A BROAD beach extending far into the distance; miles of sand-hills on the left, and on the right a sullen sea, from which one slow-rolling wave after another washed up moaning on the shore. Tall gray columns of rain were sweeping across the green turbid water in stately procession, smooth and undeviating until they reached the land, when the wind drove them aslant in long, searching streaks across the country, and sea, shore, and hills became blurred and indistinguishable. A discouraged horse ploughed laboriously through the heavy sand on the beach, dragging a low, old-fashioned chaise, in which two persons, wrapped to the eyes in water-proofs, sat far back in the shadow. A large, fair-haired man was driving with surly ill-will, as if he and the horse were sworn foes, the lines about his mouth hardening as the road grew heavier and the rain beat more persistently in his face. His companion glanced at him from time to time, smiling provokingly, but turned her eyes away again without speaking. At last, with a final struggle against the wind that took the top of the chaise as if it had been a sail, the horse backed and then came to a standstill. After an unsuccessful attempt to get at the whip, the driver frowned and set his jaw unpleasantly, waiting in grim rage for the gust to pass.
“This horse knew that it was going to rain,” said the girl, her eyes shining in the corner where she had drawn back as far as she could; “he knew it all the time, and yet he insisted upon coming this way. I wonder at your angelic patience, Ned; of course the rain is doing it intentionally, and the wind—”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he answered, jerking the reins savagely, while the poor horse, gathering himself together, dragged slowly ahead.
“The wind is insolent. Its attitude is personal. It amazes me to see how you keep your temper.”
“You are entirely mistaken. I have not lost my temper in the least!”
“Have I not but just congratulated you upon your self-control?” she said, and leaning forward pulled the apron down to the level of her eyes. The gray hills on her left showed mistily through the rain, their tops delicately green with the early growth of grass, and all their slopes bare from the perpetual sliding of the light sand.
“What dreariness!” she murmured.
“Dreariness!” echoed he. “If you mean those hills, they are intolerable! I told Cornwall the last time we were down that I never meant to set my foot on them again. And mind, you keep out of them. They are the wildest, loneliest, eeriest things in the whole created universe!”
“You are making them attractive, you and Mr. Cornwall; he told me last winter that if they once took hold of the imagination they would never let go. I had meant to take Ann and spend my days in them.”
“You will do no such thing. It is just like Cornwall to put you up to something he knew I should disapprove. Still, I needn’t trouble myself; between Ann’s cowardice and your own laziness you will never go. The walking in there is atrocious; it is next door to a quicksand, pulling your feet down at every step—drag, drag, drag. I had to go ploughing through it until I was completely worn out, and ready to swear.”
“The novelty of the latter sensation should have redeemed it,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“I tell you,” he exclaimed, with a strong sense of personal irritation, “there is something about it that brings out all the brute in one. You grow mad in it; you are willing to burst your heart to overcome it, and it hinders and hampers and weighs on you as if every grain of it had a thousand wills against you.”
“Do stop, Ned,” she said, laughing. “You are making it impossible for me to keep away from them. The thought of little things like that having a thousand wills of their own is more than I can be expected to withstand; it creates a bond of sympathy, you know, a—”
“It is just like you!” he broke out, angrily. “No wonder you feel in sympathy with it. It slips through the fingers shining and glittering all the while, just as you have laughed yourself out of every obligation ever laid upon you, and if you try to make your way against it, drag, drag—it pushes in your pathway in myriads of fine opposing particles until their weight becomes intolerable, intolerable!”
“You are talking nonsense,” she said, coldly. “What have I ever done but follow meekly the course marked out for me before I was born? I am doing it now; I shall continue it all summer, and complete the great work in the autumn. Where have you, or the rest of the family, ever had from me any opposition, any opinion even, not in accordance with your wishes?”
“Still you oppose! You have never”—he turned and addressed her emphatically—“you have never done anything but oppose.”
“You mistake the word; it is conform you mean. I have never done anything but conform.”
“Conform! Yes, and you can conform to the day of your death, but this does not alter the fact that essentially you slip through our fingers. We have moulded you into the shape we wished. I hold you in my hand, but let me once loosen my clasp, and you glide softly back to your own ways and think your own thoughts.”
“And whose thoughts should I think?” she asked, defiantly.
“The old men saw it; but they cared only for the letter. If you followed the path they marked out, with your feet, you were as free as air, in spirit, to rove where you pleased. But I care. I care, I tell you! It maddens me. It is as if in this slow dragging through the shifting sand-hills I saw my future; and—”
“Good heavens!” she said, with amused consternation. “How long have you been getting this up? And what is it for? Are you going on the stage, or is it private theatricals?”
“It is none of them. It is that you are going to be my wife in three months, and you could see me marry any other woman under the sun with perfect composure.”
“I could,” she said, “with something more than perfect composure. But as I can also be married to you myself with perfect composure, I do not see what you have to cavil at.”
“You do not see—” he began.
“I do not! It indicates a great deal of affection that I am willing to marry you at all.”
“I suppose it does; and your eagerness to break off the whole thing—what does that indicate?”
“That also indicates affection of the same kind. To break off is as much for your happiness as for mine. I acknowledge that it is a snarl, and Uncle Edward and papa took care that it should be hard to untangle. Still, if it were not for your sheer obstinacy we could do it. Your feelings are no more engaged in it than mine. Look at last winter!”
“Well, look at it! What difference did it make to you?”
“Of course, it made no difference to me. But you need not go off into tragic tirades about caring for what I do—or, rather, do not do; for the matter is mainly negative—when you yourself so openly and publicly show how impossible it is that there should be any truth in such caring. No—no! Listen to me”—she raised her voice to silence his protest—“I am not criticising. You may go on flirting with Mrs. Sturgis every winter of our lives. I only wish it were Nellie Graham, and then you could marry her, and put an end to the whole difliculty. Still, no matter who it is, I have no intention of interfering. I shall not even see you! And, while we are on the subject, I should like to say that it is not quite fair for the liberty to be all on one side. If I did the things that you do, it might be different; but you must leave me my friends, Ned. In some cases they are your friends, and in some they are not. But however that may be, this is the last time that I shall submit to your interference.”
“And in what possible manner have I interfered?” he broke in impatiently. She looked at him a moment, and smiled with charming impertinence.
“In what possible manner haven’t you?” she asked.
Ned turned the horse from the sea, and drove over a sandy slope in the shore, along the road, which now led inland through a dip in the low hills, and for a time they remained in silence.
“There is the house,” he said, pointing across a small fresh-water pond, on the further side of which a red farmhouse, with the usual trail of New England barns, might be seen through the rain. A tall, bony woman stood in the door-way waiting for them, and as they approached she waved her hand.
“Well, of all things!” she shouted. “Whatever possessed you to come around by the beach? Your trunks came up an hour ago, Mr. Forman.”
“Is Long ready to drive back with me?” he asked, as he lifted the young girl to the steps. The woman made no reply.
“Look here,” she said, roughly, fixing her eyes on the little figure before her, “I didn’t contract to take care of no children.”
“Don’t be frightened,” he said; “her nurse will be down by the next train. We must have another horse to drive back with. I suppose your husband is in the barn.” He jumped into the chaise again and drove off, while Mrs. Long followed her guest into the narrow entry, and stood gazing at her with open curiosity.
“I declare,” she said, as the girl dropped her wraps on the floor, “you ain’t much bigger than a well-grown child of twelve. How you ever came to be a Forman I don’t see! Why, your cousin Ned’d make ten of you. They always were a big lot, men and women, too. It beats me how you ever—”
“Will you take these wet shawls to the kitchen?” said the girl, quietly. “My maid does not come until evening.”
Mrs. Long drew in her breath.
“Look here,” she said again—her invariable preliminary to a protest—“he didn’t say nothing about a maid. I can’t have a lazy city huzzy bothering round here; and what’s more, I won’t! You just tell him he’s got to send her back, or else you can go over to the Point. There’s plenty of boardin’-houses there as can put up with any amount of nonsense.”
The girl seemed not to hear. She walked slowly into the little, tightly closed sitting-room on the right of the narrow hall, and sat down in the dark. Mrs. Long waited a moment and then retired, presumably to deliver her own message, for Forman soon entered, looking angry and annoyed.
“Nina, can’t you do without Ann?” he said, going to the window and throwing open the shutters. “Mrs. Long says she has no room for her.”
“I could do without Ann, if there were any necessity for it. But as there are pleasanter and more obliging land-ladies to be found elsewhere, why remain here?”
“She doesn’t mean to be disagreeable,” said Ned; “and besides, from an old family servant like that you might stand a few peculiarities, especially when they go hand in hand with such honesty and strength of character.”
“She was with you for just four years at Steadham, when mamma and I were in France,” said Nina.
“Oh, well, Cornwall and I have been down here for the shooting and fishing every summer since she married Long.”
“Still, I can’t see why I should stay. In my case her ‘strength of character’ is not compensated for either by shooting, fishing, or family ties.”
“If you go over to the Point it will be all in the papers.”
“I have been in the papers for a year now, and I cannot make myself uncomfortable for a thing that I am powerless to prevent. It will possibly be in the papers that I am down here.”
“No, it won’t. I have taken special precautions. They think you have gone to Canada.”
“Ah!” There was something in her intonation that put him on the defensive.
“Even here you know how all our acquaintances would flock around you. You would have no rest, no quiet.”
“Oh, I forgot; it is quiet I need?”
He rose angrily and began to pace the floor. “I am sure I should never have brought you here if I had known it to be against your will. I thought you were delighted with the project. But if you must have distraction and dissipation, why not go to Newport at once?”
The girl smiled.
“Yes,” she said; “why not?”
“How like a woman! We have settled that question at least a dozen times.”
“There are people at Newport that interest me,” she continued, calmly.
Forman came and sat down in front of her.
“You know that Newport is not the place for you—your health, your mourning, our approaching marriage—”
She leaned back in her chair and shut her eyes. “My dear Ned,” she said, wearily, “do not go over it; I know it all by heart, and there is not a word of sense in it. But I am convinced, convinced”—she repeated more hastily, as he made an effort to interrupt—“quite as convinced as I should be by a statement of facts.”
“What do you mean by a statement of facts?”
“Oh, something clear and to the point, something, perhaps, a little truthful. Still, they have their drawbacks—statements of facts have. They can be answered; these nice roundabout political reasons never can.”
“Will you be kind enough to make me a statement of the facts in question?”
“You might put it several ways,” she answered, deliberately. “‘My friend, the architect,’ you might say, ‘whom you occasionally find interesting, being detained in Newport this summer, I naturally prefer that you should stay here;’ or, ‘Although you have a comfortable cottage at this same Newport, I should like it better if you would consent to remain in a musty little red farm-house, because it is the last spot in which one would expect to find you, especially as I have taken pains to inform people that you are elsewhere.’”
“And what is to prevent your informing Cornwall of your whereabouts at any time you choose?” he asked, coldly.
“Nothing is to prevent,” she said, with indifference; “nothing at all, except—everything! You have interfered, as usual; but in doing so you have underscored a passage that hitherto had but trifling significance. There, I will lend you that little aphorism for your summer meditation. You can think of it when the fish refuse to bite. Now, then, you may go, my dear. Tell Ann I do not want her; and do not miss your train.”
She offered him her cheek; he bent forward and kissed it.
“Good-by,” he said, rising. “Hereafter I shall always be with you. It is our last parting!” He stooped to kiss her again; but she drew back, frowning.
“Once is enough,” she said. “Please summon your ‘family’ dragon, as you go out.”
Ned gave her a look in which affection and antagonism struggled curiously for the mastery, and without another word left the room, shutting the door behind him with a bang; then he opened it again, and muttering something about the “wind” and “an accident,” closed it more softly.
Nina smiled, but not pleasantly. She was standing at the window, watching the rain that drifted in sheets across the square of tiny panes. The roll of departing wheels came to her ears along with the musical tattoo of drops on the glass as the gale changed its course. “Thank heaven!” she breathed, with a sigh of relief, and then, with quick repentance, added, “Poor Ned!”
“If you want to see your room,” said Mrs. Long, bustling in, “I’ll show it to you now; an’ my niece, Ducie, can help you unpack your trunks. You’re small of your age,” she concluded, eying her critically; “but it strikes me you’re a kind o’ helpless even for your size!”
She led the way to a large room in the gable end of the house, throwing open the door at the nead of the stairs with manifest pride.
“How pretty!” exclaimed Nina, looking about her approvingly. “And does all this handsome old furniture come from your people?”
“No; I wish it did; but it’s been scared up from all over the country by Mr. Cornwall. A pretty row he’d make if he knew I was lettin’ anybody use it.”
“He ought to be grateful to you for your care of it,” said Nina, carelessly. “What a lovely old fireplace!”
“He had that picked out himself; it hadn’t been open for twenty years, an’, Miss Forman”—Mrs. Long moved about uneasily—“if you’ll please not meddle with any of his pipes and things over the mantel I’ll be thankful, for he’s that fussy about havin’ them touched.”
Nina looked up at a rack of pipes and old guns, unlikely objects of curiosity, and laughed. “Do you expect him down this summer?” she asked.
“No. He’s got to stay in Newport. He’s buildin’ some houses down there, they tell me, that’ll bring him in a heap of money; but it’d take more ’n that to seem anything to you Formans. And the papers say the old gentleman left you the whole pile?” She waited a decent interval for an answer, but none being forthcoming, gave a resentful sniff and departed.
Nina was warming her hands at the fire. She was a little creature, almost swallowed up in the great white easy-chair, with its high back and its sides curving like the lobes of two gigantic ears; there was a grandfatherly air about it that made her look very young and very small; it seemed even precocious of her to be twenty years old. For a while she sat watching the blue blaze of burning drift-wood in frowning revery; then, the ornamental arrangement over the mantel catching her eye again, she smiled and looked about her.
“Cornwall’s!” she murmured. “I thought I was to have Ned’s. The dragon’s conscience is uneasy about it; I know they both pay her to keep their rooms vacant. What natural instinct makes me detest that woman?”
She rose and walked slowly about, looking at the various pieces of quaint furniture, and as she moved from spot to spot her face fell; she was going through that mixed process of mental pictures and silent verbal explanation that we call thinking.
“I remember it was down here that he planned our Newport house,” she said to herself as she passed her hand almost caressingly over the great drawing-table near the window. “This is where he sat. No; I shouldn’t call him handsome, but—yes, distinguished certainly; he looks like some kings. What a horrible sign!” She laughed outright. “I suppose poor Nellie Graham thinks Ned looks like a king, too—Henry the Eighth, very likely! He wrote his letters at this.” She went up and seated herself in front of an old secretary in the corner, and leaning her elbows upon the open flap rested her chin in her hands and gazed into the empty pigeon-holes. “I wonder if he means to go there? I should miss him; he knew so well where to stop; it never gave me any anxiety. It was because he did not care, of course; a man of that age wouldn’t; fortunately we neither of us care.” A big tear dropped down on the polished red wood and lay staring up at her, as if inquiring into the causes of its existence. “And why not?” she said to it. “I should cry if Ned were going away, and certainly nobody can accuse me of being in love with Ned. At any rate, as a tribute to friendship, one tear is not very much.”
She took out a little, black-bordered handkerchief and was about carefully to wipe it away, when she caught sight of something at the back of one of the pigeon-holes; she thrust her hand in and drew forth a soft gray felt hat, old and faded nearly white by sun and wet.
“It matches my gown,” she said, looking at it doubtfully; “I will leave him the tribute instead.” She put the handkerchief back into her pocket and left the tear shining there on the open desk; going to the mirror she placed the hat on her head, scanned herself critically, frowned, laughed, and turned to the window without removing it. Nothing was visible but a row of blowing poplars, quivering in a green haze behind the gray-white drifts of rain. She stood for a long time looking at them, smiling, preoccupied, busy with many thoughts.
The next morning the wind blew strongly from the northeast under a clear sky. Early in the day Mrs. Long rushed up the stairs and stood with scandalized eyes at the upper window.
“Ducie, come here,” she commanded sternly, pointing in wordless indignation at a little figure that was rapidly walking up the road toward the beach.
“If she hasn’t gone and dressed herself in light gray!” gasped Ducie; “and as sure as I’m alive that’s Mr. Cornwall’s hat.”
“It is,” exclaimed Mrs. Long, tragically; “and if she calls that mourning, she’s mistaken. Well, I wash my hands. You could have knocked me down with a feather when she came out on the porch with that old thing cocked on the back of her head, and all those little love-locks blowing about her face.”
“She’s more than pretty,” remarked Ducie, in a tone of assent.
“Well! and who wouldn’t be?” snarled Mrs. Long. “Hasn’t she just had the biggest fortune in the State left her, and isn’t she goin’ to marry that splendid-lookin’ cousin of hers? Who wouldn’t be pretty? I’d be pretty myself!”
Ducie looked doubtful, but with unusual wisdom refrained from fully expressing her views. “I don’t think her cousin good-lookin’,” she said.
“Well, he is!“ said Mrs. Long, with decision. “Mighty different from Cornwall.”
“Why, Aunt Ellen, I thought you liked Mr. Cornwall?”
“Well, I don’t,” responded her aunt, who could not forgive Cornwall her qualms of conscience on account of his room; and, in answer to Ducie’s questioning look, added, “You needn’t ask me why, for I don’t give no reasons.”
Reasons had become a matter of indifference to Ducie; she was watching with breathless interest the young lady who wore Mr. Cornwall’s hat and defied her Aunt Ellen!
“Come away,” said Mrs. Long. “You’ll get no good starin’ at folks high enough above you to do as they please.”
“She’s sitting on the wreck,” said Ducie.
“Well, she won’t sit there long,” snapped her aunt; “the tide turned an hour ago.”
“She’s more than pretty,” sighed Ducie again, and returned to her household duties.
And Ducie was right: she was more than pretty. Hers was a charm, with all deference to Mrs. Long, in no way due to good fortune nor to happy love—a charm that owed nothing to the tendrils of soft, brown hair that curled wilfully on her neck and forehead as if defying the wind to untwist them, and that lurked somewhere else than in the pathetic, dark-lashed, blue-gray eyes, and sweet, mocking mouth. It was a charm transcending beauty, which caught the eye of every fisherman that strolled the beach, as invariably as it turned every head that passed her on the crowded city pavement—a charm perverse, rare, disturbing, even to such as hard-headed old Long, who remarked, “’Twan’t nateral to be as good-lookin’ as that an’ no bigger’n a fairy. It gave him the shivers.”
The wind was blowing full in her face, fresh, buoyant, jubilant; she drew it in in great breaths, and pushed back the little gray hat that she might feel its coolness on her forehead. On a distant point the white light-house stood out in clear relief against the deep satisfying blue of the sea, and not far from the shore the little breakers rolled in, one upon another, like a tumbling flock of snowy sheep. The rising water soon drove her from the wreck, and she crossed the beach toward the steep and glittering hills that had been dimly seen through the rain on the previous day. For nearly a mile stretched a wide and almost level reach of sand, beaten to a hard floor by the recent heavy rains, and hollowed into thousands of wave-like depressions by the retreating tides; this she followed until she found herself confronted by a ledge of granite stretched like a barrier across the beach and extending quite out into the sea. A narrow cattle-path wound beside it up among the leafless bay-bushes and sparse grasses, the roots of which were still blackened by recent burning, while the tops, green and shining, sharp as tiny swords, lashing about their flexible stalks, cut clearly defined circles on the light, gritty surface of the sand. It was the mystery of these circles that led her upward, until, finding herself very near the top, she clambered upon the nearest bowlder in order to gain a wider outlook toward the sea. The beach that she had just left shone wet far up the coast; at the foot of the elevation that she had been climbing, between herself and the sand-hills of Long Beach, in a wide basin, stretched a dreary waste of bushes and rank grass growing on little hillocks that rose in darker spots above the vivid green of the marsh around them, and all about her, heaped and gleaming, were the shifting dunes of the Eastern Shore. The bay-bushes were not in leaf, but, as she trod through them, they sent up everywhere an aromatic fragrance, and just at her feet, blue and thick, lay a patch of innocents, like a fallen fragment of the sky itself. “Ah! darlings,” she murmured, and knelt to kiss them, and then threw back her head, startled, motionless. From somewhere near, yet faint and hushed, came a sound as of men’s voices, deep, low, foreboding. The wind died away; she rose to her feet and listened again, but it was gone.
She recalled Ned’s warning, but the strange solitude about her drew her onward with an attraction that overpowered fear. Further she went until a sudden dip in the path arrested her course. She stood upon the edge of a desert gully; bedded deep in the pale sandy incline lay a river of tawny bowlders that broadened like a great road leading upward to nothing but a wide tract of sky between two dazzling hills; the light sand, blown by the wind from their bare clear edges streamed straight into the blue, as thin as vapor, or driven by some vagrant gust curled in silent whirls along the even surfaces at their feet; nothing visible anywhere but sandy desolation! Gathering her gray wrap more closely about her, she descended the bank and sat down to rest in the blue shadow it cast before her. The breeze came in cool and strong, and, from above, the deep hollow murmur sounded again, rising, falling, warning, threatening, dying wholly away. She listened fearfully, and as she found it and lost it, and found it again, she shuddered with the apprehension born of solitude and of loneliness, shuddered even while she fully knew that it was only the wind soughing in the grasses and moaning through the bare, brown thickets of the bay.
Reluctantly she bent her steps homeward; she had heard the song of the sand-hills whose sorcery is irresistible. Day after day she returned to them, and the old fishermen wandering down the beach, or perhaps taking a short cut through the hills, would come across her, lying back against some bank or bowlder, her gray dress so blending with the colors about her that she seemed almost buried in the sand itself. “She looks like an apple-blossom, layin’ back there with nothin’ showin’ but her pretty face an’ her good-for-nothin’ little hand,” said one of them; but his companion shook his head: “She’s bewitched!” he growled.
She thought of many things on these idle days; of the two old men—her uncle and her father—who had so long planned to unite their wealth in her marriage with her cousin; of Ned’s quarrel with his father, and the old man’s hasty will, which intended at first solely as a rhetorical flourish had become such ugly earnest when death intervened to make it final; of her own father’s illness and death, and of her dismay on finding that, frightened at his nephew’s reckless dissipation and passion for speculation, he had so skilfully tied up the whole enormous estate that Ned was powerless to touch it. Not that this annoyed Ned—Ned who was overburdened with debts that he had no wish to pay.
“If I had any illusions as to Ned,” she thought, “it would really be more supportable.”
But, alas! she had no illusions about any of them; they were all alike, and the younger man was no worse than the other two. Her uncle—she smiled when she thought of him, with a mingling of disgust and ridicule. Her father—ah! that hurt. It was small wonder that she had no illusions; for of this, with a certain bitter youthful vanity, she was fully convinced.
But all through June, as she watched the hills, and read and thought; all through the hot July, lying in the dry sand, doing nothing; all through August, as the sun journeyed south, and the blue of the sea turned pale in the heat, while the wild flowers died and the grasses grew brown, the girl dreamed and dreamed and dreamed fantasies that only twenty years can weave, figments that rule, myths that master; air-built castles crowned the rocks, knowledge was conquered, experience blind, and the shallow footprints of youthful disappointment wholly obliterated in the thronging crowd of youthful hopes—and all the sand-hills were peopled with illusions!
But a day came when she sat by the wreck, reading a letter from Forman; he was coming for her in the evening, she was to marry him in a week. No other course had suggested itself; but in spite of that she knew that she had hoped. Hoped for what? She would not answer, but as she looked about her on the heights and saw how fair had been her building, she was loath to leave. “If I could have one more day,” she murmured, “one cloudless day! But—” she looked at the misty horizon and shook her head.
It was warm; the sea rolled in, gray and spiritless. Down by the water a man was waiting for a boat that Long was bringing on rollers across the wet beach; she had been watching him idly for some time. “He must be going to the Point,” she thought, listlessly. “He looks a little like—!” She stopped and sat upright; he had taken off his hat and had turned from the water.
Her day had come! The day that she had dreamed of, longed for, waited for, the one day she asked of life! And when she saw it at hand she was not ready for it. Could she take it? Back and forth the struggle swayed in her heart. “Shall I stop him? No; let him go. Why should I let him go? I am nothing to him, nor he to me. Let him go. It is my last day, my only day; I may never see him again. Let him go.”
For an answer she rose and called clearly: “Mr. Cornwall!” and the voice was silenced—the prudent voice, that can never reason in emergency nor counsel in struggle; the voice that only cries, Cling, cling, cling, to what in quiet and peace I taught you; the weaker voice, for self is single in its strong desires, while sacrifice is doubtful and full of regrets; the timid voice, made cowardly through knowledge, and puzzled because the struggle between denial and indulgence is not always a struggle between right and wrong. How bitterly it fails us!
The man upon the shore turned as if doubting his hearing, and came toward her with a cold formality that almost seemed reluctance. Did he know that she was there? Had he intended to depart without seeing her? Resentful and defiant she looked up at him, offering her hand; he reached out his own to take it; she saw that it trembled and—forgave him.
“How did you happen to be here?” he asked. “Ned told me the other day that you were in Canada. When did you come down?”
“I have been at John Long’s all summer,” she answered. “Have you seen Ned lately?”
Cornwall’s face flushed a dark, angry crimson; Forman had deceived him. It was not well to cross Cornwall.
“I met him in Newport last week. Now that I think of it, I see that I misunderstood him; he said that he had not seen you since he left Canada two weeks ago.”
“How unfortunately misleading Ned’s statements sometimes are. From this letter, written yesterday, I fancied he had but just come down from Canada himself, only a few hours before.”
They looked at each other and smiled. It would have been more crafty of Ned to have told the truth.
The old fisherman put his hands to his mouth and gave a long halloo. Nina rose to her feet.
“My boat is ready,” said Cornwall. “I must go.” He took her hand and stood looking down at her face. “It is really good-by.”
The wash of the sullen sea came to their ears; one or two gulls swept over them, and a long feeler of mist stole toward them from the sand-hills. Their world was in a swaying balance; unconsciously they were silent, waiting. What should decide? Cornwall’s eyes passed from her face to her hair, curling in soft rings against the light, upturned brim of her hat. What charming, appropriate head-gear she always contrived to—! His eyes widened with a shock of recognition. Nina put up her hand vaguely, and then with confused recollection looked at him deprecatingly, deserted by all her worldly self-possession. But a change had come over Cornwall; the last shred of his reluctance and formality disappeared; his eyes were brilliant with something more than laughter.
“Must I go?” he asked, softly.
“Ned will be down this evening,” she answered. “It is my last day. We leave to-morrow.”
“And the first of September?”
“Yes; we sail the first of September.”
“May I stay?”
For an answer she gave him her hand. “It is my last day,” she repeated, and all Ned’s manœuvres and her own doubts kicked the balance, outweighed by one old hat!
He turned away to make some arrangements with Long, and as Nina waited, the voice of denial, with the persistence that is its only strength, began again within her.
“Renounce! Turn back before it is too late! Too late for what? It is only a passing fancy. And as for him, he does not care! But he does care! Bah, it is only a game; we have played it for months and what harm has come of it? Quick, before he returns! Ah! too late! too late!”
Cornwall was returning; in every line of the figure on the beach he recognized a struggle, that sharpened the contest within his own heart. Had she but known it! And yet the insight might have been of little avail; still, still how often the knowledge of another’s thought would save us!
“I must give you a walk to the rocks,” he called. “Long says there is no good landing for you here.”
She turned and went slowly down the sand. “How did he know that I would go,” she said to herself, but Cornwall had won.
“She shall have time to recall her decision,” was his thought as he rowed across the little bay. “But if she consents, I stay. She does not know what it means to me.” “It will cost you dear,” said the inner voice. He stopped and frowned, and then giving his head an impatient shake, fell to his oars and the boat shot forward. “Cost, of course it will cost! But I mean to have it. There have not been many days given me in my life; this one I shall take.”
He knew the shore well and rowed out at some distance to avoid the shallow water. Nina was standing on the rocks as he came in. She never could explain why the sight of Cornwall doing anything gave her such pleasure. When Ned rowed—and he rowed far better than Cornwall—he did it with a thorough recollection of what he called “form;” there was a certain athletic pedantry in Ned’s performances that made them always unpleasing. Cornwall rowed with entire self-forgetfulness, to attain his object; he was direct. Something in his presence gave her courage.
“Where are we going?” she said, as she stepped down into the stern of the boat.
“We are going to row a while,” he answered fluently, with no sign that he was inventing his programme on the spur of the moment; “then we shall go to the village on the Point yonder and buy our luncheon; after we have come back, cooked it, eaten it, and thrown away the dishes we shall spend the remainder of the afternoon inspecting one of my most successful creations.”
“What is it?” she asked, puzzled, and yet not wholly credulous.
“It is Moorish—the architecture is—in fact a little like the Alhambra.”
“And it is builded on the sands!” he went on, gravely. “What is wrong?” She had stretched out her hand, palm upward, and was looking at the sky.
“It is raining.”
Cornwall, who had laid aside his coat to row, reached behind him and handed it to her. Without a word she put it on, buttoned it, wrinkling the sleeves to her shoulders. What a remarkable coat it was! It only showed—Cornwall reflected—that a well-made garment would look well on any body. But then he remembered that he had lent it to other girls—it was astonishing how much he wished he hadn’t, and yet Cornwall was not young—other girls had put it on, and they all had looked as if they could not rid themselves of a sense of impropriety, vague and not wholly displeasing, while Nina, except for an occasional gentle smoothing of the sleeve, seemed to have forgotten that she was wearing it. In his heart Cornwall believed that all girls were alike. “The difference is subjective,” he finally assured himself, and felt in so doing that matters had been improved.
“So Ned has been back for over two weeks? I wondered at not hearing.”
“I thought you knew, or I should not have told you.”
“It makes no difference. The amusing thing is his desire to conceal it. Who is she? Mrs. Sturgis again?”
“Did you know that the old gentleman died the last of June?”
“Is he really dead?” she cried. “Oh, Mr. Cornwall, do you think that Ned—” Her eyes were bright with thoughts of unexpected possibilities, but Cornwall shook his head.
“She will have oceans of money,” said the girl, wistfully, a little ashamed of her remark as she made it.
“You know that it is not the money. Ned is bound up in you.”
She was sitting very straight, and a bright patch of color was burning on either cheek. “We shall see,” she said waywardly, every nerve alert at the prospect of freedom, and again Cornwall shook his head.
“The old man founded a university.”
“Oh!” cried Nina, passionately. “Why will they do that? It would have done so much good, if only—”
“Ned had it to spend?”
“Let us not talk of Ned any more, nor of anything else inevitable. I know all you have to say about Ned. What a pity it is that you can’t marry him yourself, you are so impressed with his good qualities.”
“And so are you,” said Cornwall, firmly.
“Yes, when I find any, I will admit, they make a great impression.”
“You are fond of him; you know it.”
“Of course I am fond of Ned. I have lived for Ned all my life, for, and by, and on account of Ned; but—there are possibilities in Ned.”
“There are,” said Cornwall. “I do not ignore them, but to any one that loved him they are possibilities for good.”
She looked at him mutinously, but Cornwall had said his say and was rowing directly out to sea.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Anywhere,” said Cornwall; “nowhere. Shall I turn back?”
“The sea is like a new affection,” he said; “you always want to try it as far as it will go.”
“Fortunately new affections have more clearly defined limits, or some of us would never come back.”
“We come back, at any rate,” she said, a little pettishly.
“I am not so sure.”
“In that case it were perhaps wiser not to set out.”
Cornwall put up his oars for a moment, and then, with a despairing shrug of his shoulder, turned the boat’s head toward the Point.
“What you say is undeniably true,” he answered. “Let us go and put in our stores.” Nina had not meant to be taken so seriously. She removed his coat with great gravity, folded it, and carefully placed it on the thwart between them. It was a protest, but Cornwall kept resolutely headed in his own direction.
The rain had ceased when they reached the float, and after making the boat fast they went up the hilly village street together.
“They have very good candy,” said she, as Cornwall, after making miscellaneous purchases, was glancing inquiringly at the further contents of the village store; he shook his head positively.
“Candy is too personal. It would be distinctly out of keeping. But I am willing to compromise with my conscience to the extent of having some clams, and I think Ill buy two umbrellas.”
“It is a pleasure to have matters on so practical a footing.”
“The umbrellas are not practical. They are the essence of romance. I am violating my soberest convictions in getting them.”
“Then why do you have two?” she asked, innocently, and leaving the shop sauntered down the road. Cornwall looked after her with something like amazement.
“I will take one of these,” he said to the shopkeeper, and muttered to himself, as he followed her, “I am a fool!”
They entered the boat and after rowing down a neighboring cove to buy their clams—Cornwall protesting all the while that no man was entitled to eat clams that he had not himself digged—they crossed back to where he had first taken her into the boat. Near this spot was a shallow bay, on the inner curve of which, high up among the rocks, was a small spring of fresh water. Here they swung their kettle of clams on an improvised crane, and piled it high with sea-weed, and setting their packages in dry places went in search of driftwood.
They talked idly as they went, Cornwall collecting great heaps of rubbish which he meant to unite on his return. Sometimes they were together, sometimes apart, and the impersonal practical footing that they had established quieted every doubt. It was the sea, the rocks, the mist, and the gray plashing water, not one another that they cared for! And Cornwall was happy; his scruples were forgotten; he was so happy that he went far away and putting down his great fagot looked out to where the sky met the water and nothing intervened. There are times when even the cause of our joy is itself an intrusion upon our joy. For one moment of time he wanted to be alone. And the girl, far back on the beach, seeing his figure motionless, absorbed, not knowing what were his thoughts, leaned against the bank behind her and looked at him without fear of observation or consciousness of observing, and the sight of him gave her infinite content. Two people in the world were happy, absolutely happy, with no touch of alloy, a happiness without reflection, immaterial, undemanding. “She is not for me,” said Cornwall, as he stooped again for his burden. “I give him up,” she murmured, as she saw him descend the rocks. And in Cornwall’s eyes as he drew near shone the steady friendly light of renunciation which beautifies—nay, deifies—every human countenance touched by it. Dangerous moment! If we could but renounce and run!
Laden with the drift they walked back to the cove, and in the damp breeze that had sprung up after the rain the great fire was not unwelcome. The uncertainty of the weather insured seclusion, and they ate their luncheon with the high spirits that always follow a recent clearing of the conscience.
“How did you learn to make coffee?” asked Nina, finishing hers from a tumbler; but Cornwall only smiled—he would not waste time in explaining. The moments were flying.
“Give me your glass,” and rising to his feet he ran down the beach and flung the heavy thing far out into the sea. “It is their last day!” he cried, coming back breathless. “Bring them all.” One by one the dishes, forks, spoons, spun out over the water and sank beneath its surface. Then, taking up the coarse umbrella, Cornwall offered his hand to help Nina in climbing the rocks; she gave him hers with childlike trustfulness, and as they crossed the crest of the hill, breaking through the dark green bushes with their hoary bunches of purple berries, he thought that she had forgotten he held it, and did not loosen his clasp.
“Where are we going?” she again asked.
“To a land that is east of the sun and west of the moon,” said Cornwall. “My greatest architectural success is built there.”
“An impossible land?”
“An improbable one, I should have said.”
“Is the castle improbable too?”
“It is not wholly a castle,” said Cornwall. “In fact, it partakes slightly of the nature of a mausoleum—a combination of cathedral and tomb. It is intended for burial services—I mean to have mine there.”
“Not this afternoon, I hope.”
The words were light, but her eyes met his reproachfully. Cornwall grew grave.
“That depends on you,” he said, abruptly.
“Don’t!” And then, as if to disguise the pain underlying the sharpness of her word, “I am disappointed,” she added. “I was looking for a castle.”
“It is a castle,” he quickly answered. “I was a brute to call it anything else. It is the only castle that I ever dared to build— There!”
They were descending a sudden dip in the hills, leading to a basin shut in on all sides by great drifts of sand. Nina seated herself, and, leaning back against the bank, looked upward. The deep song of the hills moaned overhead in the tall grasses that fringed the turfy edge curving above them; the sound of the sea came in faintly from the shore, and the leaden surface of the sky was beginning to break, rolling in soft masses with an occasional streamer of a paler hue, combed out by some lower current of air.
“It will clear,” she said; but even as she spoke, the rain drifted toward them in a light, misty drizzle, and Cornwall, smiling, raised the umbrella.
“My palace is complete,” he said; “it only needed a roof.” He placed the umbrella over her head and stretched himself in the sand at her feet.
“You can’t stay there and be wet.”
“Do you mean it?”
“I did mean it a moment ago,” she answered, impatiently; “but if it means anything, I don’t mean it.”
“Very well,” said Cornwall, “I shall take it as it comes, divested of every trace of intelligence.” He rose, and readjusting the umbrella, seated himself at her side.
For a while nothing was said. With her left hand she was gathering the sand, and letting it run through her fingers. She had gained her day, a cloudless day in spite of wind and weather, and as she turned her face to his in the smiling defiance of her thought, she met his eyes, mournful, hopeless, grieving, with the look of a man who does what he would not. Turning away again she toyed with the sand; then, impelled by the perverse tact that women have for saying the thing which at a given crisis will cause the most pain:
“We shall be back in December,” she announced, as much hurt in the saying as was he in the hearing of it. Cornwall started.
“I shall be in California then,” he answered, with a masculine instinct of retaliation.
She put the palm of her hand down on the sand, and throwing her weight on her arm, leaned away from him, the better to look into his face.
“You have not accepted!”
“I intend to.”
“You are going there to live?”
“But—Ned? What is he going to do without you?”
“He will have you?”
“But I don’t want him to have me,” she continued in the same tone. “Ned without you would be a serious responsibility. You are not going to leave him entirely on my hands?”
She was cruel, he thought, and yet he laughed. “Seeing that Ned is nearly twice your own age, I think you may be absolved from a portion of your serious responsibility, and, in spite of my peculiar usefulness, I must go.”
“There is no ‘must.’ You are throwing away a brilliant career here; every one says so.”
“Still, I must.”
She continued to lean backward upon her arm, but her face took on a gentler expression.
“Is that the burial?” she asked.
“No,” said Cornwall. “I told you that that depended on you; this does not depend on you.”
“I shall make it depend on me!”
“Nothing would be easier,” murmured Cornwall, looking at her with the rueful indulgence we accord a naughty child. And yet, even then, I should go!”
She gazed intently over his head at the grasses waving against a rack of slowly breaking clouds.
“I cannot see why you go,” she said, at last.
Cornwall lifted his eyebrows.
“You don’t believe me?” she continued.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I think you know,” he said.
“I do not know.”
“You do not know what?”
“Why you go to San Francisco.”
“But you know something else.”
Her eyes did not waver from the summit of the hill; the long, green grass was tossing against a blue background; but her eyelids quivered.
“May I say it?”
“How can I know unless you tell me what it is,” she said, perversely.
“May I say it?” He leaned toward her. The red color poured into her cheeks and crimsoned her forehead. Cornwall reached behind her, took the umbrella, closed it, and threw it to one side.
“I am going to say it,” he went on, “whether you let me or not. I am going to make things clear between me and you once for all. Why do I go? Why do I leave you to battle alone with Ned’s good qualities against his bad? Why?” He took her hands in both of his. “Why?” he repeated; and then, flinging them from him, rose and stood before her.
“God!” he cried, “it is cruel that so sweet a thing as love should be an ignominy in the telling.”
She hid her face in her hands. He was on his knees at her side in an instant.
“Dear, dear, dearest,” he said, bending over her; “forgive me. I have hurt you. I have shocked you.”
She shook her head, but did not look up. “It was my own fault,” she murmured.
“It was all your fault—all your fault! How could I see you and not love you? How could I be near you and not want you for my own? If being alive is your fault, then this is also.”
She lifted her head from her hands and tried to smile, but then drew back frightened at herself. Her face was ashen, and, as with compressed lips she leaned against the bank, the agony of that moment tore from her love all the disguises in which for months she had concealed it. “I must not speak,” she thought. “I must not tell! Love, Love, Love, have I not struggled, too? Ah, do not let me see your eyes! They hurt. Why should you be giving and I sit dumb?”
“I would not kiss you; no, not even the hem of your gown,” said Cornwall, in the same soft tones. “I would not touch you, dear, if my touch in the days that are to come should be a memory or a reproach; but I love you, love you, love you!”
And the girl before him, with closed eyes and whirling brain, listened: “I shall hear him say it even when I am dead,” she thought.
“I am going away. You know why now. This is my last day—one little day. I am going, dear. See, I ask for nothing, when I would lay down my life just to kiss you once. I am going now.” He bent toward her, and looked long at the closed eyelids, behind which her soul sat still, holding fierce contention. He was going! going, broken, discouraged, heartsick, weary, and ill-content with himself; he was going, defeated after all these weeks and months of struggle; he was going, carrying away no comfort, asking no recognition, humiliated at his treachery to his friend, and that friend was Ned! Ned, who suspected him, tricked him, and did him harm at every turn!
“Good-by,” he said. Still she did not move. “Will you not once look at me?”
She opened her eyes; he was kneeling at her side; the sun was shining in a glare of light on the sand at his back, and against its intense brilliancy Cornwall’s face stood out in strong contrast; his eyes were full of suffering—they hurt. She had broken his heart!
“I am going,” he repeated. “Forget me.”
Without a word or sound she threw her arms about his neck, and, drawing his head down to hers, she kissed him, and pushed him from her. Cornwall tottered as if the light touch had been a heavy blow. “Forget you!” she cried, with a little laugh. “Forget you!” She was sobbing on his shoulder.
He hardly understood; indeed he tried not to understand. She was there; she had appealed to him; it was enough. Interpretations meant scruples, and scruples meant misgivings; to be perfectly happy was exculpation and vindication in itself, and, as with delicate touch and tender word, he soothed and quieted her, Cornwall was perfectly happy.
She was a child, he thought—impulsive, warm-hearted. She did not know what she had given, nor did she count the meaning of her gift. Gently he tried to comfort her, afraid to startle or arouse her to the consciousness that he could comfort. The sobs died away; the girl rested motionless in his arms. Cornwall loosed his hold; she neither drew from him nor stirred, tasting the sweet poison that lurks in things that are the last. But he out of experience and years knew that borrowed joy bears a heavy interest. Slowly he drew away his arm and raised her head from his shoulder. He was a prig, he assured himself—but she was young and sweet, and dearer to him than love itself.
“Do you know,” he said, “what you have done for me? I do not ask why; I do not even understand; but out of one divine impulse you have glorified my life. And if ever, in future days, you remember this, remember, too, that I shall never misunderstand nor put a value into it that you have not meant.”
The tears still hung on her lashes, but at his last words her whole face flushed.
“You, at least, have no divine impulses for which you may store up future repentance,” she said, audaciously, stung by something of admonition in his words.
Cornwall’s eyes darkened and widened; his mouth took a suddenly grim expression.
“No,” he said, “I have not; my future repentance will be that I have not given way to any divine impulses; but the greater mine, the less yours. I shall not take advantage of what you did not mean.”
She rose to her feet, and stood looking down into his eyes.
“Not mean it! And what excuse should I have for myself if I did that without cause? You know me better than that; you know that—” She hesitated.
“That what?” said Cornwall, rising to his knees, and taking her slender waist in his hands. “That what?” he whispered, looking up into her eyes. “What? my darling! my sweet!”
For an answer she bent her head and touched his hair with her lips.
All life, all love, eternity itself, were compassed in that one little kiss, and for a moment Ned and duty, fidelity and the future, past friendship and present blame—the whole world was blotted out. Love ruled supreme, and perfect as it came so they received it, nor marred its perfection by taking thought; with an impulse that of itself is the inspiration of genius, looking neither before nor behind, they lived for each other that little space—a minute in life’s sad journey without a flaw.
Throughout the few remaining hours of the afternoon Cornwall lay in the sand at her feet and looked in her eyes. Every question of the future disappeared: with her, because she had no question—this day was her last; with him, because to-day was to-day—leave it without blemish—contentions for the morrow. And she laughed to him, and cried to him, and told him all the things she had longed to tell him so many, many times—for trust is sweet and confidence is union. She quarrelled with him, and mocked him, making him alternately a jest and a hero, while she covered him with adoring ridicule and ridiculed her adoration by turns. And Cornwall, smiling, indulgent, happy, lived for to-day; light-hearted, perfect to-day—leave it untroubled. To-morrow her release should come, and she should not sue for it.
“It is out of your hands now, sweet,” he thought, and bid her good-by.
She stood on the rocks and watched his boat steadily turned toward the further shore; life by love alone was made glorious to her, and the receding vision of perfect happiness held her eyes sealed from tears. He was gone, but he loved her; he was gone forever; but in her heart she held a memory and a promise; nay, more, a certainty that however far the way, however long the time, he loved her, he loved her!
At the hill-top she paused, and as she turned her face homeward two little drifting clouds of burning rose told where the sun had set. All the heavens were tinged with pink; the long, wet beach below her glowed with it, and the shining sand-hills blushed a faint reflection of the sky. Out into the pale, green waters of the gently heaving sea long ridges of rock stretched one beyond the other in deep masses of warm, purplish red, darkening into velvety shadows at their bases, and down on the curving beaches between, the smooth waves pulsed in slowly, unbroken, while each undulation reflected tender, indefinable changes from green to blue in soft veiled colors hiding a core of fire. Over all hung a thin red mist—the whole world was steeped in rose-color!
Silently she kept on her way, nor once looked back. Slowly and with something of weariness she descended the tumbling bed of rocks where the cattle had made a path to the shore. She was thinking, as she picked her way through the tide-pools, thinking hard; yet the thoughts were so unformed, so far below the surface, that it seemed as if in the depths of her soul another were thinking for her, while she listened, every faculty suspended, awaiting a decision. At last she reached the flight of broken steps that led to the roadway, and as she put her foot upon the lowest she looked back. The glory had gone from sea and shore; the gray waves lapped sadly on the forsaken sands; the hills and rocks were hard and forbidding; the sky was mottled with thin clouds, and upon all the broad expanse of waters behind her there was no token of any living thing. “He is gone, gone, gone!” cried the inner voice, wailing, despairing, and with one hand clenched on her knee, she stood and listened to it. Her day was over, her one last day!
NINA mounted the steps and walked along the sandy road toward the farm-house, dragging one foot after the other, heavy with fatigue. In an hour, in less than an hour, the old life of silent warfare with Ned would begin again. She would not—she could not! The little house that all summer had been so cool in the heat and sunshine, so cosey and friendly in the cold and wet, now with its glassy pool and dark background of pines suggested an infinity of forbidding possibilities. And Ned was coming! He was coming to turn it all into bitterness; her breath came with a sudden sob—“My day! my day!”
Silent and absorbed in her own thoughts she entered the house and sat down to the supper served with open disapproval by Mrs. Long. The woman’s impertinence, curbed for months, seemed to-night beyond control, and the prospects of future gain were as nothing compared with the satisfying joy of a present spite.
“I suppose you’ll be goin’ out to spend the evenin’,” she remarked as Nina rose from the table and went toward the front door; but the girl did not hear her.
Just above the hill that, on the eastern side of the little lake, faced the house, a line of pale gold stole from the dark tops of the stunted trees, arching above them dome-like, and as it grew and spread some strange witchery wrought a change in the dreary landscape. There was a moon, already high in the sky, and she had forgotten it! The impulse to escape her cousin’s coming became a resolve, and taking her small gray wrap from a nail in the hall she left the house.
“You don’t seem to remember that Mr. Forman will be here in half an hour,” Mrs. Long called from the doorway, but Nina pursued her course.
“And you sit there and tell me that Cornwall went off on the coach. I know better!” said the woman, going back to the kitchen where her husband sat reading the paper. “Just wait till her cousin comes!”
“Hey!” said Long, who was a little deaf. “Yes; he’s gone on the coach. He’ll make her a sight better husband than Forman ever would! And you’d better mind your own business.” And he returned to his Evening Breeze, unconscious of having given her the only advice she could not follow.
Not wishing to wander too far from the house, Nina crossed the sand and climbed out upon the wreck; it had “gone ashore stern on,” as Long said, and the water plashed softly against the broken timbers at the bow, for the tide had turned. Silent and deserted the long beach stretched away to its rocky boundary, and a bright wake of moonlight fell across the wet sand, turning all the footmarks and depressions in its shining course into quaking pools of liquid gold. One beyond another the white sand-hills leaned backward from the shore, gleaming mysteriously, like snow mountains in a dream. The voice of the troubled ocean came in to her, laden with doubts.
“Why?” it moaned.
Where was the justice of this sacrifice? Had she asked for the wealth that chained her so heavily? Was not its restoration to Ned the boon of all boons that she ardently craved? What right had he to stipulate the manner of its restitution? Gladly would she fling it all into the sea before her!
Because he was relentlessly set on one plan, selfishly and blindly indifferent to what the cost might be. Argument enraged him, and opposition drove him wild. “If only he would be reasonable,” she murmured, knowing that to be reasonable, as she would define it, was the last thing to be expected of him.
A light mist was drawing in from the horizon, and a faint rattle of rowlocks came from over the water. Someone out beyond the dim line of sight spoke a word or two, there was a quiet answer, and all was still. The sounds died away, and again Nina was alone with the doubting, perturbing sea.
To sacrifice the man that she loved—to throw away her own life? Why, indeed, should this be asked of her? What did he care—Ned, who pursued his object from sheer momentum, the sullen force of whose obstinacy made her shudder with repulsion? “There are possibilities in Ned,” she had said in the morning, and here, in the changing, fleeting light, those possibilities were far from attractive. As she sat and thought the water drew away, leaving the wreck high on the sands, and the clear light of the moon was dimmed by changing clouds. What other end than this had she ever looked forward to? Every tie of association, all the teaching of her childhood, every aim in her life had been bound up in Ned. What right had she to sever those ties, so long as he deemed her bound? She was fond of Ned, and he of her. Who knew but that in this matter she did him injustice, if he loved her? She dared not end it; in honor she could not end it. And Cornwall was bound to Ned, as was she. He would feel that in robbing his friend of the one he loved he was doing a cowardly thing. “And he shall not sully his conscience for me! There is but one course,” she thought.
“Where is Cornwall?”
She started violently and turned. Forman himself was standing at the other end of the wreck.
“Oh, Ned! how tiresome and melodramatic!” Her voice shook a little as she spoke, and in his breast the unaccustomed tremor roused a strange pulsation, faint and tense, like that from the first clangor of a far-away tocsin, inciting to confusion and riot.
“Where is Cornwall?” he repeated, slowly.
“He went this afternoon.”
“I knew he went this afternoon. He is a scoundrel. When did he come back?”
“Where is he?”
Angry and hurt, and yet too conscience-smitten to protest, she jumped down on the sand, and turned to cross the beach.
“I am going back to the Longs,” she said, as she passed him.
Forman stood still and watched her, half inclined not to follow. The moon was a little past the full, and seemed to float in an even background of pale gray clouds so thin that they scarcely dimmed its shining; but between it and him, blown by a contrary wind, long streamers of mist, black and delicate, floated capriciously like torn veils of lace. He glanced down at the beach again. Nina was gone.
“Nina!” he called. “Nina! Where are you?”
His voice was not far behind her, and she recognized, with a faint sense of amusement, that her gray wrap and gown made her indistinguishable from her surroundings.
“I am here,” she called, and with that she turned and ran toward the hills.
“Confound that dress!” cried Ned, from further down the beach, to which he had turned in the wrong direction. “Call again!” But Nina was silent.
The lingering cloud passed slowly, and suddenly the whole landscape was flooded with clear, white light. Ned stopped to look about him; far beyond, a tiny black patch, sharp-edged, as if cut from silk, fled noiselessly and fitfully. For a moment he took it for the moving shadow of a little cloud. Then, with a loud halloo, he sprang ahead in long leaps, and the dark silhouette flew more swiftly as the girl’s light weight skimmed the yielding surface of the hillside. Heavily Ned ploughed behind, while faint, thread-like, he felt again tha heart-quake of cruelty that ushers in the chase.
She had almost reached the crest of the hill when he caught her by the arm, and as she turned back to him, smiling half-defiantly, he cursed her softly under his breath.
“Where is Cornwall?” he whispered. “You are going to meet him.”
“I am not. He has gone.”
“Gone! gone! He has left you here to face it out with me. Great God, what a hero!” He threw back his head and laughed aloud.
Nina winced at this. “Let my arm go, Ned,” she said, her voice quivering; “you hurt me.”
“I am glad I do,” he answered, with dry brutality. “And now tell me what this means?”
For the first time within Ned’s memory Nina temporized. “What what means?” she asked. He stared at her incredulously.
“So the lying hound has brought you down to his own level! But it is of no use. Mrs. Long has been acting the part of chaperone this afternoon, and I have had the benefit of all her observations—I could wring her neck for her impertinence.”
“And what has she observed? Nothing that would hurt either me or him. Still, I did not mean that you should know it, Ned; I had a right to one day of my life for myself, and it would only have vexed you.”
“Thank you! You are remarkably considerate. May I ask what your final intentions in the matter happen to be? Was this delicate care for my feelings intended to extend indefinitely?”
“If I marry you, Ned, I shall do what I can to make you happy.”
“Ah! me too,” he answered. “You are more than kind.”
She looked at him with innocent eyes. “I could have made you happy, but since you know this, perhaps—”
Forman dropped her arm and straightened himself. “Since I know this?” he repeated.
Nina turned to him with outstretched hands. “Ned, Ned,” she cried, imploringly, “give me up! There is plenty of money for both of us. Papa couldn’t tie up all the income, and if you will marry some one else I will settle all upon her. I have been thinking—Why should we be unhappy when there are other people for whom you care more than for me?”
“What has Cornwall been telling you?” he interrupted, fiercely.
“He has told me nothing. He has never breathed a disloyal word of you in my presence, and you, you know, you have never spared him.”
“Never spared him!” Forman sneered. “It seems I have rated him far beyond his worth! And yet you would jilt me to marry him! A coward who leaves you to bear the brunt of this rupture alone
“It is false, Ned! There was to be no rupture. I meant to carry it all out. He would have stayed, if I had wished. It was honor that forced him away.”
“And he knew that you loved him! Do you think that if I had been he and had known that, that anything in heaven or hell would have forced me away? I should have torn you from any man, let his rights be what they might! I should have stayed and faced it out with him, and claimed you, and won you! Do you think that your petty scruples would have been final with me?”
“They were not petty scruples. I was bound to you, Ned, and he is your friend. There seemed no other way—I thought. But now, since you know—it is not too late. Let me go, Ned. He is to see you to-morrow, he said; he had business in the city; he said so.”
“To-morrow! Business! and this fellow you love? He shall not have you.”
She was shaken to the heart’s core. Had Cornwall deserted her? Was her one perfect love thus to be desecrated?
“You do not understand. You are ungenerous,” she said. “You speak as if what had cost both him and me more than life had been a dastardly thing.”
“How could he let the day go, and not make sure?”
“Because he loved you, Ned; you, who do not love either him or me. But never mind whether he should have stayed or gone. It is not this that we have to settle, but the other. Give me up, Ned. You do not love me.”
“I— do not love you!”
“Marry some one else—Mrs. Sturgis. You know that she is more to you than I am; you would leave me any time for her.”
“Marry Fanny Sturgis! Did you mind that I left you for her?”
She shrank back from the face that he had bent down to her with a gesture of repulsion.
“No; you did not mind, and I knew it. You would not have minded if you had been my wife. Fanny Sturgis! She is not the kind of woman that one marries! I want you—you! And you think I do not love you? I have loved you since the day you were born, and I a great awkward school-boy took you from the fat nurse to show you to my father; I wasn’t afraid. I held you as if I had been created for it, and I loved you because you were mine—because you were meant for me. And I have loved you ever since.”
“But, Ned, you have loved other women.”
He glanced at her and smiled. “So I have,” he said deliberately, “and so I probably shall. Do you think that has anything to do with this? I may love a dozen, but I am going to marry you!”
She started as if stung by a blow. “Marry me! You never shall,” she cried, and sped away down the slope of the hill.
Forman followed; the sand dragged, dragged, dragged at his feet, and a sullen obstinacy took hold of him. He ran in silence, guided now by a flitting shadow, now by the mere rustle of garments and the faint rush of foot-falls in the sand. For the moon played a ghastly hide-and-seek in the clouds as the girl glided from rock to rock through the tufts of grass and crackling bushes of pungent bay—now an invisible presence that baffled him and threw him far off the track, now a gray scud of mist among the dark greens of the low growths about her. And ever the thin, black, crape-like wreaths floated between the earth and sky where the clouds were massing in torn and threatening racks by the rising wind.
Nina sped onward, all her forces concentrated in her desire to reach the house before Ned. Her heart was as lead in her bosom. “It makes it hard to run,” she panted, “hard to run; so heavy a heart!” and yet she scarcely knew why she ran. She only felt that behind her some ruthless force was driving her onward, and that she must not stop. “If Cornwall had only stayed!” she sobbed in short-drawn breaths. “Cornwall, Cornwall! how he will grieve that he did not stay. Do not be sorry, Cornwall—I understand—I believe. It was a mistake—we all make mistakes at the turning-points in our lives. Cornwall, Cornwall, do not be sorry.”
Her sharp breaths began to sound like a faint cry, coming back to Forman’s ears as the painful breathing of the hunted hare comes back to the hounds that have almost run it down. The spirit of the hunt was upon him, and the cruel throb within him, once as faint as the weak pulse of a dying child, had strengthened into a resistless power. She had led him this chase for a life-time. The weight of the heavy sand goaded him to fury. Let him but once reach her! The cutting, knife-like crying was close before him. They were running deep within the hills, and the sand was everywhere about them. She turned and faced him. With a last leap he caught, her by the shoulders.
“You shall marry me,” he whispered, bending his head to a level with hers. She made no answer, and the painful heaving of her chest testified to the frightful exertion of the last few minutes. “My heart!” she said, at last, in a stifled voice, “my heart! Go away, Ned, let me loosen my dress. Go, I will not run; my heart, oh! my heart, it will burst!”
But Forman never stirred; tightening his grasp he waited, ready to tear an answer from the agonized heart whose beatings made a surging in his ears. She was caught.
“You are mine. You are bound in honor to marry me.”
“I will marry you if you exact it,” said the girl, in broken gasps; “but I shall never be yours. Force me to marry you and you shall see. Every kind word I speak to you shall be meant for another; every thought, every touch. You shall not even exist for me. Why do you not marry some woman that loves you?”
“You shall love me. You are the woman I shall marry—the only woman I want for the mother of my children.”
She looked at him a moment with angry incomprehension, all the innocent simplicity of her girlish thoughts in outraged opposition.
“And if I have children, I shall teach them to be like him! All that they honor most will be found in him; they shall not even know you! Whenever I look at them I shall remember that if he hears of them he will think tenderly of them because of me, and I shall love them for that; and so even the love I give them will be for love of him; you will have nothing—nothing!”
“I shall have this,” and Ned bent his face toward her.
“No,” she cried, throwing herself back.
And as she leaned against the bank the moonbeams shone through the grasses that fringed the turfy edge curving above her, and fell on the smooth slopes of the deep basin shut in on all sides by great drifts of sand. She smiled with a sudden light in her eyes. “Cornwall,” she murmured, as if she saw him. Ned turned fiercely; there was no one there. “You defy me?” he cried; something in his brain gave way with a great snap as he shook her with sudden rage by the shoulders. Her head fell back and for an instant a look of terror dawned in her eyes; with a light wrench she freed herself and looked about her. It was the place; she knew it! Again she smiled, and stretching her hands as if in greeting,
“I love him!” she cried. “I love him!”
Forman waited one incredulous, infuriated moment, and then dragging her toward him he kissed her on the lips. “This is for me,” he said, savagely, and stooping forward looked into her face; but she, smiling still, gazed at the sky beyond him.
“I love him! love him!” she answered, and the moonlight shone down into her eyes.
And of a sudden a great confusion fell upon Forman, as of bells clanging, voices crying, strange hands pushing, and all for one thing—to destroy, to obliterate, to kill forever that smile meant for another. It was his prey; it defied him even when captured; but the girl on seeing his face closed her eyes to shut out the terror of it.
“For God’s sake stop smiling, Nina,” he said, hoarsely.
She opened her eyes. “You have had nothing,” she said; “nothing. He told me he loved me—here—this afternoon.”
“Be silent,” said Forman, and his hands crept along her shoulders, upward. “Women have been killed for less.”
“Kill me then! Death would be a grace compared with the life you would force upon me. Oh! Cornwall!” Was it a cry for help?
What had he done?
She was lying back against the sand-bank, the smile still on her face.
She tried to speak. He loosened his grasp and bent to hear.
“We—all—make—mistakes—at—the—turning-points—love,” she gasped, faintly. “Cornwall—Cornwall—do not be sorry—Cornwall!”
Ned’s hands tightened without mercy; a thousand screaming demons screwed his tense nerves and steadied them for action; then, with a sudden, awful relaxation they gave way. The man shrank and fell together like a lifeless thing, and with a suffocated cry, holding out his hands in abhorrence far from him, he fled. He knew not how far he ran, nor where were the dark masses of rock between which he crept to hide from the moonlight that shone up to his horror-stretched eyes in a thousand laughing reflections. He knew only that it smiled on the waves and danced on the beach, and that the sky was clear and broad in the west, a terrible thing. But in the dark, between the setting of the moon and dawn, he stole forth, trying to seek out the spot that in his blind horror he had fled from. With despair he found that amid the confusing sameness it was lost to him. Carefully at first, and then with growing recklessness, as the time grew short, he searched in and out among the misty dunes, until the light began to steal into the sky, and all at once he stumbled, recovered himself, and looked downward.
She was there at his feet in the sand. Her eyes looked up softly, blue, deep, without the glaze or fixity of death, her lips were red, and the faint color of her cheek almost seemed to flow under the transparent skin. The soft, curling hair made a little brown shadow about her ears and temples, and yet she was dead, smiling upward in the spot where Cornwall had told her of his love! Remembering this, Ned stooped, and gathering her to him, with a sob, lifted the light burden and stole away. She should not lie there.
Later in the morning Forman came to the Longs and ordered Nina’s trunks to be sent to a neighboring town on the coast, whither he had taken her, he said, on the evening before, because of Mrs. Long’s impertinence. Except for a lively curiosity as to what had occurred when “he had it out with her,” the woman gave the matter no further thought. The summer had been profitable; she washed her hands of her boarders, and her mind, at ease with the world, was pleasantly full of projects for laying out her gains.
And Ned—fresh, pink, complete—appeared that afternoon at one of the gay resorts near at hand, which the people he knew best were wont to frequent in the summer weather; he was to be married, he said, in a few days, privately, very privately; he would not even tell where, nor exactly when, but he was bidding everyone good-by. They were astonished at his gracious amiability; they had never dreamed that he cared so much for them—all that trouble just to see them once before he sailed! Surely he could not be compelled to leave before night. But Ned hurried away; he must “get back,” he insisted.
But as the crowded cars gradually emptied, the Ned of an hour before fell away like an outer shell—he was getting back! Wherefore, he knew not. Weary, haggard, almost stumbling, he clambered down from the train at the end of the line, and unthinking, drawn by a fearful attraction, against which his every instinct rebelled, he started across the country; through the woods, over the bogs, up among the frightful desolate bowlder-strewn hills, and down again to the water’s edge he walked, as if every foot of the unwonted way were oft-trodden ground. Silently he loosed a little boat from the float and pushed into the stream, threading in and out among the marshes with absolute certainty, never taking a needless turn nor mistaking an inlet for the main current. The smooth, black water hardly seemed to splash under the oars; the tall grass drew behind him whispering, while the long water-weeds hissed softly against the bow. He pulled the boat far up on the narrow, pebbly beach, and crossed the fields behind the hills.
“I am not going there,” he muttered, and then with a gesture of despair turned, climbed the rocks, and felt beneath his tired feet the yielding, soundless, obstructive sand. The night was obscure, and he plodded onward, dull, heavy, feverish, yet occasionally shivering; he looked up, stupidly wondering at the absence of the torturing moonlight, and for the first time realized that it was raining. To-night he had not lost his way; without searching or hesitation he found the spot that his unwilling feet were seeking. Surely there was something breaking the smooth surface that he had left in the morning! Without dread, with expectation even,, he descended the slope of the hill and found what had not been hidden from his eyes during all the scenes of the livelong day. Slowly he sank at her side; carefully he avoided the touch of the icy little hand that rested on her breast, and in the sand that covered all but her face, he laid his head and wept, and wept—not for repentance, nor for remorse, but because the rain was falling upon her upturned face and hung in drops from the long lashes of her sweet, sweet eyes; he wept for the pity of it—and such weeping drives men mad. Then he rose, and gathering her again in his arms he sought securer burial.
A new dread had come to haunt him; with shrinking nerves he watched the spot where he now laid her, through the long hours of the weeping night far into the morning, leaving it only when the bright noon-day shone down upon it, and the fresh rising wind blew the sand in little steam-like streamers from the top of the peak that formed his landmark. Fixing it clear in his mind—the white drift, the little clump of bay, and the blue sea beyond—he strode away.
“My God! my God!” he repeated, “what an awful errand! What an awful errand!”
By the back roads he made his way to a small town not very distant, and bought something, and as he looked at the bright steel surface of its broad, square blade, it filled him with an ungovernable repulsion and disgust.
“Wrap it up,” he said, shuddering; but the independent shopkeeper refused.
“See here,” he declared, “if you are not too proud to use a spade, you needn’t be too modest to carry it bare!” And Ned dared not insist, but hiding it in the bushes he bought the paper and twine elsewhere and covered it away from his sight. Then he wandered into a pine wood, and deep in a thicket lay on the scented needles and waited. He slept by snatches, slept and dreamed, and groaned in his dreams. For a space he sat erect and talked, fast and long, with crimson face and vacant eyes. He was not sleeping, but he knew not that time was passing, and woke to consciousness only when the moon shone down upon him from directly overhead.
It was late when he returned to the sand-hills; he walked in a daze and had missed his way; the wind from the sea was bearing in a fog again, and the silent scene was changing in a moving panorama of haze and clear moonlight. And nowhere could he find the spot where a tall peak of sand stood out against the sky, and the sea showed blue beyond a little clump of dark green bay. He had lost her again—but he had known that he should lose her. Wearily his search began; the clouds closed silently in around him; the moonlight filtered through them with a tint of green, and from time to time as he reached an open space a little gray scud flitted before him—and he remembered. Thicker and thicker grew the haze; the moon was sinking toward the west; with careful feet he crept along the bowlders, and once at the edge of a cliff he heard the sea booming on the beach, and saw in the parting of the mist the waves lashing below him; he drew back unstartled, turning his face inland—that was not a thing to fear. But in among the sands he wandered with horror-strained nerves, and as he slid down the shifting hills his mouth was dry and his tongue lay shrivelled in his throat.
“If I should come upon her unawares,” he said, his voice hoarse and inarticulate, and he peered before him in the thickening chaos that he might not be taken by surprise. The moon went down and left him in blackness, utter blackness and fear. Like a grovelling shadow in the midst of the dark he searched on his knees, searched with hovering hands recoiling in anguish, for that the eyes should see is far more tolerable than that the hands should touch. Creeping among the woody thickets of the bay, feeling every sharp-edged tuft of grass, passing smoothly over the level sand, shrinkingly raised whenever the surface rounded, they searched, while again and again he straightened himself to his feet to push more securely into place the long package under his arm which was growing heavy and slipped constantly. And as he crept, the sand gave way under him—forward, downward, he slid and fell—it seemed forever. The heavy iron escaping from his hold struck against a loosened stone, and stone and steel, clanging together, rolled down like a rude alarum; on he slid, clutching for it, securing it, missing it, with hoarse ejaculations of disappointment at each succeeding failure, until with his left hand he caught it, and with his right—in the dark, in the thick dark, there was heavy silence, even the sea was still, and then, from out of the gloom a man’s voice resounded in one intolerable, frenzied cry. Up from the depths it echoed, through all the great serene spaces of clear deep blue, from whence the frightened stars looked downward at the one black spot in all the transparent purity of the night.
Rigid, motionless, with stony, averted eyes, Ned stood and frowned into the opaque darkness, until a gray shade began to suffuse it, and a light wind blew suddenly inland. The whirling vapor enveloped him like a shroud, writhing in spirals from the sparse grass about him, and before him was a stretch of sea, a patch of dark green bushes, and a softly outlined snow-white peak that melted into the awful pallor of morning. Long he stared at it and at the lashing water beyond, with level unwinking eyes, that never dropped nor wavered, and yet that saw all the while at his feet, smiling, innocent, with dewy hair and scarlet lips, a little dead face, and one delicate dimpled hand lying bedded in the dull gray of the wet shallow grave he had given her. Warned by the growing light he stooped, and sought to lift her, but this he could not do; the rain-washed sand had drifted upon her body and clung in masses to her garments. Then, with the slight laugh of a man who after long reflection casts aside some scruple as too dainty for worldly wear, he tore the wrappings from his spade and freed her from the heavy weight. Lifting his burden he strode down the hill through the stony channel to where a wind-swept tract of grass and bushes rose on little hillocks from the surrounding bog. Down here the mist still lingered, and as he approached began to roll and rise and drift and courtesy to the ground again, trailing like frayed garments across the rough bushes, and the man, springing from hillock to hillock with great leaps, laughed and laughed as it fled before him, until the hills echoed, and the fishermen, launching their boat far down upon the beach, looked up and wondered.
“What’s that in the bog there?” said one.
“It’s the mist, most like.”
“I tell you the mist don’t laugh. See now!” But Ned was gone.
He felt neither fatigue nor strain, but hunted every hollow and dip for a sheltered, hidden spot. “You shall rest securely this time,” he whispered; but he searched in vain ; here there was an opening to the sea, here to the beach, and in another place the narrow foot-path along the hill-top came close to the edge; there was but one spot where, shut in on every side, the sand opened only to the sky.
“This will do,” he said, with cheerful alacrity, as if he were bent on some commonplace errand of daily need. Then looking about him he recognized the place.
“You shall not lie here,” he whispered fiercely in her ear. “It is that you are planning for.”
He retraced his steps and was crossing the bog again when he was startled by a loud halloo from the shore; turning quickly to the right he made for the hills. Up, up, he clambered, striding with the strength of a giant, and ran along the top. The men on the beach hallooed again, and one of them gave chase, running in a parallel line, intending to intercept him at the cattle-path.
“Come back,” cried the other. “It is only some crazy painter with his kit.” But Ned, without waiting to see him obey, ran back out of sight, and doubling turned toward the spot from which he had been flying. He was unconscious of fatigue, but his sight was blurred and uncertain. “We must hurry,” he said, talking to himself continually. Again he plunged into the drifts, half-sliding, half-leaping, and the yielding powdery sand, started by his wild haste and borne along by the weight he carried, rose up about him in a thick cloud, and rolled down in masses behind him. Laying his burden gently on the ground he began to dig and dig and dig, stepping into the pit he had made and throwing the sand recklessly right and left, until the whole place was in a haze.
“It shall be deep, child. They shall not find you. It shall be deep enough—deep, deep, deep,” he repeated, with a new-born fear of the men who had chased him. “They shall not find you, dear!”
And, as fast as he dug, the soft sand slid downward, doubling his labor, until, with a curse, he reached forward and drew her toward him. Carefully he placed her on the bottom of the grave, and then standing at the edge looked down into it. The daylight was all about him; slowly, even with thoughtfulness, he threw shovelful after shovelful of sand upon the dress that he had carefully straightened about her little feet; he covered her gently, as a child is covered in bed by its mother, and then he stopped, stopped and waited.
“I cannot! Oh, my God!” he cried, “I cannot.”
A long streak of sunshine fell in upon the upturned face, and she suddenly smiled in his eyes—the smile that was not meant for him! And Ned flung the spade far from him, and with hands and feet dashed the sand down upon her in showers; dashed it, pushed it, crowded it, in a frenzy of mad resentment, and stamped again and again until the hollow throbbing resounded throughout all the sandy basin. He ceased, and when the mist had gone from his eyes he looked upward. The grasses fringed a turfy edge that circled above him, and in front rose the smooth bank against which she had leaned that night so long ago—years, ages ago—and he had buried her deep in the place that Cornwall had chosen!
Then Ned laughed again—she had outwitted him. Laughing, laughing, he ran out of the hills, down across the beach, to tell it, and when they turned to hear he fell on them furiously lest they should go also and find her, and they bound him and carried him away in the boat, raving.
For days and weeks they searched the hills and shore, unavailingly. But since that time, in the clear moonlight, in the shifting fog, sometimes in the rain, a man may see a little face lying flowerlike in the sand; flowerlike, with dewy eyes, and soft, curling hair; the delicate hand rests lightly on the breast, and he that sees forgets not.
“A Truce” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
Scribner’s Magazine v. 9, no. 1, Jan. 1891; reprinted in
A Truce, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1895; second
edition edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2008 by Brian Kunde.