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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Dark Star - Chapter 5. Ex Machina
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The Dark Star - Chapter 5. Ex Machina Post by :Eliot_Proud Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1581

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The Dark Star - Chapter 5. Ex Machina

CHAPTER V. EX MACHINA

After she had become accustomed to the smell of rancid oil and dyestuffs and the interminable racket of machinery she did not find her work at the knitting mill disagreeable. It was like any work, she imagined, an uninteresting task which had to be done.

The majority of the girls and young men of the village worked there in various capacities; wages were fair, salaries better, union regulations prevailed. There was nothing to complain of.

And nothing to expect except possible increase in wages, holidays, and a disquieting chance of getting caught in the machinery, which familiarity soon discounted.

As for the social status of the mill workers, the mill _was Gayfield; and Gayfield was a village where the simpler traditions of the Republic still survived; where there existed no invidious distinction in vocations; a typical old-time community harbouring the remains of a Grand Army Post and too many churches of too many denominations; where the chance metropolitan stranger was systematically "done"; where distrust of all cities and desire to live in them was equalled only by a passion for moving pictures and automobiles; where the school trustees used double negatives and traced their ancestry to Colonial considerables--who, however, had signed their names in "lower case" or with a Maltese cross--the world in miniature, with its due proportion of petty graft, petty squabbles, envy, kindness, jealousy, generosity, laziness, ambition, stupidity, intelligence, honesty, hypocrisy, hatred, affection, badness and goodness, as standardised by the code established according to folk-ways on earth--in brief, a perfectly human community composed of the usual ingredients, worthy and unworthy--that was Gayfield, Mohawk County, New York.

Before spring came--before the first robin appeared, and while icy roads still lay icy under sunlit pools of snow-water--a whole winter indoors, and a sedentary one, had changed the smoothly tanned and slightly freckled cheeks of Rue Carew to a thinner and paler oval. Under her transparent skin a tea-rose pink came and went; under her grey eyes lay bluish shadows. Also, floating particles of dust, fleecy and microscopic motes of cotton and wool filling the air in the room where Ruhannah worked, had begun to irritate her throat and bronchial tubes; and the girl developed an intermittent cough.

When the first bluebird arrived in Gayfield the cough was no longer intermittent; and her mother sent her to the village doctor. So Rue Carew was transferred to the box factory adjoining, in which the mill made its own paper boxes, where young women sat all day at intelligent machines and fed them with squares of pasteboard and strips of gilt paper; and the intelligent and grateful machines responded by turning out hundreds and hundreds of complete boxes, all neatly gilded, pasted, and labelled. And after a little while Ruhannah was able to nourish one of these obliging and responsive machines. And by July her cough had left her, and two delicate freckles adorned the bridge of her nose.

The half-mile walk from and to Brookhollow twice a day was keeping her from rapid physical degeneration. Yet, like all northern American summers, the weather became fearfully hot in July and August, and the half-mile even in early morning and at six in the evening left her listless, nervously dreading the great concrete-lined room, the reek of glue and oil, the sweaty propinquity of her neighbours, and the monotonous appetite of the sprawling machine which she fed all day long with pasteboard squares.

She went to her work in early morning, bareheaded, in a limp pink dress very much open at the throat, which happened to be the merciful mode of the moment--a slender, sweet-lipped thing, beginning to move with grace now--and her chestnut hair burned gold-pale by the sun.

* * * * *

There came that movable holiday in August, when the annual shutdown for repairs closed the mill and box factory during forty-eight hours--a matter of prescribing oil and new bearings for the overfed machines so that their digestions should remain unimpaired and their dispositions amiable.

It was a hot August morning, intensely blue and still, with that slow, subtle concentration of suspended power in the sky, ominous of thunder brooding somewhere beyond the western edges of the world.

Ruhannah aided her mother with the housework, picked peas and a squash and a saucer full of yellow pansies in the weedy little garden, and, at noon, dined on the trophies of her husbandry, physically and aesthetically.

After dinner, dishes washed and room tidied, she sat down on the narrow, woodbine-infested verandah with pencil and paper, and attempted to draw the stone bridge and the little river where it spread in deeps and shallows above the broken dam.

Perspective was unknown to her; of classic composition she was also serenely ignorant, so the absence of these in her picture did not annoy her. On the contrary, there was something hideously modern and recessional in her vigorous endeavour to include in her drawing everything her grey eyes chanced to rest on. She even arose and gently urged a cow into the already overcrowded composition, and, having accomplished its portrait with Cezanne-like fidelity, was beginning to look about for Adoniram to include him also, when her mother called to her, holding out a pair of old gloves.

"Dear, we are going to save a little money this year. Do you think you could catch a few fish for supper?"

The girl nodded, took the gloves, laid aside her pencil and paper, picked up the long bamboo pole from the verandah floor, and walked slowly out into the garden.

A trowel was sticking in the dry earth near the flower bed, where poppies, and pansies, and petunias, and phlox bordered the walk.

Under a lilac the ground seemed moister and more promising for vermicular investigation; she drew on her gloves, dug a few holes with the trowel, extracted an angleworm, frowned slightly, holding it between gloved fingers, regarding its contortions with pity and aversion.

To bait a hook was not agreeable to the girl; she managed to do it, however, then shouldering her pole she walked across the road and down to the left, through rank grasses and patches of milkweed, bergamot, and queen's lace, scattering a cloud of brown and silver-spotted butterflies.

Alder, elder, and Indian willow barred her way; rank thickets of jewelweed hung vivid blossoming drops across her path; woodbine and clematis trailed dainty snares to catch her in their fairy nets; a rabbit scurried out from behind the ruined paper mill as she came to the swift, shallow water below the dam.

Into this she presently plumped her line, and the next instant jerked it out again with a wriggling, silvery minnow flashing on the hook.

Carrying her pole with its tiny, glittering victim dangling aloft, Rue hastily retraced her steps to the road, crossed the bridge to the further end, seated herself on the limestone parapet, and, swinging her pole with both hands, cast line and hook and minnow far out into the pond. It was a business she did not care for--this extinguishing of the life-spark in anything. But, like her mill work, it appeared to be a necessary business, and, so regarding it, she went about it.

The pond above the half-ruined dam lay very still; her captive minnow swam about with apparently no discomfort, trailing on the surface of the pond above him the cork which buoyed the hook.

Rue, her pole clasped in both hands between her knees, gazed with preoccupied eyes out across the water. On the sandy shore, a pair of speckled tip-ups ran busily about, dipping and bobbing, or spread their white, striped wings to sheer the still surface of the pond, swing shoreward with bowed wings again, and resume their formal, quaint, and busy manners.

From the interstices of the limestone parapet grew a white bluebell--the only one Rue had ever seen. As long as she could remember it had come up there every year and bloomed, snow-white amid a world of its blue comrades in the grass below. She looked for it now, saw it in bud--three sturdy stalks sprouting at right angles from the wall and curving up parallel to it. Somehow or other she had come to associate this white freak of nature with herself--she scarcely knew why. It comforted her, oddly, to see it again, still surviving, still delicately vigorous, though where among those stone slabs it found its nourishment she never could imagine.

The intense blue of the sky had altered since noon; the west became gradually duller and the air stiller; and now, over the Gayfield hills, a tall cloud thrust up silvery-edged convolutions toward a zenith still royally and magnificently blue.

* * * * *

She had been sitting there watching her swimming cork for over an hour when the first light western breeze arrived, spreading a dainty ripple across the pond. Her cork danced, drifted; beneath it she caught the momentary glimmer of the minnow; then the cork was jerked under; she clasped the pole with all her strength, struck upward; and a heavy pickerel, all gold and green, sprang furiously from the water and fell back with a sharp splash.

Under the sudden strain of the fish she nearly lost her balance, scrambled hastily down from the parapet, propping the pole desperately against her body, and stood so, unbending, unyielding, her eyes fixed on the water where the taut line cut it at forty-five degrees.

At the same time two men in a red runabout speeding westward caught sight of the sharp turn by the bridge which the ruins of the paper mill had hidden. The man driving the car might have made it even then had he not seen Ruhannah in the centre of the bridge. It was instantly all off; so were both mud-guards and one wheel. So were driver and passenger, floundering on their backs among the rank grass and wild flowers. Ruhannah, petrified, still fast to her fish, gazed at the catastrophe over her right shoulder.

A broad, short, squarely built man of forty emerged from the weeds, went hastily to the car and did something to it. Noise ceased; clouds of steam continued to ascend from the crumpled hood.

The other man, even shorter, but slimmer, sauntered out of a bed of milkweed whither he had been catapulted. He dusted with his elbow a grey felt hat as he stood looking at the wrecked runabout; his comrade, still clutching a cigar between his teeth, continued to examine the car.

"Hell!" remarked the short, thickset man.

"It's going to rain like it, too," added the other. The thunder boomed again beyond Gayfield hills.

"What do you know about this!" growled the thickset man, in utter disgust. "Do we hunt for a garage, or what?"

"It's up to you, Eddie. And say! What was the matter with you? Don't you know a bridge when you see one?"

"That damn girl----" He turned and looked at Ruhannah, who was dragging the big flapping pickerel over the parapet by main strength.

The men scowled at her in silence, then the one addressed as Eddie rolled his cigar grimly into the left corner of his jaw.

"Damn little skirt," he observed briefly. "It seems to worry her a lot what she's done to us."

"I wonder does she know she wrecked us," suggested the other. He was a stunted, wiry little man of thirty-five. His head seemed slightly too large; he had a pasty face with the sloe-black eyes, button nose, and the widely chiselled mouth of a circus clown.

The eyes of the short, thickset man were narrow and greyish green in a round, smoothly shaven face. They narrowed still more as the thunder broke louder from the west.

Ruhannah, dragging her fish over the grass, was coming toward them; and the man called Eddie stepped forward to bar her progress.

"Say, girlie," he began, the cigar still tightly screwed into his cheek, "is there a juice mill anywhere near us, d'y'know?"

"What?" said Rue.

"A garage."

"Yes; there is one at Gayfield."

"How far, girlie?"

Rue flushed, but answered:

"It is half a mile to Gayfield."

The other man, noticing the colour in Ruhannah's face, took off his pearl-grey hat. His language was less grammatical than his friend's, but his instincts were better.

"Thank you," he said--his companion staring all the while at the girl without the slightest expression. "Is there a telephone in any of them houses, miss?"--glancing around behind him at the three edifices which composed the crossroads called Brookhollow.

"No," said Rue.

It thundered again; the world around had become very dusky and silent and the flash veined a rapidly blackening west.

"It's going to rain buckets," said the man called Eddie. "If you live around here, can you let us come into your house till it's over, gir--er--miss?"

"Yes."

"I'm Mr. Brandes--Ed Brandes of New York----" speaking through cigar-clutching teeth. "This is Mr. Ben Stull, of the same.... It's raining already. Is that your house?"

"I live _there_," said Rue, nodding across the bridge. "You may go in."

She walked ahead, dragging the fish; Stull went to the car, took two suitcases from the boot; Brandes threw both overcoats over his arm, and followed in the wake of Ruhannah and her fish.

"No Saratoga and no races today, Eddie," remarked Stull. But Brandes' narrow, grey-green eyes were following Ruhannah.

"It's a pity," continued Stull, "somebody didn't learn you to drive a car before you ask your friends joy-riding."

"Aw--shut up," returned Brandes slowly, between his teeth.

They climbed the flight of steps to the verandah, through a rapidly thickening gloom which was ripped wide open at intervals by lightning.

So Brandes and his shadow, Bennie Stull, came into the home of Ruhannah Carew.

Her mother, who had observed their approach from the window, opened the door.

"Mother," said Ruhannah, "here is the fish I caught--and two gentlemen."

With which dubious but innocent explanation she continued on toward the kitchen, carrying her fish.

Stull offered a brief explanation to account for their plight and presence; Brandes, listening and watching the mother out of greenish, sleepy eyes, made up his mind concerning her.

While the spare room was being prepared by mother and daughter, he and Stull, seated in the sitting-room, their hats upon their knees, exchanged solemn commonplaces with the Reverend Mr. Carew.

Brandes, always the gambler, always wary and reticent by nature, did all the listening before he came to conclusions that relaxed the stiffness of his attitude and the immobility of his large, round face.

Then, at ease under circumstances and conditions which he began to comprehend and have an amiable contempt for, he became urbane and conversational, and a little amused to find navigation so simple, even when out of his proper element.

From the book on the invalid's knees, Brandes took his cue; and the conversation developed into a monologue on the present condition of foreign missions--skilfully inspired by the respectful attention and the brief and ingenious questions of Brandes.

"Doubtless," concluded the Reverend Mr. Carew, "you are familiar with the life of the Reverend Adoniram Judson, Mr. Brandes."

It turned out to be Brandes' favourite book.

"You will recollect, then, the amazing conditions in India which confronted Dr. Judson and his wife."

Brandes recollected perfectly--with a slow glance at Stull.

"All that is changed," said the invalid. "--God be thanked. And conditions in Armenia are changing for the better, I hope."

"Let us hope so," returned Brandes solemnly.

"To doubt it is to doubt the goodness of the Almighty," said the Reverend Mr. Carew. His dreamy eyes became fixed on the rain-splashed window, burned a little with sombre inward light.

"In Trebizond," he began, "in my time----"

His wife came into the room, saying that the spare bedchamber was ready and that the gentlemen might wish to wash before supper, which would be ready in a little while.

* * * * *

On their way upstairs they encountered Ruhannah coming down. Stull passed with a polite grunt; Brandes ranged himself for the girl to pass him.

"Ever so much obliged to you, Miss Carew," he said. "We have put you to a great deal of trouble, I am sure."

Rue looked up surprised, shy, not quite understanding how to reconcile his polite words and pleasant voice with the voice and manner in which he had addressed her on the bridge.

"It is no trouble," she said, flushing slightly. "I hope you will be comfortable."

And she continued to descend the stairs a trifle more hastily, not quite sure she cared very much to talk to that kind of man.

* * * * *

In the spare bedroom, whither Stull and Brandes had been conducted, the latter was seated on the big and rather shaky maple bed, buttoning a fresh shirt and collar, while Stull took his turn at the basin. Rain beat heavily on the windows.

"Say, Ben," remarked Brandes, "you want to be careful when we go downstairs that the old guy don't spot us for sporting men. He's a minister, or something."

Stull lifted his dripping face of a circus clown from the basin.

"What's that?"

"I say we don't want to give the old people a shock. You know what they'd think of us."

"What do I care what they think?"

"Can't you be polite?"

"I can be better than that; I can be honest," said Stull, drying his sour visage with a flimsy towel.

After Brandes had tied his polka-dotted tie carefully before the blurred mirror:

"What do you mean by that?" he asked stolidly.

"Ah--I know what I mean, Eddie. So do you. You're a smooth talker, all right. You can listen and look wise, too, when there's anything in it for you. Just see the way you got Stein to put up good money for you! And all you done was to listen to him and keep your mouth shut."

Brandes rose with an air almost jocular and smote Stull upon the back.

"Stein thinks he's the greatest manager on earth. Let him tell you so if you want anything out of him," he said, walking to the window.

The volleys of rain splashing on the panes obscured the outlook; Brandes flattened his nose against the glass and stood as though lost in thought.

Behind him Stull dried his features, rummaged in the suitcase, produced a bathrobe and slippers, put them on, and stretched himself out on the bed.

"Aren't you coming down to buzz the preacher?" demanded Brandes, turning from the drenched window.

"So you can talk phony to the little kid? No."

"Ah, get it out of your head that I mean phony."

"Well, what do you mean?"

"Nothing."

Stull gave him a contemptuous glance and turned over on the pillow.

"Are you coming down?"

"No."

So Brandes took another survey of himself in the glass, used his comb and brushes again, added a studied twist to his tie, shot his cuffs, and walked out of the room with the solid deliberation which characterised his carriage at all times.

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