Copyright
Will Levington Comfort.

She buildeth her house online

. (page 15 of 23)
Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 15 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


again, fingering the black heavens for the blown-out stars. She was
lonely, but not altogether miserable, out there on the tossing floor of
the Atlantic....




SEVENTEENTH CHAPTER

PAULA SAILS INTO THE SOUTH, SEEKING THE HOLY MAN OF SAINT PIERRE, WHERE
_LA MONTAGNE PELÉE_ GIVES WARNING


Wonderfully strengthened, she was, by the voyage. Sorrow had destroyed
large fields of verdure, and turned barren the future, but its devouring
was finished. Quentin Charter was adjusted in her mind to a duality with
which Paula Linster could have no concern. Only to one mistress could he
be faithful; indeed, it was only in the presence of this mistress that
he became the tower of visions to another; in the midst of the work he
worshipped, Quentin Charter had heard the Skylark sing. Paula did not
want to see him again, nor Selma Cross. To avoid these two, as well as
the place where the Destroyer had learned so well to penetrate, she had
managed not to return to her apartment during the two days before
sailing.... There would never be another master-romance - never again so
rich a giving, nor so pure an ideal. Before this tragic reality, the
inner glory of her womanhood became meaningless. It was this that made
the future a crossing of sterile tundras, - yet she would keep her
friends, and love her work, and try to hold her faith....

Bellingham did not call her at sea, but he had frightened her too
profoundly to be far from mind. The face she had seen in the hall-way
was drawn and disordered by the dreadful tortures of nether-planes; and
awful in the eyes, was that feline vacancy of soul. Once in a dream, she
saw him - a pale reptile-monster upreared from a salty sea, voiceless in
that oceanic isolation, a shameful secret of the depths. The ghastly
bulk had risen with a mute protest to the sky against dissolution and
creeping decay - and sounded again....

To her, Bellingham was living death, the triumph of desire which rends
itself, the very essence of tragedy. She gladly would have died to make
her race see the awfulness of _just flesh_ - as she saw it now.... His
power seemed ended; she felt with the Reifferscheids and Madame Nestor,
that her secret was hermetic, and there was a goodly sense of security
in the intervening sea....

And now there was a new island each day; each morning a fresh garden
arose from the Caribbean - sun-wooed, rain-softened isles with colorful
little ports.... There was one tropic city - she could not recall the
name - which from the offing had looked like the flower-strewn gateway to
an amphitheatre of mountains.

The _Fruitlands_ had lain for a day in the hot, sharky harbor of
Santiago; had run into a real cloudburst off the Silver Reefs of Santo
Domingo, and breathed on the radiant next morning before the stately and
ancient city of San Juan de Porto Rico - shining white as a dream-castle
of old Spain, and adrift in an azure world of sky and sea. She spent a
day and an evening in this isle of ripe fruits and riper amours; and
took away materials for a memory composite of interminable siestas,
restless radiant nights, towering cliffs, incomparable courtesy, and
soft-voiced maidens with wondrous Spanish eyes that laugh and turn away.

Then for two days they had steamed down past the saintly
archipelago - St. Thomas, St. Martin, St. Kitts; then Montserrat,
Guadeloupe, Dominica, and a legion of littler isles - truncated peaks
jutting forth from fragrant, tinted water. There were afternoons when
she did not care to lift her voice or move about. Fruit-juices and the
simplest salads, a flexible cane chair under the awnings, a book to rest
the eyes from the gorgeous sea and enchanted shores, somnolence rather
than sleep - these are enough for the approach to perfection in the
Caribbean, with the Lesser Antilles on the lee.... Then at last in late
afternoon, the great hulking shape of Pelée loomed watery green against
the sky; in the swift-speeding twilight, the volcano seemed to swell and
blacken until it was like the shadow of a continent, and the lights of
Saint Pierre pricked off the edge of the land.

At last late at night, queerly restless, she sat alone on deck in the
windless roadstead and regarded the illumined terraces of Saint Pierre.
They had told her that the breath from Martinique was like the heavy
moist sweetness of a horticultural garden, but the island must have been
sick with fever this night, for a mile at sea the land-breeze was dry,
devitalized, irritating the throat and nostrils.

There was no moon, and the stars were so faint in the north that the
mass of Pelée was scarcely shaped against the sky. The higher lights of
the city had a reddish uncertain glow, as if a thin film of fog hung
between them and the eye; but to the south the night cleared into pure
purple and unsullied tropic stars. The harbor was weirdly hot.

Before her was the city which held the quest of her voyaging - Father
Fontanel, the holy man of Saint Pierre.... _Only a stranger can realize
what a pure shining garment his actual flesh has become. To me there was
healing in the very approach of the man...._ This was the enduring
fragment from the Charter letters; and in that dreadful Sunday night
when she began her flight from Bellingham, already deep within her mind
Father Fontanel was the goal.... Paula set out for shore early the next
morning. The second-officer of the _Fruitlands_ sat beside her in the
launch. She spoke of the intense sultriness.

"Yes, Saint Pierre is glowing like a brazier," he said. "I was ashore
last night for awhile. The people blame the mountain. Old Pelée has been
acting up - showering the town with ash every little while lately. It's
the taint of sulphur that spoils the air."

She turned apprehensively toward the volcano. _La Montague Pelée_, over
the red-tiled roofs of Saint Pierre, looked huge like an Emperor of the
Romans. Paled in the intense morning light, he wore a delicate ruching
of white cloud about his crown. They stepped ashore on the Sugar Landing
where Paula found a carriage to take her to the _Hotel des Palms_, a
rare old plantation-house on the _Morne d'Orange_, recently converted
for public use.

The ponies were ascending the rise in _Rue Victor Hugo_, at the southern
end of the city, when Paula discovered the little Catholic church she
had imaged for so many weeks, _Notre Dame des Lourdes_, niched away in
the crowded streets with a Quebec-like quaintness, and all the holier
from its close association with the lowly shops. From these walls had
risen the spiritual house of Father Fontanel - her far bright beacon....
The _porteuses_, said to be the lithest, hardiest women of the occident,
wore a pitiable look of fatigue, as they came down from the hill-trails,
steadying the baskets upon their heads. The pressure of the heat, and
the dispiriting atmosphere revealed their effects in the distended
eyelids and colorless, twisted lips of the burden-bearers.

The ponies at length gained the eminence of the _Morne d'Orange_, and
ahead she saw the broad, white plantation-house - _Hotel des Palms_. To
the right was the dazzling, turquoise sea where the _Fruitlands_ lay
large among the shipping, and near her a private sea-going yacht, nearly
as long and angelically white. The broad verandas of the hotel were
alluring with palms; the walls and portcullises were cooled with
embroidering vines. Gardens flamed with poinsettias and roses, and a
shaded grove of mango and India trees at the end of the lawn, was edged
with moon flowerets and oleanders. Back of the plantation-house waved
the sloping seas of cane; in front, the Caribbean. On the south rose the
peaks of Carbet; on the north, the Monster.

Paula had hardly left the veranda of magnificent vistas two hours later,
when the friendly captain of the _Fruitlands_ approached with an elderly
American, of distinguished appearance, whom he presented - Mr. Peter
Stock, of Pittsburg.

"Since you are to leave us here, Miss Wyndam," the captain added, "I
thought you would be glad to know Mr. Stock, who makes an annual cruise
around these Islands - and knows them better than any American I've
encountered yet. Yonder is his yacht - that clipper-built beauty just a
bit in from the liner."

"I've already been admiring the yacht," Paula said, "and wondering her
name. There's something Venetian about her dazzling whiteness in the
soft, deep blue."

"I get it exactly, Miss Wyndam - that 'mirage of marble' in the Italian
sky.... My craft is the _Saragossa_." His eyelids were tightened against
the light, and the voice was sharp and brisk. His face, tropically
tanned, contrasted effectively with the close-cropped hair and mustache,
lustrous-white as his ship.... Paula having found the captain's courtesy
and good sense invariable during the voyage, gladly accepted his friend,
who proved most interesting on the matter of Pelée.

"I've stayed here in Saint Pierre longer now than usual," he told her,
pointing toward the mountain, "to study the old man yonder. Pelée, you
know, is identified with Martinique, much the same as the memory of
Josephine; yet the people of the city can't seem to take his present
disorder seriously. This is cataclysmic country. Hell - I use the word to
signify a geological stratum - is very close to the surface down here.
All these lovely islands are merely ash-piles hurled up by the great
subterranean fires. The point is, Lost Atlantis is apt to stir any time
under the Caribbean - and rub out our very pretty panorama."

"You regard this as an entertainment worth waiting for?" Paula asked.

The vaguest sort of a smile passed over his eyes and touched his lips.
"Pelée and I are very old friends. I spoke of the volcanic origin of
these islands in the way of suggesting that any seismic activity in the
archipelago - Pelée's present internal complaint, for instance, - should
be taken significantly. Saint Pierre would have been white this
morning - except for the heavy rain before dawn."

"You mean volcanic ash?"

"Exactly."

"That explains the white scum I saw in the gutters, driving through the
city.... But it isn't altogether a novelty, is it, for the mountain to
behave this way?"

"From time to time in the past ten days, Miss Wyndam, Pelée has had a
session of grumbling."

"I mean as a usual thing - - "

He turned to her abruptly and inquired, "Didn't you know that there
hasn't been a sound from Pelée for twenty years before the month of
April now ending?"

This gave intimacy to the disorder. Mr. Stock was called away just now,
but after dinner that night he joined Paula again on the great veranda.

"Ever been in Pittsburg?" he asked.

"No."

"I've only to shut my eyes in this second-hand air - to think I'm back
among the steel mills of the lower Monongahela."

"The moon looks like beaten egg," Paula said with a slight shiver. "They
must be suffering down in the city. You're the expert on Pelée, Mr.
Stock, please tell me more about him."

He had been regarding the new moon, low and to the left of the Carbet
peaks. It had none of the sharpness of outline peculiar to the tropics,
but was blurred and of an orange hue, instead of silvery. "It's the
ash-fog in the air which has the effect of a fine wire screen," he
explained. "We'll have a white world to-morrow, if it doesn't rain."

They turned to the north where a low rumbling was heard. It was like
distant thunder, but the horizon beyond Pelée was unscathed by
lightning.

"Are you really worried, Mr. Stock?"

"Why, it's as I said. The fact that Pelée is acting out of the ordinary
is quite enough to make any one skeptical regarding his intentions."

He discussed familiarly certain of the man-eaters among the mountains of
the world - Krakatoa, Bandaisan, Cotopaxi, Vesuvius, Ætna, calling them
chronic old ruffians, whom Time doesn't tame.

"A thousand years is nothing to them," he added. "They wait, still as
crocodiles, until seers have built their temples in the high rifts and
cities have formed on their flanks. They have tasted blood, you see, and
the madness comes back. Twenty years is only a siesta. Pelée is a
suspect."

"I think I should prefer to hear you tell the treachery of volcanoes
outside of the fire-zone," she declared. "It's like listening to ghost
stories in a haunted house."

Pelée rumbled again, and Paula's fingers involuntarily started toward
his sleeve. The heavy wooden shutters of the great house rattled in the
windless night; the ground upon which they stood seemed to wince at the
Monster's pain. She was conscious of the fragrance of roses and magnolia
blooms above the acrid taint of the air. Some strange freak of the
atmosphere exerted a pressure upon the flowers, forcing a sudden
expulsion of perfume. The young moon was a formless blotch now in the
fouled sky. A sigh like the whimpering of many sick children was audible
from the servants' cabins behind the hotel.... Later, from her own room,
she saw the double chain of lights out in the harbor - the _Saragossa_
pulling at her moorings among the lesser craft, like a bright empress in
the midst of dusky maid-servants; and in the north was Vulcan struggling
to contain the fury of his fluids. She was a little afraid of Pelée.

Very early abroad, Paula set out on her first pilgrimage to _Notre Dame
des Lourdes_. Rain had not fallen in the night, and she regarded a white
world, as Stock had promised, and the source of the phenomenon with the
pastelle tints of early morning upon his huge eastern slope. She had
slept little and with her face turned to the north. A cortege had passed
before her in dream - all the destroyers of history, each with a vivid
individuality, like the types of faces of all nations - the story of each
and the desolation it had made among men and the works of men.

Most of them had given warning. Pelée was warning now. His warning was
written upon the veins of every leaf, painted upon the curve of every
blade of grass, sheeted evenly-white upon the red tiles of every roof.
Gray dust blown by steam from the bursting quarries of the mountain
clogged the gutters of the city and the throats of men. It was a moving,
white cloud in the river, a chalky shading that marked the highest reach
of the harbor tide. It settled in the hair of the children, and
complicated the toil of bees in the nectar-cups. With league-long
cerements, and with a voice that caused to tremble his dwarfed
companions, the hills and _mornes_, great Pelée had proclaimed his
warning in the night.




EIGHTEENTH CHAPTER

PAULA IS INVOLVED IN THE RENDING FORTUNES OF SAINT PIERRE AND _THE
PANTHER_ CALLS WITH NEW YORK MAIL


Father Fontanel was out in the parish somewhere. One of the washer-women
told her this, at the door of the church. There were many sick in the
city from the great heat and the burned air - many little children sick.
Father Fontanel always sought the sick in body; those who were sick in
soul, sought him.... So the woman of the river-banks, in her simple way,
augmented the story of the priest's love for his people. Paula rested
for a few moments in the dim transept. Natives moved in and out for a
breath of coolness, some pausing to kneel upon the worn tiles of the
nave. Later she walked among the lower streets of the suffering city,
her heart filled with pity for the throngs housed on the low breathless
water-front. Except when the wind was straight from the volcano, the
hotel on the _Morne d'Orange_ was made livable by the cool Trades.

The clock in the _Hopital l'Militaire_ struck the hour of nine. Paula
had just hired a carriage at the Sugar Landing, when her eye was
attracted by a small crowd gathering near the water's edge. The black
cassock of a priest in the midst drew her hurrying forward. A young man,
she thought at first, from the frail shoulders and the slender waist....
A negress had fallen from the heat. Her burdens lay together upon the
shore - a tray of cakes from her head, and a naked babe from her arms....
A glimpse at the priest's profile, and she needed not to be told that
this was the holy man of Saint Pierre.

Happiness lived in the face above the deep pity of the moment. It was an
attraction of light, like the brow of Mary in Murillo's _Immaculate
Conception_; or like that instant ethereal radiance which shines from
the face of a little child passing away without pain. The years had put
an exquisite nobility upon the plain countenance, and the inner life had
added the gleam of adoration - "the rapture-light of holy vigils kept."

Paula rubbed her eyes, afraid lest it were not true; afraid for a moment
that it was her own meditations that had wrought this miracle in clay.
Lingering, she ceased to doubt the soul's transfiguration.... Father
Fontanel beckoned a huge negro from a lighter laden with
molasses-casks - a man of strength, bare to the waist.

"Take the little mother to my house," he said.

A young woman standing by was given charge of the child.... "Lift her
gently, Strong Man. The woman will show you the way to the door." Then
raising his voice to the crowd, the priest added, "You who are
well - tell others that it is yet cool in the church. Carry the ailing
ones there, and the little children. Father Pelée will soon be silent
again.... Does any one happen to know who owns the beautiful ship in the
harbor?"

His French sentences seemed lifted above a pervasive hush upon the
shore. The native faces wore a curious look of adulation; and Paula
marvelled in that they seemed unconscious of this. She was not a
Catholic; yet she uttered his name with a thrilling rapture, and with a
meaning she had never known before:

"Father Fontanel - - "

He turned, instantly divining her inspiration.

"Mr. Stock, who owns the ship yonder, is staying at the _Hotel des
Palms_," she said quickly. "I have a carriage here. I was thinking that
the sick woman and her child might be taken to your house in that.
Afterward, when she is cared for, you might wish to ride with me to the
Hotel - where I also live."

"Why, yes, Child - who are you?"

"Just a visitor in Saint Pierre - a woman from the States."

Her arrangement was followed, and the negro went back to his work.
Father Fontanel joined her behind the carriage.

"But you speak French so well," he observed.

"Not a few Americans do. I was grateful that it came back to me here."

"Yes, for I do not speak a word of English," he said humbly.

They walked for a moment in silence, his head bowed in thought. Paula,
glancing at him from time to time, studied the lines of pity and
tenderness which shadowed the eyes. His mouth was wonderful to her,
quite as virgin to the iron of self-repression as to the soft fullness
of physical desire. This was the marvel of the face - it was above
battle. Here were eyes that had seen the Glory and retained an unearthly
happiness - a face that moved among the lowly, loved, pitied, abode with
them; yet was beautiful with the spiritual poise of Overman.

"It was strange that you did not meet Lafcadio Hearn when he was here,"
she said at length.

He shook his head, asked the name again and the man's work.

"A writer who tarried here; a mystic, too, strange and strong."

"I know no writer by that name - but how did you know that I did not meet
him, Child?"

"I was thinking he would write about you in his book of Martinique
sketches - had he known."

He accepted the explanation innocently. "There was a writer here - a
young man very dear to me - of whom you reminded me at once - - "

"Of whom I reminded you, Father?" she repeated excitedly. "You mean
because I spoke of another writer?"

"No, I saw a resemblance - rather some relationship of yours to my
wonderful young friend.... He said he would come again to me."

She had spoken of Hearn in the hope that Father Fontanel would be
reminded of another writer whose name she did not care to mention. His
idea of relationship startled her to the heart; yet when she asked
further, the good man could not explain. It had merely been his first
thought, he said, - as if she had _come_ from his friend.

"You thought much of him then, Father Fontanel?"

He spoke with power now. "A character of terrible thirsts, Child, - such
thirsts as I have never known. Some moments as he walked beside me, I
have felt him - like a giant with wolves pulling at his thighs, and
angels lifting his arms. Great strength of mind, his presence endowed
me, so that I would have seen more of him, and more, - but he will come
back! And I know that the wolves shall have been slain, when he comes
again - - "

"And the angels, Father?" she whispered.

"Such are the companions of the Lifted, my daughter.... It is when I
meet one of great conflicts that I am suffused with the spirit of
worship in that I am spared. God makes my way so easy that I must wonder
if I am not one of His very weak. It must be so, for my mornings and
evenings are made lovely by the Presence. My people hearken unto my
prayers for them; they love me and bring their little children for my
blessing - until I am so happy that I cry aloud for some great work to do
that I may strive heroically to show my gratitude to God - and lo, the
doors of my work are opened, but there are no lions in the way!"

She knew now all that Charter had meant. In her breast was a silent
mystic stirring - akin to that endearing miracle enacted in a
conservatory of flowers, when the morning sun first floods down upon the
glass.... The initial doubt of her own valor in suffering Selma Cross to
shatter her Tower, sprang into being now. Father Fontanel loved him, and
had looked within.

That the priest had perceived a "relationship" swept into the woman's
soul. Low logic wrought from the physical contacts of Selma Cross
trembled before the other immaterial suggestion - that Quentin Charter
would come back to Saint Pierre triumphantly companioned, his wolves
slain.... She forgot nothing of the actress's point of view; nor that
the Westerner did not reach her floor in the _Zoroaster_ and encounter
an old attraction by accident. He was not one to force his way there, if
the man at the elevator told him Miss Linster was not in. All of these
things which had driven her to action were still inexplicable, but final
condemnation was gone from the evidence - as the stone rolled away.

Bellingham?... The mystery now, as she stood within this radiant aura,
was that any point of his desire could ever have found lodgment within.
Her sense of protection at this moment was absolute. She had done well
to come here.... Again swept into mind, Quentin Charter's silent part in
saving her from the Destroyer - the book, the letter, the voice; even to
this sanctuary she had come through a sentence from him. For a moment
the old master-romance shone glorious again - like a lone, valiant star
glimpsed in the rift of storm-hurled clouds.

They had reached the low street door of Father Fontanel's house, a wing
of the church. A native doctor had been summoned and helped to carry the
woman in. She was revived presently.

"Father," Paula said, remembering the words of the washer-woman, as they
emerged into the street, "when one is sick of soul - does one knock
here?"

"One does not knock, but enters straightway," he answered. "The door is
never locked.... But you look very happy, my daughter."

"I am happy," she answered.

* * * * *

They drove together to the _Hotel des Palms_. Paula did not ask, though
she had something of an idea regarding the priest's purpose in asking
for Peter Stock. Though she had formed a very high opinion of the
American, it occurred to her that he would hardly approve of any one
directing arteries of philanthropy to his hand. He had been one of those
ruffian giants of the elder school of finance who began with the axe and
the plow; whose health, character and ethics had been wrought upon the
anvil of privation; whose culture began in middle life, and, being
hard-earned, was eminent in the foreground of mind - austere and
inelastic, this culture, yet solidly founded. Stock was rich and loved
to give, but was rather ashamed of it. Paula could imagine him saying,
"I hate the whining of the strong." For twenty years since his
retirement, he had voyaged about the world, learning to love beautiful
things, and giving possibly many small fortunes away; yet he much would
have preferred to acknowledge that he had knocked down a brute than
endowed an asylum. Mr. Stock was firm in opinion, dutiful in
appreciation for the fine. His sayings were strongly savored, reliant
with facts; his every thought was the result of a direct physical
process of mind, - a mind athletic to grip the tangible, but which had


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 15 of 23)