The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware



Coiniac Street



    The loud night went, wasting itself with riot and tumult, towards morning. The wind went by with a solid rush, a great wall for a strong man to lean against. The woods stood shrieking on the hillsides, and the bitter weight of the rain lashed down in broken, gusty lines. In the darkness there was the shrieking of the woods and the small shrillings of such bushes and weeds as clung to the fences, and that other monotonous cry that the wind makes with the earth; but when the lightning leaped up the whole scene was voiceless, the woods slanted fearfully away from the torn clouds that were raking over them, and in a silence, as of held breath, the perplexed land leaped into sudden light and fell back into sudden darkness. Then with the darkness the woods shrieked again and the thunder broke with a tense rattle and went booming and crashing, and sank into a loose, mellow roar. Then the bitter lash of the rain, and the solid rush of the wind, and again the lightning, again the land cowed into silence, again the tumultuous complaint against the storm, and again the rolling, hollow thunder.
    
To one who only knew the features of the landscape in the sweet sunshine, those sudden glimpses which the lightning gave would have been as unnatural as the images that haunt a madman; but the night did not conceal such an one. The only man who held his way upon the road knew all the landmarks, no matter how the storm might distort them, for in his boyhood the forerunners of the very weeds in the fence corners had claimed his attention, and the woods, shriek as they might, had been quiet for long days when he wandered in them. And yet even to him the night was fearful, and, as he neared the gaunt house that the lightning had been pointing out to him ever since he left the brow of the hill, his strong desire was for shelter and comfort. But not there was likely to be any shelter or any comfort, and two miles of the road lay untravelled before him. As he came on against the wind each flash of light threw the house upon his eyes with intolerable distinctness. He knew all its bare angles, all its solid stone bulk, and all its vacant windows; he knew the bush which grew in the gutter, [Page 17] now flattened to the roof, as if clinging there in terror. It leaped time after time out of the darkness, stark and hard-visaged, until he could have cursed all its stones. He tried to lose sight of it, but the wind turned him to it, the rain forced his eyes shut, and when he opened them the lightning sprang out on him and there was the barren, cold thing, shorn of all outhouses and barns, standing on the clay knoll. It was strange that any mere fragment of earth could wear such an expression, but the clay knoll, slippery with the rain, in every flash of light was as pallid a grey as ever fear wore.
    
As he drew nearer the house he saw that one of the windows was not vacant, that the flickering light that filled it came from an open fire. Had he known it, he was expected there; but he did not know it, and until he stood opposite the door the flicker of the fire in the darkness and the gaunt bulk of the grey house in the lightning absorbed all his attention.
    
When he stood opposite the door something scurried across the road like a frightened hen, and grasped him by the knees, and when the next flash came he saw the figure of the old woman clinging there, crying for him to lead her to the house. He lifted her up and, shutting her shrivelled forearm in his grasp, he went up across the waste land between the road and the house. When the old woman shut the door he was alone in the dark hall, and not by groping could he reach her, and his ears caught no tidings of any movement. As he struck his hands against the walls a crack of light broke out, and he shoved open the door of a room. The fire was burning there, a lighted candle was the only thing on a long table, a bench was before the fireplace. He swung the wet off his hat, and, blinded by the storm, he sat down upon the bench before the fire, and shut out all the light to rest his eyes. When he took his hands away he stared upon the space between his feet and the fire. He was looking upon the body of a woman outstretched there upon a bright piece of carpet. She lay with her hands beneath her head; one of those rugs where a tiger sprawls upon a black ground was flung upon her feet. The firm lines of her figure were shapely in the firelight, but over her face was dropped a little kerchief. She made no movement, but her breath heaved her bodice regularly, and the pulse beat a rhythm in her round wrists.
    
He dreamed upon her figure and wondered of her face. Leaning forward into the firelight, time was cancelled, and the storm raved on uselessly, for his mind was full of pleasant and strange thoughts. Under the kerchief, was the face fair? It might be a thing to shudder at. The little red mask might veil features as revolting as ever humanity wore. One glance of the eyes might breed a host of dreams to curse sleep; one smile of the lips might haunt the chambers of memory with a mocking horror. [Page 18]
    
As all this might have been so, he did a mad thing; he leant out of his dream and plucked the kerchief by the corner. Holding it for an instant, he lifted it slowly. That was as fair a face as ever blood flushed. He could see now where the hands were hidden by the dark hair. The eyes looked straight upon his eyes, and across all the features streamed a sweet, lingering smile—a smile of recognition. “Alexander,” the lips said.
    
Now when that smile came so, across the face which he had never seen before, and when his name floated to him as softly as a petal at the end of rose time, the window was forced up from the outside, and the rude wind rushed into the room. It blew out the candle and sent it across the table to drop on the floor; it swirled the fire about, and scattered the ashes on the hearth. Springing to his feet, he glanced around, stumbled upon the bench, and when he recovered himself the carpet was vacant. He felt with his hands how it was warm, and saw a dark coat rolled up where the head had lain, but he was alone. Suddenly the storm leaped into life, and he made his way toward the door, crushing the tin candlestick under his feet as he went. As before, the violent turmoil rang through space, and the loud night wind went wasting itself with riot and tumult towards morning.
    Young Vinal had never seen that face before; he had not been inside that house since the time when, as a boy, he had dropped through the window, frightened at the echoes his feet loosened in the disused rooms; but, the next night, as he came down the forest cutting across to Coiniac street, he came as if to an appointment, his heart beating with the surety that some one would be there to meet him.
    The knoll dropped away behind this house, and the forest came skirting down and lay solidly all along the road; then, on the other side, were fields spreading to the foot of the hills, then hills beyond the hills. Any one who knew the country knew that back of the hills lay a pond of white water and a swamp where tamarac grew.
    He found her, as he expected, on the rail of the fence where the forest ended and the fields began, and where the little knoll commenced its gradual rise. She seemed so placid and unquestioning that he sat down at the foot of a tree and, instead of speaking to her, he looked past her feet through the fence rails. His eyes ran on to where the house was rooted on the knoll.
    “Well?” she said.
    He still looked at the grey base of the house, but answered nothing.
    “Why don’t you ask me who I am, and what we are doing in the house?”
    “Because I don’t want to know.”
    [Page 19]
    “You must want to know; that would be the first thing you would want to know. No one has lived there for years, and when some one comes you don’t care to know what they want. You must be different from other people.”
    “I’m not—at least I don’t think so.”
    “Don’t you want to know how long we have been here?”
    “I know that already, but”—here he broke off abruptly—“I wish you would come into the woods. I hate that house; it is watching us.”
    She followed him. He threw himself at the root of a tree and looked moodily at the leaves on the ground.
    “You say no one has lived in the house for years. Who should know that better than I? A long time ago I used to climb in at the windows. It’s a horrible place; all the open doors seemed to have been just left open, all the shut doors seemed just shut. I have heard them shut softly on the upper flats. Then the cellar was full of water. One day I opened a closet door, and there was a coil of rope over one of the pegs. I never went back after that. Little things bother me. I wonder if it’s there yet.”
    “No, I took it down and burnt it.”
    “Thank Heaven! It used to haunt me. That whole house seemed built around it. At night, in my dreams, I used to drop in at the window, track up the stairs, and open the closet and look at it, and sometimes the imagination of it would haunt me all day.”
    He was silent for a space; then he cried out sharply:—
    “I’m a perfect killjoy; I always was. It’s a terrible thing to be as gloomy as I have been. But now—I’m either better or worse. I don’t know which. One day I was ploughing. I don’t know what made me pick up a lump of earth, but when I crumbled it in my fingers there was a coin inside. When I polished it on my sleeve the King’s head came out.”
    He paused for quite a while.
    “Something seems to have crumbled away from my heart and your face has come out.”
    She laughed a glad sort of a laugh, and he went away from her through the trees without looking back.
    When he met her again they went up into the forest together. She was slightly behind him. “Alexander,” she said. He stopped and looked around, but when she did not continue, and dropped her eyes on the ground, he went on. “When you call me you can call me Elise.” “Of course,” he said.
    It was so dark they could just see the trees they could touch.
    “Let us build a little fire,” she said. They accordingly began to grope on the ground and gather twigs and branches. Very soon a little cone of red [Page 20] fire sprang up. It was curious how many trees there were then. They seemed to be crowded closely all around the blaze. When Alexander looked up from the fire he saw a very old, shrunken woman cowering closely on the skirts of the firelight. “Young man,” she said, “who is going to put out that fire?” “It will go out itself presently.” “But it may eat up the wood.” “Well, it’s my own wood.” “Tell me, would you like to know the future?” “I don’t care.” He went over and gave her his hand. She mumbled over it. “Speak out, old woman!” Instead of speaking out, she dropped his hand and crawled a little way into the darkness. Alexander went to the fire and heaped up more branches. When he looked back the old woman was gone, but Elise stood within the fire circle.
    “I have had my fortune told. I didn’t hear it through. Why did you not
tell me?”
    “How did you know it was me?”
    He smiled at her in curious perplexity.
    “After all,” he said, “what’s the good of knowing beforehand? I’ll know soon enough.”
    “I’m a bit of a witch,” she said.
    She drew a coal out of the fire. “Look here.” Alexander looked down on the coal. He seemed to be up on a hillside. The summer heat was dancing around him, and the bees whizzed by to the buckwheat field. He had a scythe in his hand, and was just about to sharpen it when he heard a voice call him—“Alexander.” He looked round, but he was alone on that hillside. He remembered the day perfectly.
    Elise gave the coal a turn. He seemed to be lying above a pond of water in the woods. His arms were bare to the shoulder and he dipped them into the clear deeps. He tried to catch the little fish that slipped in and out between his fingers. A wind blew coolly across the pond. Suddenly he heard a voice call him—“Alexander.” He took his arms out of the water and looked around, but no one was there. He was alone by that pond. He remembered that day perfectly[.] Elise gave the coal a turn. He seemed to be laboring up a hill in a storm. He carried a great weight of fear with him—fear that some one would call him by name out of the night. Walking on and on, he recalled every step of the road until he reached the brow of the hill and saw the house below him. He remembered in a flash all that had occurred, and how he had heard his name, but upon that Elise put out the coal. The fire had lost a little of its life, and one by one the trees had commenced to go back into the darkness. Elise caught up a branch tipped with fire, and whirled it in sinuous-involved figures. She seemed to be working a spell. [Page 21]
    “Alexander,” she said, “do[n’]t you want to know who we are?”
    “I’m not particular.”
    “But I am—I would like to tell you.”
    “Just as you like,” he said.
    “But I can’t trust you yet. You must show me that I can trust you.”
    He got up and commenced to stamp out the fire.
    The next time they met Elise led into the woods, but he took her arm and went up to the ridge to the road. This is called Coiniac street. There was a clear dimness in the night, and a sort of sharp moisture in the air. It seemed very light on the road after the woods.
    “Where are we going now?” asked Elise.
    “You wanted to trust me. You had better come,” he said.
    They were the only souls on that long road. After they had walked for about a mile Alexander turned up a lane, and in a few minutes they came upon an open space. Here again the forest ended and the fields began, but, as this clearing was on the brow of a sort of dwarf precipice looking out from it, the fields seemed never to end, the forest never to begin again. In the space stood a house and sheds. They were unpainted and of the silver-grey color of exposed pine, and in the clear dimness of the night they seemed strangely shadowy and unsubstantial. In the clear obscure everything wore this evanescence—the piles of split wood, the lines of lilac bushes, the shrubs about the house windows. The looming mass of a poplar seemed suspended like a great water plant. In sooth, the beholder seemed to be gazing into the water deeps; moved of a current, the whole picture might waver and swing liquidly, while one breath of air might blur it forever.
    Elise walked to the edge of the precipice and stood upon a flat stone. She looked out over the miles of dim plain below, as into some infinite reach of space. The whole sky was moving with a host of stars, and they came up constantly marching across the horison. Alexander was silent for a while and then he said, “All this is mine.” Elise commenced to swing her arms, touching her hands at first in front and then behind.
    “Five hundred acres of that land”—here he spread his hands out over the plain—“and all the cattle down there, and that pond; and I’ll give you all these.”
    Elise smiled; it was as if he had offered her the scenery of a dream for a possession. On the plain she could see no cattle and no pond.
    “You don’t even know who I am,” she said. He fell down in front of her, and, grasping her feet with his hands, shook her almost from her foothold. [Page 22]
    “Is that not enough?” he cried, in a sort of agony of spirit. “I know not who you are, and yet I offer you all these.”
    “You are a strange person. You cry out as if you were hurt.”
    “So I am hurt. Whatever I feel gives me great distress; whenever I should have joy, despair—a blank despair—comes in place of it.”
    Elise laughed out of the fulness of her heart. The spell of quiet seemed broken, for the poplar swayed as if it would topple over. Up from the plain came faintly the clash of cattle bells, and the gleam of stars flashed out, reflected from water on the earth’s breast.
    When they next met and had built a fire, Elise said:—“What did you mean by saying that about the coin you found!”
    “Nothing; it occurred to me to tell you.”
    “Have you kept it?”
    He pulled it out of his pocket. She looked at it narrowly.
    “It is good,” she said with a laugh, and gave it back to him. “Now I’m going to show you a game.” She commenced to spread something out along the log, which was covered with moss and lighted from end to end by the fire. He watched her, but could not see what she was laying down. “Now,” she said, “everything is ready.” He went nearer to her. She had arranged a row of coins on the log and a line of paper notes. “Now, the game is to tell which is bad and which is good.” He looked closely at them. “They are all alike.” She laughed. “Every second one is bad.” He picked up the first. “This is good.” “No! and every second one is just like it.”
    After a pause she said slowly, “Alexander, we make them; that is what we do over at the house.”
    He stared fixedly at the log.
    “Do you hate me now?”
    “No, why should I?”
    “Well, do something to help me. I have trusted you. Now I am going to try you.”
    She held a little bag towards him. “This is full of them.”
    He pushed her hand away.
    “Alexander, if you don’t take them they will beat me at the house. It will be so easy for you to pass them; you, a rich man’s son.”
    He took the bag and thrust it into his pocket.
    A night or two after this he handed her the little bag; it was full of good gold.
    “I’m terribly gloomy,” he said. “You know I told you I was always a killjoy. There seems to be something hanging over me.” [Page 23]
    “Do you believe in fate? I do. I don’t believe we can turn back. What is
to happen?”
    “I don’t believe in fate,” he said. “But that is not what I want to talk about. You remember the place I showed you? When will you come there and live with me?”
    “I don’t know; there are difficulties in the way.”
    “I might turn coiner,” he said, gloomily.
    “It’s too dangerous; they would always be suspicious of you, and if they were they would kill you.”
    “Well, what difference would that make?”
    “It ought to make no difference to you. It makes no difference to me. My life is a black thing. I walk through it as I would through a forest at night. I can’t see anything, and what I half see haunts me and hurts me.”
    His voice again had taken that desperate cry.
    “Why do you cry out in that way?”
    “You asked me that before, and I have answered you once.”
    “There are so many mysteries,” she said, “there is the mystery of the blood in our veins, and the hanging stars in the sky. But there are other mysteries; they wanted to pass the coins here; they carry them into the States themselves, so I was to get you to do it. But how could they know that you and I—
    “Girl!” he cried out, in sharp pain, “you torture me; something in your voice stabs me. Answer me once for all, and end all this. Will you come with me?”
    “There are difficulties I cannot tell you of.”
    He commenced to go away.
    “Alexander,” she cried, “here is a little charm; it will be as powerful to save you as anything else when you are in danger.”
    It was a horse-chestnut, netted over with silk.
    “I don’t think I’ll ever come back again,” he cried, in a great accent of despair.
    After he was gone Elise laughed because she knew he would come again the next night. When they had lit a fire at her suggestion, he said:— “I want to talk to you now; I want to make you understand. I have been for years like this, that some great thing was to happen to me. I have thought sometimes that it would be on the other side of the bush I was walking in; that I would meet it there. But all these years I have had no comfort from that hope, but just despair. It wasn’t hope, though, but just a certainty, like something one has gone through that has to happen again. You know I told you once I was either more gloomy or less so, I didn’t know which; but [Page 24] now I know I am more gloomy. I am desperate. I know I can never live without you. This is not love, for love, they say, brings joy; but, if you leave me, my life will be struck dead.”
    His distress was visible on his drawn face and in the beads of water standing on his flesh.
    Elise interrupted him:—
    “Tell me,” she said, “did you never see me before?”
    “Sometimes I have thought so. Why?”
    “Because I have often seen you before. I’ll tell you how I mean:—Ever since I was a child two or three scenes have haunted me. They have been coming true lately; one was where you were looking down at me that stormy night; one was in the garden when I was looking over the plain. There is another that I don’t like; it gives me a great terror. I seem to be walking up a little knoll, and somehow a door opens above me and something is thrown out like a sack; when it falls I can’t walk up any farther. That gives me a great deal of trouble.”
    “Listen!” said Alexander. “If you come over there to live with me you would have no trouble of that kind.”
    “But I cannot.”
    “Don’t say that,” he cried, with anguish in every accent.
    “But even now they don’t like my coming out here; they say I can’t come any more; they are furious with me for coming to-night.”
    “What business is it of theirs?”
    “Well, I don’t know; one of them thinks he has some business. I am his wife; that young man with the yellow beard is my husband.”
    He got up quickly and walked away. She called after him, but he cried out in a hoarse voice that would not form words for his broken spirit. He went through the trees feeling the terror and uselessness of his despair. It would always be like that, he knew, and this despair turned suddenly to hatred of the circumstances of his life. If he could only revenge himself on them; if he could have them gathered before him in one ugly personality that he could crush the life out of with his own hands. But even as he wished this the knowledge of his old despair came back upon him, and he saw the whole length of his life, with all its diffusion of troubles, whirl before him like a line of dusk birds.
    Just then he came out of the wood and saw the house against the spread of stars. He hated it and all within it. Something drove him on, and as he walked up the slope he resolved to discomfort them if he could. All the late occurrences in his life went out of his mind as a candle goes out in a great wind. [Page 25]
    He pushed open the back door of the house and stepped into the light. There were six men in that room. He put his back against the door.
    “Look here, you fellows,” he said, “you had better clear out of this. I have told everything.”
    The young man with the yellow beard showed his teeth like a dog. Alexander looked at him. “As for you,” he said, ‘it’s well for you,” but he said no more. From their corners the six leaped out on him and struck him down.
    Elise came out of the forest and walked on to the house. When she commenced the ascent of the knoll she felt a strange familiarity with the motion, and before she had gone very far a door opened in the house above her, and something was thrown out like a sack. She went on to where it lay, and her presentiment was realized.
    In the early light of the next morning there was no quieter spot on earth than that clay knoll. Within the house there was no life, and just without it there was death. He lay with his limbs loosely disposed, as they had been thrown; a night shower had dampened his clothing. The little charm of a horse-chestnut, netted with silk, lay in the litter of weep-wisps and straw, as it had rolled from his hand. His eyes seemed fixed at the towering house whence his enemies had fled.
    By-and-bye a white-throat flew over and settled on his wrist. He commenced his song and dropped it twice half-finished, then drank a little water out of the hollow of the dead man’s palm, and, hearing some call from the distance, he sang his song through twice very clearly and sweetly, and flew away into the forest. [Page 26]