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   Chapter 18 THE STRINGS OF DESTINY

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 28179

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


When Phil's pal left us he went wandering down the hillside, talking to himself. Long afterwards he told me how he felt, and I reproduce his phrases as nearly as I can.

"Knocked 'em, I guess," he said, "with that about Jo Brackenbury.... Poor Jo! Stuck together, him and me did, after she got the steel in her heart."... He pulled himself together, shuddering.... "Went back on me, she did, and took up with a cursed swell, and got it cold-cold. And I? By Judas! I never was shut of that. I've known women, many of 'em, all countries, but she was different. I expect now, after all these years, that if I got my hand on the devil that done for her, I'd rattle his breath in his throat. There's things that clings. She clings, Jo Brackenbury clings, and Phil Boldrick clings; and they're gone, and I'm left to go it alone. To play the single hand-what!-by Jiminy!"

He exclaimed thus on seeing two women approach from the direction of the valley. He stood still, mouth open, staring. They drew near, almost passed him. But one of them, struck by his intense gaze, suddenly turned and came towards him.

"Miss Falchion! Miss Falchion!" he cried. Then, when she hesitated as if with an effort of memory, he added: "Don't you know me?"

"Ah," she replied abruptly, "Sam Kilby! Are you Sam Kilby, Jo Brackenbury's friend, from Samoa?"

"Yes, miss, I'm Jo Brackenbury's friend; and I've rowed you across the reefs with him more than once I guess so! But it's a long way from Apia to the Rockies, and it's funny to meet here."

"When did you come here-and from where?"

"I come to-day from the Hudson's Bay post at Danger Mountain. I'm Phil Boldrick's pal."

"Ah," she said again, with a look in her eyes not pleasant to see, "and what brings you up here in the hills?" Hers was more than an ordinary curiosity.

"I come to see the Padre who was with Phil-when he left. And the Padre's a fair square sort, as I reckon him, but melancholy, almighty melancholy."

"Yes, melancholy, I suppose," she said, "and fair square, as you say. And what did you say and do?"

"Why, we yarned about Phil, and where I'd get the legacy to-morrow; and I s'pose I had a strong breeze on the quarter, for I talked as free as if we'd grubbed out of the same dough-pan since we was kiddies."

"Yes?"

"Yes siree; I don't know how it was, but I got to reelin' off about Jo-queer, wasn't it? And I told 'em how he went down in the 'Fly Away', and how the lovely ladies-you remember how we used to call the whitecaps lovely ladies-fondled him out to sea and on to heaven."

"And what did-the Padre-think of that?"

"Well, he's got a heart, I should say, and that's why Phil cottoned to him, maybe,-for he looked as if he'd seen ghosts. I guess he'd never had a craft runnin' 'tween a sand-bar and a ragged coral bank; nor seen a girl like the 'Fly Away' take a buster in her teeth; nor a man-of-war come bundlin' down upon a nasty glacis, the captain on the bridge, engines goin' for all they're worth, every man below battened in, and every Jack above watchin' the fight between the engines and the hurricane.... Here she rolls six fathoms from the glacis that'll rip her copper garments off, and the quiverin' engines pull her back; and she swings and struggles and trembles between hell in the hurricane and God A'mighty in the engines; till at last she gets her nose at the neck of the open sea and crawls out safe and sound.... I guess he'd have more marble in his cheeks, if he saw likes o' that, Miss Falchion?"

Kilby paused and wiped his forehead.

She had listened calmly. She did not answer his question. She said: "Kilby, I am staying at the summer hotel up there. Will you call on me-let me see.... say, to-morrow afternoon?-Some one will tell you the way, if you do not know it.... Ask for MRS. Falchion, Kilby, not Miss Falchion.... You will come?"

"Why, yes," he replied, "you can count on me; for I'd like to hear of things that happened after I left Apia-and how it is that you are Mrs. Falchion, for that's mighty queer."

"You shall hear all that and more." She held out her hand to him and smiled. He took it, and she knew that now she was gathering up the strings of destiny.

They parted.

The two passed on, looking, in their cool elegance, as if life were the most pleasant thing; as though the very perfume of their garments would preserve them from that plague called trouble.

"Justine," said Mrs. Falchion, "there is one law stranger than all; the law of coincidence. Perhaps the convenience of modern travel assists it, but fate is in it also. Events run in circles. People connected with them travel that way also. We pass and re-pass each other many times, but on different paths, until we come close and see each other face to face."

She was speaking almost the very words which Roscoe had spoken to me. But perhaps there was nothing strange in that.

"Yes, madame," replied Justine; "it is so, but there is a law greater than coincidence."

"What, Justine?"

"The law of love, which is just and merciful, and would give peace instead of trouble."

Mrs. Falchion looked closely at Justine, and, after a moment, evidently satisfied, said: "What do you know of love?"

Justine tried hard for composure, and answered gently: "I loved my brother Hector."

"And did it make you just and merciful and-an angel?"

"Madame, you could answer that better. But it has not made me be at war; it has made me patient."

"Your love-for your brother-has made you that?" Again she looked keenly, but Justine now showed nothing but earnestness.

"Yes, madame."

Mrs. Falchion paused for a moment, and seemed intent on the beauty of the pine-belted hills, capped by snowy peaks, and wrapped in a most hearty yet delicate colour. The red of her parasol threw a warm soft ness upon her face. She spoke now without looking at Justine.

"Justine, did you ever love any one besides your brother?-I mean another man."

Justine was silent for a moment, and then she said: "Yes, once." She was looking at the hills now, and Mrs. Falchion at her.

"And you were happy?" Here Mrs. Falchion abstractedly toyed with a piece of lace on Justine's arm. Such acts were unusual with her.

"I was happy-in loving."

"Why did you not marry?"

"Madame-it was impossible-quite." This, with hesitation and the slightest accent of pain.

"Why impossible? You have good looks, you were born a lady; you have a foolish heart-the fond are foolish." She watched the girl keenly, the hand ceased to toy with the lace, and caught the arm itself-"Why impossible?"

"Madame, he did not love me, he never could."

"Did he know of your love?"

"Oh no, no!" This with trouble in her voice.

"And you have never forgotten?"

The catechism was merciless; but Mrs. Falchion was not merely malicious. She was inquiring of a thing infinitely important to her. She was searching the heart of another, not only because she was suspicious, but because she wanted to know herself better.

"It is easy to remember."

"Is it long since you saw him?"

The question almost carried terror with it, for she was not quite sure why Mrs. Falchion questioned her. She lifted her eyes slowly, and there was in them anxiety and joy. "It seems," she said, "like years."

"He loves some one else, perhaps?"

"Yes, I think so, madame."

"Did you hate her?"

"Oh no; I am glad for him."

Here Mrs. Falchion spoke sharply, almost bitterly. Even through her soft colour a hardness appeared. "You are glad for him? You would see another woman in his arms and not be full of anger?"

"Quite."

"Justine, you are a fool."

"Madame, there is no commandment against being a fool."

"Oh, you make me angry with your meekness!" Here Mrs. Falchion caught a twig from a tree by her, snapped it in her fingers, and petulantly threw its pieces to the ground. "Suppose that the man had once loved you, and afterwards loved another-then again another?"

"Madame, that would be my great misfortune, but it might be no wrong in him."

"How not a wrong in him?"

"It may have been my fault. There must be love in both-great love, for it to last."

"And if the woman loved him not at all?"

"Where, then, could be the wrong in him?"

"And if he went from you,"-here her voice grew dry and her words were sharp,-"and took a woman from the depths of-oh, no matter what! and made her commit-crime-and was himself a criminal?"

"It is horrible to think of; but I should ask myself how much I was to blame.... What would you ask yourself, madame?"

"You have a strain of the angel in you, Justine. You would forgive Judas if he said, 'Peccavi.' I have a strain of Satan-it was born in me-I would say, You have sinned, now suffer."

"God give you a softer heart," said Justine, with tender boldness and sincerity.

At this Mrs. Falchion started slightly, and trouble covered her face. She assumed, however, a tone almost brusque, artificially airy and unimportant.

"There, that will do, thank you.... We have become serious and incomprehensible. Let us talk of other things. I want to be gay.... Amuse me."

Arrived at the hotel, she told Justine that she must not be disturbed till near dinner-time, and withdrew to her sitting-room. There she sat and thought, as she had never done in her life before. She thought upon everything that had happened since the day when she met Galt Roscoe on the 'Fulvia'; of a certain evening in England, before he took orders, when he told her, in retort to some peculiarly cutting remark of hers, that she was the evil genius of his life: that evening when her heart grew hard, as she had once said it should always be to him, and she determined again, after faltering many times, that just such a genius she would be; of the strange meeting in the rapids at the Devil's Slide, and the irony of it; and the fact that he had saved her life-on that she paused a while; of Ruth Devlin-and here she was swayed by conflicting emotions; of the scene at the mill, and Phil Boldrick's death and funeral; of the service in the church where she meant to mock him, and, instead, mocked herself; of the meeting with Tonga Sam; of all that Justine had said to her: then again of the far past in Samoa, with which Galt Roscoe was associated, and of that first vow of vengeance for a thing he had done; and how she had hesitated to fulfil it year after year till now.

Passing herself slowly back and forth before her eyes, she saw that she had lived her life almost wholly alone; that no woman had ever cherished her as a friend, and that on no man's breast had she ever laid her head in trust and love. She had been loved, but it had never brought her satisfaction. From Justine there was devotion; but it had, as she thought, been purchased, paid for, like the labour of a ploughboy. And if she saw now in Justine's eyes a look of friendship, a note of personal allegiance, she knew it was because she herself had grown more human.

Her nature had been stirred. Her natural heart was struggling against her old bitterness towards Galt Roscoe and her partial hate of Ruth Devlin. Once Roscoe had loved her, and she had not loved him. Then, on a bitter day for him, he did a mad thing. The thing became-though neither of them knew it at the time, and he not yet-a great injury to her, and this had called for the sharp retaliation which she had the power to use. But all had not happened as she expected; for something called Love had been conceived in her very slowly, and was now being born, and sent, trembling for its timid life, into the world.

She closed her eyes with weariness, and pressed her hands to her temples.

She wondered why she could not be all evil or all good. She spoke and acted against Ruth Devlin, and yet she pitied her. She had the nettle to sting Roscoe to death, and yet she hesitated to use it. She had said to herself that she would wait till the happiest moment of his life, and then do so. Well, his happiest moment had come. Ruth Devlin's heart was all out, all blossomed-beside Mrs. Falchion's like some wild flower to the aloe.... Only now she had come to know that she had a heart. Something had chilled her at her birth, and when her mother died, a stranger's kiss closed up all the ways to love, and left her an icicle. She was twenty-eight years old, and yet she had never kissed a face in joy or to give joy. And now, when she had come to know herself, and understand what others understand when they are little children in their mother's arms, she had to bow to the spirit that denies. She drew herself up with a quiver of the body.

"O God!" she said, "do I hate him or love him!" Her head dropped in her hands. She sat regardless of time, now scarcely stirring, desperately quiet. The door opened softly and Justine entered. "Madame," she said, "pardon me; I am so sorry, but Miss Devlin has come to see you, and I thought-"

"You thought, Justine, that I would see her." There was unmistakable irony in her voice. "Very well.... Show her in."

She rose, stretched out her arms as if to free herself of a burden, smoothed her hair, composed herself, and waited, the afternoon sun just falling across her burnished shoes, giving her feet of gold. She chanced to look down at them. A strange memory came to her: words that she had heard Roscoe read in church. The thing was almost grotesque in its association. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth glad tidings, who publisheth peace!"

Ruth Devlin entered, saying, "I have come, to ask you if you will dine with us next Monday evening?"

Then she explained the occasion of the dinner party, and said: "You see, though it is formal, I am asking our guests informally;" and she added as neutrally and as lightly as she could-"Mr. Roscoe and Dr. Marmion have been good enough to say that they will come. Of course, a dinner party as it should be is quite impossible to us simple folk, but when a lieutenant-governor commands, we must do the best we can-with the help of our friends."

Mrs

. Falchion was delighted, she said, and then they talked of trivial matters, Ruth smoothing out the folds of her riding-dress with her whip more earnestly, in preoccupation, than the act called for. At last she said, in the course of the formal talk: "You have travelled much?"

"Yes, that has been my lot," was the reply; and she leaned back in the gold-trimmed cane chair, her feet still in the belt of sunlight.

"I have often wished that I might travel over the ocean," said Ruth, "but here I remain-what shall I say?-a rustic in a bandbox, seeing the world through a pin-hole. That is the way my father puts it. Except, of course, that I think it very inspiring to live out here among wonderful mountains, which, as Mr. Roscoe says, are the most aristocratic of companions."

Some one in the next room was playing the piano idly yet expressively. The notes of Il Trovatore kept up a continuous accompaniment to their talk, varying, as if by design, with its meaning and importance, and yet in singular contrast at times to their thoughts and words. It was almost sardonic in its monotonous persistence.

"Travel is not all, believe me, Miss Devlin," was the indolent reply. "Perhaps the simpler life is the happier. The bandbox is not the worst that may come to one-when one is born to it. I am not sure but it is the best. I doubt that when one has had the fever of travel and the world, the bandbox is permanently habitable again."

Mrs. Falchion was keen; she had found her opportunity.

On the result of this duel, if Ruth Devlin but knew it, depends her own and another's happiness. It is not improbable, however, that something of this was in her mind. She shifted her chair so that her face was not so much in the light. But the belt of sunlight was broadening from Mrs. Falchion's feet to her dress.

"You think not?" Ruth asked slowly.

The reply was not important in tone. Mrs. Falchion had picked up a paper knife and was bending it to and fro between her fingers.

"I think not. Particularly with a man, who is, we will say, by nature, adventurous and explorative. I think if, in some mad moment, I determined to write a novel, it should be of such a man. He flies wide and far; he sees all; he feeds on novelty; he passes from experience to experience-liberal pleasures of mind and sense all the way. Well, he tires of Egypt and its flesh-pots. He has seen as he hurried on-I hope I am not growing too picturesque-too much of women, too many men. He has been unwise-most men are. Perhaps he has been more than unwise; he has made a great mistake, a social mistake-or crime-less or more. If it is a small one, the remedy is not so difficult. Money, friends, adroitness, absence, long retirement, are enough. If a great one, and he is sensitive-and sated-he flies, he seeks seclusion. He is afflicted with remorse. He is open to the convincing pleasures of the simple and unadorned life; he is satisfied with simple people. The snuff of the burnt candle of enjoyment he calls regret, repentance. He gives himself the delights of introspection, and wishes he were a child again-yes, indeed it is so, dear Miss Devlin."

Ruth sat regarding her, her deep eyes glowing. Mrs. Falchion continued: "In short, he finds the bandbox, as you call it, suited to his renunciations. Its simplicities, which he thinks is regeneration, are only new sensations. But-you have often noticed the signification of a 'but,'" she added, smiling, tapping her cheek lightly with the ivory knife-"but the hour arrives when the bandbox becomes a prison, when the simple hours cloy. Then the ordinary incident is merely gauche, and expiation a bore.

"I see by your face that you understand quite what I mean.... Well, these things occasionally happen. The great mistake follows the man, and, by a greater misery, breaks the misery of the bandbox; or the man himself, hating his captivity, becomes reckless, does some mad thing, and has a miserable end. Or again, some one who holds the key to his mistake comes in from the world he has left, and considers-considers, you understand!-whether to leave him to work out his servitude, or, mercifully-if he is not altogether blind-permit him the means of escape to his old world, to the life to which he was born-away from the bandbox and all therein.... I hope I have not tired you-I am sure I have."

Ruth saw the full meaning of Mrs. Falchion's words. She realised that her happiness, his happiness-everything-was at stake. All Mrs. Falchion's old self was battling with her new self. She had determined to abide by the result of this meeting. She had spoken in a half gay tone, but her words were not everything; the woman herself was there, speaking in every feature and glance. Ruth had listened with an occasional change of colour, but also with an outward pride to which she seemed suddenly to have grown. But her heart was sick and miserable. How could it be otherwise, reading, as she did, the tale just told her in a kind, of allegory, in all its warning, nakedness, and vengeance? But she detected, too, an occasional painful movement of Mrs. Falchion's lips, a kind of trouble in the face. She noticed it at first vaguely as she listened to the music in the other room; but at length she interpreted it aright, and she did not despair. She did not then follow her first impulse to show that she saw the real meaning of that speech, and rise and say, "You are insulting," and bid her good-day.

After all, where was the ground for the charge of insult? The words had been spoken impersonally. So, after a moment, she said, as she drew a glove from a hand slightly trembling: "And you honestly think it is the case: that one having lived such a life as you describe so unusually, would never be satisfied with a simple life?"

"My dear, never-not such a man as I describe. I know the world."

"But suppose not quite such an one; suppose one that had not been so-intense; so much the social gladiator; who had business of life as well,"-here the girl grew pale, for this was a kind of talk unfamiliar and painful to her, but to be endured for her cause,-"as well as 'the flesh-pots of Egypt;' who had made no wicked mistakes-would he necessarily end as you say?"

"I am speaking of the kind of man who had made such mistakes, and he would end as I say. Few men, if any, would leave the world for-the bandbox, shall I still say? without having a Nemesis."

"But the Nemesis need not, as you say yourself, be inevitable. The person who holds the key of his life, the impersonation of his mistake-"

"His CRIMINAL mistake," Mrs. Falchion interrupted, her hand with the ivory knife now moveless in that belt of sunlight across her knees.

"His criminal mistake," Ruth repeated, wincing-"might not it become changed into mercy, and the man be safe?"

"Safe? Perhaps. But he would tire of the pin-hole just the same.... My dear, you do not know life."

"But, Mrs. Falchion," said the girl, now very bravely, "I know the crude elements of justice. That is one plain thing taught here in the mountains. We have swift reward and punishment-no hateful things called Nemesis. The meanest wretch here in the West, if he has a quarrel, avenges himself openly and at once. Actions are rough and ready, perhaps, but that is our simple way. Hate is manly-and womanly too-when it is open and brave. But when it haunts and shadows, it is not understood here."

Mrs. Falchion sat during this speech, the fingers of one hand idly drumming the arm of her chair, as idly as when on board the 'Fulvia' she listened to me telling that story of Anson and his wife. Outwardly her coolness was remarkable. But she was really admiring, and amazed at Ruth's adroitness and courage. She appreciated fully the skilful duel that had kept things on the surface, and had committed neither of them to anything personal. It was a battle-the tragical battle of a drawing-room.

When Ruth had ended, she said slowly: "You speak very earnestly. You do your mountains justice; but each world has its code. It is good for some men to be followed by a slow hatred-it all depends on themselves. There are some who wish to meet their fate and its worst, and others who would forget it. The latter are in the most danger always."

Ruth rose.

She stepped forward slightly, so that her feet also were within the sunlight. The other saw this; it appeared to interest her. Ruth looked-as such a girl can look-with incredible sincerity into Mrs. Falchion's eyes, and said: "Oh, if I knew such a man, I would be sorry-sorry for him; and if I also knew that his was only a mistake and not a crime, or, if the crime itself had been repented of, and atonement made, I would beg some one-some one better than I-to pray for him. And I would go to the person who had his life and career at disposal, and would say to her, if it were a woman, oh, remember that it is not he alone who would suffer! I would beg that woman-if it were a woman-to be merciful, as she one day must ask for mercy."

The girl as she stood there, all pale, yet glowing with the white light of her pain, was beautiful, noble, compelling. Mrs. Falchion now rose also. She was altogether in the sunlight now. From the piano in the next room came a quick change of accompaniment, and a voice was heard singing, as if to the singer's self, 'Il balen del suo sorris'. It is hard to tell how far such little incidents affected her in what she did that afternoon; but they had their influence. She said: "You are altruistic-or are you selfish, or both?... And should the woman-if it were a woman-yield, and spare the man, what would you do?"

"I would say that she had been merciful and kind, and that one in this world would pray for her when she needed prayers most."

"You mean when she was old,"-Mrs. Falchion shrank a little at the sound of her own words. Now her careless abandon was gone; she seemed to be following her emotions. "When she was old," she continued, "and came to die? It is horrible to grow old, except one has been a saint-and a mother.... And even then-have you ever seen them, the women of that Egypt of which we spoke-powdered, smirking over their champagne, because they feel for an instant a false pulse of their past?-See how eloquent your mountains make me!-I think that would make one hard and cruel; and one would need the prayers of a churchful of good women, even as good-as you."

She could not resist a touch of irony in the last words, and Ruth, who had been ready to take her hand impulsively, was stung. But she replied nothing; and the other, after waiting, added, with a sudden and wonderful kindness: "I say what is quite true. Women might dislike you-many of them would-though you could not understand why; but you are good, and that, I suppose, is the best thing in the world. Yes, you are good," she said musingly, and then she leaned forward and quickly kissed the girl's cheek. "Good-bye," she said, and then she turned her head resolutely away.

They stood there both in the sunlight, both very quiet, but their hearts were throbbing with new sensations. Ruth knew that she had conquered, and, with her eyes all tearful, she looked steadily, yearningly at the woman before her; but she knew it was better she should say little now, and, with a motion of the hand in good-bye,-she could do no more,-she slowly went to the door. There she paused and looked back, but the other was still turned away.

For a minute Mrs. Falchion stood looking at the door through which the girl had passed, then she caught close the curtains of the window, and threw herself upon the sofa with a sobbing laugh.

"To her-I played the game of mercy to her!" she cried. "And she has his love, the love which I rejected once, and which I want now-to my shame! A hateful and terrible love. I, who ought to say to him, as I so long determined: 'You shall be destroyed. You killed my sister, poor Alo; if not with a knife yourself you killed her heart, and that is just the same.' I never knew until now what a heart is when killed."

She caught her breast as though it hurt her, and, after a moment, continued: "Do hearts always ache so when they love? I was the wife of a good man oh! he WAS a good man, who sinned for me. I see it now!-and I let him die-die alone!" She shuddered. "Oh, now I see, and I know what love such as his can be! I am punished-punished! for my love is impossible, horrible."

There was a long silence, in which she sat looking at the floor, her face all grey with pain. At last the door of the room softly opened, and Justine entered.

"May I come in, madame?" she said.

"Yes, come, Justine." The voice was subdued, and there was in it what drew the girl swiftly to the side of Mrs. Falchion. She spoke no word, but gently undid the other's hair, and smoothed and brushed it softly.

At last Mrs. Falchion said: "Justine, on Monday we will leave here."

The girl was surprised, but she replied without comment: "Yes, madame; where do we go?"

There was a pause; then: "I do not know. I want to go where I shall get rested. A village in Italy or-" she paused.

"Or France, madame?" Justine was eager.

Mrs. Falchion made a gesture of helplessness. "Yes, France will do.... The way around the world is long, and I am tired." Minutes passed, and then she slowly said: "Justine, we will go to-morrow night."

"Yes, madame, to-morrow night-and not next Monday."

There was a strange only half-veiled melancholy in Mrs. Falchion's next words: "Do you think, Justine, that I could be happy anywhere?"

"I think anywhere but here, madame."

Mrs. Falchion rose to a sitting posture, and looked at the girl fixedly, almost fiercely. A crisis was at hand. The pity, gentleness, and honest solicitude of Justine's face conquered her, and her look changed to one of understanding and longing for companionship: sorrow swiftly welded their friendship.

Before Mrs. Falchion slept that night, she said again: "We will leave here to-morrow, Justine, for ever."

And Justine replied: "Yes, madame, for ever."

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