The White Blot
The real location of a city house depends upon the pictures which hang upon its walls. They are its neighbourhood and its outlook. They confer upon it that touch of life and character, that power to beget love and bind friendship, which a country house receives from its surrounding landscape, the garden that embraces it, the stream that runs near it, and the shaded paths that lead to and from its door.
By this magic of pictures my narrow, upright slice of living-space in one of the brown-stone strata on the eastward slope of Manhattan Island is transferred to an open and agreeable site. It has windows that look toward the woods and the sunset, watergates by which a little boat is always waiting, and secret passageways leading into fair places that are frequented by persons of distinction and charm. No darkness of night obscures these outlets; no neighbour’s house shuts off the view; no drifted snow of winter makes them impassable. They are always free, and through them I go out and in upon my adventures.
One of these picture-wanderings has always appeared to me so singular that I would like, if it were possible, to put it into words.
It was Pierrepont who first introduced me to the picture–Pierrepont the good-natured: of whom one of his friends said that he was like Mahomet’s Bridge of Paradise, because he was so hard to cross: to which another added that there was also a resemblance in the fact that he led to a region of beautiful illusions which he never entered. He is one of those enthusiastic souls who are always discovering a new writer, a new painter, a new view from some old wharf by the river, a new place to obtain picturesque dinners at a grotesque price. He swung out of his office, with his long-legged, easy stride, and nearly ran me down, as I was plodding up-town through the languor of a late spring afternoon, on one of those duty-walks which conscience offers as a sacrifice to digestion.
“Why, what is the matter with you?” he cried as he linked his arm through mine, “you look outdone, tired all the way through to your backbone. Have you been reading the ‘Anatomy of Melancholy,’ or something by one of the new British female novelists? You will have la grippe in your mind if you don’t look out. But I know what you need. Come with me, and I will do you good.”
So saying, he drew me out of clanging Broadway into one of the side streets that run toward the placid region of Washington Square. “No, no,” I answered, feeling, even in the act of resistance, the pleasure of his cheerful guidance, “you are altogether wrong. I don’t need a dinner at your new-found Bulgarian table-d’hote–seven courses for seventy-five cents, and the wine thrown out; nor some of those wonderful Mexican cheroots warranted to eradicate the tobacco- habit; nor a draught of your South American melon sherbet that cures all pains, except these which it causes. None of these things will help me. The doctor suggests that they do not suit my temperament. Let us go home together and have a shower-bath and a dinner of herbs, with just a reminiscence of the stalled ox–and a bout at backgammon to wind up the evening. That will be the most comfortable prescription.”
“But you mistake me,” said he; “I am not thinking of any creature comforts for you. I am prescribing for your mind. There is a picture that I want you to see; not a coloured photograph, nor an exercise in anatomical drawing; but a real picture that will rest the eyes of your heart. Come away with me to Morgenstern’s gallery, and be healed.”
As we turned into the lower end of Fifth Avenue, it seemed as if I were being gently floated along between the modest apartment-houses and old-fashioned dwellings, and prim, respectable churches, on the smooth current of Pierrepont’s talk about his new-found picture. How often a man has cause to return thanks for the enthusiasms of his friends! They are the little fountains that run down from the hills to refresh the mental desert of the despondent.
“You remember Falconer,” continued Pierrepont, “Temple Falconer, that modest, quiet, proud fellow who came out of the South a couple of years ago and carried off the landscape prize at the Academy last year, and then disappeared? He had no intimate friends here, and no one knew what had become of him. But now this picture appears, to show what he has been doing. It is an evening scene, a revelation of the beauty of sadness, an idea expressed in colours–or rather, a real impression of Nature that awakens an ideal feeling in the heart. It does not define everything and say nothing, like so many paintings. It tells no story, but I know it fits into one. There is not a figure in it, and yet it is alive with sentiment; it suggests thoughts which cannot be put into words. Don’t you love the pictures that have that power of suggestion–quiet and strong, like Homer Martin’s ‘Light-house’ up at the Century, with its sheltered bay heaving softly under the pallid greenish sky of evening, and the calm, steadfast glow of the lantern brightening into readiness for all the perils of night and coming storm? How much more powerful that is than all the conventional pictures of light-houses on inaccessible cliffs, with white foam streaming from them like the ends of a schoolboy’s comforter in a gale of wind! I tell you the real painters are the fellows who love pure nature because it is so human. They don’t need to exaggerate, and they don’t dare to be affected. They are not afraid of the reality, and they are not ashamed of the sentiment. They don’t paint everything that they see, but they see everything that they paint. And this picture makes me sure that Falconer is one of them.”
By this time we had arrived at the door of the house where Morgenstern lives and moves and makes his profits, and were admitted to the shrine of the Commercial Apollo and the Muses in Trade.
It has often seemed to me as if that little house were a silent epitome of modern art criticism, an automatic indicator, or perhaps regulator, of the aesthetic taste of New York. On the first floor, surrounded by all the newest fashions in antiquities and BRIC-A- BRAC, you will see the art of to-day–the works of painters who are precisely in the focus of advertisement, and whose names call out an instant round of applause in the auction-room. On the floors above, in degrees of obscurity deepening toward the attic, you will find the art of yesterday–the pictures which have passed out of the glare of popularity without yet arriving at the mellow radiance of old masters. In the basement, concealed in huge packing-cases, and marked “PARIS–FRAGILE,”–you will find the art of to-morrow; the paintings of the men in regard to whose names, styles, and personal traits, the foreign correspondents and prophetic critics in the newspapers, are now diffusing in the public mind that twilight of familiarity and ignorance which precedes the sunrise of marketable fame.
The affable and sagacious Morgenstern was already well acquainted with the waywardness of Pierrepont’s admiration, and with my own persistent disregard of current quotations in the valuation of works of art. He regarded us, I suppose, very much as Robin Hood would have looked upon a pair of plain yeomen who had strayed into his lair. The knights of capital, and coal barons, and rich merchants were his natural prey, but toward this poor but honest couple it would be worthy only of a Gentile robber to show anything but courteous and fair dealing.
He expressed no surprise when he heard what we wanted to see, but smiled tolerantly and led the way, not into the well-defined realm of the past, the present, or the future, but into a region of uncertain fortunes, a limbo of acknowledged but unrewarded merits, a large back room devoted to the works of American painters. Here we found Falconer’s picture; and the dealer, with that instinctive tact which is the best part of his business capital, left us alone to look at it.
It showed the mouth of a little river: a secluded lagoon, where the shallow tides rose and fell with vague lassitude, following the impulse of prevailing winds more than the strong attraction of the moon. But now the unsailed harbour was quite still, in the pause of the evening; and the smooth undulations were caressed by a hundred opalescent hues, growing deeper toward the west, where the river came in. Converging lines of trees stood dark against the sky; a cleft in the woods marked the course of the stream, above which the reluctant splendours of an autumnal day were dying in ashes of roses, while three tiny clouds, poised high in air, burned red with the last glimpse of the departed sun.
On the right was a reedy point running out into the bay, and behind it, on a slight rise of ground, an antique house with tall white pillars. It was but dimly outlined in the gathering shadows; yet one could imagine its stately, formal aspect, its precise garden with beds of old-fashioned flowers and straight paths bordered with box, and a little arbour overgrown with honeysuckle. I know not by what subtlety of delicate and indescribable touches–a slight inclination in one of the pillars, a broken line which might indicate an unhinged gate, a drooping resignation in the foliage of the yellowing trees, a tone of sadness in the blending of subdued colours–the painter had suggested that the place was deserted. But the truth was unmistakable. An air of loneliness and pensive sorrow breathed from the picture; a sigh of longing and regret. It was haunted by sad, sweet memories of some untold story of human life.
In the corner Falconer had put his signature, T. F., “LARMONE,” 189-, and on the border of the picture he had faintly traced some words, which we made out at last–
“A spirit haunts the year’s last hours.”
Pierrepont took up the quotation and completed it–
“A spirit haunts the year’s last hours,
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh,
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’ the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.”
“That is very pretty poetry, gentlemen,” said Morgenstern, who had come in behind us, “but is it not a little vague? You like it, but you cannot tell exactly what it means. I find the same fault in the picture from my point of view. There is nothing in it to make a paragraph about, no anecdote, no experiment in technique. It is impossible to persuade the public to admire a picture unless you can tell them precisely the points on which they must fix their admiration. And that is why, although the painting is a good one, I should be willing to sell it at a low price.”
He named a sum of money in three figures, so small that Pierrepont, who often buys pictures by proxy, could not conceal his surprise.
“Certainly I should consider that a good bargain, simply for investment,” said he. “Falconer’s name alone ought to be worth more than that, ten years from now. He is a rising man.”
“No, Mr. Pierrepont,” replied the dealer, “the picture is worth what I ask for it, for I would not commit the impertinence of offering a present to you or your friend; but it is worth no more. Falconer’s name will not increase in value. The catalogue of his works is too short for fame to take much notice of it; and this is the last. Did you not hear of his death last fall? I do not wonder, for it happened at some place down on Long Island–a name that I never saw before, and have forgotten now. There was not even an obituary in the newspapers.”
“And besides,” he continued, after a pause, “I must not conceal from you that the painting has a blemish. It is not always visible, since you have failed to detect it; but it is more noticeable in some lights than in others; and, do what I will, I cannot remove it. This alone would prevent the painting from being a good investment. Its market value will never rise.”
He turned the canvas sideways to the light, and the defect became apparent.
It was a dim, oblong, white blot in the middle distance; a nebulous blur in the painting, as if there had been some chemical impurity in the pigment causing it to fade, or rather as if a long drop of some acid, or perhaps a splash of salt water, had fallen upon the canvas while it was wet, and bleached it. I knew little of the possible causes of such a blot, but enough to see that it could not be erased without painting over it, perhaps not even then. And yet it seemed rather to enhance than to weaken the attraction which the picture had for me.
“Your candour does you credit, Mr. Morgenstern,” said I, “but you know me well enough to be sure that what you have said will hardly discourage me. For I have never been an admirer of ‘cabinet finish’ in works of art. Nor have I been in the habit of buying them, as a Circassian father trains his daughters, with an eye to the market. They come into my house for my own pleasure, and when the time arrives that I can see them no longer, it will not matter much to me what price they bring in the auction-room. This landscape pleases me so thoroughly that, if you will let us take it with us this evening, I will send you a check for the amount in the morning.”
So we carried off the painting in a cab; and all the way home I was in the pleasant excitement of a man who is about to make an addition to his house; while Pierrepont was conscious of the glow of virtue which comes of having done a favour to a friend and justified your own critical judgment at one stroke.
After dinner we hung the painting over the chimney-piece in the room called the study (because it was consecrated to idleness), and sat there far into the night, talking of the few times we had met Falconer at the club, and of his reticent manner, which was broken by curious flashes of impersonal confidence when he spoke not of himself but of his art. From this we drifted into memories of good comrades who had walked beside us but a few days in the path of life, and then disappeared, yet left us feeling as if we cared more for them than for the men whom we see every day; and of young geniuses who had never reached the goal; and of many other glimpses of “the light that failed,” until the lamp was low and it was time to say good-night.
For several months I continued to advance in intimacy with my picture. It grew more familiar, more suggestive; the truth and beauty of it came home to me constantly. Yet there was something in it not quite apprehended; a sense of strangeness; a reserve which I had not yet penetrated.
One night in August I found myself practically alone, so far as human intercourse was concerned, in the populous, weary city. A couple of hours of writing had produced nothing that would bear the test of sunlight, so I anticipated judgment by tearing up the spoiled sheets of paper, and threw myself upon the couch before the empty fireplace. It was a dense, sultry night, with electricity thickening the air, and a trouble of distant thunder rolling far away on the rim of the cloudy sky–one of those nights of restless dulness, when you wait and long for something to happen, and yet feel despondently that nothing ever will happen again. I passed through a region of aimless thoughts into one of migratory and unfinished dreams, and dropped from that into an empty gulf of sleep.
How late it was when I drifted back toward the shore of consciousness, I cannot tell. But the student-lamp on the table had burned out, and the light of the gibbous moon was creeping in through the open windows. Slowly the pale illumination crept up the eastern wall, like a tide rising as the moon declined. Now it reached the mantel-shelf and overflowed the bronze heads of Homer and the Indian Bacchus and the Egyptian image of Isis with the infant Horus. Now it touched the frame of the picture and lapped over the edge. Now it rose to the shadowy house and the dim garden, in the midst of which I saw the white blot more distinctly than ever before.
It seemed now to have taken a new shape, like the slender form of a woman, robed in flowing white. And as I watched it through half- closed eyes, the figure appeared to move and tremble and wave to and fro, as if it were a ghost.
A haunted picture! Why should it not be so? A haunted ruin, a haunted forest, a haunted ship,–all these have been seen, or imagined, and reported, and there are learned societies for investigating such things. Why should not a picture have a ghost in it?
My mind, in that curiously vivid state which lies between waking and sleeping, went through the form of careful reasoning over the question. If there may be some subtle connection between a house and the spirits of the people who have once lived in it,–and wise men have believed this,–why should there be any impassable gulf between a picture and the vanished lives out of which it has grown? All the human thought and feeling which have passed into it through the patient toil of art, remain forever embodied there. A picture is the most living and personal thing that a man can leave behind him. When we look at it we see what he saw, hour after hour, day after day, and we see it through his mood and impression, coloured by his emotion, tinged with his personality. Surely, if the spirits of the dead are not extinguished, but only veiled and hidden, and if it were possible by any means that their presence could flash for a moment through the veil, it would be most natural that they should come back again to hover around the work into which their experience and passion had been woven. Here, if anywhere, they would “Revisit the pale glimpses of the moon.” Here, if anywhere, we might catch fleeting sight, as in a glass darkly, of the visions that passed before them while they worked.
This much of my train of reasoning along the edge of the dark, I remember sharply. But after this, all was confused and misty. The shore of consciousness receded. I floated out again on the ocean of forgotten dreams. When I woke, it was with a quick start, as if my ship had been made fast, silently and suddenly, at the wharf of reality, and the bell rang for me to step ashore.
But the vision of the white blot remained clear and distinct. And the question that it had brought to me, the chain of thoughts that had linked themselves to it, lingered through the morning, and made me feel sure that there was an untold secret in Falconer’s life and that the clew to it must be sought in the history of his last picture.
But how to trace the connection? Every one who had known Falconer, however slightly, was out of town. There was no clew to follow. Even the name “Larmone” gave me no help; for I could not find it on any map of Long Island. It was probably the fanciful title of some old country-place, familiar only to the people who had lived there.
But the very remoteness of the problem, its lack of contact with the practical world, fascinated me. It was like something that had drifted away in the fog, on a sea of unknown and fluctuating currents. The only possible way to find it was to commit yourself to the same wandering tides and drift after it, trusting to a propitious fortune that you might be carried in the same direction; and after a long, blind, unhurrying chase, one day you might feel a faint touch, a jar, a thrill along the side of your boat, and, peering through the fog, lay your hand at last, without surprise, upon the very object of your quest.
As it happened, the means for such a quest were at my disposal. I was part owner of a boat which had been built for hunting and fishing cruises on the shallow waters of the Great South Bay. It was a deliberate, but not inconvenient, craft, well named the Patience; and my turn for using it had come. Black Zekiel, the captain, crew, and cook, was the very man that I would have chosen for such an expedition. He combined the indolent good-humour of the negro with the taciturnity of the Indian, and knew every shoal and channel of the tortuous waters. He asked nothing better than to set out on a voyage without a port; sailing aimlessly eastward day after day, through the long chain of landlocked bays, with the sea plunging behind the sand-dunes on our right, and the shores of Long Island sleeping on our left; anchoring every evening in some little cove or estuary, where Zekiel could sit on the cabin roof, smoking his corn-cob pipe, and meditating on the vanity and comfort of life, while I pushed off through the mellow dusk to explore every creek and bend of the shore, in my light canoe.
There was nothing to hasten our voyage. The three weeks’ vacation was all but gone, when the Patience groped her way through a narrow, crooked channel in a wide salt-meadow, and entered the last of the series of bays. A few houses straggled down a point of land; the village of Quantock lay a little farther back. Beyond that was a belt of woods reaching to the water; and from these the south- country road emerged to cross the upper end of the bay on a low causeway with a narrow bridge of planks at the central point. Here was our Ultima Thule. Not even the Patience could thread the eye of this needle, or float through the shallow marsh-canal farther to the east.
We anchored just in front of the bridge, and as I pushed the canoe beneath it, after supper, I felt the indefinable sensation of having passed that way before. I knew beforehand what the little boat would drift into. The broad saffron light of evening fading over a still lagoon; two converging lines of pine trees running back into the sunset; a grassy point upon the right; and behind that a neglected garden, a tangled bower of honeysuckle, a straight path bordered with box, leading to a deserted house with a high, white- pillared porch–yes, it was Larmone.
In the morning I went up to the village to see if I could find trace of my artist’s visit to the place. There was no difficulty in the search, for he had been there often. The people had plenty of recollections of him, but no real memory, for it seemed as if none of them had really known him.
“Queer kinder fellow,” said a wrinkled old bayman with whom I walked up the sandy road, “I seen him a good deal round here, but ‘twan’t like havin’ any ‘quaintance with him. He allus kep’ himself to himself, pooty much. Used ter stay round ‘Squire Ladoo’s place most o’ the time–keepin’ comp’ny with the gal I guess. Larmone? Yaas, that’s what THEY called it, but we don’t go much on fancy names down here. No, the painter didn’ ‘zactly live there, but it ‘mounted to the same thing. Las’ summer they was all away, house shet up, painter hangin’ round all the time, ‘s if he looked fur ’em to come back any minnit. Purfessed to be paintin’, but I don’ see’s he did much. Lived up to Mort Halsey’s; died there too; year ago this fall. Guess Mis’ Halsey can tell ye most of any one ’bout him.”
At the boarding-house (with wide, low verandas, now forsaken by the summer boarders), which did duty for a village inn, I found Mrs. Halsey; a notable housewife, with a strong taste for ancestry, and an uncultivated world of romance still brightening her soft brown eyes. She knew all the threads in the story that I was following; and the interest with which she spoke made it evident that she had often woven them together in the winter evenings on patterns of her own.
Judge Ledoux had come to Quantock from the South during the war, and built a house there like the one he used to live in. There were three things he hated: slavery and war and society. But he always loved the South more than the North, and lived like a foreigner, polite enough, but very retired. His wife died after a few years, and left him alone with a little girl. Claire grew up as pretty as a picture, but very shy and delicate. About two years ago Mr. Falconer had come down from the city; he stayed at Larmone first, and then he came to the boarding-house, but he was over at the Ledoux’ house almost all the time. He was a Southerner too, and a relative of the family; a real gentleman, and very proud though he was poor. It seemed strange that he should not live with them, but perhaps he felt more free over here. Every one thought he must be engaged to Claire, but he was not the kind of a man that you could ask questions about himself. A year ago last winter he had gone up to the city and taken all his things with him. He had never stayed away so long before. In the spring the Ledoux had gone to Europe; Claire seemed to be falling into a decline; her sight seemed to be failing, and her father said she must see a famous doctor and have a change of air.
“Mr. Falconer came back in May,” continued the good lady, “as if he expected to find them. But the house was shut up and nobody knew just where they were. He seemed to be all taken aback; it was queer if he didn’t know about it, intimate as he had been; but he never said anything, and made no inquiries; just seemed to be waiting, as if there was nothing else for him to do. We would have told him in a minute, if we had anything to tell. But all we could do was to guess there must have been some kind of a quarrel between him and the Judge, and if there was, he must know best about it himself.
“All summer long he kept going over to the house and wandering around in the garden. In the fall he began to paint a picture, but it was very slow painting; he would go over in the afternoon and come back long after dark, damp with the dew and fog. He kept growing paler and weaker and more silent. Some days he did not speak more than a dozen words, but always kind and pleasant. He was just dwindling away; and when the picture was almost done a fever took hold of him. The doctor said it was malaria, but it seemed to me more like a trouble in the throat, a kind of dumb misery. And one night, in the third quarter of the moon, just after the tide turned to run out, he raised up in the bed and tried to speak, but he was gone.
“We tried to find out his relations, but there didn’t seem to be any, except the Ledoux, and they were out of reach. So we sent the picture up to our cousin in Brooklyn, and it sold for about enough to pay Mr. Falconer’s summer’s board and the cost of his funeral. There was nothing else that he left of any value, except a few books; perhaps you would like to look at them, if you were his friend?
“I never saw any one that I seemed to know so little and like so well. It was a disappointment in love, of course, and they all said that he died of a broken heart; but I think it was because his heart was too full, and wouldn’t break.
“And oh!–I forgot to tell you; a week after he was gone there was a notice in the paper that Claire Ledoux had died suddenly, on the last of August, at some place in Switzerland. Her father is still away travelling. And so the whole story is broken off and will never be finished. Will you look at the books?”
Nothing is more pathetic, to my mind, than to take up the books of one who is dead. Here is his name, with perhaps a note of the place where the volume was bought or read, and the marks on the pages that he liked best. Here are the passages that gave him pleasure, and the thoughts that entered into his life and formed it; they became part of him, but where has he carried them now?
Falconer’s little library was an unstudied choice, and gave a hint of his character. There was a New Testament in French, with his name written in a slender, woman’s hand; three or four volumes of stories, Cable’s “Old Creole Days,” Allen’s “Kentucky Cardinal,” Page’s “In Old Virginia,” and the like; “Henry Esmond” and Amiel’s “Journal” and Lamartine’s “Raphael”; and a few volumes of poetry, among them one of Sidney Lanier’s, and one of Tennyson’s earlier poems.
There was also a little morocco-bound book of manuscript notes. This I begged permission to carry away with me, hoping to find in it something which would throw light upon my picture, perhaps even some message to be carried, some hint or suggestion of something which the writer would fain have had done for him, and which I promised myself faithfully to perform, as a test of an imagined friendship– imagined not in the future, but in the impossible past.
I read the book in this spirit, searching its pages carefully, through the long afternoon, in the solitary cabin of my boat. There was nothing at first but an ordinary diary; a record of the work and self-denials of a poor student of art. Then came the date of his first visit to Larmone, and an expression of the pleasure of being with his own people again after a lonely life, and some chronicle of his occupations there, studies for pictures, and idle days that were summed up in a phrase: “On the bay,” or “In the woods.”
After this the regular succession of dates was broken, and there followed a few scraps of verse, irregular and unfinished, bound together by the thread of a name–“Claire among her Roses,” “A Ride through the Pines with Claire,” “An Old Song of Claire’s” “The Blue Flower in Claire’s Eyes.” It was not poetry, but such an unconscious tribute to the power and beauty of poetry as unfolds itself almost inevitably from youthful love, as naturally as the blossoms unfold from the apple trees in May. If you pick them they are worthless. They charm only in their own time and place.
A date told of his change from Larmone to the village, and this was written below it: “Too heavy a sense of obligation destroys freedom, and only a free man can dare to love.”
Then came a number of fragments indicating trouble of mind and hesitation; the sensitiveness of the artist, the delicate, self- tormenting scruples of the lonely idealist, the morbid pride of the young poor man, contending with an impetuous passion and forcing it to surrender, or at least to compromise.
“What right has a man to demand everything and offer nothing in return except an ambition and a hope? Love must come as a giver, not as a beggar.”
“A knight should not ask to wear his lady’s colours until he has won his spurs.”
“King Cophetua and the beggar-maid–very fine! but the other way– humiliating!”
“A woman may take everything from a man, wealth and fame and position. But there is only one thing that a man may accept from a woman–something that she alone can give–happiness.”
“Self-respect is less than love, but it is the trellis that holds love up from the ground; break it down, and all the flowers are in the dust, the fruit is spoiled.”
“And yet”–so the man’s thought shone through everywhere–“I think she must know that I love her, and why I cannot speak.”
One entry was written in a clearer, stronger hand: “An end of hesitation. The longest way is the shortest. I am going to the city to work for the Academy prize, to think of nothing else until I win it, and then come back with it to Claire, to tell her that I have a future, and that it is hers. If I spoke of it now it would be like claiming the reward before I had done the work. I have told her only that I am going to prove myself an artist, AND TO LIVE FOR WHAT I LOVE BEST. She understood, I am sure, for she would not lift her eyes to me, but her hand trembled as she gave me the blue flower from her belt.”
The date of his return to Larmone was marked, but the page was blank, as the day had been.
Some pages of dull self-reproach and questioning and bewildered regret followed.
“Is it possible that she has gone away, without a word, without a sign, after what has passed between us? It is not fair. Surely I had some claim.”
“But what claim, after all? I asked for nothing. And was it not pride that kept me silent, taking it for granted that if I asked, she would give?”
“It was a mistake; she did not understand, nor care.”
“It was my fault; I might at least have told her that I loved her, though she could not have answered me.”
“It is too late now. To-night, while I was finishing the picture, I saw her in the garden. Her spirit, all in white, with a blue flower in her belt. I knew she was dead across the sea. I tried to call to her, but my voice made no sound. She seemed not to see me. She moved like one in a dream, straight on, and vanished. Is there no one who can tell her? Must she never know that I loved her?”
The last thing in the book was a printed scrap of paper that lay between the leaves:
“Would the gods might give
Another field for human strife;
Man must live one life
Ere he learns to live.
Ah, friend, in thy deep grave,
What now can change; what now can save?”
So there was a message after all, but it could never be carried; a task for a friend, but it was impossible. What better thing could I do with the poor little book than bury it in the garden in the shadow of Larmone? The story of a silent fault, hidden in silence. How many of life’s deepest tragedies are only that: no great transgression, no shock of conflict, no sudden catastrophe with its answering thrill of courage and resistance: only a mistake made in the darkness, and under the guidance of what seemed a true and noble motive; a failure to see the right path at the right moment, and a long wandering beyond it; a word left unspoken until the ears that should have heard it are sealed, and the tongue that should have spoken it is dumb.
The soft sea-fog clothed the night with clinging darkness; the faded leaves hung slack and motionless from the trees, waiting for their fall; the tense notes of the surf beyond the sand-dunes vibrated through the damp air like chords from some mighty VIOLONO; large, warm drops wept from the arbour while I sat in the garden, holding the poor little book, and thinking of the white blot in the record of a life that was too proud to bend to the happiness that was meant for it.
There are men like that: not many perhaps, but a few; and they are the ones who suffer most keenly in this world of half-understanding and clouded knowledge. There is a pride, honourable and sensitive, that imperils the realization of love, puts it under a spell of silence and reserve, makes it sterile of blossoms and impotent of fruits. For what is it, after all, but a subtle, spiritual worship of self? And what was Falconer’s resolve not to tell this girl that he loved her until he had won fame and position, but a secret, unconscious setting of himself above her? For surely, if love is supreme, it does not need to wait for anything else to lend it worth and dignity. The very sweetness and power of it lie in the confession of one life as dependent upon another for its fulfilment. It is made strong in its very weakness. It is the only thing, after all, that can break the prison bars and set the heart free from itself. The pride that hinders it, enslaves it. Love’s first duty is to be true to itself, in word and deed. Then, having spoken truth and acted verity, it may call on honour to keep it pure and steadfast.
If Falconer had trusted Claire, and showed her his heart without reserve, would she not have understood him and helped him? It was the pride of independence, the passion of self-reliance that drew him away from her and divided his heart from hers in a dumb isolation. But Claire,–was not she also in fault? Might she not have known, should not she have taken for granted, the truth which must have been so easy to read in Falconer’s face, though he never put it into words? And yet with her there was something very different from the pride that kept him silent. The virgin reserve of a young girl’s heart is more sacred than any pride of self. It is the maiden instinct which makes the woman always the shrine, and never the pilgrim. She is not the seeker, but the one sought. She dares not take anything for granted. She has the right to wait for the voice, the word, the avowal. Then, and not till then, if the pilgrim be the chosen one, the shrine may open to receive him.
Not all women believe this; but those who do are the ones best worth seeking and winning. And Claire was one of them. It seemed to me, as I mused, half dreaming, on the unfinished story of these two lives that had missed each other in the darkness, that I could see her figure moving through the garden, beyond where the pallid bloom of the tall cosmos-flower bent to the fitful breeze. Her robe was like the waving of the mist. Her face was fair, and very fair, for all its sadness: a blue flower, faint as a shadow on the snow, trembled at her waist, as she paced to and fro along the path.
I murmured to myself, “Yet he loved her: and she loved him. Can pride be stronger than love?”
Perhaps, after all, the lingering and belated confession which Falconer had written in his diary might in some way come to her. Perhaps if it were left here in the bower of honeysuckles where they had so often sat together, it might be a sign and omen of the meeting of these two souls that had lost each other in the dark of the world. Perhaps,–ah, who can tell that it is not so?–for those who truly love, with all their errors, with all their faults, there is no “irrevocable”–there is “another field.”
As I turned from the garden, the tense note of the surf vibrated through the night. The pattering drops of dew rustled as they fell from the leaves of the honeysuckle. But underneath these sounds it seemed as if I heard a deep voice saying “Claire!” and a woman’s lips whispering “Temple!”