The Black Water
THE BLACK WATER
Lorsque la coquette Espérance
Nous pousse le coude en passant,
Puis à tire-d'aile s'élance,
Et se retoume en souriant,
Où va l'homme? Où son cœur l'appelle!
L'hirondelle suit le zéphyr,
Et moins légère est l'hirondelle
Que l'homme qui suit son désir.
YSONDE swung her racquet. Her laughter was very sweet. A robin on the tip of a balsam-tree cocked his head to listen; a shy snow-bird peered at her through the meadow grass.
"What are you laughing at?" I asked uneasily. I spoke sharply—I had not intended to. The porcupine on the porch lifted his head, his rising quills grating on the piazza; a drab-coloured cow, knee-deep in the sedge, stared at me in stupid disapproval.
"I beg your pardon, Ysonde," I said sulkily, for I felt the rebuke of the cow. Then Ysonde laughed again; the robin chirped in sympathy and the snow-bird crept to the edge of the tennis court.
"Deuce," I said, picking up a ball, "are you ready?"
She stepped back, making me a mocking reverence.
Her eyes were bluer than the flowering flax behind her. I had intended to send her a swift service, and I should have done so had I not noticed her eyes.
"Deuce!" I repeated, pausing to recover the composure necessary for good tennis. She made a gesture with her racquet. The service was a miserable failure. I drove the second ball into the net, and then, placing the butt of my racquet on the turf, sat down on the rim.
"Vantage out," said I, gritting my teeth. "What were you laughing at, Ysonde?"
"Vantage out," she repeated; "I am not laughing."
"You were," I said; "you are now."
She went to the boxwood hedge, picked out one ball and sent it back; then she drove the other over the net and retired to her corner, swinging her racquet. I did not move.
"You are spoiling your racquet," she said.
I was sitting on it. I knew better.
"And your temper," she said sweetly.
"Vantage out," I repeated, and raised my tennis bat for a smashing service. The ball whistled close to the net, and the white dust flew from her court, but her racquet caught it fair and square, and I heard the ring of the strings as the ball shot along my left alley and dropped exactly on the service line. How I got it I don't know, but the next moment a puff of dust rose in her vantage court, there was a rustle of skirts, a twinkle of small tennis shoes, and the ball rocketed, higher, higher, into the misty sunshine.
"Oh," gasped Ysonde, and bit her lip.
The ball began to come down. I had time to laugh before it struck—to laugh quietly and twirl my short moustache.
"I shall place that ball," said I, "where you will not find it easily," and I did, deliberately.
For a second Ysonde was disappointed. I could see that, but I imagined there was the slightest tremor of relief in her voice when she said—
"Brute force is useless, Bobby; listen to the voice of the Prophetess."
"I hear," I said, "the echo of your voice in the throat of every bird——"
"Which is very pretty but unfair," said Ysonde, looking at the snowbirds beside her. "It is unfair," she repeated.
"Yes," said I, "it is unfair. Are you ready?"
"Let us finish the game this afternoon," she suggested. "Look at these snowbirds, Bobby. If I raise my racquet it will frighten them."
"And you imagine," said I, "that these snowbirds are going to interrupt the game—this game?"
"What a pity to frighten them! See—look how close they come to me! Do you think the little creatures are tamed by hunger?"
"Some creatures are not tamed by anything," I said.
"Are you hungry?" she asked innocently.
I was glad that I suppressed my anger.
"Ysonde," I said, "you know what this game means to me—to us."
"I know nothing about it," she said hastily, retreating to her comer. "Play—it's deuce, you know."
"I know," I replied, and sent a merciless ball shooting across her deuce court. "Vantage in," I observed, trying not to smile.
A swift glance from her wide eyes, a perceptible tremble of the long lashes—that was all; but I knew what I knew, for I have hunted wild creatures.
The porcupine on the piazza rose, Sniffed, blinked in the sunlight, and lumbered down the steps, every quill erect.
"Billy! go back this minute!" said Ysonde.
The quills on Billy's back flattened.
"Billy," I repeated, "go and climb a tree."
"If you speak to him, he will bristle again," said Ysonde, walking over to the porcupine. "Billy, my child, climb this pretty balsam-tree for the gentleman, to me—you are interrupting the game, and the gentleman is impatient."
"The gentleman is very impatient, Billy," I said.
I saw Ysonde colour—a soft, faint tint—nothing more; and I saw Billy receive a gentle impulse—oh, very gentle indeed!—from the point of her slender tennis shoe. So the porcupine was hustled up the balsam-tree, where he lay like an old mat, untidy, mortified, nursing his wrath, while two bluebirds twittered among the branches above him.
Ysonde came back and stood in the game court.
"It is vantage, I believe," she said indifferently.
"Out," said I, with significance. Ysonde looked at me.
"Out," I repeated.
"Play," she said desperately.
"No," I replied, sitting down upon the edge of my racquet again—I knew better; "let us clearly understand the consequences first."
She swung her racquet and looked me full in the eyes.
"What consequences?" she said.
"The consequences incident upon my winning this set."
"What consequences?" she insisted defiantly.
"The forfeit," said I.
"When you win the set we will discuss that," she said. "Do you imagine you will win?"
She was a better player than I; she could give me thirty on each game.
"Yes," I said, and I believe the misery in my voice would have moved a tigress to pity.
Now, perhaps it was because there was nothing of the tigress about Ysonde, perhaps because I showed my fear of her, I don't know which, but I saw her scarlet lips press one upon the other and I saw her eyes darken like violet velvet at night.
"Play," she said; "I am ready."
The first ball struck the net, the racquet turned in my nerveless hand, and she smiled.
"Play!" I cried, and the second ball bit the lime-dust at her feet. I saw the flash of her racquet, I saw a streak of grey lightning, and I lifted my racquet, but something struck me in the right eye—the tennis balls were heavy and wet—and I staggered about blindly, faint with pain.
"Oh, Bobby!" cried Ysonde, and stood quite still.
"I'm a duffer," I muttered, trying to open my eye, but the pain sickened me. I placed my hand over it and looked out upon the world with one eye. The drab-coloured cow was watching me—she was chewing the cud; the porcupine had one sardonic eye fixed upon me; the robin balanced on the tip of the balsam mocked me. It was plain that the creatures were all on her side. The wild snowbirds scarcely moved as Ysonde hastened across the court to my side. I heard the bluebirds tittering overhead, but I did not care; I had heard the tones of Ysonde's voice, and I was glad that I had been banged in the eve. It was true that she had only said, "Oh, Bobby!"
"Is it very painful?" she asked, standing close beside me.
"Yes," I replied seriously.
"Let me look," she said, laying one hand on the sleeve of my cricket shirt.
"Billy will rejoice at this," said I, removing my handkerchief so she could see the eye. The pain was becoming intense. With my injured eye I could see how white her hand was.
She stood still a moment; my arm grew warm beneath her hand.
"It will cheer Billy," I suggested. "Did I tell you that he bit me yesterday, and I whacked him? No? Well, he did, and I did."
"How can you!" she murmured. "How can you speak of that ridiculous Billy when you may have—have to be blind."
"Nonsense!" I said with a shiver.
She crossed the turf to the spring, and brought her handkerchief back soaking and cold as ice. I felt her palm on my cheek as she adjusted it. It was smooth, like an apricot.
"Hold it there," I said, bribing my conscience. "It is very pleasant." She thought I meant the wet handkerchief.
"If—if I have ruined your sight——" she began.
Now it was on the tip of my tongue to add, "And yet you are going to ruin my life by beating me at tennis"; but my conscience revolted.
"Do you think it is serious?" she asked in a voice so low that I bent my head involuntarily. She mistook the gesture for one of silent acquiescence. A tear—a large warm one—fell on my wrist; I thought it was a drop of water from the handkerchief at first. Then I opened my uninjured eye and saw her mistake.
"You misunderstood," I said wearily, "I don't believe what the oculist told me; the eye will be all right."
"But he warned you that a sudden blow would——"
"Oh, did he say might?"
"Yes, but it won't. I'm all right; don't take away your hand; are you tired?"
"No, no," she said; "shall I get some fresh water?"
"Not yet; don't go. The game was at deuce, wasn't it?"
Ysonde was silent.
"Was it deuce? Does that point count against me?" I insisted.
"How can you think of the game now?" said Ysonde in a queer voice—like the note of a very young bird.
I sat down on the turf and the handkerchief fell from my eye. Ysonde hastened to the spring and returned carrying the heavy stone jar full of water. It must have strained her delicate wrist—she said it did not—and, kneeling beside me, she placed the cold bit of cambric and lace over my eye.
"Thank you," I said; "will you sit beside me on the turf?" Both of my eyes were aching and closed, but I heard her skirts rustic and felt the momentary pressure of her palm on my cheek.
"Are you seated?" I asked.
"Then tell me whether I lost that point."
"How can I tell?" she answered. "I would willingly concede it if it were not——"
"For the forfeit," I added; "then you think I lose the point?"
"Does your eye pain very much?" she asked.
"Yes" said I truthfully. Perhaps it was ungenerous, but I dared not reject such an ally as truth. I opened one eye and looked at Ysonde. She was examining a buttercup.
"All buttercups look as though they had been carelessly varnished," said she, touching one with the tip of her middle finger.
"Did I win the set?" I began again.
"Oh—no—not the set!" she protested*.
"Then I lost that point?"
"Oh, why will you dwell upon tennis at such a moment?"
"Because," said I, "it means so much to me."
I suppose there was something in my voice that frightened her.
"Forgive me," I said, bitterly ashamed, for I had broken our compact, not directly, but in substance. "Forgive me, Ysonde," I said, looking at the porcupine with my left eye.
"Ridiculous Billy," for that was his name, stared at me with an insolence born of safety, and his white whiskers twitched in derision.
"You old devil!" I thought, remembering the scar on my ankle.
"Where did he bite you?" asked Ysonde, unconsciously reading my thoughts. It was a trick of hers.
"In the ankle—it was nothing. I would rather have him bite the other ankle than get any more of his quills into me!" I replied. "See how the snow-birds have followed you. They are there among the wild strawberries."
She turned her head.
"Hush!" she whispered, raising one palm. It was pinker than the unripe berries. There was an ache in my heart as well as in my eyes, so I said something silly: "There was an old woman who said hush, I perceive a young bird in this bush——"
"When they said, Is it small? she replied not at all; it is four times as big as the bush!" repeated Ysonde solemnly We both laughed, but I read a gratitude in her eyes which annoyed me.
"We digress," I said. "Speaking of the game——"
"Oh, but we were not speaking of the game," she said half alarmed, half smiling. "There! I thought you were going to be sensible, Bobby."
"I am. I only wish to know whether I lost that game."
"You know the rules," she said.
"Yes, I know the rules."
"If it were not for the forfeit I should not insist," she continued, returning to the buttercup. "It seems unfair to take the point. Does the eye pain, Bobby?"
"Not so much," I replied, sticking to the truth to the bitter end. My ally was becoming a nuisance.
"Let me see it," she said, gently removing the handkerchief. The eye must have looked bad, for her face changed.
"Oh, you poor fellow!" she said, and I fairly revelled in the delight of my own misery.
"Then I lost that point," said I, stifling conscience.
She replaced the handkerchief. Her hand had become suddenly steady.
"No," she said, "you did not lose the point. I concede it."
I wondered whether my ears were tricking me.
"Then, if I won the point, I won the set," I said.
"And the forfeit——"
"The forfeit was that I should kiss you," said Ysonde gravely.
"That was not all——"
"No, you are to be allowed to tell me that you love me," continued Ysonde in calm, even tones.
"Then," said I, flushing uncomfortably, "when will you pay the forfeit?"
"Now, if you wish it. Shall I kiss you?"
She leaned on the turf, one hand hidden by the buttercups. She had dropped the handkerchief, and I picked it up and held it to my eye with my left hand. Then, with my right hand I took her right hand, listlessly dropping beside her, and I looked her full in the eyes.
"When we made the wager," I said, "we were boy and girl. That was almost twenty-four hours ago. You need not kiss me, Ysonde."
"A kiss means more at our age," she said.
"We were very silly," said I.
"It should mean love," she said faintly.
"Indeed it should," I said.
Ysonde sat straight up among the field flowers.
"I do not love," she said.
"I know it," I replied gaily, and I let the bandage drop from my eye. "The pain is all gone," I said, closing my left eye to see whether my vision was impaired.
I was totally blind in my right eye.
For an instant the shock staggered me; things reeled a little. I don't know how long I sat, mouth open, staring at the sun with one sound, one sightless eye. Ysonde, her chin on her hands, lay with her face turned towards the White Lady, a towering peak in the east.
"Come," I said rising, "your aunt will be impatient; dinner has been served this half-hour."
She sprang to her feet. She had been in a reverie, and gave me a long look which I could not define.
"And your eye doesn't pain," she asked after a moment.
"No," I said, for the pain had disappeared with the sight; "I am all right except a headache."
"And you can see perfectly well?"
It was at this point that Truth and I parted; for what was a lost eye that it should cause a moment's regret?
It was about this time that the oculist came to Holderness and visited me at the Rosebud Inn. I was in a dark room; Ysonde thought it better, believing darkness a cure for headache.
When the oculist walked in—his name was Keen—he said: "What the devil are you doing here?"
"I am blind in one eye. Will it be noticeable?" I asked.
"Banged in the eye?" he inquired, opening the shutters.
"Banged in the eye," I repeated, as he bent over me.
His examination scarcely lasted ten seconds. After a moment he rose and closed the shutters, and I stood up in the darkness.
"Will it disfigure me?" I asked again.
"No—an oculist could tell the difference perhaps. You may go out in three weeks."
"Nonsense!" growled Keen. "You have another eye yet."
"But I am an artist," I said, in a low voice. "Is there hope?"
I heard Keen sit down in the room, and his rocking-chair squeaked through five minutes of the bitterest darkness I ever knew. I could stand it no longer, so I rose and felt my way toward the rocking-chair. I wanted to touch him—I was terrified. Well, it only lasted a few minutes—most men pass through crises. I was glad he did not attempt to pity me.
"It was Miss——" he began.
"Hush!" I whispered; "who told you, Keen?"
"She did," he replied; "of course she need never know you are——"
"Blind," I said. "No, she need not know it."
I heard him feeling for the door.
"Turn your back," he said.
I did so.
"Three weeks?" I inquired over my shoulder.
"What the devil shall I do?" I said savagely.
"Think on your sins, old chap"—we had studied together in the Latin Quarter—"think of Pepita——"
"I won't," I cried. Keen hummed in a mischievous voice—
"Quand le sommeil sur ta famille
Autour de toi s'est répandu,
Oh, Pepita, charmante fille,
Mon amour, à quoi penses-tu?"
"Keen," I said, "I'll break your head if I am one-eyed."
"I'm a married man," he replied, "and I refuse your offer. That's better, I like to hear the old ring in your voice, Bobby; keep a stiff upper lip. Surgery and painting are not the only things we learned in the Quarter."
I heard the door close behind him, then turned and groped my way towards the bed.
How I ever lived through those three weeks! Well, I did, and every fresh pipe of bird's-eye tasted sweeter for my dis- obedience.
"Write him," I dictated through the closed door to Ysonde, "write him that I am smoking six pipes a day, as he directed." After all, if I was going to be blind in one eye, I did not care whether tobacco hastened the blow, and I was glad to poke a little fun at Keen.
Ysonde could not imagine why the doctor had recommended smoking—she had heard that it weakened the sight; but she wrote as I directed, merely expressing her distrust in Keen, which amused me, for he is now one of the most famous oculists in the world.
"Yes," said I, through the keyhole, "Keen is young, and has much to learn; but I dare not disobey orders. How is your aunt?"
"My aunt is well, thank you, Bobby; did you like the sherbet she made?"
"Yes; that's six times you have asked me." I was wearying of lying. The sherbet reposed among the soapsuds of my toilet jar.
Ysonde's aunt, a tall, aristocratic beauty, whose perfectly arched eyebrows betrayed the complacent vacancy of her mind, had actually prepared, with her own fair hands, a sherbet for me. I cannot bear sweets of any kind.
"Aunt Lynda will make another to-morrow," cried Ysonde through the keyhole.
"Thank her for me," said I faintly; "Ysonde, I am coming out to-night."
"It is not yet three weeks!" cried Ysonde.
"It will be three weeks to-morrow at one p.m. My eyes won't suffer at night. I should like to smell the woods a little. Will you walk with me this evening?"
"If Aunt Lynda will allow me," said Ysonde. After a moment she added, "I will ask her now," and I heard her rise from the chair outside my door.
When she came back, I was lying face downward on my bed, miserable, dreading the hour when I should first face my own reflection in a mirror. I heard her step on the stairs, and I jumped up and groped my way toward the door.
"Bobby," she called softly.
"Ysonde," I answered, with my mouth close to the keyhole. She started: I heard her, for she did not know I was so near. I bent my head to listen.
"Aunt Lynda says you are foolish to go out before to-morrow——"
"The evening won't hurt me."
But suppose—only suppose your disobedience should cost you the sight of your eye?"
"It won't," said I.
"Think how I should feel?"
"It won't," I repeated. The perspiration suddenly dampened my forehead, and I wiped it away.
"Can't you wait?" she pleaded.
"No. Have you your aunt's permission to walk with me this evening?"
"Yes," she said; "shall I read to you a little while?"
For an hour I listened to her voice, and if it was Lovelace or Herrick or Izaac Walton, I do not know, upon my soul; but I do know that my dark room was filled with the delicious murmur; and I heard the trees moving in the evening wind, and the twitter from sleepy birds from the hedge. It might have been the perfume from the roses under my window—perhaps it was the fragrance of her hair, she bent so close to my door outside—but a sweet smell tinctured the darkness about me, stealing into my senses, and I rose and opened my blinds a little way.
It was night. I heard the rocky river rushing through the alders and the pines swaying in the moonlight. The ray from the moon which silvered the windows caused my eyes no pain.
I listened. Through the low music of her voice crept the song of a hermit thrush. A breeze stirred the roses under my window; the music of voice and thrush was stilled. Then, in the silence, some wild creature cried out from the mountainside.
"Cry—cry out!" said I, for my soul was heavy with the dread of the coming morning.
"What are you murmuring in there by yourself," whispered Ysonde through the door.
"Nothing—was it a panther on Noon Peak?"
"I heard nothing," she said.
"Nor I," said I, opening the door.
The light from the lamp dazzled but did not hurt me. She laid down the book and came swiftly toward me.
"Now," said I, "we will walk under the stars—with your aunt's permission."
I heard her sigh as she took my arm: "Bobby, I am so glad your eye is well. What could you have done if you had lost the sight of an eye?"
The morning was magnificent. A gentleman with symmetrical whiskers, named Blylock, and I were standing on the verandah of the Rosebud Inn. Blylock's mind was neutral. His lineage was long, his voice modulated, his every action acutely impersonal. The subdued polish of Harvard was reflected from his shoes to his collar. When he smoked he smoked judiciously, joylessly.
"And you lost the fish?" said I.
"Yes," said Blylock, with colourless enthusiasm.
"In the West Branch?"
"Near the forks," said Blylock; "do you know the pool?"
I regretted that I did not. He had once asked me whether I knew the Stryngbenes of Beacon Street, and I had replied with the same regret. Now he learned that I was culpably ignorant of the pool at the West Branch forks.
Blylock looked at the mountains. The White Lady was capped with mist, but-except for that there was not a cloud in the sky. The Gilded Dome towered, clear-cut as a cameo, against the pure azure of the northern horizon; Lynx Peak, jagged and cold, shot up above the pines of Crested Hawk, whose sweeping base was washed by the icy river.
"Do you think he might weigh five pounds?" I asked.
"Possibly," replied Blylock. "I regret exceedingly that I lost him."
"But, thank God, Plymouth Rock still stands!" was what I felt he expected me to say. I did not; I merely asked him if he had ever experienced emotion. "Why, of course," he answered seriously; but when I begged him to tell me when, he suspected a joke, and smiled. If I had a son who smiled like that I would send him to Tony Pastor's. Oh, that smile!—gentle, vacant, blank as the verses of a Brook Farm bard, bleaker than Bunker Hill.
"For sweet charity's sake," said I, "tell me why you do it, Blylock."
"Do what?" he asked.
"Oh," said I wearily, "nothing—lose a five-pound trout, for instance."
"I had on a brown hackle," said Blylock; "it was defective."
"It bust," said I brutally; "did you curse?"
"Yes," replied Blylock. Ysonde came out and we took off our shooting-caps.
"Put them on again directly," said Ysonde, nestling deep into the collar of her jacket; "is it too cold for the trout to rise, Mr. Blylock?"
Blylock looked at the sky and then at his finger-tips. There was a seal ring on one of his fingers which I was tired of seeing.
I listened to his even voice; I noticed his graceful carriage; I even noticed the momentary flush on his cold cheeks. Oh, how tired I was of looking at him! It wearied me as it wearies me to read advertisements in the cars of the elevated railroads. But I liked him.
"Blylock," said I, "get a gait on you, and we'll whip the stream to the Intervale before dinner."
"The water will be cold," said Ysonde; "you ought to have waders."
Now, Ysonde knew that I had no waders. I loathed them. Blylock always wore waders.
"Thank you!" said Blylock; "I will not neglect to wear them."
I looked at Ysonde and met her eyes.
"Oh!" said I, spoiling everything with intentional obstinacy; "Mr. Blylock never forgets his waders." For a moment the colour touched her cheek, but she treated me much better than I deserved.
"Bobby," said Ysonde, "remember that you have been ill, and if you wade the river in knickerbockers you will be obliged to eat sherbet again."
So she knew the mystery of the soap-suds.
"I have no waders, Ysonde," I said humbly; "do you think I had better not go?"
"You know best," she said indifferently, and I got my deserts, to the placid satisfaction of Blylock.
Ysonde walked away to rejoin her aunt, and I loafed about sniffing the breeze, sulkily, undecided, until Blylock appeared with rod and creel.
"Going?" inquired Blylock.
"No; I shall paint," I said, after a moment's silence.
He joined Ysonde and her aunt, and I saw them all walking toward the trail that crosses the river by the White Cascade. Blylock had undertaken to teach Ysonde to cast. I was surprised when she accepted, for I myself had taught her to cast. However, I never asked any explanation, and she never offered any—to my secret annoyance.
It was just two weeks that I had been out of the dark room. I was totally blind in my right eye, but nobody except Keen and myself knew it. I was becoming used to it. I was only too thankful that the eye, to all appearances, was as perfect as the other eye. But I dreaded to begin painting again. I feared that everything might be colourless and lopsided, that I should be a ruined man as far as my profession was concerned, and I had put off the beginning of work from sheer cowardice. Nobody but an artist can appreciate my mental suffering; nobody but an artist knows that two eves are little enough to see with. Had the accident destroyed the balance of my sight? Would my drawing be exaggerated—unstable, badly constructed, out of proportion? Would my colour be weak or brutally crude? I decided to find out without further delay; so when Ysonde and her aunt and Blylock had disappeared, I went to my room, gathered up my well-worn sketching kit, screwed two canvases into the holder, and marched manfully out of the door into the sunlit forest.
Ridiculous Billy followed me. This capricious porcupine had taken a violent fancy to me from the moment I emerged from the dark room. Of course I preferred his friendship to his enmity—I still bore a red scar on my ankle; but what soothed me most was his undisguised hatred of Blylock. Billy bit him whenever he could, and the blood of Bunker Hill appealed to Heaven from the piazza of the Rosebud Inn.
Blylock took it very decently—the porcupine was Ysonde's property; but, although he himself suffered in silence and Ysonde darned his golf-stockings as partial reparation, I always fancied that his blood was importuning Heaven, and, remembering George III., I trembled for Ridiculous Billy.
Sometimes I was sorry for Blylock, and sometimes I was not, especially when Ysonde darned his golf-stockings. Blylock was Lynda Sutherland's cousin, but I demonstrated to Ysonde that this did not concern her. Sometimes I wished that Blylock would go back to Beacon Street, and yet I had grown fond of him in a way. The porcupine followed me into the forest, poking his ratlike muzzle into every soft, rotten stump, twitching his white whiskers. A red squirrel followed him from tree to tree, chattering and squealing with rage, but Billy lumbered along, stolid, blasé, entirely wrapped up in his own business. What that business was I dared not inquire, for Billy's malicious eyes boded evil for interlopers, and I respected his privacy.
Walking along the fragrant brown trail, barred with sunlight, I recalled that cold grey morning in camp when Sutherland—Lynda's late lamented—waking from the troubled dreams incident on an overdose of hot whisky and water, called on me to take "that thing away!" "That thing" was Billy. From his nest among the pine-clad ridges he had smelled our pork, and, being a free-born American, he had descended to appropriate it. In the grey of the morning, through the curling camp-fire smoke, I saw Billy in the act of removing the pork from the crotches of a spruce tree.
"What is it? Take it away, for God's sake!" bellowed Sutherland, associating Billy with other grotesque phantoms incident on overdoses.
"It's a porcupine," said I.
"Pink?" faltered Sutherland.
"Go to sleep, you brute!" I muttered, not addressing the porcupine. I took a poncho, a thick one, and ran the porcupine down. Then I enveloped him in the blanket and got a rope about his neck, tied him to a tree and examined my wounds. One of our guides helped me pull the spines from my person, and that night the other guide led Ridiculous Billy into the settlement, which consists of the Rosebud inn and three barns. The taking of Billy preceded Sutherland's death by twenty-four hours; he was mauled by a panther whose cubs he was investigating. His wife, Lynda, who had secured a few months' reprieve from his presence, and who first heard of his death at Fortress Monroe, came north with Ysonde. Sutherland was buried in New York, and two weeks later Lynda and Ysonde came to the Rosebud Inn. All this happened three years ago, and during those three years Billy, gorgeous with a silver collar, had never forgiven me for removing him from his native wilds. His attitude toward the household was unmistakable. Lynda he avoided; Ysonde he followed with every mark of approbation; Blylock he loathed; and now he had taken this sudden shine to me.
Billy and I followed the trail, solemnly, deliberately. The trail was a blind one, now plain, brown and gold, with trampled wet leaves, now invisible, a labyrinth of twisted moose-bush and hemlock, badly blazed. But we knew our business, Billy and I, for presently we crossed a swift brook, darkling among mossy hollows, and, turning to the right, entered a moist glade all splashed with dewy sunlight.
"Here," said I, unstrapping my camp-stool, "is a woodland Mecca," and I drove my white umbrella deep into the bank where the brook widened in sunny shallows.
Billy eyed me a moment, rolled a pine cone over with his nose, and mounted a tree. I liked to watch him mount trees. He did not climb; he neither scrambled nor scratched, he simply flowed up the trunk.
"Pleasant dreams," said I, as he curled up in the first moss-covered crotch and I began to set my palette.
In the fragrant, sun-soaked glade the long grass, already crisp as hay, was vibrating with the hum of insects. Shy forest butterflies waved their soft wings over the linnia, long-legged gnats, with spotted wings, danced across the fern patches, and I saw a great, sleepy moth hanging from a chestnut twig among the green branches overhead. His powdery wings, soft as felt, glistened like gilded dust.
"An imperial moth," said I to myself, for I was glad to recognise a friend. Then a wood-thrush ruffled his feathers under the spreading ferns, and I saw a baby rabbit sit up and wriggle its nose at me.
"Lucky for you I'm not a fox," said I, picking up a pointed sable brush, and drew the outlines of the chestnut tree, omitting the porcupine in the branches.
When I had indicated a bit of the forest beyond the glade, using a pointed brush dipped in garance rose-foncée, I touched in a mousey shadow or two, scrubbed deep, warm tones among my trees, using my rag when I pleased, and then, digging up a brushful of sunny green and yellows, slapped it boldly on the foreground, this I drew a wavering sky reflection, indicated a sparkle among the dewy greens, scrubbed more sunlight into the shallow depths of the brooks, and leaned back with a nervous sigh. What had God taken from me when He took the light from my eye? I pondered in silence, while around me the brown-winged forest flies buzzed and hummed and droned an endless symphony. To me, with my single trembling eye, my painted foreground seemed aglow with sunlight, and the depths of the quiet forest, wrapped in hazy mystery, appeared true and just, slumbering there upon canvas.
The brook prattled to me of dreams, and splendid hopes, the pines whispered of fame, the ferns rustled and nodded consolation. I raised my eyes. High in the circle of quivering blue above a grey hawk hung, turning, turning, turning in silence.
A light step sounded among the fallen leaves. Slowly I turned my head, my sight dazzled by the sky, but before my eye had found its focus I heard her low laughter and felt her touch on my arm.
"You were asleep," she said. "You must not deny it—do you hear me?"
"I was not asleep," I answered, rising from my camp-stool.
"Then you are blind. Why, I have been standing there for two minutes."
"Two minutes? Then I believe I must be blind," said I, turning so that I could see her better. She stood on my right.
"I expected to be challenged," said she. "I did not hear your qui vive."
Then she sat down on my camp-stool and gazed at my canvas with amazement.
I watched her in silence, proud of work, happy that she should recognise it, for she knew good work every time. After a while I began to chafe at her silence and I bent my head to see her face. I shall never forget the pained surprise in her eyes nor the quiver of her voice as she said—
"Bobby, this is childish! What earth do you mean by such work?"
The blow had fallen. At. first I was stunned. Then terror seized me; I grasped a low, swinging branch to steady myself, for I felt as though I were falling.
"Bobby," she cried, "you are white! Are you ill?"
"No," said I. "That sketch was only a joke—to tease you."
"It is a very stupid joke," she said coldly. "I cannot understand how an artist could bring himself to do such a thing."
"It was a poor joke," said I, red as fire. "Pardon me, Ysonde; I don't know what possessed me to paint like that."
She picked up my paint rag and swept it across the face of my canvas. Then, turning to me—
"Now you are forgiven. Come and talk to me, Bobby."
The sun climbed to the zenith, and still we sat there—she with her round, white chin on her wrist, I at her feet.
Billy, who had descended from his perch in the chestnut-tree as soon as he heard Ysonde's voice, rambled about us, snuffling and snooping into every tuft of fern, one evil eye fixed on us, one on the red squirrel who chattered and twitched his brush, and rushed up and down a big dead tree in a delirium of temper.
"No," replied Ysonde to my question; "Mr. Blylock did not fish. He talked to Lynda most of the time. I came here because I had an intuition that you were going to paint."
"But," said I, "how did you know I was coming here? I never before painted in this glade."
"I don*t know how I knew it," said Ysonde slowly.
"Witchcraft?" I asked.
"Possibly," she said, with an almost imperceptible frown.
"I have noticed already," I said, "that you have a mysterious faculty for reading my thoughts and divining my intentions. Are you aware of it?"
"No," she said shortly.
"But you have," I persisted.
"You flatter yourself, Bobby; I am not thinking of you every minute."
"Suppose," said I, after a moment's silence, "that you loved me——"
"I shall not suppose so," she answered haughtily.
"Let us suppose, then," said I, "that I love you——"
"Really, Bobby, you are more than tiresome."
I thought for awhile in silence. The wood- thrush, who had come quite close to Ysonde—all wild creatures loved her—began to sing. The baby rabbit sat up to listen and wriggle its nose, and the speckled gnats danced giddily.
"Suppose," said I, with something in my voice that silenced her, "suppose that you loved me, and that I had lost my eye. Would you still love me?"
"Yes," said Ysonde, with an effort.
"And suppose," I continued, "I had been born with an eye blind; could you have loved such a man?"
"I do not think I could," she answered truthfully.
"Probably not," I repeated, biting the stem of a wild strawberry. After a moment I looked up into the sky. The hawk was not there; but I was not looking for the hawk.
"Come," said I, rising, "dinner must be ready, and your aunt should not be kept waiting."
I gathered up my sketching kit, tenderly, perhaps, for I should never use it again, and whistled Billy to heel, which he did when he chose.
Perhaps it was something in my face—I don't know—but Ysonde suddenly came up to me and took both my hands.
"Are you going to be sensible, Bobby?" she asked. Her face was very serious.
"Yes, Ysonde," I said.
But she did not seem satisfied—there came a faint glow on her face—it may have been a stray sunbeam—and she dropped my hands and whistled to Billy.
"Come!" she cried, with a tinge of anger in her voice that I had never heard before. "Heel, Billy!"
But as Billy lingered, sniffing and rooting among the ferns, she picked up a twig and struck Billy on the nose. The blow was gentle—it would not have hurt a mosquito—but I was astounded, for it was the first time I had ever seen her lift her hand in anger to any living creature. Perplexed and wondering I followed her through the forest, my locked colour-box creaking on my shoulder.
"To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath," said I, knocking my pipe against the verandah railing.
"Scripture," said Blylock approvingly.
"For this is the law and the prophets," I continued, grateful that the Bible had received Boston's approval.
"Scripture," repeated Blylock, with the smile of a publisher mentioning the work of a very young author.
"Exactly," I replied; "also the Koran—I forget whether Tupper mentions it."
"Probably," said Blylock seriously.
"Probably," I repeated, inserting a straw into the stem of my pipe. Ysonde frowned at me.
"Blylock," I continued, smiling at nothing, "have you read Emerson?"
"Heavens!" murmured Blylock under his breath.
I had aroused him. I made it a point to stir him up once every day, satisfied to allow him to relapse into his normal Beacon Street trance afterward.
"Your scriptural quotation," said Ysonde, with a dangerous light in her eyes, "would indicate that you have suffered a loss."
"From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath," I repeated. "Yes, having nothing, I have lost all I have, which," I continued, "is, of course, nothing. But I am encroaching on Brook Farm—and the Koran——"
"And on the patience of your friends," said Ysonde; "don't try to be epigrammatic, Bobby."
There was a glass of water standing on a table to my right. I did not see it, my right eye being sightless, and I knocked it over. I was confused and startled at this—it brought back to me my misfortune so cruelly that I apologised more than was necessary, and received a puzzled stare from Ysonde. I noted it and chafed helplessly. Lynda Sutherland came out on the porch, and I rose and brought her a chair.
"The moonlight reminds me of Venice," said Lynda, turning her lovely face to the moon.
We all agreed with her, although we knew it was nonsense, for we all had lived in Venice. If she had said it reminded her of peach ice cream, we would have agreed. She was too beautiful for one to analyse what she said—she was too beautiful to analyse it herself. I remembered with a shock that the late lamented had once referred to his wife's being "d——d ornamental," and I was glad the panther had clawed his besotted soul from his body. But Sutherland had never said a truer thing in his life; drunkard that he was, he always spoke the truth.
"Lynda," cooed Ysonde, "do you think that we might camp for a few days with Bobby and Mr. Blylock? They are going to the Black Water to-morrow, and Mr. Blylock asked us."
"We take two guides," added Blylock vaguely.
"We will only stay three day«," said I.
"We will have a trout supper," suggested Blylock.
"And flapjacks for breakfast," said I.
"I should so like to go," pleaded Ysonde.
Blylock examined the moon, and I saw Lynda look at him.
"Is there any danger?" she asked.
I was discreetly silent; the question was not addressed to me.
"I think not," said Blylock, turning around. "I carry a rifle."
"Three cheers for Bunker Hill!" I said, "there is nothing to shoot——"
"Except—panthers," observed Blylock, dryly.
At this tactless remark I expected to hear Lynda refuse to go. She did not, although she looked at Blylock a little reproachfully. He, serenely unconscious, examined his seal ring in silence. Possibly Lynda did not believe that panthers ranged so near the inn, perhaps she was not ungrateful to the last one that had patted her late lamented into a better land.
"There are," said I truthfully, "a few panthers ranging between the Gilded Dome and Crested Hawk. Sometimes they get as far as Noon Peak and the White Lady, sometimes even as far as Lynx Peak, but I never heard of anything bigger than a lynx being seen near the Black Water."
"I have been in these forests every summer and autumn for twenty years," said Blylock, "and I never saw either panther or lynx; have you?" he ended, turning toward me. Then recollecting that I had witnessed the mauling of the late lamented, he turned rosy, and I was pleased to see that he was capable of experiencing two whole emotions in one evening.
I did not answer—it was not necessary, of course. I could show him the panther skin in my studio some day when I wanted to take a rise out of him. It measured nine feet from tip to tip—it might have measured more had the panther had time to nourish himself with Sutherland.
Now, Ysonde must have read what was passing in my mind, for she looked shocked and nestled closer to Lynda.
"What is a lynx?" demanded Lynda, shivering.
"There are two species found here," replied Blylock, glad to change the subject. "One, the big grey Canada lynx; the other, the short-tailed American lynx——"
"Otherwise, bob-cat, Lucivee, and wild-cat," I interposed. "They make a horrid noise in the woods, and are harmless."
"If you let them alone," added Blylock, conscientious to the end.
"Which we will," said Ysonde gaily. "We are going, are we not, Lynda?"
"No," said Lynda firmly.
But the next morning, when the first sunbeams scattered the mist which clung to copse and meadow and sent it rolling up the flanks of the Gilded Dome, Lynda said "Yes," and possibly her pretty mountain costume tipped the balance in Ysonde's favour, for Lynda looked like a fin-de-siècle Diana in that frock, and she knew it, bless her fair face!
The guides, Jimmy Ellis and Buck Hanson, were tightening straps and rolling blankets on the lawn outside.
"Buck," said I, "how many pounds do you take in?"
"Fifty, Sir," drawled Buck, wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand.
"And you, Jimmy?" I asked.
"About forty, Sir," replied Ellis seriously.
"I cal'late," added Buck, "thet the ladies will want extry blankets."
"They will," I replied; "the wind is hauling around to the north-west." Then I took a step nearer and dropped my voice.
"Any panthers seen lately, Jimmy?"
"I hain't seed none," replied Ellis.
"What was it killed the white heifer two weeks ago?"
"Waal," replied Jimmy, reflecting a little, "I cal'late it was a cat."
"It maught be a b'ar," said Buck; "I seed one daown to Drakes's clearin' last week come Sabbath."
"Sho!" drawled Ellis, returning to his blankets.
"I understand," said I, "that Ezra Field found a thirty-pound trap missing last week."
"Whar?" asked Hanson.
"Back of the gum-camp on Swift River," I replied.
Ellis looked cynical and Hanson laughed—the silent, confiding laughter of the honest.
"Ezry was scairt haf tu deth by a bob-cat, onct, into Swift River forks," said Ellis; "he sees things whar there hain't nawthin'."
"Do you think," said I, after a long pull at my pipe, "that panthers ever attack? I mean when you let their cubs alone."
"Hain't never seed no panther," replied Buck.
"You saw Mr. Sutherland when he was brought in three years ago?"
"Yes, Sir; you and Cy Fields toted him in."
"Well, you saw the panther we brought in also, didn't you?"
"Yes, Sir, but that was a daid panther," replied Buck prosaically.
I laughed, and walked towards the piazza.
"All I want to know is whether you fellows have heard that these creatures are bothering honest people who mind their business," I said over my shoulder, and both the big guides laughed and answered, "No fear o' that, Sir!"
Half an hour later we were on the trail to the Black Water.
The morning was perfect, the air keen as September breezes on the moors, and the mottled sunlight spotted our broad trail, which twisted and curved through the tangled underbrush along the bank of a mountain stream.
Blylock and Ysonde were well ahead, the latter swinging a light, steelshod mountain stick; next came Lynda, beautiful and serene, approving the beauty of the forest in pleased little platitudes. I followed close behind, silent, spellbound by the splendour of the forest, charmed by the soft notes of the nesting thrushes and the softer babble of Lynda and the brook. Broad, dewy leaves slapped our faces; filmy, floating spiders' meshes crossed our chins and cheeks, and tickled Ysonde's pretty nose.
"You may walk ahead," she said to Blylock, "and break the spiders' webs for me.
"With pleasure," said Blylock seriously, and I saw him take the lead, his single eyeglass gleaming in the sunshine.
"It is written," said I flippantly, "that the first shall be last and the last first—I believe that I should take the lead."
"Please do," said Ysonde coolly, "it is your proper place."
Now, Ysonde had never before said anything to me quite as sharp as that, although doubtless I had often invited it, having much of the ass in my composition.
"Do you want me to go?" I asked inanely.
"If you care to clear the path, I would not object," said Ysonde.
"For you and Lynda?" said I, feeling that I was speaking regardless of either sound or sense.
"And for Mr. Blylock," added Ysonde quietly.
"With pleasure." said I, vaguely wishing my tongue might stop wagging before I said something hopelessly foolish. "I shall clear the way for you—and Mr. Blylock."
I had said it. Even Lynda raised her lovely eyes to me in disapproval. As for Ysonde, her face wore that pained expression that I dreaded to see; I never had seen it but once before—in the glade—and I felt that my proper place was among the wits of a country store. A boor in the kitchen of the Rosebud Inn would have had more instinctive tact—unless he was jealous, that is the word! I was jealous—vulgarly jealous—of Blylock. Perhaps Ysonde read the shame in my face—perhaps she had divined my thoughts as she did when she chose, but she saw I was miserable—disgusted with myself, and she raised me to her own level with a smile so sweet and chivalrous that I felt there was manhood left in me yet.
"Bobby." she said, "you promised to show me how to blaze a trail. Have you forgotten?"
I dropped out of the path to the right, she to the left; Lynda passed us to join Blylock, who was waiting; the two big guides tramped by, their boots creaking on the trodden leaves. I drew the light hatchet from my belt, removed the leather blade-cover, and started on.
"This is all it is," I said, and struck a light shaving from the bark of a hemlock, cutting it at the base with the next stroke so that the bit of bark fell, leaving a white scar on the tree-trunk.
"Always on both sides," said I, repeating the stroke on the other side of the tree. "Will you try it, Ysonde?"
She took the hatchet in her small, gloved hand, and the chips flew along the trail until I begged her to spare the forest.
"But the trees don't die!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Bobby, you're joking—am I overdoing it?"
"A little." said I. "A blind man could follow this forest boulevard."
"You are blind," she said calmly.
"Blind!" I cried, with a start.
"To your own interests, Bobby. Aunt Lynda likes you, but she doesn't like to hear you speak flippantly. If you destroy her trust in you she will not let us walk together when we please."
We moved on in silence for awhile, until Ysonde, tired of blazing, handed me the hatchet.
"Yes," said I, "I am blind. I cannot lead you—on any trail."
"Nor I you," she said simply.
I did not reply, for who but I should know that through the fragrant forest, bathed in sun and dew, the blind led on the blind?
"You have formed a habit," said Ysonde, "of muttering to yourself. Are you afraid to have me know your, thoughts?"
"Yes," said I, turning; "I am afraid."
She did not answer, but I saw colour deepen, and I feared that I had spoken bitterly.
"I was thinking that I had forgotten my flask," I continued gaily.
"Mr. Blylock has your flask. You were not thinking of that," said Ysonde.
"Well," said I, "then tell me of what I was thinking. You know you can read my thoughts—when you take the trouble," I added prudently.
"Bobby," said Ysonde, "I would take more trouble for your sake than you dream of."
I stopped short in the trail and faced her; but she passed me impatiently. I saw her bite her lip, as she always did when annoyed.
The chestnut, oak, and dappled beech-woods were giving place to pines and hemlocks as we wheeled from the Gilded Dome trail into the narrower trail that leads over the long divide to the Black Water. Along the rushing stream elder and hazel waved, silver birches gleamed, deep set in tangled depths, and poplars rise along the water's edge, quivering, as the breezes freshened, every glistening? leaf a-tremble.
Under foot brown pine-needles spread polished matting over the forest mould, for, we had entered the pine-belt, and the long trail had just begun.
The breeze in the pines!—it will always make me think of Ysonde. Wild, wind-swept harmonies, swelling from the windy ridge, the whisper and sigh and rush of water, the grey ledges, the deep sweep of precipices where lonely rivers glimmer lost in the sea of trees—these I remember as I think of Ysonde; these and more too—the dome of green, the fragments of sky between mixed branches, the silence broken by a single bird-note.
The trail crossed a sunny glade, mossy and moist, bordered by black-birch thickets and carpeted with wintergreen. Ysonde leaned upon her steel-staff and looked at her own reflection in the placid spring pool shining among the ferns.
"I am very much tanned," she said.
"Are you thirsty?" I asked.
"There is a little freckle beside my nose," observed Ysonde.
"It is becoming," I said truthfully.
"Yes, I am thirsty," said Ysonde. "What do you know about freckles?"
I handed her a cup of water. She drank a little, looked over the rim of the cup reflectively; drank a little more, sighed, smiled, and poured what was left of the water upon the moss.
"A libation to the gods," she explained.
"To which?" I asked.
"Ah!" she said, "I had not thought of that. Well, then, to—to——"
I looked at her, and she tossed the cup to me, saying: "I shall not tell you; I am getting into the habit of telling you everything."
"But—but the gentleman's name?" I urged.
"No! no! Goodness me, may I not have a secret all my own?"
"Very well," said I, "you pour out libations to a gentleman god and I shall even up matters. Here's to the lady!"
"Minerva, of course; you are so wise," suggested Ysonde.
"It's neither to Minerva nor to the owl," said I; "it's to the Lady Aphrodite."
"Pooh!" said Vsonde, "you are not clever; Hermes might——"
"He careful, Bobby; your sleeve is getting wet."
"Now, how should I know?" exclaimed Ysonde. "Mercy! I'm not a little Greek maiden."
I strapped the cup to my belt, tightened the buckle of my rod-cast, lighted my pipe, and sat down on a log.
"Well, Master Hobby," said Ysonde, in that bantering voice which she used when perfectly happy.
"Well, Mistress Ysonde?" said I.
"Are you going to lose the others?"
I pointed to the foot of the long slope where, among the tree-trunks, something blue fluttered.
"It's Lynda's veil," said Ysonde; "and there is Mr. Blylock also. They are sitting down."
"True," said I; "let us rest also; we have been hours on the trail. Here is a dry spot on this log."
Ysonde sat down. Now, whenever Ysonde seated herself there was something in the pose of her figure that made me think of courts and kings and coronations. The little ceremony of seating herself ended, I resumed my seat also, feeling it a privilege accorded only to the very great. I told her this, and she pretended to agree with me.
"You must be something at Court," she said; "you cannot be an earl, for earls are blonde and slender; you cannot be a count, for counts are dark and dapper; nor a duke, for dukes are big and always red in the face; you might be a baron—no, they are fierce and merciless——"
"So am I."
"No, you're not; you can't be a marquis either, for they are plausible and treacherous."
"Then I'll be a Master of 'Ounds," I insisted; "let the title go by the board."
She agreed, and I was installed Master of Staghounds to her petite Majesty—this position permitting me to sit occasionally in her presence.
"I am thirsty again," said Ysonde. I brought her a cup of ice-cold water, into which I dropped a dozen wild strawberries. She touched a berry with the tip of her pink tongue, which was bad manners, and I told her so.
"What do you know about Queen's etiquette?" she said disdainfully, and, finding the berries ripe, she ate three and smiled at me.
A thrush came fearlessly to her very feet and drank from the spring, a mottled wood-toad made futile efforts to clamber up the log into her lap, and two red lizards peeped at her from a cleft in the boulder beside us.
"It's queer," said I, watching the scrambling toad, "how you seem to fascinate all wild creatures. Shall I poke the toad away?"
"No, I am not afraid. I am very glad they all come to me."
"You were possibly a dryad once," I hazarded.
"Possibly. And you?"
"Probably the oak-tree that sheltered you."
There is something in the note of a very young bird that I have noticed in Ysonde's voice, but now, as she laughed—oh, such soft, sweet laughter—it seemed to me as though the bird had grown, and its note trembled with purer, truer melody.
"Sheltered me? I imagine it!" she said, with a wonderful sweetness in her eyes. "Hark! Mr. Blylock is calling!"
She rose with capricious grace, as I answered Blylock in a view-halloo which awoke the echoes among the cliffs above us.
When we came up to them Lynda linked her arm in Ysonde's, and Blylock and I pushed ahead after the plodding guides.
Blylock and I discussed trout-flies and casts and philosophy, with an occasional question to the guides, and as we moved I could hear the light laughter of Lynda and the clear voice of Ysonde singing old songs that were made in France when hawks' bells tinkled in the castle courts and tasselled palfreys pawed the draw-bridge.
It was noon when we entered the Scaur Valley, and luncheon was grateful, but before the leading guide entered the spotted trail which swings to the west above the third spur of Crested Hawk, the sun had dropped into the notch between Mount Eternity and the White Lady, and the Alpen glow crimsoned every peak as we threw down our packs and looked out across the Black Water. "Here," said I, "our journey ends. Princess Ysonde"—I took her gloved hand—"be seated, for below you lies the Black Water—yours by right of conquest."
"I cal'late 't'l be right cold to-night, Ma'am," said Buck Hanson.
"Yes," said Ysonde listlessly.
Night fell over the Black Water before the shelter was raised, but the great camp-fire lighted up the cleared space among the trees, and I saw Ellis staggering in under loads of freshly stripped bark for our roof. Buck Hanson finished thatching the exposed ends with hemlock and spruce. The partition, a broad sheet of heavy bark, separated the "lean-to" into two sections, one for Lynda and Ysonde, the other for Blylock, myself, and the guides.
I had roamed about the underbush lopping off balsam twigs for our bedding, which Blylock brought in and spread over the pine-needle floor.
When Ellis finished roofing the hut with his thick rolls of bark I sent him to the spring below with the camp-kettle, and, picking up an axe, called to Buck to follow.
"I should very much like," said Blylock solemnly, "to chop a tree into sections adequate for the camp-fire."
"Take the axe and my blessing," said I. "I hate to chop."
"It's very good of you," said Blylock, following Buck into the forest, where our firelight glimmered red on rugged trunks towering into the blackness above.
Ysonde came creeping out of her compartment, her eyes and cheeks brilliant in the fire's glare.
"Lynda is lying down," she said; "isn't supper nearly ready? How delicious our bed of balsam smells! What are you doing with your trout-rod?"
1 knotted the nine-foot leader to the line, slipped on an orange miller for a dropper, tied a big coachman three feet above it, and picked up my landing-net.
"What is home without a dinner," I asked, "and what is dinner without a trout? Come down to that rock which hangs over the Black Water, and you shall see your future dinner leaping in the moonlight."
"Bobby the poet," said Ysonde, steadying herself by my arm in the dark descent to the lake. "Poet Bobby, there is no moon on the Black Water."
"Look," said I, "pointing to a pale light in the sky above the White Lady, "the moon will come up over that peak in ten minutes. Give me your hand, it's very dark."
Clinging closely to my arm, she moved through the undergrowth, until we felt the firm flat rock under our feet. The rock ran straight out into the water at right angles from the shore, like a pier.
"Be careful—oh, be careful," she urged "you almost walked off into the water there where the shadows lie so black."
"Then hold me," said I diplomatically and I felt her warm hands close tightly on my left hand. The moon peeped over the shoulder of the White Lady, as I made my first cast into the darkness ahead, and I saw my leader strike the water, now placidly rocking like a lake of molten silver.
"Oh-h!" cried Ysonde softly; "oh the wondrous beauty of it all!"
In the silence I heard the thwack of an axe from the woods above, and Blylock's voice quite plainly. The water lapped the edges of the rock below us, catching thin gleams from the shining sheet beyond and my silk line whistled and whimpered like a keen wind lashing the sea.
Then a wonderful thing occurred. Out of the depths of the burnished water a slim shape shot, showering the black night with spray. Splash! A million little wavelets hurried away into the darkness, crowding, sparkling, dancing in widening circles, while the harsh whirr of the reel rang in my ears, and the silk line melted away like a thread of smoke. The rod staggered in my hand.
"Ysonde, there are two on now!" I whispered.
"Give me the rod," she said excitedly. I handed it to her, and for a moment she felt the splendid strain. Then the fish gave a deep surge to the west, and she gasped and pushed the rod into my hands.
"Living wild things struggling for life," she sighed. "Oh, hurry, Bobby—it pains me so!" and she pressed both hands to her breast.
For a second the joy of the battle left me. I had an impulse to fling the rod into the Black Water; but I am a hunter by instinct.
Deeper and deeper surged the fish, and the rod swayed and bent until the tip brushed my knuckles.
"Oh, kill the creatures," murmured Ysonde, "it's all so fierce and cruel. I never thought you were like that!"
"I am," I muttered, checking a savage sweep toward the north. "Quick, Ysonde—pass me my net."
She did so, and I crawled down to the water's edge, shortening my line at every step. It was soon over. I washed my hands in the Black Water and flung the fish back into the landing-net.
"Now," said I, tossing rod and net over my shoulder, "we will go to dinner. Lean on my shoulder. How brutal you must think me, Ysonde!"
"Yes," said Ysonde.
She passed me—perhaps it was the moonlight that whitened her cheeks—and I saw her enter the circle of red firelight as Lynda came forward to meet her.
"Hello, Ellis!" I called.
"Hallo, Sir!" came back from the spring among the rocks below, and Jimmy Ellis appeared, carrying a chunk of pork.
"Two," I said turning the trout out of the landing-net.
"Good fish, Sir," drawled Ellis. "Mor'n 'nuff for dinner, I suspicion."
"Split them," said I; "broil both as only you can broil them. Spring all right?"
"Sweet and full. Dinner is ready above."
Blylock came down with a blazing pine-knot to inspect the fish, and I heard him rigging his rod ten minutes later as I walked into camp and sat down, glowing from a dip in the tin bucket below.
Lynda and Ysonde were nibbling away at broiled trout, hot toast, and potted pheasant.
"Dear me," said Lynda, "I really must not eat like this. I have had three cups of bouillon to begin with. Ysonde says you are the cleverest angler in the world."
"This, of course," said Ysonde, "may be an exaggeration, for I have seen very few anglers."
"Oh, you're not exaggerating one bit," I assured her. "Is there any toast over there?"
Lynda deigned to serve me with hot bouillon, and Ysonde tossed a slice of toast to me, scandalising the former aristocrat.
"You little savage," said Lynda reproachfully.
"Any trout left?" I asked. "Where is Mr. Blylock?"
"Here's the trout," smiled Ysonde, serving me a bit of the crisp, pink fish. "Mr. Blylock said 'Ha!' several times when he saw your two trout and went down to the rock flourishing his rod very recklessly."
"Mr. Blylock never flourishes anything," observed Lynda.
"No—he waved it, as Merlin might have waved——"
"Why, Ysonde!" said Lynda warmly. I was discreet enough to finish my toast in silence. I was very happy.
"Now, Sir Fisherman," said Ysonde, "a cup of this white wine with your trout? What! a whole bottle! Oh, Lynda, look at him!"
"I see him," said Lynda sleepily. "I wonder what time it is?"
Buck and Jimmy, having finished their dinner, which included a trout between them and a gallon or so of coffee, piled half-a-dozen logs on the fire, backed them with half a tree-trunk, said good-night very politely, and ambled away with the dishes and a pail of boiling water. Ten minutes later Blylock came in with three fair-sized fish, which Lynda admired and I encored, and then Lynda and Ysonde rose with deep reverences, and mockingly prayed to be allowed to retire.
Buck and Jimmy were already sound asleep.
"If they snore," said I, "there will be murder done on Black Water shore."
Blylock lighted a cigar and I my pipe.
"I never sleep well in camp the first night," said I.
"No?" said Blylock politely.
"No, you old jay," said I, for I was becoming very fond of Blylock. That broke the back of Beacon Street for the moment, and Blylock blossomed out as a storyteller without equal. I laughed till it hurt me, softly, of course; and still Blylock, imperturbable, bland, told story after story, until I marvelled, between my spasms of laughter, at the make-up of this Bostonian. At last he went to bed, mildly suggesting that I follow his example, which I did after I finished my pipe, although I knew I should sleep but little.
About ten o'clock Buck Hanson snored. I leaned over Blylock, already fast asleep, and poked the wretched Buck until he stopped. Ten minutes later Ellis began a solo which I have never since heard equalled.
"Great heavens!" I muttered, and jabbed him viciously with my rod-butt, but Jimmy Ellis didn't wake, and before I knew it Buck Hanson, taking a mean advantage, chimed in with a snort that would have done credit to a rogue elephant. This was not all. I dread to record it, but I am trying to tell the truth in this story. I pray the lady to pardon me if I suggest that from the other side of the bark partition came a sound—delicate, discreet, but continuous; in short, a gentle—no! no! I can never bring myself to write it down. I am no brute, Madam—and, after all, only men snore.
A black fly got into my neck and bothered me; later a midge followed the example of his erring colleague. To slay them both was my intention, and in doing so I awoke Blylock, who sleepily protested. This was exasperating, and I told him so, but he was asleep again before I finished. Why on earth I should never be able to sleep more than an hour or so on my first night in the camp, I, who have camped in the forests for years, never can understand.
I endured the concerted snores of the whole camp as long as I could. Then I crawled to the fire outside, hauled two fresh logs into the blaze, swathed myself in my blankets, lighted a fresh pipe, and sat down with my feet to the heat and my back against a sapling.
Outside the wavering ring of firelight the blackness was so profound, so hopelessly impenetrable, that I wondered whether a storm was rolling up behind the Scaur. Trees, brush, rocks, and ledges—the whole huge forest, root and branch—seemed woven together into curtains of utter darkness, which wavered, advanced, and receded with the ever-dying, ever-leaping flames. There was no storm, for I saw stars on the strip of darkness above—little pale stars, timidly glimmering in the depths of a vast vault. The moon had long ago passed behind the Scaur—that sullen mass of menacing ledges, blackening the fathomless stretch of the Black Water. There were noises in the forest, stealthy steps and timid scratchings, now faint, as if across the rocking lake; now nearer; now so sudden and sharp that I involuntarily leaned forward, striving to pierce the outer circle of gloom beyond the fire ring. Once something brushed and rustled among the leaves behind me, and I saw a grey snake glide into the warm glow by my feet.
"Get out!" I whispered, with a gesture of annoyance.
The serpent slowly raised its head, flashed a forked tongue at me, swayed a moment, then noiselessly moved on into the night.
"Salut! O mon Roi!" said a low voice behind me, and Ysonde crept out of her fragrant bed of balsam and curled up in her blanket at my feet.
"Oh, dear," she sighed, "I am so sleepy, but I can't sleep! Why is it, Bobby? I haven't closed my eves once."
"Then," said I, under my breath, "it was not you who——"
"Sh—h! Lynda might hear you——"
"Not probable—judging from symptoms."
"You're impertinent, Bobby—hark! do you hear? What was it?"
"Anything from a toad to a porcupine; the forest is always full of sounds. Are you warm, Ysonde?"
"Yes, and so sleepy that—ah! what was that?"
"Anything from a wood mouse to a weazel."
"I don't believe it!"
"A fawn, perhaps—I heard deer among the pitcher-plants, at the head of the Black Water, a few minutes ago."
"Gentle things," murmured Ysonde, "I wish they would come close to me: I love them—I love everything."
"And everything on earth and sea loves you, Ysonde."
Her lids were drooping and she smiled, half asleep.
"Bobby," she murmured, "I believe I could sleep here by you; you make me sleepy."
Her head dropped and rested on my blanket. After a moment—it may have been an hour—I whispered, bending above her: "Do you sleep, Ysonde?" And again: "Do you sleep?"
The stars flickered and died in the heavens, the flames sank lower, lower, and the great, black night crept into the camp, smothering the fading fire with pale shadows, vague and strange, moving, swaying, until my eyes closed and I slept.
Was it a second? Was it an hour? I sat bolt upright staring at the dying embers before me. A bit of charred log fell in with a soft crash, sending a jet of sparks into the air, where they faded and went out. Went out? There were two—two big green sparks, that had not faded with the others, and I, half asleep, watched them, vaguely curious. Ah! they are moving now; no, they are still again, close together.
The hair stirred on my head, my heart ceased, thumped once, stopped—it seemed hours—and leaped into my throat, almost stifling me with its throbbing. I was not dreaming, for I felt the sweat trickling in my eyebrows, and the roots of my hair were cold and damp.
Ysonde moved in her slumber, frowned, and raised her hand.
A low snarl came from the shadows. Slowly the power of thinking returned to me, but my eye never left those two green sparks, now blazing like lamps there in the darkness.
When would the thing spring? Would I have time to fling Ysonde behind me? Would it spring if I called to Blylock? Blylock had a rifle. Would it spring if I moved or if Ysonde moved again? Gently, scarcely stirring, I tried to free my knees, and the creature snarled twice.
"It's against all precedent in these woods," I thought, "for any of the cat tribe to dare attack a camp." A sudden anger took possession of me, a fury of impatience, and quick as thought I sprang among the embers and hurled a glowing branch straight into the creature's eyes. What happened after that I can scarcely tell. I know a heavy soft mass struck me senseless, but my ears at moments ring yet with that horrid scream, which seemed to split and tear the night asunder, wavering, quavering, long after I was hurled on my back and my eves seemed stark open in oceans of blood.
When I came to my senses it was still dark; or so it seemed to me. After awhile I felt a hand shifting the bandage which pressed heavily over both eyes, and in a moment or two somebody raised me by the shoulders, somebody else by the knees, and I heard Blylock cock his rifle and say: "Give me that torch, Buck, and walk faster."
"Blylock," I gasped, "they're lugging me in as I lugged in Sutherland—mauled by a panther!" and I laughed miserably.
"Hello," said Blylock, in a low voice, "I thought you'd brace up! Are you bleeding much?"
"I don't know," I muttered. "What in hell's the matter?"
"Matter!" repeated Blylock; "the forest has gone mad. It's preposterous, but the woods are full of bob-cats, troops of 'em, and the skulking brutes have actually got the nerve to follow us."
"Can't I walk?" I groaned. "Where is Ysonde?"—for I was beginning to remember.
"Walk? Yes, if you want to bleed to death. The ladies are here between me and the guides who are toting you."
"Ysonde," I murmured, "pardon me for my profanity. I am dazed. Where are you?"
"Here, Bobby," whispered Ysonde; "close beside you. Don't talk, dear; you are very much hurt."
"Are you speaking to me, Ysonde?" I said, doubting my senses.
"To you, Bobby," she whispered close to my ear. "Didn't you know that I loved you? Ah! try to live, and you will know."
My strength was ebbing fast, but I think I muttered something that she understood, for the light touch of her hand was on my cheek, and I felt it tremble. Somebody gave me water. I was choking, and my burning lips shrank and cracked beneath the cool draught. I could hear Jimmy Ellis muttering to Buck Hanson, and Hanson's replies.
"Look out, Buck! Here's a rut. Mr. Blylock, can you dip your pine knot this side? So fashion. Steady, Buck!"
"Steady it is! Hold up his legs. Mr. Blylock, throw a stun by that windfall. There's a Lucivee sneakin' araound in behind."
Crack! spoke Blylock's rifle, and then I heard Buck's nasal drawl: "A stun is jest's good, Mr. Blylock. They're scairt haf tu deth. I suspicion it's the pork they're after."
"Throw that pork into the woods, Jimmy," said Blylock. "We'll be in before long. Good heavens! how dark it is. Lay him down and throw that pork away. There may be a panther among them.
"There be," drawled Buck. "I seen him."
"You did? Why didn't you say so? I can't waste cartridges on those infernal lynxes."
"I sez to you, 'Mr. Blylock,' sez I, 'throw stuns, it's jest as good,'" replied Buck placidly, and I was lifted again, fore and aft.
"It's incredible," grumbled Blylock, "what's got into all these moth-eaten lynxes and mangy panthers. I've been twenty years in these woods and I never before saw even a tom-cat."
"I ain't seed nothing like this. There's three 'r four bob-cats raound us now and I ain't never seed but one so close before. Jimmy was there that night. I jest disremember if it was abaout gummin' time——"
Crack! went Blylock's rifle, and I heard a whine from the thickets on the left.
"Thet's the panther—let him hev it again," said Ellis.
Again the rifle cracked.
"The darned cuss!" drawled Buck. "Shoot again, Mr. Blylock!"
"No need," said Ellis. "Listen! There he goes lopin' off. Hear him snarl!"
"Hit, I guess," said Buck, and we moved on.
Once I heard Buck complain that a particularly bold lynx kept trotting along the trail behind, "smellin' and sniffin' almighty close to my shins," he asserted, and there certainly was an awful yell when Blylock wheeled in his tracks and fired. I heard Ellis laughing, and Buck said, "Haow them Lucivees du screech!"
"Wors'n a screech-owl," added Ellis.
That is the last thing I remember until I woke in my bed in the Rosebud Inn.
The bandage was still on my eyes—I felt too weak to raise a finger—and the rest of my body seemed stiff and hard as wood. I heard somebody rocking in a rocking-chair, and I spoke.
"I am here," said Ysonde, but her voice seemed choked and unsteady.
"What time is it?" I asked incoherently.
"Half-past eleven," said Ysonde.
"I am hungry," said I, and that was my last effort until they brought me the bowl of beef broth with an egg in it, and I managed to swallow it all.
I heard the door close, and for a moment I thought I was alone, but presently the rocking-chair creaked, and I called again,
"I am here."
"What is the matter with me?"
"You have been ill."
"Two weeks, Bobby. You will get well; the claws poisoned you. Try to sleep now."
"The—the panther's—don't you remember?"
"No—ves, a little. Where are the lynxes? Where is Blylock?"
Ysonde laughed softly.
"Mr. Blylock has gone to Boston on important business. I will tell you all about it when you can get up. He's to be married."
"Lynda is downstairs. Shall I call her?"
The next day I drank more broth, and two days later I sat up—it took me half an hour and some groans to do so.
"I think," said I, listening to the rocking-chair, "that it is high time I saw something. Lift my bandage, please, Ysonde."
"Only one side," she said, and lowered the cloth that concealed my right eye—the sightless one.
There was a silence—a wretched moment of suspense—and then Ysonde cried, "What—what is it—can't you see—can't you see me? Oh, Bobby!"
When I spoke I hardly knew what I said, but it was something about Keen's assuring me that nobody but an oculist could tell that I was blind in my right eye. I remember I felt very angry at Keen, and demanded to know how Ysonde could see that my right eye was sightless. I am glad I was spared the agony of her face—I would willingly have been spared the agony in her voice as she cried, "Did I do that!"
I tried to move, but her arms were about me—I tried to explain, but her warm mouth closed my lips. I only thought it was very pleasant to be blind.
The eyes of an oculist and the eyes of love see everything. Who says that love is blind?
Her tears fell on my cheeks. When she asked pardon I answered by asking pardon, and she—but after all, that is our own affair.
"And my left eye," said I, "is that gone too?"
"Almost well," said Ysonde; "it was a sympathetic shock or something. I was afraid the claws had struck it, but Dr. Keen——"
"Yes; he's gone to Holderness now. Don't you remember his being here with Dr. Conroy, the surgeon?"
"No," said I; "I was too badly dazed; I have been mauled by a panther, then?"
A little," said Ysonde, with gentle sarcasm.
After a moment I inquired about the present health of the panther, and was assured that he was probably flourishing his tail in excellent spirits somewhere among the Scaur crags.
"Then Blylock didn't hit him?"
"He hit something, for I heard it scream. Oh, my darling, what a horrible night! And you dying, as I believed, and the tangled brush and the flare of the torch and the firing!"
"Are you thirsty? Your lips are burning," said Ysonde.
I have a joke on Keen—James Keen, the great oculist, the wise, the infallible— and I trust he will swallow his medicine like a little man when he reads this. It happened in this way.
I was sitting under the trees by the tennis-court with Ysonde, watching the snow-birds fluttering in the meadow grass and listening to the robin who, boldly balanced on the tip of his spruce-tree, was doing his best. The blue-birds were teaching their young to navigate the air, twittering and tittering at the efforts of their youngsters—a truly frivolous family. The drab-coloured cow had also done her best, and the result was a miniature copy of herself, also an expert cud-chewer.
Billy—Ridiculous Billy, the white-whiskered and malicious—was spread in the low forks of an apple-tree, a splendid representation of a disreputable doormat.
Lynda sat at the bay window in the Rosebud Inn, embroidering something in white and gold. She also succeeded in doing her best in her own line, which is to look more beautiful every day. I saw Blylock's shadow behind her.
"When are they to be married, Ysonde?" I asked for the fiftieth time.
"On the 27th. Oh, Bobby, it's shocking to keep forgetting—and we are to to be best man and bridesmaid, too!"
The sun dazzled my left eye, and I closed it for a second. Then a miraculous thing happened—an everlasting joke on Keen—for, although I had closed my sound eye, and by rights should have been blind as a bat, I was nothing of the kind.
"My right eye—Ysonde—I can see! Do you understand?—I can see!" I stammered.
Oh! it was glorious— glorious as the joyous wonder in Ysonde's eyes! It was a miracle! I don't care what Keen says about it having happened before or about it happening once in ten thousand cases and I don't care a brass farthing for his subsequent observations concerning optic nerve, and partial paralysis; retinas and things. It was and remain one of God's miracles, and that was enough for Ysonde and for me.
"We will go to the glade and repaint my picture which you erased," said I.
She understood and forgave me, for I hardly knew what I was saying.
"Come," she said. Her eyes were wonderfully sweet, and bluer than the flowering flax around us. So, with her hand in mine, we walked up the scented path to the Rosebud Inn, Billy lumbering along behind us, twitching his hoary whiskers.
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 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 61 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.