Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/A Wind Flower
A WIND FLOWER
A WIND FLOWER
WILLARD'S landlady smiled sympathetically across the narrow breakfast-table. "I guess you've got to stay in this mornin', Mr. Willard," she said. "It's a good deal too raw and cold for you to be out around, paintin', to-day."
Willard nodded. "Quite right, Mrs. Storrs," he returned, and he smiled at his landlady's daughter, who sat opposite. But she did not smile at him. She continued her silent meal, looking for the most part at her plate, and replying to direct questions only by monosyllables.
She must be nineteen or twenty, he decided, but her slender, curveless figure might have been that of a girl several years younger. Her face was absolutely without character to the casual glance—pale, slightly freckled, lighted by grey-green, half-closed eyes, and framed in light brown hair. Her lips were thin, and her rare smile did not disclose her teeth. Even her direct look, when he compelled it, was quite uninterested.
Her mother chattered with volubility of a woman left much alone, and glad of an appreciative listener, but the girl had not, of her own accord, spoken a word during his week's stay. He wondered as he thought of it why he had not noticed it before, and decided that her silence was not obtrusive, but only the outcome of her colourless personality—like the silence of the prim New England house itself.
He groaned inwardly. "What in time can I do? Nothing to read within five miles: my last cigar gone yesterday: this beastly weather driving me to melancholia! If she weren't such a stick—heavens! I never knew a girl could be so thin!"
The girl in question rose and began clearing the table. Her mother bustled out of the room, and left Willard in the old-fashioned arm-chair by the window, almost interested, as he wondered what the girl would do or say now. After five minutes of silence he realised the strange impression, or rather the lack of impression, she made on him. He was hardly conscious of a woman's presence. The intangible atmosphere of femininity that wraps around a tête-à-tête with even the most unattractive woman was wholly lacking. She seemed simply a more or less intelligent human being.
Given greatly to analysis, he grew interested. Why was this? She was not wanting intellectually, he was sure. Such remarks as she had made in answer to his own were not noticeable for stupidity or even stolidity of thought. He broke the silence.
"What do you do with yourself, these days?" he suggested. "I don't see you about at all. Are you reading, or walking about these fascinating Maine beaches?"
She did not even look up at him as she replied. "I don't know as I do very much of anything. I'm not very fond of reading—at least, not these books."
Remembering the "Pilgrim's Progress," "Book of Martyrs," "Mrs. Heman's Poems," and the "Adventures of Rev. James Hogan, Missionary to the Heathen of Africa," that adorned the marble-topped table in the parlour, he shuddered sympathetically.
"But I walk a good deal," she volunteered. "I've been all over that ledge you're painting."
"Isn't it beautiful?" he said. "It reminds me of a poem I read somewhere about the beauty of Appledore—that's on this coast somewhere, too, isn't it? You'd appreciate the poem, I'm sure—do you care for poetry?"
She piled the dishes on a tray, and carried it through the door before he had time to take it from her.
"No," she replied over her shoulder, "no, I don't care for it. It seems so—so smooth and shiny, somehow."
"Smooth? shiny?" he smiled as she came back, "I don't see."
Her high, rather indifferent voice fell in a slight embarrassment, as she explained: "Oh, I mean the rhymes and the verses—they're so even and like a clock ticking."
He took from his pocket a little red book. "Let me read you this," he said eagerly, "and see if you think it smooth and shiny. You must have heard and seen what this man tries to tell."
She stood awkwardly by the table, her scant, shapeless dress accentuating the straight lines of her slim figure, her hands clasped loosely before her, her face turned toward the window, which rattled now and then at the gusts of the rising wind. Willard held the little book easily between thumb and finger, and read in clear, pleasant tones, looking at her occasionally with interest:
"Fresh from his fastnesses, wholesome and spacious.
The north wind, the mad huntsman, halloos on his white hounds
Over the gray, roaring reaches and ridges,
The forest of Ocean, the chase of the world.
Hark to the peal of the pack in full cry,
As he thongs them before him, swarming voluminous,
Weltering, wide-wallowing, till in a ruining
Chaos of energy, hurled on their quarry.
They crash into foam!"
"There! is that smooth and shiny?" he demanded. She had moved nearer, to catch more certainly his least intonation.
Her hands twisted nervously, and to his surprise she smiled with unmistakable pleasure.
"Oh, no!" she half whispered, eyeing the book in his hand wistfully. "Oh, no! That makes me feel different. I—I love the wind."
"What's that?" Mrs. Storrs entered quickly. "Now, Sarah, you just stop that nonsense! Mr. Willard, has she been tellin' you any foolishness?"
"Miss Storrs had only told me that she liked the wind," he replied, hoping that the woman would go, and let him develop at leisure what promised to be a most interesting situation. She had really very pretty, even teeth, and when she smiled her lips curved pleasantly.
But Mrs. Storrs was not to be evaded. She had evidently a grievance to set forth, and looking reproachfully at her daughter, continued:
"Ever since Sarah was five or six years old she's had that crazy likin' for the wind. 'Tain't natural, I say, and when the gales that we hev up here strike us, the least anybody can do 's to stay in the house and thank Providence they've got a house to stay in! Why, Mr. Willard, you'd never think it to look at her, for she's a real quiet girl—too quiet, seems to me, sometimes, when I'm just put to it for somebody to be social with—but in thet big gale of eighty-eight she was out all night in it, and me and her father—that was before Mr. Storrs died—nearly crazy with fearin' she was lost for good. And when she was six years old, she got up from her crib and went out on the beach In her little nightgown, and nothin' else, and it's a miracle she didn't die of pneumonia, if not of bein' blown to death."
Mrs. Storrs stopped for breath, and Willard glanced at the girl, wondering if she would appear disconcerted or angry at such unlooked-for revelation of her eccentricity; but her face had settled Into its usual impassive lines, and she dusted the chairs serenely, turning now and then to look fixedly through the window at the swaying elm whose boughs leaned to the ground under the still rising wind.
Her mother was evidently relieving the strain of an enforced silence, and sitting stiffly in her chair, as one not accustomed to the luxury of idle conversation, she continued:
"And even now, when she's old enough to know better, you'd think, she acts possessed. Any wind-storm 'll set her off, but when the spring gales come, she'll just roam 'round the house, back and forth, staring out of doors, and me as nervous as a cat all the while. Just because I won't let her go out she acts like a child. Why, last year I had to go out and drag her in by main force; I was nearly blown off the cliff gettin' her home. And she was singin', calm, as if she was in her bed like any decent person! It's the most unnatural thing I ever heard of! Now, Sarah Storrs," as the girl was slipping from the room, "you remember you promised me not to go out this year after supper, if the wind was high. You mind, now! It's comin' up an awful blow."
The girl turned abruptly. "I never promised you that, mother," she said quickly. "I said I wouldn't if I could help it, and if I can't help it, I can't, and that's all there is to it." The door closed behind her, and shortly afterwards Willard left Mrs. Storrs in possession of the room.
The day affected him strangely. The steady low moan of the wind was by this time very noticeable. It was not cold, only clear and rather keen, and the scurrying grey clouds looked chillier than one found the air on going out. The boom of the surf carried a sinister threat with it, and the birds drove helplessly with, the wind-current, as if escaping some dreaded thing behind them.
Indoors, the state of affairs was not much better: Mrs. Storrs looked injured; her sister, a lady of uncertain years and temper, talked of sudden deaths, and the probability of premature burial, pointed by the relation of actual occurrences of that nature; Sarah was not to be seen. At last he could bear idleness no longer, and opening the dusty melodeon, tried to drown the dreary minor music of the wind by some cheerful selection from the hymn-book Mrs. Storrs brought him, having a vague idea that secular music was out of keeping with the character of that instrument. After a few moments' aimless fingering the keys he found himself pedalling a laborious accompaniment to the "Dead March" from Saul, and closed the wheezy little organ in despair.
The long day dragged somehow by, and at supper Sarah appeared, if anything, whiter and more uninteresting than ever, only to retire immediately when the meal was over.
"I might's well tell you, Mr. Willard, that you c'n give up all hope of paintin' any more this week," announced Mrs. Storrs, as the door closed behind her daughter. "This wind's good for a week, I guess. I'm sorry to have you go, but I shouldn't feel honest not to tell you." Mentally vowing to leave the next morning, Willard thanked her, and explained that the study was far enough advanced to be completed at his studio in the city, and that he had intended leaving very shortly.
A few moments later, as he stood at the window in the parlour, looking at the waving elm-boughs and lazily wondering how the moon could be so bright when there were so many clouds, the soft swish of a woman's skirt sounded close to his ear. As he turned, the frightened "Oh!" and the little gasp of surprised femininity revealed Sarah, standing near the table in the centre of the room. Even at that distance and in the dark he was aware of a difference in her, a subtle element of personality not present before.
"Did I frighten you?" he asked, coming nearer.
"No, not very much. Only I thought nobody would be here. I—I—wanted some place to breathe in; it seems so tight and close in the house." As she spoke, a violent blast of wind drove the shutters against the side of the house and rubbed together the branches of the elm until they creaked dismally. She pressed her face against the glass and stared out into the dark.
"Don't you love it?" she questioned, almost eagerly.
Willard shook his head dubiously. "Don't know. Looks pretty cool. If it gets much higher, I shouldn't care to walk far."
She took her old place by the table again, but soon left it, and wandered restlessly about the room. As she passed him he was conscious of a distinct physical impression—a kind of electric presence. She seemed to gather and hold about her all the faint light of the cold room, and the sweep of her skirt against his foot seemed to draw him toward her. Suddenly she stopped her irregular march.
"Hear it sing!" she whispered.
The now distinct voice of the wind grew to a long, minor wail, that rose and fell with rhythmic regularity. As she paused with uplifted finger near him, Willard felt with amazement a compelling force, a personality more intense, for the time, than his own. Then, as the blast, with a shriek that echoed for a moment with startling distinctness from every side, dashed the elm branches against the house itself, she turned abruptly and left the room. "Stay here!" she said shortly, and, resisting the impulse to follow her, he obeyed. In a few moments she returned with a heavy shawl wrapped over her head and shoulders.
"Hold the window open for me," she said, "I'm going out." He attempted remonstrance, but she waved him impatiently away. "I can't get out of the door—mother's locked it and taken the key, but you can hold up the window while I get out. Oh, come yourself, if you like! But nothing can happen to me."
Mechanically he held open the window as she slipped out, and, dragging his overcoat after him, scrambled through himself. She was waiting for him at the corner of the house, and as he stumbled in the unfamiliar shadows, held out her hand.
"Here, take hold of my hand," she commanded. Her cool, slim grasp was strangely pleasant, as she hurried along with a smooth, gliding motion, wholly unlike her indifferent gait of the day before.
Once out of the shelter of the house, the storm struck them with full force, and Willard realised that he was well-nigh strangled in the clutches of a genuine Maine gale.
"What folly!" he gasped, crowding his hat over his eyes and struggling to gain his wonted consciousness of superiority. "Come back instantly, Miss Storrs! Your mother——"
"Come! come!" she interrupted, pulling him along.
He stared at her in amazement. Her eyes were wide open and almost black with excitement. Her face gleamed like ivory in the cold light. Her lips were parted and curved in a happy smile. Her slender body swayed easily with the wind that nearly bent Willard double. She seemed unreal—a phantom of the storm, a veritable wind-spirit. Her loosened hair flew across his face, and its touch completed the strange thrill that her hand-clasp brought. He followed unresistingly.
"Aren't—you—afraid—of—the—woods?" he gasped, the gusts tearing the words from his lips, as he saw that she was making for the thick growth of trees that bordered the cliff. Her high, light laughter almost frightened him, so weird and unhuman it came to him on the wind.
"Why should I be afraid? The woods are so beautiful in a storm! They bow and nod and throw their branches about—oh, they're best of all, then!"
A sweeping blast nearly threw him down, and he instinctively dropped her hand, since there was no possible feeling of protection for her, her footing was so sure, her balance so perfect. As he righted himself and staggered to the shelter of the tree under which she was standing, he stopped, lost in wonder and admiration. She had impatiently thrown off the shawl and stood in a gleam of moonlight under the tree. Her long, straight hair flew out in two fluttering wisps at either side; her straight, fine brows, her dark, long lashes, her slender, curved mouth were painted against her pale face in clear relief. Her eyes were widely open, the pupils dark and gleaming. It seemed to his excited glance that rays of light streamed from them to him. "Heavens! she's a beauty! If only I could catch that pose!" he said under his breath.
"Come!" she called to him again, "we're wasting time! I want to get to the cliff!" He pressed on to her, but she slipped around the tree and eluded him, keeping a little in advance as he panted on, fighting with all the force of a fairly powerful man against the gale that seemed to offer her no resistance. It occurred to him, as he watched with a greedy artist's eye the almost unnatural ease and lightness of her walk, that she caught intuitively the turns of the wind, guiding along currents and channels unknown to him, for she seemed with it always, never against it. Once she threw out both her arms in an abandon of delight, and actually leaned on the gust that tossed him against a tree, baffled and wearied with his efforts to keep pace with her, and confusedly wondering if he would wake soon from this improbable dream.
Speech was impossible. The whistling of the wind alone was deafening, and his voice was blown in twenty directions when he attempted to call her. Small twigs lashed his face, slippery boughs glided from his grasp, and the trees fled by in a thick-grown crowd to his dazed eyes. To his right, a birch suddenly fell with a snapping crash. He leaped to one side, only to feel about his face a blinding storm of pattering acorns from the great oak that with a rending sigh and swish tottered through the air at his left.
"Good God!" he cried in terror, as he saw her standing apparently in its track. A veer in the gale altered the direction of the great trunk, that sank to the ground across her path. As it fell, with an indescribable, swaying bound she leaped from the ground, and before it quite touched the earth she rested lightly upon it. She seemed absolutely unreal—a dryad of the windy wood. All fear for her left him. As she stood poised on the still trembling trunk, a quick gust blew out her skirt to a bubble on one side, and drove it close to her slender body on the other, while her loose hair streamed like a banner along the wind. She curved her figure towards him and made a cup of one hand, laying it beside her opened lips. What she said he did not hear. He was rapt in delighted wonder at the consummate grace of her attitude, the perfect poise of her body. She was a figure in a Greek frieze—a bas-relief—a breathing statue.
Unable to make him hear, she turned slightly and pointed ahead. He realised the effect of the Wingless Victory in its unbroken beauty. She was not a woman, but an incarnate art, a miracle of changing line and curve, a ceaseless inspiration.
Suddenly he heard the pound and boom of the surf. In an ecstasy of impatience she hurried back, seized his hand, and fairly dragged him on. The crash of the waves and the wind together took from him all power of connected thought. He clung to her hand like a child, and when she threw herself down on her face to breathe, he grasped her dress and panted in her ear: "We—can't—get—much—farther—unless—you—can—walk—the—Atlantic!" She smiled happily back at him, and the thickness of her hair, blown by the wind from the ocean about his face, brought him a strange, unspeakable content.
"Shall we ever go back?" he whispered, half to himself. "Or will you float down the cliff and wake me by your going?"
Her wide, dark eyes answered him silently. "It is like a dream, though," her high, sweet voice added. And then he realised that she had hardly spoken since they left the house. The house? As in a dream he tried vaguely to connect this Undine of the wood with the girl whose body she had stolen for this night's pranks. As in a dream he rose and followed her back, through the howling, sweeping wind. Her cold, slim hand held his; her light, shrill voice sang little snatches of songs—hymns, he remembered afterward. As the moonlight fell on her, he wondered dreamily why he had thought her too thin. And all the while he fought, half-unconsciously, the resistless gale, that spared him only when he yielded utterly.
The house gleamed white and square before them. Silently he raised the window for her. He had no thought of lifting her in. That she should slip lightly through was of course. The house was still lighted, and he heard the creaking of her mother's rocking-chair in the bedroom over his head. He looked at his watch. "Does her mother rock all night?" he thought dully, for it was nearly twelve. She read his question from the perplexed glance he threw at her.
"She's sitting up to watch the door so that I sha'n't get out," she whispered quietly, without a smile. "Good-bye." And he stood alone in the room.
Until late the next morning he wandered in strange, wearied, yet fascinating dreams with her. Vague sounds, as of high-pitched reproaches and quiet sobbing, mingled with his morning dreams, and when, with aching head and thoroughly bewildered brain, he went to his late breakfast, Mrs. Storrs served him; only as he left for the train, possessed by a longing for the great, busy city of his daily work, did he see her daughter, walking listlessly about the house. Her freckled face was paler than ever, her half-closed eyes reddened, and her slight, awkward bow in recognition of his puzzled salute might have been directed to some one behind him. Only his aching head and wearied feet assured him that the strangest night of his life had been no dream.
That his studio should seem bare and uninteresting as he threw open the door, and tried to kindle a fire in the dusty stove, did not surprise him. That the sketches and studies in colour should look tame and flat to the eye that had been fed for two weeks with Maine surf, angry clouds, and swaying branches, was perhaps only natural. But as the days went on and he failed to get in train for work a puzzled wonder slowly grew in him. Why was it that the picture dragged so? He remembered perfectly the look of the beach, the feel of the cold, hungry water, the heavy, grey clouds, the primitive, forbidding austerity that a while ago he had been so confidently eager to put on the canvas. Why was it that he sat for hours together helplessly staring at it? His friends supposed him wrapped in his subject, working under a high pressure, and considerately left him alone; they would have marvelled greatly had they seen him glowering moodily at the merest study of the subject he had described so vividly to them, smoking countless packages of cigarettes, hardly lifting his hand from his chair-arm.
Once he threw down a handful of brushes and started out for a tramp. It occurred to him that the city sights and smells, the endless hum and roar, the rapid pace of the crowded streets would tone him up and set his thoughts in a new line; he was tired of the whistling gales and tossing trunks and booming surf that haunted his nights and confused his days. A block away from the studio a flower-woman met him with a tray of daffodils and late crocuses. A sudden puff of wind blew out her scanty thin skirt; a tree in the centre of the park they were crossing bent to it, the branches creaked faintly. The fresh, earthy odour of the flowers moved him strangely. He bought a bunch, turned, and went back to the studio, to sit for an hour gazing sightlessly ahead of him.
Suddenly he started up and approached the sketch.
"It wants wind," he muttered, half unconsciously, and fell to work. An hour passed, two, three—he still painted rapidly. Just as the light was fading a thunderous knock at the door ushered in the two men he knew best. He nodded vaguely, and they crossed the room in silence and looked at the picture. For a few moments no one spoke. Presently Willard took a brush from his mouth and faced them.
"Well?" he said.
The older man shook his head. "Queer sky!" he answered briefly.
The younger looked questioningly at Willard. "You'll have to get a gait on you if you hope to beat Morris with that," he said. "What's up, Willard? Don't you want that prize?"
"Of course I do." His voice sounded dull, even to himself. "You aren't any too sympathetic, you fellows——" he tried to feel injured.
The older man came nearer. "What's that white thing there? Good Lord, Will, you're not going to try a figure?"
Willard brushed rapidly over the shadowy outline. "No—that was just a sketch. The whole thing's just a sort of——"
"The whole thing's just a bluff!" interrupted the younger man, decidedly. "It's not what you told us about at all—and it's not good, anyway. It looks as if a tornado had struck it! You said it was to be late afternoon—it's nearer midnight, as far as I can see! What's that tree lying around for?"
His tone was abusive, but a genuine concern and surprise was underneath it. He looked furtively at his older friend behind Willard's back. The other shook his head expressively.
Willard bit his lip. "I only wanted to try—it won't necessarily stay that way," he explained. He wished he cared more for what they said. He wished they did not bore him so unspeakably. More than all, he wished they would go.
The younger one whistled softly. "Pretty late in the day to be making up your mind, I should say," he remarked. "When's it going to dry in? Morris has been working like a horse on his for six weeks. He's coming on, too—splendid colour!"
Willard lit a cigarette. "Damn Morris!" he said casually. The older man drew on his glove and turned to go.
"Oh, certainly!" he replied cheerfully. "By all means! No, we can't stay—we only dropped in. We just thought we'd see how you were getting along. If I were you, Will, I'd make up my mind about that intoxicated tree and set it up straight—good-bye!"
They went out cheerfully enough, but he knew they were disappointed and hurt—they had expected so much from that picture. And he wished he cared more. He looked at it critically. Of course it was bad, but how could they tell what he had been doing? It was the plan of months changed utterly in three hours. The result was ridiculous, but he needed it no longer—he knew what he wanted now, what he had been fighting against all these days. He would paint it if he could—and till he could. The insistent artist-passion to express even bunglingly something of the unendurable beauty of that strange night was on him, and before the echo of his guests' departure had died away he was working as he had never worked before, the old picture lying unnoticed in the corner where he had thrown it.
He needed no models, he did not use his studies. Was it not printed on his brain, was it not etched into his heart, that weird vision of the storm, with the floating fairy creature that hardly touched the earth? Was there a lovely curve in all her melting postures, which slipped like water circles into new shapes, that he did not know? That haunting, elf-like look, that ineffably exquisite abandon, had he not studied it greedily then in the wood, and later, in his restless dreams? The trees were sentient, the bushes put out clasping fingers to detain him, the wind shrieked out its angry soul at him; and she, the white wonder with her floating wisps of stinging hair, had joined with them to mock at him, the startled witness of that mad revel of all the elements. He knew all this—he was drunk with it: could he paint it? Or would people see only a strange-eyed girl dancing in a wood?
He did not know how many days he had been at work on it; he ate what the cleaning-woman brought him; his face was bristled with a stubby growth; the cigarette boxes strewed the floor. Men appeared at the door, and he urged them peevishly to go away; people brought messages, and he said he was not in town, and returned the notes unread. In the morning he smiled and breathed hard and patted the easel; at night he bit his nails and cursed himself for a colour-blind fool.
There was a white birch, strained and bent in the wind, that troubled him still, and as he was giving it the last touches, in the cold, strong afternoon light, the door burst open.
"Look here, the thing closes at six! Are you crazy?" they called to him, exasperatedly. "Aren't you going to send it?"
"That's all right, that's all right," he muttered vaguely, "shut up, can't you?"
They stood over behind him, and there was a stillness in the room. He laid down his palette carefully and turned to them, a worried look on his drawn, bristled face.
"That's meant to be the ocean beyond the cliff there," he said, an almost childlike fear in his eyes, "did—did you know it?"
The older man drew in a long breath.
"Lord, yes! I hear it!" he returned, "do you think we're deaf?"
The younger one squinted at various distances, muttering to himself.
"Dryad? Undine? No, she frightens you, but she's sweet! George! He's painted the wind! He's actually drawn a wind! My, but it's stunning! My!"
Willard sank into a chair. He was flushed and his legs shook. He patted the terrier unsteadily and talked to her. "Well, then! Well, then! So she was, iss, so she was!"
The older man snapped his watch. "Five-thirty," he said. "Put something 'round it, and whistle a cab—we'll have to hurry!"
Willard fingered some dead crocuses on the stand beside him. "Look out, you fool, it's wet!" he growled. The older man patted his shoulder.
"All right, boy, all right!" he said soothingly. "It's all done, now—never mind!"
They shouldered it out of the door while he pulled the terrier's ears.
"Where you going?" they called.
"Turkish bath. Restaurant. Vaudeville," he answered, and they nodded.
"Yes, thanks. Drop in to-morrow!"
"——And drive like thunder!" he heard them through the open window.
A week later he was walking up Broadway between them, sniffing the fresh, sweet air comfortably, the terrier at his heels. At intervals they read him bits from the enthusiastic comments of the critics.
"Mr. Willard, whose 'Windflower' distanced all competitors and won the Minot prize by a unanimous verdict of the judges, has displayed, aside from his thorough master of technic, a breadth of atmosphere, an imaginative range rarely if ever equalled by an American. Nothing but the work itself, so manifestly idealistic in subject and treatment, could convince us that it is not a study from life, so keen, so haunting is the impression produced by the remarkable figure of the Spirit of the Gale, who seems to sink before our eyes on the falling trunk, literally riding the storm. In direct contrast to this abandon of the figure is the admirable reticence of the background which is keyed so low——"
Willard stopped abruptly before the window of a large art establishment where a photograph of the picture was already displayed. "I want one of those," he said, "and I'm going out into the country for a bit before I sail, I think."
"Oh, back there?" they asked, comprehensively.
"Yes, back there!"
As the train rushed along he explained to himself why he was going—why he had not merely sent the photograph. He wanted to see her, to brush away the cloud of illusion that the weeks had spun around her. He wanted to realise definitely the difference between the pale, silent, unformed New England girl and the fascinating personality of his picture. Ever since he left her they had grown confused, these two that his common sense told him were so different, and he was beginning to dread the unavowed hope that for him, at least, they might be some day one. The same passionate power that had thrown mystery and beauty into colour on the canvas wove sweet, wild dreams around what he contemptuously told himself was little better than a lay figure, but he yielded to it now as he had then.
When he told himself that he was going purposely to hear her talk, to see her flat, unlovely figure, to appreciate her utter lack of charm, of all vitality, he realised that it was a cruel errand. But when he felt the sharp thrill that he suffered even in anticipation as his quick imagination pictured the dream-cloud dropping off from her, actually before his eyes, he believed the journey more than ever a necessary one.
As he walked up the little country street his heart beat fast; the greening lawns, the fresh, faint odours, the ageless, unnamable appeal of the spring stirred his blood and thrilled him inexpressibly. He was yet in the first flush of his success; his whole nature was relaxed and sensitive to every joy; he let himself drift on the sweet confused expectancy, the delicious folly, the hope that he was to find his dream, his inspiration, his spirit of the wind and wood.
A child passed him with a great bunch of daffodils and stopped to watch him long after he had passed, wondering at the silver in her hand.
At the familiar gate a tall, thin woman's figure stopped his heart a second, and as a fitful gust blew out her apron and tossed her shawl over her head, he felt his breath come more quickly.
"Good heavens!" he muttered, "what folly! Am I never to see a woman's skirt blown without——?"
She put the shawl back as he neared her—it was Mrs. Storrs's sister. She met his outstretched hand with a blank stare. Suddenly her face twitched convulsively.
"O Mr. Willard! O Mr. Willard!" she cried, and burst into tears.
The wind blew sharper, the elm tree near the window creaked, a dull pain grew in him.
"What is it? What's the matter?" he said brusquely.
"I suppose you ain't heard—you wouldn't be apt to!" she sobbed, and pushing back the locks the wind drove into her reddened eyes, she broke into incoherent sentences: he heard her as one in a dream.
"And she would go—'twas the twenty-fifth—there was dozens o' trees blown down—'twas just before dark—her mother, she ran out after her as soon's she knew—she called, but she didn't hear—she saw her on the edge o' the rocks, an' she almost got up to her an' screamed, an' it scared her, we think—she turned 'round quick, an' she went right off the cliff an' her mother saw her go—'twas awful!"
Willard's eyes went beyond her to the woods; the woman's voice, with its high, flat intonation, brought the past so vividly before him that he was unconscious of the actual scene—he lived through the quick, terrible drama with the intensity of a witness of it.
"No, they haven't found her yet—the surf's too high. We always had a feeling she wouldn't live—she wasn't like other girls——"
Half unconsciously he unwrapped the photograph.
"I—I brought this," he said dully. The woman blanched and clutched the gate-post.
"Oh, take it away! Take it away!" she gasped, a real terror in her eyes. "O Mr. Willard, how could you—it's awful! I—I wouldn't have her mother see it for all the world!" Her sobs grew uncontrollable.
He bent it slowly across and thrust it in his pocket.
"No, no," he said soothingly, "of course not, of course not. I only wanted to tell—you all—that it took the prize I told you about and—and was a good thing for me. I hoped—I hoped——"
He saw that she was trembling in the sudden cold wind, and held out his hand.
"This has been a great shock to me," he said quietly, his eyes still on the woods. "Please tell Mrs. Storrs how I sympathise—how startled I was. I am going abroad in a few days. I will send you my address, and if there is ever anything I can do, you will gratify me more than you can know by letting me help you in any way. Give her these," and he thrust out the great bunch of daffodils to her. She took them, still crying softly, and turned towards the house.
Later he found himself in the woods near the great oak that lay just as it had fallen that night. Beneath all the confused tumult of his thoughts one clear truth rang like a bell, one bitter-sweet certainty that caught him smiling strangely as he realised it! "She's won! She's won!"
There, while the branches swayed above him, and the surf, sinister and monotonous, pounded below, the vision that had made them both famous melted into the elusive reality, and he lived again with absolute abandonment that sweet mad night, he felt again her hair blown about his face as he lay on the windy cliff with the lady of his dreams.
For him her fate was not dreadful—she could not have died like other women. There was an intoxication in her sudden taking away: she was rapt out of life as she would have wished, he knew.
Slowly there grew upon him a frightened wonder if she had lived for this. Her actual life had been so empty, so unreal, so concentrated in those piercing stolen moments; she had ended it, once the heart of it had been caught and fixed to give to others faint thrills of all she had felt so utterly.
"She died for it!" he felt, with a kind of awe that was far from all personal vanity—the blameless egoism of the artist.
He left the little town hardly consciously. On his outward voyage, when the gale beat the vessel and the wind howled to the thundering waves, he came to know that though a love more real, a passion less elusive, might one day hold him, there would rest always in his heart and brain one ceaseless inspiration, one strange, sweet memory that nothing could efface.