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Will Levington Comfort.

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all - coming downstairs, partly dressed, into the room _They_ had made
ready? That moment, before you actually see - just as you enter the
mingled dawn and fire-light and catch the first glisten of the tree?...
I'm afraid, Paula Linster, you have found - - "

"A boy," she whispered. Her face was very close in the gray.... "The
loved dream-boy. The boy went away to meet sternness and suffering and
mazes of misdirection - had to compromise with the world to fit at all.
Ah, I have waited long, and the man has come back to me - a boy."

"_La Montagne Pelée_ is artistic."

"It may be in this marvellous world, where men carry on their wars and
their wooings," she went on strangely, "some pursuing their little ways
of darkness, some bursting into blooms of valor and tenderness; - it may
be that two of Earth's people, after a dreadful passage through agony
and terror, have been restored to each other - as we are. It may be that
in the roll of Earth's tableaux, another such film is curled away from
another age and another cataclysm."

"Paula," he declared, after a moment, "I have found a Living Truth in
this happiness - the Great Good that Drives the World! I think I shall
not lose it again. Glimpses of it came to me facing the East - as I wrote
and thought of you. One glimpse was so clear that I expressed it in a
letter, 'I tell you there is no death, since I have heard the Skylark
sing....' I lost the bright fragment, for a few days in New
York - battled for the prize again both in New York and yesterday at the
mountain. To-day has brought it to me - always to keep. It is this: Were
you to die, I should love you and know you were near. This is love above
Flesh and Death - the old mystifying Interchangeables. This happiness is
the triumph over death. It is a revelation, a mighty adoring - not a mere
woman in my arms, but an ineffable issue of eternity. A woman, but
more - Love and Labor and Life and the Great Good that Drives the World!
This is the happiness I have and hold to-day: Though you died, I should
know that you lived and were mine."

"I see it - it is the triumph over death - but, Quentin Charter - I want
_you_ still!"

"Don't you see, it is the strength you give me! - that girds me to say
such things?"

So they had their flights into silence, while the eternal gray lived in
their round summit of sky - until the voices of the rescuers and their
own grateful answers.... The sailor was sent back to the boat for rope,
while Macready cheered them with a fine and soothing Gaelic oil.... They
lifted Paula, who steadied and helped herself by the chain; then sent
the noose down for Charter.

"Have you the strent', sir, to do the overhand up the chain?" Macready
questioned, and added in a ghost's whisper, "with the fairest of tin
thousand waitin' at the top?"

Charter laughed. To lift his right arm was thrashing pain, but he made
it easy as he could for them; and in the gray light faced the woman.

She saw his lacerated hand, the mire, fire-blisters upon his face, the
blood upon his clothing, swollen veins of throat and temples, and the
glowing adoration in his eyes.... She had bound her hair, and there was
much still to bind. No mortal hurt was visible. Behind her was the
falling sea. On her right hand the smoking ruin of the _Palms_; to the
left, Pelée and his tens of thousands slain; above, the hot, leaden,
hurrying clouds.... Ernst, Macready and the sailor moved discreetly
away. Backs turned, they watched the puffs of smoke and steam that rose
like gray-white birds from the valley of the dead city.

"Ernst, lad," said Macready, "the boss and the leadin' lady are havin'
an intellekchool repast in the cinter av the stage by the old well. Bear
in mind you're a chorus girl and conduct yourself in accord. Have you a
drop left in the heel av the flask, Adele, dear?"

* * * * *

They were nearing the _Saragossa_ in the dusk, and their call had been
answered with a rousing cheer from the ship....

"Please, sir, you said you would take me sailing," Paula called, as she
readied the head of the ladder.

Though he could not stand, Peter Stock had an arm for each; and they
were only released to fall into the embrace of Father Fontanel. They saw
it now in the ship's light: Pelée had stricken the old priest, but not
with fire.... The two were together shortly afterward at supper, in
clean dry make-shifts, very ludicrous.

"I came to you empty-handed, and soiled from the travail of the
journey," she whispered. "All but myself was in a certain room that
faced the North."

"There are booties, flounces and ribands in the shops of Fort de
France," Charter replied with delight. "Peter Stock shall be allowed
certain privileges, but not to make any such purchases. I carry circular
notes - and insist on straightening them out."

"Haven't you discovered that Skylarks are not of the insisting
kind - even when they need new plumage? Anything that looks like
insistence nearly scares the life out of them. Isn't it a dear world?"

All this was smoothly coherent to him.... Alone that night, they drew
deck-chairs close together forward; and snugly wrapped, would have
nothing whatever to do with Peter Stock's sumptuous cabins. They needed
floods of rest, but were too happy, save just to take little sips of
sleep between talk.

"You must have been afraid at first," she said, "of turning a foolish
person's head with all that beauty of praise in your letters.... I think
you were writing to some image you wanted to believe lived somewhere,
but had little hope ever really to find. I could not take it all home to
me at first.... I felt that you were writing to a lovely, shadowy sister
who was safely put away in a kind of twilight faëry - a little figure by
a well of magical waters. Sometimes I could go to her, reach the well,
but I could not drink at first - only listen to the music of the water,
watch it bubble and flash in the moon."

"I love your mind, Paula Linster," he said suddenly, " - every phase of
it. By the way - _love's_ a word I never used before to-day - not even in
my work, save as an abstraction."

She remembered that Selma Cross had said this of him - that he never used
that word.

"You could not have said that to 'Wyndam' - - "

"Yes - for Skylark was singing more and more about her. I soon should
have had to say it to 'Wyndam.'"

"I loved your fidelity to Skylark," she told him softly.

Dust of Pelée would fall upon the archipelago for weeks, but this of
starless dark was their supreme night. "Feel the sting of the spray," he
commanded. "Hear the bows sing!... It's all for us - the loveliest of
earth's distances and the sky afterward - - "

"But behind," she whispered pitifully.

"Yes - Pelée 'splashed at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet's
hair.'"

* * * * *

The next night had fallen, and the two were through with the shops of
Fort de France. Paula's dress was white and lustrous, a strange native
fabric which the man regarded with seriousness and awe. He was in white,
too. His right hand was swathed for repairs, the arm slung, and a
thickness of lint was fitted under his collar. About his eyes and mouth
was a slight look of strain still, which could not live another day
before the force of recuperative happiness.... Up through the streets of
the Capital, they made their way. Casements were open to the night and
the sea, but the people were dulled with grief. Martinique had lost her
first born, and Fort de France, the gentle sister of Saint Pierre, was
bowed with the spirit of weeping. They had loved and leaned on each
other, this boy and girl of the Mother Island.

Through the silent crowds, Charter and Paula walked, a part of the
silence, passing the groves and towers, where the laws of France are
born again for the little aliens; treading streets of darkness and
moaning. A field of fire-lights shone ahead - red glow shining upon new
canvas. This was the little colony of Father Fontanel, sustained by his
American friend, - brands plucked from the burning of Saint Pierre. They
passed the edge of the bivouac. A woman sat nursing her babe, fire-light
upon her face and breast, drowsy little ones about her. Coffee and
night-air and quavering lullabies; above all, ardent Josephine in
marble, smiling and dreaming of Europe among the stars.... It was a
powerful moment to Quentin Charter. Great joy and thrilling tragedy
breathed upon his heart. He saw a tear upon Paula's cheek, and heard the
low voice of Father Fontanel - like an echo across a stream. He saw them
and hastened forward, more than white in the radiance.

"It is the moment of ten thousand years!" he exclaimed, grasping their
hands.

Paula started, and turned to Charter whose gaze sank into her brain....
And so it came about unexpectedly; in the fire-light among the priest's
beloved, under the Seven Palms and the ardent mystic smile of the
Empress....

_Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry
heart; for God hath already accepted thy works.... Let thy garments be
always white; and let not thy head lack ointment. Live joyfully with the
wife whom thou lovest, all the days of thy life._

The words rang in their ears, when they were alone in the city's
darkness, and the fire-lights far behind.

* * * * *

On the third day following, they stood together on the _Morne
d'Orange_ - the three. Father Fontanel had been in feverish haste to gaze
once more upon his city; while Charter and Paula had a mission among the
ruins.... The _Saragossa_ was sitting for a new complexion in the harbor
of Fort de France, so they had been driven over from the Capital, along
the old sea-road. The wind was still; the sun shone through silent
towers of smoke, and it was noon. Sunlight bathed the stripped fields of
cane, and, seemingly inseparable from the stillness, brooded upon the
blue Caribbean. The wreck of the old plantation-house was hunched closer
to the ground.

They left Father Fontanel in the carriage, and approached the cistern.
Charter halted suddenly at the edge of the stricken lianas, grasping
Paula's arm. The well-curbing was broken away, and the earth, for yards
surrounding, had caved into the vault. They stood there without speaking
for a moment or two, and then he led her back to the carriage.... Father
Fontanel did not seem aware of their coming or going, but smiled when
they spoke. His eyes, charmed with sunlight, were lost oversea.

At last they stood, the priest between them, at the very edge of the
_Morne_ overlooking the shadowed _Rue Victor Hugo_ - a collapsed artery
of the whited sepulchre.... The priest caught his breath; his hands
lifted from their shoulders and stretched out over the necropolis. His
face was upraised.

"God, love the World!" he breathed, and the flesh sank from him.... Much
death had dulled their emotions, but this was translation. For an
instant they were lifted, exalted, as by the rushing winds of a chariot.

* * * * *

They did not enter the city that day, but came again, the fourth day
after the cataclysm. Out of the heat from the prone city, arose a
forbidding breath, so that Paula was prevailed upon to stay behind on
the _Morne_.... Sickened and terrified by the actualities, dreadful
beyond any imaging, Charter made his way up the cluttered road into _Rue
Rivoli_. Saint Pierre, a smoky pestilential charnel, was only alive now
through the lamentations of those who had come down from the hills for
their dead.

The wine-shop had partly fallen in front. The stone-arch remained, but
the wooden-door had been levelled and was partially devoured by fire. A
breath of coolness still lingered in the dark place, and the fruity odor
of spilled wine mingled revoltingly with the heaviness of death. The
ash-covered floor was packed hard, and still wet from the gusts of rain
that had swept in through the open door and the broken-backed roof;
stained, too, from the leakage of the casks. Charter's boot touched an
empty bottle, and it wheeled and careened across the stones - until he
thought it would never stop.... Steady as a ticking clock, came the
"drip-drip" of liquor, escaping through a sprung seam from somewhere
among the merciful shadows, where the old soldier of France had fallen
from his chair.

He climbed over the heap of stones, which had been the rear-door, and
entered the little court from which the song-birds had flown. Across the
drifts of ash, he forced his steps - into the semi-dark of the
living-room behind.

The great head that he had come to find, was rigidly erect, as if the
muscles were locked, and faced the aperture through which he had
entered. It seemed to be done in iron, and was covered with white
dust - Pelée's dust, fresh-wrought from the fire in which the stars were
forged. The first impression was that of calm, but Charter's soul
chilled with terror, before his eyes fathomed the reality of that look.
Under the thick dust, there suddenly appeared upon the features, as if
invisible demons tugged at the muscles with hideous art, a reflection
from the depths.... Bellingham was sitting beside a table. He had seen
Death in the open door. The colossal energies of his life had risen to
vanquish the Foe, yet again. His mind had realized their failure, and
what failure meant, before the End. Out of the havoc of nether-planes,
where Abominations are born, had come a last call for him. That glimpse
of hell was mirrored in the staring dustless eyes.... Around his
shoulders, like a golden vine, and lying across his knees, clung the
trophy of defeat - Soronia. Denied the lily - he had taken the
tiger-lily.... Under the unset stones of the floor, a lizard croaked.

Charter, who had fallen of old into the Caverns of Devouring, backed out
into the court of the song-birds, in agony for clean light, for he had
seen old hells again, in the luminous decay of those staring eyes.... He
recalled the end of Father Fontanel and this - with reverent awe, as one
on the edge of the mystery. Through the ends of these two, had some
essential balance of power been preserved in the world?




TWENTY-SEVENTH CHAPTER

PAULA AND CHARTER JOURNEY INTO THE WEST; ONE HEARS VOICES, BUT NOT THE
WORDS OFTEN, FROM RAPTURE'S ROADWAY


Peter Stock had cabled to New York for officers and men to make up a
ship's company. The _Saragossa_ was overhauled, meanwhile, in the harbor
of Fort de France, and the owner expressed his intention of finishing
his healing at sea. On the same ship, which brought his seamen from New
York, arrived in Fort de France a corps of newspaper correspondents, who
were not slow to discover that in the bandaged capitalist lay one of the
great stones of the eruption from the American point of view. This
literally unseated Peter Stock from his chair on the veranda of the
hotel at the Capital. With his guests, he put to sea within thirty-six
hours after the arrival of the steamer from New York; indeed, before the
_Saragossa's_ paint was dry. His vitality was not abated, but the great
figures of Pelée and Fontanel, enriched by M. Mondet as a sort of
clown-attendant, had strangely softened and strengthened this
rarely-flavored personality. As for his two guests, that month of
voyaging in the Caribbean and below, is particularly their own. The
three were on deck as the _Saragossa_ plied past Saint Pierre, five or
six miles deep in the roadstead, a last time. The brute, Pelée, lay
asleep in the sun before the gate of the whited sepulchre.

"Did I ever tell you about my last interview with M. Mondet?" Peter
Stock inquired.

Charter had witnessed it, on his way to the craters that morning, but he
did not say so, and was regaled with the story. "Bear witness," Peter
Stock finished, pointing toward the city, "that I forgive M. Mondet.
Doubtless he was writing a paragraph on the staunchness of Pelée - when
his desk was closed for him."

* * * * *

They reached New York the first week in July. No sooner had Peter Stock
berthed the _Saragossa_ and breathed the big city, than he discovered
how dearly he loved Pittsburg.... Paula went alone to the little
apartment Top-side o' Park, where Madame Nestor absolved her strong
young queen; alone also first to _The States_, though there was a table
set for four over in Staten Island the following day....

Charter and Reifferscheid regarded each other a trifle nervously in the
latter's office, before they left for the ferry. Each, however, found in
the eyes of the other a sudden grip on finer matters than obvious
explanations, so that no adjustment of past affairs was required. To
Charter, this moment of meeting with the editor became a singularly
bright memory, like certain moments with Father Fontanel. Reifferscheid
had put away all the flowerings of romance, and could not know that
their imperishable lustre was in his eyes - for the deeper-seeing eyes of
the woman. He was big enough to praise her happiness, big enough to
burst into singing. It had been a hard moment for her, but he sprang
high among the nobilities of her heart, and was sustained.... What if it
were just a throat-singing? There was no discordant note. These are the
men and the moments to clinch one's faith in the Great Good that Drives
the World.

Selma Cross had left the _Zoroaster_, and, with Stephen Cabot, was
happily on the wing, between the city, shores and mountains. _The Thing_
was to open again in September at the _Herriot_, and the initial venture
into the West was over. Had she wished, Paula was not given a chance to
do without the old friendship.... The story of taking the Company down
into Kentucky from Cincinnati and fulfilling the old promise to Calhoun
Knox proved rare listening:

"I won't soon forget that night in Cincinnati, when I parted from
Stephen Cabot," she said, falling with the same old readiness into her
disclosures. "'Stephen,' I told him, 'I am taking the Company down into
Danube to play to-morrow night in my home. I don't want you to go....'
I had seen the real man shine out through physical pain many times. It
was so now, and he looked the master in the deeper hurt. He's a
self-fighter - the champion. He asked me if I meant to stay long, as I
took his cool, slim hand. I told him that I hoped not, but if it
transpired that I must stay for a while, I should come back to
Cincinnati - for one day - to tell him.... I saw he was the stronger. I
was all woman that moment, all human, wanting nothing that crowds or art
could give. I think my talk became a little flighty, as I watched his
face, so brave and so white.

"I knew his heart, knew that his thoughts that moment would have burned
to the brute husk, coarser stuff than he was made of.... Here's a
Stephen who could smile up from the ground as - as they stoned.... So I
left him, standing by the window, in the upper-room of the hotel,
watching the moving river-lights down on the Ohio.

"Late the next afternoon I reached Danube, and was driven directly to
the theatre - which was new. There was a pang in this. The town seemed
just the same; the streets and buildings, the sounds and smells, even
the sunset patch at the head of Main Street - all were just as they
should be, except the theatre. You see, all the dreams of greatness of
that savage, homely girl, had found their source and culmination in the
old house of melodrama, parts of which, they told me, now were made over
into darkey shanties down by the river. I felt that my success was
qualified a little in that it had not come in the life of the old house.

"I joined the Company at the theatre, without seeing any of the Danube
folk. The audience was already gathering. Through an eyelet of the
curtain, I saw Calhoun Knox enter alone, and take a seat in the centre,
five rows from the orchestra. He seemed smaller. The good brown tan was
gone. There was a twitch about his mouth that twitched mine. Other faces
were the same - even the lips that had spoken my doom so long ago. I had
no hate for them now....

"I looked at Calhoun Knox again, looked for the charm of clean
simplicity, and kept putting Stephen Cabot out of my heart and brain....
This man before me had fought for me twice, when I had needed a
champion.... They pulled me away from the eyelet, and _The Thing_ was
on.

"I could feel the town's group-soul that night - responded to its every
thought, as if a nerve-system of my own was installed in every mind.
They were listening to the woman who had startled New York. I felt their
awe. It was not sweet, as I had dreamed the moment would be. After all,
these were my people.

"I wanted their love, not their adulation. There had been nights back in
the East, when I had felt my audience, and turned loose _The Thing_ with
utmost daring, knowing that enough of the throng could follow me. But
this night I played slowly, played down, so that all could get it. This
was not a concession to the public, but a reconciliation. And at the
last, I moved and spoke pityingly, lest I hurt them; played to the
working face of Calhoun Knox with all its limitations - as you would tell
a story to a child, and hasten the happy ending to steady the quivering
lip.... And then it came to me slowly, after the last curtain had
fallen, that Danube was calling for its own, and I stepped out from
behind.

"'Once in the days of tumult and misunderstanding,' I told them, 'I was
angry because you did not love me. Now I know that I was not lovable.
And now I feel your goodness and your forgiveness. I pray you not to
thank me any more, lest I break down under too much joy....' Then I
went down among them. A woman kissed me, but the moment was so big and
my eyes so clouded that I did not remember the face.... Presently the
real consciousness came. Danube had dropped back to the doors. My hand
was in the hand of Calhoun Knox.

"Far out the Lone Ridge pike, we walked, to the foot of the Knobs. I was
breathing the smell of my old mountains. You can rely, that I had kept
my voice bright. 'I have come back to you, Calhoun,' I said.

"'I shouldn't be here,' he stammered in real panic. 'You didn't write,
and I married - - '

"I could have hugged him in a way that would not have disturbed his
wife, but I said reproachfully, 'And you let me come 'way out here alone
with you, wicked Married Man?...' I started back for town, and then
thought better of it - waited for him to come up, and took his hand.

"'Calhoun,' I said, 'I found you a solid friend when I needed one
pitifully. Selma Cross never forgets. You have always been my Kentucky
Gentleman. God bless your big bright heart. I wish you kingly
happiness!'

"And then I did rush back. We separated at the edge of the town. I
wanted to run and cry aloud. The joy was so new and so vast that I could
scarcely hold it. Miles away, I heard the night-train whistle. My
baggage was at the hotel, but I didn't care for that, and reached the
depot-platform in time. The Company was there, but they had reserved a
Pullman. I went into the day-coach, because I wanted to be alone - sat
rigidly in the thin-backed seat. There were snoring, sprawling folks on
every hand.... After a long time, some one stirred in his seat and
muttered, 'High Bridge.' The brakeman came through at age-long
intervals, calling stations that had once seemed to me the far country.
Then across the aisle, a babe awoke and wailed. The mother had others - a
sweet sort of woman sick with weariness. I took the little one, and it
liked the fresh arms and fell asleep. It fitted right in - the soft
helpless warm little thing - and felt good to me. Dawn dimmed the old
meadows before I gave it up to be fed - and begged it back again.

"And then Cincinnati from the river - brown river below and brown
smoke-clouds above. It seemed as if I had been gone ages, instead of
only since yesterday. Unhampered by baggage, I sped out of the
day-coach, far ahead of the Company in the Pullman, but the carriage to
the hotel was insufferably slow; the elevator dragged.... It was only
eight in the morning, but I knew his ways - how little he slept.... His
door was partly open, and I heard the crinkle of his paper, as he
answered my tap.

"'Aren't you pretty near ready for breakfast, Stephen?' I asked.... He
stood in the doorway - his head just to my breast. His face was
hallowed, but his body seemed to weaken. I crossed the threshold to help
him, and we - we're to be married before the new season opens."

Paula loved the story.

* * * * *

And at length Paula and Charter reached the house of his mother, whose


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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 22 of 23)