When Christopher Kain told me his story, sitting late in his dressing-room at the Philharmonic I felt that I ought to say something, but nothing in the world seemed adequate. It was one of those times when words have no weight: mine sounded like a fly buzzing in the tomb of kings. And after all, he did not hear me; I could tell that by the look on his face as he sat there staring into the light, the lank, dark hair framing his waxen brow, his shoulders hanging forward, his lean, strong, sentient fingers wrapped around the brown neck of "Ugo," the 'cello, tightly.
Agnes Kain was a lady, as a lady was before the light of that poor worn word went out. Quiet, reserved, gracious, continent, bearing in face and form the fragile beauty of a rose-petal come to its fading on a windless ledge, she moved down the years with the stedfast sweetness of the gentlewoman—gentle, and a woman.
They knew little about her in the city, where she had come with her son. They did not need to. Looking into her eyes, into the transparent soul behind them they could ask no other credential for the name she bore and the lavender she wore for the husband of whom she never spoke.
She spoke of him, indeed, but that was in privacy, and to her son. As Christopher grew through boyhood, she watched him; in her enveloping eagerness she forestalled the hour when he would have asked, and told him about his father, Daniel Kain.
It gave them the added bond of secret-sharers. The tale grew as the boy grew. Each night when Christopher crept into his mother's bed for the quiet hour of her voice, it was as if he crept in to another world, the wind-blown, sky-encompassed kingdom of the Kains, Daniel, his father, and Maynard, his father, another Maynard before him, and all the Kains—and the Hill and the House, the Willow Wood, the Moor Under the Cloud, the Beach where the gray seas pounded, the boundless Marsh, the Lilac hedge standing against the stars.
He knew he would have to be a man of men to measure up to that heritage, a man strong, grave, thoughtful, kind with the kindness that never falters, brave with the courage of that dark and massive folk whose blood ran in his veins. Coming as it did, a world of legend growing up side by side with the matter-of-fact world of Concord Street, it never occurred to him to question. He, the boy, was not massive, strong, or brave; he saw things in the dark that frightened him, his thin shoulders were bound to droop, the hours of practise on his violin left him with no blood in his legs and a queer pallor on his brow.
Nor was he always grave, thoughtful, kind. He did not often lose his temper, the river of his young life ran too smooth and deep. But there were times when he did. Brief passions swept him, blinded him, twisted his fingers, left him sobbing, retching, and weak as death itself. He never seemed to wonder at the discrepancy in things, however, any more than he wondered at the look in his mother's eyes, as she hung over him, waiting, in those moments of nausea after rage. She had not the look of the gentlewoman then; she had more the look, a thousand times, of the prisoner led through the last gray corridor in the dawn.
He saw her like that once when he had not been angry. It was on a day when he came into the front hall unexpectedly as a stranger was going out of the door. The stranger was dressed in rough, brown homespun; in one hand he held a brown velour hat, in the other a thorn stick without a ferrule. Nor was there anything more worthy of note in his face, an average-long face with hollowed cheeks, sunken gray eyes, and a high forehead, narrow, sallow, and moist.
No, it was not the stranger that troubled Christopher. It was his mother's look at his own blundering entrance, and, when the man was out of hearing, the tremulous haste of her explanation.
"He came about some papers, you know."
"You mean our Morning Post?" Christopher asked her.
She let her breath out all at once and colour flooded her face.
"Yes," she told him. "Yes, yes."
Neither of them said anything more about it.
It was that same day, toward evening, that Christopher broke one of his long silences, reverting to a subject always near to them both.
"Mother, you've never told me where it is—on the map, I mean."
She was looking the other way. She did not turn around.
"I—Chris—I—I haven't a map in the house."
He did not press the matter. He went out into the back yard presently, under the grape-trellis, and there he stood still for a long time, staring at nothing particular.
He was growing up.
He went away to boarding-school not long after this, taking with him the picture of his adored mother, the treasured epic of his dark, strong fathers, his narrow shoulders, his rare, blind bursts of passion, his newborn wonder, and his violin. At school they thought him a queer one.
The destinies of men are unaccountable things. Five children in the village of Deer Bay came down with diphtheria. That was why the academy shut up for a week, and that was what started Christopher on his way home for an unexpected holiday. And then it was only by one chance in a thousand that he should glimpse his mother's face in the down-train halted at the junction where he himself was changing.
She did not see till he came striding along the aisle of her coach, his arms full of his things, face flushed, eyes brimming with the surprise and pleasure of seeing her; his lips trembling questions.
"Why, Mother, what in earth? Where are you going? I'm to have a week at least, Mother; and here you're going away, and you didn't tell me, and what is it, and everything?"
His eager voice trailed off. The colour drained out of his face and there was a shadow in his eyes. He drew back from her the least way.
"What is it, Mother? Mother!"
Somewhere on the platform outside the conductor's droning "—board" ran along the coaches. Agnes Kain opened her white lips.
"Get off before it's too late, Christopher. I haven't time to explain now. Go home, and Mary will see you have everything. I'll be back in a day or so. Kiss me, and go quickly. Quickly!"
He did not kiss her. He would not have kissed her for worlds. He was to bewildered, dazed, lost, too inexpressibly hurt. On the platform outside, had she turned ever so little to look, she might have seen his face again for an instant as the wheels ground on the rails. Colour was coming back to it again, a murky colour like the shadow of a red cloud.
They must have wondered, in the coach with her, at the change in the calm, unobtrusive, well-gowned gentlewoman, their fellow-passenger. Those that were left after another two hours saw her get down at a barren station where an old man waited in a carriage. The halt was brief, and none of them caught sight of the boyish figure that slipped down from the rearmost coach to take shelter for himself and his dark, tempest-ridden face behind the shed at the end of the platform—
Christopher walked out across a broad, high, cloudy plain, following a red road, led by the dust-feather hanging over the distant carriage.
He walked for miles, creeping ant-like between the immensities of the brown plain and the tumbled sky. Had he been less implacable, less intent, he might have noticed many things, the changing conformation of the clouds, the far flight of a gull, the new perfume and texture of the wind that flowed over his hot temples. But as it was, the sea took him by surprise. Coming over a little rise, his eyes focused for another long, dun fold of the plain, it seemed for an instant as if he had lost his balance over a void; for a wink he felt the passing of a strange sickness. He went off a little way to the side of the road and sat down on a flat stone.
The world had become of a sudden infinitely simple, as simple as the inside of a cup. The land broke down under him, a long, naked slope fringed at the foot of a ribbon of woods. Through the upper branches he saw the shingles and chimneys of a pale grey village clinging to a white beach, a beach which ran up to the left in a bolder flight of cliffs, showing on their crest a cluster of roofs and dull-green gable-ends against the sea that lifted vast, unbroken, to the rim of the cup.
Christopher was fifteen, and queer even for that queer age. He had a streak of the girl in him at his adolescence, and, as he sat there in a huddle, the wind coming out of this huge new gulf of life seemed to pass through him, bone and tissue, and tears rolled down his face.
The carriage bearing his strange mother was gone, from sight and from mind. His eyes came down from the lilac-crowned hill to the beach, where it showed in white patches through the wood, and he saw that the wood was of willows. And he remembered the plain behind him, the wide, brown moor under the could. He got up on his wobbly legs. There were stones all about him on the whispering wire-grass, and like them the one he had been sitting on bore a blurred inscription. He read it aloud, for some reason, his voice borne away faintly on the river of air:
Here Lie The Earthly Remains Of MAYNARD KAIN, SECOND Born 1835—Died 1862 For the Preservation of the Union His gaze went on to another of those worn stones. MAYNARD KAIN, ESQUIRE 1819-1849 This Monument Erected in His Memory By His Sorrowing Widow, Harriet Burnam Kain The windy Gales of the West Indias Laid claim to His Noble Soul And Took him on High to his Creator Who made him Whole.
There was no moss or lichen on this wind-scoured slope. In the falling dusk the old white stones stood up like the bones of the dead themselves, and the only sound was the rustle of the wire-grass creeping over them in a dry tide. The boy had taken off his cap; the sea-wind moving under the mat of his damp hair gave it the look of some somber, outlandish cowl. With the night coming on, his solemnity had an elfin quality. He found what he was looking for at last, and his fingers had to help his eyes.
DANIEL KAIN Beloved Husband of Agnes Willoughby Kain Born 1860—Died 1886 Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Christopher Kain told me that he left the naked graveyard repeating it to himself, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," conscious less of the words than of the august rhythm falling in with the pulse of his exaltation.
The velvet darkness that hangs under cloud had come down over the hill and the great marsh stretching away to the south of it. Agnes Kain stood in the open doorway, one hand on the brown wood, the other pressed to her cheek.
"You heard it that time, Nelson?"
"No, ma'am." The old man in the entrance-hall behind her shook his head. In the thin, blown light of the candelabra which he held high, the worry and doubt of her deepened on his singularly-unlined face.
"And you might well catch your death in that draft, ma'am."
But she only continued to stare out between the pillars where the lilac-hedge made a wall of deeper blackness across the night.
"What am I thinking of?" she whispered, and then: "There!"
And this time the old man heard it, a nearer, wind-blown hail.
"Mother! Oh, Mother!"
The boy came striding through the gap of the gate in the hedge.
"It's I, Mother! Chris! Aren't you surprised?"
She had no answer. As he came she turned and moved away from the door, and the old man, peering from under the flat candle flames, saw her face like wax. And he saw the boy, Christopher, in the doorway, his hands flung out, his face transfigured.
"Mother! I'm here! Don't you understand?"
He touched her shoulder. She turned to him, as it were, lazily.
"Yes," she breathed. "I see."
He threw his arms about her, and felt her shaking from head to foot. But he was shaking, too.
"I knew the way!" he cried. "I knew it, Mother, I knew it! I came down from the Moor and there was the Willow Wood, and I knew the way home. And when I came, Mother, it was like the trees bowing down their branches in the dark. And when I came by the Beach, Mother, it was like a roll of drums beating for me, and when I came to the Hill I saw the Hedge standing against the sky, and I came, and here I am!"
She expressed no wonder, asked no question.
"Yes," was all she said, and it was as if she spoke of a tree coming to its leaf, the wind to its height, the tide to its flood.
Had he been less rapt and triumphant he must have wondered more at that icy lassitude, and at the cloak of ceremony she wrapped about her to hide a terror. It was queer to hear the chill urbanity of her: "This is Christopher, Nelson; Christopher, this is your father's servant, Nelson." It was queerer still to see the fastidious decorum with which she led him over this, the familiar house of his fathers.
He might have been a stranger, come with a guide-book in his hand. When he stood on his heels in the big drawing-room, staring up with all his eyes at the likenesses of those men he had known so well, it was strange to hear her going on with all the patter of the gallery attendant, names of painters, prices, dates. He stood before the portrait of Daniel Kain, his father, a dark-skinned, longish face with a slightly-protruding nether lip, hollow temples, and a round chin, deeply cleft. As in all the others, the eyes, even in the dead pigment, seemed to shine with an odd, fixed luminosity of their own, and like the others from first to last of the line, it bore upon it the stamp of an imperishable youth. And all the while he stood there, drinking it in, detail by detail, his mother spoke, not of the face, but of the frame, some obscure and unsuspected excellence in the gold-leaf on the frame.
More than once in that stately tour of halls and chambers he found himself protesting gaily, "I know, Mother! I know, I know!"
But the contagion of his glory did not seem to touch her. Nothing seemed to touch her. Only once was the fragile, bright shell of her punctilio penetrated for a moment, and that was when Christopher, lagging, turned back to a door they were about to pass and threw it open with the happy laugh of a discoverer. And then, even before she could have hushed him, the laughter on his lips died of itself.
A man lay on a bed in the room, his face as colourless and still as the pillow behind it. His eyes were open, but they did not move from the three candles burning on the high bureau, and he seemed unconscious of any intrusion.
"I didn't know!" Christopher whispered, shocked, and shamed.
When the door was closed again his mother explained. She explained at length, concisely, standing quite still, with one frail, fine hand worrying the locket she wore at her throat. Nelson stood quite still too, his attention engrossed in his candle-wicks. And Christopher stood quite still, and all their shadows—That man was the caretaker, the man, Christopher was to understand, who had been looking after the place. His name was Sanderson. He had fallen ill, very ill. In fact, he was dying. And that was why his mother had had to come down, post-haste, without warning. To see about some papers. Some papers. Christopher was to understand—
Christopher understood. Indeed there was not much to understand. And yet, when they had gone on, he was bothered by it. Already, so young he was, so ruthless, and so romantic, he had begun to be a little ashamed of that fading, matter-of-fact world of Concord Street. And it was with just that world which he wished to forget, that the man lying ill in the candle-lit chamber was linked in Christopher's memory. For it was the same man he had seen in the doorway that morning months ago, with a brown hat in one hand and a thorn stick in the other.
Even a thing like that may be half put aside, though—for a while. And by the time Christopher went to his room for the night the thought of the interloper had retired into the back of his mind, and they were all Kains there on the Hill, inheritors of romance. He found himself bowing to his mother with a courtliness he had never known, and an "I wish you a good night," sounding a century old on his lips. He saw the remote, patrician figure bow as gravely in return, a petal of colour as hard as paint on the whiteness of either cheek. He did not see her afterward, though, when the merciful door was closed.
Before he slept he explored the chamber, touching old objects with reverent finger-tips. He came on a leather case like an absurdly overgrown beetle, hidden in a corner, and a violoncello was in it. He had seen such things before, but he had never touched one, and when he lifted it from the case he had a moment of feeling very odd at the pit of his stomach. Sitting in his underthings on the edge of the bed, he held the wine-coloured creature in the crook of his arm for a long time, the look in his round eyes, half eagerness, half pain, of one pursuing the shadow of some ghostly and elusive memory.
He touched the C-string by and by with an adventuring thumb. I have heard "Ugo" sing, myself, and I know what Christopher meant when he said that the sound did not come out of the instrument, but that it came in to it, sweeping home from all the walls and corners of the chamber, a slow, rich, concentric wind of tone. He felt it about him, murmurous, pulsating, like the sound of surf borne from some far-off coast.
And then it was like drums, still farther off. And then it was the feet of marching men, massive, dark, grave men with luminous eyes, and the stamp on their faces of an imperishable youth.
He sat there so lost and rapt that he heard nothing of his mother's footsteps hurrying in the hall; knew nothing till he saw her face in the open doorway. She had forgotten herself this time; that fragile defense of gentility was down. For a moment they stared at each other across a gulf of silence, and little by little the boy's cheeks grew as white as hers, his hands as cold, his lungs as empty of breath.
"What is it, Mother?"
"Oh, Christopher, Christopher—Go to bed, dear."
He did not know why, but of a sudden he felt ashamed and a little frightened, and, blowing out the candle, he crept under the covers.
The afternoon was bright with a rare sun and the world was quiet. Christopher lay full-spread on the turf, listening idly to the "clip-clip" of Nelson's shears as the old man trimmed the hedge.
"And was my father very strong?" he asked with a drowsy pride.
"No, not so very." Nelson stopped clipping and was immediately lost in the past.
"Only when he was that way five strong men couldn't turn him. I'll say that. No, if they had to get him with a shotgun that day, 'twas nobody's fault nor sin. If Guy Bullard seen Daniel there on the sand with an ax in his hand and foam-like on his lips, and the little ones cornered where he caught them between cliff and water—Guy's own baby amongst them—and knowing the sickness of the Kains as he and everybody else did—why, I'm free and willing to say 'twas his bounden duty to hold a true aim and pull a steady trigger on Daniel, man of his though I was, and man of his poor father before him—
"No, I can't make it right to lay blame on any man for it, no more than I can on them, his brother officers, that broke Maynard's neck with their tent-pegs the night after Gettysburg. No, no—"
It was evidently a time-worn theme, an argument, an apologia, accepted after years of bitterness and self-searching. He went on with the remote serenity of age, that has escaped the toils of passion, pursuing the old, worn path of his mind, his eyes buried in vacancy.
"No, 'twas a mercy to the both of them, father and son, and a man must see it so. 'Twould be better of course if they could have gone easier, same as the old Maynard went, thinking himself the Lord our God to walk on water and calm the West Indy gale. That's better, better for all hands round. But if it had to come so, in violence and fear, then nobody need feel the sin of it on his soul—nobody excepting the old man Bickers, him that told Daniel. For 'twas from that day he began to take it on.
"I saw it myself. There was Daniel come home from other parts where his mother had kept him, out of gossip's way, bright as you please and knowing nothing wrong with the blood of the Kains. And so I say the sin lays on the loose-wagging tongue of Bickers, for from the day he let it out to Daniel, Daniel changed. 'Twas like he'd heard his doom, and went to it. Bickers is dead a long time now, but may the Lord God lay eternal damnation on his soul!"
Even then there was no heat; the curse had grown a formula. Having come to the end, the old man's eyes tumbled down painlessly out of the void and discovered the shears in his hand.
"Dear me, that's so," he said to himself. One thought was enough at a time. He fell to work again. The steady "clip-clip-clip" moved off slowly along the hedge. Not once did he remember; not once as the indefatigable worker shuffled himself out of sight around the house did he look back with any stirring of recollection at the boyish figure lying there as still as a shadow cast in the deep grass.
A faintly lop-sided moon swam in the zenith. For three days now that rare clarity had hung in the sky, and for three nights the moon had grown. Its benign, poisonous illumination flowed down steeply through the windows of the dark chamber where Christopher huddled on the bed's edge, three pale, chill islands spread on the polished floor.
Once again the boy brought the bow home across the shivering strings, and, as if ears could be thirsty as a drunkard's throat, he drank his fill of the 'cello's deep, full-membered chord. The air was heavy with the resonance of marching feet, ghostly feet marching and marching down upon him in slow, inexorable crescendo as the tides ebbed later among the sedges on the marsh and the moon grew big. And above the pulse of the march he seemed to hear another cadence, a thin laughter.
He laughed too, giving himself up to that spectral contagion. He saw the fat, iridescent bubble with the Hill in it, the House of dreams, the Beach and the Moor and Willow Wood of fancy, and all the grave, strong, gentle line of Kains to whom he had been made bow down in worship. He saw himself taken in, soul and body, by a thin-plated fraud, a cheap trick of mother's words, as before him, his father had been. And the faint exhalations from the moon-patches on the floor showed his face contorted with a still, set grimace of mirth.
Anger came over him in a white veil, twitching his lips and his toes and bending his fingers in knots. Through the veil a sound crept, a sound he knew well by this time, secret footfalls in the hall, faltering, retreating, loitering returning to lag near the door.
How he hated her! It is curious that not once did his passion turn against his blighted fathers; it was against the woman who had borne him, the babe, and lied to him, the boy—against her, and against that man, that interloper, dying in a room below.
The thought that had been willing to creep out of sight into the back-country of his mind on that first night came out now like a red, devouring cloud. Who was that man?
What was he dying of—or supposed to be dying of? What had he been doing that morning in Concord Street? What was he doing here, in the house of the men who had never grown old and of the boy who would never grow old? Why had his mother come down here, where he was, so queerly, so secretly, so frightened?
Christopher would have liked to kill that man. He shivered and licked his lips. He would have liked to do something bloody and abominable to that face with the hollow cheeks, the sunken grey eyes, and the forehead, high, sallow, and moist. He would have liked to take an ax in his hand and run along the thundering beach and catch that face in a corner somewhere between cliff and water. The desire to do this thing possessed him and blinded him like the kiss of lightning.
He found himself on the floor at the edge of the moonlight, full of weakness and nausea. He felt himself weeping as he crawled back to the bed, his cheeks and neck bathed in a flood of painless tears. He threw himself down, dazed with exhaustion.
It seemed to him that his mother had been calling a long while. "Christopher! What is it? What is it, boy?"
He had heard no footsteps, going or coming; she must have been there all the time, waiting, listening, her ear pressed to the thick, old paneling of the door. The thought was like wine; the torment of her whispering was sweet in his ears.
"Oh, Chris, Chris! You're making yourself sick!"
"Yes," he said. He lifted on an elbow and repeated in a voice which must have sounded strange enough to the listener beyond the door. "Yes!" he said. "Yes!"
"Go away!" he cried of a sudden, making a wide, dim, imperious gesture in the dark.
"No, no," the imploring whisper crept in. "You're making yourself sick—Christopher—all over nothing—nothing in the world. It's so foolish—so foolish—foolish! Oh, if I could only tell you, Christopher—if I could tell you—"
"Tell me what?" He shuddered with the ecstasy of his own irony. "Who that man is? That 'caretaker'? What he's doing here? What you're doing here?—" He began to scream in a high, brittle voice: "Go away from that door! Go away!"
This time she obeyed. He heard her retreating, soft-footed and frightened, along the hall. She was abandoning him—without so much as trying the door, just once again, to see if it were still bolted against her.
She did not care. She was sneaking off—down the stairs—Oh, yes, he knew where.
His lips began to twitch again and his finger nails scratched on the bedclothes. If only he had something, some weapon, an axe, a broad, keen, glittering axe! He would show them! He was strong, incredibly strong! Five men could not have turned him back from what he was going to do—if only he had something.
His hand, creeping, groping, closed on the neck of the 'cello leaning by the bed. He laughed.
Oh, yes, he would stop her from going down there; he would hold her, just where she was on the dark stair nerveless, breathless, as long as he liked, if he liked he would bring her back, cringing, begging.
He drew the bow, and laughed higher and louder yet to hear the booming discord rocking in upon him from the shadows. Swaying from side to side, he lashed the hollow creature to madness. They came in the press of the gale, marching, marching, the wild, dark pageant of his fathers, nearer and nearer through the moon-struck night.
"Tell me what?" he laughed. "What?"
And abruptly he slept, sprawled crosswise on the covers, half-clothed, dishevelled, triumphant.
* * * * *
It was not the same night, but another; whether the next or the next but one, or two, Christopher can not say. But he was out of doors.
He had escaped from the house at dusk; he knew that.
He had run away, through the hedge and down the back side of the hill, torn between the two, the death, warm and red like life, and the birth, pale, chill, and inexorable as death.
Most of that daft night-running will always be blank in Christopher's mind; moments and moments, like islands of clarity, remain. He brings back one vivid interval when he found himself seated on his father's gravestone among the whispering grasses, staring down into the pallid bowl of the world. And in that moment he knew what Daniel Kain had felt, and Maynard Kain before him; a passionate and contemptuous hatred for all the dullards in the world who never dreamed dreams or saw visions or sang wordless songs or ran naked-hearted in the flood of the full-blown moon. He hated them because they could not by any possibility comprehend his magnificent separation, his starry sanity, his kinship with the gods. And he had a new thirst to obliterate the whole creeping race of dust-dwellers with one wide, incomparably bloody gesture.
It was late when he found himself back again before the house, and an ink-black cloud touched the moon's edge. After the airless evening a wind had sprang up in the east; it thrashed among the lilac-stems as he came through them and across the turf, silent-footed as an Indian. In his right hand he had a bread-knife, held butt to thumb, dagger-wise. Where he had come by the rust-bitten thing no one knows, least of all himself. In the broken light his eyes shone with a curious luminosity of their own, absorbed, introspective.
All the windows were dark, and the entrance-hall, when he slipped in between the pillars, but across its floor he saw light thrown in a yellow ribbon from the half-closed door of the drawing-room.
It took his attention, laid hands on his imagination. He began to struggle against it.
He would not go into that room. He was going to another room. To stay him, he made a picture of the other room in his tumbled mind—the high, bleak walls, the bureau with the three candles burning wanly, the bed, the face of the man on the bed. And when his rebellious feet, surrendering him up to the lure of that beckoning ribbon, had edged as far as the door, and he had pushed it a little further ajar to get his head in, he saw that the face itself was there in the drawing-room.
He stood there for some time, his shoulder pressed against the door-jamb, his eyes blinking.
His slow attention moved from the face to the satin pillows that wedged it in, and then to the woman that must have been his mother, kneeling beside the casket with her arms crooked on the shining cover and her head down between them. And across from her leaned "Ugo," the 'cello, come down from his chamber to stand vigil at the other shoulder of the dead.
The first thing that came into his groping mind was a bitter sense of abandonment. The little core of candle-light hanging in the gloom left him out. Its unstirring occupants, the woman, the 'cello, and the clay, seemed sufficient to themselves. His mother had forgotten him. Even "Ugo," that had grown part and parcel of his madness, had forgotten him.
Bruised, sullen, moved by some deep-lying instinct of the clan, his eyes left them and sought the wall beyond, where there were those who would not forget him, come what might, blood of his blood and mind of his own queer mind. And there among the shadowed faces he searched for one in vain. As if that candle-lit tableau, somehow holy and somehow abominable, were not for the eyes of one of them, the face of Daniel, the wedded husband, had been turned to the wall.
Here was something definite, something Christopher could take hold of, and something that he would not have.
His mother seemed not to have known he was near till he flung the door back and came stalking into the light with the rusty bread-knife in his hand. One would not have imagined there were blood enough left in her wasted heart, but her face went crimson when she lifted it and saw him.
It brought him up short—the blush, where he had looked for fright. It shocked him, and, shocking him more than by a thousand laboured words of explanation, it opened a window in his disordered brain. He stood gawking with the effort of thought, hardly conscious of his mother's cry:
"Christopher, I never meant you to know!"
He kept on staring at the ashen face between the pillows, long (as his own was long), sensitive, worn; and at the 'cello keeping incorruptible vigil over its dead. And then slowly his eyes went down to his own left hand, to which that same old wine-brown creature had come home from the first with a curious sense of fitness and authority and right.
"Who is this man?"
"Don't look at me so! Don't, Chris!"
But he did look at her. Preoccupied as he was, he was appalled at sight of the damage the half-dozen of days had done. She had been so much the lady, so perfectly the gentlewoman. To no one had the outward gesture and symbol of purity been more precious. No whisper had ever breathed against her. If there had been secrets behind her, they had been dead; if a skeleton, the closet had been closed. And now, looking down on her, he was not only appalled, he was a little sickened, as one might be to find squalor and decay creeping into a familiar and once immaculate room.
"Who is this man?" he repeated.
"He grew up with me." She half raised herself on her knees in the eagerness of her appeal. "We were boy and girl together at home in Maryland. We were meant for each other, Chris. We were always to marry—always, Chris. And when I went away, and when I married your—when I married Daniel Kain, he hunted and he searched and he found me here. He was with me, he stood by me through that awful year—and—that was how it happened. I tell you, Christopher, darling, we were meant for each other, John Sanderson and I. He loved me more than poor Daniel ever did or could, loved me enough to throw away a life of promise, just to hang on here after every one else was gone, alone with his 'cello and his one little memory. And I loved him enough to—to—Christopher, don't look at me so!"
His eyes did not waver. You must remember his age, the immaculate, ruthless, mid-Victorian 'teens; and you must remember his bringing-up.
"And so this was my father," he said. And then he went on without waiting, his voice breaking into falsetto with the fierceness of his charge. "And you would have kept on lying to me! If I hadn't happened, just happened, to find you here, now, you would have gone on keeping me in the dark! You would have stood by and seen me—well—go crazy! Yes, go crazy, thinking I was—well, thinking I was meant for it! And all to save your precious—"
She was down on the floor again, what was left of the gentlewoman, wailing.
"But you don't know what it means to a woman, Chris! You don't know what it means to a woman!"
A wave of rebellion brought her up and she strained toward him across the coffin.
"Isn't it something, then, that I gave you a father with a mind? And if you think you've been sinned against, think of me! Sin! You call it sin! Well, isn't it anything at all that by my 'sin' my son's blood came down to him clean? Tell me that!"
He shook himself, and his flame turned to sullenness.
"It's not so," he glowered.
All the girl in him, the poet, the hero-worshipping boy, rebelled. His harassed eyes went to the wall beyond and the faces there, the ghosts of the doomed, glorious, youth-ridden line, priceless possessions of his dreams. He would not lose them: he refused to be robbed of a tragic birthright. He wanted some gesture puissant enough to turn back and blot out all that had been told him.
"It's not his!" he cried. And reaching out fiercely he dragged the 'cello away from the coffin's side. He stood for an instant at bay, bitter, defiant.
"It's not his! It's mine! It's—it's—ours!"
And then he fled out into the dark of the entrance-hall and up the black stairs. In his room there was no moonlight now, for the cloud ran over the sky and the rain had come.
"It isn't so, it isn't so!" It was like a sob in his throat.
He struck on the full strings. And listening breathless through the dying discord he heard the liquid whispers of the rain, nothing more. He lashed with a wild bow, time and again. But something was broken, something was lost: out of the surf of sound he could no longer fashion the measure of marching feet. The mad Kains had found him out, and cast him out. No longer could he dream them in dreams or run naked-hearted with them in the flood of the moon, for he was no blood of theirs, and they were gone. And huddling down on the edge of the bed, he wept.
The tears washed his eyes and falling down bathed his strengthless hands. And beyond the phantom windows, over the marsh and the moor and the hill that were not his, the graves of strangers and the lost Willow Wood, lay the healing rain. He heard it in gurgling rivulets along the gutters overhead. He heard the soft impact, like a kiss, brushing the reedy cheeks of the marsh, the showery shouldering of branches, the aspiration of myriad drinking grasses, the far whisper of waters coming home to the waters of the sea—the long, low melody of the rain.
And by and by he found it was "Ugo," the 'cello, and he was playing.
They went home the following afternoon, he and his mother. Or rather, she went home, and he with her as far as the Junction, where he changed for school.
They had not much to say to each other through the journey. The boy had to be given time. Five years younger, or fifteen years older, it would have been easier for him to look at his mother. You must remember what his mother had meant to him, and what, bound up still in the fierce and sombre battle of adolescence, she must mean to him now.
As for Agnes Kain, she did not look at him, either. Through the changing hours her eyes rested on the transparent hands lying crossed in her lap. She seemed very tired and very white. Her hair was not done as tidily, her lace cuffs were less fresh than they had used to be. About her whole presence there was a troubling hint of let-down, something obscurely slovenly, a kind of awkward and unlovely nakedness.
She really spoke to him for the first time at the Junction, when he stood before her, slim and uncouth under the huge burden of "Ugo," fumbling through his leave-taking.
"Christopher," she said, "try not to think of me—always—as—as—well, when you're older, Christopher, you'll know what I mean."
That was the last time he ever heard her speak. He saw her once again, but the telegram was delayed and his train was late, and when he came beside her bed she said nothing. She looked into his eyes searchingly, for a long while, and died.
* * * * *
That space stands for the interval of silence that fell after Christopher had told me the story. I thought he had quite finished. He sat motionless, his shoulders fallen forward, his eyes fixed in the heart of the incandescent globe over the dressing-table, his long fingers wrapped around the neck of the 'cello.
"And so she got me through those years," he said. "Those nip-and-tuck years that followed. By her lie.
"Insanity is a queer thing," he went on, still brooding into the light. "There's more of it about than we're apt to think. It works in so many ways. In hobbies, arts, philosophies. Music is a kind of insanity. I know. I've got mine penned up in the music now, and I think I can keep it there now, and save my soul."
"Yes, mine. I know now—now that it's safe for me to know. I was down at that village by the beach a year or so ago. I'm a Kain, of course, one of the crazy Kains, after all. John Sanderson was born in the village and lived there till his death. Only once that folks could remember had he been away, and that was when he took some papers to the city for Mrs. Kain to sign. He was caretaker at the old 'Kain place' the last ten years of his life, and deaf, they said, since his tenth year—'deaf as a post.' And they told me something else. They said there was a story that before my father, Daniel, married her, my mother had been an actress. An actress! You'll understand that I needed no one to tell me that!
"They told me that they had heard a story that she was a great actress. Dear God, if they could only know! When I think of that night and that setting, that scene! It killed her, and it got me over the wall—"
Return to the Wilbur Daniel Steele library , or . . . Read the next short story; Ked's Hands