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reflected from the lamp, but from his great love - in that pure
fatherhood of celibacy....

"Ah, no, I'm not weary, my son. We must have our walks and talks
together on the _Morne_ again.... When old Father Pelée rests once more
from his travail, and the people are happy again, you and I shall walk
under the stars, and you shall tell me of those glorious saints, who
felt in the presence of God that they must put such violent constraint
upon themselves.... When I think of my suffering people - it comes to me
that the white ship was sent like a good angel - and how I thank that
noble lady for taking me at once to this great rock of an American, who
bluffs me about so cheerily and grants all things before they are asked.
What wonderful people you are from America! But it is always so - always
these good things come to me. Indeed, I am very grateful....
Weary? - what a poor old man I should be to fall weary in the midst of
such helpers...."

Charter sat down beside him under the lamp and told him what an arena
his mind had become for conflict between a woman and a vision. Even with
the writer's trained designing, the tale drew out with an oriental
patience of weaving and coloring. Charter had felt a woman's need for
the ease of disclosure, and indeed there was no other man whom he would
have told. He had a thought, too, that if by any chance Pelée should
intervene - both the woman and the Skylark might learn. He did not tell
of his plan to go to the mountain - lest he be dissuaded. In his mind the
following day was set apart - as a sort of pilgrimage sacred to Skylark.

"Old Pelée has shadowed my mind," Father Fontanel said, when the story
was done. "I see him before and between all things, but I shall meditate
and tell you what seems best in my sight. Only this, my son, you may
know, that when first the noble lady filled my eyes - I felt you near
her - as if she had come to me from you, whom I always loved to
remember."

Charter bowed and went his way, troubled by the shadow of Pelée in the
holy man's mind; and yet glad, too, that the priest had felt him near
when he first saw Miss Wyndam. It was late when he reached the _Palms_
yet sleeplessness ranged through his mind, and he did not soon go to his
room. The house and grounds were all his own. He paced the veranda, the
garden paths and drives; crossed the shadowy lawns, brooded upon the
rumbling mountain and the foggy moon high in the south.... At the side
of the great house to the north, there was a trellis heavily burdened
with lianas. Within, he found the orifice of an old cistern, partially
covered by unfixed planking. A startling thought caused him to wonder
why he had not explored the place before. The moonlight, faint at best,
gave but ghostly light through the foliage, yet he kicked away a board
and lit a match. A heavy wooden bar crossed the rim and was set stoutly
in the masonry. His mind keenly grasped each detail at the exterior. A
rusty chain depended from the thick cross-piece. He dropped several
ignited matches into the chamber. Slabs of stone from the side-walls had
fallen into the cistern, which seemed to contain little or no water....
From one of the native cabins came the sound of a dog barking. A shutter
clicked in one of the upper windows of the plantation-house.




TWENTY-SECOND CHAPTER

CHARTER MAKES A PILGRIMAGE TO THE CRATERS OF _PELÉE_ - ONE LAST DAY
DEVOTED TO THE SPIRIT OF OLD LETTERS


Charter left the _Palms_ early to join his guide at the wine-shop. He
had kept apart from Peter Stock for two reasons. The old capitalist
easily could have been tempted to accompany him. Personally, Charter did
not consider a strong element of danger, and a glimpse into the
volcano's mouth would give him a grasp and handling of the throes of a
sick world, around which all natural phenomena would assume thereafter
an admirable repression. To Peter Stock it would be an adventure,
merely. More than all this, he wanted to go to the mountain alone. It
was the Skylark's day; and for this reason, he hurried out of the
_Palms_ and down to the city without breakfast.... A last look from the
_Morne_, as it dipped into the _Rue Victor Hugo_ - at a certain upper
window of the plantation-house, where it seemed he was leaving all the
bright valiant prodigies of the future. He turned resolutely toward
Pelée - but the Skylark's song grew fainter _behind_.

* * * * *

Pere Rabeaut's interest in the venture continued to delight him.
Procuring a companion was no common favor, since inquiries in the town
proved that the regular guides were in abject dread of approaching the
Monster now. Soronia, Pere Rabeaut, and his new servant awaited him in
the _Rue Rivoli_. The latter was a huge Creole, of gloomy visage. They
would not find any one to accompany them in the lower part of the city,
he said, as the fear there was greater than ever since the Guerin
disaster. In Morne Rouge, however, they would doubtless be able to
procure mules, food, and other servants if necessary, for a day's trip
to the craters. All of which appeared reasonable to Charter, though he
wondered again at the vital interest of Pere Rabeaut, and the general
tension of the starting.

The two passed down through the city, and into the crowd of the
market-place, where a blithesome little drama unfolded. Peter Stock had
apparently been talking to the people about their volcano, urging them,
no doubt, to take the advice of Father Fontanel and flee to Fort de
France, when he had perceived M. Mondet passing in his carriage. Charter
saw his friend dart quickly from the crowd and seize the bridle. Despite
the protestations of the driver, the capitalist drew the vehicle into
view of all. His face was red with the heat and ashine with laughter and
perspiration. Alarm and merriment mingled in the native throng. All eyes
followed the towering figure of the American who now swung open the door
of the carriage and bowed low to M. Mondet.

"This, dear friends," Peter Stock announced, as one would produce a
rabbit from a silk hat, - "this, you all perceive, is your little editor
of _Les Colonies_. Is he not bright and clean and pretty? He is very
fond of American humor. See how the little editor laughs!"

M. Mondet's smile was yellowish-gray and of sickly contour. His article
relative to the American appealed to him now entirely stripped of the
humor with which it was fraught a few days before, as he had composed it
in the inner of inner-offices. This demon of crackling French and
restless hands would stop at nothing. M. Mondet pictured himself being
picked up for dead presently. As the blow did not fall on the instant,
the sorry thought tried him that he was to be played with before being
dispatched.

"This is the man who tells you that Saint Pierre is in no danger - who
scoffs at those who have already gone - who inquires in his paper, 'Where
on the Island could a more secure place than Saint Pierre be found in
the event of an earthquake visitation?' M. Mondet advises us to flee
with all dispatch to the live craters of a volcano to escape his
hypothetical earthquake." Peter Stock was now holding up the Frenchman's
arm, as a referee upraises the whip of a winning fighter. "He says
there's no more peril from Pelée than from an old man shaking ashes out
of his pipe. I proposed to wager my ship against M. Mondet's rolled-top
desk that he was wrong, but there was a difficulty in the way. Do you
not see, my friends of Saint Pierre, that, if I won the wager, I should
not be able to distinguish between M. Mondet's rolled-top desk and M.
Mondet's cigarette case in the ruins of the city - - "

There had been a steady growling from the mountain.

"Ah!" Stock exclaimed after a pause, "Pelée speaks again! 'I will
repay - verily, I will repay!' growls the Monster. Let it be so, then,
friends of mine. I will turn over my little account to the big
fire-eater yonder who will collect all debts. I tell you, we who tarry
too long will be buying political extras and last editions in hell from
this bit of a newspaper man!"

Charter laughingly turned away to avoid being seen, just as M. Mondet
was chucked like a large, soft bundle into the seat of his carriage and
the door slammed forcibly, corking whatever wrath appertained. In any of
the red-blooded zones, a foreigner who performed such antics at the
expense of a portly and respected citizen would have encountered a
quietus quick and blasting, but the people of Martinique are not swift
to anger nor forward in reprisal.

Charter's physical energy was imperious, but the numbness of his scalp
was a pregnant warning against the perils of heat. There were moments in
which his mind moved in a light, irresponsible fashion, as if obsessed
at quick intervals, one after another, by mad kings who dared anything,
and whom no one dared refuse. Somehow his brain contrived with striking
artifices to keep the Wyndam-Skylark conflict in the background; yet, as
often as he became aware of old Vulcan muttering his agonies ahead, just
so often did the reality rise that the meaning and direction of his life
was gone, if he was not to see again the woman at the _Palms_.

Jacques, his guide, followed in sullen silence. They crossed the
Roxelane, and presently were ascending toward Morne Rouge. Saint Pierre
was just still enough now to act like a vast sounding-board. Remote
voices reached them, even from the harbor-front to the left, and from
shut shops everywhere.... It was nearly mid-day, when he rode out from
Morne Rouge, with three more companions.

The ash-hung valley was far behind, and Charter drank deeply of the
clean, east wind from the Atlantic. There was a rush of bitterness, too,
because the woman was not there to share these priceless volumes of
sunlit vitality. All the impetus of enterprise was needed now to turn
the point of conflict, and force it into the background again.... They
pushed through Ajoupa Boullion to the gorge of the Falaise, the
northward bank of which marked the trail which Jacques chose to the
summit.

And now they moved upward in the midst of the old glory of Martinique.
The brisk Trades blowing evenly in the heights, wiped the eastern slope
of the mountain clear of stone-dust and whipped the blasts of sulphur
down into the valley toward the shore. Green lakes of cane filled the
valleys behind, and groves of cocoa-palms, so distant and so orderly
that they looked like a city garden set with hen and chickens....
Northward, through the rifts, glistened the sea, steel-blue and cool.
Before them rose the vast, green-clad mass of the mountain, its corona
dim with smoke and lashed by storm. Down in the southwest lay the
ghastly pall, the hidden, tortured city, tranced under the cobra-head of
the volcano and already laved in its poison.

The trail became very steep at two thousand feet, and this fact,
together with the back-thresh of the summit disturbance, forced Charter
to abandon the animals. It transpired that two of the three later guides
felt it their duty, at this point, to stay behind with the mules. A
little later, when the growling from the prone, upturned face of the
Monster suddenly arose to a roar that twisted the flesh and outraged the
senses of man, Charter looked back and found that only one native was
faltering behind, instead of two. And this one was Jacques, of the
savage eyes. Pere Rabeaut was praised again.

Fascination for the dying Thing took hold of him now and drew him on.
Charter was little conscious of fear for his life, but of a fixed terror
lest he should be unable to go on. He found himself tearing up a
handkerchief and stuffing the shreds in his ears to deaden the hideous
vibrations. With the linen remaining, he filled his mouth, shutting his
jaws together upon it, as the wheels of a wagon are blocked on an
incline.

The titanic disorder placated his own. He became unconscious of passing
time. From the contour of the slope, remembered from a past visit, he
was aware of nearing the _Lac des Palmists_, which marked the
summit-level. Yet changes, violent changes, were everywhere evidenced.
The shoulder of the mountain was smeared with a crust of ash and seamed
with fresh scars. The crust was made by the dry, whirling winds playing
upon the paste formed of stone-dust and condensed steam. The clicking
whir, like a clap of wings, heard at intervals, accounted for the scars.
Bombs of rock were being hurled from the great tubes. Here he shouted to
Jacques to stay behind; that he would be back in a few moments. There
was a nod of assent from the evil head.

That he was in the range of a raking volcano-fire impressed with a sort
of laughing awe this ant clinging to the beard of a giant. Up, knees and
hands, now, he crawled - up over the throbbing chin, to the black,
pounded lip of the Monster. Out of the old lake coiled the furious tower
of steam and rock-dust which mushroomed in high heaven, like a primal
nebula from which worlds are made. It was this which fell upon the city.
Pockets of gas exploded in the heights, rending the periphery, as the
veil of the temple was rent. Only this horrible torrent spreading over
Saint Pierre to witness, but sounds not meant for the ear of man, sounds
which seemed to saw his skull in twain - the thundering engines of a
planet.

The rocky rim of the lake was hot to his hands and knees, but a moment
more he lingered. A thought in his brain held him there with thrilling
bands. It was only a plaything of mind - a vagary of altitude and
immensity. "Did ever the body of a man clog the crater of a live
volcano?" was his irreverent query. "Did ever suicidal genius conceive
of corrupting such majesty of force with his pygmy purpose?"

There he lay, sprawled at the edge of the universal mystery, at the
secret-entrance to the chamber of earth's dynamos. The edge of the pit
shook with the frightful work going on below, yet he was not slain. The
torrent burst past and upward with a southward inclination, clean as a
missing bullet. The bombs of rock canted out from sheer weight and fell
behind. That which he comprehended - although his eyes saw only the gray,
thundering cataclysm - was never before imagined in the mind of man.

The gray blackened. The roar dwindled, and his senses reeled. With a
rush of saliva, the linen dropped from his open mouth. Charter was sure
there was a gaping cleft in his skull, for he could feel the air blowing
in and out, cold and colder. He tried to lift his hands to cover the
sensitive wound, but they groped in vain for his head. With the icy
draughts of air, he seemed to hear faintly his name falling upon bare
ganglia. For a second he feared that the lower part of his body would
not respond; that he was uncoupled like a beast whose spine is
broken.... It was only a momentary overcoming of the gas, or altitude,
or the dreadful disorder, or all three. Yet he knew how he must turn
back if he lived.... His name was called again. He thought it was the
Reaper, calling forth his ghost.

"Quentin Charter! Quentin Charter!"

Then he saw the Wyndam woman on the veranda of the _Palms_, her face
white with agony, her eyes straining toward him.... Turning hastily - he
missed death in a savage, sordid reality. Jacques had crept upon him, a
maniac in his eyes, dog's slaver on his lips. A rock twice as large as
his head was upraised in both arms. With a muscular spasm one knows in a
dream, Charter's whole body united in a spring to the side - escaping the
rock. Jacques turned and fled like a goat, leaping from level to level.

Charter managed to follow. He felt weak and ill for the time, as though
Pelée had punished him for peering into matters which Nature does not
thank man for endeavoring to understand.... The three natives pressed
about him far down on the slope. Jacques had vanished. The sun was
sinking seaward. Charter mounted his mule, turning the recent incident
over in his mind for the manieth time. His first thought had been that
the indescribable gripping of the mountain had turned mad a decent
servant, but this did not stand when he recalled how Pere Rabeaut had
importuned him to accept Jacques, and how the latter had fled from his
_failure_. Yet, so far as he could see, there was no reason in the world
why a conspiracy to murder him should have origin in the little
wine-shop of _Rue Rivoli_. It was all baffling even at first, that a
rock had been chosen, when a knife or a pistol would have been
effective. This latter, he explained presently. There was a possibility
of his body being found; a smashed head would fall to the blame of _Pere
Pelée_, who was casting bombs of rock upon the slopes; while a knife or
a bullet-wound on his body would start the hounds indeed.

He rode down the winding trail apart from the guides. Darkness was
beginning, and the lights of Ajoupa Boullion showed ahead. The mountain
carried on a frightful drumming behind. Coiling masses of volcanic
spume, miles above the craters, generated their own fire; and lit in the
flashes, looked like billows of boiling steel. Charter rode upon sheer
nerve - nerve at which men had often wondered. At length a full-rigged
thought sprang into his mind, which had known but the passing of
hopeless derelicts since the first moment of descent. It was she who had
called to save him. The woman of flesh had become a vision indeed. The
little Island mule felt the heel that moment.... Charter turned back to
the red moiled sky - a rolling, roaring Hades in the North.

"I can't help it, Skylark," he murmured, "if you _will_ merge into this
woman. She may never know that a man fled from her to the mountain
to-day, and is hurrying back - as to the source of all beauty!...
Charter, Charter, your thoughts are boiling over - - "

He rode into the streets of Morne Rouge, so over-crowded now with the
frightened from the lower city, that many were huddled upon the highway
where they would be forced to sleep. Here he paid the three guides, but
retained his mule.... On the down trail again, he re-entered the bank of
falling ash and the sulphurous desolation. Evil as it was, the taint
brought a sense of proximity to the _Morne_ and the _Palms_. Saint
Pierre was dark and harrowingly still under the throbbing volcano. The
hoof-beats of the mule were muffled in ash, as if he pounded along a
sandy beach. Often a rousing fetor reached the nostrils of the rider,
above the drying, cutting vapor from Pelée, and the little beast shied
and snorted at untoward humps on the highway. War and pestilence,
seemingly, had stalked through Saint Pierre that day and a winter storm
had tried to cover the aftermath.... He passed through _Rue Rivoli_, but
was far too eager to reach the _Palms_ to stop at the wine-shop. The
ugly mystery there could be penetrated afterward. Downward, he turned
toward the next terrace, where the solitary figure of a woman confronted
him.

"Mr. Charter!" she cried. "And - you are able to ride?"

"Why, what do you mean, Miss Wyndam?" he said, swiftly dismounting.
"What are you doing 'way up here alone - in this dreadful suffocation?"

"I was looking for a little stone wine-shop - - " She checked herself, a
scroll of horrors spreading open in her brain.

"It's just a little way back," he said, in a repressed tone. "I have an
errand there, too. Shall I show you?"

"No," she answered shuddering. "I'll walk with you back to the _Palms_.
I must think.... Oh, let us hurry!"

He lifted her to the saddle, and took the bridle-rein.




TWENTY-THIRD CHAPTER

CHARTER AND STOCK ARE CALLED TO THE PRIEST'S HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, AND THE
WYNDAM WOMAN STAYS AT THE _PALMS_


Peter Stock was abroad in the _Palms_ shortly after Charter left for the
wine-shop to join Jacques, for the day's trip. The absence of the
younger man reminded him of the project Charter had twice mentioned in
the wine-shop.

"I can't quite understand it," he said to Miss Wyndam as he started for
the city, "if he really has gone to the craters. He had me thinking it
over - about going along. Why should he rush off alone? I tell you, it's
not like him. The boy's troubled - got some of the groan-stuff of Pelée
in his vitals."

The day began badly for Paula. Her mind assumed the old dread
receptivity which the occultist had found to his advantage; terrors
flocked in as the hours drew on. One pays for being responsive to the
finer textures of life. Under the stimulus of heat, good steel becomes
radiant with an activity destructive to itself, but quite as marvellous
in its way as the starry heavens. What a superior and admirable
endowment, this, though it consumes, compared to the dead
asbestos-fabric which will not warm. Paula felt the city in her breast
that day - the restless, fevered cries of children and the answering
maternal anguish, the terror everywhere, even in bird-cries and limping
animals - that cosmic sympathy.

She knew that Charter would not have rushed away to the mountain without
a "good morning" for her, had she told him yesterday. She saw him turn
upon the _Morne_, look steadily at her window, almost as if he saw the
outline of her figure there - as the call went to him from her inner
heart.... She had reconstructed his last week in New York, from the
letter of Selma Cross and his own; and in her sight he had achieved a
finer thing than any warrior who ever broadened the borders of his
queen. Not a word from her; encountering a mysterious suspicion from
Reifferscheid; avoiding Selma Cross by his word and her own;
vanquishing, who may know how many devils of his own past; and then
summoning the courage and gentleness to write such a letter as she had
received - a letter sent out into the dark - this was loyalty and courage
to woo the soul. With such a spirit, she could tramp the world's highway
with bruised feet, but a singing heart.... And only such a spirit could
be true to Skylark; for she knew as "Wyndam" she had quickened him for
all time, though he ran from her - to commune with Pelée. She felt his
strength - strength of man such as maidens dream of, and, maturing, put
their dreams away.

"... as I sat by my study window, facing the East!" Well she knew those
words from his letters; and they came to her now, from the talk of
yesterday in the high light of an angelic visitation. Always in memory
the dining-room at the _Palms_ would have an occult fragrance, for
she saw his great love for Skylark there, as he spoke of "facing the
East." How soon could she have told him after that, but for the evil old
French face that drew him away.... "You deserve to suffer, Paula
Linster," she whispered. "You let him go away, - without a tithe of your
secret, or a morsel of your mercy."

Inevitable before such a conception of manhood - Paula feared her
unworthiness. She saw herself back in New York, faltering under the
power of Bellingham; swayed by those specialists, Reifferscheid in
books, Madame Nestor in occultism; and, above all blame-worthily, by
Selma Cross of the passions. She seemed always to have been listening.
Selma Cross had been strong enough to destroy her Tower; and this, when
the actress herself had been so little sure of her statements that she
must needs call Charter to prove them. Nothing that she had done seemed
to carry the stamina of decision.... So the self-arraignment thickened
and tightened about her, until she cried out:

"But I would have told him yesterday - had not that old man called him
away!"

Peter Stock returned at noon, imploring her to go out to the ship, for
even on the _Morne_, Pelée had become a plague. He pointed out that she
was practically alone in the _Palms_; that nearly all of Father
Fontanel's parishioners had taken his word and left for Fort de France
or Morne Rouge, at least; that he, Peter Stock, was a very old man who
had earned the right to be fond of whom he pleased, and that it
seriously injured an old man's health when he couldn't have his way.

"There are big reasons for me to stay here to-day - big only to me," she
told him. "If I had known you for years, I couldn't be more assured of
your kindness, nor more willing to avail myself of it, but please trust
me to know best to-day. Possibly to-morrow."

So the American left her, complaining that she was quite as inscrutable
as Charter.... An hour or more later, as she was watching the mountain
from her room, a little black carriage stopped before the gate of the
_Palms_, and Father Fontanel stepped slowly out. She hurried
downstairs, met him at the door, and saw the rare old face in its great
weariness.

"You have given too much strength to your work, Father," she said,
putting her arm about him and helping him toward the sitting-room.


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 19 of 23)