MoboReader> Literature > Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays

   Chapter 6 No.6

Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays By Robert Louis Stevenson Characters: 55397

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Archie thought no more either of his tickled ribs or his outraged hair when his friends had definitely removed themselves, and with a sigh of delight he took up a sharpened pencil and a block of scribbling paper. He had grasped something, he thought, this morning, that must instantly be committed to words, before he even read over his last page or two, for his hand starved and itched to be writing. There was an odd trembling in his fingers, and his conscious brain was full of what he wanted to say. But when he put his pencil on to the block, and concentrated his mind on that liquid message of the sea that had reached him to-day, he found that his hand had nothing to write. His brain was full of what he wanted to write, but his hand disowned the controlling impulse. Again and once again he cast the thought in his brain into reasonable language, but there his hand still stayed, as if some signal was against it. Simply it would not proceed.

Archie had known similar obstacles before, though they had never been so strong as this. Probably the thought was not yet clarified enough, and for that the usual remedy was a stroll about the garden, a look at the sea from the parapetted wall. He tried this, returning again with a conviction that now he would be able to give words to the impression that was so strong in his conscious brain, and, as he took up his pencil again, again his hand seemed to be yearning to write. There was that coral-lipped anemone at the edge of the water, there was a shoal of little fishes which, as they turned, became a sheet of dazzling silver, … all that was ready for the hand that twitched in expectancy. But again his hand would have nothing to say to that: the brain-signal showed itself to an uncomprehending instrument.

Suddenly, and with distaste, Archie perceived what was happening, and, divorcing from his mind the message that his brain was tingling to convey, he let his mere hand, untroubled by a fighting consciousness, do what it chose. It was no longer in his own control: something, somebody else possessed it. But it was with conscious reluctance that he resigned this mechanism to the controlling agent who was not himself. He watched with absolute detachment the words that came on his paper in a firm, upright handwriting quite unlike his own.

"Archie, you have had a warning," his hand wrote. "Now you must manage for yourself. I shall watch, but I mayn't do more. You have got to do your best and your highest. That's the root of probation. But I am always your most loving brother. When you were a child I could reach you… (Then followed some meaningless scribbles). But it's Martin."

The pencil gave a great dash across the paper, and instantly Archie knew that his hand had returned to its normal allegiance. At once the sea-thoughts that had occupied him seethed and roared in his brain, and his hand was straining to put them down. He tore off the involuntary message from his block, and, laying it aside, plunged with all the force of his conscious self into this ecstasy of conveying, with black marks on white paper, all that had obsessed him this morning as he swam out to sea, and lay between sun and water, the happiest of earthly animals, and the nearest to the key of the symbol. Then, after a half-hour of pure interpretation, that was finished too, and he lay back in his chair and picked up the Martin-message again. It seemed a nonsensical affair when he so regarded it. What was his warning, after all? What did that mean? He had had no warning of any sort. But it was strange that, after all those years of silence, Martin should come to guide him again, though at the self-same time he told him not to look for further guidance.

Archie put the paper with its well-remembered, upright handwriting back on the table again, lay back in his long chair, drowsy, and fatigued after his spell of fiery writing. Almost at once sleep began to invade him; the outline of the stone-pine, etched against the sky, grew blurred as his eyelids fluttered and closed. And then, without pause or transition, he saw a white statue standing close to him, on the neck of which there wriggled the tail of a worm, protruding from the fair white surface, and instantly his forgotten dream leaped into his mind, with a pang of horror. That was what his dream had been: there had been a statue standing just there, white in the moonlight, and even as he worshipped and adored it with love and boundless admiration, those foul symbols of decay had wreathed about it. Next moment he plucked himself from his dozing, and there was no statue there at all, but the far more comfortable figure of Jessie, standing in its place, with laughter in her eye.

"Oh, that's what you do, Archie," she said, "when you pretend to come out into the garden to work, and despise Harry and me for sleeping."

Archie jumped up from his chair and brandished in her face the pages of his consciously written manuscript. The leaf on which the message from Martin was written still lay apart from those on the table.

"I may have closed my eyes for one second," he said. "But I've written all that since lunch. Oh, it's got the sea in it, Jessie; I really believe there's the sea there. I'll read it you this evening, if you'll apologize for saying that I go to sleep instead of writing."

She picked up the other leaf.

"Yes, I apologize," she said, "though you were asleep when I came out. But I want to hear what you've written, so I apologize for having thought so. And there's this other page as well."

Archie took it from her.

"That doesn't belong," he said. "That-"

He paused a moment.

"Do you remember what I told you about the messages I used to have from

Martin when I was a child?" he asked.

Jessie nodded.

"Yes; and they have ceased altogether for years, haven't they?" she said quickly.

"Until to-day. Just now, half an hour ago, I had another. But I can't make anything out of it. He tells me that I've had a warning. I don't know what it means."

Jessie felt all the habitual contempt of the thoroughly normal and healthy mind for anything akin to psychical experiences. All ghosts, in her view, were to be classed under the headings of rats or lobster-salad; all such things as table-tappings and the doings of mediums under the heading of trickery. But, knowing what she did of Archie's childish experiences, she could not put them down as trickery, and so was unable exactly to despise them as fraudulent. For that very reason she rather feared them; they made her feel uncomfortable.

She glanced at the paper he held out to her, but without taking it.

"Oh, Archie I distrust all that," she said. "I was really very glad when you told me that for all these years you had had no communication from him. Please don't have any more."

He laughed. They had talked about this before.

"But you don't understand," he said. "It has nothing to do with my wanting or not; it just comes. This afternoon I couldn't help writing any more than-than one can help sneezing."

"You can if you rub your nose the wrong way," said Jessie flippantly.

"No amount of rubbing my nose either the right way or the wrong way would have the slightest effect," said Archie. "The thing is imperative: if Martin wants me to write, I must write. But he says here that he's not going to guide me; I must look after myself. I'm sorry for that."

"I'm not," said Jessie quickly. "There's something strange and uncanny about it. I'm not sure that I think it's right even."

She paused a moment.

"Archie, do you really believe that it is the spirit of Martin that makes you write?" she said. "Are you sure-"

He interrupted her.

"I know what you mean," he said. "It's what the Roman Catholics teach, that any communication of the sort, given that it is genuine, and not some mere mediumistic trick, is not less than converse with some evil being impersonating, masquerading as the spirit from whom the communication apparently comes. Do you mean that?"

Jessie frowned, fingering the edge of the table.

"Yes, I suppose I do," she said. "I think the whole thing is dangerous;

I don't think it's a thing to meddle with."

"But I don't meddle with it," said Archie. "It meddles with me. Besides, did you ever hear of such an unwarranted assumption? Mightn't I almost as well say that a letter which reaches me from my mother doesn't really come from her, but from some evil creature impersonating her? It seems simpler to suppose that it comes from her, that her signature is genuine, just as I believe Martin's to be. Do you really think that when I was a poor little consumptive chap at Grives I was really possessed by an evil spirit? Isn't that rather too horrible an imagining? A nice state the next world must be in, if that sort of thing is allowed! I don't for a moment think it is. Can you reconcile with the idea of supreme Love governing and creating all life, the notion that there, behind the scenes, there are evil and awful beings who can get leave to communicate with a child, as I was, pretending to be the spirit of the brother I never knew? Does it sound likely?"

Jessie paused a moment again. She hated the subject, she hated the idea of Archie's being concerned in these dim avenues to the unseen. She had, for herself, a perfectly unreasoning and childlike faith that there was this world, and the next world, and that God reigned supreme over both. But somehow it offended this instinctive attitude that the next world, and those who had gone there, should be mixed up with this world. They were not dead; she did not think they had ceased to exist; but they had done with this world, and it was something like a profanity to meddle with them. But then Archie had not meddled, as he most truly said: they seemed to have meddled with him. Their meddling had stopped altogether for a dozen years, and here on this half-sheet of paper was the evidence that something of the sort had begun again.

"I thought you had dropped all interest in it," she said. "I thought it was all finished, like a childish fairy-story, like the Abracadabra legend Cousin Marion told me about. Oh, there's tea; shall we have tea?"

Pasqualino had spread their table underneath the stone-pine, and she hailed this as a possible dismissal of the whole affair. She did not want to talk any more about it, and, if below her silence there should lurk a fear, she preferred to cover it up, not examine it. Archie got up.

"Certainly let us have tea," he said. "Perhaps your mind will be clearer after tea. I'm not going to quit the question, Jessie. The historian is at his histories, and we shall be alone, you and I, and I want to talk it out. Something has happened, you see, this afternoon. Martin-or somebody-has written again. You were quite right to imagine that for me the whole thing was finished, had become an Abracadabra-myth as you said. As far as normal life goes, I thought it had too. But I always knew that it might come back. And it has come back without my asking for it, though it-he-says he's going to leave me alone. But, after all, he says, 'You've got to do your best and your highest.' Now I ask you, as a reasonable female, does that look like a message from a devil? No, it's Martin all right, bless him. But let's have tea."

They moved across into the shadow of the pine, where the table sparkled with the specks of stray sunshine that filtered through the boughs. And Jessie, sane and normal, held on to those evidences of the kindly ordinary human life, as an anchor to prevent her drifting out into perilous seas. But to Archie no seas were perilous: they might engulf his body and drown him, and, as it seemed to him, they might engulf his spirit, but they were not perilous in his view. They were just the sea, the great encompassing presence…

"Archie, you are so odd," she said, knowing that he meant to have the subject talked out, and that his will dominated hers, "You spend the day bathing and sailing and writing; you eat and you sleep, and then suddenly you spring a surprise upon me, and show me a letter you have had from Martin. Which is you, the surprise or the Archie that I know?"

Archie's mouth was extraordinarily full of rusk and cherry-jam. He politely disposed of them before replying.

"But they're both me," he said. "Of course we have all two existences."

"Dual personality?" she asked.

"Dual fiddlesticks. What I mean is that in everybody there is the conscious self and the subconscious self, but they do not make a dual personality, but one personality. Most people-you, for instance, or Harry, or my mother-transact everything through the conscious personality. For all practical purposes your subconscious self doesn't exist. But in some, and I'm one of them-the subconscious self is accessible. I can reach it if I want. I can make it act. It is the essential life which we all of us contain, and, as such, it is that part of ourselves with which the essential life of those who have quitted this unessential life can communicate. Martin doesn't communicate with that part of me which directs and controls my conversation with you. He speaks to my subconscious self, and, by some rather unusual arrangement, my subconscious life can speak to my conscious life and convey what he says to my hand, or, as once happened, when at Grives I heard him call me, to my ear. I am a medium in fact, though that would usually suggest something charlatanish. I can bring my subconscious life to the surface; sometimes, as when Martin speaks to it, it comes to the surface of its own accord, with strong compulsion over my conscious self."

He paused a moment.

"It's all very odd," he said. "Until this afternoon, my subconscious self had lain quite quiet for years. Now suddenly it asserts itself and produces that page of writing, because Martin talked to it, and told it to make my hand write. What other explanation is there, unless indeed you imagine that I have merely perpetrated a silly hoax? But I swear to you that something outside myself made me write. Baldly stated, it was Martin who spoke to my subconscious self, and my subconscious self said to my conscious self, 'Take a pencil and write.' I know that is so."

Once again Jessie had to anchor herself against this current running out to sea. There was Archie sitting opposite her, large and brown and hungry, talking of things which were altogether fantastic, unless they were dangerous. And somehow, they were not either fantastic or dangerous to him; they were as ordinary as the cherry-jam which he was so profusely eating. She had suddenly come on a great undiscovered tract of country, dubious and full of dangers.

"I dislike it all," she said. "I'm too ordinary, I suppose, my-my subconscious self doesn't act, you would say. But what proof is there that there is such a thing as the subconscious self? Why should I suppose that there is anything of the sort? I have no reason to suppose it. It is all nonsense."

Archie laughed.

"My dear Jessie," he said, "you are arguing not with me but with yourself. You have an uneasy conviction that I am right."

"Not a bit," she said. "I want a proof."

Archie rubbed his hand over his head.

"I wonder how I can give it you most easily," he said. "Of course there are lots of ways, though it is quite a long time since I have practised any of them."

He thought for a moment.

"Well, here's one," he said. "The subconscious self-to talk more nonsense, as you say-is practically unlimited by the material laws of the world. It is a sort of X-ray, a sort of wireless… I can set my subconscious self to work, and I will, to prove its existence to you."

His voice sank a little, and Jessie saw that his eyes were fixed on a bright speck of sunlight that gleamed on the table-cloth. A sudden ridiculous terror seized her.

"Don't, Archie," she said. "It's such nonsense."

"It isn't nonsense," said he quietly, "and you mustn't be such a baby.

There's nothing to be frightened at."

As he spoke he took his eyes off the bright speck at which he had been staring, and looked at her with his blue, dancing glance.

"What are you going to do?" she said.

"Whatever you like. Let me look at that bright spot there, while you sit quiet, for two minutes, and I'll tell you anything you choose. Think of something, anything will do, and I'll tell you what you're thinking about."

"Oh, just thought-reading," said she.

"Just thought-reading! But what is thought-reading? If you can remember what you thought about when you went up to your bedroom to sleep after lunch to-day, for instance, I'll tell you that. Or, there is Harry writing his history lecture for next term at this moment. I'll tell you the words he is writing. At least I think I shall be able to. But I'm out of practice. I have not cultivated the particular mood for years. But I had it when I was a child, and I expect I can get back into it."

Jessie felt an extreme curiosity about this. She had, even as Archie had said, an uneasy conviction that he was right, and for her peace of mind she longed to have that conviction shattered. In her reasonable self she did not believe that Archie could possibly tell her what Harry was writing, but behind that reasonable self sat something unreasonable which wanted to be convinced that this was all nonsense.

"But you won't have a fit or anything, will you?" she asked.

"No. Pour boiling tea over me if I do, and I shall come to myself."

"But what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to look at something bright. That spot of sun on the table-cloth will do. Then I shall just submerge, like a submarine, and tell you what Harry is writing at this moment, if that is the test you select. What fun it all is! I haven't done it, as I said, for ever so long. Oh, take a bit of paper, and write down what I say. I don't suppose I shall be able to remember it."

Again his voice sank, as he fixed his eyes on the bright spot he had indicated, and Jessie, watching him, pencil and paper in hand, saw an extraordinary change come over his face. For a few seconds it got troubled, and his eyes stared painfully, while his breath came quickly in and out of his nostrils. Then he grew quite quiet again, his mouth smiled, and he spoke very slowly as if the words were dictated by a writer.

"It is hopeless to try to comprehend in the whole," he said, "the splendour of that unique age. We can only think of it in fragments. One afternoon there was a new play by Sophocles; another day Pericles made the funeral oration for the fallen; on another the great Propylaea to the Acropolis were finished, Socrates talked in the market-place, or supped with Alcibiades. In the space of a few years all those things happened, and as yet more than twenty centuries have failed to grasp their full significance. And in this, my last lecture to you-"

Archie rubbed his eyes and sat up.

"He has finished for the present," he said.

There was a stir in the room just above them, where they sat in the garden, and Harry looked out.

"Any tea left?" he said.

Archie looked up.

"Hullo, Harry," he said. "I thought you were going to finish your lecture and not appear till dinner."

"I was, but I think I'll finish it up to-morrow."

"Bring it down and read us as far as you've got," said Archie. "Jessie won't mind."

"All right. It got a little purplish at the end, and that's why I stopped. I hate purples."

He moved away from the window, and Archie spoke to Jessie. "Did I say anything?" he asked.

"Yes; I've got it all down."

Archie jumped up.

"Now you'll see," he said. "You won't sauce me again in-in the wicious pride of your youth, as Mr. Venus remarked. I'm sure I got through that time."

* * * * *

It was the knowledge that he had indeed "got through" that Jessie took up to bed with her that night. Word for word Harry had read out at the end of his lecture precisely the sentences that Archie, in that queer dreamy state, had dictated to her, just before Harry had looked out of the window and asked if there was any tea left. There was no room for doubt: even as Archie had said, some piece of his mind had been able to divine exactly what Harry was writing at that moment. In his conscious state he could not know what that was, but according to his own account certain people, of whom he was one, were able to direct not only their conscious selves but also the subconscious self that lay below. It, so he asserted, was practically unfettered by material laws: it could perceive what was happening at a distance, at a spot invisible to it, and it could penetrate as by some X-ray process into other minds. For its free action (in his case at any rate) the conscious self had to be obliterated; by looking at that bright spot on the table-cloth he had been able to put it to sleep, to hypnotize it, thus allowing the subconscious self to pass the portals where normally the conscious self kept guard, and to do its errand.

So far there was nothing to disquiet her or make her uncomfortable. It was, as she had said, "just thought-reading," an example of a purely natural law, which, however dimly understood, was fully admitted by scientific investigators. No one, except the most hide-bound of pedants, questioned the existence of the subconscious self, and, if here was an example of an abnormal development of it, still there was nothing to fight shy of. She had asked for a proof of its powers, and undeniably she had got it…

But Archie had gone far beyond that in his exposition of the powers of the subconscious self, and it was this which caused her a very vivid disquiet. Through the subconscious self, in those who had the gift of releasing it, of allowing its activities, could come, so he believed, communications from the individual consciousnesses which had passed out of the material world. Even as the subconscious self could get into touch with the thoughts of living people (as she had seen for herself that afternoon), so also could it get into touch with the thoughts of the dead. It was thus, so Archie announced, that when he was a mere child, and knew nothing whatever of conscious and subconscious selves, Martin, the brother whom he had never heard of, used his hand to write with, as if it was his own, and with it wrote in the handwriting which had been his. Jessie fully believed in the survival of personality; to her the so-called dead had but passed on to a further and higher plane of existence; but there was to her something inexplicably repugnant in the notion that they could come back, and speak or write to those who still lived on this plane of existence.

Jessie lingered late by her window, overlooking the bay, trying to disentangle and lay bare the roots of her repugnance. It was late; below in the garden she could perceive the grey lines of Archie's hammock swung between the acacia and the pine, and Archie lying there like a chrysalis. He was just like that, she thought; most of the world were only caterpillars, eating their way through the allotted span of their years, but Archie was a stage more advanced than anybody she had ever known. This world and the next were one to him, not by any spiritual insight, but from that instinctive conviction that there was really no difference between the living and the so-called dead. It was not by any enlightenment, through any stress of prayer and aspiration that he had arrived at that. He had been gifted with it as a child; he was a medium, who by some special gift could talk to a brother, who had died long years ago, with just the same naturalness as he talked to her. If he died to-night, he would find nothing strange about it: he would but burst his chrysalis, hang for a moment, weak and fluttering, and then expand his wings. But to most people death was an awful affair. They were caterpillars; they had to learn the intermediate stage, which he was already familiar with. And yet the fact that he was a stage more advanced coupled with it a sort of helplessness for him. There he lay in his cocoon; any evil thing might attack him…

Jessie shook herself, mind and body; she was being fantastic in her fears and her misgivings, and with set purpose she forced herself to drink in, be penetrated by the assured serenity of the material world that lay spread before her. Above wheeled the stars in the silent sky, and on the silent sea shone the constellations from the fishing-boats. The trees stood motionless in the holy summer-hushed night beneath, while, though all seemed to sleep, the great renewing forces of the world were ripening the olives and enriching the twisted buds that would flower in fresh harvest of azure on the Morning Glory when the sun warmed them. There was nothing to disturb her; she could let her soul lie open to the night and think out the cause for her disquietude.

She hated the idea of commerce between the living and the dead; there was the root of it. The strangeness of the idea made it seem unnatural. Yet where, if she examined it more closely, was the unnaturalness? Why should not loving souls, who had passed that tiny rivulet called Death into the fuller life beyond, be allowed to call from the other side to those they loved? Was there not something exquisite, something supremely tender in the thought that Martin, who had been but little more than a child when he died in that Swiss chalet, should tell Archie about the cache he had made under the pine-tree? It was a childish communication, it brought no message of consolation or encouragement; but it was just what Martin, had he been alive on this side of Death, might have told Archie. Besides, who knew that he did not give that as a test, as a proof of his identity, for surely nothing could have been devised so convincing? And if God willed that the dead should be able, under certain circumstances, to speak from the sunlit beyond to those who still moved among material shadows, who was she, Jessie, to question so wonderful an ordinance? And if he could speak like that to a young and innocent child, why should he not continue to speak to his brother when he grew up?

She looked elsewhere for the grounds of her repugnance, and for a moment thought she had found them. For she had once been to a seance, at the house of a professional medium, and that afternoon still was vivid and degrading in her memory. They had all sat round a table in a darkened room while the medium went into trance, and instantly ridiculous knockings and melodies from a musical-box began to resound in the gloom. These were supposed to be played by spirits called Durward and Felisy, who, for some absolutely unconjecturable reason, liked spending the afternoon in these puerile idiocies. Meantime, the medium breathed heavily, which was the only evidence that he was in trance at all, and after a while said, "Here's the dear Cardinal," in a husky voice, and his niece, who sat next him, informed the circle that this was Cardinal Newman, who, like Durward and Felisy, could find nothing better to do on the other side than attend these awful sittings, for he always came when you paid your guinea to the medium and sat in the dark. To encourage him they lifted up their voices, at the suggestion of the medium's niece, and sang "Lead, kindly Light," which gratified him so much that he joined in singing the second verse and sang his own hymn to the tune given in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Then, when the hymn was over, he made some moral reflections and blessed them in Latin. Then there came materializations; the

head and shoulders of Durward appeared in the middle of the table. He was dressed in white, and had a large black beard, and round his ear the wire with which the beard was attached to his face was clearly visible. During this the circle was warned to keep their hands touching all round the table, for, if any one made a break, the consequences to the medium might be very serious, since the spirit had built itself up from material derived from the medium and the "electric fluid" contributed by the sitters. So, if the electric fluid was withdrawn the material would not be able to get back into the medium, who would completely collapse and possibly die, though whether Durward would thereupon again become a visible and permanent dweller on this planet was not explained. By this time Jessie had been so convinced of the wicked and profane fraudulence of all these proceedings that she furtively withdrew one of her hands, and thus cut off the electric fluid altogether. But Durward didn't mind a bit, but continued to tell them about the joys of Paradise, which, according to his account, must have been like the Crystal Palace erected in the middle of the Botanical Gardens. And when he had regaled them enough he withdrew in the direction where the medium sat, took off his beard, and became Felisy with a veil and an alto voice. Surely all this was enough to make one despair and contemn the whole idea of intercourse with spirits…

But Jessie suddenly became aware of a basic illogicality in her position. It was not intercourse with spirits she despised, but those despicable swindlers who, with the aid of false beards and musical-boxes, pretended that they could materialize and cause communication with spirits. She did not deride the memory of that afternoon because the spirits of Cardinal Newman and Durward and Felisy had moved among them, but because they hadn't. It was no use accounting for her repugnance towards genuine intercourse with spirits by her repugnance towards quacks and charlatans. The whole history of spiritualism teemed with these undesirable gentry and these faked phenomena, but they had no more connection with Archie and his communications from his brother than had a forged bank-note with the credit of the Bank of England. She found she did believe that the knowledge, say, of the cache beneath the pine-tree came to Archie from other than normal human sources. It was known to no living being in the world, so far as she could tell, and if she looked for an explanation she must search for it in the supposition that the knowledge came to him from a living intelligence beyond the veil. She intensely disliked being forced to that conclusion, and now she knew why. It was for the reason she had suggested to him this afternoon.

These things came from those regions, those conditions of existence into which people passed when they died. But in those regions there existed not only the souls of the dead who lived in an environment and under conditions at which we could not ever so faintly conjecture, but other spirits, some good, some evil. Every good impulse that came into the hearts of men, came from over there; so, too, did every evil impulse that would blight, if it could, the garden of God. And who knew whether the man who by that strange faculty which Archie possessed of opening the doors of his subliminal self, through which, as he averred, these messages came, might not open them to other and evil things? If possession by an evil spirit was a psychical possibility (and certainly it was not more fantastically strange than such phenomena as Archie could produce) would it not be thus, and in no other way, that the evil possession would enter? Yet in childhood Archie had, in ignorance and in white defencelessness, opened more than once the door of his soul, and no harm surely had come to him. Was she being unreasonable, full of fear where no fear was, twittering with groundless and superstitious fancies?

There was yet another side to the question. If the spirits of the dead could indeed return, and speak of what they knew, was it not worth while running some risk on the chance of the wonders they might tell of the existence which now was theirs? Whatever else might be of interest in human life, supreme over all was any hint or fragment of information about the timeless and everlasting day that lay beyond the dawnings and settings of the sun. Nay, more: if to any one was given this wonderful gift by means of which voices could reach him from beyond the veil, was it not his duty to use this endowment for the enlightenment and consolation of those who mourned and who sat in darkness? God would never have bestowed so spiritual a gift on any, if He did not mean it to be used. The Christian Faith taught that the dead were alive in a wider sense than ever they had been on earth; why then should it be forbidden, to those who had this amazing gift, to speak with them, to learn about their life? The Roman Church had fulminated its anathemas on Galileo, a thing scarcely credible to a more enlightened age; it was more than possible that its pronouncements against this intercourse with the dead was but one instance the more of a similar cowardice and narrowness. Who could doubt that a man of science three hundred years ago would have been burned as a dabbler in diabolism and witchcraft, if he had exhibited a manifestation of wireless telegraphy or an X-ray photograph? But nowadays there was not a living being who did not rank such as the discoveries of a natural law. The sorcery of one age was the science of the next.

Jessie propounded this to herself, and her reason could not find a flaw in it. But something that sat behind her reason-superstition it might be, or instinct, or spiritual perception-refused to accept the conclusion. Like a child afraid of the dark, it trembled and hung back, and no amount of logical assurance from its nurse, no amount of demonstration that the room when dark contained only the familiar things which the light made manifest, could reassure it. It didn't like the dark; nothing could persuade it that danger did not lurk in blackness…

Well, it was no use going over all the ground again, she knew it thoroughly now. Reason made no headway against instinct, or instinct against reason, and she swept the matter from her mind, and tried to calm a certain intimate agitation that trembled there, by letting her eyes pour into her soul the superb serenity of the Italian night. The moon had risen and spread across the bay a silver path to the edge of the world, and in the sky the wheeling innumerable worlds kept sentinel over the earth. Never had she looked on a stillness more peaceful and more steadfast. Not a breeze stirred in the cypresses, but in the thickets of ilex below the Love that moved the sun and the other stars thrilled in the hearts of innumerable nightingales. That Love permeated everywhere; the world was soaked in its peace…

And just then, over the hills to the north, there flickered a flash of lightning from some storm very far away. Long afterwards, and scarcely audible, came a muffled murmur of thunder.

* * * * *

Jessie came downstairs next morning before either of the two young men were astir, and indeed, on going into the garden, she found Archie still serenely slumbering in his hammock in spite of the sun that filtered through the pine-tree on to his brown face and curly head. But perhaps some intangible shaft from her pierced down into the gulfs of sleep, for immediately he sat up, flushed with slumber like a child, but fresh and bright-eyed from his night in the open air.

"Hullo, Jess," he said. "You down already? I suppose I'd better get up. Is it shocking for a young lady to see a young gentleman's bare feet and his pyjamas? If so, you must shut your eyes. Now you're going to see them. Don't scream."

"I shall," said Jessie. "You always wear patent leather boots and a fur-coat when we bathe."

"Yes, that is so. But bear it for once. Lord, what a morning!"

He threw off his blanket and dangled his legs over the side of the hammock, and instantly lit a cigarette.

"Archie, why do you smoke before breakfast?" she asked.

"Because it makes me feel so jolly dizzy. Ah, you can't guess how good a cigarette tastes when you have had nothing but your tongue and your teeth in your mouth for eight or nine hours. Hullo! Here's the post. English papers? Who cares for what happens in England? No letters for me, two for Harry, and one for you. Good-bye; I shan't wash much because I shall bathe all the morning."

Jessie's letter proved to be from Helena, and its contents instantly absorbed her whole attention. Colonel Vautier, her father and Lady Tintagel's first cousin, had gone out to Egypt over some government irrigation work, and, instead of coming back in June, would be detained out there till September. In consequence, Lady Tintagel hoped that the two girls would live with her instead of going back to their father's house till his return. Helena's comment on this was enthusiastic, and also very characteristic.

"Darling Jessie," she said, after the statement of this proposal, "I do hope you'll say 'yes.' Cousin Marion encloses a note for you, so you'll see how much she wants us to, and Uncle Jack-I've begun to call him Uncle Jack, though he isn't an uncle at all-gave quite a pleased sort of grunt when it was mentioned, which means that he approves. So don't be independent, and say you would sooner go back to Oakland Crescent, because I've simply set my heart on stopping here. It's horrible at home in the summer with the sun blazing into those little tiny rooms and the smell of greens flooding the house. And it really would be a kindness to Cousin Marion; she says so herself, as you'll find when you read her note. And besides, there's another reason which I know you can guess. In fact, I think it's our duty to come, and when duty takes the form of anything so pleasant as this, there really is not the slightest reason for neglecting it. And, as I'm the youngest, I feel that you should do as I want. Besides, it's the greatest fun here. There are no end of dances and parties and dinners, and there are horses to ride and motor-cars. I'm having the loveliest tune, so it will be very selfish of you if you want to go home. But I know you will say 'yes.'"

A charming enclosure from Lady Tintagel accompanied this:

"I so much hope that you and Helena will stop with us. You must think of it as a great kindness to me, for it will be the utmost comfort to me, now that both my girls are married, to have you two with me for the rest of the season. I spoke to Archie about it while we were at Silorno, so ask him whether he approves or not. I hope all goes well with you. Is Archie quite black yet from bathing? Send me a line as soon as you have thought it over. Helena is having the greatest success in town; every one thinks her charming, and admires her enormously."

Jessie read this over as she waited for Archie to rejoin her at breakfast. There was every reason for accepting so cordial an invitation, and it would give pleasure to Helena, to Cousin Marion, and apparently also to Archie. She knew she would have to consent: there was no cause that could be spoken about which she could possibly adduce for refusing. A week ago that cause did not exist, but now she wondered how she could bear to see Helena and Archie in the close companionship which this would imply, and watch his feeling for her expanding from the bud into the flower. If she had thought that Helena loved him it would all be different. But she felt certain that Helena did not. There, for her, was the poignancy of it…

In a manner that she could not explain, Jessie knew that she knew the tokens by which love betrays its existence. She, barely yet twenty-two, had somewhere stored in her soul the language of love, which it speaks even when it thinks it is dumb-talking in its sleep, it may be. She had seen in the last week of Helena's sojourn here that Archie talked to her like that. "There was neither speech nor language": he said nothing of which the words betrayed his dawning passion, but his love spoke in his silence, even as the rosy clouds high above the earth herald the dawn. It was her own knowledge that enlightened her: she too knew the silent language, and knew that Archie conversed in it, though no word came, when he talked to Helena. Something kindled behind his eye, some secret alertness possessed him… But there was the defencelessness and the blindness of love, for when Helena answered him she but pretended to talk the same tongue, and Jessie, knowing it, knew that she spoke a mere paltry gibberish. It sounded the same, or it looked the same; but it was nonsense, it was not authentic. Yet Archie never talked in the secret tongue to Jessie; and, in consequence, she had never answered him in it. To-day it seemed her native tongue when she talked to him, and all she said must needs be translated out of that into the language of those who were friends, dear friends, but no more than friends.

All this was instantaneous: she seemed to read it between the lines of Helena's letter. She recalled, too, between the lines, the tokens that she knew. Archie would look at Harry, as they sat at dinner, then at his mother, then at her, in order that in due time he might look at Helena. And when he spoke to any of them they never got more than one ear and an inattentive mind from him. The other ear and the attention were always with Helena. Helena knew that quite well: no woman or girl could fail to know it, and, by way of response, she had made this Scythian retreat to England. No doubt that was clever of her, but in Jessie's opinion clever people are found out even sooner than stupid ones. The only inexplicable folk are the wise, and wisdom has very little to do with cleverness. Wisdom is perhaps the cleverness of the soul, that looks down with pity on the manoeuvres of the mind.

Archie made his absurd entry. He had a dressing-gown on, perhaps some sort of abbreviated bathing-dress, and canvas-shoes.

"I didn't dress," he said, "for where's the use of dressing if you are going to undress again almost immediately?"

"Aren't you going to work this morning?" asked Jessie.

"No. This one day, as Mr. Wordsworth said, we'll give to idleness. I'm going to bathe all the morning instead of half the morning. I want a holiday. I think I'm overworked. What's happening in that foolish England, if you've read the papers?"

"I haven't," said she.

Suddenly his face changed; he began to talk the secret language, which

Jessie understood and Helena counterfeited.

"And what other news?" he asked. "You had a letter from somebody."

Jessie pretended not to understand what she knew so well.

"Yes, I did have a letter," she said, determined that Archie should be more direct than this.

"From Helena or mother?" he said carelessly. "I haven't heard from either of them, except that telegram to say they had got home safely."

He was talking the secret language still; the very carelessness of his tone betrayed it.

"I heard from them both," she said. "The letter was from Helena, and there was an enclosure from Cousin Marion."

Archie said nothing in answer to this, but it seemed to the girl that his silence was just as eloquent in the language without words. Eventually he remarked that Harry was very late, and Jessie knew that he had beaten her. He always did, just because he had nothing, with regard to her, at stake.

"Archie, I want to talk to you about what they have written to me," she said.

"Talk away," said Archie. "I say, what good little fishes!"

Jessie was not proposing to yield like that. If he, in the code of the secret language, professed an indifference to what he was longing to hear, she would be indifferent too.

To Archie's intense irritation she continued to talk about little fishes, in a tone of great interest, till Harry's entrance. She agreed they were very good; probably they were fresh sardines caught last night by the fishers. Or were they… and she could not remember the Italian name of the other little fish which were so like sardines.

Archie's serene brow clouded, and he but grunted a greeting to Harry. And next moment her heart smote her. She knew how easily Archie could put the sun out for her without meaning to do it, but she had, out of a sort of piqued femininity, intentionally done the same for him. She felt as if she had spoiled a child's pleasure. He was so like a child, but lovers were made of child-stuff. He got up almost immediately, and, full of a tender penitence, she followed him.

One behind the other they went out into the garden, where Archie, in a superb unconsciousness of her presence, became instantly absorbed in the despised English papers.

"Archie!" she said.

He rustled with his paper.

"Oh, er-what?" he answered.

"I wanted to talk to you about Helena's letter," she said, "only you would talk about sardines. Put that paper down; I can't talk through the paper."

She noticed that he kept his finger on a paragraph, and she would have betted her last shilling that he had no idea what that paragraph was about. And, though a moment before she had been penitent, now she stiffened herself and determined that he should meet her more gracefully than that.

"I'm sorry; I'm interrupting you," she said. "I'll tell you some other time."

Archie suddenly threw the paper into the air.

"Oh, aren't we behaving like idiots?" he said. "At heart I am, and so are you really. But I'll confess: I'm just longing to know what Helena writes about. But aren't you an idiot, too? I shall like it enormously if you say you are."

"I am an idiot, too," said the girl. "And Cousin Marion wants Helena and me to live with her till father comes home. She told me to ask you if you approved."

He leaned forward to her.

"Ah, do, Jessie," he said. "I hope you will. I can't see why you shouldn't. Can you?"

She looked straight into the eager blue eyes that were so close to hers. For her there was a wealth of frankness and friendliness, but the light in them was not for her, and she knew it.

"Helena wants to," she said.

"Does that mean that you don't?" he asked. "I'm sorry if that is so."

She got up.

"No, it doesn't mean that a bit," she said. "It's delightful of you and

Cousin Marion to want us. Of course we'll come."

Archie rose too.

"That's perfectly ripping of you," he said. "We shall be a jolly party, we four."

Quite suddenly a pause fell, very awkwardly, very constrainedly.

"You see, my father doesn't appear much," he said at length. "That's what I meant. He is very often in the country, and-well, we don't see him much."

Archie soon took himself off to the sea, armed with paper and pencils, for, with four hours in front of him, there would be much basking to be done between his bathes. Already another of those sea-sketches was beginning to take shape in his mind, and he found that there was no hour so fruitful in inspiration as when, after a swim, he returned to this empty, sandy beach, and lay spread out to the sun to be dried and browned and made eager for another dip. So, to-day, after the first swim, he lay for a while on his back with his arms across his face to shield his eyes from the glare, and opened his brain, so to speak, to let the sea-thoughts invade it. They came swarming in at his invitation, and presently he turned over and propped himself on his elbow and began to catch them and pin them to his paper. The rim of the sea, with its weed-fringed rocks, its diaper of moving light in the shallow water, the shoals of little fishes, almost invisible one moment, the next, as they turned, becoming a shield of silver flakes, were all ready to be hammered into sentences; and yet the hammer paused…

Somehow at the back of his mind was a topic that inhibited his hand, or would not allow the connection between hand and brain to be made, and he thought he knew what this was, for only this morning he had heard that Helena was to be an inmate of their house in London. Yet it did not seem to be that which was preventing him, and he wondered whether it was the thought of his father and his habitual intoxication, which was always like a black background at home, and which just for a moment had popped out into his conversation with Jessie, that hindered him. But that again did not seem a sufficient cause for his inability to start the mechanism which translated thought into language.

And then he became aware that his fingers itched and ached to write with a compelling force which he knew well. And yet only yesterday Martin had said that he should not come to him again. But the quality of the force seemed unmistakable, and presently he yielded to that which he really had not the power to resist and wrote as his hand bade him write.

There were but a few sentences scribbled, and then his pencil, as usually happened when the message was complete, gave a dash. He had no notion what he had written, and when it was finished he read it through.

"Archie, I have come through this once more," it said, "to repeat that you have been warned. But I can't get through again.-MARTIN."

So here again was this inexplicable mention of a warning, and Archie's conscious mind was blank with regard to any such warning. But the repetition of it did not long occupy him, for immediately he found that the inhibition between his brain and his hand was gone, and sentence after sentence of his sea-sketch flowed through his fingers. By degrees, but not till a couple of his pages were full, did the inspiration exhaust itself, and then he lay back on the sand again full of the ecstasy that always accompanies the completion of a piece of work that has been done as the creator meant to do it. Bad or good, it has fulfilled his intention.

His brain brooded over that for a little, and then slipped back to the incident that had preceded it. He could make nothing at all of it, and, determining to dismiss it from his mind, and speak of it to nobody, he tore up the sheet that contained the message, buried the fragments in the sand, and lay back again roasting himself in the sun. Soon that delectable warmth would increase on his bare limbs, till they cried out for the cool embraces of the sea again, and he would fling himself into it. But just for a little longer he would stew and stupefy himself in the sun and with half-closed eyes watch the vibration of the hot air over the beach and listen to the hiss of the ripples. Except for them the morning was extremely quiet, the sun poured down over his outspread limbs, the sea waited for him. And, as he lay there and dozed, the memory of his evil dream went across his brain like a flash, and vanished again.

* * * * *

Already the Italian days were beginning to draw to their sunny end; they were numbered and could be easily counted. Both Archie and Jessie counted them when they woke in the morning, and in the evening both said to themselves, "Another day gone." But their reflections on this diminishing tale and the colour of their emotions were absolutely opposed, for while they both intensely enjoyed these Italian hours, Jessie counted them with the grudging sense of a school-boy who enumerates the remaining days of his holiday; but to Archie they were the days of term-time which still (though enjoyable) must be got through before the holidays began. Never before had he contemplated a stay in town with eagerness; but now, as he thought of her who would be living with them, he had never been so expectantly enamoured of London.

At the close of their last day the divine serenity of June weather was troubled, and, as evening drew on, the clouds, which for a few hours past had been weaving wisps and streamers over the sky, grew to a thick curtain that stretched from horizon to horizon. It was of opaque grey, but here and there in it were lines and patches of much darker texture, as if it had been rent, and had been darned again with a blacker thread. Instead of the coolness which succeeded sunset, the heat, clear no longer, but impure like the air of a closed room, got ever sultrier, and, for the refreshment of the evening breeze from the sea, there was exchanged a stifling stagnation. All life had gone out of the atmosphere: it was as if some immense Othello was smothering the world. The air was heavy and charged with electricity, but as yet no remote winking of lightning nor rumble of thunder showed that there was relief coming.

They had dined out in the garden, where the candles burned unwaveringly in the stillness, and afterwards had strolled to the far angle of the supporting wall of the fortress, where, if anywhere, they might find some hint of movement in this intolerable calm. But no breath visited them even there, and the very bamboos that grew at the corner of the garden-bed were as motionless as if they had been made of lead.

Archie mopped his streaming forehead.

"If it interests anybody," he remarked, "I may say that I am going to die. I can't bear it any longer. I think I shall die in about half an hour."

Jessie fanned herself. That did not do a particle of good, it only seemed to make her hotter, as when you stir the water in a hot bath. But she tried to interest herself in Archie's approaching decease.

"And are we to take your corpse back to England to-morrow?" she asked.

"Just as you like. I shall have no more use for it. Lord, and I haven't finished packing yet. Fancy having to pack in this heat."

"You needn't, surely, if you're going to die."

"I must. My immortal manuscript would be lost in the general confusion caused by my death. Or shall I go to bed? It can't be hotter in my hammock than here. Yes, I shall get into my pyjamas, go to bed, and do my packing in the morning."

He trailed off into the house, and presently appeared again attired for bed and strolled across to them.

"Well, I'll wish you a good-night," he said, "but I very much doubt whether you'll get it. You needn't do the same to me, for I know I shan't, and your wishes would be hollow."

He moved away again towards the stone-pine where his hammock was hung, a pale tall ghost of a figure against the blackness.

Then, quite suddenly, some panic impulse seized Jessie, the result perhaps of her overstrung nerves and the overcharged atmosphere, and she sprang up, not knowing why.

"Wait a moment, Archie," she cried. "Don't go-something is going to happen."

Even as she spoke the whole world seemed enveloped in fire, and the core of the fire, a white-hot line, plunged downwards into the stone-pine, which was rent from top to bottom. Absolute blackness filled with the deafening roar of the thunder and deluging rain succeeded, and they rushed towards the shelter of the house.

For a moment they all three stood there recovering their balance from that tremendous crash and convulsion. Then Archie, with his soaked silk clinging close to his shoulders and legs, turned to Jessie.

"I wonder why you called out to me," he said. "What made you do it? You saved my life, I expect."

Jessie laughed; little as she was given to hysteria that laugh was half-way towards uncontrollable tears.

"Why, I didn't want you to die in half an hour," she said lightly.

* * * * *

But she remembered that moment when it came for her to save Archie's life indeed. Some inexplicable signal from love had flashed upon her that night, and should flash upon her again.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top