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Title: The Garden In Asia Author: Melville Davisson Post * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1801181h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2018 Most recent update: December 2018 This eBook was produced by: Ramesh Chakrapani Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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"Come to the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!"
It had come on to rain. Night was approaching, and I was lost. I had been a guest of the Marquis de Brie at the hunt in the southeast of Belgium. The meet at the château had been in the afternoon for the convenience of the guests of the Marquis, who came out from Brussels. It was late before the hounds picked up a fox, and then there had been a mad run.
I was unfamiliar with the country, and by one of those accidents common in the field, I had got separated from the hunt.
There had been a high timber jump. In the take-off my horse slipped, and I feared that he had received a strained tendon. I got down to look, for I valued the horse, and in my concern the field passed. The horse seemed all right. But I was unable again to come up with the hunt, and I was lost.
I set out to return to the château, following that instinct of direction which every man imagines himself to possess. But it was an unfortunate undertaking as is usually the case with these vaunted instincts.
I had the feeling that I passed more than one time through fields that I remembered. At any rate, night was coming on, and a worse thing presented itself. The hunter had been injured in that unfortunate timber jump. He began to save his leg a bit—everybody knows the indications.
Of course I was not in a deserted country. There were peasant houses about, and the great windmills—that primitive institution of the flat country, serving the peasant farmer as the mountain torrent served to turn the grist mill of the Virginia settler. Our fathers had big conceptions of the uses of the elemental forces. They harnessed the water and the winds.
But I could get no direction from the Belgian peasant.
The Fleming and the Walloon spoke no language that I could understand; and, of course, English was a simian jabber to them.
I have no idea in what direction I traveled, nor precisely how I came into the road I determined to follow. It was not a highway. It was a sort of lane running along by an immense wood, carpeted with grass and unkempt, for occasionally there was the branch of a forest tree in it.
I had gotten down out of the saddle. It was all the horse could do to limp along, and I at least had two good legs under me.
I walked by the horse's bridle.
The road continued; and presently, in the dim light, I observed that it followed a great fence: a fence of iron spikes as high as a man could reach sitting in the saddle. It was fastened into cement pillars, and it seemed to enclose all the lands off to my right.
I took it to be a great parked estate. The wood beyond the fence was cleared of brush, and I could sometimes see the extension of a meadow. It was beyond question some great estate.
And I took courage from that observation.
There would perhaps be some friend of the Marquis, or at least someone with a knowledge of the hunt, and if I were not put up for the night, I would at least get some direction that would set me intelligently on the road.
I followed along the great spiked fence, expecting to find an entrance. There would be some way to go in at no inconsiderable distance. But the hope dwindled. We went on—the unused road paralleling the great parked estate, but shut out by this immense, forbidding fence.
I must have traveled for several miles along that fence enclosing this estate, but I never found a place that a fox could go through or a mark that indicated that any human creature had ever endeavored to pass.
And there was no gate.
I began to wonder what the accursed thing could be that this immense wall of spearheads enclosed, and I felt myself confronted by one of two discouraging alternatives: to sit down on a fallen log by my horse until the day arrived or walk on in the rain.
I walked on.
Discomforts do not seem to be so acute when they accompany us in action. I could not sit in a Belgian drizzle with a miserable horse. And that wall of spikes went on, as though it were a sort of wall of the world, as though I had come by some door through the hill to the boundary of a forbidden country.
Finally I did find a light off to the left, and I turned out toward it. I could not have gone on, at any rate, for the road turned that way. The tangled wood that I feared to find, in fact, appeared here as the outside border of the great spiked wall that went straight on as though it had been surveyed from the French border to the North Sea.
I supposed I followed the road for a mile at right angles to the estate. I was now able to see the light. It was like a gleam of a candle in a window; sometimes the brush, or a turn in the road, shut it out. But it seemed always before me at the end of the road; and there was, in fact, nothing to do but go on. It was now so dark that I was hardly able to keep in the road—I with the miserable, lame horse. I was wet to the skin and a rather ugly human creature when I finally came to the light. It was a house sitting on the rise of a hill.
I had a strange feeling as I pounded on the door with my riding crop. The house was lighted, and the angles of it had shut off from the road all but one light in the window by the door. My impression of it was that I had wandered out of modern reality into some romance. The thing did not seem real. I felt as though by some turn I had got out of the world as I knew it.
It was a tavern with the setting of Dumas. The door was opened by a little Walloon, dressed like a miller, except that his cap was off and he wore an apron. Behind him, seated by a big oak table that stood out in the room from a peat fire, was the strangest human creature I have ever met. He was a big, old man with an immense head; a head as bald as a gravestone—there was not a fringe of hair on it. He had a heavy face, a big crooked nose, and sharp eyes. The eyes were heavy-lidded; but there was no mistaking the alert intelligence that they indicated.
The man was waiting for his dinner. I don't think he was pleased to see a stranger enter. For a moment he looked surprised, I thought, or disconcerted: put out in some manner. Perhaps it was only annoyance. And then, when he had a better look at me, he got up.
I had given my horse to the Walloon. He said he had stabling and fodder for it. I seemed to be able to understand the sort of French he gabbled in. In dreams and in the countries of romance we always understand in any dialect that is spoken. At any rate, I understood the Walloon, and I trusted the horse to him. And then I stood in the door, my riding boots spattered with mud and the rain running in tiny rivulets from my top hat and the creases of my riding coat.
The old man leaned on the table and looked at me.
"Come in," he said. "There will be dinner for two and a fire to dry you. It will be better to be wet inside than out on a night like this." I thought he was going to laugh, but it was only the shadow of a laugh. It began along the border of his great thin-lipped mouth. It was a firm mouth, for all the heavy face.
The mouth and the eyes determined me. I began to explain what had happened; how I had managed to arrive here.
"Can you tell me into what part of the world I have wandered?" I said. He did laugh then: a laugh that did not disturb the massive features; a laugh like a shadow passing over a wall.
"You have wandered into Asia," he said.
I thought the man was mad, but not entirely mad. You will have to try to understand the state of mind I was in. You see, that feeling of unreality had very nearly dominated the whole of my intelligence. You will have to think about that to get any conception of how this reply impressed me, I did not wholly reject it. I had explained pretty fully all that had happened to me and the way I had come. I put another query before I asked him to amend his answer. "What is the great estate to the right of the road: the one with the huge spiked fence along it?" The smile repassed over his face. To be accurate, it came back over it.
"That is not an estate," he said: "that is a garden."
"A garden," I echoed.
"Yes," he said, "the Garden of Eden...You are in Asia."
I took off my wet top hat; I put my riding crop down beside it and went over to the fire. The old man sat down in his chair before the table. He continued to regard me sharply through the corners of his heavy-lidded eyes, but he did not say anything. He gave some directions to the Walloon, who came in just then. And that creature of romance placed a second chair beyond the table and put out his plates for another guest for the dinner he was roasting in his kitchen. The odors of it came through the door. The dinner would compensate for any sort of madness.
I think the big old man had been waiting a long time for that dinner to be prepared. And the Walloon had taken a lot of care with it, as for an imperial guest. Fortunately, it was abundant, for it served two—a hungry man who had ridden to hounds and this other.
My host was courteous.
"I know the Marquis de Brie," he said, "and the hunt, but it does not belong here. It is in the world. It is on the Continent of Europe...It is in Belgium." He made a gesture, as of one indicating something beyond the land he was standing in.
"I am glad to be host to a guest of the Marquis," he said, "even when he wanders into Asia."
He paused. "Do you believe the Bible story of the Garden of Eden?"
I had a sudden flare of annoyance.
"I am not young enough to believe it," I said.
He looked at me a moment through his heavy-lidded eyes.
"You mean you are not old enough."
He beckoned me to the table, and we sat down. The wonderful roast fowl, the old wine, the incomparable salad put me in a better humor. The host permitted me to eat. I thought he was highly amused with me, but he did not take his amusement with a hungry man.
It was some time before he began to talk.
"There is a man and a woman in that garden," he said, when I had the comfort of that dinner and the warmth of a fire to put me in a better mood.
"Not the first man and the first woman...but it is the same garden."
Then he put a sharp query: "Do you believe in any of our mysterious religions?"
"I don't know," I said.
He passed his hand over his face at that.
"You don't know; you are too young. One has to be old to know. Perhaps one never gets old enough to know precisely."
He smiled again.
"Our greatest religion begins with a Garden in Asia. That is the base of it; that is the point it starts from, and it carries a warning that the young forget, but the old remember...There was the witch of Endor, and there were the creatures with familiar spirits; there was the magic of Pharaoh's magicians.
"You think it is not true? Have you ever considered the evidence to support it—the testimony of the Scriptures and the witness of every other early race?
"You know what the Akkadian Magi said about it: that all these formulas of magic—formulas by which the natural world was changed; by which the forms of men and beasts were changed, such as the magicians of Pharaoh assembled—were all written down in gold characters on six thousand ox hides and stored in the palace of Darius at Persepolis...But they were lost!"
He made a gesture with his hand over the table.
"I quote the Magi. 'The barbarian Alexander, penetrating into Asia, burned the palace at Persepolis with its contents, thereby wiping out in a day the sum of all human knowledge.'"
He removed his hand. It was hidden by the cloth. There was a cheap cloth on the table with an Oriental design.
"I wonder why we assume that all the early historians were liars. Are we so truthful ourselves?
"There is the testimony of every one of them to the things I say: the Scriptures, legends of early races; Arabian stories that have come down to us and the writings of every wise man.
"Take Herodotus if you like, or take the greatest modern legal mind in England...I mean Sir Matthew Hale. He said in his most famous opinion that there was nothing so thoroughly established in the world as witchcraft, for three reasons, which he named in their order. First, that it was so stated in the Scriptures; second, that all nations had made laws against it; and third, that the human testimony in its favor was overwhelming."
That shadow of a smile returned for an instant across his face.
"Do you know who I am?" he said.
I had been thinking all the while that I knew, but I could not precisely place this extraordinary personality. I remembered instantly when he said the name. Sir Godfrey Simon! Of course I knew him! Everybody knew him. He was the greatest alienist in England.
I regarded him now with a sort of wonder. What did he mean by all this Delphic discourse: witches, magic, a Garden in Asia?
Here was one of the cleverest men in the world; one of the shrewdest men; one of the hardest men to mislead in the world. He was at the head of one of the most difficult professions in the world: a profession that had to weigh and consider all kinds of delusions, all kinds of fairy belief, all kinds of imagined wizardry; a profession that must discover it and reject it; a profession that must discriminate, clean-cut and accurately, between the conceptions of sanity and the vast, shadowy realm of madness.
And he sat here in this fantastic place commending me to a belief in the most impossible legends; commending me to a belief in magic, in witches, in familiar spirits, in the properties that belong to the stories coming down to us from the baked earth in Arabia.
And he laid it all in our modern life, in our age of trams and spindles!
I tell you the story as he told me the story. You can believe what you please about it. But it was true. I am able to write my signature under that assurance. When you get on to the end you will believe me...
You have all heard of the Countess of Heatherstone—that unusual romance reversing the order of such adventures—an American girl who married an English title and a lot of money with it.
It is the only case I ever heard of.
The thing is usually the other way about, so you may remember it for that conspicuous element. But the Countess is not in this story. It is her brother, Arthur Letington, the American, that we are concerned with. Some of you may have met Letington about. He was not a usual person. He belonged with his sister to one of our old Southern families, a family with a queer streak in it—neurotic and not always normal.
I think it was his outdoor life that kept Letington fit. He went in for sports. He was keen after hounds, and he was one of the best polo players in the country; one of the best in England.
He was usually in England with his sister.
The Earl of Heatherstone was a canny Scotchman about his money. He did not like to see it get away from him, and usually it did not get away. He was one of the best men of business in England, for all of his being an earl.
And that is one of the causes, the inciting causes, as one might say it, of the extraordinary adventures I am coming to.
You see, Letington had no money and he had no profession. I suppose he had a bit of an income from somewhere, but nothing to speak of. I imagine his sister kept him going; mounted him in the hunts and backed the polo at Roehampton and Ranelagh. It might have gone on like that, but the earl had a notion that everybody should be useful, and so I suppose the thing in a manner adjusted itself, as such things have a way of doing.
At any rate, Letington found himself presently included in a business venture. Heatherstone had every sort of iron in the fire all over the British Empire; among other things, a little railway in a section of timber land in Canada. It was a short line, built primarily to bring out hemlock from lands over which the white pine had been removed. It was not very much of a railway, but it had one value: it was a link in one of the great transcontinental lines across Canada to the Pacific.
I don't think the English stockholders realized very handsomely from the manufacture of hemlock lumber. They could not compete with the mills of the Americans.
Still, that was not the thing that got Heatherstone and his stockholders going. It was the big economic situation in England. I mean the lack of employment for labor. English labor was out of work. It was the business of great commercial adventurers like Heatherstone to find employment for it.
The government called him in.
They began to "put it up," as we would say, to the business men of England like Heatherstone. The government had an inventory, a sort of list of every English enterprise in the world, especially the ones which employed foreign labor, and Heatherstone's little railway was on the list. It was operated entirely by Italians. There was not an English laborer on the plant.
It seemed queer to think of a lumber plant and a bit of a railway, in a cold waste of Canada, operated by Italians. But there is a point about this race that one must always consider. It will go any place if it goes as a colony. And that is precisely how it got into this sector of Canada. It had gone as a colony. It was a portion of southern Italy laid down in a section of the north.
I don't know how the thing came about. I think the early advance of the war was perhaps behind it; England and her dominions had no man power to spare, and so the Italian colony came in. At any rate, it was there, attached to the soil, a fixture in that wilderness, as permanent as the villages of Salerno.
And it manned the whole plant, manufactured the lumber, stripped the bark, operated the railway, and moved the great transcontinental train that went over this line once in every twenty-four hours. I mentioned that a moment ago. It was the one industrial fact that made this piece of railway important. It was a short cut on one of the big transcontinental lines. It was not a permanent part of the line. It was never designed to be a permanent part of it; but the main line through was being rebuilt and in the meantime their fast passenger train went over this connecting link. Heatherstone's road coupled the line together. They were paid handsomely for the use of the road, but there was a condition. They had to guarantee the safety of the train and its equipment while it was on their line.
That gave Heatherstone and his stockholders some concern. But they never had any trouble about it.
There was no complaint of the Italian colony. It did its work well. They are the best stonemasons in the world. The large tunnel on Heatherstone's line was a model in its way, wonderfully stone-arched, Sir Godfrey Simon said.
So these were not the things that bothered Heatherstone and his stockholders. It was the insistence of the government that they should displace this Italian labor with labor from England. It was a sort of national eviction they were after. And the government was farsighted. It knew the only solution was to scatter the unemployed; to spread them out over the Empire; that is to say, over the world.
And it put its thumb on Heatherstone.
Now, that is how Letington came to get into the thing.
Heatherstone and his stockholders met, determined to send somebody out to Canada to take charge of the enterprise and to substitute English labor for the Italian.
Here was his brother-in-law, "idling," as the poets used to write it, "between tennis and the bath;" that is to say, between the shooting in Scotland and the polo at Roehampton; and so the earl sent him.
Sir Godfrey Simon said that Letington was the last man to send, if you looked at him from one angle.
He was not a man of business. He was a sportsman and he was a dreamer. Any one would have seen this but the hard-headed earl. On the other hand, he had a certain courage that fitted him for such a venture. He was a big-game hunter; he had gone on all sorts of expeditions into waste places of the earth; he knew how to handle men, and he was not concerned about hardship.
But he was a sentimentalist.
At any rate, that was Heatherstone's final opinion and the opinion of his stockholders.
The methods of these men were direct. They were not concerned with circumlocutions. The order to Letington was to move that Italian colony out—boots and baggage—and substitute English labor for it!
Sir Godfrey Simon made an impressive picture of the situation Letington found himself in. He saw at once how difficult the thing could be.
The resolution directed him to remove from this Canadian forest what was, as I have said, a complete section of Italy set down in it. It was a difficult thing to undertake, and it was a brutal thing.
Letington saw that the moment he went over the line.
Here were these foreign people with their families, their homes, their gardens, their churches, their shrines; graves of their dead, their schools—their civilization, in fact.
Where would they go? How would they continue to live when they were ejected out of this New Italy? Where could he place them? That was not a thing that Heatherstone and his stockholders had considered. It was not a part of the English business problem. It was, as I have said, sentimentalism. They were practical people. Considerations of humanity had nothing to do with it.
But humanity did have something to do with it.
Letington saw what he was "up against," as we would say, and he made a protest. He sent in a report to the earl. He pointed it all out to him.
It was a good paper, Sir Godfrey Simon said—a good paper for impractical people who confused sentiments of humanity with their business affairs. But it was a poor paper for the earl and his stockholders. They gave Letington a pretty curt answer. He would do what he was told! He was not there on God's business.
He was there on the affairs of an English company. He would carry out the directions they gave him and leave his sentimentalism to the ulterior Authority that considered the sparrow.
I do not mean that this was the message of the directors. It never could have been the message of the Glasgow solicitor who was secretary of the board. But it was the message as edited by Sir Godfrey Simon.
Letington went over the line; over the plant.
It was a strip of railway well kept up; its bridges solid; its one big tunnel a fine example of stone work. Everything was in order: the little switches running out to the bark sheds; the mills in the mountains; the Italian village, where the whole dependency lived. The road was over a little valley, burrowing at one point through a shoulder of a mountain. It was a mountainous country; winter was on the way; snow would come presently, and then it would be a sector of Switzerland. It was in the late autumn when Letington went out.
There was nothing that Letington could do after he got the reply of the Glasgow solicitor. He had either to go ahead or give the thing up, and there was something in the man that balked at failure. He was not a success in any way that our commercial age would be apt to measure him. But he did not give things up. That was the quality that made him one of the best sportsmen in his class. He was not afraid, and he did not weaken.
So he called the Italian colony together and explained his directions. The Italians said almost nothing at the time. I suppose they could not realize it. But the idea began to move in them, and they finally understood what the English company intended. When they got the thing in their heads the whole colony was by the ears.
They sent a committee to wait on Letington. They put the case before him in their protest. They wished him to put their protest before the company. He took a good deal of pains to make them understand him then. He had put the matter before the company. He got out his report, the report he had sent in to the earl and his stockholders, and read it to them. He read it carefully and slowly. And then he showed them the reply.
There must have been some sensible persons on that Italian deputation. A common workman often has a clear head; an understanding heart he nearly always has. They said nothing more, and they went out. Letington was misled. He imagined the colony had accepted this decree of eviction. It was a profound error. The Italians had merely realized that it was of no use to make further protest. The English company would not change.
Two or three days later an extraordinary thing happened.
An Italian woman, accompanied by two or three laborers, came in to see Letington.
They wished a private conference with him, and they were admitted to his office. The woman looked like a Neapolitan peasant. She wore the picturesque costume of Salerno. She was of middle age. But there was something about her that profoundly impressed Letington when he came to observe her closely. Her big, determined features gave him the impression of a powerful personality who by an accident of birth had arrived from a low racial origin.
There was no mistaking the fact that she was an extraordinary person. She did not speak English, or, at any rate, only a few words of it.
The men with her began to explain.
They used a lot of words and gestures, and they interrupted one another in their effort to make their meaning clear in a language in which they felt themselves to be deficient. But they finally made Letington understand. He did not understand the Italian word they used, but he did understand what they were meaning by it. The woman was what we would call in our plain English tongue a witch. She had a familiar spirit. She had a control of what we call supernatural forces, or, rather, to be more accurate, a supernatural control of what we call natural forces, and when they got that idea before Letington they coupled their threat with it.
They said if he undertook to put his policy into effect, this woman would cause the great engine that pulled the transcontinental train over the line to disappear. They elaborated the threat with the figures of their Italian tongue and with vague gestures. The engine would vanish.
Of course Letington was not misled about it. He thought he understood perfectly what was behind all this theatrical property. The thing was just a plain threat to wreck the train!
This was serious. As I have said, the English guaranteed the safety of the train over this line: to wreck it would be to destroy the company.
But the threat carried farther. If the engine were wrecked, would the crowded passenger coaches escape? The thing might carry murder with it. He could see all sorts of disasters extending themselves from this threat, and he said what he thought.
The Italian workmen with the woman protested with great vigor. No one would be hurt; no part of the great transcontinental train would be injured; there would be no scratch on paint of a coach; there would be no battering of a bolt in the engine. Nothing would be injured.
The great engine would simply disappear.
This woman, this witch, this person with the supernatural control of the natural forces of the world, by her magic would simply remove that engine from sight and hearing. The train would remain! That was what they meant.
They went out with the promise that they would return and show Letington what the woman could do; that is to say, she was going to give him an example of the power she possessed.
What precisely did this mean? Was it, in fact, what he first imagined, a veiled threat to derail the great train? That would be simple enough and not outside of probability. Not, in fact, outside of a possible event—there was precedent enough for it.
The Latin was racially influenced to revenge.
It was with him a form of human injustice. Northern races, logically and coldly, might adjust their difficulties in third-party tribunals, but revenge is an act of the Latin. It is a conception of justice common to peoples of a hotter blood. It is an old, deep-seated instinct. When one received an injury, one returned it. When a village or a family received an injury, it returned it. This seemed the adequate explanation, if, in fact, the threat meant anything. It was hardly likely that even ignorant Italians were moved by the idea that they could frighten an English company out of a plan on which it had decided or that they could frighten its manager here.
The Anglo-Saxon was not easily intimidated. You could not, usually, move him with a threat. And yet these explanations, when one undertook to apply them to the event, did not seem wholly adequate. There must be something more behind this extravagance. Frankly, the man was puzzled; he was also alarmed, but he was not in fear. He was not the sort of person to be easily put in fear. Still, he could not rid himself of a sort of concern about it. The thing must mean something, and he recalled the indirections and the extravagant innuendo of the Italian speech. He expected something to happen, but the thing that did happen was alien to any idea in the man.
The Italians said they would return and this woman, this witch, this person with the familiar spirit would show him what she could do.
And she did return.
Some days later they came in again to Letington—the Italian workmen and this woman. It was rather late in the evening—twilight, in fact. Night was descending. Letington was alone. He had remained to go over some reports of the office. The man was, in fact, conscientious about the business of this company, and he was endeavoring to get up the details on it; going back to see how his predecessor had managed the business. This is how he came to be alone and in the office of the company at this late hour.
Three persons entered.
But there was now with them a fourth person—a little, old woman, feeble and not able to walk. The Italian laborers carried her in gently and put her into a chair at the end of the room. She was dressed in the deep, somber mourning of the Italian women in the bereavement of death. Without being able to see any feature of her, Letington said it was impossible to escape the conviction that the woman was immensely, incredibly old and of such frailty that the slightest exertion would eject her out of life. With the others was the big, sturdy Italian woman, in the dress of a peasant of Salerno.
She stood in the center of the group, a figure of strength and vigor.
She had, as I have said, and as Letington continually insisted, the dominance of uncultivated persons, who by some strange order of nature seemed foreordained for a certain direction of events; having, in fact, a certain authority of action in the presence of unusual events. I gave some examples a while ago. You have all met with these examples. You know what Letington meant, and you know what I mean here in my effort to put this extraordinary story before you.
The group said very little.
Letington never could recall any significant conversation. The Italian workmen, who carried in the woman, made some usual salutation. They bid him "Good evening," or something of the sort, and they may have uttered some expression to indicate the object of their arrival: that they came to verify what they had said, or the like. He thought they did say something of this character.
He was not certain.
What happened was too extraordinary. The verbal passages preceding it did not sufficiently impress him. At any rate, they were not important. They had, in fact, come to give the demonstration, as one would call it; to show what the witch could do before she undertook the thing she threatened—to put teeth into the threat, as we would say. If the approaches to the event were not recalled in sharp outlines, we must believe that the event itself was sufficiently vivid. Letington may have forgotten what they said; but he never forgot what happened.
The big peasant woman made him a curtsy. He said it reminded him of that exaggeration which a certain old dancing master in London used to demonstrate to the American women about to be presented at the Court of St. James. It had an Old World, out-of-fashion aspect about it.
Something in a fairy story was the idea I got; the kind of extreme gesture of the Foreign Envoy at the Court of the King of the Golden Mountains! I can only present the thing by this indirection. You know what I mean.
Letington said another thing about it that makes the illustration I suggest a bit more apt. He said it was ironical, as though it were made before a mock authority; as though superior persons presented themselves before a pretender. It would be the way a jinni would bow before a mortal king in an Arabian story before he produced his magic city or his winged horse.
After that curtsy, the woman took out of the bosom of her dress what appeared to be a ball of grass made up with resin. She held it in the palm of her hand. One of the Italian workmen ran forward, got a coal from the fire, and touched it to the ball of resin.
The thing began to smoke.
It smoked feebly at first, after the manner of a wet wisp of hay, scarcely afire. The smoke arose like a fantastic flower, a thin stem curling and expanding at the summit. Then it extended itself. It extended itself vaguely until the whole room was filled with an aromatic odor, a sort of haze. Letington said the thing went on until the ball of resin in the woman's hand was consumed, and the result was that strange aromatic odor filling the whole space and a haze as though one had caught and confined here the sort of blue-gray haze observed on our mountains in the autumn, in what we call Indian summer.
There had been no sound.
There was absolute silence in the room. Letington said he did not move. He looked on as if at some extravaganza, but he was impressed. The thing got him, as we might say, into a sort of atmosphere. The strange thing was that it did not seem to be absurd. It seemed to be a sort of phenomenon of some character appearing with a certain aspect of dignity.
We cannot understand, I fear, precisely how he thought about it. At any rate, the peasant woman standing thus, surrounded with this impalpable smoke haze, as of something arising from the earth about her, suddenly cried out, extending her hand.
Letington said it was a harsh cry. He often thought about it afterward. It was not in any language that he knew. He did not think the words the woman uttered were of the Italian language. He thought it was an older, harsher language. And it was a sort of formula. It was a cry that seemed to shatter or, as one would say, break down a barrier already thinned or weakened. That is an inadequate explanation of the effect. But Letington said he had some sort of vague conception of that character. He had no idea of what would happen, but the thing that did happen was beyond any conception that he could have had.
I have said that the Italian laborers brought in an old woman and put her in a chair in the corner of the room. Now, at this cry, the feeble figure in the chair rose. It came up stiffly to its feet like an image of wood, and then it began to sing.
Letington said that he remained immovable with wonder.
The singing was something heavenly. The rich, deep, beautiful voice filled the room: extended itself; seemed to fill the world.
He said the thing was incredible beyond any winging of the fancy.
He had never heard such a voice. It was not the volume of it, for it lacked great volume; it was not the vigor of it nor any unusual note. There was a haunting music in it, an appealing sweetness—something that got into one's spirit and there awakened every romantic fancy.
It was incredible. It belonged in a fairy story; in the properties of romance. It seemed to the man that he was hearing something that he had read about in the poets of old time, in ancient romances, as though the practical world had turned backward—revolved backward—into a world of wonder.
It was the golden-snooded muse, singing in the Seven-Gated City of Thebis! He could see the fairy city in the air—a mirage of gilded towers and veiled brazen gates on a cloud island; and the voice coming from an interminable distance, but losing nothing, neither its vigor nor any tone!
It had that marvelous quality.
It was far away, and it was not far away. He said he could not differentiate the singing from the conceptions of romance that arrived with it. It was something singing behind the horns of Elfland in some kingdom of faërie: singing among the stars in unending summer, in undying youthfulness! He said every extravagant expression that he could think of paled before the wonder of that heavenly reality.
Then the figure collapsed. The big peasant woman caught it. They wrapped it up in a shawl and carried it out.
Letington did not move. He remained in his chair behind his table, that plain oak table, with the records of the company littering it before him. He sat there for a long time without thought, as he used to try to express it, and without motion, as one recovering from a drug or a hypnotic envelopment. He did not know what had happened to him. The thing was too unreal; it was too improbable; it was too utterly beyond all human sense.
The footsteps of the Italians carrying out the ancient, feeble woman grew vague, and ceased. There was again silence; the haze in the room disappeared. The aromatic odor thinned out, ceased to exist. But the man remained in his chair. Finally he put his hand up and passed it over his face, as though by that gesture to remove an illusion.
That, of course, was the only explanation he had. That was the only explanation anyone could have. Of course there wasn't any explanation. What sane person could believe in witches or in a magic that transported one from a modern, workaday world to a land of fairies; that took an ancient, feeble crone, so old that she had to be carried about, and forced her by a harsh cry to sing like a fabled siren in faërie lands forlorn!
Of course there wasn't any explanation.
The man went out after a while, but he said that he did a thing that any one of us would have done. He said that he went about the room touching objects in it, replacing chairs, adjusting the table, trying the door latch.
You see what he was after!
He was trying to convince himself that he was in a world of reality—just what any of us would have done—that he was, in fact, here in this place; that the place had not changed; that it was the same place.
After that he went out.
There was only one explanation of it that didn't overturn every landmark of our common reason. He believed himself to be a victim of some hypnotic influence, as the traveler in some city of the East, in an enclosed courtyard, sees a rope thrown into the air by a juggler, and a lad climb it into the sky, disappearing, a tiny figure in some cloud haze. That was the explanation Letington finally got about it. He had to take that or go adrift. But it seemed neither an adequate nor a true explanation of the phenomenon.
It was the voice that he could not escape from. That voice was real. The singing was real. He could differentiate the effects from the voice. The effects were illusions, but that haunting, heavenly voice was a reality! He could no more doubt the reality of it than he could doubt the reality of the sunlight, or the outline of the forest in the distance, or his hand. The voice was real, and it affected him as had no other singing in the world.
He never heard a voice like it.
He could not escape from the lure of that voice. It seemed to have entered into every fiber of his body: something he had long sought; something he had hungered for; something he had waited for from the time he was born—and from beyond that—from the beginning of the world.
I am taking a lot of pains to try to make these impressions clear to you, for they are a vital part of this extraordinary thing. Perhaps you can, in some manner, realize how the thing impressed this man. I suppose one would have to call it an exclusive personal element. There was a feeling that the voice had something to do with himself, as differentiated from other persons; as though no one but himself could have heard it, or as though it could have been intended for no other person. It was his due: belonged to him out of some other existence.
That is as near as I can get it out of the elaboration that Sir Godfrey Simon gave me. At any rate, that was the end of it. Things went on. Letington imagined himself to have been present at an inexplicable phenomenon, a sort of hypnotic phenomenon. It had put his reason out of dominance. He had a feeling of anxiety about events now that he could neither define nor control.
And it was a correct premonition.
He went ahead endeavoring to put into effect the policy of eviction that he had been sent here to accomplish. The Italian colony made no further protest. It carried out the preliminaries of his direction. The notices posted were not disturbed. The orders for inventories on materials and tools were carried out. The first preliminaries of the eviction went forward, and there was no disorder. There was not even discourtesy.
Everywhere he was received with the same deference; his directions were received with the same silent acquiescence. But it was a calm that had too much serenity in it. He did not like it. He would have felt safer if he had found groups of men talking together; evidences of violence here and there; protests, or ugly threats echoed after him as he passed: that is to say, the usual thing that one expects and can understand. But he did not find it. The whole colony was composed, silent and obsequious. It got on the man's nerves.
And then suddenly the thing happened.
Winter was beginning to arrive. At twilight one evening the great transcontinental was stopped by an emergency signal. Snow was beginning to fall. It was on a slight grade beyond the Italian village. When the train stopped there was an insistent call for the fireman and engineer to come to the rear of the train. They got down and went back along the coaches. It was now coming on to snow heavily. They passed down on either side of the coaches to the end of the train. But they could find no reason for the emergency signal. No official in the coaches knew anything about it, and no one could be found who had called. The conductor joined them. They went to the extreme end of the train, but they could find nothing to indicate why such a signal should have been given.
And when they returned the engine was gone!
It had disappeared. The train officials released the brakes and ran the passenger coaches back into the village. Letington, awakened at one o'clock in the morning, was told of this mysterious event.
Don't forget where I was when I got this story. Keep that in your mind. I was before a peat fire in an inn in Belgium, as I told you in the beginning. I had turned about from the table. I was wet, and my clothes steamed, but I was comfortable with an excellent dinner. There was a bottle of wine on the table, and Sir Godfrey Simon on the other side of it. You will remember what I said about him. A big, old man with a perfectly bald head—a head as bald as an ivory door handle—a crooked nose; a wide, narrow-lipped mouth; little, sharp eyes under craggy eye pits; shaggy, arched brows over them.
It is his story that I am trying to tell you—not mine.
I know nothing about it, except what the man said. That I precisely know. I remember every detail. No word of it escaped me. It was the most extraordinary tale I had ever heard, in the most extraordinary setting, surrounded by the most extraordinary suggestions.
I was lost, and I had turned up as by the directions of the fairies at this inn, by this Garden in Asia and the long, iron-spiked fence that seemed, as I have said, to stretch across Belgium, across Europe, across the world.
That was the hard background behind all this extravaganza. It was the thing at my back. That is a pretty good expression. It was the Garden in Asia at my back that made the whole of this story such a wonder.
I go back to Letington and the disaster he was awakened out of sleep to meet. Of course there could, in fact, be no mystery to speak of about the matter. A great passenger engine could not disappear. Stop a moment and realize it: a thing of complicated machinery weighing five hundred thousand pounds. It was a late model of the American passenger engine, one of these huge monsters built to haul a long train over mountains across a continent.
Such engines are unknown in any European country.
It would weigh, as I have said, some two hundred and fifty tons. Try to get a conception of such a mass of metal. And it was valuable. It was worth a hundred thousand dollars. It could not be made to disappear at the will of a peasant woman burning a ball of aromatic grass and uttering a verbal formula.
Of course it had been cut off from the train and run forward in the absence of the engineer and fireman, who had been drawn back to the rear of the passenger coaches by what they took to be the call of the conductor.
It was a clever trick in a snowstorm.
But where could the engine have been taken? It was a single-track road, and short, connecting the two branches of the transcontinental line. As it passed through the valley one saw from it only the little mills that dotted the lumber yards; the great sheds under which the hemlock bark was stored for shipment to the tanneries, looking like immense hillocks covered with roofs of bark; the scattered villages of the lumbermen; the narrow river; and beyond the vast mountains that seemed to extend into the sky.
The engine could not have gone back, because the passenger coaches were behind it. These coaches had been released and run down the grade to the Italian village. The engine had to go forward.
As I have said, there could not be very much of a mystery about it, and, in fact, there was not any mystery about it.
There was a tunnel through a shoulder of the mountain just beyond where the engine had been cut off. Letington and his track crew, going over the line in the morning, found the entrances to this tunnel shot down.
It was clear now what had occurred.
The engine had been run into the tunnel and the ends of the tunnel shot down with explosives to prevent it from being taken out. The whole thing had been done cleverly and with Italian cunning.
But there was no mystery about it.
The agents carrying the thing into effect had selected a night of storm, one of those nights of early winter when heavy snow was approaching. They had given an emergency signal. It would be easy to do that. Any one of them could have boarded the train as a passenger and given such a signal precisely as the conductor or officials in the rear of the train might have given it. And they could have called the engineer and fireman to the rear of the train, precisely as the conductor might have done. There was no difficulty about this part of the business.
There was no particular difficulty about the other part. The Italian colony operating the plant contained more than one competent engineer. Any one of them could have handled this engine, or any engine. They could cut it loose from the train and run it forward in the absence of the engineer and fireman, especially in a snowstorm in the night. And that was precisely what had been done.
Letington was not misled about it.
He knew what had happened, and when he found the entrances to the tunnel on either side of the shoulder of this mountain shot down with explosives, as though there had been a landslide, he knew where the engine was. In fact, the thing was all so simple that the man began to wonder at the circumlocutions of pretended magic that had accompanied it. That, however, would be the Latin mind. But to the hard Anglo-Saxon intelligence it seemed a sort of child's play.
What value, in fact, was to be obtained by all this extravaganza surrounding so evident and practical a fact?
Nevertheless, there was the situation to be met.
The great train could not go over the line, and the engine was sealed up in a tunnel. The work had been done thoroughly.
As I have said, the approaches to the tunnel looked as though they had been covered with a landslide. The persons who undertook this thing carried it out effectively. The shoulder of mountain on either side of the tunnel had been shot down to cover the entrance. It was a big undertaking to clear it, and besides the snow made the work more difficult. It continued to fall. It was one of those heavy storms that bring winter into this north country.
Letington was very much concerned about this disaster, and he put everybody on inquisition, but of course he could discover nothing.
No one in the whole colony knew anything about it. They had seen nothing; heard nothing.
There was not a word, a gesture, or an incident that he could get hold of that could connect the affair with anybody.
Every man in the colony demonstrated that he was about his usual affairs at this hour. Everybody could establish an alibi. There was not a court in Christendom that could have found a clew to connect anybody in the colony with this affair. There was no one in this Italian settlement who would admit any connection with the affair, with the single exception of the Italian peasant woman. She admitted it.
She came into the office where Letington would be holding his courts of inquiry, and she would stand there and look at him with her strange, ironical smile.
She laughed at his explanation; at the effort he was making; at his practical solution of the difficulty. He would never get his engine out from under the mountain. She had made that engine to disappear!
And this gave him further anxiety.
He took it to mean that the engine had been destroyed in the tunnel. He was now greatly alarmed. The safety of the train and the contract of the company to secure the daily safe passage over the line would bankrupt the enterprise, already heavily involved. The man saw complete disaster before him.
Of course there was only one thing to do, and that was to uncover the approaches to the tunnel and get the engine out as soon as he could. Here he was met with a further concern. The Italian labor, which he must make use of, would perhaps either refuse to work or it would hinder his efforts in some way. This meant that the undertaking would go forward slowly; and in the meantime, if the engine were not already destroyed, it would be seriously injured. The tunnel would be damp; the delicate machinery of the engine would be injured by the rust.
At the best he could hope for, there would be great delay, a violation of the contract with the transcontinental line and injury to the machinery. But could he, in fact, get it out? Could he depend on the Italian labor for this service?
When he considered the whole matter he was firmly convinced that he could not. But in this conclusion he was conspicuously mistaken. He had not the slightest difficulty with the Italian laborers. They went to work at his direction to uncover the approaches to the tunnel. But the great snow delayed them, and after that was cleared away there were still tons of earth to be removed. It was like making a new cut into the shoulder of the mountain.
Letington was uncertain what to do.
He reported the accident briefly, by cable, to the English company. And then he made out a report of what had occurred. He had to send this report by mail. That would mean practically a month before he had a reply. The answer to his cable was to make no concession to the Italian colony; to put the tunnel in shape, and to go forward with the policy of eviction as he had been instructed. The English company would make whatever adjustments were necessary with the transcontinental line with which they had their agreement of carriage. Letington went forward under that instruction.
One of the logging engines pulled the coaches back to the junction with the main line, and they went around in another direction to the main line beyond. In the meantime Letington went forward with the work of opening the tunnel. This work, as I have said, advanced slowly.
The heavy winter weather continued. Snow fell and had continually to be removed. The shoulder of the mountain at the opening of the tunnel was sheer; the earth kept slipping in. Letington put every man at his disposal to work on the thing, and although he had no reason to complain of either the individual effort or the unity of effort of his crew, the advance was slow.
Neither did he abandon his effort to discover who had been connected with the affair. Every morning at daylight he was with the crew at their work before the tunnel, and every night he conducted his court of inquiry in the office. The men, the women of the colony were examined; even the children were interrogated; but it was entirely useless.
He never discovered anything.
Everyone professed utter ignorance in the affair. They were just as much astonished and amazed as he was. When he asked them what had become of the engine they merely shrugged their shoulders: How did they know?
And always the sturdy peasant woman was in the room with her strange, ironical smile. What was the use of all these inquiries or this questioning of men and children? She could tell him all about it. What had happened was precisely what she had warned him would happen. Why go forward with his ridiculous efforts to discover the author of this disaster? The author was before him. She had accomplished the thing. It was her work. She admitted it.
She had caused the engine to disappear.
And then she would add her Delphic sentence:
"You will never get your engine out from under the mountain."
The thing got on the man's nerves, and finally he abandoned any further effort to discover who were the criminal agents in this affair. He closed the office at night, gave up his courts of inquiry and devoted himself to the effort of opening the tunnel.
I suppose a man never made a greater or more persistent effort than Letington did to drive a heading into the tunnel. He was, as I said, profoundly disturbed. He was not puzzled. He knew where the engine was, and the intent of the thing was all clearly before him. But the veiled threat in the continually repeated sentence of the Italian woman more and more impressed him.
"You will never get your engine out from under the mountain!"
That might have two or three meanings. It might mean that the engine was not under the mountain. But that phase of the oracular expression he could at once dismiss. There was no other place that it could be. It could not have been run on over the line. It would have been discovered, of course. The line in a southern direction connected with the transcontinental line ahead. It could not have been taken in that direction. Nobody could conceal an immense passenger engine on a track. And there was no other place to take it.
When one stops to think about it, what could be more conspicuous than a passenger engine?
One could not put it in one's pocket like a bauble nor tuck it under a board. The thing was, of course, out of the question; besides, here were the ends of the tunnel shot down. This feature of the matter did not concern him. He dismissed it precisely as you or I would have dismissed it. But the thing that did concern him was whether the engine was destroyed.
"You will never get your engine out from under the mountain!"
That would mean either that he would never get the tunnel clear, and therefore could not get it out, or it meant that the engine was, in fact, destroyed, and therefore he would not get it out.
There was anxiety enough in either of these two alternatives.
Of course his first impression was that the woman meant that he would not be able to uncover the openings of the tunnel. She could very well depend on that. He had only this Italian labor to use for the undertaking, and all of it, he could well assume, would be out of sympathy with his effort.
But, as I have said, he was mistaken in that.
He was looking for some indication of that intent all the time, but he never saw the slightest evidence of it. He had no complaint to make. He observed the men on day and night shifts. He thought, in the beginning, that when he went away from the work at night to sleep he would find in the morning that his night crew had done nothing or that it had done something to impair the work that had gone forward in the day. He was amazed when he found this was not true. The work of the crew at night had been as efficient and apparently as sincere in its efforts as the crew that he handled in the day.
I made a point of this because it had a bearing on the essentials of the story. It puzzled Letington, and it puzzled me when Sir Godfrey Simon got a little farther on with his narrative. It puzzled me because in this extraordinary story we came continually, it seemed, in contact with things that were what one would call out of reason or out of the usual experience of men. This was one of the features of it.
The whole story is out of reason.
It is out of the common experience of men. I suppose the profound impression it made on me was merely the cumulative effect of all these details bearing the same aspect. One does not get a great impression of wonder or unreality out of the influence of a single event. It is built up. It is made of a variety of smaller events. It is the converging point of a great mass of trivialities.
I don't give you that as my conclusion.
It was Sir Godfrey Simon's conclusion, and if you want to value the weight of it, think for a moment who he was, who he is to-day; the greatest alienist in England: that is to say, the greatest authority on the orderly procedure of the human mind, or would I better say the greatest authority on the disorderly procedure of the human mind?
At any rate, you understand what I mean.
I mean it was his business, his profession, to discriminate between the normal activities of the mind and those that were not normal. And he stood above every man in his profession. He has not an equal in the world. Anybody who knows anything about that profession knows that Sir Godfrey Simon is at the head of it. I think I told you all this in the beginning; that it was some time before I recognized the man when I came into that Dumas Inn with the Garden in Asia behind me. I did not know him for a while. I had a haunting memory of a face. And then, when he told me who he was, I remembered. I think I said that. Here before me at the table was Sir Godfrey Simon, the greatest alienist in England.
This digression is not a matter of inadvertence.
I put it here for a purpose: with a profound purpose, as you will realize in a moment. Carry it in your mind when you note the next thing that happened. I pass over the long labor of driving a heading into the tunnel. But the point I wish to consider is that when the heading was finally driven, the engine was not in the tunnel!
I leave you to realize what Letington thought when he crawled through the opening of the heading and went with a torch to the other end. The whole tunnel was clear. The headings were driven in practically at the same time. There was nothing in the tunnel!
The thing was absurd, incredible. It was fantastic. It was anything you wish to say. There is no language, in fact, to express the incredibility of such an event. But there it was.
An immense passenger engine, weighing five hundred thousand pounds, and as big as a peasant's house, had simply disappeared, vanished!
The thing was a vast preposterous impossibility.
You cannot imagine what Letington's impressions were. He was like one before a reversal of the order of nature: trees that moved; animals that uttered words, or anything you like. There was no explanation! You can see that. What explanation could one give? Suppose you had been with him; suppose you had been, in fact, the man himself when you had crawled through the hole of one heading and gone with a torch along that single track, and crawled out into the air through the hole of the other heading, and found nothing in the tunnel. What would you have thought about it?
But, as I have said, there it was!
A huge piece of machinery weighing five hundred thousand pounds had vanished at the will of a peasant woman burning a ball of aromatic grass! Letington went back to the office of the company in the little village and sat down.
He did not know what to do.
He did not even know what to say to his English company; what to say to anybody. Who would believe this extraordinary thing? Heatherstone and his board of directors would come to one of two conclusions: that the man was as mad as a March hare or that he was in collusion with the Italians. One could not blame them. This is exactly what you would have thought. You might have thought, of course, that a simple-minded person had been tricked. But Letington was not a simpleminded person.
I have told you precisely what happened.
Now comprehend it in every detail, and see what you would have done in his place; where your intelligence would have been superior to his, or where any trick about it could have come in. Sir Godfrey Simon shot that query at me, and I considered it pretty carefully. I considered it for a good while, sitting there in the Dumas Inn, drying my riding clothes before the peat fire. I could not see anything, any precaution, any effort that I could have made that Letington had not as well or as adequately also made.
That is how I ask you to think about it.
And think about another thing. What would you have done when you came to meet the problem of giving these facts to the English company; to the sane world? I think any of us would have been in precisely the position Letington was. We would not have known what to do. I am going to tell you what he did do.
It was not a sudden determination. He thought about the thing a while. He thought about it while the work of clearing up the tunnel went forward. They got all the earth out of the way, the stone arches up, the track cleared.
The man could not keep away from the work.
He kept walking through that tunnel. He could not believe what had happened, and it was time, it was delay that built up the state of mind to the point where he was receptive of the measure which he finally undertook.
He called in the sturdy peasant woman.
Now, that sounds like absurdity!
She repeated her preposterous offer. She would cause the engine to materialize again, provided Letington would agree not to evict the Italians. She would make the engine appear—re-appear, to be more accurate—perfect as it was on the night that it had vanished out of sight and hearing; not a scratch on the paint. Letington did not say anything at the time. But the pressure on him increased, and finally he agreed to the terms. And almost immediately the engine appeared, precisely at the place on the track where it had vanished, in perfect condition, under full steam.
He did, as a matter of fact, make a pretty full explanation of the matter to the English company, and it was received precisely as he foresaw. They did think he was insane.
But that is not a point in the story I wish you to consider here. It comes in a little later. Letington was haunted by that wonderful singing voice. He wanted to hear it again. And, having packed his luggage—prepared himself, as one would say, to escape out of this land of unreality—he determined to have a further experience of it.
He sent for the peasant woman.
He asked to see the ancient singer; to hear her again. He put the profound problem that disturbed him, the problem that could have no adequate explanation. How could this singer be old, senile, feeble, at the end of life, and still possess this heavenly, sensuous voice of adolescence?
The peasant woman made a gesture.
It was all the business of magic. The form was nothing; youth and age were alike merely manifestations of the spirit! The formula that caused the spirit to take on a physical aspect could produce it as easily in one aspect as in another. That physical aspect could not be changed, but the thing at any period in its former existence could be reproduced.
Let me give an illustration out of the one book with which everybody is familiar.
When the Witch of Endor called up Samuel she could have called him up at any age of his life period: when he was a youth serving in the temple, at mid-life or at the end of it.
That's the explanation the Italian woman gave Letington.
She did not give him this illustration of it. I put that in here. She was trying to make Letington understand that the form of this mysterious singing woman that she had called up was merely an incident. She could call her up at any period: in youth as well as at the very end of her life. Letington had been permitted to hear the voice, but not to see the singer.
And then she uttered a significant sentence: "You can be made to see her, but the agencies behind the world sell their gifts: to gain great treasure one must suffer great sacrifice."
Then she gave him a Delphic promise:
"You may win your way to this woman—young, perfect, as beautiful as a dream—if you should lose the sun."
Letington did not understand what she meant.
He understood later on, but that is going ahead of the story. He did understand that the woman was repeating in a vague way those esoteric expressions which the performers of magic have brought forward from the day of Pharaoh. The physical thing visible to our eye, audible to our ear, is merely an illusion.
The human spirit alone is a reality!
At its will and according to formula, carefully worked in the morning of the world, all physical manifestations presented themselves. At any rate, she promised Letington that he should hear the voice again and that he should see the singer.
She took him to one of the remote Italian villages, adjacent to the mountains. It was an empty village. The Italian workmen had removed to the line of the railway. There were only abandoned houses here, as though some plague, or some fear, had removed the inhabitants. Beyond this village a narrow path led into the forest.
Letington and the woman were alone.
She strode along in front of him, a big, sturdy peasant. And he followed. They entered the forest, traversed it for some time, and finally came out into a little meadow where some pioneer had once cleared a farm.
Across the meadow beyond them at the edge of the forest was a cottage. The afternoon sun had removed the snow from the meadow, and the cottage lay naked against the bosom of the forest toward the south.
It was a scene from a fairy story—the tiny meadow in the heart of the forest, with the sun on it, and the little cottage with the blue wood smoke ascending from its chimney. Two hundred paces from the door of the cottage the peasant woman stopped.
She turned about to Letington.
Would he promise to remain where he stood until this singing was ended and then go to his ship? He gave the promise. Then she repeated the former details of her magic. She took a ball—the ball of grasses and resin—out of the bosom of her dress, lighted and burned it. The aromatic odor appeared, extended itself. There was silence.
There was not even, as it appeared, motion in the world. The tiny thread of smoke from the aromatic grasses ascended and assumed the fantastic shape of a flower, as it had assumed in the office that day before him. The haze appeared. Then the woman cried out that same harsh, shattering formula, extending her hand.
It seemed again to Letington to be the precise form of magic used by those magicians in the Hebrew Scriptures who undertook to control spirits—to call them up out of the underworld or to materialize them out of the air—the extended arm, the crooked fingers and the loud cry.
And immediately a figure appeared in the door of the cottage, but it was not the aged figure that had appeared before him at the first manifestation. It was a slender figure in its glorious youth.
He was too far away to get details of it.
The face was indistinct, but the hair was golden, and the image had the figure of a dryad. Other details the distance blurred. But the one immense fact was youth. This woman was young, like the daughters of faërie in the morning of the world!
And again that heavenly voice reached him; that wonderful, haunting voice in its incomparable music. The man was transported into fairyland, as through a door in the hill, beyond time, beyond space.
He was in a world of wonder.
And the young, alluring fairy figure was singing to him. It was to him that the voice called. It brought a message of wonder to him; a longing to him, as though the singer had waited through an interminable age for him to arrive; had been seeking him through the world. Time was nothing; distance was nothing; age was nothing!
These things were all illusions.
The reality was the longing for him; the search for him. And now that he was found, the joy of that final ending of the search could not be concealed.
It ran a subdued note through the music.
The man stood in some land of unending summer, of undying youthfulness, seized with all the longings of all the lovers that had ever lived. Here was something mysteriously synchronized, divinely, to his own spirit.
Then it ceased.
The figure entered the cottage, the door closed, and the peasant woman took him back, as in a dream, to the world of reality.
He went to his ship and to England.
Letington took up the old life with his sister, the Countess of Heatherstone. He hunted that winter in the Midlands. There was not, perhaps, a great change to be noted in the man. He was never a voluble person. But he seemed more reticent, and perhaps more interested in the hunt. He was out nearly every day with some master of the hounds. He rode hard, and he was less careful either of himself or his horse. There was little change, as I have said, to be observed in the man. Perhaps when one knows that one has been connected with an extraordinary event, or is under the shadow of some mental illusion, one marks details as signboards on the way. But if one does not have this knowledge about him, no notice will be taken.
The spring came, and Letington took up polo. One day at Roehampton, in a scrimmage, he was by accident struck on the temple with a mallet. The injury at the time did not seem to be important. He did not get down from the pony, and the game went on.
But the injury was, in fact, serious.
The optic nerve congested, and his sight began to fail. He went to all the experts in England. They were all quite agreed about it. There was an obscure injury of some character to the optic nerve. They could do nothing. And the appalling thing about it was that the failing sight was not confined to the eye on the side of the temple injured. It appeared in both eyes. In plain truth, the man was going blind.
And then he got a mysterious message:
"Come to me if you lose the sun!"
He did not know where the message came from nor how it happened to arrive. He said that he was in Piccadilly Circus one afternoon in London. He had been up to see one of the experts. He was getting into a taxicab. There was a crowd at this point, held up by the traffic and someone whispered the words to him.
He could not see who it was.
He was pretty blind by now. The world was passing. He got no idea who had been near him. He was facing the door of the taxicab at the moment. It was not certain that he could have seen the speaker if his eyes had been all right. In the condition they were in he did not know who had spoken to him. But he heard the message precisely, and he knew whence it came.
It was the Delphic promise of the peasant woman. He knew now what she meant by that oracular expression:
"You may win your way...if you should lose the sun!"
Well, he was on the road to losing the sun. That was one way to put the case.
As this blindness went on the sun would disappear.
But the thing cheered him like a bugle.
If the way to this heavenly creature lay through the dark only, then he was glad of the dark. He welcomed it. It was the thing he wished above all other things, and his manner changed. He no longer complained against his blindness.
He no longer cared.
He welcomed it!
The only thing that concerned him in the message was the uncertainty of it. How could he go to her when he had no knowledge of where she was? How could one reach a fairy creature, a dryad singing in a sacred grove?
Where was the door in the hill through which one entered into this magic country? He was on the way to lose the sun; that was certain. That way was clear enough. But how was he to get his feet on the other way? It was all a mystery. But he had an incredible uplifting of the spirit. The way in the end would be made clear to him. But did it mean that he was to go out of life? Did it mean that to come to this heavenly creature he must go out of the world of consciousness, of sight, of hearing? Was it the door of death that he was called to go through? That was the only thing that disturbed him.
He wished to find that heavenly creature in this life, while his strength and his youth were with him. He was in every way strong and in vigor, with the exception of this blindness, and he did not care for that. He recalled what the peasant woman had said: the agencies behind the world sold their gifts; sold them at a price. And for a gift so excellent this price was not excessive.
He did not haggle about the price.
He was willing to pay it, glad to pay it, anxious to pay, if he could win his way to this woman of dreams!
And so it came about, as I said a moment ago, that the man's attitude toward things changed. He seemed pleased with the disaster that was overtaking him. And this manner, the incredible events that he had reported to the English company, and his now marked unconcern in the face of an appalling disaster, convinced everyone about him that he was insane; that, on the way to loss of vision, he was also on the way to a loss of sanity.
They called in Sir Godfrey Simon.
Everybody believed Letington on the way to madness; that is to say, everybody about him but the one person who was an authority on that subject.
Sir Godfrey Simon did not believe it.
He knew the man was not insane. He knew it for several reasons, complete and satisfactory in themselves. You see, there was a series of coincidents in this thing.
Sir Godfrey Simon, as it happened, had a knowledge of these events. He had a larger knowledge of them than this actor in them. He knew the extent of them, their ramifications and whither they led, while Letington knew only the result of them. He had a larger knowledge of the whole business than Letington; and that, for one reason, convinced him that the man was not insane.
But he said very little about it.
He let the whole of England go on believing what they pleased. Still, he never misled them. When they put the pointed query at him, he said no. But he took a profound interest in the case. He took what one would call a fatherly interest in it. He got the man's confidence, and he encouraged him in his attitude before the disaster that approached.
It was incredible, like everything else in this incredible story.
Here was a man, ordinarily a normal man, in youth, in the strength and vigor of youth, encouraged to welcome, impatiently to welcome, a ghastly disaster because by that sacrifice he would win a way into some world of dreams.
Of course his sister, the Countess of Heatherstone, did not give him up. She kept sending him back to the London experts. It was of no use. The man was blind! The optic nerve was ruined. There was no hope for him. There was nothing an expert could do. Letington did not wish to go to London. But he was glad of the insistence that sent him to the experts the last time. An event happened for which he had been hoping.
He got another message!
It was in Regent Street, as he was getting down from the Countess' motor before the door of one of the experts. Someone spoke to him and passed on. He could not see who it was. He could not see anything now, except the vague presence of light. He knew when it was day and when it was dark, and that was about the extent of it.
It was another Delphic message like the first one:
"Come to me in the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!"
I want to stop here a moment until we can assemble the essentials of the story. Get the whole thing, as one might say it, within a sweep of the eye.
I have said that Sir Godfrey Simon was the deus ex machina in this whole affair. He had not only a grasp on the whole thing but also had the direction of it. I do not mean a direction by accident. I mean a direction by the will—direction like a providence. When one realizes this controlling fact, one is on the way to an accurate conception of the whole thing.
The Earl of Heatherstone has a big country seat on the Teith.
There is a wonderful suite in the east wing of it. Sir Godfrey Simon was there with Letington after the event I have just related, the arrival of that last Delphic message. It's a wonderful room: a big sitting room, bright with chintz, looking out over a sweep of meadow descending to the dark, rapid river, with a wood beyond.
Letington was profoundly disturbed.
Where was this land—the land where men ground their wheat in the sky? How could he go there? It was like a line out of a fairy story; like a message sent in an Arabian tale.
He began to wonder about it.
Was he, after all, merely the victim of an illusion? That was the only thing that disturbed him. He was not concerned about the night that he had entered. There was a symbolism in that. It comforted and sustained him. When one thinks about it, there is always the dark to be traversed before one comes into any form of life. One arrives at a new day only by passing through the night before it.
The wonderful, incredible fairy life before him lay through this night.
He was not afraid of the night.
If he could be certain that the thing he longed for was to be reached by traversing the night—and he had that assurance—he didn't care for the world of reality. What was the dark to him if he could win his way to this alluring woman! But the fear haunted him that the land he was beckoned toward was not, in fact, one of living man. And it was as a living man that he wished to possess this alluring, heavenly creature. He wanted her in life; in this life. He didn't care about sight and hearing, so long as the living sense of feeling remained.
That was the whole thing.
The consummation of every great emotion, of every ecstasy of emotion, after all, was in nearly every instance accomplished in silence and in the dark. Sight and hearing added nothing to it! It was the sense of feeling that elevated human emotions into an ecstasy. But one had to be alive; to be a living man in the land of the living. There was nothing to be depended on outside of the world he knew. He wanted this woman now, alive, in this world.
That was the thing that brought Sir Godfrey Simon to sit with him in the great room overlooking the Teith. And it was Sir Godfrey Simon who gave him the key to the mystery, who read the riddle for him:
"Come to me in the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!"
That night Letington disappeared.
He disappeared wholly out of England, as though the earth had opened and received him. No one ever know what became of him. No one ever saw him again. He left a message, on the table, for his sister, written large and crudely, for he couldn't see:
"I have gone to the land where men grind their wheat in the sky."
That was all anyone, except Sir Godfrey Simon, ever knew. He gave me a little verbal picture of what happened, as one might look for a moment, through the crack of a door, into fairyland.
Letington crossed a stretch of water in the night, like Arthur on his way to Avalon. He came to a shore beyond it. He was met by an old peasant with a dog harnessed to a cart. He was taken with his luggage on a road he could not see. He could not see! It was all night to him.
They stopped after a while before what seemed to be an immense metal gate. The old peasant had a good deal of trouble to open it. It seemed to be morning and in a land of sun. The peasant led the blind man through the gate, but remained himself outside. He told Letington to go forward, and he did go forward on what appeared to be a gravel path. And presently beyond him he heard the heavenly voice that he had heard in the Canadian forest; that haunting, alluring, mysterious voice.
He groped his way toward it.
He found the singing woman. He took her in his arms, he passed his fingers gently over her face, her hair, her exquisite, beautiful body. It was clear to his delicate touch that she was young, lovely, and as perfect as a dream! He had lost the sun, but he had come to what he longed for in the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!
They disappeared among the trees, in the distance, beyond the great metal gate. The man's arm was around the slender, golden-haired girl, as in the morning of the world the first man and the first woman wandered away in the Garden in Asia!
Go back with me to the opening of this story.
You know where I was; in that inn out of a page of Dumas, conducted by a Walloon to whom I had intrusted a hunter worth a thousand pounds sterling. I was lost, and it was raining outside. The night had descended. I was drying my clothes before a peat fire, and Sir Godfrey Simon was going forward with his story. He shot now a pointed query at me:
"Suppose you had had that oracle to interpret. What would you have done?"
"I would have given it up," I answered. "Men do not grind their wheat in the sky, and there is no such land, except in the kingdom of the fairies."
"In the Kingdom of the Belgians!" he said. "What did you pass to-night on your way here?"
I told him what I had passed: meadows, ditches, an abandoned road, and a great spiked iron fence.
"And what else?" he said.
I tried to think about it.
"Some peasant cottages, a village now and then, a sluggish stream."
"And what else?" he said again.
"And a windmill," I answered, "now and then in the distance."
He brought his great hand down on the table.
"There you have it," he cried. "Grist mills turned by the wind! It is the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!"
He made a great gesture.
"Everywhere else in the world men grind their wheat on the earth. But not so in the Kingdom of the Belgians."
A thing is a mystery because we do not understand it. It is no mystery when we see it to the end.
Ten minutes of explanation cleared the thing up—cleared up every fabulous thing in it. I thought about it as I rode back in the morning to the château of my host, the Marquis de Brie; as I returned along that abandoned road beside the immense fence.
Sir Godfrey Simon's brother, dead and buried, and leaving a great estate, had married an Italian operatic star in Vienna. He had one daughter with a golden voice. The girl had prepared to make her début, and on the first night of the opera a piece of scenery caught fire, and her face was burned. She was placed in the care of the greatest experts, who succeeded in restoring the lovely contour of her face and its delicate skin. But they could not remove the horrible red discoloration that underlay the skin. It made the girl, otherwise physically perfect, repulsive to the eye. As a last experiment they turned to Hilderback's treatment of subjecting the delicate flesh to extreme cold. The girl would not go to Switzerland on account of the crowds of tourists everywhere. The peasant woman who had been her mother's maid and companion knew of this Italian colony in Canada and persuaded the girl to go there for the winter. And so came this extravaganza in the Canadian forest. All the pretended witchcraft was only clever playacting. For example, the passenger engine was merely cut loose from the train, run through the tunnel and switched into one of the great bark sheds. The hemlock bark was taken down and set up again around it. The fall of snow covered everything. The ends of the tunnel were shot down as a blind.
And Sir Godfrey Simon, with the immense wealth that his brother had bequeathed to the girl, had purchased this estate in Belgium and cut it off from the world with its immense iron-spiked fence.
He had directed events. He brought the two persons together. He had by that direction of events turned a disaster into a heavenly thing. Like a genie in a tale, he had transported a girl with a horror of aspect and a man with a horror of blindness into the Garden in Asia!
I thought about it in the morning sun on my way to the château of the Marquis de Brie; as I rode southeast over fields and ditches:
In the land where men grind their wheat in the sky!
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