By Victoria Cross
Life’s Shop Window
Six Chapters of a Man’s Life
The Woman Who Didn’t
A Girl of the Klondike
The Religion of Evelyn Hastings
Life of my Heart
The Gold Night
I THE TAKU INLET
II THE TEA-SHOP
III IN THE WOOD
The Violet Night
IV AT THE STUDIO
V THE CALL OF THE CUCKOO
The Black Night
VI IN MAYFAIR
The Crimson Night
IX IN ‘FRISCO
X IN THE SHADOW OF THE VOLCANO
XI THE WAY OF THE GODS
The White Night
XII THE FLAMES OF LIFE’S FURNACE
“The nights have different colours. Some nights are black, the nights of storm: some are electric blue, some are silver, the moon-filled nights: some are red under the hot planet Mars or the fierce harvest moon. Some are white, the white nights of the Arctic winter: but this was a violet night, a hot, mysterious, violet night of Midsummer.”
_LIFE’S SHOP WINDOW_.
As one looks over any period of one’s life, it appears behind one as a shining maze of brilliant colour with spots in it here and there of brighter or darker hue. Each spot represents a period of time when our happiness has glowed brighter or waned; sometimes it is a day, more often it is a night. Looking back now, over a stretch of my existence I see many such spots gleaming brightly; they are nights of colour. The history of many of these is too sacred to be written, but there are Five Nights, which, though not the dearest to my memory, have yet stamped themselves and their colour on it for ever. And the record of these five nights is contained in the following pages.
THE GOLD NIGHT
THE TAKU INLET
It was just striking three as I came up the companion-stairs on to the deck of the Cottage City, into the clear topaz light of a June morning in Alaska: light that had not failed through all the night, for in this far northern latitude the sun only just dips beneath the horizon at midnight for an hour, leaving all the earth and sky still bathed in limpid yellow light, gently paling at that mystic time and glowing to its full glory again as the sun rises above the rim.
Our steamer had left the open sea and entered the Taku Inlet, and we were steaming very slowly up it, surrounded on every side by great glittering blocks of ice, flashing in the sunshine as they floated by on the buoyant blue water. How blue it was, the colouring of sea and sky! Both were so vividly blue, the note of each so deep, so intense, one seemed almost intoxicated with colour. I stepped to the vessel’s side, then made my way forward and stood there; I, the lover of the East, dazzled by the beauty of the North! The marvellous picture before me was painted in but three colours, blue, gold, and white.
The sides of the inlet were jagged lines of white, the sparkling crystalline whiteness of eternal snow on sharp-pointed, almost lance-like mountain peaks; the water a broad band of blue, the sky above a canopy of blue, and there at the end of the inlet, closing it, like some colossal monster crouched awaiting us, lay the Muir, the huge glacier, a solid wedge of ice, white also, but a transparent white full of blue shadows.
Who shall describe the wonderful air and atmosphere of the North? Its brilliancy, its delicacy, its radiant diamond-like clearness? And the silence, the enchanted stillness of the North? Now as we crept slowly onwards over the vivid water between the flashing icebergs, there was no sound. Complete silence round us, on earth and sea and in the blue vault above, impressive, glittering silence. None of the passengers had broken their sleep to come up to the glory above them, and I stood alone at the forward part of the vessel gliding on through this dream of lustrous blue. Slowly we advanced towards the Muir; very slowly, for these shining bergs carried death with them if they should graze hard against the steamer’s side, and, cautiously, steered with infinite pains, the little boat crept on, zigzagging between them. A frail little toy of man, it seemed, to venture here alone; small, black, impertinent atom forcing its way so hardily into this magnificence of colour, this silent splendour, this radiant stillness of the North. Into this very fastness of the most gigantic forces of Nature it had penetrated, and the sapphire sea supported it, the transparent light illumined it, the lance-like mountains looked down upon it, and the glistening bergs forbore to crush it, as if disdaining to harm so fragile a thing.
Very slowly we pushed up the inlet, approaching the shimmering blue-green wall of ice that barred the upper end; seven hundred feet down below the clear surface of the water descends this wall, while three hundred feet of it rise above, forming a glorious shining palisade across the entire width of the inlet. As the sun played on the glittering facade, rays struck out from it as from a reflector, of every shade of green and blue, the deepest hue of emerald mingling with the lightest sapphire, iridescent, sparkling, wonderful. As we crept still nearer, over the living blue of the water, the continual fall of the icebergs from the front wall of the glacier became apparent. At intervals of about five minutes, with a terrific crash like thunder a great wedge of the glittering wall would fall forward into the blue-green depths, and a cloud of snowy spray rise up hundreds of feet into the air. The berg, thus detached, after a few minutes would rise to the surface, glistening, dazzling, and begin its joyous, buoyant voyage downwards to the sea. In all this brilliant setting, with this glory of light around and the triumphal crash of sound like the salute of cannon, amid this joyous movement and in this blaze of colour, amid all that seemed to personify life, we were watching the death of the glacier.
The colossal Muir Glacier, the remains of a world the history of which is lost in the dim twilight none can now penetrate, is dying slowly through a million years. From the mountains, eternally snow-covered, where its huge body, three hundred and fifty miles in extent, has rested through the centuries, it creeps forward slowly towards the sea to meet its doom. Formerly its lip touched the open ocean where now the Taku inlet commences to run inland. But the icy waters, that yet are so much warmer than itself, caressed it with eroding caresses and melted it, and broke bergs from it and rushed inwards, following it till they formed the Taku Inlet, and now the process still goes on, the gigantic body moves forward inch by inch and the green waves break the bergs from its face as the sun invades its structure; and so it lies there, dying slowly through the countless years, glorious, miraculous.
The Captain had promised to approach the face of the glacier as near as was reasonably safe and lie there at anchor for an hour, that the passengers might land at the side of the inlet and those who wished could explore the glacier.
An hour! What was an hour? Those sixty golden minutes would be gone in a flash. Yet it would be an hour of life, of deep emotion, face to face with this monster, strange relic of a forgotten world, stretched on its glorious death-bed.
I was alone still. Not another passenger had yet come up, and I could lean there undisturbed, trying to open my eyes still wider, to expand my heart, to stretch my brain, that I might drink in more of the inimitable grandeur and beauty round me.
The nearer we drew to the glacier the closer packed became the water with the floating bergs; they threatened the ship now on every side, and so slowly did we move we hardly seemed advancing. The bergs flashed and shone as they passed us, rayed through with jewel-like colours, and on one gliding by far from the ship’s side I saw two seals at play. For many hundred miles past these seals were the only living things I had seen. The forests on the shore, so thick in the first part of the journey by the Alaskan coast, had long since given way to barren rocks, snow-capped peaks, and ice-filled clefts. No life seemed possible there, the wide distant blue above had shown no bird nor shadow of bird passing. There was no voice of insect nor the least of Nature’s children here. Between the thunderous crash of the ice-falls that seemed to shiver the golden air there was intense and solemn stillness.
But the seals played merrily on their floating berg as they passed me, and I watched them long through field-glasses as the joyous, turbulent blue waves carried them far out of my sight towards the open sea.
The clanging of the breakfast bell made me leave my place and go down for a hurried breakfast. I was chilled through, for the early morning air is keen, the pure breath of infinite snowfields, and I took my coffee gratefully amongst the crowd of hungry passengers.
Rough miners some of them, going up to Sitka from the great Treadwell mine at Juneau, traders on their way to Fort Wrangle, and some few explorers. Amongst them were four men our boat had taken on board as we passed the mouth of the Stickeen river. They had started from Canada, lured by the light of the gold that lay under the snows of the Klondike, intending to travel there overland. Losing their way, they had wandered with their pack train for eighteen months in these vast solitudes of ice and snow, groping blindly towards the coast.
Food had failed them, their horses had died by the way from want or fatigue. Faced by starvation, the men had eaten those of their pack animals that had survived, then, finally, when hope had almost left them, they came in sight of the sea.
They were talking of this and their terrible conflict with snow-storm and ice-floe as I joined them, of the plans for making money with which they had started and their failure.
I got away from them all and went back to my place as soon as I could, and spent the rest of the morning as I had begun it, alone at the forward end.
There were very few passengers like myself. Not many people for mere pleasure would take that hazardous voyage along the coast, for it was new country and not a tenth of the sunken rocks and dangerous shoals were yet on any chart. All the way up along that rocky and treacherous shore we had seen the evidences of wreck and disaster everywhere. Above the flats of shimmering water, where the gold or crimson of sunset lay, rose constantly the tops of masts, shadowy and spectral, telling of the sunken hull, the pale corpses beneath those gleaming waves. Ship after ship went down out of those adventurous little coasting vessels that plied up and down the coast trading with the natives, and as we passed these half submerged masts, we often asked ourselves–“Will the Cottage City be more lucky?” She was trading, like all the other boats that go there, with the Alaskan natives, and to go as far north as the Muir was no part of the official programme.
But the fares of the few passengers who really wished to take all risks and go there was a temptation and overcame the fear of the dreaded Taku Inlet with its monstrous crashing bergs and its possibility of sudden and furious storms. So the little steamer was here, creeping up slowly through this vision of mystic blue towards the glacier, which lay there white, vast, shadowy, mysterious, and my heart beat quicker and quicker as we approached.
I went off in one of the first boats and the moment it touched the pebbly strand of the side of the inlet I jumped out and walked away, eager to be alone to enjoy the glory of it all away from the rasping voices, the worldly talk of my companions, the perpetual “littleness” of ideas that humanity drags with it everywhere.
As I turned from the boat the voices followed me clearly, distinctly, in the exquisite rarefied air.
Thin waves of laughter mingled with them from time to time, growing faint behind me, then the distance closed up between us and I heard no more.
The steamer had landed about thirty passengers and crew, and they seemed immediately lost in these vast expanses. When I had walked a few minutes up the beach from the water’s edge, I looked round and was apparently alone. Some few black dots here and there disfiguring the snowy slopes and glittering ice-covered rocks was all that remained of them. In the midst of the vivid blue-green of the inlet behind me, a little wedge of black, lay the steamer, the only reminder that I was one also of these miserable black dots and in an hour I should be collected and taken away as one of them. For this hour, however, I was free and at one with the divine glory about me.
It was just noon. The sky was of a pale and perfect blue, the air still, of miraculous clearness and radiant with the pure light of the North, unshaded, unsoftened by the smallest mist or cloud. The silence was unbroken except for the regular thunder of the falling bergs, that continued with absolute precision at the five-minute interval, and the accompanying splash of the water. I walked on up the strand, having the great glistening wall of the glacier’s face somewhat on my left. It was impossible to approach it on land, as the fervid green water lay deep all about its base. It was only at the side of the inlet that little beaches had been formed, and on one of these I stood. The steamer could not get nearer the glacier for fear of the floating bergs, and a small boat could only approach with deadliest peril at the risk of being crushed beneath the falling ice or swamped by the wild division and upheaval of the water that it caused.
But here, on the beach, was a world of enchantment second only in beauty to the glacier itself, for many of the bergs had been stranded there by the playful tides. They stood there now towering up in a thousand different forms, hundreds of feet above one’s head, drawing all the light of the sunbeams into their glittering recesses, turning them there into violet, purple, and crimson hues, mauve, saffron, and emerald, blood-red and topaz, and then throwing them out in a million lance-like rays of colour, dazzling and blinding the vision. Like the most wonderful rainbows turned into solid masses they stood there, or like the jewels, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds broken from some giant’s crown and scattered recklessly along the strand.
I went up to them and walked beneath an ice arch that glowed rose without as the sun touched it and deepest violet within. Then on, into a cave beyond where the last chamber was coldest white but the outer rim seemed hung with blood-red fire and the middle wall glowed deepest emerald. On, on from one to another, each like a perfect dream of exquisite colour: sunrise and sunset, and all the hues of earth that we ever see were blended together in those glorious bergs.
What a phantasmagoria of colour, what a wonderful vision! Wrapped up in the delight of it, I passed on through some and round others, pursuing my way up the beach, and ascended slowly the rocks, the huge morain at the side of the glacier, while impressively from the inlet came unvaryingly the thunder of the five-minute guns, hastening my steps, dogging them, as it were, with warning of the passing time.
After a heavy climb taken too quickly, when I put my foot first on the clear blue-green surface of the glacier, its immensity, its grandeur came home to me. The idea of the huge size of it seems to take the human mind in a curious grip and appal it. Three hundred and fifty square miles of ice stretched round me, white, unbroken, except here and there where gigantic fissures and ravines opened in its surface; ravines where deep blue-green colour glowed in the sides, as if it were the blue-green blood of the glacier. A tiny wind from the north, keen as a knife blade, blew in my face as I stood there, out of the calm blue sky, and seemed to whisper to me of the terrifying nights of storm, of the deadly wind before which all life goes down like a straw, that raged here in the winter. On every side, as far as the eyes could reach, wide white plains of undulating ice and snow, broken here and there by patches of barren rock, that seemed now by some optical delusion, against the glaring white, to be of the brightest mauve and violet tints. Only that; ice and snow and rock for mile upon mile, until the tale of three hundred and fifty is told. No track or trace of bird, no sweet companionship of little furred, four-footed things, no blade of grass or smallest plant or flower, no sound but the roar of the riven ice, the groans of the dying glacier.
I walked on slowly, looking inland towards the white fields stretching away endlessly into the distance till the blue of the sky seems to come down and mingle with the blue shadows in the snow. Beneath my feet glimmered sometimes the green glass-like surface of smooth ice, at others the thin crisp covering of drifted snow crackled at every step. Sometimes the crevasses were so narrow one could easily walk over them, others yawned widely, many yards across, necessitating a long detour to pass round them.
Looking back from the side of one of them as I walked up it to find the narrowest part, I saw the objectionable black dots had swarmed up on to the edge of the glacier and through the thin, glittering air their voices and laughter at intervals came faintly to me. I sprang over the crevasse and walked on quickly to a point where the fissures grew thick about my feet and the green-blue blood of the glacier glowed in them on every side.
I was looking now down the inlet and was near enough to the face of the glacier to hear, though dulled by distance, the crash of the falling bergs into the foaming water beneath. I could not approach nearer for crevasses hemmed me in; the ice showed itself clear of snow and was so slippery I could hardly stand. One false step now, one small slip and I should disappear down one of these green rents, swallowed up in between those gleaming crystal sides to remain one with the glacier for all time. My idea had been to approach the face of the glacier from the top, but I found this to be as impossible, by reason of the crevasses, as it had been to approach it from the sea on account of the falling bergs.
Sacred, inaccessible, guarded above and below, the great gleaming wall stood there through the centuries, defying the puny curiosity, the feeble efforts of man to even gaze upon it and marvel over it, except from a long distance. I would have given all I had to have been able to advance to the very edge and, kneeling there, look over it down those majestic palisades of white flushed through with green, throwing back to the sun, their destroyer and conqueror, a thousand flashing rays as if in defiance of the slow death being dealt out to them, like one who dies brandishing to the last his sword in the face of his enemy. I longed to look over, down the glimmering wall, to the swelling rush of the green waters as they leapt up rejoicing to receive the colossal diamond-like berg as it crashed down to them, to see them seethe over it and fling their spray high up in the sunshine in mocking revelry; but it was impossible. The fissures in the ice multiplied themselves as one neared the edge and now were spread round my feet in a perfect network, like the meshes of a snare. It was impossible to go forward, and I was unwilling to go back. I stood motionless on a little tongue of polished ice between two blue-green chasms, so deep that they seemed riven down to the very heart of the glacier; stood there, drinking in the keen gold air and the beauty of the blue arch above, of the boundless spaces of glittering white round me, of the narrow green inlet so far below from which echoed the reverberating roar of the falling ice.
I was debating with myself, should I stay here alone for a time, letting the steamer go, after having stored some provisions for me on the shore, and call again for me a few weeks later, in any case before the short summer of these northern latitudes was over, and winter closed the inlet?
To stay here alone, the one single human being, in a thousand miles of space, and not only the one human being, but the one _life_, with no companionship of animal, bird, or insect, that would be an experience of solitude indeed!
The idea attracted me; all day and all night to hear nothing but that thunderous roar, and see nothing but the shining sea, the gleaming ice-fields, and the glittering bergs, to be alone with Nature, to see her, as it were, intimately in her awful beauty, with breast and brow unveiled–and, perhaps, have death as one’s reward!
There was fascination in the thought.
What ideas would come to one as one watched the little steamer, the only link that held one still bound to the world of men, weigh anchor and steam slowly down the green inlet, departing and leaving one behind it, as one watched it growing smaller, dwindling ever, till it was a mere speck, and then saw it vanish, leaving the green riband of water unbroken save for the passing bergs? How one would realise solitude when the boat had absolutely disappeared, and how that solitude would thrill through and through one’s blood as the long light night rolled by and dawn and day succeeded with their unvarying march of silent glittering hours!
And if death came on the wings of a storm such as rises suddenly in these regions and piled high the snow over the camp, freezing the inmate, or if it came by slow starvation, the steamer having been lost on that dangerous rocky coast and none other having come in time, how would death seem to one here, already so far removed from men and all desire and lust of the world, here, where already all earthly things had almost ceased to be and one’s spirit had merged into the Infinite?
Death would seem to one in different guise from when he comes to us in the midst of the delights of the world, with the baubles of life around us, or in the stress of the battle-field in the moment of victory, surrounded by our comrades.
Death here would come but as the crown, the climax to the solitude, the detachment, the isolation, would seem but as the laying down the head on the breast of Nature, becoming one with her immensity, her grandeur.
For some minutes I was keenly tempted to stay, the idea held my mind and fascinated it, but with the vision of death came the recoil from it born from the remembrance of my art. The same recoil that had saved me many times before, for youth is usually greatly inclined to suicide, either directly or indirectly in the dangers it courts. But in an artist this is strangely balanced by his love for his work. When he has ceased to wish for life or heed it for himself he still feels instinctive revolt against extinguishing that diviner spark than life itself, his genius, lent him from the celestial fire.
The thought of my work dispelled the enchanted dream into which I had fallen. Instinctively I turned and very slowly began to retrace my steps amongst the yawning pitfalls. As I did so I heard a hoarse hoot from the steamer lying below, to tell me it was about to leave, another and another resounded dully from it, warning me to hasten my return.
I made my way back to the shore where the boat and the impatient sailors awaited me. I took my seat in it, turning my eyes to the glistening, glimmering white palisade rising over the sapphire sea.
When we had reached the steamer and its head was turned round I stood at the stern and watched that palisade for long, as it receded and receded. At last the blue distance swallowed it up. I could see no more than a silvery line dividing the blues of meeting sea and sky. Then I went down to my cabin and locked the door and lay down on my berth in the quiet, trying to live over again that one hour of close contact with the beauty of the North.
After dinner that night I wrote a long letter to my cousin Viola about the beauty of the Muir. She would understand, I knew. What I thought she would feel, for our brains were cast in the same mould. The letter finished, it was still too early to go to bed; so I picked up a curious book called “Life’s Shop Window” which I had been reading the previous night, and read this passage which had struck me before, over again:
“So, as we look into our future, we see ourselves beloved and wealthy; victorious, famous, and free to wander through the sweetest paths of the world, passing through a thousand scenes, sometimes loving, sometimes warring, tasting and drinking of everything sweet and stimulating, knowing all things, enjoying all in turn; but this is the life of a God, not a man. And it is perhaps the God in us which so savagely demands the life of a God.”
“But it is not granted to us.”
Yet this was the life I was trying to lead, and to some extent I succeeded. Change, change, it is the life of life, perhaps especially to the artist.
And I was an artist now, thanks to the decision of the Royal Academy last year to accept the worst picture I had submitted to them for four years. Ever since my fingers could clasp round anything at all they had loved to hold a brush; for years in my teens I had studied painting under the best teachers of technique in Italy. For two or three years I had done really good work, with the divine afflatus thrilling through every vein. And last year I had painted rather a commonplace picture and it had been hung on the line in the Academy, and so my friends all said I really was an artist now, and I modestly accepted the style and title, with outward diffidence.
How little any of them guessed, as they congratulated me, of the wild rapture of feeling, of intense gratitude with which I had listened to the Divine whisper that had come to my ears as a boy of seventeen sitting in a small bare bedroom, on the floor with the sheet of paper before me on which I had drawn a woman’s head. As I looked at it, I knew suddenly my power, and the Voice that is above all others said within me: “_I_ have made you an artist. None can undo or dispute MY work.”
From that moment I cared for neither praise nor blame. The opinion of men affected me not at all. My gift was mine, and I knew it. I held it straight from the Divine hands. I had the Divine promise with me for as long as I should live on this earth.
And I was filled with a boundless delight in life and my own powers.
When I showed my original pictures all painted under inspiration to my father, he carefully put on his pince-nez and studied them very closely. After that he said he must reserve his judgment. When they went to the Academy and were promptly refused, he drew a long face and said I had better have gone into the Indian Civil Service as he wished. Subsequently, when I had sold them all, and not one for less than a thousand guineas, he began to enter upon a placid state of contentment with me which induced him to say to other captious relations–“Let the boy alone, he will be an artist some day.” At which I used to laugh inwardly and go away to my studio to listen to the Divine voice dictating fresh pictures to me. For five years in Italy I had studied closely and worked unremittingly, keeping myself for my art alone and existing only in it. My teachers had called me industrious. Another phrase which always must make an artist laugh when applied to his art.
To those who know the wild pleasure, the almost mad joy of exercising a really natural gift, it sounds as funny as to talk of a drunkard industriously getting drunk.
However, this by the way. The world is the world, and artists are artists; the artist may understand the world, but the world can never understand the artist.
I was happy, life passed like a golden dream till I was twenty-two, and my father was satisfied that I was an “industrious” student.
From twenty-two till now, when I was twenty-eight, life had opened out into fuller colour still. My art remained the life of the soul, of all that was best in me, but the brain and the senses had come forward, demanding their share of recognition, too, and out of the many coloured strands of which we can weave our web of life, I had chosen that which gleams the next brightest to art, the strand of passion, and woven much with that.
I had travelled, passing from country to country, city to city, finding love and inspiration everywhere, for the world is full of both for those who desire and look for them, and now I had come on this coasting trip along the shores of Alaska in the same spirit, looking for pictures in the golden atmosphere, for joy in the golden days and nights.
My sketch-book was full of ideas and jottings, and I looked forward much to the landing at Sitka where I hoped to find new and good material. The hopeless ugliness of the Alaskan natives had so far appalled me. An artist chiefly of the face and figure, as I was, could not hope to find a model amongst them. As our steamer had come up the coast I had looked in vain for even a decent-sized woman or child amongst them. They seem a race without a single beauty, possessing neither stature, nor colour, nor length of hair, nor even plump shapeliness. Undersized, leather-skinned, small-eyed, thin, and wizened, they never seem to be young. They seem to start middle-aged and go on growing older.
No, I had really had no luck at present on my Alaskan tour, but I was naturally sanguine and hoped still something from Sitka.
Most capitals give you something if you visit them, and Sitka was the capital of Alaska.
As I lay in my berth that night, made wakeful by the bright light, I was thinking over past incidents in my life and all the Minnies and Marys that had been connected with them. They seemed all to have been Mary or Minnie with Marias in Italy and France. I fell asleep at last, hoping whatever Fate had in store for me at Sitka, it wouldn’t be a Mary or a Minnie, but some new name embodying a new idea.
When we landed at Sitka I went ashore with a fellow passenger. He was a clever man, and had made trips up there already for the sake of taking photographs of the people and the scenery; he knew Sitka well and came up to me just before we arrived there with the remark:
“If you come with me I’ll take you to have tea with the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen.”
This certainly seemed an invitation to accept, and I did so on the spot.
“She really is,” he continued, observing my sceptically raised eyebrows, “wonderfully pretty. She keeps a tea-shop and she is Chinese.” With that he bolted into his own cabin, which was next mine, and as I heard him laughing, I concluded he was joking and thought no more about it. However, as the ship glided up over flat sheets of golden water to the landing-stage, he joined me again, and together we stood looking up the principal street of Sitka which runs down to meet the little quay.
It was just four in the afternoon, and everything was vivid living gold, as the floods of yellow sunshine filled all the shining air. The green copper dome of the church alone stood out a soft spot of delicate colour in the dazzling burnished haze.
At the sides of the street sat and crouched the small squat figures of the Alaskan Indians, each with a mat before it on which the owner had set out his little store of wares–bottles of various-coloured sands, reindeer slippers beautifully embroidered in blue beads, carved walrus teeth.
We stepped on the shore and the Indians looked up at us with quaint brown questioning eyes, like their own seals.
They did not ask you to buy, but watched you silently.
“Come along,” said my friend, “we’ll go up and get tea before there’s a crowd.”
After about five minutes’ walk, while I was gazing about interested in this quaint little capital, my companion suddenly exclaimed:
“In here,” and turned through an opening at the corner of a square enclosure on our right hand. I followed, and saw we had entered a little square court or compound, similar to those with which the poorer classes in any Eastern community surround their huts.
The floor was dried and hardened mud, the walls about seven feet high, and numerous small tables laid for tea stood round them.
My companion did not pause here, however, but went straight through in at the low house door, and we found ourselves in a very small, dark passage, hung with red and with red cloths dangling from the ceiling, that swept our heads as we came in.
It seemed quite dark inside, coming from the fierce gold light of the streets, but there was a dim little lamp in Eastern glass of many colours swinging somewhere at the farther end, and we found our way down to a low door in the side of the passage. This brought us into a small square room which gave the impression of being sunk below the level of the street. There were diminutive windows in the outer wall, but they were close to the low ceiling and though the glorious light from without tried hard to come in, it was successfully obstructed by little rush blinds of red and green. The rushes were placed vertically side by side and fastened together with string and painted in bright tints. The breeze from the sea came through them and sang a low song of its own. The walls were hung with red stuff curtains, over which ramped wonderful Chinese dragons in green; the floor was spread with something soft, on which the feet made no sound; in the corners of the room stood some little tables.
To the farthest of these, under the rush-covered windows, we made our way and sat down on some very ordinary American chairs, a hideous note in the quaint surrounding, introduced as a concession, no doubt, to Western taste.
“I rather like this, Morley,” I said as I took my seat and looked round.
“Thought you would,” he returned, and pressed his hand on a tiny bronze figure standing on the table. At the touch of his finger the head of the figure disappeared between its shoulders, and then sprung up again, producing a harsh clanging sound of a gong.
Hardly a moment later the red curtains that hung over the doorway parted, and a figure came into the room.
Such a sweet figure, the very spirit of poetic girlhood seemed incarnate before us.
In appearance she was a Chinese maiden of seventeen or eighteen years; seventeen or eighteen according to our standard of looks, doubtless she was in reality younger.
The face was wonderfully beautiful, a very rounded oval and of the most perfect creamy tint, the nose, straight and fine, was rather long, the upper lip short, and the mouth very small, soft, and full-lipped. The eyes inclined a little to the Chinese shape, but were large, wide, and well-opened and brimming to the lids with extraordinary light and fire; delicately narrow black eyebrows arched above on the low satiny forehead, from which was brushed upwards a mass of shining black hair piled on the top of the small head and apparently secured there by two weighty gold pins thrust through from side to side.
The last touch of beauty, if any were needed, was added by the earrings of turquoise-blue stone that swung against the ivory-tinted softness of the full young throat.
Those blue stones against the creamy neck! For years afterwards how I could see them again in the darkness that lies behind closed lids! How often I was back in the crimson darkness of the tiny chamber with the sea song of the Alaskan waves coming through the painted rushes above my head!
She was very simply dressed, yet so fitly to her own beauty.
A straight pale blue jacket covered her shoulders and opened on the breast over a white muslin vest. Her skirts hung like the full trousers of Persian women, and were a deep yellow in colour. Her feet were bare, and shone white on the red floor.
“How do you do, Suzee?” said Morley.
“How do you do, Mister Morlee,” returned the girl lightly, smiling and showing pretty little teeth as she did so.
“You two gentlemen want some tea? Very good. I make it.”
She glided to the curtains and disappeared as rapidly and noiselessly as she had entered.
I turned to Morley with enthusiasm.
“She’s lovely, perfect.”
“Isn’t she just? I knew you’d say so. But she’s married, old man, so don’t you think you can go playing any tricks with her.”
“Married?” I gasped incredulously, “that child? Impossible! You’re joking.”
“I’m not, ‘pon my honour. She has a great roaring brute of a baby, too.”
“How horrible!” I exclaimed. “Yes, horrible. You’ve spoiled it all. It seems a sacrilege.”
“Fiddlesticks,” returned my practical friend. “That’s the sort that does these things, isn’t it? Would you expect her to turn into an old maid?”
“No, but so young!” I faltered. In reality it was a shock to me. To have such an exquisite sight float before one for a moment, and then to be roughly dragged down to earth from the exaltation it had caused, hurt and bruised me.
The next moment she was back again, bearing a tray in her hands which she set on our table, and deftly arranged the steaming teapot and tiny cups before us.
As she bent near us over the little table a strange sensation of delight came over me, a faint scent of roses reached me from the little buds behind her ear. The blue stones in the long gold earrings swung against her neck of cream as she set out the tea things.
“How is your boy, Suzee?” asked Morley with a tone of mischief in his voice.
“He is very well, thank you, Mister Morlee.”
“I should like to see him. Will you bring him in?” he continued, commencing to pour out the tea.
“Yes; he is asleep now, but I will wake him up,” she returned nonchalantly, and, in spite of a protestation from me, she went out to do so.
After a minute we heard loud screams from across the passage and presently Suzee reappeared dragging (I can use no other phrase) in her arms an enormous baby. Its face was red, and it was roaring lustily. The girl-mother did not seem disturbed in the least by its cries, but staggered slowly over to us, clasping the child awkwardly round the waist and holding it flat against her own body.
It seemed very large, out of all proportion to the small and exquisitely dainty mother. She was short and small, and the child really, as I looked at it, seemed to be quite half the length of her own body.
“What a big boy he is,” remarked Morley.
“Yes, isn’t he?” said the mother proudly.
The baby roared its loudest, tears streamed down its scarlet face, and it dug its clenched knuckles furiously into its eyes.
“Surely it’s in pain,” I suggested.
“Oh, he always cries when he is woken up,” returned the mother tranquilly. She did not seem to take the least notice of the child’s bellowing. She might have been deaf for all the effect it had upon her. She stood there placidly holding it, though it seemed very heavy for her, while the child screamed itself purple. She began a conversation with Morley just precisely as if the child were non-existent.
I never saw such a picture, and it struck me suddenly I should like to paint it, just as it was there, and call the thing “Maternity.”
But no. What would be the good? No one, certainly not the British public, would ever believe its truth.
They would think it a joke, and a grotesque one at that. “Beauty and the Beast” would do for a name, I mused, or “Fact and Fancy.”
Nothing could be more delicately soul-absorbingly beautiful than the mother; nothing so brutally hideous as the child.
Suzee had sat down on the floor now, and the baby, still roaring, had rolled on to its face on the ground beside her. Still she took not the smallest notice of it; she laid one shapely hand on the small of its back, as if to make sure it was there, and continued her conversation tranquilly with Morley. How she could hear what he said I could not tell. I could hear nothing but the appalling row the child made.
“Do take it away,” I said after a few moments more, in an interval of yells, during which the baby rolled, apparently in the last stages of suffocation, on the floor. “I can’t stand that noise.”
“Ah!” said Suzee meditatively, lifting her glorious almond eyes to mine, “you do not like my boy-baby?”
“I do not like the noise he makes,” I said evasively, “and I don’t think he can be well, either.”
“Oh yes, he is quite well,” she returned composedly; “but I will take him away.”
So saying, she began to haul at the loose things about the child’s waist, as a tired gardener hauls at a sack of potatoes prior to lifting it up.
I thought really she would get the child into her arms head downwards, so carelessly did she seem to manage it, and as she rose and carried it to the door it seemed as if the awkward weight of it must strain her own slight body.
When the curtain closed behind her and the screams got faint in the distance as the unhappy child was hauled to a back room, I drew a breath of relief and began to drink my tea, which really hitherto I had been too nervous to do. Morley chuckled and remarked:
“Good for you to be disillusioned.”
“I’m not in the least, with _her_. She is a divine piece of physical beauty. I wish I could get her on my canvas.”
“You won’t be able to; that old curmudgeon of a husband of hers will see to that.”
“I should think he has the devil of a temper, judging by his offspring,” I answered. “She looks sweet enough.”
Morley nodded, and we finished our tea in silence. Suzee came back presently with cigarettes for us and sat down on the floor herself, rolling one up between supple fingers. She had an air of extraordinary unruffled placidity. The dragging about of the child had not disturbed her dress nor heated her face. In cool, tranquil, placid beauty she sat and rolled cigarettes while the child’s cries dimly echoed in the distance.
“Where’s the boss, Suzee?” questioned Morley presently.
“He has gone down to Fort Wrangle for two days,” she returned, and my spirits leapt up at her words. Her husband away for two days! Perhaps there was a chance for a picture….
My eyes swept over her seated on the floor in front of us. What exquisite supple lines! What sweet little dainty curves showed beneath the blue silk jacket and sleeve! What a glory of light and passionate expression in the liquid dark eyes when she raised them to us!
After a few minutes Morley got up, and I saw him laying down on the table the money for our tea. I added my share, and Morley remarked,
“We’d better go and walk about before dinner, hadn’t we? You’d like a look round?”
I was gazing at Suzee.
“Do you have any time to yourself?” I asked her. “Later in the evening perhaps when you could come for a walk with me.”
Suzee looked up. There was surprise in those wonderful eyes, but I thought I saw pleasure too.
“At six,” she said. “I close the restaurant for a short time, but I don’t walk, I smoke and go to sleep. But I will come with you if it is not too far,” she added as an after-thought.
Morley gave a whistle, indicative of surprise and disapproval, but I answered composedly.
“Very well, I shall come here at six; so don’t be asleep and fail to let me in!”
Suzee laughed and shook her head, and we picked up our hats and went out of the little room into the passage. In the outer court, as we passed through, we saw most of the tables occupied, and an elderly woman serving.
“We had the best of it,” I remarked.
“Yes, rather. But you are going ahead with that girl. Do be careful or you’ll have the old terror of a husband down on you.”
“You introduced me,” I returned laughing. “You have all the responsibility.”
“You know dinner’s at six on this unearthly boat. Aren’t you going to get any dinner to-night?”
“I’m not very particular about it. I shall pick up something. I thought six when all the men would be back on board would be her free time.”
“But what are you going to do with her?”
“Get her to pose for me, if she will.”
“One never knows in life,” I answered smiling.
Morley regarded me thoughtfully.
“You artists do manage to have a good time.”
“You could have just the same if you chose,” I said.
“No, I don’t think I could somehow,” he answered slowly. “I am not so devilishly good-looking as you are, for one thing.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied; “and does that make much difference with women, do you think? Isn’t it rather a passionate responsiveness, a go-aheadness, that they like?”
“Yes, I think it is, but then that’s it, you’ve got that. I don’t think I have. I don’t seem to want the things, to see anything in them, as you do.”
I laughed outright. We were walking slowly down one of the gold, light-filled streets towards the church now, and everything about us seemed vibrating in the dazzling heat.
“If you don’t want them I should think it’s all right.” I said.
“No, it isn’t,” returned my companion gravely. “You want a thing very much and you get it, and have no end of fun. I don’t want it and don’t get it, and don’t have the fun. So it makes life very dull.”
“Well, I _am_ very jolly,” I admitted contentedly. “I think really, artists–people with the artist’s brain–do enjoy everything tremendously. They have such a much wider field of desires, as you say; and fewer limitations. They ‘weave the web Desire,’ as Swinburne says, ‘to snare the bird Delight.'”
“They get into a mess sometimes,” said Morley sulkily; “as you will with that girl if you don’t look out. Here we are at the church. There’s a very fine picture inside; you’d like to see it, I expect.”
We turned into the church and rested on the chairs for a few minutes, enjoying the cool dark interior.
At six o’clock exactly I was in the little mud-yard again, before the tea-shop; having sent Morley off to his dinner on board. I felt elated: all my pulses were beating merrily. I was keenly alive. Morley was right in what he said. An artist is Nature’s pet, and she has mixed all his blood with joy. Natural, instinctive joy, swamped occasionally by melancholy, but always there surging up anew. Joy in himself–joy in his powers–joy in life.
I knocked as arranged, and Suzee herself let me in. She had been burning spice, apparently, before one of the idols that stood in each corner of the tea-shop; for the whole place smelt of it.
“What have you been doing?” I said. “Holding service here?”
“Only burning spice-spills to chase away the evil spirits,” replied Suzee.
“Are there any here?” I inquired.
“They always come in with the white foreign devils,” she returned with engaging frankness.
“Well, Suzee, you are unkind,” I expostulated. “Is that how you think of me?”
She looked up with a calm smile.
“The devil is always welcomed by a woman,” she answered sweetly–her eyes were black lakes with fire moving in their depths–“that is one of our proverbs. It is quite true.”
The lips curled and the creamy satin of the cheeks dimpled and the blue earrings shook against her neck.
“What lovely earrings,” I said, smiling down upon her, and put up my hand gently to touch one. She did not draw back nor seem to resent my action.
“You think them pretty? I have others upstairs. Will you come up and see my jewellery?”
I assented with the greatest willingness, and we went on down the passage and then up the narrow, steep flight of stairs at the end.
“Don’t wake up your child,” I said in sudden horror, as we reached the small square landing above of slender rickety uncovered boards.
“Oh, he never wakes till one pulls him up,” she answered tranquilly, and led the way into a little chamber. Did she sleep here? I wondered. There was no bed, but a loose heap of red rugs in one corner. The windows were mere narrow horizontal slits close to the ceiling. In the centre, blocking up all the space, stood a high narrow chest. It looked very old, of blackened wood and antique shape. I had never seen such a thing. On the top of this, which nearly came to her chin, she eagerly spread out heaps of little paper parcels she took from one of the drawers.
“Have you any earrings just like those you are wearing?” I asked her. If she had, I would buy them if I could for my cousin Viola, I thought. Viola was excessively fair, and those blue stones would be enchanting against her blonde hair.
“You want to buy them?” she said quickly. “I have a pair here just like, only green. Buy those.”
“No,” I said. “It is the colour I like. Do you want to sell these blue ones you are wearing?”
“No,” she said quickly; “not these,” and ran to a small mirror on the wall and looked in hastily, fearfully, as if she thought that by wishing for them I could charm them away from her out of her very ears.
That she appreciated so well the effect of the colour harmony between the blue stones and her own cream-hued skin, and the value of it in setting off her beauty, pleased me. It seemed to augur well for her artistic sense.
“May I sit down here?” I asked her, going to the pile of scarlet rugs and cushions in the corner.
“Oh yes, Meester Treevor, sit down,” and she came hastily forward to rearrange them for me with Oriental politeness. I sat down, drawing up my legs as I best could, and pointed to a place beside me.
“Come and sit down, Suzee,” I said; “I have something to show you now.”
She came and sat beside me, but not very close, with her knees raised and her smooth lissom little hands clasped round them. Her almond eyes grew almost round with curiosity. I had brought with me a small portfolio of some of my sketches with the object of introducing the subject of her posing for me. I opened it and drew out the topmost sketch. It was the figure of a young Italian girl lying on a green bank beneath some vines. She was not wholly undraped, but most of her attire was on the bank beside her, and the rest was of a transparent gauzy nature suited to the heat suggested in the sunlit picture.
The moment Suzee’s eyes fell upon it she gave a shriek of dismay and covered her face with her hands. Over any portion I could still see of it spread the Eastern’s equivalent of a blush: a sort of dull heavy red that seems to thicken the tissues.
“What is the matter?” I asked, surveying her in surprise. There was nothing in the picture which would cause the least embarrassment to any English girl.
“Oh, Treevor, it is dreadful to look at things like that,” she exclaimed, moving her fingers before her face and looking at me with one eye through them. Then she made some rapid passes over her head, as if to ward off the evil spirits I had conjured up.
“You may think so, Suzee,” I said; “but in our country, and many others, these ‘things,’ as you call them, are not only very much looked at, but also admired, and bought and sold for great sums. What do you see so very bad in it?”
Suzee ventured to peer through her fingers with both eyes at the fearful object.
“Dreadful!” she exclaimed again, quickly shutting her fingers. “It is a very bad woman, is it not?”
“No,” I said, somewhat nettled; “certainly not. This was quite a respectable girl. I have quantities of these portraits and sketches. Look here,” and I opened the portfolio and spread out several pictures on the rug.
Suzee drew herself together, tightly pursed up her and looked down at them with alarm,–as if I had let loose a number of snakes.
“They are very, very wicked things,” she said, primly as a dissenting minister’s wife; and lowered her eyelids till the lashes lay like black silk on the cheeks.
I gathered the offending sketches together and pushed them back under cover.
“I wanted you to pose for me,” I said, “that I might have your picture, too; but I expect you won’t do so for me?”
“I! I!” said Suzee, with virtuous indignation, “be put on paper like that? I would die first.” Her face had thickened all over as the blood went into it. Her eyes looked stormy, alluring.
I leant towards her suddenly as we sat side by side, put my arms round her waist, drew her to me, and pressed my lips on the ridiculous little screwed-up mouth, with a sudden access of passion that left her breathless.
“You are a horrid little humbug, and goose, and prude,” I said, laughing, as I released her. “What do you think of letting me kiss you like that, then? Is that wrong?”
Suzee sighed heavily, swaying her pliable body only a very little way from me.
“It may be–a little” she admitted; “but it’s not like the pictures.”
“Oh! It’s not so bad–not so wicked?” I asked mockingly.
“Oh no, not nearly,” she returned decisively.
“Well,” I answered, “many people would think it much worse. Those girls who have let me draw them would not let me kiss them–some of them,” I added. “So, you see, it’s a matter of opinion and idea. Now, will you say why the picture is so much worse than a kiss?”
“A kiss,” murmured Suzee, “is just between two people. It is done, and no one knows. It is gone.” She spread out her hands and waved them in the air with an expressive gesture. “Those things remain a monument of shame for ever and ever.”
I laughed. I was beginning to see there was not much chance of a picture, but other prospects seemed fair. In life one must always take exactly what it offers, and neither refuse its goods nor ask for more, either in addition or exchange. Sitka would give me something, but perhaps not a picture as I had hoped.
I looked at her in silence for some seconds, musing on her curious beauty.
“I shall call you ‘Sitkar-i-buccheesh,'” I said after a minute.
Suzee looked frightened and made a rapid pass over her head.
“What is that?” she asked. “It sounds a devil’s name.”
“It only means the gift of Sitka,” I answered. “This city has given you to me, has it not? or it will,” I added in a lower tone.
I put my arm round her again, and she leant towards me as a flower swayed by the breeze, her head drooped and rested against my shoulder.
“If it were the name of a devil,” I said laughing, “it would suit you. I believe you are an awful little devil.”
“All women are devils,” returned Suzee placidly.
I did not answer, but Viola’s face swam suddenly before my vision–a face all white and gold and rose and with eyes of celestial blue.
“What would your husband say to all this?” I asked jestingly.
“He will never know. I tell him quite different. He believes everything I say.”
Involuntarily I felt a little chill of disgust pass through me. Deceit of any kind specially repels me, and deceit towards some one trusting, confident, is the worst of all.
Perhaps she read my thoughts instinctively, for she said next, in a pleading note, to enlist my sympathies:
“He is very, very cruel, he beats me all the time.”
I looked down at her as she lay in the cradle of my arm, a little sceptical.
From what I knew of the Chinese character it did not seem at all likely that Hop Lee did beat his wife; moreover, the delicate, fragile, untouched beauty of the girl did not allow one to imagine she had suffered, or could suffer much violence.
Again she seemed to feel my doubt of her, for she pushed up suddenly her sleeve with some trouble from one velvet-skinned arm and pushed it up before my eyes. There was a deep dull crimson mark upon it the size of a half-crown.
“Unbeliever! Look at this bruise.”
I looked at it, then at her steadily.
“Suzee, did your husband make that bruise?”
“Yes. He pinched me so hard in a rage with me,” she said a little sulkily.
“Give me your arm,” I said.
She held it out reluctantly. I looked at the bruise, then I rolled the sleeve back a little farther, and in it found a heavy gold bangle with a boss on one side corresponding with the size of the mark on the flesh.
“I think it is the gold bracelet your kind old husband gave you that you have pressed into the flesh,” I said, “that has marked it. That is about what his cruelty to you amounts to.” I dropped her arm contemptuously, and rose suddenly.
She had succeeded in dispelling for the moment the charm of her beauty. Her prudery, her deceit, her lies made up to me a peculiarly obnoxious mixture.
She sprang up, too, as I rose and threw herself on her knees, clasping her arms round mine so that I could not move.
“Oh Treevor, I do love you so much. You are my real master, not he. A woman loves a man who conquers her, but not by buying her. But because he is better and stronger than she. Because he has great muscles, as you have, and could kill her, and because she can’t deceive him, because he sees all her lies, as you do. Yes, Treevor, I love you now very much indeed. Come here again, kiss me again.”
But somehow her pleading did not move me. The moment when I had been drawn to her had gone by, swallowed up in a feeling of disgust.
I stooped down and unlocked her hands and put her back among her cushions.
“Good-bye, Suzee, for to-day,” I said. “To-morrow I will come and take you for a walk. You must let me go now. I do not want to stay any longer.”
She looked at me in silence, but did not offer to move from where I had put her.
I gathered up my portfolio and left the room, went down the stairs and through the passage and courtyard to the sun-filled street.
I went on slowly, and after a time found myself close to the church again. I went in, for the interior interested me, and found service was being held. A Russian priest, wholly in white clothing, stood before the altar, the cross light from the aisle windows falling on the long twist of fair hair that lay upon his shoulders. The whole air was full of incense that rose in white clouds to the domed roof. I sat down near the door and listened while the priest intoned a Latin hymn. The figure of the young priest at the altar attracted me. I thought I should like a sketch of it; but I hesitated to take one of him in the church, even surreptitiously, so I fixed the picture of him as he stood there on my eyes as far as I could, and then, in a convenient pause of the service, quietly slipped outside.
Near the church was a great outcrop of rock surmounted by a weather-beaten tree. In the shade thrown by these I got out a sheet of loose paper and made a sketch of the fair, long-haired priest, with the quaint frame building of the church, its green copper dome and bell tower and double gold crosses behind him.
After I had been there some time I was suddenly surprised by Morley.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed. “You here? Why, I thought you would be in the arms of the fair Suzee by this time.”
“So I might have been,” I answered, looking up from the sketch, “but I got put off somehow, so I left her and went to church instead!”
Morley burst out laughing.
“You _are_ the funniest fellow,” he exclaimed, taking his seat beside me on the ground and clasping his hands round his knees. “So Suzee has offended you, has she? Do you know, I think that’s where we ordinary people get ahead of fellows like you. You are too sensitive. We’re not so particular. When I’m stuck on Mary Ann it doesn’t matter to me what she says or does. It doesn’t interfere with my happiness.”
I went on painting in silence.
“Funny those chaps look with their long hair, don’t they?” he remarked after a moment, as I painted the light on the priest’s long curl.
“Very picturesque, don’t you think?” I said.
“No, I don’t,” returned the Briton stoutly. “I think it’s beastly.”
I laughed this time, and having completed the portrait, slipped it into my portfolio and prepared to put away my paints.
“Don’t you want any dinner?” asked Morley. “You must be hungry.”
“Well, I hadn’t thought of it,” I answered. “But, now you mention it, perhaps I am. Do you know of any place where one can get anything?”
“There’s one place at the end of the town where you can have soup and bread,” replied Morley, and we started off to find it.
Later on, towards ten o’clock, when we were leaving the little, frame, sailors’ restaurant, I looked up to the western sky and saw that strange colour in it of the Alaskan sunset that I have never found in any other sky, a bright magenta, or deep heather pink, a crude colour rather like an aniline dye, but brilliant and arresting in the clean, clear gold of the heavens.
Great ribs and bars and long flat lines of it lay all across the West. No other cloud, no other colour appeared anywhere in the sky. It was painted in those two tints alone; the brightest magenta conceivable and living gold.
Walking back slowly to the ship, I gazed at it with interest. No other sky that I could recall ever shows this tone of colour. Pink, scarlet, rose, and all the shades of blood or flame-colour are familiar in every sunset, but this curious tint seemed to belong to Alaska alone.
I watched it glow and deepen, then fade, and softly disappear as the sun dipped below the horizon.
IN THE WOOD
The next evening, after dinner, I left the ship and made my way to Suzee’s place to take her for the promised walk.
It was just seven when I stepped ashore, and light of the purest, most exquisite gold lay over everything. The air had that special quality of Alaska which I have never met anywhere else, an extreme humidity; it hung upon the cheek as a mist hangs, only it was clear as crystal, brilliant as a yellow diamond.
There was no wind, not a breath ruffled the stillness nor stirred the motionless blue water.
The exquisite chain of islands off the mainland was mirrored in the still, shining depths, and lifted their delicate outlines clothed with fir and larch, soft as half-forgotten dreams, against the transparent blue of the sky. Sitka was placid and restful, the streets quiet and empty as I walked along in the sunny silence.
Suzee was at the door waiting for me. She had dressed herself differently, entirely in yellow. The yellow silk of the little square jacket contrasted well with her midnight hair, and the only dash of other colour in the picture she presented was the blue stone in her earrings.
“Good evening, Treevor,” she said, smiling up at me. And I bent down and pressed my lips to those little, soft, curved ones she put up for me.
We started out at once. Suzee told me we were going for a long way to see the wood, and had the important air of a person going on a lengthy expedition. She had brought a Japanese sunshade with her which she put up, and certainly the hot light falling through the rice-paper had a wonderfully beautiful effect on her creamy skin and soft yellow silk clothing. She walked easily, only with rather short steps. As she was of the lower class, there had been no question of the “golden lilies” or distortion of the feet for her, and they were small and prettily shaped, bare, save for a sort of sandal, or as the Indians call them, “guaraches,” bound under the sole.
We passed up the main street and soon after turned into a narrow winding road that leads along the coast, Sitka being on a promontory, with a beautiful azure bay running inland behind it.
Our path ran sometimes inland, through portions of wood, part of that great impenetrable primeval forest that at one time completely covered the whole of Sitka, sometimes quite on the edge of the water. Here there were rocks and boulders, and little coves of white sand and stretches of miniature beaches, with the lip of the bay resting on them.
Infinitesimal waves broke on the sunny white sand with a low musical tinkle, across the bay one could see the delicate chain of islands rising with their feathery trees into the blue, warding off the breakers and the storms of the open sea beyond. In here, the peaceful water murmured to itself and repeated tales of the beginning of the world, of the first gold dawn that broke upon the earth, and of later days, when the sombre black forests came to the water’s edge and none knew them but the great black bear, and when the seals played joyously, undisturbed, in the fog-banks off the islands. I was in the mood to appreciate deeply the beauty of the scene, and all the objects round seemed to speak to me of their inner meaning, but my companion was not at all moved by, nor interested in her surroundings. She helped to make the picture more strange and lovely as she sat by me on a rock, with her shining clothes and brilliant face under the gay sunshade, but mentally she jarred on me by her complete indifference to any influence of the scene. I almost wished I were alone here, to sit upon this tremendous shore and dream.
“You are dull, Treevor,” she exclaimed pettishly. “You really are.”
I had kissed her twice in the last ten minutes, but she hated my eyes to wander for a moment from her face to the sea. She hated the least reference apparently to the landscape. As long as I was talking to her and about her, admiring her dress or her hair, she was satisfied.
“Come along,” she said impatiently; “let us go on to the wood, leave off looking at that stupid sea.”
I rose reluctantly and we followed the road which turned inland again. The wood was a world of grey shadows. As we entered by a narrow trail leading from the road, the golden day outside was soon closed from us by the thick veils of hanging creeper and parasitical plants of all sorts that entwined round the gnarled and aged trees, and crossing and re-crossing from one to the other, netted them together.
Over the creepers again had grown grey-green lichens and long, shaggy moss, so that strands and fringes of it fell on every side, filling the interstices of the gigantic web that stretched from tree to tree, excluding the light of the sunlit sky.
Beneath, the lower branches of the trees were sad and sodden, overgrown with lichen, clogged with hanging wreaths of moss. A river ran through the wood and at times, swelled by the melting snows, burst, evidently, in roaring flood over its banks.
Everywhere there were traces of recent floods, roots washed bare and places where the swirling waters had heaped up their debris of sticks and mud-stained leaves. All along the damp ground the lowest branches of the trees, weighted with tangled moss, trailed, broken and bruised by the fierce rush of the current. The trees themselves seemed centuries old, bent and gnarled and twisted into grotesque and ghostly forms. In the dim twilight reigning here one could fancy one stood in some hideous torture-chamber, surrounded by writhing and distorted figures. There an elbow, there a withered arm, a fist clenched in agony, seemed protruding from the sombre, sad-clothed trees, so weirdly knotted and twisted were the old cinder-hued boughs.
As we neared the river we could hear it rushing by long before we could see it, so thick was the undergrowth that hung low over it.
It seemed as if we might be approaching the black Styx through this melancholy wood where all seemed weeping in torn veils and ash-coloured garments.
No touch of depression affected my companion; she seemed as insensible to the grey solemnity, the dim mystery of the wood, as she had been to the vivid glory of the sea. She slipped a little velvet hand into mine, and when we drew near to the hidden Styx, murmured softly:
“We will find a dry place, Treevor, on the other side, and sit down among the trees. Then you must take me in your arms and I will be your own Suzee. I do not want my old husband any more.”
I stopped and looked down upon her. Not even the sad light could dim the soft brilliance of her face. It seemed to bloom out of the ashy shadows like an exquisite flower. Her eyes were wells of fire beneath their velvet blackness.
“Do you love me very much?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, so much,” she answered with passionate emphasis. “You are so beautiful. Never have I seen any one so beautiful, and so tall and so strong. Oh, it is _pain_ to me to love you so much.”
And indeed she became quite white, as she drew her hand from mine and clasped both of hers upon her breast as if to still some agony there.
My own heart beat hard. The grey wood seemed to lose its ashy tone and become warm and rosy round us. I bent over her and took her up wholly in my arms, and she laughed and threw hers around me in wild delight.
“Carry me, Treevor, over the bridge and up the slope at the side. It is so nice to feel you carrying me.”
It was no difficulty to carry her, and the waves of electricity from her joyous little soul rushed through me till my arms and all the veins of my body seemed alight and burning.
I ran with her, over the narrow bridge and up the slope, where, as she said, there was drier ground. And there, on a bed of leaves under some tangled branches, I fell on my knees with her still clasped to my breast, and covered her small satin-skinned face with kisses.
“I am yours now. You must not let me go. I only want to look and look at your face. I wish I could tell you how I love you. Oh, Treevor, I can’t tell you….”
As I looked down, breathless with running and kisses and the fires she had kindled within me, I saw how her bosom heaved beneath the yellow jacket, how all the delicate curves of her breast seemed broken up with panting sighs and longing to express in words all that her body expressed so much better.
“Darling, there is no need to tell me. I know.” And I put my hand round her soft column of throat, feeling all its quick pulses throbbing hard into the palm of my hand.
“Put your head down on my heart, Treevor. Lie down beside me; now let us think we have drunk a little opium, just a little, and we are going to sleep through a long night together. Hush! What is that? Did you hear anything?”
She lifted my hand from her throat and sat up, listening.
I had not heard anything. I had been too absorbed. All had vanished now from me, except the fervent beauty of the girl before me.
The sea of desire had closed over my head, sealing the senses to outside things; I drew her towards me impatiently.
“It is nothing,” I murmured. “I heard nothing.” But she sat up, gazing straight across a small cleared space in front of us to where the impenetrable thicket of undergrowth again stood forward like grey screens between the twisted tree trunks.
“Yes, there was something; there, opposite! Look, something is moving!” I followed her eyes and saw a strand of loose moss quiver and heard a twig break in the quiet round us. We both watched the undergrowth across the open space intently. For a second nothing moved, then the boughs parted in front of us, and through the great lichen streamers and rugged bands of grey-green moss depending from them, peered an old, drawn-looking face.
Suzee gave a piercing shriek of dismay, and started to her feet.
“My husband!” she gasped.
I sprang to my feet, and my right hand went to my hip pocket. The head pushed through the thicket, and a bent and aged form followed slowly. I drew out my revolver, but the figure of the old man straightened itself up and he waved his hand impatiently, as if deprecating violence.
“Sir, I have come after my wife,” he said, in a low, broken tone.
I slipped the weapon back in my pocket. I had had an idea that he might attack Suzee, but voice and face showed he was in a different mood.
Suzee clung to my hand on her knees, crying and trembling.
“Go and sit over there,” he said peremptorily to her, pointing to the other side of the glade, far enough from us to be out of hearing.
She did not move, only clung and shivered and wept as before.
I bent over her, loosening my hand.
“Do as he says,” I whispered; “no harm can come to you while I am here.”
Suzee let go my fingers reluctantly and crept away, sobbing, to the opposite edge of the thicket. The old Chinaman motioned me to sit down. I did so, mechanically wondering whether his calmness was a ruse under cover of which he would suddenly stab me. He sat down, too, stiffly, beside me, resting on his heels, and his hard, wrinkled hands supporting his withered face.
“Now,” he said, in a thin old voice; “look at me! I am an old man, you are a young one. You are strong, you are well; you are rich too, I think.” He looked critically over me. “You have everything that I have not, already. Why do you come here to rob an old man of all he has in this world?”
I felt myself colour with anger. All the blood in my body seemed to rush to my head and stand singing in my ears.
I felt a furious impulse to knock him aside out of my way; but his age and weakness held me motionless.
“All my youth, when I was strong and good-looking as you are now, and women loved me, I worked hard like a slave, and starved and saved. When others played I toiled, when they spent I hoarded up. What was I saving for? That I might buy myself _that_.” He waved his hand in the direction of Suzee, sitting in a little crumpled heap against a gnarled tree opposite us.
“I bought her,” he went on with increasing excitement. “I bought her from a woman who would have let her out, night by night, to foreigners. I have given her a good home, she does no hard work. She has a child, she has fine clothes. I work still all day and every day that I may give money to her. She is my one joy, my treasure; don’t take her away from me, don’t do it. You have all the world before you, and all the women in it that are without husbands. Go to them, leave me my wife in peace.”
Tears were rolling fast down his face now, his clasped hands quivered with emotion.
“When I was a young man I would not take any pleasure. No, pleasure means money, and I was saving. When I am old I will buy, I said. It needs money, when I am old I shall have it. I can buy then. But, ah! when one is old it is all dust and ashes.”
I looked at his thin shrunken form, poorly clad, at his face, deeply lined with great furrows, made there by incessant toil and constant pain. I felt my joy in Suzee to wither in the grey shadow of his grief. Some people would have thought him doubtless an immoral old scoundrel, and that he had no business in his old age to try to be happy as younger men are, to wish, to expect it. But I cannot see that joy is the exclusive right of any particular age. A young man or young woman has no more right or title to enjoy than an old man or woman; they have simply the right of might, which is no _right_ at all.
“Well, what do you want me to say or do?” I exclaimed impatiently. “Take your wife back with you now, no harm has happened to her. Take her home with you.”
“Yes, I can take her body, but not her spirit,” answered the old man sadly.
His tone made me look at him keenly. Hitherto I had felt sorry for Suzee that she was his; now, as I heard his accent, I felt sorry for him that he was hers.
A great capacity for suffering looked out of the aged face, such as I knew could never look out of hers.
“If you lift your finger she would come to you! Promise me you will not see her again, not speak to her; that you will go. And if she comes to you, you will not accept her.”
I was silent for a moment.
“My ship goes to-morrow morning,” I answered; “I am not likely to see your wife again. I shall not seek her.”
“That is not enough,” moaned the old man; “she will find a way. She will come to you. Promise me you will not take her away with you; if you do you will have an old man’s murder on your head.”
I moved impatiently.
“I am not going to take her away,” I answered.
“But promise me. If I have your promise I shall feel certain.”
I hesitated, and looked across at Suzee, a patch of beautiful colour against the grey background of bent and aged trees.
What had I intended to do, I asked myself. I could not take her, in any case. I had not meant that. A virtuous American ship like the Cottage City would hardly admit a Suzee to share my cabin.
Then what did my promise matter if it but reflected the fact, and if it satisfied him?
“You are not willing to promise,” he said, coming close to me and peering into my face; “I feel it.”
I thought I heard his teeth close on an unuttered oath. Still he did not threaten me. As I remained silent he suddenly threw himself on the ground in front of me, and stretched out his hands and put them on my feet.
“Sir I implore you. Give me your word you will not take her, then I am satisfied. Better take my life than my wife.”
I lifted my eyes for a moment in a glance towards Suzee and saw her make a scornful gesture at the prostrate figure. The gold bracelets on her arm below the yellow silk sleeve shewed in the action a contrast to the old, worn clothing of the poorest material that her husband wore.
I rose to my feet and raised him up.
“Get up, I hate to see you kneel to me. I have said I shall not take your wife. As far as I am concerned, that is a promise. I have said it.”
“Thank you,” he said, inclining his head, and then moved away, not without a certain dignity in his old form, lean and twisted though the work of years had made it.
I dropped back into my place where I had been sitting and watched the two figures before me almost in a dream.
He went up to the girl and spoke, apparently not unkindly, and some talk ensued. Then I saw him bend down and take her wrist and drag her to her feet.
Suzee hung back as one sees a child hang back from a nurse, but she moved forward though unwillingly, and so at last they passed from my sight, through the grey trees and the weeping moss, the thin old man stepping doggedly forward, the pretty, gay-clothed childish little figure dragging back.
Then all was still. The old grey wood was full of weird light, but the silence of the night had fallen on it. Beast and bird and insect had sought their lair and nest and cranny. Not a leaf moved. I felt entirely alone.
“One never knows in life,” I thought, repeating my words to Morley.
I felt a keen sense of longing regret surge slowly, heavily through me. How exquisitely sweet and perfect her beauty was! And she had lain in my arms for that moment, one moment that was stamped into my brain in gold. I put my head into my hands and shut out the dim grey wood from vision and recalled that moment. It came back to me, the touch of her soft form, the smiling curve of the lips put up to me, the fire in the liquid depths of those almond eyes, the round throat delicate as polished ivory. The extraordinary triumph of beauty over the senses came before my mind suddenly, presenting the problem that always puzzles and eludes me.
Why should certain lines and colours in pleasing the eye so intoxicate and inflame the brain? For it is the brain to which beauty appeals. Youth and health in a loved object are sufficient to capture the physical senses, but they do not fill the brain with that exaltation, that delirium of joy, that divine elation that sweeps up through us at the sight of beauty. Divine fire, it seems to be lighted first in the glance of the eyes.
In an hour’s time I left the wood and walked slowly shipwards. I felt tired and overstrained, exceedingly regretful, full of longing after that lovely vision that had come to me and that I had had to drive away.
The unearthly stillness combined with the brilliant, unabated, unfailing light had a curious mystery about it that charmed and delighted me. The sea, so blue and tranquil, sparkled softly on my left hand, the pellucid blue of the sky stretched overhead, and all the air was full of the sweet sunshine we associate with day. Yet it was midnight. I pulled out my watch and looked at it to assure myself of the fact. Sitka was wrapt in silence and sleep, my own footstep resounded strangely in the burning empty streets.
I had to pass the tea-shop on my way to the ship. One could see nothing of it from the street as the compound shut it off from view, and across the compound entrance a stout hurdle was now stretched and barred.
I passed on with a sigh, reached the ship lying motionless against the quay, went down to my cabin without encountering any one, threw off my clothes and myself in my berth, feeling a sense of fatigue obliterating thought.
The night before I had had no sleep, and the incessant golden glare, day and night alike, wearies the nerves not trained to it.
Suzee and almond eyes and injured husbands floated away from me on the dark wings of sleep.
It must have been an hour or so later that I woke suddenly with a sense of suffocation. Some soft, heavy thing lay across my breast. I started up and two arms clasped my neck and I heard Suzee’s voice; saying in my ear:
“Treevor, dear Treevor, I have found you! Now I you will take me away, and we will stay for ever and ever together. I am so happy.”
The cabin was full of the same steady yellow light as when I closed my eyes. Looking up I saw her sweet oval face above me.
She was lying on the berth leaning over me, supported on her elbows.
As I looked up she pressed her lips down on my face, kissing me on the eyes and mouth with passionate repetition and insistence.
“Dear little girl, dear little Suzee!” I answered, putting up my arms and folding them round her.
I was only half-awake, and for a moment the old Chinaman was forgotten. It was all rather like a delicious dream.
“I am quite, quite happy now,” she said, laying down her head on my chest. “Oh, so happy, Treevor; you must never let me go. I love you so, like this,” she added, putting her two hands round my throat, “when I can feel your neck and when you are sleeping. You looked beautiful, just now, when I found you. I am sorry you woke.”
Clear consciousness was struggling back now with memory, but not before I had pressed her to me and returned those kisses. She had laid aside her little saffron silk coat, and her breast and arms shone softly through a filmy muslin covering.
I sat up regarding her; very lissom and soft and lovely she looked, and my whole brain swam suddenly with delight.
Surely I could not part with her! She was precious to me in that madness that comes over us at such moments.
I put my arms round her and held her to my breast with all my force in a clasp that must have been painful to her, but she only laughed delightedly.
Then my promise came back to me. It was impossible to break that. What was the good of torturing myself when I had made it impossible to take her. Why had she come here?
“Where is your husband?” I asked mechanically wondering if any strange fate had removed him from between us.
“Oh, I put him to sleep, he will give no trouble. I gave him opium, so much opium, he will sleep a long time.”
“You have not killed him?” I said, in a sudden horror.
Her eyes were wide open and full of extraordinary fire, she seemed in those moments capable of anything.
She put up her little hands and ran them through my hair.
“Such black hair,” she murmured. “Ah, how I love it! I love black hair. How it shines, how soft it is! I hate grey hair. It is horrid. No, I have not killed him. He will wake again when we have sailed and are far away from Sitka.”
These words drove from me the last veil of clinging sleep. I kept my arms round her and said:
“But, Suzee, I can’t take you with me. I promised your husband to-night I would not.”
“That’s nothing,” she replied lightly; “promises are nothing when one loves. And you love me, Treevor; you must love me, and I am coming with you, you can’t drive me away.”
The ship’s bells sounded overhead on deck as she spoke. The sound seemed a warning. I knew our ship was due to leave in the morning; I did not know quite when. If it left the quay with the girl on board, the horror of a broken promise would cling to me all my life.
“I can’t take you, it is impossible. You must go back and try to forget you have ever seen me. You must go now at once, our ship is leaving soon.”
“I know,” said Suzee tranquilly; “and I shall be so happy when it starts.”
I pushed her aside and got up from the berth. The cabin window stood wide open. In the position the ship was it was easy to come in and out through it from the quay. She must have entered that way.
“You must go,” I said between my teeth. I was afraid of myself. Overhead I heard movements and clanking chains and shuffling feet. Our ship was leaving, and she was still on board with me.
“Go out of that window now, instantly, or I shall put you out.”
“You will not, Treevor,” beginning to cry; “you won’t be so unkind. I only want to stay with you; let me stay.”
She was half-sitting on the edge of my berth, clinging to it with both hands. She was pale with an ivory pallor, her breasts rose in sobs under the transparent muslin of her vest.
The ship gave a great heave under our feet.
The blood beat so in my head and round my eyes I could hardly see her. I moved to her, clinging to one blind object. I bent over her and lifted her up. She was like a doll in weight. She was nothing to me.
As she realised my intention she seemed to turn into a wild animal in my arms. She bit and tore at my wrists, and scratched my face with her long sharp nails.
The ship was moving now and I was desperate.
I walked with her to the window and put her feet over the ledge.
We neither of us spoke a word. She clung to my neck so I thought she must overbalance me and drag me through with her.
With all my force I pushed her outwards and away from me. Her hands broke from my neck and scratched down my face till the blood ran from it.
“Don’t struggle so,” I warned her; “you will drop into the sea if you do.” For a blue crack opened already between the moving ship and the quay.
Words were useless. She bit and struggled and clung to me like a cat mad with fear and rage.
With an effort I leant forward and half threw, half dropped her on the woodwork. She fell there with a gasping cry, and I drew the window to and shut it.
The ship rose and fell now and the blue water gleamed in an ever-widening track between its side and the quay.
I leant against the window glass and watched her through it. She had struggled to her knees and now knelt there weeping and stretching out little ivory tinted hands to the departing ship. My own eyes were full, and only through a mist could I see her kneeling there, a brilliant spot of colour in dazzling light on the deserted quay.
I turned away at last as we struck out on the open water. There, on my berth, facing me as I stumbled back to it, lay a little yellow jacket.
I threw myself upon it and put my hand over my eyes, while the ship made out beyond the fairy islands. And the gold night passed over and melted into the new day.
THE VIOLET NIGHT
AT THE STUDIO
I was back in London again, back in my studio with the dull grey light of the city falling through the windows, and all the vivid glory, the matchless splendour of the North lay like a past dream in the background of my memory. But still how clear the dream, how bright each moment of it, and how long to my retrospective vision! Was it possible I had only been there three or four months? It seemed like as many years. For time has this peculiarity, that joy and action shorten it while it is passing, but lengthen it when it is past. A week in which we have done nothing of note, but spent in stationary idleness, how long and tedious it seems, yet in looking back upon it, it appears short as a day; while a week in which we have travelled far, seen several cities and been glad in each, though the gilded moments have danced by on lightning feet, when we look back upon that week it seems as if we have lived a year.
It was there, bright, radiant in my mind, the picture of those blue days and golden northern nights, and how the light of the picture seemed to gather round, and centre in a sweet youthful face with the blue stone earrings, hanging against the creamy neck, beside the rounded cheek, and the cluster of red flowers bound on each temple against the smooth black hair!
I settled myself lower in the deep roomy armchair, and pushed my feet forward to the blazing fire. There was still half an hour before I could decently ring for tea, and it was too dark already to work. I had had a hard and disagreeable morning, too, and felt I needed rest and quiet thought. How the red flame leapt in the grate, and what a rich, warm, wine-dark colour it threw all round my red room! I rose and drew the heavy crimson curtains across the windows to shut out their steely patches of grey that spoiled the harmony of colour. I returned to my chair and glanced round with satisfaction. Fitted and furnished and hung with every beautiful shade of red, my studio always delighted and charmed my vision.
My friends said I had papered and furnished it in red to throw up the white limbs and contours of my models, and this had something to do with it, for hardly any colour shows off white flesh to better advantage, though pale blue in this matter runs it close; but this was not the prompting motive. Rather it was that in England where all is so cold and tame and grey, from morals to colours, I liked to surround myself with this glowing barbaric crimson, this warm inviting tint.