The Perdu.



TO the passing stranger there was nothing mysterious about it except the eternal mystery of beauty. To the scattered folk, however, who lived their even lives within its neighborhood, it was an object of dim significance and dread.
    At first sight it seemed to be but a narrow, tideless, windless bit of backwater; and the first impulse of the passing stranger was to ask how it came to be called the “Perdu.” On this point he would get little information from the folk of the neighborhood, who knew not French. But if he were to translate the term for their better information, they would show themselves impressed [Page 124] by a sense of its occult appropriateness.
    The whole neighborhood was one wherein the strange and the not-to-be-understood might feel at home. It was a place where the unusual was not felt to be impossible. Its peace was the peace of one entranced. To its expectancy a god might come, or a monster, or nothing more than the realization of eventless weariness.
    Only four or five miles away, across the silent, bright meadows and beyond a softly swelling range of pastured hills, swept the great river, a busy artery of trade.
    On the river were all the modern noises, and with its current flowed the stream of modern ideas. Within sight of the river a mystery, or anything uninvestigated, or aught unamenable to the spirit of the age, would have seemed an anachronism. But back here, among the tall wild-parsnip tops and the never-stirring [Page 125] clumps of orange lilies, life was different, and dreams seemed likely to come true.
    The Perdu lay perpetually asleep, along beside a steep bank clothed with white birches and balsam poplars. Amid the trunks of the trees grew elder shrubs, and snake-berries, and the elvish trifoliate plants of the purple and the painted trillium. The steep bank, and the grove, and the Perdu with them, ran along together for perhaps a quarter of a mile, and then faded out of existence, absorbed into the bosom of the meadows.

    The Perdu was but a stone’s throw broad, throughout its entire length. The steep with its trunks and leafage formed the northern bound of it; while its southern shore was the green verge of the meadows. Along this low rim its whitish opalescent waters mixed smoothly with the roots and over-hanging blades of [Page 126] the long grasses, with the cloistral arched frondage of the ferns, and with here and there a strayed spray of purple wild-pea. Here and there, too, a clump of Indian willow streaked the green with the vivid crimson of its stems.
    Everything watched and waited. The meadow was a sea of sun mysteriously imprisoned in the green meshes of the grass-tops. At wide intervals arose some lonely alder bushes, thick banked with clematis. Far off, on the slope of a low, bordering hill, the red doors of a barn glowed ruby-like in the transfiguring sun. At times, though seldom, a blue heron winged over the level. At times a huge black-and-yellow bee hummed past, leaving a trail of faint sound that seemed to linger like a perfume. At times the landscape, that was so changeless, would seem to waver a little, to shift confusedly like things seen through running [Page 127] water. And all the while the meadow scents and the many-colored butterflies rose straight up on the moveless air, and brooded or dropped back into their dwellings.
    Yet in all this stillness there was no invitation to sleep. It was a stillness rather that summoned the senses to keep watch, half apprehensively, at the doorways of perception. The wide eye noted everything, and considered it,—even to the hairy red fly alit on the fern frond, or the skirring progress of the black water-beetle across the pale surface of the Perdu. The ear was very attentive—even to the fluttering down of the blighted leaf, or the thin squeak of the bee in the straitened calyx, or the faint impish conferrings of the moisture exuding suddenly from somewhere under the bank. If a common sound, like the shriek of a steamboat’s whistle, now and again soared over across the hills [Page 128] and fields, it was changed in that refracting atmosphere, and became a defiance at the gates of waking dream.
    The lives, thoughts, manners, even the open, credulous eyes of the quiet folk dwelling about the Perdu, wore in greater or less degree the complexion of the neighborhood. How this came to be is one of those nice questions for which we need hardly expect definitive settlement. Whether the people, in the course of generations, had gradually keyed themselves to the dominant note of their surroundings, or whether the neighborhood had been little by little wrought up to its pitch of supersensibility by the continuous impact of superstitions, and expectations, and apprehensions, and wonders, and visions, rained upon it from the personalities of an imaginative and secluded people,—this might be discussed with more argument than conclusiveness [Page 129].
    Of the dwellers about the Perdu none was more saturated with the magic of the place than Reuben Waugh, a boy of thirteen. Reuben lived in a small, yellow-ochre-colored cottage, on the hill behind the barn with the red doors. Whenever Reuben descended to the level, and turned to look back at the yellow dot of the house set in the vast expanse of pale blue sky, he associated the picture with a vague but haunting conception of some infinite forget-me-not flower. The boy had all the chores to do about the little homestead; but even then there was always time to dream. Besides, it was not a pushing neighborhood; and whenever he would he took for himself a half-holiday. At such times he was more than likely to stray over to the banks of the Perdu.
    It would have been hard for Reuben to say just why he found the Perdu so attractive. He might [Page 130] have said it was the fishing; for sometimes, though not often, he would cast a timorous hook into its depths and tremble lest he should lure from the pallid waters some portentous and dreadful prey. He never captured, however, anything more terrifying than catfish; but these were clad in no small measure of mystery, for the white waters of the Perdu had bleached their scales to a ghastly pallor, and the opalescence of their eyes was apt to haunt their captor’s reveries. He might have said, also, that it was his playmate, little Celia Hansen,—whose hook he would bait whenever she wished to fish, and whose careless hands, stained with berries, he would fill persistently with bunches of the hot-hued orange lily.
    But Reuben knew there was more to say than this. In a boyish way, and all unrealizing, he loved the child with a sort of love that would [Page 131] one day flower out as an absorbing passion. For the present however, important as she was to him, she was nevertheless distinctly secondary to the Perdu itself with its nameless spell. If Celia was not there, and if he did not care to fish, the boy still longed for the Perdu, and was more than content to lie and watch for he knew not what, amid the rapt herbage, and the brooding insects, and the gnome-like conspiracies of the moisture exuding far under the bank.
    Celia was two years younger than Reuben, and by nature somewhat less imaginative. For a long time she loved the Perdu primarily for its associations with the boy who was her playmate, her protector, and her hero. When she was about seven years old Reuben had rescued her from an angry turkey-cock, and had displayed a confident firmness which seemed to her wonderfully [Page 132] fine. Hence had arisen an unformulated but enduring faith that Reuben could be depended upon in any emergency. From that day forward she had refused to be content with other playmates. Against this uncompromising preference Mrs. Hansen was wont to protest rather plaintively; for there were social grades even here, and Mrs. Hansen, whose husband’s acres were broad (including the Perdu itself), knew well that “that Waugh boy” was not her Celia’s equal.
    The profound distinction, however, was not one which the children could appreciate; and on Mrs. Hansen lay the spell of the neighborhood, impelling her to wait for whatever might see fit to come to pass.
    For these two children the years that slipped so smoothly over the Perdu were full of interest. They met often. In the spring, when the [Page 133] Perdu was sullen and unresponsive, and when the soggy meadows showed but a tinge of green through the brown ruin of the winter’s frosts, there was yet the grove to visit. Here Reuben would make deep incisions in the bark of the white birches, and gather tiny cupfuls of the faint-flavored sap, which, to the children’s palates, had all the relish of nectar. A little later on there were the blossoms of the trillium to be plucked,—blossoms whose beauty was the more alluring in that they were supposed to be poisonous.

    But it was with the deepening of the summer that the spell of the Perdu deepened to its most enthralling potency. And as the little girl grew in years and came more and more under her playmate’s influence, her imagination deepened as the summer deepens, her perception quickened and grew subtle. Then in a quiet fashion, a strange thing came [Page 134] about. Under the influence of the children’s sympathetic expectancy, the Perdu began to find fuller expression. Every mysterious element in the neighborhood—whether emanating from the Perdu itself or from the spirits of the people about it—appeared to find a focus in the personalities of the two children. All the weird, formless stories,—rather suggestions or impressions than stories,—that in the course of time had gathered about the places, were revived with added vividness and awe. New ones, too, sprang into existence all over the country-side, and were certain to be connected, soon after their origin, with the name of Reuben Waugh. To be sure, when all was said and sifted, there remained little that one could grasp or set down in black and white for question. Every experience, every manifestation, when investigated, seemed to resolve itself into something of an epidemic [Page 135] sense of unseen but thrilling influences.
    The only effect of all this, however, was to invest Reuben with an interest and importance that consorted curiously with his youth. With a certain consciousness of superiority, born of his taste for out-of-the-way reading, and dreaming, and introspection, the boy accepted the subtle tribute easily, and was little affected by it. He had the rare fortune not to differ in essentials from his neighbors, but only to intensify and give visible expression to the characteristics latent in them all.
    Thus year followed year noiselessly, till Reuben was seventeen and Celia fifteen. For all the expectancy, the sense of eventfulness even, of these years, little had really happened save the common inexplicable happenings of life and growth. The little that might be counted an exception may be told in a few words [Page 136].
    The customs of angling for catfish and tapping the birch trees for sap, had been suffered to fall into disuse. Rather, it seemed interesting to wander vaguely together, or in the long grass to read together from the books which Reuben would borrow from the cobwebby library of the old schoolmaster.
    As the girl reached up mentally, or perhaps, rather, emotionally, toward the imaginative stature of her companion, her hold upon him strengthened. Of old, his perceptions had been keenest when alone, but now they were in every way quickened by her presence. And now it happened that the great blue heron came more frequently to visit the Perdu. While the children were sitting amid the birches, they heard the hush! hush! of the bird’s wings fanning the pallid water. The bird, did I say? But it seemed to them a spirit in the guise of a bird. It [Page 137] had gradually forgotten its seclusiveness, and now dropped its long legs at a point right over the middle of the Perdu, alighted apparently on the liquid surface, and stood suddenly transformed into a moveless statue of a bird, gazing upon the playmates with bright, significant eyes. The look made Celia tremble.
    The Perdu, as might have been expected when so many mysteries were credited to it, was commonly held to be bottomless. It is a very poor neighborhood indeed, that cannot show a pool with this distinction. Reuben, of course, knew the interpretation of the myth. He knew the Perdu was very deep. Except at either end, or close to the banks, no bottom could be found with such fathom-lines as he could command. To him, and hence to Celia, this idea of vast depths was thrillingly suggestive, and yet entirely believable. The palpably impossible had small [Page 138] appeal for them. But when first they saw the great blue bird alight where they knew the water was fathoms deep, they came near being surprised. At least, they felt the pleasurable sensation of wonder. How was the heron supported on the water? From their green nest the children gazed and gazed; and the great blue bird held them with the gem-like radiance of its unwinking eye. At length to Reuben came a vision of the top of an ancient tree-trunk just beneath the bird’s feet, just beneath the water’s surface. Down, slanting far down through the opaline opaqueness, he saw the huge trunk extend itself, to an immemorial root-hold in the clayey, perpendicular walls of the Perdu. He unfolded the vision to Celia, who understood. “And it’s just as wonderful,” said the girl, “for how did the trunk get there?”
    “That’s so,” answered Reuben [Page 139], with his eyes fixed on the bird,— “but then it’s quite possible!”
    And at the low sound of their voices the bird winnowed softly away.
    At another time, when the children were dreaming by the Perdu, a far-off dinner-horn sounded, hoarsely but sweetly, its summons to the workers in the fields. It was the voice of noon. As the children, rising to go, glanced together across the Perdu, they clasped each other with a start of mild surprise. “Did you see that?” whispered Celia.
    “What did you see?” asked the boy.
    “It looked like a pale green hand, that waved for a moment over the water and then sank,” said Celia.
    “Yes,” said Reuben, “that’s just what it looked like. But I don’t believe it really was a hand! You see those thin lily-leaves all about the spot? Their stems are long [Page 140], wonderfully long and slender. If one of those queer, whitish catfish like we used to catch, were to take hold of a lily-stem and pull hard, the edges of the leaf might rise up and wave just the way that did! You can’t tell what the catfish won’t do down there!”
    “Perhaps that’s all it was,” said Celia.
    “Though we can’t be sure,” added Reuben.
    And thereafter, whensoever that green hand seemed to wave to them across the pale water, they were content to leave the vision but half explained.
    It also came to pass, as unexpectedly as anything could come to pass by the banks of the Perdu, that one dusky evening, as the boy and girl came slowly over the meadows, they saw a radiant point of light that wavered fitfully above the water. They watched it in silence. As it came to [Page 141] a pause, the girl said in her quiet voice,—
    “It has stopped right over the place where the heron stands!”
    “Yes,” replied Reuben, “it is evidently a will-o’-the-wisp. The queer gas, which makes it, comes perhaps from the end of that dead tree-trunk, just under the surface.”
    But the fact that the point of light was thus explicable, made it no less interesting and little less mysterious to the dwellers about the Perdu. As it came to be an almost nightly feature of the place, the people supplemented its local habitation with a name, calling it “Reube Waugh’s Lantern.” Celia’s father, treating the Perdu and all that pertained to it with a reverent familiarity befitting his right of proprietorship, was wont to say to Reuben,—
    “Who gave you leave, Reuben, to hoist your lantern on my property? If you don’t take it away [Page 142] pretty soon, I’ll be having the thing put in pound.”
    It may be permitted me to cite yet one more incident to illustrate more completely the kind of events which seemed of grave importance in the neighborhood of the Perdu. It was an accepted belief, that even in the severest frosts, the Perdu could not be securely frozen over. Winter after winter, to be sure, it lay concealed beneath such a covering of snow as only firm ice could be expected to support. Yet this fact was not admitted in evidence. Folks said the ice and snow were but a film, waiting to yield upon the slightest pressure. Furthermore, it was held that neither bird nor beast was ever known to tread the deceptive expanse. No squirrel track, no slim, sharp foot-mark of partridge, traversed the immaculate level. One winter, after a light snowfall in the night, as Reuben strayed into the [Page 143] low-ceilinged kitchen of the Hansen farm-house, Mr. Hansen remarked in his quaint, dreamy drawl,—

    “What for have you been walking on the Perdu, Reuben? This morning, on the new snow, I saw foot-marks of a human running right across it. It must have been you, Reuben. There’s nobody else round here’d do it!”
    “No,” said Reuben, “I haven’t been nigh the Perdu these three days past. And then I didn’t try walking on it, any way.”
    “Well,” continued Celia’s father, “I suppose folks would call it queer! Those foot-marks just began at one side of the Perdu, and ended right up sharp at the other. There wasn’t another sign of a foot, on the meadow or in the grove!”
    “Yes,” assented Reuben, “it looks queer in a way. But then, it’s easy for the snow to drift over [Page 144] the other tracks; while the Perdu lies low out of the wind.”

    The latter days of Reuben’s stay beside the banks of the Perdu were filled up by a few events like these, by the dreams which these evoked, and above all by the growing realization of his love for Celia. At length the boy and girl slipped unawares into mutual self-revelations; and for a day or two life seemed so materially and tangibly joyous that vision and dream eluded them. Then came the girl’s naïve account of how her confidences had been received at home. She told of her mother’s objections, soon overruled by her father’s obstinate plea that “Reuben Waugh, when he got to be a man grown, would be good enough for any girl alive.”
    Celia had dwelt with pride on her father’s championship of their cause. Her mother’s opposition she had been familiar with for as long as [Page 145] she could remember. But it was the mother’s opposition that loomed large in Reuben’s eyes.

    First it startled him with a vague sense of disquiet. Then it filled his soul with humiliation as its full significance grew upon him. Then he formed a sudden resolve; and neither the mother’s relenting cordiality, nor the father’s practical persuasions, nor Celia’s tears could turn him from his purpose. He said that he would go away, after the time-honored fashion, and seek his fortune in the world. He vowed that in three or four years, when they would be of a fit age to marry, he would come back with a full purse and claim Celia on even terms. This did not suit the unworldly old farmer, who had inherited, not in vain, the spiritualities and finer influences of his possession, the Perdu. He desired, first of all, his girl’s happiness. He rebuked Reuben’s [Page 146] pride with a sternness unusual for him. But Reuben went.
    He went down the great river. Not many miles from the quiet region of the Perdu there was a little riverside landing, where Reuben took the steamer and passed at once into another atmosphere, another world. The change was a spiritual shock to him, making him gasp as if he had fallen into a tumultuous sea. There was the same chill, there was a like difficulty in getting his balance. But this was not for long. His innate self-reliance steadied him rapidly. His long-established habit of superiority helped him to avoid betraying his first sense of ignorance and unfitness. His receptiveness led him to assimilate swiftly the innumerable and novel facts of life with which he came all at once in contact; and he soon realized that the stirring, capable crowd, whose ready handling of affairs had at first [Page 147] overawed him, was really inferior in true insight to the peculiar people whom he had left about the Perdu. He found that presently he himself could handle the facts of life with the light dexterity which had so amazed him; but through it all he preserved (as he could see that those about him did not) his sense of the relativity of things. He perceived, always, the dependence of the facts of life upon the ideas underlying them, and thrusting them forward as manifestations or utterances. With his undissipated energy, his curious frugality in the matter of self-revelation, and his instinctive knowledge of men, he made his way from the first, and the roaring port at the mouth of the great river yielded him of its treasures for the asking. This was in a quiet enough way, indeed, but a way that more than fulfilled his expectations; and in the height of the blossoming time of his fifth [Page 148] summer in the world he found himself rich enough to go back to the Perdu and claim Celia. He resolved that he would buy property near the Perdu and settle there. He had no wish to live in the world; but to the world he would return often, for the sake of the beneficence of its friction,— as a needle, he thought, is the keener for being thrust often amid the grinding particles of the emery-bag. He resigned his situation and went aboard an up-river boat,— a small boat that would stop at every petty landing, if only to put ashore an old woman or a bag of meal, if only to take in a barrel of potatoes or an Indian with baskets and bead-work.

    About mid-morning of the second day, at a landing not a score of miles below the one whereat Reuben would disembark, an Indian did come aboard with baskets and bead-work. At sight of him the old atmosphere [Page 149] of expectant mystery came over Reuben as subtly as comes the desire of sleep. He had seen this same Indian—he recognized the unchanging face—on the banks of the Perdu one morning years before, brooding motionless over the motionless water. Reuben began unconsciously to divest himself of his lately gathered worldliness; his mouth softened, his eyes grew wider and more passive, his figure fell into looser and freer lines, his dress seemed to forget its civil trimness. When at length he had disembarked at the old wharf under the willows, had struck across through the hilly sheep-pastures, and had reached a slope overlooking the amber-bright country of the Perdu, he was once more the silently eager boy, the quaintly reasoning visionary, his spirit waiting alert at his eyes and at his ears.
    Reuben had little concern for the [Page 150] highways. Therefore he struck straight across the meadows, through the pale green vetch-tangle, between the intense orange lilies, amid the wavering blue butterflies and the warm, indolent perfumes of the wild-parsnip. As he drew near the Perdu there appeared the giant blue heron, dropping to his perch in mid-water. In almost breathless expectancy Reuben stepped past a clump of red willows, banked thick with clematis. His heart was beating quickly, and he could hear the whisper of the blood in his veins, as he came once more in view of the still, white water.
    His gaze swept the expanse once and again, then paused, arrested by the unwavering, significant eye of the blue heron. The next moment he was vaguely conscious of a hand, that seemed to wave once above the water, far over among the lilies. He smiled as he said to himself [Page 151] that nothing had changed. But at this moment the blue heron, as if disturbed, rose and winnowed reluctantly away; and Reuben’s eyes, thus liberated, turned at once to the spot where he had felt, rather than seen, the vision. As he looked the vision came again,—a hand, and part of an arm, thrown out sharply as if striving to grasp support, then dropping back and bearing down the lily leaves. For an instant Reuben’s form seemed to shrink and cower with horror,—and the next he was cleaving with mighty strokes the startled surface of the Perdu. That hand—it was not pale green, like the waving hand of the old, childish vision. It was white and the arm was white, and white the drenched lawn sleeve clinging to it. He had recognized it, he knew not how, for Celia’s.

    Reaching the edge of the lily patch, Reuben dived again and [Page 152] again, groping desperately among the long, serpent-like stems. The Perdu at this point—and even in his horror he noted it with surprise—was comparatively shallow. He easily got the bottom and searched it minutely. The edge of the dark abyss, into which he strove in vain to penetrate, was many feet distant from the spot where the vision had appeared. Suddenly, as he rested, breathless and trembling, on the grassy brink of the Perdu, he realized that this, too, was but a vision. It was but one of the old mysteries of the Perdu; and it had taken for him that poignant form, because his heart and brain were so full of Celia. With a sigh of exquisite relief he thought how amused she would be at his plight, but how tender when she learned the cause of it. He laughed softly; and just then the blue heron came back to the Perdu [Page 153].
    Reuben shook himself, pressed some of the water from his dripping clothes, and climbed the steep upper bank of the Perdu. As he reached the top he paused among the birch trees to look back upon the water. How like a floor of opal it lay in the sun; then his heart leaped into his throat suffocatingly, for again rose the hand and arm, and waved, and dropped back among the lilies! He grasped the nearest tree, that he might not, in spite of himself, plunge back into the pale mystery of the Perdu. He rubbed his eyes sharply, drew a few long breaths to steady his heart, turned his back doggedly on the shining terror, and set forward swiftly for the farm-house, now in full view not three hundred yards away.
    For all the windless, down-streaming summer sunshine, there was that in Reuben’s drenched clothes which chilled him to the heart. As he [Page 154] reached the wide-eaved cluster of the farmstead, a horn in the distance blew musically for noon. It was answered by another and another. But no such summons came from the kitchen door to which his feet now turned. The quiet of the Seventh day seemed to possess the wide, bright farm-yard. A flock of white ducks lay drowsing on a grassy spot. A few hens dusted themselves with silent diligence in the ash-heap in front of the shed; and they stopped to watch with bright eyes the stranger’s approach. From under the apple-trees the horses whinnied to him lonesomely. It was very peaceful; but the peacefulness of it bore down upon Reuben’s soul like lead. It seemed as if the end of things had come. He feared to lift the latch of the well-known door.
    As he hesitated, trembling, he observed that the white blinds were [Page 155] down at the sitting-room windows. The window nearest him was open, and the blind stirred almost imperceptibly. Behind it, now, his intent ear caught a sound of weary sobbing. At once he seemed to see all that was in the shadowed room. The moveless, shrouded figure, the unresponding lips, the bowed heads of the mourners, all came before him as clearly as if he were standing in their midst. He leaned against the door-post, and at this moment the door opened. Celia’s father stood before him.

    The old man’s face was drawn with his grief. Something of bitterness came into his eyes as he looked on Reuben.
    “You’ve heard, then!” he said harshly.
    “I know!” shaped itself inaudibly on Reuben’s lips.
    At the sight of his anguish the old man’s bitterness broke [Page 156].
    “You’ve come in time for the funeral,” he exclaimed piteously. “Oh, Reube, if you’d stayed it might have been different [Page 157]!”