The Chalice Of Courage: A Romance of Colorado
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On the hither side of that door in the room where the fire burned on the hearth, there was rest in the heart of the woman, on the farther side where the fire only burned in the heart of the man, there was tumult. Not outward and visible, but inward and spiritual, and yet there was no lack of apparent manifestation of the turmoil in the man's soul.
Albeit the room was smaller than the other, it was still of a good size. He walked nervously up and down from one end to the other as ceaselessly as a wild animal impatient of captivity stalks the narrow limits of his contracted cage. The even tenor of his life had suddenly been diverted. The ordinary sequence of his days had been abruptly changed. The privacy of five years, which he had hoped and dreamed might exist as long as he, had been rudely broken in upon. Humanity, which he had avoided, from which he had fled, which he had cast away forever, had found him. Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit! And, lo, his departures were all in vain! The world, with all its grandeur and its insignificance, with all its powers and its weaknesses, with all its opportunities and its obligations, with all its joys and its sorrows, had knocked at his door; and that the knocking hand was that of a woman, but added to his perplexity and to his dismay.
He had cherished a dream that he could live to himself alone with but a memory to bear him company, and from that dream he had been thunderously awakened. Everything was changed. What had once been easy had now become impossible. He might send her away, but though he swore her to secrecy she would have to tell her story and something of his; the world would learn some of it and seek him out with insatiable curiosity to know the rest.
Eyes as keen as his would presently search and scrutinize the mountains where he had roamed alone. They would see what he had seen, find what he had found. Mankind, gold-lusting, would swarm and hive upon the hills and fight and love and breed and die.
He would of course move on, but where? And went he whithersoever he might, he would now of necessity carry with him another memory which would not dwell within his mind in harmony with the memory which until that day had been paramount there alone.
Slowly, laboriously, painfully, he had built his house upon the sand, and the winds had blown and the floods had come, not only in a literal but in a spiritual significance, and in one day that house had fallen. He stood amid the wrecked remains of it trying to recreate it, to endow once more with the fitted precision of the past the shapeless broken units of the fabric of his fond imagination.
Whiles he resented with fierce, savage, passionate intensity the interruption of this woman into his life. Whiles he throbbed with equal intensity and almost as much passion at the thought of her.
Have you ever climbed a mountain early in the morning while it was yet dark and having gained some dominant crest stood staring at the far horizon, the empurpled east, while the "dawn came up like thunder?" Or, better still, have you ever stood within the cold dark recesses of some deep valley of river or pass and watched the clear light spread its bars athwart the heavens, like nebulous mighty pinions, along the light touched crest of a towering range until all of a sudden, with a leap almost of joy, the great sun blazed in the high horizon?
You might be born a child of the dark, and light might sear and burn your eyeballs accustomed to cooler, deeper shades, yet you could no more turn away from this glory, though you might hate it, than by mere effort of will you could cease to breathe the air.The shock that you might feel, the sudden surprise, is only faintly suggestive of the emotions in the breast of this man.
Once long ago the gentlest and tenderest of voices called from the dark to the light, the blind. And it is given to modern science and to modern skill sometimes to emulate that godlike achievement. Perhaps the surprise, the amazement, the bewilderment, of him who having been blind doth now see, if we can imagine it, not having been in the case ourselves, will be a better guide to the understanding of this man's emotion when this woman came suddenly into his lonely orbit. His eyes were opened although he would not know it. He fought down his new consciousness and would have none of it. Yet it was there. He loved her!
With what joy did Selkirk welcome the savage sharer of his solitude! Suppose she had been a woman of his own race; had she been old, withered, hideous, he must have loved her on the instant, much more if she were young and beautiful. The thing was inevitable. Such passions are born. God forbid that we should deny it. Even in the busy haunts of men where women are as plenty as blackberries, to use Falstaff's simile, and where a man may sometimes choose between a hundred, or a thousand, often such loves are born, forever.
A voice in the night, a face in the street, a whispered word, the touch of a hand, the answering throb of another heart – and behold! two walk together where before each walked alone. Sometimes the man or the woman who is born again of love knows it not, declines to admit it, refuses to recognize it. Some birth pain must awake the consciousness of the new life.
If those things are true and possible under every day conditions and to ordinary men and women, how much more to this solitary. He had seen this woman, white breasted like the foam, rising as the ancient goddess from the Paphian Sea. Over that recollection, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would fain draw a curtain, before it erect a wall. He must not dwell upon that fact, he would not linger over that moment. Yet he could not forget it.
Then he had seen her lying prone, yet unconsciously graceful in her abandonment, on the sward; he had caught a glimpse of her white face desperately up-tossed by the rolling water; he had looked into the unfathomable depths of her eyes at that moment when she had awakened in his arms after such a struggle as had taxed his manhood and almost broken his heart; he had carried her unconsciously, ghastly white with her pain-drawn face, stumbling desperately over the rocks in the beating rain to this his home. There he had held that poor, bruised slender little foot in his hand, gently, skillfully treating it, when he longed to press his lips passionately upon it. Last of all he had looked into her face warmed with the red light of the fire, searched her weary eyes almost like blue pools, in whose depths there yet lurked life and light, while her golden hair tinged crimson by the blaze lay on the white pillow – and he loved her. God pity him, fighting against fact and admission of it, yet how could he help it?
He had loved once before in his life with the fire of youth and spring, but it was not like this; he did not recognize this new passion in any light from the past, therefore he would not admit it, hence he did not understand it. But he saw and admitted and understood enough to know that the past was no longer the supreme subject in his life, that the present rose higher, bulked larger and hid more and more of his far-off horizon.
He felt like a knave and a traitor, as if he had been base, disloyal, false to his ideal, recreant to his remembrance. Was he indeed a true man? Did he have that rugged strength, that abiding faith, that eternal consciousness, that lasting affection beside which the rocky paths he often trod were things transient, perishable, evanescent? Was he a weakling that he fell at the first sight of another woman?
He stopped his ceaseless pace forward and backward, and stopped near that frail and futile door. She was there and there was none to prevent. His hand sought the latch.
What was he about to do? God forbid that a thought he could not freely share with humanity should enter his brain then. He held all women sacred, and so he had ever done, and this woman in her loveliness, in her helplessness, in her weakness, trebly appealed to him. But he would look upon her, he would fain see if she were there, if it were all not a dream, the creation of his disordered imagination.
Men had gone mad in hermitages in the mountains, they had been driven insane in lonely oases in vast deserts; and they had peopled their solitudes with men and women. Was this same working of a disordered brain too much turned upon itself and with too tremendous a pressure upon it producing an illusion? Was there in truth any woman there? He would raise the latch and open the door and look. Once more the hand went stealthily to the latch.
The woman slept quietly on. No thin barricade easily unlocked or easily broken protected her. Something intangible yet stronger than the thickest, the most rigid, bars of steel guarded her; something unseen, indescribable, but so unmistakable when it throbs in the breast that those who depend on it feel that their dependence is not in vain, watched over her.
Cherishing no evil thought, the man had power to gratify his desire which might yet bear a sinister construction should his action be observed. It was her privacy he was invading; she had trusted to him, she had said so, to his honor and that stood her in good stead. His honor! Not in five years had he heard the word or thought the thing, but he had not forgotten it. She had not appealed to an unreal thing. Upon a rock her trust was based. His hand left the latch, it fell gently, he drew back and turned away trembling, a conqueror who mastered himself. He was awake to the truth again.
What had he been about to do? Profane, uninvited, the sanctity of her chamber, violate the hospitality of his own house. Even with a proper motive imperil his self-respect, shatter her trust, endanger that honor which so suddenly became a part of him on demand. She would not probably know, she could never know unless she awoke. What of that? That ancient honor of his life and race rose like a mountain whose scarped face cannot be scaled.
He fell back with a swift turn, a feeling almost womanly – and more men perhaps if they lived in feminine isolation, as self-centered as women are so often by necessity, would be as feminine as their sisters – influenced him, overcame him. His hand went to his hunting shirt; nervously he tore it open, he grasped a bright object that hung against his breast; as he did so, the thought came to him that not before in five years had he been for a moment unconscious of the pressure of that locket over his heart, but now that this other had come, he had to seek for it to find it.
The man dragged it out, held it in his hand and opened it. He held it so tightly that it almost gave beneath the strong grasp of his strong hand. From a near-by box he drew another object with his other hand; he took the two to the light, the soft light of the candle upon the table, and stared from one to the other with eyes brimming.
Like crystal gazers he saw other things than those presented to the casual vision, he heard other sounds than the beat of the rain upon the roof, the roar of the wind down the ca?on. A voice that he had sworn he would never forget, but which, God forgive him, had not now the clearness that it might have had yesterday, whispered awful words to him.
Anon he looked into another face, red too, but with no hue from the hearth or leaping flame, but red with the blood of ghastly wounds. He heard again that report, the roar louder and more terrible than any peal of thunder that rived the clouds above his head and made the mountains quake and tremble. He was conscious again of the awful stillness of death that supervened. He dropped on his knees, buried his face in his hands where they rested on picture and locket on the rude table.
Ah, the past died hard; for a moment he was the lover of old – remorse, passionate expiation, solitude – he and the dead together – the world and the living forgot! He would not be false, he would be true; there was no power in any feeble woman's tender hand to drive him off his course, to shake his purpose, to make him a new, another man. O, Vanitas, Vanitatum!
On the other side of the door the unconscious woman slept quietly on. The red fire light died away, the glowing coals sank into gray ash. Within the smaller room the cold dawn stealing through the unshaded window looked upon a field of battle – deaths, wounds, triumphs, defeats – portrayed upon one poor human face, upturned as sometimes victors and vanquished alike upturn stark faces from the field to the God above who may pity but who has not intervened.
So Jacob may have looked after that awful night when he wrestled until the day broke with the angel and would not let him go until he blessed him, walking, forever after, with halting step as memorial but with his blessing earned. Hath, this man blessing won or not? And must he pay for it if he hath achieved it?
And all the while the woman slept quietly on upon the other side of that door.