ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM
KING VIDOR'S PHOTOPLAY
A GOLDWYN PICTURE
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Made in the United States of America
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, Inc.
Published, April, 1918, in a volume now out of print, entitled "Gold and Iron," and then reprinted twice.
First published separately, March, 1922
TO GEORGE HORACE LORIMER
The ketch drifted into the serene inclosure of the bay as silently as the reflections moving over the mirrorlike surface of the water. Beyond a low arm of land that hid the sea the western sky was a single, clear yellow; farther on the left the pale, incalculably old limbs of cypress, their roots bare, were hung with gathering shadows as delicate as their own faint foliage. The stillness was emphasized by the ceaseless murmur of the waves breaking on the far, seaward bars.
John Woolfolk brought the ketch up where he intended to anchor and called to the stooping white-clad figure in the bow: "Let go!" There was an answering splash, a sudden rasp of hawser, the booms swung idle, and the yacht imperceptibly settled into her berth. The wheel turned impotently; and, absent-minded, John Woolfolk locked it. He dropped his long form on a carpet-covered folding chair near by. He was tired. His sailor, Poul Halvard, moved about with a noiseless and swift efficiency; he rolled and cased the jib, and then, with a handful of canvas stops, secured and covered the mainsail and proceeded aft to the jigger. Unlike Woolfolk, Halvard was short—a square figure with a smooth, deep-tanned countenance, colorless and steady, pale blue eyes. His mouth closed so tightly that it appeared immovable, as if it had been carved from some obdurate material that opened for the necessities of neither speech nor sustenance.
Tall John Woolfolk was darkly tanned, too, and had a grey gaze, by turns sharply focused with bright black pupils and blankly introspective. He was garbed in white flannels, with bare ankles and sandals, and an old, collarless silk shirt, with sleeves rolled back on virile arms incongruously tattooed with gauzy green cicadas.
He stayed motionless while Halvard put the yacht in order for the night. The day's passage through twisting inland waterways, the hazard of the tides on shifting flats, the continual concentration on details at once trivial and highly necessary, had been more wearing than the cyclone the ketch had weathered off Barbuda the year before. They had been landbound since dawn; and all day John Woolfolk's instinct had revolted against the fields and wooded points, turning toward the open sea.
Halvard disappeared into the cabin; and, soon after, a faint, hot air, the smell of scorched metal, announced the lighting of the vapor stove, the preparations for supper. Not a breath stirred the surface of the bay. The water, as transparently clear as the hardly darkened air, lay like a great amethyst clasped by its dim corals and the arm of the land. The glossy foliage that, with the exception of a small silver beach, choked the shore might have been stamped from metal. It was, John Woolfolk suddenly thought, amazingly still. The atmosphere, too, was peculiarly heavy, languorous. It was laden with the scents of exotic, flowering trees; he recognized the smooth, heavy odor of oleanders and the clearer sweetness of orange blossoms.
He was idly surprised at the latter; he had not known that orange groves had been planted and survived in Georgia. Woolfolk gazed more attentively at the shore, and made out, in back of the luxuriant tangle, the broad white facade of a dwelling. A pair of marine glasses lay on the deck at his hand; and, adjusting them, he surveyed the face of a distinguished ruin. The windows on the stained wall were broken in—they resembled the empty eyes of the dead; storms had battered loose the neglected roof, leaving a corner open to sun and rain; he could see through the foliage lower down great columns fallen about a sweeping portico.
The house was deserted, he was certain of that—the melancholy wreckage of a vanished and resplendent time. Its small principality, flourishing when commerce and communication had gone by water, was one of the innumerable victims of progress and of the concentration of effort into huge impersonalities. He thought he could trace other even more complete ruins, but his interest waned. He laid the glasses back upon the deck. The choked bubble of boiling water sounded from the cabin, mingled with the irregular sputter of cooking fat and the clinking of plates and silver as Halvard set the table. Without, the light was fading swiftly; the wavering cry of an owl quivered from the cypress across the water, and the western sky changed from paler yellow to green. Woolfolk moved abruptly, and, securing a bucket to the handle of which a short rope had been spliced and finished with an ornamental Turk's-head, he swung it overboard and brought it up half full. In the darkness of the bucket the water shone with a faint phosphorescence. Then from a basin he lathered his hands with a thick, pinkish paste, washed his face, and started toward the cabin.
He was already in the companionway when, glancing across the still surface of the bay, he saw a swirl moving into view about a small point. He thought at first that it was a fish, but the next moment saw the white, graceful silhouette of an arm. It was a woman swimming. John Woolfolk could now plainly make out the free, solid mass of her hair, the naked, smoothly turning shoulder. She was swimming with deliberate ease, with a long, single overarm stroke; and it was evident that she had not seen the ketch. Woolfolk stood, his gaze level with the cabin top, watching her assured progress. She turned again, moving out from the shore, then suddenly stopped. Now, he realized, she saw him.
The swimmer hung motionless for a breath; then, with a strong, sinuous drive, she whirled about and made swiftly for the point of land. She was visible for a short space, low in the water, her hair wavering in the clear flood, and then disappeared abruptly behind the point, leaving behind—a last vanishing trace of her silent passage—a smooth, subsiding wake on the surface of the bay.
John Woolfolk mechanically descended the three short steps to the cabin. There had been something extraordinary in the woman's brief appearance out of the odorous tangle of the shore, with its ruined habitation. It had caught him unprepared, in a moment of half weary relaxation, and his imagination responded with a faint question to which it had been long unaccustomed. But Halvard, in crisp white, standing behind the steaming supper viands, brought his thoughts again to the day's familiar routine.
The cabin was divided through its forward half by the centerboard casing, and against it a swinging table had been elevated, an immaculate cover laid, and the yacht's china, marked in cobalt with the name Gar, placed in a polished and formal order. Halvard's service from the stove to the table was as silent and skillful as his housing of the sails; he replaced the hot dishes with cold, and provided a glass bowl of translucent preserved figs.
Supper at an end, Woolfolk rolled a cigarette from shag that resembled coarse black tea and returned to the deck. Night had fallen on the shore, but the water still held a pale light; in the east the sky was filled with an increasing, cold radiance. It was the moon, rising swiftly above the flat land. The moonlight grew in intensity, casting inky shadows of the spars and cordage across the deck, making the light in the cabin a reddish blur by contrast. The icy flood swept over the land, bringing out with a new emphasis the close, glossy foliage and broken facade—it appeared unreal, portentous. The odors of the flowers, of the orange blossoms, uncoiled in heavy, palpable waves across the water, accompanied by the owl's fluctuating cry. The sense of imminence increased, of a genius loci unguessed and troublous, vaguely threatening in the perfumed dark.
John Woolfolk had said nothing to Halvard of the woman he had seen swimming in the bay. He was conscious of no particular reason for remaining silent about her; but the thing had become invested with a glamour that, he felt, would be destroyed by commonplace discussion. He had no personal interest in the episode, he was careful to add. Interests of that sort, serving to connect him with the world, with society, with women, had totally disappeared from his life. He rolled and lighted a fresh cigarette, and in the minute orange spurt of the match his mouth was somber and forbidding.
The unexpected appearance on the glassy water had merely started into being a slight, fanciful curiosity. The women of that coast did not commonly swim at dusk in their bays; such simplicity obtained now only in the reaches of the highest civilization. There were, he knew, no hunting camps here, and the local inhabitants were mere sodden squatters. A chart lay in its flat canvas case by the wheel; and, in the crystal flood of the moon, he easily reaffirmed from it his knowledge of the yacht's position. Nothing could be close by but scattered huts and such wreckage as that looming palely above the oleanders.
Yet a woman had unquestionably appeared swimming from behind the point of land off the bow of the Gar. The women native to the locality, and the men, too, were fanatical in the avoidance of any unnecessary exterior application of water. His thoughts moved in a monotonous circle, while the enveloping radiance constantly increased. It became as light as a species of unnatural day, where every leaf was clearly revealed but robbed of all color and familiar meaning.
He grew restless, and rose, making his way forward about the narrow deck-space outside the cabin. Halvard was seated on a coil of rope beside the windlass and stood erect as Woolfolk approached. The sailor was smoking a short pipe, and the bowl made a crimson spark in his thick, powerful hand. John Woolfolk fingered the wood surface of the windlass bitts and found it rough and gummy. Halvard said instinctively:
"I'd better start scraping the mahogany tomorrow, it's getting white."
Woolfolk nodded. Halvard was a good man. He had the valuable quality of commonly anticipating spoken desires. He was a Norwegian, out of the Lofoden Islands, where sailors are surpassingly schooled in the Arctic seas. Poul Halvard, so far as Woolfolk could discover, was impervious to cold, to fatigue, to the insidious whispering of mere flesh. He was a man without temptation, with an untroubled allegiance to a duty that involved an endless, exacting labor; and for those reasons he was austere, withdrawn from the community of more fragile and sympathetic natures. At times his inflexible integrity oppressed John Woolfolk. Halvard, he thought, was a difficult man to live up to.
He turned and absently surveyed the land. His restlessness increased. He felt a strong desire for a larger freedom of space than that offered by the Gar, and it occurred to him that he might go ashore in the tender. He moved aft with this idea growing to a determination. In the cabin, on the shelf above the berths built against the sides of the ketch, he found an old blue flannel coat, with crossed squash rackets and a monogram embroidered in yellow on the breast pocket. Slipping it on, he dropped over the stern of the tender.
Halvard came instantly aft, but Woolfolk declined the mutely offered service. The oars made a silken swish in the still bay as he pulled away from the yacht. The latter's riding light, swung on the forestay, hung without a quiver, like a fixed yellow star. He looked once over his shoulder, and then the bow of the tender ran with a soft shock upon the beach. Woolfolk bedded the anchor in the sand and then stood gazing curiously before him.
On his right a thicket of oleanders drenched the air with the perfume of their heavy poisonous flowering, and behind them a rough clearing of saw grass swept up to the debris of the fallen portico. To the left, beyond the black hole of a decaying well, rose the walls of a second brick building, smaller than the dwelling. A few shreds of rotten porch clung to its face; and the moonlight, pouring through a break above, fell in a livid bar across the obscurity of a high single chamber.
Between the crumbling piles there was the faint trace of a footway, and Woolfolk advance to where, inside a dilapidated sheltering fence, he came upon a dark, compact mass of trees and smelled the increasing sweetness of orange blossoms. He struck the remains of a board path, and progressed with the cold, waxen leaves of the orange trees brushing his face. There was, he saw in the grey brightness, ripe fruit among the branches, and he mechanically picked an orange and then another. They were small but heavy, and had fine skins.
He tore one open and put a section in his mouth. It was at first surprisingly bitter, and he involuntarily flung away what remained in his hand. But after a moment he found that the oranges possessed a pungency and zestful flavor that he had tasted in no others. Then he saw, directly before him, a pale, rectangular light which he recognized as the opened door of a habitation.
He advanced more slowly, and a low, irregular house detached itself from the tangled growth pressing upon it from all sides. The doorway, dimly lighted by an invisible lamp from within, was now near by; and John Woolfolk saw a shape cross it, so swiftly furtive that it was gone before he realized that a man had vanished into the hall. There was a second stir on the small covered portico, and the slender, white-clad figure of a woman moved uncertainly forward. He stopped just at the moment in which a low, clear voice demanded: "What do you want?"
The question was directly put, and yet the tone held an inexplicably acute apprehension. The woman's voice bore a delicate, bell-like shiver of fear.
"Nothing," he hastened to assure her. "When I came ashore I thought no one was living here."
"You're from the white boat that sailed in at sunset?"
"Yes," he replied, "and I am returning immediately."
"It was like magic!" she continued. "Suddenly, without a sound, you were anchored in the bay." Even this quiet statement bore the shadowy alarm. John Woolfolk realized that it had not been caused by his abrupt appearance; the faint accent of dread was fixed in the illusive form before him.
"I have robbed you too," he continued in a lighter tone. "Your oranges are in my pocket."
"You won't like them," she returned indirectly; "they've run wild. We can't sell them."
"They have a distinct flavor of their own," he assured her. "I should be glad to have some on the Gar."
"All you want."
"My man will get them and pay you."
"Please don't——" She stopped abruptly, as if a sudden consideration had interrupted a liberal courtesy. When she spoke again the apprehension, Woolfolk thought, had increased to palpable fright. "We would charge you very little," she said finally. "Nicholas attends to that."
Silence fell upon them. She stood with her hand resting lightly against an upright support, coldly revealed by the moon. John Woolfolk saw that, although slight, her body was delicately full, and that her shoulders held a droop which somehow resembled the shadow on her voice. She bore an unmistakable refinement of being, strange in that locality of meager humanity. Her speech totally lacked the unintelligible, loose slurring of the natives.
"Won't you sit down," she at last broke the silence. "My father was here when you came up, but he went in. Strangers disturb him."
Woolfolk moved to the portico, elevated above the ground, where he found a momentary place. The woman sank back into a low chair. The stillness gathered about them once more, and he mechanically rolled a cigarette. Her white dress, although simply and rudely made, gained distinction from her free, graceful lines; her feet, in black, heelless slippers, were narrow and sharply cut. He saw that her countenance bore an even pallor on which her eyes made shadows like those on marble.
These details, unremarkable in themselves, were charged with a peculiar intensity. John Woolfolk, who long ago had put such considerations from his existence, was yet clearly conscious of the disturbing quality of her person. She possessed the indefinable property of charm. Such women, he knew, stirred life profoundly, reanimating it with extraordinary efforts and desires. Their mere passage, the pressure of their fingers, were more imperative than the life service of others; the flutter of their breath could be more tyrannical that the most poignant memories and vows.
John Woolfolk thought these things in a manner absolutely detached. They touched him at no point. Nevertheless, the faint curiosity stirred within him remained. The house unexpectedly inhabited behind the ruined facade on the water, the magnetic woman with the echo of apprehension in her cultivated voice, the parent, so easily disturbed, even the mere name "Nicholas," all held a marked potentiality of emotion; they were set in an almost hysterical key.
He was suddenly conscious of the odorous pressure of the flowering trees, of the orange blossoms and the oleanders. It was stifling. He felt that he must escape at once, from all the cloying and insidious scents of the earth, to the open and sterile sea. The thick tangle in the colorless light of the moon, the dimmer portico with its enigmatic figure, were a cunning essence of the existence from which he had fled. Life's traps were set with just such treacheries—perfume and mystery and the veiled lure of sex.
He rose with an uncouth abruptness, a meager commonplace, and hurried over the path to the beach, toward the refuge, the release, of the Gar.
John Woolfolk woke at dawn. A thin, bluish light filled the cabin; above, Halvard was washing the deck. The latter was vigorously swabbing the cockpit when Woolfolk appeared, but he paused.
"Perhaps," the sailor said, "you will stay here for a day or two. I'd like to unship the propeller, and there's the scraping. It's a good anchorage."
"We're moving on south," Woolfolk replied, stating the determination with which he had retired. Then the full sense of Halvard's words penetrated his waking mind. The propeller, he knew, had not opened properly for a week; and the anchorage was undoubtedly good. This was the last place, before entering the Florida passes, for whatever minor adjustments were necessary.
The matted shore, flushed with the rising sun, was starred with white and deep pink blooms; a ray gilded the blank wall of the deserted mansion. The scent of the orange blossoms was not so insistent as it had been on the previous evening. The land appeared normal; it exhibited none of the disturbing influence of which he had been first conscious. Last night's mood seemed absurd.
"You are quite right," he altered his pronouncement; "we'll put the Gar in order here. People are living behind the grove, and there'll be water."
He had, for breakfast, oranges brought down the coast, and he was surprised at their sudden insipidity. They were little better than faintly sweetened water. He turned and in the pocket of his flannel coat found one of those he had picked the night before. It was as keen as a knife; the peculiar aroma had, without doubt, robbed him of all desire for the cultivated oranges of commerce.
Halvard was in the tender, under the stern of the ketch, when it occurred to John Woolfolk that it would be wise to go ashore and establish his assertion of an adequate water supply. He explained this briefly to the sailor, who put him on the small shingle of sand. There he turned to the right, moving idly in a direction away from that he had taken before.
He crossed the corner of the demolished abode, made his way through a press of sere cabbage palmettos, and emerged suddenly on the blinding expanse of the sea. The limpid water lay in a bright rim over corrugated and pitted rock, where shallow ultramarine pools spread gardens of sulphur-yellow and rose anemones. The land curved in upon the left; a ruined landing extended over the placid tide, and, seated there with her back toward him, a woman was fishing.
It was, he saw immediately, the woman of the portico. At the moment of recognition she turned, and after a brief inspection, slowly waved her hand. He approached, crossing the openings in the precarious boarding of the landing, until he stood over her. She said:
"There's an old sheepshead under here I've been after for a year. If you'll be very still you can see him."
She turned her face up to him, and he saw that her cheeks were without trace of color. At the same time he reaffirmed all that he felt before with regard to the potent quality of her being. She had a lustrous mass of warm brown hair twisted into a loose knot that had slid forward over a broad, low brow; a pointed chin; and pale, disturbing lips. But her eyes were her most notable feature—they were widely opened and extraordinary in color; the only similitude that occurred to John Woolfolk was the grey greenness of olive leaves. In them he felt the same foreboding that had shadowed her voice. The fleet passage of her gaze left an indelible impression of an expectancy that was at once a dread and a strangely youthful candor. She was, he thought, about thirty.
She wore now a russet skirt of thin, coarse texture that, like the dress of the evening, took a slim grace from her fine body, and a white waist, frayed from many washings, open upon her smooth, round throat.
"He's usually by this post," she continued, pointing down through the clear gloom of the water.
Woolfolk lowered himself to a position at her side, his gaze following her direction. There, after a moment, he distinguished the sheepshead, barred in black and white, wavering about the piling. His companion was fishing with a short, heavy rod from which time had dissolved the varnish, an ineffectual brass reel that complained shrilly whenever the lead was raised or lowered, and a thick, freely-knotted line.
"You should have a leader," he told her. "The old gentleman can see your line too plainly."
There was a sharp pull, she rapidly turned the handle of the protesting reel, and drew up a gasping, bony fish with extended red wings.
"Another robin!" she cried tragically. "This is getting serious. Dinner," she informed him, "and not sport, is my object."
He looked out to where a channel made a deep blue stain through the paler cerulean of the sea. The tide, he saw from the piling, was low.
"There should be a rockfish in the pass," he pronounced.
"What good if there is?" she returned. "I couldn't possibly throw out there. And if I could, why disturb a rock with this?" She shook the short awkward rod, the knotted line.
He privately acknowledged the palpable truth of her objections, and rose.
"I've some fishing things on the ketch," he said, moving away. He blew shrilly on a whistle from the beach, and Halvard dropped over the Gar's side into the tender.
Woolfolk was soon back on the wharf, stripping the canvas cover from the long cane tip of a fishing rod brilliantly wound with green and vermilion, and fitting it into a dark, silver-capped butt. He locked a capacious reel into place, and, drawing a thin line through agate guides, attached a glistening steel leader and chained hook. Then, adding a freely swinging lead, he picked up the small mullet that lay by his companion.
"Does that have to go?" she demanded. "It's such a slim chance, and it is my only mullet."
He ruthlessly sliced a piece from the silvery side; and, rising and switching his reel's gear, he cast. The lead swung far out across the water and fell on the farther side of the channel.
"But that's dazzling!" she exclaimed; "as though you had shot it out of a gun."
He tightened the line, and sat with the rod resting in a leather socket fastened to his belt.
"Now," she stated, "we will watch at the vain sacrifice of an only mullet."
The day was superb, the sky sparkled like a great blue sun; schools of young mangrove snappers swept through the pellucid water. The woman said:
"Where did you come from and where are you going?"
"Cape Cod," he replied; "and I am going to the Guianas."
"Isn't that South America?" she queried. "I've traveled far—on maps. Guiana," she repeated the name softly. For a moment the faint dread in her voice changed to longing. "I think I know all the beautiful names of places on the earth," she continued: "Tarragona and Seriphos and Cambodia."
"Some of them you have seen?"
"None," she answered simply. "I was born here, in the house you know, and I have never been fifty miles away."
This, he told himself, was incredible. The mystery that surrounded her deepened, stirring more strongly his impersonal curiosity.
"You are surprised," she added; "it's mad, but true. There—there is a reason." She stopped abruptly, and, neglecting her fishing rod, sat with her hands clasped about slim knees. She gazed at him slowly, and he was impressed once more by the remarkable quality of her eyes, grey-green like olive leaves and strangely young. The momentary interest created in her by romantic and far names faded, gave place to the familiar trace of fear. In the long past he would have responded immediately to the appeal of her pale, magnetic countenance.... He had broken all connection with society, with——
There was a sudden, impressive jerk at his line, the rod instantly assumed the shape of a bent bow, and, as he rose, the reel spindle was lost in a grey blur and the line streaked out through the dipping tip. His companion hung breathless at his shoulder.
"He'll take all your line," she lamented as the fish continued his straight, outward course, while Woolfolk kept an even pressure on the rod.
"A hundred yards," he announced as he felt a threaded mark wheel from under his thumb. Then: "A hundred and fifty. I'm afraid it's a shark." As he spoke the fish leaped clear of the water, a spot of molten silver, and fell back in a sparkling blue spray. "It's a rock," he added. He stopped the run momentarily; the rod bent perilously double, but the fish halted. Woolfolk reeled in smoothly, but another rush followed, as strong as the first. A long, equal struggle ensued, the thin line was drawn as rigid as metal, the rod quivered and arched. Once the rockfish was close enough to be clearly distinguishable—strongly built, heavy-shouldered, with black stripes drawn from gills to tail. But he was off again with a short, blundering rush.
"If you will hold the rod," Woolfolk directed his companion, "I'll gaff him." She took the rod while he bent over the wharf's side. The fish, on the surface of the water, half turned; and, striking the gaff through a gill, Woolfolk swung him up on the boarding.
"There," he pronounced, "are several dinners. I'll carry him to your kitchen."
"Nicholas would do it, but he's away," she told him; "and my father is not strong enough. That's a leviathan."
John Woolfolk placed a handle through the rockfish's gills, and, carrying it with an obvious effort, he followed her over a narrow, trampled path through the rasped palmettos. They approached the dwelling from behind the orange grove; and, coming suddenly to the porch, surprised an incredibly thin, grey man in the act of lighting a small stone pipe with a reed stem. He was sitting, but, seeing Woolfolk, he started sharply to his feet, and the pipe fell, shattering the bowl.
"My father," the woman pronounced: "Lichfield Stope."
"Millie," he stuttered painfully, "you know—I—strangers—"
John Woolfolk thought, as he presented himself, that he had never before seen such an immaterial living figure. Lichfield Stope was like the shadow of a man draped with unsubstantial, dusty linen. Into his waxen face beat a pale infusion of blood, as if a diluted wine had been poured into a semi-opaque goblet; his sunken lips puffed out and collapsed; his fingers, dust-colored like his garb, opened and shut with a rapid, mechanical rigidity.
"Father," Millie Stope remonstrated, "you must manage yourself better. You know I wouldn't bring any one to the house who would hurt us. And see—we are fetching you a splendid rockfish."
The older man made a convulsive effort to regain his composure.
"Ah, yes," he muttered; "just so."
The flush receded from his indeterminate countenance. Woolfolk saw that he had a goatee laid like a wasted yellow finger on his chin, and that his hands hung on wrists like twisted copper wires from circular cuffs fastened with large mosaic buttons.
"We are alone here," he proceeded in a fluctuating voice, the voice of a shadow; "the man is away. My daughter—I——" He grew inaudible, although his lips maintained a faint movement.
The fear that lurked illusively in the daughter was in the parent magnified to an appalling panic, an instinctive, acute agony that had crushed everything but a thin, tormented spark of life. He passed his hand over a brow as dry as the spongy limbs of the cypress, brushing a scant lock like dead, bleached moss.
"The fish," he pronounced; "yes ... acceptable."
"If you will carry it back for me," Millie Stope requested; "we have no ice; I must put it in water." He followed her about a bay window with ornamental fretting that bore the shreds of old, variegated paint. He could see, amid an incongruous wreckage within, a dismantled billiard table, its torn cloth faintly green beneath a film of dust. They turned and arrived at the kitchen door. "There, please." She indicated a bench on the outside wall, and he deposited his burden.
"You have been very nice," she told him, making her phrase less commonplace by a glance of her wide, appealing eyes. "Now, I suppose, you will go on across the world?"
"Not tonight," he replied distantly.
"Perhaps, then, you will come ashore again. We see so few people. My father would be benefited. It was only at first, so suddenly—he was startled."
"There is a great deal to do on the ketch," he replied indirectly, maintaining his retreat from the slightest advance of life. "I came ashore to discover if you had a large water supply and if I might fill my casks."
"Rain water," she informed him; "the cistern is full."
"Then I'll send Halvard to you." He withdrew a step, but paused at the incivility of his leaving.
A sudden weariness had settled over the shoulders of Millie Stope; she appeared young and very white. Woolfolk was acutely conscious of her utter isolation with the shivering figure on the porch, the unmaterialized Nicholas. She had delicate hands.
"Good-by," he said, bowing formally. "And thank you for the fishing."
He whistled sharply for the tender.
Throughout the afternoon, with a triangular scraping iron, he assisted Halvard in removing the whitened varnish from the yacht's mahogany. They worked silently, with only the shrill note of the edges drawing across the wood, while the westering sun plunged its diagonal rays far into the transparent depths of the bay. The Gar floated motionless on water like a pale evening over purple and silver flowers threaded by fish painted the vermilion and green of parrakeets. Inshore the pallid cypresses seemed, as John Woolfolk watched them, to twist in febrile pain. With the waning of day the land took on its air of unhealthy mystery; the mingled, heavy scents floated out in a sickly tide; the ruined facade glimmered in the half light.
Woolfolk's thoughts turned back to the woman living in the miasma of perfume and secret fear. He heard again her wistful voice pronounce the names of far places, of Tarragona and Seriphos, investing them with the accent of an intense hopeless desire. He thought of the inexplicable place of her birth and of the riven, unsubstantial figure of the man with the blood pulsing into his ocherous face. Some old, profound error or calamity had laid its blight upon him, he was certain; but the most lamentable inheritance was not sufficient to account for the acute apprehension in his daughter's tones. This was different in kind from the spiritual collapse of the aging man. It was actual, he realized that; proceeding—in part at least—from without.
He wondered, scraping with difficulty the under-turning of a cathead, if whatever dark tide was centered above her would, perhaps, descend through the oleander-scented night and stifle her in the stagnant dwelling. He had a swift, vividly complete vision of the old man face down upon the floor in a flickering, reddish light.
He smiled in self-contempt at this neurotic fancy; and, straightening his cramped muscles, rolled a cigarette. It might be that the years he had spent virtually alone on the silence of various waters had affected his brain. Halvard's broad, concentrated countenance, the steady, grave gaze and determined mouth, cleared Woolfolk's mind of its phantoms. He moved to the cockpit and from there said:
"That will do for today."
Halvard followed, and commenced once more the familiar, ordered preparations for supper. John Woolfolk, smoking while the sky turned to malachite, became sharply aware of the unthinkable monotony of the universal course, of the centuries wheeling in dull succession into infinity. Life seemed to him no more varied than the wire drum in which squirrels raced nowhere. His own lot, he told himself grimly, was no worse than another. Existence was all of the same drab piece. It had seemed gay enough when he was young, worked with gold and crimson threads, and then——
His thoughts were broken by Halyard's appearance in the companionway, and he descended to his solitary supper in the contracted, still cabin.
Again on deck his sense of the monotony of life trebled. He had been cruising now about the edges of continents for twelve years. For twelve years he had taken no part in the existence of the cities he had passed, as often as possible without stopping, and of the villages gathered invitingly under their canopies of trees. He was—yes, he must be—forty-six. Life was passing away; well, let it ... worthless.
The growing radiance of the moon glimmered across the water and folded the land in a gossamer veil. The same uneasiness, the inchoate desire to go ashore that had seized upon him the night before, reasserted its influence. The face of Millie Stope floated about him like a magical gardenia in the night of the matted trees. He resisted the pressure longer than before; but in the end he was seated in the tender, pulling toward the beach.
He entered the orange grove and slowly approached the house beyond. Millie Stope advanced with a quick welcome.
"I'm glad," she said simply. "Nicholas is back. The fish weighed—"
"I think I'd better not know," he interrupted. "I might be tempted to mention it in the future, when it would take on the historic suspicion of the fish story."
"But it was imposing," she protested. "Let's go to the sea; it's so limitless in the moonlight."
He followed her over the path to where the remains of the wharf projected into a sea as black, and as solid apparently, as ebony, and across which the moon flung a narrow way like a chalk mark. Millie Stope seated herself on the boarding and he found a place near by. She leaned forward, with her arms propped up and her chin couched on her palms. Her potency increased rather than diminished with association; her skin had a rare texture; her movements, the turn of the wrists, were distinguished. He wondered again at the strangeness of her situation.
She looked about suddenly and surprised his palpable questioning.
"You are puzzled," she pronounced. "Perhaps you are setting me in the middle of romance. Please don't! Nothing you might guess——" She broke off abruptly, returned to her former pose. "And yet," she added presently, "I have a perverse desire to talk about myself. It's perverse because, although you are a little curious, you have no real interest in what I might say. There is something about you like—yes, like the cast-iron dog that used to stand in our lawn. It rusted away, cold to the last and indifferent, although I talked to it by the hour. But I did get a little comfort from its stolid painted eye. Perhaps you'd act in the same way.
"And then," she went on when Woolfolk had somberly failed to comment, "you are going away, you will forget, it can't possibly matter. I must talk, now that I have urged myself this far. After all, you needn't have come back. But where shall I begin? You should know something of the very first. That happened in Virginia.... My father didn't go to war," she said, sudden and clear. She turned her face toward him, and he saw that it had lost its flower-like quality; it looked as if it had been carved in stone.
"He lived in a small, intensely loyal town," she continued; "and when Virginia seceded it burned with a single high flame of sacrifice. My father had been always a diffident man; he collected mezzotints and avoided people. So, when the enlistment began, he shrank away from the crowds and hot speeches, and the men went off without him. He lived in complete retirement then, with his prints, in a town of women. It wasn't impossible at first; he discussed the situation with the few old tradesmen that remained, and exchanged bows with the wives and daughters of his friends. But when the dead commenced to be brought in from the front it got worse. Belle Semple—he had always thought her unusually nice and pretty—mocked at him on the street. Then one morning he found an apron tied to the knob of the front door.
"After that he went out only at night. His servants had deserted him, and he lived by himself in a biggish, solemn house. Sometimes the news of losses and deaths would be shouted through his windows; once stones were thrown in, but mostly he was let alone. It must have been frightful in his empty rooms when the South went from bad to worse." She paused, and John Woolfolk could see, even in the obscurity, the slow shudder that passed over her.
"When the war was over and what men were left returned—one with hands gone at the wrists, another without legs in a shabby wheelchair—the life of the town started once more, but my father was for ever outside of it. Little subscriptions for burials were made up, small schemes for getting the necessities, but he was never asked. Men spoke to him again, even some of the women. That was all.
"I think it was then that a curious, perpetual dread fastened on his mind—a fear of the wind in the night, of breaking twigs or sudden voices. He ordered things to be left on the steps, and he would peer out from under the blind to make sure that the walk was empty before he opened the door.
"You must realize," she said in a sharper voice, "that my father was not a pure coward at first. He was an extremely sensitive man who hated the rude stir of living and who simply asked to be left undisturbed with his portfolios. But life's not like that. The war hunted him out and ruined him; it destroyed his being, just as it destroyed the fortunes of others.
"Then he began to think—it was absolute fancy—that there was a conspiracy in the town to kill him. He sent some of his things away, got together what money he had, and one night left his home secretly on foot. He tramped south for weeks, living for a while in small place after place, until he reached Georgia, and then a town about fifty miles from here——"
She broke off, sitting rigidly erect, looking out over the level black sea with its shifting, chalky line of light, and a long silence followed. The antiphonal crying of the owls sounded over the bubbling swamp, the mephitic perfume hung like a vapor on the shore. John Woolfolk shifted his position.
"My mother told me this," his companion said suddenly. "Father repeated it over and over through the nights after they were married. He slept only in snatches, and would wake with a gasp and his heart almost bursting. I know almost nothing about her, except that she had a brave heart—or she would have gone mad. She was English and had been a governess. They met in the little hotel where they were married. Then father bought this place, and they came here to live."
Woolfolk had a vision of the tenuous figure of Lichfield Stope; he was surprised that such acute agony had left the slightest trace of humanity; yet the other, after forty years of torment, still survived to shudder at a chance footfall, the advent of a casual and harmless stranger.
This, then, was by implication the history of the woman at his side; it disposed of the mystery that had veiled her situation here. It was surprisingly clear, even to the subtle influence that, inherited from her father, had set the shadow of his own obsession upon her voice and eyes. Yet, in the moment that she had been made explicable, he recalled the conviction that the knowledge of an actual menace lurked in her mind; he had seen it in the tension of her body, in the anxiety of fleet backward glances.
The latter, he told himself, might be merely a symptom of mental sickness, a condition natural to the influences under which she had been formed. He tested and rejected that possibility—there could be no doubt of her absolute sanity. It was patent in a hundred details of her carriage, in her mentality as it had been revealed in her restrained, balanced narrative.
There was, too, the element of her mother to be considered. Millie Stope had known very little about her, principally the self-evident fact of the latter's "brave heart." It would have needed that to remain steadfast through the racking recitals of the long, waking darks; to accompany to this desolate and lonely refuge the man who had had an apron tied to his doorknob. In the degree that the daughter had been a prey to the man's fear she would have benefited from the stiffer qualities of the English governess. Life once more assumed its enigmatic mask.
His companion said:
"All that—and I haven't said a word about myself, the real end of my soliloquy. I'm permanently discouraged; I have qualms about boring you. No, I shall never find another listener as satisfactory as the iron dog."
A light glimmered far at sea. "I sit here a great deal," she informed him, "and watch the ships, a thumbprint of blue smoke at day and a spark at night, going up and down their water roads. You are enviable—getting up your anchor, sailing where you like, safe and free." Her voice took on a passionate intensity that surprised him; it was sick with weariness and longing, with sudden revolt from the pervasive apprehension.
"Safe and free," he repeated thinly, as if satirizing the condition implied by those commonplace, assuaging words. He had, in his flight from society, sought simply peace. John Woolfolk now questioned all his implied success. He had found the elemental hush of the sea, the iron aloofness of rocky and uninhabited coasts, but he had never been able to still the dull rebellion within, the legacy of the past. A feeling of complete failure settled over him. His safety and freedom amounted to this—that life had broken him and cast him aside.
A long, hollow wail rose from the land, and Millie Stope moved sharply.
"There's Nicholas," she exclaimed, "blowing on the conch! They don't know where I am; I'd better go in."
A small, evident panic took possession of her; the shiver in her voice swelled.
"No, don't come," she added. "I'll be quicker without you." She made her way over the wharf to the shore, but there paused, "I suppose you'll be going soon?"
"Tomorrow probably," he answered.
On the ketch Halvard had gone below for the night. The yacht swayed slightly to an unseen swell; the riding light moved backward and forward, its ray flickering over the glassy water. John Woolfolk brought his bedding from the cabin and, disposing it on deck, lay with his wakeful dark face set against the far, multitudinous worlds.
In the morning Halvard proposed a repainting of the engine.
"The Florida air," he said, "eats metal overnight." And the ketch remained anchored.
Later in the day Woolfolk sounded the water casks cradled in the cockpit, and, when they answered hollow, directed his man with regard to their refilling. They drained a cask. Halvard put it on the tender and pulled in to the beach. There he shouldered the empty container and disappeared among the trees.
Woolfolk was forward, preparing a chain hawser for coral anchorages, when he saw Halvard tramping shortly back over the sand. He entered the tender and, with a vicious shove, rowed with a powerful, vindictive sweep toward the ketch. The cask evidently had been left behind. He made the tender fast and swung aboard with his notable agility.
"There's a damn idiot in that house," he declared, in a surprising departure from his customary detached manner.
"Explain yourself," Woolfolk demanded shortly.
"But I'm going back after him," the sailor stubbornly proceeded. "I'll turn any knife out of his hand." It was evident that he was laboring under an intense growing excitement and anger.
"The only idiot's not on land," Woolfolk told him. "Where's the water cask you took ashore?"
"I'll tell you fast enough. There was nobody about when I went up to the house, although there was a chair rocking on the porch as if a person had just left. I knocked at the door; it was open, and I was certain that I heard someone inside, but nobody answered. Then after a bit I went around back. The kitchen was open, too, and no one in sight. I saw the water cistern and thought I'd fill up, when you could say something afterward. I did, and was rolling the cask about the house when this—loggerhead came out of the bushes. He wanted to know what I was getting away with, and I explained, but it didn't suit him. He said I might be telling facts and again I mightn't. I saw there was no use talking, and started rolling the cask again; but he put his foot on it, and I pushed one way and he the other——"
"And between you, you stove in the cask," Woolfolk interrupted.
"That's it," Poul Halvard answered concisely. "Then I got mad, and offered to beat in his face, but he had a knife. I could have broken it out of his grip—I've done it before in a place or two—but I thought I'd better come aboard and report before anything general began."
John Woolfolk was momentarily at a loss to establish the identity of Halvard's assailant.
He soon realized, however, that it must be Nicholas, whom he had never seen, and who had blown such an imperative summons on the conch the night before. Halvard's temper was communicated to him; he moved abruptly to where the tender was fastened.
"Put me ashore," he directed. He would make it clear that his man was not to be interrupted in the execution of his orders, and that his property could not be arbitrarily destroyed.
When the tender ran upon the beach and had been secured, Halvard started to follow him, but Woolfolk waved him back. There was a stir on the portico as he approached, the flitting of an unsubstantial form; but, hastening, John Woolfolk arrested Lichfield Stope in the doorway.
"Morning," he nodded abruptly. "I came to speak to you about a water cask of mine."
The other swayed like a thin, grey column of smoke.
"Ah, yes," he pronounced with difficulty. "Water cask——"
"It was broken here a little while back."
At the suggestion of violence such a pitiable panic fell upon the older man that Woolfolk halted. Lichfield Stope raised his hands as if to ward off the mere impact of the words themselves; his face was stained with the thin red tide of congestion.
"You have a man named Nicholas," Woolfolk proceeded. "I should like to see him."
The other made a gesture as tremulous and indeterminate as his speech and appeared to dissolve into the hall. John Woolfolk stood for a moment undecided and then moved about the house toward the kitchen. There, he thought, he might obtain an explanation of the breaking of the cask. A man was walking about within and came to the door as Woolfolk approached.
The latter told himself that he had never seen a blanker countenance. In profile it showed a narrow brow, a huge, drooping nose, a pinched mouth and insignificant chin. From the front the face of the man in the doorway held the round, unscored cheeks of a fat and sleepy boy. The eyes were mere long glimmers of vision in thick folds of flesh; the mouth, upturned at the corners, lent a fixed, mechanical smile to the whole. It was a countenance on which the passage of time and thoughts had left no mark; its stolidity had been moved by no feeling. His body was heavy and sagging. It possessed, Woolfolk recognized, a considerable unwieldy strength, and was completely covered by a variously spotted and streaked apron.
"Are you Nicholas?" John Woolfolk demanded.
The other nodded.
"Then, I take it, you are the man who broke my water cask."
"It was full of our water," Nicholas replied in a thick voice.
"That," said Woolfolk, "I am not going to argue with you. I came ashore to instruct you to let my man and my property alone."
"Then leave our water be."
John Woolfolk's temper, the instinctive arrogance of men living apart from the necessary submissions of communal life, in positions—however small—of supreme command, flared through his body.
"I told you," he repeated shortly, "that I would not discuss the question of the water. I have no intention of justifying myself to you. Remember—your hands off."
The other said surprisingly: "Don't get me started!" A spasm of emotion made a faint, passing shade on his sodden countenance; his voice held almost a note of appeal.
"Whether you 'start' or not is without the slightest significance," Woolfolk coldly responded.
"Mind," the man went on, "I spoke first."
A steady twitching commenced in a muscle at the flange of his nose. Woolfolk was aware of an increasing tension in the other, that gained a peculiar oppressiveness from the lack of any corresponding outward expression. His heavy, blunt hand fumbled under the maculate apron; his chest heaved with a sudden, tempestuous breathing. "Don't start me," he repeated in a voice so blurred that the words were hardly recognizable. He swallowed convulsively, his emotion mounting to an inchoate passion, when suddenly a change was evident. He made a short, violent effort to regain his self-control, his gaze fastened on a point behind Woolfolk.
The latter turned and saw Millie Stope approaching, her countenance haggard with fear. "What has happened?" she cried breathlessly while yet a little distance away. "Tell me at once——"
"Nothing," Woolfolk promptly replied, appalled by the agony in her voice. "Nicholas and I had a small misunderstanding. A triviality," he added, thinking of the other's hand groping beneath the apron.
On the morning following the breaking of his water cask John Woolfolk saw the slender figure of Millie on the beach. She waved and called, her voice coming thin and clear across the water:
He sent Halvard in with the tender, and as they approached, dropped a gangway over the Gar's side. She stepped lightly down into the cockpit with a naive expression of surprise at the yacht's immaculate order. The sails lay precisely housed, the stays, freshly tarred, glistened in the sun, the brasswork and newly varnished mahogany shone, the mathematically coiled ropes rested on a deck as spotless as wood could be scraped.
"Why," she exclaimed, "it couldn't be neater if you were two nice old ladies!"
"I warn you," Woolfolk replied, "Halvard will not regard that particularly as a compliment. He will assure you that the order of a proper yacht is beyond the most ambitious dream of a mere housekeeper."
She laughed as Halvard placed a chair for her. She was, Woolfolk thought, lighter in spirit on the ketch than she had been on shore; there was the faintest imaginable stain on her petal-like cheeks; her eyes, like olive leaves, were almost gay. She sat with her slender knees crossed, her fine arms held with hands clasped behind her head, and clad in a crisply ironed, crude white dress, into the band of which she had thrust a spray of orange blossoms.
John Woolfolk was increasingly conscious of her peculiar charm. Millie Stope, he suddenly realized, was like the wild oranges in the neglected grove at her door. A man brought in contact with her magnetic being charged with appealing and mysterious emotions, in a setting of exotic night and black sea, would find other women, the ordinary concourse of society, insipid—like faintly sweetened water.
She was entirely at home on the ketch, sitting against the immaculate rim of deck and the sea. He resented that familiarity as an unwarranted intrusion of the world he had left. Other people, women among them, had unavoidably crossed his deck, but they had been patently alien, momentary; but Millie, with her still delight at the yacht's compact comfort, her intuitive comprehension of its various details—the lamps set in gimbals, the china racks and chart cases slung overhead—entered at once into the spirit of the craft that was John Woolfolk's sole place of being.
He was now disturbed by the ease with which she had established herself both in the yacht and in his imagination. He had thought, after so many years, to have destroyed all the bonds which ordinarily connect men with life; but now a mere curiosity had grown into a tangible interest, and the interest showed unmistakable signs of becoming sympathy.
She smiled at him from her position by the wheel; and he instinctively responded with such an unaccustomed, ready warmth that he said abruptly, seeking refuge in occupation:
"Why not reach out to sea? The conditions are perfect."
"Ah, please!" she cried. "Just to take up the anchor would thrill me for months."
A light west wind was blowing; and deliberate, exactly spaced swells, their tops laced with iridescent spray, were sweeping in from a sea like a glassy blue pavement. Woolfolk issued a short order, and the sailor moved forward with his customary smooth swiftness. The sails were shaken loose, the mainsail slowly spread its dazzling expanse to the sun, the jib and jigger were trimmed, and the anchor came up with a short rush.
Millie rose with her arms outspread, her chin high and eyes closed.
"Free!" she proclaimed with a slow, deep breath.
The sails filled and the ketch forged ahead. John Woolfolk, at the wheel, glanced at the chart section beside him.
"There's four feet on the bar at low water," he told Halvard. "The tide's at half flood now."
The Gar increased her speed, slipping easily out of the bay, gladly, it seemed to Woolfolk, turning toward the sea. The bow rose, and the ketch dipped forward over a spent wave. Millie Stope grasped the wheelbox. "Free!" she said again with shining eyes.
The yacht rose more sharply, hung on a wave's crest and slid lightly downward. Woolfolk, with a sinewy, dark hand directing their course, was intent upon the swelling sails. Once he stopped, tightening a halyard, and the sailor said:
"The main peak won't flatten, sir."
The swells grew larger. The Gar climbed their smooth heights and coasted like a feather beyond. Directly before the yacht they were unbroken, but on either side they foamed into a silver quickly reabsorbed in the deeper water within the bar.
Woolfolk turned from his scrutiny of the ketch to his companion, and was surprised to see her, with all the joy evaporated from her countenance, clinging rigidly to the rail. He said to himself, "Seasick." Then he realized that it was not a physical illness that possessed her, but a profound, increasing terror. She endeavored to smile back at his questioning gaze, and said in a small, uncertain voice:
"It's so—so big!"
For a moment he saw in her a clear resemblance to the shrinking figure of Lichfield Stope. It was as though suddenly she had lost her fine profile and become indeterminate, shadowy. The grey web of the old deflection in Virginia extended over her out of the past—of the past that, Woolfolk thought, would not die.
The Gar rose higher still, dropped into the deep, watery valley, and the woman's face was drawn and wet, the back of her straining hand was dead white. Without further delay John Woolfolk put the wheel sharply over and told his man, "We're going about." Halvard busied himself with the shaking sails.
"Really—I'd rather you didn't," Millie gasped. "I must learn ... no longer a child."
But Woolfolk held the ketch on her return course; his companion's panic was growing beyond her control. They passed once more between the broken waves and entered the still bay with its border of flowering earth. There, when the yacht had been anchored, Millie sat gazing silently at the open sea whose bigness had so unexpectedly distressed her. Her face was pinched, her mouth set in a straight, hard line. That, somehow, suggested to Woolfolk the enigmatic governess; it was in contradiction to the rest.
"How strange," she said at last in an insuperably weary voice, "to be forced back to this place that I loathe, by myself, by my own cowardice. It's exactly as if my spirit were chained—then the body could never be free. What is it," she demanded of John Woolfolk, "that lives in our own hearts and betrays our utmost convictions and efforts, and destroys us against all knowledge and desire?"
"It may be called heredity," he replied; "that is its simplest phase. The others extend into the realms of the fantastic."
"It's unjust," she cried bitterly, "to be condemned to die in a pit with all one's instinct in the sky!"
The old plea of injustice quivered for a moment over the water and then died away. John Woolfolk had made the same passionate protest, he had cried it with clenched hands at the withdrawn stars, and the profound inattention of Nature had appalled his agony. A thrill of pity moved him for the suffering woman beside him. Her mouth was still unrelaxed. There was in her the material for a struggle against the invidious past.
In her slender frame the rebellion took on an accent of the heroic. Woolfolk recalled how utterly he had gone down before mischance. But his case had been extreme, he had suffered an unendurable wrong at the hand of Fate. Halvard diverted his thoughts by placing before them a tray of sugared pineapple and symmetrical cakes. Millie, too, lost her tension; she showed a feminine pleasure at the yacht's fine napkins, approved the polish of the glass.
"It's all quite wonderful," she said.
"I have nothing else to care for," Woolfolk told her.
"No place nor people on land?"
"And you are satisfied?"
"Absolutely," he replied with an unnecessary emphasis. He was, he told himself aggressively; he wanted nothing more from living and had nothing to give. Yet his pity for Millie Stope mounted obscurely, bringing with it thoughts, dim obligations and desires, to which he had declared himself dead.
"I wonder if you are to be envied?" she queried.
A sudden astounding willingness to speak of himself, even of the past, swept over him.
"Hardly," he replied. "All the things that men value were killed for me in an instant, in the flutter of a white skirt."
"Can you talk about it?"
"There's almost nothing to tell; it was so unrelated, so senseless and blind. It can't be dressed into a story, it has no moral—no meaning. Well—it was twelve years ago. I had just been married, and we had gone to a property in the country. After two days I had to go into town, and when I came back Ellen met me in a breaking cart. It was a flag station, buried in maples, with a white road winding back to where we were staying.
"Ellen had trouble in holding the horse when the train left, and the beast shied going from the station. It was Monday, clothes hung from a line in a side yard and a skirt fluttered in a little breeze. The horse reared, the strapped back of the seat broke, and Ellen was thrown—on her head. It killed her."
He fell silent. Millie breathed sharply, and a ripple struck with a faint slap on the yacht's side. Then: "One can't allow that," he continued in a lower voice, as if arguing with himself; "arbitrary, wanton; impossible to accept such conditions——
"She was young," he once more took up the narrative; "a girl in a tennis skirt with a gay scarf about her waist—quite dead in a second. The clothes still fluttered on the line. You see," he ended, "nothing instructive, tragic—only a crude dissonance."
"Then you left everything?"
He failed to answer, and she gazed with a new understanding and interest over the Gar. Her attention was attracted to the beach, and, following her gaze, John Woolfolk saw the bulky figure of Nicholas gazing at them from under his palm. A palpable change, a swift shadow, enveloped Millie Stope.
"I must go back," she said uneasily; "there will be dinner, and my father has been alone all morning."
But Woolfolk was certain that, however convincing the reasons she put forward, it was none of these that was taking her so hurriedly ashore. The dread that for the past few hours had almost vanished from her tones, her gaze, had returned multiplied. It was, he realized, the objective fear; her entire being was shrinking as if in anticipation of an imminent calamity, a physical blow.
Woolfolk himself put her on the beach; and, with the tender canted on the sand, steadied her spring. As her hand rested on his arm it gripped him with a sharp force; a response pulsed through his body; and an involuntary color rose in her pale, fine cheeks.
Nicholas, stolidly set with his shoes half buried in the sand, surveyed them without a shade of feeling on his thick countenance. But Woolfolk saw that the other's fingers were crawling toward his pocket. He realized that the man's dully smiling mask concealed sultry, ungoverned emotions, blind springs of hate.
Again on the ketch the inevitable reaction overtook him. He had spoken of Ellen's death to no one until now, through all the years when he had been a wanderer on the edge of his world, and he bitterly regretted his reference to it. In speaking he had betrayed his resolution of solitude. Life, against all his instinct, his wishes, had reached out and caught him, however lightly, in its tentacles.
The least surrender, he realized, the slightest opening of his interest, would bind him with a multitude of attachments; the octopus that he dreaded, uncoiling arm after arm, would soon hold him again, a helpless victim for the fury Chance.
He had made a disastrous error in following his curiosity, the insistent scent of the wild oranges, to the house where Millie had advanced on the dim portico. His return there had been the inevitable result of the first mistake, and the rest had followed with a fatal ease. Whatever had been the deficiences of the past twelve years he had been free from new complications, fresh treacheries. Now, with hardly a struggle, he was falling back into the old trap.
The wind died away absolutely, and a haze gathered delicately over the sea, thickening through the afternoon, and turned rosy by the declining sun. The shore had faded from sight.
A sudden energy leaped through John Woolfolk and rang out in an abrupt summons to Halvard. "Get up anchor," he commanded.
Poul Halvard, at the mainstay, remarked tentatively: "There's not a capful of wind."
The wide calm, Woolfolk thought, was but a part of a general conspiracy against his liberty, his memories. "Get the anchor up," he repeated harshly. "We'll go under the engine." The sudden jarring of the Gar's engine sounded muffled in a shut space like the flushed heart of a shell. The yacht moved forward, with a wake like folded gauze, into a shimmer of formless and pure color.
John Woolfolk sat at the wheel, motionless except for an occasional scant shifting of his hands. He was sailing by compass; the patent log, trailing behind on its long cord, maintained a constant, jerking register on its dial. He had resolutely banished all thought save that of navigation. Halvard was occupied forward, clearing the deck of the accumulations of the anchorage. When he came aft Woolfolk said shortly: "No mess."
The haze deepened and night fell, and the sailor lighted and placed the port and starboard lights. The binnacle lamp threw up a dim, orange radiance on Woolfolk's somber countenance. He continued for three and four and then five hours at the wheel, while the smooth clamor of the engine, a slight quiver of the hull, alone marked their progress through an invisible element.
Once more he had left life behind. This had more the aspect of a flight than at any time previous. It was, obscurely, an unpleasant thought, and he endeavored—unsuccessfully—to put it from him. He was but pursuing the course he had laid out, following his necessary, inflexible determination.
His mind for a moment turned independently back to Millie with her double burden of fear. He had left her without a word, isolated with Nicholas, concealing with a blank smile his enigmatic being, and with her impotent parent.
Well, he was not responsible for her, he had paid for the privilege of immunity; he had but listened to her story, volunteering nothing. John Woolfolk wished, however, that he had said some final, useful word to her before going. He was certain that, looking for the ketch and unexpectedly finding the bay empty, she would suffer a pang, if only of loneliness. In the short while that he had been there she had come to depend on him for companionship, for relief from the insuperable monotony of her surroundings; for, perhaps, still more. He wondered what that more might contain. He thought of Millie at the present moment, probably lying awake, steeped in dread. His flight now assumed the aspect of an act of cowardice, of desertion. He rehearsed wearily the extenuations of his position, but without any palpable relief.
An even more disturbing possibility lodged in his thoughts—he was not certain that he did not wish to be actually back with Millie again. He felt the quick pressure of her fingers on his arm as she jumped from the tender; her magnetic personality hung about him like an aroma. Cloaked in mystery, pale and irresistible, she appealed to him from the edge of the wild oranges.
This, he told himself again, was but the manner in which a ruthless Nature set her lures; it was the deceptive vestment of romance. He held the ketch relentlessly on her course, with—now—all his thoughts, his inclinations, returning to Millie Stope. In a final, desperate rally of his scattering resolution he told himself that he was unfaithful to the tragic memory of Ellen. This last stay broke abruptly, and left him defenseless against the tyranny of his mounting desires. Strangely he felt the sudden pressure of a stirring wind upon his face; and, almost with an oath, he put the wheel sharply over and the Gar swung about.
Poul Halvard had been below, by inference asleep; but when the yacht changed her course he immediately appeared on deck. He moved aft, but Woolfolk made no explanation, the sailor put no questions. The wind freshened, grew sustained. Woolfolk said:
Soon after, the mainsail rose, a ghostly white expanse on the night. John Woolfolk trimmed the jigger, shut off the engine; and, moving through a sudden, vast hush, they retraced their course. The bay was ablaze with sunlight, the morning well advanced, when the ketch floated back to her anchorage under the oleanders.
Whether he returned or fled, Woolfolk thought, he was enveloped in an atmosphere of defeat. He relinquished the wheel, but remained seated, drooping at his post. The indefatigable Halvard proceeded with the efficient discharge of his narrow, exacting duties. After a short space John Woolfolk descended to the cabin, where, on an unmade berth, he fell immediately asleep.
He woke to a dim interior and twilight gathering outside. He shaved—without conscious purpose—with meticulous care, and put on the blue flannel coat. Later he rowed himself ashore and proceeded directly through the orange grove to the house beyond.
Millie Stope was seated on the portico, and laid a restraining hand on her father's arm as he rose, attempting to retreat at Woolfolk's approach. The latter, with a commonplace greeting, resumed his place.
Millie's face was dim and potent in the gloom, and Lichfield Stope more than ever resembled an uneasy ghost. He muttered an indistinct response to a period directed at him by Woolfolk and turned with a low, urgent appeal to his daughter. The latter, with a hopeless gesture, relinquished his arm, and the other vanished.
"You were sailing this morning," Millie commented listlessly.
"I had gone," he said without explanation. Then he added: "But I came back."
A silence threatened them which he resolutely broke: "Do you remember, when you told me about your father, that you wanted really to talk about yourself? Will you do that now?"
"Tonight I haven't the courage."
"I am not idly curious," he persisted.
"Just what are you?"
"I don't know," he admitted frankly. "At the present moment I'm lost, fogged. But, meanwhile, I'd like to give you any assistance in my power. You seem, in a mysterious way, needful of help."
She turned her head sharply in the direction of the open hall and said in a high, clear voice, that yet rang strangely false: "I am quite well cared for by my father and Nicholas." She moved closer to him, dragging her chair across the uneven porch, in the rasp of which she added, quick and low:
A mounting exasperation seized him at the secrecy that veiled her, hid her from him, and he answered stiffly: "I am merely intrusive."
She was seated above him, and she leaned forward and swiftly pressed his fingers, loosely clasped about a knee. Her hand was as cold as salt. His irritation vanished before a welling pity. He got now a sharp, recognized happiness from her nearness; his feeling for her increased with the accumulating seconds. After the surrender, the admission, of his return he had grown elemental, sensitized to emotions rather than to processes of intellect. His ardor had the poignancy of the period beyond youth. It had a trace of the consciousness of the fatal waning of life which gave it a depth denied to younger passions. He wished to take Millie Stope at once from all memory of the troublous past, to have her alone in a totally different and thrilling existence.
It was a personal and blind desire, born in the unaccustomed tumult of his newly released feelings.
They sat for a long while, silent or speaking in trivialities, when he proposed a walk to the sea; but she declined in that curiously loud and false tone. It seemed to Woolfolk that, for the moment, she had addressed someone not immediately present; and involuntarily he looked around. The light of the hidden lamp in the hall fell in a pale, unbroken rectangle on the irregular porch. There was not the shifting of a pound's weight audible in the stillness.
Millie breathed unevenly; at times he saw she shivered uncontrollably. At this his feeling mounted beyond all restraint. He said, taking her cold hand: "I didn't tell you why I went last night—it was because I was afraid to stay where you were; I was afraid of the change you were bringing about in my life. That's all over now, I——"
"Isn't it quite late?" she interrupted him uncomfortably. She rose and her agitation visibly increased.
He was about to force her to hear all that he must say, but he stopped at the mute wretchedness of her pallid face. He stood gazing up at her from the rough sod. She clenched her hands, her breast heaved sharply, and she spoke in a level, strained voice:
"It would have been better if you had gone—without coming back. My father is unhappy with anyone about except myself—and Nicholas. You see—he will not stay on the porch nor walk about his grounds. I am not in need of assistance, as you seem to think. And—thank you. Good night."
He stood without moving, his head thrown back, regarding her with a searching frown. He listened again, unconsciously, and thought he heard the low creaking of a board from within. It could be nothing but the uneasy peregrination of Lichfield Stope. The sound was repeated, grew louder, and the sagging bulk of Nicholas appeared in the doorway.
The latter stood for a moment, a dark, magnified shape; and then, moving across the portico to the farthest window, closed the shutters. The hinges gave out a rasping grind, as if they had not been turned for months, and there was a faint rattle of falling particles of rusted iron. The man forced shut a second set of shutters with a sudden violence and went slowly back into the house. Millie Stope said once more:
It was evident to Woolfolk that he could gain nothing more at present; and stifling an angry protest, an impatient troop of questions, he turned and strode back to the tender. However, he hadn't the slightest intention of following Millie's indirectly expressed wish for him to leave. He had the odd conviction that at heart she did not want him to go; the evening, he elaborated this feeling, had been all a strange piece of acting. Tomorrow he would tear apart the veil that hid her from him; he would ignore her every protest and force the truth from her.
He lifted the tender's anchor from the sand and pulled sharply across the water to the Gar. A reddish, misshapen moon hung in the east, and when he had mounted to his deck it was suddenly obscured by a high, racing scud of cloud; the air had a damper, thicker feel. He instinctively moved to the barometer, which he found depressed. The wind, that had continued steadily since the night before, increased, and there was a corresponding stir among the branches ashore, a slapping of the yacht's cordage against the spars. He turned forward and half absently noted the increasing strain on the hawser disappearing into the dark tide. The anchor was firmly bedded. The pervasive far murmur of the waves on the outer bars grew louder.
The yacht swung lightly over the choppy water, and a strong affection for the ketch that had been his home, his occupation, his solace through the past dreary years expanded his heart. He knew the Gar's every capability and mood, and they were all good. She was an exceptional boat. His feeling was acute, for he knew that the yacht had been superseded. It was already an element of the past, of that past in which Ellen lay dead in a tennis skirt, with a bright scarf about her young waist.
He placed his hand on the mainmast, in the manner in which another might drop a palm on the shoulder of a departing faithful companion, and the wind in the rigging vibrated through the wood like a sentient and affectionate response. Then he went resolutely down into the cabin, facing the future.
John Woolfolk woke in the night, listened for a moment to the straining hull and wind shrilling aloft, and then rose and went forward again to examine the mooring. A second hawser now reached into the darkness. Halvard had been on deck and put out another anchor. The wind beat salt and stinging from the sea, utterly dissipating the languorous breath of the land, the odors of the exotic, flowering trees.
In the morning a storm, driving out of the east, enveloped the coast in a frigid, lashing rain. The wind mounted steadily through the middle of the day with an increasing pitch accompanied by the basso of the racing seas. The bay grew opaque and seamed with white scars. After the meridian the rain ceased, but the wind maintained its volume, clamoring beneath a leaden pall.
John Woolfolk, in dripping yellow oilskins, occasionally circled the deck of his ketch. Halvard had everything in a perfection of order. When the rain stopped, the sailor dropped into the tender and with a boat sponge bailed vigorously. Soon after, Woolfolk stepped out upon the beach. He was without any plan but the determination to put aside whatever obstacles held Millie from him. This rapidly crystallized into the resolve to take her with him before another day ended. His feeling for her, increasing to a passionate need, had destroyed the suspension, the deliberate calm of his life, as the storm had dissipated the sunny peace of the coast.
He paused before the ruined facade, weighing her statement that it would have been better if he had not returned; and he wondered how that would affect her willingness, her ability, to see him today. He added the word "ability" instinctively and without explanation. And he decided that, in order to have any satisfactory speech with her, he must come upon her alone, away from the house. Then he could force her to hear to the finish what he wanted to say; in the open they might escape from the inexplicable inhibition that lay upon her expression of feeling, of desire. It would be necessary, at the same time, to avoid the notice of anyone who would warn her of his presence. This precluded his waiting at the familiar place on the rotting wharf.
Three marble steps, awry and moldy, descended to the lawn from a French window in the side of the desolate mansion. They were screened by a tangle of rose-mallow, and there John Woolfolk seated himself—waiting.
The wind shrilled about the corner of the house; there was a mournful clatter of shingles from above and the frenzied lashing of boughs. The noise was so great that he failed to hear the slightest indication of the approach of Nicholas until that individual passed directly before him. Nicholas stopped at the inner fringe of the beach and, from a point where he could not be seen from the ketch, stood gazing out at the Gar pounding on her long anchor chains. The man remained for an oppressively extended period; Woolfolk could see his heavy, drooping shoulders and sunken head; and then the other moved to the left, crossing the rough open behind the oleanders. Woolfolk had a momentary glimpse of a huge nose and rapidly moving lips above an impotent chin.
Nicholas, he realized, remained a complete enigma to him; beyond the conviction that the man was, in some minor way, leaden-witted, he knew nothing.
A brief, watery ray of sunlight fell through a rift in the flying clouds and stained the tossing foliage pale gold; it was followed by a sudden drift of rain, then once more the naked wind. Woolfolk was fast determining to go up to the house and insist upon Millie's hearing him, when unexpectedly she appeared in a somber, fluttering cloak, with her head uncovered and hair blown back from her pale brow. He waited until she had passed him, and then rose, softly calling her name.
She stopped and turned, with a hand pressed to her heart. "I was afraid you'd gone out," she told him. "The sea is like a pack of wolves." Her voice was a low complexity of relief and fear.
"Not alone," he replied; "not without you."
"Madness," she murmured, gathering her wavering cloak about her breast. She swayed, graceful as a reed in the wind, charged with potency. He made an involuntary gesture toward her with his arms; but in a sudden accession of fear she eluded him.
"We must talk," he told her. "There is a great deal that needs explaining, that—I think—I have a right to know, the right of your dependence on something to save you from yourself. There is another right, but only you can give that——"
"Indeed," she interrupted tensely, "you mustn't stand here talking to me."
"I shall allow nothing to interrupt us," he returned decidedly. "I have been long enough in the dark."
"But you don't understand what you will, perhaps, bring on yourself—on me."
"I'm forced to ignore even that last."
She glanced hurriedly about. "Not here then, if you must."
She walked from him, toward the second ruined pile that fronted the bay. The steps to the gaping entrance had rotted away and they were forced to mount an insecure side piece. The interior, as Woolfolk had seen, was composed of one high room, while, above, a narrow, open second story hung like a ledge. On both sides were long counters with mounting sets of shelves behind them.
"This was the store," Millie told him. "It was a great estate."
A dim and moldering fragment of cotton stuff was hanging from a forgotten bolt; above, some tinware was eaten with rust; a scale had crushed in the floor and lay broken on the earth beneath; and a ledger, its leaves a single, sodden film of grey, was still open on a counter. A precarious stair mounted to the flooring above, and Millie Stope made her way upward, followed by Woolfolk.
There, in the double gloom of the clouds and a small dormer window obscured by cobwebs, she sank on a broken box. The decayed walls shook perilously in the blasts of the wind. Below they could see the empty floor, and through the doorway the somber, gleaming greenery without.
All the patient expostulation that John Woolfolk had prepared disappeared in a sudden tyranny of emotion, of hunger for the slender, weary figure before him. Seating himself at her side, he burst into a torrential expression of passionate desire that mounted with the tide of his eager words. He caught her hands, held them in a painful grip, and gazed down into her still, frightened face. He stopped abruptly, was silent for a tempestuous moment, and then baldly repeated the fact of his love.
Millie Stope said:
"I know so little about the love you mean." Her voice trailed to silence; and in a lull of the storm they heard the thin patter of rats on the floor below, the stir of bats among the rafters.
"It's quickly learned," he assured her. "Millie, do you feel any response at all in your heart—the slightest return of my longing?"
"I don't know," she answered, turning toward him a troubled scrutiny. "Perhaps in another surrounding, with things different, I might care for you very much——"
"I am going to take you into that other surrounding," he announced.
She ignored his interruption. "But we shall never have a chance to learn." She silenced his attempted protest with a cool, flexible palm against his mouth. "Life," she continued, "is so dreadfully in the dark. One is lost at the beginning. There are maps to take you safely to the Guianas, but none for souls. Perhaps religions are——Again I don't know. I have found nothing secure—only a whirlpool into which I will not drag others."
"I will drag you out," he asserted.
She smiled at him, in a momentary tenderness, and continued: "When I was young I never doubted that I would conquer life. I pictured myself rising in triumph over circumstance, as a gull leaves the sea.... When I was young.... If I was afraid of the dark then I thought, of course, I would outgrow it; but it has grown deeper than my courage. The night is terrible now." A shiver passed over her.
"You are ill," he insisted, "but you shall be cured."
"Perhaps, a year ago, something might have been done, with assistance; yes—with you. Then, whatever is, hadn't materialized. Why did you delay?" she cried in a sudden suffering.
"You'll go with me tonight," he declared stoutly.
"In this?" She indicated the wind beating with the blows of a great fist against the swaying sides of the demolished store. "Have you seen the sea? Do you remember what happened on the day I went with you when it was so beautiful and still?"
John Woolfolk realized, wakened to a renewed mental clearness by the threatening of all that he desired, that—as Millie had intimated—life was too complicated to be solved by a simple longing; love was not the all-powerful magician of conventional acceptance; there were other, no less profound, depths.
He resolutely abandoned his mere inchoate wanting, and considered the elements of the position that were known to him. There was, in the first place, that old, lamentable dereliction of Lichfield Stope's, and its aftermath in his daughter. Millie had just recalled to Woolfolk the duration, the activity, of its poison. Here there was no possibility of escape by mere removal; the stain was within; and it must be thoroughly cleansed before she could cope successfully, happily, with life. In this, he was forced to acknowledge, he could help her but little; it was an affair of spirit; and spiritual values—though they might be supported from without—had their growth and decrease strictly in the individual they animated.
Still, he argued, a normal existence, a sense of security, would accomplish a great deal; and that in turn hung upon the elimination of the second, unknown element—the reason for her backward glances, her sudden, loud banalities, yesterday's mechanical repudiation of his offered assistance and the implied wish for him to go. He said gravely:
"I have been impatient, but you came so sharply into my empty existence that I was upset. If you are ill you can cure yourself. Never forget your mother's 'brave heart.' But there is something objective, immediate, threatening you. Tell me what it is, Millie, and together we will overcome and put it away from you for ever."
She gazed panic-stricken into the empty gloom below. "No! no!" she exclaimed, rising. "You don't know. I won't drag you down. You must go away at once, tonight, even in the storm."
"What is it?" he demanded.
She stood rigidly erect with her eyes shut and hands clasped at her sides. Then she slid down upon the box, lifting to him a white mask of fright.
"It's Nicholas," she said, hardly above her breath.
A sudden relief swept over John Woolfolk. In his mind he dismissed as negligible the heavy man fumbling beneath his soiled apron. He wondered how the other could have got such a grip on Millie Stope's imagination.