The Mystery of Choice
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Sweetheart had never seen a French trout uncooked, and scarcely shared my disappointment.
"They are splendid fish," she repeated; "you are unreasonable."
There was an ancient Breton squatting on the bank; from his sulky attitude I took him to be a poacher visiting his infernal set lines and snares; but I hailed him pleasantly with a bonjour, which he returned civilly enough.
"Are there trout in this stream?"
"About the bridge," he replied cautiously.
"Have you caught any?"
"I ain't fishing," he said, much alarmed.
"What's that?" I demanded, pointing to as plump a trout as ever I saw, floating on the end of a string under the bank.
"Where?" he asked, looking about him with affected concern.
He looked around, everywhere except where I pointed. He examined the horizon, and the tree tops, as though he expected a fish on every twig. I poled the boat up to the bank and pointed out the fish.
"Ma doui!" he exclaimed, "there is a fish!"
"Yes, a trout," I said.
"Trout?" He burst into a forced laugh. "Trout! Ha! ha! Why, monsieur, that is a dace – a poor little dace!" He hastily jerked it up with a long homemade gaff which lay – of course quite by accident – at his feet.
"A poor little dace!" he mumbled. "Of course, monsieur would not care to claim such a poor, coarse little fish; but I am only too glad to eat it – ah, yes, only too glad!"
"You see," said Sweetheart impulsively, "that you are wrong. Give him our fish; that will make four dace for the poor fellow."
I placed the three dace across the blade of my oar and held it out to the poacher. He took them as if he were really glad to get them. Then I said, "These are dace, and they don't have red spots."
He stood as if ready to bolt, but I laughed, and settled back on my oars, saying: "You're a poacher; but I don't care a continental, and you can poach all day in this confounded country, where there is about one trout to the kilometre. Don't look scared. What do I care? Only don't tell me I'm unable to distinguish a trout when I can see the tip of his nose."
I then sailed majestically out into the stream.
Sweetheart wanted to know whether that was really a real poacher. She had read about them. Her ideal poacher was a young, stalwart, eagle-eyed giant, with a tangle of hair and a disposition toward assassination. The reality shocked her.
"Anyway," she said, "you frightened the poor old thing. How rough men are!"
We returned to the landing place with difficulty, for the tide was still on the ebb, and we got aground more than once. My hands were in a fine condition when at last I drove that wretched scow into the mud and lifted Sweetheart out to the firm bank. The evil-eyed old man who rented us the boat glanced sardonically at my rod and blistered hands, and I was glad enough to pay him all he asked and break away for the hotel.
We had an hour to lunch in, pack, and be ready for the trap which was to bear us to our destination – the distant village of Fa?uet, in Morbihan.
A long drive on a smooth white road, acres of gorse and broom, beech woods and oak thickets, and the "Heu! heu! Allo! Allons! en route!" of the Breton driver, these are my recollections of the ride to Fa?uet.There are others, too – the hedges heavy with bloom, the perfume of the wild honeysuckle, the continual bird chorus from every grove and every bramble patch – and Sweetheart's veil flying into my face.
We have spoken of it since together, but she has few recollections of that journey. She only remembers it as her first steps into our heritage.
And so we entered into our heritage, Sweetheart and I; and our heritage was very fair, for it lay everywhere about us. It was a world which we alone inhabited. Men said, "This land is Gloanec's," "This is Gurnalec's," "This is Kerdec's"; they spoke of "my woods" and "his meadows" and "their pastures." And how we laughed; for when we passed together through their lands, around us, far as the eye could reach, our heritage lay in the sunshine.
One day, when Sweetheart had been weeping – for we were thinking of the end to the magic second – I spoke of our heritage which swept far as the eye could reach across the moors of Fa?uet.
She said: "The past is ours, Jack; the present is ours; the future – "
We tried to smile, but our hearts were like lead. Yet we know that the future will also be ours. I know it as I write.
The letter from St. Gildas, bringing with it a breath of salt air, lay on the table before us. Sweetheart clasped her hands and looked at me.
"I'm in favour of going at once," I said for the third time. Over by the wall were piled my canvases, the result of three months in Fa?uet.
The first was a study of Sweetheart under the trees of the ancient orchard in the convent grounds. What trouble I had had with that canvas! I remembered the morning that the old gardener came over and stood behind me as I painted; and when I had replied to his "Good-morning," I recalled the pang his next words gave me:
"I am so sorry, monsieur, but it is forbidden to enter the convent grounds."
My canvas was almost finished, and, as the romancers have it, "my despair was great!" A month's work for nothing – or next to nothing!
Sweetheart rose from her pose on the low bough of the apple tree and came over to my side. "Never mind, Jack; I shall go and ask the Mother Superior about it."
I knew that she would win over the Mother Superior; and when, that evening, she came back radiant, crying, "She is lovely! – she says you may finish the picture, and I think you ought to go and thank her," I put on my cap, and stepping across the street, we rang at the gate.
The old gardener let us in, and in a moment I stood before the latticed windows behind which some one was moving. In a low voice the invisible nun told us that the Superior granted to us the privilege of working in the orchard, but we must be careful of the grass, because it was almost time to cut it.
"I am sure we may have confidence in you," she said.
"We will not trample the grass, my sister, and I thank you for us both."
The lattice trembled, was raised a little, and then fell.
"You are English," said the hidden nun.
"I am American, my sister."
I looked at the lattice a moment, then dropped my eyes. I may have been mistaken, but I think she sighed.
Sweetheart came closer to the lattice and murmured her thanks.
There was a pause.
Then came the voice again, sweet and gentle: "May Our Lady of Saint Gildas protect you"; and we went out by the little iron wicket.
The next picture was another study of Sweetheart in the woods; the next, another study of Sweetheart; and the others were studies of the same young lady.
The light in the room had grown dim, and I walked to the window which overlooked the convent chapel. The chapel windows were open; within, the nuns stood or knelt chanting. Three white-veiled figures were advancing to the altar, and the others, draped in black now knelt behind. I didn't think I had any business to look at them, so I did not. After all, they were cloistered nuns, and it was only on hot nights that they opened the chapel windows. Sweetheart was speaking beside my shoulder.
"Poor things! The ones in white, they are the novices; they will never see parents or friends again. When they enter the gates they never leave – never; they are buried there."
I said: "After all, we are much like them. We have left all; we have nothing now but each other, for the world is dead, and we are bound by vows which keep us within the narrow confines of our heritage."
"But our heritage is everywhere – as far as we can see."
"Ah, yes, but we can only see to the horizon. There is a world beyond."
"I have renounced it," said Sweetheart faintly.
The letter from St. Gildas had been lying on our table for a week before I thought of answering it, and even then it was Sweetheart who wrote:
Sweetheart called me to see whether or not I approved. I did, and added my answer to Stuart's last question as follows: "No, you idiot!" Then I signed the note, and Sweetheart sealed and directed it.
So we left for St. Gildas next morning before sunrise and in the rain. This leaving at such an unearthly hour was not my doing, but Sweetheart was determined, and rose by candlelight in spite of desperate opposition on my part. It was cold, and the rain beat against the windows.
It was many kilometres to St. Gildas, but before we had gone six, the rain had ceased and the eastern sky flushed to a pale rose.
"Thank goodness!" I said, "we shall have the sun."
Then the daily repeated miracle of the coming of dawn was wrought before our eyes. The heavens glowed in rainbow tints; the shredded mist rising along the river was touched with purple and gold, and acres of meadow and pasture dripped precious stones. Shreds of the fading night-mist drifted among the tree tops, now tipped with fire, while in the forest depths faint sparkles came from some lost ray of morning light falling on wet leaves. Then of a sudden up shot the sun, and against it, black and gigantic, a peasant towered, leaning upon his spade.
We were fast nearing the end of our long journey. The sun blazed on us from the zenith, and the wheels creaked with the heat of the white road. The driver leaned back, saying, "We enter Finist?re here by this granite post." Presently he added, "The ocean!"
There it lay, a basin of silver and blue. Sweetheart had started to her feet, speechless, one hand holding to my shoulder, the other clasped to her breast. And now, as the road wound through the hills and down to the coast, long stretches of white sand skirted the distant cliffs, and over the cliffs waved miles and miles of yellow gorse. A cluster of white and gray houses lay in the hollow to the left almost at the mouth of the river, and beyond, the waves were beating in the bar – beating the same rhythm which we were to hear so long there together, day and night. There was not a boat to be seen, not a creature, nor was there any sign of life save for the smoke curling from a cottage chimney below. The ocean lay sparkling beneath, and beyond its deeper blue melted into the haze on the horizon.
Suddenly, in the road below, the figure of a man appeared, and at the same moment a pointer pup came gambolling up beside us in an ecstasy of self-abnegation and apology. I sprang out of the lumbering vehicle and lifted Sweetheart to the ground, and in an instant we were shaking hands with a stalwart young fellow in knickerbockers and jersey, who said we were a pretty pair not to have come sooner, and told Sweetheart he pitied her lot – meaning me.
Then we walked arm in arm down a fragrant lane to the river bank, where the dearest old lady toddled out of the granite house to welcome us and show us our rooms. Sweetheart went with her, while I stopped an instant to chat with Stuart.
"That is Madame Ylven," he said. "She is the most stunning peasant woman in Finist?re, and you will want for nothing." Then, after a moment, "Good heavens! Jack, what a beauty your wife – " He stopped short, but added, "What a delicious little beauty Sweetheart has grown to be!"
A white-coiffed maid came to the door, and said, "Will monsieur have the goodness to come? Madame wishes him to see the rooms."
The wind blew from the south, and the thunder of the sea was in my ears as I mounted the stairs to our new quarters.
Sweetheart met me at the door, saying, "It seems almost too much happiness to bear, but I feel that we are at home at last – alone together for all time."
Alone together? The ocean at our threshold, the moors and forests at our back, and a good slate roof above us. Before me through the open door I could see the great old-fashioned room, warm in the afternoon sunlight – the room we were to live in so long, the room in which we were to pass the happiest and bitterest moments of our lives.
She hesitated an instant before the threshold. I think we knew that we stood upon the threshold of our destiny. Then I said, half in earnest: "Are you afraid to cross with me into the unknown future? See, the room is filled with sunshine. Are you afraid?"
She sprang across the threshold, and, turning to me, held out both hands.
The sun slipped lower and lower into the sea, until a distant tossing wave washed it out against the sky. Light died in the room, and shadows closed around us; yet it was in the darkness and shadows that we drew nearer to each other, then and after.
Stuart stood under our window and yelled up at me, "Oh, Jack! I say, Jack!"
Sweetheart, who was fussing over the half-unpacked trunk, went to the window and threw open the panes.
"You don't mean to say you have had your coffee?" she said. "Jack isn't up yet."
"Jack is up," I explained, coming to the window in pajamas. "Hello!"
"I only wanted to say that I haven't had my coffee," he explained, "and I'm going to take it with you when you're ready."
Sweetheart picked up her b?ret, and, passing a hatpin through it, turned to me with a warning, "I shall eat all the breakfast, monsieur!" and vanished down the stairs. A moment later I heard her clear voice below:
Before I had finished dressing, Sweetheart tripped in with my coffee and toast.
"Of course I've finished," she said, "and you don't deserve this. Mr. Stuart has gone off with his canvases, and says he'll see you at lunch."
I swallowed the coffee and browsed on little squares of toast which she condescendingly buttered for me, and then, lighting a cigarette, I announced my intention of commanding an exploring expedition consisting of Sweetheart and myself. A scratching at the door and a patter of feet announced that I had been overheard.
Sweetheart unlatched the door, and the pointer pup of the evening before charged into the room and covered us with boisterous caresses, which we took to indicate that he not only approved of the expedition, but intended to undertake the general supervision of it himself. I resigned the leadership at once.
"His name," said Sweetheart in the tone of one who presents a distinguished guest, "is 'Luff.'"
I gravely acknowledged the honour by patting his head.
"I'm afraid," I said to Sweetheart, "that there is a bar sinister upon his escutcheon, but possibly it is only the indelible mark of the conquering British foxhound."
Sweetheart said, "Nonsense!" and the expedition moved, Luff leading with a series of ear-splitting orders in the dog language which we perfectly understood.
In ten minutes we stood on the cliffs, the salt wind whipping our faces. Saint-Gildas-des-Pr?s lay at our feet.
"I know," observed Sweetheart calmly, "all about this place. Captain Ylven told me at breakfast."
"Well," said I, "what's that island on the horizon?"
Then she overwhelmed me with erudition, until I longed for Baedeker and revenge.
"That is the Isle de Groix, and all about us is the Bay of Biscay. This little hamlet on the cliff is St. Julien, and if we follow the coast far enough we come to Lorient."
"Follow the coast? Which way?"
Sweetheart had forgotten, and I triumphed in silence, until she stamped her foot and marched off to assist Luff in investigating a suspicious hole in the cliff.
I went to the edge of the plateau and looked over. The surf thundered against the rocks, tossing long strands of seaweed over the pebbly beach. A man with a wooden rake stood in the water up to his knees. He raked the seaweed from the breakers as a farmer rakes weeds from the lawn. The salt wind began to sting my lips and eyes. My throat felt dry and salty. I turned toward the hamlet of St. Gildas. I had not imagined it so small. Besides our house there were but three others clustered under the river bank. Behind it stretched woods and grain fields broken by patches of yellow gorse. Across the river stood a stone chapel almost lost in the miles of moorland. To the east and west the downs covered with gorse and heather rolled to the horizon. Here and there along the cliffs stood what appeared to be the ruins of ancient forts, and on a rock, just where the river sweeps out into the sea, rose a dirty white signal tower. The tower was low and squatty and wet. It looked like some saline excrescence which had slowly exuded from the brine-soaked rock. On the bar hundreds of white gulls rose and settled as the tide encroached; curlew were running along the foam-splashed shore under the eastern cliffs across the river.
On our side of the river the cliffs were covered with blackthorn and hawthorn, with here and there a stunted oak, probably so placed by Providence as general rendezvous for all the small twittering birds of Finist?re. Birds were everywhere. From the clouds came the ceaseless carol of skylarks; from the grain fields and the flowering gorse rose an unbroken chorus, taken up and repeated by flocks of microscopical songsters among the blackthorns on the cliffs.
"This is paradise, this wilderness," I thought.
Then, as I heard Sweetheart's mocking voice from the cliff:
"I'm not asleep!" I cried in answer. "What is it?"
"Luff has unearthed a poor little mole, but I won't allow him to hurt it."
"Jack, dear," she said, as I came up, "couldn't we keep it as a pet? See, the poor little thing is blind."
As it was blind we called it "Love," which later was changed to "Cupid," and finally, when we discovered it true gormandizing character, for "Cupid" we substituted "Cupidity," by which name it flourished and fattened.
"What a change," said Sweetheart sadly, "from Blind Love to Blind Greed!"
The mole grew very fat.
When the winds stir the leaves among the poplars, and the long shadows fall athwart the fields; when the winds rise at night, and the branches scrape and crack above the moonlit snow; when in the long hot days the earth is bathed in fragrance, and all the little creatures of the fields are silent; when in the still evenings the flowers perfume the air, and the gravel walks shine white in the moonlight; when the breezes quicken from the distant coast; when the sand shakes beneath the shock of the breakers, and every wave is plumed with white; when the calm eye of the beacon turns to mine, lingers, and turn away, and the surf is yeasty and thick; when I start at the sound of a voice from the cliffs, and my eyes are raised in vain; when the white gulls toss and drift in the storm-clouds, and the water hurries out in the black ebb tide; when I rise and look from the window; when I dress; when I work with pen and colour; when I rest; when I walk; when I sleep – there is one face before my eyes, one name on my lips. For the white shadow is turning gray, and God alone knows the end.
And God alone knows the end, for the mists are crowding, brooding like angry-browed clouds, and I hear the whistle of unseen winds, and my life-flame wavers and sinks and flares, blown hither and thither, tossing, fading, leaping, but fading, always fading.
In a flash, like a printed picture on a screen, illuminated, keenly etched in the white glare, I see the bed, and the people around me, the black gowns, the pale eyes of the doctor, the sponge and basin, the rolls of lint.
Voices, minute but clean-cut and clear as picked harp-strings, tinkle in my ears; the voice of the doctor, other voices, but always the voice of the doctor – "The splinter of bone on the brain; the splinter pressing on the tissues; the depression."
The doctor! That is the man! That is the man who comes to my side, who follows, follows where I go, who seeks me throughout the world! I saw him as I lay flung on the turf, limp, unconscious, below the cliffs on the Aspen hills; I felt his presence in the studio; I heard him creeping at my heels across the gorse thickets of St. Gildas. And now he has come to cut short the magic second, to turn back time – back, back, into the old worn channels, rock-ribbed and salt with tears.
As a leaf of written paper torn in two, so shall my life be torn in two; and the long tear shall mangle the chapter written in rose and gold.
Then, too, my shadow, already turned from white to gray, shall fall with a deeper stain wherever I pass; and I shall see the yellow gorse glimmer and turn to golden-rod, and the poplars turn to oaks; and the twin towers of Notre Dame, filmy, lace-carved, and gray with centuries, shall dwindle as I look – dwindle and sway and turn to pines, singing pines that murmur to the winds, blowing across the Aspen hills.
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