The Gay Cockade/The Hidden Land
THE HIDDEN LAND
The mystery of Nancy Greer's disappearance has never been explained. The man she was to have married has married another woman. For a long time he mourned Nancy. He has always held the theory that she was drowned while bathing, and the rest of fancy's world agrees with him. She had left the house one morning for her usual swim. The fog was coming in, and the last person to see her was a fisherman returning from his nets. He had stopped and watched her flitting wraith-like through the mist. He reported later that Nancy wore a gray bathing suit and cap and carried a blue cloak.
"You are sure she carried a cloak?" was the question which was repeatedly asked. For no cloak had been found on the sands, and it was unlikely that she had worn it into the water. The disappearance of the blue cloak was the only point which seemed to contradict the theory of accidental drowning. There were those who held that the cloak might have been carried off by some acquisitive individual. But it was not likely; the islanders are, as a rule, honest, and it was too late in the season for "off-islanders."
I am the only one who knows the truth. And as the truth would have been harder for Anthony Peak to bear than what he believed had happened, I have always withheld it.
There was, too, the fear that if I told they might try to bring Nancy back. I think Anthony would have searched the world for her. Not, perhaps, because of any great and passionate need of her, but because he would have thought her unhappy in what she had done, and would have sought to save her.
I am twenty years older than Nancy, her parents are dead, and it was at my house that she always stayed when she came to Nantucket. She has island blood in her veins, and so has Anthony Peak. Back of them were seafaring folk, although in the foreground was a generation or two of cosmopolitan residence. Nancy had been educated in France, and Anthony in England. The Peaks and the Greers owned respectively houses in Beacon Street and in Washington Square. They came every summer to the island, and it was thus that Anthony and Nancy grew up together, and at last became engaged.
As I have said, I am twenty years older than Nancy, and I am her cousin. I live in the old Greer house on Orange Street, for it is mine by inheritance, and was to have gone to Nancy at my death. But it will not go to her now. Yet I sometimes wonder—will the ship which carried her away ever sail back into the harbor? Some day, when she is old, will she walk up the street and be sorry to find strangers in the house?
I remember distinctly the day when the yacht first anchored within the Point. It was a Sunday morning and Nancy and I had climbed to the top of the house to the Captain's Walk, the white-railed square on the roof which gave a view of the harbor and of the sea.
Nancy was twenty-five, slim and graceful. She wore that morning a short gray-velvet coat over white linen. Her thick brown hair was gathered into a low knot and her fine white skin had a touch of artificial color. Her eyes were a clear blue. She was really very lovely, but I felt that the gray coat deadened her—that if she had not worn it she would not have needed that touch of color in her cheeks.
She lighted a cigarette and stood looking off, with her hand on the rail. "It is a heavenly morning, Ducky. And you are going to church?"
I smiled at her and said, "Yes."
Nancy did not go to church. She practiced an easy tolerance. Her people had been, originally, Quakers. In later years they had turned to Unitarianism. And now in this generation, Nancy, as well as Anthony Peak, had thrown off the shackles of religious observance.
"But it is worth having the churches just for the bells," Nancy conceded on Sunday mornings when their music rang out from belfry and tower.
It was worth having the churches for more than the bells. But it was useless to argue with Nancy. Her morals and Anthony's were irreproachable. That is, from the modern point of view. They played cards for small stakes, drank when they pleased, and, as I have indicated, Nancy smoked. She was, also, not unkissed when Anthony asked her to marry him. These were not the ideals of my girlhood, but Anthony and Nancy felt that such small vices as they cultivated saved them from the narrow-mindedness of their forebears.
"Anthony and I are going for a walk," she said. "I will bring you some flowers for your bowls, Elizabeth."
It was just then that the yacht steamed into the harbor—majestically, like a slow-moving swan. I picked out the name—with my sea-glasses, The Viking.
I handed the glasses to Nancy. "Never heard of it," she said. "Did you?"
"No," I answered. Most of the craft which came in were familiar, and I welcomed them each year.
"Some new-rich person probably," Nancy decided. "Ducky, I have a feeling that the owner of The Viking bought it from the proceeds of pills or headache powders."
I am not sure that Nancy and I were justified in our disdain—whale-oil has perhaps no greater claim to social distinction than bacon and ham or—pills.
The church bells were ringing, and I had to go down. Nancy stayed on the roof.
"Send Anthony up if he's there," she said; "we will sit here aloft like two cherubs and look down on you, and you will wish that you were with us."
But I knew that I should not wish it; that I should be glad to walk along the shaded streets with my friends and neighbors, to pass the gardens that were yellow with sunlight, and gay with larkspur and foxglove and hollyhocks, and to sit in the pew which was mine by inheritance.
Anthony was down-stairs. He was a tall, perfectly turned out youth, and he greeted me in his perfect manner.
"Nancy is on the roof," I told him, "and she wants you to come up."
"So you are going to church? Pray for me, Elizabeth."
Yet I knew he felt that he did not need my prayers. He had Nancy, more money than he could spend, and life was before him. What more, he would ask, could the gods give?
I issued final instructions to my maids about the dinner and put on my hat. It was a rather superlative hat and had come from Fifth Avenue. I spend the spring and fall in New York and buy my clothes at the smartest places. The ladies of Nantucket have never been provincial in their fashions. Our ancestors shopped in the marts of the world. When our captains sailed the seas they brought home to their womenfolk the treasures of loom and needle from Barcelona and Bordeaux, from Bombay and Calcutta, London and Paris and Tokio.
And perhaps because of my content in my new hat, perhaps because of the pleasant young pair of lovers which I had left behind me in the old house, perhaps because of the shade and sunshine, and the gardens, perhaps because of the bells, the world seemed more than ever good to me as I went on my way.
My pew in the church is well toward the middle. My ancestors were modest, or perhaps they assumed that virtue. They would have neither the highest nor the lowest seat in the synagogue.
It happens, therefore, that strangers who come usually sit in front of me. I have a lively curiosity, and I like to look at them. In the winter there are no strangers, and my mind is, I fancy, at such times, more receptive to the sermon.
I was early and sat almost alone in the great golden room whose restraint in decoration suggests the primitive bareness of early days. Gradually people began to come in, and my attention was caught by the somewhat unusual appearance of a man who walked up the aisle preceded by the usher.
He was rather stocky as to build, but with good, square military shoulders and small hips. He wore a blue reefer, white trousers, and carried a yachtman's cap. His profile as he passed into his pew showed him young, his skin slightly bronzed, his features good, if a trifle heavy.
Yet as he sat down and I studied his head, what seemed most significant about him was his hair. It was reddish-gold, thick, curled, and upstanding, like the hair on the head of a lovely child, or in the painting of a Titian or a Tintoretto.
In a way he seemed out of place. Young men of his type so rarely came to church alone. Indeed, they rarely came to church at all. He seemed to belong to the out-of-doors—to wide spaces. I was puzzled, too, by a faint sense of having seen him before.
It was in the middle of the sermon that it all connected up. Years ago a ship had sailed into the harbor, and I had been taken down to see it. I had been enchanted by the freshly painted figurehead—a strong young god of some old Norse tale, with red-gold hair and a bright blue tunic. And now in the harbor was The Viking, and here, in the shadow of a perfectly orthodox pulpit, sat that strong young god, more glorious even than my memory of his wooden prototype.
He seemed to be absolutely at home—sat and stood at the right places, sang the hymns in a delightful barytone which was not loud, but which sounded a clear note above the feebler efforts of the rest of us.
It has always been my custom to welcome the strangers within our gates, and I must confess to a preference for those who seem to promise something more than a perfunctory interchange.
So as my young viking came down the aisle, I held out my hand. "We are so glad to have you with us."
He stopped at once, gave me his hand, and bent on me his clear gaze. "Thank you." And then, immediately: "You live here? In Nantucket?"
"All the year round?"
"That is very interesting." Again his clear gaze appraised me. "May I walk a little way with you? I have no friends here, and I want to ask a lot of questions about the island."
The thing which struck me most as we talked was his utter lack of self-consciousness. He gave himself to the subject in hand as if it were a vital matter, and as if he swept all else aside. It is a quality possessed by few New Englanders; it is, indeed, a quality possessed by few Americans. So when he offered to walk with me, it seemed perfectly natural that I should let him. Not one man in a thousand could have made such a proposition without an immediate erection on my part of the barriers of conventionality. To have erected any barrier in this instance would have been an insult to my perception of the kind of man with whom I had to deal.
He was a gentleman, individual, and very much in earnest; and more than all, he was immensely attractive. There was charm in that clear blue gaze of innocence. Yet it was innocence plus knowledge, plus something which as yet I could not analyze.
He left me at my doorstep. I found that he had come to the island not to play around for the summer at the country clubs and on the bathing beach, but to live in the past—see it as it had once been—when its men went down to the sea in ships. And because there was still so much that we had to say to each other, I asked him to have a cup of tea with me, "this afternoon at four."
He accepted at once, with his air of sweeping aside everything but the matter in hand. I entered the house with a sense upon me of high adventure. I could not know that I was playing fate, changing in that moment the course of Nancy's future.
Dinner was at one o'clock. It seems an impossible hour to people who always dine at night. But on the Sabbath we Nantucketers eat our principal meal when we come home from church.
Nancy and Anthony protested as usual. "Of course you can't expect us to dress."
Nancy sat down at the table with her hat on, and minus the velvet coat. She was a bit disheveled and warm from her walk. She had brought in a great bunch of blue vetch and pale mustard, and we had put it in the center of the table in a bowl of gray pottery. My dining-room is in gray and white and old mahogany, and Nancy had had an eye to its coloring when she picked the flowers. They would not have fitted in with the decorative scheme of my library, which is keyed up, or down, to an antique vase of turquoise glaze, or to the drawing-room, which is in English Chippendale with mulberry brocade.
We had an excellent dinner, served by my little Portuguese maid. Nancy praised the lobster bisque and Anthony asked for a second helping of roast duck. They had their cigarettes with their coffee.
Long before we came to the coffee, however, Anthony had asked in his pleasant way of the morning service.
"Tell us about the sermon, Elizabeth."
"And the text," said Nancy.
I am apt to forget the text, and they knew it. It was always a sort of game between us at Sunday dinner, in which they tried to prove that my attention had strayed, and that I might much better have stayed at home, and thus have escaped the bondage of dogma and of dressing up.
I remembered the text, and then I told them about Olaf Thoresen.
Nancy lifted her eyebrows. "The pills man? Or was it—pork?"
"It was probably neither. Don't be a snob, Nancy."
She shrugged her shoulders. "It was you who said 'pork,' Elizabeth."
"He is coming to tea."
"Sorry," said Nancy. "I'd like to see him, but I have promised to drive Bob Needham to 'Sconset for a swim."
Anthony had made the initial engagement—to play tennis with Mimi Sears, "Provided, of course, that you have no other plans for me," he had told Nancy, politely.
She had no plans, nor would she, under the circumstances, have urged them. That was their code—absolute freedom. "We'll be a lot happier if we don't tie each other up."
It was to me an amazing attitude. In my young days lovers walked out on Sunday afternoons to the old cemetery, or on the moor, or along the beach, and came back at twilight together, and sat together after supper, holding hands.
I haven't the slightest doubt that Anthony held Nancy's hands, but there was nothing fixed about the occasions. They had done away with billing and cooing in the old sense, and what they had substituted seemed to satisfy them.
Anthony left about three, and I went up to get into something thin and cool, and to rest a bit before receiving my guest. I heard Nancy at the telephone making final arrangements with the Drakes. After that I fell asleep, and knew nothing more until Anita came up to announce that Mr. Thoresen was down-stairs.
Tea was served in the garden at the back of the house, where there were some deep wicker chairs, and roses in a riot of bloom.
"This is—enchanting—" said Olaf. He did not git down at once. He stood looking about him, at the sun-dial, and the whale's jaw lying bleached on a granite pedestal, and at the fine old houses rising up around us. "It is enchanting. Do you know, I have been thinking myself very fortunate since you spoke to me in church this morning."
After that it was all very easy. He asked and I answered. "You see," he explained, finally, "I am hungry for anything that tells me about the sea. Three generations back we were all sailors—my great-grandfather and his fathers before him in Norway—and far back of that—the vikings." He drew a long breath. "Then my grandfather came to America. He settled in the West—in Dakota, and planted grain. He made money, but he was a thousand miles away from the sea. He starved for it, but he wanted money, and, as I have said, he made it. And my father made more money. Then I came. The money took me to school in the East—to college. My mother died and my father. And now the money is my own. I bought a yacht, and I have lived on the water. I can't get enough of it. I think that I am making up for all that my father and my grandfather denied themselves."
I can't in the least describe to you how he said it. There was a tenseness, almost a fierceness, in his brilliant blue eyes. Yet he finished up with a little laugh. "You see," he said, "I am a sort of Flying Dutchman—sailing the seas eternally, driven not by any sinister force but by my own delight in it."
"Do you go alone?"
"Oh, I have guests—at times. But I am often my own—good company——"
He stopped and rose. Nancy had appeared in the doorway. She crossed the porch and came down toward us. She was in her bathing suit and cap, gray again, with a line of green on the edges, and flung over her shoulders was a gray cloak. She was on her way to the stables—it was before the day of motor-cars on the island, those halcyon, heavenly days. The door was open and her horse harnessed and waiting for her. She could not, of course, pass us without speaking, and so I presented Olaf.
Anita had brought the tea, and Nancy stayed to eat a slice of thin bread and butter. "In this air one is always hungry," she said to Olaf, and smiled at him.
He did not smile back. He was surveying her with a sort of frowning intensity. She spoke of it afterward, "Does he always stare like that? "But I think that, in a way, she was pleased.
She drove her own horse, wrapped in her cloak and with an utter disregard to the informality of her attire. She would, I knew, gather up the Drakes and Bob Needham, likewise attired in bathing costumes, and they would all have tea on the other side of the island, naiad-like and utterly unconcerned. I did not approve of it, but Nancy did not cut her life to fit my pattern.
When she had gone, Olaf said to me, abruptly, "Why does she wear gray?"
"Oh, she has worked out a theory that repression in color is an evidence of advanced civilization. The Japanese, for example——"
"Why should civilization advance? It has gone far enough—too far—— And she should wear a blue cloak—sea-blue—the color of her eyes——"
"And of yours." I smiled at him.
"Yes. Are they like hers?"
They were almost uncannily alike. I had noticed it when I saw them together. But there the resemblance stopped.
"She belongs to the island?"
"She lives in New York. But every drop of blood in her is seafaring blood."
"Good!" He sat for a moment in silence, then spoke of something else. But when he was ready to go, he included Nancy in an invitation. "If you and Miss Greer could lunch, with me to-morrow on my yacht——"
I was not sure about Nancy's engagements, but I thought we might. "You can call us up in the morning."
Nancy brought the Drakes and Bob Needham back with her for supper, and Mimi Sears was with Anthony. Supper on Sunday is an informal meal—everything on the table and the servants out.
Nancy, clothed in something white and exquisite, served the salad. "So your young viking didn't stay, Elizabeth?"
"I didn't ask him."
It was then that she spoke of his frowning gaze. "Does he always stare like that?"
Anthony, breaking in, demanded, "Did he stare at Nancy?"
I nodded. "It was her eyes."
They all looked at me. "Her eyes?"
"Yes. He said that her cloak should have matched them."
Anthony flushed. He has a rather captious code for outsiders. Evidently Olaf had transgressed it.
"Is the man a dressmaker?"
"Of course not, Anthony."
"Then why should he talk of Nancy's clothes?"
"Well," Nancy remarked, "perhaps the less said about my clothes the better. I was in my bathing suit."
Anthony was irritable. "Well, why not? You had a right to wear what you pleased, but he did not have a right to make remarks about it."
I came to Olaf's defense. "You would understand better if you could see him. He is rather different, Anthony."
"I don't like different people," and in that sentence was a summary of Anthony's prejudices. He and Nancy mingled with their own kind. Anthony's friends were the men who had gone to the right schools, who lived in the right streets, belonged to the right clubs, and knew the right people. Within those limits, humanity might do as it pleased; without them, it was negligible, and not to be considered.
After supper the five of them were to go for a sail. There was a moon, and all the wonder of it.
Anthony was not keen about the plan. "Oh, look here, Nancy," he complained, "we have done enough for one day——"
Of course that settled it. Anthony shrugged his shoulders and submitted. He did not share Nancy's almost idolatrous worship of the sea. It was the one fundamental thing about her. She bathed in it, swam in it, sailed on it, and she was never quite happy away from it.
I heard Anthony later in the hall, protesting. I had gone to the library for a book, and their voices reached me.
"I thought you and I might have one evening without the others."
"Oh, don't be silly, Anthony."
I think my heart lost a beat. Here was a lover asking his mistress for a moment—and she laughed at him. It did not fit in with my ideas of young romance.
Yet late that night I heard the murmur of their voices and looked out into the white night. They stood together by the sun-dial, and his arm was about her, her head on his shoulder. And it was not the first time that a pair of lovers had stood by that dial under the moon.
I went back to bed, but I could not sleep. I lighted my bedside lamp, and read Vanity Fair. I find Thackeray an excellent corrective when I am emotionally keyed up.
Nancy, too, was awake; I could see her light shining across the hall. She came in, finally, and sat on the foot of my bed.
"Your viking was singing as we passed his boat——"
"Yes, hymns, Elizabeth. The others laughed, Anthony and Mimi, but I didn't laugh. His voice is—wonderful——"
She had on a white-crêpe peignoir, and there was no color in her cheeks. Her skin had the soft whiteness of a rose petal. Her eyes were like stars. As I lay there and looked at her I wondered if it was Anthony's kisses or the memory of Olaf's singing which had made her eyes shine like that.
I had heard him sing, and I said so, "in church."
Her arms clasped her knees. "Isn't it queer that he goes to church and sings hymns?"
"Why queer? I go to church."
"Yes. But you are different. You belong to another generation, Elizabeth, and he doesn't look it."
I knew what she meant. I had thought the same thing when I first saw him walking up the aisle. "He has asked us to lunch with him to-morrow on his boat."
It was the first time that I had mentioned it. Somehow I had not cared to speak of it before Anthony.
She showed her surprise. "So soon? Doesn't that sound a little—pushing?"
"It sounds as if he goes after a thing when he wants it."
"Yes, it does. I believe I should like to accept. But I can't to-morrow. There's a clambake, and I have promised the crowd."
"He will ask you again."
"Will he? You can say 'yes' for Wednesday then. And I'll keep it."
"I am not sure that we had better accept."
"Well, there's Anthony."
She slid from the bed and stood looking down at me. "You think he wouldn't like it?"
"I am afraid he wouldn't. And, after all, you are engaged to him, Nancy."
"Of course I am, but he is not my jailer. He does as he pleases and I do as I please."
"In my day lovers pleased to do the same thing."
"Did they? I don't believe it. They just pretended, and there is no pretense between Anthony and me"—she stooped and kissed me"—they just pretended, Elizabeth, and the reason that I love Anthony is because we don't pretend."
After that I felt that I need fear nothing. Nancy and Anthony—freedom and self-confidence—why should I try to match their ideals with my own of yesterday? Yet, as I laid my book aside, I resolved that Olaf should know of Anthony.
I had my opportunity the next day. Olaf came over to sit in my garden and again we had tea. He was much pleased when he knew that Nancy and I would be his guests on Wednesday.
"Come early. Do you swim? We can run the launch to the beach—or, better still, dive in the deeper water near my boat."
"Nancy swims," I told him. "I don't. And I am not sure that we can come early. Nancy and Anthony usually play golf in the morning."
"Who is Anthony?"
"Anthony Peak. The man she is going to marry."
He hesitated a moment, then said, "Bring him, too." His direct gaze met mine, and his direct question followed. "Does she love him?"
"It is not always 'of course.' " He stopped and talked of other things, but in some subtle fashion I was aware that my news had been a shock to him, and that he was trying to adjust himself to it, and to the difference that it must make in his attitude toward Nancy.
When I told Nancy that Anthony had been invited, she demanded, "How did Olaf Thoresen know about him?"
"I told him you were engaged."
"But why, Elizabeth? Why shout it from the housetops?"
"Well, I didn't want him to be hurt."
"You are taking a lot for granted."
I shrugged my shoulders. "We won't quarrel, and a party of four is much nicer than three."
As it turned out, however, Anthony could not go. He was called back to Boston on business. That was where Fate again stepped in. It was, I am sure, those three days of Anthony's absence which turned the scale of Nancy's destiny. If he had been with us that first morning on the boat Olaf would not have dared....
Nancy wore her white linen and her gray-velvet coat, and a hat with a gull's wing. She carried her bathing suit. "He intends, evidently, to entertain us in his own way."
Olaf's yacht was modern, but there was a hint of the barbaric in its furnishings. The cabin into which we were shown and in which Nancy was to change was in strangely carved wood, and there was a wolfskin on the floor in front of the low bed. The coverlet was of a fine-woven red-silk cloth, weighed down by a border of gold and silver threads. On the wall hung a square of tapestry which showed a strange old ship with sails of blue and red and green, and with golden dragon-heads at stem and stern.
Nancy, crossing the threshold, said to Olaf, who had opened the door for us, "It is like coming into another world; as if you had set the stage, run up the curtain, and the play had begun."
"You like it? It was a fancy of mine to copy a description I found in an old book. King Olaf, the Thick-set, furnished a room like this for his bride."
Olaf, the Thick-set! The phrase fitted perfectly this strong, stocky, blue-eyed man, who smiled radiantly upon us as he shut the door and left us alone.
Nancy stood in the middle of the room looking about her. "I like it," she said, with a queer shake in her voice. "Don't you, Elizabeth?"
I liked it so much that I felt it wise to hide my pleasure in a pretense of indifference. "Well, it is original to say the least."
But it was more than original, it was poetic. It was—Melisande in the wood—one of Sinding's haunting melodies, an old Saga caught and fixed in color and carving.
In this glowing room Nancy in her white and gray was a cold and incongruous figure, and when at last she donned her dull cap, and the dull cloak that she wore over her swimming costume, she seemed a ghostly shadow of the bright bride whom that other Olaf had brought—a thousand years before—to his strange old ship.
I realize that what comes hereafter in this record must seem to the unimaginative overdrawn. Even now, as I look back upon it, it has a dream quality, as if it might never have happened, or as if, as Nancy had said, it was part of a play, which would be over when the curtain was rung down and the actors had returned to the commonplace.
But the actors in this drama have never returned to the commonplace. Or have they? Shall I ever know? I hope I may never know, if Nancy and Olaf have lost the glamour of their dreams.
Well, we found Olaf on deck waiting for us. In a sea-blue tunic, with strong white arms, and the dazzling fairness of his strong neck, he was more than ever like the figurehead on the old ship that I had seen in my childhood. He carried over his arm a cloak of the same sea-blue. It was this cloak which afterward played an important part in the mystery of Nancy's disappearance.
His quick glance swept Nancy—the ghostly Nancy in gray, with only the blue of her eyes, and that touch of artificial pink in her cheeks to redeem her from somberness. He shook his head with a gesture of impatience.
"I don't like it," he said, abruptly. "Why do you deaden your beauty with dull colors?"
Nancy's eyes challenged him. "If it is deadened, how do you know it is beauty?"
"May I show you?" Again there was that tense excitement which I had noticed in the garden.
"I don't know what you mean," yet in that moment the color ran up from her neck to her chin, the fixed pink spots were lost in a rush of lovely flaming blushes.
For with a sudden movement he had snatched off her cap, and had thrown the cloak around her. The transformation was complete. It was as if he had waved a wand. There she stood, the two long, thick braids, which she had worn pinned close under her cap, falling heavily like molten metal to her knees, the blue cloak covering her—heavenly in color, matching her eyes, matching the sea, matching the sky, matching the eyes of Olaf.
I think I must have uttered some sharp exclamation, for Olaf turned to me. "You see," he said, triumphantly, "I have known it all the time. I knew it the first time that I saw her in the garden."
Nancy had recovered herself. "But I can't stalk around the streets in a blue cloak with my hair down."
He laughed with her. "Oh, no, no. But the color is only a symbol. "Modern life has robbed you of vivid things. Even your emotions. You are—afraid——" He caught himself up. "We can talk of that after our swim. I think we shall have a thousand things to talk about."
Nancy held out her hand for her cap, but he would not give it to her. "Why should you care if your hair gets wet? The wind and the sun will dry it——"
I was amazed when I saw that she was letting him have his way. Never for a moment had Anthony mastered her. For the first time in her life Nancy was dominated by a will that was stronger than her own.
I sat on deck and watched them as they swam like two young sea gods, Nancy's bronze hair bright under the sun. Olaf's red-gold crest....
The blue cloak lay across my knee. Nancy had cast it off as she had descended into the launch. I had examined it and had found it of soft, thick wool, with embroidery of a strange and primitive sort in faded colors. Yet the material of the cloak had not faded, or, if it had, there remained that clear azure, like the Virgin's cloak in old pictures.
I knew now why Olaf had wanted Nancy on board, why he had wanted to swim with her in the sea which was as blue as her eyes and his own. It was to reveal her to himself as the match of the women of the Sagas. I found this description later in one of the old books in the ship's library:
And there was, too, this account of a housewife in her "kyrtil":
The dress-train was trailing,
The skirt had a blue tint;
Her bror was brighter,
Her neck was whiter
Than pure new fallen snow.
In other words, that one glance at Nancy in the garden, when he had risen at her entrance, had disclosed to Olaf the fundamental in her. He had known her as a sea-maiden. And she had not known it, nor I, nor Anthony.
Luncheon was served on deck. We were waited on by fair-haired, but very modern Norsemen. The crew on The Viking were all Scandinavians. Most of them spoke English, and there seemed nothing uncommon about any of them. Yet, in the mood of the moment, I should have felt no surprise had they served us in the skins of wild animals, or had set sail like pirates with the two of us captive on board.
I will confess, also, to a feeling of exaltation which clouded my judgment. I knew that Olaf was falling in love with Nancy, and I half guessed that Nancy might be falling in love with Olaf, yet I sat there and let them, do it. If Anthony should ever know! Yet how can he know? As I weigh it now, I am not sure that I have anything with which to reproach myself, for the end, at times, justifies the means, and the Jesuitical theory had its origin, perhaps, in the profound knowledge that Fate does not always use fair methods in gaining her ends.
I can't begin to tell you what we talked about. Nancy had dried her hair, and it was wound loosely, high on her head. The blue cloak was over her shoulders, and she was the loveliest thing that I ever hope to see. By the flame in her cheeks and the light in her eyes, I was made aware of an exaltation which matched my own. She, too, was caught up into the atmosphere of excitement which Olaf created. He could not take his eyes from her. I wondered what Anthony would have said could he have visioned for the moment this blue-and-gold enchantress.
When coffee was served there were no cigarettes or cigars. Nancy had her own silver case hanging at her belt. I knew that she would smoke, and I did not try to stop her. She always smoked after her meals and she was restless without it.
It was Olaf who stopped her. "You will hate my bad manners," he said, with his gaze holding hers, "but I wish you wouldn't."
She was lighting her own little wax taper and she looked her surprise.
He nodded. "You are too lovely."
"But surely you are not so—old-fashioned."
"No. I am perhaps so—new-fashioned that my reason might take your breath away." He laughed but did not explain.
Nancy sat undecided while the taper burned out futilely. Then she said, "Of course you are my host——"
"Don't do it for that reason. Do it because"—he stopped, laughed again, and went on—"because you are a goddess—a woman of a new race——"
With parted lips she looked at him, then tried to wrench herself back to her attitude of light indifference.
"Oh, we've grown beyond all that."
"Goddess-women. We are just nice and human together."
"You are nice and human. But you are more than that."
Nancy put her unlighted cigarette back in its case. "I'll keep it for next time," she said, with a touch of defiance.
"There will be no next time," was his secure response, and his eyes held hers until, with an effort, she withdrew her gaze.
Then he rose, and his men placed deep chairs for us in a sheltered corner, where we could look out across the blue to the low hills of the moor. There was a fur rug over my chair, and I sank gratefully into the warmth of it.
"With a wind like this in the old days," Olaf said, as he stood beside me looking out over the sparkling water, "how the sails would have been spread, and now there is nothing but steam and gasoline and electricity."
"Why don't you have sails then," Nancy challenged him, "instead of steam?"
"I have a ship. Shall I show you the picture of it?"
He left to get it, and Nancy said to me, "Ducky, will you pinch me?"
"You mean that it doesn't seem real?"
"Well, maybe it isn't. He said he was a sort of Flying Dutchman."
"I should hate to think that he wasn't real, Elizabeth. He is as alive as—a burning coal."
Olaf came back with the pictures of his ship, a clean-cut, beautiful craft, very up-to-date, except for the dragon-heads at prow and stem.
"If I could have had my way," he told us, "I should have built it like the ship on the tapestry in there—but it wasn't practical—we haven't manpower for the oars in these days."
He had other pictures—of a strange house, or, rather, of a collection of buildings set in the form of a quadrangle, and inclosed by low walls. There were great gateways of carved wood with ironwork and views of the interior—a wide hall with fire-places—a raised platform, with carved seats that gave a throne-like effect. The house stood on a sort of high peninsula with a forest back of it, and the sea spreading out beyond.
"The house looks old," Olaf said, "but I planned it."
He had, he explained, during one of his voyages, come upon a hidden harbor. "There is only a fishing village and a few small boats at the landing place, but the people claim to be descendants of the vikings. They are utterly isolated, but a God-fearing, hardy folk.
"It is strangely cut off from the rest of the world. I call it 'The Hidden Land.' It is not on any map. I have looked and have not found it."
"But why," was Nancy's demand, "did you build there? "
It was a question, I think, for which he had waited. "Some day I may tell you, but not now, except this—that I love the sea, and I shall end my days where, when I open my gates, my eyes may rest upon it ... where its storms may beat upon my roof, and where the men about me shall sail it, and get their living from it.
"I have told your cousin," he went on, "something of the life of my grandfather and of my father. With all of their sea-blood, they were shut away for two generations from the sea. Can you grasp the meaning of that to me?—the heritage of suppressed longings? I think my father must have felt it as I did, for he drank heavily before he died. My grandfather sought an outlet in founding the family fortunes. But when I came, there was not the compelling force of poverty to make me work, and I had before me the warning of my father's excesses. But this sea-madness! It has driven me on and on, and at last it has driven me here." He stopped, then took up the theme again in his tense, excited fashion, "It will drive me on again."
"Why should it drive you on?"
When Nancy asked that question, I knew what had happened. The thrill of her voice was the answer of a bird to its mate. When I think of her, I see her always as she was then, the blue cloak falling about her, her hair blowing, her cheeks flaming with lovely color.
I saw his fingers clench the arm of his chair as if in an effort of self-control. Then he said: " Perhaps I shall tell you that, too. But not now." He rose abruptly. "It is warmer inside, and we can have some music. I am sure you must be tired of hearing me talk about myself."
He played for us, in masterly fashion, the Peer Gynt suite, and after that a composition of his own. At last he sang, with all the swing of the sea in voice and accompaniment, and the song drew our hearts out of us.
Nancy was very quiet as we drove from the pier, and it was while I was dressing for dinner that she came into my room.
"Elizabeth," she said, "I am not sure whether we have been to a Methodist revival or to a Wagner music-drama——"
"Neither," I told her. "There's nothing artificial about him. You asked me back there if he was real. I believe that he is utterly real, Nancy. It is not a pose. I am convinced that it is not a pose."
"Yes," she said, "that's the queer thing. He's not—putting it on—and he makes everybody else seem—stale and shallow—like ghosts—or shadow-shapes——"
I read Vanity Fair late into the night, and the morning was coming on before I tried to sleep. I waked to find Nancy standing by my bed.
"His boat is gone."
"Yes. It went an hour ago. I saw it from the roof."
"From the roof?"
"Yes. I got up—early. I—I could not sleep. And when I looked—it was gone—your glasses showed it almost out of sight."
She was wrapped in the blue cloak. Olaf had made her bring it with her. She had protested. But he had been insistent.
"I found this in the pocket," Nancy said, and held out a card on which Olaf had written, "When she lifted her arms, opening the door, a light shone on them from the sea, and the air and all the world were brightened for her."
"What does it mean, Elizabeth?"
"I think you know, my dear."
"That he cares?"
"What do you think?"
Her eyes were like stars. "But how can he? He has seen me—twice——"
"Some men are like that."
"If you only hadn't told him about Anthony."
"I am glad that I told him."
"Oh, but he might have stayed."
"And I might have loved him." She was still glowing with the fires that Olaf had lighted in her.
"But you are going to marry Anthony."
"Yes," she said, "I am going to marry Anthony. I am going to flirt and smoke cigarettes and let him—flirt—when I might have been a—goddess."
It was after breakfast on the same day that a letter came to me, delivered into my own hands by messenger. It was from Olaf, and he left it to me whether Nancy should see it. It covered many pages and it shook my soul, but I did not show it to Nancy.
There were nights after that when I found it hard to sleep, nights in which I thought of Olaf sailing toward the hidden land, holding in his heart a hope which it was in my power to crown with realization or dash to the ground. Yet I had Nancy's happiness to think of, and, in a sense, Anthony's. It seemed almost incredible that I must carry, too, on my heart, the burden of the happiness of Olaf Thoresen.
When Anthony came back, he and Nancy were caught in a net of engagements, and I saw very little of them. Of course they romped in now and then with their own particular crowd, and treated me, as it were, to a cross-section of modern life. Except for two things, I should have judged that Nancy had put away all thoughts of Olaf, but these two things were significant. She had stopped smoking, and she no longer touched her cheeks with artificial bloom.
Anthony's amazement, when he offered her a cigarette and she refused, had in it a touch of irritation. "But, my dear girl, why not?"
"Well, I have to think of my complexion, Tony."
I think he knew it was not that and was puzzled. "I never saw you looking better in my life."
She was wearing a girdle of blue with her clear, crisp white, and her fairness was charming. She had, indeed, the look which belongs to young Catholic girls dedicated to the Virgin who wear her colors.
It was not, however, until Anthony had been home for a week that he saw the blue cloak. We were all on the beach Mind Sears and Bob Needham and the Drakes, myself and Anthony. Nancy was late, having a foursome to finish on the golf grounds. She came at last, threading her way gayly through the crowd of bathers. She was without her cap, and her hair was wound in a thick braid about her head. I saw people turning to look at her as they had never turned to look when she had worn her shadowy gray.
"Great guns!" said a man back of me. "What a beauty!"
A deep flush stained Anthony's face, and I knew at once that he did not like it. It was as if, having attuned his taste to the refinement of a Japanese print, he had been called upon to admire a Fra Angelico. He hated the obvious, and Nancy's loveliness at this moment was as definite as the loveliness of the sky, the sea, the moon, the stars. Later I was to learn that Anthony's taste was for a sophisticated Nancy, a mocking Nancy, a slim, mysterious creature, with charms which were caviar to the mob.
But Bob Needham spoke from the depths of his honest and undiscriminating soul. "Heavens! Nancy. Where did you get it?"
"Do you like it?"
"Like it——! I wish Tony would run away while I tell you."
Anthony, forcing a smile, asked, "Where did you get it, Nan?"
"It was given to me." She sat down on the sand and smiled at him.
Mrs. Drake, feeling the thickness and softness, exclaiming over the embroidery, said finally: "It is a splendid thing. Like a queen's robe."
"You haven't told us yet," Anthony persisted, "where you got it."
"No? Well, Elizabeth will tell you. It's rather a long story. I am going into the water. Come on, Bob."
She left the cloak with me. Anthony followed her and the others. I sat alone under a great orange umbrella and wondered if Anthony would ask me about the cloak.
He did not, and when Nancy came back finally with her hair down and blowing in the wind to dry, Anthony was with her. The cloud was gone from his face, in the battle with the waves he had forgotten his vexation.
But he remembered when he saw the cloak. "Tell me about it, Nancy."
"I got it from Elizabeth's viking."
That was the calm way in which she put it.
"He isn't my viking," I told her.
"Well, you were responsible for him."
"Do you mean to say," Anthony demanded, "that you accepted a gift like that from a man you didn't know? "
Nancy, hugging herself in the cloak, said, "I felt that I knew him very well."
"How long was he here? "
"Three days. I saw him twice."
"I don't think I quite like the—idea——" Anthony began, then broke off. "Of course you have a right to do as you please."
"Of course," said Nancy, with, a flame in her cheek.
"But it would please me very much if you would send it back to him."
"If I wanted to," she told him, "I couldn't."
"Can you mail parcel post packages to the—Flying Dutchman? Or express things to—to Odin?"
"I don't in the least know what you are talking about, Nancy."
"Well, he sailed in and he sailed out. He didn't leave any address. He left the cloak—and a rather intriguing memory, Anthony."
That was all the satisfaction she would give him. And I am not sure that he deserved more at her hands. The agreement between them had been—absolute freedom.
I am convinced that if it had not been for the garden party I should never have shown Olaf's letter to Nancy. The garden party is an annual event. We always hold it in August, when the "off-islanders" crowd the hotels, and when money is more plentiful than at any other time during the year.
Nancy had charge of the fish pond. I had helped her to make the fish, which were gay objects of painted paper, numbered to indicate a corresponding prize package, and to be caught with, a dangling line from a lily-wreathed artificial pool.
The day of the garden party was a glorious one—with the air so clear that the flying pennants of the decorated booths, and the gowns of the women, gained brilliancy and beauty from the shining atmosphere.
Nancy wore a broad blue hat which matched her eyes, one of her clear white dresses, and a silken scarf of the same blue as her hat. She loved children, and as she stood in a circle of them all the afternoon, untiring, eager—bending down to them, hooking the fish on the dangling line—handing out the prizes, smiling into the flushed eager faces, helping the very littlest ones to achieve a catch, I sat in a chair not far away from her and watched. I saw Anthony come and go, urging her to let some one else take her place, pressing a dozen reasons upon her for desertion of her task, and coming back, when she refused, to complain to me:
"Such things are a deadly bore."
"Not to Nancy."
"But they used to be. She's changed, Elizabeth."
"I am not sure. She was always such a good sport."
"And isn't she now?"
"She is different," he caught himself up, "but of course—adorable."
Mimi Sears joined us, and she and Anthony went off together. Bob Needham hung around Nancy until she sent him away. At last the hour arrived for the open-air play which was a special attraction, and the crowds surged toward the inclosure. The booths were deserted, and only one rapturous child remained by the fish pond.
Nancy sat down and lifted the baby to her lap. She had taken off her hat, and her blue scarf fell about her. Something tugged at my heart as I looked at her. With that little head in the hollow of her arm she was the eternal mother.
I saw Anthony approaching. He stopped, and I caught his words. "You must come now, Nancy. I am saving a seat for you."
She shook her head, and looked down at the child. "I told his nurse to go and he is almost asleep."
He flung himself away from her and came over to me. "I have good seats for both of you in the enclosure. But Nancy won't go."
I rose and went with him, although I should have been content to sit there by the fish pond and feast my eyes on Nancy.
"It is perfectly silly of her to stay," Anthony fumed as we walked on together.
"But she loves the children."
"I hate children."
I am sure that he did not mean it. What he hated was the fact that the child had for the moment held Nancy from him. It was as if, looking forward into the future, he could see like moments, and set himself against the thought of any interruption of what might be otherwise an untrammeled and independent partnership. He had, I think, little jealousy where men were concerned. He was willing to give Nancy the reins and let her go, believing that she would inevitably come back to him. He was not, perhaps, so willing to trust her with ties which might prove more absorbing than himself.
If I had not had Olaf's letter, I might not have weighed Anthony's attitude so carefully, but against those burning words and their comprehension of the divinity and beauty of my Nancy's nature, Anthony's querulous complaint struck cold.
I think it was then, as we walked toward the inclosure, that I made up my mind to let Nancy hear what Olaf had to say to her.
She stayed out late that night—there was a dinner and a dance—and Anthony brought her home. I confess that I felt like a traitor as I heard the murmur of his voice in the hall.
But when he had gone, and Nancy passed my door on her way to her room, I called her, and she came in.
I was in bed, and I had the letter in my hand. "I want ou to read it," I said. "It is from Olaf Thoresen."
She looked at it, and asked, "When did it come?"
"Two months ago. The day that he left."
"Why haven't you shown it to me?"
"I couldn't make up my mind. I do not know even now that I am right in letting you see it. But I feel that you have a right to see it. It is you who must answer it. Not I."
When she had gone, I turned to the chapter in my book where Becky weeps crocodile tears over poor Rawdon Crawley on the night before Waterloo. There is no scene in modern literature to match it. But I couldn't get my mind on it. Nancy was reading Olaf's letter!
I kept a copy of it, and here it is:
"When you told me of her lover, I felt that Fate had played a trick on me. I could not now with honor pursue the woman who was promised to another. Yet I permitted myself that one day—the day on my boat.
"I learned in those hours that I spent with her that she had been molded by the man she is to marry and that in the years to come she will shrink to the measure of his demands upon her. She is feminine enough to be swayed by masculine will. That is at once her strength and her weakness. Loving a man who will love her for the wonder of her womanhood, she will fulfill her greatest destiny. Loving, on the other hand, one who aspires only to fit her into some attenuated social scheme, she will wither and fade. I think you know that this is true, that you will not accuse me of being unfair to any one.
"And now may I tell you what my dreams have been for her?
"I am not young. I mean I am past those hot and early years when men play—Romeo. The dream that is mine is one which has come to a man of thirty, who, having seen the world, has weighed it and wants—something more.
"I have told you of my house in that hidden land which is washed by the sea. I want to spend the rest of my days there, and I had hoped that some woman might be found whose love of life, whose love of adventure, whose love of me, might be so strong that she would see nothing strange in my demand that she forsake all others and cleave only to me.
"By forsaking all others, I mean, literally, what I say. I should want to cut her off entirely from all former ties. To let any one into our secret, to reveal that hidden land to a gaping world, would be to destroy it. We should be followed, tracked by the newspapers, written up, judged eccentric—mad. And I do not wish to be judged at all. My separation from my kind would have in it more than a selfish whim, an obsession for solitude. I want to get back to primitive civilization. I want my children to face a simpler world than the one I faced. Do you know what it means for a man to inherit money, with nothing back of it for two generations but hard work, although back of that there were, perhaps, kings? It means that I had, unaided, to fit myself into a social scheme so complex that I have not yet mastered its intricacies. I do not want to master them. I do not want my sons to master them. I want them to find life a thing of the day's work, the day's worship, the day's out-of-door delights. I want them to have time to think and to dream. And then some day they shall come back if they wish to challenge civilization—young prophets, perhaps, out of the wilderness—seeing a new vision of God and man because of their detachment from all that might have blinded them.
"I have a feeling that your Nancy might, if she knew this, dream with me of a new race, rising to the level of the needs of a new world. She might see herself as the mother of such a race—sheltered in my hidden land, sailing the seas with me, held close to my heart. I think I am a masterful man, but I should be masterful only to keep her to her best. If she faltered I should strengthen her. And I should make her happy. I know that I could make her happy. And for me there will never be another."I am leaving it to you to decide whether you will show her this. I want her to see it, because it seems to me that she has a right to decide between the life that I can offer her and the life she must live if she marries Anthony Peak. But it all involves a point of honor which I feel that I am not unprejudiced enough to decide. So to-morrow I shall go away. I shall sail far in the two months that I shall give myself before I come back. And when I come, you will let me know whether I am to turn once more to the trackless seas, or stay to find my happiness."
This letter when I had first read it had stirred me profoundly, as I think it must have stirred any man or woman who has yearned amid the complexities of modern existence to find some land of dreams. Even to my island, comparatively untouched by the problems of existence in crowded centers, come the echoes of discord, of social unrest, of political upheavals, of commercial greed. In this hidden land of Olaf's would be life stripped of its sordidness, love free from the blight of cynicism and disillusion—faith, firm in its nearness to God and the wonder of His works. I envied Olaf his hidden land as I envied Nancy her opportunity. My blood is the same as Nancy's, and I love the sea. And as we grow older our souls adventure!
When Nancy came in to me, she had put on her white peignoir, and she had Olaf's letter in her hand.
"Ducky," she said, and her voice shook, "I have read it twice—and—I shouldn't dare to think he was in earnest."
"I should want to go, Elizabeth."
"And leave the world behind you?"
"Oh, I haven't any world. It might be different if mother were alive, or daddy. There'd be only you, Ducky, my dear, dear Ducky." She caught my hand and held it.
"Anthony would get over it"—sharply. "Wouldn't he, Elizabeth? You know he would."
"My dear, I don't know."
"But I know. If I hadn't been in his life, Mimi Sears would have been, just as Bob Needham would have been in my life if it hadn't been for Anthony. There isn't any question between Anthony and me of—one woman for one man. You know that, Elizabeth. But with Olaf—if he doesn't have me, there will be no one else—ever. He—he will go sailing on—alone——"
"My dear, how do you know?"
She flung herself down beside me, a white rose, all fragrance. "I don't know"—she began to cry. "How silly I am," she sobbed against my shoulder. "I—I don't know anything about him, do I, Elizabeth——? But it would be wonderful to be loved—like that."
All through the night she slept on my arm, with her hand curled in the hollow of my neck as she had slept as a child. But I did not sleep. My mind leaped forward into the future, and I saw my world without her.
Nancy stayed with me through September. Anthony's holiday was up the day after the garden party, and he went back to Boston, keeping touch with Nancy in the modern way by wire, special delivery, and long-distance telephone.
It was on a stormy night with wind and beating rain that Nancy told me Anthony was insisting that she marry him in December.
"But I can't, Elizabeth. I am going to write to him to-night."
"When will it be?"
"Who knows? I—I'm not ready. If he can't wait—he can let me go."
She did not stay to listen to my comment on her mutiny—she swept out of the library and sat down at the piano in the other room, making a picture of herself between the tall white candles which illumined the dark mahogany and the mulberry brocades.
I leaned back in my chair and watched her, her white fingers straying over the keys, her thin blue sleeves flowing back from her white arms. Now and then I caught a familiar melody among the chords, and once I was aware of the beat and the swing of the waves in the song which Olaf had once sung.
She did not finish it. She rose and wandered to the window, parting the curtain and looking out into the streaming night.
"It's an awful storm, Ducky."
"Yes, my dear. On nights like this I always think of the old days when the men were on the sea, and the women waited."
"I'd rather think of my man on the sea, even if I had to wait for him, Ducky, than shut up in office, stagnating."
The door-bell rang suddenly. It was a dreadful night for any one to be out, but Anita, undisturbed and crisp in her white apron and cap, came through the hall. A voice asked a question, and the blood began to pound in my body. Things were blurred for a bit, and when my vision cleared I saw Olaf in the shine of the candles in the room beyond, with Nancy crushed to him, his bright head bent, the sheer blue of her frock infolding him—the archway of the door framing them like the figures of saints in the stained glass of a church window!
I knew then that I had lost her. But she did not yield at once.
"I love him, of course. But a woman couldn't do a thing like that," was the way she put it to me the next morning.
I felt, however, that Olaf would master her. Will was set against will, mind against mind. And at last she showed him the way. "A thousand years ago you would have carried me off."
I can see him now as he caught the idea and laughed at her. "Whether you go of your own accord or I carry you, you will be happy." He lifted her in his strong hands as if she were a feather, held her, kissed her, and flashed a glance at me. "You see how easy it would be, and there's a chaplain on board."
There is not much more to tell. Nancy went down one morning to the beach for her bath—and the fog swallowed her up. I have often wondered whether she planned it, or whether, knowing that she would be there, he had come in his launch and had borne her away struggling, but not, I am sure, unwilling. However it happened, the cloak went with her, and I like to think that she was held in his arms, wrapped in it, when they reached the ship.
I like to think, too, of my Nancy in the glowing room with the wolfskins and the strange old tapestry—and the storms beating helpless against her happiness.
I like to think of her as safe in that hidden land, where most of us fain would follow her—the mistress of that guarded mansion, the wife of a young sea god, the mother of a new race.
But, most of all, I like to think of the children. And I have but one wish for a long life, which might otherwise weigh upon me, that the years may bring back to the world those prophets from a hidden land, those young voices crying from the wilderness—the children of Olaf and of Nancy Greer.