The Actress/The Actress
As the music of the dance ceased, Olga Fullerton stole, unnoticed, out onto the balcony of the great house overlooking the Hudson. She sighed softly as she sank upon a divan. She was very tired. All night the dance had been in progress at the home of the Waddington's, and now it was almost dawn. She gazed wistfully out over the softly rippling water lapping drowsily among the rocks of the Palisades. Over the great rock wall the moon was softly rising, throwing the entire river into delightful shadow.
"It is all magnificent," she breathed rapturously.
"Yes," said a voice speaking at her elbow, "very magnificent."
With a start, she glanced up into the smiling face of Jerold Wharton. Rugged as a rock, he stood and gazed down upon her lovely shoulders in open admiration.
"I have waited here for nigh an hour," he continued.
"You wished to see me?"
"Yes, I wished to see you."
"But how did you know I would come here?"
He smiled slightly.
"I have been to the home of the Waddington's before," said he. "Surely when a man has known a woman as many years as I have known you, he must of necessity begin to understand her."
She laughed softly, as though she were enjoying the situation immensely. "I sometimes wonder," she mused whimsically, "whether a man really ever does grow to understand a woman."
"I was conscious of my error as soon as I had made it," replied Jerold Wharton quickly, but in his voice there was no longer any trace of humor. "To me," he went on slowly, thoughtfully, as though he were carefully choosing each word, "woman has always seemed like the jungle—ununderstood, unconquerable and merciless. But you can always depend on the jungle. It is always terrible. You know when you enter it that you must fight."
For a moment she sat silent, gazing at the softly murmuring water, a faraway look in her fine gray eyes.
"One can scarcely charge you with being a lover of women," she said presently.
"And yet I am," came the soft reply. "To me woman has always seemed God's greatest creation. But even Creation has made mistakes. All women are not worthy of the title. But all ought to endeavor to be." He paused for a moment, then he said: "Last season in London I saw you portray the leading rôle in Carmody's great play, 'The Better Self.' I saw you fighting against predestined conditions; struggling with hateful impulse; praying in the darkness that you might behold the light. And I saw a wonderful dawn break through the terrible billows of gloom, and in the glorious light stood a woman who had made herself. Spotless as the driven snow, she had risen from the very dregs of the city. And then I saw her sink down again, back into the depths from whence she had sprung in order that she might cover up her brother's crime. You can't overcome Destiny, but you can change it. Since that day I have never beheld a wretched woman in the streets but what I have thought of 'The Better Self.’ Plays like that are like oases in the desert. They don't poison or corrupt; they just give life and make us understand."
Somewhere among the palms in the ballroom beyond them, a violinist was playing Moskovitz's "Serenata." Softly, sweetly, grandly, the music floated to their ears as though it were the echo of a dream. Now loud, now soft and calm, it fell upon the night, and somehow to the two upon the balcony it seemed sadly beautiful.
"Music," she whispered, "is the connecting link between earth and Paradise."
"Yes," he murmured, "and the 'Serenata' is a link of purest gold. But somehow, when I hear it played, it always makes me conscious of a great void in my life. So, also, does it affect Coningsby."
As he spoke, Olga looked up quickly into his eyes.
"And how is Arthur?" she asked abruptly. "Tonight, I had forgotten him entirely."
"Some women are born to forget," said he, and in his voice there was just barely perceptible the faintest suggestion of cynicism.
This Olga ignored.
"And how is Arthur?" she repeated softly.
"Coningsby is dying," said he simply. "The doctor says he cannot live a month. It seems as though it can't be true, a man of iron stricken down with typhoid as though he were no stronger than a child. When he is gone I know not what I shall do. The world will say, 'Coningsby, the explorer, is dead,' and then all will go on again as ever. But to me it will be, 'Coningsby, the friend, the comrade, who is gone.' And you must have lived in the tropics to know what that means. Why, I have seen him plunge into surging rapids to save the life of a little coal-black African child, possibly the son of a cannibal, and fight against the terrible fury of the waters until he, in turn, had been rescued by the natives. I have been lost for weeks alone with him in the awful forest, almost dead from hunger and afire from thirst. Once, down in Uganda, we lay in the blinding, scorching heat and dust, our tongues parched and blackened, half delirious with thirst. A few yards away stood a bottle containing a few precious drops of water. Although suffering frightfully, Coningsby would not even moisten his lips. It meant life for one of us, but it wasn't enough for two."
Jerold Wharton paused for a moment, as though he could see again the picture which he described blazing out before his eyes.
Olga placed her hand softly upon his arm. "Tell me," she said, and her voice shook, "did you drink the water?"
He did not reply.
Again she repeated the question.
"No," he replied at last, "neither drank a drop. I wish I could tell you of the tortures we suffered during the few hours we lay baking in that terrible sun. We could not sweat. Our bodies were boiled dry."
"And yet," she murmured, "within reach of your hand was life. I cannot understand."
"No," he said, "only those who have lived much in the jungle can understand." … He paused for a moment, then he continued softly, "And now Coningsby is dying. The man who has given the best years of his life to danger lies dying in quiet old New York. He often told me that he hoped to die in the jungle. Once when he saw an old truck-horse stricken in the street, Coningsby declared that he envied the old fellow, for he had died in harness. But none of Coningsby's hopes ever materialized. He always fought and worked like a man, but he never received a man's reward."
By the tone in which Jerold Wharton spoke, Olga Fullerton knew that he implied more than he had said.
"What do you mean?" she asked quickly.
"Simply, that Coningsby loves you," he declared quietly, with a terrible simplicity. "He is calling you to come."
She started back at his words as though she had been struck.
"But I do not love him!" she gasped weakly, and her words seemed to choke her.
"No," said Jerold Wharton. "Men like Coningsby, women admire but they do not love. I sometimes think they are not big enough to understand great things. All his life Coningsby's lived and suffered without the love of women. Now he must die as he has lived."
Olga put her hands up to her eyes.
"Oh, I can't stand it," she sobbed brokenly. "You make me feel as though I were killing him."
"No," he said tenderly, "you are not killing him. You could not save him if you would. But you could prevent his dying that way!"
"What do you wish me to do?"
"Go to Coningsby."
"If I did," she faltered, "he would think I loved him."
"Yes," said he, "he would think you loved him and in that thought he would be wonderfully happy."
"But I do not love him."
"No, but you can act. I have seldom seen a better emotional actress. Now you have an opportunity to play your greatest rôle. Again you have an opportunity to play 'The Better Self,' only this time you must write your own part before you play it. Coningsby cannot live and will never know … Will you go to him?"
She rose to her feet and her eyes shown with a strange brilliancy. "I will go to him," she said softly. "I could almost love you for what you have done tonight."
While she went to get her wraps, Jerold Wharton waited for her upon the balcony. He lighted a cigar and, as he puffed dreamily, the last sentence she had uttered came back to him, "I could almost love you for what you have done to-night."
He sighed wearily.
"Dear girl," he said, "if she only could."
Slowly Coningsby opened his eyes. His head throbbed with fever and he could scarcely see. The room was almost in darkness; the shades were drawn, creating a restful twilight of peace. Over in one corner he could just dimly make out the lines of his favorite gun. How many times he had carried that gun through the untrodden trails of the dark continent. As he lay there, half-conscious, he remembered the first lion he had slain in East Africa. That was over a dozen years ago, but it seemed like yesterday. One of the native porters had been entrapped by the frenzied animal. In one spring, unexpectedly, the lion was upon him, virtually slashing the poor fellow to ribbons. Arthur Coningsby had heard the Swahili's wild, unearthly screams, screams which seemed to bite into the soul, and in a moment he was rushing to his assistance. For an instant Coningsby gazed upon the sight in horror. Then he raised his rifle and fired once. With a mighty roar which seemed to be echoed by the whole forest, the stricken beast rose to its haunches, blood dripping from its horrible jaws. It made one great bound toward Coningsby, then rolled over dead.
All this time the Swahili had not moved. After making certain that the lion was dead, Coningsby went and knelt by the side of the porter. As he knelt there, silent in the terrible solitude, Jerold Wharton came upon him.
"He was my favorite carrier," said Coningsby simply.
"And you arrived too late," Wharton had declared without any trace of emotion.
"Perhaps," was the calm reply, "but I lessened his agony by a fraction." As he spoke he turned the poor fellow over on his back and showed a bullet wound which was clotted with sickening blood.
"I did not shoot to kill the lion," said Coningsby, and there the matter had ended.
When news of the incident filtered back to civilization, Coningsby had been severely criticized by many. But probably no one summed up the matter so well as did Jerold Wharton.
"To judge of a man's actions in the jungle," he had declared curtly, "one must live in the jungle."
Now as Arthur Coningsby lay, racked by a terrible fever, all this flamed out in his mind in startling vividness. Fever sometimes dulls a man's faculties but it often intensifies his memory. Thus was its affect upon Coningsby. As he thought of these things a great longing to hold the old gun in his hands once again overcame him. With a half-audible groan of pain, he turned to ring for his man-servant and gazed full into the face of Olga Fullerton.
For a moment he gazed at her speechless, then he slowly closed his eyes.
"Dreams, dreams," he murmured wanly.
An unaccountable tear-drop slipped from Olga Fullerton's eye and rolled softly down her cheek. She placed her cold, soft hand upon his fever-scorched forehead. Then slowly he opened his eyes again, which shown with a glorious light of hope.
"Tell me," he said weakly, longingly, "is it true?"
"Yes," she replied in a voice which she endeavored to keep firm, "it is true."
As she spoke she leaned down and touched her cold lips to his burning cheek.
After that almost every day Olga spent several hours by Coningsby's bedside, hours which he declared were made up of the most happy, glorious moments of his life. One day he said to Jerold Wharton:
"Jerry, I am making up for the wasted years, the years which contained no love. And do you know somehow when a person doesn't love he is missing one of the really greatest things of life. Old man, take my advice and settle down."
As Coningsby spoke, Jerold Wharton had walked to the window, a terrible hunger gnawing at his heart. Yes, he needed love, the love of Olga Fullerton. Outside a sluggish, misty rain was falling. Everything looked dark and gloomy and the walks were paved with soggy mud. He smiled whimsically as he gazed out upon the dreary scene. All Nature, to him, seemed to accord with his mood. Presently he turned again to his friend, and now the look of sorrow had passed from his face.
"Conny, old man," said he, "I reckon some men were born to be loved by women, others to be wedded to their work. Down in the jungle is the place where I belong, the region where a man can fight against odds and forget he has a soul."
Coningsby lay with closed eyes. So long did he lay thus, Jerold Wharton commenced to think he were sleeping. Finally he asked softly, "Can a man forget?"
The simple sentence seemed to have a strange effect upon Jerold and he was glad that the eyes of his friend were closed so that he could not see his face. He gripped the arms of his chair, unconsciously, so tightly that his fingers turned white.
"A man can forget," said he, "when he must."
At the moment both were thinking of Olga, but their thoughts were entirely different.
As the weeks rolled on Coningsby showed no improvement. Neither did his condition become any worse. Day after day passed by without apparent change, until at last Jerold Wharton began to have hope. When he approached the Doctor on the subject, the physician gravely shook his head.
"Cases like his always remind me of a lighted match," said he. "Bright for a moment then plunged in darkness, as the flame is quenched by a puff of wind. So will it be with Coningsby. He may live a month, and on the other hand, he may not last through the night."
And Jerold had returned to his rooms, plunged back again into the valley of sadness, all hope dead within him.
Meanwhile Olga Fullerton sat by Coningsby's bedside.
"You simply must get well!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," was the quick reply, "I must get well. Before it didn't reâlly matter, but things are different now."
As Coningsby spoke, Olga thought of the words which Jerold Wharton had used that night upon the balcony.
"He always fought and worked like a man, but he never received a man's reward."
Impulsively she stooped and kissed his lips.
"With medicine like that every day," he declared, "I could get well in a week."
A few days later, as Olga Fullerton was about to enter Coningsby's room, she met the Doctor coming out. Doctor Richmond took her by the arm and patted her gently on the shoulder. His stern old face was wreathed in smiles as he announced:
"Girl, I have good news. Coningsby seems much improved. I think Jerold Wharton was right after all. He is going to get well. But why I do not know, I do not know."
Olga Fullerton's face had grown very white. As the doctor was about to comment upon it, she hastened to say:
"The shock of your words is so great that it has indeed quite taken my breath away."
"I appreciate your feelings," agreed the old doctor quickly, "the shock must indeed be great."
But how great it was, Doctor Richmond did not know.
That night Olga Fullerton could not sleep. She lay and tossed upon her pillow in an agony of wakefulness, tortured by thoughts which she simply could not put from her. Her head throbbed dully and she felt as though her body were being slowly consumed by an inward fire. What should she do? A thousand times she asked herself this question, but could find no solution. The night seemed to bear down upon her with a fatalistic pressure. She felt as though she were in the grip of hopeless things. As she lay there, tortured by a mental anguish which she could scarcely bear, the words Jerold Wharton had used on that never-to-be-forgotten night at the Waddington's recurred to her as though the very blackness were shouting them in her ears: "You can't overcome Destiny, but you can change it."
"Poor boy," she whispered softly, "one can't do either, but he did not know."
And then she rose from her bed and stole to the window. Softly she lifted the shade, flooding the room with a glorious wave of silvery moonlight. For a moment she stood gazing at the surrounding peaceful country in silence. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted dismally. She shivered slightly. On the very outskirts of a great metropolis she felt very much alone. If only she had someone to comfort her, someone in whom she could confide.
Down in the room below, Arthur Coningsby lay sleeping peacefully. He was going to get well. Her coming had probably saved his life. Somehow she wondered whether she had any right to save his life under those conditions.
A leaf crackled in the garden below, then a match was struck and it seemed as though someone were lighting a cigar. The next moment the figure of a man appeared in the moonlight. Up and down he walked, restlessly up and down on a trail that led from nowhere and did not have an end.
Even in the moonlight Olga had no difficulty in recognizing Jerold Wharton. Back and forth he walked, puffing nervously at his cigar, ever back and forth.
"Dear boy," she murmured wistfully, "I wonder which is the most unhappy—you or I."
Then she stole noiselessly back to bed and found sleep at last. For now it seemed as though she were no longer alone in her trouble.
When Olga Fullerton awakened, dawn was just breaking through the mists of morning, painting a light of gladness over the distant palisades. Quickly she dressed and stole down into the garden.
Jerold Wharton still paced restlessly back and forth under the trees. At her approach he glanced up with a start, as though her coming had summoned him back from a dream world.
"You are out early," said he finally, with a cordial smile.
"Yes," she murmured simply, "I could not sleep."
"Nor I," said he. "I have been up for several hours, walking restlessly back and forth from place to place. Like 'The Wandering Jew,’ my soul can find no rest."
"And I too have been most miserable," she declared with quivering voice. "Have you heard? Arthur is going to live."
"Yes," he replied in a voice so low that it was almost drowned by the breeze in the treetops, "you have saved his life."
At his words, so earnestly, yet so tenderly spoken, the tears rose in her eyes at last, and her slender form shook with uncontrollable sobs. Jerold Wharton could not speak. A woman's tears will sap the strength from even the strongest of men. Silently he took her into his arms, and drew her head to his breast. He could not trust himself to speak. And that moment was the saddest of his life. Although she stood in an attitude of surrender, he knew that she did not realize it. He was just a friend in trouble. So he fought back the impulse to crush her in his arms, to hold her to him and never let her go.
"She is not for me," he kept repeating fiercely to himself, "she is not for me."
When at last the sobs had grown fainter, and he could control his voice, Jerold said wistfully:
"Little woman, as soon as Coningsby is strong enough, you must tell him the truth; but not until then, for it will be a terrible blow indeed." As he spoke, he inwardly cursed himself for a meddling fool.
As the days sped by, Coningsby's condition steadily improved until at last he was entirely out of danger. Soon he was able to sit up, and eventually a morning came, warm and beautiful, when he could go out into the garden.
In front of the house, down near the river, stood a summer-house, delightfully charming, almost hidden beneath the maze of climbing vines and flowers which scrambled up the moss-covered logs on every side. From this little retreat, the house could not be seen, and in no matter whatsoever direction one turned no sign of life was visible; nothing save hills and river and sky. Of course there were homesteads, hidden by the trees, only a very short distance away, but as these were not apparent they did not disturb the soft, cool harmony of repose.
Often as Coningsby sat in the summer-house, Olga read books to him, stories which he seldom heard, so intent was he in gazing on the face of the reader and dreaming of the future. Daily Olga said, "I must tell him the truth to-morrow." But ever she put off the confession, for she could not summon up sufficient courage.
One morning, out in the summer-house, Coningsby said: "A year ago to-day, I stood upon the banks of a river in East Africa and cursed the jungle because it was not civilized and the city because it was civilized. You probably wonder at such a pessimistic attitude, and to-day I am surprised myself. But then the declaration seemed sane enough. For five months our little band of explorers had been seeking for a man named Warburton who had gone down into the Rana country and never returned. I could fill a book with the horrible tortures we endured on that journey. An epidemic of a particularly malignant native disease broke out among our carriers. For almost a week one was buried each morning just before sunrise. And yet, in spite of everything, we kept plodding steadily forward. As long as one man remained alive, he would see that expedition to completion. That is the law of the wild. Death alone can make a man give up the fight, not the death of others, but the death of himself. Thus, as I say, for five months we had lived like dogs. Nothing kept us alive but our own will power. It seemed as though all the horrors of earth were concentrated in that terrible march of death. And every morning a Somali uttered a sickening groan and pitched forward on his face, to rise no more. But finally a day came which marked the end of our quest. We found Warburton—a filthy, maudlin, drunken wreck—married to a native woman more beastlike than himself. And this was what my brave men had fought and died to save! Warburton refused to return with us, but he begged me to send a barrel of liquor to him as soon as I reached Nairobi. As I looked at the miserable, shaking, cringing derelict, my brain seemed on fire with hatred, hatred of the law of evolution which raised man up from the brute-strength age, only to sink him further down until he was less than a beast! As I stood on that river-bank, I thought of that grim, solemn chain of graves stretching back through the gloomy forest, and my heart was very bitter." … Coningsby paused for a moment, before he continued softly:
"But all that happened over a year ago. "And what a wonderful change has come over me since then. I feel as though, like Pygmalion's Statue, I have for the first time been endowed with life; that previously I was but a thing of stone. Last night I sat in my room stretched out in a great armchair. Save for the joyful flame of my cigar, the room was in total darkness. And yet in every shadowy corner I seemed to see your figure hiding, only visible when the tip of the cigar glowed bright. And in the smoke I drew pictures. Poets may eulogize on the reveries of a bachelor, but I tell you, girl, they don't begin to compare with the reveries of a man in love."
As Coningsby spoke, he leaned down and touched his lips to the tips of her fingers. Olga Fullerton sat speechless, her face almost as white as the roses growing in the garden. She wanted to tell him the truth and yet she seemed almost powerless.
"Oh, you mustn't do that!" she exclaimed, her voice trembling with emotion.
Coningsby laughed merrily. "Mustn't?" he chuckled. "Why then I suppose I mustn't do this either?" And he seized her in his arms and stifled her with kisses. She did not resist; she did not seem to have sufficient strength.
"Oh, you don't understand," she moaned, "you don't understand."
Something in her tone made him draw back as though he had received a blow.
"Why, what do you mean?" he exclaimed breathlessly.
And then, although it tore her heart to do it, she told him the truth.
"I am an actress," she murmured helplessly. "I have been only acting all the time. But please don't misunderstand me," she continued quickly, as he made as though to interrupt. "I did not do it because I wanted to, but simply because I thought you would not live. In its bare simplicity, the fact seems brutal, and yet——"
She broke off abruptly. "Oh, I can't explain!" she sobbed brokenly. "But I couldn't go on this way forever."
Coningsby belonged to that class of men who are born to suffer in silence, the class who bear their troubles alone. With a visible effort he pulled himself together.
"Tell me," he said, and his voice sounded strangely hollow, "when did all this begin?"
"On the night of the Waddington's ball," she replied slowly. "I had slipped out onto the balcony after one of the dances, and there I met Jerold Wharton. He told me that you could not live, and that you were calling me to come. As I listened to his words my heart was touched and I came to you at once."
After a momentary silence, he said: "At least, I can always remember the great goodness of heart which prompted you to come to me."
"Don't misunderstand," she replied wistfully. "It was not I who suggested my going to you. It was the plan of Jerold Wharton."
For a while he sat in silence, his face cold and colorless. Minutes passed and still he did not speak. Finally Olga Fullerton could bear the terrible strain no longer.
"You are angry," she whispered. "I do not blame you. I have acted shamefully."
He smiled wanly.
"No," he said wearily, "I am not angry, for you have given me a few months of the really greatest things of life. Before you came to me, I had nothing to look back upon save work and nothing to look forward to. Now, the future is the same, but the past is made beautiful by the presence of wonderful memories."
He took her hand in his and looked into her eyes, dim with tears. "Before I go," said he very softly, "I wonder if you will kiss me once."
Back at the house, in his own room, Jerold Wharton was playing the "Serenata." Softly his fingers wandered listlessly over the keys. And thus it happened that at the self-same moment both he and Coningsby were thinking of that memorable night on which he had talked with Olga Fullerton upon the balcony. He was interrupted in his reveries by a step in the room behind him.
"Jerry, old man, I am going back into the jungle," said a strangely hollow voice, speaking at his elbow. "Do you want to go along?"
And Jerold Wharton answered simply, "Yes." But he did not glance up, for when one has lived much in the tropics one learns to understand men.
A month later, Arthur Coningsby dined with Colonel Mowbray in the European Club at Zanzibar. Outside through the narrow, filthy lanes which served as streets, throngs of people were hastening to and fro. Here all the world seemed to have come to rub shoulders against each other. Englishman cursed Arab, and Arab raved at Hindi. In some of the dimly lighted, odorous alleys steaming black and yellow bodies and kinky heads were struggling excitedly with one another, jabbering and shrieking in a dozen different tongues. From the tops of tall, flat-roofed houses floated strains of weird, dreamy music, which rose ever and anon above the laughing, chattering voices of the hidden merrymakers. The entire disjointed, unsystematic mass united to form a wondrous weird and wavering picture of color. White, dust-tinted houses, cobbled streets fallen into ruin, alcoves dark and mysterious with flickering yellow lights gleaming in the distance; frightfully miserable hovels; gorgeous palaces—how can one describe the strangely wild, fantastic, fascinating sight? Porters sitting cross-legged before the entrances to forbidden gardens; merchants reclining amongst their wares at the truly beautiful bazaars. And what wares are here for sale! Ivory, gum-copal, hides, lumber, silk rugs and cotton cloth; cloves, chillies, kanikies, machetes; in fact almost everything purchasable in the Occident—and more, for where is there any place which has such a spell of romance as that awesome, terrible land bordering on the Equator?
But within Colonel Mowbray's private room at the European Club all the splendid, jumbled maze of sweat and color was forgotten. For, as the two men sat and smoked their cigars, Mowbray was speaking earnestly, reminiscently, as though he were putting his very soul into his words.
"Several years ago," said he, "I was a curator in the employ of 'The National Zoological Society,' and was commissioned to accompany an expedition into the heart of the Kermashan Valley in British East Africa in quest of specimens of certain rare poisonous snakes for the London Museum. It is claimed by experts that there are more varieties of reptiles in this locality than in any other region in the world. Well, at length, after much calculating, purchasing and the wasting of much midnight oil, I set out on my journey with most of the paraphernalia necessary for such an expedition. In the course of several weeks I arrived at Mombasa, where the final arrangements were to be completed. In this town, at the Sports Club, I met Morris Warburton, an Englishman, who was to lead the expedition. He at once set about hiring fifty Swahili carriers, which took him several days, but at length everything was ready, and a fortnight later we were well on our way to the valley of snakes.
"Now it is necessary to say here that, although the Swahilis are a very brave people, they have a hereditary, superstitious dread of the Kermashan Valley. Warburton was aware of this and had hired them without their knowing our destination. They were not long to remain in ignorance of it, however, as following events soon proved, for one night, while half-intoxicated, Warburton blabbered all. The Swahilis said nothing, at which I was greatly surprised, but when morning came the silence was explained, for there was not the vestige of a carrier in sight. Fear had gotten the better of them and, while we slept, they had headed back for Mombasa. A good opportunity was now presented me to upbraid Warburton, and no doubt I would have done so had it not been for an acute pain which I suddenly became aware of in my right ankle. The next instant I heard a low, hissing sound and turned just in time to see an ugly red-black snake glide away into the bushes. As my eye fell upon it, my face blanched, for I realized that I had been inoculated with a terrible poison.
"As I recall that day, I shiver even now at the bare remembrance, for memory brings back a terrible picture … I see before me a clearing in the great, impenetrable African forest about five hundred miles inland from Mombasa. It is noonday, but it is almost as dark as night. Overhead the foliage, creepers and branches unite to form a natural roof of verdure. The forest is uncanny and filled with weird, fearsome noises. The buzzing of millions of insects, the Satanic screeching of countless flesh-eating animals, and the hissing of venomous, poisonous snakes gliding stealthily through the grass on their unholy errands of death—these are the sounds which haunt the heart of the jungle. Ever and anon there comes a crack like the report of a gun and a great tree totters over and falls to the ground, a victim to the onslaughts of armies of deadly white ants, which, though insignificant in size, are yet strong enough to conquer these monstrous kings of the forest.
"In the dim twilight the jungle presents a wonderful blending of magnificence and awefulness, for it is simply teeming with lovely flowers—vampires, beautiful but deadly poisonous. Dainty orchids, fresh as the cheek of a maiden in winter-time and delicate as fairy gossameres, spring from cracks in the huge black tree trunks, and around these same trunks twine hideous reptiles of a reddish-black color, like the one which had imbedded its deadly fangs in my ankle … It was in the centre of this clearing that Warburton and I had spent the night. At the moment to which my thoughts return, I reclined against a tree. My face was ashen-gray; my lips colorless. Warburton stood above me, apparently in the best of health save for a slight nervousness which was barely perceptible.
"'You are sure you cannot walk?' he asked anxiously.
"'Positive,' I replied faintly.
"'Not even a little way?'
"'Not a step.'
"'But we must push on!' he burst out.
"I made no answer, but closed my eyes, for I was very tired. In a few moments I was asleep. How long I remained so, I do not know, but it must have been for several hours, for when I awoke it was night and I was alone.
"'Warburton!' I cried huskily, a great horror clutching at my heart. 'Warburton!' But no voice answered me. Gradually the truth dawned upon me. Warburton had deserted. He had followed the Swahilis. I was now quite alone, yet not entirely alone either, for I still had my dog with me, a great faithful Dane. I was reminded of his presence even as the full force of my comrade's desertion fell upon me, for he came and shoved his cold, damp nose into my face.
"Well, that night was a night of terrors, and only by a miracle was my life preserved. Hour after hour I lay and listened in indescribable fear to the thousands of vicious voices of the wild. The very air seemed alive, and the blackness was filled with myriads of gleaming, shining eyes. A cold sweat broke out on my body and I succumbed to the terrors of the forest. And all night long the great Dane kept watch over me."
Colonel Mowbray lapsed into silence and for some moments neither spoke. The spell of the African jungle seemed to have fallen over the room.
From the alleys the jabbering of Hindi porters and Arab merchants still filtered faintly to their ears. Somewhere down below, Watson, the club accountant, was crooning a well-known song. But under the prevailing conditions the words sounded strangely weird and uncanny.
"I'm hitting the trail that leads, boys,
Away from the howling noise,
Away from a host of mem'ries
And a thousand worthless joys;
I'm off at last to the land, boys,
Where there isn't a single friend,
For no white man can live, boys,
In the place where the fevers blend."
As the voice died away in a plaintive echo, Mowbray continued his story.
"I see another picture," he said slowly. "It is of a little native village. The inhabitants wear but a single strip of cloth about their waists, and strings of leopards' claws adorn their necks. They are rather odd-looking people; very black, very short and very broad. Their faces are extremely ugly, almost all nose and lips; the former spreading itself over the entire upper part of the face and the latter performing the same service for the lower part. It was among these natives that I found myself when I again regained consciousness. I was lying on a mattress of leaves in a rude mud hut near the centre of the village. But my dog was nowhere in sight, and though I sought and inquired everywhere, I never found him again. Down there in that terrible forest he had paid the price of duty."
Again Mowbray paused as though to get control of his voice. He drew his hand wearily across his eyes. Sitting there in the dim lamplight, his face looked intensely haggard and drawn. But presently he continued his story and now his voice was firm again.
"For several weeks I remained at the little native village and was nursed by the people back to health again. As time sped by I picked up a smattering of their jargon and was able to converse a trifle with them, employing signs as much as possible. In this way, I discovered that several young warriors, while out hunting, had found me delirious two miles from the village and had carried me back with them. And thus the weeks rolled on until finally one day I fitted out an expedition from the native supplies and returned to Mombasa accompanied by some forty native porters whom I had prevailed upon to accompany me. The journey was uneventful and it was with a feeling of devout thanksgiving that I again beheld the friendly façade of the Sports Club … For the following month my mind was filled with nothing but revenge and an insane desire took root in my mind. I must find Warburton. If it cost me my life I must find him. And then, abruptly, almost in a day, he slipped from my mind entirely, for I met the one woman in the world whom I could love. Down in the jungle by the side of my camp-fire, in the dark of the evening, I used to smoke my pipe and reverize. 'Smoke and dreams,' I often murmured. 'Neither is more tangible than vapor. Smoke stays for a moment, then vanishes into nothingness. And dreams——Good dreams don't come true, only the nightmares materialize.' But now all this was changed, for at last a dream had come true. A few months later I was married to the dearest, sweetest woman in the world. Her name was Liane Warburton, sister of the comrade who had deserted me down there in the jungle."
"That was rather an odd coincidence," declared Coningsby, breaking into the conversation for the first time."
"Yes," replied Mowbray, "extremely odd. But I never told my wife the truth, nor would I have her know for the world. In the old days she thought a great deal of Morris, and if she knew the truth it would break her heart. And now for the first time since that day I have heard news of Warburton. He is somewhere down in the Rana Country in East Africa. He has no supplies and he cannot come back. At present he is staying at a little native village. Someone must go down and bring him back. I cannot go, for he would not trust me after what has happened. As I pondered over the problem, I thought of you. … I want you to go down into the Rana country and find Warburton, no matter what it costs, you must find him, and when you do you must tell him that for his sister's sake, all is forgotten."
A few hours later the contracts had been duly signed and sworn to, and Coningsby returned to his own rooms in the same building feeling happier than he had been for weeks. For now he had a great work to do, down in the country where a man must work like a man.
Late that evening Coningsby entered Jerold Wharton's room.
"Jerry, old man," he said simply, "I want you to read this." And he held out a sheet of paper, one of the pages of a letter.
Jerold took it and as he read, he recognized Olga Fullerton's handwriting.
"When you were gone I felt strangely lonesome. Nothing seemed to interest me. I went up to my sister's home in Sharon for a few weeks, but I felt so lonesome that I had to return. Up in my room the other night I sat by the window and thought the matter over. And as I sat there, I realized the truth at last. Since I have been with you during your illness, you came to mean more to me than I had realized. When two persons are thrown constantly together for any length of time they must needs either bore or grow to think a great deal of each other. And, Conny, you did not bore me … Won't you come back?… Next week I am opening my third season in 'The Better Self,' and every night as I play the part, I will be thinking of you." …
As Jerold Wharton finished reading, he glanced up, and though his lips were smiling his eyes seemed strangely sad.
"And now, of course, you will go back," he whispered slowly.
"No," replied Coningsby, "I can't go back."
And then he repeated the story which Mowbray had told to him. He dwelt upon the terrors of the Kermashan Valley; the insects, the poisonous snakes, the heat and fear.
"And this fellow Warburton," he finished slowly, "is the same man whom we went in search of, up into the Rana Country over a year ago, the miserable, drunken wreck of a beast whom we found married to the native woman. Don't you realize, old man, what a disgrace it would be to Liane Warburton if the truth ever became known? No other white men must ever find Warburton save you and I. I couldn't go back to Olga if I left this task unfinished. Maybe some day I will return, and she will be still waiting. Who knows but that at last I will find the happiness I have longed for all my life."
"Yes," said Jerold Wharton wistfully, "who knows?"
As the music of the dance ceased, Olga Fullerton stole, unnoticed, out onto the balcony of the great house overlooking the Hudson. Precisely as she had done a year before, she sank down upon a divan with a sigh of weariness. All night the dance had been in progress at the home of the Waddingtons and now it was almost dawn.
She gazed wistfully out over the softly rippling water lapping drowsily among the rocks of the palisades. Over the great rock wall the moon was softly rising, throwing the entire river into delightful shadow.
It seemed as though it were that same wonderful night upon which she had talked with Jerold Wharton upon this same balcony over a year before, and as her thoughts returned through the solemn halls of memory, she murmured wistfully: "Thus does history repeat itself."
"Yes," said a voice speaking at her elbow, "thus does history repeat itself."
With a nervous start, her face pale with surprise, she gazed up into the eyes of Jerold Wharton.
"I arrived only a short while ago," he explained quickly, "and as soon as I heard of the dance at the Waddingtons, I came here at once."
"I had not known you were coming back," she faltered reproachfully. "I heard no word from you. Why didn't you let me know?"
He smiled whimsically.
"I wished to take you by surprise," said he.
"Well, you certainly have done that," she declared. … "And Arthur—— Did he come with you?"
"No," said Jerold softly. "Here as I spoke to you of Coningsby one year ago to-night, I have come to speak again."
And then Jerold Wharton commenced his story. He told of the meeting with Mowbray at the European Club, of the contract and of the mission upon which they had gone down into the Rana Country.
"For a month," he said, "we pushed forward into the forest on an uneventful march. Daily we saw nothing but gnarled and matted trees and vines and sometimes a patch of sunlight. To say that the hours were monotonous would be putting it mild. They were nerve-racking; nothing but scorching, merciless heat, and the sound of a hundred bare, black feet tramping doggedly on through the forest. Thus, as I say, we pushed on toward the Rana Country for a month and nothing happened. Nightly, we prayed that something would occur to break the dreadful monotony. And then suddenly our prayer was heard and answered. One morning Coningsby awakened with a slight headache, his appetite was gone and all day he ate practically nothing, just marched gloomily along without uttering a word. By evening he was down with a raging fever and by morning he was out of his head. All night I sat by his side down there in that terrible forest and listened to his ravings about the things back home. 'She's waiting for me!' he kept murmuring dully. 'Oh, God, if I could only get to the light! She's waiting for me by the light!' And then he would struggle to a sitting posture, and I would have to fight with him to keep him from rushing off into that frightful maze of jet-black forest. And then again he would grow more calm. 'She's waiting for me, Jerry,' he would say, 'back home on the banks of the Hudson she is waiting for me. I can see her now sitting in the Crow's Nest on Eagle Crag gazing to the East, always to the East.' Then he would slip off into silent unconsciousness and lie for almost half an hour as though dead, apparently not breathing at all. Once I thought he was gone for sure, his hands seemed growing stiff. But even as I grasped them, he murmured: 'I couldn't return to her with my work unfinished, could I, Jerry? She's been faithful to me and I've got to be faithful to her.' Thus all through the night he raved, and I sat and listened by his side.
"Toward morning the heat intensified and it seemed as though we were being scorched in the oven of a great, horrible blast furnace. But finally dawn broke faintly through rifts in the huge tree-tops above our heads. And almost immediately I gave orders to the native porters to break camp. In about an hour we had turned and started back toward Zanzibar. Four Swahilis carried Coningsby swung in a hammock across their shoulders. I wish I could describe to you the events of that fearful morning. Picture if you can the silent trails of the jungle, dark as twilight, although it was early morning. Through the grim forest fifty natives push their way, loaded with supplies and the necessary camp implements. And among that motley throng only two white men, one lying in a hammock burning with fever, cursing and raving in a manner truly frightful. Sometimes he would break out into prayer or song, and sometimes he talked sadly of the girl he loved back home. Hardened explorer though I am, I more than once found a tear rising in my eyes as I listened to his ravings. By noon, the fever had gone down a trifle and he recovered consciousness. Almost the first thing he asked weakly was, 'Where are we going?' He drew his hand wearily across his eyes as he spoke as though to bring memory out into sharper detail. 'Back to Zanzibar,' said I. 'You are very sick and we must find a doctor.' At my words, Coningsby closed his eyes, and uttered a heart-rending groan. 'Jerry, old man,' he said, in a voice so low that I could scarcely hear the words, T never thought that you could fail in your duty.' That was all, for the next moment he had slipped back into delirium and was cursing me like a fiend. Standing down there in the forest, one lone white man by the side of my comrade, it seemed to me as though God had given him a moment's consciousness that he might remind me of Colonel Mowbray, our contract and you.
"I knew as I stood there that Coningsby would never return to you if he left this task unfinished. When the noonday meal was over we again turned our backs on the way that led to Zanzibar and set out for the Rana Country. Live or die, we would never again set foot in Zanzibar unless our quest was successful. And as we marched steadily onward I swore to God, that if Coningsby died I would complete the work which he had left unfinished."
Somewhere among the palms in the ballroom beyond them, a violinist was playing Moskovitz's "Serenata," the same one who had played on that other night a year before, when they had sat out upon the balcony. Softly, sweetly, grandly it floated to their ears like veritable dream music. Now loud, now soft and calm, it fell upon the night, and somehow to the two upon the balcony it seemed sadly beautiful. Not till the last note had died away did Jerold Wharton continue his story.
"Fortune was good to Coningsby," said he, "for in a few weeks the fever had practically left him and he was his old optimistic self again. Another month slipped by and we arrived at the little native village which we sought in the Rana Country. But we arrived too late, for Warburton was dead. He had been killed by the chief of the tribe into which he had married. His death was the result of a blow which he had struck in a drunken, murderous rage. In the Rana Country he who strikes the chief must pay the penalty. Warburton had paid the price of ingratitude.
"'It is probably just as well,' declared Coningsby, 'that we arrived too late. If Warburton had lived, he would eventually have disgraced his sister. But as it is, she must never know. We will tell her that he lost his life endeavoring to save a native lad from drowning. Deacons may rant about the gorgeous purity of truth, but as for me, I admire the man who tells a lie, when he does it to save a soul from pain.'
"We traded beads and petty nicknacks for the few remaining possessions of Warburton, then turned our backs upon the village with a sigh of relief, for we had not failed in the work which we had set out to do. A few months later, as we neared Zanzibar, Coningsby was again struck down by the fever, and for the remainder of our journey back he raved deliriously. Now he lies in his room at the European Club, patiently waiting for the fever to abate, when he is not raving in delirium. Almost the moment we arrived at the club he bade me come to you and tell you that he will leave for New York as soon as he is strong enough to make the voyage. Probably at this very moment he is engaging a berth upon a steamer, and will be with you in a very few weeks."
"Oh, Jerry," she cried, rising to her feet, "not that! It isn't true."
"Yes," said Jerold, his throat strangely dry, "it is true."
"But he mustn't come back!" she exclaimed frantically. "Oh, my God, what shall I do? You don't understand, Jerry. I am only an actress still. I have failed in my love of Coningsby."
"No," said Jerold tensely, "I believe I do not understand." He gripped her wrist brutally. "Tell me," he demanded hoarsely, "what do you mean? How have you failed?"
"I am married," she said with a fatalistic calmness. "A month ago, I married Harry Ramsdell, who plays the part of the brother in 'The Better Self,'"
Jerold Wharton released her wrist, and when he spoke his voice sounded strangely hollow. "I wonder how you have the courage to act that play now," said he.
For a moment, both were silent. Then he murmured wistfully, "Poor old Coningsby. He always fought and worked like a man, but he never received a man's reward. Poor old Coningsby, he didn't deserve this."
Jerold Wharton sailed for England on the following morning. Restlessly he paced up and down the broad deck of the Mauretania as she slipped majestically down the river and solemnly out to sea. Soon nothing could be seen of the great skyscraper-shadowed city but a blur of golden mist. Other travellers stood and gazed with longing eyes as the city vanished into nothingness, but Jerold Wharton felt no pang of regret at leaving New York. His whole thought and mind was concerned solely with the news he was carrying back to Coningsby.
"Poor old Conny," he muttered wistfully. "Poor old Conny."
And then he went down into his own cabin and smoked cigar after cigar until far into the night, his mind a chaos of strangely conflicting emotions.
During his entire journey he kept entirely alone. His heart was full, and it was with a feeling of helpless sadness that he approached the shores of Zanzibar.
One morning as he came on deck, the continent of Africa loomed up before his gaze like the retreating shadow of night upon the horizon. Dhows floated drowsily in and out of the channel separating the island of Zanzibar from the mainland, their gray-white sails hanging limp and dead as though they had succumbed to the humid, sultry, sweltering heat. Toward the South, just dimly discernable above the horizon, the smoke of a great German steamer was trailing away and blending into the sluggish, dull-gold mists. To the West, the masts of several tramp schooners stood out among the jumble of yachts and small native craft like the stumps of charred tree-trunks in the jungle.
As soon as possible, after the necessary evil of Custom's officials had been disposed of, Jerold Wharton was speeding down the main street of the town in the direction of the European Club.
As he entered the hall, he was met by the doctor.
"I'm glad you have arrived," said he bruskly, without any formal salutation whatsoever. "Coningsby is dying. He cannot live throughout the night. It is only a question of hours now. But he does not know. He thinks he is recovering. I have never believed in telling a patient that he cannot live."
As the doctor spoke, Jerold Wharton thought of the words which Coningsby had used in the jungle, during their last exploration together.
"Deacons may rant about the gorgeous purity of truth, but as for me, I admire the man who tells a lie when he does it to save a soul from pain."
"Poor old Conny," he muttered wanly. "Poor old Conny."
Then he said, addressing the doctor: "I suppose I may see him."
"Yes," was the quick reply. "If it doesn't do him any good, it can't do him any harm, for nothing can save him now."
And then Jerold Wharton went up to Coningsby's room, which seemed coldly grim and dull, for the curtains were drawn to keep out the glaring light.
"Conny, old man," he said simply. "I've come back?"
At his words, Arthur Coningsby opened his eyes. "The light is very bad," he moaned. "Oh, this terrible fever! I can scarcely see your face, and yet just to hear your voice, old man, is better than a pound of panacea." He paused for a moment, as though struggling for breath. Finally he managed to gasp: "And you saw Olga?"
"Yes," replied Jerold, and his voice shook. "She is waiting for you still. I wish you could have seen her face as I told her your story. It was a beautiful theme for an artist; so sadly sweet, yet wonderfully happy. 'Jerry,' she said softly, I am not surprised. Women expect great things from men like Arthur.'"
Coningsby's eyes were closed and his face looked blue and pinched. With a terrible feeling of dread Jerold put his ear down to his friend's heart. He could scarcely hear it beat.
"I'm going to get well," groaned Coningsby weakly. "Even since I have heard your words the fever seems to have abated." He was struggling painfully for breath. "Oh, but it is glorious to know that she is waiting, that I shall be with her in a month. Olga! Olga! home again——" His voice trailed away into an echo. "Home again at last." For a moment, he was silent. Then suddenly he rose in his bed, with a cry of joy.
"Olga!" he gasped. "Olga! Why didn't Jerry tell me that you had come back with him?" His voice grew faint again. "Olga, home at last!"
With a sigh of unmistakable joy his head slipped back on the pillow. His face was wreathed in smiles, as though he had received a man's reward at last.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Olga Fullerton was portraying the part of "The Better Self" for the hundredth time. As the curtain fell at the close of the second act, an old white-haired Southerner turned to his wife.
"Magnificent acting," he declared. "She throws her very soul into her work."
"Yes," replied the grand old lady, "she is a born actress. She almost makes one feel as though she lives the part as she plays it."
Down in Zanzibar, from the balcony of the European Club, one lone man stood silently watching the sun set over the distant maze of gnarled and matted forest. Nine hours of darkness, and a new day would dawn. The world would slowly take up its endless duties as it had done for countless ages. On and on the days would go, but they would go without Coningsby.
Jerold Wharton bowed his head upon his hands as though crushed by the wheel of things. From somewhere in the garden below, Watson, the club accountant, was crooning his favorite song in a nasal monotone.
"I'm hitting the trail that leads, boys,
Away from the crowded tune,
Away from the place called Life, boys,
And the sordid City's croon.
I'm off at last to the land, boys,
Where a worn-out soul can end—
For even God's unknown, boys,
In the place where the fevers blend."
As the last word floated away in a wail, Jerold Wharton lifted his face, grim with determination. For now his mind was made up. It seemed as though he could hear the voice of the mystery trails calling him back into the jungle.
"Some men are born to be loved by women," he said wistfully, "others, to be wedded to their work."
He lighted a cigar, and as he puffed wearily he gazed thoughtfully into the smoke.
"Dreams, dreams," he murmured wanly. "Nothing but dreams."