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

MEDEA’S LITTLE HOUR

When Coira O’Hara came to herself from the moment’s swoon into which she had fallen, she rose to her knees and stared wildly about her. She seemed to be alone in the place, and her first thought was to wonder how long she had lain there. Captain Stewart had disappeared. She remembered her struggle with him to prevent him from firing at Ste. Marie, and she remembered her desperate agony when she realized that she could not hold him much longer. She remembered the accidental discharge of the revolver into the air; she remembered being thrown violently to the ground and that was all.

Where was her father, and where was Ste. Marie? The first question answered itself, for as she turned her eyes toward the west she saw O’Hara’s tall, ungainly figure disappearing in the direction of the house. She called his name twice, but it may be that the man did not hear, for he went on without pausing and was lost to sight.

The girl became aware of something which lay on the ground near her, half in and half out of the patch of silver moonlight. For some moments she stared at it uncomprehending. Then she gave a sharp scream and struggled to her feet. She ran to the thing which lay there motionless and fell upon her knees beside it. It was Ste. Marie, his face upturned to the sky, one side of his head black and damp. Stewart had not shot him, but that crashing blow with the clubbed revolver had struck him full and fair, and he was very still.

For an instant the girl’s strength went out of her, and she dropped lax across the body, her face upon Ste. Marie’s breast. But after that she tore open coat and waistcoat and felt for a heart-beat. It seemed to her that she found life, and she began to believe that the man had only been stunned.

Once more she rose to her feet and looked about her. There was no one to lend her aid. She bent over the unconscious man and slipped her arms about him. Though Ste. Marie was tall, he was slightly built, by no means heavy, and the girl was very strong. She found that she could carry him a little way, dragging his feet after her. When she could go no farther she laid him down and crouched over him, waiting until her strength should return. And this she did for a score of times; but each time the distance she went was shorter and her breathing came with deeper gasps and the trembling in her limbs grew more terrible. At the last she moved in a sort of fever, an evil dream of tortured body and reeling brain. But she had got Ste. Marie up through the park to the terrace and into the house, and with a last desperate effort she had laid him upon a couch in a certain little room which opened from the lower hall. Then she fell down before him and lay still for a long time.

When she came to herself again the man was stirring feebly and muttering to himself under his breath. With slow and painful steps she got across the room and pulled the bell-cord. She remained there ringing until the old Justine, blinking and half-dressed, appeared with a candle in the doorway. Coira told the woman to make lights, and then to bring water and a certain little bottle of aromatic salts which was in her room up-stairs. The old Justine exclaimed and cried out, but the girl flew at her in a white fury, and she tottered away as fast as old legs could move once she had set alight the row of candles on the mantelshelf. Then Coira O’Hara went back to the man who lay outstretched on the low couch, and knelt beside him, looking into his face. The man stirred, and moved his head slowly. Half-articulate words came from his lips, and she made out that he was saying her name in a dull monotone only her name, over and over again. She gave a little cry of grief and gladness, and hid her face against him as she had done once before, out in the night.

The old woman returned with a jug of water, towels, and the bottle of aromatic salts. The two of them washed that stain from Ste. Marie’s head, and found that he had received a severe bruise and that the flesh had been cut before and above the ear.

“Thank God,” the girl said, “it is only a flesh wound! If it were a fracture he would be breathing in that horrible, loud way they always do. He’s breathing naturally. He has only been stunned. You may go now,” she said. “Only bring a glass and some drinking-water cold.”

So the old woman went away to do her errand, returned, and went away again, and the two were left together. Coira held the salts-bottle to Ste. Marie’s nostrils, and he gasped and sneezed and tried to turn his head away from it, but it brought him to his senses and doubtless to a good deal of pain. Once when he could not escape the thing he broke into a fit of weak cursing, and the girl laughed over him tenderly and let him be.

Very slowly Ste. Marie opened his eyes, and in the soft half-light the girl’s face was bent above him, dark and sweet and beautiful near, so near that her breath was warm upon his lips. He said her name again in an incredulous whisper:

“Coira! Coira!”

And she said, “I am here.”

But the man was in a strange border-land of half-consciousness and his ears were deaf. He said, gazing up at her:

“Is it another dream?”

And he tried to raise one hand from where it lay beside him, but the hand wavered and fell aslant across his body. It had not the strength yet to obey him. He said, still in his weak whisper:

“Oh, beautiful and sweet and true!”

The girl gave a little sob and hid her face.

“A goddess!” he whispered. “‘A queen among goddesses!’ That’s what the little Jew said. ‘A queen among goddesses. The young Juno before ’” He stirred restlessly where he lay, and he complained: “My head hurts! What’s the matter with my head? It hurts!”

She dipped one of the towels in the basin of cold water and held it to the man’s brow. The chill of it must have been grateful, for his eyes closed and he breathed a little satisfied “Ah!”

“It mustn’t hurt to-night,” said he. “To-night at two by the little door in the garden wall. And he’s coming with us. The young fool is coming with us.... So she and I go out of each other’s lives.... Coira!” he cried, with a sudden sharpness. “Coira, I won’t have it! Am I going to lose you ... like this? Am I going to lose you, after all ... now that we know?”

He put up his hand once more, a weak and uncertain hand. It touched the girl’s warm cheek and a sudden violent shiver wrung the man on the couch. His eyes sharpened and stared with something like fear.

Real!” he cried, whispering. “Real? ... Not a dream?”

“Oh, very real, my Bayard!” said she. A thought came to her, and she drew away from the couch and sat back upon her heels, looking at the man with grave and sombre eyes. In that moment she fought within herself a battle of right and wrong. “He doesn’t remember,” she said. “He doesn’t know. He is like a little child. He knows nothing but that we two are here together. Nothing else. Nothing!”

His state was plain to see. He dwelt still in that vague border-land between worlds. He had brought with him no memories, and no memories followed him save those her face had wakened. Within the girl a great and tender passion of love fought for possession of this little hour.

“It will be all I shall ever have!” she cried, piteously. “And it cannot harm him. He won’t remember it when he comes to his senses. He’ll sleep again and forget. He’ll go back to her and never know. And I shall never even see him again. Why can’t I have my little sweet hour?”

Once more the man cried her name, and she knelt forward and bent above him. “Oh, at last, Coira!” said he. “After so long! ... And I thought it was another dream!”

“Do you dream of me, Bayard?” she asked.

And he said: “From the very first. From that evening in the Champs-Elysees. Your eyes, they’ve haunted me from the very first. There was a dream of you,” he said, “that I had so often but I cannot quite remember, because my head hurts. What is the matter with my head? I was going somewhere. It was so very important that I should go, but I have forgotten where it was and why I had to go there. I remember only that you called to me called me back and I saw your eyes and I couldn’t go. You needed me.”

“Ah, sorely, Bayard! Sorely!” cried the girl above him.

“And now,” said he, whispering.

“Now?” she said.

“Coira, I love you,” said the man on the couch.

And Coira O’Hara gave a single dry sob.

She said: “Oh, my dear love! Now I wish that I might die after hearing you say that. My life, Bayard, is full now. It’s full of joy and gratefulness and everything that is sweet. I wish I might die before other things come to spoil it.”

Ste. Marie or that part of him which lay at La Lierre laughed with a fine scorn, albeit very weakly. “Why not live instead?” said he. “And what can come to spoil our life for us? Our life!” he said again, in a whisper. A flash of remembrance seemed to come to him, for he smiled and said, “Coira, we’ll go to Vavau.”

“Anywhere!” said she. “Anywhere!”

“So that we go together.”

“Yes,” she said, gently, “so that we two go together.” She tried with a desperate fierceness to make herself like the man before her, to put away, by sheer power of will, all memory, the knowledge of everything save what was in this little room, but it was the vainest of all vain efforts. She saw herself for a thief and a cheat stealing, for love’s sake, the mere body of the man she loved while mind and soul were absent. In her agony she almost cried out aloud as the words said themselves within her. And she denied them. She said: “His mind may be absent, but his soul is here. He loves me. It is I, not that other. Can I not have my poor little hour of pretence? A little hour out of all a lifetime! Shall I have nothing at all?”

But the voice which had accused her said, “If he knew, would he say he loves you?” And she hid her face, for she knew that he would not even if it were true.

“Coira!” whispered the man on the couch, and she raised her head. In the half darkness he could not have seen how she was suffering. Her face was only a warm blur to him, vague and sweet and beautiful, with tender eyes. He said: “I think I’m falling asleep. My head is so very, very queer! What is the matter with my head? Coira, do you think I might be kissed before I go to sleep?”

She gave a little cry of intolerable anguish. It seemed to her that she was being tortured beyond all reason or endurance. She felt suddenly very weak, and she was afraid that she was going to faint away. She laid her face down upon the couch where Ste. Marie’s head lay. Her cheek was against his and her hair across his eyes.

The man gave a contented sigh and fell asleep.

Later, she rose stiffly and wearily to her feet. She stood for a little while looking down upon him. It was as if she looked upon the dead body of a lover. She seemed to say a still and white and tearless farewell to him. Her little hour was done, and it had been, instead of joy, bitterness unspeakable: ashes in the mouth. Then she went out of the room and closed the door.

In the hall outside she stood a moment considering, and finally mounted the stairs and went to her father’s door. She knocked and thought she heard a slight stirring inside, but there was no answer. She knocked twice again and called out her father’s name, saying that she wished to speak to him, but still he made no reply, and after waiting a little longer she turned away. She went down-stairs again and out upon the terrace. The terrace and the lawn before it were still checkered with silver and deep black, but the moon was an hour lower in the west. A little cool breeze had sprung up, and it was sweet and grateful to her. She sat down upon one of the stone benches and leaned her head back against the trunk of a tree which stood beside it and she remained there for a long time, still and relaxed, in a sort of bodily and mental languor an exhaustion of flesh and spirit.

There came shambling footsteps upon the turf, and the old Michel advanced into the moonlight from the gloom of the trees, emitting mechanical and not very realistic groans. He had been hard put to it to find any one before whom he could pour out his tale of heroism and suffering. Coira O’Hara looked upon him coldly, and the gnome groaned with renewed and somewhat frightened energy.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked. “Why are you about at this hour?”

The old Michel told his piteous tale with tears and passion, protesting that he had succumbed only before the combined attack of twenty armed men, and exhibiting his wounds. But the girl gave a brief and mirthless laugh.

“You were bribed to tell that, I suppose,” said she. “By M. Ste. Marie? Yes, probably. Well, tell it to my father to-morrow! You’d better go to bed now.”

The old man stared at her with open mouth for a breathless moment, and then shambled hastily away, looking over his shoulder at intervals until he was out of sight.

But after that the girl still remained in her place from sheer weariness and lack of impulse to move. She fell to wondering about Captain Stewart and what had become of him, but she did not greatly care. She had a feeling that her world had come to its end, and she was quite indifferent about those who still peopled its ashes or about all of them save her father.

She heard the distant sound of a motor-car, and at that sat up quickly, for it might be Ste. Marie’s friend, Mr. Hartley, returning from Paris. The sound came nearer and ceased, but she waited for ten minutes before rapid steps approached from the east wall and Hartley was before her.

He cried at once: “Where’s Ste. Marie? Where is he? He hasn’t tried to walk into the city?”

“He is asleep in the house,” said the girl. “He was struck on the head and stunned. I got him into the house, and he is asleep now. Of course,” she said, “we could wake him, but it would probably be better to let him sleep as long as he will if it is possible. It will save him a great deal of pain, I think. He’ll have a frightful headache if he’s wakened now. Could you come for him or send for him to-morrow toward noon?”

“Why yes, I suppose so,” said Richard Hartley. “Yes, of course, if you think that’s better. Could I just see him for a moment?” He stared at the girl a bit suspiciously, and Coira looked back at him with a little tired smile, for she read his thought.

“You want to make sure,” said she. “Of course! Yes, come in. He’s sleeping very soundly.” She led the man into that dim room where Ste. Marie lay, and Hartley’s quick eye noted the basin of water and the stained towels and the little bottle of aromatic salts. He bent over his friend to see the bruise at the side of the head, and listened to the sleeper’s breathing. Then the two went out again to the moonlit terrace.

“You must forgive me,” said he, when they had come there. “You must forgive me for seeming suspicious, but all this wretched business and he is my closest friend I’ve come to suspect everybody. I was unjust, for you helped us to get away. I beg your pardon!”

The girl smiled at him again, her little, white, tired smile, and she said: “There is nothing I would not do to make amends now that I know the truth.”

“Yes,” said Hartley, “I understand. Arthur Benham told me how Stewart lied to you all. Was it he who struck Ste. Marie?”

She nodded. “And then tried to shoot him; but he didn’t succeed in that. I wonder where he is Captain Stewart?”

“I have him out in the car,” Hartley said. “Oh, he shall pay, you may be sure! if he doesn’t die and cheat us, that is. I nearly ran the car over him a few minutes ago. If it hadn’t been for the moonlight I would have done for him. He was lying on his face in that lane that leads to the Issy road. I don’t know what is the matter with him. He’s only half conscious and he’s quite helpless. He looks as if he’d had a stroke of apoplexy or something. I must hurry him back to Paris, I suppose, and get him under a doctor’s care. I wonder what’s wrong with him?”

The girl shook her head, for she did not know of Stewart’s epileptic seizures. She thought it quite possible that he had suffered a stroke of apoplexy as Hartley suggested, for she remembered the half-mad state he had been in.

Richard Hartley stood for a time in thought. “I must get Stewart back to Paris at once,” he said, finally. “I must get him under care and in a safe place from which he can’t escape. It will want some managing. If I can get away I’ll come out here again in the morning, but if not I’ll send the car out with orders to wait here until Ste. Marie is ready to return to the city. Are you sure he’s all right that he isn’t badly hurt?”

“I think he will be all right,” she said, “save for the pain. He was only stunned.”

And Hartley nodded. “He seems to be breathing quite naturally,” said he. “That’s arranged, then. The car will be here in waiting, and I shall come with it if I can. Tell him when he wakes.” He put out his hand to her, and the girl gave him hers very listlessly but smiling. She wished he would go and leave her alone.

Then in a moment more he did go, and she heard his quick steps down through the trees, and heard, a little later, the engine of the motor-car start up with a sudden loud volley of explosions. And so she was left to her solitary watch. She noticed, as she turned to go indoors, that the blackness of the night was just beginning to gray toward dawn.