Robert Chambers.

The Mystery of Choice



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She made a gesture, indifferent, condescending.

"Dear me!" murmured the aunts in chorus from the piazza as we trooped after the Aspen beauty, "Sweetheart is growing very fast."

I smiled vaguely at Sweetheart. I was wondering how she would look in long frocks and coiled hair.

II

In the fall of the year the meadows of Aspen glimmer in the sunlight like crumpled sheets of beaten gold; for Aspen is the land of golden-rod, of yellow earth and gilded fern.

There the crisp oaks rustle, every leaf a blot of yellow; there the burnished pines sound, sound, tremble, and resound, like gilt-stringed harps aquiver in the wind.

Sweet fern, sun-dried, bronzed, fills all the hills with incense, vague and delicate as the white down drifting from the frothy milkweed.

And where the meadow brook prattled, limpid, filtered with sunlight, Sweetheart stood knee-deep in fragrant mint, watching the aimless minnows swimming in circles. On a distant hill, dark against the blue, Donald moved with his dogs, and I saw the sun-glint on his gun, and I heard the distant "Hi – on! Hi – on!" long after he disappeared below the brown hill's brow.

Walter, too, had gone, leaving us there by the brook together, Sweetheart and I; and I saw the crows flapping and circling far over the woods, and I heard the soft report of his dust-shot shells among the trees.

"The ruling passion, Sweetheart," I said. "Donny chases the phantom of pleasure with his dogs. The phantom flies from Walter, and he follows with his dust-shot."

"Then," said Sweetheart, "follow your phantom also; there are butterflies everywhere." She raised both arms and turned from the brook. "Everywhere flying I see butterflies – phantoms of pleasure; and, Jack, you do not follow with your net."

"No," said I, "the world to-day is too fair to – slay in. I even doubt that the happiness of empires hinges on the discovery of a new species of anything. Do I bore you?"

"A little," said Sweetheart, touching the powdered gold of the blossoms about her. She laid the tip of her third finger on her lips and then on the golden-rod. "I shall not pick it; the world is too fair to-day," she said. "What are you going to do, Jack?"

"I could doze," I said. "Could you?"

"Yes – if you told me stories."

I contemplated her in silence for a moment. After a while she sat down under an oak and clasped her hands.

"I am growing so old," she sighed, "I no longer take pleasure in childish things – Donald's dogs, Walter's humming birds, your butterflies. Jack?"

"What?"

"Sit down on the grass."

"What for?"

"Because I ask you."

I sat down.

Presently she said: "I am as tall as mamma. Why should I study algebra?"

"Because," I answered evasively.

"Your answer is as rude as though I were twenty, instead of sixteen," said Sweetheart. "If you treat me as a child from this moment, I shall hate you."

"Me – Sweetheart?"

"And that name! – it is good for children and kittens."

I looked at her seriously.

"It is good for women, too – when it is time," I said. "I prophesy that one day you will hear it again. As for me, I shall not call you by that name if you dislike it."

"I am a woman – now," she said.

"Oh! at sixteen."

"To-morrow I am to be seventeen."

Presently, looking off at the blue hills, I said: "For a long time I have recognised that that subtle, indefinable attitude – we call it deference – due from men to women is due from us to you. Donny and Walter are slower to accept this. You know what you have been to us as a child; we can't bear to lose you – to meet you in another way – to reckon with you as we reckon with a woman. But it is true: our little Sweetheart has vanished, and —you are here!"

The oak leaves began to rustle in the hill winds; the crows cawed from the woods.

"Oui c'est moi," she said at length.

"I shall never call you Sweetheart again," I said, smiling.

"Who knows?" she laughed, and leaned over to pick a blade of wild wheat. She coloured faintly a moment later, and said: "I didn't mean that, Jack."

And so Sweetheart took her first step across that threshold of mystery, the Temple of Idols. And of the gilded idols within the temple, one shall turn to living flesh at the sound of a voice. And lo! where a child had entered, a woman returned with the key to the Temple of Gilded Idols.

"Jack," said Sweetheart, "you are wrong. No day is too fair to kill in. I shall pick my arms full – full of flowers."

Over the yellow fields, red with the stalks of the buckwheat, crowned with a glimmering cloud of the dusty gold of the golden-rod, Sweetheart passed, pensive, sedate, awed by the burden of sixteen years.

I followed.

Over the curling fern and wind-stirred grasses the silken milkweed seeds sailed, sailed, and the great red-brown butterflies drifted above, ruddy as autumn leaves aglow in the sun.

"On the sand-cliff there are marigolds," said Sweetheart.

I looked at the mass of wild flowers in her arms; her white polished skin reflected the blaze of colour, warming like ivory under their glow.

"Marigolds," I repeated; "we will get some."

"The sand slides on the face of the cliff; you must be careful," she said.

"And I may see one of those rare cliff butterflies. I haven't any good examples."

I fancy she was not listening; the crows were clamouring above the beech woods; the hill winds filled our ears with a sound like the sound of the sea on shoals. Her gray eyes, touched with the sky's deep blue and the blue of the misty hills, looked out across the miles of woods and fields, and saw a world; not a world old, scarred, rock-ribbed, and salt with tears, but a new world, youthful, ripe, sunny, hazy with the splendour of wonders hidden behind the horizon – a world jewelled with gems, spanned by rose-mist rainbows – a world of sixteen years.

"We are already at the cliff's edge," I said.

She stepped to the edge and looked over. I drew her back. The sand started among the rocks, running, running with a sound like silver water.

"Then you shall not go either," she said. "I do not care for marigolds."

But I was already on the edge, stooping for a blossom. The next instant I fell.

There was a whistle of sand, a flurry and a rush of wind, a blur of rock, fern, dead grasses – a cry!

For I remember as I fell, falling I called, "Sweetheart!" and again "Sweetheart!" Then my body struck the rocks below.

III

Of all the seconds that tick the whole year through, of all the seconds that have slipped onward marking the beat of time since time was loosed, there is one, one brief moment, steeped in magic and heavy with oblivion, that sometimes lingers in the soul of man, annihilating space and time. If, at the feet of God, a year is a second passed unnoted, this magic second, afloat on the tide of time, moves on and on till, caught in the vortex of some life's whirl, it sinks into the soul of a being near to death.

And in that soul the magic second glows and lingers, stretching into minutes, hours, days – aye, days and days, till, if the magic hold, the calm years crowd on one by one; and yet it all is but a second – that magic moment that comes on the tide of time – that came to me and was caught up in my life's whirl as I fell, dropping there between sky and earth.

And so that magic moment grew to minutes, to hours; and when my body, whirling, pitching, struck and lay flung out on the earth, the magic second grew until the crystal days fell from my life, as beads, one by one, fall from the rosaries that saints tell kneeling.

Those days of a life that I have lived, those years that linger still aglow in the sun behind me, dim yet splendid as dust-dimmed jewels, they also have ended, not in vague night, but in the sunburst of another second – such a second as ticks from my watch as I write, quick, sharp, joyous, irrevocable! So, of that magic second, or day, or year, I shall tell – I, as I was, standing beside my body flung there across the earth.

I looked at my body, lying in a heap, then turned to the sand cliff smiling.

"Sweetheart!" I called.

But she was already at my side.

We walked on through fragrant pastures, watching the long shadows stretch from field to field, speaking of what had been and of all that was to be. It was so simple – everything was clear before us. Had there been doubts, fears, sudden alarms, startled heartbeats?

If there had been, now they were ended forever.

"Not forever," said Sweetheart; "who knows how long the magic second may last?"

"But we – what difference can that make?" I asked.

"To us?"

"Yes."

"None," said Sweetheart decisively.

We looked out into the west. The sun turned to a mound of cinders; the hills loomed in opalescent steam.

"But – but – your shadow!" said Sweetheart.

I bent my head, thrilled with happiness.

"And yours," I whispered.

The shadows we cast were whiter than snow.

I still heard the hill winds, soft in my ears as breaking surf; a bird-note came from the dusky woodland; a star broke out overhead.

"What is your pleasure, Sweetheart, now all is said?" I asked.

"The world is all so fair," she sighed; "is it fairer beyond the hills, Jack?"

"It is fair where you pass by, north, south, and from west to west again. In France the poplars are as yellow as our oaks. In Morbihan the gorse gilds all the hills, yellow as golden-rod. Shall we go?"

"But in the spring – let us wait until spring."

"Where?"

"Here."

"Until spring?"

"It is written that Time shall pass as a shadow across the sea. What is that book there under your feet – that iron-bound book, half embedded like a stone in the grass."

"I did not see it!"

"Bring it to me."

I raised the book; it left a bare mark in the sod as a stone that is turned. Then, holding it on my knees, I opened it, and Sweetheart, leaning on my shoulder, read. The tall stars flared like candles, flooding the page with diamond light; the earth, perfumed with blossoms, stirred with the vague vibration of countless sounds, tiny voices swaying breathless in the hidden surge of an endless harmony.

"The white shadow is the shadow of the soul," she read. Even the winds were hushed as her sweet lips moved.

"And what shall make thee to understand what hell is?.. When the sun shall be folded up as a garment that is laid away; when the stars fall, and the seas boil, and when souls shall be joined again to their bodies; and when the girl who hath been buried alive shall be asked for what crime; when books shall be laid open, when hell shall burn fiercely, and when paradise shall be brought very near:

"Every soul shall know what it hath wrought!"

I closed my eyes; the splendour of the starlight on the page was more than my eyes could bear.

But she read on; for what can dim her eyes?

"O man, verily, labouring, thou labourest to meet thy Lord.

"And thou shalt meet Him!

"When the earth shall be stretched like a skin, and shall cast forth that which is therein;

"By the heaven adorned with signs, by the witness and the witnessed;

"By that which appeareth by night; by the daybreak and the ten nights – the ten nights;

"The night of Al Kadr is better than a thousand months.

"Praise be to God, the Lord of all creatures; the Most Merciful, the King of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and of thee do we beg assistance. Direct us in the right way, in the way of those to whom thou hast been gracious; not of those against whom thou art incensed, nor of those who go astray!"

In the sudden silence that spread across earth and heaven I heard the sound of a voice under the earth, calling, calling, calling.

"It is already spring," said Sweetheart; and she rose, placing her white hands in mine. "Shall we go?"

"But we are already there," I stammered, turning my eyes fearfully; for the tall pines dwindled and clustered and rose again cool and gray in the morning air, all turned to stone, fretted and carved like lacework; and where the pines had faded, the twin towers of a cathedral loomed; and where the hills swept across the horizon, the roofs of a white city glimmered in the morning sun. Bridges and quays and streets and domes and the hum of traffic and rattle of arms; and over all, the veil of haze and the twin gray towers of Notre Dame!

"Sweetheart!" I faltered.

But we were already in my studio.

IV

The studio had not changed. The sun flooded it.

Sweetheart sat in the broken armchair and watched me struggle with the packing. Every now and then she made an impulsive movement toward the heap of clothes on the floor, which I checked with a "Thanks! I can fix it all alone, Sweetheart."

Clifford seemed to extract amusement from it all, and said as much to Rowden, who was as usual ruining my zitherine by trying to play it like a banjo.

Elliott, knowing he could be of no use to us, had the decency to sit outside the studio on one of the garden benches. He appeared at intervals at the studio door, saying, "Come along, Clifford; they don't want you messing about. Drop that banjo, Rowden, or Jack will break your head with it – won't you, Jack?"

I said I would, but not with the zitherine.

Clifford flatly refused to move unless Sweetheart would take him out into our garden and show him the solitary goldfish which lurked in the fountain under the almond trees. But Sweetheart, apparently fascinated by the mysteries of packing, turned a deaf ear to Clifford's blandishments and Rowden's discords.

"I imagined," said Clifford, somewhat hurt, "that you would delight in taking upon yourself the duties of a hostess. I should be pleased to believe that I am not an unwelcome guest."

"So should I," echoed Rowden; "I'd be pleased too."

"What a shame for you to bother, Jack!" she said. "Mr. Clifford shall go and make some tea directly. Mr. Rowden, you may take a table out by the fountain – and stay there."

Clifford, motioning Elliott to take the other end of the Japanese table, backed with it through the hallway and out to the gravel walk, expostulating.

"The sugar is there in that tin box by the model stand," she said, when he reappeared, "and the extra spoons are lying in a long box on Jack's big easel."

When Rowden, reluctantly relinquishing the zitherine, followed Clifford, bearing the cups and alcohol lamp, I raised my head and wiped the dust from my forehead. I believe I swore a little in French. Sweetheart looked startled. She knew more French than I supposed she did.

"What is it, Jack?"

"Mais – rien, ?a m'emb?te – cette esp?ce de malle – "

"Then why won't you let me help you, Jack? I can at least put in my gowns."

"But I must pack my colour box first, and the gun case, and the box of reels, and the pastel case, and our shooting boots, and the water-colour box, and the cartridge belt, and your golf shoes, and – "

"O dear!" said Sweetheart with a shudder.

I stood up and scowled at the trunk.

"To look at you, Jack," murmured Sweetheart, "one might think you unhappy."

Unhappy! At the thought our eyes met across the table.

"Unhappy!" I whispered.

Then Clifford came stumbling in, wearing a pair of Joseph's sabots, and, imitating that faithful domestic in voice and manner, invited us to tea under the lilacs and almond blossoms.

"In a moment," cried Sweetheart impatiently. "Go and pour the tea."

Clifford looked aghast. "No, no!" he cried; "it's impossible – I won't believe that you two are deliberately getting rid of me so you can be alone to spoon! And your honeymoon already a year old, and – "

Sweetheart frowned, and tapped her foot.

Clifford retired indignant.

Then she raised her eyes to mine, and a delicate colour stained her cheeks and neck.

"Yes," I said, "we have been married nearly a year, Sweetheart."

We looked at our white shadows on the floor.

V

Sweetheart sat under the lilac blossoms pouring out tea for Clifford, Elliott, and Rowden. She was gracious to Clifford, gentle to Elliott, and she took Rowden under her wing in the sweetest way possible, to which Clifford stated his objections.

"Mr. Rowden is younger than you are," she said gravely. "Monsieur Clifford, I do not wish you to torment him."

"Rowden's no baby; he's as old as Jack is, and Jack doesn't murder music."

"I am glad to see you acknowledge Jack's superiority in all matters," said Sweetheart with a dangerous smile.

"I don't," cried Clifford laughing; "and I don't see what you find to care about in a man who clips his hair like a gendarme and paints everything purple."

"Everything is purple – if Jack paints it so," said Sweetheart, smiling at her reflected face in the water. She stood at the rim of the little stone fountain with her hands clasped behind her back. Elliott and Clifford were poking about in the water plants to dislodge the solitary goldfish, while Rowden gathered dewy clusters of lilacs as an offering.

"There he goes!" said Elliott.

"Poor fellow, living there all alone!" said Sweetheart. "Jack must leave word with Joseph to get him a little lady fish to pay his court to."

"Better put in another gentleman fish, then, if you're following Nature," said Clifford, with an attempt at cynicism which drew the merriest laugh from Sweetheart.

"Oh, how funny is Monsieur Clifford when he wants to be like Frenchmen!" she murmured.

"Jack," said Elliott, as I came from the studio and picked up a cup of tea grown cold, "Clifford's doing the world-worn disenchanted rou?."

"And – and I fear he will next make love to me!" cried Sweetheart.

"You'd better look out, Jack," said Clifford darkly, and pretended to sulk until Sweetheart sent him off to buy the bonbons she would need for the train.

"They're packed," I said, "every trunk of them!"

Sweetheart was enchanted. "All my new gowns, and the shoes from Rix's – O Jack, you didn't forget the shoes – and the bath robes – and – "

"All packed," I said, swallowing the tea with a wry face.

"Oh," she cried reproachfully, "don't drink that! Here, I will have some hot tea in a moment," and she ran over and perched on the arm of the garden bench while I lighted the alcohol lamp and then a cigarette.

Rowden came up with his offering of lilacs, and she decorated each of us with a spray.

It was growing late. The long shadows fell across the gravel walks and flecked the white walls of the sculptor's studio opposite.

"It's the nine-o'clock train, isn't it?" said Elliott.

"We will meet you at the station at eight-thirty," added Rowden.

"You don't mind, do you, our dining alone?" said Sweetheart shyly; "it's our last day – Jack's and mine – in the old studio."

"Not the last, I hope," said Elliott sincerely.

We all sat silent for a moment.

"O Paris, Paris – how I fear it!" murmured Sweetheart to me; and in the same breath, "No, no, we must love it, you and I."

Then Elliott said aloud, "I suppose you have no idea when you will return?"

"No," I replied, thinking of the magic second that had become a year.

And so we dined alone, Sweetheart and I, in the old studio.

At half-past eight o'clock the cab stood at the gate with all our traps piled on top, and Joseph and his wife and the two brats were crying, "Au revoir, madame! au revoir, monsieur! We will keep the studio well dusted. Bon voyage! bon voyage!" and all of a sudden my arm was caught by Sweetheart's little gloved hand, and she drew me back through the long ivy-covered alley to the garden where the studio stood, its doorway closed and silent, the hollow windows black and grim. Truly the light had passed away with the passing of Sweetheart. Her hand slipped from my arm, and she went and knelt down at the threshold and kissed it.

"I first knew happiness when I first crossed it," she said; "it breaks my heart to leave it. Only that magic second! but it seems years that we have lived here."

"It was you who brought happiness to it," I said.

"Good-bye! good-bye, dear, dear, old studio!" she cried. "Oh, if Jack is always the same to me as he has been here – if he will be faithful and true in that new home!"

The new home was to be in a strange land. Sweetheart was a little frightened, but was dying to go there. Sweetheart had never seen the golden gorse ablaze on the moors of Morbihan.

VI

I went inside the brass railing and waited my turn to buy the tickets. When it came, I took two first class to Quimperl?, for it was to be an all-night ride, and there was no sleeping car. Clifford had taken charge of the baggage, and I went with him to have it registered, leaving Sweetheart with Elliott and Rowden. All the traps were there – the big trunks, the big valises, my sketching kit, the zitherine in a leather case, two handbags, a bundle of umbrellas and canes, and a huge package of canvases. The toilet case and the rugs and waterproofs we took with us into the compartment.

The compartment was empty. Sweetheart nestled into one corner, and when I had placed our traps in the racks overhead I sat down opposite, while Clifford handed in our sandwiches, a bottle of red wine, and Sweetheart's box of bonbons.

We didn't say much; most had been said before starting. Clifford was more affected than he cared to show – I know by the way he grasped my hand. They are dear fellows, every one. We did not realize that we were actually going – going, perhaps, forever. She laughed, and chatted, and made fun of Clifford, and teased Rowden, aided and abetted by Elliott, until the starting gong clanged and a warning whistle sounded along the gaslit platform.



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