The Cipher

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THE CIPHER

By Gilbert Parker

The story of a silent love. From the National Observer. Illustrated by W. Granville Smith for Short Stories.


Talton was staying his horse by a spring at Guidon Hill when he first saw her. She was gathering May-apples; her apron was full of them. He noticed that she did not stir until he rode almost upon her. Then she started, first without looking round, as does an animal, dropping her head slightly to one side, though not quite appearing to listen. Suddenly, she wheeled swiftly on him, and her big eyes captured him. The look bewildered him. She was a creature of singular fascination. Her face flooded with expression. Her eyes kept throwing light. She looked happy, yet grave withal: it was the gravity of an uncommon earnestness. She gazed through everything, and beyond. She was young—eighteen or so.

Talton raised his hat, and courteously called a good-morning at her. She did not reply by any word, but nodded quaintly, and blinked seriously, and yet blithely, on him. He was preparing to dismount. As he did so he paused, astonished that she did not speak at all. Her face did not have a familiar language; its vocabulary was its own. He slid from his horse, and, throwing his arm over its neck as it stooped to the spring, looked at her more intently, but respectfully too. She did not yet stir, but there came into her face a slight inflection of confusion or perplexity. Again he raised his hat to her, and, smiling, wished her a good-morning. Even as he did so a thought sprang in him. Understanding gave place to wonder; he interpreted the unusual look in her face.

Instantly he made a sign to her. To that her face responded with a wonderful speech—of relief and recognition. The corners of her apron dropped from her fingers, and the yellow May-apples fell about her feet. She did not notice this. She answered his sign with another, rapid, graceful, and meaning. He left his horse and advanced to her, holding out his hand simply, for he was a simple and honest man. Her response to this was spontaneous. The warmth of her fingers invaded him. Her eyes were full of questionings. He gave a hearty sign of admiration. She flushed with pleasure, but made a naïve, protesting gesture. She was deaf and dumb.

Talton had once a sister who was a mute. He knew that amazing primal gesture-language of this silent race whom God has blown like one-winged birds into the world. He had watched on his sister just such looks of absolute nature as flashed from this girl. They were comrades on the instant: he, reverential, gentle, protective; she, sanguine, candid, beautifully aboriginal in the freshness of her cipher thoughts. She saw the world naked, with a naked eye. She was utterly natural. She was the maker of exquisite, vital gesture-speech.

She glided out from among the May-apples and the long silken grass, to charm his horse with her hand. As she started to do so, he hastened to prevent her, but, utterly surprised, he saw the horse whinny to her cheek, and arch his neck under her white palm—it was very white. Then the animal's chin sought her shoulder and stayed placid. It had never done so to any one before save Talton. Once, indeed, it had kicked a stableman to death. It lifted its head and caught with playful, shaking lips at her ear. Talton smiled: and so, as we said, their comradeship began.

He was a new officer of the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Guidon. She was the daughter of a ranchman. She had been educated by Father Corraine, the Jesuit missionary, Protestant though she was. He had learned the sign-language while assistant-priest in a Parisian chapel for mutes. He taught her this gesture-tongue, which she, taking, rendered divine; and with this she learned to read and write.

Her name was Ida.

Ida was faultless. Talton was not; but no man is. To her, however, he was the best that man can be. He was unselfish and altogether honest; and that is much for a man not a saint.

When Pierre came to know of their friendship he shook his head doubtfully. One day he was sitting on the hot side of a pine near his mountain-hut, soaking the sun. He saw them passing below him, along the edge of the hill across the ravine. He said to some one behind him in the shade, who was looking also: "What will be the end of that, eh?"

And the some one replied: "Faith, what the Serpent in the Wilderness couldn't cure."

"You think he'll play with her?"

"I think he'll do it without wishin' or willin', maybe. It'll be a case of kiss and ride away."

There was silence. Soon Pierre pointed down again. She stood upon a green mound with a cool hedge of rock behind her, her feet on a margin of solid sunlight, her forehead bared. Her hair sprinkled round her as she gently threw back her head. Her face was full on Talton. She was telling him something. Her gestures were rhythmical, and adorably balanced. Because they were continuous or only regularly broken, it was clear she was telling him a story. Talton gravely, delightedly, nodded response now and then, or raised his eyebrows in fascinated surprise. Pierre, watching, was only aware of vague impressions—not any distinct outline of the tale. At last he guessed it as a perfect pastoral—birds, hunting, deer, winds, sun-dials, cattle, shepherds, reaping. To Talton it was a new revelation. She was telling him things she had thought; she was recalling her life.

Towards the last she said, or gestured: "You can forget the winter but not the spring. You like to remember the spring. It is the beginning. When the daisy first peeps, when the tall young deer first stands upon its feet, when the first egg is seen in the oriole's nest, when the sap first sweats from the tree, when you first look into the eye of your friend: these you want to remember. . . . .

She paused upon this gesture—a light touch upon the forehead, then the hands stretched out, palms upward, with coaxing fingers. She seemed lost in it. Her eyes rippled, her lips pressed slightly, a delicate wine crept through her cheek, and tenderness wimpled all. She glided slowly from that almost statue-like repose into another gesture. Her eyes drew up from his, and looked away to plumbless distance, all glowing and childlike, and the new ciphers slowly said:

"But the spring dries away. We can only see a thing born once. And it may be ours, yet not ours. I have sighted the perfect Sharon-flower far upon Guidon, yet it was not mine; it was too distant; I could not reach it. I have seen the silver bullfinch floating along the cañon. I called to it and it came singing, and it was mine; yet I could not hear its song: and I let it go: it could not be happy so with me. . . . I stand at the gate of a great city, and see all and feel the great shuttles of sound—the roar and clack of wheels, the horse's hoofs striking the ground, the hammer of bells; all: and yet it is not mine—it is far far away from me. It is one world, mine is another; and sometimes it is lonely, and the best things are not for me. But I have seen them, and it is pleasant to remember, and nothing can take from us the hour when things were born, when we saw the spring—nothing—never!"

Her manner of speech, as this went on, became exquisite in fineness, slower, and more dreamlike, until with downward protesting motions of the hand she said that "nothing—never!" Then a great sigh surged up her throat; her lips parted slightly, showing the warm, moist whiteness of her teeth; her hands, falling lightly, drew together and folded in front of her. She stood still.

Pierre had watched this scene intently: his chin in his hands, his elbows on his knees. Presently he drew himself up, ran a finger meditatively along his lip, and said to himself: "It is perfect. She is carved from the core of Nature. But this thing has danger for her . . . . well . . . . ah!"

A change in the scene before him caused this last expression of surprise.

Talton, rousing from the enchanting pantomime, took a step towards her; but she waved her hand pleadingly, restrainingly, and he paused. With his eyes he asked her mutely why? She did not answer; but, all at once transformed into a thing of abundant sprightliness, ran down the hill-side, tossing up her arms gaily. Yet her face was not all brilliance. Tears hung at her eyes. But Talton did not see these. He did not run, but walked quickly, following her; and his face had a determined look. Immediately a man rose up from behind a rock on the same side of the ravine, and shook clenched fists after the departing figures. Then he stood gesticulatingly angrily to himself, until, chancing to look up, he sighted Pierre, and straightway dived into the underbrush. Pierre rose to his feet, and said slowly; "Talton, there may be trouble for you, also. It is a tangled world."

Towards evening, Pierre sauntered to the house of Ida's father. Light of footstep, he came upon the girl suddenly. They had always been friends since the days when, at uncommon risk, he rescued her dog from a freshet on the Wild Moose River. She was sitting utterly still, her hands folded in her lap. He struck his foot smartly on the ground. She felt the vibration, and looked up. He doffed his hat and she held out her hand He smiled, and took it, and as it lay in his, looked at it for a moment, musingly. She drew it back slowly. He was thinking that it was the most intelligent hand he had ever seen . . . . He determined to play a bold and surprising game. He had learned from her the alphabet of the fingers—that is, how to spell words. He knew little gesture-language. He therefore spelled slowly: "Hawley is angry because you love Talton."

The statement was so matter-of-fact, so sudden, that the girl had no chance. She flushed, and then paled. She shook her head firmly, however, and her finger slowly framed the reply; "You guess too much. Foolish things come to the idle."

"I saw you this afternoon," he slightly urged.

Her fingers trembled slightly. "There was nothing to see." She knew he could not have read her gestures. "I was telling a story."

"You ran from him—why?" This questioning was cruel that he might, in the end, be kind.

"The child runs from its shadow, the bird from its nest, the fish jumps from the water—that is nothing." She had recovered somewhat. But he: "The shadow follows the child, the bird comes back to its nest, the fish cannot live beyond the water. But it is sad when the child, in running, rushes into darkness and loses its shadow; when the nest falls from the tree; and the hawk catches the happy fish . . . . Hawley saw you also."

Hawley, like Ida, was deaf and dumb. He lived over the mountains, but came often. It had been understood that, one day, she should marry him. It seemed fitting. She had said neither yes nor no. And now?

A quick tremor of trouble trailed over her face, then it became very still. Her eyes bended upon the ground steadily. Presently a bird hopped near, its head coquetting at her. She ran her hand gently along the grass towards it. The bird tripped on it. She lifted it to her chin, at which it picked tenderly. Pierre watched her keenly—admiring, pitying. He wished to serve her. At last, with a kiss upon its head, she gave it a light toss into air, and it soared, lark-like, straight up, and, hanging overhead, sang the day into the evening. Her eyes followed it. She could feel that it was singing. She smiled, and lifted a finger lightly to- wards it. Then she spelled to Pierre this; "It is singing to me. We imperfect things love each other."

"And what about loving Hawley, then?" Pierre persisted.

She did not reply; but a strange look came upon her, and in the pause Talton came from the house and stood beside them. At this Pierre lighted a cigarette, and with a good-natured nod to Talton walked away.

Talton stooped over her, pale and eager, "Ida," he gestured, "will you answer me now? Will you be my wife?"

She drew herself together with a little shiver. "No," was her steady reply. She ruled her face into stillness, so that it showed nothing of what she felt. She came to her feet wearily, and drawing down a cool flowering branch of chestnut, pressed it to her cheek.

"You do not love me?" he asked nervously.

"I am going to marry Luke Hawley," was her slow answer. She spelled the words. She used no gesture to that. The fact looked terribly hard, and inflexibly so. Talton was not a vain man, and he believed he was not loved. His heart crowded to his throat.

"Please go away now," she begged, with an anxious gesture. While the hand was extended, he reached and brought it to his lips, then quickly kissed her on the forehead, and walked away. She stood trembling, and as the fingers of one hand hung at her side they spelled mechanically these words: "It would spoil his life; I am only a mute—a dummy!"

As she stood so, she felt the approach of some one. She did not turn instantly, but, with the aboriginal instinct, listened, as it were, with her body; but presently faced about—to Hawley. He was red with anger. He had seen Talton kiss her. Less one of his faculties, he had proportionately less self-restraint. He caught her smartly by the arm, but, awed by the great calmness of her face, dropped it, and fell into a fit of sullenness. She spoke to him: he did not reply. She touched his arm: he still gloomed. All at once the full price of her sacrifice rushed upon her, and overpowered her. She had no help at her critical hour, not even from this man she had intended to bless. There came a swift revulsion, all passions stormed in her at once. Despair was the resultant of these forces. She swerved from him immediately, and ran hard towards the high-banked river!

Hawley did not follow her at once: he did not guess her purpose.

She had almost reached the leaping-place when Pierre shot from the trees and seized her. The impulse of this was so strong that they slipped, and quivered on the precipitous edge; but Pierre righted them, and presently they were safe.

Pierre held her hard by both wrists for a moment. Then, drawing her away, he loosed her, and spelled these words slowly: "I understand. But you are wrong. Hawley is not the man. You must come with me. It is foolish to die."

The riot of her feelings, momentary despair, were gone. It was even pleasant to be mastered by Pierre's firmness. She was passive. Mechanically she went with him. Hawley approached. She looked at Pierre. Then she turned on the other. "Yours is not the best love," she signed to him; "it does not trust; it is selfish." And she moved on.

But an hour later Talton caught her to his bosom and kissed her full on the lips . . . . And his right to do so continues to this day.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.