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Will Levington Comfort.

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the floor stirred as if intaking a deep breath. The dining-room filled
with a crying, crouching gray-lipped throng of servants. A deluge of ash
complicated the half-night outside, and the curse of sulphur pressed
down.

Paula arose. Charter had taken his place close beside her, but spoke no
word.




TWENTIETH CHAPTER

CHARTER'S MIND BECOMES THE ARENA OF CONFLICT BETWEEN THE WYNDAM WOMAN
AND SKYLARK MEMORIES


In the _Rue Rivoli_ there was a little stone wine-shop. The street was
short, narrow, crooked, and ill-paved - a cleft in Saint Pierre's
terrace-work. Just across from the vault-like entrance to the shop, the
white, scarred cliff arose to another flight of the city. Between the
shop and the living-rooms behind there was a little court, shaded by
mango-trees. Dwarfed banana-shrubs flourished in the shade of the
mangoes, and singing-birds were caged in the lower foliage. Since the
sun could find no entrance, the wine-shop was dark as a cave, and as
cool. One window, if an aperture like the clean wound of a thirteen-inch
gun could be called a window, opened to the north; and from it, by the
grace of a crook in the _Rue Rivoli_, might be seen the mighty-calibred
cone of Pelée.

Pere Rabeaut's wine was very good, and some of it was very cheap. The
service was much as you made it, for if you were known you were
permitted to help yourself. In this world there was no one of station
too lofty to go to Pere Rabeaut's; and since those of no station
whatsoever drank rum, instead of wine, you would meet no one there to
whom it was not a privilege to say "_Bon jour_."

"Come and see my birds," the crafty Rabeaut would say if he approved of
you.

"Where do you live?" you might ask, being a stranger.

"In the coolest hovel of Saint Pierre," was his invariable answer.

And presently, if you were truly alive, you would find yourself in the
little stone wine-shop, listening to the birds and looking over the
stalled casks, demijohns, and bottles, filled with more or less
concentrated soil and sun. In due course, Soronia would appear in the
shadowy doorway (it would seem that the bird-songs were hushed as she
crossed the court), and she would show you a vintage of especially long
ago. After that, though you became a missionary in Shantung, or a
remittance-man in Tahiti, you would never forget the bouquet of the
Rabeaut wines, the cantatas of the canaries, nor the witchery of
Soronia's eyes.... If the little stone wine-shop were transplanted in
New York, artists would find it, and you would be forced to fetch your
own goblet and have difficulty in getting in and out for the crowd o'
nights.

Thither Charter went the next morning and sat down in the cherished
coolness. Peter Stock had reminded him of their former talks there, over
a particular wine of Epernay, and had arranged to meet him this
morning.... In the foreground of Charter's mind a gritty depression had
settled, but throughout the finer, farther consciousness, where
realities abide, there hung a mystic constellation, which every little
while (and with a shock of ecstasy, so wonderful that his _mere_ brain
was alarmed and called it scandalous), fused together into a great,
glowing ardent Star of Bethlehem....

Again, the _mere_ brain said: "What have you done with your three years?
The actress knew you better than you knew yourself. All your letters,
and the spirit of your letters, have fallen into ruin before the first
woman you meet down here in a dreamy, tropic isle. How can you - you, who
have lived truly for a little while, and seemed to have felt the love
that lifts - sink into the fragrant meshes of romance, through the
beautiful eyes of a stranger to your world and to your ways? And what of
Skylark, the lovely, the winged?..." And the soul of the man riding at
its moorings in the bright calm of wisdom's anchorage, made laughing
answer: "This is the Skylark - ah, not that Wyndam is Linster, - but this
is the veiled queen who has waited so long for the House of Charter to
be ready. This is the forever-fairy that puzzled the nights and mornings
of the long-ago Charter boy. It was her wing that held the last dart of
light in the gardens of boyhood before the frowning thunders came. It
was her songs that made the youth's mind magic with lyrics, certain ones
so very clear that they fitted into words. It was to find her dazzling
brow that lured him to prodigious wanderings, until he fell fainting in
the dust of other women's chariots. It was the rustling of her wings
that he heard from without, when he lay in the Caverns of Devouring,
where the twain, Flesh and Death, hold ghastly carnival; the flash of
her wings again that lifted his eyes to the Rising Road. It was her
spirit in the splendid East whose miracles of singing and shining made
glorious, with creative touch, his hours by the garret window.... It was
she of exquisite shoulder and starry eyes and radiant sympathies - before
whom the boy, the man and the spirit, bowed in thankfulness
yesterday...."

And so he sat there thinking, thinking, - glimpsing the errant centuries
in the same high light of memory that this very morning recurred - an
hour or two ago, when he had walked with her through the mango-grove in
the coolness following a dawn-shower that had washed the white weight of
Pelée's ash-winter from the trees.... "What a chaos I must be," he
murmured in dull anguish, "with the finest of my life plighted to a
vision that is lost - while I linger desolate in the presence of wondrous
reality!" ... Some one was moving and whispering in the little room
across the court of the song-birds.... Peter Stock entered, his white
hair and mustache dulled with ash; his eyes red and angry.

"Well, I think I've got Father Fontanel frightened," he said, sinking
down across the little round table. "He's telling the people to shut up
their houses and go to Fort de France. Sixty or seventy have started,
and many more have gone up to Morne Rouge and Ajoupa Boullion, where it
happens to be cool, though they're just as close to the craters.
Fontanel has come into a very proper spirit of respect for Pelée's
destructive capacity. By the way, did you hear what happened yesterday,
during the darkness and racket while we were at dinner?"

"Not definitely. Tell me," Charter urged.

"The extreme northern end of the city, or part of it, was flooded out
like an ant-hill under a kettle boiling over. The River _Blanche_
overflowed her banks, and ran with boiling mud from the volcano. Thirty
people were killed and the Usine Guerin destroyed."

"I didn't think it was so bad as that."

"I hope I'm wrong, but the Guerin disaster may be only a preliminary
demonstration - like the operator experimenting to find if it is dark
enough to start the main fireworks. Nobody can complain to Saint Peter
that Pelée hasn't warned."

"There's another way to look at it," Charter said. "The volcano's
overflow into the River _Blanche_ might have eased the pressure upon the
craters. I wonder if there is any authority or precedent for such a
hope?"

"If Pelée's fuse is burning shorter and shorter toward a Krakatoan
cataclysm," Peter Stock declared moodily, "it's not for man to say what
spark will shake the world.... I tried to see Mondet this morning - but
couldn't get in. You wouldn't think one white, small person could
contain so much poison. I am haunted with the desire to commit physical
depredations."

"I think I'll take a little journey up toward the craters to-morrow,"
Charter confided, after a moment. "They say that the weather is quiet
and clean to the north of the mountain. One might ride up and try to
reason with _Pere Pelée_ - - "

At this juncture Soronia entered the wine-shop from the little court, to
fill the eyes and the goblets of the Americans. A dark, ardent, alluring
face; flesh like dull gold, made wonderful by the faintest tints of ripe
fruit; eyes that could melt and burn and laugh; a fragile figure, but
radiantly abloom, and as worthily draped as a young palm in a richly
blossoming vine. She made one think of a strange, regal flower, an
experiment of Nature, wrought in the most sumptuous shadow of a tropic
garden.... She was gone. Charter laughed at the drained look in Peter
Stock's face.

"An orchid - - " the latter began.

"Or a sunlit cathedral window."

"Will the visitation be repeated? Do I wake or sleep?"

"The years have dealt artistically in the little wine-shop,"
said Charter. "They say old Pere Rabeaut married a _fille de
couleur_ - daughter of a former Governor-General of Martinique."

"Some Daphne of the Islands, she must have been, since Pere Rabeaut does
not seem designed to father a sunset.... It's my first glimpse of
Soronia this voyage. She was beautiful in a girlish way last year....
She's in love, or she couldn't glow like that. I met Pere Rabeaut down
in the city - - "

Charter arose. "Perhaps the lover is across the court. I heard a
whispering through the bird-songs - and one could not fail to note how
she hurried back.... I must go on. The water is no better here than
elsewhere."

"But the wine is," said Peter Stock. "Wait luncheon for me at the
_Palms_.... By the way, how'd you like to take a little cruise - feel the
_Saragossa_ under you, running like a scared deer to hitch herself to
the solid old Horn, built of rock and sealed with icebergs - - "

"A clean thought, in this air - but the eventualities here attract. When
Father Fontanel grows afraid for the city, well, it may not be
scientific, but it's ominous.... I wanted to ask if it ever occurred to
you that even the _Morne d'Orange_ might fall into the sweeping range of
Pelée's guns?"

"In other words - if the mountain won't recede from Miss Wyndam, we'd
better snatch up Miss Wyndam and make a getaway from the mountain?"

From far within a "Yea" was acclaimed, yet there was a sullen Charter
integrity which had given its word to Skylark, and feared the test of
being shut on the same ship with a woman who endowed him with such power
that he felt potent to go to the craters and remonstrate with the
Monster.

"It might be well to ask her," Charter replied gloomily, "but I'm rather
absorbed in the action here and Father Fontanel's work. I want to look
at the craters from behind - - "

"Twice you've said that," said Peter Stock, "and each time it reminds me
that I'm old, yet there's a lure about it. I'm thinking - - "

Their heads were together at the little round window for the mountain
had rumbled again, and they stared beyond the city into the ashen
shroud.

"Grand old martyr," Charter muttered, "hang on, hang on!... The flag of
truce still flies."

* * * * *

Paula at the _Palms_ reflected the Charter conflict that morning. She
had seen it in his eyes and felt it in his heart, as they had walked
together in the mock-winter of the mango-grove before breakfast. Away
from him now, however, she could not be sure that "Wyndam," representing
the woman, altogether satisfied his vision of Skylark. Very strange, he
was, in his struggling, and it became harder, and a more delicate thing
than she had believed, to say, "I am Paula Linster." She had felt this
great restlessness of his spirit vaguely in the early letters - a stormy,
battling spirit which his brain constantly labored to interpret. She had
seen his moments of calm, too, when the eyes and smile of the boy
rendered his attractions so intimate to her, that she could have told
him anything - but these calms did not endure even in her presence. She
did not want the woman, Wyndam, despised, nor yet the Skylark put from
him. It became a reality, that out of his struggle Truth would rise;
meanwhile, though not with the entire sanction of a certain inner voice,
she withheld her secret, remaining silent and watchful in the midst of
the greatest drama the world could bring to her understanding....

Paula did not fail to note that Peter Stock was somewhat surprised when
she refused for the present his invitation to spend the nights at least
out in the cool Caribbean. She saw, moreover, that Quentin Charter was
beginning to fear the mountain, because she remained at the _Palms_.
Indeed, it was hard for all to remember that in form, at least, they
were mere acquaintances, so familiar had they become to each other in
the pressure of Pelée. Above all this, she was almost continually
conscious of Bellingham since the receipt of Madame Nestor's letter. It
was not that his power was formidable enough to disorder the unfolding
of the drama, but she felt his nearness, his strategies - all the more
strange, as there had been no sign of him since the arrival of the
_Panther_. If for no other reason, she would have found it difficult to
disclose her real name to Quentin Charter, while her mind was even
distantly the prey of the black giant.

These were tremendous hours - when but a word from her withheld two
hearts from bursting into anthems. Bravely, she gloried in these last
great refinings - longings, fears, exaltations, but never was she without
the loftiest hope of her life. The man who had come was so much that
_the man_ should be. She saw his former years as the wobblings of a top
that has not yet gained its momentum. Only at its highest speed does the
top sing its peace with God.... Had not the finest glow of his powers
been reserved until her coming?...

In such moments as these, she could look back upon her own agonies with
gratitude. She had needed a Bellingham. Should she not be thankful that
a beyond-devil had been required to test her soul? In the splendid
renewals of her spirit, Paula felt that she could look into the
magician's eyes now and command him from her. She was even grateful that
she had been swept in the fury of The High Tide, nor would she have had
that supreme night of trial when she fled from the _Zoroaster_, stricken
from her past. Just as Quentin Charter, of the terrible thirsts, had
required his years of wrath and wandering, so her soul had needed the
test of a woman's revelations and man's sublimated passion. Deep within
lived a majestic happiness - earned.

At one o'clock, as she was going below for luncheon, the sun gave up
trying to shine through the ash-fog, but volumes of dreadful heat found
the earth. The _Saragossa_ was invisible in the roadstead; there was no
line dividing shore and sea, nor sea and sky. It was all an illimitable
mask, whose fabric was the dust which for centuries had lain upon the
dynamos of Pelée.




TWENTY-FIRST CHAPTER

CHARTER COMMUNES WITH THE WYNDAM WOMAN, AND CONFESSES THE GREAT TROUBLE
OF HIS HEART TO FATHER FONTANEL


"Do you know what I discovered this morning?" Peter Stock asked, after
the three had found a table together. "M. Mondet is trying to keep the
people in town for political reasons. It appears that there is to be an
election in a few days. All my efforts, and, by non-parishioners, the
efforts of Father Fontanel, are regarded as a political
counter-stroke - to rush a certain element of the suffrage out of the
town.... This is certainly Ash-Wednesday, isn't it?"

Charter laughed. "My theory that the Guerin disaster might relieve the
craters and give surcease to Saint Pierre - doesn't seem to work out. The
air is getting thicker, even."

"It isn't really ash, you know," explained Mr. Stock, "but rock, ground
fine as neat in the hell-mills under the mountain and shot out by steam
through Pelée's valves - - "

"Intensely graphic," said Paula.

"It has been rather a graphic morning," Charter remarked. "Friend Stock
is virile from his activities with Father Fontanel."

"Well, I didn't make a covenant with the mountain - as you did this
morning in the wine-shop. You should have seen him, Miss Wyndam, staring
away at the volcano and, muttering, 'Hang on, old chap, hang on!....' My
dear young woman, doesn't a ride on the ocean sound good for this
afternoon? You can sit on deck and hold the little black babies. The
_Saragossa_ takes another load to Fort de France in two or three hours."

She shook her head. "Not just yet. You don't realize how wonderful the
drama is to me - you and Father Fontanel, playing Cassandra down in the
city - the groaning mountain, and the pity of it all. I confess a little
inconvenience of the weather isn't enough to drive me out. It isn't very
often given to a woman to watch the operations of a destiny so big as
this."

The capitalist turned to Charter. "You know Empress Josephine was born
in Martinique and has become a sort of patron saint for the Island. A
beautiful statue of her stands in the square at Fort de France where our
refugees are encamped. I was only thinking that the map of Europe and
the history of France might have been altered greatly if our beloved
Josephine had been gifted with a will like this - of Miss Wyndam's."

Her pale, searching face regarded Charter for a second, and his eyes
said plainly as words, "Don't you think you'd better consider this more
seriously?"

"Maybe you'll like the idea better for the evening, when the _Saragossa_
is back in the roadstead again, comparatively empty," Peter Stock added
presently. "Father Fontanel and I have a lot to do in the meantime. Can
you imagine our first parents occupying themselves when the first
tornado was swooping down - our dear initial mother, surpassingly
wind-blown, driving the geese to shelter, propping up the orchards,
getting out the rain-barrels, and tightening tent-pins?"

"Vividly," said Paula.

"That's just how busy we are - Father Fontanel and I."

It was to be expected that a sophomoric pointlessness should
characterize the sayings of the two in the midst of Peter Stock's
masculinity and the thrilling magnitude of the marvel each was to the
other.... They were left together presently, and the search for treasure
began at once:

"... The present is a time of readjustment between men and women," he
was saying. "It seems to me that the great mistake people make - men and
women alike - is that each sex tries to raise itself by lowering
the other. It hardly could be any other way just now, and at
first - with woman filled with the turmoil of emerging from ages of
oppression - fighting back the old and fitting to the new. But in man and
woman - not in either alone - lies completion. If the two do not quite
complete each other, a Third often springs from them with an increased
spiritual development."

"Yes," she answered, leaning forward, her chin fitted to her palms. "The
_I-am_ and the _You-are-not_ will soon be put away. I like to think of
it - that man and woman are together in the complete human. There is a
glorious, an arch-feminine ideal in the nature of the Christ - - "

"Even in the ineffable courage," he added softly. "That is woman's - the
finer courage that never loses its tenderness.... His Figure sometimes,
as now, becomes an intimate passion to me - - "

"As if He were near?"

"As if He were near - still loving, still mediating - all earth's struggle
and anguish passing through Him and becoming glorified with His pity and
tenderness - before it reaches the eyes of the Father.... There is no
other way. Man and woman must be One in Two - before Two in One. They
must not war upon each other. Woman is receptive; man the origin. Woman
is a planet cooled to support life; man, still an incandescent sun,
generates the life."

"That is clear and inspiring," she said. "I have always wanted it said
just like that - that one is as important as the other in the evolution
of the Individual - - "

"And for that Individual are swung the solar systems.... Look at
Job - denuded of all but the Spirit. There is an Individual, and his
story is the history of an Initiation.... We are coming to a time when
Mind will operate in man and woman _conscious_ of the Soul. When that
time comes true, how the progress to God will be cleared and speeded! It
will be a flight - - "

"Instead of a crawl," she finished.

They were alone in the big dining-room. Their voices could not have
reached the nearest empty table. It was like a communion - their first
communion.

"I have felt it," she went on in a strange, low tone, "and heard the New
Voices - Preparers of the Way. Sometimes it came to me in New York - the
stirring of a great, new spiritual life. I have felt the hunger - that
awful hollowness in the breasts of men and women, who turn to each other
in mute agony, who turn to a thousand foolish sensations - because they
do not realize what they hunger for. Their breasts cry out to be
filled - - "

"And the Spirit cries out to flood in."

"Yes, and the Spirit asks only for Earth-people to listen to their inner
voices and love one another," she completed. "It demands no macerations,
no fetters, no fearful austerities - only fineness and loving kindness."

"How wonderfully they have come to me, too - those radiant moments - as I
sat by my study window, facing the East," he whispered, not knowing what
the last words meant to her. "How clear it is that all great and good
things come with this soul-age - this soul-consciousness. I have seen in
those lovely moments that Mother Earth is but one of many of God's
gardens; that human life is but a day in a glorious culture-scheme which
involves many brighter and brighter transplantings; that the radiance of
the Christ, our Exemplar, but shows us the loveliness which shall be
ours when we approach that lofty maturity of bloom - - "

A waiter entered with the word that a man from the city, Pere Rabeaut,
desired to see Mr. Charter. Each felt the dreadfulness of returning so
abruptly to sordid exterior consciousness - each felt the gray ghost of
Pelée.

"I shall go and see what is wanted, Miss Wyndam, and hurry back - if I
may?" he said in a dull, tired tone.

It was the first time he had said "Wyndam," and it hurt cruelly at this
moment.... "No, no," she said rising hastily. "It would spoil it to come
back. We could not forget ourselves like that - so soon again. It always
spoils - oh, what am I saying? I think our talk must have interested me
very much."

"I understand," he said gently. "But we shall talk again - and for this
little hour, my whole heart rises to thank you."

Pere Rabeaut was waiting upon the veranda. Peculiarly, at this moment he
seemed attached to the crook of wine-shop servitude, which Charter had
never noticed with such evidence among the familiar casks. Moreover,
disorder was written upon the gray face.

"_Mon Dieu_, what a day, M. Charter! - a day of judgment! Soronia's
little birds are dying!"

Charter regarded the sharp, black eyes, which darted over his own face,
but would not be held in any gaze.

"I heard from my daughter that you are going to the craters of the
mountain," the old man said. "'He will need a guide,' said I at once.
'And guides are scarce just now, for the people are afraid of Pelée.
Still, he's an old patron,' I said to Soronia. 'He cannot go to the
mountain without a guide, so I shall do this little thing for him. He
must have our Jacques.'"

Charter drew him away. He did not care to have it known at the _Palms_
that he was projecting a trip to the summit. Perhaps the inscrutable
Pere Rabeaut was conferring a considerable favor. It was arranged that
if he decided to make the journey, the American should call at the
wine-shop for Jacques early the following morning. Pere Rabeaut left him
none the poorer for his queer errand.

Charter avoided Miss Wyndam for the rest of the day. Beyond all the
words of their little talk, had come to him a fullness of womanhood
quite beyond the dreamer. As he remembered the lustrous face, the
completion of his sentences, the mutual sustaining of their thoughts,
their steady, tireless ascent beyond the need of words; as he remembered
her calms, and the glimpses of cosmic consciousness, her grasp, her
expression, her silences, the exquisite refinement of her face, and the
lingering adoration in her eyes - the ideal of the Skylark was so clearly
and marvellously personified that for moments at a time the vision was
lost in the living woman. And for this, Quentin Charter proposed to
suffer - and to suffer alone.

So he supped down-town, and waited for Father Fontanel at the
parish-house. The priest came in during the evening and Charter saw at
once, what the other never could have admitted, that the last few days
had borne the good man to the uttermost edges of his frail vitality.
Under the lamp, the beautiful old face had the whiteness of that virgin
wax of Italian hives in which the young queens lie until the hour of
awakening. The tired, smiling eyes, deeply shadowed under a brow that
was blest, gazed upon the young man with a light in his eyes not


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 18 of 23)