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Will Levington Comfort.

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"I am quite well," he panted. "I was among my people in the city, when
our amazing friend suddenly appeared with a carriage, bustled me in and
sent me here, saying there were enough people in Saint Pierre who
refused to obey him, and that he didn't propose that I should be one."

"I think he did very well," she answered, laughing. "What must it be
down in the city - when we suffer so here? We cannot do without you - - "

"But there is great work for me - the great work I have always asked for.
Believe me, I do not suffer."

"One must not labor until he falls and dies, Father."

"If it be the will of the good God, I ask nothing fairer than to fall in
His service. Death is only terrible from afar off in youth, my dear
child. When we are old and perceive the glories of the Reality, we are
prone to forget the illusion here. In remembering immortality, we forget
the cares and ills of flesh.... I am only troubled for my people,
stifling in the gray curse of the city, and for my brave young friend.
My mind was clouded when he asked me certain questions last night; and
to-day, they say he has gone to the craters of the mountain."

"What for?" she whispered quickly.

"Ah, how should I know? But he tells me of people who make pilgrimages
of sanctification to strange cities of the East - to Mecca and
Benares - - "

"But they go to Benares to die, Father!"

"I did not know, my daughter," he assured her, drawing his hand across
his brow in a troubled fashion. "He has not gone to the mountain for
that, though I see storms gathering about him, storms of the mountain
and hatreds of men. But I see you with him afterward - as I saw him with
you - when you first spoke to me."

She told him all, and found healing in the old man's smile.

"It is well, and it is wonderful," he whispered at last. "Much that my
life has misunderstood is made clear to me - by this love of yours and
his - - "

"'And his,' Father?"

"Yes."

There was silence. She would not ask if Quentin Charter had also told
his story. Father Fontanel arose and said he must go back, but he took
the girl's hands, looked deeply into her eyes, saying with memorable
gentleness:

"Listen, child, - the man who cannot forget a vision that is lost, will
be a brave mate for the envisioned reality that he finds."

At intervals all that afternoon she felt the influence of Bellingham. It
was not desire. Dull and impersonal, it appealed, as one might hear a
child in another house repeatedly calling to its mother. Within her
there was no response, save that of loathing for a spectre that rises
untimely from a past long since expiated. She did not ask herself
whether she was lifted beyond him, or whether he was debased and
weakened, or if he really called with the old intensity. Glimpses of the
strange place in which he lodged occasionally flashed before her inner
mind, but it was all far and indefinite, easily to be banished. To her,
he had become inextricable from the reptiles. There was so much of
living fear and greater glory in her mind that afternoon, that these
were but evil shadows of slight account.

The torturing hours crawled by, until the day turned to a deeper gray,
and the North was reddened by Pelée's cone which the thick vapor dimmed
and blurred. Paula was suffered to fight out her battle alone. She could
not have asked more than this. A thousand times she paced across her
room; again and again straining her eyes northward, along the road, over
the city into the darkness, and the end of all things - the mountain....
There was a moment in the half-light before the day was spent, in which
she seemed to see Quentin Charter, as Father Fontanel had told her,
hemmed in by all the storms and hates of the world. Over the surface of
her brain was a vivid track for flying futile agonies.

The rumbling that had been incessant was punctuated at intervals now by
an awesome and deeper vibration. Altogether, the sound was like a steady
stream of vehicles, certain ones heavier and moving more swiftly than
others, pounding over a wooden bridge. To her, there was a pang in each
phase of the volcano's activity, since Quentin Charter had gone up into
that red roar.... She did not go down for dinner. When it was eight by
her watch, she felt that she could not live, if he did not return before
another hour. Several minutes had passed when there was a tapping at her
door, and Paula answering, was confronted by a sumptuous figure of
native womanhood. It was Soronia.

"Mr. Charter is at the wine-shop of Pere Rabeaut in _Rue Rivoli_," she
said swiftly, hatefully, as though she had been forced to carry the
message, and would not utter a word more than necessary. "He has been
hurt - we do not think seriously - but he wants you to come to him at
once."

"Thank you. I will go to him at once," Paula said, turning to get her
hat. "Pere Rabeaut's wine-shop in the _Rue Rivoli_?... You say he is not
seriously hurt - - "

She had not turned five seconds from the door, but the woman was gone.
There was much that was strange in this; many thoughts occurred apart
from the central idea of glad obedience, and the fullness of gratitude
in that Pelée had not murdered him.... The _Rue Rivoli_ was a street of
the terraces, she ascertained on the lower floor; also that it would be
impossible to procure a carriage. Mr. Stock had been forced to buy one
outright, her informer added, and to use one of his sailors for a
driver.... So she set out alone and on foot, hurrying along the sea-road
toward the slope where _Rue Victor Hugo_ began. The strangeness of it
all persistently imposed upon her mind, but was unreckonable, compared
to the thought that Quentin Charter would not have called for her, had
he been able to come. From this, the fear of a more serious wound than
the woman had said, was inevitable.

Paula had suffered enough from doubting; none should mar her performance
now. Unerringly, the processes of mind throughout the day had borne her
to such an action. She would have gone to any red-lit door of the torrid
city.... Vivid terrors of some dreadful crippling accident hurried her
steps into running....

Pelée, a baleful changing jewel in the black North, reminded her that
Charter would not have gone up to that sink of chaos, had she spoken the
word yesterday. The thought of that wonderful hour brought back the
brooding romance in tints almost ethereal. Higher in her heart than he
had reached in any moment of the day's fluctuations, the image of
Charter wounded, was upraised now and sustained, as she turned from _Rue
Victor Hugo_ into the smothering climb to the terraces. All she could
feel was a prayer that he might live; all the trials and conflicts and
hopes of the past six months hovered afar from this, like navies
crippled in the roadstead....

She must be near the _Rue Rivoli_, she thought, suddenly facing an empty
cliff. It was at this moment that she heard the soft foot-falls of a
little native mule, and encountered Quentin Charter....

Quickly out of the great gladness of the meeting arose the frightful
possibilities from which she had just escaped. They were still too
imminent to be banished from mind at once. Again Charter had saved her
from the Destroyer. She would have wept, had she ventured to speak as he
lifted her into the saddle. Charter was silent, too, for the time,
trying to adjust and measure and proportion.

Constantly she kept her eyes upon him as he walked slightly ahead, for
she needed this steady assurance that he was there and well. She felt
her arms where his stiffened fingers had been, as he lifted her so
easily upon the mule. She wanted to reach forward and touch his helmet.
They had descended almost to _Rue Victor Hugo_, when he said:

"As I looked down the fiery throat of that dragon up there to-day,
everything grew black and still for a minute, like a vacuum.... Will you
please tell me if I came back all right, or are we 'two hurrying shapes
in twilight land - in no man's land?'"

His amusing appeal righted her. "I have not heard of donkey shapes in
twilight-land," she answered.... And then in the new silence she tried
to bring her thoughts to the point of revelation, but she needed light
for that - light in which to watch his face. Moreover, revelations
contained Bellingham, and she was not quite ready to speak of this. It
was dreadful to be forced to think of the occultist, when her heart
cried out for another moment such as that of yesterday, in which she
could watch his eyes and whisper, "I am very proud to be the Skylark you
treasure so...."

"Do you think it kind to frighten your friends?" she asked finally.
"When they told me you had gone to the craters - it seemed such a
reckless thing to do - - "

"You see, I rode around behind the mountain. It's very different to
approach from the north. I wished you were there with me in the clean
air. Pelée's muzzle is turned toward the city - - "

"I sent you many cheers and high hopes - did they come?"

"Yes, more than you know - - " He checked himself, not wishing to
frighten her further with the story of Jacques, "You said you were
looking for the little wine-shop. Did some one send for you?"

"Yes."

"Some one you know?"

"They told me you were there - hurt. That's why I came, Mr. Charter."

He drew up the mule and faced her. "I was there this morning, but not
since.... There's something black about this. Pere Rabeaut was rather
officious in furnishing a guide for me. I'd better find out - - "

"I don't want you to go back there to-night!" she said intensely. "I
think we are both half-dead. I don't feel coherent at all. It has been a
life - this day."

"I am sorry to have made it harder for you. Certainly I shall not add to
your worry to-night. I was thinking, though, it's rather a serious thing
to call you out alone at this hour, through a city disordered like
this - in my name."

"There's much need of a talk. We shall soon understand it all.... That
must be Mr. Stock coming. He has the only carriage moving in Saint
Pierre, they say."

Charter pulled the mule up on the walk to let the vehicle pass, but the
capitalist saw them and called to his driver to stop.

"Well," he said gratefully, "I'm glad to get down to earth again. You
two have had me soaring.... Charter, you don't mean to tell me you
called Miss Wyndam to meet you in the wine-shop?"

"No. There's a little matter there which must be probed later. I had the
good fortune to meet Miss Wyndam before she reached there."

Paula watched Charter as he spoke. Light from the carriage-lamp fell
upon him. His white clothing was stained from the saddle, his hair and
eyebrows whitened with dust. His eyes shone in a face haggard unto
ghastliness.

"I'd go there now," Stock declared, after asking one or two questions
further, "but I have to report with sorrow that Father Fontanel is in a
very weak condition and has asked for you. I just came from the _Palms_,
hoping that you had returned, and learned that Miss Wyndam was
mysteriously abroad. My idea is to make the good old man go out to the
ship to-night. That's his only chance. He just shakes his head and
smiles at me, when I start in to boss him, but I think he'll go for you.
The little parish-house is like a shut-oven - literally smells of the
burning.... The fact is, I'm getting panicky as an old brood-biddy,
among all you wilful chicks.... Miss Wyndam has promised for to-morrow,
however."

Her heart went out to the substantial friend he had proved to every one,
though it was all but unthinkable to have Quentin Charter taken from the
_Palms_ that night.

"I'll go with you at once, but we must see Miss Wyndam safely back....
She'll be more comfortable in the carriage with you, and we can hurry,"
Charter declared.

He held his arms to her and lifted her down.

"How I pity you!" she whispered. "You are weary unto death, but I am so
glad - so glad you are safely back from the mountain."

"Thank you.... You, too, are trembling with weariness. It would not do,
not to go to Father Fontanel - would it?"

"No, no!"

At the hotel, Charter took a few moments to put on fresh clothing. Paula
waited with Peter Stock on the lower floor until he appeared. The
capitalist did not fail to see that they wanted a word together, and
clattered forth to see the "pilot of his deep-sea hack."

"You'd better go aboard to-morrow morning," Charter said.

"Yes, to-morrow, possibly, - we shall know then. You will be here in the
morning - the first thing in the morning?"

"Yes." There was a wonder-world of emotion in his word.

"And you will not go to the wine-shop, before you see me - in the
morning?"

He shook his head. His inner life was facing the East, listening to a
Skylark song.

"There is much to hear and say," she whispered unsteadily. "But go to
Father Fontanel - or I - or you will not be in time! He must not die
without seeing you - and take my love and reverence - - "

They were looking into each other's eyes - without words.... Peter Stock
returned from the veranda. Charter shivered slightly with the return to
common consciousness, clenched his empty left hand where hers had been.

"The times are running close here," he whispered huskily. "Sometimes I
forget that we've only just met. Father Fontanel alone could call me
from here to-night. Somehow, I dread to leave you. You'll have to
forgive me for saying it."

"Yes.... But in the morning - oh, come quickly.... Good-night."

She turned hastily to the staircase, and Charter's remarks as he rode
townward with the other, were shirred, indeed....




TWENTY-FOURTH CHAPTER

HAVING TO DO ESPECIALLY WITH THE MORNING OF THE ASCENSION, WHEN THE
MONSTER, _PELÉE_, GIVES BIRTH TO DEATH


The old servant met them at the door with uplifted finger. Father
Fontanel was sleeping. They did not wish to disturb him but sat down to
wait in the anteroom, which seemed to breathe of little tragedies of
Saint Pierre. On one side of the room was the door that was never
locked; on the other, the entrance to the sleeping-room of the priest.
Thus he kept his ear to the city's pulse. Peter Stock drowsed in the
suffocating air. Charter's mind slowly revolved and fitted to the great
concept.... The woman was drawn to him, and there had been no need of
words.... Each moment she was more wonderful and radiant. There had not
been a glance, a word, a movement, a moment, a breath, an aspiration, a
lift of brow or shoulder or thought, that had not more dearly charmed
his conception of her triune beauty.

The day had left in his brain a crowd of unassimilated actions, and into
this formless company came the thrilling mystery of his last moment with
her - a shining cord of happiness for the labyrinth of the late days....
There had been so much _beyond words_ between them - an overtone of
singing. He had seen in her eyes all the eager treasure of brimming
womanhood, rising to burst the bonds of repression for the first time.
Dawn was a far voyage, but he settled himself to wait with the will of a
weathered voyager whose heart feels the hungry arms upon the waiting
shore.

The volcano lost its monstrous rhythm again, and was ripping forth
irregular crashes. Father Fontanel awoke and the _Rue Victor Hugo_
became alive with voices, aroused by the rattling in the throat of the
mountain. Charter went into the room where the priest lay.

"Come, Father," he said, "We have waited long for you. I want you to go
out to the ship for the rest of the night. You must breathe true air for
an hour. Do this for me."

"Ah, my son!" the old man murmured, drawing Charter's head down to his
breast. "My mind was clouded, and I could not see you clearly in the
travail of yesterday."

"Many of your people are in Fort de France, Father," the young man
added. "They will be glad to see you. Then you may come back here - even
to-morrow, if you are stronger. Besides, the stalwart friend who has
done so much for your people, wants you one night on his ship."

"Yes, my son.... I was waiting for you. I shall be glad to breathe the
dawn at sea."

Peter Stock pressed Charter's hand as they led Father Fontanel forth.
The mountain was quieter again. The bells of Saint Pierre rang the hour
of two.... The three reached the Sugar Landing where the _Saragossa's_
launch lay.

"Hello, Ernst," Stock called to his man. "I've kept you waiting long,
but top-speed to the ship - deep water and ocean air!"

The launch sped across the smoky harbor, riding down little isles of
flotsam, dead birds from the sky and nameless mysteries from the roiled
bed of the harbor. The wind was hot in their faces, like a stoke-hold
blast. Often they heard a hissing in the water, like the sound of a wet
finger touching hot iron. A burning cinder fell upon Charter's hand, a
messenger from Pelée. He could not feel fire that night.... He was
living over that last moment with her - gazing into her eyes as one who
seeks to penetrate the mystery of creation, as if it were any clearer in
a woman's eyes than in a Nile night, a Venetian song, or in the flow of
gasolene to the spark, which filled the contemplation of Ernst.... He
remembered the swift intaking of her breath at the last, and knew that
she was close to tears.

The launch was swinging around to the _Saragossa's_ ladder. Father
Fontanel had not spoken. Wherever the ship-lights fell, the sheeting of
ash could be seen - upon mast and railing and plates. They helped the
good man up the ladder, and Stock ordered Laird, his first officer, to
steam out of the blizzard, a dozen miles if necessary. The anchor chain
began to grind at once, and three minutes later, the _Saragossa's_
screws were kicking the ugly harbor tide. Charter watched, strangely
disconcerted, until only the dull red of Pelée pierced the thick veil
behind. A star, and another, pricked the blue vault ahead, and the air
blew in fragrant as wine from the rolling Caribbean, but each moment was
an arraignment now.... He wanted none of the clean sea; and the mere
fact that he would not rouse her before daylight, even if he were at the
_Palms_, did not lessen the savage pressure of the time.... Father
Fontanel would not sleep, but moved among his people on deck. The
natives refused to stay below, now that the defiled harbor was behind.
There was a humming of old French lullabies to the little ones. Cool air
had brought back the songs of peace and summer to the lowly hearts. It
was an hour before dawn, and the _Saragossa_ was already putting back
toward the roadstead, when Father Fontanel called Charter suddenly.

"Make haste and go to the woman, my son," he said strangely.

Charter could not answer. The priest had spoken little more than this,
since they led him from the parish-house. The _Saragossa_ crept into the
edge of the smoke. The gray ghost of morning was stealing into the
hateful haze. They found anchorage. The launch was in readiness below.
It was not yet six. Ernst was off duty, and another sailor, - one whose
room was prepared in the dim pavilion - waited at the tiller. Charter
waved at the pale mute face of the priest, leaning overside, and the fog
rushed in between.

The launch gained the inner harbor, and the white ships at anchor were
vague as phantoms in the vapor - French steamers, Italian barques, and
the smaller West Indian craft - all with their work to do and their way
to win. Charter heard one officer shout to another a whimsical
inquiry - if Saint Pierre were in her usual place or had switched sites
with hell. The day was clearing rapidly, however, and before the launch
reached shore, the haze so lifted that Pelée could be seen, floating a
pennant of black out to sea. In the city, a large frame warehouse was
ablaze. The tinder-dry structure was being destroyed with almost
explosive speed.

A blistering heat rushed down from the expiring building to the edge of
the land. Crowds watched the destruction. Many of the people were in
holiday attire. This was the Day of Ascension, and Saint Pierre would
shortly pray and praise at the cathedral; and at _Notre Dame des
Lourdes_, where Father Fontanel would be missed quite the same as if
they had taken the figure of Saint Anne from the altar.... Even now the
cathedral bells were calling, and there was low laughter from a group of
Creole maidens. Was it not good to live, since the sun was trying to
shine again and the mountain did not answer the ringing of the bells? It
was true that Pelée poured forth a black streamer with lightning in its
folds; true that the people trod upon the hot, gray dust of the
volcano's waste; that the heat was such as no man had ever felt before,
and many sat in misery upon the ground; true, indeed, that voices of
hysteria came from the hovels, and the weaker were dying too swiftly for
the priests to attend them all - but the gala-spirit was not dead. The
bells were calling, the mountain was still, bright dresses were
abroad - for the torrid children of France must laugh.

A carriage was not procurable, so Charter fell in with the procession on
the way to the cathedral. Many of the natives nodded to him; and may
have wondered at the color in his skin, the fire in his eyes, and the
glad ring of his voice. Standing for a moment before the church, he
hurled over the little gathering the germ of flight; told them of the
food and shelter in Fort de France, begged them laughingly to take their
women and children out of this killing air.... It was nearly
eight - eight on the morning of Ascension Day.... She would be ready. He
hoped to find a carriage at the hotel.... At nine they would be in the
launch again, speeding out toward the _Saragossa_.

Twenty times a minute she recurred to him as he walked. There was no
waning nor wearing - save a wearing brighter, perhaps - of the images she
had put in his mind. Palaces, gardens, treasure-houses - with the turn of
every thought, new riches of possibility identified with her, were
revealed. Thoughts of her, winged in and out his mind like bright birds
that had a cote within - until he was lifted to heights of gladness which
seemed to shatter the dome of human limitations - and leave him crown and
shoulders emerged into illimitable ether.

The road up the _Morne_ stretched blinding white before him. The sun was
braver. Panting and spent not a little, he strode upward through the
vicious pressure of heat, holding his helmet free from his head, that
air might circulate under the rim. Upon the crest of the _Morne_, he
perceived the gables of the old plantation-house, above the palms and
mangoes, strangely yellowed in the ashen haze.

Pelée roared. Sullen and dreadful out of the silence voiced the Monster
roused to his labor afresh. Charter darted a glance back at the
darkening North, and began to run.... The crisis was not past; the
holiday darkened. The ship would fill with refugees now, and the road to
Fort de France turn black with flight. These were his thoughts as he
ran.

The lights of the day burned out one by one. The crust of the earth
stretched to a cracking tension. The air was beetling with strange
concussions. In the clutch of realization, Charter turned one shining
look toward the woman hurrying forward on the veranda of the _Palms_....
Detonations accumulated into the crash of a thousand navies.

She halted, her eyes fascinated, lost in the North. He caught her up
like a child. Across the lawn, through the roaring black, he bore her,
brushing her fingers and her fallen hair from his eyes. He reached the
curbing of the old well with his burden, crawled over and caught the
rusty chain. Incandescent tongues lapped the cistern's raised coping.
There was a scream as from the souls of Night and Storm and Chaos
triumphant - a mighty planetary madness - shocking magnitudes from the
very core of sound! Air was sucked from the vault, from their ears and
lungs by the shrieking vacuums, burned through the cushion of atmosphere
by the league-long lanes of electric fire.... Running streams of red
dust filtered down.

It was eight on the morning of Ascension Day. _La Montagne Pelée_ was
giving birth to death.




TWENTY-FIFTH CHAPTER

THE _SARAGOSSA_ ENCOUNTERS THE RAGING FIRE-MISTS FROM _PELÉE_ EIGHT
MILES AT SEA, BUT LIVES TO SEND A BOAT ASHORE


Peter Stock stared long into the faint film of smoke, until the launch
bearing Charter ashore was lost in the shipping. The pale, winding sheet
was unwrapped from the beauty of morning. There was an edging of rose
and gold on the far dim hills. His eyes smarted from weariness, but his
mind, like an automatic thing, swept around the great circle - from the
ship to the city, to the plantation-house on the _Morne_ and back to the


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 20 of 23)