In the Dusk of the Goddess
CROWLEY still hesitated, even out in the cold twilight, with his suit-case in his hand. He gazed irresolutely into the distant snow-clad dreariness, serrated and smoke-plumed with its scattered little prairie town, and then glanced back at his stalled Pullman.
From the tainted air of the car there crept out to him the fretful wail of an infant. He turned grimly back to the snow-laden prairie, and even as he looked the lamps of the little Northern town flowered into a sudden tenuous brilliance.
Buttoning his overcoat, as though to shut in an unstable determination, he decided on spending the night in the village—Elk Crossing, the porter had called it. In the morning he could once more board the Transcontinental Limited from the squat little depot, when the auxiliary: pushed through from Calgary.
Passengers less vacillating of purpose had already worn a path from the stalled train to the little station-house, so that under Crowley's feet the hard snow crunched as crisply as fresh charcoal. A few lonely stars came out in the high North-Western heavens, pale points of silver on a cloth of violet. The twilight deepened, and seemed to grow volubly silent about him. The momentary sound of a distant hammer echoed and re-echoed through the great stillness; far down the railway track sudden voices called and died away. The keen Canadian cold began to creep into Crowley's very bones. Vaguely, subconsciously, he felt appeasingly thankful that in three weeks he should be facing only the humid coolness of a Japanese midwinter. If it was still wet and chilly at Tokio, though, he would run down to Kiusiu until April. Then a sudden, indeterminate terror of the land of snow and desolation which held him such an unwilling prisoner crept through his mind. He was sick and tired of it all, of its steel-like; relentless air, of its twilight loneliness, of its huddled cities that had become hateful to him. He felt old and worn-out, the child, he told himself, of his wearied, restless, disillusioned East.
He was glad to escape from the gathering night, a minute later, into the thick, tobacco-laden, companionable warmth of Elk Crossing's one and only hotel. Here, however, not even a cot could be secured for the night. The alerter day-coach passengers had already poured into the little wooden road-house and Crowley had to face the disheartening novelty of patroling the village in quest of a bed. The school-teacher, he was told, often took in decent folk, at a pinch. He lived in the Jenkins shack, on the outskirts of the town, and was “smarter 'n blue lightnin'!”
Crowley's spirits were at their lowest ebb when finally he caught sight of a ruddy shaft of light streaming from what he felt must be the Jenkins shack A cheering pennon of smoke rose valiantly from the little chimney. Crowley, more hopeful, quickened his steps. Yet as he knocked loudly on the rough outer door he felt, as he glanced fretfully over his shoulder, that he was looking for a refuge on the very fringes of Emptiness, on the edge of a twilit Nowhere.
Even before Crowley could open the second inner door, battened with rags and woollen cloths, he caught the pungently pleasant smell of frying bacon. He heard a stove-door slam, the sound of quick steps, and the next minute a flood of lamplight was all but blinding his eyes.
“Come in, come in!” a cheery baritone voice was crying. As he stepped inside he heard the two doors quickly slammed shut behind him, and knew that a chair had been pushed hospitably out in front of the stove, one side of which, he noticed, was red-hot. Then the other man laughed, cheerfully, but without apparent reason, and said he guessed it was a sharp night outside.
“It is indeed cold, extremely cold,” answered Crowley inertly, wondering just how to begin. It was a new and humiliating sensation, this begging for a night's lodging.
“I'm crowded out from the hotel here, unfortunately,' he began deficiently. Then he realized what a possible dismissal, on such a night and in such a place, might mean to him, and he dropped back into a conciliatory plaintiveness of tone that sounded strange even to his own ears.
“Can I possibly secure a bed, and a supper, with you to-night?” And, quite contrary to his intention, he found himself warmly shaking hands with his would-be host.
“Why, of course; if you don't mind a shake-down, with a couple of buffalo-robes!” the genial young baritone voice cried back at him.
“I shall, of course, pay you for your trouble.” By this time Crowley's eyes had grown accustomed to the light, and he looked at the other man with a natural curiosity which deepened, as he gazed, to a discreet studiousness.
“Oh, pshaw! I'm glad enough to have you! I 'bach' it here alone, through the winter. My name's Allin—John Allin.”
When Crowley, holding aloof from giving his name, explained that his home was in New York, Allin paused in the act of helping him off with his fur lined overcoat, and looked at him enviously, an even keener interest in his quick eyes.
“New York! I'd give an arm to get into that city—I mean to get a grip there, and work and live there!”
Crowley, drawing nearer the stove and warming his thin white hands at the grateful heat, felt that in this outlandish meeting two strangely diverse circles of experience and feeling had touched. As Allin turned to cut and fling half a dozen fresh slices of bacon into his sizzling frying-pan, the older man had a still better chance to study his anomalous new companion. His deliberate eye took note of the young teacher's square, compact head, of the short, crisply curling black hair that covered it, of the well-blocked-out jaw, the stalwart width of the shoulder that made the thick-set figure seem almost short, the blanched ruddiness of the face, with its alert. open, audacious and yet almost girlish looking brown eyes, and the mobile, unpedagogic, joy-loving mouth which even a week's growth of beard could not altogether hide.
“I guess we'll have to celebrate to-night!” said Allin, with his inconsequential laugh, as he brought forth a quart can of tomatoes and opened it with his huge jack-knife. On that half of his table which was covered with a marble-veined oilcloth he placed a second plate and cup, and then fell to mashing the potatoes with a ginger-ale bottle.
“Can't I help you at all?” asked Crowley hesitatingly.
The uncouth young fellow looked up at the pallid-handed, carefully groomed stranger, checked a deprecating smile, critically surveyed the table and remarked that he kept a tin box of loaf sugar on his middle book-shelf for special occasions.
Crowley crossed the room to the humble little bookshelves. Reaching over a paper-strewn packing-case which obviously served as a writing-desk, he drew back the faded calico curtain which seemed, he thought, so jealously to guard this lonely wilderness-student's library. With languid interest his eye ran down the meager line of books, a row of college texts, Plutarch's Lives, Spenser's Faerie Queene, a tattered Shakespeare, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Baldwin's Handbook of Psychology, a dog-eared Keats——
And there Crowley's knowledge of the shelf and its printed contents suddenly ceased. For up through his limbs, and up through the arm that still held back the calico curtain, tingled an involuntary electric sense of shock. Though he neither moved nor spoke, he could feel his pulse pause crazily, fall away and then bound forward with the absolute bewilderment of it all.
For there before him, looking out at him from the center of the shelf, between this stranger's dog-eared Keats and a Progress and Poverty, stood a photograph of his own wife. The full consciousness of it all, as he continued to gaze in blank astonishment at the gaudy bronze frame and at the little cluster of faded prairie lilies tied with a bit of colorless ribbon to its brazen base, filtered only slowly through him, wave by cumulative wave.
It was the photograph taken during the first years of their marriage, the one he had always liked best, the picture wherein his wife still wore that spiritualizing air of sorrow which came to her with the death of her only child, the still girlish face bowed down with its unuttered melancholy, the passionate, young, maternal lips still full of their mournful softness. Crowley's mind flashed back over the three intervening years, those idly withering, denuding implacably alienating years when life and all it held seemed to have fallen into a sour stagnation, from which even she herself had emerged so insufficient, so flaccid, so bitterly unsatisfying. As he looked still again at the picture, momentarily detached from all time and locality, his wife's presence seemed to drift about him, to fill the strange place like an aroma, as poignantly vivid as though he had just heard the rustling of her skirts across the room. Then he as suddenly remembered the outlandishness of it all, the grim and over-crude setting wherein was being enacted this miserable melodrama of accident, and his old-time devastating love of mockery—the very trick of the thing she herself had taught him!—came back to him, and as he stood there clutching the calico curtain he laughed aloud.
Allin looked up from behind the stove, where a granite-iron coffee-pot had just boiled over and was filling the little house with its relievingly tangible odor.
“Laughing at my backwoods library?” he demanded genially, as he placed a chair at the table for his guest.
There was a second or two of silence. “No; I was only laughing at the fact that you keep your loaf-sugar in a tobacco-tin!” And Crowley lifted the tin from its place on the shelf and turned where he stood. By this time the mere wonder as to how his wife's picture came to such a place had given way to a corroding consciousness of the ironic theatricality of it all. She, the lady of untold disdains, gracing a prairie hermit's humble boards! She, the vapid parasite, the languid-souled vampire who had sucked the last drop of determined purpose out of his own life, apparently enshrined among the books of an unknowing backwoods school-teacher! And he drew the curtain with a snap of resentful finality, looking out with a new, almost a pitying interest on the swart, shabby-coated figure which stood, unconsciously enough, at the other side of the table, waiting with Old World ceremony until his guest should be seated, yet looking back at him from under rather perplexed brows.
“The only library in Elk Crossing!” laughed Allin, with mock pride waving one hand toward his bookshelves. The two men seated themselves.
“You are the teacher here in the village, I believe?” began Crowley, uncomfortably hot at the feeling that he was jockeying for his position.
“Yes, my second winter at the Crossing.” A generous forkful of potatoes and bacon punctuated his sentence. “I'm trying to pound the rudiments into thirty young pagans out here and read political economy at the same time.”
“You say out here—then the North-West isn't your home:
“It always has been. I teach here in the winter and get four hundred and the shack for it. In the summer I go out with a threshing-machine gang and make another three hundred that way.”
“You see, I've got another year to put in at Toronto University, then my three years in law. Each year I go to Toronto I take a carload of horses east for a Brandon shipper and get my transportation and twenty-five dollars for it. Two hundred and thirty puts me through my year at college.”
Crowley, who was thinking of his old Harvard days, where two hundred often enough went in a night, looked hard at the man across the table. “Of course,” added the other, “that's sailing pretty close to the wind!”
“And after the three years in law?”
The younger man shrugged his massive shoulders. It seemed like a courageous movement to heave away from him the burden of his interrogator's tacit cynicism.
“Then I'll have to put in two years of junior partner work, under salary either in Calgary or Edmonton.”
“And after that?”
The eyes of the two men met across the table. A sudden indomitable, pugnacious squareness of jaw showed itself in the face of the young school-teacher. Only the quiet fire in his alert, audacious, unflinching young eyes saved the look from being animal-like
“Then,” he said slowly, “I intend to go east—to New York, the city you come from.”
“There I shall study for the American bar, and, I hope, make my home.”
“But is that the only reason why you choose New York?”
“No,” said the other, quietly enough, as he poured two cupfuls of steaming coffee; “there is another reason.”
“Ah!” said Crowley as quietly, in turn, and waited for the other to go on But the younger man remained silent Crowley, when next he spoke, felt that he had in some way evaded a crisis.
“But do you mean to tell me that you have calmly and deliberately mapped out your life so many years ahead that you decide on a certain thing and say five years from to-day you will do it?”
“Why, that's what makes life worth living!" cried the school-teacher, feeling, as the other had felt before him, the wordless shock of that strangely diverse which accident had projected upon his own. Crowley allowed himself to wonder if, after all, wealth did not bring with it its inalienable drawbacks; if, after all, lives such as his own were as free and untrammeled as they seemed; if, in the end, something that was good and wholesome and natural in life had not continuously eluded him! His mind flashed forward to his intended two years in the Orient. He guessed, roughly, what it would cost him. Then he tried to imagine, in his vague and ineffectual way, what each of his countless wanderings about the world had cost. The money side of such matters had always seemed casual, incidental to him. Yet here was a man enduring privation, loneliness, months and years of sordid toil for what had come to him with the very air he breathed and the milk he drank; and enduring it joyously, glorying in it, apparently, looking on it as the thing that made life most worth living!
He paused in his meal and looked more intently about the bare little building. Through the small window on his right he could see the cold northern stars, the long, lonely, undulating plainlands muffled in snow. The isolation, the stillness of it all, seemed suddenly unendurable to him. He flung down his knife and fork.
“I should think you would go mad with it!” he cried, with what sounded even to his own ears like feminine shrillness. Then the sudden startled gaze of his uncomprehending host reined him in, and he went on impetuously but more quietly: “I mean, what do you do out here for friends, for amusement, for company?”
“Twenty half-breed families, three Galician, half a dozen Scotch-Canadian, coyotes, and the station-hands!”
“But there are—there must be times when you want more than this, when you want to catch the color of life, the softer side, the humanizing and—and refining part of it—-women, art, music, romance—all—all that sort of thing?”
The younger man's unseeing, half-rapt eyes were fixed on his little bookshelves, hidden by the faded calico curtain.
“I have them all there,” he said, with far-away dreaminess. “I have them all there, on my bookshelf,” he repeated contentedly.
Once again that ominous electric thrill of tingling shock crept up through Crowley's startled body. Yet he was grateful for that illuminating confession which, in someway, his own mind had mysteriously forestalled. For with it came his determination to know the full meaning of this secret cherishing of an alien and misunderstood—almost laughably misunderstood, it seemed to Crowley—goddess. That profounder mystery, it seemed to him, far outweighed the mere superficial wonder as to what uncouth tides of chance and accident had washed his wife's portrait up on such remote yet hospitable shores.
When he had drunk his coffee in meditative silence, he went to his suitcase, and taking out his little chased silver brandy flask, and two cigars sealed in glass tubes. resumed his place at the table. Allin had already turned in his chair, and on the stove-hearth was knocking the ashes from a dark-stained corncob pipe
“Won't you try this, to-night?” said Crowley, with forced friendliness of tone, handing him one of his Havanas. Allin slipped the cigar from its tube, smelt it with boyish delight, looked at it again, and elatedly explained that it was not often he got hold of a cigar in Elk Crossing, even a bad one. The last sealed cigars he had smoked, he went on, with a pride he made no effort to conceal, were some that had been given to him by a wealthy Southerner, who had been taking the baths at Banff.
“At Banff?” said Crowley quickly. A bridge of comprehension seemed to span, of a sudden, the abyss of mystery which had so lately opened at his feet. She had gone to Banff after her nervous breakdown. She had spent a summer there, and had come back mysteriously altered, more silent, more than ever cut off from him, more than ever ready, with her devastating artillery of satire, to rail at his indecisions of spirit, at his little human weaknesses. That period, he felt, had marked the beginning of the end, of the inevitable end, between them
“Yes,” the other man was saying, as he turned to the stove and put his feet on the hearth, “three summers ago I was an under-guide for one of the Banff hotels. I'd learned to speak French, of a certain kind, in the Quebec lumber camps, when a boy. At Banff I believe I passed as an imported Swiss guide, fresh from the Bernese Alps!” And he laughed softly over certain memories that came back to him. Crowley looked sharply across the table at him, stung into an unreasoning and indeterminate envy at that little, wistful bubble of Aprilian sound, feeling suddenly old and autumnal before the youth whom, an hour before, he had been on the point of pitying. He unscrewed the top from his silver brandy flask with slowly deliberate fingers.
“I feel,” he said calmly, betraying tremor, “I feel that before we light up we both ought to drink to the future! Will you allow me?” And he poured out into the two stoneware coffee-cups a drink for each.
“Why, yes—thanks—then here's to the future!” The younger man smacked his unaccustomed lips over the fiery strength of the cognac.
“Now I suppose,” began Crowley ruminatively, putting down his half-emptied cup, “that in Banff, as a mountain guide, you would meet plenty of uncommonly interesting people?”
“Consumptives and nephritics mostly to say nothing of dyspeptics and English tourists!” And again he laughed his inconsequential laugh, leaving the other, for the moment. disappointed, almost nonplussed
“But among them all,” went on the other man doggedly, “surely you found a friend or two—somebody who meant more to you, I mean, than these Galicians and half-breeds?”
The young school-teacher put down his unlighted cigar and linked his fingers together over his upthrust knee the laughter died out of his face new earnestness, a sort of gather contemplative radiance, showed from his eyes; and when next he spoke it was with all the old flippancy of ton gone from him, with the frown of the lonely ascetic on his brow.
“Yes, he said quietly, with an unconscious deepening of the voice, “there was one person I met there who was more than friend to me, a woman—an angel, I often think she must be!—who came into my life that troubled year, like a star out of the darkness. She has been to me what no other man or women has ever been, what few men or women, I believe, could be to anyone!”
He paused, musingly, unashamed of his boyish eloquence, glowing with an ardor that filled Crowley with an ominous and fretful uneasiness. Every tendency of the older man's life had been toward reticence; enthusiasms in others had in some way grown distasteful to him; in her, even, he remembered, it had too often tried his nerves.
“Ah, at last we are getting to something interesting!” was all he said. If there was a sting of cynicism in the interjection, the younger man made no outward effort to ward it off. Crowley saw, when it was too late, that the others childheartedness was impervious to enmity, that he was angelically innocent of the very armor which, for so long had galled and burdened down his own tainted shoulders.
But still the young acolyte of the rapt eyes contemplated the glowing hearth in satisfied silence. Crowley lighted his cigar, and still waited. He even lighted a match, and held it for the other man, significantly. The movement, to him, seemed to take on a sacerdotal symbolism, as the tiny flaming torch passed from his fingers to the half-startled hand of his young host. A larger flame, he felt, had passed from the one hand to the other
“Won't you tell me about her?” he asked, with wistful solemnity, inwardly humbled, for reasons and causes he could not fathom. He rejoiced in the fact that his liquor had not loosened the other man's tongue, as he at first hoped it would.
“Yes, I think I could explain it to you,” Allin answered, drawing his hand slowly across his forehead, and seeming, as he did so, to brush aside some last remaining doubt; “for I think you could understand it all.”
He got up from his chair, and from behind the faded little calico curtain brought out the picture in the bronze frame. He placed it with careful and deliberate fingers on the table, where the lamplight fell full and strong on the pleading, unsatisfied eyes, and on the passionate young lips that seemed so eager for life.
“This is the woman,” he said slowly, as he leaned forward on his arms and looked at her through the drifting smoke.
“This is the woman,” echoed Crowley vacantly, and he, in turn, from the other at her. His twofold feeling of repugnance, first for the very face itself, and second for the reiterated theatricality of the whole miserable affair, seemed to shift and merge into one of pity for the man before him. Yet a moment later he heard his own lips saying involuntarily: “She is very beautiful!” Then he choked back the little shuddering gasp that seemed from his throat escaping with the sudden cry: “But what do you know of women? What do you know of her, of what she is, of what she has been or might be?”
Allin shook his head from side to side, unmoved. He was still the detached priest in the silence of the temple.
“Do you know Browning's My Last Duchess?” he asked, with mild and almost commiserative disdain
“No,” was the fierce retort; “I hate versifying!”
“Well, this woman is a last duchess, misunderstood, unhappy; a woman with a hungry soul, a woman eager for life and all it holds, a woman who should have been a guardian angel with a flaming sword above the gates of Eden! No, no, let me explain, and then you will be more likely to understand You say I don't know her! That is true; that is true I don't even know whether she is married, a mother or childless, whether to-day she is loved or unloved. But I know that once she told me that I was the only man who ever understood her! I know that she gave purpose and meaning to my life, that her face, as I see it here, has helped me through my darkest days, and always will help me.”
“And how long, and in what way, did you know her?” broke other stridently, clutching at the rough table with his thin white hands.
“Only three miserable little weeks.” He laughed whimsically as he said it. “That is what I have to tell you. She came to Banff, ill, I think, when I was an under-guide at the hotel, Once each day I had to take her up the mountains up the Corkscrew, to Tunnel Mountain, to the Cave and Basin, to Devil's Gap, to Mount Rundle, the Sun Dance Canyon. She was as far away from home and as lonely as I was. I guess she pitied me. But that was all I asked. In a life like that, shut in with snow and mountains and solitude, you can say and learn a great many things. I knew that in a week or two, when I was back here with my Galician and half-breed children again, she would be nothing more than a vague legend to me. But she made me promise to do something with life, and I have that promise to live up to! She was so impatient with mediocrity, so passionately afraid of spiritual compromises! Only she wrote to me when she was going east. I was down at the little station-house, waiting. I knew that for the length of time it would take the engine to take in water I'd be able to talk to her again. That's how we got these prairie lilies. She slipped down the side of the track and picked them for me.”
The younger man took up the picture from the table and replaced it on his shelf, between Progress and Poverty and his dog-eared Keats, carefully drawing the faded calico curtain.
Crowley, at the movement, felt as though some sterner hand had suddenly excluded him from a sanctuary. A flame of mad, unreasoning jealousy of the man who had crushed even this fool's-gold from the sullen quartz that had always defied his own efforts swept fiercely through him. He turned on the other, ready, with one sweep of his hand almost, to bring crashing down about this pitiable young deluded rhapsodist all his castle of dreams. He vacillated before the repugnant melodrama until the mood had burned itself away and a vague pity for what seemed the other's delusion took its place. Then a new and more terrifying thought came to him. What if, after all, the web of delusion had been spun before eyes—what if he were the cheated one, the one who had misunderstood and had been misled from the first!
“And what do you get out of it all?” he demanded, with veiled bitterness, taking up his cigar from where he had flung it on the table
“Only the glory of going on,” quoted the other, with a challenging touch of pride. And for the first time he looked with studious intentness into Crowley's face, and something there abashed and silenced him. He stood awkwardly, waiting for his visitor to speak, writhing in spirit at the thought of what a fool he had been. His first blind friendliness of feeling suddenly fell away from him, a moth singed at thee lamp of impulsiveness.
Crowley walked to the window and looked out at the high, desolate northern stars and the blue-grey, undulating dimness of the endless prairielands. The green and ruby flames of the Northern Lights were quivering and flashing along the dark skyline. For reasons whose roots lay deeper than consciousness itself, Crowley the second time that night felt old, outworn, autumnal.
“I think I'll turn in, if you don't mind,” he said impassively, walking to the cooling hearth white with fallen ashes.
The child of yesterday looked wearily at the child of to-morrow, at the robust rough-shod figure, with its dominating width of shoulder, at the unshaven, square jaw and the huge red hands. He felt envious of that fanatic strength, of that grim narrowness of vision and interest which led one to blind height, yet led there unwaveringly. For a bitter moment he was tempted still to turn on the other and fling all the denuding truth in his teeth, ironically humiliating as that storming of an evacuated pride might be; to leave him crushed and prostrate, to stand once more icily above him, as he had done at the first. But even as he steeled his vacillating spirit for the scene his over-nimble fancy pictured its incompetence. The futility of it all came blightingly home to him, and he finished his half-smoked cigar, now grown bitter to the taste, in silence, while Alin refilled the stove and looked up.—Smart Set.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1950, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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