IT was a mistake from the first. The post was not at all for a woman, but Miss Terrill was unaware of that. She had just come to Bacolod via San Francisco, Manila, and Ilo-Ilo, by means, successively, of a big white army transport full of other ingenuous pedagogues; a wheezy but impudent little Spanish steamer, which aggressively shoved its nose under every ripple of the inter-island seas; a languid-sailed lorcha, loaded with pigs, dogs, and brownies, and finally a dizzy banca, which, perched upon the tip-foam of a curling comber, outriggers spread out like wings, landed her high up on a golden beach—fresh, dainty, and composed like a coloured album picture. So, when out of the hat in which the Division Superintendent was thoughtfully shuffling little slips of paper representing the towns of his terra incognita, she drew the name of Barang, she took it as much of a lark. Immediately she ran to a map, found the little black dot down in the southern part of Negros, and pronounced it "cute." She seemed prone, it must be said, to take things that way. She was a very young girl, so young that the officers of the Post raised their eyebrows and muttered under their breaths when they learned where she was going. A certain second lieutenant, Saunders by name, and very fresh from West Point, went so far in fact as to offer to arrange it so that she should stay in Bacolod, at least as long as he were there, and afterwards—any place where he might be. But she laughed sweetly at this proffer, and put it from her promptly and decisively, though her blue eyes, at the young fellow's sudden show of despair, shone a moment with a tenderness—maternal he called it afterward—that somehow left him without bitterness and full of reverence.
Here it must be explained for future understanding that Rumour, a most vigorous Dame in the Philippines, forthwith pounced upon this little incident and made off with it north and south. North the development of the tale was rapid indeed; by the time it reached Escalante it dealt with the marriage of Miss Terrill to the fat old colonel of the Post. South, progress was more modest; at Himamaylan and Cantalacan, towns nearest to Barang, it gave merely the news of the formal engagement of Miss Terrill to Lieutenant Saunders. Which freak of Dame Rumour was precious indeed, in that it led to the complications that make this story.
The affair of her assignment continued to be much of a lark during the two weeks spent in Bacolod awaiting transportation. It was still a lark when the launch came and her trunk, in the loading, fell into the surf and the hombres in charge of it kept dry by the simple expedient of standing upon it. And the long, hard trip in the launch, laden to the gunwales with supplies for a military post still further than her own town, also was a lark, although at sunset the sky drew down in a black vault beneath which the little steamer seemed very small and very lone, and a wind arose which sent her plunging beneath tons of swirling water, and later, when the sea had calmed, the Tagal pilot got lost in the blinding downpour of rain and ran her gently into a perpendicular wall from which they backed with a poignant feeling that it was only the superstructure backing thus away, that the bottom was still on the rock—a feeling which proved baseless, but which kept them tense the night long, speaking in whispers and treading the deck a-tiptoe. The world was still joyous when they crashed through a fish-corral and her chair, caught by one of the poles, whisked her instantaneously from bow to stern. But when they anchored beyond the edge of a long reef, and the sun rose glaringly upon the shore, it must be admitted that her heroic little heart sank a bit. On the other side of the reef the waters ended in rippling purple shallows; and then there emerged a low bank of mud—a livid yellow mud, flaccid and spongy, corroded with trickly streams that ran ink. At the upper end of this bank, flanked by four leafless leprous palms, there rose a long building, askew upon its rotting piles, with torn tin roof and shutters fallen outward. In front, very white against the gray facade, the blue sky, the yellow mud, a pole sprang up with a faded American flag wrapped dejectedly about its top. Embracing the bank, the two curved arms of a river came down in slow gurgitation of liquid ooze between screens of black-green vegetation.
"This is Himamaylan, little mother," said the young lieutenant (he had fallen rather easily into the relation imposed by her). "This is Himamaylan. Wish it were your station; you've twelve more miles overland."
Now this thoughtful preference for Himamaylan (seeing what Himamaylan was) hardly promised for her own station. But she resolutely gulped down a certain tightening of the throat. "How jolly!" she said.
Saunders looked at her rather long. "What a darling you are!" he murmured. And the tone was hardly filial.
Which caused her to hurry her preparations for landing. A native standing to his knees in the mud, after a good deal of vocalising from the lieutenant, listlessly strolled to a decrepit banca, bottom up in the shallows, flopped it over, baled it out with a coconut shell, tied up the shaky outriggers with bejuca, and paddled leisurely, with an air of supreme indifference, to the counter of the launch. "I'll go ahead and reconnoitre," said the lieutenant, springing into it; "it's only six, and Wilson (the American teacher of the station) is probably not up yet." Miss Terrill saw him paddled to the shore, saw him land and go up the rude causeway. At each step the stone under him sank as in a jelly and his foot whisked out in a spatter of mud; at each step her heart followed the stone in its sinking movement. He disappeared into the great ruined building. She waited, it seemed a long time. The padron of the launch began a muttered discourse upon the sin of delay with an ebbing tide. The sun rose higher, poured its accusing glare upon the squalor of the scene. The hombre in the banca pulled his wide-brimmed straw hat over his eyes, curled in the bow, and went to sleep. The mud began to crawl with little black crabs. "Cheer up!" she said to herself in a crisp intonation, like the note of a bird.
The Lieutenant reappeared at the head of a dozen villainous duplicates of the man in the banca. He paddled up. "All right," he said. "I have cargadores. Wilson will arrange things to get you to your town. We'll land your stuff first; by that time he'll be presentable."
One by one her boxes were thrown into the banca, paddled ashore, and carried to the door of the big building, the convento of the friars before the revolution had driven them out. Then very ceremoniously, while the padron warned about further delay, Saunders handed her into the little canoe, like a princess into her gondola, out again on shore, and helped her over the first and worst part of the causeway.
"I must go now," he said. "Wilson is waiting for you at the door and that launch is beginning to thump bottom. And please, once more; won't you come back to Bacolod?"
She lifted her clear eyes to him and shook her head gently. "But you are a dear good boy," she said.
To the subtle maternal tone of this, there was no replying. He bowed low over her hand and turned back.
She started up right away. A great loneliness exhaled itself from the land. She did not look behind, but toiled stolidly toward the building.
Tied to one of the verandah posts, a native pony, short-necked, compact, muscular, was pawing the ground. She stopped and looked at it, gaining from it the first comfort received of things since her arrival. It was carefully groomed. The bay flanks shone like silk; the mane, parted, fell fluffily on each side of the curved neck, the forelock dangling roguishly between the eyes. Beneath the polished saddle a red blanket added a touch of colour, almost of coquetry. The little animal stood there like a protest against the ambient discouragement.
But a white-garbed man was at the door. "Good-morning, Mr. Wilson," she said gaily; "what a nice horse you have there!"
"Good-morning, Miss Terrill," he answered, a gleam of approval in his pale, tired eyes; "but that's not my horse. Mine—well, it's like everything else about here"—and in a heavy gesture he passed his hand over the musty landscape.
She met the owner upstairs.
He was a young man with slender waist and broad shoulders. Leather-gaitered, buttoned to the chin in khaki, a big Colt hanging to his loose belt, he gave Miss Terrill an impression of elastic efficiency very pleasing. But still more pleasing, she thought very secretly, were his eyes, golden-brown, soft and rather grave. He was horribly reticent though. He let Wilson do the talking; leaning against the window-sill, he contented himself with short remarks dropped at long intervals like the sudden toning of a deep bell, and also with a consideration of her, serious and thorough like the pondering of a problem. It was something entirely different from that to which she was accustomed. She was not vain; but still, she had often seen herself, mirrored, as it were, in the eyes of men; and she knew that in her short khaki skirt, her long, tawny leggins, her wide-collared blouse, her soft felt hat beneath which her hair fluffed, light and golden as sun-kissed vapour, she was—well, picturesque at least. But here was a judgment that reserved itself, an admiration very much under check. His very position as he stood there, his glances downward upon her, gave him a subtle strategic superiority. It was rather irritating; and when he bowed and excused himself out of the room, her return salute was stiff with a stiffness foreign to her sweet nature. But immediately she found herself listening intently, oblivious of Mr. Wilson, listening to the steps springing down the stairs, stamping upon the flagging of the court, stopping beneath the verandah. There was a short silence, then a sudden clatter of hoofs. Unconsciously she was up and at the window—and he was gliding rapidly along the palm-lined road leading away from the sea, erect in the saddle, his waist giving flexibly to the pace of the pony.
"Oh," she ejaculated; "is he going away?"
"Yes," said Mr. Wilson; "back to his station at Cantalacan. It's ten miles beyond yours. He'll arrange things for you at Barang."
Then, strangely enough, the desolation of the surrounding landscape brusquely whelmed her again. She felt very much alone with this Mr. Wilson, with his stoop of the shoulders, his weary eyes, his attitude of profound lassitude.
"I must start off for my station," she said decidedly.
Miss Terrill leaned at the window of her new home, looking out into the dark of the plaza. She had put out the lamp, the room behind her also was dark, and between these two obscurities she felt rather lone. At intervals alarmingly frequent her rallying cry, "cheer up," chirped in the heated silence; but difficult it was for the spirit to obey the command of the lips. She had gone through a great deal of late—not so much in actual hardship; she could bear that buoyantly; but little by little the oppression of the Land had heaped upon her and she felt a very little girl indeed. Something akin to self-compassion filled her being as she dwelled over the events of the past days: the sudden and thorough inefficiency of Mr. Wilson when it came to arranging for her departure; the long enervating wait for mythical carts, for carabaos that did not come; then, after she had taken hold of things and the evasive Presidente, suddenly alacritous at the stamp of her foot, like a magician produced animals and vehicles by the dozen, the long ride to her station—the bumping and creaking of the ox-cart; the mud, the fearful bottomless mud; the miring in the rice lands, beneath the leaden sun, in the pestilential swamp; the miles paced slow as the crawl of an hour-hand while time slid by and the day died in gloomy splendour. And then the entry into the pueblo at midnight, amid the howl of dogs, the croak of frogs, the shrill concert of katydids; the dinner at the Presidente's, with this people of alien race, of dark skins, of incomprehensible tongue; the appalling lack of comfort, of cleanliness—and then the night: she would never forget it, that first night in Barang. Her cot had been placed in a big bare room. Through the torn roof she could see a lone star. There was rice stored in the corner of the room, and giant rats thundered over the loose planking, squealed and fought, while outside in the scum of the ditches the beasts of humidity shrilled in rasping clamour. Then the arising in the morning, weary to death, shrinking in fear at the thought of the first survey, in the inexorable sunlight, of the place which was to be her abode for twelve long months at least; and that first look—the wide, grass-dishevelled plaza with the carabaos wallowing in the mud holes, the ponies dying of surra at their pickets, the leprous-walled, crumbling church across, the thousand leaning, rotting nipa shacks, the musty mountains steaming in the east.
Afterward she had had a pleasant surprise. A house had been engaged for her, the Presidente announced, by Don Francisco. She went right away to view it. It stood facing the plaza, pointed-roofed, post-elevated, between shimmering bananas, a new nipa hut, clean and strong. The ground beneath was white with powdered lime, a reassuring carbolicky odour hovered about and she was pleased by the chance for picturesque decoration offered by the rich, nut-brown nipa of the interior. But while she stood in the centre of the sala, planning, a muchacho in immaculate camisa stood before her. "Don Francisco has sent me to you; I am to be your servant," he said in the precise English of one carefully instructed. He proved a treasure, that boy. Then, pieces of furniture began to arrive one by one. She did not understand at first, but the owners, salaaming behind their sweating cargadores, explained that they were to be hers during her stay. She offered money; they refused. Don Francisco had asked them to do this; they were always glad to obey Don Francisco.
This was the third time in as many minutes that she had heard that name. When she was alone with Vincente, the new muchacho, she asked, "Who is your master?"
"You are to be my master," he answered in the tone of one who knows well his lesson.
"But who was your master; who sent you?"
"Don Francisco," he said.
"But who is Don Francisco?"
"Don Francisco; the Maestro," he answered, evidently astonished at her obtuse ignorance.
But she divined now and her cheeks flushed. It was the Maestro of Cantalacan. Wilson had introduced him as Mr. Tillman. "Don Francisco" was much better, she reflected.
She had set briskly to work at her installation. She accepted a few pieces of the proffered furniture—quaint old hand-carved things of incredibly heavy woods; she performed wonders with boxes and chintz; Isio mats enlivened the meerschaum of walls and ceiling, the few pictures and flags left of her college days were hung; red narra boards tied with golden abaca along the walls made a place for her books; a big square severe table, with her blotters, pads, ink-stands, pens, and pencils upon it, took an aspect inviting of studious hours. But when she rested and looked about her for the subtle feeling of coziness and warmth which usually follows such toil, as it must to the birds who have built their nest, she found with consternation that it was not there—the feeling of intimacy, of home, was not there. She changed the petates, she moved the pictures, she hung orchids at the windows, arranged a panoply of native hats and spears over the door, fringed the grass-cloth portières. But it was useless. The feeling would not come. And she realised that it would never come; that all these efforts were puerilities before the great crushing assertion of the land—the grass-dishevelled plaza, the ruined church, glistening in the white sun, the palms, the steaming mountain, the brown populations; that before this tranquil, brooding, all-powerful Presence, all her little defenses of art and adornment shrivelled, dried into dust as cardboard toys in a furnace. It was like hiding behind leaves from God.
She turned to her work with an enfevered zeal. She found a tumble-down nipa shed where some twenty half-naked, half-starved, miserable little beings, herded every morning by the municipal police, gathered beneath the stick of a slovenly, dull-eyed man, with a gibberish of English—the native teacher appointed temporarily by the military government. The school supplies had not come yet; there were no charts, no books, no slates, no paper, no pencils. The children squatted on the damp earth, crushed and apathetic.
"Well, I can at least love them," she said to herself.
It was easy for her to love children. She loved everything that was small—babies, kittens, puppies, birds; and flowers:—she called them baby-flowers when they were satisfyingly little. She taught the children trifles that did not amount to much; but beneath the tenderness of her presence these starved plants began to put forth blossoms. The dark eyes opened in wonder, softened in reverence. One day one of the little girls took her hand going home from school; and after that she was always followed by a dozen demure little maids that took her hand a few steps in turn. She taught the class a song, and since there was not much to do, in the dearth of what was needed, they often sang, in their low, plaintive notes, their eyes fixed upon her in mute adoration.
They called her Mathilda, and she thought it very sweet.
But still the Presence weighed upon her with its crushing, tranquil malevolence, its external signs the sun, white and ghastly, the mountains, steaming in mustiness, the fronds of palms, heavy, motionless, metallic. She felt the weight of it as of some physical thing there upon her breast; beneath it her sleep grew torpid, her gestures languid, her eyelids drooped heavy upon the unfading blue beneath.
This day the obsession had been more poignant than ever. For in the morning she had found the schoolhouse deserted. The cosecha had begun, and the children had all wandered off early to a big hacienda ten miles off to pick rice. The hours had dragged, long as death, empty as Infinity. And now she leaned, a little limply, at her window, between the dark behind and the dark before. "Cheer up," she chirped valiantly, but her heart would not answer.
Then, far down the road, consoling, familiar, she heard the soft pit-a-pat of hoofs. The sound neared, swelled, drummed in a crescendo that seemed to beat in her heart. Detaching itself suddenly from the shadow, as if of its tenuous substance, there appeared the vague form of a man in the saddle, pliant-waisted, broad-shouldered. A singular panic possessed her; she drew aside behind the wall and peered, her hands upon her breast. With a rattle of stone and a spark the horse stopped there in the darkness in front. The shadowy rider seemed to turn in the saddle; she felt his eyes scrutinising the darkened facade, the lightless windows. She panted. The horse champed resoundingly; her lips parted as if to speak.
Then, very distinct in the silence, she heard the decided whirr of a quirt. The form in the saddle bent forward; the horse rose in a jump. For a second the shadow of horse and man rose and fell, then it plunged into the darkness of which it seemed a part. The drumming of hoofs sounded down the road, farther, fainter, became a mere vibration, ceased.
But she stood there listening long after sound had died. And when she moved off toward her little cot, it was very wearily, and upon it she collapsed very suddenly.
She knew what was the matter with her now. She was lonely; God, how lonely!
And thus as a shadow, flitting, mysterious, almost uncorporeal, she was to know him for a long time. It might be during the day, at school; her eyes, straying out of the open door, saw him cross the plaza to the rapid pace of his bay pony, erect beneath the leaden downpour of heat, his sombrero firm down upon his eyes, his waist giving pliantly to the swing of the saddle. He slid off with what seemed to her singular speed, like a being unreal, elusive, legendary; he was across the plaza ere her eyes were fairly fixed upon him, was disappearing along the palm-lined road into the wilderness, into the bosom of the mountain, seeming to await him, dark, brooding, inscrutable. And when the red dot of the saddle-blanket had lost itself into the venomous green of the distance, she would turn, a little listlessly, to her class.
"Come, children, we will sing," she would say.
And they sang, in their low, weird voices, their plaintive modification of some old home song. "How sadly they sing," she murmured; "how sad it all is."
Or it would be at night when, standing at her darkened window, she heard the sound of hoofs reverberated in her heart, and he passed, a mere shadow, immediately swallowed in the gloom. Sometimes she remained at the window, peering into the darkness; at other times she withdrew in unreasoning timidity into the farther depths of the sala, and stood there, panting, till the hoof-beats had sunk into silence. For a while, with a temerity that seemed to her immense, she left her lamp lighted behind her; but when finally he did come, at the sight of the luminous circle upon the road he circled wide into the night. She could divine him there, in the profundity of gloom; it seemed to her that he had dismounted, that he stood long, looking toward her. She trembled with excitement, keenly aware of her conspicuousness in the light. Then the horse rustled softly through the high cogon, struck the road again below the house, galloped off in sudden clatter.
These brusque apparitions left her very lonely.
One day, though, she caught him. Her watch had run down and as she crossed the plaza to the schoolhouse, she was aware by the position of the sun that she was much ahead of the correct time. There was little about her lone home, however, to call her back; so she pushed on, a little pale at the thought of the long day ahead. Then as she was almost at the door, she started. A bay pony was before her, stamping but obedient to the long reins dropped Western fashion to the ground. Its flanks shone like silk, the long mane fell on both sides of the short curved neck, the forelock dangled roguishly over the eyes. A red blanket flamed beneath the saddle.
For a minute she stood still, startled like an elf, her breath coming swift between her parted lips, poised in panicky indecision. Then with a lithe resolute movement she stepped within.
He was standing in the centre of the room, examining with critical eye the torn roof, the sagging walls, the earthen floor. When he had become aware of her presence he merely took off his hat in silent greeting that held subtle homage. His eyes passed gravely over her. He should have been pleased indeed with the tremulous colour of her cheek, the radiance of her glance. She wore a simple dress of blue linen with a sailor-blouse whose wide turned-down collar left a triangle of palpitating whiteness below the throat; she was hatless, and her hair lay upon her head with incredible lightness, like a golden vapour. A curl of it fell over her eyes, and she drew it back slowly in a graceful movement of her arm, bare to the elbow. But even as she gazed up at him, the suspicion of tenderness in his eye went out abruptly; a stubborn reservation lowered over them like a curtain.
"You are early," he said.
"Yes," she answered, and the word came like a sigh. She sat down, a little wearily, upon the only chair. "Yes," she repeated; "it's going to be a long day."
He scanned her with rapid, questioning concern; but immediately there returned the rigid reserve that baffled her.
"I must go," he said decidedly. "I've a new barrio school up there in the bosque."
That was all. He strode across the room to the door, gathered up the reins, mounted and was off, leaving her alone in the big empty shed. After a while she looked up. Far toward the hills a little red spot was disappearing.
The following day the municipal treasurer came to her and told her what she should have known before—that the taxes had been collected, and that there were some thousand pesos for the pueblo school. So she saw, with an interest that made the days sweeter, the roof rethatched, the walls bolstered, a floor of bamboo being laid, and the Chino carpenter slowly evolving with his rough tools a dozen rude benches. A few days later an oldish little mild-eyed man presented himself to her. He told her that he had been one of Don Francisco's assistants, and was now to be hers.
This new proof of lofty and patronising care exasperated her. She sent the man back with a message declaring that she needed no assistant.
Two weeks later he was again before her with a note. With a vague feeling of disappointment she saw that it was typewritten. It said:
"The Provincial Superintendent has transferred Abada from my town to yours. I cannot and you must not disregard the order."
Her cheeks flamed a little when she reflected that the two weeks passed between the two offers were just time enough for the exchange of correspondence between Cantalacan and Bacolod.
But she soon found Abada invaluable. He had evidently been subjected to a rigid training; naturally he took upon himself all the smaller troublesome details of her work. Also he knew his own people thoroughly and was precious in lifting for her the uniform veil of stolidity. And he had ingenuity. He propounded a plan by which the children came washed to school; he interested the parents in the clothing of their offspring, so that now the room rustled with starch. The rivalry of the town factions he diverted adroitly into a race for the favour of the Maestra.
After a while, though, she noticed that Abada's brilliant suggestions came always on Monday mornings; also that on Sundays the little mild man, a stick in hand, wended his way across the plaza and then down the road leading to Cantalacan. This vexed her, and the next propositions of her assistant were ignominiously rejected. That morning she mapped out her own course. She planted vines that with tropical vigour forthwith began to climb the bare walls. At the windows she hung wonderful orchids. She draped two American flags in flaming panoply behind her desk, improvised of dry goods boxes. The supplies had come from Bacolod (very strangely, in ox-carts belonging to the municipality of Cantalacan). The maps upon the walls, the blackboards and charts upon their tripods, the shelves of books gave to the place an air of study and quiet. Thanks to Abada's constant visits to parents, his free use (she did not know that) of Don Francisco's name, the attendance was rising by leaps and bounds; the schoolhouse was full of gentle brown goblins. Her soul was sweet with the feeling of being loved.
And yet she could not shake the old tyranny. An emptiness was within her; an emptiness it was, and yet it weighed like lead. Above, about her, the alien, incomprehensible Land flamed, fierce, inimical. She dreamed of grassy meadows beneath apple trees; through the flowering branches voices passed, voices of her own kin and race, sympathetic and intimate.
One day she had an idea that filled her with wild joy. She would give a dinner and invite Mr. Wilson and Mr. Tillman.
The invitations were sent and accepted. On Saturday she went to the market. She passed amid the squatting women like a humming bird, flitting hither and thither, stopping a moment to sip here or there, then whirring off again with her store. And when she returned, her tawny parasol tilted back upon her shoulder in an attitude a little weary, her two boys behind her bore baskets filled with wonderful and coloured things. She overhauled her stores and set to work immediately. A man she sent down to the sea to fish for her a lapo-lapo. And all day she measured and mixed and beat and prepared for the morrow. She was up with the sun the next day, and all morning she flitted about, humming like a bee building its honey-home, a white apron pinned to her dress, her face flushed, her hands floury. At noon Wilson came in. She greeted him joyously, and then leaving him with her latest magazine, whirred off again to some mysterious final crisis in the kitchen.
At one o'clock a tao came with a note. Mr. Tillman was very sorry, but something unexpected and imperative had called him away. He would not be present.
Her hands dropped to her sides; a great disappointment filled her soul.
She forgot it partly in the performance of her duties as hostess. Abada took the place set for the missing one. Wilson lost his eternal discouragement and livened in a way that made her glad. Late in the afternoon he left.
"Lordie, what a little wife she'll make," he murmured to himself, riding in the gloaming. "And that fool Saunders, what's the matter with him, anyway, leaving her down there so long!"
From which it would appear that Dame Rumour had not found it imperative to correct her first erroneous report.
As for Miss Terrill, her brave "cheer up" checked her just as she was on the point of idiotically weeping over the ruins of a splendid chocolate cake.
The rains began. Seated at her window she would hear a roaring tattoo in the grove of abaca palms to the south. The noise neared, rose, thundered. Long, lithe coconuts began an inexplicable bending to and fro, their tops circling in trembling descent almost to earth, then swinging back to the spring of the bow-tense trunks in a movement exaggerated and violent like that of some stage tempest. Out of the grove, beaten, trampled down, there advanced into the open a black wall of rain, perpendicular from earth to sky. Ahead of it, dust, twigs, rubbish suddenly ascended to heaven in rotary spirals; trees were flayed of their leaves, roofs blew up like gigantic bats. Then her own house, strongly built, shook as with earthquake; the thatch of the roof sprang vertical, like hair that stiffens with fear, and between the interstices she saw the muddy sky stream by. A powder of debris, of dry rot, snowed down upon the table, the books, the chairs; little lizards, unperched, struck the floor with a squeak like that of a mechanical doll, remained as dead for long minutes, then scampered across the room and up the walls again; great black spiders, centipedes, scorpions fell; sometimes a large rat. Then the nipa clicked back to position as a box is shut; a breathless silence, a heavy immobility petrithe world. There came three or four detached, resounding raps upon the roof, and suddenly a furious, roaring beating as of stones coming down, great stones, chuted in thousands, in millions—and the church, the plaza, the mountain, the whole Land disappeared in a yellow swirl of waters. It rained thus for hours, for days, for weeks. The leaden vault of the sky seemed irreparably cracked, letting down the liquid hoardings of ages. It rained, in drops big like eggs, falling so swiftly that they welded sky to earth as with iron bars; it rained, heavily, monotonously, mournfully. The first wild, triumphant burst over, the elements seemed to have settled down to their task with a quiet, brooding patience, an immense persistence of unalterable purpose. It seemed that it would rain thus for years, for ages, for inconceivable æons. The world was rain, the future was rain; she lived in a chaos of water. The whole earth softened, dissolved; it rolled through eternity, a silent, viscous ball of ooze spattering the stars. Inside her hut a musty leprosy crept over things; her clothes rotted in her trunk, mushrooms sprang overnight upon her books; her very soul, it seemed to her, disintegrated before this malevolent persistence of elemental purpose. A black mournfulness was over her like a veil.
She yet saw him sometimes. Out of the obscure chaos he emerged, a vague shadow; behind the vitrious sheet of waters he passed, wrapped in a great cape, erect, immovable upon the horse, struggling up to its knees in mud, the heavy flaps of his sombrero down over his face, leaving to view but the hatchet-carved chin. She knew now where he had been that Sunday. A discharged negro soldier had been terrorising a little barrio to the south. The Maestro had ridden there and going directly to the bully, had disarmed him and ordered him out of the district.
And now, up in the hills, but daily nearer to the coast towns, a band of tulisanes were committing depredations. Barrios were burned; principales suspected of giving information to the authorities were tortured. And it was said that a negro renegade was the leader of the band.
He was present to her in ways other than these shadowy apparitions. One day men had placed upon her nipa roof a sheeting of zinc; she found later that the material came from the ruined convento of Cantalacan. She felt about her a fostering care, immense, enveloping like the Rains, mysterious, impalpable like them. But it was impersonal, far, cold—like the Justice of God. It left her very lonely.
One morning at sun-up he rode into the pueblo at the head of a dozen men. By their uniforms, their rusty Remingtons, she knew them as the municipal police of Cantalacan. For a week there had been a respite of the rains and the roads were fairly firm; but the outfit came in mud-crusted to the eyes, the horses staggering and dripping foam. They clattered rapidly past the house and stopped before the Casa Popular. The Maestro dismounted, but she noticed that before he allowed the others to do so, he sent a man ahead to the outskirts of the pueblo on the side opposite to that by which they had come; she could see him, sharply delineated against the rising sun, scanning the horizon. The Maestro sprang up the bamboo steps of the municipal house; his voice rang sharp and incisive. There was a running to and fro of muchachos, and man after man, the town police assembled. She had noted before their slovenliness, but now, as they mingled with the men of Cantalacan, this appeared emphasised. There was something brisk and efficient about everything that came from Cantalacan, it seemed. The Maestro reappeared and mounted. He placed half of his men in the van, the other half in the rear, the Barang contingent being framed between, and putting himself at the head started out of the pueblo by the road opposite to that by which he had come in. She saw him for a while, pliant in the saddle, leaning forward, pressing the pace, the rest of the troop pell-mell after him, rising and falling one after the other, their broad hats flapping. Suddenly he seemed to go through the crust of the earth; man after man disappeared after him; the last laggard dropped out of sight. They were crossing the river. They reappeared, toiling slowly up the farther bank, bunched for a moment, then vanished between the palms.
Toward evening she saw them return. He was not riding in front. But between the horses, formed in hollow square, something limp swung from side to side—a litter borne by four men.
What followed came back to her afterward with strange blending always of vague unreality and glaring vividness.
Very calmly she went down to the Casa Popular, before which the calvacade was stopping. On the ground she saw the litter with its lithe form silhouetted beneath the blanket. "He is dead," she said to herself with weird certainty. All about her, men were talking excitedly; she did not hear a word, and yet, later, all that they said came back to her, complete to every inflection.
The Maestro had received secret information of an attack planned by Carr, the negro renegade, upon Barang; hence the move of the morning. The two parties had met upon the road; both had taken to the ditch and had peppered away at each other for a while. Then the Maestro, who had kept on his horse to hold his men better in hand, had been struck by a chance bullet; the pony, zipped by the same fire, had thrown him. But as, seizing the opportunity, Carr charged forward with a yell of triumph, the prostrate man, raising himself on his elbow with a last effort, had shot him through the head with his revolver. This sudden reverse had scattered the outlaws.
She did not hear this; it came back to her later. She stood very still; and her heart, with each solemn beat, said, "He is dead."
A desire came to her to see him once more. She moved to the litter. She lowered the blanket. Upon the very white forehead the black hair was matted; matted with the toil done for her, in her defense. She separated the curls between her fingers, smoothing them in long caressing movements. And then she saw stirring between the pale lips the suspicion of a breath.
Instantly the dreamy lethargy that enshrouded her dropped like a cloak; and she was a-thrill with a fierce desire for action. "To my home, quick, quick!" she cried to the men. They took up the litter and started toward the house. But they were inconceivably slow. They jostled him. She pushed one of the carriers aside and herself took a pole. Finally he lay upon her little cot.
She tore open the khaki blouse with its spot of rust above the heart. The blue shirt beneath was soggy and dripping. With her scissors she cut off both garments, then washed the bared flesh. But there was something which would not wash off—a little bluish spot from which, constantly reforming, red lines radiated like the cracks of a broken pane.
He opened his eyes just then; they glared wild for a moment, settled upon her, softened, then with a sharp intake of breath he was unconscious again. She noticed that his right shoulder had a strange, caved-in appearance. She felt the joint lightly. The shoulder was dislocated.
Her lips tightened. That first must be set, for from it he suffered. She had heard of it as something very difficult. She was a girl, weak, lone, ignorant, and yet it must be done.
She called Vincente and together they tried to draw the arm back into its socket. It was sickening work. At every effort the strong shoulder muscles contracted in reflex resistance, and they were helpless as babes.
She desisted and thought, with an exasperated concentration of all her faculties. A snatch of chance knowledge came back to her. In her trunk she had a little medicine chest given to her by loving friends when she had started on her long voyage. She had laughed at the time; she pounced upon it now like a wild animal upon food. She looked into it in anguished questioning. Yes, there it was—a phial labeled chloroform.
She sent Vincente out for Benito. He was a mañangete, and very strong. He came, stood upon his immense bare feet before her, his straw hat in his hand, and she looked with thankfulness upon the bull-like neck, at the arms, bulging in ridges beneath the camisa. Once she had cared for his sick baby-girl, and now he adored her.
They moved the cot against three of the roof-sustaining posts and fastened it tight to them. They strapped the unconscious man to the cot.
The crucial moment came now. Right here she might murder him with criminal ignorance. She accepted the hazard.
She uncorked the little bottle, spilled some of its contents upon a wad of cotton, and applied this to the pinched nostrils. He struggled; his left arm tugged at the strap holding it till the muscles were tense to breaking. She persisted—and suddenly his effort collapsed; with a shuddering sigh his whole body relaxed liquidly.
She made use of Benito now. At her command he took between his iron fingers the wounded man's wrist. She placed her soft hands upon the tao's corded arms. He tugged; she directed. From her tapering fingers there flowed into the stolid muscle of the machine-man a subtle fluid of tender intelligence. In the commonness of their work they became as one: he the body, she the soul. The chloroform had had its effect; the shoulder muscle loosened, elastic, to the steady pull. The arm lengthened, almost dismeasurably. She panted. Beneath the suggestion of her fingers Benito gave a sudden sharp movement up and to the left. There was a resounding click—and then Benito, Vincente, the man in the cot, the whole room floated slowly upward, leaving her in a lone black hole.
But from this weakness she emerged to the urgent call of what there was yet to do. She wrapped tape about both shoulders to keep the set member in place. Then she turned to the wound.
She saw with relief that the stagnant red lake which had covered it at first had not returned. But there was still the little blue hole with its radiation as of cracked glass. She fingered it lightly. In there was a bullet, and it must be gotten out.
Pale, with eyes closed, she gently inserted her little finger into the warm flesh. It was as if she were digging into her own heart. After a while she felt a hard, rough-edged object. She gasped in a strange mingling of physical horror and spiritual ecstasy. The bullet had sunk a bare inch.
She looked through the chest, but there was nothing for the necessary extraction. She tried the scissors; they slipped and revolved about the leaden slug without seizing it. She wrapped twine thick about the blades. This time they caught. There was a momentary resistance; she tugged firmly, it seemed at the very core of her being. Slowly at first, then faster, the distorted bit of lead slid through the flesh, then popped out and rolled upon the floor. A little ruby foam came to the surface of the wound.
The whole world floated away gently, except a Voice, a thundering, all-filling Voice; "Señora, Señora," it crashed and reverberated through the infinity of Time and Space. It fell gradually into a call, gentle but insistent, that she must obey; and she opened her eyes upon the face of Vincente, yellow with fear; and it was he that was calling "Señora, Señora."
She sprang to her feet at the command of her purpose. From the torn wound, little red drops were arising like bubbles one by one—the drops of his life. She dressed the wound carefully. A great weariness fell about her like a pall; she sat down at the head of the bed. Something soft and delicious entered her soul.
She remained there till dawn, a sweet content singing at her heart. The oppression of Things that had crushed her for so many months had lifted; her being distended in ecstatic repose. He slept, still in the torpor of exhaustion, calm like a statue; she watched him, watched the white forehead with the black curls damp upon it, the eyes, closed in the shadow of the long lashes; watched this helplessness with a gentle feeling of maternal possession. His features were relaxed in lassitude; the corners of the mouth drew down slightly, in an expression a little tremulous, as that of a child who has cried and is not yet quite consoled. A great tenderness dissolved her being.
Toward morning, however, his cheeks flushed dull red and he began to toss restlessly upon the narrow couch. She placed her hand upon his forehead and found it burning. She redressed the wound, placed fresh bandages about the shoulder; but the fever did not abate. All day she fought it, handicapped by her poverty of means. And then as the sun had set in black-and-blood-portent and the night fell like a great velvet cloak from the sky, Fear crept into the little hut; and all night as she sat there by the cot, it was at her elbow, spectral, dilated-eyed, and cold.
He tossed and tossed in convulsive starts till the cane bed creaked and cried. He muttered incessantly, words without end, rapid as the tick of a telegraphic receiver. At times she could understand.
"The silence!" he would say; "the silence!"
He stopped a moment, his brows frowned, then the words came again, slow, as in painful mental analysis. "Their ways are different," he said; "their language incomprehensible. It is silence—God, what silence!"
He rose to a sitting posture and listened long, intently. "Nothing," he said, falling back, discouraged; "silence," he whispered.
Then, "And the mountain, the musty mountain, how it weighs!"
He was quiet for a long while. Then he spoke one word.
"Lone"—and the word drawled like a plaint.
A great wonder possessed her. So he also had felt what she had felt, had suffered what she had suffered. Through the armour of efficiency, of alertness, had penetrated the oppression of the Land. He, the strong, the vigorous, the self-reliant, had suffered as she, the weak, lonely girl. She passed her hand softly over his hot forehead; she bent down in an impulse to kiss. But he was talking again, one sentence repeated in swinging sing-song.
"Saunders, Saunders, may he make her happy; Saunders, Saunders, may he make her happy." He fell into a rhythmic beat, like the marching cadence of a drum. "Saunders, Saunders, may he make her happy," he repeated, over and over again, in ceaseless sequence.
She drew back, afraid. Saunders—that was the young lieutenant at Bacolod. But who was the mysterious "Her" that out of the mechanical rise and fall of the sentence rose distinct in an emphasis of wistful tenderness—a sense of profanation whelmed her; she should not listen to that.
She left the room and went below to rouse Vincente. But he was in the death-like stupor that is the sleep of the native. She could not wake him, make him understand what she wanted—that he should watch over his master. She had to go back, and as she re-entered the room he was still murmuring, but with slowing cadence, like a clock that runs down: "Saunders, Saunders, may he make her happy."
When finally the thing had died upon his lips, he was quiet a long time, and she remained there, listening to the beat of her own heart. The dawn was entering cracks and windows in grayish humid flow. She shivered a little; a great discouragement dissolved her strength. She moved to the window and looked out upon the misty landscape. After a while the sun appeared, a red ball of fire on the top cone of Canlaon. It rose, freed itself of the enveloping net of vapour, shone down, white, clear, inexorable; the mountain slopes began to steam.
A movement behind her made her turn.
He had risen and was sitting upright, his free arm raised high toward heaven, and in impassioned accents he was declaiming:
"Star of my Life," he cried; "Star of my Life, cold in the black sky, far, ah, how far! Star of my Life, in spite of all, in spite of thee, thou art my Star, my Star!"
He sank back as if broken with the effort. She placed her hand upon his brow and beneath it she felt the heat slowly recede; soon he was sleeping peacefully like a child.
"Star of my Life!" she murmured wonderingly.
She was very happy that day. He slept heavily, broken with fatigue and loss of blood; she hovered about him like a butterfly, finding a thousand little precious things to do. In the afternoon she decided that she must rest. She had improvised with screens a room in the sala; but she slept only in snatches. She woke often with a delicious feeling of duty to perform; and then she would glide to the door and from the sill watched him sleeping calmly within. She was no longer lonely. All night he slept thus; then, as in the morning she flitted about the room touching things here and there, suddenly she knew that he had awakened. She did not turn toward him, but she could feel his eyes, softly luminous, following her gravely. She slid out of the room. He had not spoken.
But outside the world was dull. She returned. As she entered, the eyes were still on the door, wistful; but immediately, like a veil there came over them the old stubborn reserve.
"I must go," he said. "I suppose I got laid up in that fool fracas over there. You've been very good to me. I must go."
He tried to raise himself; but a gray pallour sprang to his face. "Sh-sh-sh," she hissed gently. "You must be a good little boy and do as I say. You must not move."
A great weariness was upon him; his bones were as water; and beneath the soft "sh-sh-sh" this weakness became a dreamy and very pleasant feeling indeed. "I'll be a good boy," he murmured obediently. Suddenly she realised that he was very young after all; which gave her a very maternal tone as she said, "Drink this; it will give you strength."
The days that followed had a taste of honey. A dreamy passiveness held him in its thrall and she was about him always like a sweet despotism.
But slowly, as he grew stronger, came the change she dreaded. A corselet of reserve drew about him; the old subtle reservation again veiled his eyes. He spoke often of going.
On the fourth day the call of a bugle drew her to the window, and a troop of cavalry was sweeping into the plaza. At its head was young Saunders. Rumours of ladrone raids reaching Bacolod had caused the sending of a detachment; it was to garrison Barang indefinitely.
She learned this from Saunders; for he called that evening and together they sat at the bedside of the wounded man. She smiled upon the young fellow a slightly malicious smile, for he seemed very much consoled indeed. Later, as he left her at the head of the stairs, he confided that the colonel's niece was now at the post, and that she was—gee!—a queen!
"Sure you won't?" he asked in smiling apology.
"Sure I won't," she answered with responsive gaiety, but reiteration of intention.
"Good-night, little mother," he said.
He came every evening after that, and the man propped up on the pillows listened with wonder to their light and impersonal prattle.
The last day came. Early in the morning the Maestro called Vincente, and with his help put on the khaki, the leather puttees, the belt with its burden loose along the thigh. The pony, all saddled, was standing outside. He meant to slip out unnoticed.
But once in the sala a sudden remorse detained him in hesitation. For the good of his soul, he knew he must not see her. And yet, it seemed black ingratitude, this sneaking departure. His eyes wandered over the table with a vague idea of leaving a written good-by——
A gliding swish behind him made him turn. She stood in the frame of the door, looking at him. She was wrapped in a loose gown, mauve-tinted, that stopped in a square before reaching the neck. Her hair fell in two braids behind her, leaving a haze of gold shimmering before the eyes; and her eyes shone through, calm, wondering, and blue. A vestige of pure, white sleep still hung about her cloyingly, and she was adorable.
"You are going?" she asked—and the words floated slowly, as if held back by some indefinable regret.
"Yes," he said; "I must go back."
She stood looking slightly past him at something very far, into an infinity that was desolate; her eyes widened, purpled.
"I shall be lonely," she said, impersonally, as if reading into that distance.
He started a little. After a while he said, hesitatingly: "The troop are here now; the lieutenant——"
But she stood there, very still, staring at the future, stretching long ahead as the past mirrored, the lone, inexorable future reflecting the lone, hard past. She moved forward a step, and that step was very weary.
"I shall be lonely," she repeated.
A tremulous wonder came into his eyes.
But suddenly she had crumpled upon the long wicker chair, her face hidden in her arms, and her shoulders began to rise and fall softly.
He stood there, stupefied, watching the gentle swell and ebb, and slowly the wonder in his eyes grew to the light ineffable. He moved forward. He touched her timidly.
"Girl!" he said in awed murmur, as if in the hush of a cathedral, "Girl, can it be!"
But she remained gently weeping. He took her arms and raised her slowly; and they stood before each other, their twined hands hanging loose between them, their eyes into each other's, gravely reading.
"Girl!" he said again, and this time the tone held the ecstasy of revelation.
"Boy!" she smiled back through the sacred dew of her tears.
He drew her to him, and she wept upon his shoulder in sweet abandonment, and his heart swelled within him in immense tenderness.
"Star of my Life!" he murmured.