Story type: Literature
I. THE PRISONED SOUL.
The Capitol swarmed with people.
Groups of legislators tramped noisily along the corridors, laughing loudly, gesticulating with pointed fingers or closed fists.
Squads of ragged, wondering, and wistful-eyed negroes, splashed with orange-colored mud from the fields, moved timidly on from magnificence to magnificence, keeping close to each other, solemn and silent. When they spoke they whispered. Others from the city streets laughed loudly and swaggered along to show their contempt for the place and their knowledge of its public character; but their insolence was half assumed.
Lean and lank Southerners, with the imperial cut on their pale, brown whiskers, alternated with stalwart, slouch-hatted Westerners. Clean-shaven, pale clerks hurried to and fro; groups of sightseers infested every nook, and wore the look of those determined to see it all. They were accompanied often by one whose certainty of accent gave evidence of his fitness to be their guide. The sound of his voice proclaimed his judgments as he pushed his dazed wordless victims about.
In a group in the center of the checkered marble floor of the rotunda, a powerful Indian, dressed in semi-civilized fashion, was standing, looking wonderingly down into the upturned face of a little girl. The circle of bystanders silently studied both man and maid.
She was about eleven years of age and was tastefully dressed, and seemed a healthy child. Her face was solemn, sweet, and inquisitive. She held one half-opened hand in the air; with the other she touched the Indian’s dark, strongly molded cheek, and pressed his long hair which streamed from beneath his broad white hat.
No one smiled. She was deaf and dumb and blind.
In her raised rosy little palm, with lightning-swift motion, fluttered the hand of her teacher. By the teacher’s side stood an Indian interpreter, dressed in hunting shirt and broad hat.
“I am Umatilla,” said the chief, in answer to a question from the teacher. His deep voice was like the mutter of a lion; he stood with gentle dignity still looking wonderingly down into the girl’s sweet, solemn, and eager face.
A bystander said, “Poor child!” in a low, tremulous tone, followed by a sigh.
The little one’s hand, light, swift, and seeking, touched the Indian’s ringed ears and pressed again his long hair, while her teacher’s swift fingers said, “This strange man comes from a far-off land, from vast mountains and forests away toward the western sea. The wind and sun have made his face dark, and the long hair is a protection from the cold. He is a chief.”
Under her broad hat the child’s exquisite mouth, with its dimpled corners, remained calm but touchingly wistful. Her eyes were in shadow. Her chin was a perfect oval, delicately beautiful, like the curving lines of a peach, with the clear transparency of color of a flower’s chalice.
But the bystander said again, “Poor child!” as if a shudder of awe, of wordless compassion and bitterness, shook him.
She was so beautiful, so gifted in spirit, to be thus shut in! Her inclosing flesh was so fine and sweet, it seemed impossible it could be an impassable, almost impenetrable wall.
He thought: She will soon be a woman, with all the vague, unutterable longings and passions of the woman. Her lithe body will be as beautiful as her soul, and the warm oval of her face will flash and flame with her expanding, struggling life. Her caged soul will struggle for light and companionship, blindly, vainly.
Life to her must remain a cruel fragment. Light and color she may not miss; but wifehood, maternity, the touch of baby lips to her breast–these her soul will grope for in dumb maternal desire. She must inhabit her dark and soundless cavern alone.
Again she touched the chieftain’s hair and earrings, and let her hand drop down along his sleeve to his hard, brown hand. Then her hand fell to her side with a resigned action.
As she walked away, a sweet smile of pleasure and gratitude flashed for an instant across the exquisite curving line of her lips, and then the sad and wistful repose of her face came back again as if her loneliness had only been lightened, not warmed.
The young man drew a long breath of pain keen as a physical hurt. The elderly gentleman said again, “Poor child!”
The Indian looked up again into the mighty dome soaring hundreds of feet above him, and wondered how those forms came to be set flying in mid-air, and his heart grew sad and wistful too, as if a realization of the power and majesty of the white man fell like a poisonous, fateful shadow over his people and himself.
II. A SHELTERED ONE.
The young man came in out of the cold dash of rain. The negro man received his outside garments and ushered him into the drawing-room, where a bright fire welcomed him like a smiling hostess.
He sat down with a sudden relaxation of his muscles. As he waited at his ease, his senses absorbed the light and warmth and beauty of the house. It was familiar and yet it had a new meaning to him. A bird was singing somewhere in the upper chambers, caroling with a joyous note that seemed to harmonize with the warmth and color of the room in which the caller sat.
The young man stared at the fire, his head leaning on his hand. There were lines of gloomy thought in his face. There were marks of bitter struggle on his hands. His dress was strong and good, but not in the mode. He looked like a young lawyer, with his lean, dark face, smoothly shaven save for a little tuft on either cheek. His long hands were heavy-jointed with toil.
He listened to the bird singing and to the answering, chirping call of a girl’s voice. His head drooped forward in deep reverie.
How beautiful her life is! his thought was. How absolutely without care or struggle! She knows no uncertainty such as I feel daily, hourly. She has never a doubt of daily food; the question of clothes has been a diversion for her, a worry of choice merely. Dirt, grime, she knows nothing of. Here she lives, sheltered in a glow of comfort and color, while I hang by my finger-ends over a bottomless pit. She sleeps and dreams while I fight. She is never weary, while I sink into my bed each night as if it were my grave. Every hand held out to her is a willing hand–if it is paid for, it is willing, for she has no enemies even among her servants. O God! If I could only reach such a place to rest for just a year–for just a month! But such security, such rest is out of my reach. I must toil and toil, and when at last I reach a place to pause and rest, I shall be old and brutalized and deadened, and my rest will be merely–sleep.
He looked once more about the lovely room. The ocean wind tore at the windows with wolfish claws, savage to enter.
“The world howling out there is as impotent to do her harm as is that wind at the window,” the young man added.
The bird’s song again joined itself to the gay voice of the girl, and then he heard quick footsteps on the stairs, and as he rose to greet her the room seemed to glow like the heart of a ruby.
They clasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes a moment. He saw love and admiration in her face. She saw only friendliness and some dark, unsmiling mood in his.
They sat down and talked upon the fringe of personalities which he avoided. She fancied that she saw a personal sorrow in his face and she longed to comfort him. She longed to touch his vexed forehead with her fingers.
They talked on, of late books and coming music. He noticed how clear and sweet and intelligent were her eyes. Refinement was in the folds of her dress and in the faint perfume which exhaled from her drapery. The firm flesh of her arms appealed to him like the limbs of a child so beautiful and tender!
He saw in her face something wistful, restless. He tried to ignore it, to seem unconscious of the adoration he saw there, for it pained him. It affected him as a part of the general misdirection of affection and effort in the world.
She asked him about his plans. He told her of them. He grew stern and savage as he outlined the work which he had set himself to do. His hands spread and clutched, and his teeth set together involuntarily. “It is to be a fight,” he said; “but I shall win. Bribery, blackmail, the press, and all other forces are against me, but I shall win.”
He rose at length to a finer mood as he sketched the plan which he hoped to set in action.
She looked at him with expanding eyes and quickened breath. A globed light each soft eye seemed to him.
He spoke more freely of the struggle outside in order to make her feel her own sweet security–here where the grime of trade and the reek of politics never came.
At last he rose to go, smiling a little as if in apology for his dark mood. He looked down at her slender body robed so daintily in gray and white; she made him feel coarse and rough.
Her eyes appealed to him, her glance was like a detaining hand. He felt it, and yet he said abruptly:
“You’ll come to see me again!”
“Yes,” he answered very simply and gravely.
And she, looking after him as he went down the street with head bent in thought, grew weak with a terrible weakness, a sort of hunger, and deep in her heart she cried out:
“Oh, the brave, splendid life he leads out there in the world! Oh, the big, brave world!”
She clinched her pink hand.
“Oh, this terrible, humdrum woman’s life! It kills me, it smothers me. I must do something. I must be something. I can’t live here in this way–useless. I must get into the world.”
And looking around the cushioned, glowing, beautiful room, she thought bitterly:
“This is being a woman. O God, I want to be free of four walls! I want to struggle like that.”
And then she sat down before the fire and whispered very softly, “I want to fight in the world–with him.”
III. A FAIR EXILE.
The train was ambling across the hot, russet plain. The wind, strong and warm and dry, sweeping up from the south, carried with it the subtle odor of September grass and gathered harvests. Out of the unfenced roads the dust arose in long lines like smoke from some hidden burning which the riven earth revealed. The fields were tenanted with thrashing crews, the men diminished by distance to pygmies, the long belt of the engine flapping and shining like a ribbon in the flaming sunlight.
The freight cars on the accommodation train jostled and rocked about and heaved up laterally, till they resembled a long line of awkward, frightened, galloping buffaloes. The one coach was scantily filled with passengers, mainly poorly clothed farmers and their families.
A young man seated well back in the coach was looking dreamily out of the window, and the conductor, a keen-eyed young fellow, after passing him several times, said in a friendly way:
“Going up to Boomtown, I imagine.”
“Yes–if we ever get there.”
“Oh, we’ll get there. We won’t have much more switching. We’ve only got an empty car or two to throw in at the junction.”
“Well, I’m glad of that. I’m a little impatient because I’ve got a case coming up in court, and I’m not exactly fixed for it.”
“Your name is Allen, I believe.”
“Yes, J. H. Allen, of Sioux City.”
“I thought so. I’ve heard you speak.”
The young lawyer was a tall, slender, dark-eyed man, rather somber in appearance. He did not respond to the invitation in the conductor’s voice.
“When do you reach the junction?”
“Next stop. We’re only a few minutes late. Expect to meet friends there?”
“No; thought I’d get a lunch, that’s all.”
At the junction the car became pretty well filled with people. Two or three Norwegian families came clattering in, the mothers clothed in heavy shawls and cheap straw hats, the flaxen-haired children in faded cottonade and blue denims. They filled nearly half the seats. Several drummers came in, laughing loudly, bearing heavy valises. Then Allen heard above the noise the shrill but sweet voice of a girl, and caught the odor of violets as two persons passed him and took a seat just before him.
The man he knew by sight and reputation as a very brilliant young lawyer, Edward Benson, of Heron Lake. The girl he knew instantly to be utterly alien to this land and people. She was like a tropic bird seen amid the scant foliage of northern hills. There was evidence of great care and taste in every fold of her modish dress. Her hat was simple but in the latest city fashion, and her gloves were spotless. She gave off an odor of cleanliness and beauty.
She was very young and slender. Her face was piquant but not intellectual, and scarcely beautiful. It pleased rather by its life and motion and oddity than by its beauty. She looked at her companion in a peculiar way–trustfully almost reverently–and yet with a touch of coquetry which seemed perfectly native to every turn of her body or glance of her eyes.
The young lawyer was a fine Western type of self-made man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but walked a little stooping, like a man of fifty. He wore a long Prince Albert frock coat hanging loosely from his rather square shoulders. His white vest was a little soiled by his watch chain and his tie was disarranged.
His face was very fine and good. His eyes were gray-blue, deep and quiet but slightly smiling, as were his lips, which his golden-brown mustache shaded but did not hide. He was kept smiling in this quizzical way by the nervous chatter of the girl beside him. His profile, which was the view Allen had of him, was handsome. The strong, straight nose and abrupt forehead formed a marked contrast to the rather characterless nose and retreating forehead of the girl.
The first words that Allen distinguished out of the merry war in which they seemed engaged were spoken in the tone of pretty petulance such women use, a coquette’s defense.
“You did, you did, you did. Now! You know you did. You told me that. You told me you despised girls like me.”
“I said I despised women who had no object in life but dress,” he replied, rather soberly.
“But you were hopping on me; you meant me, now! You can’t deny it. You despise me, I know you do!” She challenged his flattery in her pouting self-depreciation.
The young man tried to stop her in her course, to change her mood, which was descending to real feeling. His low words could not be heard.
“Yes, yes, try to smooth it over, but you can’t fool me any more. But I don’t want you to flatter me and lie to me the way Judge Stearns did,” she said, with a sudden change of manner. “I like you because you’re square.”
The phrase with which she ended seemed to take on a new meaning uttered by those red lips in childish pout.
“Now, why are you down on the judge? I don’t see,” said the man, as if she had gone back to an old attack.
“Well, if you’d seen what I have you’d understand.” She turned away and looked out of the window. “Oh, this terrible country! I’d die out here in six weeks. I know I should.”
The young lawyer was not to be turned aside.
“Of course I’m pleased to have you throw the judge over, and employ me, but, all the same, I think you do him an injustice. He’s a good, square man.”
“Square man!” she said, turning to him with a sudden fury in her eyes. “Do you call it square for a man–married, and gray-haired, too–to take up with a woman like Mrs. Shellberg? Say, do you, now?”
“Well, I don’t quite believe—-“
“Oh, I lie, do I?” she said, with another swift change to reproach. “You can’t take my word for Mrs. Shellberg’s visit to his office.”
“But he was her lawyer.”
“But you know what kind of a woman she is! She didn’t need to go there every day or two, did she? What did he always receive her in his private office for? Come, now, tell me that.”
“I don’t know that he did,” persisted the lawyer.
A sort of convulsion passed over her face, her little hands clinched, and the tears started into her eyes. Her voice was very quiet.
“You think I lie, then?”
“I think you are mistaken, just as other jealous women have—-“
“You think I’m jealous, do you?”
“You act like a jeal—-“
“Jealous of that gray-haired old wretch? No, sir! I–I–” She struggled to express herself. “I liked him, and I hated to lose all my faith in men. I thought he was good and honest when he prayed–Oh, I’ve seen him pray in church, the old hypocrite!” her fury returned at the recollection.
Her companion’s face grew grave. The smile went out of his eyes, leaving them dark and sorrowful.
“I understand you now,” he said, at last. She turned to look at him. “My practice in the divorce business out here has almost destroyed my faith in women. If it weren’t for my wife and sister—-“
She broke in eagerly: “Now I know you know what I mean. Sometimes I think men are–devils.” She thrust this word forth, and her little face grew dark and strained. “But the judge kept me from thinking–I never loved my father; he didn’t care for me; all he wanted to do was to make ten thousand barrels of beer a year and sell it; and the judge seemed like a father to me till she came and destroyed my faith in him.”
“But–well, let Mrs. S. go. There are lots of good men and pure women in the world. It’s dangerous to think there aren’t–especially for a handsome young woman like you. You can’t afford to keep in that kind of a mood long.”
She looked at him curiously. “That’s what I like about you,” she said soberly. “You talk to me as if I had some sense–as if I was a human being. If you were to flatter me, now, and make love to me, I never would believe in any man again.”
He smiled again in his frank, good way, and drew a picture from his pocket. It was a picture of a woman bending down over a laughing, naked child, sprawling frogwise in her lap. The woman’s face was broad and intellectual and handsome. The look of splendid maternity was in her eyes. They both looked at the picture in silence. The girl sighed.
“I wish I was as good as that woman looks.”
“You can be if you try.”
“Not with a big Chicago brewer for a father and a husband that beats you whenever the mood takes him.”
“I admit that’s hard. I think the atmosphere of that Heron Lake hotel isn’t any great help to you.”
“Oh, they’re a gay lot there! We fight like cats and dogs.” A look of slyness and boldness came over her face. “Mrs. Shellberg hates me as hard as I do her. She used to go around telling, ‘It’s very peculiar, you know’”–she imitated her rival’s voice–“‘but no matter which end of the dining room I sit, all the men look that way!’”
The young lawyer laughed at her in spite of himself.
“But they don’t, now. That’s the reason she hates me,” she said, in conclusion. “The men don’t notice her when I’m around.”
To hear her fresh young lips utter those words with their vile inflections was like taking a sudden glimpse into the underworld where harlots dwell and the spirits of unrestrained lusts dance in the shadowy recesses of the human heart.
Allen, hearing this fragmentary conversation, fascinated yet uneasy, looked at the pair with wonder. They seemed unconscious of their public situation.
The young lawyer looked straight before him while the girl, swept on by her ignoble rage, displayed still more of the moral ulceration which had been injected into her young life.
“I don’t see what men find about her to like–unless it is her eyes. She’s got beautiful eyes. But she’s vulgar–ugh! The stories she tells–right before men, too! She’d kill any one that got ahead of her, that woman would! And yet she’ll come into my room and cry and cry and say: ‘Don’t take him away from me! Leave him to me.’ Ugh! It makes me sick.” She stamped her foot, then added, irrelevantly: “She wears a wig, too. I suppose that old fool of a judge thinks it’s her own hair.”
The lawyer sat in stony silence. His grave face was accusing in its set expression, and she felt it and was spurred on to do still deeper injustice to herself–an insane perversity.
“Not that I care a cent–I’m not jealous of her. I ain’t so bad off for company as she is. She can’t take anybody away from me, but she must go and break down my faith in the judge.”
She bit her lips to keep from crying out. She looked out of the window again, seeking control.
The “divorce colony” never appeared more sickening in its inner corruptions than when delineated by this dainty young girl. Allen could see the swarming men about the hotels; he could see their hot, leering eyes and smell their liquor-laden breaths as they named the latest addition to the colony or boasted of their associations with those already well known.
The girl turned suddenly to her companion.
“How do those people live out here on their farms?”
She pointed at a small shanty where the whole family stood to watch the train go by.
“By eating boiled potatoes and salt pork.”
“Salt pork!” she echoed, as if salt pork were old boot-heels or bark or hay. “Why, it takes four hours for salt pork to digest!”
He laughed again at her childish irrelevancy. “So much the better for the poor. Where’d you learn all that, anyway?”
“At school. Oh, you needn’t look so incredulous! I went to boarding school. I learned a good deal more than you think.”
“Well, so I see. Now, I should have said pork digested in three hours, speaking from experience.”
“Well, it don’t. What do the women do out here?”
“They work like the men, only more so.”
“Do they have any new things?”
“Not very often, I’m afraid.”
She sighed. After a pause she said:
“You were raised on a farm?”
“Yes. In Minnesota.”
“Did you do work like that?” She pointed at a thrashing machine in the field.
“Yes, I plowed and sowed and reaped and mowed. I wasn’t on the farm for my health.”
“You’re very strong, aren’t you?” she asked admiringly.
“In a slab-sided kind of a way–yes.”
Her eyes grew abstracted.
“I like strong men. Ollie was a little man, not any taller than I am, but when he was drunk he was what men call a–a–holy terror. He struck me with the water pitcher once–that was just before baby was born. I wish he’d killed me.” She ended in a sudden reaction to hopeless bitterness. “It would have saved me all these months of life in this terrible country.”
“It might have saved you from more than you think,” he said quietly, tenderly.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been brought up against women and men who have defiled you. They’ve made your future uncertain.”
“Do you think it’s so bad as that? Tell me!” she insisted, seeing his hesitation.
“You’re on the road to hell!” he said, in a voice that was very low, but it reached her. It was full of pain and grave reprimand and gentleness. “You’ve been poisoned. You’re in need of a good man’s help. You need the companionship of good, earnest women instead of painted harlots.”
Her voice shook painfully as she replied:
“You don’t think I’m all bad?”
“You’re not bad at all–you’re simply reckless. You are not to blame. It depends upon yourself now, though, whether you keep a true woman or go to hell with Mrs. Shellberg.”
The conductor eyed them as he passed, with an unpleasant light in his eyes, and the drummers a few seats ahead turned to look at them. The tip had passed along from lip to lip. They were like wild beasts roused by the presence of prey. Their eyes gleamed with relentless lust. They eyed the little creature with ravening eyes. Her helplessness was their opportunity.
Allen, sitting there, saw the terror and tragedy of the girl’s life. Her reckless, prodigal girlhood; the coarse, rich father; the marriage, when a thoughtless girl, with a drunken, dissolute boy; the quarrels, brutal beatings; the haste to secure a divorce; the contamination of the crowded hotels in Heron Lake–and this slender young girl, naturally pure, alert, quick of impulse–she was like a lamb among lustful wolves. His heart ached for her.
The deep, slow voice of the lawyer sounded on. His eyes turned toward her had no equivocal look. He was a brother speaking to a younger sister. The tears fell down her cheeks, upon her folded hands. Her widely opened eyes seemed to look out into a night of storms.
“Oh, what shall I do?” she moaned. “I wish I was dead–and baby too!”
“Live for the baby–let him help you out.”
“Oh, he can’t! I don’t care enough for him. I wish I was like other mothers; but I’m not. I can’t shut myself up with a baby. I’m too young.”
He saw that. She was seeking the love of a man, not the care of a child. She had the wifely passion, but not the mother’s love. He was silent; the case baffled him.
“Oh, I wish you could help me. I wish I had you all the time. I do! I don’t care what you think, I do, I do!”
“Our home is open to you and baby, too,” he said slowly. “My wife knows about you, and—-“
“Who told her–did you?” she flashed out again, angrily, jealously.
“Yes. My wife is my other self,” he replied quietly.
She stared at him, breathing heavily, then looked out of the window again. At last she turned to him. She seemed to refer to his invitation.
“Oh, this terrible land! Oh, I couldn’t stay here. I’d go insane. Perhaps I’m going insane anyway. Don’t you think so?”
“No, I think you’re a little nervous, that’s all.”
“Oh! Do you think I’ll get my divorce?”
“Certainly, without question.”
“Can I wait and go back with you?”
“I shall not return for several days. Perhaps you couldn’t bear the wait in this little town; it’s not much like the city.”
“Oh, dear! But I can’t go about alone. I hate these men, they stare at me so! I wish I was a man. It’s awful to be a woman, don’t you think so? Please don’t laugh.”
The young lawyer was far from laughing, but this was her only way of defending herself. These pert, birdlike ways formed her shield against ridicule and misprision.
He said slowly, “Yes, it’s an awful thing to be a woman, but it’s an awful responsibility to be a man.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we are responsible as the dominant sex for every tragic, incomplete woman’s life.”
“Don’t you blame Mrs. Shellberg?” she said, forcing him to a concrete example with savage swiftness.
“No. She had a poor father and a poor husband, and she must earn her own living some way.”
“She could cook, or nurse, or something like that.”
“It isn’t easy to find opportunity to cook or nurse. If it were as easy to earn a living in a pure way as it is in a vicious way all men would be rich and virtuous. But what had you planned to do after your divorce?”
“Oh, I’m going to travel for two years. Then I’ll try to settle down.”
“What you need is a good husband and a little cottage where you’d have to cook your own food–and tend the baby.”
“I wouldn’t cook for any man living,” she broke in, to express her bitterness that he could so coldly dispose of her future. “Oh, this terrible train! Can’t it go faster? If I’d realized what a trip this was, I wouldn’t have started.”
“This is the route you all go,” he replied with grim humor, and his words pictured a ceaseless stream of divorcees.
She resented his classing her with the rest, but she simply said: “You despise me, don’t you? But what can we do? You can’t expect us to live with men we hate, can you? That would be worse than Mrs. Shellberg.”
“No, I don’t expect that of you. I’d issue a divorce coupon with every marriage certificate, and done with it,” he said, in desperate disgust. “Then this whole cursed business would be done away with. It isn’t a question of our laxity of divorce laws,” he said, after a pause, “it’s a question of the senseless severity of the laws in other States. That’s what throws this demoralizing business into our hands here.”
“It pays, don’t it? I know I’ve paid for everything I’ve had.”
“Yes, that’s the demoralizing thing. It draws a gang of conscienceless attorneys here, and it draws us who belong here off into dirty work, and it brings us into contact with men and women–I’m sick of the whole business.”
She had hardly followed him in his generalizations. She brought him back to the personal.
“You’re sick of me, I know you are!” She leaned her head on the window pane. Her eyes closed. “Oh, I wish my heart would stop beating!” she said, in a low tone.
Allen, sitting so close behind them, was forced to hear her, so piercingly sweet was her voice. He trembled for fear some one else might hear her. It seemed like profanation that any one but the woman’s God should hear this outcry of a quivering, writhing soul.
She faced her companion again. “You’re the only man I know, now, that I respect, and you despise me.”
“No, I don’t; I pity you.”
“That’s worse. I want you to help me. Oh, if you could go with me, or if I could be with you!” Her gloved hands strained together in the agony of her desire.
His calm lips did not waver. He did not smile even about the eyes. He knew her cry sprang from her need of a brother, not from the passion of a woman.
“Our home is yours, just as long as you can bear the monotony of our simple lives,” he said, in his quiet way, but it was deep-throated and unmistakable in its sincerity.
She laid her hand on his arm and clasped it hard, then turned away her head, and they rode in silence.
After they left the car, Allen sat with savage eyes and grimly set mouth, going over the problem again and again. He saw that young and helpless creature walking the gantlet between endless ranks of lustful, remorseless men, snatching at her in selfish, bestial desire.
It made him bitter and despairing to think that women should be helpless–that they should need some man to protect them against some other man. He cursed the laws and traditions that had kept women subordinate and trivial and deceptive and vacillating. He wished they could be raised to the level of the brutes till, like the tigress or she-wolf, they could not only defend themselves, but their young.
He tried to breathe a sigh of relief that she had gone out of his life but–he could not. It was not so easy to shake off the shadow of his responsibility. He followed her on her downward path till he saw her stretching out her hands in pitiful need to casual acquaintances–alone and without hope; still petite, still dainty in spite of all, still with flashes of wit, and then—-
He shuddered. “O my God! Upon whom does the burden of guilt lie?”
* * * * *
On the night of his return he sat among his romping babes debating whether he should tell the story to his wife or not. As the little ones grew weary, the noise of the autumn wind–the lonely, woeful, moaning prairie wind–came to his ears and he shuddered. His wife observed it.
“What is it, Joe? Did you get a chill?”
“Oh, no. The wind sounds a little lonesome to-night, that’s all.” But he took his little girl into his arms and held her close.
IV. THE PASSING STRANGER.
This was the story the mystic told:
It was about eleven o’clock of an October night. The street was one of the worst of the city, but it was Monday–one of its quiet nights.
The saloons flared floods of feverish light upon the walk, and breathed their terrible odors, like caverns leading downward into hell. Restless, loitering crowds moved to and fro, with rasping, uncertain footsteps, out of which the click of health had gone.
Policemen occasionally showed themselves menacingly, and the crowd responded to their impact by action quickened, like a python touched with a red-hot rod.
It was nearly time to close, and the barkeepers were beginning to betray signs of impatience with their most drunken customers.
A dark, tall man in cloak and fez moved slowly down the street. His face was serene but somber. In passing the window of a brilliantly lighted drinking place he stopped and looked in.
In the small stall, near the window and behind the counter, sat three women and two men. All had mugs of beer in their hands. The women were all young, and one of them was handsome. They were dressed nattily, jauntily, in modish, girlish hats, and their dainty jackets fitted closely to their slight figures.
Their liquor had just been served, and their voices were ringing with wild laughter. Their white teeth shone from their rouged faces with a mirth which met no answering smile from the strange young man without. He stood like a shadow against the pane.
The smile on the face of the youngest girl stiffened into a strange contortion. Her eyes looked straight ahead into the eyes of the stranger.
Her smile smoothed out. Her face paled; her eyes expanded with wonder till they lost their insane glitter, and grew sad and soft and dark.
“What is it, Nell?” the others asked.
She did not hear them. She seemed to listen. Her eyes seemed to see mountains–or clouds. A land like her childhood’s home with the sunset light over it. Her mug fell with a crash to the table. She rose. Her hand silenced them, with beautiful finger raised:
“Listen! Don’t you hear him? His eyes are calling me. It is Christ.”
The others looked, but they saw only a tall figure moving away. He wore a long black cloak like a priest.
“Some foreign duffer lookin’ in. Let ‘im look,” said one of the other girls.
“One o’ them Egyptian jugglers,” said another.
“What’s the matter of ye, Nell? You look as if you’d seen a ghost of y’r grandmother. Set down an’ drink y’r beer.”
The girl brushed her hand over her eyes. “I’m going home,” she said in a low voice from which all individuality had passed. Her face seemed anxious, her manner hurried.
“What’s the matter, Nell? My God! Look at her eyes!–I’m going with her.”
The girl put him aside with a gesture. Her look awed him.
One of the others began to laugh.
“Stop! You fool,” one of the girls cried. They sat in silence as the younger girl went out, putting aside every hand stretched out to touch her. She walked like one in stupor–her face ghastly. The arch of her beautiful eyebrows was like that of Ophelia in her bitterest moment.
The others watched her go in silence.
One of them drew a sigh and said: “I’m going home, too; I don’t feel well.”
“I’ll go with ye,” one of the men said.
“Stay where you are!” said the girl sharply.
* * * * *
Once on the street, the younger girl hurried on the way the stranger had gone. His face seemed before her.
She could see it; she should always see it. It was the face of a young man. A firm chin, a strong mouth with a feminine curve in it, a face with a clear pallor that seemed foreign somehow. But the eyes–oh, the eyes!
They were deep and brown, and filled with an infinite sadness–for her. She felt it, and the knot of pain in the forehead, that was also for her. Something sweet and terrible went out from his presence. A knowledge of infinite space and infinite time and infinite compassion.
No man had ever looked at her like that. There was something divine in the penetrating power of his eyes.
Some way she knew he was not a priest, though his cloak and turban cap looked like it. He seemed like a scholar from some strange land–a man above passion, a man who knew God.
His eyes accused her and pitied her, while they called her.
No smile, no shrinking of lips into a sneer–nothing but pity and wonder, and something else—-
And a voice seemed to say: “You are too good to be there. Follow me.”
As she thought of him he seemed to stand on an immeasurable height looking down at her.
She had laughed at him–O God!–she flushed hot with shame from head to foot–but his eyes had not changed. His lips had kept their pitying droop, and his somber eyes had burned deep into the sacred places of her thought, where something sweet and girlish lay, unwasted and untrampled.
“He called me. He called me.”
* * * * *
Under the trees where the moonlight threw tracing of shadows she came upon him standing, waiting for her. She held out her hand to him like a babe. He was taller than she thought.
He took her hands silently and she grew calm at once. All shame left her. She forgot her city life; she remembered only the sweet, merry life of the village where she was born. The sound of sleigh bells and song, and the lisp of wind in the grass, and songs of birds in the maples came to her.
His voice began softly:
“You are too good and sweet to be so devoured of beasts. In your little Northern home they are waiting for you. To-morrow you will go back to them.”
He placed his hand, which was soft and warm and broad, over her eyes. His voice was like velvet, soft yet elastic.
“When you wake you will hate what you have been. No power can keep you here. You will go back to the simple life from which you should never have departed. You will love simple things and the pleasures of your native place.”
Her face was turned upward, but her eyelids had fallen.
“When you wake you will not remember your life here. You will be a girl again, unstained and ready to begin life without remorse and without accusing memory. When I leave you at your door to-night, you will belong to the kingdom of good and not to the kingdom of evil.”
He dropped her hands and pointed across the park.
“Now go to that gray house. Ring the bell, and you will be housed for the night. Remember you are mine. When the bell rings you will ‘wake.’”
She moved away without looking back–moved mechanically like one still in sleep.
The man watched her until the door opened and admitted her; then he passed on into the shadow of the narrow street.
And this the listener gravely asked:
“One was chosen, the other left. Were the others less in need of grace?”