It must have been near Sutherland's Pond that I lost the way. For there the deserted road which I had been following through the Highlands ran out upon a meadow all abloom with purple loose-strife and golden Saint-John's wort. The declining sun cast a glory over the lonely field, and far in the corner, nigh to the woods, there was a touch of the celestial colour: blue of the sky seen between white clouds: blue of the sea shimmering through faint drifts of silver mist. The hope of finding that hue of distance and mystery embodied in a living form, the old hope of discovering the Blue Flower rose again in my heart. But it was only for a moment, for when I came nearer I saw that the colour which had caught my eye came from a multitude of closed gentians--the blossoms which never open into perfection--growing so closely together that their blended promise had seemed like a single flower.
So I harked back again, slanting across the meadow, to find the road. But it had vanished. Wandering among the alders and clumps of gray birches, here and there I found a track that looked like it; but as I tried each one, it grew more faint and uncertain and at last came to nothing in a thicket or a marsh. While I was thus beating about the bush the sun dropped below the western rim of hills. It was necessary to make the most of the lingering light, if I did not wish to be benighted in the woods. The little village of Canterbury, which was the goal of my day's march, must lie about to the north just beyond the edge of the mountain, and in that direction I turned, pushing forward as rapidly as possible through the undergrowth.
Presently I came into a region where the trees were larger and the travelling was easier. It was not a primeval forest, but a second growth of chestnuts and poplars and maples. Through the woods there ran at intervals long lines of broken rock, covered with moss--the ruins, evidently, of ancient stone fences. The land must have been, in former days, a farm, inhabited, cultivated, the home of human hopes and desires and labours, but now relapsed into solitude and wilderness. What could the life have been among these rugged and inhospitable Highlands, on this niggard and reluctant soil? Where was the house that once sheltered the tillers of this rude corner of the earth?
Here, perhaps, in the little clearing into which I now emerged. A couple of decrepit apple-trees grew on the edge of it, and dropped their scanty and gnarled fruit to feast the squirrels. A little farther on, a straggling clump of ancient lilacs, a bewildered old bush of sweetbrier, the dark-green leaves of a cluster of tiger-lilies, long past blooming, marked the grave of the garden. And here, above this square hollow in the earth, with the remains of a crumbling chimney standing sentinel beside it, here the house must have stood. What joys, what sorrows once centred around this cold and desolate hearth-stone? What children went forth like birds from this dismantled nest into the wide world? What guests found refuge----
"Take care! stand back! There is a rattlesnake in the old cellar."
The voice, even more than the words, startled me. I drew away suddenly, and saw, behind the ruins of the chimney, a man of an aspect so striking that to this day his face and figure are as vivid in my memory as if it were but yesterday that I had met him.
He was dressed in black, the coat of a somewhat formal cut, a long cravat loosely knotted in his rolling collar. His head was bare, and the coal-black hair, thick and waving, was in some disorder. His face, smooth and pale, with high forehead, straight nose, and thin, sensitive lips--was it old or young? Handsome it certainly was, the face of a man of mark, a man of power. Yet there was something strange and wild about it. His dark eyes, with the fine wrinkles about them, had a look of unspeakable remoteness, and at the same time an intensity that seemed to pierce me through and through. It was as if he saw me in a dream, yet measured me, weighed me with a scrutiny as exact as it was at bottom indifferent.
But his lips were smiling, and there was no fault to be found, at least, with his manner. He had risen from the broad stone where he had evidently been sitting with his back against the chimney, and came forward to greet me.
"You will pardon the abruptness of my greeting? I thought you might not care to make acquaintance with the present tenant of this old house--at least not without an introduction."
"Certainly not," I answered, "you have done me a real kindness, which is better than the outward form of courtesy. But how is it that you stay at such close quarters with this unpleasant tenant? Have you no fear of him?"
"Not the least in the world," he answered, laughing. "I know the snakes too well, better than they know themselves. It is not likely that even an old serpent with thirteen rattles, like this one, could harm me. I know his ways. Before he could strike I should be out of reach."
"Well," said I, "it is a grim thought, at all events, that this house, once a cheerful home, no doubt, should have fallen at last to be the dwelling of such a vile creature."
"Fallen!" he exclaimed. Then he repeated the word with a questioning accent--"fallen? Are you sure of that? The snake, in his way, may be quite as honest as the people who lived here before him, and not much more harmful. The farmer was a miser who robbed his mother, quarrelled with his brother, and starved his wife. What she lacked in food, she made up in drink, when she could. One of the children, a girl, was a cripple, lamed by her mother in a fit of rage. The two boys were ne'er-do-weels who ran away from home as soon as they were old enough. One of them is serving a life-sentence in the State prison for manslaughter. When the house burned down some thirty years ago, the woman escaped. The man's body was found with the head crushed in--perhaps by a falling timber. The family of our friend the rattlesnake could hardly surpass that record, I think.
But why should we blame them--any of them? They were only acting out their natures. To one who can see and understand, it is all perfectly simple, and interesting--immensely interesting."
It is impossible to describe the quiet eagerness, the cool glow of fervour with which he narrated this little history. It was the manner of the triumphant pathologist who lays bare some hidden seat of disease. It surprised and repelled me a little; yet it attracted me, too, for I could see how evidently he counted on my comprehension and sympathy.
"Well," said I, "it is a pitiful history. Rural life is not all peace and innocence. But how came you to know the story?"
"I? Oh, I make it my business to know a little of everything, and as much as possible of human life, not excepting the petty chronicles of the rustics around me. It is my chief pleasure. I earn my living by teaching boys. I find my satisfaction in studying men. But you are on a journey, sir, and night is falling. I must not detain you. Or perhaps you will allow me to forward you a little by serving as a guide. Which way were you going when you turned aside to look at this dismantled shrine?"
"To Canterbury," I answered, "to find a night's, or a month's, lodging at the inn. My journey is a ramble, it has neither terminus nor time-table."
"Then let me commend to you something vastly better than the tender mercies of the Canterbury Inn. Come with me to the school on Hilltop, where I am a teacher. It is a thousand feet above the village--purer air, finer view, and pleasanter company. There is plenty of room in the house, for it is vacation-time. Master Isaac Ward is always glad to entertain guests."
There was something so sudden and unconventional about the invitation that I was reluctant to accept it; but he gave it naturally and pressed it with earnest courtesy, assuring me that it was in accordance with Master Ward's custom, that he would be much disappointed to lose the chance of talking with an interesting traveller, that he would far rather let me pay him for my lodging than have me go by, and so on--so that at last I consented.
Three minutes' walking from the deserted clearing brought us into a travelled road. It circled the breast of the mountain, and as we stepped along it in the dusk I learned something of my companion. His name was Edward Keene; he taught Latin and Greek in the Hilltop School; he had studied for the ministry, but had given it up, I gathered, on account of a certain loss of interest, or rather a diversion of interest in another direction. He spoke of himself with an impersonal candour.
"Preachers must be always trying to persuade men," he said. "But what I care about is to know men. I don't care what they do. Certainly I have no wish to interfere with them in their doings, for I doubt whether anyone can really change them. Each tree bears its own fruit, you see, and by their fruits you know them."
"What do you say to grafting? That changes the fruit, surely?"
"Yes, but a grafted tree is not really one tree. It is two trees growing together. There is a double life in it, and the second life, the added life, dominates the other. The stock becomes a kind of animate soil for the graft to grow in."
Presently the road dipped into a little valley and rose again, breasting the slope of a wooded hill which thrust itself out from the steeper flank of the mountain-range. Down the hill-side a song floated to meet us--that most noble lyric of old Robert Herrick:
Bid me to live, and I will live Thy Protestant to be; Or bid me love, and I will give A loving heart to thee.
It was a girl's voice, fresh and clear, with a note of tenderness in it that thrilled me. Keene's pace quickened. And soon the singer came in sight, stepping lightly down the road, a shape of slender whiteness on the background of gathering night. She was beautiful even in that dim light, with brown eyes and hair, and a face that seemed to breathe purity and trust. Yet there was a trace of anxiety in it, or so I fancied, that gave it an appealing charm.
"You have come at last, Edward," she cried, running forward and putting her hand in his. "It is late. You have been out all day; I began to be afraid."
"Not too late," he answered; "there was no need for fear, Dorothy. I am not alone, you see." And keeping her hand, he introduced me to the daughter of Master Ward.
It was easy to guess the relation between these two young people who walked beside me in the dusk. It needed no words to say that they were lovers. Yet it would have needed many words to define the sense, that came to me gradually, of something singular in the tie that bound them together. On his part there was a certain tone of half-playful condescension toward her such as one might use to a lovely child, which seemed to match but ill with her unconscious attitude of watchful care, of tender solicitude for him--almost like the manner of an elder sister. Lovers they surely were, and acknowledged lovers, for their frankness of demeanour sought no concealment; but I felt that there must be
A little rift within the lute,
though neither of them might know it. Each one's thought of the other was different from the other's thought of self. There could not be a complete understanding, a perfect accord. What was the secret, of which each knew half, but not the other half?
Thus, with steps that kept time, but with thoughts how wide apart, we came to the door of the school. A warm flood of light poured out to greet us. The Master, an elderly, placid, comfortable man, gave me just the welcome that had been promised in his name. The supper was waiting, and the evening passed in such happy cheer that the bewilderments and misgivings of the twilight melted away, and at bedtime I dropped into the nest of sleep as one who has found a shelter among friends.
The Hilltop School stood on a blessed site. Lifted high above the village, it held the crest of the last gentle wave of the mountains that filled the south with crowding billows, ragged and tumultuous. Northward, the great plain lay at our feet, smiling in the sun; meadows and groves, yellow fields of harvest and green orchards, white roads and clustering towns, with here and there a little city on the bank of the mighty river which curved in a vast line of beauty toward the blue Catskill Range, fifty miles away. Lines of filmy smoke, like vanishing footprints in the air, marked the passage of railway trains across the landscape--their swift flight reduced by distance to a leisurely transition. The bright surface of the stream was furrowed by a hundred vessels; tiny rowboats creeping from shore to shore; knots of black barges following the lead of puffing tugs; sloops with languid motion tacking against the tide; white steamboats, like huge toy-houses, crowded with pygmy inhabitants, moving smoothly on their way to the great city, and disappearing suddenly as they turned into the narrows between Storm-King and the Fishkill Mountains. Down there was life, incessant, varied, restless, intricate, many-coloured--down there was history, the highway of ancient voyagers since the days of Hendrik Hudson, the hunting-ground of Indian tribes, the scenes of massacre and battle, the last camp of the Army of the Revolution, the Head-quarters of Washington--down there were the homes of legend and poetry, the dreamlike hills of Rip van Winkle's sleep, the cliffs and caves haunted by the Culprit Fay, the solitudes traversed by the Spy--all outspread before us, and visible as in a Claude Lorraine glass, in the tranquil lucidity of distance. And here, on the hilltop, was our own life; secluded, yet never separated from the other life; looking down upon it, yet woven of the same stuff; peaceful in circumstance, yet ever busy with its own tasks, and holding in its quiet heart all the elements of joy and sorrow and tragic consequence.
The Master was a man of most unworldly wisdom. In his youth a great traveller, he had brought home many observations, a few views, and at least one theory. To him the school was the most important of human institutions--more vital even than the home, because it held the first real experience of social contact, of free intercourse with other minds and lives coming from different households and embodying different strains of blood. "My school," said he, "is the world in miniature. If I can teach these boys to study and play together freely and with fairness to one another, I shall make men fit to live and work together in society. What they learn matters less than how they learn it. The great thing is the bringing out of individual character so that it will find its place in social harmony."
Yet never man knew less of character in the concrete than Master Ward. To him each person represented a type--the scientific, the practical, the poetic. From each one he expected, and in each one he found, to a certain degree, the fruit of the marked quality, the obvious, the characteristic. But of the deeper character, made up of a hundred traits, coloured and conditioned most vitally by something secret and in itself apparently of slight importance, he was placidly unconscious. Classes he knew. Individuals escaped him. Yet he was a most companionable man, a social solitary, a friendly hermit.
His daughter Dorothy seemed to me even more fair and appealing by daylight than when I first saw her in the dusk. There was a pure brightness in her brown eyes, a gentle dignity in her look and bearing, a soft cadence of expectant joy in her voice. She was womanly in every tone and motion, yet by no means weak or uncertain. Mistress of herself and of the house, she ruled her kingdom without an effort. Busied with many little cares, she bore them lightly. Her spirit overflowed into the lives around her with delicate sympathy and merry cheer. But it was in music that her nature found its widest outlet. In the lengthening evenings of late August she would play from Schumann, or Chopin, or Grieg, interpreting the vague feelings of gladness or grief which lie too deep for words. Ballads she loved, quaint old English and Scotch airs, folk-songs of Germany, "Come-all-ye's" of Ireland, Canadian chansons. She sang--not like an angel, but like a woman.
Of the two under-masters in the school, Edward Keene was the elder. The younger, John Graham, was his opposite in every respect. Sturdy, fair-haired, plain in the face, he was essentially an every-day man, devoted to out-of-door sports, a hard worker, a good player, and a sound sleeper. He came back to the school, from a fishing-excursion, a few days after my arrival. I liked the way in which he told of his adventures, with a little frank boasting, enough to season but not to spoil the story. I liked the way in which he took hold of his work, helping to get the school in readiness for the return of the boys in the middle of September. I liked, more than all, his attitude to Dorothy Ward. He loved her, clearly enough. When she was in the room the other people were only accidents to him. Yet there was nothing of the disappointed suitor in his bearing. He was cheerful, natural, accepting the situation, giving her the best he had to give, and gladly taking from her the frank reliance, the ready comradeship which she bestowed upon him. If he envied Keene--and how could he help it--at least he never showed a touch of jealousy or rivalry. The engagement was a fact which he took into account as something not to be changed or questioned. Keene was so much more brilliant, interesting, attractive. He answered so much more fully to the poetic side of Dorothy's nature. How could she help preferring him?
Thus the three actors in the drama stood, when I became an inmate of Hilltop, and accepted the master's invitation to undertake some of the minor classes in English, and stay on at the school indefinitely. It was my wish to see the little play--a pleasant comedy, I hoped--move forward to a happy ending. And yet--what was it that disturbed me now and then with forebodings? Something, doubtless, in the character of Keene, for he was the dominant personality. The key of the situation lay with him. He was the centre of interest. Yet he was the one who seemed not perfectly in harmony, not quite at home, as if something beckoned and urged him away.
"I am glad you are to stay," said he, "yet I wonder at it. You will find the life narrow, after all your travels. Ulysses at Ithaca--you will surely be restless to see the world again."
"If you find the life broad enough, I ought not to be cramped in it."
"Ah, but I have compensations."
"One you certainly have," said I, thinking of Dorothy, "and that one is enough to make a man happy anywhere."
"Yes, yes," he answered, quickly, "but that is not what I mean. It is not there that I look for a wider life. Love--do you think that love broadens a man's outlook? To me it seems to make him narrower--happier, perhaps, within his own little circle--but distinctly narrower. Knowledge is the only thing that broadens life, sets it free from the tyranny of the parish, fills it with the sense of power. And love is the opposite of knowledge. Love is a kind of an illusion--a happy illusion, that is what love is. Don't you see that?"
"See it?" I cried. "I don't know what you mean. Do you mean that you don't really care for Dorothy Ward? Do you mean that what you have won in her is an illusion? If so, you are as wrong as a man can be."
"No, no," he answered, eagerly, "you know I don't mean that. I could not live without her. But love is not the only reality. There is something else, something broader, something----"
"Come away," I said, "come away, man! You are talking nonsense, treason. You are not true to yourself. You've been working too hard at your books. There's a maggot in your brain. Come out for a long walk."
That indeed was what he liked best. He was a magnificent walker, easy, steady, unwearying. He knew every road and lane in the valleys, every footpath and trail among the mountains. But he cared little for walking in company; one companion was the most that he could abide. And, strange to say, it was not Dorothy whom he chose for his most frequent comrade. With her he would saunter down the Black Brook path, or climb slowly to the first ridge of Storm-King. But with me he pushed out to the farthest pinnacle that overhangs the river, and down through the Lonely Heart gorge, and over the pass of the White Horse, and up to the peak of Cro' Nest, and across the rugged summit of Black Rock. At every wider outlook a strange exhilaration seemed to come upon him. His spirit glowed like a live coal in the wind. He overflowed with brilliant talk and curious stories of the villages and scattered houses that we could see from our eyries.
But it was not with me that he made his longest expeditions. They were solitary. Early on Saturday he would leave the rest of us, with some slight excuse, and start away on the mountain-road, to be gone all day. Sometimes he would not return till long after dark. Then I could see the anxious look deepen on Dorothy's face, and she would slip away down the road to meet him. But he always came back in good spirits, talkable and charming. It was the next day that the reaction came. The black fit took him. He was silent, moody, bitter. Holding himself aloof, yet never giving utterance to any irritation, he seemed half-unconsciously to resent the claims of love and friendship, as if they irked him. There was a look in his eyes as if he measured us, weighed us, analysed us all as strangers.
Yes, even Dorothy. I have seen her go to meet him with a flower in her hand that she had plucked for him, and turn away with her lips trembling, too proud to say a word, dropping the flower on the grass. John Graham saw it, too. He waited till she was gone; then he picked up the flower and kept it.
There was nothing to take offence at, nothing on which one could lay a finger; only these singular alternations of mood which made Keene now the most delightful of friends, now an intimate stranger in the circle. The change was inexplicable. But certainly it seemed to have some connection, as cause or consequence, with his long, lonely walks.
Once, when he was absent, we spoke of his remarkable fluctuations of spirit.
The master labelled him. "He is an idealist, a dreamer. They are always uncertain."
I blamed him. "He gives way too much to his moods. He lacks self-control. He is in danger of spoiling a fine nature."
I looked at Dorothy. She defended him. "Why should he be always the same? He is too great for that. His thoughts make him restless, and sometimes he is tired. Surely you wouldn't have him act what he don't feel. Why do you want him to do that?"
"I don't know," said Graham, with a short laugh. "None of us know. But what we all want just now is music. Dorothy, will you sing a little for us?"
So she sang "The Coulin," and "The Days o' the Kerry Dancin'," and "The Hawthorn Tree," and "The Green Woods of Truigha," and "Flowers o' the Forest," and "A la claire Fontaine," until the twilight was filled with peace.
The boys came back to the school. The wheels of routine began to turn again, slowly and with a little friction at first, then smoothly and swiftly as if they had never stopped. Summer reddened into autumn; autumn bronzed into fall. The maples and poplars were bare. The oaks alone kept their rusted crimson glory, and the cloaks of spruce and hemlock on the shoulders of the hills grew dark with wintry foliage. Keene's transitions of mood became more frequent and more extreme. The gulf of isolation that divided him from us when the black days came seemed wider and more unfathomable. Dorothy and John Graham were thrown more constantly together. Keene appeared to encourage their companionship. He watched them curiously, sometimes, not as if he were jealous, but rather as if he were interested in some delicate experiment. At other times he would be singularly indifferent to everything, remote, abstracted, forgetful.
Dorothy's birthday, which fell in mid-October, was kept as a holiday. In the morning everyone had some little birthday gift for her, except Keene. He had forgotten the birthday entirely. The shadow of disappointment that quenched the brightness of her face was pitiful. Even he could not be blind to it. He flushed as if surprised, and hesitated a moment, evidently in conflict with himself. Then a look of shame and regret came into his eyes. He made some excuse for not going with us to the picnic, at the Black Brook Falls, with which the day was celebrated. In the afternoon, as we all sat around the camp-fire, he came swinging through the woods with his long, swift stride, and going at once to Dorothy laid a little brooch of pearl and opal in her hand.
"Will you forgive me?" he said. "I hope this is not too late. But I lost the train back from Newburg and walked home. I pray that you may never know any tears but pearls, and that there may be nothing changeable about you but the opal."
"Oh, Edward!" she cried, "how beautiful! Thank you a thousand times. But I wish you had been with us all day. We have missed you so much!"
For the rest of that day simplicity and clearness and joy came back to us. Keene was at his best, a leader of friendly merriment, a master of good-fellowship, a prince of delicate chivalry. Dorothy's loveliness unfolded like a flower in the sun.
But the Indian summer of peace was brief. It was hardly a week before Keene's old moods returned, darker and stranger than ever. The girl's unconcealable bewilderment, her sense of wounded loyalty and baffled anxiety, her still look of hurt and wondering tenderness, increased from day to day. John Graham's temper seemed to change, suddenly and completely. From the best-humoured and most careless fellow in the world, he became silent, thoughtful, irritable toward everyone except Dorothy. With Keene he was curt and impatient, avoiding him as much as possible, and when they were together, evidently struggling to keep down a deep dislike and rising anger. They had had sharp words when they were alone, I was sure, but Keene's coolness seemed to grow with Graham's heat. There was no open quarrel.
One Saturday evening, Graham came to me. "You have seen what is going on here?" he said.
"Something, at least," I answered, "and I am very sorry for it. But I don't quite understand it."
"Well, I do; and I'm going to put an end to it. I'm going to have it out with Ned Keene. He is breaking her heart."
"But are you the right one to take the matter up?"
"Who else is there to do it?"
"He sees nothing, comprehends nothing. 'Practical type--poetic type--misunderstandings sure to arise--come together after a while each supply the other's deficiencies.' Cursed folly! And the girl so unhappy that she can't tell anyone. It shall not go on, I say. Keene is out on the road now, taking one of his infernal walks. I'm going to meet him."
"I'm afraid it will make trouble. Let me go with you."
"The trouble is made. Come if you like. I'm going now."
The night lay heavy upon the forest. Where the road dipped through the valley we could hardly see a rod ahead of us. But higher up where the way curved around the breast of the mountain, the woods were thin on the left, and on the right a sheer precipice fell away to the gorge of the brook. In the dim starlight we saw Keene striding toward us. Graham stepped out to meet him.
"Where have you been, Ned Keene?" he cried. The cry was a challenge. Keene lifted his head and stood still. Then he laughed and took a step forward.
"Taking a long walk, Jack Graham,," he answered. "It was glorious. You should have been with me. But why this sudden question?"
"Because your long walk is a pretence. You are playing false. There is some woman that you go to see at West Point, at Highland Falls, who knows where?"
Keene laughed again.
"Certainly you don't know, my dear fellow; and neither do I. Since when has walking become a vice in your estimation? You seem to be in a fierce mood. What's the matter?"
"I will tell you what's the matter. You have been acting like a brute to the girl you profess to love."
"Plain words! But between friends frankness is best. Did she ask you to tell me?"
"No! You know too well she would die before she would speak. You are killing her, that is what you are doing with your devilish moods and mysteries. You must stop. Do you hear? You must give her up."
"I hear well enough, and it sounds like a word for her and two for yourself. Is that it?"
"Damn you," cried the younger man, "let the words go! we'll settle it this way"----and he sprang at the other's throat.
Keene, cool and well-braced, met him with a heavy blow in the chest. He recoiled, and I rushed between them, holding Graham back, and pleading for self-control. As we stood thus, panting and confused, on the edge of the cliff, a singing voice floated up to us from the shadows across the valley. It was Herrick's song again:
A heart as soft, a heart as kind, A heart as sound and free Is in the whole world thou canst find, That heart I'll give to thee.
"Come, gentlemen," I cried, "this is folly, sheer madness. You can never deal with the matter in this way. Think of the girl who is singing down yonder. What would happen to her, what would she suffer, from scandal, from her own feelings, if either of you should be killed, or even seriously hurt by the other? There must be no quarrel between you."
"Certainly," said Keene, whose poise, if shaken at all, had returned, "certainly, you are right. It is not of my seeking, nor shall I be the one to keep it up. I am willing to let it pass. It is but a small matter at most."
I turned to Graham--"And you?"
He hesitated a little, and then said, doggedly "On one condition."
"And that is?"
"Keene must explain. He must answer my question."
"Do you accept?" I asked Keene.
"Yes and no!" he replied. "No! to answering Graham's question. He is not the person to ask it. I wonder that he does not see the impropriety, the absurdity of his meddling at all in this affair. Besides, he could not understand my answer even if he believed it. But to the explanation, I say, Yes! I will give it, not to Graham, but to you. I make you this proposition. To-morrow is Sunday. We shall be excused from service if we tell the master that we have important business to settle together. You shall come with me on one of my long walks. I will tell you all about them. Then you can be the judge whether there is any harm in them."
"Does that satisfy you?" I said to Graham.
"Yes," he answered, "that seems fair enough. I am content to leave it in that way for the present. And to make it still more fair, I want to take back what I said awhile ago, and to ask Keene's pardon for it."
"Not at all," said Keene, quickly, "it was said in haste, I bear no grudge. You simply did not understand, that is all."
So we turned to go down the hill, and as we turned, Dorothy met us, coming out of the shadows.
"What are you men doing here?" she asked. "I heard your voices from below. What were you talking about?"
"We were talking," said Keene, "my dear Dorothy, we were talking--about walking--yes, that was it--about walking, and about views. The conversation was quite warm, almost a debate. Now, you know all the view-points in this region. Which do you call the best, the most satisfying, the finest prospect? But I know what you will say: the view from the little knoll in front of Hilltop. For there, when you are tired of looking far away, you can turn around and see the old school, and the linden-trees, and the garden."
"Yes," she answered gravely, "that is really the view that I love best. I would give up all the others rather than lose that."
There was a softness in the November air that brought back memories of summer, and a few belated daisies were blooming in the old clearing, as Keene and I passed by the ruins of the farm-house again, early on Sunday morning. He had been talking ever since we started, pouring out his praise of knowledge, wide, clear, universal knowledge, as the best of life's joys, the greatest of life's achievements. The practical life was a blind, dull routine. Most men were toiling at tasks which they did not like, by rules which they did not understand. They never looked beyond the edge of their work. The philosophical life was a spider's web--filmy threads of theory spun out of the inner consciousness--it touched the world only at certain chosen points of attachment. There was nothing firm, nothing substantial in it. You could look through it like a veil and see the real world lying beyond. But the theorist could see only the web which he had spun. Knowing did not come by speculating, theorising. Knowing came by seeing. Vision was the only real knowledge. To see the world, the whole world, as it is, to look behind the scenes, to read human life like a book, that was the glorious thing--most satisfying, divine.
Thus he had talked as we climbed the hill. Now, as we came by the place where we had first met, a new eagerness sounded in his voice.
"Ever since that day I have inclined to tell you something more about myself. I felt sure you would understand. I am planning to write a book--a book of knowledge, in the true sense--a great book about human life. Not a history, not a theory, but a real view of life, its hidden motives, its secret relations. How different they are from what men dream and imagine and play that they are! How much darker, how much smaller, and therefore how much more interesting and wonderful. No one has yet written--perhaps because no one has yet conceived--such a book as I have in mind. I might call it a 'Bionopsis.'"
"But surely," said I, "you have chosen a strange place to write it--the Hilltop School--this quiet and secluded region! The stream of humanity is very slow and slender here--it trickles. You must get out into the busy world. You must be in the full current and feel its force. You must take part in the active life of mankind in order really to know it."
"A mistake!" he cried. "Action is the thing that blinds men. You remember Matthew Arnold's line:
In action's dizzying eddy whurled.
To know the world you must stand apart from it and above it; you must look down on it."
"Well, then," said I, "you will have to find some secret spring of inspiration, some point of vantage from which you can get your outlook and your insight."
He stopped short and looked me full in the face.
"And that," cried he, "is precisely what I have found!"
Then he turned and pushed along the narrow trail so swiftly that I had hard work to follow him. After a few minutes we came to a little stream, flowing through a grove of hemlocks. Keene seated himself on the fallen log that served for a bridge and beckoned me to a place beside him.
"I promised to give you an explanation to-day--to take you on one of my long walks. Well, there is only one of them. It is always the same. You shall see where it leads, what it means. You shall share my secret--all the wonder and glory of it! Of course I know my conduct, has seemed strange to you. Sometimes it has seemed strange even to me. I have been doubtful, troubled, almost distracted. I have been risking a great deal, in danger of losing what I value, what most men count the best thing in the world. But it could not be helped. The risk was worth while. A great discovery, the opportunity of a lifetime, yes, of an age, perhaps of many ages, came to me. I simply could not throw it away. I must use it, make the best of it, at any danger, at any cost. You shall judge for yourself whether I was right or wrong. But you must judge fairly, without haste, without prejudice. I ask you to make me one promise. You will suspend judgment, you will say nothing, you will keep my secret, until you have been with me three times at the place where I am now taking you."
By this time it was clear to me that I had to do with a case lying far outside of the common routine of life; something subtle, abnormal, hard to measure, in which a clear and careful estimate would be necessary. If Keene was labouring under some strange delusion, some disorder of mind, how could I estimate its nature or extent, without time and study, perhaps without expert advice? To wait a little would be prudent, for his sake as well as for the sake of others. If there was some extraordinary, reality behind his mysterious hints, it would need patience and skill to test it. I gave him the promise for which he asked.
At once, as if relieved, he sprang up, and crying, "Come on, follow me!" began to make his way up the bed of the brook. It was one of the wildest walks that I have ever taken. He turned aside for no obstacles; swamps, masses of interlacing alders, close-woven thickets of stiff young spruces, chevaux-de-frise of dead trees where wind-falls had mowed down the forest, walls of lichen-crusted rock, landslides where heaps of broken stone were tumbled in ruinous confusion--through everything he pushed forward. I could see, here and there, the track of his former journeys: broken branches of witch-hazel and moose-wood, ferns trampled down, a faint trail across some deeper bed of moss. At mid-day we rested for a half-hour to eat lunch. But Keene would eat nothing, except a little pellet of some dark green substance that he took from a flat silver box in his pocket. He swallowed it hastily, and stooping his face to the spring by which he had halted, drank long and eagerly.
"An Indian trick," said he, shaking the drops of water from his face. "On a walk, food is a hindrance, a delay. But this tiny taste of bitter gum is a tonic; it spurs the courage and doubles the strength--if you are used to it. Otherwise I should not recommend you to try it. Faugh! the flavour is vile."
He rinsed his mouth again with water, and stood up, calling me to come on. The way, now tangled among the nameless peaks and ranges, bore steadily southward, rising all the time, in spite of many brief downward curves where a steep gorge must be crossed. Presently we came into a hard-wood forest, open and easy to travel. Breasting a long slope, we reached the summit of a broad, smoothly rounding ridge covered with a dense growth of stunted spruce. The trees rose above our heads, about twice the height of a man, and so thick that we could not see beyond them. But, from glimpses here and there, and from the purity and lightness of the air, I judged that we were on far higher ground than any we had yet traversed, the central comb, perhaps, of the mountain-system.
A few yards ahead of us, through the crowded trunks of the dwarf forest, I saw a gray mass, like the wall of a fortress, across our path. It was a vast rock, rising from the crest of the ridge, lifting its top above the sea of foliage. At its base there were heaps of shattered stones, and deep crevices almost like caves. One side of the rock was broken by a slanting gully.
"Be careful," cried my companion, "there is a rattlers' den somewhere about here. The snakes are in their winter quarters now, almost dormant, but they can still strike if you tread on them. Step here! Give me your hand--use that point of rock--hold fast by this bush; it is firmly rooted--so! Here we are on Spy Rock! You have heard of it? I thought so. Other people have heard of it, and imagine that they have found it--five miles east of us--on a lower ridge. Others think it is a peak just back of Cro' Nest. All wrong! There is but one real Spy Rock--here! This earth holds no more perfect view-point. It is one of the rare places from which a man may see the kingdoms of the world and all the glory of them. Look!"
The prospect was indeed magnificent; it was strange what a vast enlargement of vision resulted from the slight elevation above the surrounding peaks. It was like being lifted up so that we could look over the walls. The horizon expanded as if by magic. The vast circumference of vision swept around us with a radius of a hundred miles. Mountain and meadow, forest and field, river and lake, hill and dale, village and farmland, far-off city and shimmering water--all lay open to our sight, and over all the westering sun wove a transparent robe of gem-like hues. Every feature of the landscape seemed alive, quivering, pulsating with conscious beauty. You could almost see the world breathe.
"Wonderful!" I cried. "Most wonderful! You have found a mount of vision."
"Ah," he answered, "you don't half see the wonder yet, you don't begin to appreciate it. Your eyes are new to it. You have not learned the power of far sight, the secret of Spy Rock. You are still shut in by the horizon."
"Do you mean to say that you can look beyond it?"
"Beyond yours--yes. And beyond any that you would dream possible--See! Your sight reaches to that dim cloud of smoke in the south? And beneath it you can make out, perhaps, a vague blotch of shadow, or a tiny flash of brightness where the sun strikes it? New York! But I can see the great buildings, the domes, the spires, the crowded wharves, the tides of people whirling through the streets--and beyond that, the sea, with the ships coming and going! I can follow them on their courses--and beyond that--Oh! when I am on Spy Rock I can see more than other men can imagine."
For a moment, strange to say, I almost fancied could follow him. The magnetism of his spirit imposed upon me, carried me away with him. Then sober reason told me that he was talking of impossibilities.
"Keene," said I, "you are dreaming. The view and the air have intoxicated you. This is a phantasy, a delusion!"
"It pleases you to call it so," he said, "but I only tell you my real experience. Why it should be impossible I do not understand. There is no reason why the power of sight should not be cultivated, enlarged, expanded indefinitely."
"And the straight rays of light?" I asked. "And the curvature of the earth which makes a horizon inevitable?"
"Who knows what a ray of light is?" said he. "Who can prove that it may not be curved, under certain conditions, or refracted in some places in a way that is not possible elsewhere? I tell you there is something extraordinary about this Spy Rock. It is a seat of power--Nature's observatory. More things are visible here than anywhere else--more than I have told you yet. But come, we have little time left. For half an hour, each of us shall enjoy what he can see. Then home again to the narrower outlook, the restricted life."
The downward journey was swifter than the ascent, but no less fatiguing. By the time we reached the school, an hour after dark, I was very tired. But Keene was in one of his moods of exhilaration. He glowed like a piece of phosphorus that has been drenched with light.
Graham took the first opportunity of speaking with me alone.
"Well?" said he.
"Well!" I answered. "You were wrong. There is no treason in Keene's walks, no guilt in his moods. But there is something very strange. I cannot form a judgment yet as to what we should do. We must wait a few days. It will do no harm to be patient. Indeed, I have promised not to judge, not to speak of it, until a certain time. Are you satisfied?"
"This is a curious story," said he, "and I am puzzled by it. But I trust you, I agree to wait, though I am far from satisfied."
Our second expedition was appointed for the following Saturday. Keene was hungry for it, and I was almost as eager, desiring to penetrate as quickly as possible into the heart of the affair. Already a conviction in regard to it was pressing upon me, and I resolved to let him talk, this time, as freely as he would, without interruption or denial.
When we clambered up on Spy Rock, he was more subdued and reserved than he had been the first time. For a while he talked little, but scanned view with wide, shining eyes. Then he began to tell me stories of the places that we could see--strange stories of domestic calamity, and social conflict, and eccentric passion, and hidden crime.
"Do you remember Hawthorne's story of 'The Minister's Black Veil?' It is the best comment on human life that ever was written. Everyone has something to hide. The surface of life is a mask. The substance of life is a secret. All humanity wears the black veil. But it is not impenetrable. No, it is transparent, if you find the right point of view. Here, on Spy Rock, I have found it. I have learned how to look through the veil. I can see, not by the light-rays only, but by the rays which are colourless, imperceptible, irresistible the rays of the unknown quantity, which penetrate everywhere. I can see how men down in the great city are weaving their nets of selfishness and falsehood, and calling them industrial enterprises or political combinations. I can see how the wheels of society are moved by the hidden springs of avarice and greed and rivalry. I can see how children drink in the fables of religion, without understanding them, and how prudent men repeat them without believing them. I can see how the illusions of love appear and vanish, and how men and women swear that their dreams are eternal, even while they fade. I can see how poor people blind themselves and deceive each other, calling selfishness devotion, and bondage contentment. Down at Hilltop yonder I can see how Dorothy Ward and John Graham, without knowing it,without meaning it--"
"Stop, man!" I cried. "Stop, before you say what can never be unsaid. You know it is not true. These are nightmare visions that ride you. Not from Spy Rock nor from anywhere else can you see anything at Hilltop that is not honest and pure and loyal. Come down, now, and let us go home. You will see better there than here."
"I think not," said he, "but I will come. Yes, of course, I am bound to come. But let me have a few minutes here alone. Go you down along the path a little way slowly. I will follow you in a quarter of an hour. And remember we are to be here together once more!"
Once more! Yes, and then what must be done?
How was this strange case to be dealt with so as to save all the actors, as far as possible, from needless suffering? That Keene's mind was disordered at least three of us suspected already. But to me alone was the nature and seat of the disorder known. How make the others understand it? They might easily conceive it to be something different from the fact, some actual lesion of the brain, an incurable insanity. But this it was not. As yet, at least, he was no patient for a mad-house: it would be unjust, probably it would be impossible to have him committed. But on the other hand they might take it too lightly, as the result of overwork, or perhaps of the use of some narcotic. To me it was certain that the trouble went far deeper than this. It lay in the man's moral nature, in the error of his central will. It was the working out, in abnormal form, but with essential truth, of his chosen and cherished ideal of life. Spy Rock was something more than the seat of his delusion. it was the expression of his temperament. The solitary trail that led thither was the symbol of his search for happiness--alone, forgetful of life's lowlier ties, looking down upon the world in the cold abstraction of scornful knowledge. How was such a man to be brought back to the real life whose first condition is the acceptance of a limited outlook, the willingness to live by trust as much as by sight, the power of finding joy and peace in the things that we feel are the best, even though we cannot prove them nor explain them? How could he ever bring anything but discord and sorrow to those who were bound to him?
This was what perplexed and oppressed me. I needed all the time until the next Saturday to think the question through, to decide what should be done. But the matter was taken out of my hands. After our latest expedition Keene's dark mood returned upon him with sombre intensity. Dull, restless, indifferent, half-contemptuous, he seemed to withdraw into himself, observing those around him with half-veiled glances, as if he had nothing better to do and yet found it a tiresome pastime. He was like a man waiting wearily at a railway station for his train. Nothing pleased him. He responded to nothing.
Graham controlled his indignation by a constant effort. A dozen times he was on the point of speaking out. But he restrained himself and played fair. Dorothy's suffering could not be hidden. Her loyalty was strained to the breaking point. She was too tender and true for anger, but she was wounded almost beyond endurance.
Keene's restlessness increased. The intervening Thursday was Thanksgiving Day; most of the boys had gone home; the school had holiday. Early in the morning he came to me.
"Let us take our walk to-day. We have no work to do. Come! In this clear, frosty air, Spy Rock will be glorious!"
"No," I answered, "this is no day for such an expedition. This is the home day. Stay here and be happy with us all. You owe this to love and friendship. You owe it to Dorothy Ward."
"Owe it?" said he. "Speaking of debts, I think each man is his own preferred creditor. But of course you can do as you like about to-day. Tomorrow or Saturday will answer just as well for our third walk together."
About noon he came down from his room and went to the piano, where Dorothy was sitting. They talked together in low tones. Then she stood up, with pale face and wide-open eyes. She laid her hand on his arm.
"Do not go, Edward. For the last time I beg you to stay with us to-day."
He lifted her hand and held it for an instant. Then he bowed, and let it fall.
"You will excuse me, Dorothy, I am sure. I feel the need of exercise. Absolutely I must go; good-by--until the evening."
The hours of that day passed heavily for all of us. There was a sense of disaster in the air. Something irretrievable had fallen from our circle. But no one dared to name it. Night closed in upon the house with a changing sky. All the stars were hidden. The wind whimpered and then shouted. The rain swept down in spiteful volleys, deepening at last into a fierce, steady discharge. Nine o'clock, ten o'clock passed, and Keene did not return. By midnight we were certain that some accident had befallen him.
It was impossible to go up into the mountains in that pitch-darkness of furious tempest. But we could send down to the village for men to organise a search-party and to bring the doctor. At daybreak we set out--some of the men going with the Master along Black Brook, others in different directions to make sure of a complete search--Graham and the doctor and I following the secret trail that I knew only too well. Dorothy insisted that she must go. She would bear no denial, declaring that it would be worse for her alone at home, than if we took her with us.
It was incredible how the path seemed to lengthen. Graham watched the girl's every step, helping her over the difficult places, pushing aside the tangled branches, his eyes resting upon her as frankly, as tenderly as a mother looks at her child. In single file we marched through the gray morning, clearing cold after the storm, and the silence was seldom broken, for we had little heart to talk.
At last we came to the high, lonely ridge, the dwarf forest, the huge, couchant bulk of Spy Rock. There, on the back of it, with his right arm hanging over the edge, was the outline of Edward Keene's form. It was as if some monster had seized him and flung him over its shoulder to carry away.
We called to him but there was no answer. The doctor climbed up with me, and we hurried to the spot where he was lying. His face was turned to the sky, his eyes blindly staring; there was no pulse, no breath; he was already cold in death. His right hand and arm, the side of his neck and face were horribly swollen and livid. The doctor stooped down and examined the hand carefully. "See!" he cried, pointing to a great bruise on his wrist, with two tiny punctures in the middle of it from which a few drops of blood had oozed, "a rattlesnake has struck him. He must have fairly put his hand upon it, perhaps in the dark, when he was climbing. And, look, what is this?"
He picked up a flat silver box, that lay open on the rock. There were two olive-green pellets of a resinous paste in it. He lifted it to his face, and drew a long breath.
"Yes," he said, "it is Gunjab, the most powerful form of Hashish, the narcotic hemp of India. Poor fellow, it saved him from frightful agony. He died in a dream."
"You are right," I said, "in a dream, and for a dream."
We covered his face and climbed down the rock. Dorothy and Graham were waiting below. He had put his coat around her. She was shivering a little. There were tear-marks on her face.
"Well," I said, "you must know it. We have lost him."
"Ah!" said the girl, "I lost him long ago."