A Newport Aquarelle/Chapter 6
Much that is best worth seeing in Newport is never seen by a majority of the people who visit the town during "the season." In the eighteen miles length and nine miles breadth of the island are many nooks and grottos unknown to those individuals who limit their expedition to the ocean drive, and the path across the beaches. Artists know these spots and linger in them. Lovers find them out somehow instinctively. But Newport has now become the resort of the rich, and even the dwellers in the quiet country farm-houses demand exorbitant prices for their simple accommodations. So artists are rarely met with, and, as it has been hinted, there are few people who take time at this most brilliant of watering-places to fall in love. Love-Lane, Fairy Dell, Glen Anna, Vaucluse, and Lawton's Valley have few visitors.
It is a pity that the worldlings have found out this region of delight. Any other place would have served as well for the display of their horses and carriages, diamonds, clothes, beauty, and beaux. Why should they have chosen to erect their palatial cottages on our quiet island, to pass their idle summer in the quaint old town?
The love of nature is not always a natural gift. With the dwellers in cities, the taste is usually one which has been acquired through the influence of some country-bred or poetic mind. How many beauties of sky and wood land, flower and tree, has not Wordsworth taught us to see? Keats has led thousands of ears to note the music in the wild bird's carol, which else had hardly heeded it. Who does not see a new delight in the simple field flower after reading Burns's description of the daisy?
The love of what is beautiful in art is oftener found with the dwellers of a city than the appreciation of those beauties in nature which art reflects. The person who is deeply impressed by a fine landscape painting will often pass by the view which inspired the painter without observing its qualities of color and effects of light and shade. The sensitive woman who shrinks at the well-depicted portrait of a wretched beggar will pass the poor creature whose misery has struck the artist without a pang of pity. The girl who weeps bitterly over the sorrows of a heroine in a novel watches with more amusement than sympathy the grief and trials of the heroine of a life romance.
Gladys Carleton had a good knowledge of art and its laws. A bad picture set her teeth on edge, and she could go through an art gallery without a catalogue, and tell the name of every painter whose work hung before her. With nature she was not so much at home, though a new understanding seemed to be gradually coming to her of its secrets and charms. It was not without a certain pain that this new feeling crept about her,—it seemed to be a part of the grieved loneliness which she had lately experienced.
"People can be nothing to us; there is nothing which can stand by us but our work, and when we have not any work, we are alone."
The speech was not a very coherent one, and the person to whom it was addressed received it in silence.
"Books are a help, but it is so one-sided a friendship one has with one's book friends. We cannot answer, and only receive, never giving anything in return for what we get from them."
Gladys Carleton was the speaker, and the listener, Larkington, her faithful cavalier.
"You live too much with your books, Miss Carleton, and too little with your kind. It makes you melancholy. You should learn to care more for people and less for ideas."
"What nonsense you are talking, Mr. Larkington! Excuse me for plain speaking, but you are, really. I do not think you understand at all what I mean."
"I fear that I do not."
There was a pause, after which Gladys said abruptly,—
"How far is it to the sea?"
"About half a mile, I fancy."
"Please go down to the shore and bring me a piece of red seaweed."
"I cannot leave you here alone."
"Why not, if I order you to go? Do you not know how to be obedient?"
"You are teaching me, Miss Carleton. I never knew before that it was pleasanter to obey than to be obeyed."
"Of course it is. There is no such luxury in the world as self-abnegation; it is the thing we all long for."
"I do not fancy that you would enjoy it; you are too imperious by nature. You were born to command. I never heard you make a request in your life."
"In other words, you think me a bully? Now go this instant! I won't have you stay here and abuse me. Go, I say, and bring me the bunch of red seaweed."
"You are cruel, but I yield. You are not afraid to be left alone?"
"No; I am within calling distance from the house."
When she was alone, the tall beauty rose from her seat on the trunk of a fallen tree, and walked rapidly in the opposite direction. The path over which she passed was fragrant with pine needles and wild flowers. Overhead hung the boughs of the larch-trees which lined the walks, and over the trees was the soft blue of the summer sky. Carrying her riding crop in one hand, and holding her habit with the other, she ran down the path, which sloped suddenly toward the great pond at its foot.
Gladys had ridden out to visit a country friend, who lived in a quiet vale many miles distant from the gay town. Finding her friend absent, the girl and the admirer, who had been privileged to ride with her, had left their horses in charge of the groom, and walked down to view the quiet beauty of the vale. Gladys loved the place, and was not in the mood for badinage with Larkington. She wished to be alone, and so had sent him off in quest of the bunch of red seaweed. She had not been in this pleasant spot for many years. She remembered the last time she had visited it. Cid had been with her. The thought of him had made the presence of the Englishman hateful to her.
At the edge of the pond the path swerved to the left, leading down to the deep gorge below. A narrow ledge of rock stretched to the right, skirting the millpond, a precipice of a hundred feet yawning on one side, the deep water on the other. With a quick step the girl passed along the narrow rocky ledge, and seated herself on a great stone, which lay just where the black sheet of water poured smoothly over the edge of the dam, to be frothed into a white mass of foam at the bottom of the fall. A strong young willow-tree behind the rock served her as a support, and, twining one arm about its slender stem, she sat overhanging the waterfall, looking down into the deep pool.
The bare hand which embraced the trunk touched a rough surface, and her fingers traced the outline of some letters, cut into the bark. She could not see the letters, they were on the other side of the tree, but she had not forgotten the day when they were carved, all those years ago,—G. C. and C. F.? with a true lover's knot between the initials. She laid her cheek against the willow and sat quite silent, looking down, always down, into the black pool at her feet. The downcast eyelids quivered and let fall a tear, which dropped unnoted on her knee. Another and another drop of nature's balm coursed down the pale cheek, and the chest, trembled with emotion of a silent weeping. There was no violence, nothing of that tearing grief with which the women who have lived, loved, and suffered weep out the agony which seems like to rend body and soul apart. The burden of her life seemed too great for her to bear, and she wept for the emptiness of her lot, of her heart. A verse from a poem which had always seemed appropriate to herself ran through her mind:—
"Elle est morte, et n'a point vécu;
Elle faisait semblant de vivre.
De ses mains est tombé le livre
Dans lequel elle n'a rien lu."
When she was dead, what so appropriate as this poem, "Sur une Morte," of De Musset's, could be read over her cold clay? Why should she not die now? How easy would it be to slip down from the great rock, and lose herself in the oblivion of the black pool, with the white foam dancing above her? "Who would care much?" she asked herself, and answered her own question with more tears. No one would really miss her. Her mother would grieve a little while, but the other daughters would soon receive the share of affection which the shallow parent had given her. It was a love of offspring only, and had no tie of sympathy to deepen it.
How easy it would be to move a few steps to the edge of the great stone, to lean far over the abyss, holding on by the tree, and at last to let go her grasp and fall through the soft air to the cool black water, then one great pain—and afterwards, rest! There was the terrible thought—if it should not be rest which she should find beneath the dancing foam bubbles.
Was it that thought only which kept her from doing the thing which she had pictured to herself? Was it the doubt which held her back? "Yes," she reasoned, "only that. Were we but sure of what awaits us on the other side, how many of us would remain upon the hither bank of the dark river which men call death, and which saints believe leads to life everlasting."
She crept nearer to the edge, and, still clasping the tree with both arms, leaned over the rushing torrent. How easy it would be! One little movement and all would be over. The slender ringers closely clasped about the tree were all that steadied her. If she should suddenly unlace them the movement would throw her off her balance—and the great riddle would be solved. Why should she not? Was it all a jest? Was she in earnest or in jest? She did not know.
She was fascinated by the strange thought, and stood swaying over the verge of the dizzy height, intoxicated with the danger. In one instant she could regain a firm footing on the ledge, or—what was the trembling she felt beneath her feet? Was there an earthquake? Ah! with a wild cry, it was the rock under her feet that shook. It had become loosened by her weight on its extreme edge, it swayed one instant, and in the next must be dashed into the boiling caldron below—and she?
This was her reward for trifling with the great power. Death, whom she had thought about so lightly, had now come to claim her grimly. She looked up into the blue sky, which was so fair, and out over the beauty of the lonely gorge. She felt, as she had never done before, the beauty about her on every side. She saw the possibilities of happiness and usefulness which she had so utterly neglected. She knew that life was a blessing, and in the cry which startled the still air there was remorse for her thanklessness as well as agony for her danger.
The rock thrilled once more beneath her, and as it trembled 'twixt the ledge and the precipice, Gladys lifted a prayer for her life to the God whose existence she had some time denied.
A strong hand clasped her fingers, she felt her waist firmly seized, and in an instant she knew that she was safe, though the great rock had fallen from its bed with a mighty crash, and the white foam was dashed upon her cheek and brow. She was carried a few steps in a pair of strong arms which pressed her close to a fast-beating heart. She was placed gently on a mossy bank by some one who spoke no word. Her eyes were closed, though she had not fainted, and she knew whose arm had saved her in the hour of danger. She was grateful and looked up to speak.
The face into which she glanced was deadly white, and the eyes were dim. She rose to her feet, for he looked so strangely. As she stood up strong, though trembling slightly, the man at her side reeled, as if he had been struck, and fell fainting to the ground at her feet.
The girl knew quite well what to do, and, being one of those persons who are never overcome by an emergency, she quickly brought the swooning man to his senses. A copious sprinkling with cold water and the application of Miss Carleton's vinaigrette to his nostrils caused Mr. Cuthbert Larkington to open his eyes in a few moments. When he was quite restored, Gladys, turning her face from him, said,—
"You have saved my life—and I am very grateful to you! May I ask you a great favor?"
"Need you doubt it?"
"It is this, that you will never mention what has happened to-day to any one. Promise me. Do not even speak of it to me. I cannot bear to think of it. It was too terrible."
"Yes, I will promise on one condition."
"And that is?"
"That you will swear to me never to risk your precious life again so wilfully, so wickedly."
"It should be a precious life?"
"It is dearer to me than my own."
"Well, I promise. Now pledge me your word."
She held out to him her delicate hand, white as snow, pink as apple blossoms. The man touched it with his own strong fingers. The contact seemed to move him strangely. His pale face flushed, and, clasping the dainty hand, he kissed it a score of times on wrist and ringers and rosy palm.
"I forgive you because you did me the favor to help me out of a very perilous position just now. But remember that is why you are pardoned. I shall ask you to ride to town alone. My groom will lead my horse; and I will drive in with my friends to-morrow. I mean to ask a night's shelter at the vale; I am hardly equal to the ride."
"Let me go to town and fetch out a carriage for you."
"Thank you, no. I cannot go back, to-night, to all the noise and glare of Newport. It is so peaceful here."
"You have not inquired whether my quest of the seaweed was successful. Here is the little crimson ocean flower."
"Thank you so much; I had forgotten all about it. That is a beautiful specimen. Do you feel quite yourself again?"
"Yes. It was awfully soft of me to faint in that way; I am thoroughly ashamed of my self. Do you despise me for it?"
"No. After you had saved me you had a right to be terrified. Had you been frightened before, I should not have been here now. Are you glad you saved me?"
"Do you not know—"
"Oh yes, of course I know," said the girl hastily, interrupting his vehemence; "and I am glad, too."
She turned and looked at the place where she had so lately stood in mortal danger. Everything was peaceful and quiet now. The cool plash of the water came to her ears, and the tender song of a wild bird fell like a triumphant hymn of praise upon the stillness of the day.
"It is good to live," said the song of the bird.
"It is enough to be a little part of such a world," sighed the girl. "Why cannot we forget ourselves and our petty ambitions, our loves and our hates, in the peace of all this beauty?"
She spoke half to herself and half to the bird. Larkington knew that he was not addressed. He felt a terrible sense of loneliness. He was with the woman he loved, close at her side. He had carried her in his arms but now, and yet she was farther from him at that moment than she had ever seemed before.
With the feeling of this distance there came to him a great pain unknown before. What it meant he could not know. If one had told him, he could not have understood the words. He suffered dumbly, ignorantly, with a new sense of his capacity for suffering.
Poor wretch! Miserable sham, impostor, and liar,—false to all men and women, false to himself; in that keen suffering awoke within him the soul which had till now slept.