A Village Ophelia and Other Stories/A Village Ophelia
On the East end of Long Island, from Riverhead to Greenport, a distance of about thirty miles, two country roads run parallel.
The North road is very near the Sound and away from the villages; lonely farm-houses are scattered at long intervals; in some places their number increases enough to form a little desolate settlement, but there is never a shop, nor sign of village life. That, one must seek on the South road, with its small hamlets, to which the "North roaders," as they are somewhat condescendingly called, drive across to church, or to make purchases.
It was on the North road that I spent a golden August in the home of Mrs. Libby. Her small gray house was lovingly empaled about the front and sides by snow-ball bushes and magenta French-lilacs, that grew tenderly close to the weather-worn shingles, and back of one sunburnt field, as far as the eye could see, stretched the expanse of dark, shining scrub-oaks, beyond which, one knew, was the hot, blue glitter of the Sound.
Mrs. Libby was a large iron-gray widow of sixty, insatiably greedy of such fleshly comforts as had ever come within her knowledge—soft cushions, heavily sweetened dishes, finer clothing than her neighbors. She had cold eyes, and nature had formed her mouth and jaw like the little silver-striped adder that I found one day, mangled by some passing cart, in the yellow dust of the road. Her lips were stretched for ever in that same flat, immutable smile. When she moved her head, you caught the gleam of a string of gold beads, half-hidden in a crease of her stout throat. She had still a coarsely handsome figure, she was called a fine looking woman; and every afternoon she sat and sewed by the window of her parlor, dressed in a tight, black gown, with immaculate cuffs about her thick wrists. The neighbors—thin, overworked women, with numerous children—were too tired and busy to be envious. They thought her very genteel. Her husband, before his last illness, had kept a large grocery store in a village on the South side of the Island. It gave her a presumptive right to the difference in her ways, to the stuff gown of an afternoon, to the use of butter instead of lard in her cookery, to the extra thickness and brightness of her parlor carpet.
For days I steeped my soul in the peace and quiet. In the long mornings I went down the grassy path to the beach, and lay on the yellow sands, as lost to the world as if I were in some vast solitude. I had had a wound in my life, and with the natural instinct of all hurt creatures, I wanted to hide and get close to the earth until it healed. I knew that it must heal at last, but there are certain natures in which mental torture must have a physical outcome, and we are happier afterward if we have called in no Greek chorus of friends to the tragedy, to witness and sing how the body comported itself under the soul's woe. But there is no sense of shame when deep cries are wrenched from the throat under the free sky, with only the sea to answer. One can let the body take half the burden of pain, and writhe on the breast of the earth without reproach. I took this relief that nature meant for such as I, wearing myself into the indifference of exhaustion, to which must sooner or later ensue the indifference brought by time. Sometimes a flock of small brown sandbirds watched me curiously from a sodden bank of sea-weed, but that was all.
This story is not of myself, however, or of the pain which I cured in this natural way, and which is but a memory now.
One gray morning a white mist settled heavily, and I could see but a short distance on the dark waters for the fog. A fresh access of the suffering which I was fighting, the wildness of my grief and struggles, wore me out, so that I fell asleep there on the rough sand, my mouth laid against the salty pebbles, and my hands grasping the sharp, yielding grains, crushed as if some giant foot had trodden me into the earth.
I was awakened by a soft speculative voice. "Another, perhaps," I thought it said. Starting up, I saw standing beside me a thin, shrinking figure, drenched like myself by the salt mist. From under a coarse, dark straw hat, a small, delicate face regarded me shyly, yet calmly. It was very pale, a little sunken, and surrounded by a cloud of light, curling hair, blown loose by the wind; the wide sensitive lips were almost colorless, and the peculiar eyes, greenish and great-pupiled, were surrounded by stained, discolored rings that might have been the result of weary vigils, or of ill-health. The woman, who was possibly thirty, must once have been possessed of a fragile type of beauty, but it was irretrievably lost now in the premature age that had evidently settled upon her.
Struggling to a sitting posture, I saw that the thick white fog had closed densely, and that the woodland back of us was barely distinguishable. We too seemed shut in, as in a room. "You live at Mrs. Libby's," said the young woman, after a moment's hesitation. "I am Agnes Rayne. I hope I did not frighten you."
"No," I replied, brushing the sand from my damp clothing as I rose. "I am afraid if you had not come by fortunately, I should have had a thorough wetting. Can we get home before the storm begins?"
"You would not have taken cold down here on the beach," she remarked, turning and looking out to sea. It seemed strangely to me as if those odd eyes of hers could pierce the blinding mist. "I will not go back with you. I have just come."
Whatever she did or said that might have seemed rude or brusque in another, was sweet and courteous from her manner. "Very well," I said. Then I paused,—my desire to meet her again was absurdly keen. Stepping closer to her side, I extended my hand. "Will you come to see me, Miss Rayne? I am very lonely, and I should be so—grateful."
She touched my fingers lightly with a chilly little hand, yet she never looked at me as she replied, "Yes, some day."
As I plodded heavily through the wet sand, I was irresistibly impelled to turn my head. She was merely standing exactly as I left her, thin and straight, in the black gown that clung closely to her slender limbs, with the mass of light hair about her shoulders.
Drenched as I was, when I reached home, with the large warm drops of the storm's beginning, I stopped in the sitting-room a moment before going to my room. The smell of ironing scented the house, but Mrs. Libby was resting placidly in the rocking-chair, her feet on a cushioned stool. She was eating some peaches, tearing them apart from the stone with strong, juice-dropping fingers, and dipping them in a saucer of coarse sugar before she devoured them.
"Mrs. Libby, who is Agnes Rayne?" I asked.
"She is old Martin Rayne's daughter, up to the corner. Seen her down to the beach, I expect. Speak to you? Did? Well, she's as queer as Dick's hat-band, as folks say 'round here. Some say she's crazy—love-cracked, I guess she is." Mrs. Libby paused to kill a fly that ventured too near her saucer on the table at her side, with a quick blow of the fleshy hand. I used to turn away when Mrs. Libby killed flies. "Oh! I d'know! She's just queer. Don't commess with anybody, nor ever go to meetin'. The minister called there once; he ain't ever been again, nor told how he was treated, that's sure. They live queer, too. She don't ever make pies, ner p'serves, ner any kind of sauce. 'N' old Martin, he's childish now. He always was as close-mouthed as a mussel. Nobody ever knew whether he liked such goin's on or not."
I went up the high, narrow stairs, thoughtfully to my small room under the eaves, dark with the storm, and smelling of must and dampness. I smiled a little. It was more than probable that these people would count slight eccentricity in a lady—and this was undoubtedly a lady, whatever her birth and surroundings—as madness. After dinner I stood by the window a long time. Through the network of apple-boughs, I could see the road. Mrs. Libby, coming heavily into the sitting-room, divined my thoughts.
"If you're wondering how Agnes gets home, she goes cross-lots, right through the scrub-oak 'n' poison ivy 'n black-b'ries, 'f she's in a hurry. She ain't afraid o' rain; like's not, she stays down to the shore the whole 'durin' day."
"I suppose the people here talk about her."
"Most of 'em have too much to do to talk," replied Mrs. Libby, smoothing down her shining bands of hair before the hanging glass, and regarding her reflected large, white face and set smile, with dull satisfaction and vanity. "They're used to her now."
One glaring afternoon within the week, I sat out on the tiny porch, idly watching a fat spider throw his ropes from the box-bush to the step. I had been sitting there for three hours, and only one creaking farm-wagon had passed, and two dirty brown-legged children. The air was breathless and spicy, and in the rough clearing opposite, the leaves seemed to curve visibly in the intense heat. Did anything ever happen here? It seemed to me as much out of the range of possible happenings as the grave.
"There's Agnes coming," said Mrs. Libby, inarticulately. She held between her lips some ravellings and bits of thread, and she was sitting by the open window, laboriously pushing her needle through a piece of heavy unbleached cloth.
The young woman who came swaying delicately along the path, with something of the motion of a tall stalk of grass in the wind, wore a scanty white gown, which defined almost cruelly the slenderness of form, that seemed to have returned to the meagre uncertainty of young childhood. To-day, her light hair was strained back from her wide forehead, and knotted neatly under the brim of her rough straw hat. She looked much older as she stood before me in the golden light.
"Will you come home with me this afternoon?" she asked directly. "It is not far; perhaps it might amuse you."
I consented gladly. As we walked along the narrow paths that skirted the roadside together, she turned to me, a sudden flush burning on her thin face. "I am afraid you think I am very cruel to bring you out this hot afternoon, but it is so long since I have talked to any one—so long! I have read your books, and then I said last night to myself: 'If I do not go over it all to some one—tell it aloud, from beginning to end—put it into words, I shall go mad. She is a woman who could understand.' Yes, when I saw your hands on the beach that day, all bruised inside, and on one a little cut, where you had wrenched at the sand and stone before you slept, I knew you were my escape. I am abject, but think of the years I have been dying, here, if you despise me."
"No," I said, "it is not abject. Sometimes in one's life comes a crisis, when one must snatch at some remedy, or else die, or go mad. If there is not then something in us that makes us believe in a future, we, of course, die; but I could never think it a cure myself, merely to be free of the body, because I believe in the soul's immortality, and the body is such a diversion! Once rid of it, with all its imperious clamor to be fed and warmed—nothing but utter freedom to think—the grave has never appealed to me as an escape. Madness is a shade better, perhaps; but then that depends on the form of the illusion. For me the body has got to work out the soul's agony. For you, words may bring relief. Try—try anything that suggests itself."
"Do not think you will hear anything new. It will bore you. Are you willing to listen?"
"I am indeed," I replied. We had come to a lonely farm-house, its roofs moss-grown and sunken, the grass knee-high about it. There was hardly a sign of life about the place, though I could see an aged man smoking a pipe peacefully in the shade of an apple tree at the back. Everything wore an air of melancholy, desertion and loneliness.
My companion lifted the gray gate's rusty latch. The grass was crushed enough to form a path to the front door, which stood open. She led the way into a large, low room off the little hall. The floor was bare. There was a large table in the centre, heaped with books, and some withering flowers stood in a glass. A couple of common chairs, a mattress, on which was thrown an antique curtain of faded blue as a drapery; on the white-washed wall, a tiny and coquetish slipper of yellowish silk, nailed through the sole. This was all the furnishing.
She stood looking around at the barrenness curiously, trying perhaps to see it with the eyes of a stranger. "This is my room," she said, "and the very walls and floor are saturated with my sufferings." She went restlessly to the window, and threw open the broken blind. As the radiance of the afternoon flooded the place with light, I seemed to see it and its wasting occupant, here in this horrible desolation, in the changing seasons, when the window gave on the bitter rigors of blue and white winter mornings, the land choked with snow, on the golden blur of autumn, on the tender mists of April, draping the earth, and forever the cry of the waves on the shore haunting the air. That there was nothing of the mad woman about her, that she had retained reason in such a place, in such a room, with an eating grief to bear, impressed me as one of the marvels of the brain's endurance, with which nature sometimes surprises us. It seemed to me that this might be the hour of partial deliverance to the poor soul who had evidently lived and died so much.
"Why have you stayed here?" I asked. She had now taken the chair fronting me. We were stiffly seated as if for a business interview. I had a desire to take the poor figure in my arms, but I felt as if she were as intangible as a spirit. When mental pain has devoured the body, as physical pain so often does, there is something thrice as ethereal about the wreck.
"What difference could it make?" she asked in her slightly husky voice, with faint surprise. "It is only the old love-story of a village girl you will hear. My mother was different from these people, but I had never known anything beside this life, except books. Of course you can understand how much else than love the man brought me. I was quite beautiful then. Does it not seem strange that it could have been true! I burst into real blossom for him—like Aaron's rod, was it not? And now you see, I am only the bare rod."
She dropped her lids and looked down at herself calmly. The warmth had curled the short hairs into a light halo around her forehead, the little neck was bent, she had folded her hands in her lap. The piteous child-like chest and limbs revealed by the tight white gown, brought tears to my eyes. There was something solemn, terrible, in this virginal decay.
"All that I was to be, was forced into growth at once. He made me a new self; he was in a sense creator, teacher, parent, friend, idol, lover. He was the world I have not known; he taught me that I could myself write, create. I was nearer madness in those days than now, for when he threw himself here—" She rose and pointed to the floor near the table—"here on these boards at my feet, and begged me to listen to his love, to be his wife—I, his wife!—it was as strange, as unreal as a vision.—I had a month." She did not raise her sweet, level voice, but the eyes that she fixed on mine were dilated to blackness, and her face was illumined with an inexpressible light of triumph. "I had one great month of life. Even you cannot have had more in all your years of the world than I in my month! And then he returned to his work again. He was very busy, you understand, a great man, even then, in the world of letters. He could not come to see me, could not leave; but he wrote every day. He will never put into his book such words as he wrote me; he gave me more than he has ever given the world. It may have his books. I have read them, but I have his very soul in these letters!
"I told you he made me believe that I could write. 'What was I, what was I,' I used to ask myself, 'to be lifted from this to his height?' And then I had a secret, which began in that thought. I wrote a novel. It is eight years back now. I never mentioned it in my letters. I knew it was good, as good as his own work. He would be so proud! He talked of publishing-houses, books, authors. I had not forgotten one word. I sent it to a house, one of the largest and best, and it was accepted. It is strange, but I was not at all surprised. Somehow I had never doubted it would be accepted. And then I went to the city alone for a day. I had only a little time; it seemed to me the greatest act of my life to be there, where he was, yet not to see him! But you see I had planned it all in those long nights when the autumn storms would not let me sleep. The rain would dash against this window, and half awake, I would see myself when he should come, with my head against his arm, saying, 'I have been making something for you. Guess.' And then he would laugh and say, 'Perhaps—is it a cake for my tea, home-darling? Is it—is it a cover for my writing-table? No, you do not sew. Tell me.' And then I should say proudly. 'It is nothing of that kind. It is a book, and the people whom you think such good judges say it must be a success!' I saw it again as I was coming down the stairs from the publisher's office. They had praised my work until the blood seemed all in my head and made me dizzy, and the sounds of Broadway confused my country ears.
"At home that dusk my letter stood against the mantel as I came in here. I laughed when I saw the post-mark, to think I had been there. I laid it against my cheek softly where his hand had touched it, writing my name. It so prolonged the pleasure—you know—you are a woman like that. And at last I read it here." She posed herself unconsciously by the table. "It said, 'Have I loved you? I do not know. Curse me, and forget me. I am to be married to-day.'"
A pin from my hair fell to the bare floor and broke the silence with its frivolous click. The tears were raining down my cheeks. She did not look at me now. She stood grasping the table with one tense hand, her white face thrown a little back. Just as she had stood, I knew, eight purgatorial years ago.
The story was done. She sank into the chair.
"And the book?" I asked at length.
She roused from her reverie. "Oh! yes, the book. It had no purpose to live for, you see. I sent for it, cancelled the agreement. They wrote to me twice about it, but I was firm; there was no reason why I should trouble. I have everything I want," and again her voice trailed into silence.
I looked about the strange, bare room, at the strange, slender figure, and I rose and folded her about with my arms; but she struggled in my embrace. "No, no, do not touch me!" she cried sharply, in a tone of suffering. My hands fell from her, and I knelt abashed at her side. "Oh! please forgive me. I cannot be touched. I hate it. You have been so good," she said, with compunction, regarding me with a certain remorse. I was not aggrieved at being repulsed. As I resumed my seat, I said, "You have only one life to live; snatch at least what you can out of the years. Take my wisdom. You have the book yet? Good. Come back with me; we will get it published. Open your heart, make one effort at living: you can but fail. Come away from the sound of the waves and the wind through the scrub-oaks; from this room and its memories. Be what you might have been."
For the first time she faintly smiled. She shook her head. "I told you I was like Aaron's rod. See for yourself. The power of thought or interest in everything else has withered and wasted like my face and body. My days are almost as irresponsible as a child's now. I have gone back to the carelessness of a little girl about the conditions of life. It was once, and once only for me. But you have given me relief, or rather I have given myself relief this afternoon. And now, will you leave me? I am so glad to have said it all over, and yet, since I have done it, I cannot bear to see you."
The peculiarity of her voice and manner, of which I have spoken, that made all her words sweet and gentle, however unconventional they might be, left me unoffended.
"Perhaps you are right;" I said, "yet I wish you would try my way." She did not make any reply, and I left her standing with downcast eyes by the door.
Mrs. Libby still sat sewing by the window when I returned. "Have a pleasant time?" she asked, a gleam of curiosity in her cold eyes. "Seems to me you didn't stay long."
"No, not very long."
"See that queer room of hers? Folks ain't asked into it much. They said she took the minister right in there when he called. Kitchen table piled up with books, 'n papers, books 'round on the floor, 'n' a mattress a-layin' in a corner. Some of the boys peeked in one day when she was down to the beach, 'n' told all 'round how it looked. And a white shoe onto the wall. I expect it must be one o' hers she used to wear. It was before I moved over from South side, but Mrs. Hikes says she had the flightiest clothes when he was courtin' her. Her mother left her some money, I guess, any way, 'n' there wasn't anything too rich, ner too good, ner too foreign for her to wear. 'N' look at her now! Well, it's 'long toward tea-time. You look tired."
I was indeed very tired. I could not assimilate the strange impressions I had received. That night the moon-light streamed broadly into my window through the apple-boughs that showed black shadows on the floor. About midnight I opened my eyes suddenly. Mrs. Libby in a much-frilled night-dress was shaking my shoulder vigorously.
"You'll have to get up. Agnes Rayne's dyin', 'n' she's took a notion to see you. They've sent Hikeses' boy after you; bleedin' at the lungs is all I can get out of him. The Hikeses are all dumb as a stick of cord-wood."
She sat down heavily on my bed, and put a pillow comfortably to her back while I dressed. Hikeses' boy sat waiting for me in the porch whistling under his breath. He was the tallest and lankiest of them all, and like some ghostly cicerone, he never spoke, but led the way through the dewy grass into the white, glorious moonlight, and kept a few yards ahead of me in the dusty road until we reached the Rayne farmhouse.
Through the windows I saw a dim light, and figures moving. I pushed open the door without knocking. A doctor, young and alert, had been summoned from the village, and the dull light from a kerosene lamp, set hastily on the table, touched his curly red hair as he knelt by the mattress. An old white-bearded man sat huddled in one of the shadowy corners, weeping the tears of senility, and a tall, dust-colored woman, whom I rightly took to be Mrs. Hikes, stood stolidly watching the doctor. Outside the crickets were singing cheerily in the wet grass.
"Oh, yes, so glad you've come," murmured the doctor as he rose.
Then I stepped closer to the little figure lying in the old blue curtain, that was stiffened now with blood. The parted lips were gray; the whole face, except the vivid eyes, was dead. The night-dress was thrown back from the poor throat and chest, stained here and there with spots of crimson on the white skin, that seemed stretched over the small bones. I stooped beside her, in answer to an appealing look. She could not lift the frail, tired hand that lay by her, its fingers uncurled, the hand of one who, dying, relinquishes gladly its grasp on life. The hands of the strong, torn from a world they love, clench and clutch at the last; it is an involuntary hold on earth. The doctor moved away. The whining sobs of the old man became more audible. I put my ear to her cold lips.
"His letters … the letters … and … my book … I told you of, take them. Here, in the closet … by … the chimney…."
I could hardly distinguish the faint whispers. I raised my hand impatiently, and the old man stopped moaning. Mrs. Hikes and the doctor ceased speaking in low undertones. Only a great moth, that had fluttered inside the lamp chimney thudded heavily from side to side.
"Yes, yes. What shall I do with them?"
She did not speak, and seeing her agonized eyes trying to tell mine, I cried aloud, "Give her brandy—something. She wants to speak. Oh, give her a chance to speak!"
The doctor stepped to my side. He lifted the wrist, let it fall, and shook his head. "Don't you see?" he said. I looked at the eyes, and saw.
Some days later I went to the lonely house. The old man was sitting in a loose, disconsolate heap in his seat by the apple-tree. The tears rolled down the wrinkles into his beard, when I spoke of his daughter.
"There were some letters and papers she wished me to have," I said. In the closet by the chimney. "If you are willing—"
The old man shuffled into the house, and threw open the blinds of the darkened room. Some one had set the books in neat piles on the table; the chairs were placed against the wall. The drapery had been washed and stretched smoothly across the mattress. There were two or three dark stains on the floor that could not be washed out. The slim little slipper still decked the wall.
I looked up at the door by the chimney. "Here's the key," said the old man, brokenly. "I found it to-day under the mattress." I tried it, but it did not turn in the lock. I was hardly tall enough to reach it. The old man fetched me a chair on which I stood, and after a moment or two I felt the rusty lock yield. The little door gave and opened.
Nothing was there, nothing but the dust of years that blackened my fingers, as I put in my hand, unconvinced by my sense of sight.
"Are you sure no one has been here, no one who could open the closet?"
"Nobody," he proclaimed in the cracked tone of extreme age. "She must have wandered when she told you that. People wander when they are dying, you know. Her mother—but that was long ago." He tapped the key thoughtfully on the mantel. "You see how the lock stuck, and the door. I don't expect Agnes had it open for years. I expect she wandered, like her mother." He peered vaguely in at the empty space, and then turned to me. "I forget a great deal now. I'm getting an old man, a very old man," he said, in an explanatory tone.
"But did you know she had letters somewhere, a pile of papers? You remember her getting letters, do you not, letters from her lover?"
He looked up at me apologetically, with dim, watery blue eyes. "I don't expect I remember much," he confessed. "Not of later years. I could tell you all about things when I was a boy, but I can't seem to remember much that's happened since mother died. That must have been along about twenty years ago. I'm all broken down now, old—very old. You see I am a very old man."
I left him shutting the room into darkness, and passed out into the sunlight, sorely perplexed.
Mrs. Libby was baking when I returned, and the air of the kitchen was full of the sweet, hot smell that gushed from the oven door she had just opened. She stood placidly eating the remnants of dough that clung to the pan.
"Mrs. Libby," said I, sinking down on the door-step, "what was the name of Agnes Rayne's lover? You told me once you could not remember. Will you try to think, please?"
"Well, I was talking to Mrs. Hikes after the fun'r'l," said Mrs. Libby, still devouring the dough. "He boarded to the Hikeses', you see, 'n' she had it as pat as her own," and then Mrs. Libby mentioned calmly a name that now you can hardly pass a book-stall without reading, a name that of late is a synonym for marvellous and unprecedented success in the literary world. I had met this great man at a reception the winter before; let me rather say, I had stood reverently on the outskirts of a crowd of adorers that flocked around him. I looked so fixedly at Mrs. Libby that her smile broadened.
"Don't know him, do you?" she queried.
"I think I have met him," I replied. "Was he engaged to Agnes Rayne?"
Mrs. Libby waited to pierce a loaf of cake with a broom splint. She ran her thick fingers carefully along the splint and then turned the brown loaf on to a sieve.
"Mrs. Hikes says she don't believe a word of it. Folks think he just courted her one spell that summer, not real serious, just to pass the time away, you might say, like many another young man. Mrs. Hikes says, she never heard of him writin' to her, or anything, 'n' if he had, old Hawkins that brings the mail couldn't have kep' it, any more'n he could keep the news he reads off postal cards. They talked enough first about her being love-cracked, but there wa'n't any signs of it I could hear, excep' her trailin' 'round the beach, 'n' looking wimbly, 'n' not doin' jus' like other folks. She never said a word to anybody. Might 'a' been it turned her some," said Mrs. Libby, thoughtfully, rolling the flour in white scales from her heavy wrists. "Might 'a' been she was queer any way—sending off to the city for white silk gowns, 'n' things to wear in that old rack of boards, jus' because she was bein' courted. Most would 'a' kep' the money 'gainst their fittin' out. I guess that was all there was, jus' a little triflin', 'n' she took it in earnest. Well, it don't make any difference now," she concluded coolly, as she turned to her sink of baking-dishes.
I sat listening stupidly to her heavy tread, to the cheery clash of the tins as she washed and put them in place. To never know any more! Yet after all, I knew all that could be known, strangely enough. Then, with a long shiver, I remembered the small closet beside the chimney with its empty, dusty shelves.
"Mrs. Libby," said I, rising, "I think I will go back to the city to-morrow."