Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories online

. (page 11 of 14)
Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe Bell in the Fog and Other Stories → online text (page 11 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


She returned swiftly to the bedside, wondering if she had remained away
hours or seconds, and if he were dead. His face was still discernible,
and Death had not relaxed it. She laid her own against it, then withdrew
it with shuddering flesh, her teeth smiting each other as if an icy wind
had passed.

She let herself fall back in the chair, clasping her hands against her
heart, watching with expanding eyes the white sculptured face which, in
the glittering dark, was becoming less defined of outline. Did she light
the gas it would draw mosquitoes, and she could not shut from him the
little air he must be mechanically grateful for. And she did not want to
see the opening eye - the falling jaw.

Her vision became so fixed that at length she saw nothing, and closed
her eyes and waited for the moisture to rise and relieve the strain.
When she opened them his face had disappeared; the humid waves above the
house-tops put out even the light of the stars, and night was come.

Fearfully, she approached her ear to his lips; he still breathed. She
made a motion to kiss him, then threw herself back in a quiver of
agony - they were not the lips she had known, and she would have nothing
less.

His breathing was so faint that in her half-reclining position she could
not hear it, could not be aware of the moment of his death. She extended
her arm resolutely and laid her hand on his heart. Not only must she
feel his going, but, so strong had been the comradeship between them, it
was a matter of loving honor to stand by him to the last.

She sat there in the hot heavy night, pressing her hand hard against the
ebbing heart of the unseen, and awaited Death. Suddenly an odd fancy
possessed her. Where was Death? Why was he tarrying? Who was detaining
him? From what quarter would he come? He was taking his leisure, drawing
near with footsteps as measured as those of men keeping time to a
funeral march. By a wayward deflection she thought of the slow music
that was always turned on in the theatre when the heroine was about to
appear, or something eventful to happen. She had always thought that
sort of thing ridiculous and inartistic. So had He.

She drew her brows together angrily, wondering at her levity, and
pressed her relaxed palm against the heart it kept guard over. For a
moment the sweat stood on her face; then the pent-up breath burst from
her lungs. He still lived.

Once more the fancy wantoned above the stunned heart. Death - _where_ was
he? What a curious experience: to be sitting alone in a big house - she
knew that the cook had stolen out - waiting for Death to come and snatch
her husband from her. No; he would not snatch, he would steal upon his
prey as noiselessly as the approach of Sin to Innocence - an invisible,
unfair, sneaking enemy, with whom no man's strength could grapple. If he
would only come like a man, and take his chances like a man! Women had
been known to reach the hearts of giants with the dagger's point. But he
would creep upon her.

She gave an exclamation of horror. Something was creeping over the
window-sill. Her limbs palsied, but she struggled to her feet and looked
back, her eyes dragged about against her own volition. Two small green
stars glared menacingly at her just above the sill; then the cat
possessing them leaped downward, and the stars disappeared.

She realized that she was horribly frightened. "Is it possible?" she
thought. "Am I afraid of Death, and of Death that has not yet come? I
have always been rather a brave woman; _He_ used to call me heroic; but
then with him it was impossible to fear anything. And I begged them to
leave me alone with him as the last of earthly boons. Oh, shame!"

But she was still quaking as she resumed her seat, and laid her hand
again on his heart. She wished that she had asked Mary to sit outside
the door; there was no bell in the room. To call would be worse than
desecrating the house of God, and she would not leave him for one
moment. To return and find him dead - gone alone!

Her knees smote each other. It was idle to deny it; she was in a state
of unreasoning terror. Her eyes rolled apprehensively about; she
wondered if she should see It when It came; wondered how far off It was
now. Not very far; the heart was barely pulsing. She had heard of the
power of the corpse to drive brave men to frenzy, and had wondered,
having no morbid horror of the dead. But this! To wait - and wait - and
wait - perhaps for hours - past the midnight - on to the small hours - while
that awful, determined, leisurely Something stole nearer and nearer.

She bent to him who had been her protector with a spasm of anger. Where
was the indomitable spirit that had held her all these years with such
strong and loving clasp? How could he leave her? How could he desert
her? Her head fell back and moved restlessly against the cushion;
moaning with the agony of loss, she recalled him as he had been. Then
fear once more took possession of her, and she sat erect, rigid,
breathless, awaiting the approach of Death.

Suddenly, far down in the house, on the first floor, her strained
hearing took note of a sound - a wary, muffled sound, as if some one were
creeping up the stair, fearful of being heard. Slowly! It seemed to
count a hundred between the laying down of each foot. She gave a
hysterical gasp. Where was the slow music?

Her face, her body, were wet - as if a wave of death-sweat had broken
over them. There was a stiff feeling at the roots of her hair; she
wondered if it were really standing erect. But she could not raise her
hand to ascertain. Possibly it was only the coloring matter freezing and
bleaching. Her muscles were flabby, her nerves twitched helplessly.

She knew that it was Death who was coming to her through the silent
deserted house; knew that it was the sensitive ear of her intelligence
that heard him, not the dull, coarse-grained ear of the body.

He toiled up the stair painfully, as if he were old and tired with much
work. But how could he afford to loiter, with all the work he had to do?
Every minute, every second, he must be in demand to hook his cold, hard
finger about a soul struggling to escape from its putrefying tenement.
But probably he had his emissaries, his minions: for only those worthy
of the honor did he come in person.

He reached the first landing and crept like a cat down the hall to the
next stair, then crawled slowly up as before. Light as the footfalls
were, they were squarely planted, unfaltering; slow, they never halted.

Mechanically she pressed her jerking hand closer against the heart; its
beats were almost done. They would finish, she calculated, just as those
footfalls paused beside the bed.

She was no longer a human being; she was an Intelligence and an EAR. Not
a sound came from without, even the Elevated appeared to be temporarily
off duty; but inside the big quiet house that footfall was waxing
louder, louder, until iron feet crashed on iron stairs and echo
thundered.

She had counted the steps - one - two - three - irritated beyond endurance
at the long deliberate pauses between. As they climbed and clanged with
slow precision she continued to count, audibly and with equal precision,
noting their hollow reverberation. How many steps had the stair? She
wished she knew. No need! The colossal trampling announced the lessening
distance in an increasing volume of sound not to be misunderstood. It
turned the curve; it reached the landing; it advanced - slowly - down the
hall; it paused before her door. Then knuckles of iron shook the frail
panels. Her nerveless tongue gave no invitation. The knocking became
more imperious; the very walls vibrated. The handle turned, swiftly and
firmly. With a wild instinctive movement she flung herself into the arms
of her husband.

* * * * *

When Mary opened the door and entered the room she found a dead woman
lying across a dead man.




IX

A Prologue

(TO AN UNWRITTEN PLAY)


Characters: James Hamilton, Mary Fawcett, Rachael Lavine, two slaves.
Place: Nevis, British West Indies. Time: The month of April, 1756.

[A large room, with open windows, to which are attached heavy inside
wooden shutters furnished with iron bars. Beyond the windows are seen
masses of tropical trees and foliage, green and more brilliantly hued,
filled with screaming birds and monkeys. In the court is a fountain. The
house is half-way up the mountain, and between the trees is a glint of
the sea. The room is severely simple. There are no curtains, carpets,
nor upholstered furniture; but there are two handsome pieces of
mahogany, a bookcase full of books bound in old calf, a table on which
are tropical fruits and cooling drinks in earthen jugs, one or two
palm-trees, and Caribbean pottery on shelves. In one corner is a harp.

In the distance is heard a loud menacing roar. The sky is covered with
racing clouds. Suffusing everything is a livid light.

Mistress Fawcett is leaning on her crutch, looking through one of the
windows. Two slaves are crouching on the floor. All are in an intense
attitude, listening. Suddenly there is heard the quick loud firing of
cannon, four guns in rapid succession. The negroes shriek and crouch
lower as if they would insinuate their trembling bodies through the
floor. Mistress Fawcett hastily closes the window by which she is
standing, swings to and bars its shutters. Immediately after may be
heard the sound, gradually diminishing in the distance, of a long line
of windows slammed and barred. Mistress Fawcett attempts to move the
shutters of the other window, but the hinges are rusty and defy her
feeble strength.]

MISTRESS FAWCETT (to the slaves). Come here. Close this window. Did you
not hear the guns? A hurricane is upon us.

THE SLAVES (crouching lower and wailing almost unintelligibly). Oh,
mistress, save us! Send for oby doctor!

MISTRESS FAWCETT. To strangle you with a horse-hair pie! Your obeah
charlatans are grovelling in their cellars. Only our courage and our
two hands can save us to-day. Come! (Beating the floor with her crutch.)
A hundred man slaves on the estate, and not one to help us save the
house! Are my daughter and I to do it all? Get up! (She menaces them
with her crutch.)

THE SLAVES (not moving). Oh, mistress!

[Enter RACHAEL. She walks to the open window and looks out.]

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Close the windows, Rachael. I cannot. And those
creatures are empty skulls.

RACHAEL. In a moment.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. In a moment? Open your ears. Do you want to see the
roof racing with the wind?'

RACHAEL. The hurricane is still miles away.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Great God! How can you stand there and wait for a
hurricane? Do you realize that an hour, if this old house be not strong
enough, may see us struggling out in those roaring waters? These
desolate afflicted Caribbees! They have tested my courage many times,
and I can go through this without flinching; but I cannot stand that
unnatural calm of yours.

RACHAEL. Do I seem calm? (She closes and bars the window.) It is a fine
sight. We may never have such another.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Nor live to know.

RACHAEL (her back is still turned, as she shakes and tests the window).
Well, what of that? Are you so in love with life?

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Even at sixty I am in no haste to be blown out of it.
And if I were twenty -

RACHAEL (turning suddenly, and facing her mother). At twenty, with forty
years of nothingness before you, cut off from all the joy of life, on an
island in the Caribbean Sea, what then? (She snaps her fingers.) That
for the worst a hurricane can do!

MISTRESS FAWCETT (uneasily). Do not let us talk of personal things
to-day.

RACHAEL. I never felt more personal.

MISTRESS FAWCETT (looking at her keenly). I believe you are excited.

RACHAEL (she clinches her hands and brings them up sharply to her
breast). Excited! Call it that if you like. All my life I have longed
for the hurricane, and now I feel as if it were coming to me alone.

MISTRESS FAWCETT (evasively). I do not always understand you, Rachel.
You are a strange girl.

RACHAEL (bursting through her assumed composure). Strange? Because I
long to feel the mountain shaken, as I have been shaken through four
terrible weeks? Because I long to hear the wind roar and shriek its
derision of man, make his quaking soul forget every law he ever knew,
stamp upon him, grind him to pulp -

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Hush! What are you saying? I do not know you - "the
ice-plant of the tropics," indeed! The electricity of this hurricane has
bewitched you.

RACHAEL. That I will not deny. (She laughs.) But I do deny that I am not
myself, whether you recognize me or not. Which self that you have seen
do you think my real one? First, the dreaming girl, in love with books,
the sun, the sea, and a future that no man has written in books; then,
while my scalp is still aching from my newly turned hair, I am thrust
through the church doors into the arms of a brute. A year of dumb
horror, and I run from his house in the night, to my one friend, the
mother who -

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Not another word! I believed in him! There wasn't a
mother on St. Kitts who did not envy me. No one could have imagined -

RACHAEL. No one but a girl of sixteen, to whom no one would listen -

MISTRESS FAWCETT. I commanded you to hush.

RACHAEL. Command the hurricane! I will speak!

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Very well, speak. It may be our last hour - who knows?
(She seats herself, sets her lips, and presses her hands hard on the
handle of her crutch.)

RACHAEL. Did you think you knew me in the two years that followed, years
when I was as speechless as while in bondage to John Lavine, when I
crouched in the dark corners, fearing the light, the sound of every
man's voice? Then health again, and normal interests, but not hope - not
hope! At nineteen I had lived too long! You are sixty, and you have not
the vaguest idea what that means! Then, four weeks ago -

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Ah!

RACHAEL. James Hamilton came. Ah, how unprepared I was! That I - _I_
should ever look upon another man except with loathing! Sixty and
twenty - perhaps somewhere between is the age of wisdom! And the law
holds me fast to a man who is not fit to live! All nature awoke in me
and sang the hour I met Hamilton. For the first time I loved children,
and longed for them. For the first time I saw God in man. For the first
time the future seemed vast, interminable, yet all too short. And if I
go to this man who has made me feel great and wonderful enough to bear
a demi-god, a wretch can divorce and disgrace me! Oh, these four
terrible weeks - ecstasy, despair - ecstasy, despair - and to the world as
unblinking as a marble in a museum! Do you wonder that I welcome the
hurricane, in which no man dare think of any but his puny self? For the
moment I am free, and as alive, as triumphant as that great wind
outside - as eager to devastate, to fight, to conquer, to live - to
live - to live. What do I care for civilization? If James Hamilton were
out there among the flying trees and called to me, I would go. Hark!
Listen! Is it not magnificent?

[The hurricane is nearer and louder. The approaching roar is varied by
sudden tremendous gusts, the hissing and splashing of water, the howling
of negroes and dogs, the wild pealing of bells. In the room below is
heard the noise of many trampling feet, slamming of windows, and
smothered exclamations.]

MISTRESS FAWCETT. The negroes have taken refuge in the cellar - every one
of them, beyond a doubt, two hundred and more! God grant they do not die
of fright or suffocation. It is useless to attempt to coax them up here.
These only wait until our backs are turned. Look!

[The slaves have crawled to the door on the left. They are livid. Their
tongues hang out. Rachael runs forward, seizes them by their long hair,
and administers a severe shaking.]

RACHAEL. Wake up! Wake up! We need your help. The windows must be
watched every moment.

[A terrible gust shakes the house. As Rachael relaxes her hold, the
slaves collapse again, but clutch at her skirts, mumbling and wailing.
Rachael gazes at them a moment, makes a motion as if to spurn them with
her foot, then shrugs her shoulders and opens the door.]

RACHAEL. Go. Die in your own way. May I be granted the same privilege
some day.

[The slaves stumble out.]

MISTRESS FAWCETT. I see you recognize no will but your own to-night.
They are my slaves, and I had bidden them stay. But in truth they are
useless; and as for you - have your little hour. I embittered too many.
It may be your last. And - thank God! - Hamilton is not here.

RACHAEL (with great agitation). Where is he? At sea? Riding over the
mountain - far from shelter -

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Trust any man to take care of himself, let alone a
Scot. No doubt he is over on St. Kitts, brewing swizzle with Will
Hamilton. Will's house is one of the strongest in the Caribbees. Look!

[One of the heavy shutters has been forced open by the wind, which has
shattered the outer glass. Leaves and glass fly into the room. Rachael
and her mother hurl themselves against the heavy wooden blind. By
exerting all their strength they succeed in fastening it again. Then
they examine the other window. Mistress Fawcett sits down, panting,
holding her hand to her heart.]

RACHAEL. I will see to the other windows. (She runs out of the room.)

MISTRESS FAWCETT. If she knew that Hamilton was on Nevis an hour before
the guns were fired! As like as not he helped to fire them, for he is a
guest at the Fort. If I had not commanded him to go when he came this
afternoon, he would be here now. Thank heaven, no man could breast this
hurricane and live! I know her! I know her - little as she thinks it!
Will she continue to obey me? And after I am dead? Ah! Do I allow myself
to fear aught in this hurricane, I shall never see the morning. (She
presses her hand hard against her heart, and composes herself.)

[Rachael returns. She pours out a drink and forces her mother to take
it, while her own head is erect and listening. Her nostrils dilate; one
can almost see her ears quiver. The wind increases every moment in
violence. In it may now be heard a peculiar monotonous rattle, the
agitation of seeds in the dry pods of the "giant" tree.]

RACHAEL. Did you see? I had but a glimpse, but hours could not have made
the picture more vivid. I could _see_ the great wind. The tops of the
palms are flying about like Brobdingnagian birds, their long blades
darting out like infuriated tongues. I saw the oranges flung about in a
great game of battledore and shuttlecock - as if the hurricane remembered
to play in its fury! I saw men shrieking at the masts of a ship. Their
puny lives! Why are they not glad to die so splendid a death?

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Thank God, Hamilton is not here!

RACHAEL. I tell you that, if he were, the greatest man of his time would
one day call you grandam.

MISTRESS FAWCETT (rising with energy). Hark ye, Rachael! Calm yourself!
You have had your hour of wildness. I understand your mood - the relief,
the delight to give to the storm what you cannot give to Hamilton. But
enough! I can stand no more. I am old. My heart is nearly worn out. If
the storm unnerves me, I am undone.

RACHAEL. Very well, mother. I will put my soul back in its coffin - if I
can. This is a favorable moment. There is a lull.

MISTRESS FAWCETT (she seats herself again). Come here, Rachael.
(Rachael, who has apparently calmed herself, approaches and stands
beside her mother. She tenderly rearranges the old woman's hair, which
fell from her cap during her struggle with the blind.) Rachael, these
hours, I repeat, may be our last on earth. This house is old. The
hurricane may uproot it. Like you, I am not afraid to die. Indeed, I
should welcome death to-night if I could take you with me. Bitterer than
any pain has been the thought of leaving you alone in the world. I am
glad you have broken the silence you imposed. I never could have broken
it. I ask you now to forgive me, and I acknowledge that I alone was
responsible for the tragedy of your married life. That I was deceived is
no excuse. I am reckoned more astute than most. I should have known that
behind that white and purring exterior was a cruel and hideous
voluptuary. But I had known Danes all my life, and respected them, and
you were the child of my old age. I knew that I had not long to live.
But I am not making excuses. I ask you humbly to forgive me.

RACHAEL. Forgive you! I have been bred in philosophy, and I have always
loved you perfectly.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Ah! I did not know. Until to-night you have been so
reticent. And silent people think - think -

RACHAEL. I have thought, but never to blame you. And what is past is
past. I waste no time on what cannot be undone. The soul must have its
education, and part of that is to be torn up by the roots, trampled,
beaten, crucified. Let me hope that, having had that course at the
beginning of my life, I have had it once for all.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. There are worse things than a loveless marriage with a
brute. One is to love a man you cannot marry, and be cast aside by him,
while your heart is still alive with the love he has sloughed off like
an old skin that has begun to chafe. And then, without friends - with
children, perhaps, the world snatching at its skirts as it passes
you - the uncommon and terrible disgrace of divorce. Rachael! - will you
not promise me -

RACHAEL. I promise you this - in normal mood, I will think of you first.
But, do I ever meet Hamilton when I feel as I do to-night, I should not
think - not think, I say - not think nor care! Am I like those cattle in
the cellar? Did not Nature fashion me to love and hate, to create and
suffer - to feel as she does to-night?

MISTRESS FAWCETT (with a long sigh). Thank heaven, Hamilton is not here!
Ah!

RACHAEL. Yes, it comes again.

[The hurricane bursts with renewed fury. The concussions are like the
impact of artillery. Hail rattles on the roof. Trees and roofs crash
against one another in mid-air. Suddenly the house springs and rocks.
Simultaneously there is a long horrid shriek from the negroes in the
cellar.]

RACHAEL. Has Nevis been torn from her foundations?

MISTRESS FAWCETT. It was an earthquake. A hurricane tugs at the very
roots of the earth. Pray heaven that the fires in Nevis are out. But we
have no time to think on imaginary horrors. Look to the windows. (As
Rachael examines the windows, Mistress Fawcett thrusts her head towards
the outer door, as if listening in an agony of apprehension. She raises
herself from the chair, her eyes expanded, but keeps her face turned
from Rachael, and says, steadily): I think I hear the rattle of a
shutter in the dining-room. Run and see. And examine all the other
windows before you return. Remember that if the wind gets in, the roof
will go. (Rachael runs out of the room. Immediately after there is a
loud knocking at the front door, which is on the side of the house at
present sheltered from the direct attack of the storm. Mistress Fawcett
hobbles forward and secures more firmly the iron bar, making it
impossible for an outsider to force his way in.)

MISTRESS FAWCETT. Who is there?

A Voice without. It is I - James Hamilton.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. You cannot enter.

HAMILTON. Not enter? I have braved death, and worse, to come to you,
knowing that you were alone. Nor would you leave a dog out on such a
day.

MISTRESS FAWCETT. I would open to the most desperate criminal in the
islands, but not to you. Go! Go! At once! (She turns her head in great
anxiety towards the long line of rooms where Rachael is examining the
windows.) Surely she cannot hear us; the wind is too great. (Raising her
voice again.) You cannot enter. If my daughter opens the door to you, it
will be after violence to me. Now will you go - or, at least, make no
further sign? You are welcome to the shelter of the veranda until the
hurricane veers, when you can take refuge in an outhouse.

HAMILTON. You have not an outhouse on the estate. Not one stone is upon
another, except in this house. Hardly a tree is standing. If you send
me away, it is to certain death.

MISTRESS FAWCETT (in a tone of great distress). What shall I do? I do
not wish you so ill as that. If I admit you, will you let me hide you?
Promise me not to reveal yourself to Rachael?

HAMILTON. I will not promise.

[Rachael enters. She raises her head with a quick half-comprehending
motion.]

RACHAEL. Who is out there?

MISTRESS FAWCETT (she turns sharply, draws herself up, and places her
back to the door). James Hamilton.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14

Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe Bell in the Fog and Other Stories → online text (page 11 of 14)