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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAthalie - Chapter 26
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Athalie - Chapter 26 Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3294

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Athalie - Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI

Athalie was having a wonderful summer. House and garden continued to enchant her. She brought down Hafiz, who, being a city cat, instantly fled indoors with every symptom of astonishment and terror the first time Athalie placed him on the lawn.

But within a week the dainty Angora had undergone a change of heart. Boldly, now he marched into the garden all by himself; fearlessly he pounced upon such dangerous game as crickets and grasshoppers and the little night moths which drifted among the flowers at twilight,--the favourite prowling hour of Hafiz, the Beautiful.

Also, early in July, Athalie had acquired a fat bay horse and a double buckboard; and, in the seventh heaven now, she jogged about the country through leafy lanes and thistle-bordered by-roads long familiar to her childhood, sometimes with basket, trowel, and garden gloves, intent on the digging and transplanting of ferns, sometimes with field-glasses and books, on ornithological information bent. More often she started out with only a bag of feed for Henry the horse and some luncheon for herself, to picnic all alone in a familiar woodland, haunted by childish memories, and lie there listening to the bees and to the midsummer wind in softly modulated conversation with the little tree-top leaves.

She had brought her maid from the city; Mrs. Connor continued to rule laundry and kitchen. Connor himself decorated the landscape with his straw hat and overalls, weeding, spraying, rolling, driving the lawn-mower, raking bed and path, cutting and training vines, clipping hedges,--a sober, bucolic, agreeable figure to the youthful chatelaine of the house of Greensleeve.

Clive had come once more from town to say that he was sailing for England the following day; that he would be away a month all told, and that he would return by the middle of August.

They had spent the morning driving together in her buckboard--the happiest morning perhaps in their lives.

It promised to be a perfect day; and she was so carefree, so contented, so certain of the world's kindness, so shyly tender with him, so engagingly humorous at his expense, that the prospect of a month's separation ceased for the time to appal him.

Concerning his interview with his wife she had asked him nothing; nor even why he was going abroad. Whether she guessed the truth; whether she had come to understand the situation through other and occult agencies, he could not surmise. But one thing was plain enough; nothing that had happened or that threatened to happen was now disturbing her. And her gaiety and high spirits were reassuring him and tranquillising his mind to a degree for which, on reflection, he could scarcely account, knowing the ultimate hopelessness of their situation.

Yet her sheer good spirits carried him with her, heart and mind, that morning. And when it was time for him to go she said good-bye to him with a smile as tenderly gay and as happy and confident as though he were to return on the morrow. And went back to her magic house of dreams and her fairy garden, knowing that, except for him, their rainbow magic must vanish and the tinted spell fade, and the soft enchantment dissolve forever leaving at her feet only a sunlit ruin amid the stillness of desolation.

But the magic held. Every day she wrote him. Wireless messages came to her from him for a while; ceased; then re-commenced, followed presently by cablegrams and finally by letters.

So the magic held through the long sunny summer days. And Athalie worked in her garden and strayed far afield, both driving and afoot. And she studied and practised piano, and made curtains, and purchased furniture.

Also she wrote letters to her sisters, long since wedded to husbands, babies, and homes in the West. Her brother Jack, she learned, had joined the Navy at Puget Sound, and had now become a petty officer aboard the new battle-cruiser _Bon Homme Richard in Asiatic waters. She wrote to him, also, and sent him a money order, gaily suggesting that he use it to educate himself as a good sailor should, and that he save his pay for a future wife and baby--the latter, as she wrote, "being doubtless the most desirable attainment this side of Heaven."

In her bedroom were photographs of Catharine's children and of the little boy which Doris had brought into the world; and sometimes, in the hot midsummer afternoons, she would lie on her pillow and look at these photographs until the little faces faded to a glimmer as slumber dulled her eyes.

Captain Dane came once or twice to spend the day with her; and it was pleasant, afterward, for her to remember this big, blond, sunburnt man as part of all that she most cared for. Together they drove and walked and idled through house and garden: and when he went away, to sail the following day for those eternal forests which conceal the hearthstone of the Western World, he knew from her own lips about her love for Clive. He was the only person she ever told.

A few of her friends she asked to the house for quiet week-ends; the impression their visits made upon her was pleasant but colourless.

And it seemed singular, as she thought it over, how subordinate, how unaccented had always been all these people who came into her life, lingered, and faded out of it, leaving only the impressions of backgrounds and accessories against which only one figure stood clear and distinct--her lover's.

Yes, of all men she had ever known, only Clive seemed real; and he dominated every scene of her girlhood and her womanhood as her mother had been the only really living centre of her childhood.

All else seemed to her like a moving and subdued background,--an endless series of grey scenes vaguely painted through which figures came and went, some shadowy and colourless as phantoms, some soberly outlined, some delicately tinted--but all more or less subordinate, more or less monochromatic, unimportant except for balance and composition, as painters use indefinite shapes and shades so that the eyes may more perfectly concentrate on the centre of their inspiration.

And the centre of all, for her, was Clive. Since her mother's death there had been no other point of view for her, no other focus for the forces of her mind, no other real desire, no other content. He had entered her child's life and had become, instantly, all that the child-world held for her. And it was so through the years of her girlhood. Absent, or during his brief reappearances, the central focus of her heart and mind was Clive. And, in womanhood, all forces in her mind and spirit and, now, of body, centred in this man who stood out against the faded tapestry of the world all alone for her, the only living thing on earth with which her heart had mated as a child, and in which now her mind and spirit had found Nirvana.

All men, all women, seemed to have their shadowy being only to make this man more real to her.

Friends came, remained, and went,--Cecil Reeve, gay, charmed with everything, and, as always, mischievously ready to pay court to her; Francis Hargrave, politely surprised but full of courteous admiration for her good taste; John Lyndhurst, Grismer, Harry Ferris, Young Welter, Arthur Ensart, and James Allys,--all were bidden for the day; all came, marvelled in the several manners characteristic of them, and finally went their various ways, serving only, as always, to make clearer to her the fadeless memory of an absent man. For, to her, the merest thought of him was more real, more warm and vivid, than all of these, even while their eager eyes sought hers and their voices were sounding in her ears.

Nina Grey came with Anne Randolph for a week-end; and then came Jeanne Delauny, and Adele Millis. The memory of their visits lingered with Athalie as long, perhaps, as the scent of roses hangs in a dim, still room before the windows are open in the morning to the outer air.

The first of August a cicada droned from the hill-top woods and all her garden became saturated with the homely and bewitching odour of old-fashioned rockets.

On the grey wall nasturtiums blazed; long stretches of brilliant portulaca edged the herbaceous borders; clusters of auratum lilies hung in the transparent shadow of Cydonia and Spirea; and the first great dahlias faced her in maroon splendour from the spiked thickets along the wall.

Once or twice she went to town on shopping bent, and on one of these occasions impulse took her to the apartment furnished for her so long ago by Clive.

She had not meant to go in, merely intended to pass the house, speak to Michael, perhaps, if indeed, he still presided over door and elevator.

And there he was, outside the door on a chair, smoking his clay pipe and surveying the hot and silent street, where not even a sparrow stirred.

"Michael," she said, smiling.

For a moment he did not know her, then: "God's glory!" he said huskily, getting to his feet--"is it the sweet face o' Miss Greensleeve or the angel in her come back f'r to bless us all?"

She gave him her hand, and he held it and looked at her, earnestly, wistfully; then, with the flashing change of his race, the grin broke out:

"I'm that proud to be remembered by the likes o' you, Miss Athalie! Are ye well, now?--an' happy? I thank God for that! I am substantial--with my respects, ma'am, f'r the kind inquiry. And Hafiz? Glory be, was there ever such a cat now? D'ye mind the day we tuk him in a bashket?--an' the sufferin' yowls of the poor, dear creature. Sure I'm that glad to hear he's well;--and manny mice to him, Miss Athalie!"

Athalie laughed: "I suppose all your tenants are away in the country," she ventured.

"Barrin' wan or two, Miss. Ye know the young Master will suffer no one in your own apartment."

"Is it still unoccupied, Michael?"

"Deed it is, Miss. Would ye care f'r to look around. There is nothing changed there. I dust it meself."

"Yes," said the girl in a low voice, "I will look at it."

So Michael took her up in the lift, unlocked the door for her, and then with the fine instinct of his race, forbore to follow her.

The shades in the square living-room were lowered; she raised one. And the dim, golden past took shadowy shape again before her eyes.

(Illustration: "'Michael,' she said, smiling.")

She moved slowly from one object to another, touching caressingly where memory was tenderest. She looked at the furniture, the pictures,--at the fireplace where in her mind's eye she could see _him bending to light the first fire that had ever blazed there.

For a little while she sat on the big lounge, her dreamy eyes fixed on the spot where Clive's father had stood and she remembered Jacques Renouf, too, and the lost city of Yhdunez.... And, somehow her memories receded still further toward earlier years; and she thought of the sunny office where Mr. Wahlbaum used to sit; and she seemed to see the curtains stirring in the wind.

After a while she rose and walked slowly along the hall to her own room.

Everything was there as she had left it; the toilet silver, evidently kept clean and bright by Michael, the little Dresden cupids on the mantel, the dainty clock, still running--further confirmation of Michael's ministrations--the fresh linen on the bed. Nothing had been changed through all these changing years. She softly opened the clothes-press door; there hung her gowns--silent witnesses of her youth, strangely and daintily grotesque in fashion. One by one she examined them, a smile edging her lips, and, in her eyes, tears.

All revery is tinged with melancholy; and it was so with her when she stood among the forgotten gowns of years ago.

It was so, too, when, one by one she unlocked and opened the drawers of dresser and bureau. From soft, ordered heaps of silk and lace and sheerest linen a faint perfume mounted; and it was as though she subtly renewed an exquisite and secret intimacy with a youth and innocence half-forgotten in the sadder wisdom of later days.

* * * * *

From the still and scented twilight of a vanished year, to her own apartment perched high above the sun-smitten city she went, merely to find herself again, and look around upon what fortune had brought to her through her own endeavour.

But, somehow, the old prejudices had gone; the old instincts of pride and independence had been obliterated, merged in a serene and tranquil unity of mind and will and spirit with the man in whom every atom of her belief and faith was now centred.

It mattered no longer to her what material portion of her possessions and environment was due to her own efforts, or to his. Nothing that might be called hers could remain conceivable as hers unless he shared it. Their rights in each other included everything temporal and spiritual; everything of mind and matter alike. Of what consequence, then, might be the origin of possessions that could not exist for her unless possession were mutual?

Nothing would be real to her, nothing of value, unless so marked by his interest and his approval. And now she knew that even the world itself must become but a shadow, were he not living to make it real.

* * * * *

It was a fearfully hot day in town, and she waited until evening to go back to Spring Pond.

When she arrived, Mrs. Connor had a cablegram for her from Clive saying that he was sailing and would see her before the month ended.

Late into the night she looked for him in her crystal but could see nothing save a blue and tranquil sea and gulls flying, and always on the curved world's edge a far stain of smoke against the sky.

Her mother was in her room that night, seated near the window as though to keep the vigil that her daughter kept, brooding above the crystal.

It was Friday, the twenty-first, and a new moon. The starlight was magnificent in the August skies: once or twice meteors fell. But in the depths of her crystal she saw always a sunlit sea and a gull's wings flashing.

Toward morning when the world had grown its darkest and stillest, she went over to where her mother was sitting beside the window, and knelt down beside her chair.

And so in voiceless and tender communion she nestled close, her golden head resting against her mother's knees.

Dawn found her there asleep beside an empty chair.

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