The Guardian at the Gates

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The Guardian at the Gates  (1907) 
by Arthur Stringer

Extracted from Ainslee's magazine, 1907 Oct pp. 80–86. Accompanying illustrations may be omitted.


The GUARDIAN AT THE GATES

By Arthur Stringer


IT was a gray day. Crombie paced the wet deck of the Dravonia—paced it with that grimly, incongruous feverishness of movement into which sheer listlessness can sometimes flower. The huge liner and all it held, swinging there in the outer harbor of Gibraltar, lay blanketed in the humid and disheartening heaviness of the levanter that had followed at their heels, from Tunisian littoral and Algerian coast, right on to the Rock itself.

The pacing figure, touched into some untimely youthfulness by the close-fitting blue-and-gold Cunarder uniform, stopped only once, at the rail amidships, to gaze abstractedly down at the twelve hundred huddled lives of the lower steerage-deck, at the crowded yet unrelated groups of Hungarian and Russian peasants over whom, for the time being, he stood guardian. Then he turned away wearily, and peered out at the dark and sullen line of the African coast. He watched the fine and almost imperceptible rain drift down and screen off the blurring mass of the Morocco hills, and then shut out the yellow-green slopes of Spain, still dappled with sunlight beyond Algeciras, and then lower its universal gray curtain before the frowning galleries of the sentinel Rock, and envelope the town and the wharves and the still nearer shipping. Suddenly the somber liner and its lives seemed to lie there, enisled in an isolating and limitless emptiness.

He himself was as old as Africa, was the thought that went through the pacing surgeon’s mind, as listlessly he heard the officer’s whistle; the muffled call of voices from the bridge, the clank and whine of the straining anchor-cables. That meant they were getting under way, leading eastward and for the Atlantic once more. And movement was better than nothing.

It was then, as he wheeled about on the deserted deck, that he first caught sight of her. She had come out to the ship alone, at the last moment, rowed by a barefooted Spanish boatman. She had crept aboard with no word or warning to signal her approach, emerging from the engulfing mist as unheralded as though she had winged her way there, spiritlike, from unknown and alien worlds.

She panted a little, as she followed her boxes up the wet ship’s ladder, clinging to the sodden coat-sleeve of the young officer who had scurried down to the landing-platform at her first bewildered call. It seemed both a symbol and a reminiscence, that flying descent of the young officer; she had, in some way, always held men at that quietly imperious call.

Crombie noticed that she was dressed all in gray. Her eyes, too, seemed the same quiet and brooding gray. Even the soft oval of her face, through the minute, warm rain that now shrouded everything, seemed gray, a wan and whitish gray that sent a vague spear of apprehension through him. But he watched her, after the first startled and involuntary catch of his breath, without a motion and without a sign. And if she, in turn, saw and realized the figure not twelve paces away from her, no token of it escaped her, as the other’s eyes followed her familiarly half-hesitating figure as it crossed the deck and disappeared into the deeper shadows of the companionway.

Then, with a passionate compression of the jaw-muscles on either lean temple, and an almost convulsive upthrust of each shoulder, he turned on his heel and plunged below-stairs, into the thick of the crowded and huddled humanity that could still leave him so keenly and ironically alone, segregated there with the tumult of his own stampeding thoughts.

For the woman who had come up the ship’s ladder, out of the fog that seemed to leave all the rest of the world phantasmal and far away, was his divorced wife.

In life, then, he told himself, even the widest divergent circles must some time and somewhere impinge. For it was she, the small and seemingly suppliant figure in gray, the centralized yet fragile embodiment of all those unforgotten and unforgettable forces which had once hurled him like a lost star into the very outlands of space, which had once wrested him from his sober anchorage of material and moral well-being, and left him wandering, derelict-like, along the outer sea-lanes of existence, along the lonelier coasts of endeavor.

She had wrecked his life—that was all he knew, and cared to know. That they should meet, and, above all, meet in such a manner and under such circumstances, had never entered his battling and embittered mind. It was more than preposterous; it was cruel. The sheer fortuitousness of her presence on the same ship with him carried with it a touch of theatricality, it was so appositely inapposite, so ironic in its unpremeditated mésalliance of time and place. That the tides of chance should fling them thus together, after he had given her such a wide berth, after he had given her two continents to herself, made it seem that destiny took some tacit delight in twisting the blade even after it had probed its deepest. It filled him with a sense of being haunted and dogged by fate.

Then he drew himself up suddenly, and asked why he should care, why he could not, as other men would do, school himself to look upon it as a mere contretemps of the moment. But some starved and fugitive feeling, kenneled deep in his soul, refused, even at his own command, to creep into the light. She had wrecked his life—that was all he knew, and cared to know.


II.

It was some four hours later, when they were well out in the Atlantic, that Cummings, the English stewardess, came to him with the message that he was wanted by one of the first-cabin passengers. Some wayward and intuitive prompting warned him, even as the words first fell on his ears, from what quarter that call was to come.

“Who is the passenger?” he asked, nevertheless, turning to the woman in the doorway.

“It’s the lady who came aboard alone, sir, at Gibraltar!”

For one moment of silence he looked at the blank white walls of the room, with studious and unseeing eyes. Then he turned and followed the stewardess down the long narrow passageway.

His outward embarrassment, he felt, would be only a thing of the moment. Whatever inner tumult of feeling: still surged through him would remain unreleased and inarticulate. His face was a mask; the subjugating and repressional training of that profession which ordained that grave crises must be met impassively and impersonally asserted itelf. The only betraying sign, as he stepped through the narrow white door, was the colorlessness of his immobile face.

Then he looked at the woman propped up against the pillows on the narrow berth. The solemn concentration of her eyes, for one fleeting moment, almost put his calmness to rout. Then his part came back to him once more, and he stooped a little toward her. The movement was one of silent interrogation.

“It’s too bad to trouble you,” she began evenly, although her eyes. still studied his thin and impassive face.

For answer, he took the wrist that lay weakly over the berth side.

“It’s too bad, I know,” she repeated, with her gray smile and her quiet, even voice. “But I’m afraid I’m rather ill!”

His eyebrows went up as he counted the crazy pulse.

“Yes, you are, rather,” he answered, as he took out his clinic thermometer.

Muffled and far away the ship’s bell sounded; some one, passing down the companionway, burst into a peal of laughter. After a minute of unbroken silence he read the thermometer. He read it with still unbetraying eyes, but as he did so he wondered what, in this case, would take the. place of that graduated jocularity down which he could so often usher a patient into the abysmal darkness of vast and impending danger. There was no longer, he knew, any menace of emotionalism in their meeting; there could now be no subversive side issues. Some sudden yet nameless transformation of spirit crept over him as he looked from the tiny glass tube to the pale ivory of her skin; and for the first time he found courage to study the shadowy gray eyes, still watching his face.

“Don’t be afraid to tell me—anything,” she said.

“How long have you suffered this way?” he parried.

She pushed her tumbled hair back with one white hand.

“For nearly a month. It was first at Madrid, I think; then at Granada; and at Algeciras a Spanish doctor wanted to operate. But I put it off.”

“Why did you put it off?”

He watched her studious face, but it seemed inscrutable to him.

“You know how I always put off everything,” she answered, with the ghost of a smile he remembered from other years.

There, he told himself fiercely, was the reiterated note; there was the old, insistent trait of her character—to toy, carelessly and smilingly, with the profundities of life. She was almost laughing in the face of what lay before her, in the shadow of what lay behind her. It wrung from him his next blunt question.

“But did no one tell you what it meant—this putting it off?”

Her fingers toyed with the white coverlet.

“Yes, they did, but still I put it off.”

She looked at him suddenly, with wide-eyed solemnity.

“Is it too late?” she demanded quietly.

Her wan tranquillity seemed to drape everything about him in a veil of unreality. It seemed to challenge brutal plain speaking, to shock her into some due knowledge of the grim truth.

“That’s what I’ve got to find out!” he blurted out.

She turned her head slowly.

“You mean that you must operate?”

“Even that I’ve got to find out!”

There was a moment’s silence.

“I can trust you,” she said, with the ingenuous directness of a child.

The momentary tremulousness of her voice—for his eyes were averted from her face—pierced him with a needle of sublimated anguish. He turned suddenly to the door to shield his confusion, and called to the stewardess, who still waited outside.

“Cummings, go to the steerage dispensary and tell Doctor Kaposvar to look after the obstetrical case in the midships ward. I'll be busy here for an hour.”

The mask, by this time, was readjusted, the part remastered. When he turned to the narrow berth, he saw not a woman, but a wan and broken body; a frail citadel at the gates of which he might have to stand a stern and vigilant sentinel.


III.

It was an hour later that Cummings returning to the cabin with hot water, heard the woman in the berth say: “Then it ought to be at once?”

“It’s got to be at once or not at all!” was the surgeon’s answer.

“And we're twelve days, you say, in crossing?”

“Yes, twelve, or more. We take the winter route at this season, go south of the Azores, and straight west on a line with Bermuda. That, at least, is something in your favor.”

“Then if I could wait for twelve days,” she began hopefully, “I’m not afraid of a little pain——

“That’s just the problem,” he broke in. “It might be the exception that comes every now and then to prove the rule. You might fight it off until you got to New York, into a properly equipped hospital—but, candidly, the chance is only one in a hundred. And it is these chances that surgery dares not take.”

She moved her head slowly up and down, as though in perfect comprehension.

“Then why do you hesitate?” she demanded, in her pallid, impersonal way.

Why did he hesitate? Great God! how was he to tell her that? How could he ever hope to make it plain to her, if she could not see it? If she could not understand the stinging cruelty of it all, if she could not comprehend what every moment of such a thing would cost him, or what that terrible and intimate hour had already cost him, how could he lay bare his inmost heart, and dissect it before her studious and disimpassioned eyes?

“I always thought you were a fighter!” she said at last.

It was the first touch of her old spirit. It suggested to him the last shot from a fortress with its ammunition exhausted. It reminded him of that old-time artillery of humor against which he had once found it so hard to make a stand. They were so different, so sharply contradictory in temperament. She had always laughed at his Scottish solemnity, as she used to call it. Yes, it was true that he was a fighter—and he had fought him. Yet if she had only once capitulated, he felt, his will would have been as clay in her hands.

Even now, as his eyes rested on the huddled and slender body, he felt that she was sounding her strongest note of appeal. Through this enforced humility she was acquiring strength. It was in her surrendering helplessness that she lay most powerful. It was, perhaps, the penalty of his dominant and undisciplined strength; for, like all strong men, he could pay tribute only to weakness. Yet she had scorned to stoop to that immemorial subterfuge; her pride, he knew, had been as strong as his own. Perhaps, after all, she felt more than she expressed—and he winced suddenly at certain wayward memories of her past tendernesses.

He found himself taking her wrist again, without any thought of the ragged pulse that beat under his finger. He wondered why it had always been so hard for him to be honest and outspoken with her.

“Then the longer we wait the—the less chance there is?” she was asking him, bravely enough.

He nodded his head in silent assent. She looked about the little cabin as though taking her last comprehensive view of life.

“Then I would rather you did it—at once!” she told him quietly.

“But why me?” he burst out.

The very calmness with which she could thrust him into that arena of anguish, the very heartlessness with which she could confront him with that trial, infinitely more exacting that any ordeal by fire, swept back the tides of pity that had been softening and submerging all those granite memories of the past.

“I would rather it was you,” she answered him slowly. “Oh, for so many reasons! Five years ago, when you came back from Vienna—and I said you were so full of airs—Uncle Ezra said you were the most fearless surgeon in New York. And don’t you remember I said ‘Yes, and the most fearful husband’? And then I’d rather it was over with. I’ve put it off, and suffered so much, and waited for you so long.”

“You waited for me—for this?” he cried, dropping her limp wrist.

She turned to him with a new and deeper studiousness in her eyes. He forced himself to return her gaze, though he was swept by the consciousness that he was being weighed and found worthy, or wanting. Then he flushed painfully, for the pitiful light of commiseration that crept over her face warned him that some unuttered verdict had gone against him.

“But, great God, I am your husband!” he ejaculated.

“You were my husband!” she corrected him gently.

That was the truth—he had been her husband; all ties and feelings against which he had been foolishly bruising himself were things of the past. These she herself had lost sight of and disregarded—in that alone, he told himself, lay the proof of how little she had felt and known, from the first, of that tangled and tumultuous thing called love, which could be vast and all-consuming while it was rebellious and small; which could move darkly and in strange ways. And there lay his own fault—he had never been honest enough with her.

But now he found himself confronted by the possibility of a grim and ultimate amendment for all those past evasions. She had depolarized and depersonalized herself; and in that, he felt, lay her body’s salvation. He saw before him only the small and pallid battle-ground of what would be two fiercely conflicting forces; one ruddy and defensive, one pallid and insidiously beleaguering. And the one he must captain and direct against the other, until at last the field was cleared and the victory lost or won. It was Science before whom he stood now; Science astral-eyed, cold-handed, implacably willed; the unassailed and invulnerable guardian of the flame. She had eliminated the personal equation. He would do it—and do it at once!

He would act as that calm and merciless goddess ordained; it was nothing more than a casual accident of time and place that the pulsing body beside him caged mysteries that made or unmade his world. There would even be involvement and complication, he told himself, but he would cut and intrude ruthlessly, without shrinking and timidity, as that cold and exacting goddess should demand. Then he wondered, in a little panic of apprehension, if he had enough ether on board, and whether or not his new bistuaries had been left behind.

He was thinking, too, how much fairer it might have been, if they were on a regular liner, on a modern and properly equipped ship with a first cabin hospital-room and every convenience.

As it was, he would have to have the midships dispensary scrubbed down and the operating-table brought up from the steerage ward. As for Kaposvar, he was all but useless; he was so slow and thick-skulled that three cases of tricoma had got past him at Fiume. But Kaposvar could at least help him do the anesthetizing; he could not afford to wear himself out with that mere preparatory labor. And there would be Cummings to attend to the instruments.

“You'll do it?” she asked him, from where she waited on the narrow berth.

“Yes,” he answered bruskly, but with averted eyes. “To-day—at once!”


IV.

He came back into the cabin, ostensibly to close the port-hole and shut out the heavy fog; in reality, for what might, perhaps, be a valedictory word with her.

“You have friends on board?” he asked, as he stood facing the closed window.

He wheeled about when she did not answer, and looked at her gray face.

“I mean, isn’t there somebody here you might like to talk things over with?”

She shook her head.

“Nobody,” she answered. Then she was silent.

“You must be brave,” he began inadequately, to keep up the front of his rigid self-possession.

“I’m not afraid,” she answered again, with wan unconcern.

“But is there no one at home, in New York, to whom you would like word sent? We're equipped with wireless, you know, and any message could be sent along from ship to ship!”

“I'd rather not until it was all over!”

He opened his lips to speak, but remained hesitatingly silent. She was being brave enough; she had won her battle already; it was he himself who had still to try and test his strength. Outside, through the darkening afternoon mist, the fog-horn began to sound hoarsely. At each slow blast it seemed to tear a hole in the lonely silence.

“Is there anything you can tell me, beforehand, to make me steadier, to make it easier for you, I mean?” she was asking him.

He fought back the words that leaped first to his lips—for that way he knew madness to lie.

“No, I’m afraid there’s nothing much; your part is over, you see, when once you’ve taken the ether!” He smiled down at her confidently, though joylessly. “And you mustn't call us names, afterward, if we don’t give you ice-water to drink for a while. You will want it—well, very badly.”

“I'll try,” she said, a little wistfully. Then she sighed. “After all, we live through the things we’re denied, don’t we?”

“Have you ever taken ether?” he began again, still temporizing, in the very teeth of his better judgment.

“Yes, once before, at home, when was thrown in the bridle-path. thought I was standing on a prairie station platform, and I heard a train rumbling nearer, away off in the distance. Then it came closer and closer, and grew louder and louder. And I remember that the moment it should have flashed past me, on the platform, was exactly the moment I couldn’t remember anything more.”

The silence that fell over them again was broken by the entrance of the English stewardess.

“Cummings here will help you—er—get ready,” he said, with assumed nonchalance.

“That’s very good of her,” said the woman on the berth gratefully.

Her wide, ruminative gray eyes followed him to the door, where he stopped short.

“And you're sure there’s nothing more?” he asked.

“I should like to leave a letter,” she answered.

“With me?”

“No, I shall leave it with Cummings,” she said deliberately.

He was almost grateful for the pang of cheated rage that swept over him. It seemed, at one stroke, to divest him of that entangling emotionalism of which he still stood in such vague dread. It was an antidote for his inner tempest of misery; a stern reminder that she was merely the patient and he the surgeon,

He looked at her for the last time, not as a sensate being pulsing with dreams and memories and aspirations, not as a soft and beseeching body of ivory veined with delicate violet; but he looked at her with that terrible impersonal candor with which a chemist might view the fragile glass in which were to mix and contend two grimly antagonistic fluids. Somewhere, he knew, on the cold heights of destiny, the die was already cast; it was already ordained which of those two mysterious forces, life or death, should win the day in that frail shell of flesh.

“You are brave—awfully brave!” he flung out suddenly, with a touch of heat that brought her slow gaze back to him once more.

She smiled at him valiantly as he hurried through the door.

Then she began to braid her hair neatly, in two long ropes that hung heavily down on either side of her white face.


V.

Crombie, pacing the lonely deck in the first gray of the fog-bound morning, still carried on his worn and haggard face the marks of a sleepless night. Yet at the roots of his shadowy, febrile mood of misery stirred some vague and subliminal sense of joy. It was something more than the tangible and material triumph of the operator—for he knew now that with care and watchfulness she would surely live—it was something that lay deeper than the mere knowledge of a stern and crucial task relentlessly and undeviatingly carried out. It was something that taught him that this cryptic thing called consciousness, however schooled and disciplined, was more than cold will and effort; that it was shot through and tangled and complicated with emotion and passion; with dim but inalienable ecstasies and upgushings of feeling.

She would live; and, although again, and again he warned himself that it could mean little or nothing to him, he still wrung his fierce, unreasoning joy from it.

Then still again, with that painful lucidity of thought which marked his feverish wakefulness, he rehearsed the scenes of that terrible two hours of the night before, from her fluttering laugh of ““What a bare little room,” from the momentary sting of mental anguish, as inapposite as it was unlooked for, when he first lifted the muscles of the pathetically flaccid eyelid and touched the insensate eyeball and made note of the darkened gray of the iris; from the picture of Cummings, in white duck, with her sleeves rolled up, handing the glimmering steel to and from the enameled tray, to Kaposvar, with his great, hairy hand on the smaller, relaxed head, busy with the saturated cap, crying out that he could keep her under no longer; still on to his own defiant declaration that when he was doing the job he would do it right; on to that last outwardly calm but inwardly terrible ten minutes, with Kaposvar growling his guttural warnings to let it go, while he still kept doggedly on, in the teeth of suspended destiny, until he knew he had done what had to be done, until the gray shadows crept over the inert head, and he flung down the knife, and Kaposvar stepped back and wiped the sweat from his face, while he called sharply for the salt solution and prepared for the coaptation sutures, even as the frail sword of life and thought and feeling crept back into what had been the empty sheath of a body. He remembered Kaposvar’s relieved grunt of admiration as he threaded the last curved needle; he remembered his sudden, mysterious sense of vast pity for that slender and valiantly battling body, for which it was already out of his power to do more, as he swathed and bandaged and watched the first fluttering sigh of reanimating consciousness.

He felt that they had been kindred and close in that terrible hour; yet with that sacred rehabilitation she had reasserted her right of a woman, and he fell back, all life fell back, to what it had been before.

Yet his life, during those last years, had been full enough of meetings and partings; he had learned to walk alone; every life, in fact, must learn to go on alone, as isolated and uncompanioned as that lonely ship on which he stood, with its fog-horn calling desolately through the gray emptiness that engulfed it.

He looked at the letter which Cummings had thrust into his hands early that morning as he had sent her to bed with a white face and a trional tablet. He noticed, with widening eves, that the sealed envelope bore his own name. A moment later he was reading it:


What is before me simplifies everything so much. I don’t think I am a coward, any longer, in the face of that truth which you and I have always been so afraid of. I am making it hard for you, perhaps, as once, before you understood, I felt you made it hard for me. But I did this because, through everything, have always loved you, and I still love you. I have made mistakes, but not the mistakes that you think. You, too, have made mistakes of pride, and silence, and evasion; but all that is over now. If I did not feel so alone, now, so without some one to turn to, I would never tell you this. But, you see, after all I am till a coward.


“All that is over now!” He repeated the phrase vacantly, stunned and bewildered by the words before him. Then the glow of a poignant and compelling gratitude crept through all his tired body. His face, illuminated, was turned toward the open sea.

“Oh, thank God!” he cried fervently “Thank God that she didn’t tell me, or I could never have saved her!” For now he knew that the personal equation was once more asserting itself.

Of a sudden, the great ship that plunged on so alone and uncompanioned and engulfed in heavy fog, gave utterance to its lonely call across the Deep. And somewhere out of the silence, unseen and faint and far away, some groping sister ship gave answer to the lonely call.

Then he went below to his wife.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 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.