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Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays By Robert Louis Stevenson Characters: 24305

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


On a September morning, some fortnight later, Archie was waiting in the drawing-room at Oakland Crescent for Helena's entry. He had seen her twice since her husband's death, and it struck him now that she always kept him waiting when she asked him to come and see her, and ascribed to that the very probable motive that she expected thereby to increase his eagerness for her coming. Certainly he wanted her to come, because he was much interested and amused in the conventional little comedy she was playing, and he looked forward to the third act, on which the curtain would presently ring up. In the interval he sat very serenely smiling to himself, and tickling the end of his nose with three white feathers that he had received in the street to-day. That always diverted him extremely; a rude young woman would come up (she was invariably square and plain, and had a knobby face like a chest of drawers) and say, "Aren't you ashimed not to be serving your country? You're a coward, you are," and then she would give him a white feather. He had quite a collection of them now; there were nine already which he carefully kept in his stud-box, and these three all in one day were a splendid haul.

He had, to occupy his mind very pleasantly, the remembrance of his previous interviews with Helena, which formed the two existing acts of the comedy. In the first she had come in, looking deliciously pretty in her deep mourning, and, with her head a little on one side, had held out both her hands to him. They had stood with hands clasped for quite a long time, and then Archie kissed her because he was rather tired of holding her hands, and because he enjoyed kissing anything so pretty. That had caused a break, and they sat down side by side, and Helena made some queer movements in her throat, which seemed to Archie to be designed to convey the impression that she was repressing her emotion. But they did not quite fulfil their design; they looked rather as if they were due to the desire to pump up rather than keep down. Then Helena gave a long sigh.

"Oh, Archie," she said, "I am utterly broken-hearted. It was so sudden, so terribly sudden. I shall never get over it. Think! We had been married only a fortnight, and next day I got a letter from him, after I knew he was dead. Such a sweet little letter, so cheerful and so loving."

Archie expected something of this sort: its conventionality, its utter insincerity, amused him enormously. And, wanting more of it, he said just the proper sort of thing to encourage her to give it him.

"Oh, my dear," he said, "but how you will love and cherish that letter!

I don't suppose you were once out of his thoughts all the time he was in

France."

She shook her head.

"I am sure of it," she said. "Ah, what a privilege to have been loved as I was loved by such a noble, manly heart. I must always think of that, mustn't I?"

Archie took her hand again. The touch of those soft, cool fingers gave him pleasure; so, too, did the answering pressure of them.

"Yes, indeed," he said. "And you must remember, too, that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

She repeated the quotation in a dreamy meditative voice.

"Yes, that is so true: it does me good to think of that," she said. "And I mustn't think of him as dead really. He is just as living as ever he was. He was so fond of you too. We often spoke of you. And his quaint, quiet humour!…"

That was the general note of the first act: it had been short, for the conversation suitable to it was necessarily limited. The second showed a great advance in scope and variety of topics. Also the tempo was quite changed: instead of its being largo, it was at least andante con moto.

This time, after again keeping him waiting, she had entered with a smile.

"What a comfort you are, Archie!" she said. "I have been looking forward to seeing you again. Somehow you understand me, which nobody else does. I feel all the time that neither darling Jessie, whenever I see her, which isn't often, for she is so busy, nor daddy quite understand me. I mean to be brave, and not lose courage, not lose gaiety even, and I think-I think that they both misjudge me. They expect me to be utterly broken. So I was at first, as you know so well, but I tried to take to heart what you said, and force myself not to despair. I feel I oughtn't to do that: I must take the burden of life up again with a smile."

Her hand lay open on her knee; as she said this, she turned it over towards him, making an invitation that seemed unconscious. He slipped his long brown fingers into that rosy palm. She was astonishingly like a girl he met a night or two ago.

"I must get over this awful feeling of loneliness," she said, "and you are helping me so deliciously to do so. Daddy is busy all day; I scarcely see him. Jessie is busy also. I think she enjoys washing up knives and forks and plates for soldiers, though of course that doesn't make it any less sweet of her to do it. But, anyhow, she hasn't got much time for me. I wish-no, I suppose it's wrong to wish that."

"Well, confess, then," said Archie, smiling at her.

"Yes, dear father-confessor, though I ought to say boy-confessor, for you look so young! Well, I'll confess to you. I-I'm sure you won't be shocked with me. I wish Jessie cared for me a little more. She is my sister, after all. But I daresay it's my fault. I haven't got the key to her heart. And, with Jessie and daddy so full of other affairs, I do feel lonely. But when you are here I don't. I don't know what I should have done without you, Archie. I think I might have killed myself."

This was glorious. Archie gave a splendid shudder.

"Don't talk like that," he said, in a tone of affectionate command. "You don't know how it hurts."

"Ah, I'm sorry. It was selfish of me. Do you forgive me?"

"You know I do," said he.

She had brought into the room with her a long envelope, and rather absently she took out from it an enclosure of papers.

"I got this to-day from the lawyers," she said. "It's about my darling's will, I think. I wonder if you would help me to understand it, I am so stupid at figures."

She slid a little closer to him, leaning her hand on his shoulder and looking over him as he read. The document required, as a matter of fact, very little exercise of intelligence. The house in Surrey where they had spent the week of the honeymoon was hers; and so was a very decent income of L15,000 a year, left to her without any condition whatever for her life; it was hers absolutely. The disposition of the rest of his fortune depended on whether she had a child. The details of that were not given: his lawyer only informed her what was hers.

She hid her face on the hand that rested on Archie's shoulder.

"Oh, Archie, I can never go back to that house," she said, "at least not for a long time. It would be tearing open the old wound again."

"Yes, I understand that," said he, with another pressure of his fingers. And, thinking of the L15,000 a year without conditions, he had a wild temptation to console her further by quoting-

"Let us grieve not, only find

Strength in what remains behind."

But he refrained: though, apparently, there was no limit to Helena's insincerity, there might be some in her acceptance of the insincerity of others.

"Oh, you do understand me so well," she said. "And, Archie, I want to ask a horribly selfish thing of you, but I can't help it. I am all alone now, except for you. You won't go out to the war, will you? I don't think I could bear it if you did."

It was quite easy for him to promise that, but an allusion to the misconception he might incur made his acquiescence sound difficult and noble.

Since then, up to the day when he was now expecting her entry for the third act, he had thought over the whole situation with the imaginative vision which absinthe inspired. He had not the slightest doubt in his mind that Helena, according to her capacity for loving, was in love with him, and that she thought he was still in love with her. But, when he considered it all, he found he had no longer the slightest intention of marrying her, even though she had L15,000 a year for life without conditions attached. Plenty of money was no doubt a preventive of discomfort in this life, and he felt it was fine of him not to be attracted by so ignoble a bait. But no amount of money would really compensate for the inseparable companionship of Helena, with her foolishness, her apparent inability to understand that her insincerities, so far from being convincing and beautiful, were no more than the most puerile and transparent counterfeits. Certainly she aroused the ardour of his senses, but how long would that last? And, even while it lasted, how could it compare with his ardour for his absinthe-coloured dreams, and the ecstasy of his communion with the spirit that had made its home in him? She would interrupt all that; and, as a companion, she could not compare with his father. She would always be wanting to be caressed and made much of and admired and taken care of. It would soon become most horribly tedious.

There was a further reason against marrying her, which was as potent as any. He would forfeit his revenge on her, if he did that. Once, dim ages ago, it seemed, and on another plane of existence, he had loved her, and she, knowing it, had fed his devotion with smiles and glances, and at the end had chosen him whose body now decayed in some graveyard of North France, already probably desecrated by the on-swarming Germans. Now it was Archie's turn; already, he was sure, she expected to marry him, and she would learn that he had not the least intention of doing so. That delightful situation might easily be arrived at in the third act for which he was waiting now.

This time she came with flowers in her hand, and presently, as they sat side by side on the sofa talking, she put one into his button-hole. Instantly he interrupted himself in what he was saying and kissed it.

She gave him that long glance which he had once thought meant so much. It had not meant much then, from her point of view, but it meant a good deal more now. But to Archie it had passed from being a gleam of wonder to a farthing dip.

"Oh, you foolish boy!" she said.

He almost thought he heard Martin laugh.

"I don't see anything foolish about it," he said. "At least, if it's foolish, I've always been foolish."

Her lips moved, though not to speak: they just gathered themselves together, and a little tremor went down the arm that rested against his. He was perfectly certain of both those signals, and next moment he had folded her to him, and she lay less than unresisting in his arms.

Then she gently thrust him from her.

"Ah, how wrong of me," she said, "and yet perhaps it's not wrong. The dear Bradshaw would always want me to be happy. Perhaps he even thought of this when he left me so free. For this time, Archie, I shan't come to you empty-handed. But, of course, we mustn't think of all that for many months yet."

Archie, flushed and merry-eyed, looked at her with boyish surprise.

"Think of what?" he said.

"Ah, you force me to say it, do you? Of our marriage."

He was adorable in her eyes just then; she could hardly realize that so few months ago she had definitely put him from her. His warm, smooth face, his crisp, curling hair, the youthful roughness and ardour of his embrace, inflamed and ravished her.

He looked at her still inquiringly a moment, then threw back his head and laughed.

"Oh, you're delicious!" he said. "But marriage? What do you mean? A cousinly kiss, a little sympathy, a few dear little surrenders of each of us to the other: that's all I intended. Well, I must be off. Good-bye!"

Next moment, still choking with laughter, he was downstairs and out into the street. He could not resist looking up at the window, and waving a gay hand towards it. Something within him, that seemed the very essence of his being, shouted and sang with glee.

* * * * *

The house in Grosvenor Square

, where his mother had become housekeeper and Jessie kitchen-maid, had at present in it only a few wounded officers from France, and during these two or three days in town Archie could still occupy his own bedroom, while his servant slept in the dressing-room adjoining. He was out very late that night, for the completeness of his revenge on Helena ran like a feeding fire through his veins, and both nourished and burned him.

Dawn had already broken when he let himself in, and went very quietly upstairs, not intending to go to bed till he had had an interview with Martin. All night he had felt as if Martin was bursting to come forth again; he was already intensely present, even though Archie had not yet sunk his conscious self and opened the door of mystic communication. That controlling spirit foamed and simmered within him; he could all but break open the door himself, and project himself without invitation. He was still just confined, but only just; it seemed that at any minute he might assert himself. But Archie, with the gourmand instinct that delays an actual fulfilment, teasing itself, while it knows the fulfilment is assured, lingered over his undressing, and planned to make himself cool and comfortable in his pyjamas, before he abandoned the fortress of his normal self. He brushed his teeth, he sponged face and neck with cold water, he arranged his chair in the window, and put on the table by his bed the moonstone stud on which he would focus his eyes, and stretched himself long and luxuriously till he heard his shoulder joints crack. Martin seemed in a great hurry to come to-night, but Martin must just wait till he was ready. And then, all of a sudden, he heard a tremendous noise of rapping. He knew that Martin had come, and an awful terror seized his soul, for Martin had come without being called.

At that precise moment his servant next door started up, wide awake, with some loud sound in his ears that seemed to come from Archie's bedroom. He tapped at his door, but, getting no answer, went in. He found Archie lying on the floor, curled up together, like some twisted root of a tree, foaming at the mouth. He ran downstairs to get help, and brought up one of the nurses who was on duty. She instantly telephoned for a doctor, and woke Lady Tintagel.

* * * * *

All that day Archie lay in this strange seizure, apparently quite unconscious. Sometimes a paroxysm would take hold of him, and he lay with staring eyes and teeth that ground against each other, and limbs that curled into fantastic shapes. In the intervals he remained still, stiff and rigid, his eyes for the most part shut, breathing quickly, as if he had been running. Then once again the panic and the agony would grip him, and with eyes wide with terror and foaming mouth he struggled and fought against the Thing that mastered him. But each paroxysm left him weaker, and it was clear that he would not be able to stand many more of these attacks. Yet no one could wish them prolonged; it would but be merciful if the end came soon, and spared him further suffering.

Towards sunset that day Jessie was sitting by him, with orders to call the nurse next door if he showed signs of the restlessness which preceded the return of a seizure. She knew that, humanly speaking, he was dying, but her faith never faltered that he might still be saved, and that through her and her love salvation might come to him. Medical science was of no avail; it could not combat the spiritual foe that had taken him prisoner. That rescue had to be made through spiritual means, and the two-edged sword by which alone his captor could be vanquished was the bright-shining weapon of love and prayer. It was in her hand now, as she watched and waited.

He lay quite still, breathing quickly and with a shallow inspiration, but there were no signs of the restlessness for which she had to look out. But presently she observed that his eyes were no longer closed, but were open and looking steadily at the brass knob at the foot of his bed on which a sunbeam, entering through a chink at the side of the drawn window-blind made a focus of light. And, all at once, she guessed that he was looking at this with purpose, and her soul, sword in hand, crouched ready to spring. Then from the bed came Archie's voice.

"Martin," it said.

There was a dead silence, and she saw forming in the air a little in front of him a nucleus of mist. It gathered volume from a little jet as of steam that appeared to come from Archie himself. Thicker and thicker it grew; strange lines began to interlace themselves within it, and these took form. The dimness of its outline grew firm and distinct, the shape stood detached and clear, and, bending over Archie with a smile triumphant and cruel, stood the semblance she had seen once before at midnight in Archie's room. He was no longer looking at the knob at the foot of his bed, but with eyes wide open and blank with some nameless terror he gazed at the apparition.

Jessie rose and stood opposite it on the other side of his bed. Her two-edged sword was drawn now, and its bright blade gleamed in the darkness of the evil that flooded the room. And then it seemed that that incarnation of it that stood beside Archie's bed was aware, for it turned and looked her full in the face, bringing to bear on her the utmost of its hellish potency.

For one moment against that awful assault her soul cried out in panic. It had not dreamed that from all the crimes with which the world had withered and bled there could be distilled a tincture so poisonous. And then her love rallied her scattered courage, and she stood firm again. Nothing in the world but love and prayer could prevail, but nothing, if once she could fully realize that, could prevail against them. In her hand, as in the hand of all who are foes to evil, was the irresistible weapon, could she but use its power to the full…

She stood, as she knew, in the face of the deadliest peril by which any living thing, into which the breath of God has passed, can be confronted. There is no soul so strong that evil can cease to be a menace for it, and here, facing her, was the power that had already perverted all that Archie held of goodness and humanity. There it stood, one victim already its helpless prisoner, and it lusted for more. And the wordless struggle, as old as evil itself, began.

She would not give ground. Her soul laid itself open, and let the light invisible shine on it. In this struggle there were no strivings or wrestlings; she had but to stay quiet, and in just that achievement of quietness the struggle lay. Once for a moment all Hell swirled and exulted round her, for her love for Archie let itself contemplate the human and material aspect of him; the next she put all that away from her, and again stood with his soul, so to speak, in her uplifted hands, offering it to God. In the very storm-centre of this evil which shrieked and raged round her, there must be, and there was, a space where the peace that passeth understanding dwelt in serene calm. The storm might shift and envelope her again in its bellowings, but again and yet again she had to regain the centre where no blast of it could penetrate.

How long this lasted she could not tell. Her body was quite conscious of its ordinary perceptions; the blind tapped on the window, and there came from outside the stir of distant traffic. But she did not take her gaze from those awful eyes that sometimes smiled, sometimes blazed with hate. Steadily and firmly she looked at them and through them, for behind them, as behind the cloud, was the sunlight of God.

And then there came a change. It seemed that the power she fought was weakening. Its eyes shifted; they no longer looked undeviatingly at her, but glanced round for a moment, as if they looked for some way of escape. They would come back to her again with fresh assault of smiles or hate, but each time they seemed less potent. More than once they left her face altogether for a while, and were directed on Archie, as if seeking the refuge there that they knew; but, with a wordless command that they were forced to obey, she summoned them back to her again, making the spirit that directed them turn the strength of its fury on her. She gave it no rest, fixing it on herself by the strength of love and prayer.

The eyes began to grow dim; the outline of the form began to waver. The interlacing lines out of which it was woven began to unravel again, and it grew shapeless. But it was not being absorbed into Archie; there were no streams of mist between him and it, as when it had first taken substance. Already through it she could see the wall behind it, and it grew ever fainter and thinner…

There was nothing left of it now, and for the first time since the struggle began, she looked at Archie. He was lying quite still with eyes closed again. And then she saw that by her side was standing another presence. It was identical in form and shape with that which had vanished, and it bent on Archie so amazing a look of love that her soul, spent and sick with struggle, felt itself uplifted and refreshed again. And for one moment it looked at her, and it was as if Archie himself was looking at her. And then it was there no longer. She hardly knew whether her physical eyes had seen it externally, or whether it had been some spirit-vision conveyed to them from within.

There came a sound from next door, and the nurse, who was there ready to be summoned, entered.

"Has he been quite quiet?" she asked, and, without waiting for an answer, she went to the bed. She looked at Archie a moment, then felt his elbows and knees, finding them pliant again instead of being stiff and rigid, and listened to his quiet breathing.

"But there has come an extraordinary change," she said. "The seizure has passed, and yet he's alive."

She beamed at Jessie.

"Well, you are a good nurse," she said. "But I think I'll just fetch the doctor."

She went out of the room, and Archie, who had lain quite motionless with closed eyes, suddenly stirred and looked at the girl.

"Why, Jessie," he said.

She came close to the bed.

"Yes?"

"What's happened?" said he. "I've had some awful nightmare. And then you broke it up. Hasn't Martin been here too?"

"Yes, Archie, I think so," she said.

He lay in silence a moment.

"Have you saved me again, Jessie?" he said. "You did once before at-at

Silorno, when the lightning struck the pine."

She could find no answer for him; not a word could she speak.

He held out his hand to her.

"Jessie!…" he said.

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