Open main menu
 

III
HER READING

OUT over Mariveles the sun had set in sombre splendour. A velvet pall of darkness had fallen upon the earth like a conclusion; but the waters of the bay still glowed, glowed with a light that was not reflected, but floated up from within—a luminous exhalation, as it were, from the mysterious depths—a dark purplish light that should not have been, which astonished the soul and was sinister. Someone on the veranda mentioned Morton. The short, idle sentence split the peace of the moment like an electric spark. And the silence that immediately engulfed it was not as the silence that had been before; it was a silence full of unrest, of vague spiritual heavings and stirrings, of tumult invisible, unheard, impalpable and yet felt, poignantly felt, in some immaterial way, as is felt at sea the surge of waters through the impenetrability of the mists. It was such a silence as always followed the invocation of the man; for his case was one which filled us with inward clamour and questioning, and yet pinned us beneath the weight of some indefinable oppression.

But Courtland began to speak, and we leaned forward, intent, knowing that he must understand. Yet his first words were a confession of doubt, of that same inability to pierce the depths of the thing and pass sentence which exasperated us all vaguely.

"I don't know if I understand—yet," he began, slowly. "I've stared and stared at it—and yet—I don't know. Sometimes I think I understand—a little more every day—and yet——"

His voice had droned off gradually. A heavy torpor descended from the low sky. Far out lights flared up, red, dishevelled lights that bounded and leaped, up and down, to and fro, in frenzied dance. The Tagal fishermen were calling the fish with their alluring flames; the soft, insistent tapping of their paddles upon the flanks of their canoes came to our ears like hypnotic suggestion. They began to shout, a mad medley of yells that wavered, broke, began again and at last welded in one long, quavering cry full of incomprehensible desolation.

And Courtland's voice bassed forth again, with unexpected steadiness.

"It isn't the fall of him that's difficult; that's easy, too easy—we see so much of it. But the redemption—unless we go back to the old explanation, puerile to us complicated moderns, perhaps from its very obviousness—the old theory of purification through suffering. But you know, there're the others, that suffered, too; and they——. And then there is She. She is the mystery, the holy mystery. Before her she had his soul, legible to her like a book. And the leaves wear a smear of mud and blood. And yet what did she read? Out of these defiled pages, what fact did she grasp as the All-Important?"

We listened, patiently waiting, waiting for the word, the solution.

"You remember him—a tall, dark, aquiline man, with something Indian in his features, and efficiency written in every muscle-play of his magnificent body. A strong man, you would remark at first sight, a strong man, physically and morally. Bah!—the strength of man—a phrase, words, bubble! He had the body, the jaw, the presence—a mere shell. The weakness was there, anyhow, some little spot of blight within, I don't know just what; it might have been a touch of the romantic merely—that glowed sometimes in the liquidity of his brown eyes.

"He was one of life's fortunates, too. Belonged to a good family in the States—New Englanders, reputable and cold and narrow, stiff with rectitude as their own rock-ribbed coasts. Well educated, had gone to college, had played football, et cetera. Well, he came over here with the Volunteers. Easy to read after that. First, fervent, romantic patriotism, then mad exasperation, then mere cold cynical brutality. Two years of loosening of fiber in the promiscuity of camp, of reversion to type in butchery of field. When the Volunteers returned, he did not go with them. The tropics had him by that time, had penetrated his heart with their pernicious charm—the charm of their languorous amorality, the charm of power:—we whites here, as in some insane asylums, we're all kings. He stayed.

"He went into the Constabulary, behaved rather well there, too. When I first saw him he had just returned from an expedition and his name was in all mouths. His command had proved faithless, and he had fought his way back, through enemy and friend, through incredible suffering. It was fine—but it was the shell. Inside was the spot of blight. And it began to spread, by imperceptible degrees. You could hardly see the progress, you know—only by taking periods far apart, and then it hit you with a shock. Finally he was at the last step—you know the step I mean, the last one.

"You could tell it by an exaggeration of outer form, of outer cleanliness, by a stiffening, as it were, of the shell. The whiteness of his suits became extraordinary; they glistened with starch; they buttoned up to the ears. He flourished his swagger stick like a general; at the club he bore himself with aggressive stiffness, with a febrile hauteur that challenged the world.

"I suppose it wasn't all corrosion of moral fiber. Perhaps that deplorable touch of romance in the man was partly responsible. You know—love, free, untrammelled love, in the tropics, beneath the palms; between the cynical, blasé, complicated man of civilisation and the maid, the charming, ingenuous maiden, half savage, half child—a miserable hodge-podge vision of love, spices, bananas, bamboos, coral reefs——

"I stumbled upon the establishment by chance. It was cholera time; I had been detailed as inspector. It was very sordid, really. No hut beneath the palms; two rooms in the Walled City. Disorder, untidiness, moral lassitude there. No wonder he stiffened up outside. And she was not even pretty. Her eyes, slightly oblique, were closely set together, which gave her an extraordinary calculating air. While he romanced—I suppose that he did; I hope that he did—she seemed counting, ceaselessly counting the Mex. that might come to her out of that affair. The only redeeming thing that I saw—redeeming, I mean, from a purely plastic standpoint—was a beautiful, liquid-eyed child they had there—her sister. You catch my distinction. It wasn't at all redeeming from another point of view—that child there in the shame of their lives. Everything else might have been pardonable—but that——

"After a while even the outer shell began to show it. His white suits lost their impeccability; often he left the upper button open. Sometimes he wore his khaki without leggings. He didn't shave often enough. A vague sordidness began to creep over him like mould.

"He drank. Not steadily; but about once a week he marched into the club with his hostile swagger (mind you, the swagger was all against himself; nobody knew of his situation; he did not know that I knew); he sat down resolutely at one of the tables and called for drink after drink, which he swallowed with the same strange, decided, inflexible manner, as if he were doing something of absolute importance, something that he must do in spite of the world, in spite of himself. He kept that up, a frown between his eyes as if from tremendous mental effort, hour after hour, sometimes till the whiteness of dawn. Then he rose suddenly, clicked his heels together, and stalked off, seemingly unaffected.

"One evening, as he came in thus, I was sitting alone on the veranda. He gave me a casual glance, walked straight on a few steps, then, swerving suddenly, settled in the seat next to mine. He said nothing at first, just sat there, a black bar between his eyes, seizing glass after glass which the muchachos, by that time well trained, ran up to him. Then he began to speak.

"He spoke about Her! Of course, at that time I did not know of her existence. I was bewildered; I thought he spoke of the other one, the one in the Walled City. Then as I understood, I was shocked as by a desecration.

"'It's four years ago, Courtland, that I told her good-by,' he said, soberly, leaning over and placing a hand upon my knee. 'She was in the garden, in the dew of the morning, and she was picking roses.'

"He was silent a long time. I was dumb, astounded; a sense of sacrilege filled my being. He began again:

"'Her eyes are green, Courtland, green like the sea. And she can read into my soul, Courtland, right into my soul!'

"Another period of silence, and then:

"‘"I am yours; whenever you need me I shall come to you." That is what she said.'

"He jerked forward over the table, his head in his hands. A horrible spiritual discomfort crept into me. I didn't want to hear about it; I didn't! I wanted to hush him, push my hand against that blasphemous mouth——

"'And I left her in the garden, in the dew of the morning, among the roses!'

"He rose stiffly, drew his hands from his face, down to his sides, as if with great effort, squared his shoulders, snapped his heels together, and marched off as he had come in.

"Thus I first saw her, and always after saw her, in indelible picture—a frail young girl, of eyes with the sea-glint in them, picking roses in the dewy morning. Roses!—thousands of them—red and white and yellow; they are at her feet, at her sides, above her; their petals are in her hair, their incense is about her like an adoration.

"I saw him off and on after that, but he never mentioned her again—for which I was thankful. The disintegration was going on. Those black periods of revolt were less frequent now. Professionally he was still strong, had had the honour of being placed on the Katipunan's blacklist, the honour of carrying proudly, like an iron corselet, an exterior of cold indifference above the inward tension of every moment.

"And then came that night.

"Yes, that's the night, the night of which you all know something. But I know more; he told me everything, that one time he talked, his lips unsealed in a burst of hysteria.

"He awoke, that night, smothered beneath the black weight of some indefinite discomfort. Instinctively his right hand slipped beneath his pillow and closed upon the Mauser pistol; but when he had lived thus a full minute, his fingers clutched about the stock, his breath convulsive in his throat, he slowly released the weapon with a sigh that was not relief. For it was not from the Katipunan warning that came this vague oppression that through his sleep had wrapped him as in a shroud; it was something deeper, more subtle and more intimate; it was interfibred with his innermost being, and it was torture.

"He fought the haunting thing. It was a terrible night. The heat lay upon him like a catafalque. The enfevering rumour of moat-born gnats clung to the netting surrounding him; from the patio-hall there came the weary cough of a muchacho, stretched in his toil-damp clothes upon the polished floor. Outside, between the conch-shell shutters of the veranda the horizon was luminous with the moon; a beam stole into the steaming darkness of the room. It flashed up the mosquito bar into shimmering vapour; blandly it began a pointing-out of details, the inexorable details of his life's vulgarity. A nausea shook his being; he slipped to the floor and out to the balcony.

"Beneath the moon Manila was agleam. The whole firmament was liquid with the light; it poured down like luminous rain, slid in cascades over the church domes, the tin roofs, the metallic palms, till the whole earth shimmered back to the skies. In the entire city only one spot gloomed—the old fort, mysterious and pestilential with its black oozing walls, its fever-belting moat; but beyond it, as if in exasperation at this stubborn nonconformity, the brightness broke out again triumphant in the glimmering sheen of the bay.

"But from that serenity he turned, and he looked back, he had to look back. He peered into the room of infamy, peered at the bed, rising black and monumental in the farther depths, at the heaps of clothing here and there in cynical promiscuity, at the pile of greasy cooking utensils upon the stand, at the whole ensemble of disorder, weakness, moral lassitude. Passionlessly the light was sweeping all this, plucking out of the shadow one by one the detestable details. It stole toward the right wall, fell upon a cot, and from it there emerged a white little form that came hesitatingly to him. It was Magdalena, the child, the sister of Maria.

"She had been with them long. But now, suddenly, her presence there, in that atmosphere of sin, struck him with a great shock.

"'Back,' he whispered; 'back to bed, chiquita; it's time to be sleeping.'

"But she wanted something—a lock of his hair. Maria had one; she wanted one also.

"He remembered that she had asked this before, with childish insistence. He had not given much attention to it. And really, in all probability, it was mere childish whim. But now the thing staggered him, like something monstrous. Who could tell what there was in the mind of that child, with great wonder-eyes open to the shamelessness of his life. He chided her harshly and sent her scampering back to her bed.

"Then, turning his back upon the room, upon all this sordid misery, he looked out upon the waters. And a ship, a white army transport, was coming in. Slowly it glided between the ghostlike silhouettes of vessels at anchor; it turned ponderously; there was a splash of phosphorescence at the bow, a running clang of chain through hawse. He did not know what that craft held for him, ah, no! You know, don't you? He did not; but suddenly his whole spiritual being tugged within him, sprang back the long, solitary path of the ship, back across the moonlit bay, past Corregidor, out into the sea, along the foamy track, back miles in thousands to a harder, cleaner land, to a little California town embowered in scented hills, and it threw itself at the feet of a girl—the girl he had left among the roses, whose eyes could read into his soul.

"The moon went out behind a cloud. He had slid to the floor and lay there, his head upon his arm. Then—he told me that later—he heard somebody hickup, hickup hard, metallically. After a while he discovered that it was he. He was sobbing. And long in the enfevered darkness there pulsed that strange, hard hickup of the man with the iron hand of woe upon his throat.

"He must have fallen asleep at last; when he awoke again a sense of danger weighed upon his whole body like lead. He was stretched full length, his face downward upon his arms, and although he did not turn his head to see, he knew that it was dark, pitch dark. It seemed to him that a moment ago something cold and steely had touched his temple.

"He lay thus, it seemed to him a long time, motionless, while his heart-pulse rose in crescendo till it almost suffocated him. For to his ears, along the sound-conducting floor, there came a faint, soft rustle of something, somebody crawling. A mad desire to rise, shout, attack, break the silent horror of the moment, thrilled him, but fear laid its cold, paralysing hand upon him, and he could not move.

"Suddenly the spell was broken. A click as of a knife falling from the hand of an assassin to the floor shot the blood through his veins as by chemical reaction. With a shout he had sprung to his feet, darted across the room, and seized the Mauser beneath his pillow. He turned his eyes upon the floor and in the center caught sight of a vague, crouching form. A shot rang into his ears, vibrated in pain along each of his nerves, and then he was leaning back against the bed-post, limp and cold, sick with the sense of mistake, mistake hideous and irretrievable.

"He stayed there, against the bed-post, limp and cold, his eyes straining through the darkness at the vague huddle in the centre of the room. He knew that Maria had awakened with a scream, that she had struck a light, that she was bending over the nameless thing, and he felt a strange relief as her broad back hid it from view. But she returned toward him, and put her dilated eyes, her brown face, fear-spotted, near his own, and she whispered, hoarsely, 'Magdalena!'

"But this was only confirmation of what his whole being was crying to him, and he was busy listening to something else, listening to the crack of a Mauser pistol tearing through his brain, and then springing out into the silent night, echoing, swelling, thundering in fierce crescendo down the hushed streets, reverberated from wall to wall, rushing, a tidal wave of sound, into every house and nook and crevice, shouting, proclaiming, shrieking with its iron voice the story of his life, of his degradation, till the whole city, ringing from the call, hurled it on and on across the sea into Her ears, the heralding trumpet-call of his dishonour, of his fall, of his degradation.

"But Maria was speaking. 'Hush,' she whispered; 'do not tell. We can hide. Martinez will help us. To-morrow we'll bury her. It's the cholera; the health men will believe you; nobody will look close.'

"Together they went back to the spot. Kneeling low, he gathered the little girl up in his arms. Something fell with a steely clang to the floor. He picked it up; it was a pair of scissors. Something eddied down slowly from her other hand; it was a lock of his own hair. He stood there, with the limp little body in his arms, stupid with the sudden vision of the trap set for him, the trap of retributive Fate, its appalling simplicity of means, its atrocity of result. But he must act. Hurriedly seizing his old, moth-eaten, army overcoat, he began to button it upon himself. Maria was talking again.

"'Hush,' she said; 'do not tell. We can hide. Martinez will help us. We'll bury her to-morrow. It's the cholera. The health men will believe you; and nobody will dare look close.'

"He stopped, with his hand upon the last brass button, his head bent to one side, listening to the insidious murmur. And he knew that it was true, hellishly true. The great stricken city, hypnotised with its fear, was indifferent to everything else. The whole thing could be hidden, buried, annihilated. Then he saw himself again as he had been earlier in the night, standing in the moonlight of the balcony, peering into the room, into the depths of his degradation. 'No, no, enough, enough!' he snarled. And, seizing the little body with its possible spark of life, he rushed out into the street.

"The dawn was breaking. Bareheaded, barefooted, he raced silently along the endless, narrow streets. He passed long files of white-garbed men—the cigar-makers on the way to the factories; they scattered before him in fear. The naked muchachos were galloping their ponies to the beach for their morning bath; they circled wide as they came upon him. At a plaza he tried to hail a carromata, but the cochero whipped up his horse in a frenzy of distrust. It was cholera time, and cold egoism ruled the city. He told me of it, that one time. 'I was alone, Courtland, alone, alone. None would near me, none would hear me. They fled, they fled. I was alone, alone with my crime in my arms, with my story in my arms, the story of my life, of my degradation; alone, Courtland, with my temptation, my temptation, Court land——' A vacuum formed about him as he raced on, cutting his feet upon the stones, panting with the physical effort and the spiritual horror, on and on through narrow streets long as death. He came to a quay, a silent, dark place in the shadow of the city wall, and there his temptation slowed him up. Maria was right. It was cholera time; the great amoral city was indifferent to everything else. The little body with its possible spark of life—this infinitesimal possibility which demanded of him such stupendous self-immolation—could be dropped quietly into the river, to stream out there into the unfathomable secret of the bay. And She would never know. She would never know!

"She! He saw her as he had left her, in the garden, in the dewy morning. Her eyes were steadily upon him. 'Enough! Enough!' he cried, with a growl, as that of a wild beast.

"He passed along a crooked bridge. At the end a big Metropolitan policeman stepped to him with a question, but he rushed past with a vague muttering. The policeman hesitated a moment, then followed; and behind the patter of the bare feet the heavy boots echoed, pounding in patient pursuit. At last he stood beneath the pale, sputtering light of the hospital porch, striking feverishly at the great doors. They opened before him and he entered, the policeman at his heels. A man took his burden quickly as he sank on the bench, and disappeared through a small door at the end of the hall. A gong clanged twice in quick succession, then once more, and as if in answer two white-jacketed men came down the stairs, passed across the hall, and vanished into the room where the first man had gone. A silence fell over the place. The big clock against the staircase ticked resoundingly. The policeman leaned back against the wall and examined the man huddled there upon the bench with curious glance.

"After a time long as eternity, one of the white-jacketed men came out into the hall and stood in front of Morton. Morton looked up at him in a great question, but the man did not seem to see it.

"'Er, er,' he drawled, as if embarrassed. Then suddenly, 'Who shot her?'

"'I did,' answered Morton.

"'Er, er—with what?'

"'Mauser—pistol—thirty-eight.'

"'Yes, yes,' acquiesced the man. 'And how old did you say she was?'

"'For Christ's sake,' broke out Morton, in sudden cry; 'how is she; is she dead; is there any hope?'

"'Why, yes; of course, she is dead,' answered the man, as if shocked that there should be any doubt about it. Then he turned to the policeman, as if saying, 'I've done my part; the rest belongs to you.'

"But Morton had risen, stiffened with the vision of what there was left for him to do.

"'I'm Morton,' he said to the policeman; 'second-class Inspector, Luzon Constabulary. I did the shooting. It was a mistake. I'm going to my room to dress; then I'll report to my chief; and after that I'll surrender myself to the Metropolitan Police. You can follow if you wish.'

"The policeman hesitated a moment, subjugated by the man's manner. 'It's all right,' he said; 'you can go; I'll telephone to headquarters.'

"And as Morton went out he saw the policeman step to the telephone-box at the end of the hall. And he knew that with the puerile, nasal voice of the wire the heralding had begun.

"Outside, the sun was already pouring its bitterness upon the gleaming city, and the streets were fermenting with feverish humanity—white-garbed men, hurrying to the factories, bright-camisaed women going to the market with baskets upon their heads, naked-busted cargadores with gleaming muscles. Morton plunged ahead through the throng, which broke before him with sullen acquiescence to the right of the strong. The exaltation of the night had given place to a strange stupor. His head wabbled on his shoulders, empty as a sleighbell, and a great weariness was in his limbs. Slowly he retraced the long course of the night through the indifferent crowds. He met only one white man that he knew, in a narrow, disreputable alley. The man stopped him, astonished.

"'What are you doing in a place like this?' he asked. 'You forget you're on the Katipunan. You're liable to get hurt.'

"'Hurt?' Morton laughed in his face and left him standing there bewildered. At last he entered the patio of his house. Everything was as usual. The cocheros were washing down their carromatas preparatory to going out; the muchachos were galloping back, their ponies' flanks gleaming with salt water. No one gave him a glance as he went upstairs to his room.

"He entered it without a tremor and looked stupidly about him. The place reeked with the sordid disorder of every morning; of the sudden horror of the night there was only one sign—a blanket had been thrown carelessly over a certain spot in the centre of the room. He turned to his clothes-chest and began to dress. He worked slowly, losing time on unimportant details. It took him a long time to choose the white suit that he would wear amid the dozen that he spread on the bed, and then he was still longer putting in the buttons. When he was dressed he noticed that he had to shave, and called for his boy. The boy did not come, and then he saw that several familiar objects were missing from the room. He opened Maria's drawer; it was empty. She had gone, and probably taken the boy with her. He lit the coal-oil stove upon the cooking-stand, heated water, and shaved. Finally he was ready. He went downstairs, jumped into a carromata that was just rattling out of the court, and drove to the Intendencia.

"The Chief let him into his inner office immediately. Looking down upon his superior seated at his desk, Morton told the night's story in dry, monotonous manner, as a story told already a hundred times, and he noticed, as he talked, that the Chief knew already all about it, but was too polite to interrupt. When he had done, the Chief spoke.

"'Yes,' he said; 'it's too bad, too bad. But you must brace up, take it like a man. We all live differently here than we would at home, and things like that are liable to happen. Yes, it's too bad. You must brace up.'

"He stopped, then went on again. 'It's too bad, too bad. I suppose—er—that you are going to surrender yourself to the Metropolitan. Mere matter of form, of course——'

"'Yes,' said Morton, wearily. He turned to go. The Chief was speaking again.

"'By the way,' he was saying, his eyes close together in a perplexed frown; 'somebody has been here for you this morning, several times, yes, several times. I—you——'

"But Morton, after standing politely a moment without hearing, had gone out, leaving the Chief frowning perplexedly at his desk. He went through the corridor, into the outer office, and then——

"I was there. That part he did not tell me. I came in behind him (I was following him with I don't know what notion of comfort). I saw him stop suddenly. A woman stood before him.

"It was She. I knew her right away, the pale, sweet girl, the girl of the roses. She was standing before him; and her eyes, the eyes with the sea-glint in them, were plunging into his soul. He did not shrink; he stood there before her, his eyes in hers, his shoulders thrown back, his arms hanging limp down his sides, with palms turned outward in a gesture of utter surrender. Long, gravely she read the soul laid bare before her. Suddenly she started back, one, two steps, heavy, falling steps; as at the same higher command he also backed, one, two steps, heavy, falling steps. His head dropped to his chest, his eyes closed. I panted.

"With an imperceptible movement she glided forward again. His eyes opened. She laid her right hand upon his shoulder.

"'You have suffered,' she said.


"And there you are!"

The darkness had deepened; Courtland was invisible; but we could picture the gesture—a wide sweep of the arm outward, ending in a discouraged droop. "I've explained nothing, pointed out nothing, merely retold it to you as I repeat and repeat it to myself, merely to have at which to stare and stare. And it always ends in this: I see her again, always; I see her glide to him, note the sweet gravity of her gesture, the tremulous profundity of her glance. I hear that phrase, that holy, incomprehensible phrase. And I wonder, I wonder, that's all; and an awe seizes me, bends me down low, as if before something big, terrible, and infinitely sacred."