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Produced by Don Lainson





THE MESSENGERS

Richard Harding Davis



When Ainsley first moved to Lone Lake Farm all of his friends asked him
the same question. They wanted to know, if the farmer who sold it to him
had abandoned it as worthless, how one of the idle rich, who could not
distinguish a plough from a harrow, hoped to make it pay? His answer
was that he had not purchased the farm as a means of getting richer
by honest toil, but as a retreat from the world and as a test of true
friendship. He argued that the people he knew accepted his hospitality
at Sherry's because, in any event, they themselves would be dining
within a taxicab fare of the same place. But if to see him they
travelled all the way to Lone Lake Farm, he might feel assured that they
were friends indeed.

Lone Lake Farm was spread over many acres of rocky ravine and forest,
at a point where Connecticut approaches New York, and between it and the
nearest railroad station stretched six miles of an execrable wood road.
In this wilderness, directly upon the lonely lake, and at a spot equally
distant from each of his boundary lines, Ainsley built himself a red
brick house. Here, in solitude, he exiled himself; ostensibly to become
a gentleman farmer; in reality to wait until Polly Kirkland had made up
her mind to marry him.

Lone Lake, which gave the farm its name, was a pond hardly larger than
a city block. It was fed by hidden springs, and fringed about with reeds
and cat-tails, stunted willows and shivering birch. From its surface
jutted points of the same rock that had made farming unremunerative, and
to these miniature promontories and islands Ainsley, in keeping with
a fancied resemblance, gave such names as the Needles, St. Helena, the
Isle of Pines. From the edge of the pond that was farther from the house
rose a high hill, heavily wooded. At its base, oak and chestnut trees
spread their branches over the water, and when the air was still were so
clearly reflected in the pond that the leaves seemed to float upon the
surface. To the smiling expanse of the farm the lake was what the eye
is to the human countenance. The oaks were its eyebrows, the fringe of
reeds its lashes, and, in changing mood, it flashed with happiness or
brooded in sombre melancholy. For Ainsley it held a deep attraction.
Through the summer evenings, as the sun set, he would sit on the
brick terrace and watch the fish leaping, and listen to the venerable
bull-frogs croaking false alarms of rain. Indeed, after he met Polly
Kirkland, staring moodily at the lake became his favorite form of
exercise. With a number of other men, Ainsley was very much in love
with Miss Kirkland, and unprejudiced friends thought that if she were to
choose any of her devotees, Ainsley should be that one. Ainsley heartily
agreed in this opinion, but in persuading Miss Kirkland to share it
he had not been successful. This was partly his own fault; for when he
dared to compare what she meant to him with what he had to offer her
he became a mass of sodden humility. Could he have known how much Polly
Kirkland envied and admired his depth of feeling, entirely apart from
the fact that she herself inspired that feeling, how greatly she wished
to care for him in the way he cared for her, life, even alone in the
silences of Lone Lake, would have been a beautiful and blessed thing.
But he was so sure she was the most charming and most wonderful girl in
all the world, and he an unworthy and despicable being, that when the
lady demurred, he faltered, and his pleading, at least to his own ears,
carried no conviction.

"When one thinks of being married," said Polly Kirkland gently, "it
isn't a question of the man you can live with, but the man you can't
live without. And I am sorry, but I've not found that man."

"I suppose," returned Ainsley gloomily, "that my not being able to live
without you doesn't affect the question in the least?"

"You HAVE lived without me," Miss Kirkland pointed out reproachfully,
"for thirty years."

"Lived!" almost shouted Ainsley. "Do you call THAT living? What was I
before I met you? I was an ignorant beast of the field. I knew as much
about living as one of the cows on my farm. I could sleep twelve hours
at a stretch, or, if I was in New York, I NEVER slept. I was a Day and
Night Bank of health and happiness, a great, big, useless puppy. And now
I can't sleep, can't eat, can't think - except of you. I dream about you
all night, think about you all day, go through the woods calling your
name, cutting your initials in tree trunks, doing all the fool things
a man does when he's in love, and I am the most miserable man in the
world - and the happiest!"

He finally succeeded in making Miss Kirkland so miserable also that she
decided to run away. Friends had planned to spend the early spring
on the Nile and were eager that she should accompany them. To her the
separation seemed to offer an excellent method of discovering whether or
not Ainsley was the man she could not "live without."

Ainsley saw in it only an act of torture, devised with devilish cruelty.

"What will happen to me," he announced firmly, "is that I will plain
DIE! As long as I can see you, as long as I have the chance to try and
make you understand that no one can possibly love you as I do, and as
long as I know I am worrying you to death, and no one else is, I still
hope. I've no right to hope, still I do. And that one little chance
keeps me alive. But Egypt! If you escape to Egypt, what hold will I have
on you? You might as well be in the moon. Can you imagine me writing
love-letters to a woman in the moon? Can I send American Beauty roses
to the ruins of Karnak? Here I can telephone you; not that I ever have
anything to say that you want to hear, but because I want to listen to
your voice, and to have you ask, 'Oh! is that YOU?' as though you were
glad it WAS me. But Egypt! Can I call up Egypt on the long-distance? If
you leave me now, you'll leave me forever, for I'll drown myself in Lone
Lake."

The day she sailed away he went to the steamer, and, separating her from
her friends and family, drew her to the side of the ship farther from
the wharf, and which for the moment, was deserted. Directly below a
pile-driver, with rattling of chains and shrieks from her donkey-engine,
was smashing great logs; on the deck above, the ship's band was braying
forth fictitious gayety, and from every side they were assailed by the
raucous whistles of ferry-boats. The surroundings were not conducive
to sentiment, but for the first time Polly Kirkland seemed a little
uncertain, a little frightened; almost on the verge of tears, almost
persuaded to surrender. For the first time she laid her hand on
Ainsley's arm, and the shock sent the blood to his heart and held him
breathless. When the girl looked at him there was something in her eyes
that neither he nor any other man had ever seen there.

"The last thing I tell you," she said, "the thing I want you to
remember, is this, that, though I do not care - I WANT to care."

Ainsley caught at her hand and, to the delight of the crew of a passing
tug-boat, kissed it rapturously. His face was radiant. The fact of
parting from her had caused him real suffering, had marked his face
with hard lines. Now, hope and happiness smoothed them away and his eyes
shone with his love for her. He was trembling, laughing, jubilant.

"And if you should!" he begged. "How soon will I know? You will cable,"
he commanded. "You will cable 'Come,' and the same hour I'll start
toward you. I'll go home now," he cried, "and pack!"

The girl drew away. Already she regretted the admission she had made. In
fairness and in kindness to him she tried to regain the position she had
abandoned.

"But a change like that," she pleaded, "might not come for years, may
never come!" To recover herself, to make the words she had uttered seem
less serious, she spoke quickly and lightly.

"And how could I CABLE such a thing!" she protested. "It would be far
too sacred, too precious. You should be able to FEEL that the change has
come."

"I suppose I should," assented Ainsley, doubtfully; "but it's a long way
across two oceans. It would be safer if you'd promise to use the cable.
Just one word: 'Come.'"

The girl shook her head and frowned.

"If you can't feel that the woman you love loves you, even across the
world, you cannot love her very deeply."

"I don't have to answer that!" said Ainsley.

"I will send you a sign," continued the girl, hastily; "a secret
wireless message. It shall be a test. If you love me you will read it at
once. You will know the instant you see it that it comes from me. No one
else will be able to read it; but if you love me, you will know that I
love you."

Whether she spoke in metaphor or in fact, whether she was "playing for
time," or whether in her heart she already intended to soon reward him
with a message of glad tidings, Ainsley could not decide. And even as
he begged her to enlighten him the last whistle blew, and a determined
officer ordered him to the ship's side.

"Just as in everything that is beautiful," he whispered eagerly, "I
always see something of you, so now in everything wonderful I will read
your message. But," he persisted, "how shall I be SURE?"

The last bag of mail had shot into the hold, the most reluctant of the
visitors were being hustled down the last remaining gangplank. Ainsley's
state was desperate.

"Will it be in symbol, or in cipher?" he demanded. "Must I read it in
the sky, or will you hide it in a letter, or - where? Help me! Give me
just a hint!"

The girl shook her head.

"You will read it - in your heart," she said.

From the end of the wharf Ainsley watched the funnels of the ship
disappear in the haze of the lower bay. His heart was sore and heavy,
but in it there was still room for righteous indignation. "Read it in my
heart!" he protested. "How the devil can I read it in my heart? I want
to read it PRINTED in a cablegram."

Because he had always understood that young men in love found solace for
their misery in solitude and in communion with nature, he at once
drove his car to Lone Lake. But his misery was quite genuine, and the
emptiness of the brick house only served to increase his loneliness. He
had built the house for her, though she had never visited it, and was
associated with it only through the somewhat indefinite medium of the
telephone box. But in New York they had been much together. And Ainsley
quickly decided that in revisiting those places where he had been happy
in her company he would derive from the recollection some melancholy
consolation. He accordingly raced back through the night to the city;
nor did he halt until he was at the door of her house. She had left it
only that morning, and though it was locked in darkness, it still spoke
of her. At least it seemed to bring her nearer to him than when he was
listening to the frogs in the lake, and crushing his way through the
pines.

He was not hungry, but he went to a restaurant where, when he was host,
she had often been the honored guest, and he pretended they were at
supper together and without a chaperon. Either the illusion, or the
supper cheered him, for he was encouraged to go on to his club. There
in the library, with the aid of an atlas, he worked out where, after
thirteen hours of moving at the rate of twenty-two knots an hour,
she should be at that moment. Having determined that fact to his own
satisfaction, he sent a wireless after the ship. It read: "It is now
midnight and you are in latitude 40 degrees north, longitude 68 degrees
west, and I have grown old and gray waiting for the sign."

The next morning, and for many days after, he was surprised to find
that the city went on as though she still were in it. With
unfeeling regularity the sun rose out of the East River. On Broadway
electric-light signs flashed, street-cars pursued each other, taxicabs
bumped and skidded, women, and even men, dared to look happy, and had
apparently taken some thought to their attire. They did not respect even
his widowerhood. They smiled upon him, and asked him jocularly about the
farm and his "crops," and what he was doing in New York. He pitied them,
for obviously they were ignorant of the fact that in New York there were
art galleries, shops, restaurants of great interest, owing to the fact
that Polly Kirkland had visited them. They did not know that on upper
Fifth Avenue were houses of which she had deigned to approve, or which
she had destroyed with ridicule, and that to walk that avenue and halt
before each of these houses was an inestimable privilege.

Each day, with pathetic vigilance, Ainsley examined his heart for the
promised sign. But so far from telling him that the change he longed
for had taken place, his heart grew heavier, and as weeks went by and
no sign appeared, what little confidence he had once enjoyed passed with
them.

But before hope entirely died, several false alarms had thrilled him
with happiness. One was a cablegram from Gibraltar in which the only
words that were intelligible were "congratulate" and "engagement." This
lifted him into an ecstasy of joy and excitement, until, on having the
cable company repeat the message, he learned it was a request from Miss
Kirkland to congratulate two mutual friends who had just announced
their engagement, and of whose address she was uncertain. He had hardly
recovered from this disappointment than he was again thrown into a
tumult by the receipt of a mysterious package from the custom-house
containing an intaglio ring. The ring came from Italy, and her ship
had touched at Genoa. The fact that it was addressed in an unknown
handwriting did not disconcert him, for he argued that to make the test
more difficult she might disguise the handwriting. He at once carried
the intaglio to an expert at the Metropolitan Museum, and when he was
told that it represented Cupid feeding a fire upon an altar, he reserved
a stateroom on the first steamer bound for the Mediterranean. But before
his ship sailed, a letter, also from Italy, from his aunt Maria, who was
spending the winter in Rome, informed him that the ring was a Christmas
gift from her. In his rage he unjustly condemned Aunt Maria as a
meddling old busybody, and gave her ring to the cook.

After two months of pilgrimages to places sacred to the memory of Polly
Kirkland, Ainsley found that feeding his love on post-mortems was poor
fare, and, in surrender, determined to evacuate New York. Since her
departure he had received from Miss Kirkland several letters, but they
contained no hint of a change in her affections, and search them as
he might, he could find no cipher or hidden message. They were merely
frank, friendly notes of travel; at first filled with gossip of the
steamer, and later telling of excursions around Cairo. If they held any
touch of feeling they seemed to show that she was sorry for him, and
as she could not regard him in any way more calculated to increase his
discouragement, he, in utter hopelessness, retreated to the solitude
of the farm. In New York he left behind him two trunks filled with such
garments as a man would need on board a steamer and in the early spring
in Egypt. They had been packed and in readiness since the day she sailed
away, when she had told him of the possible sign. But there had been
no sign. Nor did he longer believe in one. So in the baggage-room of an
hotel the trunks were abandoned, accumulating layers of dust and charges
for storage.

At the farm the snow still lay in the crevices of the rocks and beneath
the branches of the evergreens, but under the wet, dead leaves little
flowers had begun to show their faces. The "backbone of the winter was
broken" and spring was in the air. But as Ainsley was certain that his
heart also was broken, the signs of spring did not console him. At each
week-end he filled the house with people, but they found him gloomy and
he found them dull. He liked better the solitude of the midweek days.
Then for hours he would tramp through the woods, pretending she was at
his side, pretending he was helping her across the streams swollen with
winter rains and melted snow. On these excursions he cut down trees that
hid a view he thought she would have liked, he cut paths over which she
might have walked. Or he sat idly in a flat-bottomed scow in the lake
and made a pretence of fishing. The loneliness of the lake and the
isolation of the boat suited his humor. He did not find it true
that misery loves company. At least to human beings he preferred his
companions of Lone Lake - the beaver building his home among the reeds,
the kingfisher, the blue heron, the wild fowl that in their flight north
rested for an hour or a day upon the peaceful waters. He looked upon
them as his guests, and when they spread their wings and left him again
alone he felt he had been hardly used.

It was while he was sunk in this state of melancholy, and some months
after Miss Kirkland had sailed to Egypt, that hope returned.

For a week-end he had invited Holden and Lowell, two former classmates,
and Nelson Mortimer and his bride. They were all old friends of their
host and well acquainted with the cause of his discouragement. So they
did not ask to be entertained, but, disregarding him, amused themselves
after their own fashion. It was late Friday afternoon. The members of
the house-party had just returned from a tramp through the woods and had
joined Ainsley on the terrace, where he stood watching the last rays of
the sun leave the lake in darkness. All through the day there had been
sharp splashes of rain with the clouds dull and forbidding, but now the
sun was sinking in a sky of crimson, and for the morrow a faint moon
held out a promise of fair weather.

Elsie Mortimer gave a sudden exclamation, and pointed to the east.
"Look!" she said.

The men turned and followed the direction of her hand. In the fading
light, against a background of sombre clouds that the sun could not
reach, they saw, moving slowly toward them and descending as they moved,
six great white birds. When they were above the tops of the trees that
edged the lake, the birds halted and hovered uncertainly, their wings
lifting and falling, their bodies slanting and sweeping slowly, in short
circles.

The suddenness of their approach, their presence so far inland,
something unfamiliar and foreign in the way they had winged their
progress, for a moment held the group upon the terrace silent.

"They are gulls from the Sound," said Lowell.

"They are too large for gulls," returned Mortimer. "They might be wild
geese, but," he answered himself, in a puzzled voice, "it is too late;
and wild geese follow a leader."

As though they feared the birds might hear them and take alarm, the men,
unconsciously, had spoken in low tones.

"They move as though they were very tired," whispered Elsie Mortimer.

"I think," said Ainsley, "they have lost their way."

But even as he spoke, the birds, as though they had reached their goal,
spread their wings to the full length and sank to the shallow water at
the farthest margin of the lake.

As they fell the sun struck full upon them, turning their great pinions
into flashing white and silver.

"Oh!" cried the girl, "but they are beautiful!"

Between the house and the lake there was a ridge of rock higher than
the head of a man, and to this Ainsley and his guests ran for cover. On
hands and knees, like hunters stalking game, they scrambled up the face
of the rock and peered cautiously into the pond. Below them, less than
one hundred yards away, on a tiny promontory, the six white birds stood
motionless. They showed no sign of fear. They could not but know that
beyond the lonely circle of the pond were the haunts of men. From
the farm came the tinkle of a cow-bell, the bark of a dog, and in the
valley, six miles distant, rose faintly upon the stillness of the sunset
hour the rumble of a passing train. But if these sounds carried, the
birds gave no heed. In each drooping head and dragging wing, in the
forward stoop of each white body, weighing heavily on the slim, black
legs, was written utter weariness, abject fatigue. To each even to lower
his bill and sip from the cool waters was a supreme effort. And in their
exhaustion so complete was something humanly helpless and pathetic.

To Ainsley the mysterious visitors made a direct appeal. He felt as
though they had thrown themselves upon his hospitality. That they showed
such confidence that the sanctuary would be kept sacred touched him.
And while his friends spoke eagerly, he remained silent, watching the
drooping, ghost-like figures, his eyes filled with pity.

"I have seen birds like those in Florida," Mortimer was whispering, "but
they were not migratory birds."

"And I've seen white cranes in the Adirondacks," said Lowell, "but never
six at one time."

"They're like no bird I ever saw out of a zoo," declared Elsie Mortimer.
"Maybe they ARE from the Zoo? Maybe they escaped from the Bronx?"

"The Bronx is too near," objected Lowell. "These birds have come a great
distance. They move as though they had been flying for many days."

As though the absurdity of his own thought amused him, Mortimer laughed
softly.

"I'll tell you what they DO look like," he said. "They look like that
bird you see on the Nile, the sacred Ibis, they - "

Something between a gasp and a cry startled him into silence. He found
his host staring wildly, his lips parted, his eyes open wide.

"Where?" demanded Ainsley. "Where did you say?" His voice was so hoarse,
so strange, that they all turned and looked.

"On the Nile," repeated Mortimer. "All over Egypt. Why?"

Ainsley made no answer. Unclasping his hold, he suddenly slid down the
face of the rock, and with a bump lit on his hands and knees. With one
bound he had cleared a flower-bed. In two more he had mounted the steps
to the terrace, and in another instant had disappeared into the house.

"What happened to him?" demanded Elsie Mortimer.

"He's gone to get a gun!" exclaimed Mortimer. "But he mustn't! How can
he think of shooting them?" he cried indignantly. "I'll put a stop to
that!"

In the hall he found Ainsley surrounded by a group of startled servants.

"You get that car at the door in five minutes!" he was shouting, "and
YOU telephone the hotel to have my trunks out of the cellar and on board
the Kron Prinz Albert by midnight. Then you telephone Hoboken that I
want a cabin, and if they haven't got a cabin I want the captain's. And
tell them anyway I'm coming on board to-night, and I'm going with them
if I have to sleep on deck. And YOU," he cried, turning to Mortimer,
"take a shotgun and guard that lake, and if anybody tries to molest
those birds - shoot him! They've come from Egypt! From Polly Kirkland!
She sent them! They're a sign!"

"Are you going mad?" cried Mortimer.

"No!" roared Ainsley. "I'm going to Egypt, and I'm going NOW!"

Polly Kirkland and her friends were travelling slowly up the Nile, and
had reached Luxor. A few hundred yards below the village their dahabiyeh
was moored to the bank, and, on the deck, Miss Kirkland was watching
a scarlet sun sink behind two palm-trees. By the grace of that special
Providence that cares for drunken men, citizens of the United States,
and lovers, her friends were on shore, and she was alone. For this she
was grateful, for her thoughts were of a melancholy and tender nature
and she had no wish for any companion save one. In consequence, when
a steam-launch, approaching at full speed with the rattle of a
quick-firing gun, broke upon her meditations, she was distinctly
annoyed.

But when, with much ringing of bells and shouting of orders, the
steam-launch rammed the paint off her dahabiyeh, and a young man flung
himself over the rail and ran toward her, her annoyance passed, and with
a sigh she sank into his outstretched, eager arms.

Half an hour later Ainsley laughed proudly and happily.

"Well!" he exclaimed, "you can never say I kept YOU waiting. I didn't
lose much time, did I? Ten minutes after I got your C. Q. D. signal I
was going down the Boston Post Road at seventy miles an hour."

"My what?" said the girl.

"The sign!" explained Ainsley. "The sign you were to send me to tell
me" - he bent over her hands and added gently - "that you cared for me."

"Oh, I remember," laughed Polly Kirkland. "I was to send you a sign,
wasn't I? You were to 'read it in your heart'," she quoted.

"And I did," returned Ainsley complacently. "There were several false
alarms, and I'd almost lost hope, but when the messengers came I knew


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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThe Messengers → online text (page 1 of 2)