HotFreeBooks.com
Those Who Smiled - And Eleven Other Stories
by Perceval Gibbon
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

E-text prepared by Charles Klingman



THOSE WHO SMILED

PERCEVAL GIBBON

* * * * *

By the Same Author

VERSE: African Items

SHORT STORIES:

Vrouw Grobelaar's Leading Cases, The Adventures of Miss Gregory, The Second-class Passenger

NOVELS: Souls in Bondage, Salvator, Margaret Harding

* * * * *

THOSE WHO SMILED

And Eleven Other Stories

by

PERCEVAL GIBBON



Gassell and Company, LTD London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne

First Published 1920



To

MY SISTER, MURIEL GIBBON



CONTENTS

1. THOSE WHO SMILED

2. THE DAGO

3. WOOD-LADIES

4. A MAN BEFORE THE MAST

5. THE GIRL

6. THE BREADWINNER

7. "PLAIN GERMAN"

8. ALMS AND THE MAN

9. THE DARKENED PATH

10. MISS PILGRIM'S PROGRESS

11. THE CONNOISSEUR

12. THE DAY OF OMENS



I

THOSE WHO SMILED

From the great villa, marble-white amid its yews and cedars, in which the invaders had set up their headquarters, the two officers the stout, formidable German captain and the young Austrian lieutenant went together through the mulberry orchards, where the parched grass underfoot was tiger-striped with alternate sun and shadow. The hush of the afternoon and the benign tyranny of the North Italian sun subdued them; they scarcely spoke as they came through the ranks of fruit-laden trees to the low embankment where the last houses of the village tailed out beside the road.

"So ist's gut!" said Captain Hahn then. "We are on time nicely on time!" He climbed the grassy bank to the road and paused, his tall young companion beside him. "Halt here," he directed; "we shall see everything from here."

He suspired exhaustively in the still, strong heat, and took possession of the scene with commanding, intolerant eyes. He was a man in the earliest years of middle life, short, naturally full-bodied, and already plethoric with undisciplined passions and appetites. His large sanguine face had anger and impatience for an habitual expression; he carried a thick bamboo cane, with which he lashed the air about him in vehement gesticulation as he spoke; all his appearance and manner were an incarnate ejaculation. Beside him, and by contrast with the violence of his effect, his companion was eclipsed and insignificant, no more than a shape of a silent young man, slender in his close-fitting grey uniform, with a swart, immobile face intent upon what passed.

It was the hour that should crown recent police activities of Captain Hahn with the arrest of an absconding forced-laborer, who, having escaped from his slave-gang behind the firing-line on the Piave, had been traced to his father's house in the village. An Italian renegade, a discovery of Captain Hahn's, had served in the affair; a whole machinery of espionage and secret treachery had been put in motion; and now Lieutenant Jovannic, of the Austrian Army, was to be shown how the German method ensured the German success. Even as they arrived upon the road they saw the carefully careless group of lounging soldiers, like characters on a stage "discovered" at the rise of the curtain, break into movement and slouch with elaborate purposelessness to surround the cottage. Their corporal remained where he was, leaning against a wall in the shade, eating an onion and ready to give the signal with his whistle; he did not glance towards the two watching officers. To Lieutenant Jovannic, the falsity and unreality of it all were as strident as a brass band; yet in the long vista of the village street, brimful of sun and silence, the few people who moved upon their business went indifferently as shadows upon a wall. An old man trudged in the wake of a laden donkey; a girl bore water-buckets slung from a yoke; a child was sweeping up dung. None turned a head.

"Sieh' 'mal!" chuckled Captain Harm joyously. "Here comes my Judas!"

From the door of the cottage opposite them, whose opening showed dead black against the golden glare without, came the renegade, pausing upon the threshold to speak a last cheery word to those within. Poor Jovannic, it was at this moment that, to the fantastic and absurd character of the whole event, as arranged by Captain Hahn, there was now added a quality of sheer horror. The man upon the threshold was not like a man; vastly pot-bellied, so that the dingy white of his shirt was only narrowly framed by the black of his jacket, swollen in body to the comic point, collarless, with a staircase of unshaven chins crushed under his great, jovial, black-mustached face, the creature yet moved on little feet like a spinning-top on its point, buoyantly, with the gait of a tethered balloon. He had the gestures, the attitude upon the threshold, of a jolly companion; when he turned, his huge, fatuous face was amiable, and creased yet with the dregs of smiles. From the breast of his jacket he exhumed a white handkerchief. "Arrivederci!" he called for the last time to the interior of the house; someone within answered pleasantly; then deliberately, with a suggestion of ceremonial and significance in the gesture, he buried the obscenity of his countenance in the handkerchief and blew his nose as one blows upon a trumpet.

"Tadellos!" applauded Captain Hahn enthusiastically. "He invented that signal himself; he's the only man in the village who carries a handkerchief. Und jetzt geht's los!"

And forthwith it went 'los'; the farce quickened to drama. A couple of idle soldiers, rifle-less and armed only with the bayonets at their belts, had edged near the door; others had disappeared behind the house; Judas, mincing on his feet like a soubrette, moved briskly away; and the corporal, tossing the wreck of his onion from him, blew a single note on his whistle. The thin squeal of it was barely audible thirty yards away, yet it seemed to Jovannic as though the brief jet of sound had screamed the afternoon stillness to rags. The two slack-bodied soldiers were suddenly swift and violent; drawn bayonet in hand, they plunged together into the black of the door and vanished within. Down the long street the old man let the donkey wander on and turned, bludgeon in hand, to stare; the child and girl with the buckets were running, and every door and window showed startled heads. From within the cottage came uproar screams, stamping, and the crash of furniture overset.

"You see?" There was for an instant a school-masterly touch in Captain Hahn. "You see? They've got him; not a hitch anywhere. Organization, method, foresight; I tell you."

From the dark door there spouted forth a tangle of folk to the hot dust of the road that rose like smoke under their shifting feet. The soldiers had the fighting, plunging prisoner; between their bodies, and past those of the men and women who had run out with them, his young, black-avised face surged and raged in an agony of resistance, lifting itself in a maniac effort to be free, then dragged and beaten down. An old woman tottered on the fringes of the struggle, crying feebly; others, young and old, wept or screamed; a soldier, bitten in the hand, cried an oath and gave way. The prisoner tore himself all but loose.

"Verfluchter Schweinhund!" roared Captain Halm suddenly. He had stood till then intent, steeped in the interest of the thing, but aloof as an engineer might watch the action of his machine till the moment at which it fails. Suddenly, a dangerous compact figure of energy, he dashed across the road, shouting. "You'd resist arrest, would you?" he was vociferating. His bamboo cane, thick as a stout thumb, rose and fell twice smashingly; Jovannic saw the second blow go home upon the hair above the prisoner's forehead. The man was down in an instant, and the soldiers were over him and upon him. Captain Hahn, cane in hand, stood like a victorious duelist.

The old woman the prisoner's mother, possibly, had staggered back at the thrash of the stick, and now, one hand against the wall of the house and one to her bosom, she uttered a thin, moaning wail. At that voice of pain Jovannic started; it was then that he realized that the other voices, those that had screamed and those that had cursed, had ceased; even the prisoner, dragged to his feet and held, made no sound. For an instant the disorder of his mind made it appear that the sun-drowned silence had never really been broken, that all that had happened had been no more than a flash of nightmare. Then he perceived.

Captain Hahn, legs astraddle, a-bulge with the sense of achievement, was giving orders.

"Tie the dog's hands," he commanded. "Tie them behind his back! Cord? Get a cord somewhere, you fool! Teach the hound to resist, I will! Hurry now!"

The prisoner's face was clear to see, no longer writhen and crazy. For all the great bruise that darkened his brow, it was composed to a calm as strange as the calm of death. He looked directly at Captain Hahn, seeming to listen and understand; and when that man of wrath ceased to speak, his rather sullen young face, heavy-browed, thick-mouthed, relaxed from its quiet. He smiled!

Beyond him, against the yellow front of the cottage, an old man, bareheaded, with a fleshless skull's face, had passed his arm under that of the old woman and was supporting her. The lieutenant saw that bony mask, too, break into a smile. He looked at the others, the barefoot girls and the women; whatever the understanding was, they shared it; each oval, sun-tinged face, under its crown of jet hair, had the same faint light of laughter of tragic, inscrutable mirth, at once contemptuous and pitiful. Along the street, folk had come forth from their doors and stood watching in silence.

"That's right, Corporal; tie him up," came Captain Harm's thickish voice, rich and fruity with the assurance of power. "He won't desert again when I've done with him and he won't resist either."

It was not for him to see, in those smiles, that the helpless man, bound for the flogging-posts of the "Dolina of Weeping," where so many martyrs to that goddess which is Italy had expiated in torment their crimes of loyalty and courage, had already found a refuge beyond the reach of his spies and torturers that he opposed even now to bonds and blows a resistance that no armed force could overcome. If he saw the smiles at all, he took them for a tribute to his brisk, decisive action with the cane.

"And now, take him along," he commanded, when the prisoner's wrists were tied behind him to his satisfaction. "And stand no nonsense! If he won't walk make him!"

The corporal saluted. "Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptmann," he deferred, and the prisoner was thrust down the bank. The old mother, her head averted, moaned softly. The old man, upholding her, smiled yet his death's-head smile.

The tiger-yellow of the grass between the trees was paler, the black was blacker, as the two officers returned across the fields; to the hush of afternoon had succeeded the briskness of evening. Birds were awake and a breeze rustled in the branches; and Captain Hahn was strongly moved to speech.

"System," he said explosively. "All war all life comes down to system. You get your civil labor by system; you keep it by system. Now, that little arrest."

It was as maddening as the noise of a mouse in a wainscot. Jovannic wanted not so much to think as to dwell in the presence of his impressions. Those strange, quiet smiles!

"Did you see them laughing?" he interrupted. "Smiling, I should say. After you had cut the fellow down they stopped crying out and they smiled."

"Ha! Enough to make 'em," said Captain Hahn. "I laughed myself. All that play-acting before his people, and then, with two smacks kaput! Fellow looked like a fool! It's part of the system, you see."

"That was it, you think?" The explanation explained nothing to Jovannic, least of all his own sensations when the sudden surrender and the sad, pitying mirth had succeeded to the struggle and the violence. He let Captain Hahn preach his German gospel of system on earth and organization to man, and walked beside him in silence, with pensive eyes fixed ahead, where the prisoner and his escort moved in a plodding black group.

He had not that gift of seeing life and its agents in the barren white light of his own purposes which so simplified things for Captain Hahn. He was a son of that mesalliance of nations which was Austria-Hungary Slavs, their slipping grasp clutching at eternity, Transylvanians, with pervert Latin ardors troubling their blood, had blended themselves in him; and he was young. Life for him was a depth not a surface, as for Captain Hahn; facts were but the skeleton of truth; glamour clad them and made them vital. He had been transferred to the Italian front from Russia, where his unripe battalion had lain in reserve throughout his service; his experiences of the rush over the Isonzo, of the Italian debacle and the occupation of the province of Friuli, lay undigested on his mental stomach. It was as though by a single violent gesture he had translated himself from the quiet life in his regiment, which had become normal and familiar, to the hush and mystery of the vast Italian plain, where the crops grew lavishly as weeds and the trees shut out the distances.

The great villa, whither they were bound, had a juncture of antique wall, pierced with grilles of beaten iron; its gate, a delicacy of filigree, let them through to the ordered beauty of the lawns, over which the mansion presided, a pale, fine presence of a house. Hedges of yew, like walls of ebony, bounded the principal walks. The prisoner and the retinue of soldiers that dignified him went ahead; the two officers, acknowledging the crash of arms of the sentry's salute at the gate, followed. The improvised prison was in the long wing of the building that housed the stables. They took the crackling pebble path that led to it.

"Nu!" Captain Hahn slacked his military gait at one of the formal openings in the wall of yews that shut them from the lawns before the great housed serene white front. "The women see?"

But Jovannic had already seen the pair, arms joined, who paced upon the side-lawn near at hand and had now stopped to look towards them. It was the old Contessa, who owned the house and still occupied a part of it, and the Contessina, her daughter. He knew the former as a disconcerting and never disconcerted specter of an aged lady, with lips that trembled and eyes that never faltered, and the latter as a serious, silent, tall girl with the black hair and oval Madonna face of her country and he knew her, too, as a vague and aching disturbance in his mind, a presence that troubled his leisure.

"You make your war here as sadly as a funeral," said Captain Hahn. "A fresh and joyous war—that's what it ought to be! Now, in Flanders, we'd have had that girl in with us at the mess." He laughed his rich, throaty laugh that seemed to lay a smear of himself over the subject of his mirth. "That at the very least!" he added.

Jovannic could only babble protestingly. "She she" he began in a flustered indignation. Captain Hahn laughed again. He had the advantage of the single mind over the mind divided against itself.

At the stables the sergeant of the guard received the prisoner. The redness of the sunset that dyed the world was over and about the scene. The sergeant, turning out upon the summons of the sentry, showed himself as an old Hungarian of the regular army, hairy as a Skye terrier, with the jovial blackguard air of his kind. He turned slow, estimating eyes on the bound prisoner.

"What is it?" he inquired.

"Deserter that's what it is," replied Captain Hahn sharply; he found the Austrian soldiers insufficiently respectful. "Lock him up safely, you understand. He'll go before the military tribunal to-morrow. Jovannic, just see to signing the papers and all that, will you?"

"At your orders, Herr Hauptmann," deferred Jovannic formally.

"Right," said Captain Hahn. "See you later, then." He swung off towards the front of the great mansion. Jovannic turned to his business of consigning the prisoner to safe keeping.

"You can untie his hands now," he said to the men of the escort as the sergeant moved away to fetch the committal book. The sergeant turned at his words.

"Plenty of time for that," he said in his hoarse and too familiar tones. "It's me that's responsible for him, isn't it? Well, then, let them stay tied up till I've had a look at him. I know these fellows I do."

"He can't get away from here," began Jovannic impatiently; but the old sergeant lifted a vast gnarled hand and wagged it at him with a kind of elderly rebuke.

"They're getting away in dozens every day," he rumbled. He put his hands on the silent man and turned him where he stood to face the light. "Yes," he said; "you've been knocking him about, too!"

The man had spoken no word; he showed now to the flush of the evening a face young and strongly molded, from which all passion, all force, seemed to have been drawn in and absorbed. It was calm as the face of a sleeper is calm; only the mark of Captain Hahn's blow, the great swollen bruise on the brow, touched it with a memory of violence. His eyes traveled beyond Jovannic and paused, looking. Upon the pebble path beside the screen of yews a foot sounded; Jovannic turned.

It was the Contessina; she came hurrying towards them. Jovannic saluted. Only two or three times had he stood as close to her as then; and never before had he seen her swift in movement, or anything but grave and measured in gait, gesture and speech. He stared in surprise at her tall slenderness as it stood in relief against the rose and bronze of the west.

"It is" she was a little breathless. "It is yes! young Luigi!" The prisoner, silent till then, stirred and made some little noise of acquiescence. Behind him, still holding to the cord that bound his wrists, his two stolid guards stared uncomprehendingly; the old sergeant, his face one wrinkled mass of bland knowingness, stood with his thumbs in his belt and his short, fat legs astraddle. She leaned forward she seemed to sway like a wind-blown stalk and stared at the prisoner's quiet face. Jovannic saw her lips part in a movement of pain. Then her face came round to him.

"You, oh!" she gasped at him. "You haven't, you didn't strike him?"

Jovannic stared at her. He understood nothing. Granted that she knew the man, as no doubt she knew every peasant of the village, he still didn't understand the touch of agony in her manner and her voice.

"No, signorina," he answered stiffly. "I have not touched him. In fact, I was ordering him to be unbound."

But Her eyes traveled again to the prisoner's bruised and defaced brow; she was breathing quickly, like a runner. "Who, then? Who has?"

The old sergeant wagged his disreputable head. "German handwriting, that is, my young lady," he croaked. "That's how our German lords and masters curse them! write their Gott mit uns! The noble Captain Hahn I knew as soon as I saw it!"

"Shut up, you!" ordered Jovannic, with the parade-snarl in his voice. "And now, untie that man!"

He flung out a peremptory hand; in the girl's presence he meant to have an end of the sergeant's easy manners. But now it was she who astonished him by intervening.

"No!" she cried. "No!"

She moved a swift step nearer to the bound man, her arms half outspread as though she would guard him from them; her face, with its luminous, soft pallor, was suddenly desperate and strange.

"No!" she cried again. "You mustn't, you mustn't untie him now! You, you don't know. Oh, wait while I speak to him! Luigi!" She turned to the prisoner and began to speak with a quick, low urgency; her face, importunate and fearful, was close to the still mask of his. "Luigi, promise me! If I let them, if they untie your hands, will you promise not to, not to do it? Luigi will you?"

Jovannic could only stare at them, bewildered. He heard her pleading "Will you? Will you promise me, Luigi?" passionately, as though she would woo him to compliance. The peasant answered nothing; his slow eyes rested with a sort of heavy meditation on the eagerness of her face. They seemed to be alone in the midst of the soldiers, like men among statues. Then, beyond them, he caught sight of the old sergeant, watching with a kind of critical sympathy; he, at any rate, understood it all.

But Jovannic began in uncertain protest. None heeded him. The prisoner sighed and moved a shoulder in a half-shrug as of deprecation. "No, signorina," he said at last.

"Oh!" The sound was like a wail. The girl swayed back from him.

The sergeant clapped the man on the shoulder. "Be a good lad now!" he said. "Promise the young lady you'll behave and we'll have the cords off as quick as we can cut them. Promise her, such a nice young lady and all!"

The prisoner shook his head wearily. The girl, watching him, shivered.

"All this" Jovannic roused himself. "I don't understand. What's going on here? Sergeant, what's it all about?"

The old man made a grimace. "She knows," he said, with a nod towards the girl. "That proves it's spreading. It's got so now that if you only clout one of 'em on the side of the head he'll go out and kill himself. Won't let you so much as touch 'em!"

"What!" Jovannic gaped at him. "Kill themselves? You mean if his hands are untied, that man will?"

"Him?" The sergeant snorted. "Tonight if he can; tomorrow if he can't. He's dead, he is. I know 'em, Herr Leutnant. Dozens of 'em already, for a flogging or even for a kick; they call it 'escaping by the back door.' And now she knows. It's spreading, I tell you."

"Good Lord!" said Jovannic slowly. But suddenly, in a blaze of revelation, he understood what had lurked in his mind since the scene in the village; the smiles that mirth of men who triumph by a stratagem, who see their adversary vainglorious, strong and doomed. He remembered Captain Hahn's choleric pomp, his own dignity and aloofness; and it was with a heat of embarrassment that he now perceived how he must appear to the prisoner.

It did not occur to him to doubt the sergeant; for the truth sprang at him.

"You, you knew this, signorina?"

The girl had moved half a dozen paces to where the shadow of the great yews was deepening on the path. There she lingered, a slender presence, the oval of her face shining pale in the shade.

He heard her sigh. "Yes," she answered; "I knew."

Jovannic hesitated; then, gathering himself, he turned to the sergeant. "Now, I'm going to have that man's hands untied," he said. The brisk speech relieved him like an oath in anger. "No!" as the sergeant began to rumble "If you answer me when I give you an order I'll put you in irons. He's to be untied and fed; and if anything happens to him, if you don't deliver him alive in the morning, I'll send you before the tribunal and I'll ask to have you shot. You understand that?"

The old sergeant dropped his hands; he saw that he had to deal with an officer who, for the moment, meant what he said, and he was old in wisdom. He dragged himself to a parody of "attention."

"I understand, Herr Leutnant," he growled. But the habit of years was too strong for him, and he slacked his posture. "It means watching him all night; the men'll get no sleep."

"You can watch yourself, for all I care," snapped Jovannic. "Now bring me the book."

The signing and so forth were completed; the prisoner, unbound, stood between two watchful guards, who attitudinised as though ready to pounce and grapple him upon the least movement. "Now," commanded Jovannic, "take him in and feed him. And for the rest you have your orders."

"March him in," directed the sergeant to the men. The prisoner turned obediently between them and passed towards the open door of the guardhouse. He did not look round, and his passivity, his quiescence, suggested to Jovannic, in a thrill of strange vision, that the world, action, life had ceased for him at the moment when Captain Harm's blow fell on his brow.

He was passing in at the door, a guard at either elbow, when the girl spoke in the shadow.

"Arrivederci, Luigi," she called. "Till we meet again, Luigi."

From the doorway came the prisoner's reply: "Addio, adieu, signorina!" Then the guardhouse received him.

Jovannic turned. The girl was walking away already, going slowly in the direction of the wing of the great house that was left to her and her mother. He joined her, and they came together from the night of the yew-walk to where, upon the open lawn, the air was still aflood with the last light of the dying sun.

For a while he did not speak; her mood of tragedy enveloped them both and hushed him. But never before had he had her thus alone; even to share her silence was a sort of intimacy, and he groped for more.

"It it is really true, signorina what the sergeant said?" he asked at length.

She raised her face but did not look towards him. Her profile was a cameo upon the dusk. "It is true," she answered in a low voice.

"I don't know what to do," said Jovannic. "But you know, signorina, it was not I that struck him. I had nothing to do with it. I, I hope you believe that."

Still she gazed straight ahead of her. "I know who struck him," she said in the same low, level voice.

"Well, then isn't there anything one could do?" pressed Jovannic. "To stop him from killing himself, I mean. You see, he can't be tied or watched continually. You know these people. If you could suggest something, signorina, I'd do what I could."

She seemed to consider. Then "No," she answered; "nothing can be done." She paused, and he was about to speak when she added: "I was wrong to try to persuade him."

"Wrong!" exclaimed Jovannic. "Why?"

"It is your punishment," she said. "They have doomed you. You made them slaves but they make you murderers!" She turned to him at last, with dark eyes wide and a light as of exaltation in her face. Her voice, the strong, restrained contralto of the south, broke once as she went on, but steadied again. "You must not strike an Italian; it is dangerous. It is more than death, it is damnation! A blow and they will strike back at your soul and your salvation, and you cannot escape! Oh, this people and I would have persuaded him to live!"

She shrugged and turned to go on. They had reached the end of the wing in which she lived. The path went round it, and beyond was the little irrigation canal one of those small artificial water courses, deep and full-volumed, which carry the snow water of the Cadore to the farms of the plain. The dregs of the sunset yet faintly stained its surface like the lees of wine in water.

"Signorina," began Jovannic. He was not sure f what he wished to say to her. She paused in her slow walk to hear him. "Signorina," he began again, "after all, in war, a blow, you know, and I have never struck one of them never! I don't want you to think of me as, as just a brute."

"No," she said. "And it is because you ordered Luigi to be untied that I have warned you of your danger."

"Oh!" Jovannic sighed. "I don't think I really understand yet; but you have managed to make it all." He made a vague gesture towards the village and the tree-thronged land. "Well, gruesome! Every man in the place, apparently."

"And every woman," she put in quickly. "Never forget, Signor Tenente, it was the women who began it."

"The women began it?"

"Yes," she answered. "The women! You hadn't heard no, it was before you came of the girl here, in this house of my mother's, who was among the first? No? Listen, Signor Tenente."

"Yes," he said. It was in his mind that he was about to hear the stalest story of all, but it was strange that he should hear it from her.

"I am proud to tell it," she said, as though she answered his thought. "Proud! A little Friulana of these parts, a housemaid, we had masses for her till you took our priest away. One of your officers used to, to persecute her. Oh!" she cried, "why am I afraid even to name what she had to endure? He was always trying to get into her bedroom; you understand? And one day he caught hold of her so that she had to tear herself loose from him. She got free and stood there and smiled at him. She knew what she had to do then."

"I know, I know," half whispered Jovannic. "In the village today I saw them smile."

"He did not catch hold of her again; he misread that smile, and said that he would come that night. 'What hour?' she asked, and he answered that he would come at midnight. She put her hand to her bosom and drew out the little crucifix they wear on a string. 'Swear on this that you will come to me at midnight,' she said, and he took it in his hand and swore. Then it was evening she came out here, to where the canal runs under the road. And there she drowned herself."

She paused. "Duilia, her name was," she added quietly.

"Eh?" said Jovannic.

"Duilia, the same as mine."

"But—the officer?" asked Jovannic. "Was he—did he?"

"No," she said. "He did not keep the oath which he swore upon the crucifix."

From the terrace before the house came the blare of the bugle sounding the officers' mess call. She turned to go to her door.

"But, signorina!" Jovannic moved towards her. The sense of her, of the promise and power of her beauty and womanhood, burned in him. And to the allurement of her youth and her slender grace were added a glamour of strangeness and the quality of the moment. She paused and faced him once more.

"It is good night, Signor Tenente," she said.

He watched her pass round the end of the building, unhurried, sad and unafraid. He stood for some seconds yet after she had disappeared; then, drawing a deep breath, like one relaxing from a strain, he turned and walked back to the front of the house.

The burden of the evening lay upon him through the night at mess, where the grey-clad German and Austrian officers ate and drank below the mild faces of Pordenone's frescoed saints, and afterwards in his room, where he dozed and woke and dozed again through the hot, airless hours. The memory of the girl, the impression of her attitude, of her pale, unsmiling face, of her low, strong voice, tormented him; he felt himself alone with her in a hag-ridden land where all men were murderers or murdered; and she would have none of him. He arose sour and unrefreshed.

In the great dining-room the splendor of the morning was tainted with the staleness of last night's cigars, and, for a further flavor, sitting alone at the table, with his cap on his head and his cane on the tablecloth beside him, was Captain Hahn. The mess waiter, lurking near the door, looked scared and worried. He had slept but little.

"Good morning, Herr Hauptmann," said Jovannic, clicking his heels.

Captain Hahn gave him a furious glance and grunted inarticulately. He made the effect as he sat of emitting fumes, vapors of an overcharged personality; his naturally violent face was clenched like a fist.

"Here, you dog!" he exploded. The mess waiter all but leaped into the air. "Get me another glass of brandy." The man dived through the door. "And now you, Jovannic!"

"At your orders, Herr Hauptmann?" Jovannic looked up in astonishment. The other's face was blazing at him across the table.

"Who," Captain Hahn seemed to have a difficulty in compressing his feelings into words, "who ordered you to untie that prisoner?"

"No one," replied Jovannic. His gaze at the convulsed face opposite him narrowed. He put a hand on the table as though to spring up from his seat. "Is he dead, then?" he demanded.

"Damn it; so you knew he'd do it!" roared the captain. "Don't deny it; you've admitted it. You knew he'd hang himself, and yet."

"But he couldn't," cried Jovannic, as Captain Hahn choked and sputtered. "I ordered him to be watched. I told the sergeant"—Captain Hahn broke in with something like a howl. "I wasn't going to have soldiers kept out of their beds for stuff like that rotten, sentimental Austrian nonsense! I sent 'em off to get their sleep; but you, you knew, you."

"Ah!" said Jovannic. "Then the Herr Hauptmann cancelled my arrangements for the prisoner's safety and substituted his own! I am glad I am not responsible. So he hanged himself?"

Captain Hahn opened his mouth and bit at the air. His hand was on his heavy cane. The creeping mess waiter, tray in hand, came quivering to his elbow; never in his service time or his life was he more welcome to a German officer. The captain grabbed the glass and drank. Then with a sweep of his right arm he slashed the man with his cane.

"You slow-footed hound!" he bellowed.

Jovannic looked at him curiously. He had not doubted that what the girl had told him was true; but many things can be true in the stillness and tangled shadows of the evening that are false in the light of the morning. This, then, was a murderer, whom a whole population, a whole country, believed no, knew to be damned to all eternity this incontinent, stagnant-souled, kept creature of the army! Not even eternal damnation could dignify him or make him seem aught but the absurd and noxious thing that he was; a soul like his would make itself at home in hell like the old sergeant in the conquered province.

Later in the forenoon he saw the body; and that, too, he felt, failed to rise to the quality of its fate. Beyond the orchard of old derelict fruit trees behind the stable two men dug a grave in the sun, while from the shade the old sergeant smoked and watched them; and a little apart lay a stretcher, a tattered and stained blanket outlining the shape upon it. Jovannic was aware of the old man's shrewd eye measuring him and his temper as he stopped by the stretcher.

China-bowled pipe in hand, the sergeant lumbered towards him. "You see, he did it," he said. "Did it at once and got it over. Just hitched his belt to the window-bars and swung himself off. You can't stop 'em nowadays."

"Take the blanket off," ordered Jovannic.

The manner of the man's death had distorted the face that lay in the trough of the stretcher, but it was pitiful and ugly rather than terrible or horrifying. The body, its inertness, the still sprawl of the limbs, were puppet-like, with none of death's pomp and menace. Jovannic stood gazing; the sergeant, with the blanket over his arm, stood by smoking.

"Hey!" cried the sergeant suddenly, and flapped loose the blanket, letting it fall to cover the body again. "See, Herr Leutnant the young lady!"

"Eh?" Jovannic started and turned to look. She was yet a hundred yards off, coming through the wind-wrenched old trees of the orchard towards them. In her hand and lying along the curve of her arm she bore what seemed to be the green bough of a tree. The grass was to her knees, so that she appeared to float towards them rather than to walk, and, for the lieutenant, her approach seemed suddenly to lift all that in the affair was mean or little to the very altitude of tragedy.

He stood away from the body and raised his hand to his cap peak in silence. Very slowly she lowered her head in acknowledgment. At the foot of the stretcher she paused, with bowed head, and stood awhile so; if she prayed, it was with lips that did not move. In the grave the diggers ceased to work, and stood, sunk to their waists, to watch. The great open space was of a sudden reverend and solemn. Then she knelt, and, taking in both hands the bough of laurel which she carried, she bent above the covered shape and laid it upon the blanket.

She rose. It seemed to Jovannic that for an instant she looked him in the face with eyes that questioned; but she did not speak. Turning, she went from them by the way she had come, receding through the fantastic trees between whose leaves the sunlight fell on her in drops like rain.

There was much for Jovannic to do in the days that followed, for Captain Harm's dragnet was out over the villages and every day had its tale of arrests. Jovannic, as one of his assistants, was out early and late, on horseback or motoring, till the daily scenes of violence and pain palled on him like a routine. Once, in the village near headquarters, he saw the Contessina; she was entering the house whence the prisoner had been dragged forth, but though he loitered in the neighborhood for an hour she did not come forth. And twice he saw her walking by the canal with the old Contessa; always he marked in her that same supple poise of body, that steady, level carriage of the head. But it was not for a couple of weeks that chance served to give him any speech with her.

And then, as before, it was evening. He had been out on the affairs of Captain Hahn, and was returning on foot along a path through the maize fields. The ripe crops made a wall to either hand, bronze red and man-high, gleaming like burnished metal in the shine of the sunset; and here, at a turning in the way, he met her face to face.

"Good evening, signorina," he said, stopping.

"Good evening, Signor Tenente," she answered, and would have passed on but that he barred the way as he stood.

There was no fear, no doubt, in the quiet of her face as she stood before him. Her eyes were great and dark, but untroubled, and upon the lips, where he had never seen a smile, was no tremor.

"Signorina!" he burst forth. "I, I have wanted to speak to you ever since that evening. I cannot bear that you should think of me as you do."

"I do not think of you," she answered, with the resonance of bell-music thrilling through the low tones of her voice.

He took a step nearer to her; she did not shrink nor fall back.

"But," he said, "I think of you always!" Her face did not change; its even quiet was a challenge and an exasperation. "Signorina, what can I do? This accursed war if it were not for that you would let me speak and at least you would listen. But now."

He broke off with a gesture of helpless anger. She did not alter the grave character of her regard.

"What is it that you wish to say to me?" she asked. "You see that I am listening."

Her very calm, the slender erectness of her body, her fearless and serious gaze, were a goad to him.

"Listening!" he cried. He choked down an impulse to be noisy. "Well then, listen! Signorina signorina, I, I am not one of those. That man who hanged himself, I would have prevented him and saved him. You heard me give the orders that he was to be watched and fed; fed, signorina! It was another who took the guards away and left him to himself."

"That," she said, "I knew."

"Ah!" He came yet closer. "You knew. Then."

He tried to take her hand. The impulse to touch her was irresistible; it was a famine in his being. Without stepping back, without, a movement of retreat or a change of countenance, she put her hands behind her back.

"Signorina!" He was close to her now; the heat of his face beat upon the ice of hers. "Oh! This I can't! Give me at least your hand. Signorina."

Her voice was as level, as calm, as quiet, and yet as loud with allurement as ever.

"Signor Tenente, no!"

His was the pervert blood, the virtues and the sins born of the promiscuity of races. Hers rigid, empty of invitation were the ripe Italian lips, pure, with the fastidious purity of her high birth and the childlike sweetness of her youth.

"Signorina!" He had meant to plead, but the force of her presence overwhelmed him. He felt himself sucked down in a whirlpool of impulse; doom was ahead; but the current of desire was too strong. A movement and his arms were about her!

"Love!" he gasped. His lips were upon hers, Kissing, kissing! He slaked himself on that dead and unresponsive mouth violently; he felt her frail and slender in the crush of his arms. All her virginal and girlish loveliness was his for a mad moment; then—. He released her. They stood apart. He passed a hand over his brow to clear the fog from his eyes.

"I, I" he stammered. He could see her now. She stood opposite him still, her back to the tall wall of maize that bounded the path. Her Hand was to her bosom; she breathed hard, and presently, while he stared, words misshaping themselves upon his abashed lips she smiled! Her sad, ripe mouth relaxed; all her grave face softened; pity the profound pity of a martyr who prays for "those who know not what they do" was alight in her face; the terrible mild mirth of those who are assured of victory these showed themselves like an ensign. She smiled!

He saw that smile, and at first vision he did not know it. "Signorina," he began again hopefully; then he stopped short. He saw again what he had seen in the village when Captain Hahn had struck his memorable, self-revealing blow. The smile the smile of those who choose death for the better part.

"Signorina!" His hands before his eyes hid her and her smile from him. "Please I beg—." There was no answer. He lowered his hands, and lifted timidly, repentantly, his face to seek pardon. But upon the path was no one. She had parted the stout stalks of maize and disappeared.

"God!" said Jovannic.

An energy possessed him. He charged along the narrow path between the high palisades of the metal-hued maize. Upon the next corner he encountered Captain Hahn, swollen and pompous and perfect.

"Well?" said Captain Hahn, exhaling his words as a pricked bladder exhales air. "Well, you searched those villages, did you?"

Jovannic saluted mechanically. Life his own life clogged his feet; to act was like wading in treacle. He had an impulse of utter wild rebellion, of ferocious self-assertion. Then:

"Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptmann!" he said, and saluted.



II

THE DAGO

Eight bells had sounded, and in the little triangular fo'c'sle of the Anna Maria the men of the port watch were waiting for their dinner. The daylight which entered by the open hatch overhead spread a carpet of light at the foot of the ladder, which slid upon the deck to the heave and fall of the old barque's blunt bows, and left in shadow the double row of bunks and the chests on which the men sat. From his seat nearest the ladder, Bill, the ship's inevitable Cockney, raised his flat voice in complaint.

"That bloomin' Dago takes 'is time over fetchin' the hash," he said. "'E wants wakin' up a bit that's wot 'e wants."

Sprawling on the edge of his bunk forward, Dan, the oldest man in the ship, took his pipe from his lips in the deliberate way in which he did everything. Short in stature and huge in frame, the mass of him, even in that half-darkness of the fo'c'sle, showed somehow majestic and powerful.

"The mate came after 'im about somethin' or other," he said in his deep, slow tones.

"That's right," said another seaman. "It was about spillin' some tar on the deck, an' now the Dago's got to stop up this arternoon an' holystone it clean in his watch below."

"Bloomin' fool," growled the Cockney. But it was the wrong word, and the others were silent.

A man in trouble with an officer, though he be no seaman and a Dago, may always count on the sympathy of the fo'c'sle.

"'E ain't fit to paddle a bumboat," the Cockney went on. "Can't go aloft, can't stand 'is wheel, can't even fetch the hash to time."

"Yes!" Dan shifted slowly, and the younger man stopped short. "You better slip along to the galley, Bill, an' see about that grub."

The Cockney swore, but rose from his seat. Dan was not to be disobeyed in the fo'c'sle. But at that moment the hatch above was darkened.

"'Ere's the Dago," cried Bill. "Where you bin, you bloomin' fool?"

A bare foot came over the combing, feeling vaguely for the steps of the ladder. Dan sat up and laid by his pipe; two seamen went to assist in the safe delivery of their dinner.

"Carn't yer never learn to bring the grub down the ladder backwards?" Bill was demanding of the new-comer. "Want to capsize it all again, like yer done before?"

"Ah, no!"

The Dago stood in the light of the hatch and answered the Cockney with a shrug and a timid, conciliatory smile. He was a little swarthy man, lean and anxious, with quick, apprehensive eyes which flitted now nervously from one to the other of the big sailors whose comrade and servant he was. There was upon him none of that character of the sea which shaped their every gesture and attitude. As the Cockney snarled at him he moved his hands in deprecating gesticulation; a touch of the florid appeared in him, of that easy vivacity which is native to races ripened in the sun.

"Keepin' men waitin' like this," mouthed Bill. "Bloomin' flat-footed, greasy 'anded."

Dan's deliberate voice struck in strongly. "Ain't you goin' to have no dinner, Dago?" he demanded. "Come on an' sit down to it, man!"

The Dago made one final shrug at Bill.

"De mate," he said, smiling with raised eyebrows, as though in pitying reference to that officer's infirmities of temper, "'e call me. So I cannot go to de galley for fetch de dinner more quick. Please escuse."

Bill snarled. "Come on with ye," called Dan again.

"Ah, yais!" And now his smile and his start to obey apologized to Dan for not having come at the first summons.

Dan pushed the "kid" of food towards him. "Dig in," he bade him. "You've had better grub than this in yer time, but it's all there is. So go at it."

"Better dan dis!" The Dago paused to answer in the act of helping himself. "Ah, mooch, mooch better, yais. I tell you." He began to gesticulate as he talked, trying to make these callous, careless men see with him the images that his words called up.

"Joost before de hot of de day I sit-a down in a balcao, where it is shade, yais, an' look at-a de water an' de trees, an' hear de bells, all slow an' gentle, in de church. An' when it is time dey bring me de leetle fish like-a de gold, all fresh, an' de leetle bread-cakes, yais, an' de wine."

"That's the style," approved a seaman. Though they did not cease to eat, they were all listening.

Tales of food and drink are always sure of a hearing in the fo'c'sle.

"On a table of de black wood, shining, an' a leetle cloth like snow," the Dago went on; "an' de black woman dat brings it smiles wiz big white teeth."

He paused, seeing it all the tropic languor and sweetness of the life he had conjured up, so remote, so utterly different from the rough-hewn realities that surrounded him.

"Shove that beef-kid down this way, will yer?" called Bill.

"You wait," answered Dan. He jogged the Dago with his elbow. "Now, lad," he said, "that's talk enough. Get yer grub."

The Dago, recalled from his visions, smiled and sighed and leaned forward to take his food. From his seat by the ladder, Bill the Cockney watched with mean, angry eyes to measure the size of his helping.

It was at Sourabaya, in Java, that he had been shipped to fill, as far as he could, the place of a man lost overboard. The port had been bare of seamen; the choice was between the Dago and nobody; and so one evening he had come alongside in a sampan and joined the crew of the Anna Maria. He brought with him as his kit a bundle of broken clothes and a flat paper parcel containing a single suit of clean white duck, which he cherished under the straw mattress of his bunk and never wore. He made no pretence of being a seaman. He could neither steer nor go aloft, and there fell to him, naturally, all the work of the ship that was ignominious or unpleasant or merely menial. It was the Dago, with his shrug and his feeble, complaisant smile, who scraped the boards of the pigsty and hoisted coal for the cook, and swept out the fo'c'sle while the other men lay and smoked.

"What made ye ship, anyway?" men would ask him angrily, when some instance of his incompetence had added to the work of the others. To this, if they would hear him, he had always an answer. He was a Portuguese, it seemed, of some little town on the coast of East Africa, where a land-locked bay drowsed below the windows of the houses under the day-long sun. When he spoke of it, if no one cut him short, his voice would sink to a hushed tone and he would seem to be describing a scene he saw. His jerking, graphic hands would fall still as he talked of the little streets where no one made a noise, and the sailors stared curiously at his face with the glamour of dreams on it.

From a life tuned to that murmur of basking waters a mishap had dragged him forth. It took the shape of a cruise in a fishing boat, in which he and three companions "t'ree senhores, t'ree gentilmen" had run into weather and been blown out to sea, there to be rescued, after four days of hunger and terror, by a steamship which had carried them to Aden and put them ashore there penniless. It was here that his tale grew vague. For something like three years he had wandered, working on ships and ashore, always hoping that sooner or later a chance would serve him to return to his home. Twice already he had got to Mozambique, but that was still nearly a thousand miles from his goal, and on each occasion his ship had carried him inexorably back. The Anna Maria was bound for Mozambique, and he had offered himself, with new hopes for his third attempt.

"D'ye reckon you'll do it this passage?" the seamen used to ask him over their pipes.

He would shrug and spread his hands. "Ah, who can tell? But some time, yais."

"An' what did ye say the name o' that place o' yours was?"

He would tell them, speaking, its syllables with soft pleasure in their mere sound.

"Never heard of it," they always said. "Ships don't go there, Dago."

"Ah, but yais." The Dago had known ships call. "Not often, but sometimes. There is leetle trade, an' ships come. On de tide, floating up to anchor, so close you hear de men talkin' on de fo'c'sle head, and dey hear de people ashore girl singin', perhaps and smell de trees."

"Do they, though?"

"Yais. Dat night I go out to fish in de boat ah, dat night! a girl was singin', and her voice it float on de bay all round me. An' I stand in de boat an' take off my hat" he rose to show them the gesture "and sing back to her, an' she is quiet to listen in de darkness."

When dinner was over it fell to the Dago to take the "kids" back to the galley and sweep down the deck. So he had barely time to smoke the cigarette he made of shredded ship's tobacco rolled in a strip of newspaper before he had to go on deck again to holystone the spilled tar from the planks. Dan gave him advice about using a hard stone and plenty of sand, to which he listened, smiling, and then he went up the ladder again, with his rags shivering upon him, to the toil of the afternoon.

The seamen were already in their bunks, each smoking ruminatively the pipe that prefaces slumber.

"Queer yarn that feller tells," remarked one of them idly. "How much of it d'you reckon's true, Dan?"

In the for'ard lower bunk Dan opened drowsy eyes. He was lying on his back with his hands under his head, and the sleeves of his shirt rolled back left bare his mighty forearms with their faded tattooings. His big, beardless face was red, like rusty iron, with over thirty years of seafaring; it was simple and strong, a transparent mask of the man's upright and steadfast spirit.

"Eh?" he said, and the other repeated his question. Dan sucked at his pipe and breathed the smoke forth in a thin blue mist.

"It might be true enough," he answered at length, in his deliberate bass. "Things like that does happen; you c'n read 'em in newspapers. Anyhow, true or not, the Dago believes it all."

"Meanin' he's mad?" inquired the other. "Blowed if I didn't think it once or twice myself."

"He's mad right enough," agreed another seaman comfortably, while from Bill's bunk came the usual snarl of "bloomin' fool."

Dan turned over on his side and put his pipe away.

"He don't do any harm, anyhow," he said, pulling up his blanket. "There's worse than him."

"Plenty, poor devil," agreed the first speaker, as he too prepared for the afternoon's sleep.

On his knees upon the deck aft, shoving his holystone to and fro laboriously and unhandily along the planks where the accident with the tar-pot had left its stain, the Dago still broke into little meaningless smiles. For him, at any rate, the narrow scope between the stem and stern of the Anna Maria was not the world. He had but to lift up the eyes of his mind to behold, beyond it and dwarfing it to triviality, the glamours of a life in which it had no part. Those who saw him at his dreary penance had their excuse for thinking him mad, for there were moments when his face glowed like a lover's, his lips moved in soundless speech, and he had the aspect of a man illuminated by some sudden and tender joy.

"Now, then, you Dago there," the officer of the watch shouted at him. "Keep that stone movin', an' none of yer shenanikin'!"

"Yais, sir," answered the Dago, and bowed himself obediently.

It needed the ingenuity of Bill to trouble his tranquility of mind. The old Anna Maria was far on her passage, and already there were birds about her, the far-flying scouts of the land, and the color of the water had changed to a softer and more radiant blue. It was as though sad Africa made herself comely to invite them to her shores. Bill had a piece of gear to serve with spun-yarn, and was at work abreast of the foremast, with the Dago to help him. The rope on which they worked was stretched between the rail and the mast. Bill had the serving-mallet, and as he worked it round the rope the Dago passed the ball of spun-yarn in time with him. The mate was aft, superintending some work upon the mizzen, and Bill took his job easily. The Dago, with his little smile to which his lips shaped themselves unconsciously, passed the ball in silence. The Cockney eyed him unpleasantly.

"Say, Dago," he said presently, "wot was the name o' that there place you said you come from?"

"Eh?" The Dago roused from his smiling reverie. "De name? Ah, yais." He pronounced the name slowly, making its syllables render their music.

"Yus," said Bill, "I thought that was it."

He went on working, steadily, nonchalantly. The Dago stared at him, perplexed.

"Why you want to know dat name?" he asked at length.

"Well," said Bill, "you bin talkin' abaht it a lot, and so, d'yer see, I reckoned I'd find out. An' yesterday I 'ad to go into the cabin to get at the lazareet 'atch, an' the chart was spread out on the table."

"De chart?" The Dago was slow to understand. "Ah, yais. Mapa chart. An' you look at-a 'im, yais?"

"Yus," answered Bill, who, like most men before the mast, had never seen a chart in his life. "I looked at ev'ry name on it, ev'ry bloomin' one. A chart o' Africa it was, givin' the whole lot of 'em. But your place."

"Yais?" cried the Dago. "You see 'im? An' de leetle bay under de hills? You find it?"

"No," said Bill, "I didn't find it. It wasn't there."

"Wasn't there?" The Dago's smile was gone now; his forehead was puckered like a child's in bewilderment, and a darker doubt at the back of his thoughts loomed up in his troubled eyes.

"No," said the Cockney, watching him zestfully. "You got it wrong, Dago, an' there ain't no such place. You dreamt it. Savvy? All wot you bin tell in' us about the town an' the bay an' the way you used to take it easy there all that's just a bloomin' lie. See?"

The Dago's face was white and his lips trembled. He tried to smile.

"Not there," he repeated. "It is de joke, not? You fool me, Bill, yais?"

Bill shook his head. "I wouldn't fool yer abaht a thing like that," he declared sturdily. "There ain't no such place, Dago. It's just one o' yer fancies, yer know."

In those three years of wandering there had been dark hours turbulent with pain, hours when his vision, his hope, his memory had not availed to uplift him, and he had known the terror of a doubt lest the whole of it should, after all, be but a creation of his yearnings, a mirage of his desires. Everywhere men had believed him mad. He had accepted that as he accepted toil, hunger and exile, as things to be redeemed by their end. But if it should be true! If this grossness and harshness should, after all, be his real life! Bill saw the agony that broke loose within his victim, and bent his head above his work to hide a smile.

"Ah!" The quiet exclamation was all that issued from the Dago's lips; the surge of emotion within him sought no vent in words. But Bill was satisfied; he had the instincts of a connoisseur in torment, and the Dago's face was now a mask that looked as if it had never smiled.

It was Dan that spoiled and undid the afternoon's work. During the second dog-watch, when the Dago kept the look out, he carried his pipe to the forecastle head and joined him there. Right ahead of the ship the evening sky was still stained with the afterglow of the sunset; the jib-boom swung gently athwart a heaven in whose darkening arch there was still a ghost of color. Between the anchors, where they lay lashed on their chocks, the Dago stood and gazed west to where, beyond the horizon, the shores of Africa had turned barren and meaningless.

"Well, lad," rumbled Dan, "gettin' near it, eh? Gettin' on towards the little town by the bay, ain't we?"

The Dago swung round towards him. "Dere is no town," he said calmly. "No town, no bay, no anyt'ing. I was mad, but now I know."

He spoke evenly enough, and in the lessening light his face was indistinct. But old Dan, for all his thirty and odd years of hard living, had an ear tuned delicately to the trouble of his voice.

"What's all' this?" he demanded shortly. "Who's been tellin' you there ain't no town or anything? Out with it! Who was it?"

"It don't matter," said the Dago. "It was Bill." And briefly, in the same even tones, like those of a man who talks in his sleep, he told the tale of Bill's afternoon's sport.

"Ah, so it was Bill!" said Dan slowly, when the recital was at an end. "Bill, was it? Ye-es. Well, o' course you know that Bill's the biggest liar ever shipped out o' London, where liars is as common as weevils in bread. So you don't want to take no notice of anything Bill says."

The Dago shook his head. "It is not that," he said. "It is not de first time I 'ave been called mad; and sometimes I have think it myself."

"Oh, go on with ye," urged Dan. "You ain't mad."

"T'ree years," went on the Dago in his mournful, subdued voice. "T'ree years I go about an' work, always poor, dirty work, an' got no name, only 'Dago.' I t'ink all de time 'bout my leetle beautiful town; but sometimes I t'ink, too, when I am tired an' people is hard to me: 'It is a dream. De world has no place so good as dat.' What you t'ink, Dan?"

"Oh, I dunno," grunted Dan awkwardly. "Anyhow, there ain't no harm in it. It don't follow a man's mad because he's got fancies."

"Fancies!" repeated the Dago. "Fancies!" He seemed to laugh a little to himself, laughter with no mirth in it.

Night was sinking on the great solitude of waters. Above them the sails of the foremast stood pale and lofty, and there was the rhythmic jar of a block against a backstay. The Anna Maria lifted her weather bow easily to the even sea, and the two men on the fo'c'sle head swung on their feet unconsciously to the movement of the barque.

"Eef it was only a fancy," said the Dago suddenly, "eef it was only a town in my mind, I don' want it no more." He made a motion with his hand as though he cast something from him. "I t'ink all dis time it is true, dat some day I find it again. It help me; it keep me glad; it save me from misery. But now it is all finish."

"But don't you know," cried Dan, "don't you know for sure whether it's true or not?"

The Dago shook his head. "I am no more sure," he said. "For t'ree years I have had bad times, hard times. So now I am not sure. Dat is why I t'ink I am a little mad, like Bill said."

"Never mind Bill," said Dan. "I'll settle with Bill."

He put his heavy hand on the other's arm.

"Lad," he said, "I'm sorry for your trouble. I ain't settin' up to know much about fellers' minds, but it seems to me as if you was better off without them fancies, if they ain't true. An' that town o' yours! It sounded fine, as good a place as ever I heard of; but it was mighty like them ports worn-out sailormen is always figurin' to themselves, where they'll go ashore and take it easy for the rest o' their lives. It was too good, mate, too good to be true."

There was a pause. "Yes," said the Dago at last. "It was too good, Dan."

Dan gave his arm a grip, and left him to his look out over a sea whose shores were now as desolate as itself, a man henceforth to be counted sane, since he knew life as bare of beauty, sordid and difficult.

Dan put his pipe in his pocket and walked aft to the main hatch, where the men were gathered for the leisure of the dog-watch. He went at his usual deliberate gait, a notable figure of seamanlike respectability and efficiency. Upon his big, shaven face a rather stolid tranquility reigned. Bill, leaning against a corner of the galley, looked up at him carelessly.

"'Ullo, Dan," he greeted him.

"Hullo, Bill," responded Dan. "I bin talkin' to the Dago."

"Oh, 'ave yer?" said Bill.

"Yes," said Dan, in the same conversational tone. "I have. An' now I'm goin' to have a word with you. Stand clear of that deckhouse!"

"Eh?" cried Bill. "Say, Dan—"

That was all. Dan's fist, the right one, of the hue and hardness of teak, with Dan's arm behind it, arrived just under his eye, and the rest of the conversation was yelps. No one attempted to interrupt; even the captain and mate, who watched from the poop, made no motion to interfere; Dan's reputation for uprightness stood him in good stead.

"There, now," he said, when it was over, and he allowed the gasping, bleeding Cockney to fall back on the hatch. "See what comes of not takin' hints?"

They made Mozambique upon the morning of a day when the sun poured from the heavens and the light wind came warm off the land. The old Anna Maria, furling sail by sail, floated up to her anchorage and let go her anchors just as a shore-boat, manned by big nearly naked negroes, with a white man sitting in the stern, raced up alongside. In less than an hour the hands were lifting the anchors again and getting ready to go to sea once more. The cook, who had served the captain and his visitor with breakfast, was able to explain the mystery. He stood at his galley door, with his cloth cap cocked sportively over one eye, and gave the facts to the inquisitive sailors.

"That feller in the boat was th' agent," he said. "A Porchuguee, he was. Wanted wine f'r 'is breakfus'. An' the orders is, we're to go down the coast to a place called le'me see, now. What was it called? Some Dago name that I can't call to mind."

Dan was among his hearers, and by some freak of memory the name of the town of which the Dago had been used to speak, the town which was now a dream to be forgotten, came to his lips. He spoke it aloud.

"It wasn't that, I s'pose?" he suggested.

"You've got it," cried the cook. "That was it, Dan; the very place. Fancy you knowin' it. Well, we got to go down there and get in across a sort of bar what's there an' discharge into lighters. Seems it's a bit out o' the way o' shippin'. The skipper said that the charterers seemed to think the old boat ran on wheels."

"Queer!" said Dan. To himself he said: "He must ha' heard the name somewhere and hitched his dream to it."

The name, as it chanced, was one of many syllables, and the sailors managed them badly. Men who speak of the islands of Diego Ramirez as the "Daggarammarines" are not likely to deal faithfully with a narrie that rings delicately like guitar strings, and Dan observed that their mention of the barque's destination had no effect upon the Dago. For him all ports had become indifferent; one was not nearer than another to any place of his desire. He spoke no more of his town; when the men, trying to draw him, spoke about food, or women, or other roads to luxury, he answered without smiling.

"I t'ink no more 'bout dat," he said. "T'ree year work an' have bad times. Before, I don' remember o more."

"He was better when he was crazy," agreed the seamen. It was as though the gaiety, the spring of gladness, within the little man had been dried up; there was left only the incompetent and despised Dago. He faced the routine of his toil now with no smile of preoccupation for a sweeter vision; he shuffled about decks, futile as ever, with the dreariness of a man in prison.

Only to Dan he spoke more freely. It was while the watch was washing down decks in the morning. The two were side by side, plying their brooms along the wet planks, while about them the dawn broadened towards the tropic day.

"I am no more mad," said the Dago. "Now I know I am not mad. Dat name of de place where we go de men don' know how to speak it, but it is de name of my town, de town I t'ink about once so much. Yais I know! At last, after all dis time, I come dere, but I am not glad. I am never glad no more 'bout not'ing."

Dan worked on. He could think of no answer to make.

"Only 'bout one t'ing I am glad," went on the Dago. "'Bout a friend I make on dis ship; 'bout you, Dan."

"Oh, hell!" grunted Dan awkwardly.

"But 'bout de town, I am no more glad. I know now it is more better to be sad an' poor an' weak dan to be mad an' glad about fancies. Yais I know now!"

"You'll be all right," said Dan. "Cheer up, lad. There's fellers worse off than you!" An inspiration lit up his honest and downright brain for a moment. "Why," he said, "it's better to be you than be a feller like Bill that never had a fancy in his life. You've lost a lot, maybe; but you can't lose a thing you never had."

The Dago half-smiled. "Yais," he said. "You are mos' wise, Dan. But, Dan! Dan!"

"Yes. What?"

"If it had been true, Dan dat beautiful town an' all my dream! If it had been true!"

"Shove along wi' that broom," advised Dan. "The mate's lookin'."

They came abreast of their port about midday, and Dan, at the wheel, heard the captain swear as they stood in through a maze of broken water, where coral reefs sprouted like weeds in a neglected garden, towards the hills that stood low above the horizon. He had been furnished, it seemed, with a chart concerning whose trustworthiness he entertained the bitterest doubts. There was some discussion with the mate about anchoring and sending in a boat to bring off a pilot, but presently they picked up a line of poles sticking up above the water like a ruined fence, and these seemed to comfort the captain. Bits of trees swam alongside; a flight of small birds, with flashes of green and red in their plumage, swung about them; the water, as they went, changed color. Little by little the hills lifted from the level of the water and took on color and variety, till from the deck one could make out the swell of their contours and distinguish the hues of the wild vegetation that clothed them. The yellow of a beach and a snowy gleam of surf showed at their feet, and then, dead ahead and still far away, they opened, and in the gap there was visible the still shining blue of water that ran inland and lay quiet under their shelter.

"Stand by your to'gallant halyards!" came the order. "Lower away there!"

It was evening already when the old Anna Maria, floating slowly under a couple of jibs and a foretopsail, rounded the point and opened the town. The bay, with its fringe of palms, lay clear before her; beyond its farthest edge, the sun had just set, leaving his glories to burn out behind him, and astern of them in the east the swift tropic night was racing up the sky. The little town a church-tower and a cluster of painted, flat-roofed houses, lay behind the point at the water's edge. There was a music of bells in the still air; all the scene breathed that joyous languor, that easy beauty which only the sun can ripen, which the windy north never knows. With the night at her heels, the old Anna Maria moved almost imperceptibly towards the town.

"Stand by to anchor!" came the order from aft, and the mate, calling three men with him, went up the ladder to the fo'c'sle head.

Dan was one of the three. He was at the rail, looking at the little town as it unfolded itself, house after house, with the narrow streets between, when he first noticed the white figure at his side. He turned in surprise; it was the Dago, in the cherished suit of duck which he had guarded for so long under his mattress. Heretofore, Dan had known him only in his rags of working-clothes, a mildly pathetic and ridiculous figure; now he was seemly, unfamiliar, a little surprising.

"What's all this?" demanded Dan.

The Dago was looking with all his eyes at the town, already growing dim.

"Dis?" he repeated. "Dese clo'se, I keep dem for my town, Dan. To come back wis yais! For not be like a mendigo a beggar. Now, no need to keep dem no more; and dis place oh, Dan, it is so like, so like! I dream it all yais de church, de praca all of it!"

"Steady!" growled Dan. "Don't get dreamin' it again."

"No," said the Dago; "I never dream no more. Never no more!"

He did not take his eyes from it; he stood at the rail gazing, intent, absorbed. He did not hear the mate's brief order that summoned him and the others across the deck.

"When I go out on de fishin' boat," he said aloud, thinking Dan was still at his side, "a girl was singin' an'—"

"Here, you!" cried the mate. "What's the matter with you? Why don't you?"

He stopped in amazement, for the Dago turned and spat a brief word at him, making a gesture with his hand as though to command silence.

In the moment that followed they all heard it a voice that sang, a strong and sweet contralto that strewed its tones forth like a scent, to add itself to the other scents of earth and leaves that traveled across the waters and reached them on their deck. They heard it lift itself as on wings to a high exaltation of melody and fail thence, hushing and drooping deliciously, down diminishing slopes of song.

"What the-" began the mate, and moved to cross the deck.

His surprises were not yet at an end, for Dan Dan, the ideal seaman, the precise in his duty, the dependable, the prosaically perfect Dan caught him by the arm with a grip in which there was no deference for the authority of a chief officer.

"Leave him be, sir," urged Dan. "I, I know what's the matter with him. Leave him be!"

The voice ashore soared again, sure and buoyant; the mate dragged his arm free from Dan's hold and turned to swear; on the main deck the horse-laugh of Bill answered the singer. The Dago heard nothing. Bending forward over the rail, he stretched both arms forth, and in a voice that none recognized, broken and passionate, he took up the song. It was but for a minute, while the mate recovered his outraged senses, but it was enough. The voice ashore had ceased.

"What the blank blank!" roared the mate, as he dragged the Dago across the deck. "What d'ye mean by it, eh? Get hold o' that rope, or I'll—."

"Yais, sir."

A moment later he turned to Dan, and in the already deepening gloom his smile gleamed white in his face.

"Ah, my frien'!" he said. "Dere was no dream. T'ree years, all bad, all hard, all sad dat was de dream. Now I wake up. Only one t'ing true in all de t'ree years de friend I make yais."

"Hark!" said Dan. "Hear it? There's boats comin' off to us."

"Yais!" The smile gleamed again. "For me. It is no dream. Dey hear my voice when I sing. By'm by you hear dem callin', 'Felipe!' Dat's my name."

"Listen, then," said Dan in a whisper.

The water trickled alongside; they were coming up to their berth. The bells from the church ashore were still. Across the bay there came the clack of oars in rowlocks, pulled briskly, and voices.

"Felipe!" they called. "Felipe!"

The Dago's hand found Dan's.



III

WOOD-LADIES

The pine trees of the wood joined their branches into a dome of intricate groinings over the floor of ferns where the children sat sunk to the neck in a foam of tender green. The sunbeams that slanted in made shivering patches of gold about them. Joyce, the elder of the pair, was trying to explain why she had wished to come here from the glooms of the lesser wood beyond.

"I wasn't 'zactly frightened," she said. "I knew there wasn't any lions or robbers, or anything like that. But—"

"Tramps?" suggested Joan.

"No! You know I don't mind tramps, Joan. But as we was going along under all those dark bushes where it was so quiet, I kept feeling as if there was something behind me. I looked round and there wasn't anything, but well, it felt as if there was."

Joyce's small face was knit and intent with the effort to convey her meaning. She was a slim, erect child, as near seven years of age as made no matter, with eyes that were going to be grey but had not yet ceased to be blue. Joan, who was a bare five, a mere huge baby, was trying to root up a fern that grew between her feet.

"I know," she said, tugging mightily. The fern gave suddenly, and Joan fell over on her back, with her stout legs sticking up stiffly. In this posture she continued the conversation undisturbed. "I know, Joy. It was wood-ladies!"

"Wood-ladies!" Joyce frowned in faint perplexity as Joan rolled right side up again. Wood-ladies were dim inhabitants of the woods, beings of the order of fairies and angels and even vaguer, for there was nothing about them in the story-books. Joyce, who felt that she was getting on in years, was willing to be skeptical about them, but could not always manage it. In the nursery, with the hard, clean linoleum underfoot and the barred window looking out on the lawn and the road, it was easy; she occasionally shocked Joan, and sometimes herself, by the license of her speech on such matters; but it was a different affair when one came to the gate at the end of the garden, and passed as through a dream portal from the sunshine and frank sky to the cathedral shadows and great whispering aisles of the wood. There, the dimness was like the shadow of a presence; as babies they had been aware of it, and answered their own questions by inventing wood-ladies to float among the trunks and people the still, green chambers. Now, neither of them could remember how they had first learned of wood-ladies.

"Wood-ladies," repeated Joyce, and turned with a little shiver to look across the ferns to where the pines ended and the lesser wood, dense with undergrowth, broke at their edge like a wave on a steep beach. It was there, in a tunnel of a path that writhed beneath over-arching bushes, that she had been troubled with the sense of unseen companions. Joan, her fat hands struggling with another fern, followed her glance.

"That's where they are," she said casually. "They like being in the dark."

"Joan!" Joyce spoke earnestly. "Say truly truly, mind! do you think there is wood-ladies at all?"

"'Course there is," replied Joan, cheerfully. "Fairies in fields and angels in heaven and dragons in caves and wood-ladies in woods."

"But," objected Joyce, "nobody ever sees them."

Joan lifted her round baby face, plump, serene, bright with innocence, and gazed across at the tangled trees beyond the ferns. She wore the countenance with which she was wont to win games, and Joyce thrilled nervously at her certainty. Her eyes, which were brown, seemed to seek expertly; then she nodded.

"There's one now," she said, and fell to work with her fern again.

Joyce, crouching among the broad green leaves, looked tensely, dread and curiosity the child's avid curiosity for the supernatural alight in her face. In the wood a breath of wind stirred the leaves; the shadows and the fretted lights shifted and swung; all was vague movement and change. Was it a bough that bent and sprang back or a flicker of draperies, dim and green, shrouding a tenuous form that passed like a smoke-wreath? She stared with wide eyes, and it seemed to her that for an instant she saw the figure turn and the pallor of a face, with a mist of hair about it, sway towards her. There was an impression of eyes, large and tender, of an infinite grace and fragility, of a coloring that merged into the greens and browns of the wood; and as she drew her breath, it was all no more. The trees, the lights and shades, the stir of branches were as before, but something was gone from them.

"Joan!" she cried, hesitating.

"Yes," said Joan, without looking up. "What?"

The sound of words had broken a spell. Joyce was no longer sure that she had seen anything.

"I thought, just now, I could see something," she said. "But I s'pose I didn't."

"I did," remarked Joan.

Joyce crawled through the crisp ferns till she was close to Joan, sitting solid and untroubled and busy upon the ground, with broken stems and leaves all round her.

"Joan," she begged. "Be nice. You're trying to frighten me, aren't you?"

"I'm not," protested Joan. "I did see a wood-lady. Wood-ladies doesn't hurt you; wood-ladies are nice. You're a coward, Joyce."

"I can't help it," said Joyce, sighing. "But I won't go into the dark spots of the wood any more."

"Coward," repeated Joan absently, but with a certain relish.

"You wouldn't like to go there by yourself!" cried Joyce. "If I wasn't with you, you'd be a coward, too. You know you would."

She stopped, for Joan had swept her lap free of debris and was rising to her feet. Joan, for all her plumpness and infantile softness, had a certain deliberate dignity when she was put upon her mettle. She eyed her sister with a calm and very galling superiority.

"I'm going there now," she answered; "all by mineself."

"Go, then!" retorted Joyce, angrily.

Without a further word Joan turned her back and began to plough her way across the ferns towards the dark wood. Joyce, watching her, saw her go at first with wrath, for she had been stung, and then with compunction. The plump baby was so small in the brooding solemnity of the pines, thrusting indefatigably along, buried to the waist in ferns. Her sleek, brown head had a devoted look; the whole of her seemed to go with so sturdy an innocence towards those peopled and uncanny glooms. Joyce rose to her knees to call her back.

"Joan!" she cried. The baby turned. "Joan! Come back; come back an' be friends!"

Joan, maintaining her offing, replied with a gesture. It was a gesture they had learned from the boot-and-knife boy, and they had once been spanked for practicing it on the piano-tuner. The boot-and-knife boy called it "cocking a snook," and it consisted in raising a thumb to one's nose and spreading the fingers out. It was defiance and insult in tabloid form. Then she turned and plodded on. The opaque wall of the wood was before her and over her, but she knew its breach. She ducked her head under a droop of branches, squirmed through, was visible still for some seconds as a gleam of blue frock, and then the ghostly shadows received her and she was gone. The wood closed behind her like a lid.

Joyce, squatting in her place, blinked a little breathlessly to shift from her senses an oppression of alarm, and settled down to wait for her. At least it was true that nothing ever happened to Joan; even when she fell into a water-butt she suffered no damage; and the wood was a place to which they came every day.

"Besides," she considered, enumerating her resources of comfort; "besides, there can't be such things as wood-ladies, really."

But Joan was a long time gone. The dome of pines took on an uncanny stillness; the moving patches of sun seemed furtive and unnatural; the ferns swayed without noise. In the midst of it, patient and nervous, sat Joyce, watching always that spot in the bushes where a blue overall and a brown head had disappeared. The under-note of alarm which stirred her senses died down; a child finds it hard to spin out a mood; she simply sat, half-dreaming in the peace of the morning, half-watching the wood. Time slipped by her, and presently there came Mother, smiling and seeking through the trees for her babies.

"Isn't there a clock inside you that tells you when it's lunch time?" asked Mother. "You're ever so late. Where's Joan?"

Joyce rose among the ferns, delicate and elfin, with a shy perplexity on her face. It was difficult to speak even to Mother about wood-ladies without a pretence of skepticism.

"I forgot about lunch," she said, taking the slim, cool hand which Mother held out to her. "Joan's in there." She nodded at the bushes.

"Is she?" said Mother, and called aloud in her singing voice that was so clear to hear in the spaces of the wood. "Joan! Joan!"

A cheeky bird answered with a whistle, and Mother called again.

"She said," explained Joyce; "she said she saw a wood-lady, and then she went in there to show me she wasn't afraid."

"What's a wood-lady, chick?" asked Mother. "The rascal!" she said, smiling, when Joyce had explained as best she could. "We'll have to go and look for her."

They went hand in hand, and Mother showed herself clever in parting a path among the bushes. She managed so that no bough sprang back to strike Joyce, and without tearing or soiling her own soft, white dress; one could guess that when she had been a little girl she, too, had had a wood to play in. They cut down by the Secret Pond, where the old rhododendrons were, and out to the edge of the fields; and when they paused Mother would lift her head and call again, and her voice rang in the wood like a bell. By the pond, which was a black water with steep banks, she paused and showed a serious face; but there were no marks of shoes on its clay slopes, and she shook her head and went on. But to all the calling there was no answer, no distant cheery bellow to guide them to Joan.

"I wish she wouldn't play these tricks," said Mother. "I don't like them a bit."

"I expect she's hiding," said Joyce. "There aren't wood-ladies really, are there, Mother?"

"There's nothing worse in these woods than a rather naughty baby," Mother replied. "We'll go back by the path and call her again."

Joyce knew that the hand which held hers tightened as they went, and there was still no answer to Mother's calling. She could not have told what it was that made her suddenly breathless; the wood about her turned desolate; an oppression of distress and bewilderment burdened them both. "Joan! Joan!" called Mother in her strong beautiful contralto, swelling the word forth in powerful music, and when she ceased the silence was like a taunt. It was not as if Joan were there and failed to answer; it was as if there were no longer any Joan anywhere. They came at last to the space of sparse trees which bordered their garden.

"We mustn't be silly about this," said Mother, speaking as much to herself as to Joyce. "Nothing can have happened to her. And you must have lunch, chick."

"Without waiting for Joan?" asked Joyce.

"Yes. The gardener and the boot-boy must look for Joan," said Mother, opening the gate.

The dining-room looked very secure and homelike, with its big window and its cheerful table spread for lunch. Joyce's place faced the window, so that she could see the lawn and the hedge bounding the kitchen garden; and when Mother had served her with food, she was left alone to eat it. Presently the gardener and the boot-boy passed the window, each carrying a hedge-stake and looking war-like. There reached her a murmur of voices; the gardener was mumbling something about tramps.

"Oh, I don't think so," replied Mother's voice.

Mother came in presently and sat down, but did not eat anything. Joyce asked her why.

"Oh, I shall have some lunch when Joan comes," answered Mother. "I shan't be hungry till then. Will you have some more, my pet?"

When Joyce had finished, they went out again to the wood to meet Joan when she was brought back in custody. Mother walked quite slowly, looking all the time as if she would like to run. Joyce held her hand and sometimes glanced up at her face, so full of wonder and a sort of resentful doubt, as though circumstances were playing an unmannerly trick on her. At the gate they came across the boot-boy.

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse