THERE was always a stir and movement among the leaves, in that strip of woodland beyond the empty house. The dim blank windows, with dusty scarfs of cobweb in the sash corners, looked into alcoves of green perspective where, at the bottom of the vista, clear twinkles of sky sifted through. No matter how still the day, how heavy the air, there seemed a gentle trouble in the boughs. Among the tangle of blackberry briers and dying chestnut trunks matted with robes of poison-ivy, were some dogwood-trees. In a light spring air their blossoms of four white twisted petals tossed and spun like tiny propellers. The tall oaks lifted rough gray rafters under the lattice of tremulous green. There was always an eddy and chiming under the eaves of that airy roof. What word is soft enough to say it? A whisper, a murmur, an audible hush, a sigh.
Paths that men have made persist surprisingly. Behind the old faded blistered barn a still visible way among the thickets led to a deserted dump-heap among the trees. Here, quietly rotting in a flicker of sun and shadow, lay the cast-off rubbish of former tenants—broken china, rusted cans, a skeleton umbrella, an old slipper, warped and stiff. Poison-ivy had grown up again along that path. The blackberries softened, and then withered, unpicked.
The two men who walked up the hill did not see all this. Their first glimpse of the house, seen by chance from the road, pleased him. The faint sadness of any dwelling, lonely and stripped, was at that moment only an agreeable air of strangeness. In the transparent blaze of light and warmth, under a golden pour of late afternoon sunshine, the place was ideal for their bivouac. They had tramped far, were tired and hungry. The rich green of mint and cress on the hill-slope led them to the spring: when the paste of dead leaves and twigs and seed clots had been scummed off, the water was cold and sweet. There was dry hay in the loft of the barn. Here they spread their blankets. By an old log, scarred with axe-cuts, they lit a small cautious fire, made tea, and fried bacon. In the valley they could see opal shadows gathering, rising, a lake of dusk, a blue tide making up a green estuary. Daylight retreated on the great tawny hillsides, slipping quietly among scattered gray boulders.
"Now let Time stand still a while," said Dunham, lighting his pipe and stretching out at ease. "I didn't know how tired I was until I got out here, away from all the meaningless pressure of the office. I'm too tired even to think. I couldn't think if I wanted to."
"There's a good many in the same case," said Grimes, with a faint grin. "But not for the same reason."
They gazed about them with a sort of vacant satisfaction.
"My mind feels like that old house there," said Dunham. "A dusty shell, vacant, lifeless, and yet somehow aware that it once was alive. Just a foggy memory that I was, forty-eight hours ago, a hustling business man tied down by telephone wires."
"Yes, you're tired," said Grimes. "Everyone's tired. The world itself is tired. I'm glad it is. If it gets tired enough, desperate enough, it'll come to its senses. Think of a place like this, close to the main road, in this heavenly country, and lying empty. I suppose the people who lived here moved to the city. I can imagine them, huddled in some mean crowded Street, going to the movies every evening."
There was a throbbing down the road, and round the curve that embraced the hillside Hashed a big touring-car, lifting a swirl of powdery dust. They watched it disappear, with the small pitiful smile of two ghosts, just stepped off earth and reviewing the quaint futilities from which they were now released.
"These arcadian spots aren't always what one imagines," Dunham said. "It doesn't do to live too close to nature, I've always noticed, it's the loveliest places that lie vacant. That's just it—they're too lovely. People get frightened. There are days, like to-day, when the very harmony of air and sunlight terrifies me. Days so excellent they trouble the heart. They make you suspect that life is only a queer dream, one of those nightmares in which your limbs are paralyzed in the face of sure disaster. Perhaps we will wake up in the Fourth Dimension, who knows?"
"Yes, it's all a disordered mix-up. But life is rather like a detective story. No matter how badly written, or how clumsy the plot, somehow you generally want to read it to the end."
"You admit, then, it's a kind of fiction. Exactly. But if life is fiction, then what represents biography?"
Grimes laughed. "My dear boy, we're getting uncomfortably subtle for two tired loafers. Let's wash the frying-pan and take a stroll."
The rusty old pump, under the grape arbor near the back stoop, was found to yield water after some priming. And then Dunham, poking about, noticed that the outside cellar door was unfastened.
"Hullo," he cried. "Here's a way in! Let's explore. I never can resist an empty house."
Through a dark earth-smelling basement they felt their way gingerly. Grimes lit a match and they found the stairs. The door at the head of the flight was hooked on the inside, but not tightly: there was enough gap to insert a penknife blade and lift the fixture. They were in the pantry.
Nothing is more fascinating to a thoughtful mood than rambling through a deserted house, imagining it peopled with one's own domestic gods, and also conjecturing the life of the former occupants. A home keeps so many subtle vestiges. The creak of the stair, the stain on the wall-paper, the hooks in the cupboard, the soot of the fireplace, all these are mysterious and alluring whispers out of that unknown household. You can feel the vanished reality, obscurely existent and yet dumb, intangible. There must be some way, you would think, of wiping the dust from that old mirror and seeing the lingering reflection.
"They were good housekeepers," said Grimes. "I never saw a place more scrupulously clean. No scraps of paper or curtain-rings or flabby tooth-brushes lying about. The woman had an up-state conscience, evidently."
"Too clean," said Dunham. "I don't like it. It's too—too naked. I don't think they loved the place. If they had, they'd have left something for it to remember them by."
"I'm going up-stairs before it gets too dark to see. It's interesting. I wonder why they closed all the shutters just on this side of the house and not on the others?"
Dunham was examining a large cupboard under the stairway. He heard his friend's footsteps go upward over his head. The heavy walking shoes moved slowly from room to room, he could hear them strike sharply on the echoing floor, At the back of a cupboard like this, he was thinking, would be the likeliest place for things to be forgotten. He groped carefully into the dark corner, with a curious feeling that he would find something. Above him was a sudden soft pattering. Mice, he thought. Then he heard Grimes calling.
"Here's some evidence!" he was saying.
Dunham turned—perhaps with an irrational feeling of relief—from the stuffy blackness of the closet. He went up-stairs, and found Grimes standing in a fair-sized room on the sunset side of the house.
"There were children. See the Mother Goose wall-paper, all scrawled over with pencil marks."
"Pretty tall children," Dunham said. He pointed to some of the scribbles, which were just at the height of his shoulder.
"They do it standing in their cribs." Grimes smiled. "I know that from home experience."
Dunham opened a closet door in one corner.
"Funny," he said. "They left all their toys."
On the floor of the cupboard, neatly arranged, lay an assortment of childish treasures: a clockwork locomotive and battered tracks, building blocks, a tin shovel and pail, some small tools.
"Children had grown up when they moved away," Grimes suggested.
In the darkening room they seemed to see the little tin rails set out in a circle on the splintery floor, the toy engine clattering round until, like all such contrivances, it reeled over and lay with a loud buzzing, like a kicking beetle turned on its back. From some far-away imagined childhood the picture presented itself. The room seemed very lonely.
"Let's go outdoors," Dunham said.
They walked quietly up and down the rough driveway that lay between the house and the woods. Among the trees was an occasional blink of fireflies. The evening air was cool, and Grimes rebuilt a small blaze, but Dunham still paced around the house. The place moved him with a grave appeal. As the last green light drew westward, darkness crept in from under the trees, where it had lain. The wood itself drew closer and whispered more certainly. It loomed immensely high, like a wall of blackness, darker than the dark. The house seemed smaller and had lost that look of established confidence that houses have. Happy houses welcome the night, built to conquer it, their gallant windows hold swords of brave yellow lamplight to pierce our first enemy. But here, Dunham thought, this lonely steading quailed beneath the shadow. Darkness invaded it and triumphed over it; it lay passive, but still afraid.
At last he joined his companion, who was lying comfortably propped against a log.
"This is just the sort of place I'd like to live in," said Grimes.
Above them the ruddy shine of their bonfire was caught upon the boughs; it hung like a bright mist among the softly shaking leaves. Each way they looked was warm glow, but the dark was always just behind them.
"Curious how much closer the woods come at night," said Dunham. "Sunlight keeps them at a distance, but now they press nearer. They seem to lean right over the house. If I lived here I'd clear out some of the trees. I like a bit of open space around me, to give the stars room to move about in."
"I don't like trees at night," he continued presently. "I'm not surprised those people shuttered their windows on this side. There's something strange about that towering blackness. You might think it goes all the way up."
"All the way up?" said Grimes, lazily tapping out his pipe. "It probably does."
"I guess not. It's only earth's little shaft of shadow, waving through the empty brilliance of space. There must be sunlight away up, or we shouldn't see the stars. They haven't any light of their own—have they?"
"My astronomy's rather vague. Come on, let's turn in; I'm tired. I'll pour a pan of water on those embers."
The barn loft was airy, with a faint dry sweetness a little ticklish to the nose. They swung open a big upper door that looked upon the yard, and arranged their blankets on the hay. Dunham was thinking of the people who had lived here once. A broken pitchfork stood against the wall: its wooden handle was dark and slippery from the moisture of many palms. As he settled himself comfortably he had a sense—with the sudden clear vision of the mind—of the Past, of all humanity's past: the endless broken striving of men, their fugitive evasions of disaster, their hazardous momentary happinesses. And when you realize (he was thinking) how everything vanishes, surroundings once dearly familiar pass out of one's life, with what an emotion you remember things you once loved and will never see again! This plain house, deserted under the dark profile of the trees, had once been filled with life. To some one, every sill and corner had had meaning. Now, in the tremulous summer evening, it had an air of defeat, of flight, the air of tragedy worn by abandoned things. This is a sadness felt by all, a personal and selfish sadness, the universal pang of the race troubled by Time's way with men. To his mind came words half-remembered——
"All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman … the ploughman. …"
How did it go?
"By the way," said Grimes, "what was that you said about—" the hay rustled as he turned over.
"Said about what?"
"Never mind," he said. "I was going to ask you something. I've forgotten what it was."
They fell asleep.
Dunham woke as one does in middle night—not drowsily, but sharply, definitely, with a mere opening of the eyes. As he lay he could see out through the open door: everything was lovely with a pallor of moonlight. In that wan, delicate shining the trees were a milky gray: every leaf distinct and separate, limned upon seeping chinks of shadow. The crickets and other night sounds had fallen still. A comfortable calm possessed him. The feeling of sadness and oppression had passed. In this clear tranquillity he was necessarily placid. The old hypnotism of the moon, as she passes her silver mirror gravely before humanity's face, makes all passions and perplexities seem vain. He rose, quietly, for Grimes lay solidly asleep, and descended the ladder to the barn floor.
He walked out softly, for there was sure enchantment in the night. Moonlight never fails of her spell upon the imaginative; but this was a brightness so hushed, so secret, so crystalline, he seemed drowned at the bottom of an ocean of light. He trod, as he had dreamed in childhood of doing, on a clean sandy sea bed where light struck radiantly down through leagues of clear water, gilding corals and shipwrecks and green caverns with a tremble of pale colors. Again the tall proscenium of woodland seemed to have receded under the flow and purity of that thin gleam. A straight white barrier lay between the house and the trees.
He walked almost on tiptoe. This was a different world from that shadow of loneliness and trouble that had lain across the hillside a few hours before. Sometimes from sleep men rise like Lazarus from the dead; their eyes see newly. Fears and fevers were dissolved in this pearly lustre. Not with horror but with tenderness he saw the splintered lives of men, whose weakness alone makes them lovable; and even this poor shell of a house, once dear to men, shared in that generous emotion.
A faint reiterated rhythmical sound reached him as he strolled quietly beside the house. He wondered, at first, whether it was bird or insect. It seemed partly a whistle, partly a squeak; and as he halted to listen, it queerly conveyed a sense of something revolving. It was always on the other side of the house. A bat, perhaps, he thought idly. But then he detected in the sound a small rattling or jolting.
He stood under the grape arbor, with just a subtle prickling of nerves. The soft creaking seemed to pass now along the stony roadway under the trees, There was a suggestion of metal in the sound. It ceased and then was renewed, irregular, but with a rhythm of its own.
Men are easily frightened at night, but Dunham was not frightened. In some curious way he felt that this was part of the destiny of the evening. He felt only an unexplained sense of pity. He had known this was going to happen. Ever since he had first divined the quiet misery of this house under the horror of the trees, he had known——
But it was quite different from his expectation. Round the corner of the house, into a pool of moonlight, rode a child on a velocipede. He was about four years old and wore a sailor suit. There was a faint squeaking from the unoiled cranks of his toy. A crumpled sailor cap was carelessly tilted on his head; his face was bright with gaiety. With a kind of reckless dash and glee he twirled the tricycle round and rode briskly, with a merry up-and-down of bare knees, down the bumpy drive.
What on earth is that child doing here at this time of night? thought Dunham, his tension suddenly relaxed. Some neighbor's youngster, strayed away from home? He followed slowly, not to frighten him. But the child, absorbed in his escapade, had not noticed any watcher. He had halted the velocipede, and was sitting thoughtfully, bent over the handle-bars.
"Hullo!" Dunham called, gently. "What are you up to, sonny? You ought to be in bed."
The figure turned on the saddle. Through the overhanging trees the blanched light fell hazily upon the small face: Dunham could see it change, first to shyness, then to alarm. He pedalled swiftly, bumping over the stones, down the hill to the highway, and disappeared in the mottled shadow at the turn in the road.
For no reason he could analyze, Dunham looked up at the house. At an upper window, white in the glitter on the pane, was a woman's face, colorless, staring, horrified; with a sudden dreadful movement her hands flew to the sill, as if to throw up the sash. Her mouth opened in a soundless cry.
Dunham ran to the bottom of the hill, and looked along the road. There was no one there.
As he walked up the driveway again, he looked, against his will, at the window where he had seen that anguished face. It was closely shuttered.
The next morning Grimes went among the trees to collect sticks for the breakfast fire.
"Look here!" he called. "Here's an old dump heap. More evidence!"
Dunham followed the old track among the bushes. There, quietly rotting in a flicker of sun and shadow, lay the cast-off rubbish of a vanished household—broken china, rusted cans, a skeleton umbrella. Among the litter, broken and badly twisted, lay an old velocipede.
After breakfast, while Grimes was packing up their kit, Dunham slipped into the house. In the morning light, that broke in golden webs across the dusty rooms, the place was only faintly sad. In the cupboard under the stairs, far at the back, he found a child's sailor cap.
As they were setting off down the road, a farmer passed in a hay- wagon.
"How long's it been empty?" he said. "Oh, five, six years, I guess. The folks moved away after their little boy got killed by a car. They was all wrapped up in that kid, too. He was riding his tricycle, right here in the road. That bit of woods, you see, it shuts off the view of the curve."
The wagon was creaking on when Dunham turned and ran after it.
"Say," he called, "when will it be full moon, d'you know?"
The man meditated.
"Why, the full o' the moon was about two weeks back. Another fortnight, I guess. Nights are pretty black just now, I reckon." He went on down the road.
As Dunham joined his companion, Grimes said: "Oh, I remember what I was going to ask you. You said something yesterday about the Fourth Dimension. That interests me. Just what did you mean?"
"Lord knows," said Dunham. "Sometimes I've thought that the Fourth Dimension is what the moving-picture people would call Continuity. When you paste all the little shots of film together, it goes on and on and never stops. Everything that ever happened is happening still."
"In other words, the Fourth Dimension is Memory?"
Dunham looked off down the valley, where great areas of shadow were moving, subtending the silver floes of wind-drifting cloud.
"Put it this way," he said. "It's the shadow that life casts on eternity."
"Or maybe the other way round. The shadow eternity casts upon life?"
They walked on round the hillside, skirting the patch of woodland that hid the house from the road. An eddy and trembling rustle of leaves was chiming under that airy roof. What word is soft enough to say it? A whisper, a murmur, an audible hush, a sigh.