Read CHAPTER XXIII of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

THE LAST ARROW

The one birdlike eye of the old Michel regarded Ste. Marie with a glance of mingled cunning and humor. It might have been said to twinkle.

“To the east, Monsieur?” inquired the old Michel.

“Precisely!” said Ste. Marie. “To the east, mon vieux.” It was the morning of the fourth day after that talk with Captain Stewart beside the rose-gardens.

The two bore to the eastward, down among the trees, and presently came to the spot where a certain trespasser had once leaped down from the top of the high wall and had been shot for his pains. The old Michel halted and leaned upon the barrel of his carbine. With an air of complete detachment, an air vague and aloof as of one in a revery, he gazed away over the tree-tops of the ragged park; but Ste. Marie went in under the row of lilac shrubs which stood close against the wall, and a passer-by might have thought the man looking for figs on thistles, for lilacs in late July. He had gone there with eagerness, with flushed cheeks and bright eyes; he emerged after some moments, moving slowly, with downcast head.

“There are no lilac blooms now, Monsieur,” observed the old Michel, and his prisoner said, in a low voice:

No, mon vieux. No. There are none.” He sighed and drew a long breath. So the two stood for some time silent, Ste. Marie a little pale, his eyes fixed upon the ground, his hands chafing together behind him, the gardener with his one bright eye upon his charge. But in the end Ste. Marie sighed again and began to move away, followed by the gardener. They went across the broad park, past the double row of larches, through that space where the chestnut-trees stood in straight, close rows, and so came to the west wall which skirted the road to Clamart. Ste. Marie felt in his pocket and withdrew the last of the four letters the last there could be, for he had no more stamps. The others he had thrown over the wall, one each morning, beginning with the day after he had made the first attempt to bribe old Michel. As he had expected, twenty-four hours of avaricious reflection had proved too much for that gnomelike being.

One each day he had thrown over the wall, weighted with a pebble tucked loosely under the flap of the improvised envelope, in such a manner that it would drop but when the letter struck the ground beyond. And each following day he had gone with high hopes to the appointed place under the cedar-tree to pick figs of thistles, lilac blooms in late July. But there had been nothing there.

“Turn your back, Michel!” said Ste. Marie.

And the old man said, from a little distance: “It is turned, Monsieur. I see nothing. Monsieur throws little stories at the birds to amuse himself. It does not concern me.”

Ste. Marie slipped a pebble under the flap of the envelope and threw his letter over the wall. It went like a soaring bird, whirling horizontally, and it must have fallen far out in the middle of the road near the tramway. For the third time that morning the prisoner drew a sigh. He said, “You may turn round now, my friend,” and the old Michel faced him. “We have shot our last arrow,” said he. “If this also fails, I think well, I think the bon Dieu will have to help us then. Michel,” he inquired, “do you know how to pray?”

“Sacred thousand swine, no!” cried the ancient gnome, in something between astonishment and horror. “No, Monsieur. ’Pas mon metier, ca!” He shook his head rapidly from side to side like one of those toys in a shop-window whose heads oscillate upon a pivot. But all at once a gleam of inspiration sparkled in his lone eye. “There is the old Justine!” he suggested. “Toujours sur les genoux, cette imbecile la.”

“In that case,” said Ste. Marie, “you might ask the lady to say one little extra prayer for the pebble I threw at the birds just now. Hein?” He withdrew from his pocket the last two louis d’or, and Michel took them in a trembling hand. There remained but the note of fifty francs and some silver.

“The prayer shall be said, Monsieur,” declared the gardener. “It shall be said. She shall pray all night or I will kill her.”

“Thank you,” said Ste. Marie. “You are kindness itself. A gentle soul.”

They turned away to retrace their steps, and Michel rubbed the side of his head with a reflective air.

“The old one is a madman,” said he. (The “old one” meant Captain Stewart.) “A madman. Each day he is madder, and this morning he struck me here on the head, because I was too slow. Eh! a little more of that, and who knows? Just a little more, a small little! Am I a dog, to be beaten? Hein? Je ne crois pas. He!” He called Captain Stewart two unprintable names, and after a moment’s thought he called him an animal, which is not so much of an anti-climax as it may seem, because to call anybody an animal in French is a serious matter.

The gardener was working himself up into something of a quiet passion, and Ste. Marie said:

“Softly, my friend! Softly!” It occurred to him that the man’s resentment might be of use later on, and he said: “You speak the truth. The old one is an animal, and he is also a great rascal.”

But Michel betrayed the makings of a philosopher. He said, with profound conviction: “Monsieur, all men are great rascals. It is I who say it.”

And at that Ste. Marie had to laugh.

He had not consciously directed his feet, but without direction they led him round the corner of the rose-gardens and toward the rond point. He knew well whom he would find there. She had not failed him during the past three days. Each morning he had found her in her place, and for his allotted hour which more than once stretched itself out to nearly two hours, if he had but known they had sat together on the stone bench, or, tiring of that, had walked under the trees beyond.

Long afterward Ste. Marie looked back upon these hours with, among other emotions, a great wonder at himself and at her. It seemed to him then one of the strangest relationships intimacies, for it might well be so called that ever existed between a man and a woman, and he was amazed at the ease, the unconsciousness, with which it had come about.

But during this time he did not allow himself to wonder or to examine, scarcely even to think. The hours were golden hours, unrelated, he told himself, to anything else in his life or in his interests. They were like pleasant dreams, very sweet while they endured, but to be put away and forgotten upon the waking. Only in that long afterward he knew that they had not been put away, that they had been with him always, that the morning hour had remained in his thoughts all the rest of the long day, and that he had waked upon the morrow with a keen and exquisite sense of something sweet to come.

It was a strange fool’s paradise that the man dwelt in, and in some small, vague measure he must, even at the time, have known it, for it is certain that he deliberately held himself away from thought realization; that he deliberately shut his eyes, held his ears lest he should hear or see.

That he was not faithless to his duty has been shown. He did his utmost there, but he was for the time helpless save for efforts to communicate with Richard Hartley, and those efforts could consume no more than ten minutes out of the weary day.

So he drifted, wilfully blind to bearings, wilfully deaf to Sound of warning or peril, and he found a companionship sweeter and fuller and more perfect than he had ever before known in all his life, though that is not to say very much, because sympathetic companionships between men and women are very rare indeed, and Ste. Marie had never experienced anything which could fairly be called by that name. He had had, as has been related, many flirtations, and not a few so-called love-affairs, but neither of these two sorts of intimacies are of necessity true intimacies at all; men often feel varying degrees of love for women without the least true understanding or sympathy or real companionship.

He was wondering, as he bore round the corner of the rose-gardens on this day, in just what mood he would find her. It seemed to him that in their brief acquaintance he had seen her in almost all the moods there are, from bitter gloom to the irrepressible gayety of a little child. He had told her once that she was like an organ, and she had laughed at him for being pretentious and high-flown, though she could upon occasion be quite high-flown enough herself for all ordinary purposes.

He reached the cleared margin of the rond point, and a little cold fear stirred in him when he did not hear her singing under her breath, as she was wont to do when alone, but he went forward and she was there in her place upon the stone bench. She had been reading, but the book lay forgotten beside her and she sat idle, her head laid back against the thick stems of shrubbery which grew behind, her hands in her lap. It was a warm, still morning, with the promise of a hot afternoon, and the girl was dressed in something very thin and transparent and cool-looking, open in a little square at the throat and with sleeves which came only to her elbows. The material was pale and dull yellow, with very vaguely defined green leaves in it, and against it the girl’s dark and clear skin glowed rich and warm and living, as pearls glow and seem to throb against the dead tints of the fabric upon which they are laid.

She did not move when he came before her, but looked up to him gravely without stirring her head.

“I didn’t hear you come,” said she. “You don’t drag your left leg any more. You walk almost as well as if you had never been wounded.”

“I’m almost all right again,” he answered. “I suppose I couldn’t run or jump, but I certainly can walk very much like a human being. May I sit down?”

Mlle. O’Hara put out one hand and drew the book closer to make a place for him on the stone bench, and he settled himself comfortably there, turned a little so that he was facing toward her.

It was indicative of the state of intimacy into which the two had grown that they did not make polite conversation with each other, but indeed were silent for some little time after Ste. Marie had seated himself. It was he who spoke first. He said:

“You look vaguely classical to-day. I have been trying to guess why, and I cannot. Perhaps it’s because your what does one say: frock, dress, gown? because it is cut out square at the throat.”

“If you mean by classical, Greek,” said she, “it wouldn’t be square at the neck at all; it would be pointed V-shaped. And it would be very different in other ways, too. You are not an observing person, after all.”

“For all that,” insisted Ste. Marie, “you look classical. You look like some lady one reads about in Greek poems Helen or Iphigenia or Medea or somebody.”

“Helen had yellow hair, hadn’t she?” objected Mlle. O’Hara. “I should think I probably look more like Medea Medea in Colchis before Jason ”

She seemed suddenly to realize that she had hit upon an unfortunate example, for she stopped in the middle of her sentence and a wave of color swept up over her throat and face.

For a moment Ste. Marie did not understand, then he gave a low exclamation, for Medea certainly had been an unhappy name. He remembered something that Richard Hartley had said about that lady a long time before. He made another mistake, for to lessen the moment’s embarrassment he gave speech to the first thought which entered his mind. He said:

“Some one once remarked that you look like the young Juno before marriage. I expect it’s true, too.”

She turned upon him swiftly.

“Who said that?” she demanded. “Who has ever talked to you about me?”

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I seem to be singularly stupid this morning. A mild lunacy. You must forgive me, if you can. To tell you what you ask would be to enter upon forbidden ground, and I mustn’t do that.”

“Still, I should like to know,” said the girl, watching him with sombre eyes.

“Well, then,” said he, “it was a little Jewish photographer in the Boulevard de la Madeleine.”

And she said, “Oh!” in a rather disappointed tone and looked away.

“We seem to be making conversation chiefly about my personal appearance,” she said, presently. “There must be other topics if one should try hard to find them. Tell me stories. You told me stories yesterday; tell me more. You seem to be in a classical mood. You shall be Odysseus, and I will be Nausicaa, the interesting laundress. Tell me about wanderings and things. Have you any more islands for me?”

“Yes,” said Ste. Marie, nodding at her slowly. “Yes, Nausicaa, I have more islands for you. The seas are full of islands. What kind do you want?”

“A warm one,” said the girl. “Even on a hot day like this I choose a warm one, because I hate the cold.”

She settled herself more comfortably, with a little sigh of content that was exactly like a child’s happy sigh when stories are going to be told before the fire.

“I know an island,” said Ste. Marie, “that I think you would like because it is warm and beautiful and very far away from troubles of all kinds. As well as I could make out, when I went there, nobody on the island had ever even heard of trouble. Oh yes, you’d like it. The people there are brown, and they’re as beautiful as their own island. They wear hibiscus flowers stuck in their hair, and they very seldom do any work.”

“I want to go there!” cried Mlle. Coira O’Hara. “I want to go there now, this afternoon, at once! Where is it?”

“It’s in the South Pacific,” said he, “not so very far from Samoa and Fiji and other groups that you will have heard about, and its name is Vavau. It’s one of the Tongans. It’s a high, volcanic island, not a flat, coral one like the southern Tongans. I came to it, one evening, sailing north from Nukualofa and Haapai, and it looked to me like a single big mountain jutting up out of the sea, black-green against the sunset. It was very impressive. But it isn’t a single mountain, it’s a lot of high, broken hills covered with a tangle of vegetation and set round a narrow bay, a sort of fjord, three or four miles long, and at the inner end of this are the village and the stores of the few white traders. I’m afraid,” said Ste. Marie, shaking his head “I’m afraid I can’t tell you about it, after all. I can’t seem to find the words. You can’t put into language at least, I can’t those slow, hot, island days that are never too hot because the trades blow fresh and strong, or the island nights that are more like black velvet with pearls sewed on it than anything else. You can’t describe the smell of orange groves and the look of palm-trees against the sky. You can’t tell about the sweet, simple, natural hospitality of the natives. They’re like little, unsuspicious children. In short,” said he, “I shall have to give it up, after all, just because it’s too big for me. I can only say that it’s beautiful and unspeakably remote from the world, and that I think I should like to go back to Vavau and stay a long time, and let the rest of the world go hang.”

Mlle. O’Hara stared across the park of La Lierre with wide and shadowy eyes, and her lips trembled a little.

“Oh, I want to go there!” she cried again. “I want to go there and rest and forget everything!” She turned upon him with a sudden bitter resentment. “Why do you tell me things like that?” she cried. “Oh yes, I know. I asked you, but can’t you see? To hide one’s self away in a place like that!” she said. “To let the sun warm you and the trade-winds blow away all that had ever tortured you! Just to rest and be at peace!” She turned her eyes to him once more. “You needn’t be afraid that you have failed to make me see your island! I see it. I feel it. It doesn’t need many words. I can shut my eyes and I am there. But it was a little cruel. Oh, I know, I asked for it. It’s like the garden of the Hesperides, isn’t it?”

“Very like it,” said Ste. Marie, “because there are oranges groves of them. (And they were the golden apples, I take it.) Also, it is very far away from the world, and the people live in complete and careless ignorance of how the world goes on. Emperors and kings die, wars come and go, but they hear only a little faint echo of it all, long afterward, and even that doesn’t interest them.”

“I know,” she said. “I understand. Didn’t you know I’d understand?”

“Yes,” said he, nodding. “I suppose I did. We feel things rather alike, I suppose. We don’t have to say them all out.”

“I wonder,” she said, in a low voice, “if I’m glad or sorry.” She stared under her brows at the man beside her. “For it is very probable that when we have left La Lierre you and I will never meet again. I wonder if I’m ”

For some obscure reason she broke off there and turned her eyes away, and she remained without speaking for a long time. Her mind, as she sat there, seemed to go back to that southern island, and to its peace and loveliness, for Ste. Marie, who watched her, saw a little smile come to her lips, and he saw her eyes half close and grow soft and tender as if what they saw were very sweet to her. He watched many different expressions come upon the girl’s face and go again, but at last he seemed to see the old bitterness return there and struggle with something wistful and eager.

“I envy you your wide wanderings,” she said, presently. “Oh, I envy you more than I can find any words for. Your will is the wind’s will. You go where your fancy leads you, and you’re free free. We have wandered, you know,” said she, “my father and I. I can’t remember when we ever had a home to live in. But that is that is different a different kind of wandering.”

“Yes,” said Ste. Marie. “Yes, perhaps.” And within himself he said, with sorrow and pity, “Different, indeed!”

As if at some sudden thought the girl looked up at him quickly. “Did that sound regretful?” she asked. “Did what I say sound disloyal to my father? I didn’t mean it to. I don’t want you to think that I regret it. I don’t. It has meant being with my father. Wherever he has gone I have gone with him, and if anything ever has been unpleasant, I was willing, oh, I was glad, glad to put up with it for his sake and because I could be with him. If I have made his life a little happier by sharing it, I am glad of everything. I don’t regret.”

“And yet,” said Ste. Marie, gently, “it must have been hard sometimes.” He pictured to himself that roving existence lived among such people as O’Hara must have known, and it sent a hot wave of anger and distress over him from head to foot.

But the girl said: “I had my father. The rest of it didn’t matter in the face of that.” After a little silence she said, “M. Ste. Marie!”

And the man said, “What is it, Mademoiselle?”

“You spoke the other day,” she said, hesitating over her words, “about my aunt, Lady Margaret Craith. I suppose I ought not to ask you more about her, for my father quarrelled with his people very long ago and he broke with them altogether. But surely, it can do no harm just for a moment just a very little! Could you tell me a little about her, M. Ste. Marie what she is like and and how she lives and things like that?”

So Ste. Marie told her all that he could of the old Irishwoman who lived alone in her great house, and ruled with a slack Irish hand, a sweet Irish heart, over tenants and dependants. And when he had come to an end the girl drew a little sigh and said:

“Thank you. I am so glad to hear of her. I wish everything were different, so that I think I should love her very much if I might.”

“Mademoiselle,” said Ste. Marie, “will you promise me something?”

She looked at him with her sombre eyes, and after a little she said: “I am afraid you must tell me first what it is. I cannot promise blindly.”

He said: “I want you to promise me that if anything ever should happen any difficulty trouble anything to put you in the position of needing care or help or sympathy ”

But she broke in upon him with a swift alarm, crying: “What do you mean? You’re trying to hint at something that I don’t know. What difficulty or trouble could happen to me? Please tell me just what you mean.”

“I’m not hinting at any mystery,” said Ste. Marie. “I don’t know of anything that is going to happen to you, but will you forgive me for saying it? your father is, I take it, often exposed to danger of various sorts. I’m afraid I can’t quite express myself, only, if any trouble should come to you, Mademoiselle, will you promise me to go to Lady Margaret, your aunt, and tell her who you are and let her care for you?”

“There was an absolute break,” she said. “Complete.”

But the man shook his head, saying:

“Lady Margaret won’t think of that. She’ll think only of you that she can mother you, perhaps save you grief and of herself, that in her old age she has a daughter. It would make a lonely old woman very happy, Mademoiselle.”

The girl bent her head away from him, and Ste. Marie saw, for the first time since he had known her, tears in her eyes. After a long time she said:

“I promise, then. But,” she said, “it is very unlikely that it should ever come about for more than one reason. Very unlikely.”

“Still, Mademoiselle,” said he, “I am glad you have promised. This is an uncertain world. One never can tell what will come with the to-morrows.”

“I can,” the girl said, with a little tired smile that Ste. Marie did not understand. “I can tell. I can see all the to-morrows a long, long row of them. I know just what they’re going to be like to the very end.”

But the man rose to his feet and looked down upon her as she sat before him. And he shook his head.

“You are mistaken,” he said. “Pardon me, but you are mistaken. No one can see to-morrow or the end of anything. The end may surprise you very much.”

“I wish it would!” cried Mlle. O’Hara. “Oh, I wish it would!”