Slave of the Pit (1921)
by Bertram Atkey

Extracted from Everybody's magazine, August 1921, pp. 35–52.

3926337Slave of the Pit1921Bertram Atkey

Slave of the Pit

Queer Things that Happen to the Mind—a Puzzling Problem for Scientists, in Fictional Form

By Bertram Atkey

THE gravel-diggers had been working on a pocket of coarse, pale-yellow sand at the bottom of the steeply doping twelve-foot bank, of the sand-pit, and, leaning over the edge of the excavation, Aire's mate called to know if he had finished.

Aire, scraping together the last of the pocket and without looking up, shouted that there was just a barrowful left.

"We'll have this bit, George, and then we'll git along to the Hen and have a drop o' beer!" he called, his voice sounding muffled in the little cellar-like excavation.

"All right, chuck it up!"

On the crest of the sand-bank a line of flaring scarlet poppies that had dreamed motionless in the hot, airless sunshine throughout the day quivered and shook their garish heads, as though a little breeze had touched them, and a tiny cascade of dry sand poured down into the pit at the foot of the bank with a soft hissing sound, drowned by the bearing note of Aire's sharp-edged, polished shovel as it cut into the remaining pile.

But neither of the men saw the soundless warning of the awakened poppies nor heard the trickle of the little sand fall.

And as Aire's knee, pressing against the back of his right hand, drove the shovel forward for the last time in that place, the flowers all moved bodily forward. For a second they moved in silence. Then a dull and immense hissing, intensifying to a muffled rumbling, drove heavily up from the pit into the sunny silence, and the sand-bank caved in. The mass seemed to move solidly and with extraordinary swiftness, so that it had engulfed the stooping man to the throat before he could cry out. Heavy lumps of the foot-deep stratum of gravel above the sand and the dark grass-covered topsoil that rested on the gravel came rolling sluggishly in the flow down, and as the sand writhed and lapped up over the head of the buried man, one of these hard jagged lumps struck him heavily above the temple. Then a great slab of sand cracked from the bank, crumbled and poured down on all, piling high over the pinned body, and was still.

A cloud of dust floated heavily up, and Martin was alone, staring with eyes of horror at the filled pit, at the débris of fragments of straw from the vanished tunnels of the sand-martins' nests, the half-buried lumps of hard yellowish gravel and the big clay-encrusted stones that crowned the deeply packed sand.

He turned to the fields, crying out, and beckoned wildly to two farm-hands not far away, who, startled by the ominous rumble at the sand-pits, had stopped work and were staring dully at Martin. They came running.

"Aire! Aire!" cried Martin, pointing wildly.


"Aye, fell of a sudden," sobbed Martin.

They began to dig furiously.

ONCE before, during his ten years of work on the sand and in the adjoining gravel-pits, James Aire had been caught unawares and buried by a sand-slide, but that had meant no more than a day "off." This time it was more serious because of the wound on his head.

They had taken him to his cottage close by and left him to his wife and the doctor. He lay there a week in a darkened room, aching and sick, with a strange and agonizing confusion in his head.

Probably because he had been the victim of a novel or uncommon accident his wife received a good many callers, but of these—mostly his friends and cronies, country working men, of the Hen and Chickens, the beer-house at the edge of the village—none, by the doctor's orders, was admitted.

But the doctor's orders were forgotten when Miss Eleanor Malton called, bringing such things as she conceived would be acceptable to a sick laboring man.

Eleanor Malton, the only daughter of the local big landowner, Sir Edward Malton, now dead, was Aire's employer and landlord, the owner of the sand and gravel-pits, and the Aires were said to be favorites of hers, though why they should be (complained the people of Malton village) it was difficult to understand. For they knew, if Miss Eleanor did not, what a dour, ignorant, morose man Aire was, and how colorless and slatternly his wife.

"I s'pose there's some sort o' reason why Jim Aire and his missis always gets the right side o' Miss Eleanor," one would grumble enviously to his wife, "but I'm dashed if I can tell why. For he's a great sulking hulk of a man, hardly civil to a soul, and as ignorant as ar'n in the place."

"And everybody knows that his wife ain't but a sloven," would come the prompt reply.

The people of the village had been too long accustomed to the sight of James Aire among them, in his gravel-stained corduroys tied at the knees, his coarse colorless boots, to realize that he was in any notable degree different from any other working man. His darkly bronzed, rarely clean-shaven face, his bare brown arms, his great calloused hands, his collarless, muscular neck and his dark, dusty hair were sufficiently like those of his circle of friends at the Hen to excite no comment.

The village accepted James Aire for what he seemed to be; one of themselves, a little rougher than a painter or carpenter, no rougher than a bricklayer or a farm-hand.

But Eleanor Malton knew otherwise. She had painted Aire working in the fierce raw yellows and reds of the gravel, splashed in a staring blaze against the gray-green and purple shadows of the pines beyond the pit, too often not to have realized how superior to the average physique was that of the gravel-digger.

Understanding anatomy as every painter must, she knew that the man was handsome and unusually symmetrical.

For a long time now the pits had held a strange fascination for her, and she was no child, but a woman of twenty-five with a wide circle of friends in her own world and with a niche in the much narrower world of art. At twenty-five she was still unmarried. She lacked neither beauty nor wealth, but she had not yet met a man to whom it seemed worth while surrendering her freedom. She spent her time, as the inclination moved her, between Malton Manor and her London flat.

There was nothing of charm in the fascination of the pits, and when the men were not working there she did not often go near them.

It was on the days when the sun struck out from a cloudless sky and the air quivered with heat and the flowers stood still with drooping heads or stared with wide eyes straight into the intolerable blaze that she liked best of all to indulge her strange fancy, and dressed carefully for coolness would walk slowly through the hot shadows of the pine-woods, resonant with insect life, and come out upon the pits, there to find Aire—and perhaps one or two others, though she hardly noted these—working on the gravel. Packed, pressed, beaten down with the stress of a million storms, stamped by the passage of innumerable years into the density and solidity of iron, the yellow stuff yielded only to the brute force of the heavy iron bars wielded by Aire.

He would drive the great bar down again and again into the same slowly deepening hole until at last he was able to lever off a big block and send it crashing down over the edge of the terrace, or small cliff at the foot of which waited his mate to disintegrate the caked stuff in readiness to throw it with shovels against the screen, a grating of iron fixed upon wheels, which would sieve it into grades, the fine for garden paths, "seconds" for rather heavier work, and the "rough" to be used for the water-bound highroads.

There was always a strange, acrid and savage odor investing this labor, the curious hot smell of smashed flint mingled with that of perspiration. She hated it, but it remained always in her mind as the true odor of physical force, an odd idea but one that was fixed. Just as the sight of the tawny yellow pits always made her think of lions—that was due to the color and the waste, desert-like appearance of the pits; so any mention of sheer force always brought to her mind a memory of smashed flint, heavy iron bars, bare, reddish-yellow, muscle-corded aims and perspiration.

It was the sudden realization of great strength being put forth, forced upon her mind by this odor, which had impelled her to notice Aire physically, and the first glance brought her a wonder that she had not noticed the physical perfection of this man before.

That he was immensely strong she knew, and that such strength was only possible in a perfect physique was obvious. But she saw with a species of surprise that he was graceful. His head was well shaped, his ears small and well set. His lean, dark, hawk-like face, she realized, would be handsome if it were cleaned of the yellow dust, the starting perspiration, the bristling five days' growth of stiff black hair on the jutting chin and the muscular throat. Through the open front of the coarse shirt she glimpsed a mighty chest, and the breadth of his shoulders spoke of the iron arch below. His powerful arms were neither too short nor too long, and she saw from his firm and easy balance on the edge of the cliff that his lower limbs must be proportionate.

Yes, he was a fine brute, a superb machine. Something worth sketching. And that was all. She knew that he was nothing more.

He could neither read nor write, and for all the evidence of intelligence his daily life showed, he might have been almost wholly devoid of reason. He worked all day, ate an enormous meal of coarse strong food, and after his meal, without changing his clothes, often without washing, he went to the Hen and Chickens and spent the evening in pouring down his throat as much and as strong sweet beer as he could afford to purchase after providing for the needs of his domestic life.

Soulless, ignorant, intellectually dead, or unborn, a human machine, a mechanical thing that dug gravel in a reek of smashed flint or the stuffy, dusty smell of fine dry sand and perspiration. A slave of the gravel, of the pit. She was often oppressed with a sense of the horrible waste of it: this fine, this perfect human mechanism chained to a fate which offered nothing better throughout its whole an of endurance than a rending, a tearing and a lifting of senseless, lifeless stuff that was only really slightly valuable, because it was suitable for putting upon the roads.

She pitied Aire, who would have been no more than dully surprised had he known.

THE doctor was not wholly satisfied with the wound in Aire's head, and he decreed a month's rest, more if necessary, at the expense of the insurance company which protected Eleanor Malton against the accident claims of her workmen.

A week after the sand-slide Aire was sitting in a wooden chair at his cottage door, smoking. Inside, his wife was moving slipshod about the kitchen living-room preparing the midday meal. It was a glorious day in mid- June, drenched with sunshine. Aire was staring with a deep frown at a clump of larkspur in brilliantly blue full flower. There was a puzzled expression in his dark eyes. Once he glanced up at the sky, once he turned to stare at a red rose close by, once he eyed the water-butt at a comer of the cottage. Then his gaze returned to the blue flowers.

Presently his wife came out. She was a woman with that pale, prematurely blighted air peculiar to the excessively inbred, under-nourished women of the remoter small villages of England, where every one is more or less related and new blood is rare. She stopped by the chair, holding a bowl of vegetable refuse.

"How is it now, Jim?" she asked rather tonelessly.

Aire stirred.

"Getting on. Been looking at the flowers," he said, his eyes still fixed on the delphinium blooms.

"Eh, the flowers? Yes, they'm very pretty," she replied, without much interest

"They'm very blue. Can't think why one flower's one color and another flower's another color. Look at that rose. He's red, and that larkspur's blue, and they both grows in the same ground and haves the same rain. Why ain't they both blue or both red?"

A look of sheer amazement crept into the faded blue eyes of the woman. She gaped at her husband, and something like an expression of fear flickered across her dull, once pleasing face. What was the matter with Jim—wondering about flowers? She hesitated, her mouth open. Then her face cleared. The doctor was right. Her husband was not himself yet—that was it.

"I dunno, I'm sure, logspur is blue, roses is mostly red. That's their nature," she answered at last.

"I know that, but I was wondering why it's their nature," he said.

"I dunno, Jim—they always was like that, and always will be, I reckon."

She moved out to throw the cabbage leaves over to a few fowls in a small run, and Aire's eyes followed her. His frown deepened.

"Your dress is open at the back," he said as she returned. "And your shoes is fallin' off your feet. Ain't you got any better shoes?"

A dull flush spread owly over her face, and again she stared, her mouth open.

But Aire had returned to the problem of the flowers.

She went indoors with the look of one half-dazed, half-startled. It was long since Aire had commented on her appearance.

Presently the gravel-digger gave up the puzzle, and his eyes fell to his own boots, huge, heavy, dull brownish-gray, covered with scratches, obviously never blackened nor polished. He scowled. His glance traveled along his yellow-stained corduroy trousers, worn, creased, tied with string below the knees, intensely ugly, and his scowl deepened.

He glanced round at the doorway as though on the point of calling his wife, but paused at sight of a motor sliding down the road toward the cottage.

It was the doctor's car, a new car, Aire saw. Still frowning, he watched it glide to a standstill at the gate.

The doctor, a big middle-aged, good-looking man, stepped out and paused to walk round the car. He was evidently very proud of his new purchase, a smart landaulet with the rather long bonnet of a six-cylinder engine.

Rather hastily Aire got up and walked down to the gate.

"Morning, Aire," said the doctor, looking up from the engine. He had opened the bonnet apparently for no real reason except secretly to admire the well-finished work.

"Morning, sir."

"Feeling better?"

"I'm all right now, Doctor."

"Ha—we'll see. How d'you like the look of the car?"

"She'll be a bit more comfortable of a cold night than your old one, Doctor."

"She will." The doctor laughed. He had just abandoned his open Ford.

"How do they work, Doctor?" asked the gravel-digger, with the air of a curious child.

Doctor Baynton glanced at him, then smiled.

"Oh, very simply, Aire, when one gets the hang of it." He had only got the hang of it himself quite recently. As much to reassure himself that he knew the system of the internal combustion engine as to satisfy Aire he explained cursorily.

"Oh, I see, Doctor," said the gravel-digger. The doctor glanced at him, for it sounded as though the man really did see. It was impossible that any man could get from the doctor's slurred explanation anything but the sketchiest idea of the mechanism of a motor, and Aire was about the last man to be capable of that. Doctor Baynton had always regarded Aire, on the rare occasions when he thought of him at all, as wholly a "clod." A well-made, and healthy clod, but practically mindless.

Yet there was a brightness of intelligence in the gravel-digger's face.

"Well, I'll have a look at the head," said the doctor, and went with his patient to the cottage.

Baynton lingered over the examination, though the reason for any delay was not very apparent. The torn flesh was healing well in spite of the bruise. But what concerned the doctor was the curious suggestion of a denting of the unbroken bone of the skull under the flesh wound. It was as though one had taken a mushroom-headed steel punch and driven it hard against the bone, making a roughly circular, very slight concavity perhaps an eighth of an inch deep. It was a curious result for any blow, and novel to Baynton, who feared that there might be set up a dangerous pressure on the brain.

He ascertained with a deft question or two that pains had gone, and the dull, hard confusion had cleared.

"My head's better and clearer than it was before, Doctor," said Aire gravely.

His wife, who had been watching the examination with uneasy eyes, gave unexpected corroboration.

"He's thinking of things that he never used to think of," she said.

"What sort of things?" asked Baynton.

"Well, fanciful thing," she said reluctantly. "Why logspurs be blue and roses red when they grows on the same ground and haves the same water. 'Tis their nature, I tells him."

"Eh?" The doctor frowned. Then he laughed a little. "Well, well, speculations of that sort will do no harm. Healthy things, flowers." He turned. "Take it easy. Aire, for a little. I'll come in again to-morrow."

THE Aires watched him go down the path, a wholesome, handsome man, very trim in his well-cut tweeds and brightly polished dark-brown boots.

"I don't see why I shouldn't have a pair o' boots like that, missus," said Aire slowly.

She stared, then laughed with a touch of bitterness.

"Nice things they'd look after a day in the gravel-pit, too," she said.

Aire grinned rather sheepishly as his wife moved to her work again. He noticed that she had changed her shoes and that the opening that had gaped at the back of her shabby skirt was closed.

He turned to stare with a new and swiftly increasing distaste at his boots and clothes.

A small white cloud made its appearance in the burnished sky and he watched it for a long time until his attention was caught by the bees that boomed industriously about the flowers. These, too, he studied attentively, even taking his chair nearer to the clump of delphiniums in order to note their movements more closely. The hooting of a distant motor distracted him, and his thoughts went back to the doctor's little lecture.

His lips moved as, with his eyes fixed on infinity, he slowly repeated word for word precisely the doctor's explanation of the car's mechanism.

But that was a feat of memory of which the James Aire of a week before was wholly incapable!

He did not soon to realize this.

His wife appeared at the door.

"Dinner's ready, Jim," she said, and they sat down to eat.

"You can read, can't you?" asked Aire presently.

"Read, yes."

"Who learned you?" he continued.

"Learned at the school."

"I wish I had learned," said Aire. "For there must be a lot in books."

"Oh, I dunno. I never got much by reading," replied his wife.

Aire looked doubtful. He came from a family that lived deep in the New Forest, on the skirts of which Malton village had grown, and though not more than forty years old he had been, as a boy, too far out of reach for the educational net of forty years ago.

He had not often regretted his inability to read or write, though, on a memorable occasion, visiting Salisbury fair with a few friends, he had been acutely conscious of his inability to make any sense of the forest of sign-boards over the shops, the posters, the tickets and announcements in the shop-windows, even the flaring lies on the garishly painted boards of the many side-shows of the fair. But the feeling of inferiority and confusion which this had caused him had soon been assuaged by beer.

But this present hunger to learn to read was of a different nature. Since he had left his bed he had become aware of a novel desire to know things, and he was convinced that it was within the covers of books that he must look for knowledge.

He ate silently. He would have liked to ask his wife to teach him to read, but a curious reluctance, a shyness, restrained him.

After the meal he returned to his chair and the teeming puzzles that met his eyes in every direction. The drowsy afternoon went swiftly for him, as he fretted mentally at the mysteries he had never noticed before, the mystery of the flowers, the bees, the cloud, the journey of the sun across the heavens, the waxing and waning and everlasting changing of the shadows cast by his cottage, why gravel was so hard to dig and sand so easy, a host of things, and each one a profound mystery. In the heart of all pricked and stung like a small thorn a resentful wonder as to how it was that the doctor should wear such clean and comfortable clothes while be, Aire, seemed to be doomed to his stiff and filthy corduroy.

The key to each he felt was in the books, and it was when he saw Miss Malton approaching the cottage late in the afternoon, obviously with the intention of inquiring as to his progress, that he formed a great resolve.

He would ask her how one learned to read.

Probably it was not difficult. Children could do it—most of the men frequenting the Hen and Chickens could do it. And there wasn't a man of them that he could not wear down in a long day's work—weak as rats, some of than, while he had always been strong as a bull. Certainly, then, if they could learn to read he could.

His heart quickened with the excitement of anticipation as he gripped the wooden arms of the chair, watching Eleanor Malton as she strolled toward him.

SHE was instantly aware that his accident had subtly charged the gravel-digger, though she was far from realizing how immense that change was. She had heard from Doctor Baynton that he was uneasy about that peculiar indentation of the bone.

"There is not much room to spare in any skull, despite the humorists," he had said. Pressure on the brain is more easily caused than most people guess, and no one knows precisely what effect the slightest pressure may have."

She wondered whether the singular brightness in the eyes of the gravel-digger, hitherto so heavy-eyed, was an effect of pressure. Later, she was to know.

"Good evening, Aire," she said, smiling. "How are you now?"

"Better, miss, thank you." He stood up. "Fit to go to work again."

"There is no hurry for that, Aire," she said. "You must make the most of your rest. Are you so fond of the gravel-pit that you are anxious to get back already?"

He did not answer at once, but stood gazing at her, through her rather, for his eyes were absent with thought.

"I don't know about that," he said. "Until to-day I never thought much about anything outside the pit. But things keep coming up in my mind to-day, miss—new things."

His wife spoke from his side.

"Wondering about things, Miss Eleanor. Why the flowers be blue and red, and clouds and the sun going over the bees." He was getting over his shyness at hearing his thoughts put into words.

"Well, why shouldn't I?" he said. "There's no harm in learning about things, is there, miss?"

Eleanor laughed.

"Harm?" she said. "It is the wisest thing in all the world to do."

The lean face of the gravel-digger flamed darkly.

"Then—then you wouldn't mind me asking you how I could learn to read while I'm out of the pit, Miss Eleanor," he said with some excitement.

At the very point of promising to do this easy, generous, charitable, even humane thing for him she hesitated, checked, and was silent. Her smile disappeared swiftly as a blown candle flame, her eyes widened a little, and her face became grave.

For most mysteriously and unaccountably it seemed to her that a low voice had spoken sharply in her mind.

"Be careful," said the voice. "Beware of what you do for this man!" And vague, soundless, magic though the voice or impulse was, yet it was heavily fraught with warning.

For a moment she stared absently, like one who listens for a sound that is diminishing in the distance.

But the voice or instinct came no more, though she still vibrated like a plucked string from that startlingly swift warning.

Aire and his wife were waiting, looking at her with a certain surprise at her hesitation. She ignored her roused instincts and smiled again.

"Of course I will help you. Aire," she said. "It's quite simple. I will see Mr. Bryce on my way home and arrange for him to give you an hour every evening." Bryce was the village schoolmaster, underpaid, rendered ambitionless by the utterly soulless system under which he was compelled to work, and no doubt he would be glad to make the money.

Aire was grateful.

"Thank you, Miss Eleanor," he said, deeply flushing. "It'll mean a lot of good to me." Unconsciously he straightened himself, his eyes shining straight into Eleanor Malton's.

It occurred to her that his gaze was oddly bright and penetrating now, and in spite of his uncouth and shapeless clothes be looked like a man who was not to be held down forever in the class of manual labor to to which he had been born.

The deep-down class instinct of the aristocrat raised its head defensively within her. But she beat the vague resentfulness back at once, for she knew that it was the evil residue of a moribund habit of thought nurtured by the tradition of many ages. She looked steadily at the gravel-digger, and knew that she was right to help this man out from the morass of ignorance, in which he had been condemned by custom and his own lack of intellectual enterprise, to live for the best of his youth.

Hard on the receding wave of warning came now a shining and splendid resolve: she would make this man, this digger of gravel!

If only his suddenly awakened intellect were equal to his physique he was well worth helping. And he had changed extraordinarily since his accident. Before he had been of no more account than a finely shaped, good, powerful cart-horse; but now something had dawned on his face.

Absorbed by her sudden enthusiasm she looked him up and down as though he were indeed an animal, appraising him; then she studied his face, as though he were a criminal and she a judge, weighing him. She wondered whether under his bandages he had a good forehead. She fancied he had—she remembered almost certainly that he had. But, in any case, an hour with Bryce would prove whether it was worth while.

Her gaze turned to the wife, and the light of her resolve wavered and dimmed a little. Was this woman, this untidy, slatternly, narrow-faced, bloodless woman, capable of going up with her husband? She wondered. In her heart she knew that she was not. But also she knew that almost every woman has in her a strange reserve of spiritual strength and tenacity, though many live their whole lives through without drawing upon it

Mrs. Aire might have it. If she had, so much the better. If she had not, Aire must do as other men bad done: carry her with him.

She spoke again.

"Yes, I will help you," she said, and inspired by her decision she went on: "If you wish to raise yourself, Aire, if you wish to do, to achieve, something in the world better than digging gravel, and have the ability, I will help you."

Impulsively she offered him her hand. It was like a flower within the scaled and horny grasp of the hand which held it for a second.

"You, too," said Eleanor Malton, turning toward Mrs. Aire.

But the eyes of the gravel-digger's wife seemed to have hardened and to have taken on a lock that was almost fear and hatred.

THE hour with Bryce, the schoolmaster, produced a surprising corroboration of Eleanor Malton's theory supported by Doctor Baynton, that Aire had been mentally changed and incredibly improved by some strange freak of bone pressure upon the brain.

He amazed Bryce, for he took in the elements of reading literally at a gulp. The schoolmaster from the first needed only to explain a thing once, and it was snatched up by the new amazing memory of the gravel-digger, never to be forgotten. By the end of the hour which, made absorbing, even thrilling, for the schoolmaster by the unprecedented avidity and mental power of his pupil, ran into two, Aire was finding many of his explanations by a kind of unerring guesswork, instinct or a swift and curious flexible logic.

Bryce hurried him on, wondering, secretly endeavoring to bring him to a check, to find a limitation of this ability, so marked as to be unconsciously arrogant. But he failed. Aire took all and appeared to yawn for more. It was so also with writing, and the flavor of bitterness habitual to Bryce vanished in his interest in watching the grim control by Aire's will of the large calloused hand as it drove a pencil through the pothook entanglements of the first stage.

"You've done well, Aire. It's very surprising," said the schoolmaster at last. "Why you have allowed all this ability to lie dormant while you toiled up at the pits is beyond me." He sighed, and filled his pipe.

"However, I'll do what I can for you. But if you go on at this rate you'll be using my poor fund of knowledge up within a space of weeks, though I'll give you a run for your money, my man." His eyes lit up, and he stared hard at Aire through the cloud of smoke that he puffed through his bearded lips. "I'll give you a run for your money," he repeated. "There was a time when I was not so bad a scholar—not so bad. Come again to-morrow night."

Aire was pleased, but not elated. It was with a species of complacence that he left Bryce's house and went homeward, reveling in this new vision and sword-edged keenness of thought which had been born within him.

HIS way lay past the Hen and Chickens, and it occurred to him to go in.

The bare room, furnished only with wooden tables and forms, with one or two settles, chairs and a few garishly printed but stained and flyblown advertisements of spirits, was full of old friends.

If he still needed proof that he had now intellectually ascended completely out of reach of this plane of the social life of the village, he received it the instant he crossed the familiar threshold.

He was received with friendliness, but without enthusiasm, answered the few rough inquiries as to his accident, ordered a pint of the worthless beer they were drinking, and sat down silently to listen.

Within ten minutes he was chilled with a feeling that was almost horror.

The talk was continuous, but without meaning. For by far the greater part it dealt with the self-evident and unimportant. It was practically devoid of humor though the company appeared to think otherwise. The coarser the gossip or the jests, the more abundant the mirth. But the jests were always ancient, and the "humor" of the gossip almost always was to be found in the discomfiture of some person: a man might have bested a woman, a woman may have tricked some man, or one man may have outwitted another man. A had sold B a calf that died the day after B paid for it and received it, as everybody except B knew it would. This drew forth much raucous laughter, and many expressions of admiration for A's ability. C, a village coquette, who for some years had chosen or disdained at her pleasure, had finally come to the old troublous end of her coquetry, thanks to her passion for a smart young mechanic who had been sojourning temporarily in the village.

The company were greatly amused and gratified at this downfall; for many of them had suffered rebuffs from the belle. Such things as that.

Listening with his new intelligence, Aire fancied he could trace, pervading the colorless fabric of the gossip, a vague and bitter malice and an ever-present envy. It seemed to him that these men envied A the money he had achieved for his worthless calf, the mechanic his "romance" with the sobered coquette, even the girl they seemed to envy or to grudge the days of blind delight for which she was now soon to pay. A small trader of the village, who had recently filed his petition, was discussed in an atmosphere wholly lacking in sympathy, an accident to a local landowner's car was chuckled over—"Sarved 'im right, racing and tearing about the roads like he did;" and the advisability of giving "rough music" to a wife of a villager, who was popularly believed to have an affair with another wife's husband, was avidly discussed.

The room reeked with the odor of the ruinously taxed and costly but worthless stuff they were drinking—as little kin to the ale of old time as good wine to bad water—the rank, bitter smoke of the poor quality, inexorably expensive tobacco they were smoking swirled in lazy wisps about the heavy air, and as each man faintly responded to the reluctant stimulus of the ungenerous stuff he absorbed, so the conversation grew "freer" and yet more free. It had to do with women, with what they termed "politics," and with wages and high prices.

Aire listened. As yet he was no better informed on these subjects than the rest, but nevertheless he was able to see that the attitude of mind in which every man approached the problems of these matters was one of suspicion, hatred, cunning, selfishness, meanness and baseness. They brought to their problems nothing but these brakes and anchors and, he felt, a monumental ignorance.

Yet all these men could read. They worked long hours, but they could find a little time to acquire some knowledge of the things they discussed. They had time to clean their minds—as well as their bodies. But many of them did neither, nor desired to. They were not content with the nature of their environment, but neither were they prepared to make any personal effort or sacrifice to raise themselves from it. Rather it seemed that their dull desire was to pull down to their level those above it, and for this they appeared to rely mainly upon chance or a vague, imperfectly understood weapon (to be wielded by others) called The Strike. Hare and there in the village a man of different character would slowly drag himself from the morass; but no sincere congratulation ever passed from his erstwhile fellows to him, and they regarded him only with dull envy, malice and dislike.

It seemed to Aire that they were little better than apes, trained in childhood at the free schools with a machine-made training that was speedily forgotten and willingly abandoned. He was—he had been—one of them himself. Only it had never occurred to him before, either to seek a way out of the morass, or that he must primarily help himself out.

He opened his mouth to speak, to tell them of the great discovery. But he did not speak. What was the good? They knew it already. He remembered that he had been lower, even nearer the ape than most of these, all of whom had been taught to read and to write.

He said "Good night" and left the room, and his "mates" fell for a moment to discussing with gloomy relish what they conceived to be a change for the worse in him.

But he was away for home, his mind occupied in marshaling the knowledge that he had gleaned from Bryce that evening.

HIS wife had supper ready for him, roughly laid out on a clothless table. She was still wearing the clothes in which she had worked through the day, and, he thought, her hair had not been touched since the morning.

She was faintly surprised at his absolute sobriety, and during the meal her eyes wandered repeatedly to the clothes he was wearing, the suit of cheap, ready-made black which he wore sometimes on Sunday.

"You look as if you'd been to a funeral or something to-night," she said. "Ain't used to seeing you dressed up. How did you get on with Bryce?"

"I learned a lot," he said. "A lot. There's a lot in them books of his."

"Yes, and a lot of it's no good to anybody that I can see," she said.

He did not answer. When next he spoke it was to ask her to put on the kettle, all the kettles she had.

"Whatever for?"

"I'm going to bathe properly and be clean now and always. I'm going to wash off the—the—grime of the Hen and Chickens."

He hesitated a moment. Then his eyes gleamed and his jaw hardened.

"And you'd better burn them filthy clothes I used to wear in the gravel-pit. I'm never going to wear them again. I'm going up—and up— Yes." He stared at the woman in the dim and shadowy light. She looked drab and old and shrinking, though her eyes were wide with wonder.

"We—you, too—have got to make a change. You, too, mind. I can do it. Something has been lit up in my head like a white light, a strong light, and I can see new things—new sense in things. I'm going to drive myself—drive."

His head was raised and his lean face was dark and implacable. His huge hands gripped tightly the wooden arms of his chair, his nostrils were dilated and a deep frown cut a vertical black line between his brows. It looked like a streak of black paint below the white bandage.

And the look in his eyes had become remote, almost expressionless, like the changeless, unwavering stare of a great preying bird.

A thin flame burst out of a bit of wood in the dwindled fire and soared.

"I'm going up!" he said, his eyes on the flame. "Like that!"

The flame went out.

The woman stared stupidly.

"You, too," he reminded her. "You've got to fight—to keep up. No more slip-popping about anyhow. We've got to look after ourselves: our minds and our clothes and our bodies. I been thinking. Dirty, untidy clothes when they needn't be, helps to make dirty, untidy bodies. Yes, and dirty, untidy minds, too. I've thought of that to-night."

There was pride in his voice, for he had discovered that for himself, and he knew it to be true.

"D'ye understand, Annie?"

She hesitated, afraid to handle this manifestation of what she feared was a form of madness as she would have liked to handle it.

"Yes, I s'pose so. I know what you mean, if it can be done."

He smiled and leaned back, murmuring things from the book with which Bryce had coached him, while his wife filled the kettles.

She did it sulkily, though why she could not have told. But there was that within her, very strong, which warned her against the impending effort.

Aire, lost in his recapitulation of things learned that night, sat like a man whispering in his sleep, staring blankly before him.

Under his bandage the wound throbbed steadily without pain, a heavy, regular beat, as if it might have been a mechanical device supplying the energy for that light which had been lit in his brain.

TO BRYCE the schoolmaster, to the doctor, and most of all to Eleanor Malton the month that followed was a month of amazement.

Aire leaped forward and up. What Eleanor and Bryce had planned to be a steady educating became less an educating than a pouring of knowledge into the new and incredibly capacious mind of the gravel-digger. He consumed that which Bryce had to offer like fire consuming dry bracken. He forgot nothing. His bewildering power of memory astonished Bryce. The schoolmaster said so one evening when he called at the Manor to ransack Eleanor's library for further material for his amazing pupil.

Eleanor had guests, a cousin, Graham Keyle and his sister, with whom she was going to the continent on the following day. They listened, astonished, to Bryce.

"It's the man's memory which startles one, Miss Malton," said the old schoolmaster, throwing out his hands. "He remembers without any effort everything. He never forgets, you understand. Even minute things. Yet he seems instinctively to marshal, in the order of their importance, the things he remembers." The old schoolmaster stared at them over an armful of translated classics. "Last week he read Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall' in five days. I am convinced that every word of that monumental thing is packed away in that extraordinary mind of his, never to be forgotten."

"But is that quite worth while?" objected Keyle, who was young and intensely modern. "There's a good deal of lumber in Gibbon, and isn't he often inexact?"

The old schoolmaster stared.

"Does it matter to the Atlantic whether it holds a few gallons more than it need, Mr. Keyle?" he returned. "Aire is colossal——"

"As the Atlantic is colossal," laughed Keyle. "I see."

"But he is. And he is more than an insatiable collector and retainer of knowledge. He has a wonderful instinct for what is real and what is worthless. I think he is heir to a remarkable future."

"Mr. Bryce is right, Graham," said E1eanor. "Aire impresses one. It's impossible to avoid seeing that a great future is inevitable for him."

"Unless that tiny area of bone pressure upon the brain is removed or removes itself! A matter of one-hundredth of an inch, perhaps," Keyle reminded them. He was very much in love with Eleanor, and in the mood to detect far-off danger, or even to imagine it.

Eleanor understood.

"In the meantime I think we ought to give him every chance, don't you?" she said. "I don't think you remember him, Graham, as he was, or you, too, would be amazed at his really wonderful transformation. It would be wicked not to help him, I think."

She turned to Bryce.

"What are you choosing for him this time?" she asked, and they fell to selecting books.

It amused Graham Keyle to choose the most difficult and heaviest of a rather heavy library, built up years before by Eleanor's father.

But Bryce took all he had to give without demur.

"It makes no difference to Aire. The more difficult the subject the better he likes it, provided it is worth while."

All that the schoolmaster had said was true. Aire was wonderful. But his gigantic improvement had not confined itself to the more serous forms of knowledge.

Eleanor, through Bryce, had lent him—he would not accept a gift—a hundred pounds, and this he had halved with his wife.

His own fifty pounds he had spent wisely—largely upon clothing and personal things. Instinctively he had bought correctly, modeling himself largely upon the well-groomed doctor. Also, although he still occupied the same cottage, he had developed a passion for cleanliness, for personal neatness. He was never seen unshaven now, and he looked like a man who cared for himself even to the point of fastidiousness.

The change was marvelous. It dawned upon even the slow-witted villagers that Aire was a handsome man, pronouncedly handsome. They might have forgiven him this, and in time even have condoned his appearance of being well-dressed and clean. But be was never seen at the beer-house now, and when he talked with any of them he used words which many of them did not understand. They could not see that these words were the result of his newly acquired knowledge, nor could they understand that he used them, not to show his superiority, but because they were the right, the exact, words necessary to convey his meaning. He was expressing his thoughts in correct language and so debased, so limited and careless were his erstwhile mates in their mode of speech that he might almost as well have spoken in some foreign tongue as in correct English.

For this they envied him with the envy that becomes hatred.

But with his wife there was no change. Daily he increased the wide gap between them. She could not keep up with him, and very quickly ceased to make an effort.

She had thrown away her share of the money upon the most outrageous finery, cheap, gaudy stuff from the cash drapers, so that his mouth went awry when one Sunday be first saw her dressed to go out. She saw that and a sullenness darkened her face. For days past a strange and increasing mildness had characterized him, and she no longer feared him as in the old days of brutishness.

"Well, don't you like it?" she asked shrilly.

"I don't think you have made the best of your chance, Annie," he said. "But we'll puzzle it out together. There's—isn't there too much color?" His eyes were on her flamboyant hat.

"Like me to dress in black always, I s'pose?" she snapped.

"Why, no; but—somehow— Look her Annie, let's ask Miss Malton's advice when she comes home. She's been very kind——"

"Miss Malton!" she half screamed. "It's all Miss Malton with you now. It'll be 'Eleanor' next—Nell—that's it, Nell!"

His heavy frown checked her.

"Don't be a fool, woman," he said, and said no more. There was a curious glowing in his eyes as he turned, went indoors and took a book.

"You ain't coming for a walk then?" she cried.

"Not to-night."

She hesitated, another gibe on her lips, feared to utter it and flounced away. She was proud of her finery and determined to show it.

Indoors Aire grimly applied himself to his reading.

Already he realized that his wife would fail, was bound to fail to keep pace with him. He had accepted it. He believed that she would make no difficulty when she, too, realized it. By that time he would have money and he believed that it was only a question of money. She had long ceased to love him and he to love her, if indeed they had ever loved at all. That had been ground out of their lives in the gravel-digging days.

So he sat, noting with the mind that never forgot the endless parade of knowledge that passed before his eyes like a swift stream. Presently, lying wakeful in the darkness, he would review, as it were, all which he had that day garnered. He would lie for hours thus.

An incident which occurred some days after the little scene with his wife spurred him to yet fiercer effort.

He had returned early from a walk with Noyes—a clever and scholarly man who had been interested in Bryce's account of the amazing change and had come to talk with Aire.

His wife had not been in the kitchen and he assumed that she was out. He had gone into the bedroom to brush his hair and had come upon her there, crying.

"Why, what is the matter, Annie?" he asked.

"Oh, I dunno," she answered. "You was only changed into a toff by accident. It's a bit of bone pressing on your brain that makes you so—clever. You're a toff now, and you look like a toff, I'll own, and as far as I know you knows as much, and perhaps more, than the toffs. But it's only a mite of pressure that done it for you." She laughed mirthlessly.

"You don't like me in my new clothes, well—and I don't like you in yours. It ain't a natural thing. I ain't good enough for you now and you're too good for me."

She laughed harshly, and he realized that she had been drinking.

"You've had what Bryce and that lot call a stroke of luck, and you've left me in the lurch," she cried. "Old Bryce is telling everybody that a miracle has been worked on you. But no miracle hasn't been worked on me and, for all you care, I can stay down in the mud and you can climb out of it. It's true, that is, and you know it," she continued wildly. "You despise me now—despise me——"

He stopped her, one heavy hand on each of her shoulders.

"You have been listening to the venom of envious people, Annie," he said. "All I achieve I shall share with you. I know that in the dreadful days when I was in the slough you were a good wife to me; a good mate. Come, now, what am I to do? What do you want me to do—to be? I will do all that I can. I ask you, invite you, I entreat you to come with me on the new road as far as you can. If you fail, who am I to blame you? I shall not blame you. And I will always serve you, share with you all I can. But to say such things as you have said to-night is to try to pull me down; to drag me back. You are my wife. You owe me your support because you are my wife. You speak of miracles, but this change is not a miracle. It is only a variation of a situation that is old as history—the situation in which God has seen fit to endow a husband with gifts which hitherto He has withheld from the wife. I can tell you that there are two issues to such a situation, a happy and an unhappy issue. History is full of examples. But it rests as much with the wife as with the husband, and the solution is easy. They need only trust each other and be kind to each other. It is as simple as that——"

But she was coarse in grain, born to, doomed to, only fit for the slough from which he was tearing himself.

She interrupted him almost ferociously.

"Haven't you got the sense to see I can't understand half what you're chatting about?" she shouted miserably. "You—you make me feel like a kind of silly animal with your talk. I wish you'd shut up. What good's all this chat? You've got out of my class and I s'pose I can go to the devil for all you care."

She gazed at him, flushed and furious from the strange and fatal jealousy which had fed upon her soul from almost the first day of the change. He was upon a plane to which her limitations rendered it impossible for her to ascend.

Yet he offered, from his increasing altitude, both hands willingly to raise her. But there was that in the very manner of his offering, and through no fault of his own, which only made wider the gap between them.

He looked at her, his eyes full of sympathy.

"At least, try to think well of me," he said at last, slowly. "It's no fault of mine——"

"Oh, who said it was? But you needn't show off every time you open your mouth about it!" she flung at him wretchedly and went down to the kitchen.

FOR no clearly defined reason Eleanor Malton cut short her trip with the Keyles. She left them in Paris weeks before she originally intended and came home.

But long before she reached Malton she knew why she was content, even eager, to abandon the leisurely traveling in congenial company and hasten home.

As one who has left behind a rare plant may become conscious suddenly of an imperative desire to return and see how it is thriving, so Eleanor was conscious of a desire to see bow her strange protégé Aire, was progressing.

She knew from Bryce's letter that his mental and intellectual development continued, and the old schoolmaster had not neglected to comment on the almost equally astonishing improvement in his personal appearance.

"I believe it is as much curiosity about Aire's appearance which is sending me home as interest in his development," she told herself as she gazed from the window of the railway carriage.

"There were always possibilities about him even in the yellow days of the gravel," she mused. "He was always big and shapely, and his face was good as far as any face that is soulless could be. I shall be interested to see him."

And on the afternoon of the following day she saw him.

It was in the pine wood through which she had been accustomed to walk to the gravel-pit that, on her way to his cottage, she met him. He was sitting on the soft ground cushioned many feet deep with pine-needles, leaning against the bole of a big fir, reading.

He was not aware of her moving over the soft floor of the wood until she was within a yard of him. Then he looked up with a start, and rose. Through the dense lattice-work overhead a ray of sunlight struck down so truly and exactly, centering upon him, that it seemed like a ray of light focused upon him of set purpose.

In that yellow ray, standing out against the somber, checkered shadows of the warm and silent wood, she saw that the hallmarks of the laborer had been eradicated magically from him. There was nothing about this lean-faced, quietly dressed, hatless man, save only his height, which recalled the harsh figure of the yellow-stained wielder of the heavy iron tools of the gravel-pit.

Eleanor Malton stared for a moment, speechless with surprise.

She had often seen him hatless, but never had she known his dark and slightly curling hair to be other than a dusty and wild tangle—uncared for. But this man's head was clean and handsome. His face was thinner, and it seemed to have become oddly refined. And the gray level eyes that once had always been inflamed from the gritty dust, from lack of sleep, or from the excess of stimulant which he consumed nightly, were now as clear and wide open as those of a child. His dark-gray clothes and his boots, though not of an expensive quality, were made with some pretension to fit.

And these outward things, combined in their little way with the force of the gigantic mental improvement within, had so changed the man that it was as though Aire of the gravel-pit had died and that a totally different Aire of the pine wood had risen phenix-like from his grave.

The shock was ousted by a keen shock that came piercingly like a white-hot arrow to illumine the mind of the woman with a great and inevitable dawn.

She stared at him, her eyes open, with an air of breathlessness.

She loved him!

It had come to her with a sharpness so fierce and unexpected that she was near to crying out at the poignancy of it. Her heart began to beat with a violence that almost frightened her, and she saw in his eyes the dawn of a comprehension, of a passion, born of gratitude, that rocked her soul.

"Ah, Miss Eleanor!" he said unsteadily. "Eleanor—Eleanor." He moved toward her.

She put out her hands—to hold him off, she thought confusedly but without conviction—and they met about his neck as he stooped, enfolding her in what seemed hazily to her a huge and vastly deep, almost cavernous, embrace.

Both were trembling.

At once, it seemed to her, she was free again; whether he had released her, whether she had torn free, she never knew.

"But," she stammered, "I—didn't know—I didn't suspect. I must have loved you from the beginning—even when you were swinging the great irons!"

She stood clear, closing her eyes to think the better, leaning against a fir trunk.

Her mind went racing back to the tawny gravel-pits, to that strange and terrible odor of smashed flint and perspiration.

Had she loved that huge, yellow figure of brute force, that primitive, powerful semi-savage? Desperately she recalled the scene she had so often sketched, and so tensely strung were all her nerves of the body and the brain that she seemed again to be standing in the reddish-yellow waste place, Glimmering and quivering in the glow of the sun, studying him as a naturalist may study a strange animal. The great brown throat; the iron-hard knotted arms, the reddened eyes, all this she must have loved, but so wide had been the social gap dividing them that it had never occurred to her that love could be possible between them.

She shivered.

But now that stained and towering symbol of brute force was dead, thank God, dead or forever vanished.

She opened her eyes with a long, deep, wholly unconscious sigh, and for the first time a touch of passion lightened her face.

Her breath caught as she remembered the wife.

"But what are we to do?" she cried.

Even as she spoke she saw coming into view, from behind the trees, Aire's wife, walking slowly along the winding path toward them.

He turned, following her glance.

"We must talk, Aire," she said, using his surname as of old. "Come to the house this evening," and left him.

She was still trembling, she found, when five minutes later she stepped from the pine wood into her own park. And she was cold, she thought. But the blood was leaping in her veins like flame.

THERE was, she remembered, a concert of some kind taking place in the village that evening, so that, dining early, she was able to let the servants off and await Aire alone.

She was glad, even grateful for the small coincidence which would assure them privacy for their discussion of the disaster—or was it a triumph? or a tragedy? She felt that it might be anything, tragedy, comedy or farce. For it was wild—wild.

It came to her that she could do nothing better than to leave the village now, at once, hurry, flee back to Paris and the comparatively sane, conventional life with the Keyles.

She stood up, staring through the windows at the coming twilight. The weather had changed, and a slow autumn drizzle was falling.

In the pine wood there had been the broken gold of the sun rays falling through the interstices of the tree-tops, gold and warmth, and all the throat-catching, luring charm of solitude and secrecy. But now the hour was gray, the hue of the twilight was gray, too, and cold, and there was a sense of hopelessness and a hint of terror in the evening.

She drew the soft thick curtains impatiently and turned again to the brightness of the luxurious room.

She sat staring restlessly into the fire, which she had ordered to be lifted with the coming of the chill rain.

"Why should I be attracted by him—love him?" she asked herself. "It is not the new Aire that calls to me, for I have never really seen him before. But if it is the Aire of old I love, why should I never suspect it until that Aire has disappeared? Oh, it is a mystery—a mystery."

She tried again.

"It is not his new talents—gifts—which attract me, for these are no more than pure accident?

"Is it the memory of the great, rough-hewn, barbarous strength of him? No, not that. I have never adored physique as some women do. I should find it easier to fear it." She frowned, casting about in her mind for means of escape from this strange, mysterious and almost sinister thraldom of love. Means of escape, or was it means of excuse? She did not know; and, weary of thought, she felt that soon she would not care. Other aspects of the thing crowded before her mind.

"But what are we going to do?"

It was the old cry—as old as the hour when man and woman first realized that they possessed power to distinguish what is good from that which is not good. The idea of some secret, sordid liaison with the ex-gravel-digger, haunted by the specter of his prying and impossible wife, was intolerable.

Divorce—of a kind? No doubt Annie Aire could be readily bought off—that was only a question of price. Eleanor Malton shuddered at the pit to which her train of thought had led her.

That was too impossible. So, one purchased an animal from a poor but unwilling seller.

Then what remained? She had accepted at last the knowledge that she loved Aire, and she knew that the new Aire worshiped her. She had seen that in those few seconds in the pine wood.

Renunciation! But the word was a javelin through her heart. She had come to the age of twenty-five unscathed of love, and though she had met many men, never till now had she encountered one who could release the passion which, lay intent within the soul of this superb woman. Many had tried, for her beauty was striking and she was rich. All had failed—all save Aire—her own laborer—no, not even that, but some strange, compelling and fantastic stranger built upon the débris of the banished slave of the gravel.


"Oh, not yet!" she cried softly. "Not yet! . . . But I must."

She stood up sharply.

"But I will not. Perhaps, even, I can not Does any one? Renunciation is out of date—unnecessary." The bell rang gently as her mind, her emotions, swung to and fro.

Her heart leaped again. She glanced at the mirror, and was amazed at her own glowing beauty. She had half feared that she would see a face that was old and ugly; haggard; wrung and ravaged with doubt and a resentful despair.

Slowly she went to the great door and let him in.

"You have come," she said breathlessly, and led the way.


The word thinned and vanished from her mind.

He was extraordinarily agitated, far more so than she. That she recognized at once. But his eyes drank her in.

"I came to say it was my intention to express my great gratitude," he stammered. "You have opened the gates to a new world . . . the lessons with Bryce have shown me so much . . . possibilities. Things to do that have been waiting to be done for centuries. Only now you—I—it is all enmeshed with this feeling—this great wave—of—," he faltered.

She threw the world to the winds.

"Of love," she finished. "Our secret."

lake a man who moves against his will, powerless to defy an influence stronger than himself, he raised his arms, and she sank in them—deep, deep, fathoms deep.

Instantly, it seemed to her, across that blind silence came stabbing a harsh and acrid voice, malignant, bitter, with a species of malevolent triumph.

"Just what I thought!"

It was the voice of Aire's wife.

Quite slowly they parted and turned, facing the woman in the doorway.

"I s'pose you both thought I should be satisfied to sit quiet at the concert," she shouted, her face inflamed with rage and hate. "While you—the lady and the laborer—sneaked off here——"

Aire shivered, shot a glance at the frozen figure at his side, and strode across to his wife.

"Be silent—now," he said. "There is only one to blame—me!"

She ran into the room, stopping before Eleanor Malton.

"And what about you—who tempted him—bribed him—bought him—" she screamed, half beside herself.

"Be silent, I say." Aire reached for the wild fist which she was shaking at Eleanor. Right in her rage, she mistook his movement. Thinking he meant to strike her, she struck back wildly.

Her hard-knuckled fist drove sharply against the temple of the stooping man. There was no real force behind it, and, directed against one of such physique as Aire, it looked puny.

But to the terror and sheer amazement of both Eleanor and his wife, he cried out sharply and fell unconscious.

The two women stared at each other for a moment, horror in their eyes.

Then simultaneously they dropped to their knees beside the still form of the man. But at once their greatest terror was nullified, for Aire was moving.

"He's not dead," said Eleanor. She lifted her head and listened.

"Be quiet," she cried to Mrs. Aire, whose sobbings and whimpering endearments to the semiconscious man were rising to the note of hysteria.

Eleanor was listening to the low hum of a motor-car which bad stopped outside.

The bell rang, and with an effort she went out.

It was Doctor Baynton.

"You, Doctor? There is nobody I would sooner see," she said on a high note.

The old doctor looked at her keenly.

"I saw your housekeeper going into the concert, and she told me that you were not feeling well and were not coming. I thought I would look in, Eleanor." He watched the flow of color as it came back to her face.

"Nothing much wrong, my dear. You look splendid. A false alarm, eh?"

She forced herself to steadiness.

"Nothing the matter with me, Doctor," she said with set composure. "But there may be a task for you. The Aires are here and something is wrong with Aire. There has been an accident, and he is ill."

"Accident! What sort of accident? Where is he?"

"They had a misunderstanding, and his wife struck at him. Oh, only with her fist—no harder than a child could strike. But he collapsed completely."

Together they went into the room.

His wife had helped Aire to a sitting position, and he was struggling to rise.

He was very pale, and his eyes were oddly glazed.

"Sit still," said the doctor, and examined him, the women watching. They hardly breathed.

But save for a faint reddening of the old scar, long healed, there was nothing, and the doctor glancing from one to the other seemed puzzled.

He helped Aire to stand.

"How d'you feel now?"

Aire answered drowsily that he was tired and wanted to sleep. He was pale, and he swayed like a wornout man where he stood.

"Shock! He has been overdoing it," said the doctor, and added that he would give him a lift home in his car.

"You will be all right in the morning," he said, and breezily shepherded them out to the car.

Eleanor, standing in the hall, looking through drizzle that was like a falling network of gold thread in the light, saw Aire's white face sink back in the gloom of the interior of the car, and it came to her with a pang that so the white face of a man drowning in dark waters at night might look to one at the moment of sinking. She had not spoken to Aire, nor he to her, since the coming of the doctor.

The engine of the car, under the urge of the self-starter, woke to life with a rushing energy.

"Good night!" called the doctor.

"Good night," replied Eleanor. But she felt in her deep heart that it should have been "good-by," at least to Aire.

The red tail-light swam away, diminishing down the drive until it vanished, then wearily she closed the door and returned to the lighted room.

She stood for a moment oft the threshold, staring in, her mind busy with the events of the past half-hour. It seemed to her that she had lived more in that half-hour than in all the rest of her life. In those few moments she had known almost every emotion of which she was capable—the soft, warm blooming of love, the enervation of surrender, the keen and biting flame of passion instantly and unexpectedly checked, cut down as with a sword, the unendurable shame of the reproaches of the wife, biting like acid into her pride, upsetting, wrecking into a fearful chaos all her lifelong instincts of courtesy given and received; deadly terror, when for a second or so she believed him dead; despair, pity, regret, hope, and yet again the shame of lying so desperately to the doctor.

Yes—all the emotions. And at the end of it, what? Nothing—nothing save the contempt and hatred of a woman she could only despise! Not a word from the man for whom she had lived that racking half-hour; only a glimpse of his white face sinking back into the gloom like the face of a drowning man.

And now—what came next? To-morrow? Was this the end? Was she facing a blank wall? She did not know, could not guess. And now she could not think. She was tired, worn out, as though she had not rested for many days, many nights.

She switched off the lights, went to the dining-room, drunk the glass of wine she needed and passed heavy-eyed up-stairs to sleep, to dream.

ELEANOR woke late, to a day of sunshine so riotous, a sky so blue, and a little wind from the east so invigorating that her courage rose. With it there waxed and grew also a hunger, an urgency to know what must happen now.

She must see Aire—and his wife—at once, and reach some understanding. It was impossible to allow things to remain at the mercy of such a woman as Mrs. Aire. For, wronged in thought though not in deed, as the woman had been, nevertheless she could not be permitted to make matters worse than they were. Eleanor went chill as she pictured the sly gossip, the sidelong glances that must result if Mrs. Aire, her jealous rage no longer checked by fear, deliberately gossiped to injure the lady of the manor.

She must be checked.

Then, too, there was Aire himself—his work, his genius, his great future. Was all this to be hampered, shackled and encumbered by the malevolence of a wife whom he no longer loved, and who, despite her envious jealousy, no longer loved him, but only sought to hold him back to the level in which she was at home?

"Whatever may happen, whatever the whole world may say, I will continue to help him with my love," she was saying with a nervous inflexibility as she walked toward the Aires' cottage . While yet some distance away she saw Mrs. Aire at the doorway, and she went steadily to her, and a reception that was amazing.

"Good morning, miss," said Mrs. Aire, with all the old, accustomed deference. Indeed it seemed that there was more of deference than ever before, something approaching servility.

But there was a singular light of triumph in the woman's eyes.

"I expect you have come to inquire about Aire, miss?" continued Mrs. Aire quietly, and there was a touch of triumph in her voice as well as her eyes.

Eleanor said nothing, watching her.

Then it burst out.

"Well, miss, he's cured! He's better! He must have been in a kind of fever last night, and for weeks before that. But," she flung it at the girl like an open knife, "he's cured, and in his right mind again! He's come back to his senses again—and back to me! Look, miss!"

She stepped aside and threw out her hand toward a box on the kitchen floor. It was a rough deal box, filled with a jumble of books and papers.

The voice of Aire's wife came to the girl like a voice driving through fog.

"Look, miss! He can't read; he can't write; and he'll have no more need for these fine clothes and boots, 'cepting on a Sunday. He's cured; and he's forgot all the rubbish he learned when he was bad!" Eleanor let the insult embedded in the savage sentences pass. She was staring at the folded clothes by the box, the gray suit in which he had looked so well; at the books and papers, the stepping-stones of genius; and she could not bring herself to believe the woman.

"You mean—you mean to say——"

Mrs. Aire faced her to deliver what she clearly regarded as the coup de grâce.

"I mean to say, miss, that he's what he was born to be again—your foreman gravel-digger, not your—" she hesitated, then spat it out, for such was her nature—"your gravel-digger, not your fancy man! Yes, the doctor's been, and he says that the bone pressure has been removed, owing to me hitting him last night in the same place, the doctor says. And Bryce has seen him, too, and talked to him; and Bryce says he's forgot all he was taught, and that he's no more than what he was at first, and never will be. He had his chance and threw it away for a woman—for you. like thousands of others."

She glared.

"But he suits me better like he is!" adding, with the significant stare of the blackmailer, "'specially if his wages was to be raised a little!"

"Where is he?" asked Eleanor.

"Where, miss? Why, up at the gravel-pit, to be sure."

She half-turned, then, either moved by the look in the girl's eyes or, more probably, anxious not to offend too unforgivably, added:

"And I'm not the only one who ought to be glad, miss. Don't forget that! What good was a man like him to you? You'd have ruined your life over him!"

Eleanor turned away.

For a moment she hesitated. Then she took the path to the pits.

It was very hot there, for the eastern pine woods curtained back the breeze in the sunken yellow waste.

She heard, as she came up, the clash of iron and the grinding of heavy shovels from the pit, and as she rounded a high heap of waste gravel, she saw him.

He was balancing upon a red terrace of the gravel, packed almost as hard as solid stone, driving the bar deep into a hole for leverage enough to pry off a mass of the stuff for the man to shovel away below. He was intent on the work, and swung the bar vertically with a savage energy. She watched him in silence.

He was dressed as of old in the stained and shapeless corduroy and huge heavy boots. His arms were bare—they looked oddly white—and his head and chest were bare. His face was streaked and stained with reddish dust and moisture, and his hair was no longer smooth.

She heard him call to the man below.

"We'll get this load off, George, an' then draw off down to th' Hen for a drop o' beer!"

The hot, bitter odor of smashed flint stung her nostrils.

She had wondered only yesterday whether it was this man she had loved. Now she knew.

"How could I have asked myself that?" she said softly, her glance traveling round the glaring red-and-yellow wildness to return to the toiler on the terrace. "I shall never come here again. The place—and the man—are dreadful. No more . . . it must have been that other Aire whom I felt for—loved. Some phantom. And he is gone—forever."

But, strangely, it was without sorrow, without regret for that vanished personality that she took money from her purse and moved forward for the last proof.

"Good morning, men!" she called.

"Morning miss!" Aire touched his streaming forehead convulsively.

They stared at each other.

She saw that the eyes were indeed the eyes of the old Aire, dull, unintelligent, and without a sign of recollection.

"It is very hot," she said.

"Yes, miss." An expectancy which she knew of old crept into his eyes.

She dropped a half-crown into the big palm—a chill touched her veins as she saw the new blisters there.

"You would like something to drink, I expect, on such a day as this," she said.

"Thank 'ee, Miss Eleanor." He grinned pocketed the money, picked up the iron bar and began once more to drive it into the gravel with heavy, jarring and effective strokes.

For a moment Eleanor wondered oddly if the dull concussion of the iron upon the clayey flint would seem to beat upon her heart forever, but as she drew farther and farther away from the pit the thudding died out and at last came no more.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1952, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 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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