The Mountain of Fears/Into the Dark
INTO THE DARK
TO-NIGHT, Doctor," said Leyden one evening as we went on deck, "let us forswear the exchange of blood-curdling yarns. Let us be sociable and play poker with my Czechian friend, Rosenthal, and Mr. Mailock."
I agreed and we went into the rook kamer, where the others presently joined us. We played for perhaps an hour; I do not remember just how the game stood when we were interrupted by a tragic incident.
From somewhere beneath us there came a sudden muffled roar; the little vessel quivered as though struck by a shell; an instant of silence, then up from below there came a scream so wild and hoarse and laden with fearful human anguish that we all leaped to our feet. Shouts, yells, orders in half a dozen tongues rose in a clamorous medley; but through them all as a bugle rings out on the firing-line there rose again that wild, wide-throated scream of intolerable physical pain.
I knew the sound. I had heard it several times. The latest was in San Francisco on one of the big United States transports when a stevedore had up-ended a crate of primers which had exploded and filled the man's body with splinters so that he looked like a porcupine. Leyden had heard it also, as the first glance at his face told me, and from his expression I saw that he had guessed the present cause; but there was no time to inquire, for the screams now followed each other in quick succession and were approaching, and such screams! Opposite me Rosenthal, who had thrown down his hand at the beginning of the play and was about to take a swallow of his Rhine wine, paused, the glass half way to his lips, and hardened, world-worn adventurer that the Jew was, he positively looked sickened at the sound.
And then the clamor reached our deck, but forward, and we turned as one man and stepped out of the rook kamer. Abreast of the steam steering-gear there was a confused mass of yelling, gyrating figures, and from these we saw emerge a single one who with outspread arms and wide fingers came lurching toward us, and as he ran he screamed.
The bulk of my professional work has been of an emergency character, so that even as the man approached I was framing a diagnosis, and before he had reached the part of the deck where we stood, it was made. The jar of the explosion, the screams of appalling pain, and now, swiftly as he approached, the suffocating fumes of ammonia had preceded him, and I knew on the instant that there had been an explosion of the ice-making machine and that the victim was one who had bathed in the liquid fire set loose. Then as he bore down upon us, followed by the clamoring crowd who sought to restrain him for his good, something of the spirit of the hunted animal fastened on the poor frenzied intellect and he sprang for the rail.
"Ach, no!" muttered Leyden in my ear, and at the same instant leaped like a cat; one of his powerful, nervous hands closed on the man's naked shoulder and the next moment the poor wretch was on his back, pawing the air, groping at his livid face, while his screams smote back the crowd of the curious.
"Quick, Doctor!" said Leyden, and the words wedged in his throat as the pungent fumes gripped his trachea. He tried again to speak, but by that time I had seized Rosenthal's bottle of Rhine wine from the table and had begun to pour it over the man's face. Of course, there are better things than Rhine wine with which to neutralize stronger ammonia, but that was the nearest at hand and haste was requisite.
Presently the ship's doctor arrived with dilute acetic acid; by that time Leyden and I were both nearly asphyxiated and the man was in a syncope, poor fellow! He saw light again, but never outline.
Our game was abandoned. Leyden and I strolled aft to our favorite place by the hand steering-gear, where Leyden puffed at his porcelain pipe in silence for so long a time that I began to think that he would hold to the resolution made early in the evening and not tell the story which hung on the edge of his mind.
"Ach!" he exclaimed suddenly, and taking the pipe from his mouth, tapped the horn mouth-piece against the awning stanchion. "Ach! One would almost think that God might spare a man two such spectacles as that which we have just witnessed. I am accustomed to seeing men killed, Doctor; also to seeing men suffer within reasonable limits, but I protest against casually witnessing torture. . . .
"It was not so long ago, Doctor," he resumed presently, "I was going out to Java via Singapore, and the first night out, while chatting with the chief engineer, who was an old friend of mine, his second came to the door to report on something concerning the engines. I did not notice what he said, for the moment he stepped into the blaze of the incandescent lights I set my memory at work to place him.
"This second engineer was, I think, Doctor, the most strikingly beautiful man I have ever seen. Really, the poor fellow was so handsome that he was almost disagreeably conspicuous, because one felt that no matter how great the effort, his deeper personality would never be able to hold the pace set by his physical appearance. I will not try to describe him; figure to yourself a powerful frame of athletic perfection, the face of a very masculine archangel, broad forehead, blazing sapphire eyes, with rather dark lashes, although his hair was yellow, a wide mouth of singularly winning expression and a jaw which was aristocratically masterful. He said but half a dozen words, and then at a nod from the chief, went out, but brief as was my glimpse of him I was no less impressed by his striking beauty than by the fact that I had known some of his breed.
" 'Who is that fellow?' I asked of old Burton, the chief.
" 'Dalton, my second,' said he; 'a good looking lad, is he not?'
" 'Extremely,' I answered; 'is he as good as he looks?'
" 'Aye, and the more credit to him for that, to my mind, ' said Burton, and went on, 'D'ye know, Doctor Leyden, the Almighty puts an awful strain on the moral construction of a man when he models him on the lines of yon lad! And the boy knows it and is not too proud to shun the danger. You'll scarce lay eyes on him between here and Singapore.'
" 'Is he shy of his good looks?' I asked.
" 'Less that than proper-minded. If ever a man was built to carry an overload of women's fancies, 'tis this same Dalton. They can see nothing else when the poor lad's about, not that he seems to notice it.'
"'Is he a good man professionally?' I inquired.
" 'He is all of that and more,' answered Burton, and was going on to tell me that, although off duty at that moment, Dalton was hard at work superintending some repairs on the ice-machine when he was interrupted . . . . just as we were a few moments ago."
"No!" I cried involuntarily, as Leyden paused; "not that!"
"Yes, Doctor . . . the sequence of events was almost identical: the same explosion . . . the same sensation as of being hit by a shell . . . the same instant's pause followed by cries, one louder than the others, and the same stampede for the deck, the air, freedom from torture and suffocation; but in Dalton's case no one was quick-witted enough to think of Rhine wine or vinegar, and we had to hold him until the doctor came . . . Ach! . . .
"It seemed a long time, Doctor, especially as the man's strength was so great that after his first mad rush his mind grappled with the situation and he lay without a moan, without a struggle. I assisted the surgeon in the little that it was possible to do for the poor fellow, and it was while we were bathing his face that I solved the problem of his identity. For many years, Doctor, I have, whenever in England, made a tour of inspection of several large estates where I occupy a rather unique position of consulting horticulturist. To these patrons I sometimes ship from different parts of the world bulbs or plants or seeds or specimens in which I judge they will be interested. It was while on one of these visits, some of which have become more of a social than professional character, that I met Dalton, which, of course, was not his name. He was then at school, a charming boy, an only son and the heir to one of the oldest titles and most magnificent estates in England.
"This discovery did not come to me with any shock of surprise, for England is unlike America, where one often sees the thoroughbred working with his hands, and I had suspected that his was either some youthful tragedy or the baton sinister.
"Dalton lay quite still while the surgeon dressed and bandaged his face; then, as the last pin was being inserted, he said in a steady voice:
"'How about my eyes, Doctor?'
"We'll hope for the best, old chap,' said this doctor, and I saw Dalton's mouth, the only feature in sight, set with the rigidity of a death-mask. His chest filled deeply and he swallowed once or twice, and when he spoke again his voice was dry but quite firm.
"'You think the chances are against me, don't you, Doctor?' he said quietly. The surgeon looked doubtfully at me and I nodded.
" 'Your case is like this, Dalton,' said he, 'if the caustic action of the ammonia has not burned through the conjunctiva and into the cornea the prognosis is good; otherwise it is bad—but I don't anticipate total blindness.'
"'How soon will you be able to tell with certainty?' asked Dalton, calmly.
" 'Probably when I dress your eyes to-morrow,' said the Doctor, adding, 'at the worst, you will never be in the dark. . . .'
"'I know. . . .' Dalton's voice was very low, very quiet; . . . 'you mean that I will live behind ground glass. . . .'
"The firm mouth stiffened and the triangular space which it occupied beneath the band ages grew suddenly white. At a sign from the doctor we picked him up and carried him to his berth and left him there to fight his fight alone.
"That night I sat late with Burton and the pious old chief had a sharp tussle to remain within the bounds of Christian submission as we discussed the accident. I soon discovered that he knew more of Dalton than he cared to tell, but I asked no questions. When I left him at eleven o'clock I passed the open door of Dalton's room, and as I did so I was conscious of one of those long, deep, shuddering inspirations which scarcely carry sound and seem wrung less from the body than the tortured soul.
"'Are you in pain!' I whispered, for I did not wish to wake him if he should be asleep.
" 'In torture, Doctor Leyden,' came the low answer; 'but it is not of the flesh.'
"This was the first indication that I was known to him. I slipped into the room and went to the head of his bunk.
" 'May I sit with you?' I asked.
"'Thanks . . . you know me, of course!'
" 'Yes,' said I. I dropped on the locker beside him, and for several moments neither of us spoke.
" 'What do you think of my chances of losing my sight, Doctor!' he asked presently.
" 'I think,' said I, 'that your sight will be impaired, but not entirely destroyed. One eye appears to have been less injured than the other.'
"'Do you think that I will be able to do my work!' he asked quickly.
"'Perhaps . . . it is impossible to tell, my dear boy, until to-morrow—very likely not for several days.'
"Again I felt that shuddering sigh which was less a sound than an impression.
"'It is not for myself that I am afraid, Doctor Leyden,' he said in a few moments. 'There is some one else . . . other people . . . ." My word! One could see his very heart squirming in the grip of his feudal pride.
" 'Tell me all about it, my boy,' said I. ' Life has shown me many of her poisons . . . and their antidotes; perhaps I can help you.'
"'Thank you, Doctor,' said he, and went on to tell me his story. Briefly, he had several years before committed the indiscretion of running off with another man's wife; not long afterward the husband had died and Dalton had married the woman. His father had cut him off without a penny, but through a friend he had got a billet as engineer, for which his technical education had fitted him, and had in time risen solely through his merits. The wife and their two children were living in Singapore.
"There were qualities in the romance, Doctor, which raised it to a plane higher than most similar affairs. Ten years of poverty had brought them no regrets, and this alone seemed to me sufficient to warrant the breach of etiquette; then, the former husband was a rake, or, what is far worse, an ex-rake. Also, the love of this man and woman had grown and deepened and gathered volume until, and this I gathered from what Dalton did not tell me, the love itself contained in him had raised the nature of this man to a sublime height, where it would almost seem that he had undergone an apotheosis; this perfect love which had begun so imperfectly had matured this creature, who was the result of generations of highly bred and highly cultured ancestors, until the man was an Olympian, Doctor, a demi-god, or I am no judge of men.
"Before long I left him, soothed as much as might be, and promising to sleep. When I visited him the following day he was calm, and one read only in the lines of the firm and beautiful mouth which cut the triangular space between the bandages, 'I wait.'"
Leyden's voice grew muffled.
"My word! I couldn't stand it, Doctor, for very long; it was worse than the accident itself. I sneaked off into Burton's room, and there the surgeon found me an hour later lying on the old man's bunk, for he was below at the time, and holding a capsized book in front of my face. There was a simplicity about this doctor which appealed to me.
"'Oh, hell!' said he, and dropped into Burton's desk chair and buried his face in his hands, and there he sat until presently the chief came in. From behind my book I could feel the grizzled old fellow looking from one to the other of us, and presently he gave a husky and inquiring grunt.
" 'Blind,' said the doctor, . . . . stone blind,' and with that old Burton kicked shut the door which opened on the boiler-room, and the three of us began to snivel in the shame-faced way characteristic of certain emotional members of the Anglo-Saxon race. I think Burton prayed a little, for he was inclined to be theosophical.
"'Does he know?' asked Burton, presently.
" 'No,' muttered the doctor, . . . I . . . I put him off. . . .'
" 'You put him off!' I snapped. 'Do you mean to say that you have any hope?'
" 'There's none to have,' he answered a bit sulkily; 'the cornea might just as well have been seared with a Paquelin. . . . '
"'And yet you put him off!' I snarled, 'and add the hell of uncertainty to the agony he's got to suffer anyway when he hears the truth!'
" 'Go in and tell him yourself then,' grumbled this doctor.
" 'I will,' said I, and flung open the door and went out. I found Dalton lying on his bunk, his face swathed in fresh bandages, his straight mouth sphinx-like.
"'Dalton,' said I, roughly, 'the doctor has just told me that you are blind.'
" 'Has he?' said Dalton, calmly. 'The poor chap lacked the nerve to tell me, and I don't know that I blame him much. Beastly thing, that, to have to tell a chap that he's blind.'
"I began to choke up again, Doctor. I had been purposely rough, commonplace, and I had expected and in fact half wished an hysterical outburst. As it was, the situation was infinitely more difficult. For several minutes Dalton did not speak.
" 'Would you like me to stay with you?' I asked, 'or shall I get out?'
"The bandaged head rolled toward me and the fine mouth curved in a smile which showed the white, even teeth.
"'Don't stay, Doctor; it is horribly depressing for you and I am so busy thinking that I don't notice being alone. Come in and see me to-night, if you like.'
"I left him then and went aft on the other side of the ship from Burton's room, and as I went I looked my hardest at the blue water and the blue sky and the bright-work and the bright faces of the children scampering up and down the deck . . . and then a mist came before my eyes and my vision was as Dalton's would be, 'behind ground glass.'
"That night I went to him again. He greeted me quietly as I came in.
"'Doctor Leyden, ' said he, 'it is a terrible thing to be blind, is it not?'
"I did not answer.
" 'But it is not a terrible thing to die. We none of us fear to face death; most of us enjoy a bit of a tussle with the grim old man.'
"I had expected this and waited for him to go on.
"'To myself,' said Dalton, 'I consider that I am dead, practically dead.' He was silent for a few minutes and then said, 'Do you not consider, Doctor Leyden, that we have all of us a certain claim upon each other as fellow-men!'
"'Undoubtedly,' I answered.
"'I am glad that you feel as I do,' said he composedly, 'because my claim upon you, Doctor Leyden, is that you go to my father and tell him of my death and its cause and make him support my family as they should be supported. He must make my oldest boy his heir. Will you do this for me? There is no desperate hurry; within a year will be time enough.'
" 'Yes,' said I, 'I will do it.'
"He was silent for many minutes and then he turned to me, and again his flashing smile illumined the triangular open space.
" 'And now as to details,' said he. 'You would not try to prevent me if I were to get out of my bunk and get over the rail, would you, Doctor Leyden?'
"'No,' I answered. 'I would not try to prevent you.'
"There was another silence, and then he said in a low voice:
"'Don't you think that it would be easier . . . . for her?'
" 'No,' I said, 'I don't.'
" 'But living I can only be a weight a drag.'
" 'Her little children are that,' said I.
" 'But don't you see,' he cried, 'how different it is? They will grow up. . . ' His voice rose in key.
"'They will grow up and need her less,'said I; 'it is while they are drags, weights, that they give her the greatest joy.'
" 'Don't,' he groaned, '. . . . don't you see, man, that my mind was at rest about it; that I was cheerful, happy, when it was only a matter of dying, . . . and now that you are taking that away, think of the horror of what's left. . . .' His mouth writhed.
" 'You are the chief sufferer,' said I. 'My sympathy is for you. I did not mean to destroy your faith in the ethics of this thing. Personally, for your own good, I would advise you to get overboard, and if you wish I will lead you to the rail. I have been truth fully answering the questions which you asked me concerning your wife. . . .'
"We were both silent for many minutes."
" 'I begin to see it now, I begin to see it . . . you are right. . . .' And then, Doctor, as he looked down the long, dark, narrow corridor stretching away into the years of obscurity before him the shadow fell across his soul and I left him writhing beneath the weight of his doom."
Leyden paused and turned his pale, classic face toward the liquid darkness of the star-flecked sky. ". . . See all of those planets, Doctor," he mused, "and think of what the sight of just one of them would mean to a blind man . . . a single break in the utter obliteration of a sense . . . a pin-prick in the curtain. . . . I once witnessed an operation which restored to a blind man the perception of light alone . . . no vision, only light . . . . and he would place his hands over his eyes and then take them away and laugh with the joy of a heart too full for utterance. Think of the myriad things we see which go to waste! My word, it makes one wish to treasure the image of each passing object. . . ."
"And now, Doctor, I will tell you the rest, and then you shall tell me if I was a fool to answer him so truthfully; in my own mind I have never been quite sure.
"Three days saw the end of his period of frantic and agonized depression, for his stoicism and self-control abandoned him as soon as I removed the balm of a voluntary death. In this time he would see none of us; would eat because he had determined to live; but one could see that a word of comfort, of sympathy, would be infuriating. Next came a week of apathy while the wound was granulating . . . inside and out. What is it, Doctor, which regulates the duration of violent pain when its cause still persists? In the case of this newly blinded man, with his high vitality and potent perceptions, one could not conceive of such a thing as reconciliation, nor did it arrive as such. . . ."
"The first inkling I had of the change was while we were going down the Red Sea. I had gone to pay my usual afternoon visit; one of the mess boys was coming from Dalton's room, and as he stepped into the corridor I heard Dalton's voice say peevishly:
"'Be sure to get it well done and plenty of gravy . . . do you hear, plenty of gravy.'
"Ach! For no reason the words shocked me more than when he had told me of his wish to die! Plenty of gravy . . .! What could it matter to a man newly blind if his gravy were of gall and wormwood? What could it matter?"
"Dalton had before this time recovered from the physical effects of the shock; the epidermis of his face had not been deeply burned; the danger to his eyes was due to the fact that the irritation of the caustic had involuntarily forced him to hold the lids shut, thus causing the stuff to burn the more deeply. His face had been blistered as it might from any burn and the new skin had formed beneath, and at this time the bandages were off and the only evidence of the accident was in the pellucid film drawn across his pupils. He wore dark glasses to prevent the irritant action of the light.
"It was a few days later that I received another shock. The chief and I were standing by the railing talking when, glancing forward, I saw the doctor come around the corner of the deck-house leading Dalton by the hand. Burton caught sight of them as soon as I, and happening to glance at him, I saw an odd expression cross his face; it was not alone the shadow of pain and compassion, which would have been natural—there was something puzzled in the look, something studious, contemplative. The doctor led Dalton to a wicker chaise-longue and left him there. The face of the blind man was turned in our direction, but our voices failed to reach him above the swash alongside.
"'Poor lad!' said Burton, in a low voice. 'He were better dead, Doctor. I . . . I . . . I did not think to see him abide by it. . . . There was a vague disappointment in the old man's voice which irritated me.
" 'I agree with you that he would be better off himself if he were dead,' I answered curtly, 'but there are others than himself to consider.'
"Burton shook his head.
"'’Twould be better for him if he were dead,' he answered; 'he can no longer contribute to their support; and as far as sentiment is concerned, why, do you not see, Doctor——'
" 'Do I not see what?' I asked testily, the more so because I saw very well, and I felt that it was my work.
"'That he is no longer the same man,' said Burton. 'Look at the face of him as he turns it this way. Do you think that dark glasses could ever make that change?'
"Once again, Doctor, there ran through me the little chill which I had felt on hearing Dalton emphasize the detail of his dinner. Burton was right; he no longer was the same man, and as I realized this and was able to look with clear sight far into his future I felt for the moment as if I had tampered with the man's soul. We are what we are by virtue of our senses, Doctor, for it is through them that we give and receive and translate and modify and perform the various functions and evolve the phenomena, the sum of which is known as life. Of these senses sight is perhaps the one through which we receive the most and must keep on receiving, to fulfil the constant demand of the dependencies of this sense, and just as the nature of a man is rounded and made fuller and finer and greater by that which he sees, so must it shrivel and wane when this tributary of the soul is cut off.
"It is, of course, unnecessary to state that Dalton was an object of the most supreme compassion to the passengers, and where he had at first shunned their expressions of sympathy I noticed that as the days wore on he first endured, then courted them. His face, too, had changed; the fine, sensitive lines about the mouth and eyes were gradually erased; he began to put on flesh; his appetite was better than before the accident; his demeanor grew to be gentle and passive. I have seen women read to him by the hour and finally close the book and steal away in tears, but do you know, Doctor, that while my compassion was as great as ever, the change in the man had cooled my sympathy. I grew to be sorry for him only with my head."
"Burton understood. He said to me one day, ''Tis a rough thing, Doctor Leyden, that I cannot take yon poor lad's hurt more to heart, but 'tis not as if 'twas Dalton himself in such trouble. Honestly, Doctor, I believe that part of the man I loved was killed in him with the loss of his sight. . . .' He glanced narrowly down the deck to where Dalton was talking earnestly with one of the women passengers. 'Look now . . . one cannot imagine Dalton so pouring out his soul to a stranger, for the lad was always shut within himself with a double water-tight bulkhead!'
"'He told me this morning,' said I, 'that the passengers were taking up a collection for him.'
" 'Did he, now? . . . but there! . . . why not for a poor fellow with a wife and children, struck blind in the performance of his duty? Only . . . only . . .'
" 'Only it is not like Dalton,' said I, harshly.
"'No, Doctor. Belike it is the humbleness of soul which comes to those whom the Lord deeply chastens, . . . and it is a balm, Doctor, . . . a balm. . . .'
"When the ship reached Singapore I offered to conduct Dalton to his home. It was a sweet spot on one of the charming little islands a short row from the mainland; a bungalow half hidden in the foliage, a diminutive jetty with a dozen steps leading into the dark green shadows. As our sampan drew near I saw a woman with a toddling child on either side step from this plushy background and descend the steps. Seeing me, a white man and a stranger, she paused at the head of the toy jetty, but as Dalton, wearing his dark glasses, began to fumble at the ladder with no hail, no word of greeting, she slipped her hands from those of the children and ran forward swiftly.
"'Hugh! . . .' she cried. '. . . Hugh!'
" 'One minute, girlie,' answered Dalton. His voice was full, cheerful, a fat voice, Doctor, and a trifle flat in timbre, and as it reached the ears of the woman I saw her stop as one might stop who runs to meet a bullet full in the chest.
" 'Hugh!' she cried again, and as she was by this time close at hand, I spoke.
"'He has met with an accident to his eyes . . . ,' I began . . . . and then looked, away, but not in time to miss the expression of her face as she cast her eyes first at her husband, then at me, . . . and I knew that I had fetched home a stranger to fill a husband's place."
Leyden paused and stared moodily at the bowl of his china pipe. "There is a good deal in sacred literature, as well as in the laws of each land, Doctor, concerning the impropriety of interfering with the duration of a man's life; is there anything regarding the sin of interfering with his death . . .? because there ought to be! It cannot be pleasing to God to prolong an existence which He has culled in part. . . ."
"Six months later I returned that way on my journey home from Java. I took a sampan and was sculled across to the little island, and there in front of the bungalow I found Dalton sitting beneath the high shade of the royal palms. He had grown heavy; the last lines had left his face, which was now smooth as that of a child. I noticed as his hands rested on the arms of the chair that the thumbs had thickened, yet his other senses had begun to do the mechanical work of his lacking sight."
"'Is that you, Leyden?' he asked, in a full, flat, heavy voice, the voice which suggested a fat throat. His two children were playing about his chair; all three were munching a confection of sugar and chopped cocoanut.
" 'Yes,' he said, in answer to my question. 'We are doing nicely. Ah, Leyden, each cloud has its silver lining. . . .' His wife joined us at this point and a glance at her face showed me the change. I had never known it otherwise, yet the change was evident. '. . . I wrote to the earl . . . .' continued Dalton—his voice grew slightly peevish—'. . . . and while he was not above hurting the feelings of a poor blind man . . . .'—the fat voice grew querulous—'. . . . he was generous . . . . very generous . . . .'—a complacent note crept in.
"I glanced at the woman and a shiver ran down my back. 'I am glad . . . .' I managed to mutter, '. . . . very glad . . . .' She glanced at me warningly and laid her finger on her lips, then nodded toward the landing. I shook his hand, which was sticky from the sweet-meats.
"'Good-bye . . . . I have barely time . . . .' I mumbled and followed the woman toward my boat."