through human life.
We think we know a great deal more about the processes and laws and conditions of life than men used to know. And probably that is true; though it is not quite certain, for it is hard to say precisely how much those inscrutable old Egyptians and Hebrews and Chaldaeans and Hindus knew and did not tell.
But granting that we have gone beyond them, we have not gone very far, we have not come to perfect knowledge. There is still something around us and within that baffles and surprises us. Events happen which are as mysterious after our glib explanations as they were before. Changes for good or ill take place in the heart of man for which his intellect gives no reason. There is the daily miracle of the human will, the power of free choice, for which no one can account, and which sometimes flashes out the strangest things. There is the secret, incalculable influence of one life on another. There is the web of circumstance woven to an unseen pattern. There is the vast, unexplored land of dreams in which we spend one-third of our lives without even remembering most of what befalls us there.
I am not thinking now of the so-called "realm of the occult," nor of those extraordinary occurrences which startle and perplex the world from time to time, nor of those complicated and subtle problems of crime which are set to puzzle us. I am thinking of much more human and familiar things, quite natural and inevitable as it seems, which make us feel that life is threaded through and through by the unknown quantity.
This is the thread that I have followed from one to another of these stories. They are as different as my lakes in the North Country; some larger and some smaller; some brighter and some darker; for that is the way life goes. But most of them end happily, even after sorrow; for that is what I think life means.
Four of the stories have grown out of slight hints, for which I return thanks. For the two Breton legends which appear in "The Wedding-Ring" and "Messengers at the Window," I am indebted to my friend, M. Anatole Le Braz; for an incident which suggested "The Night Call," to my friend, Mrs. Edward Robinson; and for the germ of "The Mansion," to my friend, Mr. W. D. Sammis. If the stories that have come from their hints are different from what my friends thought they would be, that is only another illustration of the theme.
Between the longer stories there are three groups of tales that are told in a briefer and different manner. They are like etchings in which more is suggested than is in the picture. For this reason they are called Half-Told Tales, in the hope that they may mean to the reader more than they say.
Without the unknown quantity life would be easier, perhaps, but certainly less interesting. It is not likely that we shall ever eliminate it. But we can live with it and work with it bravely, hopefully, happily, if we believe that after all it means good—infinite good, passing comprehension—to all who live in love.
June 1, 1912.
The Wedding-Ring 3
Messengers at the Window 25
The Countersign of the Cradle 43
The Key of the Tower 67
The Ripening of the Fruit 73
The King's Jewel 80
The Music-Lover 87
An Old Game 139
The Unruly Sprite 144
A Change of Air 156
The Night Call 167
The Effectual Fervent Prayer 203
The Return of the Charm 235
Beggars Under the Bush 249
In the Odour of Sanctity 266
The Sad Shepherd 287
The Mansion 325
It did people good to buy of her Frontispiece From a drawing by Charles S. Chapman.
The King's Jewel 82 From a drawing by Garth Jones.
The Music-Lover 90 From a drawing by Sigismond de Ivanowski.
The Unruly Sprite 154 From a drawing by Garth Jones.
She flung herself across his knees and put her arms around him 230 From a drawing by Paul Julien Meylan.
Stronghold 258 From a drawing by Garth Jones.
So the sad shepherd thanked them for their entertainment 314 From a drawing by Blendon Campbell.
Title-page, head and end pieces by Garth Jones
Before Toinette Girard made up her mind to marry Prosper Leclere,—you remember the man at Abbeville who had such a brave heart that he was not willing to fight with an old friend,—before Toinette perceived and understood how brave Prosper was, it seemed as if she were very much in doubt whether she did not love some one else more than she loved him, whether he and she really were made for each other, whether, in short, she cared for him enough to give herself entirely to him.
But after they had been married six weeks there was no doubt left in her mind. He was the one man in the world for her. He satisfied her to the core—although by this time she knew most of his faults. It was not so much that she loved him in spite of them, but she simply could not imagine him changed in any way without losing a part of him, and that idea was both intolerable and incredible to her. Just as he was, she clung to him and became one with him.
I know it seems ridiculous to describe a love like that, and it is certainly impossible to explain it. It is not common, nor regular, nor altogether justifiable by precept and authority. Reason is against it; and the doctors of the church have always spoken severely of the indulgence of any human affection that verges on idolatry. But the fact remains that there are a few women in the world who are capable of such a passion.
Capable? No, that is not the word. They are created for it. They cannot help it. It is not a virtue, it is simply a quality. Their whole being depends upon their love. They hang upon it, as a wreath hangs from a nail in the wall. If it breaks they are broken. If it holds they are happy. Other things interest them and amuse them, of course, but there is only one thing that really counts—to love and to be loved.
Toinette was a woman of that rare race. To the outward view she was just a pretty French Canadian girl with an oval face, brown hair, and eyes like a very dark topaz. Her hands were small, but rather red and rough. Her voice was rich and vibrant, like the middle notes of a 'cello, but she spoke a dialect that was as rustic as a cabbage. Her science was limited to enough arithmetic to enable her to keep accounts, her art to the gift of singing a very lovely contralto by ear, and her notions of history bordered on the miraculous. She was obstinate, superstitious, and at times quick-tempered. But she had a positive genius for loving. That raised her into the first rank, and enabled her to bestow as much happiness on Prosper as if she had been a queen.
It was a grief to them, of course, that they had no children. But this grief did not destroy, nor even diminish, their felicity in each other; it was like the soft shadow of a cloud passing over a landscape—the sun was still shining and the world was fair. They were too happy to be discontented. And their fortunes were thriving, too, so that they were kept pretty hard at work—which, next to love, is the best antidote for unhappiness.
After the death of the old bonhomme Girard, the store fell to Prosper; and his good luck—or his cleverness, or his habit of always being ready for things, call it what you will—stuck by him. Business flourished in the Bon Marche of Abbeville. Toinette helped it by her gay manners and her skill in selling. It did people good to buy of her: she made them feel that she was particularly glad that they were getting just what they needed. A pipe of the special shape which Pierre affected, a calico dress-pattern of the shade most becoming to Angelique, a brand of baking-powder which would make the batter rise up like mountains—v'la, voisine, c'est b'en bon! Everything that she sold had a charm with it. Consequently trade was humming, and the little wooden house beside the store was b'en trimee.
The only drawback to the happiness of the Lecleres was the fact that business required Prosper to go away for a fortnight twice a year to replenish his stock of goods. He went to Quebec or to Montreal, for he had a great many kinds of things to get, and he wanted good things and good bargains, and he did not trust the commercial travellers.
"Who pays those men," he said, "to run around everywhere, with big watch-chains? You and me! But why? I can buy better myself—because I understand what Abbeville wants—and I can buy cheaper."
The times of his absence were heavy and slow to Toinette. The hours were doped out of the day as reluctantly as black molasses dribbles from a jug. A professional instinct kept her up to her work in the store. She jollied the customers, looked after the accounts, made good sales, and even coquetted enough with the commercial travellers to send them away without ill-will for the establishment which refused to buy from them.
"A little badinage does no harm," she said, "it keeps people from getting angry because they can't do any more business."
But in the house she was dull and absent-minded. She went about as if she had lost something. She sat in her rocking-chair, with her hands in her lap, as if she were waiting for something. The yellow light of the lamp shone upon her face and hurt her eyes. A tear fell upon her knitting. The old tante Bergeron, who came in to keep house for her while she was busy with the store, diagnosed her malady and was displeased with it.
"You are love-sick," said she. "That is bad. Especially for a married woman. It is wrong to love any of God's creatures too much. Trouble will come of it—voyons voir."
"But, aunty," answered Toinette, "Prosper is not just any of God's creatures. He is mine. How could I love him too much? Besides, I don't do it. It does itself. How can I help it?"
"It is a malady," sighed the old woman shaking her head. "It is a malady of youth, my child. There is danger in it—and for Prosper too! You make an idol of a man and you spoil him. You upset his mind. Men are like that. You will bring trouble upon your man, if you don't take care. God will send you a warning—perhaps a countersign of death."
"What is that," cried Toinette, her heart shaking within her breast, "what do you mean with your countersign of death?"
The old woman nodded her head mysteriously and leaned forward, putting her gnarled hand on Toinette's round knee and peering with her faded eyes into the girl's wild-flower face.
"It is the word," said she, "that death speaks before he crosses the threshold. He gives a sign—sometimes one thing, and sometimes another—before he comes in. Our folk in Brittany have understood about that for a long time. My grandmother has told me. It always comes to one who has gone too far, to one who is like you. You must be careful. You must go to Mass every day and pray that your malady may be restrained."
So Toinette, having tasted of the strange chalice of fear, went to the church early every morning while Prosper was away and prayed that she might not love him so much as to make God jealous. The absurdity of such a prayer never occurred to her. She made it with childish simplicity. Probably it did no harm. For when Prosper came home she loved him more than ever. Then she went to High Mass every Sunday morning with him and prayed for other things.
After four years there came a day when Prosper must go away for a longer absence. There was an affair connected with the Department of Forests and Fisheries, which could only be arranged at Ottawa. Thither he must go to see the lawyers, and there he must stay perhaps a month, perhaps two.
You can imagine that Toinette was desolate. The draught of fear that tante Bergeron had given her grew more potent and bitter in her simple heart. And the strange thing was that, although she was ignorant of it, there was apparently something true in the warning which the old woman had given. For jealousy—that vine with flying seeds and strangling creepers—had taken root in the heart of Prosper Leclere.
Yes, I know it is contrary to all the rules and to all the proverbs, but so it happened. It is not true that the strongest love is the most jealous. It is the lesser love, the love which receives more than it gives, that lies open to the floating germs of mistrust and suspicion. And so it was Prosper who began to have doubts whether Toinette thought of him as much when he was away as when he was with her; whether her gladness when he came home was not something that she put on to fool him and humour him; whether her badinage with the commercial travellers (and especially with that good-looking Irishman, Flaherty from Montreal, of whom the village gossips had much to say) might not be more serious than it looked; whether—ah, well, you know, when a man begins to follow fool thoughts like that, they carry him pretty far astray in the wilderness.
Prosper was a good fellow with a touch of the prig in him. He was a Catholic with a Puritan temperament and a Gallic imagination. The idolatry of Toinette had, as a matter of fact, spoiled him a little; it was so much that he weakly questioned the reality of it, as if it were too good to be true. All the time he was in Ottawa and on the journey those fool thoughts hobbled around him and misled him and made him unhappy.
Meantime Toinette was toiling through the time of separation, with a laugh for the store, and a sigh for the lonely house, and a prayer for the church. Tired as she was at night, she did not sleep well, and her dreams were troubled by aunty Bergeron's warning against loving too much.
In the cold drab dawn of a March morning it seemed to her as if the church bell had just stopped ringing as she awaked from a dream of Prosper. She put on her clothes quickly and hurried out. The road was deserted. In the snowy fields the little fir-trees stood out as black as ink. Against the sky rose the gray-stone church like a fortress of refuge.
But as she entered the door, instead of five or six well-known neighbours, kneeling in the half-darkness, she saw that the church was filled with a strange, thick, blinding radiance, like a mist of light. Everything was blurred and confused in that luminous fog. There was not a face to be seen. Yet she felt the presence of a vast congregation all around her. There were movements in the mist. The rustling of silks, the breath of rich and strange perfumes, a low rattling as of hidden chains, came to her from every side. There were voices of men and women, young and old, rough and delicate, hoarse and sweet, all praying the same prayer in many tongues. She could not hear it clearly, but the sound of their murmurs and sighs was like the whisper of the fir-wood when the wind walks through it.
She was bewildered and frightened. Part of going to church means having people that you know near you. Her heart fluttered with a vague terror, and she sank into the first seat by the door.
She could not see the face of the priest at the altar. His voice was unfamiliar. The tinkle of the bell sounded from an infinite distance. The sound of footsteps came down the aisle. It must be some one carrying the plate for the offering. As he advanced slowly she could hear the clink of the coins dropping into it. Mechanically she put her hand in her pocket and drew out the little piece of silver and the four coppers that by chance were there.
When the man came near she saw that he was dressed in a white robe with a hood over his face. The plate was full of golden coins. She held out her poor little offering. The man in the cowl shook his head and drew back the plate.
"It is for the souls of the dead," he whispered, "the dead whom we have loved too much. Nothing but gold is good enough for this offering."
"But this is all I have," she stammered.
"There is a ring on your hand," he answered in a voice which pierced her heart.
Shivering dumbly like a dog, palsied with pain, yet compelled by an instinct which she dared not resist, she drew her wedding-ring from her finger and dropped it into the plate.
As it fell there was a clang as if a great bell had tolled; and she rose and ran from the church, never stopping until she reached her own room and fell on her knees beside her bed, sobbing as if her heart would break.
The first thing that roused her was the clatter of the dishes in the kitchen. The yellow light of morning filled the room. She wondered to find herself fully dressed and kneeling by the bed instead of sleeping in it. It was late, she had missed the hour of Mass. Her glance fell upon her left hand, lying stretched out upon the bed. The third finger was bare.
All the scene in the church rushed over her like a drive of logs in the river when the jam breaks. She felt as helpless as a little child in a canoe before the downward sweeping flood. She did not wish to cry out, to struggle—only to crouch down, and cover her eyes, and wait. Whatever was coming would come.
Then the force of youth and hope and love rose within her and she leaped to her feet. "Bah!" she said to herself, "I am a baby. It was only a dream,—the cure has told us not to be afraid of them,—I snap my fingers at that old Bergeron with her stupid countersigns,—je m'en fricasse! But, my ring—my ring? I have dropped it, that's all, while I was groping around the room in my sleep. After a while I will look for it and find it."
She washed her face and smoothed her hair and walked into the kitchen. Breakfast was ready and the old woman was grumbling because it had been kept waiting.
"You are lazy," she said, "a love-sick woman is good for nothing. Your eyes are red. You look bad. You have seen something. A countersign!"
She peered at the girl curiously, the wrinkles on her yellow face deepening like the cracks in drying clay, and her thin lips working as if they mumbled a delicious morsel,—a foretaste of the terrible.
"Let me alone with your silly talk," cried Toinette gaily. "I am hungry. Besides, I have a headache. You must take care of the store this morning. I will stay here. Prosper will come home to-day."
"Frivolante," said the old woman, with her sharp eyes fixed on the girl's left hand, "why do you think that? Where is your wedding-ring?"
"I dropped it," replied Toinette, drawing back her hand quickly and letting it fall under the table-cloth, "it must be somewhere in my room."
"She dropped it," repeated the old woman, with wagging head, "tiens! what a pity! The ring that not even death should take from her finger,—she dropped it! But that is a bad sign,—the worst of all,—a countersign of——"
"Will you go? Old babbler," cried Toinette, springing up in anger, "I tell you to go to the store. I am mistress in this house."
Tante Bergeron clumped sullenly away, muttering, "A mistress without a wedding-ring! Oh, la-la, la-la! There's a big misery in that."
Toinette rolled up her sleeves and washed the dishes. She tried to sing a little at her work, because she knew that Prosper liked it, but the notes seemed to stick in her throat. She wiped her eyes with the hem of her apron, and went upstairs, bare-armed, to search for her ring.
She looked and felt in every corner of the room, took up the rag-carpet rugs and shook them, moved every chair and the big chest of drawers and the wash-stand, pulled the covers and the pillows and the mattress off the bed and threw them on the floor. When she had finished the room looked as if the big north-west wind had passed through it.
Then Toinette sat down on the bed, rubbing the little white mark on her finger where the ring had been, and staring through the window at the church as if she were hypnotised. All sorts of dark and cloudy thoughts were trooping around her. Perhaps Prosper had met with an accident, or he was sick; or perhaps the suspicions and unjust reproaches with which he had sometimes wounded her lately had grown into his mind, so that he was angry with her and did not want to see her. Perhaps some one had been telling lies to him, and made him mad, and there was a fight, and a knife—she could see him lying on the floor of a tavern, in a little red puddle, with white face and staring eyes, cold and reproachful. Would he never come back, come home?
In the front of the store sleigh-bells jingled. It was probably some customer. No, she knew in her heart it was her husband!
But she could not go to him,—he must come to her, here, away from that hateful old woman. A step sounded in the hall, the door opened, Prosper stood before her. She ran to him and threw her arms around him. But he did not answer her kiss. His voice was as cold as his hands.
"Well," he said, "I come back sooner than you expected, eh? A little surprise—like a story-book."
She could not speak, her heart was beating in her throat, her arms dropped at her side.
"You are fond of your bed," he went on, "you rise late, and your room,—it looks like mad. Perhaps you had company. A party?—or a fracas?"
Her cheeks flamed, her eyes filled with tears, her mouth quivered, but no words came.
"Well," he continued, "you don't say much, but you look well. I suppose you had a good time while I was gone. Why have you taken off your wedding-ring? When a woman does that, she——"
Her face went very white, her eyes burned, she spoke with her deepest, slowest note.
"Stop, Prosper, you are unjust, something has made you crazy, some one has told you lies. You are insulting me, you are hurting me,—but I,—well, I am the one that loves you always. So I will tell you what has happened. Sit down there on the bed and be quiet. You have a right to know it all,—and I have the right to tell you."
Then she stood before him, with her right hand covering the white mark on the ring-finger, and told him the strange story of the Mass for the dead who had been too much loved. He listened with changing eyes, now full of doubt, now full of wonder and awe.
"You tell it well," he said, "and I have heard of such things before. But did this really happen to you? Is it true?"
"As God lives it is true," she answered. "I was afraid I had loved you too much. I was afraid you might be dead. That was why I gave my wedding-ring—for your soul. Look, I will swear it to you on the crucifix."
She went to the wall behind the bed where the crucifix was hanging. She lifted her hand to take it down.
There, on the little shelf at the feet of the wounded figure, she saw her wedding-ring.
Her hands trembled as she put it on her finger. Her knees trembled as she went back to Prosper and sat beside him. Her voice trembled as she said, "Here it is,—He has given it back to us."
A river of shame swept over him. It seemed as if chains fell from his heart. He drew her to him. He felt her bare arms around his neck. Her head fell back, her eyes closed, her lips parted, her breath came soft and quick. He waited a moment before he dared to kiss her.
"My dove," he whispered, "the sin was not that you loved too much, but that I loved too little."
MESSENGERS AT THE WINDOW
The lighthouse on the Isle of the Wise Virgin—formerly called the Isle of Birds—still looks out over the blue waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; its white tower motionless through the day, like a sea-gull sleeping on the rock; its great yellow eye wide-open and winking, winking steadily once a minute, all through the night. And the birds visit the island,—not in great flocks as formerly, but still plenty of them,—long-winged waterbirds in the summer, and in the spring and fall short-winged landbirds passing in their migrations—the children and grandchildren, no doubt, of the same flying families that used to pass there fifty years ago, in the days when Nataline Fortin was "The Keeper of the Light." And she herself, that brave girl who said that the light was her "law of God," and who kept it, though it nearly broke her heart—Nataline is still guardian of the island and its flashing beacon of safety.
Not in her own person, you understand, for her dark curly hair long since turned white, and her brown eyes were closed, and she was laid at rest beside her father in the little graveyard behind the chapel at Dead Men's Point. But her spirit still inhabits the island and keeps the light. The son whom she bore to Marcel Thibault was called Baptiste, after her father, and he is now the lighthouse-keeper; and her granddaughter, Nataline, is her living image; a brown darling of a girl, merry and fearless, who plays the fife bravely all along the march of life.
It is good to have some duties in the world which do not change, and some spirits who meet them with a proud cheerfulness, and some families who pass on the duty and the cheer from generation to generation—aristocrats, first families, the best blood.
Nataline the second was bustling about the kitchen of the lighthouse, humming a little song, as I sat there with my friend Baptiste, snugly sheltered from the night fury of the first September storm. The sticks of sprucewood snapped and crackled in the range; the kettle purred a soft accompaniment to the girl's low voice; the wind and the rain beat against the seaward window. I was glad that I had given up the trout fishing, and left my camp on the Sainte-Marguerite-en-bas, and come to pass a couple of days with the Thibaults at the lighthouse.
Suddenly there was a quick blow on the window behind me, as if someone had thrown a ball of wet seaweed or sand against it. I leaped to my feet and turned quickly, but saw nothing in the darkness.
"It is a bird, m'sieu'," said Baptiste, "only a little bird. The light draws them, and then it blinds them. Most times they fly against the big lantern above. But now and then one comes to this window. In the morning sometimes after a big storm we find a hundred dead ones around the tower."
"But, oh," cried Nataline, "the pity of it! I can't get over the pity of it. The poor little one,—how it must be deceived,—to seek light and to find death! Let me go out and look for it. Perhaps it is not dead."
She came back in a minute, the rain-drops shining on her cheeks and in her hair. In the hollow of her firm hands she held a feathery brown little body, limp and warm. We examined it carefully. It was stunned, but not killed, and apparently neither leg nor wing was broken.
"It is a white-throat sparrow," I said to Nataline, "you know the tiny bird that sings all day in the bushes, sweet-sweet-Canada, Canada, Canada?"
"But yes!" she cried, "he is the dearest of them all. He seems to speak to you,—to say, 'be happy.' We call him the rossignol. Perhaps if we take care of him, he will get well, and be able to fly to-morrow—and to sing again."
So we made a nest in a box for the little creature, which breathed lightly, and covered him over with a cloth so that he should not fly about and hurt himself. Then Nataline went singing up to bed, for she must rise at two in the morning to take her watch with the light. Baptiste and I drew our chairs up to the range, and lit our pipes for a good talk.
"Those small birds, m'sieu'," he began, puffing slowly at his pipe, "you think, without doubt, that it is all an affair of chance, the way they come,—that it means nothing,—that it serves no purpose for them to die?"
Certain words in an old book, about a sparrow falling to the ground, came into my mind, and I answered him carefully, hoping, perhaps, that he might be led on into one of those mystical legends which still linger among the exiled children of Britanny in the new world.
"From our side, my friend, it looks like chance—and from the birds' side, certainly, like a very bad chance. But we do not know all. Perhaps there is some meaning or purpose beyond us. Who can tell?"
"I will tell you," he replied gravely, laying down his pipe, and leaning forward with his knotted hands on his knees. "I will tell you that those little birds are sometimes the messengers of God. They can bring a word or a warning from Him. That is what we Bretons have believed for many centuries at home in France. Why should it not be true here? Is He not here also? Those birds are God's coureurs des bois. They do His errands. Would you like to hear a thing that happened in this house?"
This is what he told me.
My father, Marcel Thibault, was an honest man, strong in the heart, strong in the arms, but, in the conscience,—well, he had his little weaknesses, like the rest of us. You see his father, the old Thibault lived in the days when there was no lighthouse here, and wrecking was the chief trade of this coast.
It is a cruel trade, m'sieu'—to live by the misfortune of others. No one can be really happy who lives by such a trade as that. But my father—he was born under that influence; and all the time he was a boy he heard always people talking of what the sea might bring to them, clothes and furniture, and all kinds of precious things—and never a thought of what the sea might take away from the other people who were shipwrecked and drowned. So what wonder is it that my father grew up with weak places and holes in his conscience?
But my mother, Nataline Fortin—ah, m'sieu', she was a straight soul, for sure—clean white, like a wild swan! I suppose she was not a saint. She was too fond of singing and dancing for that. But she was a good woman, and nothing could make her happy that came from the misery of another person. Her idea of goodness was like this light in the lantern above us—something faithful and steady that warns people away from shipwreck and danger.
Well, it happened one day, about this time forty-eight years ago, just before I was ready to be born, my father had to go up to the village of La Trinite on a matter of business. He was coming back in his boat at evening, with his sail up, and perfectly easy in his mind—though it was after sunset—because he knew that my mother was entirely capable of kindling the light and taking care of it in his absence. The wind was moderate, and the sea gentle. He had passed the Point du Caribou about two miles, when suddenly he felt his boat strike against something in the shadow.
He knew it could not be a rock. There was no hardness, no grating sound. He supposed it might be a tree floating in the water. But when he looked over the side of the boat, he saw it was the body of a dead man.
The face was bloated and blue, as if the man had been drowned for some days. The clothing was fine, showing that he must have been a person of quality; but it was disarranged and torn, as if he had passed through a struggle to his death. The hands, puffed and shapeless, floated on the water, as if to balance the body. They seemed almost to move in an effort to keep the body afloat. And on the little finger of the left hand there was a great ring of gold with a red stone set in it, like a live coal of fire.
When my father saw this ring a passion of covetousness leaped upon him.
"It is a thing of price," he said, "and the sea has brought it to me for the heritage of my unborn child. What good is a ring to a dead man? But for my baby it will be a fortune."
So he luffed the boat, and reached out with his oar, and pulled the body near to him, and took the cold, stiff hand into his own. He tugged at the ring, but it would not come off. The finger was swollen and hard, and no effort that he could make served to dislodge the ring.
Then my father grew angry, because the dead man seemed to withhold from him the bounty of the sea. He laid the hand across the gunwale of the boat, and, taking up the axe that lay beside him, with a single blow he chopped the little finger from the hand.
The body of the dead man swung away from the boat, turned on its side, lifting its crippled left hand into the air, and sank beneath the water. My father laid the finger with the ring upon it under the thwart, and sailed on, wishing that the boat would go faster. But the wind was light, and before he came to the island it was already dark, and a white creeping fog, very thin and full of moonlight, was spread over the sea like a shroud.
As he went up the path to the house he was trying to pull off the ring. At last it came loose in his hand; and the red stone was as bright as a big star on the edge of the sky, and the gold was heavy in his palm. So he hid the ring in his vest.
But the finger he dropped in a cluster of blue-berry bushes not far from the path. And he came into the house with a load of joy and trouble on his soul; for he knew that it is wicked to maim the dead, but he thought also of the value of the ring.
My mother Nataline was able to tell when people's souls had changed, without needing to wait for them to speak. So she knew that something great had happened to my father, and the first word she said when she brought him his supper was this:
"How did it happen?"
"What has happened?" said he, a little surprised, and putting down his head over his cup of tea to hide his face.
"Well," she said in her joking way, "that is just what you haven't told me, so how can I tell you? But it was something very bad or very good, I know. Now which was it?"
"It was good," said he, reaching out his hand to cut a piece from the loaf, "it was as good—as good as bread."
"Was it by land," said she, "or was it by sea?"
He was sitting at the table just opposite that window, so that he looked straight into it as he lifted his head to answer her.
"It was by sea," he said smiling, "a true treasure of the deep."
Just then there came a sharp stroke and a splash on the window, and something struggled and scrabbled there against the darkness. He saw a hand with the little finger cut off spread out against the pane.
"My God," he cried, "what is that?"
But my mother, when she turned, saw only a splotch of wet on the outside of the glass.
"It is only a bird," she said, "one of God's messengers. What are you afraid of? I will go out and get it."
She came back with a cedar-bird in her hand—one of those brown birds that we call recollets because they look like a monk with a hood. Her face was very grave.
"Look," she cried, "it is a recollet. He is only stunned a little. Look, he flutters his wings, we will let him go—like that! But he was sent to this house because there is something here to be confessed. What is it?"
By this time my father was disturbed, and the trouble was getting on top of the joy in his soul. So he pulled the ring out of his vest and laid it on the table under the lamp. The gold glittered, and the stone sparkled, and he saw that her eyes grew large as she looked at it.
"See," he said, "this is the good fortune that the waves brought me on the way home from La Trinite. It is a heritage for our baby that is coming."
"The waves!" she cried, shrinking back a little. "How could the waves bring a heavy thing like that? It would sink."
"It was floating," he answered, casting about in his mind for a good lie; "it was floating—about two miles this side of the Point du Caribou—it was floating on a piece of——"
At that moment there was another blow on the window, and something pounded and scratched against the glass. Both of them were looking this time, and again my father saw the hand without the little finger—but my mother could see only a blur and a movement.
He was terrified, and fell on his knees praying. She trembled a little, but stood over him brave and stern.
"What is it that you have seen," said she; "tell me, what has made you afraid?"
"A hand," he answered, very low, "a hand on the window."
"A hand!" she cried, "then there must be some one waiting outside. You must go and let him in."
"Not I," whispered he, "I dare not."
Then she looked at him hard, and waited a minute. She opened the door, peered out, trembled again, crossed the threshold, and returned with the body of a blackbird.
"Look," she cried, "another messenger of God—his heart is beating a little. I will put him here where it is warm—perhaps he will get well again. But there is a curse coming upon this house. Confess. What is this about hands?"
So he was moved and terrified to open his secret half-way.
"On the rocks this side of the point," he stammered, "as I was sailing very slowly—there was something white—the arm and hand of a man—this ring on one of the fingers. Where was the man? Drowned and lost. What did he want of the ring? It was easy to pull it——"
As he said this, there was a crash at the window. The broken pane tinkled upon the floor. In the opening they both saw, for a moment, a hand with the little finger cut off and the blood dripping from it.
When it faded, my mother Nataline went to the window, and there on the floor, in a little red pool, she found the body of a dead cross-bill, all torn and wounded by the glass through which it had crashed.
She took it up and fondled it. Then she gave a great sigh, and went to my father Marcel and kneeled beside him.
(You understand, m'sieu', it was he who narrated all this to me. He said he never should forget a word or a look of it until he died—and perhaps not even then.)
So she kneeled beside him and put one hand over his shoulder, the dead cross-bill in the other.
"Marcel," she said, "thou and I love each other so much that we must always go together—whether to heaven or to hell—and very soon our little baby is to be born. Wilt thou keep a secret from me now? Look, this is the last messenger at the window—the blessed bird whose bill is twisted because he tried to pull out the nail from the Saviour's hand on the cross, and whose feathers are always red because the blood of Jesus fell upon them. It is a message of pardon that he brings us, if we repent. Come, tell the whole of the sin."
At this the heart of my father Marcel was melted within him, as a block of ice is melted when it floats into the warmer sea, and he told her all of the shameful thing that he had done.
She stood up and took the ring from the table with the ends of her fingers, as if she did not like to touch it.
"Where hast thou put it," she asked, "the finger of the hand from which this thing was stolen?"
"It is among the bushes," he answered, "beside the path to the landing."
"Thou canst find it," said she, "as we go to the boat, for the moon is shining and the night is still. Then thou shalt put the ring where it belongs, and we will row to the place where the hand is—dost thou remember it?"
So they did as she commanded. The sea was very quiet and the moon was full. They rowed together until they came about two miles from the Point du Caribou, at a place which Marcel remembered because there was a broken cliff on the shore.
When he dropped the finger, with the great ring glittering upon it, over the edge of the boat, he groaned. But the water received the jewel in silence, with smooth ripples, and a circle of light spread away from it under the moon, and my mother Nataline smiled like one who is well content.
"Now," she said, "we have done what the messengers at the window told us. We have given back what the poor man wanted. God is not angry with us now. But I am very tired—row me home, for I think my time is near at hand."
The next day, just before sunset, was the day of my birth. My mother Nataline told me, when I was a little boy, that I was born to good fortune. And, you see, m'sieu', it was true, for I am the keeper of her light.
THE COUNTERSIGN OF THE CRADLE
I cannot explain to you the connection between the two parts of this story. They were divided, in their happening, by a couple of hundred miles of mountain and forest. There were no visible or audible means of communication between the two scenes. But the events occurred at the same hour, and the persons who were most concerned in them were joined by one of those vital ties of human affection which seem to elude the limitations of time and space. Perhaps that was the connection. Perhaps love worked the miracle. I do not know. I only tell you the story.
It begins in the peaceful, homely village of Saint Gerome, on the shore of Lake Saint John, at the edge of the vast northern wilderness. Here was the home of my guide, Pat Mullarkey, whose name was as Irish as his nature was French-Canadian, and who was so fond of children that, having lost his only one, he was willing to give up smoking in order to save money for the adoption of a baby from the foundling asylum at Quebec. How his virtue was rewarded, and how his wife, Angelique, presented him with twins of his own, to his double delight, has been told in another story. The relation of parentage to a matched brace of babies is likely to lead to further adventures.
The cradle, of course, being built for two, was a broad affair, and little Jacques and Jacqueline rolled around in it inextricably mixed, until Pat had the ingenious idea of putting a board down the middle for a partition. Then the infants rocked side by side in harmony, going up and down alternately, without a thought of debating the eternal question of superiority between the sexes. Their weight was the same. Their dark eyes and hair were alike. Their voices, whether they wept or cooed, were indistinguishable. Everybody agreed that a finer boy and girl had never been seen in Saint Gerome. But nobody except Pat and Angelique could tell them apart as they swung in the cradle, gently rising and falling, in unconscious illustration of the equivalence and balancing of male and female.
Angelique, of course, was particularly proud of the boy. As he grew, and found his feet, and began to wander about the house and the front yard, with a gait in which a funny little swagger was often interrupted by sudden and unpremeditated down-sittings, she was keen to mark all his manly traits.
"Regard him, m'sieu'," she would say to me when I dropped in at the cottage on my way home from camp—"regard this little brave. Is it not a boy of the finest? What arms! What legs! He walks already like a voyageur, and he does not cry when he falls. He is of a marvellous strength, and of a courage! My faith, you should see him stand up to the big rooster of the neighbour, Pigot. Come, my little one, my Jacques, my Jimmee, one day you will be able to put your father on his back—is it not?"
She laughed, and Pat laughed with her.
"That arrives to all fathers," said he, catching the little Jacqueline as she swayed past him and swinging her to his knee. "Soon or late the bonhomme has to give in to his boy; and he is glad of it. But for me, I think it will not be very soon, and meantime, m'sieu', cast a good look of the eye upon this girl. Has she not the red cheeks, the white teeth, the curly hair, brown like her mother's? But she will be pretty, I tell you! And clever too, I am sure of it! She can bake the bread, and sew, and keep the house clean; she can read, and sing in the church, and drive the boys crazy—hein, my pretty one—what a comfort to the old bonhomme!"
"He goes fast," laughed Angelique; "he talks already as if she were in long dresses with her hair done up. Without doubt, m'sieu' amuses himself to hear such talk about two infants."
But the thing that amused me most was the beginning-to-talk of the twins themselves. It was natural that the mother and father should speak to me in their quaint French patois; and the practice of many summers had made me able to get along with it fairly well. But that these scraps of humanity should begin their adventures in language with French, and such French, old-fashioned as a Breton song, always seemed to me surprising and wonderfully smart. I could not get over the foolish impression that it was extraordinary. There is something magical about the sound of a baby voice babbling a tongue that is strange to you; it sets you thinking about the primary difficulties in the way of human intercourse and wondering just how it was that people began to talk to each other.
Long before the twins outgrew their French baby talk the famous cradle was too small to hold their sturdy bodies, and they were promoted to a trundle-bed on the floor. The cradle was an awkward bit of furniture in such a little house, and Angelique was for giving it away or breaking it up for kindling-wood.
"But no!" said Pat. "We have plenty of wood for kindlings in this country without burning the cradle. Besides, this wood means more to us than any old tree—it has rocked our hopes. Let us put it in the corner of the kitchen—what? Come—perhaps we may find a use for it, who knows?"
"Go along," said Angelique, giving him a friendly box on the ear, "you old joker! Off with you, vieux bavasseur—put the cradle where you like."
So there it stood, in the corner beside the stove, on the night of my story. Pat had gone down to Quebec on the first of June (three days ahead of time) to meet me there and help in packing the goods for a long trip up the Peribonca River. Angelique was sleeping the sleep of the innocent and the just in the bedroom, with the twins in their trundle-bed beside her, and the door into the kitchen half-open.
What it was that waked her she did not know—perhaps a bad dream, for Pat had given her a bit of trouble that spring, with a sudden inclination for drinking and carousing, and she was uneasy about his long absence. A man in the middle years sometimes has a bit of folly, and a woman worries about him without knowing exactly why. At all events, Angelique came wide awake in the night with a sense of fear in her heart, as if she had just heard something terrible about her husband which she could not remember.
She listened to the breathing of the twins in the darkness. It was soft and steady as the falling of tiny ripples upon the beach. But presently she was aware of a louder sound in the kitchen. It was regular and even, like the ticking of a clock. There was a roll and a creak in it, as if somebody was sitting in the rocking-chair and balancing back and forth.
She slipped out of bed and opened the door a little wider. There was a faint streak of moonlight slanting through the kitchen window, and she could see the tall back of the chair, with its red-and-white tidy, vacant and motionless.
In the corner was the cradle, with the children's clothes hanging over the head of it and their two ragged dolls tucked away within. It was rocking evenly and slowly, as if moved by some unseen force.
Her eyes followed the ray of the moon. On the rocker of the cradle she saw a man's foot with the turned-up toe of a botte sauvage. It seemed as if the smoke of a familiar pipe was in the room. She heard her husband's voice softly humming:
"Petit rocher de la haute montagne, Je viens finir ici cette campagne. Ah, doux echos, entendez mes soupirs; En languissant je vais bientot mourir!"
Trembling, she entered the room, with a cry on her lips.
"Ah! Pat, mon ami, what is it? How camest thou here?"
As she spoke, the cradle ceased rocking, the moon-ray faded on the bare floor, the room was silent.
She fell upon her knees, sobbing.
"My God, I have seen his double, his ghost. My man is dead!"
In the steep street of Quebec which is called "Side of the Mountain," there is a great descending curve; and from this curve, at the right, there drops a break-neck flight of steps, leading by the shortest way to the Lower Town.
As I came down these steps, after dining comfortably at the Chateau Frontenac, on the same night when Angelique was sleeping alone beside the twins in the little house of Saint Gerome, I was aware of a merry fracas below me in the narrow lane called "Under the Fort." The gas lamps glimmered yellow in the gulf; the old stone houses almost touched their gray foreheads across the roadway; and in the cleft between them a dozen roystering companions, men and girls, were shouting, laughing, swearing, quarrelling, pushing this way and that way, like the waves on a turbulent eddy of the river before it decides which direction to follow. In the centre of the noisy group was a big fellow with a black mustache.
"I tell you, my boys," he cried, "we go to the Rue Champlain, to the Moulin Gris of old Trudel. There is good stuff to drink there; we'll make a night of it! My m'sieu' comes to seek me, but he will not find me until to-morrow. Shut your mouth, you Louis. What do we care for the police? Come, Suzanne, marchons!"
Then he broke out into song:
"Ce n'est point du raisin pourri, C'est le bon vin qui danse! C'est le bon vin qui danse ici, C'est le bon vin qui danse!"
Even through its too evident disguise in liquor I knew the voice of my errant Pat. Would it be wise to accost him at such a moment, in such company? The streets of the Lower Town were none too peaceful after dark. And yet, if he were not altogether out of his head, it would be a good thing to stop him from going further and getting into trouble. At least it was worth trying.
"Good-evening, Pat," I cried.
He turned as if a pebble had struck him, and saw me standing under the flickering lamp. He stared for a moment in bewilderment, then a smile came over his face, and he pulled off his hat.
"There is my m'sieu'," he said; "my faith, but that is droll! You go on, you others. I must speak to him a little. See you later—Rue Champlain—the old place."
The befogged company rolled away in the darkness and Pat rolled over to me. His greeting was a bit unsteady, but his natural politeness and good-fellowship did not fail him.
"But how I am happy to see m'sieu'!" said he; "it is a little sooner than I expected, but so much the better! And how well m'sieu' carries himself—in full health, is it not? You have the air of it—all ready for the Peribonca, I suppose? Bateche, that will be a great voyage, and we shall have plenty of the good luck."
"Yes," I answered, "it looks to me like a good trip, if we get started right. I want to talk with you about it. Can you leave your friends for a while?"
His face reddened visibly under its dark coat of tan, and he stammered as he replied:
"But certainly, m'sieu'—they are not my friends—that is to say—well, I know them a little—they can wait—I am perfectly at the service of m'sieu'."
So we walked around the corner into the open square (which, by the way, is shaped like a triangle), at one side of which there is an old-fashioned French hotel, with a double galerie across its face, and green-shuttered windows. There were tables in front of it, and at one of these I invited Pat to join me in having some coffee.
His conversation at first was decidedly vague and woolly, though polite as ever. There was a thickness about his words as if they were a little swollen, and his ideas had loose edges, and would not fit together. However, he did his best to pull himself up and make good talk. But his r's rolled like an unstrung drum, and his n's twanged like a cracked banjo. On the subject of the proper amount of provisions to take with us for our six weeks' camping trip he wandered wildly. Without doubt we must take enough—in grand quantity—one must live well—else one could not carry the load on the portages—very long portages—not good for heavy packs—we must take very little stuff—small rations, a little pork and flour—we can get plenty to eat with our guns and m'sieu's rod—a splendid country for sport—and those little fishes in tin boxes which m'sieu' loves so well—for sure we must take plenty of them!
It was impossible to get anything definite out of him in regard to the outfit of the camp, and I knew it beforehand; but I wanted to keep him talking while the coffee got in its good work, and I knew that his courtesy would not let him break away while I was asking questions. By the time I had poured him the second cup of the black brain-clearer he was distinctly more steady. His laugh was quieter and his eyes grew more thoughtful.
"And the bread," said I; "we must carry two or three loaves of good habitant bread, just for the first week out. I can't do without that. Do you suppose, by any chance, that Angelique would bake it for us? Or perhaps those lady friends of yours who have just left you—eh?"
A look of shame and protest flushed in Pat's face. He dropped his head, and lifted it again, glancing quickly at me to read a hidden meaning in the question. Then he turned away and stared across the square toward the slender spire of the little church at the other end.
"I assure you," he said slowly, "they are not of my friends, those—those—bah! what do those people know about making bread? I beg m'sieu' not to speak of those girls there in the same breath with my Angelique!"
"Good!" I answered. "Pardon me, I will not do it again. I did not understand. They are bad people, I suppose. But how are you so thick with them?"
"If they are bad," said he, shrugging his shoulders—"if they are bad! But why should I judge them? That is God's affair. There are all kinds of people in His world. I do not like it that m'sieu' has found me with that kind. But a man must make a little fun sometimes, you comprehend, and sometimes he makes himself a damn fool, do you see? I have been with those people last night and to-day—and now I have promised—I have won the money of Pierre Goujon, and he must have his revenge—and I have promised that Suzanne Gravel—well, I must keep my word of honour and go to them for to-night. M'sieu' will excuse me now?"
He rose from the table, but I sat still.
"Wait a moment," I said; "there is no hurry. Let us have another pot of coffee and some of those little cakes with melted white sugar on them, like Angelique used to make." (He started slightly at the name.) "Come, sit down again. I want you to tell me something about that pretty old church across the square. See how the moonlight sparkles on the tin spire. What is the name of it?"
"Our Lady of the Victories," he answered, seating himself unwillingly. "They say it is the most old of the churches of Quebec."
"It is a fine name," said I. "What does it mean? What victories?"
"The French over the English, I suppose, long ago. It does not interest me now. I must be on my road to the Moulin Gris."
"Will you stop on your way to say a prayer at the door of the church of Our Lady of the Victories?"
His eyes dropped and he shook his head.
"Well, then, on your way back in the morning perhaps you will stop at the church and go in to confess?"
He nodded his head and spoke heavily. "Who knows? Perhaps yes—perhaps no. There may be fighting to-night. Pierre is very mad and ugly. I am not afraid. But it is evident that m'sieu' makes the conversation to detain me. We are old friends. Why not speak frank?"
"Old friends we are, Pat, and frank it is. I do not want you to go to the Gray Mill. You have been drinking—stronger stuff than coffee. Those people will pluck you, do you up, perhaps stick a knife in you. Then what will become of Angelique and the twins? Stay here a while; I want to talk to you about the twins. How are they? You have not told me a word about them yet."
His face sombered and brightened again. He poured himself another cup of coffee and put in three spoonfuls of sugar, smiling as he stirred it.
"Ah," said he, "that is something good to speak of—those twins! It is easily seen that m'sieu' knows how to make the conversation. I could talk of those twins for a long time. They are better than ever—strong, fat, and good—and pretty, too—you may believe it! I pretend to make nothing of the boy, just to tease my wife; and she pretends to make nothing of the girl, just to tease me. But they are a pair—I tell you, a pair of marvels!"
He went on telling me about their growth, their adventures, their clever tricks, as if the subject were inexhaustible. I offered him a cigar. But no, he preferred his pipe—with a pipee of the good tobacco from the Upper Town, if I would oblige him? The smoke wreaths curled over our heads. The other tables were gradually deserted. The sleepy waiter had received payment for the coffee and cleared away the cups. The moon slipped behind the lofty cliff of the Citadel, and the little square lay in soft shadow with the church spire shining dimly above it. Pat continued the memoires intimes of Jacques and Jacqueline.
"And the cradle," I asked, "that famous cradle built for two—what has become of it? Doubtless it exists no more."
"But it is there," he cried warmly. "Angelique said it was in the way, but I persuaded her to keep it. You see, perhaps we might need it—what? Ha, ha, that would be droll. But anyway it is good for the twins to put their dolls to sleep in. It is a cradle so easy to rock. You do not need to touch it with your hand. It goes like this."
He put out his right foot with its botte sauvage, the round toe turned up, the low heel resting on the ground, and moved it slowly down and up as if it pressed an unseen rocker.
"Comme ca, m'sieu'," he said. "It demands no effort, only the tranquillity of soul. One can smoke a little, one can sing, one can dream of the days to come. That is a pleasant inn to stay at—the Sign of the Cradle. How many good hours I have passed there—the happiest of my life—I thank God for them. I can never forget them."
A crash as of sudden thunder—a ripping, rending roar of swift, unknown disaster—filled the air, and shook the quiet houses around our Lady of the Victories with nameless terror. After it, ten seconds of thrilling silence, and then the distant sound of shrieking and wailing. We sprang to our feet, trembling and horror-stricken.
"It is in the Rue Champlain," cried Pat. "Come!"
We darted across the square, turned a corner to the right, a corner to the left, and ran down the long dingy street that skirts the foot of the precipice on which the Citadel is enthroned. The ramshackle houses, grey and grimy, huddled against the cliff that frowned above them with black scorn and menace. High against the stars loomed the impregnable walls of the fortress. Low in the shadow crouched the frail habitations of the poor, the miserable tenements, the tiny shops, the dusky drinking-dens.
The narrow way was already full of distracted people—some running toward us to escape from danger—some running with us to see what had happened.
"The Gray Mill," gasped my comrade; "a hundred yards farther—come on—we must get there at all hazards! Push through!"
When we came at last to the place, there was a gap in the wall of houses that leaned against the cliff; a horrible confusion of shattered roofs and walls hurled across the street; and above it an immense scar on the face of the precipice. Ten thousand tons of rock, loosened secretly by the frost and the rain, had plunged without warning on the doomed habitations below and buried the Gray Mill in overwhelming ruin.
Pat trembled like a branch caught among the rocks in a swift current of the river. He buried his face in his hands.
"My God," he muttered, "was it as close as that? How was I spared? My God, pardon for all poor sinners!"
We worked for hours among the houses that had been more lightly struck and where there was still hope of rescuing the wounded. The Church of Our Lady of the Victories was quickly opened to receive them, and the priests ministered to the suffering and the dying as we carried them in.
As the pale dawn crept through the narrow windows, I saw Pat rise from his knees at the altar and come down the aisle to stand with me in the doorway.
"Well," said I, "it is all over, and here we are in the church this morning, after all."
"Yes," he answered; "it is the best place. It is where we all need to come. I have given my money to the priest—it was not mine—I have left it all for prayers to be said for the poor souls of those—of those—those friends of mine."
He brought out the words with brave humility, an avowal and a plea for pardon.
"We must send a telegram," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Angelique will be frightened if she hears of this. We must tranquillise her. How will this do? 'Safe and well. Coming home to-morrow to you and twins.' That makes just ten words."
"It is perfectly correct, m'sieu'." he replied gravely. "She will be glad to get that message. But—if it would not cost too much—only a few words more,—I should like to put in something to say, 'God bless you and forgive me.'"
THE KEY OF THE TOWER
THE RIPENING OF THE FRUIT
THE KING'S JEWEL
THE KEY of the TOWER
So the first knight came to the Tower. Now his name was Casse-Tout, because wherever he came there was much breaking of things that stood in his way. And when he saw that the door of the Tower was shut (for it was very early in the morning, and all the woods lay asleep in the shadow, and only the weather-cock on the uppermost gable of the roof was turning in the light wind of dawn), it seemed to him that the time favoured a bold deed and a masterful entrance.
He laid hold of the door, therefore, and shook it; but the door would not give. Then he set his shoulder to it and thrust mightily; but the door did not so much as creak. Whereupon he began to hammer against it with his gloves of steel, and shouted with a voice as if the master were suddenly come home to his house and found it barred.
When he was quite out of breath, between his shoutings he was aware of a small, merry noise as of one laughing and singing. So he listened, and this is what he heard:
"Hark to the wind in the wood without! I laugh in my bed while I hear him roar, Blustering, bellowing, shout after shout,— What do you want, O wind, at my door?"
Then he cried loudly: "No wind am I, but a mighty knight, and your door is shut. I must come in to you and that speedily!" But the singing voice answered:
"Blow your best, you can do no more; Batter away, for my door is stout; The more you threaten, I laugh the more— Hark to the wind in the wood without!"
So he hammered a while longer at the oaken panels until he was wearifully wroth, and when the sun was rising he went his way with sore hands and a sullen face.
"No doubt," said he, "there is a she-devil in the Tower. I hate those who put their trust in brute strength."
It was mid-morn when there came a second knight to the Tower, whose name was Parle-Doux. And he was very gentle-spoken, and full of favourable ways, smiling always when he talked, but his eyes were cool and ever watchful. So he made his horse prance delicately before the Tower, and looked up at the windows with a flattering face;
"Fair house," said he, "how well art thou fashioned, and with what beauty does the sunlight adorn thee! Here dwells the wonder of the world, the lady of all desires, the princess of my good fortune. Would that she might look upon me and see that the happy hour has come!"
Then there was a little sound at one of the upper windows, and the lattice clicked open. But the lady who stood there was closely covered with a jewelled veil, and nothing could be seen of her but her hand, with many rings upon it, holding a key.
"Marvel of splendour," said Parle-Doux, "moon of beauty, jewel of all ladies! I have won you to look upon me, now let fall the key."
"And then?" said the lady.
"Then, surely," said the knight, "I will open the door without delay, and spring up the stairs, winged with joy, and——"
But before he had finished speaking, with the smile on his face, the hand was drawn back, and the lattice clicked shut.
So the knight sang and talked very beautifully for about the space of three hours in front of the Tower. And when he rode away it was just as it had been before, only the afternoon shadows were falling.
A little before sunset came the third knight, and his name was Fais-Brave.
Now the cool of the day had called all the birds to their even-song, and the flowers in the garden were yielding up their sweetness to the air, and through the wood Twilight was walking with silent steps.
So the knight looked well at the Tower, and saw that all the windows were open, though the door was shut, and on the grass before it lay a jewelled veil. And after a while of looking and waiting and thinking and wondering, he got down from his horse, and took off the saddle and bridle, and let him go free to wander and browse in the wood. Then the knight sat down on a little green knoll before the Tower, and made himself comfortable, as one who had a thought of continuing in that place for a certain time.
And after the sun was set, when the longest shadows flowed into dusk, the lady came walking out of the wood toward the Tower. She was lightly singing to herself a song of dreams. Her face was uncovered, and the gold of her hair was clear as the little floating clouds high in the West, and her eyes were like stars. When the knight saw her he stood up and could say nothing. But all the more he looked at her, and wondered, and his thoughts were written in his face as if they stood in an open book.
Long time they looked at each other thus; and then the lady held out her hand with a key in it.
"What will you do with this key?" said she, "if I give it to you?"
"Is it the key of your Tower?" said he.
"Ay!" said she.
"I will give it back to you," said he, "until it pleases you to open the door."
"It is yours," said she.
THE RIPENING OF THE FRUIT
The righteousness of Puramitra was notorious, and it was evident to all that he had immense faith in his gods. He was as strict in the performance of his devotions as in the payment of his debts, nor was there any altar, whether of Brahma, or of Vishnu, or of Shiva, at which he failed to offer both prayers and gifts. He observed the rules of religion and of business with admirable regularity, and enjoyed the reputation of one whose conduct was above reproach.
But, being a self-contained man, he had not the love of the little children of the village, to whom he often gave sweetmeats and toys; and being a very prosperous man, he was not without rivals and detractors, who liked his prosperity the less the more they marvelled at it. This was displeasing to Puramitra, though he thought it beneath him to show it.
"If all were known!" said some people, wagging their heads sagely, as if they were full of secret and discreditable information.
"If we only had his luck," said others, sighing.
But when Puramitra heard of these things he said, "The fruits of earth ripen by the will of Heaven and the harvest is on the lap of the gods."
So saying, he made the sign of reverence, and went his way calmly to a certain place in his garden, where he was accustomed to practise the virtue of meditation and to review his inmost thoughts.
Now the inmost thoughts of Puramitra were in the shape of wishes and strong desires; for which reason, being a religious man, he often called them prayers. They were concerned chiefly with himself. And next to that, with two others: Indranu, his friend, and Vishnamorsu, his enemy.
But the motions of friendship are quiet and slow, and much the same from day to day; whereas the motions of hatred are quick and stirring, and changeful as the colors on a serpent. So Puramitra came to think less and less of his friend, and more and more of his enemy. Every day he returned at sundown to the retired place in the garden, where an orange-tree shaded his favourite seat with thick, glossy leaves, and surrendered himself to those meditations in which his desires were laid bare to his gods.
At first he gave a thought to Indranu, who had helped him, and served him, and always spoken well of him; and this thought he called love. Then he gave many thoughts to Vishnamorsu, who had opposed him, and thwarted him, and mocked him with bitter words and laughter; and these thoughts he called just indignation. He reflected upon the many misdeeds and offences of his enemy with a grave and serious passion. He considered curiously the various punishments which these misdemeanours must merit at the hand of Heaven, such as poverty and pain and disgrace and death, and, after that, all the thirty-nine degrees of damnation; he turned them over in his mind like a hollow ball with rings carved within it, and they played one into another smoothly and intricately, and at the centre of the rings a little black figure with the face of Vishnamorsu writhed and twisted.
While Puramitra meditated thus upon the justice of the gods and the ill-deserts of his enemy, the tree grew and flourished above him from week to month and from month to year, spreading out its arms to hide and befriend his devotions. The white flowers bloomed and faded with heavy fragrance. The pale-green fruits formed and fell from the tree before their time. But of all their many promises one persisted, clinging to the lowest bough, rounding and ripening among the dark leaves with strange flame and lustre—a fiery globe, intense and perfect as Puramitra's thought of his enemy.
"You meditate much, my son," said a Brahman who knew him well and sometimes visited his garden.
"Holy one," he answered, "I pray."
"For what?" asked the Brahman.
"That the divine will may be done in all ways and upon all things," replied Puramitra.
"Then why have you been at pains to poison your tree?" asked the Brahman.
"I did not know," said the man, "that I had done anything to the tree."
"Look," said the Brahman, and he touched the fruit with the end of his staff. A drop oozed from the saffron globe, red as blood; and where it fell the grass withered as if a flame had scorched it. Then the heart of Puramitra leaped up within him, for he knew that his inmost thoughts had passed into the course of nature and fructified upon the tree.
"Most excellent Brahman," said he, with great humility, "the fruits of earth ripen by the will of Heaven."
"For whom is this one intended?" asked the Brahman.
"Holiness," said Puramitra, "it is on the lap of, the gods."
So the Brahman pursued his way, and Puramitra his meditations.
The next day he ordered an open path made through his gardens for the pleasure and comfort of the neighbours. The glistening fruit hung above the path, ripe and ruddy.
"It is on the lap of the gods," thought Puramitra; "if the evil-doer stretches forth his hand to it, the justice of Heaven will appear." So he hid among the bushes at nightfall, and expected the event.
A man crept slowly along the path and stayed beneath the tree. His face was concealed by a cloak; but the watcher said, "I shall know him by his actions, for my enemy will not respect that which is mine." Now the man was thinking shame and scorn of the rich owner of the garden, and despising the prosperity of wiles and wickedness. So he hated and contemned the fruit, saying to himself, "God forbid that I should touch anything that belongs to the wretch Puramitra." And the path grew darker.
Soon after came another man, walking with uncovered head, but his face could not be discerned because of the shadow. And the watcher said, "Now we shall see what the gods intend." The man went freely and easily, without a care, and when he came to the fruit he put out his hand and took it, saying to himself, "The benevolent Puramitra will be glad that I should have this, for he is good to all his friends." So he ate of the fruit, and fell at the foot of the tree.
Then Puramitra came running, and lifted up the dead man, and looked upon his face. And it was the face of his friend, the well-beloved Indranu.
So Puramitra wept aloud, and tore his hair, and his heart went black within him. And Vishnamorsu, returning through the garden by another path, heard the lamentable noise, and came near, and laughed. But the Brahman, passing homeward, looked upon the three, and said, "The ways of the gods are secret; but the happiest of these is Indranu."
THE KING'S JEWEL
There was an outcry at the door of the king's great hall, and suddenly a confusion arose. The guards ran thither swiftly, and the people were crowded together, pushing and thrusting as if to withhold some intruder. Out of the tumult came a strong voice shouting, "I will come in! I must see the false king!" But other voices cried, "Not so—you are mad—you shall not come in thus!"
Then the king said, "Let him come in as he will!"
So the confusion fell apart, and the hall was very still, and a man in battered armour stumbled through the silence and stood in front of the throne. He was breathing hard, for he was weary and angry and afraid, and the sobbing of his breath shook him from head to foot. But his anger was stronger than his weariness and his fear, so he lifted his eyes hardily and looked the king in the face.
It was like the face of a mountain, very calm and very high, but not unkind. When the man saw it clearly he knew that he was looking at the true king; but his anger was not quenched, and he stood stiff, with drawn brows, until the king said, "Speak!"
For answer the man drew from his breast a golden chain, at the end of which was a jewel set with a great blue stone. He looked at it for a moment with scorn, as one who had a grievance. Then he threw it down on the steps of the throne, and turned on his heel to go.
"Stay," said the king. "Whose is this jewel?"
"I thought it to be yours," said the man.
"Where did you get it?" asked the king.
"From an old servant of yours," answered the man. "He gave it to me when I was but a lad, and told me it came from the king—it was the blue stone of the Truth, perfect and priceless. Therefore I must keep it as the apple of mine eye, and bring it back to the king perfect and unbroken."
"And you have done this?" said the king.
"Yes and no," answered the man.
"Divide your answer," said the king. "First, the yes."
The man delayed a moment before he spoke. Then his words came slow and firm as if they were measured and weighed in his mind.
"All that man could do, O king, have I done to keep this jewel of the Truth. Against open foes and secret robbers I have defended it, with faithful watching and hard fighting. Through storm and peril, through darkness and sorrow, through the temptation of pleasure and the bewilderment of riches, I have never parted from it. Gold could not buy it; passion could not force it; nor man nor woman could wile or win it away. Glad or sorry, well or wounded, at home or in exile, I have given my life to keep the jewel. This is the meaning of the yes."
"It is right," said the king. "And now the no."
The man answered quickly and with heat.
"The no also is right, O king! But not by my fault. The jewel is not untarnished, not perfect. It never was. There is a flaw in the stone. I saw it first when I entered the light of your palace-gate. Look, it is marred and imperfect, a thing of little value. It is not the crystal of Truth. I have been deceived. You have claimed my life for a fool's errand, a thing of naught; no jewel, but a bauble. Take it. It is yours."
The king looked not at the gold chain and the blue stone, but at the face of the man. He looked quietly and kindly and steadily into the eyes full of pain and wounded loyalty, until they fell before his look. Then he spoke gently.
"Will you give me my jewel?"
The man lifted his eyes in wonder.
"It is there," he cried, "at your feet!"
"I spoke not of that," said the king, "but of your life, yourself."
"My life," said the man faltering, "what is that? Is it not ended?"
"It is begun," said the king. "Your life—yourself, what of that?"
"I had not thought of that," said the man, "only of the jewel, not of myself, my life."
"Think of it now," said the king, "and think clearly. Have you not learned courage and hardiness? Have not your labours brought you strength; your perils, wisdom; your wounds, patience? Has not your task broken chains for you, and lifted you out of sloth and above fear? Do you say that the stone that has done this for you is false, a thing of naught?"
"Is this true?" said the man, trembling and sinking on his knee.
"It is true," answered the king, "as God lives, it is true. Come, stand at my right hand. My jewels that I seek are not dead, but alive. But the stone which led you here—look! has it a flaw?"
He stooped and lifted the jewel. The light of his face fell upon it. And in the blue depths of the sapphire the man saw a star.
The Music-Lover had come to his favourite seat. It was in the front row of the balcony, just where the curve reaches its outermost point, and, like a rounded headland, meets the unbroken flow of the long-rolling, invisible waves of rhythmical sound.
The value of that chosen place did not seem to be known to the world, else there would have been a higher price demanded for the privilege of occupying it. People were willing to pay far more to get into the boxes, or even to have a chair reserved on the crowded level of the parquet.
But the Music-Lover cared little for fashion, and had long ago ceased to reckon the worth of things by the prices asked for them in the market.
He knew that his coign of vantage, by some secret confluence of architectural lines, gave him the very best of the delight of hearing that the vast concert-hall contained. It was for that delight that he was thirsting, and he surrendered himself to it confidently and entirely.
He had arrived at an oasis in the day. Since morning he had been toiling through the Sahara of the city's noise: arid, senseless, inhospitable noise: roaring of wheels, clanging of bells, shrieking of whistles, clatter of machinery, squawking of horns, raucous and strident voices: confused, bewildering, exhausting noise, a desolate and unfriendly desert of heard ugliness.
Now all that waste, howling wilderness was shut out by the massive walls of the concert-hall, and he found himself in a haven of refuge.
But silence alone would not have healed and restored his spirit. It needed something more than the absence of harsh and brutal and meaningless noise to satisfy him. It needed the presence of music: tones measured, ordered, and restrained; varied and blended not by chance, but by feeling and reason; sound expressive of the secret life and the rhythmical emotion of the human heart. And this he found flowing all around him, entering deeply into him, filling all the parched and empty channels of his being, as he listened to Beethoven's great Symphony in C Minor.
There was nothing between him and the orchestra. He looked over the railing of the gallery, which shaded his eyes from the lights of the boxes below, straight across the gulf in which the mass of the audience, diminutive and indistinguishable, seemed to be submerged, to the brilliant island of the stage.
The conductor stood in the foreground. There was no touch of carefully considered eccentricity in hair or costume, no pose of self-conscious Bohemianism about him. His face, with its clear brow, firmly moulded chin, and brown moustache, was that of a man who understood himself as well as music. His figure, in its faultless evening dress, had the tranquil poise and force of one who obeys the customs of society in order to be free to give his mind to other things. With slight motions, easy and graceful as if they came without thought and required no effort, his right hand, with the little baton, gave the time and rhythm, commanding swift obedience; while his left hand lightly beckoned here and there with magical persuasion, drawing forth louder or softer notes, stirring the groups of instruments to passionate expression, or hushing them to delicate and ethereal strains.
There was no labour, no dramatic display in that leadership; nothing to distract the attention, or to break the spell of the music. All the toil of art, the consideration of effects, the sharp and vehement assertion of authority, lay behind him in the rehearsals.
Now the finished work, the noble interpretation of the composer's musical idea, flowed forth at the leader's touch, as if each motive and phrase, each period and melody, were waiting somewhere in the air to reveal itself at his slight signal. And through all the movement of the Allegro con brio, with its momentous struggle between Fate and the Human Soul, the orchestra answered to the leader's will as if it were a single instrument upon which he played.
And so, for a time, it seemed to the Music-Lover as he looked down upon it from his lofty place. With what precision the bows of the violins moved up and down together; how accurately the wood-winds came in with their gentler notes; how regularly the brazen keys of the trumpets rose and fell, and the long, shining tubes of the trombone slid out and in. Such varied motions, yet all so limited, so orderly, so certain and obedient, looked like the sure interplay of the parts of a wonderful machine.
He watched them as if in a dream, fascinated by their regularity, their simplicity in detail, their complexity in the mass—watched them with his eyes, while his heart was carried along with the flood of music. More and more the impression of a marvellous unity, a mechanical certainty of action, grew upon that half of his mind which was occupied with sight, and gave him a singular satisfaction and comfort.
It was good to be free, for a little while at least, from the everlasting personal equation, the perplexing interest in human individuals, the mysterious and disturbing sympathies awakened by contact with other lives, and to give one's self to the pure enjoyment of an impersonal work of art, rendered by the greatest of all instruments—a full orchestra under control of a master.
But presently the Allegro came to an end, and with the pause there came that brief stir in the orchestra, that momentary relaxation of nerves and muscles, that moving and turning of many heads in different directions, that swift interchange of looks and smiles and whispered words between the players, which seemed like the temporary dissolving of the spell that made them one. And with this general but separated and uncertain movement a vague thought, an unformulated question, passed into the mind of the Music-Lover.
How would the leader reassemble the parts of his instrument in a few seconds, and make them one again, and resume his control over it? How would he make the pipes and strings and tubes and drums answer to his touch, though he laid no hand upon them? There must be some strange, invisible key-board, some secret system of communication between him and those various contrivances of wood and wire and sheep-skin and horse-hair and metal (so curiously and grotesquely fashioned, when one came to consider them) out of which he was to bring melody and harmony. How should one conceive of this mysterious key-board and its hidden connections?
How should one comprehend and imagine it? Was it not, after all, the most wonderful thing about the great instrument on which the symphony was played?
While the Music-Lover, leaning back in his seat, was idly turning over this thought, the Andante began, and all definite questioning and reasoning were absorbed in the calm, satisfying melody which flowed from the violas and 'cellos.
But now a singular change came over the half-conscious impression which his eyes received as they rested on the orchestra. It was no longer a huge and strangely fashioned instrument, intricate in construction, perfect in adjustment, that he was watching.
It was a company of human beings, trained and disciplined to common action, understanding one another through the sharing of a certain technical knowledge, and bound together by a unity of will which was expressed in their central obedience to the leader. The arms, the hands, the lips of these hundred persons were weaving together the many-coloured garment of music, because their minds knew the pattern, and their wills worked together in the design.
Here was the wonderful hidden system of communication, more magical than any mechanism, just because it was less perfect, just because it left room, along each separate channel, for the coming in of those slight, incalculable elements of personal emotion which lend the touch of life to rhythm and tone.
The instruments were but the tools. The composer was the master-designer. The leader and his orchestra were the weavers of the rich robe of sound, in which alone the hidden spirit of Music, daughter of Psyche and Amor, becomes perceptible to mortal sense.
The smooth and harmonious action of the players seemed to lend a new charm, delicate and indefinable, to the development of the clear and heart-strengthening theme with its subtle variations and its powerful, emphatic close, like the fullness of meaning in the last line of a noble sonnet.
In the pause that followed, the Music-Lover let himself drift quietly with the thoughts of peace and concord awakened by this loveliest of andantes.
The beginning of the Scherzo found him, somehow or other, in a new relation to the visible image of the orchestra. The weird, almost supernatural music, murmured at first by the 'cellos and double-basses, then proclaimed by the horns as if by the trumpet of Fate itself; the repetition of the same struggle of emotions which had marked the first movement, but now more tense, more passionate, more human, the strange, fantastic mingling of comedy and tragedy in the Trio and the Fugue with its abrupt questions and answers; all this seemed to him like a moving picture of the inner life of man.
And while he followed it, the other half of his mind was watching the players, no longer as a group, a unit of disciplined action, but as individuals, persons for each of whom life had a distinct colour, and tone, and meaning.
His eyes rested unconsciously on the pale, dreamy face of the second violinist; the black, rugged brows of the trumpeter; the long, gentle countenance of the flute-player with its flexible lips and blond beard.
The grizzled head of the 'cellist bent over his instrument with an air of quiet devotion. The burly form of the player of the double-bassoon, behind his rare and awkward instrument, waiting for his time to come in, had the look of a man who could not be surprised or troubled by anything. One of the bass-violinists had the rough-hewn figure and the divinely chiseled, sorrow-lighted face of Lincoln, the others were children of the everyday. The clarionettist, with his dark beard and high temples, might have sat for Rembrandt's picture of "The Philosopher." The rotund kettle-drummer, with his smooth head and sparkling eyes, restlessly turning his little keys and bending down to listen to the tuning of his grotesque music-pots, seemed impatient for the part in the score when he was to build the magical bridge, on which the symphony passes, without a break, from the third to the last movement.
"All these persons," said the inner voice of the Music-Lover (he listening all the while to the entangling and unfolding, dismissing and recalling of the various motives)—"all these persons have their own lives and characters. They have known joys and sorrows, failures and successes. They have hoped and feared. All that Beethoven poured into this music from his experience of poverty, of conflict with physical weakness and the cruel limitations of Fate, of baffled desire, of loneliness, of strong resolution, of immortal courage and faith, these players in their measure and degree have known.
"Even now they may be in love, in hatred, in friendship, in jealousy, in gloom, in resignation, in courage, or in happiness. What strange paths lie behind them; what laughter and what tears have they shared; what secret ties unite them, one with another, and what hidden barriers rise between those who do not understand and those who do not care! There are many stories running along underneath this music, some of them just begun, some long since ended, some never to find a true completion: little stories of many lands, humourous and pathetic, droll and capricious legends, merry jests, vivid romances, serious tales of patience and devotion.